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   Chapter 16 A CORNER OF SOCIETY

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 19454

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


In a London drawing-room, where the murmur of urbane colloquy rose and fell, broken occasionally by the voice of the nomenclator announcing new arrivals, two ladies, seated in a recess, were exchanging confidences. One was a novelist of more ability than repute; the other was a weekly authority on musical performances.

"Her head is getting turned, poor girl. I feel sorry for her."

"Such ridiculous flattery! And really it is difficult to understand. She is pretty, and speaks French; neither the one thing nor the other is uncommon, I believe. Do you see anything remarkable in her?"

"Well, she is rather more than pretty; and there's a certain cleverness in her talk. But at her age this kind of thing is ruinous. I blame Mrs. Lessingham. She should bid her stay at home and mind her baby."

"By-the-bye, what truth is there in that story? The Naples affair, you know?"

"N'en sais rien. But I hear odd things about her husband. Mr. Bickerdike knew him a few years ago. He ran through a fortune, and fell into most disreputable ways of life. Somebody was saying that he got his living as 'bus-conductor, or something of the kind."

"I could imagine that, from the look of him."

It was Mrs. Lessingham's Wednesday evening. The house at Craven Hill opened its doors at ten o'clock, and until midnight there was no lack of company. Singular people, more or less; distinguished from society proper by the fact that all had a modicum of brains. Some came from luxurious homes, some from garrets. Visitors from Paris were frequent; their presence made a characteristic of the salon. This evening, for instance, honour was paid by the hostess to M. Amedeee Silvenoire, whose experiment in unromantic drama had not long ago gloriously failed at the Odeon; and Madame Jacquelin, the violinist, was looked for.

Mrs. Lessingham had not passed a season in London for several years. When, at the end of April, she took this house, there came to live with her the widow and daughter of a man of letters who had died in poverty. She had known the Delphs in Paris, in the days when Cecily was with her and in the winter just past she had come upon Irene Delph copying at the Louvre; the girl showed a good deal of talent but was hard beset by the difficulty of living whilst she worked. In the spirit of her generous brother, Mrs. Lessingham persuaded the two to come and live with her through the season; a room in the house was a studio for Irene, who took to portraits. Mrs. Delph, a timid woman whose nerves had failed under her misfortunes, did not appear on formal occasions like the present, but Irene was becoming an ornament of the drawing-room. To be sure, but for her good looks and her artistic aptitude, she would not have been here-no reason, perhaps, for stinted praise of her friend's generosity.

An enjoyable thing to see Mrs. Lessingham in conversation with one of her French guests. She threw off full fifteen years, and looked thirty at most. Her handsome features had a vivid play of expression in harmony with the language she was speaking; her eyes were radiant as she phrased a thought which in English would have required many words for the-blunting of its point. M. Silvenoire, who-with the slight disadvantage of knowing no tongue but his own-was making a study of English social life, found himself at ease this evening for the first time since he had been in London. Encouraged to talk his best, he frankly and amusingly told Mrs. Lessingham of the ideas he had formed regarding conversation in the drawing-rooms of English ladies.

"Civilization is spreading among us," she replied, with a laugh. "Once or twice it has been my privilege to introduce young Frenchmen, who were studying our language, to English families abroad, and in those cases I privately recommended to them a careful study of Anthony Trollope's novels, that they might learn what is permissible in conversation and what is not. But here and there in London you will find it possible to discuss things that interest reasonable beings."

At the door sounded the name of "Mr. Biekerdike," and there advanced towards the hostess a tall, ugly young man, known by repute to all the English people present. He was the author of a novel called "A Crown of Lilies," which was much talked of just now, and excited no less ridicule than admiration, On the one hand, it was lauded for delicate purity and idealism; on the other, it was scoffed at for artificiality and affected refinement. Mrs. Lessingham had met him for the first time a week ago. Her invitation was not due to approval of his book, but to personal interest which the author moved in her; she was curious to discover how far the idealism of "A Crown of Lilies" was a genuine fruit of the man's nature. Mr. Bickerdike's countenance did not promise clarity of soul; his features were distinctly coarse, and the glance he threw round the room on entering made large demands.

