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   Chapter 11 THE REFUSAL

Leonora By Arnold Bennett Characters: 27228

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Fifteen months after John's death, and the inquest on his body, and the clandestine funeral, Leonora sat alone one evening in the garden of the house at Hillport. She wore a black dress trimmed with jet; a narrow band of white muslin clasped her neck, and from her shoulders hung a long thin antique gold chain, once the ornament of Aunt Hannah. Her head was uncovered, and the mild breeze which stirred the new leaves of the poplars moved also the stray locks of her hair. Her calm and mature beauty was unchanged; it was a common remark in the town that during the past year she had looked handsomer than ever, more content, radiant, and serene. 'And it's not surprising, either!' people added. The homestead appeared to be as of old. Carpenter was feeding Prince in the stable; Bran lay huge and benign at the feet of his mistress; the borders of the lawn were vivid with bloom; and within the house Bessie still ruled the kitchen. No luxury was abated, and no custom altered. Time apparently had nothing to show there, save an engagement ring on Bessie's finger. Many things, however, had occurred; but they had seemed to occur so placidly, and the days had been so even, that the term of her widowhood was to Leonora more like three months than fifteen, and she often reminded herself: 'It was last spring, not this, that he died.'

'The business is right enough!' Fred Ryley had said positively, with an emphasis on the word 'business,' when he met Leonora and Uncle Meshach in family council, during the first week of the disaster; and Meshach had replied: 'Thou shalt prove it, lad!' The next morning Mr. Mayer, the manager, and everybody on the bank, learned that Fred, with old Myatt at his back, was in sole control of the works at Shawport; creditors breathed with relief; and the whole of Bursley remembered that it had always prophesied that Fred's sterling qualities were bound to succeed. Meshach lent several thousands of pounds to Fred at five per cent., and Fred was to pay half the net profits of the business to Leonora as long as she lived. The youth did not change his lodgings, nor his tailor, nor his modest manners; but he became nevertheless suddenly important, and none appreciated this fact better than Mr. Mayer, whose sandy hair was getting grey, and who, having six children but no rich great-uncle, could never hope to earn more than three pounds a week. Fred was now an official member of the Myatt clan, and, in the town, men of position, pompous individuals who used to ignore him, greeted the sole principal of Twemlow & Stanway's with a certain cordiality. After an interval his engagement to Ethel was announced. Every evening he came up to Hillport. The couple were ardently and openly in love; they expected always to have the dining-room at their private disposal, and they had it. Ethel simply adored him, and he was immeasurably proud of her. Even in presence of the family they would sit hand in hand, making no attempt to conceal their bliss. For the rest Fred's attitude to Leonora was very affectionate and deferential; it touched her, though she knew he worshipped her ignorantly. Rose and Millicent wondered 'what Ethel could see in him'; he was neither amusing nor smart nor clever, nor even vivacious; he had little acquaintance with games, music, novels, or the feminist movement; he was indeed rather dull; but they liked him because he was fundamentally and invariably 'nice.' At the close of the year of Stanway's death, Fred had paid to Leonora four hundred and fifty pounds as her share of the profits of the firm for nine months. But long before that Leonora was rich. Uncle Meshach had died and left her the Myatt fortune for life, with remainder to the three girls absolutely in equal shares. Fred was the executor and trustee, and Fred's own share of the bounty was a total remission of Meshach's loan to him. Thus it is that providence watches over the wealthy, the luxurious, and the well-connected, and over the lilies of the field who toil not.

Aroused from lethargy by the dramatic circumstances of her father's death, Rose had resumed her reading with a vigour that amounted almost to fury. In the following January she miraculously passed the Matriculation examination of London University in the first division, and on returning home she informed Leonora that she had decided to go back to London and study medicine at a hospital for women.

