Part II: Nature's Graduate
Chapter 3
 

Nancy was undisturbed by the promotion of Mary Woodruff. A short time ago it would have offended her; she would have thought her dignity, her social prospects, imperilled. She was now careless on that score, and felt it a relief to cast off the show of domestic authority. Henceforth her position would be like that of Horace. All she now desired was perfect freedom from responsibility,--to be, as it were, a mere lodger in the house, to come and go unquestioned and unrestrained by duties.

Thus, by aid of circumstance, had she put herself into complete accord with the spirit of her time. Abundant privilege; no obligation. A reference of all things to her sovereign will and pleasure. Withal, a defiant rather than a hopeful mood; resentment of the undisguisable fact that her will was sovereign only in a poor little sphere which she would gladly have transcended.

Now-a-days she never went in the direction of Champion Hill, formerly her favourite walk. If Jessica Morgan spoke of her acquaintances there, she turned abruptly to another subject. She thought of the place as an abode of arrogance and snobbery. She recalled with malicious satisfaction her ill-mannered remark to Lionel Tarrant. Let him think of her as he would; at all events he could no longer imagine her overawed by his social prestige. The probability was that she had hurt him in a sensitive spot; it might be hoped that the wound would rankle for a long time.

Her personal demeanour showed a change. So careful hitherto of feminine grace and decorum, she began to affect a mannishness of bearing, a bluntness of speech, such as found favour at De Crespigny Park. In a few weeks she had resumed friendly intercourse with Mrs. Peachey and her sisters, and spent an occasional evening at their house. Her father asked no questions; she rarely saw him except at meals. A stranger must have observed the signs of progressive malady in Mr. Lord's face, but Nancy was aware of nothing to cause uneasiness; she thought of him as suffering a little from 'gout;' elderly people were of course subject to such disorders. On most days he went to business; if he remained at home, Mary attended him assiduously, and he would accept no other ministration.

Nancy was no longer inclined to study, and cared little for reading of any sort. That new book on Evolution, which she had brought from the library just before Jubilee Day, was still lying about; a dozen times she had looked at it with impatience, and reminded herself that it must be returned. Evolution! She already knew all about Darwinism, all she needed to know. If necessary she could talk about it--oh, with an air. But who wanted to talk about such things? After all, only priggish people,--the kind of people who lived at Champion Hill. Or idiots like Samuel Bennett Barmby, who bothered about the future of the world. What was it to her--the future of the world? She wanted to live in the present, to enjoy her youth. An evening like that she had spent in the huge crowd, with a man like Crewe to amuse her with his talk, was worth whole oceans of 'culture.'

'Culture' she already possessed, abundance of it. The heap of books she had read! Last winter she had attended a course of lectures, delivered by 'a young University gentleman with a tone of bland omniscience, on 'The History of Hellenic Civilisation;' her written answers to the little 'test papers' had been marked 'very satisfactory.' Was it not a proof of culture achieved? Education must not encroach upon the years of maturity. Nature marked the time when a woman should begin to live.

There was poor Jessica. As July drew on, Jessica began to look cadaverous, ghostly. She would assuredly break down long before the time of her examination. What a wretched, what an absurd existence! Her home, too, was so miserable. Mrs. Morgan lay ill, unable to attend to anything; if she could not have a change of air, it must soon be all over with her. But they had no money, no chance of going to the seaside.

It happened at length that Mr. Lord saw Jessica one evening, when she had come to spend an hour in Grove Lane. After her departure, he asked Nancy what was the matter with the girl, and Nancy explained the situation.

'Well, why not take her with you, when you go away?'

'I didn't know that I was going away, father. Nothing has been said of it.'

'It's your own business. I leave you to make what plans you like.'

Nancy reflected.

'You ought to have a change,' she said considerately. 'It would do you good. Suppose we all go to Teignmouth? I should think that would suit you.'

'Why Teignmouth?'

'I enjoyed it last year. And the lodgings were comfortable. We could have the same, from the first week in August.'

'How do you know?'

'I wrote the other day, and asked,' Nancy replied with a smile.

