In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part IV: The Veiled Figure
With the clearing of the sky, Nancy's spirit grew lighter. She went about London, and enjoyed it after her long seclusion in the little Cornish town; enjoyed, too, her release from manifold restraints and perils. Her mental suffering had made the physical harder to bear; she was now recovering health of mind and body, and found with surprise that life had a new savour, independent of the timorous joy born with her child. Strangely, as it seemed to her, she grew conscious of a personal freedom not unlike what she had vainly desired in the days of petulant girlhood; the sense came only at moments, but was real and precious; under its influence she forgot everything abnormal in her situation, and--though without recognising this significance--knew the exultation of a woman who has justified her being.
A day or two of roaming at large gave her an appetite for activity. Satisfied that her child was safe and well cared for, she turned her eyes upon the life of the world, and wished to take some part in it --not the part she had been wont to picture for herself before reality supplanted dreams. Horace's example on the one hand, and that of Jessica Morgan on the other, helped her to contemn mere social excitement and the idle vanity which formerly she styled pursuit of culture. Must there not be discoverable, in the world to which she had, or could obtain, access, some honest, strenuous occupation, which would hold in check her unprofitable thoughts and soothe her self-respect?
That her fraud, up to and beyond the crucial point, had escaped detection, must be held so wonderful, that she felt justified in an assurance of impunity. The narrowest escape of which she was aware had befallen only a few weeks ago. On the sixth day after the birth of the child, there was brought to her lodgings at Falmouth a note addressed to 'Miss. Lord.' Letters bearing this address had arrived frequently, and by the people of the house were supposed to be for Mary Woodruff, who went by the name of 'Miss. Lord,' Nancy having disguised herself as 'Mrs. Woodruff;' but they had always come by post, and the present missive must be from some acquaintance actually in the town. Nancy could not remember the handwriting. Breaking open the envelope as she lay in bed, she saw with alarm the signature 'Luckworth Crewe.' He was at Falmouth on business, Crewe wrote, and, before leaving London, he had ventured to ask Miss Lord's address from her brother, whom he casually met somewhere. Would Nancy allow him to see her, were it but for a minute or two? Earnestly he besought this favour. He desired nothing more than to see Miss. Lord, and to speak with her in the way of an ordinary acquaintance. After all this time, she had, he felt sure, forgiven his behaviour at their last meeting. Only five minutes of conversation--
All seemed lost. Nancy was silent in despair. But Mary faced the perilous juncture, and, to all appearances, averted catastrophe. She dressed herself, and went straight to the hotel where Crewe had put up, and where he awaited an answer. Having made known who she was, she delivered a verbal message: Miss. Lord was not well enough to see any one to-day, and, in any case, she could not have received Mr Crewe; she begged him to pardon her; before long, they might perhaps meet in London, but, for her own part, she wished Mr. Crewe would learn to regard her as a stranger. Of course there followed a dialogue; and Mary, seeming to speak with all freedom, convinced Crewe that his attempt to gain an interview was quite hopeless. She gave him much information concerning her mistress--none of it false, but all misleading--and in the end had to resist an offer of gold coins, pressed upon her as a bribe for her good word with Nancy.
The question was--had Crewe been content to leave Falmouth without making inquiries of other people? To a man of his experience, nothing was easier than such investigation. But, with other grounds of anxiety, this had ceased to disturb Nancy's mind. Practically, she lived as though all danger were at an end. The task immediately before her seemed very simple; she had only to resume the old habits, and guard against thoughtless self-betrayal in her everyday talk. The chance that any one would discover her habit of visiting a certain house at the distance of several miles from Camberwell, was too slight for consideration.
She wrote to Mr. Barmby, senior, informing him of her return, in improved health, to Grove Lane, and thanking him once more for his allowing her to make so long a stay in Cornwall. If he wished to see her, she would be at home at any time convenient to him. In a few days the old gentleman called, and for an hour or two discoursed well-meaning commonplace. He was sorry to observe that she looked a trifle pale; in the autumn she must go away again, and to a more bracing locality--he would suggest Broadstairs, which had always exercised the most beneficial effect upon his own health. Above all, he begged her to refrain from excessive study, most deleterious to a female constitution. Then he asked questions about Horace, and agreed with Nancy that the young man ought to decide upon some new pursuit, if he had definitely abandoned the old; lack of steady occupation was most deleterious at his age. In short, Mr. Barmby rather apologised for his guardianship than sought to make assertion of it; and Nancy, by a few feminine devices, won a better opinion than she had hitherto enjoyed. On the day following, Samuel Barmby and his sisters waited upon Miss. Lord; all three were surprisingly solemn, and Samuel talked for the most part of a 'paragraph' he had recently read, which stated that the smoke of London, if properly utilised, would be worth a vast sum of money. 'The English are a wasteful people,' was his conclusion; to which Nancy assented with a face as grave as his own.
