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   Chapter 9 IN THE DEAD CITY

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 19023

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Through it was Sunday, Cecily resolved to go and spend the afternoon with Miriam. She was restless, and could not take pleasure in Mrs. Lessingham's conversation. Possibly her arrival at the villa would be anything but welcome; but she must see Miriam.

She drove up by herself, and first of all saw the Spences. From them she learnt that Miriam, as usual on Sunday, was keeping her own room.

"Do you think I may venture, Mrs. Spence?"

"Go and announce yourself, my dear. If you are bidden avaunt, come back and cheer us old people with your brightness."

So Cecily went with light step along the corridor, and with light fingers tapped at Miriam's room. The familiar voice bade her enter. Miriam was sitting near the window, on her lap a closed book.

"May I-?"

"Of course you may," was the quiet answer.

Cecily closed the door, came forward, and bent to kiss her friend. Then she glanced at the "St. Cecilia;" then examined herself for a moment in one of the mirrors; then took off her hat, mantle, and gloves.

"I want to stay as long as your patience will suffer me."

"Do so."

"You avoid saying how long that is likely to be."

"How can I tell?"

"Oh, you have experience of me. You know how trying you find me in certain moods. To-day I am in a very strange mood indeed; very malicious, very wicked. And it is Sunday."

Miriam did not seem to resent this. She looked away at the window, but smiled. Could Cecily have been aware how her face had changed when the door opened, she would not have doubted whether she was truly welcome.

"What book is that, Miriam?"

Cecily had been half afraid to ask; to her surprise it proved to be Dante.

"Do you read this on Sunday?"

Miriam deigned no reply. The other, sitting just in front of her, took up the volume and rustled its leaves.

"How far have you got? This pencil mark? 'Amor ch'a null' amato amar perdona.'"

She read the line in an undertone, slowly towards the close. Miriam's face showed a sudden and curious emotion. Glancing at the book, she said abruptly:

"No; that's an old mark-a difficulty I had. I'm long past that."

"So am I. 'Amor ch'a null'-'"

Miriam stretched out her hand and took the volume with impatience.

"I'm at the end of this canto," she said, pointing. "Never mind it now. I should have thought you would have gone somewhere such a fine afternoon."

"That sounds remarkably like a hint that patience is near its end."

"I didn't mean it for that."

"Then let us get a carriage and drive somewhere together, we two alone."

Miriam shook her head.

"Because it is Sunday?" asked Cecily, with a mischievous smile, leaning her head aside.

"There is an understanding between us, Cecily. Don't break it."

"But I told you my mood was wicked. I feel disposed to break any and every undertaking. I should like to fret and torment and offend you. I should like to ask you why I am allowed to enjoy the sunshine, and you not? Oggi e festa! What a dreadful sound that must have in your ears Miriam!"

"But they don't apply it to Sunday," returned the other, who seemed to resign herself to this teasing.

"Indeed they do!" With a sudden change of subject, Cecily added, "Your brother came to see us yesterday, to say good-bye."

"Did he?"

"It doesn't interest you. You care nothing where he goes, or what he does-nothing whatever, Miriam. He told me so; but I knew it already."

"He told you so?" Miriam asked, with cold surprise.

"Yes. You are unkind; you are unnatural."

"And you, Cecily, are childish. I never knew you so childish as to-day."

"I warned you. He and I had a long talk before aunt came home."

"I'm sorry he should have thought it necessary to talk about himself."

"What more natural, when he is beginning a new portion of life? Never mind; we won't speak of it. May I play you a new piece I have learnt?"

"Do you mean, of sacred music?"

"Sacred? Why, all music is sacred. There are tunes and jinglings that I shouldn't call so; but neither do I call them music, just as I distinguish between bad or foolish verse, and poetry. Everything worthy of being called art is sacred. I shall keep telling you that till in self-defence you are forced to think about it. And now I shall play the piece whether you like it or not."

She opened the piano. What she had in mind was one of the "Moments Musicaux" of Schubert-a strain of exquisite melody, which ceased too soon. Cecily sat for a few moments at the key-board after she had finished, her head bent; then she came and stood before Miriam.

