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   Chapter 20 MULTUM IN PARVO

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 22141

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Elgar's marriage had been a great success. For a year and a half, for even more than that, he had lived the fullest and most consistent life of which he was capable; what proportion of the sons of men can look back on an equal span of time in their own existence and say the same of it?

Life with Cecily gave predominance to all the noblest energies in his nature. He loved with absolute sincerity; his ideal of womanhood was for the time realized and possessed; the vagrant habit of his senses seemed permanently subdued; his mind was occupied with high admirations and creative fancies; in thought and speech he was ardent, generous, constant, hopeful. A happy marriage can do no more for man than make unshadowed revelation of such aspiring faculty as he is endowed withal. It cannot supply him with a force greater than he is born to; even as the happiest concurrence of healthful circumstances cannot give more strength to a physical constitution than its origin warrants. At this period of his life, Reuben Elgar could not have been more than, with Cecily's help, he showed himself. Be the future advance or retrogression, he had lived the possible life.

Whose the fault that it did not continue? Cecily's, if it were blameworthy to demand too much; Elgar's, if it be wrong to learn one's own limitations.

His making definite choice of a subject whereon to employ his intellect was at one and the same time a proof of how far his development had progressed and a warning of what lay before him. However chaotic the material in which he proposed to work, however inadequate his powers, it was yet a truth that, could he execute anything at all, it would be something of the kind thus vaguely contemplated. His intellect was combative, and no subject excited it to such activity as this of Hebraic constraint in the modern world. Elgar's book, supposing him to have been capable of writing it, would have resembled no other; it would have been, as he justly said, unique in its anti-dogmatic passion. It was quite in the order of things that he should propose to write it; equally so, that the attempt should mark the end of his happiness.

For all that she seemed to welcome the proposal with enthusiasm, Cecily's mind secretly misgave her. She had begun to understand Reuben, and she foresaw, with a certainty which she in vain tried to combat, how soon his energy would fail upon so great a task. Impossible to admonish him; impossible to direct him on a humbler path, where he might attain some result. With Reuben's temperament to deal with, that would mean a fatal disturbance of their relations to each other. That the disturbance must come in any case, now that he was about to prove himself, she anticipated in many a troubled moment, but would not let the forecast discourage her.

Elgar knew how his failure in perseverance affected her; he looked for the signs of her disappointment, and was at no loss to find them. It was natural to him to exaggerate the diminution of her esteem; he attributed to her what, in her place, he would himself have felt; he soon imagined that she had as good as ceased to love him. He could not bear to be less in her eyes than formerly; a jealous shame stung him, and at length made him almost bitter against her.

In this way came about his extraordinary outbreak that night when Cecily had been alone to her aunt's. Pent-up irritation drove him into the extravagances which to Cecily were at first incredible. He could not utter what was really in his mind, and the charges he made against her were modes of relieving himself. Yet, as soon as they had once taken shape, these rebukes obtained a real significance of their own. Coincident with Cecily's disappointment in him had been the sudden exhibition of her pleasure in society. Under other circumstances, his wife's brilliancy among strangers might have been pleasurable to Elgar. His faith in her was perfect, and jealousy of the ignobler kind came not near him. But he felt that she was taking refuge from the dulness of her home; he imagined people speaking of him as "the husband of Mrs. Elgar;" it exasperated him to think of her talking with clever men who must necessarily suggest comparisons to her.

He himself was not the kind of man who shines in company. He had never been trained to social usages, and he could not feel at ease in any drawing-room but his own. The Bohemianism of his early life had even given him a positive distaste for social obligations and formalities. Among men of his own way of thinking, he could talk vigorously, and as a rule keep the lead in conversation; but where restraint in phrase was needful, he easily became flaccid, and the feeling that he did not show to advantage filled him with disgust. So there was little chance of his ever winning that sort of reputation which would have enabled him to accompany his wife into society without the galling sense of playing an inferior role.

In the matter of Mrs. Travis, he was conscious of his own arbitrariness, but, having once committed himself to a point of view, he could not withdraw from it. He had to find fault with his wife and her society, and here was an obvious resource. Its very obviousness should, of course, have warned him away, but his reason for attacking Mrs. Travis had an intimate connection with the general causes of his discontent. Disguise it how he might, he was simply in the position of a husband who fears that his authority over his wife is weakening. Mrs. Travis, as he knew, was a rebel against her own husband-no matter the cause. She would fill Cecily's mind with sympathetic indignation; the effect would be to make Cecily more resolute in independence. Added to this, there was, in truth, something of that conflict between theoretical and practical morality of which his wife spoke. It developed in the course of argument; he recognized that, whilst having all confidence in Cecily, he could not reconcile himself to her associating with a woman whose conduct was under discussion. The more he felt his inconsistency, the more arbitrary he was compelled to be. Motives confused themselves and harassed him. In his present mood, the danger of such a state of things was greater than he knew, and of quite another kind than Cecily was prepared for.

