New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 18

The Old Home

Before her marriage Mrs Edmund Yule was one of seven motherless sisters who constituted the family of a dentist slenderly provided in the matter of income. The pinching and paring which was a chief employment of her energies in those early days had disagreeable effects upon a character disposed rather to generosity than the reverse; during her husband’s lifetime she had enjoyed rather too eagerly all the good things which he put at her command, sometimes forgetting that a wife has duties as well as claims, and in her widowhood she indulged a pretentiousness and querulousness which were the natural, but not amiable, results of suddenly restricted circumstances.

Like the majority of London people, she occupied a house of which the rent absurdly exceeded the due proportion of her income, a pleasant foible turned to such good account by London landlords. Whereas she might have lived with a good deal of modest comfort, her existence was a perpetual effort to conceal the squalid background of what was meant for the eyes of her friends and neighbours. She kept only two servants, who were so ill paid and so relentlessly overworked that it was seldom they remained with her for more than three months. In dealings with other people whom she perforce employed, she was often guilty of incredible meanness; as, for instance, when she obliged her half-starved dressmaker to purchase material for her, and then postponed payment alike for that and for the work itself to the last possible moment. This was not heartlessness in the strict sense of the word; the woman not only knew that her behaviour was shameful, she was in truth ashamed of it and sorry for her victims. But life was a battle. She must either crush or be crushed. With sufficient means, she would have defrauded no one, and would have behaved generously to many; with barely enough for her needs, she set her face and defied her feelings, inasmuch as she believed there was no choice.

She would shed tears over a pitiful story of want, and without shadow of hypocrisy. It was hard, it was cruel; such things oughtn’t to be allowed in a world where there were so many rich people. The next day she would argue with her charwoman about halfpence, and end by paying the poor creature what she knew was inadequate and unjust. For the simplest reason: she hadn’t more to give, without submitting to privations which she considered intolerable.

But whilst she could be a positive hyena to strangers, to those who were akin to her, and those of whom she was fond, her affectionate kindness was remarkable. One observes this peculiarity often enough; it reminds one how savage the social conflict is, in which those little groups of people stand serried against their common enemies; relentless to all others, among themselves only the more tender and zealous because of the ever-impending danger. No mother was ever more devoted. Her son, a gentleman of quite noteworthy selfishness, had board and lodging beneath her roof on nominal terms, and under no stress of pecuniary trouble had Mrs Yule called upon him to make the slightest sacrifice on her behalf. Her daughter she loved with profound tenderness, and had no will that was opposed to Amy’s. And it was characteristic of her that her children were never allowed to understand of what baseness she often became guilty in the determination to support appearances. John Yule naturally suspected what went on behind the scenes; on one occasion — since Amy’s marriage — he had involuntarily overheard a dialogue between his mother and a servant on the point of departing which made even him feel ashamed. But from Amy every paltriness and meanness had always been concealed with the utmost care; Mrs Yule did not scruple to lie heroically when in danger of being detected by her daughter.

Yet this energetic lady had no social ambitions that pointed above her own stratum. She did not aim at intimacy with her superiors; merely at superiority among her intimates. Her circle was not large, but in that circle she must be regarded with the respect due to a woman of refined tastes and personal distinction. Her little dinners might be of rare occurrence, but to be invited must be felt a privilege. ‘Mrs Edmund Yule’ must sound well on people’s lips; never be the occasion of those peculiar smiles which she herself was rather fond of indulging at the mention of other people’s names.

The question of Amy’s marriage had been her constant thought from the time when the little girl shot into a woman grown. For Amy no common match, no acceptance of a husband merely for money or position. Few men who walked the earth were mates for Amy. But years went on, and the man of undeniable distinction did not yet present himself. Suitors offered, but Amy smiled coldly at their addresses, in private not seldom scornfully, and her mother, though growing anxious, approved. Then of a sudden appeared Edwin Reardon.

A literary man? Well, it was one mode of distinction. Happily, a novelist; novelists now and then had considerable social success.

Mr Reardon, it was true, did not impress one as a man likely to push forward where the battle called for rude vigour, but Amy soon assured herself that he would have a reputation far other than that of the average successful storyteller. The best people would regard him; he would be welcomed in the penetralia of culture; superior persons would say: ‘Oh, I don’t read novels as a rule, but of course Mr Reardon’s — ‘ If that really were to be the case, all was well; for Mrs Yule could appreciate social and intellectual differences.

