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- In the Year of Jubilee - 40/87 -
with the demand for vigorous action. The moment found him a sheer poltroon. 'What! Is it possible that I--_I_--am henceforth penniless? I, to whom the gods were so gracious? I, without warning, flung from sheltered comfort on to the bare road side, where I must either toil or beg?' The thing seemed unintelligible. He had never imagined such ruin of his hopes.
For the first time, he turned anxious thoughts upon the money to which his wife was--would be--might be--entitled. He computed the chances of success in the deception he and she were practising, and knew with shame that he must henceforth be party to a vulgar fraud. Could Nancy be trusted to carry through this elaborate imposition--difficult for the strongest-minded woman? Was it not a certainty that some negligence, or some accident, must disclose her secret? Then had he a wife and child upon his hands, to support even as common men support wife and child, by incessant labour. The prospect chilled him.
If he went to the West Indies, his absence would heighten the probability of Nancy's detection. Yet he desired to escape from her. Not to abandon her; of that thought he was incapable; but to escape the duty--repulsive to his imagination--of encouraging her through the various stages of their fraud. From the other side of the Atlantic he would write affectionate, consolatory letters; face to face with her, could he support the show of tenderness, go through an endless series of emotional interviews, always reminding himself that the end in view was hard cash? Not for love's sake; he loved her less than before she proved herself his wife in earnest. Veritable love--no man knew better--would have impelled him to save himself and her from a degrading position.
Was he committing himself to a criminality which the law would visit? Hardly that--until he entered into possession of money fraudulently obtained.
In miserable night-watchings, he fell to the most sordid calculations. Supposing their plot revealed, would Nancy in fact be left without resources? Surely not,--with her brother, her aunt, her lifelong friends the Barmbys, to take thought for her. She could not suffer extremities. And upon this he blushed relief.
Better to make up his mind that the secret must inevitably out. For the moment, Nancy believed she had resigned herself to his departure, and that she had strength to go through with the long ordeal. But a woman in her situation cannot be depended upon to pursue a consistent course. It is Nature's ordinance that motherhood shall be attained through phases of mental disturbance, which leave the sufferer scarce a pretence of responsibility. Nancy would play strange pranks, by which, assuredly, he would be driven to exasperation if they passed under his eyes. He had no mind to be called father; perhaps even his humanity might fail under the test to which, as a lover, he had given scarce a casual thought. By removing himself, and awaiting the issue afar off, he gained time and opportunity for reflection. Of course his wife could not come to want; that, after all, was the one clearly comforting thought. Her old servant would take good care of her, happen what might.
He must taste of liberty again before sinking into the humdrum of married life. The thought of an ocean voyage, of the new life amid tropic splendours, excited his imagination all the more because it blended with the thought of recovered freedom. Marriage had come upon him with unfair abruptness; for such a change as that, even the ordinary bachelor demands a season preparative; much more, then, the young man who revelled in a philosophic sense of detachment, who wrote his motto 'Vixi hodie!' For marriage he was simply unfit; forced together, he and his wife would soon be mutually detestable. A temporary parting might mature in the hearts of both that affection of which the seed was undeniably planted. With passion they had done; the enduring tenderness of a reasonable love must now unite them, were they to be united at all. And to give such love a chance of growing in him, Tarrant felt that he must lose sight of Nancy until her child was born.
Yes, it had begun already, the trial he dreaded. A letter from Nancy, written and posted only an hour or two after her return home --a long, distracted letter. Would he forgive her for seeming to be an obstacle in the way of what he had proposed? Would he promise her to be faithful? Would he--
He had hardly patience to read it through.
The next evening, on returning home about ten o'clock, he was startled by the sight of Nancy's figure at the foot of his staircase.
'What has happened?'
'Nothing--don't be frightened. But I wanted to see you tonight.'
She gripped his hand.
'How long have you waited? What! Hours? But this is downright madness--such a night as this! Couldn't you put a note for me in the letter-box?'
'Don't--don't speak so! I wanted to see you.' She hurried her words, as if afraid he would refuse to listen. 'I have told Mary-- I wanted you to know--'
'Come in. But there's no fire, and you're chilled through. Do you want to be ill? What outrageous silliness!'
Her vitality was indeed at a low ebb, and reproaches made her weep. Tarrant half carried her up to his room, made a light, and fell to his knees at fire-building.
'Let me do it,' Nancy exclaimed. 'Let me wait upon you--'
'If you don't sit still and keep quiet, you'll make me angry in earnest.'
'Then you're not _really_ angry with me? I couldn't help it.'
'No, I'm afraid you couldn't,' Tarrant muttered cheerlessly.
'I wanted to tell you that Mary will be our friend. She was speechless with astonishment; at first I didn't know what she would say; she looked at me as she had never looked before--as if she were the mistress, and I the servant. But see what I have come to; all I felt was a dread lest she should think it her duty to cast me off. I haven't a bit of pride left. I could have fallen on my knees before her; I almost did. But she was very good and kind and gentle at last. She'll do everything she can for me.'
The fire in a blaze, Tarrant stood up and regarded it gloomily.
'Well, did she think it possible?' he asked at length.
'Yes, she did. She said it would be very difficult, but the secret might be kept--if I were strong enough. And I _am_ strong enough --I _will_ be--'
'It doesn't look like it,' said Tarrant, taking the edge off his words with a smile.
'I won't come again in this way. Where have you been tonight?'
'Oh, with friends.'
'Which friends? where?'
He moved impatiently.
'People you don't know, Nancy, and wouldn't care about if you did. Do you know what time it is?'
'Do tell me where you have been. It isn't prying into your affairs. Your friends ought to be mine; at least, I mean, I ought to know their names, and something about them. Suppose I were to tell you I had been spending the evening with friends--'
'My dear girl, I shouldn't ask a question, unless you invited it. However, it's better to tell you that I have been making arrangements to sublet these chambers. I can't afford to keep them, even if there were any use in it. Harvey Munden has introduced me to a man who is likely to relieve me of the burden. I shall warehouse my books and furniture--'
'Then you are going? Really going to leave England?'
He affected astonishment; in truth, nothing now could surprise him.
'But wasn't it all decided between us? Didn't you repeat it in your letter?'
'Yes--I know--but I didn't think it would come so soon.'
'We won't talk about it to-night,' said Tarrant firmly. 'For one thing, there's no time. Come closer to the fire, and get warm through; then I must see you home.'
Nancy hung her head. When, in a few moments, she looked up again, it was to say drily:
'There's no need for you to see me home.'
'I'm going to, at all events.'
'Why? You don't care much about me. I might as well be run over-- or anything--'
To this remark no sort of answer was vouchsafed. Nancy sat with her feet on the fender, and Tarrant kept up a great blaze with chips, which sputtered out their moisture before they began to crackle. He and she both seemed intent on this process of combustion.
'Now you're quite warm,' said the young man, as if speaking to a child, 'and it's time to go.'
Nancy rose obediently, gazed at him with dreaming eyes, and suffered herself to be led away by the arm. In Chancery Lane, Tarrant hailed a crawling hansom. When they were driving rapidly southward, Nancy began to question him about the date of his departure; she learnt that he might be gone in less than a week.
'If you could behave quietly and sensibly, we would have an evening to make final arrangements.'
'I can,' she answered, with a calm that surprised him. 'If you go without letting me see you again, I don't know what I might do. But
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