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- The Emancipated - 4/91 -
back with calmness and justice on all the stages she had left behind. With her cousin Miriam she could sympathize in a way impossible to Spence, who, by-the-bye, somewhat misrepresented his wife in the account he gave to Mallard of their Sunday experiences. Puritanism was familiar to her by more than speculation; in the compassion with which she regarded Miriam there was no mixture of contempt, as in her husband's case. On the other hand, she did not pretend to read completely her con sin's heart and mind; she knew that there was no simple key to Miriam's character, and the quiet study of its phases from day to day deeply interested her.
Cecily Doran had been known to Spence from childhood; her father was his intimate friend. But Eleanor had only made the girl's acquaintance in London, just after her marriage, when Cecily was spending a season there with her aunt, Mrs. Lessingham. Mallard's ward was then little more than fifteen; after several years of weak health, she had entered upon a vigorous maidenhood, and gave such promise of free, joyous, aspiring life as could not but strongly affect the sympathies of a woman like Eleanor. Three years prior to that, at the time of her father's death, Cecily was living with Mrs. Elgar, a widow, and her daughter Miriam, the latter on the point of marrying (at eighteen) one Mr. Baske, a pietistic mill-owner, aged fifty. It then seemed very doubtful whether Cecily would live to mature years; she had been motherless from infancy, and the difficulty with those who brought her up was to repress an activity of mind which seemed to be one cause of her bodily feebleness. In those days there was a strong affection between her and Miriam Elgar, and it showed no sign of diminution in either when, on Mrs. Elgar's death, a year and a half after Miriam's marriage, Cecily passed into the care of her father's sister, a lady of moderate fortune, of parts and attainments, and with a great love of cosmopolitan life. A few months more and Mrs. Baske was to be a widow, childless, left in possession of some eight hundred a year, her house at Bartles, and a local importance to which she was not indifferent. With the exception of her brother, away in London, she had no near kin. It would now have been a great solace to her if Cecily Doran could have been her companion; but the young girl was in Paris, or Berlin, or St. Petersburg, and, as Miriam was soon to learn, the material distance between them meant little in comparison with the spiritual remoteness which resulted from Cecily's education under Mrs. Lessingham. They corresponded, however, and at first frequently; but letters grew shorter on both sides, and arrived less often. The two were now to meet for the first time since Cecily was a child of fourteen.
The ladies arrived at the villa about eleven o'clock. Miriam had shown herself indisposed to speak of them, both last evening, when Mallard was present, and again this morning when alone with her relatives; at breakfast she was even more taciturn than usual, and kept her room for an hour after the meal. Then, however, she came to sit with Eleanor, and remained when the visitors were announced.
Mrs. Lessingham did not answer to the common idea of a strong-minded woman. At forty-seven she preserved much natural grace of bearing, a good complexion, pleasantly mobile features. Her dress was in excellent taste, tending to elaboration, such as becomes a lady who makes some figure in the world of ease. Little wrinkles at the outer corners of her eyes assisted her look of placid thought fulness; when she spoke, these were wont to disappear, and the expression of her face became an animated intelligence, an eager curiosity, or a vivacious good-humour, Her lips gave a hint of sarcasm, but this was reserved for special occasions; as a rule her habit of speech was suave, much observant of amenities. One might have imagined that she had enjoyed a calm life, but this was far from being the case. The daughter of a country solicitor, she married early--for love, and the issue was disastrous. Above her right temple, just at the roots of the hair, a scar was discoverable; it was the memento of an occasion on which her husband aimed a blow at her with a mantelpiece ornament, and came within an ace of murder. Intimates of the household said that the provocation was great--that Mrs. Lessingham's gift of sarcasm had that morning displayed itself much too brilliantly. Still, the missile was an extreme retort, and on the whole it could not be wondered at that husband and wife resolved to live apart in future. Mr. Lessingham was, in fact, an aristocratic boor, and his wife never puzzled so much over any intellectual difficulty as she did over the question how, as a girl, she came to imagine herself enamoured of him. She was not, perhaps, singular in her concernment with such a personal problem.
"It is six years since I was in Italy," she said, when greetings were over, and she had seated herself. "Don't you envy me my companion, Mrs. Spence? If anything could revive one's first enjoyment, it would be the sight of Cecily's."
Cecily was sitting by Miriam, whose hand she had only just relinquished. Her anxious and affectionate inquiries moved Miriam to a smile which seemed rather of indulgence than warm kindness.
"How little we thought where our next meeting would be!" Cecily was saying, when the eyes of the others turned upon her at her aunt's remark.
