In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part III: Into Bontage
After breakfast, and before Arthur Peachey's departure for business, there had been a scene of violent quarrel between him and his wife. It took place in the bed-room, where, as usual save on Sunday morning, Ada consumed her strong tea and heavily buttered toast; the state of her health--she had frequent ailments, more or less genuine, such as afflict the indolent and brainless type of woman-- made it necessary for her to repose till a late hour. Peachey did not often lose self-control, though sorely tried; the one occasion that unchained his wrath was when Ada's heedlessness or ill-temper affected the well-being of his child. This morning it had been announced to him that the nurse-girl, Emma, could no longer be tolerated; she was making herself offensive to her mistress, had spoken insolently, disobeyed orders, and worst of all, defended herself by alleging orders from Mr. Peachey. Hence the outbreak of strife, signalled by furious shrill voices, audible to Beatrice and Fanny as they sat in the room beneath.
Ada came down at half-past ten, and found Beatrice writing letters. She announced what any who did not know her would have taken for a final resolve.
'I'm going--I won't put up with that beast any longer. I shall go and live at Brighton.'
Her sister paid not the slightest heed; she was intent upon a business letter of much moment.
'Do you hear what I say? I'm going by the first train this afternoon.'
'All right,' remarked Beatrice placidly. 'Don't interrupt me just now.
The result of this was fury directed against Beatrice, who found herself accused of every domestic vice compatible with her position. She was a sordid creature, living at other people's expense,--a selfish, scheming, envious wretch--
'If I were your husband,' remarked the other without looking up, 'I should long since have turned you into the street--if I hadn't broken your neck first.'
Exercise in quarrel only made Ada's voice the clearer and more shrill. It rose now to the highest points of a not inconsiderable compass. But Beatrice continued to write, and by resolute silence put a limit to her sister's railing. A pause had just come about, when the door was thrown open, and in rushed Fanny, hatted and gloved from a walk.
'He's dead!' she said excitedly. 'He's dead!'
Beatrice turned with a look of interest. 'Who? Mr. Lord?'
'Yes. The blinds are all down. He must have died in the night.'
Her cheeks glowed and her eyes sparkled, as though she had brought the most exhilarating news.
'What do I care?' said Mrs. Peachey, to whom her sister had addressed the last remark.
'Just as much as I care about your affairs, no doubt,' returned Fanny, with genial frankness.
'Don't be in too great a hurry,' remarked Beatrice, who showed the calculating wrinkle at the corner of her eye. 'Because he's dead, that doesn't say that your masher comes in for money.'
'Who'll get it, then?'
'There may be nothing worth speaking of to get, for all we know.'
Beatrice had not as yet gained Fanny's co-operation in the commercial scheme now being elaborated; though of far more amiable nature than Mrs. Peachey, she heartily hoped that the girl might be disappointed in her expectations from Mr. Lord's will. An hour later, she walked along Grove Lane, and saw for herself that Fanny's announcement was accurate; the close-drawn blinds could mean but one thing.
To-day there was little likelihood of learning particulars, but on the morrow Fanny might perchance hear something from Horace Lord. However, the evening brought a note, hand-delivered by some stranger. Horace wrote only a line or two, informing Fanny that his father had died about eight o'clock that morning, and adding: 'Please be at home to-morrow at twelve.'
At twelve next day Fanny received her lover alone in the drawing-room. He entered with the exaggerated solemnity of a very young man who knows for the first time a grave bereavement, and feels the momentary importance it confers upon him. Fanny, trying to regard him without a smile, grimaced; decorous behaviour was at all times impossible to her, for she neither understood its nature nor felt its obligation. In a few minutes she smiled unrestrainedly, and spoke the things that rose to her lips.
'I've been keeping a secret from you,' said Horace, in the low voice which had to express his sorrow,--for he could not preserve a gloomy countenance with Fanny before him. 'But I can tell you now.'
'A secret? And what business had you to keep secrets from me?'
'It's about Mrs. Damerel. When I was at the seaside she told me who she really is. She's my aunt--my mother's sister. Queer, isn't it? Of course that makes everything different. And she's going to ask you to come and see her. It'll have to be put off a little--now; but not very long, I dare say, as she's a relative. You'll have to do your best to please her.'
