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   Chapter 10 THE DECLARATION

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 27508

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


It was true enough that Clifford Marsh would have relished an invitation to accompany that party of four to Pompeii. For one thing, he was beginning to have a difficulty in passing his days; if the present state of things prolonged itself, his position might soon resemble that of Mr. Musselwhite. But chiefly would he have welcomed the prospect of spending some hours in the society of Miss Doran, and under circumstances which would enable him to shine. Clifford had begun to nurse a daring ambition. Allowing his vanity to caress him into the half-belief that he was really making a noble stand against the harshness of fate, he naturally spent much time in imagining how other people regarded him-above all, what figure he made in the eyes of Miss Doran. There could be no doubt that she knew, at all events, the main items of his story; was it not certain that they must make some appeal to her sympathies? His air of graceful sadness could not but lead her to muse as often as she observed it; he had contemplated himself in the mirror, and each time with reassurance on this point. Why should the attractions which had been potent with Madeline fail to engage the interest of this younger and more emotional girl? Miss Doran was far beyond Madeline in beauty, and, there was every reason to believe, had the substantial gifts of fortune which Madeline altogether lacked. It was a bold thing to turn his eye to her with such a thought, circumstances considered; but the boldness was characteristic of Marsh, with whom at all times self-esteem had the force of an irresistible argument.

He was incapable of passion. Just as he had made a pretence of pursuing art, because of a superficial cleverness and a liking for ease and the various satisfactions of his vanity in such a career, so did he now permit his mind to be occupied with Cecily Doran, not because her qualities blinded him to all other considerations, but in pleasant yielding to a temptation of his fancy, which made a lively picture of many desirable things, and flattered him into thinking that they were not beyond his reach. For the present he could do nothing but wait, supporting his pose of placid martyrdom. Wait, and watch every opportunity; there would arrive a moment when seeming recklessness might advance him far on the way to triumph.

And yet he never for a moment regarded himself as a schemer endeavouring to compass vulgar ends by machination. He had the remarkable faculty of viewing himself in an ideal light, even whilst conscious that so many of his claims were mere pretence. Men such as Clifford Marsh do not say to themselves, "What a humbug I am!" When driven to face their conscience, it speaks to them rather in this way: "You are a fellow of fine qualities, altogether out of the common way of men. A pity that conditions do not allow you to be perfectly honest; but people in general are so foolish that you would get no credit for your superiority if you did not wear a little tinsel, practise a few harmless affectations. Some day your difficulties will be at an end, and then you can afford to show yourself in a simpler guise." When he looked in the glass, Clifford admired himself without reserve; when he talked freely, he applauded his own cleverness, and thought it the most natural thing that other people should do so. When he meditated abandoning Madeline, his sincere view of the matter was that she had proved herself unworthy: however sensible her attitude, a girl had no right to put such questions to her lover as she had done, to injure his self-love. When he plotted with himself to engage Cecily's interest, he said that it was the course any lover would have pursued. And in the end he really persuaded himself that he was in love with her.

Yet none the less he thought of Madeline with affection. He was piqued that she made no effort to bring him back to her feet. To be sure, her mother's behaviour probably implied Madeline's desire of reconciliation, but he wished her to make personal overtures; he would have liked to see her approach him with humble eyes, not troubling himself to debate how he should act in that event. With Mrs. Denyer he was once more on terms of apparent friendliness, though he held no private dialogue with her; he was willing that she should suppose him gradually coming over to her views. Barbara and Zillah showed constraint when he spoke with them, but this he affected not to perceive. Only with Madeline he did not converse. Her air of unconcernedness at length proved too much for his patience, and so it came about that Madeline received by post a letter addressed in Clifford's hand. She took it to her bedroom, and broke the envelope with agitation.

"Your behaviour is heartless. Just when I am in deep distress, and need all possible encouragement in the grave struggle upon which I have entered-for I need not tell you that I am resolved to remain an artist-you desert me, and do your best to show that you are glad at being relieved of all concern on my account. It is well for me that I see the result of this test, but, I venture to think, not every woman would have chosen your course. I shall very shortly leave Naples. It will no doubt complete your satisfaction to think of me toiling friendless in London. Remember this as my farewell.-C. M."

The next morning Clifford received what he expected, a reply, also sent by post. It was written in the clearest and steadiest hand, on superfine paper.

"I am sorry you should have repeated your insult in a written form; I venture to think that not every man would have followed this course. For myself, it is well indeed that I see the result of the test to which you have been exposed. But I shall say and think no more of it. As you leave soon, I would suggest that we should be on the terms of ordinary acquaintances for the remaining time; the present state of things is both disagreeable and foolish. It will always seem to me a very singular thing that you should have continued to live in this house; but that, of course, was in your own discretion.-M. D."

