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   Chapter 13 ECHO AND PRELUDE

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 30061

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


At Villa Sannazaro, the posture of affairs was already understood. When Eleanor Spence, casually calling at the pension, found that Cecily was unable to receive visitors, she at the same time learnt from Mrs. Lessingham to what this seclusion was due. The ladies had a singular little conversation, for Eleanor was inwardly so amused at this speedy practical comment on Mrs. Lessingham's utterances of the other day, that with difficulty she kept her countenance; while Mrs. Lessingham herself, impelled to make the admission without delay, that she might exhibit a philosophic acceptance of fact, had much ado to hide her chagrin beneath the show of half-cynical frankness that became a woman of the world. Eleanor-passably roguish within the limits of becoming mirth-acted the scene to her husband, who laughed shamelessly. Then came explanations between Eleanor and Miriam.

The following day passed without news, but on the morning after, Miriam had a letter from Cecily; not a long letter, nor very effusive, but telling all that was to be told. And it ended with a promise that Cecily would come to the villa that afternoon. This was communicated to Eleanor.

"Where's Mallard, I wonder?" said Spence, when his wife came to talk to him. "Not, I suspect, at the old quarters, It would be like him to go off somewhere without a word. Confound that fellow Elgar!"

"I'm half disposed to think that it serves Mr. Mallard right," was Eleanor's remark.

"Well, for heartlessness commend me to a comfortable woman."

"And for folly commend me to a strong-minded man."

"Pooh! He'll growl and mutter a little, and then get on with his painting."

"If I thought so, my liking for him would diminish. I hope he is tearing his hair."

"I shall go seek him."

"Do; and give my best love to him, poor fellow."

Cecily came alone. She was closeted with Miriam for a long time, then saw Eleanor. Spence purposely kept away from home.

Dante lay unread, as well as the other books which Eleanor placed insidiously in her cousin's room. Letters lay unanswered-among them several relating to the proposed new chapel at Bartles. How did Miriam employ herself during the hours that she spent alone?

Not seldom, in looking back upon her childhood and maidenhood.

Imagine a very ugly cubical brick house of two stories, in a suburb of Manchester. It stands a few yards back from the road. On one side, it is parted by a row of poplars from several mean cottages; on the other, by a narrow field from a house somewhat larger and possibly a little uglier than itself. Its outlook, over the highway, is on to a tract of country just being broken up by builders, beyond which a conglomerate of factories, with chimneys ever belching heavy fumes, closes the view; its rear windows regard a scrubby meadow, grazed generally by broken-down horses, with again a limitary prospect of vast mills.

Imagine a Sunday in this house. Half an hour later than on profane days, Mrs. Elgar descends the stairs. She is a lady of middle age, slight, not ungraceful, handsome; the look of pain about her forehead is partly habitual, but the consciousness of Sunday intensifies it. She moves without a sound. Entering the breakfast-room, she finds there two children, a girl and a boy, both attired in new-seeming garments which are obviously stiff and uncomfortable. The little girl sits on an uneasy chair, her white-stockinged legs dangling, on her lap a large copy of "Pilgrim's Progress;" the boy is half reclined on a shiny sofa, his hands in his pockets, on his face an expression of discontent. The table is very white, very cold, very uninviting.

Ten minutes later appears the master of the house, shaven, also in garments that appear new and uncomfortable, glancing hither and thither with preoccupied eyes. There is some talk in a low voice between the little girl and her mother; then the family seat themselves at table silently. Mr. Elgar turns a displeased look on the boy, and says something in a harsh voice which causes the youngster to straighten himself, curl his lip precociously, and thereafter preserve a countenance of rebellion subdued by fear. His father eats very little, speaks scarcely at all, but thinks, thinks-and most assuredly not of sacred subjects.

