New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 10

The Friends of the Family

It was natural that Amy should hint dissatisfaction with the loneliness in which her days were mostly spent. She had never lived in a large circle of acquaintances; the narrowness of her mother’s means restricted the family to intercourse with a few old friends and such new ones as were content with teacup entertainment; but her tastes were social, and the maturing process which followed upon her marriage made her more conscious of this than she had been before. Already she had allowed her husband to understand that one of her strongest motives in marrying him was the belief that he would achieve distinction. At the time she doubtless thought of his coming fame only — or principally — as it concerned their relations to each other; her pride in him was to be one phase of her love. Now she was well aware that no degree of distinction in her husband would be of much value to her unless she had the pleasure of witnessing its effect upon others; she must shine with reflected light before an admiring assembly.

The more conscious she became of this requirement of her nature, the more clearly did she perceive that her hopes had been founded on an error. Reardon would never be a great man; he would never even occupy a prominent place in the estimation of the public. The two things, Amy knew, might be as different as light and darkness; but in the grief of her disappointment she would rather have had him flare into a worthless popularity than flicker down into total extinction, which it almost seemed was to be his fate.

She knew so well how ‘people’ were talking of him and her. Even her unliterary acquaintances understood that Reardon’s last novel had been anything but successful, and they must of course ask each other how the Reardons were going to live if the business of novel-writing proved unremunerative. Her pride took offence at the mere thought of such conversations. Presently she would become an object of pity; there would be talk of ‘poor Mrs Reardon.’ It was intolerable.

So during the last half year she had withheld as much as possible from the intercourse which might have been one of her chief pleasures. And to disguise the true cause she made pretences which were a satire upon her state of mind — alleging that she had devoted herself to a serious course of studies, that the care of house and child occupied all the time she could spare from her intellectual pursuits. The worst of it was, she had little faith in the efficacy of these fictions; in uttering them she felt an unpleasant warmth upon her cheeks, and it was not difficult to detect a look of doubt in the eyes of the listener. She grew angry with herself for being dishonest, and with her husband for making such dishonesty needful.

The female friend with whom she had most trouble was Mrs Carter. You remember that on the occasion of Reardon’s first meeting with his future wife, at the Grosvenor Gallery, there were present his friend Carter and a young lady who was shortly to bear the name of that spirited young man. The Carters had now been married about a year; they lived in Bayswater, and saw much of a certain world which imitates on a lower plane the amusements and affectations of society proper. Mr Carter was still secretary to the hospital where Reardon had once earned his twenty shillings a week, but by voyaging in the seas of charitable enterprise he had come upon supplementary sources of income; for instance, he held the post of secretary to the Barclay Trust, a charity whose moderate funds were largely devoted to the support of gentlemen engaged in administering it. This young man, with his air of pleasing vivacity, had early ingratiated himself with the kind of people who were likely to be of use to him; he had his reward in the shape of offices which are only procured through private influence. His wife was a good-natured, lively, and rather clever girl; she had a genuine regard for Amy, and much respect for Reardon. Her ambition was to form a circle of distinctly intellectual acquaintances, and she was constantly inviting the Reardons to her house; a real live novelist is not easily drawn into the world where Mrs Carter had her being, and it annoyed her that all attempts to secure Amy and her husband for five-o’clock teas and small parties had of late failed.

On the afternoon when Reardon had visited a second-hand bookseller with a view of raising money — he was again shut up in his study, dolorously at work — Amy was disturbed by the sound of a visitor’s rat-tat; the little servant went to the door, and returned followed by Mrs Carter.

Under the best of circumstances it was awkward to receive any but intimate friends during the hours when Reardon sat at his desk. The little dining-room (with its screen to conceal the kitchen range) offered nothing more than homely comfort; and then the servant had to be disposed of by sending her into the bedroom to take care of Willie. Privacy, in the strict sense, was impossible, for the servant might listen at the door (one room led out of the other) to all the conversation that went on; yet Amy could not request her visitors to speak in a low tone. For the first year these difficulties had not been felt; Reardon made a point of leaving the front room at his wife’s disposal from three to six; it was only when dread of the future began to press upon him that he sat in the study all day long. You see how complicated were the miseries of the situation; one torment involved another, and in every quarter subjects of discontent were multiplied.

