In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part I: Miss. Lord
On Tuesday afternoon, when, beneath a cloudless sky, the great London highways reeked and roared in celebration of Jubilee, Nancy and her friend Miss. Morgan walked up Grove Lane to Champion Hill. Here and there a house had decked itself with colours of loyalty; otherwise the Lane was as quiet as usual.
Champion Hill is a gravel byway, overhung with trees; large houses and spacious gardens on either hand. Here the heat of the sun was tempered. A carriage rolled softly along; a nurse with well-dressed children loitered in the shade. One might have imagined it a country road, so profound the stillness and so leafy the prospect.
A year ago, Jessica Morgan had obtained a three months' engagement as governess to two little girls, who were sent under her care to the house of their grandmother at Teignmouth. Their father, Mr Vawdrey of Champion Hill, had recently lost his wife through an illness contracted at a horse-race, where the lady sat in wind and rain for some hours. The children knew little of what is learnt from books, but were surprisingly well informed on matters of which they ought to have known nothing; they talked of theatres and race-courses, of 'the new murderer' at Tussaud's, of police-news, of notorious spendthrifts and demi-reps; discussed their grown-up acquaintances with precocious understanding, and repeated scandalous insinuations which could have no meaning for them. Jessica was supposed to teach them for two hours daily; she found it an impossibility. Nevertheless a liking grew up between her and her charges, and, save by their refusal to study, the children gave her no trouble; they were abundantly good-natured, they laughed and sported all day long, and did their best to put life into the pale, overworked governess.
Whilst living thus at the seaside, Jessica was delighted by the arrival of Nancy Lord, who came to Teignmouth for a summer holiday. With her came Mary Woodruff. The faithful servant had been ill; Mr Lord sent her down into Devon to make a complete recovery, and to act as Nancy's humble chaperon. Nancy's stay was for three weeks. The friends saw a great deal of each other, and Miss. Lord had the honour of being presented to Mrs. Tarrant, the old lady with whom Jessica lived, Mr. Vawdrey's mother-in-law. At the age of three score and ten, Mrs. Tarrant still led an active life, and talked with great volubility, chiefly of herself; Nancy learnt from her that she had been married at seventeen, and had had two children, a son and a daughter, both deceased; of relatives there remained to her only Mr Vawdrey and his family, and a grandson, Lionel Tarrant.
One evening, as Jessica returned from a ramble with the children, they encountered a young man who was greeted, without much fervour, as 'cousin Lionel.' Mr. Tarrant professed himself merely a passing visitant; he had come to inquire after the health of his grandmother, and in a day or two must keep an appointment with friends elsewhere. Notwithstanding this announcement, he remained at Teignmouth for a fortnight, exhibiting a pious assiduity in his attendance upon the old lady. Naturally, he made acquaintance with Miss. Lord, whom his cousins regarded as a great acquisition, so vivacious was she, so ready to take part in any kind of lively amusement. Mr. Tarrant had been at Oxford; his speech was marked with the University accent; he talked little, and seemed to prefer his own society. In conversation with Nancy, though scrupulously courteous and perfectly good-natured, he never forgot that she was the friend of his cousins' governess, that their intercourse must be viewed as an irregular sort of thing, and that it behoved him to support his dignity whilst condescending to a social inferior. So, at all events, it struck Miss. Lord, very sensitive in such matters. Fond of fitting people with nicknames, she called this young man sometimes 'His Royal Highness,' sometimes 'His Majesty.'
Of Mr. Tarrant's station in life nothing was discovered. His grandmother, though seemingly in possession of ample means, betrayed an indifferent education, and in her flow of gossip never referred to ancestral dignities, never made mention of the calling her husband had pursued. Mr. Vawdrey was known to be 'in business,'--a business which must be tolerably lucrative.
On their return to London, the children passed from Miss. Morgan's care into that of Mrs. Baker, who kept house for the widower at Champion Hill; but Jessica did not wholly lose sight of them, and, at their request, she persuaded Nancy Lord to make an occasional call with her. Mrs. Baker (relict, it was understood, of a military officer who had fallen in Eastern warfare) behaved to the young ladies with much friendliness. They did not meet Mr. Vawdrey.
Early in the following year, old Mrs. Tarrant, forsaking Teignmouth, came to live under her son-in-law's roof; the winter had tried her health, and henceforth she seldom left home.
To-day, as on former occasions (only two or three in all), Nancy was reluctant to approach the big house; its imposing front made her feel that she came only on sufferance; probably even Mrs. Baker did not regard her as having a right to call here on terms of equality. Yet the place touched her curiosity and her imagination; she liked to study the luxurious appointments within, and to walk about the neglected but pleasant garden, quiet and secluded as if whole counties divided it from Camberwell. In the hall she and Jessica were at once welcomed by the children, who first informed them that tea would be served out of doors, and next made known that 'cousin Lionel' was here, in Mrs. Tarrant's drawing-room. The second piece of news vexed Nancy; she resolved never to come again, unless on formal invitation.