Breakfast over, there follows an hour of indescribable dreariness, until the neighbourhood begins to sound with the clanging of religious bells. Mr. Elgar has withdrawn to a little room of his own, where perhaps, he gives himself up to meditation on the duties of a Christian parent, though his incredulous son has ere now had a glimpse at the door, and observed him in the attitude of letter-writing. Mrs. Elgar moves about silently, the pain on her brow deepening as chapel-time approaches. At length the boy and girl go upstairs to be "got ready," which means that they indue other garments yet more uncomfortable than those they already wear. This process over, they descend again to the breakfast-room, and again sit there, waiting for the dread moment of departure. The boy is more rebellious than usual; he presently drums with his feet, and even begins to whistle, very low, a popular air. His sister looks at him, first with astonished reproach, then in dread.

Satis superque. Again and again Miriam revived these images of the past. And the more she thought of herself as a child, the less was she pleased with what her memory presented. How many instances came back to her of hypocrisy before her father or mother, hypocrisy which, strangely enough, she at the time believed a merit, though perfectly aware of her own insincerity! How many a time had she suffered from the restraints imposed upon her, and then secretly allowed herself indulgences, and then again persuaded herself that by severe attention to formalities she blotted out her sin!

But the worst was when Cecily Doran came to live in the house. Cecily was careless in religion, had been subjected to no proper severity, had not been taught to probe her con science. At once Miriam assumed an attitude of spiritual pride-the beginning of an evil which was to strengthen its hold upon her through years. She would be an example to the poor little heathen; she talked with her unctuously; she excited herself, began to find a pleasure in asceticism, and drew the susceptible girl into the same way. They would privately appoint periods of fasting, and at several successive meals irritate their hunger by taking only one or two morsels; when faintness came upon them, they gloried in the misery.

And from that stage of youth survived memories far more painful than those of childhood. Miriam shut her mind against them.

Her marriage came about in the simplest way; nothing easier to understand, granted these circumstances. The friends of the family were few, and all people of the same religious sect, of the same commercial sphere. Miriam had never spoken with a young man whom she did not in her heart despise; the one or two who might possibly have been tempted to think of her as a desirable wife were repelled by her austerity. She had now a character to support; she had made herself known for severe devotion to the things of the spirit. In her poor little world she could not submit to be less than pre-eminent, and only by the way of religion was pre-eminence to be assured. When the wealthy and pious manufacturer sought her hand, she doubted for a while, but was in the end induced to consent by the reflection that not only would she be freer, but at the same time enjoy a greatly extended credit and influence. Her pride silenced every other voice.

Religious hypocrisy is in our day a very rare thing; so little is to be gained by it. To be sure, the vast majority of English people are constantly guilty of hypocritical practices, but that, as a rule, is mere testimony to the rootedness of their orthodox faith. Mr. Elgar. shutting himself up between breakfast and chapel to write business letters-which he pre- or post-dated-was ignoble enough, but not therefore a hypocrite. Had a fatal accident happened to one of his family whilst he was thus employed, he would not have succeeded in persuading his conscience that the sin and the calamity were unconnected. His wife had never admitted a doubt of its being required by the immutable law of God that she should be sad and severe on Sunday, that Reuben should be sternly punished for whistling on that day, that little Miriam should be rewarded when she went through the long services with unnatural stillness and demureness. Nor was Miriam herself a hypocrite when, mistress of Redbeck House, she began to establish her reputation and authority throughout dissenting Bartles.

Her instruction had been rigidly sectarian. Whatever she studied was represented to her from the point of view of its relation to Christianity as her teachers understood it. The Christian faith was alone of absolute significance; all else that the mind of man could contain was of more or less importance as more or less connected with that single interest. To the time of her marriage, her outlook upon the world was incredibly restricted. She had never read a book that would not pass her mother's censorship; she had never seen a work of art; she had never heard any but "sacred" music; she had never perused a journal; she had never been to an entertainment-unless the name could be given to a magic-lantern exhibition of views in Palestine, or the like. Those with whom she associated had gone through a similar training, and knew as little of life.

