In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part V: Compassed Round
'For a man,' said Tarrant, 'who can pay no more than twelve and sixpence a week, it's the best accommodation to be found in London. There's an air of civilisation about the house. Look; a bath, and a little book-case, and an easy-chair such as can be used by a man who respects himself. You feel you are among people who tub o' mornings and know the meaning of leisure. Then the view!'
He was talking to his friend Harvey Munden, the journalist. The room in which they stood might with advantage have been larger, but as a bed-chamber it served well enough, and only the poverty of its occupant, who put it to the additional use of sitting-room and study, made the lack of space particularly noticeable. The window afforded a prospect pleasant enough to eyes such as theirs. Above the lower houses on the opposite side of the way appeared tall trees, in the sere garb of later autumn, growing by old Westminster School; and beyond them, grey in twilight, rose the towers of the Abbey. From this point of view no vicinage of modern brickwork spoilt their charm; the time-worn monitors stood alone against a sky of ruddy smoke-drift and purple cloud.
'The old Adam is stronger than ever in me,' he pursued. 'If I were condemned for life to the United States, I should go mad, and perish in an attempt to swim the Atlantic.'
'Then why did you stay so long?'
'I could have stayed with advantage even longer. It's something to have studied with tolerable thoroughness the most hateful form of society yet developed. I saw it at first as a man does who is living at his ease; at last, as a poor devil who is thankful for the institution of free lunches. I went first-class, and I came back as a steerage passenger. It has been a year well spent.'
It had made him, in aspect, more than a twelve-month older. His lounging attitude, the spirit of his talk, showed that he was unchanged in bodily and mental habits; but certain lines new-graven upon his visage, and an austerity that had taken the place of youthful self-consciousness, signified a more than normal progress in experience.
'Do you know,' said Munden slyly, 'that you have brought back a trans-Atlantic accent?'
'Accent? The devil! I don't believe it.'
'Intonation, at all events.'
Tarrant professed a serious annoyance.
'If that's true, I'll go and live for a month in Limerick.'
'It would be cheaper to join a Socialist club in the East End. But just tell me how you stand. How long can you hold out in these aristocratic lodgings?'
'Till Christmas. I'm ashamed to say how I've got the money, so don't ask. I reached London with empty pockets. And I'll tell you one thing I have learnt, Munden. There's no villainy, no scoundrelism, no baseness conceivable, that isn't excused by want of money. I understand the whole "social question." The man who has never felt the perspiration come out on his forehead in asking himself how he is going to keep body and soul together, has no right to an opinion on the greatest question of the day.'
'What particular scoundrelism or baseness have you committed?' asked the other.
Tarrant averted his eyes.
'I said I could understand such things.'
'One sees that you have been breathed upon by democracy.'
'I loathe the word and the thing even more than I did, which is saying a good deal.'
'Be it so. You say you are going to work?'
'Yes, I have come back to work. Even now, it's difficult to realise that I must work or starve. I understand how fellows who have unexpectedly lost their income go through life sponging on relatives and friends. I understand how an educated man goes sinking through all the social grades, down to the common lodging-house and the infirmary. And I honestly believe there's only one thing that saves me from doing likewise.'
'And what's that?'
'I can't tell you--not yet, at all events.'
'I always thought you a very fine specimen of the man born to do nothing,' said Munden, with that smile which permitted him a surprising candour in conversation.
'And you were quite right,' returned Tarrant, with a laugh. 'I am a born artist in indolence. It's the pity of pities that circumstances will frustrate Nature's purpose.'
'You think you can support yourself by journalism?'
'I must try.--Run your eye over that.'
He took from the table a slip of manuscript, headed, 'A Reverie in Wall Street.' Munden read it, sat thoughtful for a moment, and laughed.
'Devilish savage. Did you write it after a free lunch?'
'Wrote it this morning. Shall I try one of the evening papers with it,--or one of the weeklies?'
Munden suggested a few alterations, and mentioned the journal which he thought might possibly find room for such a bit of satire.
'Done anything else?'
'Here's a half-finished paper--"The Commercial Prospects of the Bahamas."'
'Let me look.'
After reading a page or two with critically wrinkled forehead, Munden laid it down.
'Seems pretty solid,--libellous, too, I should say. You've more stuff in you than I thought. All right: go ahead.--Come and dine with me to-morrow, to meet a man who may be useful.'
'To-morrow I can't. I dine at Lady Pollard's.'
'Who is she?'
