New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 14

Ecruits

Marian walked to the nearest point of Camden Road, and there waited for an omnibus, which conveyed her to within easy reach of the street where Maud and Dora Milvain had their lodgings. This was at the north-east of Regent’s Park, and no great distance from Mornington Road, where Jasper still dwelt.

On learning that the young ladies were at home and alone, she ascended to the second floor and knocked.

‘That’s right!’ exclaimed Dora’s pleasant voice, as the door opened and the visitor showed herself And then came the friendly greeting which warmed Marian’s heart, the greeting which until lately no house in London could afford her.

The girls looked oddly out of place in this second-floor sitting-room, with its vulgar furniture and paltry ornaments. Maud especially so, for her fine figure was well displayed by the dress of mourning, and her pale, handsome face had as little congruence as possible with a background of humble circumstances.

Dora impressed one as a simpler nature, but she too had distinctly the note of refinement which was out of harmony with these surroundings. They occupied only two rooms, the sleeping-chamber being double-bedded; they purchased food for themselves and prepared their own meals, excepting dinner. During the first week a good many tears were shed by both of them; it was not easy to transfer themselves from the comfortable country home to this bare corner of lodgers’ London. Maud, as appeared at the first glance, was less disposed than her sister to make the best of things; her countenance wore an expression rather of discontent than of sorrow, and she did not talk with the same readiness as Dora.

On the round table lay a number of books; when disturbed, the sisters had been engaged in studious reading.

‘I’m not sure that I do right in coming again so soon,’ said Marian as she took off her things. ‘Your time is precious.’

‘So are you,’ replied Dora, laughing. ‘It’s only under protest that we work in the evening when we have been hard at it all day.’

‘We have news for you, too,’ said Maud, who sat languidly on an uneasy chair.

‘Good, I hope?’

‘Someone called to see us yesterday. I dare say you can guess who it was.’

‘Amy, perhaps?’

‘Yes.’

‘And how did you like her?’

The sisters seemed to have a difficulty in answering. Dora was the first to speak.

‘We thought she was sadly out of spirits. Indeed she told us that she hasn’t been very well lately. But I think we shall like her if we come to know her better.’

‘It was rather awkward, Marian,’ the elder sister explained. ‘We felt obliged to say something about Mr Reardon’s books, but we haven’t read any of them yet, you know, so I just said that I hoped soon to read his new novel. “I suppose you have seen reviews of it?” she asked at once. Of course I ought to have had the courage to say no, but I admitted that I had seen one or two — Jasper showed us them. She looked very much annoyed, and after that we didn’t find much to talk about.’

‘The reviews are very disagreeable,’ said Marian with a troubled face. ‘I have read the book since I saw you the other day, and I am afraid it isn’t good, but I have seen many worse novels more kindly reviewed.’

‘Jasper says it’s because Mr Reardon has no friends among the journalists.’

‘Still,’ replied Marian, ‘I’m afraid they couldn’t have given the book much praise, if they wrote honestly. Did Amy ask you to go and see her?’

‘Yes, but she said it was uncertain how long they would be living at their present address. And really. we can’t feel sure whether we should be welcome or not just now.’

Marian listened with bent head. She too had to make known to her friends that they were not welcome in her own home; but she knew not how to utter words which would sound so unkind.

‘Your brother,’ she said after a pause, ‘will soon find suitable friends for you.’

‘Before long,’ replied Dora, with a look of amusement, ‘he’s going to take us to call on Mrs Boston Wright. I hardly thought he was serious at first, but he says he really means it.’

Marian grew more and more silent. At home she had felt that it would not be difficult to explain her troubles to these sympathetic girls, but now the time had come for speaking, she was oppressed by shame and anxiety. True, there was no absolute necessity for making the confession this evening, and if she chose to resist her father’s prejudice, things might even go on in a seemingly natural way. But the loneliness of her life had developed in her a sensitiveness which could not endure situations such as the present; difficulties which are of small account to people who take their part in active social life, harassed her to the destruction of all peace. Dora was not long in noticing the dejected mood which had come upon her friend.