She had heard of "infidelity;" yes. Live as long as she might, she would never forget one dreadful day when, in a quarrel with his mother, Reuben uttered words which signified hatred and rejection of all he had been taught to hold divine Mrs. Elgar's pallid, speechless horror; the severe chastisement inflicted on the lad by his father;-she could never look back on it all without sickness of heart. Thenceforth, her brother and his wild ways embodied for her that awful thing, infidelity. At the age which Cecily Doran had now attained, Miriam believed that there were only a few men living so unspeakably wicked as to repudiate Christianity; one or two of these, she had learnt from the pulpit, were "men of science," a term which to this day fell on her ears with sinister sound.

Thus prepared for the duties of wife, mother, and leader in society, she shone forth upon Bartles. Her husband, essentially a coarse man, did his utmost, though unconsciously, to stimulate her pride and supply her with incentives to unworthy ambition. He was rich, and boasted of it vulgarly; he was ignorant, and vaunted the fact, thanking Heaven that for him the purity of religious conviction had never been endangered by the learning that leads astray; he was proud of possessing a young and handsome wife, and for the first time evoked in her a personal vanity. Day by day was it-most needlessly-impressed upon Miriam that she must regard herself as the chief lady in Bartles, and omit no duty appertaining to such a position. She had an example to set; she was chosen as a support of religion.

Most happily, the man died. Had he remained her consort for ten years, the story of Miriam's life would have been one of those that will scarcely bear dwelling upon, too repulsive, too heart-breaking; a few words of bitterness, of ruth, and there were an end of it. His death was like the removal of a foul burden that polluted her and gradually dragged her down. Nor was it long before she herself understood it in this way, though dimly and uncertainly. She found herself looking on things with eyes which somehow had a changed power of vision. With remarkable abruptness, certain of her habits fell from her, and she remembered them only with distaste, even with disgust. And one day she said to herself passionately that never would she wed again-never, never! She was experiencing for the first time in her life a form of liberty.

Not that her faith had received any shock. To her undeveloped mind every tenet in which she had been instructed was still valid. This is the point to note. Her creed was a habit of the intellect; she held it as she did the knowledge of the motions of the earth. She had never reflected upon it, for in everything she heard or read this intellectual basis was presupposed. With doctrinal differences her reasoning faculty was familiar, and with her to think of religion was to think of the points at issue between one church and another-always, moreover, with pre-judgment in favour of her own.

But the external results of her liberty began to be of importance. She came into frequent connection with her cousin Eleanor; she saw more than hitherto of the Bradshaws' family life; she had business transactions; she read newspapers; she progressed slowly towards some practical acquaintance with the world.

Miriam knew the very moment when the thought of making great sacrifices to build a new chapel for Bartles had first entered her mind. One of her girl friends had just married, and was come to live in the neighbourhood. The husband, Welland by name, was wealthier and of more social importance than Mr. Baske had been; it soon became evident that Mrs. Welland, who also aspired to prominence in religious life, would be a formidable rival to the lady of Redbeck House. On the occasion of some local meeting, Miriam felt this danger keenly; she went home in dark mood, and the outcome of her brooding was the resolve in question.

She had not inherited all her husband's possessions; indeed, there fell to her something less than half his personal estate. For a time, this had not concerned her; now she was beginning to think of it occasionally with discontent, followed by reproach of conscience. Like reproach did she suffer for the jealousy and envy excited in her by Mrs. Welland's arrival. A general uneasiness of mind was gradually induced, and the chapel-building project, with singular confusion of motives, represented to her at once a worldly ambition and a discipline for the soul. It was a long time before she spoke of it, and in the interval she suffered more and more from a vague mental unrest.

Letters were coming to her from Cecily. Less by what they contained than by what they omitted, she knew that Cecily was undergoing a great change. Miriam put at length certain definite questions, and the answers she received were unsatisfactory, alarming. The correspondence became a distinct source of trouble. Not merely on Cecily's account; she was led by it to think of the world beyond her horizon, and to conceive dissatisfactions such as had never taken form to her.

