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- The Emancipated - 50/91 -
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. Amedee 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
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