Born in Exile, by George Gissing

Part VI

Chapter I

For several days after the scene in which Mr. Malkin unconsciously played an important part, Marcella seemed to be ill. She appeared at meals, but neither ate nor conversed. Christian had never known her so sullen and nervously irritable; he did not venture to utter Peak’s name. Upon seclusion followed restless activity. Marcella was rarely at home between breakfast and dinner-time, and her brother learnt with satisfaction that she went much among her acquaintances. Late one evening, when he had just returned from he knew not where, Christian tried to put an end to the unnatural constraint between them. After talking cheerfully for a few minutes, he risked the question:

‘Have you seen anything of the Warricombes?’

She replied with a cold negative.

‘Nor heard anything?’

‘No. Have you?’

‘Nothing at all. I have seen Earwaker. Malkin had told him about what happened here the other day.’

‘Of course.’

‘But he had no news. — Of Peak, I mean.’

Marcella smiled, as if the situation amused her; but she would not discuss it. Christian began to hope that she was training herself to a wholesome indifference.

A month of the new year went by, and Peak seemed to be forgotten. Marcella had returned to her studious habits, was fenced around with books, seldom left the house. Another month and the brother and sister were living very much in the old way, seeing few people, conversing only of intellectual things. But Christian concealed an expectation which enabled him to pass hours of retirement in the completest idleness. Since the death of her husband, Mrs. Palmer had been living abroad. Before the end of March, as he had been careful to discover, she would be back in London, at the house in Sussex Square. By that time he might venture, without indelicacy, to call upon her. And after the first interview ——

The day came, when, ill with agitation, he set forth to pay this call. For two or three nights he had scarcely closed his eyes; he looked ghastly. The weather was execrable, and on that very account he made choice of this afternoon, hoping that he might find his widowed Laura alone. Between ringing the bell and the opening of the door, he could hardly support himself. He asked for Mrs. Palmer in a gasping voice which caused the servant to look at him with surprise.

The lady was at home. At the drawing-room door, before his name could be announced, he caught the unwelcome sound of voices in lively conversation. It seemed to him that a score of persons were assembled. In reality there were six, three of them callers.

Mrs. Palmer met him with the friendliest welcome. A stranger would have thought her pretty, but by no means impressive. She was short, anything but meagre, fair-haired, brisk of movement, idly vivacious in look and tone. The mourning she wore imposed no restraint upon her humour, which at present was not far from gay.

‘Is it really Mr. Moxey?’ she exclaimed. ‘Why, I had all but forgotten you, and positively it is your own fault! It must be a year or more since you came to see me. No? Eight months? — But I have been through so much trouble, you know.’ She sighed mechanically. ‘I thought of you one day at Bordighera, when we were looking at some funny little sea-creatures — the kind of thing you used to know all about. How is your sister?’

A chill struck upon his heart. Assuredly he had no wish to find Constance sunk in the semblance of dolour; such hypocrisy would have pained him. But her sprightliness was a shock. Though months had passed since Mr. Palmer’s decease, a decent gravity would more have become her condition. He could reply only in broken phrases, and it was a relief to him when the widow, as if tiring of his awkwardness, turned her attention elsewhere.

He was at length able to survey the company. Two ladies in mourning he faintly recognised, the one a sister of Mr. Palmer’s, comely but of dull aspect; the other a niece, whose laugh was too frequent even had it been more musical, and who talked of athletic sports with a young man evidently better fitted to excel in that kind of thing than in any pursuit demanding intelligence. This gentleman Christian had never met. The two other callers, a grey-headed, military-looking person, and a lady, possibly his wife, were equally strangers to him.

The drawing-room was much changed in appearance since Christian’s last visit. There was more display, a richer profusion of ornaments not in the best taste. The old pictures had given place to showily-framed daubs of the most popular school. On a little table at his elbow, he remarked the photograph of a jockey who was just then engrossing public affection. What did all this mean? Formerly, he had attributed every graceful feature of the room to Constance’s choice. He had imagined that to her Mr. Palmer was indebted for guidance on points of aesthetic propriety. Could it be that ——?

He caught a glance which she cast in his direction, and instantly forgot the troublesome problem. How dull of him to misunderstand her! Her sportiveness had a double significance. It was the expression of a hope which would not be subdued, and at the same time a means of disguising the tender interest with which she regarded him. If she had been blithe before his appearance, how could she suddenly change her demeanour as soon as he entered? It would have challenged suspicion and remark. For the same reason she affected to have all but forgotten him. Of course! how could he have failed to see that? ‘I thought of you one day at Bordighera’— was not that the best possible way of making known to him that he had never been out of her mind?

