Part I: Miss. Lord
Chapter 4
 

Only twelve months ago Stephen Lord had renewed the lease of his house for a period of seven years. Nancy, had she been aware of this transaction, would assuredly have found courage to enter a protest, but Mr. Lord consulted neither son nor daughter on any point of business; but for this habit of acting silently, he would have seemed to his children a still more arbitrary ruler than they actually thought him.

The dwelling consisted of but eight rooms, one of which, situated at the rear of the entrance passage, served Mr. Lord as sitting-room and bed-chamber; it overlooked a small garden, and afforded a side glimpse of the kitchen with its outer appurtenances. In the front room the family took meals. Of the chambers in the storey above, one was Nancy's, one her brother's; the third had, until six years ago, been known as 'Grandmother's room,' and here its occupant, Stephen Lord's mother, died at the age of seventy-eight. Wife of a Norfolk farmer, and mother of nine children, she was one of the old-world women whose thoughts found abundant occupation in the cares and pleasures of home. Hardship she had never known, nor yet luxury; the old religion, the old views of sex and of society, endured with her to the end.

After her death the room was converted into a parlour, used almost exclusively by the young people. At the top of the house slept two servants, each in her own well-furnished retreat; one of them was a girl, the other a woman of about forty, named Mary Woodruff. Mary had been in the house for twenty years; she enjoyed her master's confidence, and, since old Mrs. Lord's death, exercised practical control in the humbler domestic affairs.

With one exception, all parts of the abode presented much the same appearance as when Stephen Lord first established himself antiquated, and in primitive taste. Nancy's bedroom alone here. The furniture was old, solid, homely; the ornaments were displayed the influence of modern ideas. On her twentieth birthday, the girl received permission to dress henceforth as she chose (a strict sumptuary law having previously been in force), and at the same time was allowed to refurnish her chamber. Nancy pleaded for modern reforms throughout the house, but in vain; even the drawing-room kept its uninviting aspect, not very different, save for the removal of the bed, from that it had presented when the ancient lady slept here. In her own little domain, Miss. Lord made a clean sweep of rude appointments, and at small expense surrounded herself with pretty things. The woodwork and the furniture were in white enamel; the paper had a pattern of wild-rose. A choice chintz, rose-leaf and flower on a white ground, served for curtains and for bed-hangings. Her carpet was of green felt, matching in shade the foliage of the chintz. On suspended shelves stood the books which she desired to have near her, and round about the walls hung prints, photographs, chromolithographs, selected in an honest spirit of admiration, which on the whole did no discredit to Nancy's sensibilities.

To the best of Nancy's belief, her father had never seen this room. On its completion she invited him to inspect it, but Mr. Lord coldly declined, saying that he knew nothing, and cared nothing, about upholstery.

His return to-day was earlier than usual. Shortly after five o'clock Nancy heard the familiar heavy step in the passage, and went downstairs.

'Will you have a cup of tea, father?' she asked, standing by the door of the back room, which was ajar.

'If it's ready,' replied a deep voice.

She entered the dining-room, and rang the bell. In a few minutes Mary Woodruff appeared, bringing tea and biscuits. She was a neat, quiet, plain-featured woman, of strong physique, and with set lips, which rarely parted save for necessary speech. Her eyes had a singular expression of inquietude, of sadness. A smile seldom appeared on her face, but, when it did, the effect was unlooked for: it touched the somewhat harsh lineaments with a gentleness so pleasing that she became almost comely.

Having set down the tray, she went to Mr. Lord's door, gave a soft tap, and withdrew into the kitchen.

Nancy, seated at the table, turned to greet her father. In early life, Stephen Lord must have been handsome; his face was now rugged, of unhealthy tone, and creased with lines betokening a moody habit. He looked much older than his years, which were fifty-seven. Dressed with excessive carelessness, he had the appearance rather of one at odds with fortune than of a substantial man of business. His short beard was raggedly trimmed; his grizzled hair began to show the scalp. Judging from the contour of his visage, one might have credited him with a forcible and commanding character; his voice favoured that impression; but the countenance had a despondent cast, the eyes seemed to shun observation, the lips suggested a sullen pride, indicative of some defect or vice of will.

