In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part V: Compassed Round
On an afternoon at the end of October, Samuel Barmby, returned from business, found Miss. Morgan having tea with his sisters. For a month or two after Midsummer the Barmbys had scarcely seen her; now their friendly intercourse was renewed, and Jessica came at least once a week. She had an engagement at a girls' school in this neighbourhood, and, though her health threatened another collapse, she talked of resuming study for the Matriculation of next year.
Samuel, perfectly aware of the slavish homage which Miss. Morgan paid him, took pleasure in posing before her. It never entered his mind to make any return beyond genial patronage, but the incense of a female devotee was always grateful to him, and he had come to look upon Jessica as a young person peculiarly appreciative of intellectual distinction. A week ago, walking with her to the omnibus after an evening she had spent in Dagmar Road, he had indulged a spirit of confidence, and led her to speak of Nancy Lord. The upshot of five minutes' conversation was a frank inquiry, which he could hardly have permitted himself but for the shadow of night and the isolating noises around them. As an intimate friend, did she feel able to tell him whether or not Miss. Lord was engaged to be married? Jessica, after a brief silence, answered that she did not feel at liberty to disclose what she knew on the subject; but the words she used, and her voice in uttering them, left no doubt as to her meaning. Samuel said no more. At parting, he pressed the girl's hand warmly.
This afternoon, they began by avoiding each other's look. Samuel seemed indisposed for conversation; he sipped at a cup of tea with an abstracted and somewhat weary air, until Miss. Morgan addressed him.
'To-morrow is the evening of your lecture, isn't it, Mr. Barmby?'
By the agency of a friend who belonged to a society of mutual improvement at Pentonville, Samuel had been invited to go over and illumine with his wisdom the seekers after culture in that remote district, a proposal that flattered him immensely, and inspired him with a hope of more than suburban fame. For some months he had spoken of the engagement. He was to discourse upon 'National Greatness: its Obligations and its Dangers.'
'Of course it will be printed afterwards?' pursued the devotee.
'Oh, I don't know. It's hardly worth that.'
'Oh, I'm sure it will be!'
And Jessica appealed to the sisters, who declared that certain passages they had been privileged to hear seemed to them very remarkable.
Ladies were to be admitted, but the Miss. Barmbys felt afraid to undertake so long a journey after dark.
'I know some one who would very much like to go,' said Jessica, steadying her voice. 'Could you spare me a ticket to give away, Mr Barmby?'
Samuel smiled graciously, and promised the ticket.
Of course it was for Jessica's own use. On the following evening, long before the hour which would have allowed her ample time to reach Pentonville by eight o'clock, she set forth excitedly. Unless Samuel Barmby were accompanied by some friend from Camberwell,-- only too probable,--she might hope to make the return journey under his protection. Perhaps he would speak again of Nancy Lord, and this time he should be answered with less reserve. What harm if she even told him the name of the man whom Nancy was 'engaged' to marry?
Nancy was no longer her friend. A show of reconciliation had followed that scene on the Sunday afternoon three months ago; but Jessica well knew that she had put herself beyond forgiveness, nor did she desire it. Even without the memory of her offence, by this time she must needs have regarded Nancy with steadfast dislike. Weeks had gone by since their last meeting, which was rendered so unpleasant by mutual coldness that a renewal of intercourse seemed out of the question.
She would not be guilty of treachery. But, in justice to herself, she might give Samuel Barmby to understand how hopeless was his wooing.
To her disappointment, the lecture-room was small and undignified; she had imagined a capacious hall, with Samuel Bennett Barmby standing up before an audience of several hundred people. The cane-bottomed chairs numbered not more than fifty, and at eight o'clock some of them were still unoccupied. Nor did the assembly answer to her expectation. It seemed to consist of young shopmen, with a few females of their kind interspersed. She chose a place in the middle of the room, where the lecturer could hardly fail to observe her presence.
With Barmby's entrance disillusion gave way before the ardours of flesh and spirit. The whole hour through she never took her eyes from him. His smooth, pink face, with its shining moustache, embodied her ideal of manly beauty; his tall figure inflamed her senses; the words that fell from his lips sounded to her with oracular impressiveness, conveying a wisdom before which she bowed, and a noble enthusiasm to which she responded in fervent exaltation. And she had been wont to ridicule this man, to join in mockery of his eloquence with a conceited wanton such as Nancy Lord! No, it never came from her heart; it was moral cowardice; from the first she had recognised Samuel Barmby's infinite superiority to the ignoble, the impure girl who dared to deride him.
He saw her; their eyes met once, and again, and yet again. He knew that she alone in the audience could comprehend his noble morality, grasp the extent of his far-sighted speculations. To her he spoke. And in his deep glowing heart he could not but thank her for such evidence of sympathy.
