The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXVI. Straying
The Enderbys were at Brighton during the autumn. Mr. Enderby only remained with them two or three days at a time, business requiring his frequent presence in town. Maud would have been glad to spend her holidays at some far quieter place, but her mother enjoyed Brighton, and threw herself into its amusements of the place with spirits which seemed to grow younger. They occupied handsome rooms, and altogether lived in a more expensive way than when at home.
Maud was glad to see her mother happy, but could not be at ease herself in this kind of life. It was soon arranged that she should live in her own way, withholding from the social riot which she dreaded, and seeking rest in out-of-the-way parts of the shore, where more of nature was to be found and less of fashion. Maud feared lest her mother should feel this as an unkind desertion, but Mrs. Enderby was far from any such trouble; it relieved her from the occasional disadvantage of having by her side a grown-up daughter, whose beauty so strongly contrasted with her own. So Maud spent her days very frequently in exploring the Downs, or in seeking out retired nooks beneath the cliffs, where there was no sound in her ears but that of the waves. She would sit for hours with no companion save her thoughts, which were unconsciously led from phase to phase by the moving lights and shadows upon the sea, and the soft beauty of unstable clouds.
Even before leaving London, she had begun to experience a frequent sadness of mood, tending at times to weariness and depression, which foreshadowed new changes in her inner life. The fresh delight in nature and art had worn off in some degree; she read less, and her thoughts took the habit of musing upon the people and circumstances about her, also upon the secrets of the years to come. She grew more conscious of the mystery in her own earlier life, and in the conditions which now surrounded her. A sense which at times besets all imaginative minds came upon her now and then with painful force; a fantastic unreality would suddenly possess all she saw and heard; it seemed as if she had been of a sudden transported out of the old existence into this new and unrealised position; if any person spoke to her, it was difficult to feel that she was really addressed and must reply; was it not all a mere vision she was beholding, out of which she would presently awake! Such moments were followed by dark melancholy. This life she was leading could not last, but would pass away in some fearful shock of soul. Once she half believed herself endowed with the curse of a hideous second-sight. Sitting with her father and mother, silence all at once fell upon the room, and everything was transfigured in a ghostly light. Distinctly she saw her mother throw her head back and raise to her throat what seemed to be a sharp, glistening piece of steel; then came a cry, and all was darkened before her eyes in a rush of crimson mist. The cry she had herself uttered, much to her parents' alarm; what her mother held was in reality only a paper-knife, with which she had been tapping her lips in thought. A slight attack of illness followed on this disturbance, and it was some days before she recovered from the shock; she kept to herself, however, the horrible picture which her imagination had conjured up.
She began to pay more frequent visits to her aunt Theresa, whom at first she had seen very seldom. There was not the old confidence between them. Maud shrank from any direct reference to the change in herself, and Miss Bygrave spoke no word which could suggest a comparison between past and present. Maud tried once more to draw near to the pale, austere woman, whose life ever remained the same. She was not repelled, but neither did any movement respond to her yearning. She always came away with a sad heart.
One evening in the week she looked forward to with eagerness; it was that on which Waymark was generally expected. In Waymark's presence she could forget those dark spirits that hovered about her; she could forget herself, and be at rest in the contemplation of strength and confidence. There was a ring in his voice which inspired faith; whatever might be his own doubts and difficulties-- and his face testified to his knowledge of both--it was so certain that he had power to overcome them. This characteristic grew stronger in him to her observation; he was a far other man now than when she first knew him; the darkness had passed from his eyes, which seemed always to look straight forward, and with perception of an end he was nearing. Why could she not make opportunities of speaking freely with him, alone with him? They were less near to each other, it seemed, after a year of constant meeting, than in the times when, personally all but strangers, they had corresponded so frankly and unconventionally. Of course he came to the house for her sake; it could not but be so; yet at times he seemed to pay so little attention to her. Her mother often monopolised him through a whole evening, and not apparently to his annoyance. And all the time he had in his heart the message for which she longed; support and comfort were waiting for her there, she felt sure, could he but speak unrestrainedly. In herself was no salvation; but he had already overcome, and why could she not ask him for the secret of his confidence? Often, as the evening drew to an end, and he was preparing to leave, an impatience scarcely to be repressed took hold upon her; her face grew hot, her hands trembled, she would have followed him from the room and begged for one word to herself had it been possible. And when he was gone, there came the weakest moments her life had yet known; a childish petulance, a tearful fretting, an irritable misery of which she was ashamed. She went to her room to suffer in silence, and often to read through that packet of his letters, till the night was far spent.
It had cost her much to leave London. She feared lest, during her absence, something should occur to break off the wonted course of things, and that Waymark might not resume his visits on their return. After the feverish interval of those first weeks, she tried sometimes to distract her thoughts by reading, and got from a library a book which Waymark had recommended to her at their last meeting--Rossetti's poems. These gave her much help in restoring her mind to quietness. Their perfect beauty entranced her, and the rapturous purity of ideal passion, the mystic delicacies of emotion, which made every verse gleam like a star, held her for the time high above that gloomy cloudland of her being, rife with weird shapes and muffled voices. That Beauty is solace of life, and Love the end of being,--this faith she would cling to in spite of all; she grasped it with the desperate force of one who dreaded lest it should fade and fail from her. Beauty alone would not suffice; too often it was perceived as a mere mask, veiling horrors; but in the passion and the worship of love was surely a never-failing fountain of growth and power; this the draught that would leave no bitter aftertaste, its enjoyment the final and all-sufficient answer to the riddle of life. Rossetti put into utterance for her so much that she had not dared to entrust even to the voice of thought. Her spirit and flesh became one and indivisible; the old antagonism seemed at an end for ever.
