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   Chapter 27 CECILY'S RETURN

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 23492

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


On alighting at Charing Cross, Cecily searched the platform for Reuben. There could be no doubt of his coming to meet her, for she had written to tell him that Mrs. Lessingham would at once go into the country from another station, and she would thus be alone. But she looked about and waited in vain. In the end she took a cab, parted with her companion, and drove homewards.

It was more than a trivial disappointment. On the journey, she had felt a longing for home, a revival of affection; she had tried to persuade herself that this long separation would have made a happy change, and that their life might take a new colour. Had Reuben appeared 'at the station, she would have pressed his hand warmly. Her health had improved; hope was again welcome. It came not like the hope of years ago, radiant, with eyes of ecstasy; but sober, homely, a gentle smile on its compassionate lips.

His failure would easily be explained; either he had mistaken the train, or something inevitable had hindered him; possibly she had made a slip of the pen in writing. Nearing home, she grew tremulous, nervously impatient. Before the cab had stopped, she threw the door open.

The servant who admitted her wore an unusual expression, but Cecily did not observe this.

"Mr. Elgar is at home?"

"No, ma'am."

"When did he go out?"

"He has not been at home for three days, ma'am."

Cecily controlled herself.

"There are some parcels in the cab. Take them up stairs."

She went into the study, and stood looking about her. On the writing-table lay some unopened letters, all addressed to her husband; also two or three that had been read and thrown aside. Whilst she was still at the mercy of her confused thoughts, the servant came and asked if she would pay the cabman.

Then she ascended to the drawing-room and sat down. Had her letter gone astray? But if he had not been home for three days, and, as appeared, his letters were not forwarded to him, did not this prove (supposing a miscarriage of what she had written) that he was not troubling himself about news from her? If he had received her letter-and it ought to have arrived at least four days ago-what was the meaning of his absence?

She shrank from questioning the servants further. Presently, without having changed her dress, she went down again to the library, and re-examined the letters waiting to be read; and the handwriting was in each case unknown to her. Then she took up the letters that were open. One was an invitation to dine, one the appeal of some charitable institution; last, a few lines from Mallard. He wrote asking Elgar to come and see him-seemingly with no purpose beyond a wish to re-establish friendly relations. Cecily read the note again and again, wondering whether it had led to a meeting.

Why had not the housekeeper made her appearance? She rang the bell, and the woman came. With as much composure as she could command, Cecily inquired whether Mr. Elgar had spoken of her expected arrival. Yes, he had done so; everything had been made ready. And had he left word when he himself should be back? No; he had said nothing.

Naturally, she thought of going to the Spences'; but her dignity resisted. How could she seek information about her husband from friends? It was difficult to believe that he kept away voluntarily. Would he not in any case have sent word, even though the excuse were untruthful? What motive could he have for treating her thus? His last letter was longer and kinder than usual.

She was troubling herself needlessly. The simple explanation was of course the true one. He had been away in the country, and had arranged to be back in time to meet her at the station; then some chance had intervened. Doubtless he would very soon present himself. Her impatience and anxiety would never occur to him; what difference could a few hours make? They were not on such lover-like terms nowadays.

Compelling herself to rest in this view, she made a change of clothing, and again summoned the housekeeper, this time for discussion of domestic details. Cecily had no feminine delight in such matters for their own sake; the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker were necessary evils, to be put out of mind as soon as possible. She learned incidentally that Reuben had been a great deal from home; but this did not surprise her. She had never imagined him leading a methodical life, between Belsize Park and the British Museum. That was not in his nature.

At the usual hour she had luncheon. Shortly after, when her patience was yielding to fears-fears which, in truth, she had only masked with the show of explanation-a letter was brought in. But nothing to the purpose. It came from Zillah Denyer, who began with apologies for writing, and expressed uncertainty whether Mrs. Elgar had yet returned from abroad; then went on to say that her sister Madeline had been suffering dreadfully of late. "Perhaps you know that Mrs. Travis has left us. Madeline has missed her company very much, and often longs to see the face of some visitor. She speaks of the one visit you paid her, and would so like to see you again. Forgive me for asking if you could spare half an hour. The evening is best; I venture to say this, as you came in the evening before."

Cecily forgot herself for a few minutes in sorrows graver than her own. Her impression after the one visit had been that Madeline would not greatly care for her to repeat it; this, it seemed, was a mistake. So Mrs. Travis had left her lodgings? She heard of it for the first time.

About half-past three there sounded the knock of a visitor at the house door. Expecting no one, Cecily had given no directions; the parlour-maid hurried upstairs to ask if she was "at home." She replied that the name must first be announced to her.

It was Mrs. Travis. Cecily hesitated, but decided to receive her.

