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The year was 1878. A tourist searching his Baedeker for a genteel but not oppressively aristocratic pension in the open parts of Naples would have found himself directed by an asterisk to the establishment kept by Mrs. Gluck on the Mergellina;--frequented by English and Germans, and very comfortable. The recommendation was a just one. Mrs. Gluck enjoyed the advantage of having lived as many years in England as she had in Germany; her predilections leaned, if anything, to the English side, and the arrival of a "nice" English family always put her in excellent spirits. She then exhibited herself as an Anglicized matron, perfectly familiar with all the requirements, great and little, of her guests, and, when minutiae were once settled, capable of meeting ladies and gentlemen on terms of equality in her drawing-room or at her table, where she always presided. Indeed, there was much true refinement in Mrs. Gluck. You had not been long in her house before she found an opportunity of letting you know that she prided herself on connection with the family of the great musician, and under her roof there was generally some one who played or sang well. It was her dire that all who sat at her dinner-table--the English people, at all events--should be in evening dress. She herself had no little art in adorning herself so as to appear, what she was, a lady, and yet not to conflict with the ladies whose presence honoured her.
In the drawing-room, a few days after the arrival of Mrs. Lessingham and her niece, several members of the house hold were assembled in readiness for the second dinner-bell. There was Frau Wohlgemuth, a middle-aged lady with severe brows, utilizing spare moments over a German work on Greek sculpture. Certain plates in the book had caught the eye of Mrs. Bradshaw, with the result that she regarded this innocent student as a person of most doubtful character, who, if in ignorance admitted to a respectable boardinghouse, should certainly have been got rid of as soon as the nature of her reading had been discovered. Frau Wohlgemuth had once or twice been astonished at the severe look fixed upon her by the buxom English lady, but happily would never receive an explanation of this silent animus. Then there was Fraulein Kriel, who had unwillingly incurred even more of Mrs. Bradshaw's displeasure, in that she, an unmarried person, had actually looked over the volume together with its possessor, not so much as blushing when she found herself observed by strangers. The remaining persons were an English family, a mother and three daughters, their name Denyer.
Mrs. Denyer was florid, vivacious, and of a certain size. She had seen much of the world, and prided herself on cosmopolitanism; the one thing with which she could not dispense was intellectual society. This would be her second winter at Naples, but she gave her acquaintances to understand that Italy was by no means the country of her choice; she preferred the northern latitudes, because there the intellectual atmosphere was more bracing. But for her daughters' sake she abode here: "You know, my gills adore Italy."
Of these young ladies, the two elder--Barbara and Made line were their seductive names--had good looks. Barbara, perhaps twenty-two years old, was rather colourless, somewhat too slim, altogether a trifle limp; but she had a commendable taste in dress. Madeline, a couple of years younger, presented a more healthy physique and a less common comeliness, but in the matter of costume she lacked her sister's discretion. Her colours were ill-matched, her ornaments awkwardly worn; even her hair sought more freedom than was consistent with grace. The youngest girl, Zillah, who was about nineteen, had been less kindly dealt with by nature; like Barbara, she was of very light complexion, and this accentuated her plainness. She aimed at no compensation in attire, unless it were that her sober garments exhibited perfect neatness and complete inoffensiveness. Zillah's was a good face, in spite of its unattractive features; she had a peculiarly earnest look, a reflective manner, and much conscientiousness of speech.
Common to the three was a resolve to be modern, advanced, and emancipated, or perish in the attempt. Every one who spoke with them must understand that they were no every-day young ladies, imbued with notions and prejudices recognized as feminine, frittering away their lives amid the follies of the drawing-room and of the circulating library. Culture was their pursuit, heterodoxy their pride. If indeed it were true, as Mrs. Bradshaw somewhat acrimoniously declared, that they were all desperately bent on capturing husbands, then assuredly the poor girls went about their enterprise with singular lack of prudence.
Each had her role. Barbara's was to pose as the adorer of Italy, the enthusiastic glorifier of Italian unity. She spoke Italian feebly, but, with English people, never lost an opportunity of babbling its phrases. Speak to her of Rome, and before long she was sure to murmur rapturously, "Roma capitale d'Italia!"--the watch-word of antipapal victory. Of English writers she loved, or affected to love, those only who had found inspiration south of the Alps. The proud mother repeated a story of Barbara's going up to the wall of Casa Guidi and kissing it. In her view, the modern Italians could do no wrong; they were divinely regenerate. She praised their architecture.
