In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part V: Compassed Round
There needed not Mary Woodruff's suggestion to remind Nancy that no further away than Champion Hill were people of whom, in extremity, she might inquire concerning her husband. At present, even could she have entertained the thought, it seemed doubtful whether the Vawdrey household knew more of Tarrant's position and purposes than she herself; for, only a month ago, Jessica Morgan had called upon the girls and had ventured a question about their cousin, whereupon they answered that he was in America, but that he had not written for a long time. To Mrs. Baker, Jessica did not like to speak on the subject, but probably that lady could have answered only as the children did.
Once, indeed, a few days after her return, Nancy took the familiar walk along Champion Hill, and glanced, in passing, at Mr. Vawdrey's house; afterwards, she shunned that region. The memories it revived were infinitely painful. She saw herself an immature and foolish girl, behaving in a way which, for all its affectation of reserve and dignity, no doubt offered to such a man as Lionel Tarrant a hint that here, if he chose, he might make a facile conquest. Had he not acted upon the hint? It wrung her heart with shame to remember how, in those days, she followed the lure of a crude imagination. A year ago? Oh, a lifetime!
Unwilling, now, to justify herself with the plea of love; doubtful, in very truth, whether her passion merited that name; she looked back in the stern spirit of a woman judging another's frailty. What treatment could she have anticipated at the hands of her lover save that she had received? He married her--it was much; he forsook her --it was natural. The truth of which she had caught troublous glimpses in the heyday of her folly now stood revealed as pitiless condemnation. Tarrant never respected her, never thought of her as a woman whom he could seriously woo and wed. She had a certain power over his emotions, and not the sensual alone; but his love would not endure the test of absence. From the other side of the Atlantic he saw her as he had seen her at first, and shrank from returning to the bondage which in a weak moment he had accepted.
One night about this time she said to herself:
'I was his mistress, never his wife.'
And all her desperate endeavours to obscure the history of their love, to assert herself as worthy to be called wife, mother, had fallen fruitless. Those long imploring letters, despatched to America from her solitude by the Cornish sea, elicited nothing but a word or two which sounded more like pity than affection. Pity does not suffice to recall the wandering steps of a man wedded against his will.
In her heart, she absolved him of all baseness. The man of ignoble thought would have been influenced by her market value as a wife. Tarrant, all the more because he was reduced to poverty, would resolutely forget the crude advantage of remaining faithful to her.
Herein Nancy proved herself more akin to her father than she had ever seemed when Stephen Lord sought eagerly in her character for hopeful traits.
The severity of her self-judgment, and the indulgence tempering her attitude towards Tarrant, declared a love which had survived its phase of youthful passion. But Nancy did not recognise this symptom of moral growth. She believed herself to have become indifferent to her husband, and only wondered that she did not hate him. Her heart seemed to spend all its emotion on the little being to whom she had given life--a healthy boy, who already, so she fancied, knew a difference between his mother and his nurse, and gurgled a peculiar note of contentment when lying in her arms. Whether wife or not, she claimed every privilege of motherhood. Had the child been a weakling, she could not have known this abounding solace: the defect would have reproached her. But from the day of his birth he manifested so vigorous a will to live, clung so hungrily to the fountain-breast, kicked and clamoured with such irresistible self-assertion, that the mother's pride equalled her tenderness. 'My own brave boy! My son!' Wonderful new words: honey upon the lips and rapture to the ear. She murmured them as though inspired with speech never uttered by mortal.
The interval of a day between her journeys to see the child taxed her patience; but each visit brought a growth of confidence. No harm would befall him: Mary had chosen wisely.
Horace kept aloof and sent no message. When at length she wrote to him a letter all of sisterly kindness, there came a stinted reply. He said that he was going away for a holiday, and might be absent until September. 'Don't bother about me. You shall hear again before long. There's just a chance that I may go in for business again, with prospect of making money. Particulars when I see you.'
