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- The Emancipated - 40/91 -


all he had been taught to hold divine Mrs. Elgar's pallid, speechless horror; the severe chastisement inflicted on the lad by his father;--she could never look back on it all without sickness of heart. Thenceforth, her brother and his wild ways embodied for her that awful thing, infidelity. At the age which Cecily Doran had now attained, Miriam believed that there were only a few men living so unspeakably wicked as to repudiate Christianity; one or two of these, she had learnt from the pulpit, were "men of science," a term which to this day fell on her ears with sinister sound.

Thus prepared for the duties of wife, mother, and leader in society, she shone forth upon Bartles. Her husband, essentially a coarse man, did his utmost, though unconsciously, to stimulate her pride and supply her with incentives to unworthy ambition. He was rich, and boasted of it vulgarly; he was ignorant, and vaunted the fact, thanking Heaven that for him the purity of religious conviction had never been endangered by the learning that leads astray; be was proud of possessing a young and handsome wife, and for the first time evoked in her a personal vanity. Day by day was it--most needlessly--impressed upon Miriam that she must regard herself as the chief lady in Bartles, and omit no duty appertaining to such a position. She had an example to set; she was chosen as a support of religion.

Most happily, the man died. Had he remained her consort for ten years, the story of Miriam's life would have been one of those that will scarcely bear dwelling upon, too repulsive, too heart-breaking; a few words of bitterness, of ruth, and there were an end of it. His death was like the removal of a foul burden that polluted her and gradually dragged her down. Nor was it long before she herself understood it in this way, though dimly and uncertainly. She found herself looking on things with eyes which somehow had a changed power of vision. With remarkable abruptness, certain of her habits fell from her, and she remembered them only with distaste, even with disgust. And one day she said to herself passionately that never would she wed again--never, never! She was experiencing for the first time in her life a form of liberty.

Not that her faith had received any shock. To her undeveloped mind every tenet in which she had been instructed was still valid. This is the point to note. Her creed was a habit of the intellect; she held it as she did the knowledge of the motions of the earth. She had never reflected upon it, for in everything she heard or read this intellectual basis was presupposed. With doctrinal differences her reasoning faculty was familiar, and with her to think of religion was to think of the points at issue between one church and another--always, moreover, with pre-judgment in favour of her own.

But the external results of her liberty began to be of importance. She came into frequent connection with her cousin Eleanor; she saw more than hitherto of the Bradshaws' family life; she had business transactions; she read newspapers; she progressed slowly towards some practical acquaintance with the world.

Miriam knew the very moment when the thought of making great sacrifices to build a new chapel for Bartles had first entered her mind. One of her girl friends had just married, and was come to live in the neighbourhood. The husband, Welland by name, was wealthier and of more social importance than Mr. Baske had been; it soon became evident that Mrs. Welland, who also aspired to prominence in religious life, would be a formidable rival to the lady of Redbeck House. On the occasion of some local meeting, Miriam felt this danger keenly; she went home in dark mood, and the outcome of her brooding was the resolve in question.

She had not inherited all her husband's possessions; indeed, there fell to her something less than half his personal estate. For a time, this had not concerned her; now she was beginning to think of it occasionally with discontent, followed by reproach of conscience. Like reproach did she suffer for the jealousy and envy excited in her by Mrs. Welland's arrival. A general uneasiness of mind was gradually induced, and the chapel-building project, with singular confusion of motives, represented to her at once a worldly ambition and a discipline for the soul. It was a long time before she spoke of it, and in the interval she suffered more and more from a vague mental unrest.

Letters were coming to her from Cecily. Less by what they contained than by what they omitted, she knew that Cecily was undergoing a great change. Miriam put at length certain definite questions, and the answers she received were unsatisfactory, alarming. The correspondence became a distinct source of trouble. Not merely on Cecily's account; she was led by it to think of the world beyond her horizon, and to conceive dissatisfactions such as had never taken form to her.

Her physical health began to fall off; she had seasons of depression, during which there settled upon her superstitious fears. Ascetic impulses returned, and by yielding to them she established a new cause of bodily weakness. And the more she suffered, the more intolerable to her grew the thought of resigning her local importance. Her pride, whenever irritated, showed itself in ways which exposed her to the ridicule of envious acquaintances. At length Bartles was surprised with an announcement of what had so long been in her mind; a newspaper paragraph made known, as if with authority, the great and noble work Mrs. Baske was about to undertake. For a day or two Miriam enjoyed the excitement this produced--the inquiries, the felicitations, the reports of gossip. She held her head more firmly than ever; she seemed of a sudden to be quite re-established in health.