But of the three girls, it was Millicent who had made the most history. Millicent was rapidly developing the natural gift, so precious to the theatrical artist, of existing picturesquely in the eye of the public. When the rehearsals of Princess Ida began for the annual performance of the Operatic Society Milly confidently expected to receive the principal part, despite the fact that Lucy Turner, who had the prescriptive right to it, was once more in a position to sing; and Milly was not disappointed. As a heroine of comic opera she now accounted herself an extremely serious person, and it soon became apparent that the conductor and his prima donna would have to decide between them who was to control the rehearsals while Milly was on the stage. One evening a difference of opinion as to the tempo of a song and chorus reached the condition of being acute. Exasperated by the pretty and wayward child, the conductor laid down his stick and lighted a cigarette, and those who knew him knew that the rehearsal would not proceed until the duel had been fought to a finish. Milly thought hard and said: 'Mr. Corfe says the Hanbridge people would jump at me!' 'My good girl,' the conductor replied, 'Mr. Corfe's views on the acrobatic propensities of the Hanbridge people are just a shade off the point.' Every one laughed, except Milly. She possessed little appreciation of wit, and she had scarcely understood the remark; but she had an objection to the laughter, and a very strong objection to being the conductor's good girl. The instant result was that she vowed never again to sing or act under his baton, and took the entire Society to witness; her place was filled by Lucy Turner. The Hanbridge Society happened to be doing Patience that year, and they justified Mr. Corfe's prediction. Moreover, they hired the Hanbridge Theatre Royal for six nights. On the first night Milly was enthusiastically applauded by two thousand people, and in addition to half a column of praise in the 'Signal,' she had the happiness of being mentioned in the district news of the 'Manchester Guardian' and the 'Birmingham Daily Post.' She deemed it magnificent for her; Leonora tried to think so too. But on the fourth day the Hanbridge conductor was in bed with influenza; and the Bursley conductor, upon a flattering request, undertook his work for the remaining nights. Milly broke her vow; her practical common sense was really wonderful. On the last and most glorious night of the six, after responding to several frenzied calls, Milly was inspired to seize the conductor in the wings and drag him with her before the curtain. The effect was tremendous. The conductor had won, but he very willingly admitted that, in losing, the adorable chit had triumphed over him. The episode was gossip for many days.

And this was by no means the end of the matter. The agent-in-advance of one of the touring musical-comedy companies of Lionel Belmont, the famous Anglo-American manager, was in Hanbridge during that week, and after seeing Milly in the piece he telegraphed to Liverpool, where his company was, and the next day the manager visited Hanbridge incognito. Then Harry Burgess began to play a part in Millicent's history. Harry had abandoned his stool at the Bank, expressing his intention to undertake some large commercial enterprise; he had persuaded his mother to find the capital. The leisurely search for a large commercial enterprise precisely suited to Harry's tastes necessitated frequent sojourns in London. Harry became a man-about-town and a member of the renowned New Fantastics Club. The New Fantastics were powerful supporters of the dramatic art, and the roll of the club included numerous theatrical stars of magnitudes varying from the first to the tenth. It was during one of the club's official excursions-in pantechnicon vans-to a suburban theatre where a good French actress was performing, that Harry made the acquaintance of that important man, Louis Lewis, Belmont's head representative in Europe. Louis Lewis, over champagne, asked Harry if he knew a Millicent Stanway of Bursley. The effect of the conversation was that Harry came home and astounded Milly by telling her what Louis Lewis had authorised him to say. There were conferences between Leonora and Milly and Mr. Cecil Corfe, a journey to Manchester, hesitations, excitations, thrills, and in the end an arrangement. Millicent was to go to London to be finally appraised, and probably to sign a contract for a sixteen-weeks provincial tour at three pounds a week.

* * *

Leonora's prevailing mood was the serenity of high resolve and of resignation. She had renounced the chance of ecstasy. She was sad, but she was not unhappy. The melancholy which filled the secret places of her soul was sweet and radiant, and she had proved the ancient truth that he who gives up all, finds all. Still in rich possession of beauty and health, she nevertheless looked forward to nothing but old age-an old age of solitude and sufferance. Hannah and Meshach were gone; John was gone; and she alone seemed to be left of the elder generations. In four days Ethel was to be married. Already for more than three months Rose had been in London, and in a fortnight Leonora was to take Millicent there. And when Ethel was married and perhaps a mother, and Rose versed and absorbed in the art and craft of obstetrics, and the name of Millicent familiar in the mouths of clubmen, what was Leonora to do then? She could not control her daughters; she could scarcely guide them. Ethel knew only one law, Fred's wish; and Rose had too much intellect, and Millicent too little heart, to submit to her. Since John's death the house had been the abode of peace and amiability, but it had also been Liberty Hall. If sometimes Leonora regretted that she could not more dominantly impress herself upon her children, she never doubted that on the whole the new republic was preferable to the old tyranny. What then had she to do? She had to watch over her girls, and especially over Rose and Milly. And as she sat in the garden with Bran at her feet, in the solitude which foreshadowed the more poignant solitude to come, she said to herself with passionate maternity: 'I shall watch over them. If anything occurs I shall always be ready.' And this blissful and transforming thought, this vehement purpose, allayed somewhat the misgivings which she had long had about Millicent, and which her recent glimpses into the factitious and erratic world of the theatre had only served to increase.

