In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part VI: A Virtue of Necessity
Upon the final tempest in De Crespigny Park there followed, for Arthur Peachey, a calmer and happier season than he had ever known. To have acted with stern resolve is always a satisfaction, especially to the man conscious of weak good-nature, and condemned for the most part to yield. In his cheap lodging at Clapham, Peachey awoke each morning with a vague sense of joy, which became delight as soon as he had collected his senses. He was a free man. No snarl greeted him as he turned his head upon the pillow; he could lie and meditate, could rise quietly when the moment sounded, could go downstairs to a leisurely meal, cheered perhaps by a letter reporting that all was well with his dear little son. Simple, elementary pleasures, but how he savoured them after his years of sordid bondage!
It was the blessedness of divorce, without squalid publicity. It was the vast relief of widowerhood, without dreary memories of death and burial.
In releasing himself from such companionship, the man felt as though he had washed and become clean.
Innocent of scientific speculation, he had the misfortune about this time to read in paper or magazine something on the subject of heredity, the idle verbiage of some half-informed scribbler. It set him anxiously thinking whether his son would develop the vices of the mother's mind, and from that day he read all the printed chatter regarding natural inheritance that he could lay his hands on. The benefit he derived from this course of study was neither more nor less than might have been expected; it supplied him with a new trouble, which sometimes kept him wakeful. He could only resolve that his boy should have the best education procurable for money, if he starved himself in providing it.
He had begun to live with the utmost economy, and for a twofold reason: the business of Messrs Ducker, Blunt & Co. threatened a decline, and, this apart, he desired to get out of it, to obtain an interest in some more honourable concern. For a long time it had been known to him that the disinfectants manufactured by his firm were far from trustworthy, and of late the complaints of purchasers had become frequent. With the manufacturing department he had nothing to do; he tried to think himself free from responsibility; for, in spite of amiable qualities, he was a man of business, and saw a great part of life through the commercial spectacles commonly worn now-a-days. Nevertheless conscience unsettled him. One day he heard his partners joking over the legislative omission by virtue of which they were able to adulterate their disinfectants to any extent without fear of penalty; their laughter grated upon him, and he got out of the way. If he could lay aside a few thousands of pounds, assuredly his connection with the affair should be terminated. So he lived, for his own part, on a pound a week, and informed Ada through his solicitor that she must be satisfied with a certain very moderate allowance.
Mrs. Peachey naturally laid herself out to give every one as much trouble as possible. Insulting post-cards showered upon her husband at his place of business. After a few weeks she discovered his lodging, and addressed the post-cards thither; but she made no attempt at personal molestation. The loss of her child gave her not the slightest concern, yet she determined to find out where the boy was living. She remembered that Peachey had relatives at Canterbury, and after a troublesome search succeeded in her purpose. An interview with her husband's married sister proved so unsatisfactory to Ada, that she had recourse to her familiar weapons, rage, insult, and menace; with the result that she was forcibly removed, and made a scandal in the quiet street.
Then she consulted men of law, and found one who encouraged her to sue for restitution of conjugal rights. It came to nothing, however; for in the meantime she was growing tired of her solitary existence, --friends of course she had none,--and the spirit moved her to try a change of tactics.
She wrote a long, long letter, penitent, tear-bestained. 'I have behaved outrageously to you, dearest Arthur; I must have been mad to say and do such things. The doctor tells me that my health has been in a very bad state for a long time, and I really don't remember half that has happened. You were quite right when you told me that I should be better if I didn't live such an idle life, and I have quite, quite made up my mind to be an industrious and a good woman. All yesterday I spent in needlework and crying. Oh, the tears that I have shed! My darling husband, what can I do to win your forgiveness? Do consider how lonely I am in this house. Beatrice has been horrid to me. If I said all I think about her, she wouldn't like to hear it; but I am learning to control my tongue. She lives alone in a flat, and has men to spend every evening with her; it's disgraceful! And there's Fanny, who I am sure is leading an immoral life abroad. Of course I shall never speak to her again. You were quite right when you said my sisters were worthless.'--Peachey had never permitted himself any such remark.--'I will have no one but you, my dear, good, sweet husband.'
So on, over several pages. Reading it, the husband stood aghast at this new revelation of female possibilities; at the end, he hurriedly threw it into the fire, fearing, and with good reason, that weakness in his own character to which the woman addressed herself.