Mrs Carter would have taken it ill had she known that Amy did not regard her as strictly an intimate. They addressed each other by their Christian names, and conversed without ceremony; but Amy was always dissatisfied when the well-dressed young woman burst with laughter and animated talk into this abode of concealed poverty. Edith was not the kind of person with whom one can quarrel; she had a kind heart, and was never disagreeably pretentious. Had circumstances allowed it, Amy would have given frank welcome to such friendship; she would have been glad to accept as many invitations as Edith chose to offer. But at present it did her harm to come in contact with Mrs Carter; it made her envious, cold to her husband, resentful against fate.

‘Why can’t she leave me alone?’ was the thought that rose in her mind as Edith entered. ‘I shall let her see that I don’t want her here.’

‘Your husband at work?’ Edith asked, with a glance in the direction of the study, as soon as they had exchanged kisses and greetings.

‘Yes, he is busy.’

‘And you are sitting alone, as usual. I feared you might be out; an afternoon of sunshine isn’t to be neglected at this time of year.’

‘Is there sunshine?’ Amy inquired coldly.

‘Why, look! Do you mean to say you haven’t noticed it? What a comical person you are sometimes! I suppose you have been over head and ears in books all day. How is Willie?’

‘Very well, thank you.’

‘Mayn’t I see him?’

‘If you like.’

Amy stepped to the bedroom door and bade the servant bring Willie for exhibition. Edith, who as yet had no child of her own, always showed the most flattering admiration of this infant; it was so manifestly sincere that the mother could not but be moved to a grateful friendliness whenever she listened to its expression. Even this afternoon the usual effect followed when Edith had made a pretty and tender fool of herself for several minutes. Amy bade the servant make tea.

At this moment the door from the passage opened, and Reardon looked in.

‘Well, if this isn’t marvellous!’ cried Edith. ‘I should as soon have expected the heavens to fall!’

‘As what?’ asked Reardon, with a pale smile.

‘As you to show yourself when I am here.’

‘I should like to say that I came on purpose to see you, Mrs Carter, but it wouldn’t be true. I’m going out for an hour, so that you can take possession of the other room if you like, Amy.’

‘Going out?’ said Amy, with a look of surprise.

‘Nothing — nothing. I mustn’t stay.’

He just inquired of Mrs Carter how her husband was, and withdrew. The door of the flat was heard to close after him.

‘Let us go into the study, then,’ said Amy, again in rather a cold voice.

On Reardon’s desk were lying slips of blank paper. Edith, approaching on tiptoe with what was partly make believe, partly genuine, awe, looked at the literary apparatus, then turned with a laugh to her friend.

‘How delightful it must be to sit down and write about people one has invented! Ever since I have known you and Mr Reardon I have been tempted to try if I couldn’t write a story.’

‘Have you?’

‘And I’m sure I don’t know how you can resist the temptation. I feel sure you could write books almost as clever as your husband’s.’

‘I have no intention of trying.’

‘You don’t seem very well to-day, Amy.’

‘Oh, I think I am as well as usual.’

She guessed that her husband was once more brought to a standstill, and this darkened her humour again.

‘One of my reasons for corning,’ said Edith, ‘was to beg and entreat and implore you and Mr Reardon to dine with us next Wednesday. Now, don’t put on such a severe face! Are you engaged that evening?’

‘Yes; in the ordinary way. Edwin can’t possibly leave his work.’

‘But for one poor evening! It’s such ages since we saw you.’

‘I’m very sorry. I don’t think we shall ever be able to accept invitations in future.’

Amy spoke thus at the prompting of a sudden impulse. A minute ago, no such definite declaration was in her mind.

‘Never?’ exclaimed Edith. ‘But why? Whatever do you mean?’

