The Crown of Life by George Gissing
The night being fair, Piers set out to walk a part of the way home. It was only by thoroughly tiring himself with bodily exercise that he could get sound and long oblivion. Hours of sleeplessness were his dread. However soon he awoke after daybreak, he rose at once and drove his mind to some sort of occupation. To escape from himself was all he lived for in these days. An ascetic of old times, subduing his flesh in cell or cave, battled no harder than this idealist of London City tortured by his solitude.
On the pavement of Piccadilly he saw some yards before him, a man seemingly of the common lounging sort, tall-hatted and frock-coated, who was engaged in the cautious pursuit of a female figure, just in advance. A light and springy and half-stalking step; head jutting a little forward; the cane mechanically swung--a typical woman-hunter, in some doubt as to his quarry. On an impulse of instinct or calculation, the man all at once took a few rapid strides, bringing himself within sideview of the woman's face. Evidently he spoke a word; he received an obviously curt reply; he fell back, paced slowly, turned and Piers became aware of a countenance he knew--that of his brother Daniel.
It was a disagreeable moment. Daniel's lean, sallow visage had no aptitude for the expression of shame, but his eyes grew very round, and his teeth showed in a hard grin.
"Why, Piers, my boy! Again we meet in a London street--which is rhyme, and sounds like Browning, doesn't it? Comment ca va-t-il?"
Piers shook hands very coldly, without pretence of a smile.
"I am walking on," he said. "Yours is the other way, I think."
"What! You wish to cut me? Pray, your exquisite reason?"
"Well, then, I think you have behaved meanly and dishonourably to me. I don't wish to discuss the matter, only to make myself understood."
His ability to use this language, and to command himself as he did so, was a surprise to Piers. Nothing he disliked more than personal altercation; he shrank from it at almost any cost. But the sight of Daniel, the sound of his artificial voice, moved him deeply with indignation, and for the first time in his life he spoke out. Having done so, he had a pleasurable sensation; he felt his assured manhood.
Daniel was astonished, disconcerted, but showed no disposition to close the interview; turning, he walked along by his brother.
"I suppose I know what you refer to. But let me explain. I think my explanation will interest you."
"No, I'm afraid it will not," replied Piers quietly.
"In any case, lend me your ears. You are offended by my failure to pay that debt. Well, my nature is frankness, and I will plead guilty to a certain procrastination. I meant to send you the money; I fully meant to do so. But in the first place, it took much longer than I expected to realise the good old man's estate, and when at length the money came into my hands, I delayed and delayed--just as one does, you know; let us admit these human weaknesses. And I procrastinated till I was really ashamed--you follow the psychology of the thing? Then I said to myself: Now it is pretty certain Piers is not in actual want of this sum, or he would have pressed for it. On the other hand, a day may come when he will really be glad to remember that I am his banker for a hundred and fifty pounds. Yes--I said--I will wait till that moment comes; I will save the money for him, as becomes his elder brother. Piers is a good fellow, and will understand. Voila!"
Piers kept silence.
"Tell me, my dear boy," pursued the other. "Alexander of course paid that little sum he owed you?"
"He too has preferred to remain my banker."
"Now I call that very shameful!" burst out Daniel. "No, that's too bad!"
"How did you know he owed me money?" inquired Piers.
"How? Why, he told me himself, down at Hawes, after you went. We were talking of you, of your admirable qualities, and in his bluff, genial way he threw out how generously you had behaved to him, at a moment when he was hard up. He wanted to repay you immediately, and asked me to lend him the money for that purpose; unfortunately, I hadn't it to lend. And to think that, after all, he never paid you! A mere fifty pounds! Why, the thing is unpardonable! In my case the sum was substantial enough to justify me in retaining it for your future benefit. But to owe fifty pounds, and shirk payment--no, I call that really disgraceful. If ever I meet Alexander----!"
Piers was coldly amused. When Daniel sought to draw him into general conversation, with inquiries as to his mode of life, and where he dwelt, the younger brother again spoke with decision. They were not likely, he said, to see more of each other, and he felt as little disposed to give familiar information as to ask it; whereupon Daniel drew himself up with an air of dignified offence, and saying, "I wish you better manners," turned on his heel.
Piers walked on at a rapid pace. Noticing again a well-dressed prowler of the pavement, whose approaches this time were welcomed, a feeling of nausea came upon him. He hailed a passing cab, and drove home.
A week later, he heard from Mrs. Hannaford that she and Olga were established in their own home; she begged him to come and see them soon, mentioning an evening when they would be glad if he could dine with them. And Piers willingly accepted.
