In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part V: Compassed Round
The habit of confidence prompted Nancy to seek Mary Woodruff, and show her the long-expected letter. But for Barmby's visit she would have done so. As it was, her mind sullenly resisted the natural impulse. Forlorn misery, intensified by successive humiliations, whereof the latest was the bitterest, hardened her even against the one, the indubitable friend, to whom she had never looked in vain for help and solace. Of course it was not necessary to let Mary know with what heart-breaking coldness Tarrant had communicated the fact of his return; but she preferred to keep silence altogether. Having sunk so low as to accept, with semblance of gratitude, pompous favours, dishonouring connivance, at the hands of Samuel Barmby, she would now stand alone in her uttermost degradation. Happen what might, she would act and suffer in solitude.
Something she had in mind to do which Mary, if told of it, would regard with disapproval. Mary was not a deserted and insulted wife; she could reason and counsel with the calmness of one who sympathised, but had nothing worse to endure. Even Mary's sympathy was necessarily imperfect, since she knew not, and should never know, what had passed in the crucial interviews with Beatrice French, with Jessica Morgan, and with Samuel Barmby. Bent on indulging her passionate sense of injury, hungering for a taste of revenge, however poor, Nancy executed with brief delay a project which had come into her head during the hour of torture just elapsed.
She took a sheet of notepaper, and upon it wrote half-a-dozen lines, thus:
'As your reward for marrying me is still a long way off, and as you tell me that you are in want, I send you as much as I can spare at present. Next month you shall hear from me again.'
Within the paper she folded a five-pound note, and placed both in an envelope, which she addressed to Lionel Tarrant, Esq., at his lodgings in Westminster. Having posted this at the first pillar-box she walked on.
Her only object was to combat mental anguish by bodily exercise, to distract, if possible, the thoughts which hammered upon her brain by moving amid the life of the streets. In Camberwell Road she passed the place of business inscribed with the names 'Lord and Barmby'; it made her think, not of the man who, from being an object of her good-natured contempt, was now become a hated enemy, but of her father, and she mourned for him with profounder feeling than when her tears flowed over his new-made grave. But for headstrong folly, incredible in the retrospect, that father would have been her dear and honoured companion, her friend in every best sense of the word, her guide and protector. Many and many a time had he invited her affection, her trust. For long years it was in her power to make him happy, and, in doing so, to enrich her own life, to discipline her mind as no study of books, even had it been genuine, ever could. Oh, to have the time back again--the despised privilege--the thwarted embittered love! She was beginning to understand her father, to surmise with mature intelligence the causes of his seeming harshness. To her own boy, when he was old enough, she would talk of him and praise him. Perhaps, even thus late, his spirit of stern truthfulness might bear fruit in her life and in her son's.
The tender memory and pure resolve did not long possess her. They soon yielded before the potency of present evil, and for an hour or more she walked along the sordid highway, nursing passions which struck their venom into her heart.
It was one of those cold, dry, clouded evenings of autumn, when London streets affect the imagination with a peculiar suggestiveness. New-lit lamps, sickly yellow under the dying day, stretch in immense vistas, unobscured by fog, but exhibit no detail of the track they will presently illumine; one by one the shop-fronts grow radiant on deepening gloom, and show in silhouette the figures numberless that are hurrying past. By accentuating a pause between the life of daytime and that which will begin after dark, this grey hour excites to an unwonted perception of the city's vastness and of its multifarious labour; melancholy, yet not dismal, the brooding twilight seems to betoken Nature's compassion for myriad mortals exiled from her beauty and her solace. Noises far and near blend into a muffled murmur, sound's equivalent of the impression received by the eye; it seems to utter the weariness of unending ineffectual toil.
Nancy had now walked as far as Newington, a district unfamiliar to her, and repulsive. By the Elephant and Castle she stood watching the tumultuous traffic which whirls and roars at this confluence of six highways; she had neither a mind to go on, nor yet to return. The conductor of an omnibus close at hand kept bellowing 'London Bridge!' and her thoughts wandered to that day of meeting with Luckworth Crewe, when he took her up the Monument. She had never felt more than an idle interest in Crewe, and whenever she remembered him nowadays, it was only to reflect with bitterness that he doubtless knew a part of her secret,--the part that was known to Beatrice French,--and on that account had ceased to urge his suit; yet at this moment she wished that she had pledged herself to him in good faith. His behaviour argued the steadfast devotion of an honest man, however lacking in refinement. Their long engagement would have been brightened with many hopes; in the end she might have learned to love him, and prosperity would have opened to her a world of satisfactions, for which she could no longer hope.
It grew cold. She allowed the movements of a group of people to direct her steps, and went eastward along New Kent Road. But when the shops were past, and only a dreary prospect of featureless dwellings lay before her, she felt her heart sink, and paused in vacillating wretchedness.
