New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 13

A Warning

In the spring list of Mr Jedwood’s publications, announcement was made of a new work by Alfred Yule. It was called ‘English Prose in the Nineteenth Century,’ and consisted of a number of essays (several of which had already seen the light in periodicals) strung into continuity. The final chapter dealt with contemporary writers, more especially those who served to illustrate the author’s theme — that journalism is the destruction of prose style: on certain popular writers of the day there was an outpouring of gall which was not likely to be received as though it were sweet ointment. The book met with rather severe treatment in critical columns; it could scarcely be ignored (the safest mode of attack when one’s author has no expectant public), and only the most skilful could write of it in a hostile spirit without betraying that some of its strokes had told. An evening newspaper which piqued itself on independence indulged in laughing appreciation of the polemical chapter, and the next day printed a scornful letter from a thinly-disguised correspondent who assailed both book and reviewer. For the moment people talked more of Alfred Yule than they had done since his memorable conflict with Clement Fadge.

The publisher had hoped for this. Mr Jedwood was an energetic and sanguine man, who had entered upon his business with a determination to rival in a year or so the houses which had slowly risen into commanding stability. He had no great capital, but the stroke of fortune which had wedded him to a popular novelist enabled him to count on steady profit from one source, and boundless faith in his own judgment urged him to an initial outlay which made the prudent shake their heads. He talked much of ‘the new era,’ foresaw revolutions in publishing and book-selling, planned every week a score of untried ventures which should appeal to the democratic generation just maturing; in the meantime, was ready to publish anything which seemed likely to get talked about.

The May number of The Current, in its article headed ‘Books of the Month,’ devoted about half a page to ‘English Prose in the Nineteenth Century.’ This notice was a consummate example of the flippant style of attack. Flippancy, the most hopeless form of intellectual vice, was a characterising note of Mr Fadge’s periodical; his monthly comments on publications were already looked for with eagerness by that growing class of readers who care for nothing but what can be made matter of ridicule. The hostility of other reviewers was awkward and ineffectual compared with this venomous banter, which entertained by showing that in the book under notice there was neither entertainment nor any other kind of interest. To assail an author without increasing the number of his readers is the perfection of journalistic skill, and The Current, had it stood alone, would fully have achieved this end. As it was, silence might have been better tactics. But Mr Fadge knew that his enemy would smart under the poisoned pin-points, and that was something gained.

On the day that The Current appeared, its treatment of Alfred Yule was discussed in Mr Jedwood’s private office. Mr Quarmby, who had intimate relations with the publisher, happened to look in just as a young man (one of Mr Jedwood’s ‘readers’) was expressing a doubt whether Fadge himself was the author of the review.

‘But there’s Fadge’s thumb-mark all down the page,’ cried Mr Quarmby.

‘He inspired the thing, of course; but I rather think it was written by that fellow Milvain.’

‘Think so?’ asked the publisher.

‘Well, I know with certainty that the notice of Markland’s novel is his writing, and I have reasons for suspecting that he did Yule’s book as well.’

‘Smart youngster, that,’ remarked Mr Jedwood. ‘Who is he, by-the-bye?’

‘Somebody’s illegitimate son, I believe,’ replied the source of trustworthy information, with a laugh. ‘Denham says he met him in New York a year or two ago, under another name.

‘Excuse me,’ interposed Mr Quarmby, ‘there’s some mistake in all that.’

He went on to state what he knew, from Yule himself, concerning Milvain’s history. Though in this instance a corrector, Mr Quarmby took an opportunity, a few hours later, of informing Mr Hinks that the attack on Yule in The Current was almost certainly written by young Milvain, with the result that when the rumour reached Yule’s ears it was delivered as an undoubted and well-known fact.

It was a month prior to this that Milvain made his call upon Marian Yule, on the Sunday when her father was absent. When told of the visit, Yule assumed a manner of indifference, but his daughter understood that he was annoyed. With regard to the sisters who would shortly be living in London, he merely said that Marian must behave as discretion directed her. If she wished to invite the Miss Milvains to St Paul’s Crescent, he only begged that the times and seasons of the household might not be disturbed.

As her habit was, Marian took refuge in silence. Nothing could have been more welcome to her than the proximity of Maud and Dora, but she foresaw that her own home would not be freely open to them; perhaps it might be necessary to behave with simple frankness, and let her friends know the embarrassments of the situation. But that could not be done in the first instance; the unkindness would seem too great. A day after the arrival of the girls, she received a note from Dora, and almost at once replied to it by calling at her friends’ lodgings. A week after that, Maud and Dora came to St Paul’s Crescent; it was Sunday, and Mr Yule purposely kept away from home. They had only been once to the house since then, again without meeting Mr Yule. Marian, however, visited them at their lodgings frequently; now and then she met Jasper there. The latter never spoke of her father, and there was no question of inviting him to repeat his call.

In the end, Marian was obliged to speak on the subject with her mother. Mrs Yule offered an occasion by asking when the Miss Milvains were coming again.

