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   Chapter 32 END AND BEGINNING

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 29171

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


In the autumn of this year, Mrs. Lessingham died. Owing to slight ailments, she had been advised to order her life more restfully, and with a view to this she took a house at Richmond, where Mrs. Delph and Irene again came to live with her. Scarcely was the settlement effected, when grave illness fell upon her, the first she had suffered since girlhood. She resented it; her energies put themselves forth defiantly; two days before her death she had no suspicion of what was coming. Warned at length, she made her will, angrily declined spiritual comfort, and with indignation fought her fate to the verge of darkness.

Cecily and her husband arrived a few hours too late; when the telegram of summons reached them, they were in Denmark. The Spences attended the funeral. Mallard and Miriam, who were in the north of Scotland-they had been married some two months-did not come. By Mrs. Lessingham's will, the greater part of her possessions fell to Cecily; there was a legacy of money to Irene Delph, and a London hospital for women received a bequest.

Eleanor wrote to Miriam:

"They went back to Paris yesterday. I had Cecily with me for one whole day, but of herself she evidently did not wish to speak, and of course I asked no questions. Both she and her husband looked well, however. It pleased me very much to hear her talk of you; all her natural tenderness and gladness came out; impossible to imagine a more exquisite sincerity of joy. She is a noble and beautiful creature; I do hope that the shadow on her life is passing away, and that we shall see her become as strong as she is lovable. She said she had written to you. Your letter at the time of your marriage was a delight to her.

"It happened that on the day when she was here we had a visit from-whom think you? Mr. Bradshaw, accompanied by his daughter Charlotte and her husband. The old gentleman was in London on business, and had met the young people, who were just returning from their honeymoon. He is still the picture of health, and his robust, practical talk seemed to do us good. How he laughed and shouted over his reminiscences of Italy! Your marriage had amazed him; when he began to speak of it, it was in a grave, puzzled way, as if there must be something in the matter which required its being touched upon with delicacy. The substitution of baths for a chapel at Bartles obviously gave him more amusement than he liked to show; he chuckled inwardly, with a sober face. 'What has Mallard got to say to that?' he asked me aside. I answered that it met with your husband's entire approval. 'Well,' he said, 'I feel that I can't keep up with the world; in my day, you didn't begin married life by giving away half your income. It caps me, but no doubt it's all right.' Mrs. Bradshaw by-the-bye, shakes her head whenever you are mentioned.

"You will like to hear of Mr. and Mrs. Marsh. Charlotte is excessively plain, and I am afraid excessively dull, but it is satisfactory to see that she regards her husband as a superior being, not to be spoken of save with bated breath. Mr. Marsh is rather too stout for his years, and I should think very self-indulgent; whenever his wife looks at him, he unconsciously falls into the attitude of one who is accustomed to snuff incense. He speaks of 'my Bohemian years' with a certain pride, wishing one to understand that he was a wild, reckless youth, and that his present profound knowledge of the world is the result of experiences which do not fall to the lot of common men. With Cecily he was superbly gracious-talked to her of art in a large, fluent way, the memory of which will supply Edward with mirth for some few weeks. The odd thing is that his father-in-law seems more than half to believe in him."

Time went on. Cecily's letters to her friends in England grew rare. Writing to Eleanor early in the spring, she mentioned that Irene Delph, who had been in Paris since Mrs. Lessingham's death, was giving her lessons in painting, but said she doubted whether this was anything better than a way of killing time. "You know Mr. Seaborne is here?" she added. "I have met him two or three times at Madame Courbet's, whom I was surprised to find he has known for several years. She translated his book on the revolutions of '48 into French."

Never a word now of Elgar. The Spences noted this cheerlessly, and could not but remark a bitterness that here and there revealed itself in her short, dry letters. To Miriam she wrote only in the form of replies, rarely even alluding to her own affairs, but always with affectionate interest in those of her correspondent.

