New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 17

The Parting

Amy did not go to church. Before her marriage she had done so as a mere matter of course, accompanying her mother, but Reardon’s attitude with regard to the popular religion speedily became her own; she let the subject lapse from her mind, and cared neither to defend nor to attack where dogma was concerned. She had no sympathies with mysticism; her nature was strongly practical, with something of zeal for intellectual attainment superadded.

This Sunday morning she was very busy with domestic minutiae. Reardon noticed what looked like preparations for packing, and being as little disposed for conversation as his wife, he went out and walked for a couple of hours in the Hampstead region. Dinner over, Amy at once made ready for her journey to Westbourne Park.

‘Then you won’t come?’ she said to her husband.

‘No. I shall see your mother before I go away, but I don’t care to till you have settled everything.’

It was half a year since he had met Mrs Yule. She never came to their dwelling, and Reardon could not bring himself to visit her.

‘You had very much rather we didn’t sell the furniture?’ Amy asked.

‘Ask your mother’s opinion. That shall decide.’

‘There’ll be the expense of moving it, you know. Unless money comes from The Wayside, you’ll only have two or three pounds left.’

Reardon made no reply. He was overcome by the bitterness of shame.

‘I shall say, then,’ pursued Amy, who spoke with averted face, ‘that I am to go there for good on Tuesday? I mean, of course, for the summer months.’

‘I suppose so.’

Then he turned suddenly upon her.

‘Do you really imagine that at the end of the summer I shall be a rich man? What do you mean by talking in this way? If the furniture is sold to supply me with a few pounds for the present, what prospect is there that I shall be able to buy new?’

‘How can we look forward at all?’ replied Amy. ‘It has come to the question of how we are to subsist. I thought you would rather get money in this way than borrow of mother — when she has the expense of keeping me and Willie.’

‘You are right,’ muttered Reardon. ‘Do as you think best.’ Amy was in her most practical mood, and would not linger for purposeless talk. A few minutes, and Reardon was left alone.

He stood before his bookshelves and began to pick out the volumes which he would take away with him. Just a few, the indispensable companions of a bookish man who still clings to life — his Homer, his Shakespeare —

The rest must be sold. He would get rid of them to-morrow morning. All together they might bring him a couple of sovereigns.

Then his clothing. Amy had fulfilled all the domestic duties of a wife; his wardrobe was in as good a state as circumstances allowed. But there was no object in burdening himself with winter garments, for, if he lived through the summer at all, he would be able to repurchase such few poor things as were needful; at present he could only think of how to get together a few coins. So he made a heap of such things as might be sold.

The furniture? If it must go, the price could scarcely be more than ten or twelve pounds; well, perhaps fifteen. To be sure, in this way his summer’s living would be abundantly provided for.

He thought of Biffen enviously. Biffen, if need be, could support life on three or four shillings a week, happy in the thought that no mortal had a claim upon him. If he starved to death — well, many another lonely man has come to that end. If he preferred to kill himself, who would be distressed? Spoilt child of fortune!

The bells of St Marylebone began to clang for afternoon service. In the idleness of dull pain his thoughts followed their summons, and he marvelled that there were people who could imagine it a duty or find it a solace to go and sit in that twilight church and listen to the droning of prayers. He thought of the wretched millions of mankind to whom life is so barren that they must needs believe in a recompense beyond the grave. For that he neither looked nor longed. The bitterness of his lot was that this world might be a sufficing paradise to him if only he could clutch a poor little share of current coin. He had won the world’s greatest prize — a woman’s love — but could not retain it because his pockets were empty.

That he should fail to make a great name, this was grievous disappointment to Amy, but this alone would not have estranged her. It was the dread and shame of penury that made her heart cold to him. And he could not in his conscience scorn her for being thus affected by the vulgar circumstances of life; only a few supreme natures stand unshaken under such a trial, and though his love of Amy was still passionate, he knew that her place was among a certain class of women, and not on the isolated pinnacle where he had at first visioned her. It was entirely natural that she shrank at the test of squalid suffering. A little money, and he could have rested secure in her love, for then he would have been able to keep ever before her the best qualities of his heart and brain. Upon him, too, penury had its debasing effect; as he now presented himself he was not a man to be admired or loved. It was all simple and intelligible enough — a situation that would be misread only by shallow idealism.

