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   Chapter 29 No.29

Muslin By George Augustus Moore Characters: 16134

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

At Brookfield on the morning of December 3, '84, the rain fell persistently in the midst of a profound silence. The trees stood stark in the grey air as if petrified; there was not wind enough to waft the falling leaf; it fell straight as if shotted.

Not a living thing was to be seen except the wet sheep, nor did anything stir either within or without till an outside car, one seat overturned to save the cushions from the wet, came careering up the avenue. There was a shaggy horse and a wild-looking driver in a long, shaggy frieze ulster. Even now, at the last moment, Alice expected the drawing-room door to open and her mother to come rushing out to wish her good-bye. But Mrs. Barton remained implacable, and after laying one more kiss on her sister's pale cheek, Alice, in a passionate flood of tears, was driven away.

In streaming mackintoshes, and leaning on dripping umbrellas, she found her husband, and Gladys and Zoe Brennan, waiting for her in the porch of the church.

'Did you ever see such weather?' said Zoe.

'Isn't it dreadful!' said Gladys.

'It was good of you to come,' said Alice.

'It was indeed!' said the bridegroom.

'What nonsense!' said Zoe. 'We were only too pleased; and if to-day be wet, to-morrow and the next and the next will be sunshine.

And thanking Zoe inwardly for this most appropriate remark, the party ascended the church toward the altar-rails, where Father Shannon was awaiting them. Large, pompous, and arrogant, he stood on his altar-steps, and his hands were crossed over his portly stomach. On either side of him the plaster angels bowed their heads and folded their wings. Above him the great chancel window, with its panes of green and yellow glass, jarred in an unutterable clash of colour; and the great white stare of the chalky walls, and the earthen floor with its tub of holy water, and the German prints absurdly representing the suffering of Christ, bespoke the primitive belief, the coarse superstition, of which the place was an immediate symbol. Alice and the doctor looked at each other and smiled, but their thoughts were too firmly fixed on the actual problem of their united lives to wander far in the most hidden ways of the old world's psychical extravagances. What did it matter to them what absurd usages the place they were in was put to?-they, at least, were only making use of it as they might of any other public office-the police-station, where inquiries are made concerning parcels left in cabs; the Commissioner before whom an affidavit is made. And it served its purpose as well as any of the others did theirs. The priest joined their hands, Edward put the ring on Alice's finger, and the usual prayers did no harm if they did no good; and having signed their names in the register and bid good-bye to the Miss Brennans, they got into the carriage, man and wife, their feet set for ever upon one path, their interests and delights melted to one interest and one delight, their separate troubles merged into one trouble that might or might not be made lighter by the sharing; and penetrated by such thoughts they leaned back on the blue cushions of the carriage, happy, and yet a little frightened.

Rather than pass three hours waiting for a train at the little station of Ardrahan, it had been arranged to spend the time driving to Athenry; and, as the carriage rolled through the deliquefying country, the eyes of the man and the woman rested half fondly, half regretfully, and wholly pitifully, on all the familiar signs and the wild landmarks which during so many years had grown into and become part of the texture of their habitual thought; on things of which they would now have to wholly divest themselves, and remember only as the background of their younger lives. Through the streaming glass they could see the strip of bog; and the half-naked woman, her soaked petticoat clinging about her red legs, piling the wet peat into the baskets thrown across the meagre back of a starveling ass. And farther on there were low-lying, swampy fields, and between them and the roadside a few miserable poplars with cabins sunk below the dung-heaps, and the meagre potato-plots lying about them; and then, as these are passed, there are green enclosures full of fattening kine, and here and there a dismantled cottage, one wall still black with the chimney's smoke, uttering to those who know the country a tale of eviction. Beyond these, beautiful plantations sweep along the crests of the hills, the pillars of a Georgian house showing at the end of a vista. The carriage turned up a narrow road, and our travellers came upon a dozen policemen grouped round a roadside cottage, out of which the furniture had just been thrown. The family had taken shelter from the rain under a hawthorn-tree, and the agents were consulting with their bailiffs if it would not be as well to throw down the walls of the cottage.

'If we don't,' one of the men said, 'they will be back again as soon as our backs are turned, and our work will have to be begun all over again.'

'Shocking,' Alice said, 'that an eviction scene should be our last glimpse of Ireland. Let us pay the rent for them, Edward,' and as she spoke the words the thought passed through her mind that her almsgiving was only another form of selfishness. She wished her departure to be associated with an act of kindness. She would have withdrawn her request, but Edward's hand was in his pocket and he was asking the agent how much the rent was. Five years' rent was owing-more than the travellers had in their purses.