The house was at Campden Hill; a house of the kind known to agents as "desirable," larger than the two ladies needed for their comfort, and, as one saw on entering the hall, famished with tasteful care. The work had been supervised by Dr. Derwent, who thought that his sister and his niece might thus be tempted to live the orderly life so desirable in their unfortunate circumstances. When Piers entered, Mrs. Hannaford sat alone in the drawing room; she still had the look of an invalid, but wore a gown which showed to advantage the lines of her figure. Otway had been told not to dress, and it caused him some surprise to see his hostess adorned as if for an occasion of ceremony. Her hair was done in a new way, which changed the wonted character of her face, so that she looked younger. A bunch of pale flowers rested against her bosom, and breathed delicate perfume about her.
"It was discussed," she said, in a low, intimate voice, "whether we should settle in London or abroad. But we didn't like to go away. Our only real friends are in England, and we must hope to make more. Olga is so good, now that she sees that I really need her. She has been so kind and sweet during my illness."
Whilst they were talking, Miss Hannaford silently made her entrance. Piers turned his head, and felt a shock of surprise. Not till now had he seen Olga at her best; he had never imagined her so handsome; it was a wonderful illustration of the effect of apparel. She, too, had reformed the fashion of her hair, and its tawny abundance was much more effective than in the old careless style. She looked taller; she stepped with a more graceful assurance, and in offering her hand, betrayed consciousness of Otway's admiration in a little flush that well became her.
She had subdued her voice, chastened her expressions. The touch of masculinity on which she had prided herself in her later "Bohemian" days, was quite gone. Wondering as they conversed, Piers had a difficulty in meeting her look; his eyes dropped to the little silk shoe which peeped from beneath her skirt. His senses were gratified; he forgot for the moment his sorrow and unrest.
The talk at dinner was rather formal. Piers, with his indifferent appetite, could do but scanty justice to the dainties offered him, and the sense of luxury added a strangeness to his new relations with Mrs. Hannaford and her daughter. Olga spoke of a Russian novel she had been reading in a French translation, and was anxious to know whether it represented life as Otway knew it in Russia. She evinced a wider interest in several directions, emphasised-- perhaps a little too much--her inclination for earnest thought: was altogether a more serious person than hitherto.
Afterwards, when they grouped themselves in the drawing-room, this constraint fell away. Mrs. Hannaford dropped a remark which awakened memories of their life together at Geneva, and Piers turned to her with a bright look.
"You used to play in those days," he said, "and I've never heard you touch a piano since."
There was one in the room. Olga glanced at it, and then smilingly at her mother.
"My playing was so very primitive," said Mrs. Hannaford, with a laugh.
"I liked it."
"Because you were a boy then."
"Let me try to be a boy again. Play something you used to. One of those bits from 'Tell,' which take me back to the lakes and the mountains whenever I hear them."
Mrs. Hannaford rose, laughing as if ashamed; Olga lit the candies on the piano.
"I shall have to play from memory--and a nice mess I shall make of it."
But memory served her for the passages of melody which Piers wished to hear. He listened with deep pleasure, living again in the years when everything he desired seemed a certainty of the future, depending only on the flight of time, on his becoming "a man." He remembered his vivid joy in the pleasures of the moment, the natural happiness now, and for years, unknown to him. So long ago, it seemed; yet Mrs. Hannaford, sitting at the piano, looked younger to him than in those days. And Olga, whom as a girl of fourteen he had not much liked, thinking her both conceited and dull, now was a very different person to him, a woman who seemed to have only just revealed herself, asserting a power of attraction he had never suspected in her. He found himself trying to catch glimpses of her face at different angles, as she sat listening abstractedly to the music.
When it was time to go, he took leave with reluctance. The talk had grown very pleasantly familiar. Mrs. Hannaford said she hoped they would often see him, and the hope had an echo in his own thoughts. This house might offer him the refuge he sought when loneliness weighed too heavily. It was true, he could not accept the idea with a whole heart; some vague warning troubled his imagination; but on the way home he thought persistently of the pleasure he had experienced, and promised himself that it should be soon repeated.
A melody was singing in his mind; becoming conscious of it, he remembered that it was the air to which his friend Moncharmont had set the little song of Alfred de Musset. At Odessa he had been wont to sing it--in a voice which Moncharmont declared to have the quality of a very fair tenor, and only to need training.
"Quand on perd. par triste occurrence, Son esperance Et sa gaite, Le remede au melancolique O'est la musique Et la beaute. Plus oblige et peut davantage Un beau visage Qu'un homme arme, Et rien n'est meilleur que d'entendre Air doux et tendre Jadin alme!"
