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   Chapter 19 THE DENYERS IN ENGLAND

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 27419

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"There!" said Mrs. Denyer, laying money on the table. "There are your wages, up to the end of April-notwithstanding your impertinence to me this morning, you see. Once more I forgive you. And new get on with your work, and let us have no more unpleasantness."

It was in the back parlour of a small house at Hampstead, a room scantily furnished and not remarkably clean. Mrs. Denyer sat at the table, some loose papers before her. She was in mourning, but still fresh of complexion, and a trifle stouter than when she lived at Naples, two years and a half ago. Her words were addressed to a domestic (most plainly, of all work), who without ceremony gathered the coins up in both her hands, counted them, and then said with decision:

"Now I'm goin', mum."

"Going? Indeed you are not, my girl! You don't leave this house without the due notice."

"Notice or no notice, I'm a-goin'," said the other, firmly. "I never thought to a' got even this much, an' now I've got it, I'm a-goin'. It's wore me out, has this 'ouse; what with-"

The conflict lasted for a good quarter of an hour, but the domestic was to be shaken neither with threats nor prayers. Resolutely did she ascend to her bedroom, promptly did she pack her box. Almost before Mrs. Denyer could realize the disaster that had befallen, her house was servantless.

She again sat in the back parlour, gazing blankly at the table, when there came the sound of the house-door opening, followed by a light tread in the passage.

"Barbara!" called Mrs. Denyer.

Barbara presented herself. She also wore mourning, genteel but inexpensive. Her prettiness endured, but she was pale, and had a chronic look of discontent.

"Well, now, what do you think has happened? Shut the door. I paid Charlotte the wages, and the very first thing she did was to pack and go!"

"And you mean to say you let her? Why, you must be crazy!"

"Don't speak to me in that way!" cried her mother, hotly. "How could I prevent her, when she was determined? I did my utmost, but nothing could induce her to stay. Was ever anything so distracting? The very day after letting our rooms! How are we to manage?"

"I shall have nothing to do with it. The girl wouldn't have gone if I'd been here. You must manage how you can."

"It's no use talking like that, Barbara. You're bound to wait upon Mrs. Travis until we get another girl."

"I?" exclaimed her daughter. "Wait on her yourself! I certainly shall do nothing of the kind."

"You're a bad, cruel, undutiful girl!" cried Mrs. Denyer, her face on fire. "Nether of your sisters ever treated me as you do. You're the only one of the family that has never given the least help, and you're the only one that day by day insults me and behaves with heartless selfishness! I'm to wait on the lodger myself, am I? Very well! I will do so, and see if anything in the world will shame you. She shall know why I wait on her, be sure of that!"

Barbara swept out of the room, and ascended the stairs to the second floor. Here again she heard her name called, in a soft voice and interrogatively in reply, she entered a small bedroom, saying impatiently:

"What is it, Mad?"

It was seen at the first glance that this had long been a sick-chamber. The arrangement of the furniture, the medicine-bottles, the appliances for the use of one who cannot rise from bed, all told their story. The air had a peculiar scent; an unnatural stillness seemed to pervade it. Against the raised white pillow showed a face hardly less white.

"Isn't it provoking, Barbara?" said the invalid, without moving in the least. "Whatever shall you do?"

"As best we can, I suppose. I've to turn cook and housemaid and parlour-maid, now. Scullery-maid too. I suppose I shall clean the steps to-morrow morning."

"Oh, but you must go to the registry-office the very first thing. Don't upset yourself about it. If you can just manage to get that lady's dinner."

"It's all very well for you to talk! How would you like to wait on people, like a girl in a restaurant?"

"Ah, if only I could!" replied Madeline, with a little laugh that was heart-breaking. "If only I could!"

In a month it would be two years since Madeline stood and walked like other people; live as long as she might, she would never rise from her bed. It came about in this way. Whilst the Denyers were living in the second-class hotel at Southampton, and when Mr. Denyer had been gone to Vera Cruz some five months, a little ramble was taken one day in a part of the New Forest. Madeline was in particularly good spirits; she had succeeded in getting an engagement to teach some children, and her work was to begin the next day. In a frolic she set herself to jump over a fallen tree; her feet slipped on the dry grass beyond, and she fell with her back upon the trunk.

This was pleasant news to send to her father! With him things were going as well as he had anticipated, and before long he was able to make substantial remittances, but his letters were profoundly sad. In a year's time, the family quitted Southampton and took the house at Hampstead; with much expense and difficulty Madeline was removed. Mrs. Denyer and Barbara were weary of provincial life, and considered nothing in their resolve to be within reach of London amusements. Zillah was living as governess with a family in Yorkshire.