Worst of all, she was attracted by Jasper Milvain’s energy and promise of success. He had no ignoble suspicions of Amy, but it was impossible for him not to see that she habitually contrasted the young journalist, who laughingly made his way among men, with her grave, dispirited husband, who was not even capable of holding such position as he had gained. She enjoyed Milvain’s conversation, it put her into a good humour; she liked him personally, and there could be no doubt that she had observed a jealous tendency in Reardon’s attitude to his former friend — always a harmful suggestion to a woman. Formerly she had appreciated her husband’s superiority; she had smiled at Milvain’s commoner stamp of mind and character. But tedious repetition of failure had outwearied her, and now she saw Milvain in the sunshine of progress, dwelt upon the worldly advantages of gifts and a temperament such as his. Again, simple and intelligible enough.

Living apart from her husband, she could not be expected to forswear society, and doubtless she would see Milvain pretty often. He called occasionally at Mrs Yule’s, and would not do so less often when he knew that Amy was to be met there. There would be chance encounters like that of yesterday, of which she had chosen to keep silence.

A dark fear began to shadow him. In yielding thus passively to stress of circumstances, was he not exposing his wife to a danger which outweighed all the ills of poverty? As one to whom she was inestimably dear, was he right in allowing her to leave him, if only for a few months? He knew very well that a man of strong character would never have entertained this project. He had got into the way of thinking of himself as too weak to struggle against the obstacles on which Amy insisted, and of looking for safety in retreat; but what was to be the end of this weakness if the summer did not at all advance him? He knew better than Amy could how unlikely it was that he should recover the energies of his mind in so short a time and under such circumstances; only the feeble man’s temptation to postpone effort had made him consent to this step, and now that he was all but beyond turning back, the perils of which he had thought too little forced themselves upon his mind.

He rose in anguish, and stood looking about him as if aid might somewhere be visible.

Presently there was a knock at the front door, and on opening he beheld the vivacious Mr Carter. This gentleman had only made two or three calls here since Reardon’s marriage; his appearance was a surprise.

‘I hear you are leaving town for a time,’ he exclaimed. ‘Edith told me yesterday, so I thought I’d look you up.’

He was in spring costume, and exhaled fresh odours. The contrast between his prosperous animation and Reardon’s broken-spirited quietness could not have been more striking.

‘Going away for your health, they tell me. You’ve been working too hard, you know. You mustn’t overdo it. And where do you think of going to?’

‘It isn’t at all certain that I shall go,’ Reardon replied. ‘I thought of a few weeks — somewhere at the seaside.’

‘I advise you to go north,’ went on Carter cheerily. ‘You want a tonic, you know. Get up into Scotland and do some boating and fishing — that kind of thing. You’d come back a new man. Edith and I had a turn up there last year, you know; it did me heaps of good.’

‘Oh, I don’t think I should go so far as that.’

‘But that’s just what you want — a regular change, something bracing. You don’t look at all well, that’s the fact. A winter in London tries any man — it does me, I know. I’ve been seedy myself these last few weeks. Edith wants me to take her over to Paris at the end of this month, and I think it isn’t a bad idea; but I’m so confoundedly busy. In the autumn we shall go to Norway, I think; it seems to be the right thing to do nowadays. Why shouldn’t you have a run over to Norway? They say it can be done very cheaply; the steamers take you for next to nothing.’

He talked on with the joyous satisfaction of a man whose income is assured, and whose future teems with a succession of lively holidays. Reardon could make no answer to such suggestions; he sat with a fixed smile on his face.

‘Have you heard,’ said Carter, presently, ‘that we’re opening a branch of the hospital in the City Road?’

‘No; I hadn’t heard of it.’

‘It’ll only be for out-patients. Open three mornings and three evenings alternately.’

‘Who’ll represent you there?’

‘I shall look in now and then, of course; there’ll be a clerk, like at the old place.’