'I'm sure I shan't put myself out of the way. People must take me as they find me.'
'Now don't talk like that, Fanny. It isn't very kind--just now. I thought you'd be different to-day.'
'All right.--Have you anything else to tell me?'
Horace understood her significant glance, and shook his head.
'I'll let you know everything as soon as I know myself.'
Having learnt the day and hour of Mr. Lord's funeral, Ada and Fanny made a point of walking out to get a glimpse of it. The procession of vehicles in Grove Lane excited their contempt, so far was it from the splendour they had anticipated.
'There you are!' said Ada; 'I shouldn't wonder if it's going to be a jolly good take in for you, after all. If he'd died worth much, they wouldn't have buried him like that.'
Fanny's heart sank. She could conceive no other explanation ofa simple burial save lack of means, or resentment in the survivors at the disposition made of his property by the deceased. When, on the morrow, Horace told her that his father had strictly charged Mr Barmby to have him buried in the simplest mode compatible with decency, she put it down to the old man's excessive meanness.
On this occasion she learnt the contents of Mr. Lord's will, and having learnt them, got rid of Horace as soon as possible that she might astonish her sisters with the report.
In the afternoon of that day, Beatrice had an appointment with Luckworth Crewe. She was to meet him at the office he had just taken in Farringdon Street, whence they would repair to a solicitor's in the same neighbourhood, for the discussion of legal business connected with Miss. French's enterprise. She climbed the staircase of a big building, and was directed to the right door by the sound of Crewe's voice, loudly and jocularly discoursing. He stood with two men in the open doorway, and at the sight of Beatrice waved a hand to her.
'Take your hook, you fellows; I have an engagement.' The men, glancing at Miss. French facetiously, went their way. 'How do, old chum? It's all in a mess yet; hold your skirts together. Come along this way.'
Through glue-pots and shavings and an overpowering smell of paint, Beatrice followed to inspect the premises, which consisted of three rooms; one, very much the smallest, about ten feet square. Three workmen were busy, and one, fitting up shelves, whistled a melody with ear-piercing shrillness.
'Stop that damned noise!' shouted Crewe. 'I've told you once already. Try it on again, my lad, and I'll drop you down the well of the staircase--you've too much breath, you have.'
The other workmen laughed. It was evident that Crewe had made friends with them all.
'Won't be bad, when we get the decks cleared,' he remarked to Beatrice. 'Plenty of room to make twenty thousand a year or so.'
He checked himself, and asked in a subdued voice, 'Seen anything of the Lords?'
Beatrice nodded with a smile. 'And heard about the will. Have you?'
'No, I haven't. Come into this little room.'
He closed the door behind them, and looked at his companion with curiosity, but without show of eagerness.
'Well, it's a joke,' said Miss. French.
'Is it? How?'
'Fanny's that mad about it! She'd got it into her silly noddle that Horace Lord would drop in for a fortune at once. As it is, he gets nothing at all for two years, except what the Barmbys choose to give him. And if he marries before he's four-and-twenty, he loses everything--every cent!'
Crewe whistled a bar of a street-melody, then burst into laughter.
'That's how the old joker has done them, is it? Quite right too. The lad doesn't know his own mind yet. Let Fanny wait if she really wants him--and if she can keep hold of him. But what are the figures?'
'Nothing startling. Of course I don't know all the ins and outs of it, but Horace Lord will get seven thousand pounds, and a sixth share in the piano business. Old Barmby and his son are trustees. They may let Horace have just what they think fit during the next two years. If he wants money to go into business with, they may advance what they like. But for two years he's simply in their hands, to be looked after. And if he marries--pop goes the weasel!'
'And Miss. Lord?' asked Crewe carelessly.
Beatrice pointed a finger at him.
'You want to know badly, don't you? Well, it's pretty much the same as the other. To begin with, if she marries before the age of six-and-twenty, she gets nothing whatever. If she doesn't marry, there's two hundred a year to live on and to keep up the house.-- Oh, I was forgetting; she must not only keep single to twenty-six, but continue to live where she does now, with that old servant of theirs for companion. At six-and-twenty she takes the same as her brother, about seven thousand, and a sixth share in Lord and Barmby.'
