George Moore.

Muslin online

. (page 22 of 23)
Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 22 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


no matter who the man may be, but with one who is not a gentleman - '

'But, mother, Dr. Reed seems to me to be in every way a gentleman. Who
is there more gentlemanly in the country? I am sure that from every
point of view he is preferable to Mr. Adair or Sir Charles, or Sir
Richard or Mr. Ryan, or his cousin, Mr. Lynch.'

'My darling child, I would sooner see you laid in your coffin than
married to either Mr. Ryan or Mr. Lynch; but that is not the question.
It is, whether you had not better wait for a few years before you throw
yourself away on such a man as Dr. Reed. I know that you have been
greatly tried; nothing is so trying to a girl as to come out with her
sister who is the belle of the season, and I must say you have shown a
great deal of pluck; and perhaps I haven't been considerate enough. But
I, too, have had my disappointments - Olive's affairs did not, as you
know, turn out as well as I had expected, and to see you now marry one
who is so much beneath us!'

'Mother, dear, he is not beneath us. There is no one who has earned his
career but Dr. Reed; he owes nothing to anyone; he has done it all by
his own exertions; and now he has bought a London practice.'

'Then you do not love him; it is only for the sake of settling yourself
in life that you are marrying him?'

'I respect Dr. Reed more than any man living; I bear for him a most
sincere affection, and I hope to make him a good wife.'

'You don't love him as you did Mr. Harding? If you will only wait you
may get him. The tenants are paying their rents very well, and I am
thinking of going to London in the spring.'

The girl winced at the mention of Harding, but she looked into her
mother's soft appealing brown eyes; and, reading clearer than she had
ever read before all the adorable falseness that lay therein, she
answered:

'I do not want to marry Mr. Harding; I am engaged to Dr. Reed, and I do
not intend to give him up.'

This answer was given so firmly that Mrs. Barton lost her temper for a
moment, and she said:

'And do you really know what this Dr. Reed originally was? Lord Dungory
is dining here to-night; he knows all about Dr. Reed's antecedents, and
I am sure he will be horrified when he hears that you are thinking of
marrying him.'

'I cannot recognize Lord Dungory's right to advise me on any course I
may choose to take, and I hope he will have the good taste to refrain
from speaking to me of my marriage.'

'What do you mean? How dare you speak to me like that, you impertinent
girl!'

'I am not impertinent, mother, and I hope I shall never be impertinent
to you; but I am now in my twenty-fifth year, and if I am ever to judge
for myself, I must do so now.'

Alice was curiously surprised by her own words; it seemed to her that it
was some strange woman, and not herself - not the old self with whom she
was intimately acquainted - who was speaking. Life is full of these
epoch-marking moments. We have all at some given time experienced the
sensation of finding ourselves either stronger or weaker than we had
ever before known ourselves to be; Alice now for the first time felt
that she was speaking and acting in her own individual right; and the
knowledge as it thrilled through her consciousness was almost a physical
pleasure. But notwithstanding the certitude that never left her of the
propriety of her conduct, and the equally ever-present sentiment of the
happiness that awaited her, she suffered much during the next ten days,
and she was frequently in tears. Cecilia had started for St. Leonards
without coming to wish her good-bye, and the cruel sneers, insinuations
of all kinds against her and against Dr. Reed, which Mrs. Barton never
missed an occasion of using, wounded the girl so deeply, that it was
only at the rarest intervals that she left her room - when she walked to
the post with a letter, when the luncheon or dinner bell rang. Why she
should be thus persecuted, Alice was unable to determine; and why her
family did not hail with delight this chance of getting rid of a plain
girl, whose prospects were limited, was difficult to say; nor could the
girl arrive at any notion of the pleasure or profit it might be to
anyone that she should waste her life amid chaperons and gossip, instead
of taking her part in the world's work. And yet this seemed to be her
mother's idea. She did not hesitate to threaten that she would neither
attend herself, nor allow Mr. Barton to attend the ceremony. Alice might
meet Dr. Reed at the corner of the road, and be married as best she
could. Alice appealed to her father against this decision, but she soon
had to renounce the hope of obtaining any definite answer. He had been
previously told that if he attempted any interference, his supply of
paints, brushes, canvases, and guitar-strings would be cut off, and, as
he was at present deeply engaged on a new picture of _Julius Cæsar
overturning the Altars of the Druids_, he hesitated before the
alternatives offered to him. He spoke with much affection; he regretted
that Alice could not see her way to marrying somebody whom her mother
could approve! He explained the difficulties of his position, and the
necessity of his turning something out - seeing what he really could do
before the close of the year. Alice was disappointed, and bitterly, but
she bore her disappointment bravely, and she wrote to Dr. Reed, telling
him what had occurred, and proposing to meet him on a certain day at the
Parish Church, where Father Shannon would marry them; and, that if he
refused, they would proceed to Dublin, and be married at the Registry
Office. In a way Alice would have preferred this latter course, but her
good sense warned her against the uselessness of offering any too
violent opposition to the opinions of the world. And so it was arranged;
and sad, weary, and wretched, Alice lingered through the last few days
of the life that had always been to her one of humiliation, and which
now towards its close had quieted to one of intense pain.