Alas! alas! What was the end of those shining anticipations?

First of all, Mrs Yule began to make less frequent mention of ‘my son-in-law, Mr Edwin Reardon.’ Next, she never uttered his name save when inquiries necessitated it. Then, the most intimate of her intimates received little hints which were not quite easy to interpret. ‘Mr Reardon is growing so very eccentric — has an odd distaste for society — occupies himself with all sorts of out-of-the-way interests. No, I’m afraid we shan’t have another of his novels for some time. I think he writes anonymously a good deal. And really, such curious eccentricities!’ Many were the tears she wept after her depressing colloquies with Amy; and, as was to be expected, she thought severely of the cause of these sorrows. On the last occasion when he came to her house she received him with such extreme civility that Reardon thenceforth disliked her, whereas before he had only thought her a good-natured and silly woman.

Alas for Amy’s marriage with a man of distinction! From step to step of descent, till here was downright catastrophe. Bitter enough in itself, but most lamentable with reference to the friends of the family. How was it to be explained, this return of Amy to her home for several months, whilst her husband was no further away than Worthing? The bald, horrible truth — impossible! Yet Mr Milvain knew it, and the Carters must guess it. What colour could be thrown upon such vulgar distress?

The worst was not yet. It declared itself this May morning, when, quite unexpectedly, a cab drove up to the house, bringing Amy and her child, and her trunks, and her band-boxes, and her what-nots.

From the dining-room window Mrs Yule was aware of this arrival, and in a few moments she learnt the unspeakable cause.

She burst into tears, genuine as ever woman shed.

‘There’s no use in that, mother,’ said Amy, whose temper was in a dangerous state. ‘Nothing worse can happen, that’s one consolation.’

‘Oh, it’s disgraceful! disgraceful!’ sobbed Mrs Yule. ‘What we are to say I can NOT think.’

‘I shall say nothing whatever. People can scarcely have the impertinence to ask us questions when we have shown that they are unwelcome.’

‘But there are some people I can’t help giving some explanation to. My dear child, he is not in his right mind. I’m convinced of it, there! He is not in his right mind.’

‘That’s nonsense, mother. He is as sane as I am.’

‘But you have often said what strange things he says and does; you know you have, Amy. That talking in his sleep; I’ve thought a great deal of it since you told me about that. And — and so many other things. My love, I shall give it to be understood that he has become so very odd in his ways that — ’

‘I can’t have that,’ replied Amy with decision. ‘Don’t you see that in that case I should be behaving very badly?’

‘I can’t see that at all. There are many reasons, as you know very well, why one shouldn’t live with a husband who is at all suspected of mental derangement. You have done your utmost for him. And this would be some sort of explanation, you know. I am so convinced that there is truth in it, too.’

‘Of course I can’t prevent you from saying what you like, but I think it would be very wrong to start a rumour of this kind.’

There was less resolve in this utterance. Amy mused, and looked wretched.

‘Come up to the drawing-room, dear,’ said her mother, for they had held their conversation in the room nearest to the house-door. ‘What a state your mind must be in! Oh dear! Oh dear!’

She was a slender, well-proportioned woman, still pretty in face, and dressed in a way that emphasised her abiding charms. Her voice had something of plaintiveness, and altogether she was of frailer type than her daughter.

‘Is my room ready?’ Amy inquired on the stairs.

‘I’m sorry to say it isn’t, dear, as I didn’t expect you till tomorrow. But it shall be seen to immediately.’

This addition to the household was destined to cause grave difficulties with the domestic slaves. But Mrs Yule would prove equal to the occasion. On Amy’s behalf she would have worked her servants till they perished of exhaustion before her eyes.

‘Use my room for the present,’ she added. ‘I think the girl has finished up there. But wait here; I’ll just go and see to things.’

‘Things’ were not quite satisfactory, as it proved. You should have heard the change that came in that sweetly plaintive voice when it addressed the luckless housemaid. It was not brutal; not at all. But so sharp, hard, unrelenting — the voice of the goddess Poverty herself perhaps sounds like that.

Mad? Was he to be spoken of in a low voice, and with finger pointing to the forehead? There was something ridiculous, as well as repugnant, in such a thought; but it kept possession of Amy’s mind. She was brooding upon it when her mother came into the drawing-room.

‘And he positively refused to carry out the former plan?’

‘Refused. Said it was useless.’

