In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part VI: A Virtue of Necessity
Mrs. Damerel was younger than ever. She had spent October abroad, with her friends Mrs. and Miss. Chittle, and the greater part of November at Brighton, with other friends. Back in town she established herself at one of the various boarding-houses honoured by her patronage, and prepared to enjoy the social life of winter.
Half a year ago an unwonted depression had troubled her serene existence. At the close of the London season she seemed weary and spiritless, very unlike herself; having no invitation for the next two months, she withdrew to Whitsand, and there spent some cheerless weeks.
Whitsand was the as yet unfashionable seaside place which had attracted the speculative eye of Luckworth Crewe. For the past two years he had been trying to inspire certain men of capital with his own faith in the possibilities of Whitsand; he owned a share in the new hotel just opened; whenever his manifold affairs allowed him a day's holiday, he spent it at Whitsand, pacing the small esplanade, and meditating improvements. That these 'improvements' signified the conversion of a pretty little old-world spot into a hideous brand new resort of noisy hordes, in no degree troubled Mr. Crewe's conscience. For his own part, he could appreciate the charms of Whitsand as it stood; he was by no means insensible to natural beauty and the ancient peace which so contrasted with his life of every day; but first and foremost in his mind came the necessity of making money; and to fill his pockets he would no more hesitate about destroying the loveliest spot on earth, than the starving hunter would stay his hand out of admiration for bird or beast.
It was with much delight that he heard of Mrs. Damerel's retreat to Whitsand. To the note in which she acquainted him with her arrival there he replied effusively. 'The patronage of a few really fashionable people, such as yourself, would soon do wonders. We must have a special paragraph in the local paper, drawing attention to your being there'--and so on. An answer by return of post rather disappointed him. On no account, wrote Mrs. Damerel, must her name be specially mentioned in the paper. She had taken very simple lodgings, very inexpensive, and wished to live as quietly as possible. But, after seeing the place, she quite agreed with Mr Crewe that it had a future, and if he could run down some day, whilst she was here, it would give her great pleasure to hear his projects explained on the spot.
Crewe ran down. In speaking of Mrs. Damerel as a 'really fashionable' person, he used no insincerity; from their first meeting he had seen in this lady his ideal of social distinction; she was, in fact, the only woman of skilfully pretentious demeanour with whom he had ever spoken. Her distant likeness to Nancy Lord interested and attracted him; her suave superiority awed his conscious roughness; she seemed to him exquisitely gracious, wonderfully sweet. And as, little by little, he attained the right to think of her almost as a friend, his humble admiration became blended with feelings he took particular care not to betray, lest he should expose himself to ridicule. That her age exceeded his own by some years he was of course aware, but this fact soon dropped out of his mind, and never returned to it. Not only did he think Mrs. Damerel a type of aristocratic beauty, he saw in her countenance all the freshness and the promise of youth.
The slight mystery attaching to her position only increased his susceptibility to her charms. It seemed to him very probable that she had but a moderate income; perhaps she was not free from anxieties on that score. But such a woman would of course marry again, and marry well. The thought grew troublesome, and presently accounted for ebullitions of wrath, accompanied by more than usually vigorous language, when business matters went wrong.
At Whitsand, Mrs. Damerel showed herself more than ever sweetly affable. The season, she said, had been rather too much for her; she must take care of her health; besides--and her smile played upon Crewe's pulses--there were troubles, cares, of which she could not speak even to so valued a friend.
'I'm afraid you're anxious about your nephew,' murmured the man of business; though at the same time he suspected other things, for the lodgings in which he found Mrs. Damerel were certainly modest.
'Yes, I trouble a good deal about him. If only dear Horace would be reconciled to me. It seems such a long, long time. You know that we have corresponded, but he refuses to see me. It pains me deeply, Mr Crewe.'
And, after a silence:
'There's a special reason why I wish he would be friends with me,-- a reason that concerns his own future. Why should I not tell you? I am sure you will respect my confidence.--He will very soon become independent, and then I do so fear he may make a foolish marriage. Yet all the time there is a chance waiting for him which would establish his fortune and his happiness for life. Did he ever speak to you of Miss. Chittle?'
'I don't remember the name.'
'Such a dear, sweet girl, and with really large means. He was introduced to her during the happy time when we saw so much of each other, and she at once became interested in him. Her dear mother assured me of it. She is a very shy, retiring girl, and has refused many offers, before and since then. Isn't it a pity? But I am losing all hope, and I so fear he may have formed some other attachment.'
