In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part II: Nature's Graduate
Nancy had written to her father, a short letter but affectionate, begging him to let her know whether the improvement in his health, of which he had spoken before she left home, still continued. The answer came without delay. On the whole, said Mr. Lord, he was doing well enough; no need whatever to trouble about him. He wrote only a few lines, but closed with 'love to you, my dear child,' an unwonted effusiveness.
At the same time there came a letter from Horace.
'You will be surprised,' it began, 'at the address I write from. As you know, I had planned to go to Brighton; but on the day before my holiday commenced I heard from F. F., saying that she and Mrs. Peachey had had a quarrel, and she was tired of Brighton, and was coming home. So I waited a day or two, and then, as I had half promised, I went to see Mrs. D. We had a long talk, and it ended in my telling her about F., and all the row there's been. Perhaps you will think I had better have kept it to myself, but Mrs. D. and I are on first-rate terms, and she seems to understand me better than any one I ever met. We talked about my holiday, and she persuaded me to come to Scarborough, where she herself was going for a week or two. It's rather an expensive affair, but worth the money. Of course I have lodgings of my own. Mrs. D. is at a big hotel, where friends of hers are staying. I have been introduced to two or three people, great swells, and I've had lunch with Mrs. D. at the hotel twice. This kind of life suits me exactly. I don't think I get on badly with the swells. Of course I say not a word about my position, and of course nobody would think of asking questions. You would like this place; I rather wish you were here. Of course father thinks I have come on my own hook. It's very awkward having to keep a secret of this kind; I must try and persuade Mrs. D. to have a talk with father. But one thing I can tell you,--I feel pretty sure that she will get me, somehow or other, out of that beastly City life; she's always talking of things I might do. But not a word to any one about all this--be sure.'
This news caused Nancy to ponder for a long time. The greater part of the morning she spent at home, and in her own room; after lunch, she sat idly on the promenade, little disposed for conversation.
It was the second day since Tarrant had told her that he was going to Exeter, and they had not again met; the Morgans had not seen him either. The next morning, however, as all three were sitting in one of their favourite places, Tarrant approached them. Mrs. Morgan, who was fluttered by the natural supposition of a love affair between Miss. Lord and the interesting young man, made it easy for them to talk together.
'Did you get your books?' Nancy asked, when silence followed on trivialities.
'Yes, and spent half a day with them in a favourite retreat of mine, inland. It's a very beautiful spot. I should like you to see it. Indeed, you ought to.'
Nancy turned her eyes to the sea.
'We might walk over there one afternoon,' he added.
'Mrs. Morgan can't walk far.'
'Why should we trouble her? Are you obliged to remain under Mrs. Morgan's wing?'
It was said jestingly, but Nancy felt piqued.
'Certainly not. I am quite independent.'
'So I should have supposed. Then why not come?'
He seemed perfectly self-possessed, but the voice was not quite his own. To Nancy, her eyes still looking straight forward, it sounded as though from a distance; it had an effect upon her nerves similar to that she had experienced three days ago, when they were walking about the pier. Her hands fell idly; she leaned back more heavily on the seat; a weight was on her tongue.
'A country ramble of an hour or two,' pursued the voice, which itself had become languorous. 'Surely you are sometimes alone? It isn't necessary to give a detailed account of your time?'
She answered impatiently. 'Of course not.' In this moment her thoughts had turned to Luckworth Crewe, and she was asking herself why this invitation of Tarrant's affected her so very differently from anything she had felt when Crewe begged her to meet him in London. With him she could go anywhere, enjoying a genuine independence, a complete self-confidence, thinking her unconventional behaviour merely good fun. Tarrant's proposal startled her. She was not mistress of the situation, as when trifling with Crewe. A sense of peril caused her heart to beat quickly.
'This afternoon, then,' the voice was murmuring.
She answered mechanically. 'It's going to rain, I think.'
'I think not. But, if so, to-morrow.'
'To-morrow is Sunday.'
'Yes. Monday, then.'
Nancy heard him smother a laugh. She wished to look at him, but could not.