Not a little to her astonishment, the next day brought her a long letter in Samuel's fair commercial hand. It began by assuring her that the writer had no intention whatever of troubling her with the renewal of a suit so firmly rejected on more than one occasion; he wished only to take this opportunity of her return from a long absence to express the abiding nature of his devotion, which years hence would be unbroken as to-day. He would never distress her by unwelcome demonstrations; possibly she might never again hear from his lips what he now committed to paper. Enough for him, Samuel, to cherish a love which could not but exalt and purify him, which was indeed, 'in the words of Shakespeare, "a liberal education."' In recompense of his self-command, he only besought that Miss. Lord would allow him, from time to time, to look upon her face, and to converse with her of intellectual subjects. 'A paper,' he added, 'which I read last week at our Society, is now being printed-- solely at the request of friends. The subject is one that may interest you, "The Influence of Culture on Morality." I beg that you will accept the copy I shall have the pleasure of sending you, and that, at some future date, you will honour me with your remarks thereon.'
Which epistle Nancy cruelly read aloud to Mary, with a sprightliness and sarcastic humour not excelled by her criticisms of 'the Prophet' in days gone by. Mary did not quite understand, but she saw in this behaviour a proof of the wonderful courage with which Nancy faced her troubles.
A week had passed, and no news from America.
'I don't care,' said Nancy. 'Really and truly, I don't care. Yesterday I never once thought of it--never once looked for the postman. The worst is over now, and he may write or not, as he likes.'
Mary felt sure there would be an explanation of such strange silence.
'Only illness or death would explain it so as to make me forgive him. But he isn't ill. He is alive, and enjoying himself.'
There was no bitterness in her voice. She seemed to have outlived all sorrows and anxieties relative to her husband.
Mary suggested that it was always possible to call at Mr. Vawdrey's house and make inquiries of Mrs. Baker.
'No, I won't do that. Other women would do it, but I won't. So long as I mayn't tell the truth, I should only set them talking about me; you know how. I see the use, now, of having a good deal of pride. I'm only sorry for those letters I wrote when I wasn't in my senses. If he writes now, I shall not answer. He shall know that I am as independent as he is. What a blessed thing it is for a woman to have money of her own! It's because most women haven't, that they're such poor, wretched slaves.'
'If he knew you were in want,' said her companion, 'he would never have behaved like this.'
'Who can say?--No, I won't pretend to think worse of him than I do. You're quite right. He wouldn't leave his wife to starve. It's certain that he hears about me from some one. If I were found out, and lost everything, some one would let him know. But I wouldn't accept support from him, now. He might provide for his child, but he shall never provide for me, come what may--never!'
It was in the evening, after dinner. Nancy had a newspaper, and was reading the advertisements that offered miscellaneous employment.
'What do you think this can be?' she asked, looking up after a long silence. '"To ladies with leisure. Ladies desiring to add to their income by easy and pleasant work should write"'--&c. &c.
'I've no faith in those kind of advertisements,' said Mary.
'No; of course it's rubbish. There's no easy and pleasant way of earning money; only silly people expect it. And I don't want anything easy or pleasant. I want honest hard work. Not work with my hands--I'm not suited for that, but real work, such as lots of educated girls are doing. I'm quite willing to pay for learning it; most likely I shall have to. Who could I write to for advice?'
They were sitting upstairs, and so did not hear a visitor's knock that sounded at the front door. The servant came and announced that Miss. French wished to see Miss. Lord.
'Miss. French? Is it the younger Miss. French?'
The girl could not say; she had repeated the name given to her. Nancy spoke to her friend in a low voice.
'It may be Fanny. I don't think Beatrice would call, unless it's to say something about her sister. She had better come up here, I suppose?'
Mary retired, and in a few moments there entered, not Fanny, but Beatrice. She was civilly, not cordially, welcomed. Her eye, as she spoke the words natural at such a meeting, dwelt with singular persistency on Nancy's face.
'You are quite well again?'
'Quite, thank you.'
'It has been a troublesome illness, I'm afraid.'
