In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part III: Into Bontage
He must be a strong man whom the sudden stare of Penury does not daunt and, in some measure, debase. Tarrant, whatever the possibilities of his nature, had fallen under a spell of indolent security, which declared its power only when he came face to face with the demand for vigorous action. The moment found him a sheer poltroon. 'What! Is it possible that I--I--am henceforth penniless? I, to whom the gods were so gracious? I, without warning, flung from sheltered comfort on to the bare road side, where I must either toil or beg?' The thing seemed unintelligible. He had never imagined such ruin of his hopes.
For the first time, he turned anxious thoughts upon the money to which his wife was--would be--might be--entitled. He computed the chances of success in the deception he and she were practising, and knew with shame that he must henceforth be party to a vulgar fraud. Could Nancy be trusted to carry through this elaborate imposition--difficult for the strongest-minded woman? Was it not a certainty that some negligence, or some accident, must disclose her secret? Then had he a wife and child upon his hands, to support even as common men support wife and child, by incessant labour. The prospect chilled him.
If he went to the West Indies, his absence would heighten the probability of Nancy's detection. Yet he desired to escape from her. Not to abandon her; of that thought he was incapable; but to escape the duty--repulsive to his imagination--of encouraging her through the various stages of their fraud. From the other side of the Atlantic he would write affectionate, consolatory letters; face to face with her, could he support the show of tenderness, go through an endless series of emotional interviews, always reminding himself that the end in view was hard cash? Not for love's sake; he loved her less than before she proved herself his wife in earnest. Veritable love--no man knew better--would have impelled him to save himself and her from a degrading position.
Was he committing himself to a criminality which the law would visit? Hardly that--until he entered into possession of money fraudulently obtained.
In miserable night-watchings, he fell to the most sordid calculations. Supposing their plot revealed, would Nancy in fact be left without resources? Surely not,--with her brother, her aunt, her lifelong friends the Barmbys, to take thought for her. She could not suffer extremities. And upon this he blushed relief.
Better to make up his mind that the secret must inevitably out. For the moment, Nancy believed she had resigned herself to his departure, and that she had strength to go through with the long ordeal. But a woman in her situation cannot be depended upon to pursue a consistent course. It is Nature's ordinance that motherhood shall be attained through phases of mental disturbance, which leave the sufferer scarce a pretence of responsibility. Nancy would play strange pranks, by which, assuredly, he would be driven to exasperation if they passed under his eyes. He had no mind to be called father; perhaps even his humanity might fail under the test to which, as a lover, he had given scarce a casual thought. By removing himself, and awaiting the issue afar off, he gained time and opportunity for reflection. Of course his wife could not come to want; that, after all, was the one clearly comforting thought. Her old servant would take good care of her, happen what might.
He must taste of liberty again before sinking into the humdrum of married life. The thought of an ocean voyage, of the new life amid tropic splendours, excited his imagination all the more because it blended with the thought of recovered freedom. Marriage had come upon him with unfair abruptness; for such a change as that, even the ordinary bachelor demands a season preparative; much more, then, the young man who revelled in a philosophic sense of detachment, who wrote his motto 'Vixi hodie!' For marriage he was simply unfit; forced together, he and his wife would soon be mutually detestable. A temporary parting might mature in the hearts of both that affection of which the seed was undeniably planted. With passion they had done; the enduring tenderness of a reasonable love must now unite them, were they to be united at all. And to give such love a chance of growing in him, Tarrant felt that he must lose sight of Nancy until her child was born.
Yes, it had begun already, the trial he dreaded. A letter from Nancy, written and posted only an hour or two after her return home --a long, distracted letter. Would he forgive her for seeming to be an obstacle in the way of what he had proposed? Would he promise her to be faithful? Would he--
He had hardly patience to read it through.
The next evening, on returning home about ten o'clock, he was startled by the sight of Nancy's figure at the foot of his staircase.
'What has happened?'
'Nothing--don't be frightened. But I wanted to see you tonight.'
She gripped his hand.
'How long have you waited? What! Hours? But this is downright madness--such a night as this! Couldn't you put a note for me in the letter-box?'
'Don't--don't speak so! I wanted to see you.' She hurried her words, as if afraid he would refuse to listen. 'I have told Mary-- I wanted you to know--'
'Come in. But there's no fire, and you're chilled through. Do you want to be ill? What outrageous silliness!'
Her vitality was indeed at a low ebb, and reproaches made her weep. Tarrant half carried her up to his room, made a light, and fell to his knees at fire-building.
'Let me do it,' Nancy exclaimed. 'Let me wait upon you--'
'If you don't sit still and keep quiet, you'll make me angry in earnest.'
'Then you're not really angry with me? I couldn't help it.'
'No, I'm afraid you couldn't,' Tarrant muttered cheerlessly.
