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   Chapter 24 SILENCES

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 19432

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Cecily was seeing Rome for the first time, but she could not enjoy it in the way natural to her. It was only at rare moments that she felt Rome. One of the most precious of her life's anticipations was fading into memory, displaced by a dull experience, numbered among disillusionings. Not that what she beheld disappointed her, but that she was not herself in beholding. Had she stayed here on her first visit to Italy, on what a strong current of enthusiasm would the hours and the days have borne her! What a light would have glowed upon the Seven Hills, and how would every vulgarity of the modern streets have been transformed by her imagination! But now she was in no haste to visit the most sacred spots; she was content to take each in its turn, and her powers of attention soon flagged. It had been the same in Florence. She felt herself reduced to a lower level of existence than was native to her. Had she lived her life-all that was worth calling life?

Her chief solace was in the society of Mrs. Spence. Formerly she had not been prepared for appreciating Eleanor, but now she felt the beauties of that calm, self-reliant character, rich in a mode of happiness which it seemed impossible for herself ever to attain. Fortune had been Eleanor's friend. Disillusion had come to her only in the form of beneficent wisdom; no dolorous dead leaves rustled about her feet and clogged her walk. Happy even in the fact that she had never been a mother. She was a free woman; free in the love of her husband, free in the pursuit of knowledge and the cultivation of all her tastes. She had outlived passion without mourning it; what greater happiness than that can a woman expect? Cecily had once believed that life was to be all passion, or a failure. She understood now that there was a middle path. But against her it was closed.

In a few days she could talk with Eleanor even of bygone things in a perfectly simple tone, without danger of betraying the thoughts she must keep secret. One such conversation reminded her of something she had learnt shortly before she left London.

"Do you remember," she asked, "a family named Denyer, who were at Mrs. Gluck's?"

Eleanor recollected the name, and the characteristics attached to it.

"An acquaintance of mine who has rooms at Hampstead happened to speak of the people she is with, and it surprised me to discover that they were those very Denyers. One of the daughters is paralyzed, poor girl; I was shocked to remember her, and think of her visited by such a fate. I believe she was to have married that artist, Mr. Marsh, who gave Mr. Bradshaw so much amusement. And the eldest-"

She broke off to inquire why Eleanor had looked at her so expressively.

"I'll tell you when you have finished your story. What of the eldest?"

"She has recently married Mr. Musselwhite, who was also one of our old acquaintances. Mrs. Travis-the lady who tells me all this-says that Mrs. Denyer is overjoyed at this marriage, for Mr. Musselwhite is the brother of a baronet!"

"Very satisfactory indeed. Well, now for Mr. Marsh. Edward heard from Mr. Bradshaw when we were in Sicily, and this young gentleman had a great part in the letter. It seems he has long abandoned his artistic career, and gone into commerce."

"That most superior young man? But I remember something about that."

"His business takes him often to Manchester, and he has been cultivating the acquaintance of the Bradshaws. And now there is an engagement between him and their eldest daughter."

"Charlotte? What a queer thing to happen! Isn't she about my age?"

"Yes; and, if she fulfils her promise, one of the plainest girls in existence. Her father jokes about the affair, but evidently doesn't disapprove."

It was Thursday, and the Spences had decided to start for London on Friday night. Miriam had been keeping much alone these last few days, and this morning was out by herself in the usual way. Spence was engaged with Seaborne. Mrs. Lessingham, Eleanor, and Cecily went to the Vatican.

Where also was Mallard. He had visited the chapel, and the Stanze, and the Loggia, and the picture-gallery, not looking at things, but seeming to look for some one; then he came out, and walked round St. Peter's to the Museum. In the Sala Rotonda he encountered his friends.

They talked about the busts. Cecily was studying them with the catalogue, and wished Mallard to share her pleasure.

"The empresses interest me most," she said. "Come and do homage to them."