Yet in the look which he cast upon her, Nancy detected a sign of more amiability than she had found in him of late. She addressed him with confidence.

'Early to-day, father.'

'Yes.'

The monosyllable sounded gruff, but again Nancy felt satisfaction. Mr. Lord, who disliked to seat himself unless he were going to keep his position for some time, took the offered beverage from his daughter's hand, and stood with it before the fireplace, casting glances about the room.

'How have you felt, father?'

'Nothing to complain of.'

His pronunciation fell short of refinement, but was not vulgar. Something of country accent could still be detected in it. He talked like a man who could strike a softer note if he cared to, but despises the effort.

'I suppose you will have a rest to-morrow?'

'I suppose so. If your grandmother had lived,' he added thoughtfully, 'she would have been eighty-four this week on Thursday.'

'The 23rd of June. Yes, I remember.'

Mr. Lord swallowed his tea at two draughts, and put down the cup. Seemingly refreshed, he looked about him with a half smile, and said quietly:

'I've had the pleasure of punishing a scoundrel to-day. That's worth more than the Jubilee.'

Nancy waited for an explanation, but it was not vouchsafed.

'A scoundrel?' she asked.

Her father nodded--the nod which signified his pleasure that the subject should not be pursued. Nancy could only infer that he spoke of some incident in the course of business, as indeed was the case.

He had no particular aptitude for trade, and that by which he lived (he had entered upon it thirty years ago rather by accident than choice) was thoroughly distasteful to him. As a dealer in pianofortes, he came into contact with a class of people who inspired him with a savage contempt, and of late years his business had suffered considerably from the competition of tradesmen who knew nothing of such conflicts between sentiment and interest. A majority of his customers obtained their pianos on the 'hire-purchase system,' and oftener than not, they were persons of very small or very precarious income, who, rabid in the pursuit of gentility, signed agreements they had little chance of fulfilling; when in pecuniary straits, they either raised money upon the instruments, or allowed them to fall into the hands of distraining creditors. Inquiry into the circumstances of a would-be customer sometimes had ludicrous results; a newly-married couple, for instance, would be found tenanting two top-floor rooms, the furnishing whereof seemed to them incomplete without the piano of which their friends and relatives boasted. Not a few professional swindlers came to the office; confederate rogues, vouching for each other's respectability, got possession of pianos merely to pawn or sell them, having paid no more than the first month's charge. It was Mr Lord's experience that year by year the recklessness of the vulgar became more glaring, and deliberate fraud more artful. To-day he had successfully prosecuted a man who seemed to have lived for some time on the hirepurchase system, and it made him unusually cheerful.

'You don't think of going to see the Queen to-morrow?' said his daughter, smiling.

'What have I to do with the Queen? Do you wish to go?'

'Not to see Her Majesty. I care as little about her as you do. But I thought of having a walk in the evening.'

Nancy phrased it thus with intention. She wished to intimate that, at her age, it could hardly be necessary to ask permission. But her father looked surprised.

'In the evening? Where?'

'Oh, about the main streets--to see the people and the illuminations.'

Her voice was not quite firm.

'But,' said her father, 'there'll be such a swarm of blackguards as never was known. How can you go into such a crowd? It's astonishing that you should think of it.'

'The blackguards will be outnumbered by the decent people, father.'

'You suppose that's possible?' he returned gloomily.

'Oh, I think so,' Nancy laughed. 'At all events, there'll be a great majority of people who pretend to be decent. I have asked Jessica Morgan to go with me.'

'What right had you to ask her, without first finding out whether you could go or not?'

It was spoken rather gravely than severely. Mr. Lord never looked fixedly at his daughter, and even a glance at her face was unusual; but at this juncture he met her eyes for an instant. The nervous motion with which he immediately turned aside had been marked by Nancy on previous occasions, and she had understood it as a sign of his lack of affection for her.

'I am twenty-three years old, father,' she replied, without aggressiveness.

'That would be something of an answer if you were a man,' observed the father, his eyes cast down.

'Because I am a woman, you despise me?'

Stephen was startled at this unfamiliar mode of address. He moved uneasily.

'If I despised you, Nancy, I shouldn't care very much what you did. I suppose you must do as you like, but you won't go with my permission.'

