In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part IV: The Veiled Figure
This winter saw the establishment of the South London Fashionable Dress Supply Association--the name finally selected by Beatrice French and her advisers. It was an undertaking shrewdly conceived, skilfully planned, and energetically set going. Beatrice knew the public to which her advertisements appealed; she understood exactly the baits that would prove irresistible to its folly and greed. In respect that it was a public of average mortals, it would believe that business might be conducted to the sole advantage of the customer. In respect that it consisted of women, it would give eager attention to a scheme that permitted each customer to spend her money, and yet to have it. In respect that it consisted of ignorant and pretentious women, this public could be counted upon to deceive itself in the service of its own vanity, and maintain against all opposition that the garments obtained on this soothing system were supremely good and fashionable.
On a basis of assumptions such as these, there was every possibility of profitable commerce without any approach to technical fraud.
By means of the familiar 'goose-club,' licensed victuallers make themselves the bankers of people who are too weak-minded to save their own money until they wish to spend it, and who are quite content to receive in ultimate return goods worth something less than half the deposit. By means of the familiar teapot, grocers persuade their customers that an excellent trade can be done by giving away the whole profit on each transaction. Beatrice French, an observant young woman, with a head for figures, had often noted and reflected upon these two egregious illustrations of human absurdity. Her dressmaking enterprise assimilated the features of both, and added novel devices that sprang from her own fruitful brain. The 'Fashion Club,' a wheel within a wheel, was merely the goose-club; strictly a goose-club, for the licensed victualler addresses himself to the male of the species. The larger net, cast for those who lacked money or a spirit of speculation, caught all who, in the realm of grocery, are lured by the teapot. Every sovereign spent with the Association carried a bonus, paid not in cash but in kind. These startling advantages were made known through the medium of hand-bills, leaflets, nicely printed little pamphlets, gorgeously designed placards; the publicity department, being in the hands of Mr. Luckworth Crewe, of Farringdon Street, was most ably and vigorously conducted.
Thanks also to Luckworth Crewe, Beatrice had allied herself with partners, who brought to the affair capital, experience, and activity. Before Christmas--an important point--the scene of operations was ready: a handsome shop, with the new and attractive appendages (so-called 'club-room,' refreshment-bar, &c.) which Crewe and Beatrice had visioned in their prophetic minds. Before the close of the year substantial business had been done, and 1888 opened with exhilarating prospects.
The ineptitude of uneducated English women in all that relates to their attire is a fact that it boots not to enlarge upon. Beatrice French could not be regarded as an exception; for though she recognised monstrosities, she very reasonably distrusted her own taste in the choice of a garment. For her sisters, monstrosities had a distinct charm, and to this class of women belonged all customers of the Association who pretended to think for themselves as to wherewithal they should be clothed. But women in general came to the shop with confessed blankness of mind; beyond the desire to buy something that was modish, and to pay for it in a minus quantity, they knew, felt, thought nothing whatever. Green or violet, cerulean or magenta, all was one to them. In the matter of shape they sought merely a confident assurance from articulate man or woman-- themselves being somewhat less articulate than jay or jackdaw-- that this or that was 'the feature of the season.' They could not distinguish between a becoming garment and one that called for the consuming fires of Heaven. It is often assumed as a commonplace that women, whatever else they cannot do, may be trusted to make up their minds about habiliments. Nothing more false, as Beatrice French was abundantly aware. A very large proportion of the servant-keeping females in Brixton, Camberwell, and Peckham could not, with any confidence, buy a chemise or a pair of stockings; and when it came to garments visible, they were lost indeed.
Fanny French began to regret that she had not realised her capital, and put it into the Association. Wishing at length to do so, she met with a scornful rebuff. Beatrice would have none of her money, but told her she might use the shop like any other customer, which of course Fanny did.