Her physical health began to fall off; she had seasons of depression, during which there settled upon her superstitious fears. Ascetic impulses returned, and by yielding to them she established a new cause of bodily weakness. And the more she suffered, the more intolerable to her grew the thought of resigning her local i

mportance. Her pride, whenever irritated, showed itself in ways which exposed her to the ridicule of envious acquaintances. At length Bartles was surprised with an announcement of what had so long been in her mind; a newspaper paragraph made known, as if with authority, the great and noble work Mrs. Baske was about to undertake. For a day or two Miriam enjoyed the excitement this produced-the inquiries, the felicitations, the reports of gossip. She held her head more firmly than ever; she seemed of a sudden to be quite re-established in health.

Another day or two, and she was lying seriously ill-so ill that her doctor summoned aid from Manchester.

What a distance between those memories, even the latest of them, and this room in Villa Sannazaro! Its foreign aspect, its brightness, its comfort, the view from the windows, had from the first worked upon her with subtle influences of which she was unconscious. By reason of her inexperience of life, it was impossible for Miriam to analyze her own being, and note intelligently the modifications it underwent. Introspection meant to her nothing but debates held with conscience-a technical conscience, made of religious precepts. Original reflection, independent of these precepts, was to her very simply a form of sin, a species of temptation for which she had been taught to prepare herself. With anxiety, she found herself slipping away from that firm ground whence she was wont to judge all within and about her; more and more difficult was it to keep in view that sole criterion in estimating the novel impressions she received. To review the criterion itself was still beyond her power. She suffered from the conviction that trials foreseen were proving too strong for her. Whenever her youth yielded to the allurement of natural joys, there followed misery of penitence. Not that Miriam did in truth deem it a sin to enjoy the sunshine and the breath of the sea and the beauty of mountains (though such delights might become excessive, like any other, and so veil temptation), but she felt that for one in her position of peril there could not be too strict a watch kept upon the pleasures that were admitted. Hence she could never forget herself in pleasure; her attitude must always be that of one on guard.

The name of Italy signified perilous enticement, and she was beginning to feel it. The people amid whom she lived were all but avowed scorners of her belief, and yet she was beginning to like their society. Every letter she wrote to Bartles seemed to her despatched on a longer journey than the one before; her paramount interests were fading, fading; she could not exert herself to think of a thousand matters which used to have the power to keep her active all day long. The chapel-plans were hidden away; she durst not go to the place where they would have met her eye.

She suffered in her pride. On landing at Naples, she had imagined that her position among the Spences and their friends would not be greatly different from that she had held at Bartles. They were not "religious" people; all the more must they respect her, feeling rebuked in her presence. The chapel project would enhance her importance. How far otherwise had it proved! They pitied her, compassionated her lack of knowledge, of opportunities. With the perception of this, there came upon her another disillusion In classing the Spences with people who were not "religious," she had understood them as lax in the observance of duties which at all events they recognized as such. By degrees she learnt that they were very far from holding the same views as herself concerning religious obligation; they were anything but conscience-smitten in the face of her example. Was it, then, possible that persons who lived in a seemly manner could be sceptics, perhaps "infidels"? What of Cecily Doran? She had not dared to ask Cecily face to face how far her disbelief went; the girl seemed to have no creed but that of worldly delight. How had she killed her conscience in so short a time? Obviously, her views were those of Mrs. Lessingham; probably those of Mr. Mallard. Were these people strange and dreadful exceptions, or did they represent a whole world of which she had not suspected the existence?

Yes, she was beginning to feel the allurement of Italy. Instead of sitting turned away from her windows when musing, she often passed an hour with her eyes on the picture they framed, content to be idle, satisfied with form and colour, not thinking at all. Habits of personal idleness crept upon her; she seldom cared to walk, but found pleasure in the motion of a carriage, and lay back on the cushions, instead of sitting quite upright as at first. She began to wish for music; the sound of Eleanor's piano would tempt her to make an excuse for going into the room, and then she would remain, listening. The abundant fruits of the season became a temptation to her palate; she liked to see shops and stalls overflowing with the vineyard's delicious growth.