Sweet, noble, long-suffering Constance!

He took a place by her sister, and began to talk of he knew not what, for all his attention was given to the sound of Constance’s voice.

‘Yes,’ she was saying to the man of military appearance, ‘it’s very early to come back to London, but I did get so tired of those foreign places.’

(In other words, of being far from her Christian — thus he interpreted.)

‘No, we didn’t make a single pleasant acquaintance. A shockingly tiresome lot of people wherever we went.’

(In comparison with the faithful lover, who waited, waited.)

‘Foreigners are so stupid — don’t you think so? Why should they always expect you to speak their language? — Oh, of course I speak French; but it is such a disagreeable language — don’t you think so?’

(Compared with the accents of English devotion, of course.)

‘Do you go in for cycling, Mr. Moxey?’ inquired Mrs. Palmer’s laughing niece, from a little distance.

‘For cycling?’ With a great effort he recovered himself and grasped the meaning of the words. ‘No, I— I’m sorry to say I don’t. Capital exercise!’

‘Mr. Dwight has just been telling me such an awfully good story about a friend of his. Do tell it again, Mr. Dwight! It’ll make you laugh no end, Mr. Moxey.’

The young man appealed to was ready enough to repeat his anecdote, which had to do with a bold cyclist, who, after dining more than well, rode his machine down a steep hill and escaped destruction only by miracle. Christian laughed desperately, and declared that he had never heard anything so good.

But the tension of his nerves was unendurable. Five minutes more of anguish, and he sprang up like an automaton.

‘Must you really go, Mr. Moxey?’ said Constance, with a manner which of course was intended to veil her emotion. ‘Please don’t be another year before you let us see you again.’

Blessings on her tender heart! What more could she have said, in the presence of all those people? He walked all the way to Notting Hill through a pelting rain, his passion aglow.

Impossible to be silent longer concerning the brilliant future. Arrived at home, he flung off hat and coat, and went straight to the drawing-room, hoping to find Marcella alone. To his annoyance, a stranger was sitting there in conversation, a very simply dressed lady, who, as he entered, looked at him with a grave smile and stood up. He thought he had never seen her before.

Marcella wore a singular expression; there was a moment of silence, for Christian decidedly embarrassing, since it seemed to be expected that he should greet the stranger.

‘Don’t you remember Janet?’ said his sister.

‘Janet?’ He felt his face flush. ‘You don’t mean to say —? But how you have altered! And yet, no; really, you haven’t. It’s only my stupidity.’ He grasped her hand, and with a feeling of genuine pleasure, despite awkward reminiscences.

‘One does alter in eleven years,’ said Janet Moxey, in a very pleasant, natural voice — a voice of habitual self-command, conveying the idea of a highly cultivated mind, and many other agreeable things.

‘Eleven years? Yes, yes! How very glad I am to see you! And I’m sure Marcella was. How very kind of you to call on us!’

Janet was as far as ever from looking handsome or pretty, but it must have been a dullard who proclaimed her face unpleasing. She had eyes of remarkable intelligence, something like Marcella’s but milder, more benevolent. Her lips were softly firm; they would not readily part in laughter; their frequent smile meant more than that of the woman who sets herself to be engaging.

‘I am on my way home,’ she said, ‘from a holiday in the South — an enforced holiday, I’m sorry to say.’

‘You have been ill?’

‘Overworked a little. I am practising medicine in Kingsmill.’

Christian did not disguise his astonishment.

‘Medicine?’

‘You don’t remember that I always had scientific tastes?’

If it was a reproach, none could have been more gently administered.

‘Of course — of course I do! Your botany, your skeletons of birds and cats and mice — of course! But where did you study?’

‘In London. The Women’s Medical School. I have been in practice for nearly four years.’

‘And have overworked yourself. — But why are we standing? Let us sit down and talk. How is your father?’

Marcella was watching her brother closely, and with a curious smile.

Janet remained for another hour. No reference was made to the long rupture of intercourse between her family and these relatives. Christian learnt that his uncle was still hale, and that Janet’s four sisters all lived, obviously unmarried. To-day he was disposed to be almost affectionate with anyone who showed him a friendly face: he expressed grief that his cousin must leave for Twybridge early in the morning.

