In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part VI: A Virtue of Necessity
Horace's letter Nancy sent by post to her husband, requesting him to let her know his thoughts about it in writing before they again met. Of her own feeling she gave no sign. 'I want you to speak of it just as if it concerned a stranger, plainly and simply. All I need say is, that I never even suspected the truth.'
Tarrant did not keep her long in suspense, and his answer complied in reasonable measure with the desire she had expressed.
'The disclosure has, of course, pained you. Equally, of course, you wish it were not necessary to let me know of it; you are in doubt as to how it will affect me; you perhaps fear that I shall--never mind about phrasing. First, then, a word on that point. Be assured once for all that nothing external to yourself can ever touch the feeling which I now have for you. "One word is too often profaned"; I will say simply that I hold you in higher regard that any other human being.
'Try not to grieve, my dearest. It is an old story, in both senses. You wish to know how I view the matter. Well, if a wife cannot love her husband, it is better she should not pretend to do so; if she love some one else, her marriage is at an end, and she must go. Simple enough--provided there be no children. Whether it is ever permissible for a mother to desert her children, I don't know. I will only say that, in you yourself, I can find nothing more admirable than the perfect love which you devote to your child. Forsake it, you could not.
'In short, act as feeling dictates. Your mother lives; that fact cannot be ignored. In your attitude towards her, do not consult me at all; whatever your heart approves, I shall find good and right. Only, don't imagine that your feeling of to-day is final--I would say, make no resolve; they are worth little, in any concern of life.
'Write to me again, and say when you wish to see me.
After reading this, Nancy moved about with the radiance of a great joy on her countenance. She made no haste to reply; she let a day elapse; then, in the silence of a late hour, took pen and paper.
'When do I wish to see you? Always; in every moment of my day. And yet I have so far conquered "the unreasonable female"--do you remember saying that?--that I would rather never see you again than bring you to my side except when it was your pleasure to be with me. Come as soon as you can--as soon as you will.
'My mother--how shall I word it? She is nothing to me. I don't feel that Nature bids me love her. I could pardon her for leaving my father; like you, I see nothing terrible in that; but, like you, I know that she did wrong in abandoning her little children, and her kindness to Horace at the end cannot atone for it. I don't think she has any love for me. We shall not see each other; at all events, that is how I feel about it at present. But I am very glad that Horace made provision for her--that of course was right; if he had not done it, it would have been my duty.
'I had better tell you that Mary has known my mother's story for a long time--but not that she still lived. My father told her just before his death, and exacted her promise that, if it seemed well, she would repeat everything to me. You shall know more about it, though it is bad all through. My dear father had reason bitterly to regret his marriage long before she openly broke it.
'But come and see me, and tell me what is to be done now that we are free to look round. There is no shame in taking what poor Horace has given us. You see that there will be at least three thousand pounds for our share, apart from the income we shall have from the business.'
He was sure to come on the evening of the morrow. Nancy went out before breakfast to post her letter; light-hearted in the assurance that her husband's days of struggle were over, that her child's future no longer depended upon the bare hope that its father would live and thrive by a profession so precarious as that of literature, she gave little thought to the details of the new phase of life before her. Whatever Tarrant proposed would be good in her sight. Probably he would wish to live in the country; he might discover the picturesque old house of which he had so often spoken. In any case, they would now live together. He had submitted her to a probation, and his last letter declared that he was satisfied with the result.
Midway in the morning, whilst she was playing with her little boy, --rain kept them in the house,--a knock at the front door announced some unfamiliar visit. Mary came to the parlour, with a face of surprise.
'Who is it?'
Mary handed an envelope, addressed to 'Mrs. Tarrant.' It contained a sheet of paper, on which was written in pencil: 'I beg you to see me, if only for a minute.'
'Yes, I will see her,' said Nancy, when she had frowned in brief reflection.
Mary led away the little boy, and, a moment after, introduced Jessica Morgan. At the appearance of her former friend, Nancy with difficulty checked an exclamation; Miss. Morgan wore the garb of the Salvation Army. Harmonious therewith were the features shadowed by the hideous bonnet: a face hardly to be recognised, bloodless, all but fleshless, the eyes set in a stare of weak-minded fanaticism. She came hurriedly forward, and spoke in a quick whisper.
'I was afraid you would refuse to see me.'
'Why have you come?'
'I was impelled--I had a duty to perform.'
Coldly, Nancy invited her to sit down, but the visitor shook her head.
'I mustn't take a seat in your house. I am unwelcome; we can't pretend to be on terms of friendliness. I have come, first of all,' --her eyes wandered as she spoke, inspecting the room,--'to humble myself before you--to confess that I was a dishonourable friend,--to make known with my lips that I betrayed your secret--'
Nancy interrupted the low, hurrying, panting voice, which distressed her ear as much as the facial expression that accompanied it did her eyes.
'There's no need to tell me. I knew it at the time, and you did me no harm. Indeed, it was a kindness.'
She drew away, but Jessica moved after her.
'I supposed you knew. But it is laid upon me to make a confession before you. I have to ask your pardon, most humbly and truly.'
'Do you mean that some one has told you to do this?'
