Born in Exile, by George Gissing

Part VII

Chapter I

At the close of a sultry day in September, when factory fumes hung low over the town of St. Helen’s, and twilight thickened luridly, and the air tasted of sulphur, and the noises of the streets, muffled in their joint effect, had individually an ominous distinctness, Godwin Peak walked with languid steps to his lodgings and the meal that there awaited him. His vitality was at low ebb. The routine of his life disgusted him; the hope of release was a mockery. What was to be the limit of this effort to redeem his character? How many years before the past could be forgotten, and his claim to the style of honourable be deemed secure? Rubbish! It was an idea out of old-fashioned romances. What he was, he was, and no extent of dogged duration at St. Helen’s or elsewhere, could affect his personality. What, practically, was to be the end? If Sidwell had no money of her own, and no expectations from her father, how could she ever become his wife? Women liked this kind of thing, this indefinite engagement to marry when something should happen, which in all likelihood never would happen — this fantastic mutual fidelity with only the airiest reward. Especially women of a certain age.

A heavy cart seemed to be rumbling in the next street. No, it was thunder. If only a good rattling storm would sweep the bituminous atmosphere, and allow a breath of pure air before midnight.

She could not be far from thirty. Of course there prevails much conventional nonsense about women’s age; there are plenty of women who reckon four decades, and yet retain all the essential charm of their sex. And as a man gets older, as he begins to persuade himself that at forty one has scarce reached the prime of life ——

The storm was coming on in earnest. Big drops began to fall. He quickened his pace, reached home, and rang the bell for a light.

His landlady came in with the announcement that a gentleman had called to see him, about an hour ago; he would come again at seven o’clock.

‘What name?’

None had been given. A youngish gentleman, speaking like a Londoner.

It might be Earwaker, but that was not likely. Godwin sat down to his plain meal, and after it lit a pipe. Thunder was still rolling, but now in the distance. He waited impatiently for seven o’clock.

To the minute, sounded a knock at the house-door. A little delay, and there appeared Christian Moxey.

Godwin was surprised and embarrassed. His visitor had a very grave face, and was thinner, paler, than three years ago; he appeared to hesitate, but at length offered his hand.

‘I got your address from Earwaker. I was obliged to see you — on business.’

‘Business?’

‘May I take my coat off? We shall have to talk.’

They sat down, and Godwin, unable to strike the note of friendship lest he should be met with repulse, broke silence by regretting that Moxey should have had to make a second call.

‘Oh, that’s nothing! I went and had dinner. — Peak, my sister is dead.’

Their eyes met; something of the old kindness rose to either face.

‘That must be a heavy blow to you,’ murmured Godwin, possessed with a strange anticipation which he would not allow to take clear form.

‘It is. She was ill for three months.’ Whilst staying in the country last June she met with an accident. She went for a long walk alone one day, and in a steep lane she came up with a carter who was trying to make a wretched horse drag a load beyond its strength. The fellow was perhaps half drunk; he stood there beating the horse unmercifully. Marcella couldn’t endure that kind of thing — impossible for her to pass on and say nothing. She interfered, and tried to persuade the man to lighten his cart. He was insolent, attacked the horse more furiously than ever, and kicked it so violently in the stomach that it fell. Even then he wouldn’t stop his brutality. Marcella tried to get between him and the animal — just as it lashed out with its heels. The poor girl was so badly injured that she lay by the roadside until another carter took her up and brought her back to the village. Three months of accursed suffering, and then happily came the end.’

A far, faint echoing of thunder filled the silence of their voices. Heavy rain splashed upon the pavement.

‘She said to me just before her death,’ resumed Christian, ‘“I have ill luck when I try to do a kindness — but perhaps there is one more chance.” I didn’t know what she meant till afterwards. Peak, she has left nearly all her money to you.’

Godwin knew it before the words were spoken. His heart leaped, and only the dread of being observed enabled him to control his features. When his tongue was released he said harshly:

‘Of course I can’t accept it.’

The words were uttered independently of his will. He had no such thought, and the sound of his voice shook him with alarm.

‘Why can’t you?’ returned Christian.

‘I have no right — it belongs to you, or to some other relative — it would be’——

His stammering broke off. Flushes and chills ran through him; he could not raise his eyes from the ground.

‘It belongs to no one but you,’ said Moxey, with cold persistence. ‘Her last wish was to do you a kindness, and I, at all events, shall never consent to frustrate her intention. The legacy represents something more than eight hundred a year, as the investments now stand. This will make you independent — of everything and everybody.’ He looked meaningly at the listener. ‘Her own life was not a very happy one; she did what she could to save yours from a like doom.’

