Part IV: The Veiled Figure
Chapter 2
 

Until of late there had existed a bare acquaintance between Jessica and the Barmby family. The two or three hours which she perforce spent in Samuel's company on Jubilee night caused Jessica no little embarrassment; as a natural result, their meetings after that had a colour of intimacy, and it was not long before Miss. Morgan and the Miss. Barmbys began to see more of each other. Nancy, on a motive correspondent with that which actuated her guardians, desired Jessica's familiarity with the household in Dagmar Road; her friend could thus learn and communicate sundry facts of importance, else hidden from her in the retirement to which she was now condemned. How did the Barmbys regard her behaviour to them? Did they, in their questioning, betray any suspicion fraught with danger? Jessica, enjoying the possession of a most important secret, which she had religiously guarded even from her mother, made time to accept the Barmbys' invitations pretty frequently, and invited the girls to her own home as often as she could afford a little outlay on cakes and preserves.

It made a salutary distraction in her life. As December drew near, she exhibited alarming symptoms of over-work, and but for the romance which assured to her an occasional hour of idleness, she must have collapsed before the date of her examination. As it was, she frightened one of her pupils, at the end of a long lesson, by falling to the floor and lying there for ten minutes in unconsciousness. The warning passed unheeded; day and night she toiled at her insuperable tasks, at times half frenzied by the strangest lapses of memory, and feeling, the more she laboured, only the more convinced that at the last moment every fact she had acquired would ruthlessly desert her.

Her place of abode favoured neither health nor mental tranquillity. It was one of a row of new houses in a new quarter. A year or two ago the site had been an enclosed meadow, portion of the land attached to what was once a country mansion; London, devourer of rural limits, of a sudden made hideous encroachment upon the old estate, now held by a speculative builder; of many streets to be constructed, three or four had already come into being, and others were mapped out, in mud and inchoate masonry, athwart the ravaged field. Great elms, the pride of generations passed away, fell before the speculative axe, or were left standing in mournful isolation to please a speculative architect; bits of wayside hedge still shivered in fog and wind, amid hoardings variegated with placards and scaffolding black against the sky. The very earth had lost its wholesome odour; trampled into mire, fouled with builders' refuse and the noisome drift from adjacent streets, it sent forth, under the sooty rain, a smell of corruption, of all the town's uncleanliness. On this rising locality had been bestowed the title of 'Park.' Mrs. Morgan was decided in her choice of a dwelling here by the euphonious address, Merton Avenue, Something-or-other Park.

The old mansion--not very old, and far from beautiful, but stoutly built--stood grim and desolate, long dismantled, and waiting only to be torn down for the behoof of speculative dealers in old material. What aforetime was a tree-bordered drive, now curved between dead stumps, a mere slushy cartway; the stone pillars, which had marked the entrance, damaged in the rending away of metal with a market value, drooped sideways, ready at a touch to bury themselves in slime.

Through summer months the Morgans had suffered sufficiently from the defects of their house; with the coming on of winter, they found themselves exposed to miseries barely endurable. At the first slight frost, cistern and water-pipes went to ruin; already so damp that unlovely vegetation had cropped up on cellar walls, the edifice was now drenched with torrents of water. Plaster fell from the ceilings; paper peeled away down the staircase; stuccoed portions of the front began to crack and moulder. Not a door that would close as a door should; not a window that would open in the way expected of it; not a fireplace but discharged its smoke into the room, rather than by the approved channel. Everywhere piercing draughts, which often entered by orifices unexplained and unexplainable. From cellar floor to chimney-pot, no square inch of honest or trustworthy workmanship. So thin were the parti-walls that conversation not only might, but must, be distinctly heard from room to room, and from house to house; the Morgans learnt to subdue their voices, lest all they said should become common property of the neighbourhood. For the privilege of occupying such a residence, 'the interior,' said advertisement, 'handsomely decorated,' they were racked with an expenditure which, away in the sweet-scented country, would have housed them amid garden graces and orchard fruitfulness.

At this time, Mr. Morgan had joined an acquaintance in the establishment of a debt-collecting agency; his partner provided the modest capital needful for such an enterprise, and upon himself fell the disagreeable work. A man of mild temper and humane instincts, he spent his day in hunting people who would not or could not pay the money they owed, straining his wits to circumvent the fraudulent, and swooping relentlessly upon the victims of misfortune. The occupation revolted him, but at present he saw no other way of supporting the genteel appearances which--he knew not why--were indispensable to his life. He subsisted like a bird of prey; he was ever on the look out for carrion which the law permitted him to seize. From the point of view forced upon him, society became a mere system of legalised rapine. 'You are in debt; behold the bond. Behold, too, my authority for squeezing out of you the uttermost farthing. You must beg or starve? I deplore it, but I, for my part, have a genteel family to maintain on what I rend from your grip.' He set his forehead against shame; he stooped to the basest chicanery; he exposed himself to insult, to curses, to threats of violence. Sometimes a whole day of inconceivably sordid toil resulted in the pouching of a few pence; sometimes his reward was a substantial sum. He knew himself despised by many of the creditors who employed him. 'Bad debts? For how much will you sell them to me?' And as often as not he took away with his bargain a glance which was equivalent to a kick.

