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   Chapter 21 AT PAESTUM

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 16058

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The English artist had finished his work, and the dirty little inn at Paestum would to-day lose its solitary guest.

This morning he rose much later than usual, and strolled out idly into the spring sunshine, a rug thrown over his shoulder. Often plucking a flower or a leaf, and seeming to examine it with close thoughtfulness, he made a long circuit by the old walls; now and then he paused to take a view of the temples, always with eye of grave meditation. At one elevated point, he stood for several minutes looking along the road to Salerno.

March rains had brought the vegetation into luxurious life; fern, acanthus, brambles, and all the densely intermingled growths that cover the ground about the ruins, spread forth their innumerable tints of green. Between shore and mountains, the wide plain smiled in its desolation.

At length he went up into the Temple of Neptune, spread the rug on a spot where he had been accustomed, each day at noon, to eat his salame and drink his Calabrian wine, and seated himself against a column. Here he could enjoy a view from both ends of the ruin. In the one direction it was only a narrow strip of sea, with the barren coast below, and the cloudless sky above it; in the other, a purple valley, rising far away on the flank of the Apennines; both pictures set between Doric pillars. He lit a cigar, and with a smile of contented thought abandoned himself to the delicious warmth, the restful silence. Within reach of his hand was a fern that had shot up between the massive stones; he gently caressed its fronds, as though it were a sentient creature. Or his eyes dwelt upon the huge column just in front of him-now scanning its superb proportions, now enjoying the hue of the sunny-golden travertine, now observing the myriad crevices of its time-eaten surface, the petrified forms of vegetable growth, the little pink snails that housed within its chinks.

It was not an artistic impulse only that had brought Mallard to Italy, after three years of work under northern skies. He wished to convince himself that his freedom was proof against memories revived on the very ground where he had suffered so intensely. He had put aside repeated invitations from the Spences, because of the doubt whether he could trust himself within sight of the Mediterranean. Liberty from oppressive thought he had long recovered; the old zeal for labour was so strong in him that he found it difficult to imagine the mood in which he had bidden good-bye to his life's purposes. But there was always the danger lest that witch of the south should again overcome his will and lull him into impotence of vain regret. For such a long time he had believed that Italy was for ever closed against him, that the old delights were henceforth converted into a pain which memory must avoid. At length he resolved to answer his friends' summons, and meet them on their return from Sicily. They had wished to have him with them in Greece, but always his departure was postponed; habits of solitude and characteristic diffidence kept him aloof as long as possible.

Evidently, his health was sound enough. He had loitered about the familiar places in Naples; he took the road by Pompeii to Sorrento, and over the hills to Amalfi; and at each step he could smile with contemptuous pity for the self which he had outlived. More than that. When he came hither three years ago, it was with the intention of doing certain definite work; this purpose he now at last fulfilled, thus completing his revenge upon the by-gone obstacles, and reinstating himself in his own good opinion, as a man who did that which he set himself to do. At Amalfi he had made a number of studies which would be useful; at Paestum he had worked towards a picture, such a one as had from the first been in his mind. Yes, he was a sound man once more.

Tempestuous love is for boys, who have still to know themselves, and for poets, who can turn their suffering into song. But to him it meant only hindrance. Because he had been a prey to frantic desires, did he look upon earth's beauty with a clearer eye, or was his hand endowed with subtler craft? He saw no reason to suppose it. The misery of those first months of northern exile-his battling with fierce winds on sea and moorland and mountain, his grim vigils under stormy stars-had it given him new strength? Of body perhaps; otherwise, he might have spent the time with decidedly more of satisfaction and profit.

Let it be accepted as one of the unavoidable ills of humanity-something that has to be gone through, like measles. But it had come disagreeably late. No doubt he had to thank the monastic habits of his life that it assailed him with such violence. That he had endured it, therein lay the happy assurance that it would not again trouble him.