They look with immortal eyes, those three women who once saw the world at their feet: Plotina, the wife of Trajan; Faustina, the wife of Antoninus Pius; Julia, the wife of Septimius Severus. Noble heads, each so unlike the other. Plotina, with her strong, not beautiful, features, the high cheek-bones, the male chin; on her forehead a subdued anxiety. Faustina, the type of aristocratic self-consciousness, gloriously arrogant, splendidly beautiful, with her superb coronet of woven hair. Julia Domna, a fine, patrician face, with a touch of idleness and good-natured scorn about her lips, taking her dignity as a matter of course.

"These women awe me," Cecily murmured, as Mallard stood beside her. "They are not of our world. They make me feel as if I belonged to an inferior race."

"Glorious barbarians," returned Mallard.

"We of to-day have no right to say so."

Then the Antinous, the finest of all his heads. It must be caught in profile, and one stands marvelling at the perfection of soulless beauty. And the Jupiter of Otricoli, most majestic of marble faces; in that one deep line across the brow lies not only profound thought, but something of the care of rule, or something of pity for mankind; as though he had just uttered his words in Homer: "For verily there is no creature more afflicted than man, of all that breathe and move upon the earth." But that other, the Serapis, is above care of every kind; on his countenance is a divine placidity, a supernal blandness; he gazes for ever in sublime and passionless reverie.

Thence they passed to the Hall of the Muses, and spoke of Thalia, whose sweet and noble face, with its deep, far-looking eyes, bears such a weary sadness, Comedy? Yes; comedy itself, when comedy is rightly understood.

And whilst they stood here, there came by a young priest, holding open a missal or breviary or some such book, and muttering from it, as if learning by heart. Cecily followed him with her gaze.

"What a place for study of that kind!" she exclaimed, looking at Mallard.

He also had felt the incongruity, and laughed.

Two or three chambers of the Vatican sufficed for one day. Cecily would not trust herself to remain after her interest had begun to weary; it was much that she had won two hours of intellectual calm. Her companions had no wish to stay longer. Just as they came again into the Sala Rotonda, they found themselves face to face with Miriam.

"Did you know we were coming here?" asked Eleanor.

"I thought it likely."

She shook hands with Mallard, but did not speak to him. Eleanor offered to stay with her, as this would be their last visit, but Miriam said in a friendly manner that she preferred to be alone. So they left her.

At the exit, Mallard saw his companions into a carriage, and himself walked on; but as soon as the carriage was out of sight, he turned back. He had taken care to recover his permesso from the attendant, in the common way, when he came out, so that he could enter again immediately. He walked rapidly to the place where they had left Miriam, but she was gone. He went forward, and discovered her sitting before the Belvedere Apollo. As his entrance drew her attention, he saw that she had an impulse to rise; but she overcame it, and again turned her eyes upon him, with a look in which self-control was unconsciously like defiance.

He sat down by her, and said:

"I came to the Vatican this morning for the chance of meeting you."

"I hope that was not your only reason for coming," she returned, in a voice of ordinary civility.

"It was, in fact I should have asked you to let me have your company for an hour to-day, as it is practically your last in Rome; but I was not sure that you would grant it, so I took my chance instead."

She waited a moment before replying.

"I am afraid you refer to your invitation of a few days ago. I didn't feel in the mood for going to a studio, Mr. Mallard."

"Yes, I was thinking of that. You refused in a way not quite like yourself. I began to be afraid that you thought me too regardless of forms."

His return had gratified her; it was unexpected, and she set her face in a hard expression that it might not betray her sudden gladness. But the look of thinly-masked resentment which succeeded told of what had been in her mind since she encountered him in the company of Cecily. That jealous pain was uncontrollable; the most trivial occasions had kept exciting it, and now it made her sick at heart. The effort to speak conventionally was all but beyond her strength.