He talked of the matter in detail — of the doctors who would attend, and of certain new arrangements to be tried.

‘Have you engaged the clerk?’ Reardon asked.

‘Not yet. I think I know a man who’ll suit me, though.’

‘You wouldn’t be disposed to give me the chance?’

Reardon spoke huskily, and ended with a broken laugh.

‘You’re rather above my figure nowadays, old man!’ exclaimed Carter, joining in what he considered the jest.

‘Shall you pay a pound a week?’

‘Twenty-five shillings. It’ll have to be a man who can be trusted to take money from the paying patients.’

‘Well, I am serious. Will you give me the place?’

Carter gazed at him, and checked another laugh.

‘What the deuce do you mean?’

‘The fact is,’ Reardon replied, ‘I want variety of occupation. I can’t stick at writing for more than a month or two at a time. It’s because I have tried to do so that — well, practically, I have broken down. If you will give me this clerkship, it will relieve me from the necessity of perpetually writing novels; I shall be better for it in every way. You know that I’m equal to the job; you can trust me; and I dare say I shall be more useful than most clerks you could get.’

It was done, most happily done, on the first impulse. A minute more of pause, and he could not have faced the humiliation. His face burned, his tongue was parched.

‘I’m floored!’ cried Carter. ‘I shouldn’t have thought — but of course, if you really want it. I can hardly believe yet that you’re serious, Reardon.’

‘Why not? Will you promise me the work?’

‘Well, yes.’

‘When shall I have to begin?’

‘The place’ll be opened to-morrow week. But how about your holiday?’

‘Oh, let that stand over. It’ll be holiday enough to occupy myself in a new way. An old way, too; I shall enjoy it.’

He laughed merrily, relieved beyond measure at having come to what seemed an end of his difficulties. For half an hour they continued to talk over the affair.

‘Well, it’s a comical idea,’ said Carter, as he took his leave, ‘but you know your own business best.’

When Amy returned, Reardon allowed her to put the child to bed before he sought any conversation. She came at length and sat down in the study.

‘Mother advises us not to sell the furniture,’ were her first words.

‘I’m glad of that, as I had quite made up my mind not to.’ There was a change in his way of speaking which she at once noticed.

‘Have you thought of something?’

‘Yes. Carter has been here, and he happened to mention that they’re opening an out-patient department of the hospital, in the City Road. He’ll want someone to help him there. I asked for the post, and he promised it me.’

The last words were hurried, though he had resolved to speak with deliberation. No more feebleness; he had taken a decision, and would act upon it as became a responsible man.

‘The post?’ said Amy. ‘What post?’

‘In plain English, the clerkship. It’ll be the same work as I used to have — registering patients, receiving their “letters,” and so on. The pay is to be five-and-twenty shillings a week.’

Amy sat upright and looked steadily at him.

‘Is this a joke?’

‘Far from it, dear. It’s a blessed deliverance.’

‘You have asked Mr Carter to take you back as a clerk?’

‘I have.’

‘And you propose that we shall live on twenty-five shillings a week?’

‘Oh no! I shall be engaged only three mornings in the week and three evenings. In my free time I shall do literary work, and no doubt I can earn fifty pounds a year by it — if I have your sympathy to help me. To-morrow I shall go and look for rooms some distance from here; in Islington, I think. We have been living far beyond our means; that must come to an end. We’ll have no more keeping up of sham appearances. If I can make my way in literature, well and good; in that case our position and prospects will of course change. But for the present we are poor people, and must live in a poor way. If our friends like to come and see us, they must put aside all snobbishness, and take us as we are. If they prefer not to come, there’ll be an excuse in our remoteness.’

Amy was stroking the back of her hand. After a long silence, she said in a very quiet, but very resolute tone:

‘I shall not consent to this.’

‘In that case, Amy, I must do without your consent. The rooms will be taken, and our furniture transferred to them.’

‘To me that will make no difference,’ returned his wife, in the same voice as before. ‘I have decided — as you told me to — to go with Willie to mother’s next Tuesday. You, of course, must do as you please. I should have thought a summer at the seaside would have been more helpful to you; but if you prefer to live in Islington — ’

Reardon approached her, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

‘Amy, are you my wife, or not?’

