IN THE YEAR OF JUBILEE
By George Gissing
Part I: Miss. Lord
At eight o'clock on Sunday morning, Arthur Peachey unlocked his front door, and quietly went forth. He had not ventured to ask that early breakfast should be prepared for him. Enough that he was leaving home for a summer holiday—the first he had allowed himself since his marriage three years ago.
It was a house in De Crespigny Park; unattached, double-fronted, with half-sunk basement, and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance. De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let.
For an hour after Peachey's departure, the silence of the house was unbroken. Then a bedroom door opened, and a lady in a morning gown of the fashionable heliotrope came downstairs. She had acute features; eyes which seemed to indicate the concentration of her thoughts upon a difficult problem, and cheeks of singular bloom. Her name was Beatrice French; her years numbered six and twenty.
She entered the dining-room and drew up the blind. Though the furniture was less than a year old, and by no means of the cheapest description, slovenly housekeeping had dulled the brightness of every surface. On a chair lay a broken toy, one of those elaborate and costly playthings which serve no purpose but to stunt a child's imagination. Though the time was midsummer, not a flower appeared among the pretentious ornaments. The pictures were a strange medley—autotypes of some artistic value hanging side by side with hideous oleographs framed in ponderous gilding. Miss. ——— then violently rang the bell. When the summons had been twice French looked about her with an expression of strong disgust, repeated, there appeared a young woman whose features told of long and placid slumbers.
'Well? what does this mean?'
'The cook doesn't feel well, miss; she can't get up.'
'Then get breakfast yourself, and look sharp about it.'
Beatrice spoke with vehemence; her cheeks showed a circle of richer hue around the unchanging rose. The domestic made insolent reply, and there began a war of words. At this moment another step sounded on the stairs, and as it drew near, a female voice was raised in song.
'And a penny in his pocket, la-de-da, la-de-da,—and a penny in his pocket, la-de-da!'
A younger girl, this, of much slighter build; with a frisky gait, a jaunty pose of the head; pretty, but thin-featured, and shallow-eyed; a long neck, no chin to speak of, a low forehead with the hair of washed-out flaxen fluffed all over it. Her dress was showy, and in a taste that set the teeth on edge. Fanny French, her name.
'What's up? Another row?' she asked, entering the room as the servant went out.
'I've known a good many fools,' said Beatrice, 'but Ada's the biggest I've come across yet.'
'Is she? Well, I shouldn't wonder,' Fanny admitted impartially. And with a skip she took up her song again. 'A penny paper collar round his neck, la-de-da—'
'Are you going to church this morning?' asked her sister.
'Yes. Are you?'
'Come for a walk instead. There's something I want to talk to you about.'
'Won't it do afterwards? I've got an appointment.'
Fanny laughed and nodded.
Interrupted by the reappearance of the servant, who brought a tray and began to lay the table, they crossed the hall to the drawing-room. In half-an-hour's time a sluttish meal was prepared for them, and whilst they were satisfying their hunger, the door opened to admit Mrs. Peachey. Ada presented herself in a costume which, at any season but high summer, would have been inconveniently cool. Beneath a loose thin dressing-gown her feet, in felt slippers, showed stockingless, her neck was bare almost to the bosom, and the tresses of pale yellow, upon which she especially prided herself, lay raggedly pinned together on the top of her flat head. She was about twenty-eight years old, but at present looked more than thirty. Her features resembled Fanny's, but had a much less amiable expression, and betokened, if the thing were possible, an inferior intellect. Fresh from the morning basin, her cheeks displayed that peculiar colourlessness which results from the habitual use of paints and powders; her pale pink lips, thin and sullen, were curiously wrinkled; she had eyes of slate colour, with lids so elevated that she always seemed to be staring in silly wonder.
'So you've got breakfast, have you?' were her first words, in a thin and rather nasal voice. 'You may think yourselves lucky.'
'You have a cheek of your own,' replied Beatrice. 'Whose place is it to see that we get meals?'
'And what can any one do with servants like I've got?' retorted the married sister.
'It's your own fault. You should get better; and when you've got them, you should manage them. But that's just what you can't do.'
'Oh, you'd be a wonderful housekeeper, we know all about that. If you're not satisfied, you'd better find board and lodging somewhere else, as I've told you often enough. You're not likely to get it as cheap.'
They squabbled for some minutes, Fanny looking on with ingenuous amusement, and putting in a word, now for this side, now for that.
'And what am I going to have for breakfast?' demanded Mrs. Peachey at length, surveying the table. 'You've taken jolly good care of yourselves, it seems to me.'
She jumped up, and rang the bell. When a minute's interval brought no reply, she rang again. Beatrice thought it probable that the bell might be rung without effect, 'till all was blue.'
'We'll see about that,' answered her sister, and forthwith invaded the lower parts of the house. Thence, presently, her voice became audible, rising gradually to shrillness; with it there blended the rougher accents of the housemaid, now in reckless revolt. Beatrice listened for a minute or two in the hall, then passed on into the drawing-room with a contemptuous laugh. Fanny, to whom the uproar seemed to bring a renewal of appetite, cut herself a slice of bread and butter, and ate it as she stood at the window.
'Dirty cat! beast! swine!'
The mistress of the house, fairly beaten away by superior force of vocabulary, reappeared with these and other exclamations, her face livid, her foolish eyes starting from their sockets. Fanny, a sort of Mother Cary's chicken, revelled in the row, and screamed her merriment.
It was long before the domestic uproar wholly subsided, but towards eleven o'clock the sisters found themselves together in the drawing-room. Ada sprawled limply on a sofa; Beatrice sat with legs crossed in the most comfortable chair; and Fanny twirled about on a music stool.
The only books in the room were a few show-volumes, which belonged to Arthur Peachey, and half-a-dozen novels of the meaner kind, wherewith Ada sometimes beguiled her infinite leisure. But on tables and chairs lay scattered a multitude of papers: illustrated weeklies, journals of society, cheap miscellanies, penny novelettes, and the like. At the end of the week, when new numbers came in, Ada Peachey passed many hours upon her sofa, reading instalments of a dozen serial stories, paragraphs relating to fashion, sport, the theatre, answers to correspondents (wherein she especially delighted), columns of facetiae, and gossip about notorious people. Through a great deal of this matter Beatrice followed her, and read much besides in which Ada took no interest; she studied a daily newspaper, with special note of law suits, police intelligence, wills, bankruptcies, and any concern, great or small, wherein money played a part. She understood the nature of investments, and liked to talk about stocks and shares with her male acquaintances.
They were the daughters of a Camberwell builder, lately deceased; to each of them had fallen a patrimony just sufficient for their support in elegant leisure. Ada's money, united with a small capital in her husband's possession, went to purchase a share in the business of Messrs. Ducker, Blunt & Co., manufacturers of disinfectants; Arthur Peachey, previously a clerk to the firm, became a junior partner, with the result that most of the hard work was thrown upon his shoulders. At their marriage, the happy pair first of all established themselves in a modest house near Camberwell Road; two years later, growing prosperity brought about their removal to De Crespigny Park, where they had now resided for some twelve months. Unlike their elder sister, Beatrice and Fanny had learnt to support themselves, Beatrice in the postal service, and Fanny, sweet blossom! by mingling her fragrance with that of a florist's shop in Brixton; but on their father's death both forsook their employment, and came to live with Mrs. Peachey. Between them, these two were the owners of house-property, which produced L140 a year. They disbursed, together, a weekly sum of twenty-four shillings for board and lodging, and spent or saved the rest as their impulses dictated.
Ada brooded over her wrongs; Beatrice glanced over The Referee. Fanny, after twirling awhile in maiden meditation, turned to the piano and jingled a melody from 'The Mikado.' She broke off suddenly, and, without looking round, addressed her companions.
'You can give the third seat at the Jubilee to somebody else. I'm provided for.'
'Who are you going with?' asked Ada.
'My masher,' the girl replied with a giggle.
'Shop-windows in the Strand, I think.'
She resumed her jingling; it was now 'Queen of my Heart.' Beatrice, dropping her paper, looked fixedly at the girl's profile, with an eyelid droop which signified calculation.
'How much is he really getting?' she inquired all at once.
'Seventy-five pounds a year. "Oh where, oh where, is my leetle dog gone?"'
'Does he say,' asked Mrs. Peachey, 'that his governor will stump up?'
They spoke a peculiar tongue, the product of sham education and mock refinement grafted upon a stock of robust vulgarity. One and all would have been moved to indignant surprise if accused of ignorance or defective breeding. Ada had frequented an 'establishment for young ladies' up to the close of her seventeenth year; the other two had pursued culture at a still more pretentious institute until they were eighteen. All could 'play the piano;' all declared—and believed—that they 'knew French.' Beatrice had 'done' Political Economy; Fanny had 'been through' Inorganic Chemistry and Botany. The truth was, of course, that their minds, characters, propensities had remained absolutely proof against such educational influence as had been brought to bear upon them. That they used a finer accent than their servants, signified only that they had grown up amid falsities, and were enabled, by the help of money, to dwell above-stairs, instead of with their spiritual kindred below.
