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   Chapter 7 THE MARTYR

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 18859

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Clifford Marsh left Pompeii on the same day as his two chance acquaintances; he returned to his quarters on the Mergellina, much perturbed in mind, beset with many doubts, with divers temptations. "Shall I the spigot wield?" Must the ambitions of his glowing youth come to naught, and he descend to rank among the Philistines? For, to give him credit for a certain amount of good sense, he never gravely contemplated facing the world in the sole strength of his genius. He knew one or two who had done so before his mind's eye was a certain little garret in Chelsea, where an acquaintance of his, a man of real and various powers, was year after year taxing his brain and heart in a bitter struggle with penury; and these glimpses of Bohemia were far from inspiring Clifford with zeal for naturalization. Elated with wine and companionship, he liked to pose as one who was sacrificing "prospects" to artistic conscientiousness; but, even though he had "fallen back" on landscape, he was very widely awake to the fact that his impressionist studies would not supply him with bread, to say nothing of butter-and Clifford must needs have both.

That step-father of his was a well-to-do manufacturer of shoddy in Leeds, one Hibbert, a good-natured man on the whole, but of limited horizon. He had married a widow above his own social standing, and for a long time was content to supply her idolized son with the means of pursuing artistic studies in London and abroad. But Mr. Hibbert had a strong opinion that this money should by now have begun to make some show of productiveness. Domestic grounds of dissatisfaction ripened his resolve to be firm with young Mr. Marsh. Mrs. Hibbert was extravagant; doubtless her son was playing the fool in the same direction. After all, one could pay too much for the privilege of being snubbed by one's superior wife and step-son. If Clifford were willing to "buckle to" at sober business (it was now too late for him to learn a profession), well and good; he should have an opening at which many a young fellow would jump. Otherwise, let the fastidious gentleman pay his own tailor's bills.

Clifford's difficulties were complicated by his relations with Madeline Denyer. It was a year since he had met Madeline at Naples, had promptly fallen in love with her face and her advanced opinions, and had won her affection in return. Clifford was then firm in the belief that, if he actually married, Mr. Hibbert would not have the heart to stop his allowance; Mrs. Denyer had reasons for thinking otherwise, and her daughter saw the case in the same light. It must be added that he presumed the Denyers to be better off than they really were; in fact, he was to a great extent misled. His dignity, if the worst came about, would not have shrunk from moderate assistance at the hands of his parents-in-law. Madeline knew well enough that nothing of this kind was possible, and in the end made her lover's mind clear on the point. Since then the course of these young people's affections had been anything but smooth. However, the fact remained that there was mutual affection-which, to be sure, made the matter worse.

Distinctly so since the estrangement which had followed Marsh's arrival at the boarding-house. He did not take Madeline's advice to seek another abode, and for two or three days Madeline knew not whether to be glad or offended at his remaining. For two or three days only; then she began to have a pronounced opinion on the subject. It was monstrous that he should stay under this roof and sit at this table, after what had happened. He had no delicacy; he was behaving as no gentleman could. It was high time that her mother spoke to him.

Mrs. Denyer solemnly invited the young man to a private interview.

"Mr. Marsh," she began, with pained dignity, whilst Clifford stood before her twiddling his watch-chain, "I really think the time has come for me to ask an explanation of what is going on. My daughter distresses me by saying that all is at an end between you. If that is really the case, why do you continue to live here, when you must know how disagreeable it is to Madeline?"

"Mrs. Denyer," replied Clifford, in a friendly tone, "there has been a misunderstanding between us, but I am very far from reconciling myself to the thought that everything is at an end. My remaining surely proves that."

"I should have thought so. But in that case I am obliged to ask you another question. What can you mean by paying undisguised attentions to another young lady who is living here?"

"You astonish me. What foundation is there for such a charge?"

"At least you won't affect ignorance as to the person of whom I speak. I assure you that I am not the only one who has noticed this."