Nancy hesitated, detecting a peculiarity of look and tone which caused her uneasiness.
'I had a sort of low fever--was altogether out of sorts--"below par," the doctor said. Are you all well?'
Settling herself comfortably, as if for a long chat, Beatrice sketched with some humour the course of recent events in De Crespigny Park.
'I'm out of it all, thank goodness. I prefer a quiet life. Then there's Fanny. You know all about her, I dare say?'
'Nothing at all,' Nancy replied distantly.
'But your brother does. Hasn't he been to see you yet?'
Nancy was in no mood to submit to examination.
'Whatever I may have heard, I know nothing about Fanny's, affairs, and, really, they don't concern me.
'I should have thought they might,' rejoined the other, smiling absently. 'She has run away from her friends'--a pause--'and is living somewhere rather mysteriously'--another pause--'and I think it more than likely that she's married.'
The listener preserved a face of indifference, though the lines were decidedly tense.
'Doesn't that interest you?' asked Beatrice, in the most genial tone.
'If it's true,' was the blunt reply.
'You mean, you are glad if she has married somebody else, and not your brother?'
'Yes, I am glad of that.'
Beatrice mused, with wrinkles at the corner of her eye. Then, fixing Nancy with a very keen look, she said quietly:
'I'm not sure that she's married. But if she isn't, no doubt she ought to be.'
On Nancy's part there was a nervous movement, but she said nothing. Her face grew rigid.
'I have an idea who the man is,' Miss. French pursued; 'but I can't be quite certain. One has heard of similar cases. Even you have, no doubt?'
'I don't care to talk about it,' fell mechanically from Nancy's lips, which had lost their colour.
'But I've come just for that purpose.'
The eyes of mocking scrutiny would not be resisted. They drew a gaze from Nancy, and then a haughty exclamation.
'I don't understand you. Please say whatever you have to say in plain words.'
'Don't be angry with me. You were always too ready at taking offence. I mean it in quite a friendly way; you can trust me; I'm not one of the women that chatter. Don't you think you ought to sympathise a little with Fanny? She has gone to Brussels, or somewhere about there. But she might have gone down into Cornwall --to a place like Falmouth. It was quite far enough off--don't you think?'
Nancy was stricken mute, and her countenance would no longer disguise what she suffered.
'No need to upset yourself,' pursued the other in smiling confidence. 'I mean no harm. I'm curious, that's all; just want to know one or two things. We're old friends, and whatever you tell me will go no further, depend upon that.'
'What do you mean?'
The words came from lips that moved with difficulty. Beatrice, still smiling, bent forward.
'Is it any one that I know?'
'Any one--? Who--?'
'That made it necessary for you to go down into Cornwall, my dear.'
Nancy heaved a sigh, the result of holding her breath too long. She half rose, and sat down again. In a torture of flashing thoughts, she tried to determine whether Beatrice had any information, or spoke conjecturally. Yet she was able to discern that either case meant disaster; to have excited the suspicions of such a person, was the same as being unmasked; an inquiry at Falmouth, and all would at once be known.
No, not all. Not the fact of her marriage; not the name of her husband.
Driven to bay by such an opponent, she assumed an air wholly unnatural to her--one of cynical effrontery.
'You had better say what you know.'
'All right. Who was the father of the child born not long ago?'
'That's asking a question.'
'And telling what I know at the same time. It saves breath.'
Beatrice laughed; and Nancy, become a mere automaton, laughed too.
'That's more like it,' said Miss. French cheerfully. 'Now we shall get on together. It's very shocking, my dear. A person of my strict morality hardly knows how to look you in the face. Perhaps you had rather I didn't try. Very well. Now tell me all about it, comfortably. I have a guess, you know.'
'What is it?'
'Wait a little. I don't want to be laughed at. Is it any one I know?'
'You have never seen him, and I dare say never heard of him.'
Beatrice stared incredulously.
'I wouldn't tell fibs, Nancy.'
'I'm telling the truth.'
'It's very queer, then.'
'Who did you think--?'
The speaking automaton, as though by defect of mechanism, stopped short.
'Look straight at me. I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that it was Luckworth Crewe.'
Nancy's defiant gaze, shame in anguish shielding itself with the front of audacity, changed to utter astonishment. The blood rushed back into her cheeks; she voiced a smothered exclamation of scorn.
'The father of my child? Luckworth Crewe?'
'I thought it not impossible,' said Beatrice, plainly baffled.
