In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part III: Into Bontage
Whilst she was thus occupied, darkness came on. She did not care to light the lamp, so made herself ready, and stole forth.
The rain had ceased. Walking alone at night was a pleasure in which she now indulged herself pretty frequently; at such times Mary Woodruff believed her in the company of Miss. Morgan. The marked sobriety of her demeanour since Mr. Lord's death, and the friendliness, even the affection, she evinced in their common life at home, had set Mary's mind at ease concerning her. No murmur at her father's will had escaped Nancy, in this respect very unlike her brother, who, when grief was forgotten, declared himself ill-used; she seemed perfectly content with the conditions laid upon her, and the sincerity of her mourning could not be doubted. Anxious to conciliate the girl in every honest way, Mary behaved to her with the same external respect as ever, and without a hint of express guardianship. The two were on excellent terms. It seemed likely that before long they would have the house to themselves; already Horace had spoken of taking lodgings in a part of London more congruous with the social aspirations encouraged by his aunt, Mrs. Damerel.
From Chancery Lane she passed into Fleet Street, and sauntered along with observation of shop-windows. She was unspeakably relieved by the events of the afternoon; it would now depend upon her own choice whether she preserved her secret, or declared herself a married woman. Her husband had proved himself generous as well as loving; yes, she repeated to herself, generous and loving; her fears and suspicions had been baseless. Mrs. Tarrant's death freed them from all sordid considerations. A short time, perhaps a day or two, might put an end to irregularities, and enable her to hold up her head once more.
Feeling hungry, she entered a restaurant, and dined. Not carelessly, but with fastidious choice of viands. This was enjoyable; she began to look more like herself of a few months ago.
She would return to Camberwell by train from Ludgate Hill. At the circus, crowding traffic held her back for a minute or two; just as she ran forward, a familiar voice caused her to stop again. She became flurried, lost her head, stood still amid a tumult of omnibuses, cabs and carts; but a hand grasped her by the arm, and led her safely to the opposite pavement.
'What do you mean by shouting at me in the street?' were her first words.
The person addressed was Luckworth Crewe; he had by no means anticipated such wrathful greeting, and stood in confusion.
'I beg your pardon, Miss. Lord. I didn't think I shouted. I only meant to call your attention.'
'Why should you call my attention?' Her cheeks were flushed with anger; she regarded him as though he were a stranger guilty of mere insolence. 'I don't wish to speak to you.'
With astonishment, Crewe found himself alone. But a rebuff such as this, so irrational as he thought it, so entirely out of keeping with Miss. Lord's behaviour, he could by no means accept. Nancy was walking towards the railway-station; he followed. He watched her as she took a ticket, then put himself in her way, with all the humility of countenance he could command.
'I'm so sorry I offended you. It wasn't the right thing to do; I ought to have waited till you were across. I'm a blundering sort of fellow in those things. Do let me beg your pardon, and forgive me.'
She was calmer now, though still tremulous. But for the attack of nervousness, she would have met Crewe with nothing worse than a slight reserve, to mark a change in their relations. Very soon after her father's death he had written a becoming letter, though it smacked of commercial phraseology. To the hope expressed in it, that he might be allowed to call upon her in a few weeks' time, Nancy made no reply. A fortnight later he wrote again, this time reminding her, with modest propriety, of what had occurred between them before she left town in August. Nancy responded, and in grave, friendly language, begged him to think of her no more; he must not base the slightest hope upon anything she might have said. To her surprise, Crewe held his peace, and she saw him now for the first time since their ascent of the Monument.
'I'm ashamed that I lost my temper, Mr. Crewe. I am in a hurry to get home.'
In the booking-office at Ludgate Hill it is not easy to detain, by chivalrous discourse, a lady bent on escaping; but Crewe attempted it. He subdued his voice, spoke rapidly and with emotion, implored that he might be heard for a moment. Would she not permit him to call upon her? He had waited, respecting her seclusion. He asked for nothing whatever but permission to call, as any acquaintance might.
'Have you heard I have opened an office in Farringdon Street? I should so like to tell you all about it--what I'm doing--'
'No one calls to see me,' said Nancy, with firmness. 'I wish to live quite alone. I'm very sorry to seem unfriendly.'
