Part III: Into Bontage
Chapter 6
 

Gusts of an October evening swept about the square of the old Inn, and made rushes at the windows; all the more cosy seemed it here in Tarrant's room, where a big fire, fed into smokeless placidity, purred and crackled. Pipe in mouth, Tarrant lay back in his big chair, gracefully indolent as ever. Opposite him, lamp-light illuminating her face on one side, and fire-gloom on the other, Nancy turned over an illustrated volume, her husband's gift today. Many were the presents he had bestowed upon her, costly some of them, all flattering the recipient by a presumption of taste and intelligence.

She had been here since early in the afternoon, it was now near seven o'clock.

Nancy looked at the pictures, but inattentively, her brows slightly knitted, and her lips often on the point of speech that concerned some other matter. Since the summer holiday she had grown a trifle thinner in face; her beauty was no longer allied with perfect health; a heaviness appeared on her eyelids. Of course she wore the garb of mourning, and its effect was to emphasise the maturing change manifest in her features.

For several minutes there had passed no word; but Tarrant's face, no less than his companion's, signalled discussion in suspense. No unfriendly discussion, yet one that excited emotional activity in both of them. The young man, his pipe-hand falling to his knee, first broke silence.

'I look at it in this way. We ought to regard ourselves as married people living under exceptionally favourable circumstances. One has to bear in mind the brutal fact that man and wife, as a rule, see a great deal too much of each other--thence most of the ills of married life: squabblings, discontents, small or great disgusts, leading often enough to altri guai People get to think themselves victims of incompatibility, when they are merely suffering from a foolish custom--the habit of being perpetually together. In fact, it's an immoral custom. What does immorality mean but anything that tends to kill love, to harden hearts? The common practice of man and wife occupying the same room is monstrous, gross; it's astounding that women of any sensitiveness endure it. In fact, their sensitiveness is destroyed. Even an ordinary honeymoon generally ends in quarrel--as it certainly ought to. You and I escape all that. Each of us lives a separate life, with the result that we like each other better as time goes on; I speak for myself, at all events. I look forward to our meetings. I open the door to you with as fresh a feeling of pleasure as when you came first. If we had been ceaselessly together day and night--well, you know the result as well as I do.'

He spoke with indulgent gravity, in the tone of kindness to which his voice was naturally attuned. And Nancy's reply, though it expressed a stronger feeling, struck the same harmonious note.

'I can agree with all that. But it applies to people married in the ordinary way. I was speaking of ourselves, placed as we are.'

'I don't pretend to like the concealment,' said Tarrant. 'For one thing, there's a suggestion of dishonour about it. We've gone over all that--'

'Oh, I don't mean that for a moment. It isn't really dishonourable. My father could never have objected to you for my husband. He only wanted to guard me--Mary says so, and he told her everything. He thought me a silly, flighty girl, and was afraid I should be trapped for the sake of my money. I wish--oh how I wish I had had the courage to tell him! He would have seen you, and liked and trusted you--how could he help?'

'It might have been better--but who knows whether he would have seen me with your eyes, Nancy?'

'Yes, yes. But I was going to say----'

She hesitated.

'Say on.'

'There are so many difficulties before us, dear.'

'Not if we continue to think of each other as we do now. Do you mean it might be discovered?'

'Yes, through no fault of ours.'

She hesitated again.

'Quite sure you haven't told anybody?'

'No one.'

Tarrant had a doubt on this point. He strongly suspected that Jessica Morgan knew the truth, but he shrank from pressing Nancy to an avowal of repeated falsehood.

'Then it's very unlikely we should be found out. Who would dream of tracking you here, for instance? And suppose we were seen together in the street or in the country, who would suspect anything more than love-making? and that is not forbidden you.'

'No. But--'

'But?'

'But suppose I--'

She rose, crossed to him, seated herself on his knee and put an arm about his neck. Before she had spoken another word, Tarrant understood; the smile on his face lost its spontaneity; a bitter taste seemed to distort his lips.

'You think--you are afraid--'

He heard a monosyllable, and sat silent. This indeed had not entered into his calculations; but why not? He could hardly say; he had ignored the not unimportant detail, as it lurked among possibilities. Perhaps had willingly ignored it, as introducing a complication oppressive to his indolence, to his hodiernal philosophy. And now he arraigned mother-nature, the very divinity whom hitherto he had called upon to justify him. All at once he grew cold to Nancy. The lulled objections to matrimony awoke in him again; again he felt that he had made a fool of himself. Nancy was better than he had thought; he either loved her, or felt something towards her, not easily distinguishable from love. His inferior she remained, but not in the sense he had formerly attributed to the word. Her mind and heart excelled the idle conception he had formed of them. But Nancy was not his wife, as the world understands that relation; merely his mistress, and as a mistress he found her charming, lovable. What she now hinted at, would shatter the situation. Tarrant thought not of the peril to her material prospects; on that score he was indifferent, save in so far as Mr Lord's will helped to maintain their mutual independence. But he feared for his liberty, in the first place, and in the second, abhorred the change that must come over Nancy herself. Nancy a mother--he repelled the image, as though it degraded her.

