In the Year of Jubilee
Part IV: The Veiled Figure
Before his admission to a partnership in Mr Lord's business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed. Under any circumstances, the family must soon have sought a home elsewhere, and Samuel's good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as 'Dagmar Road,' which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips.
The Barmby sisters, Lucy and Amelia by name, were unpretentious young women, without personal attractions, and soberly educated. They professed a form of Dissent; their reading was in certain religious and semi-religious periodicals, rarely in books; domestic occupations took up most of their time, and they seldom had any engagements. At appointed seasons, a festivity in connection with 'the Chapel' called them forth; it kept them in a flutter for many days, and gave them a headache. In the strictest sense their life was provincial; nominally denizens of London, they dwelt as remote from everything metropolitan as though Camberwell were a village of the Midlands. If they suffered from discontent, no one heard of it; a confession by one or the other that she 'felt dull' excited the sister's surprise, and invariably led to the suggestion of 'a little medicine.'
Their brother they regarded with admiration, tempered by anxiety. 'Great talents,' they knew by report, were often perilous to the possessor, and there was reason to fear that Samuel Bennett Barmby had not resisted all the temptations to which his intellect exposed him. At the age of one-and-twenty he made a startling announcement; 'the Chapel' no longer satisfied the needs of his soul, and he found himself summoned to join the Church of England as by law established. Religious intolerance not being a family characteristic, Mr Barmby and his daughters, though they looked grave over the young man's apostasy, admitted his freedom in this matter; their respected friend Mr Lord belonged to the Church, and it could not be thought that so earnest-minded a man walked in the way to perdition. At the same time, Samuel began to exhibit a liking for social pleasures, which were, it might be hoped, innocent, but, as they kept him from home of evenings, gave some ground for uneasiness. He had joined a society of young men who met for intellectual debate, and his success as an orator fostered the spiritual pride already discernible in him. His next step could not be regarded without concern, for he became a member of the National Sunday League. Deceptive name! At first the Miss Barmbys supposed this was a union for safe-guarding the Sabbath-day; it appalled them to discover that the League had quite an opposite tendency, that its adherents sallied forth together on 'Sunday excursions,' that they received tickets for Sunday admission to picture galleries, and in various other ways offended orthodox feeling. But again the father and sisters gave patient ear to Samuel's elaborate arguments. They became convinced that he had no evil intentions. The elder girl, having caught up a pregnant phrase in some periodical she approved, began to remark that Samuel had 'a modern mind;' and this eventually consoled them.
When it began to be observed that Samuel talked somewhat frequently of Miss Lord, the implied suggestion caused a tremor of confused feeling. To the Miss Barmbys, Nancy seemed an enigmatic person; they had tried to like her, but could not; they objected to her assumption of superiority, and were in grave doubt as to her opinions on cardinal points of faith and behaviour. Yet, when it appeared a possibility that their brother might woo Miss Lord and win her for a wife, the girls did their best to see her in a more favourable light. Not for a moment did it occur to them that Nancy could regard a proposal from Samuel as anything but an honour; to them she might behave slightingly, for they were of her own sex, and not clever; but a girl who prided herself on intellectual attainments must of course look up to Samuel Bennett with reverence. In their unworldliness -- of a truth they were good, simple creatures -- the slight difference of social position seemed unimportant. And with Samuel's elevation to a partnership, even that one shadowy obstacle was removed. Henceforth they would meet Nancy in a conciliatory spirit, and, if she insisted upon it, bow down before her.
Mr Barmby, senior, whose years drew nigh to three-score, had a great advantage in point of physical health over his old friend Stephen Lord, and his mind enjoyed a placidity which promised him length of days. Since the age of seventeen he had plied a pen in the office of a Life Assurance Company, where his salary, by small and slow increments, had grown at length to two hundred and fifty a year. Himself a small and slow person, he had every reason to be satisfied with this progress, and hoped for no further advance. He was of eminently sober mind, profoundly conscientious, and quite devoid of social ambition, -- points of character which explained the long intimacy between him and Stephen Lord. Yet one habit he possessed which foreshadowed the intellectual composition of his son, -- he loved to write letters to the newspapers. At very long intervals one of these communications achieved the honour of type, and then Mr Barmby was radiant with modest self-approval. He never signed such letters with his own name, but chose a pseudonym befitting the subject. Thus, if moved to civic indignation by pieces of orange-peel on the pavement, he styled himself 'Urban Rambler;' if anxious to protest against the overcrowding of 'bus or railway-carriage, his signature was 'Otium cum Dignitate.' When he took a holiday at the seaside, unwonted leisure and novel circumstances prompted him to address local editors at considerable length. The preservation of decency by bathers was then his favourite topic, and he would sign 'Pudor,' or perchance 'Paterfamilias.' His public epistles, if collected, would have made an entertaining and lnstructive volume, so admirably did they represent one phase of the popular mind. 'No, sir,' -- this sentence frequently occurred, -- 'it was not thus that our fathers achieved national and civic greatness.' And again: 'All the feelings of an English parent revolt,' &c. Or: 'And now, sir, where is this to end?' -- a phrase applied at one moment to the prospects of religion and morality, at another to the multiplication of muffin-bells.
On a Sunday afternoon, Mr Barmby often read aloud to his daughters, and in general his chosen book was 'Paradise Lost.' These performances had an indescribable solemnity, but it unfortunately happened that, as his fervour increased, the reader became regardless of aspirates. Thus, at the culmination of Satanic impiety, he would give forth with shaking voice --
This, though it did not distress the girls, was painful to Samuel Bennett, who had given no little care to the correction of similar lapses in his own speech.
Samuel conceived himself much ahead of his family. Quite uneducated, in any legitimate sense of the word, he had yet learnt that such a thing as education existed, and, by dint of busy perusal of penny popularities, had even become familiar with names and phrases, with modes of thought and of ambition, appertaining to a world for ever closed against him. He spoke of Culture, and imagined himself far on the way to attain it. His mind was packed with the oddest jumble of incongruities; Herbert Spencer jostled with Charles Bradlaugh, Matthew Arnold with Samuel Smiles; in one breath he lauded George Eliot, in the next was enthusiastic over a novel by Mrs Henry Wood; from puerile facetiæ he passed to speculations on the origin of being, and with equally light heart. Save for Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe, he had read no English classic; since boyhood, indeed, he had probably read no book at all, for much diet of newspapers rendered him all but incapable of sustained attention. Whatever he seemed to know of serious authors came to him at second or third hand. Avowing his faith in Christianity when with orthodox people, in the society of sceptics he permitted himself to smile at the old faiths, -- though he preferred to escape this temptation, the Nonconformist conscience still reigning within him. At home he posed as a broad-minded Anglican, and having somewhere read that Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' represented this attitude, he spoke of the poem as 'one of the books that have made me what I am.'
His circle of acquaintances lay apart from that in which the Lords moved; it consisted for the most part of young men humbly endowed in the matter of income, and making little pretence of social dignity. When others resorted to theatre or public-house, or places not so readily designated, Samuel and his friends met together to discourse on subjects of which they knew somewhat less than nothing. Some of them occasionally held audacious language, especially when topics such as the relations of the sexes invited their wisdom; they had read something somewhere which urged them to cast off the trammels of conventional thought; they 'ventured to say' that in a very few years 'surprising changes of opinion would come about.' These revolutionaries, after startling the more sober of their hearers, went quietly home to mother or landlady, supped on cheese and cocoa, and next day plied the cleric pen with exemplary zeal.
Samuel believed himself in love. That he should conceive matrimonial intentions with regard to Stephen Lord's daughter was but the natural issue of circumstance; from that conception resulted an amorous mood, so much inflamed by Nancy's presence that a young man, whose thoughts did not often transgress decorum, had every reason to suppose himself her victim. When Nancy rejected his formal offer of devotion, the desire to wed her besieged him more vigorously; Samuel was piqued at the tone of lofty trifling in which the girl answered his proposal; for assuredly he esteemed himself no less remarkable a person than he appeared in the eyes of his sisters, and his vanity had been encouraged by Mr Lord's favour. Of his qualities as a man of business there was no doubt; in one direction or another, he would have struck the road to fortune; why Nancy should regard him with condescension, and make him feel at once that his suit was hopeless, puzzled him for many a day. He tried flattery, affecting to regard her as his superior in things of the intellect, but only with the mortifying result that Miss Lord accepted his humility as quite natural. Then he held apart in dignified reserve, and found no difficulty in maintaining this attitude until after Mr Lord's death. Of course he did not let his relatives know of the repulse he had suffered, but, when speaking to them of what had happened on Jubilee night, he made it appear that his estimate of Miss Lord was undergoing modification. 'She has lost him, all through her flightiness,' said the sisters to each other. They were not sorry, and felt free again to criticise Nancy's ideas of maidenly modesty.
The provisions of Mr Lord's will could not but trouble the intercourse between Grove Lane and Dagmar Road. Mr Barmby, senior, undertook with characteristic seriousness the guardianship conferred upon him. He had long interviews with Horace and Nancy, in which he acquitted himself greatly to his own satisfaction. Samuel, equally a trustee, showed his delicacy by holding aloof save when civility dictated a call upon the young people. But his hopes had revived; he was quite willing to wait three years for Nancy, and it seemed to him more than probable that this period of reflection would bring the young lady to a sense of his merits. In the meantime, he would pursue with energy the business now at his sole direction, and make it far more lucrative than when managed on Mr Lord's old-fashioned principles.
As the weeks went on, it seemed more clear than at first that Nancy resented the authority held by Samuel and his father. They were not welcome at the house in Grove Lane; the Miss Barmbys called several times without being admitted, though they felt sure that Nancy was at home. Under these circumstances, it became desirable to discover some intermediary who would keep them acquainted with the details of Nancy's life and of her brother's. Such intermediary was at hand, in the person of Miss Jessica Morgan.
Until of late there had existed a bare acquaintance between Jessica and the Barmby family. The two or three hours which she perforce spent in Samuel's company on Jubilee night caused Jessica no little embarrassment; as a natural result, their meetings after that had a colour of intimacy, and it was not long before Miss Morgan and the Miss Barmbys began to see more of each other. Nancy, on a motive correspondent with that which actuated her guardians, desired Jessica's familiarity with the household in Dagmar Road; her friend could thus learn and communicate sundry facts of importance, else hidden from her in the retirement to which she was now condemned. How did the Barmbys regard her behaviour to them? Did they, in their questioning, betray any suspicion fraught with danger? Jessica, enjoying the possession of a most important secret, which she had religiously guarded even from her mother, made time to accept the Barmbys' invitations pretty frequently, and invited the girls to her own home as often as she could afford a little outlay on cakes and preserves.
It made a salutary distraction in her life. As December drew near, she exhibited alarming symptoms of over-work, and but for the romance which assured to her an occasional hour of idleness, she must have collapsed before the date of her examination. As it was, she frightened one of her pupils, at the end of a long lesson, by falling to the floor and lying there for ten minutes in unconsciousness. The warning passed unheeded; day and night she toiled at her insuperable tasks, at times half frenzied by the strangest lapses of memory, and feeling, the more she laboured, only the more convinced that at the last moment every fact she had acquired would ruthlessly desert her.
Her place of abode favoured neither health nor mental tranquillity. It was one of a row of new houses in a new quarter. A year or two ago the site had been an enclosed meadow, portion of the land attached to what was once a country mansion; London, devourer of rural limits, of a sudden made hideous encroachment upon the old estate, now held by a speculative builder; of many streets to be constructed, three or four had already come into being, and others were mapped out, in mud and inchoate masonry, athwart the ravaged field. Great elms, the pride of generations passed away, fell before the speculative axe, or were left standing in mournful isolation to please a speculative architect; bits of wayside hedge still shivered in fog and wind, amid hoardings variegated with placards and scaffolding black against the sky. The very earth had lost its wholesome odour; trampled into mire, fouled with builders' refuse and the noisome drift from adjacent streets, it sent forth, under the sooty rain, a smell of corruption, of all the town's uncleanliness. On this rising locality had been bestowed the title of 'Park.' Mrs Morgan was decided in her choice of a dwelling here by the euphonious address, Merton Avenue, Something-or-other Park.
The old mansion -- not very old, and far from beautiful, but stoutly built -- stood grim and desolate, long dismantled, and waiting only to be torn down for the behoof of speculative dealers in old material. What aforetime was a tree-bordered drive, now curved between dead stumps, a mere slushy cartway; the stone pillars, which had marked the entrance, damaged in the rending away of metal with a market value, drooped sideways, ready at a touch to bury themselves in slime.
Through summer months the Morgans had suffered sufficiently from the defects of their house; with the coming on of winter, they found themselves exposed to miseries barely endurable. At the first slight frost, cistern and water-pipes went to ruin; already so damp that unlovely vegetation had cropped up on cellar walls, the edifice was now drenched with torrents of water. Plaster fell from the ceilings; paper peeled away down the staircase; stuccoed portions of the front began to crack and moulder. Not a door that would close as a door should; not a window that would open in the way expected of it; not a fireplace but discharged its smoke into the room, rather than by the approved channel. Everywhere piercing draughts, which often entered by orifices unexplained and unexplainable. From cellar floor to chimney-pot, no square inch of honest or trustworthy workmanship. So thin were the parti-walls that conversation not only might, but must, be distinctly heard from room to room, and from house to house; the Morgans learnt to subdue their voices, lest all they said should become common property of the neighbourhood. For the privilege of occupying such a residence, 'the interior,' said advertisement, 'handsomely decorated,' they were racked with an expenditure which, away in the sweet-scented country, would have housed them amid garden graces and orchard fruitfulness.