Madeline--whom her sisters addressed affectionately as "Mad"-- professed a wider intellectual scope; less given to the melting mood than Barbara, less naive in her enthusiasms, she took for her province aesthetic criticism in its totality, and shone rather in censure than in laudation. French she read passably; German she had talked so much of studying that it was her belief she had acquired it; Greek and Latin were beyond her scope, but from modern essayists who wrote in the flamboyant style she had gathered enough knowledge of these literatures to be able to discourse of them with a very fluent inaccuracy. With all schools of painting she was, of course, quite familiar; the great masters--vulgarly so known--interested her but moderately, and to praise them was, in her eyes, to incur a suspicion of philistinism. From her preceptors in this sphere, she had learnt certain names, old and new, which stood for more exquisite virtues, and the frequent mention of them with a happy vagueness made her conversation very impressive to the generality of people. The same in music. It goes without saying that Madeline was an indifferentist in politics and on social questions; at the introduction of such topics, she smiled.
Zillah's position was one of more difficulty. With nothing of her sisters' superficial cleverness, with a mind that worked slowly, and a memory irretentive, she had a genuine desire to instruct herself, and that in a solid way. She alone studied with real persistence, and, by the irony of fate, she alone continually exposed her ignorance, committed gross blunders, was guilty of deplorable lapses of memory. Her unhappy lot kept her in a constant state of nervousness and shame. She had no worldly tact, no command of her modest resources, yet her zeal to support the credit of the family was always driving her into hurried speech, sure to end in some disastrous pitfall. Conscious of aesthetic defects, Zillah had chosen for her speciality the study of the history of civilization. But for being a Denyer, she might have been content to say that she studied history, and in that case her life might also have been solaced by the companionship of readable books; but, as modernism would have it, she could not be content to base her historical inquiries on anything less than strata of geology and biological elements, with the result that she toiled day by day at perky little primers and compendia, and only learnt one chapter that it might be driven out of her head by the next. Equally out of deference to her sisters, she smothered her impulses to conventional piety, and made believe that her spiritual life supported itself on the postulates of science. As a result of all which, the poor girl was not very happy, but in that again did she not give proof of belonging to her time?
There existed a Mr. Denyer, but this gentleman was very seldom indeed in the bosom of his family. Letters--and remittances-- came from him from the most surprising quarters of the globe. His profession was that of speculator at large, and, with small encouragement of any kind, he toiled unceasingly to support his wife and daughters in their elegant leisure. At one time he was eagerly engaged in a project for making starch from potatoes in the south of Ireland. When this failed, he utilized a knowledge of Spanish-- casually picked up, like all his acquirements--and was next heard of at Veer Cruz, where he dealt in cochineal, indigo, sarsaparilla, and logwood. Yellow fever interfered with his activity, and after a brief sojourn with his family in the United States, where they had joined him with the idea of making a definite settlement, he heard of something promising in Egypt, and thither repaired. A spare, vivacious, pathetically sanguine man, always speaking of the day when he would "settle down" in enjoyment of a moderate fortune, and most obviously doomed never to settle at all, save in the final home of mortality.
Mrs. Lessingham and her niece entered the room. On Cecily, as usual, all eyes were more or less openly directed. Her evening dress was simple--though with the simplicity not to be commanded by every one who wills--and her demeanour very far from exacting general homage; but her birthright of distinction could not be laid aside, and the suave Mrs. Gluck was not singular in recognizing that here was such a guest as did not every day grace her pension. Barbara and Madeline Denyer never looked at her without secret pangs. In appearance, however, they were very friendly, and Cecily had met their overtures from the first with the simple goodwill natural to her. She went and seated herself by Madeline, who had on her lap a little portfolio.
"These are the drawings of which I spoke," said Madeline, half opening the portfolio.
"Mr. Marsh's? Oh, I shall be glad to see them!"
"Of course, we ought to have daylight, but we'll look at them again to-morrow. You can form an idea of their character."
