Part III: Into Bontage
Chapter 4
 

In her brother's looks and speech Nancy detected something mysterious. Undoubtedly he was keeping a secret from her, and there could be just as little doubt that he would not keep it long. Whenever she questioned him about the holiday at Scarborough, he put on a smile unlike any she had ever seen on his face, so profoundly thoughtful was it, so loftily reserved. On the subject of Mrs. Damerel he did not choose to be very communicative; Nancy gathered little more than she had learnt from his letter. But very plainly the young man held himself in higher esteem than hitherto; very plainly he had learnt to think of 'the office' as a burden or degradation, from which he would soon escape. Prompted by her own tormenting conscience, his sister wondered whether Fanny French had anything to do with the mystery; but this seemed improbable. She mentioned Fanny's name one evening.

'Do you see much of her?'

'Not much,' was the dreamy reply. 'When are you going to call?'

'Oh, not at present,' said Nancy.

'You've altered again, then?'

She vouchsafed no answer.

'There's something I think I ought to tell you,' said Horace, speaking as though he were the elder and felt a responsibility. 'People have been talking about you and Mr. Crewe.'

'What!' She flashed into excessive anger. 'Who has been talking?'

'The people over there. Of course I know it's all nonsense. At least'--he raised his eyebrows--'I suppose it is.'

'I should suppose so,' said Nancy, with vehement scorn.

Their father's illness imposed a restraint upon trifling conversation. Mary Woodruff, now attending upon Mr. Lord under the doctor's directions, had held grave talk with Nancy. The Barmbys, father and son, called frequently, and went away with gloomy faces. Nancy and her brother were summoned, separately, to the invalid's room at uncertain times, but neither was allowed to perform any service for him; their sympathy, more often than not, excited irritation; the sufferer always seemed desirous of saying more than the few and insignificant words which actually passed his lips, and generally, after a long silence, he gave the young people an abrupt dismissal. With his daughter he spoke at length, in language which awed her by its solemnity; Nancy could only understand him as meaning that his end drew near. He had been reviewing, he said, the course of her life, and trying to forecast her future.

'I give you no more advice; it would only be repeating what I have said hundreds of times. All I can do for your good, I have done. You will understand me better if you live a few more years, and I think, in the end, you will be grateful to me.'

Nancy, sitting by the bedside, laid a hand upon her father's and sobbed. She entreated him to believe that even now she understood how wisely he had guided her.

'Tried to, Nancy; tried to, my dear. Guidance isn't for young people now-a-days. Don't let us shirk the truth. I have never been satisfied with you, but I have loved you--'

'And I you, dear father--I have! I have!--I know better now how good your advice was. I wish--far, far more sincerely than you think--that I had kept more control upon myself--thought less of myself in every way--'

Whilst she spoke through her tears, the yellow, wrinkled face upon the pillow, with its sunken eyes and wasted lips, kept sternly motionless.

'If you won't mock at me,' Stephen pursued, 'I will show you an example you would do well to imitate. It is our old servant, now my kindest, truest friend. If I could hope that you will let her be your friend, it would help to put my mind at rest. Don't look down upon her,--that's such a poor way of thinking. Of all the women I have known, she is the best. Don't be too proud to learn from her, Nancy. In all these twenty years that she has been in my house, whatever she undertook to do, she did well;--nothing too hard or too humble for her, if she thought it her duty. I know what that means; I myself have been a poor, weak creature, compared with her. Don't be offended because I ask you to take pattern by her. I know her value now better than I ever knew it before. I owe her a debt I can't pay.'

Nancy left the room burdened with strange and distressful thoughts. When she saw Mary she looked at her with new feelings, and spoke to her less familiarly than of wont. Mary was very silent in these days; her face had the dignity of a profound unspoken grief.

To his son, Mr. Lord talked only of practical things, urging sound advice, and refraining, now, from any mention of their differences. Horace, absorbed in preoccupations, had never dreamt that this illness might prove fatal; on finding Nancy in tears, he was astonished.

'Do you think it's dangerous?' he asked.

'I'm afraid he will never get well.'

It was Sunday morning. The young man went apart and pondered. After the mid-day meal, having heard from Mary that his father was no worse, he left home without remark to any one, and from Camberwell Green took a cab to Trafalgar Square. At the Hotel Metropole he inquired for Mrs. Damerel; her rooms were high up, and he ascended by the lift. Sunk in a deep chair, her feet extended upon a hassock, Mrs. Damerel was amusing herself with a comic paper; she rose briskly, though with the effort of a person who is no longer slim.

'Here I am, you see!--up in the clouds. Now, did you get my letter?'

'No letter, but a telegram.'

'There, I thought so. Isn't that just like me? As soon as I had sent out the letter to post, I said to myself that I had written the wrong address. What address it was, I couldn't tell you, to save my life, but I shall see when it comes back from the post-office. I rather suspect it's gone to Gunnersbury; just then I was thinking about somebody at Gunnersbury--or somebody at Hampstead, I can't be sure which. What a good thing I wired!--Oh, now, Horace, I don't like that, I don't really!'