They had been settled at Hampstead three weeks, when information reached them that Mr. Denyer was dead of yellow fever.

On the day when this news came, the house received no less important a visitor than Mr. Musselwhite. Long ago, Mrs. Denyer had written to him from Southampton, addressing her letter to the club in London of which he had spoken; she had received a prompt reply, dated from rooms in London, and thenceforth the correspondence was established. But Mr. Musselwhite never spoke of coming to Southampton; his letters ended with "Sincere regards to Miss Denyer and the other young ladies," but they contained nothing that was more to the point. He wrote about the weather chiefly. Arrived in London, Mrs. Denyer at once sent an invitation, and to her annoyance this remained unanswered. To-day the explanation was forthcoming; Mr. Musselwhite had been on a journey, and by some mistake the letter had only come into his hands when he returned. He was most gentlemanly in his expressions of condolement with the family in their distress; he sat with them, moreover, much longer than was permissible under the circumstances by the code of society. And on going, he begged to be allowed to see them frequently-that was all.

Barbara could not control herself for irritation; Mrs. Denyer was indignant. Yet, after all, was it to be expected that the visitor should say or do more on such an occasion as this? In any case, he knew what their position was; all had been put before him, as though he were a member of the family. If they succeeded in obtaining whatever Mr. Denyer had died possessed of, it would certainly be nothing more than a provision for the present. When they spoke of taking a lodger for their first floor, Mr. Musselwhite agreed that this was a good thought, whilst shaking his gentlemanly head over the necessity.

He came again and again, always sadly sympathetic. He would sit in the drawing-room for an hour, pulling his whiskers and moustaches nervously, often glancing at Barbara, making the kindest inquiries concerning Madeline, for whom he actually brought flowers. On one of these occasions, he told them that his brother the baronet was very ill, down at the "place in Lincolnshire." And after mentioning this, he fell into abstraction.

As for Madeline, she still received letters from Clifford Marsh. On first hearing of the accident, Clifford at once came to Southampton; his distress was extreme. But it was useless for him to remain, and business demanded his return to Leeds. Neither he nor Madeline was yet aware of the gravity of what had happened; they talked of recovery. Before long Madeline knew how her situation was generally regarded, but she could not abandon hope; she was able to write, and not a word in her letters betrayed a doubt of the possibility that she might yet be well again. Clifford wrote very frequently for the first year, with a great deal of genuine tenderness, with compassion and encouragement. Never mind how long her illness lasted, let her be assured of his fidelity; no one but Madeline should ever be his wife. A considerable part of his letters was always occupied with lamentation over the cursed fate that bound him to the Philistines, though he took care to repeat that this was the result of his own choice, and that he blamed no one-unless it were his gross-minded step-father, who had driven him to such an alternative. These bewailings grew less vehement as his letters became shorter and arrived at longer intervals; there began to be a sameness in the tone, even in the words. When his yearly holiday came round, he promised to visit Southampton, but after all never did so. What was the use? he wrote. It only meant keener misery to both. Instead of coming south, he had gone into Scotland.

And Madeline no longer expressed a wish to see him. Her own letters grew shorter and calmer, containing at length very little about herself, but for the most part news of family affairs. Every now and then Clifford seemed to rouse himself to the effort of repeating his protestations, of affirming his deathless faith; but as a rule he wrote about trifles, sometimes even of newspaper matters. So did the second year of Madeline's martyrdom come to its close.

Quarrelling incessantly, Mrs. Denyer and Barbara prepared the lodger's dinner between them. This Mrs. Travis was not exacting; she had stipulated only for a cutlet, or something of the kind, with two vegetables, and a milk pudding. Whatever was proposed seemed to suit her. The Denyers knew nothing about her, except that she was able to refer them to a lady who had a house in Mayfair; her husband, she said, was abroad. She had brought a great deal of luggage, including books to the number of fifty or so.

When the moment for decision came, Barbara snatched up the folded white table-cloth, threw it with knives, forks, and plates upon a tray, and ascended to the lodger's sitting-room. Her cheeks were hot; her eyes flashed. She had donned the most elegant attire in her possession, had made her hair magnificent. Her knock at the door was meant to be a declaration of independence; it sounded peremptory.

Mrs. Travis was in an easy-chair, reading. She looked up absently; then smiled.

"Good evening, Miss Denyer. How close it has been again!"

"Very. I must ask you to excuse me, Mrs. Travis, if I do these things rather awkwardly. At a moment's notice, we have lost the servant whose duty it was."

