In the Year of Jubilee
Part V: Compassed Round
There needed not Mary Woodruff's suggestion to remind Nancy that no further away than Champion Hill were people of whom, in extremity, she might inquire concerning her husband. At present, even could she have entertained the thought, it seemed doubtful whether the Vawdrey household knew more of Tarrant's position and purposes than she herself; for, only a month ago, Jessica Morgan had called upon the girls and had ventured a question about their cousin, whereupon they answered that he was in America, but that he had not written for a long time. To Mrs Baker, Jessica did not like to speak on the subject, but probably that lady could have answered only as the children did.
Once, indeed, a few days after her return, Nancy took the familiar walk along Champion Hill, and glanced, in passing, at Mr Vawdrey's house; afterwards, she shunned that region. The memories it revived were infinitely painful. She saw herself an immature and foolish girl, behaving in a way which, for all its affectation of reserve and dignity, no doubt offered to such a man as Lionel Tarrant a hint that here, if he chose, he might make a facile conquest. Had he not acted upon the hint? It wrung her heart with shame to remember how, in those days, she followed the lure of a crude imagination. A year ago? Oh, a lifetime!
Unwilling, now, to justify herself with the plea of love; doubtful, in very truth, whether her passion merited that name; she looked back in the stern spirit of a woman judging another's frailty. What treatment could she have anticipated at the hands of her lover save that she had received? He married her -- it was much; he forsook her -- it was natural. The truth of which she had caught troublous glimpses in the heyday of her folly now stood revealed as pitiless condemnation. Tarrant never respected her, never thought of her as a woman whom he could seriously woo and wed. She had a certain power over his emotions, and not the sensual alone; but his love would not endure the test of absence. From the other side of the Atlantic he saw her as he had seen her at first, and shrank from returning to the bondage which in a weak moment he had accepted.
One night about this time she said to herself:
'I was his mistress, never his wife.'
And all her desperate endeavours to obscure the history of their love, to assert herself as worthy to be called wife, mother, had fallen fruitless. Those long imploring letters, despatched to America from her solitude by the Cornish sea, elicited nothing but a word or two which sounded more like pity than affection. Pity does not suffice to recall the wandering steps of a man wedded against his will.
In her heart, she absolved him of all baseness. The man of ignoble thought would have been influenced by her market value as a wife. Tarrant, all the more because he was reduced to poverty, would resolutely forget the crude advantage of remaining faithful to her.
Herein Nancy proved herself more akin to her father than she had ever seemed when Stephen Lord sought eagerly in her character for hopeful traits.
The severity of her self-judgment, and the indulgence tempering her attitude towards Tarrant, declared a love which had survived its phase of youthful passion. But Nancy did not recognise this symptom of moral growth. She believed herself to have become indifferent to her husband, and only wondered that she did not hate him. Her heart seemed to spend all its emotion on the little being to whom she had given life -- a healthy boy, who already, so she fancied, knew a difference between his mother and his nurse, and gurgled a peculiar note of contentment when lying in her arms. Whether wife or not, she claimed every privilege of motherhood. Had the child been a weakling, she could not have known this abounding solace: the defect would have reproached her. But from the day of his birth he manifested so vigorous a will to live, clung so hungrily to the fountain-breast, kicked and clamoured with such irresistible self-assertion, that the mother's pride equalled her tenderness. 'My own brave boy! My son!' Wonderful new words: honey upon the lips and rapture to the ear. She murmured them as though inspired with speech never uttered by mortal.
The interval of a day between her journeys to see the child taxed her patience; but each visit brought a growth of confidence. No harm would befall him: Mary had chosen wisely.
Horace kept aloof and sent no message. When at length she wrote to him a letter all of sisterly kindness, there came a stinted reply. He said that he was going away for a holiday, and might be absent until September. 'Don't bother about me. You shall hear again before long. There's just a chance that I may go in for business again, with prospect of making money. Particulars when I see you.'
Nancy found this note awaiting her after a day's absence from home, and with it another. To her surprise, Mrs Damerel had written. 'I called early this afternoon, wishing particularly to see you. Will you please let me know when I should find you at home? It is about Horace that I want to speak.' It began with 'My dear Nancy,' and ended, 'Yours affectionately.' Glad of the opportunity thus offered, she answered at once, making an appointment for the next day.
When Mrs Damerel came, Nancy was even more struck than at their former meeting with her resemblance to Horace. Eyes and lips recalled Horace at every moment. This time, the conversation began more smoothly. On both sides appeared a disposition to friendliness, though Nancy only marked her distrust in the hope of learning more about this mysterious relative and of being useful to her brother.
'You have a prejudice against me,' said the visitor, when she had inquired concerning Nancy's health. 'It's only natural. I hardly seem to you a real relative, I'm afraid -- you know so little about me; and now Horace has been laying dreadful things to my charge.'
'He thinks you responsible for what has happened to Fanny French,' Nancy replied, in an impartial voice.
'Yes, and I assure you he is mistaken. Miss French deceived him and her own people, leading them to think that she was spending her time with me, when really she was -- who knows where? To you I am quite ready to confess that I hoped something might come between her and Horace; but as for plotting -- really I am not so melodramatic a person. All I did in the way of design was to give Horace an opportunity of seeing the girl in a new light. You can imagine very well, no doubt, how she conducted herself. I quite believe that Horace was getting tired and ashamed of her, but then came her disappearance, and that made him angry with me.'
Even the voice suggested Horace's tones, especially when softened in familiar dialogue. Nancy paid closer attention to the speaker's looks and movements than to the matter of what she said. Mrs Damerel might possibly be a well-meaning woman -- her peculiarities might result from social habits, and not from insincerity; yet Nancy could not like her. Everything about her prompted a question and a doubt. How old was she? Probably much older than she looked. What was her breeding, her education? Probably far less thorough than she would have one believe. Was she in good circumstances? Nancy suspected that her fashionable and expensive dress signified extravagance and vanity rather than wealth.
'I have brought a letter to show you which she has sent me from abroad. Read it, and form your own conclusion. Is it the letter of an injured innocent?'
A scrawl on foreign note-paper, which ran thus:
DEAR MRS DAMEREL, -- Just a word to console you for the loss of my society. I have gone to a better world, so dry your tears. If you see my masher, tell him I've met with somebody a bit more like a man. I should advise him to go to school again and finish his education. I won't trouble you to write. Many thanks for the kindness you didn't mean to do me. -- Yours in the best of spirits (I don't mean Cognac),
FANNY (née) FRENCH.
Nancy returned the paper with a look of disgust, saying, 'I didn't think she was as bad as that.'
'No more did I. It really gave me a little shock of surprise.'
'Do you think it likely she is married?'
Mrs Damerel pursed her lips and arched her eyebrows with so unpleasant an effect on Nancy that she looked away.
'I have no means whatever of forming an opinion.'
'But there's no more fear for Horace,' said Nancy.
'I hope not -- I think not. But my purpose in coming was to consult with you about the poor boy. He has renounced me; he won't answer my letters; and I am so dreadfully afraid that a sort of despair -- it sounds ridiculous, but he is so very young -- may drive him into reckless living. You have taken part with him against me, I fear ----'
'No, I haven't. I told him I was quite sure the girl had only herself to blame, whatever happened.'
'How kind of you!' Mrs Damerel sank her voice to a sort of cooing, not unmelodious, but to Nancy's ear a hollow affectation. 'If we could understand each other! I am so anxious for your dear brother's happiness -- and for yours, believe me. I have suffered greatly since he told me I was his enemy, and cast me off.'
Here sounded a note of pathos which impressed the critical listener. There was a look, too, in Mrs Damerel's eyes quite unlike any that Nancy had yet detected.
'What do you wish him to do?' she asked. 'If I must tell you the truth, I don't think he'll get any good in the life of society.'
Society's representative answered in a tone of affectionate frankness:
'He won't; I can see that. I don't wish him to live idly. The question is, What ought he to do? I think you know a gentleman of his acquaintance, Mr Crewe?'
The question was added rather abruptly, and with a watchful gaze.
'I know him a little.'
'Something has been said, I believe, about Horace investing money in Mr Crewe's business. Do you think it would be advisable?'
Surprise kept Nancy silent.
'Is Mr Crewe trustworthy? I understand he has been in business for himself only a short time.'
Nancy declared herself unable to judge Mr Crewe, whether in private or in commercial life. And here she paused, but could not refrain from adding the question whether Mrs Damerel had personal knowledge of him.
'I have met him once.'
Immediately, all Nancy's suspicions were revived. She had felt a desire to talk of intimate things, with mention of her mother's name; but the repulsion excited in her by this woman's air of subtlety, by looks, movements, tones which she did not understand, forbade it. She could not speak with satisfaction even of Horace, feeling that Mrs Damerel's affection, however genuine, must needs be baleful. From this point her part in the dialogue was slight.
'If any of Miss French's relatives,' said the visitor presently, 'should accuse me to you, you will be able to contradict them. I am sure I can depend upon you for that service?'
'I am not likely to see them; and I should have thought you would care very little what was said about you by people of that kind.'
'I care little enough,' rejoined Mrs Damerel, with a curl of the lips. 'It's Horace I am thinking of. These people will embitter him against me, so long as they have any ground to go upon.'
'But haven't you let him know of that letter?'
Mrs Damerel seemed to fall into abstraction, answered with a vague 'Yes,' and after surveying the room, said softly:
'So you must live here alone for another two or three years?'
'It isn't compulsory: it's only a condition.'
Another vague 'Yes.' Then:
'I do so wish Horace would come back and make his home here.'
'I'm afraid you have spoilt him for that,' said Nancy, with relief in this piece of plain speaking.
Mrs Damerel did not openly resent it. She looked a mild surprise, and answered blandly:
'Then I must undo the mischief. You shall help me. When he has got over this little trouble, he will see who are his true friends. Let us work together for his good.'
Nancy was inclined, once more, to reproach herself, and listened with patience whilst her relative continued talking in grave kindly tones. Lest she should spoil the effect of these impressive remarks, Mrs Damerel then took leave. In shaking hands, she bent upon the girl a gaze of affection, and, as she turned away, softly sighed.
Of what had passed in the recent interview with Beatrice French, Nancy said nothing to her faithful companion. This burden of shame must be borne by herself alone. It affected profoundly the courageous mood which had promised to make her life tolerable; henceforth, she all but abandoned the hope of gaining that end for which she had submitted to so deep a humiliation. Through Beatrice, would not her secret, coloured shamefully, become known to Luckworth Crewe, and to others? Already, perchance, a growing scandal attached to her name. Fear had enabled her to endure dishonour in the eyes of one woman, but at any moment the disgrace might front her in an intolerable shape; then, regardless of the cost, she would proclaim her marriage, and have, in return for all she had suffered, nothing but the reproach of an attempted fraud.
To find employment, means of honourable support, was an urgent necessity.
She had written in reply to sundry advertisements, but without result. She tried to draw up an advertisement on her own account, but found the difficulty insuperable. What was there she could do? Teach children, perhaps; but as a visiting governess, the only position of the kind which circumstances left open to her, she could hope for nothing more than the paltriest remuneration. Be somebody's 'secretary'? That sounded pleasant, but very ambitious: a sense of incompetency chilled her. In an office, in a shop, who would dream of giving her an engagement?
Walking about the streets of London in search of suggestions, she gained only an understanding of her insignificance. In the battle of life every girl who could work a sewing-machine or make a matchbox was of more account than she. If she entered a shop to make purchases, the young women at the counter seemed to smile superiority. Of what avail her 'education,' her 'culture'? The roar of myriad industries made mocking laughter at such futile pretensions. She shrank back into her suburban home.
A little book on 'employments for women,' which she saw advertised and bought, merely heightened her discouragement. Here, doubtless, were occupations she might learn; but, when it came to choosing, and contemplating the practical steps that must be taken, her heart sank. She was a coward; she dreaded the world; she saw as never yet the blessedness of having money and a secure home.
The word 'home' grew very sweet to her ears. A man, she said to herself, may go forth and find his work, his pleasure, in the highways; but is not a woman's place under the sheltering roof? What right had a mother to be searching abroad for tasks and duties? Task enough, duty obvious, in the tending of her child. Had she but a little country cottage with needs assured, and her baby cradled beside her, she would ask no more.
How idle all the thoughts of her girlhood! How little she knew of life as it would reveal itself to her mature eyes!
Fatigued into listlessness, she went to the lending-library, and chose a novel for an hour's amusement. It happened that this story was concerned with the fortunes of a young woman who, after many an affliction sore, discovered with notable suddenness the path to fame, lucre, and the husband of her heart: she became at a bound a successful novelist. Nancy's cheek flushed with a splendid thought. Why should not she do likewise? At all events -- for modesty was now her ruling characteristic -- why should she not earn a little money by writing Stories? Numbers of women took to it; not a few succeeded. It was a pursuit that demanded no apprenticeship, that could be followed in the privacy of home, a pursuit wherein her education would be of service. With imagination already fired by the optimistic author, she began to walk about the room and devise romantic incidents. A love story, of course -- and why not one very like her own? The characters were ready to her hands. She would begin this very evening.
Mary saw the glow upon her face, the delightful frenzy in her eyes, and wondered.
'I have an idea,' said Nancy. 'Don't ask me about it. Just leave me alone. I think I see my way.'
Daily she secluded herself for several hours; and, whatever the literary value of her labour, it plainly kept her in good spirits, and benefited her health. Save for the visits to her baby, regular as before, she hardly left home.
Jessica Morgan came very often, much oftener than Nancy desired; not only was her talk wearisome, but it consumed valuable time. She much desired to see the baby, and Nancy found it difficult to invent excuses for her unwillingness. When importunity could not be otherwise defeated, she pretended a conscientious scruple.
'I have deceived my husband in telling him that no one knows of our marriage but Mary. If I let you see the child, I should feel that I was deceiving him again. Don't ask me; I can't.'
Not unnaturally this struck Jessica as far-fetched. She argued against it, and became petulant. Nancy lost patience, but remembered in time that she was at Jessica's mercy, and, to her mortification, had to adopt a coaxing, almost a suppliant, tone, with the result that Miss Morgan's overweening conceit was flattered into arrogance. Her sentimental protestations became strangely mixed with a self-assertiveness very galling to Nancy's pride. Without the slightest apparent cause for ill-humour, she said one day:
'I do feel sorry for you; it must be a dreadful thing to have married a man who has no sense of honour.'
Nancy fired up.
'What do you mean?'
'How can he have, when he makes you deceive people in this way for the sake of the money he'll get?'
'He doesn't! It's my own choice.'
'Then he oughtn't let you do it. No honourable man would.'
'That has nothing to do with you,' Nancy exclaimed, anger blanching her cheek. 'Please don't talk about my husband. You say things you ought to be ashamed of.'
'Oh, don't be angry!' The facile tears started in Jessica's eyes. 'It's because I feel indignant on your account, dear.'
'I don't want your indignation. Never mention this subject again, or I shall feel sure you do it on purpose to annoy me.'