From a house near by sounded a piano; a foolish jingle, but it smote her with a longing for companionship, for friendly, cheerful talk. And then of a sudden she determined that this life of intolerable isolation should come to an end. Her efforts to find employment that would bring her among people had failed simply because she applied to strangers, who knew nothing of her capabilities, and cared nothing for her needs. But a way offered itself if she could overcome the poor lingering vestiges of pride and shame which hitherto had seemed to render it impossible. In this hour her desolate spirit rejected everything but the thought of relief to be found in new occupation, fresh society. She had endured to the limit of strength. Under the falling night, before the grey vision of a city which, by its alien business and pleasure, made her a mere outcast, she all at once found hope in a resource which till now had signified despair.
Summoning the first empty cab, she gave an address known to her only by hearsay, that of the South London Fashionable Dress Supply Association, and was driven thither in about a quarter of an hour. The shop, with its windows cunningly laid out to allure the female eye, spread a brilliant frontage between two much duller places of business; at the doorway stood a commissionaire, distributing some newly printed advertisements to the persons who entered, or who paused in passing. Nancy accepted a paper without thinking about it, and went through the swing doors held open for her by a stripling in buttons; she approached a young woman at the nearest counter, and in a low voice asked whether Miss. French was on the premises.
'I'm not sure, madam. I will inquire at once.'
'She calls me "madam,"' said Nancy to herself whilst waiting. 'So do shopkeepers generally. I suppose I look old.'
The young person (she honeyed a Cockney twang) speedily came back to report that Miss. French had left about half-an-hour ago, and was not likely to return.
'Can you give me her private address?'
Not having seen Miss. French since the latter's unwelcome call in Grove Lane, she only knew that Beatrice had left De Crespigny Park to inhabit a flat somewhere or other.
'I wish to see her particularly, on business.'
'Excuse me a moment, madam.'
On returning, the young person requested Nancy to follow her up the shop, and led into a glass-partitioned office, where, at a table covered with fashion-plates, sat a middle-aged man, with a bald head of peculiar lustre. He rose and bowed; Nancy repeated her request.
'Could I despatch a message for you, madam?'
'My business is private.'
The bald-headed man coughed urbanely, and begged to know her name.
'Miss. Lord--of Grove Lane.'
Immediately his countenance changed from deprecating solemnity to a broad smile of recognition.
'Miss. Lord! Oh, to be sure; I will give you the address at once. Pray pardon my questions; we have to be so very careful. So many people desire private interviews with Miss. French. I will jot down the address.'
He did so on the back of an advertisement, and added verbal directions. Nancy hurried away.
Another cab conveyed her to Brixton, and set her down before a block of recently built flats. She ascended to the second floor, pressed the button of a bell, and was speedily confronted by a girl of the natty parlour-maid species. This time she began by giving her name, and had only a moment to wait before she was admitted to a small drawing-room, furnished with semblance of luxury. A glowing fire and the light of an amber-shaded lamp showed as much fashionable upholstery and bric-a-brac as could be squeezed into the narrow space. Something else was perceptible which might perhaps have been dispensed with; to wit, the odour of a very savoury meal, a meal in which fried onions had no insignificant part. But before the visitor could comment to herself upon this disadvantage attaching to flats, Beatrice joined her.
'I could hardly believe it! So you have really looked me up? Awfully jolly of you! I'm quite alone; we'll have a bit of dinner together.'
Miss. French was in her most expansive mood. She understood the call as one of simple friendliness.
'I wasn't sure that you knew the address. Got it at the shop? They don't go telling everybody, I hope--'
'Some one there seemed to know my name,' said Nancy, whom the warmth and light and cheery welcome encouraged in the step she had taken. And she explained.
'Ah, Mr. Clatworthy--rum old cove, when you get to know him. Yes, yes; no doubt he has heard me speak of you--in a general way, you know. Come into my snooze-corner, and take your things off.'
The snooze-corner, commonly called a bedroom, lacked one detail of comfort--pure air. The odour of dinner blending with toilet perfumes made an atmosphere decidedly oppressive. Beatrice remarked on the smallness of the chamber, adding archly, 'But I sleep single.'
'What's your brother doing?' she asked, while helping to remove Nancy's jacket. 'I passed him in Oxford Street the other day, and he either didn't see me, or didn't want to. Thought he looked rather dissipated.'
'I know very little about him,' answered the visitor, who spoke and acted without reflection, conscious chiefly at this moment of faintness induced by fatigue and hunger.
