In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part I: Miss. Lord
Nancy Lord stood at the front-room window, a hand grasping each side of her waist, her look vaguely directed upon the limetree opposite and the house which it in part concealed. She was a well-grown girl of three and twenty, with the complexion and the mould of form which indicate, whatever else, habitual nourishment on good and plenteous food. In her ripe lips and softlyrounded cheeks the current of life ran warm. She had hair of a fine auburn, and her mode of wearing it, in a plaited diadem, answered the purpose of completing a figure which, without being tall, had some stateliness and promised more. Her gown, trimmed with a collar of lace, left the neck free; the maiden cincture at her waist did no violence to natural proportion.
This afternoon--it was Monday--she could not occupy or amuse herself in any of the familiar ways. Perhaps the atmosphere of national Jubilee had a disturbing effect upon her,--in spite of her professed disregard for the gathering tumult of popular enthusiasm. She had not left home to-day, and the brilliant weather did not tempt her forth. On the table lay a new volume from the circulating library,--something about Evolution--but she had no mind to read it; it would have made her too conscious of the insincerity with which she approached such profound subjects. For a quarter of an hour and more she had stood at the window, regarding a prospect, now as always, utterly wearisome and depressing to her.
Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,--with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell's rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls. Narrow passages connect the Lane with its more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove; on the other side are ways leading towards Denmark Hill, quiet, leafy. From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.
It is a neighbourhood in decay, a bit of London which does not keep pace with the times. And Nancy hated it. She would have preferred to live even in a poor and grimy street which neighboured the main track of business and pleasure.
Here she had spent as much of her life as she remembered, from the end of her third year. Mr. Lord never willingly talked of days gone by, but by questioning him she had learnt that her birthplace was a vaguely indicated part of northern London; there, it seemed, her mother had died, a year or so after the birth of her brother Horace. The relatives of whom she knew were all on her father's side, and lived scattered about England. When she sought information concerning her mother, Mr. Lord became evasive and presently silent; she had seen no portrait of the dead parent. Of late years this obscure point of the family history had often occupied her thoughts.
Nancy deemed herself a highly educated young woman,--'cultured' was the word she would have used. Her studies at a day-school which was reputed 'modern' terminated only when she herself chose to withdraw in her eighteenth year; and since then she had pursued 'courses' of independent reading, had attended lectures, had thought of preparing for examinations--only thought of it. Her father never suggested that she should use these acquirements for the earning of money; little as she knew of his affairs, it was obviously to be taken for granted that he could ensure her life-long independence. Satisfactory, this; but latterly it had become a question with her how the independence was to be used, and no intelligible aim as yet presented itself to her roving mind. All she knew was, that she wished to live, and not merely to vegetate. Now there are so many ways of living, and Nancy felt no distinct vocation for any one of them.
She was haunted by an uneasy sense of doubtfulness as to her social position. Mr. Lord followed the calling of a dealer in pianos; a respectable business, to be sure, but, it appeared, not lucrative enough to put her above caring how his money was made. She knew that one's father may be anything whatever, yet suffer no social disability, provided he reap profit enough from the pursuit. But Stephen Lord, whilst resorting daily to his warehouse in Camberwell Road--not a locality that one would care to talk about in 'cultured' circles--continued, after twenty years, to occupy this small and ugly dwelling in Grove Lane. Possibly, owing to an imperfect education, he failed to appreciate his daughter's needs, and saw no reason why she should not be happy in the old surroundings.
On the other hand, perhaps he cared very little about her. Undoubtedly his favourite was Horace, and in Horace he had suffered a disappointment. The boy, in spite of good schooling, had proved unequal to his father's hope that he would choose some professional career, by preference the law; he idled away his schooldays, failed at examinations, and ultimately had to be sent into 'business.' Mr Lord obtained a place for him in a large shipping agency; but it still seemed doubtful whether he would make any progress there, notwithstanding the advantage of his start; at two-and-twenty he was remunerated with a mere thirty shillings a week, a nominal salary,' his employers called it. Nancy often felt angry with her brother for his lack of energy and ambition; he might so easily, she thought, have helped to establish, by his professional dignity, her own social status at the level she desired.
There came into view a familiar figure, crossing from the other side of the way. Nancy started, waved her hand, and went to open the door. Her look had wholly altered; she was bright, mirthful, overflowing with affectionate welcome.
This friend of hers, Jessica Morgan by name, had few personal attractions. She looked overwrought and low-spirited; a very plain and slightly-made summer gown exhibited her meagre frame with undue frankness; her face might have been pretty if health had filled and coloured the flesh, but as it was she looked a ghost of girlhood, a dolorous image of frustrate sex. In her cotton-gloved hand she carried several volumes and notebooks.
