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- In the Year of Jubilee - 6/87 -
'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 hirepurchase 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.'
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