The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter VI
Mr. Plowden was not a suitor to let the grass grow under his feet. As he once took the trouble to explain to Florence, he considered that there was nothing like boldness in wooing, and he acted up to his convictions. Possessing no more delicacy of feeling than a bull-elephant, and as much consideration for the lady as the elephant has for a lily it tramples underfoot, figuratively speaking, he charged at Eva every time he saw her. He laid wait for her round corners, and asked her to marry him; he dropped in on her at odd hours, and insisted upon her marrying him. It was quite useless for her to say, “No, no, no,” or to appeal to his better feelings or compassion, for he had none. He simply would not listen to her; but encouraged thereto by the moral support which he had received from Florence, he crushed the poor girl with his amorous eloquence.
It was a merry chase that Florence sat and watched with a dark smile on her scornful lip. In vain did the poor white doe dash along at her best speed; the great black hound was ever at her flank, and each time she turned came bounding at her throat. This idea of a chase, and a hound, and a doe took such a strong possession of Florence's saturnine imagination, that she actually made a drawing of it, for she was a clever artist, and not without training, throwing, by a few strokes of her pencil, a perfect likeness of Mr. Plowden into the fierce features of the hound. The doe she drew with Eva's dark eyes, and when she had done them there was such agony in her tortured gaze that she could not bear to look at them, and tore the picture up.
One day Florence came in, and found her sister weeping.
“Well, Eva, what is it now?” she asked, contemptuously.
“Mr. Plowden,” sobbed Eva.
“Oh, Mr. Plowden again! Well, my dear, if you will be so beautiful, and encourage men, you must take the consequences.”
“I never encouraged Mr. Plowden.”
“Nonsense, Eva! you will not get me to believe that. If you did not encourage him he would not go on making love to you. Gentlemen are not fond of being snubbed.”
“Mr. Plowden is not a gentleman,” exclaimed Eva.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because a gentleman would not persecute one as he does. He will not take No for an answer, and to-day he kissed my hand. I tried to get it away from him, but I could not. Oh, I hate him!”
“I tell you what it is, Eva; I have no patience with you and your fancies. Mr. Plowden is a very respectable man; he is a clergyman, and well off, altogether quite the sort of man to marry. Ah, Ernest—I am sick of Ernest! If he wanted to marry you, he should not go shooting people, and then running off to South Africa. He was all very well to flirt with while he was here; now he has made a fool of himself and gone, and there is an end of him.”
“But, Florence, I love Ernest. I think I love him more dearly every day, and I detest Mr. Plowden.”
“Very likely. I don't ask you to love Mr. Plowden; I ask you to marry him. What have love and marriage got to do with each other, I should like to know? If people were always to marry the people they loved, things would soon get into a pretty mess. Look here, Eva, as you know I do not often obtrude myself or my interests, but I think that I have a right to be considered a little in this matter. You have now got an opportunity of making a home for both of us. There is nothing against Mr. Plowden. Why should you not marry him as well as anybody else? Of course, if you choose to sacrifice your own ultimate happiness and the comfort of us both to a silly whim, I cannot prevent you; you are your own mistress. Only I beg you to disabuse your mind of the idea that you could not be happy with Mr. Plowden, because you happen to fancy yourself in love with Ernest. Why, in six months you will have forgotten all about him.”
“But I don't want to forget about him.”
“I daresay not. That is your abominable egotism again. But whether you want to or not, you will. In a year or two, when you have your own interests and your children——”
“Florence, you may talk to midnight if you like; but, once and for all, I will not marry Mr. Plowden;” and she swept out of the room in her stately way.
Florence laughed softly to herself as she said after her:
“Oh yes, you will, Eva. I shall be pinning a bride's veil on to that pretty head of yours before you are six months older, my dear.”
Florence was quite right; it was only a question of time and cunningly applied pressure. Eva yielded at last.
But there is no need for us to follow the hateful story through its various stages. If by chance any of the readers of this history are curious about them, let them go and study from the life. Such cases exist around them, and, so far as the victims are concerned, there is a painful monotony in the development of their details and their conclusion.
And so it came to pass that one afternoon in the early summer, Florence, coming in from walking, found Mr. Plowden and her sister together in the little drawing-room. The latter was very pale, and shrinking with scared eyes and trembling limbs up against the mantelpiece, near which she was standing. The former, looking big and vulgar, was standing over her and trying to take her hand.
“Congratulate me, Miss Florence,” he said. “Eva has promised to be mine.”