'I'm so glad you're in,' was her first utterance, between pants after hasty walking and the jerks of a nervous little laugh. 'I want to ask you something about Geometrical Progression. You remember that formula--'
'How can I remember what I never knew?' exclaimed Nancy. 'I always hated those formulas; I couldn't learn them to save my life.'
'Oh, that's nonsense! You were much better at mathematics than I was. Do just look at what I mean.'
She threw her books down upon a chair, and opened some pages of scrawled manuscript, talking hurriedly in a thin falsetto.
Her family, a large one, had fallen of late years from a position of moderate comfort into sheer struggle for subsistence. Jessica, armed with certificates of examinational prowess, got work as a visiting governess. At the same time, she nourished ambitions, discernible perhaps in the singular light of her deep-set eyes and a something of hysteric determination about her lips. Her aim, at present, was to become a graduate of London University; she was toiling in her leisure hours--the hours of exhaustion, that is to say--to prepare herself for matriculation, which she hoped to achieve in the coming winter. Of her intimate acquaintances only one could lay claim to intellectual superiority, and even she, Nancy Lord to wit, shrank from the ordeals of Burlington House. To become B.A., to have her name in the newspapers, to be regarded as one of the clever, the uncommon women--for this Jessica was willing to labour early and late, regardless of failing health, regardless even of ruined complexion and hair that grew thin beneath the comb.
She talked only of the 'exam,' of her chances in this or that 'paper,' of the likelihood that this or the other question would be 'set.' Her brain was becoming a mere receptacle for dates and definitions, vocabularies and rules syntactic, for thrice-boiled essence of history, ragged scraps of science, quotations at fifth hand, and all the heterogeneous rubbish of a 'crammer's' shop. When away from her books, she carried scraps of paper, with jottings to be committed to memory. Beside her plate at meals lay formulae and tabulations. She went to bed with a manual and got up with a compendium.
Nancy, whose pursuit of 'culture' followed a less exhausting track, regarded the girl with a little envy and some compassion. Esteeming herself in every respect Jessica's superior, she could not help a slight condescension in the tone she used to her; yet their friendship had much sincerity on both sides, and each was the other's only confidante. As soon as the mathematical difficulty could be set aside, Nancy began to speak of her private troubles.
'The Prophet was here last night,' she said, with a girlish grimace. 'He's beginning again. I can see it coming. I shall have to snub him awfully next time.'
'Oh, what a worry he is!'
'Yes, but there's something worse. I suspected that the Pasha knew of it; now I feel sure he's encouraging him.'
By this oriental style Nancy signified her father. The Prophet was her father's partner in business, Mr. Samuel Bennett Barmby.
'I feel sure now that they talked it over when the Prophet was taken into partnership. I was thrown in as a "consideration."'
'But how could your father possibly think--?'
'It's hard to say what he does think about me. I'm afraid I shall have to have a talk with him. If so, it will be a long talk, and a very serious talk. But he isn't well just now, and I must put it off.'
'He isn't well?'
'A touch of gout, he says. Two days last week he didn't go to business, and his temper was that 'orrible!' Nancy had a habit of facetiously quoting vulgarities; this from an acquaintance of theirs who often supplied them with mirth. 'I suppose the gout does make one bad-tempered.'
'Has he been coming often?--Mr. Barmby, I mean.'
'Pretty well. I think I must turn matchmaker, and get him married to some one. It oughtn't to be difficult. The Prophet "has points."'
'I dare say some people would think him handsome,' assented Miss Morgan, nibbling a finger which showed an ink-stain, and laughing shyly.
'And his powers of conversation!--Don't you know any one that would do for him?'
They jested on this theme until Nancy chose to become serious again.
'Have you any lessons to-morrow?'
'No. Thank goodness every one is going to see the procession, or the decorations, or the illuminations, and all the rest of the nonsense,' Jessica replied. 'I shall have a good long day of work; except that I've promised to go in the afternoon, and have tea with the little girls at Champion Hill. I wish you'd come too; they'd be delighted to see you, and there'll be nobody except the governess.'
Nancy looked up in doubt.
'Are you sure? Won't the dowager be at home?'
'She hasn't left her room for three weeks.'
They exchanged a look of some special significance.
'Then I suppose,' said Nancy, with a peculiar smile, 'that's why Mr Tarrant has been calling?'
'Has he? How do you know?'
Again they looked at each other, and Nancy laughed.
'I have happened to meet him twice, the last few days.' She spoke in an off-hand way. 'The first time, it was just at the top of the lane; he was coming away. The second time, I was walking along Champion Hill, and he came up behind me, going to the house.'
'Did he talk?'
Nancy gave a nod.
'Yes, both times. But he didn't tell me that the dowager was worse.'
'High and mighty?' asked Jessica.