The young man looked at her in bewilderment.

'What don't you like?'

'Why, that tie. It won't do at all. Your taste is generally very good, but that tie! I'll choose one for you to-morrow, and let you have it the next time you come. Do you know, I've been thinking that it might be well if you parted your hair in the middle. I don't care for it as a rule; but in your case, with your soft, beautiful hair, I think it would look well. Shall we try? Wait a minute; I'll run for a comb.'

'But suppose some one came--'

'Nobody will come, my dear boy. Hardly any one knows I'm here. I like to get away from people now and then; that's why I've taken refuge in this cock-loft.'

She disappeared, and came back with a comb of tortoise-shell.

'Sit down there. Oh, what hair it is, to be sure! Almost as fine as my own. I think you'll have a delicious moustache.'

Her personal appearance was quite in keeping with this vivacity. Rather short, and inclining--but as yet only inclining--to rotundity of figure, with a peculiarly soft and clear complexion, Mrs. Damerel made a gallant battle against the hostile years. Her bright eye, her moist lips, the admirable smoothness of brow and cheek and throat, bore witness to sound health; as did the rows of teeth, incontestably her own, which she exhibited in her frequent mirth. A handsome woman still, though not of the type that commands a reverent admiration. Her frivolity did not exclude a suggestion of shrewdness, nor yet of capacity for emotion, but it was difficult to imagine wise or elevated thought behind that narrow brow. She was elaborately dressed, with only the most fashionable symbols of widowhood; rings adorned her podgy little hand, and a bracelet her white wrist. Refinement she possessed only in the society-journal sense, but her intonation was that of the idle class, and her grammar did not limp.

'There--let me look. Oh, I think that's an improvement--more distingue. And now tell me the news. How is your father?'

'Very bad, I'm afraid,' said Horace, when he had regarded himself in a mirror with something of doubtfulness. 'Nancy says that she's afraid he won't get well.'

'Oh, you don't say that! Oh, how very sad! But let us hope. I can't think it's so bad as that.'

Horace sat in thought. Mrs. Damerel, her bright eyes subduing their gaiety to a keen reflectiveness, put several questions regarding the invalid, then for a moment meditated.

'Well, we must hope for the best. Let me know to-morrow how he gets on--be sure you let me know. And if anything should happen-- oh, but that's too sad; we won't talk about it.'

Again she meditated, tapping the floor, and, as it seemed, trying not to smile.

'Don't be downcast, my dear boy. Never meet sorrow half-way--if you knew how useful I have found it to remember that maxim. I have gone through sad, sad things--ah! But now tell me of your own affairs. Have you seen la petite?'

'I just saw her the other evening,' he answered uneasily.

'Just? What does that mean, I wonder? Now you don't look anything like so well as when you were at Scarborough. You're worrying; yes, I know you are. It's your nervous constitution, my poor boy. So you just saw her? No more imprudences?'

She examined his face attentively, her lips set with tolerable firmness.

'It's a very difficult position, you know,' said Horace, wriggling in his chair. 'I can't get out of it all at once. And the truth is, I'm not sure that I wish to.'

Mrs. Damerel drew her eyebrows together, and gave a loud tap on the floor.

'Oh, that's weak--that's very weak! After promising me! Now listen; listen seriously.' She raised a finger. 'If it goes on, I have nothing--more--whatever to do with you. It would distress me very, very much; but I can't interest myself in a young man who makes love to a girl so very far beneath him. Be led by me, Horace, and your future will be brilliant. Prefer this young lady of Camberwell, and lose everything.'

Horace leaned forward and drooped his head.

'I don't think you form anything like a right idea of her,' he said.

The other moved impatiently.

'My dear boy, I know her as well as if I'd lived with her for years. Oh, how silly you are! But then you are so young, so very young.'

With the vexation on her face there blended, as she looked at him, a tenderness unmistakably genuine.

'Now, I'll tell you what. I have really no objection to make Fanny's acquaintance. Suppose, after all, you bring her to see me one of these days. Not just yet. You must wait till I am in the mood for it. But before very long.'

Horace looked up with pleasure and gratitude.

'Now, that's really kind of you!'

'Really? And all the rest is only pretended kindness? Silly boy! Some day you will know better. Now, think, Horace; suppose you were so unhappy as to lose your father. Could you, as soon as he was gone, do something that you know would have pained him deeply?'

The pathetic note was a little strained; putting her head aside, Mrs. Damerel looked rather like a sentimental picture in an advertisement. Horace did not reply.

'You surely wouldn't,' pursued the lady, with emphasis, watching him closely; 'you surely wouldn't and couldn't marry this girl as soon as your poor father was in his grave?'

'Oh, of course not.'

Mrs. Damerel seemed relieved, but pursued her questioning.

'You couldn't think of marrying for at least half a year?'

'Fanny wouldn't wish it.'

