The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXXII. A Vision of Sin
Maud Enderby's life at home became ever more solitary. Such daily intercourse as had been established between her mother and herself grew less and less fruitful of real intimacy, till at length it was felt by both to be mere form. Maud strove against this, but there was no corresponding effort on the other side; Mrs. Enderby showed no dislike for her daughter, yet unmistakably shunned her. If she chanced to enter the sitting-room whilst Maud was there, she would, if possible, retreat unobserved; or else she would feign to have come in quest of something, and at once go away with it. Maud could not fail to observe this, and its recurrence struck a chill to her heart. She had not the courage to speak to her mother; a deadweight of trouble, a restless spirit of apprehension, made her life one of passive endurance; she feared to have the unnatural conditions of their home openly recognised. Very often her thoughts turned to the time when she had found refuge from herself in the daily occupation of teaching, and, had she dared, she would gladly have gone away once more as a governess. But she could not bring herself to propose such a step. To do so would necessitate explanations, and that was what she dreaded most of all. Whole days, with the exception of meal-times, she spent in her own room, and there no one ever disturbed her. Sometimes she read, but most often sat in prolonged brooding, heedless of the hours.
Her father was now constantly away from home. He told her that he travelled on business. It scarcely seemed to be a relief to him to rest awhile in his chair; indeed, Paul had grown incapable of resting. Time was deepening the lines of anxiety on his sallow face. His mind seemed for ever racked with painful calculation. Mrs. Enderby, too, spent much time away from the house, and Maud knew nothing of her engagements. One thing, however, Maud could not help noticing, and that was that her mother was clearly very extravagant in her mode of living. New and costly dresses were constantly being purchased, as well as articles of luxury for the house. Mrs. Enderby had of late provided herself with a femme de chambre, a young woman who arrayed herself with magnificence in her mistresses castoff dresses, and whose appearance and demeanour had something the reverse of domestic. Maud almost feared her. Then there was a hired brougham constantly in use. Whenever Mrs. Enderby spent an evening at home, company was sure to be entertained; noisy and showy people filled the drawing-room, and remained till late hours. Maud did not even see their faces, but the voices of one or two men and women became only too familiar to her; even in the retirement of her room she could not avoid hearing these voices, and they made her shudder. Especially she was conscious of Mr. Rudge's presence; she knew his very step on the stairs, and waited in feverish apprehension for the first notes of an accompaniment on the piano, which warned her that he was going to sing. He had a good voice, and it was often in request. Sometimes the inexplicable dread of his singing was more than she could bear; she would hurry on her walking-attire, and, stealing like a shadow down the stairs, would seek refuge in pacing about the streets of the neighbourhood, heedless of weather or the hour.
Mrs. Enderby never came down to breakfast. One morning, when Paul happened to be at home, he and Maud had finished that meal in silence, and Maud was rising to leave the room, when her father checked her. He leaned over the table towards her, and spoke in an anxious undertone.
"Have you noticed anything a little--a little strange in your mother lately, Maud? Anything in her way of speaking, I mean--her general manner?"
The girl met his look, and shook her head. The approach to such a conversation affected her as with a shock; she could not speak.
"She has very bad nights, you know," Paul went on, still in a tone just above a whisper, "and of late she has been taking chloral. It's against my wish, but the relief makes it an irresistible temptation. I fear--I am afraid it is having some deleterious effect upon her; she seemed to be a little--just a little delirious in the night, I thought."
There was something horrible in his voice and face as he uttered these words; he shuddered slightly, and his tongue seemed to labour for utterance, as though he dreaded the sound of his own speech.
Maud sat unmoving and silent.
"I thought, also," Paul went on, "that she appeared a little strange last evening, when the people were here.--You weren't in the drawing-room?"
Maud shook her head again.
"Do you--do you think," he asked, "she is having too much excitement? I know she needs a life of constant variety; it is essential to her. I'm sure you understand that, Maud? You--you don't misjudge her?"
"No, no; it is necessary to her," said the girl mechanically.
"But," her father pursued, with still lower voice, "there is always the danger lest she should over-exert herself. Last night I--I thought I noticed--but it was scarcely worth speaking of; I am so easily alarmed, you know."
Maud tried to say something, but in vain.
"You--you won't desert her--quite--Maud?" said her father in a tone of pleading. "I am obliged to be so muck away--God knows I can't help it. And then I--I wonder whether you have noticed? I seem to have little influence with her."
He stopped, but the next moment forced himself to utter what was in his mind.
