In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part V: Compassed Round
It was to be in three volumes. She saw her way pretty clearly to the end of the first; she had ideas for the second; the third must take care of itself--until she reached it. Hero and heroine ready to her hand; subordinate characters vaguely floating in the background. After an hour or two of meditation, she sat down and dashed at Chapter One.
Long before the end of the year it ought to be finished.
But in August came her baby's first illness; for nearly a fortnight she was away from home, and on her return, though no anxiety remained, she found it difficult to resume work. The few chapters completed had a sorry look; they did not read well, not at all like writing destined to be read in print. After a week's disheartenment she made a new beginning.
At the end of September baby again alarmed her. A trivial ailment as before, but she could not leave the child until all was well. Again she reviewed her work, and with more repugnance than after the previous interruption. But go on with it she must and would. The distasteful labour, slow, wearisome, often performed without pretence of hope, went on until October. Then she broke down. Mary Woodruff found her crying by the fireside, feverish and unnerved.
'I can't sleep,' she said. 'I hear the clock strike every hour, night after night.'
But she would not confess the cause. In writing her poor novel she had lived again through the story enacted at Teignmouth, and her heart failed beneath its burden of hopeless longing. Her husband had forsaken her. Even if she saw him again, what solace could be found in the mere proximity of a man who did not love her, who had never loved her? The child was not enough; its fatherless estate enhanced the misery of her own solitude. When the leaves fell, and the sky darkened, and the long London winter gloomed before her, she sank with a moan of despair.
Mary's strength and tenderness were now invaluable. By sheer force of will she overcame the malady in its physical effects, and did wonders in the assailing of its moral source. Her appeal now, as formerly, was to the nobler pride always struggling for control in Nancy's character. A few days of combat with the besieging melancholy that threatened disaster, and Nancy could meet her friend's look with a smile. She put away and turned the key upon her futile scribbling; no more of that. Novel-writing was not her vocation; she must seek again.
Early in the afternoon she made ready to go forth on the only business which now took her from home. It was nearly a week since she had seen her boy.
Opening the front door, she came unexpectedly under two pairs of eyes. Face to face with her stood Samuel Barmby, his hand raised to signal at the knocker, just withdrawn from him. And behind Barmby was a postman, holding a letter, which in another moment would have dropped into the box.
Samuel performed the civil salute.
'Ha!--How do you do, Miss. Lord?--You are going out, I'm afraid.'
'Yes, I am going out.'
She replied mechanically, and in speaking took the letter held out to her. A glance at it sent all her blood rushing upon the heart.
'I want to see you particularly,' said Samuel. 'Could I call again, this afternoon?'
Nancy gazed at him, but did not hear. He saw the sudden pallor of her cheeks, and thought he understood it. As she stood like a statue, he spoke again.
'It is very particular business. If you could give me an appointment--'
'Business?--Oh, come in, if you like.'
She drew back to admit him, but in the passage stood looking at her letter. Barmby was perplexed and embarrassed.
'You had rather I called again?'
'Called again? Just as you like.'
'Oh, then I will stay,' said Samuel bluntly. For he had things in mind which disposed him to resent this flagrant discourtesy.
His voice awakened Nancy. She opened the door of the dining-room.
'Will you sit down, Mr. Barmby, and excuse me for a few minutes?'
'Certainly. Don't let me inconvenience you, Miss. Lord.'
At another time Nancy would have remarked something very unusual in his way of speaking, especially in the utterance of her name. But for the letter in her hand she must have noticed with uneasiness a certain severity of countenance, which had taken the place of Barmby's wonted smile. As it was, she scarcely realised his presence; and, on closing the door of the room he had entered, she forthwith forgot that such a man existed.
Her letter! His handwriting at last. And he was in England.
She flew up to her bedroom, and tore open the envelope. He was in London; 'Great College Street, S. W.' A short letter, soon read.