Such dreamings as these naturally heightened Maud's dislike for the kind of life her mother led, and she longed unspeakably for the time of her return to London. They had been at Brighton already nearly a month, when a new circumstance was added to her discomfort. As she walked with her mother one day, they met their acquaintance, Mr. Budge. This gentleman dined with them that evening at Mrs. Enderby's invitation, and persuaded the latter to join a party he had made up for an excursion on the following day. Maud excused herself. She did not like Mr. Budge, and his demeanour during the evening only strengthened her prejudice. He was unduly excited and fervent, and allowed himself a certain freedom in his conversation with Mrs. Enderby which Maud resented strongly.
When they were once more in London, Maud did not win back the former quiet of mind. Waymark came again as usual, but if anything the distance between him and herself seemed more hopeless. He appeared preoccupied; his talk, when he spoke with her, was of a more general kind than formerly; she was conscious that her presence did not affect him as it had done. She sank again into despondency; books were insipid, and society irritated her. She began the habit of taking long walks, an aimless wandering about the streets and parks within her reach. One evening, wending wearily homewards, she was attracted by the lights in a church in Marylebone Road, and, partly for a few minutes' rest, partly out of a sudden attraction to a religious service, she entered. It was the church of Our Lady of the Rosary. She had not noticed that it was a Roman Catholic place of worship, but the discovery gave her an unexpected pleasure. She was soothed and filled with a sense of repose. Sinking into the attitude of prayer, she let her thoughts carry her whither they would; they showed her nothing but images of beauty and peace. It was with reluctance that she arose and went back into the dark street, where the world met her with a chill blast, sleet-laden.
Our Lady of the Rosary received her frequently after this. But there were days when the thought of repose was far from her. At one such time, on an evening in November, a sudden desire possessed her mind; she would go out into the streets of the town and see something of that life which she knew only in imagination, the traffic of highway and byway after dark, the masque of pleasure and misery of sin of which a young girl can know nothing, save from hints here and there in her reading, or from the occasional whispers and head-shakings of society's gossip. Her freedom was complete; her absence, if noticed, would entail no questions; her mother doubtless would conclude that she was at her aunt Theresa's. So she clad herself in walking attire of a kind not likely to attract observation, and set forth. The tumult which had been in her blood all day received fresh impulse from the excitement of the adventure. She had veiled her face, but the veil hindered her observation, and she threw it back. First into Edgware Road, then down Oxford Street. Her thoughts pointed to an eastern district, though she feared the distance would be too great; she had frequently talked with Waymark of his work in Litany Lane and Elm Court, and a great curiosity possessed her to see these places. She entered an omnibus, and so reached the remote neighbourhood. Here, by inquiry of likely people, she found her way to Litany Lane, and would have penetrated its darkness, but was arrested by a sudden event characteristic of the locality.
Forth from the alley, just before her, rushed a woman of hideous aspect, pursued by another, younger, but, if possible, yet more foul, who shrieked curses and threats. In the way of the fugitive was a costermonger's stall; unable to check herself, the woman rushed against this, overturning it, and herself falling among the ruin. The one in pursuit, with a yell of triumph, sprang upon her prostrate enemy, and attacked her with fearful violence, leaping on her body, dashing her head against the pavement, seemingly bent on murder. In a moment there was a thick crowd rushing round, amid which Maud was crushed and swayed without possibility of disengaging herself. The screams of the one woman, and the terrific objurgations of the other, echoed through the street. From the words of those about her, Maud understood that the two women were mother and daughter, and that it was no rare occurrence for the younger woman to fall just short of killing her parent. But only for a moment or two could Maud understand anything; horror and physical oppression overcame her senses. Her fainting caused a diversion in the crowd, and she was dragged without much delay to the nearest doorstep.
She was not long unconscious, and presently so far recovered as to know that she was being helped to enter a cab. The cab began to drive off. Then she saw that some one was sitting opposite her. "Who is it?" she asked, trying to command herself, and to see clearly by the light of the street lamps. At the sound of the voice which answered, she started, and, looking again, at length recognised Waymark.
"Do you feel better?" he asked. "Are you able to go on homewards?"
"Quite able," she answered, leaning back again, and speaking with strange calmness.
"What on earth is the meaning of this?" was Waymark's next inquiry. "How came you here at this time?"
"Curiosity brought me," Maud answered, with the same unnatural composure.
"Had you been there long?"
"No; I had asked my way to Litany Lane, and all at once found myself in the crowd."
"Thank goodness I happened to be by! I had just been looking up a defaulting tenant. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw you lying in that doorway. Why didn't you ask me to come with you, and show you these places?"
"It would have been better," she said, with her eyes closed. Waymark leaned back. Conversation was difficult in the noise of the vehicle, and for a long time neither spoke.
"I told the man to drive to Edgware Road," Waymark said then. "Shall he go on to the house?"
"No; I had rather walk the last part."
They talked brokenly of the Lane and its inhabitants. When at length Maud alighted Waymark offered his arm, and she just laid her hand upon it.
"I have seen dreadful things to-night," she said, in a voice that still trembled; "seen and heard things that will haunt me."
"You give too much weight to the impressions of the moment. That world is farther removed from yours than the farthest star; you must forget this glimpse of it."
"Oh, I fear you do not know me; I do not know myself."
He made no reply, and, on their coming near to the house, Maud paused.
"Mother's sending you a note this evening," she said, as she held out her hand, "to ask you to come on Thursday instead of to-morrow. She will be from home to-morrow night"
"Shall you also be from home?"
"Then may I not come and see you?--Not if it would be troublesome."
"It would not, at all."
"It is good of you. I will come."