It was Milly's affair which had at length brought Leonora to the point of communicating with Arthur Twemlow. In the first weeks of widowhood, the most terrible of her life, she could not dream of writing to him. Then the sacrifice had dimly shaped itself in her mind, and while actually engaged in fighting against it she hesitated to send any message whatever. And when she realised that the sacrifice was inevitable for her, when she inwardly knew that Arthur and the splendid rushing life of New York must be renounced in obedience to the double instinct of maternity and of repentance, she could not write. She felt timorous; she was unable to frame the sentences. And she procrastinated, ruled by her characteristic quality of supineness. Once she heard that he had been over to London and gone back; she drew a deep breath as though a peril had been escaped, and procrastinated further. Then came the overtures from Lionel Belmont, or at least from his agents, to Milly. Belmont was a New Yorker, and the notion suddenly struck her of writing to Arthur for information about Belmont. It was a capricious notion, but it provided an extrinsic excuse for a letter which might be followed by another of more definite import. In the end she was obliged to yield to it. She wrote, as she had performed every act of her relationship with Arthur, unwillingly, in spite of her reason, governed by a strange and arbitrary impulse. No sooner was the letter in the pillar-box than she began to wonder what Arthur would say in his response, and how she should answer that response. She grew impatient and restless, and called at the chief Post Office in Bursley for information about the American mails. On this evening, as Leonora sat in the garden, Milly was reciting at a concert at Knype, and Ethel and Fred had accompanied her. Leonora, resisting some pressure, had declined to go with them. Assuming that Arthur wrote on the day he received her missive, his reply, she had ascertained, ought to be delivered in Hillport the next morning, but there was just a chance that it might be delivered that night. Hence she had stayed at home, expectant, and-with all her serenity-a little nervous and excited.

Carpenter emerged from the region of the stable and began to water some flower-beds in the vicinity of her seat.

'Terrible dry month we've had, ma'am,' he murmured in his quiet pastoral voice, waving the can to and fro.

She agreed perfunctorily. Her mind was divided between suspense concerning the postman, contemplation of the placid vista of the remainder of her career, and pleasure in the languorous charm of the May evening.

B

ran moved his head, and rising ponderously walked round the seat towards the house. Then Carpenter, following the dog with his eyes, smiled and touched his cap. Leonora turned sharply. Arthur Twemlow himself stood on the step of the drawing-room window, and Bessie's white apron was just disappearing within.

In the first glance Leonora noticed that Arthur was considerably thinner. She was overcome by a violent emotion that contained both fear and joy. And as he approached her, agitated and unsmiling, the joy said: 'How heavenly it is to see him again!' But the fear asked: 'Why is he so worn? What have you been doing to him all these months, Leonora?' She met him in the middle of the lawn, and they shook hands timidly, clumsily, embarrassed. Carpenter, with that inborn delicacy of tact which is the mark of a simple soul, walked away out of sight, and Bran, receiving no attention, followed him.

'Were you surprised to see me?' Arthur lamely questioned.

In their hearts a thousand sensations struggled, some for expression, others for concealment; and speech, pathetically unequal to the swift crisis, was disconcerted by it almost to the verge of impotence.

'Yes,' she said. 'Very.'

'You ought not to have been,' he replied.

His tone alarmed her. 'Why?' she said. 'When did you get my letter?'

'Just after one o'clock to-day.'

'To-day?'

'I was in London. It was sent on to me from New York.'

She was relieved. When she saw him first at the window, she had a lightning vision of him tearing open her letter in New York, jumping instantly into a cab, and boarding the English steamer. This had frightened her. It was, if not exactly reassuring, at any rate less terrifying, to learn that he had flown to her only from London.

'Well,' he exclaimed, 'how's everybody? And where are the girls?'

She gave the news, and then they walked together to the seat and sat down, in silence.

'You don't look too well,' she ventured. 'You've been working too hard.'

He passed his hand across his forehead and moved on the seat so as to meet her eyes directly.

'Quite the reverse,' he said. 'I haven't been working half hard enough.'

'Not half hard enough?' she repeated mechanically.