Jessica melted into mawkishness; none the less, Nancy felt a slave to her former friend, who, for whatever reason, seemed to have grown hypocritical and spiteful. When next the girl called, she was told that Miss Lord had left home for the day, a fiction which spared Nancy an hour's torment. Miss Morgan made up for it by coming very early on the next Sunday afternoon, and preparing herself avowedly for a stay until late in the evening. Resolute to avoid a long tête-à-tête, which was sure to exasperate her temper, Nancy kept Mary in the room, and listened to no hint from Jessica that they should retire for the accustomed privacy.
At four o'clock they were joined by Samuel Barmby, whom, for once, Nancy welcomed with pleasure. Samuel, who had come in the hope of finding Miss Lord alone, gave but the coldest attention to Jessica; Mary, however, he greeted with grave courtesy, addressing to her several remarks which were meant as a recognition of social equality in the quondam servant. He was dressed with elaborate care. Snowy cuffs concealed half his hands; his moustache, of late in training, sketched the graceful curl it would presently achieve; a faint perfume attended the drawing forth of his silk handkerchief.
Samuel never lacked a subject for the display of eloquence. Today it was one that called for indignant fervour.
'A most disgraceful fact has come under my notice, and I am sorry to say, Miss Lord, that it concerns some one with whom you are acquainted.'
'Indeed?' said Nancy, not without tremor. 'Who is that?'
'Mr Peachey, of De Crespigny Park. I believe you are on terms of friendship with the family.'
'Oh, you can hardly call it friendship. I know them.'
'Then I may speak without fear of paining you. You are aware that Mr Peachey is a member of the firm of Ducker, Blunt & Co., who manufacture disinfectants. Now, if any manufacture should be carried on in a conscientious spirit -- as of course all manufactures should -- surely it is that of disinfectants. Only think what depends upon it! People who make disinfectants ought to regard themselves as invested with a sacred trust. The whole community looks to them for protection against disease. The abuse of such confidence cannot be too severely condemned, all the more so, that there is absolutely no legal remedy against the adulteration of disinfectants. Did you know that, Miss Lord? The law guards against adulteration of food, but it seems -- I have been making inquiry into the matter -- that no thought has ever been given by the legislature to the subject of disinfectants!'
Nancy saw that Jessica was watching the speaker with jealous eyes, and, in spite of prudence, she could not help behaving to Mr Barmby more graciously than usual; a small revenge for the treatment she had suffered at the hands of Miss Morgan.
'I could point out a great number of such anomalies,' pursued Samuel. 'But this matter of disinfectants is really one of the gravest. My father has written to The Times about it, and his letter will probably be inserted to-morrow. I am thinking of bringing it before the attention of our Society.'
'Do Mr Peachey's people adulterate their disinfectants?' inquired Nancy.
'I was going to tell you. Some acquaintances of ours have had a severe illness in their house, and have been using disinfectants made by Ducker, Blunt & Co. Fortunately they have a very good medical man, and through him it has been discovered that these pretended safeguards are all but absolutely worthless. He had the stuff analysed. Now, isn't this shameful? Isn't this abominable? For my own part, I should call it constructive murder.'
The phrase came by haphazard to Samuel's tongue, and he uttered it with gusto, repeating it twice or thrice.
'Constructive murder -- nothing short of that. And to think that these people enjoy a positive immunity -- impunity.' He corrected himself quickly; then, uncertain whether he had really made a mistake, reddened and twisted his gloves. 'To think' -- he raised his voice -- 'that they are capable of making money out of disease and death! It is one of the worst illustrations of a corrupt spirit in the commercial life of our times that has yet come under my observation.'
He remained for a couple of hours, talking ceaselessly. A glance which he now and then cast at Miss Morgan betrayed his hope that she would take her leave before the necessary time of his own departure. Jessica, perfectly aware of this desire, sat as though no less at home than Nancy. Every remark she made was a stroke of malice at her friend, and in her drawn features appeared the passions by which she was tormented.
As soon as Mr Barmby had regretfully withdrawn, Nancy turned upon the girl with flashing eyes.
'I want to speak to you. Come downstairs.'
She led the way to the dining-room. Jessica followed without a word.
'Why are you behaving like this? What has come to you?'
The feeble anæmic creature fell back before this outbreak of wholesome wrath; her eyes stared in alarm.
'I won't put up with it,' cried Nancy. 'If you think you can insult me because I trusted you when you were my only friend, you'll find your mistake. A little more, and you shall see how little your power over me is worth. Am I to live at your mercy! I'd starve rather. What do you mean by it?'
'Oh -- Nancy -- to think you should speak to me like this.'
'You are to be allowed to spit poison at me -- are you? And I must bear it? No, that I won't! Of course I know what's the matter with you. You have fallen in love with Samuel Barmby. -- You have! Any one can see it. You have no more command of yourself than a child. And because he prefers me to you, you rage against me. Idiot! What is Samuel Barmby to me? Can I do more to keep him off? Can I say to him, "Do have pity on poor Miss Morgan, who ----"'
She was interrupted by a scream, on which followed a torrent of frenzied words from Jessica.
'You're a bad-hearted woman! You've behaved disgracefully yourself -- oh! I know more than you think; and now you accuse me of being as bad. Why did you get married in such a hurry? Do you think I didn't understand it? It's you who have no command over yourself. If the truth were known, no decent woman would ever speak to You again. And you've got your reward. Pretend as you like, I know your husband has deserted you. What else could you expect? That's what makes you hate every one that hasn't fallen into the mud. I wouldn't have such a character as yours! All this afternoon you've been looking at that man as no married woman could who respected herself. You encourage him; he comes here often ----'
Hysterical passion strangled her voice, and before she could recover breath, Nancy, terrible in ire, advanced upon her.
'Leave this house, and never dare to show yourself here again! Do what you like, I'll endure you no longer -- be off!'
Jessica retreated, her bloodless lips apart, her eyes starting as in suffocation. She stumbled against a chair, fell to the ground, and, with a cry of anguish, threw herself upon her knees before Nancy.
'What did I say? I didn't mean it -- I don't know what I have been saying -- it was all madness. Oh, do forgive me! That isn't how I really think of you -- you know it isn't -- I'm not so wicked as that. We have been friends so long -- I must have gone mad to speak such words. Don't drive me away from you, dear, dear Nancy! I implore you to forgive me! Look, I pray to you on my knees to forget it. Despise me for being such a weak, wicked creature, but don't drive me away like that! I didn't mean one word I said.'
'Rubbish! Of course you meant it. You have thought it every day, and you'll say it again, behind my back, if not to my face. Stand up, and don't make yourself sillier than you are.'
'You can't call me anything too bad -- but don't drive me away. I can't bear it. You are the only friend I have in the world -- the only, only friend. No one was ever kind and good to me but you, and this is how I have repaid you. Oh, I hate myself! I could tear my tongue out for saying such things. Only say that you'll try to forgive me -- dear Nancy -- dear ----'
She fell with face upon the carpet, and grovelled there in anguish of conflicting passions, a lamentable object. Unable to bear the sight of her, Nancy moved away, and stood with back turned, perforce hearing the moans and sobs and half-articulate words which lasted until the fit of hysteria left its victim in mute exhaustion. Then, contemptuously pitiful, she drew near again to the prostrate figure.
'Stand up at once, and let us have an end of this vulgar folly. Stand up, or I'll leave you here, and never speak to you again.'
'Nancy -- can you forgive me?'
'I believe you have never got over your illness. If I were you, I should see the doctor again, and try to be cured. You'll end in an asylum, if you don't mind.'
'I often feel almost mad -- I do really. Will you forget those dreadful words I spoke? I know you can't forgive me at once ----'
'Only stand up, and try to behave like a reasonable being. What do I care for your words?'
The girl raised herself, threw her arms over a chair, and wept miserably.
On an afternoon at the end of October, Samuel Barmby, returned from business, found Miss Morgan having tea with his sisters. For a month or two after Midsummer the Barmbys had scarcely seen her; now their friendly intercourse was renewed, and Jessica came at least once a week. She had an engagement at a girls' school in this neighbourhood, and, though her health threatened another collapse, she talked of resuming study for the Matriculation of next year.
Samuel, perfectly aware of the slavish homage which Miss Morgan paid him, took pleasure in posing before her. It never entered his mind to make any return beyond genial patronage, but the incense of a female devotee was always grateful to him, and he had come to look upon Jessica as a young person peculiarly appreciative of intellectual distinction. A week ago, walking with her to the omnibus after an evening she had spent in Dagmar Road, he had indulged a spirit of confidence, and led her to speak of Nancy Lord. The upshot of five minutes' conversation was a frank inquiry, which he could hardly have permitted himself but for the shadow of night and the isolating noises around them. As an intimate friend, did she feel able to tell him whether or not Miss Lord was engaged to be married? Jessica, after a brief silence, answered that she did not feel at liberty to disclose what she knew on the subject; but the words she used, and her voice in uttering them, left no doubt as to her meaning. Samuel said no more. At parting, he pressed the girl's hand warmly.
This afternoon, they began by avoiding each other's look. Samuel seemed indisposed for conversation; he sipped at a cup of tea with an abstracted and somewhat weary air, until Miss Morgan addressed him.
'To-morrow is the evening of your lecture, isn't it, Mr Barmby?'
By the agency of a friend who belonged to a society of mutual improvement at Pentonville, Samuel had been invited to go over and illumine with his wisdom the seekers after culture in that remote district, a proposal that flattered him immensely, and inspired him with a hope of more than suburban fame. For some months he had spoken of the engagement. He was to discourse upon 'National Greatness: its Obligations and its Dangers.'
'Of course it will be printed afterwards?' pursued the devotee.
'Oh, I don't know. It's hardly worth that.'
'Oh, I'm sure it will be!'
And Jessica appealed to the sisters, who declared that certain passages they had been privileged to hear seemed to them very remarkable.
Ladies were to be admitted, but the Miss Barmbys felt afraid to undertake so long a journey after dark.
'I know some one who would very much like to go,' said Jessica, steadying her voice. 'Could you spare me a ticket to give away, Mr Barmby?'
Samuel smiled graciously, and promised the ticket.
Of course it was for Jessica's own use. On the following evening, long before the hour which would have allowed her ample time to reach Pentonville by eight o'clock, she set forth excitedly. Unless Samuel Barmby were accompanied by some friend from Camberwell, -- only too probable, -- she might hope to make the return journey under his protection. Perhaps he would speak again of Nancy Lord, and this time he should be answered with less reserve. What harm if she even told him the name of the man whom Nancy was 'engaged' to marry?
Nancy was no longer her friend. A show of reconciliation had followed that scene on the Sunday afternoon three months ago; but Jessica well knew that she had put herself beyond forgiveness, nor did she desire it. Even without the memory of her offence, by this time she must needs have regarded Nancy with steadfast dislike. Weeks had gone by since their last meeting, which was rendered so unpleasant by mutual coldness that a renewal of intercourse seemed out of the question.
She would not be guilty of treachery. But, in justice to herself, she might give Samuel Barmby to understand how hopeless was his wooing.
To her disappointment, the lecture-room was small and undignified; she had imagined a capacious hall, with Samuel Bennett Barmby standing up before an audience of several hundred people. The cane-bottomed chairs numbered not more than fifty, and at eight o'clock some of them were still unoccupied. Nor did the assembly answer to her expectation. It seemed to consist of young shopmen, with a few females of their kind interspersed. She chose a place in the middle of the room, where the lecturer could hardly fail to observe her presence.
With Barmby's entrance disillusion gave way before the ardours of flesh and spirit. The whole hour through she never took her eyes from him. His smooth, pink face, with its shining moustache, embodied her ideal of manly beauty; his tall figure inflamed her senses; the words that fell from his lips sounded to her with oracular impressiveness, conveying a wisdom before which she bowed, and a noble enthusiasm to which she responded in fervent exaltation. And she had been wont to ridicule this man, to join in mockery of his eloquence with a conceited wanton such as Nancy Lord! No, it never came from her heart; it was moral cowardice; from the first she had recognised Samuel Barmby's infinite superiority to the ignoble, the impure girl who dared to deride him.
He saw her; their eyes met once, and again, and yet again. He knew that she alone in the audience could comprehend his noble morality, grasp the extent of his far-sighted speculations. To her he spoke. And in his deep glowing heart he could not but thank her for such evidence of sympathy.
There followed a tedious debate, a muddy flow of gabble and balderdash. It was over by ten o'clock. With jealous eyes she watched her hero surrounded by people who thought, poor creatures, that they were worthy of offering him congratulations. At a distance she lingered. And behold, his eye once more fell upon her! He came out from among the silly chatterers, and walked towards her.
'You played me a trick, Miss Morgan. I should never have allowed you to come all this way to hear me.'
'If I had come ten times the distance, I should have been repaid!'
His round eyes gloated upon the flattery.
'Well, well, I mustn't pretend that I think the lecture worthless. But you might have had the manuscript to read. Are you quite alone? Then I must take care of you. It's a wretched night; we'll have a cab to King's Cross.'
He said it with a consciousness of large-handed generosity. Jessica's heart leapt and throbbed.
She was by his side in the vehicle. Her body touched his. She felt his warm breath as he talked. In all too short a time they reached the railway station.
'Did you come this way? Have you a ticket? Leave that to me.'
Again largely generous, he strode to the booking-office.
They descended and stood together upon the platform, among hurrying crowds, in black fumes that poisoned the palate with sulphur. This way and that sped the demon engines, whirling lighted waggons full of people. Shrill whistles, the hiss and roar of steam, the bang, clap, bang of carriage-doors, the clatter of feet on wood and stone -- all echoed and reverberated from a huge cloudy vault above them. High and low, on every available yard of wall, advertisements clamoured to the eye: theatres, journals, soaps, medicines, concerts, furniture, wines, prayer-meetings -- all the produce and refuse of civilisation announced in staring letters, in daubed effigies, base, paltry, grotesque. A battle-ground of advertisements, fitly chosen amid subterranean din and reek; a symbol to the gaze of that relentless warfare which ceases not, night and day, in the world above.
For the southward train they had to wait ten minutes. Jessica, keeping as close as possible to her companion's side, tried to converse, but her thoughts were in a tumult like to that about her. She felt a faintness, a quivering in her limbs.
'May I sit down for a moment?' she said, looking at Barmby with a childlike appeal.
'To be sure.'
She pointed in a direction away from the crowd.
'I have something to say -- it's quieter ----'
Samuel evinced surprise, but allowed himself to be led towards the black mouth of the tunnel, whence at that moment rushed an engine with glaring lights upon its breast.
'We may not be alone in the train,' continued Jessica. 'There's something you ought to know I must tell you to-night. You were asking me about Nancy Lord.'
She spoke with panting breath, and looked fixedly at him. The eagerness with which he lent ear gave her strength to proceed.
'You asked me if she was engaged.'
'Yes -- well?'
He had even forgotten his politeness; he saw in her a mere source of information. Jessica moved closer to him on the bench.
'Had you any reason for thinking she was?'
'No particular reason, except something strange in her behaviour.'
'Would you like to know the whole truth?'
It was a very cold night, and a keen wind swept the platform; but Jessica, though indifferently clad, felt no discomfort from this cause. Yet she pressed closer to her companion, so that her cheek all but touched his shoulder.
'Of course I should,' Barmby answered. 'Is there any mystery?'
'I oughtn't to tell.'
'Then you had better not. But why did you begin?'
'You ought to know.'