‘How could it be useless? There’s something so unaccountable in his behaviour.’

‘I don’t think it unaccountable,’ replied Amy. ‘It’s weak and selfish, that’s all. He takes the first miserable employment that offers rather than face the hard work of writing another book.’

She was quite aware that this did not truly represent her husband’s position. But an uneasiness of conscience impelled her to harsh speech.

‘But just fancy!’ exclaimed her mother. ‘What can he mean by asking you to go and live with him on twenty-five shillings a week? Upon my word. if his mind isn’t disordered he must have made a deliberate plan to get rid of you.’

Amy shook her head.

‘You mean,’ asked Mrs Yule, ‘that he really thinks it possible for all of you to be supported on those wages?’

The last word was chosen to express the utmost scorn.

‘He talked of earning fifty pounds a year by writing.’

‘Even then it could only make about a hundred a year. My dear child, it’s one of two things: either he is out of his mind, or he has purposely cast you off.’

Amy laughed, thinking of her husband in the light of the latter alternative.

‘There’s no need to seek so far for explanations,’ she said. ‘He has failed, that’s all; just like a man might fail in any other business. He can’t write like he used to. It may be all the result of ill-health; I don’t know. His last book, you see, is positively refused. He has made up his mind that there’s nothing but poverty before him, and he can’t understand why I should object to live like the wife of a working-man.’

‘Well, I only know that he has placed you in an exceedingly difficult position. If he had gone away to Worthing for the summer we might have made it seem natural; people are always ready to allow literary men to do rather odd things — up to a certain point. We should have behaved as if there were nothing that called for explanation. But what are we to do now?’

Like her multitudinous kind, Mrs Yule lived only in the opinions of other people. What others would say was her ceaseless preoccupation. She had never conceived of life as something proper to the individual; independence in the directing of one’s course seemed to her only possible in the case of very eccentric persons, or of such as were altogether out of society. Amy had advanced, intellectually, far beyond this standpoint, but lack of courage disabled her from acting upon her convictions.

‘People must know the truth, I suppose,’ she answered dispiritedly.

Now, confession of the truth was the last thing that would occur to Mrs Yule when social relations were concerned. Her whole existence was based on bold denial of actualities. And, as is natural in such persons, she had the ostrich instinct strongly developed; though very acute in the discovery of her friends’ shams and lies, she deceived herself ludicrously in the matter of concealing her own embarrassments.

‘But the fact is, my dear,’ she answered, ‘we don’t know the truth ourselves. You had better let yourself be directed by me. It will be better, at first, if you see as few people as possible. I suppose you must say something or other to two or three of your own friends; if you take my advice you’ll be rather mysterious. Let them think what they like; anything is better than to say plainly. “My husband can’t support me, and he has gone to work as a clerk for weekly wages.” Be mysterious, darling; depend upon it, that’s the safest.’

The conversation was pursued, with brief intervals, all through the day. In the afternoon two ladies paid a call, but Amy kept out of sight. Between six and seven John Yule returned from his gentlemanly occupations. As he was generally in a touchy temper before dinner had soothed him, nothing was said to him of the latest development of his sister’s affairs until late in the evening; he was allowed to suppose that Reardon’s departure for the seaside had taken place a day sooner than had been arranged.

Behind the dining-room was a comfortable little chamber set apart as John’s sanctum; here he smoked and entertained his male friends, and contemplated the portraits of those female ones who would not have been altogether at their ease in Mrs Yule’s drawing-room. Not long after dinner his mother and sister came to talk with him in this retreat.

With some nervousness Mrs Yule made known to him what had taken place. Amy, the while, stood by the table, and glanced over a magazine that she had picked up.

‘Well, I see nothing to be surprised at,’ was John’s first remark. ‘It was pretty certain he’d come to this. But what I want to know is, how long are we to be at the expense of supporting Amy and her youngster?’

This was practical, and just what Mrs Yule had expected from her son.

‘We can’t consider such things as that,’ she replied. ‘You don’t wish, I suppose, that Amy should go and live in a back street at Islington, and be hungry every other day, and soon have no decent clothes?’

‘I don’t think Jack would be greatly distressed,’ Amy put in quietly.

‘This is a woman’s way of talking,’ replied John. ‘I want to know what is to be the end of it all? I’ve no doubt it’s uncommonly pleasant for Reardon to shift his responsibilities on to our shoulders. At this rate I think I shall get married, and live beyond my means until I can hold out no longer, and then hand my wife over to her relatives, with my compliments. It’s about the coolest business that ever came under my notice.’