'It won't rain,' he continued, still with the ease of one who speaks of everyday matters. 'We shall see, at all events. Perhaps you will want to change your book at the library.' A novel lay on her lap. 'We'll leave it an open possibility--to meet there about three o'clock.'
Nancy pointed out to sea, and asked where the steamer just passing might be bound for. Her companion readily turned to this subject.
The rain--she half hoped for it--did not come. By luncheon-time every doubtful cloud had vanished. Before sitting down to table, she observed the sky at the open window.
'Lovely weather!' sighed Mrs. Morgan behind her. 'But for you, dear Nancy, I should have been dreaming and wishing--oh, how vainly!-- in the stifling town.'
'We'll have another drive this afternoon,' Nancy declared.
'Oh, how delightful! But pray, pray, not on our account--'
'Jessica,'--Nancy turned to her friend, who had just entered the room,--'we'll have the carriage at three. And a better horse than last time; I'll take good care of that. Pen, ink, and paper!' she cried joyously. 'The note shall go round at once.'
'You're a magnificent sort of person,' said Jessica. 'Some day, no doubt, you'll keep a carriage and pair of your own.'
'Shan't I, just! And drive you down to Burlington House, for your exams. By-the-bye, does a female Bachelor of Arts lose her degree if she gets married?'
Nancy was sprightlier than of late. Her mood maintained itself throughout the first half of the drive, then she seemed to be overcome by a sudden weariness, ceased to talk, and gave only a listless look at things which interested her companions. By when they reached home again, she had a pale troubled countenance. Until dinner nothing more was seen of her, and after the meal she soon excused herself on the plea of a headache.
Again there passed two days, Sunday and Monday, without Tarrant's appearing. Mrs. Morgan and Jessica privately talked much of the circumstance. Sentimental souls, they found this topic inexhaustible; Jessica, having her mind thus drawn away from Burlington House, benefited not a little by the mystery of her friend's position; she thought, however, that Nancy might have practised a less severe reticence. To Mrs. Morgan it never occurred that so self-reliant a young woman as Miss. Lord stood in need of matronly counsel, of strict chaperonage; she would have deemed it an impertinence to allow herself the most innocent remark implying such a supposition.
On Wednesday afternoon, about three o'clock, Nancy walked alone to the library. There, looking at books and photographs in the window, stood Lionel Tarrant. He greeted her as usual, seemed not to remark the hot colour in her cheeks, and stepped with her into the shop. She had meant to choose a novel, but, with Tarrant looking on, felt constrained to exhibit her capacity for severe reading. The choice of grave works was not large, and she found it difficult to command her thoughts even for the perusal of titles; however, she ultimately discovered a book that promised anything but frivolity, Helmholtz's 'Lectures on Scientific Subjects,' and at this she clutched.
Two loudly-dressed women were at the same time searching the shelves.
'I wonder whether this is a pretty book?' said one to the other, taking down a trio of volumes.
'Oh, it looks as if it might be pretty,' returned her friend, examining the cover.
They faced to the person behind the counter.
'Is this a pretty book?' one of them inquired loftily.
'Oh yes, madam, that's a very pretty book--very pretty.'
Nancy exchanged a glance with her companion and smiled. When they were outside again Tarrant asked:
'Have you found a pretty book?'
She showed the title of her choice.
'Merciful heavens! You mean to read that? The girls of to-day! What mere man is worthy of them? But--I must rise to the occasion. We'll have a chapter as we rest.'
Insensibly, Nancy had followed the direction he chose. His words took for granted that she was going into the country with him.
'My friends are on the pier,' she said, abruptly stopping.
'Where doubtless they will enjoy themselves. Let me carry your book, please. Helmholtz is rather heavy.'
'Thanks, I can carry it very well. I shall turn this way.'
'No, no. My way this afternoon.'
Nancy stood still, looking up the street that led towards the sea. She was still bright-coloured; her lips had a pathetic expression, a child-like pouting.
'There was an understanding,' said Tarrant, with playful firmness.
