In the Year of Jubilee
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.'
'Mr Lord ----'
'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.
His father's contemptuous wrath had an ill effect upon Horace. Of an amiable disposition, and without independence of character, he might have been guided by a judicious parent through all the perils of his calf-love for Fanny French; thrown upon his own feeble resources, he regarded himself as a victim of the traditional struggle between prosaic age and nobly passionate youth, and resolved at all hazards to follow the heroic course -- which meant, first of all, a cold taciturnity towards his father, and, as to his future conduct, a total disregard of the domestic restraints which he had hitherto accepted. In a day or two he sat down and wrote his father a long letter, of small merit as a composition, and otherwise illustrating the profitless nature of the education for which Stephen Lord had hopefully paid. It began with a declaration of rights. He was a man; he could no longer submit to childish trammels. A man must not be put to inconvenience by the necessity of coming home at early hours. A man could not brook cross-examination on the subject of his intimacies, his expenditure, and so forth. Above all, a man was answerable to no one but himself for his relations with the other sex, for the sacred hopes he cherished, for his emotions and aspirations which transcended even a man's vocabulary. -- With much more of like tenor.
To this epistle, delivered by post, Mr Lord made no answer.
Horace flattered himself that he had gained a victory. There was nothing like 'firmness,' and that evening, about nine, he went to De Crespigny Park. As usual, he had to ring the bell two or three times before any one came; the lively notes of a piano sounded from the drawing-room, intimating, no doubt, that Mrs Peachey had guests. The door at length opened, and he bade the servant let Miss Fanny know that he was here; he would wait in the dining-room.
It was not yet dark, but objects could only just be distinguished; the gloom supplied Horace with a suggestion at which he laughed to himself. He had laid down his hat and cane, when a voice surprised him.
'Who's that?' asked some one from the back of the room.
'Oh, are you there, Mr Peachey? -- I've come to see Fanny. I didn't care to go among the people.'
'All right. We'd better light the gas.'
With annoyance, Horace saw the master of the house come forward, and strike a match. Remains of dinner were still on the table. The two exchanged glances.
'How is your father?' Peachey inquired. He had a dull, depressed look, and moved languidly to draw down the blind.
'Oh, he isn't quite up to the mark. But it's nothing serious, I think.'
'Miss Lord quite well? -- We haven't seen much of her lately.'
'I don't know why, I'm sure. -- Nobody can depend upon her very much.'
'Well, I'll leave you,' said the other, with a dreary look about the room. 'The table ought to have been cleared by now -- but that's nothing new.'
'Confounded servants,' muttered Horace.
'Oh yes, the servants,' was Peachey's ironical reply.
As soon as he was left alone, Horace turned out the gas. Then he stood near the door, trembling with amorous anticipation. But minutes went by; his impatience grew intolerable; he stamped, and twisted his fingers together. Then of a sudden the door opened.
'Why, it's dark, there's nobody here.'
Fanny discovered her mistake. She was seized and lifted off her feet.
'Oh! Do you want to eat me? I'll hit you as hard as I can, I will! You're spoiling my dress?'
The last remonstrance was in a note that Horace did not venture to disregard.
'Strike a light, silly! I know you've done something to my dress.'
Horace pleaded abjectly to be forgiven, and that the room might remain shadowed; but Fanny was disturbed in temper.
'If you don't light the gas, I'll go at once.'
'I haven't any matches, darling.'
'Oh, just like you! You never have anything. I thought every man carried matches.'
She broke from him, and ran out. Wretched in the fear that she might not return, Horace waited on the threshold. In the drawing-room some one was singing 'The Maid of the Mill.' It came to an end, and there sounded voices, which the tormented listener strove to recognise. For at least ten minutes he waited, and was all but frantic, when the girl made her appearance, coming downstairs.
'Never do that again,' she said viciously. 'I've had to unfasten my things, and put them straight. What a nuisance you are!'
He stood cowed before her, limp and tremulous.
'There, light the gas. Why couldn't you come into the drawing-room, like other people do?'
'Who is there?' asked the young man, when he had obeyed her.
'Go and see for yourself.'
'Don't be angry, Fanny.' He followed her, like a dog, as she walked round the table to look at herself in the mirror over the fireplace. 'It was only because I'm so fond of you.'
'Oh, what a silly you are!' she laughed, seating herself on the arm of an easy-chair. 'Go ahead! What's the latest?'
'Well, for one thing, I've had a very clear understanding with the gov'nor about my independence. I showed him that I meant having my own way, and he might bully as much as he liked.'
It was not thus that Horace would naturally have spoken, not thus that he thought of his father. Fanny had subdued him to her own level, poisoned him with the desires excited by her presence. And he knew his baseness; he was not ignorant of the girl's ignoble nature. Only the fury of a virgin passion enabled him to talk, and sometimes think, as though he were in love with ideal purity.
'I didn't think you had the pluck,' said Fanny, swinging one of her feet as she tittered.
'That shows you haven't done me justice.'
'And you're going to stay out late at night?'
'As late as I like,' Horace answered, crossing his arms.
'Then where will you take me to-morrow?'
It happened that Horace was in funds just now; he had received his quarter's salary. Board and lodging were no expense to him; he provided his own clothing, but, with this exception, had to meet no serious claim. So, in reply to Fanny's characteristic question, he jingled coins.
'Wherever you like. -- "Dorothy," "Ruddigore ----"'
Delighted with his assent, she became more gracious, permitted a modest caress, and presently allowed herself to be drawn on to her lover's knee. She was passive, unconcerned; no second year graduate of the pavement could have preserved a completer equanimity; it did not appear that her pulse quickened ever so slightly, nor had her eyelid the suspicion of a droop. She hummed 'Queen of my Heart,' and grew absent in speculative thought, whilst Horace burned and panted at the proximity of her white flesh.
'Oh, how I do love you, Fanny!'
She trod playfully on his toe.
'You haven't told the old gentleman yet?'
'I -- I'm thinking about it. But, Fanny, suppose he was to -- to refuse to do anything for us. Would it make any difference? There are lots of people who marry on a hundred and fifty a year -- oh lots!'
The maiden arched her brows, and puckered her lips. Hitherto it had been taken for granted that Mr Lord would be ready with subsidy; Horace, in a large, vague way, had hinted that assurance long ago. Fanny's disinclination to plight her troth -- she still deemed herself absolutely free -- had alone interfered between the young man and a definite project of marriage.
'What kind of people?' she asked coldly.
'Oh -- respectable, educated people, like ourselves.'
'And live in apartments? Thank you; I don't quite see myself. There isn't a bit of hurry, dear boy. Wait a bit.' She began to sing 'Wait till the clouds roll by.'
'If you thought as much of me as I do of you ----'
Tired of her position, Fanny jumped up and took a spoonful of sweet jelly from a dish on the table.
'Come here again. I've something more to tell you. Something very important.'
She could only be prevailed upon to take a seat near him. Horace, beset with doubts as to his prudence, but unable to keep the secret, began to recount the story of his meeting with Mrs Damerel, whom he had now seen for the second time. Fanny's curiosity, instantly awakened, grew eager as he proceeded. She questioned with skill and pertinacity, and elicited many more details than Nancy Lord had been able to gather.
'You'll promise me not to say a word to any one?' pleaded Horace.
'I won't open my lips. But you're quite sure she's as old as you say?'
'Old enough to be my mother, I assure you.'
The girl's suspicions were not wholly set at rest, but she made no further display of them.
'Now just think what an advantage it might be to you, to know her,' Horace pursued. 'She'd introduce you at once to fashionable society, really tip-top people. How would you like that?'
'Not bad,' was the judicial reply.
'She must have no end of money, and who knows what she might do for me!'
'It's a jolly queer thing,' mused the maiden.
'There's no denying that. We must keep it close, whatever we do.'
'You haven't told anybody else?'
'Not a soul!' Horace lied stoutly.
They were surprised by the sudden opening of the door; a servant appeared to clear the table. Fanny reprimanded her for neglecting to knock.
'We may as well go into the drawing-room. There's nobody particular. Only Mrs Middlemist, and Mr Crewe, and ----'
In the hall they encountered Crewe himself, who stood there conversing with Beatrice. A few words were exchanged by the two men, and Horace followed his enchantress into the drawing-room, where he found, seated in conversation with Mrs Peachey, two persons whom he had occasionally met here. One of them, Mrs Middlemist, was a stout, coarse, high-coloured woman, with fingers much bejewelled. Until a year or two ago she had adorned the private bar of a public-house kept by her husband; retired from this honourable post, she now devoted herself to society and the domestic virtues. The other guest, Mrs Murch by name, proclaimed herself, at a glance, of less prosperous condition, though no less sumptuously arrayed. Her face had a hungry, spiteful, leering expression; she spoke in a shrill, peevish tone, and wriggled nervously on her chair. In eleven years of married life, Mrs Murch had borne six children, all of whom died before they were six months old. She lived apart from her husband, who had something to do with the manufacture of an Infants' Food.