DEAREST NANCY,--I am ashamed to write, yet write I must. All your letters reached me; there was no reason for my silence but the unwillingness to keep sending bad news. I have still nothing good to tell you, but here I am in London again, and you must know of it.
When I posted my last letter to you from New York, I meant to come back as soon as I could get money enough to pay my passage. Since then I have gone through a miserable time, idle for the most part, ill for a few weeks, and occasionally trying to write something that editors would pay for. But after all I had to borrow. It has brought me home (steerage, if you know what that means), and now I must earn more.
If we were to meet, I might be able to say something else. I can't write it. Let me hear from you, if you think me worth a letter.-- Yours ever, dear girl,
For a quarter of an hour she stood with this sheet open, as though still reading. Her face was void of emotion; she had a vacant look, cheerless, but with no more decided significance.
Then she remembered that Samuel Barmby was waiting for her downstairs. He might have something to say which really concerned her. Better see him at once and get rid of him. With slow step she descended to the dining-room. The letter, folded and rolled, she carried in her hand.
'I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Mr. Barmby.'
'Don't mention it. Will you sit down?'
'Yes, of course.' She spoke abstractedly, and took a seat not far from him. 'I was just going out, but--there's no hurry.'
'I hardly know how to begin. Perhaps I had better prepare you by saying that I have received very strange information.'
His air was magisterial; he subdued his voice to a note of profound solemnity.
'What sort of information?' asked Nancy vaguely, her brows knitted in a look rather of annoyance than apprehension.
'Very strange indeed.'
'You have said that already.'
Her temper was failing. She felt a nervous impulse to behave rudely, to declare the contempt it was always difficult to disguise when talking with Barmby.
'I repeat it, because you seem to have no idea what I am going to speak of. I am the last person to find pleasure in such a disagreeable duty as is now laid upon me. In that respect, I believe you will do me justice.'
'Will you speak plainly? This roundabout talk is intolerable.'
Samuel drew himself up, and regarded her with offended dignity. He had promised himself no small satisfaction from this interview, had foreseen its salient points. His mere aspect would be enough to subdue Nancy, and when he began to speak she would tremble before him. Such a moment would repay him for the enforced humility of years. Perhaps she would weep; she might even implore him to be merciful. How to act in that event he had quite made up his mind. But all such anticipations were confused by Nancy's singular behaviour. She seemed, in truth, not to understand the hints which should have overwhelmed her.
More magisterial than ever, he began to speak with slow emphasis.
'Miss. Lord,--I will still address you by that name,--though for a very long time I have regarded you as a person worthy of all admiration, and have sincerely humbled myself before you, I cannot help thinking that a certain respect is due to me. Even though I find that you have deceived me as to your position, the old feelings are still so strong in me that I could not bear to give you needless pain. Instead of announcing to my father, and to other people, the strange facts which I have learnt, I come here as a friend,--I speak with all possible forbearance,--I do my utmost to spare you. Am I not justified in expecting at least courteous treatment?'
A pause of awful impressiveness. The listener, fully conscious at length of the situation she had to face, fell into a calmer mood. All was over. Suspense and the burden of falsehood had no longer to be endured. Her part now, for this hour at all events, was merely to stand by whilst Fate unfolded itself.
'Please say whatever you have to say, Mr. Barmby,' she replied with quiet civility. 'I believe your intention was good. You made me nervous, that was all.'
'Pray forgive me. Perhaps it will be best if I ask you a simple question. You will see that the position I hold under your father's will leaves me no choice but to ask it. Is it true that you are married?'
'I will answer if you tell me how you came to think that I was married.'
'I have been credibly informed.'
'You must forgive me. I can't tell you the name.'
'Then I can't answer your question.'
Samuel mused. He was unwilling to break a distinct promise.
'No doubt,' said Nancy, 'you have undertaken not to mention the person.'
'If it is some one who used to be a friend of mine, you needn't have any scruples. She as good as told me what she meant to do. Of course it is Miss. Morgan?'
