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. Amédeée Silvenoire, whose experiment in unromantic drama had not long ago gloriously failed at the Odéon; 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 sérieux?
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 be 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."
"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?"
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?"
"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.
The house was in Belsize Park. Light shone through the blind of one of the upper windows, but the rest of the front was lifeless. Cecily's ring at the bell sounded distinctly; it was answered at once by a maid-servant, who said that Mr. Elgar was still in the library. Having spoken a few words, ending with a kind good night, Cecily passed through the hall and opened the library door.
A reading-lamp made a bright sphere on the table, but no one sat within its rays. After a fruitless glance round the room, Cecily called her husband's name. There was a sound of moving, and she saw that Reuben was on a sofa which the shadow veiled.
"Have you been asleep?" she asked merrily, as she approached him.
He stood up and stretched himself, muttering.
"Why didn't you go to bed, poor boy? I'm dreadfully late; I went out of my way to take some one home."
"Who was that?" Elgar inquired, coming forward and seating himself on the corner of the writing-table.
"Mrs. Travis. She has come to stay with friends at Hampstead. But to bed, to bed! You look like Hamlet when he came and frightened Ophelia. Have you had an evil dream?"
"That's the truth; I have."
"Oh, a stupid jumble." He moved the lamp-shade, so that the light fell suddenly full upon her. "Why have you made such friends all at once with Mrs. Travis?"
"How is your headache?"
"I don't know -- much the same. Did she ask you to take her home?"
"Yes, she did -- or suggested it, at all events."
"Why has she come to Hampstead?"
"How can I tell, dear? Put the lamp out, and let us go."
He sat swinging his leg. The snatch of uncomfortable sleep had left him pale and swollen-eyed, and his hair was tumbled.
"Who was there to-night?"
"Several new people. Amédée Silvenoire -- the dramatist, you know; an interesting man. He paid me the compliment of refraining from compliments on my French. Madame Jacquelin, a stout and very plain woman, who told us anecdotes of George Sand; remind me to repeat them to-morrow. And Mr. Bickerdike, the pillar of idealism."
"Bickerdike was there?" Elgar exclaimed, with an air of displeasure.
"He didn't refer to his acquaintance with you. I wonder why not?"
"Did you talk to the fellow?"
"Rather pertly, I'm afraid. He was silly enough to ask me what I thought of his book, though I hadn't mentioned it. I put on my superior air and snubbed him; it was like tapping a frog on the head each time it pokes up out of the water. He will go about and say what an insufferable person that Mrs. Elgar is."
Reuben was silent for a while.
"I don't like your associating with such people," he said suddenly. "I wish you didn't go there. It's all very well for a woman like your aunt to gather about her all the disreputable men and women who claim to be of some account, but they are not fit companions for you. I don't like it at all."
She looked at him in astonishment, with bewildered eyes, that were on the verge of laughter.
"What are you talking about, Reuben?"
"I'm quite serious." He rose and began to walk about the room. "And it surprised me that you didn't think of staying at home this evening. I said nothing, because I wanted to see whether it would occur to you that you oughtn't to go alone."
"How should such a thing occur to me? Surely I am as much at home in aunt's house as in my own? I can hardly believe that you mean what you say."
"You will understand it if you think for a moment. A year ago you wouldn't have dreamt of going out at night when I stayed at home. But you find the temptation of society irresistible. People admire you and talk about you and crowd round you, and you enjoy it -- never mind who the people are. Presently we shall be seeing your portrait in the shop-windows. I noticed what a satisfaction it was to you when your name was mentioned among the other people in that idiotic society journal."
Cecily laughed, but not quite so naturally as she wished it to sound.
"This is too absurd Your dream has unsettled your wits, Reuben. How could I imagine that you had begun to think of me in such a light? You used to give me credit for at least average common sense. I can't talk about it; I am ashamed to defend myself."
He had not spoken angrily, but in a curiously dogged tone, with awkward emphasis, as if struggling to say what did not come naturally to his lips. Still walking about, and keeping his eyes on the floor, he continued in the same half-embarrassed way:
"There's no need for you to defend yourself. I don't exactly mean to blame you, but to point out a danger."
"Forgetting that you degrade my character in doing so."
"Nothing of the kind, Cecily. But remember how young you are. You know very little of the world, and often see things in an ideal light. It is your tendency to idealize. You haven't the experience necessary to a woman who goes about in promiscuous society."
Cecily knitted her brows.
"Instead of using that vague, commonplace language -- which I never thought to hear from you -- I wish you would tell me exactly what you mean. What things do I see in an ideal light? That means, I suppose, that I am childishly ignorant of common evils in the world. You couldn't speak otherwise if I had just come out of a convent. And, indeed, you don't believe what you say. Speak more simply, Reuben. Say that you distrust my discretion."
"To a certain extent, I do."
"Then there is no more to be said, dear. Please to tell me in future exactly what you wish me to do, and what to avoid. I will go to school to your prudence."
The clock ticked very loudly, and, before the silence was again broken, chimed half-past one.
"Let me give you an instance of what I mean," said Elgar, again seating himself on the table and fingering his watch-chain nervously. "You have been making friends with Mrs. Travis. Now, you are certainly quite ignorant of her character. You don't know that she left home not long ago."
Cecily asked in a low voice:
"And why didn't you tell me this before?"
"Because I don't choose to talk with you about such disagreeable things."
"Then I begin to see what the difficulty is between us. It is not I who idealize things, but you. Unless I am much mistaken, this is the common error of husbands -- of those who are at heart the best. They wish their wives to remain children, as far as possible. Everything 'disagreeable' must be shunned -- and we know what the result often is. But I had supposed all this time that you and I were on other terms. I thought you regarded me as not quite the everyday woman. In some things it is certain you do; why not in the most important of all? Knowing that I was likely to see Mrs. Travis often, it was your duty to tell me what you knew of her."
Elgar kept silence.
"Now let me give you another version of that story," Cecily continued. "To-night she has been telling me about herself. She says that she left home because her husband was unfaithful to her. I think the reason quite sufficient, and I told her so. But there is something more. She has again been driven away. She has come to live at Hampstead because her home is intolerable, and she says that nothing will ever induce her to return."
"And this has been the subject of your conversation as you drove back? Then I think such an acquaintance is very unsatisfactory, and it must come to an end."
"Please to tell me why you spoke just now as if Mrs. Travis were to blame."
"I have heard that she was."
"Heard from whom?"
"That doesn't matter. There's a doubt about it, and she's no companion for you."
"As you think it necessary to lay commands on me, I shall of course obey you. But I believe Mrs. Travis is wronged by the rumours you have heard; I believe she acted then, and has done now, just as it behoved her to."
"And you have been encouraging her?"
"Yes, on the assumption that she told me the truth. She asked if she might come and see me, and I told her to do so whenever she wished. I needn't say that I shall write and withdraw this invitation."
Elgar hesitated before replying.
"I'm afraid you can't do that. You have tact enough to end the acquaintance gradually."
"Indeed I have not, Reuben. I either condemn her or pity her; I can't shuffle contemptibly between the two."
"Of course you prefer to pity her!" he exclaimed impatiently. "There comes in the idealism of which I was speaking. The vulgar woman's instinct would be to condemn her; naturally enough, you take the opposite course. You like to think nobly of people, with the result that more often than not you will be wrong. You don't know the world."
"And I am very young; pray finish the formula. But why do you prefer to take the side of 'the vulgar woman' of whom you speak? I see that you have no evidence against Mrs. Travis; why lean towards condemnation?"
"Well, I'll put it in another way. A woman who lives apart from her husband is always amid temptations, always in doubtful circumstances. Friends who put faith in her may, of course, keep up their intimacy; but a slight acquaintance, and particularly one in your position, will get harm by associating with her. This is simple and obvious enough."
"If you knew for certain that she was blameless, you would speak in the same way?"
"If it regarded you, I should. Not if Mrs. Lessingham were in question."
"That is a distinction which repeats your distrust. We won't say any more about it. I will bear in mind my want of experience, and in future never act without consulting you."
She moved towards the door.
"You are coming?"
"Look here, Ciss, you are not so foolish as to misunderstand me. When I said that I distrusted your discretion, I meant, of course, that you might innocently do things which would make people talk about you. There is no harm in reminding you of the danger."
"Perhaps not; though it would be more like yourself to scorn people's talk."
"That is only possible if we chose to go back to our life of solitude. I'm afraid it wouldn't suit you very well now."
"No; I am far too eager to see my name in fashionable lists. Has not all my life pointed to that noble ambition?"
She regarded him with a smile from her distance, a smile that trembled a little about her lips, and in which her clear eyes had small part. Elgar, without replying, began to turn down the lamp.
"This is what has made you so absent and uneasy for the last week or two?" Cecily added.
The lamp was extinguished
"Yes, it is," answered Elgar's voice in the darkness. "I don't like the course things have been taking."
"Then you were quite right to speak plainly. Be at rest; you shall have no more anxiety."
She opened the door, and they went upstairs together. In the bedroom Cecily found her little boy sleeping quietly; she bent above him for a few moments, and with soft fingers smoothed the coverlet.
There was no further conversation between them -- except that Cecily just mentioned the news her aunt had received from Mrs. Spence.
At breakfast they spoke of the usual subjects, in the usual way. Elgar had his ride, amused himself in the library till luncheon, lolled about the drawing-room whilst Cecily played, went to his club, came back to dinner, -- all in customary order. Neither look nor word, from him or Cecily, made allusion to last night's incident.
The next morning, when breakfast was over, he came behind his wife's chair and pointed to an envelope she had opened.
"What strange writing! Whose is it?"
"From Mrs. Travis."
He moved away, and Cecily rose. As she was passing him, he said:
"What has she to say to you?"
"She acknowledges the letter I sent her yesterday morning, that's all."
"You wrote -- in the way you proposed?"
He allowed her to pass without saying anything more.
During the first six months of her wedded life, Cecily wrote from time to time in a handsomely-bound book which had a little silver lock to it. She was then living at the seaside in Cornwall, and Reuben occasionally went out for some hours with the fishers, or took a long solitary ride inland, just to have the delight of returning to his home after a semblance of separation; in his absence, Cecily made a confidant of the clasped volume. On some of its fair pages were verses, written when verse came to her more easily than prose, but read not even to him who occasioned them. A passage or two of the unrhymed thoughts, with long periods of interval, will suggest the course of her mental history.
"I have no more doubts, and take shame to myself for those I ever entertained. Presently I will confess to him how my mind was tossed and troubled on that flight from Capri; I now feel able to do so, and to make of the confession one more delight. It was impossible for me not to be haunted by the fear that I had yielded to impulse, and acted unworthily of one who could reflect. I had not a doubt of my lover, but the foolish pride which is in a girl's heart whispered to me that I had been too eager -- had allowed myself to be won too readily; that I should have been more precious to him if more difficulty had been put in his way. Would it not have been good to give him proof of constancy through long months of waiting? But the secret was that I dreaded to lose him. I reproached him for want of faith in my steadfastness; but just as well he might have reproached me. It was horrible to think of his going back into the world and living among people of whom I knew nothing. I knew in some degree what his life had been; by force of passionate love I understood, or thought I understood him; and I feared most ignobly.
"And I was putting myself in opposition to all those older and more experienced people. How could I help distrusting myself at times? I saw them all looking coldly and reproachfully at me. Here again my pride had something to say. They would smile among themselves, and tell each other that they had held a mistakenly high opinion of me. That was hard to bear. I like to be thought much of; it is delicious to feel that people respect me, that they apply other judgments to me than to girls in general. Mr. Mallard hurt me more than he thought in pretending -- I feel sure he only pretended -- to regard my words as trivial. How it rejoices me that there are some things I know better than my husband does! I have read of women liking to humble themselves, and in a way I can understand it; I do like to say that he is far above me -- oh! and I mean it, I believe it; but the joy of joys is to see him look at me with admiration. I rejoice that I have beauty; I rejoice that I have read much, and can think for myself now and then, and sometimes say a thing 'that every one would not think of. Suppose I were an uneducated girl, not particularly good-looking, and a man loved me; well, in that case perhaps the one joy would be mere worship of him and intense gratitude -- blind belief in his superiority to every other man that lived. But then Reuben would never have loved me; he must have something to admire, to stand a little in awe of. And for this very reason, perhaps I feel such constant -- self-esteem, for that is the only word.". . .
"All the doubts and fears are over. I acted rightly, and because I obeyed my passion. The poets are right, and all the prudent people only grovel in their worldly wisdom. It may not be true for every one, but for me to love and be loved, infinitely, with the love that conquers everything, is the sole end of life. It is enough; come what will, if love remain nothing else is missed. In the direst poverty, we should be as much to each other as we are now. If he died, I would live only to remember the days I passed with him. What folly, what a crime, it would have been to waste two years, as though we were immortal!
"I never think of Capri but I see it in the light of a magnificent sunrise. Beloved, sacred island, where the morning of my life indeed began! No spot in all the earth has beauty like yours; no name of any place sounds to me as yours does!"
"I know that our life cannot always be what it is now. This is a long honeymoon; we do not walk on the paths that are trodden by ordinary mortals; the sky above us is not the same that others see as they go about their day's business or pleasure. By what process shall we fall to the common existence? We have all our wants provided for; there is no need for my husband to work that he may earn money, no need for me to take anxious thought about expenses; so that we are tempted to believe that life will always be the same. That cannot be; I am not so idle as to hope it.
"He certainly has powers which should be put to use. We have talked much of things that he might possibly do, and I am sure that before long his mind will hit the right path. I am so greedy of happiness that even what we enjoy does not suffice me; I want my husband to distinguish himself among men, that I may glory in his honour. Yesterday he told me that my own abilities exceeded his, and that I was more likely to make use of them; but in this case my ambition takes a humble form. Even if I were sure that I could, say, write a good book, I would infinitely prefer him to do it and receive the reward of it. I like him to say such things, but in fact he must be more than I. Do I need a justification of the love I bear him? Surely not; that would be a contradiction of love. But it is true that I would gladly have him justify to others my belief in his superiority.
"And yet -- why not be content with what is well? If he could remain so; but will he? We have a long life before us, and I know that it cannot be all honeymoon."
"I have been reading a French novel that has made me angry -- in spite of my better sense. Of course, it is not the first book of the kind that I have read, but it comes home to me now. What right has this author to say that no man was ever absolutely faithful? It is a commonplace, but how can any one have evidence enough to justify such a statement? I shall not speak of it to Reuben, for I don't care to think long about it. Does that mean, I wonder, that I am afraid to think of it?
"Well, f had rather have been taught to read and think about everything, than be foolishly ignorant as so many women are. This French author would laugh at my confidence, but I could laugh back at his narrow cynicism. He knows nothing of love in its highest sense. I am firm in my optimism, which has a very different base from that of ignorance.
"This does not concern me; I won't occupy my mind with it; I won't read any more of the cynics. My husband loves me, and I believe his love incapable of receiving a soil. If ever I cease to believe that, time enough then to be miserable and to fight out the problem."
The end of the six months found them still undecided as to where they should fix a permanent abode. In no part of England had either of them relatives or friends whose proximity would be of any value. Cecily inclined towards London, feeling that there only would her husband find incentives to exertion; but Reuben was more disposed to settle somewhere on the Continent. He talked of going back to Italy, living in Florence, and -- writing something new about the Renaissance. Cecily shook her head; Italy she loved, and she had seen nothing of it north of Naples, but it was the land of lotus-eaters. They would go there again, but not until life had seriously shaped itself.
Whilst they talked and dreamed, decision came to them in the shape of Mrs. Lessingham. Without warning, she one day presented herself at their lodgings, having come direct from Paris. Her spirits were delightful; she could not have behaved more graciously had this marriage been the one desire of her life. The result of her private talk with Cecily was that within a week all three travelled down to London; there they remained for a fortnight, then went on to Paris. Mrs. Lessingham's quarters were in Rue de Belle Chasse, and the Elgars found a suitable dwelling in the same street.
Their child was born, and for a few months all questions were postponed to that of its health and Cecily's. The infant gave a good deal of trouble, was anything but robust; the mother did not regain her strength speedily. The first three months of the new year were spent at Bordighera; then came three months of Paris; then the family returned to England (without Mrs. Lessingham), and established themselves in the house in Belsize Park.
The immediate effect of paternity upon Elgar was amusing. His self-importance visibly increased. He spoke with more gravity; whatever step he took was seriously considered; if he read a newspaper, it was with an air of sober reflection.
"This is the turning-point in his life," Cecily said to her aunt. "He seems to me several years older; don't you notice it? I am quite sure that as soon as things are in order again he will begin to work."