'Why ought I to know?'
'Because you ----.' She broke off. A sudden chill made her teeth chatter.
'Well -- why?' asked Samuel, with impatience.
'Are you -- are you in love with her?'
Voice and look embarrassed him. So did the girl's proximity; she was now all but leaning on his shoulder. Respectable Mr Barmby could not be aware that Jessica's state of mind rendered her scarcely responsible for what she said or did.
'That's a very plain question,' he began; but she interrupted him.
'I oughtn't to ask it. There's no need for you to answer. I know you have wanted to marry her for a long time. But you never will.'
'Perhaps not -- if she has promised somebody else.'
'If I tell you -- will you be kind to me?'
'I didn't mean that,' she added hurriedly. 'I mean -- will you understand that I felt it a duty? I oughtn't to tell a secret; but it's a secret that oughtn't to be kept. Will you understand that I did it out of -- out of friendship for you, and because I thought it right?'
'Oh, certainly. After going so far, you had better tell me and have done with it.'
Jessica approached her lips to his ear, and whispered:
'She is married.'
'She was married at Teignmouth, just before she came back from her holiday, last year.'
'Well! Upon my word! And that's why she has been away in Cornwall?'
Again Jessica whispered, her body quivering the while:
'She has a child. It was born last May.'
'Well! Upon my word! Now I understand. Who could have imagined!'
'You see what she is. She hides it for the sake of the money.'
'But who is her husband?' asked Samuel, staring at the bloodless face.
'A man called Tarrant, a relative of Mr Vawdrey, of Champion Hill. She thought he was rich. I don't know whether he is or not, but I believe he doesn't mean to come back to her. He's in America now.'
Barmby questioned, and Jessica answered, until there was nothing left to ask or to tell, -- save the one thing which rose suddenly to Jessica's lips.
'You won't let her know that I have told you?'
Samuel gravely, but coldly, assured her that she need not fear betrayal.
It was to be in three volumes. She saw her way pretty clearly to the end of the first; she had ideas for the second; the third must take care of itself -- until she reached it. Hero and heroine ready to her hand; subordinate characters vaguely floating in the background. After an hour or two of meditation, she sat down and dashed at Chapter One.
Long before the end of the year it ought to be finished.
But in August came her baby's first illness; for nearly a fortnight she was away from home, and on her return, though no anxiety remained, she found it difficult to resume work. The few chapters completed had a sorry look; they did not read well, not at all like writing destined to be read in print. After a week's disheartenment she made a new beginning.
At the end of September baby again alarmed her. A trivial ailment as before, but she could not leave the child until all was well. Again she reviewed her work, and with more repugnance than after the previous interruption. But go on with it she must and would. The distasteful labour, slow, wearisome, often performed without pretence of hope, went on until October. Then she broke down. Mary Woodruff found her crying by the fireside, feverish and unnerved.
'I can't sleep,' she said. 'I hear the clock strike every hour, night after night.'
But she would not confess the cause. In writing her poor novel she had lived again through the story enacted at Teignmouth, and her heart failed beneath its burden of hopeless longing. Her husband had forsaken her. Even if she saw him again, what solace could be found in the mere proximity of a man who did not love her, who had never loved her? The child was not enough; its fatherless estate enhanced the misery of her own solitude. When the leaves fell, and the sky darkened, and the long London winter gloomed before her, she sank with a moan of despair.
Mary's strength and tenderness were now invaluable. By sheer force of will she overcame the malady in its physical effects, and did wonders in the assailing of its moral source. Her appeal now, as formerly, was to the nobler pride always struggling for control in Nancy's character. A few days of combat with the besieging melancholy that threatened disaster, and Nancy could meet her friend's look with a smile. She put away and turned the key upon her futile scribbling; no more of that. Novel-writing was not her vocation; she must seek again.
Early in the afternoon she made ready to go forth on the only business which now took her from home. It was nearly a week since she had seen her boy.
Opening the front door, she came unexpectedly under two pairs of eyes. Face to face with her stood Samuel Barmby, his hand raised to signal at the knocker, just withdrawn from him. And behind Barmby was a postman, holding a letter, which in another moment would have dropped into the box.
Samuel performed the civil salute.
'Ha! -- How do you do, Miss Lord? -- You are going out, I'm afraid.'
'Yes, I am going out.'
She replied mechanically, and in speaking took the letter held out to her. A glance at it sent all her blood rushing upon the heart.
'I want to see you particularly,' said Samuel. 'Could I call again, this afternoon?'
Nancy gazed at him, but did not hear. He saw the sudden pallor of her cheeks, and thought he understood it. As she stood like a statue, he spoke again.
'It is very particular business. If you could give me an appointment ----'
'Business? -- Oh, come in, if you like.'
She drew back to admit him, but in the passage stood looking at her letter. Barmby was perplexed and embarrassed.
'You had rather I called again?'
'Called again? Just as you like.'
'Oh, then I will stay,' said Samuel bluntly. For he had things in mind which disposed him to resent this flagrant discourtesy.
His voice awakened Nancy. She opened the door of the dining-room.
'Will you sit down, Mr Barmby, and excuse me for a few minutes?'
'Certainly. Don't let me inconvenience you, Miss Lord.'
At another time Nancy would have remarked something very unusual in his way of speaking, especially in the utterance of her name. But for the letter in her hand she must have noticed with uneasiness a certain severity of countenance, which had taken the place of Barmby's wonted smile. As it was, she scarcely realised his presence; and, on closing the door of the room he had entered, she forthwith forgot that such a man existed.
Her letter! His handwriting at last. And he was in England.
She flew up to her bedroom, and tore open the envelope. He was in London; 'Great College Street, S. W.' A short letter, soon read.
DEAREST NANCY, -- I am ashamed to write, yet write I must. All your letters reached me; there was no reason for my silence but the unwillingness to keep sending bad news. I have still nothing good to tell you, but here I am in London again, and you must know of it.
When I posted my last letter to you from New York, I meant to come back as soon as I could get money enough to pay my passage. Since then I have gone through a miserable time, idle for the most part, ill for a few weeks, and occasionally trying to write something that editors would pay for. But after all I had to borrow. It has brought me home (steerage, if you know what that means), and now I must earn more.
If we were to meet, I might be able to say something else. I can't write it. Let me hear from you, if you think me worth a letter. -- Yours ever, dear girl,
For a quarter of an hour she stood with this sheet open, as though still reading. Her face was void of emotion; she had a vacant look, cheerless, but with no more decided significance.
Then she remembered that Samuel Barmby was waiting for her downstairs. He might have something to say which really concerned her. Better see him at once and get rid of him. With slow step she descended to the dining-room. The letter, folded and rolled, she carried in her hand.
'I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Mr Barmby.'
'Don't mention it. Will you sit down?'
'Yes, of course.' She spoke abstractedly, and took a seat not far from him. 'I was just going out, but -- there's no hurry.'
'I hardly know how to begin. Perhaps I had better prepare you by saying that I have received very strange information.'
His air was magisterial; he subdued his voice to a note of profound solemnity.
'What sort of information?' asked Nancy vaguely, her brows knitted in a look rather of annoyance than apprehension.
'Very strange indeed.'
'You have said that already.'
Her temper was failing. She felt a nervous impulse to behave rudely, to declare the contempt it was always difficult to disguise when talking with Barmby.
'I repeat it, because you seem to have no idea what I am going to speak of. I am the last person to find pleasure in such a disagreeable duty as is now laid upon me. In that respect, I believe you will do me justice.'
'Will you speak plainly? This roundabout talk is intolerable.'
Samuel drew himself up, and regarded her with offended dignity. He had promised himself no small satisfaction from this interview, had foreseen its salient points. His mere aspect would be enough to subdue Nancy, and when he began to speak she would tremble before him. Such a moment would repay him for the enforced humility of years. Perhaps she would weep; she might even implore him to be merciful. How to act in that event he had quite made up his mind. But all such anticipations were confused by Nancy's singular behaviour. She seemed, in truth, not to understand the hints which should have overwhelmed her.
More magisterial than ever, he began to speak with slow emphasis.
'Miss Lord, -- I will still address you by that name, -- though for a very long time I have regarded you as a person worthy of all admiration, and have sincerely humbled myself before you, I cannot help thinking that a certain respect is due to me. Even though I find that you have deceived me as to your position, the old feelings are still so strong in me that I could not bear to give you needless pain. Instead of announcing to my father, and to other people, the strange facts which I have learnt, I come here as a friend, -- I speak with all possible forbearance, -- I do my utmost to spare you. Am I not justified in expecting at least courteous treatment?'
A pause of awful impressiveness. The listener, fully conscious at length of the situation she had to face, fell into a calmer mood. All was over. Suspense and the burden of falsehood had no longer to be endured. Her part now, for this hour at all events, was merely to stand by whilst Fate unfolded itself.
'Please say whatever you have to say, Mr Barmby,' she replied with quiet civility. 'I believe your intention was good. You made me nervous, that was all.'
'Pray forgive me. Perhaps it will be best if I ask you a simple question. You will see that the position I hold under your father's will leaves me no choice but to ask it. Is it true that you are married?'
'I will answer if you tell me how you came to think that I was married.'
'I have been credibly informed.'
'You must forgive me. I can't tell you the name.'
'Then I can't answer your question.'
Samuel mused. He was unwilling to break a distinct promise.
'No doubt,' said Nancy, 'you have undertaken not to mention the person.'
'If it is some one who used to be a friend of mine, you needn't have any scruples. She as good as told me what she meant to do. Of course it is Miss Morgan?'
'As you have yourself spoken the name ----'
'Very well. She isn't in her senses, and I wonder she has kept the secret so long.'
'You admit the truth of what she has told me?'
'Yes. I am married.'
She made the avowal in a tone very like that in which, to Beatrice French, she had affirmed the contrary.
'And your true name is Mrs Tarrant?'
'That is my name.'
The crudely masculine in Barmby prompted one more question, but some other motive checked him. He let his eyes wander slowly about the room. Even yet there was a chance of playing off certain effects which he had rehearsed with gusto.
'Can you imagine,' -- his voice shook a little, -- 'how much I suffer in hearing you say this?'
'If you mean that you still had the hopes expressed in your letter some time ago, I can only say, in my defence, that I gave you an honest answer.'
'Yes. You said you could never marry me. But of course I couldn't understand it in this sense. It is a blow. I find it very hard to bear.'
He rose and went to the window, as if ashamed of the emotion he could not command. Nancy, too much occupied with her own troubles to ask or care whether his distress was genuine, laid Tarrant's letter upon a side-table, and began to draw off her gloves. Then she unbuttoned her jacket. These out-of-door garments oppressed her. Samuel turned his head and came slowly back.
'There are things that might be said, but I will not say them. Most men in my position would yield to the temptation of revenge. But for many years I have kept in view a moral ideal, and now I have the satisfaction of conquering my lower self. You shall not hear one word of reproach from my lips.'
He waited for the reply, the expected murmur of gratitude. Nancy said nothing.
'Mrs Tarrant,' -- he stood before her, -- 'what do you suppose must be the result of this?'
'There can only be one.'
'You mean the ruin of your prospects. But do you forget that all the money you have received since Mr Lord's death has been obtained by false pretences? Are you not aware that this is a criminal offence?'
Nancy raised her eyes and looked steadily at him.
'Then I must bear the punishment.'
For a minute Barmby enjoyed her suffering. Of his foreseen effects, this one had come nearest to succeeding. But he was not satisfied; he hoped she would beseech his clemency.
'The punishment might be very serious. I really can't say what view my father may take of this deception.'
'Is there any use in talking about it? I am penniless -- that's all you have to tell me. What else I have to bear, I shall know soon enough.'
'One thing I must ask. Isn't your husband in a position to support you?'
'I can't answer that. Please to say nothing about my husband.'
Barmby caught at hope. It might be true, as Jessica Morgan believed, that Nancy was forsaken. The man Tarrant might be wealthy enough to disregard her prospects. In that case an assiduous lover, one who, by the exercise of a prudent generosity, had obtained power over the girl, could yet hope for reward. Samuel had as little of the villain in his composition as any Camberwell householder. He cherished no dark designs. But, after the manner of his kind, he was in love with Nancy, and even the long pursuit of a lofty ideal does not render a man proof against the elementary forces of human nature.
'We will suppose then,' he said, with a certain cheerfulness, 'that you have nothing whatever to depend upon but your father's will. What is before you? How can you live?'
'That is my own affair.'
It was not said offensively, but in a tone of bitter resignation. Barmby sat down opposite to her, and leaned forward.
'Do you think for one moment,' -- his voice was softly melodious, -- 'that I -- I who have loved you for years -- could let you suffer for want of money?'
He had not skill to read her countenance. Trouble he discerned, and shame; but the half-veiled eyes, the quivering nostril, the hard, cold lips, spoke a language beyond Samuel's interpretation. Even had he known of the outrages previously inflicted upon her pride, and that this new attack came at a moment when her courage was baffled, her heart cruelly wounded, he would just as little have comprehended the spirit which now kept her mute.
He imagined her overcome by his generosity. Another of his great effects had come off with tolerable success.
'Put your mind at rest,' he pursued mellifluously. 'You shall suffer no hardships. I answer for it.'
Still mute, and her head bowed low. Such is the power of nobility displayed before an erring soul!
'You have never done me justice. Confess that you haven't!'
To this remarkable appeal Nancy perforce replied:
'I never thought ill of you.'
When she had spoken, colour came into her cheeks. Observing it, Samuel was strangely moved. Had he impressed her even more profoundly than he hoped to do? Jessica Morgan's undisguised subjugation had flattered him into credulity respecting his influence over the female mind.
'But you didn't think me capable of -- of anything extraordinary?'
Even in her torment, Nancy marvelled at this revelation of fatuity. She did not understand the pranks of such a mind as Barmby's when its balance is disturbed by exciting circumstance.
'What are you offering me?' she asked, in a low voice. 'How could I take money from you?'
'I didn't mean that you should. Your secret has been betrayed to me. Suppose I refuse to know anything about it, and leave things as they were?'
Nancy kept her eyes down.
'Suppose I say: Duty bids me injure this woman who has injured me; but no, I will not! Suppose I say: I can make her regret bitterly that she married that other man; but no, I will not! Suppose, instead of making your secret known, I do my utmost to guard it! What would be your opinion of this behaviour?'
'I should think it was kindly meant, but useless.'
'Because it isn't in your power to guard the secret. Jessica Morgan won't leave her work half done.'
'If that's all, I say again that you can put your mind at rest. I answer for Miss Morgan. With her my will is law.'
Samuel smiled. A smile ineffable. The smile of a suburban deity.
'Why should you take any trouble about me?' said Nancy. 'I can do nothing for you in return.'
She looked anxiously at him, for his voice sounded ominous.
'You can acknowledge that you never did me justice.'
'It's true that I didn't,' she answered languidly; speaking as though the concession mattered little.
Barmby brightened. His hands were upon his knees; he raised his chin, and smiled at vacancy.
'You thought me unworthy of you. You can confess to me that you were mistaken.'
'I didn't know you as I do now,' fell from the expressionless lips.
