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- The Emancipated - 60/91 -
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 Paestum 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 Paestum 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--
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