In the Year of Jubilee
Part VI: A Virtue of Necessity
Upon the final tempest in De Crespigny Park there followed, for Arthur Peachey, a calmer and happier season than he had ever known. To have acted with stern resolve is always a satisfaction, especially to the man conscious of weak good-nature, and condemned for the most part to yield. In his cheap lodging at Clapham, Peachey awoke each morning with a vague sense of joy, which became delight as soon as he had collected his senses. He was a free man. No snarl greeted him as he turned his head upon the pillow; he could lie and meditate, could rise quietly when the moment sounded, could go downstairs to a leisurely meal, cheered perhaps by a letter reporting that all was well with his dear little son. Simple, elementary pleasures, but how he savoured them after his years of sordid bondage!
It was the blessedness of divorce, without squalid publicity. It was the vast relief of widowerhood, without dreary memories of death and burial.
In releasing himself from such companionship, the man felt as though he had washed and become clean.
Innocent of scientific speculation, he had the misfortune about this time to read in paper or magazine something on the subject of heredity, the idle verbiage of some half-informed scribbler. It set him anxiously thinking whether his son would develop the vices of the mother's mind, and from that day he read all the printed chatter regarding natural inheritance that he could lay his hands on. The benefit he derived from this course of study was neither more nor less than might have been expected; it supplied him with a new trouble, which sometimes kept him wakeful. He could only resolve that his boy should have the best education procurable for money, if he starved himself in providing it.
He had begun to live with the utmost economy, and for a twofold reason: the business of Messrs Ducker, Blunt & Co. threatened a decline, and, this apart, he desired to get out of it, to obtain an interest in some more honourable concern. For a long time it had been known to him that the disinfectants manufactured by his firm were far from trustworthy, and of late the complaints of purchasers had become frequent. With the manufacturing department he had nothing to do; he tried to think himself free from responsibility; for, in spite of amiable qualities, he was a man of business, and saw a great part of life through the commercial spectacles commonly worn now-a-days. Nevertheless conscience unsettled him. One day he heard his partners joking over the legislative omission by virtue of which they were able to adulterate their disinfectants to any extent without fear of penalty; their laughter grated upon him, and he got out of the way. If he could lay aside a few thousands of pounds, assuredly his connection with the affair should be terminated. So he lived, for his own part, on a pound a week, and informed Ada through his solicitor that she must be satisfied with a certain very moderate allowance.
Mrs Peachey naturally laid herself out to give every one as much trouble as possible. Insulting post-cards showered upon her husband at his place of business. After a few weeks she discovered his lodging, and addressed the post-cards thither; but she made no attempt at personal molestation. The loss of her child gave her not the slightest concern, yet she determined to find out where the boy was living. She remembered that Peachey had relatives at Canterbury, and after a troublesome search succeeded in her purpose. An interview with her husband's married sister proved so unsatisfactory to Ada, that she had recourse to her familiar weapons, rage, insult, and menace; with the result that she was forcibly removed, and made a scandal in the quiet street.
Then she consulted men of law, and found one who encouraged her to sue for restitution of conjugal rights. It came to nothing, however; for in the meantime she was growing tired of her solitary existence, -- friends of course she had none, -- and the spirit moved her to try a change of tactics.
She wrote a long, long letter, penitent, tear-bestained. 'I have behaved outrageously to you, dearest Arthur; I must have been mad to say and do such things. The doctor tells me that my health has been in a very bad state for a long time, and I really don't remember half that has happened. You were quite right when you told me that I should be better if I didn't live such an idle life, and I have quite, quite made up my mind to be an industrious and a good woman. All yesterday I spent in needlework and crying. Oh, the tears that I have shed! My darling husband, what can I do to win your forgiveness? Do consider how lonely I am in this house. Beatrice has been horrid to me. If I said all I think about her, she wouldn't like to hear it; but I am learning to control my tongue. She lives alone in a flat, and has men to spend every evening with her; it's disgraceful! And there's Fanny, who I am sure is leading an immoral life abroad. Of course I shall never speak to her again. You were quite right when you said my sisters were worthless.' -- Peachey had never permitted himself any such remark. -- 'I will have no one but you, my dear, good, sweet husband.'
So on, over several pages. Reading it, the husband stood aghast at this new revelation of female possibilities; at the end, he hurriedly threw it into the fire, fearing, and with good reason, that weakness in his own character to which the woman addressed herself.
Every day for a week there arrived a replica of this epistle, and at length he answered. It was the fatal concession. Though he wrote with almost savage severity, Ada replied in terms of exuberant gratitude. Oh, how delighted she was to see his dear handwriting once more! How it reminded her of happy days, when they loved each other so tenderly! Then came two strophes of a sentimental drawing-room song, and lastly, an impassioned appeal to be allowed to see her husband, were it only for five minutes.
Another week of such besieging, and the poor fellow's foolish heart gave way. He would see the wretched woman, and tell her that, though never could he consent to live with her again, he had no malicious feeling, and was willing to be her friend at a distance. So, at six o'clock one evening, behold him tremulously approaching the house in De Crespigny Park, -- tremulously, because he dreaded the assault upon his emotions to which he so recklessly exposed himself. He was admitted by a very young servant, in a very clean cap and apron. Silence possessed the dwelling; he did not venture to tread with natural step. He entered the drawing-room, and there, from amid a heap of household linen which required the needle, rose the penitent wife. Ostentatiously she drew from her finger a thimble, then advanced with head bent.
'How kind of you, Arthur! How -- how very ----'
And she was dissolved in tears -- so genuine, that they marked pale rillets across the bloom of her cheeks.
About a month after that the furniture was removed from De Crespigny Park to a much smaller house at Brixton, where Mr and Mrs Peachey took up their abode together. A medical man shortly called, and Ada, not without secret disgust, smilingly made known to her husband that she must now be very careful of her health.
On one point only the man had held to a rational resolve; he would not allow his little son to be brought back to London, away from the home where he was happy and thriving. Out of mere self-will Ada strove for a long time to overcome this decision; finding argument and artifice of no avail, she dropped the matter. Peachey owed this triumph largely to the firm commonsense of his sister, who plainly refused to let the little fellow quit her care for that of such a woman as he was unfortunate enough to call mother.
Christmas came, and with it an unanticipated call from Miss Fanny French, who said she had lately recovered from a serious illness in Paris; the nature of her malady she did not specify; it had left her haggard and thin, but by no means deficient in vivacity. She was dressed with tawdry extravagance, wore a mass of false yellow hair, had her eyebrows dyed black, -- piquant contrast, -- and her cheeks and lips richly carmined. No veritable information as to her past and present could be gleaned from the mixture of French and English which she ceaselessly gabbled. She had come over for Christmas, that was all; could not dream of returning to live in wretched England. At Brussels and in Paris she had made hosts of friends, just the right sort of people.
Ada told her all the news. Of most interest was that which related to Nancy Lord. Only a month ago it had become known that Nancy was married, and the mother of a child.
'The Barmbys found it out somehow,' Ada narrated. 'She was married to a man called Tarrant, some one we never heard of, on the very day of her father's death, and, of course, before she knew anything about his will. Then, of course, it had to be kept dark, or she'd lose all her money. Her husband hadn't a farthing. She supported him, and they say he lived most of the time in her house. He's a regular scamp, a drinking, betting fellow. Well, it all came out, and the Barmbys turned her into the street at a moment's notice -- serve her right!'
Fanny shrieked with merriment.
'And what is she doing?'
'She went on her knees to Beatrice, and begged for a place at the shop, if it was only a few shillings a week. Nice come-down for Nancy Lord, wasn't it? Of course Beatrice sent her off with a flea in her ear. I don't know where she's living, but I've heard that her husband has gone to America, and left her to shift for herself, now there's nothing more to be got out of her.'
For supplementary details of this racy narrative, Fanny sought out Beatrice; but to her astonishment and annoyance Beatrice would tell nothing. The elder sister urged Fanny to give an account of herself, and used some very plain speech of the admonitory kind.
'What has become of that jackanapes, Horace Lord?' asked Fanny, after a contemptuous remark about 'sermons.'
'I don't know. The question is, what's going to become of you?'
Whereupon the girl grew vituperative in two languages, and made off. Her relatives saw no more of her for a long time.
To Mrs Peachey was born a daughter. Naturally, the months preceding this event had been, for her husband, a renewal of martyrdom; his one supporting solace lay in the thought of the little lad at Canterbury. All the old troubles were revived; from morning to night the house rang with brawls between mistress and servants; in the paroxysms favoured by her physical condition, Ada behaved like a candidate for Bedlam, and more than once obliged her husband to seek temporary peace in lodgings. He left home at eight o'clock every morning, and returned as late as possible. The necessity of passing long evenings made him haunt places of entertainment, and he sometimes had recourse to drink, -- he by nature the soberest of men, -- in fear of what awaited him on his tardy appearance at Brixton. A month after Ada's confinement he once more acted a sane part, and announced by letter that he would die rather than continue living with his wife. As it was fine autumn weather he went down to a seaside place, where his Canterbury relatives and the little boy joined him for a holiday of several weeks. Again Ada was to receive an allowance. She despatched a few very virulent post-cards, but presently grew quiet, and appeared to accept the situation.
In early winter Fanny French came over to England. She had again been ill, and this time with results obviously graver. Her first call was upon Beatrice, who still occupied the flat at Brixton, and here she unbosomed herself of a dolorous story. All her money had vanished; stolen, most of it, Fanny declared; she was without resources, and, as any one could see, in a wretched state of health. Would Beatrice have compassion on her? Would she lend her money till she was well enough to 'look round'?
Miss French at once took the girl into her own home, and had her looked after. Fanny coughed in an alarming way; the doctor, speaking privately with Beatrice, made an unpleasant report; was it possible to send the patient to a mild climate for the winter months? Yes, Miss French could manage that, and would. A suitable attendant having been procured, Fanny was despatched to Bournemouth, whence, in a day or two, she wrote to her sister thus:
'You've been awfully kind to me, and I shan't forget it when I'm well again. Feel a good deal fitter already. Dullish place this, but I've got to put up with it. I've had a letter from Ada. If you see her, tell her she's a beast, and I wish Arthur would wring her scraggy neck. She says it's all my own fault; wait till I'm back again, and I'll pay her a call. My own fault indeed! It seems to me I'm very much to be pitied.'
Walking one day along the sea-front by herself, Fanny observed a young man's figure a few paces in advance of her, which seemed to awaken recollections. Presently the young man turned and showed, beyond doubt, the countenance of Horace Lord. He met her eyes, gave a doubtful, troubled look, and was going past when Fanny accosted him.
'Well, don't you know me?'
'Why, it is -- it really is! How glad I am to see you! But what on earth are you doing here?'
'Amusing myself -- comme vous voyez; and you?'
'Oh, doing the same.'
They had shaken hands, and were sauntering on together.
'Anything wrong with your health?' Fanny asked, scrutinising the pale thin face, with its touch of warmth on the cheeks.
'Oh, I've had a bit of a cold; nothing to speak of. You been out of sorts?'
'A little run down. Over-study, they say.'
Horace looked his surprise.
