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   Chapter 28 ONWARD TO THE VAGUE

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 24074

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The cab drew up in a quiet road in Chelsea, by a gateway opening into a yard. Cecily alighted and paid the driver.

"Be good enough to wait a minute or two," she said. "I may need you again at once. But if I am longer, I shall not be coming."

Entering the yard, she came in front of a row of studios; on the door of each was the tenant's name, and she easily discovered that of Ross Mallard. This door was half open; she looked in and saw a flight of stairs. Having ascended these, she came to another door, which was closed. Here her purpose seemed to falter; she looked back, and held her hand for a moment against her cheek. But at length she knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again, more loudly, leaning forward to listen; and this time there came a distant shout for reply. Interpreting it as summons to enter, she turned the handle; the door opened, and she stepped into a little ante-chamber. From a room within came another shout, now intelligible.

"Who's there?"

She advanced, raised a curtain, and found herself in the studio, but hidden behind some large canvases. There was a sound of some one moving, and when she had taken another step, Mallard himself, pipe in mouth, came face to face with her. With a startled look, he took the pipe from his lips, and stood regarding her; she met his gaze with the same involuntary steadiness.

"Are you alone, Mr. Mallard?" fell at length from her.

"Yes. Come and sit down."

There was a gruffness in the invitation which under ordinary circumstances would have repelled a visitor. But Cecily was so glad to hear the familiar voice that its tone mattered nothing; she followed him, and seated herself where he bade her. There was much tobacco-smoke in the air; Mallard opened a window. She watched him with timid, anxious eyes. Then, without looking at her, he sat down near an easel on which was his painting of the temples of Paestum. This canvas held Cecily's gaze for a moment.

"When did you get home?" Mallard asked abruptly.

"Yesterday morning."

"Mrs. Lessingham went on, I suppose?"

"Yes. I have been alone ever since, except that a visitor called."

"Alone?"

She met his eyes, and asked falteringly:

"You know why? You have heard about it?"

"Do you mean what happened the other day?" he returned, in a voice that sounded careless, unsympathetic.

"Yes."

"I know that, of course. Where is your husband?"

"I have neither seen him nor heard from him. I shouldn't have understood why he kept away but for the visitor that came-a lady; she showed me a newspaper."

Mallard knit his brows, and now scowled at her askance, now looked away. His visage was profoundly troubled. There was silence for some moments. Cecily's eyes wandered unconsciously over the paintings and other objects about her.

"You have come to ask me if I know where he is?"

She failed in her attempt to reply.

"I am sorry that I can't tell you. I know nothing of him. But perhaps Mrs. Baske does. You know their address?"

"I didn't come for that," she answered, with decision, her features working painfully. "It is not my part to seek for him."

"Then how can I help you?" Mallard asked, still gruffly, but with more evidence of the feeling that his tone disguised.

"You can't help me, Mr. Mallard. How could any one help me? I was utterly alone, and I wanted to hear a friend's voice."

"That is only natural. It is impossible for you to remain alone. You don't feel able to go to Mrs. Baske?"

She shook her head.

"But your aunt will come? You have written to her?"

"No. I had rather she didn't come. It seems strange to you that I should bring my troubles here, when it can only pain you to see me, and to have to speak. But I am not seeking comfort or support-not of the kind you naturally think I need."

As he watched the workings of her lips, the helpless misery in her young eyes, the endeavour for self-command and the struggles of womanly pride, Mallard remembered how distinctly he had foreseen this in his past hours of anguish. It was hard to grasp the present as a reality; at moments he seemed only to be witnessing the phantoms of his imagination. The years that had vanished were so insubstantial in memory; now and then, what was it that divided the two? This that was to-day a fact, was it not equally so when Cecily walked by his side at Baiae? That which is to come, already is. In the stress of a deep emotion we sometimes are made conscious of this unity of things, and the effect of such spiritual vision is a nobler calm than comes of mere acquiescence in human blindness.