Another autumn came, and Cecily at length was mute; the most pressing letters obtained no response. Miriam wrote to Reuben, but with the same result. This silence was unbroken till winter; then, one morning in November, Eleanor received a note from Cecily, asking her to call as soon as she was able at an address in the far west of London-nothing more than that.

In the afternoon, Eleanor set out to discover this address. It proved to be a house in a decent suburban road. On asking for Mrs. Elgar, she was led up to the second floor, and into a rather bare little sitting-room. Here was Cecily, alone.

"I knew you would come soon," she said, looking with an earnest, but not wholly sad, smile at her visitor. "I had very nearly gone to you, but this was better. You understand why I am here?"

"I am afraid so, after your long silence."

"Don't let us get into low spirits about it," said Cecily, smiling again. "All that is over; I can't make myself miserable any more, and certainly don't wish any one to be so on my account. Come and sit nearer the fire. What a black, crushing day!"

She looked out at the hopeless sky, and shook her head.

"You have lodgings here?" asked Eleanor, watching the girl with concern.

"Irene and her mother live here; they were able to take me in for the present. He left me a month ago. This time he wrote and told me plainly-said it was no use, that he wouldn't try to deceive me any longer. He couldn't live as I wish him to, so he would have done with pretences and leave me free. I waited there in my 'freedom' till the other day; he might have come back, in spite of everything, you know. But at last I wrote to an address he had given me, and told him I was going to London-that I accepted his release, and that henceforth all his claims upon me must be at end."

"Is he in Paris?"

"In the south of France, I believe. But that is nothing to me. What I inherited from my aunt makes me independent; there is no need of any arrangements about money, fortunately. I dare say he foresaw this when he expressed a wish that I should keep this quite apart from our other sources of income, and manage it myself."

Eleanor felt that the last word was said. There was no distress in Cecily's voice or manner, nothing but the simplicity of a clear decision, which seemed to carry with it hardly a regret.

"A tragedy can go no further than its fifth act," Cecily pursued. "I have shed all my tears long since, exhausted all my indignation. You can't think what an everyday affair it has become with me. I am afraid that means that I am in a great measure demoralized by these experiences. I can only hope that some day I shall recover my finer feeling."

"You haven't seen Miriam?"

"No, and I don't know whether I can. There as no need for you to keep silence about me when you see her; what has happened can't be hidden. I thought it possible that Reuben might have written and told her. If she comes here, I shall welcome her, but it is better for me not to seek her first."

"If he writes to her," asked Eleanor, with a grave look, "is it likely that he will try to defend himself?"

"I understand you. You mean, defend himself by throwing blame of one kind or another on me. No, that is impossible. He has no desire to do that. What makes our relations to each other so hopeless, is that we can be so coldly just. In me there is no resentment left, and in him no wish to disguise his own conduct. We are simply nothing to each other. I appreciate all the good in him and all the evil; and to him my own qualities are equally well known. We have reached the point of studying each other in a mood of scientific impartiality-surely the most horrible thing in man and wife."

Eleanor had a sense of relief in hearing that last comment. For the tone of the speech put her painfully in mind of that which characterizes certain French novelists all very well in its place, but on Cecily's lips an intolerable discord. It was as though the girl's spirit had been materialized by Parisian influences; yet the look and words with which she ended did away with, or at least mitigated, that fear.

"He is pursued by a fate," murmured the listener.

"Listen to my defence;" said Cecily, after a pause, with more earnestness. "For I have not been blameless throughout. Before we left London, he charged me with contributing to what had befallen us, and in a measure he was right. He said that I had made no effort to keep him faithful to me that I had watched the gulf growing between us with indifference, and allowed him to take his own course. A jealous and complaining wife, he said, would have behaved more for his good. Hearing this, I recognized its truth. I had held myself too little responsible. When our life in Paris began, I resolved that I would accept my duties in another spirit I did all that a wife can do to strengthen the purer part in him. I interested myself in whatever he undertook; I suggested subjects of study which I thought congenial to him and studied them together with him, putting aside everything of my own for which he did not care. And for a time I was encouraged by seeming success. He was grateful to me, and I found my one pleasure in this absolute devotion of myself. I choose my words carefully; you must not imagine that there was more in either his feeling or mine than what I express. But it did not last more than six months. Then he grew tired of it. I still did my utmost; believe that I did, Mrs. Spence, for it is indeed true. I made every effort in my power to prevent what I knew was threatening. Until he began to practise deceit, trickery of every kind. What more could I do? If he was determined to deceive me, he would do so; what was gained by my obliging him to exert more cunning? Then I turned sick at heart, and the end came."

