In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part VI: A Virtue of Necessity
They parted at Baker Street, Tarrant for his lodgings and the work that awaited him there, Nancy to go westward by another train.
When she reached the house from which her brother had dated his letter, it was half-past ten. At the door stood a cab, and a servant was helping the driver to hoist a big trunk on to the top.
'Is Mr. Lord still here?' Nancy asked of the girl.
'He's just this minute a-goin', miss. This is his luggage.'
She sent her name, and was quickly led up to the first floor. There stood Horace, ready for departure.
'Why have you come?' he asked, with annoyance.
'What else could I do on hearing such news?'
'I told you I should write again, and I said plainly that it was better we shouldn't see each other for some time.--Why will people pester me out of my life?--I'm not a child to be hunted like this!'
On the instant, he had fallen into a state of excitement which alarmed his sister. There were drops of sweat on his forehead, and tears in his eyes; the blood had rushed to his cheeks, and he trembled violently.
'I am so troubled about you,' said Nancy, with anxious tenderness. 'I have been looking forward with such hope to your marriage,--and now--'
'I can't tell you anything about it just now. It was all Mrs. Damerel's doing; the engagement, I mean. It's a good thing I drew back in time.--But I have a train to catch; I really mustn't stay talking.'
'Are you going far, Horace?'
'To Bournemouth again,--for the present. I've given up these rooms, and I'm taking all my things away. In a month or two I may go abroad; but I'll let you know.'
Already he was out of the room; his sister had no choice but to follow him downstairs. He looked so ill, and behaved with such lack of self-restraint, that Nancy kept her eyes upon him in an awestricken gaze, as though watching some one on the headlong way to destruction. Pouring rain obliged her to put up her umbrella as she stepped down on to the pavement. Horace, having shouted a direction to the driver, entered the cab.
'You haven't even shaken hands with me, Horace,' Nancy exclaimed, standing at the window.
'Good-bye, dear; good-bye! You shouldn't have come in weather such as this. Get home as fast as you can. Good-bye!--Tell the fellow to drive sharp.'
And the cab clattered away, sending spurts of mud on to Nancy's waterproof.
She walked on for a few paces without reflection, until the vehicle disappeared round a corner. Coming to herself, she made for the railway again, which was at only a few minutes' distance, and there she sat down by the fire in the waiting-room. Her health for the last year had been sound as in the days of girlhood; it was rarely that she caught cold, and weather would have been indifferent to her but for the discomfort which hindered her free movement.
Vexed at so futile a journey, she resolved not to return home without making another effort to learn something about Horace. The only person to whom she could apply was the one who would certainly be possessed of information,--Mrs. Damerel. At the time of Horace's engagement, Nancy had heard from Mrs. Damerel, and replied to the letter; she remembered her aunt's address, and as the distance was not great, the temptation to go there now proved irresistible. Her husband would dislike to hear of such a step, but he had never forbidden communication with Mrs. Damerel.
By help of train and omnibus she reached her new destination in half-an-hour, and felt a relief on learning that Mrs. Damerel was at home. But it surprised her to be conducted into a room where lamps were burning, and blinds drawn close; she passed suddenly from cheerless day to cosy evening. Mrs. Damerel, negligently attired, received her with a show of warm welcome, but appeared nervous and out of spirits.
'I am not very well,' she admitted, 'and that's why I have shut out the dreadful weather. Isn't it the most sensible way of getting through the worst of a London winter? To pretend that there is daylight is quite ridiculous, so one may as well have the comforts of night.'
'I have come to speak about Horace,' said Nancy, at once. In any case, she would have felt embarrassment, and it was increased by the look with which Mrs. Damerel kept regarding her,--a look of confusion, of shrinking, of intense and painful scrutiny.
'You know what has happened?'
'I had a letter from him this morning, to say that his marriage was broken off--nothing else. So I came over from Harrow to see him. But he had hardly a minute to speak to me. He was just starting for Bournemouth.'
'And what did he tell you?' asked Mrs. Damerel, who remained standing,--or rather had risen, after a pretence of seating herself.
'Nothing at all. He was very strange in his manner. He said he would write.'
'You know that he is seriously ill?'
'I am afraid he must be.'