'Thank you for saying that! Well, then, your anxiety is at an end. You are not in the hands of a mercenary enemy, but of a man whose principles forbid him to do anything ignoble, who has an ideal of life, the result of much study and thought. You have never heard me speak about religion, but you would be gravely mistaken if you thought I had no religious convictions. Some day I shall treat that subject before our Society, and it is probable that my views will give rise to a good deal of discussion. I have formed a religion for myself; when I write my essay, I think I shall call it "The Religion of a Man of Business." One of the great evils of the day is the vulgar supposition that commerce has nothing to do with religious faith. I shall show how utterly wrong that is. It would take too long to explain to you my mature views of Christianity. I am not sure that I recognise any of the ordinary dogmas; I think I have progressed beyond them. However, we shall have many opportunities of talking about these things.'
Nancy uttered a mere 'Yes.' She was looking at Tarrant's letter on the side-table, and wishing to be alone that she might read it again.
'In the meantime,' Samuel pursued, 'whatever difficulty arises, confide it to me. Probably you will wish to tell me more before long; you know that I am not unworthy to be your adviser. And so let us shake hands, in sign of genuine friendship.'
Nancy gave her fingers, which felt very cold upon Barmby's warm, moist palm.
'This conversation has been trying to you,' he said, 'but relief of mind will soon follow. If anything occurs to me that may help to soothe you, I will write.'
'At the beginning of our interview you didn't think it would end like this?'
There was something of the boy in Samuel, perhaps the wholesomest part of him. Having manifested his admirable qualities, he felt a light-hearted pleasure in asking for renewed assurance of the good opinion he had earned.
'I hardly cared,' said Nancy, as she rose with a sigh of weariness.
'But you have got over that. You will be quite cheerful now?'
'In time, no doubt.'
'I shall call again -- let us say on Wednesday evening. By that time I shall be able to put you entirely at ease with regard to Miss Morgan.'
Nancy made no reply. In shaking hands, she regarded the radiant Samuel with a dreamy interest; and when he had left her, she still gazed for a few moments at the door.
The habit of confidence prompted Nancy to seek Mary Woodruff, and show her the long-expected letter. But for Barmby's visit she would have done so. As it was, her mind sullenly resisted the natural impulse. Forlorn misery, intensified by successive humiliations, whereof the latest was the bitterest, hardened her even against the one, the indubitable friend, to whom she had never looked in vain for help and solace. Of course it was not necessary to let Mary know with what heart-breaking coldness Tarrant had communicated the fact of his return; but she preferred to keep silence altogether. Having sunk so low as to accept, with semblance of gratitude, pompous favours, dishonouring connivance, at the hands of Samuel Barmby, she would now stand alone in her uttermost degradation. Happen what might, she would act and suffer in solitude.
Something she had in mind to do which Mary, if told of it, would regard with disapproval. Mary was not a deserted and insulted wife; she could reason and counsel with the calmness of one who sympathised, but had nothing worse to endure. Even Mary's sympathy was necessarily imperfect, since she knew not, and should never know, what had passed in the crucial interviews with Beatrice French, with Jessica Morgan, and with Samuel Barmby. Bent on indulging her passionate sense of injury, hungering for a taste of revenge, however poor, Nancy executed with brief delay a project which had come into her head during the hour of torture just elapsed.
She took a sheet of notepaper, and upon it wrote half-a-dozen lines, thus:
'As your reward for marrying me is still a long way off, and as you tell me that you are in want, I send you as much as I can spare at present. Next month you shall hear from me again.'
Within the paper she folded a five-pound note, and placed both in an envelope, which she addressed to Lionel Tarrant, Esq., at his lodgings in Westminster. Having posted this at the first pillar-box she walked on.
Her only object was to combat mental anguish by bodily exercise, to distract, if possible, the thoughts which hammered upon her brain by moving amid the life of the streets. In Camberwell Road she passed the place of business inscribed with the names 'Lord and Barmby'; it made her think, not of the man who, from being an object of her good-natured contempt, was now become a hated enemy, but of her father, and she mourned for him with profounder feeling than when her tears flowed over his new-made grave. But for headstrong folly, incredible in the retrospect, that father would have been her dear and honoured companion, her friend in every best sense of the word, her guide and protector. Many and many a time had he invited her affection, her trust. For long years it was in her power to make him happy, and, in doing so, to enrich her own life, to discipline her mind as no study of books, even had it been genuine, ever could. Oh, to have the time back again -- the despised privilege -- the thwarted embittered love! She was beginning to understand her father, to surmise with mature intelligence the causes of his seeming harshness. To her own boy, when he was old enough, she would talk of him and praise him. Perhaps, even thus late, his spirit of stern truthfulness might bear fruit in her life and in her son's.
The tender memory and pure resolve did not long possess her. They soon yielded before the potency of present evil, and for an hour or more she walked along the sordid highway, nursing passions which struck their venom into her heart.
It was one of those cold, dry, clouded evenings of autumn, when London streets affect the imagination with a peculiar suggestiveness. New-lit lamps, sickly yellow under the dying day, stretch in immense vistas, unobscured by fog, but exhibit no detail of the track they will presently illumine; one by one the shop-fronts grow radiant on deepening gloom, and show in silhouette the figures numberless that are hurrying past. By accentuating a pause between the life of daytime and that which will begin after dark, this grey hour excites to an unwonted perception of the city's vastness and of its multifarious labour; melancholy, yet not dismal, the brooding twilight seems to betoken Nature's compassion for myriad mortals exiled from her beauty and her solace. Noises far and near blend into a muffled murmur, sound's equivalent of the impression received by the eye; it seems to utter the weariness of unending ineffectual toil.
Nancy had now walked as far as Newington, a district unfamiliar to her, and repulsive. By the Elephant and Castle she stood watching the tumultuous traffic which whirls and roars at this confluence of six highways; she had neither a mind to go on, nor yet to return. The conductor of an omnibus close at hand kept bellowing 'London Bridge!' and her thoughts wandered to that day of meeting with Luckworth Crewe, when he took her up the Monument. She had never felt more than an idle interest in Crewe, and whenever she remembered him nowadays, it was only to reflect with bitterness that he doubtless knew a part of her secret, -- the part that was known to Beatrice French, -- and on that account had ceased to urge his suit; yet at this moment she wished that she had pledged herself to him in good faith. His behaviour argued the steadfast devotion of an honest man, however lacking in refinement. Their long engagement would have been brightened with many hopes; in the end she might have learned to love him, and prosperity would have opened to her a world of satisfactions, for which she could no longer hope.
It grew cold. She allowed the movements of a group of people to direct her steps, and went eastward along New Kent Road. But when the shops were past, and only a dreary prospect of featureless dwellings lay before her, she felt her heart sink, and paused in vacillating wretchedness.
From a house near by sounded a piano; a foolish jingle, but it smote her with a longing for companionship, for friendly, cheerful talk. And then of a sudden she determined that this life of intolerable isolation should come to an end. Her efforts to find employment that would bring her among people had failed simply because she applied to strangers, who knew nothing of her capabilities, and cared nothing for her needs. But a way offered itself if she could overcome the poor lingering vestiges of pride and shame which hitherto had seemed to render it impossible. In this hour her desolate spirit rejected everything but the thought of relief to be found in new occupation, fresh society. She had endured to the limit of strength. Under the falling night, before the grey vision of a city which, by its alien business and pleasure, made her a mere outcast, she all at once found hope in a resource which till now had signified despair.
Summoning the first empty cab, she gave an address known to her only by hearsay, that of the South London Fashionable Dress Supply Association, and was driven thither in about a quarter of an hour. The shop, with its windows cunningly laid out to allure the female eye, spread a brilliant frontage between two much duller places of business; at the doorway stood a commissionaire, distributing some newly printed advertisements to the persons who entered, or who paused in passing. Nancy accepted a paper without thinking about it, and went through the swing doors held open for her by a stripling in buttons; she approached a young woman at the nearest counter, and in a low voice asked whether Miss French was on the premises.
'I'm not sure, madam. I will inquire at once.'
'She calls me "madam,"' said Nancy to herself whilst waiting. 'So do shopkeepers generally. I suppose I look old.'
The young person (she honeyed a Cockney twang) speedily came back to report that Miss French had left about half-an-hour ago, and was not likely to return.
'Can you give me her private address?'
Not having seen Miss French since the latter's unwelcome call in Grove Lane, she only knew that Beatrice had left De Crespigny Park to inhabit a flat somewhere or other.
'I wish to see her particularly, on business.'
'Excuse me a moment, madam.'
On returning, the young person requested Nancy to follow her up the shop, and led into a glass-partitioned office, where, at a table covered with fashion-plates, sat a middle-aged man, with a bald head of peculiar lustre. He rose and bowed; Nancy repeated her request.
'Could I despatch a message for you, madam?'
'My business is private.'
The bald-headed man coughed urbanely, and begged to know her name.
'Miss Lord -- of Grove Lane.'
Immediately his countenance changed from deprecating solemnity to a broad smile of recognition.
'Miss Lord! Oh, to be sure; I will give you the address at once. Pray pardon my questions; we have to be so very careful. So many people desire private interviews with Miss French. I will jot down the address.'
He did so on the back of an advertisement, and added verbal directions. Nancy hurried away.
Another cab conveyed her to Brixton, and set her down before a block of recently built flats. She ascended to the second floor, pressed the button of a bell, and was speedily confronted by a girl of the natty parlour-maid species. This time she began by giving her name, and had only a moment to wait before she was admitted to a small drawing-room, furnished with semblance of luxury. A glowing fire and the light of an amber-shaded lamp showed as much fashionable upholstery and bric-à-brac as could be squeezed into the narrow space. Something else was perceptible which might perhaps have been dispensed with; to wit, the odour of a very savoury meal, a meal in which fried onions had no insignificant part. But before the visitor could comment to herself upon this disadvantage attaching to flats, Beatrice joined her.
'I could hardly believe it! So you have really looked me up? Awfully jolly of you! I'm quite alone; we'll have a bit of dinner together.'
Miss French was in her most expansive mood. She understood the call as one of simple friendliness.
'I wasn't sure that you knew the address. Got it at the shop? They don't go telling everybody, I hope ----'
'Some one there seemed to know my name,' said Nancy, whom the warmth and light and cheery welcome encouraged in the step she had taken. And she explained.
'Ah, Mr Clatworthy -- rum old cove, when you get to know him. Yes, yes; no doubt he has heard me speak of you -- in a general way, you know. Come into my snooze-corner, and take your things off.'
The snooze-corner, commonly called a bedroom, lacked one detail of comfort -- pure air. The odour of dinner blending with toilet perfumes made an atmosphere decidedly oppressive. Beatrice remarked on the smallness of the chamber, adding archly, 'But I sleep single.'
'What's your brother doing?' she asked, while helping to remove Nancy's jacket. 'I passed him in Oxford Street the other day, and he either didn't see me, or didn't want to. Thought he looked rather dissipated.'
'I know very little about him,' answered the visitor, who spoke and acted without reflection, conscious chiefly at this moment of faintness induced by fatigue and hunger.
'Fanny's in Paris,' pursued Miss French. 'Writes as if she was amusing herself. I think I shall run over and have a look at her. Seen Ada? She's been playing the fool as usual. Found out that Arthur had taken the kid to his sister's at Canterbury; went down and made a deuce of a kick-up; they had to chuck her out of the house. Of course she cares no more about the child than I do; it's only to spite her husband. She's going to law with him, she says. She won't leave the house in De Crespigny Park, and she's running up bills -- you bet!'
Nancy tried to laugh. The effort, and its semi-success, indicated surrender to her companion's spirit rather than any attention to the subject spoken of.
They returned to the drawing-room, but had not time to begin a conversation before the servant summoned them to dinner. A very satisfying meal it proved; not badly cooked, as cooking is understood in Brixton, and served with more of ceremony than the guest had expected. Fried scallops, rump steak smothered in onions, an apple tart, and very sound Stilton cheese. Such fare testified to the virile qualities of Beatrice's mind; she was above the feminine folly of neglecting honest victuals. Moreover, there appeared two wines, sherry and claret.
'Did you ever try this kind of thing?' said the hostess finally, reaching a box of cigarettes.
'I? -- Of course not,' Nancy replied, with a laugh.
'It's expected of a sensible woman now-a-days. I've got to like it. Better try; no need to make yourself uncomfortable. Just keep the smoke in your mouth for half-a-minute, and blow it out prettily. I buy these in the Haymarket; special brand for women.'
'And you dine like this, by yourself, every day?'
'Like this, but not always alone. Some one or other drops in. Luckworth Crewe was here yesterday.'
Speaking, she watched Nancy, who bore the regard with carelessness, and replied lightly:
'It's an independent sort of life, at all events.'
'Just the kind of life that suits me. I'm my own mistress.'
There was a suggested allusion in the sly tone of the last phrase; but Nancy, thinking her own thoughts, did not perceive it. As the servant had left them alone, they could now talk freely. Beatrice, by her frequent glance of curiosity, seemed to await some explanation of a visit so unlooked-for.
'How are things going with you?' she asked at length, tapping the ash of her cigarette over a plate.
'I want something to do,' was the blunt reply.
'Too much alone -- isn't that it?'
'Just what I thought. You don't see him often?'
Nancy had ceased her pretence of smoking, and leaned back. A flush on her face, and something unwonted in the expression of her eyes, -- something like a smile, yet touched with apathy, -- told of physical influences which assisted her resolve to have done with scruple and delicacy. She handled her wine-glass, which was half full, and, before answering, raised it to her lips.
'No, I don't see him often.'
'Well, I told you to come to me if I could be any use. What's your idea?'
'Do you know of anything I could do? It isn't so much to earn money, as to -- to be occupied, and escape from loneliness. But I must have two afternoons in the week to myself.'
Beatrice nodded and smiled.
'No, -- not for that,' Nancy added hastily. 'To see my boy.'
The other appeared to accept this correction.
'All right. I think I can find you something. We're opening a branch.' She mentioned the locality. 'There'll be a club-room, like at headquarters, and we shall want some one ladylike to sit there and answer questions. You wouldn't be likely to see any one that knows you, and you'd get a good deal of fun out of it. Hours from ten to five, but Saturday afternoon off, and Wednesday after three, if that would do?'
'Yes, that would do very well. Any payment, at first?'
'Oh, we wouldn't be so mean as all that. Say ten shillings a week till Christmas, and afterwards we could see' -- she laughed -- 'whether you're worth more.'
'I know nothing about fashions.'
'You can learn all you need to know in an hour. It's the ladylike appearance and talk more than anything else.'
Nancy sipped again from her wine-glass.
'When could I begin?'
'The place 'll be ready on Monday week. Next week you might put in a few hours with us. Just sit and watch and listen, that's all; to get the hang of the thing.'
'Thank you for being so ready to help me.'
'Not a bit of it. I haven't done yet. There's a condition. If I fix up this job for you, will you tell me something I want to know?'
Nancy turned her eyes apprehensively.
'You can guess what it is. I quite believe what you told me some time ago, but I shan't feel quite easy until I know ----'
She finished the sentence with a look. Nancy's eyes fell.
'Curiosity, nothing else,' added the other. 'Just to make quite sure it isn't anybody I've thought of.'
There was a long silence. Leaning forward upon the table, Nancy turned her wine-glass about and about. She now had a very high colour, and breathed quickly.