"I came here," Cecily was continuing, "because I had something to say to you-something I shall never say to any one else. You were my guardian when I was a child, and I have always thought of you as more than a simple friend. I want to fulfil a duty to you. I owe you gratitude, and I shall have no rest till I have spoken it-told you how deeply I feel it."

Mallard interrupted her, for every word seemed to be wrung from her by pain, and he felt like one who listens to a forced confession.

"Don't give way to this prompting," he said, with kind firmness. "I understand, and it is enough. You are not yourself; don't speak whilst you are suffering so."

"My worst suffering would be not to speak," she replied, with increased agitation. "I must say what I came to say; then I can go and face whatever is before me. I want to tell you how right you were. You told me through Mrs. Lessingham how strongly you disapproved of my marrying at once; you wished me to take no irrevocable step till I knew myself and him better. You did everything in your power to prevent me from committing a childish folly. But I paid no regard to you. I ought to have held your wish sacred; I owed you respect and obedience. But I chose my own foolish way, and now that I know how right you were, I feel the need of thanking you. You would have saved me if you could. It is a simple duty in me to acknowledge this now I know it."

Mallard rose and stood for a minute looking absently at the temples. Then he turned gravely towards her.

"If it has really lightened your mind to say this, I am content to have heard it. But let it end there; there is no good in such thoughts and speeches. They are hysterical, and you don't like to be thought that. Such a service as you believe I might have rendered you is so very doubtful, so entirely a matter of suppositions and probabilities and possibilities, that we can't talk of it seriously. I acted as any guardian was bound to act, under the circumstances. You, on the other hand, took the course that young people have taken from time immemorial. The past is past; it is worse than vain to revive it. Come, now, let us talk for a few minutes quietly."

Cecily's head was bent. He saw that her bosom heaved, but on her face there was no foreboding of tears. The strong impulse having had its way, she seemed to be recovering self command.

"By the bye," he asked, "how did you know where to find me?"

"I found a letter of yours lying open. Did he answer your invitation?"

"Yes; he wrote a few lines saying he would come before long. But I haven't seen him. What do you intend to do when you leave me?"

"Go home again and wait," she answered, with quiet sadness.

"In solitude? And what assurance have you that he means to come?"

"None whatever. But where else should I go, but home? My place is there, until I have heard his pleasure."

It was mournfully unlike her, this bitter tone. Her eyes were fixed upon the picture again. Looking at her, Mallard was moved by something of the same indignant spirit that was still strong in her heart. Her pure and fine-wrought beauty, so subtle in expression of the soul's life, touched him with a sense of deepest pathos. It revolted him to think of her in connection with those brutalities of the newspaper; he had a movement of rebellion against the undiscerning rigour of social rule. Disinterested absolutely, but he averted his face lest she should have a suspicion of what he thought.

In spite of that, he was greatly relieved to hear her purpose. He had feared other things. It was hateful that she should remain the wife of such a man as Elgar, but what refuge was open to her? The law that demands sacrifice of the noble few on behalf of the ignoble many is too swift and sure in avenging itself when defied. It was well that she had constrained herself to accept the inevitable.

"You will write this evening to Mrs. Lessingham?" he said, in a tone of assuredness.

"Why do you wish me to do that?" she asked, looking at him.

"Because of the possibility of your still being left alone. You are not able to bear that."

"Yes, I can bear anything that is necessary now," she answered firmly. "If it was weakness to come here and say what I have said, then my weakness is over. Mrs. Lessingham is enjoying herself with friends; why should I disturb her? What have I to say to her, or to any one?"

"Suppose an indefinite time goes by, and you are still alone?"

"In that case, I shall be able to arrange my life as other such women do. I shall find occupation, the one thing I greatly need. My gravest misfortune is, that I feel the ability to do something, but do not know what. Since the death of my child, that is what has weighed upon me most."

