In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part VI: A Virtue of Necessity
Below the hill at Harrow, in a byway which has no charm but that of quietness, stands a row of small plain houses, built not long ago, yet at a time when small houses were constructed with some regard for soundness and durability. Each contains six rooms, has a little strip of garden in the rear, and is, or was in 1889, let at a rent of six-and-twenty pounds. The house at the far end of the row (as the inhabitants described it) was then tenanted by Mary Woodruff, and with her, as a lodger, lived Mrs. Tarrant.
As a lodger, seeing that she paid a specified weekly sum for her shelter and maintenance; in no other respect could the wretched title apply to her. To occupy furnished lodgings, is to live in a house owned and ruled by servants; the least tolerable status known to civilisation. From her long experience at Falmouth, Nancy knew enough of the petty miseries attendant upon that condition to think of it with dread when the stress of heroic crisis compelled her speedy departure from the old home. It is seldom that heroic crisis bears the precise consequence presumed by the actors in it; supreme moments are wont to result in some form of compromise. So Nancy, prepared to go forth into the wilderness of landladies, babe in arm, found that so dreary a self-sacrifice neither was exacted of her, nor would indeed be permitted; she had to reckon with Mary Woodruff. Mary, thanks to her old master, enjoyed an income more than sufficient to her needs; if Nancy must needs go into lodgings,-- inevitable, perhaps, as matters stood,--her friend was ready with kind and practical suggestion; to wit, that she should take and furnish a house for herself, and place a portion of it at Mrs. Tarrant's disposal. To this even Tarrant could offer no objection; he stipulated only that his wife should find a temporary refuge from the home she had occupied on false pretences until Mary had her new house in readiness. This was managed without difficulty. Nancy went to Dulwich, and for several weeks dwelt with the honest woman who took care of her child.
Of the dealings between Nancy and her legal guardians Tarrant learned nothing, save the bare fact that her marriage was avowed, and all benefit under her father's will renounced. He did not visit the house at Dulwich, and only saw his child after the removal to Harrow. On this occasion he asked Nancy what arrangements had been made concerning the money that must be reimbursed to the Messrs Barmby; she replied that justice would be done, but the affair was hers alone, and to her must be left.
Tarrant himself suggested the neighbourhood of Harrow for Nancy's abode. It united the conditions of being remote from Camberwell, of lying beyond the great smoke-area, and of permitting him, poor as he was, to visit his wife whenever he thought fit.
In December, Nancy had lived thus for all but a twelvemonth, seeing the while none of her old acquaintances, and with very little news from her old world. What she heard came through Horace, who, after learning with astonishment the secret in his sister's life, came by degrees to something like the old terms of affection with her, and went over to Harrow pretty frequently. Of his engagement to Winifred Chittle he at once informed Nancy, who tried to be glad of it, but could have little faith in anything traceable to the influence of Mrs. Damerel. With that lady the Harrow household had no direct communication; Tarrant had written to her on the night of crisis, civilly requesting her to keep aloof, as her advice and assistance were m nowise needed. She answered him with good temper, and wrote kindly to Nancy; after that, silence on both sides.
It wanted a few days to Christmas; with nightfall had come a roaring wind and sleety rain; the house-door was locked; within, lamps and fires burned cheerily. At half-past six, Nancy--she occupied the two front rooms--sat in her parlour, resting after the exertion of putting her son to bed. To judge from her countenance, she was well and happy. The furniture about her aimed at nothing but homely comfort; the pictures and books, being beyond dispute her own, had come from Grove Lane.
Save when Tarrant was here, Nancy and Mary of course lived like friends who share a house, eating together and generally sitting together. During an hour or two each day the younger woman desired solitude, for a reason understood by her companion, who then looked after the baby. This present evening Nancy had proposed to spend alone; but, after sitting idly for a few minutes, she opened the door and called Mary--just then occupied in teaching a young servant how to iron.
'I shall not write, after all,' she said, when her friend came. 'I'm too tired. Bring your sewing, or your book, here.'
Mary was never talkative; Nancy kept a longer silence than usual.
