In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part VI: A Virtue of Necessity
Nancy stood before her husband with a substantial packet in brown paper. It was after breakfast, at the moment of their parting.
'Here is something I want you to take, and look at, and speak about the next time you come.'
'Ho, ho! I don't like the look of it.' He felt the packet. 'Several quires of paper here.'
'Be off, or you'll miss the train.'
'Poor little girl! Et tu!'
He kissed her affectionately, and went his way. In the ordinary course of things Nancy would not have seen him again for ten days or a fortnight. She expected a letter very soon, but on the fourth evening Tarrant's fingers tapped at the window-pane. In his hand was the brown paper parcel, done up as when he received it.
Nancy searched his face, her own perturbed and pallid.
'How long have you been working at this?'
'Nearly a year. But not every day, of course. Sometimes for a week or more I could get no time. You think it bad?'
'No,'--puff--'not in any sense'--puff--'bad. In one sense, it's good. But'--puff--'that's a private sense; a domestic sense.'
'The question is, dear, can it be sold to a publisher.'
'The question is nothing of the kind. You mustn't even try to sell it to a publisher.'
'Why not? You mean you would be ashamed if it came out. But I shouldn't put my own name to it. I have written it only in the hope of making money, and so helping you. I'll put any name to it you like.'
Tarrant smoked for a minute or two, until his companion gave a sign of impatience. He wore a very good-humoured look.
'It's more than likely you might get the thing accepted--'
'Oh, then why not?' she interrupted eagerly, with bright eyes.
'Because it isn't literature, but a little bit of Nancy's mind and heart, not to be profaned by vulgar handling. To sell it for hard cash would be horrible. Leave that to the poor creatures who have no choice. You are not obliged to go into the market.'
'But, Lionel, if it is a bit of my mind and heart, it must be a good book. You have often praised books to me just on that account because they were genuine.'
'The books I praised were literature. Their authors came into the world to write. It isn't enough to be genuine; there must be workmanship. Here and there you have a page of very decent English, and you are nowhere on the level of the ordinary female novelist. Indeed--don't take it ill--I was surprised at what you had turned out. But--'
He finished the sentence in smoke wreaths.
'Then I'll try again. I'll do better.'
'Never much better. It will never be literature.'
'What does that matter? I never thought myself a Charlotte Bronte or a George Eliot. But so many women make money out of novels, and as I had spare time I didn't see why I shouldn't use it profitably. We want money, and if it isn't actually disgraceful--and if I don't use my own name--'
'We don't want money so badly as all that. I am writing, because I must do something to live by, and I know of nothing else open to me except pen-work. Whatever trash I turned out, I should be justified; as a man, it's my duty to join in the rough-and-tumble for more or less dirty ha'pence. You, as a woman, have no such duty; nay, it's your positive duty to keep out of the beastly scrimmage.'
'It seemed to me that I was doing something. Why should a woman be shut out from the life of the world?'
'It seems to me that your part in the life of the world is very considerable. You have given the world a new inhabitant, and you are shaping him into a man.'
Nancy laughed, and reflected, and returned to her discontent.
'Oh, every woman can do that.'
'Not one woman in a thousand can bear a sound-bodied child; and not one in fifty thousand can bring up rightly the child she has borne. Leisure you must have; but for Heaven's sake don't waste it. Read, enjoy, sit down to the feast prepared for you.'
'I wanted to do something,' she persisted, refusing to catch his eye. 'I have read enough.'
'Read enough? Ha, then there's no more to be said.'
His portentous solemnity overcame her. Laughter lighted her face, and Tarrant, laying down his pipe, shouted extravagant mirth.
'Am I to burn it then?'
'You are not. You are to seal it with seven seals, to write upon it peche de jeunesse, and to lay it away at the back of a very private drawer. And when you are old, you shall some day bring it out, and we'll put our shaky heads together over it, and drop a tear from our dim old eyes.--By-the-bye, Nancy, will you go with me to a music-hall to-morrow night?'
'Yes. It would do us both good, I think. I feel fagged, and you want a change.--Here's the end of March; please Heaven, another month shall see us rambling in the lanes somewhere; meantime, we'll go to a music-hall. Each season has its glory; if we can't hear the lark, let us listen to the bellow of a lion-comique.--Do you appreciate this invitation? It means that I enjoy your company, which is more than one man in ten thousand can say of his wife. The ordinary man, when he wants to dissipate, asks--well, not his wife. And I, in plain sober truth, would rather have Nancy with me than anyone else.'
'You say that to comfort me after my vexation.'
'I say it because I think it.--The day after to-morrow I want you to come over in the morning to see some pictures in Bond Street. And the next day we'll go to the theatre.'
'You can't afford it.'
'Mind your own business. I remembered this morning that I was young, and that I shall not be so always. Doesn't that ever come upon you?'
The manuscript, fruit of such persevering toil, was hidden away, and its author spoke of it no more. But she suffered a grave disappointment. Once or twice a temptation flashed across her mind; if she secretly found a publisher, and if her novel achieved moderate success (she might alter the title), would not Tarrant forgive her for acting against his advice? It was nothing more than advice; often enough he had told her that he claimed no coercive right; that their union, if it were to endure, must admit a genuine independence on both sides. But herein, as on so many other points, she subdued her natural impulse, and conformed to her husband's idea of wifehood. It made her smile to think how little she preserved of that same 'genuine independence;' but the smile had no bitterness.
Meanwhile, nothing was heard of Horace. The winter passed, and June had come before Nancy again saw her brother's handwriting. It was on an ordinary envelope, posted, as she saw by the office-stamp, at Brighton; the greater her surprise to read a few lines which coldly informed her that Horace's wife no longer lived. 'She took cold one evening a fortnight ago, and died after three days' illness.'