‘What’s troubling you, Marian?’

‘Something I can hardly bear to speak of. Perhaps it will be the end of your friendship for me, and I should find it very hard to go back to my old solitude.’

The girls gazed at her, in doubt at first whether she spoke seriously.

‘What can you mean?’ Dora exclaimed. ‘What crime have you been committing?’

Maud, who leaned with her elbows on the table, searched Marian’s face curiously, but said nothing.

‘Has Mr Milvain shown you the new number of The Current?’ Marian went on to ask.

They replied with a negative, and Maud added:

‘He has nothing in it this month, except a review.’

‘A review?’ repeated Marian in a low voice.

‘Yes; of somebody’s novel.’

‘Markland’s,’ supplied Dora.

Marian drew a breath, but remained for a moment with her eyes cast down.

‘Do go on, dear,’ urged Dora. ‘Whatever are you going to tell us?’

‘There’s a notice of father’s book,’ continued the other, ‘a very ill-natured one; it’s written by the editor, Mr Fadge. Father and he have been very unfriendly for a long time. Perhaps Mr Milvain has told you something about it?’

Dora replied that he had.

‘I don’t know how it is in other professions,’ Marian resumed, ‘but I hope there is less envy, hatred and malice than in this of ours. The name of literature is often made hateful to me by the things I hear and read. My father has never been very fortunate, and many things have happened to make him bitter against the men who succeed; he has often quarrelled with people who were at first his friends, but never so seriously with anyone as with Mr Fadge. His feeling of enmity goes so far that it includes even those who are in any way associated with Mr Fadge. I am sorry to say’ — she looked with painful anxiety from one to the other of her hearers — ‘this has turned him against your brother, and — ’

Her voice was checked by agitation.

‘We were afraid of this,’ said Dora, in a tone of sympathy.

‘Jasper feared it might be the case,’ added Maud, more coldly, though with friendliness.

‘Why I speak of it at all,’ Marian hastened to say, ‘is because I am so afraid it should make a difference between yourselves and me.’

‘Oh! don’t think that!’ Dora exclaimed.

‘I am so ashamed,’ Marian went on in an uncertain tone, ‘but I think it will be better if I don’t ask you to come and see me. It sounds ridiculous; it is ridiculous and shameful. I couldn’t complain if you refused to have anything more to do with me.’

‘Don’t let it trouble you,’ urged Maud, with perhaps a trifle more of magnanimity in her voice than was needful. We quite understand. Indeed, it shan’t make any difference to us.’

But Marian had averted her face, and could not meet these assurances with any show of pleasure. Now that the step was taken she felt that her behaviour had been very weak. Unreasonable harshness such as her father’s ought to have been met more steadily; she had no right to make it an excuse for such incivility to her friends. Yet only in some such way as this could she make known to Jasper Milvain how her father regarded him, which she felt it necessary to do. Now his sisters would tell him, and henceforth there would be a clear understanding on both sides. That state of things was painful to her, but it was better than ambiguous relations.

‘Jasper is very sorry about it,’ said Dora, glancing rapidly at Marian.

‘But his connection with Mr Fadge came about in such a natural way,’ added the eldest sister. ‘And it was impossible for him to refuse opportunities.’

‘Impossible; I know,’ Marian replied earnestly. ‘Don’t think that I wish to justify my father. But I can understand him, and it must be very difficult for you to do so. You can’t know, as I do, how intensely he has suffered in these wretched, ignoble quarrels. If only you will let me come here still, in the same way, and still be as friendly to me. My home has never been a place to which I could have invited friends with any comfort, even if I had had any to invite. There were always reasons — but I can’t speak of them.’

‘My dear Marian,’ appealed Dora, ‘don’t distress yourself so! Do believe that nothing whatever has happened to change our feeling to you. Has there, Maud?’

‘Nothing whatever. We are not unreasonable girls, Marian.’