Though the intercourse between them had been resumed, it was with a restraint on both sides that seemed to forbid the prospect of friendship. They had met two or three times only; once it was in the Denyers' house, and on that occasion Cecily had renewed her acquaintance with the family and sat a little with Madeline. Interest in each other they certainly felt, but not in like degrees; Mrs. Travis showed herself more strongly attracted to Cecily than Cecily was to her, as it had been from the first. That this was the attraction of simple liking and goodwill, Cecily could never quite convince herself. Mrs. Travis always seemed to be studying her, and sometimes in a spirit of curiosity that was disagreeable. But at the same time she was so manifestly in need of sympathetic companionship, and allowed such sad glimpses into her own wrecked life, that Cecily could not reject her, nor even feel with actual coldness.

"Have you been home long?" the visitor asked, as they shook hands.

"A few hours only."

"Indeed? You have arrived to-day?"

They sat down. Mrs. Travis fixed her eyes on Cecily.

"I hardly hoped to find you."

"I should have let you know that I was back."

Their conversations were accustomed to begin awkwardly, constrainedly. They never spoke of ordinary topics, and each seemed to wait for a suggestion of the other's mood. At present Cecily was uneasy under her visitor's gaze, which was stranger and more inquisitive than usual.

"So you have left the Denyers'?" she said.

"From whom did you hear?"

"I have just had a note from Zillah Denyer, about Madeline. She merely mentions that you are no longer there."

"I ought to go and see them; but I can't to-day."

"Have you been in London all the time?"

"Yes.-I have gone back to my husband."

It was spoken in a matter-of-fact tone (obviously assumed) which was very incongruous with the feeling it excited in Cecily. She could not hear the announcement without an astonished look.

"Of your own free will?" she asked, in a diffident voice. "Oh yes. That is to say, he persuaded me."

Their eyes met, and Cecily had an impulse of distrust, more decided than she had ever felt. She could not find anything to say, and by keeping silence she hoped the interview might be shortened.

"You are disposed to feel contempt for me," Mrs. Travis added, after a few moments.

"No one can judge another in such things. It is your own affair, Mrs. Travis."

"Yes, but you despise me for my weakness, naturally you do. Had you no suspicion that it would end again in this way?"

"I simply believed what you told me."

"That nothing would induce me to return to him. That is how women talk, you know. We are all very much the same."

Again Cecily kept silence. Mrs. Travis, observing her, saw an offended look rise to her face.

"I mean, we are few of us, us women, strong enough to hold out against natural and social laws. We feel indignant, we suffer more than men can imagine, but we have to yield. But it is true that most women are wise enough not to act in my way. You are quite right to despise me."

"Why do you repeat that? It is possible you are acting quite rightly. How should I be able to judge?"

"I am not acting rightly," said the other, with bitterness. "Two courses are open to a woman in my position. Either she must suffer in silence, care nothing for the world's talk, take it for granted that, at any cost, she remains under her husband's roof; or she must leave him once and for ever, and regard herself as a free woman. The first is the ordinary choice; most women are forced into it by circumstances; very few have courage and strength for the second. But to do first one thing, then the other, to be now weak and now strong, to yield to the world one day and defy it the next, and then to yield again,-that is base. Such a woman is a traitor to her sex."

Cecily did not lift her eyes. She heard the speaker's voice tremble, and could not bear to look at her face. Her heart was sinking, though she knew not exactly what oppressed her. There was a long silence; then Cecily spoke.

"If your husband persuaded you to return, it must have been that you still have affection for him."

"The feeling is not worthy of that name."

"That is for yourself to determine. Why should we talk of it?"

Looking up, Cecily found the other's eyes again fixed on her. It was as though this strange gaze were meant to be a reply.

"Would it not be better," she continued, "if we didn't speak of these things? If it could do any good-But surely it cannot."

"Sympathy is good-offered or received."

"I do sympathize with you in your difficulties."

"But you do not care to receive mine," replied Mrs. Travis, in an undertone.

Cecily gazed at her with changed eyes, inquiring, offended, fearful.

"What need have I of your sympathy, Mrs. Travis?" she asked distantly.

"None, I see," answered the other, with a scarcely perceptible smile.

"I don't understand you. Please let us never talk in this way again."

"Never, if you will first let me say one thing. You remember that Mr. Elgar once had doubts about my character. He was anxious on your account, lest you should be friendly with a person who was not all he could desire from the moral point of view. He did me justice at last, but it was very painful, as you will understand, to be suspected by one who embodies such high morality."

There was no virulence in her tone; she spoke as though quietly defending herself against some unkindness. But Cecily could not escape her eyes, which searched and stabbed.

"Why do you say this?"