The genteel family knew nothing of these expedients. Mrs. Morgan talked dolorously to her friends of 'commercial depression,' and gave it to be vaguely understood that her husband had suffered great losses because he conducted his affairs in the spirit of a gentleman. Her son was in an office;' her elder daughter was attempting the art of fiction, which did not promise to be lucrative; Jessica, more highly educated, would shortly matriculate at the University of London--a consoling prospect, but involving the payment of a fee that could with difficulty be afforded.

Every friend of the family held it a matter of course that Jessica would succeed in the examination. It seemed probable that she would have a place in Honours.

And, meanwhile, the poor girl herself was repenting of the indiscreet boastfulness with which she had made known her purpose. To come out in an inferior class would be painful enough; how support the possibility of absolute failure? Yet she knew only too well that in certain 'subjects' she was worse than shaky. Her Greek --her Chemistry--her Algebra--

By way of propitiating the stern fates, she began to talk with Lucy and Amelia Barmby in a tone of diffidence. Half a year ago, she would have held her head very high in such company; now the simple goodness of the old-fashioned girls made an appeal to her aching heart, and their homely talk soothed her exhausted brain.

'It's fearfully difficult,' she said to them one evening, as she sat in their parlour. 'And I lose so much time with my pupils. Really, you know, I haven't a fair chance. I was showing Nancy Lord the Algebra paper set last summer, and she confessed she could hardly do a single question.'

'She couldn't?' exclaimed one of the sisters in astonishment. 'But we always thought she was so very clever.'

'So she is--in many things. But she never dreamt of going in for such an examination as this.'

'And do you really know more than she does?'

Jessica smiled with affected modesty.

'Oh, I have studied so much more.'

It was sweet to gain this triumph over her friend, whose progress in the school of life she watched with the jealousy of a girl condemned to sterile passions.

Their talk was interrupted by the entrance of Samuel Barmby, and his elder sister, addressing him without reflection, said wonderingly:

'Sam, did you know that Nancy Lord couldn't pass the examination that Miss. Morgan is going in for?'

Jessica blushed, and hastened to extenuate this crude statement.

'Oh, I didn't say that. Only that she would have to study very hard if she went in for the matriculation.'

'Of course she would,' Samuel assented, largely, as he took his stand before the fireplace and beamed upon the female trio. 'Miss Lord goes in for broad culture; that's quite a different thing from studying for examinations.'

To the hearers, Jessica not excepted, this seemed to argue the spirit of broad culture in Samuel himself. Miss. Morgan pursued nervously:

'Examinations are nothing. I believe very stupid people often do well in them, and clever people often fail.'

Her voice sank on the last word, and she tried to read Barmby's face without meeting his look. Of late, a change had come about in her estimation of Samuel. Formerly she spoke of him with contemptuous amusement, in the tone set by Nancy; since she had become a friend of the family, his sisters' profound respect had influenced her way of thinking, and in secret she was disposed rather to admire 'the Prophet.' He had always struck her as a comely man, and, her education notwithstanding, she never perceived in his remarks that downright imbecility which excited Nancy's derision. On Jubilee night he was anything but a tedious companion; apart from her critical friend, Jessica had listened without impatience to his jests, his instructive facts, his flowing rhetoric. Now-a-days, in her enfeebled state of body and mind, she began to look forward with distinct pleasure to her occasional meetings with Samuel, pleasure which perhaps was enhanced by the air of condescension wherewith he tempered his courtesy. Morbid miseries brought out the frailty of her character. Desiring to be highly esteemed by Mr. Barmby, she found herself no less willing to join his sisters in a chorus of humbly feminine admiration, when he discoursed to them from an altitude. At moments, after gazing upon his eloquent countenance, she was beset by strange impulses which brought blood to her cheek, and made her dread the Miss. Barmbys' scrutiny.

'I look upon examinations,' Samuel was saying, 'as a professional matter. I never went in for them myself, simply because I--I turned my energies in another direction.'

'You could have passed them,' remarked one of his sisters, 'easily enough.'

'In Miss. Morgan's presence,'--he stroked his chin, and smiled with delicious fatuity--'I prefer to say nothing on that point.'

'Oh but of course you could, Mr. Barmby,' sounded Jessica's voice, in an unsteady falsetto, whilst her eyes were turned upon the floor. 'You would have thought nothing of this matriculation, which seems to me so dreadful.'

Profoundly flattered, Samuel addressed the girl in his suavest tones.

'I have a theory, Miss. Morgan, that young ladies ought not to undergo these ordeals. The delicacy of their nervous system unfits them for such a strain. I'm sure we shall all feel very glad when you are successfully through the trial. After it, you ought to have a long rest.'