"What is all this about Mrs. Travis?" inquired Mrs. Lessingham, with a smile, when she came to visit Cecily. Reuben was out, and the ladies sat alone in the drawing-room.

Cecily explained what had happened, but in simple terms, and without meaning to show that any difference of opinion had arisen between her and Reuben.

"You have heard of it from Mrs. Travis herself?" she asked, in conclusion.

"Yes. She expressed no resentment, however; spoke as if she thought it a little odd, that was all. But what has Reuben got into his head?"

"It seems he has heard unpleasant rumours about her."

"Then why didn't he come and speak to me? She is absolutely blameless: I can answer for it. Her husband is the kind of man- Did you ever read Fielding's 'Amelia'? To be sure; well, you understand. I much doubt whether she is wise in leaving him; ten to one, she'll go back again, and that is more demoralizing than putting up with the other indignity. She has a very small income of her own, and what is her life to be? Surely you are the last people who should abandon her. That is the kind of thing that makes such a woman desperate. She seems to have made a sort of appeal to you. I am but moderately in her confidence, and I believe she hasn't one bosom friend. It's most fortunate that Reuben took such a whim. Send him to me, will you?"

Cecily made known this request to her husband, and there followed another long dialogue between them, the only result of which was to increase their mutual coldness. Cecily proposed that they should at once leave town, instead of waiting for the end of the season; in this way all their difficulties would be obviated. Elgar declined the proposal; he had no desire to spoil her social pleasures.

"That is already done, past help," Cecily rejoined, with the first note of bitterness. "I no longer care to visit, nor to receive guests."

"I noticed the other day your ingenuity in revenging yourself."

"I say nothing but the simple truth. Had you rather I went out and enjoyed myself without any reference to your wishes?"

"From the first you made up your mind to misunderstand me," said Reuben, with the common evasion of one who cannot defend his course.

Cecily brought the dispute to an end by her silence. The next morning Reuben went to see Mrs. Lessingham, and heard what she had to say about Mrs. Travis.

"What is your evidence against her?" she inquired, after a little banter.

"Some one who knows Travis very well assured me that the fault was not all on his side."

"Of course. It is more to the point to hear what those have to say who know his wife, Surely you acted with extraordinary haste."

With characteristic weakness, Elgar defended himself by detailing the course of events. It was not he who had been precipitate, but Cecily; he was never more annoyed than when he heard of that foolish letter.

"Go home and persuade her to write another," said Mrs. Lessingham. "Let her confess that there was a misunderstanding. I am sure Mrs. Travis will accept it. She has a curious character; very sensitive, and very impulsive, but essentially trustful and warm-hearted. You should have heard the pathetic surprise with which she told me of Cecily's letter."

"I should rather have imagined her speaking contemptuously."

"It would have been excusable," replied the other, with a laugh. "And very likely that would have been her tone had it concerned any one else. But she has a liking for Cecily. Go home, and get this foolish mistake remedied, there's a good boy."

Elgar left the house and walked eastward, into Praed Street. As he walked, he grew less and less inclined to go home at once. He could not resolve how to act. It would be a satisfaction to have done with discord, but he had no mind to submit to Cecily and entreat her to a peace.

He walked on, across Edgware Road, into Marylebone Road, absorbed in his thoughts. Their complexion became darker. He found a perverse satisfaction in picturing Cecily's unhappiness. Let her suffer a little; she was causing him uneasiness enough. The probability was that she derided his recent behaviour; it had doubtless sunk him still more in her estimation. The only way to recover his lost ground was to be as open with her as formerly, to confess all his weaknesses and foolish motives; but his will resisted. He felt coldly towards her; she was no longer the woman he loved and worshipped, but one who had asserted a superiority of mind and character, and belittled him to himself. He was tired of her society-the simple formula which sufficiently explains so many domestic troubles.

He would have lunch somewhere in town; then see whether he felt disposed to go home or not.