"Oh, I am only sorry that you should have the trouble. Let us lay the table together. I've done it often enough for myself. No, that's the wrong side of the cloth. I'll put these things in order, whilst you go for the rest."

Barbara looked at Mrs. Travis with secret disdain. The girl's nature was plebeian; a little arrogance would have constrained her to respect, however she might have seemed to resent it. This good-natured indifference made her feel that her preparations were thrown away. She would have preferred to see herself as a martyr.

When dinner was over and the table being cleared, Mrs. Travis spoke of Madeline.

"Does she sleep well at night?"

"Never till very late," replied Barbara.

"Does she like to be read to?"

"Oh yes-reading of certain kinds. I often read Italian poetry to her."

Mrs. Travis had not now to learn for the first time of the family's superior attainments; it had been Mrs. Denyer's care to impress upon her that they were no ordinary letters of lodgings. Indeed, said Mrs. Denyer, they were rather depaysees' here in England; they had so long been accustomed to the larger intellectual atmosphere of Continental centres. "The poor girls pine for Italy; they have always adored Italy. My eldest daughter is far more Italian than English."

"Well, I don't read Italian," said Mrs. Travis to Barbara, "but if English would do, I should really like to sit with her for an hour sometimes. I never sleep myself if I go to bed before midnight. Do you think she would care for my company?"

"I am sure she would be grateful to you," answered Barbara, who felt that she might now exhibit a little politeness.

"Then please ask her if I may come to-night."

This request was readily granted, and at about half-past nine Mrs. Travis went into the sick-chamber, taking in her hand a volume of Browning. Madeline had not yet seen the lodger; she returned her greeting in a murmur, and examined her with the steady eyes of one whom great suffering has delivered from all petty embarrassments. Her face was not so calm as when Barbara came to speak to her in the afternoon; lines of pain showed themselves on her forehead, and her thin lips were compressed.

"It's very good of you to come," she said, when Mrs. Travis had taken a seat by the bed. "But please don't read anything to-night. I don't feel that I could take any interest. It is so sometimes."

"Naturally enough. But do you feel able to talk?"

"Yes; I had rather talk. Can you tell me something quite new and different from what I'm accustomed to hear? Do you know any country where I haven't been?"

"I haven't travelled much. Last autumn I was in Iceland for a few weeks; would you care to hear of that?"

"Very much. Just talk as if you were going over it in your memory. Don't mind if I close my eyes; I shan't be asleep; it helps me to

imagine, that's all."

Mrs. Travis did as she was asked. Now and then Madeline put a question. When at length there came a pause, she said abruptly:

"I suppose it seems dreadful to you, to see me lying here like this?"

"It makes me wish I had it in my power to relieve you."

"But does it seem dreadful? Could you bear to imagine yourself in the same case? I want you to tell me truthfully. I'm not an uneducated girl, you know; I can think about life and death as people do nowadays."

Mrs. Travis looked at her curiously.

"I can imagine positions far worse," she answered.

"That means, of course, that you could not bear to picture yourself in this. But it's strange how one can get used to it. The first year I suffered horribly-in mind, I mean. But then I still had hope. I have none now, and that keeps my mind calmer. A paradox, isn't it? It's always possible, you know, that I may feel such a life unendurable at last, and then I should hope to find a means of bringing it to an end. For instance, if we become so poor that I am too great a burden. Of course I wouldn't live in a hospital. I don't mean I should be too proud, but the atmosphere would be intolerable. And one really needn't live, after one has decided that it's no use."

"I don't know what to say about that," murmured Mrs. Travis.

"No; you haven't had the opportunity of thinking it over, as I have. I can imagine myself reaching the point when I should not care to have health again, even if it were offered me. I haven't come to that yet; oh no! To-night I am feeling dreadfully what I have lost-not like I used to, but still dreadfully. Will you tell me something about yourself? What kind of books do you like?"

"Pretty much the same as you do, I should fancy. I like to know what new things people are discovering, and how the world looks to clever men. But I can't study; I have no perseverance. I read the reviews a good deal."

"You'd never guess the last book I have read. It lies on the chest of drawers there-a treatise on all the various kinds of paralysis. The word 'paralysis' used to have the most awful sound to me; now I'm so familiar with it that it has ceased to be shocking and become interesting. What I am suffering from is called paraplegia; that's when the lower half of the body is affected; it comes from injury or disease of the spinal cord. The paralysis begins at the point in the vertebral column where the injury was received. But it tends to spread upward. If it gets as far as certain nerves upon which the movements of the diaphragm depend, then you die. I wonder whether that will be my case?"

Mrs. Travis kept her eyes on the girl during this singular little lecture; she felt the fascination which is exercised by strange mental phenomena.