'Didn't you know Pollard of Trinity?--the only son of his mother, and she a widow.'
'Next day, then.'
'Can't. I dine with some people at Bedford Park.'
Munden lifted his eyebrows.
'At this rate, you may live pretty well on a dress suit. Any more engagements?'
'None that I know of. But I shall accept all that offer. I'm hungry for the society of decent English people. I used to neglect my acquaintances; I know better now. Go and live for a month in a cheap New York boarding-house, and you'll come out with a wholesome taste for English refinement.'
To enable his friend to read, Tarrant had already lit a lamp. Munden, glancing about the room, said carelessly:
'Do you still possess the furniture of the old place?'
'No,' was the answer, given with annoyance. 'Vawdrey had it sold for me.'
'Pictures, books, and all the nick-nacks?'
'Everything.--Of course I'm sorry for it; but I thought at the time that I shouldn't return to England for some years.'
'You never said anything of that kind to me.'
'No, I didn't,' the other replied gloomily. And all at once he fell into so taciturn a mood, that his companion, after a few more remarks and inquiries, rose from his chair to leave.
From seven to nine Tarrant sat resolutely at his table, and covered a few pages with the kind of composition which now came most easily to him,--a somewhat virulent sarcasm. He found pleasure in the work; but after nine o'clock his thoughts strayed to matters of personal interest, and got beyond control. Would the last post of the evening bring him an answer to a letter he had despatched this morning? At length he laid down his pen, and listened nervously for that knock which, at one time or another, is to all men a heart-shaking sound.
It came at the street door, and was quickly followed by a tap at his own. Nancy had lost no time in replying. What her letter might contain he found it impossible to conjecture. Reproaches? Joyous welcome? Wrath? Forgiveness? He knew her so imperfectly, that he could not feel sure even as to the probabilities of the case. And his suspense was abundantly justified. Her answer came upon him with the force of a shock totally unexpected.
He read the lines again and again; he stared at the bank-note. His first sensation was one of painful surprise; thereupon succeeded fiery resentment. Reason put in a modest word, hinting that he had deserved no better; but he refused to listen. Nothing could excuse so gross an insult. He had not thought Nancy capable of this behaviour. Tested, she betrayed the vice of birth. Her imputation upon his motive in marrying her was sheer vulgar abuse, possible only on vulgar lips. Well and good; now he knew her; all the torment of conscience he had suffered was needless. And for the moment he experienced a great relief.
In less than ten minutes letter and bank-note were enclosed in a new envelope, and addressed back again to the sender. With no word of comment; she must interpret him as she could, and would. He went out, and threw the offensive packet into the nearest receptacle for such things.
Work was over for to-night. After pacing in the obscurity of Dean's Yard until his pulse had recovered a normal beat, he issued into the peopled ways, and turned towards Westminster Bridge.
Despite his neglect of Nancy, he had never ceased to think of her with a tenderness which, in his own judgment, signified something more than the simple fidelity of a married man. Faithful in the technical sense he had not been, but the casual amours of a young man caused him no self-reproach; Nancy's image remained without rival in his mind; he had continued to acknowledge her claims upon him, and, from time to time, to think of her with a lover's longing. As he only wrote when prompted by such a mood, his letters, however unsatisfying, were sincere. Various influences conflicted with this amiable and honourable sentiment. The desire of independence which had speeded him away from England still accompanied him on his return; he had never ceased to regret his marriage, and it seemed to him that, without this legal bondage, it would have been much easier to play a manly part at the time of Nancy's becoming a mother. Were she frankly his mistress, he would not be keeping thus far away when most she needed the consolation of his presence. The secret marriage condemned him to a course of shame, and the more he thought of it, the more he marvelled at his deliberate complicity in such a fraud. When poverty began to make itself felt, when he was actually hampered in his movements by want of money, this form of indignity, more than any galling to his pride, intensified the impatience with which he remembered that he could no longer roam the world as an adventurer. Any day some trivial accident might oppress him with the burden of a wife and child who looked to him for their support. Tarrant the married man, unless he were content to turn simple rogue and vagabond, must make for himself a place in the money-earning world. His indolence had no small part in his revolt against the stress of such a consideration. The climate of the Bahamas by no means tended to invigorate him, and in the United States he found so much to observe,--even to enjoy,--that the necessity of effort was kept out of sight as long as, by one expedient and another, he succeeded in procuring means to live upon without working.
