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   Chapter 20 No.20

Vain Fortune By George Moore Characters: 17996

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Its rich, inanimate air proclaimed the room to be an expensive bedroom in a first-class London hotel. Interest in the newly-married couple, who were to occupy the room, prompted the servants to see that nothing was forgotten; and as they lingered steps were heard in the passage, and Hubert and Julia entered. The maid-servants stood aside to let them pass, and one inquired if madame wanted anything, so that her eyes might be gratified with a last inquisition of the happy pair.

'How wonderful! oh, how wonderful! I don't think I ever saw any one act before like that-did you?'

'She certainly had three or four moments that could not be surpassed. Her entrance in the sleep-walking scene-what vague horror! what pale presentiment! how she filled the stage! nothing seemed to exist but she.'

'And Ford; what did you think of Ford's Macbeth?'

'Very good. Everything he does is good. Talent; but the other has genius.'

'I shall never forget this evening. What an awful tragedy!'

'Perhaps I should have taken you to see something more cheerful; but I wanted to see Miss Massey play Lady Macbeth. But let us talk of something else. Splendid fire-is it not?'

Hubert threw off his overcoat, the movement attracted Julia's attention, and it startled her to see how old he seemed to have grown. She noticed as she had not noticed before the grey in his beard and the pathetic weary look that haunted his eyes. And she understood in that instant that the look his face wore was the look of those who have failed in their vocation.

And at that very moment he was wondering if he really loved her, if his marriage were a mistake. The passion he had felt when walking with her on the wet country road he felt no longer, only an undefinable sadness and a weariness which he could not understand. He looked at his wife, and fearing that she divined his thoughts, he kissed her. She returned his kiss coldly and he wondered if she loved him. He thought that it was improbable that she did. Why should she love him? He had never loved any one. He had never inspired love in any one, except perhaps Emily.

'I wonder if you really wished to be married,' she said.

'I always wished to be married,' he replied. 'I hated the Bohemianism I was forced to live in. I longed for a home, for a wife.'

'You were very poor once?'

'Yes: I've lived on tenpence and a shilling a day. I've worked in the docks as a labourer. I went down there hoping to get a clerkship on board one of the Transatlantic steamers. I had had enough of England, and thought of seeking fortune elsewhere.'

'I can hardly believe you worked as a labourer in the docks.'

'Yes; I did. I saw some men going to work, and I joined them. I don't think I thought much about it at the time. A very little misery rubs all the psychology out of us, and we return more easily than one thinks to the animal.'

'And then?'

'At the end of a week the work began to tell upon me, and I drifted back in search of my manuscript.'

'But you must have been in a dreadful condition; your clothes--'

'Ah! thereby hangs a tale. An actress lived in one of the houses I had been lodging in.'

'Oh, tell me about her! This is getting very interesting.'

Then passing his arm round his wife's neck, and with her sweet blonde face looking upon him, and the insinuating warmth of the fire about them, he told her the story of his failure.

'But,' she said, her voice trembling, 'you would not have committed suicide?'

'No man knows beforehand whether he will commit suicide. I can only say that every other issue was closed.'

At the end of a long silence Julia said, 'I wish you hadn't spoken about suicide. I cannot but think of Emily. If she were to make away with herself! The very possibility turns my heart to ice. What should I do-what should we do? I ought never to have given way; we were both abominably selfish. I can see that poor girl sitting alone in that house grieving her heart out.'

'You think that we ought never to have given way!'

'I suppose we ought not. I tried very hard, you know I did.... But do you regret?' she said, looking at him suddenly.

'No; I don't regret, but I wish it had happened otherwise.'

'You don't fear anything. Nothing will happen. What can happen?'

'The most terrible things often happen-have happened.'

'Emily may have been fond of me-I think she was; but it was no more than the hysterical caprice of a young girl. Besides, people do not die for love; and I assure you it will be all right. This is not a time for gloomy thoughts.'

'I'll try not to think of her. Well, what were we talking about? I know: about the actress who lived in 17 Fitzroy Street. Tell me about her.'

'She was a real good girl. If she hadn't lent me that five shillings, I don't know where I should be now.'

'Were you very fond of her?'

'No; there never was anything of that sort between us. We were merely friends.'

'And what has become of this actress?'

'You saw her to-night?'

'Was she acting in the piece we saw to-night?'

'It was she who played Lady Macbeth.'

'You are joking.'

'No, I'm not. I always knew she had genius, and they have found it out; but I must say they have taken their time about it.'

'How wonderful! she has succeeded!'

'Yes, she has succeeded!'

'And she is really the girl you intended to play Lady Hayward?'

'Yes; and I hope she will play the part one of these days.'

'Of course, she is just the woman for it. What a splendid success she has had! All London is talking about her.'

'And I remember when Ford refused to cast her for the adventuress in Divorce. If he had, there is no doubt she would have carried the piece through. Life is but a bundle of chances; she has succeeded, whatever that may mean.'

'But you will let her have the part of Lady Hayward?'

'Yes, of course-that is to say, if--'

'Why "if"?'