'Fanny's in Paris,' pursued Miss. French. 'Writes as if she was amusing herself. I think I shall run over and have a look at her. Seen Ada? She's been playing the fool as usual. Found out that Arthur had taken the kid to his sister's at Canterbury; went down and made a deuce of a kick-up; they had to chuck her out of the house. Of course she cares no more about the child than I do; it's only to spite her husband. She's going to law with him, she says. She won't leave the house in De Crespigny Park, and she's running up bills--you bet!'
Nancy tried to laugh. The effort, and its semi-success, indicated surrender to her companion's spirit rather than any attention to the subject spoken of.
They returned to the drawing-room, but had not time to begin a conversation before the servant summoned them to dinner. A very satisfying meal it proved; not badly cooked, as cooking is understood in Brixton, and served with more of ceremony than the guest had expected. Fried scallops, rump steak smothered in onions, an apple tart, and very sound Stilton cheese. Such fare testified to the virile qualities of Beatrice's mind; she was above the feminine folly of neglecting honest victuals. Moreover, there appeared two wines, sherry and claret.
'Did you ever try this kind of thing?' said the hostess finally, reaching a box of cigarettes.
'I?--Of course not,' Nancy replied, with a laugh.
'It's expected of a sensible woman now-a-days. I've got to like it. Better try; no need to make yourself uncomfortable. Just keep the smoke in your mouth for half-a-minute, and blow it out prettily. I buy these in the Haymarket; special brand for women.'
'And you dine like this, by yourself, every day?'
'Like this, but not always alone. Some one or other drops in. Luckworth Crewe was here yesterday.'
Speaking, she watched Nancy, who bore the regard with carelessness, and replied lightly:
'It's an independent sort of life, at all events.'
'Just the kind of life that suits me. I'm my own mistress.'
There was a suggested allusion in the sly tone of the last phrase; but Nancy, thinking her own thoughts, did not perceive it. As the servant had left them alone, they could now talk freely. Beatrice, by her frequent glance of curiosity, seemed to await some explanation of a visit so unlooked-for.
'How are things going with you?' she asked at length, tapping the ash of her cigarette over a plate.
'I want something to do,' was the blunt reply.
'Too much alone--isn't that it?'
'Just what I thought. You don't see him often?'
Nancy had ceased her pretence of smoking, and leaned back. A flush on her face, and something unwonted in the expression of her eyes, --something like a smile, yet touched with apathy,--told of physical influences which assisted her resolve to have done with scruple and delicacy. She handled her wine-glass, which was half full, and, before answering, raised it to her lips.
'No, I don't see him often.'
'Well, I told you to come to me if I could be any use. What's your idea?'
'Do you know of anything I could do? It isn't so much to earn money, as to--to be occupied, and escape from loneliness. But I must have two afternoons in the week to myself.'
Beatrice nodded and smiled.
'No,--not for that,' Nancy added hastily. 'To see my boy.'
The other appeared to accept this correction.
'All right. I think I can find you something. We're opening a branch.' She mentioned the locality. 'There'll be a club-room, like at headquarters, and we shall want some one ladylike to sit there and answer questions. You wouldn't be likely to see any one that knows you, and you'd get a good deal of fun out of it. Hours from ten to five, but Saturday afternoon off, and Wednesday after three, if that would do?'
'Yes, that would do very well. Any payment, at first?'
'Oh, we wouldn't be so mean as all that. Say ten shillings a week till Christmas, and afterwards we could see'--she laughed-- 'whether you're worth more.'
'I know nothing about fashions.'
'You can learn all you need to know in an hour. It's the ladylike appearance and talk more than anything else.'
Nancy sipped again from her wine-glass.
'When could I begin?'
'The place 'll be ready on Monday week. Next week you might put in a few hours with us. Just sit and watch and listen, that's all; to get the hang of the thing.'
'Thank you for being so ready to help me.'
'Not a bit of it. I haven't done yet. There's a condition. If I fix up this job for you, will you tell me something I want to know?'
Nancy turned her eyes apprehensively.
'You can guess what it is. I quite believe what you told me some time ago, but I shan't feel quite easy until I know--'
She finished the sentence with a look. Nancy's eyes fell.
'Curiosity, nothing else,' added the other. 'Just to make quite sure it isn't anybody I've thought of.'
There was a long silence. Leaning forward upon the table, Nancy turned her wine-glass about and about. She now had a very high colour, and breathed quickly.
'Is it off, then?' said Beatrice, in an indifferent tone.
Thereupon Nancy disclosed the name of her husband--her lover, as Miss. French thought him. Plied with further questions, she told where he was living, but gave no account of the circumstances that had estranged them. Abundantly satisfied, Beatrice grew almost affectionate, and talked merrily.
Nancy wished to ask whether Luckworth Crewe had any knowledge of her position. It was long before her lips could utter the words, but at length they were spoken. And Beatrice assured her that Crewe, good silly fellow, did not even suspect the truth.