'How,' she exclaimed at length, 'do poor women with a lot of children manage? It really is a mystery to me. Here am I with one baby, and with the constant help of two people; yet he tires me out. Not a troublesome baby, either; healthy and good-tempered. Yet the thought and anxiety and downright hard labour for a good twelve hours out of the twenty-four! I feel that a second child would be too much for me.'
She laughed, but looked seriously for the reply.
'Poor mothers,' said Mary, 'can't give the same care to their children that you give to baby. The little ones grow up, or they don't grow up--that's what it comes to.'
'Yes; that is to say, only the fit survive. A very good thing-- when other people's children are in question. But I should kill myself in taking care of them, if I had a large family.'
'I have known mothers who did,' Mary remarked.
'It comes to this. Nature doesn't intend a married woman to be anything but a married woman. In the natural state of things, she must either be the slave of husband and children, or defy her duty. She can have no time to herself, no thoughts for herself. It's a hard saying, but who can doubt that it is Nature's law? I should like to revolt against it, yet I feel revolt to be silly. One might as well'I revolt against being born a woman instead of a man.'
Mary reflected, but held her peace.
'Then comes in money,' pursued Nancy, 'and that alters the state of the case at once. The wife with money says to people: Come here, and be my slaves. Toil for me, whilst I am enjoying myself in ways that Dame Nature wouldn't allow. I want to read, to play music, to see my friends, to see the world. Unless you will slave for me, I can't budge from nursery and kitchen.--Isn't it a queer thing?'
The less sophisticated woman had a difficulty in catching Nancy's point of view. She began to argue that domestic service was no slavery.
'But it comes to that,' Nancy insisted. 'And what I mean is, that the thought has made me far more contented than I was at first. After all, one can put up with a great deal, if you feel you're obeying a law of Nature. Now, I have brains, and I should like to use them; but Nature says that's not so important as bringing up the little child to whom I have given life. One thought that troubles me is, that every generation of women is sacrificed to the generation that follows; and of course that's why women are so inferior to men. But then again, Nature says that women are born only to be sacrificed. I always come round to that. I don't like it, but I am bound to believe it.'
'Children grow up,' said Mary, 'and then mothers are free.'
'Free to do what? To think of what they might have done in the best years of their life.'
It was not said discontentedly; Nancy's mood seemed to be singularly calm and philosophical. She propped her chin on her hand, and gazed at the fire.
'Well,' remarked Mary, with a smile, 'you, at all events, are not one of the poorest women. All seems to be going well, and you will be able, I am sure, to get all the help you need.'
'Perhaps. But I shall never feel quiet in my conscience. I shall feel as if I had defeated Nature by a trick, and fear that she'll somehow be revenged on me.'
This was quite beyond Mary's scope of thought, and she frankly said so.
'One thing I'm quite sure of, Nancy,' she added, 'and that is, that education makes life very much harder to live. That's why I don't hold with educating the poor--not beyond reading and writing. Without education, life is very plain, though it may be a struggle. But from what I have seen of highly-taught people, I'm very sure they suffer worse in their minds than the poor ever do in their bodies.'
Nancy interrupted her.
'Hush! Was that baby?'
'Only the wind, I think.'
Not content, Nancy went to the foot of the stairs. Whilst she stood there listening, Mary came out, and said in a low voice:
'There's a tap at the window.'
'No!--You must have been mistaken.'
'I'm sure it was a tap on the glass.'
She withdrew to the back sitting-room, and Nancy, with quick step, went to open the house-door. A great gust of wind forced it against her as soon as she turned the handle; standing firm, she peeped into darkness.
'Any one there?'
'No enemy but winter and rough weather,' chanted a familiar voice.
'Why, what brings you here, frightening lone women at this time of night? Shut and lock the door for me. The house will be blown out of the windows.'
Nancy retreated to her parlour, and stood there in an attitude of joyous expectation. Without hurry Tarrant hung up his coat and hat in the passage, then came forward, wiping rain from his moustache. Their eyes met in a smile, frank and confident.
'Why have you come, Lionel?'
'No reason in particular. The fancy took me. Am I unwelcome?'
