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   Chapter 1 NORTHERNERS IN SUNLIGHT

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 25224

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


By a window looking from Posillipo upon the Bay of Naples sat an English lady, engaged in letter-writing. She was only in her four-and-twentieth year, but her attire of subdued mourning indicated widowhood already at the stage when it is permitted to make quiet suggestion of freedom rather than distressful reference to loss; the dress, however, was severely plain, and its grey coldness, which would well have harmonized with an English sky in this month of November, looked alien in the southern sunlight. There was no mistaking her nationality; the absorption, the troubled earnestness with which she bent over her writing, were peculiar to a cast of features such as can be found only in our familiar island; a physiognomy not quite pure in outline, vigorous in general effect and in detail delicate; a proud young face, full of character and capacity, beautiful in chaste control. Sorrowful it was not, but its paleness and thinness expressed something more than imperfect health of body; the blue-grey eyes, when they wandered for a moment in an effort of recollection, had a look of weariness, even of ennui; the lips moved as if in nervous impatience until she had found the phrase or the thought for which her pen waited. Save for these intervals, she wrote with quick decision, in a large clear hand, never underlining, but frequently supplying the emphasis of heavy stroke in her penning of a word. At the end of her letters came a signature excellent in individuality: "Miriam Baske."

The furniture of her room was modern, and of the kind demanded by wealthy forestieri in the lodgings they condescend to occupy. On the variegated tiles of the floor were strewn rugs and carpets; the drapery was bright, without much reference to taste in the ordering of hues; a handsome stove served at present to support leafy plants, a row of which also stood on the balcony before the window. Round the ceiling ran a painted border of foliage and flowers. The chief ornament of the walls was a large and indifferent copy of Raphael's "St. Cecilia;" there were, too, several gouache drawings of local scenery: a fiery night-view of Vesuvius, a panorama of the Bay, and a very blue Blue Grotto. The whole was blithe, sunny, Neapolitan; sufficiently unlike a sitting-room in Redheck House, Bartles, Lancashire, which Mrs. Baske had in her mind as she wrote.

A few English books lay here and there, volumes of unattractive binding, and presenting titles little suggestive of a holiday in Campania; works which it would be misleading to call theological; the feeblest modern echoes of fierce old Puritans, half shame-faced modifications of logic which, at all events, was wont to conceal no consequence of its savage premises. More noticeable were some architectural plans unrolled upon a settee; the uppermost represented the elevation of a building designed for religious purposes, painfully recognizable by all who know the conventicles of sectarian England. On the blank space beneath the drawing were a few comments, lightly pencilled.

Having finished and addressed some half a dozen brief letters, Mrs. Baske brooded for several minutes before she began to write on the next sheet of paper. It was intended for her sister-in-law, a lady of middle age, who shared in the occupancy of Redheck House. At length she penned the introductory formula, but again became absent, and sat gazing at the branches of a pine-tree which stood in strong relief against cloudless blue. A sigh, an impatient gesture, and she went on with her task.

"It is very kind of you to be so active in attending to the things which you know I have at heart. You say I shall find everything as I could wish it on my return, but you cannot think what a stranger to Bartles I already feel. It will soon be six months Since I lived my real life there; during my illness I might as well have been absent, then came those weeks in the Isle of Wight, and now this exile. I feel it as exile, bitterly. To be sure Naples is beautiful, but it does not interest me. You need not envy me the bright sky, for it gives me no pleasure. There is so much to pain and sadden; so much that makes me angry. On Sunday I was miserable. The Spences are as kind as any one could be, but-I won't write about it; no doubt you understand me.

"What do you think ought to be done about Mrs. Ackworth and her daughter? It is shameful, after all they have received from me. Will you tell them that I am gravely displeased to hear of their absenting themselves from chapel. I have a very good mind to write to Mr. Higginson and beg him to suspend the girl from his employment until she becomes regular in her attendance at worship. Perhaps that would seem malicious, but she and her mother ought to be punished in some way. Speak to them very sternly.

"I do not understand how young Brooks has dared to tell you I promised him work in the greenhouse. He is irreclaimable; the worst character that ever came under my notice; he shall not set foot on the premises. If he is in want, he has only himself to blame. I do not like to think of his wife suffering, but it is the attribute of sins such as his that they involve the innocent with the guilty; and then she has shown herself so wretchedly weak. Try, however, to help her secretly if her distress becomes too acute.