'Is it anything I've done?'
'No--nothing whatever. I assure you, nothing. Let us say good-bye; I can't stop another moment.'
They shook hands and so parted.
'You're back early,' said Mary, when Nancy entered the drawing-room.
'Yes. I left Jessica to her books sooner than usual. The examination draws near.'
Quiet, sad, diligent ever, Mary kept unchanged the old domestic routine. There was the same perfect order, the same wholesome economy, as when she worked under the master's eyes. Nancy had nothing to do but enjoy the admirable care with which she was surrounded; she took it all as a matter of course, never having considered the difference between her own home and those of her acquaintances.
Horace had dined, and was gone out again. They talked of him; Mary said that he had spoken of moving into lodgings very soon.
'Of course he doesn't tell us everything,' said Nancy. 'I feel pretty sure that he's going to leave the office, but how he means to live I don't understand. Perhaps Mrs. Damerel will give him money, or lend it him. I only hope she may break it off between him and Fanny.'
'Hasn't he told you that Fanny is often with Mrs. Damerel?'
'With her?' Nancy exclaimed. 'He never said a word of it to me.'
'He said so to me this evening, and laughed when I looked surprised.'
'Well then, I don't pretend to understand what's going on. We can't do anything.'
About nine o'clock the servant entered the room, bringing Miss. Lord a note, which had just been left by a cab-driver. Nancy, seeing that the address was in Tarrant's hand, opened it with a flutter of joy; such a proceeding as this, openly sending a note by a messenger, could only mean that her husband no longer cared to preserve secrecy. To her astonishment, the envelope contained but a hurried line.
'Not a word yet to any one. Without fail, come to-morrow afternoon, at four.'
With what show of calmness she could command, she looked up at her companion.
'The idea of his sending in this way! It's that Mr. Crewe I've told you of. I met him as I was coming home, and had to speak to him rather sharply to get rid of him. Here comes his apology, foolish man!'
Living in perpetual falsehood, Nancy felt no shame at a fiction such as this. Mere truth-telling had never seemed to her a weighty matter of the law. And she was now grown expert in lies. But Tarrant's message disturbed her gravely. Something unforeseen must have happened--something, perhaps, calamitous. She passed a miserable night.
When she ascended the stairs at Staple Inn, next afternoon, it wanted ten minutes to four. As usual at her coming, the outer door stood open, exposing the door with the knocker. She had just raised her hand, when, with a sound of voices from inside, the door opened, and Tarrant appeared in company with a stranger. Terror-stricken, she stepped back. Tarrant, after a glance, paid no attention to her.
'All right,' he was saying to his friend, 'I shall see you in a day or two. Good-bye, old man.'
The stranger had observed Nancy, but withheld his eyes from her, and quickly vanished down the stairs.
'Who was that?' she whispered.
'I told you four o'clock.'
'It is four.'
'No--ten minutes to at least. It doesn't matter, but if you had been punctual you wouldn't have had a fright.'
Nancy had dropped into a chair, white and shaking. Tarrant's voice, abruptly reproachful, affected her scarcely less than the preceding shock. In the struggle to recover herself she sobbed and choked, and at length burst into tears. Tarrant spoke impatiently.
'What's the matter? Surely you are not so childish'--
She stood up, and went into the bedroom, where she remained for several minutes, returning at length without her jacket, but with her hat still on.
'I couldn't help it; and you shouldn't speak to me in that way. I have felt ill all the morning.'
Looking at her, the young man said to himself, that love was one thing, wedded life another. He could make allowance for Nancy's weakness--but it was beyond his power to summon the old warmth and tenderness. If henceforth he loved her, it must be with husband's love--a phrase which signified to him something as distinct as possible from the ardour he had known; a moral attachment instead of a passionate desire.
And there was another reason for his intolerant mood.
'You hadn't spoken to any one before you got my note?'
'No.--Why are you treating me like this? Are you ashamed that your friend saw me?'
'Ashamed? not at all.'
'Who did he think I was?'
