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- The Emancipated - 90/91 -
"Pooh!--How long to dinner, Miriam?"
Miriam went to see her sister-in-law, and repeated the visit at intervals during the next few months; but Cecily would not come to Roehampton. Neither would she accept the invitations of the Spences, though Eleanor was with her frequently, and became her nearest friend. She seemed quite content with the society of Irene and Mrs. Delph; her health visibly improved, and as spring drew near there was a brightening in her face that told of thoughts in sympathy with the new-born hope of earth.
The Mallards were seldom in town. Excepting the house at Chelsea, their visits were only to two or three painters, who lived much as Mallard had done before his marriage. In these studios Miriam at first inspired a little awe; but as her understanding of the art-world increased, she adapted herself to its habits in so far as she could respect them, and where she could not, the restraint of her presence was recognized as an influence towards better things.
At the Spences', one day in April, they met Seaborne. They had heard of his being in London again (after a year mostly spent in Paris), but had not as yet seen him. He was invited to visit them, and promised to do so before long. A month or more passed, however, and the promise remained unfulfilled. At Chelsea the same report was made of him; he seemed to be living in seclusion.
In mid-May, as Miriam was walking by herself at a little distance from home, she was overtaken by a man who had followed her over the heath. When the step paused at her side, she turned and saw Reuben.
"Will you speak to me?" he said.
"Why not, Reuben?"
She gave him her hand.
"That is kinder than I hoped to find you. But I see how changed you are. You are so happy that you can afford to be indulgent to a poor devil."
"Why have you made yourself a poor devil!"
"Why, why, why! Pooh! Why is anything as it is? Why are you what you are, after being what you were?"
It pained her to look at him. At length she discerned unmistakably the fatal stamp of degradation. When he came to her two years ago, his face was yet unbranded; now the darkening spirit declared itself. Even his clothing told the same tale, in spite of its being such as he had always worn.
"Where are you living?" she asked.
"Anywhere; nowhere. I have no home."
"Why don't you make one for yourself?"
"It's all very well for you to talk like that. Every one doesn't get a home so easily.--Does old Mallard make you a good husband?"
"Need you ask that?" Miriam returned, averting her eyes, and walking slowly on.
"You have to thank me for it, Miriam, in part."
She looked at him in surprise.
"It's true. It was I who first led him to think about you, and interested him in you. We were going from Pompeii to Sorrento--how many years ago? thirty, forty?--and I talked about you a great deal. I told him that I felt convinced you could be saved, if only some strong man would take you by the hand. It led him to think about you; I am sure of it."
Miriam had no reply to make. They walked on.
"I didn't come to the house," he resumed presently, "because I thought it possible that the door might be shut in my face. Mallard would have wished to do so."
"He wouldn't have welcomed you; but you were free to come in if you wished."
"Have you thought it likely I might come some day?"
"I expected, sooner or later, to hear from you."
He had a cane, and kept slashing with it at the green growths by his feet. When he missed his aim at any particular object, he stopped and struck again, more fiercely.
"Does Cecily come to see you?" was his next question, uttered as if unconcernedly.
"But you know about her? You know where she is?"
"Tell me what you know, Miriam. How is she living?"
"I had much rather not speak of her. I don't feel that I have any right to."
"Why not?" he asked quickly, standing still. "What is there to hide? Why had you rather not speak?"
"For reasons that you understand well enough. What is it to you how she lives?"
He searched her face, like one suspecting a studied ambiguity. His eyes, which were a little bloodshot, grew larger and more turbid; a repulsive animalism came out in all his features.
"Do tell me what you know, Miriam," he pleaded. "Of course it's nothing to me; I know that. I have no wish to interfere with her; I promise you to do nothing of the kind; I promise solemnly!"
"You promise?" she exclaimed, not harshly, but with stern significance. "How can you use such words? Under what circumstances could I put faith in a promise of yours, Reuben?"
He struck violently at the trunk of a tree, and his cane broke; then he flung it away, still more passionately.
"You're right enough. What do I care? I lie more often than I tell the truth. I have a sort of pride in it. If a man is to be a liar, let him be a thorough one.--Do you know why I smashed the stick? I had a devilish temptation to strike you across the face with it. That would have been nice, wouldn't it?"
"You had better go your own way, Reuben, and let me go mine."
She drew apart, and not without actual fear of him, so brutal he looked, and so strangely coarse had his utterance become.
"You needn't be afraid. If I _had_ hit you, I'd have gone away and killed myself; so perhaps it's a pity I didn't. I felt a savage hatred of you, and just because I wanted you to take my hand and be gentle with me. I suppose you can't understand that? You haven't gone deep enough into life."
His voice choked, and Miriam saw tears start from his eyes.
"I hope I never may," she answered gently. "Have done with all that, and talk to me like yourself, Reuben."
"Talk! I've had enough of talking. I want to rest somewhere, and be quiet."
"Then come home with me."
"Dare you take me?"
"There's no question of daring. Come with me, if you wish to."
They walked to the house almost in silence. It was noon; Mallard was busy in his studio. Having spoken a word with him, Miriam rejoined her brother in the sitting-room. He had thrown himself on a couch, and there he lay without speaking until luncheon-time, when Mallard's entrance aroused him. The artist could not be cordial, but he exercised a decent hospitality.
In the afternoon, brother and sister again sat for a long time without conversing. When Reuben began to speak, it was in a voice softened by the influences of the last few hours.
"Miriam, there's one thing you will tell me; you won't refuse to. Is she still living alone?"
"Then there is still hope for me. I must go back to her, Miriam. No--listen to me! That is my one and only hope. If I lose that, I lose everything. Down and down, lower and lower into bestial life-- that's my fate, unless she saves me from it. Won't you help me? Go and speak to her for me, dear sister, you can't refuse me that. Tell her how helpless I am, and implore her to save me, only out of pity. I don't care how mean it makes me in your eyes or hers; I have no self-respect left, nor courage--nothing but a desire to go back to her and ask her to forgive me."
Miriam could scarcely speak for shame and distress.
"It is impossible, Reuben. Be man enough to face what you have brought on yourself. Have you no understanding left? With her, there is no hope for you. She and you are no mates; you can only wreck each other's lives. Surely, surely you know this by now! She could only confirm your ruin, strive with you as she might; you would fall again into hateful falsity. Forget her, begin a life without thought of her, and you may still save yourself--yourself; no one else can save you. Begin the struggle alone, manlike. You have no choice but to do so."
"I tell you I can't live without her. Where is she? I will go myself--"
"You will never know from me. What right have you to ask her to sink with you? That's what it means. There are people who think that a
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