At this time, Mr Morgan had joined an acquaintance in the establishment of a debt-collecting agency; his partner provided the modest capital needful for such an enterprise, and upon himself fell the disagreeable work. A man of mild temper and humane instincts, he spent his day in hunting people who would not or could not pay the money they owed, straining his wits to circumvent the fraudulent, and swooping relentlessly upon the victims of misfortune. The occupation revolted him, but at present he saw no other way of supporting the genteel appearances which -- he knew not why -- were indispensable to his life. He subsisted like a bird of prey; he was ever on the look out for carrion which the law permitted him to seize. From the point of view forced upon him, society became a mere system of legalised rapine. 'You are in debt; behold the bond. Behold, too, my authority for squeezing out of you the uttermost farthing. You must beg or starve? I deplore it, but I, for my part, have a genteel family to maintain on what I rend from your grip.' He set his forehead against shame; he stooped to the basest chicanery; he exposed himself to insult, to curses, to threats of violence. Sometimes a whole day of inconceivably sordid toil resulted in the pouching of a few pence; sometimes his reward was a substantial sum. He knew himself despised by many of the creditors who employed him. 'Bad debts? For how much will you sell them to me?' And as often as not he took away with his bargain a glance which was equivalent to a kick.
The genteel family knew nothing of these expedients. Mrs Morgan talked dolorously to her friends of 'commercial depression,' and gave it to be vaguely understood that her husband had suffered great losses because he conducted his affairs in the spirit of a gentleman. Her son was in an office;' her elder daughter was attempting the art of fiction, which did not promise to be lucrative; Jessica, more highly educated, would shortly matriculate at the University of London -- a consoling prospect, but involving the payment of a fee that could with difficulty be afforded.
Every friend of the family held it a matter of course that Jessica would succeed in the examination. It seemed probable that she would have a place in Honours.
And, meanwhile, the poor girl herself was repenting of the indiscreet boastfulness with which she had made known her purpose. To come out in an inferior class would be painful enough; how support the possibility of absolute failure? Yet she knew only too well that in certain 'subjects' she was worse than shaky. Her Greek -- her Chemistry -- her Algebra ----
By way of propitiating the stern fates, she began to talk with Lucy and Amelia Barmby in a tone of diffidence. Half a year ago, she would have held her head very high in such company; now the simple goodness of the old-fashioned girls made an appeal to her aching heart, and their homely talk soothed her exhausted brain.
'It's fearfully difficult,' she said to them one evening, as she sat in their parlour. 'And I lose so much time with my pupils. Really, you know, I haven't a fair chance. I was showing Nancy Lord the Algebra paper set last summer, and she confessed she could hardly do a single question.'
'She couldn't?' exclaimed one of the sisters in astonishment. 'But we always thought she was so very clever.'
'So she is -- in many things. But she never dreamt of going in for such an examination as this.'
'And do you really know more than she does?'
Jessica smiled with affected modesty.
'Oh, I have studied so much more.'
It was sweet to gain this triumph over her friend, whose progress in the school of life she watched with the jealousy of a girl condemned to sterile passions.
Their talk was interrupted by the entrance of Samuel Barmby, and his elder sister, addressing him without reflection, said wonderingly:
'Sam, did you know that Nancy Lord couldn't pass the examination that Miss Morgan is going in for?'
Jessica blushed, and hastened to extenuate this crude statement.
'Oh, I didn't say that. Only that she would have to study very hard if she went in for the matriculation.'
'Of course she would,' Samuel assented, largely, as he took his stand before the fireplace and beamed upon the female trio. 'Miss Lord goes in for broad culture; that's quite a different thing from studying for examinations.'
To the hearers, Jessica not excepted, this seemed to argue the spirit of broad culture in Samuel himself. Miss Morgan pursued nervously:
'Examinations are nothing. I believe very stupid people often do well in them, and clever people often fail.'
Her voice sank on the last word, and she tried to read Barmby's face without meeting his look. Of late, a change had come about in her estimation of Samuel. Formerly she spoke of him with contemptuous amusement, in the tone set by Nancy; since she had become a friend of the family, his sisters' profound respect had influenced her way of thinking, and in secret she was disposed rather to admire 'the Prophet.' He had always struck her as a comely man, and, her education notwithstanding, she never perceived in his remarks that downright imbecility which excited Nancy's derision. On Jubilee night he was anything but a tedious companion; apart from her critical friend, Jessica had listened without impatience to his jests, his instructive facts, his flowing rhetoric. Now-a-days, in her enfeebled state of body and mind, she began to look forward with distinct pleasure to her occasional meetings with Samuel, pleasure which perhaps was enhanced by the air of condescension wherewith he tempered his courtesy. Morbid miseries brought out the frailty of her character. Desiring to be highly esteemed by Mr Barmby, she found herself no less willing to join his sisters in a chorus of humbly feminine admiration, when he discoursed to them from an altitude. At moments, after gazing upon his eloquent countenance, she was beset by strange impulses which brought blood to her cheek, and made her dread the Miss Barmbys' scrutiny.
'I look upon examinations,' Samuel was saying, 'as a professional matter. I never went in for them myself, simply because I -- I turned my energies in another direction.'
'You could have passed them,' remarked one of his sisters, 'easily enough.'
'In Miss Morgan's presence,' -- he stroked his chin, and smiled with delicious fatuity -- 'I prefer to say nothing on that point.'
'Oh but of course you could, Mr Barmby,' sounded Jessica's voice, in an unsteady falsetto, whilst her eyes were turned upon the floor. 'You would have thought nothing of this matriculation, which seems to me so dreadful.'
Profoundly flattered, Samuel addressed the girl in his suavest tones.
'I have a theory, Miss Morgan, that young ladies ought not to undergo these ordeals. The delicacy of their nervous system unfits them for such a strain. I'm sure we shall all feel very glad when you are successfully through the trial. After it, you ought to have a long rest.'
'Oh, you ought -- indeed you ought,' assented the girls.
'By the bye,' said Samuel, 'my father has heard from Miss Lord that she is going away for a month or two. She says her health requires it.'
Jessica sat silent, still with downcast eyes.
'But it's a new thing, isn't it,' remarked Amelia, 'for Miss Lord to be in bad health?'
'She has suffered a good deal, I'm afraid,' said Jessica, 'since her father's death. The doctor tells her she oughtn't to live in that dull house through the winter.'
'In that case,' Samuel exclaimed, 'of course she must go at once -- of course!'
He never spoke of Nancy but with stress of unctuous generosity. This, if his hearers knew what he had suffered at her hands, must tell greatly to his credit; if they were not aware of the circumstances, such a tone would become him as the young lady's hopeful admirer.
'I fear her nerves are affected,' pursued Jessica. 'She can't bear society. So unlike her, isn't it? She goes out very little indeed, -- sometimes not for days together. And really she sees nobody. I'm getting quite anxious about her.'
The subject was an awkward one in this house, and it soon gave place to freer conversation. On her way home, though mechanically repeating dates and formulæ, Jessica could not resist the tendency of her thoughts, to dwell on Samuel's features and Samuel's eloquence. This was a new danger; she had now little more than a fortnight for her final 'cram,' and any serious distraction meant ruin.
In a day or two she took leave of Nancy, who had chosen for her winter retreat no less remote a spot than Falmouth. Horace having settled himself in lodgings, the house was to be shut up; Mary Woodruff of course went down into Cornwall. Nancy had written a letter to Mr Barmby, senior, excusing herself for not being able to see him before her departure; it was an amiable letter, but contained frank avowal of pain and discontent at the prospect of her long pupilage. 'Of course I submit to the burden my father chose to lay upon me, and before long, I hope, I shall be able to take things in a better spirit. All I ask of you, dear Mr Barmby, is to have forbearance with me until I get back my health and feel more cheerful. You know that I could not be in better hands whilst Mary is with me. I shall write frequently, and give you an account of myself. Let me hear sometimes, and show me that you make allowance for my very trying position.'
Jessica heard the letter discussed by its recipient and his family. Samuel spoke with his wonted magnanimity; his father took a liberal view of the matter. And in writing to her friend a few days later, Jessica was able to say: 'I think you may safely stay at Falmouth for the whole winter. You will not be interfered with if you write nicely. I shouldn't wonder if they would let you keep out of their reach as long as it is necessary.'
The week of Jessica's ordeal was now at hand. She had had another fainting-fit; her sleep was broken every night with hideous dreams; she ate scarce enough to keep herself alive; a perpetual fever parched her throat and burned at her temples.
On the last day of 'cram,' she sat from morning to night in her comfortless little bedroom, bending over the smoky fire, reading desperately through a pile of note-books. The motive of vanity no longer supported her; gladly she would have crept away into a life of insignificance; but the fee for the examination was paid, and she must face the terrors, the shame, that waited her at Burlington House. No hope of 'passing.' Perhaps at the last moment a stroke of mortal illness would come to her relief.
Not so. She found herself in the ghastly torture-hall, at a desk on which lay sheets of paper, not whiter than her face. Somebody gave her a scroll, stereotyped in imitation of manuscript -- the questions to be answered. For a quarter of an hour she could not understand a word. She saw the face of Samuel Barmby, and heard his tones -- 'The delicacy of a young lady's nervous system unfits her for such a strain.'
That evening she went home with a half-formed intention of poisoning herself.
But the morrow saw her seated again before another scroll of stereotype, still thinking of Samuel Barmby, still hearing his voice. The man was grown hateful to her; he seemed to haunt her brain malignantly, and to paralyse her hand.
Day after day in the room of torture, until all was done. Then upon her long despair followed a wild, unreasoning hope. Though it rained, she walked all the way home, singing, chattering to herself, and reached the house-door without consciousness of the distance she had traversed. Her mother and sister came out into the hall; they had been watching for her.
'I did a good paper to-day -- I think I've passed after all -- yes, I feel sure I've passed!'
'You look dreadful,' exclaimed Mrs Morgan. 'And you're wet through ----'
'I did a good paper to-day -- I feel sure I've passed!'
She sat down to a meal, but could not swallow.
'I feel sure I've passed -- I feel sure ----'
And she fell from the chair, to all appearances stone-dead.
They took her upstairs, undressed her, sent for the doctor. When he came, she had been lying for half-an-hour conscious, but mute. She looked gravely at him, and said, as if repeating a lesson:
'The delicacy of a young lady's nervous system unfits her for such a strain.'
'Undoubtedly,' repeated the doctor, with equal gravity.
'But,' she added eagerly, 'let Mr Barmby know at once that I have passed.'
'He shall know at once,' said the doctor.
A lady who lived at Kilburn, and entertained largely in a house not designed for large entertainment, was 'at home' this evening. At eleven o'clock the two drawing-rooms contained as many people as could sit and stand with semblance of comfort; around the hostess, on the landing, pressed a crowd, which grew constantly thicker by affluence from the staircase. In the hall below a 'Hungarian band' discoursed very loud music. Among recent arrivals appeared a troupe of nigger minstrels, engaged to give their exhilarating entertainment -- if space could be found for them. Bursts of laughter from the dining-room announced the success of an American joker, who, in return for a substantial cheque, provided amusement in fashionable gatherings. A brilliant scene. The air, which encouraged perspiration, was rich with many odours; voices endeavouring to make themselves audible in colloquy, swelled to a tumultuous volume that vied with the Hungarian clangours.
In a corner of the staircase, squeezed behind two very fat women in very low dresses, stood Horace Lord. His heated countenance wore a look of fretful impatience; he kept rising upon his toes in an endeavour to distinguish faces down in the hall. At length his expression changed, and with eager eyes he began to force a way for himself between the fat women. Not unrewarded with glaring glances, and even with severe remarks, he succeeded in gaining the foot of the staircase, and came within reach of the persons for whom he had been waiting. These were Mrs Damerel and Fanny French. The elder lady exhibited a toilet of opulence corresponding with her mature charms; the younger, as became a débutante, wore graceful white, symbol of her maiden modesty.
'You promised to be early,' said Horace, addressing Mrs Damerel, but regarding Fanny, who stood in conversation with a florid man of uncertain age.
'Couldn't get here before, my dear boy.'
'Surely you haven't brought that fellow with you?'
'Hush! You mustn't talk in that way. We met at the door. Mrs Dane knows him. What does it matter?'
Horace moved aside to Fanny. Flushed with excitement, her hair adorned with flowers, she looked very pretty.
'Come along,' he said, gripping her hand more violently than he intended. 'Let us get upstairs.'
'Oh, you hurt me! Don't be so silly.'
The man beside her gave Horace a friendly nod. His name was Mankelow. Horace had met him once or twice of late at Mrs Damerel's, but did not like him, and felt still less disposed to do so now that Mankelow was acquainted with Fanny French. He suspected that the two were more familiar than Fanny pretended. With little ceremony, he interposed himself between the girl and this possible rival.
'Why didn't you make her come earlier?' he said to Fanny, as they began a slow upward struggle in the rear of Mrs Damerel.
'It isn't fashionable to come early.'
'Nonsense! Look at the people here already.'
Fanny threw up her chin, and glanced back to see that Mankelow was following. In his vexation, Horace was seized with a cough -- a cough several times repeated before he could check it.
'Your cold's no better,' said Fanny. 'You oughtn't to have come out at night.'
'It is better,' he replied sharply. 'That's the first time I've coughed to-day. Do you mean you would rather not have found me here?'
'How silly you are! People will hear what you're saying.'
It was Fanny's 'first season,' but not her first 'at home.' Mrs Damerel seemed to be taking an affectionate interest in her, and had introduced her to several people. Horace, gratified in the beginning, now suffered from jealousy; it tortured him to observe Fanny when she talked with men. That her breeding was defective, mattered nothing in this composite world of pseudo-elegance. Young Lord, who did not lack native intelligence, understood by this time that Mrs Damerel and her friends were far from belonging to a high order of society; he saw vulgarity rampant in every drawing-room to which he was admitted, and occasionally heard things which startled his suburban prejudices. But Fanny, in her wild enjoyment of these novel splendours, appeared to lose all self-control. She flirted outrageously, and before his very eyes. If he reproached her, she laughed at him; if he threatened to free himself, she returned a look which impudently bade him try. Horace had all her faults by heart, and no longer tried to think that he respected her, or that, if he married such a girl, his life could possibly be a happy one; but she still played upon his passions, and at her beck he followed like a dog.