“Has she?” said Florence, coldly. “How glad you must be that Mr. Jones is out of the way!”
It was not a kind speech, but the fact was that there were few people in the world for whom Florence had such a complete contempt, or whom she regarded with such intense dislike, as she did Mr. Plowden. The mere presence of the man irritated her beyond all bearing. He was an instrument suited to her purposes, so she used him; but she could find it in her heart to regret that the instrument was not more pleasant to handle.
Mr. Plowden turned pale at her taunt, and even in the midst of her fear and misery Eva smiled, and thought to herself that it was lucky for her hateful lover that somebody else was “out of the way.”
“Poor Eva!” you think to yourself, my reader. “There was nothing poor about her. She was weak; she was wicked and contemptible.”
Oh, pause awhile before you say so. Remember that circumstances were against her; remember that the ideas of duty and of gain drilled into her breast and the breasts of her ancestresses from generation to generation, and fated as often as not to prove more of a bane than a blessing, were against her; remember that her sister's ever-present influence over-shadowed her, and that her suitor's vulgar vitality crushed her to the ground.
“Yet with it all she was weak,” you say. Well, she was weak, as weak as you must expect some women to be after centuries of custom have bred weakness into their very nature. Why are women weak? Because men have made them so. Because the law that was framed by men, and the public opinion which it has been their privilege to direct, have from age to age drilled into women the belief—in which, it must be admitted, they for the most part readily acquiesce—that they are chattels, to be owned and played with, existing for man's pleasure and the gratification of his passion. Because men have systematically stunted their mental grown and denied them their natural rights, and that equality which is theirs. Weak!—women have become weak because weakness is the passport to the favour of our sex. They have become foolish because education has been withheld from them and ability discouraged; they have become frivolous because frivolity has been declared to be the natural mission of women. There is no male simpleton who does not like to find a bigger simpleton than he is to lord it over. Truly, the triumph of the stronger sex has been complete, for it has even succeeded in enlisting its victims to its service. The great instruments in the suppression of women, and in their retention at their present level, are women themselves. And yet let us be for a minute just. Which is the superior of the two—the woman or the man? In strength we have the advantage, but in intellect she is almost our equal, if only we will give her fair-play. And in purity, in tenderness, in long-suffering, in fidelity, in all the Christian virtues, which is the superior in these things? Oh man, whoever you are, think of your mother and your sisters; think of her who nursed you in sickness, of her who stood by you in trouble when all others would have none of you, and then answer.
Poor Eva! Yes, give her all your pity, but, if you can, purge it of your contempt. It requires that a woman should possess a mind of unusual robustness to stand out against circumstances such as hemmed her in, and this she did not possess. Nature, which had showered physical gifts upon her with such a lavish hand, had not given her that most useful of all gifts, the power of self-defence. She was made to yield; but this was her only, if an absolutely fatal, fault. For the rest she was pure as the mountain snow, and with a heart of gold. Herself incapable of deceit, it never occurred to her to imagine it in others. She never suspected that Florence could have a motive in her advocacy of Mr. Plowden's cause. On the contrary, she was possessed to the full with that idea of duty and self-sacrifice which in some women amounts almost to madness. The notion so cleverly started by Florence, that she was bound to take this opportunity of giving her sister a home and the permanent protection of a brother-in-law, had taken a firm hold of her mind. As for the cruel wrong and injustice which her marriage with Mr. Plowden would work to Ernest, strange though it may seem, as is usual in such cases it never occurred to her to consider the matter in that light. She knew what her own sufferings were and always must be; she thought that she would rather die than be false to Ernest; but somehow she never looked at the other side of the picture, never considered the matter from Ernest's point of view. After the true womanly fashion she was prepared to throw herself under her Juggernaut called Duty, and let her inner life, the life of her heart, be crushed out of her; but she never thought of the other life which was welded with her own, and which must be crushed too.
How curious it is that when women talk so much of their duties they often think so little of the higher duty which they owe to the unlucky man whose love they have won, and whom they cherish in their misguided hearts! The only feasible explanation of the mystery—outside of that of innate selfishness—is, that one of the ideas which has been persistently drilled into the female breast is that men have not any real feelings. It is vaguely supposed that they will “get over it.” However this may be, when a woman decides to do violence to her natural feelings, and because of pressure or profit contracts herself into an unholy marriage, the lover whom she deserts is generally the last person to be considered. Poor wretch! he will, no doubt, “get over it.”
Fortunately, many do.