In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part II: Nature's Graduate
His father's contemptuous wrath had an ill effect upon Horace. Of an amiable disposition, and without independence of character, he might have been guided by a judicious parent through all the perils of his calf-love for Fanny French; thrown upon his own feeble resources, he regarded himself as a victim of the traditional struggle between prosaic age and nobly passionate youth, and resolved at all hazards to follow the heroic course--which meant, first of all, a cold taciturnity towards his father, and, as to his future conduct, a total disregard of the domestic restraints which he had hitherto accepted. In a day or two he sat down and wrote his father a long letter, of small merit as a composition, and otherwise illustrating the profitless nature of the education for which Stephen Lord had hopefully paid. It began with a declaration of rights. He was a man; he could no longer submit to childish trammels. A man must not be put to inconvenience by the necessity of coming home at early hours. A man could not brook cross-examination on the subject of his intimacies, his expenditure, and so forth. Above all, a man was answerable to no one but himself for his relations with the other sex, for the sacred hopes he cherished, for his emotions and aspirations which transcended even a man's vocabulary.--With much more of like tenor.
To this epistle, delivered by post, Mr. Lord made no answer.
Horace flattered himself that he had gained a victory. There was nothing like 'firmness,' and that evening, about nine, he went to De Crespigny Park. As usual, he had to ring the bell two or three times before any one came; the lively notes of a piano sounded from the drawing-room, intimating, no doubt, that Mrs. Peachey had guests. The door at length opened, and he bade the servant let Miss. Fanny know that he was here; he would wait in the dining-room.
It was not yet dark, but objects could only just be distinguished; the gloom supplied Horace with a suggestion at which he laughed to himself. He had laid down his hat and cane, when a voice surprised him.
'Who's that?' asked some one from the back of the room.
'Oh, are you there, Mr. Peachey?--I've come to see Fanny. I didn't care to go among the people.'
'All right. We'd better light the gas.'
With annoyance, Horace saw the master of the house come forward, and strike a match. Remains of dinner were still on the table. The two exchanged glances.
'How is your father?' Peachey inquired. He had a dull, depressed look, and moved languidly to draw down the blind.
'Oh, he isn't quite up to the mark. But it's nothing serious, I think.'
'Miss. Lord quite well?--We haven't seen much of her lately.'
'I don't know why, I'm sure.--Nobody can depend upon her very much.'
'Well, I'll leave you,' said the other, with a dreary look about the room. 'The table ought to have been cleared by now--but that's nothing new.'
'Confounded servants,' muttered Horace.
'Oh yes, the servants,' was Peachey's ironical reply.
As soon as he was left alone, Horace turned out the gas. Then he stood near the door, trembling with amorous anticipation. But minutes went by; his impatience grew intolerable; he stamped, and twisted his fingers together. Then of a sudden the door opened.
'Why, it's dark, there's nobody here.'
Fanny discovered her mistake. She was seized and lifted off her feet.
'Oh! Do you want to eat me? I'll hit you as hard as I can, I will! You're spoiling my dress?'
The last remonstrance was in a note that Horace did not venture to disregard.
'Strike a light, silly! I know you've done something to my dress.'
Horace pleaded abjectly to be forgiven, and that the room might remain shadowed; but Fanny was disturbed in temper.
'If you don't light the gas, I'll go at once.'
'I haven't any matches, darling.'
'Oh, just like you! You never have anything. I thought every man carried matches.'
She broke from him, and ran out. Wretched in the fear that she might not return, Horace waited on the threshold. In the drawing-room some one was singing 'The Maid of the Mill.' It came to an end, and there sounded voices, which the tormented listener strove to recognise. For at least ten minutes he waited, and was all but frantic, when the girl made her appearance, coming downstairs.
'Never do that again,' she said viciously. 'I've had to unfasten my things, and put them straight. What a nuisance you are!'
He stood cowed before her, limp and tremulous.