'He has grown much worse during the last fortnight. Don't you suspect any reason for his throwing off poor Winifred?'
'I wondered whether he had met that girl again. But it seemed very unlikely.'
'He has. She was at Bournemouth for her health. She, too, is ill; consumptive, like poor Horace,--of course a result of the life she has been leading. And he is going to marry her.'Nancy's heart sank. She could say nothing. She remembered Horace's face, and saw in him the victim of ruthless destiny.
'I have done my utmost. He didn't speak of me?'
'Only to say that his engagement with Winifred was brought about by you.'
'And wasn't I justified? If the poor boy must die, he would at least have died with friends about him, and in peace. I always feared just what has happened. It's only a few months ago that he forgave me for being, as he thought, the cause of that girl's ruin; and since then I have hardly dared to lose sight of him. I went down to Bournemouth unexpectedly, and was with him when that creature came to the door in a carriage. You haven't seen her. She looks what she is, the vilest of the vile. As if any one can be held responsible for that! She was born to be what she is. And if I had the power, I would crush out her hateful life to save poor Horace!'
Nancy, though at one with the speaker in her hatred of Fanny French, found it as difficult as ever to feel sympathetically towards Mrs. Damerel. She could not credit this worldly woman with genuine affection for Horace; the vehemence of her speech surprised and troubled her, she knew not how.
'He said nothing more about me?' added Mrs. Damerel, after a silence.
'Nothing at all.'
It seemed to Nancy that she heard a sigh of relief. The other's face was turned away. Then Mrs. Damerel took a seat by the fire.
'They will be married to-morrow, I dare say, at Bournemouth--no use trying to prevent it. I don't know whether you will believe me, but it is a blow that will darken the rest of my life.'
Her voice sounded slightly hoarse, and she lay back in the chair, with drooping head.
'You have nothing to reproach yourself with,' said Nancy, yielding to a vague and troublous pity. 'And you have done as much as any one could on his behalf.'
'I shall never see him again--that's the hardest thought. She will poison him against me. He told me I had lied to him about a letter that girl wrote from Brussels; she has made him think her a spotless innocent, and he hates me for the truth I told about her.'
'However short his life,' said Nancy, 'he is only too likely to find out what she really is.'
'I am not sure of that. She knows he is doomed, and it's her interest to play a part. He will die thinking the worst of me.-- Nancy, if he writes to you, and says anything against me, you will remember what it means?'
'My opinion of people is not affected by hearsay,' Nancy replied.
It was a remark of dubious significance, and Mrs. Damerel's averted eyes seemed to show that she derived little satisfaction from it. As the silence was unbroken, Nancy rose.
'I hope you will soon get rid of your cold.'
'Thank you, my dear. I haven't asked how the little boy is. Well, I hope?'
'Very well, I am glad to say.'
'And your husband--he is prospering?'
'I shouldn't like to say he is prospering; it seems to mean so much; but I think he is doing good work, and we are satisfied with the results.'
'My dear, you are an admirable wife.'
Nancy coloured; for the first time, a remark of Mrs. Damerel's had given her pleasure. She moved forward with hand offered for leave-taking. They had never kissed each other, but, as if overcoming diffidence, Mrs. Damerel advanced her lips; then, as suddenly, she drew back.
'I had forgotten. I may give you my sore throat.'
Nancy kissed her cheek.
That night Mrs. Damerel was feverish, and the next day she kept her bed. The servant who waited upon her had to endure a good many sharp reproofs; trouble did not sweeten this lady's temper, yet she never lost sight of self-respect, and even proved herself capable of acknowledging that she was in the wrong. Mrs. Damerel possessed the elements of civilisation.
This illness tried her patience in no slight degree. Something she had wished to do, something of high moment, was vexatiously postponed. A whole week went by before she could safely leave the house, and even then her mirror counselled a new delay. But on the third day of the new year she made a careful toilette, and sent for a cab,--the brougham she had been wont to hire being now beyond her means.
She drove to Farringdon Street, and climbed to the office of Mr Luckworth Crewe. Her knowledge of Crewe's habits enabled her to choose the fitting hour for this call; he had lunched, and was smoking a cigar.
'How delightful to see you here!' he exclaimed. 'But why did you trouble to come? If you had written, or telegraphed, I would have saved you the journey. I haven't even a chair that's fit for you to sit down on.'