‘We find that social engagements consume too much time,’ Amy replied, her explanation just as much of an impromptu as the announcement had been. ‘You see, one must either belong to society or not. Married people can’t accept an occasional invitation from friends and never do their social duty in return.

We have decided to withdraw altogether — at all events for the present. I shall see no one except my relatives.’

Edith listened with a face of astonishment.

‘You won’t even see ME?’ she exclaimed.

‘Indeed, I have no wish to lose your friendship. Yet I am ashamed to ask you to come here when I can never return your visits.’

‘Oh, please don’t put it in that way! But it seems so very strange.’

Edith could not help conjecturing the true significance of this resolve. But, as is commonly the case with people in easy circumstances, she found it hard to believe that her friends were so straitened as to have a difficulty in supporting the ordinary obligations of a civilised state.

‘I know how precious your husband’s time is,’ she added, as if to remove the effect of her last remark. ‘Surely, there’s no harm in my saying — we know each other well enough — you wouldn’t think it necessary to devote an evening to entertaining us just because you had given us the pleasure of your company. I put it very stupidly, but I’m sure you understand me, Amy. Don’t refuse just to come to our house now and then.’

‘I’m afraid we shall have to be consistent, Edith.’

‘But do you think this is a WISE thing to do?’

‘Wise?’

‘You know what you once told me, about how necessary it was for a novelist to study all sorts of people. How can Mr Reardon do this if he shuts himself up in the house? I should have thought he would find it necessary to make new acquaintances.’

‘As I said,’ returned Amy, ‘it won’t be always like this. For the present, Edwin has quite enough “material.”’

She spoke distantly; it irritated her to have to invent excuses for the sacrifice she had just imposed on herself. Edith sipped the tea which had been offered her, and for a minute kept silence.

‘When will Mr Reardon’s next book be published?’ she asked at length.

‘I’m sure I don’t know. Not before the spring.’

‘I shall look so anxiously for it. Whenever I meet new people I always turn the conversation to novels, just for the sake of asking them if they know your husband’s books.’

She laughed merrily.

‘Which is seldom the case, I should think,’ said Amy, with a smile of indifference.

‘Well, my dear, you don’t expect ordinary novel-readers to know about Mr Reardon. I wish my acquaintances were a better kind of people; then, of course, I should hear of his books more often. But one has to make the best of such society as offers. If you and your husband forsake me, I shall feel it a sad loss; I shall indeed.’

Amy gave a quick glance at the speaker’s face.

‘Oh, we must be friends just the same,’ she said, more naturally than she had spoken hitherto. ‘But don’t ask us to come and dine just now. All through this winter we shall be very busy, both of us. Indeed, we have decided not to accept any invitations at all.’

‘Then, so long as you let me come here now and then, I must give in. I promise not to trouble you with any more complaining. But how you can live such a life I don’t know. I consider myself more of a reader than women generally are, and I should be mortally offended if anyone called me frivolous; but I must have a good deal of society. Really and truly, I can’t live without it.’

‘No?’ said Amy, with a smile which meant more than Edith could interpret. It seemed slightly condescending.

‘There’s no knowing; perhaps if I had married a literary man ——’ She paused, smiling and musing. ‘But then I haven’t, you see.’ She laughed. ‘Albert is anything but a bookworm, as you know.’

‘You wouldn’t wish him to be.’

‘Oh no! Not a bookworm. To be sure, we suit each other very well indeed. He likes society just as much as I do. It would be the death of him if he didn’t spend three-quarters of every day with lively people.’

‘That’s rather a large portion. But then you count yourself among the lively ones.’

They exchanged looks, and laughed together.

‘Of course you think me rather silly to want to talk so much with silly people,’ Edith went on. ‘But then there’s generally some amusement to be got, you know. I don’t take life quite so seriously as you do. People are people, after all; it’s good fun to see how they live and hear how they talk.’