Fanny was requested to sing. She sat down at the piano, rattled a prelude, and gave forth an echo of the music-halls:
Mrs Middlemist, who prided herself upon serious vocal powers, remarked that comic singing should be confined to men.
'You haven't a bad voice, my dear, if you would only take pains with it. Now sing us "For Ever and for Ever."'
This song being the speaker's peculiar glory, she was of course requested to sing it herself, and, after entreaty, consented. Her eyes turned upward, her fat figure rolling from side to side, her mouth very wide open, Mrs Middlemist did full justice to the erotic passion of this great lyric:
Mrs Murch let her head droop sentimentally. Horace glanced at Fanny, who, however, seemed absorbed in reflections as unsentimental as could be.
In the meanwhile, on a garden seat under the calm but misty sky, sat Luckworth Crewe and Beatrice French. Crewe smoked a cigar placidly; Beatrice was laying before him the suggestion of her great commercial scheme, already confided to Fanny.
'How does it strike you?' she asked at length.
'Not bad, old chap. There's something in it, if you're clever enough to carry it through. And I shouldn't wonder if you are.'
'Will you help to set it going?'
'Can't help with money,' Crewe replied.
'Very well; will you help in other ways? Practical hints, and so on?'
'Of course I will. Always ready to encourage merit in the money-making line. What capital are you prepared to put into it?'
'Not much. The public must supply the capital.'
'A sound principle,' Crewe laughed. 'But I shouldn't go on the old lines. You didn't think of starting a limited company? You'd find difficulties. Now what you want to start is a -- let us call it the South London Dress Supply Association, or something of that kind. But you won't get to that all at once. You ought to have premises to begin with.'
'I'm aware of it.'
'Can you raise a thousand or so?'
'Yes, I could -- if I chose.'
'Now, look here. Your notion of the Fashion Club is a deuced good one, and I don't see why it shouldn't be pretty easily started. Out of every five hundred women, you can reckon on four hundred and ninety-nine being fools; and there isn't a female fool who wouldn't read and think about a circular which promised her fashionable dresses for an unfashionable price. That's a great and sound basis to start on. What I advise is, that you should first of all advertise for a dress-making concern that would admit a partner with a small capital. You'll have between ten and twelve hundred replies, but don't be staggered; go through them carefully, and select a shop that's well situated, and doing a respectable trade. Get hold of these people, and induce them to make changes in their business to suit your idea. Then blaze away with circulars, headed "South London Fashion Club;" send them round the whole district, addressed to women. Every idiot of them will, at all events, come and look at the shop; that can be depended upon; in itself no bad advertisement. Arrange to have a special department -- special entrance, if possible -- with "The Club" painted up. Yes, by jingo! Have a big room, with comfortable chairs, and the women's weekly papers lying about, and smart dresses displayed on what-d'ye-call-'ems, like they have in windows. Make the subscription very low at first, and give rattling good value; never mind if you lose by it. Then, when you've got hold of a lot of likely people, try them with the share project. By-the-bye, if you lose no time, you can bring in the Jubilee somehow. Yes, start with the "Jubilee Fashion Club." I wonder nobody's done it already.'
Beatrice was growing elated.
'The public has to wait for its benefactors,' she replied.
'I'll tell you what, would you like me to sketch you out a prospectus of the Club?'
'Yes, you might do that if you like. You won't expect to be paid?'
'Hang it! what do you take me for?'
'Business is business,' Miss French remarked coldly.
'So it is. And friendship is friendship. Got a match?' He laughed. 'No, I suppose you haven't.'
'I'll go and get you one if you like.'
'There's a good fellow. I'll think in the meantime.'
Beatrice rose lazily, and was absent for several minutes. When she returned, Crewe re-lit his cigar.
'Why shouldn't I start the shop on my own account?' Beatrice asked.
'You haven't capital enough. A little place wouldn't do.'
'I think I can get Fanny to join me.'
'Can you? What will young Lord have to say to that?'
'Psh! That's all fooling. It'll never come to anything. Unless, of course, the old man turned up his toes, and left the boy a tidy sum. But he won't just yet. I've told Fanny that if she'll raise something on her houses, I'll guarantee her the same income she has now.'
'Take my advice,' said Crewe weightily, 'and hook on to an established business. Of course, you can change the name if you like; and there'd have to be alterations, and painting up, to give a new look.'
'It's risky, dealing with strangers. How if they got hold of my idea, and then refused to take me in?'
'Well now, look here. After all, I'll make a bargain with you, old chap. If I can introduce you to the right people, and get you safely started, will you give me all your advertising, on the usual commission?'
'You mean, give it to Bullock and Freeman?'
'No, I don't. It's a secret just yet, but I'm going to start for myself.'
Beatrice was silent. They exchanged a look in the gloom, and Crewe nodded, in confirmation of his announcement.
'How much have you got?' Miss French inquired carelessly.
'Not much. Most of the capital is here.' He touched his forehead. 'Same as with you.'
The young woman glanced at him again, and said in a lower voice:
'You'd have had more by now, if ----'
Crewe waited, puffing his cigar, but she did not finish.
'Maybe,' he replied impartially. 'Maybe not.'
'Don't think I'm sorry,' Beatrice hastened to add. 'It was an idea, like any other.'
'Not half a bad idea. But there were obstacles.'
After a pause, Beatrice inquired:
'Do you still think the same about women with money?'
'Just the same,' Crewe replied at once, though with less than his usual directness; the question seemed to make him meditative. 'Just the same. Every man looks at it in his own way, of course. I'm not the sort of chap to knuckle under to my wife; and there isn't one woman in a thousand, if she gave her husband a start, could help reminding him of it. It's the wrong way about. Let women be as independent as they like as long as they're not married. I never think the worse of them, whatever they do that's honest. But a wife must play second fiddle, and think her husband a small god almighty -- that's my way of looking at the question.'
Beatrice laughed scornfully.
'All right. We shall see. -- When do you start business?'
'This side Christmas. End of September, perhaps.'
'You think to snatch a good deal from B. & F., I daresay?'
Crewe nodded and smiled.
'Then you'll look after this affair for me?' said Beatrice, with a return to the tone of strict business.
'Without loss of time. You shall be advised of progress. Of course I must debit you with exes.'
'All right. Mind you charge for all the penny stamps.'
'Every one -- don't you forget it.'
He stood up, tilted forward on his toes, and stretched himself.
'I'll be trotting homewards. It'll be time for by-by when I get to Kennington.'
Nancy was undisturbed by the promotion of Mary Woodruff. A short time ago it would have offended her; she would have thought her dignity, her social prospects, imperilled. She was now careless on that score, and felt it a relief to cast off the show of domestic authority. Henceforth her position would be like that of Horace. All she now desired was perfect freedom from responsibility, -- to be, as it were, a mere lodger in the house, to come and go unquestioned and unrestrained by duties.
Thus, by aid of circumstance, had she put herself into complete accord with the spirit of her time. Abundant privilege; no obligation. A reference of all things to her sovereign will and pleasure. Withal, a defiant rather than a hopeful mood; resentment of the undisguisable fact that her will was sovereign only in a poor little sphere which she would gladly have transcended.
Now-a-days she never went in the direction of Champion Hill, formerly her favourite walk. If Jessica Morgan spoke of her acquaintances there, she turned abruptly to another subject. She thought of the place as an abode of arrogance and snobbery. She recalled with malicious satisfaction her ill-mannered remark to Lionel Tarrant. Let him think of her as he would; at all events he could no longer imagine her overawed by his social prestige. The probability was that she had hurt him in a sensitive spot; it might be hoped that the wound would rankle for a long time.
Her personal demeanour showed a change. So careful hitherto of feminine grace and decorum, she began to affect a mannishness of bearing, a bluntness of speech, such as found favour at De Crespigny Park. In a few weeks she had resumed friendly intercourse with Mrs Peachey and her sisters, and spent an occasional evening at their house. Her father asked no questions; she rarely saw him except at meals. A stranger must have observed the signs of progressive malady in Mr Lord's face, but Nancy was aware of nothing to cause uneasiness; she thought of him as suffering a little from 'gout;' elderly people were of course subject to such disorders. On most days he went to business; if he remained at home, Mary attended him assiduously, and he would accept no other ministration.