'What nonsense! It's a most comfortable little room. Haven't you improved it since I called?'
'I shall have to look out for a bigger place. I'm outgrowing this.'
'Are you really? That's excellent news. Ah, but what sad things have been happening!'
'It's a bad business,' Crewe answered, shaking his head.
'I thought I should have heard from you about it.'
The reason of his silence she perfectly understood. Since Horace's engagement, there had been a marked change in her demeanour towards the man of business; she had answered his one or two letters with such cold formality, and, on the one occasion of his venturing to call, had received him with so marked a reserve, that Crewe, as he expressed it to himself, 'got his back up.' His ideas of chivalrous devotion were anything but complex; he could not bend before a divinity who snubbed him; if the once gracious lady chose to avert her countenance, he would let her know that it didn't matter much to him after all. Moreover, Mrs. Damerel's behaviour was too suggestive; he could hardly be wrong in explaining it by the fact that her nephew, about to be enriched by marriage, might henceforth be depended upon for all the assistance she needed. This, in the Americanism which came naturally to Crewe's lips, was 'playing it rather low down,' and he resented it.
The sudden ruin of Horace Lord's prospects (he had learnt the course of events from Horace himself) amused and gratified him. How would the high and mighty Mrs. Damerel relish this catastrophe? Would she have the 'cheek' to return to her old graciousness? If so, he had the game in his hands; she should see that he was not to be made a fool of a second time.
Yet the mere announcement of her name sufficed to shatter his resolve. Her smile, her soft accents, her polished manners, laid the old spell upon him. He sought to excuse himself for having forsaken her in her trial.
'It really floored me. I didn't know what to say or do. I was afraid you might think I was meddling with what didn't concern me.'
'Oh, how could I have thought that? It has made me ill; I have suffered more than I can tell you.'
'You don't look quite the thing,' said Crewe, searching her face.
'Have you heard all?'
'I think so. He is married, and that's the end of it, I suppose.'
Mrs. Damerel winced at this blunt announcement.
'When was it?' she asked, in an undertone. 'I only knew he had made up his mind.'
Crewe mentioned the date; the day after Nancy's call upon her.
'And are they at Bournemouth?'
'Yes. Will be for a month or so, he says.'
'Well, we won't talk of it. As you say, that's the end. Nothing worse could have happened. Has he been speaking of me again like he used to?'
'I haven't heard him mention your name.'
She heaved a sigh, and began to look round the office.
'Let us try to forget, and talk of pleasanter things. It seems such a long time since you told me anything about your business. You remember how we used to gossip. I suppose I have been so absorbed in that poor boy's affairs; it made me selfish--I was so overjoyed, I really could think of nothing else. And now--! But I must and will drive it out of my mind. I have been moping at home, day after day, in wretched solitude. I wanted to write to you, but I hadn't the heart--scarcely the strength. I kept hoping you might call--if only to ask howl was. Of course everything had to be explained to inquisitive people--how I hate them all! It's the nature of the world to mock at misfortunes such as this. It would really have done me good to speak for a few minutes with such a friend as you--a real friend. I am going to live a quiet, retired life. I am sick of the world, its falsity, and its malice, and its bitter, bitter disappointments.'
Crewe's native wit and rich store of experience availed him nothing when Mrs. Damerel discoursed thus. The silvery accents flattered his ear, and crept into the soft places of his nature. He felt as when a clever actress in a pathetic part wrought upon him in the after-dinner mood.
'You must bear up against it, Mrs. Damerel. And I don't think a retired life would suit you at all. You are made for Society.'
'Don't seek for compliments. I am speaking quite sincerely. Ah, those were happy days that I spent at Whitsand! Tell me what you have been doing. Is there any hope of the pier yet?'
'Why, it's as good as built!' cried the other. 'Didn't you see the advertisements, when we floated the company a month ago? I suppose you don't read that kind of thing. We shall begin at the works in early spring.--Look here!'
He unrolled a large design, a coloured picture of Whitsand pier as it already existed in his imagination. Not content with having the mere structure exhibited, Crewe had persuaded the draughtsman to add embellishments of a kind which, in days to come, would be his own peculiar care; from end to end, the pier glowed with the placards of advertisers. Below, on the sands, appeared bathing-machines, and these also were covered with manifold advertisements. Nay, the very pleasure-boats on the sunny waves declared the glory of somebody's soap, of somebody's purgatives.