"But, Cecily," said Eleanor, "how can the end be yet?"

"You mean that he will once more wish to return."

"Once more, or twenty times more."

"I know; but-"

She broke off, and Eleanor did not press her to continue.

It was not long before the news reached Miriam. In a few days Eleanor paid one of her accustomed visits to a little house out at Roehampton, externally cold and bare enough in these days of November, but inwardly rich with whatsoever the heart or brain can desire. Hither came no payers of formal calls, no leavers of cards, no pests from the humdrum world to open their mouths and utter foolishness. It was a dwelling sacred to love and art, and none were welcome across its threshold save those to whom the consecration was of vital significance. To Eleanor the air seemed purer than that of any other house she entered; to breathe it made her heart beat more hopefully, gave her a keener relish of life.

Mallard was absent to-day, held by business in London. The visitor had, for once, no wish to await his return. She sat for an hour by the fireside, and told what she had to tell; then took her leave.

When the artist entered, Miriam was waiting for him by the light of the fire; blinds shut out the miserable gloaming, but no lamp had yet been brought into the room. Mallard came in blowing the fog and rain off his moustache; he kicked off his boots, kicked on his slippers, and then bent down over the chair to the face raised in expectancy.

"A damnable day, Miriam, in the strict and sober sense of the word."

"Far too sober," she replied. "Eleanor came through it, however."

"Wonderful woman! Did she come to see if you bore it with the philosophy she approves?"

"She had a more serious purpose, I'm sorry to say, Cecily is in London, He has left her-written her a good-bye."

Mallard leaned upon the mantelpiece, and watched his wife's face, illumined by the firelight. A healthier and more beautiful face than it had ever been; not quite the second of those two faces that Mallard drew, but with scarcely a record of the other. They talked in subdued voices. Miriam repeated all that Eleanor had been able to tell.

"You must go and see her, of course," Mallard said.

"Yes; I will go to-morrow."

"Shall you ask her to come here?"

"I don't think she will wish to," answered Miriam.

"That brother of yours!" he growled.

"Isn't it too late even to feel angry with him, dear? We know what all this means. It is absolutely impossible for them to live together, and Reuben's behaviour is nothing but an assertion of that. Sooner or later, it would be just as impossible, even if he preserved the decencies."

"Perhaps true; perhaps not. Would it be possible for him to live for long with any woman?"

Miriam sighed.

"Well, well; go and talk to the poor girl, and see if you can do anything. I wish she were an artist, of whatever kind; then it wouldn't matter much. A woman who sings, or plays, or writes, or paints, can live a free life. But a woman who is nothing but a woman, what the deuce is to become of her in this position? What would become of you, if I found you in my way, and bade you go about your business?"

"We are not far from the Thames," she answered, looking at him with the fire-glow in her loving eyes.

"Oh, you!" he muttered, with show of contempt. "But other women have more spirit. They get over their foolish love, and then find that life in earnest is just beginning."

"I shall never get over it."

"Pooh!-How long to dinner, Miriam?"

Miriam went to see her sister-in-law, and repeated the visit at intervals during the next few months; but Cecily would not come to Roehampton. Neither would she accept the invitations of the Spences, though Eleanor was with her frequently, and became her nearest friend. She seemed quite content with the society of Irene and Mrs. Delph; her health visibly improved, and as spring drew near there was a brightening in her face that told of thoughts in sympathy with the new-born hope of earth.