‘I am certainly not the wife of a clerk who is paid so much a week.’

He had foreseen a struggle, but without certainty of the form Amy’s opposition would take. For himself he meant to be gently resolute, calmly regardless of protest. But in a man to whom such self-assertion is a matter of conscious effort, tremor of the nerves will always interfere with the line of conduct he has conceived in advance. Already Reardon had spoken with far more bluntness than he proposed; involuntarily, his voice slipped from earnest determination to the note of absolutism, and, as is wont to be the case, the sound of these strange tones instigated him to further utterances of the same kind. He lost control of himself. Amy’s last reply went through him like an electric shock, and for the moment he was a mere husband defied by his wife, the male stung to exertion of his brute force against the physically weaker sex.

‘However you regard me, you will do what I think fit. I shall not argue with you. If I choose to take lodgings in Whitechapel, there you will come and live.’

He met Amy’s full look, and was conscious of that in it which corresponded to his own brutality. She had become suddenly a much older woman; her cheeks were tight drawn into thinness, her lips were bloodlessly hard, there was an unknown furrow along her forehead, and she glared like the animal that defends itself with tooth and claw.

‘Do as YOU think fit? Indeed!’

Could Amy’s voice sound like that? Great Heaven! With just such accent he had heard a wrangling woman retort upon her husband at the street corner. Is there then no essential difference between a woman of this world and one of that? Does the same nature lie beneath such unlike surfaces?

He had but to do one thing: to seize her by the arm, drag her up from the chair, dash her back again with all his force — there, the transformation would be complete, they would stand towards each other on the natural footing. With an added curse perhaps — Instead of that, he choked, struggled for breath, and shed tears.

Amy turned scornfully away from him. Blows and a curse would have overawed her, at all events for the moment; she would have felt: ‘Yes, he is a man, and I have put my destiny into his hands.’ His tears moved her to a feeling cruelly exultant; they were the sign of her superiority. It was she who should have wept, and never in her life had she been further from such display of weakness.

This could not be the end, however, and she had no wish to terminate the scene. They stood for a minute without regarding each other, then Reardon faced to her.

‘You refuse to live with me, then?’

‘Yes, if this is the kind of life you offer me.’

‘You would be more ashamed to share your husband’s misfortunes than to declare to everyone that you had deserted him?’

‘I shall “declare to everyone” the simple truth. You have the opportunity of making one more effort to save us from degradation. You refuse to take the trouble; you prefer to drag me down into a lower rank of life. I can’t and won’t consent to that. The disgrace is yours; it’s fortunate for me that I have a decent home to go to.’

‘Fortunate for you! — you make yourself unutterably contemptible. I have done nothing that justifies you in leaving me. It is for me to judge what I can do and what I can’t. A good woman would see no degradation in what I ask of you. But to run away from me just because I am poorer than you ever thought I should be — ’

He was incoherent. A thousand passionate things that he wished to say clashed together in his mind and confused his speech. Defeated in the attempt to act like a strong man, he could not yet recover standing-ground, knew not how to tone his utterances.

‘Yes, of course, that’s how you will put it,’ said Amy. ‘That’s how you will represent me to your friends. My friends will see it in a different light.’

‘They will regard you as a martyr?’

‘No one shall make a martyr of me, you may be sure. I was unfortunate enough to marry a man who had no delicacy, no regard for my feelings. — I am not the first woman who has made a mistake of this kind.’

‘No delicacy? No regard for your feelings? — Have I always utterly misunderstood you? Or has poverty changed you to a woman I can’t recognise?’

He came nearer, and gazed desperately into her face. Not a muscle of it showed susceptibility to the old influences.

‘Do you know, Amy,’ he added in a lower voice, ‘that if we part now, we part for ever?’

‘I’m afraid that is only too likely.’

She moved aside.

‘You mean that you wish it. You are weary of me, and care for nothing but how to make yourself free.’

‘I shall argue no more. I am tired to death of it.’