Godwin at last looked up.

‘Did she speak of me during her illness?’

‘She asked me once, soon after the accident, what had become of you. As I knew from Earwaker, I was able to tell her.’

A long silence followed. Christian’s voice was softer when he resumed.

‘You never knew her. She was the one woman in ten thousand — at once strong and gentle; a fine intellect, and a heart of rare tenderness. But because she had not the kind of face that’——

He checked himself.

‘To the end her mind kept its clearness and courage. One day she reminded me of Heine — how we had talked of that “conversion” on the mattress-grave, and had pitied the noble intellect subdued by disease. “I shan’t live long enough,” she said, “to incur that danger. What I have thought ever since I could study, I think now, and shall to the last moment.” I buried her without forms of any kind, in the cemetery at Kingsmill. That was what she wished. I should have despised myself if I had lacked that courage.’

‘It was right,’ muttered Godwin.

‘And I wear no mourning, you see. All that kind of thing is ignoble. I am robbed of a priceless companionship, but I don’t care to go about inviting people’s pity. If only I could forget those months of suffering! Some day I shall, perhaps, and think of her only as she lived.’

‘Were you alone with her all the time?’

‘No. Our cousin Janet was often with us.’ Christian spoke with averted face. ‘You don’t know, of course, that she has gone in for medical work — practises at Kingsmill. The accident was at a village called Lowton, ten miles or more from Kingsmill. Janet came over very often.’

Godwin mused on this development of the girl whom he remembered so well. He could not direct his thoughts; a languor had crept over him.

‘Do you recollect, Peak,’ said Christian, presently, ‘the talk we had in the fields by Twybridge, when we first met?’

The old friendliness was reappearing in his manner, He was yielding to the impulse to be communicative, confidential, which had always characterised him.

‘I remember,’ Godwin murmured.

‘If only my words then had had any weight with you! And if only I had acted upon my own advice! Just for those few weeks I was sane; I understood something of life; I saw my true way before me. You and I have both gone after ruinous ideals, instead of taking the solid good held out to us. Of course, I know your story in outline. I don’t ask you to talk about it. You are independent now, and I hope you can use your freedom. — Well, and I too am free.’

The last words were in a lower tone. Godwin glanced at the speaker, whose sadness was not banished, but illumined with a ray of calm hope.

‘Have you ever thought of me and my infatuation?’ Christian asked.

‘Yes.’

‘I have outlived that mawkish folly. I used to drink too much; the two things went well together. It would shame me to tell you all about it. But, happily, I have been able to go back about thirteen years — recover my old sane self — and with it what I then threw away.’

‘I understand.’

‘Do you? Marcella knew of it, just before her death, and it made her glad. But the waste of years, the best part of a lifetime! It’s incredible to me as I look back. Janet called on us one day in London. Heaven be thanked that she was forgiving enough to do so! What would have become of me now?’

‘How are you going to live, then?’ Godwin asked, absently.

‘How? My income is sufficient’——

‘No, no; I mean, where and how will you live in your married life?’

‘That’s still uncertain. Janet mustn’t go on with professional work. In any case, I don’t think she could for long; her strength isn’t equal to it. But I shouldn’t wonder if we settle in Kingsmill. To you it would seem intolerable? But why should we live in London? At Kingsmill Janet has a large circle of friends; in London we know scarcely half-a-dozen people — of the kind it would give us any pleasure to live with. We shall have no lack of intellectual society; Janet knows some of the Whitelaw professors. The atmosphere of Kingsmill isn’t illiberal, you know; we shan’t be fought shy of because we object to pass Sundays in a state of coma. But the years that I have lost! The irrecoverable years!’

‘There’s nothing so idle as regretting the past,’ said Godwin, with some impatience. ‘Why groan over what couldn’t be otherwise? The probability is, Janet and you are far better suited to each other now than you ever would have been if you had married long ago.’

‘You think that?’ exclaimed the other, eagerly. ‘I have tried to see it in that light. If I didn’t feel so despicable!’

‘She, I take it, doesn’t think you so,’ Godwin muttered.

‘But how can she understand? I have tried to tell her everything, but she refused to listen. Perhaps Marcella told her all she cared to know.’

‘No doubt.’

Each brooded for a while over his own affairs, then Christian reverted to the subject which concerned them both.

‘Let us speak frankly. You will take this gift of Marcella’s as it was meant?’

