In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part V: Compassed Round
It was not yet dark, but street-lamps had begun to flare and flicker in the gust of a cold, damp evening. A thin and slippery mud smeared the pavement. Tarrant had walked mechanically as far as to the top of Park Lane before he began to consider his immediate course. Among the people who stood waiting for omnibuses, he meditated thus:
'She may not get home until seven or half-past; then she will have a meal. I had better put it off till about half-past eight. That leaves me some four hours to dispose of. First of all I'll walk home, and--yes, by all the devils! I'll finish that bit of writing. A year ago I could no more have done it, under such circumstances, than have built a suspension bridge. To-day I will-- just to show that I've some grit in me.'
Down Park Lane, and by Buckingham Palace across to Westminster, he kept his thoughts for the most part on that bit of writing. Only thus could he save himself from an access of fury which would only have injured him--the ire of shame in which a man is tempted to beat his head against stone walls. He composed aloud, balancing many a pretty antithesis, and polishing more than one lively paradox.
In his bedroom-study the fire had gone out. No matter; he would write in the cold. It was mere amanuensis work, penning at the dictation of his sarcastic demon. Was he a sybarite? Many a poor scribbler has earned bed and breakfast with numb fingers. The fire in his body would serve him for an hour or two.
So he sat down, and achieved his task to the last syllable. He read it through, corrected it, made it up for post, and rose with the plaudits of conscience. 'Who shall say now that I am a fop and a weakling?'
Half-past seven. Good; just time enough to appease his hunger and reach Grove Lane by the suitable hour. He went out to the little coffee-shop which was his resort in Spartan moods, ate with considerable appetite, and walked over Westminster Bridge to the Camberwell tram. To kill time on the journey he bought a halfpenny paper.
As he ascended Grove Lane his heart throbbed more than the exercise warranted. At the door of the house, which he had never yet entered, and which he had not looked upon for more than a year, he stood to calm himself, with lips set and cheek pale in the darkness. Then a confident peal at the knocker.
It was Mary who opened. He had never seen her, but knew that this grave, hard-featured person, not totally unlike a born gentlewoman, must be Mary Woodruff. And in her eyes he read a suspicion of his own identity.
'Is Miss. Lord at home?' he asked, in a matter-of-fact way.
'Yes.--What name shall I mention?'
Her eyes fell, and she requested him to enter, to wait in the hall for a moment; then went upstairs. She was absent for a few minutes, and on returning asked him to follow her. She led to the dawing-room: on the way, Tarrant felt a surprise that in so small a house the drawing-room should be correctly situated on the upper floor.
Here he had again to wait. A comfortable room, he thought, and with a true air of home about it. He knew how significant is this impression first received on entering a strange abode; home or encampment, attraction or repulsion, according to the mind of the woman who rules there. Was it Nancy, or Mary, who made the atmosphere of the house?
The door opened, and he faced towards it.
Nancy's dress had an emphasis of fashion formerly unknown to it; appropriate enough considering her new occupation. The flush upon her cheeks, the light of doubtful meaning in her eyes, gave splendour to a beauty matured by motherhood. In the dark street, a fortnight ago, Tarrant could hardly be said to have seen her; he gazed in wonder and admiration.
'What has brought you here?'
'A cause quite sufficient.--This is a little house; can we talk without being overheard?'
'You can shout if you wish to,' she answered flippantly. 'The servant is Out, and Mary is downstairs.'
Nancy did not seat herself, and offered no seat to the visitor.
'Why have you made yourself a shop-girl?'
'I didn't know that I had.'
'I am told you go daily to some shop or other.'
'I am engaged at a place of business, but I don't.--However, that doesn't matter. What business is it of yours?'
'Who is Mr. Luckworth Crewe?'
Nancy kept her eyes still more resolutely fronting his severe look.
'A man I used to know.'
'You don't see him now-a-days?'
'It's many months since I saw him.'
'Who, then, is the woman who has told him your whole story--with embellishments, and who says she has had it from you yourself?'
