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   Chapter 11 THE APPEAL TO AUTHORITY

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 29558

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"Hic intus homo verus certus optumus recumbo, Publius Octavius Rufus, decuno."

Mallard stood reading this inscription, graven on an ancient sarcophagus preserved in the cathedral of Amalfi. A fool, probably, that excellent Rufus-he said to himself,-but what a happy fool! Unborn as yet, or to him unknown, the faith that would have bidden him write himself a miserable sinner; what he deemed himself in life, what perchance his friends and neighbours deemed him, why not declare it upon the marble when he rested from all his virtues?

"Here lie I, Ross Mallard; who can say no good of myself, yet have as little right to say ill; who had no faith whereby to direct my steps, yet often felt that some such was needful; who spent all my strength on a task which I knew to be vain; who suffered much and joyed rarely; whose happiest day was his last."

Somehow like that would it run, if he were to write his own epitaph at present.

The quiet of the dim sanctuary was helpful to such self-communing. He relished being alone again, and after an hour's brooding had recovered at all events a decent balance of thought, a respite from madness in melancholy.

But he could not employ himself, could not even seek the relief of bodily exertion; his mind grew sluggish, and threw a lassitude upon his limbs. The greater part of the day he spent in his room at the hotel, merely idle. This time he had no energy to attack himself with adjurations and sarcasms; body and soul were oppressed with uttermost fatigue, and for a time must lie torpid. Fortunately he was sure of sleep to-night; the bell of the cathedral might clang its worst, and still not rob him of the just oblivion.

The next day he strayed into the hills, and there in solitude faced the enemy in his heart, bidding misery do its worst. In imagination he followed Reuben Elgar to Naples, saw him speed to Villa Sannazaro, where as likely as not he would meet Cecily. Mallard had no tangible evidence of its being Reuben's desire to see Cecily, but he was none the less convinced that for no other reason had his companion set forth. And jealousy tormented him sorely. It was his first experience of this cruellest passion: what hitherto had been only a name to him, and of ignoble sound, became a disease clutching at his vitals. It taught him fierceness, injustice, base suspicion, brutal conjecture; it taught him that of which all these are constituents-hatred.

But it did not constrain him to any unworthy action. The temptation that passed through his mind when he looked from the balcony on the carriage that was to convey Elgar, did not return-or only as a bitter desire, impossible of realization. Distant from Naples he must remain, awaiting whatsoever might happen.

Ah, bright, gentle, sweet-faced Cecily! Inconceivable to her this suffering that lay upon her friend. How it would pain her if she knew of it! With what sad, wondering tenderness her eyes would regard him! How kindly would she lay her soft hand in his, and entreat him to be comforted!

If he asked her, would she not give him that hand, to be his always? Perhaps, perhaps; in her gentleness she would submit to this change, and do her best to love him. And in return he would give her gruff affection, removal from the life to which she was accustomed, loneliness, his uncertain humours, his dubious reputation. How often most he picture these results, and convince himself of the impossibility of anything of the kind?

He knew her better than did Mrs. Lessingham; oh, far better! He had detected in her deep eyes the sleeping passion, some day to awake with suddenness and make the whole world new to her. He knew how far from impossible it was that Reuben Elgar should be the prince to break her charmed slumber. There was the likeness and the unlikeness; common to both that temperament of enthusiasm. On the one hand, Cecily with her unsullied maidenhood; and on the other, Elgar with his reckless experiences-contrasts which so commonly have a mutual attraction. There was the singularity of their meeting after years, and seeing each other in such a new light; the interest, the curiosity inevitably resulting. What likelihood that any distrust would mingle with Cecily's warmth of feeling, were that feeling once excited? He knew her too well.

How Mrs. Lessingham regarded Elgar he did not know. He had no confidence in that lady's discretion; he thought it not improbable that she would speak of Reuben to Cecily in the very way she should not, making him an impressive figure. Then again, what part was Mrs. Baske likely to have in such a situation? Could she be relied upon to represent her brother unfavourably, with the right colour of unfavourableness? Or was it not rather to be feared that the thought of Cecily's influence might tempt her to encourage what otherwise she must have condemned? He retraced in memory that curious dialogue he had held with Miriam on the drive back from Baiae; could he gather from it any hints of her probable behaviour?....