Mallard reflected upon this. He could easily understand its truth. He felt assured that Miriam suffered in much the same way, having reached the same result by so very different a process of development. But it was equally clear to him that neither of these women really could do anything; it was not their function to do, but to be. Eleanor Spence would in all likelihood have illustrated the same unhappy problem had it been her lot to struggle against adverse conditions; she lived the natural life of an educated woman, and therefore was beset by no questionings as to her capacities and duties. So long, however, as the educated woman is the exceptional woman, of course it will likewise be exceptional for her life to direct itself in a calm course.

To discuss such questions with Cecily was impossible. How should he say to her, "You have missed your chance of natural happiness, and it will only be by the strangest good fortune if you ever again find yourself in harmony with fate"? Mallard had far too much discretion to assume the part of lay preacher, and involve himself in the dangers of suggesting comfort. The situation was delicate enough, and all his efforts were directed to subduing its tone. After a pause, he said to her:

"Have you taken your meals to-day?"

She smiled a little.

"Yes. But I am thirsty. Can you give me a glass of water?"

"Are you very thirsty? Can you wait a quarter of an hour?"

With a look of inquiry as to his meaning, she answered that she could. Mallard nodded, and began to busy himself in a corner of the studio. She saw that he was lighting a spirit-lamp, and putting a kettle over it. She made no remark; it was soothing to sit here in this companionship, and feel the feverish heat in her veins gradually assuaged. Mallard kept silence, and when he saw her beginning to look around at the pictures, he threw out a word or two concerning them. She rose, to see better, and moved about, now and then putting a question In little more than the stipulated time, tea was prepared. After a short withdrawal to the ante-room, Mallard produced some delicate slices of bread and butter. Cecily ate and drank. As it was growing dusk, the artist lit a lamp.

"You know," she said, again turning her eyes to the pictures, "that I used to pretend to draw, to make poor little sketches. Would there be any hope of my doing anything, not good, but almost good, if I began again and worked seriously?"

He would rather have avoided answering such a question; but perhaps the least dangerous way of replying was to give moderate approval.

"At all events, you would soon find whether it was wo

rth while going on or not. You might take some lessons; it would be easy to find some lady quite competent to help you in the beginning."

She kept silence for a little; then said that she would think about it.

Mallard had left his seat, and remained standing. When both had been busy with their thoughts for several minutes, Cecily also rose.

"I must ask a promise from you before you go," Mallard said, as soon as she had moved. "If you are still alone tomorrow, you promise me to communicate with Mrs. Lessingham. Whether you wish to do so or not is nothing to the point."

She hesitated, but gave her promise.

"That is enough; your word gives me assurance. You are going straight home? Then I will send for a cab."

In a few minutes the cab was ready at the gate. Mallard, resolved to behave as though this were the most ordinary of visits, put on his hat and led the way downstairs. They went out into the road, and then Cecily turned to give him her hand. He looked at her, and for the first time spoke on an impulse.

"It's a long drive. Will you let me come a part of the way with you?"

"I shall be very glad."

They entered the hansom, and drove off.

The few words that passed between them were with reference to Mrs. Lessingham. Mallard inquired about her plans for the summer, and Cecily answered as far as she was able. When they had reached the neighbourhood of Regent's Park, he asked permission to stop the cab and take his leave; Cecily acquiesced. From the pavement he shook hands with her, seeing her face but dimly by the lamplight; she said only "Thank you," and the cab bore her away.

Carried onward, with closed eyes as if in self-abandonment to her fate, Cecily thought with more repugnance of home the nearer she drew to it. It was not likely that Reuben had returned; there would be again an endless evening of misery in solitude. When the cab was at the end of Eel size Park, she called the driver's attention, and bade him drive on to a certain other address, that of the Denyers. Zillah's letter of appeal, all but forgotten, had suddenly come to mind and revived her sympathies. Was there not some resemblance between her affliction and that of poor Madeline? Her own life had suffered a paralysis; helpless amid the ruin of her hopes, she could look forward to nothing but long endurance.

On arriving, she asked for Mrs. Denyer, but that lady was from home. Miss Zillah, then. She was led into the front room on the ground floor, and waited there for several minutes.