The Brennans had promised to meet her in the chapel, and one day, as she
was sitting by her window, she saw May in all the glory of her copper
hair, drive a tandem up to the door. This girl threw the reins to the
groom, and rushed to her friend.

'And how do you do, Alice, and how well you are looking, and how pleased
I am to see you. I would have come before, only my leader was coughing
and I couldn't take him out. Oh, I was so wild; it is always like that;
nothing is so disappointing as horses; whenever you especially require
them they are laid up, and you can't imagine the difficulty I had to get
him along; I must really get another leader; he was trying to turn round
the whole way - if it hadn't been for the whip. I took blood out of him
three times running. But I know you don't care anything about horses,
and I want to hear about this marriage. I am so glad, so pleased, but
tell me, do you like him? He seems a very nice sort of man, you know, a
man that would make a woman happy. . . . I am sure you will be happy with
him, but it is dreadful to think we are going to lose you. I shall, I
know, be running over to London on purpose to see you; but tell me, what
I want to know is, do you like him? Would you believe it, I never once
suspected there was anything between you?'

'Yes, my dear May,' Alice replied smiling, 'I do like Edward Reed; nor
do I think that I should ever like any other man half as much: I have
perfect confidence in him, and where there is not confidence there
cannot be love. He has bought a small practice in Notting Hill, which
with care and industry he hopes may be worked up into a substantial
business. We shall be very poor at first, but we shall be able to make
both ends meet.'

'I can see it all; a little suburban semi-detached house, with green
Venetian blinds, a small mahogany sideboard, and a clean capped
maid-servant; and in the drawing-room you won't have a piano - you don't
care for music, but you'll have some basket chairs, and small bookcases,
and a tea-table with tea-cakes at five - oh, won't you look quiet and
grave at that tea-table. But tell me, it is all over the county that
Mrs. Barton won't hear of this marriage, and that she won't allow your
father to go to the chapel to give you away. It is a shame, and for the
life of me I can't see what parents have to do with our marriages, do
you?'

Without waiting for an answer, May continued the conversation, and with
vehemence she passed from one subject to another utterly disconnected
without a transitional word of explanation. She explained how tiresome
it was to sit at home of an evening listening to Mrs. Gould bemoaning
the state of the country; she spoke of her terrier, and this led up to a
critical examination of the good looks of several of the officers
stationed at Gort; then she alluded to the last meet of the hounds, and
she described the big wall she and Mrs. Manly had jumped together; a new
hat and an old skirt that she had lately done up came in for a passing
remark, and, with an abundance of laughter, May gave an account of a
luncheon-party at Lord Rosshill's; and, apparently verbatim, she told
what each of the five Honourable Miss Gores had said about the marriage.
Then growing suddenly serious, she said:

'It is all very well to laugh, but, when one comes to think of it, it is
very sad indeed to see seven human lives wasting away, a whole family of
girls eating their hearts out in despair, having nothing to do but to
pop about from one tennis-party to another, and chatter to each other or
their chaperons of this girl and that who does not seem to be getting
married. You are very lucky indeed, Alice - luckier than you think you
are, and you are quite right to stick out and do the best you can for
yourself in spite of what your people say. It is all very well for them
to talk, but they don't know what we suffer: we are not all made alike,
and the wants of one are not the wants of another. I dare say you never
thought much about that sort of thing; but as I say, we are not all made
alike. Every woman, or nearly every one, wants a husband and a home, and
it is only natural she should, and if she doesn't get them the
temptations she has to go through are something frightful, and if we
make the slightest slip the whole world is down upon us. I can talk to
you, Alice, because you know what I have gone through. You have been a
very good friend to me - had it not been for you I don't know what would
have become of me. You didn't reproach me, you were kind and had pity
for me; you are a sensible person, and I dare say you understood that I
wasn't entirely to blame. And I wasn't entirely to blame; the
circumstances we girls live under are not just - no, they are not just.
We are told that we must marry a man with at least a thousand a year, or
remain spinsters; well, I should like to know where the men are who have
a thousand a year, and some of us can't remain spinsters. Oh! you are
very lucky indeed to have found a husband, and to be going away to a
home of your own. I wish I were as lucky as you, Alice, indeed I do, for
then there would be no excuse, and I could be a good woman. You won't
hate me too much, will you, Alice? I have made a lot of good
resolutions, and they shall be kept some day.'

'Some day! You don't mean that you are again - '

'No; but I've a lover. It is dreadfully sinful, and if I died I should
go straight to hell. I know all that. I wish I were going to be married,
like you! For then one is out of temptation. Haven't you a kind word for
me? Won't you kiss me and tell me you don't despise me?'

'Of course I'll kiss you, May; and I am sure that one of these days you
will - '

Alice could say no more; and the girls kissed and cried in each other's
arms, and the group was a sad allegory of poor humanity's triumph, and
poor humanity's more than piteous failures. At last they went
downstairs, and in the hall May showed Alice the beautiful
wedding-present she had bought her, and the girl did not say that she
had sold her hunter to buy it.




XXIX


At Brookfield on the morning of December 3, '84, the rain fell
persistently in the midst of a profound silence. The trees stood stark
in the grey air as if petrified; there was not wind enough to waft the
falling leaf; it fell straight as if shotted.

Not a living thing was to be seen except the wet sheep, nor did anything
stir either within or without till an outside car, one seat overturned
to save the cushions from the wet, came careering up the avenue. There
was a shaggy horse and a wild-looking driver in a long, shaggy frieze
ulster. Even now, at the last moment, Alice expected the drawing-room
door to open and her mother to come rushing out to wish her good-bye.
But Mrs. Barton remained implacable, and after laying one more kiss on
her sister's pale cheek, Alice, in a passionate flood of tears, was
driven away.

In streaming mackintoshes, and leaning on dripping umbrellas, she found
her husband, and Gladys and Zoe Brennan, waiting for her in the porch of
the church.

'Did you ever see such weather?' said Zoe.

'Isn't it dreadful!' said Gladys.

'It was good of you to come,' said Alice.

'It was indeed!' said the bridegroom.

'What nonsense!' said Zoe. 'We were only too pleased; and if to-day be
wet, to-morrow and the next and the next will be sunshine.

And thanking Zoe inwardly for this most appropriate remark, the party
ascended the church toward the altar-rails, where Father Shannon was
awaiting them. Large, pompous, and arrogant, he stood on his
altar-steps, and his hands were crossed over his portly stomach. On
either side of him the plaster angels bowed their heads and folded their
wings. Above him the great chancel window, with its panes of green and
yellow glass, jarred in an unutterable clash of colour; and the great
white stare of the chalky walls, and the earthen floor with its tub of
holy water, and the German prints absurdly representing the suffering of
Christ, bespoke the primitive belief, the coarse superstition, of which
the place was an immediate symbol. Alice and the doctor looked at each
other and smiled, but their thoughts were too firmly fixed on the actual
problem of their united lives to wander far in the most hidden ways of
the old world's psychical extravagances. What did it matter to them what
absurd usages the place they were in was put to? - they, at least, were
only making use of it as they might of any other public office - the
police-station, where inquiries are made concerning parcels left in
cabs; the Commissioner before whom an affidavit is made. And it served
its purpose as well as any of the others did theirs. The priest joined
their hands, Edward put the ring on Alice's finger, and the usual
prayers did no harm if they did no good; and having signed their names
in the register and bid good-bye to the Miss Brennans, they got into the
carriage, man and wife, their feet set for ever upon one path, their
interests and delights melted to one interest and one delight, their
separate troubles merged into one trouble that might or might not be
made lighter by the sharing; and penetrated by such thoughts they leaned
back on the blue cushions of the carriage, happy, and yet a little
frightened.