And the prophecy seemed to find fulfilment. Not many days after their taking possession of the English home, Reuben declared a project that his mind had been forming. It was not, to be sure, thoroughly fashioned; its limits must necessarily be indeterminate until fixed by long and serious study; but what he had in view was to write a history of the English mind in its relation to Puritanism.
"I have a notion, Ciss, that this is the one thing into which I can throw all my energies. The one need of my intellectual life is to deal a savage blow at the influences which ruined all my early years. You can't look at the matter quite as I do; you don't know the fierce hatred with which I am moved when I look back. If I am to do literary work at all, it must be on some subject which deeply concerns me -- me myself, as an individual. I feel sure that my bent isn't to fiction; I am not objective enough. But I enjoy the study of history, and I have a good deal of acuteness. If I'm not mistaken, I can make a brilliant book, a book that will excite hatred and make my name known."
They were sitting in the library, late at night. As usual when he was stirred, Reuben paced up and down the room and gesticulated.
"Do you mean it to be a big book!" Cecily asked, after reflection.
"Not very big. I should have French models before me, rather than English."
"It would take you a long time to prepare."
"Two or three years, perhaps. But what does that matter? I shall work a good deal at the British Museum. It will oblige me to be away from you a good deal, but ----"
"You mustn't trouble about that. I have my own work. If your mornings are regularly occupied, I shall be able to make flied plans of study there are so many things I want to work at."
"Capital! It's high time we came to that. And then, you know, you might be able to give me substantial help -- reading, making notes, and so on -- if you cared to."
"Yes, if I care to. -- But hasn't the subject been dealt with already?"
"Oh, of course, in all sorts of ways. But not in my way. No man ever wrote about it with such energy of hatred as I shall bring to the task."
Cecily was musing.
"It won't be a history in the ordinary sense," she said. "You will make no pretence of historic calm and impartiality."
"Not I, indeed! My book shall be cited as a splendid example of odium antitheologicum. There are passages of eloquence rolling in my mind! And this is just the time for such a work. Throughout intellectual England, Puritanism is dead; but we know how vigorously it survives among the half-educated classes. My book shall declare the emancipation of all the better minds and be a help to those who are struggling upwards. It will be a demand, also, for a new literature, free from the absurd restraints that Puritanism has put upon us. Al] the younger writers will rally about me. It shall be a 'movement.' The name of my book shall be a watchword."
They talked about it till one in the morning.
For several weeks Elgar was constantly at the Museum. He read prodigiously; he brought home a great quantity of notes; every night Cecily and he talked over his acquisitions, and excited themselves. But the weather grew oppressively hot, and it was plain that they could not carry out the project of remaining in town all through the autumn. Already Reuben was languishing in his zeal, when little Clarence had a sudden and alarming illness. As soon as possible, all went off to the seaside.
Since his work had begun, Reuben's interest in the child had fallen off. Its ailments were soon little more than an annoyance to him; Cecily perceived this, and seldom spoke on the subject. The fact of the sudden illness affording an opportunity for rest led him to express more solicitude than he really felt, but when the child got back into its normal state, Reuben was more plainly indifferent to it than ever. He spoke impatiently if the mother's cares occupied her when he wished for her society.
"A baby isn't a rational creature," he said once. " When he is old enough to begin to be educated, that will be a different thing. At present he is only a burden. Perhaps you think me an unfatherly brute?"
"No; I can understand you quite well. I should very often be impatient myself if I had no servants to help me."
"What a horrible thought! Suppose, Ciss, we all of a sudden lost everything, and we had to go and live in a garret, and I had to get work as a clerk at five-and-twenty shillings a week. How soon should we hate the sight of each other, and the sound of each other's voices?"
"It might come to that," replied Cecily, with half a smile. "Perhaps."
"There's no doubt about it."
Cecily remembered something she had written in the book with the silver lock -- a book which had not been opened for a long time.
"I used to think nothing could bring that about. And I am not sure yet."
"I should behave like a ruffian. I know myself well enough."
"I think that would kill my love in time."
"Of course it would. How can any one love what is not lovable?"
"Yet we hear," suggested Cecily, "of wretched women remaining devoted to husbands who all but murder them now and then."
"You are not so foolish as to call that love! That is mere unreasoning and degraded habit -- the same kind of thing one may find in a dog."
"Has love anything to do with reason, Reuben?"
"As I understand it, it has everything to do with reason. Animal passion has not, of course; but love is made of that with something added. Can my reason discover any argument why I should not love you? I won't say that it might not, some day, and then my love would by so much be diminished."
"You believe that reason is free to exercise itself, where love is in possession?"
"I believe that love can only come when reason invites. Of course, we are talking of love between men and women; the word has so many senses. In this highest sense, it is one of the rarest of things. How many wives and husbands love each other? Not one pair in five thousand. In the average pair that have lived together as long as we have, there is not only mutual criticism, but something even of mutual dislike. That makes love impossible. Habit takes its place."
"Happily for the world."
"I don't know. Perhaps so. It is an ignoble necessity; but then, the world largely consists of ignoble creatures."
Cecily reflected often on this conversation. Was there any significance in such reasonings? It gave her keen pleasure to hear Reuben maintain such a view, but did it mean anything? If, in meditating about him, she discovered characteristics of his which she could have wished to change, which in themselves were certainly not lovable, had she in that moment ceased to love him, in love's highest sense?
But in that case love might be self-deception. In that case, perfect love was impossible save as a result of perfect knowledge.
What part had reason in the impulses which possessed her from her first meeting with Reuben in Italy, unless that name were given to the working of mysterious affinities, afterwards to be justified by experience?
Cecily had been long content to accept love as an ultimate fact of her being. But it was not Reuben's arguments only that led her to ponder its nature and find names for its qualities. By this time she had become conscious that her love as a wife was somehow altered, modified, since she had been a mother. The time of passionate reveries was gone by. She no longer wrote verses. The book was locked up and kept hidden; if ever she resumed her diary, it must be in a new volume, for that other was sacred to an undivided love. It would now have been mere idle phrasing, to say that Reuben was all in all to her. And she could not think of this without some sadness.
To the average woman maternity is absorbing. Naturally so, for the average woman is incapable of poetical passion, and only too glad to find something that occupies her thoughts from morning to night, a relief from the weariness of her unfruitful mind. It was not to he expected that Cecily, because she had given birth to a child, should of a sudden convert herself into a combination of wet and dry nurse, after the common model. The mother's love was strong in her, but it could not destroy, nor even keep in long abeyance, those intellectual energies which characterized her. Had she been constrained to occupy herself ceaselessly with the demands of babyhood, something more than impatience would shortly have been roused in her: she would have rebelled against the conditions of her sex; the gentle melancholy with which she now looked back upon the early days of marriage would have become a bitter protest against her slavery to nature. These possibilities in the modern woman correspond to that spirit in the modern man which is in revolt against the law of labour. Picture Reuben Elgar reduced to the necessity of toiling for daily bread -- that is to say, brought down from his pleasant heights of civilization to the dull plain where nature tells a man that if he would eat he must first sweat at the furrow; one hears his fierce objurgations, his haughty railing against the gods. Cecily did not represent that extreme type of woman to whom the bearing of children has become in itself repugnant; but she was very far removed from that other type which the world at large still makes its ideal of the feminine. With what temper would she have heard the lady in her aunt's drawing-room, who was of opinion that she should "stay at home and mind the baby"? Education had made her an individual; she was nurtured into the disease of thought This child of hers showed in the frail tenure on which it held its breath how unfit the mother was for fulfilling her natural functions. Both parents seemed in admirable health, yet their offspring was a poor, delicate, nervous creature, formed for exquisite sensibility to every evil of life. Cecily saw this, and partly understood it; her heart was heavy through the long anxious nights passed in watching by the cradle.
When they returned to London, Reuben at first made a pretence of resuming his work. He went now and then to the reading-room, and at home shut himself up in the study; but he no longer voluntarily talked of his task. Cecily knew what had happened; the fatal lack of perseverance had once more declared itself. For some weeks she refrained from inviting his confidence, but of necessity they spoke together at last. Reuben could no longer disguise the ennui under which he was labouring. Instead of sitting in the library, he loitered about the drawing-room; he was often absent through the whole day, and Cecily knew that he had not been at the Museum.
"I'm at a stand-still," he admitted, when the opportunity came. "I don't see my way so clearly as at first. I must take up some other subject for a time, and rest my mind."
They had no society worth speaking of. Mrs. Lessingham had supplied them with a few introductions, but these people were now out of town. Earlier in the year neither of them had cared to be assiduous in discharging social obligations, with the natural result that little notice was taken of them in turn. Reuben had resumed two or three of his old connections; a bachelor acquaintance now and then came to dine; but this was not the kind of society they needed. Impossible for them to utter the truth, and confess that each other's companionship was no longer all-sufficient. Had Reuben been veritably engaged in serious work, Cecily might have gone on for a long time with her own studies before she wearied for lack of variety and friendly voices; as it was, the situation became impossible.
"Wouldn't you like to belong to a club?" she one day asked.
And Reuben caught at the suggestion. Not long ago, it would have caused him to smile rather scornfully.
Cecily had lost her faith in the great militant book on Puritanism. Thinking about it, when it had been quite out of her mind for a few days, she saw the project in a light of such absurdity that, in spite of herself, she laughed. It was laughter that pained her, like a sob. No, that was not the kind of work for him. What was?
She would think rather of her child and its future. If Clarence lived -- if he lived -- she herself would take charge of his education for the first years. She must read the best books that had been written on the training of children's minds; everything should be smoothed for him by skilful methods. There could be little doubt that he would prove a quick child, and the delight of watching his progress! She imagined him a boy of ten, bright, trustful, happy; he would have no nearer friend than his mother; between him and her should exist limitless confidence. But a firm hand would be necessary; he would exhibit traits inherited from his father ----
Cecily remembered the day when she first knew that she did not wish him to be altogether like his father. Perhaps in no other way could she have come to so clear an understanding of Reuben's character -- at all events, of those parts of it which had as yet revealed themselves in their wedded life. She thought of him with an impartiality which had till of late been impossible. And then it occurred to her: Had the same change come over his mind concerning her? Did he feel secret dissatisfactions? If he had a daughter, would he say to himself that in this and that he would wish her not to resemble her mother?
About once in three months they received a letter from Miriam, addressed always to Cecily. She was living still with the Spences, and still in Italy. Her letters offered no explanation of this singular fact; indeed, they threw as little light as was possible on the state of her mind, so brief were they, and so closely confined to statements of events. Still, it was clear that Miriam no longer shrank from the study of profane things. Of Bartles she never spoke.
Mrs. Spence also wrote to Cecily, the kind of letter to be expected from her, delightful in the reading and pleasant in the memory. But she said nothing significant concerning Miriam.
"Would they welcome us, if we went to see them?" Cecily asked, one cheerless day this winter -- it was Clarence's birthday.
"You can't take the child," answered Reuben, with some discontent.
"No; I should not dare to. And it is just as impossible to leave him with any one. In another year, perhaps."
Mrs. Lessingham occasionally mentioned Miriam in her letters, and always with a jest. "I strongly suspect she is studying Greek. Is she, perchance, the author of that delightful paper on 'Modern Paganism,' in the current Fortnightly? Something strange awaits us, be sure of that."
The winter dragged to its end, and with the spring came Mrs. Lessingham herself. Instantly the life of the Elgars underwent a complete change. The vivacious lady from Paris saw in the twinkling of an eye how matters stood; she considered the situation perilous, and set to work most efficaciously to alter it. With what result, you are aware. The first incident of any importance in the new life was that which has already been related, yet something happened one day at the Academy of which it is worth while speaking.
Cecily had looked in her catalogue for the name of a certain artist, and had found it; he exhibited one picture only. Walking on through the rooms with her husband, she came at length to the number she had in mind, and paused before it.
"Whose is that?" Reuben inquired, looking at the same picture.
"Mr. Mallard's," she answered, with a smile, meeting his eyes.
"Old Mallard's? Really? I was wondering whether he had anything this year."
He seemed to receive the information with genuine pleasure. A little to Cecily's surprise, for the name was never mentioned between them, and she had felt uneasy in uttering it. The picture was a piece of coast-scenery in Norway, very grand, cold, desolate; not at all likely to hold the gaze of Academy visitors, but significant enough for the few who see with the imagination.
"Nobody looks at it, you notice," said Elgar, when they had stood on the spot for five minutes.
Yet as soon as they had spoken, an old and a young lady came in front of them, and they heard the young lady say, as she pointed to Mallard's canvas:
"Where is that, mamma?"
"Oh, Land's End, or some such place," was the careless reply. "Do just look at that sweet little creature playing with the dog! Look at its collar! And that ribbon!"
Reuben turned away and muttered contemptuous epithets; Cecily cast a haughty and angry glance at the speaker. They passed on, and for the present spoke no more of Mallard; but Cecily thought of him, and would have liked to return to the picture before leaving. There was a man who did something, and something worth the doing. Reuben must have had a thought not unlike this, for he said, later in the same day:
"I am sorry I never took up painting. I believe I could have made something of it. To a certain extent, you see, it is a handicraft that any man may learn; if one can handle the tools, there's always the incentive to work and produce. By-the-bye, why do you never draw nowadays?"
"I hold the opinion of Miss Denyer -- I wonder what's become of her, poor girl? -- that it's no use 'pottering.' Strange how a casual word can affect one. I've never cared to draw since she spoke of my 'pottering.'"
This day was the last on which Reuben was quite his wonted self. Cecily, who was not studying him closely just now, did not for a while observe any change, but in the end it forced itself upon her attention. She said nothing, thinking it not impossible that he was again dissatisfied with the fruitlessness of his life, and had been made to feel it more strongly by associating with so many new people. Any sign of that kind was still grateful to her.
She knew now how amiss was her interpretation. The truth she could not accept as she would have done a year ago; it would then have seemed more than pardonable, as proving that Reuben's love of her could drive him into grotesque inconsistencies. But now she only felt it an injury, and in sitting down to write her painful letter to Mrs. Travis, she acted for the first time in deliberate resentment of her husband's conduct.
When the reply from Mrs. Travis instructed him in what had been done, Reuben left the house, and did not return till late at night. Cecily stayed at home, idle. Visitors called in the afternoon, but she received no one. After her solitary dinner, she spent weary hours, now in one room, now in another, unable to occupy herself in any way. At eleven o'clock she went down to the library, resolving to wait there for Reuben's return.
She heard him enter, and heard the servant speaking with him. He came into the room, closed the door, sauntered forwards, his hands in his pockets.
"Why didn't you tell me you would be away all day?" Cecily asked, without stress of remonstrance.
"I didn't know that I should be."
He took his favourite position on the corner of the table Examining him, Cecily saw that his face expressed ennui rather than active displeasure; there was a little sullenness about his lips, but the knitting of his brows was not of the kind that threatens tempest.
"Where have you been, dear?"
"At the Museum, the club, and a music-hall."
"A music-hall?" she repeated, in surprise.
"Why not? I had to get through the time somehow. I was in a surly temper; if I'd come home sooner, I should have raged at you. Don't say anything to irritate me, Ciss; I'm not quite sure of myself yet"
"But I think the raging would have been preferable; I've had the dreariest day I ever spent"
"I suppose some one or other called?"
"Yes, but I didn't see them. You have made me very uncertain of howl ought to behave. I thought it better to keep to myself till we had come to a clearer understanding."
"That is perversity, you know. And it was perversity that led you to write in such a way to Mrs. Travis."
"You are quite right. But the provocation was great. And after all I don't see that there is much difference between writing to her that she mustn't come, and giving directions to a servant that she isn't to be admitted."
"You said in the letter that I had forbidden it?"
"Yes, I did."
"And so made me ridiculous!" he exclaimed petulantly.
"My dear, you were ridiculous. It's better that you should see it plainly."
"The letter will be shown to all sorts of people. Your aunt will see it, of course. You are ingenious in revenging yourself."
Cecily bent her head, and could not trust herself to speak. All day she had been thinking of this, and had repented of her foolish haste. Yet confession of error was impossible in her present mood.
"As you make such a parade of obedience," he continued, with increasing anger, "I should think it would be better to obey honestly. I never said that I wished you to break with her in this fashion."
"Anything else would be contemptible. I can't subdue myself to that."
"Very well; then to be logical you must give up society altogether. It demands no end of contemptible things."
"Will you explain to me why you think that letter will make you ridiculous?"
"Is it ridiculous," she added, "for a man to forbid his wife to associate with a woman of doubtful character?"
"I told you distinctly that I had no definite charge to bring against her. Caution would have been reasonable enough, but to act as you have represented me is sheer Philistinism."
"Precisely. And it was Philistinism in you to take the matter as you did. Be frank with me. Why should you wish to have a name for liberal thinking among your acquaintances, and yet behave in private like the most narrow of men?"