They were small water-colours, the work--as each declared in fantastic signature--of one Clifford Marsh, spoken of by the Denyers, and by Madeline in particular, as a personal friend. He was expected to arrive any day in Naples. The subjects, Cecily had been informed, were natural scenery; the style, impressionist. Impressionism was no novel term to Cecily, and in Paris she had had her attention intelligently directed to good work in that kind; she knew, of course, that, like every other style, it must be judged with reference to its success in achieving the end proposed. But the first glance at the first of Mr. Marsh's productions perplexed her. A study on the Roman Campagna, said Madeline. It might just as well, for all Cecily could determine, have been a study of cloud-forms, or of a storm at sea, or of anything. or of nothing; nor did there seem to be any cogent reason why it should be looked at one way up rather than the other. Was this genius, or impudence?
"You don't know the Campagna, yet," remarked Madeline, finding that the other kept silence. "Of course, you can't appreciate the marvellous truthfulness of this impression; but it gives you new emotions, doesn't it?"
Mrs. Lessingham would have permitted herself to reply with a pointed affirmative. Cecily was too considerate of others' feelings for that, yet had not the habit of smooth falsehood.
"I am not very familiar with this kind of work," she said. "Please let me just look and think, and tell me your own thoughts about each."
Madeline was not displeased. Already she had discovered that in most directions Miss Doran altogether exceeded her own reach, and that it was not safe to talk conscious nonsense to her. The tone of modesty seemed unaffected, and, as Madeline had reasons for trying to believe in Clifford Marsh, it gratified her to feel that here at length she might tread firmly and hold her own. The examination of the drawings proceeded, with the result that Cecily's original misgiving was strongly confirmed. What would Ross Mallard say? Mallard's own work was not of the impressionist school, and he might suffer prejudice to direct him; but she had a conviction of how his remarks would sound were this portfolio submitted to him. Genius-- scarcely. And if not, then assuredly the other thing, and that in flagrant degree.
Most happily, the dinner-bell came with its peremptory interruption.
"I must see them again to-morrow," said Cecily, in her pleasantest voice.
At table, the ladies were in a majority. Mr. Bradshaw was the only man past middle life. Next in age to him came Mr. Musselwhite, who looked about forty, and whose aquiline nose, high forehead, light bushy whiskers, and air of vacant satisfaction, marked him as the aristocrat of the assembly. This gentleman suffered under a truly aristocratic affliction--the ever-reviving difficulty of passing his day. Mild in demeanour, easy in the discharge of petty social obligations, perfectly inoffensive, he came and went like a vivified statue of gentlemanly ennui. Every morning there arrived for him a consignment of English newspapers; these were taken to his bedroom at nine o'clock, together with a cup of chocolate. They presumably occupied him until he appeared in the drawing-room, just before the hour of luncheon, when, in spite of the freshness of his morning attire, he seemed already burdened by the blank of time, always sitting down to the meal with an audible sigh of gratitude. Invariably he addressed to his neighbour a remark on the direction of the smoke from Vesuvius. If the neighbour happened to be uninformed in things Neapolitan, Mr. Musselwhite seized the occasion to explain at length the meteorologic significance of these varying fumes. Luncheon over, he rose like one who is summoned to a painful duty; in fact, the great task of the day was before him--the struggle with time until the hour of dinner. You would meet him sauntering sadly about the gardens of the Villa Nazionale, often looking at his watch, which he always regulated by the cannon of Sant' Elmo: or gazing with lack-lustre eye at a shop-window in the Toledo; or sitting with a little glass of Marsala before him in one of the fashionable cafes, sunk in despondency. But when at length he appeared at the dinner-table, once more fresh from his toilet, then did a gleam of animation transform his countenance; for the victory was won; yet again was old time defeated. Then he would discourse his best. Two topics were his: the weather, and "my brother the baronet's place in Lincolnshire." The manner of his monologue on this second and more fruitful subject was really touching. When so fortunate as to have a new listener, he began by telling him or her that he was his father's fourth son, and consequently third brother to Sir Grant Musselwhite--"who goes in so much for model-farming, you know." At the hereditary "place in Lincolnshire" he had spent the bloom of his life, which he now looked back upon with tender regrets. He did not mention the fact that, at the age of five-and-twenty, he had been beguiled from that Arcadia by wily persons who took advantage of his innocent youth, who initiated him into the metropolitan mysteries which sadden the soul and deplete the pocket, who finally abandoned him upon the shoal of a youngest brother's allowance when his father passed away from the place in Lincolnshire, and young Sir Grant, reigning in the old baronet's stead, deemed himself generous in making the family scapegrace any provision at all. Yet such were the outlines of Mr. Musselwhite's history. Had he been the commonplace spendthrift, one knows pretty well on what lines his subsequent life would have run; but poor Mr. Musselwhite was at heart a domestic creature. Exiled from his home, he wandered in melancholy, year after year, round a circle of continental resorts, never seeking relief in dissipation, never discovering a rational pursuit, imagining to himself that he atoned for the disreputable past in keeping far from the track of his distinguished relatives.
