In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part IV: The Veiled Figure
Before his admission to a partnership in Mr. Lord's business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed. Under any circumstances, the family must soon have sought a home elsewhere, and Samuel's good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as 'Dagmar Road,' which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips.
The Barmby sisters, Lucy and Amelia by name, were unpretentious young women, without personal attractions, and soberly educated. They professed a form of Dissent; their reading was in certain religious and semi-religious periodicals, rarely in books; domestic occupations took up most of their time, and they seldom had any engagements. At appointed seasons, a festivity in connection with 'the Chapel' called them forth; it kept them in a flutter for many days, and gave them a headache. In the strictest sense their life was provincial; nominally denizens of London, they dwelt as remote from everything metropolitan as though Camberwell were a village of the Midlands. If they suffered from discontent, no one heard of it; a confession by one or the other that she 'felt dull' excited the sister's surprise, and invariably led to the suggestion of 'a little medicine.'
Their brother they regarded with admiration, tempered by anxiety. 'Great talents,' they knew by report, were often perilous to the possessor, and there was reason to fear that Samuel Bennett Barmby had not resisted all the temptations to which his intellect exposed him. At the age of one-and-twenty he made a startling announcement; 'the Chapel' no longer satisfied the needs of his soul, and he found himself summoned to join the Church of England as by law established. Religious intolerance not being a family characteristic, Mr. Barmby and his daughters, though they looked grave over the young man's apostasy, admitted his freedom in this matter; their respected friend Mr. Lord belonged to the Church, and it could not be thought that so earnest-minded a man walked in the way to perdition. At the same time, Samuel began to exhibit a liking for social pleasures, which were, it might be hoped, innocent, but, as they kept him from home of evenings, gave some ground for uneasiness. He had joined a society of young men who met for intellectual debate, and his success as an orator fostered the spiritual pride already discernible in him. His next step could not be regarded without concern, for he became a member of the National Sunday League. Deceptive name! At first the Miss. Barmbys supposed this was a union for safe-guarding the Sabbath-day; it appalled them to discover that the League had quite an opposite tendency, that its adherents sallied forth together on 'Sunday excursions,' that they received tickets for Sunday admission to picture galleries, and in various other ways offended orthodox feeling. But again the father and sisters gave patient ear to Samuel's elaborate arguments. They became convinced that he had no evil intentions. The elder girl, having caught up a pregnant phrase in some periodical she approved, began to remark that Samuel had 'a modern mind;' and this eventually consoled them.
When it began to be observed that Samuel talked somewhat frequently of Miss. Lord, the implied suggestion caused a tremor of confused feeling. To the Miss. Barmbys, Nancy seemed an enigmatic person; they had tried to like her, but could not; they objected to her assumption of superiority, and were in grave doubt as to her opinions on cardinal points of faith and behaviour. Yet, when it appeared a possibility that their brother might woo Miss. Lord and win her for a wife, the girls did their best to see her in a more favourable light. Not for a moment did it occur to them that Nancy could regard a proposal from Samuel as anything but an honour; to them she might behave slightingly, for they were of her own sex, and not clever; but a girl who prided herself on intellectual attainments must of course look up to Samuel Bennett with reverence. In their unworldliness--of a truth they were good, simple creatures--the slight difference of social position seemed unimportant. And with Samuel's elevation to a partnership, even that one shadowy obstacle was removed. Henceforth they would meet Nancy in a conciliatory spirit, and, if she insisted upon it, bow down before her.
Mr. Barmby, senior, whose years drew nigh to three-score, had a great advantage in point of physical health over his old friend Stephen Lord, and his mind enjoyed a placidity which promised him length of days. Since the age of seventeen he had plied a pen in the office of a Life Assurance Company, where his salary, by small and slow increments, had grown at length to two hundred and fifty a year. Himself a small and slow person, he had every reason to be satisfied with this progress, and hoped for no further advance. He was of eminently sober mind, profoundly conscientious, and quite devoid of social ambition,--points of character which explained the long intimacy between him and Stephen Lord. Yet one habit he possessed which foreshadowed the intellectual composition of his son,--he loved to write letters to the newspapers. At very long intervals one of these communications achieved the honour of type, and then Mr Barmby was radiant with modest self-approval. He never signed such letters with his own name, but chose a pseudonym befitting the subject. Thus, if moved to civic indignation by pieces of orange-peel on the pavement, he styled himself 'Urban Rambler;' if anxious to protest against the overcrowding of 'bus or railway-carriage, his signature was 'Otium cum Dignitate.' When he took a holiday at the seaside, unwonted leisure and novel circumstances prompted him to address local editors at considerable length. The preservation of decency by bathers was then his favourite topic, and he would sign 'Pudor,' or perchance 'Paterfamilias.' His public epistles, if collected, would have made an entertaining and lnstructive volume, so admirably did they represent one phase of the popular mind. 'No, sir,'--this sentence frequently occurred,--'it was not thus that our fathers achieved national and civic greatness.' And again: 'All the feelings of an English parent revolt,' &c. Or: 'And now, sir, where is this to end?'--a phrase applied at one moment to the prospects of religion and morality, at another to the multiplication of muffin-bells.
