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- In the Year of Jubilee - 70/87 -
would fatally blight his soul; that he must flee to a land of sunshine, or perish. There was little time, now, to think about his soul.
One Monday morning arrived a letter which surprised and disturbed him. It ran thus:
'Mrs. Eustace Damerel presents her compliments to Mr. Tarrant, and would take it as a great favour if he could call upon her, either to-morrow or Tuesday, at any hour between three and seven. She particularly desires to see Mr. Tarrant on a private matter of mutual interest.'
Now this could have but one meaning. Mrs. Eustace Damerel was, of course, Nancy's relative; from Nancy herself, or in some other way, she must have learnt the fact of his marriage. Probably from Nancy, since she knew where he lived. He was summoned to a judicial interview. Happily, attendance was not compulsory.
Second thoughts advised him that he had better accept the invitation. He must know what measures were in progress against him. If Nancy had already broken her word, she might be disposed to revenge herself in every way that would occur to an angry woman of small refinement; she might make life in London impossible for him.
He sat down and penned a reply, saying that he would call upon Mrs. Damerel at five to-morrow. But he did not post this. After all, a day's delay would only irritate him; better to go this afternoon, in which case it was not worth while sending an answer.
It seemed to him very probable that Nancy would be with her aunt, to confront him. If so,--if indeed she were going to act like any coarse woman, with no regard but for her own passions and Interests, --he would at least have the consolation of expelling from his mind, at once and for ever, her haunting image.
Mrs. Damerel, who during the past twelve months had changed her abode half-a-dozen times, now occupied private lodgings in Tyburnia. On his admittance, Tarrant sat alone for nearly five minutes in a pretentiously furnished room--just the room in which he had expected to find Nancy's relative; the delay and the surroundings exasperated his nervous mood, so that, when the lady entered, he behaved with slighter courtesy than became his breeding. Nothing in her appearance surprised or interested him. There was a distant facial resemblance to Nancy, natural in her mother's sister; there was expensive, though not particularly tasteful dress, and a gait, a manner, distinguishable readily enough from what they aimed at displaying--the grace of a woman born to social privilege.
It would be a humiliating conversation; Tarrant braced himself to go through with it. He stood stiffly while his hostess regarded him with shrewd eyes. She had merely bent her head.
'Will you sit down, Mr. Tarrant?'
He took a chair without speaking.
'I think you know me by name?'
'I have heard of a Mrs. Damerel.'
'Some time ago, I suppose? And in that you have the advantage of me. I heard your name yesterday for the first time.'
It was the sharp rejoinder of a woman of the world. Tarrant began to perceive that he had to do with intelligence, and would not be allowed to perform his share of the talking _de haut en bas._
'In what can I be of service to you?' he asked with constrained civility.
'You can tell me, please, what sort of connection there is between you and my niece, Miss. Lord.'
Mrs. Damerel was obviously annoyed by his demeanour, and made little effort to disguise her feeling. She gave him the look of one who does not mean to be trifled with.
'Really,' answered the young man with a smile, 'I don't know what authority you have to make such inquiries. You are not, I believe, Miss. Lord's guardian.'
'No, but I am her only relative who can act on her behalf where knowledge of the world is required. As a gentleman, you will bear this in mind. It's quite true that I can't oblige you to tell me anything; but when I say that I haven't spoken even to my niece of what I have heard, and haven't communicated with the gentlemen who _are_ her guardians, I think you will see that I am not acting in a way you ought to resent.'
'You mean, Mrs. Damerel, that what passes between us is in confidence?'
'I only mean, Mr. Tarrant, that I am giving you an opportunity of explaining yourself--so that I can keep the matter private if your explanation is satisfactory.'
'You have a charge of some kind to bring against me,' said Tarrant composedly. 'I must first of all hear what it is. The prisoner at the bar can't be prosecuting counsel at the same time.'
'Do you acknowledge that you are on intimate terms with Miss. Lord?'
'I have known her for a year or two.'
Tarrant began to exercise caution. Nancy had no hand in this matter; some one had told tales about her, that was all. He must learn, without committing himself, exactly how much had been discovered.
'Are you engaged to her?'
'Engaged to marry her? No.'
He saw in Mrs. Damerel's clear eye that she convicted him of ambiguities.
'You have not even made her a promise of marriage?'
'How much simpler, if you would advance a clear charge. I will answer it honestly.'
Mrs. Damerel seemed to weigh the value of this undertaking. Tarrant met her gaze with steady indifference.
'It may only be a piece of scandal,--a mistake, or a malicious invention. I have been told that--that you are in everything but law my niece's husband.'
They regarded each other during a moment's silence. Tarrant's look indicated rapid and anxious thought.
'It seems,' he said at length, 'that you have no great faith in the person who told you this.'
'It is the easiest matter in the world to find out whether the story is true or not. Inquiries at Falmouth would be quite sufficient, I dare say. I give you the opportunity of keeping it quiet, that's all.'
'You won't care to let me know who told you?'
'There's no reason why I shouldn't,' said Mrs. Damerel, after reflection. 'Do you know Mr. Luckworth Crewe?'
'I don't think I ever heard the name.'
'Indeed? He is well acquainted with Miss. Lord. Some one he wouldn't mention gave him all the particulars, having learnt them from Miss Lord herself, and he thought it his duty to inform me of my niece's very painful position.'
'Who is this man?' Tarrant asked abruptly.
'I am rather surprised you have never heard of him. He's a man of business. My nephew, Mr. Horace Lord, is shortly to be in partnership with him.'
'Crewe? No, the name is quite strange to me.'
Tarrant's countenance darkened; he paused for an instant, then added impatiently:
'You say he had "all the particulars." What were they, these particulars?'
'Will one be enough? A child was born at Falmouth, and is now at a place just outside London, in the care of some stranger.'
The source of this information might, or might not, be Nancy herself. In either case, there was no further hope of secrecy. Tarrant abandoned his reserve, and spoke quietly, civilly.
'So far, you have heard the truth. What have you to ask of me, now?'
'You have been abroad for a long time, I think?'
'For about a year.'
'Does that mean that you wished to see no more of her?'
'That I deserted her, in plain words? It meant nothing of the kind.'
'You are aware, then, that she has taken a place in a house of business, just as if she thought it necessary to earn her own living?'
Tarrant displayed astonishment.
'I am aware of no such thing. How long has that been going on?'
'Then you don't see her?'
'I have seen her, but she told me nothing of that.'
'There's something very strange in this, Mr. Tarrant. You seem to me to be speaking the truth. No, please don't take offence. Before I saw you, you were a total stranger to me, and after what I had heard, I couldn't think very well of you. I may as well confess that you seem a different kind of man from what I expected. I don't wish to offend you, far from it. If we can talk over this distressing
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