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- In the Year of Jubilee - 3/87 -
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 m 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 softlyrounded 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
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