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   Chapter 7 No.7

Muslin By George Augustus Moore Characters: 19368

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The girls had given each other rendezvous at the gate of Dungory Castle. Lover was never more anxious to meet mistress than this little deformed girl to see her friend; and Alice could see her walking hurriedly up and down the gravel-sweep in front of the massive grey-stone lodge.

'She will see me next time she turns,' thought Alice; and immediately after Cecilia uttered a joyful cry and ran forward.

'Oh, so it is you, Alice! I am so glad! I thought you were going to disappoint me.'

'And why, dear, did you think I was going to disappoint you?' said

Alice, stooping to kiss the wan, wistful face.

'I don't know-I can't say-but I fancied something would happen;' and the great brown eyes began to melt with tears of delight. 'I had, you know, set my heart on this walk with you.'

'I am sure the pleasure is as much mine as yours; and now, whither lies our way?'

'Through the deer-park, through the oakwood, across the fields into the highroad, and then you are at the gate,'

'Won't that be too far for you?'

'Oh, not at all! It is not more than a mile and a half; but for you, you had to come another mile and a half. It is fully that from here to Brookfield. But tell me, dear,' said Cecilia, clinging to her friend's arm, 'why have you not been over to see me before? It is not kind of you; we have been home from school now over a fortnight, and, except on the night of the dinner-party, I haven't seen you once.'

'I was coming over to see you last week, dear; but, to tell you the truth, mamma prevented me. I cannot think why, but somehow she does not seem to care that I should go to Dungory Castle. But for the matter of that, why did you not come to see me? I've been expecting you every day.'

'I couldn't come either. My sisters advised me-I mean, insisted on my stopping at home.'

'And why?'

'I really can't say,' replied Cecilia.

And now Alice knew that the Ladies Cullen hated Mrs. Barton for her intimacy with Lord Dungory. She longed to talk the matter out, but dared not; while Cecilia regretted she had spoken; for, with the quickness of the deformed, she knew that Alice had divined the truth of the family feud.

The sun fell like lead upon the short grass of the deer-park and the frizzled heads of the hawthorns. On the right the green masses of the oakwood shut in the view, and the stately red deer, lolling their high necks, marched away through the hillocks, as if offended at their solitude being disturbed. One poor crippled hind walked with a wretched sidling movement, and Alice hoped Cecilia would not notice it, lest it should remind her of her own misfortune.

'I am sure,' she said, 'we never knew finer weather than this in England. I don't think there could be finer weather, and still they say the tenants are worse off than ever; that no rent at all, at least nothing above Griffith's valuation, will be paid.'

'Do they speak much of Griffith's valuation at Dungory Castle?'

'Oh! they never cease, and-and-I don't know whether I ought to say, but it won't matter with you, I suppose?-mind, you must not breathe a word of this at Brookfield-the fact is my sisters' school-you know they have a school, and go in for trying to convert the people-well, this has got papa into a great deal of trouble. The Bishop has sent down another priest-I think they call it a mission-and we are going to be preached against, and papa received a threatening letter this morning. He is going, I believe, to apply for police.'

'And is this on account of the proselytizing?'

'Oh! no, not entirely; he has refused to give his tenants Griffith's valuation; but it makes one very unpopular to be denounced by the priest. I assure you, papa is very angry. He told Sarah and Jane this morning at breakfast that he'd have no more of it; that they had no right to go into the poor people's houses and pull the children from under the beds, and ask why they were not at school; that he didn't care of what religion they were as long as they paid the rent; and that he wasn't going to have his life endangered for such nonsense. There was an awful row at home this morning. For my own part, I must say I sympathize with papa. Besides the school, Sarah has, you know, a shop, where she sells bacon, sugar, and tea at cost price, and it is well-known that those who send their children to the school will never be asked to pay their bills. She wanted me to come and help to weigh out the meal, Jane being confined to her room with a sick headache, but I got out of it. I would not, if I could, convert those poor people. You know, I often fancy-I mean fear-I often sympathize too much with your creed. It was only at service last Sunday I was thinking of it; our religion seems so cold, so cheerless compared to yours. You remember the convent-church at St. Leonard's-the incense, the vestments, the white-veiled congregation-oh, how beautiful it was; we shall never be so happy again!'