Anticipating Fanny's reply, Beatrice observed, with her air of sagacity:
'If you think you're going to get anything out of an old screw like Lord, you'll jolly soon find your mistake.'
'Don't you go and make a fool of yourself, Fanny,' said Mrs. Peachey. 'Why, he can't be more than twenty-one, is he?'
'He's turned twenty-two.'
The others laughed scornfully.
'Can't I have who I like for a masher?' cried Fanny, reddening a little. 'Who said I was going to marry him? I'm in no particular hurry to get married. You think everybody's like yourselves.'
'If there was any chance of old Lord turning up his toes,' said Beatrice thoughtfully. 'I dare say he'll leave a tidy handful behind him, but then he may live another ten years or more.'
'And there's Nancy,' exclaimed Ada. 'Won't she get half the plunder?'
'May be plenty, even then,' said Beatrice, her head aside. 'The piano business isn't a bad line. I shouldn't wonder if he leaves ten or fifteen thousand.'
'Haven't you got anything out of Horace?' asked Ada of Fanny. 'What has he told you?'
'He doesn't know much, that's the fact.'
'Silly! There you are. His father treats him like a boy; if he talked about marrying, he'd get a cuff on the ear. Oh, I know all about old Lord,' Ada proceeded. 'He's a regular old tyrant. Why, you've only to look at him. And he thinks no small beer of himself, either, for all he lives in that grubby little house; I shouldn't wonder if he thinks us beneath him.'
She stared at her sisters, inviting their comment on this ludicrous state of things.
'I quite believe Nancy does,' said Fanny, with a point of malice.
'She's a stuck-up thing,' declared Mrs. Peachey. 'And she gets worse as she gets older. I shall never invite her again; it's three times she has made an excuse—all lies, of course.
'Who will she marry?' asked Beatrice, in a tone of disinterested speculation.
Mrs. Peachey answered with a sneer:
'She's going to the Jubilee to pick up a fancy Prince.'
'As it happens,' objected Fanny, 'she isn't going to the Jubilee at all. At least she says she isn't. She's above it—so her brother told me.'
'I know who wants to marry her,' Ada remarked, with a sour smile.
'Who is that?' came from the others.
With a significant giggle, Fanny glanced at the more sober of her sisters; she, the while, touched her upper lip with the point of her tongue, and looked towards the window.
'Does he?' Fanny asked of the ceiling.
'He wants money to float his teetotal drink,' said Beatrice. 'Hasn't he been at Arthur about it?'
'Not that I know,' answered the wife.
'He tried to get round me, but I—'
A scream of incredulity from Fanny, and a chuckle from Mrs. Peachey, covered the rest of the sentence. Beatrice gazed at them defiantly.
'Well, idiots! What's up now?'
'There's nobody knows Luckworth Crewe better than I do,' Beatrice pursued disdainfully, 'and I think he knows me pretty well. He'll make a fool of himself when he marries; I've told him so, and he as good as said I was right. If it wasn't for that, I should feel a respect for him. He'll have money one of these days.'
'And he'll marry Nancy Lord,' said Ada tauntingly.
'Not just yet.'
Ada rolled herself from the sofa, and stood yawning.
'Well, I shall go and dress. What are you people going to do? You needn't expect any dinner. I shall have mine at a restaurant.'
'Who have you to meet?' asked Fanny, with a grimace.
Her sister disregarded the question, yawned again, and turned to Beatrice.
'Who shall we ask to take Fan's place on Tuesday? Whoever it 15, they'll have to pay. Those seats are selling for three guineas, somebody told me.'
Conversation lingered about this point for a few minutes, till Mrs. Peachey went upstairs. When the door was open, a child's crying could be heard, but it excited no remark. Presently the other two retired, to make themselves ready for going out. Fanny was the first to reappear, and, whilst waiting for her sister, she tapped out a new music-hall melody on the piano.
As they left the house, Beatrice remarked that Ada really meant to have her dinner at Gatti's or some such place; perhaps they had better indulge themselves in the same way.
'Suppose you give Horace Lord a hint that we've no dinner at home? He might take us, and stand treat.'
Fanny shook her head.
'I don't think he could get away. The guv'nor expects him home to dinner on Sundays.'
The other laughed her contempt.
'You see! What good is he? Look here, Fan, you just wait a bit, and you'll do much better than that. Old Lord would cut up rough as soon as ever such a thing was mentioned; I know he would. There's something I have had in my mind for a long time. Suppose I could show you a way of making a heap of money—no end of money—? Shouldn't you like it better,—to live as you pleased, and be independent?'
The listener's face confessed curiosity, yet was dubious.
'What do you say to going into business with me?' pursued Miss French. 'We've only to raise a little money on the houses, and in a year or two we might be making thousands.'
'Business? What sort of business?'
'Suppose somebody came to you and said: Pay me a sovereign, and I'll make you a member of an association that supplies fashionable clothing at about half the ordinary price,—wouldn't you jump at it?'
'If I thought it wasn't a swindle,' Fanny replied ingenuously.
'Of course. But you'd be made to see it wasn't. And suppose they went on to say: Take a ten-pound share, and you shall have a big interest on it, as well as your dresses for next to nothing. How would you like that?'
'Can it be done?'
'I've got a notion it can, and I think I know two or three people who would help to set the thing going. But we must have some capital to show. Have you the pluck to join in?'
'And suppose I lose my money?'
'I'll guarantee you the same income you're getting now—if that will satisfy you. I've been looking round, and making inquiries, and I've got to know a bit about the profits of big dressmakers. We should start in Camberwell, or somewhere about there, and fish in all the women who want to do the heavy on very little. There are thousands and thousands of them, and most of them'—she lowered her voice—'know as much about cut and material as they do about stockbroking. Do you twig? People like Mrs. Middlemist and Mrs. Murch. They spend, most likely, thirty or forty pounds a year on their things, and we could dress them a good deal more smartly for half the money. Of course we should make out that a dress we sold them for five guineas was worth ten in the shops, and the real cost would be two. See? The thing is to persuade them that they're getting an article cheap, and at the same time making money out of other people.'
Thus, and at much greater length, did Miss. French discourse to her attentive sister. Forgetful of the time, Fanny found at length that it would be impossible to meet Horace Lord as he came out of church; but it did not distress her.
Nancy Lord stood at the front-room window, a hand grasping each side of her waist, her look vaguely directed upon the limetree opposite and the house which it in part concealed. She was a well-grown girl of three and twenty, with the complexion and the mould of form which indicate, whatever else, habitual nourishment on good and plenteous food. In her ripe lips and softly-rounded cheeks the current of life ran warm. She had hair of a fine auburn, and her mode of wearing it, in a plaited diadem, answered the purpose of completing a figure which, without being tall, had some stateliness and promised more. Her gown, trimmed with a collar of lace, left the neck free; the maiden cincture at her waist did no violence to natural proportion.
This afternoon—it was Monday—she could not occupy or amuse herself in any of the familiar ways. Perhaps the atmosphere of national Jubilee had a disturbing effect upon her,—in spite of her professed disregard for the gathering tumult of popular enthusiasm. She had not left home to-day, and the brilliant weather did not tempt her forth. On the table lay a new volume from the circulating library,—something about Evolution—but she had no mind to read it; it would have made her too conscious of the insincerity with which she approached such profound subjects. For a quarter of an hour and more she had stood at the window, regarding a prospect, now as always, utterly wearisome and depressing to her.
Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,—with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell's rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls. Narrow passages connect the Lane with its more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove; on the other side are ways leading towards Denmark Hill, quiet, leafy. From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.
It is a neighbourhood in decay, a bit of London which does not keep pace with the times. And Nancy hated it. She would have preferred to live even in a poor and grimy street which neighboured the main track of business and pleasure.
Here she had spent as much of her life as she remembered, from the end of her third year. Mr. Lord never willingly talked of days gone by, but by questioning him she had learnt that her birthplace was a vaguely indicated part of northern London; there, it seemed, her mother had died, a year or so after the birth of her brother Horace. The relatives of whom she knew were all on her father's side, and lived scattered about England. When she sought information concerning her mother, Mr. Lord became evasive and presently silent; she had seen no portrait of the dead parent. Of late years this obscure point of the family history had often occupied her thoughts.
Nancy deemed herself a highly educated young woman,—'cultured' was the word she would have used. Her studies at a day-school which was reputed 'modern' terminated only when she herself chose to withdraw in her eighteenth year; and since then she had pursued 'courses' of independent reading, had attended lectures, had thought of preparing for examinations—only thought of it. Her father never suggested that she should use these acquirements for the earning of money; little as she knew of his affairs, it was obviously to be taken for granted that he could ensure her life-long independence. Satisfactory, this; but latterly it had become a question with her how the independence was to be used, and no intelligible aim as yet presented itself to her roving mind. All she knew was, that she wished to live, and not merely to vegetate. Now there are so many ways of living, and Nancy felt no distinct vocation for any one of them.
