In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part IV: The Veiled Figure
'Serves her jolly well right,' said Beatrice.
'A lot she'll care,' said Fanny. 'I should think myself precious lucky. She gets rid of him, and of the kid too, and has as much as she wants to live on. It's better than she deserves.--Do you believe he's been carrying on with that girl?'
Miss. French laughed contemptuously.
'Well, there's been a jolly good row to-night, if we never see another. We shall all be in the papers!' The prospect had charms for Fanny. 'What are you going to do? Live here till Christmas?'
Beatrice was quietly reviewing the situation. She kept silence, and her sister also became meditative. Suddenly Fanny inquired:
'What sort of a place is Brussels?'
'Brussels? Why? I know nothing about it. Not much of a place, I think; sprouts come from there, don't they?'
'It's a big town,' said the other, 'and a lively sort of place, they say.
'Why do you ask me, if you know? What about it?'
As usual when performing the operation which, in her, answered to thought, Fanny shuffled with her hands on her waist. At a distance from Beatrice she stood still, and said:
'Some one I know is going there. I've a good mind to go too. I want to see abroad.'
Her sister asked several searching questions, but Fanny would not make known whether the friend was male or female.
'I shouldn't be much surprised,' remarked the woman of business, indifferently, 'if you go and make a fool of yourself before long. That Mrs. Damerel is up to some game with you; any one could see it with half an eye. I suppose it isn't Lord that's going to Brussels?'
Fanny sputtered her disdain.
'If you had any common sense,' pursued her sister, 'you'd stick to him; but you haven't. Oh yes, you think you can do better. Very well, we shall see. If you find yourself in a hole one of these days, don't expect me to pull you out. I wouldn't give you a penny to save you from the workhouse.'
'Wait till you're asked. I know where all your money 'll go to. And that's into Crewe's pocket. He'll fool you out of all you have.'
Beatrice reddened with wrath. But, unlike the other members of her family, she could command her tongue. Fanny found it impossible to draw another word from her.
On returning from the police-station, haggard and faint with excitement, but supported by the anticipation of fresh attacks upon her husband, Ada immediately learnt what had happened. For the first moment she could hardly believe it. She rushed upstairs, and saw that the child was really gone; then a blind frenzy took hold upon her. Alarming and inexplicable sounds drew her sisters from below; they found her, armed with something heavy, smashing every breakable object in her bedroom--mirrors, toilet-ware, pictures, chimney-piece ornaments.
'She's gone mad!' shrieked Fanny. 'She'll kill us!'
'That beast shall pay for it!' yelled Ada, with a frantic blow at the dressing-table.
Wanton destruction of property revolted all Beatrice's instincts. Courageous enough, she sprang upon the wild animal, and flung her down.
Now indeed the last trace of veneer was gone, the last rag of pseudo-civilisation was rent off these young women; in physical conflict, vilifying each other like the female spawn of Whitechapel, they revealed themselves as born--raw material which the mill of education is supposed to convert into middle-class ladyhood. As a result of being held still by superior strength Ada fell into convulsions, foamed at the mouth, her eyes starting from their sockets; then she lay as one dead.
'You've killed her,' cried the terrified Fanny.
'No fear. Give me some water to pitch over her.'
With a full jug from another bedroom, she drenched the prostrate figure. When Ada came round she was powerless; even her rancorous lips could utter only a sound of moaning. The sisters stripped her stark naked on the floor, made a show of drying her with towels, and tumbled her into bed. Then Beatrice brewed a great jorum of hot whisky-punch, and after drinking freely to steady her shaken nerves, poured a pint or so down Mrs. Peachey's throat.
'There won't be a funeral just yet,' she remarked, with a laugh. 'Now we'll have supper; I feel hungry.'
They went to bed at something after midnight. The servants, having stolen a bottle of spirits from the cupboard, which Beatrice left open, both got drunk, and slept till morning upon the kitchen-floor.