Ah, that place in Lincolnshire! To the listener's mind it became one of the most imposing of English ancestral abodes. The house was of indescribable magnitude and splendour. It had a remarkable "turret," whence, across many miles of plain, Lincoln Cathedral could be discovered by the naked eye; it had an interminable drive from the lodge to the stately portico; it had gardens of fabulous fertility; it had stables which would have served a cavalry regiment In what region were the kine of Sir Grant Musselwhite unknown to fame? Who had not heard of his dairy-produce? Three stories was Mr. Musselwhite in the habit or telling, scintillating fragments of his blissful youth; one was of a fox-cub and a terrier; another of a heifer that went mad; the third, and the most thrilling, of a dismissed coachman who turned burglar, and in the dead of night fired shots at old Sir Grant and his sons. In relating these anecdotes, his eye grew moist and his throat swelled.
Mr. Musselwhite's place at table was next to Barbara Denyer. So long as Miss Denyer was new, or comparatively new, to her neighbour's reminiscences, all went well between them. Barbara condescended to show interest in the place in Lincolnshire; she put pertinent questions; she smiled or looked appropriately serious in listening to the three stories. But this could not go on indefinitely, and for more than a week now conversation between the two had been a trying matter. For Mr. Musselwhite to sustain a dialogue on such topics as Barbara had made her own was impossible, and he had no faculty even for the commonest kind of impersonal talk. He devoted himself to his dinner in amiable silence, enjoying the consciousness that nearly an hour of occupation was before him, and that bed-time lay at no hopeless distance.
Moreover, there was a boy--yet it is doubtful whether he should be so described; for, though he numbered rather less than sixteen years, experience had already made him blase. He sat beside his mother, a Mrs. Strangwich. For Master Strangwich the ordinary sources of youthful satisfaction did not exist; he talked with the mature on terms of something more than equality, and always gave them the impression that they had still much to learn. This objectionable youth had long since been everywhere and seen everything. The naivete of finding pleasure in novel circumstances moved him to a pitying surprise. Speak of the glories of the Bay of Naples, and he would remark, with hands in pockets and head thrown back, that he thought a good deal more of the Golden Horn. If climate came up for discussion, he gave an impartial vote, based on much personal observation, in favour of Southern California. His parents belonged to the race of modern nomads, those curious beings who are reviving an early stage of civilization as an ingenious expedient for employing money and time which they have not intelligence enough to spend in a settled habitat. It was already noticed in the pension that Master Strangwich paid somewhat marked attentions to Madeline Denyer; there was no knowing what might come about if their acquaintance should be prolonged for a few weeks.
But Madeline had at present something else to think about than the condescending favour of Master Strangwich. As the guests entered the dining-room, Mrs. Gluck informed Mrs. Denyer that the English artist who was looked for had just arrived, and would in a few minutes join the company. "Mr. Marsh is here," said Mrs. Denyer aloud to her daughters, in a tone of no particular satisfaction. Madeline glanced at Miss Doran, who, however, did not seem to have heard the remark.
