New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 1

A Man of His Day

As the Milvains sat down to breakfast the clock of Wattleborough parish church struck eight; it was two miles away, but the strokes were borne very distinctly on the west wind this autumn morning. Jasper, listening before he cracked an egg, remarked with cheerfulness:

‘There’s a man being hanged in London at this moment.’

‘Surely it isn’t necessary to let us know that,’ said his sister Maud, coldly.

‘And in such a tone, too!’ protested his sister Dora.

‘Who is it?’ inquired Mrs Milvain, looking at her son with pained forehead.

‘I don’t know. It happened to catch my eye in the paper yesterday that someone was to be hanged at Newgate this morning. There’s a certain satisfaction in reflecting that it is not oneself.’

‘That’s your selfish way of looking at things,’ said Maud.

‘Well,’ returned Jasper, ‘seeing that the fact came into my head, what better use could I make of it? I could curse the brutality of an age that sanctioned such things; or I could grow doleful over the misery of the poor — fellow. But those emotions would be as little profitable to others as to myself. It just happened that I saw the thing in a light of consolation. Things are bad with me, but not so bad as THAT. I might be going out between Jack Ketch and the Chaplain to be hanged; instead of that, I am eating a really fresh egg, and very excellent buttered toast, with coffee as good as can be reasonably expected in this part of the world. — (Do try boiling the milk, mother.) — The tone in which I spoke was spontaneous; being so, it needs no justification.’

He was a young man of five-and-twenty, well built, though a trifle meagre, and of pale complexion. He had hair that was very nearly black, and a clean-shaven face, best described, perhaps, as of bureaucratic type. The clothes he wore were of expensive material, but had seen a good deal of service. His stand-up collar curled over at the corners, and his necktie was lilac-sprigged.

Of the two sisters, Dora, aged twenty, was the more like him in visage, but she spoke with a gentleness which seemed to indicate a different character. Maud, who was twenty-two, had bold, handsome features, and very beautiful hair of russet tinge; hers was not a face that readily smiled. Their mother had the look and manners of an invalid, though she sat at table in the ordinary way. All were dressed as ladies, though very simply. The room, which looked upon a small patch of garden, was furnished with old-fashioned comfort, only one or two objects suggesting the decorative spirit of 1882.

‘A man who comes to be hanged,’ pursued Jasper, impartially, ‘has the satisfaction of knowing that he has brought society to its last resource. He is a man of such fatal importance that nothing will serve against him but the supreme effort of law. In a way, you know, that is success.’

‘In a way,’ repeated Maud, scornfully.

‘Suppose we talk of something else,’ suggested Dora, who seemed to fear a conflict between her sister and Jasper.

Almost at the same moment a diversion was afforded by the arrival of the post. There was a letter for Mrs Milvain, a letter and newspaper for her son. Whilst the girls and their mother talked of unimportant news communicated by the one correspondent, Jasper read the missive addressed to himself.

‘This is from Reardon,’ he remarked to the younger girl. ‘Things are going badly with him. He is just the kind of fellow to end by poisoning or shooting himself.’

‘But why?’

‘Can’t get anything done; and begins to be sore troubled on his wife’s account.’

‘Is he ill?’

‘Overworked, I suppose. But it’s just what I foresaw. He isn’t the kind of man to keep up literary production as a paying business. In favourable circumstances he might write a fairly good book once every two or three years. The failure of his last depressed him, and now he is struggling hopelessly to get another done before the winter season. Those people will come to grief.’

‘The enjoyment with which he anticipates it!’ murmured Maud, looking at her mother.

‘Not at all,’ said Jasper. ‘It’s true I envied the fellow, because he persuaded a handsome girl to believe in him and share his risks, but I shall be very sorry if he goes to the — to the dogs. He’s my one serious friend. But it irritates me to see a man making such large demands upon fortune. One must be more modest — as I am. Because one book had a sort of success he imagined his struggles were over. He got a hundred pounds for “On Neutral Ground,” and at once counted on a continuance of payments in geometrical proportion. I hinted to him that he couldn’t keep it up, and he smiled with tolerance, no doubt thinking “He judges me by himself.” But I didn’t do anything of the kind. — (Toast, please, Dora.) — I’m a stronger man than Reardon; I can keep my eyes open, and wait.’

‘Is his wife the kind of person to grumble?’ asked Mrs Milvain.

‘Well, yes, I suspect that she is. The girl wasn’t content to go into modest rooms — they must furnish a flat. I rather wonder he didn’t start a carriage for her. Well, his next book brought only another hundred, and now, even if he finishes this one, it’s very doubtful if he’ll get as much. “The Optimist” was practically a failure.’