Rather than pass three hours waiting for a train at the little station
of Ardrahan, it had been arranged to spend the time driving to Athenry;
and, as the carriage rolled through the deliquefying country, the eyes
of the man and the woman rested half fondly, half regretfully, and
wholly pitifully, on all the familiar signs and the wild landmarks which
during so many years had grown into and become part of the texture of
their habitual thought; on things of which they would now have to wholly
divest themselves, and remember only as the background of their younger
lives. Through the streaming glass they could see the strip of bog; and
the half-naked woman, her soaked petticoat clinging about her red legs,
piling the wet peat into the baskets thrown across the meagre back of a
starveling ass. And farther on there were low-lying, swampy fields, and
between them and the roadside a few miserable poplars with cabins sunk
below the dung-heaps, and the meagre potato-plots lying about them; and
then, as these are passed, there are green enclosures full of fattening
kine, and here and there a dismantled cottage, one wall still black with
the chimney's smoke, uttering to those who know the country a tale of
eviction. Beyond these, beautiful plantations sweep along the crests of
the hills, the pillars of a Georgian house showing at the end of a
vista. The carriage turned up a narrow road, and our travellers came
upon a dozen policemen grouped round a roadside cottage, out of which
the furniture had just been thrown. The family had taken shelter from
the rain under a hawthorn-tree, and the agents were consulting with
their bailiffs if it would not be as well to throw down the walls of the
cottage.

'If we don't,' one of the men said, 'they will be back again as soon as
our backs are turned, and our work will have to be begun all over
again.'

'Shocking,' Alice said, 'that an eviction scene should be our last
glimpse of Ireland. Let us pay the rent for them, Edward,' and as she
spoke the words the thought passed through her mind that her almsgiving
was only another form of selfishness. She wished her departure to be
associated with an act of kindness. She would have withdrawn her
request, but Edward's hand was in his pocket and he was asking the agent
how much the rent was. Five years' rent was owing - more than the
travellers had in their purses.

'It is well that we cannot assist them to remain here,' said Edward.
'Circumstances are different, and they will harden; none is of use here.
Of what use - '

'You believe, then, that this misery will last for ever?'

'Nothing lasts in Ireland but the priests. And now let us forget
Ireland, as many have done before us.'

* * * * *

Two years and a half have passed away, and the suburban home predicted
by May, when she came to bid Alice a last good-bye, arises before the
reader in all its yellow paint and homely vulgarity. In this suburb we
find the ten-roomed house with all its special characteristics - a
dining-room window looking upon a commodious area with dust and coal
holes. The drawing-room has two windows, and the slender balcony is
generally set with flower-boxes. Above that come the two windows of the
best bedroom belonging to Mr. and Mrs., and above that again the windows
of two small rooms, respectively inhabited by the eldest son and
daughter; and these are topped by the mock-Elizabethan gable which
enframes the tiny window of a servant's room. Each house has a pair of
trim stone pillars, the crude green of the Venetian blinds jars the
cultured eye, and even the tender green of the foliage in the crescent
seems as cheap and as common as if it had been bought - as everything
else is in Ashbourne Crescent - at the Stores. But how much does this
crescent of shrubs mean to the neighbourhood? Is it not there that the
old ladies take their pugs for their constitutional walks, and is it not
there that the young ladies play tennis with their gentleman
acquaintances when they come home from the City on a Saturday afternoon?

