In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing
Part II: Nature's Graduate
The disorder which Stephen Lord masked as a 'touch of gout' had in truth a much more disagreeable name. It was now twelve months since his doctor's first warning, directed against the savoury meats and ardent beverages which constituted his diet; Stephen resolved upon a change of habits, but the flesh held him in bondage, and medical prophecy was justified by the event. All through Jubilee Day he suffered acutely; for the rest of the week he remained at home, sometimes sitting in the garden, but generally keeping his room, where he lay on a couch.
A man of method and routine, sedentary, with a strong dislike of unfamiliar surroundings, he could not be persuaded to try change of air. The disease intensified his native stubbornness, made him by turns fretful and furious, disposed him to a sullen solitude. He would accept no tendance but that of Mary Woodruff; to her, as to his children, he kept up the pretence of gout. He was visited only by Samuel Barmby, with whom he discussed details of business, and by Mr. Barmby, senior, his friend of thirty years, the one man to whom he unbosomed himself.
His effort to follow the regimen medically prescribed to him was even now futile. At the end of a week's time, imagining himself somewhat better, he resumed his daily walk to Camberwell Road, but remained at the warehouse only till two or three o'clock, then returned and sat alone in his room. On one of the first days of July, when the weather was oppressively hot, he entered the house about noon, and in a few minutes rang his bell. Mary Woodruff came to him. He was sitting on the couch, pale, wet with perspiration, and exhausted.
'I want something to drink,' he said wearily, without raising his eyes.
'Will you have the lime-water, sir?'
'Yes--what you like.'
Mary brought it to him, and he drank two large glasses, with no pause.
'Where is Nancy?'
'In town, sir. She said she would be back about four.'
He made an angry movement.
'What's she doing in town? She said nothing to me. Why doesn't she come back to lunch? Where does she go to for all these hours?'
'I don't know, sir.'
The servant spoke in a low, respectful voice, looking at her master with eyes that seemed to compassionate him.
'Well, it doesn't matter.' He waved a hand, as if in dismissal. 'Wait--if I'm to be alone, I might as well have lunch now. I feel hungry, as if I hadn't eaten anything for twenty-four hours. Get me something, Mary.'
Later in the afternoon his bell again sounded, and Mary answered it. As he did not speak at once,--he was standing by the window with his hands behind him,--she asked him his pleasure.
'Bring me some water, Mary, plain drinking-water.'
She returned with a jug and glass, and he took a long draught.
'No, don't go yet. I want to--to talk to you about things. Sit down there for a minute.'
He pointed to the couch, and Mary, with an anxious look, obeyed him.
'I'm thinking of leaving this house, and going to live in the country. There's no reason why I shouldn't. My partner can look after the business well enough.'
'It might be the best thing you could do, sir. The best for your health.'
'Yes, it might. I'm not satisfied with things. I want to make a decided change, in every way.'
His face had grown more haggard during the last few days, and his eyes wandered, expressing fretfulness or fear; he spoke with effort, and seemed unable to find the words that would convey his meaning.
'Now I want you to tell me plainly, what do you think of Nancy?'
'Think of her, sir?'
'No, no--don't speak in that way. I don't want you to call me 'sir'; it isn't necessary; we've known each other so long, and I think of you as a friend, a very good friend. Think of me in the same way, and speak naturally. I want to know your opinion of Nancy.'
The listener had a face of grave attention: it signified no surprise, no vulgar self-consciousness, but perhaps a just perceptible pleasure. And in replying she looked steadily at her master for a moment.
'I really don't feel I can judge her, Mr. Lord. It's true, in a way, I ought to know her very well, as I've seen her day by day since she was a little thing. But now she's a well-educated and clever young lady, and she has got far beyond me--'
'Ay, there it is, there it is!' Stephen interrupted with bitterness. 'She's got beyond us--beyond me as well as you. And she isn't what I meant her to be, very far from it. I haven't brought them up as I wished. I don't know--I'm sure I don't know why. It was in own hands. When they were little children, I said to myself: hey shall grow up plain, good, honest girl and boy. I said that I wouldn't educate them very much; I saw little good that came of it, in our rank of life. I meant them to be simple-minded. I hoped Nancy would marry a plain countryman, like the men I used to know when I was a boy; a farmer, or something of that kind. But see how it's come about. It wasn't that I altered my mind about what was best. But I seemed to have no choice. For one thing, I made more money at business than I had expected, and so--and so it seemed that they ought to be educated above me and mine. There was my mother, did a better woman ever live? She had no education but that of home. She could have brought up Nancy in the good, old-fashioned way, if I had let her. I wish I had, yes, I wish I had.'
'I don't think you could have felt satisfied,' said the listener, with intelligent sympathy.
'Why not? If she had been as good and useful a woman as you are--'
'Ah, you mustn't think in that way, Mr. Lord. I was born and bred to service. Your daughter had a mind given her at her birth, that would never have been content with humble things. She was meant for education and a higher place.'
'What higher place is there for her? She thinks herself too good for the life she leads here, and yet I don't believe she'll ever find a place among people of a higher class. She has told me herself it's my fault. She says I ought to have had a big house for her, so that she might make friends among the rich. Perhaps she's right. I have made her neither one thing nor another. Mary, if I had never come to London, I might have lived happily. My place was away there, in the old home. I've known that for many a year. I've thought: wait till I've made a little more money, and I'll go back. But it was never done; and now it looks to me as if I had spoilt the lives of my children, as well as my own. I can't trust Nancy, that's the worst of it. You don't know what she did on Jubilee night. She wasn't with Mr. Barmby and the others--Barmby told me about it; she pretended to lose them, and went off somewhere to meet a man she's never spoken to me about. Is that how a good girl would act? I didn't speak to her about it; what use? Very likely she wouldn't tell me the truth. She takes it for granted I can't understand her. She thinks her education puts her above all plain folk and their ways-- that's it.'