Nancy was no longer inclined to study, and cared little for reading of any sort. That new book on Evolution, which she had brought from the library just before Jubilee Day, was still lying about; a dozen times she had looked at it with impatience, and reminded herself that it must be returned. Evolution! She already knew all about Darwinism, all she needed to know. If necessary she could talk about it -- oh, with an air. But who wanted to talk about such things? After all, only priggish people, -- the kind of people who lived at Champion Hill. Or idiots like Samuel Bennett Barmby, who bothered about the future of the world. What was it to her -- the future of the world? She wanted to live in the present, to enjoy her youth. An evening like that she had spent in the huge crowd, with a man like Crewe to amuse her with his talk, was worth whole oceans of 'culture.'
'Culture' she already possessed, abundance of it. The heap of books she had read! Last winter she had attended a course of lectures, delivered by 'a young University gentleman with a tone of bland omniscience, on 'The History of Hellenic Civilisation;' her written answers to the little 'test papers' had been marked 'very satisfactory.' Was it not a proof of culture achieved? Education must not encroach upon the years of maturity. Nature marked the time when a woman should begin to live.
There was poor Jessica. As July drew on, Jessica began to look cadaverous, ghostly. She would assuredly break down long before the time of her examination. What a wretched, what an absurd existence! Her home, too, was so miserable. Mrs Morgan lay ill, unable to attend to anything; if she could not have a change of air, it must soon be all over with her. But they had no money, no chance of going to the seaside.
It happened at length that Mr Lord saw Jessica one evening, when she had come to spend an hour in Grove Lane. After her departure, he asked Nancy what was the matter with the girl, and Nancy explained the situation.
'Well, why not take her with you, when you go away?'
'I didn't know that I was going away, father. Nothing has been said of it.'
'It's your own business. I leave you to make what plans you like.'
'You ought to have a change,' she said considerately. 'It would do you good. Suppose we all go to Teignmouth? I should think that would suit you.'
'I enjoyed it last year. And the lodgings were comfortable. We could have the same, from the first week in August.'
'How do you know?'
'I wrote the other day, and asked,' Nancy replied with a smile.
But Mr Lord declined to leave home. Mary Woodruff did her best to persuade him, until he angrily imposed silence. In a day or two he said to Nancy:
'If you wish to go to Teignmouth, take Jessica and her mother. People mustn't die for want of a five-pound note. Make your arrangements, and let me know what money you'll need.'
'It's very kind of you, father.'
Mr Lord turned away. His daughter noticed that he walked feebly, and she felt a moment's compunction.
'Father -- you are not so well to-day.'
Without looking round, he replied that he would be well enough if left alone; and Nancy did not venture to say more.
A few days later, she called in De Crespigny Park after dinnertime. Mrs Peachey and Fanny were at Brighton; Beatrice had preferred to stay in London, being very busy with her great project. Whilst she talked of it with Nancy, Peachey and Luckworth Crewe came in together. There was sprightly conversation, in which the host, obviously glad of his wife's absence, took a moderate part. Presently, Miss Lord and he found themselves gossiping alone; the other two had moved aside, and, as a look informed Nancy, were deep in confidential dialogue.
'What do you think of that business?' she asked her companion in an undertone.
'I shouldn't wonder if it answers,' said the young man, speaking as usual, with a soft, amiable voice. 'Our friend is helping, and he generally knows what he's about.'
Crewe remained only for half-an-hour; on shaking hands with him, Nancy made known that she was going to the seaside next Monday for a few weeks, and the man of business answered only with 'I hope you'll enjoy yourself.' Soon afterwards, she took leave. At the junction of De Crespigny Park and Grove Lane, some one approached her, and with no great surprise Nancy saw that it was Crewe.
'Been waiting for you,' he said. 'You remember you promised me another walk.'
'Oh, it's much too late.'
'Of course it is. I didn't mean now. But to-morrow.'
'Impossible.' She moved on, in the direction away from her home. 'I shall be with friends in the evening, the Morgans.'
'Confound it! I had made up my mind to ask you for last Saturday, but some country people nabbed me for the whole of that day. I took them up the Monument, and up St Paul's.'
'I've never been up the Monument,' said Nancy.
'Never? Come to-morrow afternoon then. You can spare the afternoon. Let's meet early somewhere. Take a bus to London Bridge. I'll be at the north end of London Bridge at three o'clock.'
'All right; I'll be there,' Nancy replied off-hand.
'You really will? Three, sharp. I was never late at an appointment, business or pleasure.'
'Which do you consider this?' asked his companion, with a shrewd glance.
'Now that's unkind. I came here to-night on business, though. You quite understand that, didn't you? I shouldn't like you to make any mistake. Business, pure and simple.'
'Why, of course,' replied Nancy, with an ingenuous air. 'What else could it be?' And she added, 'Don't come any further. Ta-ta!'
Crewe went off into the darkness.
The next afternoon, Nancy alighted at London Bridge a full quarter of an hour late. It had been raining at intervals through the day, and clouds still cast a gloom over the wet streets. Crewe, quite insensible to atmospheric influence, came forward with his wonted brisk step and animated visage. At Miss Lord's side he looked rather more plebeian than when walking by himself; his high-hat, not of the newest, utterly misbecame his head, and was always at an unconventional angle, generally tilting back; his clothes, of no fashionable cut, bore the traces of perpetual hurry and multifarious impact. But he carried a perfectly new and expensive umbrella, to which, as soon as he had shaken hands with her, he drew Nancy's attention.
'A present this morning, from a friend of mine in the business. I ran into his shop to get shelter. Upon my word, I had no intention; didn't think anything about it. However, he owed me an acknowledgment; I've sent him three customers from our office since I saw him last. By-the-bye, I shall have half a day at the seaside on Monday. There's a sale of building-plots down at Whitsand. The estate agents run a complimentary special train for people going down to bid, and give a lunch before the auction begins. Not bad business.'
'Are you going to bid?' asked Nancy.
'I'm going to have a look, at all events; and if I see anything that takes my fancy --. Ever been to Whitsand? I'm told it's a growing place. I should like to get hold of a few advertising stations. -- Where is it you are going to on Monday? Teignmouth? I don't know that part of the country. Wish I could run down, but I shan't have time. I've got my work cut out for August and September. Would you like to come and see the place where I think of opening shop?'
'Is it far?'
'No. We'll walk round when we've been up the Monument. You don't often go about the City, I daresay. Nothing doing, of course, on a Saturday afternoon.'
Nancy made him moderate his pace, which was too quick for her. Part of the pleasure she found in Crewe's society came from her sense of being so undeniably his superior; she liked to give him a sharp command, and observe his ready obedience. To his talk she listened with a good-natured, condescending smile, occasionally making a remark which implied a more liberal view, a larger intelligence, than his. Thus, as they stood for a moment to look down at the steamboat wharf, and Crewe made some remark about the value of a cargo just being discharged, she said carelessly:
'I suppose that's the view you take of everything? You rate everything at market price.'
'Marketable things, of course. But you know me well enough to understand that I'm not always thinking of the shop. Wait till I've made money. -- Now then, clumsy!'
A man, leaning over the parapet by Nancy's side, had pushed against her. Thus addressed he glared at the speaker, but encountered a bellicose look which kept him quiet.
'I shall live in a big way,' Crewe continued, as they walked on towards Fish Street Hill. 'Not for the swagger of it; I don't care about that, but because I've a taste for luxury. I shall have a country house, and keep good horses. And I should like to have a little farm of my own, a model farm; make my own butter and cheese, and know that I ate the real thing. I shall buy pictures. Haven't I told you I like pictures? Oh yes. I shall go round among the artists, and encourage talent that hasn't made itself known.'
'Can you recognise it?' asked Nancy.
'Well, I shall learn to. And I shall have my wife's portrait painted by some first-rate chap, never mind what it costs, and hung in the Academy. That's a great idea of mine -- to see my wife's portrait in the Academy.'
His companion laughed.
'Take care, then, that your wife is ornamental.'
'I'll take precious good care of that!' Crewe exclaimed merrily. 'Do you suppose I should dream of marrying a woman who wasn't good-looking?'
'Don't shout, please. People can hear you.'
'I beg your pardon.' His voice sank to humility. 'That's a bad habit of mine. But I was going to say -- I went to the Academy this year just to look at the portraits of men's wives. There was nothing particular in that line. Not a woman I should have felt particularly proud of. Tastes differ, of course. Mine has altered a good deal in the last ten years. A man can't trust himself about women till he's thirty or near it.'
'Talk of something else,' Nancy commanded.
'Certainly. There's the sun coming out. You see, I was afraid it would keep on raining, and you would have an excuse for staying at home.'
'I needed no excuse,' said Nancy. 'If I hadn't wished to come, you may be sure I should have said so.'
