In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part IV: The Veiled Figure
When Mary Woodruff unlocked the house-door and entered the little hall, it smelt and felt as though the damp and sooty fogs of winter still lingered here, untouched by the July warmth. She came alone, and straightway spent several hours in characteristic activity-- airing, cleaning, brightening. For a few days there would be no servant; Mary, after her long leisure down in Cornwall, enjoyed the prospect of doing all the work herself. They had reached London last evening, and had slept at a family hotel, where Nancy remained until the house was in order for her.
Unhappily, their arrival timed with a change of weather, which brought clouds and rain. The glories of an unshadowed sky would have little more than availed to support Nancy's courage as she passed the creaking little gate and touched the threshold of a home to which she returned only on compulsion; gloom overhead, and puddles underfoot, tried her spirit sorely. She had a pale face, and thin cheeks, and moved with languid step.
Her first glance was at the letter-box.
Mary shook her head. During their absence letters had been re-addressed by the post-office, and since the notice of return nothing had come.
'I'm quite sure a letter has been lost.'
'Yes, it may have been. But there'll be an answer to your last very soon.'
'I don't think so. Most likely I shall never hear again.'
And Nancy sat by the window of the front room, looking, as she had looked so many a time, at the lime tree opposite and the house visible through wet branches. A view unchanged since she could remember; recalling all her old ambitions, revolts, pretences, and ignorances; recalling her father, who from his grave still oppressed her living heart.
Somewhere near sounded the wailing shout of a dustman. It was like the voice of a soul condemned to purge itself in filth.
'Mary!' She rose up and went to the kitchen. 'I can't live here! It will kill me if I have to live in this dreadful place. Why, even you have been crying; I can see you have. If you give way, think what it must be to me!'
'It's only for a day or two, dear,' answered Mary. 'We shall feel at home again very soon. Miss. Morgan will come this evening, and perhaps your brother.'
'I must do something. Give me some work.'
Mary could not but regard this as a healthy symptom, and she suggested tasks that called for moderate effort. Sick of reading-- she had read through a whole circulating library in the past six months--Nancy bestirred herself about the house; but she avoided her father's room.
Horace did not come to-day; a note arrived from him, saying that he would call early to-morrow morning. But at tea-time Jessica presented herself. She looked less ghostly than half a year ago; the grave illness through which she had passed seemed to have been helpful to her constitution. Yet she was noticeably changed. In her letters Nancy had remarked an excessive simplicity, a sort of childishness, very unlike Jessica's previous way of writing; and the same peculiarity now appeared in her conversation. By turns she was mawkish and sprightly, tearful and giggling. Her dress, formerly neglected to the point of untidiness, betrayed a new-born taste for fashionable equipment; she suddenly drew attention to it in the midst of serious talk, asking with a bashful smirk whether Nancy thought it suited her.
'I got it at Miss. French's place--the Association, you know. It's really wonderful how cheap things are there. And the very best cut, by dressmakers from Paris.'
Nancy wondered, and felt that her diminishing regard for Miss. Morgan had suffered a fresh blow.
There was much news to receive and impart. In writing from Falmouth, Nancy had referred to the details of her own life with studied ambiguity. She regretted having taken Jessica into her confidence, and avoided penning a word which, if read by any one but her correspondent, would betray the perilous secret. Jessica, after her illness, was inclined to resent this extreme caution, which irritated her curiosity; but in vain she assured Nancy that there was not the least fear of her letters falling into wrong hands. For weeks at a time she heard nothing, and then would come a letter, long indeed, but without a syllable of the information she desired. Near the end of May she received a line or two, 'I have been really ill, but am now much better. I shall stay here only a few weeks more. Don't be anxious; I am well cared for, and the worst is over.'
She heard the interpretation from Nancy's lips, and laughed and cried over it.
'What you must have suffered, my poor dear! And to be separated from the little darling! Oh, it's too cruel! You are sure they will be kind to it?'