"Do you like it?"

There was no answer. She looked steadily at the troubled face, and, as it still kept averted from her, she laid her arms softly, half playfully, about Miriam's neck.

"Why must there always be such a distance between us, Miriam dear? Even when I seem so near to you as this, what a deep black gulf really separates us!"

"You were once on my side of it" said Miriam, her voice softened. "How did you pass to the other?"

"How could I tell you? No one read me lectures, or taught me hard arguments. The change came insensibly, like passing out of a dream into the light of morning. I followed where my nature led, and my thoughts about everything altered. I don't know how it might have been if I had lived on with you. But my happiness was not there."

"Happiness!" murmured the other, scornfully.

"A word you don't, won't understand. Yet to me it means much. Who knows? Perhaps there may come a day when I shall look back upon it, and see it as empty of satisfaction as it now seems to you. But more likely that I shall live to look back in sorrow for its loss."

The dialogue became such as they had held more than once of late, fruitless it seemed, only saddening to both. And Cecily was to-day saddened by it beyond her wont; her excessive gaiety yielded to a dejection which passed indeed, but for a while made her very unlike herself, silent, with troubled eyes.

"I had one valid excuse for coming to see you to-day," she said, when gaiety and dejection had both gone by. "Mr. and Mrs. Bradshaw seriously think of going to Rome at the end of next week, and they wish to have another day at Pompeii. They would like it so much if you would go with them. If you do, I also will; we shall make four for a carriage, and drive there, and come back by train."

"What day?"

"To-morrow, if it be fine. Let me take them your assent."

Miriam agreed.

On Monday morning, as arranged, she was driving down to the Mergellina, when, with astonishment, she saw her brother standing by the roadside, beckoning to her. The carriage stopped, and he came up to speak.

"Where are you off to?" he asked.

"You are still here?"

"I haven't been well. Didn't feel able to go yesterday. I was just coming to see you."

"Not well, Reuben? Why didn't you come before?"

"I couldn't. I want to speak to you. Where are you going?"

She told him the plan for the day. Elgar turned aside, and meditated.

"I'll see you there-at Pompeii somewhere. It'll be on my way."

"I had rather not go at all. I'll ask them to excuse me; Mrs. Lessingham will perhaps take my place, and-"

"No! I'll see you at Pompeii. I shall have no difficulty you."

Miriam looked at him anxiously.

"I don't wish you to meet us there, Reuben."

"And I do wish! Let me have my way, Miriam. Say nothing about me, and let the meeting seem by chance."

"I can't do that. You make yourself ridiculous, after-"

"Let me judge for myself. Go on, or you'll be late."

She half rose, as if about to descend from the carriage. Elgar laid his hand on her arm, and clutched it so strongly that she sank back and regarded him with a look of anger.

"Miriam! Do as I wish, dear. Be kind to me for this once. If you refuse, it will make no difference. Have some feeling for me. This one day, Miriam."

Again she looked at him, and reflected. On account of the driver, though of course he could not understand them, they had subdued their voices, and Reuben's sudden action had not been noticeable.

"This one piece of sisterly kindness," he pleaded.

"It shall be as you wish," Miriam replied, her face cast down.

"Thank you, a thousand times. Avanti, cocchiere!"

Scrutiny less keen than Miriam's could perceive that Cecily had not her usual pleasure in to-day's expedition. Even Mrs. Bradshaw, sitting over against her in the carriage, noticed that the girl's countenance lacked its natural animation, wore now and then a tired look; the lids hung a little heavily over the beautiful eyes, and the cheeks were a thought pale. When she forgot herself in conversation, Cecily was the same as ever; mirthful, brightly laughing, fervent in expressing delight; but her thoughts too often made her silent, and then one saw that she was not heart and soul in the present. It was another Cecily than on that day at Baiae. "She has been over-exciting herself since she came here," was Mrs. Bradshaw's mental remark. Miriam, anxiously observant, made a different interpretation, and was harassed with a painful conflict of thoughts.

Jacob Bush Bradshaw had no eyes for these trivialities. He sat in the squared posture of a hearty Englishman, amusing himself with everything they passed on the road self-congratulant on the knowledge and experience he had been storing, joking as often as he spoke.

