In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part III: Into Bontage
During his daughter's absence, Stephen Lord led a miserable life. The wasting disease had firm hold upon him; day by day it consumed his flesh, darkened his mind. The more need he had of nursing and restraint, the less could he tolerate interference with his habits, invasion of his gloomy solitude. The doctor's visits availed nothing; he listened to advice, or seemed to listen, but with a smile of obstinate suspicion on his furrowed face which conveyed too plain a meaning to the adviser.
On one point Mary had prevailed with him. After some days' resistance, he allowed her to transform the cabin-like arrangements of his room, and give it the appearance of a comfortable bed-chamber. But he would not take to his bed, and the suggestion of professional nursing excited his wrath.
'Do you write to Nancy?' he asked one morning of his faithful attendant, with scowling suspicion.
'You are telling me the truth?'
'I never write to any one.'
'Understand plainly that I won't have a word said to her about me.'
This was when Horace had gone away to Scarborough, believing, on his father's assurance, that there was no ground whatever for anxiety. Sometimes Mr. Lord sat hour after hour in an unchanging position, his dull eyes scarcely moving from one point. At others he paced his room, or wandered about the house, or made an attempt at gardening --which soon ended in pain and exhaustion. Towards night he became feverish, his hollow cheeks glowing with an ominous tint. In the morning he occasionally prepared himself as if to start for his place of business; he left the house, and walked for perhaps a couple of hundred yards, then slackened his pace, stopped, looked about him in an agony of indecision, and at length returned. After this futile endeavour, he had recourse to the bottles in his cupboard, and presently fell into a troubled sleep.
At the end of the second week, early one evening, three persons came to him by appointment: his partner Samuel Barmby, Mr. Barmby, senior, and a well-dressed gentleman whom Mary--she opened the door to them--had never seen before. They sat together in the drawing-room for more than an hour; then the well-dressed gentleman took his leave, the others remaining for some time longer.
The promoted servant, at Mr. Lord's bidding, had made a change in her dress; during the latter part of the day she presented the appearance of a gentlewoman, and sat, generally with needlework, sometimes with a book, alone in the dining-room. On a Sunday, whilst Nancy and her brother were away, the Barmby family--father, son, and two daughters--came to take tea and spend the evening, Mary doing the honours of the house; she bore herself without awkwardness, talked simply, and altogether justified Mr. Lord's opinion of her. When the guests were gone, Stephen made no remark, but, in saying good-night to her, smiled for an instant--the first smile seen upon his face for many days.
Mary remained ignorant of the disease from which he was suffering; in the matter of his diet, she consulted and obeyed him, though often enough it seemed to her that his choice suited little with the state of an invalid. He ate at irregular times, and frequently like a starving man. Mary suspected that, on the occasions when he went out for half-an-hour after dark, he brought back food with him: she had seen him enter with something concealed beneath his coat. All his doings were to her a subject of ceaseless anxiety, of a profound distress which, in his presence, she was obliged to conceal. If she regarded him sadly, the sufferer grew petulant or irate. He would not endure a question concerning his health.
On the day which was understood to be Nancy's last at Teignmouth, he brightened a little, and talked with pleasure, as it seemed, of her return on the morrow. Horace had written that he would be home this evening, but Mr. Lord spoke only of his daughter. At about six o'clock he was sitting in the garden, and Mary brought him a letter just delivered; he looked at the envelope with a smile.
'To tell us the train she's coming by, no doubt.'
Mary waited. When Mr. Lord had read the brief note, his face darkened, first with disappointment, then with anger.
'Here, look at it,' he said harshly. 'What else was to be expected?'
'Dearest Father,' wrote Nancy, 'I am sorry that our return must be put off; we hope to get back on Friday evening. Of course this will make no difference to you.--With best love, dear father, and hoping I shall find you much better--'
'What does she mean by behaving in this way?' resumed the angry voice, before Mary had read to the end. 'What does she mean by it? Who gave her leave to stay longer? Not a word of explanation. How does she know it will make no difference to me? What does she mean by it?'
'The fine weather has tempted them,' replied Mary. 'I daresay they want to go somewhere.'
'What right has she to make the change at a moment's notice?' vociferated the father, his voice suddenly recovering its old power, his cheeks and neck suffused with red wrath. 'And hopes she will find me better. What does she care whether she finds me alive or dead?'
'Oh, don't say that! You wouldn't let her know that you were worse.'
'What does it mean? I hate this deceitful behaviour! She knew before, of course she knew; and she left it to the last moment, so that I couldn't write and prevent her from staying. As if I should have wished to! As if I cared a brass farthing how long she stays, or, for that matter, whether I ever see her again!'
He checked the course of his furious speech, and stood staring at the letter.
'What did you say?' He spoke now in a hoarse undertone. 'You thought they were going somewhere?'
'Last year there used to be steamers that went to places on certain days--'
'Nonsense! She wouldn't alter all their plans for that. It's something I am not to know--of course it is. She's deceitful-- like all women.'
He met Mary's eye, suddenly turned upon him. His own fell before it, and without speaking again he went into the house.
In half-an-hour's time his bell rang, and not Mary, but the young servant responded. According to her directions, she knocked at the door, and, without opening it, asked her master's pleasure. Mr. Lord said that he was going out, and would not require a meal till late in the evening.
It was nearly ten o'clock when he returned. Mary, sitting in the front room, rose at his entrance.
'I want nothing,' he said. 'I've been to the Barmbys'.' Voice and movements proved how the effort had taxed him. In sitting down, he trembled; fever was in his eyes, and pain in every line of his countenance.
Mary handed him a letter; it came from Horace, and was an intimation that the young gentleman would not return to-night, but to-morrow. When Mr. Lord had read it, he jerked a contemptuous laugh, and threw the sheet of note-paper across the table.