Crewe flashed a look at her.
'Ah, that's how I like to hear you speak! That does one good. Well, here we are. People used to be fond of going up, they say, just to pitch themselves down. A good deal of needless trouble, it seems to me. Perhaps they gave themselves the off-chance of changing their minds before they got to the top.'
'Or wanted to see if life looked any better from up there,' suggested Nancy.
'Or hoped somebody would catch them by the coat-tails, and settle a pension on them out of pity.'
Thus jesting, they began the ascent. Crewe, whose spirits were at high pressure, talked all the way up the winding stairs; on issuing into daylight, he became silent, and they stood side by side, mute before the vision of London's immensity. Nancy began to move round the platform. The strong west wind lashed her cheeks to a glowing colour; excitement added brilliancy to her eyes. As soon as she had recovered from the first impression, this spectacle of a world's wonder served only to exhilarate her; she was not awed by what she looked upon. In her conceit of self-importance, she stood there, above the battling millions of men, proof against mystery and dread, untouched by the voices of the past, and in the present seeing only common things, though from an odd point of view. Here her senses seemed to make literal the assumption by which her mind had always been directed: that she -- Nancy Lord -- was the mid point of the universe. No humility awoke in her; she felt the stirring of envies, avidities, unavowable passions, and let them flourish unrebuked.
Crewe had his eyes fixed upon her; his lips parted hungrily.
'Now that's how I should like to see you painted,' he said all at once. 'Just like that! I never saw you looking so well. I believe you're the most beautiful girl to be found anywhere in this London!'
There was genuine emotion in his voice, and his sweeping gesture suited the mood of vehemence. Nancy, having seen that the two or three other people on the platform were not within hearing, gave an answer of which the frankness surprised even herself.
'Portraits for the Academy cost a great deal, you know.'
'I know. But that's what I'm working for. There are not many men down yonder,' he pointed over the City, 'have a better head for money-making than I have.'
'Well, prove it,' replied Nancy, and laughed as the wind caught her breath.
'How long will you give me?'
She made no answer, but walked to the side whence she could look westward. Crewe followed close, his features still set in the hungry look, his eyes never moving from her warm cheek and full lips.
'What it must be,' she said, 'to have about twenty thousand a year!'
The man of business gave a gasp. In the same moment he had to clutch at his hat, lest it should be blown away.
'Twenty thousand a year?' he echoed. 'Well, it isn't impossible. Men get beyond that, and a good deal beyond it. But it's a large order.'
'Of course it is. But what was it you said? The most beautiful girl in all London? That's a large order, too, isn't it? How much is she worth?'
'You're talking for the joke now,' said Crewe. 'I don't like to hear that kind of thing, either. You never think in that way.'
'My thoughts are my own. I may think as I choose.'
'Yes. But you have thoughts above money.'
'Have I? How kind of you to say so. -- I've had enough of this wind; we'll go down.'
She led the way, and neither of them spoke till they were in the street again. Nancy felt her hair.
'Am I blown to pieces?' she asked.
'No, no; you're all right. Now, will you walk through the City?'
'Where's the place you spoke of?'
'Farringdon Street. That'll bring you round to Blackfriars Bridge, when you want to go home. But there's plenty of time yet.'
So they rambled aimlessly by the great thoroughfares, and by hidden streets of which Nancy had never heard, talking or silent as the mood dictated. Crewe had stories to tell of this and that thriving firm, of others struggling in obscurity or falling from high estate; to him the streets of London were so many chapters of romance, but a romance always of to-day, for he neither knew nor cared about historic associations. Vast sums sounded perpetually on his lips; he glowed with envious delight in telling of speculations that had built up great fortunes. He knew the fabulous rents that were paid for sites that looked insignificant; he repeated anecdotes of calls made from Somerset House upon men of business, who had been too modest in returning the statement of their income; he revived legends of dire financial disaster, and of catastrophe barely averted by strange expedients. To all this Nancy listened with only moderate interest; as often as not, she failed to understand the details which should have excited her wonder. None the less, she received an impression of knowledge, acuteness, power, in the speaker; and this was decidedly pleasant.
'Here's the place where I think of starting for myself,' said Crewe, as he paused at length before a huge building in Farringdon Street.
'This? -- Can you afford such a rent?'
Her companion burst into laughter.
'I don't mean the whole building. Two or three rooms, that's all, somewhere upstairs.'
Nancy made a jest of her mistake.
'An advertising agent doesn't want much space,' said Crewe. 'I know a chap who's doing a pretty big business in one room, not far from here. -- Well, we've had a long walk; now you must rest a bit, and have a cup of tea.'
'I thought you were going to propose champagne.'
'Oh -- if you like ----'
They went to a restaurant in Fleet Street, and sat for half an hour over the milder beverage. Crewe talked of his projects, his prospects; and Nancy, whom the afternoon had in truth fatigued a little, though her mind was still excited, listened without remark.
'Well,' he said at length, leaning towards her, 'how long do you give me?'
She looked away, and kept silence.
'Two years: -- just to make a solid start; to show that something worth talking 'about is to come?'
'I'll think about it.'
He kept his position, and gazed at her.
'I know it isn't money that would tempt you.' He spoke in a very low voice, though no one was within earshot. 'Don't think I make any mistake about that! But I have to show you that there's something in me. I wouldn't marry any woman that thought I made love to her out of interest.'
Nancy began to draw on her gloves, and smiled, just biting her lower lip.
'Will you give me a couple of years, from to-day? I won't bother you. It's honour bright!'
'I'll think about it,' Nancy repeated.
'Whilst you're away?'
'Yes, whilst I'm away at Teignmouth.'
'And tell me when you come back?'
'Tell you -- how long. Yes.'
And she rose.
From the mouth of Exe to the mouth of Teign the coast is uninteresting. Such beauty as it once possessed has been destroyed by the railway. Cliffs of red sandstone drop to the narrow beach, warm between the blue of sky and sea, but without grandeur, and robbed of their native grace by navvy-hewing, which for the most part makes of them a mere embankment: their verdure stripped away, their juttings tunnelled, along their base the steel parallels of smoky traffic. Dawlish and Teignmouth have in themselves no charm; hotel and lodging-house, shamed by the soft pure light that falls about them, look blankly seaward, hiding what remains of farm or cottage in the older parts. Ebb-tide uncovers no fair stretch of sand, and at flood the breakers are thwarted on a bulwark of piled stone, which supports the railway, or protects a promenade.
But inland these discontents are soon forgotten; there amid tilth and pasture, gentle hills and leafy hollows of rural Devon, the eye rests and the mind is soothed. By lanes innumerable, deep between banks of fern and flower; by paths along the bramble-edge of scented meadows; by the secret windings of copse and brake and stream-worn valley -- a way lies upward to the long ridge of Haldon, where breezes sing among the pines, or sweep rustling through gorse and bracken. Mile after mile of rustic loveliness, ever and anon the sea-limits blue beyond grassy slopes. White farms dozing beneath their thatch in harvest sunshine; hamlets forsaken save by women and children, by dogs and cats and poultry, the labourers afield. Here grow the tall foxgloves, bending a purple head in the heat of noon; here the great bells of the convolvulus hang thick from lofty hedges, massing their pink and white against dark green leafage; here amid shadowed undergrowth trail the long fronds of lustrous hartstongue; wherever the eye falls, profusion of summer's glory. Here, in many a nook carpeted with softest turf, canopied with tangle of leaf and bloom, solitude is safe from all intrusion -- unless it be that of flitting bird, or of some timid wild thing that rustles for a moment and is gone. From dawn to midnight, as from midnight to dawn, one who would be alone with nature might count upon the security of these bosks and dells.
By Nancy Lord and her companions such pleasures were unregarded. For the first few days after their arrival at Teignmouth, they sat or walked on the promenade, walked or sat on the pier, sat or walked on the Den -- a long, wide lawn, decked about with shrubs and flower-beds, between sea-fronting houses and the beach. Nancy had no wish to exert herself, for the weather was hot; after her morning bathe with Jessica, she found amusement enough in watching the people -- most of whom were here simply to look at each other, or in listening to the band, which played selections from Sullivan varied with dance music, or in reading a novel from the book-lender's, -- that is to say, gazing idly at the page, and letting such significance as it possessed float upon her thoughts.