How was it meant? Critic and analyst as ever, Godwin could not be content to see in it the simple benefaction of a woman who died loving him. Was it not rather the last subtle device of jealousy? Marcella knew that the legacy would be a temptation he could scarcely resist — and knew at the same time that, if he accepted it, he practically renounced his hope of marrying Sidwell Warricombe. Doubtless she had learned as much as she needed to know of Sidwell’s position. Refusing this bequest, he was as far as ever from the possibility of asking Sidwell to marry him. Profiting by it, he stood for ever indebted to Marcella, must needs be grateful to her, and some day, assuredly, would reveal the truth to whatever woman became his wife. Conflict of reasonings and emotions made it difficult to answer Moxey’s question.

‘I must take time to think of it,’ he said, at length.

‘Well, I suppose that is right. But — well, I know so little of your circumstances’——

‘Is that strictly true?’ Peak asked.

‘Yes. I have only the vaguest idea of what you have been doing since you left us. Of course I have tried to find out.’

Godwin smiled, rather gloomily.

‘We won’t talk of it. I suppose you stay in St. Helen’s for the night?’

‘There’s a train at 10.20. I had better go by it.’

‘Then let us forget everything but your own cheerful outlook. At ten, I’ll walk with you to the station.’

Reluctantly at first, but before long with a quiet abandonment to the joy that would not be suppressed, Christian talked of his future wife. In Janet he found every perfection. Her mind was something more than the companion of his own. Already she had begun to inspire him with a hopeful activity, and to foster the elements of true manliness which he was conscious of possessing, though they had never yet had free play. With a sense of luxurious safety, he submitted to her influence, knowing none the less that it was in his power to complete her imperfect life. Studiously he avoided the word ‘ideal’; from such vaporous illusions he had turned to the world’s actualities; his language dealt with concretes, with homely satisfactions, with prospects near enough to be soberly examined.

A hurry to catch the train facilitated parting. Godwin promised to write in a few days.

He took a roundabout way back to his lodgings. The rain was over, the sky had become placid. He was conscious of an effect from Christian’s conversation which half counteracted the mood he would otherwise have indulged — the joy of liberty and of an outlook wholly new. Sidwell might perchance be to him all that Janet was to Christian. Was it not the luring of ‘ideals’ that prompted him to turn away from his long hope?

There must be no more untruthfulness. Sidwell must have all the facts laid before her, and make her choice.

Without a clear understanding of what he was going to write, he sat down at eleven o’clock, and began, ‘Dear Miss Warricombe’. Why not ‘Dear Sidwell’? He took another sheet of paper.

‘Dear Sidwell — To-night I can remember only your last word to me when we parted. I cannot address you coldly, as though half a stranger. Thus long I have kept silence about everything but the outward events of my life; now, in telling you of something that has happened, I must speak as I think.

‘Early this evening I was surprised by a visit from Christian Moxey — a name you know. He came to tell me that his sister (she of whom I once spoke to you) was dead, and had bequeathed to me a large sum of money. He said that it represented an income of eight hundred pounds.

‘I knew nothing of Miss Moxey’s illness, and the news of her will came to me as a surprise. In word or deed, I never sought more than her simple friendship — and even that I believed myself to have forfeited.

‘If I were to refuse this money, it would be in consequence of a scruple which I do not in truth respect. Christian Moxey tells me that his sister’s desire was to enable me to live the life of a free man; and if I have any duty at all in the matter, surely it does not constrain me to defeat her kindness. No condition whatever is attached. The gift releases me from the necessity of leading a hopeless existence — leaves me at liberty to direct my life how I will.

‘I wish, then, to put aside all thoughts of how this opportunity came to me, and to ask you if you are willing to be my wife.

‘Though I have never written a word of love, my love is unchanged. The passionate hope of three years ago still rules my life. Is your love strong enough to enable you to disregard all hindrances? I cannot of course know whether, in your sight, dishonour still clings to me, or whether you understand me well enough to have forgiven and forgotten those hateful things in the past. Is it yet too soon? Do you wish me still to wait, still to prove myself? Is your interest in the free man less than in the slave? For my life has been one of slavery and exile — exile, if you know what I mean by it, from the day of my birth.

‘Dearest, grant me this great happiness! We can live where we will. I am not rich enough to promise all the comforts and refinements to which you are accustomed, but we should be safe from sordid anxieties. We can travel; we can make a home in any European city. It would be idle to speak of the projects and ambitions that fill my mind — but surely I may do something worth doing, win some position among intellectual men of which you would not be ashamed. You yourself urged me to hope that. With you at my side — Silwell grant me this chance, that I may know the joy of satisfied love! I am past the me to hope that. With you at my side — Sidwell, grant me this age which is misled by vain fancies. I have suffered unspeakably, longed for the calm strength, the pure, steady purpose which would result to me from a happy marriage. There is no fatal divergence between our minds; did you not tell me that? You said that if I had been truthful from the first, you might have loved me with no misgiving. Forget the madness into which I was betrayed. There is no soil upon my spirit. I offer you love as noble as any man is capable of. Think — think well — before replying to me; let your true self prevail. You did love me, dearest. ——

Yours ever, Godwin Peak.’

