Part I: Miss. Lord
Chapter 5
 

When they assembled at table, Mr. Lord had recovered his moderate cheerfulness. Essentially, he was anything but ill-tempered; Horace and Nancy were far from regarding him with that resentful bitterness which is produced in the victims of a really harsh parent. Ten years ago, as they well remembered, anger was a rare thing in his behaviour to them, and kindness the rule. Affectionate he had never shown himself; reserve and austerity had always distinguished him. Even now-a-days, it was generally safe to anticipate mildness from him at the evening meal. In the matter of eating and drinking his prudence notably contradicted his precepts. He loved strong meats, dishes highly flavoured, and partook of them without moderation. At table his beverage was ale; for wine--unless it were very sweet port--he cared little; but in the privacy of his own room, whilst smoking numberless pipes of rank tobacco, he indulged freely in spirits. The habit was unknown to his children, but for some years he had seldom gone to bed in a condition that merited the name of sobriety.

When the repast was nearly over, Mr. Lord glanced at his son and said unconcernedly:

'You have heard that Nancy wants to mix with the rag-tag and bobtail to-morrow night?'

'I shall take care of her,' Horace replied, starting from his reverie.

'Doesn't it seem to you rather a come-down for an educated young lady?'

'Oh, there'll be lots of them about.'

'Will there? Then I can't see much difference between them and the servant girls.'

Nancy put in a word.

'That shows you don't in the least understand me, father.'

'We won't argue about it. But bear in mind, Horace, that you bring your sister back not later than half-past eleven. You are to be here by half-past eleven.'

'That's rather early,' replied the young man, though in a submissive tone.

'It's the hour I appoint. Samuel Barmby will be with you, and he will know the arrangement; but I tell you now, so that there may be no misunderstanding.'

Nancy sat in a very upright position, displeasure plain upon her countenance. But she made no remark. Horace, who had his reasons for desiring to preserve a genial tone, affected acquiescence. Presently he and his sister went upstairs to the drawing-room, where they sat down at a distance apart--Nancy by the window, gazing at the warm clouds above the roofs opposite, the young man in a corner which the dusk already shadowed. Some time passed before either spoke, and it was Horace's voice which first made itself heard.

'Nancy, don't you think it's about time we began to behave firmly?'

'It depends what you mean by firmness,' she answered in an absent tone.

'We're old enough to judge for ourselves.'

'I am, no doubt. But I'm not so sure about you.'

'Oh, all right. Then we won't talk about it.'

Another quarter of an hour went by. The room was in twilight. There came a knock at the door, and Mary Woodruff, a wax-taper in her hand, entered to light the gas. Having drawn the blind, and given a glance round to see that everything was in order, she addressed Nancy, her tone perfectly respectful, though she used no formality.

'Martha has been asking me whether she can go out to-morrow night for an hour or two.'

'You don't wish to go yourself?' Miss. Lord returned, her voice significant of life-long familiarity.

'Oh no!'

And Mary showed one of her infrequent smiles.

'She may go immediately after dinner, and be away till half-past ten.'

The servant bent her head, and withdrew. As soon as she was gone, Horace laughed.

'There you are! What did father say?'

Nancy was silent.

'Well, I'm going to have a word with him,' continued the young man, sauntering towards the door with his hands in his pockets. He looked exceedingly nervous. 'When I come back, I may have something to tell you.'

'Very likely,' remarked his sister in a dry tone, and seated herself under the chandelier with a book.

Horace slowly descended the stairs. At the foot he stood for a moment, then moved towards his father's door. Another hesitancy, though briefer, and he knocked for admission, which was at once granted. Mr. Lord sat in his round-backed chair, smoking a pipe, on his knees an evening paper. He looked at Horace from under his eyebrows, but with good humour.

'Coming to report progress?'

'Yes, father,--and to talk over things in general.'

The slim youth--he could hardly be deemed more than a lad tried to assume an easy position, with his elbow on the corner of the mantelpiece; but his feet shuffled, and his eyes strayed vacantly. It cost him an effort to begin his customary account of how things were going with him at the shipping-office. In truth, there was nothing particular to report; there never was anything particular; but Horace always endeavoured to show that he had made headway, and to-night he spoke with a very pronounced optimism.