She was pleasantly conscious that the loungers who passed by, male and female, gave something of attention to her face and costume. Without attempting to rival the masterpieces of fashion which invited envy or wonder from all observers, she thought herself nicely dressed, and had in fact, as always, made good use of her father's liberality. Her taste in garments had a certain timidity that served her well; by avoiding the extremes of mode, and in virtue of her admirable figure, she took the eye of those who looked for refinement rather than for extravagance. The unconsidered grace of her bearing might be recognised by all whom such things concerned; it by no means suggested that she came from a small house in Camberwell. In her companions, to be sure, she was unfortunate; but the over-modest attire and unimpressive persons of Mrs Morgan and Jessica at least did her the office of relief by contrast.
Nancy had made this reflection; she was not above it. Yet her actual goodness of heart saved her from ever feeling ashamed of the Morgans. It gratified her to think that she was doing them a substantial kindness; but for her, they would have dragged through a wretched summer in their unwholesome, jimcrack house, without a breath of pure air, without a sight of the free heaven. And to both of them that would probably have meant a grave illness.
Mrs Morgan was a thin, tremulous woman, with watery eyes and a singular redness about the prominent part of her face, which seemed to indicate a determination of blood to the nose. All her married life had been spent in a cheerless struggle to maintain the externals of gentility. Not that she was vain or frivolous -- indeed her natural tendencies made for homeliness in everything -- but, by birth and by marriage connected with genteel people, she felt it impossible to abandon that mode of living which is supposed to distinguish the educated class from all beneath it. She had brought into the world three sons and three daughters; of the former, two were dead, and of the latter, one, -- in each case, poverty of diet having proved fatal to a weak constitution. For close upon thirty years the family had lived in houses of which the rent was out of all reasonable proportion to their means; at present, with a total income of one hundred and sixty pounds (Mr Morgan called himself a commission agent, and seldom had anything to do), they paid in rent and rates a matter of fifty-five, and bemoaned the fate which neighboured them with people only by courtesy to be called gentlefolk. Of course they kept a servant, -- her wages nine pounds a year. Whilst the mother and elder daughter were at Teignmouth, Mr Morgan, his son, and the younger girl felt themselves justified in making up for lack of holiday by an extra supply of butcher's meat.
Well-meaning, but with as little discretion in this as in other things, Mrs Morgan allowed scarce an hour of the day to pass without uttering her gratitude to Nancy Lord for the benefit she was enjoying. To escape these oppressive thanks, Nancy did her best never to be alone with the poor lady; but a tête-à-tête was occasionally unavoidable, as, for instance, on the third or fourth day after their arrival, when Mrs Morgan had begged Nancy's company for a walk on the Den, whilst Jessica wrote letters. At the end of a tedious hour Jessica joined them, and her face had an unwonted expression. She beckoned her friend apart.
'You'll be surprised. Who do you think is here?'
'No one that will bore us, I hope.'
'Mr Tarrant. I met him near the post-office, and he stopped me.'
'Are they all here again?'
'No; he says he's alone. -- One minute, mamma; please excuse us.'
'He was surprised to see you?' said Nancy, after reflecting.
'He said so. But -- I forgot to tell you -- in a letter to Mrs Baker I spoke of our plans. She had written to me to propose a pupil for after the holidays. -- Perhaps she didn't mention it to Mr Tarrant.'
'Evidently not!' Nancy exclaimed, with some impatience. 'Why should you doubt his word?'
'I can't help thinking' -- Jessica smiled archly -- 'that he has come just to meet -- somebody.'
'Somebody? Who do you mean?' asked her friend, with a look of sincere astonishment.
'I may be mistaken' -- a glance completed the suggestion.
For the rest of that day the subject was unmentioned. Nancy kept rather to herself, and seemed meditative. Next morning she was in the same mood. The tide served for a bathe at eleven o'clock; afterwards, as the girls walked briskly to and fro near the seat where Mrs Morgan had established herself with a volume of Browning, -- Jessica insisted on her reading Browning, though the poor mother protested that she scarcely understood a word, -- they came full upon the unmistakable presence of Mr Lionel Tarrant. Miss Morgan, in acknowledging his salute, offered her hand; it was by her that the young man had stopped. Miss Lord only bent her head, and that slightly. Tarrant expected more, but his half-raised hand dropped in time, and he directed his speech to Jessica. He had nothing to say but what seemed natural and civil; the dialogue -- Nancy remained mute -- occupied but a few minutes, and Tarrant went his way, sauntering landwards.
As Mrs Morgan had observed the meeting, it was necessary to offer her an explanation. But Jessica gave only the barest facts concerning their acquaintance, and Nancy spoke as though she hardly knew him.
The weather was oppressively hot; in doors or out, little could be done but sit or lie in enervated attitudes, a state of things accordant with Nancy's mood. Till late at night she watched the blue starry sky from her open window, seeming to reflect, but in reality wafted on a stream of fancies and emotions. Jessica's explanation of the arrival of Lionel Tarrant had strangely startled her; no such suggestion would have occurred to her own mind. Yet now, she only feared that it might not be true. A debilitating climate and absolute indolence favoured that impulse of lawless imagination which had first possessed her on the evening of Jubilee Day. With luxurious heedlessness she cast aside every thought that might have sobered her; even as she at length cast off all her garments, and lay in the warm midnight naked upon her bed.
The physical attraction of which she had always been conscious in Tarrant's presence seemed to have grown stronger since she had dismissed him from her mind. Comparing him with Luckworth Crewe, she felt only a contemptuous distaste for the coarse vitality and vigour, whereto she had half surrendered herself, when hopeless of the more ambitious desire.
Rising early, she went out before breakfast, and found that a little rain had fallen. Grass and flowers were freshened; the air had an exquisite clearness, and a coolness which struck delightfully on the face, after the close atmosphere within doors. She had paused to watch a fishing-boat off shore, when a cheery voice bade her 'good-morning,' and Tarrant stepped to her side.
'You are fond of this place,' he said.
'Then why do you choose it?'
'It does for a holiday as well as any other.'
He was gazing at her, and with the look which Nancy resented, the look which made her feel his social superiority. He seemed to observe her features with a condescending gratification. Though totally ignorant of his life and habits, she felt a conviction that he had often bestowed this look upon girls of a class below his own.
'How do you like those advertisements of soaps and pills along the pier?' he asked carelessly.
'I see no harm in them.'
Perversity prompted her answer, but at once she remembered Crewe, and turned away in annoyance. Tarrant was only the more good-humoured.
'You like the world as it is? There's wisdom in that. Better be in harmony with one's time, advertisements and all.' He added, 'Are you reading for an exam?'
'I? You are confusing me with Miss Morgan.'
'Oh, not for a moment! I couldn't possibly confuse you with any one else. I know Miss Morgan is studying professionally; but I thought you were reading for your own satisfaction, as so many women do now-a-days.'
The distinction was flattering. Nancy yielded to the charm of his voice and conversed freely. It began to seem not impossible that he found some pleasure in her society. Now and then he dropped a word that made her pulses flutter; his eyes were constantly upon her face.
'Don't you go off into the country sometimes?' he inquired, when she had turned homewards.
'We are thinking of having a drive to-day.'
'And I shall most likely have a ride; we may meet.'
Nancy ordered a carriage for the afternoon, and with her friends drove up the Teign valley; but they did not meet Tarrant. But next morning he joined them on the pier, and this time Jessica had no choice but to present him to her mother. Nancy felt annoyed that this should have come about; Tarrant, she supposed, would regard poor Mrs Morgan with secret ridicule. Yet, if that were his disposition, he concealed it perfectly; no one could have behaved with more finished courtesy. He seated himself by Mrs Morgan, and talked with her of the simplest things in a pleasant, kindly humour. Yesterday, so he made known, he had ridden to Torquay and back, returning after sunset. This afternoon he was going by train to Exeter, to buy some books.
Again he strolled about with Nancy, and talked of idle things with an almost excessive amiability. As the girl listened, a languor crept upon her, a soft and delicious subdual of the will to dreamy luxury. Her eyes were fixed on the shadows cast by her own figure and that of her companion. The black patches by chance touched. She moved so as to part them, and then changed her position so that they touched again -- so that they blended.
Nancy had written to her father, a short letter but affectionate, begging him to let her know whether the improvement in his health, of which he had spoken before she left home, still continued. The answer came without delay. On the whole, said Mr Lord, he was doing well enough; no need whatever to trouble about him. He wrote only a few lines, but closed with 'love to you, my dear child,' an unwonted effusiveness.
At the same time there came a letter from Horace.
