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   Chapter 31 THE TWO FACES

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 24211

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Mallard, when he had taken leave of Cecily by Regent's Park, set out to walk homewards. He was heavy-hearted, and occasionally a fit of savage feeling against Elgar took hold of him, but his mood remained that of one who watches life's drama from a point of vantage. Sitting close by Cecily's side, he had been made only more conscious of their real remoteness from each other-of his inability to give her any kind of help. He wished she had not come to him, for he saw she had hoped to meet with warmer sympathy, and perhaps she was now more than ever oppressed with the sense of abandonment. And yet such a result might have its good; it might teach her that she must look for support to no one but herself. Useless to lament the necessity; fate had brought her to the hardest pass that woman can suffer, and she must make of her life what she could. It was not the kind of distress that a friend can remedy; though she perished, he could do nothing but stand by and sorrow.

Coming to his own neighbourhood, he did not go straight to the studio, but turned aside to the Spences' house. He had no intention of letting his friends know of Cecily's visit, but he wished to ask whether they had any news of Elgar. No one was at home, however.

The next morning, when surprised by the appearance of Elgar himself, he was on the point of again going to the Spences'. The interview over, he met forth, and found Eleanor alone. She had just learnt from Miriam what news Reuben had brought, and on Mallard's entrance she at once repeated this to him.

"I knew it," replied the artist. "The fellow has been with me."

"He ventured to come? Before or after his coming here?"

"After. I think," he added carelessly, "that Mrs. Baske suggested it to him."

"Possibly. I know nothing of what passed between them."

"Do you think Mrs. Baske has any idea on the subject?" Mallard inquired, again without special insistence.

"She spoke rather mysteriously," Eleanor replied. "When I said that Mrs. Lessingham probably could explain it, she said she thought not, but gave no reasons."

"Why should she be mysterious?"

"That is more than I can tell you. Mystery rather lies in her character, I fancy."

"Would you mind telling me whether she is in the habit of going out alone?"

Eleanor hesitated a little, surprised by the question.

"Yes, she is. She often takes a walk alone in the afternoon."

"Thank you. Never mind why I wished to know. It throws no light on Cecily's disappearance."

They talked of it for some time, and were still so engaged when Spence came in. In him the intelligence excited no particular anxiety; Cecily had gone to her aunt, that was all. What else was to be expected when she found an empty house?

"But," remarked Eleanor, "the question remains whether or not she has heard of this scandal."

Mallard could have solved their doubts on this point, but to do so involved an explanation of how he came possessed of the knowledge; he held his peace.

It was doubtful whether Elgar would keep his promise and communicate any news he might have. Mallard worked through the day, as usual, but with an uneasy mind. In the morning he walked over once more to the Spences', and learnt that anxieties were at an end; Mrs. Baske had received a letter from her brother, in which Cecily's absence was explained. Elgar wrote that he was making preparations for departure; in a few days they hoped to be in Paris, where henceforth they purposed living.

He went away without seeing Miriam, and there passed more than a fortnight before he again paid her a visit. In the meantime he had seen Spence, who reported an interview between Eleanor and Mrs. Lessingham; nothing of moment, but illustrating the idiosyncrasies of Cecily's relative. When at length, one sunny afternoon, Mallard turned his steps towards the familiar house, it was his chance to encounter Eleanor and her husband just hastening to catch a train; they told him hurriedly that Miriam had heard from Paris.

"Go and ask her to tell you about it," said Eleanor. "She is not going out."

Mallard asked nothing better. He walked on with a curious smile, was admitted, and waited a minute or two in the drawing-room. Miriam entered, and shook hands with him, coldly courteous, distantly dignified.

"I am sorry Mrs. Spence is not at home."

"I came to see you, Mrs. Baske. I have just met them, and heard that you have news from Paris."

"Only a note, sending a temporary address."

He observed her as she spoke, and let silence follow. "You would like to know it-the address?" she added, meeting his look with a rather defiant steadiness.

"No, thank you. It will be enough if I know where they finally settle. You saw Mrs. Elgar before she left?"