"That is your misrepresentation. Of course, if you refuse to understand me ----"
He broke off, and went to another part of the room.
"Shall I tell you what all this means, Reuben?" said Cecily, turning towards him. "We have lived so long in solitude, that the common circumstances of society are strange and disturbing to us. Solitary people are theoretical people. You would never have thought of forbidding me to read such and such a book, on the ground that it took me into doubtful company; the suggestion of such intolerance would have made you laugh scornfully. You have become an idealist of a curious kind; you like to think of me as an emancipated woman, and yet, when I have the opportunity of making my independence practical, you show yourself alarmed. I am not sure that I understand you entirely; I should be very sorry to explain your words of the other night in the sense they would bear on the lips of an ordinary man. Can't you help me out of this difficulty?"
Reuben was reflecting, and had no reply ready.
"If there is to be all this difference between theory and practice," Cecily continued, "it must either mean that you think otherwise than you speak, or else that I have shown myself in some way very untrustworthy. You say you have been angry with me; I have felt both angry and deeply hurt. Suppose you had known certainly that Mrs. Travis was not an honourable woman, even then it was wrong to speak to me as you did. Even then it would have been inconsistent to forbid me to see her. You put yourself and me on different levels. You make me your inferior -- morally your inferior. What should you say if I began to warn you against one or other of the men you know -- if I put on a stern face, and told you that your morals were in danger?"
"Pooh! what harm can a man take?"
"And pray what harm can a woman take, if her name happens to be Cecily Elgar?"
She drew herself up, and stood regarding him with superb self-confidence.
"Without meaning it, you insult me, Reuben. You treat me as a vulgar husband treats a vulgar wife. What harm to me do you imagine? Don't let us deal in silly evasions and roundabout phrases. Do you distrust my honour? Do you think I can be degraded by association? What woman living has power to make me untrue to myself?"
"You are getting rhetorical, Cecily. Then at this rate I should never be justified in interfering?"
"In interfering with mere command, never."
"Not if I saw you going to destruction?"
She smiled haughtily.
"When it comes to that, we'll discuss the question anew. But I see that you think it possible. Evidently I have given proof of some dangerous weakness. Tell me what it is, and I shall understand you better."
"I'm afraid all this talk leads to nothing. You claim an independence which will make it very difficult for us to live on the old terms."
"I claim nothing more than your own theories have always granted."
"Then practice shows that the theories are untenable, as in many another case."
"You refuse me the right to think for myself."
"In some things, yes. Because, as I said before, you haven't experience enough to go upon."
Cecily cast down her eyes. She forced herself to keep silence until that rush of indignant rebellion had gone by. Reuben looked at her askance.
"If you still loved me as you once did," he said, in a lower voice, "this would be no hardship. Indeed, I should never have had to utter such words."
"I still do love you," she answered, very quietly. "If I did not, I should revolt against your claim. But it is too certain that we no longer live on the old terms."
They avoided each other's eyes, and after a long silence left the room without again speaking.
"There!" said Mrs. Denyer, laying money on the table. "There are your wages, up to the end of April -- notwithstanding your impertinence to me this morning, you see. Once more I forgive you. And new get on with your work, and let us have no more unpleasantness."
It was in the back parlour of a small house at Hampstead, a room scantily furnished and not remarkably clean. Mrs. Denyer sat at the table, some loose papers before her. She was in mourning, but still fresh of complexion, and a trifle stouter than when she lived at Naples, two years and a half ago. Her words were addressed to a domestic (most plainly, of all work), who without ceremony gathered the coins up in both her hands, counted them, and then said with decision:
"Now I'm goin', mum."
"Going? Indeed you are not, my girl! You don't leave this house without the due notice."
"Notice or no notice, I'm a-goin'," said the other, firmly. "I never thought to a' got even this much, an' now I've got it, I'm a-goin'. It's wore me out, has this 'ouse; what with ----"
The conflict lasted for a good quarter of an hour, but the domestic was to be shaken neither with threats nor prayers. Resolutely did she ascend to her bedroom, promptly did she pack her box. Almost before Mrs. Denyer could realize the disaster that had befallen, her house was servantless.
She again sat in the back parlour, gazing blankly at the table, when there came the sound of the house-door opening, followed by a light tread in the passage.
"Barbara!" called Mrs. Denyer.
Barbara presented herself. She also wore mourning, genteel but inexpensive. Her prettiness endured, but she was pale, and had a chronic look of discontent.
"Well, now, what do you think has happened? Shut the door. I paid Charlotte the wages, and the very first thing she did was to pack and go!"
"And you mean to say you let her? Why, you must be crazy!"
"Don't speak to me in that way!" cried her mother, hotly. "How could I prevent her, when she was determined? I did my utmost, but nothing could induce her to stay. Was ever anything so distracting? The very day after letting our rooms! How are we to manage?"
"I shall have nothing to do with it. The girl wouldn't have gone if I'd been here. You must manage how you can."
"It's no use talking like that, Barbara. You're bound to wait upon Mrs. Travis until we get another girl."
"I?" exclaimed her daughter. "Wait on her yourself! I certainly shall do nothing of the kind."
"You're a bad, cruel, undutiful girl!" cried Mrs. Denyer, her face on fire. "Nether of your sisters ever treated me as you do. You're the only one of the family that has never given the least help, and you're the only one that day by day insults me and behaves with heartless selfishness! I'm to wait on the lodger myself, am I? Very well! I will do so, and see if anything in the world will shame you. She shall know why I wait on her, be sure of that!"
Barbara swept out of the room, and ascended the stairs to the second floor. Here again she heard her name called, in a soft voice and interrogatively in reply, she entered a small bedroom, saying impatiently:
"What is it, Mad?"
It was seen at the first glance that this had long been a sick-chamber. The arrangement of the furniture, the medicine-bottles, the appliances for the use of one who cannot rise from bed, all told their story. The air had a peculiar scent; an unnatural stillness seemed to pervade it. Against the raised white pillow showed a face hardly less white.
"Isn't it provoking, Barbara?" said the invalid, without moving in the least. "Whatever shall you do?"
"As best we can, I suppose. I've to turn cook and housemaid and parlour-maid, now. Scullery-maid too. I suppose I shall clean the steps to-morrow morning."
"Oh, but you must go to the registry-office the very first thing. Don't upset yourself about it. If you can just manage to get that lady's dinner."
"It's all very well for you to talk! How would you like to wait on people, like a girl in a restaurant?"
"Ah, if only I could!" replied Madeline, with a little laugh that was heart-breaking. "If only I could!"
In a month it would be two years since Madeline stood and walked like other people; live as long as she might, she would never rise from her bed. It came about in this way. Whilst the Denyers were living in the second-class hotel at Southampton, and when Mr. Denyer had been gone to Vera Cruz some five months, a little ramble was taken one day in a part of the New Forest. Madeline was in particularly good spirits; she had succeeded in getting an engagement to teach some children, and her work was to begin the next day. In a frolic she set herself to jump over a fallen tree; her feet slipped on the dry grass beyond, and she fell with her back upon the trunk.
This was pleasant news to send to her father! With him things were going as well as he had anticipated, and before long he was able to make substantial remittances, but his letters were profoundly sad. In a year's time, the family quitted Southampton and took the house at Hampstead; with much expense and difficulty Madeline was removed. Mrs. Denyer and Barbara were weary of provincial life, and considered nothing in their resolve to be within reach of London amusements. Zillah was living as governess with a family in Yorkshire.
They had been settled at Hampstead three weeks, when information reached them that Mr. Denyer was dead of yellow fever.
On the day when this news came, the house received no less important a visitor than Mr. Musselwhite. Long ago, Mrs. Denyer had written to him from Southampton, addressing her letter to the club in London of which he had spoken; she had received a prompt reply, dated from rooms in London, and thenceforth the correspondence was established. But Mr. Musselwhite never spoke of coming to Southampton; his letters ended with "Sincere regards to Miss Denyer and the other young ladies," but they contained nothing that was more to the point. He wrote about the weather chiefly. Arrived in London, Mrs. Denyer at once sent an invitation, and to her annoyance this remained unanswered. To-day the explanation was forthcoming; Mr. Musselwhite had been on a journey, and by some mistake the letter had only come into his hands when he returned. He was most gentlemanly in his expressions of condolement with the family in their distress; he sat with them, moreover, much longer than was permissible under the circumstances by the code of society. And on going, he begged to be allowed to see them frequently -- that was all.
Barbara could not control herself for irritation; Mrs. Denyer was indignant. Yet, after all, was it to be expected that the visitor should say or do more on such an occasion as this? In any case, he knew what their position was; all had been put before him, as though he were a member of the family. If they succeeded in obtaining whatever Mr. Denyer had died possessed of, it would certainly be nothing more than a provision for the present. When they spoke of taking a lodger for their first floor, Mr. Musselwhite agreed that this was a good thought, whilst shaking his gentlemanly head over the necessity.
He came again and again, always sadly sympathetic. He would sit in the drawing-room for an hour, pulling his whiskers and moustaches nervously, often glancing at Barbara, making the kindest inquiries concerning Madeline, for whom he actually brought flowers. On one of these occasions, he told them that his brother the baronet was very ill, down at the "place in Lincolnshire." And after mentioning this, he fell into abstraction.
As for Madeline, she still received letters from Clifford Marsh. On first hearing of the accident, Clifford at once came to Southampton; his distress was extreme. But it was useless for him to remain, and business demanded his return to Leeds. Neither he nor Madeline was yet aware of the gravity of what had happened; they talked of recovery. Before long Madeline knew how her situation was generally regarded, but she could not abandon hope; she was able to write, and not a word in her letters betrayed a doubt of the possibility that she might yet be well again. Clifford wrote very frequently for the first year, with a great deal of genuine tenderness, with compassion and encouragement. Never mind how long her illness lasted, let her be assured of his fidelity; no one but Madeline should ever be his wife. A considerable part of his letters was always occupied with lamentation over the cursed fate that bound him to the Philistines, though he took care to repeat that this was the result of his own choice, and that he blamed no one -- unless it were his gross-minded step-father, who had driven him to such an alternative. These bewailings grew less vehement as his letters became shorter and arrived at longer intervals; there began to be a sameness in the tone, even in the words. When his yearly holiday came round, he promised to visit Southampton, but after all never did so. What was the use? he wrote. It only meant keener misery to both. Instead of coming south, he had gone into Scotland.
And Madeline no longer expressed a wish to see him. Her own letters grew shorter and calmer, containing at length very little about herself, but for the most part news of family affairs. Every now and then Clifford seemed to rouse himself to the effort of repeating his protestations, of affirming his deathless faith; but as a rule he wrote about trifles, sometimes even of newspaper matters. So did the second year of Madeline's martyrdom come to its close.
Quarrelling incessantly, Mrs. Denyer and Barbara prepared the lodger's dinner between them. This Mrs. Travis was not exacting; she had stipulated only for a cutlet, or something of the kind, with two vegetables, and a milk pudding. Whatever was proposed seemed to suit her. The Denyers knew nothing about her, except that she was able to refer them to a lady who had a house in Mayfair; her husband, she said, was abroad. She had brought a great deal of luggage, including books to the number of fifty or so.
When the moment for decision came, Barbara snatched up the folded white table-cloth, threw it with knives, forks, and plates upon a tray, and ascended to the lodger's sitting-room. Her cheeks were hot; her eyes flashed. She had donned the most elegant attire in her possession, had made her hair magnificent. Her knock at the door was meant to be a declaration of independence; it sounded peremptory.
Mrs. Travis was in an easy-chair, reading. She looked up absently; then smiled.
"Good evening, Miss Denyer. How close it has been again!"
"Very. I must ask you to excuse me, Mrs. Travis, if I do these things rather awkwardly. At a moment's notice, we have lost the servant whose duty it was."
"Oh, I am only sorry that you should have the trouble. Let us lay the table together. I've done it often enough for myself. No, that's the wrong side of the cloth. I'll put these things in order, whilst you go for the rest."
Barbara looked at Mrs. Travis with secret disdain. The girl's nature was plebeian; a little arrogance would have constrained her to respect, however she might have seemed to resent it. This good-natured indifference made her feel that her preparations were thrown away. She would have preferred to see herself as a martyr.
When dinner was over and the table being cleared, Mrs. Travis spoke of Madeline.
"Does she sleep well at night?"
"Never till very late," replied Barbara.
"Does she like to be read to?"
"Oh yes -- reading of certain kinds. I often read Italian poetry to her."
Mrs. Travis had not now to learn for the first time of the family's superior attainments; it had been Mrs. Denyer's care to impress upon her that they were no ordinary letters of lodgings. Indeed, said Mrs. Denyer, they were rather depaysées' here in England,; they had so long been accustomed to the larger intellectual atmosphere of Continental centres. "The poor girls pine for Italy; they have always adored Italy. My eldest daughter is far more Italian than English."
"Well, I don't read Italian," said Mrs. Travis to Barbara, "but if English would do, I should really like to sit with her for an hour sometimes. I never sleep myself if I go to bed before midnight. Do you think she would care for my company?"
"I am sure she would be grateful to you," answered Barbara, who felt that she might now exhibit a little politeness.
"Then please ask her if I may come to-night."
This request was readily granted, and at about half-past nine Mrs. Travis went into the sick-chamber, taking in her hand a volume of Browning. Madeline had not yet seen the lodger; she returned her greeting in a murmur, and examined her with the steady eyes of one whom great suffering has delivered from all petty embarrassments. Her face was not so calm as when Barbara came to speak to her in the afternoon; lines of pain showed themselves on her forehead, and her thin lips were compressed.
"It's very good of you to come," she said, when Mrs. Travis had taken a seat by the bed. "But please don't read anything to-night. I don't feel that I could take any interest. It is so sometimes."
"Naturally enough. But do you feel able to talk?"
"Yes; I had rather talk. Can you tell me something quite new and different from what I'm accustomed to hear? Do you know any country where I haven't been?"
"I haven't travelled much. Last autumn I was in Iceland for a few weeks; would you care to hear of that?"
"Very much. Just talk as if you were going over it in your memory. Don't mind if I close my eyes; I shan't be asleep; it helps me to imagine, that's all."
Mrs. Travis did as she was asked. Now and then Madeline put a question. When at length there came a pause, she said abruptly:
"I suppose it seems dreadful to you, to see me lying here like this?"
"It makes me wish I had it in my power to relieve you."
"But does it seem dreadful? Could you bear to imagine yourself in the same case? I want you to tell me truthfully. I'm not an uneducated girl, you know; I can think about life and death as people do nowadays."
Mrs. Travis looked at her curiously.
"I can imagine positions far worse," she answered.
"That means, of course, that you could not bear to picture yourself in this. But it's strange how one can get used to it. The first year I suffered horribly -- in mind, I mean. But then I still had hope. I have none now, and that keeps my mind calmer. A paradox, isn't it? It's always possible, you know, that I may feel such a life unendurable at last, and then I should hope to find a means of bringing it to an end. For instance, if we become so poor that I am too great a burden. Of course I wouldn't live in a hospital. I don't mean I should be too proud, but the atmosphere would be intolerable. And one really needn't live, after one has decided that it's no use."
"I don't know what to say about that," murmured Mrs. Travis.
"No; you haven't had the opportunity of thinking it over, as I have. I can imagine myself reaching the point when I should not care to have health again, even if it were offered me. I haven't come to that yet; oh no! To-night I am feeling dreadfully what I have lost -- not like I used to, but still dreadfully. Will you tell me something about yourself? What kind of books do you like?"
"Pretty much the same as you do, I should fancy. I like to know what new things people are discovering, and how the world looks to clever men. But I can't study; I have no perseverance. I read the reviews a good deal."
"You'd never guess the last book I have read. It lies on the chest of drawers there -- a treatise on all the various kinds of paralysis. The word 'paralysis' used to have the most awful sound to me; now I'm so familiar with it that it has ceased to be shocking and become interesting. What I am suffering from is called paraplegia; that's when the lower half of the body is affected; it comes from injury or disease of the spinal cord. The paralysis begins at the point in the vertebral column where the injury was received. But it tends to spread upward. If it gets as far as certain nerves upon which the movements of the diaphragm depend, then you die. I wonder whether that will be my case?"
Mrs. Travis kept her eyes on the girl during this singular little lecture; she felt the fascination which is exercised by strange mental phenomena.
"Do you know Italy?" Madeline asked, with sudden transition.
"I have travelled through it, like other tourists."
"You went to Naples?"
"If I close my eyes, how well I can see Naples! Now I am walking through the Villa Nazionale. I come out into the Largo Vittoria, where the palm-trees are -- do you remember? Now I might go into the Chiatamone, between the high houses; but instead of that I'll turn down into Via Caracciolo and go along by the sea, till I'm opposite the Castel dell' Ovo. Now I'm turning the corner and coming on to Santa Lucia, where there are stalls with shells and ices and fish. I can smell the Santa Lucia. And to think that I shall never see it again, never again. -- Don't stay any longer now, Mrs. Travis. I can't talk any more. Thank you for being so kind."