She was haunted by an uneasy sense of doubtfulness as to her social position. Mr. Lord followed the calling of a dealer in pianos; a respectable business, to be sure, but, it appeared, not lucrative enough to put her above caring how his money was made. She knew that one's father may be anything whatever, yet suffer no social disability, provided he reap profit enough from the pursuit. But Stephen Lord, whilst resorting daily to his warehouse in Camberwell Road—not a locality that one would care to talk about in 'cultured' circles—continued, after twenty years, to occupy this small and ugly dwelling in Grove Lane. Possibly, owing to an imperfect education, he failed to appreciate his daughter's needs, and saw no reason why she should not be happy in the old surroundings.
On the other hand, perhaps he cared very little about her. Undoubtedly his favourite was Horace, and in Horace he had suffered a disappointment. The boy, in spite of good schooling, had proved unequal to his father's hope that he would choose some professional career, by preference the law; he idled away his schooldays, failed at examinations, and ultimately had to be sent into 'business.' Mr Lord obtained a place for him in a large shipping agency; but it still seemed doubtful whether he would make any progress there, notwithstanding the advantage of his start; at two-and-twenty he was remunerated with a mere thirty shillings a week, a nominal salary,' his employers called it. Nancy often felt angry with her brother for his lack of energy and ambition; he might so easily, she thought, have helped to establish, by his professional dignity, her own social status at the level she desired.
There came into view a familiar figure, crossing from the other side of the way. Nancy started, waved her hand, and went to open the door. Her look had wholly altered; she was bright, mirthful, overflowing with affectionate welcome.
This friend of hers, Jessica Morgan by name, had few personal attractions. She looked overwrought and low-spirited; a very plain and slightly-made summer gown exhibited her meagre frame with undue frankness; her face might have been pretty if health had filled and coloured the flesh, but as it was she looked a ghost of girlhood, a dolorous image of frustrate sex. In her cotton-gloved hand she carried several volumes and notebooks.
'I'm so glad you're in,' was her first utterance, between pants after hasty walking and the jerks of a nervous little laugh. 'I want to ask you something about Geometrical Progression. You remember that formula—'
'How can I remember what I never knew?' exclaimed Nancy. 'I always hated those formulas; I couldn't learn them to save my life.'
'Oh, that's nonsense! You were much better at mathematics than I was. Do just look at what I mean.'
She threw her books down upon a chair, and opened some pages of scrawled manuscript, talking hurriedly in a thin falsetto.
Her family, a large one, had fallen of late years from a position of moderate comfort into sheer struggle for subsistence. Jessica, armed with certificates of examinational prowess, got work as a visiting governess. At the same time, she nourished ambitions, discernible perhaps in the singular light of her deep-set eyes and a something of hysteric determination about her lips. Her aim, at present, was to become a graduate of London University; she was toiling in her leisure hours—the hours of exhaustion, that is to say—to prepare herself for matriculation, which she hoped to achieve in the coming winter. Of her intimate acquaintances only one could lay claim to intellectual superiority, and even she, Nancy Lord to wit, shrank from the ordeals of Burlington House. To become B.A., to have her name in the newspapers, to be regarded as one of the clever, the uncommon women—for this Jessica was willing to labour early and late, regardless of failing health, regardless even of ruined complexion and hair that grew thin beneath the comb.
She talked only of the 'exam,' of her chances in this or that 'paper,' of the likelihood that this or the other question would be 'set.' Her brain was becoming a mere receptacle for dates and definitions, vocabularies and rules syntactic, for thrice-boiled essence of history, ragged scraps of science, quotations at fifth hand, and all the heterogeneous rubbish of a 'crammer's' shop. When away from her books, she carried scraps of paper, with jottings to be committed to memory. Beside her plate at meals lay formulae and tabulations. She went to bed with a manual and got up with a compendium.
Nancy, whose pursuit of 'culture' followed a less exhausting track, regarded the girl with a little envy and some compassion. Esteeming herself in every respect Jessica's superior, she could not help a slight condescension in the tone she used to her; yet their friendship had much sincerity on both sides, and each was the other's only confidante. As soon as the mathematical difficulty could be set aside, Nancy began to speak of her private troubles.
'The Prophet was here last night,' she said, with a girlish grimace. 'He's beginning again. I can see it coming. I shall have to snub him awfully next time.'
'Oh, what a worry he is!'
'Yes, but there's something worse. I suspected that the Pasha knew of it; now I feel sure he's encouraging him.'
By this oriental style Nancy signified her father. The Prophet was her father's partner in business, Mr. Samuel Bennett Barmby.
'I feel sure now that they talked it over when the Prophet was taken into partnership. I was thrown in as a "consideration."'
'But how could your father possibly think—?'
'It's hard to say what he does think about me. I'm afraid I shall have to have a talk with him. If so, it will be a long talk, and a very serious talk. But he isn't well just now, and I must put it off.'
'He isn't well?'
'A touch of gout, he says. Two days last week he didn't go to business, and his temper was that 'orrible!' Nancy had a habit of facetiously quoting vulgarities; this from an acquaintance of theirs who often supplied them with mirth. 'I suppose the gout does make one bad-tempered.'
'Has he been coming often?—Mr. Barmby, I mean.'
'Pretty well. I think I must turn matchmaker, and get him married to some one. It oughtn't to be difficult. The Prophet "has points."'
'I dare say some people would think him handsome,' assented Miss Morgan, nibbling a finger which showed an ink-stain, and laughing shyly.
'And his powers of conversation!—Don't you know any one that would do for him?'
They jested on this theme until Nancy chose to become serious again.
'Have you any lessons to-morrow?'
'No. Thank goodness every one is going to see the procession, or the decorations, or the illuminations, and all the rest of the nonsense,' Jessica replied. 'I shall have a good long day of work; except that I've promised to go in the afternoon, and have tea with the little girls at Champion Hill. I wish you'd come too; they'd be delighted to see you, and there'll be nobody except the governess.'
Nancy looked up in doubt.
'Are you sure? Won't the dowager be at home?'
'She hasn't left her room for three weeks.'
They exchanged a look of some special significance.
'Then I suppose,' said Nancy, with a peculiar smile, 'that's why Mr Tarrant has been calling?'
'Has he? How do you know?'
Again they looked at each other, and Nancy laughed.
'I have happened to meet him twice, the last few days.' She spoke in an off-hand way. 'The first time, it was just at the top of the lane; he was coming away. The second time, I was walking along Champion Hill, and he came up behind me, going to the house.'
'Did he talk?'
Nancy gave a nod.
'Yes, both times. But he didn't tell me that the dowager was worse.'
'High and mighty?' asked Jessica.
'Not quite so majestic as usual, I thought. I didn't feel quite so much of a shrimp before him. And decidedly he was in better spirits. Perhaps the dowager's death would be important to him?'
'Very likely. Will you come to-morrow?'
Miss. Lord hesitated—then, with a sudden frankness:
'To tell you the truth, I'm afraid he might be there.'
'Oh, I don't think so, not on Jubilee Day.'
'But that's the very reason. He may come to be out of the uproar.'
'I meant he was more likely to be out of town altogether.'
Nancy, still leaning over the table, propped her chin on her hands, and reflected.
'Where does he go, I wonder?'
'Oh, all sorts of places, no doubt. Men of that kind are always travelling. I suppose he goes shooting and fishing—'
Nancy's laugh made an interruption.
'No, no, he doesn't! He told me once that he didn't care for that sort of thing.'
'Oh, well, you know much more about him than I do,' said Miss Morgan, with a smile.
'I've often meant to ask you—have they anything to do with Tarrant's black-lead?'
Jessica declared that she had never heard of it.
'Never heard of it? nonsense! A few years ago it used to be posted up everywhere, and I see it sometimes even now, but other kinds seem to have driven it out of the market. Now that's just like you! Pray, did you ever hear of Pears' Soap?'
'Really? Oh, there's hope of you. You'll be a woman of the world some day.'
'Don't tease, Nancy. And what would it matter if he was there to-morrow?'
'Oh! I don't know. But I shouldn't particularly like his lordship to imagine that I went in the hope of paying my respects to him, and having the reward of a gracious smile.'
'One can't always be thinking about what other people think,' said Jessica impatiently. 'You're too sensitive. Any one else in your position would have lots of such friends.'
'In my position! What is my position?'
'Culture is everything now-a-days,' observed Miss. Morgan, with the air of one who feels herself abundantly possessed of that qualification.
But Nancy laughed.
'You may depend upon it, Mr. Tarrant doesn't think so.'
'He calls himself a democrat.'
'And talks like one: doesn't he?'
'Oh! that's only his way, I think. He doesn't really mean to be haughty, and—and so on.'
'I wish I knew if he had any connection with Tarrant's blacklead,' said Miss. Lord mischievously.