'It is well that we cannot assist them to remain here,' said Edward.

'Circumstances are different, and they will harden; none is of use here.

Of what use-'

'You believe, then, that this misery will last for ever?'

'Nothing lasts in Ireland but the priests. And now let us forget

Ireland, as many have done before us.'

* * * * *

Two years and a half have passed away, and the suburban home predicted by May, when she came to bid Alice a last good-bye, arises before the reader in all its yellow paint and homely vulgarity. In this suburb we find the ten-roomed house with all its special characteristics-a dining-room window looking upon a commodious area with dust and coal holes. The drawing-room has two windows, and the slender balcony is generally set with flower-boxes. Above that come the two windows of the best bedroom belonging to Mr. and Mrs., and above that again the windows of two small rooms, respectively inhabited by the eldest son and daughter; and these are topped by the mock-Elizabethan gable which enframes the tiny window of a servant's room. Each house has a pair of trim stone pillars, the crude green of the Venetian blinds jars the cultured eye, and even the tender green of the foliage in the crescent seems as cheap and as common as if it had been bought-as everything else is in Ashbourne Crescent-at the Stores. But how much does this crescent of shrubs mean to the neighbourhood? Is it not there that the old ladies take their pugs for their constitutional walks, and is it not there that the young ladies play tennis with their gentleman acquaintances when they come home from the City on a Saturday afternoon?

In Ashbourne Crescent there is neither Dissent nor Radicalism, but general aversion to all considerations which might disturb belief in all the routine of existence, in all its temporal and spiritual aspects, as it had come amongst them. The fathers and the brothers go to the City every day at nine, the young ladies play tennis, read novels, and beg to be taken to dances at the Kensington Town Hall. On Sunday the air is alive with the clanging of bells, and in orderly procession every family proceeds to church, the fathers in all the gravity of umbrellas and prayer-books, the matrons in silk mantles and clumsy ready-made elastic sides; the girls in all the gaiety of their summer dresses with lively bustles bobbing, the young men in frock-coats which show off their broad shoulders-from time to time they pull

their tawny moustaches. Each house keeps a cook and housemaid, and on Sunday afternoons, when the skies are flushed with sunset and the outlines of this human warren grow harshly distinct-black lines upon pale red-these are seen walking arm-in-arm away towards a distant park with their young men.

Ashbourne Crescent, with its bright brass knockers, its white-capped maid-servant, and spotless oilcloths, will pass away before some great tide of revolution that is now gathering strength far away, deep down and out of sight in the heart of the nation, is probable enough; but for the moment it is, in all its cheapness and vulgarity, more than anything else representative, though the length and breadth of the land be searched, of the genius of Empire that has been glorious through the long tale that nine hundred years have to tell. Ashbourne Crescent may possibly soon be replaced by something better, but at present it commands our admiration, for it is, more than all else, typical England. Neither ideas nor much lucidity will be found there, but much belief in the wisdom shown in the present ordering of things, and much plain sense and much honesty of purpose. Certainly, if your quest be for hectic emotion and passionate impulses, you would do well to turn your steps aside; you will not find them in Ashbourne Crescent. There life flows monotonously, perhaps sometimes even a little moodily, but it is built upon a basis of honest materialism-that materialism without which the world cannot live. And No. 31 differs a little from the rest of the houses. The paint on its walls is fresher, and there are no flowers on its balcony: the hall-door has three bells instead of the usual two, and there is a brass plate with 'Dr. Reed' engraved upon it. The cook is talking through the area-railings to the butcher-boy; a smart parlourmaid opens the door, and we see that the interior is as orderly, commonplace, and clean as we might expect at every house in the crescent. The floorcloths are irreproachable, the marble-painted walls are unadorned with a single picture. On the right is the dining-room, a mahogany table bought for five pounds in the Tottenham Court Road, a dozen chairs to match, a sideboard and a small table; green-painted walls decorated with two engravings, one of Frith's 'Railway Station,' the other of Guido's 'Fortune.' Further down the passage leading to the kitchen-stairs there is a second room: this is the Doctor's consulting-room. A small bookcase filled with serious-looking volumes, a mahogany escritoire strewn with papers, letters, memoranda of all sorts. The floor is covered with a bright Brussels carpet; there are two leather armchairs, and a portrait of an admiral hangs over the fireplace.