"Can't you help me a little more, Maud? Couldn't you induce her to live a little more--more restfully at times?"
She rose, pushing the chair back behind her.
"Father, I can't!" she cried; then burst into a passion of tears.
"God help us!" her father breathed, rising and looking at her in blank misery. But in a moment she had recovered herself. They faced each other for an instant, but neither ventured to speak again, and Maud turned and left him.
Waymark came as usual, but now he seldom saw Mrs. Enderby. Maud received him alone. There was little that was lover-like in these hours spent together. They kissed each other at meeting and parting, but, with this exception, the manner of both was very slightly different from what it had been before their engagement. They sat apart, and talked of art, literature, religion, seldom of each other. It had come to this by degrees; at first there had been more warmth, but passion never. Waymark's self-consciousness often weighed upon his tongue, and made his conversation but a string of commonplaces; Maud was often silent for long intervals. Their eyes never met in a steady gaze.
Waymark often asked himself whether Maud's was a passionless nature, or whether it was possible that her reserve had the same origin as his own. The latter he felt to be unlikely; sometimes there was a pressure of her hands as their lips just touched, the indication, he believed, of feeling held in restraint for uncertain reasons. She welcomed him, too, with a look which he in vain endeavoured to respond to--a look of sudden relief from weariness, of gentle illumination; it smote him like a reproach. When the summer had set in, he was glad to change the still room for the open air; they walked frequently about Regent's Park, and lingered till after sunset.
One evening, when it was dull and threatened rain, they returned to the house sooner than usual. Waymark would have taken his leave at the door, as he ordinarily did, but Maud begged him to enter, if only for a few minutes. It was not quite nine o'clock, and Mrs. Enderby was from home.
He seated himself, but Maud remained standing irresolutely. Waymark glanced at her from under his eyebrows. He did not find it easy to speak; they had both been silent since they left the park, with the exception of the few words exchanged at the door.
"Will you let me sit here?" Maud asked suddenly, pushing a footstool near to his chair, and kneeling upon it.
He smiled and nodded.
"When will they begin the printing?" she asked, referring to his book, which was now in the hands of the publisher who had undertaken it.
"Not for some months. It can't come out till the winter season."
"If it should succeed, it will make a great difference in your position, won't it?"
"It might," he replied, looking away.
She sat with her eyes fixed on the ground. She wished to continue, but something stayed her.
"I don't much count upon it," Waymark said, when he could no longer endure the silence. "We mustn't base any hopes on that."
He rose; the need of changing his attitude seemed imperative.
"Must you go?" Maud asked, looking up at him with eyes which spoke all that her voice failed to utter.
He moved his head affirmatively, and held out his hand to raise her. She obeyed his summons, and stood up before him; her eyes had fixed themselves upon his; he could not avoid their strange gaze.
"Good-bye," he said.
Her free hand rose to his shoulder, upon which it scarcely rested. He could not escape her eyes, though to meet them tortured him. Her lips were moving, but he could distinguish no syllable; they moved again, and he could just gather the sense of her whisper.
"Do you love me?"
An immense pity thrilled through him. He put his arm about her, held her closely, and pressed his lips against her cheek. She reddened, and hid her face against him. Waymark touched her hair caressingly, then freed his other hand, and went from the room.
Maud sat in thought till a loud ring at the door-bell made her start and flee upstairs. The room in which she and Waymark sat when they were by themselves was in no danger of invasion, but she feared the possibility of meeting her mother to-night. Her father was away from home, as usual, but the days of his return were always uncertain, and Mrs. Enderby might perchance open the door of the little sitting-room just to see whether he was there, as it was here he ordinarily employed himself when in the house. From her bedroom Maud could hear several people ascend the stairs. It was ten o'clock, but an influx of visitors at such an hour was nothing remarkable. She could hear her mother's laugh, and then the voice of a man, a voice she knew but too well--that of Mr. Budge.
Her nerves were excited. The night was close, and there were mutterings of thunder at times; the cloud whence they came seemed to her to spread its doleful blackness over this one roof. An impulse seized her; she took paper and sat down at her desk to write. It was a letter to Waymark, a letter such as she had never addressed to him, and which, even in writing it, she was conscious she could not send. Her hand trembled as she filled the pages with burning words. She panted for more than he had given her; this calm, half-brotherly love of his was just now like a single drop of water to one dying of thirst; she cried to him for a deeper draught of the joy of life. The words came to her without need of thought; tears fell hot from her eyes and blotted what she wrote.