In a week's time it had become a regular thing for Mrs. Travis to spend an hour or two daily with Madeline. Their conversation was suitable enough to a sick-chamber, yet strangely unlike what is wont to pass in such places. On Madeline's side it was thoroughly morbid; on that of her visitor, a curious mixture of unhealthy speculation and pure feeling. Mrs. Travis was at first surprised that the suffering girl never seemed to think of ordinary religion as a solace. She herself had no fixity of faith; her mind played constantly with creeds of negation; but she felt it as an unnatural thing for one of Madeline's age to profess herself wholly without guidance on so dark a journey. And presently she began to doubt whether the profession were genuine. The characteristic of the family was pretence and posing; Mrs. Denyer and Barbara illustrated that every time they spoke. Not impossibly Madeline did but declare the same tendency in her rambling and quasi-philosophic talk. She was fond of warning Mrs. Travis against attributing to her the common prejudices of women. And yet, were it affectation, then the habit must be so inextricably blended with her nature as to have become in practice a genuine motive in the mind's working. Madeline would speculate on the difference between one of her "culture" in the circumstances and the woman who is a slave of tradition; and a moment after she would say something so profoundly pathetic that it brought tears to her companion's eyes.
Mrs. Travis never spoke of her personal affairs; Madeline could supply no food for the curiosity of her mother and sister when they questioned her about the long private conversations. The lodger received no visitors, and seldom a letter. In the morning she went out for an hour, generally towards the heath; occasionally she was from home until late at night. About the quality of the attendance given her she was wholly indifferent; in spite of frequent inconveniences, she made her weekly payments without a word of dissatisfaction. She had a few eccentricities of behaviour which the Denyers found it difficult to reconcile with the refinement of her ordinary conduct. Once or twice, when the servant went into her sitting-room the first thing in the morning, she was surprised to find Mrs. Travis lying asleep on the couch, evidently just as she had come home the previous night, except that her bonnet was removed. It had happened, too, that when some one came and knocked at her door during the day, she vouchsafed no answer, and yet made the sound of moving about, as if to show that she did not choose to be disturbed, for whatever reason.
The household went its regular way. Mrs. Denyer sat in her wonted idle dignity, or scolded the hard-driven maid-of-all-work, or quarrelled fiercely with Barbara. Barbara was sullen, insolent, rebellious against fate, by turns. Up in the still room lay poor Madeline, seldom visited by either of the two save when it was necessary. All knew that the position of things had no security; before long there must come a crisis worse than any the family had yet experienced. Unless, indeed, that one hope which remained to them could be realized.
One afternoon at the end of July, mother and daughter were sitting over their tea, lamenting the necessity which kept them in London when the eternal fitness of things demanded that they should be preparing for travel. They heard a vehicle draw up before the house, and Barbara, making cautious espial from the windows, exclaimed that it was Mr. Musselwhite.
"He has a lot of flowers, as usual," she added, scornfully, watching him as he paid the cabman. "Go into the back room, mamma. Let's say you're not at home to-day. Send for the teapot, and get some more tea made."
There came a high-bred knock at the front door, and Mrs. Denyer disappeared.
Mr. Musselwhite entered with a look and bearing much graver than usual. He made the proper remarks, and gave Barbara the flowers for her sister then seated himself, and stroked his moustache.
"Miss Denyer," he began, when Barbara waited wearily for the familiar topic, "my brother, Sir Grant, died a week ago."
"I am very grieved to hear it," she replied, mechanically, at once absorbed in speculation as to whether this would make any change that concerned her.
"It was a long and painful illness, and recovery was known to be impossible. Yet I too cannot help grieving. As you know, we had not seen much of each other for some years, but I had the very highest opinion of Sir Grant, and it always gave me pleasure to think of him as the head of our family. He was a man of great abilities, and a kind man."
"I am sure he was -- from what you have told me of him."
"My nephew succeeds to the title and the estate; he is now Sir Roland Musselwhite. I have mentioned him in our conversations. He is about thirty-four, a very able man, and very kind, very generous."
There was a distinct tremor in his voice; he pulled his moustache vigorously. Barbara listened with painful eagerness.
"If you will forgive me for speaking of my private circumstances, Miss Denyer, I should like to tell you that for some years I have enjoyed only a very restricted income; a bachelor's allowance -- really it amounted to nothing more than that. In consequence of that, my life has been rather unsettled; I scarcely knew what to do with myself, in fact; now and then time has been rather heavy on my hands. You may have noticed that, for I know you are observant."
He waited for her to say whether she had or had not observed this peculiarity in him.
"I have sometimes been afraid that was the case," said Barbara.
"I quite thought so." He smiled with gratification. "But now -- if I may speak a little longer of these personal matters -- all that is altered, and by the very great kindness, the generosity, of my nephew Sir Roland. Sir Roland has seen fit to put me in possession of an income just three times what I have hitherto commanded. This does not, Miss Denyer, make me a wealthy man; far from it. But it puts certain things within my reach that I could not think of formerly. For instance, I shall be able to take a modest house, either in the country, or here in one of the suburbs. It's my wish to do so. My one great wish is to settle down and have something to -- to occupy my time."
Barbara breathed a faint approval.
"You may wonder, Miss Denyer, why I trouble you with these details. Perhaps I might be pardoned for doing so, if I spoke with -- with a desire for your friendly sympathy. But there is more than that in my mind. The day is come, Miss Denyer, when I am able to say what I would gladly have said before our parting at Naples, if it had been justifiable in me. That is rather a long time ago, but the feeling I then had has only increased in the meanwhile. Miss Denyer, I desire humbly to ask if you will share with me my new prosperity, such as it is?"
The interview lasted an hour and a quarter. Mrs. Denyer panted with impatience in the back parlour. Such an extended visit could not but have unusual significance. On hearing the door of the other room open, she stood up and listened. But there was no word in the passage, no audible murmur.
The front door closed, and in two ticks of the clock Barbara came headlong into the parlour. With broken breath, with hysterical laughing and sobbing, she made known what had happened. It was too much for her; the relief of suspense, the absolute triumph, were more than she could support with decency. Mrs. Denyer shed tears, and embraced her daughter as if they had always been on the fondest terms.
"Go up and tell Maddy!"
But, as not seldom befalls, happiness inspired Barbara with a delicacy of feeling to which as a rule she was a stranger.
"I don't like to, mamma. It seems cruel."
"But you can't help it, my dear; and she must know tomorrow if not to-day."
So before long Barbara went upstairs. She entered the room softly. Madeline had her eyes fixed on the ceiling, and did not move them as her sister approached the bed.
Then indeed she looked at the speaker, and with surprise, so unwonted was this tone on Barbara's lips. Surprise was quickly succeeded by a smile.
"I know, Barbara; I understand."
"What? How can you?"
"I heard a cab drive up, and I heard a knock at the door. 'That's Mr. Musselwhite,' I thought. He has been here a long time, and now I understand. You needn't tell me."
"But there's a good deal to tell that you can't have found out, quick as you are."
And she related the circumstances. Madeline listened with her eyes on the ceiling.
"We shall be married very soon," Barbara added; "as soon as a house can be chosen. Of course it must be in London, or very near. We shall go somewhere or other, and then, very likely, pay a formal visit to the 'place in Lincolnshire.' Think of that! Sir Roland seems a good sort of man; he will welcome us. Think of visiting at the 'place in Lincolnshire'! Isn't it all like a dream?"
"What will mamma do without you?"
"Oh, Zillah is to come home. We'll see about that."
"I suppose he forgot to bring me some flowers today?"
"No But I declare I forgot to bring them up. I'll fetch them at once."
She did so, running downstairs and up again like a child, with a jump at the landings. The flowers were put in the usual place. Madeline looked at them, and listened to her sister's chatter for five minutes. Then she said absently:
"Go away now, please. I've heard enough for the present."
"You shall have all sorts of comforts, Maddy."
"Go away, Barbara."
The sister obeyed, looking back with compassion from the door. She closed it softly, and in the room there was the old perfect stillness. Madeline had let her eyelids fall, and the white face against the white pillows was like that of one dead. But upon the eyelashes there presently shone a tear; it swelled, broke away, and left a track of moisture. Poor white face, with the dark hair softly shadowing its temples! Poor troubled brain, wearying itself in idle questioning of powers that heeded not!
Elgar's marriage had been a great success. For a year and a half, for even more than that, he had lived the fullest and most consistent life of which he was capable; what proportion of the sons of men can look back on an equal span of time in their own existence and say the same of it?
Life with Cecily gave predominance to all the noblest energies in his nature. He loved with absolute sincerity; his ideal of womanhood was for the time realized and possessed; the vagrant habit of his senses seemed permanently subdued; his mind was occupied with high admirations and creative fancies; in thought and speech he was ardent, generous, constant, hopeful. A happy marriage can do no more for man than make unshadowed revelation of such aspiring faculty as he is endowed withal. It cannot supply him with a force greater than he is born to; even as the happiest concurrence of healthful circumstances cannot give more strength to a physical constitution than its origin warrants. At this period of his life, Reuben Elgar could not have been more than, with Cecily's help, he showed himself. Be the future advance or retrogression, he had lived the possible life.
Whose the fault that it did not continue? Cecily's, if it were blameworthy to demand too much; Elgar's, if it be wrong to learn one's own limitations.
His making definite choice of a subject whereon to employ his intellect was at one and the same time a proof of how far his development had progressed and a warning of what lay before him. However chaotic the material in which he proposed to work, however inadequate his powers, it was yet a truth that, could he execute anything at all, it would be something of the kind thus vaguely contemplated. His intellect was combative, and no subject excited it to such activity as this of Hebraic constraint in the modern world. Elgar's book, supposing him to have been capable of writing it, would have resembled no other; it would have been, as he justly said, unique in its anti-dogmatic passion. It was quite in the order of things that he should propose to write it; equally so, that the attempt should mark the end of his happiness.
For all that she seemed to welcome the proposal with enthusiasm, Cecily's mind secretly misgave her. She had begun to understand Reuben, and she foresaw, with a certainty which she in vain tried to combat, how soon his energy would fail upon so great a task. Impossible to admonish him; impossible to direct him on a humbler path, where he might attain some result. With Reuben's temperament to deal with, that would mean a fatal disturbance of their relations to each other. That the disturbance must come in any case, now that he was about to prove himself, she anticipated in many a troubled moment, but would not let the forecast discourage her.
Elgar knew how his failure in perseverance affected her; he looked for the signs of her disappointment, and was at no loss to find them. it was natural to him to exaggerate the diminution of her esteem; he attributed to her what, in her place, he would himself have felt; he soon imagined that she had as good as ceased to love him. He could not bear to be less in her eyes than formerly; a jealous shame stung him, and at length made him almost bitter against her.
In this way came about his extraordinary outbreak that night when Cecily had been alone to her aunt's. Pent-up irritation drove him into the extravagances which to Cecily were at first incredible. He could not utter what was really in his mind, and the charges he made against her were modes of relieving himself. Yet, as soon as they had once taken shape, these rebukes obtained a real significance of their own. Coincident with Cecily's disappointment in him had been the sudden exhibition of her pleasure in society. Under other circumstances, his wife's brilliancy among strangers might have been pleasurable to Elgar. His faith in her was perfect, and jealousy of the ignobler kind came not near him. But he felt that she was taking refuge from the dulness of her home; he imagined people speaking of him as "the husband of Mrs. Elgar;" it exasperated him to think of her talking with clever men who must necessarily suggest comparisons to her.
He himself was not the kind of man who shines in company. He had never been trained to social usages, and he could not feel at ease in any drawing-room but his own. The Bohemianism of his early life had even given him a positive distaste for social obligations and formalities. Among men of his own way of thinking, he could talk vigorously, and as a rule keep the lead in conversation; but where restraint in phrase was needful, he easily became flaccid, and the feeling that he did not show to advantage filled him with disgust. So there was little chance of his ever winning that sort of reputation which would have enabled him to accompany his wife into society without the galling sense of playing an inferior rôle.
In the matter of Mrs. Travis, he was conscious of his own arbitrariness, but, having once committed himself to a point of view, he could not withdraw from it. He had to find fault with his wife and her society, and here was an obvious resource. Its very obviousness should, of course, have warned him away, but his reason for attacking Mrs. Travis had an intimate connection with the general causes of his discontent. Disguise it how he might, he was simply in the position of a husband who fears that his authority over his wife is weakening. Mrs. Travis, as he knew, was a rebel against her own husband -- no matter the cause. She would fill Cecily's mind with sympathetic indignation; the effect would be to make Cecily more resolute in independence. Added to this, there was, in truth, something of that conflict between theoretical and practical morality of which his wife spoke. It developed in the course of argument; he recognized that, whilst having all confidence in Cecily, he could not reconcile himself to her associating with a woman whose conduct was under discussion. The more he felt his inconsistency, the more arbitrary he was compelled to be. Motives confused themselves and harassed him. In his present mood, the danger of such a state of things was greater than he knew, and of quite another kind than Cecily was prepared for.
"What is all this about Mrs. Travis?" inquired Mrs. Lessingham, with a smile, when she came to visit Cecily. Reuben was out, and the ladies sat alone in the drawing-room.
Cecily explained what had happened, but in simple terms, and without meaning to show that any difference of opinion had arisen between her and Reuben.
"You have heard of it from Mrs. Travis herself?" she asked, in conclusion.
"Yes. She expressed no resentment, however; spoke as if she thought it a little odd, that was all. But what has Reuben got into his head?"
"It seems he has heard unpleasant rumours about her."
"Then why didn't he come and speak to me? She is absolutely blameless: I can answer for it. Her husband is the kind of man ---- Did you ever read Fielding's 'Amelia'? To be sure; well, you understand. I much doubt whether she is wise in leaving him; ten to one, she'll go back again, and that is more demoralizing than putting up with the other indignity. She has a very small income of her own, and what is her life to be? Surely you are the last people who should abandon her. That is the kind of thing that makes such a woman desperate. She seems to have made a sort of appeal to you. I am but moderately in her confidence, and I believe she hasn't one bosom friend. It's most fortunate that Reuben took such a whim. Send him to me, will you?"
Cecily made known this request to her husband, and there followed another long dialogue between them, the only result of which was to increase their mutual coldness. Cecily proposed that they should at once leave town, instead of waiting for the end of the season; in this way all their difficulties would be obviated. Elgar declined the proposal; he had no desire to spoil her social pleasures.
"That is already done, past help," Cecily rejoined, with the first note of bitterness. "I no longer care to visit, nor to receive guests."
"I noticed the other day your ingenuity in revenging yourself."
"I say nothing but the simple truth. Had you rather I went out and enjoyed myself without any reference to your wishes?"
"From the first you made up your mind to misunderstand me," said Reuben, with the common evasion of one who cannot defend his course.
Cecily brought the dispute to an end by her silence. The next morning Reuben went to see Mrs. Lessingham, and heard what she had to say about Mrs. Travis.
"What is your evidence against her?" she inquired, after a little banter.
"Some one who knows Travis very well assured me that the fault was not all on his side."
"Of course. It is more to the point to hear what those have to say who know his wife, Surely you acted with extraordinary haste."
With characteristic weakness, Elgar defended himself by detailing the course of events. It was not he who had been precipitate, but Cecily; he was never more annoyed than when he heard of that foolish letter.
"Go home and persuade her to write another," said Mrs. Lessingham. "Let her confess that there was a misunderstanding. I am sure Mrs. Travis will accept it. She has a curious character; very sensitive, and very impulsive, but essentially trustful and warm-hearted. You should have heard the pathetic surprise with which she told me of Cecily's letter."
"I should rather have imagined her speaking contemptuously."
"It would have been excusable," replied the other, with a laugh. "And very likely that would have been her tone had it concerned any one else. But she has a liking for Cecily. Go home, and get this foolish mistake remedied, there's a good boy."
Elgar left the house and walked eastward, into Praed Street. As he walked, he grew less and less inclined to go home at once. He could not resolve how to act. It would be a satisfaction to have done with discord, but he had no mind to submit to Cecily and entreat her to a peace.
He walked on, across Edgware Road, into Marylebone Road, absorbed in his thoughts. Their complexion became darker. He found a perverse satisfaction in picturing Cecily's unhappiness. Let her suffer a little; she was causing him uneasiness enough. The probability was that she derided his recent behaviour; it had doubtless sunk him still more in her estimation. The only way to recover his lost ground was to be as open with her as formerly, to confess all his weaknesses and foolish motives; but his will resisted. He felt coldly towards her; she was no longer the woman he loved and worshipped, but one who had asserted a superiority of mind and character, and belittled him to himself. He was tired of her society -- the simple formula which sufficiently explains so many domestic troubles.
