In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part III: Into Bontage
Since his return he had seen no one, and none of his friends knew where he had been. A call from some stray Hodiernal would be very unseasonable this Monday afternoon; but probably they were all enjoying their elegant leisure in regions remote from town. As the hour of Nancy's arrival drew near, he sat trying to compose himself --with indifferent success. At one moment his thoughts found utterance, and he murmured in a strange, bewildered tone--'My wife.' Astonishing words! He laughed at their effect upon him, but unmirthfully. And his next murmur was--'The devil!' A mere ejaculation, betokening his state of mind.
He reached several times for his pipe, and remembered when he had touched it that the lips with which he greeted Nancy ought not to be redolent of tobacco. In outward respect, at all events, he would not fall short.
Just when his nervousness was becoming intolerable, there sounded a knock. The knock he had anticipated--timid, brief. He stepped hastily from the room, and opened. Nancy hardly looked at him, and neither of them spoke till the closing of two doors had assured their privacy.
'Well, you had no difficulty in finding the place?'
'No--none at all.'
They stood apart, and spoke with constraint. Nancy's bosom heaved, as though she had been hastening overmuch; her face was deeply coloured; her eyes had an unwonted appearance, resembling those of a night-watcher at weary dawn. She cast quick glances about the room, but with the diffidence of an intruder. Her attitude was marked by the same characteristic; she seemed to shrink, to be ashamed.
'Come and sit down,' said Tarrant cheerfully, as he wheeled a chair.
She obeyed him, and he, stooping beside her, offered his lips. Nancy kissed him, closing her eyes for the moment, then dropping them again.
'It seems a long time, Nancy--doesn't it?'
'Yes--a very long time.'
'You couldn't come on Sunday?'
'I found my father very ill. I didn't like to leave home till to-day.'
'Your father ill?--You said nothing of it in your letter.'
'No--I didn't like to--with the other things.'
A singular delicacy this; Tarrant understood it, and looked at her thoughtfully. Again she was examining the room with hurried glance; upon him her eyes did not turn. He asked questions about Mr. Lord. Nancy could not explain the nature of his illness; he had spoken of gout, but she feared it must be something worse; the change in him since she went away was incredible and most alarming. This she said in short, quick sentences, her voice low. Tarrant thought to himself that in her too, a very short time had made a very notable change; he tried to read its significance, but could reach no certainty.
'I'm sorry to hear all this--very sorry. You must tell me more about your father. Take off your hat, dear, and your gloves.'
Her gloves she removed first, and laid them on her lap; Tarrant took them away. Then her hat; this too he placed on the table. Having done so, he softly touched the plaits of her hair. And, for the first time, Nancy looked up at him.
'Are you glad to see me?' she asked, in a voice that seemed subdued by doubt of the answer.
'I am--very glad.'
His hand fell to her shoulder. With a quick movement, a stifled exclamation, the girl rose and flung her arms about him.
'Are you really glad?--Do you really love me?'
'Never doubt it, dear girl.'
'Ah, but I can't help. I have hardly slept at night, in trying to get rid of the doubt. When you opened the door, I felt you didn't welcome me. Don't you think of me as a burden? I can't help wondering why I am here.'
He took hold of her left hand, and looked at it, then said playfully:
'Of course you wonder. What business has a wife to come and see her husband without the ring on her finger?'
Nancy turned from him, opened the front of her dress, unknotted a string of silk, and showed her finger bright with the golden circlet.
'That's how I must wear it, except when I am with you. I keep touching--to make sure it's there.'
Tarrant kissed her fingers.
'Dear,'--she had her face against him--'make me certain that you love me. Speak to me like you did before. Oh, I never knew in my life what it was to feel ashamed!'
'Ashamed? Because you are married, Nancy?'
'Am I really married? That seems impossible. It's like having dreamt that I was married to you. I can hardly remember a thing that happened.'
'The registry at Teignmouth remembers,' he answered with a laugh. 'Those books have a long memory.'
She raised her eyes.
'But wouldn't you undo it if you could?--No, no, I don't mean that. Only that if it had never happened--if we had said good-bye before those last days--wouldn't you have been glad now?'
'Why, that's a difficult question to answer,' he returned gently. 'It all depends on your own feeling.'
For whatever reason, these words so overcame Nancy that she burst into tears. Tarrant, at once more lover-like, soothed and fondled her, and drew her to sit on his knee.
'You're not like your old self, dear girl. Of course, I can understand it. And your father's illness. But you mustn't think of it in this way. I do love you, Nancy. I couldn't unsay a word I said to you--I don't wish anything undone.'
'Make me believe that. I think I should be quite happy then. It's the hateful thought that perhaps you never wanted me for your wife; it will come, again and again, and it makes me feel as if I would rather have died.'
'Send such thoughts packing. Tell them your husband wants all your heart and mind for himself.'
'But will you never think ill of me?'
She whispered the words, close-clinging.
'I should be a contemptible sort of brute.'
'No. I ought to have--. If we had spoken of our love to each other, and waited.'
'A very proper twelvemonth's engagement,--meetings at five o'clock tea,--fifty thousand love-letters,--and all that kind of thing. Oh, we chose a better way. Our wedding was among the leaves and flowers. You remember the glow of evening sunlight between the red pine and the silver birch? I hope that place may remain as it is all our lives; we will go there--'
'Never! Never ask me to go there. I want to forget--I hope some day I may forget.'
'If you hope so, then I will hope the same.'
'And you love me--with real, husband's love--love that will last?'
'Why should I answer all the questions?' He took her face between his hands. What if the wife's love should fail first?'
'You can say that lightly, because you know--'
'What do I know?'