‘I don’t think I shall ever ask them again,’ Marian replied.

Her mother understood, and looked troubled.

‘I must tell them how it is, that’s all,’ the girl went on. ‘They are sensible; they won’t be offended with me.’

‘But your father has never had anything to say against them,’ urged Mrs Yule. ‘Not a word to me, Marian. I’d tell you the truth if he had.’

‘It’s too disagreeable, all the same. I can’t invite them here with pleasure. Father has grown prejudiced against them all, and he won’t change. No, I shall just tell them.’

‘It’s very hard for you,’ sighed her mother. ‘If I thought I could do any good by speaking — but I can’t, my dear.’

‘I know it, mother. Let us go on as we did before.’

The day after this, when Yule came home about the hour of dinner, he called Marian’s name from within the study. Marian had not left the house to-day; her work had been set, in the shape of a long task of copying from disorderly manuscript. She left the sitting-room in obedience to her father’s summons.

‘Here’s something that will afford you amusement,’ he said, holding to her the new number of The Current, and indicating the notice of his book.

She read a few lines, then threw the thing on to the table.

‘That kind of writing sickens me,’ she exclaimed, with anger in her eyes. ‘Only base and heartless people can write in that way. You surely won’t let it trouble you?’

‘Oh, not for a moment,’ her father answered, with exaggerated show of calm. ‘But I am surprised that you don’t see the literary merit of the work. I thought it would distinctly appeal to you.’

There was a strangeness in his voice, as well as in the words, which caused her to look at him inquiringly. She knew him well enough to understand that such a notice would irritate him profoundly; but why should he go out of his way to show it her, and with this peculiar acerbity of manner?

‘Why do you say that, father?’

‘It doesn’t occur to you who may probably have written it?’

She could not miss his meaning; astonishment held her mute for a moment, then she said:

‘Surely Mr Fadge wrote it himself?’

‘I am told not. I am informed on very good authority that one of his young gentlemen has the credit of it.’

‘You refer, of course, to Mr Milvain,’ she replied quietly. ‘But I think that can’t be true.’

He looked keenly at her. He had expected a more decided protest.

‘I see no reason for disbelieving it.’

‘I see every reason, until I have your evidence.’

This was not at all Marian’s natural tone in argument with him. She was wont to be submissive.

‘I was told,’ he continued, hardening face and voice, ‘by someone who had it from Jedwood.’

Yule was conscious of untruth in this statement, but his mood would not allow him to speak ingenuously, and he wished to note the effect upon Marian of what he said. There were two beliefs in him: on the one hand, he recognised Fadge in every line of the writing; on the other, he had a perverse satisfaction in convincing himself that it was Milvain who had caught so successfully the master’s manner. He was not the kind of man who can resist an opportunity of justifying, to himself and others, a course into which he has been led by mingled feelings, all more or less unjustifiable.

‘How should Jedwood know?’ asked Marian.

Yule shrugged his shoulders.

‘As if these things didn’t get about among editors and publishers!’

‘In this case, there’s a mistake.’

‘And why, pray?’ His voice trembled with choler. ‘Why need there be a mistake?’

‘Because Mr Milvain is quite incapable of reviewing your book in such a spirit.’

‘There is your mistake, my girl. Milvain will do anything that’s asked of him, provided he’s well enough paid.’

Marian reflected. When she raised her eyes again they were perfectly calm.

‘What has led you to think that?’

‘Don’t I know the type of man? Noscitur ex sociis — have you Latin enough for that?’

‘You’ll find that you are misinformed,’ Marian replied, and therewith went from the room.

She could not trust herself to converse longer. A resentment such as her father had never yet excited in her — such, indeed, as she had seldom, if ever, conceived — threatened to force utterance for itself in words which would change the current of her whole life. She saw her father in his worst aspect, and her heart was shaken by an unnatural revolt from him. Let his assurance of what he reported be ever so firm, what right had he to make this use of it? His behaviour was spiteful. Suppose he entertained suspicions which seemed to make it his duty to warn her against Milvain, this was not the way to go about it. A father actuated by simple motives of affection would never speak and look thus.

It was the hateful spirit of literary rancour that ruled him; the spirit that made people eager to believe all evil, that blinded and maddened. Never had she felt so strongly the unworthiness of the existence to which she was condemned. That contemptible review, and now her father’s ignoble passion — such things were enough to make all literature appear a morbid excrescence upon human life.

Forgetful of the time, she sat in her bedroom until a knock at the door, and her mother’s voice, admonished her that dinner was waiting. An impulse all but caused her to say that she would rather not go down for the meal, that she wished to be left alone. But this would be weak peevishness. She just looked at the glass to see that her face bore no unwonted signs, and descended to take her place as usual.

Throughout the dinner there passed no word of conversation. Yule was at his blackest; he gobbled a few mouthfuls, then occupied himself with the evening paper. On rising, he said to Marian:

‘Have you copied the whole of that?’

