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   Chapter 15 WOLF!

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 21207

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


It was a case of between two stools, and Clifford Marsh did not like the bump. From that dinner with Elgar he came home hilariously dismayed; when his hilarity had evaporated with the wine that was its cause, dismay possessed him wholly. Miss Doran was not for him, and in the meantime he had offended Madeline beyond forgiveness. With what countenance could he now turn to her again? Her mother would welcome his surrender-and it was drawing on towards the day when submission even to his stepfather could no longer be postponed-but he suspected that Madeline's resolve to have done with him was strengthened by resentment of her mother's importunities. To be sure, it was some sort of consolation to know that if indeed he went his way for good, bitterness and regrets would be the result to the Denyer family, who had no great facility in making alliances of this kind; in a few years time, Madeline would be wishing that she had not let her pride interfere with a chance of marriage. But, on the other hand, there was the awkward certainty that he too would lament making a fool of himself. He by no means liked the thought of relinquishing Madeline; he had not done so, even when heating his brain with contemplation of Cecily Doran. In what manner could he bring about between her and himself a drama which might result in tears and mutual pardon?

But whilst he pondered this, fate was at work on his behalf. On the day which saw the departure of the Bradshaws, there landed at Naples, from Alexandria, a certain lean, wiry man, with shoulders that stooped slightly, with grizzled head and parchment visage; a man who glanced about him in a keen, anxious way, and had other nervous habits. Having passed the custom-house, he hired a porter to take his luggage-two leather bags and a heavy chest, all much the worse for wear-to that same hotel at which Mallard was just now staying. There he refreshed himself, and, it being early in the afternoon, went forth again, as if on business; for decidedly he was no tourist. When he had occasion to speak, his Italian was fluent and to the point; he conducted himself as one to whom travel and intercourse with every variety of men were life-long habits.

His business conducted him to the Mergellina, to the house of Mrs. Gluck, where he inquired for Mrs. Denyer. He was led upstairs, and into the room where sat Mrs. Denyer and her daughters. The sight of him caused commotion. Barbara, Madeline, and Zillah pressed around him, with cries of "Papa!" Their mother rose and looked at him with concern.

When the greetings were over, Mr. Denyer seated himself and wiped his forehead with a silk handkerchief. He was ominously grave. His eyes avoided the faces before him, as if in shame. He looked at his boots, which had just been blacked, but were shabby, and then glanced at the elegant skirts of his wife and daughters; he looked at his shirt-cuffs, which were clean but frayed, and then gathered courage to lift his eyes as far as the dainty hands folded upon laps in show of patience.

"Madeline," he began, in a voice which was naturally harsh, but could express much tenderness, as now, "what news of Clifford?"

"He's still here, papa," was the answer, in a very low voice.

"I am glad of that. Girls, I've got something to tell you. I wish it was something pleasant."

His parchment cheek showed a distinct flush. The attempt to keep his eyes on the girls was a failure; he seemed to be about to confess a crime.

"I've brought you bad news, the worst I ever brought you yet. My dears, I can hold out no longer; I'm at the end of my means. If I could have kept this from you, Heaven knows I would have done, but it is better to tell you all plainly."

Mrs. Denyer's brows were knitted; her lips were compressed in angry obstinacy; she would not look up from the floor. The girls glanced at her, then at one another. Barbara tried to put on a sceptical expression, but failed; Madeline was sunk in trouble; Zillah showed signs of tearfulness.

"I can only hope," Mr. Denyer continued, "that you don't owe very much here. I thought, after my last letter"-he seemed more abashed than ever-"you might have looked round for something a little-" He glanced at the ornaments of the room, but at the same time chanced to catch his wife's eye, and did not finish the sentence. "But never mind that; time enough now that the necessity has come. You know me well enough, Barbara, and you Maddy, and you, Zillah, my child, to be sure that I wouldn't deny you anything it was in my power to give. But fortune's gone against me this long time. I shall have to make a new start, new efforts. I'm going out to Vera Cruz again."

He once more wiped his forehead, and took the opportunity to look askance at Mrs. Denyer, dubiously, half reproachfully.

"And what are we to do?" asked his wife, with resentful helplessness.

"I am afraid you must go to England," Mr. Denyer replied apologetically, turning his look to the girls again. "After settling here, and paying the expenses of the journey, I shall have a little left, very little indeed. But I'm going to Vera Cruz on a distinct engagement, and I shall soon be able to send you something. I'm afraid you had better go to Aunt Dora's again; I've heard from her lately, and she has the usual spare rooms."