'As you have yourself spoken the name--'
'Very well. She isn't in her senses, and I wonder she has kept the secret so long.'
'You admit the truth of what she has told me?'
'Yes. I am married.'
She made the avowal in a tone very like that in which, to Beatrice French, she had affirmed the contrary.
'And your true name is Mrs. Tarrant?'
'That is my name.'
The crudely masculine in Barmby prompted one more question, but some other motive checked him. He let his eyes wander slowly about the room. Even yet there was a chance of playing off certain effects which he had rehearsed with gusto.
'Can you imagine,'--his voice shook a little,--'how much I suffer in hearing you say this?'
'If you mean that you still had the hopes expressed in your letter some time ago, I can only say, in my defence, that I gave you an honest answer.'
'Yes. You said you could never marry me. But of course I couldn't understand it in this sense. It is a blow. I find it very hard to bear.'
He rose and went to the window, as if ashamed of the emotion he could not command. Nancy, too much occupied with her own troubles to ask or care whether his distress was genuine, laid Tarrant's letter upon a side-table, and began to draw off her gloves. Then she unbuttoned her jacket. These out-of-door garments oppressed her. Samuel turned his head and came slowly back.
'There are things that might be said, but I will not say them. Most men in my position would yield to the temptation of revenge. But for many years I have kept in view a moral ideal, and now I have the satisfaction of conquering my lower self. You shall not hear one word of reproach from my lips.'
He waited for the reply, the expected murmur of gratitude. Nancy said nothing.
'Mrs. Tarrant,'--he stood before her,--'what do you suppose must be the result of this?'
'There can only be one.'
'You mean the ruin of your prospects. But do you forget that all the money you have received since Mr. Lord's death has been obtained by false pretences? Are you not aware that this is a criminal offence?'
Nancy raised her eyes and looked steadily at him.
'Then I must bear the punishment.'
For a minute Barmby enjoyed her suffering. Of his foreseen effects, this one had come nearest to succeeding. But he was not satisfied; he hoped she would beseech his clemency.
'The punishment might be very serious. I really can't say what view my father may take of this deception.'
'Is there any use in talking about it? I am penniless--that's all you have to tell me. What else I have to bear, I shall know soon enough.'
'One thing I must ask. Isn't your husband in a position to support you?'
'I can't answer that. Please to say nothing about my husband.'
Barmby caught at hope. It might be true, as Jessica Morgan believed, that Nancy was forsaken. The man Tarrant might be wealthy enough to disregard her prospects. In that case an assiduous lover, one who, by the exercise of a prudent generosity, had obtained power over the girl, could yet hope for reward. Samuel had as little of the villain in his composition as any Camberwell householder. He cherished no dark designs. But, after the manner of his kind, he was in love with Nancy, and even the long pursuit of a lofty ideal does not render a man proof against the elementary forces of human nature.
'We will suppose then,' he said, with a certain cheerfulness, 'that you have nothing whatever to depend upon but your father's will. What is before you? How can you live?'
'That is my own affair.'
It was not said offensively, but in a tone of bitter resignation. Barmby sat down opposite to her, and leaned forward.
'Do you think for one moment,'--his voice was softly melodious,-- 'that I--I who have loved you for years--could let you suffer for want of money?'
He had not skill to read her countenance. Trouble he discerned, and shame; but the half-veiled eyes, the quivering nostril, the hard, cold lips, spoke a language beyond Samuel's interpretation. Even had he known of the outrages previously inflicted upon her pride, and that this new attack came at a moment when her courage was baffled, her heart cruelly wounded, he would just as little have comprehended the spirit which now kept her mute.
He imagined her overcome by his generosity. Another of his great effects had come off with tolerable success.
'Put your mind at rest,' he pursued mellifluously. 'You shall suffer no hardships. I answer for it.'
Still mute, and her head bowed low. Such is the power of nobility displayed before an erring soul!