"No."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

Miriam's face was clouded. She sat very stiffly, and averted her eyes as if to ignore his remark. Mallard, who had been holding his hat and stick in conventional manner, threw them both aside, and leaned his elbow on the back of the settee.

"I should like," he said deliberately, "to ask you a question which sounds impertinent, but which I think you will understand is not really so. Will you tell me how you regard Mrs. Elgar? I mean, is it your wish to be still as friendly with her as you once were? Or do you, for whatever reason, hold aloof from her?"

"Will you explain to me, Mr. Mallard, why you think yourself justified in asking such a question?"

In both of them there were signs of nervous discomposure. Miriam flushed a little; the artist moved from one attitude to another, and began to play destructively with a tassel.

"Yes," he answered. "I have a deep interest in Mrs. Elgar's welfare-that needs no explaining-and I have reason to fear that something in which I was recently concerned may have made you less disposed to think of her as I wish you to. Is it so or not?"

Her answer was uttered with difficulty.

"What can it matter how I think of her?"

"That is the point. To my mind it matters a great deal. For instance, it seems to me a deplorable thing that you, her sister in more senses than one, should have kept apart from her when she so much needed a woman's sympathy. Of course, if you had no true sympathy to give her, there's an end of it. But it seems to me strange that it should be so. Will you put aside conventionality, and tell me if you have any definite reason for acting as if you and she were strangers?"

Miriam was mute. Her questioner waited, observing her. At length she spoke with painful impulsiveness.

"I can't talk with you on this subject."

"I am very sorry to distress you," Mallard continued, his voice growing almost harsh in its determination, "but talk of it we must, once for all. Your brother came to my studio one morning, and demanded an explanation of something about his wife which he had heard from you. He didn't say that it came from you, but I have the conviction that it did. Please to tell me if I am wrong."

She kept an obstinate silence, sitting motionless, her hands tightly clasped together on her lap.

"If you don't contradict me, I must conclude that I am right. To speak plainly, it had come to his knowledge that Mrs. Elgar-no; I will call her Cecily, as I used to do when she was a child-that Cecily had visited my studio the evening before. You told him of that. How did you know of it, Mrs. Baske?"

Miriam answered in a hard, forced voice.

"I happened to be passing when she drove up in a cab."

"I understand. But you also told him how long she remained, and that when she left I accompanied her. How could you be aware of those things?"

She seemed about to answer, but her voice failed. She stood up, and began to move away. Instantly Mallard was at her side.

"You must answer me," he said, his voice shaking. "If I detain you by force, you must answer me."

Miriam turned to face him. She stood splendidly at bay, her eyes gleaming, her cheeks bloodless, her lithe body in an attitude finer than she knew. They looked into each other's pupils, long, intensely, as if reading the heart there. Miriam's eyes were the first to fall.

"I waited till she came out again."

"You waited all that time? In the road?"

"Yes."

"And when you heard that Cecily had not returned home that night, you believed that she had left her husband for ever?

"Yes."

Mallard drew hack a little, and his voice softened.

"Forgive me for losing sight of civility. Knowing this, it was perhaps natural that you should inform your brother of it. You took it for granted that Cecily-however unwise it was of her-had come to tell me of her resolve to leave home, and that I, as her old friend, had seen her safely to the place where she had taken refuge?"

He uttered this with a peculiar emphasis, gazing steadily into her face. Miriam dropped her eyes, and made no reply.

"You represented it to your brother in this light?" he continued, in the same tone.

She forced herself to look at him; there was awed wonder on her face.

"There is no need to answer in words. I see that I have understood you. But of course you soon learnt that you had been in part mistaken. Cecily had no intention of leaving her husband, from the first."

Miriam breathed with difficulty. He motioned to her to sit down, but she gave no heed.

"Then why did she come to you?" fell from her lips.

"Please to take your seat again, Mrs. Baske."

She obeyed him. He took a chair at a little distance, and answered her question.

