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   Chapter 8 PROOF AGAINST ILLUSION

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 27431

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


An interesting conversation took place one morning between Mrs. Spence and Mrs. Lessingham with regard to Cecily. They were alone together at the villa; Cecily and Miriam had gone for a drive with the Bradshaws. After speaking of Reuben Elgar, Mrs. Lessingham passed rather abruptly to what seemed a disconnected subject.

"I don't think it's time yet for Cecily to give up her set studies. I should like to find some one to read with her regularly again before long-say Latin and history; there would be no harm in a little mathematics. But there's a difficulty in finding the suitable person." She smiled. "I'm afraid only a lady will answer the purpose."

"Better, no doubt," assented Eleanor, also with a smile.

"And ladies who would be any good to Cecily are not at one's disposition every day. What an admirable mind she has! I never knew any one acquire with so little effort. Of course, she has long ago left me behind in everything. The only use I can be to her is to help her in gaining knowledge of the world-not to be learnt entirely out of books, we know."

"What is your system with her?"

"You see that I have one," said Mrs. Lessingham, gratified, and rustling her plumage a little as a lady does when she is about to speak in confidence of something that pleases her. "Of course, I very soon understood that the ordinary surveillance and restrictions and moral theories were of little use in her case. (I may speak with you quite freely, I am sure.) I'm afraid the results would have been very sad if Cecily had grown up in Lancashire."

"I doubt whether she would have grown up at all."

"Indeed, it seemed doubtful. If her strength had not utterly failed, she must have suffered dreadfully in mind. I studied her carefully during the first two years; then I was able to pursue my method with a good deal of confidence. It has been my aim to give free play to all her faculties; to direct her intelligence, but never to check its growth-as is commonly done. We know what is meant by a girl's education, as a rule; it is not so much the imparting of knowledge as the careful fostering of special ignorances. I think I put it rightly?"

"I think so."

"It is usual to say that a girl must know nothing of this and that and the other thing-these things being, in fact, the most important for her to understand. I won't say that every girl can safely be left so free as I have left Cecily; but when one has to deal with exceptional intelligence, why not yield it the exceptional advantages? Then again, I had to bear in mind that Cecily has strong emotions. This seemed to me only another reason for releasing her mind from the misconceptions it is usual to encourage. I have done my best to help her to see things as they are, not as moral teachers would like them to be, and as parents make-believe to their girls that they are indeed."

Mrs. Lessingham ended on a suave note of triumph, and smiled very graciously as Eleanor looked approval.

"The average parent says," she pursued, "that his or her daughter must be kept pure-minded, and therefore must grow up in a fool's paradise. I have no less liking for purity, but I understand it in rather a different sense; certain examples of the common purity that I have met with didn't entirely recommend themselves to me. Then again, the average parent says that the daughter's lot in life is marriage, and that after marriage is time enough for her to throw away the patent rose-coloured spectacles. I, on the other hand, should be very sorry indeed to think that Cecily has no lot in life besides marriage; to me she seemed a human being to be instructed and developed, not a pretty girl to be made ready for the market. The rose coloured spectacles had no part whatever in my system. I have known some who threw them aside at marriage, in the ordinary way, with the result that they thenceforth looked on everything very obliquely indeed. I'm sorry to say that it was my own fate to wear those spectacles, and I know only too well how hard a struggle it cost me to recover healthy eyesight."

"Mine fell off and got broken long before I was married," said Eleanor, "and my parents didn't think it worth while to buy new ones."

"Wise parents! No, I have steadily resisted the theory that a girl must know nothing, think nothing, but what is likely to meet the approval of the average husband-that is to say, the foolish, and worse than foolish, husband. I see no such difference between girl and boy as demands a difference in moral training; we know what comes of the prevalent contrary views. And in Cecily's case, I believe I have vindicated my theory. She respects herself; she knows all that lack of self-respect involves. She has been fed on wholesome victuals, not on adulterated milk. She is not haunted with that vulgar shame which passes for maiden modesty. Do you find fault with her, as a girl?"

"I should have to ponder long for an objection."

"And what is the practical result? In whatever society she is, I am quite easy in mind about her. Cecily will never do anything foolish. It's only the rose-coloured spectacles that cause stumbling. And I mean by 'stumbling' all the silliness to which girls are subject. Ah! if I could live my girlhood over again, and with some sensible woman to guide me! If I could have been put on my guard against idiotic illusions, as Cecily is!"

"We mustn't expect too much of education," Eleanor ventured to remark. "There is no way of putting experience into a young girl's head. It would say little for her qualities if a girl could not make a generous mistake."