On a Sunday afternoon, Mr. Barmby often read aloud to his daughters, and in general his chosen book was 'Paradise Lost.' These performances had an indescribable solemnity, but it unfortunately happened that, as his fervour increased, the reader became regardless of aspirates. Thus, at the culmination of Satanic impiety, he would give forth with shaking voice--
'Ail, orrors, ail! and thou profoundest Ell, Receive thy new possessor!'
This, though it did not distress the girls, was painful to Samuel Bennett, who had given no little care to the correction of similar lapses in his own speech.
Samuel conceived himself much ahead of his family. Quite uneducated, in any legitimate sense of the word, he had yet learnt that such a thing as education existed, and, by dint of busy perusal of penny popularities, had even become familiar with names and phrases, with modes of thought and of ambition, appertaining to a world for ever closed against him. He spoke of Culture, and imagined himself far on the way to attain it. His mind was packed with the oddest jumble of incongruities; Herbert Spencer jostled with Charles Bradlaugh, Matthew Arnold with Samuel Smiles; in one breath he lauded George Eliot, in the next was enthusiastic over a novel by Mrs. Henry Wood; from puerile facetiae he passed to speculations on the origin of being, and with equally light heart. Save for Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe, he had read no English classic; since boyhood, indeed, he had probably read no book at all, for much diet of newspapers rendered him all but incapable of sustained attention. Whatever he seemed to know of serious authors came to him at second or third hand. Avowing his faith in Christianity when with orthodox people, in the society of sceptics he permitted himself to smile at the old faiths,--though he preferred to escape this temptation, the Nonconformist conscience still reigning within him. At home he posed as a broad-minded Anglican, and having somewhere read that Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' represented this attitude, he spoke of the poem as 'one of the books that have made me what I am.'
His circle of acquaintances lay apart from that in which the Lords moved; it consisted for the most part of young men humbly endowed in the matter of income, and making little pretence of social dignity. When others resorted to theatre or public-house, or places not so readily designated, Samuel and his friends met together to discourse on subjects of which they knew somewhat less than nothing. Some of them occasionally held audacious language, especially when topics such as the relations of the sexes invited their wisdom; they had read something somewhere which urged them to cast off the trammels of conventional thought; they 'ventured to say' that in a very few years 'surprising changes of opinion would come about.' These revolutionaries, after startling the more sober of their hearers, went quietly home to mother or landlady, supped on cheese and cocoa, and next day plied the cleric pen with exemplary zeal.
Samuel believed himself in love. That he should conceive matrimonial intentions with regard to Stephen Lord's daughter was but the natural issue of circumstance; from that conception resulted an amorous mood, so much inflamed by Nancy's presence that a young man, whose thoughts did not often transgress decorum, had every reason to suppose himself her victim. When Nancy rejected his formal offer of devotion, the desire to wed her besieged him more vigorously; Samuel was piqued at the tone of lofty trifling in which the girl answered his proposal; for assuredly he esteemed himself no less remarkable a person than he appeared in the eyes of his sisters, and his vanity had been encouraged by Mr. Lord's favour. Of his qualities as a man of business there was no doubt; in one direction or another, he would have struck the road to fortune; why Nancy should regard him with condescension, and make him feel at once that his suit was hopeless, puzzled him for many a day. He tried flattery, affecting to regard her as his superior in things of the intellect, but only with the mortifying result that Miss. Lord accepted his humility as quite natural. Then he held apart in dignified reserve, and found no difficulty in maintaining this attitude until after Mr. Lord's death. Of course he did not let his relatives know of the repulse he had suffered, but, when speaking to them of what had happened on Jubilee night, he made it appear that his estimate of Miss. Lord was undergoing modification. 'She has lost him, all through her flightiness,' said the sisters to each other. They were not sorry, and felt free again to criticise Nancy's ideas of maidenly modesty.
The provisions of Mr. Lord's will could not but trouble the intercourse between Grove Lane and Dagmar Road. Mr. Barmby, senior, undertook with characteristic seriousness the guardianship conferred upon him. He had long interviews with Horace and Nancy, in which he acquitted himself greatly to his own satisfaction. Samuel, equally a trustee, showed his delicacy by holding aloof save when civility dictated a call upon the young people. But his hopes had revived; he was quite willing to wait three years for Nancy, and it seemed to him more than probable that this period of reflection would bring the young lady to a sense of his merits. In the meantime, he would pursue with energy the business now at his sole direction, and make it far more lucrative than when managed on Mr. Lord's old-fashioned principles.
As the weeks went on, it seemed more clear than at first that Nancy resented the authority held by Samuel and his father. They were not welcome at the house in Grove Lane; the Miss. Barmbys called several times without being admitted, though they felt sure that Nancy was at home. Under these circumstances, it became desirable to discover some intermediary who would keep them acquainted with the details of Nancy's life and of her brother's. Such intermediary was at hand, in the person of Miss. Jessica Morgan.