This was on the morning when Cecily and her companions went to Pompeii. Towards luncheon-time, Clifford entered the drawing-room, and there found Mrs. Lessingham in conversation with Madeline. The former looked towards him in a way which seemed to invite his approach.

"Another idle morning, Mr. Marsh?" was her greeting.

"I had a letter at breakfast that disturbed me," he replied, seating himself away from Madeline.

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Mr. Marsh is very easily disturbed," said Madeline, in a light tone of many possible meanings.

"Yes," admitted Clifford, leaning back and letting his head droop a little; "I can seldom do anything when I am not quite at ease in mind. Rather a misfortune, but not an uncommon one with artists."

The conversation turned on this subject for a few minutes, Madeline taking part in it in a way that showed her resolve to act as she had recommended in her note. Then Mrs. Lessingham rose and left the two together. Madeline seemed also about to move; she followed the departing lady with her eyes, and at length, as though adding a final remark, said to Clifford:

"There are several things you have been so kind as to lend me that I must return before you go, Mr. Marsh. I will make a parcel of them, and a servant shall take them to your room.

"Thank you."

Since the quarrel, Madeline had not worn her ring of betrothal, but this was the first time she had spoken of returning presents.

"I am sorry you have had news that disturbed you," she continued, as if in calm friendliness. "But I dare say it is something you will soon forget. In future you probably won't think so much of little annoyances."

"Probably not."

She smiled, and walked away, stopping to glance at a picture before she left the room. Clifford was left with knitted brows and uneasy mind; he had not believed her capable of this sedateness. For some reason, Madeline had been dressing herself with unusual care of late (the result, in fact, of frequent observation of Cecily), and just now, as he entered, it had struck him that she was after all very pretty, that no one could impugn his taste in having formerly chosen her. His reference to her letter was a concession, made on the moment's impulse. Her rejecting it so unmistakably looked serious. Had she even ceased to be jealous?

In the course of the afternoon, one of Mrs. Gluck's servants deposited a parcel in his chamber. When he found it, he bit his lips. Indeed, things looked serious at last. He passed the hours till dinner in rather comfortless solitude.

But at dinner he was opposite Cecily, and he thought he had never seen her so brilliant. Perhaps the day in the open air-there was a fresh breeze-had warmed the exquisite colour of her cheeks and given her eyes an even purer radiance than of wont. The dress she wore was not new to him, but its perfection made stronger appeal to his senses than previously. How divine were the wreaths and shadowings of her hair! With what gracile loveliness did her neck bend as she spoke to Mrs. Lessingham! What hand ever shone with more delicate beauty than hers in the offices of the meal? It pained him to look at Madeline and make comparison.

Moreover, Cecily met his glance, and smiled-smiled with adorable frankness. From that moment he rejoiced at what had taken place to-day. It had left him his complete freedom. Good; he had given Madeline a final chance, and she had neglected it. In every sense he was at liberty to turn his thoughts elsewhither, and now he felt that he had even received encouragement.

"We had an unexpected meeting with Mr. Elgar," were Cecily's words, when she spoke to her aunt of the day's excursion.

Mrs. Lessingham showed surprise, and noticed that Cecily kept glancing over the columns of a newspaper she had carelessly taken up.

"At Pompeii?"

"Yes; in the Street of Tombs. For some reason, he had delayed on his journey."

"I'm not surprised."

"Why?"

"Delay is one of his characteristics, isn't it?" returned the elder lady, with unaccustomed tartness. "A minor branch of the root of inefficiency."

"I am afraid so."

Cecily laughed, and began to read aloud an amusing passage from the paper. Her aunt put no further question; but after dinner sought Mrs. Bradshaw, and had a little talk on the subject. Mrs. Bradshaw allowed herself no conjectures; in her plain way she merely confirmed what Cecily had said, adding that Elgar had taken leave of them at the railway-station.

"Possibly Mrs. Baske knew that her brother would be there?" surmised Mrs. Lessingham, as though the point were of no moment.

"Oh no! not a bit. She was astonished."

"Or seemed so," was Mrs. Lessingham's inward comment, as she smiled acquiescence. "He has impressed me agreeably," she continued, "but there's a danger that he will never do justice to himself."

"I don't put much faith in him myself," said Mrs. Bradshaw, meaning nothing more by the phrase than that she considered Reuben a ne'er-do-well. The same words would have expressed her lack of confidence in a servant subjected to some suspicion.