Mrs. Baker, an agreeable woman, received them as if she were the mistress of the house. With Jessica she chatted about matters examinational, which she seemed thoroughly to understand; with Miss Lord she talked of wider subjects, in a tone not unpleasing to Nancy, seeing that it presumed, on her part, some knowledge of the polite world. It was observable that Mr. Vawdrey's daughters had benefited by the superintendence of this lady; they no longer gossiped loudly about murders and scandals, but demeaned themselves more as became their years.
On the arrival of other ladies to call upon Mrs. Baker, the children drew their friends away into the garden, where tea now awaited them. Amid the trees and flowers time passed not unpleasantly, until, on happening to turn her head, Nancy perceived at a distance the approaching figure of Mr. Lionel Tarrant. He sauntered over the grass with easy, indolent step; his straw hat and light lounge costume (excellent tailoring) suited the season and the place. Jessica, who regarded the young man with something of awe, stood up to shake hands, but Miss. Lord kept her place in the garden chair.
'Did you see the procession?' Tarrant inquired. 'Ah, then I can give you very important news--thrilling news. I know the colour of the Queen's bonnet, and of her parasol.'
'Please don't keep us in suspense,' said Nancy.
'They were of pale primrose. Touching, don't you think?'
He had seated himself crosswise on a camp-stool, and seemed to be admiring the contour of his brown boots. Lionel's age was not more than seven-and-twenty; he enjoyed sound health, and his face signified contentment with the scheme of things as it concerned himself; but a chronic languor possessed him. It might be sheer laziness, possibly a result of that mental habit, discernible In his look, whereby he had come to regard his own judgment as the criterion of all matters in heaven and earth. Yet the conceit which relaxed his muscles was in the main amiable; it never repelled as does the conceit of a fop or a weakling or a vulgar person; he could laugh heartily, even with his own affectations for a source of amusement. Of personal vanity he had little, though women esteemed him good-looking; his steady, indolent gaze made denial of such preoccupation. Nor could he be regarded as emasculate; his movements merely disguised the natural vigour of a manly frame, and his conversational trifling hinted an intellectual reserve, a latent power of mind, obvious enough in the lines of his countenance.
Nancy was excusable for supposing that he viewed her slightingly. He spoke as one who did not expect to be quite understood by such a hearer, addressing her, without the familiarity, much as he addressed his young cousins. To her, his careful observance of formalities seemed the reverse of flattering; she felt sure that with young women in his own circle he would allow himself much more freedom. Whether the disparagement applied to her intellect or to her social status might be a question; Nancy could not decide which of the two she would prefer. Today an especial uneasiness troubled her from the first moment of his appearance; she felt a stronger prompting than hitherto to assert herself, and, if possible, to surprise Mr. Tarrant. But, as if he understood her thought, his manner became only more bland, his calm aloofness more pronounced.
The children, who were never at ease in their cousin's presence, succeeded in drawing Jessica apart, and chattered to her about the educational methods imposed by Mrs. Baker, airing many grievances. They nourished a hope that Miss. Morgan might again become their governess; lessons down at Teignmouth had been nothing like so oppressive as here at Champion Hill.
Tarrant, meanwhile, having drunk a cup of tea, and touched his moustache with a silk handkerchief, transferred himself from the camp-stool to the basket chair vacated by Jessica. He was now further from Nancy, but facing her.
'I have been talking with Mrs. Bellamy,' fell from him, in the same tone of idle good nature. 'Do you know her? She has but one subject of conversation; an engrossing topic, to be sure; namely, her servants. Do you give much thought to the great servant question? I have my own modest view of the matter. It may not be novel, but my mind has worked upon it in the night watches.'
Nancy, resolved not to smile, found herself smiling. Not so much at what he said, as at the manner of it. Her resentment was falling away; she felt the influence of this imperturbable geniality.
'Shall I tell you my theory?'
He talked with less reserve than on the last occasion when they had sat together. The mellow sunlight, the garden odours, the warm, still air, favoured a growth of intimacy.
'By all means,' was Nancy's reply.
'We must begin by admitting that the ordinary woman hates nothing so much as to have another woman set in authority over her.' He paused, and laughed lazily. 'Now, before the triumph of glorious Democracy, only those women kept servants who were capable of rule,--who had by birth the instinct of authority. They knew themselves the natural superiors of their domestics, and went through an education fitting them to rule. Things worked very well; no servant-difficulty existed. Now-a-days, every woman who can afford it must have another woman to wait upon her, no matter how silly, or vulgar, or depraved she may be; the result, of course, is a spirit of rebellion in the kitchen. Who could have expected anything else?'