'Why, I didn't know you went in for that kind of thing.'
'Didn't you? I've been studying abroad for a long time. Thinking of taking a place as French teacher in some tip-top high school.'
'I am very glad to hear it. Capital idea. Sure I hope you'll be successful.'
'Thanks awf'ly. Tell me something about yourself. Why, it's two years since we saw each other, isn't it? Are you married yet?'
Horace smiled and coloured.
'No, no -- not yet. I'm in business with Luckworth Crewe, -- sort of sleeping partner just now.'
'Are you really? And how's your sister?'
The young man bent his brows uncomfortably.
'Don't you know anything about her?' he asked.
'I've heard she's married.'
'Yes, a man called Tarrant. Very clever fellow; he writes for the papers. -- I say, Miss French, I generally have a glass of wine and a biscuit, at the confectioner's, about this time. Will you give me the pleasure of your company?'
'Charmée, Monsieur! I generally go in for the same kind of thing.'
So they repaired to the cake-shop, and sat talking for half-an-hour of trifles which made them laugh.
'And you really didn't know me?' said Fanny, when her glass of wine was finished. 'Have I changed so much?'
'A good deal. Not for the worse, oh dear no!'
The girl giggled.
'Well, I don't mind saying that you have changed a good deal for the better.'
Horace flushed at the compliment.
'I'm much older,' he answered with a sigh, as though the years of a sexagenarian weighed upon him.
'That's just what I like in you. You're so much more of a man. Don't be offended.'
They went forth again into the sunshine. At the door both coughed, and both pretended that it wasn't a cough at all, but a voluntary little hem.
Mrs Damerel was younger than ever. She had spent October abroad, with her friends Mrs and Miss Chittle, and the greater part of November at Brighton, with other friends. Back in town she established herself at one of the various boarding-houses honoured by her patronage, and prepared to enjoy the social life of winter.
Half a year ago an unwonted depression had troubled her serene existence. At the close of the London season she seemed weary and spiritless, very unlike herself; having no invitation for the next two months, she withdrew to Whitsand, and there spent some cheerless weeks.
Whitsand was the as yet unfashionable seaside place which had attracted the speculative eye of Luckworth Crewe. For the past two years he had been trying to inspire certain men of capital with his own faith in the possibilities of Whitsand; he owned a share in the new hotel just opened; whenever his manifold affairs allowed him a day's holiday, he spent it at Whitsand, pacing the small esplanade, and meditating improvements. That these 'improvements' signified the conversion of a pretty little old-world spot into a hideous brand new resort of noisy hordes, in no degree troubled Mr Crewe's conscience. For his own part, he could appreciate the charms of Whitsand as it stood; he was by no means insensible to natural beauty and the ancient peace which so contrasted with his life of every day; but first and foremost in his mind came the necessity of making money; and to fill his pockets he would no more hesitate about destroying the loveliest spot on earth, than the starving hunter would stay his hand out of admiration for bird or beast.
It was with much delight that he heard of Mrs Damerel's retreat to Whitsand. To the note in which she acquainted him with her arrival there he replied effusively. 'The patronage of a few really fashionable people, such as yourself, would soon do wonders. We must have a special paragraph in the local paper, drawing attention to your being there' -- and so on. An answer by return of post rather disappointed him. On no account, wrote Mrs Damerel, must her name be specially mentioned in the paper. She had taken very simple lodgings, very inexpensive, and wished to live as quietly as possible. But, after seeing the place, she quite agreed with Mr Crewe that it had a future, and if he could run down some day, whilst she was here, it would give her great pleasure to hear his projects explained on the spot.
Crewe ran down. In speaking of Mrs Damerel as a 'really fashionable' person, he used no insincerity; from their first meeting he had seen in this lady his ideal of social distinction; she was, in fact, the only woman of skilfully pretentious demeanour with whom he had ever spoken. Her distant likeness to Nancy Lord interested and attracted him; her suave superiority awed his conscious roughness; she seemed to him exquisitely gracious, wonderfully sweet. And as, little by little, he attained the right to think of her almost as a friend, his humble admiration became blended with feelings he took particular care not to betray, lest he should expose himself to ridicule. That her age exceeded his own by some years he was of course aware, but this fact soon dropped out of his mind, and never returned to it. Not only did he think Mrs Damerel a type of aristocratic beauty, he saw in her countenance all the freshness and the promise of youth.
The slight mystery attaching to her position only increased his susceptibility to her charms. It seemed to him very probable that she had but a moderate income; perhaps she was not free from anxieties on that score. But such a woman would of course marry again, and marry well. The thought grew troublesome, and presently accounted for ebullitions of wrath, accompanied by more than usually vigorous language, when business matters went wrong.
At Whitsand, Mrs Damerel showed herself more than ever sweetly affable. The season, she said, had been rather too much for her; she must take care of her health; besides -- and her smile played upon Crewe's pulses -- there were troubles, cares, of which she could not speak even to so valued a friend.
'I'm afraid you're anxious about your nephew,' murmured the man of business; though at the same time he suspected other things, for the lodgings in which he found Mrs Damerel were certainly modest.
'Yes, I trouble a good deal about him. If only dear Horace would be reconciled to me. It seems such a long, long time. You know that we have corresponded, but he refuses to see me. It pains me deeply, Mr Crewe.'
And, after a silence:
'There's a special reason why I wish he would be friends with me, -- a reason that concerns his own future. Why should I not tell you? I am sure you will respect my confidence. -- He will very soon become independent, and then I do so fear he may make a foolish marriage. Yet all the time there is a chance waiting for him which would establish his fortune and his happiness for life. Did he ever speak to you of Miss Chittle?'
'I don't remember the name.'
'Such a dear, sweet girl, and with really large means. He was introduced to her during the happy time when we saw so much of each other, and she at once became interested in him. Her dear mother assured me of it. She is a very shy, retiring girl, and has refused many offers, before and since then. Isn't it a pity? But I am losing all hope, and I so fear he may have formed some other attachment.'
Crewe went back to London resolved that Horace Lord should no longer 'play the fool.' And he was successful. Horace had all but lost his resentment against Mrs Damerel; he kept aloof out of stubborn conceit -- it had not dignity enough to be called pride; the same feeling that still estranged him from Nancy, though he would gladly have welcomed his sister's offer of affection. Persuaded, or commanded, by Luckworth Crewe, he took the train to Whitsand, and remained there for several days. Mrs Damerel wrote her friend in Farringdon Street a letter of gratitude, which acted upon him like champagne. In a postscript she said: 'Mrs Chittle and her daughter have consented to come here for a week or two. They will take rooms at the Imperial.'
Before the end of September, Horace Lord was engaged to Winifred Chittle.
Two years had made very little change in Miss Chittle's appearance. She was still colourless and abnormally shy, still had the look of one who sheds secret tears, and her repugnance to Society had, if possible, increased. Horace thought her pretty, was impressed by her extreme gentleness and refinement, but she obtained no power over his emotions such as that formerly exercised by Fanny French. It struck him, too, as a very strange thing, that a young lady with a large fortune should be willing to marry a man of his social insignificance. 'My dear,' said Mrs Damerel, 'it was a case of love at first sight.' But Horace, who had gained some experience of life, could not believe this. He wooed, and won; yet even when Winifred accepted him, he felt that she did it under some constraint. Her pale face declared no happiness.
Had she chosen, Mrs Damerel could have explained the mystery. She knew that, several years ago, Winifred's name had been blighted by a scandal, and that the girl's shrinking from every proposal of marriage was due, in part perhaps, to the memory of love betrayed, in part to a sense of honour, and to the suspicion that men, knowing her disgrace, condoned it for the sake of her wealth. Interest made Mrs Damerel generous; she admitted every excuse for Winifred, and persuaded herself that in procuring Horace such a wife she was doing him only a nominal wrong. The young people could live apart from that corner of Society in which Miss Chittle's name gave occasion to smiles or looks of perfunctory censure. If Winifred, after marriage, chose to make confession, why, that was her own affair, and Horace would be wise enough, all advantages considered, to take the matter philosophically.
That was the view of a practical-minded observer. To read Winifred perfectly, there needed a much more subtle and sympathetic intelligence. The girl had, in truth, conceived a liking for Horace Lord, and it grew stronger when she learnt that neither by birth nor present circumstances did he belong to her own world. To please her mother she was willing to take a husband, but the husband must be of her own choice. She wished to enter upon a wholly new life, remote from the social conditions which of late years had crushed her spirit. From the men who had hitherto approached her, she shrank in fear. Horace Lord, good-looking and not uneducated, yet so far from formidable, suggested a new hope; even though he might be actuated by the ordinary motives, she discerned in him a softness, a pliability of nature, which would harmonise with her own timid disposition. To the thought of deceiving him on the subject of her past, she was reconciled by a resolve to make his happiness the sole object of her existence in the future. Horace was amiability itself, and seemed, if not to love her ardently (which, perhaps, she did not even desire), at least to regard her with an increasing affection.
Nothing was said about the condition of the prospective bridegroom's health, though Horace had confided to Mrs Damerel that he suffered from a troublesome cough, accompanied now and then by an alarming symptom. In her boundless exultation at the end achieved, Mrs Damerel made light of this complaint. Horace was not free to marry until nearly the end of the year; for, though money would henceforth be no matter of anxiety, he might as well secure the small inheritance presently due to him. November and December he should spend at Bournemouth under the best medical care, and after that, if needful, his wife would go with him to Madeira or some such place.
No wonder Mrs Damerel could think of nothing but the great fact that Horace had secured a fortune. Her own resources were coming to an end, and but for the certainty that Horace would not grudge her an ample provision, she must at this moment have been racking her brains (even as through the summer) for help against the evil that drew near. Constitutional lightness of heart had enabled her to enjoy life on a steadily, and rapidly, diminishing fund. There had been hope in Nancy's direction, as well as in her brother's; but the disclosure of Nancy's marriage, and Horace's persistency in unfriendliness, brought Mrs Damerel to a sense of peril. One offer of marriage she had received and declined; it came from a man of advanced years and small property. Another offer she might, or thought she might, at any moment provoke; but only in direst extremity could she think of bestowing her hand upon Luckworth Crewe. Crewe was in love with her, an amusing fact in itself, and especially so in regard to his former relations with Nancy Lord. He might become a wealthy man; on the other hand, he might not; and in any case he was a plebeian.
All such miseries were now dismissed from her mind. She went abroad with the Chittles, enjoyed herself at Brighton, and came home to prepare for Horace's wedding, Horace himself being at Bournemouth. After her letter of gratitude to Crewe she had ceased to correspond with him; she did not trouble to acquaint him with Horace's engagement; and when Crewe, having heard the news from his partner, ventured to send her a letter of congratulation, Mrs Damerel replied in two or three very civil but cold sentences. Back in London, she did not invite the man of projects to call upon her. The status she had lost when fears beset her must now be recovered. Let Crewe cherish a passion for her if he liked, but let him understand that social reasons made it laughably hopeless.