The hostess, Mrs Dane, a woman who looked as if she had once been superior to the kind of life she now led, welcomed him with peculiar warmth, and in a quick confidential voice bade him keep near her for a few minutes.
'There's some one I want to introduce you to -- some one I'm sure you will like to know.'
Obeying her, he soon lost sight of Fanny; but Mrs Dane continued to talk, at intervals, in such a flattering tone, that his turbid emotions were soothed. He had heard of the Chittles? No? They were very old friends of hers, said Mrs Dane, and she particularly wanted him to know them. Ah, here they came; mother and daughter. Horace observed them. Mrs Chittle was a frail, worn, nervous woman, who must once have been comely; her daughter, a girl of two-and-twenty, had a pale, thin face of much sweetness and gentleness. They seemed by no means at home in this company; but Mrs Chittle, when she conversed, assumed a vivacious air; the daughter, trying to follow her example, strove vainly against an excessive bashfulness, and seldom raised her eyes. Why he should be expected to pay special attention to these people, Horace was at a loss to understand; but Mrs Chittle attached herself to him, and soon led him into familiar dialogue. He learnt from her that they had lived for two or three years in a very quiet country place; they had come up for the season, but did not know many people. She spoke of her daughter, who stood just out of earshot, -- her eyes cast down, on her face a sad fixed smile, -- and said that it had been necessary almost to force her into society. 'She loves the country, and is so fond of books; but at her age it's really a shame to live like a nun -- don't you think so, Mr Lord?' Decidedly it was, said Horace. 'I'm doing my best,' pursued Mrs Chittle, 'to cure her of her shyness. She is really afraid of people -- and it's such a pity. She says that the things people talk about don't interest her; but all people are not frivolous -- are they, Mr Lord?' Horace hoped not; and presently out of mere good-nature he tried to converse with the young lady in a way that should neither alarm her shyness nor prove distasteful to her intelligence. But with very little success. From time to time the girl glanced at him with strange timidity, yet seemed quite willing to listen as long as he chose to talk.
Fanny, being at a considerable distance from home, was to return to the boarding-house where her chaperon now lived, and have a room there for the night. Horace disliked this arrangement, for the objectionable Mankelow lived in the same house. When he was able to get speech with Fanny, he tried to persuade her to go with him all the way home to Camberwell in a cab. Miss French would not listen to the suggestion.
'Who ever heard of such a thing? It wouldn't be proper.'
'Proper! Oh, I like that!' he replied, with scathing irony.
'You can either like it or not. Mrs Damerel wouldn't dream of allowing it. I think she's quite as good a judge of propriety as you are.'
They were in a corner of the dining-room. Fanny, having supped much to her satisfaction, had a high colour, and treated her lover with more than usual insolence. Horace had eaten little, but had not refrained from beverages; he was disposed to assert himself.
'It seems to me that we ought to have an understanding. You never do as I wish in a single thing. What do you mean by it?'
'Oh, if you're going to be nasty ----'
She made the gesture of a servant-girl who quarrels with her young man at the street-corner.
'I can't stand the kind of treatment you've given me lately,' said Horace, with muffled anger.
'I've told you I shall do just as I like.'
'Very well. That's as much as to say that you care nothing about me. I'm not going to be the slave of a girl who has no sense of honour -- not even of decency. If you wish me to speak to you again you must speak first.'
And he left her, Fanny laughing scornfully.
It drew towards one o'clock when, having exhausted the delights of the evening, and being in a decidedly limp condition, Mrs Damerel and her protégée drove home. Fanny said nothing of what had passed between her and Horace. The elder lady, after keeping silence for half the drive, spoke at length in a tone of indulgent playfulness.
'So you talked a good deal with Mr Mankelow?'
'Not for long. Now and then. He took me down to supper -- the first time.'
'I'm afraid somebody will be a little jealous. I shall get into trouble. I didn't foresee this.'
'Somebody must treat me in a reasonable way,' Fanny answered, with a dry laugh.
'I'm quite sure he will,' said Mrs Damerel suavely. 'But I feel myself a little responsible, you know. Let me put you on your guard against Mr Mankelow. I'm afraid he's rather a dangerous man. I have heard rather alarming stories about him. You see he's very rich, and very rich men, if they're rather handsome as well, say and do things -- you understand?'
'Is he really very rich?'
'Well, several thousands a year, and a prospect of more when relatives die. I don't mean to say that he is a bad man. He belongs to a very good family, and I believe him perfectly honourable. He would never do any one any harm -- or, if he happened to, without meaning it, I'm quite sure he'd repair it in the honourable way.'
'You said he was dangerous ----'
'To a young lady who is already engaged. Confess that you think him rather good-looking.'
Having inflamed the girl's imagination, Mrs Damerel presently dropped the subject, and fell again into weary silence.
At noon of the next day she received a call from Horace, who found her over tea and toast in her private sitting-room. The young man looked bilious; he coughed, too, and said that he must have caught fresh cold last night.
'That house was like an oven. I won't go to any more such places. That isn't my idea of enjoying myself.'
Mrs Damerel examined him with affectionate solicitude, and reflected before speaking.
'Haven't you been living rather fast lately?'
He avoided her eyes.
'Not at all.'
'Quite sure? How much money have you spent this last month?'
By careful interrogation -- the caressing notes of her voice seemed to convey genuine feeling -- Mrs Damerel elicited the fact that he had spent not less than fifty pounds in a few weeks. She looked very grave.
'What would our little Fanny say to this?'
'I don't care what she would say.'
And he unburdened himself of his complaints against the frivolous charmer, Mrs Damerel listening with a compassionate smile.
'I'm afraid it's all too true, dear boy. But didn't I warn you?'
'You have made her worse. And I more than half believe you have purposely put her in the way of that fellow Mankelow. Now I tell you plainly' -- his voice quivered -- 'if I lose her, I'll raise all the money I can and play the very devil.'
'Hush! no naughty words! Let us talk about something else till you are quieter. -- What did you think of Mrs Chittle?'
'I thought nothing of her, good or bad.'
'Of her daughter, then. Isn't she a sweet, quiet girl? Do you know that she is rich? It's perfectly true. Mrs Chittle is the widow of a man who made a big fortune out of a kind of imitation velvet. It sold only for a few years, then something else drove it out of the market; but the money was made. I know all about it from Mrs Dane.'
'It's nothing to me,' said Horace peevishly.
But Mrs Damerel continued:
'The poor girl has been very unfortunate. In the last year of her father's life they lived in good style, town-house and country-house. And she fell in love with somebody who -- who treated her badly; broke it off, in fact, just before the wedding. She had a bad illness, and since then she has lived as her mother told you.'
'How do you know she told me?'
'I -- oh, I took it for granted. She said you had had a long talk. You can see, of course, that they're not ordinary people. Didn't Winifred -- her name is Winifred -- strike you as very refined and lady-like?'
'She hardly spoke half-a-dozen words.'
'That's her nervousness. She has quite got out of the habit of society. But she's very clever, and so good. I want you to see more of her. If she comes here to tea, will you -- just to please me -- look in for half-an-hour?'
She bent her head aside, wistfully. Horace vouchsafed no reply.
'Dear boy, I know very well what a disappointment you are suffering. Why not be quite open with me? Though I'm only a tiresome old aunt, I feel every bit as anxious for your happiness as if I were your mother -- I do indeed, Horace. You believe me, don't you?'
'You have been very kind, in many ways. But you've done harm to Fanny ----'
'No harm whatever, Horace -- believe me. I have only given her an opportunity of showing what she really is. You see now that she thinks of nothing at all but money and selfish pleasures. Compare her, my dear, with such a girl as Winifred Chittle. I only mean -- just to show you the difference between a lady and such a girl as Fanny. She has treated you abominably, my poor boy. And what would she bring you? Not that I wish you to marry for money. I have seen too much of the world to be so foolish, so wicked. But when there are sweet, clever, lady-like girls, with large incomes --! And a handsome boy like you! You may blush, but there's no harm in telling the truth. You are far too modest. You don't know how you look in the eyes of an affectionate, thoughtful girl -- like Winifred, for instance. It's dreadful to think of you throwing yourself away! My dear, it may sound shocking to you, but Fanny French isn't the sort of girl that men marry.'
Horace showed himself startled.
'You are so young,' pursued the mature lady, with an indulgent smile. 'You need the advice of some one who knows the world. In years to come, you will feel very grateful to me. Now don't let us talk any more of that, just now; but tell me something about Nancy. How much longer does she mean to stay in Cornwall?'
He answered absently.
'She talks of another month or two.'
'But what have her guardians to say to that? Why, she has been away for nearly half a year. How can that be called living at the old house?'
'It's no business of mine.'
'Nor of mine, you mean to say. Still, it does seem rather strange. I suppose she is quite to be trusted?'
'Trusted? What harm can come to her? She's keeping out of Sam Barmby's way, that's all. I believe he plagued her to marry him. A nice husband for Nancy!'
'I wish we had taken to each other,' said Mrs Damerel musingly. 'I think she was a little jealous of the attention I had paid to you. But perhaps we shall do better some day. And I'm quite content so long as you care a little for me, dear boy. You'll never give me up, will you?'
It was asked with unusual show of feeling; she leaned forward, her eyes fixed tenderly upon the boy's face.
'You would never let a Fanny French come between us, Horace dear?'
'I only wish you hadn't brought her among your friends.'
'Some day you will be glad of what I did. Whatever happens, I am your best friend -- the best and truest friend you will ever have. You will know it some day.'
The voice impressed Horace, its emotion was so true. Several times through the day he recalled and thought of it. As yet he had felt nothing like affection for Mrs Damerel, but before their next meeting an impulse he did not try to account for caused him to write her a letter -- simply to assure her that he was not ungrateful for her kindness. The reply that came in a few hours surprised and touched him, for it repeated in yet warmer words all she had spoken. 'Let me be in the place of a mother to you, dear Horace. Think of me as if I were your mother. If I were your mother indeed, I could not love you more.' He mused over this, and received from it a sense of comfort which was quite new to him.
All through the winter he had been living as a gentleman of assured independence. This was managed very simply. Acting on Mrs Damerel's counsel he insured his life, and straightaway used the policy as security for a loan of five hundred pounds from a friend of Mrs Damerel's. The insurance itself was not effected without a disagreeable little episode. As a result of the medical examination, Horace learnt, greatly to his surprise, that he would have to pay a premium somewhat higher than the ordinary. Unpleasant questions were asked: Was he quite sure that he knew of no case of consumption in his family? Quite sure, he answered stoutly, and sincerely. Why? Did the doctor think him consumptive? Oh dear no, but -- a slight constitutional weakness. In fine, the higher premium must be exacted. He paid it with the indifference of his years, but said nothing to Mrs Damerel.
And thereupon began the sowing of wild oats. At two-and-twenty, after domestic restraint and occupations that he detested, he was let loose upon life. Five hundred pounds seemed to him practically inexhaustible. He did not wish to indulge in great extravagance; merely to see and to taste the world.
Ah, the rapture of those first nights, when he revelled amid the tumult of London, pursuing joy with a pocket full of sovereigns! Theatres, music-halls, restaurants and public-houses -- he had seen so little of these things, that they excited him as they do a lad fresh from the country. He drew the line nowhere. Love of a worthy woman tells for chastity even in the young and the sensual; love of a Fanny French merely debauches the mind and inflames the passions. Secure in his paganism, Horace followed where the lures of London beckoned him; he knew not reproach of conscience; shame offered but thin resistance to his boiling blood. By a miracle he had as yet escaped worse damage to health than a severe cold, caught one night after heroic drinking. That laid him by the heels for a time, and the cough still clung to him.
In less than two years he would command seven thousand pounds, and a share in the business now conducted by Samuel Barmby. What need to stint himself whilst he felt able to enjoy life? If Fanny deceived him, were there not, after all, other and better Fannys to be won by his money? For it was a result of this girl's worthlessness that Horace, in most things so ingenuous, had come to regard women with unconscious cynicism. He did not think he could be loved for his own sake, but he believed that, at any time, the show of love, perhaps its ultimate sincerity, might be won by display of cash.
Midway in the month of May he again caught a severe cold, and was confined to the house for nearly three weeks. Mrs Damerel, who nursed him well and tenderly, proposed that he should go down for change of air to Falmouth. He wrote to Nancy, asking whether she would care to see him. A prompt reply informed him that his sister was on the point of returning to London, so that he had better choose some nearer seaside resort.
He went to Hastings for a few days, but wearied of the place, and came back to his London excitements. Nancy, however, had not yet returned; nor did she until the beginning of July.
This winter saw the establishment of the South London Fashionable Dress Supply Association -- the name finally selected by Beatrice French and her advisers. It was an undertaking shrewdly conceived, skilfully planned, and energetically set going. Beatrice knew the public to which her advertisements appealed; she understood exactly the baits that would prove irresistible to its folly and greed. In respect that it was a public of average mortals, it would believe that business might be conducted to the sole advantage of the customer. In respect that it consisted of women, it would give eager attention to a scheme that permitted each customer to spend her money, and yet to have it. In respect that it consisted of ignorant and pretentious women, this public could be counted upon to deceive itself in the service of its own vanity, and maintain against all opposition that the garments obtained on this soothing system were supremely good and fashionable.
On a basis of assumptions such as these, there was every possibility of profitable commerce without any approach to technical fraud.
By means of the familiar 'goose-club,' licensed victuallers make themselves the bankers of people who are too weak-minded to save their own money until they wish to spend it, and who are quite content to receive in ultimate return goods worth something less than half the deposit. By means of the familiar teapot, grocers persuade their customers that an excellent trade can be done by giving away the whole profit on each transaction. Beatrice French, an observant young woman, with a head for figures, had often noted and reflected upon these two egregious illustrations of human absurdity. Her dressmaking enterprise assimilated the features of both, and added novel devices that sprang from her own fruitful brain. The 'Fashion Club,' a wheel within a wheel, was merely the goose-club; strictly a goose-club, for the licensed victualler addresses himself to the male of the species. The larger net, cast for those who lacked money or a spirit of speculation, caught all who, in the realm of grocery, are lured by the teapot. Every sovereign spent with the Association carried a bonus, paid not in cash but in kind. These startling advantages were made known through the medium of hand-bills, leaflets, nicely printed little pamphlets, gorgeously designed placards; the publicity department, being in the hands of Mr Luckworth Crewe, of Farringdon Street, was most ably and vigorously conducted.