'Is it off, then?' said Beatrice, in an indifferent tone.
Thereupon Nancy disclosed the name of her husband -- her lover, as Miss French thought him. Plied with further questions, she told where he was living, but gave no account of the circumstances that had estranged them. Abundantly satisfied, Beatrice grew almost affectionate, and talked merrily.
Nancy wished to ask whether Luckworth Crewe had any knowledge of her position. It was long before her lips could utter the words, but at length they were spoken. And Beatrice assured her that Crewe, good silly fellow, did not even suspect the truth.
'For a man,' said Tarrant, 'who can pay no more than twelve and sixpence a week, it's the best accommodation to be found in London. There's an air of civilisation about the house. Look; a bath, and a little book-case, and an easy-chair such as can be used by a man who respects himself. You feel you are among people who tub o' mornings and know the meaning of leisure. Then the view!'
He was talking to his friend Harvey Munden, the journalist. The room in which they stood might with advantage have been larger, but as a bed-chamber it served well enough, and only the poverty of its occupant, who put it to the additional use of sitting-room and study, made the lack of space particularly noticeable. The window afforded a prospect pleasant enough to eyes such as theirs. Above the lower houses on the opposite side of the way appeared tall trees, in the sere garb of later autumn, growing by old Westminster School; and beyond them, grey in twilight, rose the towers of the Abbey. From this point of view no vicinage of modern brickwork spoilt their charm; the time-worn monitors stood alone against a sky of ruddy smoke-drift and purple cloud.
'The old Adam is stronger than ever in me,' he pursued. 'If I were condemned for life to the United States, I should go mad, and perish in an attempt to swim the Atlantic.'
'Then why did you stay so long?'
'I could have stayed with advantage even longer. It's something to have studied with tolerable thoroughness the most hateful form of society yet developed. I saw it at first as a man does who is living at his ease; at last, as a poor devil who is thankful for the institution of free lunches. I went first-class, and I came back as a steerage passenger. It has been a year well spent.'
It had made him, in aspect, more than a twelve-month older. His lounging attitude, the spirit of his talk, showed that he was unchanged in bodily and mental habits; but certain lines new-graven upon his visage, and an austerity that had taken the place of youthful self-consciousness, signified a more than normal progress in experience.
'Do you know,' said Munden slyly, 'that you have brought back a trans-Atlantic accent?'
'Accent? The devil! I don't believe it.'
'Intonation, at all events.'
Tarrant professed a serious annoyance.
'If that's true, I'll go and live for a month in Limerick.'
'It would be cheaper to join a Socialist club in the East End. But just tell me how you stand. How long can you hold out in these aristocratic lodgings?'
'Till Christmas. I'm ashamed to say how I've got the money, so don't ask. I reached London with empty pockets. And I'll tell you one thing I have learnt, Munden. There's no villainy, no scoundrelism, no baseness conceivable, that isn't excused by want of money. I understand the whole "social question." The man who has never felt the perspiration come out on his forehead in asking himself how he is going to keep body and soul together, has no right to an opinion on the greatest question of the day.'
'What particular scoundrelism or baseness have you committed?' asked the other.
Tarrant averted his eyes.
'I said I could understand such things.'
'One sees that you have been breathed upon by democracy.'
'I loathe the word and the thing even more than I did, which is saying a good deal.'
'Be it so. You say you are going to work?'
'Yes, I have come back to work. Even now, it's difficult to realise that I must work or starve. I understand how fellows who have unexpectedly lost their income go through life sponging on relatives and friends. I understand how an educated man goes sinking through all the social grades, down to the common lodging-house and the infirmary. And I honestly believe there's only one thing that saves me from doing likewise.'
'And what's that?'
'I can't tell you -- not yet, at all events.'
'I always thought you a very fine specimen of the man born to do nothing,' said Munden, with that smile which permitted him a surprising candour in conversation.
'And you were quite right,' returned Tarrant, with a laugh. 'I am a born artist in indolence. It's the pity of pities that circumstances will frustrate Nature's purpose.'
'You think you can support yourself by journalism?'
'I must try. -- Run your eye over that.'
He took from the table a slip of manuscript, headed, 'A Reverie in Wall Street.' Munden read it, sat thoughtful for a moment, and laughed.
'Devilish savage. Did you write it after a free lunch?'
'Wrote it this morning. Shall I try one of the evening papers with it, -- or one of the weeklies?'
Munden suggested a few alterations, and mentioned the journal which he thought might possibly find room for such a bit of satire.
'Done anything else?'
'Here's a half-finished paper -- "The Commercial Prospects of the Bahamas."'
'Let me look.'
After reading a page or two with critically wrinkled forehead, Munden laid it down.
'Seems pretty solid, -- libellous, too, I should say. You've more stuff in you than I thought. All right: go ahead. -- Come and dine with me to-morrow, to meet a man who may be useful.'
'To-morrow I can't. I dine at Lady Pollard's.'
'Who is she?'
'Didn't you know Pollard of Trinity? -- the only son of his mother, and she a widow.'
'Next day, then.'
'Can't. I dine with some people at Bedford Park.'
Munden lifted his eyebrows.
'At this rate, you may live pretty well on a dress suit. Any more engagements?'
'None that I know of. But I shall accept all that offer. I'm hungry for the society of decent English people. I used to neglect my acquaintances; I know better now. Go and live for a month in a cheap New York boarding-house, and you'll come out with a wholesome taste for English refinement.'
To enable his friend to read, Tarrant had already lit a lamp. Munden, glancing about the room, said carelessly:
'Do you still possess the furniture of the old place?'
'No,' was the answer, given with annoyance. 'Vawdrey had it sold for me.'
'Pictures, books, and all the nick-nacks?'
'Everything. -- Of course I'm sorry for it; but I thought at the time that I shouldn't return to England for some years.'
'You never said anything of that kind to me.'
'No, I didn't,' the other replied gloomily. And all at once he fell into so taciturn a mood, that his companion, after a few more remarks and inquiries, rose from his chair to leave.
From seven to nine Tarrant sat resolutely at his table, and covered a few pages with the kind of composition which now came most easily to him, -- a somewhat virulent sarcasm. He found pleasure in the work; but after nine o'clock his thoughts strayed to matters of personal interest, and got beyond control. Would the last post of the evening bring him an answer to a letter he had despatched this morning? At length he laid down his pen, and listened nervously for that knock which, at one time or another, is to all men a heart-shaking sound.
It came at the street door, and was quickly followed by a tap at his own. Nancy had lost no time in replying. What her letter might contain he found it impossible to conjecture. Reproaches? Joyous welcome? Wrath? Forgiveness? He knew her so imperfectly, that he could not feel sure even as to the probabilities of the case. And his suspense was abundantly justified. Her answer came upon him with the force of a shock totally unexpected.
He read the lines again and again; he stared at the bank-note. His first sensation was one of painful surprise; thereupon succeeded fiery resentment. Reason put in a modest word, hinting that he had deserved no better; but he refused to listen. Nothing could excuse so gross an insult. He had not thought Nancy capable of this behaviour. Tested, she betrayed the vice of birth. Her imputation upon his motive in marrying her was sheer vulgar abuse, possible only on vulgar lips. Well and good; now he knew her; all the torment of conscience he had suffered was needless. And for the moment he experienced a great relief.
In less than ten minutes letter and bank-note were enclosed in a new envelope, and addressed back again to the sender. With no word of comment; she must interpret him as she could, and would. He went out, and threw the offensive packet into the nearest receptacle for such things.
Work was over for to-night. After pacing in the obscurity of Dean's Yard until his pulse had recovered a normal beat, he issued into the peopled ways, and turned towards Westminster Bridge.
Despite his neglect of Nancy, he had never ceased to think of her with a tenderness which, in his own judgment, signified something more than the simple fidelity of a married man. Faithful in the technical sense he had not been, but the casual amours of a young man caused him no self-reproach; Nancy's image remained without rival in his mind; he had continued to acknowledge her claims upon him, and, from time to time, to think of her with a lover's longing. As he only wrote when prompted by such a mood, his letters, however unsatisfying, were sincere. Various influences conflicted with this amiable and honourable sentiment. The desire of independence which had speeded him away from England still accompanied him on his return; he had never ceased to regret his marriage, and it seemed to him that, without this legal bondage, it would have been much easier to play a manly part at the time of Nancy's becoming a mother. Were she frankly his mistress, he would not be keeping thus far away when most she needed the consolation of his presence. The secret marriage condemned him to a course of shame, and the more he thought of it, the more he marvelled at his deliberate complicity in such a fraud. When poverty began to make itself felt, when he was actually hampered in his movements by want of money, this form of indignity, more than any galling to his pride, intensified the impatience with which he remembered that he could no longer roam the world as an adventurer. Any day some trivial accident might oppress him with the burden of a wife and child who looked to him for their support. Tarrant the married man, unless he were content to turn simple rogue and vagabond, must make for himself a place in the money-earning world. His indolence had no small part in his revolt against the stress of such a consideration. The climate of the Bahamas by no means tended to invigorate him, and in the United States he found so much to observe, -- even to enjoy, -- that the necessity of effort was kept out of sight as long as, by one expedient and another, he succeeded in procuring means to live upon without working.
During the homeward voyage -- a trial such as he had never known, amid squalid discomforts which enraged even more than they disgusted him -- his heart softened in anticipation of a meeting with Nancy, and of the sight of his child. Apart from his fellow-travellers, -- in whom he could perceive nothing but coarseness and vileness, -- he spent the hours in longing for England and for the home he would make there, in castigating the flagrant faults of his character, moderating his ambitions, and endeavouring to find a way out of the numerous grave difficulties with which his future was beset.
Landed, he rather forgot than discarded these wholesome meditations. What he had first to do was so very unpleasant, and taxed so rudely his self-respect, that he insensibly fell back again into the rebellious temper. Choice there was none; reaching London with a few shillings in his pocket, of necessity he repaired forthwith to Mr Vawdrey's office in the City, and made known the straits into which he had fallen.
'Now, my dear fellow,' said Mr Vawdrey, with his usual good-humour, 'how much have you had of me since you started for the Bahamas?'
'That is hardly a fair question,' Tarrant replied, endeavouring not to hang his head like an everyday beggar. 'I went out on a commission ----'
'True. But after you ceased to be a commissioner?'
'You have lent me seventy pounds. Living in the States is expensive. What I got for my furniture has gone as well, yet I certainly haven't been extravagant; and for the last month or two I lived like a tramp. Will you make my debt to you a round hundred? It shall be repaid, though I may be a year or two about it.'
The loan was granted, but together with a great deal of unpalatable counsel. Having found his lodging, Tarrant at once invested ten pounds in providing himself with a dress suit, and improving his ordinary attire, -- he had sold every garment he could spare in New York. For the dress suit he had an immediate use; on the very platform of Euston Station, at his arrival, a chance meeting with one of his old college friends resulted in an invitation to dine, and, even had not policy urged him to make the most of such acquaintances, he was in no mood for rejecting a summons back into the world of civilisation. Postponing the purposed letter to Nancy (which, had he written it sooner, would have been very unlike the letter he subsequently sent), he equipped himself once more as a gentleman, and spent several very enjoyable hours in looking up the members of his former circle -- Hodiernals and others. Only to Harvey Munden did he confide something of the anxieties which lay beneath his assumed lightheartedness. Munden was almost the only man he knew for whom he had a genuine respect.
Renewal of intercourse with people of good social standing made him more than ever fretful in the thought that he had clogged himself with marriage. Whatever Nancy's reply to his announcement that he was home again, he would have read it with discontent. To have the fact forced upon him (a fact he seriously believed it) that his wife could not be depended upon even for elementary generosity of thought, was at this moment especially disastrous; it weighed the balance against his feelings of justice and humanity, hitherto, no matter how he acted, always preponderant over the baser issues of character and circumstance.
He stood leaning upon the parapet of Westminster Bridge, his eyes scanning the dark façade of the Houses of Parliament.
How would the strong, unscrupulous, really ambitious man act in such a case? What was to prevent him from ignoring the fact that he was married, and directing his course precisely as he would have done if poverty had come upon him before his act of supreme foolishness? Journalism must have been his refuge then, as now; but Society would have held out to him the hope of every adventurer -- a marriage with some woman whose wealth and connections would clear an upward path in whatever line he chose to follow. Why not abandon to Nancy the inheritance it would degrade him to share, and so purchase back his freedom? The bargain might be made; a strong man would carry it through, and ultimately triumph by daring all risks.
Having wrought himself to this point of insensate revolt, he quitted his musing-station on the bridge, and walked away.
Nancy did not write again. There passed four or five days, and Tarrant, working hard as well as enjoying the pleasures of Society, made up his mind not to see her. He would leave events to take their course. A heaviness of heart often troubled him, but he resisted it, and told himself that he was becoming stronger.
After a long day of writing, he addressed a packet to a certain periodical, and went out to post it. No sooner had he left the house than a woman, who had been about to pass him on the pavement, abruptly turned round and hurriedly walked away. But for this action, he would not have noticed her; as it was, he recognised the figure, and an impulse which allowed of no reflection brought him in a moment to her side. In the ill-lighted street a face could with difficulty be observed, but Nancy's features were unmistakable to the eye that now fell upon them.
'Stop, and let me speak to you,' he exclaimed.
She walked only the more quickly, and he was obliged to take her by the arm.
'What do you want?'
She spoke as if to an insolent stranger, and shook off his grasp.
'If you have nothing to say to me, why are you here?'
'Here? I suppose the streets are free to me?'
'Nothing would bring you to Great College Street if you didn't know that I was living here. Now that we have met, we must talk.'
'I have nothing at all to say to you.'
'Well, then I will talk. -- Come this way; there's a quiet place where no one will notice us.'
Nancy kept her eyes resolutely averted from him; he, the while, searched her face with eagerness, as well as the faint rays of the nearest lamp allowed it.
'If you have anything to say, you must say it here.'
'It's no use, then. Go your way, and I'll go mine.'
He turned, and walked slowly in the direction of Dean's Yard. There was the sound of a step behind him, and when he had come into the dark, quiet square, Nancy was there too.
'Better to be reasonable,' said Tarrant, approaching her again. 'I want to ask you why you answered a well-meant letter with vulgar insult?'
'The insult came from you,' she answered, in a shaking voice.
'What did I say that gave you offence?'
'How can you ask such a question? To write in that way after never answering my letter for months, leaving me without a word at such a time, making me think either that you were dead or that you would never let me hear of you again ----'
'I told you it was a mere note, just to let you know I was back. I said you should hear more when we met.'
'Very well, we have met. What have you to say for yourself?'
'First of all, this. That you are mistaken in supposing I should ever consent to share your money. The thought was natural to you, no doubt; but I see things from a different point of view.'
His cold anger completely disguised the emotion stirred in him by Nancy's presence. Had he not spoken thus, he must have given way to joy and tenderness. For Nancy seemed more beautiful than the memory he had retained of her, and even at such a juncture she was far from exhibiting the gross characteristics attributed to her by his rebellious imagination.
'Then I don't understand,' were her next words, 'why you wrote to me again at all.'
'There are many things in me that you don't understand, and can't understand.'
'Yes, I think so. That's why I see no use in our talking.'