Nancy found this note awaiting her after a day's absence from home, and with it another. To her surprise, Mrs. Damerel had written. 'I called early this afternoon, wishing particularly to see you. Will you please let me know when I should find you at home? It is about Horace that I want to speak.' It began with 'My dear Nancy,' and ended, 'Yours affectionately.' Glad of the opportunity thus offered, she answered at once, making an appointment for the next day.
When Mrs. Damerel came, Nancy was even more struck than at their former meeting with her resemblance to Horace. Eyes and lips recalled Horace at every moment. This time, the conversation began more smoothly. On both sides appeared a disposition to friendliness, though Nancy only marked her distrust in the hope of learning more about this mysterious relative and of being useful to her brother.
'You have a prejudice against me,' said the visitor, when she had inquired concerning Nancy's health. 'It's only natural. I hardly seem to you a real relative, I'm afraid--you know so little about me; and now Horace has been laying dreadful things to my charge.'
'He thinks you responsible for what has happened to Fanny French,' Nancy replied, in an impartial voice.
'Yes, and I assure you he is mistaken. Miss. French deceived him and her own people, leading them to think that she was spending her time with me, when really she was--who knows where? To you I am quite ready to confess that I hoped something might come between her and Horace; but as for plotting--really lam not so melodramatic a person. All I did in the way of design was to give Horace an opportunity of seeing the girl in a new light. You can imagine very well, no doubt, how she conducted herself. I quite believe that Horace was getting tired and ashamed of her, but then came her disappearance, and that made him angry with me.'
Even the voice suggested Horace's tones, especially when softened in familiar dialogue. Nancy paid closer attention to the speaker's looks and movements than to the matter of what she said. Mrs. Damerel might possibly be a well-meaning woman--her peculiarities might result from social habits, and not from insincerity; yet Nancy could not like her. Everything about her prompted a question and a doubt. How old was she? Probably much older than she looked. What was her breeding, her education? Probably far less thorough than she would have one believe. Was she in good circumstances? Nancy suspected that her fashionable and expensive dress signified extravagance and vanity rather than wealth.
'I have brought a letter to show you which she has sent me from abroad. Read it, and form your own conclusion. Is it the letter of an injured innocent?'
A scrawl on foreign note-paper, which ran thus:
DEAR MRS DAMEREL,--Just a word to console you for the loss of my society. I have gone to a better world, so dry your tears. If you see my masher, tell him I've met with somebody a bit more like a man. I should advise him to go to school again and finish his education. I won't trouble you to write. Many thanks for the kindness you didn't mean to do me.--Yours in the best of spirits (I don't mean Cognac),
FANNY (nee) FRENCH.
Nancy returned the paper with a look of disgust, saying, 'I didn't think she was as bad as that.'
'No more did I. It really gave me a little shock of surprise.'
'Do you think it likely she is married?'
Mrs. Damerel pursed her lips and arched her eyebrows with so unpleasant an effect on Nancy that she looked away.
'I have no means whatever of forming an opinion.'
'But there's no more fear for Horace,' said Nancy.
'I hope not--I think not. But my purpose in coming was to consult with you about the poor boy. He has renounced me; he won't answer my letters; and I am so dreadfully afraid that a sort of despair--it sounds ridiculous, but he is so very young--may drive him into reckless living. You have taken part with him against me, I fear--'
'No, I haven't. I told him I was quite sure the girl had only herself to blame, whatever happened.'
'How kind of you!' Mrs. Damerel sank her voice to a sort of cooing, not unmelodious, but to Nancy's ear a hollow affectation. 'If we could understand each other! I am so anxious for your dear brother's happiness--and for yours, believe me. I have suffered greatly since he told me I was his enemy, and cast me off.'
Here sounded a note of pathos which impressed the critical listener. There was a look, too, in Mrs. Damerel's eyes quite unlike any that Nancy had yet detected.