Amy felt that she was playing a sorry part. She thought of sour grapes, and of the fox who had lost his tail. Worst of all, perhaps Edith suspected the truth. She began to make inquiries about common acquaintances, and fell into an easier current of gossip.

A quarter of an hour after the visitor’s departure Reardon came back. Amy had guessed aright; the necessity of selling his books weighed upon him so that for the present he could do nothing. The evening was spent gloomily, with very little conversation.

Next day came the bookseller to make his inspection. Reardon had chosen out and ranged upon a table nearly a hundred volumes. With a few exceptions, they had been purchased second-hand. The tradesman examined them rapidly.

‘What do you ask?’ he inquired, putting his head aside.

‘I prefer that you should make an offer,’ Reardon replied, with the helplessness of one who lives remote from traffic.

‘I can’t say more than two pounds ten.’

‘That is at the rate of sixpence a volume ——?’

‘To me that’s about the average value of books like these.’

Perhaps the offer was a fair one; perhaps it was not. Reardon had neither time nor spirit to test the possibilities of the market; he was ashamed to betray his need by higgling.

‘I’ll take it,’ he said, in a matter-of-fact voice.

A messenger was sent for the books that afternoon. He stowed them skilfully in two bags, and carried them downstairs to a cart that was waiting.

Reardon looked at the gaps left on his shelves. Many of those vanished volumes were dear old friends to him; he could have told you where he had picked them up and when; to open them recalled a past moment of intellectual growth, a mood of hope or despondency, a stage of struggle. In most of them his name was written, and there were often pencilled notes in the margin. Of course he had chosen from among the most valuable he possessed; such a multitude must else have been sold to make this sum of two pounds ten. Books are cheap, you know. At need, one can buy a Homer for fourpence, a Sophocles for sixpence. It was not rubbish that he had accumulated at so small expenditure, but the library of a poor student — battered bindings, stained pages, supplanted editions. He loved his books, but there was something he loved more, and when Amy glanced at him with eyes of sympathy he broke into a cheerful laugh.

‘I’m only sorry they have gone for so little. Tell me when the money is nearly at an end again, and you shall have more. It’s all right; the novel will be done soon.’

And that night he worked until twelve o’clock, doggedly, fiercely.

The next day was Sunday. As a rule he made it a day of rest, and almost perforce, for the depressing influence of Sunday in London made work too difficult. Then, it was the day on which he either went to see his own particular friends or was visited by them.

‘Do you expect anyone this evening?’ Amy inquired.

‘Biffen will look in, I dare say. Perhaps Milvain.’

‘I think I shall take Willie to mother’s. I shall be back before eight.’

‘Amy, don’t say anything about the books.’

‘No, no.’

‘I suppose they always ask you when we think of removing over the way?’

He pointed in a direction that suggested Marylebone Workhouse. Amy tried to laugh, but a woman with a child in her arms has no keen relish for such jokes.

‘I don’t talk to them about our affairs,’ she said.

‘That’s best.’

She left home about three o’clock, the servant going with her to carry the child.

At five a familiar knock sounded through the flat; it was a heavy rap followed by half-a-dozen light ones, like a reverberating echo, the last stroke scarcely audible. Reardon laid down his book, but kept his pipe in his mouth, and went to the door. A tall, thin man stood there, with a slouch hat and long grey overcoat. He shook hands silently, hung his hat in the passage, and came forward into the study.

His name was Harold Biffen, and, to judge from his appearance, he did not belong to the race of common mortals. His excessive meagreness would all but have qualified him to enter an exhibition in the capacity of living skeleton, and the garments which hung upon this framework would perhaps have sold for three-and-sixpence at an old-clothes dealer’s. But the man was superior to these accidents of flesh and raiment. He had a fine face: large, gentle eyes, nose slightly aquiline, small and delicate mouth. Thick black hair fell to his coat-collar; he wore a heavy moustache and a full beard. In his gait there was a singular dignity; only a man of cultivated mind and graceful character could move and stand as he did.

