In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part V: Compassed Round
Not long after the disappearance of Fanny French, Mrs. Damerel called one day upon Luckworth Crewe at his office in Farringdon Street. Crewe seldom had business with ladies, and few things could have surprised him more than a visit from this lady in particular, whom he knew so well by name, and regarded with such special interest. She introduced herself as a person wishing to find a good investment for a small capital; but the half-hour's conversation which followed became in the end almost a confidential chat. Mrs. Damerel spoke of her nephew Horace Lord, with whom, she understood, Mr. Crewe was on terms of intimacy; she professed a grave solicitude on his account, related frankly the unhappy circumstances which had estranged the young man from her, and ultimately asked whether Crewe could not make it worth his own while to save Horace from the shoals of idleness, and pilot him into some safe commercial haven. This meeting was the first of many between the fashionable lady and the keen man of affairs. Without a suspicion of how it had come about, Horace Lord presently found himself an informal partner in Crewe's business; he invested only a nominal sum, which might be looked upon as a premium of apprenticeship; but there was an understanding that at the close of the term of tutelage imposed by his father's will, he should have the offer of a genuine partnership on very inviting terms.
Horace was not sorry to enter again upon regular occupation. He had considerably damaged his health in the effort to live up to his ideal of thwarted passion, and could no longer entertain a hope that Fanny's escapade was consistent with innocence. Having learnt how money slips through the fingers of a gentleman with fastidious tastes, he welcomed a prospect of increased resources, and applied himself with some energy to learning his new business. But with Mrs. Damerel he utterly refused to be reconciled, and of his sister he saw very little. Nancy, however, approved the step he had taken, and said she would be content to know that all was well with him.
Upon a Sunday morning, when the church bells had ceased to clang, Luckworth Crewe, not altogether at his ease in garb of flagrant respectability, sat by the fireside of a pleasant little room conversing with Mrs. Damerel. Their subject, as usual at the beginning of talk, was Horace Lord.
'He won't speak of you at all,' said Crewe, in a voice singularly subdued, sympathetic, respectful. 'I have done all I could, short of telling him that I know you. He's very touchy still on that old affair.'
'How would he like it,' asked the lady, 'if you told him that we are acquaintances?'
'Impossible to say. Perhaps it would make no difference one way or another.'
Mrs. Damerel was strikingly, yet becomingly, arrayed. The past year had dealt no less gently with her than its predecessors; if anything, her complexion had gained in brilliancy, perhaps a consequence of the hygienic precautions due to her fear of becoming stout. A stranger, even a specialist in the matter, might have doubted whether the fourth decade lay more than a month or two behind her. So far from seeking to impress her visitor with a pose of social superiority, she behaved to him as though his presence honoured as much as it delighted her; look, tone, bearing, each was a flattery which no obtuseness could fail to apprehend, and Crewe's countenance proved him anything but inappreciative. Hitherto she had spoken and listened with her head drooping in gentle melancholy; now, with a sudden change intended to signify the native buoyancy of her disposition, she uttered a rippling laugh, which showed her excellent teeth, and said prettily:
'Poor boy! I must suffer the penalty of having tried to save him from one of my own sex.--Not,' she added, 'that I foresaw how that poor silly girl would justify my worst fears of her. Perhaps,' her head drooping again, 'I ought to reproach myself with what happened.'
'I don't see that at all,' replied Crewe, whose eyes lost nothing of the exhibition addressed to them. 'Even if you had been the cause of it, which of course you weren't, I should have said you had done the right thing. Every one knew what Fanny French must come to.'
'Isn't it sad? A pretty girl--but so ill brought up, I fear. Can you give me any news of her sister, the one who came here and frightened me so?'
'Oh, she's going on as usual.'
Crewe checked himself, and showed hesitation.
'She almost threatened me,' Mrs. Damerel pursued, with timid sweetness. 'Do you think she is the kind of person to plot any harm against one?'
'She had better not try it on,' said Crewe, in his natural voice. Then, as if recollecting himself, he pursued more softly: 'But I was going to speak of her. You haven't heard that Miss. Lord has taken a position in the new branch of that Dress Supply Association?'
Mrs. Damerel kept an astonished silence.