Thanks also to Luckworth Crewe, Beatrice had allied herself with partners, who brought to the affair capital, experience, and activity. Before Christmas -- an important point -- the scene of operations was ready: a handsome shop, with the new and attractive appendages (so-called 'club-room,' refreshment-bar, &c.) which Crewe and Beatrice had visioned in their prophetic minds. Before the close of the year substantial business had been done, and 1888 opened with exhilarating prospects.
The ineptitude of uneducated English women in all that relates to their attire is a fact that it boots not to enlarge upon. Beatrice French could not be regarded as an exception; for though she recognised monstrosities, she very reasonably distrusted her own taste in the choice of a garment. For her sisters, monstrosities had a distinct charm, and to this class of women belonged all customers of the Association who pretended to think for themselves as to wherewithal they should be clothed. But women in general came to the shop with confessed blankness of mind; beyond the desire to buy something that was modish, and to pay for it in a minus quantity, they knew, felt, thought nothing whatever. Green or violet, cerulean or magenta, all was one to them. In the matter of shape they sought merely a confident assurance from articulate man or woman -- themselves being somewhat less articulate than jay or jackdaw -- that this or that was 'the feature of the season.' They could not distinguish between a becoming garment and one that called for the consuming fires of Heaven. It is often assumed as a commonplace that women, whatever else they cannot do, may be trusted to make up their minds about habiliments. Nothing more false, as Beatrice French was abundantly aware. A very large proportion of the servant-keeping females in Brixton, Camberwell, and Peckham could not, with any confidence, buy a chemise or a pair of stockings; and when it came to garments visible, they were lost indeed.
Fanny French began to regret that she had not realised her capital, and put it into the Association. Wishing at length to do so, she met with a scornful rebuff. Beatrice would have none of her money, but told her she might use the shop like any other customer, which of course Fanny did.
Mrs Peachey, meanwhile, kept declaring to both her sisters that they must not expect to live henceforth in De Crespigny Park on the old nominal terms. Beatrice was on the way to wealth; Fanny moved in West End society, under the chaperonage of a rich woman; they ought to be ashamed of themselves for not volunteering handsome recognition of the benefits they had received beneath their sister's roof. But neither Beatrice nor Fanny appeared to see the matter in this light. The truth was, that they both had in view a change of domicile. The elder desired more comfort and more independence than De Crespigny Park could afford her; the younger desired a great many things, and flattered herself that a very simple step would put her in possession of them.
The master of the house no longer took any interest in the fortunes of his sisters-in-law. He would not bid them depart, he would not bid them stay, least of all would he demand money from them. Of money he had no need, and he was the hapless possessor of a characteristic not to be found in any other member of his household -- natural delicacy.
Arthur Peachey lived only for his child, the little boy, whose newly prattling tongue made the sole welcome he expected or cared for on his return from a hard day's work. Happily the child had good health, but he never left home without dread of perils that might befall it in his absence. On the mother he counted not at all; a good-tempered cow might with more confidence have been set to watch over the little one's safety. The nurse-girl Emma, retained in spite of her mistress's malice, still seemed to discharge her duties faithfully; but, being mortal, she demanded intervals of leisure from time to time, and at such seasons, as Peachey too well knew, the child was uncared for. Had his heart been resolute as it was tender, he would long ago have carried out a project which haunted him at every moment of anger or fear. In the town of Canterbury lived a sister of his who for several years had been happily wedded, but remained childless. If the worst came to the worst, if his wife compelled him to the breaking-up of a home which was no home, this married sister would gladly take the little boy into her motherly care. He had never dared to propose the step; but Ada might perchance give ready assent to it, even now.
For motherhood she had no single qualification but the physical. Before her child's coming into the world, she snarled at the restraints it imposed upon her; at its birth, she clamoured against nature for the pains she had to undergo, and hated her husband because he was the intermediate cause of them. The helpless infant gave her no pleasure, touched no emotion in her heart, save when she saw it in the nurse's care, and received female compliments upon its beauty. She rejected it at night because it broke her sleep; in the day, because she could not handle it without making it cry. When Peachey remonstrated with her, she stared in insolent surprise, and wished that he had had to suffer all her hardships of the past year.
Peachey could not be said to have any leisure. On returning from business he was involved forthwith in domestic troubles and broils, which consumed the dreary evening, and invaded even his sleep. Thus it happened that at long intervals he was tempted, instead of going home to dinner, to spend a couple of hours at a certain small eating-house, a resort of his bachelor days, where he could read the newspapers, have a well-cooked chop in quietude, and afterwards, if acquaintances were here, play a game of chess. Of course he had to shield this modest dissipation with a flat falsehood, alleging to his wife that business had kept him late. Thus on an evening of June, when the soft air and the mellow sunlight overcame him with a longing for rest, he despatched a telegram to De Crespigny Park, and strolled quietly about the streets until the hour and his appetite pointed him tablewards. The pity of it was that he could not dismiss anxieties; he loathed the coward falsehood, and thought more of home than of his present freedom. But at least Ada's tongue was silent.
He seated himself in the familiar corner, and turned over illustrated papers, whilst his chop hissed on the grid. Ah, if he were but unmarried, what a life he might make for himself now that the day's labour brought its ample reward! He would have rooms in London, and a still, clean lodging somewhere among the lanes and fields. His ideals expressed the homeliness of the man. On intellect he could not pride himself; his education had been but of the 'commercial' order; he liked to meditate rather than to read; questions of the day concerned him not at all. A weak man, but of clean and kindly instincts. In mercantile life he had succeeded by virtue of his intensely methodical habits -- the characteristic which made him suffer so from his wife's indolence, incapacity, and vicious ill-humour.
Before his marriage he had thought of women as domestic beings. A wife was the genius of home. He knew men who thanked their wives for all the prosperity and content that they enjoyed. Others he knew who told quite a different tale, but these surely were sorrowful exceptions. Nowadays he saw the matter in a light of fuller experience. In his rank of life married happiness was a rare thing, and the fault could generally be traced to wives who had no sense of responsibility, no understanding of household duties, no love of simple pleasures, no religion.
Yes, there was the point -- no religion. Ada had grown up to regard church-going as a sign of respectability, but without a shadow of religious faith. Her incredible ignorance of the Bible story, of Christian dogmas, often amazed him. Himself a believer, though careless in the practice of forms, he was not disturbed by the modern tendency to look for morals apart from faith; he had not the trouble of reflecting that an ignorant woman is the last creature to be moralised by anything but the Christian code; he saw straight into the fact -- that there was no hope of impressing Ada with ideas of goodness, truthfulness, purity, simply because she recognised no moral authority.
For such minds no moral authority -- merely as a moral authority -- is or can be valid. Such natures are ruled only by superstition -- the representative of reasoned faith in nobler beings. Rob them of their superstition, and they perish amid all uncleanliness.
Thou shalt not lie -- for God consumes a liar in the flames of hell! Ada Peachey could lend ear to no admonition short of that. And, living when she did, bred as she was, only a John Knox could have impressed her with this menace -- to be forgotten when the echoes of his voice had failed.
He did not enjoy his chop this evening. In the game of chess that followed he played idly, with absent thoughts. And before the glow of sunset had died from the calm heaven he set out to walk homeward, anxious, melancholy.
On approaching the house he suffered, as always, from quickened pulse and heart constricted with fear. Until he knew that all was well, he looked like a man who anticipates dread calamity. This evening, on opening the door, he fell back terror-stricken. In the hall stood a police-constable, surrounded by a group of women: Mrs Peachey, her sisters, Emma the nurse-girl, and two other servants.
'Oh, here you are at last!' exclaimed his wife, in a voice exhausted with rage. 'You're just in time to see this beast taken off to the lock-up. Perhaps you'll believe me now!'
'What is it? What has she done?'
'Stolen money, that's what she's done -- your precious Emma! She's been at it for a long time; I've told you some one was robbing me. So I marked some coins in my purse, and left it in the bedroom whilst we were at dinner; and then, when I found half-a-crown gone -- and it was her evening out, too -- I sent for a policeman before she knew anything, and we made her turn out her pockets. And there's the half-crown! Perhaps you'll believe it this time!'
The girl's face declared her guilt; she had hardly attempted denial. Then, with a clamour of furious verbosity, Ada enlightened her husband on other points of Emma's behaviour. It was a long story, gathered, in the last few minutes, partly from the culprit herself, partly from her fellow-servants. Emma had got into the clutches of a jewellery tallyman, one of the fellows who sell trinkets to servant-girls on the pay-by-instalment system. She had made several purchases of gewgaws, and had already paid three or four times their value, but was still in debt to the tallyman, who threatened all manner of impossible proceedings if she did not make up her arrears. Bottomless ignorance and imbecile vanity had been the girl's ruin, aided by a grave indiscretion on Peachey's part, of which he was to hear presently.
Some one must go to the police-station and make a formal charge. Ada would undertake this duty with pious eagerness, enjoying it all the more because of loud wailings and entreaties which the girl now addressed to her master. Peachey looked at his sisters-in-law, and in neither face perceived a compassionate softening. Fanny stood by as at a spectacle provided for her amusement, without rancour, but equally without pity. Beatrice was contemptuous. What right, said her countenance, had a servant-girl to covet jewellery? And how pitiable the spirit that prompted to a filching of half-crowns! For the criminals of finance, who devastate a thousand homes, Miss French had no small admiration; crimes such as the present were mean and dirty.
Ada reappeared, hurriedly clad for going forth; but no one had fetched a cab. Incensed, she ordered her husband to do so.
'Who are you speaking to?' he replied wrathfully. 'I am not your servant.'
Fanny laughed. The policeman, professionally calm, averted a smiling face.
'It's nothing to me,' said Mrs Peachey. 'I'm quite willing to walk. Come along, constable.'
Her husband interposed.
'The girl doesn't go from my house until she's properly dressed.' He turned to the other servants. 'Please to blow the whistle at the door, or get a cab somehow. Emma, go upstairs and put your things on.'
'It was about time you behaved like a man,' fell quietly from Beatrice.
'You're right.' He looked sternly at the speaker. 'It is time, and that you shall all know.'
The culprit, suddenly silent, obeyed his order. The constable went out at the front door, and there waited whilst a cab-summoning whistle shrilled along De Crespigny Park.
Ada had ascended to the first landing, to make sure that the culprit did not escape her. Beatrice and Fanny retired into the drawing-room. After a lapse of some ten minutes two cabs rattled up to the door from opposite directions, each driver lashing his horse to gain the advantage. So nearly were they matched, that with difficulty the vehicles avoided a collision. The man who had secured a place immediately in front of the doorsteps, waved his whip and uttered a shout of insulting triumph; his rival answered with volleys of abuse, and drove round as if meditating an assault; it was necessary for the policeman to interfere. Whereupon the defeated competitor vowed that it was sanguinary hard lines; that for the sanguinary whole of this sanguinary day had he waited vainly for a sanguinary fare, and but for a sanguinary stumble of his sanguinary horse ----
Tired of waiting, and suspicious of the delay, Ada went up to the room where the servant was supposed to be making ready. It was a little room, which served as night-nursery; by the girl's bed stood a cot occupied by the child. Ada, exclaiming 'Now, come along!' opened the door violently. A candle was burning; the boy, awake but silent, sat up in his cot, and looked about with sleepy, yet frightened eyes.
'Where are you?'
Emma could not be seen. Astonished and enraged, Ada rushed forward; she found the girl lying on the floor, and after bending over her, started back with a cry half of alarm, half of disgust.
'Come up here at once!' she screamed down the staircase. 'Come up! The wretch has cut her throat!'
There was a rush of feet. Peachey, the first to enter, saw a gash on the neck of the insensible girl; in her hand she held a pair of scissors.
'I hope you're satisfied,' he said to his wife.
The police-officer, animated by a brisk succession of events such as he could not hope for every day, raised the prostrate figure, and speedily announced that the wound was not mortal.
'She's fainted, that's all. Tried to do for herself with them scissors, and didn't know the way to go about it. We'll get her off sharp to the surgeon.'
'It'll be attempted suicide, now, as well as stealing,' cried Ada.
Terrified by the crowd of noisy people, the child began to cry loudly. Peachey lifted him out of the cot, wrapped a blanket about him, and carried him down to his own bedroom. There, heedless of what was going on above, he tried to soothe the little fellow, lavishing caresses and tender words.
'My little boy will be good? He'll wait here, quietly, till father comes back? Only a few minutes, and father will come back, and sit by him. Yes -- he shall sleep here, all night ----'
Ada burst into the room.
'I should think you'd better go and look after your dear Emma. As if I didn't know what's been going on! It's all come out, so you needn't tell me any lies. You've been giving her money. The other servants knew of it; she confessed it herself. Oh, you're a nice sort of man, you are! Men of your sort are always good at preaching to other people. You've given her money -- what does that mean? I suspected it all along. You wouldn't have her sent away; oh no! She was so good to the child -- and so good to somebody else! A dirty servant! I'd choose some one better than that, if I was a man. How much has she cost you? As much, no doubt, as one of the swell women in Piccadilly Circus ----'
Peachey turned upon her, the sweat beading on his ghastly face.
'Go! -- Out of this room -- or by God I shall do something fearful! -- Out!'
She backed before him. He seized her by the shoulders, and flung her forth, then locked the door. From without she railed at him in the language of the gutter and the brothel. Presently her shouts were mingled with piercing shrieks; they came from the would-be-suicide, who, restored to consciousness, was being carried down for removal in the cab. Peachey, looking and feeling like a man whom passion had brought within sight of murder, stopped his ears and huddled himself against the bedside. The child screamed in terror.
