New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 12

Work Without Hope

The prudent course was so obvious that he marvelled at Amy’s failing to suggest it. For people in their circumstances to be paying a rent of fifty pounds when a home could be found for half the money was recklessness; there would be no difficulty in letting the flat for this last year of their lease, and the cost of removal would be trifling. The mental relief of such a change might enable him to front with courage a problem in any case very difficult, and, as things were, desperate. Three months ago, in a moment of profoundest misery, he had proposed this step; courage failed him to speak of it again, Amy’s look and voice were too vivid in his memory. Was she not capable of such a sacrifice for his sake? Did she prefer to let him bear all the responsibility of whatever might result from a futile struggle to keep up appearances?

Between him and her there was no longer perfect confidence. Her silence meant reproach, and — whatever might have been the case before — there was no doubt that she now discussed him with her mother, possibly with other people. It was not likely that she concealed his own opinion of the book he had just finished; all their acquaintances would be prepared to greet its publication with private scoffing or with mournful shaking of the head. His feeling towards Amy entered upon a new phase. The stability of his love was a source of pain; condemning himself, he felt at the same time that he was wronged. A coldness which was far from representing the truth began to affect his manner and speech, and Amy did not seem to notice it, at all events she made no kind of protest. They no longer talked of the old subjects, but of those mean concerns of material life which formerly they had agreed to dismiss as quickly as possible. Their relations to each other — not long ago an inexhaustible topic — would not bear spoken comment; both were too conscious of the danger-signal when they looked that way.

In the time of waiting for the publishers’ offer, and now again when he was asking himself how he should use the respite granted him, Reardon spent his days at the British Museum. He could not read to much purpose, but it was better to sit here among strangers than seem to be idling under Amy’s glance. Sick of imaginative writing, he turned to the studies which had always been most congenial, and tried to shape out a paper or two like those he had formerly disposed of to editors. Among his unused material lay a mass of notes he had made in a reading of Diogenes Laertius, and it seemed to him now that he might make something salable out of these anecdotes of the philosophers. In a happier mood he could have written delightfully on such a subject — not learnedly, but in the strain of a modern man whose humour and sensibility find free play among the classic ghosts; even now he was able to recover something of the light touch which had given value to his published essays.

Meanwhile the first number of The Current had appeared, and Jasper Milvain had made a palpable hit. Amy spoke very often of the article called ‘Typical Readers,’ and her interest in its author was freely manifested. Whenever a mention of Jasper came under her notice she read it Out to her husband. Reardon smiled and appeared glad, but he did not care to discuss Milvain with the same frankness as formerly.

One evening at the end of January he told Amy what he had been writing at the Museum, and asked her if she would care to hear it read.

‘I began to wonder what you were doing,’ she replied.

‘Then why didn’t you ask me?’

‘I was rather afraid to.’

‘Why afraid?’

‘It would have seemed like reminding you that — you know what I mean.’

‘That a month or two more will see us at the same crisis again. Still, I had rather you had shown an interest in my doings.’

After a pause Amy asked:

‘Do you think you can get a paper of this kind accepted?’

‘It isn’t impossible. I think it’s rather well done. Let me read you a page — ’

‘Where will you send it?’ she interrupted.

‘To The Wayside.’

‘Why not try The Current? Ask Milvain to introduce you to Mr Fadge. They pay much better, you know.’

‘But this isn’t so well suited for Fadge. And I much prefer to be independent, as long as it’s possible.’

‘That’s one of your faults, Edwin,’ remarked his wife, mildly. ‘It’s only the strongest men that can make their way independently. You ought to use every means that offers.’

‘Seeing that I am so weak?’

‘I didn’t think it would offend you. I only meant ——’

‘No, no; you are quite right. Certainly, I am one of the men who need all the help they can get. But I assure you, this thing won’t do for The Current.’

‘What a pity you will go hack to those musty old times! Now think of that article of Milvain’s. If only you could do something of that kind! What do people care about Diogenes and his tub and his lantern?’

‘My dear girl, Diogenes Laertius had neither tub nor lantern, that I know of. You are making a mistake; but it doesn’t matter.’

‘No, I don’t think it does.’ The caustic note was not very pleasant on Amy’s lips. ‘Whoever he was, the mass of readers will be frightened by his name.’

‘Well, we have to recognise that the mass of readers will never care for anything I do.’

‘You will never convince me that you couldn’t write in a popular way if you tried. I’m sure you are quite as clever as Milvain — ’

Reardon made an impatient gesture.

‘Do leave Milvain aside for a little! He and I are as unlike as two

men could be. What’s the use of constantly comparing us?’

Amy looked at him. He had never spoken to her so brusquely.

‘How can you say that I am constantly comparing you?’

‘If not in spoken words, then in your thoughts.’