The tone would have been uncivil if addressed to an impertinent servant.

‘Not much more than half,’ was the cold reply.

‘Can you finish it to-night?’

‘I’m afraid not. I am going out.’

‘Then I must do it myself’

And he went to the study.

Mrs Yule was in an anguish of nervousness.

‘What is it, dear?’ she asked of Marian, in a pleading whisper. ‘Oh, don’t quarrel with your father! Don’t!’

‘I can’t be a slave, mother, and I can’t be treated unjustly.’

‘What is it? Let me go and speak to him.’

‘It’s no use. We CAN’T live in terror.’

For Mrs Yule this was unimaginable disaster. She had never dreamt that Marian, the still, gentle Marian, could be driven to revolt. And it had come with the suddenness of a thunderclap. She wished to ask what had taken place between father and daughter in the brief interview before dinner; but Marian gave her no chance, quitting the room upon those last trembling words.

The girl had resolved to visit her friends, the sisters, and tell them that in future they must never come to see her at home. But it was no easy thing for her to stifle her conscience, and leave her father to toil over that copying which had need of being finished. Not her will, but her exasperated feeling, had replied to him that she would not do the work; already it astonished her that she had really spoken such words. And as the throbbing of her pulses subsided, she saw more clearly into the motives of this wretched tumult which possessed her. Her mind was harassed with a fear lest in defending Milvain she had spoken foolishly. Had he not himself said to her that he might be guilty of base things, just to make his way? Perhaps it was the intolerable pain of imagining that he had already made good his words, which robbed her of self-control and made her meet her father’s rudeness with defiance.

Impossible to carry out her purpose; she could not deliberately leave the house and spend some hours away with the thought of such wrath and misery left behind her. Gradually she was returning to her natural self; fear and penitence were chill at her heart.

She went down to the study, tapped, and entered.

‘Father, I said something that I did not really mean. Of course I shall go on with the copying and finish it as soon as possible.’

‘You will do nothing of the kind, my girl.’ He was in his usual place, already working at Marian’s task; he spoke in a low, thick voice. ‘Spend your evening as you choose, I have no need of you.’

‘I behaved very ill-temperedly. Forgive me, father.’

‘Have the goodness to go away. You hear me?’

His eyes were inflamed, and his discoloured teeth showed themselves savagely. Marian durst not, really durst not approach him. She hesitated, but once more a sense of hateful injustice moved within her, and she went away as quietly as she had entered.

She said to herself that now it was her perfect right to go whither she would. But the freedom was only in theory; her submissive and timid nature kept her at home — and upstairs in her own room; for, if she went to sit with her mother, of necessity she must talk about what had happened, and that she felt unable to do. Some friend to whom she could unbosom all her sufferings would now have been very precious to her, but Maud and Dora were her only intimates, and to them she might not make the full confession which gives solace.

Mrs Yule did not venture to intrude upon her daughter’s privacy. That Marian neither went out nor showed herself in the house proved her troubled state, but the mother had no confidence in her power to comfort. At the usual time she presented herself in the study with her husband’s coffee; the face which was for an instant turned to her did not invite conversation, but distress obliged her to speak.

‘Why are you cross with Marian, Alfred?’

‘You had better ask what she means by her extraordinary behaviour.’

A word of harsh rebuff was the most she had expected. Thus encouraged, she timidly put another question.

‘How has she behaved?’

‘I suppose you have ears?’

‘But wasn’t there something before that? You spoke so angry to her.’

‘Spoke so angry, did I? She is out, I suppose?’

‘No, she hasn’t gone out.’

‘That’ll do. Don’t disturb me any longer.’

She did not venture to linger.

The breakfast next morning seemed likely to pass without any interchange of words. But when Yule was pushing back his chair, Marian — who looked pale and ill — addressed a question to him about the work she would ordinarily have pursued to-day at the Reading-room. He answered in a matter-of-fact tone, and for a few minutes they talked on the subject much as at any other time. Half an hour after, Marian set forth for the Museum in the usual way. Her father stayed at home.

It was the end of the episode for the present. Marian felt that the best thing would be to ignore what had happened, as her father evidently purposed doing. She had asked his forgiveness, and it was harsh in him to have repelled her; but by now she was able once more to take into consideration all his trials and toils, his embittered temper and the new wound he had received. That he should resume his wonted manner was sufficient evidence of regret on his part. Gladly she would have unsaid her resentful words; she had been guilty of a childish outburst of temper, and perhaps had prepared worse sufferings for the future.

And yet, perhaps it was as well that her father should be warned. She was not all submission, he might try her beyond endurance; there might come a day when perforce she must stand face to face with him, and make it known she had her own claims upon life. It was as well he should hold that possibility in view.

This evening no work was expected of her. Not long after dinner she prepared for going out; to her mother she mentioned she should be back about ten o’clock.

‘Give my kind regards to them, dear — if you like to,’ said Mrs Yule just above her breath.

‘Certainly I will.’

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