'Why not ask him?'
They laughed merrily, Jessica's thin note contrasting with the mellow timbre of her friend's voice.
'I will some day.'
'You would never dare to!'
'I daren't? Then I will!'
'It would be dreadfully rude.'
'I don't mind being thought rude,' replied Nancy, with a movement of the head, 'if it teaches people that I consider myself as good as they are.'
'Well, will you come to-morrow?'
'Ye-es; if you'll go somewhere else with me in the evening.'
'To walk about the streets after dark, and see the crowds and the illuminations.'
Nancy uttered this with a sly mirthfulness. Her friend was astonished.
'Nonsense! you don't mean it.'
'I do. I want to go for the fun of the thing. I should feel ashamed of myself if I ran to stare at Royalties, but it's a different thing at night. It'll be wonderful, all the traffic stopped, and the streets crammed with people, and blazing with lights. Won't you go?'
'But the time, the time! I can't afford it. I'm getting on so wretchedly with my Greek and my chemistry.'
'You've time enough,' said Nancy. 'And, you know, after all it's a historical event. In the year 3000 it will be 'set' in an examination paper, and poor wretches will get plucked because they don't know the date.'
This was quite a new aspect of the matter to Jessica Morgan. She pondered it, and smiled.
'Yes, I suppose it will. But we should have to be out so late.'
'Why not, for once? It needn't be later than half-past eleven.' Nancy broke off and gesticulated. 'That's just why I want to go! I should like to walk about all night, as lots of people will. The public-houses are going to be kept open till two o'clock.'
'Do you want to go into public-houses?' asked Jessica, laughing.
'Why not? I should like to. It's horrible to be tied up as we are; we're not children. Why can't we go about as men do?'
'Won't your father make any objection?' asked Jessica.
'We shall take Horace with us. Your people wouldn't interfere, would they?'
'I think not. Father is away in Yorkshire, and will be till the end of the week. Poor mother has her rheumatism. The house is so dreadfully damp. We ought never to have taken it. The difference of rent will all go in doctors' bills.—I don't think mother would mind; but I must be back before twelve, of course.'
'I don't see the "of course,"' Nancy returned impatiently, 'but we could manage that. I'll speak to the Pasha to-night, and either come, or let you have a note, to-morrow morning. If there's any objection, I'm not sure that I shan't make it the opportunity for setting up my standard of revolt. But I don't like to do that whilst the Pasha is out of sorts—it might make him worse.'
'You could reason with him quietly.'
'Reason with the Pasha—How innocent you are, Jess! How unworldly! It always refreshes me to hear you talk.'
Only twelve months ago Stephen Lord had renewed the lease of his house for a period of seven years. Nancy, had she been aware of this transaction, would assuredly have found courage to enter a protest, but Mr. Lord consulted neither son nor daughter on any point of business; but for this habit of acting silently, he would have seemed to his children a still more arbitrary ruler than they actually thought him.
The dwelling consisted of but eight rooms, one of which, situated at the rear of the entrance passage, served Mr. Lord as sitting-room and bed-chamber; it overlooked a small garden, and afforded a side glimpse of the kitchen with its outer appurtenances. In the front room the family took meals. Of the chambers in the storey above, one was Nancy's, one her brother's; the third had, until six years ago, been known as 'Grandmother's room,' and here its occupant, Stephen Lord's mother, died at the age of seventy-eight. Wife of a Norfolk farmer, and mother of nine children, she was one of the old-world women whose thoughts found abundant occupation in the cares and pleasures of home. Hardship she had never known, nor yet luxury; the old religion, the old views of sex and of society, endured with her to the end.
After her death the room was converted into a parlour, used almost exclusively by the young people. At the top of the house slept two servants, each in her own well-furnished retreat; one of them was a girl, the other a woman of about forty, named Mary Woodruff. Mary had been in the house for twenty years; she enjoyed her master's confidence, and, since old Mrs. Lord's death, exercised practical control in the humbler domestic affairs.
With one exception, all parts of the abode presented much the same appearance as when Stephen Lord first established himself antiquated, and in primitive taste. Nancy's bedroom alone here. The furniture was old, solid, homely; the ornaments were displayed the influence of modern ideas. On her twentieth birthday, the girl received permission to dress henceforth as she chose (a strict sumptuary law having previously been in force), and at the same time was allowed to refurnish her chamber. Nancy pleaded for modern reforms throughout the house, but in vain; even the drawing-room kept its uninviting aspect, not very different, save for the removal of the bed, from that it had presented when the ancient lady slept here. In her own little domain, Miss. Lord made a clean sweep of rude appointments, and at small expense surrounded herself with pretty things. The woodwork and the furniture were in white enamel; the paper had a pattern of wild-rose. A choice chintz, rose-leaf and flower on a white ground, served for curtains and for bed-hangings. Her carpet was of green felt, matching in shade the foliage of the chintz. On suspended shelves stood the books which she desired to have near her, and round about the walls hung prints, photographs, chromolithographs, selected in an honest spirit of admiration, which on the whole did no discredit to Nancy's sensibilities.
To the best of Nancy's belief, her father had never seen this room. On its completion she invited him to inspect it, but Mr. Lord coldly declined, saying that he knew nothing, and cared nothing, about upholstery.
His return to-day was earlier than usual. Shortly after five o'clock Nancy heard the familiar heavy step in the passage, and went downstairs.
'Will you have a cup of tea, father?' she asked, standing by the door of the back room, which was ajar.
'If it's ready,' replied a deep voice.
She entered the dining-room, and rang the bell. In a few minutes Mary Woodruff appeared, bringing tea and biscuits. She was a neat, quiet, plain-featured woman, of strong physique, and with set lips, which rarely parted save for necessary speech. Her eyes had a singular expression of inquietude, of sadness. A smile seldom appeared on her face, but, when it did, the effect was unlooked for: it touched the somewhat harsh lineaments with a gentleness so pleasing that she became almost comely.
Having set down the tray, she went to Mr. Lord's door, gave a soft tap, and withdrew into the kitchen.
Nancy, seated at the table, turned to greet her father. In early life, Stephen Lord must have been handsome; his face was now rugged, of unhealthy tone, and creased with lines betokening a moody habit. He looked much older than his years, which were fifty-seven. Dressed with excessive carelessness, he had the appearance rather of one at odds with fortune than of a substantial man of business. His short beard was raggedly trimmed; his grizzled hair began to show the scalp. Judging from the contour of his visage, one might have credited him with a forcible and commanding character; his voice favoured that impression; but the countenance had a despondent cast, the eyes seemed to shun observation, the lips suggested a sullen pride, indicative of some defect or vice of will.
Yet in the look which he cast upon her, Nancy detected a sign of more amiability than she had found in him of late. She addressed him with confidence.
'Early to-day, father.'
The monosyllable sounded gruff, but again Nancy felt satisfaction. Mr. Lord, who disliked to seat himself unless he were going to keep his position for some time, took the offered beverage from his daughter's hand, and stood with it before the fireplace, casting glances about the room.
'How have you felt, father?'
'Nothing to complain of.'
His pronunciation fell short of refinement, but was not vulgar. Something of country accent could still be detected in it. He talked like a man who could strike a softer note if he cared to, but despises the effort.
'I suppose you will have a rest to-morrow?'
'I suppose so. If your grandmother had lived,' he added thoughtfully, 'she would have been eighty-four this week on Thursday.'
'The 23rd of June. Yes, I remember.'
Mr. Lord swallowed his tea at two draughts, and put down the cup. Seemingly refreshed, he looked about him with a half smile, and said quietly:
'I've had the pleasure of punishing a scoundrel to-day. That's worth more than the Jubilee.'
Nancy waited for an explanation, but it was not vouchsafed.
'A scoundrel?' she asked.
Her father nodded—the nod which signified his pleasure that the subject should not be pursued. Nancy could only infer that he spoke of some incident in the course of business, as indeed was the case.
He had no particular aptitude for trade, and that by which he lived (he had entered upon it thirty years ago rather by accident than choice) was thoroughly distasteful to him. As a dealer in pianofortes, he came into contact with a class of people who inspired him with a savage contempt, and of late years his business had suffered considerably from the competition of tradesmen who knew nothing of such conflicts between sentiment and interest. A majority of his customers obtained their pianos on the 'hire-purchase system,' and oftener than not, they were persons of very small or very precarious income, who, rabid in the pursuit of gentility, signed agreements they had little chance of fulfilling; when in pecuniary straits, they either raised money upon the instruments, or allowed them to fall into the hands of distraining creditors. Inquiry into the circumstances of a would-be customer sometimes had ludicrous results; a newly-married couple, for instance, would be found tenanting two top-floor rooms, the furnishing whereof seemed to them incomplete without the piano of which their friends and relatives boasted. Not a few professional swindlers came to the office; confederate rogues, vouching for each other's respectability, got possession of pianos merely to pawn or sell them, having paid no more than the first month's charge. It was Mr Lord's experience that year by year the recklessness of the vulgar became more glaring, and deliberate fraud more artful. To-day he had successfully prosecuted a man who seemed to have lived for some time on the hire-purchase system, and it made him unusually cheerful.