'You know that I am all love of you. As long as I am myself, I must love you. It was because I had no will of my own left, because I lived only in the thought of you day and night--'
Their lips met in a long silence.
'I mustn't stay past four o'clock,' were Nancy's next words. 'I don't like to be away long from the house. Father won't ask me anything, but he knows I'm away somewhere, and I'm afraid it makes him angry with me.' She examined the room. 'How comfortable you are here! what a delightful old place to live in!'
'Will you look at the other rooms?'
'Not to-day--when I come again. I must say good-bye very soon-- oh, see how the time goes! What a large library you have! You must let me look at all the books, when I have time.'
'Let you? They are yours as much as mine.'
Her face brightened.
'I should like to live here; howl should enjoy it after that hateful Grove Lane! Shall I live here with you some day?'
'There wouldn't be room for two. Why, your dresses would fill the whole place.'
She went and stood before the shelves.
'But how dusty you are! Who cleans for you?'
'No one. A very rickety old woman draws a certain number of shillings each week, on pretence of cleaning.'
'What a shame! She neglects you disgracefully. You shall go away some afternoon, and leave me here with a great pile of dusters.'
'You can do that kind of thing? It never occurred to me to ask you: are you a domestic person?'
She answered with something of the old confident air.
'That was an oversight, wasn't it? After all, how little you know about me!'
'Do you know much more of me?'
Her countenance fell.
'You are going to tell me--everything. How long have you lived here?'
'Two years and a half.'
'And your friends come to see you here? Of course they do. I meant, have you many friends?'
'Friends, no. A good many acquaintances.'
'Men, like yourself?'
'Mostly men, fellows who talk about art and literature.'
'And women?' Nancy faltered, half turning away.
'Oh, magnificent creatures--Greek scholars--mathematicians-- all that is most advanced!'
'That's the right answer to a silly question,' said Nancy humbly.
Whereat, Tarrant fixed his gaze upon her.
'I begin to think that--'
He checked himself awkwardly. Nancy insisted on the completion of his thought.
'That of all the women I know, you have the most sense.'
'I had rather hear you say that than have a great fortune.' She blushed with joy. 'Perhaps you will love me some day, as I wish to be loved.'
'I'll tell you another time. If it weren't for my father's illness, I think I could go home feeling almost happy. But how am I to know what you are doing?'
'What do you wish me to do?'
'Just tell me how you live. What shall you do now, when I'm gone?'
'Sit disconsolate,'--he came nearer--'thinking you were just a little unkind.'
'No, don't say that.' Nancy was flurried. 'I have told you the real reason. Our housekeeper says that father was disappointed and angry because I put off my return from Teignmouth. He spoke to me very coldly, and I have hardly seen him since. He won't let me wait upon him; and I have thought, since I know how ill he really is, that I must seem heartless. I will come for longer next time.'
To make amends for the reproach he had uttered in spite of himself, Tarrant began to relate in full the events of his ordinary day.
'I get my own breakfast--the only meal I have at home. Look, here's the kitchen, queer old place. And here's the dining-room. Cupboards everywhere, you see; we boast of our cupboards. The green paint is de rigueur; duck's egg colour; I've got to like it. That door leads into the bedroom. Well, after breakfast, about eleven o'clock that's to say, I light up--look at my pipe-rack--and read newspapers. Then, if it's fine, I walk about the streets, and see what new follies men are perpetrating. And then--'
He told of his favourite restaurants, of his unfashionable club, of a few houses where, at long intervals, he called or dined, of the Hodiernals, of a dozen other small matters.
'What a life,' sighed the listener, 'compared with mine!'
'We'll remedy that, some day.'
'When?' she asked absently.
'Wait just a little.--You don't wish to tell your father?'
'I daren't tell him. I doubt whether I shall ever dare to tell him face to face.'
'Don't think about it. Leave it to me.'
'I must have letters from you--but how? Perhaps, if you could promise always to send them for the first post--I generally go to the letter-box, and I could do so always--whilst father is ill.'
This was agreed upon. Nancy, whilst they were talking, took her hat from the table; at the same moment, Tarrant's hand moved towards it. Their eyes met, and the hand that would have checked her was drawn back. Quickly, secretly, she drew the ring from her finger, hid it somewhere, and took her gloves.
'Did you come by the back way?' Tarrant asked, when he had bitten his lips for a sulky minute.
'Yes, as you told me.'
He said he would walk with her into Chancery Lane; there could be no risk in it.
'You shall go out first. Any one passing will suppose you had business with the solicitor underneath. I'll overtake you at Southampton Buildings.'
Impatient to be gone, she lingered minute after minute, and broke hurriedly from his restraining arms at last. The second outer door, which Tarrant had closed on her entrance, surprised her by its prison-like massiveness. In the wooden staircase she stopped timidly, but at the exit her eyes turned to an inscription above, which she had just glanced at when arriving: Surrexit e flammis, and a date. Nancy had no Latin, but guessed an interpretation from the last word. Through the little court, with its leafy plane-trees and white-worn cobble-stones, she walked with bent head, hearing the roar of Holborn through the front archway, and breathing more freely when she gained the quiet garden at the back of the Inn.
Tarrant's step sounded behind her. Looking up she asked the meaning of the inscription she had seen.
'You don't know Latin? Well, why should you? Surrexit e flammis, "It rose again from the flames."
'I thought it might be something like that. You will be patient with my ignorance?'
A strange word upon Nancy's lips. No mortal ere this had heard her confess to ignorance.
'But you know the modern languages?' said Tarrant, smiling.
'Yes. That is, a little French and German--a very little German.'
Tarrant mused, seemingly with no dissatisfaction.