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- In the Year of Jubilee - 4/87 -
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.'
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