Horace was to come up to London in the third week of December, and to be married on New Year's Day; the honeymoon would be spent at Ventnor, or somewhere thereabout. Afraid to lose sight of her relative for more than a week or two, Mrs Damerel had already been twice to Bournemouth, and now she decided to go for a third time, just to talk quietly over the forthcoming event, and, whether Horace broached the subject or not, to apprise him of the straits into which she was drifting. Unannounced by letter, she reached Bournemouth early in the afternoon, and went straight to Horace's lodgings. The young man had just finished luncheon, and, all things considered, including the fact that it was a remarkably bright and warm day for the time of year, he might have been expected to welcome Mrs Damerel cheerfully. Yet on seeing her his countenance fell; he betrayed an embarrassment which the lady noted with anxious suspicion.
'Aren't you glad to see me, dear boy?' she began, with a kiss upon his cheek.
'Yes -- oh yes. I never dreamt of your appearing just now, that was all.'
'I couldn't resist the temptation. Such a morning in London! Almost as fine as it is here. And how is your cough?'
Even as she made the inquiry, he answered it by coughing very badly.
'I don't think this place suits you, Horace,' said Mrs Damerel gravely. 'You're not imprudent, I hope? Don't go out after dark?'
Oh, it was nothing, Horace maintained; for several days he had hardly coughed at all. But with every word he uttered, Mrs Damerel became more convinced of something unusual in his state of mind; he could not keep still, and, in trying to put himself at ease, assumed strange postures.
'When did you hear from Winifred?' she asked.
'Yesterday -- no, the day before.'
He shrank from her scrutiny, and an expression of annoyance began to disturb his features. Mrs Damerel knew well enough the significance of that particular look; it meant the irritation of his self-will, the summoning of forces to resist something he disliked.
'There has been no difference between you, I hope?'
'No -- oh no,' Horace replied, wriggling under her look.
At that moment a servant opened the door.
'Two ladies have called in a carriage, sir, and would like to see you.'
'I'll go down. Excuse me for a moment, aunt.'
'Who are they, Horace?' asked Mrs Damerel, rising with an ill-concealed look of dismay.
'Some friends I have made here. I'll just go and speak to them.'
He hurried away. No sooner was he gone than Mrs Damerel sprang to the window, where she could look down upon the carriage standing before the house; it was open, and in it sat two ladies, one middle-aged, the other much younger. To her vexation she could not, from this distance, clearly discern their faces; but on glancing rapidly round the room, she saw Horace's little binocular. An instant brought it into focus upon the carriage, and what she then saw gave Mrs Damerel such a shock, that an exclamation escaped her. Still she gazed through the glasses, and only turned away when the vehicle drove on.
Horace came up flushed and panting.
'It's all right. They wanted me to go for a drive, but I explained ----'
He saw the binocular in Mrs Damerel's hand, and at the same moment read detection on her countenance. She gazed at him; he answered the look with lowering challenge.
'Horace, that was Fanny French.'
'So it was, aunt.'
'What is going on between you?'
The young man took a seat on the edge of the table, and swung his leg. He looked suddenly obstinate.
'We met by accident -- here -- the other day.'
'How can I believe that, Horace?' said Mrs Damerel, in a voice of soft reproach. And she drew near to him. 'Be truthful with me, dear. Do tell me the truth! -- Is she anything to you?'
'I have told you the truth, aunt. She came here, as I have done, for her health. I haven't seen her for two years.'
'And you don't wish to renew acquaintance with her, -- I'm sure you don't.'
He looked away, and said nothing.
'My dear, do you know her character?'
'What about her?'
The tone was startling, but Mrs Damerel kept firm, though agitated.
'She has led the most disgraceful life. I heard about her half a year after she ran away, but of course I wouldn't tell you such painful things.'
Horace reddened with anger.
'And who is to blame for it?' he cried passionately. 'Who drove her to it?'
'Oh, don't, don't come back to that again, Horace!' pleaded the other. 'How can any one drive a girl into a life of scandalous immorality? It was in herself, dear. She took to it naturally, as so many women do. Remember that letter she wrote from Brussels, which I sent you a copy of ----'
'It was a forgery!' thundered Horace. 'I have asked her. She says she never wrote any such letter.'
'Then she lies, as such creatures always do.'
Bitterness of apprehension overcame Mrs Damerel's prudence. With flashing eyes, she faced the young man and dared his wrath. As they stood thus, the two were astonishingly like each other, from forehead to chin.
'It's no use, I'm not going to quarrel with you, aunt. Think what you like of Miss French, I know the truth about her.'
He slipped from the table, and moved away.
'I will say no more, Horace. You are independent, and must have your own acquaintances. But after you are married ----'
The other voice interrupted.
'I had better tell you at once. I shall not marry Miss Chittle. I am going to write this afternoon to break it off.'
Mrs Damerel went pale, and stood motionless.
'Horace, you can't be so wicked as that!'
'It's better,' he pursued recklessly, 'to break it off now, than to marry her and make her miserable. I don't love her, and I have never really thought I did. I was going to marry her only for her money. Why she wants to marry me, I don't know. There's something wrong; she doesn't really care for me.'
'She does! I assure you she does!'
'Then I can't help it.'
Mrs Damerel went close to him, and touched his arm.
'My dear,' -- her voice was so low that it seemed terror-stricken, -- 'you don't mean to marry -- any one else?'
He drew apart, she followed him.
'Oh, that would be terrible! What can I say to open your eyes and show you what you are doing? Horace, have you no sense of honour? Can you find it in your heart to cast off a girl who loves you, and thinks that in so short a time she will be your wife?'
'This again is your fault,' he replied, with a violence which proved the conflict of emotions in him. 'But for you, I should never have proposed to Winifred -- never dreamt of such a thing. What do I want with her money? I have enough of my own, and I shall make more in business. Why have you driven me into this? Did you expect to get some profit out of it?'
The blow struck home, and Mrs Damerel flinched.
'I had your happiness in view, my dear.'
'My happiness! that's your view of things; that's why I couldn't really like you, from the first. You think of nothing but money. Why you objected to Fanny French at first was because you wished me to marry some one richer. I don't thank you for that kind of happiness; I had rather marry a woman I can love.'
'And you can love such a creature as that?'
Again she lost her self-command; the mere thought of Fanny's possible triumph exasperated her.
'I won't hear her abused,' cried Horace, with answering passion. 'You are the last person who ought to do it. Comparing her and you, I can't help saying ----'
An exclamation of pain checked his random words; he looked at Mrs Damerel, and saw her features wrung with anguish.
'You mustn't speak to me like that!' Once more she approached him. 'If you only knew -- I can't bear it -- I've always been a worldly woman, but you are breaking my heart, Horace! My dear, my dear, if only out of pity for me ----'
'Why should I pity you?' he cried impatiently.
'Because -- Horace -- give me your hand, dear; let me tell you something. -- I am your mother.'
She sobbed and choked, clinging to his arm, resting her forehead against it. The young man, stricken with amazement, stared at her, speechless.
'I am your own mother, dear,' she went on, in a quivering voice. 'Your mother and Nancy's. And neither of you can love me.'
'How can that be?' Horace asked, with genuine perplexity. 'How could you have married some one else?'
She passed an arm about his neck, and hid her face against him.
'I left your father -- and he made me free to marry again.'
'You were divorced?'
Horace did not mean to speak brutally; in his wonderment he merely pressed for a complete explanation. The answer was a sob, and for some moments neither of them spoke. Then the mother, her face still hidden, went on in a thick voice:
'I married because I was poor -- for no other reason -- and then came the temptation. I behaved wickedly, I deserted my little children. Don't revenge yourself upon me now, darling! If only I could have told you this before -- I did so want to, but I was afraid. I had to conceal half my love for you. You can't imagine how I have suffered from your anger, and from Nancy's coldness. You don't know me; I have never been able to let you see what I really think and feel. I am worldly; I can't live without luxuries and society and amusements; but I love you, my dear son, and it will break my heart if you ruin yourself. It's true I thought of Winifred's money, but she is very fond of you, Horace; her mother has told me she is. And it was because of my own position. I have spent nearly all my husband left me; it wasn't enough to supply me with an income; I could only hope that something -- that you, dear, would forgive your poor mother, and help her. If you cast me off, what shall I do?'
There was a silence. Then the young man spoke gravely:
'You are welcome, mother, to half my income. But you must leave me free to marry as I like.'
'Then I can't take a penny from you,' she answered, weeping. 'If you ruin yourself, you ruin me as well.'
'The ruin would come if I married Winifred. I love Fanny; I love her with all my heart and soul, and have never ceased to love her. Tell me what you like about her, it will make no difference.'
A fit of violent coughing stopped his speech; he turned away, and stood by the window, holding his handkerchief to his mouth.
Mrs Damerel sank upon a chair in mute misery.
Below the hill at Harrow, in a byway which has no charm but that of quietness, stands a row of small plain houses, built not long ago, yet at a time when small houses were constructed with some regard for soundness and durability. Each contains six rooms, has a little strip of garden in the rear, and is, or was in 1889, let at a rent of six-and-twenty pounds. The house at the far end of the row (as the inhabitants described it) was then tenanted by Mary Woodruff, and with her, as a lodger, lived Mrs Tarrant.
As a lodger, seeing that she paid a specified weekly sum for her shelter and maintenance; in no other respect could the wretched title apply to her. To occupy furnished lodgings, is to live in a house owned and ruled by servants; the least tolerable status known to civilisation. From her long experience at Falmouth, Nancy knew enough of the petty miseries attendant upon that condition to think of it with dread when the stress of heroic crisis compelled her speedy departure from the old home. It is seldom that heroic crisis bears the precise consequence presumed by the actors in it; supreme moments are wont to result in some form of compromise. So Nancy, prepared to go forth into the wilderness of landladies, babe in arm, found that so dreary a self-sacrifice neither was exacted of her, nor would indeed be permitted; she had to reckon with Mary Woodruff. Mary, thanks to her old master, enjoyed an income more than sufficient to her needs; if Nancy must needs go into lodgings, -- inevitable, perhaps, as matters stood, -- her friend was ready with kind and practical suggestion; to wit, that she should take and furnish a house for herself, and place a portion of it at Mrs Tarrant's disposal. To this even Tarrant could offer no objection; he stipulated only that his wife should find a temporary refuge from the home she had occupied on false pretences until Mary had her new house in readiness. This was managed without difficulty. Nancy went to Dulwich, and for several weeks dwelt with the honest woman who took care of her child.
Of the dealings between Nancy and her legal guardians Tarrant learned nothing, save the bare fact that her marriage was avowed, and all benefit under her father's will renounced. He did not visit the house at Dulwich, and only saw his child after the removal to Harrow. On this occasion he asked Nancy what arrangements had been made concerning the money that must be reimbursed to the Messrs Barmby; she replied that justice would be done, but the affair was hers alone, and to her must be left.
Tarrant himself suggested the neighbourhood of Harrow for Nancy's abode. It united the conditions of being remote from Camberwell, of lying beyond the great smoke-area, and of permitting him, poor as he was, to visit his wife whenever he thought fit.