'Mary has every confidence in the woman. And I like the look of her; I don't feel uneasy. I shall go there very often, of course.'
'And when is he coming back? He oughtn't to have kept away all this time. How unkind!'
'Not at all,' Nancy replied, with sudden reserve. 'He is acting for the best. You mustn't ask me about that; you shall know more some day.'
Jessica, whose face made legible presentment of her every thought, looked disappointed and peevish.
'And you are really going in for the examination again?' Nancy asked.
'Oh, of course I am!' answered the other perkily; 'but not till summer of next year. I'm not allowed to study much yet; the doctor says I might do my brain a serious injury. I read a great deal; books that rest the mind--poetry and fiction; of course only the very best fiction. I shall soon be able to begin teaching again; but I must be very careful. Only an hour or two a day at first, and perhaps quite young children.'
Evidently the girl felt a certain pride in what she had undergone. Her failure to matriculate was forgotten in the sense that she offered a most interesting case of breakdown from undue mental exertion. The doctor had declared his astonishment that she held up until the examination was over.
'He simply wouldn't believe me when I told him the hours I worked. He said I ought to be on my trial for attempted suicide!'
And she laughed with extravagant conceit.
'You have quite made friends with the Barmbys,' said Nancy, eyeing her curiously.
'They are very nice people. Of course the girls quite understand what a difference there is between themselves and me. I like them because they are so modest; they would never think of contradicting my opinion about anything.'
'And what about the Prophet?'
'I don't think you ever quite understood him,' Jessica replied, with an obvious confusion which perplexed her friend. 'He isn't at all the kind of man you thought.'
'No doubt I was wrong,' Nancy hastened to say. 'It was prejudice. And you remember that I never had any fault to find with his--his character.'
'You disliked him,' said the other sharply. 'And you still dislike him. I'm sure you do.'
So plainly did Jessica desire a confirmation of this statement, that Nancy allowed herself to be drawn into half avowing a positive dislike for Samuel. Whereupon Jessica looked pleased, and tossed her head in a singular way.
'I needn't remind you,' fell from Nancy, after a moment of troubled reflection, 'how careful you must be in talking about me to the Barmbys.'
'Oh, don't have the slightest fear.'
'Weren't you delirious in your illness?'
'I should think I was indeed! For a long time.'
'I hope you said nothing--'
'About you? Oh, not a word; I'm quite sure. I talked all the time about my studies. The doctor heard me one day repeating a long bit of Virgil. And I kept calling for bits of paper to work out problems in Geometrical Progression. Just fancy! I don't think most girls are delirious in that way. If I had said anything about you that sounded queer, of course mother would have told me afterwards. Oh, it was quite an intellectual delirium.'
Had Jessica, since her illness, become an insufferable simpleton? or --Nancy wondered--was it she herself who, through experience and sorrows, was grown wiser, and saw her friend in a new light? It troubled her gravely that the preservation of a secret more than ever momentous should depend upon a person with so little sense. The girl's departure was a relief; but in the silence that followed upon silly talk, she had leisure to contemplate this risk, hitherto scarce taken into account. She spoke of it with Mary, the one friend to whom her heart went out in absolute trust, from whom she concealed but few of her thoughts, and whose moral worth, only understood since circumstances compelled her reliance upon it, had set before her a new ideal of life. Mary, she well knew, abhorred the deceit they were practising, and thought hard things of the man who made it a necessity; so it did not surprise her that the devoted woman showed no deep concern at a new danger.
'It's more the shame than anything else, that I fear now,' said Nancy. 'If I have to support myself and my child, I shall do it. How, I don't know; but other women find a way, and I should. If he deserts me, I am not such a poor creature as to grieve on that account; I should despise him too much even to hate him. But the shame of it would be terrible. It's common, vulgar cheating--such as you read of in the newspapers--such as people are punished for. I never thought of it in that way when he was here. Yet he felt it. He spoke of it like that, but I wouldn't listen.'