There was a silence, then the girl said:

'I meant to ask Horace to go with us.'

'Horace--pooh!'

Again a silence. Mr. Lord laid down his cup, moved a few steps away, and turned back.

'I didn't think this kind of thing was in your way,' he said gruffly. 'I thought you were above it.'

Nancy defended herself as she had done to Jessica, but without the playfulness. In listening, her father seemed to weigh the merits of the case conscientiously with wrinkled brows. At length he spoke.

'Horace is no good. But if Samuel Barmby will go with you, I make no objection.'

A movement of annoyance was Nancy's first reply. She drummed with her fingers on the table, looking fixedly before her.

'I certainly can't ask Mr. Barmby to come with us,' she said, with an effort at self-control.

'Well, you needn't. I'll speak about it myself.'

He waited, and again it chanced that their eyes met. Nancy, on the point of speaking, checked herself. A full minute passed, and Stephen stood waiting patiently.

'If you insist upon it,' said Nancy, rising from her chair, 'we will take Mr. Barmby with us.'

Without comment, Mr. Lord left the room, and his own door closed rather loudly behind him.

Not long afterwards Nancy heard a new foot in the passage, and her brother made his appearance. Horace had good looks, but his face showed already some of the unpleasant characteristics which time had developed on that of Stephen Lord, and from which the daughter was entirely free; one judged him slow of intellect and weakly self-willed. His hair was of pale chestnut, the silky pencillings of his moustache considerably darker. His cheek, delicately pink and easily changing to a warmer hue, his bright-coloured lips, and the limpid glistening of his eyes, showed him of frail constitution; he was very slim, and narrow across the shoulders. The fashion of his attire tended to a dandiacal extreme,--modish silk hat, lavender necktie, white waistcoat, gaiters over his patent-leather shoes, gloves crushed together in one hand, and in the other a bamboo cane. For the last year or two he had been progressing in this direction, despite his father's scornful remarks and his sister's good-natured mockery.

'Father in yet?' he asked at the door of the dining-room, in subdued voice.

Nancy nodded, and the young man withdrew to lay aside his outdoor equipments.

'What sort of temper?' was his question when he returned.

'Pretty good--until I spoilt it.'

Horace exhibited a pettish annoyance.

'What on earth did you do that for? I want to have a talk with him to-night.'

'About what?'

'Oh, never mind; I'll tell you after.'

Both kept their voices low, as if afraid of being overheard in the next room. Horace began to nibble at a biscuit; the hour of his return made it unnecessary for him, as a rule, to take anything before dinner, but at present he seemed in a nervous condition, and acted mechanically.

'Come out into the garden, will you?' he said, after receiving a brief explanation of what had passed between Nancy and her father. 'I've something to tell you.'

His sister carelessly assented, and with heads uncovered they went through the house into the open air. The garden was but a strip of ground, bounded by walls of four feet high; in the midst stood a laburnum, now heavy with golden bloom, and at the end grew a holly-bush, flanked with laurels; a border flower-bed displayed Stephen Lord's taste and industry. Nancy seated herself on a rustic bench in the shadow of the laburnum, and Horace stood before her, one of the branches in his hand.

'I promised Fanny to take her to-morrow night,' he began awkwardly.

'Oh, you have?'

'And we're going together in the morning, you know.'

'I know now. I didn't before,' Nancy replied.

'Of course we can make a party in the evening.'

'Of course.'

Horace looked up at the ugly house-backs, and hesitated before proceeding.

'That isn't what I wanted to talk about,' he said at length. 'A very queer thing has happened, a thing I can't make out at all.'

The listener looked her curiosity.

'I promised to say nothing about it, but there's no harm in telling you, you know. You remember I was away last Saturday afternoon? Well, just when it was time to leave the office, that day, the porter came to say that a lady wished to see me--a lady in a carriage outside. Of course I couldn't make it out at all, but I went down as quickly as possible, and saw the carriage waiting there,--a brougham,--and marched up to the door. Inside there was a lady--a great swell, smiling at me as if we were friends. I took off my hat, and said that I was Mr. Lord. "Yes," she said, "I see you are;" and she asked if I could spare her an hour or two, as she wished to speak to me of something important. Well, of course I could only say that I had nothing particular to do,--that I was just going home. "Then will you do me the pleasure," she said, "to come and have lunch with me? I live in Weymouth Street, Portland Place."