Let us go upstairs. How bright and clean are the high marble-painted walls! and on the first landing there is a large cheaply coloured window. The drawing-room is a double room, not divided by curtains but by stiff folding-doors. The furniture is in red, and the heavy curtains that drape the windows fall from gilt cornices. In the middle of the floor there is a settee (probably a reminiscence of the Shelbourne Hotel); and on either side of the fireplace there are sofas, and about the hearthrug many arm-chairs to match with the rest. Above the chimneypiece there is a gilt oval mirror, worth ten pounds. The second room is Alice's study; it is there she writes her novels. A table in black wood with a pile of MSS. neatly fastened together stands in one corner; there is a bookcase just behind; its shelves are furnished with imaginative literature, such as Shelley's poems, Wordsworth's poems, Keats' poems. There are also handsome editions of Tennyson and Browning, presents from Dr. Reed to his wife. You see a little higher up the shelf a thin volume, Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon, and next to it is Walter Pater's Renaissance-studies in art and poetry. There are also many volumes in yellow covers, evidently French novels.

The character of the house is therefore essentially provincial, and shows that its occupants have not always lived amid the complex influences of London life-viz., is not even suburban. Nevertheless, here and there traces of new artistic impulses are seen. On the mantelpiece in the larger room there are two large blue vases; on a small table stands a pot in yellow porcelain, evidently from Morris's; and on the walls there are engravings from Burne Jones. Every Thursday afternoon numbers of ladies, all of whom write novels, assemble here to drink tea and talk of their work.

It is now eleven o'clock in the morning. Alice enters her drawing-room. You see her: a tall, spare woman with kind eyes, who carries her arms stiffly. She has just finished her housekeeping, she puts down her basket of keys, and with all the beautiful movement of the young mother she takes up the crawling mass of white frock, kisses her son and settles his blue sash. And when she has talked to him for a few minutes she rings the bell for nurse; then she sits down to write. As usual, her pen runs on without a perceptible pause. Words come to her easily, but she has not finished the opening paragraph of the article she is writing when the sound of rapid footsteps attracts her attention, and Olive bursts into the room.

'Oh, Alice, how do you do? I couldn't stop at home any longer, I am sick of it.'

'Couldn't stop at home any longer, Olive; what do you mean?'

'If you won't take me in, say so, and I'll go.'

'My dear Olive, I shall be delighted to have you with me; but why can't you stop at home any longer-surely there is no harm in my asking?'

'Oh, I don't know; don't ask me; I am so miserable at home; I can't tell you how unhappy I am. I know I shall never be married, and the perpetual trying to make up matches is sickening. Mamma will insist on riches, position, and all that sort of thing-those kind of men don't want to get married-I am sick of going out; I won't go out any more. We never missed a tennis-party last year; we used to go sometimes ten miles to them, so eager was mamma after Captain Gibbon, and it did not come off; and then the whole country laughs.'

'And who is Captain Gibbon? I never heard of him before.'

'No, you don't know him: he was not in Galway in your time.'

'And Captain Hibbert! Have you heard from him since he went out to


'Yes, once; he wrote to me to say that he hoped to see me when he came home.'

'And when will that be?'

'Oh, I don't know; when people go out to India one never expects to see them again.'

Seeing how sore the wound was, Alice did not attempt to probe it, but strove rather to lead Olive's thoughts away from it, and gradually the sisters lapsed into talking of their acquaintances and friends, and of how life had dealt with them.

'And May, what is she doing?'

'She met with a bad accident, and has not been out hunting lately. She was riding a pounding match with Mrs. Manly across country: May's horse came to grief at a big wall, and broke several of her ribs. They say she has given up riding-now she does nothing but paint. You remember how well she used to paint at school.'

'And the Brennans?'

'Oh, they go up to the Shelbourne every year, but none of them are married; and I am afraid that they must be very hard up, for their land is very highly let, and the tenants are paying no rent at all now-Ireland is worse than ever; we shall all be ruined, and they say Home Rule is certain. But I am sick of the subject.'

Then the Duffys, the Honourable Miss Gores, and the many other families of unmarried girls-the poor muslin martyrs, whose sufferings were the theme of this book, were again passed in review; their failures sometimes jeeringly alluded to by Olive, but always listened to pityingly by Alice-and, talking thus of their past life, the sisters leant over the spring fire that burnt out in the grate. At the end of a long silence Alice said:

'Well, dear, I hope you have come to live with us, or at any rate to pay us a long visit.'


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