'You don't think of going to see the Queen to-morrow?' said his daughter, smiling.
'What have I to do with the Queen? Do you wish to go?'
'Not to see Her Majesty. I care as little about her as you do. But I thought of having a walk in the evening.'
Nancy phrased it thus with intention. She wished to intimate that, at her age, it could hardly be necessary to ask permission. But her father looked surprised.
'In the evening? Where?'
'Oh, about the main streets—to see the people and the illuminations.'
Her voice was not quite firm.
'But,' said her father, 'there'll be such a swarm of blackguards as never was known. How can you go into such a crowd? It's astonishing that you should think of it.'
'The blackguards will be outnumbered by the decent people, father.'
'You suppose that's possible?' he returned gloomily.
'Oh, I think so,' Nancy laughed. 'At all events, there'll be a great majority of people who pretend to be decent. I have asked Jessica Morgan to go with me.'
'What right had you to ask her, without first finding out whether you could go or not?'
It was spoken rather gravely than severely. Mr. Lord never looked fixedly at his daughter, and even a glance at her face was unusual; but at this juncture he met her eyes for an instant. The nervous motion with which he immediately turned aside had been marked by Nancy on previous occasions, and she had understood it as a sign of his lack of affection for her.
'I am twenty-three years old, father,' she replied, without aggressiveness.
'That would be something of an answer if you were a man,' observed the father, his eyes cast down.
'Because I am a woman, you despise me?'
Stephen was startled at this unfamiliar mode of address. He moved uneasily.
'If I despised you, Nancy, I shouldn't care very much what you did. I suppose you must do as you like, but you won't go with my permission.'
There was a silence, then the girl said:
'I meant to ask Horace to go with us.'
Again a silence. Mr. Lord laid down his cup, moved a few steps away, and turned back.
'I didn't think this kind of thing was in your way,' he said gruffly. 'I thought you were above it.'
Nancy defended herself as she had done to Jessica, but without the playfulness. In listening, her father seemed to weigh the merits of the case conscientiously with wrinkled brows. At length he spoke.
'Horace is no good. But if Samuel Barmby will go with you, I make no objection.'
A movement of annoyance was Nancy's first reply. She drummed with her fingers on the table, looking fixedly before her.
'I certainly can't ask Mr. Barmby to come with us,' she said, with an effort at self-control.
'Well, you needn't. I'll speak about it myself.'
He waited, and again it chanced that their eyes met. Nancy, on the point of speaking, checked herself. A full minute passed, and Stephen stood waiting patiently.
'If you insist upon it,' said Nancy, rising from her chair, 'we will take Mr. Barmby with us.'
Without comment, Mr. Lord left the room, and his own door closed rather loudly behind him.
Not long afterwards Nancy heard a new foot in the passage, and her brother made his appearance. Horace had good looks, but his face showed already some of the unpleasant characteristics which time had developed on that of Stephen Lord, and from which the daughter was entirely free; one judged him slow of intellect and weakly self-willed. His hair was of pale chestnut, the silky pencillings of his moustache considerably darker. His cheek, delicately pink and easily changing to a warmer hue, his bright-coloured lips, and the limpid glistening of his eyes, showed him of frail constitution; he was very slim, and narrow across the shoulders. The fashion of his attire tended to a dandiacal extreme,—modish silk hat, lavender necktie, white waistcoat, gaiters over his patent-leather shoes, gloves crushed together in one hand, and in the other a bamboo cane. For the last year or two he had been progressing in this direction, despite his father's scornful remarks and his sister's good-natured mockery.
'Father in yet?' he asked at the door of the dining-room, in subdued voice.
Nancy nodded, and the young man withdrew to lay aside his outdoor equipments.
'What sort of temper?' was his question when he returned.
'Pretty good—until I spoilt it.'
Horace exhibited a pettish annoyance.
'What on earth did you do that for? I want to have a talk with him to-night.'
'Oh, never mind; I'll tell you after.'
Both kept their voices low, as if afraid of being overheard in the next room. Horace began to nibble at a biscuit; the hour of his return made it unnecessary for him, as a rule, to take anything before dinner, but at present he seemed in a nervous condition, and acted mechanically.
'Come out into the garden, will you?' he said, after receiving a brief explanation of what had passed between Nancy and her father. 'I've something to tell you.'
His sister carelessly assented, and with heads uncovered they went through the house into the open air. The garden was but a strip of ground, bounded by walls of four feet high; in the midst stood a laburnum, now heavy with golden bloom, and at the end grew a holly-bush, flanked with laurels; a border flower-bed displayed Stephen Lord's taste and industry. Nancy seated herself on a rustic bench in the shadow of the laburnum, and Horace stood before her, one of the branches in his hand.
'I promised Fanny to take her to-morrow night,' he began awkwardly.
'Oh, you have?'
'And we're going together in the morning, you know.'
'I know now. I didn't before,' Nancy replied.
'Of course we can make a party in the evening.'
Horace looked up at the ugly house-backs, and hesitated before proceeding.
'That isn't what I wanted to talk about,' he said at length. 'A very queer thing has happened, a thing I can't make out at all.'
The listener looked her curiosity.
'I promised to say nothing about it, but there's no harm in telling you, you know. You remember I was away last Saturday afternoon? Well, just when it was time to leave the office, that day, the porter came to say that a lady wished to see me—a lady in a carriage outside. Of course I couldn't make it out at all, but I went down as quickly as possible, and saw the carriage waiting there,—a brougham,—and marched up to the door. Inside there was a lady—a great swell, smiling at me as if we were friends. I took off my hat, and said that I was Mr. Lord. "Yes," she said, "I see you are;" and she asked if I could spare her an hour or two, as she wished to speak to me of something important. Well, of course I could only say that I had nothing particular to do,—that I was just going home. "Then will you do me the pleasure," she said, "to come and have lunch with me? I live in Weymouth Street, Portland Place."
The young man paused to watch the effect of his narrative, especially of the last words. Nancy returned his gaze with frank astonishment.
'What sort of lady was it?' she asked.
'Oh, a great swell. Somebody in the best society—you could see that at once.'
'But how old?'
'Well, I couldn't tell exactly; about forty, I should think.'
'One couldn't refuse, you know; I was only too glad to go to a house in the West End. She opened the carriage-door from the inside, and I got in, and off we drove. I felt awkward, of course, but after all I was decently dressed, and I suppose I can behave like a gentleman, and—well, she sat looking at me and smiling, and I could only smile back. Then she said she must apologise for behaving so strangely, but I was very young, and she was an old woman,—one couldn't call her that, though,—and she had taken this way of renewing her acquaintance with me. Renewing? But I didn't remember to have ever met her before, I said. "Oh, yes, we have met before, but you were a little child, a baby in fact, and there's no wonder you don't remember me?" And then she said, "I knew your mother very well."
Nancy leaned forward, her lips apart.
'Queer, wasn't it? Then she went on to say that her name was Mrs. Damerel; had I ever heard it? No, I couldn't remember the name at all. She was a widow, she said, and had lived mostly abroad for a great many years; now she was come back to settle in England. She hadn't a house of her own yet, but lived at a boarding-house; she didn't know whether to take a house in London, or somewhere just out in the country. Then she began to ask about father, and about you; and it seemed to amuse her when I looked puzzled. She's a jolly sort of person, always laughing.'
'Did she say anything more about our mother?'
'I'll tell you about that presently. We got to the house, and went in, and she took me upstairs to her own private sitting-room, where the table was laid for two. She said that she usually had her meals with the other people, but it would be better for us to be alone, so that we could talk.'
'How did she know where to find you?' Nancy inquired.
'Of course I wondered about that, but I didn't like to ask. Well, she went away for a few minutes, and then we had lunch. Everything was A-1 of course; first-rate wines to choose from, and a rattling good cigar afterwards—for me, I mean. She brought out a box; said they were her husband's, and had a laugh about it.'
'How long has she been a widow?' asked Nancy.
'I don't know. She didn't wear colours, I noticed; perhaps it was a fashionable sort of mourning. We talked about all sorts of things; I soon made myself quite at home. And at last she began to explain. She was a friend of mother's, years and years ago, and father was the cause of their parting, a quarrel about something, she didn't say exactly what. And it had suddenly struck her that she would like to know how we were getting on. Then she asked me to promise that I would tell no one.'
'She knew about mother's death, I suppose?'
'Oh yes, she knew about that. It happened not very long after the affair that parted them. She asked a good many questions about you. And she wanted to know how father had got on in his business.'
'What did you say?'
'Oh, I told her I really didn't know much about it, and she laughed at that.'
'How long did you stay there?'
'Till about four. But there's something else. Before I went away she gave me an invitation for next Saturday. She wants me to meet her at Portland Road Station, and go out to Richmond, and have dinner there.'