‘Mr Yule may leave them some money,’ said Dora.

‘Yes. But he may live another ten years, and he would see them both in Marylebone Workhouse before he advanced sixpence, or I’m much mistaken in him. Her mother has only just enough to live upon; can’t possibly help them. Her brother wouldn’t give or lend twopence halfpenny.’

‘Has Mr Reardon no relatives!’

‘I never heard him make mention of a single one. No, he has done the fatal thing. A man in his position, if he marry at all, must take either a work-girl or an heiress, and in many ways the work-girl is preferable.’

‘How can you say that?’ asked Dora. ‘You never cease talking about the advantages of money.’

‘Oh, I don’t mean that for ME the work-girl would be preferable; by no means; but for a man like Reardon. He is absurd enough to be conscientious, likes to be called an “artist,” and so on. He might possibly earn a hundred and fifty a year if his mind were at rest, and that would be enough if he had married a decent little dressmaker. He wouldn’t desire superfluities, and the quality of his work would be its own reward. As it is, he’s ruined.’

‘And I repeat,’ said Maud, ‘that you enjoy the prospect.’

‘Nothing of the kind. If I seem to speak exultantly it’s only because my intellect enjoys the clear perception of a fact. — A little marmalade, Dora; the home-made, please.’

‘But this is very sad, Jasper,’ said Mrs Milvain, in her half-absent way. ‘I suppose they can’t even go for a holiday?’

‘Quite out of the question.’

‘Not even if you invited them to come here for a week?’

‘Now, mother,’ urged Maud, ‘THAT’S impossible, you know very well.’

‘I thought we might make an effort, dear. A holiday might mean everything to him.’

‘No, no,’ fell from Jasper, thoughtfully. ‘I don’t think you’d get along very well with Mrs Reardon; and then, if her uncle is coming to Mr Yule’s, you know, that would be awkward.’

‘I suppose it would; though those people would only stay a day or two, Miss Harrow said.’

‘Why can’t Mr Yule make them friends, those two lots of people?’ asked Dora. ‘You say he’s on good terms with both.’

‘I suppose he thinks it’s no business of his.’

Jasper mused over the letter from his friend.

‘Ten years hence,’ he said, ‘if Reardon is still alive, I shall be lending him five-pound notes.’

A smile of irony rose to Maud’s lips. Dora laughed.

‘To be sure! To be sure!’ exclaimed their brother. ‘You have no faith. But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won’t make concessions, or rather, he can’t make them; he can’t supply the market. I— well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that’s a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell he’ll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits. Now, look you: if I had been in Reardon’s place, I’d have made four hundred at least out of “The Optimist”; I should have gone shrewdly to work with magazines and newspapers and foreign publishers, and — all sorts of people. Reardon can’t do that kind of thing, he’s behind his age; he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson’s Grub Street. But our Grub Street of to-day is quite a different place: it is supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy.’

‘It sounds ignoble,’ said Maud.

‘I have nothing to do with that, my dear girl. Now, as I tell you, I am slowly, but surely, learning the business. My line won’t be novels; I have failed in that direction, I’m not cut out for the work. It’s a pity, of course; there’s a great deal of money in it. But I have plenty of scope. In ten years, I repeat, I shall be making my thousand a year.’

‘I don’t remember that you stated the exact sum before,’ Maud observed.

‘Let it pass. And to those who have shall be given. When I have a decent income of my own, I shall marry a woman with an income somewhat larger, so that casualties may be provided for.’

Dora exclaimed, laughing:

‘It would amuse me very much if the Reardons got a lot of money at Mr Yule’s death — and that can’t be ten years off, I’m sure.’

‘I don’t see that there’s any chance of their getting much,’ replied Jasper, meditatively. ‘Mrs Reardon is only his niece. The man’s brother and sister will have the first helping, I suppose. And then, if it comes to the second generation, the literary Yule has a daughter, and by her being invited here I should think she’s the favourite niece. No, no; depend upon it they won’t get anything at all.’

Having finished his breakfast, he leaned back and began to unfold the London paper that had come by post.

‘Had Mr Reardon any hopes of that kind at the time of his marriage, do you think?’ inquired Mrs Milvain.

‘Reardon? Good heavens, no! Would he were capable of such forethought!’

In a few minutes Jasper was left alone in the room. When the servant came to clear the table he strolled slowly away, humming a tune.