In December, Nancy had lived thus for all but a twelvemonth, seeing the while none of her old acquaintances, and with very little news from her old world. What she heard came through Horace, who, after learning with astonishment the secret in his sister's life, came by degrees to something like the old terms of affection with her, and went over to Harrow pretty frequently. Of his engagement to Winifred Chittle he at once informed Nancy, who tried to be glad of it, but could have little faith in anything traceable to the influence of Mrs Damerel. With that lady the Harrow household had no direct communication; Tarrant had written to her on the night of crisis, civilly requesting her to keep aloof, as her advice and assistance were in nowise needed. She answered him with good temper, and wrote kindly to Nancy; after that, silence on both sides.
It wanted a few days to Christmas; with nightfall had come a roaring wind and sleety rain; the house-door was locked; within, lamps and fires burned cheerily. At half-past six, Nancy -- she occupied the two front rooms -- sat in her parlour, resting after the exertion of putting her son to bed. To judge from her countenance, she was well and happy. The furniture about her aimed at nothing but homely comfort; the pictures and books, being beyond dispute her own, had come from Grove Lane.
Save when Tarrant was here, Nancy and Mary of course lived like friends who share a house, eating together and generally sitting together. During an hour or two each day the younger woman desired solitude, for a reason understood by her companion, who then looked after the baby. This present evening Nancy had proposed to spend alone; but, after sitting idly for a few minutes, she opened the door and called Mary -- just then occupied in teaching a young servant how to iron.
'I shall not write, after all,' she said, when her friend came. 'I'm too tired. Bring your sewing, or your book, here.'
Mary was never talkative; Nancy kept a longer silence than usual.
'How,' she exclaimed at length, 'do poor women with a lot of children manage? It really is a mystery to me. Here am I with one baby, and with the constant help of two people; yet he tires me out. Not a troublesome baby, either; healthy and good-tempered. Yet the thought and anxiety and downright hard labour for a good twelve hours out of the twenty-four! I feel that a second child would be too much for me.'
She laughed, but looked seriously for the reply.
'Poor mothers,' said Mary, 'can't give the same care to their children that you give to baby. The little ones grow up, or they don't grow up -- that's what it comes to.'
'Yes; that is to say, only the fit survive. A very good thing -- when other people's children are in question. But I should kill myself in taking care of them, if I had a large family.'
'I have known mothers who did,' Mary remarked.
'It comes to this. Nature doesn't intend a married woman to be anything but a married woman. In the natural state of things, she must either be the slave of husband and children, or defy her duty. She can have no time to herself, no thoughts for herself. It's a hard saying, but who can doubt that it is Nature's law? I should like to revolt against it, yet I feel revolt to be silly. One might as well 'I revolt against being born a woman instead of a man.'
Mary reflected, but held her peace.
'Then comes in money,' pursued Nancy, 'and that alters the state of the case at once. The wife with money says to people: Come here, and be my slaves. Toil for me, whilst I am enjoying myself in ways that Dame Nature wouldn't allow. I want to read, to play music, to see my friends, to see the world. Unless you will slave for me, I can't budge from nursery and kitchen. -- Isn't it a queer thing?'
The less sophisticated woman had a difficulty in catching Nancy's point of view. She began to argue that domestic service was no slavery.
'But it comes to that,' Nancy insisted. 'And what I mean is, that the thought has made me far more contented than I was at first. After all, one can put up with a great deal, if you feel you're obeying a law of Nature. Now, I have brains, and I should like to use them; but Nature says that's not so important as bringing up the little child to whom I have given life. One thought that troubles me is, that every generation of women is sacrificed to the generation that follows; and of course that's why women are so inferior to men. But then again, Nature says that women are born only to be sacrificed. I always come round to that. I don't like it, but I am bound to believe it.'
'Children grow up,' said Mary, 'and then mothers are free.'
'Free to do what? To think of what they might have done in the best years of their life.'
It was not said discontentedly; Nancy's mood seemed to be singularly calm and philosophical. She propped her chin on her hand, and gazed at the fire.
'Well,' remarked Mary,. with a smile, 'you, at all events, are not one of the poorest women. All seems to be going well, and you will be able, I am sure, to get all the help you need.'
'Perhaps. But I shall never feel quiet in my conscience. I shall feel as if I had defeated Nature by a trick, and fear that she'll somehow be revenged on me.'
This was quite beyond Mary's scope of thought, and she frankly said so.
'One thing I'm quite sure of, Nancy,' she added, 'and that is, that education makes life very much harder to live. That's why I don't hold with educating the poor -- not beyond reading and writing. Without education, life is very plain, though it may be a struggle. But from what I have seen of highly-taught people, I'm very sure they suffer worse in their minds than the poor ever do in their bodies.'
Nancy interrupted her.
'Hush! Was that baby?'
'Only the wind, I think.'
Not content, Nancy went to the foot of the stairs. Whilst she stood there listening, Mary came out, and said in a low voice:
'There's a tap at the window.'
'No! -- You must have been mistaken.'
'I'm sure it was a tap on the glass.'
She withdrew to the back sitting-room, and Nancy, with quick step, went to open the house-door. A great gust of wind forced it against her as soon as she turned the handle; standing firm, she peeped into darkness.
'Any one there?'
'No enemy but winter and rough weather,' chanted a familiar voice.
'Why, what brings you here, frightening lone women at this time of night? Shut and lock the door for me. The house will be blown out of the windows.'
Nancy retreated to her parlour, and stood there in an attitude of joyous expectation. Without hurry Tarrant hung up his coat and hat in the passage, then came forward, wiping rain from his moustache. Their eyes met in a smile, frank and confident.
'Why have you come, Lionel?'
'No reason in particular. The fancy took me. Am I unwelcome?'
For answer, his wife's arms were thrown about him. A lovers' meeting, with more of tenderness, and scarcely less of warmth, than when Nancy knocked at the door in Staple Inn.
'Are you hungry?'
'Only for what you have given me.'
'Some tea, then, after that wretched journey.'
'No. How's the boy?'
He drew her upon his knee, and listened laughingly whilst the newest marvels of babyhood were laughingly related.
'Anything from Horace?'
'Not a word. He must be in London now; I shall write tomorrow.'
Tarrant nodded carelessly. He had the smallest interest in his wife's brother, but could not help satisfaction in the thought that Horace was to be reputably, and even brilliantly, married. From all he knew of Horace, the probability had seemed that his marriage would be some culmination of folly.
'I think you have something to tell me,' Nancy said presently, when her hand had been fondled for a minute or two.
'Nothing much, but good as far as it goes. Bunbury has asked me to write him an article every week for the first six months of '90. Column and a half, at two guineas a column.'
'Three guineas a week.'
'O rare head!'
'So there's no anxiety for the first half of next year, at all events,' said Nancy, with a sigh of relief.
'I think I can count on a margin of fifty pounds or so by midsummer -- towards the debt, of course.'
Nancy bit her lip in vexation, but neither made nor wished to make any protest. Only a week or two ago, since entering upon his patrimony, Horace Lord had advanced the sum necessary to repay what Nancy owed to the Barmbys. However rich Horace was going to be, this debt to him must be cancelled. On that, as on most other points, Tarrant and his wife held a firm agreement of opinion. Yet they wanted money; the past year had been a time of struggle to make ends meet. Neither was naturally disposed to asceticism, and if they did not grumble it was only because grumbling would have been undignified.
'Did you dine with the great people on Thursday?' Nancy asked.
'Yes, and rather enjoyed it. There were one or two clever women.'
'Been anywhere else?'
'An hour at a smoking-concert the other evening. Pippit, the actor, was there, and recited a piece much better than I ever heard him speak anything on the stage. They told me he was drunk; very possibly that accounted for it.'
To a number of such details Nancy listened quietly, with bent head. She had learned to put absolute faith in all that Tarrant told her of his quasi-bachelor life; she suspected no concealment; but the monotony of her own days lay heavy upon her whilst he talked.
'Won't you smoke?' she asked, rising from his knee to fetch the pipe and tobacco-jar kept for him upon a shelf. Slippers also she brought him, and would have unlaced his muddy boots had Tarrant permitted it. When he presented a picture of masculine comfort, Nancy, sitting opposite, cautiously approached a subject of which as yet there had been no word between them.
'Oughtn't you to get more comfortable lodgings?'
'Oh, I do very well. I'm accustomed to the place, and I like the situation.'
He had kept his room in Great College Street, though often obliged to scant his meals as the weekly rent-day approached.
'Don't you think we might make some better -- some more economical arrangement?'
Nancy took courage, and spoke her thoughts.
'It's more expensive to live separately than if we were together.'
Tarrant seemed to give the point his impartial consideration.
'H'm -- no, I think not. Certainly not, with our present arrangements. And even if it were we pay for your comfort, and my liberty.'
'Couldn't you have as much liberty if we were living under the same roof? Of course I know that you couldn't live out here; it would put a stop to your work at once. But suppose we moved. Mary might take a rather larger house -- it needn't be much larger -- in a part convenient for you. We should be able to pay her enough to set off against her increased expenses.'
Smoking calmly, Tarrant shook his head.
'Impracticable. Do you mean that this place is too dull for you?'
'It isn't lively, but I wasn't thinking of the place. If you lived here, it would be all I should wish.'
'That sounds so prettily from your lips, Nancy, that I'm half ashamed to contradict it. But the truth is that you can only say such things because we live apart. Don't deceive yourself. With a little more money, this life of ours would be as nearly perfect as married life ever can be.'
Nancy remembered a previous occasion when he spoke to the same purpose. But it was in the time she did not like to think of, and in spite of herself the recollection troubled her.
'You must have more variety,' he added. 'Next year you shall come into town much oftener ----'
'I'm not thinking of that. I always like going anywhere with you; but I have plenty of occupations and pleasures at home. -- I think we ought to be under the same roof.'
'Ought? Because Mrs Tomkins would cry haro! if her husband the greengrocer wasn't at her elbow day and night?'
'Have more patience with me. I didn't mean ought in the vulgar sense -- I have as little respect for Mrs Tomkins as you have. I don't want to interfere with your liberty for a moment; indeed it would be very foolish, for I know that it would make you detest me. But I so often want to speak to you -- and -- and then, I can't quite feel that you acknowledge me as your wife so long as I am away.'
'I quite understand. The social difficulty. Well, there's no doubt it is a difficulty; I feel it on your account. I wish it were possible for you to be invited wherever I am. Some day it will be, if I don't get run over in the Strand; but ----'
'I should like the invitations,' Nancy broke in, 'but you still don't understand me.'
'Yes, I think I do. You are a woman, and it's quite impossible for a woman to see this matter as a man does. Nancy, there is not one wife in fifty thousand who retains her husband's love after the first year of marriage. Put aside the fools and the worthless; think only of women with whom you might be compared -- brave, sensible, pure-hearted; they can win love, but don't know how to keep it.'
'Why not put it the other way about, and say that men can love to begin with, but so soon grow careless?'
'Because I am myself an instance to the contrary.'
Nancy smiled, but was not satisfied.
'The only married people,' Tarrant pursued, 'who can live together with impunity, are those who are rich enough, and sensible enough, to have two distinct establishments under the same roof. The ordinary eight or ten-roomed house, inhabited by decent middle-class folk, is a gruesome sight. What a huddlement of male and female! They are factories of quarrel and hate -- those respectable, brass-curtain-rodded sties -- they are full of things that won't bear mentioning. If our income never rises above that, we shall live to the end of our days as we do now.'