"She came because she was in great distress, and had no friend in whom she could confide so naturally. This was a misfortune; it should not have been so. It was to you that she should have gone, and I am afraid it was your fault that she could not."

"My fault?"

"Yes. You had not behaved to her with sisterly kindness. You had held apart from her; you had been cold and unsympathetic. Am I unjust?"

"Can one command feelings?"

"That is to say, you felt coldly to her. Are you conscious of any reason? I believe religious prejudice no longer influences you?"

"No."

"Then I am obliged to recall something to your mind. Do you remember that you were practically an agent in bringing about Cecily's marriage? No doubt things would have taken much the same course, however you had acted. But is it not true that you gave what help was in your power? You acted as though your brother's suit had your approval. And I think you alone did so."

"You exaggerate. I know what you refer to. Reuben betrayed my lack of firmness, as he betrays every one who trusts in him."

"Let us call it lack of firmness. The fact is the same, and I feel very strongly that it laid an obligation on you. From that day you should have been truly a sister to Cecily. You should have given her every encouragement to confide in you. She loved you in those days, in spite of all differences. You should never have allowed this love to fail."

Miriam kept her eyes on the floor.

"I am afraid," he added, after a pause, "that you won't tell me why you cannot think kindly of her?"

She hesitated, her lips moving uncertainly.

"There is a reason?"

"I can't tell you."

"I have no right to press you to do so. I will rather ask this-I asked it once before, and had no satisfactory answer-why did you allow me to think for a few days, in Italy, that you accepted my friendship and gave me yours in return, and then became so constrained in your manner to me that I necessarily thought I had given you offence?"

She was silent.

"That also you can't tell me?"

She glanced at him-or rather, let her eyes pass over his face-with the old suggestion of defiance. Her firm-set lips gave no promise of answer.

Mallard rose.

"Then I must still wait. Some day you will tell me, I think."

He held his hand to her, then turned away; but in a moment faced her again.

"One word-a yes or no. Do you believe what I have told you? Do you believe it absolutely? Look at me, and answer."

She flushed, and met his gaze almost as intensely as when he comp

elled her confession.

"Do you put absolute faith in what I have said?"

"I do."

"That is something."

He smiled very kindly, and so this dialogue of theirs ended.

A few days later, the Spences gathered friends about their dinner-table. Mallard was of the invited. The necessity of donning society's uniform always drew many growls from him; he never felt at his ease in it, and had a suspicion that he looked ridiculous. Indeed it suited him but ill; it disguised the true man as he appeared in his rough travelling apparel, and in the soiled and venerable attire of the studio.

As he entered the drawing-room, his first glance fell on Seaborne, who sat in conversation with Mrs. Baske. The man of letters was just returned from Italy. Going to shake hands with Miriam, Mallard exchanged a few words with him; then he drew aside into a convenient corner. He noticed that Miriam's eyes turned once or twice in his direction. Informed that she was to be his partner in the solemn procession, he approached her when the moment arrived. They had nothing to say to each other, until they had been seated some time then they patched together a semblance of talk, a few formalities, commonplaces, all but imbecilities. Finding this at length intolerable, each turned to the person whom he had once before met, a pretty, bright, charming on the other side. In Mallard's case this was a young lady girl; without hesitation, she abandoned her companion proper, and drew the artist into lively dialogue. It was continued afterwards in the drawing-room, until Mallard, observing that Miriam sat alone, went over to her.

"What's the matter?" he asked, as he seated himself.

"The matter? Nothing."

"I thought you looked unusually well and cheerful early in the evening. Now you are the opposite."

"Society soon tires me."

"So it does me."

"You seem anything but tired."

"I have been listening to clever and amusing talk. Do you like Miss Harper?"

"I don't know her well enough to like or dislike her."

Mallard was looking at her hands, as they lay folded together; he noticed a distinct tension of the muscles, a whitening of the knuckles.

"She has just the qualities to put me in good humour. Often when I have got stupid and bearish from loneliness, I wish I could talk to some one so happily constituted."