"Because I am weak, and therefore envious. Why should you reject my sympathy? I could be a better friend to you than any you have. I myself have no friend; I can't make myself liked. I feel dreadfully

alone, without a soul who cares for me. I am my husband's plaything, and of course he scorns me. I am sure he laughs at me with his friends and mistresses. And you too scorn me, though I have tried to make you my friend. Of course it is all at an end between us now. I understand your nature; it isn't quite what I thought."

Cecily beard, but scarcely with understanding. The word for which she was waiting did not come.

"Why," she asked, "do you speak of offering me sympathy? What do you hint at?"

"Seriously, you don't know?"

"I don't," was the cold answer.

"Why did you go abroad without your husband?"

It came upon Cecily with a shock. Were people discussing her, and thus interpreting her actions?

"Surely that is my own business, Mrs. Travis. I was in poor health, and my husband was too busy to accompany me."

"That is the simple truth, from your point of view?"

"How have you done me the honour to understand me?"

Mrs. Travis examined her; then put another question.

"Have you seen your husband since you arrived?"

"No, I have not."

"And you don't know that he is being talked about everywhere-not exactly for his moral qualities?"

Cecily was mute. Thereupon Mrs. Travis opened the little sealskin-bag that lay on her lap, and took out a newspaper. She held it to Cecily, pointing to a certain report. It was a long account of lively proceedings at a police-court. Cecily read. When she had come to the end, her eyes remained on the paper. She did not move until Mrs. Travis put out a hand and touched hers; then she drew back, as in repugnance.

"You had heard nothing of this?"

Cecily did not reply. Thereupon Mrs. Travis again opened her little bag, and took out a cabinet photograph. It represented a young woman in tights, her arms folded, one foot across the other; the face was vulgarly piquant, and wore a smile which made eloquent declaration of its price.

"That is the 'lady,'" said Mrs. Travis, with a slight emphasis on the last word.

Cecily looked for an instant only. There was perfect silence for a minute or two after that; then Cecily rose. She did not speak; but the other, also rising, said:

"I shouldn't have come if I had known you were still ignorant. But now you can, and will, think the worst of me; from this day you will hate me."

"I am not sure," replied Cecily, "that you haven't some strange pleasure in what you have been telling me; but I know you are very unhappy, and that alone would prevent me from hating you. I can't be your friend, it is true; we are too unlike in our tempers and habits of thought Let us shake hands and say good-bye."

But Mrs. Travis refused her hand, and with a look of bitter suffering, which tried to appear resignation, went from the room.

Cecily felt a cold burden upon her heart. She sat in a posture of listlessness, corresponding to the weary misery, numbing instead of torturing, which possessed her now that the shock was over. Perhaps the strange manner of the revelation tended to produce this result; the strong self-control which she had exercised, the mingling of incongruous emotions, the sudden end of her expectation, brought about a mood resembling apathy.

She began presently to reflect, to readjust her view of the life she had been living. It seemed to her now unaccountable that she had been so little troubled with fears. Ignorance of the world had not blinded her, nor was she unaware of her husband's history. But the truth was that she had not cared to entertain suspicion. For a long time she had not seriously occupied her mind with Reuben. Self-absorbed, she was practically content to let happen what would, provided it called for no interference of hers. Her indifference had reached the point of idly accepting the present, and taking for granted that things would always be much the same.

Yet she knew the kind of danger to which Reuben was exposed from the hour when her indifference declared itself; it was present to her imagination when he chose to remain alone in London. But such thoughts were vague, impalpable. She had never realized a picture of such degradation as this which had just stamped itself upon her brain. In her surmises jealousy had no part, and therefore nothing was conceived in detail. In the certainty that he no longer loved her with love of the nobler kind, did it matter much what he concealed? But this flagrant shame had never threatened her. This was indeed the "experience" in which, as Reuben had insisted, she was lacking.

No difficulty in understanding now why he kept away. Would he ever come? Or had he determined that their life in common was no longer possible, and resolved to spare her the necessity of saying that they were no longer husband and wife? Doubtless that was what he expected to hear from her; his view of her character, which she understood sufficiently well, would lead him to think that.

But she had no impulse to leave his house. The example of Mrs. Travis was too near. Escape, with or without melodramatic notes of farewell, never suggested itself. She knew that it was a practical impossibility to make that absolute severance of their lives without which they were still man and wife, though at a distance from each other; they must still be linked by material interests, by common acquaintances. The end of sham heroics would come, sooner or later, in the same way as to Mrs. Travis. How was her life different from what it had been yesterday? By an addition of shame and scorn, that was all; actually, nothing was altered. When Reuben heard that she was remaining at home, he would come to her. Perhaps they might go to live in some other place; that was all.