The girls exchanged looks of dismay. The terrible silence was broken by Zillah, who spoke in quavering accents.

"Papa dear, I have made up my mind to get a place as a nursery governess. I shall very soon be able to do so."

"And I shall do the same, papa-or something of the kind," came abruptly from Madeline.

"You, Maddy?" exclaimed her father, who had received the youngest girl's announcement with a look of sorrowful resignation, but was shocked at the other's words.

"I am no longer engaged to Mr. Marsh," Madeline proceeded, casting down her eyes. "Please don't say anything, mamma. I have made up my mind. I shall look for employment."

Her father shook his head in distress. He had never enjoyed the control or direction of his daughters, and his long absences during late years had put him almost on terms of ceremony with them. In time gone by, their mother had been to him an object of veneration; it was his privilege to toil that she might live in luxury; but his illusions regarding her had received painful shocks, and it was to the girls that he now sacrificed himself. Their intellect, their attainments, at once filled him with pride and made him humble in their presence. But for his reluctance to impose restraints upon their mode of life, he might have avoided this present catastrophe; he had cried "Wolf!" indeed, in his mild way, but took no energetic measures when he found his cry disregarded-all the worse for him now that he could postpone the evil day no longer.

"You are the best judge of your own affairs, Madeline," he replied despondently. "I'm very sorry, my girl."

"All I can say is," exclaimed Mrs. Denyer, as if with dignified reticence, "that I think we should have had longer warning of this!"

"My dear, I have warned you repeatedly for nearly a year."

"I mean serious warning. Who was to imagine that things would come to such a pass as this?"

"You never told us there was danger of absolute beggary, papa," remarked Barbara, in a tone not unlike her mother's.

"I ought to have spoken more plainly," was her father's meek answer. "You are quite right, Barbara. I feel that I am to blame."

"I don't think you are at all," said Madeline, with decision. "Your letters were plain enough, if we had chosen to pay any attention to them."

Her father looked up apprehensively, deprecating defence of himself at the cost of family discord. But he was powerless to prevent the gathering storm. Mrs. Denyer gazed sternly at her recalcitrant daughter, and at length discharged upon the girl's head all the wrath with which this situation inspired her. Barbara took her mother's side. Zillah wept and sobbed words of reconciliation. The unhappy cause of the tumult took refuge at the window, sunk in gloom.

However, there was no doubt about it this time; trunks must be packed, bills must be paid, indignities must be swallowed. The Aunt Dora of whom Mr. Denyer had spoken was his own sister, the wife of a hotel-keeper at Southampton. Some seven years ago, in a crisis of the Denyers' fate, she had hospitably housed them for several months, and was now willing to do as much again, notwithstanding the arrogance with which Mrs. Denyer had repaid her. To the girls it had formerly mattered little where they lived; at their present age, it was far otherwise. The hotel was of a very modest description; society would become out of the question in such a retreat. Madeline and Zillah might choose, as the less of two evils, the lot for which they declared themselves ready; but Barbara had no notion of turning governess. She shortly went to her bedroom, and spent a very black hour indeed.

They were to start to-morrow morning. With rage Barbara saw the interdiction of hopes which were just becoming serious. Another month of those after-dinner colloquies in the drawing-room, and who could say what point of intimacy Mr. Musselwhite might have reached. He was growing noticeably more articulate; he was less absentminded. Oh, for a month more!

This evening she took her usual place, and at length had the tormenting gratification of seeing Mr. Musselwhite approach in the usual way. Though sitting next to him at dinner, she had said nothing of what would happen on the morrow; the present was a better opportunity.

"You have no book this evening, Miss Denyer!"

"No."

"No headache, I hope?"

"Yes, I have a little headache."

He looked at her with gentlemanly sympathy.

"I have had to see to a lot of things in a hurry. Unexpectedly, we have to leave Naples to-morrow; we are going to England."

"Indeed? You don't say so! Really, I'm very sorry to hear that, Miss Denyer."

"I am sorry too-to have to leave Italy for such a climate at this time of the year." She shuddered. "But my father has just arrived from Alexandria, and-for family reasons-wishes us to travel on with him."

Mr. Musselwhite seemed to reflect anxiously. He curled his moustaches, he plucked his whiskers, he looked about the room with wide eyes.