"Such mistakes are not worthy of being called generous, as a rule. They are too imbecile. That state of illusion is too contemptible. There is very little danger of Cecily's seeing any one in a grossly false light."

Eleanor did not at once assent.

"You seem to doubt that?" added the other, with a searching look.

"I think she is as well guarded as a girl can be; but, as I said before, education is no substitute for experience. Don't think me captious, however. I sympathize entirely with the course you have taken. If I had a daughter, I should like her to be brought up on the same principles."

"Cecily is very mature for her age," continued Mrs. Lessingham, with evident pleasure in stating and restating her grounds of confidence. "She feels strongly, but never apart from judgment. Now and then she astonishes me with her discernment of character; clearness of thought seems almost to anticipate in her the experience on which you lay such stress. Have you noticed her with Mr. Mallard? How differently many girls would behave! But Cecily understands him so well; she knows he thinks of her as a child, and nothing could be more simply natural than her friendship for him. I suppose Mr. Mallard is one of the artists who never marry?"

"I don't know him well enough to decide that," answered Eleanor, with a curious smile.

It was in the evening of this day, when the Spences and Miriam were sitting together after dinner, that a servant announced a visit of Reuben Elgar, adding that he was in his sister's room. Miriam went to join him.

"You can spare me a minute or two?" he asked cheerily, as she entered.

"Certainly. You are just back from Pompeii?"

"From Castellamare-from Sorrento the indescribable-from Amalfi the unimaginable-from Salerno! Leave Naples without seeing those places, and hold yourself for ever the most wretched of mortals! Old Mallard forced me to go with him, and I am in his debt to eternity!"

This exalted manner of speech was little to Miriam's taste especially from her brother. Sobriety was what she desired in him. It seemed a small advantage that his extravagance should exhibit itself in this way rather than in worse; the danger was still there.

"Sit down, and talk more quietly. You say Mr. Mallard forced you to go?"

"I was coming back to Naples from Pompeii. By-the-bye, I went up Vesuvius, and descended shoeless. The guides ought to have metal boots on hire. I was coming back, but Mallard clutched me by the coat-collar. Even now I've come sorely against his will. I left him at Amalfi. I'm going to settle my affairs here to-morrow, and join him again. He's persuaded me to try and work at Amalfi."

"How long do you think of staying there?"

"It all depends. Perhaps I shan't be able to do anything, after all."

"But surely that depends on yourself."

"Not a bit! If I were a carpenter or bricklayer, one might say so-in a sense. But such work as I am going to do is a question of mood, influences, caprices-"

Miriam reflected.

"Mr. Mallard was unwilling to let you return here?"

"Naturally. He knows my uncertainty. But I have promised him; I shall keep my word."

"He is working himself?"

"Will be by now; we had horrible day of rain at Amalfi. He seems rather glummer than usual, but that won't hinder his work. I wish I had the old fellow's energy. After all, though, one can force one's self to use pencils and brushes; it's a different thing when all has to come from the brain. If you haven't a quiet mind-"

"What disturbs you?" Miriam asked, watching him.

"Oh, there's always something. I wish you could give me a share of your equanimity. Never mind, I shall try. By-the-bye, I ought to have a word with Mrs. Lessingham and Cecily before I go. Are they likely to be here tomorrow?"

"I can't say."

"Then I shall call at their place. When will they be at home?"

"Do you think you ought to do that?" Miriam asked, without looking at him.

"Why on earth not?"

His brow darkened, and he seemed about to utter something not unlike his vehemencies on the day of arrival.

"You must judge for yourself, of course," said Miriam. "We won't talk about it."

Reuben nodded agreement carelessly. Then he began to talk of his proposed work, and presently they went to join the Spences. For an hour or more, Reuben held forth rapturously on what he had seen these last few days. He could not rest seated, but paced up and down the room, gesticulating, fervidly eloquent.

"Do play me something, will you, Mrs. Spence?" he asked at length. (His cousinship with Eleanor had never been affirmed by intimate association, and he had not the habit of addressing her by the personal name.) "Just for ten minutes; then I'll be off and trouble you no more. Something to invigorate! A rugged piece!"

Eleanor made a choice from Beethoven, and, whilst she played, Elgar leant forward on the back of a chair. Then he bade them good-bye, his pulse at fever-time.

Half-past ten next morning found him walking hither and thither on the Mergellina, frequently consulting his watch. He decided at length to approach the house in which his acquaintances dwelt. Passing through the portone, whom should he encounter but Clifford Marsh, known to him only from the casual meeting at Pompeii, not by name. They stopped to speak. Elgar inquired if the other lived at Mrs. Gluck's.