'What do you wish him to do?' she asked. 'If I must tell you the truth, I don't think he'll get any good in the life of society.'
Society's representative answered in a tone of affectionate frankness:
'He won't; I can see that. I don't wish him to live idly. The question is, What ought he to do? I think you know a gentleman of his acquaintance, Mr. Crewe?'
The question was added rather abruptly, and with a watchful gaze.
'I know him a little.'
'Something has been said, I believe, about Horace investing money in Mr. Crewe's business. Do you think it would be advisable?'
Surprise kept Nancy silent.
'Is Mr. Crewe trustworthy? I understand he has been in business for himself only a short time.'
Nancy declared herself unable to judge Mr. Crewe, whether in private or in commercial life. And here she paused, but could not refrain from adding the question whether Mrs. Damerel had personal knowledge of him.
'I have met him once.'
Immediately, all Nancy's suspicions were revived. She had felt a desire to talk of intimate things, with mention of her mother's name; but the repulsion excited in her by this woman's air of subtlety, by looks, movements, tones which she did not understand, forbade it. She could not speak with satisfaction even of Horace, feeling that Mrs. Damerel's affection, however genuine, must needs be baleful. From this point her part in the dialogue was slight.
'If any of Miss. French's relatives,' said the visitor presently, 'should accuse me to you, you will be able to contradict them. I am sure I can depend upon you for that service?'
'I am not likely to see them; and I should have thought you would care very little what was said about you by people of that kind.'
'I care little enough,' rejoined Mrs. Damerel, with a curl of the lips. 'It's Horace I am thinking of. These people will embitter him against me, so long as they have any ground to go upon.'
'But haven't you let him know of that letter?'
Mrs. Damerel seemed to fall into abstraction, answered with a vague 'Yes,' and after surveying the room, said softly:
'So you must live here alone for another two or three years?'
'It isn't compulsory: it's only a condition.'
Another vague 'Yes.' Then:
'I do so wish Horace would come back and make his home here.'
'I'm afraid you have spoilt him for that,' said Nancy, with relief in this piece of plain speaking.
Mrs. Damerel did not openly resent it. She looked a mild surprise, and answered blandly:
'Then I must undo the mischief. You shall help me. When he has got over this little trouble, he will see who are his true friends. Let us work together for his good.'
Nancy was inclined, once more, to reproach herself, and listened with patience whilst her relative continued talking in grave kindly tones. Lest she should spoil the effect of these impressive remarks, Mrs. Damerel then took leave. In shaking hands, she bent upon the girl a gaze of affection, and, as she turned away, softly sighed.
Of what had passed in the recent interview with Beatrice French, Nancy said nothing to her faithful companion. This burden of shame must be borne by herself alone. It affected profoundly the courageous mood which had promised to make her life tolerable; henceforth, she all but abandoned the hope of gaining that end for which she had submitted to so deep a humiliation. Through Beatrice, would not her secret, coloured shamefully, become known to Luckworth Crewe, and to others? Already, perchance, a growing scandal attached to her name. Fear had enabled her to endure dishonour in the eyes of one woman, but at any moment the disgrace might front her in an intolerable shape; then, regardless of the cost, she would proclaim her marriage, and have, in return for all she had suffered, nothing but the reproach of an attempted fraud.
To find employment, means of honourable support, was an urgent necessity.
She had written in reply to sundry advertisements, but without result. She tried to draw up an advertisement on her own account, but found the difficulty insuperable. What was there she could do? Teach children, perhaps; but as a visiting governess, the only position of the kind which circumstances left open to her, she could hope for nothing more than the paltriest remuneration. Be somebody's 'secretary'? That sounded pleasant, but very ambitious: a sense of incompetency chilled her. In an office, in a shop, who would dream of giving her an engagement?