At length came silence. Peachey opened the door, and listened. Below, voices sounded in quiet conversation.
'Who is down there?' he called.
'All of us except Ada,' replied Beatrice. 'The policeman said she needn't go unless she liked, but she did like.'
He ran up to the deserted bedroom, carefully gathered together his child's day-garments, and brought them down. Then, as well as he could, he dressed the boy.
'Is it time to get up?' inquired the little three-year-old, astonished at all that was happening, but soothed and amused by the thought that his father had turned nurse. 'It isn't light yet.'
'You are going somewhere with father, dear. Somewhere nice.'
The dialogue between them, in sweet broken words such as the child had not yet outgrown, and the parent did not wish to abandon for common speech, went on until the dressing was completed.
'Now, will my boy show me where his clothes are for going out? His cap, and his coat ----'
Oh yes, they were up in the nursery; boy would show father -- and laughed merrily that he knew something father didn't. A few minutes more, and the equipment was completed.
'Now wait for me here -- only a minute. My boy won't cry, if I leave him for a minute?'
'Cry! of course not!' Peachey descended to the drawing-room, closed the door behind him, and stood facing his sisters-in-law.
'I want to tell you that I am going away, and taking the child with me. Ada needn't expect me back to-night -- nor ever. As long as I live I will never again be under the same roof with her. You, Beatrice, said it was about time I behaved like a man. You were right. I've put up long enough with things such as no man ought to endure for a day. Tell your sister that she may go on living here, if she chooses, for another six months, to the end of the year -- not longer. She shall be supplied with sufficient money. After Christmas she may find a home for herself where she likes; money will be paid to her through a lawyer, but from this day I will neither speak nor write to her. You two must make your own arrangements; you have means enough. You know very well, both of you, why I am taking this step; think and say about me what you like. I have no time to talk, and so I bid you good-bye.'
They did not seek to detain him, but stood mute whilst he left the room.
The little boy, timid and impatient, was at the head of the stairs. His father enveloped him warmly in a shawl, and so they went forth. It was not long before they met with a vacant cab. Half-an-hour's drive brought them to the eating-house where Peachey had had his chop that evening, and here he obtained a bedroom for the night.
By eleven o'clock the child slept peacefully. The father, seated at a table, was engaged in writing to a solicitor.
At midnight he lay softly down by the child's side, and there, until dawn, listened to the low breathing of his innocent little bedfellow. Though he could not sleep, it was joy, rather than any painful excitement, that kept him wakeful. A great and loathsome burden had fallen from him, and in the same moment he had rescued his boy out of an atmosphere of hated impurity. At length he could respect himself, and for the first time in four long years he looked to the future with tranquil hope.
Careless of the frank curiosity with which the people of the house regarded him, he went down at seven o'clock, and asked for a railway time-table. Having found a convenient train to Canterbury, he ordered breakfast for himself and the child to be laid in a private room. It was a merry meal. Sunshine of midsummer fell warm and bright upon the table; the street below was so full of busy life that the little boy must needs have his breakfast by the window, where he could eat and look forth at the same time. No such delightful holiday had he ever enjoyed. Alone with father, and going away by train into wonderful new worlds.
'Is Emma coming?' he asked.
It was significant that he did not speak of his mother.
They drove to the railway station, Peachey no less excited than the child. From here he despatched a telegram to his partners, saying that he should be absent for a day or two.
Then the train, struggling slowly out of London's welter, through the newest outposts of gloom and grime, bore them, hearts companioned in love and blamelessness, to the broad sunny meadows and the sweet hop-gardens of Kent.
'Serves her jolly well right,' said Beatrice.
'A lot she'll care,' said Fanny. 'I should think myself precious lucky. She gets rid of him, and of the kid too, and has as much as she wants to live on. It's better than she deserves. -- Do you believe he's been carrying on with that girl?'
Miss French laughed contemptuously.
'Well, there's been a jolly good row to-night, if we never see another. We shall all be in the papers!' The prospect had charms for Fanny. 'What are you going to do? Live here till Christmas?'
Beatrice was quietly reviewing the situation. She kept silence, and her sister also became meditative. Suddenly Fanny inquired:
'What sort of a place is Brussels?'
'Brussels? Why? I know nothing about it. Not much of a place, I think; sprouts come from there, don't they?'
'It's a big town,' said the other, 'and a lively sort of place, they say.
'Why do you ask me, if you know? What about it?'
As usual when performing the operation which, in her, answered to thought, Fanny shuffled with her hands on her waist. At a distance from Beatrice she stood still, and said:
'Some one I know is going there. I've a good mind to go too. I want to see abroad.'
Her sister asked several searching questions, but Fanny would not make known whether the friend was male or female.
'I shouldn't be much surprised,' remarked the woman of business, indifferently, 'if you go and make a fool of yourself before long. That Mrs Damerel is up to some game with you; any one could see it with half an eye. I suppose it isn't Lord that's going to Brussels?'
Fanny sputtered her disdain.
'If you had any common sense,' pursued her sister, 'you'd stick to him; but you haven't. Oh yes, you think you can do better. Very well, we shall see. If you find yourself in a hole one of these days, don't expect me to pull you out. I wouldn't give you a penny to save you from the workhouse.'
'Wait till you're asked. I know where all your money 'll go to. And that's into Crewe's pocket. He'll fool you out of all you have.'
Beatrice reddened with wrath. But, unlike the other members of her family, she could command her tongue. Fanny found it impossible to draw another word from her.
On returning from the police-station, haggard and faint with excitement, but supported by the anticipation of fresh attacks upon her husband, Ada immediately learnt what had happened. For the first moment she could hardly believe it. She rushed upstairs, and saw that the child was really gone; then a blind frenzy took hold upon her. Alarming and inexplicable sounds drew her sisters from below; they found her, armed with something heavy, smashing every breakable object in her bedroom -- mirrors, toilet-ware, pictures, chimney-piece ornaments.
'She's gone mad!' shrieked Fanny. 'She'll kill us!'
'That beast shall pay for it!' yelled Ada, with a frantic blow at the dressing-table.
Wanton destruction of property revolted all Beatrice's instincts. Courageous enough, she sprang upon the wild animal, and flung her down.
Now indeed the last trace of veneer was gone, the last rag of pseudo-civilisation was rent off these young women; in physical conflict, vilifying each other like the female spawn of Whitechapel, they revealed themselves as born -- raw material which the mill of education is supposed to convert into middle-class ladyhood. As a result of being held still by superior strength Ada fell into convulsions, foamed at the mouth, her eyes starting from their sockets; then she lay as one dead.
'You've killed her,' cried the terrified Fanny.
'No fear. Give me some water to pitch over her.'
With a full jug from another bedroom, she drenched the prostrate figure. When Ada came round she was powerless; even her rancorous lips could utter only a sound of moaning. The sisters stripped her stark naked on the floor, made a show of drying her with towels, and tumbled her into bed. Then Beatrice brewed a great jorum of hot whisky-punch, and after drinking freely to steady her shaken nerves, poured a pint or so down Mrs Peachey's throat.
'There won't be a funeral just yet,' she remarked, with a laugh. 'Now we'll have supper; I feel hungry.'
They went to bed at something after midnight. The servants, having stolen a bottle of spirits from the cupboard, which Beatrice left open, both got drunk, and slept till morning upon the kitchen-floor.
On the morrow, Miss French, attired as a walking advertisement of the South London Fashionable Dress Supply Association, betook herself to Farringdon Street for an interview with her commercial friend. Crewe was absent, but one of three clerks, who occupied his largest room, informed her that it could not be very long before he returned, and being so familiar a figure here, she was permitted to wait in the agent's sanctum. When the door closed upon her, the three young men discussed her character with sprightly freedom. Beatrice, the while, splendidly indifferent to the remarks she could easily divine, made a rapid examination of loose papers lying on Crewe's desk, read several letters, opened several books, and found nothing that interested her until, on turning over a slip of paper with pencilled figures upon it, she discovered a hotel-bill, the heading: Royal Hotel, Falmouth. It was for a day and night's entertainment, the debtor 'Mr Crewe,' the date less than a week gone by. This document she considered attentively, her brows knitted, her eyes wide. But a sound caused her to drop it upon the desk again. Another moment, and Crewe entered.
He looked keenly at her, and less good-humouredly than of wont. These persons never shook hands, and indeed dispensed, as a rule, with all forms of civility.
'What are you staring at?' asked Crewe bluffly.
'What are you staring at?'
'Nothing, that I know.' He hung up his hat, and sat down. 'I've a note to write; wait a minute.'
The note written, and given to a clerk, Crewe seemed to recover equanimity. His visitor told him all that happened in De Crespigny Park, even to the crudest details, and they laughed together uproariously.
'I'm going to take a flat,' Beatrice then informed him. 'Just find me something convenient and moderate, will you? A bachelor's flat.'
'What about Fanny?'
'She has something on; I don't know what it is. Talks about going to Brussels -- with a friend.'
Crewe looked astonished.
'You ought to see after her. I know what the end 'll be. Brussels? I've heard of English girls going there, but they don't usually come back.'
'What can I do? I'm pretty certain that Damerel woman has a game on hand. She doesn't want Fanny to marry her nephew -- if Lord is her nephew. She wants his money, that's my idea.'
'Mine, too,' remarked the other quietly. 'Look here, old chap, it's your duty to look after your little damned fool of a sister; I tell you that plainly. I shan't think well of you if you don't.'
Beatrice displayed eagerness to defend herself. She had done her best; Fanny scorned all advice, and could not be held against her will.
'Has she given up all thought of Lord?'
'I'm not sure, but I think so. And it looks as if he was going his own way, and didn't care much. He never writes to her now. Of course it's that woman's doing.'
'I shall have to look into Mrs Damerel's affairs. Might be worth while. Where is she living?' He made a note of the information. 'Well, anything else to tell me?'
Beatrice spoke of business matters, then asked him if he had been out of town lately. The question sounded rather abrupt, and caused Crewe to regard her with an expression she privately interpreted.
'A few short runs. Nowhere particular.'
'Oh? -- Not been down into Cornwall?'
He lost his temper.
'What are you after? What business is it of yours? If you're going to spy on me, I'll soon let you know that I won't stand that kind of thing.'
'Don't disturb yourself,' said Beatrice, with a cold smile. 'I haven't been spying, and you can go where you like for anything I care. I guessed you had been down there, that's all.'
Crewe kept silence, his look betraying uneasiness as well as anger. Speaking at length, he fixed her with keen eyes.
'If it's any satisfaction to you, you're welcome to know that I have been into Cornwall -- and to Falmouth.'
Beatrice merely nodded, and still he searched her face.
'Just answer me a plain question, old chap. Come, there's no nonsense between us; we know each other -- eh?'
'Oh yes, we know each other,' Miss French answered, her lips puckering a little.
'What do you know about her? What has she been doing all this time?'
'I know just as little about her as I care.'
'You care a good deal more than you'll confess. I wouldn't be up to women's tricks, if I were you.'
'After all, I suppose I am a woman?'
'Well, I suppose so.' Crewe grinned good-naturedly. 'But that isn't in the terms of our partnership, you remember. You can be a reasonable fellow enough, when you like. Just tell me the truth. What do you know about Nancy Lord?' Beatrice assumed an air of mystery.
'I'll tell you that, if you tell me what it is you want of her. Is it her money?'
'Her money be damned!'
'It's herself, then.'
'And what if it is? What have you to say to it?'
Her eyes fell, and she muttered 'Nothing.'
'Just bear that in mind, then. And now that I've answered your question, answer mine. What have you heard about her? Or what have you found out?'
She raised her eyes again and again, but in a mocking voice said, 'Nothing.'
'You're telling me a lie.'
'You're a brute to say so!'
They exchanged fierce glances, but could not meet each other's eyes steadily. Crewe, mastering his irritation, said with a careless laugh:
'All right, I believe you. Didn't mean to offend you, old chap.'
'I won't be called that!' She was trembling with stormy emotions. 'You shall treat me decently.'
'Very well. Old girl, then.'
'I'm a good deal younger than you are. And I'm a good deal better than you, in every way. I'm a lady, at all events, and you can't pretend to be a gentleman. You're a rough, common fellow ----'
'Holloa! Holloa! Draw it mild.'
He was startled, and in some degree abashed; his eyes, travelling to the door, indicated a fear that this singular business-colloquy might be overheard. But Beatrice went on, without subduing her voice, and, having delivered herself of much plain language, walked from the room, leaving the door open behind her.
As a rule, she returned from her day's occupations to dinner, in De Crespigny Park, at seven o'clock. To-day her arrival at home was considerably later. About three o'clock she made a call at the boarding-house where Mrs Damerel lived, but was disappointed in her wish to see that lady, who would not be in before the hour of dining. She called again at seven, and Mrs Damerel received her very graciously. It was the first time they had met. Beatrice, in no mood for polite grimaces, at once disclosed the object of her visit; she wanted to talk about Fanny; did Mrs Damerel know anything of a proposed journey to Brussels? The lady professed utter ignorance of any such intention on Fanny's part. She had not seen Fanny for at least a fortnight.
'How can that be? She told me she dined here last Sunday.'
'That's very strange,' answered Mrs Damerel, with suave concern. 'She certainly did not dine here.'
'And the Sunday before?'
'Your sister has dined here only once, Miss French, and that was three months ago.'
'Then I don't understand it. Haven't you been taking her to theatres, and parties, and that kind of thing?'
'I have taken her once to a theatre, and twice to evening "at homes." The last time we were together anywhere was at Mrs Dane's, about the middle of May. Since then I have seen her hardly at all. I'm very much afraid you are under some misconception. Thinking your sister was engaged to marry my nephew, Mr Lord, I naturally desired to offer her a few friendly attentions. But it came out, at length, that she did not regard the engagement as serious. I was obliged to speak gravely to my young nephew, and beg him to consider his position. There is the second dinner-bell, but I am quite at your service, Miss French, if you wish to question me further.'