'Not for to-day.'
'No. For the day when you disappointed me. The day after, I didn't think it worth while to come here; yesterday I came, but felt no surprise that I didn't meet you. To-day I had a sort of hope. This way.'
She followed, and they walked for several minutes in silence.
'Will you let me look at Helmholtz?' said the young man at length. 'Most excellent book, of course. "Physiological Causes of Harmony in Music," "Interaction of Natural Forces," "Conservation of Force."-- You enjoy this kind of thing?'
'One must know something about it.'
'I suppose so. I used to grind at science because everybody talked science. In reality I loathed it, and now I read only what I like. Life's too short for intellectual make-believe. It is too short for anything but enjoyment. Tell me what you read for pure pleasure. Poetry?'
They had left the streets, and were pursuing a road bordered with gardens, gardens of glowing colour, sheltered amid great laurels, shadowed by stately trees; the air was laden with warm scents of flower and leaf. On an instinct of resistance, Nancy pretended that the exact sciences were her favourite study. She said it in the tone of superiority which habit had made natural to her in speaking of intellectual things. And Tarrant appeared to accept her declaration without scepticism; but, a moment after, he turned the talk upon novels.
Thus, for half an hour and more, they strolled on by upward ways, until Teignmouth lay beneath them, and the stillness of meadows all about. Presently Tarrant led from the beaten road into a lane all but overgrown with grass. He began to gather flowers, and offered them to Nancy. Personal conversation seemed at an end; they were enjoying the brilliant sky and the peaceful loveliness of earth. They exchanged simple, natural thoughts, or idle words in which was no thought at all.
Before long, they came to an old broken gate, half open; it was the entrance to a narrow cartway, now unused, which descended windingly between high thick hedges. Ruts of a foot in depth, baked hard by summer, showed how miry the track must be in the season of rain.
'This is our way,' said Tarrant, his hand on the lichened wood. 'Better than the pier or the promenade, don't you think?'
'But we have gone far enough.'
Nancy drew back into the lane, looked at her flowers, and then shaded her eyes with them to gaze upward.
'Almost. Another five minutes, and you will see the place I told you of. You can't imagine how beautiful it is.'
'We are all but there--'
He seemed regretfully to yield; and Nancy yielded in her turn. She felt a sudden shame in the thought of having perhaps betrayed timidity. Without speaking, she passed the gate.
The hedge on either side was of hazel and dwarf oak, of hawthorn and blackthorn, all intertwined with giant brambles, and with briers which here and there met overhead. High and low, blackberries hung in multitudes, swelling to purple ripeness. Numberless the trailing and climbing plants. Nancy's skirts rustled among the greenery; her cheeks were touched, as if with a caress, by many a drooping branchlet; in places, Tarrant had to hold the tangle above her while she stooped to pass.
And from this they emerged into a small circular space, where the cartway made a turn at right angles and disappeared behind thickets. They were in the midst of a plantation; on every side trees closed about them, with a low and irregular hedge to mark the borders of the grassy road. Nancy's eyes fell at once upon a cluster of magnificent foxgloves, growing upon a bank which rose to the foot of an old elm; beside the foxgloves lay a short-hewn trunk, bedded in the ground, thickly overgrown with mosses, lichens, and small fungi.
'Have I misled you?' said Tarrant, watching her face with frank pleasure.
'No, indeed you haven't. This is very beautiful!'
'I discovered it last year, and spent hours here alone. I couldn't ask you to come and see it then,' he added, laughing.
'It is delightful!'
'Here's your seat,--who knows how many years it has waited for you?'
She sat down upon the old trunk. About the roots of the elm above grew masses of fern, and beneath it a rough bit of the bank was clothed with pennywort, the green discs and yellowing fruity spires making an exquisite patch of colour. In the shadow of bushes near at hand hartstongue abounded, with fronds hanging to the length of an arm.
'Now,' said Tarrant, gaily, 'you shall have some blackberries. And he went to gather them, returning in a few minutes with a large leaf full. He saw that Nancy, meanwhile, had taken up the book from where he dropped it to the ground; it lay open on her lap.