'You will be surprised,' it began, 'at the address I write from. As you know, I had planned to go to Brighton; but on the day before my holiday commenced I heard from F. F., saying that she and Mrs Peachey had had a quarrel, and she was tired of Brighton, and was coming home. So I waited a day or two, and then, as I had half promised, I went to see Mrs D. We had a long talk, and it ended in my telling her about F., and all the row there's been. Perhaps you will think I had better have kept it to myself, but Mrs D. and I are on first-rate terms, and she seems to understand me better than any one I ever met. We talked about my holiday, and she persuaded me to come to Scarborough, where she herself was going for a week or two. It's rather an expensive affair, but worth the money. Of course I have lodgings of my own. Mrs D. is at a big hotel, where friends of hers are staying. I have been introduced to two or three people, great swells, and I've had lunch with Mrs D. at the hotel twice. This kind of life suits me exactly. I don't think I get on badly with the swells. Of course I say not a word about my position, and of course nobody would think of asking questions. You would like this place; I rather wish you were here. Of course father thinks I have come on my own hook. It's very awkward having to keep a secret of this kind; I must try and persuade Mrs D. to have a talk with father. But one thing I can tell you, -- I feel pretty sure that she will get me, somehow or other, out of that beastly City life; she's always talking of things I might do. But not a word to any one about all this -- be sure.'
This news caused Nancy to ponder for a long time. The greater part of the morning she spent at home, and in her own room; after lunch, she sat idly on the promenade, little disposed for conversation.
It was the second day since Tarrant had told her that he was going to Exeter, and they had not again met; the Morgans had not seen him either. The next morning, however, as all three were sitting in one of their favourite places, Tarrant approached them. Mrs Morgan, who was fluttered by the natural supposition of a love affair between Miss Lord and the interesting young man, made it easy for them to talk together.
'Did you get your books?' Nancy asked, when silence followed on trivialities.
'Yes, and spent half a day with them in a favourite retreat of mine, inland. It's a very beautiful spot. I should like you to see it. Indeed, you ought to.'
Nancy turned her eyes to the sea.
'We might walk over there one afternoon,' he added.
'Mrs Morgan can't walk far.'
'Why should we trouble her? Are you obliged to remain under Mrs Morgan's wing?'
It was said jestingly, but Nancy felt piqued.
'Certainly not. I am quite independent.'
'So I should have supposed. Then why not come?'
He seemed perfectly self-possessed, but the voice was not quite his own. To Nancy, her eyes still looking straight forward, it sounded as though from a distance; it had an effect upon her nerves similar to that she had experienced three days ago, when they were walking about the pier. Her hands fell idly; she leaned back more heavily on the seat; a weight was on her tongue.
'A country ramble of an hour or two,' pursued the voice, which itself had become languorous. 'Surely you are sometimes alone? It isn't necessary to give a detailed account of your time?'
She answered impatiently. 'Of course not.' In this moment her thoughts had turned to Luckworth Crewe, and she was asking herself why this invitation of Tarrant's affected her so very differently from anything she had felt when Crewe begged her to meet him in London. With him she could go anywhere, enjoying a genuine independence, a complete self-confidence, thinking her unconventional behaviour merely good fun. Tarrant's proposal startled her. She was not mistress of the situation, as when trifling with Crewe. A sense of peril caused her heart to beat quickly.
'This afternoon, then,' the voice was murmuring.
She answered mechanically. 'It's going to rain, I think.'
'I think not. But, if so, to-morrow.'
'To-morrow is Sunday.'
'Yes. Monday, then.'
Nancy heard him smother a laugh. She wished to look at him, but could not.
'It won't rain,' he continued, still with the ease of one who speaks of everyday matters. 'We shall see, at all events. Perhaps you will want to change your book at the library.' A novel lay on her lap. 'We'll leave it an open possibility -- to meet there about three o'clock.'
Nancy pointed out to sea, and asked where the steamer just passing might be bound for. Her companion readily turned to this subject.
The rain -- she half hoped for it -- did not come. By luncheon-time every doubtful cloud had vanished. Before sitting down to table, she observed the sky at the open window.
'Lovely weather!' sighed Mrs Morgan behind her. 'But for you, dear Nancy, I should have been dreaming and wishing -- oh, how vainly! -- in the stifling town.'
'We'll have another drive this afternoon,' Nancy declared.
'Oh, how delightful! But pray, pray, not on our account ----'
'Jessica,' -- Nancy turned to her friend, who had just entered the room, -- 'we'll have the carriage at three. And a better horse than last time; I'll take good care of that. Pen, ink, and paper!' she cried joyously. 'The note shall go round at once.'
'You're a magnificent sort of person,' said Jessica. 'Some day, no doubt, you'll keep a carriage and pair of your own.'
'Shan't I, just! And drive you down to Burlington House, for your exams. By-the-bye, does a female Bachelor of Arts lose her degree if she gets married?'
Nancy was sprightlier than of late. Her mood maintained itself throughout the first half of the drive, then she seemed to be overcome by a sudden weariness, ceased to talk, and gave only a listless look at things which interested her companions. By when they reached home again, she had a pale troubled countenance. Until dinner nothing more was seen of her, and after the meal she soon excused herself on the plea of a headache.
Again there passed two days, Sunday and Monday, without Tarrant's appearing. Mrs Morgan and Jessica privately talked much of the circumstance. Sentimental souls, they found this topic inexhaustible; Jessica, having her mind thus drawn away from Burlington House, benefited not a little by the mystery of her friend's position; she thought, however, that Nancy might have practised a less severe reticence. To Mrs Morgan it never occurred that so self-reliant a young woman as Miss Lord stood in need of matronly counsel, of strict chaperonage; she would have deemed it an impertinence to allow herself the most innocent remark implying such a supposition.
On Wednesday afternoon, about three o'clock, Nancy walked alone to the library. There, looking at books and photographs in the window, stood Lionel Tarrant. He greeted her as usual, seemed not to remark the hot colour in her cheeks, and stepped with her into the shop. She had meant to choose a novel, but, with Tarrant looking on, felt constrained to exhibit her capacity for severe reading. The choice of grave works was not large, and she found it difficult to command her thoughts even for the perusal of titles; however, she ultimately discovered a book that promised anything but frivolity, Helmholtz's 'Lectures on Scientific Subjects,' and at this she clutched.
Two loudly-dressed women were at the same time searching the shelves.
'I wonder whether this is a pretty book?' said one to the other, taking down a trio of volumes.
'Oh, it looks as if it might be pretty,' returned her friend, examining the cover.
They faced to the person behind the counter.
'Is this a pretty book?' one of them inquired loftily.
'Oh yes, madam, that's a very pretty book -- very pretty.'
Nancy exchanged a glance with her companion and smiled. When they were outside again Tarrant asked:
'Have you found a pretty book?'
She showed the title of her choice.
'Merciful heavens! You mean to read that? The girls of to-day! What mere man is worthy of them? But -- I must rise to the occasion. We'll have a chapter as we rest.'
Insensibly, Nancy had followed the direction he chose. His words took for granted that she was going into the country with him.
'My friends are on the pier,' she said, abruptly stopping.
'Where doubtless they will enjoy themselves. Let me carry your book, please. Helmholtz is rather heavy.'
'Thanks, I can carry it very well. I shall turn this way.'
'No, no. My way this afternoon.'
Nancy stood still, looking up the street that led towards the sea. She was still bright-coloured; her lips had a pathetic expression, a child-like pouting.
'There was an understanding,' said Tarrant, with playful firmness.
'Not for to-day.'
'No. For the day when you disappointed me. The day after, I didn't think it worth while to come here; yesterday I came, but felt no surprise that I didn't meet you. To-day I had a sort of hope. This way.'
She followed, and they walked for several minutes in silence.
'Will you let me look at Helmholtz?' said the young man at length. 'Most excellent book, of course. "Physiological Causes of Harmony in Music," "Interaction of Natural Forces," "Conservation of Force." -- You enjoy this kind of thing?'
'One must know something about it.'
'I suppose so. I used to grind at science because everybody talked science. In reality I loathed it, and now I read only what I like. Life's too short for intellectual make-believe. It is too short for anything but enjoyment. Tell me what you read for pure pleasure. Poetry?'
They had left the streets, and were pursuing a road bordered with gardens, gardens of glowing colour, sheltered amid great laurels, shadowed by stately trees; the air was laden with warm scents of flower and leaf. On an instinct of resistance, Nancy pretended that the exact sciences were her favourite study. She said it in the tone of superiority which habit had made natural to her in speaking of intellectual things. And Tarrant appeared to accept her declaration without scepticism; but, a moment after, he turned the talk upon novels.
Thus, for half an hour and more, they strolled on by upward ways, until Teignmouth lay beneath them, and the stillness of meadows all about. Presently Tarrant led from the beaten road into a lane all but overgrown with grass. He began to gather flowers, and offered them to Nancy. Personal conversation seemed at an end; they were enjoying the brilliant sky and the peaceful loveliness of earth. They exchanged simple, natural thoughts, or idle words in which was no thought at all.