Noble beauty can scarcely be dissociated from harmony of utterance; voice and visage are the correspondent means whereby spirit addresses itself to the ear and eye. One who had heard Cecily Doran speaking where he could not see her, must have turned in that direction, have listened eagerly for the sounds to repeat themselves, and then have moved forward to discover the speaker. The divinest singer may leave one unaffected by the tone of her speech. Cecily could not sing, but her voice declared her of those who think in song, whose minds are modulated to the poetry, not to the prose, of life.
Her enunciation had the peculiar finish which is acquired in intercourse with the best cosmopolitan society, the best in a worthy sense. Four years ago, when she left Lancashire, she had a touch of provincial accent,--Miriam, though she spoke well, was not wholly free from it,--but now it was impossible to discover by listening to her from what part of England she came. Mrs. Lessingham, whose admirable tact and adaptability rendered her unimpeachable in such details, had devoted herself with artistic zeal to her niece's training for the world; the pupil's natural aptitude ensured perfection in the result. Cecily's manner accorded with her utterance; it had every charm derivable from youth, yet nothing of immaturity. She was as completely at her ease as Mrs. Lessingham, and as much more graceful in her self-control as the advantages of nature made inevitable.
Miriam looked very cold, very severe, very English, by the side of this brilliant girl. The thinness and pallor of her features became more noticeable; the provincial faults of her dress were painfully obvious. Cecily was not robust, but her form lacked no development appropriate to her years, and its beauty was displayed by Parisian handiwork. In this respect, too, she had changed remarkably since Miriam last saw her, when she was such a frail child. Her hair of dark gold showed itself beneath a hat which Eleanor Spence kept regarding with frank admiration, so novel it was in style, and so perfectly suitable to its wearer. Her gloves, her shoes, were no less perfect; from head to foot nothing was to be found that did not become her, that was not faultless in its kind.
At the same time, nothing that suggested idle expense or vanity. To dwell at all upon the subject would be a disproportion, but for the note of contrast that was struck. In an assembly of well-dressed people, no one would have remarked Cecily's attire, unless to praise its quiet distinction. In the Spences' sitting-room it became another matter; it gave emphasis to differences of character; it distinguished the atmosphere of Cecily's life from that breathed by her old friends.
"We are going to read together Goethe's 'Italienische Reise,'" continued Mrs. Lessingham. "It was of quite infinite value to me when I first was here. In each town I _tuned_ my thoughts by it, to use a phrase which sounds like affectation, but has a very real significance."
"It was much the same with me," observed Spence.
"Yes, but you had the inestimable advantage of knowing the classics. And Cecily, I am thankful to say, at least has something of Latin; an ode of Horace, which I look at with fretfulness, yields her its meaning. Last night, when I was tired and willing to be flattered, she tried to make me believe it was not yet too late to learn."
"Surely not," said Eleanor, gracefully.
"But Goethe--you remember he says that the desire to see Italy had become an illness with him. I know so well what that means. Cecily will never know; the happiness has come before longing for it had ceased to be a pleasure."
It was not so much affection as pride that her voice expressed when she referred to her niece; the same in her look, which was less tender than gratified and admiring. Cecily smiled in return, but was not wholly attentive; her eyes constantly turned to Miriam, endeavouring, though vainly, to exchange a glance.
Mrs. Lessingham was well aware of the difficulty of addressing to Mrs. Baske any remark on natural topics which could engage her sympathy, yet to ignore her presence was impossible.
"Do you think of seeing Rome and the northern cities when your health is established?" she inquired, in a voice which skilfully avoided any presumption of the reply. "Or shall you return by sea?"
"I am not a very good sailor," answered Miriam, with sufficient suavity, "and I shall probably go back by land. But I don't think I shall stop anywhere."
"It will be wiser, no doubt," said Mrs. Lessingham, "to leave the rest of Italy for another visit. To see Naples first, and then go north, is very much like taking dessert before one's substantial dinner. I'm a little sorry that Cecily begins here; but it was better to come and enjoy Naples with her friends this winter. I hope we shall spend most of our time in Italy for a year or two."
Conversation took its natural course, and presently turned to the subject--inexhaustible at Naples--of the relative advantages of this and that situation for an abode. Mrs. Lessingham, turning to the window, expressed her admiration of the view it afforded.
"I think it is still better from Mrs. Baske's sitting-room," said Eleanor, who had been watching Cecily, and thought that she might be glad of an opportunity of private talk with Miriam. And Cecily at once availed herself of the suggestion.
"Would you let me see it, Miriam?" she asked. "If it is not troublesome--"
Miriam rose, and they went out together. In silence they passed
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