Walking about the streets of London in search of suggestions, she gained only an understanding of her insignificance. In the battle of life every girl who could work a sewing-machine or make a matchbox was of more account than she. If she entered a shop to make purchases, the young women at the counter seemed to smile superiority. Of what avail her 'education,' her 'culture'? The roar of myriad industries made mocking laughter at such futile pretensions. She shrank back into her suburban home.
A little book on 'employments for women,' which she saw advertised and bought, merely heightened her discouragement. Here, doubtless, were occupations she might learn; but, when it came to choosing, and contemplating the practical steps that must be taken, her heart sank. She was a coward; she dreaded the world; she saw as never yet the blessedness of having money and a secure home.
The word 'home' grew very sweet to her ears. A man, she said to herself, may go forth and find his work, his pleasure, in the highways; but is not a woman's place under the sheltering roof? What right had a mother to be searching abroad for tasks and duties? Task enough, duty obvious, in the tending of her child. Had she but a little country cottage with needs assured, and her baby cradled beside her, she would ask no more.
How idle all the thoughts of her girlhood! How little she knew of life as it would reveal itself to her mature eyes!
Fatigued into listlessness, she went to the lending-library, and chose a novel for an hour's amusement. It happened that this story was concerned with the fortunes of a young woman who, after many an affliction sore, discovered with notable suddenness the path to fame, lucre, and the husband of her heart: she became at a bound a successful novelist. Nancy's cheek flushed with a splendid thought. Why should not she do likewise? At all events--for modesty was now her ruling characteristic--why should she not earn a little money by writing Stories? Numbers of women took to it; not a few succeeded. It was a pursuit that demanded no apprenticeship, that could be followed in the privacy of home, a pursuit wherein her education would be of service. With imagination already fired by the optimistic author, she began to walk about the room and devise romantic incidents. A love story, of course--and why not one very like her own? The characters were ready to her hands. She would begin this very evening.
Mary saw the glow upon her face, the delightful frenzy in her eyes, and wondered.
'I have an idea,' said Nancy. 'Don't ask me about it. Just leave me alone. I think I see my way.'
Daily she secluded herself for several hours; and, whatever the literary value of her labour, it plainly kept her in good spirits, and benefited her health. Save for the visits to her baby, regular as before, she hardly left home.
Jessica Morgan came very often, much oftener than Nancy desired; not only was her talk wearisome, but it consumed valuable time. She much desired to see the baby, and Nancy found it difficult to invent excuses for her unwillingness. When importunity could not be otherwise defeated, she pretended a conscientious scruple.
'I have deceived my husband in telling him that no one knows of our marriage but Mary. If I let you see the child, I should feel that I was deceiving him again. Don't ask me; I can't.'
Not unnaturally this struck Jessica as far-fetched. She argued against it, and became petulant. Nancy lost patience, but remembered in time that she was at Jessica's mercy, and, to her mortification, had to adopt a coaxing, almost a suppliant, tone, with the result that Miss. Morgan's overweening conceit was flattered into arrogance. Her sentimental protestations became strangely mixed with a self-assertiveness very galling to Nancy's pride. Without the slightest apparent cause for ill-humour, she said one day:
'I do feel sorry for you; it must be a dreadful thing to have married a man who has no sense of honour.'
Nancy fired up.
'What do you mean?'
'How can he have, when he makes you deceive people in this way for the sake of the money he'll get?'
'He doesn't! It's my own choice.'
'Then he oughtn't let you do it. No honourable man would.'
'That has nothing to do with you,' Nancy exclaimed, anger blanching her cheek. 'Please don't talk about my husband. You say things you ought to be ashamed of.'
'Oh, don't be angry!' The facile tears started in Jessica's eyes. 'It's because I feel indignant on your account, dear.'
'I don't want your indignation. Never mention this subject again, or I shall feel sure you do it on purpose to annoy me.'