During the homeward voyage--a trial such as he had never known, amid squalid discomforts which enraged even more than they disgusted him--his heart softened in anticipation of a meeting with Nancy, and of the sight of his child. Apart from his fellow-travellers,-- in whom he could perceive nothing but coarseness and vileness,--he spent the hours in longing for England and for the home he would make there, in castigating the flagrant faults of his character, moderating his ambitions, and endeavouring to find a way out of the numerous grave difficulties with which his future was beset.
Landed, he rather forgot than discarded these wholesome meditations. What he had first to do was so very unpleasant, and taxed so rudely his self-respect, that he insensibly fell back again into the rebellious temper. Choice there was none; reaching London with a few shillings in his pocket, of necessity he repaired forthwith to Mr Vawdrey's office in the City, and made known the straits into which he had fallen.
'Now, my dear fellow,' said Mr. Vawdrey, with his usual good-humour, 'how much have you had of me since you started for the Bahamas?'
'That is hardly a fair question,' Tarrant replied, endeavouring not to hang his head like an everyday beggar. 'I went out on a commission--'
'True. But after you ceased to be a commissioner?'
'You have lent me seventy pounds. Living in the States is expensive. What I got for my furniture has gone as well, yet I certainly haven't been extravagant; and for the last month or two I lived like a tramp. Will you make my debt to you a round hundred? It shall be repaid, though I may be a year or two about it.'
The loan was granted, but together with a great deal of unpalatable counsel. Having found his lodging, Tarrant at once invested ten pounds in providing himself with a dress suit, and improving his ordinary attire,--he had sold every garment he could spare in New York. For the dress suit he had an immediate use; on the very platform of Euston Station, at his arrival, a chance meeting with one of his old college friends resulted in an invitation to dine, and, even had not policy urged him to make the most of such acquaintances, he was in no mood for rejecting a summons back into the world of civilisation. Postponing the purposed letter to Nancy (which, had he written it sooner, would have been very unlike the letter he subsequently sent), he equipped himself once more as a gentleman, and spent several very enjoyable hours in looking up the members of his former circle--Hodiernals and others. Only to Harvey Munden did he confide something of the anxieties which lay beneath his assumed lightheartedness. Munden was almost the only man he knew for whom he had a genuine respect.
Renewal of intercourse with people of good social standing made him more than ever fretful in the thought that he had clogged himself with marriage. Whatever Nancy's reply to his announcement that he was home again, he would have read it with discontent. To have the fact forced upon him (a fact he seriously believed it) that his wife could not be depended upon even for elementary generosity of thought, was at this moment especially disastrous; it weighed the balance against his feelings of justice and humanity, hitherto, no matter how he acted, always preponderant over the baser issues of character and circumstance.
He stood leaning upon the parapet of Westminster Bridge, his eyes scanning the dark facade of the Houses of Parliament.
How would the strong, unscrupulous, really ambitious man act in such a case? What was to prevent him from ignoring the fact that he was married, and directing his course precisely as he would have done if poverty had come upon him before his act of supreme foolishness? Journalism must have been his refuge then, as now; but Society would have held out to him the hope of every adventurer--a marriage with some woman whose wealth and connections would clear an upward path in whatever line he chose to follow. Why not abandon to Nancy the inheritance it would degrade him to share, and so purchase back his freedom? The bargain might be made; a strong man would carry it through, and ultimately triumph by daring all risks.
Having wrought himself to this point of insensate revolt, he quitted his musing-station on the bridge, and walked away.
Nancy did not write again. There passed four or five days, and Tarrant, working hard as well as enjoying the pleasures of Society, made up his mind not to see her. He would leave events to take their course. A heaviness of heart often troubled him, but he resisted it, and told himself that he was becoming stronger.
After a long day of writing, he addressed a packet to a certain periodical, and went out to post it. No sooner had he left the house than a woman, who had been about to pass him on the pavement, abruptly turned round and hurriedly walked away. But for this action, he would not have noticed her; as it was, he recognised the figure, and an impulse which allowed of no reflection brought him in a moment to her side. In the ill-lighted street a face could with difficulty be observed, but Nancy's features were unmistakable to the eye that now fell upon them.
'Stop, and let me speak to you,' he exclaimed.
She walked only the more quickly, and he was obliged to take her by the arm.
'What do you want?'
She spoke as if to an insolent stranger, and shook off his grasp.
'If you have nothing to say to me, why are you here?'
'Here? I suppose the streets are free to me?'