'Shall you go?'
'Well, it's very awkward. I want to go somewhere else on Saturday, with Fanny. But I didn't see how to refuse.'
Nancy wore a look of grave reflection, and kept silence.
'It isn't a bad thing, you know,' pursued her brother, 'to have a friend of that sort. There's no knowing what use she might be, especially just now.'
His tone caused Nancy to look up.
'Why just now?'
'I'll tell you after I've had a talk with father to-night,' Horace replied, setting his countenance to a show of energetic resolve.
'Shall I guess what you're going to talk about?'
'If you like.'
She gazed at him.
'You're surely not so silly as to tell father about all that nonsense?'
'What nonsense?' exclaimed the other indignantly.
'Why, with Fanny French.'
'You'll find that it's anything but nonsense,' Horace replied, raising his brows, and gazing straight before him, with expanded nostrils.
'All right. Let me know the result. It's time to go in.'
Horace sat alone for a minute or two, his legs at full length, his feet crossed, and the upper part of his body bent forward. He smiled to himself, a smile of singular fatuity, and began to hum a popular tune.
When they assembled at table, Mr. Lord had recovered his moderate cheerfulness. Essentially, he was anything but ill-tempered; Horace and Nancy were far from regarding him with that resentful bitterness which is produced in the victims of a really harsh parent. Ten years ago, as they well remembered, anger was a rare thing in his behaviour to them, and kindness the rule. Affectionate he had never shown himself; reserve and austerity had always distinguished him. Even now-a-days, it was generally safe to anticipate mildness from him at the evening meal. In the matter of eating and drinking his prudence notably contradicted his precepts. He loved strong meats, dishes highly flavoured, and partook of them without moderation. At table his beverage was ale; for wine—unless it were very sweet port—he cared little; but in the privacy of his own room, whilst smoking numberless pipes of rank tobacco, he indulged freely in spirits. The habit was unknown to his children, but for some years he had seldom gone to bed in a condition that merited the name of sobriety.
When the repast was nearly over, Mr. Lord glanced at his son and said unconcernedly:
'You have heard that Nancy wants to mix with the rag-tag and bobtail to-morrow night?'
'I shall take care of her,' Horace replied, starting from his reverie.
'Doesn't it seem to you rather a come-down for an educated young lady?'
'Oh, there'll be lots of them about.'
'Will there? Then I can't see much difference between them and the servant girls.'
Nancy put in a word.
'That shows you don't in the least understand me, father.'
'We won't argue about it. But bear in mind, Horace, that you bring your sister back not later than half-past eleven. You are to be here by half-past eleven.'
'That's rather early,' replied the young man, though in a submissive tone.
'It's the hour I appoint. Samuel Barmby will be with you, and he will know the arrangement; but I tell you now, so that there may be no misunderstanding.'
Nancy sat in a very upright position, displeasure plain upon her countenance. But she made no remark. Horace, who had his reasons for desiring to preserve a genial tone, affected acquiescence. Presently he and his sister went upstairs to the drawing-room, where they sat down at a distance apart—Nancy by the window, gazing at the warm clouds above the roofs opposite, the young man in a corner which the dusk already shadowed. Some time passed before either spoke, and it was Horace's voice which first made itself heard.
'Nancy, don't you think it's about time we began to behave firmly?'
'It depends what you mean by firmness,' she answered in an absent tone.
'We're old enough to judge for ourselves.'
'I am, no doubt. But I'm not so sure about you.'
'Oh, all right. Then we won't talk about it.'
Another quarter of an hour went by. The room was in twilight. There came a knock at the door, and Mary Woodruff, a wax-taper in her hand, entered to light the gas. Having drawn the blind, and given a glance round to see that everything was in order, she addressed Nancy, her tone perfectly respectful, though she used no formality.
'Martha has been asking me whether she can go out to-morrow night for an hour or two.'
'You don't wish to go yourself?' Miss. Lord returned, her voice significant of life-long familiarity.
And Mary showed one of her infrequent smiles.
'She may go immediately after dinner, and be away till half-past ten.'
The servant bent her head, and withdrew. As soon as she was gone, Horace laughed.
'There you are! What did father say?'
Nancy was silent.
'Well, I'm going to have a word with him,' continued the young man, sauntering towards the door with his hands in his pockets. He looked exceedingly nervous. 'When I come back, I may have something to tell you.'
'Very likely,' remarked his sister in a dry tone, and seated herself under the chandelier with a book.
Horace slowly descended the stairs. At the foot he stood for a moment, then moved towards his father's door. Another hesitancy, though briefer, and he knocked for admission, which was at once granted. Mr. Lord sat in his round-backed chair, smoking a pipe, on his knees an evening paper. He looked at Horace from under his eyebrows, but with good humour.
'Coming to report progress?'
'Yes, father,—and to talk over things in general.'
The slim youth—he could hardly be deemed more than a lad tried to assume an easy position, with his elbow on the corner of the mantelpiece; but his feet shuffled, and his eyes strayed vacantly. It cost him an effort to begin his customary account of how things were going with him at the shipping-office. In truth, there was nothing particular to report; there never was anything particular; but Horace always endeavoured to show that he had made headway, and to-night he spoke with a very pronounced optimism.
'Very well, my boy,' said his father. 'If you are satisfied, I shall try to be the same. Have you your pipe with you?—At your age I hadn't begun to smoke, and I should advise you to be moderate; but we'll have a whiff together, if you like.'
'I'll go and fetch it,' Horace replied impulsively.
He came back with a rather expensive meerschaum, recently purchased.
'Hollo! luxuries!' exclaimed his father.
'It kept catching my eye in a window,—and at last I couldn't resist. Tobacco's quite a different thing out of a pipe like this, you know.'
No one, seeing them thus together, could have doubted of the affectionate feeling which Stephen Lord entertained for his son. It appeared in his frequent glances, in the relaxation of his features, in a certain abandonment of his whole frame, as though he had only just begun to enjoy the evening's repose.
'I've something rather important to speak about, father,' Horace began, when he had puffed for a few minutes in silence.
'Oh? What's that?'
'You remember telling me, when I was one and twenty, that you wished me to work my way up, and win an income of my own, but that I could look to you for help, if ever there was need of it—?'
Yes, Stephen remembered. He had frequently called it to mind, and wondered whether it was wisely said, the youth's character considered.
'What of that?' he returned, still genially. 'Do you think of starting a new line of ocean steamships?'
'Well, not just yet,' Horace answered, with an uncertain laugh. 'I have something more moderate in view. I may start a competition with the P. and O. presently.'
'Let's hear about it.'
'I dare say it will surprise you a little. The fact is, I—I am thinking of getting married.'
The father did not move, but smoke ceased to issue from his lips, and his eyes, fixed upon Horace, widened a little in puzzled amusement.
'Thinking of it, are you?' he said, in an undertone, as one speaks of some trifle. 'No harm in thinking. Too many people do it without thinking at all.'
'I'm not one of that kind,' said Horace, with an air of maturity which was meant to rebuke his father's jest. 'I know what I'm about. I've thought it over thoroughly. You don't think it too soon, I hope?'
Horace's pipe was going out; he held it against his knee and regarded it with unconscious eyes.
'I dare say it won't be,' said Mr. Lord, 'when you have found a suitable wife.'
'Oh, but you misunderstand me. I mean that I have decided to marry a particular person.'
'And who may that be?'
'The younger Miss. French—Fanny.'
His voice quivered over the name; at the end he gave a gasp and a gulp. Of a sudden his lips and tongue were very dry, and he felt a disagreeable chill running down his back. For the listener's face had altered noticeably; it was dark, stern, and something worse. But Mr. Lord could still speak with self-control.
'You have asked her to marry you?'
'Yes, I have; and she has consented.'
Horace felt his courage returning, like the so-called 'second wind' of a runner. It seemed to him that he had gone through the worst. The disclosure was made, and had resulted in no outbreak of fury; now he could begin to plead his cause. Imagination, excited by nervous stress, brought before him a clear picture of the beloved Fanny, with fluffy hair upon her forehead and a laugh on her never-closed lips. He spoke without effort.
'I thought that there would be no harm in asking you to help us. We should be quite content to start on a couple of hundred a year—quite. That is only about fifty pounds more than we have.'
Calf-love inspires many an audacity. To Horace there seemed nothing outrageous in this suggestion. He had talked it over with Fanny French several times, and they had agreed that his father could not in decency offer them less than a hundred a year. He began to shake out the ashes from his pipe, with a vague intention of relighting it.
'You really imagine,' said his father, 'that I should give you money to enable you to marry that idiot?'
Evidently he put a severe restraint upon himself. The veins of his temples were congested; his nostrils grew wide; and he spoke rather hoarsely. Horace straightened his back, and, though in great fear, strung himself for conflict.
'I don't see—what right—to insult the young lady.'
His father took him up sternly.