Tarrant was ashamed of what he had said -- a meaningless retort, which covered his inability to speak as his heart prompted.
'At all events I wanted to see you, and it's fortunate you passed just as I was coming out.'
Nancy would not accept the conciliatory phrase.
'I hadn't the least intention of seeing you,' she replied. 'It was a curiosity to know where you lived, nothing else. I shall never forgive you for the way in which you have behaved to me, so you needn't try to explain yourself.'
'Here and now, I should certainly not try. The only thing I will say about myself is, that I very much regret not having made known that you were married to me when plain honesty required it. Now, I look upon it as something over and done with, as far as I am concerned. I shall never benefit by the deception ----'
She interrupted him.
'How do you know that I shall benefit by it? How can you tell what has been happening since you last heard from me in America?'
'I have taken it for granted that things are the same.'
'Then you didn't even take measures to have news of me from any one else?'
'What need? I should always have received any letter you sent.'
'You thought it likely that I should appeal to you if I were in difficulties.'
He stood silent, glad of the obscurity which made it needless for him to command his features. At length:
'What is the simple fact? Has your secret been discovered, or not?'
'How does it concern you?'
'Only in this way: that if you are to be dependent upon any one, it must be upon me.'
Nancy gave a scornful laugh.
'That's very generous, considering your position. But happily you can't force me to accept your generosity, any more than I can compel you to take a share of my money.'
'Without the jibe at my poverty,' Tarrant said, 'that is a sufficient answer. As we can't even pretend to be friendly with each other, I am very glad there need be no talk of our future relations. You are provided for, and no doubt will take care not to lose the provision. If ever you prefer to forget that we are legally bound, I shall be no obstacle.'
'I have thought of that,' replied Nancy, after a pause, her voice expressing satisfaction. 'Perhaps we should do better to make the understanding at once. You are quite free; I should never acknowledge you as my husband.'
'You seriously mean it?'
'Do I seem to be joking?'
'Very well. I won't say that I should never acknowledge you as my wife; so far from that, I hold myself responsible whenever you choose to make any kind of claim upon me. But I shall not dream of interfering with your liberty. If ever you wish to write to me, you may safely address to the house at Champion Hill. -- And remember always,' he added sternly, 'that it was not I who made such a parting necessary.'
Nancy returned his look through the gloom, and said in like tone:
'I shall do my best never to think of it at all. Fortunately, my time and my thoughts are occupied.'
'How?' Tarrant could not help asking, as she turned away; for her tone implied some special significance in the words.
'You have no right to ask anything whatever about me,' came from Nancy, who was already moving away.
He allowed her to go.
'So it is to be as I wished,' he said to himself, with mock courage. 'So much the better.'
And he went home to a night of misery.
Not long after the disappearance of Fanny French, Mrs Damerel called one day upon Luckworth Crewe at his office in Farringdon Street. Crewe seldom had business with ladies, and few things could have surprised him more than a visit from this lady in particular, whom he knew so well by name, and regarded with such special interest. She introduced herself as a person wishing to find a good investment for a small capital; but the half-hour's conversation which followed became in the end almost a confidential chat. Mrs Damerel spoke of her nephew Horace Lord, with whom, she understood, Mr Crewe was on terms of intimacy; she professed a grave solicitude on his account, related frankly the unhappy circumstances which had estranged the young man from her, and ultimately asked whether Crewe could not make it worth his own while to save Horace from the shoals of idleness, and pilot him into some safe commercial haven. This meeting was the first of many between the fashionable lady and the keen man of affairs. Without a suspicion of how it had come about, Horace Lord presently found himself an informal partner in Crewe's business; he invested only a nominal sum, which might be looked upon as a premium of apprenticeship; but there was an understanding that at the close of the term of tutelage imposed by his father's will, he should have the offer of a genuine partnership on very inviting terms.
Horace was not sorry to enter again upon regular occupation. He had considerably damaged his health in the effort to live up to his ideal of thwarted passion, and could no longer entertain a hope that Fanny's escapade was consistent with innocence. Having learnt how money slips through the fingers of a gentleman with fastidious tastes, he welcomed a prospect of increased resources, and applied himself with some energy to learning his new business. But with Mrs Damerel he utterly refused to be reconciled, and of his sister he saw very little. Nancy, however, approved the step he had taken, and said she would be content to know that all was well with him.
Upon a Sunday morning, when the church bells had ceased to clang, Luckworth Crewe, not altogether at his ease in garb of flagrant respectability, sat by the fireside of a pleasant little room conversing with Mrs Damerel. Their subject, as usual at the beginning of talk, was Horace Lord.
'He won't speak of you at all,' said Crewe, in a voice singularly subdued, sympathetic, respectful. 'I have done all I could, short of telling him that I know you. He's very touchy still on that old affair.'
'How would he like it,' asked the lady, 'if you told him that we are acquaintances?'
'Impossible to say. Perhaps it would make no difference one way or another.'
Mrs Damerel was strikingly, yet becomingly, arrayed. The past year had dealt no less gently with her than its predecessors; if anything, her complexion had gained in brilliancy, perhaps a consequence of the hygienic precautions due to her fear of becoming stout. A stranger, even a specialist in the matter, might have doubted whether the fourth decade lay more than a month or two behind her. So far from seeking to impress her visitor with a pose of social superiority, she behaved to him as though his presence honoured as much as it delighted her; look, tone, bearing, each was a flattery which no obtuseness could fail to apprehend, and Crewe's countenance proved him anything but inappreciative. Hitherto she had spoken and listened with her head drooping in gentle melancholy; now, with a sudden change intended to signify the native buoyancy of her disposition, she uttered a rippling laugh, which showed her excellent teeth, and said prettily:
'Poor boy! I must suffer the penalty of having tried to save him from one of my own sex. -- Not,' she added, 'that I foresaw how that poor silly girl would justify my worst fears of her. Perhaps,' her head drooping again, 'I ought to reproach myself with what happened.'
'I don't see that at all,' replied Crewe, whose eyes lost nothing of the exhibition addressed to them. 'Even if you had been the cause of it, which of course you weren't, I should have said you had done the right thing. Every one knew what Fanny French must come to.'
'Isn't it sad? A pretty girl -- but so ill brought up, I fear. Can you give me any news of her sister, the one who came here and frightened me so?'
'Oh, she's going on as usual.'
Crewe checked himself, and showed hesitation.
'She almost threatened me,' Mrs Damerel pursued, with timid sweetness. 'Do you think she is the kind of person to plot any harm against one?'
'She had better not try it on,' said Crewe, in his natural voice. Then, as if recollecting himself, he pursued more softly: 'But I was going to speak of her. You haven't heard that Miss Lord has taken a position in the new branch of that Dress Supply Association?'
Mrs Damerel kept an astonished silence.
'There can't be any doubt of it; I have been told on the best authority. She is in what they call the "club-room," a superintendent. It's a queer thing; what can have led her to it?'
'I must make inquiries,' said Mrs Damerel, with an air of concern. 'How sad it is, Mr Crewe, that these young relatives of mine, -- almost the only relatives I have, -- should refuse me their confidence and their affection. Pray, does Horace know of what his sister is doing?'
'I thought I wouldn't speak to him about it until I had seen you.'
'How very kind! How grateful I am to you for your constant thoughtfulness!'
Why Crewe should have practised such reticence, why it signified kindness and thoughtfulness to Mrs Damerel, neither he nor she could easily have explained. But their eyes met, with diffident admiration on the one side, and touching amiability on the other. Then they discussed Nancy's inexplicable behaviour from every point of view; or rather, Mrs Damerel discussed it, and her companion made a pretence of doing so. Crewe's manner had become patently artificial; he either expressed himself in trivial phrases, which merely avoided silence, or betrayed an embarrassment, an abstraction, which caused the lady to observe him with all the acuteness at her command.
You haven't seen her lately?' she asked, when Crewe had been staring at the window for a minute or two.
'Seen her? -- No; not for a long time.'
'I think you told me you haven't called there since Mr Lord's death?'
'I never was there at all,' he answered abruptly.
'Oh, I remember your saying so. Of course there is no reason why she shouldn't go into business, if time is heavy on her hands, as I dare say it may be. So many ladies prefer to have an occupation of that kind now-a-days. It's a sign of progress; we are getting more sensible; Society used to have such silly prejudices. Even within my recollection -- how quickly things change! -- no lady would have dreamt of permitting her daughter to take an engagement in a shop or any such place. Now we have women of title starting as milliners and modistes, and soon it will be quite a common thing to see one's friends behind the counter.'
She gave a gay little laugh, in which Crewe joined unmelodiously, -- for he durst not be merry in the note natural to him, -- then raised her eyes in playful appeal.
'If ever I should fall into misfortune, Mr Crewe, would you put me in the way of earning my living.'
'You couldn't. You're above all that kind of thing. It's for the rough and ready sort of women, and I can't say I have much opinion of them.'
'That's a very nice little compliment; but at the same time, it's rather severe on the women who are practical. -- Tell me frankly: Is my -- my niece one of the people you haven't much opinion of?'
Crewe shuffled his feet.
'I wasn't thinking of Miss Lord.'
'But what is really your opinion of her?' Mrs Damerel urged softly.
Crewe looked up and down, smiled in a vacant way, and appeared very uncomfortable.
'May I guess the truth?' said his playful companion.
'No, I'll tell you. I wanted to marry her, and did my best to get her to promise.'
'I thought so!' She paused on the note of arch satisfaction, and mused. 'How nice of you to confess! -- And that's all past and forgotten, is it?'
Never man more unlike himself than the bold advertising-agent in this colloquy. He was subdued and shy; his usual racy and virile talk had given place to an insipid mildness. He seemed bent on showing that the graces of polite society were not so strange to him as one might suppose. But under Mrs Damerel's interrogation a restiveness began to appear in him, and at length he answered in his natural blunt voice:
'Yes, it's all over -- and for a good reason.'
The lady's curiosity was still more provoked.
'No,' she exclaimed laughingly, 'I am not going to ask the reason. That would be presuming too far on friendship.'
Crewe fixed his eyes on a corner of the room, and seemed to look there for a solution of some difficulty. When the silence had lasted more than a minute, he began to speak slowly and awkwardly.
'I've half a mind to -- in fact, I've been thinking that you ought to know.'
'The good reason?'
'Yes. You're the only one that could stand in the place of a mother to her. And I don't think she ought to be living alone, like she is, with no one to advise and help her.'
'I have felt that very strongly,' said Mrs Damerel. 'The old servant who is with her can't be at all a suitable companion -- that is, to be treated on equal terms. A very strange arrangement, indeed. But you don't mean that you thought less well of her because she is living in that way?'
'Of course not. It's something a good deal more serious than that.'
Mrs Damerel became suddenly grave.
'Then I certainly ought to know.'
'You ought. I think it very likely she would have been glad enough to make a friend of you, if it hadn't been for this -- this affair, which stood in the way. There can't be any harm in telling you, as you couldn't wish anything but her good.'
'That surely you may take for granted.'
'Well then, I have an idea that she's trying to earn money because some one is getting all he can out of her -- leaving her very little for herself; and if so, it's time you interfered.'
The listener was so startled that she changed colour.
'You mean that some man has her in his power?'
'If I'm not mistaken, it comes to that. But for her father's will, she would have been married long ago, and -- she ought to be.'
Having blurted out these words, Crewe felt much more at ease. As Mrs Damerel's eyes fell, the sense of sexual predominance awoke in him, and he was no longer so prostrate before the lady's natural and artificial graces.
'How do you know this?' she asked, in an undertone.
'From some one who had it from Miss Lord herself.'
'Are you quite sure that it isn't a malicious falsehood?'
'As sure as I am that I sit here. I know the man's name, and where he lives, and all about him. And I know where the child is at nurse.
'The child? -- Oh -- surely -- never!'
A genuine agitation possessed her; she had a frightened, pain-stricken look, and moved as if she must act without delay.
'It's nearly six months old,' Crewe continued. 'Of course that's why she was away so long.'
'But why haven't you told me this before? It was your duty to tell me -- your plain duty. How long have you known?'
'I heard of it first of all about three months ago, but it was only the other day that I was told the man's name, and other things about him.'
'Is it known to many people? Is the poor girl talked about?'
'No, no,' Crewe replied, with confidence. 'The person who told me is the only one who has found it out; you may depend upon that.'
'It must be a woman,' said Mrs Damerel sharply.
'Yes, it's a woman. Some one I know very well. She told me just because she thought I was still hoping to marry Miss Lord, and -- well, the truth is, though we're good friends, she has a little spite against me, and I suppose it amused her to tell me something disagreeable.'
'I have no doubt,' said Mrs Damerel, 'that the secret has been betrayed to a dozen people.'
'I'll go bail it hasn't!' returned Crewe, falling into his vernacular.
'I can hardly believe it at all. I should never have dreamt that such a thing was possible. What is the man's name? what is his position?'
'Tarrant is his name, and he's related somehow to a Mr Vawdrey, well known in the City, who has a big house over at Champion Hill. I have no notion how they came together, or how long it was going on. But this Mr Tarrant has been in America for a year, I understand; has only just come back; and now he's living in poorish lodgings, -- Great College Street, Westminster. I've made a few inquiries about him, but I can't get at very much. A man who knows Vawdrey tells me that Tarrant has no means, and that he's a loafing, affected sort of chap. If that's true, -- and it seems likely from the way he's living, -- of course he will be ready enough to marry Miss Lord when the proper time has come; I'm only afraid that's all he had in view from the first. And I can't help suspecting, as I said, that she's supporting him now. If not, why should she go and work in a shop? At all events, a decent man wouldn't allow her to do it.'
'A decent man,' said the listener, 'would never have allowed her to fall into disgrace.'
'Certainly not,' Crewe assented with energy. 'And as for my keeping quiet about it, Mrs Damerel, you've only to think what an awkward affair it was to mention. I'm quite sure you'll have a little feeling against me, because I knew of it ----'
'I beg you not to think that!' She returned to her manner of suave friendliness. 'I shall owe you gratitude for telling me, and nothing but gratitude. You have behaved with very great delicacy; I cannot say how highly I appreciate your feeling on the poor girl's behalf.'
'If I can be of any use, I am always at your service.'
'Thank you, dear Mr Crewe, thank you! In you I have found a real friend, -- and how rarely they are met with! Of course I shall make inquiries at once. My niece must be protected. A helpless girl in that dreadful position may commit unheard-of follies. I fear you are right. He is making her his victim. With such a secret, she is absolutely at his mercy. And it explains why she has shunned me. Oh, do you think her brother knows it?'
'I'm quite sure he doesn't; hasn't the least suspicion.'
'Of course not. But it's wonderful how she has escaped. Your informant -- how did she find it out? You say she had the story from the girl's own lips. But why? She must have shown that she knew something.'
Crewe imparted such details as had come to his knowledge; they were meagre, and left many obscurities, but Mrs Damerel rewarded him with effusive gratitude, and strengthened the spell which she had cast upon this knight of Farringdon Street.
Every day Tarrant said to himself: 'I am a free man; I was only married in a dream.' Every night he thought of Nancy, and suffered heartache.