Nancy looked appalled.
'But how can you hope to make thousands a year?'
'I have no such hope; hundreds would be sufficient. I don't aim at a house in London; everything there is intolerable, except the fine old houses which have a history, and which I could never afford. For my home, I want to find some rambling old place among hills and woods, -- some house where generations have lived and died, -- where my boy, as he grows up, may learn to love the old and beautiful things about him. I myself never had a home; most London children don't know what is meant by home; their houses are only more or less comfortable lodgings, perpetual change within and without.'
'Your thoughts are wonderfully like my father's, sometimes,' said Nancy.
'From what you have told me of him, I think we should have agreed in a good many things.'
'And how unfortunate we were! If he had recovered from that illness, -- if he had lived only a few months, -- everything would have been made easy.'
'For me altogether too easy,' Tarrant observed.
'It has been a good thing for you to have to work,' Nancy assented. 'I understand the change for the better in you. But' -- she smiled -- 'you have more self-will than you used to have.'
'That's just where I have gained. -- But don't think that I find it easy or pleasant to resist your wish. I couldn't do it if I were not so sure that I am acting for your advantage as well as my own. A man who finds himself married to a fool, is a fool himself if he doesn't take his own course regardless of his wife. But I am in a very different position; I love you more and more, Nancy, because I am learning more and more to respect you; I think of your happiness most assuredly as much as I think of my own. But even if my own good weighed as nothing against yours, I should be wise to resist you just as I do now. Hugger-mugger marriage is a defilement and a curse. We know it from the experience of the world at large, -- which is perhaps more brutalised by marriage than by anything else. -- No need to test the thing once more, to our own disaster.'
'What I think is, that, though you pay me compliments, you really have a very poor opinion of me. You think I should burden and worry you in endless silly ways. I am not such a simpleton. In however small a house, there could be your rooms and mine. Do you suppose I should interfere with your freedom in coming and going?'
'Whether you meant to or not, you would -- so long as we are struggling with poverty. However self-willed I am, I am not selfish; and to see you living a monotonous, imprisoned life would be a serious hindrance to me in my own living and working. Of course the fact is so at present, and I often enough think in a troubled way about you; but you are out of my sight, and that enables me to keep you out of mind. If I am away from home till one or two in the morning, there is no lonely wife fretting and wondering about me. For work such as mine, I must live as though I were not married at all.'
'But suppose we got out of our poverty,' urged Nancy, 'you would be living the same life, I suppose; and how would it be any better for you or me that we had a large house instead of a small one?'
'Your position will be totally changed. When money comes, friends come. You are not hiding away from Society because you are unfit for it, only because you can't live as your social equals do. When you have friends of your own, social engagements, interests on every hand, I shall be able to go my own way without a pang of conscience. When we come together, it will be to talk of your affairs as well as of mine. Living as you do now, you have nothing on earth but the baby to think about -- a miserable state of things for a woman with a mind. I know it is miserable, and I'm struggling tooth and nail to help you out of it.'
'Then there are years of it still before me.'
'Heaven forbid! Some years, no doubt, before we shall have a home; but not before I can bring you in contact with the kind of people you ought to know. You shall have a decent house -- socially possible -- somewhere out west; and I, of course, shall still go on in lodgings.'
He waited for Nancy's reply, but she kept silence.
'You are still dissatisfied?'
She looked up, and commanded her features to the expression which makes whatever woman lovely -- that of rational acquiescence. On the faces of most women such look is never seen.
'No, I am content. You are working hard, and I won't make it harder for you.'
'Speak always like that!' Tarrant's face was radiant. 'That's the kind of thing that binds man to woman, body and soul. With the memory of that look and speech, would it be possible for me to slight you in my life apart? It makes you my friend; and the word friend is better to my ear than wife. A man's wife is more often than not his enemy. Harvey Munden was telling me of a poor devil of an author who daren't be out after ten at night because of the fool-fury waiting for him at home.'
'I suppose she can't trust him.'
'And suppose she can't? What is the value of nominal fidelity, secured by mutual degradation such as that? A rational woman would infinitely rather have a husband who was often unfaithful to her than keep him faithful by such means. Husband and wife should interfere with each other not a jot more than two friends of the same sex living together. If a man, under such circumstances, worried his friend's life out by petty prying, he would get his head punched. A wife has no more justification in worrying her husband with jealousies.'
'How if it were the wife that excited suspicion?' asked Nancy.
'Infidelity in a woman is much worse than in a man. If a man really suspects his wife, he must leave her, that's all; then let her justify herself if she can.'
Nancy cared little to discuss this point. In argument with any one else, she would doubtless have maintained the equality of man and woman before the moral law; but that would only have been in order to prove herself modern-spirited. Tarrant's dictum did not revolt her.
'Friends are equals,' she said, after a little thought. 'But you don't think me your equal, and you won't be satisfied with me unless I follow your guidance.'
Tarrant laughed kindly.
'True, I am your superior in force of mind and force of body. Don't you like to hear that? Doesn't it do you good -- when you think of the maudlin humbug generally talked by men to women? We can't afford to disguise that truth. All the same, we are friends, because each has the other's interest at heart, and each would be ashamed to doubt the other's loyalty.'
The latter part of the evening they spent with Mary, in whom Tarrant always found something new to admire. He regarded her as the most wonderful phenomenon in nature -- an uneducated woman who was neither vulgar nor foolish.
Baby slept in a cot beside Nancy's bed. For fear of waking him, the wedded lovers entered their room very softly, with a shaded candle. Tarrant looked at the curly little head, the little clenched hand, and gave a silent laugh of pleasure.
On the breakfast-table next morning lay a letter from Horace. As soon as she had opened it, Nancy uttered an exclamation which prepared her companion for ill news.
'Just what I expected -- though I tried not to think so. "I write a line only to tell you that my marriage is broken off. You will know the explanation before long. Don't trouble yourself about it. I should never have been happy with Winifred, nor she with me. We may not see each other for some time, but I will write again soon." He doesn't say whether he or she broke it off. I hope it was Winifred.'
'I'm afraid not,' said Tarrant, 'from the tone of that letter.'
'I'm afraid not, too. It means something wretched. He writes from his London lodgings. Lionel, let me go back with you, and see him.'
'By all means.'
Her gravest fear Nancy would not communicate. And it hit the truth.
They parted at Baker Street, Tarrant for his lodgings and the work that awaited him there, Nancy to go westward by another train.
When she reached the house from which her brother had dated his letter, it was half-past ten. At the door stood a cab, and a servant was helping the driver to hoist a big trunk on to the top.
'Is Mr Lord still here?' Nancy asked of the girl.
'He's just this minute a-goin', miss. This is his luggage.'
She sent her name, and was quickly led up to the first floor. There stood Horace, ready for departure.
'Why have you come?' he asked, with annoyance.
'What else could I do on hearing such news?'
'I told you I should write again, and I said plainly that it was better we shouldn't see each other for some time. -- Why will people pester me out of my life? -- I'm not a child to be hunted like this!'
On the instant, he had fallen into a state of excitement which alarmed his sister. There were drops of sweat on his forehead, and tears in his eyes; the blood had rushed to his cheeks, and he trembled violently.
'I am so troubled about you,' said Nancy, with anxious tenderness. 'I have been looking forward with such hope to your marriage, -- and now ----'
'I can't tell you anything about it just now. It was all Mrs Damerel's doing; the engagement, I mean. It's a good thing I drew back in time. -- But I have a train to catch; I really mustn't stay talking.'
'Are you going far, Horace?'
'To Bournemouth again, -- for the present. I've given up these rooms, and I'm taking all my things away. In a month or two I may go abroad; but I'll let you know.'
Already he was out of the room; his sister had no choice but to follow him downstairs. He looked so ill, and behaved with such lack of self-restraint, that Nancy kept her eyes upon him in an awestricken gaze, as though watching some one on the headlong way to destruction. Pouring rain obliged her to put up her umbrella as she stepped down on to the pavement. Horace, having shouted a direction to the driver, entered the cab.
'You haven't even shaken hands with me, Horace,' Nancy exclaimed, standing at the window.
'Good-bye, dear; good-bye! You shouldn't have come in weather such as this. Get home as fast as you can. Good-bye! -- Tell the fellow to drive sharp.'
And the cab clattered away, sending spurts of mud on to Nancy's waterproof.
She walked on for a few paces without reflection, until the vehicle disappeared round a corner. Coming to herself, she made for the railway again, which was at only a few minutes' distance, and there she sat down by the fire in the waiting-room. Her health for the last year had been sound as in the days of girlhood; it was rarely that she caught cold, and weather would have been indifferent to her but for the discomfort which hindered her free movement.
Vexed at so futile a journey, she resolved not to return home without making another effort to learn something about Horace. The only person to whom she could apply was the one who would certainly be possessed of information, -- Mrs Damerel. At the time of Horace's engagement, Nancy had heard from Mrs Damerel, and replied to the letter; she remembered her aunt's address, and as the distance was not great, the temptation to go there now proved irresistible. Her husband would dislike to hear of such a step, but he had never forbidden communication with Mrs Damerel.
By help of train and omnibus she reached her new destination in half-an-hour, and felt a relief on learning that Mrs Damerel was at home. But it surprised her to be conducted into a room where lamps were burning, and blinds drawn close; she passed suddenly from cheerless day to cosy evening. Mrs Damerel, negligently attired, received her with a show of warm welcome, but appeared nervous and out of spirits.
'I am not very well,' she admitted, 'and that's why I have shut out the dreadful weather. Isn't it the most sensible way of getting through the worst of a London winter? To pretend that there is daylight is quite ridiculous, so one may as well have the comforts of night.'
'I have come to speak about Horace,' said Nancy, at once. In any case, she would have felt embarrassment, and it was increased by the look with which Mrs Damerel kept regarding her, -- a look of confusion, of shrinking, of intense and painful scrutiny.
'You know what has happened?'
'I had a letter from him this morning, to say that his marriage was broken off -- nothing else. So I came over from Harrow to see him. But he had hardly a minute to speak to me. He was just starting for Bournemouth.'
'And what did he tell you?' asked Mrs Damerel, who remained standing, -- or rather had risen, after a pretence of seating herself.
'Nothing at all. He was very strange in his manner. He said he would write.'
'You know that he is seriously ill?'
'I am afraid he must be.'
'He has grown much worse during the last fortnight. Don't you suspect any reason for his throwing off poor Winifred?'
'I wondered whether he had met that girl again. But it seemed very unlikely.'
'He has. She was at Bournemouth for her health. She, too, is ill; consumptive, like poor Horace, -- of course a result of the life she has been leading. And he is going to marry her.' Nancy's heart sank. She could say nothing. She remembered Horace's face, and saw in him the victim of ruthless destiny.
'I have done my utmost. He didn't speak of me?'
'Only to say that his engagement with Winifred was brought about by you.'