'It was like you.' Nancy gave a hard laugh. 'You judged me by yourself. Have another guess!'
Surprised both at the denial, so obviously true, and at the unexpected tone with which Nancy was meeting her attack, Miss. French sat meditative.
'It's no use guessing,' she said at length, with complete good-humour. 'I don't know of any one else.'
'Very well. You can't expect me to tell you.'
'As you please. It's a queer thing; I felt pretty sure. But if you're telling the truth, I don't care a rap who the man is.'
'You can rest in peace,' said Nancy, with careless scorn.
'Any way of convincing me, except by saying it?'
'Yes. Wait here a moment.'
She left the room, and returned with the note which Crewe had addressed to her from the hotel at Falmouth.
'Read that, and look at the date.'
Beatrice studied the document, and in silence canvassed the possibilities of trickery. No; it was genuine evidence. She remembered the date of Crewe's journey to Falmouth, and, in this new light, could interpret his quarrelsome behaviour after he had returned. Only the discovery she had since made inflamed her with a suspicion which till then had never entered her mind.
'Of course, you didn't let him see you?'
'Of course not.'.
'All right. Don't suppose I wanted to insult you. I took it for granted you were married. Of course it happened before your father's death, and his awkward will obliged you to keep it dark?'
Again Nancy was smitten with fear. Deeming Miss. French an unscrupulous enemy, she felt that to confess marriage was to abandon every hope. Pride appealed to her courage, bade her, here and now, have done with the ignoble fraud; but fear proved stronger. She could not face exposure, and all that must follow.
She spoke coldly, but with down-dropt eyes.
'I am not married.'
The words cost her little effort. Practically, she had uttered them before; her overbold replies were an admission of what, from the first, she supposed Beatrice to charge her with--not secret wedlock, but secret shame. Beatrice, however, had adopted that line of suggestion merely from policy, hoping to sting the proud girl into avowal of a legitimate union; she heard the contrary declaration with fresh surprise.
'I should never have believed it of Miss. Lord,' was her half ingenuous, half sly comment.
Nancy, beginning to realise what she had done, sat with head bent, speechless.
'Don't distress yourself,' continued the other. 'Not a soul will hear of it from me. If you like to tell me more, you can do it quite safely; I'm no blabber, and I'm not a rascal. I should never have troubled to make inquiries about you, down yonder, if it hadn't been that I suspected Crewe. That's a confession, you know; take it in return for yours.'
Nancy was tongue-tied. A full sense of her humiliation had burst upon her. She, who always condescended to Miss. French, now lay smirched before her feet, an object of vulgar contempt.
'What does it matter?' went on Beatrice genially. 'You've got over the worst, and very cleverly. Are you going to marry him when you come in for your money?'
'Perhaps--I don't know--'
She faltered, no longer able to mask in impudence, and hardly restraining tears. Beatrice ceased to doubt, and could only wonder with amusement.
'Why shouldn't we be good friends, Nancy? I tell you, I am no rascal. I never thought of making anything out of your secret--not I. If it had been Crewe, marriage or no marriage--well, I might have shown my temper. I believe I have a pretty rough side to my tongue; but I'm a good enough sort if you take me in the right way. Of course I shall never rest for wondering who it can be--'
She paused, but Nancy did not look up, did not stir.
'Perhaps you'll tell me some other time. But there's one thing I should like to ask about, and it's for your own good that I should know it. When Crewe was down there, don't you think he tumbled to anything?'
Perplexed by unfamiliar slang, Nancy raised her eyes.
'Found out anything, you mean? I don't know.'
'But you must have been in a jolly fright about it?'
'I gave it very little thought,' replied Nancy, able now to command a steady voice, and retiring behind a manner of frigid indifference.
'No? Well, of course I understand that better now I know that you can't lose anything. Still, it is to be hoped he didn't go asking questions. By-the-bye, you may as well just tell me: he has asked you to marry him, hasn't he?'
'Doesn't matter. You needn't be afraid, even if he got hold of anything. He isn't the kind of man to injure you out of spite.'
'I fear him as little as I fear you.'
'Well, as I've told you, you needn't fear me at all. I like you better for this--a good deal better than I used to. If you want any help, you know where to turn; I'll do whatever I can for you; and I'm in the way of being useful to my friends. You're cut up just now; it's natural. I won't bother you any longer. But just remember what I've said. If I can be of any service, don't be above making use of me.'
Nancy heard without heeding; for an anguish of shame and misery once more fell upon her, and seemed to lay waste her soul.