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   Chapter 26 IN DUE COURSE

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 14196

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


A change of trains, and half an hour's delay, at Manchester, then on through Lancashire civilization, through fumes and evil smells and expanses of grey-built hideousness, as far as the station called Bartles.

Miriam remarked novelties as she alighted. The long wooden platform, which used to be almost bare, was now in part sheltered by a structure of iron and glass. There was a bookstall. Porters were more numerous. The old stationmaster still bustled about; he recognized her with a stare of curiosity, but did not approach to speak, as formerly he would have done. Miriam affected not to observe him; he had been wont to sit in the same chapel with her.

The wooden stairs down into the road were supplanted by steps of stone, and below waited several cabs, instead of the two she remembered. "To Redbeck House." The local odours were, at all events, the same as ever; with what intensity they revived the past! Every well-known object, every familiar face, heightened the intolerable throbbing of her heart; so that at length she drew herself into a corner of the cab and looked at nothing.

In the house itself nothing was new; even the servants were the same Miriam had left there. Mrs. Fletcher lived precisely the life of three and a half years ago, down to the most trivial habit; used the same phrases, wore the same kind of dress. To Miriam everything seemed unreal, visionary; her own voice sounded strange, for it was out of harmony with this resuscitated world. She went up to the room prepared for her, and tried to shake off the nightmare oppression. The difficulty was to keep a natural consciousness of her own identity. Above all, the scents in the air disturbed her, confused her mind, forced her to think in forgotten ways about the things on which her eyes fell.

The impressions of every moment were disagreeable, now and then acutely painful. To what purpose had she faced this experience? She might have foreseen what the result would be, and her presence here was unnecessary.

But in an hour, when her pulse again beat temperately, she began to adjust the relations between herself and these surroundings. They no longer oppressed her; the sense of superiority which had been pleasant at a distance re-established itself, and gave her a defiant strength such as she had hoped for. So far from the anxieties of her conscience being aggravated by return to Bartles, she could not recover that mode of feeling which had harassed her for the last few months. Like so many other things, it had become insubstantial. It might revive, but for the present she was safe against it.

And this self-possession was greatly aided by Mrs. Fletcher's talk. From her sister-in-law's letters, though for the last two years they had been few, Miriam had formed some conception of the progress of Bartles opinion concerning herself. Now she led Mrs. Fletcher to converse with native candour on this subject, and in the course of the evening, which they spent alone, all the town's gossip since Miriam's going abroad was gradually reported. Mrs. Fletcher was careful to prevent the inference (which would have been substantially correct) that she herself had been the source of such rumours as had set wagging the tongues of dissident Bartles; she spoke with much show of reluctance, and many protestations of the wrath that had been excited in her by those who were credulous of ill. Miriam confined herself to questioning; she made no verbal comments. But occasionally she averted her face with a haughty smile.

Mrs. Welland, the once-dreaded rival, had established an unassailable supremacy. From her, according to Mrs. Fletcher, proceeded most of the scandalous suggestions which had attached themselves to Mrs. Baske's name. This lady had not scrupled to state it as a fact in her certain knowledge that Mrs. Baske was become a Papist. To this end, it seemed, was the suspicion of Bartles mainly directed-the Scarlet Woman throned by the Mediterranean had made a victim of her who was once a light in the re-reformed faith. That was the reason, said Mrs. Welland, why the owner of Redbeck House continued to dwell in foreign parts. If ever she came back at all, it would be as an insidious enemy; but more likely she would never return; possibly her life would close in a convent, like that of other hapless Englishwomen whose personal property excited the covetousness of the Pope. In the Bartles newspaper there had appeared, from time to time, enigmatic paragraphs, which Mrs. Welland and her intimates made the subject of much gossip; these passages alluded either to a certain new chapel which seemed very long in getting its foundations laid, or to a certain former inhabitant of Bartles, who found it necessary, owing to the sad state of her health, to make long residence in Roman Catholic countries. Mrs. Fletcher had preserved these newspapers, and now produced them. Miriam read and smiled.