As his eyes caught hers and held them she was conscious of an exquisite but mortal tremor; her spine seemed to give way. The old desire for youth and love, for that brilliant and tender existence in which were united virtue and the flavour of sin, dalliance and high endeavour, eternal appetite and eternal satisfaction, rushed wondrously over her. The life which she had mapped out for herself suddenly appeared miserable, inadequate, even contemptible. Was she, with her rich blood, her perfect health, her proud carriage, her indestructible beauty, and her passionate soul, to wither solitary in the cold shadow? She felt intensely, as every human heart feels sometimes, that the satisfactions of duty were chimerical, and that the only authentic bliss was to be found in a wild and utter abandonment to instinct. No matter what the cost of rapture, in self-respect or in remorse, it was worth the cost. Why did not mankind rise up and put an end to this endless crucifixion of instinct which saddened the whole earth, and say gloriously, 'Let us live'? And in a moment dalliance without endeavour, and the flavour of sin without virtue, were beautiful ideals for her. She could have put her arms round Arthur's neck and drawn him to her, and blotted out all the past and sullied all the future with one kiss. She wondered what recondite force dissuaded her from doing so. 'I have but to lift my arms and smile,' she thought.

'You've been very cruel,' said Arthur. 'I wouldn't have believed you could have been so cruel. I guess you didn't know how cruel you were. Why didn't you write before?'

'I couldn't,' she answered submissively. 'Didn't you understand?' The question was not quite ingenuous, but she meant it well.

'I understood at first,' he said. 'I knew you would want to wait. I knew how upset you'd be-I-I think I knew all you'd feel.... But it will soon be eighteen months ago.' His voice was full of emotion. Then he smiled, gravely and charmingly.' However, it's finished now, and I'm here.'

His indictment was very kind, very mild; but she could see how he had suffered, and that his wrath against her had been none the less genuine because it was the wrath of love. She grew more and more humble before his gaze so adoring and so reproachful. She knew that she had been selfish, and that she had ransomed her conscience as much at his expense as at her own. She perceived the vital inferiority of women to men-that quality of callousness which allows them to commit all cruelties in the name of self-sacrifice, and that lack of imagination by which they are blinded to the wounds they deal. Women have brief moods in which they judge themselves as men judge them, in which they escape from their sex and know the truth. Such a mood came then to Leonora. And she wished ardently to compensate Arthur for the martyrdom which she had inflicted on him. They were close to one another. The atmosphere between them was electric. And the darkness of a calm and delicious night was falling. Could she not obey her instinct, and in one bright word, one word laden with the invitation and acquiescence of femininity, atone for her sin against him? Could she not shatter the images of Rose and Milly, who loved her after their hard fashion, but who would never thank her for her watchful affection-would even resent it? Vain hope!

'Oh!' she exclaimed grievously, trying uselessly to keep the dream of joyous indulgence from fading away. 'I must tell you-I cannot leave them!'

'Leave whom?'

'The girls-Rose and Milly. I daren't. You don't know what I went through after John's death-and I can't desert them. I should have told you in my next letter.'

Her tones moved not only him but herself. He was obliged at once to receive what she said with the utmost seriousness, as something fully weighed and considered.

'Do you mean,' he demanded, 'that you won't marry me and come to New York?'

'I can't, I can't,' she replied.

He got up and walked along the garden towards the meadow, so far that in the twilight her eyes could scarcely distinguish his figure against the bushes. Then he returned.

'Just let me hear all about the girls.' He stood in front of her.

'You see,' she said entreatingly, when she had hurried through her recital, 'I couldn't leave them, could I?'

But instead of answering, he questioned her further about Milly's projects, and made suggestions, and they seemed to have been discussing the complex subject for an hour before she found a chance to reassert, plaintively: 'I couldn't leave them.'

'You're entirely wrong,' he said firmly and authoritatively. 'You've just got an idea fixed in your head, and it's all wrong, all wrong.'

'It isn't as if they were going to be married,' she obstinately pursued the sequence of her argument. 'Ethel now--'

'Married!' he cried, roused. 'Are we to wait patiently, you and I, until Rose and Milly choose to get married?' He was bitterly scornful. 'Is that our r?le? I fancy I know something about Rose and Milly, and allow me to tell you they never will get married, neither of them. They aren't the marrying sort. Not but what that's beside the point!... Yes,' he continued, 'and if there ever were two girls in this world able to look after themselves without parental assistance Rose and Milly are those two.'

'You don't understand women; you don't know, you don't understand,' she murmured. She was shocked and hurt by this candid and hostile expression of opinion concerning Rose and Milly, whom hitherto he had always appeared to like.

'No,' he retorted with solemn resentment. 'And no other man either!... Before, when they needed your protection perhaps, when your husband was alive, you would have left Rose and Milly then, wouldn't you?... Wouldn't you?'

'Oh!' the exclamation escaped her unawares. She burst into a sob. She had not meant to cry, but she was crying.