'Very well, my boy,' said his father. 'If you are satisfied, I shalltry to be the same. Have you your pipe with you?--At your age I hadn't begun to smoke, and I should advise you to be moderate; but we'll have a whiff together, if you like.'

'I'll go and fetch it,' Horace replied impulsively.

He came back with a rather expensive meerschaum, recently purchased.

'Hollo! luxuries!' exclaimed his father.

'It kept catching my eye in a window,--and at last I couldn't resist. Tobacco's quite a different thing out of a pipe like this, you know.'

No one, seeing them thus together, could have doubted of the affectionate feeling which Stephen Lord entertained for his son. It appeared in his frequent glances, in the relaxation of his features, in a certain abandonment of his whole frame, as though he had only just begun to enjoy the evening's repose.

'I've something rather important to speak about, father,' Horace began, when he had puffed for a few minutes in silence.

'Oh? What's that?'

'You remember telling me, when I was one and twenty, that you wished me to work my way up, and win an income of my own, but that I could look to you for help, if ever there was need of it--?'

Yes, Stephen remembered. He had frequently called it to mind, and wondered whether it was wisely said, the youth's character considered.

'What of that?' he returned, still genially. 'Do you think of starting a new line of ocean steamships?'

'Well, not just yet,' Horace answered, with an uncertain laugh. 'I have something more moderate in view. I may start a competition with the P. and O. presently.'

'Let's hear about it.'

'I dare say it will surprise you a little. The fact is, I--I am thinking of getting married.'

The father did not move, but smoke ceased to issue from his lips, and his eyes, fixed upon Horace, widened a little in puzzled amusement.

'Thinking of it, are you?' he said, in an undertone, as one speaks of some trifle. 'No harm in thinking. Too many people do it without thinking at all.'

'I'm not one of that kind,' said Horace, with an air of maturity which was meant to rebuke his father's jest. 'I know what I'm about. I've thought it over thoroughly. You don't think it too soon, I hope?'

Horace's pipe was going out; he held it against his knee and regarded it with unconscious eyes.

'I dare say it won't be,' said Mr. Lord, 'when you have found a suitable wife.'

'Oh, but you misunderstand me. I mean that I have decided to marry a particular person.'

'And who may that be?'

'The younger Miss. French--Fanny.'

His voice quivered over the name; at the end he gave a gasp and a gulp. Of a sudden his lips and tongue were very dry, and he felt a disagreeable chill running down his back. For the listener's face had altered noticeably; it was dark, stern, and something worse. But Mr. Lord could still speak with self-control.

'You have asked her to marry you?'

'Yes, I have; and she has consented.'

Horace felt his courage returning, like the so-called 'second wind' of a runner. It seemed to him that he had gone through the worst. The disclosure was made, and had resulted in no outbreak of fury; now he could begin to plead his cause. Imagination, excited by nervous stress, brought before him a clear picture of the beloved Fanny, with fluffy hair upon her forehead and a laugh on her never-closed lips. He spoke without effort.

'I thought that there would be no harm in asking you to help us. We should be quite content to start on a couple of hundred a year-- quite. That is only about fifty pounds more than we have.'

Calf-love inspires many an audacity. To Horace there seemed nothing outrageous in this suggestion. He had talked it over with Fanny French several times, and they had agreed that his father could not in decency offer them less than a hundred a year. He began to shake out the ashes from his pipe, with a vague intention of relighting it.

'You really imagine,' said his father, 'that I should give you money to enable you to marry that idiot?'

Evidently he put a severe restraint upon himself. The veins of his temples were congested; his nostrils grew wide; and he spoke rather hoarsely. Horace straightened his back, and, though in great fear, strung himself for conflict.

'I don't see--what right--to insult the young lady.'

His father took him up sternly.