"The lad Marsh would have uncommonly liked an invitation to come with us to-day," he said, about midway in

the drive. "What precious mischief we could have made by asking him, Hannah!"

"There's no room for him, fortunately."

"Oh yes; up on the box."

His eye twinkled as he looked at Cecily. She questioned him.

"Where would be the mischief, Mr. Bradshaw?"

"He talks nonsense, my dear," interposed Mrs. Bradshaw. "Pay no attention to him."

Miriam had heard now and then of Clifford Marsh. She met Jacob's smile, and involuntarily checked it by her gravity.

"We might have asked the Denyers as well," said Cecily, "and have had another carriage, or gone by train."

Mr. Bradshaw chuckled for some minutes at this proposal, but his wife would not allow him to pursue the jest.

They lunched at the Hotel Diomede before entering the precincts of the ruins. Mr. Bradshaw had invariably a splendid appetite, and was by this time skilled in ordering the meals that suited him. The few phrases of Italian which he had appropriated were given forth ore rotundo, with Anglo-saxon emphasis on the o's, and accompanied with large gestures. His mere appearance always sufficed to put landlords and waiters into their most urbane mood; they never failed to take him for one of the English nobility-a belief confirmed by the handsomeness of his gratuities. Mrs. Bradshaw was not, perhaps, the ideal lady of rank, but the fine self-satisfaction on her matronly visage, the good-natured disdain with which she allowed herself to be waited upon by foolish foreigners, her solid disregard of everything beyond the circle of her own party, were impressive enough, and exacted no little subservience.

Strong in the experience of two former visits, Mr. Bradshaw would have no guide to-day. Murray in hand, he knew just what he wished to see again, and where to find it.

As Miriam was at Pompeii for the first time, he took her especially under his direction, and showed her the city much as he might have led her over his silk-mill in Manchester. Unimbued with history and literature, he knew nothing of the scholar's or the poet's enthusiasm; his gratification lay in exercising his solid intelligence on a lot of strange and often grotesque facts. Here men had lived two thousand years ago. There was no mistake about it; you saw the deep ruts of their wheels along the rugged street; nay, you saw the wearing of their very feet on the comically narrow pavements. And their life had been as different as possible from that of men in Manchester. Everything excited him to merriment.

"Now, this is the house of old Pansa-no doubt an ancestor of friend Sancho"-with a twinkle in his eye. "We'll go over this carefully, Mrs. Baske; it's one of the largest and completest in Pompeii. Here we are in what they called the atrium."

Cecily spoke seldom. Of course, she would have preferred to be alone here with Miriam; best of all-or nearly so-if they could have made the same party as at Baiae. At times she lingered a little behind the others, and seemed deep in contemplation of some object; or she stood to watch the lizards darting about the sunny old walls. When all were enjoying the view from the top of Jupiter's Temple, she gazed long towards the Sorrento promontory, the height of St. Angelo.

"Amalfi is over on the far side," she said to Miriam. "They are both working there now."

Miriam replied nothing.

When they were in the Street of Tombs, Cecily again paused, by the sepulchre of the Priestess Mamia, whence there is a clear prospect across the bay towards the mountains. Turning back again, she heard a voice that made her tremble with delighted surprise. A wall concealed the speaker from her; she took a few quick steps, and saw Reuben Elgar shaking hands with the Bradshaws. He looked at her, and came forward. She could not say any thing, and was painfully conscious of the blood that rushed to her face; never yet had she known this stress of heart-beats that made suffering of joy, and the misery of being unable to command herself under observant eyes.

It was years since Elgar and the Bradshaws had met. As a boy he had often visited their house, but from the time of his leaving home at sixteen to go to a boarding-school, his acquaintance with them, as with all his other Manchester friends, practically ceased. They had often heard of him-too often, in their opinion. Aware of his arrival at Naples, they had expressed no wish to see him. Still, now that he met them in this unexpected way, they could not but assume friendliness. Jacob, not on the whole intolerant, was willing enough to take "the lad" on his present merits; Reuben had the guise and manners of a gentleman, and perhaps was grown out of his reprobate habits. Mr. Bradshaw and his wife could not but notice Cecily's agitation at the meeting; they exchanged wondering glances, and presently found an opportunity for a few words apart. What was going on? How had these two young folks become so intimate? Well, it was no business of theirs. Lucky that Mrs. Baske was one of the company.