Another day or two, and she was lying seriously ill--so ill that her doctor summoned aid from Manchester.

What a distance between those memories, even the latest of them, and this room in Villa Sannazaro! Its foreign aspect, its brightness, its comfort, the view from the windows, had from the first worked upon her with subtle influences of which she was unconscious. By reason of her inexperience of life, it was impossible for Miriam to analyze her own being, and note intelligently the modifications it underwent. Introspection meant to her nothing but debates held with conscience--a technical conscience, made of religious precepts. Original reflection, independent of these precepts, was to her very simply a form of sin, a species of temptation for which she had been taught to prepare herself. With anxiety, she found herself slipping away from that firm ground whence she was won't to judge all within and about her; more and more difficult was it to keep in view that sole criterion in estimating the novel impressions she received. To review the criterion itself was still beyond her power. She suffered from the conviction that trials foreseen were proving too strong for her. Whenever her youth yielded to the allurement of natural joys, there followed misery of penitence. Not that Miriam did in truth deem it a sin to enjoy the sunshine and the breath of the sea and the beauty of mountains (though such delights might become excessive, like any other, and so veil temptation), but she felt that for one in her position of peril there could not be too strict a watch kept upon the pleasures that were admitted. Hence she could never forget herself in pleasure; her attitude must always be that of one on guard.

The name of Italy signified perilous enticement, and she was beginning to feel it. The people amid whom she lived were all but avowed scorners of her belief, and yet she was beginning to like their society. Every letter she wrote to Bartles seemed to her despatched on a longer journey than the one before; her paramount interests were fading, fading; she could not exert herself to think of a thousand matters which used to have the power to keep her active all day long. The chapel-plans were hidden away; she durst not go to the place where they would have met her eye.

She suffered in her pride. On landing at Naples, she had imagined that her position among the Spences and their friends would not be greatly different from that she had held at Bartles. They were not "religious" people; all the more must they respect her, feeling rebuked in her presence. The chapel project would enhance her importance. How far otherwise had it proved! They pitied her, compassionated her lack of knowledge, of opportunities. With the perception of this, there came upon her another disillusion In classing the Spences with people who were not "religious," she had understood them as lax in the observance of duties which at all events they recognized as such. By degrees she learnt that they were very far from holding the same views as herself concerning religious obligation; they were anything but conscience-smitten in the face of her example. Was it, then, possible that persons who lived in a seemly manner could be sceptics, perhaps "infidels"? What of Cecily Doran? She had not dared to ask Cecily face to face how far her disbelief went; the girl seemed to have no creed but that of worldly delight. How had she killed her conscience in so short a time? Obviously, her views were those of Mrs. Lessingham; probably those of Mr. Mallard. Were these people strange and dreadful exceptions, or did they represent a whole world of which she had not suspected the existence?

Yes, she was beginning to feel the allurement of Italy. Instead of sitting turned away from her windows when musing, she often passed an hour with her eyes on the picture they framed, content to be idle, satisfied with form and colour, not thinking at all. Habits of personal idleness crept upon her; she seldom cared to walk, but found pleasure in the motion of a carriage, and lay back on the cushions, instead of sitting quite upright as at first. She began to wish for music; the sound of Eleanor's piano would tempt her to make an excuse for going into the room, and then she would remain, listening. The abundant fruits of the season became a temptation to her palate; she liked to see shops and stalls overflowing with the vineyard's delicious growth.

She knew for the first time the seduction of books. From what unutterable weariness had she been saved when she assented to Eleanor's proposal and began to learn Italian! First there was the fear lest she should prove slow at acquiring, suffer yet another fall from her dignity; but this apprehension was soon removed. She had a brain, and could use it; Eleanor's praise fell upon her ears delightfully. Then there was that little volume of English verse which Eleanor left on the table; its name, "The Golden Treasury," made her imagine it of a religious tone; she was undeceived in glancing through it. Poetry had hitherto made no appeal to her; she did not care much for the little book. But one day Cecily caught it up in delight, and read to her for half an hour; she affected indifference, but had in reality learnt something, and thereafter read for herself.

The two large mirrors in her room had, oddly enough, no unimportant part among the agencies working for her development. It was almost inevitable that, in moving about, she should frequently regard her own figure. From being something of an annoyance, this necessity at length won attractiveness, till she gazed at herself far oftener than she need have done. As for her face she believed it pas sable, perhaps rather more than that; but the attire that had possessed distinction at Bartles looked very plain, to say the least, in the light of her new experience. One day she saw herself standing side


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