The Mallards were seldom in town. Excepting the house at Chelsea

, their visits were only to two or three painters, who lived much as Mallard had done before his marriage. In these studios Miriam at first inspired a little awe; but as her understanding of the art-world increased, she adapted herself to its habits in so far as she could respect them, and where she could not, the restraint of her presence was recognized as an influence towards better things.

At the Spences', one day in April, they met Seaborne. They had heard of his being in London again (after a year mostly spent in Paris), but had not as yet seen him. He was invited to visit them, and promised to do so before long. A month or more passed, however, and the promise remained unfulfilled. At Chelsea the same report was made of him; he seemed to be living in seclusion.

In mid-May, as Miriam was walking by herself at a little distance from home, she was overtaken by a man who had followed her over the heath. When the step paused at her side, she turned and saw Reuben.

"Will you speak to me?" he said.

"Why not, Reuben?"

She gave him her hand.

"That is kinder than I hoped to find you. But I see how changed you are. You are so happy that you can afford to be indulgent to a poor devil."

"Why have you made yourself a poor devil!"

"Why, why, why! Pooh! Why is anything as it is? Why are you what you are, after being what you were?"

It pained her to look at him. At length she discerned unmistakably the fatal stamp of degradation. When he came to her two years ago, his face was yet unbranded; now the darkening spirit declared itself. Even his clothing told the same tale, in spite of its being such as he had always worn.

"Where are you living?" she asked.

"Anywhere; nowhere. I have no home."

"Why don't you make one for yourself?"

"It's all very well for you to talk like that. Every one doesn't get a home so easily.-Does old Mallard make you a good husband?"

"Need you ask that?" Miriam returned, averting her eyes, and walking slowly on.

"You have to thank me for it, Miriam, in part."

She looked at him in surprise.

"It's true. It was I who first led him to think about you, and interested him in you. We were going from Pompeii to Sorrento-how many years ago? thirty, forty?-and I talked about you a great deal. I told him that I felt convinced you could be saved, if only some strong man would take you by the hand. It led him to think about you; I am sure of it."

Miriam had no reply to make. They walked on.

"I didn't come to the house," he resumed presently, "because I thought it possible that the door might be shut in my face. Mallard would have wished to do so."

"He wouldn't have welcomed you; but you were free to come in if you wished."

"Have you thought it likely I might come some day?"

"I expected, sooner or later, to hear from you."

He had a cane, and kept slashing with it at the green growths by his feet. When he missed his aim at any particular object, he stopped and struck again, more fiercely.

"Does Cecily come to see you?" was his next question, uttered as if unconcernedly.

"No."

"But you know about her? You know where she is?"

"Yes."

"Tell me what you know, Miriam. How is she living?"

"I had much rather not speak of her. I don't feel that I have any right to."

"Why not?" he asked quickly, standing still. "What is there to hide? Why had you rather not speak?"

"For reasons that you understand well enough. What is it to you how she lives?"

He searched her face, like one suspecting a studied ambiguity. His eyes, which were a little bloodshot, grew larger and more turbid; a repulsive animalism came out in all his features.

"Do tell me what you know, Miriam," he pleaded. "Of course it's nothing to me; I know that. I have no wish to interfere with her; I promise you to do nothing of the kind; I promise solemnly!"

"You promise?" she exclaimed, not harshly, but with stern significance. "How can you use such words? Under what circumstances could I put faith in a promise of yours, Reuben?"

He struck violently at the trunk of a tree, and his cane broke; then he flung it away, still more passionately.

"You're right enough. What do I care? I lie more often than I tell the truth. I have a sort of pride in it. If a man is to be a liar, let him be a thorough one.-Do you know why I smashed the stick? I had a devilish temptation to strike you across the face with it. That would have been nice, wouldn't it?"

"You had better go your own way, Reuben, and let me go mine."

She drew apart, and not without actual fear of him, so brutal he looked, and so strangely coarse had his utterance become.

"You needn't be afraid. If I had hit you, I'd have gone away and killed myself; so perhaps it's a pity I didn't. I felt a savage hatred of you, and just because I wanted you to take my hand and be gentle with me. I suppose you can't understand that? You haven't gone deep enough into life."