'There can't be any doubt of it; I have been told on the best authority. She is in what they call the "club-room," a superintendent. It's a queer thing; what can have led her to it?'
'I must make inquiries,' said Mrs. Damerel, with an air of concern. 'How sad it is, Mr. Crewe, that these young relatives of mine,-- almost the only relatives I have,--should refuse me their confidence and their affection. Pray, does Horace know of what his sister is doing?'
'I thought I wouldn't speak to him about it until I had seen you.'
'How very kind! How grateful I am to you for your constant thoughtfulness!'
Why Crewe should have practised such reticence, why it signified kindness and thoughtfulness to Mrs. Damerel, neither he nor she could easily have explained. But their eyes met, with diffident admiration on the one side, and touching amiability on the other. Then they discussed Nancy's inexplicable behaviour from every point of view; or rather, Mrs. Damerel discussed it, and her companion made a pretence of doing so. Crewe's manner had become patently artificial; he either expressed himself in trivial phrases, which merely avoided silence, or betrayed an embarrassment, an abstraction, which caused the lady to observe him with all the acuteness at her command.
You haven't seen her lately?' she asked, when Crewe had been staring at the window for a minute or two.
'Seen her?--No; not for a long time.'
'I think you told me you haven't called there since Mr. Lord's death?'
'I never was there at all,' he answered abruptly.
'Oh, I remember your saying so. Of course there is no reason why she shouldn't go into business, if time is heavy on her hands, as I dare say it may be. So many ladies prefer to have an occupation of that kind now-a-days. It's a sign of progress; we are getting more sensible; Society used to have such silly prejudices. Even within my recollection--how quickly things change!--no lady would have dreamt of permitting her daughter to take an engagement in a shop or any such place. Now we have women of title starting as milliners and modistes, and soon it will be quite a common thing to see one's friends behind the counter.'
She gave a gay little laugh, in which Crewe joined unmelodiously,-- for he durst not be merry in the note natural to him,--then raised her eyes in playful appeal.
'If ever I should fall into misfortune, Mr. Crewe, would you put me in the way of earning my living.'
'You couldn't. You're above all that kind of thing. It's for the rough and ready sort of women, and I can't say I have much opinion of them.'
'That's a very nice little compliment; but at the same time, it's rather severe on the women who are practical.--Tell me frankly: Is my--my niece one of the people you haven't much opinion of?'
Crewe shuffled his feet.
'I wasn't thinking of Miss. Lord.'
'But what is really your opinion of her?' Mrs. Damerel urged softly.
Crewe looked up and down, smiled in a vacant way, and appeared very uncomfortable.
'May I guess the truth?' said his playful companion.
'No, I'll tell you. I wanted to marry her, and did my best to get her to promise.'
'I thought so!' She paused on the note of arch satisfaction, and mused. 'How nice of you to confess!--And that's all past and forgotten, is it?'
Never man more unlike himself than the bold advertising-agent in this colloquy. He was subdued and shy; his usual racy and virile talk had given place to an insipid mildness. He seemed bent on showing that the graces of polite society were not so strange to him as one might suppose. But under Mrs. Damerel's interrogation a restiveness began to appear in him, and at length he answered in his natural blunt voice:
'Yes, it's all over--and for a good reason.'
The lady's curiosity was still more provoked.
'No,' she exclaimed laughingly, 'I am not going to ask the reason. That would be presuming too far on friendship.'
Crewe fixed his eyes on a corner of the room, and seemed to look there for a solution of some difficulty. When the silence had lasted more than a minute, he began to speak slowly and awkwardly.
'I've half a mind to--in fact, I've been thinking that you ought to know.'
'The good reason?'
'Yes. You're the only one that could stand in the place of a mother to her. And I don't think she ought to be living alone, like she is, with no one to advise and help her.'
'I have felt that very strongly,' said Mrs. Damerel. 'The old servant who is with her can't be at all a suitable companion--that is, to be treated on equal terms. A very strange arrangement, indeed. But you don't mean that you thought less well of her because she is living in that way?'
'Of course not. It's something a good deal more serious than that.'
Mrs. Damerel became suddenly grave.
'Then I certainly ought to know.'
'You ought. I think it very likely she would have been glad enough to make a friend of you, if it hadn't been for this--this affair, which stood in the way. There can't be any harm in telling you, as you couldn't wish anything but her good.'
