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   Chapter 25 ELGAR AT WORK

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 23012

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

At Dover it was cold and foggy; the shore looked mildewed, the town rain-soaked and mud-stained. In London, a solid leaden sky lowered above the streets, neither threatening rain nor allowing a hope of sunlight. What a labour breathing had become!

"My heart warms to my native land," said Spence. "This is a spring day that recalls one's youth."

Eleanor tried to smile, but the railway journey had depressed her beneath the possibility of joking. Miriam was pallid and miserable; she had scarcely spoken since she set foot on the steamboat. Cab-borne through the clangorous streets, they seemed a party of exiles.

The house in Chelsea, which the Spences held on a long lease, had been occupied during their absence by Edward's brother-in-law and his family. Vacated, swept, and garnished, the old furniture from the Pantechnicon re-established somewhat at haphazard, it was not a home that welcomed warmly; but one could heap coals on all the fires, and draw down the blinds as soon as possible, and make a sort of Christmas evening. If only one's lungs could have free play! But in a week or so such little incommodities would become natural again.

Miriam had decided that in a day or two she would go down to Bartles; not to stay there, but merely to see her relative, Mrs. Fletcher, and Redbeck House. Before leaving London, she must visit Reuben; she had promised Cecily to do so without delay. This same evening she posted a card to her brother, asking him to be at home to see her early the next morning.

She reached Belsize Park at ten o'clock, and dismissed the cab as soon as she had alighted from it. Her ring at the door was long in being answered, and the maid-servant who at last appeared did small credit to the domestic arrangements of the house-she was slatternly, and seemed to resent having her morning occupations, whatever they were, thus disturbed. Miriam learnt with surprise that Mr. Elgar was not at home.

"He is out of town?"

The servant thought so; he had not been at the house for two days.

"You are unable to tell me when he will return?"

Mr. Elgar was often away for a day or two, but not for longer than that. The probability was that he would, at all events, look in before evening, though he might go away again.

Miriam left a card-which the servant inspected with curiosity before the door was closed-and turned to depart. It was raining, and very windy. She had to walk some distance before she could find a conveyance, and all the way she suffered from a painful fluttering of the heart, an agitation like that of fear. All night she had wished she had never returned to England, and now the wish became a dread of remaining.

By the last post that evening came a note from Reuben. He wrote in manifest hurry, requesting her to come again next morning; he would have visited her himself, but perhaps she had not a separate sitting-room, and he preferred to talk with her in privacy.

So in the morning she again went to Belsize Park. This time the servant was a little tidier, and behaved more conventionally. Miriam was conducted to the library, where Reuben awaited her.

They examined each other attentively. Miriam was astonished to find her brother looking at least ten years older than when she last saw him; he was much sparer in body, had duller eyes and, it seemed to her, thinner hair.

"But why didn't you write sooner to let me know you were coming?" was his first exclamation.

"I supposed you knew from Cecily."

"I haven't heard from her since the letter in which she told me she had got to Rome. She said you would be coming soon, but that was all. I don't understand this economy of postage!"

He grew more annoyed as he spoke. Meeting Miriam's eye, he added, in the tone of explanation:

"It's abominable that you should come here all the way from Chelsea, and be turned away at the door! What did the servant tell you?"

"Only that your comings and goings were very uncertain," she replied, looking about the room.

"Yes, so they are. I go now and then to a friend's in Surrey and stop overnight. One can't live alone for an indefinite time. But sit down. Unless you'd like to have a look at the house, first of all?"

"I'll sit a little first."

"This is my study, when I'm working at home," Reuben continued, walking about and handling objects, a book, or a pen, or a paper-knife. "Comfortable, don't you think? I want to have another bookcase over there. I haven't worked here much since Cecily has been away; I have a great deal of reading to do at the Museum, you know.-You look a vast deal better, Miriam. What are you going to do?"

"I don't know. Most likely I shall continue to live with the Spences."

"You wouldn't care to come here?"

"Thank you; I think the other arrangement will be better."

"Perhaps so. For one thing, it's quite uncertain whether we shall keep this house. It's really a good deal too large for us; an unnecessary expense. If Cecily is often to be away like this, there's no possibility of keeping the place in order. How the servants live, or what they do, I have no idea. How can I be expected to look after such things?"

"But surely it is not expected of you? I understood that Cecily had left a housekeeper."

"Oh yes; but I have a suspicion that she does little but eat and drink. I know the house is upside down. It's long enough since I had a decent meal here. Practically I have taken to eating at restaurants. Of course I say nothing about it to Cecily; what's the use of bothering her? By-the-bye, how is she? How did you leave her?"

"Not very well, I'm afraid."