'No, of course not,--well now, I think I must make her acquaintance. But how weak you are, Horace! Oh, those nerves! All finely, delicately organised people, like you, make such blunders in life. Your sense of honour is such a tyrant over you. Now, mind, I don't say for a moment that Fanny isn't fond of you,--how could she help being, my dear boy? But I do insist that she will be very much happier if you let her marry some one of her own class. You, Horace, belong to a social sphere so far, far above her. If I could only impress that upon your modesty. You are made to associate with people of the highest refinement. How deplorable to think that a place in society is waiting for you, and you keep longing for Camberwell!'

The listener's face wavered between pleasure in such flattery and the impulse of resistance.

'Remember, Horace, if anything should happen at home, you are your own master. I could introduce you freely to people of wealth and fashion. Of course you could give up the office at once. I shall be taking a house in the West-end, or a flat, at all events. I shall entertain a good deal--and think of your opportunities! My dear boy, I assure you that, with personal advantages such as yours, you might end by marrying an heiress. Nothing more probable! And you can talk of such a girl as Fanny French--for shame!

'I mustn't propose any gaieties just now,' she said, when they had been together for an hour. 'And I shall wait so anxiously for news of your father. If anything did happen, what would your sister do, I wonder?'

'I'm sure I don't know--except that she'd get away from Camberwell. Nancy hates it.'

'Who knows? I may be able to be of use to her. But, you say she is such a grave and learned young lady? I am afraid we should bore each other.'

To this, Horace could venture only an uncertain reply. He had not much hope of mutual understanding between his sister and Mrs. Damerel.

At half-past five he was home again, and there followed a cheerless evening. Nancy was in her own room until nine o'clock. She came down for supper, but had no appetite; her eyes showed redness from weeping; Horace could say nothing for her comfort. After the meal, they went up together to the drawing-room, and sat unoccupied.

'If we lose father,' said Nancy, in a dull voice very unlike her ordinary tones, 'we shall have not a single relative left, that is anything to us.'

Her brother kept silence.

'Has Mrs. Damerel,' she continued, 'ever said anything to you about mother's family?'

After hesitation, Horace answered, 'Yes,' and his countenance showed that the affirmative had special meaning. Nancy waited with an inquiring look.

'I haven't told you,' he added, 'because--we have had other things to think about. But Mrs. Damerel is mother's sister, our aunt.'

'How long have you known that?'

'She told me at Scarborough.'

'But why didn't she tell you so at first?'

'That's what I can't understand. She says she was afraid I might mention it; but I don't believe that's the real reason.'

Nancy's questioning elicited all that was to be learnt from her brother, little more than she had heard already; the same story of a disagreement between Mrs. Damerel and their father, of long absences from England, and a revival of interest in her relatives, following upon Mrs. Damerel's widowhood.

'She would be glad to see you, if you liked. But I doubt whether you would get on very well.'

'Why?'

'She doesn't care about the same things that you do. She's a woman of society, you know.'

'But if she's mother's sister. Yes, I should like to know her.' Nancy spoke with increasing earnestness. 'It makes everything quite different. I must see her.'

'Well, as I said, she's quite willing. But you remember that I'm supposed not to have spoken about her at all. I should have to get her to send you a message, or something of that kind. Of course, we have often talked about you.'

'I can't form an idea of her,' said Nancy impatiently. 'Is she good? Is she really kind? Couldn't you get her portrait to show me?'

'I should be afraid to ask, unless she had given me leave to speak to you.'

'She really lives in good society?'

'Haven't I told you the sort of people she knows? She must be very well off; there can't be a doubt of it.'

I don't care so much about that,' said Nancy in a brooding voice. 'It's herself,--whether she's kind and good and wishes well to us.

The next day there was no change in Mr. Lord's condition; a deep silence possessed the house. In the afternoon Nancy went to pass an hour with Jessica Morgan; on her return she met Samuel Barmby, who was just leaving after a visit to the sick man. Samuel bore himself with portentous gravity, but spoke only a few commonplaces, affecting hope; he bestowed upon Nancy's hand a fervent pressure, and strode away with the air of an undertaker who had called on business.

Two more days of deepening gloom, then a night through which Nancy sat with Mary Woodruff by her father's bed. Mr. Lord was unconscious, but from time to time a syllable or a phrase fell from his lips, meaningless to the watchers. At dawn, Nancy went to her chamber, pallid, exhausted. Mary, whose strength seemed proof against fatigue, moved about the room, preparing for a new day; every few minutes she stood with eyes fixed on the dying face, and the tears she had restrained in Nancy's presence flowed silently.

When the sun made a golden glimmer upon the wall, Mary withdrew, and was absent for a quarter of an hour. On returning, she bent at once over the bed; her eyes were met by a grave, wondering look.

'Do you know me?' she whispered.

The lips moved; she bent lower, but could distinguish no word. He was speaking; the murmur continued; but she gathered no sense.

'You can trust me, I will do all I can.'

He seemed to understand her, and smiled. As the smile faded away, passing into an austere calm, Mary pressed her lips upon his forehead.