'And wasn't I justified? If the poor boy must die, he would at least have died with friends about him, and in peace. I always feared just what has happened. It's only a few months ago that he forgave me for being, as he thought, the cause of that girl's ruin; and since then I have hardly dared to lose sight of him. I went down to Bournemouth unexpectedly, and was with him when that creature came to the door in a carriage. You haven't seen her. She looks what she is, the vilest of the vile. As if any one can be held responsible for that! She was born to be what she is. And if I had the power, I would crush out her hateful life to save poor Horace!'
Nancy, though at one with the speaker in her hatred of Fanny French, found it as difficult as ever to feel sympathetically towards Mrs Damerel. She could not credit this worldly woman with genuine affection for Horace; the vehemence of her speech surprised and troubled her, she knew not how.
'He said nothing more about me?' added Mrs Damerel, after a silence.
'Nothing at all.'
It seemed to Nancy that she heard a sigh of relief. The other's face was turned away. Then Mrs Damerel took a seat by the fire.
'They will be married to-morrow, I dare say, at Bournemouth -- no use trying to prevent it. I don't know whether you will believe me, but it is a blow that will darken the rest of my life.'
Her voice sounded slightly hoarse, and she lay back in the chair, with drooping head.
'You have nothing to reproach yourself with,' said Nancy, yielding to a vague and troublous pity. 'And you have done as much as any one could on his behalf.'
'I shall never see him again -- that's the hardest thought. She will poison him against me. He told me I had lied to him about a letter that girl wrote from Brussels; she has made him think her a spotless innocent, and he hates me for the truth I told about her.'
'However short his life,' said Nancy, 'he is only too likely to find out what she really is.'
'I am not sure of that. She knows he is doomed, and it's her interest to play a part. He will die thinking the worst of me. -- Nancy, if he writes to you, and says anything against me, you will remember what it means?'
'My opinion of people is not affected by hearsay,' Nancy replied.
It was a remark of dubious significance, and Mrs Damerel's averted eyes seemed to show that she derived little satisfaction from it. As the silence was unbroken, Nancy rose.
'I hope you will soon get rid of your cold.'
'Thank you, my dear. I haven't asked how the little boy is. Well, I hope?'
'Very well, I am glad to say.'
'And your husband -- he is prospering?'
'I shouldn't like to say he is prospering; it seems to mean so much; but I think he is doing good work, and we are satisfied with the results.'
'My dear, you are an admirable wife.'
Nancy coloured; for the first time, a remark of Mrs Damerel's had given her pleasure. She moved forward with hand offered for leave-taking. They had never kissed each other, but, as if overcoming diffidence, Mrs Damerel advanced her lips; then, as suddenly, she drew back.
'I had forgotten. I may give you my sore throat.'
Nancy kissed her cheek.
That night Mrs Damerel was feverish, and the next day she kept her bed. The servant who waited upon her had to endure a good many sharp reproofs; trouble did not sweeten this lady's temper, yet she never lost sight of self-respect, and even proved herself capable of acknowledging that she was in the wrong. Mrs Damerel possessed the elements of civilisation.
This illness tried her patience in no slight degree. Something she had wished to do, something of high moment, was vexatiously postponed. A whole week went by before she could safely leave the house, and even then her mirror counselled a new delay. But on the third day of the new year she made a careful toilette, and sent for a cab, -- the brougham she had been wont to hire being now beyond her means.
She drove to Farringdon Street, and climbed to the office of Mr Luckworth Crewe. Her knowledge of Crewe's habits enabled her to choose the fitting hour for this call; he had lunched, and was smoking a cigar.
'How delightful to see you here!' he exclaimed. 'But why did you trouble to come? If you had written, or telegraphed, I would have saved you the journey. I haven't even a chair that's fit for you to sit down on.'
'What nonsense! It's a most comfortable little room. Haven't you improved it since I called?'
'I shall have to look out for a bigger place. I'm outgrowing this.'
'Are you really? That's excellent news. Ah, but what sad things have been happening!'
'It's a bad business,' Crewe answered, shaking his head.
'I thought I should have heard from you about it.'
The reason of his silence she perfectly understood. Since Horace's engagement, there had been a marked change in her demeanour towards the man of business; she had answered his one or two letters with such cold formality, and, on the one occasion of his venturing to call, had received him with so marked a reserve, that Crewe, as he expressed it to himself, 'got his back up.' His ideas of chivalrous devotion were anything but complex; he could not bend before a divinity who snubbed him; if the once gracious lady chose to avert her countenance, he would let her know that it didn't matter much to him after all. Moreover, Mrs Damerel's behaviour was too suggestive; he could hardly be wrong in explaining it by the fact that her nephew, about to be enriched by marriage, might henceforth be depended upon for all the assistance she needed. This, in the Americanism which came naturally to Crewe's lips, was 'playing it rather low down,' and he resented it.
The sudden ruin of Horace Lord's prospects (he had learnt the course of events from Horace himself) amused and gratified him. How would the high and mighty Mrs Damerel relish this catastrophe? Would she have the 'cheek' to return to her old graciousness? If so, he had the game in his hands; she should see that he was not to be made a fool of a second time.
Yet the mere announcement of her name sufficed to shatter his resolve. Her smile, her soft accents, her polished manners, laid the old spell upon him. He sought to excuse himself for having forsaken her in her trial.
'It really floored me. I didn't know what to say or do. I was afraid you might think I was meddling with what didn't concern me.'
'Oh, how could I have thought that? It has made me ill; I have suffered more than I can tell you.'
'You don't look quite the thing,' said Crewe, searching her face.
'Have you heard all?'
'I think so. He is married, and that's the end of it, I suppose.'
Mrs Damerel winced at this blunt announcement.
'When was it?' she asked, in an undertone. 'I only knew he had made up his mind.'
Crewe mentioned the date; the day after Nancy's call upon her.
'And are they at Bournemouth?'
'Yes. Will be for a month or so, he says.'
'Well, we won't talk of it. As you say, that's the end. Nothing worse could have happened. Has he been speaking of me again like he used to?'
'I haven't heard him mention your name.'
She heaved a sigh, and began to look round the office.
'Let us try to forget, and talk of pleasanter things. It seems such a long time since you told me anything about your business. You remember how we used to gossip. I suppose I have been so absorbed in that poor boy's affairs; it made me selfish -- I was so overjoyed, I really could think of nothing else. And now --! But I must and will drive it out of my mind. I have been moping at home, day after day, in wretched solitude. I wanted to write to you, but I hadn't the heart -- scarcely the strength. I kept hoping you might call -- if only to ask howl was. Of course everything had to be explained to inquisitive people -- how I hate them all! It's the nature of the world to mock at misfortunes such as this. It would really have done me good to speak for a few minutes with such a friend as you -- a real friend. I am going to live a quiet, retired life. I am sick of the world, its falsity, and its malice, and its bitter, bitter disappointments.'
Crewe's native wit and rich store of experience availed him nothing when Mrs Damerel discoursed thus. The silvery accents flattered his ear, and crept into the soft places of his nature. He felt as when a clever actress in a pathetic part wrought upon him in the after-dinner mood.
'You must bear up against it, Mrs Damerel. And I don't think a retired life would suit you at all. You are made for Society.'
'Don't seek for compliments. I am speaking quite sincerely. Ah, those were happy days that I spent at Whitsand! Tell me what you have been doing. Is there any hope of the pier yet?'
'Why, it's as good as built!' cried the other. 'Didn't you see the advertisements, when we floated the company a month ago? I suppose you don't read that kind of thing. We shall begin at the works in early spring. -- Look here!'
He unrolled a large design, a coloured picture of Whitsand pier as it already existed in his imagination. Not content with having the mere structure exhibited, Crewe had persuaded the draughtsman to add embellishments of a kind which, in days to come, would be his own peculiar care; from end to end, the pier glowed with the placards of advertisers. Below, on the sands, appeared bathing-machines, and these also were covered with manifold advertisements. Nay, the very pleasure-boats on the sunny waves declared the glory of somebody's soap, of somebody's purgatives.
'I'll make that place one of the biggest advertising stations in England -- see if I don't! You remember the caves? I'm going to have them lighted with electricity, and painted all round with advertisements of the most artistic kind.'
'What a brilliant idea!'
'There's something else you might like to hear of. It struck me I would write a Guide to Advertising, and here it is.' He handed a copy of the book. 'It advertises me, and brings a little grist to the mill on its own account. Three weeks since I got it out, and we've sold three thousand of it. Costs nothing to print; the advertisements more than pay for that. Price, one shilling.'
'But how you do work, Mr Crewe! It's marvellous. And yet you look so well, -- you have really a seaside colour!'
'I never ailed much since I can remember. The harder I work, the better I feel.'
'I, too, have always been rather proud of my constitution.' Her eyes dropped. 'But then I have led a life of idleness. Couldn't you make me useful in some way? Set me to work! I am convinced I should be so much happier. Let me help you, Mr Crewe. I write a pretty fair hand, don't I?'
Crewe smiled at her, made a sound as if clearing his throat, grasped his knee, and was on the very point of momentous utterance, when the door opened. Turning his head impatiently, he saw, not the clerk whose duty it was to announce people, but a lady, much younger than Mrs Damerel, and more fashionably dressed, who for some reason had preferred to announce herself.
'Why do you come in like that?' Crewe demanded, staring at her. 'I'm engaged.'
'Are you indeed?'
'You ought to send in your name.
'They said you had a lady here, so I told them another would make no difference. -- How do you do, Mrs Damerel? It's so long since I had the pleasure of seeing you.'
Beatrice French stepped forward, smiling ominously, and eyeing first Crewe then his companion with curiosity of the frankest impertinence. Mrs Damerel stood up.
'We will speak of our business at another time, Mr Crewe.'
Crewe, red with anger, turned upon Beatrice.
'I tell you I am engaged ----'
'To Mrs Damerel?' asked the intruder airily.
'You might suppose,' -- he addressed the elder lady, -- 'that this woman has some sort of hold upon me ----'
'I'm sure I hope not,' said Mrs Damerel, 'for your own sake.'
'Nothing of the kind. She has pestered me a good deal, and it began in this way.'
Beatrice gave him so fierce a look, that his tongue faltered.
'Before you tell that little story,' she interposed, 'you had better know what I've come about. It's a queer thing that Mrs Damerel should be here; happens more conveniently than things generally do. I had something to tell you about her. You may know it, but most likely you don't. -- You remember,' she faced the other listener, 'when I came to see you a long time ago, I said it might be worth while to find out who you really were. I haven't given much thought to you since then, but I've got hold of what I wanted, as I knew I should.'
Crewe did not disguise his eagerness to hear the rest. Mrs Damerel stood like a statue of British respectability, deaf and blind to everything that conflicts with good-breeding; stony-faced, she had set her lips in the smile appropriate to one who is braving torture.
'Do you know who she is -- or not?' Beatrice asked of Crewe.
He shuffled, and made no reply.
'Fanny has just told me in a letter; she got it from her husband. Our friend here is the mother of Horace Lord and of Nancy. She ran away from her first husband, and was divorced. Whether she really married afterwards, I don't quite know; most likely not. At all events, she has run through her money, and wants her son to set her up again.'
For a few seconds Mrs Damerel bore the astonished gaze of her admirer, then, her expression scarcely changing, she walked steadily to the door and vanished. The silence was prolonged till broken by Beatrice's laugh.