"It was impertinent in Mrs. Walker to make such reference to me in public. This is the result of my absence and helplessness. I shall write to her-two lines."

A flush had risen to her cheek, and in adding the last two words she all but pierced through the thin note-paper. Then her hand trembled so much that she was obliged to pause. At the same moment there sounded a tap at the door, and, on Mrs. Baske's giving permission, a lady entered. This was Mrs. Spence, a cousin of the young widow; she and her husband had an apartment here in the Villa Sannazaro, and were able to devote certain rooms to the convenience of their relative during her stay at Naples. Her age was about thirty; she had a graceful figure, a manner of much refinement, and a bright, gentle, intellectual face, which just now bore an announcement of news.

"They have arrived!"

"Already?" replied the other, in a tone of civil interest.

"They decided not to break the journey after Genoa. Cecily and Mrs. Lessingham are too tired to do anything but get settled in their rooms, but Mr. Mallard has come to tell us."

Miriam laid down her pen, and asked in the same voice as before:

"Shall I come?"

"If you are not too busy." And Mrs. Spence added, with a smile, "I should think you must have a certain curiosity to see each other, after so long an acquaintance at secondhand."

"I will come in a moment."

Mrs. Spence left the room. For a minute Miriam sat reflecting, then rose. In moving towards the door she chanced to see her image in a mirror-two of a large size adorned the room-and it checked her step; she regarded herself gravely, and passed a smoothing hand over the dark hair above her temples.

By a corridor she reached her friends' sitting-room, where Mrs. Spence sat in the company of two gentlemen. The elder of these was Edward Spence. His bearded face, studious of cast and small-featured, spoke a placid, self-commanding character; a lingering smile, and the pleasant wrinkles about his brow, told of a mind familiar with many by-ways of fancy and reflection. His companion, a man of five-and-thirty, had a far more striking countenance. His complexion was of the kind which used to be called adust-burnt up with inner fires; his visage was long and somewhat harshly designed, very apt, it would seem, to the expression of hitter ironies or stern resentments, but at present bright with friendly pleasure. He had a heavy moustache, but no beard; his hair tumbled in disorder. To matters of costume he evidently gave little thought, for his clothes, though of the kind a gentleman would wear in travelling, had seen their best days, and the waistcoat even lacked one of its buttons; his black necktie was knotted into an indescribable shape, and the ends hung loose.

Him Mrs. Spence at once presented to her cousin as "Mr. Mallard." He bowed ungracefully; then, with a manner naturally frank but constrained by obvious shyness, took the hand Miriam held to him.

"We are scarcely strangers, Mr. Mallard," she said in a self-possessed tone, regarding him with steady eyes.

"Miss Doran has spoken of you frequently on the journey," he replied, knitting his brows into a scowl as he smiled and returned her look. "Your illness made her very anxious. You are much better, I hope?"

"Much, thank you."

Allowance made for the difference of quality in their voices, Mrs. Baske and Mallard resembled each other in speech. They had the same grave note, the same decision.

"They must be very tired after their journey," Miriam added, seating herself.

"Miss Doran seems scarcely so at all; but Mrs. Lessingham is rather over-wearied, I'm afraid."

"Why didn't you break the journey at Florence or Rome?" asked Mrs. Spence.

"I proposed it, but other counsels prevailed. All through Italy Miss Doran was distracted between desire to get to Naples and misery at not being able to see the towns we passed. At last she buried herself in the 'Revue des Deux Mondes,' and refused even to look out of the window."

"I suppose we may go and see her in the morning?" said Miriam.

"My express instructions are," replied Mallard, "that you are on no account to go. They will come here quite early. Miss Doran begged hard to come with me now, but I wouldn't allow it."

"Is it the one instance in which your authority has prevailed?" inquired Spence. "You seem to declare it in a tone of triumph."

"Well," replied the other, with a grim smile, leaning forward in his chair, "I don't undertake to lay down rules for the young lady of eighteen as I could for the child of twelve. But my age and sobriety of character still ensure me respect."

He glanced at Mrs. Baske, and their eyes met. Miriam smiled rather coldly, but continued to observe him after he had looked away again.

"You met them at Genoa?" she asked presently, in her tone of habitual reserve.