Nancy was speechless.
'I don't say there is any such person,' Tarrant continued. 'The man may have lied in that particular. But he has somehow got to know a good deal about you,--where and when your child was born, where it is now, where I live, and so on. And all this he has reported to your aunt, Mrs. Damerel.'
'To her?--How do you know?'
For answer he held out Mrs. Damerel's note of invitation, then added:
'I have been with her this afternoon. She is coming to offer you her protection against the scoundrel who has ruined you, and who is now living upon you.'
'What do you mean?'
'That's the form the story has taken, either in Mr. Crewe's mind, or in that of the woman who told it to him.'
'Don't they know that I am married?'
'And they think you--are having money from me?'
'That's how they explain your taking a place in a shop.'
Nancy laughed, and laughed again.
'I'm glad you can get amusement out of it. Perhaps you can suggest how the joke began?'
She moved a few steps, then turned again to him.
'Yes, I know who the woman must be. It's Beatrice French.'
'A bosom friend of yours, of course.'
'Nothing of the kind.'
'But you have taken her into your confidence--up to a certain point?'
'Yes, I have told her. And she told Mr. Crewe? I understand that. Well, what does it matter?'
Tarrant was at a loss to interpret this singular levity. He had never truly believed that reading of Nancy's character by means of which he tried to persuade himself that his marriage was an unmitigated calamity, and a final parting between them the best thing that could happen. His memories of her, and the letters she had written him, coloured her personality far otherwise. Yet was not the harsh judgment after all the true one?
'It doesn't matter to you,' he said, 'that people think you an unmarried mother,--that people are talking about you with grins and sneers?'
Nancy reddened in angry shame.
'Let them talk!' she exclaimed violently. 'What does it matter, so long as they don't know I'm married?'
'So long as they don't know?--How came you to tell this woman?'
'Do you suppose I told her for amusement? She found out what had happened at Falmouth,--found out simply by going down there and making inquiries; because she suspected me of some secret affair with a man she wants to marry herself--this Mr. Crewe. The wonder of wonders is that no one else got to know of it in that way. Any one who cared much what happened to me would have seen the all but impossibility of keeping such a secret.'
It is a notable instance of evolutionary process that the female mind, in wrath, flies to just those logical ineptitudes which most surely exasperate the male intelligence. Tarrant gave a laugh of irate scorn.
'Why, you told me the other day that I cared particularly whether your secret was discovered or not--that I only married you in the hope of profiting by it?'
'Wouldn't any woman think so?'
'I hope not. I believe there are some women who don't rush naturally to a base supposition.'
'Did I?' Nancy exclaimed, with a vehement passion that made her breast heave. 'Didn't I give you time enough--believe in you until I could believe no longer?'
The note of her thrilling voice went to Tarrant's heart, and his head drooped.
'That may be true,' he said gravely. 'But go on with your explanation. This woman came to you, and told you what she had discovered?'
'And you allowed her to think you unmarried?'
'What choice had I? How was my child to be brought up if I lost everything?'
'Good God, Nancy! Did you imagine I should leave you to starve?'
His emotion, his utterance of her name, caused her to examine him with a kind of wonder.
'How did I know?--How could I tell, at that time, whether you were alive or dead?--I had to think of myself and the child.'
'My poor girl!'
The words fell from him involuntarily. Nancy's look became as scornful and defiant as before.
'Oh, that was nothing. I've gone through a good deal more than that.'
'Stop. Tell me this. Have you in your anger--anger natural enough --allowed yourself to speak to any one about me in the way I should never forgive? In the spirit of your letter, I mean. Did you give this Beatrice French any ground for thinking that I made a speculation of you?'
'I said nothing of that kind.'
'Nor to any one else?'
'To no one.'
'Yet you told this woman where I was living, and that I had been abroad for a long time. Why?'