'Young lady? What do you mean by "young lady"? After all your education, haven't you learnt to distinguish a lady from a dressed-up kitchen wench? I had none of your advantages. There was—there would have been some excuse for me, if I had made such a fool of myself. What were you doing all those years at school, if it wasn't learning the difference between real and sham, getting to understand things better than poor folks' children? You disappointed me, and a good deal more than I ever told you. I had hoped you would come from school better able to make a place in the world than your father was. I made up my mind long ago that you should never go into my business; you were to be something a good deal better. But after all you couldn't, or wouldn't, do what I wanted. Never mind—I said to myself—never mind; at all events, he has learnt to think in a better way than if I had sent him to common schools, and after all that's the main thing. But here you come to me and talk of marrying a low-bred, low-minded creature, who wouldn't be good enough for the meanest clerk!'
'How do you know that, father? What—what right have you to say such things, without knowing more of her than you do?'
There was a brief silence before Mr. Lord spoke again.
'You are very young,' he said, with less vehement contempt. 'I must remember that. At your age, a lad has a sort of devil in him, that's always driving him out of the path of common sense, whether he will or no. I'll try my best to talk quietly with you. Does your sister know what has been going on?'
'I daresay she does. I haven't told her in so many words.'
'I never thought of it,' pursued Mr. Lord gloomily. 'I took it for granted that everybody must see those people as I myself did. I have wondered now and then why Nancy kept up any kind of acquaintance with them, but she spoke of them in the rational way, and that seemed enough. I may have thought that they might get some sort of good out of her, and I felt sure she had too much sense to get harm from them. If it hadn't been so, I should have forbidden her to know them at all. What have you to say for yourself? I don't want to think worse of you than I need. I can make allowance for your age, as I said. What do you see in that girl? Just talk to me freely and plainly.'
'After all you have said,' replied Horace, his voice still shaky, 'what's the use? You seem to be convinced that there isn't a single good quality in her.'
'So I am. What I want to know is, what good you have found.'
'A great deal, else I shouldn't have asked her to marry me.'
A vein of stubbornness, unmistakable inheritance from Stephen Lord, had begun to appear in the youth's speech and bearing. He kept his head bent, and moved it a little from side to side.
'Do you think her an exception in the family, then?'
'She's a great deal better in every way than her sisters. But I don't think as badly of them as you do.'
Mr. Lord stepped to the door, and out into the passage, where he shouted in his deep voice 'Nancy!' The girl quickly appeared.
'Shut the door, please,' said her father. All three were now standing about the room. 'Your brother has brought me a piece of news. It ought to interest you, I should think. He wants to marry, and out of all the world, he has chosen Miss. French—the youngest.' Horace's position was trying. He did not know what to do with his hands, and he kept balancing now on one foot, now on the other. Nancy had her eyes averted from him, but she met her father's look gravely.
'Now, I want to ask you,' Mr. Lord proceeded, 'whether you consider Miss. French a suitable wife for your brother? Just give me a plain yes or no.'
'I certainly don't,' replied the girl, barely subduing the tremor of her voice.
'Both my children are not fools, thank Heaven! Now tell me, if you can, what fault you have to find with the "young lady," as your brother calls her?'
'For one thing, I don't think her Horace's equal. She can't really be called a lady.'
'You are listening?'
Horace bit his lip in mortification, and again his head swung doggedly from side to side.
'We might pass over that,' added Mr. Lord. 'What about her character? Is there any good point in her?'
'I don't think she means any harm. But she's silly, and I've often thought her selfish.'
'You are listening?'
Horace lost patience.
'Then why do you pretend to be friends with her?' he demanded almost fiercely.
'I don't,' replied his sister, with a note of disdain. 'We knew each other at school, and we haven't altogether broken off, that's all.'
'It isn't all!' shouted the young man on a high key. 'If you're not friendly with her and her sisters, you've been a great hypocrite. It's only just lately you have begun to think yourself too good for them. They used to come here, and you went to them; and you talked just like friends would do. It's abominable to turn round like this, for the sake of taking father's side against me!'
Mr. Lord regarded his son contemptuously. There was a rather long silence; he spoke at length with severe deliberation.
'When you are ten years older, you'll know a good deal more about young women as they're turned out in these times. You'll have heard the talk of men who have been fools enough to marry choice specimens. When common sense has a chance of getting in a word with you, you'll understand what I now tell you. Wherever you look now-a-days there's sham and rottenness; but the most worthless creature living is one of these trashy, flashy girls,—the kind of girl you see everywhere, high and low,—calling themselves "ladies,"—thinking themselves too good for any honest, womanly work. Town and country, it's all the same. They're educated; oh yes, they're educated! What sort of wives do they make, with their education? What sort of mothers are they? Before long, there'll be no such thing as a home. They don't know what the word means. They'd like to live in hotels, and trollop about the streets day and night. There won't be any servants much longer; you're lucky if you find one of the old sort, who knows how to light a fire or wash a dish. Go into the houses of men with small incomes; what do you find but filth and disorder, quarrelling and misery? Young men are bad enough, I know that; they want to begin where their fathers left off, and if they can't do it honestly, they'll embezzle or forge. But you'll often find there's a worthless wife at the bottom of it,—worrying and nagging because she has a smaller house than some other woman, because she can't get silks and furs, and wants to ride in a cab instead of an omnibus. It is astounding to me that they don't get their necks wrung. Only wait a bit; we shall come to that presently!'
It was a rare thing for Stephen Lord to talk at such length. He ceased with a bitter laugh, and sat down again in his chair. Horace and his sister waited.
'I've no more to say,' fell from their father at length. 'Go and talk about it together, if you like.'
Horace moved sullenly towards the door, and with a glance at his sister went out. Nancy, after lingering for a moment, spoke.
'I don't think you need have any fear of it, father.'
'Perhaps not. But if it isn't that one, it'll be another like her. There's not much choice for a lad like Horace.'
Nancy changed her purpose of leaving the room, and drew a step nearer.
'Don't you think there might have been?'
Mr. Lord turned to look at her.
'How? What do you mean?'
'I don't want to make you angry with me—'
'Say what you've got to say,' broke in her father impatiently.
'It isn't easy, when you so soon lose your temper.'
'My girl,'—for once he gazed at her directly,—'if you knew all I have gone through in life, you wouldn't wonder at my temper being spoilt.—What do you mean? What could I have done?'
She stood before him, and spoke with diffidence.
'Don't you think that if we had lived in a different way, Horace and I might have had friends of a better kind?'
'A different way?—I understand. You mean I ought to have had a big house, and made a show. Isn't that it?'
'You gave us a good education,' replied Nancy, still in the same tone, 'and we might have associated with very different people from those you have been speaking of; but education alone isn't enough. One must live as the better people do.'
'Exactly. That's your way of thinking. And how do you know that I could afford it, to begin with?'
'Perhaps I oughtn't to have taken that for granted.'
'Perhaps not. Young women take a good deal for granted now a-days. But supposing you were right, are you silly enough to think that richer people are better people, as a matter of course?'
'Not as a matter of course,' said Nancy. 'But I'm quite sure—I know from what I've seen—that there's more chance of meeting nice people among them.'
'What do you mean by "nice"?' Mr. Lord was lying back in his chair, and spoke thickly, as if wearied. 'People who can talk so that you forget they're only using words they've learnt like parrots?'
'No. Just the contrary. People who have something to say worth listening to.'
'If you take my advice, you'll pay less attention to what people say, and more to what they do. What's the good of a friend who won't come to see you because you live in a small house? That's the plain English of it. If I had done as I thought right, I should never have sent you to school at all. I should have had you taught at home all that's necessary to make a good girl and an honest woman, and have done my best to keep you away from the kind of life that I hate. But I hadn't the courage to act as I believed. I knew how the times were changing, and I was weak enough to be afraid I might do you an injustice. I did give you the chance of making friends among better people than your father. Didn't I use to talk to you about your school friends, and encourage you when they seemed of the right kind? And now you tell me that they don't care for your society because you live in a decent, unpretending way. I should think you're better without such friends.'
Nancy reflected, seemed about to prolong the argument, but spoke at length in another voice.
'Well, I will say good-night, father.'
It was not usual for them to see each other after dinner, so that a good-night could seldom be exchanged. The girl, drawing away, expected a response; she saw her father nod, but he said nothing.
'Good-night, father,' she repeated from a distance.
'Good-night, Nancy, good-night,' came in impatient reply.
On Tuesday afternoon, when, beneath a cloudless sky, the great London highways reeked and roared in celebration of Jubilee, Nancy and her friend Miss. Morgan walked up Grove Lane to Champion Hill. Here and there a house had decked itself with colours of loyalty; otherwise the Lane was as quiet as usual.
Champion Hill is a gravel byway, overhung with trees; large houses and spacious gardens on either hand. Here the heat of the sun was tempered. A carriage rolled softly along; a nurse with well-dressed children loitered in the shade. One might have imagined it a country road, so profound the stillness and so leafy the prospect.