By a sudden revulsion of mind, Mallard became aware that in the long fit of brooding just gone by he had not been occupied with Cecily at all. Busying his thoughts with Mrs. Baske, he had slipped into a train of meditation already begun on the evening in question, after the drive with her. What was Mrs. Baske's true history? How had she come to marry the man of whom Elgar's phrases had produced such a hateful image? What was the state, in very deed, of her mind at present? What awaited her in the future?

It was curious that Mrs. Baske's face was much more recoverable by his mind's eye than Cecily's. In fact, to see Miriam cost him no effort at all; equally at will, he heard the sound of her voice. There were times when Cecily, her look and utterance, visited him very clearly; but this was when he did not wish to be reminded of her. If he endeavoured to make her present, as a rule the picturing faculty was irresponsive.

Welcome reverie! If only he could continue to busy himself with idle speculation concerning the strange young Puritan, and so find relief from the anguish that beset him. Suppose now, he set himself to imagine Miriam in unlikely situations. What if she somehow fell into poverty, was made absolutely dependent on her own efforts? Suppose she suffered cruelly what so many women have to suffer-toil, oppression, solitude; what would she become? Not, he suspected, a meek martyr; anything but that, Miriam Baske. And how magnificent to see her flash out into revolt against circumstances! Then indeed she would be interesting.

Nay, suppose she fell in love-desperately, with grim fate against her? For somehow this came more easily to the fancy than the thought of her loving obstacle. Presumably she had never loved; her husband was out of the question. Would she pass her life without that experience? One thing could be affirmed with certainty; if she lost her heart to a man, it would not be to a Puritan. He could conceive her being attracted by a strong and somewhat rude fellow, a despiser of conventionalities, without religion, a man of brains and blood; one whose look could overwhelm her with tumultuous scorn, and whose hand, if need be, could crush her life out at a blow. Why not, however, a highly polished gentleman, critical, keen of speech, deeply read, brilliant in conversation, at once man of the world and scholar? Might not that type have power over her? In a degree, but not so decidedly as the intellectual brute.

Pshaw! what brain-sickness was this! What was he fallen to! Yet it did what nothing else would, amused him for a few minutes in his pain. He recurred to it several times, and always successfully.

Sunday came. This evening would see Elgar back again.

No doubt of his return had yet entered his mind. Whether Reuben would in reality settle to some kind of work was a different question; but of course he would come back, if it were only to say that he had kept his promise, but found he must set off again to some place or other. Mallard dreaded his coming. News of some kind he would bring, and Mallard's need was of silence. If he indeed remained here, the old irritation would revive and go on from day to day. Impossible that they should live together long.

It was pretty certain by what train he would journey from Naples to Salerno; easy, therefore, to calculate the probable hour of his arrival at Amalfi. When that hour drew near, Mallard set out to walk a short distance along the road, to meet him. Unlike the Sorrento side of the promontory, the mountains here rise suddenly and boldly out of the sea, towering to craggy eminences, moulded and cleft into infinite variety of slope and precipice, bastion and gorge. Cut upon the declivity, often at vast sheer height above the beach, the road follows the curving of the hills. Now and then it makes a deep loop inland, on the sides of an impassable chasm; and set in each of these recesses is a little town, white-gleaming amid its orchard verdure, with quaint and many-coloured campanile, with the semblance of a remote time. Far up on the heights are other gleaming specks, villages which seem utterly beyond the traffic of man, solitary for ever in sun or mountain mist.

Mallard paid little heed to the things about him; he walked on and on, watching for a vehicle, listening for the tread of horses. Sometimes he could see the white road-track miles away, and he strained his eyes in observing it. Twice or thrice he was deceived; a carriage came towards him, and with agitation he waited to see its occupants, only to be disappointed by strange faces.

There are few things more pathetic than persistency in hope due to ignorance of something that has befallen beyond our ken. It is one of those instances of the irony inherent in human fate which move at once to tears and bitter laughter; the waste of emotion, the involuntary folly, the cruel deception caused by limit of faculties-how they concentrate into an hour or a day the essence of life itself!