They had in common that personal diffidence which is one of the phases of pride, and which proves so fruitful a source of misunderstandings. For all her self-esteem, Miriam could not obtain the conviction that, as a woman, she strongly interested Mallard; and the artist found it very hard to persuade himself that Miriam thought of him as anything but a man of some talent, whose attention was agreeable, and perhaps a little flattering. Still, he could not but notice that her changed behaviour connected itself with Cecily's arrival. It seemed to him extraordinary, almost incredible, that she should be jealous of his relations

with her sister-in-law. Had she divined his passion for Cecily at Naples? (He cherished a delusion that the secret had never escaped him.) But to attribute jealousy to her was to assume that she set a high value on his friendship.

Miriam had glanced at the Apollo as he spoke. Conscious of his eyes upon her, she looked away, saying in a forced tone:

"I had no such thought. You misunderstood me."

"It was all my fault, then, and I am sorry for it. You said just now that you preferred to be alone. I shall come to the hotel to-morrow, just to say good-bye."

He rose; and Miriam, as she did the same, asked formally:

"You are still uncertain how long you remain here?"

"Quite," was his answer, cheerfully given.

"You are not going to work?"

"No; it is holiday with me for a while. I wish you were staying a little longer."

"You will still have friends here."

Mallard disliked the tone of this.

"Oh yes," he replied. "I hope to see Mrs. Lessingham and Mrs. Elgar sometimes."

He paused; then added:

"I dare say I shall return to England about the same time that they do. May I hope to see you in London?"

"I am quite uncertain where I shall be."

"Then perhaps we shall not meet for a long time.-Will you let me give you one or two little drawings that may help to remind you of Italy?"

Miriam's cheeks grew warm, and she east down her eyes.

"Your drawings are far too valuable to be given as one gives trifles, Mr. Mallard."

"I don't wish you to receive them as trifles. One of their values to me is that I can now and then please a friend with them. If you had rather I did not think of you as a friend, then you would be right to refuse them."

"I will receive them gladly."

"Thank you. They shall be sent to the hotel."

They shook hands, and he left her.

On the morrow they met again for a few minutes, when he came to say good-bye. Miriam made no mention of the packet that had reached her. She was distant, and her smile at leave-taking very cold.

So the three travelled northwards.

Their departure brought back Cecily's despondent mood. With difficulty she restrained her tears in parting from Eleanor; when she was alone, they had their way. She felt vaguely miserable-was troubled with shapeless apprehensions, with a sense of desolateness.

The next day brought a letter from her husband, "Dear Ciss," he wrote, "I am sorry its so long since I sent you a line, but really there's no news. I foresee that I shall not have much manuscript to show you; I am reading hugely, but I don't feel ready to write. Hope you are much better; give me notice of your return. My regards to Mallard; I expect you will see very little of him." And so, with a "yours ever," the epistle ended.

This was all Reuben had to say to her, when she had been absent nearly a month. With a dull disappointment, she put the arid thing out of her sight. It had been her intention to write to-day, but now she could not. She had even less to say than he.

He expressed no wish for her return, and felt none. Perhaps, it was merely indifferent to him how long she stayed away; but she had no assurance that he did not prefer to be without her. And, for her own part, had she any desire to be back again? Here she was not contented, but at home she would be even less so.

The line in his letter which had reference to the much-talked-of book only confirmed her distrust. She had no faith in his work. The revival of his energy from time to time was no doubt genuine enough, but she knew that its subsequent decline was marked with all manner of pretences. Possibly he was still "reading hugely," but the greater likelihood was that he had fallen into mere idleness. It was significant of her feeling towards him that she never made surmises as to how he spent his leisure; her thoughts, consciously and unconsciously, avoided such reflections; it was a matter that did not concern her. He had now a number of companions, men of whom her own knowledge was very vague; that they were not considered suitable acquaintances for her, of course meant that Reuben could have no profit from them, and would probably suffer from their contact. But in these things she had long been passive, careless. Experience had taught her how easy it was for husband and wife to live parted lives, even whilst their domestic habits seemed the same as ever; in books, that situation had formerly struck her as inconceivable, but now she suspected that it was the commonest of the results of marriage. Habit, habit; how strong it is!