She knew for the first time the seduction of books. From what unutterable weariness had she been saved when she assented to Eleanor's proposal and began to learn Italian! First there was the fear lest she should prove slow at acquiring, suffer yet another fall from her dignity; but this apprehension was soon removed. She had a brain, and could use it; Eleanor's praise fell upon her ears delightfully. Then there was that little volume of English verse which Eleanor left on the table; its name, "The Golden Treasury," made her imagine it of a religious tone; she was undeceived in glancing through it. Poetry had hitherto made no appeal to her; she did not care much for the little book. But one day Cecily caught it up in delight, and read to her for half an hour; she affected indifference, but had in reality learnt something, and thereafter read for herself.

The two large mirrors in her room had, oddly enough, no unimportant part among the agencies working for her development. It was almost inevitable that, in moving about, she should frequently regard her own figure. From being something of an annoyance, this necessity at length won attractiveness, till she gazed at herself far oftener than she need have done. As for her face she believed it passable, perhaps rather more than that; but the attire that had possessed distinction at Bartles looked very plain, to say the least, in the light of her new experience. One day she saw herself standing side by side with Cecily, and her eyes quickly turned away.

To what was she sinking!

But Dante lay unopened, together with the English books. Miriam had spent a day or two of alternate languor and irritableness, unable to attend to anything serious. Just now she had in her hand Cecily's letter, the letter which told of what had happened. There was no reason for referring to it again; this afternoon Cecily herself had been here. But Miriam read over the pages, and dwelt upon them.

At dinner, no remark was made on the subject that occupied the minds of all three. Afterwards they sat together, as usual, and Eleanor played. In one of the silences, Miriam turned to Spence and asked him if he had seen Mr. Mallard.

"Yes; I found him after a good deal of going about," replied the other, glad to have done with artificial disregard of the subject.

"Does he know that they are going to Capri!"

"He evidently hadn't heard of it. I suppose he'll have a note from Mrs. Lessingham this evening or to-morrow."

Miriam waited a little, then asked:

"What is his own wish? What does he think ought to be arranged?"

"Just what Cecily told you," interposed Eleanor, before her husband could reply.

"I thought he might have spoken more freely to Edward."

"Well," answered Spence, "he is strongly of opinion that Reuben ought to go to England very soon. But I suppose Cecily told you that as well?"

"She seemed to be willing. But why doesn't Mr. Mallard speak to her himself?"

"Mallard isn't exactly the man for this delicate business," said Spence, smiling.

Miriam glanced from him to Eleanor. She would have said no more, had it been in her power to keep silence; but an involuntary persistence, the same in kind as that often manifested by questioning children-an impulsive feeling that the next query must elicit something which would satisfy a vague desire, obliged her to speak again.

"Is it his intention not to see Cecily at all?"

"I think very likely it is, Miriam," answered Eleanor, when her husband showed that he left her to do so.

"I understand."

To which remark Eleanor, when Miriam was gone, attached the interrogative, "I wonder whether she does?" The Spences did not feel it incumbent upon them to direct her in the matter; it were just as well if she followed a mistaken clue.

Two days later, Mrs. Lessingham and her niece, accompanied by Reuben Elgar, departed for Capri. The day after that, Mr. and Mrs. Bradshaw in very deed said good-bye to Naples and travelled northwards. They purposed spending Christmas in Rome, and thence by quicker stages they would return to the land of civilization. Spence went to the station to see them off, and at lunch, after speaking of this and other things, he said to Miriam:

"Mallard wishes to see you. I told him I thought five o'clock this afternoon would be a convenient time."

Miriam assented, but not without betraying surprise and uneasiness. Subsequently she just mentioned to Eleanor that she would receive the visitor in her own sitting-room. There, as five o'clock drew near, she waited in painful agitation. What it was Mallard's purpose to say to her she could not with any degree of certainty conjecture. Had Reuben told him of the part she had played in connection with that eventful day at Pompeii? What would be his tone? Did he come to ask for particulars concerning her brother? Intend what he might, she dreaded the interview. And yet-fact of which she made no secret to herself-she had rather he came than not. When it was a few minutes past five, and no foot had yet sounded in the corridor, all other feeling was lost in the misgiving that he might have changed his mind. Perhaps he had decided to write instead, and her heart sank at the thought. She felt an overpowering curiosity as to the way in which this event had affected the strange man. Reports were no satisfaction to her; she desired to see him and hear him speak.