Nancy played with a dandelion she had plucked, and gave sign neither of assent nor disagreement.
'Mrs. Bellamy,' continued the young man, 'marvels that servants revolt against her. What could be more natural? The servants have learnt that splendid doctrine that every one is as good as everybody else, and Mrs. Bellamy is by no means the person to make them see things differently. And this kind of thing is going on in numberless houses--an utterly incompetent mistress and a democratic maid in spirited revolt. The incompetents, being in so vast a majority, will sooner or later spoil all the servants in the country.'
'You should make an article of it,' said Nancy, 'and send it to The Nineteenth Century.'
'So I might.' He paused, and added casually, 'You read The Nineteenth Century?'
'Now and then.'
Nancy felt herself an impostor, for of leading reviews she knew little more than the names. And Tarrant's look, so steady, yet so good-tempered, disturbed her conscience with the fear that he saw through her. She was coming wretchedly out of this dialogue, in which she had meant to make a figure.
He changed the subject; was it merely to spare her?
'Shall you go to Teignmouth again this year?'
'I don't know yet. I think not.'
Silence followed. Tarrant, to judge from his face, was absorbed in pleasant thought; Nancy, on the other hand, felt so ill at ease that she was on the point of rising, when his voice checked her.
'I have an idea'--he spoke dreamily--'of going to spend next winter in the Bahamas.'
'Why the Bahamas?'
Speaking with all the carelessness she could command, Nancy shivered a little. Spite of her 'culture,' she had but the vaguest notion where the Bahamas were. To betray ignorance would be dreadful. A suspicion awoke in her that Tarrant, surprised by her seeming familiarity with current literature, was craftily testing the actual quality of her education. Upon the shiver followed a glow, and, in fear lest her cheeks would redden, she grew angry.
He was replying.
'Partly because it is a delightful winter climate; partly because I have a friend there; partly because the islands are interesting. A man I knew at Oxford has gone out there, and is likely to stay. His father owns nearly the whole of an island; and as he's in very bad health, my friend may soon come into possession. When he does, he's going to astonish the natives.'
A vision of savages flashed before Nancy's mind. She breathed more freely, thinking the danger past.
'Simply by making a fortune out of an estate that is lying all but barren. Before the emancipation of the niggers, the Bahamas flourished wonderfully; now they are fallen to decay, and ruled, so far as I understand it, by a particularly contemptible crew of native whites, who ought all to be kicked into the sea. My friend's father is a man of no energy; he calls himself magistrate, coroner, superintendent of the customs, and a dozen other things, but seems to have spent his time for years in lying about, smoking and imbibing. His son, I'm afraid, waits impatiently for the old man's removal to a better world. He believes there are immense possibilities of trade.'
Trying hard to recollect her geography, Miss. Lord affected but a slight interest.
'There's no direct way of getting there,' Tarrant pursued. 'What route should you suggest?'
She was right, after all. He wished to convict her of ignorance. Her cheeks were now burning, beyond a doubt, and she felt revengeful.
'I advise you to make inquiries at a shipping-office,' was her distant reply.
'It seems'--he was smiling at Nancy--'I shall have to go to New York, and then take the Cuba mail.'
'Are you going to join your friend in business?'
'Business, I fear, is hardly my vocation.'
There was a tremor on Nancy's lips, and about her eyelids. She said abruptly:
'I thought you were perhaps in business?'
'Did you? What suggested it?'
Tarrant looked fixedly at her; in his expression, as in his voice, she detected a slight disdain, and that decided her to the utterance of the next words.
'Oh'--she had assumed an ingenuous air--'there's the Black Lead that bears your name. Haven't you something to do with it?'
She durst not watch him, but a change of his countenance was distinctly perceptible, and for the moment caused her a keen gratification. His eyes had widened, his lips had set themselves; he looked at once startled and mortified.
'Black lead?' The words fell slowly, in a voice unlike that she had been hearing. 'No. I have nothing to do with it.'
The silence was dreadful. Nancy endeavoured to rise, but her limbs would not do their office. Then, her eyes fixed on the grass, she became aware that Tarrant himself had stood up.
'Where are the children?' he was saying absently.
He descried them afar off with Miss. Morgan, and began to saunter in that direction. As soon as his back was turned, Nancy rose and began to walk towards the house. In a few moments Jessica and the girls were with her.
'I think we must go,' she said.
They entered, and took leave of Mrs. Baker, who sat alone in the drawing-room.
'Did you say good-bye to Mr. Tarrant?' Jessica asked, as they came forth again.
'I didn't. But I suppose it doesn't matter.'
Nancy had thought of telling her friend what she had done, of boasting that she had asked the impossible question. But now she felt ashamed of herself, and something more than ashamed. Never again could she enter this garden. And it seemed to her that, by a piece of outrageous, of wanton, folly, she had for ever excluded herself from the society of all 'superior' people.