On the morrow, Miss. French, attired as a walking advertisement of the South London Fashionable Dress Supply Association, betook herself to Farringdon Street for an interview with her commercial friend. Crewe was absent, but one of three clerks, who occupied his largest room, informed her that it could not be very long before he returned, and being so familiar a figure here, she was permitted to wait in the agent's sanctum. When the door closed upon her, the three young men discussed her character with sprightly freedom. Beatrice, the while, splendidly indifferent to the remarks she could easily divine, made a rapid examination of loose papers lying on Crewe's desk, read several letters, opened several books, and found nothing that interested her until, on turning over a slip of paper with pencilled figures upon it, she discovered a hotel-bill, the heading: Royal Hotel, Falmouth. It was for a day and night's entertainment, the debtor 'Mr. Crewe,' the date less than a week gone by. This document she considered attentively, her brows knitted, her eyes wide. But a sound caused her to drop it upon the desk again. Another moment, and Crewe entered.
He looked keenly at her, and less good-humouredly than of wont. These persons never shook hands, and indeed dispensed, as a rule, with all forms of civility.
'What are you staring at?' asked Crewe bluffly.
'What are you staring at?'
'Nothing, that I know.' He hung up his hat, and sat down. 'I've a note to write; wait a minute.'
The note written, and given to a clerk, Crewe seemed to recover equanimity. His visitor told him all that happened in De Crespigny Park, even to the crudest details, and they laughed together uproariously.
'I'm going to take a flat,' Beatrice then informed him. 'Just find me something convenient and moderate, will you? A bachelor's flat.'
'What about Fanny?'
'She has something on; I don't know what it is. Talks about going to Brussels--with a friend.'
Crewe looked astonished.
'You ought to see after her. I know what the end 'll be. Brussels? I've heard of English girls going there, but they don't usually come back.'
'What can I do? I'm pretty certain that Damerel woman has a game on hand. She doesn't want Fanny to marry her nephew--if Lord is her nephew. She wants his money, that's my idea.'
'Mine, too,' remarked the other quietly. 'Look here, old chap, it's your duty to look after your little damned fool of a sister; I tell you that plainly. I shan't think well of you if you don't.'
Beatrice displayed eagerness to defend herself. She had done her best; Fanny scorned all advice, and could not be held against her will.
'Has she given up all thought of Lord?'
'I'm not sure, but I think so. And it looks as if he was going his own way, and didn't care much. He never writes to her now. Of course it's that woman's doing.'
'I shall have to look into Mrs. Damerel's affairs. Might be worth while. Where is she living?' He made a note of the information. 'Well, anything else to tell me?'
Beatrice spoke of business matters, then asked him if he had been out of town lately. The question sounded rather abrupt, and caused Crewe to regard her with an expression she privately interpreted.
'A few short runs. Nowhere particular.'
'Oh?--Not been down into Cornwall?'
He lost his temper.
'What are you after? What business is it of yours? If you're going to spy on me, I'll soon let you know that I won't stand that kind of thing.'
'Don't disturb yourself,' said Beatrice, with a cold smile. 'I haven't been spying, and you can go where you like for anything I care. I guessed you had been down there, that's all.'
Crewe kept silence, his look betraying uneasiness as well as anger. Speaking at length, he fixed her with keen eyes.
'If it's any satisfaction to you, you're welcome to know that I have been into Cornwall--and to Falmouth.'
Beatrice merely nodded, and still he searched her face.
'Just answer me a plain question, old chap. Come, there's no nonsense between us; we know each other--eh?'
'Oh yes, we know each other,' Miss. French answered, her lips puckering a little.
'What do you know about her? What has she been doing all this time?'
'I know just as little about her as I care.'
'You care a good deal more than you'll confess. I wouldn't be up to women's tricks, if I were you.'
'After all, I suppose I am a woman?'
'Well, I suppose so.' Crewe grinned good-naturedly. 'But that isn't in the terms of our partnership, you remember. You can be a reasonable fellow enough, when you like. Just tell me the truth. What do you know about Nancy Lord?' Beatrice assumed an air of mystery.
'I'll tell you that, if you tell me what it is you want of her. Is it her money?'
'Her money be damned!'
'It's herself, then.'