Irene Delph was talking with a young married lady named Mrs. Travis; they both regarded Mr. Bickerdike with close scrutiny.

"Who could have imagined such an author for the book!" murmured the girl, in wonder.

"I could perfectly well," murmured back Mrs. Travis, with a smile which revealed knowledge of humanity.

"I pictured a very youthful man, with a face of effeminate beauty-probably a hectic colour in his cheeks."

"Such men don't write 'the novel of the season.' This gentleman is very shrewd; he gauges the public. Some day, if he sees fit, he will write a brutal book, and it will have merit."

Mr. Bickerdike unfortunately did not speak French, so M. Silvenoire was unable to exchange ideas with him. The Parisian, having learnt what this gentleman's claims were, regarded him through his pince-nez with a subtle smile. But in a few moments he had something more interesting to observe.

"Mrs. Elgar," cried the voice at the door.

Cecily was met half-way by her aunt, "You are alone?"

"Reuben has a headache. Perhaps he will come to fetch me, but more likely not."

All the eyes in the room had one direction. Alike those who ingenuously admired and those who wished to seem indifferent paid the homage of observation to Mrs. Elgar, as she stood exchanging greetings with the friends who came forward. Yes, there was something more than attractive features and a pleasant facility of speech. In Cecily were blended a fresh loveliness and a grace as of maidenhood with the perfect charm of wedded youth. The air about her was charged with something finer than the delicate fragrance which caressed the senses. One had but to hear her speak, were it only the most ordinary phrase of courtesy, and that wonderful voice more than justified profound interest. Strangers took her for a few years older than she was, not judging so much by her face as the finished ease of her manners; when she conversed, it was hard to think of her as only one-and-twenty.

"She is a little pale this evening," said Irene to Mrs. Travis.

The other assented; then asked:

"Why don't you paint her portrait?"

"Heaven forbid! I have quite enough discouragement in my attempts at painting, as it is."

M. Silvenoire was bowing low, as Mrs. Lessingham presented him. To his delight, he heard his own language fluently, idiomatically spoken; he remarked, too, that Mrs. Elgar had a distinct pleasure in speaking it. She seated herself, and flattered him into ecstasies by the respect with which she received his every word. She had seen it mentioned in the Figaro that a new play of his was in preparation; when was it likely to be put on the stage? The theatre in London-of course, he understood that no one took it au serieux?

The Parisian could do nothing but gaze about the room, following her movements, when their dialogue was at an end. Mon Dieu! And who, then, was Mr. Elgar? Might not one hope for an invitation to madame's assemblies? A wonderful people, these English, after all.

Mr. Bickerdike secured, after much impatience, the desired introduction. For reasons of his own, he made no mention of his earlier acquaintance with Elgar. Did she know of it? In any case she appeared not to, but spoke of things which did not interest Mr. Bickerdike in the least. At length he was driven to bring forward the one subject on which he desired her views.

"Have you, by chance, read my book, Mrs. Elgar?"

M. Silvenoire would have understood her smile; the Englishman thought it merely amiable, and prepared for the accustomed compliment.

"Yes, I have read it, Mr. Bickerdike. It seemed to me a charmingly written romance."

The novelist, seated upon too low a chair, leaning forward so that his knees and chin almost touched, was not in himself a very graceful object; the contrast with his neighbour made him worse than grotesque. His visage was disagree ably animal as it smiled with condescension.

"You mean something by that," he remarked, with awkward attempt at light fencing.

There was barely a perceptible movement of Cecily's brows.

"I try to mean something as often as I speak," she said, in an amused tone.

"In this ease it is a censure. You take the side of those who find fault with my idealism."

"Not so; I simply form my own judgment."

Mr. Bickerdike was nervous at all times in the society of a refined woman; Mrs. Elgar's quiet rebuke brought the perspiration to his forehead, and made him rub his hands together. Like many a better man, he could not do justice to the parts he really possessed, save when sitting in solitude with a sheet of paper before him. Though he had a confused perception that Mrs. Elgar was punishing him for forcing her to speak of his book, he was unable to change the topic and

so win her approval for his tact. In the endeavour to seem at ease, he became blunt.