Mary heard this with interest.
'Did he wish you to give it up?' she asked. 'You never told me that.'
'He said he would rather we did. But that was when he had never thought of being in want himself. Afterwards--yes, even then he spoke in the same way; but what could we do?'
'Don't fear that he will forsake you,' said Mary. 'You will hear from him very soon. He knows the right and the wrong, and right will be stronger with him in the end.'
'If only I were sure that he has heard of his child's birth. If he has, and won't even write to me, then he is no man, and it's better we should never see each other again.'
She knew the hours of postal delivery, and listened with throbbing heart to the double knocks at neighbouring houses. When the last postman was gone by, she sat down, sick with disappointment.
At bedtime she said to Mary, 'My little baby is asleep; oh, if I could but see it for a moment!' And tears choked her as she turned away.
It was more than two months since she had heard from her husband.
At first Tarrant wrote as frequently as he had promised. She learnt speedily of his arrival at New York, then that he had reached Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, then that he was with his friend Sutherland on the little island amid the coral reefs. Subsequent letters, written in buoyant spirits, contained long descriptions of the scenery about him, and of the life he led. He expressed a firm confidence in Sutherland's enterprises; beyond a doubt, there was no end of money to be made by an energetic man; he should report most favourably to Mr. Vawdrey, whose co-operation would of course be invaluable. For his own part, whether he profited or not from these commercial schemes, he had not been mistaken in foreseeing material for journalism, even for a book. Yes, he should certainly write a book on the Bahamas, if only to expose the monstrous system of misgovernment which accounted for the sterility into which these islands had fallen. The climate, in winter at all events, was superb. Sutherland and he lay about in delicious sunshine, under a marvellous sky, smoking excellent cigars, and talking over old Oxford days. He quoted Tennyson: 'Larger constellations burning,' &c.
At the end of December, when Nancy, according to their agreement, began to hope for his return, a letter in a very different tone burdened her with dismal doubts. Tarrant had quarrelled with his friend. He had discovered that Sutherland was little better than a swindler. 'I see that the fellow's professed energy was all sham. He is the laziest scamp imaginable; lazier even than his boozing old father. He schemes only to get money out of people; and his disappointment on finding that I have no money to lose, has shown itself at length in very gross forms. I find he is a gambler; there has just been a tremendous row between him and an American, whom he is said to have cheated at cards. Last year he was for several weeks in Mexico City, a place notorious for gambling, and there lost a large sum of money that didn't belong to him.' The upshot was that he could no longer advise Mr. Vawdrey to have anything to do with Sutherland. But he must not leave the Bahamas yet; that would be most unwise, as he was daily gathering most valuable information. Vawdrey might be induced to lend him a hundred pounds or so. But he would write again very soon.
It was the close of January when he dated his next letter. Vawdrey had sent him fifty pounds; this, however, was to include the cost of his return to England. 'See, then, what I have decided. I shall make a hurried tour through the West Indian Islands, then cross to the States, and travel by land to New York or Boston, seeing all I can afford to on the way. If I have to come home as a steerage passenger, never mind; that, too, will be valuable experience.' There followed many affectionate phrases, but Nancy's heart remained cold.
He wrote next from Washington, after six weeks' silence. Difficulties of which he would speak at length in another letter had caused him to postpone answering the two letters he had received. Nancy must never lose faith in him; his love was unshaken; before the birth of her child he would assuredly be back in England. Let her address to New York. He was well, but could not pretend to be very cheerful. However, courage! He had plans and hopes, of which she should soon hear.
After that, Nancy knew nothing of him, save that he was living in New York. He wrote two or three times, but briefly, always promising details in the next epistle. Then he ceased to correspond. Not even the announcement of the child's birth elicited a word from him. One subsequent letter had Nancy despatched; this unanswered, she would write no more.