'Yes, I told her so much about you,' Nancy replied. 'Not when she first came to me, but afterwards--only the other day. I wanted employment, and didn't know how to get it, except through her. She promised me a place if I would disclose your name; not that she knew or cared anything about you, but because she still had suspicions about Mr. Crewe. I was desperate, and I told her.'
'How can I make you understand what I have gone through? What do you care? And what do I care whether you understand or not? It wasn't for money, and Beatrice French knew it wasn't.'
'Then it must have been that you could not bear the monotony of your life.'
Her answer was a short, careless laugh.
'Where is this shop? What do you do?'
'It's a dress-supply association. I advise fools about the fashions, and exhibit myself as a walking fashion-plate. I can't see how it should interest you.'
'Whatever concerns you, Nancy, interests me more than anything else in the world.'
Again she laughed.
'What more do you want to know?'
She was half turned from him, leaning at the mantelpiece, a foot on the fender.
'You said just now that you have gone through worse things than the shame of being thought unmarried. Tell me about it all.'
'Not I, indeed. When I was willing to tell you everything, you didn't care to hear it. It's too late now.'
'It's not too late, happily, to drag you out of this wretched slough into which you are sinking. Whatever the cost, that shall be done!'
'Thank you, I am not disposed to let any one drag me anywhere. I want no help; and if I did, you would be the last person I should accept it from. I don't know why you came here after the agreement we made the other night.'
Tarrant stepped towards her.
'I came to find out whether you were telling lies about me, and I should never have thought it possible but for my bad conscience. I know you had every excuse for being embittered and for acting revengefully. It seems you have only told lies about yourself. As, after all, you are my wife, I shan't allow that.'
Once more she turned upon him passionately.
'I am not your wife! You married me against your will, and shook me off as soon as possible. I won't be bound to you; I shall act as a free woman.'
'Bound to me you are, and shall be--as I to you.'
'You may say it fifty times, and it will mean nothing.--How bound to you? Bound to share my money?'
'I forgive you that, because I have treated you ill. You don't mean it either. You know I am incapable of such a thought. But that shall very soon be put right. Your marriage shall be made known at once.'
'Known to whom?'
'To the people concerned--to your guardians.'
'Don't trouble yourself,' she answered, with a smile. 'They know it already.'
Tarrant half closed his eyes as he looked at her.
'What's the use of such a silly falsehood?'
'I told you I had gone through a good deal more than you imagined. I have struggled to keep my money, in spite of shames and miseries, and I will have it for myself--and my child! If you want to know the truth, go to Samuel Barmby, and ask him what he has had to do with me. I owe no explanation to you.'
Tarrant could see her face only in profile. Marvelling at the complications she gradually revealed, he felt his blood grow warm with desire of her beauty. She was his wife, yet guarded as by maidenhood. A familiar touch would bring the colour to her cheeks, the light of resentment to her eyes. Passion made him glad of the estrangement which compelled a new wooing, and promised, on her part, a new surrender.
'You don't owe it me, Nancy; but if I beg you to tell me all-- because I have come to my senses again--because I know how foolish and cruel I have been--'
'Remember what we agreed. Go your way, and let me go mine.'
'I had no idea of what I was agreeing to. I took it for granted that your marriage was strictly a secret, and that you might be free in the real sense if you chose.'
'Yes, and you were quite willing, because it gave you your freedom as well. I am as free as I wish to be. I have made a life for myself that satisfies me--and now you come to undo everything. I won't be tormented--I have endured enough.'
'Then only one course is open to me. I shall publish your marriage everywhere. I shall make a home for you, and have the child brought to it; then come or not, as you please.'
At mention of the child Nancy regarded him with cold curiosity.
'How are you to make a home for me? I thought you had difficulty enough in supporting yourself.'
'That is no concern of yours. It shall be done, and in a day or two. Then make your choice.'
'You think I can be forced to live with a man I don't love?'
'I shouldn't dream of living with a woman who didn't love me. But you are married, and a mother, and the secrecy that is degrading you shall come to an end. Acknowledge me or not, I shall acknowledge you, and make it known that I am to blame for all that has happened.'