'Not quite so majestic as usual, I thought. I didn't feel quite so much of a shrimp before him. And decidedly he was in better spirits. Perhaps the dowager's death would be important to him?'
'Very likely. Will you come to-morrow?'
Miss. Lord hesitated--then, with a sudden frankness:
'To tell you the truth, I'm afraid he might be there.'
'Oh, I don't think so, not on Jubilee Day.'
'But that's the very reason. He may come to be out of the uproar.'
'I meant he was more likely to be out of town altogether.'
Nancy, still leaning over the table, propped her chin on her hands, and reflected.
'Where does he go, I wonder?'
'Oh, all sorts of places, no doubt. Men of that kind are always travelling. I suppose he goes shooting and fishing--'
Nancy's laugh made an interruption.
'No, no, he doesn't! He told me once that he didn't care for that sort of thing.'
'Oh, well, you know much more about him than I do,' said Miss Morgan, with a smile.
'I've often meant to ask you--have they anything to do with Tarrant's black-lead?'
Jessica declared that she had never heard of it.
'Never heard of it? nonsense! A few years ago it used to be posted up everywhere, and I see it sometimes even now, but other kinds seem to have driven it out of the market. Now that's just like you! Pray, did you ever hear of Pears' Soap?'
'Really? Oh, there's hope of you. You'll be a woman of the world some day.'
'Don't tease, Nancy. And what would it matter if he was there to-morrow?'
'Oh! I don't know. But I shouldn't particularly like his lordship to imagine that I went in the hope of paying my respects to him, and having the reward of a gracious smile.'
'One can't always be thinking about what other people think,' said Jessica impatiently. 'You're too sensitive. Any one else in your position would have lots of such friends.'
'In my position! What is my position?'
'Culture is everything now-a-days,' observed Miss. Morgan, with the air of one who feels herself abundantly possessed of that qualification.
But Nancy laughed.
'You may depend upon it, Mr. Tarrant doesn't think so.'
'He calls himself a democrat.'
'And talks like one: doesn't he?'
'Oh! that's only his way, I think. He doesn't really mean to be haughty, and--and so on.'
'I wish I knew if he had any connection with Tarrant's blacklead,' said Miss. Lord mischievously.
'Why not ask him?'
They laughed merrily, Jessica's thin note contrasting with the mellow timbre of her friend's voice.
'I will some day.'
'You would never dare to!'
'I daren't? Then I will!'
'It would be dreadfully rude.'
'I don't mind being thought rude,' replied Nancy, with a movement of the head, 'if it teaches people that I consider myself as good as they are.'
'Well, will you come to-morrow?'
'Ye-es; if you'll go somewhere else with me in the evening.'
'To walk about the streets after dark, and see the crowds and the illuminations.'
Nancy uttered this with a sly mirthfulness. Her friend was astonished.
'Nonsense! you don't mean it.'
'I do. I want to go for the fun of the thing. I should feel ashamed of myself if I ran to stare at Royalties, but it's a different thing at night. It'll be wonderful, all the traffic stopped, and the streets crammed with people, and blazing with lights. Won't you go?'
'But the time, the time! I can't afford it. I'm getting on so wretchedly with my Greek and my chemistry.'
'You've time enough,' said Nancy. 'And, you know, after all it's a historical event. In the year 3000 it will be 'set' in an examination paper, and poor wretches will get plucked because they don't know the date.'
This was quite a new aspect of the matter to Jessica Morgan. She pondered it, and smiled.
'Yes, I suppose it will. But we should have to be out so late.'
'Why not, for once? It needn't be later than half-past eleven.' Nancy broke off and gesticulated. 'That's just why I want to go! I should like to walk about all night, as lots of people will. The public-houses are going to be kept open till two o'clock.'
'Do you want to go into public-houses?' asked Jessica, laughing.
'Why not? I should like to. It's horrible to be tied up as we are; we're not children. Why can't we go about as men do?'
'Won't your father make any objection?' asked Jessica.
'We shall take Horace with us. Your people wouldn't interfere, would they?'
'I think not. Father is away in Yorkshire, and will be till the end of the week. Poor mother has her rheumatism. The house is so dreadfully damp. We ought never to have taken it. The difference of rent will all go in doctors' bills.--I don't think mother would mind; but I must be back before twelve, of course.'
'I don't see the "of course,"' Nancy returned impatiently, 'but we could manage that. I'll speak to the Pasha to-night, and either come, or let you have a note, to-morrow morning. If there's any objection, I'm not sure that I shan't make it the opportunity for setting up my standard of revolt. But I don't like to do that whilst the Pasha is out of sorts--it might make him worse.'
'You could reason with him quietly.'
'Reason with the Pasha--How innocent you are, Jess! How unworldly! It always refreshes me to hear you talk.'