The footsteps at last! She trembled, went hot and cold, had a parched throat. Mallard entered, and she did not offer him her hand; perhaps he might reject it. In consequence there was an absurdly formal bow on both sides.

"Please sit down, Mr. Mallard."

She saw that he was looking at the "St. Cecilia," but with what countenance her eyes could not determine. To her astonishment, he spoke of the picture, and in an unembarrassed tone.

"An odd thing that this should be in your room."

"Yes. We spoke of it the first time Cecily came."

Her accents were not firm. At once he fixed his gaze on her, and did not remove it until her temples throbbed and she cast down her eyes in helpless abashment.

"I have had a long letter from your brother, Mrs. Baske. It seems he posted it just before they left for Capri. I can only reply to it in one way, and it gives me so much pain to do so that I am driven to ask your help. He writes begging me to take another view of this matter, and permit them to be married before very long. The letter is powerfully written; few men could plead their cause with such eloquence and force. But it cannot alter my determination. I must reply briefly and brutally. What I wish to ask you is, whether with sincerity you can urge my arguments upon your brother, and give me this assistance in the most obvious duty?"

"I have no influence with him, Mr. Mallard."

Again he looked at her persistently, and said with deliberation:

"I think you must have some. And this is one of the cases in which a number of voices may possibly prevail, though one or two are ineffectual. But-if you will forgive me my direct words-your voice is, of course, useless if you cannot speak in earnest."

She was able now to return his look, for her pride was being aroused. The face she examined bore such plain marks of suffering that with difficulty she removed her eyes from it. Nor could she make reply to him, so intensely were her thoughts occupied with what she saw.

"Perhaps," he said, "you had rather not undertake anything at once." Then, his voice changing slightly, "I have no wish to seem a suppliant, Mrs. Baske. My reasons for saying that this marriage shall not, if I can prevent it, take place till Miss Doran is of age, are surely simple and convincing enough; I can't suppose that it is necessary to insist upon them to you. But I feel I had no right to leave any means unused. By speaking to you, I might cause you to act more earnestly than you otherwise would. That was all."

"I am very willing to help you," she replied, with carefully courteous voice.

"After all, I had rather we didn't put it in that way," Mallard resumed, with a curious doggedness, as if her tone were distasteful to him. "My own part in the business is accidental. Please tell me: is it, or not, your own belief that a delay is desirable?"

The reply was forced from her.

"I certainly think it is."

"May I ask you if you have reasoned with your brother about it?"

"I haven't had any communication with him since-since we knew of this." She paused; but, before Mallard had shown an intention to speak, added abruptly, "I should have thought that Miss Doran might have been trusted to understand and respect your wishes."

"Miss Doran knows my wishes," he answered drily, "but I haven't insisted upon them to her, and am not disposed to do so."

"Would it not be very simple and natural if you did?"

The look he gave her was stern all but to anger.

"It wouldn't be a very pleasant task to me, Mrs. Baske, to lay before her my strongest arguments against her marrying Mr. Elgar. And if I don't do that, it seems to me that it is better to let her know my wishes through Mrs. Lessingham. As you say, it is to be hoped she will understand and respect them."

He rose from his chair. For some reason, Miriam could not utter the words that one part of her prompted. She wished to assure him that she would do her best with Reuben, but at the same time she resented his mode of addressing her, and the conflict made her tongue-tied.

"I won't occupy more of your time, Mrs. Baske."

She would have begged him to resume his seat. The conversation had been so short; she wanted to hear him speak more freely. But her request, she knew, would be disregarded With an effort, she succeeded in holding out her hand Mallard held it lightly for an instant.

"I will write to him," fell from her lips, when already he had turned to the door. "If necessary, I will go and see him."

"Thank you," he replied with civility, and left her.

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