At first he wrote slowly, as though engaged on a literary composition, with erasions, insertions. Facts once stated, he allowed himself to forget how Sidwell would most likely view them, and thereafter his pen hastened: fervour inspired the last paragraph. Sidwell’s image had become present to him, and exercised all — or nearly all — its old influence.

The letter must be copied, because of that laboured beginning. Copying one’s own words is at all times a disenchanting drudgery, and when the end was reached Godwin signed his name with hasty contempt. What answer could he expect to such an appeal? How vast an improbability that Sidwell would consent to profit by the gift of Marcella Moxey!

Yet how otherwise could he write? With what show of sincerity could he offer to refuse the bequest? Nay, in that case he must not offer to do so, but simply state the fact that his refusal was beyond recall. Logically, he had chosen the only course open to him — for to refuse independence was impossible.

A wheezy clock in his landlady’s kitchen was striking two. For very fear of having to revise his letter in the morning, he put it into its envelope, and went out to the nearest pillar-post.

That was done. Whether Sidwell answered with ‘Yes’ or with ‘No’, he was a free man.

On the morrow he went to his work as usual, and on the day after that. The third morning might bring a reply — but did not. On the evening of the fifth day, when he came home, there lay the expected letter. He felt it; it was light and thin. That hideous choking of suspense — Well, it ran thus:

‘I cannot. It is not that I am troubled by your accepting the legacy. You have every right to do so, and I know that your life will justify the hopes of her who thus befriended you. But I am too weak to take this step. To ask you to wait yet longer, would only be a fresh cowardice. You cannot know how it shames me to write this. In my very heart I believe I love you, but what is such love worth? You must despise me, and you will forget me. I live in a little world; in the greater world where your place is, you will win a love very different.

S. W.’

Godwin laughed aloud as the paper dropped from his hand.

Well, she was not the heroine of a romance. Had he expected her to leave home and kindred — the ‘little world’ so infinitely dear to her — and go forth with a man deeply dishonoured? Very young girls have been known to do such a thing; but a thoughtful mature woman ——! Present, his passion had dominated her: and perhaps her nerves only. But she had had time to recover from that weakness.

A woman, like most women of cool blood, temperate fancies. A domestic woman; the ornament of a typical English home.

Most likely it was true that the matter of the legacy did not trouble her. In any case she would not have consented to marry him, and therefore she knew no jealousy. Her love! why, truly, what was it worth?

(Much, much! of no less than infinite value. He knew it, but this was not the moment for such a truth.)

A cup of tea to steady the nerves. Then thoughts, planning, world-building.

He was awake all night, and Sidwell’s letter lay within reach. — Did she sleep calmly? Had she never stretched out her hand for his letter, when all was silent? There were men who would not take such a refusal. A scheme to meet her once more — the appeal of passion, face to face, heart to heart — the means of escape ready — and then the ‘greater world’——

But neither was he cast in heroic mould. He had not the self-confidence, he had not the hot, youthful blood. A critic of life, an analyst of moods and motives; not the man who dares and acts. The only important resolve he had ever carried through was a scheme of ignoble trickery — to end in frustration.

‘The greater world’. It was a phrase that had been in his own mind once or twice since Moxey’s visit. To point him thither was doubtless the one service Sidwell could render him. And in a day or two, that phrase was all that remained to him of her letter.

On a Sunday afternoon at the end of October, Godwin once more climbed the familiar stairs at Staple Inn, and was welcomed by his friend Earwaker. The visit was by appointment. Earwaker knew all about the legacy; that it was accepted; and that Peak had only a few days to spend in London, on his way to the Continent.

‘You are regenerated,’ was his remark as Godwin entered.

‘Do I look it? Just what I feel. I have shaken off a good (or a bad) ten years.’

The speaker’s face, at all events in this moment, was no longer that of a man at hungry issue with the world. He spoke cheerily.

‘It isn’t often that fortune does a man such a kind turn. One often hears it said: If only I could begin life again with all the experience I have gained! That is what I can do. I can break utterly with the past, and I have learnt how to live in the future.’

‘Break utterly with the past?’

‘In the practical sense. And even morally to a great extent.’

Earwaker pushed a box of cigars across the table. Godwin accepted the offer, and began to smoke. During these moments of silence, the man of letters had been turning over a weekly paper, as if in search of some paragraph; a smile announced his discovery.