"She never says a word about her health. But then, practically, she never writes. I doubt whether London suits her. We shall have to make our head-quarters in Paris, I fancy; she was always well enough there. Of course I can't abandon London entirely; at all events, not till I've-till my materials for the book are all ready; but it's simple enough for me to come and take lodgings for a month now and then."

Miriam gave an absent "Yes."

"You don't seem to have altered much, after all," he resumed, looking at her with a smile. "You talk to me just like you used to. I expected to find you more cheerful."

Miriam showed a forced smile, but answered nothing.

"Well, did you see much of Mallard?" he asked, throwing himself into a seat impatiently, and beginning to rap his knee with the paper-knife.

"Not very much."

"Has he come back with you?"

"Oh no; he is still in Rome. He said that he would most likely return when the others did."

"How do he and Cecily get on together?"

"They seemed to be quite friendly."

"Indeed? Does he go about with them?"

"I don't know."

"But did he when you were there?"

"I think he was with them at the Vatican once."

Elgar heard it with indifference. He was silent for a minute or two; then, quitting his chair, asked:

"Had you much talk with her?"

"With Cecily? We were living together, you know."

"Yes, but had she much to tell you? Did she talk about how things were going with us-what I was doing, and so on?"

He was never still. Now he threw himself into another chair, and strummed with his fingers on the arm of it.

"She told me about your work."

"And showed that she took very little interest in it, no doubt?"

Miriam gazed at him.

"Why do you think that?"

"Oh, that's tolerably well understood between us." Again he rose, and paced with his hands in his pockets. "It was a misfortune that Clarence died. Now she has nothing to occupy herself with. She doesn't seem to have any idea of employing her time. It was bad enough when the child was living, but since then-"

He spoke as though the hints fell from him involuntarily; he wished to be understood as implying no censure, but merely showing an unfortunate state of things. When he broke off, it was with a shrug and a shake of the head.

"But I suppose she reads a good deal?" said Miriam; "and has friends to visit?"

"She seems to care very little about reading nowadays. And as for the friends-yes, she is always going to some house or other. Perhaps it would have been better if she had had no friends at all."

"You mean that they are objectionable people?"

"Oh no; I don't mean to say anything of that kind. But-well, never mind, we won't talk about it."

He threw up an arm, and began to pace the floor again. His nervousness was increasing. In a few moments he broke out in the same curious tone, which was half complaining, half resigned.

"You know Cecily, I dare say. She has a good deal of-well, I won't call it vanity, because that has a vulgar sound, and she is never vulgar. But she likes to be admired by clever people. One must remember how young she still is. And that's the very thing of which she can't endure to be reminded. If I hint a piece of counsel, she feels it an insult. I suppose I am to blame myself, in some things. When I was working here of an evening, now and then I felt it a bore to have to dress and go out. I don't care much for society, that's the fact of the matter. But I couldn't bid her stay at home. You see how things get into a wrong course. A girl of her age oughtn't to be going about alone among all sorts of people. Of course something had to precede that. The first year or two, she didn't want any society. I suppose a man who studies much always runs the danger of neglecting his home affairs. But it was her own wish that I should begin to work. She was incessantly urging me to it. One of the inconsistencies of women, you see."

He laughed unmelodiously, and then there was a long silence. Miriam, who watched him mechanically, though her eyes were not turned directly upon him, saw that he seated himself on the writing-table, and began to make idle marks with a pencil on the back of an envelope.

"Why didn't you go abroad with her?" she asked in a low voice.

"I would have gone, if it hadn't been quite clear that she preferred not to have my company."

"Are you speaking the truth?"

"What do you mean, Miriam? She preferred to go alone; I know she did."

"But didn't you make the excuse to her that you couldn't leave your work?"

"That's true also. Could I say plainly that I saw what she wished?"

"I think it very unlikely that you were right," Miriam rejoined in a tone of indecision.

"What reason have you for saying that?"

"You ought to have a very good reason before you believe the contrary."

She waited for him to reply, but he had taken another piece of paper, and seemed absorbed in covering it with a sort of pattern of his own design.

"Right or wrong, what does it matter?" he exclaimed at length, flinging the pencil away. "The event is the same, in any case. Does it depend on myself how I act, or what I think? Do you believe still that we are free agents, and responsible for our acts and thoughts?"

Miriam avoided his look, and said carelessly:

"I know nothing about it."

He gave a short laugh.

"Well, that's better and more honest than saying you believe what is contrary to all human experience. Look back on your life. Has its course been of your own shaping? Compare yourself of to-day with yourself of four years ago; has the change come about by your own agency? If you are wrong, are you to blame? Imagine some fanatic seizing you by the arm, and shouting to you to beware of the precipice to which you are advancing-"

He suited the action to the word, and gr

asped her wrist. Miriam shook him off angrily.