Mrs. Peachey, meanwhile, kept declaring to both her sisters that they must not expect to live henceforth in De Crespigny Park on the old nominal terms. Beatrice was on the way to wealth; Fanny moved in West End society, under the chaperonage of a rich woman; they ought to be ashamed of themselves for not volunteering handsome recognition of the benefits they had received beneath their sister's roof. But neither Beatrice nor Fanny appeared to see the matter in this light. The truth was, that they both had in view a change of domicile. The elder desired more comfort and more independence than De Crespigny Park could afford her; the younger desired a great many things, and flattered herself that a very simple step would put her in possession of them.
The master of the house no longer took any interest in the fortunes of his sisters-in-law. He would not bid them depart, he would not bid them stay, least of all would he demand money from them. Of money he had no need, and he was the hapless possessor of a characteristic not to be found in any other member of his household --natural delicacy.
Arthur Peachey lived only for his child, the little boy, whose newly prattling tongue made the sole welcome he expected or cared for on his return from a hard day's work. Happily the child had good health, but he never left home without dread of perils that might befall it in his absence. On the mother he counted not at all; a good-tempered cow might with more confidence have been set to watch over the little one's safety. The nurse-girl Emma, retained in spite of her mistress's malice, still seemed to discharge her duties faithfully; but, being mortal, she demanded intervals of leisure from time to time, and at such seasons, as Peachey too well knew, the child was uncared for. Had his heart been resolute as it was tender, he would long ago have carried out a project which haunted him at every moment of anger or fear. In the town of Canterbury lived a sister of his who for several years had been happily wedded, but remained childless. If the worst came to the worst, if his wife compelled him to the breaking-up of a home which was no home, this married sister would gladly take the little boy into her motherly care. He had never dared to propose the step; but Ada might perchance give ready assent to it, even now. For motherhood she had no single qualification but the physical. Before her child's coming into the world, she snarled at the restraints it imposed upon her; at its birth, she clamoured against nature for the pains she had to undergo, and hated her husband because he was the intermediate cause of them. The helpless infant gave her no pleasure, touched no emotion in her heart, save when she saw it in the nurse's care, and received female compliments upon its beauty. She rejected it at night because it broke her sleep; in the day, because she could not handle it without making it cry. When Peachey remonstrated with her, she stared in insolent surprise, and wished that he had had to suffer all her hardships of the past year.
Peachey could not be said to have any leisure. On returning from business he was involved forthwith in domestic troubles and broils, which consumed the dreary evening, and invaded even his sleep. Thus it happened that at long intervals he was tempted, instead of going home to dinner, to spend a couple of hours at a certain small eating-house, a resort of his bachelor days, where he could read the newspapers, have a well-cooked chop in quietude, and afterwards, if acquaintances were here, play a game of chess. Of course he had to shield this modest dissipation with a flat falsehood, alleging to his wife that business had kept him late. Thus on an evening of June, when the soft air and the mellow sunlight overcame him with a longing for rest, he despatched a telegram to De Crespigny Park, and strolled quietly about the streets until the hour and his appetite pointed him tablewards. The pity of it was that he could not dismiss anxieties; he loathed the coward falsehood, and thought more of home than of his present freedom. But at least Ada's tongue was silent.
He seated himself in the familiar corner, and turned over illustrated papers, whilst his chop hissed on the grid. Ah, if he were but unmarried, what a life he might make for himself now that the day's labour brought its ample reward! He would have rooms in London, and a still, clean lodging somewhere among the lanes and fields. His ideals expressed the homeliness of the man. On intellect he could not pride himself; his education had been but of the 'commercial' order; he liked to meditate rather than to read; questions of the day concerned him not at all. A weak man, but of clean and kindly instincts. In mercantile life he had succeeded by virtue of his intensely methodical habits--the characteristic which made him suffer so from his wife's indolence, incapacity, and vicious ill-humour.