Miriam had become mute, and in a minute or two she rose to speak to a lady who was passing. As she stood there, Mallard regarded her at his ease. She was admirably dressed to-night, and looked younger than of wont. Losing sight of her, owing to people who came between, Mallard fell into a brown study, an anxious smile on his lips.

On the second morning after that, he interrupted his work to sit down and pen a short letter. "Dear Mrs. Baske," he began then pondered, and rose to give a touch to the picture on which his eyes were fixed. But he seated himself again, and wrote on rapidly. "Would you do me the kindness to come here to-morrow early in the afternoon? If you have an engagement, the day after would do. But please to come, if you can; I wish to see you."

There was no reply to this. At the time he had mentioned; Mallard walked about his room in impatience. Just before three o'clock, his ear caught a footstep outside, and a knock at the door followed.

"Come in!" he shouted.

From behind the canvases appeared Miriam.

"Ah! How do you do? This is kind of you. Are you alone?"

The question was so indifferently asked, that Miriam stood in embarrassment.

"Yes. I hare come because you asked me."

"To be sure.-Can you sew, Mrs. Baske?"

She looked at him in confusion, half indignant.

"Yes, I can sew."

"I hardly like to ask you, but-would you mend this for me? It's the case in which I keep a large volume of engravings; the seams are coming undone, you see."

He took up the article in question, which was of glazed cloth, and held it to her.

"Have you a needle and thread?" she asked.

"Oh yes; here's a complete work-basket."

He watched her as she drew off her gloves.

"Will you sit here?" He pointed to a chair and a little table. "I shall go on with my work, if you will let me. You don't mind doing this for me?"

"Not at all."

"Is that chair comfortable?"

"Quite."

He moved away and seemed to be busy with a picture; it was on an easel so placed that, as he stood before it, he also overlooked Miriam at her needlework. For a time there was perfect quietness. Mallard kept glancing at his companion, but she did not once raise her eyes. At length he spoke.

"I have never had an opportunity of asking you what your new impressions were of Bartles."

"The place was much the same as I left it," she answered naturally.

"And the people? Did you see all your old friends?"

"I saw no one except my sister-in-law and her family."

"You felt no inclination?"

"None whatever."

"By-the-bye"-he seemed to speak half absently, looking closely at his work-"hadn't you once some thought of building a large new chapel there?"

"I once had."

She drew her stitches nervously.

"That has utterly passed out of your mind?"

"Must it not necessarily have done so?"

He stepped back, held his head aside, and examined her thoughtfully.

"H'm. I have an impression that you went beyond thinking of it as a possibility. Did you not make a distinct promise to some one or another-perhaps to the congregation?"

"Yes, a distinct promise."

He became silent; and Miriam, looking up for the first time, asked:

"Is it your opinion that the promise is still binding on me?"

"Why, I am inclined to think so. Your difficulty is, of course, that you don't see your way to spending a large sum of money to advance something with which you have no sympathy."

"It isn't only that I have no sympathy with it," broke from Miriam. "The thought of those people and their creeds is hateful to me. Their so-called religion is a vice. They are as far from being Christians as I am from being a Mahometan. To call them Puritans is the exaggeration of compliment."

Mallard watched and listened to her with a smile.

"Well," he said, soberly, "I suppose this only applies to the most foolish among them. However, I see that you can hardly be expected to build them a chapel. Let us think a moment.-Are there any public baths in Bartles?"

"There were none when I lived there."

"The proverb says that after godliness comes cleanliness. Why should you not devote to the establishing of decent baths what you meant to set apart for the chapel? How does it strike you?"

She delayed a moment; then-

"I like the suggestion."

"Do you know any impartial man there with whom you could communicate on such a subject?"

"I think so."

"Then suppose you do it as soon as possible?"

"I will."

She plied her needle for a few minutes longer; then looked up and said that the work was done.

"I am greatly obliged to you. Now will you come here and look at something?"

She rose and came to his side. Then she saw that there stood on the easel a drawing-board; on that was a sheet of paper, which showed drawings of two heads in crayon.