For answer, his wife's arms were thrown about him. A lovers' meeting, with more of tenderness, and scarcely less of warmth, than when Nancy knocked at the door in Staple Inn.
'Are you hungry?'
'Only for what you have given me.'
'Some tea, then, after that wretched journey.'
'No. How's the boy?'
He drew her upon his knee, and listened laughingly whilst the newest marvels of babyhood were laughingly related.
'Anything from Horace?'
'Not a word. He must be in London now; I shall write tomorrow.'
Tarrant nodded carelessly. He had the smallest interest in his wife's brother, but could not help satisfaction in the thought that Horace was to be reputably, and even brilliantly, married. From all he knew of Horace, the probability had seemed that his marriage would be some culmination of folly.
'I think you have something to tell me,' Nancy said presently, when her hand had been fondled for a minute or two.
'Nothing much, but good as far as it goes. Bunbury has asked me to write him an article every week for the first six months of '90. Column and a half, at two guineas a column.'
'Three guineas a week.'
'O rare head!'
'So there's no anxiety for the first half of next year, at all events,' said Nancy, with a sigh of relief.
'I think I can count on a margin of fifty pounds or so by midsummer --towards the debt, of course.'
Nancy bit her lip in vexation, but neither made nor wished to make any protest. Only a week or two ago, since entering upon his patrimony, Horace Lord had advanced the sum necessary to repay what Nancy owed to the Barmbys. However rich Horace was going to be, this debt to him must be cancelled. On that, as on most other points, Tarrant and his wife held a firm agreement of opinion. Yet they wanted money; the past year had been a time of struggle to make ends meet. Neither was naturally disposed to asceticism, and if they did not grumble it was only because grumbling would have been undignified.
'Did you dine with the great people on Thursday?' Nancy asked.
'Yes, and rather enjoyed it. There were one or two clever women.'
'Been anywhere else?'
'An hour at a smoking-concert the other evening. Pippit, the actor, was there, and recited a piece much better than I ever heard him speak anything on the stage. They told me he was drunk; very possibly that accounted for it.'
To a number of such details Nancy listened quietly, with bent head. She had learned to put absolute faith in all that Tarrant told her of his quasi-bachelor life; she suspected no concealment; but the monotony of her own days lay heavy upon her whilst he talked.
'Won't you smoke?' she asked, rising from his knee to fetch the pipe and tobacco-jar kept for him upon a shelf. Slippers also she brought him, and would have unlaced his muddy boots had Tarrant permitted it. When he presented a picture of masculine comfort, Nancy, sitting opposite, cautiously approached a subject of which as yet there had been no word between them.
'Oughtn't you to get more comfortable lodgings?'
'Oh, I do very well. I'm accustomed to the place, and I like the situation.'
He had kept his room in Great College Street, though often obliged to scant his meals as the weekly rent-day approached.
'Don't you think we might make some better--some more economical arrangement?'
Nancy took courage, and spoke her thoughts.
'It's more expensive to live separately than if we were together.'
Tarrant seemed to give the point his impartial consideration.
'H'm--no, I think not. Certainly not, with our present arrangements. And even if it were we pay for your comfort, and my liberty.'
'Couldn't you have as much liberty if we were living under the same roof? Of course I know that you couldn't live out here; it would put a stop to your work at once. But suppose we moved. Mary might take a rather larger house--it needn't be much larger--in a part convenient for you. We should be able to pay her enough to set off against her increased expenses.'
Smoking calmly, Tarrant shook his head.
'Impracticable. Do you mean that this place is too dull for you?'
'It isn't lively, but I wasn't thinking of the place. If you lived here, it would be all I should wish.'
'That sounds so prettily from your lips, Nancy, that I'm half ashamed to contradict it. But the truth is that you can only say such things because we live apart. Don't deceive yourself. With a little more money, this life of ours would be as nearly perfect as married life ever can be.'
Nancy remembered a previous occasion when he spoke to the same purpose. But it was in the time she did not like to think of, and in spite of herself the recollection troubled her.