‘I am more grateful to you than I can say.’

It had seemed as if Marian must give way to the emotions which all but choked her voice; she overcame them, however, and presently was able to talk in pretty much her usual way, though when she smiled it was but faintly. Maud tried to lead her thoughts in another direction by speaking of work in which she and Dora were engaged. Already the sisters were doing a new piece of compilation for Messrs Jolly and Monk; it was more exacting than their initial task for the book market, and would take a much longer time.

A couple of hours went by, and Marian had just spoken of taking her leave, when a man’s step was heard rapidly ascending the nearest flight of stairs.

‘Here’s Jasper,’ remarked Dora, and in a moment there sounded a short, sharp summons at the door.

Jasper it was; he came in with radiant face, his eyes blinking before the lamplight.

‘Well, girls! Ha! how do you do, Miss Yule? I had just the vaguest sort of expectation that you might be here. It seemed a likely night; I don’t know why. I say, Dora, we really must get two or three decent easy-chairs for your room. I’ve seen some outside a second-hand furniture shop in Hampstead Road, about six shillings apiece. There’s no sitting on chairs such as these.’

That on which he tried to dispose himself, when he had flung aside his trappings, creaked and shivered ominously.

‘You hear? I shall come plump on to the floor, if I don’t mind. My word, what a day I have had! I’ve just been trying what I really could do in one day if I worked my hardest. Now just listen; it deserves to be chronicled for the encouragement of aspiring youth. I got up at 7.30, and whilst I breakfasted I read through a volume I had to review. By 10.30 the review was written — three-quarters of a column of the Evening Budget.’

‘Who is the unfortunate author?’ interrupted Maud, caustically.

‘Not unfortunate at all. I had to crack him up; otherwise I couldn’t have done the job so quickly. It’s the easiest thing in the world to write laudation; only an inexperienced grumbler would declare it was easier to find fault. The book was Billington’s “Vagaries”; pompous idiocy, of course, but he lives in a big house and gives dinners. Well, from 10.30 to 11, I smoked a cigar and reflected, feeling that the day wasn’t badly begun. At eleven I was ready to write my Saturday causerie for the Will o’ the Wisp; it took me till close upon one o’clock, which was rather too long. I can’t afford more than an hour and a half for that job. At one, I rushed out to a dirty little eating-house in Hampstead Road. Was back again by a quarter to two, having in the meantime sketched a paper for The West End. Pipe in mouth, I sat down to leisurely artistic work; by five, half the paper was done; the other half remains for to-morrow. From five to half-past I read four newspapers and two magazines, and from half-past to a quarter to six I jotted down several ideas that had come to me whilst reading. At six I was again in the dirty eating-house, satisfying a ferocious hunger. Home once more at 6.45, and for two hours wrote steadily at a long affair I have in hand for The Current. Then I came here, thinking hard all the way. What say you to this? Have I earned a night’s repose?’

‘And what’s the value of it all?’ asked Maud.

‘Probably from ten to twelve guineas, if I calculated.’

‘I meant, what was the literary value of it?’ said his sister, with a smile.

‘Equal to that of the contents of a mouldy nut.’

‘Pretty much what I thought.’

‘Oh, but it answers the purpose,’ urged Dora, ‘and it does no one any harm.’

‘Honest journey-work!’ cried Jasper. ‘There are few men in London capable of such a feat. Many a fellow could write more in quantity, but they couldn’t command my market. It’s rubbish, but rubbish of a very special kind, of fine quality.’

Marian had not yet spoken, save a word or two in reply to Jasper’s greeting; now and then she just glanced at him, but for the most part her eyes were cast down. Now Jasper addressed her.

‘A year ago, Miss Yule, I shouldn’t have believed myself capable of such activity. In fact I wasn’t capable of it then.’

‘You think such work won’t be too great a strain upon you?’ she asked.