At length Zillah came in hurriedly, excusing herself for being so long. This youngest of the Denyers was now a tall awkward, plain girl, with a fixed expression of trouble; in talking, she writhed her fingers together and gave other signs of nervousness; she spoke in quick, short sentences, often breaking off in embarrassment. During the years of her absence from home as a teacher, Zillah had undergone a spiritual change; relieved from the necessity of sustaining the Denyer tone, she had by degrees ceased to practise affectation with herself, and one by one the characteristics of an "emancipated" person had fallen from her. Living with a perfectly conventional family, she adopted not only the forms of their faith-in which she had, of course, no choice-but at length the habit of their minds; with a profound sense of solace, she avowed her self-deceptions, and became what nature willed her to be-a daughter of the Church. The calamities that had befallen her family had all worked in this direction with her, and now that her daily life was in a sick-chamber, she put forth all her best qualities, finding in accepted creeds that kind of support which only the very few among women can sincerely dispense with.

"She has been very, very ill the last few days," was her reply to Cecily's inquiry. "I don't venture to leave her for more than a few minutes."

"Mrs. Denyer is away!"

"Yes; she is staying at Sir Roland's, in Lincolnshire. Barbara and her husband are there, and they sent her an invitation."

"But haven't you a nurse?"

"I'm afraid I shall be obliged to find one."

"Can I help you to-night? Do let me. I have only been home two days, and came in reply to your letter as soon as I could."

They went up to Zillah's room, and Cecily threw aside her out-of-door clothing. Then they silently entered the sick-chamber.

Madeline was greatly changed in the short time since Cecily had seen her. Ceaseless pain had worn away the last traces of her girlish beauty; the drawn features, the deadened eyes, offered hope that an end must come before long. She gave a look of recognition as the visitor approached her, but did not attempt to speak.

"Are you easier again, dear?" Zillah asked, bending over her.

"Yes."

"Mrs. Elgar would like to stay with you a little. She won't ask you to talk."

"Very well. Go and rest while she stays."

"Yes, go and lie down," urged Cecily. "Please do! I will call you at once if it is necessary."

Zillah was persuaded, and Cecily took her seat alone by the bedside. She had lost all thought of herself. The tremor which possessed her when she entered was subsiding; the unutterable mournfulness of this little room made everything external to it seem of small account. She knew not whether it was better to speak or remain mute, and when silence had lasted for a few minutes, she could not trust her voice to break it. But at length the motionless girl addressed her.

"Have you enjoyed yourself in Italy?"

"Not much. I have not been very well," Cecily answered, leaning forward.

"Did you go to Naples?"

"Only as far as Rome."

"How can any one be in Italy, and not go to Naples?" said Madeline, in a low tone of wonder.

Silence came again. Cecily listened to the sound of breathing. Madeline coughed, and seemed to make a fruit less effort to speak; then she commanded her voice.

"I took a dislike to you at Naples," she said, with the simple directness of one who no longer understands why every thought should not be expressed. "It began when you showed that you didn't care for Mr. Marsh's drawings. It is strange to think of that now. You know I was engaged to Mr. Marsh?"

"Yes."

"He used to write me letters; I mean, since this. But it is a long time since the last came. No doubt he is married now. It would have been better if he had told me, and not just ceased to write. I want Zillah to write to him for me; but she doesn't like to."

"Why do you think he is married?" Cecily asked.

"Isn't it natural? I'm not so foolish as to wish to prevent him. It's nothing to me now. I should even be glad to hear of it. He ought to marry some good-natured, ordinary kind of girl, who has money. Of course you were right about his drawings; he was no artist, really. But I had a liking for him."

Cecily wondered whether it would be wise or unwise to tell what she knew. The balance seemed in favour of holding her peace. In a few minutes, Madeline moaned a little.

"You are in pain?"