Before his marriage he had thought of women as domestic beings. A wife was the genius of home. He knew men who thanked their wives for all the prosperity and content that they enjoyed. Others he knew who told quite a different tale, but these surely were sorrowful exceptions. Nowadays he saw the matter in a light of fuller experience. In his rank of life married happiness was a rare thing, and the fault could generally be traced to wives who had no sense of responsibility, no understanding of household duties, no love of simple pleasures, no religion.
Yes, there was the point--no religion. Ada had grown up to regard church-going as a sign of respectability, but without a shadow of religious faith. Her incredible ignorance of the Bible story, of Christian dogmas, often amazed him. Himself a believer, though careless in the practice of forms, he was not disturbed by the modern tendency to look for morals apart from faith; he had not the trouble of reflecting that an ignorant woman is the last creature to be moralised by anything but the Christian code; he saw straight into the fact--that there was no hope of impressing Ada with ideas of goodness, truthfulness, purity, simply because she recognised no moral authority.
For such minds no moral authority--merely as a moral authority-- is or can be valid. Such natures are ruled only by superstition-- the representative of reasoned faith in nobler beings. Rob them of their superstition, and they perish amid all uncleanliness.
Thou shalt not lie--for God consumes a liar in the flames of hell! Ada Peachey could lend ear to no admonition short of that. And, living when she did, bred as she was, only a John Knox could have impressed her with this menace--to be forgotten when the echoes of his voice had failed.
He did not enjoy his chop this evening. In the game of chess that followed he played idly, with absent thoughts. And before the glow of sunset had died from the calm heaven he set out to walk homeward, anxious, melancholy.
On approaching the house he suffered, as always, from quickened pulse and heart constricted with fear. Until he knew that all was well, he looked like a man who anticipates dread calamity. This evening, on opening the door, he fell back terror-stricken. In the hall stood a police-constable, surrounded by a group of women: Mrs. Peachey, her sisters, Emma the nurse-girl, and two other servants.
'Oh, here you are at last!' exclaimed his wife, in a voice exhausted with rage. 'You're just in time to see this beast taken off to the lock-up. Perhaps you'll believe me now!'
'What is it? What has she done?'
'Stolen money, that's what she's done--your precious Emma! She's been at it for a long time; I've told you some one was robbing me. So I marked some coins in my purse, and left it in the bedroom whilst we were at dinner; and then, when I found half-a-crown gone --and it was her evening out, too--I sent for a policeman before she knew anything, and we made her turn out her pockets. And there's the half-crown! Perhaps you'll believe it this time!'
The girl's face declared her guilt; she had hardly attempted denial. Then, with a clamour of furious verbosity, Ada enlightened her husband on other points of Emma's behaviour. It was a long story, gathered, in the last few minutes, partly from the culprit herself, partly from her fellow-servants. Emma had got into the clutches of a jewellery tallyman, one of the fellows who sell trinkets to servant-girls on the pay-by-instalment system. She had made several purchases of gewgaws, and had already paid three or four times their value, but was still in debt to the tallyman, who threatened all manner of impossible proceedings if she did not make up her arrears. Bottomless ignorance and imbecile vanity had been the girl's ruin, aided by a grave indiscretion on Peachey's part, of which he was to hear presently.
Some one must go to the police-station and make a formal charge. Ada would undertake this duty with pious eagerness, enjoying it all the more because of loud wailings and entreaties which the girl now addressed to her master. Peachey looked at his sisters-in-law, and in neither face perceived a compassionate softening. Fanny stood by as at a spectacle provided for her amusement, without rancour, but equally without pity. Beatrice was contemptuous. What right, said her countenance, had a servant-girl to covet jewellery? And how pitiable the spirit that prompted to a filching of half-crowns! For the criminals of finance, who devastate a thousand homes, Miss French had no small admiration; crimes such as the present were mean and dirty.
Ada reappeared, hurriedly clad for going forth; but no one had fetched a cab. Incensed, she ordered her husband to do so.