Mary's eyes had fallen, and she kept silence.
'Suppose anything happened to me, and they were left to themselves. I have money to leave between them, and of course they know it. How could it do them anything but harm? Do you know that Horace wants to marry that girl Fanny French--a grinning, chattering fool--if not worse. He has told me he shall do as he likes. Whether or no it was right to educate Nancy, I am very sure that I ought to have done with him as I meant at first. He hasn't the brains to take a good position. When his schooling went on year after year, I thought at last to make of him something better than his father--a doctor, or a lawyer. But he hadn't the brains: he disappointed me bitterly. And what use can he make of my money, when I'm in my grave? If I die soon he'll marry, and ruin his life. And won't it be the same with Nancy? Some plotting, greedy fellow--the kind of man you see everywhere now-a-days, will fool her for the money's sake.'
'We must hope they'll be much older and wiser before they have to act for themselves,' said Mary, looking into her master's troubled face.
'Yes!' He came nearer to her, with a sudden hopefulness. 'And whether I live much longer or not, I can do something to guard them against their folly. They needn't have the money as soon as I am gone.'
He seated himself in front of his companion.
'I want to ask you something, Mary. If they were left alone, would you be willing to live here still, as you do now, for a few more years?'
'I shall do whatever you wish--whatever you bid me, Mr. Lord,' answered the woman, in a voice of heartfelt loyalty.
'You would stay on, and keep house for them?'
'But would they go on living here?'
'I could make them do so. I could put it down as a condition, in my will. At all events, I would make Nancy stay. Horace might live where he liked--though not with money to throw about. They have no relatives that could be of any use to them. I should wish Nancy to go on living here, and you with her; and she would only have just a sufficient income, paid by my old friend Barmby, or by his son. And that till she was--what? I have thought of six-and-twenty. By that time she would either have learnt wisdom, or she never would. She must be free sooner or later.'
'But she couldn't live by herself, Mr. Lord.'
'You tell me you would stay,' he exclaimed impulsively.
'Oh, but I am only her servant. That wouldn't be enough.'
'It would be. Your position shall be changed. There's no one living to whom I could trust her as I could to you. There's no woman I respect so much. For twenty years you have proved yourself worthy of respect--and it shall be paid to you.'
His vehemence would brook no opposition.
'You said you would do as I wished. I wish you to have a new position in this house. You shall no longer be called a servant; you shall be our housekeeper, and our friend. I will have it, I tell you!' he cried angrily. 'You shall sit at table with us, and live with us. Nancy still has sense enough to acknowledge that this is only your just reward; from her, I know, there won't be a word of objection. What can you have to say against it?'
The woman was pale with emotion. Her reserve and sensibility shrank from what seemed to her an invidious honour, yet she durst not irritate the sick man by opposition.
'It will make Nancy think,' he pursued, with emphasis. 'It will help her, perhaps, to see the difference between worthless women who put themselves forward, and the women of real value who make no pretences. Perhaps it isn't too late to set good examples before her. I've never found her ill-natured, though she's wilful; it isn't her heart that's wrong--I hope and think not--only her mind, that's got stuffed with foolish ideas. Since her grandmother's death she's had no guidance. You shall talk to her as a woman can; not all at once, but when she's used to thinking of you in this new way.'
'You are forgetting her friends,' Mary said at length, with eyes of earnest appeal.
'Her friends? She's better without such friends. There's one thing I used to hope, but I've given it up. I thought once that she might have come to a liking for Samuel Barmby, but now I don't think she ever will, and I believe it's her friends that are to blame for it. One thing I know, that she'll never meet with any one who will make her so good a husband as he would. We don't think alike in every way; he's a young man, and has the new ideas; but I've known him since he was a boy, and I respect his character. He has a conscience, which is no common thing now-a-days. He lives a clean, homely life--and you won't find many of his age who do. Nancy thinks herself a thousand times too good for him; I only hope he mayn't prove a great deal too good for her. But I've given up that thought. I've never spoken to her about it, and I never shall; no good comes of forcing a girl's inclination. I only tell you of it, Mary, because I want you to understand what has been going on.'
They heard a bell ring; that of the front door.
'It'll be Miss. Nancy,' said Mary, rising.
'Go to the door then. If it's Nancy, tell her I want to speak to her, and come back yourself.'
'Do as I tell you--at once!'
All the latent force of Stephen's character now declared itself. He stood upright, his face stern and dignified. In a few moments, Nancy entered the room, and Mary followed her at a distance.
'Nancy,' said the father, 'I want to tell you of a change in the house. You know that Mary has been with us for twenty years. You know that for a long time we haven't thought of her as a servant, but as a friend, and one of the best possible. It's time now to show our gratitude. Mary will continue to help us as before, but henceforth she is one of our family. She will eat with us and sit with us; and I look to you, my girl, to make the change an easy and pleasant one for her.'
As soon as she understood the drift of her father's speech, Nancy experienced a shock, and could not conceal it. But when silence came, she had commanded herself. An instant's pause; then, with her brightest smile, she turned to Mary and spoke in a voice of kindness.
'Father is quite right. Your place is with us. I am glad, very glad.'
Mary looked from Mr. Lord to his daughter, tried vainly to speak, and left the room.