There followed a tedious debate, a muddy flow of gabble and balderdash. It was over by ten o'clock. With jealous eyes she watched her hero surrounded by people who thought, poor creatures, that they were worthy of offering him congratulations. At a distance she lingered. And behold, his eye once more fell upon her! He came out from among the silly chatterers, and walked towards her.
'You played me a trick, Miss. Morgan. I should never have allowed you to come all this way to hear me.'
'If I had come ten times the distance, I should have been repaid!'
His round eyes gloated upon the flattery.
'Well, well, I mustn't pretend that I think the lecture worthless. But you might have had the manuscript to read. Are you quite alone? Then I must take care of you. It's a wretched night; we'll have a cab to King's Cross.'
He said it with a consciousness of large-handed generosity. Jessica's heart leapt and throbbed.
She was by his side in the vehicle. Her body touched his. She felt his warm breath as he talked. In all too short a time they reached the railway station.
'Did you come this way? Have you a ticket? Leave that to me.'
Again largely generous, he strode to the booking-office.
They descended and stood together upon the platform, among hurrying crowds, in black fumes that poisoned the palate with sulphur. This way and that sped the demon engines, whirling lighted waggons full of people. Shrill whistles, the hiss and roar of steam, the bang, clap, bang of carriage-doors, the clatter of feet on wood and stone --all echoed and reverberated from a huge cloudy vault above them. High and low, on every available yard of wall, advertisements clamoured to the eye: theatres, journals, soaps, medicines, concerts, furniture, wines, prayer-meetings--all the produce and refuse of civilisation announced in staring letters, in daubed effigies, base, paltry, grotesque. A battle-ground of advertisements, fitly chosen amid subterranean din and reek; a symbol to the gaze of that relentless warfare which ceases not, night and day, in the world above.
For the southward train they had to wait ten minutes. Jessica, keeping as close as possible to her companion's side, tried to converse, but her thoughts were in a tumult like to that about her. She felt a faintness, a quivering in her limbs.
'May I sit down for a moment?' she said, looking at Barmby with a childlike appeal.
'To be sure.'
She pointed in a direction away from the crowd.
'I have something to say--it's quieter--'
Samuel evinced surprise, but allowed himself to be led towards the black mouth of the tunnel, whence at that moment rushed an engine with glaring lights upon its breast.
'We may not be alone in the train,' continued Jessica. 'There's something you ought to know I must tell you to-night. You were asking me about Nancy Lord.'
She spoke with panting breath, and looked fixedly at him. The eagerness with which he lent ear gave her strength to proceed.
'You asked me if she was engaged.'
He had even forgotten his politeness; he saw in her a mere source of information. Jessica moved closer to him on the bench.
'Had you any reason for thinking she was?'
'No particular reason, except something strange in her behaviour.'
'Would you like to know the whole truth?'
It was a very cold night, and a keen wind swept the platform; but Jessica, though indifferently clad, felt no discomfort from this cause. Yet she pressed closer to her companion, so that her cheek all but touched his shoulder.
'Of course I should,' Barmby answered. 'Is there any mystery?'
'I oughtn't to tell.'
'Then you had better not. But why did you begin?'
'You ought to know.'
'Why ought I to know?'
'Because you--.' She broke off. A sudden chill made her teeth chatter.
'Well--why?' asked Samuel, with impatience.
'Are you--are you in love with her?'
Voice and look embarrassed him. So did the girl's proximity; she was now all but leaning on his shoulder. Respectable Mr. Barmby could not be aware that Jessica's state of mind rendered her scarcely responsible for what she said or did.
'That's a very plain question,' he began; but she interrupted him.
'I oughtn't to ask it. There's no need for you to answer. I know you have wanted to marry her for a long time. But you never will.'
'Perhaps not--if she has promised somebody else.'
'If I tell you--will you be kind to me?'
'I didn't mean that,' she added hurriedly. 'I mean--will you understand that I felt it a duty? I oughtn't to tell a secret; but it's a secret that oughtn't to be kept. Will you understand that I did it out of--out of friendship for you, and because I thought it right?'
'Oh, certainly. After going so far, you had better tell me and have done with it.'
Jessica approached her lips to his ear, and whispered:
'She is married.'
'She was married at Teignmouth, just before she came back from her holiday, last year.'
'Well! Upon my word! And that's why she has been away in Cornwall?'
Again Jessica whispered, her body quivering the while:
'She has a child. It was born last May.'
'Well! Upon my word! Now I understand. Who could have imagined!'
'You see what she is. She hides it for the sake of the money.'
'But who is her husband?' asked Samuel, staring at the bloodless face.
'A man called Tarrant, a relative of Mr. Vawdrey, of Champion Hill. She thought he was rich. I don't know whether he is or not, but I believe he doesn't mean to come back to her. He's in America now.'
Barmby questioned, and Jessica answered, until there was nothing left to ask or to tell,--save the one thing which rose suddenly to Jessica's lips.
'You won't let her know that I have told you?'
Samuel gravely, but coldly, assured her that she need not fear betrayal.