His voice choked, and Miriam saw tears start from his eyes.

"I hope I never may," she answered gently. "Have done with all that, and talk to me like yourself, Reuben."

"Talk! I've had enough of talking. I want to rest somewhere, and be quiet."

"Then come home with me."

"Dare you take me?"

"There's no question of daring. Come with me, if you wish to."

They walked to the house almost in silence. It was noon; Mallard was busy in his studio. Having spoken a word with him, Miriam rejoined her brother in the sitting-room. He had thrown himself on a couch, and there he lay without speaking until luncheon-time, when Mallard's entrance aroused him. The artist could not be cordial, but he exercised a decent hospitality.

In the afternoon, brother and sister again sat for a long time without conversing. When Reuben began to speak, it was in a voice softened by the influences of the last few hours.

"Miriam, there's one thing you will tell me; you won't refuse to. Is she still living alone?"

"Yes."

"Then there is still hope for me. I must go back to her, Miriam. No-listen to me! That is my one and only hope. If I lose that, I lose everything. Down and down, lower and lower into bestial life-that's my fate, unless she saves me from it. Won't you help me? Go and speak to her for me, dear sister, you can't refuse me that. Tell her how helpless I am, and implore her to save me, only out of pity. I don't care how mean it makes me in your eyes or hers; I have no self-respect left, nor courage-nothing but a desire to go back to her and ask her to forgive me."

Miriam could scarcely speak for shame and distress.

"It is impossible, Reuben. Be man enough to face what you have brought on yourself. Have you no understanding left? With her, there is no hope for you. She and you are no mates; you can only wreck each other's lives. Surely, surely you know this by now! She could only confirm your ruin, strive with you as she might; you would fall again into hateful falsity. Forget her, begin a life without thought of her, and you may still save yourself-yourself; no one else can save you. Begin the struggle alone, manlike. You have no choice but to do so."

"I tell you I can't live without her. Where is she? I will go myself-"

"You will never know from me. What right have you to ask her to sink with you? That's what it means. There are people who think that a wife's obligation has no bounds, that she must sink, if her husband choose to demand it. Let those believe it who will. What motive should render such a sacrifice possible to her? You know she cannot love you. Pity? How can she pity you in such a sense as to degrade herself for your sake? Neither you nor she nor I hold the creed that justifies such martyrdom. Am I to teach you such things? Shame! Have the courage of your convictions. You have released her, and you must be content to leave her free. The desire to fetter her again is ignoble, dastardly!"

He would neither be shamed nor convinced. With desperate beseechings, with every argument of passion, no matter how it debased him, he strove frantically to subdue her to his purpose. But Miriam was immovable. At length she could not even urge him with reasonings; his prostrate frenzy revolted her, and she drew away in repugnance. Reuben's supplication turned on the instant into brutal rage.

"Curse your obstinacy!" he shouted, in a voice that had strained itself to hoarseness.

The door opened, and Mallard, who had come to see whether Elgar was still here, heard his exclamation.

"Out of the house!" he commanded sternly. "March! And never let me see you here again."

Reuben rushed past him, and the house-door closed violently.

Then Miriam's overstrung nerves gave way, and for the first time Mallard saw her shed tears. She described to him the scene that had passed.

"What ought I to do? She must be warned. It is horrible to think that he may find her, and persuade her."

They agreed that she should go to Cecily early next morning. In the meantime she wrote to Eleanor.

But the morning brought a letter from Reuben, of a tenor which seemed to make it needless to mention this incident to Cecily.

"I had not long left you," he wrote, "when I recovered my reason, and recognized your wisdom in opposing me. For a week I have been drinking myself into a brutal oblivion-or trying to do so; I came to you in a nerveless and half imbecile state. You were hard with me, but it was just what I needed. You have made me understand-for to-day, at all events-the completeness of my damnation. Thank you for discharging that sisterly office. I observe, by-the-bye, that Mallard's influence is strengthening your character. Formerly you were often rigorous, but it was spasmodic. You can now persevere in pitilessness, an essential in one who would support what we call justice. Don't think I am writing ironically. Whenever I am free from passion, as now-and that is seldom enough-I can see myself precisely as you and all those on your side of the gulf see me. The finer qualities I once had survive in my memory, bat I know it is hopeless to try and recover them. I find it interesting to write a book about it, but it would be of the kind that study the processes of my degradation. I should like to write a book about it, but it would be of the kind that no one would publish.