‘Then say nothing, but listen for the last time to my view of the position we have come to. When I consented to leave you for a time, to go away and try to work in solitude, I was foolish and even insincere, both to you and to myself. I knew that I was undertaking the impossible. It was just putting off the evil day, that was all — putting off the time when I should have to say plainly: “I can’t live by literature, so I must look out for some other employment.” I shouldn’t have been so weak but that I knew how you would regard such a decision as that. I was afraid to tell the truth — afraid. Now, when Carter of a sudden put this opportunity before me, I saw all the absurdity of the arrangements we had made. It didn’t take me a moment to make up my mind. Anything was to be chosen rather than a parting from you on false pretences, a ridiculous affectation of hope where there was no hope.’

He paused, and saw that his words had no effect upon her.

‘And a grievous share of the fault lies with you, Amy. You remember very well when I first saw how dark the future was. I was driven even to say that we ought to change our mode of living; I asked you if you would be willing to leave this place and go into cheaper rooms. And you know what your answer was. Not a sign in you that you would stand by me if the worst came. I knew then what I had to look forward to, but I durst not believe it. I kept saying to myself: “She loves me, and as soon as she really understands — “ That was all self-deception. If I had been a wise man, I should have spoken to you in a way you couldn’t mistake. I should have told you that we were living recklessly, and that I had determined to alter it. I have no delicacy? No regard for your feelings? Oh, if I had had less! I doubt whether you can even understand some of the considerations that weighed with me, and made me cowardly — though I once thought there was no refinement of sensibility that you couldn’t enter into. Yes, I was absurd enough to say to myself: “It will look as if I had consciously deceived her; she may suffer from the thought that I won her at all hazards, knowing that I should soon expose her to poverty and all sorts of humiliation.” Impossible to speak of that again; I had to struggle desperately on, trying to hope. Oh! if you knew — ’

His voice gave way for an instant.

‘I don’t understand how you could be so thoughtless and heartless. You knew that I was almost mad with anxiety at times. Surely, any woman must have had the impulse to give what help was in her power. How could you hesitate? Had you no suspicion of what a relief and encouragement it would be to me, if you said: “Yes, we must go and live in a simpler way?” If only as a proof that you loved me, how I should have welcomed that! You helped me in nothing. You threw all the responsibility upon me — always bearing in mind, I suppose, that there was a refuge for you. Even now, I despise myself for saying such things of you, though I know so bitterly that they are true. It takes a long time to see you as such a different woman from the one I worshipped. In passion, I can fling out violent words, but they don’t yet answer to my actual feeling. It will be long enough yet before I think contemptuously of you. You know that when a light is suddenly extinguished, the image of it still shows before your eyes. But at last comes the darkness.’

Amy turned towards him once more.

‘Instead of saying all this, you might be proving that I am wrong. Do so, and I will gladly confess it.’

‘That you are wrong? I don’t see your meaning.’

‘You might prove that you are willing to do your utmost to save me from humiliation.’

‘Amy, I have done my utmost. I have done more than you can imagine.’

‘No. You have toiled on in illness and anxiety — I know that. But a chance is offered you now of working in a better way. Till that is tried, you have no right to give all up and try to drag me down with you.’

‘I don’t know how to answer. I have told you so often — You can’t understand me!’

‘I can! I can!’ Her voice trembled for the first time. ‘I know that you are so ready to give in to difficulties. Listen to me, and do as I bid you.’ She spoke in the strangest tone of command.

It was command, not exhortation, but there was no harshness in her voice. ‘Go at once to Mr Carter. Tell him you have made a ludicrous mistake — in a fit of low spirits; anything you like to say. Tell him you of course couldn’t dream of becoming his clerk. To-night; at once! You understand me, Edwin? Go now, this moment.’

‘Have you determined to see how weak I am? Do you wish to be able to despise me more completely still?’

‘I am determined to be your friend, and to save you from yourself. Go at once! Leave all the rest to me. If I have let things take their course till now, it shan’t be so in future. The responsibility shall be with me. Only do as I tell you’

‘You know it’s impossible — ’

‘It is not! I will find money. No one shall be allowed to say that we are parting; no one has any such idea yet. You are going away for your health, just three summer months. I have been far more careful of appearances than you imagine, but you give me credit for so little. I will find the money you need, until you have written another book. I promise; I undertake it. Then I will find another home for us, of the proper kind. You shall have no trouble. You shall give yourself entirely to intellectual things.