'I'll make that place one of the biggest advertising stations in England--see if I don't! You remember the caves? I'm going to have them lighted with electricity, and painted all round with advertisements of the most artistic kind.'
'What a brilliant idea!'
'There's something else you might like to hear of. It struck me I would write a Guide to Advertising, and here it is.' He handed a copy of the book. 'It advertises me, and brings a little grist to the mill on its own account. Three weeks since I got it out, and we've sold three thousand of it. Costs nothing to print; the advertisements more than pay for that. Price, one shilling.'
'But how you do work, Mr. Crewe! It's marvellous. And yet you look so well,--you have really a seaside colour!'
'I never ailed much since I can remember. The harder I work, the better I feel.'
'I, too, have always been rather proud of my constitution.' Her eyes dropped. 'But then I have led a life of idleness. Couldn't you make me useful in some way? Set me to work! I am convinced I should be so much happier. Let me help you, Mr. Crewe. I write a pretty fair hand, don't I?'
Crewe smiled at her, made a sound as if clearing his throat, grasped his knee, and was on the very point of momentous utterance, when the door opened. Turning his head impatiently, he saw, not the clerk whose duty it was to announce people, but a lady, much younger than Mrs. Damerel, and more fashionably dressed, who for some reason had preferred to announce herself.
'Why do you come in like that?' Crewe demanded, staring at her. 'I'm engaged.'
'Are you indeed?'
'You ought to send in your name.
'They said you had a lady here, so I told them another would make no difference.--How do you do, Mrs. Damerel? It's so long since I had the pleasure of seeing you.'
Beatrice French stepped forward, smiling ominously, and eyeing first Crewe then his companion with curiosity of the frankest impertinence. Mrs. Damerel stood up.
'We will speak of our business at another time, Mr. Crewe.'
Crewe, red with anger, turned upon Beatrice.
'I tell you I am engaged--'
'To Mrs. Damerel?' asked the intruder airily.
'You might suppose,'--he addressed the elder lady,--'that this woman has some sort of hold upon me--'
'I'm sure I hope not,' said Mrs. Damerel, 'for your own sake.'
'Nothing of the kind. She has pestered me a good deal, and it began in this way.'
Beatrice gave him so fierce a look, that his tongue faltered.
'Before you tell that little story,' she interposed, 'you had better know what I've come about. It's a queer thing that Mrs. Damerel should be here; happens more conveniently than things generally do. I had something to tell you about her. You may know it, but most likely you don't.--You remember,' she faced the other listener, 'when I came to see you a long time ago, I said it might be worth while to find out who you really were. I haven't given much thought to you since then, but I've got hold of what I wanted, as I knew I should.'
Crewe did not disguise his eagerness to hear the rest. Mrs. Damerel stood like a statue of British respectability, deaf and blind to everything that conflicts with good-breeding; stony-faced, she had set her lips in the smile appropriate to one who is braving torture.
'Do you know who she is--or not?' Beatrice asked of Crewe.
He shuffled, and made no reply.
'Fanny has just told me in a letter; she got it from her husband. Our friend here is the mother of Horace Lord and of Nancy. She ran away from her first husband, and was divorced. Whether she really married afterwards, I don't quite know; most likely not. At all events, she has run through her money, and wants her son to set her up again.'
For a few seconds Mrs. Damerel bore the astonished gaze of her admirer, then, her expression scarcely changing, she walked steadily to the door and vanished. The silence was prolonged till broken by Beatrice's laugh.
'Has she been bamboozling you, old man? I didn't know what was going on. You had bad luck with the daughter; shouldn't wonder if the mother would suit you better, all said and done.'
Crewe seated himself and gave vent to his feelings in a phrase of pure soliloquy: 'Well, I'm damned!'
'I cut in just at the right time, did I?--No malice. I've had my hit back at her, and that's enough.'
As the man of business remained absorbed in his thoughts, Beatrice took a chair. Presently he looked up at her, and said savagely:
'What the devil do you want?'
'Then take it and go.'
But Beatrice smiled, and kept her seat.