His first act on entering the room was to take from his pocket a pipe, a pouch, a little tobacco-stopper, and a box of matches, all of which he arranged carefully on a corner of the central table. Then he drew forward a chair and seated himself.

‘Take your top-coat off;’ said Reardon.

‘Thanks, not this evening.’

‘Why the deuce not?’

‘Not this evening, thanks.’

The reason, as soon as Reardon sought for it, was obvious. Biffen had no ordinary coat beneath the other. To have referred to this fact would have been indelicate; the novelist of course understood it, and smiled, but with no mirth.

‘Let me have your Sophocles,’ were the visitor’s next words.

Reardon offered him a volume of the Oxford Pocket Classics.

‘I prefer the Wunder, please.’

‘It’s gone, my boy.’

‘Gone?’

‘Wanted a little cash.’

Biffen uttered a sound in which remonstrance and sympathy were blended.

‘I’m sorry to hear that; very sorry. Well, this must do. Now, I want to know how you scan this chorus in the “Oedipus Rex.”’

Reardon took the volume, considered, and began to read aloud with metric emphasis.

‘Choriambics, eh?’ cried the other. ‘Possible, of course; but treat them as Ionics a minore with an anacrusis, and see if they don’t go better.’

He involved himself in terms of pedantry, and with such delight that his eyes gleamed. Having delivered a technical lecture, he began to read in illustration, producing quite a different effect from that of the rhythm as given by his friend. And the reading was by no means that of a pedant, rather of a poet.

For half an hour the two men talked Greek metres as if they lived in a world where the only hunger known could be satisfied by grand or sweet cadences.

They had first met in an amusing way. Not long after the publication of his book ‘On Neutral Ground’ Reardon was spending a week at Hastings. A rainy day drove him to the circulating library, and as he was looking along the shelves for something readable a voice near at hand asked the attendant if he had anything ‘by Edwin Reardon.’ The novelist turned in astonishment; that any casual mortal should inquire for his books seemed incredible. Of course there was nothing by that author in the library, and he who had asked the question walked out again. On the morrow Reardon encountered this same man at a lonely part of the shore; he looked at him, and spoke a word or two of common civility; they got into conversation, with the result that Edwin told the story of yesterday. The stranger introduced himself as Harold Biffen, an author in a small way, and a teacher whenever he could get pupils; an abusive review had interested him in Reardon’s novels, but as yet he knew nothing of them but the names.

Their tastes were found to be in many respects sympathetic, and after returning to London they saw each other frequently. Biffen was always in dire poverty, and lived in the oddest places; he had seen harder trials than even Reardon himself. The teaching by which he partly lived was of a kind quite unknown to the respectable tutorial world. In these days of examinations, numbers of men in a poor position — clerks chiefly — conceive a hope that by ‘passing’ this, that, or the other formal test they may open for themselves a new career. Not a few such persons nourish preposterous ambitions; there are warehouse clerks privately preparing (without any means or prospect of them) for a call to the Bar, drapers’ assistants who ‘go in’ for the preliminary examination of the College of Surgeons, and untaught men innumerable who desire to procure enough show of education to be eligible for a curacy. Candidates of this stamp frequently advertise in the newspapers for cheap tuition, or answer advertisements which are intended to appeal to them; they pay from sixpence to half-a-crown an hour — rarely as much as the latter sum. Occasionally it happened that Harold Biffen had three or four such pupils in hand, and extraordinary stories he could draw from his large experience in this sphere.

Then as to his authorship. — But shortly after the discussion of Greek metres he fell upon the subject of his literary projects, and, by no means for the first time, developed the theory on which he worked.