Beatrice was much inclined to resent this tone, and to use her vernacular. But it seemed only too probable that Fanny had been deceiving her, and, as she really feared for the girl's safety, prudence bade her be civil with Mrs Damerel.
'Can't you help me to find out what Fanny has really been doing?'
'I'm afraid it's quite out of my power. She never confided in me, and it is so long since I have seen anything of her at all.'
'It's best to speak plainly,' said Beatrice, in her business tone. 'Can't you think of any man, in the society you introduced her to, who may be trying to lead her astray?'
'Really, Miss French! The society in which I move is not what you seem to suppose. If your sister is in any danger of that kind, you must make your inquiries elsewhere -- in an inferior rank of life.'
Beatrice no longer contained herself.
'Perhaps I know rather more than you think about your kind of society. There's not much to choose between the men and the women.'
'Miss French, I believe you reside in a part of London called Camberwell. And I believe you are engaged in some kind of millinery business. This excuses you for ill-manners. All the same, I must beg you to relieve me of your presence.' She rang the bell. 'Good evening.'
'I dare say we shall see each other again,' replied Beatrice, with an insulting laugh. 'I heard some one say to-day that it might be as well to find out who you really are. And if any harm comes to Fanny, I shall take a little trouble about that inquiry myself.'
Mrs Damerel changed colour, but no movement betrayed anxiety. In the attitude of dignified disdain, she kept her eyes on a point above Miss French's head, and stood so until the plebeian adversary had withdrawn.
Then she sat down, and for a few minutes communed with herself. In the end, instead of going to dinner, she rang her bell again. A servant appeared.
'Is Mr Mankelow in the dining-room?'
'Ask him to be kind enough to come here for a moment.'
With little delay, Mr Mankelow answered the summons which called him from his soup. He wore evening dress; his thin hair was parted down the middle; his smooth-shaven and rather florid face expressed the annoyance of a hungry man at so unseasonable an interruption.
'Do forgive me,' began Mrs Damerel, in a pathetic falsetto. 'I have been so upset, I felt obliged to seek advice immediately, and no one seemed so likely to be of help to me as you -- a man of the world. Would you believe that a sister of that silly little Miss French has just been here -- a downright. virago -- declaring that the girl has been led astray, and that I am responsible for it? Can you imagine such impertinence? She has fibbed shockingly to the people at home -- told them she was constantly here with me in the evenings, when she must have been -- who knows where. It will teach me to meddle again with girls of that class.'
Mankelow stood with his hands behind him, and legs apart, regarding the speaker with a comically puzzled air.
'My dear Mrs Damerel,' -- he had a thick, military sort of voice, -- 'why in the world should this interpose between us and dinner? Afterwards, we might ----'
'But I am really anxious about the silly little creature. It would be extremely disagreeable if my name got mixed up in a scandal of any kind. You remember my telling you that she didn't belong exactly to the working-class. She has even a little property of her own; and I shouldn't wonder if she has friends who might make a disturbance if her -- her vagaries could be in any way connected with me and my circle. Something was mentioned about Brussels. She has been chattering about some one who wanted to take her to Brussels ----'
The listener arched his eyebrows more and more.
'What can it matter to you?'
'To be sure, I have no acquaintance with any one who could do such things ----'
'Why, of course not. And even if you had, I understand that the girl is long out of her teens ----'
'Then it's her own affair -- and that of the man who cares to purchase such amusement. By-the-bye, it happens rather oddly that I myself have to run over to Brussels on business; but I trust' -- he laughed -- 'that my years and my character ----'
'Oh, Mr Mankelow, absurd! It's probably some commercial traveller, or man of that sort, don't you think? The one thing I do hope is, that, if anything like this happens, the girl will somehow make it clear to her friends that I had no knowledge whatever of what was going on. But that can hardly be hoped, I fear! ----'
Their eyes crossed; they stood for a moment perusing vacancy.
'Yes, I think it might be hoped,' said Mankelow airily. 'She seemed to me a rather reckless sort of young person. It's highly probable she will write letters which release every one but herself from responsibility. In fact' -- he gazed at her with a cynical smile -- 'my knowledge of human nature disposes me to assure you that she certainly will. She might even, I should say, write a letter to you -- perhaps a cheeky sort of letter, which would at once set your mind at ease.'
'Oh, if you really take that view ----'
'I do indeed. Don't you think we might dismiss the matter, and dine?'
They did so.
Until noon of to-day, Mrs Peachey had kept her bed, lying amid the wreck wrought by last night's madness. She then felt well enough to rise, and after refreshment betook herself by cab to the offices of Messrs Ducker, Blunt & Co., manufacturers of disinfectants, where she conversed with one of the partners, and learnt that her husband had telegraphed his intention to be absent for a day or two. Having, with the self-respect which distinguished her, related her story from the most calumnious point of view, she went home again to nurse her headache and quarrel with Fanny. But Fanny had in the meantime left home, and, unaccountable fact, had taken with her a large tin box and a dress-basket; heavily packed, said the servants. Her direction to the cabman was merely Westminster Bridge, which conveyed to Mrs Peachey no sort of suggestion.
When Beatrice came back, and learnt this event, she went apart in wrathful gloom. Ada could not engage her in a quarrel. It was a wretchedly dull evening.
They talked next morning, and Beatrice announced her purpose of going to live by herself as soon as possible. But she would not quarrel. Left alone, Ada prepared to visit certain of their relatives in different parts of London, to spread among them the news of her husband's infamy.
When Mary Woodruff unlocked the house-door and entered the little hall, it smelt and felt as though the damp and sooty fogs of winter still lingered here, untouched by the July warmth. She came alone, and straightway spent several hours in characteristic activity -- airing, cleaning, brightening. For a few days there would be no servant; Mary, after her long leisure down in Cornwall, enjoyed the prospect of doing all the work herself. They had reached London last evening, and had slept at a family hotel, where Nancy remained until the house was in order for her.
Unhappily, their arrival timed with a change of weather, which brought clouds and rain. The glories of an unshadowed sky would have little more than availed to support Nancy's courage as she passed the creaking little gate and touched the threshold of a home to which she returned only on compulsion; gloom overhead, and puddles underfoot, tried her spirit sorely. She had a pale face, and thin cheeks, and moved with languid step.
Her first glance was at the letter-box.
Mary shook her head. During their absence letters had been re-addressed by the post-office, and since the notice of return nothing had come.
'I'm quite sure a letter has been lost.'
'Yes, it may have been. But there'll be an answer to your last very soon.'
'I don't think so. Most likely I shall never hear again.'
And Nancy sat by the window of the front room, looking, as she had looked so many a time, at the lime tree opposite and the house visible through wet branches. A view unchanged since she could remember; recalling all her old ambitions, revolts, pretences, and ignorances; recalling her father, who from his grave still oppressed her living heart.
Somewhere near sounded the wailing shout of a dustman. It was like the voice of a soul condemned to purge itself in filth.
'Mary!' She rose up and went to the kitchen. 'I can't live here! It will kill me if I have to live in this dreadful place. Why, even you have been crying; I can see you have. If you give way, think what it must be to me!'
'It's only for a day or two, dear,' answered Mary. 'We shall feel at home again very soon. Miss Morgan will come this evening, and perhaps your brother.'
'I must do something. Give me some work.'
Mary could not but regard this as a healthy symptom, and she suggested tasks that called for moderate effort. Sick of reading -- she had read through a whole circulating library in the past six months -- Nancy bestirred herself about the house; but she avoided her father's room.
Horace did not come to-day; a note arrived from him, saying that he would call early to-morrow morning. But at tea-time Jessica presented herself. She looked less ghostly than half a year ago; the grave illness through which she had passed seemed to have been helpful to her constitution. Yet she was noticeably changed. In her letters Nancy had remarked an excessive simplicity, a sort of childishness, very unlike Jessica's previous way of writing; and the same peculiarity now appeared in her conversation. By turns she was mawkish and sprightly, tearful and giggling. Her dress, formerly neglected to the point of untidiness, betrayed a new-born taste for fashionable equipment; she suddenly drew attention to it in the midst of serious talk, asking with a bashful smirk whether Nancy thought it suited her.
'I got it at Miss French's place -- the Association, you know. It's really wonderful how cheap things are there. And the very best cut, by dressmakers from Paris.'
Nancy wondered, and felt that her diminishing regard for Miss Morgan had suffered a fresh blow.
There was much news to receive and impart. In writing from Falmouth, Nancy had referred to the details of her own life with studied ambiguity. She regretted having taken Jessica into her confidence, and avoided penning a word which, if read by any one but her correspondent, would betray the perilous secret. Jessica, after her illness, was inclined to resent this extreme caution, which irritated her curiosity; but in vain she assured Nancy that there was not the least fear of her letters falling into wrong hands. For weeks at a time she heard nothing, and then would come a letter, long indeed, but without a syllable of the information she desired. Near the end of May she received a line or two, 'I have been really ill, but am now much better. I shall stay here only a few weeks more. Don't be anxious; I am well cared for, and the worst is over.'
She heard the interpretation from Nancy's lips, and laughed and cried over it.
'What you must have suffered, my poor dear! And to be separated from the little darling! Oh, it's too cruel! You are sure they will be kind to it?'
'Mary has every confidence in the woman. And I like the look of her; I don't feel uneasy. I shall go there very often, of course.'
'And when is he coming back? He oughtn't to have kept away all this time. How unkind!'
'Not at all,' Nancy replied, with sudden reserve. 'He is acting for the best. You mustn't ask me about that; you shall know more some day.'
Jessica, whose face made legible presentment of her every thought, looked disappointed and peevish.
'And you are really going in for the examination again?' Nancy asked.
'Oh, of course I am!' answered the other perkily; 'but not till summer of next year. I'm not allowed to study much yet; the doctor says I might do my brain a serious injury. I read a great deal; books that rest the mind -- poetry and fiction; of course only the very best fiction. I shall soon be able to begin teaching again; but I must be very careful. Only an hour or two a day at first, and perhaps quite young children.'
Evidently the girl felt a certain pride in what she had undergone. Her failure to matriculate was forgotten in the sense that she offered a most interesting case of breakdown from undue mental exertion. The doctor had declared his astonishment that she held up until the examination was over.
'He simply wouldn't believe me when I told him the hours I worked. He said I ought to be on my trial for attempted suicide!'
And she laughed with extravagant conceit.
'You have quite made friends with the Barmbys,' said Nancy, eyeing her curiously.
'They are very nice people. Of course the girls quite understand what a difference there is between themselves and me. I like them because they are so modest; they would never think of contradicting my opinion about anything.'
'And what about the Prophet?'
'I don't think you ever quite understood him,' Jessica replied, with an obvious confusion which perplexed her friend. 'He isn't at all the kind of man you thought.'
'No doubt I was wrong,' Nancy hastened to say. 'It was prejudice. And you remember that I never had any fault to find with his -- his character.'
'You disliked him,' said the other sharply. 'And you still dislike him. I'm sure you do.'
So plainly did Jessica desire a confirmation of this statement, that Nancy allowed herself to be drawn into half avowing a positive dislike for Samuel. Whereupon Jessica looked pleased, and tossed her head in a singular way.
'I needn't remind you,' fell from Nancy, after a moment of troubled reflection, 'how careful you must be in talking about me to the Barmbys.'
'Oh, don't have the slightest fear.'
'Weren't you delirious in your illness?'
'I should think I was indeed! For a long time.'
'I hope you said nothing ----'
'About you? Oh, not a word; I'm quite sure. I talked all the time about my studies. The doctor heard me one day repeating a long bit of Virgil. And I kept calling for bits of paper to work out problems in Geometrical Progression. Just fancy! I don't think most girls are delirious in that way. If I had said anything about you that sounded queer, of course mother would have told me afterwards. Oh, it was quite an intellectual delirium.'
Had Jessica, since her illness, become an insufferable simpleton? or -- Nancy wondered -- was it she herself who, through experience and sorrows, was grown wiser, and saw her friend in a new light? It troubled her gravely that the preservation of a secret more than ever momentous should depend upon a person with so little sense. The girl's departure was a relief; but in the silence that followed upon silly talk, she had leisure to contemplate this risk, hitherto scarce taken into account. She spoke of it with Mary, the one friend to whom her heart went out in absolute trust, from whom she concealed but few of her thoughts, and whose moral worth, only understood since circumstances compelled her reliance upon it, had set before her a new ideal of life. Mary, she well knew, abhorred the deceit they were practising, and thought hard things of the man who made it a necessity; so it did not surprise her that the devoted woman showed no deep concern at a new danger.
'It's more the shame than anything else, that I fear now,' said Nancy. 'If I have to support myself and my child, I shall do it. How, I don't know; but other women find a way, and I should. If he deserts me, I am not such a poor creature as to grieve on that account; I should despise him too much even to hate him. But the shame of it would be terrible. It's common, vulgar cheating -- such as you read of in the newspapers -- such as people are punished for. I never thought of it in that way when he was here. Yet he felt it. He spoke of it like that, but I wouldn't listen.'
Mary heard this with interest.
'Did he wish you to give it up?' she asked. 'You never told me that.'
'He said he would rather we did. But that was when he had never thought of being in want himself. Afterwards -- yes, even then he spoke in the same way; but what could we do?'
'Don't fear that he will forsake you,' said Mary. 'You will hear from him very soon. He knows the right and the wrong, and right will be stronger with him in the end.'
'If only I were sure that he has heard of his child's birth. If he has, and won't even write to me, then he is no man, and it's better we should never see each other again.'
She knew the hours of postal delivery, and listened with throbbing heart to the double knocks at neighbouring houses. When the last postman was gone by, she sat down, sick with disappointment.
At bedtime she said to Mary, 'My little baby is asleep; oh, if I could but see it for a moment!' And tears choked her as she turned away.