"What do you know of me?" she exclaimed, with suppressed scorn.

"True. Just as little as you know of me, or any one person of any other. However, I was speaking of what you know of yourself. I suppose you can look back on one or two things in your life of which your judgment doesn't approve? Do you imagine they could have happened otherwise than they did? Do you think it lay in your own power to take the course you now think the better?"

Miriam stood up impatiently, and showed no intention of replying. Again Elgar laughed, and waved his arm as if dismissing a subject of thought.

"Come up and look at the drawing-room," he said, walking to the door.

"Some other time. I'll come again in a few days."

"As you please. But you must take your chance of finding me at home, unless you give me a couple of days' notice."

"Thank you," she answered coldly. "I will take my chance."

He went with her to the front door. With his hand on the latch, he said in an undertone:

"Shall you be writing to Cecily?"

"I think not; no."

"All right. I'll let her know you called."

For Miriam, this interview was confirmative of much that she had suspected. She believed now that Reuben and his wife, if they had not actually agreed to live apart, were practically in the position of people who have. The casual reference to a possible abandonment of their house meant more than Reuben admitted. She did not interpret the situation as any less interested person, with her knowledge of antecedents, certainly would have done; that is to say, conclude that Reuben was expressing his own desires independently of those which Cecily might have formed. Her probing questions, in which she had seemed to take Cecily's side, were in reality put with a perverse hope of finding that such a view was untenable, and she came away convinced that this was the case. The state of things at home considered, Cecily would not have left for so long an absence but on her own wish.

And, this determined, she thought with increased bitterness of Mallard's remaining in Rome. He too could not but suspect the course that Cecily's married life was taking; by this time he might even know with certainty. How would that affect him? In her doubt as to how far the exchange of confidences between Cecily and Mallard was a possible thing, she tortured herself with picturing the progress of their intercourse at Rome, inventing chance encounters, imagining conversations. Mrs. Lessingham was as good as no obstacle to their intimacy; her, Miriam distrusted profoundly. Judging by her own impulses, she attributed to Cecily a strong desire for Mallard's sustaining companionship; and on the artist's side, she judged all but inevitable, under such circumstances, a revival of that passion she had read in his face long ago. Her ingenuity of self-torment went so far as to interpret Mallard's behaviour to herself in a dishonourable sense. It is doubtful whether any one who loves passionately fulfils the ideal of being unable to see the object of love in any but a noble light; this is one of the many conventions, chiefly of literary origin, which to the eyes of the general make cynicism of wholesome truth. Miriam deemed it not impossible that Mallard had made her his present of pictures simply to mislead her thought when she was gone. Jealousy can sink to baser imaginings than this. It is only calm affection that judges always in the spirit of pure sympathy.

On the following day, the Spences dined from home, and Miriam, who had excused herself from accompanying them, sat through the evening in their drawing-room. The weather was wretched; a large fire made the comfort within contrast pleasantly enough with sounds of wind and rain against the house. Miriam's mind was far away from Chelsea; it haunted the Via del Babuino, and the familiar rooms of the hotel where Cecily was living. Just after the clock had struck ten, a servant entered and said that Mr. Elgar wished to see her.

Reuben was in evening dress.

"What! you are alone?" he said on entering. "I'm glad of that. I supposed I should have to meet the people. I want to kill half an hour, that's all."

He drew a small low chair near to hers, and, when he had seated himself, took one of her hands. Miriam glanced at him with surprise, but did not resist him. His cheeks were flushed, perhaps from the cold wind, and there was much more life in his eyes than the other morning.

"You're a lonely girl, Miriam," he let fall idly, after musing. "I'm glad I happened to come in, to keep you company. What have you been thinking about?"

"Italy," she answered, with careless truth.

"Italy, Italy! Who doesn't think of Italy? I wish I knew Italy as well as you do. Isn't it odd that I should be saying that to you? I believe you are now far my superior in all knowledge that is worth having. Did I mention that Ciss wrote an account of you in the letter just after she had reached Rome?"

Miriam made an involuntary movement as if to withdraw her hand, but overcame herself before she had succeeded.

"How did she come to know me so quickly?" was her question, murmured absently.

"From Mrs. Spence, it seemed. Come, tell me what you have been doing this long time. You have seen Greece too. I must go to Greece-perhaps before the end of this year. I'll make a knapsack ramble: Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, Constantinople."

Miriam kept silence, and her brother appeared to forget that he had said anything that required an answer. Presently he released her hand, after patting it, and moved restlessly in his chair; then he looked at his watch, and compared it curiously with the clock on the mantelpiece.