He walked on and on; as well do this as go back and loiter fretfully at the hotel. He got as far as the Capo d' Orso, the headland half-way between Amalfi and Salerno, and there sat down by the wayside to rest. From this point Salerno was first visible, in the far distance, between the sea and the purple Apennines.

Either Elgar was not coming, or he had lingered long between the two portions of his journey.

Mallard turned back; if the carriage came, it would overtake him. He plodded slowly, the evening falling around him in still loveliness, fragrance from the groves of orange and lemon spread on every motion of the air.

And if he did not come? That must have some strange meaning. In any case, he must surely write. And ten to one his letter would be a lie. What was to be expected of him but a lie?

Monday, Tuesday, and now Wednesday morning. Hitherto not even a letter.

When it was clear that Elgar had disregarded his promise, and, for whatever reason, did not even seek to justify or excuse himself, there came upon Mallard a strong mood of scorn, which for some hours enabled him to act as though all his anxiety were at an end. He set himself a piece of work; a flash of the familiar energy traversed his mind. He believed that at length his degradation was over, and that, come what might, he could now face it sturdily. Mere self-deception, of course. The sun veiled itself, and hope was as far as ever.

Never before had he utterly lost the power of working. In every struggle he had speedily overcome, and found in work the one unfailing resource. If he were robbed of this, what stay had life for him henceforth? He could not try to persuade himself that his suffering would pass, sooner or later, and time grant him convalescence; the blackness ahead was too profound. He fell again into torpor, and let the days go as they would; he cared not.

But this morning brought him a letter. At the first glance he was surprised by a handwriting which was not Elgar's; recollecting himself, he knew it for that of Mrs. Lessingham.

"DEAR MR. MALLARD,-

"It grieves me to be obliged to send you disquieting news so soon after your departure from Naples, but I think you will agree with me that I have no choice but to write of something that has this morning come to my knowledge. You have no taste for roundabout phrases, so I will say at once in plain words that Cecily and Mr. Elgar have somehow contrived to fall in love with each other-or to imagine that they have done so, which, as regards results, unfortunately amounts to the same thing. I cannot learn by what process it came about, but I am assured by Cecily, in words of becoming vagueness, that they plighted troth, or some thing of the kind, yesterday at Pompeii. There was a party of four: Mr. and Mrs. Bradshaw, Cecily, and Mrs. Baske. At Pompeii they were unexpectedly (so I am told) joined by Mr. Elgar-notwithstanding that he had taken leave of us on Saturday, with the information that he was about to return to you at Amalfi, and there devote himself to literary work of some indefinite kind. Perhaps you have in the meantime heard from him. This morning Cecily received a letter, in which he made peremptory request for an interview; she showed this to me. My duty was plain. I declared the interview impossible, and Cecily gave way on condition that I saw Mr. Elgar, told him why she herself did not appear, and forthwith wrote to you. Our young gentleman was disconcerted when he found that his visit was to be wasted on my uninteresting self. I sent him about his business-only that, unhappily, he has none-bidding him wait till we had heard from you.

"I fancy this will be as disagreeable to you as it is to me. The poor child is in a sad state, much disposed, I fear, to regard me as her ruthless enemy, and like to fall ill if she be kept long in idle suspense. Do you think it worth while to come to Naples? It is very annoying that your time should be wasted by foolish children. I had given Cecily credit for more sense. For my own part, I cannot think with patience of her marrying Mr. Elgar; or rather, I cannot think of it without dread. We must save her from becoming wise through bitter sorrow, if it can in any way be managed. I hope and trust that nothing may happen to prevent your receiving this letter to-morrow, for I am very uneasy, and not likely to become less so as time goes on.

"Believe me, dear Mr. Mallard,

"Sincerely yours,

"EDITH LESSINGHAM."

At seven o'clock in the evening, Mallard was in Naples. He did not go to Casa Rolandi, but took a room in one of the musty hotels which overlook the port. When he felt sure that Mrs. Gluck's guests must have dined, he presented

himself at the house and sent his name to Mrs. Lessingham.

She took his hand with warm welcome.