'I don't know. He doesn't know anything about you, at all events. As you may guess, I have something not very pleasant to tell. I didn't mean to be unkind; it was only the surprise at seeing you when I opened the door. I had calculated the exact time. But never mind. You look cold; warm yourself at the fire. You shall drink a glass of wine; it will put your nerves right again.'
'No, I want nothing. Tell me at once what it is.'
But Tarrant quietly brought a bottle and glass from his cupboard. Nancy again refused, pettishly.
'Until you have drunk,' he said, with a smile of self-will, 'I shall tell you nothing.'
'I don't know what I've done to make you like this.'
Her sobs and tears returned. After a moment of impatience, Tarrant went up to her with the glass, laid a hand upon her shoulder, and kissed her.
'Now, come, be reasonable. We have uncommonly serious things to talk about.'
'What did your friend think of me?'
'That you were one of the prettiest girls he had ever been privileged to see, and that I was an enviable fellow to have such a visitor. There now, another sip, and let us have some colour back into your cheeks. There's bad news, Nancy; confoundedly bad news, dear girl. My grandmother was dead when I got there. Well, the foolish old woman has been muddling her affairs for a long time, speculating here and there without taking any one's advice, and so on; and the result is that she leaves nothing at all.'
Nancy was mute.
'Less than nothing, indeed. She owed a few hundreds that she had no means of paying. The joke of the thing is, that she has left an elaborate will, with legacies to half-a-dozen people, myself first of all. If she had been so good as to die two years ago, I should have come in for a thousand a year or so. No one suspected what was going on; she never allowed Vawdrey, the one man who could have been useful to her, to have an inkling of the affair. An advertising broker got her in his clutches. Vawdrey's lawyer has been going through her papers, and finds everything quite intelligible. The money has gone in lumps, good after bad. Swindling, of course, but perfectly legal swindling, nothing to be done about it. A minute or two before her death she gasped out some words of revelation to the nurse, enough to set Vawdrey on the track, when he was told.'
Still the listener said nothing.
'Well, I had a talk with Vawdrey. He's a blackguard, but not a bad fellow. Wished he could help me, but didn't quite see how, unless I would go into business. However, he had a suggestion to make.'
For Nancy, the pause was charged with apprehensions. She seemed to discover in her husband's face a purpose which he knew would excite her resistance.
'He and I have often talked about my friend Sutherland, in the Bahamas, and Vawdrey has an idea that there'll be a profitable opening in that quarter, before long. Sutherland has written to me lately that he thinks of bestirring himself in the projects I've told you about; he has got the old man's consent to borrow money on the property. Now Vawdrey, naturally enough, would like Sutherland to join him in starting a company; the thoughts of such men run only on companies. So he offers, if I will go out to the Bahamas for a month or two, and look about me, and put myself in a position to make some kind of report--he offers to pay my expenses. Of course if the idea came to anything, and a company got floated, I should have shares.'
Again he paused. The listener had wide, miserable eyes.
'Well, I told him at once that I would accept the proposal. I have no right to refuse. All I possess in the world, at this moment, is about sixty pounds. If I sold all my books and furniture, they might bring another sixty or so. What, then, is to become of me? I must set to work at something, and here's the first work that comes to hand. But,' his voice softened, 'this puts us face to face with a very grave question; doesn't it? Are we to relinquish your money, and be both of us penniless? Or is there any possibility of saving it?'
'How can we? How could the secret be kept?'
Voice and countenance joined in utter dismay.
'It doesn't seem to me,' said Tarrant slowly, 'a downright impossibility. It might be managed, with the help of your friend Mary, and granting that you yourself have the courage. But'--he made a large gesture--'of course I can't exact any such thing of you. It must seem practicable to you yourself.'
'What are we to do if my money is lost?'
'Don't say we.' He smiled generously, perhaps too generously. 'A man must support his wife. I shall arrange it somehow, of course, so that you have no anxiety. But--'
His voice dropped.
'Lionel!' She sprang up and approached him as he stood by the fireplace. 'You won't leave me, dear? How can you think of going so far away--for months--and leaving me as I am now? Oh, you won't leave me!'