It haunted him after he had gone to rest, and for once he did not mind wakefulness.
A week passed. On Friday, Piers said to himself that to-morrow he would go in the afternoon to Campden Hill, on the chance of finding his friends at home. On Saturday morning the post brought him a letter which he saw to be from Mrs. Hannaford, and he opened it with pleasant anticipation; but instead of the friendly lines he expected he found a note of agitated appeal. The writer entreated him to come and see her exactly at three o'clock; she was in very grave trouble, had the most urgent need of him. Three o'clock; neither sooner or later; if he could possibly find time. If he could not come, would he telegraph an appointment for her at his office?
With perfect punctuality, he arrived at the house, and in the drawing-room found Mrs. Hannaford awaiting him. She came forward with both her hands held out; in her eyes a look almost of terror. Her voice, at first, was in choking whispers, and the words so confusedly hurried as to be barely intelligible.
"I have sent Olga away--I daren't let her know--she will be away for several hours, so we can talk--oh, you will help me--you will do your best----"
Perplexed and alarmed, Piers held her hand as he tried to calm her. She seemed incapable of telling him what had happened, but kept her eyes fixed upon him in a wild entreaty, and uttered broken phrases which conveyed nothing to him; he gathered at length that she was in fear of some person.
"Sit down and let me hear all about it," he urged.
"Yes, yes--but I'm so ashamed to speak to you about such things. I don't know whether you'll believe me. Oh, the shame--the dreadful shame! It's only because there seems just this hope. How shall I bring myself to tell you?"
"Dear Mrs. Hannaford, we have been friends so long. Trust me to understand you. Of course, of course I shall believe what you say!"
"A dreadful, a shameful thing has happened. How shall I tell you?" Her haggard face flushed scarlet. "My husband has given me notice that he is going to sue for a divorce. He brings a charge against me --a false, cruel charge! It came yesterday. I went to the solicitor whose name was given, and learnt all I could. I have had to hide it from Olga, and oh! what it cost me! At once I thought of you; then it seemed impossible to speak to you; then I felt I must, I must. If only you can believe me! It is--your brother."
Piers was overcome with amazement. He sat looking into the eyes which stared at him with their agony of shame.
"You mean Daniel?" he faltered.
"Yes--Daniel Otway. It is false--it is false! I am not guilty of this! It seems to me like a hateful plot--if one could believe anyone so wicked. I saw him last night. Oh, I must tell you all, else you'll never believe me--I saw him last night. How can anyone behave so to a helpless woman? I never did him anything but kindness. He has me in his power, and he is merciless."
A passion of disgust and hatred took hold on Piers as he remembered the meeting in Piccadilly.
"You mean to say you have put yourself into that fellow's power?" he exclaimed.
"Not willingly! Oh, not willingly! I meant only kindness to him. Yes, I have been weak, I know, and so foolish! It has gone on so long.--You remember when I first saw him, at Ewell? I liked him, just as a friend. Of course I behaved foolishly. It was my miserable life--you know what my life was. But nothing happened--I mean, I never thought of him for a moment as anything but an ordinary friend --until I had my legacy."
The look on the listener's face checked her.
"I begin to understand," said Piers, with bitterness.
"No, no! Don't say that--don't speak like that!"
"It's not you I am thinking of, Mrs. Hannaford. As soon as money comes in--. But tell me plainly. I have perfect confidence in what you say, indeed I have."
"It does me good to hear you say that! I can tell you all, now that I have begun. It is true, he did ask me to go away with him, again and again. But he had no right to do that--I was foolish in showing that I liked him. Again and again I forbade him ever to see me; I tried so hard to break off! It was no use. He always wrote, wherever I was, sending his letters to Dr. Derwent to be forwarded. He made me meet him at all sorts of places--using threats at last. Oh, what I have gone through!"
"No doubt," said Piers gently, "you have lent him money?"
She reddened again; her head sank.
"Yes--I have lent him money, when he was in need. Just before the death of your father."
"To be sure. Lately, too, I daresay?"
"Then you quite understand his character?"
"I do now," Mrs. Hannaford replied wretchedly. "But I must tell you more. If it were only a suspicion of my husband's I should hardly care at all. But someone must have betrayed me to him, and have told deliberate falsehoods. I am accused--it was when I was at the seaside once--and he came to the same hotel--Oh, the shame, the shame!"
She covered her face with her hands, and turned away.