Nancy tried to feel glad, but she had little hope of any benefit to her brother from this close of a sordid tragedy. She answered his letter, and begged that, as soon as he felt able to do so, he would come and see her. A month's silence on Horace's part had led her to conclude that he would not come, when, without warning, he presented himself at her door. It was morning, and he stayed till nightfall, but talked very little. Sitting in the same place hour after hour, he seemed overcome with a complete exhaustion, which made speech too great an effort and kept his thoughts straying idly. Fanny's name did not pass his lips; when Nancy ventured an inquiry concerning her, he made an impatient gesture, and spoke of something else.
His only purpose in coming, it appeared, was to ask for information about the Bahamas.
'I can't get rid of my cough, and I'm afraid it may turn to something dangerous. You said, I remember, that people with weak chests wintered in the Bahamas.'
'Lionel can tell you all about it. He'll be here to-morrow. Come and have a talk with him.'
'No.' He moved pettishly. 'Tell me as much as you know yourself. I don't feel well enough to meet people.'
Looking at him with profound compassion, Nancy thought it very doubtful whether he would see another winter. But she told him all she could remember about Nassau, and encouraged him to look forward with pleasure and hopefulness to a voyage thither.
'How are you going to live till then?'
'What do you mean?' he answered, with a startled and irritated look. 'I'm not so bad as all that.'
'I meant--how are you going to arrange your life?' Nancy hastened to explain.
'Oh, I have comfortable lodgings.'
'But you oughtn't to be quite alone.--I mean it must be so cheerless.'
She made a proposal that he should have a room in this little house, and use it as a home whenever he chose; but Horace so fretted under the suggestion, that it had to be abandoned. His behaviour was that of an old man, enfeebled in mind and body. Once or twice his manner of speaking painfully reminded Nancy of her father during the last days of his life.
With a peevish sort of interest he watched his little nephew toddling about the room, but did not address a word to the child.
A cab was sent for to convey him to the railway station. Nancy had known few such melancholy days as this.
On the morning when, by agreement, she was to go into town to see her brother, there arrived a note from him. He had been advised to try a health-resort in Switzerland, and was already on the way. Sorry he could not let Nancy know before; would visit her on his return. Thus, in the style of telegraphy, as though he wrote in hot haste.
From Switzerland came two letters, much more satisfactory in tone and contents. The first, written in July, announced a distinct improvement of health. No details being supplied, Nancy could only presume that her brother was living alone at the hotel from which he dated. The second communication, a month later, began thus: 'I think I forgot to tell you that I came here with Mrs. Damerel. She will stay till the end of the summer, and then, perhaps, go with me to the Bahamas, if that seems necessary. But I am getting wonderfully well and strong. Mrs. Damerel is kinder to me than any one in the world ever was. I shall tell you more about her some day.' The writer went on to describe a project he had of taking a small farm in Devonshire, and living upon it as a country gentleman.
Tarrant warned his wife not to build hopes upon this surprising report, and a few weeks brought news that justified him. Horace wrote that he had suffered a very bad attack, and was only now sufficiently recovered to hold a pen. 'I don't know what we shall do, but I am in good hands. No one was ever better nursed, night and day--More before long.'
Indeed, it was not long. A day or two after Nancy's return from a seaside holiday, Mary brought in a telegram. It came from Mrs. Damerel. 'Your brother died at ten o'clock last night, suddenly, and without pain. I am posting a letter he had written for you.'
When the promised letter arrived, it was found to bear a date two months ago. An unwonted tenderness marked the opening words.
MY DEAREST SISTER--What I am going to write is not to be sent to you at once. Sometimes I feel afraid that I can't live very long, so I have been making a will, and I want you to know why I have left you only half of what I have to leave. The other half will go to some one who has an equal claim on me, though you don't know it. She has asked me to tell you. If I get thoroughly well again, there will be no need of this letter, and I shall tell you in private something that will astonish you very much. But if I were to die, it will be best for you to learn in this way that Mrs. Damerel is much more to us than our mother's sister; she is our own mother. She told me at the time when I was behaving like an idiot at Bournemouth. It ought to have been enough to stop me. She confessed that she had done wrong when you and I were little children; that was how she came to marry again whilst father was still alive. Though it seemed impossible, I have come to love her for her great kindness to me. I know that I could trust you, dearest Nancy, to let her share whatever you have; but it will be better if I provide for her in my will. She has been living on a small capital, and now has little left. What I can give her is little enough, but it will save her from the worst extremities. And I beg you, dear sister, to forgive her fault, if only for my sake, because she has been so loving to a silly and useless fellow.
I may as well let you know about my wife's death. She was consumptive, but seemed to get much better at Bournemouth; then she wanted to go to Brighton. We lived there at a boardinghouse, and she behaved badly, very badly. She made acquaintances I didn't like, and went about with them in spite of my objections. Like an obstinate fool, I had refused to believe what people told me about her, and now I found it all out for myself. Of course she only married me because I had money. One evening she made up her mind to go with some of her friends in a boat, by moonlight. We quarrelled about it, but she went all the same. The result was that she got inflammation of the lungs, and died. I don't pretend to be sorry for her, and I am thankful to have been released from misery so much sooner than I deserved.
And now let me tell you how my affairs stand--
At the first reading, Nancy gave but slight attention to this concluding paragraph. Even the thought of her brother's death was put aside by the emotions with which she learnt that her mother still lived. After brooding over the intelligence for half a day, she resolved to question Mary, who perhaps, during so long a residence in Grove Lane, had learnt something of the trouble that darkened her master's life. The conversation led to a disclosure by Mary of all that had been confided to her by Mr. Lord; the time had come for a fulfilment of her promise to the dead man.