'And what good will you do?'
'I shall do good to myself, at all events. I'm a selfish fellow, and shall be so to the end, no doubt.'
Nancy glanced at him to interpret the speech by his expression. He was smiling.
'What good will it do you to have to support me? The selfishness I see in it is your wishing to take me from a comfortable home and make me poor.'
'That can't be helped. And, what's more, you won't think it a hardship.'
'How do you know that? I have borne dreadful degradations rather than lose my money.'
'That was for the child's sake, not for your own.'
He said it softly and kindly, and for the first time Nancy met his eyes without defiance.
'It was; I could always have earned my own living, somehow.'
Tarrant paused a moment, then spoke with look averted.
'Is he well, and properly cared for?'
'If he were not well and safe, I shouldn't be away from him.'
'When will you let me see him, Nancy?'
She did not smile, but there was a brightening of her countenance, which she concealed. Tarrant stepped to her side.
'Dear--my own love--will you try to forgive me? It was all my cursed laziness. It would never have happened if I hadn't fallen into poverty. Poverty is the devil, and it overcame me.'
'How can you think that I shall be strong enough to face it?' she asked, moving half a step away. 'Leave me to myself; I am contented; I have made up my mind about what is before me, and I won't go through all that again.'
Tired of standing, she dropped upon the nearest chair, and lay back.
'You can't be contented, Nancy, in a position that dishonours you. From what you tell me, it seems that your secret is no secret at all. Will you compel me to go to that man Barmby and seek information from him about my own wife?'
'I have had to do worse things than that.'
'Don't torture me by such vague hints. I entreat you to tell me at once the worst that you have suffered. How did Barmby get to know of your marriage? And why has he kept silent about it? There can't be anything that you are ashamed to say.'
'No. The shame is all yours.'
'I take it upon myself, all of it; I ought never to have left you; but that baseness followed only too naturally on the cowardice which kept me from declaring our marriage when honour demanded it. I have played a contemptible part in this story; don't refuse to help me now that I am ready to behave more like a man. Put your hand in mine, and let us be friends, if we mayn't be more.'
She sat irresponsive.
'You were a brave girl. You consented to my going away because it seemed best, and I took advantage of your sincerity. Often enough that last look of yours has reproached me. I wonder how I had the heart to leave you alone.'
Nancy raised herself, and said coldly:
'It was what I might have expected. I had only my own folly to thank. You behaved as most men would.'
This was a harder reproach than any yet. Tarrant winced under it. He would much rather have been accused of abnormal villainy.
'And I was foolish,' continued Nancy, 'in more ways than you knew. You feared I had told Jessica Morgan of our marriage, and you were right; of course I denied it. She has been the cause of my worst trouble.'
In rapid sentences she told the story of her successive humiliations, recounted her sufferings at the hands of Jessica and Beatrice and Samuel Barmby. When she ceased, there were tears in her eyes.
'Has Barmby been here again?' Tarrant asked sternly.
'Yes. He has been twice, and talked in just the same way, and I had to sit still before him--'
'Has he said one word that--?'
'No, no,' she interrupted hastily. 'He's only a fool--not man enough to--'
'That saves me trouble,' said Tarrant; 'I have only to treat him like a fool. My poor darling, what vile torments you have endured! And you pretend that you would rather live on this fellow's interested generosity--for, of course, he hopes to be rewarded-- than throw the whole squalid entanglement behind you and be a free, honest woman, even if a poor one?'
'I see no freedom.'
'You have lost all your love for me. Well, I can't complain of that. But bear my name you shall, and be supported by me. I tell you that it was never possible for me actually to desert you and the little one--never possible. I shirked a duty as long as I could; that's all it comes to. I loafed and paltered until the want of a dinner drove me into honesty. Try to forget it, dear Nancy. Try to forgive me, my dearest!'
She was dry-eyed again, and his appeal seemed to have no power over her emotions.
'You are forgetting,' she said practically, 'that I have lived on money to which I had no right, and that I--or you--can be forced to repay it.'
