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- The Emancipated - 80/91 -
On arriving, she asked for Mrs. Denyer, but that lady was from home. Miss Zillah, then. She was led into the front room on the ground floor, and waited there for several minutes.
At length Zillah came in hurriedly, excusing herself for being so long. This youngest of the Denyers was now a tall awkward, plain girl, with a fixed expression of trouble; in talking, she writhed her fingers together and gave other signs of nervousness; she spoke in quick, short sentences, often breaking off in embarrassment. During the years of her absence from home as a teacher, Zillah had undergone a spiritual change; relieved from the necessity of sustaining the Denyer tone, she had by degrees ceased to practise affectation with herself, and one by one the characteristics of an "emancipated" person had fallen from her. Living with a perfectly conventional family, she adopted not only the forms of their faith--in which she had, of course, no choice--but at length the habit of their minds; with a profound sense of solace, she avowed her self-deceptions, and became what nature willed her to be--a daughter of the Church. The calamities that had befallen her family had all worked in this direction with her, and now that her daily life was in a sick-chamber, she put forth all her best qualities, finding in accepted creeds that kind of support which only the very few among women can sincerely dispense with.
"She has been very, very ill the last few days," was her reply to Cecily's inquiry. "I don't venture to leave her for more than a few minutes."
"Mrs. Denyer is away!"
"Yes; she is staying at Sir Roland's, in Lincolnshire. Barbara and her husband are there, and they sent her an invitation."
"But haven't you a nurse?"
"I'm afraid I shall be obliged to find one."
"Can I help you to-night? Do let me. I have only been home two days, and came in reply to your letter as soon as I could."
They went up to Zillah's room, and Cecily threw aside her out-of-door clothing. Then they silently entered the sick-chamber.
Madeline was greatly changed in the short time since Cecily had seen her. Ceaseless pain had worn away the last traces of her girlish beauty; the drawn features, the deadened eyes, offered hope that an end must come before long. She gave a look of recognition as the visitor approached her, but did not attempt to speak.
"Are you easier again, dear?" Zillah asked, bending over her.
"Mrs. Elgar would like to stay with you a little. She won't ask you to talk."
"Very well. Go and rest while she stays."
"Yes, go and lie down," urged Cecily. "Please do! I will call you at once if it is necessary."
Zillah was persuaded, and Cecily took her seat alone by the bedside. She had lost all thought of herself. The tremor which possessed her when she entered was subsiding; the unutterable mournfulness of this little room made everything external to it seem of small account. She knew not whether it was better to speak or remain mute, and when silence had lasted for a few minutes, she could not trust her voice to break it. But at length the motionless girl addressed her.
"Have you enjoyed yourself in Italy?"
"Not much. I have not been very well," Cecily answered, leaning forward.
"Did you go to Naples?"
"Only as fat as Rome."
"How can any one be in Italy, and not go to Naples?" said Madeline, in a low tone of wonder.
Silence came again. Cecily listened to the sound of breathing. Madeline coughed, and seemed to make a fruit less effort to speak; then she commanded her voice.
"I took a dislike to you at Naples," she said, with the simple directness of one who no longer understands why every thought should not be expressed. "It began when you showed that you didn't care for Mr. Marsh's drawings. It is strange to think of that now. You know I was engaged to Mr. Marsh?"
"He used to write me letters; I mean, since _this_. But it is a long time since the last came. No doubt he is married now. It would have been better if he had told me, and not just ceased to write. I want Zillah to write to him for me; but she doesn't like to."
"Why do you think he is married?" Cecily asked.
"Isn't it natural? I'm not so foolish as to wish to prevent him. It's nothing to me now. I should even be glad to hear of it. He ought to marry some good-natured, ordinary kind of girl, who has money. Of course you were right about his drawings; he was no artist, really. But I had a liking for him."
Cecily wondered whether it would be wise or unwise to tell what she knew. The balance seemed in favour of holding her peace. In a few minutes, Madeline moaned a little.
"You are in pain?"
"That's nothing; pain, pain--I find it hard to understand that life is anything but pain. I can't live much longer, that's the one comfort. Death doesn't mean pain, but the end of it. Yesterday I felt myself sinking, sinking, and I said, 'Now this is the end,' and I could have cried with joy. But Zillah gave me something, and I came back. That's cruelty, you know. They ought to help us to die instead of keeping us alive in pain. If doctors had any sense they would help us to die; there are so many simple ways. You see the little bottle with the blue label; look round; the little bottle with the measure near it. If only it had been left within my reach! They call it poison when you take too much of it; but poison means sleep and rest and the end of pain."
Cecily listened as though some one spoke from beyond the grave; that strange voice made all the world unreal.
"Do you believe in a life after this?" asked Madeline, with earnestness.
"I know nothing," was the answer.
"Neither do I. It matters nothing to me. All I have to do is to die, and then whatever comes will come. Poor Zillah does her best to persuade me that she _does_ know. I shall try to seem as if I believed her. Why should I give her pain? What does it matter if she is wrong? She is a kind sister to me, and I shall pretend that I believe her. Perhaps she is right? She may be, mayn't she?"
"She may be."
"It's good of you to come and sit here while she rests. She hasn't gone to bed for two nights. She's the only one of us that cares for me. Barbara has got her husband; well, I'm glad of that. And there's no knowing; she might live to be Lady Musselwhite. Sir Roland hasn't any children. Doesn't it make you laugh?"
She herself tried to laugh--a ghostly sound. It seemed to exhaust her. For half an hour no word was spoken. Then Cecily, who had fallen into brooding, heard herself called by a strange name.
She rose and bent over the bed, startled by this summons from the dead past.
"Can I do anything for you, Madeline?"
The heavy eyes looked at her in a perplexed way. They seemed to be just awaking, and Madeline smiled faintly.
"Didn't I call you, Miss Doran? I was thinking about you, and got confused. But you are married, of course. What is your name now? I can't remember."
"How silly of me! Mrs. Elgar, of course. Are you happily married?"
"Why do you ask?"
For the first time, she remembered the possibility that the Denyers knew of her disgrace. But Madeline's reply seemed to prove that she, at all events, had no such thing in mind.
"I was only trying to remember whom you married. Yes, yes; you told us about it before. Or else. Mrs. Travis told me."
"What did she say?"
"Only that you had married for love, as every woman ought to. But _she_ is very unhappy. Perhaps that would have been my own lot if I had lived. I dare say I should have been married long ago. What does it matter? But as long as one is born at all, one might as well live life through, see the best as well as the worst of it. It's been all worst with me.--Oh, that's coming again! That wishing and rebelling and despairing! I thought it was all over. You stand there and look at me; that is you and this is I, this, this! I am lying here waiting for death and burial. You have the husband you love, and long years of happy life before you.--Do you feel sorry for me? Suppose it was you who lay here?"
The same question she had put to Mrs. Travis, but now spoken in a more anguished voice. The tear's streamed from Cecily's eyes.
"You cry, like Zillah does when she tries to persuade me. I don't know whether I had rather be pitied, or lie quite alone. But don't cry. You shan't go away and be made miserable by thinking of me. I can bear it all well enough; there can't be much more of it, you
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