But Mr. Lord declined to leave home. Mary Woodruff did her best to persuade him, until he angrily imposed silence. In a day or two he said to Nancy:

'If you wish to go to Teignmouth, take Jessica and her mother. People mustn't die for want of a five-pound note. Make your arrangements, and let me know what money you'll need.'

'It's very kind of you, father.'

Mr. Lord turned away. His daughter noticed that he walked feebly, and she felt a moment's compunction.

'Father--you are not so well to-day.'

Without looking round, he replied that he would be well enough if left alone; and Nancy did not venture to say more.

A few days later, she called in De Crespigny Park after dinnertime. Mrs. Peachey and Fanny were at Brighton; Beatrice had preferred to stay in London, being very busy with her great project. Whilst she talked of it with Nancy, Peachey and Luckworth Crewe came in together. There was sprightly conversation, in which the host, obviously glad of his wife's absence, took a moderate part. Presently, Miss. Lord and he found themselves gossiping alone; the other two had moved aside, and, as a look informed Nancy, were deep in confidential dialogue.

'What do you think of that business?' she asked her companion in an undertone.

'I shouldn't wonder if it answers,' said the young man, speaking as usual, with a soft, amiable voice. 'Our friend is helping, and he generally knows what he's about.'

Crewe remained only for half-an-hour; on shaking hands with him, Nancy made known that she was going to the seaside next Monday for a few weeks, and the man of business answered only with 'I hope you'll enjoy yourself.' Soon afterwards, she took leave. At the junction of De Crespigny Park and Grove Lane, some one approached her, and with no great surprise Nancy saw that it was Crewe.

'Been waiting for you,' he said. 'You remember you promised me another walk.'

'Oh, it's much too late.'

'Of course it is. I didn't mean now. But to-morrow.'

'Impossible.' She moved on, in the direction away from her home. 'I shall be with friends in the evening, the Morgans.'

'Confound it! I had made up my mind to ask you for last Saturday, but some country people nabbed me for the whole of that day. I took them up the Monument, and up St Paul's.'

'I've never been up the Monument,' said Nancy.

'Never? Come to-morrow afternoon then. You can spare the afternoon. Let's meet early somewhere. Take a bus to London Bridge. I'll be at the north end of London Bridge at three o'clock.'

'All right; I'll be there,' Nancy replied off-hand.

'You really will? Three, sharp. I was never late at an appointment, business or pleasure.'

'Which do you consider this?' asked his companion, with a shrewd glance.

'Now that's unkind. I came here to-night on business, though. You quite understand that, didn't you? I shouldn't like you to make any mistake. Business, pure and simple.'

'Why, of course,' replied Nancy, with an ingenuous air. 'What else could it be?' And she added, 'Don't come any further. Ta-ta!'

Crewe went off into the darkness.

The next afternoon, Nancy alighted at London Bridge a full quarter of an hour late. It had been raining at intervals through the day, and clouds still cast a gloom over the wet streets. Crewe, quite insensible to atmospheric influence, came forward with his wonted brisk step and animated visage. At Miss. Lord's side he looked rather more plebeian than when walking by himself; his high-hat, not of the newest, utterly misbecame his head, and was always at an unconventional angle, generally tilting back; his clothes, of no fashionable cut, bore the traces of perpetual hurry and multifarious impact. But he carried a perfectly new and expensive umbrella, to which, as soon as he had shaken hands with her, he drew Nancy's attention.

'A present this morning, from a friend of mine in the business. I ran into his shop to get shelter. Upon my word, I had no intention; didn't think anything about it. However, he owed me an acknowledgment; I've sent him three customers from our office since I saw him last. By-the-bye, I shall have half a day at the seaside on Monday. There's a sale of building-plots down at Whitsand. The estate agents run a complimentary special train for people going down to bid, and give a lunch before the auction begins. Not bad business.'

'Are you going to bid?' asked Nancy.

'I'm going to have a look, at all events; and if I see anything that takes my fancy--. Ever been to Whitsand? I'm told it's a growing place. I should like to get hold of a few advertising stations.-- Where is it you are going to on Monday? Teignmouth? I don't know that part of the country. Wish I could run down, but I shan't have time. I've got my work cut out for August and September. Would you like to come and see the place where I think of opening shop?'