Before long, they came to an old broken gate, half open; it was the entrance to a narrow cartway, now unused, which descended windingly between high thick hedges. Ruts of a foot in depth, baked hard by summer, showed how miry the track must be in the season of rain.
'This is our way,' said Tarrant, his hand on the lichened wood. 'Better than the pier or the promenade, don't you think?'
'But we have gone far enough.'
Nancy drew back into the lane, looked at her flowers, and then shaded her eyes with them to gaze upward.
'Almost. Another five minutes, and you will see the place I told you of. You can't imagine how beautiful it is.'
'Another day ----'
'We are all but there ----'
He seemed regretfully to yield; and Nancy yielded in her turn. She felt a sudden shame in the thought of having perhaps betrayed timidity. Without speaking, she passed the gate.
The hedge on either side was of hazel and dwarf oak, of hawthorn and blackthorn, all intertwined with giant brambles, and with briers which here and there met overhead. High and low, blackberries hung in multitudes, swelling to purple ripeness. Numberless the trailing and climbing plants. Nancy's skirts rustled among the greenery; her cheeks were touched, as if with a caress, by many a drooping branchlet; in places, Tarrant had to hold the tangle above her while she stooped to pass.
And from this they emerged into a small circular space, where the cartway made a turn at right angles and disappeared behind thickets. They were in the midst of a plantation; on every side trees closed about them, with a low and irregular hedge to mark the borders of the grassy road. Nancy's eyes fell at once upon a cluster of magnificent foxgloves, growing upon a bank which rose to the foot of an old elm; beside the foxgloves lay a short-hewn trunk, bedded in the ground, thickly overgrown with mosses, lichens, and small fungi.
'Have I misled you?' said Tarrant, watching her face with frank pleasure.
'No, indeed you haven't. This is very beautiful!'
'I discovered it last year, and spent hours here alone. I couldn't ask you to come and see it then,' he added, laughing.
'It is delightful!'
'Here's your seat, -- who knows how many years it has waited for you?'
She sat down upon the old trunk. About the roots of the elm above grew masses of fern, and beneath it a rough bit of the bank was clothed with pennywort, the green discs and yellowing fruity spires making an exquisite patch of colour. In the shadow of bushes near at hand hartstongue abounded, with fronds hanging to the length of an arm.
'Now,' said Tarrant, gaily, 'you shall have some blackberries. And he went to gather them, returning in a few minutes with a large leaf full. He saw that Nancy, meanwhile, had taken up the book from where he dropped it to the ground; it lay open on her lap.
'Helmholtz! Away with him!'
'No; I have opened at something interesting.'
She spoke as though possession of the book were of vital importance to her. Nevertheless, the fruit was accepted, and she drew off her gloves to eat it. Tarrant seated himself on the ground, near her, and gradually fell into a half-recumbent attitude.
'Won't you have any?' Nancy asked, without looking at him.
'One or two, if you will give me them.'
She chose a fine blackberry, and held it out. Tarrant let it fall into his palm, and murmured, 'You have a beautiful hand.' When, a moment after, he glanced at her, she seemed to be reading Helmholtz.
The calm of the golden afternoon could not have been more profound. Birds twittered softly in the wood, and if a leaf rustled, it was only at the touch of wings. Earth breathed its many perfumes upon the slumberous air.
'You know,' said Tarrant, after a long pause, and speaking as though he feared to break the hush, 'that Keats once stayed at Teignmouth.'
Nancy did not know it, but said 'Yes.' The name of Keats was familiar to her, but of his life she knew hardly anything, of his poetry very little. Her education had been chiefly concerned with names.
'Will you read me a paragraph of Helmholtz?' continued the other, looking at her with a smile. 'Any paragraph, the one before you.'
She hesitated, but read at length, in an unsteady voice, something about the Conservation of Force. It ended in a nervous laugh.
'Now I'll read something to you,' said Tarrant. And he began to repeat, slowly, musically, lines of verse which his companion had never heard:
He went through the poem; Nancy the while did not stir. It was as though he murmured melody for his own pleasure, rather than recited to a listener; but no word was inaudible. Nancy knew that his eyes rested upon her; she wished to smile, yet could not. And when he ceased, the silence held her motionless.
'Isn't it better?' said Tarrant, drawing slightly nearer to her.
'Of course it is.'
'I used to know thousands of verses by heart.'
'Did you ever write any?'
'Half-a-dozen epics or so, when I was about seventeen. Yet, I don't come of a poetical family. My father ----'
He stopped abruptly, looked into Nancy's face with a smile, and said in a tone of playfulness:
'Do you remember asking me whether I had anything to do with ----'
Nancy, flushing over all her features, exclaimed, 'Don't! please don't! I'm ashamed of myself!'
'I didn't like it. But we know each other better now. You were quite right. That was how my grandfather made his money. My father, I believe, got through most of it, and gave no particular thought to me. His mother -- the old lady whom you know -- had plenty of her own -- to be mine, she tells me, some day. Do you wish to be forgiven for hurting my pride?' he added.
'I don't know what made me say such a thing ----'
She faltered the words; she felt her will subdued. Tarrant reached a hand, and took one of hers, and kissed it; then allowed her to draw it away.
'Now will you give me another blackberry?'
The girl was trembling; a light shone in her eyes. She offered the leaf with fruit in it; Tarrant, whilst choosing, touched the blue veins of her wrist with his lips.
'What are you going to do?' she asked presently. 'I mean, what do you aim at in life?'
'Enjoyment. Why should I trouble about anything else. I should be content if life were all like this: to look at a beautiful face, and listen to a voice that charms me, and touch a hand that makes me thrill with such pleasure as I never knew.'
'It's waste of time.'
'Oh, never time was spent so well! Look at me again like that -- with the eyes half-closed, and the lips half-mocking. Oh, the exquisite lips! If I might -- if I might ----'
He did not stir from his posture of languid ease, but Nancy, with a quick movement, drew a little away from him, then rose.
'It's time to go back,' she said absently.
'No, no; not yet. Let me look at you for a few minutes more!'
She began to walk slowly, head bent.
'Well then, to-morrow, or the day after. The place will be just as beautiful, and you even more. The sea-air makes you lovelier from day to day.'
Nancy looked back for an instant. Tarrant followed, and in the deep leafy way he again helped her to pass the briers. But their hands never touched, and the silence was unbroken until they had issued into the open lane.
The lodgings were taken for three weeks, and more than half the time had now elapsed.
Jessica, who declared herself quite well and strong again, though her face did not bear out the assertion, was beginning to talk of matters examinational once more. Notwithstanding protests, she brought forth from their hiding-place sundry arid little manuals and black-covered notebooks; her thoughts were divided between algebraic formulae and Nancy's relations with Lionel Tarrant. Perhaps because no secret was confided to her, she affected more appetite for the arid little books than she really felt. Nancy would neither speak of examinations, nor give ear when they were talked about; she, whether consciously or not, was making haste to graduate in quite another school.
On the morning after her long walk with Tarrant, she woke before sunrise, and before seven o'clock had left the house. A high wind and hurrying clouds made the weather prospects uncertain. She strayed about the Den, never losing sight for more than a minute or two of the sea-fronting house where Tarrant lived. But no familiar form approached her, and she had to return to breakfast unrewarded for early rising.
Through the day she was restless and silent, kept alone as much as possible, and wore a look which, as the hours went on, darkened from anxiety to ill-humour. She went to bed much earlier than usual.
At eleven next morning, having lingered behind her friends, she found Tarrant in conversation with Mrs Morgan and Jessica on the pier. His greeting astonished her; it had precisely the gracious formality of a year ago; a word or two about the weather, and he resumed his talk with Miss Morgan -- its subject, the educational value of the classics. Obliged to listen, Nancy suffered an anguish of resentful passion. For a quarter of an hour she kept silence, then saw the young man take leave and saunter away with that air which, in satire, she had formerly styled majestic.
And then passed three whole days, during which Lionel was not seen.
The evening of the fourth, between eight and nine o'clock, found Nancy at the door of the house which her thoughts had a thousand times visited. A servant, in reply to inquiry, told her that Mr Tarrant was in London; he would probably return to-morrow.
She walked idly away -- and, at less than a hundred yards' distance, met Tarrant himself. His costume showed that he had just come from the railway station. Nancy would gladly have walked straight past him, but the tone in which he addressed her was a new surprise, and she stood in helpless confusion. He had been to London -- called away on sudden business.
'I thought of writing -- nay, I did write, but after all didn't post the letter. For a very simple reason -- I couldn't remember your address.'
And he laughed so naturally, that the captive walked on by his side, unresisting. Their conversation lasted only a few minutes, then Nancy resolutely bade him good-night, no appointment made for the morrow.