A year ago, Jessica Morgan had obtained a three months' engagement as governess to two little girls, who were sent under her care to the house of their grandmother at Teignmouth. Their father, Mr Vawdrey of Champion Hill, had recently lost his wife through an illness contracted at a horse-race, where the lady sat in wind and rain for some hours. The children knew little of what is learnt from books, but were surprisingly well informed on matters of which they ought to have known nothing; they talked of theatres and race-courses, of 'the new murderer' at Tussaud's, of police-news, of notorious spendthrifts and demi-reps; discussed their grown-up acquaintances with precocious understanding, and repeated scandalous insinuations which could have no meaning for them. Jessica was supposed to teach them for two hours daily; she found it an impossibility. Nevertheless a liking grew up between her and her charges, and, save by their refusal to study, the children gave her no trouble; they were abundantly good-natured, they laughed and sported all day long, and did their best to put life into the pale, overworked governess.
Whilst living thus at the seaside, Jessica was delighted by the arrival of Nancy Lord, who came to Teignmouth for a summer holiday. With her came Mary Woodruff. The faithful servant had been ill; Mr Lord sent her down into Devon to make a complete recovery, and to act as Nancy's humble chaperon. Nancy's stay was for three weeks. The friends saw a great deal of each other, and Miss. Lord had the honour of being presented to Mrs. Tarrant, the old lady with whom Jessica lived, Mr. Vawdrey's mother-in-law. At the age of three score and ten, Mrs. Tarrant still led an active life, and talked with great volubility, chiefly of herself; Nancy learnt from her that she had been married at seventeen, and had had two children, a son and a daughter, both deceased; of relatives there remained to her only Mr Vawdrey and his family, and a grandson, Lionel Tarrant.
One evening, as Jessica returned from a ramble with the children, they encountered a young man who was greeted, without much fervour, as 'cousin Lionel.' Mr. Tarrant professed himself merely a passing visitant; he had come to inquire after the health of his grandmother, and in a day or two must keep an appointment with friends elsewhere. Notwithstanding this announcement, he remained at Teignmouth for a fortnight, exhibiting a pious assiduity in his attendance upon the old lady. Naturally, he made acquaintance with Miss. Lord, whom his cousins regarded as a great acquisition, so vivacious was she, so ready to take part in any kind of lively amusement. Mr. Tarrant had been at Oxford; his speech was marked with the University accent; he talked little, and seemed to prefer his own society. In conversation with Nancy, though scrupulously courteous and perfectly good-natured, he never forgot that she was the friend of his cousins' governess, that their intercourse must be viewed as an irregular sort of thing, and that it behoved him to support his dignity whilst condescending to a social inferior. So, at all events, it struck Miss. Lord, very sensitive in such matters. Fond of fitting people with nicknames, she called this young man sometimes 'His Royal Highness,' sometimes 'His Majesty.'
Of Mr. Tarrant's station in life nothing was discovered. His grandmother, though seemingly in possession of ample means, betrayed an indifferent education, and in her flow of gossip never referred to ancestral dignities, never made mention of the calling her husband had pursued. Mr. Vawdrey was known to be 'in business,'—a business which must be tolerably lucrative.
On their return to London, the children passed from Miss. Morgan's care into that of Mrs. Baker, who kept house for the widower at Champion Hill; but Jessica did not wholly lose sight of them, and, at their request, she persuaded Nancy Lord to make an occasional call with her. Mrs. Baker (relict, it was understood, of a military officer who had fallen in Eastern warfare) behaved to the young ladies with much friendliness. They did not meet Mr. Vawdrey.
Early in the following year, old Mrs. Tarrant, forsaking Teignmouth, came to live under her son-in-law's roof; the winter had tried her health, and henceforth she seldom left home.
To-day, as on former occasions (only two or three in all), Nancy was reluctant to approach the big house; its imposing front made her feel that she came only on sufferance; probably even Mrs. Baker did not regard her as having a right to call here on terms of equality. Yet the place touched her curiosity and her imagination; she liked to study the luxurious appointments within, and to walk about the neglected but pleasant garden, quiet and secluded as if whole counties divided it from Camberwell. In the hall she and Jessica were at once welcomed by the children, who first informed them that tea would be served out of doors, and next made known that 'cousin Lionel' was here, in Mrs. Tarrant's drawing-room. The second piece of news vexed Nancy; she resolved never to come again, unless on formal invitation.
Mrs. Baker, an agreeable woman, received them as if she were the mistress of the house. With Jessica she chatted about matters examinational, which she seemed thoroughly to understand; with Miss Lord she talked of wider subjects, in a tone not unpleasing to Nancy, seeing that it presumed, on her part, some knowledge of the polite world. It was observable that Mr. Vawdrey's daughters had benefited by the superintendence of this lady; they no longer gossiped loudly about murders and scandals, but demeaned themselves more as became their years.
On the arrival of other ladies to call upon Mrs. Baker, the children drew their friends away into the garden, where tea now awaited them. Amid the trees and flowers time passed not unpleasantly, until, on happening to turn her head, Nancy perceived at a distance the approaching figure of Mr. Lionel Tarrant. He sauntered over the grass with easy, indolent step; his straw hat and light lounge costume (excellent tailoring) suited the season and the place. Jessica, who regarded the young man with something of awe, stood up to shake hands, but Miss. Lord kept her place in the garden chair.
'Did you see the procession?' Tarrant inquired. 'Ah, then I can give you very important news—thrilling news. I know the colour of the Queen's bonnet, and of her parasol.'
'Please don't keep us in suspense,' said Nancy.
'They were of pale primrose. Touching, don't you think?'
He had seated himself crosswise on a camp-stool, and seemed to be admiring the contour of his brown boots. Lionel's age was not more than seven-and-twenty; he enjoyed sound health, and his face signified contentment with the scheme of things as it concerned himself; but a chronic languor possessed him. It might be sheer laziness, possibly a result of that mental habit, discernible In his look, whereby he had come to regard his own judgment as the criterion of all matters in heaven and earth. Yet the conceit which relaxed his muscles was in the main amiable; it never repelled as does the conceit of a fop or a weakling or a vulgar person; he could laugh heartily, even with his own affectations for a source of amusement. Of personal vanity he had little, though women esteemed him good-looking; his steady, indolent gaze made denial of such preoccupation. Nor could he be regarded as emasculate; his movements merely disguised the natural vigour of a manly frame, and his conversational trifling hinted an intellectual reserve, a latent power of mind, obvious enough in the lines of his countenance.
Nancy was excusable for supposing that he viewed her slightingly. He spoke as one who did not expect to be quite understood by such a hearer, addressing her, without the familiarity, much as he addressed his young cousins. To her, his careful observance of formalities seemed the reverse of flattering; she felt sure that with young women in his own circle he would allow himself much more freedom. Whether the disparagement applied to her intellect or to her social status might be a question; Nancy could not decide which of the two she would prefer. Today an especial uneasiness troubled her from the first moment of his appearance; she felt a stronger prompting than hitherto to assert herself, and, if possible, to surprise Mr. Tarrant. But, as if he understood her thought, his manner became only more bland, his calm aloofness more pronounced.
The children, who were never at ease in their cousin's presence, succeeded in drawing Jessica apart, and chattered to her about the educational methods imposed by Mrs. Baker, airing many grievances. They nourished a hope that Miss. Morgan might again become their governess; lessons down at Teignmouth had been nothing like so oppressive as here at Champion Hill.
Tarrant, meanwhile, having drunk a cup of tea, and touched his moustache with a silk handkerchief, transferred himself from the camp-stool to the basket chair vacated by Jessica. He was now further from Nancy, but facing her.
'I have been talking with Mrs. Bellamy,' fell from him, in the same tone of idle good nature. 'Do you know her? She has but one subject of conversation; an engrossing topic, to be sure; namely, her servants. Do you give much thought to the great servant question? I have my own modest view of the matter. It may not be novel, but my mind has worked upon it in the night watches.'
Nancy, resolved not to smile, found herself smiling. Not so much at what he said, as at the manner of it. Her resentment was falling away; she felt the influence of this imperturbable geniality.
'Shall I tell you my theory?'
He talked with less reserve than on the last occasion when they had sat together. The mellow sunlight, the garden odours, the warm, still air, favoured a growth of intimacy.
'By all means,' was Nancy's reply.
'We must begin by admitting that the ordinary woman hates nothing so much as to have another woman set in authority over her.' He paused, and laughed lazily. 'Now, before the triumph of glorious Democracy, only those women kept servants who were capable of rule,—who had by birth the instinct of authority. They knew themselves the natural superiors of their domestics, and went through an education fitting them to rule. Things worked very well; no servant-difficulty existed. Now-a-days, every woman who can afford it must have another woman to wait upon her, no matter how silly, or vulgar, or depraved she may be; the result, of course, is a spirit of rebellion in the kitchen. Who could have expected anything else?'