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   Chapter 30 PEACE IN SHOW AND PEACE IN TRUTH

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 14830

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


At first so much relieved that he was able to sit down and quietly review his thoughts, Elgar could not long preserve this frame of mind; in half an hour he began to suffer from impatience, and when the time of Cecily's return approached, he was in a state of intolerable agitation. Mallard's severity lost its force now that it was only remembered. He accused himself of having been, as always, weakly sensitive to the moment's impression. The fact remained that Cecily had spent a long time alone with Mallard, had made him the confidant of her troubles; it credible in human nature-the past borne in mind-that Mallard had never exceeded a passionless sympathy? Did not Miriam say distinctly that suspicion had been excited in her by the behaviour of the two when they were in Rome? Why had he not stayed to question his sister on that point? As always, he had lost his head, missed the essential, obeyed impulses instead of proceeding on a rational plan.

He worked himself into a sense of being grossly injured. The shame he had suffered in this morning's interviews was now a mortification. What had he to do with vulgar rules and vulgar judgments? By what right did these people pose as his superiors and look contemptuous rebuke? His anger concentrated itself on Cecily; the violence of jealousy and the brute instinct of male prerogative plied his brain to frenzy as the minutes dragged on. Where had she passed the night? How durst she absent herself from home, and keep him in these tortures of expectation?

At a few minutes past one she came. The library door was ajar, and he heard her admit herself with a latch-key; she would see his hat and gloves in the hall. But instead of coming to the library she went straight upstairs; it was Cecily, for he knew her step. Almost immediately he followed. She did not stop at the drawing-room; he followed, and came up with her at the bedroom door. Still she paid no attention, but went in and took off her hat.

"Where have you been since yesterday afternoon?" he asked, when he had slammed the door.

Cecily looked at him with offended surprise-almost as she might have regarded an insolent servant.

"What right have you to question me in such a tone?"

"Never mind my tone, but answer me."

"What right have you to question me at all?"

"Every right, so long as you choose to remain in my house."

"You oblige me to remind you that the house is at least as much mine as yours. For what am I beholden to you? If it comes to the bare question of rights between us, I must meet you with arguments as coarse as your own. Do you suppose I can pretend, now, to acknowledge any authority in you? I am just as free as you are, and I owe you no account of myself."

Physical exhaustion had made her incapable of self-control. She had anticipated anything but such an address as this with which Elgar presented himself. The insult was too shameless; it rendered impossible the cold dignity she had purposed.

"What do you mean by 'free'?" he asked, less violently.

"Everything that you yourself understand by it. I am accountable to no one but myself. If I have allowed you to think that I held the old belief of a woman's subjection to her husband, you must learn that that is at an end. I owe no more obedience to you than you do to me."

"I ask no obedience. All I want to know is, whether it is possible for us to live under the same roof or not."

Cecily made no reply. Her anger had involved her in an inconsistency, yet she was not so far at the mercy of blind impulses as to right herself by taking the very course she had recognized as impossible.

"That entirely depends," added Elgar, "on whether you choose to explain your absence last night."

"In other words," said Cecily, "it can be of no significance to me where you go or what you do, but if you have a doubt about any of my movements, it at once raises the question whether you can continue to live with me or not I refuse to admit anything of the kind. I have chosen, as you put it, to remain in your house, and in doing so I know what I accept. By what right do you demand more of me than I of you?"

"You know that you are talking absurdly. You know as well as I do the difference."

"Whatever laws I recognize, they are in myself only. As regards your claims upon me, what I have said is the simple truth. I owe you no account. If you are not content with this, you must form whatever suppositions you will, and act as you think fit."

"That is as much as telling me that our married life is at an end. I suppose you meant that when you kindly reminded me that it was your money I have been living on. Very well. Let it be as you wish."

Cecily regarded him with resentful wonder.

"Do you dare to speak as if it were I who had brought this about?"