And, whilst the guests were still busy with their soup, Mr. Clifford Marsh presented himself. Within the doorway he stood for a moment surveying the room; with placid eye he selected Mrs. Denyer, and approached her just to shake hands; her three daughters received from him the same attention. Words Mr. Marsh had none, but he smiled as smiles the man conscious of attracting merited observation. Indeed, it was impossible not to regard Mr. Marsh with curiosity. His attire was very conventional in itself, but somehow did not look like the evening uniform of common men: it sat upon him with an artistic freedom, and seemed the garb of a man superior to his surroundings. The artist was slight, pale, rather feminine of feature; he had delicate hands, which he managed to display to advantage; his auburn hair was not long behind, as might have been expected, but rolled in a magnificent mass upon his brows. Many were the affectations whereby his countenance rendered itself unceasingly interesting. At times he wrinkled his forehead down the middle, and then smiled at vacancy--a humorous sadness; or his eyes became very wide as he regarded, yet appeared not to see, some particular person; or his lips drew themselves in, a symbol of meaning reticence. All this, moreover, not in such degrees as to make him patently ridiculous; by no means. Mr. and Mrs. Bradshaw might exchange frequent glances, and have a difficulty in preserving decorum; but they were unsophisticated. Mrs. Lessingham smiled, indeed, when there came a reasonable pretext, but not contemptuously. Mr. Marsh's aspect, if anything, pleased her; she liked these avoidances of the commonplace. Cecily did not fail to inspect the new arrival. She too was well aware that hatred of vulgarity constrains many persons who are anything but fools to emphasize their being in odd ways, and it might still--in spite of the impressionist water-colours--be proved that Mr. Marsh had a right to vary from the kindly race of men. She hoped he was really a person of some account; it delighted her to be with such. And then she suspected that Madeline Denyer had something more than friendship for Mr. Marsh, and her sympathies were moved.
"What sort of weather did you leave in England?" Mrs. Denyer inquired, when the artist was seated next to her.
"I came away from London on the third day of absolute darkness," replied Mr. Marsh, genially.
"Oh dear!" exclaimed Mrs. Gluck; and at once translated this news for the benefit of Frau Wohlgemuth, who murmured, "Ach!" and shook her head.
"The fog is even yet in my throat," proceeded the artist, to whom most of the guests were listening. "I can still see nothing but lurid patches of gaslight on a background of solid mephitic fume. There are fine effects to be caught, there's no denying it; but not every man has the requisite physique for such studies. As I came along here from the railway-station, it occurred to me that the Dante story might have been repeated in my case; the Neapolitans should have pointed at me and whispered, 'Behold the man who has been in hell!'"
Cecily was amused; she looked at Madeline and exchanged a friendly glance with her. At the same time she was becoming aware that Mr. Marsh, who sat opposite, vouchsafed her the homage of his gaze rather too frequently and persistently. It was soon manifest to her, moreover, that Madeline had noted the same thing, and not with entire equanimity. So Cecily began to converse with Mrs. Lessingham, and no longer gave heed to the artist's utterances.
She was going to spend an hour with Miriam this evening, without express invitation. Mr. Bradshaw would drive up the hill with her, and doubtless Mr. Spence would see her safely home. Thus she saw no more for the present of the Denyers' friend.
Those ladies had a private sitting-room, and thither, in the course of the evening, Clifford Marsh repaired. Barbara and Zillah, with their mother, remained in the drawing room. On opening the door to which he had been directed, Marsh found Madeline bent over a book. She raised her eyes carelessly, and said:
"Oh, I hoped it was Barbara."
"I will tell her at once that you wish to speak to her."
"No trouble at all."
He turned away, and at once Madeline rose impatiently from her chair, speaking with peremptory accent.
"Please do as I request you! Come and sit down."
Marsh obeyed, and more than obeyed. He kicked a stool close to her, dropped upon it with one leg curled underneath him, and leaned his head against her shoulder. Madeline remained passive, her features still showing the resentment his manner had provoked.
"I've come all this way just to see you, Mad, when I've no right to be here at all."
"Why no right?"
"I told you to prepare yourself for bad news."
"That's a very annoying habit of yours. I hate to be kept in suspense in that way. Why can't you always say at once what you mean? Father does the same thing constantly in his letters. I'm sure we've quite enough anxiety from him; I don't see why you should increase it."
Without otherwise moving, he put his arm about her.
"What is it, Clifford? Tell me, and be quick."
"It's soon told, Mad. My step-father informs me that he will continue the usual allowance until my twenty-sixth birthday-- eighteenth of February next, you know--and no longer than that. After then, I must look out for myself."
Madeline wrinkled her brows.
"What's the reason?" she asked, after a pause.
"The old trouble. He says I've had quite long enough to make my way as an artist, if I'm going to make it at all. In his opinion, I am simply wasting my time and his money. No cash results; that is to say, no success. Of course, his view."
The girl kept silence. Marsh shifted his position slightly, so as to get a view of her face.
"Somebody else's too, I'm half afraid," he murmured dubiously.