But Mr Carter must be told at once, before he can spread a report. If he has spoken, he must contradict what he has said.’

‘But you amaze me, Amy. Do you mean to say that you look upon it as a veritable disgrace, my taking this clerkship?’

‘I do. I can’t help my nature. I am ashamed through and through that you should sink to this.’

‘But everyone knows that I was a clerk once!’

‘Very few people know it. And then that isn’t the same thing. It doesn’t matter what one has been in the past. Especially a literary man; everyone expects to hear that he was once poor. But to fall from the position you now have, and to take weekly wages — you surely can’t know how people of my world regard that.’

‘Of your world? I had thought your world was the same as mine, and knew nothing whatever of these imbecilities.’

‘It is getting late. Go and see Mr Carter, and afterwards I will talk as much as you like.’

He might perhaps have yielded, but the unemphasised contempt in that last sentence was more than he could bear. It demonstrated to him more completely than set terms could have done what a paltry weakling he would appear in Amy’s eyes if he took his hat down from the peg and set out to obey her orders.

‘You are asking too much,’ he said, with unexpected coldness. ‘If my opinions are so valueless to you that you dismiss them like those of a troublesome child, I wonder you think it worth while to try and keep up appearances about me. It is very simple: make known to everyone that you are in no way connected with the disgrace I have brought upon myself. Put an advertisement in the newspapers to that effect, if you like — as men do about their wives’ debts. I have chosen my part. I can’t stultify myself to please you.’

She knew that this was final. His voice had the true ring of shame in revolt.

‘Then go your way, and I will go mine!’

Amy left the room.

When Reardon went into the bedchamber an hour later, he unfolded a chair-bedstead that stood there, threw some rugs upon it, and so lay down to pass the night. He did not close his eyes. Amy slept for an hour or two before dawn, and on waking she started up and looked anxiously about the room. But neither spoke.

There was a pretence of ordinary breakfast; the little servant necessitated that. When she saw her husband preparing to go out, Amy asked him to come into the study.

‘How long shall you be away?’ she asked, curtly.

‘It is doubtful. I am going to look for rooms.’

‘Then no doubt I shall be gone when you come back. There’s no object, now, in my staying here till to-morrow.’

‘As you please.’

‘Do you wish Lizzie still to come?’

‘No. Please to pay her wages and dismiss her. Here is some money.’

‘I think you had better let me see to that.’

He flung the coin on to the table and opened the door. Amy stepped quickly forward and closed it again.

‘This is our good-bye, is it?’ she asked, her eyes on the ground.

‘As you wish it — yes.’

‘You will remember that I have not wished it.’

‘In that case, you have only to go with me to the new home.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Then you have made your choice.’

She did not prevent his opening the door this time, and he passed out without looking at her.

His return was at three in the afternoon. Amy and the child were gone; the servant was gone. The table in the dining-room was spread as if for one person’s meal.

He went into the bedroom. Amy’s trunks had disappeared. The child’s cot was covered over. In the study, he saw that the sovereign he had thrown on to the table still lay in the same place.

As it was a very cold day he lit a fire. Whilst it burnt up he sat reading a torn portion of a newspaper, and became quite interested in the report of a commercial meeting in the City, a thing he would never have glanced at under ordinary circumstances. The fragment fell at length from his hands; his head drooped; he sank into a troubled sleep.

About six he had tea, then began the packing of the few books that were to go with him, and of such other things as could be enclosed in box or portmanteau. After a couple of hours of this occupation he could no longer resist his weariness, so he went to bed. Before falling asleep he heard the two familiar clocks strike eight; this evening they were in unusual accord, and the querulous notes from the workhouse sounded between the deeper ones from St Marylebone. Reardon tried to remember when he had last observed this; the matter seemed to have a peculiar interest for him, and in dreams he worried himself with a grotesque speculation thence derived.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/g53ne/chapter17.html

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