"Thank you for coming so promptly. I have been getting into such a state of nervousness. Cecily keeps her room, and looks ill; I have several times been on the point of sending for the doctor, though it seemed absurd."

Mallard seated himself without invitation; indeed, he had a difficulty in standing.

"Hasn't she been out to-day?" he asked, in a voice which might have signified selfish indifference.

"Nor yesterday. Mrs. Spence was here this morning, but Cecily would not see her. I made excuses, and of course said nothing of what was going on. I asked the child if she would like to see Mrs. Baske, but she refused."

Mallard sat as if he had nothing to say, looking vaguely about the room.

"Have you heard from Mr. Elgar?" Mrs. Lessingham inquired.

"No. I know nothing about him. I haven't been to Casa Rolandi, lest I should meet him. It was better to see you first."

"You were not prepared for this news?"

"His failure to return made me speculate, of course. I suppose they have met several times at Mrs. Baske's?"

"That at once occurred to me, but Cecily assures me that is not so. There is a mystery. I have no idea how they saw each other privately at Pompeii on Monday. But, between ourselves, Mr. Mallard, I can't help suspecting that he had learnt from his sister the particulars of the excursion."

"You think it not impossible that Mrs. Baske connived at their meeting in that way?"

"One doesn't like to use words of that kind, but-"

"I suppose one must use the word that expresses one's meaning," said Mallard, bluntly. "But I didn't think Mrs. Baske was likely to aid her brother for such a purpose. Have you any reason to think the contrary?"

"None that would carry any weight."

Mallard paused; then, with a restless movement on his chair exclaimed:

"But what has this to do with the matter? What has happened has happened, and there's an end of it. The question is, what ought to be done now? I don't see that we can treat Miss Doran like a child."

Mrs. Lessingham looked at him. She was resting one arm on a table by which she sat, and supporting her forehead with her hand.

"You propose that things should take their natural course?"

"They will, whether I propose it or not."

"And if our next information is that they desire to be married as soon as conveniently may be?"

"That is another matter. They will have no consent of mine to anything of the kind."

"You relieve me."

Mallard looked at her frowningly.

"Miss Doran," he continued, "will not marry Elgar with my consent until she be one-and-twenty. Then, of course, she may do as she likes."

"You will see Mr. Elgar, and make this clear to him?"

"Very clear indeed," was the grim reply. "As for any thing else, why, what can we do? If they insist upon it, I suppose they must see each other-of course, under reasonable restrictions. You cannot make yourself a duenna of melodrama, Mrs. Lessingham."

"Scarcely. But I think our stay at Naples may reasonably be shortened-unless, of course, Mr. Elgar leaves."

"You take it for granted, I see, that Miss Doran will be guided by our judgment," said Mallard, after musing on the last remark.

"I have no fear of that," replied Mrs. Lessingham with confidence, "if it is made to appear only a question of postponement. This will be a trifle compared with my task of yesterday morning. You can scarcely imagine how astonished she was at the first hint of opposition."

"I can imagine it very well," said the other, in his throat. "What else could be expected after-" He checked himself on the point of saying something that would have revealed his opinion of Mrs. Lessingham's "system"-his opinion accentuated by unreasoning bitterness. "From all we know of her," were the words he substituted.

"She is more like her father than I had supposed," said Mrs. Lessingham, meditatively.

Mallard stood up.

"You will let her know that I have been here?"

"Certainly."

"She has expressed no wish to see me?"

"None. I had better report to her simply that you have no objection to Mr. Elgar's visits."

"That is all I would say at present. I shall see Elgar tonight. He is still at Casa Rolandi, I take it?"

"That was the address on his letter."

"Then, good-night. By-the-bye, I had better give you my address." He wrote it on a leaf in his pocket-book. "I will see you again in a day or two, when things have begun to clear up."

"It's too bad that you should have this trouble, Mr. Mallard."

"I don't pretend to like it, but there's no help."

And he left Mrs. Lessingham to make her comment on his candour.

Yes, Signor Elgar was in his chamber; he had entered but a quarter of an hour since. The signor seemed not quite well, unhappily-said Olimpia, the domestic, in her chopped Neapolitan. Mallard vouchsafed no reply. He knocked sharply at the big solid door. There was a cry of "Avanti!" and he entered.