Madeline was thinking of a look she had caught on Miss Doran's face when the portfolio disclosed its contents; of Miss Doran's silence; of certain other person' looks and silence--or worse than silence. The knitting of her brows became deeper; Marsh felt an uneasy movement in her frame.
"Speak plainly," he said. "It's far better."
"It's very hot, Clifford. Sit on a chair; we can talk better."
He moved a little away from her, and looked round the room with a smile of disillusion.
"You needn't insult me," said Madeline, but not with the former petulance; "Often enough you have done that, and yet I don't think I have given you cause."
Still crouching upon the stool, he clasped his hands over his knee, jerked his head back--a frequent movement, to settle his hair-- and smiled with increase of bitterness.
"I meant no insult," he said, "either now or at other times, though you are always ready to interpret me in that way. I merely hint at the truth, which would sound disagreeable in plain terms."
"You mean, of course, that I think of nothing--have never thought of anything--but your material prospects?"
"Why didn't you marry me a year ago, Mad?"
"Because I should have been mad indeed to have done so. You admit it would have caused your step-father at once to stop his allowance. And pray what would have become of us?"
"Exactly. See your faith in me, brought to the touchstone!"
"I suppose the present day would have seen you as it now does?"
"Yes, if you had embarrassed me with lack of confidence. Decidedly not, if you had been to me the wife an artist needs. My future has lain in your power to make or mar. You have chosen to keep me in perpetual anxiety, and now you take a suitable opportunity to overthrow me altogether; or rather, you try to. We will see how things go when I am free to pursue my course untroubled."
"Do so, by all manner of means!" exclaimed Madeline, her voice trembling. "Perhaps I shall prove to have been your friend in this way, at all events. As your wife in London lodgings on the third floor, I confess it is very unlikely I should have aided you. I haven't the least belief in projects of that kind. At best, you would have been forced into some kind of paltry work just to support me--and where would be the good of our marriage? You know perfectly well that lots of men have been degraded in this way. They take a wife to be their Muse, and she becomes the millstone about their neck; then they hate her--and I don't blame them. What's the good of saying one moment that you know your work can never appeal to the multitude, and the next, affecting to believe that our marriage would make you miraculously successful?"
"Then it would have been better to part before this."
"No doubt--as it turns out."
"Why do you speak bitterly? I am stating an obvious fact."
"If I remember rightly, you had some sort of idea that the fact of our engagement might help you. That didn't seem to me impossible. It is a very different thing from marriage on nothing a year."
"You have no faith in me; you never had. And how could you believe in what you don't understand? I see now what I have been forced to suspect--that your character is just as practical as that of other women. Your talk of art is nothing more than talk. You think, in truth, of pounds, shillings and pence."
"I think of them a good deal," said Madeline, "and I should be an idiot if I didn't. What is art if the artist has nothing to live on? Pray, what are you going to do henceforth? Shall you scorn the mention of pounds, shillings and pence? Come to see me when you have had no dinner to-day, and are feeling very uncertain about breakfast in the morning, and I will say, 'Pooh! your talk about art was after all nothing but talk; you are a sham!'"
Marsh's leg began to ache. He rose and moved about the room. Madeline at length turned her eyes to him; he was brooding genuinely, and not for effect. Her glance discerned this.
"Well, and what are you going to do, ill fact?" she asked.
"I'm hanged if I know, Mad; and there's the truth."
He turned and regarded her with wide eyes, seriously perceptive of a blank horizon.
"I've asked him to let me have half the money, but he refuses even that. His object is, of course, to compel me into the life of a Philistine. I believe the fellow thinks it's kindness; I know my mother does. She, of course, has as little faith in me as you have."
Madeline did not resent this. She regarded the floor for a minute, and, without raising her eyes, said:
"Come here, Clifford."
He approached. Still without raising her eyes, she again spoke.
"Do you believe in yourself?"
The words were impressive. Marsh gave a start, uttered an impatient sound, and half turned away.
"Do you believe in yourself, Clifford?"
"Of course I do!" came from him blusterously.
"Very well. In that case, struggle on. If you care for the kind of help you once said I could give you. I will try to give it still. Paint something that will sell, and go on with the other work at the same time."
"Something that will sell!" he exclaimed, with disgust. "I can't, so there's an end of it."
"And an end of your artist life, it seems to me. Unless you have any other plan?"