It was more than two months since she had heard from her husband.
At first Tarrant wrote as frequently as he had promised. She learnt speedily of his arrival at New York, then that he had reached Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, then that he was with his friend Sutherland on the little island amid the coral reefs. Subsequent letters, written in buoyant spirits, contained long descriptions of the scenery about him, and of the life he led. He expressed a firm confidence in Sutherland's enterprises; beyond a doubt, there was no end of money to be made by an energetic man; he should report most favourably to Mr Vawdrey, whose co-operation would of course be invaluable. For his own part, whether he profited or not from these commercial schemes, he had not been mistaken in foreseeing material for journalism, even for a book. Yes, he should certainly write a book on the Bahamas, if only to expose the monstrous system of misgovernment which accounted for the sterility into which these islands had fallen. The climate, in winter at all events, was superb. Sutherland and he lay about in delicious sunshine, under a marvellous sky, smoking excellent cigars, and talking over old Oxford days. He quoted Tennyson: 'Larger constellations burning,' &c.
At the end of December, when Nancy, according to their agreement, began to hope for his return, a letter in a very different tone burdened her with dismal doubts. Tarrant had quarrelled with his friend. He had discovered that Sutherland was little better than a swindler. 'I see that the fellow's professed energy was all sham. He is the laziest scamp imaginable; lazier even than his boozing old father. He schemes only to get money out of people; and his disappointment on finding that I have no money to lose, has shown itself at length in very gross forms. I find he is a gambler; there has just been a tremendous row between him and an American, whom he is said to have cheated at cards. Last year he was for several weeks in Mexico City, a place notorious for gambling, and there lost a large sum of money that didn't belong to him.' The upshot was that he could no longer advise Mr Vawdrey to have anything to do with Sutherland. But he must not leave the Bahamas yet; that would be most unwise, as he was daily gathering most valuable information. Vawdrey might be induced to lend him a hundred pounds or so. But he would write again very soon.
It was the close of January when he dated his next letter. Vawdrey had sent him fifty pounds; this, however, was to include the cost of his return to England. 'See, then, what I have decided. I shall make a hurried tour through the West Indian Islands, then cross to the States, and travel by land to New York or Boston, seeing all I can afford to on the way. If I have to come home as a steerage passenger, never mind; that, too, will be valuable experience.' There followed many affectionate phrases, but Nancy's heart remained cold.
He wrote next from Washington, after six weeks' silence. Difficulties of which he would speak at length in another letter had caused him to postpone answering the two letters he had received. Nancy must never lose faith in him; his love was unshaken; before the birth of her child he would assuredly be back in England. Let her address to New York. He was well, but could not pretend to be very cheerful. However, courage! He had plans and hopes, of which she should soon hear.
After that, Nancy knew nothing of him, save that he was living in New York. He wrote two or three times, but briefly, always promising details in the next epistle. Then he ceased to correspond. Not even the announcement of the child's birth elicited a word from him. One subsequent letter had Nancy despatched; this unanswered, she would write no more.
She was herself surprised at the calmness with which she faced so dreadful a possibility as desertion by the man she had loved and married, the father of her baby. It meant, perhaps, that she could not believe such fate had really befallen her. Even in Tarrant's last short letter sounded a note of kindness, of truthfulness, incompatible, it seemed to her, with base cruelty. 'I dreamt of you last night, dearest, and woke up with a heart that ached for your suffering.' How could a man pen those words, and be meditating dastardly behaviour to the woman he addressed? Was he ill, then? or had fatal accident befallen him? She feared such explanation only in her weakest moments. If, long ago, he could keep silence for six weeks at a time, why not now for months? As for the news she had sent him -- does a man think it important that a little child has been born into the world? Likely enough that again he merely 'postponed' writing. Of course he no longer loved her, say what he might; at most he thought of her with a feeling of compassion -- not strong enough to overcome his dislike of exertion. He would come back -- when it pleased him.
Nancy would not sully her mind by thinking that he might only return when her position made it worth his while. He was not a man of that stamp. Simply, he had ceased to care for her; and having no means of his own, whilst she was abundantly provided, he yielded to the temptation to hold aloof from a woman whose claim upon him grew burdensome. Her thoughts admitted no worse accusation than this. Did any grave ill befall her; if, for instance, the fact of her marriage became known, and she were left helpless; her letter to New York would not be disregarded. To reflect thus signified a mental balance rare in women, and remarkable in one situated as Nancy was. She talked with her companion far less consistently, for talk served to relieve the oppression of her heart and mind.
When, next morning, Horace entered the sitting-room, brother and sister viewed each other with surprise. Neither was prepared for the outward change wrought in both by the past half-year. Nancy looked what she in truth had become, a matronly young woman, in uncertain health, and possessed by a view of life too grave for her years; Horace, no longer a mere lad, exhibited in sunken cheeks and eyes bright with an unhappy recklessness, the acquisition of experience which corrupts before it can mature. Moving to offer her lips, Nancy was checked by the young man's exclamation.
'What on earth has been the matter with you? I never saw any one so altered.'
His voice, with its deepened note, and the modification of his very accent, due to novel circumstances, checked the hearer's affectionate impulse. If not unfeeling, the utterance had nothing fraternal. Deeply pained, and no less alarmed by this warning of the curiosity her appearance would excite in all who knew her, Nancy made a faltering reply.
'Why should you seem astonished? You know very well I have had an illness.'
'But what sort of illness? What caused it? You used always to be well enough.'
'You had better go and talk to my medical attendant,' said Nancy, in a cold, offended voice.
Horace resumed with irritability.
'Isn't it natural for me to ask such questions? You're not a bit like yourself. And what did you mean by telling me you were coming back at once, when I wanted to join you at Falmouth?'
'I meant to. But after all, I had to stay longer.'
'Oh well, it's nothing to me.'
They had not even shaken hands, and now felt no desire to correct the omission, which was at first involuntary. Horace seemed to have lost all the amiability of his nature; he looked about him with restless, excited eyes.
'Are you in a hurry?' asked his sister, head erect.
'No hurry that I know of. -- You haven't heard what's been going on?'
'Of course it won't interest you. There's something about you I can't understand. Is it father's will that has spoilt your temper, and made you behave so strangely?'
'It is not my temper that's spoilt. And as for behaving strangely ----.' She made an effort to command herself. 'Sit down, Horace, and let me know what is the matter with you. Why we should be unfriendly, I really can't imagine. I have suffered from ill health, that's all. I'm sorry I behaved in that way when you talked of coming to Falmouth; it wasn't meant as you seem to think. Tell me what you have to tell.'
He could not take a reposeful attitude, but, after struggling with some reluctance, began to explain the agitation that beset him.
'Mrs Damerel has done something I didn't think any woman would be capable of. For months she has been trying to ruin Fanny, and now it has come -- she has succeeded. She made no secret of wanting to break things off between her and me, but I never thought her plotting could go as far as this. Fanny has run away -- gone to the Continent with a man Mrs Damerel introduced to her.'
'Perhaps they are married,' said Nancy, with singular impulsiveness.
'Of course they're not. It's a fellow I knew to be a scoundrel the first time I set eyes on him. I warned Fanny against him, and I told Mrs Damerel that I should hold her responsible if any harm came of the acquaintance she was encouraging between him and Fanny. She did encourage it, though she pretended not to. Her aim was to separate me and Fanny -- she didn't care how.'
He spoke in a high, vehement note; his cheeks flushed violently, his clenched fist quivered at his side.
'How do you know where she is gone?' Nancy asked.
'She as good as told her sister that she was going to Brussels with some one. Then one day she disappeared, with her luggage. And that fellow -- Mankelow's his name -- has gone too. He lived in the same boarding-house with Mrs Damerel.'
'That is all the evidence you have?'
'Quite enough,' he replied bitterly.
'It doesn't seem so to me. But suppose you're right, what proof have you that Mrs Damerel had anything to do with it? If she is our mother's sister -- and you say there can be no doubt of it -- I won't believe that she could carry out such a hateful plot as this.'
'What does it matter who she is? I would swear fifty times that she has done it. You know very well, when you saw her, you disliked her at once. You were right in that, and I was wrong.'
'I can't be sure. Perhaps it was she that disliked me, more than I did her. For one thing, I don't believe that people make such plots. And what plotting was needed? Couldn't any one have told you what a girl like Fanny French would do if she lost her head among people of a higher class?'
'Then Mrs Damerel must have foreseen it. That's just what I say. She pretended to be a friend to the girl, on purpose to ruin her.'
'Have you accused her of it?'
'Yes, I have.' His eyes flashed. Nancy marvelled at this fire, drawn from a gentle nature by what seemed to her so inadequate, so contemptible a cause. 'Of course she denied it, and got angry with me; but any one could see she was glad of what had happened. There's an end between us, at all events. I shall never go to see her again; she's a woman who thinks of nothing but money and fashion. I dislike her friends, every one of them I've met. I told her that what she had done ought to be a punishable crime.'
Nancy reflected, then said quietly:
'Whether you are right or wrong, I don't think you would have got any good from her. But will you tell me what you are going to do? I told you that I thought borrowing money only to live on it in idleness was very foolish.'
Her brother stiffened his neck.
'You must allow me to judge for myself.'
'But have you judged for yourself? Wasn't it by Mrs Damerel's advice that you gave up business?'
'Partly. But I should have done it in any case.'
'Have you any plans?'
'No, I haven't,' he answered. 'You can't expect a man to have plans whose life has been thoroughly upset.'
Nancy, reminded of his youthfulness by the tone in which he called himself a 'man,' experienced a revival of natural feeling. Though revolting against the suggestion that a woman akin to them had been guilty of what her brother believed, she was glad to think that Fanny French had relinquished all legitimate claim upon him, and that his connection with 'smart' society had come to an end. Obvious enough were the perils of his situation, and she, as elder sister, recognised a duty towards him; she softened her voice, and endeavoured to re-establish the confidence of old time. Impossible at once, though with resolution she might ultimately succeed. Horace, at present, was a mere compound of agitated and inflamed senses. The life he had been leading appeared in a vicious development of his previously harmless conceit and egoism. All his characteristics had turned out, as it were, the seamy side; and Nancy with difficulty preserved her patience as he showed point after point of perverted disposition. The result of their talk was a careless promise from Horace that he would come to Grove Lane not seldomer than once a week.
He stayed only an hour, resisting Nancy's endeavour to detain him at least for the mid-day meal. To Mary he spoke formally, awkwardly, as though unable to accept her position in the house, and then made his escape like one driven by an evil spirit.
With the clearing of the sky, Nancy's spirit grew lighter. She went about London, and enjoyed it after her long seclusion in the little Cornish town; enjoyed, too, her release from manifold restraints and perils. Her mental suffering had made the physical harder to bear; she was now recovering health of mind and body, and found with surprise that life had a new savour, independent of the timorous joy born with her child. Strangely, as it seemed to her, she grew conscious of a personal freedom not unlike what she had vainly desired in the days of petulant girlhood; the sense came only at moments, but was real and precious; under its influence she forgot everything abnormal in her situation, and -- though without recognising this significance -- knew the exultation of a woman who has justified her being.
A day or two of roaming at large gave her an appetite for activity. Satisfied that her child was safe and well cared for, she turned her eyes upon the life of the world, and wished to take some part in it -- not the part she had been wont to picture for herself before reality supplanted dreams. Horace's example on the one hand, and that of Jessica Morgan on the other, helped her to contemn mere social excitement and the idle vanity which formerly she styled pursuit of culture. Must there not be discoverable, in the world to which she had, or could obtain, access, some honest, strenuous occupation, which would hold in check her unprofitable thoughts and soothe her self-respect?
That her fraud, up to and beyond the crucial point, had escaped detection, must be held so wonderful, that she felt justified in an assurance of impunity. The narrowest escape of which she was aware had befallen only a few weeks ago. On the sixth day after the birth of the child, there was brought to her lodgings at Falmouth a note addressed to 'Miss Lord.' Letters bearing this address had arrived frequently, and by the people of the house were supposed to be for Mary Woodruff, who went by the name of 'Miss Lord,' Nancy having disguised herself as 'Mrs Woodruff;' but they had always come by post, and the present missive must be from some acquaintance actually in the town. Nancy could not remember the handwriting. Breaking open the envelope as she lay in bed, she saw with alarm the signature 'Luckworth Crewe.' He was at Falmouth on business, Crewe wrote, and, before leaving London, he had ventured to ask Miss Lord's address from her brother, whom he casually met somewhere. Would Nancy allow him to see her, were it but for a minute or two? Earnestly he besought this favour. He desired nothing more than to see Miss Lord, and to speak with her in the way of an ordinary acquaintance. After all this time, she had, he felt sure, forgiven his behaviour at their last meeting. Only five minutes of conversation ----
All seemed lost. Nancy was silent in despair. But Mary faced the perilous juncture, and, to all appearances, averted catastrophe. She dressed herself, and went straight to the hotel where Crewe had put up, and where he awaited an answer. Having made known who she was, she delivered a verbal message: Miss Lord was not well enough to see any one to-day, and, in any case, she could not have received Mr Crewe; she begged him to pardon her; before long, they might perhaps meet in London, but, for her own part, she wished Mr Crewe would learn to regard her as a stranger. Of course there followed a dialogue; and Mary, seeming to speak with all freedom, convinced Crewe that his attempt to gain an interview was quite hopeless. She gave him much information concerning her mistress -- none of it false, but all misleading -- and in the end had to resist an offer of gold coins, pressed upon her as a bribe for her good word with Nancy.
The question was -- had Crewe been content to leave Falmouth without making inquiries of other people? To a man of his experience, nothing was easier than such investigation. But, with other grounds of anxiety, this had ceased to disturb Nancy's mind. Practically, she lived as though all danger were at an end. The task immediately before her seemed very simple; she had only to resume the old habits, and guard against thoughtless self-betrayal in her everyday talk. The chance that any one would discover her habit of visiting a certain house at the distance of several miles from Camberwell, was too slight for consideration.