‘Oh, this isn’t a specimen day, you know. To-morrow I shall very likely do nothing but finish my West End article, in an easy two or three hours. There’s no knowing; I might perhaps keep up the high pressure if I tried. But then I couldn’t dispose of all the work. Little by little — or perhaps rather quicker than that — I shall extend my scope. For instance, I should like to do two or three leaders a week for one of the big dailies. I can’t attain unto that just yet.’

‘Not political leaders?’

‘By no means. That’s not my line. The kind of thing in which one makes a column out of what would fill six lines of respectable prose. You call a cigar a “convoluted weed,” and so on, you know; that passes for facetiousness. I’ve never really tried my hand at that style yet; I shouldn’t wonder if I managed it brilliantly. Some day I’ll write a few exercises; just take two lines of some good prose writer, and expand them into twenty, in half-a-dozen different ways. Excellent mental gymnastics!’

Marian listened to his flow of talk for a few minutes longer, then took the opportunity of a brief silence to rise and put on her hat. Jasper observed her, but without rising; he looked at his sisters in a hesitating way. At length he stood up, and declared that he too must be off. This coincidence had happened once before when he met Marian here in the evening.

‘At all events, you won’t do any more work to-night,’ said Dora.

‘No; I shall read a page of something or other over a glass of whisky, and seek the sleep of a man who has done his duty.’

‘Why the whisky?’ asked Maud.

‘Do you grudge me such poor solace?’

‘I don’t see the need of it.’

‘Nonsense, Maud!’ exclaimed her sister. ‘He needs a little stimulant when he works so hard.’

Each of the girls gave Marian’s hand a significant pressure as she took leave of them, and begged her to come again as soon as she had a free evening. There was gratitude in her eyes.

The evening was clear, and not very cold.

‘It’s rather late for you to go home,’ said Jasper, as they left the house. ‘May I walk part of the way with you?’

Marian replied with a low ‘Thank you.’

‘I think you get on pretty well with the girls, don’t you?’

‘I hope they are as glad of my friendship as I am of theirs.’

‘Pity to see them in a place like that, isn’t it? They ought to have a good house, with plenty of servants. It’s bad enough for a civilised man to have to rough it, but I hate to see women living in a sordid way. Don’t you think they could both play their part in a drawing-room, with a little experience?’

‘Surely there’s no doubt of it.’

‘Maud would look really superb if she were handsomely dressed. She hasn’t a common face, by any means. And Dora is pretty, I think. Well, they shall go and see some people before long. The difficulty is, one doesn’t like it to be known that they live in such a crib; but I daren’t advise them to go in for expense. One can’t be sure that it would repay them, though — Now, in my own case, if I could get hold of a few thousand pounds I should know how to use it with the certainty of return; it would save me, probably, a clear ten years of life; I mean, I should go at a jump to what I shall be ten years hence without the help of money. But they have such a miserable little bit of capital, and everything is still so uncertain. One daren’t speculate under the circumstances.’

Marian made no reply.

‘You think I talk of nothing but money?’ Jasper said suddenly, looking down into her face.

‘I know too well what it means to be without money.’

‘Yes, but — you do just a little despise me?’

‘Indeed, I don’t, Mr Milvain.’

‘If that is sincere, I’m very glad. I take it in a friendly sense. I am rather despicable, you know; it’s part of my business to be so. But a friend needn’t regard that. There is the man apart from his necessities.’

The silence was then unbroken till they came to the lower end of Park Street, the junction of roads which lead to Hampstead, to Highgate, and to Holloway.

‘Shall you take an omnibus?’ Jasper asked.

She hesitated.

‘Or will you give me the pleasure of walking on with you? You are tired, perhaps?’

‘Not the least.’

For the rest of her answer she moved forward, and they crossed into the obscurity of Camden Road.

‘Shall I be doing wrong, Mr Milvain,’ Marian began in a very low voice, ‘if I ask you about the authorship of something in this month’s Current?’

‘I’m afraid I know what you refer to. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t answer a question of the kind.’

‘It was Mr Fadge himself who reviewed my father’s book?’