And why should Cecily disguise that now only was her enjoyment of the day begun-that only now had the sunshine its familiar brightness, the ancient walls and ways their true enchantment? She did not at once become more talkative, but the shadow had passed utterly from her face, and there was no more listlessness in her movements.

"I have stopped here on my way to join Mallard," was all Reuben said, in explanation of his presence.

All kept together. Mr. Bradshaw resumed his interest in antiquities, but did not speak so freely about them as before.

"Your brother knows a good deal more about these things than I do, Mrs. Baske," he remarked. "He shall give us the benefit of his Latin."

Miriam resolutely kept her eyes alike from Reuben and from Cecily. Hitherto her attention to the ruins had been intermittent, but occasionally she had forgotten herself so far as to look and ponder; now she saw nothing. Her mind was gravely troubled; she wished only that the day were over.

As for Elgar, he seemed to the Bradshaws singularly quiet, modest, inoffensive. If he ventured a suggestion or a remark, it was in a subdued voice and with the most pleasant manner possible. He walked for a time with Mrs. Bradshaw, and accommodated himself with much tact to her way of regarding foreign things, whether ancient or modern. In a short time all went smoothly again.

Not since they shook hands had Elgar and Cecily encountered each other's glance. They looked at each other often, very often, but only when the look could not be returned; they exchanged not a syllable. Yet both knew that at some approaching moment, for them the supreme moment of this day, their eyes must meet. Not yet; not casually, and whilst others regarded them. The old ruins would be kind.

It was in the house of Meleager. They had walked among the coloured columns, and had visited the inner chamber, where upon the wall is painted the Judgment of Paris. Mr. Bradshaw passed out through the narrow doorway, and his voice was dulled; Miriam passed with him, and, close after her, Mrs. Bradshaw. Reuben seemed to draw aside for Cecily, but she saw his hand extended towards her-it held a spray of maidenhair that he had just gathered. She took it, or would have taken it, but her hand was closed in his.

"I have stayed only to see you again," came panting from his lips. "I could not go till I had seen you again!"

And before the winged syllables had ceased, their eyes met; nor their eyes alone, for upon both was the constraint of passion that leaps like flame to its desire-mouth to mouth and heart to heart for one instant that concentrated all the joy of being.

What hand, centuries ago crumbled into indistinguishable dust, painted that parable of the youth making his award to Love? What eyes gazed upon it, when this was a home of man and woman warm with life, listening all day long to the music of uttered thoughts? Dark-buried whilst so many ages of history went by, thrown open for the sunshine to rest upon its pallid antiquity, again had this chamber won a place in human hearts, witnessed the birth of joy and hope, blended itself with the destiny of mortals. He who pictured Paris dreamt not of these passionate lips and their unborn language, knew not that he wrought for a world hidden so far in time. Though his white-limbed goddess fade ghostlike, the symbol is as valid as ever. Did not her wan beauty smile youthful again in the eyes of these her latest worshippers?

And they went forth among the painted pillars, once more shunning each other's look. It was some minutes before Cecily knew that her fingers still crushed the spray of maidenhair; then she touched it gently, and secreted it within her glove. It must be dead when she reached home, but that mattered nothing; would it not remain the sign of something deathless?

She believed so. In her vision the dead city had a new and wonderful life; it lay glorious in the light of heaven, its strait ways fit for the treading of divinities, its barren temples reconsecrate with song and sacrifice. She believed there was that within her soul which should survive all change and hazard-survive, it might be, even this warm flesh that it was hard not to think immortal.

She sought Miriam's side, took her hand, held it playfully as they walked on together.

"Why do you look at me so sadly, Miriam?"

"I did not mean to."

"Yet you do. Let me see you smile once to-day."

But Miriam's smile was sadder than her grave look.

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