"You misinterpret my behaviour altogether. Of course, you are speaking of Miss Doran. If your observation had been accurate, you would have noticed that Miss Doran gives me no opportunity of paying her attentions, if I wished. Certainly I have had conversations with Mrs. Lessingham, but I see no reason why I should deny myself that pleasure."

"This is sophistry. You walked about the museum with both these ladies for a long time yesterday."

Clifford was startled, and could not conceal it.

"Of course," he exclaimed, "if my movements are watched, with a view to my accusation-!"

And he broke off significantly.

"Your movements are not watched. But if I happen to hear of such things, I must draw my own conclusions."

"I give you my assurance that the meeting was purely by chance, and that our conversation was solely of indifferent matters-of art, of Pompeii, and so on."

"Perhaps you are not aware," resumed Mrs. Denyer, with a smile that made caustic comment on this apology, "that, when we sit at table, your eyes are directed to Miss Doran with a frequency that no one can help observing."

Marsh hesitated; then, throwing his head back, remarked in an unapproachable manner:

"Mrs. Denyer, you will not forget that I am an artist."

"I don't forget that you profess to be one, Mr. Marsh."

This was retort with a vengeance. Clifford reddened slightly, and looked angry. Mrs. Denyer had reached the point to which her remarks were from the first directed, and it was not her intention to spare the young man's susceptibilities. She had long ago gauged him, and not inaccurately on the whole; it seemed to her that he was of the men who can be "managed."

"I fail to understand you," said Marsh, with dignity.

"My dear Clifford, let me speak to you as one who has your well-being much at heart. I have no wish to hurt your feelings, but I have been upset by this silly affair, and it makes me speak a little sharply. Now, I see well enough what you have been about; it is an old device of young gentlemen who wish to revenge themselves just a little for what they think a slight. Of course you have never given a thought to Miss Doran, who, as you say, would never dream of carrying on a flirtation, for she knows how things are between you and Madeline, and she is a young lady of very proper behaviour. In no case, as you of course understand, could she be so indelicate as anything of this kind would imply. No; but you are vexed with Madeline about some silly little difference, and you play with her feelings. There has been enough of it; I must interfere. And now let us talk a little about your position. Madeline has, of course, told me everything. Listen to me, my dear Clifford; you must at once accept Mr. Hibbert's kindly meant proposal-you must indeed."

Marsh had reflected anxiously during this speech. He let a moment of silence pass; then said gravely:

"I cannot consent to do anything of the kind, Mrs. Denyer."

"Oh yes, you can and will, Clifford. Silly boy, don't you see that in this way you secure yourself the future just suited to your talents? As an artist you will never make your way; that is certain. As a man with a substantial business at your back, you can indulge your artistic tastes quite sufficiently, and will make yourself the centre of an admiring circle. We cannot all be stars of the first magnitude. Be content to shine in a provincial sphere, at all events for a time. Madeline as your wife will help you substantially. You will have good society, and better the richer you become. You are made to be a rich man and to enjoy life. Now let us settle this affair with your step-father."

Still Clifford reflected, and again with the result that he appeared to have no thought of being persuaded to such concessions. The debate went on for a long time, ultimately with no little vigour on both sides. Its only immediate result was that Marsh left the house for a few days, retiring to meditate at Pompeii.

In the mean time there was no apparent diminution in Madeline's friendliness towards Cecily Doran. It was not to be supposed that Madeline thought tenderly of the other's beauty, or with warm admiration of her endowments; but she would not let Clifford Marsh imagine that it mattered to her in the least if he at once transferred his devotion to Miss Doran. Her tone in conversing with Cecily became a little more patronizing,-though she spoke no more of impressionism,-in proportion as she discovered the younger girl's openness of mind and her lack of self-assertiveness.

"You play the piano, I think?" she said one day.

"For my own amusement only."

"And you

draw?"

"With the same reserve."

"Ah," said Madeline, "I have long since given up these things. Don't you think it is a pity to make a pastime of an art? I soon saw that I was never likely really to do anything in music or drawing, and out of respect for them I ceased to-to potter. Please don't think I apply that word to you."