'Yes, indeed; and how cross we used to think those dear nuns. You remember Sister Mary, how she used to lecture Violet for getting up to look out of the windows. What used she to say? 'Do you want, miss, to be taken for a housemaid or scullery-maid, staring at people in that way as they pass?''

'Yes, yes; that's exactly how she used to speak,' exclaimed Cecilia, laughing. And, as the girls advanced through the oakwood, they helped each other through the briers and over the trunks of fallen trees, talking, the while, of their past life, which now seemed to them but one long, sweet joy. A reference to how May Gould used to gallop the pony round and round the field at the back of the convent was interrupted by the terrifying sound of a cock-pheasant getting up from some bracken under their very feet; and, amid the scurrying of rabbits in couples and half-dozens, modest allusion was made to the girls who had been expelled in '75. Absorbed in the sweetness of the past, the girls mused, until they emerged from the shade of the woods into the glare and dust of the highroad. Then came a view of rocky country, with harvesters working in tiny fields, and then the great blue background of the Clare Mountains was suddenly unfolded. A line and a bunch of trees indicated the Brennan domain. The gate-lodge was in ruins, and the weed-grown avenue was covered with cow-dung.

'Which of the girls do you like best?' said Alice, who wished to cease thinking of the poverty in which the spinsters lived.

'Emily, I think; she doesn't say much, but she is more sensible than the other two. Gladys wearies me with her absurd affectations; Zoe is well enough, but what names!'

'Yes, Emily has certainly the best of the names,' Alice replied, laughing.

'Are the Miss Brennans at home?' said Cecilia, when the maid opened the hall-door.

'Yes, miss-I mean your ladyship-will you walk in?'

'You'll see, they'll keep us waiting a good half-hour while they put on their best frocks,' said Cecilia, as she sat down in a faded arm-chair in the middle of the room. A piano was rolled close against the wall, the two rosewood cabinets were symmetrically placed on either side of the farther window; from brass rods the thick, green curtains hung in stiff folds, and, since the hanging of some water-colours, done by Zoe before leaving school, no alterations, except the removal of the linen covers from the furniture when visitors were expected, had been made in the arrangement of the room.

The Brennan family consisted of three girls-Gladys, Zoe, and Emily. Thirty-three, thirty-one, and thirty were their respective ages. Their father and mother, dead some ten or a dozen years, had left them joint proprietors of a small property that gossip had magnified to three thousand. They were known as the heiresses of Kinvarra; snub noses and blue eyes betrayed their Celtic blood; and every year they went to spend a month at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, returning home with quite a little trousseau. Gladys and Zoe always dressed alike, from the bow round the neck to the bow on the little shoe that they so artlessly with drew when in the presence of gentlemen. Gladys' formula for receiving visitors never varied:

'Oh, how do you do-it is really too kind of you to give yourself all this trouble to come and see us.'

Immediately after Zoe put out her hand. Her manner was more jocose:

'How d'ye do? We are, I am sure, delighted to see you. Will you have a cup of tea? I know you will.'

Emily, being considered too shy and silent, did not often come down to receive company. On her devolved the entire management of the house and servants; the two elder sisters killed time in the way they thought would give least offence to their neighbours.

Being all St. Leonard's girls, the conversation immediately turned on convent-life. 'Was Madam this there? Had Madam that left?' Garden chapel, school, hall, dormitory, refectory were visited; every nun was passed in review, and, in the lightness and gaiety of the memories invoked, even these maiden ladies flushed and looked fresh again, the conversation came to a pause, and then allusion was made to the disturbed state of the country, and to a gentleman who, it was reported, was going to be married. But, as Alice did not know the person whose antecedents were being called into question, she took an early opportunity of asking Gladys if she cared for riding? 'No, they never went to ride now: they used to, but they came in so fatigued that they could not talk to Emily; so they had given up riding.' Did they care for driving? 'Yes, pretty well; but there was no place to drive to except into Gort, and as people had been unjust enough to say th

at they were always to be seen in Gort, they had given up driving-unless, of course, they went to call on friends.' Then tea was brought in; and, apropos of a casual reference to conventual buttered toast, the five girls talked, until nearly six o'clock, of their girlhood-of things that would never have any further influence in their lives, of happiness they would never experience again. At last Alice and Cecilia pleaded that they must be going home.