He would have lunch somewhere in town; then see whether he felt disposed to go home or not.
In the afternoon he loitered about the Strand, looking at portraits in shop-windows and at the theatre-doors. Home was more, instead of less, repugnant to him. He wanted to postpone decision; but if he returned to Cecily, it would be necessary to say something, and in his present mood he would be sure to make matters worse, for he felt quarrelsome. How absurd it was for two people, just because they were married, to live perpetually within sight of each other! Wasn't it Godwin who, on marrying, made an arrangement that he and his wife should inhabit separate abodes, and be together only when they wished? The only rational plan, that. Should he take train and go out of town for a few days? If only he had some one for company; but it was wearisome to spend the time in solitude.
To aggravate his dulness, the sky had clouded over, and presently it began to rain. He had no umbrella. Quite unable to determine whither he should go if he took a cab, he turned aside to the shelter of an archway. Some one was already standing there, but in his abstraction he did not know whether it was man or woman, until a little cough, twice or thrice repeated, made him turn his eyes. Then he saw that his companion was a girl of about five-and-twenty, with a pretty, good-natured face, which wore an embarrassed smile. He gazed at her with a look of surprised recognition.
"Well, it really is you!" she exclaimed, laughing and looking down.
"And it is really you!"
They shook hands, again examining each other.
"I thought you didn't mean to know me."
"I hadn't once looked at you. But you have changed a good deal."
"Not more than you have, I'm sure."
"And what are you doing? You look much more cheerful than you used to."
"I can't say the same of you."
"Have you been in London all the time?"
"Oh no. Two years ago I went back to Liverpool, and had a place there for nearly six months. But I got tired of it. In a few days I'm going to Brighton; I've got a place in a restaurant. Quite time, too; I've had nothing for seven weeks."
"I've often thought about you," said Elgar, after a pause.
"But you never came to see how I was getting on."
"Oh, I supposed you were married long since."
She laughed, and shook her head.
"You are, though, I suppose?" she asked.
They talked with increasing friendliness until the rain stopped, then walked away together in the direction of the City.
About dinner-time, Cecily received a telegram. It was from her husband, and informed her that he had left town with a friend for a day or two.
This was the first instance of such a proceeding on Reuben's part. For a moment, it astonished her. Which of his friends could it be? But when the surprise had passed, she reflected more on his reasons for absenting himself, and believed that she understood them. He wished to punish her; he thought she would be anxious about him, and so come to adopt a different demeanour when he returned. Ever so slight a suspicion of another kind occurred to her once or twice, but she had no difficulty in dismissing it. No; this was merely one of his tactics in the conflict that had begun between them
And his absence was a relief. She too wanted to think for a while, undisturbed. When she had seen the child bed and asleep, she moved about the house with a strange sense of freedom, seeming to breathe more naturally than for several days. She went to the piano, and played some favourite pieces, among them one which she had learnt long ago in Paris. It gave her a curiously keen pleasure, like a revival of her girlhood; she lingered over it, and nursed the impression. Then she read a little -- not continuous[y, but dipping into familiar books. It was holiday with her. And when she lay down to rest, the sense of being alone was still grateful. Sleep came very soon, and she did not stir till morning.
On the third day Elgar returned, at noon. She heard the cab that brought him. He lingered in the hall, opened the library door; then came to the drawing-room, humming an air. His look was as different as could be from that she had last seen on his face; he came towards her with his pleasantest smile, and first kissed her hand, then embraced her in the old way.
"You haven't been anxious about me, Ciss?"
"Not at all," she replied quietly, rather permitting his caresses than encouraging them.
"Some one I hadn't met for several years. He was going down to Brighton, and persuaded me to accompany him. I didn't write because -- well, I thought it would be better if we kept quite apart for a day or two. Things were getting wrong, weren't they?"
"I'm afraid so. But how are they improved?"
"Why, I had a talk with your aunt about Mrs. Travis. I quite believe I was misled by that fellow that talked scandal. She seems very much to be pitied, and I'm really sorry that I caused you to break with her."
Cecily watched him as he spoke, and he avoided her eyes. He was holding her hands and fondling them; now he bent and put them to his lips. She said nothing.
"Suppose you write to her, Ciss, and say that I made a fool of myself. You're quite at liberty to do so. Tell her exactly how it was, and ask her to forgive us."
She did not answer immediately.
"Will you do that?"
"I feel ashamed to. I know very well how I should receive such a letter."
"Oh, you! But every one hasn't your superb arrogance!" He laughed. "And it's hard to imagine you in such a situation."
"I hope so."
"Aunt tells me that the poor woman has very few friends."
"It's very unlikely that she will ever make one of me. I don't see how it is possible, after this."
"But write the letter, just to make things simpler if you meet anywhere. As a piece of justice, too."
Not that day, but the following, Cecily decided herself to write. She could only frame her excuse in the way Reuben had suggested; necessarily the blame lay on him. The composition cost her a long time, though it was only two pages of note-paper; and when it was despatched, she could not think without hot cheeks of its recipient reading it She did not greatly care for Mrs. Travis's intimacy, but she did desire to remove from herself the imputation of censoriousness.
There came an answer in a day or two.
"I was surprised that you (or Mr. Elgar) should so readily believe ill of me, but I am accustomed to such judgments, and no longer resent them. A wife is always in the wrong; when a woman marries, she should prepare herself for this. Or rather, her friends should prepare her, as she has always been kept in celestial ignorance by their care. Pray let us forget what has happened. I won't renew my request to be allowed to visit you; if that is to be, it will somehow come to pass naturally, in the course of time. If we meet at Mrs. Lessingham's, please let us speak not a word of this affair. I hate scenes."
In a week's time, the Elgars' life had resumed the course it held before that interruption -- with the exception that Reuben, as often as it was possible, avoided accompanying his wife when she went from home. His own engagements multiplied, and twice before the end of July he spent Saturday and Sunday out of town. Cecily made no close inquiries concerning his employment of his time; on their meeting again, he always gave her an account of what he had been doing, and she readily accepted it. For she had now abandoned all hope of his doing serious work; she never spoke a word which hinted regret at his mode of life. They were on placid terms, and she had no such faith in anything better as would justify her in endangering the recovered calm.
It became necessary at length to discuss what they should do with themselves during the autumn. Mrs. Lessingham was going with friends to the Pyrenees. The Delphs would take a short holiday in Sussex; Irene could not spare much time from her work.
"I don't care to be away long myself," Reuben said, when Cecily mentioned this. "I feel as if I should be able to get on with my Puritanic pursuits again when we return."
Cecily looked at him, to see if he spoke in earnest. In spite of his jesting tone, he seemed to be serious, for he was pacing the floor, his head bent as if in meditation.
"Make your own plans," was her reply. "But we won't go into Cornwall, I think."
"No, not this year."
They spent a month at Eastbourne. Some agreeable people whom they were accustomed to meet at Mrs. Lessingham's had a house there, and supplied them with society. Towards the end of the month, Reuben grew restless and uncertain of temper; he wandered on the downs by himself, and when at home kept silence. The child, too, was constantly ailing, and its cry irritated him.
"The fact of the matter is," he exclaimed one evening, "I don't feel altogether well! I ought to have had more change than this. If I go back and settle to work, I shall break down."
"What kind of change do you wish for?" Cecily asked.
"I should have liked to take a ramble in Germany, or, Norway -- some new part. But nothing of that is possible. Clarence makes slaves of us."
"There's no reason why he should hinder you from going."
"Oh, I can't leave you alone," he returned impatiently.
"I think you might, for a few weeks -- if you feel it necessary. I don't think Clarence ought to leave the seaside till the middle of September. The Robinsons will be here still, you know."
He muttered and grumbled, but in the end proposed that he should go over by one of the Harwich boats, and take what course happened to attract him. Cecily assented, and in a few hours he was ready to bid her good-bye. She had said that it wasn't worth while going with him to the station, and when he gave her the kiss at starting she kept perfectly tranquil.
"You're not sorry to get rid of me," he said, with a forced laugh.
"I don't wish you to stay at the expense of your health."
"I hope Clarence mayn't damage yours. These sleepless nights are telling on you."
"Go. You'll miss the train."
He looked back from the door, but Cecily had turned away.
He was absent for more than six weeks, during which he wrote frequently from various out-of-the-way places on the Rhine. On returning, he found Cecily in London, very anxious about the child, and herself looking very ill. He, on the other hand, was robust and in excellent spirits; in a day or two he began to go regularly to the British Museum -- to say, at all events, that he went there. And so time passed to the year's end.
One night in January Reuben went to the theatre. He left Cecily sitting in the bedroom, by the fireside, with Clarence on her lap. For several weeks the child had been so ill that Cecily seldom quitted it.
Three hours later she was sitting in the same position, still bent forward, the child still on her lap. But no movement, no cry ever claimed her attention. Tears had stained her face, but they no longer fell. Holding a waxen little hand that would never again caress her, she gazed at the dying fire as though striving to read her destiny.
The English artist had finished his work, and the dirty little inn at Pæstum would to-day lose its solitary guest.
This morning he rose much later than usual, and strolled out idly into the spring sunshine, a rug thrown over his shoulder. Often plucking a flower or a leaf, and seeming to examine it with close thoughtfulness, he made a long circuit by the old walls; now and then he paused to take a view of the temples, always with eye of grave meditation. At one elevated point, he stood for several minutes looking along the road to Salerno.
March rains had brought the vegetation into luxurious life; fern, acanthus, brambles, and all the densely intermingled growths that cover the ground about the ruins, spread forth their innumerable tints of green. Between shore and mountains, the wide plain smiled in its desolation.
At length he went up into the Temple of Neptune, spread the rug on a spot where he had been accustomed, each day at noon, to eat his salame and drink his Calabrian wine, and seated himself against a column. Here he could enjoy a view from both ends of the ruin. In the one direction it was only a narrow strip of sea, with the barren coast below, and the cloudless sky above it; in the other, a purple valley, rising far away on the flank of the Apennines; both pictures set between Doric pillars. He lit a cigar, and with a smile of contented thought abandoned himself to the delicious warmth, the restful silence. Within reach of his hand was a fern that had shot up between the massive stones; be gently caressed its fronds, as though it were a sentient creature. Or his eyes dwelt upon the huge column just in front of him -- now scanning its superb proportions, now enjoying the hue of the sunny-golden travertine, now observing the myriad crevices of its time-eaten surface, the petrified forms of vegetable growth, the little pink snails that housed within its chinks.
It was not an artistic impulse only that had brought Mallard to Italy, after three years of work under northern skies. He wished to convince himself that his freedom was proof against memories revived on the very ground where he had suffered so intensely. He had put aside repeated invitations from the Spences, because of the doubt whether he could trust himself within sight of the Mediterranean. Liberty from oppressive thought he had long recovered; the old zeal for labour was so strong in him that he found it difficult to imagine the mood in which he had bidden good-bye to his life's purposes. But there was always the danger lest that witch of the south should again overcome his will and lull him into impotence of vain regret. For such a long time he had believed that Italy was for ever closed against him, that the old delights were henceforth converted into a pain which memory must avoid. At length he resolved to answer his friends' summons, and meet them on their return from Sicily. They had wished to have him with them in Greece, but always his departure was postponed; habits of solitude and characteristic diffidence kept him aloof as long as possible.
Evidently, his health was sound enough. He had loitered about the familiar places in Naples; he took the road by Pompeii to Sorrento, and over the hills to Amalfi; and at each step he could smile with contemptuous pity for the self which he had outlived. More than that. When he came hither three years ago, it was with the intention of doing certain definite work; this purpose he now at last fulfilled, thus completing his revenge upon the by-gone obstacles, and reinstating himself in his own good opinion, as a man who did that which he set himself to do. At Amalfi he had made a number of studies which would be useful; at Pæstum he had worked towards a picture, such a one as had from the first been in his mind. Yes, he was a sound man once more.
Tempestuous love is for boys, who have still to know themselves, and for poets, who can turn their suffering into song. But to him it meant only hindrance. Because he had been a prey to frantic desires, did he look upon earth's beauty with a clearer eye, or was his hand endowed with subtler craft? He saw no reason to suppose it. The misery of those first months of northern exile -- his battling with fierce winds on sea and moorland and mountain, his grim vigils under stormy stars -- had it given him new strength? Of body perhaps; otherwise, he might have spent the time with decidedly more of satisfaction and profit.
Let it be accepted as one of the unavoidable ills of humanity -- something that has to be gone through, like measles. But it had come disagreeably late. No doubt he had to thank the monastic habits of his life that it assailed him with such violence. That he had endured it, therein lay the happy assurance that it would not again trouble him.
If it be true that love ever has it in its power to make or mar a man, this love that he had experienced was assuredly not of such quality. From the first his reason had opposed it, and now that it was all over he tried to rejoice at the circumstances which had made his desire vain. Herein he went a little beyond sincerity; yet there were arguments which, at all events, fortified his wish to see that everything was well. It was not mere perversity that in the beginning had warned him against thinking of Cecily as a possible wife for him. Had she betrayed the least inclination to love him, such considerations would have gone to the winds; he would have called the gods to witness that the one perfect woman on the earth was his. But the fact of her passionate self-surrender to Reuben Elgar, did it not prove that the possibilities of her nature were quite other than those which could have assured his happiness? To be sure, so young a girl is liable to wretched errors -- but of that he would take no account; against that he resolutely closed his mind. From Edward Spence he heard that she was delighting herself and others in a London season. Precisely; this justified his forethought; for this she was adapted. But as his wife nothing of the kind would have been within her scope. He knew him self too well. His notion of married life was inconsistent with that kind of pleasure. As his wife, perhaps she would have had no desire save to fit herself to him. Possibly; but that again was a reflection not to be admitted. He had only to deal with facts. Sufficient that he could think of her without a pang, that he could even hope to meet her again before long. And, best of all, no ungenerous feeling ever tempted him to wish her anything but wholly happy.
Stretched lazily in the Temple of Neptune, he once or twice looked at his watch, as though the hour in some way concerned him. How it did was at length shown. He heard voices approaching, and had just time to rise to his feet before there appeared figures, rising between the columns of the entrance against the background of hills. He moved forward, a bright smile on his face. The arrivals were Edward Spence, with his wife and Mrs. Baske.
All undemonstrative people, they shook hands much as if they had parted only a week ago.
"Done your work?" asked Spence, laying his palm on one of the pillars, with affectionate greeting.
"All I can do here."
"Can we see it?" Eleanor inquired.
"I've packed it for travelling."
Mallard took the first opportunity of looking with scrutiny at Mrs. Baske. Alone of the three, she was changed noticeably. Her health had so much improved that, if anything, she looked younger; certainly her face had more distinct beauty. Reserve and conscious dignity were still its characteristics -- these were inseparable from the mould of feature; but her eyes no longer had the somewhat sullen gleam which had been wont to harm her aspect, and when she smiled it was without the hint of disdainful reticence. Yet the smile was not frequent; her lips had an habitual melancholy, and very often she knitted her brows in an expression of troubled thought. Whilst the others were talking with Mallard, she kept slightly in the rear, and seemed to be occupied in examining the different parts of the temple.
In attire she was transformed. No suggestion now of the lady from provincial England. She was very well, because most fittingly, dressed; neither too youthfully, nor with undue disregard of the fact that she was still young; a travelling-costume apt to the season and the country.
"They speak much of Signor Mal-lard at the osteria," said Spence. "Your departure afflicts them, naturally, no doubt. Do you know whether any other Englishman ever braved that accommodation?"
A country lad appeared, carrying a small hamper, wherein the party had brought their midday meal from Salerno.
"Why did you trouble?" said Mallard. "We have cheese and salame in abundance."
"So I supposed," Spence replied, drily. "I recall the quality of both. Also the vino di Calabria, which is villanously sweet. Show us what point of view you chose."
For an hour they walked and talked. Miriam alone was almost silent, but she paid constant attention to the ruins. Mallard heard her say something to Eleanor about the difference between the columns of the middle temple and those of the so-called Basilica; three years ago, such a remark would have been impossible on her lips, and when he glanced at her with curiosity, she seemed conscious of his look.
They at length opened the hamper, and seated themselves near the spot where Mallard had been reclining.
"There's a smack of profanity in this," said Spence. "The least we can do is to pour a libation to Poseidon, before we begin the meal."
And he did so, filling a tumbler with wine arid solemnly emptying half of it on to the floor of the cella. Mallard watched the effect on Mrs. Baske; she met his look for an instant and smiled, then relapsed into thoughtfulness.