'Young lady? What do you mean by "young lady"? After all your education, haven't you learnt to distinguish a lady from a dressed-up kitchen wench? I had none of your advantages. There was --there would have been some excuse for me, if I had made such a fool of myself. What were you doing all those years at school, if it wasn't learning the difference between real and sham, getting to understand things better than poor folks' children? You disappointed me, and a good deal more than I ever told you. I had hoped you would come from school better able to make a place in the world than your father was. I made up my mind long ago that you should never go into my business; you were to be something a good deal better. But after all you couldn't, or wouldn't, do what I wanted. Never mind--I said to myself--never mind; at all events, he has learnt to think in a better way than if I had sent him to common schools, and after all that's the main thing. But here you come to me and talk of marrying a low-bred, low-minded creature, who wouldn't be good enough for the meanest clerk!'

'How do you know that, father? What--what right have you to say such things, without knowing more of her than you do?'

There was a brief silence before Mr. Lord spoke again.

'You are very young,' he said, with less vehement contempt. 'I must remember that. At your age, a lad has a sort of devil in him, that's always driving him out of the path of common sense, whether he will or no. I'll try my best to talk quietly with you. Does your sister know what has been going on?'

'I daresay she does. I haven't told her in so many words.'

'I never thought of it,' pursued Mr. Lord gloomily. 'I took it for granted that everybody must see those people as I myself did. I have wondered now and then why Nancy kept up any kind of acquaintance with them, but she spoke of them in the rational way, and that seemed enough. I may have thought that they might get some sort of good out of her, and I felt sure she had too much sense to get harm from them. If it hadn't been so, I should have forbidden her to know them at all. What have you to say for yourself? I don't want to think worse of you than I need. I can make allowance for your age, as I said. What do you see in that girl? Just talk to me freely and plainly.'

'After all you have said,' replied Horace, his voice still shaky, 'what's the use? You seem to be convinced that there isn't a single good quality in her.'

'So I am. What I want to know is, what good you have found.'

'A great deal, else I shouldn't have asked her to marry me.'

A vein of stubbornness, unmistakable inheritance from Stephen Lord, had begun to appear in the youth's speech and bearing. He kept his head bent, and moved it a little from side to side.

'Do you think her an exception in the family, then?'

'She's a great deal better in every way than her sisters. But I don't think as badly of them as you do.'

Mr. Lord stepped to the door, and out into the passage, where he shouted in his deep voice 'Nancy!' The girl quickly appeared.

'Shut the door, please,' said her father. All three were now standing about the room. 'Your brother has brought me a piece of news. It ought to interest you, I should think. He wants to marry, and out of all the world, he has chosen Miss. French--the youngest.' Horace's position was trying. He did not know what to do with his hands, and he kept balancing now on one foot, now on the other. Nancy had her eyes averted from him, but she met her father's look gravely.

'Now, I want to ask you,' Mr. Lord proceeded, 'whether you consider Miss. French a suitable wife for your brother? Just give me a plain yes or no.'

'I certainly don't,' replied the girl, barely subduing the tremor of her voice.

'Both my children are not fools, thank Heaven! Now tell me, if you can, what fault you have to find with the "young lady," as your brother calls her?'

'For one thing, I don't think her Horace's equal. She can't really be called a lady.'

'You are listening?'

Horace bit his lip in mortification, and again his head swung doggedly from side to side.

'We might pass over that,' added Mr. Lord. 'What about her character? Is there any good point in her?'

'I don't think she means any harm. But she's silly, and I've often thought her selfish.'

'You are listening?'

Horace lost patience.

'Then why do you pretend to be friends with her?' he demanded almost fiercely.

'I don't,' replied his sister, with a note of disdain. 'We knew each other at school, and we haven't altogether broken off, that's all.'

'It isn't all!' shouted the young man on a high key. 'If you're not friendly with her and her sisters, you've been a great hypocrite. It's only just lately you have begun to think yourself too good for them. They used to come here, and you went to them; and you talked just like friends would do. It's abominable to turn round like this, for the sake of taking father's side against me!'

Mr. Lord regarded his son contemptuously. There was a rather long silence; he spoke at length with severe deliberation.