'Has she been bamboozling you, old man? I didn't know what was going on. You had bad luck with the daughter; shouldn't wonder if the mother would suit you better, all said and done.'
Crewe seated himself and gave vent to his feelings in a phrase of pure soliloquy: 'Well, I'm damned!'
'I cut in just at the right time, did I? -- No malice. I've had my hit back at her, and that's enough.'
As the man of business remained absorbed in his thoughts, Beatrice took a chair. Presently he looked up at her, and said savagely:
'What the devil do you want?'
'Then take it and go.'
But Beatrice smiled, and kept her seat.
Nancy stood before her husband with a substantial packet in brown paper. It was after breakfast, at the moment of their parting.
'Here is something I want you to take, and look at, and speak about the next time you come.'
'Ho, ho! I don't like the look of it.' He felt the packet. 'Several quires of paper here.'
'Be off, or you'll miss the train.'
'Poor little girl! Et tu!'
He kissed her affectionately, and went his way. In the ordinary course of things Nancy would not have seen him again for ten days or a fortnight. She expected a letter very soon, but on the fourth evening Tarrant's fingers tapped at the window-pane. In his hand was the brown paper parcel, done up as when he received it.
Nancy searched his face, her own perturbed and pallid.
'How long have you been working at this?'
'Nearly a year. But not every day, of course. Sometimes for a week or more I could get no time. You think it bad?'
'No,' -- puff -- 'not in any sense' -- puff -- 'bad. In one sense, it's good. But' -- puff -- 'that's a private sense; a domestic sense.'
'The question is, dear, can it be sold to a publisher.'
'The question is nothing of the kind. You mustn't even try to sell it to a publisher.'
'Why not? You mean you would be ashamed if it came out. But I shouldn't put my own name to it. I have written it only in the hope of making money, and so helping you. I'll put any name to it you like.'
Tarrant smoked for a minute or two, until his companion gave a sign of impatience. He wore a very good-humoured look.
'It's more than likely you might get the thing accepted ----'
'Oh, then why not?' she interrupted eagerly, with bright eyes.
'Because it isn't literature, but a little bit of Nancy's mind and heart, not to be profaned by vulgar handling. To sell it for hard cash would be horrible. Leave that to the poor creatures who have no choice. You are not obliged to go into the market.'
'But, Lionel, if it is a bit of my mind and heart, it must be a good book. You have often praised books to me just on that account because they were genuine.'
'The books I praised were literature. Their authors came into the world to write. It isn't enough to be genuine; there must be workmanship. Here and there you have a page of very decent English, and you are nowhere on the level of the ordinary female novelist. Indeed -- don't take it ill -- I was surprised at what you had turned out. But ----'
He finished the sentence in smoke wreaths.
'Then I'll try again. I'll do better.'
'Never much better. It will never be literature.'
'What does that matter? I never thought myself a Charlotte Brontë or a George Eliot. But so many women make money out of novels, and as I had spare time I didn't see why I shouldn't use it profitably. We want money, and if it isn't actually disgraceful -- and if I don't use my own name ----'
'We don't want money so badly as all that. I am writing, because I must do something to live by, and I know of nothing else open to me except pen-work. Whatever trash I turned out, I should be justified; as a man, it's my duty to join in the rough-and-tumble for more or less dirty ha'pence. You, as a woman, have no such duty; nay, it's your positive duty to keep out of the beastly scrimmage.'
'It seemed to me that I was doing something. Why should a woman be shut out from the life of the world?'
'It seems to me that your part in the life of the world is very considerable. You have given the world a new inhabitant, and you are shaping him into a man.'
Nancy laughed, and reflected, and returned to her discontent.
'Oh, every woman can do that.'
'Not one woman in a thousand can bear a sound-bodied child; and not one in fifty thousand can bring up rightly the child she has borne. Leisure you must have; but for Heaven's sake don't waste it. Read, enjoy, sit down to the feast prepared for you.'
'I wanted to do something,' she persisted, refusing to catch his eye. 'I have read enough.'
'Read enough? Ha, then there's no more to be said.'
His portentous solemnity overcame her. Laughter lighted her face, and Tarrant, laying down his pipe, shouted extravagant mirth.
'Am I to burn it then?'
'You are not. You are to seal it with seven seals, to write upon it péché de jeunesse, and to lay it away at the back of a very private drawer. And when you are old, you shall some day bring it out, and we'll put our shaky heads together over it, and drop a tear from our dim old eyes. -- By-the-bye, Nancy, will you go with me to a music-hall to-morrow night?'
'Yes. It would do us both good, I think. I feel fagged, and you want a change. -- Here's the end of March; please Heaven, another month shall see us rambling in the lanes somewhere; meantime, we'll go to a music-hall. Each season has its glory; if we can't hear the lark, let us listen to the bellow of a lion-comique. -- Do you appreciate this invitation? It means that I enjoy your company, which is more than one man in ten thousand can say of his wife. The ordinary man, when he wants to dissipate, asks -- well, not his wife. And I, in plain sober truth, would rather have Nancy with me than anyone else.'
'You say that to comfort me after my vexation.'
'I say it because I think it. -- The day after to-morrow I want you to come over in the morning to see some pictures in Bond Street. And the next day we'll go to the theatre.'
'You can't afford it.'
'Mind your own business. I remembered this morning that I was young, and that I shall not be so always. Doesn't that ever come upon you?'
The manuscript, fruit of such persevering toil, was hidden away, and its author spoke of it no more. But she suffered a grave disappointment. Once or twice a temptation flashed across her mind; if she secretly found a publisher, and if her novel achieved moderate success (she might alter the title), would not Tarrant forgive her for acting against his advice? It was nothing more than advice; often enough he had told her that he claimed no coercive right; that their union, if it were to endure, must admit a genuine independence on both sides. But herein, as on so many other points, she subdued her natural impulse, and conformed to her husband's idea of wifehood. It made her smile to think how little she preserved of that same 'genuine independence;' but the smile had no bitterness.
Meanwhile, nothing was heard of Horace. The winter passed, and June had come before Nancy again saw her brother's handwriting. It was on an ordinary envelope, posted, as she saw by the office-stamp, at Brighton; the greater her surprise to read a few lines which coldly informed her that Horace's wife no longer lived. 'She took cold one evening a fortnight ago, and died after three days' illness.'
Nancy tried to feel glad, but she had little hope of any benefit to her brother from this close of a sordid tragedy. She answered his letter, and begged that, as soon as he felt able to do so, he would come and see her. A month's silence on Horace's part had led her to conclude that he would not come, when, without warning, he presented himself at her door. It was morning, and he stayed till nightfall, but talked very little. Sitting in the same place hour after hour, he seemed overcome with a complete exhaustion, which made speech too great an effort and kept his thoughts straying idly. Fanny's name did not pass his lips; when Nancy ventured an inquiry concerning her, he made an impatient gesture, and spoke of something else.
His only purpose in coming, it appeared, was to ask for information about the Bahamas.
'I can't get rid of my cough, and I'm afraid it may turn to something dangerous. You said, I remember, that people with weak chests wintered in the Bahamas.'
'Lionel can tell you all about it. He'll be here to-morrow. Come and have a talk with him.'
'No.' He moved pettishly. 'Tell me as much as you know yourself. I don't feel well enough to meet people.'
Looking at him with profound compassion, Nancy thought it very doubtful whether he would see another winter. But she told him all she could remember about Nassau, and encouraged him to look forward with pleasure and hopefulness to a voyage thither.
'How are you going to live till then?'
'What do you mean?' he answered, with a startled and irritated look. 'I'm not so bad as all that.'
'I meant -- how are you going to arrange your life?' Nancy hastened to explain.
'Oh, I have comfortable lodgings.'
'But you oughtn't to be quite alone. -- I mean it must be so cheerless.'
She made a proposal that he should have a room in this little house, and use it as a home whenever he chose; but Horace so fretted under the suggestion, that it had to be abandoned. His behaviour was that of an old man, enfeebled in mind and body. Once or twice his manner of speaking painfully reminded Nancy of her father during the last days of his life.
With a peevish sort of interest he watched his little nephew toddling about the room, but did not address a word to the child.
A cab was sent for to convey him to the railway station. Nancy had known few such melancholy days as this.
On the morning when, by agreement, she was to go into town to see her brother, there arrived a note from him. He had been advised to try a health-resort in Switzerland, and was already on the way. Sorry he could not let Nancy know before; would visit her on his return. Thus, in the style of telegraphy, as though he wrote in hot haste.
From Switzerland came two letters, much more satisfactory in tone and contents. The first, written in July, announced a distinct improvement of health. No details being supplied, Nancy could only presume that her brother was living alone at the hotel from which he dated. The second communication, a month later, began thus: 'I think I forgot to tell you that I came here with Mrs Damerel. She will stay till the end of the summer, and then, perhaps, go with me to the Bahamas, if that seems necessary. But I am getting wonderfully well and strong. Mrs Damerel is kinder to me than any one in the world ever was. I shall tell you more about her some day.' The writer went on to describe a project he had of taking a small farm in Devonshire, and living upon it as a country gentleman.
Tarrant warned his wife not to build hopes upon this surprising report, and a few weeks brought news that justified him. Horace wrote that he had suffered a very bad attack, and was only now sufficiently recovered to hold a pen. 'I don't know what we shall do, but I am in good hands. No one was ever better nursed, night and day -- More before long.'
Indeed, it was not long. A day or two after Nancy's return from a seaside holiday, Mary brought in a telegram. It came from Mrs Damerel. 'Your brother died at ten o'clock last night, suddenly, and without pain. I am posting a letter he had written for you.'
When the promised letter arrived, it was found to bear a date two months ago. An unwonted tenderness marked the opening words.
MY DEAREST SISTER -- What I am going to write is not to be sent to you at once. Sometimes I feel afraid that I can't live very long, so I have been making a will, and I want you to know why I have left you only half of what I have to leave. The other half will go to some one who has an equal claim on me, though you don't know it. She has asked me to tell you. If I get thoroughly well again, there will be no need of this letter, and I shall tell you in private something that will astonish you very much. But if I were to die, it will be best for you to learn in this way that Mrs Damerel is much more to us than our mother's sister; she is our own mother. She told me at the time when I was behaving like an idiot at Bournemouth. It ought to have been enough to stop me. She confessed that she had done wrong when you and I were little children; that was how she came to marry again whilst father was still alive. Though it seemed impossible, I have come to love her for her great kindness to me. I know that I could trust you, dearest Nancy, to let her share whatever you have; but it will be better if I provide for her in my will. She has been living on a small capital, and now has little left. What I can give her is little enough, but it will save her from the worst extremities. And I beg you, dear sister, to forgive her fault, if only for my sake, because she has been so loving to a silly and useless fellow.