Jessica melted into mawkishness; none the less, Nancy felt a slave to her former friend, who, for whatever reason, seemed to have grown hypocritical and spiteful. When next the girl called, she was told that Miss. Lord had left home for the day, a fiction which spared Nancy an hour's torment. Miss. Morgan made up for it by coming very early on the next Sunday afternoon, and preparing herself avowedly for a stay until late in the evening. Resolute to avoid a long tete-a-tete, which was sure to exasperate her temper, Nancy kept Mary in the room, and listened to no hint from Jessica that they should retire for the accustomed privacy.
At four o'clock they were joined by Samuel Barmby, whom, for once, Nancy welcomed with pleasure. Samuel, who had come in the hope of finding Miss. Lord alone, gave but the coldest attention to Jessica; Mary, however, he greeted with grave courtesy, addressing to her several remarks which were meant as a recognition of social equality in the quondam servant. He was dressed with elaborate care. Snowy cuffs concealed half his hands; his moustache, of late in training, sketched the graceful curl it would presently achieve; a faint perfume attended the drawing forth of his silk handkerchief.
Samuel never lacked a subject for the display of eloquence. Today it was one that called for indignant fervour.
'A most disgraceful fact has come under my notice, and I am sorry to say, Miss. Lord, that it concerns some one with whom you are acquainted.'
'Indeed?' said Nancy, not without tremor. 'Who is that?'
'Mr. Peachey, of De Crespigny Park. I believe you are on terms of friendship with the family.'
'Oh, you can hardly call it friendship. I know them.'
'Then I may speak without fear of paining you. You are aware that Mr Peachey is a member of the firm of Ducker, Blunt & Co., who manufacture disinfectants. Now, if any manufacture should be carried on in a conscientious spirit--as of course all manufactures should--surely it is that of disinfectants. Only think what depends upon it! People who make disinfectants ought to regard themselves as invested with a sacred trust. The whole community looks to them for protection against disease. The abuse of such confidence cannot be too severely condemned, all the more so, that there is absolutely no legal remedy against the adulteration of disinfectants. Did you know that, Miss. Lord? The law guards against adulteration of food, but it seems--I have been making inquiry into the matter--that no thought has ever been given by the legislature to the subject of disinfectants!'
Nancy saw that Jessica was watching the speaker with jealous eyes, and, in spite of prudence, she could not help behaving to Mr. Barmby more graciously than usual; a small revenge for the treatment she had suffered at the hands of Miss. Morgan.
'I could point out a great number of such anomalies,' pursued Samuel. 'But this matter of disinfectants is really one of the gravest. My father has written to The Times about it, and his letter will probably be inserted to-morrow. I am thinking of bringing it before the attention of our Society.'
'Do Mr. Peachey's people adulterate their disinfectants?' inquired Nancy.
'I was going to tell you. Some acquaintances of ours have had a severe illness in their house, and have been using disinfectants made by Ducker, Blunt & Co. Fortunately they have a very good medical man, and through him it has been discovered that these pretended safeguards are all but absolutely worthless. He had the stuff analysed. Now, isn't this shameful? Isn't this abominable? For my own part, I should call it constructive murder.'
The phrase came by haphazard to Samuel's tongue, and he uttered it with gusto, repeating it twice or thrice.
'Constructive murder--nothing short of that. And to think that these people enjoy a positive immunity--impunity.' He corrected himself quickly; then, uncertain whether he had really made a mistake, reddened and twisted his gloves. 'To think'--he raised his voice--'that they are capable of making money out of disease and death! It is one of the worst illustrations of a corrupt spirit in the commercial life of our times that has yet come under my observation.'
He remained for a couple of hours, talking ceaselessly. A glance which he now and then cast at Miss. Morgan betrayed his hope that she would take her leave before the necessary time of his own departure. Jessica, perfectly aware of this desire, sat as though no less at home than Nancy. Every remark she made was a stroke of malice at her friend, and in her drawn features appeared the passions by which she was tormented.