'I wanted to tell you that Mary will be our friend. She was speechless with astonishment; at first I didn't know what she would say; she looked at me as she had never looked before--as if she were the mistress, and I the servant. But see what I have come to; all I felt was a dread lest she should think it her duty to cast me off. I haven't a bit of pride left. I could have fallen on my knees before her; I almost did. But she was very good and kind and gentle at last. She'll do everything she can for me.'
The fire in a blaze, Tarrant stood up and regarded it gloomily.
'Well, did she think it possible?' he asked at length.
'Yes, she did. She said it would be very difficult, but the secret might be kept--if I were strong enough. And I am strong enough --I will be--'
'It doesn't look like it,' said Tarrant, taking the edge off his words with a smile.
'I won't come again in this way. Where have you been tonight?'
'Oh, with friends.'
'Which friends? where?'
He moved impatiently.
'People you don't know, Nancy, and wouldn't care about if you did. Do you know what time it is?'
'Do tell me where you have been. It isn't prying into your affairs. Your friends ought to be mine; at least, I mean, I ought to know their names, and something about them. Suppose I were to tell you I had been spending the evening with friends--'
'My dear girl, I shouldn't ask a question, unless you invited it. However, it's better to tell you that I have been making arrangements to sublet these chambers. I can't afford to keep them, even if there were any use in it. Harvey Munden has introduced me to a man who is likely to relieve me of the burden. I shall warehouse my books and furniture--'
'Then you are going? Really going to leave England?'
He affected astonishment; in truth, nothing now could surprise him.
'But wasn't it all decided between us? Didn't you repeat it in your letter?'
'Yes--I know--but I didn't think it would come so soon.'
'We won't talk about it to-night,' said Tarrant firmly. 'For one thing, there's no time. Come closer to the fire, and get warm through; then I must see you home.'
Nancy hung her head. When, in a few moments, she looked up again, it was to say drily:
'There's no need for you to see me home.'
'I'm going to, at all events.'
'Why? You don't care much about me. I might as well be run over-- or anything--'
To this remark no sort of answer was vouchsafed. Nancy sat with her feet on the fender, and Tarrant kept up a great blaze with chips, which sputtered out their moisture before they began to crackle. He and she both seemed intent on this process of combustion.
'Now you're quite warm,' said the young man, as if speaking to a child, 'and it's time to go.'
Nancy rose obediently, gazed at him with dreaming eyes, and suffered herself to be led away by the arm. In Chancery Lane, Tarrant hailed a crawling hansom. When they were driving rapidly southward, Nancy began to question him about the date of his departure; she learnt that he might be gone in less than a week.
'If you could behave quietly and sensibly, we would have an evening to make final arrangements.'
'I can,' she answered, with a calm that surprised him. 'If you go without letting me see you again, I don't know what I might do. But I can be as sensible as you are, if I'm treated fairly.'
He grasped her hand.
'Remember, dear girl, that I have a good deal to worry me just now. Do you suppose I leave you with a light heart?'
'If you can persuade me that you care--'
'I care a good deal more than I can easily say. Your position is a very hard one,--harder than mine. But I'm going away to work for your future. I see clearly that it's the best thing I could do. Whether Vawdrey's ideas come to anything or not, I shall make profit out of the journey; I mean to write,--I think it's all I can do to any purpose,--and the material I shall get together over there will give me a start. Don't think I am cold-hearted because I talk in this way; if I broke down, so much the worse for both of us. The time has come for serious work.'
'But we shan't lose my money. I've made up my mind we shan't.'
'It's impossible for you to guard against every danger. We must be prepared for the worst, and that responsibility rests on me. Try and keep your mind at ease; whatever happens, to protect you is my duty, and I shall not fail in it.'
Speaking thus, Tarrant felt the glow of virtue. His words were perfectly sincere, but had reference to a future which his thoughts left comfortably vague.
They were to meet again, probably for the definite parting, three days hence. Tarrant, whose desire for escape had now become incontrollable, used the intervening time in a rush of preparations. He did not debate with himself as to the length of his sojourn in the West Indies; that must be determined by circumstances. Explicitly he had avoided a promise on the subject. What money he possessed he would take with him; it might be to his interest, for Nancy's likewise, to exceed the term of absence provided for in his stipulations with Mr. Vawdrey. But all he deliberately thought of was the getting away. Impatient with Nancy, because of the vagaries resultant from her mental and physical state, he himself exhibited a flagrant triumph of instinct over reason. Once in enjoyment of liberty, he would reflect, like a practical man, on the details of his position, review and recognise his obligations, pay his debt to honour; but liberty first of all. Not his the nature to accept bondage; it demoralised him, made him do and say things of which he was ashamed. Only let him taste the breezes of ocean, and the healthful spirit which is one with rectitude would again inspire him.