Mrs. Lessingham was closely observant of her niece this evening, and grew confirmed in distrust, in solicitude. Cecily was more than ever unlike herself-whimsical, abstracted, nervous; she flushed at an unexpected sound, could not keep the same place for more than a few minutes. Much before the accustomed hour, she announced her retirement for the night.

"Let me feel your pulse," said Mrs. Lessingham, as if in jest, when the girl approached her.

Cecily permitted it, half averting her face.

"My child, you are feverish."

"A little, I believe, aunt. It will pass by the morning."

"Let us hope so. But I don't like that kind of thing at Naples. I trust you haven't had a chill?"

"Oh dear, no! I never was better in my life!"

"Yet with fever? Go to bed. Very likely I shall look into your room in the night.-Cecily!"

It stopped her at her door. She turned, and took a step back. Mrs. Lessingham moved towards her.

"You haven't forgotten anything that you wished to say to me?"

"Forgotten? No, dear aunt."

"It just come back to my mind that you were on the point of saying something a little while ago, and I interrupted you."

"No. Good night."

Mrs. Lessingham did enter the girl's room something after midnight, carrying a dim taper. Cecily was asleep, but lay as though fatigue had overcome her after much restless moving upon the pillow. Her face was flushed; one of her hands, that on the coverlet, kept closing itself with a slight spasm. The visitor drew apart and looked about the chamber. Her eyes rested on a little writing-desk, where lay a directed envelope. She looked at it, and found it was addressed to a French servant of theirs in Paris, an excellent woman who loved Cecily, and to whom the girl had promised to write from Italy. The envelope was closed; but it could contain nothing of importance-was merely an indication of Cecily's abiding kindness. By this lay a small book, from the pages of which protruded a piece of white paper. Mrs. Lessingham took up the volume-it was Shelley-and found that the paper within it was folded about a spray of maidenhair, and bore the inscription "House of Meleager Pompeii. Monday, December 8, 1878." Over this the inquisitive lady mused, until a motion of Cecily caused her to restore things rapidly to their former condition.

A movement, and a deep sigh; but Cecily did not awake. Mrs. Lessingham again drew softly near to her, and, without letting the light fall directly upon her face, looked at her for a long time. She whispered

feelingly, "Poor girl! poor child!" then, with a sigh almost as deep as that of the slumberer, withdrew.

In the morning, Cecily was already dressed when a servant brought letters to the sitting-room. There were three, and one of them, addressed to herself, had only the Naples postmark. She went back to her bedroom with it.

After breakfast Mrs. Lessingham spoke for a while of news contained in her correspondence; then of a sudden asked:

"You hadn't any letters?"

"Yes, aunt; one."

"My child, you are far from well this morning. The fever hasn't gone. Your face burns."

"Yes."

"May I ask from whom the letter was?"

"I have it here-to show you." A choking of her voice broke the sentence. She held out the letter. Mrs. Lessingham found the following lines:-

"DEAR CECILY,

"I have, of course, returned to Naples, and I earnestly hope I may see you between ten and eleven to-morrow morning. I must see you alone. You cannot reply I will come and send my name in the ordinary way.

"Yours ever,

"R. ELGAR."

Mrs. Lessingham looked up. Cecily, who was standing before her, now met her gaze steadily.

"The meaning of this is plain enough," said her aunt, with careful repression of feeling. "But I am at a loss to understand how it has come about."

"I cannot tell you, aunt. I cannot tell myself."

Cecily's true accents once more. It was as though she had recovered all her natural self-command now that the revelation was made. The flush still possessed her cheeks, but she had no look of embarrassment; she spoke in a soft murmur, but distinctly, firmly.

"I am afraid that is only too likely, dear. Come and sit down, little girl, and tell me, at all events, something about it."

"Little girl?" repeated Cecily, with a sweet, affectionate smile. "No; that has gone by, aunt."

"I thought so myself the other day; but-I suppose you have met Mr. Elgar several times at his sister's, and have said nothing to me about it?"

"That would not have been my usual behaviour, I hope. When did I deceive you, aunt?"

"Never, that I know. Where have you met then?"

"Only at the times and places of which you know."

"Where did you give Mr. Elgar the right to address you in this manner?"

"Only yesterday. I think you mustn't ask me more than that, aunt."

"I'm afraid your companions were rather lacking in discretion," said the other, in a tone of annoyance.

"No; not in the sense you attach to the words. But, aunt, you are speaking as if I were a little girl, to be carefully watched at every step."

Mrs. Lessingham mused, looking absently at the letter. She paid no heed to her niece's last words, but at length said with decision:

"Cecily, this meeting cannot take place."