"I hope I may never by chance see Cecily; I have a horrible conviction that I should kill her. Why shouldn't I tell you all the truth? My feeling towards her is a strange and vile compound of passions, but I believe that hatred predominates. If she were so unfortunate as to come again into my power, I should make it my one object to crush her to my own level; and in the end I should kill her. Perhaps that is the destined close of our drama. Even to you, as I confessed, I felt murderous impulses. I haven't yet been quite successful in analyzing this state of mind. The vulgar would say that, having chosen the devil's part, I am receiving share of the devil's spirit. But to give a thing a bad name doesn't help one to understand it.

"Don't let this terrify you. I am going away again, to be out of reach of temptation. I know, I know with certainty, that the end in some form or other draws near. I have thought so much of Fate, that I seem to have got an unusual perception of its course, as it affects me. Keep this letter as a piece of curious human experience. It may be the last you receive from me."

Something less than a month after this, Edward Spence, examining his correspondence at the breakfast-table, found a French newspaper, addressed to him in a hand he recognized.

"This is from Seaborne," he said to Eleanor, as he stripped off the wrapper.

He discovered a marked paragraph. It reported a tragic occurrence in a street near the Luxembourg. The husband of an actress at one of the minor theatres in Paris had encountered his wife's lover, and shot him dead. The victim was "un jeune Anglais, nomme Elgare."

The sender of this newspaper had also written; his letter contained fuller details. He had seen the corpse, and identified it. Could he do anything? Or would some friend of Mrs. Elgar come over?

Eleanor carried the intelligence first of all to Roehampton. In her consultation with the Mallards, it was decided that she, rather than Miriam, should visit Cecily. She left them with this purpose.

It was possible that Cecily had already heard. On arriving at the house, Eleanor was at once admitted, and went up to the sitting-room on the second floor; she entered with a tremulous anxiety, and the first glance told her that her news had not been anticipated. Cecily was seated with several books open before her; the smile of friendly welcome slowly lighting her grave countenance, showed that her mind detached itself with difficulty from an absorbing subject.

"Welcome always," she said, "and most so when least expected."

The room was less bare than when she first occupied it. Pictures and books were numerous; the sunlight fell upon an open piano; an easel, on which was a charcoal drawing from a cast, stood in the middle of the floor. But the plain furniture remained, and no mere luxuries had been introduced. It was a work-room, not a boudoir.

"You are still content in your hermitage?" said Eleanor, seating herself and controlling her voice to its wonted tone.

"More and more. I have been reading since six o'clock this morning, and never felt so quiet in mind."

Her utterance proved it; she spoke in a low, sweet voice, its music once more untroubled. But in looking at Eleanor, she became aware of veiled trouble on her countenance.

"Have you come only to see me? Or is there something-?"

Eleanor broke the news to her. And as she spoke, the beautiful face lost its calm of contemplation, grew pain-shadowed, stricken with pangs of sorrow. Cecily turned away and wept-wept for the past, which in these moments had lived again and again perished.

It seemed to Spence that his wife mourned unreasonably. A week or more had passed, and yet he chanced to find her with tears in her eyes.

"I have still so much of the old Eve in me," replied Eleanor. "I am heavy-hearted, not for him, but for Cecily's dead love. We all have a secret desire to believe love imperishable."

"An amiable sentiment; but it is better to accept the truth."

"True only in some cases."

"In many," said Spence, with a smile. "First love is fool's paradise. But console yourself out of Boccaccio. 'Bocca baciata non perde ventura; anzi rinnuova, come fa la luna.'"

THE END

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