Again Crewe whistled.
'That's about three years still to live in Grove Lane,' he said thoughtfully. 'Well, the old joker has pinned them, and no mistake. I thought he had more to leave.'
'Of course you did,' remarked Beatrice significantly.
'Look here, old fellow, don't talk to me like that,' he replied good-humouredly, but with a reproof not to be mistaken. 'I thought nothing about it in the way that you mean. But it isn't much, after living as he has done. I suppose you don't know how the money lies?'
'I have it all from Fanny, and it's a wonder she remembered as much as she did.'
'Oh, Fanny's pretty smart in L. s. d. But did she say what becomes of the money if either of them break the terms?'
'Goes to a girl's orphanage, somewhere in the old man's country. But there's more than I've accounted for yet. Young Barmby's sisters get legacies--a hundred and fifty apiece. And, last of all, the old servant has an annuity of two hundred. He made her a sort of housekeeper not long ago, H. L. says; thought no end of her.'
'Don't know anything about her,' said Crewe absently. 'I should like to know the business details. What arrangement was made, I wonder, when he took Barmby into partnership?'
'I shouldn't be surprised if he simply gave him a share. Old Barmby and Lord were great chums. Then, you see, Samuel Barmby has a third of his profits to pay over, eventually.'
Beatrice went on to speak of the mysterious Mrs. Damerel, concerning whom she had heard from Fanny. The man of business gave particular ear to this story, and asked many questions. Of a sudden, as if dismissing matters which hardly concerned him, he said mirthfully:
'You've heard about the row at Lillie Bridge yesterday?'
'I saw something about it in the paper.'
'Well, I was there. Pure chance; haven't been at that kind of place for a year and more. It was a match for the Sprint Championship and a hundred pounds. Timed for six o'clock, but at a quarter past the chaps hadn't come forward. I heard men talking, and guessed there was something wrong; they thought it a put-up job. When it got round that there'd be no race, the excitement broke out, and then--I'd have given something for you to see it! First of all there was a rush for the gate-money; a shilling a piece, you know, we'd all paid. There were a whole lot of North-of-England chaps, fellow countrymen of mine, and I heard some of them begin to send up a roar that sounded dangerous. I was tumbling along with the crowd, quite ready for a scrimmage--I rather enjoy a fight now and then,--and all at once some chap sang out just in front, 'Let's burst up the blooming show!'--only he used a stronger word. And a lot of us yelled hooray, and to it we went. I don't mean I had a hand in the pillaging and smashing,--it wouldn't have done for a man just starting in business to be up at the police-court,--but I looked on and laughed--laughed till I could hardly stand! They set to work on the refreshment place. It was a scene if you like! Fellows knocking off the heads of bottles, and drinking all they could, then pouring the rest on the ground. Glasses and decanters flying right and left,--sandwiches and buns, and I don't know what, pelting about. They splintered all the small wood they could lay their hands on, and set fire to it, and before you could say Jack Robinson the whole place was blazing. The bobbies got it pretty warm--bottles and stones and logs of wood; I saw one poor chap with the side of his face cut clean open. It does one good, a real stirring-up like that; I feel better to-day than for the last month. And the swearing that went on! It's a long time since I heard such downright, hearty, solid swearing. There was one chap I kept near, and he swore for a full hour without stopping, except when he had a bottle at his mouth; he only stopped when he was speechless with liquor.'
'I wish I'd been there,' said Miss. French gaily. 'It must have been no end of fun.'
'A right down good spree. And it wasn't over till about eight o'clock. I stayed till the police had cleared the grounds, and then came home, laughing all the way. It did me good, I tell you!'
'Well, shall we go and see the lawyer?' suggested Beatrice.
'Right you are.--Have a drink first? Nice quiet place round in Fleet Street--glass of wine. No? As you please, old chum.--Think this shop 'll do, don't you? You must come round when it's finished. But I daresay you'll be here many a time--on biz.'
'Oh, I daresay.'
And as they went down the stairs, Crewe laughed again at his recollections of yesterday's sport.