The house was pleasantly situated by the roadside in a little village named Finden. Opposite stood the church, a plain, low, square-towered building. As it was cattle-market to-day in the town of Wattleborough, droves of beasts and sheep occasionally went by, or the rattle of a grazier’s cart sounded for a moment. On ordinary days the road saw few vehicles, and pedestrians were rare.

Mrs Milvain and her daughters had lived here for the last seven years, since the death of the father, who was a veterinary surgeon. The widow enjoyed an annuity of two hundred and forty pounds, terminable with her life; the children had nothing of their own. Maud acted irregularly as a teacher of music; Dora had an engagement as visiting governess in a Wattleborough family. Twice a year, as a rule, Jasper came down from London to spend a fortnight with them; to-day marked the middle of his autumn visit, and the strained relations between him and his sisters which invariably made the second week rather trying for all in the house had already become noticeable.

In the course of the morning Jasper had half an hour’s private talk with his mother, after which he set off to roam in the sunshine. Shortly after he had left the house, Maud, her domestic duties dismissed for the time, came into the parlour where Mrs Milvain was reclining on the sofa.

‘Jasper wants more money,’ said the mother, when Maud had sat in meditation for a few minutes.

‘Of course. I knew that. I hope you told him he couldn’t have it.’

‘I really didn’t know what to say,’ returned Mrs Milvain, in a feeble tone of worry.

‘Then you must leave the matter to me, that’s all. There’s no money for him, and there’s an end of it.’

Maud set her features in sullen determination. There was a brief silence.

‘What’s he to do, Maud?’

‘To do? How do other people do? What do Dora and I do?’

‘You don’t earn enough for your support, my dear.’

‘Oh, well!’ broke from the girl. ‘Of course, if you grudge us our food and lodging — ’

‘Don’t be so quick-tempered. You know very well I am far from grudging you anything, dear. But I only meant to say that Jasper does earn something, you know.’

‘It’s a disgraceful thing that he doesn’t earn as much as he needs. We are sacrificed to him, as we always have been. Why should we be pinching and stinting to keep him in idleness?’

‘But you really can’t call it idleness, Maud. He is studying his profession.’

‘Pray call it trade; he prefers it. How do I know that he’s studying anything? What does he mean by “studying”? And to hear him speak scornfully of his friend Mr Reardon, who seems to work hard all through the year! It’s disgusting, mother. At this rate he will never earn his own living. Who hasn’t seen or heard of such men? If we had another hundred a year, I would say nothing. But we can’t live on what he leaves us, and I’m not going to let you try. I shall tell Jasper plainly that he’s got to work for his own support.’

Another silence, and a longer one. Mrs Milvain furtively wiped a tear from her cheek.

‘It seems very cruel to refuse,’ she said at length, ‘when another year may give him the opportunity he’s waiting for.’

‘Opportunity? What does he mean by his opportunity?’

‘He says that it always comes, if a man knows how to wait.’

‘And the people who support him may starve meanwhile! Now just think a bit, mother. Suppose anything were to happen to you, what becomes of Dora and me? And what becomes of Jasper, too? It’s the truest kindness to him to compel him to earn a living. He gets more and more incapable of it.’

‘You can’t say that, Maud. He earns a little more each year. But for that, I should have my doubts. He has made thirty pounds already this year, and he only made about twenty-five the whole of last. We must be fair to him, you know. I can’t help feeling that he knows what he’s about. And if he does succeed, he’ll pay us all back.’

Maud began to gnaw her fingers, a disagreeable habit she had in privacy.

‘Then why doesn’t he live more economically?’

‘I really don’t see how he can live on less than a hundred and fifty a year. London, you know — ’

‘The cheapest place in the world.’

‘Nonsense, Maud!’

‘But I know what I’m saying. I’ve read quite enough about such things. He might live very well indeed on thirty shillings a week, even buying his clothes out of it.’

‘But he has told us so often that it’s no use to him to live like that. He is obliged to go to places where he must spend a little, or he makes no progress.’

‘Well, all I can say is,’ exclaimed the girl impatiently, ‘it’s very lucky for him that he’s got a mother who willingly sacrifices her daughters to him.’

‘That’s how you always break out. You don’t care what unkindness you say!’

‘It’s a simple truth.’

‘Dora never speaks like that.’

‘Because she’s afraid to be honest.’

‘No, because she has too much love for her mother. I can’t bear to talk to you, Maud. The older I get, and the weaker I get, the more unfeeling you are to me.’

Scenes of this kind were no uncommon thing. The clash of tempers lasted for several minutes, then Maud flung out of the room. An hour later, at dinner-time, she was rather more caustic in her remarks than usual, but this was the only sign that remained of the stormy mood.