'You must have more variety,' he added. 'Next year you shall come into town much oftener--'
'I'm not thinking of that. I always like going anywhere with you; but I have plenty of occupations and pleasures at home.--I think we ought to be under the same roof.'
'Ought? Because Mrs. Tomkins would cry haro! if her husband the greengrocer wasn't at her elbow day and night?'
'Have more patience with me. I didn't mean ought in the vulgar sense--I have as little respect for Mrs. Tomkins as you have. I don't want to interfere with your liberty for a moment; indeed it would be very foolish, for I know that it would make you detest me. But I so often want to speak to you--and--and then, I can't quite feel that you acknowledge me as your wife so long as I am away.'
'I quite understand. The social difficulty. Well, there's no doubt it is a difficulty; I feel it on your account. I wish it were possible for you to be invited wherever I am. Some day it will be, if I don't get run over in the Strand; but--'
'I should like the invitations,' Nancy broke in, 'but you still don't understand me.'
'Yes, I think I do. You are a woman, and it's quite impossible for a woman to see this matter as a man does. Nancy, there is not one wife in fifty thousand who retains her husband's love after the first year of marriage. Put aside the fools and the worthless; think only of women with whom you might be compared--brave, sensible, pure-hearted; they can win love, but don't know how to keep it.'
'Why not put it the other way about, and say that men can love to begin with, but so soon grow careless?'
'Because I am myself an instance to the contrary.'
Nancy smiled, but was not satisfied.
'The only married people,' Tarrant pursued, 'who can live together with impunity, are those who are rich enough, and sensible enough, to have two distinct establishments under the same roof. The ordinary eight or ten-roomed house, inhabited by decent middle-class folk, is a gruesome sight. What a huddlement of male and female! They are factories of quarrel and hate--those respectable, brass-curtain-rodded sties--they are full of things that won't bear mentioning. If our income never rises above that, we shall live to the end of our days as we do now.'
Nancy looked appalled.
'But how can you hope to make thousands a year?'
'I have no such hope; hundreds would be sufficient. I don't aim at a house in London; everything there is intolerable, except the fine old houses which have a history, and which I could never afford. For my home, I want to find some rambling old place among hills and woods,--some house where generations have lived and died,--where my boy, as he grows up, may learn to love the old and beautiful things about him. I myself never had a home; most London children don't know what is meant by home; their houses are only more or less comfortable lodgings, perpetual change within and without.'
'Your thoughts are wonderfully like my father's, sometimes,' said Nancy.
'From what you have told me of him, I think we should have agreed in a good many things.'
'And how unfortunate we were! If he had recovered from that illness, --if he had lived only a few months,--everything would have been made easy.'
'For me altogether too easy,' Tarrant observed.
'It has been a good thing for you to have to work,' Nancy assented. 'I understand the change for the better in you. But'--she smiled --'you have more self-will than you used to have.'
'That's just where I have gained.--But don't think that I find it easy or pleasant to resist your wish. I couldn't do it if I were not so sure that I am acting for your advantage as well as my own. A man who finds himself married to a fool, is a fool himself if he doesn't take his own course regardless of his wife. But I am in a very different position; I love you more and more, Nancy, because I am learning more and more to respect you; I think of your happiness most assuredly as much as I think of my own. But even if my own good weighed as nothing against yours, I should be wise to resist you just as I do now. Hugger-mugger marriage is a defilement and a curse. We know it from the experience of the world at large,-- which is perhaps more brutalised by marriage than by anything else. --No need to test the thing once more, to our own disaster.'
'What I think is, that, though you pay me compliments, you really have a very poor opinion of me. You think I should burden and worry you in endless silly ways. I am not such a simpleton. In however small a house, there could be your rooms and mine. Do you suppose I should interfere with your freedom in coming and going?'
'Whether you meant to or not, you would--so long as we are struggling with poverty. However self-willed I am, I am not selfish; and to see you living a monotonous, imprisoned life would be a serious hindrance to me in my own living and working. Of course the fact is so at present, and I often enough think in a troubled way about you; but you are out of my sight, and that enables me to keep you out of mind. If I am away from home till one or two in the morning, there is no lonely wife fretting and wondering about me. For work such as mine, I must live as though I were not married at all.'