"That's nothing; pain, pain-I find it hard to understand that life is anything but pain. I can't live much longer, that's the one comfort. Death doesn't mean pain, but the end of it. Yesterday I felt myself sinking, sinking, and I said, 'Now this is the end,' and I could have cried with joy. But Zillah gave me something, and I came back. That's cruelty, you know. They ought to help us to die instead of keeping us alive in pain. If doctors had any sense they would help us to die; there are so many simple ways. You see the little bottle with the blue label; look round; the little bottle with the measure near it. If only it had been left within my reach! They call it poison when you take too much of it; but poison means sleep and rest and the end of pain."

Cecily listened as though some one spoke from beyond the grave; that strange voice made all the world unreal.

"Do you believe in a life after this?" asked Madeline, with earnestness.

"I know nothing," was the answer.

"Neither do I. It matters nothing to me. All I have to do is to die, and then whatever comes will come. Poor Zillah does her best to persuade me that she does know. I shall try to seem as if I believed her. Why should I give her pain? What does it matter if she is wrong? She is a kind sister to me, and I shall pretend that I believe her. Perhaps she is right? She may be, mayn't she?"

"She may be."

"It's good of you to come and sit here while she rests. She hasn't gone to bed for two nights. She's the only one of us that cares for me. Barbara has got her husband; well, I'm glad of that. And there's no knowing; she might live to be Lady Musselwhite. Sir Roland hasn't any children. Doesn't it make you laugh?"

She herself tried to laugh-a ghostly sound. It seemed to exhaust her. For half an hour no word was spoken. Then Cecily, who had fallen into brooding, heard herself called by a strange name.

"Miss Doran!"

She rose and bent over the bed, startled by this summons from the dead past.

"Can I do anything for you, Madeline?"

The heavy eyes looked at her in a perplexed way. They seemed to be just awaking, and Madeline smiled faintly.

"Didn't I call you, Miss Doran? I was thinking about you, and got confused. But you are married, of course. What is your name now? I can't remember."

"Mrs. Elgar."

"How silly of me! Mrs. Elgar, of course. Are you happily married?"

"Why do you ask?"

For the first time, she remembered the possibility that the Denyers knew of her disgrace. But Madeline's reply seemed to prove that she, at all events, had no such thing in mind.

"I was only trying to remember whom you married. Yes, yes; you told us about it before. Or else. Mrs. Travis told me."

"What did she say?"

"Only that you had married for love, as every woman ought to. But she is very unhappy. Perhaps that would have been my own lot if I had lived. I dare say I should have been married long ago. What does it matter? But as long as one is born at all, one might as well live life through, see the best as well as the worst of it. It's been all worst with me.-Oh, that's coming again! That wishing and rebelling and despairing! I thought it was all over. You stand there and look at me; that is you and this is I, this, this! I am lying here waiting for death and burial. You have the husband you love, and long years of happy life before you.-Do you feel sorry for me? Suppose it was you who lay here?"

The same question she had put to Mrs. Travis, but now spoken in a more anguished voice. The tear's streamed from Cecily's eyes.

"You cry, like Zillah does when she tries to persuade me. I don't know whether I had rather be pitied, or lie quite alone. But don't cry. You shan't go away and be made miserable by thinking of me. I can bear it all well enough; there can't be much more of it, you know. Sit down again, if you have time. Perhaps you want to go somewhere to-night-to see friends?"

"No. I will stay with you as long as ever you wish."

Presently the conversation ceased, and then for nearly three hours Cecily listened to the sound of breathing. At length the door softly opened, and Zillah came in. She was distressed; it had struck twelve long since, and only now had she awoke from sleep. Cecily entreated her to go and sleep again; she herself had no desire to close her eyes.

"But what will Mr. Elgar think has become of you?"

"He is not at home to-night. Let me have my way, there's a good girl."

Zillah, whose eyelids could scarcely be supported, at length went back to her room. Madeline still slept, with unusual calmness. The vigil was resumed, and nothing again disturbed it until white dawn began to glimmer at the windows.

Then Madeline awoke with a sudden loud cry of anguish. Cecily, aroused from slumber which was just beginning, sprang up and spoke to her. But the cry seemed to have been the end of her power of utterance; she moved her lips and looked up fearfully. Cecily hastened to summon Zillah.

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