‘It was — confound him! I don’t know another man who could have done the thing so vilely well.’

‘I suppose he was only replying to my father’s attack upon him and his friends.’

‘Your father’s attack is honest and straightforward and justifiable and well put. I read that chapter of his book with huge satisfaction. But has anyone suggested that another than Fadge was capable of that masterpiece?’

‘Yes. I am told that Mr Jedwood, the publisher, has somehow made a mistake.’

‘Jedwood? And what mistake?’

‘Father heard that you were the writer.’

‘I?’ Jasper stopped short. They were in the rays of a street-lamp, and could see each other’s faces. ‘And he believes that?’

‘I’m afraid so.’

‘And you believe — believed it?’

‘Not for a moment.’

‘I shall write a note to Mr Yule.’

Marian was silent a while, then said:

‘Wouldn’t it be better if you found a way of letting Mr Jedwood know the truth?’

‘Perhaps you are right.’

Jasper was very grateful for the suggestion. In that moment he had reflected how rash it would be to write to Alfred Yule on such a subject, with whatever prudence in expressing himself. Such a letter, coming under the notice of the great Fadge, might do its writer serious harm.

‘Yes, you are right,’ he repeated. ‘I’ll stop that rumour at its source. I can’t guess how it started; for aught I know, some enemy hath done this, though I don’t quite discern the motive. Thank you very much for telling me, and still more for refusing to believe that I could treat Mr Yule in that way, even as a matter of business. When I said that I was despicable, I didn’t mean that I could sink quite to such a point as that. If only because it was your father — ’

He checked himself and they walked on for several yards without speaking.

‘In that case,’ Jasper resumed at length, ‘your father doesn’t think of me in a very friendly way?’

‘He scarcely could — ’

‘No, no. And I quite understand that the mere fact of my working for Fadge would prejudice him against me. But that’s no reason, I hope, why you and I shouldn’t be friends?’

‘I hope not.’

‘I don’t know that my friendship is worth much,’ Jasper continued, talking into the upper air, a habit of his when he discussed his own character. ‘I shall go on as I have begun, and fight for some of the good things of life. But your friendship is valuable. If I am sure of it, I shall be at all events within sight of the better ideals.’

Marian walked on with her eyes upon the ground. To her surprise she discovered presently that they had all but reached St Paul’s Crescent.

‘Thank you for having come so far,’ she said, pausing.

‘Ah, you are nearly home. Why, it seems only a few minutes since we left the girls. Now I’ll run back to the whisky of which Maud disapproves.’

‘May it do you good!’ said Marian with a laugh.

A speech of this kind seemed unusual upon her lips. Jasper smiled as he held her hand and regarded her.

‘Then you can speak in a joking way?’

‘Do I seem so very dull?’

‘Dull, by no means. But sage and sober and reticent — and exactly what I like in my friend, because it contrasts with my own habits. All the better that merriment lies below it. Goodnight, Miss Yule.’

He strode off and in a minute or two turned his head to look at the slight figure passing into darkness.

Marian’s hand trembled as she tried to insert her latch-key. When she had closed the door very quietly behind her she went to the sitting-room; Mrs Yule was just laying aside the sewing on which she had occupied herself throughout the lonely evening.

‘I’m rather late,’ said the girl, in a voice of subdued joyousness.

‘Yes; I was getting a little uneasy, dear.’

‘Oh, there’s no danger.’

‘You have been enjoying yourself, I can see.’

‘I have had a pleasant evening.’

In the retrospect it seemed the pleasantest she had yet spent with her friends, though she had set out in such a different mood. Her mind was relieved of two anxieties; she felt sure that the girls had not taken ill what she told them, and there was no longer the least doubt concerning the authorship of that review in The Current.

She could confess to herself now that the assurance from Jasper’s lips was not superfluous. He might have weighed profit against other considerations, and have written in that way of her father; she had not felt that absolute confidence which defies every argument from human frailty. And now she asked herself if faith of that unassailable kind is ever possible; is it not only the poet’s dream, the far ideal?