"Yes. I came by sea from London, and had a couple of days to wait for their arrival from Paris."

"And I suppose you also are staying at Mrs. Gluck's?"

"Oh no! I have a room at old quarters of mine high up in the town, Vico Brancaccio. I shall only be in Naples a few days."

"How's that?" inquired Spence.

"I'm going to work at Amalfi and Paestum."

"Then, as usual, we shall see nothing of you," said Mrs. Spence. "Pray, do you dine at Mrs. Gluck's this evening?"

"By no means."

"May we, then, have the pleasure of your company? There is no need to go back to Vico Brancaccio. I am sure Mrs. Baske will excuse you the torture of uniform."

With a sort of grumble, the invitation was accepted. A little while after, Spence proposed to his friend a walk before sunset.

"Yes; let us go up the hill," said Mallard, rising abruptly. "I need movement after the railway."

They left the villa, and Mallard grew less restrained in his conversation.

"How does Mrs. Baske answer to your expectations?" Spence asked him.

"I had seen her photograph, you know."

"Where?"

"Her brother showed it me-one taken at the time of her marriage."

"What is Elgar doing at present?"

"It's more than a year since we crossed each other," Mallard replied. "He was then going to the devil as speedily as can in reason be expected of a man. I happened to encounter him one morning at Victoria Station, and he seemed to have just slept off a great deal of heavy drinking. Told me he was going down to Brighton to see about selling a houseful of furniture there-his own property. I didn't inquire how or why he came possessed of it. He is beyond help, I imagine. When he comes to his last penny, he'll probably blow his brains out; just the fellow to do that kind of thing."

"I suppose he hasn't done it already? His sister has heard nothing of him for two years at least, and this account of yours is the latest I have received."

"I should think he still lives, He would be sure to make a coup de theatre of his exit."

"Poor lad!" said the elder man, with feeling. "I liked him."

"Why, so did I; and I wish it had been in my scope to keep him in some kind of order. Yes, I liked him much. And as for brains, why, I have scarcely known a man who so impressed me with a sense of his ability. But you could see that he was doomed from his cradle. Strongly like his s

ister in face."

"I'm afraid the thought of him troubles her a good deal."

"She looks ill."

"Yes; we are uneasy about her," said Spence. Then, with a burst of impatience: "There's no getting her mind away from that pestilent Bartles. What do you think she is projecting now? It appears that the Dissenters of Bartles are troubled concerning their chapel; it isn't large enough. So Miriam proposes to pull down her own house, and build them a chapel on the site, of course at her own expense. The ground being her freehold, she can unfortunately do what she likes with it; the same with her personal property. The thing has gone so far that a Manchester firm of architects have prepared plans; they are lying about in her room here."

Mallard regarded the speaker with humorous wonder.

"And the fact is," pursued Spence, "that such an undertaking as this will impoverish her. She is not so wealthy as to be able to lay out thousands of pounds and leave her position unaltered."

"I suppose she lives only for her religious convictions?"

"I don't profess to understand her. Her character is not easily sounded. But no doubt she has the puritanical spirit in a rather rare degree. I daily thank the fates that my wife grew up apart from that branch of the family. Of all the accursed-But this is an old topic; better not to beat one's self uselessly."

"A Puritan at Naples," mused Mallard. "The situation is interesting."

"Very. But then she doesn't really live in Naples. From the first day she has shown herself bent on resisting every influence of the place. She won't admit that the climate benefits her; she won't allow an expression of interest in anything Italian to escape her. I doubt whether we shall ever get her even to Pompeii. One afternoon I persuaded her to walk up here with me, and tried to make her confess that this view was beautiful. She grudged making any such admission. It is her nature to distrust the beautiful."

"To be sure. That is the badge of her persuasion."

"Last Sunday we didn't know whether to compassionate her or to be angry with her. The Bradshaws are at Mrs. Gluck's. You know them by name, I think? There again, an interesting study, in a very different way. Twice in the day she shut herself up with them in their rooms, and they held a dissident service. The hours she spent here were passed in the solitude of her own room, lest she should witness our profane enjoyment of the fine weather. Eleanor refrained from touching the piano, and at meals kept the gravest countenance, in mere kindness. I doubt whether that is right. It isn't as though we were dealing with a woman whose mind is hopelessly-immatured; she is only a girl still, and I know she has brains if she could be induced to use them."