"Ciss," he began suddenly, and at once with a laugh corrected himself-"Miriam, I mean."


"I forget what I was going to say," he muttered, after delaying. "But that reminds me; I've been anxious lest you should misunderstand what I said yesterday. You didn't think I wished to make charges against Cecily?"

"It's difficult to understand you," was all she replied.

"But you mustn't think that I misjudge her. Cecily has more than realized all I imagined her to be. There are few women living who could be called her equals. I say this in the gravest conviction; this is the simple result of my knowledge of her. She has an exquisite nature, an admirable mind. I have never heard her speak a sentence that was unworthy of her, not one!"

His voice trembled with earnestness. Miriam looked at from under her eyebrows.

"If any one," he pursued, "ever threw doubt on the perfect uprightness of Cecily's conduct, her absolute honour, I would gage my life upon the issue."

And in this moment he spoke with sincerity, whatever the mental process which had brought him to such an utterance. Even Miriam could not doubt him. His clenched fist quivered as it lay on his knee, and the gleam of firelight showed that his eyes were moist.

"Why do you say this?" his sister asked, still scrutinizing him.

"To satisfy myself; to make you understand once for all what I do believe. Have you any other opinion of her, Miriam?"

She gave a simple negative.

"I am not saying this," he pursued, "in the thought that you will perhaps repeat it to her some day. It is for my own satisfaction. If I could put it more strongly, I would; but I will have nothing to do with exaggerations. The truth is best expressed in the simplest words."

"What do you mean by honour?" Miriam inquired, when there had been a short silence.


"Your definitions are not generally those accepted by most people."

"I hope not." He smiled. "But you know sufficiently what I mean. Deception, for instance, is incompatible with what I understand as honour."

He spoke it slowly and clearly, his eyes fixed on the fire.

"You seem to me to be attributing moral responsibility to her."

"What I say is this that I believe her nature incapable of admitting the vulgar influences to which people in general are subject. I attach no merit to her high qualities-no more than I attach merit to the sea for being a nobler thing than a muddy puddle. Of course I know that she cannot help being what she is, and cannot say to herself that in future she will become this or that. How am I inconsistent? Suppose me wrong in my estimate of her. I might then lament that she fell below what I had imagined, but of course I should have no right to blame her."

Miriam reflected; then put the question:

"And does she hold the same opinion-with reference to you, for instance?"

"Theoretically she does."

"Theoretically? If she made her opinions practical, I suppose there would be no reason why you shouldn't live together in contentment?"

Reuben glanced at her.

"I can't say," he replied gloomily. "That is quite another matter."

"Speaking of honour," said Miriam, "you would attach no blame to yourself if you fell below it."

He replied with deliberation:

"One often blames one's self emotionally, but the understanding is not affected by that. Unless your mind is unsteadied by excess of feeling."

"I believe you are a victim of sophistry-sophistry of the most dangerous kind. I can't argue with you, but I pity you, and fear for you."

The words were uttered so solemnly that Reuben for a moment was shaken; his features moved in a way which indicates a sudden failure of self-possession. But he recovered himself immediately, and smiled his least amiable smile.

"I see you are not yet past the half-way house on the way of emancipation, Miriam. These things sound disagreeable, and prompt such deliverances as this of yours. But can I help it if a truth is unpalatable? What better should I be if I shut my eyes against it? You will say that this conviction makes me incapable of struggle for the good. Nothing of the kind. Where I am destined to struggle, I do so, without any reference to my scientific views. Of course, one is unhappier with science than without it. Who ever urged the contrary, that was worth listening to? I believe the human race will be more and more unhappy as science grows. But am I on that account likely to preach a crusade against it? Sister mine, we are what we are; we think and speak and do what causation determines. If you can still hold another belief, do so, and be thrice blessed. I would so gladly see you happy, dear Miriam."

Again he took her hand, and pressed it against his cheek Miriam looked straight before her with wide, almost despairing eyes.

"I must go, this moment," Elgar said, happening to notice the time. "Say I have been here, and couldn't wait for their return; indeed, they wouldn't expect it."

"Wait a few minutes, Reuben."

She retained his hand.

"I can't dear; I can't." His cheeks were hot. "I have an appointment."

"What appointment? With whom?"

"A friend. It is something important. I'll tell you another time."

"Tell me now. Your sister is more to you than a friend. I ask you to stay with me, Reuben."

In his haste, he did not understand how great an effort over herself such words as these implied. The egoist rarely is moved to wonder at unusual demonstrations made on his own behalf. Miriam was holding his hand firmly, but he broke away. Then he turned back, took her in his arms, and kissed her more tenderly than he ever had done since he was a child. Miriam had a smile of hope, but only for a moment. After all, he was gone.

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