The only other visitors to-day were a couple of Germans, who looked like artists and went about in enthusiastic talk; one kept dealing the other severe blows on the chest, which occasionally made the recipient stagger -- all in pure joy and friendship. They measured some of the columns, and in one place, for a special piece of observation, the smaller man mounted on his companion's shoulders. Miriam happened to see them whilst they were thus posed, and the spectacle struck her with such ludicrous effect that she turned away to disguise sudden laughter. In doing so, she by chance faced Mallard, and he too began to laugh. For the first time since they had been acquainted, they looked into each other's eyes with frank, hearty merriment. Miriam speedily controlled herself, and there came a flush to her cheeks.
"You may laugh," said Spence, observing them, "but when did you see two Englishmen abroad who did themselves so much honour?"
"True enough," replied Mallard. "One supposes that Englishmen with brains are occasionally to be found in Italy, but I don't know where they hide themselves."
"You will meet one in Rome in a few days," remarked Eleanor, "if you go on with us -- as I hope you intend to?"
"Yes, I shall go with you to Rome. Who is the man?"
"Mr. Seaborne -- your most reverent admirer."
"Ah, I should like to know the fellow."
Miriam looked at him and smiled.
"You know Mr. Seaborne?" he inquired of her, abruptly.
"He was with us a fortnight in Athens."
As they were idling about, after their lunch, Mallard kept near to Miriam, but without speaking. He saw her stoop to pick up a piece of stone; presently another. She glanced at him.
"Bits of Pæstum," he said, smiling; "perhaps of Poseidonia. Look at the field over there, where the oxen are; they have walled it in with fragments dug up out of the earth, -- the remnants of a city."
She just bent her head, in sign of sympathy. A minute or two after, she held out to him the two stones she had taken up.
"How cold one is, and how warm the other!"
One was marble, one travertine. Mallard held them for a moment, and smiled assent; then gave them back to her. She threw them away.
When it was time to think of departure, they went to the inn; Mallard's baggage was brought out and put into the carriage. They drove across the silent plain towards Salerno. In a pause of his conversation with Spence, Mallard drew Miriam's attention to the unfamiliar shape of Capri, as seen from this side of the Sorrento promontory. She looked, and murmured an affirmative.
"You have been to Amalfi?" he asked.
"Yes; we went last year."
"I hope you hadn't such a day as your brother and I spent there -- incessant pouring rain."
"No; we had perfect weather."
At Salerno they caught a train which enabled them to reach Naples late in the evening. Mallard accompanied his friends to their hotel, and dined with them. As he and Spence were smoking together afterwards, the latter communicated some news which he had reserved for privacy.
"By-the-bye, we hear that Cecily and her aunt are at Florence, and are coming to Rome next week."
"Elgar with them?" Mallard asked, with nothing more than friendly interest.
"No. They say he is so hard at work that he couldn't leave London."
"The same I told you of last year."
Mallard regarded him with curious inquiry.
"His wife travels for her health?"
"She seems to be all right again, but Mrs. Lessingham judged that a change was necessary. Won't you use the opportunity of meeting her?"
"As it comes naturally, there's no reason why I shouldn't. In fact, I shall be glad to see her. But I should have preferred to meet them both together. What faith do you put in this same work of Elgar's?"
"That he is working, I take it there can be no doubt, and I await the results with no little curiosity. Mrs. Lessingham writes vaguely, which, by-the-bye, is not her habit. Whether she is a believer or not, we can't determine."
"Did the child's death affect him much?"
"I know nothing about it."
They smoked in silence for a few minutes. Then Mallard observed, without taking the cigar from his lips:
"How much better Mrs. Baske looks!"
"Naturally the change is more noticeable to you than to us. It has come very slowly. I dare say you see other changes as well?"
Spence's eye twinkled as he spoke.
"I was prepared for them. That she should stay abroad with you all this time is in itself significant. Where does she propose to live when you are back in England?"
"Why, there hasn't been a word said on the subject. Eleanor is waiting; doesn't like to ask questions. We shall have our house in Chelsea again, and she is very welcome to share it with us if she likes. I think it is certain she won't go back to Lancashire; and the notion of her living with the Elgars is improbable."
"How far does the change go?" inquired Mallard, with hesitancy.
"I can't tell you, for we are neither of us in her confidence. But she is no longer a precisian. She has read a great deal; most of it reading of a very substantial kind. Not at all connected with religion; it would be a mistake to suppose that she has been going in for a course of modern criticism, and that kind of thing. The Greek and Latin authors she knows very fairly, in English or French translations. What would our friend Bradshaw say? She has grappled with whole libraries of solid historians. She knows the Italian poets Really, no common case of a woman educating herself at that age."
"Would you mind telling me what her age is?"
"Twenty-seven, last February. To-day she has been mute; generally, when we are in interesting places, she rather likes to show her knowledge -- of course we encourage her to do so. A blessed form of vanity, compared with certain things one remembers!"
"She looks as if she had by no means conquered peace of mind," observed Mallard, after another silence.
"I don't suppose she has. I don't even know whether she's on the way to it."
"How about the chapel at Bartles?"
Spence shook his head and laughed, and the dialogue came to an end.
The next morning all started for Rome.
Easter was just gone by. The Spences had timed their arrival in Rome so as to be able to spend a few days with certain friends, undisturbed by bell-clanging and the rush of trippers, before at length returning to England. Their hotel was in the Babuino. Mallard, who was uncertain about his movements during the next month or two, went to quarters with which he was familiar in the Via Bocca di Leone. He brought his Pæstum picture to the hotel, but declined to leave it there. Mallard was deficient in those properties of the showman which are so necessary to an artist if he would make his work widely known and sell it for substantial sums; he hated anything like private exhibition, and dreaded an offer to purchase from any one who had come in contact with him by way of friendly introduction.
"I'm not satisfied with it, now I come to look at it again. It's nothing but a rough sketch."
"But Seaborne will be here this afternoon," urged Spence. "He will be grateful if you let him see it."
"If he cares to come to my room, he shall."
Miriam made no remark on the picture, but kept looking at it as long as it was uncovered. The temples stood in the light of early morning, a wonderful, indescribable light, perfectly true and rendered with great skill.
"Is it likely to be soon sold?" she asked, when the artist had gone off with his canvas.
"As likely as not, he'll keep it by him for a year or two, till he hates it for a few faults that no one else can perceive or be taught to understand," was Mr. Spence's reply. "I wish I could somehow become possessed of it. But if I hinted such a wish, he would insist on my taking it as a present. An impracticable fellow, Mallard. He suspects I want to sell it for him; that's why he won't leave it. And if Seaborne goes to his room, ten to one he'll be received with growls of surly independence."
This Mr. Seaborne was a man of letters. Spence had made his acquaintance in Rome a year ago; they conversed casually in Piale's reading-room, and Seaborne happened to say that the one English landscape-painter who strongly interested him was a little-known man, Ross Mallard. His own work was mostly anonymous; he wrote for one of the quarterlies and one of the weekly reviews. He was a little younger than Mallard, whom in certain respects he resembled; he had much the same way of speaking, the same reticence with regard to his own doings, even a slight similarity of feature, and his life seemed to be rather a lonely one.
When the two met, they behaved precisely as Spence predicted they would -- with reserve, almost with coldness. For all that, Seaborne paid a visit to the artist's room, and in a couple of hours' talk they arrived at a fair degree of mutual understanding. The next day they smoked together in an odd abode occupied by the literary man near Porto di Ripetta, and thenceforth were good friends.
The morning after that, Mallard went early to the Vatican. He ascended the Scala Regia, and knocked at the little red door over which is written, "Cappella Sistina." On entering, he observed only a gentleman and a young girl, who stood in the middle of the floor, consulting their guide-book; but when be had taken a few steps forward, he saw a lady come from the far end and seat herself to look at the ceiling through an opera-glass. It was Mrs. Baske, and he approached whilst she was still intent on the frescoes. The pausing of his footstep close to her caused her to put down the glass and regard him. Mallard noticed the sudden change from cold remoteness of countenance to pleased recognition. The brightening in her eyes was only for a moment; then she smiled in her usual half-absent way, and received him formally.
"You are not alone?" he said, taking a place by her as she resumed her seat.
"Yes, I have come alone." And, after a pause, she added, "We don't think it necessary always to keep together. That would become burdensome. I often leave them, and go to places by myself."
Her look was still turned upwards. Mallard followed its direction.
"Which of the Sibyls is your favourite?" he asked.
At once she indicated the Delphic, but without speaking.
Both fixed their eyes upon the figure, and were silent.
"You have been here very often?" were Mallard's next words.
"Last year very often."
"From genuine love of it, or a sense of duty?" he asked, examining her face.
She considered before replying.
"Not only from a sense of duty, though of course I have felt that. I don't love anything of Michael Angelo's, but I am compelled to look and study. I came here this morning only to refresh my memory of one of those faces" -- she pointed to the lower part of the Last Judgment -- "and yet the face is dreadful to me."
She found that he was smiling, and abruptly she added the question:
"Do you love that picture?"
"Why, no; but I often delight in it. I wouldn't have it always before me (for that matter, no more would I have the things that I love). A great work of art may be painful at all times, and sometimes unendurable."
"I have learnt to understand that," she said, with something of humility, which came upon Mallard as new and agreeable. "But -- it is not long since that scene represented a reality to me. I think I shall never see it as you do."
Mallard wished to look at her, but did not.
"I have sometimes been repelled by a feeling of the same kind," he answered. "Not that I myself ever thought of it as a reality, but I have felt angry and miserable in remembering that a great part of the world does. You see the pretty girl there, with her father. I noticed her awed face as I passed, and heard a word or two of the man's, which told me that from them there was no question of art. Poor child! I should have liked to pat her hand, and tell her to be good and have no fear."
"Did Michael Angelo believe it?" Miriam asked diffidently, when she had glanced with anxious eyes at the pair of whom he spoke.
"I suppose so. And yet I am far from sure. What about Dante? Haven't you sometimes stumbled over his grave assurances that this and that did really befall him? Putting aside the feeble notion that he was a deluded visionary, how does one reconcile the artist's management of his poem with the Christian's stem faith? In any case, he was more poet than Christian when he wrote. Milton makes no such claims; he merely prays for the enlightenment of his imagination."
Miriam turned from the great fresco, and again gazed at the Sibyls and Prophets.
"Do the Stanze interest you?" was Mallard's next question.
"Very little, I am sorry to say. They soon weary me."
"And the Loggia?"
"I never paid much attention to it."
"That surprises me. Those little pictures are my favourites of all Raphael's work. For those and the Psyche, I would give everything else."
Miriam looked at him inquiringly.
"Are you again thinking of the subjects?" he asked.
"Yes. I can't help it. I have avoided them, because I knew how impossible it was for me to judge them only as art."
"Then you have the same difficulty with nearly all Italian pictures?"
She hesitated; but, without turning her eyes to him, said at length:
"I can't easily explain to you the distinction there is for me between the Old Testament and the New. I was taught almost exclusively out of the Old -- at least, it seems so to me. I have had to study the New for myself, and it helps rather than hinders my enjoyment of pictures taken from it. The religion of my childhood was one of bitterness and violence and arbitrary judgment and hatred."
"Ah, but there is quite another side to the Old Testament -- those parts of it, at all events, that are illustrated up in the Loggia. Will you come up there with me?"
She rose without speaking. They left the chapel, and ascended the stairs.
"You are not under the impression," he said, with a smile, as they walked side by side, "that the Old Testament is responsible for those horrors we have just been speaking of?"
"They are in that spirit. My reading of the New omits everything of the kind."
"So does mine. But we have no justification."
"We can select what is useful to us, and reject what does harm."
"Yes; but then ----"
He did not finish the sentence, and they went into the pictured Loggia. Here, choosing out his favourites, Mallard endeavoured to explain all his joy in them. He showed her how it was Hebrew history made into a series of exquisite and touching legends; he dwelt on the sweet, idyllic treatment, the lovely landscape, the tender idealism throughout, the perfect adaptedness of gem-like colouring.
Miriam endeavoured to see with his eyes, but did not pretend to be wholly successful. The very names were discordant to her ear.
"I will buy some photographs of them to take away," she said.
"Don't do that; they are useless. Colour and design are here inseparable."
They stayed not more than half an hour; then left the Vatican together, and walked to the front of St. Peter's in silence. Mallard looked at his watch.
"You are going back to the hotel?"
"I suppose so."
"Shall I call one of those carriages? -- I am going to have a walk on to the Janiculum."
She glanced at the sky.
"There will be a fine view to-day."
"You wouldn't care to come so far?"
"Yes, I should enjoy the walk."
"To walk? It would tire you too much."
"Oh no!" replied Miriam, looking away and smiling. "You mustn't think I am what I was that winter at Naples. I can walk a good many miles, and only feel better for it."
Her tone amused him, for it became something like that of a child in self-defence when accused of some childlike incapacity.
"Then let us go, by all means."
They turned into the Borgo San Spirito, and then went by the quiet Longara. Mallard soon found that it was necessary to moderate his swinging stride. He was not in the habit of walking with ladies, and he felt ashamed of himself when a glance told him that his companion was put to overmuch exertion. The glance led him to observe Miriam's gait; its grace and refinement gave him a sudden sensation of keen pleasure. He thought, without wishing to do so, of Cecily; her matchless, maidenly charm in movement was something of quite another kind. Mrs. Baske trod the common earth, yet with, it seemed to him, a dignity that distinguished her from ordinary women.
There had been silence for a long time. They were alike in the custom of forgetting what had last been said, or how long since.
"Do you care for sculpture?" Mallard asked, led to the inquiry by his thoughts of form and motion.
"Yes; but not so much as for painting."
He noticed a reluctance in her voice, and for a moment was quite unconscious of the reason for it. But reflection quickly explained her slight embarrassment.
"Edward makes it one of his chief studies," she added at once, looking straight before her. "He has told me what to read about it."
Mallard let the subject fall. But presently they passed a yoke of oxen drawing a cart, and, as he paused to look at them, he said:
"Don't you like to watch those animals? I can never be near them without stopping. Look at their grand heads, their horns, their majestic movement! They always remind me of the antique -- of splendid power fixed in marble, These are the kind of oxen that Homer saw, and Virgil."
Miriam gazed, but said nothing.
"Does your silence mean that you can't sympathize with me?"
"No. It means that you have given me a new way of looking at a thing; and I have to think."
She paused; then, with a curious inflection of her voice, as though she were not quite certain of the tone she wished to strike, whether playful or sarcastic:
"You wouldn't prefer me to make an exclamation?"
"Decidedly not. If you were accustomed to do so, I should not be expressing my serious thoughts."
The pleasant mood continued with him, and, a smile still on his face, he asked presently:
"Do you remember telling me that you thought I was wasting my life on futilities?"
Miriam flushed, and for an instant he thought he had offended her. But her reply corrected this impression.
"You admitted, I think, that there was much to be said for my view."
"Did I? Well, so there is. But the same conviction may be reached by very different paths. If we agreed in that one result, I fancy it was the sole and singular point of concord."
Miriam inquired diffidently:
"Do you still think of most things just as you did then?"
"Of most things, yes."
"You have found no firmer hope in which to work?"
"Hope? I am not sure that I understand you."
He looked her in the face, and she said hurriedly:
"Are you still as far as ever from satisfying yourself? Does your work bring you nothing but a comparative satisfaction?"
"I am conscious of having progressed an inch or two on the way of infinity," Mallard replied. "That brings me no nearer to an end."
"But you have a purpose; you follow it steadily. It is much to be able to say that."
"Do you mean it for consolation?"
"Not in any sense that you need resent," Miriam gave answer, a little coldly.
"I felt no resentment. But I should like to know what sanction of a life's effort you look for, now? We talked once, perhaps you remember, of one kind of work being 'higher' than another. How do you think now on that subject?"
She made delay before saying:
"It is long since I thought of it at all. I have been too busy learning the simplest things to trouble about the most difficult."
"To learn, then, has been your object all this time. Let me question you in turn. Do you find it all-sufficient?"
"No; because I have begun too late. I am doing now what I ought to have done when I was a girl, and I have always the feeling of being behindhand."
"But the object, in itself, quite apart from your progress? Is it enough to study a variety of things, and feel that you make some progress towards a possible ideal of education? Does this suffice to your life?"
She answered confusedly:
"I can't know yet; I can't see before me clearly enough."
Mallard was on the point of pressing the question, but he refrained, and shaped his thought in a different way.
"Do you think of remaining in England?"
"Probably I shall."
"You will return to your home in Lancashire?"
"I haven't yet determined," she replied formally.
The dialogue seemed to be at an end. Unobservant of each other, they reached the Via Crucis, which leads up to S. Pietro in Montorio. Arrived at the terrace, they stood to look down on Rome.
"After all, you are tired," said Mallard, when he had glanced at her.