Crewe went back to London resolved that Horace Lord should no longer 'play the fool.' And he was successful. Horace had all but lost his resentment against Mrs. Damerel; he kept aloof out of stubborn conceit--it had not dignity enough to be called pride; the same feeling that still estranged him from Nancy, though he would gladly have welcomed his sister's offer of affection. Persuaded, or commanded, by Luckworth Crewe, he took the train to Whitsand, and remained there for several days. Mrs. Damerel wrote her friend in Farringdon Street a letter of gratitude, which acted upon him like champagne. In a postscript she said: 'Mrs. Chittle and her daughter have consented to come here for a week or two. They will take rooms at the Imperial.'
Before the end of September, Horace Lord was engaged to Winifred Chittle.
Two years had made very little change in Miss. Chittle's appearance. She was still colourless and abnormally shy, still had the look of one who sheds secret tears, and her repugnance to Society had, if possible, increased. Horace thought her pretty, was impressed by her extreme gentleness and refinement, but she obtained no power over his emotions such as that formerly exercised by Fanny French. It struck him, too, as a very strange thing, that a young lady with a large fortune should be willing to marry a man of his social insignificance. 'My dear,' said Mrs. Damerel, 'it was a case of love at first sight.' But Horace, who had gained some experience of life, could not believe this. He wooed, and won; yet even when Winifred accepted him, he felt that she did it under some constraint. Her pale face declared no happiness.
Had she chosen, Mrs. Damerel could have explained the mystery. She knew that, several years ago, Winifred's name had been blighted by a scandal, and that the girl's shrinking from every proposal of marriage was due, in part perhaps, to the memory of love betrayed, in part to a sense of honour, and to the suspicion that men, knowing her disgrace, condoned it for the sake of her wealth. Interest made Mrs. Damerel generous; she admitted every excuse for Winifred, and persuaded herself that in procuring Horace such a wife she was doing him only a nominal wrong. The young people could live apart from that corner of Society in which Miss. Chittle's name gave occasion to smiles or looks of perfunctory censure. If Winifred, after marriage, chose to make confession, why, that was her own affair, and Horace would be wise enough, all advantages considered, to take the matter philosophically.
That was the view of a practical-minded observer. To read Winifred perfectly, there needed a much more subtle and sympathetic intelligence. The girl had, in truth, conceived a liking for Horace Lord, and it grew stronger when she learnt that neither by birth nor present circumstances did he belong to her own world. To please her mother she was willing to take a husband, but the husband must be of her own choice. She wished to enter upon a wholly new life, remote from the social conditions which of late years had crushed her spirit. From the men who had hitherto approached her, she shrank in fear. Horace Lord, good-looking and not uneducated, yet so far from formidable, suggested a new hope; even though he might be actuated by the ordinary motives, she discerned in him a softness, a pliability of nature, which would harmonise with her own timid disposition. To the thought of deceiving him on the subject of her past, she was reconciled by a resolve to make his happiness the sole object of her existence in the future. Horace was amiability itself, and seemed, if not to love her ardently (which, perhaps, she did not even desire), at least to regard her with an increasing affection.
Nothing was said about the condition of the prospective bridegroom's health, though Horace had confided to Mrs. Damerel that he suffered from a troublesome cough, accompanied now and then by an alarming symptom. In her boundless exultation at the end achieved, Mrs. Damerel made light of this complaint. Horace was not free to marry until nearly the end of the year; for, though money would henceforth be no matter of anxiety, he might as well secure the small inheritance presently due to him. November and December he should spend at Bournemouth under the best medical care, and after that, if needful, his wife would go with him to Madeira or some such place.
No wonder Mrs. Damerel could think of nothing but the great fact that Horace had secured a fortune. Her own resources were coming to an end, and but for the certainty that Horace would not grudge her an ample provision, she must at this moment have been racking her brains (even as through the summer) for help against the evil that drew near. Constitutional lightness of heart had enabled her to enjoy life on a steadily, and rapidly, diminishing fund. There had been hope in Nancy's direction, as well as in her brother's; but the disclosure of Nancy's marriage, and Horace's persistency in unfriendliness, brought Mrs. Damerel to a sense of peril. One offer of marriage she had received and declined; it came from a man of advanced years and small property. Another offer she might, or thought she might, at any moment provoke; but only in direst extremity could she think of bestowing her hand upon Luckworth Crewe. Crewe was in love with her, an amusing fact in itself, and especially so in regard to his former relations with Nancy Lord. He might become a wealthy man; on the other hand, he might not; and in any case he was a plebeian.