As they walked across the fields the girls only spoke occasionally. Alice strove to see clear, but her thoughts were clouded, scattered, diffused. Force herself as she would, still no conclusion seemed possible; all was vague and contradictory. She had talked to these Brennans, seen how they lived, could guess what their past was, what their future must be. In that neat little house their uneventful life dribbled away in maiden idleness; neither hope nor despair broke the triviality of their days-and yet, was it their fault? No; for what could they do if no one would marry them?-a woman could do nothing without a husband.

There is a reason for the existence of a pack-horse, but none for that of an unmarried woman. She can achieve nothing-she has no duty but, by blotting herself out, to shield herself from the attacks of ever-slandering friends. Alice had looked forward to a husband and a home as the certain accomplishment of years; now she saw that a woman, independently of her own will, may remain single.

'I wonder,' she said, forgetting for the moment she was speaking to Cecilia, 'I wonder none of those Brennans married; you can't call them ugly girls, and they have some money. How dreadfully lonely they must be living there by themselves!'

'I think they are far happier as they are,' said Cecilia, and her brown eyes set in liquid blue looked strangely at Alice as she helped her over the low wall. The girls walked in silence through the stillness of the silver firs, their thoughts as sharp as the needles that scratched the pale sky.

'It may seem odd of me to say so-of course I would not say this to anyone but you-but I assure you, even if I were as tall as you are, dear, nothing would induce me to marry. I never took the slightest pleasure in any man's conversation. Do you? But I know you do,' she said, breaking off suddenly-'I know you like men; I feel you do. Don't you?'

'Well, since you put it so plainly, I confess I should like to know nice men. I don't care for those I have met hitherto, particularly those I saw at dinner the other night; but I believe there are nice men in the world.'

'Oh! no there aren't.'

'Well, Cecilia, I don't see how you can speak so positively as that; you have seen, as yet, very little of the world.'

'Ah, yes, but I know it; I can guess it all, I know it instinctively, and I hate it.'

'There is nothing else, so we must make the best of it.'

'But there is something else-there is God, and the love of beautiful things. I spent all day yesterday playing Bach's Passion Music, and the hours passed like a dream until my sisters came in from walking and began to talk about marriage and men. It made me feel sick-it was horrible; and it is such things that make me hate life-and I do hate it; it is the way we are brought back to earth, and forced to realize how vile and degraded we are. Society seems to me no better than a pigsty; but in the beautiful convent-that we shall, alas! never see again-it was not so. There, at least, life was pure-yes, and beautiful. Do you not remember that beautiful white church with all its white pillars and statues, and the dark-robed nuns, and the white-veiled girls, their veils falling from their bent heads? They often seemed to me like angels. I am sure that Heaven must be very much like that-pure, desireless, contemplative.'

Amazed, Alice looked at her friend questioningly, for she had never heard her speak like this before. But Cecilia did not see her; the prominent eyes of the mystic were veiled with strange glamour, and, with divine gourmandise, she savoured the ineffable sweetness of the vision, and, after a long silence, she said:

'I often wonder, Alice, how you can think as you do; and, strange to say, no one suspects you are an unbeliever; you're so good in all except that one point.'

'But surely, dear, it isn't a merit to believe; it is hardly a thing that we can call into existence.'

'You should pray for faith.'

'I don't see how I can pray if I haven't faith.'

'You're too clever; but I would ask you, Alice-you never told me-did you never believe in God, I mean when you were a little child?'

'I suppose I must have, but, as well as I can remember, it was only in a very half-hearted way. I could never quite bring myself to credit that there was a Being far away, sitting behind a cloud, who kept his eye on all the different worlds, and looked after them just as a stationmaster looks after the arrival and departure of trains from some great terminus.'