Elgar advanced a few steps. He did not affect to smile, but looked directly at his visitor, who-as if all the pain of the interview were on him rather than the other-cast down his eyes.

"I was expecting you," said Reuben, without offering his hand.

"So was I you-three days ago."

"Sit down, and let us talk. I'm ashamed of myself, Mallard. I ought at all events to have written."

"One would have thought so."

"Have you seen Mrs. Lessingham?"

"Yes."

"Then you understand everything. I repeat that I am ashamed of my behaviour to you. For days-since last Saturday-I have been little better than a madman. On Saturday I went to say good-bye to Mrs. Lessingham and her niece; it was bona fide, Mallard."

"In your sense of the phrase. Go on."

"I tell you, I then meant to leave Naples," pursued Elgar, who had repeated this so often to himself, by way of palliation, that he had come to think it true. "It was not my fault that I couldn't when that visit was over. It happened that I saw Miss Doran alone-sat talking with her till her aunt returned."

Mrs. Lessingham had made no mention of this little matter. Hearing of it, Mallard ejaculated mentally, "Idiot!"

"It was all over with me. I broke faith with you-as I should have done with any man; as I should have done if the lives of a hundred people had depended on my coming. I didn't write, because I preferred not to write lies, and if I had told the truth, I knew you would come at once. To be sure, silence might have had the same result, but I had to risk something, and I risked that."

"I marvel at your disinclination to lie."

"What do you mean by saying that?" broke out Elgar, with natural warmth.

"I mean simply what I say. Go on."

"After all, Mallard, I don't quite know why you should take this tone with me. If a man falls in love, he thinks of nothing but how to gain his end; I should think even you can take that for granted. My broken promise is a trifle in view of what caused it."

"Again, in your view. In mine it is by no means a trifle. It distinguishes you from honourable men, that's all; a point of some moment, I should think, when your character is expressly under discussion."

"You mean, of course, that I am not worthy of Cecily. I can't grant any such conclusion."

"Let us leave that aside for the present," said Mallard. "Will you tell me how it came to pass that you met Miss Doran and her companions at Pompeii?"

Elgar hesitated; whereupon the other added quickly:

"If it was with Miss Doran's anticipation, I want no details."

"No, it wasn't."

Their looks met.

"By chance, then, of course?" said Mallard, sourly.

Elgar spoke on an impulse, leaning forward.

"Look, I won't lie to you. Miriam told me they were going. I met her that morning, when I was slinking about, and I compelled her to give me her help-sorely against her will. Don't think ill of her for it, Mallard. I frightened her by my violent manner. I haven't seen her since; she can't know what the result has been. None of them at Pompeii suspected-only a moment of privacy; there's no need to say any more about it."

Mallard mused over this revelation. He felt inclined to scorn Elgar for making it. It affected him curiously, and at once took a place among his imaginings of Miriam.

"You shall promise me that you won't betray your knowledge of this," added Reuben. "At all events, not now. Promise me that. Your word is to be trusted, I know."

"It's very unlikely that I should think of touching on the matter to your sister. I shall make no promise."

"Have you seen Cecily herself?" Elgar asked, leaving the point aside in his eagerness to come to what concerned him more deeply.

"No."

"I have waited for your permission to visit her. Do you mean to refuse it?"

"No. If you call to-morrow morning, you will be admitted. Mrs. Lessingham is willing that you should see her niece in private."

"Hearty thanks for that, Mallard! We haven't shaken hands yet, you remember. Forgive me for treating you so ill."

He held out his band cordially, and Mallard could not refuse it, though he would rather have thrust his fingers among red coals than feel that hot pressure.

"I believe I can be grateful," pursued Elgar, in a voice that quivered with transport. "I will do my best to prove it."

"Let us speak of things more to the point. What result do you foresee of this meeting to-morrow!"

The other hesitated.

"I shall ask Cecily when she will marry me."

"You may do so, of course, but the answer cannot depend upon herself alone."

"What delay do you think necessary?"

"Until she is of age, and her own mistress," replied Mallard, with quiet decision.