‘That’s not a very nice thing to say, Edwin.’

‘You make it so unmistakable, Amy. What I mean is, that you are always regretting the difference between him and me. You lament that I can’t write in that attractive way. Well, I lament it myself — for your sake. I wish I had Milvain’s peculiar talent, so that I could get reputation and money. But I haven’t, and there’s an end of it. It irritates a man to be perpetually told of his disadvantages.’

‘I will never mention Milvain’s name again,’ said Amy coldly.

‘Now that’s ridiculous, and you know it.’

‘I feel the same about your irritation. I can’t see that I have given any cause for it.’

‘Then we’ll talk no more of the matter.’

Reardon threw his manuscript aside and opened a book. Amy never asked him to resume his intention of reading what he had written.

However, the paper was accepted. It came out in The Wayside for March, and Reardon received seven pounds ten for it. By that time he had written another thing of the same gossipy kind, suggested by Pliny’s Letters. The pleasant occupation did him good, but there was no possibility of pursuing this course. ‘Margaret Home’ would be published in April; he might get the five-and-twenty pounds contingent upon a certain sale, yet that could in no case be paid until the middle of the year, and long before then he would be penniless. His respite drew to an end.

But now he took counsel of no one; as far as it was possible he lived in solitude, never seeing those of his acquaintances who were outside the literary world, and seldom even his colleagues. Milvain was so busy that he had only been able to look in twice or thrice since Christmas, and Reardon nowadays never went to Jasper’s lodgings.

He had the conviction that all was over with the happiness of his married life, though how the events which were to express this ruin would shape themselves he could not foresee. Amy was revealing that aspect of her character to which he had been blind, though a practical man would have perceived it from the first; so far from helping him to support poverty, she perhaps would even refuse to share it with him. He knew that she was slowly drawing apart; already there was a divorce between their minds, and he tortured himself in uncertainty as to how far he retained her affections. A word of tenderness, a caress, no longer met with response from her; her softest mood was that of mere comradeship. All the warmth of her nature was expended upon the child; Reardon learnt how easy it is for a mother to forget that both parents have a share in her offspring.

He was beginning to dislike the child. But for Willie’s existence Amy would still love him with undivided heart; not, perhaps, so passionately as once, but still with lover’s love. And Amy understoed — or, at all events, remarked — this change in him. She was aware that he seldom asked a question about Willie, and that he listened with indifference when she spoke of the little fellow’s progress. In part offended, she was also in part pleased.

But for the child, mere poverty, he said to himself, should never have sundered them. In the strength of his passion he could have overcome all her disappointments; and, indeed, but for that new care, he would most likely never have fallen to this extremity of helplessness. It is natural in a weak and sensitive man to dream of possibilities disturbed by the force of circumstance. For one hour which he gave to conflict with his present difficulties, Reardon spent many in contemplation of the happiness that might have been.

Even yet, it needed but a little money to redeem all. Amy had no extravagant aspirations; a home of simple refinement and freedom from anxiety would restore her to her nobler self. How could he find fault with her? She knew nothing of such sordid life as he had gone through, and to lack money for necessities seemed to her degrading beyond endurance. Why, even the ordinary artisan’s wife does not suffer such privations as hers at the end of the past year. For lack of that little money his life must be ruined. Of late he had often thought about the rich uncle, John Yule, who might perhaps leave something to Amy; but the hope was so uncertain. And supposing such a thing were to happen; would it be perfectly easy to live upon his wife’s bounty — perhaps exhausting a small capital, so that, some years hence, their position would be no better than before? Not long ago, he could have taken anything from Amy’s hand; would it be so simple since the change that had come between them?

Having written his second magazine-article (it was rejected by two editors, and he had no choice but to hold it over until sufficient time had elapsed to allow of his again trying The Wayside), he saw that he must perforce plan another novel. But this time he was resolute not to undertake three volumes. The advertisements informed him that numbers of authors were abandoning that procrustean system; hopeless as he was, he might as well try his chance with a book which could be written in a few weeks. And why not a glaringly artificial story with a sensational title? It could not be worse than what he had last written.

So, without a word to Amy, he put aside his purely intellectual work and began once more the search for a ‘plot.’ This was towards the end of February. The proofs of ‘Margaret Home’ were coming in day by day; Amy had offered to correct them, but after all he preferred to keep his shame to himself as long as possible, and with a hurried reading he dismissed sheet after sheet. His imagination did not work the more happily for this repugnant task; still, he hit at length upon a conception which seemed absurd enough for the purpose before him. Whether he could persevere with it even to the extent of one volume was very doubtful. But it should not be said of him that he abandoned his wife and child to penury without one effort of the kind that Milvain and Amy herself had recommended.