He arched his eyebrows, and smiled gently.
'If that's how you look at it--well, I must stay.'
'You can do something here,' Nancy continued, with rapid pleading. 'You can write for the papers. You always said you could--yes, you did say so. We don't need very much to live upon--at first. I shall be content--'
'A moment. You mean that the money must be abandoned.'
She had meant it, but under his look her confused thoughts took a new direction.
'No. We needn't lose it. Only stay near me, and I will keep the secret, through everything. You will only need, then, just to support yourself, and that is so easy. I will tell Mary how it is. She can be trusted, I am sure she can. She would do anything for me. She knows that father was not thinking of a man such as you. It would be cruelly wrong if I lost everything. I will tell her, and she will help me. Scarcely any one comes to the house, as it is; and I will pretend to have bad health, and shut myself up. And then, when the time comes, Mary will go away with me, and--and the child shall be taken care of by some people we can trust to be kind to it. Horace is going to live in lodgings; and Mrs. Damerel, I am sure, won't come to see me again; and I can get rid of other people. The Barmbys shall think I am sulking about the will; I'm sure they think already that I dislike them because of it. Let them think it; I will refuse, presently, to see them at all. It's only a few months. If I tell people I'm not well, nobody will feel surprised if I go away for a month or two--now--soon. Mary would go with me, of course. I might go for December and January. Father didn't mean I was never to have change of air. Then there would be February and March at home. And then I might go away again till near the end of May. I'm sure we can manage it.'
She stopped, breathless. Tarrant, who had listened with averted face, turned and spoke judicially.
'There's one thing you're forgetting, Nancy. Do you propose that we shall never acknowledge the child? Remember that even if you were bold enough, after our second marriage, to acknowledge it in the face of scandal--that wouldn't be safe. Any one, if suspicion is aroused, can find out when we were actually married.'
'We can't think of that. The child may not live.'
Tarrant moved, and the movement startled Nancy. It meant that she had pained him, perhaps made him think of her with repugnance.
'I hardly know what I am saying. You know I don't wish that. But all I can think of now is to keep you near me. I can't bear to be separated from you. I love you so much more than you love me.'
'Let me just tell you what I had in mind, Nancy. Supposing the secret can be kept, we must eventually live abroad, that is to say, if our child is not to grow up a stranger to us, which neither you nor I could wish. Now, at Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, a lot of Americans always spend the winter. If I made acquaintances among them, it might be a very useful step, it would be preparing for the future.'
To Nancy this sounded far from convincing. She argued against it in a perfectly natural way, and as any one else would have done who knew Tarrant. More than once he had declared to her that he would rather die than drag out his life in one of the new countries, that he could not breathe in an atmosphere of commercialism unrelieved by historic associations. Nancy urged that it would be better to make a home on the continent, whither they could go, at any moment, without a sense of exile.
'So it comes to this,' he interrupted, with an air of resignation. 'I must refuse Vawdrey's offer, and, in doing so, refuse an excellent chance of providing for our future, if--what is by no means improbable--the secret should be discovered. I must turn to journalism, or be a clerk. Well and good. My wife decrees it.'
And he began to hum an air, as if the matter were dismissed. There was a long silence.
'How long would you be away?' murmured Nancy, at length.
'I suppose two months at most.'
'The second of those months you might be spending, as you said, away from London. Down in Devon, perhaps. I can't blame your thoughts about it; but it seems--doesn't it?--a trifle inconsiderate, when you think what may result from my journey.'
'Would you promise me to be back by the end of the year?'
'Not promise, Nancy. But do my best. Letters take fourteen days, that's all. You should hear by every mail.'
'Why not promise?'
'Because I can't foresee how much I may have to do there, and how long it will take me. But you may be very sure that Vawdrey won't pay expenses for longer than he can help. It has occurred to me that I might get materials for some magazine articles. That would help to float me with the editors, you know, if it's necessary.'
'If I consented--if I did my best not to stand in your way-- would you love me better when you came back?'
The answer was a pleased laugh.
'Why, there,' he cried, 'you've given in a nutshell the whole duty of a wife who wishes to be loved!'
Nancy tried to laugh with him.