He sat down close to her, and put his hand on her shoulder, and leaned over her. 'My dearest girl,' he whispered in a new voice of infinite softness, 'you've forgotten that you have a duty to yourself, and to me, as well as to Rose and Milly. Our lives want looking after, too. We're human creatures, you know, you and I. This row that we're having now has occurred thousands of times before, but this time it's going to be settled with common sense, isn't it?' And he kissed her with a kiss as soft as his voice.

She sighed. Still perplexed and unconvinced, she was nevertheless in those minutes acutely happy. The mysterious and profound affinity of the flesh had made a truce between the warring principles of the male and of the female; a truce only. To the left of the house, over the Marsh, the last silver relics of day hung in the distant sky. She looked at the dying light, so provocative of melancholy in its reluctance to depart, and at the timidly-appearing stars and the sombre trees, and her thought was: 'World, how beautiful and sad you are!'

Bran emerged forlorn from the gloom, and rested his great chin confidingly on her knees.

'Bran!' she condoled with him through her tears, stroking the dog's head tenderly, 'Ah! Bran!'

Arthur stood up, resolute, victorious, but prudent and magnanimous too. He put one foot on the seat beside her, and leaned forward on the raised knee, tapping his stick. 'I've hired a flat over there,' he said low in her ear, 'such as can't be gotten outside of New York. And in my thoughts I've made a space for you in New York, where it's life and no mistake, and where I'm known, and where my interests are. And if you didn't come I don't know what I should do. I tell you fair I don't know what I should do. And wouldn't your life be spoilt? Wouldn't it? But it isn't the flat I've got, and it isn't the space I've sort of cleared, and it isn't the ruin and smash for you and me-it isn't so much these things that make me feel wicked when I think of the mere possibility of you refusing to come, as the fundamental injustice of the thing to both of us. My dear girl, no one ever understood you as I do. I can see it all as well as if I'd been here all the time. You took fright after-after his death. Women are always more frightened after the danger's over than at the time, especially when they're brave. And you thought, "I must do something very good because it was on the cards I might have been very wicked." And so it's Rose and Milly that mustn't be left ... I'm not much of an intellect, outside crocks, you know, but there's one thing I can do, I can see clear?... Can't I see clear?'

Their hands met in the dog's fur. She was still crying, but she smiled up at him admiringly and appreciatively,

'If Rose and Milly want a change any time,' he continued, 'let 'em come over. And we can come to Europe just as often as you feel that way ... Eh?'

'Why,' she meditated, 'cannot this last for ever?' She felt so feminine and illogical, and the masculine, masterful rationality of his appeal touched her so intimately, that she had discovered in the woe and the indecision of her situation a kind of happiness. And she wished to keep what she had got. At length a certain courage and resolution visited her, and summoning all her sweetness she said to him: 'Don't press me, please, please! In a fortnight I shall be in London with Milly.... Will you wait a fortnight? Will you wait that long? I know that what you say is-You will wait that long, won't you? You'll be in London then to meet us?'

'God!' he exclaimed, deeply moved by the fainting, beseeching poignancy of her voice, 'I will wait forty fortnights. And I guess I shall be in London.'

She sank back on the reprieve as on a pillow.

'Of course I'll wait,' he repeated lightly, and his tone said: 'I understand. Life isn't all logic, and allowances must be made. Women are women-that's what makes them so adorable-and I'm not in a hurry.'

They did not speak further.

A moving patch of white on the path indicated Bessie.

'If you please, ma'am, shall I set supper for five?' she asked vivaciously in the summer darkness.

There was a silence.

'I'm not staying, Bessie,' said Twemlow.

'Thank you, sir. Come along, Bran, come kennel.'

The great beast slouched off, and left them together.

* * *

'Guess who's been!' Leonora demanded of her girls and Fred, with feverish gaiety, when they returned from the concert. The dining-room was very cheerful, and brightly lit; outside lay the dark garden and Bran reflective in his kennel. No one could guess Arthur, and so Leonora had to tell. They were surprised; and they were interested, but not for long. Millicent was preoccupied with her successful performance at the concert; and Ethel and Fred had had a brilliant idea. This couple were to commence married life modestly in Uncle Meshach's house; but the place was being repaired and redecorated, and there seemed to be an annoying probability that it would not be finished for immediate occupation after the short honeymoon-Fred could only spare 'two week-ends' from the works. Why should they not return on the very day when Leonora and Milly were to go to London and keep house at Hillport during Leonora's absence? Such was the brilliant idea, one of those domestic ideas whose manifold excellences call for interminable explanation and discussion. The name of Arthur Twemlow was not again mentioned.

* * *

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