‘But what is to be done?’ asked Mrs Yule. ‘It’s no use talking sarcastically, John, or making yourself disagreeable.’

‘We are not called upon to find a way out of the difficulty. The fact of the matter is, Reardon must get a decent berth. Somebody or other must pitch him into the kind of place that suits men who can do nothing in particular. Carter ought to be able to help, I should think.’

‘You know very well,’ said Amy, ‘that places of that kind are not to be had for the asking. It may be years before any such opportunity offers.’

‘Confound the fellow! Why the deuce doesn’t he go on with his novel-writing? There’s plenty of money to be made out of novels.’

‘But he can’t write, Jack. He has lost his talent.’

‘That’s all bosh, Amy. If a fellow has once got into the swing of it he can keep it up if he likes. He might write his two novels a year easily enough, just like twenty other men and women. Look here, I could do it myself if I weren’t too lazy. And that’s what’s the matter with Reardon. He doesn’t care to work.’

‘I have thought that myself;’ observed Mrs Yule. ‘It really is too ridiculous to say that he couldn’t write some kind of novels if he chose. Look at Miss Blunt’s last book; why, anybody could have written that. I’m sure there isn’t a thing in it I couldn’t have imagined myself.’

‘Well, all I want to know is, what’s Amy going to do if things don’t alter?’

‘She shall never want a home as long as I have one to share with her.’

John’s natural procedure, when beset by difficulties, was to find fault with everyone all round, himself maintaining a position of irresponsibility.

‘It’s all very well, mother, but when a girl gets married she takes her husband, I have always understood, for better or worse, just as a man takes his wife. To tell the truth, it seems to me Amy has put herself in the wrong. It’s deuced unpleasant to go and live in back streets, and to go without dinner now and then, but girls mustn’t marry if they’re afraid to face these things.’

‘Don’t talk so monstrously, John!’ exclaimed his mother. ‘How could Amy possibly foresee such things? The case is quite an extraordinary one.’

‘Not so uncommon, I assure you. Some one was telling me the other day of a married lady — well educated and blameless — who goes to work at a shop somewhere or other because her husband can’t support her.’

‘And you wish to see Amy working in a shop?’

‘No, I can’t say I do. I’m only telling you that her bad luck isn’t unexampled. It’s very fortunate for her that she has good-natured relatives.’

Amy had taken a seat apart. She sat with her head leaning on her hand.

‘Why don’t you go and see Reardon?’ John asked of his mother.

‘What would be the use? Perhaps he would tell me to mind my own business.’

‘By jingo! precisely what you would be doing. I think you ought to see him and give him to understand that he’s behaving in a confoundedly ungentlemanly way. Evidently he’s the kind of fellow that wants stirring up. I’ve half a mind to go and see him myself. Where is this slum that he’s gone to live in?’

‘We don’t know his address yet.’

‘So long as it’s not the kind of place where one would be afraid of catching a fever, I think it wouldn’t be amiss for me to look him up.’

‘You’ll do no good by that,’ said Amy, indifferently.

‘Confound it! It’s just because nobody does anything that things have come to this pass!’

The conversation was, of course, profitless. John could only return again and again to his assertion that Reardon must get ‘a decent berth.’ At length Amy left the room in weariness and disgust.

‘I suppose they have quarrelled terrifically,’ said her brother, as soon as she was gone.

‘I am afraid so.’

‘Well, you must do as you please. But it’s confounded hard lines that you should have to keep her and the kid. You know I can’t afford to contribute.’

‘My dear, I haven’t asked you to.’

‘No, but you’ll have the devil’s own job to make ends meet; I know that well enough.’

‘I shall manage somehow.’

‘All right; you’re a plucky woman, but it’s too bad. Reardon’s a humbug, that’s my opinion. I shall have a talk with Carter about him. I suppose he has transferred all their furniture to the slum?’

‘He can’t have removed yet. It was only this morning that he went to search for lodgings.’

‘Oh, then I tell you what it is: I shall look in there the first thing to-morrow morning, and just talk to him in a fatherly way. You needn’t say anything to Amy. But I see he’s just the kind of fellow that, if everyone leaves him alone, he’ll be content with Carter’s five-and-twenty shillings for the rest of his life, and never trouble his head about how Amy is living.’