'There, light the gas. Why couldn't you come into the drawing-room, like other people do?'
'Who is there?' asked the young man, when he had obeyed her.
'Go and see for yourself.'
'Don't be angry, Fanny.' He followed her, like a dog, as she walked round the table to look at herself in the mirror over the fireplace. 'It was only because I'm so fond of you.'
'Oh, what a silly you are!' she laughed, seating herself on the arm of an easy-chair. 'Go ahead! What's the latest?'
'Well, for one thing, I've had a very clear understanding with the gov'nor about my independence. I showed him that I meant having my own way, and he might bully as much as he liked.'
It was not thus that Horace would naturally have spoken, not thus that he thought of his father. Fanny had subdued him to her own level, poisoned him with the desires excited by her presence. And he knew his baseness; he was not ignorant of the girl's ignoble nature. Only the fury of a virgin passion enabled him to talk, and sometimes think, as though he were in love with ideal purity.
'I didn't think you had the pluck,' said Fanny, swinging one of her feet as she tittered.
'That shows you haven't done me justice.'
'And you're going to stay out late at night?'
'As late as I like,' Horace answered, crossing his arms.
'Then where will you take me to-morrow?'
It happened that Horace was in funds just now; he had received his quarter's salary. Board and lodging were no expense to him; he provided his own clothing, but, with this exception, had to meet no serious claim. So, in reply to Fanny's characteristic question, he jingled coins.
'Wherever you like.--"Dorothy," "Ruddigore--"'
Delighted with his assent, she became more gracious, permitted a modest caress, and presently allowed herself to be drawn on to her lover's knee. She was passive, unconcerned; no second year graduate of the pavement could have preserved a completer equanimity; it did not appear that her pulse quickened ever so slightly, nor had her eyelid the suspicion of a droop. She hummed 'Queen of my Heart,' and grew absent in speculative thought, whilst Horace burned and panted at the proximity of her white flesh.
'Oh, how I do love you, Fanny!'
She trod playfully on his toe.
'You haven't told the old gentleman yet?'
'I--I'm thinking about it. But, Fanny, suppose he was to--to refuse to do anything for us. Would it make any difference? There are lots of people who marry on a hundred and fifty a year--oh lots!'
The maiden arched her brows, and puckered her lips. Hitherto it had been taken for granted that Mr. Lord would be ready with subsidy; Horace, in a large, vague way, had hinted that assurance long ago. Fanny's disinclination to plight her troth--she still deemed herself absolutely free--had alone interfered between the young man and a definite project of marriage.
'What kind of people?' she asked coldly.
'Oh--respectable, educated people, like ourselves.'
'And live in apartments? Thank you; I don't quite see myself. There isn't a bit of hurry, dear boy. Wait a bit.' She began to sing 'Wait till the clouds roll by.'
'If you thought as much of me as I do of you--'
Tired of her position, Fanny jumped up and took a spoonful of sweet jelly from a dish on the table.
'Come here again. I've something more to tell you. Something very important.'
She could only be prevailed upon to take a seat near him. Horace, beset with doubts as to his prudence, but unable to keep the secret, began to recount the story of his meeting with Mrs. Damerel, whom he had now seen for the second time. Fanny's curiosity, instantly awakened, grew eager as he proceeded. She questioned with skill and pertinacity, and elicited many more details than Nancy Lord had been able to gather.
'You'll promise me not to say a word to any one?' pleaded Horace.
'I won't open my lips. But you're quite sure she's as old as you say?'
'Old enough to be my mother, I assure you.'
The girl's suspicions were not wholly set at rest, but she made no further display of them.
'Now just think what an advantage it might be to you, to know her,' Horace pursued. 'She'd introduce you at once to fashionable society, really tip-top people. How would you like that?'
'Not bad,' was the judicial reply.
'She must have no end of money, and who knows what she might do for me!'
'It's a jolly queer thing,' mused the maiden.
'There's no denying that. We must keep it close, whatever we do.'