"Why," cried Piers, in wrath, "that fellow is quite capable of having betrayed you himself. I mean, of lying about you for his own purposes."
"You think he could be so wicked?"
"I don't doubt it for a moment. He has done his best to persuade you to ruin yourself for him, and he thinks, no doubt, that if you are divorced, nothing will stand between him and you--in other words, your money."
"He said, when I saw him yesterday, that now it had come to this, I had better take that step at once. And when I spoke of my innocence, he asked who would believe it? He seemed sorry; really he did. Perhaps he is not so bad as one fears?"
"Where did you see him yesterday?" asked Otway.
"At his lodgings. I was obliged to go and see him as soon as possible. I have never been there before. He behaved very kindly. He said of course he should declare my innocence----"
"And in the same breath assured you no one would believe it? And advised you to go off with him at once?"
"I know how bad it seems," said Mrs. Hannaford. "And yet, it is all my own fault--my own long folly. Oh, you must wonder why I have brought you here to tell you this! It's because there is no one else I could speak to, as a friend, and I felt I should go mad if I couldn't ask someone's advice. Of course I could go to a lawyer-- but I mean someone who would sympathise with me. I am not very strong; you know I have been ill: this blow seems almost more than I can bear; I thought I would ask you if you could suggest anything-- if you would see him, and try to arrange something." She looked at Piers distractedly. "Perhaps money would help. My husband has been having money from me; perhaps if we offered him more? Ought I to see him, myself? But there is ill-feeling between us; and I fear he would be glad to injure me, glad!"
"I will see Daniel," said Piers, trying to see hope where reason told him there was none. "With him, at all events, money can do much."
"You will? You think you may be able to help me? I am in such terror when I think of my brother hearing of this. And Irene! Think, if it becomes public--everyone talking about the disgrace--what will Irene do? Just at the time of her marriage!" She held out her hands, pleadingly. "You would be glad to save Irene from such a shame?"
Piers had not yet seen the scandal from this point of view. It came upon him with a shock, and he stood speechless.
"My husband hates them," pursued Mrs. Hannaford, "and you don't know what his hatred means. Just for that alone, he will do his worst against me--hoping to throw disgrace on the Derwents."
"I doubt very much," said Piers, who had been thinking hard, "whether, in any event, this would affect the Derwents in people's opinion."
"You don't think so? But do you know Arnold Jacks? I feel sure he is the kind of man who would resent bitterly such a thing as this. He is very proud--proud in just that kind of way--do you understand? Oh, I know it would make trouble between him and Irene."
"In that case," Piers began vehemently, and at once checked himself.
"What were you going to say?"
"Nothing that could help us."
When he raised his eyes again, Mrs. Hannaford was gazing at him with pitiful entreaty.
"For her sake," she said, in a low, shaken voice, "you will try to do something?"
"If only I can!"
"Yes! I know you! You are good and generous--It ought surely to be possible to stop this before it gets talked about? If I were guilty, it would be different. But I have done no wrong; I have only been weak and foolish. I thought of going straight to my brother, but there is the dreadful thought that he might not believe me. It is so hard for a woman accused in this way to seem innocent; men always see the dark side. He has no very good opinion of me, as it is, I know he hasn't. I turned so naturally to you; I felt you would do your utmost for me in my misery.--If only my husband can be brought to see that I am not guilty, that he wouldn't win the suit, then perhaps he would cease from it. I will give all the money I can --all I have!"
Piers stood reflecting.
"Tell me all the details you have learnt," he said. "What evidence do they rely on?"
Her head bowed, her voice broken, she told of place and time and the assertions of so-called witnesses.
"Why has this plot against you been a year in ripening?" asked Otway.
"Perhaps we are wrong in thinking it a plot. My husband may only just have discovered what he thinks my guilt in some chance way. If so, there is hope."
They sat mute for a minute or two.
"If only I can hide this from Olga," said Mrs. Hannaford. "Think how dreadful it is for me, with her! We were going to ask you to spend another evening with us--but how is it possible? If I send you the invitation, will you make an answer excusing yourself--saying you are too busy? To prevent Olga from wondering. How hard, how cruel it is! Just when we had made ourselves a home here, and might have been happy!"
Piers stood up, and tried to speak words of encouragement. The charge being utterly false, at worst a capable solicitor might succeed in refuting it. He was about to take his leave, when he remembered that he did not know Daniel's address: Mrs. Hannaford gave it.
"I am sorry you went there," he said.
And as he left the room, he saw the woman's eyes follow him with that look of woe which signals a tottering mind.