She was herself surprised at the calmness with which she faced so dreadful a possibility as desertion by the man she had loved and married, the father of her baby. It meant, perhaps, that she could not believe such fate had really befallen her. Even in Tarrant's last short letter sounded a note of kindness, of truthfulness, incompatible, it seemed to her, with base cruelty. 'I dreamt of you last night, dearest, and woke up with a heart that ached for your suffering.' How could a man pen those words, and be meditating dastardly behaviour to the woman he addressed? Was he ill, then? or had fatal accident befallen him? She feared such explanation only in her weakest moments. If, long ago, he could keep silence for six weeks at a time, why not now for months? As for the news she had sent him--does a man think it important that a little child has been born into the world? Likely enough that again he merely 'postponed' writing. Of course he no longer loved her, say what he might; at most he thought of her with a feeling of compassion--not strong enough to overcome his dislike of exertion. He would come back--when it pleased him.
Nancy would not sully her mind by thinking that he might only return when her position made it worth his while. He was not a man of that stamp. Simply, he had ceased to care for her; and having no means of his own, whilst she was abundantly provided, he yielded to the temptation to hold aloof from a woman whose claim upon him grew burdensome. Her thoughts admitted no worse accusation than this. Did any grave ill befall her; if, for instance, the fact of her marriage became known, and she were left helpless; her letter to New York would not be disregarded. To reflect thus signified a mental balance rare in women, and remarkable in one situated as Nancy was. She talked with her companion far less consistently, for talk served to relieve the oppression of her heart and mind.
When, next morning, Horace entered the sitting-room, brother and sister viewed each other with surprise. Neither was prepared for the outward change wrought in both by the past half-year. Nancy looked what she in truth had become, a matronly young woman, in uncertain health, and possessed by a view of life too grave for her years; Horace, no longer a mere lad, exhibited in sunken cheeks and eyes bright with an unhappy recklessness, the acquisition of experience which corrupts before it can mature. Moving to offer her lips, Nancy was checked by the young man's exclamation.
'What on earth has been the matter with you? I never saw any one so altered.'
His voice, with its deepened note, and the modification of his very accent, due to novel circumstances, checked the hearer's affectionate impulse. If not unfeeling, the utterance had nothing fraternal. Deeply pained, and no less alarmed by this warning of the curiosity her appearance would excite in all who knew her, Nancy made a faltering reply.
'Why should you seem astonished? You know very well I have had an illness.'
'But what sort of illness? What caused it? You used always to be well enough.'
'You had better go and talk to my medical attendant,' said Nancy, in a cold, offended voice.
Horace resumed with irritability.
'Isn't it natural for me to ask such questions? You're not a bit like yourself. And what did you mean by telling me you were coming back at once, when I wanted to join you at Falmouth?'
'I meant to. But after all, I had to stay longer.'
'Oh well, it's nothing to me.'
They had not even shaken hands, and now felt no desire to correct the omission, which was at first involuntary. Horace seemed to have lost all the amiability of his nature; he looked about him with restless, excited eyes.
'Are you in a hurry?' asked his sister, head erect.
'No hurry that I know of.--You haven't heard what's been going on?'
'Of course it won't interest you. There's something about you I can't understand. Is it father's will that has spoilt your temper, and made you behave so strangely?'
'It is not my temper that's spoilt. And as for behaving strangely--.' She made an effort to command herself. 'Sit down, Horace, and let me know what is the matter with you. Why we should be unfriendly, I really can't imagine. I have suffered from ill health, that's all. I'm sorry I behaved in that way when you talked of coming to Falmouth; it wasn't meant as you seem to think. Tell me what you have to tell.'
He could not take a reposeful attitude, but, after struggling with some reluctance, began to explain the agitation that beset him.