‘I have thought of a new way of putting it. What I really aim at is an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent. The field, as I understand it, is a new one; I don’t know any writer who has treated ordinary vulgar life with fidelity and seriousness. Zola writes deliberate tragedies; his vilest figures become heroic from the place they fill in a strongly imagined drama. I want to deal with the essentially unheroic, with the day-to-day life of that vast majority of people who are at the mercy of paltry circumstance. Dickens understood the possibility of such work, but his tendency to melodrama on the one hand, and his humour on the other, prevented him from thinking of it. An instance, now. As I came along by Regent’s Park half an hour ago a man and a girl were walking close in front of me, love-making; I passed them slowly and heard a good deal of their talk — it was part of the situation that they should pay no heed to a stranger’s proximity. Now, such a love-scene as that has absolutely never been written down; it was entirely decent, yet vulgar to the nth power. Dickens would have made it ludicrous — a gross injustice. Other men who deal with low-class life would perhaps have preferred idealising it — an absurdity. For my own part, I am going to reproduce it verbatim, without one single impertinent suggestion of any point of view save that of honest reporting. The result will be something unutterably tedious. Precisely. That is the stamp of the ignobly decent life. If it were anything but tedious it would be untrue. I speak, of course, of its effect upon the ordinary reader.’

‘I couldn’t do it,’ said Reardon.

‘Certainly you couldn’t. You — well, you are a psychological realist in the sphere of culture. You are impatient of vulgar circumstances.’

‘In a great measure because my life has been martyred by them.’

‘And for that very same reason I delight in them,’ cried Biffen. ‘You are repelled by what has injured you; I am attracted by it. This divergence is very interesting; but for that, we should have resembled each other so closely. You know that by temper we are rabid idealists, both of us.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘But let me go on. I want, among other things, to insist upon the fateful power of trivial incidents. No one has yet dared to do this seriously. It has often been done in farce, and that’s why farcical writing so often makes one melancholy. You know my stock instances of the kind of thing I mean. There was poor Allen, who lost the most valuable opportunity of his life because he hadn’t a clean shirt to put on; and Williamson, who would probably have married that rich girl but for the grain of dust that got into his eye, and made him unable to say or do anything at the critical moment.’

Reardon burst into a roar of laughter.

‘There you are!’ cried Biffen, with friendly annoyance. ‘You take the conventional view. If you wrote of these things you would represent them as laughable.’

‘They are laughable,’ asserted the other, ‘however serious to the persons concerned. The mere fact of grave issues in life depending on such paltry things is monstrously ludicrous. Life is a huge farce, and the advantage of possessing a sense of humour is that it enables one to defy fate with mocking laughter.’

‘That’s all very well, but it isn’t an original view. I am not lacking in sense of humour, but I prefer to treat these aspects of life from an impartial standpoint. The man who laughs takes the side of a cruel omnipotence, if one can imagine such a thing.

I want to take no side at all; simply to say, Look, this is the kind of thing that happens.’

‘I admire your honesty, Biffen,’ said Reardon, sighing. ‘You will never sell work of this kind, yet you have the courage to go on with it because you believe in it.’

‘I don’t know; I may perhaps sell it some day.’

‘In the meantime,’ said Reardon, laying down his pipe, ‘suppose we eat a morsel of something. I’m rather hungry.’

In the early days of his marriage Reardon was wont to offer the friends who looked in on Sunday evening a substantial supper; by degrees the meal had grown simpler, until now, in the depth of his poverty, he made no pretence of hospitable entertainment. It was only because he knew that Biffen as often as not had nothing whatever to eat that he did not hesitate to offer him a slice of bread and butter and a cup of tea. They went into the back room, and over the Spartan fare continued to discuss aspects of fiction.

‘I shall never,’ said Biffen, ‘write anything like a dramatic scene. Such things do happen in life, but so very rarely that they are nothing to my purpose. Even when they happen, by-the-bye, it is in a shape that would be useless to the ordinary novelist; he would have to cut away this circumstance, and add that. Why? I should like to know. Such conventionalism results from stage necessities. Fiction hasn’t yet outgrown the influence of the stage on which it originated. Whatever a man writes FOR EFFECT is wrong and bad.’

‘Only in your view. There may surely exist such a thing as the ART of fiction.’