"For the present."

"I have friends here," Reuben added. "You know Mrs. Lessingham?"

"Oh yes," replied Clifford, eyeing his collocutor. "If you are calling to see those ladies," he continued, "they went out half an hour ago. I saw them drive away."

Elgar muttered his annoyance. Though he disliked doing so, he asked Marsh whether he knew when the ladies were likely to return. Clifford declared his ignorance. The two looked at each other, smiled, said good morning, and turned different ways.

Reuben walked about the sea-front for a couple of hours. "Who is that confounded fellow?" he kept asking in his mind, adding the highly ludicrous question, "What business has he to know them?" His impatience waxed; now and then he strode at such a pace that perspiration covered him. The most trivial discomposure had often much the same effect on him; if he happened to have a difficulty in finding his way, for instance, he would fume himself into exasperated heat.

"What business have they to live in a vulgar boarding house? It's abominable bad taste and indiscretion in that woman. In fact, I don't like Mrs. Lessingham.-And what the devil has it to do with me?"

He strode up to the villa. Possibly they were there; yet he didn't like to call-for various reasons. He fretted about the roads, this way and that, till hunger oppressed him. Having eaten at the first restaurant he came to, he directed his steps towards the Mergellina again. At two o'clock he reached the house and made inquiry. The ladies had not yet returned.

He struck off towards the Chiaia, again paced backwards and forwards, cursed at carriage-drivers who plagued him, tried to amuse himself on the Santa Lucia. And pray what was all this fuss about? When he rose this morning, he had half a mind to start at once for Amalfi, and not see Mrs. Lessingham and her niece at all; he "didn't know that he cared much." He had met Cecily Doran twice. The second time was on the Strada Nuova di Posillipo, where he encountered a carriage in which Cecily and her aunt were taking the air; he talked with them for three minutes. It was the undeniable fact that he had broken away from "old Mallard" merely to see Cecily again. He had never tried to blind himself to it; that kind of thing was not in his way. None the less was it a truth that he thought himself capable of saying good-bye to the wonderful girl, and posting off to his literary work. Why expose himself to temptation? Because he chose to; because it was pleasant; surely an excellent reason.

If only he hadn't come up against that confounded artist-fellow! That had upset him, most absurdly. A half good-looking sort of fellow: a fellow who could prate w

ith a certain brio; not unlikely to make something of a figure in the eyes of a girl like Cecily. And what then?

Before now, Elgar had confessed to a friend that he couldn't read the marriage-column in a newspaper without feeling a distinct jealousy of all the male creatures there mentioned.

He sought out a caffe, and sat there for an hour, drinking a liquor that called itself lacryma-Christi, but would at once have been detected for a pretender by a learned palate. He drank it for the first time, and tried to enjoy it, but his mind kept straying to alien things. When it was nearly four o'clock, he again went forth, took a carriage, and bade the man drive quickly.

This time he was successful. A servant conducted him by many stairs and passages to Mrs. Lessingham's sitting-room. He entered, and found himself alone with Cecily.

"Mrs. Lessingham will certainly be back very soon," she said, in shaking hands with him. "They told me you had called before, and I thought you would like better to wait a few minutes than to be disappointed again."

"I think of going to Amalfi to-morrow morning, perhaps for a long time," remarked the visitor. "I wished to say good bye."

The accumulated impatience and nervousness of the whole morning disturbed his pulses and put a weight upon his tongue; he spoke with awkward indecision, held himself awkwardly. His own voice sounded boorish to him after Cecily's accents.

Cecily began to speak of how she had spent the day. Her aunt was making purchases-was later in returning than had been expected. Then she asked for an account of Elgar's doings since they last met. The conversation grew easier Reuben began to recover his natural voice, and to lose disagreeable self-consciousness in the delight of hearing Cecily and meeting her look. Had he known her better, he would have observed that she spoke with unusual diffidence, that she was not quite so self-possessed as of wont, and that her manner was deficient in the frank gaiety which as a rule made its great charm. Her tone softened itself in questioning; she listened so attentively that, when he had ceased speaking, her eyes always rose to his, as if she had expected something further.

"Who is the young artist that lives here?" Elgar inquired. "I met him at Pompeii, and to-day came upon him here in the courtyard. A slight, rather boyish fellow."

"I think you mean Mr. Marsh," replied Cecily, smiling. "He has recently been at Pompeii, I know."

"You are on friendly terms with him?"

"Not on unfriendly," she answered, with amusement.

Elgar averted his face. Instantly the flow of his blood was again turbid; he felt an inclination to fling out some ill-mannered remark.