'Who are you speaking to?' he replied wrathfully. 'I am not your servant.'
Fanny laughed. The policeman, professionally calm, averted a smiling face.
'It's nothing to me,' said Mrs. Peachey. 'I'm quite willing to walk. Come along, constable.'
Her husband interposed.
'The girl doesn't go from my house until she's properly dressed.' He turned to the other servants. 'Please to blow the whistle at the door, or get a cab somehow. Emma, go upstairs and put your things on.'
'It was about time you behaved like a man,' fell quietly from Beatrice.
'You're right.' He looked sternly at the speaker. 'It is time, and that you shall all know.'
The culprit, suddenly silent, obeyed his order. The constable went out at the front door, and there waited whilst a cab-summoning whistle shrilled along De Crespigny Park.
Ada had ascended to the first landing, to make sure that the culprit did not escape her. Beatrice and Fanny retired into the drawing-room. After a lapse of some ten minutes two cabs rattled up to the door from opposite directions, each driver lashing his horse to gain the advantage. So nearly were they matched, that with difficulty the vehicles avoided a collision. The man who had secured a place immediately in front of the doorsteps, waved his whip and uttered a shout of insulting triumph; his rival answered with volleys of abuse, and drove round as if meditating an assault; it was necessary for the policeman to interfere. Whereupon the defeated competitor vowed that it was sanguinary hard lines; that for the sanguinary whole of this sanguinary day had he waited vainly for a sanguinary fare, and but for a sanguinary stumble of his sanguinary horse--
Tired of waiting, and suspicious of the delay, Ada went up to the room where the servant was supposed to be making ready. It was a little room, which served as night-nursery; by the girl's bed stood a cot occupied by the child. Ada, exclaiming 'Now, come along!' opened the door violently. A candle was burning; the boy, awake but silent, sat up in his cot, and looked about with sleepy, yet frightened eyes.
'Where are you?'
Emma could not be seen. Astonished and enraged, Ada rushed forward; she found the girl lying on the floor, and after bending over her, started back with a cry half of alarm, half of disgust.
'Come up here at once!' she screamed down the staircase. 'Come up! The wretch has cut her throat!'
There was a rush of feet. Peachey, the first to enter, saw a gash on the neck of the insensible girl; in her hand she held a pair of scissors.
'I hope you're satisfied,' he said to his wife.
The police-officer, animated by a brisk succession of events such as he could not hope for every day, raised the prostrate figure, and speedily announced that the wound was not mortal.
'She's fainted, that's all. Tried to do for herself with them scissors, and didn't know the way to go about it. We'll get her off sharp to the surgeon.'
'It'll be attempted suicide, now, as well as stealing,' cried Ada.
Terrified by the crowd of noisy people, the child began to cry loudly. Peachey lifted him out of the cot, wrapped a blanket about him, and carried him down to his own bedroom. There, heedless of what was going on above, he tried to soothe the little fellow, lavishing caresses and tender words.
'My little boy will be good? He'll wait here, quietly, till father comes back? Only a few minutes, and father will come back, and sit by him. Yes--he shall sleep here, all night--'
Ada burst into the room.
'I should think you'd better go and look after your dear Emma. As if I didn't know what's been going on! It's all come out, so you needn't tell me any lies. You've been giving her money. The other servants knew of it; she confessed it herself. Oh, you're a nice sort of man, you are! Men of your sort are always good at preaching to other people. You've given her money--what does that mean? I suspected it all along. You wouldn't have her sent away; oh no! She was so good to the child--and so good to somebody else! A dirty servant! I'd choose some one better than that, if I was a man. How much has she cost you? As much, no doubt, as one of the swell women in Piccadilly Circus--'
Peachey turned upon her, the sweat beading on his ghastly face.
'Go!--Out of this room--or by God I shall do something fearful! --Out!'