Writing a page or two of manuscript daily, and with several holocausts to retard him, he had done nearly a quarter of the story when there came a note from Jasper telling of Mrs Milvain’s death. He handed it across the breakfast-table to Amy, and watched her as she read it.

‘I suppose it doesn’t alter his position,’ Amy remarked, without much interest.

‘I suppose not appreciably. He told me once his mother had a sufficient income; but whatever she leaves will go to his sisters, I should think. He has never said much to me.’

Nearly three weeks passed before they heard anything more from Jasper himself; then he wrote, again from the country, saying that he purposed bringing his sisters to live in London. Another week, and one evening he appeared at the door.

A want of heartiness in Reardon’s reception of him might have been explained as gravity natural under the circumstances. But Jasper had before this become conscious that he was not welcomed here quite so cheerily as in the old days. He remarked it distinctly on that evening when he accompanied Amy home from Mrs Yule’s; since then he had allowed his pressing occupations to be an excuse for the paucity of his visits. It seemed to him perfectly intelligible that Reardon, sinking into literary insignificance, should grow cool to a man entering upon a successful career; the vein of cynicism in Jasper enabled him to pardon a weakness of this kind, which in some measure flattered him. But he both liked and respected Reardon, and at present he was in the mood to give expression to his warmer feelings.

‘Your book is announced, I see,’ he said with an accent of pleasure, as soon as he had seated himself.

‘I didn’t know it.’

‘Yes. “New novel by the author of ‘On Neutral Ground.’” Down for the sixteenth of April. And I have a proposal to make about it. Will you let me ask Fadge to have it noticed in “Books of the Month,” in the May Current?’

‘I strongly advise you to let it take its chance. The book isn’t worth special notice, and whoever undertook to review it for Fadge would either have to lie, or stultify the magazine.’

Jasper turned to Amy.

‘Now what is to be done with a man like this? What is one to say to him, Mrs Reardon?’

‘Edwin dislikes the book,’ Amy replied, carelessly.

‘That has nothing to do with the matter. We know quite well that in anything he writes there’ll be something for a well-disposed reviewer to make a good deal of. If Fadge will let me, I should do the thing myself.’

Neither Reardon nor his wife spoke.

‘Of course,’ went on Milvain, looking at the former, ‘if you had rather I left it alone — ’

‘I had much rather. Please don’t say anything about it.’

There was an awkward silence. Amy broke it by saying:

‘Are your sisters in town, Mr Milvain?’

‘Yes. We came up two days ago. I found lodgings for them not far from Mornington Road. Poor girls! they don’t quite know where they are, yet. Of course they will keep very quiet for a time, then I must try to get friends for them. Well, they have one already — your cousin, Miss Yule. She has already been to see them.’

‘I’m very glad of that.’

Amy took an opportunity of studying his face. There was again a silence as if of constraint. Reardon, glancing at his wife, said with hesitation:

‘When they care to see other visitors, I’m sure Amy would be very glad — ’

‘Certainly!’ his wife added.

‘Thank you very much. Of course I knew I could depend on Mrs Reardon to show them kindness in that way. But let me speak frankly of something. My sisters have made quite a friend of Miss Yule, since she was down there last year. Wouldn’t that’ — he turned to Amy — ‘cause you a little awkwardness?’

Amy had a difficulty in replying. She kept her eyes on the ground.

‘You have had no quarrel with your cousin,’ remarked Reardon.

‘None whatever. It’s only my mother and my uncle.’

‘I can’t imagine Miss Yule having a quarrel with anyone,’ said Jasper. Then he added quickly: ‘Well, things must shape themselves naturally. We shall see. For the present they will be fully occupied. Of course it’s best that they should be. I shall see them every day, and Miss Yule will come pretty often, I dare say.’

Reardon caught Amy’s eye, but at once looked away again.

‘My word!’ exclaimed Milvain, after a moment’s meditation. ‘It’s well this didn’t happen a year ago. The girls have no income; only a little cash to go on with. We shall have our work set. It’s a precious lucky thing that I have just got a sort of footing.’

Reardon muttered an assent.

‘And what are you doing now?’ Jasper inquired suddenly.

‘Writing a one-volume story.’

‘I’m glad to hear that. Any special plan for its publication?’

‘No.’

‘Then why not offer it to Jedwood? He’s publishing a series of one-volume novels. You know of Jedwood, don’t you? He was Culpepper’s manager; started business about half a year ago, and it looks as if he would do well. He married that woman — what’s her name? — Who wrote “Mr Henderson’s Wives”?’

‘Never heard of it.’