"You must come in contact with all kinds of odd people in a place like this."

"One or two are certainly odd," was the reply, in a gentle tone; "but most of them are very pleasant to be with occasionally. Naturally we see more of the Bradshaws than of any one else. There's a family named Denyer-a lady with three daughters; I don't think you would dislike them. Mr. Marsh is their intimate friend."

It was all but as though she pleaded against a mistaken judgment which troubled her. To Mallard she had spoken of her fellow-boarders in quite a different way, with merry though kindly criticism, or in the strain of generous idealization which so often marked her language.

"Do you know anything of his work?" Elgar pursued.

"I have seen a few of his water-colour drawings."

"He showed you them?"

"No; one of the Miss Denyers did. He had given them to her"

"Oh!" He at once brightened. "And how did they strike you?"

"I'm sorry to say they didn't interest me much. But I have no right to sit in judgment."

Elgar had the good taste to say nothing more on the subject. He let his eyes rest on her down-turned face for a moment.

"You see a good deal of Miriam, I'm glad to hear."

"I am sometimes afraid I trouble her by going too often."

"Have no such fear. I wish you were living under the same roof with her. No one's society could do her so much good as yours. The poor girl has too long been in need of such an aid to rational cheerfulness."

They were interrupted by the entrance of an English maidservant, who asked whether Miss Doran would have tea brought at once, or wait till Mrs. Lessingham's return.

"You see how English we are," said Cecily to her visitor. "I think we'll have it now; Mrs. Lessingham may be here any moment."

It was growing dusk. Whilst the conversation was diverted by trifles, two lighted lamps were brought into the room. Elgar had risen and gone to the window.

"We won't shut out the evening sky," said Cecily, standing not far from him.

The door closed upon the servant who had carried in the tea-tray. Elgar turned to his companion, and said in a musing tone, with a smile:

"How long is it since we saw each other every day in Manchester?"

"Seven years since that short time you spent with us."

"Seven; yes. You were not twelve then; I was not quite twenty-one. As regards change, a lifetime might have passed since, with both of us. Yet I don't feel very old, not oppressively ancient."

"And I'm sure I don't."

They laughed together.

"You are younger than you were then," he continued, in his most characteristic voice, the voice which was musical and alluring, and suggestive of his nature's passionate depths and heights. "You have grown into health of body and soul, and out of all the evil things that would have robbed you of natural happiness. Nothing ever made me more glad than first seeing you at the villa. I didn't know what you had become, and in looking at you I rejoiced on your account. You would gladden even miserable old age, like sunlight on a morning of spring."

Cecily moved towards the tea-table in silence. She began to fill one of the cups, but put the teapot down again and waited for a moment. Having resumed her purpose, she looked round and saw Elgar seated sideways on a chair by the window. With the cup of tea in her hand, she approached him and offered it without speaking. He rose quickly to take it, and went to another part of the room.

"I hope Miriam will stay here the whole winter," Cecily said, as she seated herself by the table.

"I hope so," he assented absently, putting his tea aside. "How long are you and Mrs. Lessingham likely to stay?"

"At least till February, I think."

"Shall you get as far as Amalfi some day?"

"Oh yes And Miriam will come with us, I hope. And to Capri too."

"I must see Capri. I shouldn't wonder if I go there soon; probably it would suit my purpose better than Amalfi. Yet I must be alone, if I am to work. I haven't Mallard's detachment. That seems to you a paltry confession of weakness."

"No, indeed. I am told that Mr. Mallard is quite exceptional in his power of disregarding everything but his work."

"Exceptional in many things, no doubt. I must seem very insignificant in comparison."

"Why should you? Mr. Mallard is so much older; he has long been fixed in his course."

"Older, yes," assented Elgar, with satisfaction. "Perhaps at his age I too may have done something worth doing."

"Who could doubt it?"

"It does me good to hear you say that!"

He moved from his distant place, and threw himself in one of his usual careless attitudes on a nearer chair. "But Miriam has no faith in me, not a jot Does she speak harshly of me to you?"

"No."

Cecily shook her head, and seemed unable to speak more than the monosyllable.

"But she has nothing encouraging to say? She shows that she looks upon me as one of whom no good can come? That is the impression you have received from her?"

Cecily looked at him gravely.

"She has scarcely spoken of you at all-scarcely more than the few words that were inevitable."

"In itself a condemnation."

Cecily was mute. Before Elgar could say anything more, the door opened. With a sudden radiance on her features, the girl looked up to greet Mrs. Lessingham's entrance.

"How long you have been, aunt!"

"Yes; I am sorry. How do you do, Mr. Elgar? Tea, Cecily, lest I perish!"