'Is it far?'

'No. We'll walk round when we've been up the Monument. You don't often go about the City, I daresay. Nothing doing, of course, on a Saturday afternoon.'

Nancy made him moderate his pace, which was too quick for her. Part of the pleasure she found in Crewe's society came from her sense of being so undeniably his superior; she liked to give him a sharp command, and observe his ready obedience. To his talk she listened with a good-natured, condescending smile, occasionally making a remark which implied a more liberal view, a larger intelligence, than his. Thus, as they stood for a moment to look down at the steamboat wharf, and Crewe made some remark about the value of a cargo just being discharged, she said carelessly:

'I suppose that's the view you take of everything? You rate everything at market price.'

'Marketable things, of course. But you know me well enough to understand that I'm not always thinking of the shop. Wait till I've made money.--Now then, clumsy!'

A man, leaning over the parapet by Nancy's side, had pushed against her. Thus addressed he glared at the speaker, but encountered a bellicose look which kept him quiet.

'I shall live in a big way,' Crewe continued, as they walked on towards Fish Street Hill. 'Not for the swagger of it; I don't care about that, but because I've a taste for luxury. I shall have a country house, and keep good horses. And I should like to have a little farm of my own, a model farm; make my own butter and cheese, and know that I ate the real thing. I shall buy pictures. Haven't I told you I like pictures? Oh yes. I shall go round among the artists, and encourage talent that hasn't made itself known.'

'Can you recognise it?' asked Nancy.

'Well, I shall learn to. And I shall have my wife's portrait painted by some first-rate chap, never mind what it costs, and hung in the Academy. That's a great idea of mine--to see my wife's portrait in the Academy.'

His companion laughed.

'Take care, then, that your wife is ornamental.'

'I'll take precious good care of that!' Crewe exclaimed merrily. 'Do you suppose I should dream of marrying a woman who wasn't good-looking?'

'Don't shout, please. People can hear you.'

'I beg your pardon.' His voice sank to humility. 'That's a bad habit of mine. But I was going to say--I went to the Academy this year just to look at the portraits of men's wives. There was nothing particular in that line. Not a woman I should have felt particularly proud of. Tastes differ, of course. Mine has altered a good deal in the last ten years. A man can't trust himself about women till he's thirty or near it.'

'Talk of something else,' Nancy commanded.

'Certainly. There's the sun coming out. You see, I was afraid it would keep on raining, and you would have an excuse for staying at home.'

'I needed no excuse,' said Nancy. 'If I hadn't wished to come, you may be sure I should have said so.'

Crewe flashed a look at her.

'Ah, that's how I like to hear you speak! That does one good. Well, here we are. People used to be fond of going up, they say, just to pitch themselves down. A good deal of needless trouble, it seems to me. Perhaps they gave themselves the off-chance of changing their minds before they got to the top.'

'Or wanted to see if life looked any better from up there,' suggested Nancy.

'Or hoped somebody would catch them by the coat-tails, and settle a pension on them out of pity.'

Thus jesting, they began the ascent. Crewe, whose spirits were at high pressure, talked all the way up the winding stairs; on issuing into daylight, he became silent, and they stood side by side, mute before the vision of London's immensity. Nancy began to move round the platform. The strong west wind lashed her cheeks to a glowing colour; excitement added brilliancy to her eyes. As soon as she had recovered from the first impression, this spectacle of a world's wonder served only to exhilarate her; she was not awed by what she looked upon. In her conceit of self-importance, she stood there, above the battling millions of men, proof against mystery and dread, untouched by the voices of the past, and in the present seeing only common things, though from an odd point of view. Here her senses seemed to make literal the assumption by which her mind had always been directed: that she--Nancy Lord--was the mid point of the universe. No humility awoke in her; she felt the stirring of envies, avidities, unavowable passions, and let them flourish unrebuked.

Crewe had his eyes fixed upon her; his lips parted hungrily.

'Now that's how I should like to see you painted,' he said all at once. 'Just like that! I never saw you looking so well. I believe you're the most beautiful girl to be found anywhere in this London!'