‘Whenever you pass through the Midlands,’ was Janet’s indirect reply, addressed to Marcella, ‘try to stop at Kingsmill.’

And a few minutes after that she took her leave. There lingered behind her that peculiar fragrance of modern womanhood, refreshing, inspiriting, which is so entirely different from the merely feminine perfume, however exquisite.

‘What a surprising visit!’ was Christian’s exclamation, when he and his sister were alone. ‘How did she find us?’

‘Directory, I suppose.’

‘A lady doctor!’ he mused.

‘And a very capable one, I fancy,’ said Marcella. ‘We had nearly an hour’s talk before you came. But she won’t be able to stand the work. There’ll be another breakdown before long.’

‘Has she a large practice, then?’

‘Not very large, perhaps; but she studies as well. I never dreamt of Janet becoming so interesting a person.’

Christian had to postpone till after dinner the talk he purposed about Mrs. Palmer. When that time came, he was no longer disposed for sentimental confessions; it would be better to wait until he could announce a settled project of marriage. Through the evening, his sister recurred to the subject of Janet with curious frequency, and on the following day her interest had suffered no diminution. Christian had always taken for granted that she understood the grounds of the breach between him and his uncle; without ever unbosoming himself, he had occasionally, in his softer moments, alluded to the awkward subject in language which he thought easy enough to interpret. Now at length, in reply to some remark of Marcella’s, he said with significant accent:

‘Janet was very friendly to me.’

‘She has studied science for ten years,’ was his sister’s comment.

‘Yes, and can forgive a boy’s absurdities.’

‘Easier to forgive, certainly, than those of a man,’ said Marcella, with a curl of the lip.

Christian became silent, and went thoughtfully away.

A week later, he was again in Mrs. Palmer’s drawing-room, where again he met an assemblage of people such as seemed to profane this sanctuary. To be sure — he said to himself — Constance could not at once get rid of the acquaintances forced upon her by her husband; little by little she would free herself. It was a pity that her sister and her niece — persons anything but intelligent and refined — should be permanent members of her household; for their sake, no doubt, she felt constrained to welcome men and women for whose society she herself had little taste. But when the year of her widowhood was past —— Petrarch’s Laura was the mother of eleven children; Constance had had only three, and one of these was dead. The remaining two, Christian now learnt, lived with a governess in a little house at Bournemouth, which Mrs. Palmer had taken for that purpose.

‘I’m going down to see them tomorrow,’ she informed Christian, ‘and I shall stay there over the next day. It’s so quiet and restful.’

These words kept repeating themselves to Christian’s ear, as he went home, and all through the evening. Were they not an invitation? Down there at Bournemouth, Constance would be alone the day after tomorrow. ‘It is so quiet and restful;’ that was to say, no idle callers would break upon her retirement; she would be able to welcome a friend, and talk reposefully with him. Surely she must have meant that; for she spoke with a peculiar intonation — a look ——

By the second morning he had worked himself up to a persuasion that yonder by the seaside Constance was expecting him. To miss the opportunity would be to prove himself dull of apprehension, a laggard in love. With trembling hands, he hurried through his toilet and made haste downstairs to examine a railway time-table. He found it was possible to reach Bournemouth by about two o’clock, a very convenient hour; it would allow him to take refreshment, and walk to the house shortly after three.

His conviction strong as ever, he came to the journey’s end, and in due course discovered the pleasant little house of which Constance had spoken. At the door, his heart failed him; but retreat could not now be thought of. Yes, Mrs. Palmer was at home. The servant led him into a sitting-room on the ground floor, took his name, and left him.

It was nearly ten minutes before Constance appeared. On her face he read a frank surprise.

‘I happened to — to be down here; couldn’t resist the temptation’——

‘Delighted to see you, Mr. Moxey. But how did you know I was here?’

He gazed at her.

‘You — don’t you remember? The day before yesterday — in Sussex Square — you mentioned’——

‘Oh, did I?’ She laughed. ‘I had quite forgotten.’

Christian sank upon his chair. He tried to convince himself that she was playing a part; perhaps she thought that she had been premature in revealing her wish to talk with him.