‘It is worked out. We must have a rest from it. You, now — the best things you have done are altogether in conflict with novelistic conventionalities. It was because that blackguard review of “On Neutral Ground” clumsily hinted this that I first thought of you with interest. No, no; let us copy life. When the man and woman are to meet for a great scene of passion, let it all be frustrated by one or other of them having a bad cold in the head, and so on. Let the pretty girl get a disfiguring pimple on her nose just before the ball at which she is going to shine. Show the numberless repulsive features of common decent life. Seriously, coldly; not a hint of facetiousness, or the thing becomes different.’

About eight o’clock Reardon heard his wife’s knock at the door. On opening he saw not only Amy and the servant, the latter holding Willie in her arms, but with them Jasper Milvain.

‘I have been at Mrs Yule’s,’ Jasper explained as he came in. ‘Have you anyone here?’

‘Biffen.’

‘Ah, then we’ll discuss realism.’

‘That’s over for the evening. Greek metres also.’

‘Thank Heaven!’

The three men seated themselves with joking and laughter, and the smoke of their pipes gathered thickly in the little room. It was half an hour before Amy joined them. Tobacco was no disturbance to her, and she enjoyed the kind of talk that was held on these occasions; but it annoyed her that she could no longer play the hostess at a merry supper-table.

‘Why ever are you sitting in your overcoat, Mr Biffen?’ were her first words when she entered.

‘Please excuse me, Mrs Reardon. It happens to be more convenient this evening.’

She was puzzled, but a glance from her husband warned her not to pursue the subject.

Biffen always behaved to Amy with a sincerity of respect which had made him a favourite with her. To him, poor fellow, Reardon seemed supremely blessed. That a struggling man of letters should have been able to marry, and such a wife, was miraculous in Biffen’s eyes. A woman’s love was to him the unattainable ideal; already thirty-five years old, he had no prospect of ever being rich enough to assure himself a daily dinner; marriage was wildly out of the question. Sitting here, he found it very difficult not to gaze at Amy with uncivil persistency. Seldom in his life had he conversed with educated women, and the sound of this clear voice was always more delightful to him than any music.

Amy took a place near to him, and talked in her most charming way of such things as she knew interested him. Biffen’s deferential attitude as he listened and replied was in strong contrast with the careless ease which marked Jasper Milvain. The realist would never smoke in Amy’s presence, but Jasper puffed jovial clouds even whilst she was conversing with him.

‘Whelpdale came to see me last night,’ remarked Milvain, presently. ‘His novel is refused on all hands. He talks of earning a living as a commission agent for some sewing-machine people.’

‘I can’t understand how his book should be positively refused,’ said Reardon. ‘The last wasn’t altogether a failure.’

‘Very nearly. And this one consists of nothing but a series of conversations between two people. It is really a dialogue, not a novel at all. He read me some twenty pages, and I no longer wondered that he couldn’t sell it.’

‘Oh, but it has considerable merit,’ put in Biffen. ‘The talk is remarkably true.’

‘But what’s the good of talk that leads to nothing?’ protested Jasper.

‘It’s a bit of real life.’

‘Yes, but it has no market value. You may write what you like, so long as people are willing to read you. Whelpdale’s a clever fellow, but he can’t hit a practical line.’

‘Like some other people I have heard of;’ said Reardon, laughing.

‘But the odd thing is, that he always strikes one as practical-minded. Don’t you feel that, Mrs Reardon?’

He and Amy talked for a few minutes, and Reardon, seemingly lost in meditation, now and then observed them from the corner of his eye.

At eleven o’clock husband and wife were alone again.

‘You don’t mean to say,’ exclaimed Amy, ‘that Biffen has sold his coat?’

‘Or pawned it.’

‘But why not the overcoat?’

‘Partly, I should think, because it’s the warmer of the two; partly, perhaps, because the other would fetch more.’

‘That poor man will die of starvation, some day, Edwin.’

‘I think it not impossible.’

‘I hope you gave him something to eat?’

‘Oh yes. But I could see he didn’t like to take as much as he wanted. I don’t think of him with so much pity as I used that’s a result of suffering oneself.’

Amy set her lips and sighed.

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