Reuben was not the man to act emotion and contrive scenes. Whenever it might have seemed that he did so, he was, in truth, yielding to the sudden revulsions which were characteristic of his passionate nature. In him, harshness and unreason inevitably led to a reaction in which all the softer of his qualities rose predominant. So it was now. Those last words of his were not consciously meant to give him an opportunity of changing his standpoint. Inconstant, incapable of self-direction, at the mercy of the moment's will, he could foresee himself just as little as another could foresee him. His impetuous being prompted him to utter sincerely what a man of adroit insincerity would have spoken with calculation.

"Yes," he exclaimed, "it is you who have done most towards it!"

"By what act? what word?" she asked, in astonishment.

"By all your acts and words for the year past, and longer. You had practically abandoned me long before you went abroad. When you discovered that I was not everything you imagined, when you found faults and weaknesses in me, you began to draw away, to be cold and indifferent, to lose all interest in whatever I did or wished to do. When I was working, you showed plainly that you had no faith in my powers; it soon cost you an effort even to listen to me when I talked on the subject. I looked to you for help, and I found none. Could I say anything? The help had to come spontaneously, or it was no use. Then you gave yourself up entirely to the child; you were glad of that excuse for keeping out of my way. If I was away from home for a day or two, you didn't even care to ask what I had been doing; that was what proved to me how completely indifferent you had become. And when you went abroad, what a pretence it was to ask me to come with you! I knew quite well that you had much rather be without me. And how did you suppose I should live during your absence? You never thought about it, never cared to think. Don't imagine I am blaming you. Everything was at an end between us, and which of us could help it? But it is as well to show you that I am not the cause of all that has happened. You have no justification whatever for this tone of offence. It is foolish, childish, unworthy of a woman who claims to think for herself."

Cecily listened with strange sensations. She knew that all this had nothing to do with the immediate point at issue, and that it only emphasized the want of nobility in Reuben's character, but, as he proceeded, there was so much truth in what he attributed to her that, in spite of everything, she could not resist

a feeling of culpability. However little it really signified to her husband, it was undoubtedly true that she had made no effort with herself when she became conscious of indifference towards him. To preserve love was not in her power, but was he not right in saying that she might have done more, as a wife, to supply his defects? Knowing him weak, should she not have made it a duty to help him against himself? Had she not, as he said, virtually "abandoned" him?

Elgar observed her, and recognized the effect of his words.

"Of course," he pursued, "if you have made up your mind to be released, I have neither the power nor the will to keep you. But you must deal plainly with me. You can't both live here and have ties elsewhere. I should have thought you would have been the first to recognize that."

"Of what ties do you speak?"

"I don't know that you have any; but you say you hold yourself free to form them."

"If I had done so, I should not be here."

"Then what objection can you have to telling me where you have been?"

How idle it was, to posture and use grandiose words! Why did she shrink from the complete submission that her presence here implied? No amount of self-assertion would do away with the natural law of which he had contemptuously reminded her, the law which distinguishes man and woman, and denies to one what is permitted to the other.

"I passed the night by a sick-bed," she replied, letting her voice drop into weariness-"Madeline Denyer's."

"Did you go there directly on leaving home?"

"No."

"Will you tell me where else you went?"

"I went first of all to see Mr. Mallard. I talked with him for a long time, and he gave me some tea. Then he came part of the way back with me. Shall I try and remember the exact spot where he got out of the cab?"

"What had you to do with Mallard, Cecily?"

"I had to tell him that my life was a failure, and to thank him for having wished to save me from this fate."

Her answers were given in a dull monotone; she seemed to be heedless of the impression they made.

"You said that to Mallard?"

"Yes. It can be nothing to me what you think of it. I had waited here till I could bear loneliness no longer; I knew I had one true friend, and I went to him."

"You behaved as no self-respecting woman could!" Elgar exclaimed passionately.

"If so," she answered, meeting his look, "the shame falls only on myself."