The girl replied with a look of uttermost astonishment.

"It is impossible, dear. Mr. Elgar should not have written to you like this. He should have addressed himself to other people."

"Other people? But you don't understand, aunt. I cannot explain to you. I expected this letter; and we must see each other."

Her voice trembled, failed.

"Shall you not treat my wish with respect, Cecily?"

"Will you explain to me all that you do wish, aunt?"

"Certainly. It is true that you are not a French girl, and I have no desire to regard you as though we were a French aunt and niece talking of this subject in the conventional way. But you are very young, dear, and most decidedly it behoved Mr. Elgar to bear in mind both his and your position. You have no parents, unhappily, but you know that Mr. Mallard is legally appointed the guardian of your interests, and I trust you know also that I am deeply concerned in all that affects you. Let us say nothing, one way or another, of what has happened. Since it has happened, it was Mr. Elgar's duty to address himself to me, or to Mr. Mallard, before making private appointments with you."

"Aunt, you can see that this letter is written so as to allow of my showing it to you."

"I have noticed that, of course. It makes Mr. Elgar's way of proceeding seem still more strange to me. He is good enough to ask you to relieve him of what he thinks-"

"You misunderstand him, aunt, entirely. I cannot explain it to you. Only trust me, I beg, to do what I know to be right. It is necessary that I should speak with Mr. Elgar; do not pain me by compelling me to say more. Afterwards, he will wish to see you, I know."

"Please to remember, dear-it astonishes me that you forget it-that I have a responsibility to Mr. Mallard. I have no legal charge of you. With every reason, Mr. Mallard may reproach me if I countenance what it is impossible for him to approve."

Cecily searched the speaker's face.

"Do you mean," she asked gravely, "that Mr. Mallard will disapprove-what I have done?"

"I can say nothing on that point. But I am very sure that he would not approve of this meeting, if he could know what was happening. I must communicate with him at once. Until he comes, or writes, it is your duty, my dear, to decline this interview. Believe me, it is your duty."

Mrs. Lessingham spoke more earnestly than she ever had done to her niece. Indeed, earnest speech was not frequent upon her lips when she talked with Cecily. In spite of the girl's nature, there had never existed between them warmer relations than those of fondness and interest on one side, and gentleness with respect on the other. Cecily was well aware of this something lacking in their common life; she had wished, not seldom these last two years, to supply the want, but found herself unable, and grew conscious that her aunt gave all it was in her power to bestow. For this very reason, she found it impossible to utter herself in the present juncture as she could have done to a mother-as she could have done to Miriam; impossible, likewise, to insist on her heart's urgent desire, though she knew not how she should forbear it. To refuse compliance would have been something more than failure in dutifulness; she would have felt it as harshness, and perhaps injustice, to one with whom she involuntarily stood on terms of ceremony.

"May I write a reply to this letter?" she asked, after a silence.

"I had rather you allowed me to speak for you to Mr. Elgar. To write and to see him are the same thing. Surely you can forget yourself for a moment, and regard this from my point of view."

"I don't know how far you may be led by your sense of responsibility. Remember that you have insisted to me on your prejudice against Mr. Elgar."

"Vainly enough," returned the other, with a smile. "If you prefer it, I will myself write a line to be given to Mr. Elgar when he calls. Of course, you shall see what I write."

Cecily turned away, and stood in struggle with herself. She had not foreseen a conflict of this kind. Surprise, and probably vexation, she was prepared for; irony, argument, she was quite ready to face; but it had not entered her mind that Mrs. Lessingham would invoke authority to oppose her. Such a step was alien to all the habits of their intercourse, to the spirit of her education. She had deemed herself a woman, and free; what else could result from Mrs. Lessingham's method of training and developing her? This disillusion gave a shock to her self-respect; she suffered from a sense of shame; with difficulty she subdued resentment and impulses yet more rebellious. It was ignoble to debate in this way concerning that of which she could not yet speak formally with her own mind; to contend like an insubordinate school-girl, when the point at issue was the dearest interest of her womanhood.

"I think, aunt," she said, in a changed voice, speaking as though her opinion had been consulted in the ordinary way, "it will be better for you to see Mr. Elgar-if you are willing to do so."

"Quite."

"But I must ask you to let him know exactly why I have not granted his request. You will tell him, if you please, just what has passed between us. If that does not seem consistent with your duty, or dignity, then I had rather you wrote."

"Neither my duty nor my dignity is likely to suffer, Cecily," replied her aunt, with an ironical smile. "Mr. Elgar shall know the simple state of the case. And I will forthwith write to Mr. Mallard."