'Repaid it must be, whether demanded or not. Where does Barmby live? Perhaps I could see him to-night.'
'What means have you of keeping us all alive?'
'Some of my work has been accepted here and there; but there's something else I have in mind. I don't ask you to become a poverty-stricken wife in the ordinary way. I can't afford to take a house. I must put you, with the child, into as good lodgings as I can hope to pay for, and work on by myself, just seeing you as often as you will let me. Even if you were willing, it would be a mistake for us to live together. For one thing, I couldn't work under such conditions; for another, it would make you a slave. Tell me: are you willing to undertake the care of the child, if nothing else is asked of you?'
Nancy gave him a disdainful smile, a smile like those of her girlhood.
'I'm not quite so feeble a creature as you think me.'
'You would rather have the child to yourself, than be living away from him?'
'If you have made up your mind, why trouble to ask such questions?'
'Because I have no wish to force burdens upon you. You said just now that you could see little prospect of freedom in such a life as I have to offer you. I thought you perhaps meant that the care of the child would--'
'I meant nothing,' Nancy broke in, with fretful impatience.
'Where is he--our boy?'
'At Dulwich. I told you that in my last letter.'
'Yes--yes. I thought you might have changed.'
'I couldn't have found a better, kinder woman. Can you guess how many answers I had to the advertisement? Thirty-two.'
'Of course five-and-twenty of them took it for granted you would pay so much a week and ask no questions. They would just not have starved the baby,--unless you had hinted to them that you were willing to pay a lump sum for a death-certificate, in which case the affair would have been more or less skilfully managed.'
'Mary knew all about that. She came from Falmouth, and spent two days in visiting people. I knew I could rely on her judgment. There were only four or five people she cared to see at all, and of these only one that seemed trustworthy.'
'To be sure. One out of two-and-thirty. A higher percentage than would apply to mankind at large, I dare say. By-the-bye, I was afraid you might have found a difficulty in registering the birth.'
'No. I went to the office myself, the morning that I was leaving Falmouth, and the registrar evidently knew nothing about me. It isn't such a small place that everybody living there is noticed and talked of.'
'And Mary took the child straight to Dulwich?'
'Two days before I came,--so as to have the house ready for me.
'Perhaps it was unfortunate, Nancy, that you had so good a friend. But for that, I should have suffered more uneasiness about you.'
She answered with energy:
'There is no husband in the world worth such a friend as Mary.'
At this Tarrant first smiled, then laughed. Nancy kept her lips rigid. It happened that he again saw her face in exact profile, and again it warmed the current of his blood.
'Some day you shall think better of that.'
She paid no attention. Watching her, he asked:
'What are you thinking of so earnestly?'
Her answer was delayed a little, but she said at length, with an absent manner:
'Horace might lend me the money to pay back what I owe.'
'Your brother?--If he can afford it, there would be less objection to that than to any other plan I can think of. But I must ask it myself; you shall beg no more favours. I will ask it in your presence.'
'You will do nothing of the kind,' Nancy replied drily. 'If you think to please me by humiliating yourself, you are very much mistaken. And you mustn't imagine that I put myself into your hands to be looked after as though I had no will of my own. With the past you have nothing to do,--with my past, at all events. Care for the future as you like.'
'But I must see your guardians.'
'No. I won't have that.'
She stood up to emphasise her words.
'I must. It's the only way in which I can satisfy myself--'
'Then I refuse to take a step,' said Nancy. 'Leave all that to me, and I will go to live where you please, and never grumble, however poor I am. Interfere, and I will go on living as now, on Samuel Barmby's generosity.'
There was no mistaking her resolution. Tarrant hesitated, and bit his lip.
'How long, then, before you act?' he inquired abruptly.
'When my new home is found, I am ready to go there.'
'You will deal honestly with me? You will tell every one, and give up everything not strictly yours?'
'I have done with lies,' said Nancy.
'Thank heaven, so have I!'