In the afternoon he loitered about

the Strand, looking at portraits in shop-windows and at the theatre-doors. Home was more, instead of less, repugnant to him. He wanted to postpone decision; but if he returned to Cecily, it would be necessary to say something, and in his present mood he would be sure to make matters worse, for he felt quarrelsome. How absurd it was for two people, just because they were married, to live perpetually within sight of each other! Wasn't it Godwin who, on marrying, made an arrangement that he and his wife should inhabit separate abodes, and be together only when they wished? The only rational plan, that. Should he take train and go out of town for a few days? If only he had some one for company; but it was wearisome to spend the time in solitude.

To aggravate his dulness, the sky had clouded over, and presently it began to rain. He had no umbrella. Quite unable to determine whither he should go if he took a cab, he turned aside to the shelter of an archway. Some one was already standing there, but in his abstraction he did not know whether it was man or woman, until a little cough, twice or thrice repeated, made him turn his eyes. Then he saw that his companion was a girl of about five-and-twenty, with a pretty, good-natured face, which wore an embarrassed smile. He gazed at her with a look of surprised recognition.

"Well, it really is you!" she exclaimed, laughing and looking down.

"And it is really you!"

They shook hands, again examining each other.

"I thought you didn't mean to know me."

"I hadn't once looked at you. But you have changed a good deal."

"Not more than you have, I'm sure."

"And what are you doing? You look much more cheerful than you used to."

"I can't say the same of you."

"Have you been in London all the time?"

"Oh no. Two years ago I went back to Liverpool, and had a place there for nearly six months. But I got tired of it. In a few days I'm going to Brighton; I've got a place in a restaurant. Quite time, too; I've had nothing for seven weeks."

"I've often thought about you," said Elgar, after a pause.

"But you never came to see how I was getting on."

"Oh, I supposed you were married long since."

She laughed, and shook her head.

"You are, though, I suppose?" she asked.

"Not I!"

They talked with increasing friendliness until the rain stopped, then walked away together in the direction of the City.

About dinner-time, Cecily received a telegram. It was from her husband, and informed her that he had left town with a friend for a day or two.

This was the first instance of such a proceeding on Reuben's part. For a moment, it astonished her. Which of his friends could it be? But when the surprise had passed, she reflected more on his reasons for absenting himself, and believed that she understood them. He wished to punish her; he thought she would be anxious about him, and so come to adopt a different demeanour when he returned. Ever so slight a suspicion of another kind occurred to her once or twice, but she had no difficulty in dismissing it. No; this was merely one of his tactics in the conflict that had begun between them.

And his absence was a relief. She too wanted to think for a while, undisturbed. When she had seen the child bed and asleep, she moved about the house with a strange sense of freedom, seeming to breathe more naturally than for several days. She went to the piano, and played some favourite pieces, among them one which she had learnt long ago in Paris. It gave her a curiously keen pleasure, like a revival of her girlhood; she lingered over it, and nursed the impression. Then she read a little-not continuously, but dipping into familiar books. It was holiday with her. And when she lay down to rest, the sense of being alone was still grateful. Sleep came very soon, and she did not stir till morning.

On the third day Elgar returned, at noon. She heard the cab that brought him. He lingered in the hall, opened the library door; then came to the drawing-room, humming an air. His look was as different as could be from that she had last seen on his face; he came towards her with his pleasantest smile, and first kissed her hand, then embraced her in the old way.

"You haven't been anxious about me, Ciss?"

"Not at all," she replied quietly, rather permitting his caresses than encouraging them.

"Some one I hadn't met for several years. He was going down to Brighton, and persuaded me to accompany him. I didn't write because-well, I thought it would be better if we kept quite apart for a day or two. Things were getting wrong, weren't they?"

"I'm afraid so. But how are they improved?"

"Why, I had a talk with your aunt about Mrs. Travis. I quite believe I was misled by that fellow that talked scandal. She seems very much to be pitied, and I'm really sorry that I caused you to break with her."

Cecily watched him as he spoke, and he avoided her eyes. He was holding her hands and fondling them; now he bent and put them to his lips. She said nothing.

"Suppose you write to her, Ciss, and say that I made a fool of myself. You're quite at liberty to do so. Tell her exactly how it was, and ask her to forgive us."

She did not answer immediately.

"Will you do that?"

"I feel ashamed to. I know very well how I should receive such a letter."

"Oh, you! But every one hasn't your superb arrogance!" He laughed. "And it's hard to imagine you in such a situation."

"I hope so."

"Aunt tells me that the poor woman has very few friends."