'Alice! how can you talk so? Aren't you afraid that something awful might happen to you for talking of the Creator of all things in that way?'

'Why should I be afraid, and why should that Being, if he exists, be angry with me for my sincerity? If he be all-powerful, it rests with himself to make me believe.'

They had now accomplished the greater part of their journey, and, a little tired, had sat down to rest on a portion of a tree left by the woodcutters. Gold rays slanted through the glades, enveloping and rounding off the tall smooth trunks that rose branchless to a height of thirty, even forty, feet; and the pink clouds, seen through the arching dome of green, were vague as the picture on some dim cathedral-roof.

'In places like these, I wonder you don't feel God's presence.'

'On the contrary, the charm of nature is broken when we introduce a ruling official.'

'Alice! how can you-you who are so good-speak in that way?' At that moment a dead leaf rustled through the silence-'And do you think that we shall die like that leaf? That, like it, we shall become a part of the earth and be forgotten as utterly?'

'I am afraid I do. That dead, fluttering thing was once a bud; it lived the summer-life of a leaf; now it will decay through the winter, and perhaps the next, until it finally becomes part of the earth. Everything in nature I see pursuing the same course; why should I imagine myself an exception to the general rule?'

'What, then, is the meaning of life?'

'That I'm afraid we shall never learn from listening to the rustling of leaves.'

The short sharp cry of a bird broke the mild calm of the woods, and

Alice said:

'Perhaps the same thought that troubles us is troubling that bird.'

The girls walked on in silence, and when they came to the end of the path and their parting was inevitable, there was something of the passion of the lover in Cecilia's voice: 'Promise me you will come to see me soon again. You'll not leave me so long; you will write; I shall not be able to live if I don't hear from you.'

The sound of hooves was heard, and a pair of cream-coloured ponies, with a florid woman driving determinedly, came sweeping round the corner.

'What a strange person!' said Alice, watching the blue veil and the brightly dyed hair.

'Don't you know who she is?' said Cecilia; 'that is your neighbour, Mrs.

Lawler.'

'Oh! is it really? I have been so long at school that I know nobody-I have been anxious to see her. Why, I wonder, do people speak of her so mysteriously?'

'You must have heard that she isn't visited?'

'Well, yes; but I didn't quite understand. Your father was saying something the other day about Mr. Lawler's shooting-parties; then mamma looked at him; he laughed and spoke of "les colombes de Cythère." I intended to ask mamma what he meant, but somehow I forgot.'

'She was one of those women that walk about the streets by night.'

'Oh! really!' said Alice; and the conversation came to a sudden pause. They had never spoken upon such a subject before, and the presence of the deformed girl rendered it a doubly painful one. In her embarrassment, Alice said:

'Then I wonder Mr. Lawler married her. Was it his fault that-'

'Oh! I don't think so,' Cecilia replied, scornfully: 'but what does it matter?-she was quite good enough for him.'

At every moment a new Cecilia was revealing herself, the existence of whom Alice had not even suspected in the old; and as she hurried home she wondered if the minds of the other girls were the same as they were at school. Olive? She could see but little change in her sister; and May she had scarcely spoken to since they left school; Violet she hadn't met since they parted at Athenry for their different homes. But Cecilia-She entered the house still thinking of her, and heard Olive telling her mother that Captain Hibbert had admired her new hat.

'He told me that I'd be the handsomest girl at the Drawing-Room.'

'And what did you say, dear?'

'I asked him how he knew. Was that right?'

'Quite right; and what did he say then?'

'He said, because he had never seen anybody so handsome, and as he had seen everybody in London, he supposed-I forget the exact words, but they were very nice; I am sure he admired my new hat; but you-you haven't told me how you liked it. Do you think I should wear it down on my eyes, or a bit back?'

'I think it very becoming as it is; but tell me more about Captain

Hibbert.'

'He told me he was coming to meet us at Mass. You know he is a Roman

Catholic?'

'I know he is, dear, and am very glad.'

'If he weren't, he wouldn't be able to meet us at Mass.'

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