'You haven't told anybody else?'
'Not a soul!' Horace lied stoutly.
They were surprised by the sudden opening of the door; a servant appeared to clear the table. Fanny reprimanded her for neglecting to knock.
'We may as well go into the drawing-room. There's nobody particular. Only Mrs. Middlemist, and Mr. Crewe, and--'
In the hall they encountered Crewe himself, who stood there conversing with Beatrice. A few words were exchanged by the two men, and Horace followed his enchantress into the drawing-room, where he found, seated in conversation with Mrs. Peachey, two persons whom he had occasionally met here. One of them, Mrs. Middlemist, was a stout, coarse, high-coloured woman, with fingers much bejewelled. Until a year or two ago she had adorned the private bar of a public-house kept by her husband; retired from this honourable post, she now devoted herself to society and the domestic virtues. The other guest, Mrs. Murch by name, proclaimed herself, at a glance, of less prosperous condition, though no less sumptuously arrayed. Her face had a hungry, spiteful, leering expression; she spoke in a shrill, peevish tone, and wriggled nervously on her chair. In eleven years of married life, Mrs. Murch had borne six children, all of whom died before they were six months old. She lived apart from her husband, who had something to do with the manufacture of an Infants' Food.
Fanny was requested to sing. She sat down at the piano, rattled a prelude, and gave forth an echo of the music-halls:
'It's all up with poor Tommy now.
Mrs. Middlemist, who prided herself upon serious vocal powers, remarked that comic singing should be confined to men.
'You haven't a bad voice, my dear, if you would only take pains with it. Now sing us "For Ever and for Ever."'
This song being the speaker's peculiar glory, she was of course requested to sing it herself, and, after entreaty, consented. Her eyes turned upward, her fat figure rolling from side to side, her mouth very wide open, Mrs. Middlemist did full justice to the erotic passion of this great lyric:
'Perchawnce if we 'ad never met,
Mrs. Murch let her head droop sentimentally. Horace glanced at Fanny, who, however, seemed absorbed in reflections as unsentimental as could be.
In the meanwhile, on a garden seat under the calm but misty sky, sat Luckworth Crewe and Beatrice French. Crewe smoked a cigar placidly; Beatrice was laying before him the suggestion of her great commercial scheme, already confided to Fanny.
'How does it strike you?' she asked at length.
'Not bad, old chap. There's something in it, if you're clever enough to carry it through. And I shouldn't wonder if you are.' 'Will you help to set it going?'
'Can't help with money,' Crewe replied.
'Very well; will you help in other ways? Practical hints, and so on?'
'Of course I will. Always ready to encourage merit in the money-making line. What capital are you prepared to put into it?'
'Not much. The public must supply the capital.'
'A sound principle,' Crewe laughed. 'But I shouldn't go on the old lines. You didn't think of starting a limited company? You'd find difficulties. Now what you want to start is a--let us call it the South London Dress Supply Association, or something of that kind. But you won't get to that all at once. You ought to have premises to begin with.'
'I'm aware of it.'
'Can you raise a thousand or so?'
'Yes, I could--if I chose.'
'Now, look here. Your notion of the Fashion Club is a deuced good one, and I don't see why it shouldn't be pretty easily started. Out of every five hundred women, you can reckon on four hundred and ninety-nine being fools; and there isn't a female fool who wouldn't read and think about a circular which promised her fashionable dresses for an unfashionable price. That's a great and sound basis to start on. What I advise is, that you should first of all advertise for a dress-making concern that would admit a partner with a small capital. You'll have between ten and twelve hundred replies, but don't be staggered; go through them carefully, and select a shop that's well situated, and doing a respectable trade. Get hold of these people, and induce them to make changes in their business to suit your idea. Then blaze away with circulars, headed "South London Fashion Club;" send them round the whole district, addressed to women. Every idiot of them will, at all events, come and look at the shop; that can be depended upon; in itself no bad advertisement. Arrange to have a special department--special entrance, if possible--with "The Club" painted up. Yes, by jingo! Have a big room, with comfortable chairs, and the women's weekly papers lying about, and smart dresses displayed on what-d'ye-call-'ems, like they have in windows. Make the subscription very low at first, and give rattling good value; never mind if you lose by it. Then, when you've got hold of a lot of likely people, try them with the share project. By-the-bye, if you lose no time, you can bring in the Jubilee somehow. Yes, start with the "Jubilee Fashion Club." I wonder nobody's done it already.'