The young man paused to watch the effect of his narrative, especially of the last words. Nancy returned his gaze with frank astonishment.

'What sort of lady was it?' she asked.

'Oh, a great swell. Somebody in the best society--you could see that at once.'

'But how old?'

'Well, I couldn't tell exactly; about forty, I should think.'

'Oh!--Go on.'

'One couldn't refuse, you know; I was only too glad to go to a house in the West End. She opened the carriage-door from the inside, and I got in, and off we drove. I felt awkward, of course, but after all I was decently dressed, and I suppose I can behave like a gentleman, and--well, she sat looking at me and smiling, and I could only smile back. Then she said she must apologise for behaving so strangely, but I was very young, and she was an old woman,--one couldn't call her that, though,--and she had taken this way of renewing her acquaintance with me. Renewing? But I didn't remember to have ever met her before, I said. "Oh, yes, we have met before, but you were a little child, a baby in fact, and there's no wonder you don't remember me?" And then she said, "I knew your mother very well."

Nancy leaned forward, her lips apart.

'Queer, wasn't it? Then she went on to say that her name was Mrs. Damerel; had I ever heard it? No, I couldn't remember the name at all. She was a widow, she said, and had lived mostly abroad for a great many years; now she was come back to settle in England. She hadn't a house of her own yet, but lived at a boarding-house; she didn't know whether to take a house in London, or somewhere just out in the country. Then she began to ask about father, and about you; and it seemed to amuse her when I looked puzzled. She's a jolly sort of person, always laughing.'

'Did she say anything more about our mother?'

'I'll tell you about that presently. We got to the house, and went in, and she took me upstairs to her own private sitting-room, where the table was laid for two. She said that she usually had her meals with the other people, but it would be better for us to be alone, so that we could talk.'

'How did she know where to find you?' Nancy inquired.

'Of course I wondered about that, but I didn't like to ask. Well, she went away for a few minutes, and then we had lunch. Everything was A-1 of course; first-rate wines to choose from, and a rattling good cigar afterwards--for me, I mean. She brought out a box; said they were her husband's, and had a laugh about it.'

'How long has she been a widow?' asked Nancy.

'I don't know. She didn't wear colours, I noticed; perhaps it was a fashionable sort of mourning. We talked about all sorts of things; I soon made myself quite at home. And at last she began to explain. She was a friend of mother's, years and years ago, and father was the cause of their parting, a quarrel about something, she didn't say exactly what. And it had suddenly struck her that she would like to know how we were getting on. Then she asked me to promise that I would tell no one.'

'She knew about mother's death, I suppose?'

'Oh yes, she knew about that. It happened not very long after the affair that parted them. She asked a good many questions about you. And she wanted to know how father had got on in his business.'

'What did you say?'

'Oh, I told her I really didn't know much about it, and she laughed at that.'

'How long did you stay there?'

'Till about four. But there's something else. Before I went away she gave me an invitation for next Saturday. She wants me to meet her at Portland Road Station, and go out to Richmond, and have dinner there.'

'Shall you go?'

'Well, it's very awkward. I want to go somewhere else on Saturday, with Fanny. But I didn't see how to refuse.'

Nancy wore a look of grave reflection, and kept silence.

'It isn't a bad thing, you know,' pursued her brother, 'to have a friend of that sort. There's no knowing what use she might be, especially just now.'

His tone caused Nancy to look up.

'Why just now?'

'I'll tell you after I've had a talk with father to-night,' Horace replied, setting his countenance to a show of energetic resolve.

'Shall I guess what you're going to talk about?'

'If you like.'

She gazed at him.

'You're surely not so silly as to tell father about all that nonsense?'

'What nonsense?' exclaimed the other indignantly.

'Why, with Fanny French.'

'You'll find that it's anything but nonsense,' Horace replied, raising his brows, and gazing straight before him, with expanded nostrils.

'All right. Let me know the result. It's time to go in.'

Horace sat alone for a minute or two, his legs at full length, his feet crossed, and the upper part of his body bent forward. He smiled to himself, a smile of singular fatuity, and began to hum a popular tune.