To this proposal Mrs Yule readily assented. On going upstairs she found that Amy had all but fallen asleep upon a settee in the drawing-room.

‘You are quite worn out with your troubles,’ she said. ‘Go to bed, and have a good long sleep.’

‘Yes, I will.’

The neat, fresh bedchamber seemed to Amy a delightful haven of rest. She turned the key in the door with an enjoyment of the privacy thus secured such as she had never known in her life; for in maidenhood safe solitude was a matter of course to her, and since marriage she had not passed a night alone. Willie was fast asleep in a little bed shadowed by her own. In an impulse of maternal love and gladness she bent over the child and covered his face with kisses too gentle to awaken him.

How clean and sweet everything was! It is often said, by people who are exquisitely ignorant of the matter, that cleanliness is a luxury within reach even of the poorest. Very far from that; only with the utmost difficulty, with wearisome exertion, with harassing sacrifice, can people who are pinched for money preserve a moderate purity in their persons and their surroundings. By painful degrees Amy had accustomed herself to compromises in this particular which in the early days of her married life would have seemed intensely disagreeable, if not revolting. A housewife who lives in the country, and has but a patch of back garden, or even a good-sized kitchen, can, if she thinks fit, take her place at the wash-tub and relieve her mind on laundry matters; but to the inhabitant of a miniature flat in the heart of London anything of that kind is out of the question.

When Amy began to cut down her laundress’s bill, she did it with a sense of degradation. One grows accustomed, however, to such unpleasant necessities, and already she had learnt what was the minimum of expenditure for one who is troubled with a lady’s instincts.

No, no; cleanliness is a costly thing, and a troublesome thing when appliances and means have to be improvised. It was, in part, the understanding she had gained of this side of the life of poverty that made Amy shrink in dread from the still narrower lodgings to which Reardon invited her. She knew how subtly one’s self-respect can be undermined by sordid conditions. The difference between the life of well-to-do educated people and that of the uneducated poor is not greater in visible details than in the minutiae of privacy, and Amy must have submitted to an extraordinary change before it would have been possible for her to live at ease in the circumstances which satisfy a decent working-class woman. She was prepared for final parting from her husband rather than try to effect that change in herself.

She undressed at leisure, and stretched her limbs in the cold, soft, fragrant bed. A sigh of profound relief escaped her. How good it was to be alone!

And in a quarter of an hour she was sleeping as peacefully as the child who shared her room.

At breakfast in the morning she showed a bright, almost a happy face. It was long, long since she had enjoyed such a night’s rest, so undisturbed with unwelcome thoughts on the threshold of sleep and on awaking. Her life was perhaps wrecked, but the thought of that did not press upon her; for the present she must enjoy her freedom. It was like a recovery of girlhood. There are few married women who would not, sooner or later, accept with joy the offer of some months of a maidenly liberty. Amy would not allow herself to think that her wedded life was at an end. With a woman’s strange faculty of closing her eyes against facts that do not immediately concern her, she tasted the relief of the present and let the future lie unregarded. Reardon would get out of his difficulties sooner or later; somebody or other would help him; that was the dim background of her agreeable sensations.

He suffered, no doubt. But then it was just as well that he should. Suffering would perhaps impel him to effort. When he communicated to her his new address — he could scarcely neglect to do that — she would send a not unfriendly letter, and hint to him that now was his opportunity for writing a book, as good a book as those which formerly issued from his garret-solitude. If he found that literature was in truth a thing of the past with him, then he must exert himself to obtain a position worthy of an educated man. Yes, in this way she would write to him, without a word that could hurt or offend.

She ate an excellent breakfast, and made known her enjoyment of it.

‘I am so glad!’ replied her mother. ‘You have been getting quite thin and pale.’

‘Quite consumptive,’ remarked John, looking up from his newspaper. ‘Shall I make arrangements for a daily landau at the livery stables round here?’

‘You can if you like,’ replied his sister; ‘it would do both mother and me good, and I have no doubt you could afford it quite well.’

‘Oh, indeed! You’re a remarkable young woman, let me tell you. By-the-bye, I suppose your husband is breakfasting on bread and water?’

‘I hope not, and I don’t think it very likely.’

‘Jack, Jack!’ interposed Mrs Yule, softly.

Her son resumed his paper, and at the end of the meal rose with an unwonted briskness to make his preparations for departure.

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