"I wondered whether you could suggest any."
Madeline shook her head slowly. They both brooded in a cheerless way. When the girl again spoke, it was in an undertone, as if not quite sure that she wished to be heard.
"I had rather you were an artist than anything else, Clifford."
Marsh decided not to hear. He thrust his hands deeper into his pockets, and trod about the floor heavily. Madeline made another remark.
"I suppose the kind of work that is proposed for you would leave you no time for art?"
"Pooh! of course not. Who was ever Philistine and artist at the same time?"
"Well, it's a bad job. I wish I could help you. I wish I had money.
"If you had, I shouldn't benefit by it," was the exasperated reply.
"Will you please to do what you were going to do at first, and tell Barbara I wish to speak to her?"
"Yes, I will."
His temper grew worse. In his weakness he really had thought it likely that Madeline would suggest something hopeful. Men of his stamp constantly entertain unreasonable expectations, and are angry when the unreason is forced upon their consciousness.
"One word before you go, please," said Madeline, standing up and speaking with emphasis. "After what you said just now, this is, of course, our last interview of this kind. When we meet again--and I think it would be gentlemanly in you to go and live somewhere else--you are Mr. Marsh, and I, if you please, am Miss Denyer."
"I will bear it in mind."
"Thank you." He still lingered near the door. "Be good enough to leave me."
He made an effort and left the room. When the door had closed, Madeline heaved a deep sigh, and was for some minutes in a brown, if not a black, study. Then she shivered a little, sighed again, and again took up the volume she had been reading. It was Daudet's "Les Femmes d'Artistes."
Not long after, all the Denyers were reunited in their sitting-room. Mrs. Denyer had brought up an open letter.
"From your father again," she said, addressing the girls conjointly. "I am sure he wears me out. This is worse than the last. 'The fact of the matter is, I must warn you very seriously that I can't supply you with as much as I have been doing. I repeat that I am serious this time. It's a horrible bore, and a good deal worse than a bore. If I could keep your remittances the same by doing on less myself, I would, but there's no possibility of that. I shall be in Alexandria in ten days, and perhaps Colossi will have some money for me, but I can't count on it. Things have gone deuced badly, and are likely to go even worse, as far as I can see. Do think about getting less expensive quarters. I wish to heaven poor little Mad could get married! Hasn't Marsh any prospects yet?'"
"That's all at an end," remarked Madeline, interrupting. "We've just come to an understanding."
Mrs. Denyer stared.
"You've broken off?"
"Mr. Marsh's allowance is to be stopped. His prospects are worse than ever. What's the good of keeping up our engagement?"
There was a confused colloquy between all four. Barbara shrugged her fair shoulders; Zillah looked very gravely and pitifully at Madeline. Madeline herself seemed the least concerned.
"I won't have this!" cried Mrs. Denyer, finally. "His step-father is willing to give him a position in business, and he must accept it; then the marriage can be soon."
"The marriage will decidedly not be soon, mother!" replied Madeline, haughtily. "I shall judge for myself in this, at all events."
"You are a silly, empty-headed girl!" retorted her mother, with swelling bosom and reddening face. "You have quarrelled on some simpleton's question, no doubt. He will accept his step-father's offer; we know that well enough. He ought to have done so a year ago, and our difficulties would have been lightened. Your father means what he says?"
"Wolf!" cried Barbara, petulantly.
"Well, I can see that the wolf has come at last, in good earnest. My girl, you'll have to become more serious Barbara, you at all events, cannot afford to trifle."
"I am no trifler!" cried the enthusiast for Italian unity and regeneracy.
"Let us have proof of that, then." Mrs. Denyer looked at her meaningly.
"Mother," said Zillah, earnestly, "do let me write to Mrs. Stonehouse, and beg her to find me a place as nursery governess. I can manage that, I feel sure."
"I'll think about it, dear. But, Madeline, I insist on your putting an end to this ridiculous state of things. You will order him to take the position offered."
"Mother, I can do nothing of the kind. if necessary, I'll go for a governess as well."
Thereupon Zillah wept, protesting that such desecration was impossible. The scene prolonged itself to midnight. On the morrow, with the exception of Mrs. Denyer's resolve to subdue Marsh, all was forgotten, and the Denyer family pursued their old course, putting off decided action until there should come another cry of "Wolf!"
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