'When you are ten years older, you'll know a good deal more about young women as they're turned out in these times. You'll have heard the talk of men who have been fools enough to marry choice specimens. When common sense has a chance of getting in a word with you, you'll understand what I now tell you. Wherever you look now-a-days there's sham and rottenness; but the most worthless creature living is one of these trashy, flashy girls,--the kind of girl you see everywhere, high and low,--calling themselves "ladies,"--thinking themselves too good for any honest, womanly work. Town and country, it's all the same. They're educated; oh yes, they're educated! What sort of wives do they make, with their education? What sort of mothers are they? Before long, there'll be no such thing as a home. They don't know what the word means. They'd like to live in hotels, and trollop about the streets day and night. There won't be any servants much longer; you're lucky if you find one of the old sort, who knows how to light a fire or wash a dish. Go into the houses of men with small incomes; what do you find but filth and disorder, quarrelling and misery? Young men are bad enough, I know that; they want to begin where their fathers left off, and if they can't do it honestly, they'll embezzle or forge. But you'll often find there's a worthless wife at the bottom of it, --worrying and nagging because she has a smaller house than some other woman, because she can't get silks and furs, and wants to ride in a cab instead of an omnibus. It is astounding to me that they don't get their necks wrung. Only wait a bit; we shall come to that presently!'

It was a rare thing for Stephen Lord to talk at such length. He ceased with a bitter laugh, and sat down again in his chair. Horace and his sister waited.

'I've no more to say,' fell from their father at length. 'Go and talk about it together, if you like.'

Horace moved sullenly towards the door, and with a glance at his sister went out. Nancy, after lingering for a moment, spoke.

'I don't think you need have any fear of it, father.'

'Perhaps not. But if it isn't that one, it'll be another like her. There's not much choice for a lad like Horace.'

Nancy changed her purpose of leaving the room, and drew a step nearer.

'Don't you think there might have been?'

Mr. Lord turned to look at her.

'How? What do you mean?'

'I don't want to make you angry with me--'

'Say what you've got to say,' broke in her father impatiently.

'It isn't easy, when you so soon lose your temper.'

'My girl,'--for once he gazed at her directly,--'if you knew all I have gone through in life, you wouldn't wonder at my temper being spoilt.--What do you mean? What could I have done?'

She stood before him, and spoke with diffidence.

'Don't you think that if we had lived in a different way, Horace and I might have had friends of a better kind?'

'A different way?--I understand. You mean I ought to have had a big house, and made a show. Isn't that it?'

'You gave us a good education,' replied Nancy, still in the same tone, 'and we might have associated with very different people from those you have been speaking of; but education alone isn't enough. One must live as the better people do.'

'Exactly. That's your way of thinking. And how do you know that I could afford it, to begin with?'

'Perhaps I oughtn't to have taken that for granted.'

'Perhaps not. Young women take a good deal for granted now a-days. But supposing you were right, are you silly enough to think that richer people are better people, as a matter of course?'

'Not as a matter of course,' said Nancy. 'But I'm quite sure--I know from what I've seen--that there's more chance of meeting nice people among them.'

'What do you mean by "nice"?' Mr. Lord was lying back in his chair, and spoke thickly, as if wearied. 'People who can talk so that you forget they're only using words they've learnt like parrots?'

'No. Just the contrary. People who have something to say worth listening to.'

'If you take my advice, you'll pay less attention to what people say, and more to what they do. What's the good of a friend who won't come to see you because you live in a small house? That's the plain English of it. If I had done as I thought right, I should never have sent you to school at all. I should have had you taught at home all that's necessary to make a good girl and an honest woman, and have done my best to keep you away from the kind of life that I hate. But I hadn't the courage to act as I believed. I knew how the times were changing, and I was weak enough to be afraid I might do you an injustice. I did give you the chance of making friends among better people than your father. Didn't I use to talk to you about your school friends, and encourage you when they seemed of the right kind? And now you tell me that they don't care for your society because you live in a decent, unpretending way. I should think you're better without such friends.'

Nancy reflected, seemed about to prolong the argument, but spoke at length in another voice.

'Well, I will say good-night, father.'

It was not usual for them to see each other after dinner, so that a good-night could seldom be exchanged. The girl, drawing away, expected a response; she saw her father nod, but he said nothing.

'Good-night, father,' she repeated from a distance.

'Good-night, Nancy, good-night,' came in impatient reply.