A day of showers, then a day of excessive heat. They saw each other several times, but nothing of moment passed. The morning after they met before breakfast.
'To-morrow is our last day,' said Nancy.
'Yes, Mrs Morgan told me.' Nancy herself had never spoken of departure. 'This afternoon we'll go up the hill again.'
'I don't think I shall care to walk so far. Look at the mist; it's going to be dreadfully hot again.'
Tarrant was in a mood of careless gaiety; his companion appeared to struggle against listlessness, and her cheek had lost its wonted colour.
'You have tea at four or five, I suppose. Let us go after that, when the heat of the day is over.'
To this, after various objections, Nancy consented. Through the hours of glaring sunshine she stayed at home, lying inert, by an open window. Over the tea-cups she was amiable, but dreamy. When ready to go out, she just looked into the sitting-room, where Jessica bent over books, and said cheerfully:
'I may be a little late for dinner. On no account wait -- I forbid it!'
And so, without listening to the answer, she hurried away.
In the upward climbing lanes, no breeze yet tempered the still air; the sky of misted sapphire showed not a cloud from verge to verge. Tarrant, as if to make up for his companion's silence, talked ceaselessly, and always in light vein. Sunshine, he said, was indispensable to his life; he never passed the winter in London; if he were the poorest of mortals, he would, at all events, beg his bread in a sunny clime.
'Are you going to the Bahamas this winter?' Nancy asked, mentioning the matter for the first time since she heard of it at Champion Hill.
'I don't know. Everything is uncertain.'
And he put the question aside as if it were of no importance.
They passed the old gate, and breathed with relief in the never-broken shadow of tangled foliage. Whilst pushing a bramble aside, Tarrant let his free arm fall lightly on Nancy's waist. At once she sprang forward, but without appearing to notice what had happened.
'Stay -- did you ever see such ivy as this?'
It was a mass of large, lustrous leaves, concealing a rotten trunk. Whilst Nancy looked on, Tarrant pulled at a long stem, and tried to break it away.
'I must cut it.'
'You shall see.'
He wove three stems into a wreath.
'There now, take off your hat, and let me crown you. Have I made it too large for the little head?'
Nancy, after a moment's reluctance, unfastened her hat, and stood bareheaded, blushing and laughing.
'You do your hair in the right way -- the Greek way. A diadem on the top -- the only way when the hair and the head are beautiful. It leaves the outline free -- the exquisite curve that unites neck and head. Now the ivy wreath; and how will you look?'
She wore a dress of thin, creamy material, which, whilst seeming to cumber her as little as garments could, yet fitted closely enough to declare the healthy beauty of her form. The dark green garland, for which she bent a little, became her admirably.
'I pictured it in my letter,' said Tarrant, 'the letter you never got.'
'Where is it?'
'Oh, I burnt it.'
'Tell me what was in it.'
'All sorts of things -- a long letter.'
'I think that's all nonsense about forgetting my address.'
'Mere truth. In fact, I never knew it.'
'Be so good as to tell me,' she spoke as she walked on before him, 'what you meant by your behaviour that morning before you went to London.'
'But how did I behave?'
Tarrant affected not to understand; but, when she again turned, Nancy saw a mischievous smile on his face.
'A bit of nonsense. -- Shall I tell you?' He stepped near, and suddenly caught both her hands, -- one of them was trailing her sunshade. 'Forgive me in advance -- will you?'
'I don't know about that.' And she tried, though faintly, to get free.
'But I will make you -- now, refuse!'
His lips had just touched hers, just touched and no more. Rosy red, she trembled before him with drooping eyelids.
'It meant nothing at all, really,' he pursued, his voice at its softest. 'A sham trial -- to see whether I was hopelessly conquered or not. Of course I was.'
Nancy shook her head.
'You dare to doubt it? -- I understand now what the old poet meant, when he talked of bees seeking honey on his lady's lips. That fancy isn't so artificial as it seemed.'
'That's all very pretty' -- she spoke between quick breaths, and tried to laugh -- 'but you have thrown my hat on the ground. Give it me, and take the ivy for yourself.'
'I am no Bacchus.' He tossed the wreath aside. 'Take the hat; I like you in it just as well. -- You shall have a girdle of woodbine, instead.'
'I don't believe your explanation,' said Nancy.
'Not believe me?'
With feigned indignation, he moved to capture her again; but Nancy escaped. Her hat in her hand, she darted forward. A minute's run brought her into the open space, and there, with an exclamation of surprise, she stopped. Tarrant, but a step or two behind her, saw at almost the same moment the spectacle which had arrested her flight. Before them stood two little donkeys munching eagerly at a crop of rosy-headed thistles. They -- the human beings -- looked at each other; Tarrant burst into extravagant laughter, and Nancy joined him. Neither's mirth was spontaneous; Nancy's had a note of nervous tension, a ring of something like recklessness.
'Where can they come from?' she asked.
'They must have strayed a long way. I haven't seen any farm or cottage. -- But perhaps some one is with them. Wait, I'll go on a little, and see if some boy is hanging about.'
He turned the sharp corner, and disappeared. For two or three minutes Nancy stood alone, watching the patient little grey beasts, whose pendent ears, with many a turn and twitch, expressed their joy in the feast of thistles. She watched them in seeming only; her eyes beheld nothing.
A voice sounded from behind her -- 'Nancy!' Startled, she saw Tarrant standing high up, in a gap of the hedge, on the bank which bordered the wood.
'How did you get there?'
'Went round.' He showed the direction with his hand. 'I can see no one, but somebody may come. It's wonderful here, among the trees. Come over.'
'How can I? -- We will drive the donkeys away.'
'No; it's much better here; a wild wood, full of wonderful things. The bank isn't too steep. Give me your hand, and you can step up easily, just at this place.'
She drew near.
'Your sunshade first.'
'Oh, it's too much trouble,' she said languidly, all but plaintively. 'I'd rather be here.'
'Obey! -- Your sunshade ----'
She gave it.
'Now, your hand.'
He was kneeling on the top of the bank. With very little exertion, Nancy found herself beside him. Then he at once leapt down among the brushwood, a descent of some three feet.
'We shall be trespassing,' said Nancy.
'What do I care? Now, jump!'
'As if you could catch me!' Again she uttered her nervous laugh. 'I am heavy.'
'Obey! Jump!' he cried impatiently, his eyes afire.
She knelt, seated herself, dropped forward. Tarrant caught her in his arms.
'You heavy! a feather weight! Why, I can carry you; I could run with you.'
And he did carry her through the brushwood, away into the shadow of the trees.
At dinner-time, Mrs Morgan and her daughter were alone. They agreed to wait a quarter of an hour, and sat silent, pretending each to be engaged with a book. At length their eyes met.
'What does it mean, Jessica?' asked the mother timidly.
'I'm sure I don't know. It doesn't concern us. She didn't mean to be back, by what she said.'
'But -- isn't it rather ----?'
'Oh, Nancy is all right. I suppose she'll have something to tell you, to-night or to-morrow. We must have dinner; I'm hungry.'
'So am I, dear. -- Oh, I'm quite afraid to think of the appetites we're taking back. Poor Milly will be terrified.'
Eight o'clock, nine o'clock. The two conversed in subdued voices; Mrs Morgan was anxious, all but distressed. Half-past nine. 'What can it mean, Jessica? I can't help feeling a responsibility. After all, Nancy is quite a young girl; and I've sometimes thought she might be steadier.'
'Hush! That was a knock.'
They waited. In a minute or two the door was opened a few inches, and a voice called 'Jessica!'
She responded. Nancy was standing in the gloom.
'Come into my room,' she said curtly.
Arrived there, she did not strike a light. She closed the door, and took hold of her friend's arm.
'We can't go back the day after to-morrow, Jessica. We must wait a day longer, till the afternoon of Friday.'
'Why? What's the matter, Nancy?'
'Nothing serious. Don't be frightened, I'm tired, and I shall go to bed.'
'But why must we wait?'
'Listen: will you promise me faithfully -- as friend to friend, faith fully -- not to tell the reason even to your mother?'
'I will, faithfully.'
'Then, it's this. On Friday morning I shall be married to Mr Tarrant.'
'I may tell you more, before then; but perhaps not. We shall be married by licence, and it needs one day between getting the licence and the marriage. You may tell your mother, if you like, that I want to stay longer on his account. I don't care; of course she suspects something. But not a syllable to hint at the truth. I have been your best friend for a long time, and I trust you.'
She spoke in a passionate whisper, and Jessica felt her trembling.
'You needn't have the least fear of me, dear.'
'I believe it. Kiss me, and good-night!'
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