Every day for a week there arrived a replica of this epistle, and at length he answered. It was the fatal concession. Though he wrote with almost savage severity, Ada replied in terms of exuberant gratitude. Oh, how delighted she was to see his dear handwriting once more! How it reminded her of happy days, when they loved each other so tenderly! Then came two strophes of a sentimental drawing-room song, and lastly, an impassioned appeal to be allowed to see her husband, were it only for five minutes.
Another week of such besieging, and the poor fellow's foolish heart gave way. He would see the wretched woman, and tell her that, though never could he consent to live with her again, he had no malicious feeling, and was willing to be her friend at a distance. So, at six o'clock one evening, behold him tremulously approaching the house in De Crespigny Park,--tremulously, because he dreaded the assault upon his emotions to which he so recklessly exposed himself. He was admitted by a very young servant, in a very clean cap and apron. Silence possessed the dwelling; he did not venture to tread with natural step. He entered the drawing-room, and there, from amid a heap of household linen which required the needle, rose the penitent wife. Ostentatiously she drew from her finger a thimble, then advanced with head bent.
'How kind of you, Arthur! How--how very--'
And she was dissolved in tears--so genuine, that they marked pale rillets across the bloom of her cheeks.
About a month after that the furniture was removed from De Crespigny Park to a much smaller house at Brixton, where Mr. and Mrs. Peachey took up their abode together. A medical man shortly called, and Ada, not without secret disgust, smilingly made known to her husband that she must now be very careful of her health.
On one point only the man had held to a rational resolve; he would not allow his little son to be brought back to London, away from the home where he was happy and thriving. Out of mere self-will Ada strove for a long time to overcome this decision; finding argument and artifice of no avail, she dropped the matter. Peachey owed this triumph largely to the firm commonsense of his sister, who plainly refused to let the little fellow quit her care for that of such a woman as he was unfortunate enough to call mother.
Christmas came, and with it an unanticipated call from Miss. Fanny French, who said she had lately recovered from a serious illness in Paris; the nature of her malady she did not specify; it had left her haggard and thin, but by no means deficient in vivacity. She was dressed with tawdry extravagance, wore a mass of false yellow hair, had her eyebrows dyed black,--piquant contrast,--and her cheeks and lips richly carmined. No veritable information as to her past and present could be gleaned from the mixture of French and English which she ceaselessly gabbled. She had come over for Christmas, that was all; could not dream of returning to live in wretched England. At Brussels and in Paris she had made hosts of friends, just the right sort of people.
Ada told her all the news. Of most interest was that which related to Nancy Lord. Only a month ago it had become known that Nancy was married, and the mother of a child.
'The Barmbys found it out somehow,' Ada narrated. 'She was married to a man called Tarrant, some one we never heard of, on the very day of her father's death, and, of course, before she knew anything about his will. Then, of course, it had to be kept dark, or she'd lose all her money. Her husband hadn't a farthing. She supported him, and they say he lived most of the time in her house. He's a regular scamp, a drinking, betting fellow. Well, it all came out, and the Barmbys turned her into the street at a moment's notice-- serve her right!'
Fanny shrieked with merriment.
'And what is she doing?'
'She went on her knees to Beatrice, and begged for a place at the shop, if it was only a few shillings a week. Nice come-down for Nancy Lord, wasn't it? Of course Beatrice sent her off with a flea in her ear. I don't know where she's living, but I've heard that her husband has gone to America, and left her to shift for herself, now there's nothing more to be got out of her.'
For supplementary details of this racy narrative, Fanny sought out Beatrice; but to her astonishment and annoyance Beatrice would tell nothing. The elder sister urged Fanny to give an account of herself, and used some very plain speech of the admonitory kind.
'What has become of that jackanapes, Horace Lord?' asked Fanny, after a contemptuous remark about 'sermons.'
'I don't know. The question is, what's going to become of you?'
Whereupon the girl grew vituperative in two languages, and made off. Her relatives saw no more of her for a long time.