From the doorway her quick glance had scrutinized both the young people. Of course she betrayed no surprise; neither did she make exhibition of pleasure. Her greeting of the visitor was gracefully casual, given in passing. She sank upon a low chair as if overcome with weariness. Mrs. Lessingham had nothing to learn in the arts wherewith social intercourse is kept smooth in spite of nature's improprieties. When she chose, she could be the awe-inspiring chaperon, no less completely than she was at other times the contemner of the commonplace.

"So you leave us to-morrow, Mr. Elgar? I have just met Mr. Spence, and heard the news from him. I am glad you could find a moment to call. You are going to be very busy, I hear, for the rest of the winter."

"I hope so," Elgar replied, walking across the room to fetch his half-emptied teacup.

"We shall look eagerly for the results of your work."

For ten minutes the conversation kept a rather flat course. Cecily only spoke when addressed by her aunt; then quite in her usual way. Elgar took the first opportunity to signal departure. When Cecily gave him her hand, it was with a moment's unfaltering look-a look very different from that which charmed everyday acquaintances at their coming and going, unlike anything man or woman had yet seen on her countenance. The faintest smile hovered about her lips as she said, "Good-bye;" her steadfast eyes added the hope which there was no need to speak.

When he was gone, Mrs. Lessingham sipped her tea in silence. Cecily moved about and presently brought a book to her chair by the tea-table.

"No doubt you had the advantage of hearing Mr. Elgar's projects detailed," said her aunt, with irony which presumed a complete understanding between them.

"No." Cecily shook her head and smiled.

"Curious how closely he and Mr. Marsh resemble each other at times."

"Do you think so?"

"Haven't you noticed it? There are differences, of course. Mr. Elgar is originally much better endowed; though at present I should think he is even less to be depended upon, either intellectually or morally. But they belong to the same species. What numbers of such young men I have met!"

"What are the characteristics of the species, aunt?" Cecily inquired, with a pleasant laugh.

"I dare say you know them almost as well as I do. You might write an essay on 'The Young Man of Promise' of our day. I should be rather too severe; you would treat them with a lighter hand, and therefore more effectually."

In speaking, she kept her eyes on the girl, who appeared to muse the subject with sportful malice.

"I am not sure," said Cecily, "that Mr. Elgar would come into the essay."

"You mean that his promise is too obviously delusive?"

"Not exactly that. I rather think he should have an essay to himself."

"Of what tendency?" asked Mrs. Lessingham, still closely observant.

"Oh, it would need much meditation; but I think I could make it interesting."

With another laugh, she dismissed the subject; nor did her aunt endeavour to revive it.

The morrow was Sunday. Elgar knew at what time his tram left for Salerno; the time-table was the same as for other days. Yet he lay in bed till nearly noon, till the train had long since started. No, he should not go to-day.

It irked him to rise at all. He had not slept; his head was hot, and his hands shook nervously. Dressed, he sat down for a minute, and remained seated half an hour, gazing at the wall. When at length he left the house, he walked without seeing anything, stumbling against things and people.

Of course, he knew last night that there was no journey for him to-day. Promise? A promise is void when its fulfilment has become impossible. Very likely Mallard had a conviction that he would not come back at the appointed time. To-morrow, perhaps; and perhaps not even to-morrow It had got beyond his control.

He ate, and returned to his room. Just now his need was physical repose, undisturbed indulgence of reverie. And the reverie of a man in his condition is a singular process. It consists of a small number of memories, forecasts, Imaginings, repeated over and over again, till one would think the brain must weary itself beyond endurance. It can go on for many hours consecutively, and not only remain a sufficient and pleasurable employment, but render every other business repulsive, all but impossible.

At evening there came a change. He was now unable to keep still; he went into the town, and exhausted himself with walking up and down the hilly streets. Society would have helped him, but he could find none. He would not go to the villa; still less could he visit the boarding-house.

What a night! At times he moved about his room like one in frantic pain, finally flinging himself upon the bed and lying there till the impulse of his fevered mind broke the beginnings of sleep. Or he walked the length of the floor, with measured step, fifty times, counting each time he turned-a sort of conscious insanity. Or he took his pocket-knife, and drove the point into the flesh of his arm, satisfied when the pang became intolerable. Then again a loss of all control in mere frenzy, the desire to shout, to yell....

Elgar was out of the house at sunrise. He went down to the Chiaia, loitered this way and that, always in the end facing towards Posillipo. He drank his coffee, but ate nothing; then again walked along the sea-front. Between nine and ten he turned into the upward road, and went with purpose towards Villa Sannazaro.

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