"Oh, but it is very applicable," replied Cecily, with a laugh. "I think you are quite right; I often enough have the same feeling. But I am full of inconsistencies-as you are finding out, I know."

Mrs. Lessingham displayed good nature in her intercourse with the Denyers. She smiled in private, and of course breathed to Cecily a word of warning; but the family entertained her, and Madeline she came really to like. With Mrs. Denyer she compared notes on the Italy of other days.

"A sad, sad change!" Mrs. Denyer was wont to sigh. "All the poetry gone! Think of Rome before 1870, and what it is now becoming. One never looked for intellect in Italy-living intellect, of course, I mean-but natural poetry one did expect and find. It is heart-breaking, this progress! If it were not for my dear girls, I shouldn't be here; they adore Italy-of course, never having known it as it was. And I am sure you must feel, as I do, Mrs. Lessingham, the miserable results of cheapened travel. Oh, the people one sees at railway-stations, even meets in hotels, I am sorry to say, sometimes! In a few years, I do believe, Genoa and Venice will strongly remind one of Margate."

No echo of the cry of "Wolf!" ever sounded in Mrs. Denyer's conversation when she spoke of her husband. That Odysseus of commerce was always referred to as being concerned in enterprises of mysterious importance and magnitude; she would hint that he had political missions, naturally not to be spoken of in plain terms. Mrs. Lessingham often wondered with a smile what the truth really was; she saw no reason for making conjectures of a disagreeable kind, but it was pretty clear to her that selfishness, idleness, and vanity were at the root of Mrs. Denyer's character, and in a measure explained the position of the family.

During the last few days, Barbara had exhibited a revival of interest in the "place in Lincolnshire." Her experiments proved that it needed but a moderate ingenuity to make Mr. Musselwhite's favourite topic practically inexhaustible. The "place" itself having been sufficiently described, it was natural to inquire what other "places" were its neighbours, what were the characteristics of the nearest town, how long it took to drive from the "place" to the town, from the "place" to such another "place," and so on. Mr. Musselwhite was undisguisedly grateful for every remark or question that kept him talking at his ease. It was always his dread lest a subject should be broached on which he could say nothing whatever-there were so many such!-and as often as Barbara broke a silence without realizing his fear, he glanced at her with the gentlest and most amiable smile. Never more than glanced; yet this did not seem to be the result of shyness; rather it indicated a lack of mental activity, of speculation, of interest in her as a human being.

One morning he lingered at the luncheon-table when nearly all the others had withdrawn, playing with crumbs, and doubtless shrinking from the ennui that lay before him until dinner-time. Near him, Mrs. Denyer, Barbara, and Zillah were standing in conversation about some photographs that had this morning come by post.

"This one isn't at all like you, my dear," said Mrs. Denyer, with emphasis, to her eldest girl. "The other is passable, but I wouldn't have any of these."

"Well, of course I am no judge," replied Barbara, "but I can't agree with you. I much prefer this one."

Mr. Musselwhite was slowly rising.

"Let us take some one else's opinion," said the mother. "I wonder what Mr. Musselwhite would say?"

The mention of his name caused him to turn his head, half absently, with an inquiring smile. Barbara withdrew a step, but Mrs. Denyer, in the most natural way possible, requested Mr. Musselwhite's judgment on the portraits under discussion.

He took the two in his hands, and, after inspecting them, looked round to make comparison with the original. Barbara met his gaze placidly, with gracefully poised head, her hands joined behind her. It was such a long time before the arbiter found anything to remark, that the situation became a little embarrassing; Zillah laughed girlishly, and her sister's eyes fell.

"Really, it's very hard to decide," said Mr. Musselwhite at length, with grave conscientiousness. "I think they're both remarkably good. I really think I should have some of both."

"Barbara thinks that this makes her look too childish," said Mrs. Denyer, using her daughter's name with a pleasant familiarity.