Marian often went thus far in her speculation. Her candour was allied with clear insight into the possibilities of falsehood; she was not readily the victim of illusion; thinking much, and speaking little, she had not come to her twenty-third year without perceiving what a distance lay between a girl’s dream of life as it might be and life as it is. Had she invariably disclosed her thoughts, she would have earned the repute of a very sceptical and slightly cynical person.

But with what rapturous tumult of the heart she could abandon herself to a belief in human virtues when their suggestion seemed to promise her a future of happiness!

Alone in her room she sat down only to think of Jasper Milvain, and extract from the memory of his words, his looks, new sustenance for her hungry heart. Jasper was the first man who had ever evinced a man’s interest in her. Until she met him she had not known a look of compliment or a word addressed to her emotions. He was as far as possible from representing the lover of her imagination, but from the day of that long talk in the fields near Wattleborough the thought of him had supplanted dreams. On that day she said to herself: I could love him if he cared to seek my love. Premature, perhaps; why, yes, but one who is starving is not wont to feel reluctance at the suggestion of food. The first man who had approached her with display of feeling and energy and youthful self-confidence; handsome too, it seemed to her. Her womanhood went eagerly to meet him.

Since then she had made careful study of his faults. Each conversation had revealed to her new weakness and follies. With the result that her love had grown to a reality.

He was so human, and a youth of all but monastic seclusion had prepared her to love the man who aimed with frank energy at the joys of life. A taint of pedantry would have repelled her. She did not ask for high intellect or great attainments; but vivacity, courage, determination to succeed, were delightful to her senses. Her ideal would not have been a literary man at all; certainly not a man likely to be prominent in journalism; rather a man of action, one who had no restraints of commerce or official routine. But in Jasper she saw the qualities that attracted her apart from the accidents of his position. Ideal personages do not descend to girls who have to labour at the British Museum; it seemed a marvel to her, and of good augury, that even such a man as Jasper should have crossed her path.

It was as though years had passed since their first meeting. Upon her return to London had followed such long periods of hopelessness. Yet whenever they encountered each other he had look and speech for her with which surely he did not greet every woman. From the first his way of regarding her had shown frank interest. And at length had come the confession of his ‘respect,’ his desire to be something more to her than a mere acquaintance. It was scarcely possible that he should speak as he several times had of late if he did not wish to draw her towards him.

That was the hopeful side of her thoughts. It was easy to forget for a time those words of his which one might think were spoken as distinct warning; but they crept into the memory, unwelcome, importunate, as soon as imagination had built its palace of joy. Why did he always recur to the subject of money? ‘I shall allow nothing to come in my way;’ he once said that as if meaning, ‘certainly not a love affair with a girl who is penniless.’ He emphasised the word ‘friend,’ as if to explain that he offered and asked nothing more than friendship.

But it only meant that he would not be in haste to. declare himself. Of a certainty there was conflict between his ambition and his love, but she recognised her power over him and exulted in it. She had observed his hesitancy this evening, before he rose to accompany her from the house; her heart laughed within her as the desire drew him. And henceforth such meetings would be frequent, with each one her influence would increase. How kindly fate had dealt with her in bringing Maud and Dora to London!

It was within his reach to marry a woman who would bring him wealth. He had that in mind; she understood it too well. But not one moment’s advantage would she relinquish. He must choose her in her poverty, and be content with what his talents could earn for him. Her love gave her the right to demand this sacrifice; let him ask for her love, and the sacrifice would no longer seem one, so passionately would she reward him.

He would ask it. To-night she was full of a rich confidence, partly, no doubt, the result of reaction from her miseries. He had said at parting that her character was so well suited to his; that he liked her. And then he had pressed her hand so warmly. Before long he would ask her love.

The unhoped was all but granted her. She could labour on in the valley of the shadow of books, for a ray of dazzling sunshine might at any moment strike into its musty gloom.

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