"Mrs. Baske has a remarkable face, it seems to me," said Mallard.

"It enrages me to talk of the matter."

They were now on the road which runs along the ridge of Posillipo; at a point where it is parted only by a low wall from the westward declivity, they paused and looked towards the setting sun.

"What a noise from Fuorigrotta!" murmured Spence, when he had leaned for a moment on the wall. "It always amuses me. Only in this part of the world could so small a place make such a clamour."

They were looking away from Naples. At the foot of the vine-covered hillside lay the noisy village, or suburb, named from its position at the outer end of the tunnel which the Romans pierced to make a shorter way between Naples and Puteoli; thence stretched an extensive plain, set in a deep amphitheatre of hills, and bounded by the sea. Vineyards and maizefields, pine-trees and poplars, diversify its surface, and through the midst of it runs a long, straight road, dwindling till it reaches the shore at the hamlet of Bagnoli. Follow the enclosing ridge to the left, to where its slope cuts athwart plain and sea and sky; there close upon the coast lies the island rock of Nisida, meeting-place of Cicero and Brutus after Caesar's death. Turn to the opposite quarter of the plain. First rises the cliff of Camaldoli, where from their oak-shadowed lawn the monks look forth upon as fair a prospect as is beheld by man. Lower hills succeed, hiding Pozzuoli and the inner curve of its bay; behind them, too, is the nook which shelters Lake Avernus; and at a little distance, by the further shore, are the ruins of Cumae, first home of the Greeks upon Italian soil. A long promontory curves round the gulf; the dark crag at the end of it is Cape Misenum, and a little on the hither side, obscured in remoteness, lies what once was Baiae. Beyond the promontory gleams again a blue line of sea. The low length of Procida is its limit, and behind that, crowning the view, stands the mountain-height of Ischia.

Over all, the hues of an autumn evening in Campania. From behind a bulk of cloud, here and there tossed by high wind currents into fantastic shapes, sprang rays of fire, burning to the zenith. Between the sea-beach at Bagnoli and the summit of Ischia, tract followed upon tract of colour that each moment underwent a subtle change, darkening here, there fading into exquisite transparencies of distance, till by degrees the islands lost projection and became mere films against the declining day. The plain was ruddy with dead vine-leaves, and golden with the decaying foliage of the poplars; Camaldoli and its neighbour heights stood gorgeously enrobed. In itself, a picture so beautiful that the eye wearied with delight; in its memories, a source of solemn joy, inexhaustible for ever.

"I suppose," said Mallard, in the undertone of reflection, "the pagan associations of Naples are a great obstacle to Mrs. Baske's enjoyment of the scenery."

"She admits that."

"By-the-bye, what are likely to be the relations between her and Miss Doran?"

"I have wondered. They seem to keep on terms of easy correspondence. But doesn't Cecily herself throw any light on that point?"

Mallard made a pause before answering.

"You must remember that I know very little of her. I have never spoken more intimately with her than you yourself have. Naturally, since she has ceased to be a child, I have kept my distance. In fact, I shall be heartily glad when the next three years are over, and we can shake hands with a definite good-bye."

"What irritates you?" inquired Spence, with a smile which recognized a phase of his friend's character.

"The fact of my position. A nice thing for a fellow like me to have charge of a fortune! It oppresses me-the sense of responsibility; I want to get the weight off my shoulders. What the deuce did her father mean by burdening me in this way?"

"He foresaw nothing of the kind," said Spence, amused. "Only the unlikely event of Trench's death left you sole trustee. If Doran purposed anything at all-why, who knows what it may have been?"

Mallard refused to meet the other's look; his eyes were fixed on the horizon.

"All the same, the event was possible, and he should have chosen another man of business. It's worse than being rich on my own account. I have dreams of a national repudiation of debt; I imagine dock-companies failing and banks stopping payment. It disturbs my work; I am tired of it. Why can't I transfer the affair to some trustworthy and competent person; yourself, for instance? Why didn't Doran select you, to begin with-the natural man to associate with Trench?"

"Who never opened a book save his ledger; who was the model of a reputable dealer in calicoes; who-"

"I apologize," growled Mallard. "But you know in what sense I spoke."