The tears brought her relief; she was able to throw her writing aside, and by degrees to resume that dull, vacant mood of habitual suffering which at all events could be endured. From this, too, there was at times a retreat possible with the help of a book. She had no mind to sleep, and on looking round, she remembered that the book she had been reading in the early part of the day was downstairs. It was after midnight, and she seemed to have a recollection of hearing the visitors leave the house a little while ago; it would be safe to venture as far as the sitting-room below.
She began to descend the stairs quietly. There was still a light in the hall, but the quietness of the house reassured her. On turning an angle of the stairs, however, she saw that the door of the drawing-room was open, and that just within stood two figures--her mother and Mr. Rudge. They seemed to be whispering together, and in the same moment their lips met. Then the man came out and went downstairs. Mrs. Enderby turned back into the drawing-room.
Maud stood fixed to the spot. Darkness had closed in around her, and she clung to the banisters to save herself from the gulf which seemed to yawn before her feet. The ringing of a bell, the drawing-room bell summoning Mrs. Enderby's maid, brought her back to consciousness, and with trembling limbs she regained her room. It was as though some ghastly vision of the night had shaken her soul. The habit of her mind overwhelmed her with the conviction that she knew at last the meaning of that mystery of horror which had of late been strengthening its hold upon her imagination. The black cloud which lowered above the house had indeed its significance; the voices which wailed to her of sin and woe were the true expression of things amid which she had been moving unconsciously. That instinct which made her shrink from her mother's presence was not without its justification; the dark powers which circled her existence had not vainly forced their influence upon her. Her first impulse was to flee from the house; the air breathed pestilence and death, death of the soul. Looking about her in the anguish of conflicting thoughts, her eyes fell upon the pages she had written. These now came before her as a proof of contagion which had seized upon her own nature; she tore the letter hastily into fragments, and, striking fire with a match, consumed them in the grate. As she watched the sparks go out, there came a rustling of dresses past her door. She flung herself upon her knees and sought refuge in wild, wordless prayer.
A fortnight after this Maud went late in the evening to the room where she knew her father was sitting alone. Paul Enderby looked up from his papers in surprise; it was some time since Maud had sought private conversation with him. As he met her pale, resolute face, he knew that she had a serious purpose in thus visiting him, and his look changed to one of nervous anticipation.
"Do I disturb you, father?" Maud asked. "Could you spare me a few minutes?"
Paul nodded, and she took a seat near him.
"Father, I am going to leave home, going to be a governess again."
He drew a sigh of relief; he had expected something worse than this. Yet the relief was only for a moment, and then he looked at her with eyes which made her soul fail for very compassion.
"You will desert me, Maud?" he asked, trying to convey in his look that which he could not utter in words.
"Father, I can be of no help, and I feel that I must not remain here."
"Have you found a place?"
"This afternoon I engaged myself to go to Paris with a French family. They have been in England some time, and want to take back an English governess for their children."
Paul was silent.
"I leave the day after to-morrow," she added; at first she had feared to say how soon she was to go.
"You are right," her father said, shifting some papers about with a tremulous hand. "You are right to leave us. You at least will be safe."
"Safe?" she asked, under her breath.
He looked at her in the same despairing way, but said nothing.
"Father," she began, her lips quivering in the intensity of her inward struggle, "can you not go away from here? Can you not take mother away?"
They gazed at each other, each trying to divine what it was that made the other so pale. Did her father know?--Maud asked herself. Did Maud know something more than he himself?--was the doubt in Paul's mind. But they were thinking of different things.
"I can't, I can't!" the wretched man exclaimed, spreading out his arms on the desk. "Perhaps in a few months--but I doubt. I can do nothing now; I am helpless; I am not my own master. O God, if I could but go and leave it all behind me!"
Maud could only guess at the meaning of this. He had already hinted to her of business troubles which were crushing him. But this was a matter of no moment in her sight. There was something more terrible, and she could not force her tongue to speak of it.
"You fear for her?" Paul went on. "You have noticed her strangeness?" He lowered his voice. "What can I do, Maud?"
"You are so much away," she said hurriedly, laying her hand on his arm. "Her visitors--she has so many temptations--"
"Father, help her against herself!"
"My help is vain. There is a curse on her life, and on mine. I can only stand by and wait for the worst."
She could not speak. It was her duty, clearly her imperative duty, yet she durst not fulfil it. She had come down from her room with the fixed purpose, attained after nights of sleepless struggle, of telling him what she had seen. She found herself alone again, the task unfulfilled. And she knew that she could not face him again.