"How lonely it will be at the dinner-table!" he said at length. "So many have gone of late. But I hoped there was no danger of your going, Miss Denyer."

"We had no idea of it ourselves till to-day."

A long silence, during which Mr. Musselwhite's r

eflections grew intense.

"You are going to London?" he asked mechanically.

"Not at first. I hardly know. I think we shall be for some time with friends at Southampton."

"Indeed? How odd! I also have friends at Southampton. A son of Sir Edward Mull; he married a niece of mine."

Barbara could have cried with mortification. She muttered she knew not what. Then again came a blank in the dialogue.

"I trust we may meet again," was Mr. Musselwhite's next sentence. It cost him an effort; he reddened a little, and moved his feet about.

"There is no foreseeing. I-we-I am sorry to say my father has brought us rather unpleasant news."

She knew not whether it was a stroke of policy, or grossly imprudent, to make this confession. But it came to her lips, and she uttered it half in recklessness. It affected Mr. Musselwhite strangely. His countenance fell, and a twinge seemed to catch one of his legs; at the same time it made him fluent.

"I grieve to hear that, Miss Denyer; I grieve indeed. Your departure would have been bad enough, but I really grieve to think you should have cause of distress."

"Thank you for your sympathy, Mr. Musselwhite."

"But perhaps we may meet again in England, for all that? Will you permit me to give you my London address-a-a little club that I belong to, and where my friends often send letters? I mean that I should be so very glad if it were ever possible for me to serve you in any trifle. As you know, I don't keep any-any establishment in England at present; but possibly-as you say, there is no anticipating the future. I should be very happy indeed if we chanced to meet, there or abroad."

"You are very kind, Mr. Musselwhite."

"If I might ask you for your own probable address?"

"It is so uncertain. But I am sure mamma would have pleasure in sending it, when we arc settled."

"Thank you so very much." He looked up after long meditation. "I really do not know what I shall do when you are gone, Miss Denyer."

And then, without warning, he said good-night and walked away. Barbara, who had thought that the conversation was just about to become interesting, felt her heart sink into unfathomable depths. She went back to her bedroom and cried wretchedly for a long time.

In consequence of private talk with his wife, when the family conclave had broken up, Mr. Denyer went in search of Clifford Marsh. They had met only once hitherto, six months ago, when Mr. Denyer paid a flying visit to London, and had just time to make the acquaintance of his prospective son-in-law. This afternoon they walked together for an hour about the Chiaia, with the result that an understanding of some kind seemed to be arrived at between them.

Mr. Denyer returned to the pension, and, when dinnertime approached, surprised Madeline with the proposal that she should come out and dine with him at a restaurant.

"The fact is," he whispered to her, with a laugh, "my appearance is not quite up to the standard of your dinner-table. I'm rather too careless about these things; it's doubtful whether I possess a decent suit. Let us go and find a quiet corner somewhere-if a fashionable young lady will do me so much honour."

Through Madeline's mind there passed a suspicion, but a restaurant-dinner hit her taste, and she accepted the invitation readily. Before long, they drove into the town. Perhaps in recognition of her having taken his part against idle reproaches, her father began, as soon as they were alone, to talk in a grave, earnest way about his affairs; and Madeline, who liked above all things to be respectfully treated, entered into the subject with dutiful consideration. He showed her exactly how his misfortunes had accumulated, how this and that project had been a failure, what unadvised steps he had taken in fear of impending calamity Snugly seated at the little marble table, they grew very confidential indeed. Mr. Denyer avowed his hope-the hope ever-retreating, though sometimes it had seemed within reach-of being able some day to find rest for the sole of his foot, to settle down with his family and enjoy a quiet close of life. Possibly this undertaking at Vera Cruz would be his last exile; he explained it in detail, and dwelt on its promising aspects. Madeline felt compassionate and remorseful.

Of her own intimate concerns no word was said, but it happened strangely enough, just as they had finished dinner, that Clifford Marsh came strolling into the restaurant. He saw them, and with expressions of surprise explained that he had just turned in for a cup of coffee. Mr. Denyer invited him to sit down with them, and they had coffee together. Clifford kept up a flow of characteristic talk, never directly addressing Madeline, nor encountering her look. He referred casually to his meeting with Mr. Denyer that afternoon.

"I shall be going back myself very shortly. It is probable that there will be something of a change in my circumstances; I may decide to give up a few hours each day to commercial pursuits. It all depends on-on uncertain things."