"It's very unlikely that she will ever make one of me. I don't see how it is possible, after this."

"But write the letter, just to make things simpler if you meet anywhere. As a piece of justice, too."

Not that day, but the following, Cecily decided herself to write. She could only frame her excuse in the way Reuben had suggested; necessarily the blame lay on him. The composition cost her a long time, though it was only two pages of note-paper; and when it was despatched, she could not think without hot cheeks of its recipient reading it She did not greatly care for Mrs. Travis's intimacy, but she did desire to remove from herself the imputation of censoriousness.

There came an answer in a day or two.

"I was surprised that you (or Mr. Elgar) should so readily believe ill of me, but I am accustomed to such judgments, and no longer resent them. A wife is always in the wrong; when a woman marries, she should prepare herself for this. Or rather, her friends should prepare her, as she has always been kept in celestial ignorance by their care. Pray let us forget what has happened. I won't renew my request to be allowed to visit you; if that is to be, it will somehow come to pass naturally, in the course of time. If we meet at Mrs. Lessingham's, please let us speak not a word of this affair. I hate scenes."

In a week's time, the Elgars' life had resumed the course it held before that interruption-with the exception that Reuben, as often as it was possible, avoided accompanying his wife when she went from home. His own engagements multiplied, and twice before the end of July he spent Saturday and Sunday out of town. Cecily made no close inquiries concerning his employment of his time; on their meeting again, he always gave her an account of what he had been doing, and she readily accepted it. For she had now abandoned all hope of his doing serious work; she never spoke a word which hinted regret at his mode of life. They were on placid terms, and she had no such faith in anything better as would justify her in endangering the recovered calm.

It became necessary at length to discuss what they should do with themselves during the autumn. Mrs. Lessingham was going with friends to the Pyrenees. The Delphs would take a short holiday in Sussex; Irene could not spare much time from her work.

"I don't care to be away long myself," Reuben said, when Cecily mentioned this. "I feel as if I should be able to get on with my Puritanic pursuits again when we return."

Cecily looked at him, to see if he spoke in earnest. In spite of his jesting tone, he seemed to be serious, for he was pacing the floor, his head bent as if in meditation.

"Make your own plans," was her reply. "But we won't go into Cornwall, I think."

"No, not this year."

They spent a month at Eastbourne. Some agreeable people whom they were accustomed to meet at Mrs. Lessingham's had a house there, and supplied them with society. Towards the end of the month, Reuben grew restless and uncertain of temper; he wandered on the downs by himself, and when at home kept silence. The child, too, was constantly ailing, and its cry irritated him.

"The fact of the matter is," he exclaimed one evening, "I don't feel altogether well! I ought to have had more change than this. If I go back and settle to work, I shall break down."

"What kind of change do you wish for?" Cecily asked.

"I should have liked to take a ramble in Germany, or, Norway-some new part. But nothing of that is possible. Clarence makes slaves of us."

Cecily reflected.

"There's no reason why he should hinder you from going."

"Oh, I can't leave you alone," he returned impatiently.

"I think you might, for a few weeks-if you feel it necessary. I don't think Clarence ought to leave the seaside till the middle of September. The Robinsons will be here still, you know."

He muttered and grumbled, but in the end proposed that he should go over by one of the Harwich boats, and take what course happened to attract him. Cecily assented, and in a few hours he was ready to bid her good-bye. She had said that it wasn't worth while going with him to the station, and when he gave her the kiss at starting she kept perfectly tranquil.

"You're not sorry to get rid of me," he said, with a forced laugh.

"I don't wish you to stay at the expense of your health."

"I hope Clarence mayn't damage yours. These sleepless nights are telling on you."

"Go. You'll miss the train."

He looked back from the door, but Cecily had turned away.

He was absent for more than six weeks, during which he wrote frequently from various out-of-the-way places on the Rhine. On returning, he found Cecily in London, very anxious about the child, and herself looking very ill. He, on the other hand, was robust and in excellent spirits; in a day or two he began to go regularly to the British Museum-to say, at all events, that he went there. And so time passed to the year's end.

One night in January Reuben went to the theatre. He left Cecily sitting in the bedroom, by the fireside, with Clarence on her lap. For several weeks the child had been so ill that Cecily seldom quitted it.

Three hours later she was sitting in the same position, still bent forward, the child still on her lap. But no movement, no cry ever claimed her attention. Tears had stained her face, but they no longer fell. Holding a waxen little hand that would never again caress her, she gazed at the dying fire as though striving to read her destiny.

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