'There you are. Not much to choose between daughter and son. He's due at business in the morning; but what does that matter? It doesn't suit his lordship to keep time.'
He laughed again, his emphasis on 'lordship' showing that he consciously played with the family name.
'But I was a fool to be angry. Let them come when they will.'
For a few minutes he lay back in the chair, gazing at vacancy.
'Has the girl gone to bed?'
'I'll tell her she can go.'
Mary soon returned, and took up the book with which she had been engaged. In a low voice, and as if speaking without much thought, Stephen asked her what she was reading. It was a volume of an old magazine, bought by Mr. Lord many years ago.
'Yes, yes. Nancy laughs at it--calls it old rubbish. These young people are so clever.'
His companion made no remark. Unobserved, he scrutinised her face for a long time, and said at length:
'Don't let us fall out, Mary. You're not pleased with me, and I know why. I said all women were deceitful, and you took it too seriously. You ought to know me better. There's something comes on me every now and then, and makes me say the worst I can no matter who it hurts. Could I be such a fool as to think ill of you?'
'It did hurt me,' replied the other, still bent over her book. 'But it was only the sound of it. I knew you said more than you meant.'
'I'm a fool, and I've been a fool all my life. Is it likely I should have wise children? When I went off to the Barmbys', I thought of sending Samuel down to Teignmouth, to find out what they were at. But I altered my mind before I got there. What good would it have done? All I can do I've done already. I made my will the other day; it's signed and witnessed. I've made it as I told you I should. I'm not much longer for this world, but I've saved the girl from foolishness till she's six-and-twenty. After that she must take care of herself.'
They sat silent whilst the clock on the mantelpiece ticked away a few more minutes. Mr. Lord's features betrayed the working of turbid thought, a stern resentment their prevailing expression. When reverie released him, he again looked at his companion.
'Mary, did you ever ask yourself what sort of woman Nancy's mother may have been?'
The listener started, like one in whom a secret has been surprised. She tried to answer, but after all did not speak.
'I'll tell you,' Stephen pursued. 'Yes, I'll tell you. You must know it. Not a year after the boy's birth, she left me. And I made myself free of her--I divorced her.'
Their eyes just met.
'You needn't think that it cost me any suffering. Not on her account; not because I had lost my wife. I never felt so glad, before or since, as on the day when it was all over, and I found myself a free man again. I suffered only in thinking how I had fooled away some of the best years of my life for a woman who despised me from the first, and was as heartless as the stones of the street. I found her in beggary, or close upon it. I made myself her slave--it's only the worthless women who accept from a man, who expect from him, such slavish worship as she had from me. I gave her clothing; she scarcely thanked me, but I thought myself happy. I gave her a comfortable home, such as she hadn't known for years; for a reward she mocked at my plain tastes and quiet ways--but I thought no ill of it--could see nothing in it but a girlish, lighthearted sort of way that seemed one of her merits. As long as we lived together, she pretended to be an affectionate wife; I should think no one ever matched her in hypocrisy. But the first chance she had--husband, children, home, all flung aside in a moment. Then I saw her in the true light, and understood all at once what a blind fool I had been.'
He breathed quickly and painfully. Mary sat without a movement.
'I thought I had done a great thing in marrying a wife that was born above me. Her father had been a country gentleman; horse-racing and such things had brought him down, and from her twelfth year his daughter lived--I never quite knew how, but on charity of some kind. She grew up without trying to earn her own living; she thought herself too good for that, thought she had a claim to be supported, because as a child she was waited upon by servants. When I asked her once if she couldn't have done something, she stared at me and laughed in my face. For all that she was glad enough to marry a man of my sort--rough and uneducated as I was. She always reminded me of it, though--that I had no education; I believe she thought that she had a perfect right to throw over such a husband, whenever she chose. Afterwards, I saw very well that her education didn't amount to much. How could it, when she learnt nothing after she was twelve? She was living with very poor people who came from my part of the country--that's how I met her. The father led some sort of blackguard life in London, but had no money for her, nor yet for his other girl, who went into service, I was told, and perhaps made herself a useful, honest woman. He died in a hospital, and he was buried at my expense--not three months before his daughter went off and left me.'
'You will never tell your children,' said Mary, when there had been a long pause.
'I've often thought it would only be right if I told them. I've often thought, the last year or two, that Nancy ought to know. It might make her think, and do her good.'
'No, no,' returned the other hurriedly. 'Never let her know of it-- never. It might do her much harm.'
'You know now, Mary, why I look at the girl so anxiously. She's not like her mother; not much like her in face, and I can't think she's like her in heart. But you know what her faults are as well as I do. Whether I've been right or wrong in giving her a good education, I shall never know. Wrong, I fear--but I've told you all about that.'
'You don't know whether she's alive or not?' asked Mary, when once more it was left to her to break silence.
'What do I care? How should I know?'
'Don't be tempted to tell them--either of them!' said the other earnestly.
'My friend Barmby knows. Whether he's told his son, I can't say; it's twenty years since we spoke about it. If he did ever mention it to Samuel, then it might somehow get known to Horace or the girl, when I'm gone.--I won't give up the hope that young Barmby may be her husband. She'll have time to think about it. But if ever she should come to you and ask questions--I mean, if she's been told what happened--you'll set me right in her eyes? You'll tell her what I've told you?'
'I hope it may never--'
'So do I,' Stephen interrupted, his voice husky with fatigue. 'But I count on you to make my girl think rightly of me, if ever there's occasion. I count on you. When I'm dead, I won't have her think that I was to blame for her mother's ill-doing. That's why I've told you. You believe me, don't you?'
And Mary, lifting her eyes, met his look of appeal with more than a friend's confidence.