'And what if it is? What have you to say to it?'
Her eyes fell, and she muttered 'Nothing.'
'Just bear that in mind, then. And now that I've answered your question, answer mine. What have you heard about her? Or what have you found out?'
She raised her eyes again and again, but in a mocking voice said, 'Nothing.'
'You're telling me a lie.'
'You're a brute to say so!'
They exchanged fierce glances, but could not meet each other's eyes steadily. Crewe, mastering his irritation, said with a careless laugh:
'All right, I believe you. Didn't mean to offend you, old chap.'
'I won't be called that!' She was trembling with stormy emotions. 'You shall treat me decently.'
'Very well. Old girl, then.'
'I'm a good deal younger than you are. And I'm a good deal better than you, in every way. I'm a lady, at all events, and you can't pretend to be a gentleman. You're a rough, common fellow--'
'Holloa! Holloa! Draw it mild.'
He was startled, and in some degree abashed; his eyes, travelling to the door, indicated a fear that this singular business-colloquy might be overheard. But Beatrice went on, without subduing her voice, and, having delivered herself of much plain language, walked from the room, leaving the door open behind her.
As a rule, she returned from her day's occupations to dinner, in De Crespigny Park, at seven o'clock. To-day her arrival at home was considerably later. About three o'clock she made a call at the boarding-house where Mrs. Damerel lived, but was disappointed in her wish to see that lady, who would not be in before the hour of dining. She called again at seven, and Mrs. Damerel received her very graciously. It was the first time they had met. Beatrice, in no mood for polite grimaces, at once disclosed the object of her visit; she wanted to talk about Fanny; did Mrs. Damerel know anything of a proposed journey to Brussels? The lady professed utter ignorance of any such intention on Fanny's part. She had not seen Fanny for at least a fortnight.
'How can that be? She told me she dined here last Sunday.'
'That's very strange,' answered Mrs. Damerel, with suave concern. 'She certainly did not dine here.'
'And the Sunday before?'
'Your sister has dined here only once, Miss. French, and that was three months ago.'
'Then I don't understand it. Haven't you been taking her to theatres, and parties, and that kind of thing?'
'I have taken her once to a theatre, and twice to evening "at homes." The last time we were together anywhere was at Mrs. Dane's, about the middle of May. Since then I have seen her hardly at all. I'm very much afraid you are under some misconception. Thinking your sister was engaged to marry my nephew, Mr. Lord, I naturally desired to offer her a few friendly attentions. But it came out, at length, that she did not regard the engagement as serious. I was obliged to speak gravely to my young nephew, and beg him to consider his position. There is the second dinner-bell, but I am quite at your service, Miss. French, if you wish to question me further.'
Beatrice was much inclined to resent this tone, and to use her vernacular. But it seemed only too probable that Fanny had been deceiving her, and, as she really feared for the girl's safety, prudence bade her be civil with Mrs. Damerel.
'Can't you help me to find out what Fanny has really been doing?'
'I'm afraid it's quite out of my power. She never confided in me, and it is so long since I have seen anything of her at all.'
'It's best to speak plainly,' said Beatrice, in her business tone. 'Can't you think of any man, in the society you introduced her to, who may be trying to lead her astray?'
'Really, Miss. French! The society in which I move is not what you seem to suppose. If your sister is in any danger of that kind, you must make your inquiries elsewhere--in an inferior rank of life.'
Beatrice no longer contained herself.
'Perhaps I know rather more than you think about your kind of society. There's not much to choose between the men and the women.'
'Miss. French, I believe you reside in a part of London called Camberwell. And I believe you are engaged in some kind of millinery business. This excuses you for ill-manners. All the same, I must beg you to relieve me of your presence.' She rang the bell. 'Good evening.'
'I dare say we shall see each other again,' replied Beatrice, with an insulting laugh. 'I heard some one say to-day that it might be as well to find out who you really are. And if any harm comes to Fanny, I shall take a little trouble about that inquiry myself.'
Mrs. Damerel changed colour, but no movement betrayed anxiety. In the attitude of dignified disdain, she kept her eyes on a point above Miss. French's head, and stood so until the plebeian adversary had withdrawn.