"Do you know Italy?" Madeline asked, with sudden transition.

"I have travelled through it, like other tourists."

"You went to Naples?"

"Yes."

"If I close my eyes, how well I can see Naples! Now I am walking through the Villa Nazionale. I come out into the Largo Vittoria, where the palm-trees are-do you remember? Now I might go into the Chiatamone, between the high houses; but instead of that I'll turn down into Via Caracciolo and go along by the sea, till I'm opposite the Castel dell' Ovo. Now I'm turning the corner and coming on to Santa Lucia, where there are stalls with shells and ices and fish. I can smell the Santa Lucia. And to think that I shall never see it again, never again.-Don't stay any longer now, Mrs. Travis. I can't talk any more. Thank you for being so kind."

In a week's time it had become a regular thing for Mrs. Travis to spend an hour or two daily with Madeline. Their conversation was suitable enough to a sick-chamber, yet strangely unlike what is wont to pass in such places. On Madeline's side it was thoroughly morbid; on that of her visitor, a curious mixture of unhealthy speculation and pure feeling. Mrs. Travis was at first surprised that the suffering girl never seemed to think of ordinary religion as a solace. She herself had no fixity of faith; her mind played constantly with creeds of negation; but she felt it as an unnatural thing for one of Madeline's age to profess herself wholly without guidance on so dark a journey. And presently she began to doubt whether the profession were genuine. The characteristic of the family was pretence and posing; Mrs. Denyer and Barbara illustrated that every time they spoke. Not impossibly Madeline did but declare the same tendency in her rambling and quasi-philosophic talk. She was fond of warning Mrs. Travis against attributing to her the common prejudices of women. And yet, were it affectation, then the habit must be so inextricably blended with her nature as to have become in practice a genuine motive in the mind's working. Madeline would speculate on the difference between one of her "culture" in the circumstances and the woman who is a slave of tradition; and a moment after she would say something so profoundly pathetic that it brought tears to her companion's eyes.

Mrs. Travis never spoke of her personal affairs; Madeline could supply no food for the curiosity of her mother and sister when they questioned her about the long private conversations. The lodger received no visitors, and seldom a letter. In the morning she went out for an hour, generally towards the heath; occasionally she was from home until late at night. About the quality of the attendance given her she was wholly indifferent; in spite of frequent inconveniences, she made her weekly payments without a word of dissatisfaction. She had a few eccentricities of behaviour which the Denyers found it difficult to reconcile with the refinement of her ordinary conduct. Once or twice, when the servant went into her sitting-room the first thing in the morning, she was surprised to find Mrs. Travis lying asleep on the couch, evidently just as she had come home the previous night, except that her bonnet was removed. It had happened, too, that when some one came and knocked at her door during the day, she vouchsafed no answer, and yet made the sound of moving about, as if to show that she did not choose to be disturbed, for whatever reason.

The household went its regular way. Mrs. Denyer sat in her wonted idle dignity, or scolded the hard-driven maid-of-all-work, or quarrelled fiercely with Barbara. Barbara was sullen, insolent, rebellious against fate, by turns. Up in the still room lay poor Madeline, seldom visited by either of the two save when it was necessary. All knew that the position of things had no security; before long there must come a crisis worse than any the family had yet experienced. Unless, indeed, that one hope which remained to them could be realized.

One afternoon at the end of July, mother and daughter were sitting over their tea, lamenting the necessity which kept them in London when the eternal fitness of things demanded that they should be preparing for travel. They heard a vehicle draw up before the house, and Barbara, making cautious espial from the windows, exclaimed that it was Mr. Musselwhite.

"He has a lot of flowers, as usual," she added, scornfully, watching him as he paid the cabman. "Go into the back room, mamma. Let's say you're not at home to-day. Send for the teapot, and get some more tea made."

There came a high-bred knock at the front door, and Mrs. Denyer disappeared.

Mr. Musselwhite entered with a look and bearing much graver than usual. He made the proper remarks, and gave Barbara the flowers for her sister then seated himself, and stroked his moustache.

"Miss Denyer," he began, when Barbara waited wearily for the familiar topic, "my brother, Sir Grant, died a week ago."

"I am very grieved to hear it," she replied, mechanically, at once absorbed in speculation as to whether this would make any change that concerned her.

"It was a long and painful illness, and recovery was known to be impossible. Yet I too cannot help grieving. As you know, we had not seen much of each other for some years, but I had the very highest opinion of Sir Grant, and it always gave me pleasure to think of him as the head of our family. He was a man of great abilities, and a kind man."