As soon as Mr. Barmby had regretfully withdrawn, Nancy turned upon the girl with flashing eyes.
'I want to speak to you. Come downstairs.'
She led the way to the dining-room. Jessica followed without a word.
'Why are you behaving like this? What has come to you?'
The feeble anaemic creature fell back before this outbreak of wholesome wrath; her eyes stared in alarm.
'I won't put up with it,' cried Nancy. 'If you think you can insult me because I trusted you when you were my only friend, you'll find your mistake. A little more, and you shall see how little your power over me is worth. Am I to live at your mercy! I'd starve rather. What do you mean by it?'
'Oh--Nancy--to think you should speak to me like this.'
'You are to be allowed to spit poison at me--are you? And I must bear it? No, that I won't! Of course I know what's the matter with you. You have fallen in love with Samuel Barmby.--You have! Any one can see it. You have no more command of yourself than a child. And because he prefers me to you, you rage against me. Idiot! What is Samuel Barmby to me? Can I do more to keep him off? Can I say to him, "Do have pity on poor Miss. Morgan, who--"'
She was interrupted by a scream, on which followed a torrent of frenzied words from Jessica.
'You're a bad-hearted woman! You've behaved disgracefully yourself --oh! I know more than you think; and now you accuse me of being as bad. Why did you get married in such a hurry? Do you think I didn't understand it? It's you who have no command over yourself. If the truth were known, no decent woman would ever speak to You again. And you've got your reward. Pretend as you like, I know your husband has deserted you. What else could you expect? That's what makes you hate every one that hasn't fallen into the mud. I wouldn't have such a character as yours! All this afternoon you've been looking at that man as no married woman could who respected herself. You encourage him; he comes here often--'
Hysterical passion strangled her voice, and before she could recover breath, Nancy, terrible in ire, advanced upon her.
'Leave this house, and never dare to show yourself here again! Do what you like, I'll endure you no longer--be off!'
Jessica retreated, her bloodless lips apart, her eyes starting as in suffocation. She stumbled against a chair, fell to the ground, and, with a cry of anguish, threw herself upon her knees before Nancy.
'What did I say? I didn't mean it--I don't know what I have been saying--it was all madness. Oh, do forgive me! That isn't how I really think of you--you know it isn't--I'm not so wicked as that. We have been friends so long--I must have gone mad to speak such words. Don't drive me away from you, dear, dear Nancy! I implore you to forgive me! Look, I pray to you on my knees to forget it. Despise me for being such a weak, wicked creature, but don't drive me away like that! I didn't mean one word I said.'
'Rubbish! Of course you meant it. You have thought it every day, and you'll say it again, behind my back, if not to my face. Stand up, and don't make yourself sillier than you are.'
'You can't call me anything too bad--but don't drive me away. I can't bear it. You are the only friend I have in the world--the only, only friend. No one was ever kind and good to me but you, and this is how I have repaid you. Oh, I hate myself! I could tear my tongue out for saying such things. Only say that you'll try to forgive me--dear Nancy--dear--'
She fell with face upon the carpet, and grovelled there in anguish of conflicting passions, a lamentable object. Unable to bear the sight of her, Nancy moved away, and stood with back turned, perforce hearing the moans and sobs and half-articulate words which lasted until the fit of hysteria left its victim in mute exhaustion. Then, contemptuously pitiful, she drew near again to the prostrate figure.
'Stand up at once, and let us have an end of this vulgar folly. Stand up, or I'll leave you here, and never speak to you again.'
'Nancy--can you forgive me?'
'I believe you have never got over your illness. If I were you, I should see the doctor again, and try to be cured. You'll end in an asylum, if you don't mind.'
'I often feel almost mad--I do really. Will you forget those dreadful words I spoke? I know you can't forgive me at once--'
'Only stand up, and try to behave like a reasonable being. What do I care for your words?'
The girl raised herself, threw her arms over a chair, and wept miserably.