'Helmholtz! Away with him!'
'No; I have opened at something interesting.'
She spoke as though possession of the book were of vital importance to her. Nevertheless, the fruit was accepted, and she drew off her gloves to eat it. Tarrant seated himself on the ground, near her, and gradually fell into a half-recumbent attitude.
'Won't you have any?' Nancy asked, without looking at him.
'One or two, if you will give me them.'
She chose a fine blackberry, and held it out. Tarrant let it fall into his palm, and murmured, 'You have a beautiful hand.' When, a moment after, he glanced at her, she seemed to be reading Helmholtz.
The calm of the golden afternoon could not have been more profound. Birds twittered softly in the wood, and if a leaf rustled, it was only at the touch of wings. Earth breathed its many perfumes upon the slumberous air.
'You know,' said Tarrant, after a long pause, and speaking as though he feared to break the hush, 'that Keats once stayed at Teignmouth.'
Nancy did not know it, but said 'Yes.' The name of Keats was familiar to her, but of his life she knew hardly anything, of his poetry very little. Her education had been chiefly concerned with names.
'Will you read me a paragraph of Helmholtz?' continued the other, looking at her with a smile. 'Any paragraph, the one before you.'
She hesitated, but read at length, in an unsteady voice, something about the Conservation of Force. It ended in a nervous laugh.
'Now I'll read something to you,' said Tarrant. And he began to repeat, slowly, musically, lines of verse which his companion had never heard:
'O what can ail thee, Knight-at-arms,
He went through the poem; Nancy the while did not stir. It was as though he murmured melody for his own pleasure, rather than recited to a listener; but no word was inaudible. Nancy knew that his eyes rested upon her; she wished to smile, yet could not. And when he ceased, the silence held her motionless.
'Isn't it better?' said Tarrant, drawing slightly nearer to her.
'Of course it is.'
'I used to know thousands of verses by heart.'
'Did you ever write any?'
'Half-a-dozen epics or so, when I was about seventeen. Yet, I don't come of a poetical family. My father--'
He stopped abruptly, looked into Nancy's face with a smile, and said in a tone of playfulness:
'Do you remember asking me whether I had anything to do with--'
Nancy, flushing over all her features, exclaimed, 'Don't! please don't! I'm ashamed of myself!'
'I didn't like it. But we know each other better now. You were quite right. That was how my grandfather made his money. My father, I believe, got through most of it, and gave no particular thought to me. His mother--the old lady whom you know--had plenty of her own--to be mine, she tells me, some day. Do you wish to be forgiven for hurting my pride?' he added.
'I don't know what made me say such a thing--'
She faltered the words; she felt her will subdued. Tarrant reached a hand, and took one of hers, and kissed it; then allowed her to draw it away.
'Now will you give me another blackberry?'
The girl was trembling; a light shone in her eyes. She offered the leaf with fruit in it; Tarrant, whilst choosing, touched the blue veins of her wrist with his lips.
'What are you going to do?' she asked presently. 'I mean, what do you aim at in life?'
'Enjoyment. Why should I trouble about anything else. I should be content if life were all like this: to look at a beautiful face, and listen to a voice that charms me, and touch a hand that makes me thrill with such pleasure as I never knew.'
'It's waste of time.'
'Oh, never time was spent so well! Look at me again like that-- with the eyes half-closed, and the lips half-mocking. Oh, the exquisite lips! If I might--if I might--'
He did not stir from his posture of languid ease, but Nancy, with a quick movement, drew a little away from him, then rose.
'It's time to go back,' she said absently.
'No, no; not yet. Let me look at you for a few minutes more!'
She began to walk slowly, head bent.
'Well then, to-morrow, or the day after. The place will be just as beautiful, and you even more. The sea-air makes you lovelier from day to day.'
Nancy looked back for an instant. Tarrant followed, and in the deep leafy way he again helped her to pass the briers. But their hands never touched, and the silence was unbroken until they had issued into the open lane.