There was genuine emotion in his voice, and his sweeping gesture suited the mood of vehemence. Nancy, having seen that the two or three other people on the platform were not within hearing, gave an answer of which the frankness surprised even herself.

'Portraits for the Academy cost a great deal, you know.'

'I know. But that's what I'm working for. There are not many men down yonder,' he pointed over the City, 'have a better head for money-making than I have.'

'Well, prove it,' replied Nancy, and laughed as the wind caught her breath.

'How long will you give me?'

She made no answer, but walked to the side whence she could look westward. Crewe followed close, his features still set in the hungry look, his eyes never moving from her warm cheek and full lips.

'What it must be,' she said, 'to have about twenty thousand a year!'

The man of business gave a gasp. In the same moment he had to clutch at his hat, lest it should be blown away.

'Twenty thousand a year?' he echoed. 'Well, it isn't impossible. Men get beyond that, and a good deal beyond it. But it's a large order.'

'Of course it is. But what was it you said? The most beautiful girl in all London? That's a large order, too, isn't it? How much is she worth?'

'You're talking for the joke now,' said Crewe. 'I don't like to hear that kind of thing, either. You never think in that way.'

'My thoughts are my own. I may think as I choose.'

'Yes. But you have thoughts above money.'

'Have I? How kind of you to say so.--I've had enough of this wind; we'll go down.'

She led the way, and neither of them spoke till they were in the street again. Nancy felt her hair.

'Am I blown to pieces?' she asked.

'No, no; you're all right. Now, will you walk through the City?'

'Where's the place you spoke of?'

'Farringdon Street. That'll bring you round to Blackfriars Bridge, when you want to go home. But there's plenty of time yet.'

So they rambled aimlessly by the great thoroughfares, and by hidden streets of which Nancy had never heard, talking or silent as the mood dictated. Crewe had stories to tell of this and that thriving firm, of others struggling in obscurity or falling from high estate; to him the streets of London were so many chapters of romance, but a romance always of to-day, for he neither knew nor cared about historic associations. Vast sums sounded perpetually on his lips; he glowed with envious delight in telling of speculations that had built up great fortunes. He knew the fabulous rents that were paid for sites that looked insignificant; he repeated anecdotes of calls made from Somerset House upon men of business, who had been too modest in returning the statement of their income; he revived legends of dire financial disaster, and of catastrophe barely averted by strange expedients. To all this Nancy listened with only moderate interest; as often as not, she failed to understand the details which should have excited her wonder. None the less, she received an impression of knowledge, acuteness, power, in the speaker; and this was decidedly pleasant.

'Here's the place where I think of starting for myself,' said Crewe, as he paused at length before a huge building in Farringdon Street.

'This?--Can you afford such a rent?'

Her companion burst into laughter.

'I don't mean the whole building. Two or three rooms, that's all, somewhere upstairs.'

Nancy made a jest of her mistake.

'An advertising agent doesn't want much space,' said Crewe. 'I know a chap who's doing a pretty big business in one room, not far from here.--Well, we've had a long walk; now you must rest a bit, and have a cup of tea.'

'I thought you were going to propose champagne.'

'Oh--if you like--'

They went to a restaurant in Fleet Street, and sat for half an hour over the milder beverage. Crewe talked of his projects, his prospects; and Nancy, whom the afternoon had in truth fatigued a little, though her mind was still excited, listened without remark.

'Well,' he said at length, leaning towards her, 'how long do you give me?'

She looked away, and kept silence.

'Two years:--just to make a solid start; to show that something worth talking 'about is to come?'

'I'll think about it.'

He kept his position, and gazed at her.

'I know it isn't money that would tempt you.' He spoke in a very low voice, though no one was within earshot. 'Don't think I make any mistake about that! But I have to show you that there's something in me. I wouldn't marry any woman that thought I made love to her out of interest.'

Nancy began to draw on her gloves, and smiled, just biting her lower lip.

'Will you give me a couple of years, from to-day? I won't bother you. It's honour bright!'

'I'll think about it,' Nancy repeated.

'Whilst you're away?'

'Yes, whilst I'm away at Teignmouth.'

'And tell me when you come back?'

'Tell you--how long. Yes.'

And she rose.