"And what has your judgment to say on the subject?"

"I think I have already told you, Mr. Bickerdike."

"You mean by a romance a work that is not soiled with the common realism of to-day."

"I am willing to mean that."

"But you will admit, Mrs. Elgar, that my mode of fiction has as much to say for itself as that which you prefer?"

"In asking for one admission you take for granted another. That is a little confusing."

It was made sufficiently so to Mr. Bickerdike. He thrust out his long legs, and exclaimed:

"I should be grateful to you if you would tell me what your view of the question really is-I mean, of the question at issue between the two schools of fiction."

"But will you first make clear to me the characteristics of the school you represent?"

"It would take a long time to do that satisfactorily. I proceed on the assumption that fiction is poetry, and that poetry deals only with the noble and the pure."

"Yes," said Cecily, as he paused for a moment, "I see that it would take too long. You must deal with so many prejudices-such, for example, as that which supposes 'King Lear' and 'Othello' to be poems."

Mr. Bickerdike began a reply, but it was too late; Mrs. Lessingham had approached with some one else who wished to be presented to Mrs. Elgar, and the novelist could only bite his lips as he moved away to find a more reverent listener.

It was not often that Cecily trifled in this way. As a rule, her manner of speech was direct and earnest. She had a very uncommon habit of telling the truth whenever it was possible; rather than utter smooth falsehoods, she would keep silence, and sometimes when to do so was to run much danger of giving offence. Beautiful women have very different ways of using the privilege their charm assures them; Cecily chose to make it a protection of her integrity. She was much criticized by acquaintances of her own sex. Some held her presumptuous, conceited, spoilt by adulation; some accused her of bad taste and blue-stockingism; some declared that she had no object but to win men's admiration and outshine women. Without a thought of such comments, she behaved as was natural to her. Where she felt her superiority, she made no pretence of appearing femininely humble. Yet persons like Mrs. Delph, who kept themselves in shadow and spoke only with simple kindness, knew well how unassuming Cecily was, and with what deference she spoke when good feeling dictated it. Or again, there was her manner with the people who, by the very respect with which they inspired her, gave her encouragement to speak without false restraint; such as Mr. Bird, the art critic, a grizzle-headed man with whom she sat for a quarter of an hour this evening, looking her very brightest and talking in her happiest vein, yet showing all the time her gratitude for what she learnt from his conversation.

It was nearly twelve o'clock when Mrs. Travis, who had made one or two careless efforts to draw near to Cecily, succeeded in speaking a word aside with her.

"I hope you didn't go to see me yesterday? I left home in the morning, and am staying with friends at Hampstead, not far from you."

"For long?"

"I don't know. I should like to talk to you, if I could. Shall you be driving back alone?"

"Yes. Will you come with me?"

"Thank you. Please let me know when you are going."

And Mrs. Travis turned away. In a few minutes Cecily went to take leave of her aunt.

"How is Clarence?" asked Mrs. Lessingham.

"Still better, I believe. I left him to-night without uneasiness."

"Oh, I had a letter this morning from Mrs. Spence. No talk of England yet. In the autumn they are going to Greece, then for the winter to Sicily."

"Miriam with them?"

"As though it were a matter of course."

They both smiled. Then Cecily took leave of two or three other people, and quitted the room. Mrs. Travis followed her, and in a few minutes they were seated in the brougham.

Mrs. Travis had a face one could not regard without curiosity. It was not beautiful in any ordinary sense, but strange and striking and rich in suggestiveness. In the chance, flickering light that entered the carriage, she looked haggard, and at all times her thinness and pallor give her the appearance of suffering both in body and mind. Her complexion was dark, her hair of a rich brown; she had very large eyes, which generally wandered in an absent, restless, discontented way. If she smiled, it was with a touch of bitterness, and her talk was wont to be caustic. Cecily had only known her for a few weeks, and did not feel much drawn to her, but she compassionated her for sorrows known and suspected. Though only six and twenty, Mrs. Travis had been married seven years, and had had two children; the first died at birth, the second was carried off by diphtheria. Her husband Cecily had never seen, but she heard disagreeable things of him, and Mrs. Travis herself had dropped hints which signified domestic unhappiness.