'That surely you may take for granted.'
'Well then, I have an idea that she's trying to earn money because some one is getting all he can out of her--leaving her very little for herself; and if so, it's time you interfered.'
The listener was so startled that she changed colour.
'You mean that some man has her in his power?'
'If I'm not mistaken, it comes to that. But for her father's will, she would have been married long ago, and--she ought to be.'
Having blurted out these words, Crewe felt much more at ease. As Mrs. Damerel's eyes fell, the sense of sexual predominance awoke in him, and he was no longer so prostrate before the lady's natural and artificial graces.
'How do you know this?' she asked, in an undertone.
'From some one who had it from Miss. Lord herself.'
'Are you quite sure that it isn't a malicious falsehood?'
'As sure as I am that I sit here. I know the man's name, and where he lives, and all about him. And I know where the child is at nurse.
A genuine agitation possessed her; she had a frightened, pain-stricken look, and moved as if she must act without delay.
'It's nearly six months old,' Crewe continued. 'Of course that's why she was away so long.'
'But why haven't you told me this before? It was your duty to tell me--your plain duty. How long have you known?'
'I heard of it first of all about three months ago, but it was only the other day that I was told the man's name, and other things about him.'
'Is it known to many people? Is the poor girl talked about?'
'No, no,' Crewe replied, with confidence. 'The person who told me is the only one who has found it out; you may depend upon that.'
'It must be a woman,' said Mrs. Damerel sharply.
'Yes, it's a woman. Some one I know very well. She told me just because she thought I was still hoping to marry Miss. Lord, and-- well, the truth is, though we're good friends, she has a little spite against me, and I suppose it amused her to tell me something disagreeable.'
'I have no doubt,' said Mrs. Damerel, 'that the secret has been betrayed to a dozen people.'
'I'll go bail it hasn't!' returned Crewe, falling into his vernacular.
'I can hardly believe it at all. I should never have dreamt that such a thing was possible. What is the man's name? what is his position?'
'Tarrant is his name, and he's related somehow to a Mr. Vawdrey, well known in the City, who has a big house over at Champion Hill. I have no notion how they came together, or how long it was going on. But this Mr. Tarrant has been in America for a year, I understand; has only just come back; and now he's living In poorish lodgings,-- Great College Street, Westminster. I've made a few inquiries about him, but I can't get at very much. A man who knows Vawdrey tells me that Tarrant has no means, and that he's a loafing, affected sort of chap. If that's true,--and it seems likely from the way he's living,--of course he will be ready enough to marry Miss. Lord when the proper time has come; I'm only afraid that's all he had in view from the first. And I can't help suspecting, as I said, that she's supporting him now. If not, why should she go and work in a shop? At all events, a decent man wouldn't allow her to do it.'
'A decent man,' said the listener, 'would never have allowed her to fall into disgrace.'
'Certainly not,' Crewe assented with energy. 'And as for my keeping quiet about it, Mrs. Damerel, you've only to think what an awkward affair it was to mention. I'm quite sure you'll have a little feeling against me, because I knew of it--'
'I beg you not to think that!' She returned to her manner of suave friendliness. 'I shall owe you gratitude for telling me, and nothing but gratitude. You have behaved with very great delicacy; I cannot say how highly I appreciate your feeling on the poor girl's behalf.'
'If I can be of any use, I am always at your service.'
'Thank you, dear Mr. Crewe, thank you! In you I have found a real friend,--and how rarely they are met with! Of course I shall make inquiries at once. My niece must be protected. A helpless girl in that dreadful position may commit unheard-of follies. I fear you are right. He is making her his victim. With such a secret, she is absolutely at his mercy. And it explains why she has shunned me. Oh, do you think her brother knows it?'
'I'm quite sure he doesn't; hasn't the least suspicion.'
'Of course not. But it's wonderful how she has escaped. Your informant--how did she find it out? You say she had the story from the girl's own lips. But why? She must have shown that she knew something.'
Crewe imparted such details as had come to his knowledge; they were meagre, and left many obscurities, but Mrs. Damerel rewarded him with effusive gratitude, and strengthened the spell which she had cast upon this knight of Farringdon Street.