"You won't come out with me to Vera Cruz?" said Mr. Denyer, jocosely.

"No; I am a man of the old world. I must live in the atmosphere of art, or I don't care to live at all."

Madeline's slight suspicion was confirmed. When they were about to leave the restaurant, Mr. Denyer said that he must go to the railway-station, to make a few inquiries. There was no use in Madeline's going such a distance; would Clifford be so good as to see her safely home? Madeline made a few objections-she would really prefer to accompany her father; she would not trouble Mr. Marsh-but in the end she found herself seated by Clifford in a carriage, passing rapidly through the streets.

Now was Clifford's opportunity; he had prepared for it.

"Madeline-you must let me call you by that name again, even if it is for the last time-I have heard what has happened."

"Happily it does not affect you, Mr. Marsh."

"Indeed it does. It affects me so far, that it alters the whole course of my life. In spite of everything that has seemed to come between us, I have never allowed myself to think of our engagement as at an end. The parcel you sent me the other day is unopened; if you do not open it yourself no one ever shall. Whatever you may do, I cannot break faith. You ought to know me better than to misinterpret a few foolish and hasty words, and appearances that had a meaning you should have understood. The time has come now for putting an end to those misconceptions."

"They no longer concern me. Please to speak of something else."

"You must, at all events, understand my position before we part. This morning I was as firmly resolved as ever to risk everything, to renounce the aid of my relatives if it must be and face poverty for the sake of art. Now all is changed. I shall accept my step-father's offer, and all its results becoming, if it can't be helped, a mere man of business. I do this because of my sacred duties to you. As an artist, there's no telling how long it might be before I could ask you again to be my wife; as a man of business, I may soon be in a position to do so. Don't interrupt me, I entreat! It is no matter to me if you repulse me now, in your anger. I consider the engagement as still existing between us, and, such being the ease, it is plainly my duty to take such steps as will enable me to offer you a home. By remaining an artist, I should satisfy one part of my conscience, but at the expense of all my better feelings; it might even be supposed-though, I trust, not by you-that I made my helplessness an excuse for forgetting you when most you needed kindness. I shall go back to England, and devote myself with energy to the new task, however repulsive it may prove. Whether you think of me or not, I do it for your sake; you cannot rob me of that satisfaction. Some day I shall again stand before you, and ask you for what you once promised. If then you refuse-well, I must bear the loss of all my hopes."

"You may direct your life as you choose," Madeline replied scornfully, "but you will please to understand that I give you no encouragement to hope anything from me. I almost believe you capable of saying, some day, that you took this step because I urged you to it. I have no interest whatever in your future; our paths are separate. Let this be the end of it."

But it was very far from the end of it. When the carriage stopped at Mrs. Gluck's, mutual reproaches were at their height.

"You shall not leave me yet, Madeline," said Clifford, as he alighted. "Come to the other side of the road, and let us walk along for a few minutes. You shall not go in, if I have to hold you by force."

Madeline yielded, and in the light of the moon they walked side by side, continuing their dialogue.

"You are heartless! You have played with me from the first."

"If so, I only treated you as you thought to treat me."

"That you can attribute such baseness to me proves how incapable you are of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. How wretchedly I have been deceived in you!"

From upbraiding, he fell to lamentation. His life was wrecked; he had lost his ideals; and all through her unworthiness. Then, as Madeline was still unrelenting, he began to humble himself. He confessed his levity; he had not considered the risk he ran of losing her respect; all he had done was in pique at her treatment of him. And in the end he implored her forgiveness, besought her to restore him to life by accepting his unqualified submission. To part from her on such terms as these meant despair; the consequences would be tragic. And when he could go no further in amorous supplication, when she felt that her injured pride had exacted the uttermost from his penitence, Madeline at length relented.

"Still," she said, after his outburst of gratitude, "don't think that I ask you to become a man of business. You shall never charge me with that. It is your nature to reproach other people when anything goes wrong with you; I know you only too well. You must decide for yourself; I will take no responsibility."

Yes, he accepted that; it was purely his own choice. Rather than lose her, he would toil at any most ignoble pursuit, amply repaid by the hope she granted him.

They had walked some distance, and were out of sight of the Mergellina, on the ascending road of Posillipo, all the moonlit glory of the bay before them.

"It will be long before we see it again," said Madeline, sadly.

"We will spend our honeymoon here," was Clifford's hopeful reply.

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