All such miseries were now dismissed from her mind. She went abroad with the Chittles, enjoyed herself at Brighton, and came home to prepare for Horace's wedding, Horace himself being at Bournemouth. After her letter of gratitude to Crewe she had ceased to correspond with him; she did not trouble to acquaint him with Horace's engagement; and when Crewe, having heard the news from his partner, ventured to send her a letter of congratulation, Mrs. Damerel replied in two or three very civil but cold sentences. Back in London, she did not invite the man of projects to call upon her. The status she had lost when fears beset her must now be recovered. Let Crewe cherish a passion for her if he liked, but let him understand that social reasons made it laughably hopeless.
Horace was to come up to London in the third week of December, and to be married on New Year's Day; the honeymoon would be spent at Ventnor, or somewhere thereabout. Afraid to lose sight of her relative for more than a week or two, Mrs. Damerel had already been twice to Bournemouth, and now she decided to go for a third time, just to talk quietly over the forthcoming event, and, whether Horace broached the subject or not, to apprise him of the straits into which she was drifting. Unannounced by letter, she reached Bournemouth early in the afternoon, and went straight to Horace's lodgings. The young man had just finished luncheon, and, all things considered, including the fact that it was a remarkably bright and warm day for the time of year, he might have been expected to welcome Mrs. Damerel cheerfully. Yet on seeing her his countenance fell; he betrayed an embarrassment which the lady noted with anxious suspicion.
'Aren't you glad to see me, dear boy?' she began, with a kiss upon his cheek.
'Yes--oh yes. I never dreamt of your appearing just now, that was all.'
'I couldn't resist the temptation. Such a morning in London! Almost as fine as it is here. And how is your cough?'
Even as she made the inquiry, he answered it by coughing very badly.
'I don't think this place suits you, Horace,' said Mrs. Damerel gravely. 'You're not imprudent, I hope? Don't go out after dark?'
Oh, it was nothing, Horace maintained; for several days he had hardly coughed at all. But with every word he uttered, Mrs. Damerel became more convinced of something unusual in his state of mind; he could not keep still, and, in trying to put himself at ease, assumed strange postures.
'When did you hear from Winifred?' she asked.
'Yesterday--no, the day before.'
He shrank from her scrutiny, and an expression of annoyance began to disturb his features. Mrs. Damerel knew well enough the significance of that particular look; it meant the irritation of his self-will, the summoning of forces to resist something he disliked.
'There has been no difference between you, I hope?'
'No--oh no,' Horace replied, wriggling under her look.
At that moment a servant opened the door.
'Two ladies have called in a carriage, sir, and would like to see you.'
'I'll go down. Excuse me for a moment, aunt.'
'Who are they, Horace?' asked Mrs. Damerel, rising with an ill-concealed look of dismay.
'Some friends I have made here. I'll just go and speak to them.'
He hurried away. No sooner was he gone than Mrs. Damerel sprang to the window, where she could look down upon the carriage standing before the house; it was open, and in it sat two ladies, one middle-aged, the other much younger. To her vexation she could not, from this distance, clearly discern their faces; but on glancing rapidly round the room, she saw Horace's little binocular. An instant brought it into focus upon the carriage, and what she then saw gave Mrs. Damerel such a shock, that an exclamation escaped her. Still she gazed through the glasses, and only turned away when the vehicle drove on.
Horace came up flushed and panting.
'It's all right. They wanted me to go for a drive, but I explained--'
He saw the binocular in Mrs. Damerel's hand, and at the same moment read detection on her countenance. She gazed at him; he answered the look with lowering challenge.
'Horace, that was Fanny French.'
'So it was, aunt.'
'What is going on between you?'
The young man took a seat on the edge of the table, and swung his leg. He looked suddenly obstinate.
'We met by accident--here--the other day.'
'How can I believe that, Horace?' said Mrs. Damerel, in a voice of soft reproach. And she drew near to him. 'Be truthful with me, dear. Do tell me the truth!--Is she anything to you?'
'I have told you the truth, aunt. She came here, as I have done, for her health. I haven't seen her for two years.'
'And you don't wish to renew acquaintance with her,--I'm sure you don't.'
He looked away, and said nothing.
'My dear, do you know her character?'
'What about her?'
The tone was startling, but Mrs. Damerel kept firm, though agitated.
'She has led the most disgraceful life. I heard about her half a year after she ran away, but of course I wouldn't tell you such painful things.'
Horace reddened with anger.
'And who is to blame for it?' he cried passionately. 'Who drove her to it?'
'Oh, don't, don't come back to that again, Horace!' pleaded the other. 'How can any one drive a girl into a life of scandalous immorality? It was in herself, dear. She took to it naturally, as so many women do. Remember that letter she wrote from Brussels, which I sent you a copy of--'
'It was a forgery!' thundered Horace. 'I have asked her. She says she never wrote any such letter.'
'Then she lies, as such creatures always do.'