"Indeed I am not."
"But you are hungry. We have been forgetting that it is luncheon-time."
"I pay little attention to such hours. One can always get something to eat."
"It's all very well for people like myself to talk in that way," said Mallard, with a smile, "but women have orderly habits of life."
"For which you a little despise them?" she returned, with grave face fixed on the landscape.
"Certainly not. It's only that I regard their life as wholly different from my own. Since I was a boy, I have known nothing of domestic regularity."
"You sometimes visit your relatives?"
"Yes. But their life cannot he mine. It is domestic in such a degree that it only serves to remind me how far apart I am."
"Do you hold that an artist cannot live like other people, in the habits of home?"
"I think such habits are a danger to him. He may find a home, if fate is exceptionally kind."
Pointing northwards to a ridged hill on the horizon, he asked in another voice if she knew its name.
"You mean Mount Soracte?"
"Yes. You don't know Latin, or it would make you quote Horace."
She shook her head, looked down, and spoke more humbly than he had ever yet heard her.
"But I know it in an English translation."
"Well, that's more than most women do."
He said it in a grudging way. The remark itself was scarcely civil, but he seemed all at once to have a pleasure in speaking roughly, in reminding her of her shortcomings. Miriam turned her eyes in another quarter, and presently pointed to the far blue hills just seen between the Alban and the Sabine ranges.
"Through there is the country of the Volsci," she said, in a subdued voice. "Some Roman must have stood here and looked towards it, in days when Rome was struggling for supremacy with them. Think of all that happened between that day and the time when Horace saw the snow on Soracte; and then, of all that has happened since."
He watched her face, and nodded several times. They pursued the subject, and reminded each other of what the scene suggested, point by point. Mallard felt surprise, though he showed none. Cecily, standing here, would have spoken with more enthusiasm, but it was doubtful whether she would have displayed Miriam's accuracy of knowledge.
"Well, let us go," he said at length. "You don't insist on walking home?"
"There is no need to, I think. I could quite well, if I wished."
"I am going to run through a few of the galleries for a morning or two. I wonder whether you would care to come with me to-morrow?"
"I will come with pleasure."
"That is how people speak when they don't like to refuse a troublesome invitation."
"Then what am I to say? I spoke the truth, in quite simple words."
"I suppose it was your tone; you seemed too polite."
"But what is your objection to politeness?" Miriam asked naively.
"Oh, I have none, when it is sincere. But as soon as I had asked you, I felt afraid that I was troublesome."
"If I had felt that, I should have expressed it unmistakably," she replied, in a voice which reminded him of the road from Baiæ to Naples.
"Thank you; that is what I should wish."
Having found a carriage for her, and made an appointment for the morning, he watched her drive away.
A few hours later, he encountered Spence in the Piazza Colonna, and they went together into a caffè. Spence had the news that Mrs. Lessingham and her niece would arrive on the third day from now. Their stay would be of a fortnight at longest.
"I met Mrs. Baske at the Vatican this morning," said Mallard presently, as he knocked the ash off his cigar. "We had some talk."
"On Vatican subjects?"
"Yes. I find her views of art somewhat changed. But sculpture still alarms her."
"Still? Do you suppose she will ever overcome that feeling? Are you wholly free from it yourself? Imagine yourself invited. to conduct a party of ladies through the marbles, and to direct their attention to the merits that strike you."
"No doubt I should invent an excuse. But it would be weakness."
"A weakness inseparable from our civilization. The nude in art. is an anachronism."
"Pooh! That is encouraging the vulgar prejudice."
"No; it is merely stating a vulgar fact. These collections of nude figures in marble have only an historical interest. They are kept out of the way, in places which no one is obliged to visit. Modern work of that kind is tolerated, nothing more. What on earth is the good of an artistic production of which people in general are afraid to speak freely? You take your stand before the Venus of the Capitol; you bid the attendant make it revolve slowly, and you begin a lecture to your wife, your sister, or your young cousin, on the glories of the masterpiece. You point out in detail how admirably Praxiteles has exhibited every beauty of the female frame. Other ladies are standing by you smile blandly, and include them in your audience."
Mallard interrupted with a laugh.
"Well, why not?" continued the other. "This isn't the gabinetto at Naples, surely?"
"But you are well aware that, practically, it comes to the same thing. How often is one half pained, half amused, at the behaviour of women in the Tribune at Florence! They are in a false position; it is absurd to ridicule them for what your own sensations justify. For my own part, I always leave my wife and Mrs. Baske to go about these galleries without my company. If I can't be honestly at my ease, I won't make pretence of being so."
"All this is true enough, but the prejudice is absurd. We ought to despise it and struggle against it."
"Despise it, many of us do, theoretically. But to make practical demonstrations against it, is to oppose, as I said, all the civilization of our world. Perhaps there will come a time once more when sculpture will be justified; at present the art doesn't and can't exist. Its relics belong to museums -- in the English sense of the word."
"You only mean by this," said Mallard, "that art isn't for the multitude. We know that well enough."
"But there's a special difficulty about this point. We come across it in literature as well. How is it that certain pages in literature, which all intellectual people agree in pro flouncing just as pure as they are great, could never be read aloud, say, in a family circle, without occasioning pain and dismay? No need to give illustrations; they occur to you in abundance. We skip them, or we read mutteringly, or we say frankly that this is not adapted for reading aloud. Yet no man would frown if he found his daughter bent over the book. There's something radically wrong here."
"This is the old question of our English Puritanism. In France, here in Italy, there is far less of such feeling."
"Far less; but why must there be any at all? And Puritanism isn't a sufficient explanation. The English Puritans of the really Puritan time had freedom of conversation which would horrify us of to-day. We become more and more prudish as what we call civilization advances. It is a hateful fact that, from the domestic point of view, there exists no difference between some of the noblest things in art and poetry, and the obscenities which are prosecuted; the one is as impossible of frank discussion as the other."
"The domestic point of view is contemptible. It means the bourgeois point of view, the Philistine point of view."
"Then I myself, if I had children, should be both bourgeois and Philistine. And so, I have a strong suspicion, would you too."
"Very well," replied Mallard, with some annoyance, "then it is one more reason why an artist should have nothing to do with domesticities. But look here, you are wrong as regards me. If ever I marry, amico mio, my wife shall learn to make more than a theoretical distinction between what is art and what is grossness. If ever I have children, they shall from the first he taught a natural morality, and not the conventional. If I can afford good casts of noble statues, they shall stand freely about my house. When I read aloud, by the fire side, there shall be no skipping or muttering or frank omissions; no, by Apollo! If a daughter of mine cannot describe to me the points of difference between the Venus of the Capitol and that of the Medici, she shall be bidden to use her eyes and her brains better. I'll have no contemptible prudery in my house!"
"Bravissimo!" cried Spenee, laughing. "I see that my cousin Miriam is not the only person who has progressed during these years. Do you remember a certain conversation of ours at Posillipo about the education of a certain young lady?"
"Yes, I do. But that was a different matter. The question was not of Greek statues and classical books, but of modern pruriencies and shallowness and irresponsibility."
"You exaggerated then, and you do so now," said Spence; "at present with less excuse."
Mallard kept silence for a space; then said:
"Let us speak of what we have been avoiding. How has that marriage turned out?"
"I have told you all I know. There's no reason to suppose that things are anything but well."
"I don't like her coming abroad alone; I have no faith in that plea of work. I suspect things are not well."
"A cynic -- which I am not -- would suggest that a wish had something to do with the thought."
"He would be cynically wrong," replied Mallard, with calmness.
"Why shouldn't she come abroad alone? There's nothing alarming in the fact that they no longer need to see each other every hour. And one takes for granted that they, at all events, are not bourgeois; their life won't be arranged exactly like that of Mr. and Mrs. Jones the greengrocers."
"No," said the other, musingly.
"In what direction do you imagine that Cecily will progress? Possibly she has become acquainted with disillusion."
"Well, take it for certain. Isn't that an inevitable step in her education? Things may still be well enough, philosophically speaking. She has her life to live -- we know it will be to the end a modern life. Servetur ad imum -- and so on; that's what one would wish, I suppose? We have no longer to take thought for her."
"But we are allowed to wish the best."
"What is the best?" said Spenee, sustaining his tone of impartial speculation. "Are you quite sure that Mr. and Mrs. Jones are not too much in your mind?"
"Whatever modern happiness may mean, I am inclined to think that modern unhappiness is not unlike that of old-fashioned people."
"My dear fellow, you are a halter between two opinions. You can't make up your mind in which direction to look. You are a sort of Janus, with anxiety on both faces."
"There's a good deal of truth in that," admitted the artist, with a growl.
"Get on with your painting, and whatever else of practical you have in mind. Leave philosophy to men of large leisure and placid pulses, like myself. Accept the inevitable."
"I do so."
"But not with modern detachment," said Spence, smiling.
"Be hanged with your modernity! I believe myself distinctly the more modern of the two."
"Not with regard to women. When you marry, you will be a rigid autocrat, and make no pretence about it. You don't think of women as independent beings, who must save or lose themselves on their own responsibility. You are not willing to trust them alone."
"Well, perhaps you are right."
"Of course I am. Come and dine at the hotel. I think Seaborne will be there."
"No, thank you."
Mallard had waited but a few minutes in the court of the Palazzo Borghese next morning, when Miriam joined him. There was some constraint on both sides. Miriam looked as if she did not wish yesterday's conversation to be revived in their manner of meeting. Her "Good-morning, Mr. Mallard," had as little reference as possible to the fact of this being an appointment. The artist was in quite another mood than that of yesterday; his smile was formal, and he seemed indisposed for conversation.
"I have the permesso," he said, leading at once to the door of the gallery.
They sauntered about the first room, exchanging a few idle remarks. In the second, a woman past the prime of life was copying a large picture. They looked at her work from a distance, and Miriam asked if it was well done.
"What do you think yourself?" asked Mallard.
"It seems to me skilful and accurate, but I know that perhaps it is neither one nor the other."
He pointed out several faults, which she at once recognized.
"I wonder I could not see them at first That confirms me in distrust of myself. I am as likely as not to admire a thing that is utterly worthless."
"As likely as not -- no; at least, I think not. But of course your eye is untrained, and you have no real knowledge to go upon. You can judge an original picture sentimentally, and your sentiment will not be wholly misleading. You can't judge a copy technically, but I think you have more than average observation. How would you like to spend your life like this copyist?"
"I would give my left hand to have her skill in my right."
"I should be able to do something -- something definite and tolerably good."
"Why, so you can already; one thing in particular."
"What is that?"
"Learn your own deficiencies; a thing that most people neither will nor can. Look at this Francia, and tell me your thoughts about it."
She examined the picture for a minute or two. Then, without moving her eyes, she murmured
"I can say nothing that is worth saying."
"Never mind. Say what you think, or what you feel."
"Why should you wish me to talk commonplace?"
"That is precisely what I don't wish you to talk. You know what is commonplace, and therefore you can avoid it. Never mind his school or his date. What did the man want to express here, and how far do you think he has succeeded? That's the main thing; I wish a few critics would understand it."
Miriam obeyed him, and said what she had to say diffidently, but in clear terms. Mallard was silent when she ceased, and she looked up at him. He rewarded her with a smile, and one or two nods -- as his manner was.
"I have not made myself ridiculous?"
"I think not."
They had walked on a little, when Mallard said to her unexpectedly:
"Please to bear in mind that I make no claim to infallibility. I am a painter of landscape; out of my own sphere, I become an amateur. You are not hound to accept my judgment."
"Of course not," she replied simply.
"It occurred to me that I had been rather dictatorial."
"So you have, Mr. Mallard," she returned, looking at a picture.
"I am sorry. It's the failing of men who have often to be combative, and who live much in solitude. I will try to use a less offensive tone."
"I didn't mean that your tone was in the least offensive."
"A more polite tone, then -- as you taught me yesterday."
"I had rather you spoke just as is natural to you."
"Politeness is not natural to me, I admit. I am horribly uncomfortable whenever I have to pick my words out of regard to polite people. That is why I shun what is called society. What little I have seen of it has been more than enough for me."
"I have seen still less of it; but I understand your dislike."
"Before you left home, didn't you associate a great deal with people?"
"People of a certain kind," she replied coldly. "It was not society as you mean it."
"You will be glad to mix more freely with the world, when you are back in England?"
"I can't tell. By whom is that Madonna?"
Thus they went slowly on, until they came to the little hall where the fountain plays, and whence is the outlook over the Tiber. It was delightful to sit here in the shadows, made cooler and fresher by that plashing water, and to see the glorious sunlight gleam upon the river's tawny flow.
"Each time that I have been in Rome," said Mallard, "I have felt, after the first few days, a peculiar mental calm. The other cities of Italy haven't the same effect on me. Perhaps every one experiences it, more or less. There comes back to me at moments the kind of happiness which I knew as a boy -- a freedom from the sense of duties and responsibilities, of work to be done, and of disagreeable things to be faced; the kind of contentment I used to have when I was reading lives of artists, or looking at prints of famous pictures, or myself trying to draw. It is possible that this mood is not such a strange one with many people as with me, when it comes, I feel grateful to the powers that rule life Since boyhood, I have never known it in the north. Out of Rome, perhaps only in fine weather on the Mediterranean. But in Rome is its perfection."
"I thought you preferred the north," said Miriam.
"Because I so often choose to work there? I can do better work when I take subjects in wild scenery and stern climates, but when my thoughts go out for pleasure, they choose Italy. I don't enjoy myself in the Hebrides or in Norway, but what powers I have are all brought out there. Hero I am not disposed to work. I want to live, and I feel that life can be a satisfaction in itself without labour. I am naturally the idlest of men. Work is always pain to me. I like to dream pictures; but it's terrible to drag myself before the blank canvas."
Miriam gazed at the Tiber.
"Do these palaces," he asked, "ever make you wish you owned them? Did you ever imagine yourself walking among the marbles and the pictures with the sense of this being your home?"
"I have wondered what that must be. But I never wished it had fallen to my lot."
"No? You are not ambitious?"
"Not in that way. To own a palace such as this would make one insignificant."
"That is admirably true! I should give it away, to recover self-respect. Shakespeare or Michael Angelo might live here and make it subordinate to him; I should be nothing but the owner of the palace. You like to feel your individuality?"
"Who does not?"
"In you, I think, it is strong."
Miriam smiled a little, as if she liked the compliment. Before either spoke again, other visitors came to look at the view, and disturbed them.
"I shan't ask you to come anywhere to-morrow," said Mallard, when they had again talked for awhile of pictures. "And the next day Mrs. Elgar will be here."
She looked at him.
"That wouldn't prevent me from going to a gallery -- if you thought of it."
"You will have much to talk of. And your stay in Rome won't be long after that."
Miriam made no reply.
"I wish your brother had been coming," he went on. "I should have liked to hear from him about the book he is writing."
"Shall you not he in London before long?" she asked, without show of much interest.
"I think so, but I have absolutely no plans. Probably it is raining hard in England, or even snowing. I must enjoy the sunshine a little longer. I hope your health won't suffer from the change of climate."
"I hope not," she answered mechanically.
"Perhaps you will find you can't live there?"
"What does it matter? I have no ties."
"No, you are independent; that is a great blessing."
Chatting as if of indifferent things, they left the gallery.
Rolled tightly together, and tied up with string, at the bottom of one of Miriam's trunks lay the plans of that new chapel for which Bartles still waited. Miriam did not like to come upon them, in packing or unpacking; she had covered them with things which probably would not be moved until she was again in England.
But the thought of them could not be so satisfactorily hidden. It lay in a corner of her mind, and many were the new acquisitions heaped upon it; but in spite of herself she frequently burrowed through all those accumulations of travel, and sought the thing beneath. Sometimes the impulse was so harassing, the process so distressful, that she might have been compared to a murderer who haunts the burial-place of his victim, and cannot restrain himself from disturbing the earth.
It was by no methodic inquiry, no deliberate reasoning, that Miriam had set aside her old convictions and ordered her intellectual life on the new scheme. Of those who are destined to pass beyond the bounds of dogma, very few indeed do so by the way of studious investigation. How many of those who abide by inherited faith owe their steadfastness to a convinced understanding? Convictions, in the proper sense of the word, Miriam had never possessed; she accepted what she was taught, without reflecting upon it, and pride subsequently made her stubborn in consistency. The same pride, aided by the ennui of mental faculties just becoming self-conscious, and the desires of a heart for the first time humanly touched, constrained her to turn abruptly from the ideal she had pursued, and with unforeseen energy begin to qualify herself for the assertion of new claims. No barriers of logic stood in her way; it was a simple matter of facing round about. True, she still had to endure the sense of having chosen the wide way instead of that strait one which is authoritatively prescribed. It was a long time before she made any endeavour to justify herself; but the wide way ran through a country that delighted her, and her progress was so notable that self-commendation and the respect of others made her careless of the occasional stings of conscience.