'You have never done me justice. Confess that you haven't!'
To this remarkable appeal Nancy perforce replied:
'I never thought ill of you.'
When she had spoken, colour came into her cheeks. Observing it, Samuel was strangely moved. Had he impressed her even more profoundly than he hoped to do? Jessica Morgan's undisguised subjugation had flattered him into credulity respecting his influence over the female mind.
'But you didn't think me capable of--of anything extraordinary?' Even in her torment, Nancy marvelled at this revelation of fatuity. She did not understand the pranks of such a mind as Barmby's when its balance is disturbed by exciting circumstance.
'What are you offering me?' she asked, in a low voice. 'How could I take money from you?'
'I didn't mean that you should. Your secret has been betrayed to me. Suppose I refuse to know anything about it, and leave things as they were?'
Nancy kept her eyes down.
'Suppose I say: Duty bids me injure this woman who has injured me; but no, I will not! Suppose I say: I can make her regret bitterly that she married that other man; but no, I will not! Suppose, instead of making your secret known, I do my utmost to guard it! What would be your opinion of this behaviour?'
'I should think it was kindly meant, but useless.'
'Because it isn't in your power to guard the secret. Jessica Morgan won't leave her work half done.'
'If that's all, I say again that you can put your mind at rest. I answer for Miss. Morgan. With her my will is law.'
Samuel smiled. A smile ineffable. The smile of a suburban deity.
'Why should you take any trouble about me?' said Nancy. 'I can do nothing for you in return.'
She looked anxiously at him, for his voice sounded ominous.
'You can acknowledge that you never did me justice.'
'It's true that I didn't,' she answered languidly; speaking as though the concession mattered little.
Barmby brightened. His hands were upon his knees; he raised his chin, and smiled at vacancy.
'You thought me unworthy of you. You can confess to me that you were mistaken.'
'I didn't know you as I do now,' fell from the expressionless lips.
'Thank you for saying that! Well, then, your anxiety is at an end. You are not in the hands of a mercenary enemy, but of a man whose principles forbid him to do anything ignoble, who has an ideal of life, the result of much study and thought. You have never heard me speak about religion, but you would be gravely mistaken if you thought I had no religious convictions. Some day I shall treat that subject before our Society, and it is probable that my views will give rise to a good deal of discussion. I have formed a religion for myself; when I write my essay, I think I shall call it "The Religion of a Man of Business." One of the great evils of the day is the vulgar supposition that commerce has nothing to do with religious faith. I shall show how utterly wrong that is. It would take too long to explain to you my mature views of Christianity. I am not sure that I recognise any of the ordinary dogmas; I think I have progressed beyond them. However, we shall have many opportunities of talking about these things.'
Nancy uttered a mere 'Yes.' She was looking at Tarrant's letter on the side-table, and wishing to be alone that she might read it again.
'In the meantime,' Samuel pursued, 'whatever difficulty arises, confide it to me. Probably you will wish to tell me more before long; you know that I am not unworthy to be your adviser. And so let us shake hands, in sign of genuine friendship.'
Nancy gave her fingers, which felt very cold upon Barmby's warm, moist palm.
'This conversation has been trying to you,' he said, 'but relief of mind will soon follow. If anything occurs to me that may help to soothe you, I will write.'
'At the beginning of our interview you didn't think it would end like this?'
There was something of the boy in Samuel, perhaps the wholesomest part of him. Having manifested his admirable qualities, he felt a light-hearted pleasure in asking for renewed assurance of the good opinion he had earned.
'I hardly cared,' said Nancy, as she rose with a sigh of weariness.
'But you have got over that. You will be quite cheerful now?'
'In time, no doubt.'
'I shall call again--let us say on Wednesday evening. By that time I shall be able to put you entirely at ease with regard to Miss Morgan.'
Nancy made no reply. In shaking hands, she regarded the radiant Samuel with a dreamy interest; and when he had left her, she still gazed for a few moments at the door.