Bitterness of apprehension overcame Mrs. Damerel's prudence. With flashing eyes, she faced the young man and dared his wrath. As they stood thus, the two were astonishingly like each other, from forehead to chin.
'It's no use, I'm not going to quarrel with you, aunt. Think what you like of Miss. French, I know the truth about her.'
He slipped from the table, and moved away.
'I will say no more, Horace. You are independent, and must have your own acquaintances. But after you are married--'
The other voice interrupted.
'I had better tell you at once. I shall not marry Miss. Chittle. I am going to write this afternoon to break it off.'
Mrs. Damerel went pale, and stood motionless.
'Horace, you can't be so wicked as that!'
'It's better,' he pursued recklessly, 'to break it off now, than to marry her and make her miserable. I don't love her, and I have never really thought I did. I was going to marry her only for her money. Why she wants to marry me, I don't know. There's something wrong; she doesn't really care for me.'
'She does! I assure you she does!'
'Then I can't help it.'
Mrs. Damerel went close to him, and touched his arm.
'My dear,'--her voice was so low that it seemed terror-stricken, --'you don't mean to marry--any one else?'
He drew apart, she followed him.
'Oh, that would be terrible! What can I say to open your eyes and show you what you are doing? Horace, have you no sense of honour? Can you find it in your heart to cast off a girl who loves you, and thinks that in so short a time she will be your wife?'
'This again is your fault,' he replied, with a violence which proved the conflict of emotions in him. 'But for you, I should never have proposed to Winifred--never dreamt of such a thing. What do I want with her money? I have enough of my own, and I shall make more in business. Why have you driven me into this? Did you expect to get some profit out of it?'
The blow struck home, and Mrs. Damerel flinched.
'I had your happiness in view, my dear.'
'My happiness! that's your view of things; that's why I couldn't really like you, from the first. You think of nothing but money. Why you objected to Fanny French at first was because you wished me to marry some one richer. I don't thank you for that kind of happiness; I had rather marry a woman I can love.'
'And you can love such a creature as that?'
Again she lost her self-command; the mere thought of Fanny's possible triumph exasperated her.
'I won't hear her abused,' cried Horace, with answering passion. 'You are the last person who ought to do it. Comparing her and you, I can't help saying--'
An exclamation of pain checked his random words; he looked at Mrs. Damerel, and saw her features wrung with anguish.
'You mustn't speak to me like that!' Once more she approached him. 'If you only knew--I can't bear it--I've always been a worldly woman, but you are breaking my heart, Horace! My dear, my dear, if only out of pity for me--'
'Why should I pity you?' he cried impatiently.
'Because--Horace--give me your hand, dear; let me tell you something.--I am your mother.'
She sobbed and choked, clinging to his arm, resting her forehead against it. The young man, stricken with amazement, stared at her, speechless.
'I am your own mother, dear,' she went on, in a quivering voice. 'Your mother and Nancy's. And neither of you can love me.'
'How can that be?' Horace asked, with genuine perplexity. 'How could you have married some one else?'
She passed an arm about his neck, and hid her face against him.
'I left your father--and he made me free to marry again.'
'You were divorced?'
Horace did not mean to speak brutally; in his wonderment he merely pressed for a complete explanation. The answer was a sob, and for some moments neither of them spoke. Then the mother, her face still hidden, went on in a thick voice:
'I married because I was poor--for no other reason--and then came the temptation. I behaved wickedly, I deserted my little children. Don't revenge yourself upon me now, darling! If only I could have told you this before--I did so want to, but I was afraid. I had to conceal half my love for you. You can't imagine how I have suffered from your anger, and from Nancy's coldness. You don't know me; I have never been able to let you see what I really think and feel. I am worldly; I can't live without luxuries and society and amusements; but I love you, my dear son, and it will break my heart if you ruin yourself. It's true I thought of Winifred's money, but she is very fond of you, Horace; her mother has told me she is. And it was because of my own position. I have spent nearly all my husband left me; it wasn't enough to supply me with an income; I could only hope that something--that you, dear, would forgive your poor mother, and help her. If you cast me off, what shall I do?'
There was a silence. Then the young man spoke gravely:
'You are welcome, mother, to half my income. But you must leave me free to marry as I like.'
'Then I can't take a penny from you,' she answered, weeping. 'If you ruin yourself, you ruin me as well.'
'The ruin would come if I married Winifred. I love Fanny; I love her with all my heart and soul, and have never ceased to love her. Tell me what you like about her, it will make no difference.'
A fit of violent coughing stopped his speech; he turned away, and stood by the window, holding his handkerchief to his mouth.
Mrs. Damerel sank upon a chair in mute misery.