Jasper renewed the breakfast-table conversation.

‘Look here,’ he began, ‘why don’t you girls write something? I’m convinced you could make money if you tried. There’s a tremendous sale for religious stories; why not patch one together? I am quite serious.’

‘Why don’t you do it yourself,’ retorted Maud.

‘I can’t manage stories, as I have told you; but I think you could. In your place, I’d make a speciality of Sunday-school prize-books; you know the kind of thing I mean. They sell like hot cakes. And there’s so deuced little enterprise in the business. If you’d give your mind to it, you might make hundreds a year.’

‘Better say “abandon your mind to it.”’

‘Why, there you are! You’re a sharp enough girl. You can quote as well as anyone I know.’

‘And please, why am I to take up an inferior kind of work?’

‘Inferior? Oh, if you can be a George Eliot, begin at the earliest opportunity. I merely suggested what seemed practicable.

But I don’t think you have genius, Maud. People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads — that one mustn’t write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business. Get together half-a-dozen fair specimens of the Sunday-school prize; study them; discover the essential points of such composition; hit upon new attractions; then go to work methodically, so many pages a day. There’s no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. If I could only get that into poor Reardon’s head. He thinks me a gross beast, often enough. What the devil — I mean what on earth is there in typography to make everything it deals with sacred? I don’t advocate the propagation of vicious literature; I speak only of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar. You just give it a thought, Maud; talk it over with Dora.’

He resumed presently:

‘I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes. We are not geniuses, and if we sit down in a spirit of long-eared gravity we shall produce only commonplace stuff. Let us use our wits to earn money, and make the best we can of our lives. If only I had the skill, I would produce novels out-trashing the trashiest that ever sold fifty thousand copies. But it needs skill, mind you: and to deny it is a gross error of the literary pedants. To please the vulgar you must, one way or another, incarnate the genius of vulgarity. For my own part, I shan’t be able to address the bulkiest multitude; my talent doesn’t lend itself to that form. I shall write for the upper middle-class of intellect, the people who like to feel that what they are reading has some special cleverness, but who can’t distinguish between stones and paste. That’s why I’m so slow in warming to the work. Every month I feel surer of myself, however.

That last thing of mine in The West End distinctly hit the mark; it wasn’t too flashy, it wasn’t too solid. I heard fellows speak of it in the train.’

Mrs Milvain kept glancing at Maud, with eyes which desired her attention to these utterances. None the less, half an hour after dinner, Jasper found himself encountered by his sister in the garden, on her face a look which warned him of what was coming.

‘I want you to tell me something, Jasper. How much longer shall you look to mother for support? I mean it literally; let me have an idea of how much longer it will be.’

He looked away and reflected.

‘To leave a margin,’ was his reply, ‘let us say twelve months.’

‘Better say your favourite “ten years” at once.’

‘No. I speak by the card. In twelve months’ time, if not before, I shall begin to pay my debts. My dear girl, I have the honour to be a tolerably long-headed individual. I know what I’m about.’

‘And let us suppose mother were to die within half a year?’

‘I should make shift to do very well.’

‘You? And please — what of Dora and me?’

‘You would write Sunday-school prizes.’

Maud turned away and left him.

He knocked the dust out of the pipe he had been smoking, and again set off for a stroll along the lanes. On his countenance was just a trace of solicitude, but for the most part he wore a thoughtful smile. Now and then he stroked his smoothly-shaven jaws with thumb and fingers. Occasionally he became observant of wayside details — of the colour of a maple leaf, the shape of a tall thistle, the consistency of a fungus. At the few people who passed he looked keenly, surveying them from head to foot.

On turning, at the limit of his walk, he found himself almost face to face with two persons, who were coming along in silent companionship; their appearance interested him. The one was a man of fifty, grizzled, hard featured, slightly bowed in the shoulders; he wore a grey felt hat with a broad brim and a decent suit of broadcloth. With him was a girl of perhaps two-and-twenty, in a slate-coloured dress with very little ornament, and a yellow straw hat of the shape originally appropriated to males; her dark hair was cut short, and lay in innumerable crisp curls. Father and daughter, obviously. The girl, to a casual eye, was neither pretty nor beautiful, but she had a grave and impressive face, with a complexion of ivory tone; her walk was gracefully modest, and she seemed to be enjoying the country air.

Jasper mused concerning them. When he had walked a few yards, he looked back; at the same moment the unknown man also turned his head.

‘Where the deuce have I seen them — him and the girl too?’ Milvain asked himself.

And before he reached home the recollection he sought flashed upon his mind.

‘The Museum Reading-room, of course!’

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37