‘Here is something that will interest you — possibly you have seen it.’

He began to read aloud:

‘“On the 23rd inst. was celebrated at St. Bragg’s, Torquay, the marriage of the Rev. Bruno Leathwaite Chilvers, late Rector of St Margaret’s, Exeter, and the Hon. Bertha Harriet Cecilia Jute, eldest daughter of the late Baron Jute. The ceremony was conducted by the Hon. and Rev. J. C. Jute, uncle of the bride, assisted by the Rev. F. Miller, the Very Rev. Dean Pinnock, the Rev. H. S. Crook, and the Rev. William Tomkinson. The bride was given away by Lord Jute. Mr Horatio Dukinfield was best man. The bridal dress was of white brocade, draped with Brussels lace, the corsage being trimmed with lace and adorned with orange blossoms. The tulle veil, fastened with three diamond stars, the gifts of”—— Well, shall I go on?’

‘The triumph of Chilvers!’ murmured Godwin. ‘I wonder whether the Hon. Bertha is past her fortieth year?’

‘A blooming beauty, I dare say. But Lord! how many people it takes to marry a man like Chilvers! How sacred the union must be! — Pray take a paragraph more: “The four bridesmaids — Miss — etc., etc. — wore cream crepon dresses trimmed with turquoise blue velvet, and hats to match. The bridegroom’s presents to them were diamond and ruby brooches.”’

‘Chilvers in excelsis! — So he is no longer at Exeter; has no living, it seems. What does he aim at next, I wonder?’

Earwaker cast meaning glances at his friend.

‘I understand you,’ said Godwin, at length. ‘You mean that this merely illustrates my own ambition. Well, you are right, I confess my shame — and there’s an end of it.’

He puffed at his cigar, resuming presently:

‘But it would be untrue if I said that I regretted anything. Constituted as I am, there was no other way of learning my real needs and capabilities. Much in the past is hateful to me, but it all had its use. There are men — why, take your own case. You look back on life, no doubt, with calm and satisfaction.’

‘Rather, with resignation.’

Godwin let his cigar fall, and laughed bitterly.

‘Your resignation has kept pace with life. I was always a rebel. My good qualities — I mean what I say — have always wrecked me. Now that I haven’t to fight with circumstances, they may possibly be made subservient to my happiness.’

‘But what form is your happiness to take?’

‘Well, I am leaving England. On the Continent I shall make no fixed abode, but live in the places where cosmopolitan people are to be met. I shall make friends; with money at command, one may hope to succeed in that. Hotels, boarding-houses, and so on, offer the opportunities. It sounds oddly like the project of a swindler, doesn’t it? There’s the curse I can’t escape from! Though my desires are as pure as those of any man living, I am compelled to express myself as if I were about to do something base and underhand. Simply because I have never had a social place. I am an individual merely; I belong to no class, town, family, club’——‘Cosmopolitan people,’ mused Earwaker. ‘Your ideal is transformed.’

‘As you know. Experience only could bring that about. I seek now only the free, intellectual people — men who have done with the old conceptions — women who’——

His voice grew husky, and he did not complete the sentence. ‘I shall find them in Paris, Rome. — Earwaker, think of my being able to speak like this! No day-dreams, but actual sober plans, their execution to begin in a day or two. Paris, Rome! And a month ago I was a hopeless slave in a vile manufacturing town. — I wish it were possible for me to pray for the soul of that poor dead woman. I don’t speak to you of her; but do you imagine I am brutally forgetful of her to whom I owe all this?’

‘I do you justice,’ returned the other, quietly.

‘I believe you can and do.’

‘How grand it is to go forth as I am now going!’ Godwin resumed, after a long pause. ‘Nothing to hide, no shams, no pretences. Let who will inquire about me. I am an independent Englishman, with so and so much a year. In England I have one friend only — that is you. The result, you see, of all these years savage striving to knit myself into the social fabric.’

‘Well, you will invite me some day to your villa at Sorrento,’ said Earwaker, encouragingly.

‘That I shall!’ Godwin’s eyes flashed with imaginative delight. ‘And before very long. Never to a home in England!’

‘By-the-bye, a request. I have never had your portrait. Sit before you leave London.’

‘No. I’ll send you one from Paris — it will be better done.’

‘But I am serious. You promise?’

‘You shall have the thing in less than a fortnight.’

The promise was kept. Earwaker received an admirable photograph, which he inserted in his album with a curious sense of satisfaction. A face by which every intelligent eye must be arrested; which no two observers would interpret in the same way.

‘His mate must be somewhere,’ thought the man of letters, ‘but he will never find her.’

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 21:57