He thought, too, of Nancy's child, his own son. That Nancy was a tender mother, he knew from the letter she had written him after the baby's birth, -- a letter he would have liked to read again, but forbore. Must not the separation from her child be hard? If he saw the poor little mortal, how would the sight affect him? At moments he felt a longing perhaps definable as the instinct of paternity; but he was not the man to grow sentimental over babies, his own or other people's. Irony and sarcasm -- very agreeable to a certain class of newspaper readers -- were just now his stock-in-trade, and he could not afford to indulge any softer mode of meditation.
His acquaintances agreed that the year of absence had not improved him. He was alarmingly clever; he talked well; but his amiability, the poetry of his mind, seemed to have been lost in America. He could no longer admire or praise.
For his own part, he did not clearly perceive this change. It struck him only that the old friends were less interesting than he had thought them; and he looked for reception in circles better able to appreciate his epigrams and paradoxes.
A few weeks of such life broke him so completely to harness, that he forgot the seasonable miseries which had been wont to drive him from London at the approach of November. When the first fog blackened against his windows, he merely lit the lamp and wrote on, indifferent. Two years ago he had declared that a London November would fatally blight his soul; that he must flee to a land of sunshine, or perish. There was little time, now, to think about his soul.
One Monday morning arrived a letter which surprised and disturbed him. It ran thus:
'Mrs Eustace Damerel presents her compliments to Mr Tarrant, and would take it as a great favour if he could call upon her, either to-morrow or Tuesday, at any hour between three and seven. She particularly desires to see Mr Tarrant on a private matter of mutual interest.'
Now this could have but one meaning. Mrs Eustace Damerel was, of course, Nancy's relative; from Nancy herself, or in some other way, she must have learnt the fact of his marriage. Probably from Nancy, since she knew where he lived. He was summoned to a judicial interview. Happily, attendance was not compulsory.
Second thoughts advised him that he had better accept the invitation. He must know what measures were in progress against him. If Nancy had already broken her word, she might be disposed to revenge herself in every way that would occur to an angry woman of small refinement; she might make life in London impossible for him.
He sat down and penned a reply, saying that he would call upon Mrs Damerel at five to-morrow. But he did not post this. After all, a day's delay would only irritate him; better to go this afternoon, in which case it was not worth while sending an answer.
It seemed to him very probable that Nancy would be with her aunt, to confront him. If so, -- if indeed she were going to act like any coarse woman, with no regard but for her own passions and Interests, -- he would at least have the consolation of expelling from his mind, at once and for ever, her haunting image.
Mrs Damerel, who during the past twelve months had changed her abode half-a-dozen times, now occupied private lodgings in Tyburnia. On his admittance, Tarrant sat alone for nearly five minutes in a pretentiously furnished room -- just the room in which he had expected to find Nancy's relative; the delay and the surroundings exasperated his nervous mood, so that, when the lady entered, he behaved with slighter courtesy than became his breeding. Nothing in her appearance surprised or interested him. There was a distant facial resemblance to Nancy, natural in her mother's sister; there was expensive, though not particularly tasteful dress, and a gait, a manner, distinguishable readily enough from what they aimed at displaying -- the grace of a woman born to social privilege.
It would be a humiliating conversation; Tarrant braced himself to go through with it. He stood stiffly while his hostess regarded him with shrewd eyes. She had merely bent her head.
'Will you sit down, Mr Tarrant?'
He took a chair without speaking.
'I think you know me by name?'
'I have heard of a Mrs Damerel.'
'Some time ago, I suppose? And in that you have the advantage of me. I heard your name yesterday for the first time.'
It was the sharp rejoinder of a woman of the world. Tarrant began to perceive that he had to do with intelligence, and would not be allowed to perform his share of the talking de haut en bas.
'In what can I be of service to you?' he asked with constrained civility.
'You can tell me, please, what sort of connection there is between you and my niece, Miss Lord.'
Mrs Damerel was obviously annoyed by his demeanour, and made little effort to disguise her feeling. She gave him the look of one who does not mean to be trifled with.
'Really,' answered the young man with a smile, 'I don't know what authority you have to make such inquiries. You are not, I believe, Miss Lord's guardian.'
'No, but I am her only relative who can act on her behalf where knowledge of the world is required. As a gentleman, you will bear this in mind. It's quite true that I can't oblige you to tell me anything; but when I say that I haven't spoken even to my niece of what I have heard, and haven't communicated with the gentlemen who are her guardians, I think you will see that I am not acting in a way you ought to resent.'
'You mean, Mrs Damerel, that what passes between us is in confidence?'
'I only mean, Mr Tarrant, that I am giving you an opportunity of explaining yourself -- so that I can keep the matter private if your explanation is satisfactory.'
'You have a charge of some kind to bring against me,' said Tarrant composedly. 'I must first of all hear what it is. The prisoner at the bar can't be prosecuting counsel at the same time.'
'Do you acknowledge that you are on intimate terms with Miss Lord?'
'I have known her for a year or two.'
Tarrant began to exercise caution. Nancy had no hand in this matter; some one had told tales about her, that was all. He must learn, without committing himself, exactly how much had been discovered.
'Are you engaged to her?'
'Engaged to marry her? No.'
He saw in Mrs Damerel's clear eye that she convicted him of ambiguities.
'You have not even made her a promise of marriage?'
'How much simpler, if you would advance a clear charge. I will answer it honestly.'
Mrs Damerel seemed to weigh the value of this undertaking. Tarrant met her gaze with steady indifference.
'It may only be a piece of scandal, -- a mistake, or a malicious invention. I have been told that -- that you are in everything but law my niece's husband.'
They regarded each other during a moment's silence. Tarrant's look indicated rapid and anxious thought.
'It seems,' he said at length, 'that you have no great faith in the person who told you this.'
'It is the easiest matter in the world to find out whether the story is true or not. Inquiries at Falmouth would be quite sufficient, I dare say. I give you the opportunity of keeping it quiet, that's all.'
'You won't care to let me know who told you?'
'There's no reason why I shouldn't,' said Mrs Damerel, after reflection. 'Do you know Mr Luckworth Crewe?'
'I don't think I ever heard the name.'
'Indeed? He is well acquainted with Miss Lord. Some one he wouldn't mention gave him all the particulars, having learnt them from Miss Lord herself, and he thought it his duty to inform me of my niece's very painful position.'
'Who is this man?' Tarrant asked abruptly.
'I am rather surprised you have never heard of him. He's a man of business. My nephew, Mr Horace Lord, is shortly to be in partnership with him.'
'Crewe? No, the name is quite strange to me.'
Tarrant's countenance darkened; he paused for an instant, then added impatiently:
'You say he had "all the particulars." What were they, these particulars?'
'Will one be enough? A child was born at Falmouth, and is now at a place just outside London, in the care of some stranger.'
The source of this information might, or might not, be Nancy herself. In either case, there was no further hope of secrecy. Tarrant abandoned his reserve, and spoke quietly, civilly.
'So far, you have heard the truth. What have you to ask of me, now?'
'You have been abroad for a long time, I think?'
'For about a year.'
'Does that mean that you wished to see no more of her?'
'That I deserted her, in plain words? It meant nothing of the kind.'
'You are aware, then, that she has taken a place in a house of business, just as if she thought it necessary to earn her own living?'
Tarrant displayed astonishment.
'I am aware of no such thing. How long has that been going on?'
'Then you don't see her?'
'I have seen her, but she told me nothing of that.'
'There's something very strange in this, Mr Tarrant. You seem to me to be speaking the truth. No, please don't take offence. Before I saw you, you were a total stranger to me, and after what I had heard, I couldn't think very well of you. I may as well confess that you seem a different kind of man from what I expected. I don't wish to offend you, far from it. If we can talk over this distressing affair in a friendly way, so much the better. I have nothing whatever in view but to protect my niece -- to do the best that can be done for her.'
'That I have taken for granted,' Tarrant replied. 'I understand that you expected to meet a scoundrel of a very recognisable type. Well, I am not exactly that. But what particular act of rascality have you in mind? Something worse than mere seduction, of course.'
'Will you answer a disagreeable question? Are you well-to-do?'
'Anything but that.'
'Indeed? And you can form no idea why Nancy has gone to work in a shop?'
Tarrant raised his eyebrows.
'I see,' he said deliberately. 'You suspect that I have been taking money from her?'
'I did suspect it; now it seems to me more unlikely.'
'Many thanks,' he answered, with cold irony. 'So the situation was this: Miss Lord had been led astray by a rascally fellow, who not only left her to get on as best she could, but lived on her income, so that she had at length to earn money for her own needs. There's something very clear and rounded, very dramatic, about that. What I should like to know is, whether Miss Lord tells the story in this way.'
'I can't say that she does. I think it was Mr Crewe who explained things like that.'
'I am obliged to Mr Crewe. But he may, after all, only repeat what he has heard. It's a pity we don't know Miss Lord's actual confidante.'
'Of course you have not received assistance from her?'
Tarrant stared for a moment, then laughed unpleasantly.
'I have no recollection of it.'
'Another disagreeable question. Did you really go away and leave her to get on as best she could?'
He looked darkly at her.
'And if I did?'
'Wasn't it rather unaccountable behaviour -- in a gentleman?'
'I can't believe it. There is something unexplained.'
'Yes, there is something unexplained. -- Mrs Damerel, I should have thought you would naturally speak first to your niece. Why did you send for me before doing so?'
'To find out what sort of man you were, so that I should be able to form my own opinion of what Nancy chose to tell me. Perhaps she may refuse to tell me anything at all -- we are not like ordinary relatives, I am sorry to say. But I dare say you know better than I do how she thinks of me.'
'I have heard her speak of you only once or twice. At all events, now that you are prepared, you will go and see her?'
'I must. It would be wrong to stand by and do nothing.'
'And you will see her guardians?'
'That must depend. I certainly shall if she seems to be suffering hardships. I must know why she goes out to work, as if she were pinched for money. There is her child to support, of course, but that wouldn't make any difference to her; she is well provided for.'
'Yes. There's no choice but to fall back upon the villain theory.'
He rose, and took up his hat.
'You mustn't go yet, Mr Tarrant,' said his hostess firmly. 'I have said that I can't believe such things of you. If you would only explain ----'
'That's just what I can't do. It's as much a mystery to me as to you -- her wishing to earn money.'
'I was going to say -- if you would only explain your intentions as to the future ----'
'My intentions will depend entirely on what I hear from your niece. I shall see her as soon as possible. Perhaps you can tell me at what hour she returns from business?'
'No, I can't. I wish you would talk a little longer.'
His eyes flashed angrily.
'Mrs Damerel, I have said all that I am willing to say. What you have heard is partly true; you probably won't have to wait very long for the rest of the story, but I have no time and no inclination to tell it. Go and see your niece to-morrow by all means, -- or her guardians, if it seems necessary.
'I am very sorry we are parting in this way.'
'You must remember how difficult it is to keep one's temper under certain kinds of accusation.'
'I don't accuse you.'
'Well, then, to explain calmly that one couldn't commit this or that sordid rascality; -- it comes to the same thing. However, I am obliged to you for opening my eyes. I have got into a very foolish position, and I promise you I will get out of it as quickly as may be.'
Whereupon he bowed his leave-taking, and withdrew.
It was not yet dark, but street-lamps had begun to flare and flicker in the gust of a cold, damp evening. A thin and slippery mud smeared the pavement. Tarrant had walked mechanically as far as to the top of Park Lane before he began to consider his immediate course. Among the people who stood waiting for omnibuses, he meditated thus:
'She may not get home until seven or half-past; then she will have a meal. I had better put it off till about half-past eight. That leaves me some four hours to dispose of. First of all I'll walk home, and -- yes, by all the devils! I'll finish that bit of writing. A year ago I could no more have done it, under such circumstances, than have built a suspension bridge. To-day I will -- just to show that I've some grit in me.'
Down Park Lane, and by Buckingham Palace across to Westminster, he kept his thoughts for the most part on that bit of writing. Only thus could he save himself from an access of fury which would only have injured him -- the ire of shame in which a man is tempted to beat his head against stone walls. He composed aloud, balancing many a pretty antithesis, and polishing more than one lively paradox.
In his bedroom-study the fire had gone out. No matter; he would write in the cold. It was mere amanuensis work, penning at the dictation of his sarcastic demon. Was he a sybarite? Many a poor scribbler has earned bed and breakfast with numb fingers. The fire in his body would serve him for an hour or two.
So he sat down, and achieved his task to the last syllable. He read it through, corrected it, made it up for post, and rose with the plaudits of conscience. 'Who shall say now that I am a fop and a weakling?'
Half-past seven. Good; just time enough to appease his hunger and reach Grove Lane by the suitable hour. He went out to the little coffee-shop which was his resort in Spartan moods, ate with considerable appetite, and walked over Westminster Bridge to the Camberwell tram. To kill time on the journey he bought a halfpenny paper.
As he ascended Grove Lane his heart throbbed more than the exercise warranted. At the door of the house, which he had never yet entered, and which he had not looked upon for more than a year, he stood to calm himself, with lips set and cheek pale in the darkness. Then a confident peal at the knocker.
It was Mary who opened. He had never seen her, but knew that this grave, hard-featured person, not totally unlike a born gentlewoman, must be Mary Woodruff. And in her eyes he read a suspicion of his own identity.
'Is Miss Lord at home?' he asked, in a matter-of-fact way.
'Yes. -- What name shall I mention?'
Her eyes fell, and she requested him to enter, to wait in the hall for a moment; then went upstairs. She was absent for a few minutes, and on returning asked him to follow her. She led to the dawing-room: on the way, Tarrant felt a surprise that in so small a house the drawing-room should be correctly situated on the upper floor.
Here he had again to wait. A comfortable room, he thought, and with a true air of home about it. He knew how significant is this impression first received on entering a strange abode; home or encampment, attraction or repulsion, according to the mind of the woman who rules there. Was it Nancy, or Mary, who made the atmosphere of the house?
The door opened, and he faced towards it.
Nancy's dress had an emphasis of fashion formerly unknown to it; appropriate enough considering her new occupation. The flush upon her cheeks, the light of doubtful meaning in her eyes, gave splendour to a beauty matured by motherhood. In the dark street, a fortnight ago, Tarrant could hardly be said to have seen her; he gazed in wonder and admiration.
'What has brought you here?'
'A cause quite sufficient. -- This is a little house; can we talk without being overheard?'
'You can shout if you wish to,' she answered flippantly. 'The servant is out, and Mary is downstairs.'
Nancy did not seat herself, and offered no seat to the visitor.
'Why have you made yourself a shop-girl?'
'I didn't know that I had.'
'I am told you go daily to some shop or other.'
'I am engaged at a place of business, but I don't. -- However, that doesn't matter. What business is it of yours?'
'Who is Mr Luckworth Crewe?'
Nancy kept her eyes still more resolutely fronting his severe look.
'A man I used to know.'
'You don't see him now-a-days?'
'It's many months since I saw him.'
'Who, then, is the woman who has told him your whole story -- with embellishments, and who says she has had it from you yourself?'
Nancy was speechless.
'I don't say there is any such person,' Tarrant continued. 'The man may have lied in that particular. But he has somehow got to know a good deal about you, -- where and when your child was born, where it is now, where I live, and so on. And all this he has reported to your aunt, Mrs Damerel.'
'To her? -- How do you know?'
