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The Unclassed (Chapter18)

2006-08-22 22:43

  Chapter XVIII. The Enderbys

  Some twenty years before the date we have reached, the Rev. Paul Enderby, a handsome young man, endowed with moral and intellectual qualities considerably above the average, lived and worked in a certain small town of Yorkshire.

  He had been here for two years, an unmarried man; now it was made known that this state of things was to come to an end; moreover, to the disappointment of not a few households, it was understood that the future Mrs. Enderby had been chosen from among his own people, in London. The lady came, and there was a field-day of criticism. Mrs. Enderby looked very young, and was undeniably pretty; she had accomplishments, and evidently liked to exhibit them before her homely visitors. She exaggerated the refinement of her utterance that it might all the more strike off against the local accent. It soon became clear that she would be anything but an assistance to her husband in his parochial work; one or two attempts were made, apparently with good will, at intercourse with the poor parishioners, but the enterprise was distinctly a failure; it had to be definitively given up. Presently a child was born in the parsonage, and for a little while the young mother's attention was satisfactorily engaged at home. The child was a girl and received the name of Maud.

  Paul Enderby struggled to bate no jot of his former activity, but a change was obvious to all. No less obvious the reason of it. Mrs. Enderby's reckless extravagance had soon involved her husband in great difficulties. He was growing haggard; his health was failing; his activity shrank within the narrowest possible limits; he shunned men's gaze.

  Yet all at once there happened something which revived much of his old zeal, and, in spite of everything, brought him once more prominently forward. A calamity had visited the town. By a great explosion in a neighbouring colliery, numbers of homes had been rendered destitute, and aid of every kind was imperatively called for on all sides. In former times, Paul Enderby would have been just the man for this occasion, and even now he was not wanting. Extensive subscriptions were raised, and he, as chief man in the committee which had been formed, had chief control of the funds. People said afterwards that they had often remarked something singular in his manner as he went about in these duties. Whether that was true or not, something more than singular happened when, some two months later, accounts were being investigated and cleared up. Late one evening, Mr. Enderby left home,——and never returned to it. It was very soon known that he must have appropriated to his own use considerable sums which had reached his hands for charitable purposes, and the scandal was terrific. Mrs. Enderby and her child disappeared in a day or two. It was said that ladies from London had come and fetched her away, and she was no more heard of in that little town.

  Miss Bygrave, an elder sister of Mrs. Enderby, had received a letter from Paul summoning her to the wife's aid: and this letter, dated from Liverpool, after disclosing in a few words the whole situation, went on to say that the writer, though he would never more be seen by those who knew him, would not fail to send his wife what money he could as often as he could. And, after half a year, sums had begun to be remitted, in envelopes bearing a Californian postmark. They were not much use, however, to Mrs. Enderby. A few days after her arrival at her home in London, she had been discovered hanging, with a rope round her neck, from a nail behind her bedroom door. Cut down in time, her life was saved, but reason had forsaken her. She was taken away to an asylum, and remained there for five years.

  By that time, she seemed to have quite recovered. Her home was now to be with her sister, Theresa Bygrave. Her child, Maud Enderby, was nearly seven years old. Mrs. Enderby returned to the world not quite the same woman as when she left it. She had never lacked character, and this now showed itself in one immutable resolution. Having found that the child had learnt nothing of its parents, she determined that this ignorance should continue; or rather that it should be exchanged for the belief that those parents were both long dead. She dwelt apart, supported by her sister. Finally, after ten years' absence, Paul Enderby returned to England, and lived again with his wife. But Maud, their daughter, still believed herself alone in the world, save for her aunt, Miss Bygrave.

  At the time when Waymark and Ida were together at Hastings, Mrs. Enderby called one evening at Miss Bygrave's house——the house of Maud's childhood, still distinguished by the same coldness, bareness and gloom, the same silence echoing to a strange footfall. Theresa Bygrave had not greatly altered; tall, upright, clad in the plainest black garment, she walked into the room with silent dignity, and listened to a suggestion made by her brother-in-law.

  “We have talked it over again,” said Paul, “and we have decided to take this step.”

  He paused and watched the listener's face eagerly, glancing quickly away as soon as she looked up.

  “And you still wish me to break it to Maud, and in the way you said?”

  “If you will.——But I do so wish you would let me know your own thoughts about this. You have so much claim to be considered. Maud is in reality yours far more than she is ours. Will it——do you think now it will really be for our own happiness? Will the explanation you are able to give be satisfactory to her? What will be her attitude towards us? You know her character——you understand her.”

  “If the future could be all as calm as the past year has been,” said Miss Bygrave, “I should have nothing to urge against your wishes.”

  “And this will contribute to it,” exclaimed Enderby. “This would give Emily the very support she needs.”

  Miss Bygrave looked into his face, which had a pleading earnestness, and a deep pity lay in her eyes.

  “Let it be so,” she said with decision. “I myself have much hope from Maud's influence. I will write and tell her not to renew her engagement, and she will be with us at the end of September.”

  “But you will not tell her anything till she comes?”

  “No.”