She was able now to review the process of change, and to compare the two ideals. Without the support of a single argument of logical value, she stamped all the beliefs of her childhood as superstition, and marvelled that they had so long held their power over her. Her childhood, indeed, seemed to her to have lasted until she came to Naples; with hot shame she reflected on her speech and behaviour at that time. What did the Spences think of her? How did they speak of her to their friends? What impression did she make upon Mallard? These memories were torture; they explained the mixture of humility and assumption which on certain days made her company disagreeable to Eleanor, and the dark moods which now and then held her in sullen solitude.
But the word "superstition" was no guarantee against the haunting of superstition itself. Miriam was far from being one of the emancipated, however arrogantly she would have met a doubt of her freedom. Just as little as ever had she genuine convictions, capable of supporting her in hours of weakness and unsatisfied longing. Several times of late she had all but brought herself to speak plainly with Eleanor, and ask on what foundation was built that calm life which seemed independent of supernatural belief; but shame always restrained her. It would be the same as confessing that she had not really the liberty to which she pretended. There was, however, an indirect way of approaching the subject, by which her dignity would possibly be rather enhanced than suffer; and this she at length took. After her return from the Palazzo Borghese, she was beset with a confusion of anxious thoughts. The need of confidential or semi-confidential speech with one of her own sex became irresistible. In the evening she found an opportunity of speaking privately with Eleanor.
"I want to ask your opinion about something. It's a question I am obliged to decide now I am going back to England."
Eleanor smiled inquiringly. She was not a little curious to have a glimpse into her cousin's mind just now.
"You remember," pursued Miriam, leaning forward on a table by which she sat, and playing with a twisted piece of paper, "that I once had the silly desire to build a chapel at Bartles."
She reddened in hearing the words upon her own lips -- so strange a sound they had after all this time.
"I remember you talked of doing so," replied Eleanor, with her usual quiet good-nature.
"Unfortunately, I did more than talk about it. I made a distinct promise to certain people gravely interested. The promise was registered in a Bartles newspaper. And you know that I went so far as to have my plans made."
"Do you feel bound by this promise, my dear?"
Miriam propped her cheek on one hand, and with the other kept rolling the piece of paper on the table.
"Yes," she answered, "I can't help thinking that I ought to keep my word. How does it strike you, Eleanor?"
"I am not quite clear how you regard the matter. Are you speaking of the promise only as a promise?"
It was no use. Miriam could not tell the truth; she could not confess her position. At once a smile trembled scornfully upon her lips.
"What else could I mean?"
"Then it seems to me that the obligation has passed away with the circumstances that occasioned it."
Miriam kept her eyes on the table, and for a few moments seemed to reflect.
"A promise is a promise, Eleanor."
"So it is. And a fact is a fact. I take it for granted that you are no longer the person who made the promise. I have a faint recollection that when I was about eight years old, I pledged myself, on reaching maturity, to give my nurse the exact half of my worldly possessions. I don't feel the least ashamed of having made such a promise, and just as little of not having kept it."
Miriam smiled, but still had an unconvinced face.
"I was not eight years old," she said, "but about four-and-twenty."
"Then let us put it in this way. Do you still feel a desire to benefit that religious community in Bartles? Would it distress you to think that they shook their heads in mentioning your name?"
"I do feel rather in that way," Miriam admitted slowly.
"But is this enough to justify you in giving them half or more of all you possess? You spoke of pulling down Redbeck House, and building on the site, didn't you?"
"In any case, should you ever live there again?"
"You prefer to be with us in London?"
"I think you have been troubled with me quite long enough. Perhaps I might take rooms."
"If you are as willing to share our house as we are to have you with us, there can be no need for you to live alone."
"I can't make up my mind about that, Eleanor. Let us talk only about the chapel just now. Are you sure that other people would see it as you do?"
"Other people of my way of thinking would no doubt think the same -- which is a pretty piece of tautology. Edward would be amazed to hear that you have such scruples. It isn't as if you had promised to support a family in dire need, or anything of that kind. The chapel is a superfluity."
"Not to them."
"They have one already."
"But very small and inconvenient."
"Suppose you ask Mr. Mallard for his thoughts on the subject?" said Eleanor, as if at the bidding of a caprice.
"Does Mr. Mallard know that I once had this purpose?"
"I think so," replied the other, with a little hesitation. "You know that there was no kind of reserve about it when you first came to Naples."
"No, of course not. Do you feel as sure of his opinion as of Edward's?"
"I can't say that I do. There's no foreseeing his judgment about anything. As you are such good friends, why not consult him?"
"Our friendship doesn't go so far as that."
"And after all, I don't see what use other people's opinions can be to you," said Eleanor, waiving the point. "It's a matter of sentiment. Strict obligation you see, of course, that there is none whatever. If it would please you to use a large sum of money in this way, you have a perfect right to do so. But, by-the-bye, oughtn't you to make the Bartles people clearly understand who it is that builds their chapel?"
"Surely there is no need of that?"
"I think so. The scruple, in my case, would be far more on this side than on the other."
Miriam did not care to pursue the conversation. The one result of it was that she had an added uncertainty. She had thought that her proposal to fulfil the promise would at least earn the respect which is due to stern conscientiousness; but Eleanor clearly regarded it as matter for the smile one bestows on good-natured folly. Her questions even showed that she was at first in doubt as to the motives which had revived this project -- a doubt galling to Miriam, because of its justification. She said, in going away:
"Please to consider that this was in confidence, Eleanor."
Confidence of a barren kind. It was the same now as it had ever been; she had no one with whom she could communicate her secrets, no friend in the nearer sense. On this loneliness she threw the blame of those faults which she painfully recognized in herself -- her frequent insincerity, her speeches and silences calculated for effect, her pride based on disingenuousness. If she could but have disclosed her heart in the humility of love and trust, how would its aching have been eased!
For a long time she had been absorbed, or nearly so, in studying and observing; but Mallard's inquiry whether she found this sufficient touched the source whence trouble was again arising for her. Three years ago it did not cost her much to subdue a desire which had hopelessness for its birthright; the revival of this desire now united itself with disquietudes of the maturing intellect, and she looked forward in dread to a continuation of her loneliness. Some change in her life there must be. Sudden hope had in a day or two brought to full growth the causes of unrest which would otherwise have developed slowly.
It seemed to be her fate to live in pretences. As the mistress of Redbeck House, and the light of dissenting piety in Bartles, she knew herself for less than she wished to appear to others; not a hypocrite, indeed, but a pretender to extraordinary zeal, and at the same time a flagrant instance of spiritual pride. Now she was guilty of like simulation directed to a contrary end. In truth neither bond nor free, she could not suffer herself to seem less liberal-minded than those with whom she associated. And yet her soul was weary of untruth. The one need of her life was to taste the happiness of submission to a stronger than herself. Religious devotion is the resource of women in general who suffer thus and are denied the natural solace; but for Miriam it was impossible. Her temperament was not devout, and, however persistent the visitings of uneasy conscience, she had no longer the power of making her old beliefs a reality. The abstract would not avail her; philosophic comforts had as little to say to her as the Churches' creeds. Only by a strong human band could she be raised from her unworthy position and led into the way of sincerity.
She had counted on having another morning with Mallard before Cecily's arrival. Disappointed in this hope, she invented a variety of tormenting reasons for Mallard's behaviour. As there was a chance of his calling at the hotel, she stayed in all day. But he did not come. The next afternoon Mrs. Lessingham and her companion reached Rome.
It was known that Cecily's health had suffered from her watchings by the sick child, and from her grief at its death; so no one was surprised at finding her rather thin-faced. She had a warm greeting for her friends, and seemed happy to be with them again; but the brightness of the first hour was not sustained. Conversation cost her a perceptible effort; she seldom talked freely of anything, and generally with an unnatural weighing of her words, an artificiality of thought and phrase, which was a great contrast to the spontaneousness of former times. When Eleanor wanted her to speak about herself, she preferred to tell of what she had lately read or heard or seen. That the simple grace of the girl should be modified in the wife and mother was of course to be expected, but Cecily looked older than she ought to have done, and occasionally bore herself with a little too much consciousness, as if she felt the observation even of intimate friends something of a restraint.
Miriam, when she had made inquiries about her brother's health, took little part in the general conversation, and it was not till late in the evening that she spoke with Cecily in private.
"May I come and sit with you for a few minutes?" Cecily asked, when Miriam was going to her bedroom.
They were far less at ease with each other than when their differences of opinion were a recognized obstacle to intimacy. Cecily was uncertain how far her sister-in-law had progressed from the old standpoint, and she saw in her even an increase of the wonted reticence. On her own side there was no longer a warm impulse of sisterly affection. But her first words, when they were alone together, sounded like an appeal for tender confidence.
"I do so wish you had seen my poor little boy!"
"I wish I had been nearer," Miriam answered kindly. "It is very sad that you have suffered such a loss."
Cecily spoke of the child, and with simple feeling, which made her more like herself than hitherto.
"When a little thing dies at that age," she said presently, "it is only the mother's grief. The father cannot have much interest in so young a child."
"But Reuben wrote very affectionately of Clarence in one letter I had from him."
"Yes, but it is natural that he shouldn't feel the loss as I do. A man has his business in life; a woman, if she needn't work for bread, has nothing to do but be glad or sorry for what happens in her home."
"I shouldn't have thought you took that view of a woman's life," said Miriam, after a silence, regarding the other with uncertain eyes.
"'Views' have become rather a weariness to me," answered Cecily, smiling sadly. "Sorrow is sorrow to me as much as to the woman who never questioned one of society's beliefs; it makes me despondent. No doubt I ought to find all sorts of superior consolations. But I don't and can't. A woman's natural lot is to care for her husband and bring up children. Do you believe, Miriam, that anything will ever take the place of these occupations?"
"I suppose not. But time will help you, and your interests will come back again."
"True. On the other hand, it is equally true that I am now seeing how little those interests really amount to. They are pastime, if you like, but nothing more. Some women do serious work, however; I wish I could be one of them. To them, perhaps, 'views' are something real and helpful. But never mind myself; you were glad to hear that Reuben is working on?"
Cecily waited a little; then, watching the other's face, asked:
"You know what he is writing?"
"In a general way," Miriam answered, averting her eyes. "Do you think he has made a wise choice?"
"I dare say it is the subject on which he will write best," Cecily answered, smiling.
"I doubt whether he understands it sufficiently," said Miriam, with balanced tone. "He has really nothing but prejudice to go upon. There will be a great deal of misrepresentation in his book -- if he ever finishes it."
"Yes, I am afraid that is true. But it may be useful, after all. Here and there he will hit the mark."
Cecily was tentative. She saw Miriam's brows work uneasily.
"Perhaps so," was the reply. "But I know quite well that such a book would have been no use to me when I stood in need of the kind of help you mean."
"To be sure; it is for people who have already helped themselves," said Cecily, in a jesting tone.
Miriam turned to another subject, and very soon said good night. Reflecting on the conversation, she was annoyed with herself for having been led by her familiar weakness to admit that she had changed her way of thinking. Certainly she had no intention of disguising the fact, but this explicit confession had seemed to make her Cecily's inferior; she was like a school-girl claiming recognition of progress.
The next morning Mallard called. He came into a room where Mrs. Lessingham, Eleanor, and Miriam were waiting for Cecily to join them, that all might go out together. Miriam had never seen him behave with such ease of manner. He was in good spirits, and talked with a facility most unusual in him. Mrs. Lessingham said she would go and see why Cecily delayed; Eleanor also made an excuse for leaving the room. But Miriam remained, standing by the window and looking into the street; Mallard stood near her, but did not speak. The silence lasted for a minute or two; then Cecily entered, and at once the artist greeted her with warm friendliness. Miriam had turned, but did not regard the pair directly; her eye caught their reflection in a mirror, and she watched them closely without seeming to do so. Cecily had made her appearance with a face of pleased anticipation; she looked for the first moment with much earnestness at her old friend, and when she spoke to him it was with the unmistakable accent of emotion. Mallard was gentle, reverent; he held her hand a little longer than was necessary, but his eyes quickly fell from her countenance.
"Your husband is well?" he asked in a full, steady voice.
They seated themselves, and Miriam again turned to the window. Cecily's voice made a jarring upon her ear; it was so much sweeter and more youthful, so much more like the voice of Cecily Doran, than when it addressed other people. Mallard, too, continued in a soft, pleasant tone, quite different from his usual speech; Miriam thrilled with irritation as she heard him.
"They have told me of the picture you painted at Pæstum. When may Mrs. Lessingham and I come and see it?"
"I haven't a place in which I could receive you. I'll bring the thing here, whenever you like."
Miriam moved. She wished to leave the room, but could not decide herself to do so. In the same moment Mallard glanced round at her. She interpreted his look as one of impatience, and at once said to Cecily:
"I think I'll change my mind, and write some letters this morning. Perhaps you could persuade Mr. Mallard to take my place for the drive."
"Oh!" exclaimed Cecily, with a laugh, "I'm quite sure Mr. Mallard has no desire to go to the English cemetery." She added in explanation, to Mallard himself, "My aunt has promised to visit a certain grave, and copy the inscription for a friend at Florence."
Whilst she was speaking, Mrs. Lessingham and Eleanor returned. Mallard, rising, looked at Miriam with a singular smile; then talked a little longer, and, with a promise to come again, soon took his leave.
"Don't disappoint us," said Cecily to Miriam, in the most natural tone.
"It was only that I felt we were making Mr. Mallard's visit very short," answered Miriam, constrained by shame.
"He detests ceremony. You couldn't please him better than by saying, 'Please don't hinder me now, but come when I'm at leisure.'"
It was peculiarly distasteful to Miriam to have information concerning the artist's character offered her by Cecily, in spite of the playful tone. During the drive, she persuaded herself that Cecily's improved spirits were entirely due to the conversation with Mallard, and this stirred fresh resentment in her. She had foreseen the effect upon her own feelings of the meeting which had just come about; it was extreme folly, but she could not control it.
The next day Mallard brought his picture again to the hotel, and spent nearly an hour with Mrs. Lessingham and Cecily in their sitting-room. Miriam heard of this on her return from a. solitary walk, and heard, moreover, that Mallard had been showing his friends a number of little drawings which he had never offered to let her or the Spences see. In the afternoon she again went out by herself, and, whilst looking into a shop-window in the Piazza di Spagna, became aware of Mallard's face reflected in the glass. She drew aside before looking round at him.
"That is a clever piece of work," he said, indicating a water-colour in the window, and speaking as if they had already been in conversation. He had not even made the hat-salute.
"I thought so," Miriam replied, very coldly, looking at something else.
"Are you going home, Mrs. Baske?"
"Yes. I only came out to buy something."
"I am just going to see the studio of an Italian to whom Mr. Seaborne introduced me yesterday. It's in the Quattro-Fontane. Would it interest you?"
"Thank you, Mr. Mallard; I had rather not go this afternoon."
He accepted the refusal with a courteous smile, raised his hat in approved manner, and turned to cross the Piazza as she went her way.
This evening they had a visit from Seaborne, who met Mrs. Lessingham and Cecily for the first time. These ladies were predisposed to like him, and before he left they did so genuinely. In his pleasantly quiet way, he showed much respectful admiration of Mrs. Elgar.
"Now, isn't there a resemblance to Mr. Mallard?" asked Eleanor, when the visitor was gone.
"Just -- just a little," admitted Cecily, with fastidiousness and an amused smile. "But Mr. Seaborne doesn't impress me as so original, so strong."
"Oh, that he certainly isn't," said Spence. "But acuter, and perhaps a finer feeling in several directions."
Miriam listened, and was tortured.
She had suffered all the evening from observing Cecily, whose powers of conversation and charms of manner made her bitterly envious. How far she herself was from this ideal of the instructed and socially trained woman! The presence of a stranger had banished Cecily's despondent mood, and put all her capacities in display. With a miserable sense of humiliation, Miriam compared her own insignificant utterances and that bright, often brilliant, talk which held the attention of every one. Beside Cecily, she was still indeed nothing but a school-girl, who with much labour was getting a smattering of common knowledge; for, though Cecily had no profound acquirements, the use she made of what she did know was always suggestive, intellectual, individual.
What wonder that Mallard brought out his drawings to show them to Cecily? There would be nothing commonplace in her remarks and admiration.
She felt herself a paltry pretender to those possibilities of modern womanhood which were open to Cecily from her birth. In the course of natural development, Cecily, whilst still a girl, threw for ever behind her all superstitions and harassing doubts; she was in the true sense "emancipated" -- a word Edward Spence was accustomed to use jestingly. And this was Mallard's conception of the admirable in woman.
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