For answer he held out Mrs Damerel's note of invitation, then added:
'I have been with her this afternoon. She is coming to offer you her protection against the scoundrel who has ruined you, and who is now living upon you.'
'What do you mean?'
'That's the form the story has taken, either in Mr Crewe's mind, or in that of the woman who told it to him.'
'Don't they know that I am married?'
'And they think you -- are having money from me?'
'That's how they explain your taking a place in a shop.'
Nancy laughed, and laughed again.
'I'm glad you can get amusement out of it. Perhaps you can suggest how the joke began?'
She moved a few steps, then turned again to him.
'Yes, I know who the woman must be. It's Beatrice French.'
'A bosom friend of yours, of course.'
'Nothing of the kind.'
'But you have taken her into your confidence -- up to a certain point?'
'Yes, I have told her. And she told Mr Crewe? I understand that. Well, what does it matter?'
Tarrant was at a loss to interpret this singular levity. He had never truly believed that reading of Nancy's character by means of which he tried to persuade himself that his marriage was an unmitigated calamity, and a final parting between them the best thing that could happen. His memories of her, and the letters she had written him, coloured her personality far otherwise. Yet was not the harsh judgment after all the true one?
'It doesn't matter to you,' he said, 'that people think you an unmarried mother, -- that people are talking about you with grins and sneers?'
Nancy reddened in angry shame.
'Let them talk!' she exclaimed violently. 'What does it matter, so long as they don't know I'm married?'
'So long as they don't know? -- How came you to tell this woman?'
'Do you suppose I told her for amusement? She found out what had happened at Falmouth, -- found out simply by going down there and making inquiries; because she suspected me of some secret affair with a man she wants to marry herself -- this Mr Crewe. The wonder of wonders is that no one else got to know of it in that way. Any one who cared much what happened to me would have seen the all but impossibility of keeping such a secret.'
It is a notable instance of evolutionary process that the female mind, in wrath, flies to just those logical ineptitudes which most surely exasperate the male intelligence. Tarrant gave a laugh of irate scorn.
'Why, you told me the other day that I cared particularly whether your secret was discovered or not -- that I only married you in the hope of profiting by it?'
'Wouldn't any woman think so?'
'I hope not. I believe there are some women who don't rush naturally to a base supposition.'
'Did I?' Nancy exclaimed, with a vehement passion that made her breast heave. 'Didn't I give you time enough -- believe in you until I could believe no longer?'
The note of her thrilling voice went to Tarrant's heart, and his head drooped.
'That may be true,' he said gravely. 'But go on with your explanation. This woman came to you, and told you what she had discovered?'
'And you allowed her to think you unmarried?'
'What choice had I? How was my child to be brought up if I lost everything?'
'Good God, Nancy! Did you imagine I should leave you to starve?'
His emotion, his utterance of her name, caused her to examine him with a kind of wonder.
'How did I know? -- How could I tell, at that time, whether you were alive or dead? -- I had to think of myself and the child.'
'My poor girl!'
The words fell from him involuntarily. Nancy's look became as scornful and defiant as before.
'Oh, that was nothing. I've gone through a good deal more than that.'
'Stop. Tell me this. Have you in your anger -- anger natural enough -- allowed yourself to speak to any one about me in the way I should never forgive? In the spirit of your letter, I mean. Did you give this Beatrice French any ground for thinking that I made a speculation of you?'
'I said nothing of that kind.'
'Nor to any one else?'
'To no one.'
'Yet you told this woman where I was living, and that I had been abroad for a long time. Why?'
'Yes, I told her so much about you,' Nancy replied. 'Not when she first came to me, but afterwards -- only the other day. I wanted employment, and didn't know how to get it, except through her. She promised me a place if I would disclose your name; not that she knew or cared anything about you, but because she still had suspicions about Mr Crewe. I was desperate, and I told her.'
'How can I make you understand what I have gone through? What do you care? And what do I care whether you understand or not? It wasn't for money, and Beatrice French knew it wasn't.'
'Then it must have been that you could not bear the monotony of your life.'
Her answer was a short, careless laugh.
'Where is this shop? What do you do?'
'It's a dress-supply association. I advise fools about the fashions, and exhibit myself as a walking fashion-plate. I can't see how it should interest you.'
'Whatever concerns you, Nancy, interests me more than anything else in the world.'
Again she laughed.
'What more do you want to know?'
She was half turned from him, leaning at the mantelpiece, a foot on the fender.
'You said just now that you have gone through worse things than the shame of being thought unmarried. Tell me about it all.'
'Not I, indeed. When I was willing to tell you everything, you didn't care to hear it. It's too late now.'
'It's not too late, happily, to drag you out of this wretched slough into which you are sinking. Whatever the cost, that shall be done!'
'Thank you, I am not disposed to let any one drag me anywhere. I want no help; and if I did, you would be the last person I should accept it from. I don't know why you came here after the agreement we made the other night.'
Tarrant stepped towards her.
'I came to find out whether you were telling lies about me, and I should never have thought it possible but for my bad conscience. I know you had every excuse for being embittered and for acting revengefully. It seems you have only told lies about yourself. As, after all, you are my wife, I shan't allow that.'
Once more she turned upon him passionately.
'I am not your wife! You married me against your will, and shook me off as soon as possible. I won't be bound to you; I shall act as a free woman.'
'Bound to me you are, and shall be -- as I to you.'
'You may say it fifty times, and it will mean nothing. -- How bound to you? Bound to share my money?'
'I forgive you that, because I have treated you ill. You don't mean it either. You know I am incapable of such a thought. But that shall very soon be put right. Your marriage shall be made known at once.'
'Known to whom?'
'To the people concerned -- to your guardians.'
'Don't trouble yourself,' she answered, with a smile. 'They know it already.'
Tarrant half closed his eyes as he looked at her.
'What's the use of such a silly falsehood?'
'I told you I had gone through a good deal more than you imagined. I have struggled to keep my money, in spite of shames and miseries, and I will have it for myself -- and my child! If you want to know the truth, go to Samuel Barmby, and ask him what he has had to do with me. I owe no explanation to you.'
Tarrant could see her face only in profile. Marvelling at the complications she gradually revealed, he felt his blood grow warm with desire of her beauty. She was his wife, yet guarded as by maidenhood. A familiar touch would bring the colour to her cheeks, the light of resentment to her eyes. Passion made him glad of the estrangement which compelled a new wooing, and promised, on her part, a new surrender.
'You don't owe it me, Nancy; but if I beg you to tell me all -- because I have come to my senses again -- because I know how foolish and cruel I have been ----'
'Remember what we agreed. Go your way, and let me go mine.'
'I had no idea of what I was agreeing to. I took it for granted that your marriage was strictly a secret, and that you might be free in the real sense if you chose.'
'Yes, and you were quite willing, because it gave you your freedom as well. I am as free as I wish to be. I have made a life for myself that satisfies me -- and now you come to undo everything. I won't be tormented -- I have endured enough.'
'Then only one course is open to me. I shall publish your marriage everywhere. I shall make a home for you, and have the child brought to it; then come or not, as you please.'
At mention of the child Nancy regarded him with cold curiosity.
'How are you to make a home for me? I thought you had difficulty enough in supporting yourself.'
'That is no concern of yours. It shall be done, and in a day or two. Then make your choice.'
'You think I can be forced to live with a man I don't love?'
'I shouldn't dream of living with a woman who didn't love me. But you are married, and a mother, and the secrecy that is degrading you shall come to an end. Acknowledge me or not, I shall acknowledge you, and make it known that I am to blame for all that has happened.'
'And what good will you do?'
'I shall do good to myself, at all events. I'm a selfish fellow, and shall be so to the end, no doubt.'
Nancy glanced at him to interpret the speech by his expression. He was smiling.
'What good will it do you to have to support me? The selfishness I see in it is your wishing to take me from a comfortable home and make me poor.'
'That can't be helped. And, what's more, you won't think it a hardship.'
'How do you know that? I have borne dreadful degradations rather than lose my money.'
'That was for the child's sake, not for your own.'
He said it softly and kindly, and for the first time Nancy met his eyes without defiance.
'It was; I could always have earned my own living, somehow.'
Tarrant paused a moment, then spoke with look averted.
'Is he well, and properly cared for?'
'If he were not well and safe, I shouldn't be away from him.'
'When will you let me see him, Nancy?'
She did not smile, but there was a brightening of her countenance, which she concealed. Tarrant stepped to her side.
'Dear -- my own love -- will you try to forgive me? It was all my cursed laziness. It would never have happened if I hadn't fallen into poverty. Poverty is the devil, and it overcame me.'
'How can you think that I shall be strong enough to face it?' she asked, moving half a step away. 'Leave me to myself; I am contented; I have made up my mind about what is before me, and I won't go through all that again.'
Tired of standing, she dropped upon the nearest chair, and lay back.
'You can't be contented, Nancy, in a position that dishonours you. From what you tell me, it seems that your secret is no secret at all. Will you compel me to go to that man Barmby and seek information from him about my own wife?'
'I have had to do worse things than that.'
'Don't torture me by such vague hints. I entreat you to tell me at once the worst that you have suffered. How did Barmby get to know of your marriage? And why has he kept silent about it? There can't be anything that you are ashamed to say.'
'No. The shame is all yours.'
'I take it upon myself, all of it; I ought never to have left you; but that baseness followed only too naturally on the cowardice which kept me from declaring our marriage when honour demanded it. I have played a contemptible part in this story; don't refuse to help me now that I am ready to behave more like a man. Put your hand in mine, and let us be friends, if we mayn't be more.'
She sat irresponsive.
'You were a brave girl. You consented to my going away because it seemed best, and I took advantage of your sincerity. Often enough that last look of yours has reproached me. I wonder how I had the heart to leave you alone.'
Nancy raised herself, and said coldly:
'It was what I might have expected. I had only my own folly to thank. You behaved as most men would.'
This was a harder reproach than any yet. Tarrant winced under it. He would much rather have been accused of abnormal villainy.
'And I was foolish,' continued Nancy, 'in more ways than you knew. You feared I had told Jessica Morgan of our marriage, and you were right; of course I denied it. She has been the cause of my worst trouble.'
In rapid sentences she told the story of her successive humiliations, recounted her sufferings at the hands of Jessica and Beatrice and Samuel Barmby. When she ceased, there were tears in her eyes.
'Has Barmby been here again?' Tarrant asked sternly.
'Yes. He has been twice, and talked in just the same way, and I had to sit still before him ----'
'Has he said one word that ----?'
'No, no,' she interrupted hastily. 'He's only a fool -- not man enough to ----'
'That saves me trouble,' said Tarrant; 'I have only to treat him like a fool. My poor darling, what vile torments you have endured! And you pretend that you would rather live on this fellow's interested generosity -- for, of course, he hopes to be rewarded -- than throw the whole squalid entanglement behind you and be a free, honest woman, even if a poor one?'
'I see no freedom.'
'You have lost all your love for me. Well, I can't complain of that. But bear my name you shall, and be supported by me. I tell you that it was never possible for me actually to desert you and the little one -- never possible. I shirked a duty as long as I could; that's all it comes to. I loafed and paltered until the want of a dinner drove me into honesty. Try to forget it, dear Nancy. Try to forgive me, my dearest!'
She was dry-eyed again, and his appeal seemed to have no power over her emotions.
'You are forgetting,' she said practically, 'that I have lived on money to which I had no right, and that I -- or you -- can be forced to repay it.'
'Repaid it must be, whether demanded or not. Where does Barmby live? Perhaps I could see him to-night.'
'What means have you of keeping us all alive?'
'Some of my work has been accepted here and there; but there's something else I have in mind. I don't ask you to become a poverty-stricken wife in the ordinary way. I can't afford to take a house. I must put you, with the child, into as good lodgings as I can hope to pay for, and work on by myself, just seeing you as often as you will let me. Even if you were willing, it would be a mistake for us to live together. For one thing, I couldn't work under such conditions; for another, it would make you a slave. Tell me: are you willing to undertake the care of the child, if nothing else is asked of you?'
Nancy gave him a disdainful smile, a smile like those of her girlhood.
'I'm not quite so feeble a creature as you think me.'
'You would rather have the child to yourself, than be living away from him?'
'If you have made up your mind, why trouble to ask such questions?'
'Because I have no wish to force burdens upon you. You said just now that you could see little prospect of freedom in such a life as I have to offer you. I thought you perhaps meant that the care of the child would ----'
'I meant nothing,' Nancy broke in, with fretful impatience.
'Where is he -- our boy?'
'At Dulwich. I told you that in my last letter.'
'Yes -- yes. I thought you might have changed.'
'I couldn't have found a better, kinder woman. Can you guess how many answers I had to the advertisement? Thirty-two.'
'Of course five-and-twenty of them took it for granted you would pay so much a week and ask no questions. They would just not have starved the baby, -- unless you had hinted to them that you were willing to pay a lump sum for a death-certificate, in which case the affair would have been more or less skilfully managed.'
'Mary knew all about that. She came from Falmouth, and spent two days in visiting people. I knew I could rely on her judgment. There were only four or five people she cared to see at all, and of these only one that seemed trustworthy.'
'To be sure. One out of two-and-thirty. A higher percentage than would apply to mankind at large, I dare say. By-the-bye, I was afraid you might have found a difficulty in registering the birth.'
'No. I went to the office myself, the morning that I was leaving Falmouth, and the registrar evidently knew nothing about me. It isn't such a small place that everybody living there is noticed and talked of.'
'And Mary took the child straight to Dulwich?'
'Two days before I came, -- so as to have the house ready for me.
'Perhaps it was unfortunate, Nancy, that you had so good a friend. But for that, I should have suffered more uneasiness about you.'
She answered with energy:
'There is no husband in the world worth such a friend as Mary.'
At this Tarrant first smiled, then laughed. Nancy kept her lips rigid. It happened that he again saw her face in exact profile, and again it warmed the current of his blood.
'Some day you shall think better of that.'
She paid no attention. Watching her, he asked:
'What are you thinking of so earnestly?'
Her answer was delayed a little, but she said at length, with an absent manner:
'Horace might lend me the money to pay back what I owe.'
'Your brother? -- If he can afford it, there would be less objection to that than to any other plan I can think of. But I must ask it myself; you shall beg no more favours. I will ask it in your presence.'
'You will do nothing of the kind,' Nancy replied drily. 'If you think to please me by humiliating yourself, you are very much mistaken. And you mustn't imagine that I put myself into your hands to be looked after as though I had no will of my own. With the past you have nothing to do, -- with my past, at all events. Care for the future as you like.'
'But I must see your guardians.'
'No. I won't have that.'
She stood up to emphasise her words.
'I must. It's the only way in which I can satisfy myself ----'
'Then I refuse to take a step,' said Nancy. 'Leave all that to me, and I will go to live where you please, and never grumble, however poor I am. Interfere, and I will go on living as now, on Samuel Barmby's generosity.'
There was no mistaking her resolution. Tarrant hesitated, and bit his lip.
'How long, then, before you act?' he inquired abruptly.
'When my new home is found, I am ready to go there.'
'You will deal honestly with me? You will tell every one, and give up everything not strictly yours?'
'I have done with lies,' said Nancy.
'Thank heaven, so have I!'
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