‘Nonsense! — Miss Wilkes, of course. Well, she married this fellow Jedwood, and there was a great row about something or other between him and her publishers. Mrs Boston Wright told me all about it. An astonishing woman that; a cyclopaedia of the day’s small talk. I’m quite a favourite with her; she’s promised to help the girls all she can. Well, but I was talking about Jedwood. Why not offer him this book of yours? He’s eager to get hold of the new writers. Advertises hugely; he has the whole back page of The Study about every other week. I suppose Miss Wilkes’s profits are paying for it. He has just given Markland two hundred pounds for a paltry little tale that would scarcely swell out to a volume. Markland told me himself. You know that I’ve scraped an acquaintance with him? Oh! I suppose I haven’t seen you since then. He’s a dwarfish fellow with only one eye. Mrs Boston Wright cries him up at every opportunity.’

‘Who IS Mrs Boston Wright?’ asked Reardon, laughing impatiently.

‘Edits The English Girl, you know. She’s had an extraordinary life. Was born in Mauritius — no, Ceylon — I forget; some such place. Married a sailor at fifteen. Was shipwrecked somewhere, and only restored to life after terrific efforts; — her story leaves it all rather vague. Then she turns up as a newspaper correspondent at the Cape. Gave up that, and took to some kind of farming, I forget where. Married again (first husband lost in aforementioned shipwreck), this time a Baptist minister, and began to devote herself to soup-kitchens in Liverpool. Husband burned to death, somewhere. She’s next discovered in the thick of literary society in London. A wonderful woman, I assure you. Must be nearly fifty, but she looks twenty-five.’

He paused, then added impulsively:

‘Let me take you to one of her evenings — nine on Thursday. Do persuade him, Mrs Reardon?’

Reardon shook his head.

‘No, no. I should be horribly out of my element.’

‘I can’t see why. You would meet all sorts of well-known people; those you ought to have met long ago. Better still, let me ask her to send an invitation for both of you. I’m sure you’d like her, Mrs Reardon. There’s a good deal of humbug about her, it’s true, but some solid qualities as well. No one has a word to say against her. And it’s a splendid advertisement to have her for a friend. She’ll talk about your books and articles till all is blue.’

Amy gave a questioning look at her husband. But Reardon moved in an uncomfortable way.

‘We’ll see about it,’ he said. ‘Some day, perhaps.’

‘Let me know whenever you feel disposed. But about Jedwood: I happen to know a man who reads for him.’

‘Heavens!’ cried Reardon. ‘Who don’t you know?’

‘The simplest thing in the world. At present it’s a large part of my business to make acquaintances. Why, look you; a man who has to live by miscellaneous writing couldn’t get on without a vast variety of acquaintances. One’s own brain would soon run dry; a clever fellow knows how to use the brains of other people.’

Amy listened with an unconscious smile which expressed keen interest.

‘Oh,’ pursued Jasper, ‘when did you see Whelpdale last?’

‘Haven’t seen him for a long time.’

‘You don’t know what he’s doing? The fellow has set up as a “literary adviser.” He has an advertisement in The Study every week. “To Young Authors and Literary Aspirants” — something of the kind. “Advice given on choice of subjects, MSS. read, corrected, and recommended to publishers. Moderate terms.” A fact! And what’s more, he made six guineas in the first fortnight; so he says, at all events. Now that’s one of the finest jokes I ever heard. A man who can’t get anyone to publish his own books makes a living by telling other people how to write!’

‘But it’s a confounded swindle!’

‘Oh, I don’t know. He’s capable of correcting the grammar of “literary aspirants,” and as for recommending to publishers — well, anyone can recommend, I suppose.’

Reardon’s indignation yielded to laughter.

‘It’s not impossible that he may thrive by this kind of thing.’

‘Not at all,’ assented Jasper.

Shortly after this he looked at his watch.

‘I must be off, my friends. I have something to write before I can go to my truckle-bed, and it’ll take me three hours at least.

Good-bye, old man. Let me know when your story’s finished, and we’ll talk about it. And think about Mrs Boston Wright; oh, and about that review in The Current. I wish you’d let me do it. Talk it over with your guide, philosopher, and friend.’

He indicated Amy, who laughed in a forced way.

When he was gone, the two sat without speaking for several minutes.

‘Do you care to make friends with those girls?’ asked Reardon at length.

‘I suppose in decency I must call upon them?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘You may find them very agreeable.’

‘Oh yes.’

They conversed with their own thoughts for a while. Then Reardon burst out laughing.

‘Well, there’s the successful man, you see. Some day he’ll live in a mansion, and dictate literary opinions to the universe.’

‘How has he offended you?’

‘Offended me? Not at all. I am glad of his cheerful prospects.’

‘Why should you refuse to go among those people? It might be good for you in several ways.’

‘If the chance had come when I was publishing my best work, I dare say I shouldn’t have refused. But I certainly shall not present myself as the author of “Margaret Home,” and the rubbish I’m now writing.’

‘Then you must cease to write rubbish.’

‘Yes. I must cease to write altogether.’

‘And do what?’

‘I wish to Heaven I knew!’

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