‘Surely that’s an unfortunate comparison,’ said Rhoda coldly. ’What man lives in celibacy? Consider that unmentionable fact, and then say whether I am wrong in refusing to forgive Miss Royston. Women’s battle is not only against themselves. The necessity of the case demands what you call a strained ideal. I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’
’I can’t declare that you are wrong in that. Who knows? But it isn’t good policy to preach it to our young disciples.’
‘I shall respect your wish; but—’
Rhoda paused and shook her head.
‘My dear,’ said the elder woman gravely, ’believe me that the less we talk or think about such things the better for the peace of us all. The odious fault of working-class girls, in town and country alike, is that they are absorbed in preoccupation with their animal nature. We, thanks to our education and the tone of our society, manage to keep that in the background. Don’t interfere with this satisfactory state of things. Be content to show our girls that it is their duty to lead a life of effort—to earn their bread and to cultivate their minds. Simply ignore marriage—that’s the wisest. Behave as if the thing didn’t exist. You will do positive harm by taking the other course—the aggressive course.’
‘I shall obey you.’
‘Good, humble creature!’ laughed Miss Barfoot. ’Come, let us be off to Chelsea. Did Miss Grey finish that copy for Mr. Houghton?’
‘Yes, it has gone to post.’
’Look, here’s a big manuscript from our friend the antiquary. Two of the girls must get to work on it at once in the morning.’
Manuscripts entrusted to them were kept in a fire-proof safe. When this had been locked up, the ladies went to their dressing-room and prepared for departure. The people who lived on the premises were responsible for cleaning the rooms and other care; to them Rhoda delivered the door-keys.
Miss Barfoot was grave and silent on the way home. Rhoda, annoyed at the subject that doubtless occupied her friend’s thoughts, gave herself up to reflections of her own.
A SOCIAL ADVANCE
A week’s notice to her employers would release Monica from the engagement in Walworth Road. Such notice must be given on Monday, so that, if she could at once make up her mind to accept Miss Barfoot’s offer, the coming week would be her last of slavery behind the counter. On the way home from Queen’s Road, Alice and Virginia pressed for immediate decision; they were unable to comprehend how Monica could hesitate for another moment. The question of her place of abode had already been discussed. One of Miss Barfoot’s young women, who lived at a convenient distance from Great Portland Street, would gladly accept a partner in her lodging—an arrangement to be recommended for its economy. Yet Monica shrank from speaking the final word.