'Oh, you ought--indeed you ought,' assented the girls.

'By the bye,' said Samuel, 'my father has heard from Miss. Lord that she is going away for a month or two. She says her health requires it.'

Jessica sat silent, still with downcast eyes.

'But it's a new thing, isn't it,' remarked Amelia, 'for Miss. Lord to be in bad health?'

'She has suffered a good deal, I'm afraid,' said Jessica, 'since her father's death. The doctor tells her she oughtn't to live in that dull house through the winter.'

'In that case,' Samuel exclaimed, 'of course she must go at once-- of course!'

He never spoke of Nancy but with stress of unctuous generosity. This, if his hearers knew what he had suffered at her hands, must tell greatly to his credit; if they were not aware of the circumstances, such a tone would become him as the young lady's hopeful admirer.

'I fear her nerves are affected,' pursued Jessica. 'She can't bear society. So unlike her, isn't it? She goes out very little indeed, --sometimes not for days together. And really she sees nobody. I'm getting quite anxious about her.'

The subject was an awkward one in this house, and it soon gave place to freer conversation. On her way home, though mechanically repeating dates and formulae, Jessica could not resist the tendency of her thoughts, to dwell on Samuel's features and Samuel's eloquence. This was a new danger; she had now little more than a fortnight for her final 'cram,' and any serious distraction meant ruin.

In a day or two she took leave of Nancy, who had chosen for her winter retreat no less remote a spot than Falmouth. Horace having settled himself in lodgings, the house was to be shut up; Mary Woodruff of course went down into Cornwall. Nancy had written a letter to Mr. Barmby, senior, excusing herself for not being able to see him before her departure; it was an amiable letter, but contained frank avowal of pain and discontent at the prospect of her long pupilage. 'Of course I submit to the burden my father chose to lay upon me, and before long, I hope, I shall be able to take things in a better spirit. All I ask of you, dear Mr. Barmby, is to have forbearance with me until I get back my health and feel more cheerful. You know that I could not be in better hands whilst Mary is with me. I shall write frequently, and give you an account of myself. Let me hear sometimes, and show me that you make allowance for my very trying position.'

Jessica heard the letter discussed by its recipient and his family. Samuel spoke with his wonted magnanimity; his father took a liberal view of the matter. And in writing to her friend a few days later, Jessica was able to say: 'I think you may safely stay at Falmouth for the whole winter. You will not be interfered with if you write nicely. I shouldn't wonder if they would let you keep out of their reach as long as it is necessary.'

The week of Jessica's ordeal was now at hand. She had had another fainting-fit; her sleep was broken every night with hideous dreams; she ate scarce enough to keep herself alive; a perpetual fever parched her throat and burned at her temples.

On the last day of 'cram,' she sat from morning to night in her comfortless little bedroom, bending over the smoky fire, reading desperately through a pile of note-books. The motive of vanity no longer supported her; gladly she would have crept away into a life of insignificance; but the fee for the examination was paid, and she must face the terrors, the shame, that waited her at Burlington House. No hope of 'passing.' Perhaps at the last moment a stroke of mortal illness would come to her relief.

Not so. She found herself in the ghastly torture-hall, at a desk on which lay sheets of paper, not whiter than her face. Somebody gave her a scroll, stereotyped in imitation of manuscript--the questions to be answered. For a quarter of an hour she could not understand a word. She saw the face of Samuel Barmby, and heard his tones--'The delicacy of a young lady's nervous system unfits her for such a strain.'

That evening she went home with a half-formed intention of poisoning herself.

But the morrow saw her seated again before another scroll of stereotype, still thinking of Samuel Barmby, still hearing his voice. The man was grown hateful to her; he seemed to haunt her brain malignantly, and to paralyse her hand.

Day after day in the room of torture, until all was done. Then upon her long despair followed a wild, unreasoning hope. Though it rained, she walked all the way home, singing, chattering to herself, and reached the house-door without consciousness of the distance she had traversed. Her mother and sister came out into the hall; they had been watching for her.

'I did a good paper to-day--I think I've passed after all--yes, I feel sure I've passed!'

'You look dreadful,' exclaimed Mrs. Morgan. 'And you're wet through--'

'I did a good paper to-day--I feel sure I've passed!'

She sat down to a meal, but could not swallow.

'I feel sure I've passed--I feel sure--'

And she fell from the chair, to all appearances stone-dead.

They took her upstairs, undressed her, sent for the doctor. When he came, she had been lying for half-an-hour conscious, but mute. She looked gravely at him, and said, as if repeating a lesson:

'The delicacy of a young lady's nervous system unfits her for such a strain.'

'Undoubtedly,' repeated the doctor, with equal gravity.

'But,' she added eagerly, 'let Mr. Barmby know at once that I have passed.'

'He shall know at once,' said the doctor.