'Mrs. Damerel has done something I didn't think any woman would be capable of. For months she has been trying to ruin Fanny, and now it has come--she has succeeded. She made no secret of wanting to break things off between her and me, but I never thought her plotting could go as far as this. Fanny has run away--gone to the Continent with a man Mrs. Damerel introduced to her.'
'Perhaps they are married,' said Nancy, with singular impulsiveness.
'Of course they're not. It's a fellow I knew to be a scoundrel the first time I set eyes on him. I warned Fanny against him, and I told Mrs. Damerel that I should hold her responsible if any harm came of the acquaintance she was encouraging between him and Fanny. She did encourage it, though she pretended not to. Her aim was to separate me and Fanny--she didn't care how.'
He spoke in a high, vehement note; his cheeks flushed violently, his clenched fist quivered at his side.
'How do you know where she is gone?' Nancy asked.
'She as good as told her sister that she was going to Brussels with some one. Then one day she disappeared, with her luggage. And that fellow--Mankelow's his name--has gone too. He lived in the same boarding-house with Mrs. Damerel.'
'That is all the evidence you have?'
'Quite enough,' he replied bitterly.
'It doesn't seem so to me. But suppose you're right, what proof have you that Mrs. Damerel had anything to do with it? If she is our mother's sister--and you say there can be no doubt of it--I won't believe that she could carry out such a hateful plot as this.'
'What does it matter who she is? I would swear fifty times that she has done it. You know very well, when you saw her, you disliked her at once. You were right in that, and I was wrong.'
'I can't be sure. Perhaps it was she that disliked me, more than I did her. For one thing, I don't believe that people make such plots. And what plotting was needed? Couldn't any one have told you what a girl like Fanny French would do if she lost her head among people of a higher class?'
'Then Mrs. Damerel must have foreseen it. That's just what I say. She pretended to be a friend to the girl, on purpose to ruin her.'
'Have you accused her of it?'
'Yes, I have.' His eyes flashed. Nancy marvelled at this fire, drawn from a gentle nature by what seemed to her so inadequate, so contemptible a cause. 'Of course she denied it, and got angry with me; but any one could see she was glad of what had happened. There's an end between us, at all events. I shall never go to see her again; she's a woman who thinks of nothing but money and fashion. I dislike her friends, every one of them I've met. I told her that what she had done ought to be a punishable crime.'
Nancy reflected, then said quietly:
'Whether you are right or wrong, I don't think you would have got any good from her. But will you tell me what you are going to do? I told you that I thought borrowing money only to live on it in idleness was very foolish.'
Her brother stiffened his neck.
'You must allow me to judge for myself.'
'But have you judged for yourself? Wasn't it by Mrs. Damerel's advice that you gave up business?'
'Partly. But I should have done it in any case.'
'Have you any plans?'
'No, I haven't,' he answered. 'You can't expect a man to have plans whose life has been thoroughly upset.'
Nancy, reminded of his youthfulness by the tone in which he called himself a 'man,' experienced a revival of natural feeling. Though revolting against the suggestion that a woman akin to them had been guilty of what her brother believed, she was glad to think that Fanny French had relinquished all legitimate claim upon him, and that his connection with 'smart' society had come to an end. Obvious enough were the perils of his situation, and she, as elder sister, recognised a duty towards him; she softened her voice, and endeavoured to re-establish the confidence of old time. Impossible at once, though with resolution she might ultimately succeed. Horace, at present, was a mere compound of agitated and inflamed senses. The life he had been leading appeared in a vicious development of his previously harmless conceit and egoism. All his characteristics had turned out, as it were, the seamy side; and Nancy with difficulty preserved her patience as he showed point after point of perverted disposition. The result of their talk was a careless promise from Horace that he would come to Grove Lane not seldomer than once a week.
He stayed only an hour, resisting Nancy's endeavour to detain him at least for the mid-day meal. To Mary he spoke formally, awkwardly, as though unable to accept her position in the house, and then made his escape like one driven by an evil spirit.