To Mrs. Peachey was born a daughter. Naturally, the months preceding this event had been, for her husband, a renewal of martyrdom; his one supporting solace lay in the thought of the little lad at Canterbury. All the old troubles were revived; from morning to night the house rang with brawls between mistress and servants; in the paroxysms favoured by her physical condition, Ada behaved like a candidate for Bedlam, and more than once obliged her husband to seek temporary peace in lodgings. He left home at eight o'clock every morning, and returned as late as possible. The necessity of passing long evenings made him haunt places of entertainment, and he sometimes had recourse to drink,--he by nature the soberest of men,--in fear of what awaited him on his tardy appearance at Brixton. A month after Ada's confinement he once more acted a sane part, and announced by letter that he would die rather than continue living with his wife. As it was fine autumn weather he went down to a seaside place, where his Canterbury relatives and the little boy joined him for a holiday of several weeks. Again Ada was to receive an allowance. She despatched a few very virulent post-cards, but presently grew quiet, and appeared to accept the situation.
In early winter Fanny French came over to England. She had again been ill, and this time with results obviously graver. Her first call was upon Beatrice, who still occupied the flat at Brixton, and here she unbosomed herself of a dolorous story. All her money had vanished; stolen, most of it, Fanny declared; she was without resources, and, as any one could see, in a wretched state of health. Would Beatrice have compassion on her? Would she lend her money till she was well enough to 'look round'?
Miss. French at once took the girl into her own home, and had her looked after. Fanny coughed in an alarming way; the doctor, speaking privately with Beatrice, made an unpleasant report; was it possible to send the patient to a mild climate for the winter months? Yes, Miss. French could manage that, and would. A suitable attendant having been procured, Fanny was despatched to Bournemouth, whence, in a day or two, she wrote to her sister thus:
'You've been awfully kind to me, and I shan't forget it when I'm well again. Feel a good deal fitter already. Dullish place this, but I've got to put up with it. I've had a letter from Ada. If you see her, tell her she's a beast, and I wish Arthur would wring her scraggy neck. She says it's all my own fault; wait till I'm back again, and I'll pay her a call. My own fault indeed! It seems to me I'm very much to be pitied.'
Walking one day along the sea-front by herself, Fanny observed a young man's figure a few paces in advance of her, which seemed to awaken recollections. Presently the young man turned and showed, beyond doubt, the countenance of Horace Lord. He met her eyes, gave a doubtful, troubled look, and was going past when Fanny accosted him.
'Well, don't you know me?'
'Why, it is--it really is! How glad I am to see you! But what on earth are you doing here?'
'Amusing myself--comme vous voyez; and you?'
'Oh, doing the same.'
They had shaken hands, and were sauntering on together.
'Anything wrong with your health?' Fanny asked, scrutinising the pale thin face, with its touch of warmth on the cheeks.
'Oh, I've had a bit of a cold; nothing to speak of. You been out of sorts?'
'A little run down. Over-study, they say.'
Horace looked his surprise.
'Why, I didn't know you went in for that kind of thing.'
'Didn't you? I've been studying abroad for a long time. Thinking of taking a place as French teacher in some tip-top high school.'
'I am very glad to hear it. Capital idea. Sure I hope you'll be successful.'
'Thanks awf'ly. Tell me something about yourself. Why, it's two years since we saw each other, isn't it? Are you married yet?'
Horace smiled and coloured.
'No, no--not yet. I'm in business with Luckworth Crewe,--sort of sleeping partner just now.'
'Are you really? And how's your sister?'
The young man bent his brows uncomfortably.
'Don't you know anything about her?' he asked.
'I've heard she's married.'
'Yes, a man called Tarrant. Very clever fellow; he writes for the papers.--I say, Miss. French, I generally have a glass of wine and a biscuit, at the confectioner's, about this time. Will you give me the pleasure of your company?'
'Charmee, Monsieur! I generally go in for the same kind of thing.'
So they repaired to the cake-shop, and sat talking for half-an-hour of trifles which made them laugh.
'And you really didn't know me?' said Fanny, when her glass of wine was finished. 'Have I changed so much?'
'A good deal. Not for the worse, oh dear no!'
The girl giggled.
'Well, I don't mind saying that you have changed a good deal for the better.'
Horace flushed at the compliment.
'I'm much older,' he answered with a sigh, as though the years of a sexagenarian weighed upon him.
'That's just what I like in you. You're so much more of a man. Don't be offended.'
They went forth again into the sunshine. At the door both coughed, and both pretended that it wasn't a cough at all, but a voluntary little hem.