Delicacy, however, constrained him to a disguise of these emotions. He recognised the human sentiments that should have weighed with him; like a man of cultivated intelligence, he admitted their force, their beauty. None the less, a syllable on Nancy's lips had arrested the current of his feelings, and made him wish again that he had been either more or less a man of honour down at Teignmouth.

'And yet,' he said to himself, 'could I have resisted an appeal for marriage now? That comes of being so confoundedly humane. It's a marvel that I didn't find myself married to some sheer demirep long ago.'

Nancy was speaking.

'Will it make you love me less?'

'I have always refused to prophesy about love,' he answered, with forced playfulness.

'But you wouldn't--you wouldn't?'

'We should find ourselves in a very awkward position.'

'I know,' said Nancy hurriedly. 'I can't see what would be done. But you seem colder to me all at once, Lionel. Surely it oughtn't to-- to turn you away from me. Perhaps I am mistaken.'

This referred to the alarming possibility, and Tarrant caught at hope. Yes, she might be mistaken; they wouldn't talk about it; he shook it away.

'Let me fill my pipe again. Yes, you can do it for me. That reminds me of a story Harvey Munden tells. A man he knew, a doctor, got married, and there was nothing his wife wouldn't do for him. As he sat with her one evening, smoking, a patient called him into the consulting-room. He had only just lighted a fresh pipe, and laid it down regretfully. 'I'll keep it in for you,' said his wife. And she did so, with dainty and fearful puffs, at long intervals. But the doctor was detained, and when he came back--well, the poor wife had succumbed to her devotion. She never kept in his pipe again.

Nancy tried to laugh. She was in her own chair again, and sat resting her cheek upon her hand, gazing at the fire.

'How is it, Lionel, that no one ever knocks at your door when I'm here.'

'Oh, very simple. I sport the oak--as you know.'

'But don't you think some friend of yours might see a light in your window, and come up?'

'If so, il respecte la consigne.'

'No, no; I don't like you when you begin to use French words. I think it reminds me of once when you did it a long time ago,--and I thought you--never mind.'

Tarrant laughed.

'Weren't they strange--those meetings of ours at Champion Hill? What did you think me? Arrogant? Insolent? That is my tendency with strangers, I admit.'

'But I was asking you a question,' said Nancy. 'You mean that no one would knock, if he saw your outer door closed. But what would they think?'

'No doubt--that I was working. I am supposed to be secretly engaged on some immortal composition.'

Nancy pondered.

'I do hope no one that knows you will ever see me coming or going.'

'What could it matter? They wouldn't know who you were.'

'But to have such things thought. I should feel it just as if they knew me. I believe I could never come again.'

'Why, what's the matter with you?' Tarrant asked. 'You have tears in your eyes. You're not well to-day.' He checked himself on an unwelcome thought, and proceeded more carelessly. 'Do you suppose for a moment that any friend of mine is ass enough to think with condemnation of a girl who should come to my rooms--whatever the circumstances? You must get rid of that provincialism--let us call it Camberwellism.'

'They wouldn't think it any harm--even if--?'

'My dear girl, we have outgrown those ancestral prejudices.' Tarrant's humour never quite deserted him, least of all when he echoed the talk of his world; but his listener kept a grave face. 'We have nothing to do with Mrs. Grundy's morals.'

'But you believe in a morality of some kind?' she pursued with diffidence. 'You used the word "immoral" just now.'

Nancy felt no consciousness of the gulf that yawned between herself as she spoke now and the old self which had claimed 'superiority.' Her mind was so completely unsettled that she never tried to connect its present state with its earlier phases. For the most part, her sensations and her reflections were concerned with the crude elements of life; the exceptional moments she spent in a world of vague joys and fears, wherein thought, properly speaking, had no share. Before she could outlive the shock of passion which seemed at once to destroy and to re-create her, she was confronted with the second supreme crisis of woman's existence,--its natural effects complicated with the trials of her peculiar position. Tarrant's reception of her disclosure came as a new disturbance--she felt bewildered and helpless.

He, preoccupied with the anxiety he affected to dismiss, had no inclination to debate ethical problems. For a while he talked jestingly, and at length fell into a mood of silence. Nancy did not stay much longer; they parted without mention of the subject uppermost in their thoughts.

They had no stated times of meeting. Tarrant sent an invitation whenever it pleased him. When the next arrived, in about a week, Nancy made reply that she did not feel well enough to leave home. It was the briefest letter Tarrant had yet received from her, and the least affectionate. He kept silence for a few days, and wrote again. This time Nancy responded as usual, and came.