"Pray, what has Cecily become since I saw her in London?" asked the other, after a pause, during which he smiled his own interpretation of Mallard's humour.

"A very superior young person, I assure you," was the reply, gravely spoken. "Miss Doran is a young woman of her time; she ranks with the emancipated; she is as far above the Girton girl as that interesting creature is above the product of an establishment for young ladies. Miss Doran has no prejudices, and, in the vulgar sense of the word, no principles. She is familiar with the Latin classics and with the Parisian feuilletons; she knows all about the newest religion, and can tell you Sarcey's opinion of the newest play. Miss Doran will discuss with you the merits of Sarah Bernhardt in 'La Dame aux Camelias,' or the literary theories of the brothers Goncourt. I am not sure that she knows much about Shakespeare, but her appreciation of Baudelaire is exquisite. I don't think she is naturally very cruel, but she can plead convincingly the cause of vivisection. Miss Doran-"

Spence interrupted him with a burst of laughter.

"All which, my dear fellow, simply means that you-"

Mallard, in his turn, interrupted gruffly.

"Precisely: that I am the wrong man to hold even the position of steward to one so advanced. What have I to do with heiresses and fashionable ladies? I have my work to get on with, and it shall not suffer from the intrusion of idlers."

"I see you direct your diatribe half against Mrs. Lessingham. How has she annoyed you?"

"Annoyed me? You never were more mistaken. It's with myself that I am annoyed."

"On what account?"

"For being so absurd as to question sometimes whether my responsibility doesn't extend beyond stock and share. I ask myself whether Doran-who so befriended me, and put such trust in me, and paid me so well in advance for the duties I was to undertake-didn't take it for granted that I should exercise some influence in the matter of his daughter's education? Is she growing up what he would have wished her to be? And if-"

"Why, it's no easy thing to say what views he had on this subject. The lax man, we know, is often enough severe with his own womankind. But as you have given me no description of what Cecily really is, I can offer no judgment. Wait till I have seen her. Doubtless she fulfils her promise of being beautiful?"

"Yes; there is no denying her beauty."

"As for her modonite, why, Mr. Ross Mallard is a singular person to take exception on that score."

"I don't know about that. When did I say that the modern woman was my ideal?"

"When had you ever a good word for the system which makes of woman a dummy and a kill-joy?"

"That has nothing to do with the question," replied Mallard, preserving a tone of gruff impartiality. "Have I been faithful to my stewardship? When I consented to Cecily's-to Miss Doran's passing from Mrs. Elgar's care to that of Mrs. Lessingham, was I doing right?"

"Mallard, you are a curious instance of the Puritan conscience surviving in a man whose intellect is liberated. The note of your character, including your artistic character, is this conscientiousness. Without it, you would have had worldly success long ago. Without it, you wouldn't talk nonsense of Cecily Doran. Had you rather she were co-operating with Mrs. Baske in a scheme to rebuild all the chapels in Lancashire?"

"There is a medium."

"Why, yes. A neither this nor that, an insipid refinement, a taste for culture moderated by reverence for Mrs. Grundy."

"Perhaps you are right. It's only occasionally that I am troubled in this way. But I heartily wish the three years remaining were over."

"And the 'definite good-bye' spoken. A good phrase, that of yours. What possessed you to come here just now, if it disturbs you to be kept in mind of these responsibilities?"

"I should find it hard to tell you. The very sense of responsibility, I suppose. But, as I said, I am not going to stay in Naples."

"You'll come and give us a 'definite good-bye' before you leave?"

Mallard said nothing, but turned and began to move on. They passed one of the sentry-boxes which here along the ridge mark the limits of Neapolitan excise; a boy-soldier, musket in hand, cast curious glances at them. After walking in silence for a few minutes, they began to descend the eastern face of the hill, and before them lay that portion of the great gulf which pictures have made so familiar. The landscape was still visible in all its main details, still softly suffused with warm colours from the west. About the cone of Vesuvius a darkly purple cloud was gathering; the twin height of Somma stood clear and of a rich brown. Naples, the many-coloured, was seen in profile, climbing from the Castel dell' Ovo, around which the sea slept, to the rock of Sant' Elmo; along the curve of the Chiaia lights had begun to glimmer. Far withdrawn, the craggy promontory of Sorrento darkened to profoundest blue; and Capri veiled itself in mist.

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