Then she sat down, and for a few minutes communed with herself. In the end, instead of going to dinner, she rang her bell again. A servant appeared.
'Is Mr. Mankelow in the dining-room?'
'Ask him to be kind enough to come here for a moment.'
With little delay, Mr. Mankelow answered the summons which called him from his soup. He wore evening dress; his thin hair was parted down the middle; his smooth-shaven and rather florid face expressed the annoyance of a hungry man at so unseasonable an interruption.
'Do forgive me,' began Mrs. Damerel, in a pathetic falsetto. 'I have been so upset, I felt obliged to seek advice immediately, and no one seemed so likely to be of help to me as you--a man of the world. Would you believe that a sister of that silly little Miss. French has just been here--a downright. virago--declaring that the girl has been led astray, and that I am responsible for it? Can you imagine such impertinence? She has fibbed shockingly to the people at home --told them she was constantly here with me in the evenings, when she must have been--who knows where. It will teach me to meddle again with girls of that class.'
Mankelow stood with his hands behind him, and legs apart, regarding the speaker with a comically puzzled air.
'My dear Mrs. Damerel,'--he had a thick, military sort of voice,-- 'why in the world should this interpose between us and dinner? Afterwards, we might--'
'But I am really anxious about the silly little creature. It would be extremely disagreeable if my name got mixed up in a scandal of any kind. You remember my telling you that she didn't belong exactly to the working-class. She has even a little property of her own; and I shouldn't wonder if she has friends who might make a disturbance if her--her vagaries could be in any way connected with me and my circle. Something was mentioned about Brussels. She has been chattering about some one who wanted to take her to Brussels--'
The listener arched his eyebrows more and more.
'What can it matter to you?'
'To be sure, I have no acquaintance with any one who could do such things--'
'Why, of course not. And even if you had, I understand that the girl is long out of her teens--'
'Then it's her own affair--and that of the man who cares to purchase such amusement. By-the-bye, it happens rather oddly that I myself have to run over to Brussels on business; but I trust'--he laughed--'that my years and my character--'
'Oh, Mr. Mankelow, absurd! It's probably some commercial traveller, or man of that sort, don't you think? The one thing I do hope is, that, if anything like this happens, the girl will somehow make it clear to her friends that I had no knowledge whatever of what was going on. But that can hardly be hoped, I fear!--'
Their eyes crossed; they stood for a moment perusing vacancy.
'Yes, I think it might be hoped,' said Mankelow airily. 'She seemed to me a rather reckless sort of young person. It's highly probable she will write letters which release every one but herself from responsibility. In fact'--he gazed at her with a cynical smile-- 'my knowledge of human nature disposes me to assure you that she certainly will. She might even, I should say, write a letter to you--perhaps a cheeky sort of letter, which would at once set your mind at ease.'
'Oh, if you really take that view--'
'I do indeed. Don't you think we might dismiss the matter, and dine?'
They did so.
Until noon of to-day, Mrs. Peachey had kept her bed, lying amid the wreck wrought by last night's madness. She then felt well enough to rise, and after refreshment betook herself by cab to the offices of Messrs Ducker, Blunt & Co., manufacturers of disinfectants, where she conversed with one of the partners, and learnt that her husband had telegraphed his intention to be absent for a day or two. Having, with the self-respect which distinguished her, related her story from the most calumnious point of view, she went home again to nurse her headache and quarrel with Fanny. But Fanny had in the meantime left home, and, unaccountable fact, had taken with her a large tin box and a dress-basket; heavily packed, said the servants. Her direction to the cabman was merely Westminster Bridge, which conveyed to Mrs. Peachey no sort of suggestion.
When Beatrice came back, and learnt this event, she went apart in wrathful gloom. Ada could not engage her in a quarrel. It was a wretchedly dull evening.
They talked next morning, and Beatrice announced her purpose of going to live by herself as soon as possible. But she would not quarrel. Left alone, Ada prepared to visit certain of their relatives in different parts of London, to spread among them the news of her husband's infamy.