"Impossible! What need is there to wait all that time?"

"Why, there is this need, Elgar," returned the other, more vigorously than he had yet spoken. "There is need that you should prove to those who desire Miss Doran's welfare that you are something more than a young fellow fresh from a life of waste and idleness and everything that demonstrates or tends to untrustworthiness. It seems to me that a couple of years or so is not an over-long time for this, all things considered."

Elgar kept silent.

"You would have seen nothing objectionable in immediate marriage?" said Mallard.

"It is useless to pretend that I should."

"Not even from the point of view of Mrs. Lessingham and myself?"

"You yourself have never spoken plainly about such things in my hearing; but I find you in most things a man of your time. And it doesn't seem to me that Mrs. Lessingham is exactly conventional in her views."

"You imagine yourself worthy of such a wife at present?"

"Plainly, I do. It would be the merest hypocrisy if I said anything else. If Cecily loves me, my love for her is at least as strong. If we are equal in that, what else matters? I am not going to cry Peccavi about the past. I have lived, and you know what that means in my language. In what am I inferior as a man to Cecily as a woman? Would you have me snivel, and talk about my impurity and her angelic qualities? You know that you would despise me if I did-or any other man who used the same empty old phrases."

"I grant you that," replied Mallard, deliberately. "I believe I am no more superstitious with regard to these questions than you are, and I want to hear no cant. Let us take it on more open ground. Were Cecily Doran my daughter, I would resist her marrying you to the utmost of my power-not simply because you have lived laxly, but because of my conviction that the part of your life is to be a pattern of the whole. I have no faith in you-no faith in your sense of honour, in your stability, not even in your mercy. Your wife will be, sooner or later, one of the unhappiest of women. Thinking of you in this way, and being in the place of a parent to Cecily, am I doing my duty or not in insisting that she shall not marry you hastily, that even in her own despite she shall have time to study you and herself, that she shall only take the irrevocable step when she clearly knows that it is done on her own responsibility? You may urge what you like; I am not so foolish as to suppose you capable of consideration for others in your present state of mind. I, however, shall defend myself from the girl's reproaches in after-years. There will be no marriage until she is twenty-one."

A silence of some duration followed. Elgar sat with bent head, twisting his moustaches. At length:

"I believe you are right, Mallard. Not in your judgment of me, but in your practical resolve."

Mallard examined him from under his eyebrows.

"You are prepared to wait?" he asked, in an uncertain voice.

"Prepared, no. But I grant the force of your arguments. I will try to bring myself to patience."

Mallard sat unmoving. His legs were crossed, and he held his soft felt hat crushed together in both his hands. Elgar glanced at him once or twice, expecting him to speak, but the other was mute.

"Your judgment of me," Elgar resumed, "is harsh and unfounded. I don't know how you have formed it. You know nothing of what it means to me to love such a girl as Cecily. Here I have found my rest. It supplies me with no new qualities, but it strengthens those I have. You picture me being unfaithful to Cecily-deserting her, becoming brutal to her? There must be a strange prejudice in your mind to excite such images." He examined Mallard's face. "Some day I will remind you of your prophecies."

Mallard regarded him, and spoke at length, in a strangely jarring, discordant voice.

"I said that hastily. I make no prophecies. I wished to say that those seemed to me the probabilities."

"Thank you for the small mercy, at all events," said Elgar, with a laugh.

"What do you intend to do?" Mallard proceeded to ask, changing his position.

"I can make no plans yet. I have pretended to only too often. You have no objection to my remaining here?"

"You must take your own course-with the understanding to which we have come."

"I wish I could make you look more cheerful, Mallard. I owe it to you, for you have given me more gladness than I can utter."

"You can do it."

"How?"

"See her to-morrow morning, and then go back to England, and make yourself some kind of reputable existence."

"Not yet. That is asking too much. Not so soon."

"As you please. We understand each other on the main point."

"Yes. Are you going back to Amalfi?"

"I don't know."

They talked for a few minutes more, in short sentences of this kind, but did not advance beyond the stage of mutual forbearance. Mallard lingered, as though not sure that he had fulfilled his mission. In the end he went away abruptly.

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