"Do you recognize these persons?" he asked, moving a little away.

Yes, she recognized them. They were both portraits of herself, but subtly distinguished from each other. The one represented a face fixed in excessive austerity, with a touch of pride that was by no means amiable, with resentful eyes, and lips on the point of becoming cruel. In the other, though undeniably the features were the same, all these harsh characteristics had yielded to a change of spirit; austerity had given place to grave thoughtfulness, the eyes had a noble light, on the lips was sweet womanly strength.

Miriam bent her head, and was silent.

"Now, both these faces are interesting," said Mallard. "Both are uncommon, and full of force. But the first I can't say that I like. It is that of an utterly undisciplined woman, with a possibility of great things in her, but likely to be dangerous for lack of self-knowledge and humility; an ignorant woman, moreover; one subjected to superstitions, and aiming at unworthy predominance. The second is obviously her sister, but how different! An educated woman, this; one who has learnt a good deal about herself and the world. She is 'emancipated,' in the true sense of the hackneyed word; that is to say, she is not only freed from those bonds that numb the faculties of mind and heart, but is able to control the native passions that would make a slave of her. Now, this face I love."

Miriam did not stir, but a thrill went through her. "One of the passions that she has subdued," Mallard went on, "is, you can see, particularly strong in this sister of hers. I mean jealousy. This first face is that of a woman so prone to jealousy of all kinds that there would be no wonder if it drove her to commit a crime. The woman whom I love is superior to idle suspicions; she thinks nobly of her friends; she respects herself too much to be at the mercy of chance and change of circumstance."

He paused, and Miriam spoke humbly.

"Do you think it impossible for the first to become like her sister?"

"Certainly not impossible. The fact is that she has already made great progress in that direction. The first face is not that of an actually existing person. She has changed much since she looked altogether like this, so much, indeed, that occasionally I see the sister in her, and then I love her for the sister's sake. But naturally she has relapses, and they cannot but affect my love. That word, you know, has such very different meanings. When I say that I love her, I don't mean that I am ready to lose my wits when she is good enough to smile on me. I shouldn't dream of allowing her to come in the way of my life's work; if she cannot be my helper in it, then she shall be nothing to me at all. I shall never think or call her a goddess, not even if she develop all the best qualities she has. Still, I think the love is true love; I think so for several reasons, of which I needn't speak."

Miriam again spoke, all but raising her face.

"You once loved in another way."

"I was once out of my mind, which is not at all the same as loving."

He moved to a distance; then turned, and asked:

"Will you tell me now why you became so cold to Cecily?"

"I was jealous of her."

"And still remain so?"

"No."

"I am glad to hear that. Now I think I'll get on with my work. Thank you very much for the sewing.-By-the-bye, I often feel the want of some one at hand to do a little thing of that kind."

"If you will send for me, I shall always be glad to come."

"Thank you. Now don't hinder me any longer. Good-bye for to-day."

Miriam moved towards the door.

"You are forgetting your gloves, Mrs. Baske," he called after her.

She turned back and took them up.

"By-the-bye," he said, looking at his watch, "it is the hour at which ladies are accustomed to drink tea. Will you let me make you a cup before you go?"

"Thank you. Perhaps I could save your time by making it myself."

"A capital idea. Look, there is all the apparatus. Please to tell me when it is ready, and I'll have a cup with you."

He painted on, and neither spoke until the beverage was actually prepared. Then Miriam said:

"Will you come now, Mr. Mallard?"

He laid down his implements, and approached the table by which she stood.

"Do you understand," he asked, "what is meant when one says of a man that he is a Bohemian?"

"I think so."

"You know pretty well what may be fairly expected of him, and what must not be expected?"

"I believe so."

"Do you think you could possibly share the home of such a man?"

"I think I could."

"Then suppose you take off your hat and your mantle, or whatever it's called, and make an experiment-see if you can feel at home here."

She did so. Whilst laying the things aside, she heard him step up to her, till he was very close. Then she turned, and his arms were about her, and his heart beating against hers.

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