"Thank you."

There was no further talk between them. Mrs. Lessingham sat down to write. With the note-paper before her, and the pen in hand, she was a long time before she began; she propped her forehead, and seemed lost in reflection. Cecily, who stood by the window, glanced towards her several times, and in the end went to her own room.

Mrs. Lessingham's letter was not yet finished when a servant announced Elgar's arrival. He was at once admitted. On seeing who was to receive him, he made an instant's pause before coming forward; there was merely a bow on both sides.

Elgar knew well enough in what mood this lady was about to converse with him. He did not like her, and partly, no doubt, because he had discerned her estimate of his character, his faculties. That she alone was in the room gave him no surprise, though it irritated him and inflamed his impatience. He would have had her speak immediately and to the point, that he might understand his position. Mrs. Lessingham, quite aware of his perfervid state of mind, had pleasure in delaying. Her real feeling towards him was anything but unfriendly; had it been possible, she would have liked to see much of him, to enjoy his talk. Young men of this stamp amused her, and made strong appeal to certain of her sympathies. But those very sympathies enabled her to judge him with singular accuracy, aided as she was by an outline knowledge of his past. Her genuine affection for Cecily made her, now that the peril had declared itself, his strenuous adversary. For Cecily to marry Reuben Elgar would be a catastrophe, nothing less. She was profoundly convinced of this, and the best elements of her nature came out in the resistance she was determined to make.

A less worthy ground of vexation against Elgar might probably be attributed to her. Skilful in judging men, she had not the same insight where her own sex was concerned, and in the case of Cecily she was misled, or rather misled herself, with curious persistence. Possibly some slight, vague fear had already touched her when she favoured Mrs. Spence with the description of her "system;" not impossibly she felt the need of reassuring herself by making clear her attitude to one likely to appreciate it. But at that time she had not dreamt of such a sudden downfall of her theoretic edifice; she believed in its strength, and did not doubt of her supreme influence with Cecily. It was not to be wondered at that she felt annoyed with the man who, at a touch, made the elaborate structure collapse like a bubble. She imagined Mrs. Spence's remarks when she came to hear of what had happened, her fine smile to her husband. The occurrence was mortifying.

"Miss Doran has put into my hands a letter she received from you this morning, Mr. Elgar."

Reuben waited. Mrs. Lessingham had not invited him to sit down; she also stood.

"You probably wished me to learn its contents?"

"Yes; I am glad you have read it."

"It didn't occur to you that Miss Doran might find the task you imposed upon her somewhat trying?"

Elgar was startled. Just as little as Cecily had he pondered the details of the situation; mere frenzy possessed him, and he acted as desire bade. Had Cecily been embarrassed? Was she annoyed at his not proceeding with formality? He had never thought of her in the light of conventional obligations, and even now could not bring himself to do so.

"Did Miss Doran wish me to be told that?" he asked, bluntly, in unconsidered phrase.

"Miss Doran's wish is, that no further step shall be taken by either of you until her guardian, Mr. Mallard, has been communicated with."

"She will not see me?"

"She thinks it better neither to see you nor to write. I am bound to tell you that this is the result of my advice. Her own intention was to do as you request in this letter."

"What harm would there have been in that, Mrs. Lessingham? Why mayn't I see her?"

"I really think Miss Doran must be allowed to act as seems best to her. It is quite enough that I tell you what she has decided."

"But that is not her decision," broke out Elgar, moving impetuously. "That is simply the result of your persuasion, of your authority. Why may I not see her?"

"For reasons which would be plain enough to any but a very thoughtless young gentleman. I can say no more."

Her caustic tone was not agreeable. Elgar winced under it, and had much ado to restrain himself from useless vehemence.

"Do you intend to write to Mr. Mallard to-day?" he asked.

"I will write to-day."

Expostulation and entreaty seemed of no avail; Elgar recognized the situation, and with a grinding of his teeth kept down the horrible pain he suffered. His only comfort was that Mallard would assuredly come post-haste; he would arrive by to-morrow evening. But two days of this misery! Mrs. Lessingham was gratified with his look as he departed; she had supplied him with abundant matter for speculation, yet had fulfilled her promise to Cecily.

She finished her letter, then went to Cecily's room. The girl sat unoccupied, and listened without replying. That day she took her meals in private, scarcely pretending to eat. Her face kept its flush, and her hands remained feverishly hot. Till late at night she sat in the same chair, now and then opening a book, but unable to read; she spoke only a word or two, when it was necessary.

The same on the day that followed. Seldom moving, seldomer speaking; she suffered and waited.

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