And how degrading! To it she attributed this bluntness in her faculties of perception and enjoyment, this barrenness of the world about her. It was dreadful to look forward upon a tract of existence thus vulgarized. Already she recognized in herself the warnings of a possible future in which she would have lost her intellectual ambitions. There is a creeping paralysis of the soul, and did she not experience its symptoms? Already it was hard to apply herself to any study that demanded real effort; she was failing to pursue her Latin; she avoided German books, because they were more exacting than French; her memory had lost something of its grasp. Was she to become a woman of society, a refined gossip, a pretentious echo of the reviews and of clever people's talk? If not, assuredly she must exert a force of character which she had begun to suspect was not in her.

Strange that the one person to whom she had disclosed something of her real mind was also the one who seemed at the greatest distance from her in this circle of friends. Involuntarily, she had spoken to Miriam as to no one else. This might be a result of old associations. But had it a connection with that curious surmise she had formed during the first hour of her conversation with the Spences, and with Miriam herself-that an unexpected intimacy was coming about between Miriam and Mallard? For, in her frequent thoughts of Mallard, she had necessarily wondered whether he would ever perceive the true issue of her self-will; and, so far from desiring to blind him, she had almost a hope that one day he might know how her life had shaped itself. Mallard's position in her mind was a singular one; in some such way she might have regarded a brother who had always lived remote from her, but whom she had every reason to love and reverence. Her esteem for him was boundless; he was the ideal of the artist, and at the same time of the nobly strong man. Had such a thing been possible, she would have sought to make him her confidant. However it was to be explained, she felt no wound to her self-respect in supposing him cognizant of all her sufferings; rather, a solace, a source of strength.

Was it, in a measure, woman's gratitude for love? In the course of three years she had seen many reasons for believing that Reuben was right; that the artist had loved her, and gone through dark struggles when her fate was being decided. That must have added tenderness to her former regard and admiration. But she was glad that he had now recovered his liberty; the first meeting, his look and the grasp of his hand, told her at once that the trouble was long gone by. She was glad of this, and the proof of her sincerity came when she watched the relations between him and Miriam.

On the last evening, Miriam came to her room, carrying a small portfolio, which she opened before her, disclosing three water-colours.

"You have bought them?" Cecily asked, as the other said nothing.

"No. Mr. Mallard has given me them," was the answer, in a voice which affected a careless pleasure.

"They are admirable. I am delighted that you take such a present away with you."

Cecily expected no confidences, and received none; she could only puzzle over the problem. Why did Miriam behave with so strange a coldness? Her new way of regarding life ought to have resulted in her laying aside that austerity. Mrs. Lessingham hinted an opinion that the change did not go very deep; Puritanism, the result of birth and breeding, was not so easily eradicated.

Mallard stayed on in Rome, but during this next week Cecily only saw him twice-the first time, for a quarter of an hour on the Pincio; then in the Forum. On that second occasion he was invited to dine with them at the hotel the next day, Mr. Seaborne's company having also been requested. The result was a delightful evening. Seaborne was just now busy with a certain period of Papal history; he talked of some old books he had been reading in the Vatican library, and revealed a world utterly strange to all his hearers.

Here were men who used their lives to some purpose; who not only planned, but executed. When the excitement of the evening had subsided, Cecily thought with more bitterness than ever yet of the contrast between such workers and her husband. The feeling which had first come upon her intensely when she stood before Mallard's picture at the Academy was now growing her habitual mood. She had shut herself out for ever from close communion with this world of genuine activity; she could only regard it from behind a barrier, instead of warming her heart and brain in free enjoyment of its emotions. And the worst of it was that these glimpses harmed her, injured her morally. One cannot dwell with discontent and keep a healthy imagination. She knew her danger, and it increased the misery with which she looked forward.

Another week, and again there was a chance meeting with Mallard, this time on the Via Appia, where Cecily and her aunt were driving. They spent a couple of hours together. At the parting, Mallard announced that the next day would see him on his journey to London.

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