Part II: Nature's Graduate
Chapter 4
 

From the mouth of Exe to the mouth of Teign the coast is uninteresting. Such beauty as it once possessed has been destroyed by the railway. Cliffs of red sandstone drop to the narrow beach, warm between the blue of sky and sea, but without grandeur, and robbed of their native grace by navvy-hewing, which for the most part makes of them a mere embankment: their verdure stripped away, their juttings tunnelled, along their base the steel parallels of smoky traffic. Dawlish and Teignmouth have in themselves no charm; hotel and lodging-house, shamed by the soft pure light that falls about them, look blankly seaward, hiding what remains of farm or cottage in the older parts. Ebb-tide uncovers no fair stretch of sand, and at flood the breakers are thwarted on a bulwark of piled stone, which supports the railway, or protects a promenade.

But inland these discontents are soon forgotten; there amid tilth and pasture, gentle hills and leafy hollows of rural Devon, the eye rests and the mind is soothed. By lanes innumerable, deep between banks of fern and flower; by paths along the bramble-edge of scented meadows; by the secret windings of copse and brake and stream-worn valley--a way lies upward to the long ridge of Haldon, where breezes sing among the pines, or sweep rustling through gorse and bracken. Mile after mile of rustic loveliness, ever and anon the sea-limits blue beyond grassy slopes. White farms dozing beneath their thatch in harvest sunshine; hamlets forsaken save by women and children, by dogs and cats and poultry, the labourers afield. Here grow the tall foxgloves, bending a purple head in the heat of noon; here the great bells of the convolvulus hang thick from lofty hedges, massing their pink and white against dark green leafage; here amid shadowed undergrowth trail the long fronds of lustrous hartstongue; wherever the eye falls, profusion of summer's glory. Here, in many a nook carpeted with softest turf, canopied with tangle of leaf and bloom, solitude is safe from all intrusion-- unless it be that of flitting bird, or of some timid wild thing that rustles for a moment and is gone. From dawn to midnight, as from midnight to dawn, one who would be alone with nature might count upon the security of these bosks and dells.

By Nancy Lord and her companions such pleasures were unregarded. For the first few days after their arrival at Teignmouth, they sat or walked on the promenade, walked or sat on the pier, sat or walked on the Den--a long, wide lawn, decked about with shrubs and flower-beds, between sea-fronting houses and the beach. Nancy had no wish to exert herself, for the weather was hot; after her morning bathe with Jessica, she found amusement enough in watching the people--most of whom were here simply to look at each other, or in listening to the band, which played selections from Sullivan varied with dance music, or in reading a novel from the book-lender's,-- that is to say, gazing idly at the page, and letting such significance as it possessed float upon her thoughts.

She was pleasantly conscious that the loungers who passed by, male and female, gave something of attention to her face and costume. Without attempting to rival the masterpieces of fashion which invited envy or wonder from all observers, she thought herself nicely dressed, and had in fact, as always, made good use of her father's liberality. Her taste in garments had a certain timidity that served her well; by avoiding the extremes of mode, and in virtue of her admirable figure, she took the eye of those who looked for refinement rather than for extravagance. The unconsidered grace of her bearing might be recognised by all whom such things concerned; it by no means suggested that she came from a small house in Camberwell. In her companions, to be sure, she was unfortunate; but the over-modest attire and unimpressive persons of Mrs. Morgan and Jessica at least did her the office of relief by contrast.

Nancy had made this reflection; she was not above it. Yet her actual goodness of heart saved her from ever feeling ashamed of the Morgans. It gratified her to think that she was doing them a substantial kindness; but for her, they would have dragged through a wretched summer in their unwholesome, jimcrack house, without a breath of pure air, without a sight of the free heaven. And to both of them that would probably have meant a grave illness.

Mrs. Morgan was a thin, tremulous woman, with watery eyes and a singular redness about the prominent part of her face, which seemed to indicate a determination of blood to the nose. All her married life had been spent in a cheerless struggle to maintain the externals of gentility. Not that she was vain or frivolous--indeed her natural tendencies made for homeliness in everything--but, by birth and by marriage connected with genteel people, she felt it impossible to abandon that mode of living which is supposed to distinguish the educated class from all beneath it. She had brought into the world three sons and three daughters; of the former, two were dead, and of the latter, one,--in each case, poverty of diet having proved fatal to a weak constitution. For close upon thirty years the family had lived in houses of which the rent was out of all reasonable proportion to their means; at present, with a total income of one hundred and sixty pounds (Mr. Morgan called himself a commission agent, and seldom had anything to do), they paid in rent and rates a matter of fifty-five, and bemoaned the fate which neighboured them with people only by courtesy to be called gentlefolk. Of course they kept a servant,--her wages nine pounds a year. Whilst the mother and elder daughter were at Teignmouth, Mr Morgan, his son, and the younger girl felt themselves justified in making up for lack of holiday by an extra supply of butcher's meat.

Well-meaning, but with as little discretion in this as in other things, Mrs. Morgan allowed scarce an hour of the day to pass without uttering her gratitude to Nancy Lord for the benefit she was enjoying. To escape these oppressive thanks, Nancy did her best never to be alone with the poor lady; but a tete-a-tete was occasionally unavoidable, as, for instance, on the third or fourth day after their arrival, when Mrs. Morgan had begged Nancy's company for a walk on the Den, whilst Jessica wrote letters. At the end of a tedious hour Jessica joined them, and her face had an unwonted expression. She beckoned her friend apart.

'You'll be surprised. Who do you think is here?'