In Ashbourne Crescent there is neither Dissent nor Radicalism, but
general aversion to all considerations which might disturb belief in all
the routine of existence, in all its temporal and spiritual aspects, as
it had come amongst them. The fathers and the brothers go to the City
every day at nine, the young ladies play tennis, read novels, and beg to
be taken to dances at the Kensington Town Hall. On Sunday the air is
alive with the clanging of bells, and in orderly procession every family
proceeds to church, the fathers in all the gravity of umbrellas and
prayer-books, the matrons in silk mantles and clumsy ready-made elastic
sides; the girls in all the gaiety of their summer dresses with lively
bustles bobbing, the young men in frock-coats which show off their broad
shoulders - from time to time they pull their tawny moustaches. Each
house keeps a cook and housemaid, and on Sunday afternoons, when the
skies are flushed with sunset and the outlines of this human warren grow
harshly distinct - black lines upon pale red - these are seen walking
arm-in-arm away towards a distant park with their young men.

Ashbourne Crescent, with its bright brass knockers, its white-capped
maid-servant, and spotless oilcloths, will pass away before some great
tide of revolution that is now gathering strength far away, deep down
and out of sight in the heart of the nation, is probable enough; but for
the moment it is, in all its cheapness and vulgarity, more than anything
else representative, though the length and breadth of the land be
searched, of the genius of Empire that has been glorious through the
long tale that nine hundred years have to tell. Ashbourne Crescent may
possibly soon be replaced by something better, but at present it
commands our admiration, for it is, more than all else, typical England.
Neither ideas nor much lucidity will be found there, but much belief in
the wisdom shown in the present ordering of things, and much plain sense
and much honesty of purpose. Certainly, if your quest be for hectic
emotion and passionate impulses, you would do well to turn your steps
aside; you will not find them in Ashbourne Crescent. There life flows
monotonously, perhaps sometimes even a little moodily, but it is built
upon a basis of honest materialism - that materialism without which the
world cannot live. And No. 31 differs a little from the rest of the
houses. The paint on its walls is fresher, and there are no flowers on
its balcony: the hall-door has three bells instead of the usual two, and
there is a brass plate with 'Dr. Reed' engraved upon it. The cook is
talking through the area-railings to the butcher-boy; a smart
parlourmaid opens the door, and we see that the interior is as orderly,
commonplace, and clean as we might expect at every house in the
crescent. The floorcloths are irreproachable, the marble-painted walls
are unadorned with a single picture. On the right is the dining-room, a
mahogany table bought for five pounds in the Tottenham Court Road, a
dozen chairs to match, a sideboard and a small table; green-painted
walls decorated with two engravings, one of Frith's 'Railway Station,'
the other of Guido's 'Fortune.' Further down the passage leading to the
kitchen-stairs there is a second room: this is the Doctor's
consulting-room. A small bookcase filled with serious-looking volumes, a
mahogany escritoire strewn with papers, letters, memoranda of all sorts.
The floor is covered with a bright Brussels carpet; there are two
leather armchairs, and a portrait of an admiral hangs over the
fireplace.

Let us go upstairs. How bright and clean are the high marble-painted
walls! and on the first landing there is a large cheaply coloured
window. The drawing-room is a double room, not divided by curtains but
by stiff folding-doors. The furniture is in red, and the heavy curtains
that drape the windows fall from gilt cornices. In the middle of the
floor there is a settee (probably a reminiscence of the Shelbourne
Hotel); and on either side of the fireplace there are sofas, and about
the hearthrug many arm-chairs to match with the rest. Above the
chimneypiece there is a gilt oval mirror, worth ten pounds. The second
room is Alice's study; it is there she writes her novels. A table in
black wood with a pile of MSS. neatly fastened together stands in one
corner; there is a bookcase just behind; its shelves are furnished with
imaginative literature, such as Shelley's poems, Wordsworth's poems,
Keats' poems. There are also handsome editions of Tennyson and Browning,
presents from Dr. Reed to his wife. You see a little higher up the shelf
a thin volume, Swinburne's _Atalanta in Calydon_, and next to it is
Walter Pater's _Renaissance_ - studies in art and poetry. There are also
many volumes in yellow covers, evidently French novels.

The character of the house is therefore essentially provincial, and
shows that its occupants have not always lived amid the complex
influences of London life - viz., is not even suburban. Nevertheless,
here and there traces of new artistic impulses are seen. On the
mantelpiece in the larger room there are two large blue vases; on a
small table stands a pot in yellow porcelain, evidently from Morris's;
and on the walls there are engravings from Burne Jones. Every Thursday
afternoon numbers of ladies, all of whom write novels, assemble here to


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 22

Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 22 of 23)