"That is not true! You yourself seem to be unconscious of the shame; to me it is horrible suffering. I thought you incapable of anything of the kind. I looked up to you as a high-minded woman, and I loved you for your superiority to myself."

"You loved me?" she asked, with a bitter smile.

"Yes; believe it or not, as you like. Because I was maddened by sensual passion for a creature whom I never one moment respected, how did that lessen my love for you? You complain that I kept away from you; I did so because I was still racked by that vile torment, and shrank in reverence from approaching you. You might have known me well enough to understand this. Have I not told you a thousand times that in me soul and body have lived separate lives? Even when I seemed sunk in the lowest depths, I still loved you purely and truly; I loved you all the more because I was conscious of my brutal faults. Now you have destroyed my ideal; you have degraded yourself in my esteem. It is nothing to me now, do what you may! I can never forgive you. By doing yourself wrong, you have wronged me beyond all words!"

Cecily could not take her eyes from him. She marvelled at such emotion in him. But the only way in which it affected her own feeling was to make her question herself anxiously as to whether she had really fallen below her self-respect. Had she led Mallard to think of her with like disapproval?

Life is so simple to people of the old civilization. The rules are laid down so broadly and plainly, and the conscience they have created answers so readily when appealed to. But for these poor instructed persons, what a complex affair has morality become! Hard enough for men, but for women desperate indeed. Each must be her own casuist, and without any criterion save what she can establish by her own experience. The growth of Cecily's mind had removed her further and further from simplicity of thought; this was in part the cause of that perpetual sense of weariness to which she awoke day after day. Communion with such a man as Elgar strengthened the natural tendency, until there was scarcely a motive left to which she could yield without discussing it in herself, consciously or unconsciously. Her safeguard was an innate nobleness of spirit. But it is not to every woman of brains that this is granted.

"What I did," she said at length slowly, "was done, no doubt, in a moment of weakness; I gave way to the need of sympathy. Had my friend been a man of less worth, he might have misunderstood me, and then I might indeed have been shamed. But I knew him and trusted him."

"Which means, that you were false to me in a way I never was to you. It is you who have broken the vow we made to be faithful to each other."

"I cannot read in your heart. If you still love me, it is a pity; I can give you no love in return."

He drew nearer, and looked at her despairingly.

"Cecily! when I came last night, I had a longing to throw myself at your feet, and tell you all my misery-everything, and find strength again with your help. I never feared this. You, who are all love and womanliness, you cannot have put me utterly from your heart!"

"I am your wife still; but I ask nothing of you, and you must not seek for more than I can give."

"Well, I too ask for nothing, But I will prove-"

She checked him.

"Don't forget your philosophy. We both of us know that it is idle to make promises of that kind."

"You will leave London with me?"

"I shall go wherever you wish."

"Then we will make our home again in Paris. The sooner the better. A few days, and we will get rid of everything except what we wish to take with us. I don't care if I never see London again."

In the evening, Cecily was again at the Denyers' house. Madeline lay without power of speech, and seemed gradually sinking into unconsciousness. Mrs. Denyer had been telegraphed for; a reply had come, saying that she would be home very soon, but already a much longer time than was necessary had passed, and she did not arrive. Zillah sat by the bed weeping, or knelt in prayer.

"If your mother does not come," Cecily said to her, "I will stay all night. It's impossible for you to be left alone."

"She must surely come; and Barbara too. How can they delay so long?"

Madeline's eyes were open, but she gave no sign of recognition. The look upon her face was one of suffering, there was no telling whether of body or mind. Hitherto it had changed a little when Zillah spoke to her, but at length not even this sign was to be elicited. Cecily could not take her gaze from the blank visage; she thought unceasingly of the bright, confident girl she had known years ago, and the sunny shore of Naples.

The doctor looked in at nine o'clock. He stayed only a few minutes.

At half-past ten there came a loud knocking at the house-door, and the servant admitted Mrs. Denyer, who was alone. In the little room above, the two watchers were weeping over the dead girl.

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