If it be true that love ever has it in its power to make or mar a man, this love that he had experienced was assuredly not of such quality. From the first his reason had opposed it, and now that it was all over he tried to rejoice at the circumstances which had made his desire vain. Herein he went a little beyond sincerity; yet there were arguments which, at all events, fortified his wish to see that everything was well. It was not mere perversity that in the beginning had warned him against thinking of Cecily as a possible wife for him. Had she betrayed the least inclination to love him, such considerations would have gone to the winds; he would have called the gods to witness that the one perfect woman on the earth was his. But the fact of her passionate self-surrender to Reuben Elgar, did it not prove that the possibilities of her nature were quite other than those which could have assured his happiness? To be sure, so young a girl is liable to wretched errors-but of that he would take no account; against that he resolutely closed his mind. From Edward Spence he heard that she was delighting herself and others in a London season. Precisely; this justified his forethought; for this she was adapted. But as his wife nothing of the kind would have been within her scope. He knew him self too well. His notion of married life was inconsistent with that kind of pleasure. As his wife, perhaps she would have had no desire save to fit herself to him. Possibly; but that again was a reflection not to be admitted. He had only to deal with facts. Sufficient that he could think of her without a pang, that he could even hope to meet her again before long. And, best of all, no ungenerous feeling ever tempted him to wish her anything but wholly happy.

Stretched lazily in the Temple of Neptune, he once or twice looked at his watch, as though the hour in some way concerned him. How it did was at length shown. He heard voices approaching, and had just time to rise to his feet before there appeared figures, rising between the columns of the entrance against the background of hills. He moved forward, a bright smile on his face. The arrivals were Edward Spence, with his wife and Mrs. Baske.

All undemonstrative people, they shook hands much as if they had parted only a week ago.

"Done your work?" asked Spence, laying his palm on one of the pillars, with affectionate greeting.

"All I can do here."

"Can we see it?" Eleanor inquired.

"I've packed it for travelling."

Mallard took the first opportunity of looking with scrutiny at Mrs. Baske. Alone of the three, she was changed noticeably. Her health had so much improved that, if anything, she looked younger; certainly her face had more distinct beauty. Reserve and conscious dignity were still its characteristics-these were inseparable from the mould of feature; but her eyes no longer had the somewhat sullen gleam which had been wont to harm her aspect, and when she smiled it was without the hint of disdainful reticence. Yet the smile was not frequent; her lips had an habitual melancholy, and very often she knitted her brows in an expression of troubled thought. Whilst the others were talking with Mallard, she ke

pt slightly in the rear, and seemed to be occupied in examining the different parts of the temple.

In attire she was transformed. No suggestion now of the lady from provincial England. She was very well, because most fittingly, dressed; neither too youthfully, nor with undue disregard of the fact that she was still young; a travelling-costume apt to the season and the country.

"They speak much of Signor Mal-lard at the osteria," said Spence. "Your departure afflicts them, naturally, no doubt. Do you know whether any other Englishman ever braved that accommodation?"

A country lad appeared, carrying a small hamper, wherein the party had brought their midday meal from Salerno.

"Why did you trouble?" said Mallard. "We have cheese and salame in abundance."

"So I supposed," Spence replied, drily. "I recall the quality of both. Also the vino di Calabria, which is villanously sweet. Show us what point of view you chose."

For an hour they walked and talked. Miriam alone was almost silent, but she paid constant attention to the ruins. Mallard heard her say something to Eleanor about the difference between the columns of the middle temple and those of the so-called Basilica; three years ago, such a remark would have been impossible on her lips, and when he glanced at her with curiosity, she seemed conscious of his look.

They at length opened the hamper, and seated themselves near the spot where Mallard had been reclining.

"There's a smack of profanity in this," said Spence. "The least we can do is to pour a libation to Poseidon, before we begin the meal."

And he did so, filling a tumbler with wine arid solemnly emptying half of it on to the floor of the cella. Mallard watched the effect on Mrs. Baske; she met his look for an instant and smiled, then relapsed into thoughtfulness.

The only other visitors to-day were a couple of Germans, who looked like artists and went about in enthusiastic talk; one kept dealing the other severe blows on the chest, which occasionally made the recipient stagger-all in pure joy and friendship. They measured some of the columns, and in one place, for a special piece of observation, the smaller man mounted on his companion's shoulders. Miriam happened to see them whilst they were thus posed, and the spectacle struck her with such ludicrous effect that she turned away to disguise sudden laughter. In doing so, she by chance faced Mallard, and he too began to laugh. For the first time since they had been acquainted, they looked into each other's eyes with frank, hearty merriment. Miriam speedily controlled herself, and there came a flush to her cheeks.

"You may laugh," said Spence, observing them, "but when did you see two Englishmen abroad who did themselves so much honour?"

"True enough," replied Mallard. "One supposes that Englishmen with brains are occasionally to be found in Italy, but I don't know where they hide themselves."