'My thoughts are with you, dear; literature seems to have passed out of sight.'

'But you must not sacrifice your talent in worship of me. I shall not allow you. For my sake, if not for hers, you must finish that play. I want you to be famous. I should be for ever miserable if my love proved a upas-tree.'

'A upas-tree! It will be you who will help me; it will be your presence that will help me to write my play. I was always vaguely conscious that you were a necessary element in my life; but I did not wake up to any knowledge of it until that day-do you remember?-when you came into my study to ask me what fish I'd like for dinner, and I begged of you to allow me to read to you that second act. It is that second act that stops me.'

'I thought you had written the second act to your satisfaction. You said that after the talk we had that afternoon you wrote for three hours without stopping, and that you had never done better work.'

'Yes, I wrote a great deal; but on reading it over I found that-I don't mean to say that none of it will stand; some still seems to me to be all right, but a great deal will require alteration.'

The conversation fell. At the end of a long silence Hubert said-

'What are you thinking of, dearest?'

'I was thinking that supposing you were mistaken-if I failed to help you in your work.'

'And I never succeeded in writing my play?'

'No; I don't mean that. Of course you will write your play; all you have to do is to be less critical.'

'Yes, I know-I have heard that before; but, unfortunately, we cannot change ourselves. I'll either carry my play through completely, realise my ideal, or--'

'Remain for ever unsatisfied?'

'Whether I write it or no, I shall be happy in your love.'

'Yes, yes; let us be happy.'

They looked at each other. He did not speak, but his thought said-

'There is no happiness on earth for him who has not accomplished his task.'

'Shall we be happy? I wonder. We have both suffered,' she said, 'we are both tired of suffering, and it is only right that we should be happy.'

'Yes, we shall be happy, I will be happy. It shall be my pleasure to attend to you, to give you all your desire. But you said just now that you had suffered. I have told you my past. Tell me yours. I know nothing except that you were unhappily married.'

'There is little else to know; a woman's life is not adventurous, like a man's. I have not known the excitement of "first nights," nor the striving and the craving for an artistic ideal. My life has been essentially a woman's life,-suppression of self and monotonous duty, varied by heart-breaking misfortune. I married when I was very young; before I had even begun to think about life I found-- But why distress these hours with painful memories?'

'It is pleasant to look back on the troubles we have passed through.'

'Well, I learnt in one year the meaning of three terrible words-poverty, neglect, and cruelty. In the second year of my marriage my husband died of drink, and I was left a widow at twenty, entirely penniless. I

went to live with my sister, and she was so poor that I had to support myself by giving music-lessons. You think you know the meaning of poverty: you may; but you do not know what a young woman who wants to earn her bread honestly has to put up with, trudging through wet and cold, mile after mile, to give a lesson, paid for at the rate of one-and-sixpence or two shillings an hour.'

Julia took her eyes from her husband's face, and looked dreamily into the fire. Then, raising her face from the flame, she looked around with the air of one seeking for some topic of conversation. At that moment she caught sight of the corner of a letter lying on the mantelpiece. Reaching forth her hand, she took it. It was addressed to her husband.

'Here is a letter for you, Hubert.... Why, it comes from Ashwood. Yes, and it is in the hand-writing of one of the servants. Oh, it is Black's writing! It may be about Emily. Something may have happened to her. Open it quickly.'

'That is not probable. Nothing can have happened to her.'

'Look and see. Be quick!'

Hubert opened the letter, and he had not read three lines when Julia's face caught expression from his, which had become overcast.

'It is bad news, I know. Something has happened. What is it? Don't keep me waiting. The suspense is worse than the truth.'

'It is very awful, Julia. Don't give way.'

'Tell me what it is. Is she dead?

'Yes; she is dead.' Julia got up from her husband's knees and stood by the mantelpiece, leaning upon it. 'It is more than mere death.'

'What do you mean? She killed herself-is that it?'

'Yes; she drowned herself the night before last in the lake.'

'Oh, it is too horrible! Then we have murdered her. Our unpardonable selfishness! I cannot bear it!' Her eyes closed and her lips trembled. Hubert caught her in his arms, laid her on the chair, and, fetching some water in a tumbler, sprinkled her face; then he held it to her lips; she drank a little, and revived. 'I'm not going to faint. Tell me-tell me when the unfortunate child--'

'They don't know exactly. She was in the drawing-room at tea-time, and the drawing-room was empty when Black went round three-quarters of an hour after to lock up. He thought she had gone to her room. It was the gardener who brought in the news in the morning about nine.'

'Oh, good God!'

'Black says he noticed that she looked very depressed the day before, but he thought she was looking better when he brought in the tea.'

'It was then she got my letter. Does Black say anything about giving her a letter?'

'Yes, that is to say--'

'I knew it! I knew it!' said Julia; and her eyes were wild with grief, and she rocked herself to and fro. 'It was that letter that drove her to it. It was most ill-advised. I told you so. You should have written. She would have borne the news better had it come from you. My instinct told me so, but I let myself be persuaded. I told you how it would happen. I told you. You can't say I didn't. Oh! why did you persuade me-why-why-why?'

