THE FIRST LIE
Mrs. Cosgrove was a childless widow, with sufficient means and a very mixed multitude of acquaintances. In the general belief her marriage had been a happy one; when she spoke of her deceased husband it was with respect, and not seldom with affection. Yet her views on the matrimonial relation were known to be of singular audacity. She revealed them only to a small circle of intimates; most of the people who frequented her house had no startling theories to maintain, and regarded their hostess as a good-natured, rather eccentric woman, who loved society and understood how to amuse her guests.
Wealth and position were rarely represented in her drawing-room; nor, on the other hand, was Bohemianism. Mrs. Cosgrove belonged by birth and marriage to the staid middle class, and it seemed as if she made it her object to provide with social entertainment the kind of persons who, in an ordinary way, would enjoy very little of it. Lonely and impecunious girls or women were frequently about her; she tried to keep them in good spirits, tried to marry them if marriage seemed possible, and, it was whispered, used a good deal of her income for the practical benefit of those who needed assistance. A sprinkling of maidens who were neither lonely nor impecunious served to attract young men, generally strugglers in some profession or other, on the lookout for a wife. Intercourse went on with a minimum of formalities. Chaperonage—save for that represented by the hostess herself—was as often as not dispensed with.
’We want to get rid of a lot of sham propriety’—so she urged to her closer friends. ’Girls must learn to trust themselves, and look out for dangers. If a girl can only be kept straight by incessant watchfulness, why, let her go where she will, and learn by experience. In fact, I want to see experience substituted for precept.’
Between this lady and Miss Barfoot there were considerable divergences of opinion, yet they agreed on a sufficient number of points to like each other very well. Occasionally one of Mrs. Cosgrove’s protegees passed into Miss Barfoot’s hands, abandoning the thought of matrimony for study in Great Portland Street. Rhoda Nunn, also, had a liking for Mrs. Cosgrove, though she made no secret of her opinion that Mrs. Cosgrove’s influence was on the whole decidedly harmful.
‘That house,’ she once said to Miss Barfoot, ’is nothing more than a matrimonial agency.’
‘But so is every house where many people are entertained.’
’Not in the same way. Mrs. Cosgrove was speaking to me of some girl who has just accepted an offer of marriage. “I don’t think they’ll suit each other,” she said, “but there’s no harm in trying."’
Miss Barfoot could not restrain a laugh.
’Who knows? Perhaps she is right in that view of things. After all, you know, it’s only putting into plain words what everybody thinks on all but every such occasion.’