  Miss Bygrave lived in all but complete severance from the world. When Maud Enderby was at school, she felt strongly and painfully the contrast between her own home life and that of her companions. The girl withdrew into solitary reading and thinking; grew ever more afraid of the world; and by degrees sought more of her aunt's confidence, feeling that here was a soul that had long since attained to the peace which she was vainly seeking.

  But it was with effort that Miss Bygrave brought herself to speak to another of her form of faith. After that Christmas night when she addressed Maud for the first time on matters of religion, she had said no second word; she waited the effect of her teaching, and the girl's spontaneous recurrence to the subject. There was something in the very air of the still, chill house favourable to ascetic gravity. A young girl, living under such circumstances, must either pine away, eating her own heart, or become a mystic, and find her daily food in religious meditation.

  Only when her niece was seventeen years old did Miss Bygrave speak to her of worldly affairs. Her own income, she explained, was but just sufficient for their needs, and would terminate upon her death; had Maud thought at all of what course she would choose when the time for decision came? Naturally, only one thing could suggest itself to the girl's mind, and that was to become a teacher. To begin with, she took subordinate work in the school where she had been a pupil; later, she obtained the engagement at Dr. Tootle's.

  An education of this kind, working upon Maud Enderby's natural temperament, resulted in an abnormal character, the chief trait of which was remarkable as being in contradiction to the spirit of her time. She was oppressed with the consciousness of sin. Every most natural impulse of her own heart she regarded as a temptation to be resisted with all her strength. Her ideal was the same as Miss Bygrave's, but she could not pursue it with the latter's assured calm; at every moment the voice of her youth spoke within her, and became to her the voice of the enemy. Her faith was scarcely capable of formulation in creeds; her sins were not of omission or commission in the literal sense; it was an attitude of soul which she sought to attain, though ever falling away. What little she saw of the world in London, and afterwards at her home by the sea-side, only served to increase the trouble of her conscience, by making her more aware of her own weakness. For instance, the matter of her correspondence with Waymark. In very truth, the chief reason why she had given him the permission he asked of her was, that before so sudden and unexpected a demand she found herself confused and helpless; had she been able to reflect, the temptation would probably have been resisted, for the pleasantness of the thought made her regard it as a grave temptation. Casuistry and sophistical reasoning with her own heart ensued, to the increase of her morbid sensitiveness; she persuaded herself that greater insight into the world's evil would be of aid in her struggle, and so the contents of Waymark's first letter led her to a continuance of the correspondence. A power of strong and gloomy description which she showed in her letters, and which impressed Waymark, afforded the key to her sufferings; her soul in reality was that of an artist, and, whereas the artist should be free from everything like moral prepossession, Maud's aesthetic sensibilities were in perpetual conflict with her moral convictions. She could not understand herself, seeing that her opportunities had never allowed her to obtain an idea of the artistic character. This irrepressible delight and interest in the active life of the world, what could it be but the tendency to evil, most strongly developed? These heart-burnings whenever she witnessed men and women rejoicing in the exercise of their natural affections, what could that be but the proneness to evil in its grossest form?

  It was naturally a great surprise to Maud when she received the letter from her aunt, which asked her not to continue her engagement into the new quarter, giving as a reason merely that the writer wished for her at home. It was even with something of dread and shrinking that she looked forward to a renewal of the old life. Still, it was enough that her aunt had need of her. On her return to London, she was met with strange revelations. Miss Bygrave's story had been agreed upon between herself and Paul. It had been deemed best to make Mrs. Enderby's insanity the explanation of Maud's removal from her parents, and the girl, stricken as she was with painful emotions, seemed to accept this undoubtingly.

  The five years or so since Paul Enderby's reappearance in England seemed to have been not unprosperous. The house to which Maud was welcomed by her father and mother was not a large one, and not in a very fashionable locality, but it was furnished with elegance. Mrs. Enderby frequently had her hired brougham, and made use of it to move about a good deal where people see and are seen. Mr. Enderby's business was “in the City.” How he had surmounted his difficulties was not very clear; his wife learned that he had brought with him from America a scheme for the utilisation of waste product in some obscure branch of manufacture, which had been so far successful as to supply him with a small capital. He seemed to work hard, leaving home at nine each morning, getting back to dinner at half-past six, and, as often as not, spending the evening away from home, and not returning till the small hours. He had the feverish eye of a man whose subsistence depends upon speculative acuteness and restless calculation. No doubt he was still so far the old Paul, that, whatever he undertook, he threw himself into it with surpassing vigour.

  Mrs. Enderby was in her thirty-eighth year, and still handsome. Most men, at all events, would have called her so, for most men are attracted by a face which is long, delicate, characterless, and preserves late the self-conscious expression of a rather frivolous girl of seventeen. She had ideals of her own, which she pursued regardless of the course in which they led her; and these ideals were far from ignoble. To beauty of all kinds she was passionately sensitive. As a girl she had played the piano well, and, though the power had gone from long disuse, music was still her chief passion. Graceful ease, delicacy in her surroundings, freedom from domestic cares, the bloom of flowers, sweet scents——such things made up her existence. She loved her husband, and had once worshipped him; she loved her recovered daughter; but both affections were in her, so to speak, of aesthetic rather than of moral quality.

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