I may as well let you know about my wife's death. She was consumptive, but seemed to get much better at Bournemouth; then she wanted to go to Brighton. We lived there at a boardinghouse, and she behaved badly, very badly. She made acquaintances I didn't like, and went about with them in spite of my objections. Like an obstinate fool, I had refused to believe what people told me about her, and now I found it all out for myself. Of course she only married me because I had money. One evening she made up her mind to go with some of her friends in a boat, by moonlight. We quarrelled about it, but she went all the same. The result was that she got inflammation of the lungs, and died. I don't pretend to be sorry for her, and I am thankful to have been released from misery so much sooner than I deserved.
And now let me tell you how my affairs stand ----
At the first reading, Nancy gave but slight attention to this concluding paragraph. Even the thought of her brother's death was put aside by the emotions with which she learnt that her mother still lived. After brooding over the intelligence for half a day, she resolved to question Mary, who perhaps, during so long a residence in Grove Lane, had learnt something of the trouble that darkened her master's life. The conversation led to a disclosure by Mary of all that had been confided to her by Mr Lord; the time had come for a fulfilment of her promise to the dead man.
Horace's letter Nancy sent by post to her husband, requesting him to let her know his thoughts about it in writing before they again met. Of her own feeling she gave no sign. 'I want you to speak of it just as if it concerned a stranger, plainly and simply. All I need say is, that I never even suspected the truth.'
Tarrant did not keep her long in suspense, and his answer complied in reasonable measure with the desire she had expressed.
'The disclosure has, of course, pained you. Equally, of course, you wish it were not necessary to let me know of it; you are in doubt as to how it will affect me; you perhaps fear that I shall -- never mind about phrasing. First, then, a word on that point. Be assured once for all that nothing external to yourself can ever touch the feeling which I now have for you. "One word is too often profaned"; I will say simply that I hold you in higher regard that any other human being.
'Try not to grieve, my dearest. It is an old story, in both senses. You wish to know how I view the matter. Well, if a wife cannot love her husband, it is better she should not pretend to do so; if she love some one else, her marriage is at an end, and she must go. Simple enough -- provided there be no children. Whether it is ever permissible for a mother to desert her children, I don't know. I will only say that, in you yourself, I can find nothing more admirable than the perfect love which you devote to your child. Forsake it, you could not.
'In short, act as feeling dictates. Your mother lives; that fact cannot be ignored. In your attitude towards her, do not consult me at all; whatever your heart approves, I shall find good and right. Only, don't imagine that your feeling of to-day is final -- I would say, make no resolve; they are worth little, in any concern of life.
'Write to me again, and say when you wish to see me.
After reading this, Nancy moved about with the radiance of a great joy on her countenance. She made no haste to reply; she let a day elapse; then, in the silence of a late hour, took pen and paper.
'When do I wish to see you? Always; in every moment of my day. And yet I have so far conquered "the unreasonable female" -- do you remember saying that? -- that I would rather never see you again than bring you to my side except when it was your pleasure to be with me. Come as soon as you can -- as soon as you will.
'My mother -- how shall I word it? She is nothing to me. I don't feel that Nature bids me love her. I could pardon her for leaving my father; like you, I see nothing terrible in that; but, like you, I know that she did wrong in abandoning her little children, and her kindness to Horace at the end cannot atone for it. I don't think she has any love for me. We shall not see each other; at all events, that is how I feel about it at present. But I am very glad that Horace made provision for her -- that of course was right; if he had not done it, it would have been my duty.
'I had better tell you that Mary has known my mother's story for a long time -- but not that she still lived. My father told her just before his death, and exacted her promise that, if it seemed well, she would repeat everything to me. You shall know more about it, though it is bad all through. My dear father had reason bitterly to regret his marriage long before she openly broke it.
'But come and see me, and tell me what is to be done now that we are free to look round. There is no shame in taking what poor Horace has given us. You see that there will be at least three thousand pounds for our share, apart from the income we shall have from the business.'
He was sure to come on the evening of the morrow. Nancy went out before breakfast to post her letter; light-hearted in the assurance that her husband's days of struggle were over, that her child's future no longer depended upon the bare hope that its father would live and thrive by a profession so precarious as that of literature, she gave little thought to the details of the new phase of life before her. Whatever Tarrant proposed would be good in her sight. Probably he would wish to live in the country; he might discover the picturesque old house of which he had so often spoken. In any case, they would now live together. He had submitted her to a probation, and his last letter declared that he was satisfied with the result.
Midway in the morning, whilst she was playing with her little boy, -- rain kept them in the house, -- a knock at the front door announced some unfamiliar visit. Mary came to the parlour, with a face of surprise.
'Who is it?'
Mary handed an envelope, addressed to 'Mrs Tarrant.' It contained a sheet of paper, on which was written in pencil: 'I beg you to see me, if only for a minute.'
'Yes, I will see her,' said Nancy, when she had frowned in brief reflection.
Mary led away the little boy, and, a moment after, introduced Jessica Morgan. At the appearance of her former friend, Nancy with difficulty checked an exclamation; Miss Morgan wore the garb of the Salvation Army. Harmonious therewith were the features shadowed by the hideous bonnet: a face hardly to be recognised, bloodless, all but fleshless, the eyes set in a stare of weak-minded fanaticism. She came hurriedly forward, and spoke in a quick whisper.
'I was afraid you would refuse to see me.'
'Why have you come?'
'I was impelled -- I had a duty to perform.'
Coldly, Nancy invited her to sit down, but the visitor shook her head.
'I mustn't take a seat in your house. I am unwelcome; we can't pretend to be on terms of friendliness. I have come, first of all,' -- her eyes wandered as she spoke, inspecting the room, -- 'to humble myself before you -- to confess that I was a dishonourable friend, -- to make known with my lips that I betrayed your secret ----'
Nancy interrupted the low, hurrying, panting voice, which distressed her ear as much as the facial expression that accompanied it did her eyes.
'There's no need to tell me. I knew it at the time, and you did me no harm. Indeed, it was a kindness.'
She drew away, but Jessica moved after her.
'I supposed you knew. But it is laid upon me to make a confession before you. I have to ask your pardon, most humbly and truly.'
'Do you mean that some one has told you to do this?'
'Oh no!' A gleam of infinite conceit shot over the humility of Jessica's countenance. 'I am answerable only to my own soul. In the pursuit of an ideal which I fear you cannot understand, I subdue my pride, and confess how basely I behaved to you. Will you grant me your forgiveness?'
She clasped her gloveless hands before her breast, and the fingers writhed together.
'If it is any satisfaction to you,' replied Nancy, overcome with wonder and pity, 'I will say those words. But don't think that I take upon myself ----'
'Only say them. I ask your pardon -- say you grant it.'
Nancy uttered the formula, and with bowed head Jessica stood for a minute in silence; her lips moved.
'And now,' she said at length, 'I must fulfil the second part of the duty which has brought me here.' Her attitude changed to one of authority, and her eyes fixed themselves on Nancy's, regarding her with the mild but severe rebuke of a spiritual superior. 'Having acknowledged my wrong-doing, I must remind you of your own. Let me ask you first of all -- have you any religious life?'
Nancy's eyes had turned away, but at these words they flashed sternly upon the speaker.
'I shall let you ask no such question.'
'I expected it,' Jessica sighed patiently. 'You are still in the darkness, out of which I have been saved.'
'If you have nothing more to say than this, I must refuse to talk any longer.'
'There is a word I must speak,' pursued Jessica. 'If you will not heed it now, it will remain in your memory, and bear fruit at the appointed time. I alone know of the sin which poisons your soul, and the experiences through which I have passed justify me in calling you to repentance.'
Nancy raised her hand.
'Stop! That is quite enough. Perhaps you are behaving conscientiously; I will try to believe it. But not another word, or I shall speak as I don't wish to.'
'It is enough. You know very well what I refer to. Don't imagine that because you are now a married woman ----'
Nancy stepped to the door, and threw it open.
'Leave the house,' she said, in an unsteady tone. 'You said you were unwelcome, and it was true. Take yourself out of my sight!'
Jessica put her head back, murmured some inaudible words, and with a smile of rancorous compassion went forth into the rain.
On recovering from the excitement of this scene, Nancy regretted her severity; the poor girl in the hideous bonnet had fallen very low, and her state of mind called for forbearance. The treachery for which Jessica sought pardon was easy to forgive; not so, however, the impertinent rebuke, which struck at a weak place in Nancy's conscience. Just when the course of time and favour of circumstances seemed to have completely healed that old wound, Jessica, with her crazy malice grotesquely disguised, came to revive the half-forgotten pangs, the shame and the doubt that had seemed to be things gone by. It would have become her, Nancy felt, to treat her hapless friend of years ago in a spirit of gentle tolerance; that she could not do so proved her -- and she recognised the fact -- still immature, still a backward pupil in the school of life. -- 'And in the Jubilee year I thought myself a decidedly accomplished person!'
Never mind. Her husband would come this evening. Of him she could learn without humiliation.
His arrival was later than of wont. Only at eleven o'clock, when with disappointment she had laid aside her book to go to bed, did Tarrant's rap sound on the window.
'I had given you up,' said Nancy.
'Yet you are quite good-tempered.'
'It is the pleasant custom of wives to make a husband uncomfortable if he comes late.'
'Then I am no true wife!' laughed Nancy.
'Something much better,' Tarrant muttered, as he threw off his overcoat.
He began to talk of ordinary affairs, and nearly half-an-hour elapsed before any mention was made of the event that had bettered their prospects. Nancy looked over a piece of his writing in an evening paper which he had brought; but she could not read it with attention. The paper fell to her lap, and she sat silent. Clearly, Tarrant would not be the first to speak of what was in both their minds. The clock ticked; the rain pattered without; the journalist smoked his pipe and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling.
'Are you sorry,' Nancy asked, 'that I am no longer penniless?'
'Ah -- to be sure. We must speak of that. No, I'm not sorry. If I get run over, you and the boy ----'
'Can make ourselves comfortable, and forget you; to be sure. But for the present, and until you do get run over?'
'You wish to make changes?'
'In one or two respects, perhaps. But leave me out of the question. You have an income of your own to dispose of; nothing oppressively splendid, I suppose. What do you think of doing?'
'What do you advise?'
'No, no. Make your own suggestion.
Nancy smiled, hesitated, and said at length:
'I think we ought to take a house.'
'That's as you wish.'
'Not at all. As you wish. Do you want society?'
'In moderation. And first of all, yours.
Tarrant met her eyes.
'Of my society, you have quite as much as is good for you,' he answered amiably. 'That you should wish for acquaintances, is reasonable enough. Take a house somewhere in the western suburbs. One or two men I know have decent wives, and you shall meet them.'
'But you? You won't live with me?'
'You know my view of that matter.'
Nancy kept her eyes down, and reflected.
'Will it be known to everybody that we don't live together?'
'Well,' answered Tarrant, with a laugh, 'by way of example, I should rather like it to be known; but as I know you wouldn't like it, let the appearances be as ordinary as you please.'
Again Nancy reflected. She had a struggle with herself.
'Just one question,' she said at length. 'Look me in the face. Are you -- ever so little -- ashamed of me?'
He regarded her steadily, smiling.
'Not in the least.'
'You were -- you used to be?'
'Before I knew you; and before I knew myself. When, in fact, you were a notable young lady of Camberwell, and I ----'
He paused to puff at his pipe.
'A notable young fool of nowhere at all.'
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