'But suppose we got out of our poverty,' urged Nancy, 'you would be living the same life, I suppose; and how would it be any better for you or me that we had a large house instead of a small one?'
'Your position will be totally changed. When money comes, friends come. You are not hiding away from Society because you are unfit for it, only because you can't live as your social equals do. When you have friends of your own, social engagements, interests on every hand, I shall be able to go my own way without a pang of conscience. When we come together, it will be to talk of your affairs as well as of mine. Living as you do now, you have nothing on earth but the baby to think about--a miserable state of things for a woman with a mind. I know it is miserable, and I'm struggling tooth and nail to help you out of it.'
'Then there are years of it still before me.'
'Heaven forbid! Some years, no doubt, before we shall have a home; but not before I can bring you in contact with the kind of people you ought to know. You shall have a decent house--socially possible--somewhere out west; and I, of course, shall still go on in lodgings.'
He waited for Nancy's reply, but she kept silence.
'You are still dissatisfied?'
She looked up, and commanded her features to the expression which makes whatever woman lovely--that of rational acquiescence. On the faces of most women such look is never seen.
'No, I am content. You are working hard, and I won't make it harder for you.'
'Speak always like that!' Tarrant's face was radiant. 'That's the kind of thing that binds man to woman, body and soul. With the memory of that look and speech, would it be possible for me to slight you in my life apart? It makes you my friend; and the word friend is better to my ear than wife. A man's wife is more often than not his enemy. Harvey Munden was telling me of a poor devil of an author who daren't be out after ten at night because of the fool-fury waiting for him at home.'
'I suppose she can't trust him.'
'And suppose she can't? What is the value of nominal fidelity, secured by mutual degradation such as that? A rational woman would infinitely rather have a husband who was often unfaithful to her than keep him faithful by such means. Husband and wife should interfere with each other not a jot more than two friends of the same sex living together. If a man, under such circumstances, worried his friend's life out by petty prying, he would get his head punched. A wife has no more justification in worrying her husband with jealousies.'
'How if it were the wife that excited suspicion?' asked Nancy.
'Infidelity in a woman is much worse than in a man. If a man really suspects his wife, he must leave her, that's all; then let her justify herself if she can.'
Nancy cared little to discuss this point. In argument with any one else, she would doubtless have maintained the equality of man and woman before the moral law; but that would only have been in order to prove herself modern-spirited. Tarrant's dictum did not revolt her.
'Friends are equals,' she said, after a little thought. 'But you don't think me your equal, and you won't be satisfied with me unless I follow your guidance.'
Tarrant laughed kindly.
'True, I am your superior in force of mind and force of body. Don't you like to hear that? Doesn't it do you good--when you think of the maudlin humbug generally talked by men to women? We can't afford to disguise that truth. All the same, we are friends, because each has the other's interest at heart, and each would be ashamed to doubt the other's loyalty.'
The latter part of the evening they spent with Mary, in whom Tarrant always found something new to admire. He regarded her as the most wonderful phenomenon in nature--an uneducated woman who was neither vulgar nor foolish.
Baby slept in a cot beside Nancy's bed. For fear of waking him, the wedded lovers entered their room very softly, with a shaded candle. Tarrant looked at the curly little head, the little clenched hand, and gave a silent laugh of pleasure.
On the breakfast-table next morning lay a letter from Horace. As soon as she had opened it, Nancy uttered an exclamation which prepared her companion for ill news.
'Just what I expected--though I tried not to think so. "I write aline only to tell you that my marriage is broken off. You will know the explanation before long. Don't trouble yourself about it. I should never have been happy with Winifred, nor she with me. We may not see each other for some time, but I will write again soon." He doesn't say whether he or she broke it off. I hope it was Winifred.'
'I'm afraid not,' said Tarrant, 'from the tone of that letter.'
'I'm afraid not, too. It means something wretched. He writes from his London lodgings. Lionel, let me go back with you, and see him.'
'By all means.'
Her gravest fear Nancy would not communicate. And it hit the truth.