'No one that will bore us, I hope.'

'Mr. Tarrant. I met him near the post-office, and he stopped me.'

Nancy frowned.

'Are they all here again?'

'No; he says he's alone.--One minute, mamma; please excuse us.'

'He was surprised to see you?' said Nancy, after reflecting.

'He said so. But--I forgot to tell you--in a letter to Mrs. Baker I spoke of our plans. She had written to me to propose a pupil for after the holidays.--Perhaps she didn't mention it to Mr. Tarrant.'

'Evidently not!' Nancy exclaimed, with some impatience. 'Why should you doubt his word?'

'I can't help thinking'--Jessica smiled archly--'that he has come just to meet--somebody.'

'Somebody? Who do you mean?' asked her friend, with a look of sincere astonishment.

'I may be mistaken'--a glance completed the suggestion.

'Rubbish!'

For the rest of that day the subject was unmentioned. Nancy kept rather to herself, and seemed meditative. Next morning she was in the same mood. The tide served for a bathe at eleven o'clock; afterwards, as the girls walked briskly to and fro near the seat where Mrs. Morgan had established herself with a volume of Browning, --Jessica insisted on her reading Browning, though the poor mother protested that she scarcely understood a word,--they came full upon the unmistakable presence of Mr. Lionel Tarrant. Miss. Morgan, in acknowledging his salute, offered her hand; it was by her that the young man had stopped. Miss. Lord only bent her head, and that slightly. Tarrant expected more, but his half-raised hand dropped in time, and he directed his speech to Jessica. He had nothing to say but what seemed natural and civil; the dialogue--Nancy remained mute--occupied but a few minutes, and Tarrant went his way, sauntering landwards.

As Mrs. Morgan had observed the meeting, it was necessary to offer her an explanation. But Jessica gave only the barest facts concerning their acquaintance, and Nancy spoke as though she hardly knew him.

The weather was oppressively hot; in doors or out, little could be done but sit or lie in enervated attitudes, a state of things accordant with Nancy's mood. Till late at night she watched the blue starry sky from her open window, seeming to reflect, but in reality wafted on a stream of fancies and emotions. Jessica's explanation of the arrival of Lionel Tarrant had strangely startled her; no such suggestion would have occurred to her own mind. Yet now, she only feared that it might not be true. A debilitating climate and absolute indolence favoured that impulse of lawless imagination which had first possessed her on the evening of Jubilee Day. With luxurious heedlessness she cast aside every thought that might have sobered her; even as she at length cast off all her garments, and lay in the warm midnight naked upon her bed.

The physical attraction of which she had always been conscious in Tarrant's presence seemed to have grown stronger since she had dismissed him from her mind. Comparing him with Luckworth Crewe, she felt only a contemptuous distaste for the coarse vitality and vigour, whereto she had half surrendered herself, when hopeless of the more ambitious desire.

Rising early, she went out before breakfast, and found that a little rain had fallen. Grass and flowers were freshened; the air had an exquisite clearness, and a coolness which struck delightfully on the face, after the close atmosphere within doors. She had paused to watch a fishing-boat off shore, when a cheery voice bade her 'good-morning,' and Tarrant stepped to her side.

'You are fond of this place,' he said.

'Not particularly.'

'Then why do you choose it?'

'It does for a holiday as well as any other.'

He was gazing at her, and with the look which Nancy resented, the look which made her feel his social superiority. He seemed to observe her features with a condescending gratification. Though totally ignorant of his life and habits, she felt a conviction that he had often bestowed this look upon girls of a class below his own.

'How do you like those advertisements of soaps and pills along the pier?' he asked carelessly.

'I see no harm in them.'

Perversity prompted her answer, but at once she remembered Crewe, and turned away in annoyance. Tarrant was only the more good-humoured.

'You like the world as it is? There's wisdom in that. Better be in harmony with one's time, advertisements and all.' He added, 'Are you reading for an exam?'

'I? You are confusing me with Miss. Morgan.'

'Oh, not for a moment! I couldn't possibly confuse you with any one else. I know Miss. Morgan is studying professionally; but I thought you were reading for your own satisfaction, as so many women do now-a-days.'

The distinction was flattering. Nancy yielded to the charm of his voice and conversed freely. It began to seem not impossible that he found some pleasure in her society. Now and then he dropped a word that made her pulses flutter; his eyes were constantly upon her face.

'Don't you go off into the country sometimes?' he inquired, when she had turned homewards.

'We are thinking of having a drive to-day.'

'And I shall most likely have a ride; we may meet.'

Nancy ordered a carriage for the afternoon, and with her friends drove up the Teign valley; but they did not meet Tarrant. But next morning he joined them on the pier, and this time Jessica had no choice but to present him to her mother. Nancy felt annoyed that this should have come about; Tarrant, she supposed, would regard poor Mrs. Morgan with secret ridicule. Yet, if that were his disposition, he concealed it perfectly; no one could have behaved with more finished courtesy. He seated himself by Mrs. Morgan, and talked with her of the simplest things in a pleasant, kindly humour. Yesterday, so he made known, he had ridden to Torquay and back, returning after sunset. This afternoon he was going by train to Exeter, to buy some books.

Again he strolled about with Nancy, and talked of idle things with an almost excessive amiability. As the girl listened, a languor crept upon her, a soft and delicious subdual of the will to dreamy luxury. Her eyes were fixed on the shadows cast by her own figure and that of her companion. The black patches by chance touched. She moved so as to part them, and then changed her position so that they touched again--so that they blended.