Much to his surprise, he neither saw nor heard from Nancy until the hour appointed. She came very punctually. On opening the door to her, with an air of resolute cheerfulness, he saw something in her face that removed the necessity for playing a part. It was the look which had so charmed him in their love-days, the indescribable look, characteristic of Nancy, and of her alone; a gleam between smile and laughter, a glance mingling pride with submission, a silent note of personality which thrilled the senses and touched the heart.
'What now?' he asked, holding her hand and gazing at her. 'Some good news?'
'None that I know of. How hot your room is! Why, you look glad to see me!'
'Was I ever anything else?'
She answered him with a smile.
'It's a very pleasant surprise,' he continued, watching her as she threw off her out-door things. 'I expected a doleful visage, eyes red with weeping.'
'Did you? See how much a man thinks of himself! If you choose to go away, I choose to think as little of you as possible. That's common sense--isn't it?'
'I don't want you to cry about it.'
'Oh yes, you do. It flatters you, and you like flattery. But I've been too obliging. I feel myself again, and there's no more flattery for you--till you come back. I don't ask you when that will be. I ask you nothing at all. I am independent of you.'
Tarrant grew uneasy. He feared that this mood of jest would change only too suddenly, and her collapse into feminine feebleness be the more complete.
'Be as independent as you like,' he said; 'only keep your love for me.'
'Oh, indeed! It's your experience, is it, that the two things can go together? That's the difference between man and woman, I suppose. I shall love you just as little as possible--and how little that will be, perhaps I had better not tell you.'
Still he stood gazing at her.
'You look very beautiful to-day.'
'I know. I saw it for myself before I left home. But we won't talk about that. When do you go?'
'My goods will be warehoused to-morrow, and the next day I go to Liverpool.'
'I'm glad it's so soon. We shan't need to see each other again. Smoke your pipe. I'm going to make a cup of tea.'
'Kiss me first. You forgot when you came in.'
'You get no kiss by ordering it. Beg for it prettily, and we'll see.'
'What does it all mean, Nancy? How can you have altered like this?'
'You prefer me as I was last time?'
'Not I, indeed. You make me feel that it will be very hard to leave you. I shall carry away a picture of you quite different from the dreary face that I had got to be afraid of.'
Nancy laughed, and of a sudden held out her hands to him.
'Haven't I thought of that? These were the very words I hoped to hear from you. Now beg for a kiss, and you shall have one.'
Never, perhaps, had they spent together so harmonious an evening. Nancy's tenderness took at length a graver turn, but she remained herself, face and speech untroubled by morbid influence.
'I won't see you again,' she said, 'because I mightn't be able to behave as I can to-day. To-day I am myself; for a long time I have been living I don't know how.'
Tarrant murmured something about her state of health.
'Yes, I know all about that. A strange thought came to me last night. When my father was alive I fretted because I couldn't be independent; I wanted to be quite free, to live as I chose; I looked forward to it as the one thing desirable. Now, I look back on that as a time of liberty. I am in bondage, now--threefold bondage.'
'To you, because I love you, and couldn't cease loving you, however I tried. Then, to my father's will, which makes me live in hiding, as if I were a criminal. And then--'
'What other tyranny?'
'You mustn't expect all my love. Before long some one else will rule over me.--What an exchange I have made! And I was going to be so independent.'
To the listener, her speech seemed to come from a maturer mind than she had hitherto revealed. But he suffered from the thought that this might be merely a pathological phase. In reminding him of her motherhood, she checked the flow of his emotion.
'You'll remember,' Nancy went on, 'that I'm not enjoying myself whilst you are away. I don't want you to be unhappy--only to think of me, and keep in mind what I'm going through. If you do that, you won't be away from me longer than you can help.'
It was said with unforced pathos, and Tarrant's better part made generous reply.
'If you find it too hard, dear, write to me, and tell me, and there shall be an end of it.'
'Never. You think me wretchedly weak, but you shall see--'
'It's of your own free will you undertake it?'
'Yes, of my own free will,' she answered firmly. 'I won't come to you penniless. It isn't right I should do so. My father didn't mean that. If I had had the sense and the courage to tell him, all this misery would have been spared. That money is mine by every right, and I won't lose it. Not only for your sake and my own--there is some one else to think of.'
Tarrant gave her a kind look.
'Don't count upon it. Trust to me.'
'I like to hear you say that, but I don't wish you to be put to proof. You are not the kind of man to make money.'
'How do you mean it?'
'As you like to take it. Silly boy, don't I love you just because you are not one of the money-making men? If you hadn't a penny in the world, I should love you just the same; and I couldn't love you more if you had millions.'
The change which Tarrant expected did not come. To the end, she was brave and bright, her own best self. She said good-bye without a tear, refused to let him accompany her, and so, even as she had resolved, left in her husband's mind an image beckoning his return.