To the involuntary question in his eyes, hers answered unmistakably. For the first few minutes they said very little to each other. Tarrant was struggling with repulsions and solicitudes of which he felt more than half ashamed; Nancy, reticent for many reasons, not the least of them a resentful pride, which for the moment overcame her fondness, endeavoured to speak of trivial things. They kept apart, and at length the embarrassment of the situation held them both mute.

With a nervous movement, the young man pushed forward the chair on which Nancy usually sat.

'I see that you don't look well.'

Nancy turned to the window. She had unbuttoned her jacket, and taken off her gloves, but went no further in the process of preparing herself for the ordinary stay of some hours.

'Did something in my letter displease you?' inquired her husband.

'You mean--because I didn't come? No; I really didn't feel well enough.'

Tarrant hesitated, but the softer feeling prevailed with him. He helped to remove her jacket, seated her by the fire, and led her to talk.

'So there's no doubt of it?'

Her silence made answer.

'Then of course there's just as little doubt as to what we must do.'

His voice had not a convincing sincerity; he waited for the reply.

'You mean that we can't keep the secret?'

'How is it possible?'

'But you are vexed about it. You don't speak to me as you used to. I don't think you ever will again.'

'It will make no change in me,' said Tarrant, with resolute good humour. 'All I want to be sure of is that you are quite prepared for the change in your prospects.'

'Are you, dear?'

Her tone and look deprived the inquiry of unpleasant implication. He answered her with a laugh.

'You know exactly how I regard it. In one way I should feel relief. Of course I don't like the thought that I shall have caused you to suffer such a loss.'

'I should never have that thought. But are you quite sure about the result to yourself? You remember saying that you couldn't be certain how--'

'How it will be taken at Champion Hill? I was going to tell you the latest report from there. It is very doubtful whether I should ever have to break the news.'

They did not look at each other.

'Everything, in that quarter, must be long since settled. Pray remember that I have no vast expectations. Quite certainly, it won't be a large fortune; very likely not more than your own. But enough to live on, no doubt. I know the value of money--no man better. It would be pleasant enough to play with thousands a year. But I don't grumble so long as I have a competency.'

Nancy meditated, and sighed.

'Oh, it's a pity. Father never meant me to be penniless if I married wisely.'

'I suppose not.'

'Of course not!'

They both meditated.

'It wouldn't be possible--would it?'

'Why,' he answered with a laugh, 'last time you were here you spoke in quite the other way. You were utterly miserable at the thought of living through it alone.'

'Yes--I don't know whether I could--even if--'

'What are you thinking of?'

'I've been talking with Mary,' she replied, after an uneasy pause. 'She has lived with us so long; and since father's death it seems quite natural to make a friend of her. No one could be more devoted to me than she is. I believe there's nothing she wouldn't do. I believe I might trust her with any secret.'

The obvious suggestion demanded thought.

'By-the-bye,' said Tarrant, looking up, 'have you seen your aunt again?'

Nancy's face changed to a cold expression.

'No. And I don't think I shall.'

'Probably you were as little sympathetic to her as she to you.'

'I don't like her,' was the brief reply.

'I've had curious thoughts about that lady,' said Tarrant, smiling. 'The mystery, it seems to me, is by no means solved. You think she really is your aunt?'

'Impossible to doubt it. Any one could see her likeness to Horace at once.'

'Ah, you didn't mention that. I had a fear that she might be simply an adventuress, with an eye to your brother's money.'

'She is what she says, I'm sure. But I shall never ask her to come and see me again, and I don't think she'll want to. That would be fortunate if--if we wished--'

Tarrant nodded. At the same moment they heard a sound that startled them.

'That's a knock at the door,' said Nancy, rising as if to escape.

'So it is. Banging with a stick. Let him bang. It must be a stranger, or he'd respect the oak.'

They sat listening. The knock sounded again, loud and prolonged. Tarrant joked about it; but a third time came the summons.

'I may as well go and see who it is.'

'Oh--you won't let any one--'

'Of course not. Sit quietly.'

He went out, closing the room-door behind him, and opened the heavy door which should have ensured his privacy. For five minutes he was absent, then returned with a face portending news.

'It was Vawdrey. He knew my habit of sporting the oak, and wouldn't go away till he had made sure. My grandmother is dying. They telegraphed to Vawdrey in the City, and he came here at once to tell me. I must go. Perhaps I shall be too late.'

'What did he think of your keeping him outside?'

'I made some sort of excuse. He's a good-natured fellow; it didn't matter. Stay a little after I'm gone; stay as long as you like, In fact. You can pull to the inner door when you go.'

'What did the telegram say?'

'Mrs. Tarrant sinking. Come immediately.' Of course we expected it. It's raining hard: wait and see if it stops; you must take care of yourself.'

For this, Nancy was not slow in exhibiting her gratitude, which served as mask of the pleasure she could not decently betray. When her husband had hastened off, she sat for a few minutes in thought; then, alone here for the first time, she began to walk about the rooms, and to make herself more intimately acquainted with their contents.