"You will meet one in Rome in a few days," remarked Eleanor, "if you go on with us-as I hope you intend to?"

"Yes, I shall go with you to Rome. Who is the man?"

"Mr. Seaborne-your most reverent admirer."

"Ah, I should like to know the fellow."

Miriam looked at him and smiled.

"You know Mr. Seaborne?" he inquired of her, abruptly.

"He was with us a fortnight in Athens."

As they were idling about, after their lunch, Mallard kept near to Miriam, but without speaking. He saw her stoop to pick up a piece of stone; presently another. She glanced at him.

"Bits of Paestum," he said, smiling; "perhaps of Poseidonia. Look at the field over there, where the oxen are; they have walled it in with fragments dug up out of the earth,-the remnants of a city."

She just bent her head, in sign of sympathy. A minute or two after, she held out to him the two stones she had taken up.

"How cold one is, and how warm the other!"

One was marble, one travertine. Mallard held them for a moment, and smiled assent; then gave them back to her. She threw them away.

When it was time to think of departure, they went to the inn; Mallard's baggage was brought out and put into the carriage. They drove across the silent plain towards Salerno. In a pause of his conversation with Spence, Mallard drew Miriam's attention to the unfamiliar shape of Capri, as seen from this side of the Sorrento promontory. She looked, and murmured an affirmative.

"You have been to Amalfi?" he asked.

"Yes; we went last year."

"I hope you hadn't such a day as your brother and I spent there-incessant pouring rain."

"No; we had perfect weather."

At Salerno they caught a train which enabled them to reach Naples late in the evening. Mallard accompanied his friends to their hotel, and dined with them. As he and Spence were smoking together afterwards, the latter communicated some news which he had reserved for privacy.

"By-the-bye, we hear that Cecily and her aunt are at Florence, and are coming to Rome next week."

"Elgar with them?" Mallard asked, with nothing more than friendly interest.

"No. They say he is so hard at work that he couldn't leave London."

"What work?"

"The same I told you of last year."

Mallard regarded him with curious inquiry.

"His wife travels for her health?"

"She seems to be all right again, but Mrs. Lessingham judged that a change was necessary. Won't you use the opportunity of meeting her?"

"As it comes naturally, there's no reason why I shouldn't. In fact, I shall be glad to see her. But I should have preferred to meet them both together. What faith do you put in this same work of Elgar's?"

"That he is working, I take it there can be no doubt, and I await the results with no little curiosity. Mrs. Lessingham writes vaguely, which, by-the-bye, is not her habit. Whether she is a believer or not, we can't determine."

"Did the child's death affect him much?"

"I know nothing about it."

They smoked in silence for a few minutes. Then Mallard observed, without taking the cigar from his lips:

"How much better Mrs. Baske looks!"

"Naturally the change is more noticeable to you than to us. It has come very slowly. I dare say you see other changes as well?"

Spence's eye twinkled as he spoke.

"I was prepared for them. That she should stay abroad with you all this time is in itself significant. Where does she propose to live when you are back in England?"

"Why, there hasn't been a word said on the subject. Eleanor is waiting; doesn't like to ask questions. We shall have our house in Chelsea again, and she is very welcome to share it with us if she likes. I think it is certain she won't go back to Lancashire; and the notion of her living with the Elgars is improbable."

"How far does the change go?" inquired Mallard, with hesitancy.

"I can't tell you, for we are neither of us in her confidence. But she is no longer a precisian. She has read a great deal; most of it reading of a very substantial kind. Not at all connected with religion; it would be a mistake to suppose that she has been going in for a course of modern criticism, and that kind of thing. The Greek and Latin authors she knows very fairly, in English or French translations. What would our friend Bradshaw say? She has grappled with whole libraries of solid historians. She knows the Italian poets Really, no common case of a woman educating herself at that age."

"Would you mind telling me what her age is?"

"Twenty-seven, last February. To-day she has been mute; generally, when we are in interesting places, she rather likes to show her knowledge-of course we encourage her to do so. A blessed form of vanity, compared with certain things one remembers!"

"She looks as if she had by no means conquered peace of mind," observed Mallard, after another silence.

"I don't suppose she has. I don't even know whether she's on the way to it."

"How about the chapel at Bartles?"

Spence shook his head and laughed, and the dialogue came to an end.

The next morning all started for Rome.

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