'Julia dear, we are not responsible. We were in nowise bound to sacrifice our happiness to her--'

'Don't say a word! I say we were bound. Life can never be the same to me again.'

Hubert did not answer. Nothing he could say would be of the slightest avail, and he feared to say anything that might draw from her expressions which she would afterwards regret. He had never seen her moved like this, nor did he believe her capable of such agitation, and the contrast of her present with her usual demeanour made it the more impressive.

'Oh,' she said, leaning forward and looking at him fixedly, 'take this nightmare off my brain, or I shall go mad! It isn't true; it cannot be true. But-oh! yes, it's true enough.'

'Like you, Julia, I am overwhelmed; but we can do nothing.'

'Do nothing!' she cried; 'do nothing! We can do nothing but pray for her-we who sacrificed her.' And she slipped on her knees and burst into a passionate fit of weeping.

'The best thing that could have happened,' thought Hubert; and his thought said, clearly and precisely, 'Yes; it is awful, shocking, cruel beyond measure!'

The fire was sinking, and he built it up quietly, ashamed of this proof of his regard for physical comfort, and hoping it would pass unnoticed. His pain expressed itself less vehemently than Julia's; but for all that his mind ached. He remembered how he had taken everything from her-fortune, happiness, and now life itself. It was an appalling tragedy-one of those senseless cruelties which we find nature constantly inventing. A thought revealed an unexpected analogy between him and his victim. In both lives there had been a supreme desire, and both had failed. 'Hers was the better part,' he said bitterly. 'Those whose souls are burdened with desire that may not be gratified had better fling the load aside. They are fools who carry it on to the end.... If it were not for Julia--'

Then he sought to determine what were his exact feelings. He knew he was infinitely sorry for poor Emily; but he could not stir himself into a paroxysm of grief, and, ashamed of his inability to express his feelings, he looked at Julia, who still wept.

'No doubt,' he thought, 'women have keener feelings than we have.'

At that moment Julia got up from her knees. She had brushed away her tears. Her face was shaken with grief.

'My heart is breaking,' she said. 'This is too cruel-too cruel! And on my wedding night.'

Their eyes met; and, divining each other's thought, each felt ashamed, and Julia said-

'Oh, what am I saying? This dreadful selfishness, from which we cannot escape, that is with us even in such a moment as this! That poor child gone to her death, and yet amid it all we must think of ourselves.'

'My dear Julia, we cannot escape from our human nature; but, for all that, our grief is sincere. We can do nothing. Do not grieve like that.'

'And why not? She was my best friend. How have I repaid her? Alas! as woman always repays woman for kindness done. The old story. I cannot forgive myself. No, no! do not kiss me! I cannot bear it. Leave me. I can see nothing but Emily's reproachful face.' She covered her face in her hands and sobbed again.

The same scenes repeated themselves over and over again. The same fits of passionate grief; the same moment of calm, when words impregnated with self dropped from their lips. The same nervous sense that something of the dead girl stood between them. And still they sat by the fire, weary with sorrow, recrimination, long regret, and pain. They could grieve no more; and before dawn sleep pressed upon their eyelids, and at the end of a long silence he dozed-a pale, transparent sleep, through which the realities of life appeared almost as plainly as before. Suddenly he awoke, and he shivered in the chill room. The fire was sinking; dawn divided the window-curtains. He looked at his wife. She seemed to him very beautiful as she slept, her face turned a little on one side, and again he asked himself if he loved her. Then, going to the window, he drew the curtains softly, so as not to awaken her; and as he stood watching a thin discoloured day breaking over the roofs, it again seemed to him that Emily's suicide was the better part. 'Those who do not perform their task in life are never happy.' The words drilled themselves into his brain with relentless insistency. He felt a terrible emptiness within him which he could not fill. He looked at his wife and quailed a little at the thought that had suddenly come upon him. She was something like himself-that was why he had married her. We are attracted by what is like ourselves. Emily's passion might have stirred him. Now he would have to settle down to live with Julia, and their similar natures would grow more and more like one another. Then, turning on his thoughts, he dismissed them. They were the morbid feverish fancies of an exceptional, of a terrible night. He opened the window quietly so as not to awaken his wife. And in the melancholy greyness of the dawn he looked down into the street and wondered what the end would be.

He did not think that he would live long. Disappointed men-those who have failed in their ambition-do not live to make old bones. There were men like him in every profession-the arts are crowded with them. He had met barristers and soldiers and clergy-men, just like himself. One hears of their deaths-failure of the heart's action, paralysis of the brain, a hundred other medical causes-but the real cause is, lack of appreciation.

He would hang on for another few years, no doubt; during that time he must try to make his wife happy. His duty was now to be a good husband, at all events, there was that.

His wife lay asleep in the arm-chair, and fearing she might catch cold, he came into the room closing the window very gently behind him.

THE END

Printed by T. and A. Constable, printers to Her Majesty at the Edinburgh University Press.

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