In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part I: Miss. Lord
At eight o'clock on Sunday morning, Arthur Peachey unlocked his front door, and quietly went forth. He had not ventured to ask that early breakfast should be prepared for him. Enough that he was leaving home for a summer holiday--the first he had allowed himself since his marriage three years ago.
It was a house in De Crespigny Park; unattached, double-fronted, with half-sunk basement, and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance. De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let.
For an hour after Peachey's departure, the silence of the house was unbroken. Then a bedroom door opened, and a lady in a morning gown of the fashionable heliotrope came downstairs. She had acute features; eyes which seemed to indicate the concentration of her thoughts upon a difficult problem, and cheeks of singular bloom. Her name was Beatrice French; her years numbered six and twenty.
She entered the dining-room and drew up the blind. Though the furniture was less than a year old, and by no means of the cheapest description, slovenly housekeeping had dulled the brightness of every surface. On a chair lay a broken toy, one of those elaborate and costly playthings which serve no purpose but to stunt a child's imagination. Though the time was midsummer, not a flower appeared among the pretentious ornaments. The pictures were a strange medley --autotypes of some artistic value hanging side by side with hideous oleographs framed in ponderous gilding. Miss. then violently rang the bell. When the summons had been twice French looked about her with an expression of strong disgust, repeated, there appeared a young woman whose features told of long and placid slumbers.
'Well? what does this mean?'
'The cook doesn't feel well, miss; she can't get up.
'Then get breakfast yourself, and look sharp about it.'
Beatrice spoke with vehemence; her cheeks showed a circle of richer hue around the unchanging rose. The domestic made insolent reply, and there began a war of words. At this moment another step sounded on the stairs, and as it drew near, a female voice was raised in song.
'And a penny in his pocket, la-de-da, la-de-da,--and a penny in his pocket, la-de-da!'
A younger girl, this, of much slighter build; with a frisky gait, a jaunty pose of the head; pretty, but thin-featured, and shallow-eyed; a long neck, no chin to speak of, a low forehead with the hair of washed-out flaxen fluffed all over it. Her dress was showy, and in a taste that set the teeth on edge. Fanny French, her name.
'What's up? Another row?' she asked, entering the room as the servant went out.
'I've known a good many fools,' said Beatrice, 'but Ada's the biggest I've come across yet.'
'Is she? Well, I shouldn't wonder,' Fanny admitted impartially. And with a skip she took up her song again. 'A penny paper collar round his neck, la-de-da--'
'Are you going to church this morning?' asked her sister.
'Yes. Are you?'
'Come for a walk instead. There's something I want to talk to you about.'
'Won't it do afterwards? I've got an appointment.'
Fanny laughed and nodded.
Interrupted by the reappearance of the servant, who brought a tray and began to lay the table, they crossed the hall to the drawing-room. In half-an-hour's time a sluttish meal was prepared for them, and whilst they were satisfying their hunger, the door opened to admit Mrs. Peachey. Ada presented herself in a costume which, at any season but high summer, would have been inconveniently cool. Beneath a loose thin dressing-gown her feet, in felt slippers, showed stockingless, her neck was bare almost to the bosom, and the tresses of pale yellow, upon which she especially prided herself, lay raggedly pinned together on the top of her flat head. She was about twenty-eight years old, but at present looked more than thirty. Her features resembled Fanny's, but had a much less amiable expression, and betokened, if the thing were possible, an inferior intellect. Fresh from the morning basin, her cheeks displayed that peculiar colourlessness which results from the habitual use of paints and powders; her pale pink lips, thin and sullen, were curiously wrinkled; she had eyes of slate colour, with lids so elevated that she always seemed to be staring in silly wonder.
'So you've got breakfast, have you?' were her first words, in a thin and rather nasal voice. 'You may think yourselves lucky.'
'You have a cheek of your own,' replied Beatrice. 'Whose place is it to see that we get meals?'
'And what can any one do with servants like I've got?' retorted the married sister.
'It's your own fault. You should get better; and when you've got them, you should manage them. But that's just what you can't do.'
'Oh, you'd be a wonderful housekeeper, we know all about that. If you're not satisfied, you'd better find board and lodging somewhere else, as I've told you often enough. You're not likely to get it as cheap.'
They squabbled for some minutes, Fanny looking on with ingenuous amusement, and putting in a word, now for this side, now for that.
'And what am I going to have for breakfast?' demanded Mrs. Peachey at length, surveying the table. 'You've taken jolly good care of yourselves, it seems to me.'
She jumped up, and rang the bell. When a minute's interval brought no reply, she rang again. Beatrice thought it probable that the bell might be rung without effect, 'till all was blue.'
'We'll see about that,' answered her sister, and forthwith invaded the lower parts of the house. Thence, presently, her voice became audible, rising gradually to shrillness; with it there blended the rougher accents of the housemaid, now in reckless revolt. Beatrice listened for a minute or two in the hall, then passed on into the drawing-room with a contemptuous laugh. Fanny, to whom the uproar seemed to bring a renewal of appetite, cut herself a slice of bread and butter, and ate it as she stood at the window.
'Dirty cat! beast! swine!'
The mistress of the house, fairly beaten away by superior force of vocabulary, reappeared with these and other exclamations, her face livid, her foolish eyes starting from their sockets. Fanny, a sort of Mother Cary's chicken, revelled in the row, and screamed her merriment.
It was long before the domestic uproar wholly subsided, but towards eleven o'clock the sisters found themselves together in the drawing-room. Ada sprawled limply on a sofa; Beatrice sat with legs crossed in the most comfortable chair; and Fanny twirled about on a music stool.
The only books in the room were a few show-volumes, which belonged to Arthur Peachey, and half-a-dozen novels of the meaner kind, wherewith Ada sometimes beguiled her infinite leisure. But on tables and chairs lay scattered a multitude of papers: illustrated weeklies, journals of society, cheap miscellanies, penny novelettes, and the like. At the end of the week, when new numbers came in, Ada Peachey passed many hours upon her sofa, reading instalments of a dozen serial stories, paragraphs relating to fashion, sport, the theatre, answers to correspondents (wherein she especially delighted), columns of facetiae, and gossip about notorious people. Through a great deal of this matter Beatrice followed her, and read much besides in which Ada took no interest; she studied a daily newspaper, with special note of law suits, police intelligence, wills, bankruptcies, and any concern, great or small, wherein money played a part. She understood the nature of investments, and liked to talk about stocks and shares with her male acquaintances.
They were the daughters of a Camberwell builder, lately deceased; to each of them had fallen a patrimony just sufficient for their support in elegant leisure. Ada's money, united with a small capital in her husband's possession, went to purchase a share in the business of Messrs. Ducker, Blunt & Co., manufacturers of disinfectants; Arthur Peachey, previously a clerk to the firm, became a junior partner, with the result that most of the hard work was thrown upon his shoulders. At their marriage, the happy pair first of all established themselves in a modest house near Camberwell Road; two years later, growing prosperity brought about their removal to De Crespigny Park, where they had now resided for some twelve months. Unlike their elder sister, Beatrice and Fanny had learnt to support themselves, Beatrice in the postal service, and Fanny, sweet blossom! by mingling her fragrance with that of a florist's shop in Brixton; but on their father's death both forsook their employment, and came to live with Mrs. Peachey. Between them, these two were the owners of house-property, which produced L140 a year. They disbursed, together, a weekly sum of twenty-four shillings for board and lodging, and spent or saved the rest as their impulses dictated.