After a minute or two of silence, Cecily was beginning to speak on some indifferent subject, when her companion interrupted her.

"Will you let me tell you something about myself?"

"Whatever you wish, Mrs. Travis," Cecily answered, with sympathy.

"I've left my husband. Perhaps you thought of that?"

"No."

The sudden disclosure gave her a shock. She had the sensation of standing for the first time face to face with one of the sterner miseries of life.

"I did it once before," pursued the other, "two years ago. Then I was foolish enough to be wheedled back again. That shan't happen this time."

"Have you really no choice but to do this?" Cecily asked, with much earnestness.

"Oh, I could have stayed if I had chosen. He doesn't beat me. I have as much of my own way as I could expect. Perhaps you'll think me unreasonable. A Turkish woman would."

Cecily sat mute. She could not but resent the harsh tone in which she was addressed, in spite of her pity.

"It's only that I suffer in my self-respect-a little," Mrs. Travis continued. "Of course, this is no reason for taking such a step, except to those who have suffered in the same way. Perhaps you would like to stop the carriage and let me leave you?"

"Your suffering makes you unjust to me," replied Cecily, much embarrassed by this strange impulsiveness. "Indeed I sympathize with you. I think it quite possible that you are behaving most rightly."

"You don't maintain, then, that it is a wife's duty to bear every indignity from her husband?"

"Surely not. On the contrary, I think there are some indignities which no wife ought to bear."

"I'm glad to hear that. I had a feeling that you would think in this way, and that's why I wanted to talk to you. Of course you have only the evidence of my word for believing me."

"I can see that you are very unhappy, and the cause you name is quite sufficient."

"In one respect, I am very lucky. I have a little money of my own, and that enables me to go and live by myself. Most women haven't this resource: many are compelled to live in degradation only for want of it. I should like to see how many homes would be broken up, if all women were suddenly made independent in the same way that I am. How I should enjoy that! I hate the very word 'marriage'!"

Cecily averted her face, and said nothing. After a pause, her companion continued in a calm voice:

"You can't sympathize with that, I know. And you are comparing my position with your own."

No answer was possible, for Mrs. Travis had spoken the truth.

"In the first year of my marriage, I used to do the same whenever I heard of any woman who was miserable with her husband."

"Is there no possibility of winning back your husband?" Cecily asked, in a veiled voice.

"Winning him back? Oh, he is affectionate enough. But you mean winning him back to faithfulness. My husband happens to be the average man, and the average man isn't a pleasant person to talk about, in this respect."

"Are you not too general in your condemnation, Mrs. Travis?"

"I am content you should think so. You are very young still, and there's no good in making the world ugly for you as long as it can seem rosy."

"Please don't use that word," said Cecily, with emphasis. It annoyed her to be treated as immature in mind. "I am the last person to take rosy views of life. But there is something between the distrust to which you are driven by misery and the optimism of foolish people."

"We won't argue about it. Every woman must take life as she finds it. To me it is a hateful weariness. I hope I mayn't have much of it still before me; what there is, I will live in independence. You know Mrs. Calder?"

"Yes."

"Her position is the same as mine has been, but she has more philosophy; she lets things take their course, just turning her eyes away."

"That is ignoble, hateful!" exclaimed Cecily.

"So I think, but women as a rule don't. At all events, they are content to whine a little, and do nothing. Poor wretches, what can they do, as I said?"

"They can go away, and, if need be, starve."

"They have children."

Cecily became mute.

"Will you let me come and see you now and then?" Mrs. Travis asked presently.

"Come whenever you feel you would like to," Cecily answered, rousing herself from reverie.

The house in which Mrs. Travis now lived was a quarter of an hour's drive beyond that of the Elgars; she would have alighted and walked, making nothing of it, but of course Cecily could not allow this. The coachman was directed to make the circuit. When Cecily reached home, it was after one o'clock.

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