She backed before him. He seized her by the shoulders, and flung her forth, then locked the door. From without she railed at him in the language of the gutter and the brothel. Presently her shouts were mingled with piercing shrieks; they came from the would-be-suicide, who, restored to consciousness, was being carried down for removal in the cab. Peachey, looking and feeling like a man whom passion had brought within sight of murder, stopped his ears and huddled himself against the bedside. The child screamed in terror.
At length came silence. Peachey opened the door, and listened. Below, voices sounded in quiet conversation.
'Who is down there?' he called.
'All of us except Ada,' replied Beatrice. 'The policeman said she needn't go unless she liked, but she did like.'
He ran up to the deserted bedroom, carefully gathered together his child's day-garments, and brought them down. Then, as well as he could, he dressed the boy.
'Is it time to get up?' inquired the little three-year-old, astonished at all that was happening, but soothed and amused by the thought that his father had turned nurse. 'It isn't light yet.'
'You are going somewhere with father, dear. Somewhere nice.'
The dialogue between them, in sweet broken words such as the child had not yet outgrown, and the parent did not wish to abandon for common speech, went on until the dressing was completed.
'Now, will my boy show me where his clothes are for going out? His cap, and his coat--'
Oh yes, they were up in the nursery; boy would show father--and laughed merrily that he knew something father didn't. A few minutes more, and the equipment was completed.
'Now wait for me here--only a minute. My boy won't cry, if I leave him for a minute?'
'Cry! of course not!' Peachey descended to the drawing-room, closed the door behind him, and stood facing his sisters-in-law.
'I want to tell you that I am going away, and taking the child with me. Ada needn't expect me back to-night--nor ever. As long as I live I will never again be under the same roof with her. You, Beatrice, said it was about time I behaved like a man. You were right. I've put up long enough with things such as no man ought to endure for a day. Tell your sister that she may go on living here, if she chooses, for another six months, to the end of the year-- not longer. She shall be supplied with sufficient money. After Christmas she may find a home for herself where she likes; money will be paid to her through a lawyer, but from this day I will neither speak nor write to her. You two must make your own arrangements; you have means enough. You know very well, both of you, why I am taking this step; think and say about me what you like. I have no time to talk, and so I bid you good-bye.'
They did not seek to detain him, but stood mute whilst he left the room.
The little boy, timid and impatient, was at the head of the stairs. His father enveloped him warmly in a shawl, and so they went forth. It was not long before they met with a vacant cab. Half-an-hour's drive brought them to the eating-house where Peachey had had his chop that evening, and here he obtained a bedroom for the night.
By eleven o'clock the child slept peacefully. The father, seated at a table, was engaged in writing to a solicitor.
At midnight he lay softly down by the child's side, and there, until dawn, listened to the low breathing of his innocent little bedfellow. Though he could not sleep, it was joy, rather than any painful excitement, that kept him wakeful. A great and loathsome burden had fallen from him, and in the same moment he had rescued his boy out of an atmosphere of hated impurity. At length he could respect himself, and for the first time in four long years he looked to the future with tranquil hope.
Careless of the frank curiosity with which the people of the house regarded him, he went down at seven o'clock, and asked for a railway time-table. Having found a convenient train to Canterbury, he ordered breakfast for himself and the child to be laid in a private room. It was a merry meal. Sunshine of midsummer fell warm and bright upon the table; the street below was so full of busy life that the little boy must needs have his breakfast by the window, where he could eat and look forth at the same time. No such delightful holiday had he ever enjoyed. Alone with father, and going away by train into wonderful new worlds.
'Is Emma coming?' he asked.
It was significant that he did not speak of his mother.
They drove to the railway station, Peachey no less excited than the child. From here he despatched a telegram to his partners, saying that he should be absent for a day or two.
Then the train, struggling slowly out of London's welter, through the newest outposts of gloom and grime, bore them, hearts companioned in love and blamelessness, to the broad sunny meadows and the sweet hop-gardens of Kent.