Mrs. Palmer was good-natured. This call evidently puzzled her, but she did not stint her hospitality. When Christian asked after the children, they were summoned; two little girls daintily dressed, pretty, affectionate with their mother. The sight of them tortured Christian, and he sighed deeply with relief when they left the room. Constance appeared rather absent; her quick glance at him signified something, but he could not determine what. In agony of constraint, he rose as if to go.

‘Oh, you will have a cup of tea with me,’ said Mrs. Palmer. ‘It will be brought in a few minutes.’

Then she really wished him to stop. Was he not behaving like an obtuse creature? Why, everything was planned to encourage him.

He talked recklessly of this and that, and got round to the years long gone by. When the tea came, he was reviving memories of occasions on which he and she had met as young people. Constance laughed merrily, declared she could hardly remember.

‘Oh, what a time ago! — But I was quite a child.’

‘No — indeed, no! You were a young lady, and a brilliant one.’

The tea seemed to intoxicate him. He noticed again that Constance glanced at him significantly. How good of her to allow him this delicious afternoon!

‘Mr. Moxey,’ she said, after meditating a little, ‘why haven’t you married? I should have thought you would have married long ago.’

He was stricken dumb. Her jerky laugh came as a shock upon his hearing.

‘Married ——?’

‘What is there astonishing in the idea?’

‘But — I— how can I answer you?’

The pretty, characterless face betrayed some unusual feeling. She looked at him furtively; seemed to suppress a tendency to laugh.

‘I mustn’t pry into secrets,’ she simpered.

‘But there is no secret!’ Christian panted, laying down his teacup for fear he should drop it. ‘Whom should I— could I have married?’

Constance also put aside her cup. She was bewildered, and just a little abashed. With courage which came he knew not whence, Christian bent forward and continued speaking:

‘Whom could I marry after that day when I met you in the little drawing-room at the Robinsons’?’

She stared in genuine astonishment, then was embarrassed.

‘You cannot — cannot have forgotten ——?’

‘You surely don’t mean to say, Mr. Moxey, that you have remembered? Oh, I’m afraid I was a shocking flirt in those days!’

‘But I mean after your marriage — when I found you in tears’——

‘Please, please don’t remind me!’ she exclaimed, giggling nervously. ‘Oh how silly! — of me, I mean. To think that — but you are making fun of me, Mr. Moxey?’

Christian rose and went to the window. He was not only shaken by his tender emotions — something very like repugnance had begun to affect him. If Constance were feigning, it was in very bad taste; if she spoke with sincerity — what a woman had he worshipped! It did not occur to him to lay the fault upon his own absurd romanticism. After eleven years’ persistence in one point of view, he could not suddenly see the affair with the eyes of common sense.

He turned and approached her again.

‘Do you not know, then,’ he asked, with quiet dignity, ‘that ever since the day I speak of, I have devoted my life to the love I then felt? All these years, have you not understood me?’

Mrs. Palmer was quite unable to grasp ideas such as these. Neither her reading nor her experience prepared her to understand what Christian meant. Courtship of a married woman was intelligible enough to her; but a love that feared to soil itself, a devotion from afar, encouraged by only the faintest hope of reward other than the most insubstantial — of that she had as little conception as any woman among the wealthy vulgar.

‘Do you really mean, Mr. Moxey, that you — have kept unmarried for my sake?’

‘You don’t know that?’ he asked, hoarsely.

‘How could I? How was I to imagine such a thing? Really, was it proper? How could you expect me, Mr. Moxey ——?’

For a moment she looked offended. But her real feelings were astonishment and amusement, not unmingled with an idle gratification.

‘I must ask you to pardon me,’ said Christian, whose forehead gleamed with moisture.

‘No, don’t say that. I am really so sorry! What an odd mistake!’

‘And I have hoped in vain — since you were free ——?’

‘Oh, you mustn’t say such things! I shall never dream of marrying again — never!’

There was a matter-of-fact vigour in the assertion which proved that Mrs. Palmer spoke her genuine thought. The tone could not be interpreted as devotion to her husband’s memory; it meant, plainly and simply, that she had had enough of marriage, and delighted in her freedom.

Christian could not say another word. Disillusion was complete. The voice, the face, were those of as unspiritual a woman as he could easily have met with, and his life’s story was that of a fool.

He took his hat, held out his hand, with ‘Good-bye, Mrs. Palmer.’ The cold politeness left her no choice but again to look offended, and with merely a motion of the head she replied, ‘Good-bye, Mr. Moxey.’

And therewith permitted him to leave the house.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 21:57