Beatrice was growing elated.
'The public has to wait for its benefactors,' she replied.
'I'll tell you what, would you like me to sketch you out a prospectus of the Club?'
'Yes, you might do that if you like. You won't expect to be paid?'
'Hang it! what do you take me for?'
'Business is business,' Miss. French remarked coldly.
'So it is. And friendship is friendship. Got a match?' He laughed. 'No, I suppose you haven't.'
'I'll go and get you one if you like.'
'There's a good fellow. I'll think in the meantime.'
Beatrice rose lazily, and was absent for several minutes. When she returned, Crewe re-lit his cigar.
'Why shouldn't I start the shop on my own account?' Beatrice asked.
'You haven't capital enough. A little place wouldn't do.'
'I think I can get Fanny to join me.'
'Can you? What will young Lord have to say to that?'
'Psh! That's all fooling. It'll never come to anything. Unless, of course, the old man turned up his toes, and left the boy a tidy sum. But he won't just yet. I've told Fanny that if she'll raise something on her houses, I'll guarantee her the same income she has now.'
'Take my advice,' said Crewe weightily, 'and hook on to an established business. Of course, you can change the name if you like; and there'd have to be alterations, and painting up, to give a new look.'
'It's risky, dealing with strangers. How if they got hold of my idea, and then refused to take me in?'
'Well now, look here. After all, I'll make a bargain with you, old chap. If I can introduce you to the right people, and get you safely started, will you give me all your advertising, on the usual commission?'
'You mean, give it to Bullock and Freeman?'
'No, I don't. It's a secret just yet, but I'm going to start for myself.'
Beatrice was silent. They exchanged a look in the gloom, and Crewe nodded, in confirmation of his announcement.
'How much have you got?' Miss. French inquired carelessly.
'Not much. Most of the capital is here.' He touched his forehead. 'Same as with you.'
The young woman glanced at him again, and said in a lower voice:
'You'd have had more by now, if--'
Crewe waited, puffing his cigar, but she did not finish.
'Maybe,' he replied impartially. 'Maybe not.'
'Don't think I'm sorry,' Beatrice hastened to add. 'It was an idea, like any other.'
'Not half a bad idea. But there were obstacles.'
After a pause, Beatrice inquired:
'Do you still think the same about women with money?'
'Just the same,' Crewe replied at once, though with less than his usual directness; the question seemed to make him meditative. 'Just the same. Every man looks at it in his own way, of course. I'm not the sort of chap to knuckle under to my wife; and there isn't one woman in a thousand, if she gave her husband a start, could help reminding him of it. It's the wrong way about. Let women be as independent as they like as long as they're not married. I never think the worse of them, whatever they do that's honest. But a wife must play second fiddle, and think her husband a small god almighty --that's my way of looking at the question.'
Beatrice laughed scornfully.
'All right. We shall see.--When do you start business?'
'This side Christmas. End of September, perhaps.'
'You think to snatch a good deal from B. & F., I daresay?'
Crewe nodded and smiled.
'Then you'll look after this affair for me?' said Beatrice, with a return to the tone of strict business.
'Without loss of time. You shall be advised of progress. Of course I must debit you with exes.'
'All right. Mind you charge for all the penny stamps.'
'Every one--don't you forget it.'
He stood up, tilted forward on his toes, and stretched himself.
'I'll be trotting homewards. It'll be time for by-by when I get to Kennington.'