"Why didn't it occur to them to suggest that I had become an atheist?"

Mrs. Fletcher screamed with horror. No, no; Bartles did not contain any one so malicious as that. After all, whatever had been said was merely the outcome of a natural disappointment. All would be put right again. To-morrow was Sunday, and when Miriam appeared in the chapel-

"I have no intention of going to chapel."

On Monday morning she returned to London. Excepting Mrs. Fletcher and her daughters, she had spoken with no one in Bartles. She came away with a contemptuous hatred of the place-a resolve never to see it again.

This had been the one thing needed to make Miriam as intolerant in agnosticism as she formerly was in dogma. Henceforth she felt the animosity of a renegade. In the course of a few hours her soul had completed its transformation, and at the incitement of that pride which had always been the strongest motive within her. Her old faith was now identified with the cackle of Bartles, and she flung it behind her with disdain.

Not that she felt insulted by the supposition that she had turned Romanist. No single reason would account for her revolt, which, coming thus late, was all but as violent as that which had animated her brother from his boyhood. Intellectual progress had something to do with it, for on approaching with new eyes that narrow provincial life, she could scarcely believe it had once been her own, and resented the memory of such a past. But less worthy promptings were more strongly operative. The Bartles folk had a certain measure of right against her; she had ostentatiously promised them a chapel, and how was her failure in keeping the promise to be accounted for? This justification of theirs chafed her; she felt the ire of one who has no right to be angry. It shamed her, moreover, to be reminded of the pretentious spirit which was the origin of this trouble; and to be shamed by her inferiors was to Miriam a venomed stab. Then, again, she saw no way of revenging herself. Had she this morning possessed the power of calling down fire from heaven, Lancashire would shortly have missed one of its ugliest little towns

; small doubt of that.

No wonder a grave old gentleman who sat opposite on the journey to London was constrained frequently to look at her. As often as she forgot herself, the wrathful arrogance which boiled in her heart was revealed on her features; the strained brow, the flashing eyes, the stern-set lips, made a countenance not often to be studied in the railway-carriage.

It was with distinct pleasure that she found herself again in London. Contrasted with her homes in the south, London had depressed and discouraged her; but in this also did the visit to Bartles change her feeling. She understood now what had determined the Spences to make their abode once more in London. She too was in need of tonics for the mind. The roar of the streets was grateful to her; it seemed to lull the painful excitement in which she had travelled, and at the same time to stimulate her courage. Yes, she could face miseries better in London, after all. She could begin to work again, and make lofty that edifice of anti dogmatic scorn which had now such solid foundations.

She allowed nearly a week to pass before writing to Reuben. When at length she sent a note, asking him either to come and see her or to make an appointment, it remained unanswered for three days; then arrived a few hurried lines, in which he said that he had been out of town, and was again on the point of leaving home, but he hoped to see her before long. She waited, always apprehensive of ill. What she divined of her brother's life was inextricably mingled with the other causes of her suffering.

One afternoon she returned from walking on the Chelsea Embankment, and, on reaching the drawing-room door, which was ajar, heard a voice that made her stand still. She delayed an instant; then entered, and found Eleanor in conversation with Mallard.

He had been in London, he said, only a day or two. Miriam inquired whether Mrs. Lessingham and Cecily had also left Rome. Not yet, he thought, but certainly they would be starting in a few days. The conversation then went on between Mallard and Eleanor; Miriam, holding a cup of tea, only gave a brief reply when it was necessary.

"And now," said Eleanor, "appoint a day for us to come and see your studio."

"You shall appoint it yourself."

"Then let us say to-morrow."

In speaking, Eleanor turned interrogatively to Miriam, who, however, said nothing. Mallard addressed her.

"May I hope that you will come, Mrs. Baske?"