Again Mr. Musselwhite made close comparison. It was, in fact, the first time that he had seen the girl's features; hitherto they had been, like everything else not embalmed in his memory, a mere vague perception, a detail of the phantasmic world through which he struggled against his ennui.

"Childish? Oh dear, no!" he remarked, almost vivaciously. "It is charming; they are both charming. Really, I'd have some of both, Miss Denyer."

"Then we certainly will," was Mrs. Denyer's conclusion; and with a gracious inclination of the head, she left the room, followed by her daughters. Mr. Musselwhite looked round for another glance at Barbara, but of course he was just too late.

Poor Madeline, in the meantime, was being sorely tried. Whilst Clifford Marsh was away at Pompeii, daily "scenes" took place between her and her mother. Mrs. Denyer would have had her make conciliatory movements, whereas Madeline, who had not exchanged a word with Clifford since the parting in wrath, was determined not to be the first to show signs of yielding. And she held her ground, tearless, resentful, strong in a sense of her own importance.

When he again took his place at Mrs. Gluck's table, Clifford had the air of a man who has resigned himself to the lack of sympathy and appreciation-nay, who defies everything external, and in the strength of his genius goes serenely onwards. Never had he displayed such self-consciousness; not for an instant did he forget to regulate the play of his features. Mrs. Denyer he had greeted distantly; her daughters, more distantly still. He did not look more than once or twice in Miss Doran's direction, for Mrs. Denyer's reproof had made him conscious of an excess in artistic homage. His neighbour being Mr. Bradshaw, he conversed with him agreeably, smiling seldom. He seemed neither depressed nor uneasy; his countenance wore a grave and noble melancholy, now and then illumined with an indescribable ardour.

The Bradshaws had begun to talk of leaving Naples, but this seemed to be the apology for enjoying themselves which is so characteristic of English people. Even Mrs. Bradshaw found her life from day to day very pleasant, and in consequence never saw her friends at the villa without expressing much uneasiness about affairs at home, and blaming her husband for making so long a stay. Both of them were now honoured with the special attention of Mr. Marsh. Clifford was never so much in his element as when conversing of art and kindred matters with persons who avowed their deficiencies in that sphere of knowledge, yet were willing to learn; relieved from the fear of criticism, he expanded, he glowed, he dogmatized. With Mrs. Lessingham he could not be entirely at his ease; her eye was occasionally disturbing to a pretender who did not lack discernment. But in walking about the museum with Mr. Bradshaw, he was the most brilliant of ciceroni. Jacob was not wholly credulous, for he had spoken of the young man with Mrs. Lessingham, but he found such companionship entertaining enough from time to time, and Clifford's knowledge of Italian was occasionally a help to him.

A day or two of moderate intimacy with any person whatsoever always led Clifford to a revelation of his private circumstances; it was not long before Mr. Bradshaw was informed not only of Mr. Hibbert's harshness, but of the painful treatment to which Clifford was being subjected at the hands of Mrs. Denyer and Madeline. The latter point was handled with a good deal of tact, for Clifford had it in view' that through Mr. Bradshaw his words would one way or other reach Mrs. Lessingham, and so perchance come to Miss Doran's ears. He made no unworthy charges; he spoke not in anger, but in sorrow; he was misunderstood, he was depreciated, by those who should have devoted themselves to supporting his courage under adversity. And as he talked, he became the embodiment of calm magnanimity; the rhetoric which was meant to impress his listener had an exalting effect upon himself-as usual.

"You mean to hold out, then?" asked the bluff Jacob, with a smile which all but became a chuckle.

"I am an artist," was the noble reply. "I cannot abandon my life's work."

"But how about bread and cheese? They are necessary to an artist, as much as to other men, I'm afraid."

Clifford smiled calmly.

"I shall not be the first who has starved in such a cause."

Jacob roared as he related this conversation to his wife.

"I must keep an eye on the lad," he said. "When I hear he's given in, I'll write him a letter of congratulation."

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