'Oh no!' A gleam of infinite conceit shot over the humility of Jessica's countenance. 'I am answerable only to my own soul. In the pursuit of an ideal which I fear you cannot understand, I subdue my pride, and confess how basely I behaved to you. Will you grant me your forgiveness?'
She clasped her gloveless hands before her breast, and the fingers writhed together.
'If it is any satisfaction to you,' replied Nancy, overcome with wonder and pity, 'I will say those words. But don't think that I take upon myself--'
'Only say them. I ask your pardon--say you grant it.'
Nancy uttered the formula, and with bowed head Jessica stood for a minute in silence; her lips moved.
'And now,' she said at length, 'I must fulfil the second part of the duty which has brought me here.' Her attitude changed to one of authority, and her eyes fixed themselves on Nancy's, regarding her with the mild but severe rebuke of a spiritual superior. 'Having acknowledged my wrong-doing, I must remind you of your own. Let me ask you first of all--have you any religious life?'
Nancy's eyes had turned away, but at these words they flashed sternly upon the speaker.
'I shall let you ask no such question.'
'I expected it,' Jessica sighed patiently. 'You are still in the darkness, out of which I have been saved.'
'If you have nothing more to say than this, I must refuse to talk any longer.'
'There is a word I must speak,' pursued Jessica. 'If you will not heed it now, it will remain in your memory, and bear fruit at the appointed time. I alone know of the sin which poisons your soul, and the experiences through which I have passed justify me in calling you to repentance.'
Nancy raised her hand.
'Stop! That is quite enough. Perhaps you are behaving conscientiously; I will try to believe it. But not another word, or I shall speak as I don't wish to.'
'It is enough. You know very well what I refer to. Don't imagine that because you are now a married woman--'
Nancy stepped to the door, and threw it open.
'Leave the house,' she said, in an unsteady tone. 'You said you were unwelcome, and it was true. Take yourself out of my sight!'
Jessica put her head back, murmured some inaudible words, and with a smile of rancorous compassion went forth into the rain.
On recovering from the excitement of this scene, Nancy regretted her severity; the poor girl in the hideous bonnet had fallen very low, and her state of mind called for forbearance. The treachery for which Jessica sought pardon was easy to forgive; not so, however, the impertinent rebuke, which struck at a weak place in Nancy's conscience. Just when the course of time and favour of circumstances seemed to have completely healed that old wound, Jessica, with her crazy malice grotesquely disguised, came to revive the half-forgotten pangs, the shame and the doubt that had seemed to be things gone by. It would have become her, Nancy felt, to treat her hapless friend of years ago in a spirit of gentle tolerance; that she could not do so proved her--and she recognised the fact-- still immature, still a backward pupil in the school of life.-- 'And in the Jubilee year I thought myself a decidedly accomplished person!'
Never mind. Her husband would come this evening. Of him she could learn without humiliation.
His arrival was later than of wont. Only at eleven o'clock, when with disappointment she had laid aside her book to go to bed, did Tarrant's rap sound on the window.
'I had given you up,' said Nancy.
'Yet you are quite good-tempered.'
'It is the pleasant custom of wives to make a husband uncomfortable if he comes late.'
'Then I am no true wife!' laughed Nancy.
'Something much better,' Tarrant muttered, as he threw off his overcoat.
He began to talk of ordinary affairs, and nearly half-an-hour elapsed before any mention was made of the event that had bettered their prospects. Nancy looked over a piece of his writing in an evening paper which he had brought; but she could not read it with attention. The paper fell to her lap, and she sat silent. Clearly, Tarrant would not be the first to speak of what was in both their minds. The clock ticked; the rain pattered without; the journalist smoked his pipe and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling.
'Are you sorry,' Nancy asked, 'that I am no longer penniless?'
'Ah--to be sure. We must speak of that. No, I'm not sorry. If I get run over, you and the boy--'
'Can make ourselves comfortable, and forget you; to be sure. But for the present, and until you do get run over?'
'You wish to make changes?'
'In one or two respects, perhaps. But leave me out of the question. You have an income of your own to dispose of; nothing oppressively splendid, I suppose. What do you think of doing?'
'What do you advise?'
'No, no. Make your own suggestion.
Nancy smiled, hesitated, and said at length:
'I think we ought to take a house.'
'That's as you wish.'
'Not at all. As you wish. Do you want society?'
'In moderation. And first of all, yours.
Tarrant met her eyes.
'Of my society, you have quite as much as is good for you,' he answered amiably. 'That you should wish for acquaintances, is reasonable enough. Take a house somewhere in the western suburbs. One or two men I know have decent wives, and you shall meet them.'
'But you? You won't live with me?'
'You know my view of that matter.'
Nancy kept her eyes down, and reflected.
'Will it be known to everybody that we don't live together?'
'Well,' answered Tarrant, with a laugh, 'by way of example, I should rather like it to be known; but as I know you wouldn't like it, let the appearances be as ordinary as you please.'
Again Nancy reflected. She had a struggle with herself.
'Just one question,' she said at length. 'Look me in the face. Are you--ever so little--ashamed of me?'
He regarded her steadily, smiling.
'Not in the least.'
'You were--you used to be?'
'Before I knew you; and before I knew myself. When, in fact, you were a notable young lady of Camberwell, and I--'
He paused to puff at his pipe.
'A notable young fool of nowhere at all.'