His tone was, to her ear, as unsatisfying as could be; he seemed to put the question under constraint of civility. But, of course, only one answer was possible.

So next day this visit was paid; Spence also came. Mallard had made preparations. A tea-service which would not have misbecome Eleanor's own drawing-room stood in readiness. Pictures were examined, tea was taken, artistic matters were discussed.

And Miriam went away in uttermost discontent. She felt that henceforth her relations with Mallard were established on a perfectly conventional basis. Her dreams were left behind in Rome. Here was no Vatican in which to idle and hope for possible meetings. The holiday was over. Everything seemed of a sudden so flat and commonplace, that even her jealousy of Cecily faded for lack of sustenance.

Then she received a letter from Cecily herself, announcing return within a week. From Reuben she had even yet heard nothing.

A few days later, as she was reading in her room between tea and dinner-time, Eleanor came in; she held an evening newspaper, and looked very grave-more than grave. Miriam, as soon as their eyes met, went pale with misgiving.

"There's something here," Eleanor began, "that I must show you. If I said nothing about it, you would see it all the same. Sooner or later, we should speak of it."

"What is it? About whom?" Miriam asked, with fearful impatience, half rising.

"Your brother."

Miriam took the paper, and read what was indicated. It was the report of a discreditable affair-in journalistic language, a fracas-that had happened the previous night at Notting Hill. A certain music-hall singer, a lady who had of late achieved popularity, drove home about midnight, accompanied by a gentleman whose name was also familiar to the public-at all events, to that portion of it which reads society journals and has an interest in race-horses. The pair had just alighted at the house-door, when they were hurriedly approached by another gentleman, who made some remark to the songstress; whereupon the individual known to fame struck him smartly with his walking-stick. The result was a personal conflict, a rolling upon the pavement, a tearing of shirt-collars, and the opportune arrival of police. The gentleman whose interference had led to the rencontre-again to borrow the reporter's phrase-and who was charged with assault by the other, at first gave a false name; it had since transpired that he was a Mr. R. Elgar, of Belsize Park.

Miriam laid down the paper. She had overcome her extreme agitation, but there was hot shame on her cheeks. She tried to smile.

"One would think he had contrived it for his wife's greeting on her return."

Eleanor was silent.

"I am not much surprised," Miriam added. "Nor you either, I dare say?"

"I have felt uneasy; but I never pictured anything like this. Can we do anything? Shall you go and see him?"

"No."

They sat for some minutes without speaking; then Miriam exclaimed angrily:

"What right had she to go abroad alone?"

"For anything we know, Miriam, she may have had only too good a reason."

"Then I don't see that it matters."

Eleanor sighed, and, after a little lingering, but without further speech, went from the room.

In the meantime, Spence had entered the house. Eleanor met him in the drawing-room, and held the paper to him, with a silent indication of the paragraph. He read, and with an exclamation of violent disgust threw the thing aside. His philosophy failed him for once.

"What a blackguardly affair! Does Miriam know?"

"I have just shown it her. Evidently she had a suspicion of what was going on."

Spence muttered a little; then regained something of his usual equanimity.

"Our conjectures may be right," he said. "Perhaps no revelation awaits her."

"I begin to think it very likely. Oh, it is hateful, vile! She oughtn't to return to him."

"Pray, what is she to do?"

"I had rather she died than begin such a life!"

"I see no help for her. Her lot is that of many a woman no worse than herself. We both foresaw it; Mallard foresaw it."

"I am afraid to look forward. I don't think she is the kind of woman to forgive again and again. This will revolt her, and there is no telling what she may do."

"It is the old difficulty. Short of killing herself, whatever she does will be the beginning of worse things. In this respect, there's no distinction between Cecily and the wife of the costermonger. Civilization is indifferent. Her life is marred, and there's an end on't."

Eleanor turned away. Her eyes were wet with tears of indignant sympathy.

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