She wrote to Mr Barmby, senior, informing him of her return, in improved health, to Grove Lane, and thanking him once more for his allowing her to make so long a stay in Cornwall. If he wished to see her, she would be at home at any time convenient to him. In a few days the old gentleman called, and for an hour or two discoursed well-meaning commonplace. He was sorry to observe that she looked a trifle pale; in the autumn she must go away again, and to a more bracing locality -- he would suggest Broadstairs, which had always exercised the most beneficial effect upon his own health. Above all, he begged her to refrain from excessive study, most deleterious to a female constitution. Then he asked questions about Horace, and agreed with Nancy that the young man ought to decide upon some new pursuit, if he had definitely abandoned the old; lack of steady occupation was most deleterious at his age. In short, Mr Barmby rather apologised for his guardianship than sought to make assertion of it; and Nancy, by a few feminine devices, won a better opinion than she had hitherto enjoyed. On the day following, Samuel Barmby and his sisters waited upon Miss Lord; all three were surprisingly solemn, and Samuel talked for the most part of a 'paragraph' he had recently read, which stated that the smoke of London, if properly utilised, would be worth a vast sum of money. 'The English are a wasteful people,' was his conclusion; to which Nancy assented with a face as grave as his own.
Not a little to her astonishment, the next day brought her a long letter in Samuel's fair commercial hand. It began by assuring her that the writer had no intention whatever of troubling her with the renewal of a suit so firmly rejected on more than one occasion; he wished only to take this opportunity of her return from a long absence to express the abiding nature of his devotion, which years hence would be unbroken as to-day. He would never distress her by unwelcome demonstrations; possibly she might never again hear from his lips what he now committed to paper. Enough for him, Samuel, to cherish a love which could not but exalt and purify him, which was indeed, 'in the words of Shakespeare, "a liberal education."' In recompense of his self-command, he only besought that Miss Lord would allow him, from time to time, to look upon her face, and to converse with her of intellectual subjects. 'A paper,' he added, 'which I read last week at our Society, is now being printed -- solely at the request of friends. The subject is one that may interest you, "The Influence of Culture on Morality." I beg that you will accept the copy I shall have the pleasure of sending you, and that, at some future date, you will honour me with your remarks thereon.'
Which epistle Nancy cruelly read aloud to Mary, with a sprightliness and sarcastic humour not excelled by her criticisms of 'the Prophet' in days gone by. Mary did not quite understand, but she saw in this behaviour a proof of the wonderful courage with which Nancy faced her troubles.
A week had passed, and no news from America.
'I don't care,' said Nancy. 'Really and truly, I don't care. Yesterday I never once thought of it -- never once looked for the postman. The worst is over now, and he may write or not, as he likes.'
Mary felt sure there would be an explanation of such strange silence.
'Only illness or death would explain it so as to make me forgive him. But he isn't ill. He is alive, and enjoying himself.'
There was no bitterness in her voice. She seemed to have outlived all sorrows and anxieties relative to her husband.
Mary suggested that it was always possible to call at Mr Vawdrey's house and make inquiries of Mrs Baker.
'No, I won't do that. Other women would do it, but I won't. So long as I mayn't tell the truth, I should only set them talking about me; you know how. I see the use, now, of having a good deal of pride. I'm only sorry for those letters I wrote when I wasn't in my senses. If he writes now, I shall not answer. He shall know that I am as independent as he is. What a blessed thing it is for a woman to have money of her own! It's because most women haven't, that they're such poor, wretched slaves.'
'If he knew you were in want,' said her companion, 'he would never have behaved like this.'
'Who can say? -- No, I won't pretend to think worse of him than I do. You're quite right. He wouldn't leave his wife to starve. It's certain that he hears about me from some one. If I were found out, and lost everything, some one would let him know. But I wouldn't accept support from him, now. He might provide for his child, but he shall never provide for me, come what may -- never!'
It was in the evening, after dinner. Nancy had a newspaper, and was reading the advertisements that offered miscellaneous employment.
'What do you think this can be?' she asked, looking up after a long silence. '"To ladies with leisure. Ladies desiring to add to their income by easy and pleasant work should write"' -- &c. &c.
'I've no faith in those kind of advertisements,' said Mary.
'No; of course it's rubbish. There's no easy and pleasant way of earning money; only silly people expect it. And I don't want anything easy or pleasant. I want honest hard work. Not work with my hands -- I'm not suited for that, but real work, such as lots of educated girls are doing. I'm quite willing to pay for learning it; most likely I shall have to. Who could I write to for advice?'
They were sitting upstairs, and so did not hear a visitor's knock that sounded at the front door. The servant came and announced that Miss French wished to see Miss Lord.
'Miss French? Is it the younger Miss French?'
The girl could not say; she had repeated the name given to her. Nancy spoke to her friend in a low voice.
'It may be Fanny. I don't think Beatrice would call, unless it's to say something about her sister. She had better come up here, I suppose?'
Mary retired, and in a few moments there entered, not Fanny, but Beatrice. She was civilly, not cordially, welcomed. Her eye, as she spoke the words natural at such a meeting, dwelt with singular persistency on Nancy's face.
'You are quite well again?'
'Quite, thank you.'
'It has been a troublesome illness, I'm afraid.'
Nancy hesitated, detecting a peculiarity of look and tone which caused her uneasiness.
'I had a sort of low fever -- was altogether out of sorts -- "below par," the doctor said. Are you all well?'
Settling herself comfortably, as if for a long chat, Beatrice sketched with some humour the course of recent events in De Crespigny Park.
'I'm out of it all, thank goodness. I prefer a quiet life. Then there's Fanny. You know all about her, I dare say?'
'Nothing at all,' Nancy replied distantly.
'But your brother does. Hasn't he been to see you yet?'
Nancy was in no mood to submit to examination.
'Whatever I may have heard, I know nothing about Fanny's, affairs, and, really, they don't concern me.
'I should have thought they might,' rejoined the other, smiling absently. 'She has run away from her friends' -- a pause -- 'and is living somewhere rather mysteriously' -- another pause -- 'and I think it more than likely that she's married.'
The listener preserved a face of indifference, though the lines were decidedly tense.
'Doesn't that interest you?' asked Beatrice, in the most genial tone.
'If it's true,' was the blunt reply.
'You mean, you are glad if she has married somebody else, and not your brother?'
'Yes, I am glad of that.'
Beatrice mused, with wrinkles at the corner of her eye. Then, fixing Nancy with a very keen look, she said quietly:
'I'm not sure that she's married. But if she isn't, no doubt she ought to be.'
On Nancy's part there was a nervous movement, but she said nothing. Her face grew rigid.
'I have an idea who the man is,' Miss French pursued; 'but I can't be quite certain. One has heard of similar cases. Even you have, no doubt?'
'I don't care to talk about it,' fell mechanically from Nancy's lips, which had lost their colour.
'But I've come just for that purpose.'
The eyes of mocking scrutiny would not be resisted. They drew a gaze from Nancy, and then a haughty exclamation.
'I don't understand you. Please say whatever you have to say in plain words.'
'Don't be angry with me. You were always too ready at taking offence. I mean it in quite a friendly way; you can trust me; I'm not one of the women that chatter. Don't you think you ought to sympathise a little with Fanny? She has gone to Brussels, or somewhere about there. But she might have gone down into Cornwall -- to a place like Falmouth. It was quite far enough off -- don't you think?'
Nancy was stricken mute, and her countenance would no longer disguise what she suffered.
'No need to upset yourself,' pursued the other in smiling confidence. 'I mean no harm. I'm curious, that's all; just want to know one or two things. We're old friends, and whatever you tell me will go no further, depend upon that.'
'What do you mean?'
The words came from lips that moved with difficulty. Beatrice, still smiling, bent forward.
'Is it any one that I know?'
'Any one ----? Who ----?'
'That made it necessary for you to go down into Cornwall, my dear.'
Nancy heaved a sigh, the result of holding her breath too long. She half rose, and sat down again. In a torture of flashing thoughts, she tried to determine whether Beatrice had any information, or spoke conjecturally. Yet she was able to discern that either case meant disaster; to have excited the suspicions of such a person, was the same as being unmasked; an inquiry at Falmouth, and all would at once be known.
No, not all. Not the fact of her marriage; not the name of her husband.
Driven to bay by such an opponent, she assumed an air wholly unnatural to her -- one of cynical effrontery.
'You had better say what you know.'
'All right. Who was the father of the child born not long ago?'
'That's asking a question.'
'And telling what I know at the same time. It saves breath.'
Beatrice laughed; and Nancy, become a mere automaton, laughed too.
'That's more like it,' said Miss French cheerfully. 'Now we shall get on together. It's very shocking, my dear. A person of my strict morality hardly knows how to look you in the face. Perhaps you had rather I didn't try. Very well. Now tell me all about it, comfortably. I have a guess, you know.'
'What is it?'
'Wait a little. I don't want to be laughed at. Is it any one I know?'
'You have never seen him, and I dare say never heard of him.'
Beatrice stared incredulously.
'I wouldn't tell fibs, Nancy.'
'I'm telling the truth.'
'It's very queer, then.'
'Who did you think ----?.'
The speaking automaton, as though by defect of mechanism, stopped short.
'Look straight at me. I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that it was Luckworth Crewe.'
Nancy's defiant gaze, shame in anguish shielding itself with the front of audacity, changed to utter astonishment. The blood rushed back into her cheeks; she voiced a smothered exclamation of scorn.
'The father of my child? Luckworth Crewe?'
'I thought it not impossible,' said Beatrice, plainly baffled.
'It was like you.' Nancy gave a hard laugh. 'You judged me by yourself. Have another guess!'
Surprised both at the denial, so obviously true, and at the unexpected tone with which Nancy was meeting her attack, Miss French sat meditative.
'It's no use guessing,' she said at length, with complete good-humour. 'I don't know of any one else.'
'Very well. You can't expect me to tell you.'
'As you please. It's a queer thing; I felt pretty sure. But if you're telling the truth, I don't care a rap who the man is.'
'You can rest in peace,' said Nancy, with careless scorn.
'Any way of convincing me, except by saying it?'
'Yes. Wait here a moment.'
She left the room, and returned with the note which Crewe had addressed to her from the hotel at Falmouth.
'Read that, and look at the date.'
Beatrice studied the document, and in silence canvassed the possibilities of trickery. No; it was genuine evidence. She remembered the date of Crewe's journey to Falmouth, and, in this new light, could interpret his quarrelsome behaviour after he had returned. Only the discovery she had since made inflamed her with a suspicion which till then had never entered her mind.
'Of course, you didn't let him see you?'
'Of course not.'.
'All right. Don't suppose I wanted to insult you. I took it for granted you were married. Of course it happened before your father's death, and his awkward will obliged you to keep it dark?'
Again Nancy was smitten with fear. Deeming Miss French an unscrupulous enemy, she felt that to confess marriage was to abandon every hope. Pride appealed to her courage, bade her, here and now, have done with the ignoble fraud; but fear proved stronger. She could not face exposure, and all that must follow.
She spoke coldly, but with down-dropt eyes.
'I am not married.'
The words cost her little effort. Practically, she had uttered them before; her overbold replies were an admission of what, from the first, she supposed Beatrice to charge her with -- not secret wedlock, but secret shame. Beatrice, however, had adopted that line of suggestion merely from policy, hoping to sting the proud girl into avowal of a legitimate union; she heard the contrary declaration with fresh surprise.
'I should never have believed it of Miss Lord,' was her half ingenuous, half sly comment.
Nancy, beginning to realise what she had done, sat with head bent, speechless.
'Don't distress yourself,' continued the other. 'Not a soul will hear of it from me. If you like to tell me more, you can do it quite safely; I'm no blabber, and I'm not a rascal. I should never have troubled to make inquiries about you, down yonder, if it hadn't been that I suspected Crewe. That's a confession, you know; take it in return for yours.'
Nancy was tongue-tied. A full sense of her humiliation had burst upon her. She, who always condescended to Miss French, now lay smirched before her feet, an object of vulgar contempt.
'What does it matter?' went on Beatrice genially. 'You've got over the worst, and very cleverly. Are you going to marry him when you come in for your money?'
'Perhaps -- I don't know ----'
She faltered, no longer able to mask in impudence, and hardly restraining tears. Beatrice ceased to doubt, and could only wonder with amusement.
'Why shouldn't we be good friends, Nancy? I tell you, I am no rascal. I never thought of making anything out of your secret -- not I. If it had been Crewe, marriage or no marriage -- well, I might have shown my temper. I believe I have a pretty rough side to my tongue; but I'm a good enough sort if you take me in the right way. Of course I shall never rest for wondering who it can be ----'
She paused, but Nancy did not look up, did not stir.
'Perhaps you'll tell me some other time. But there's one thing I should like to ask about, and it's for your own good that I should know it. When Crewe was down there, don't you think he tumbled to anything?'
Perplexed by unfamiliar slang, Nancy raised her eyes.
'Found out anything, you mean? I don't know.'
'But you must have been in a jolly fright about it?'
'I gave it very little thought,' replied Nancy, able now to command a steady voice, and retiring behind a manner of frigid indifference.
'No? Well, of course I understand that better now I know that you can't lose anything. Still, it is to be hoped he didn't go asking questions. By-the-bye, you may as well just tell me: he has asked you to marry him, hasn't he?'
'Doesn't matter. You needn't be afraid, even if he got hold of anything. He isn't the kind of man to injure you out of spite.'
'I fear him as little as I fear you.'
'Well, as I've told you, you needn't fear me at all. I like you better for this -- a good deal better than I used to. If you want any help, you know where to turn; I'll do whatever I can for you; and I'm in the way of being useful to my friends. You're cut up just now; it's natural. I won't bother you any longer. But just remember what I've said. If I can be of any service, don't be above making use of me.'
Nancy heard without heeding; for an anguish of shame and misery once more fell upon her, and seemed to lay waste her soul.
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