"I am sure he was-from what you have told me of him."

"My nephew succeeds to the title and the estate; he is now Sir Roland Musselwhite. I have mentioned him in our conversations. He is about thirty-four, a very able man, and very kind, very generous."

There was a distinct tremor in his voice; he pulled his moustache vigorously. Barbara listened with painful eagerness.

"If you will forgive me for speaking of my private circumstances, Miss Denyer, I should like to tell you that for some years I have enjoyed only a very restricted income; a bachelor's allowance-really it amounted to nothing more than that. In consequence of that, my life has been rather unsettled; I scarcely knew what to do with myself, in fact; now and then time has been rather heavy on my hands. You may have noticed that, for I know you are observant."

He waited for her to say whether she had or had not observed this peculiarity in him.

"I have sometimes been afraid that was the case," said Barbara.

"I quite thought so." He smiled with gratification. "But now-if I may speak a little longer of these personal matters-all that is altered, and by the very great kindness, the generosity, of my nephew Sir Roland. Sir Roland has seen fit to put me in possession of an income just three times what I have hitherto commanded. This does not, Miss Denyer, make me a wealthy man; far from it. But it puts certain things within my reach that I could not think of formerly. For instance, I shall be able to take a modest house, either in the country, or here in one of the suburbs. It's my wish to do so. My one great wish is to settle down and have something to-to occupy my time."

Barbara breathed a faint approval.

"You may wonder, Miss Denyer, why I trouble you with these details. Perhaps I might be pardoned for doing so, if I spoke with-with a desire for your friendly sympathy. But there is more than that in my mind. The day is come, Miss Denyer, when I am able to say what I would gladly have said before our parting at Naples, if it had been justifiable in me. That is rather a long time ago, but the feeling I then had has only increased in the meanwhile. Miss Denyer, I desire humbly to ask if you will share with me my new prosperity, such as it is?"

The interview lasted an hour and a quarter. Mrs. Denyer panted with impatience in the back parlour. Such an extended visit could not but have unusual significance. On hearing the door of the other room open, she stood up and listened. But there was no word in the passage, no audible murmur.

The front door closed, and in two ticks of the clock Barbara came headlong into the parlour. With broken breath, with hysterical laughing and sobbing, she made known what had happened. It was too much for her; the relief of suspense, the absolute triumph, were more than she could support with decency. Mrs. Denyer shed tears, and embraced her daughter as if they had always been on the fondest terms.

"Go up and tell Maddy!"

But, as not seldom befalls, happiness inspired Barbara with a delicacy of feeling to which as a rule she was a stranger.

"I don't like to, mamma. It seems cruel."

"But you can't help it, my dear; and she must know tomorrow if not to-day."

So before long Barbara went upstairs. She entered the room softly. Madeline had her eyes fixed on the ceiling, and did not move them as her sister approached the bed.

"Maddy!"

Then indeed she looked at the speaker, and with surprise, so unwonted was this tone on Barbara's lips. Surprise was quickly succeeded by a smile.

"I know, Barbara; I understand."

"What? How can you?"

"I heard a cab drive up, and I heard a knock at the door. 'That's Mr. Musselwhite,' I thought. He has been here a long time, and now I understand. You needn't tell me."

"But there's a good deal to tell that you can't have found out, quick as you are."

And she related the circumstances. Madeline listened with her eyes on the ceiling.

"We shall be married very soon," Barbara added; "as soon as a house can be chosen. Of course it must be in London, or very near. We shall go somewhere or other, and then, very likely, pay a formal visit to the 'place in Lincolnshire.' Think of that! Sir Roland seems a good sort of man; he will welcome us. Think of visiting at the 'place in Lincolnshire'! Isn't it all like a dream?"

"What will mamma do without you?"

"Oh, Zillah is to come home. We'll see about that."

"I suppose he forgot to bring me some flowers today?"

"No But I declare I forgot to bring them up. I'll fetch them at once."

She did so, running downstairs and up again like a child, with a jump at the landings. The flowers were put in the usual place. Madeline looked at them, and listened to her sister's chatter for five minutes. Then she said absently:

"Go away now, please. I've heard enough for the present."

"You shall have all sorts of comforts, Maddy."

"Go away, Barbara."

The sister obeyed, looking back with compassion from the door. She closed it softly, and in the room there was the old perfect stillness. Madeline had let her eyelids fall, and the white face against the white pillows was like that of one dead. But upon the eyelashes there presently shone a tear; it swelled, broke away, and left a track of moisture. Poor white face, with the dark hair softly shadowing its temples! Poor troubled brain, wearying itself in idle questioning of powers that heeded not!

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