Tea was brought in, but she paid no heed to it. Sunset and twilight came; the room grew dusk; then the servants appeared with lamps. She dined, returned to the drawing room, and took up a book she had been reading on her journey. It was a volume of Quinet, and insensibly its interest concentrated her attention. She read for nearly two hours.

Then she was tired of it, and began to move restlessly about. Again she grew impatient of the uncertainty whether Reuben would return to-night. She lay upon a couch and tried to forget herself in recollection of far-off places and people. But instead of the pictures she wished to form, there kept coming before her mind the repulsive photograph which Mrs. Travis had produced. Though she had barely glanced at it, she saw it distinctly-the tawdry costume, the ignoble attitude, the shameless and sordid face. It polluted her imagination.

Jealousy, of a woman such as that? Had she still loved him, she must have broken her heart to think that he could fall so low. If it had been told her that he was overcome by passion for a woman of some nobleness, she could have heard it with resignation; in that there would have been nothing base. But the choice he had made would not allow her even the consolation of reflecting that she felt no jealousy; it compelled her to involve him in the scorn, if not in the loathing, with which that portrait inspired her.

That he merely had ceased to love her, what right had she to blame him? The very word of "blame" was unmeaning in such reference. In this, at all events, his fatalism had become her own way of thinking. To talk of controlling love is nonsensical; dead love is dead beyond hope. But need one sink into a slough of vileness?

At midnight she went to her bedroom. He would not come now.

Sleep seemed far from her, and yet before the clock struck one she had fallen into a painful slumber. When she awoke, it was to toss and writhe for hours in uttermost misery. She could neither sleep nor command a train of thoughts. At times she sobbed and wailed in her suffering.

No letter arrived in the morning. She could no longer read, and knew not how to pass the hours. In some way she must put an end to her intolerable loneliness, but she could not decide how to act. Reuben might come today; she wished it, that the meeting might be over and done with.

But the long torment of her nerves had caused a change of mood. She was feverish now, and impatience grew to resentment. The emotions which were yesterday so dulled began to stir in her heart and brain. Walking about the room, unable to occupy herself for a moment, she felt as though fetters were upon her; this house had become a prison; her life was that of a captive without hope of release.

There came in her a sudden outbreak of passionate indignation at the unequal hardships of a woman's lot. Often as she had read and heard and talked of this, she seemed to understand it for the first time; now first was it real to her, in the sense of an ill that goads and tortures. Not society alone was chargeable with the injustice; nature herself had dealt cruelly with woman. Constituted as she is, limited as she is by inexorable laws, by what refinement of malice is she endowed with energies and desires like to those of men? She should have been made a creature of sluggish brain, of torpid pulse; then she might have discharged her natural duties without exposure to fever and pain and remorse such as man never knows.

She asked no liberty to be vile, as her husband made himself; but that she was denied an equal freedom to exercise all her powers, to enrich her life with experiences of joy, this fired her to revolt. A woman who belongs to the old education readily believes that it is not to experiences of joy, but of sorrow, that she must look for her true blessedness; her ideal is one of renunciation; religious motive is in her enforced by what she deems the obligation of her sex. But Cecily was of the new world, the emancipated order. For a time she might accept misery as her inalienable lot, but her youthful years, fed with the new philosophy, must in the end rebel.

Could she live with such a man without sooner or later taking a taint of his ignobleness? His path was downwards, and how could she hope to keep her own course in independence of him? It shamed her that she had ever loved him. But indeed she had not loved the Reuben that now was; the better part of him was then predominant. No matter that he was changed; no matter how low he descended; she must still be bound to him. Whereas he acknowledged no mutual bond; he was a man, and therefore in practice free.

Yet she was as far as ever from projecting escape. The unjust law was still a law, and irresistible. Had it been her case that she loved some other man, and his return of love claimed her, then indeed she might dare anything and break her chains. But the power of love seemed as dead in her as the passion she had once, and only once, conceived. She was utterly alone.

Morning and noon went by. She had exhausted herself with ceaseless movement, and now for two or three hours lay on a couch as if asleep. The fever burned upon her forhead and in her breath.

But at length endurance reached its limits. As she lay still, a thought had taken possession of her-at first rejected again and again, but always returning, and with more tempting persistency. She could not begin another night without having spoken to some one. She seemed to have been foresaken for days; there was no knowing how long she might live here in solitude. When it was nearly five o'clock, she went to her bedroom and prepared for going out.

When ready, she met the servant who was bringing up tea.

"I shall not want it," she said. "And probably I shall not dine at home. Nothing need be prepared."

She entered the library, and took up from the writing-table Mallard's note; she looked at the address that was on it.

Then she left the house, and summoned the first vacant cab.

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