'Nothing would bring you to Great College Street if you didn't know that I was living here. Now that we have met, we must talk.'
'I have nothing at all to say to you.'
'Well, then I will talk.--Come this way; there's a quiet place where no one will notice us.'
Nancy kept her eyes resolutely averted from him; he, the while, searched her face with eagerness, as well as the faint rays of the nearest lamp allowed it.
'If you have anything to say, you must say it here.'
'It's no use, then. Go your way, and I'll go mine.'
He turned, and walked slowly in the direction of Dean's Yard. There was the sound of a step behind him, and when he had come into the dark, quiet square, Nancy was there too.
'Better to be reasonable,' said Tarrant, approaching her again. 'I want to ask you why you answered a well-meant letter with vulgar insult?'
'The insult came from you,' she answered, in a shaking voice.
'What did I say that gave you offence?'
'How can you ask such a question? To write in that way after never answering my letter for months, leaving me without a word at such a time, making me think either that you were dead or that you would never let me hear of you again--'
'I told you it was a mere note, just to let you know I was back. I said you should hear more when we met.'
'Very well, we have met. What have you to say for yourself?'
'First of all, this. That you are mistaken in supposing I should ever consent to share your money. The thought was natural to you, no doubt; but I see things from a different point of view.'
His cold anger completely disguised the emotion stirred in him by Nancy's presence. Had he not spoken thus, he must have given way to joy and tenderness. For Nancy seemed more beautiful than the memory he had retained of her, and even at such a juncture she was far from exhibiting the gross characteristics attributed to her by his rebellious imagination.
'Then I don't understand,' were her next words, 'why you wrote to me again at all.'
'There are many things in me that you don't understand, and can't understand.'
'Yes, I think so. That's why I see no use in our talking.'
Tarrant was ashamed of what he had said--a meaningless retort, which covered his inability to speak as his heart prompted.
'At all events I wanted to see you, and it's fortunate you passed just as I was coming out.'
Nancy would not accept the conciliatory phrase.
'I hadn't the least intention of seeing you,' she replied. 'It was a curiosity to know where you lived, nothing else. I shall never forgive you for the way in which you have behaved to me, so you needn't try to explain yourself.'
'Here and now, I should certainly not try. The only thing I will say about myself is, that I very much regret not having made known that you were married to me when plain honesty required it. Now, I look upon it as something over and done with, as far as I am concerned. I shall never benefit by the deception--'
She interrupted him.
'How do you know that I shall benefit by it? How can you tell what has been happening since you last heard from me in America?'
'I have taken it for granted that things are the same.'
'Then you didn't even take measures to have news of me from any one else?'
'What need? I should always have received any letter you sent.'
'You thought it likely that I should appeal to you if I were in difficulties.'
He stood silent, glad of the obscurity which made it needless for him to command his features. At length:
'What is the simple fact? Has your secret been discovered, or not?'
'How does it concern you?'
'Only in this way: that if you are to be dependent upon any one, it must be upon me.'
Nancy gave a scornful laugh.
'That's very generous, considering your position. But happily you can't force me to accept your generosity, any more than I can compel you to take a share of my money.'
'Without the jibe at my poverty,' Tarrant said, 'that is a sufficient answer. As we can't even pretend to be friendly with each other, I am very glad there need be no talk of our future relations. You are provided for, and no doubt will take care not to lose the provision. If ever you prefer to forget that we are legally bound, I shall be no obstacle.'
'I have thought of that,' replied Nancy, after a pause, her voice expressing satisfaction. 'Perhaps we should do better to make the understanding at once. You are quite free; I should never acknowledge you as my husband.'
'You seriously mean it?'
'Do I seem to be joking?'
'Very well. I won't say that I should never acknowledge you as my wife; so far from that, I hold myself responsible whenever you choose to make any kind of claim upon me. But I shall not dream of interfering with your liberty. If ever you wish to write to me, you may safely address to the house at Champion Hill.--And remember always,' he added sternly, 'that it was not I who made such a parting necessary.'
Nancy returned his look through the gloom, and said in like tone:
'I shall do my best never to think of it at all. Fortunately, my time and my thoughts are occupied.'
'How?' Tarrant could not help asking, as she turned away; for her tone implied some special significance in the words.
'You have no right to ask anything whatever about me,' came from Nancy, who was already moving away.
He allowed her to go.
'So it is to be as I wished,' he said to himself, with mock courage. 'So much the better.'
And he went home to a night of misery.