New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 19

The Past Revived

Nor would it be true to represent Edwin Reardon as rising to the new day wholly disconsolate. He too had slept unusually well, and with returning consciousness the sense of a burden removed was more instant than that of his loss and all the dreary circumstances attaching to it. He had no longer to fear the effects upon Amy of such a grievous change as from their homelike flat to the couple of rooms he had taken in Islington; for the moment, this relief helped him to bear the pain of all that had happened and the uneasiness which troubled him when he reflected that his wife was henceforth a charge to her mother.

Of course for the moment only. He had no sooner begun to move about, to prepare his breakfast (amid the relics of last evening’s meal), to think of all the detestable work he had to do before to-morrow night, than his heart sank again. His position was well-nigh as dolorous as that of any man who awoke that morning to the brutal realities of life. If only for the shame of it! How must they be speaking of him, Amy’s relatives, and her friends? A novelist who couldn’t write novels; a husband who couldn’t support his wife and child; a literate who made eager application for illiterate work at paltry wages — how interesting it would all sound in humorous gossip! And what hope had he that things would ever be better with him?

Had he done well? Had he done wisely? Would it not have been better to have made that one last effort? There came before him a vision of quiet nooks beneath the Sussex cliffs, of the long lines of green breakers bursting into foam; he heard the wave-music, and tasted the briny freshness of the sea-breeze. Inspiration, after all, would perchance have come to him.

If Amy’s love had but been of more enduring quality; if she had strengthened him for this last endeavour with the brave tenderness of an ideal wife! But he had seen such hateful things in her eyes. Her love was dead, and she regarded him as the man who had spoilt her hopes of happiness. It was only for her own sake that she urged him to strive on; let his be the toil, that hers might be the advantage if he succeeded.

‘She would be glad if I were dead. She would be glad.’

He had the conviction of it. Oh yes, she would shed tears; they come so easily to women. But to have him dead and out of her way; to be saved from her anomalous position; to see once more a chance in life; she would welcome it.

But there was no time for brooding. To-day he had to sell all the things that were superfluous, and to make arrangements for the removal of his effects to-morrow. By Wednesday night, in accordance with his agreement, the flat must be free for the new occupier.

He had taken only two rooms, and fortunately as things were. Three would have cost more than he was likely to be able to afford for a long time. The rent of the two was to be six-and-sixpence; and how, if Amy had consented to come, could he have met the expenses of their living out of his weekly twenty-five shillings? How could he have pretended to do literary work in such cramped quarters, he who had never been able to write a line save in strict seclusion? In his despair he had faced the impossible. Amy had shown more wisdom, though in a spirit of unkindness.

Towards ten o’clock he was leaving the flat to go and find people who would purchase his books and old clothing and other superfluities; but before he could close the door behind him, an approaching step on the stairs caught his attention. He saw the shining silk hat of a well-equipped gentleman. It was John Yule.

‘Ha! Good-morning!’ John exclaimed, looking up. ‘A minute or two and I should have been too late, I see.’

He spoke in quite a friendly way, and, on reaching the landing, shook hands.

‘Are you obliged to go at once? Or could I have a word with you?’

‘Come in.’

They entered the study, which was in some disorder; Reardon made no reference to circumstances, but offered a chair, and seated himself.

‘Have a cigarette?’ said Yule, holding out a box of them.

‘No, thank you; I don’t smoke so early.’

‘Then I’ll light one myself; it always makes talk easier to me. You’re on the point of moving, I suppose?’

‘Yes, I am.’

Reardon tried to speak in quite a simple way, with no admission of embarrassment. He was not successful, and to his visitor the tone seemed rather offensive.

‘I suppose you’ll let Amy know your new address?’

‘Certainly. Why should I conceal it?’

‘No, no; I didn’t mean to suggest that. But you might be taking it for granted that — that the rupture was final, I thought.’

There had never been any intimacy between these two men. Reardon regarded his wife’s brother as rather snobbish and disagreeably selfish; John Yule looked upon the novelist as a prig, and now of late as a shuffling, untrustworthy fellow. It appeared to John that his brother-in-law was assuming a manner wholly unjustifiable, and he had a difficulty in behaving to him with courtesy. Reardon, on the other hand, felt injured by the turn his visitor’s remarks were taking, and began to resent the visit altogether.

‘I take nothing for granted,’ he said coldly. ‘But I’m afraid nothing is to be gained by a discussion of our difficulties. The time for that is over.

‘I can’t quite see that. It seems to me that the time has just come.’

‘Please tell me, to begin with, do you come on Amy’s behalf?’

‘In a way, yes. She hasn’t sent me, but my mother and I are so astonished at what is happening that it was necessary for one or other of us to see you.’

‘I think it is all between Amy and myself.’

‘Difficulties between husband and wife are generally best left to the people themselves, I know. But the fact is, there are peculiar circumstances in the present case. It can’t be necessary for me to explain further.’

Reardon could find no suitable words of reply. He understood what Yule referred to, and began to feel the full extent of his humiliation.

‘You mean, of course — ‘ he began; but his tongue failed him.

‘Well, we should really like to know how long it is proposed that Amy shall remain with her mother.’

John was perfectly self-possessed; it took much to disturb his equanimity. He smoked his cigarette, which was in an amber mouthpiece, and seemed to enjoy its flavour. Reardon found himself observing the perfection of the young man’s boots and trousers.

‘That depends entirely on my wife herself;’ he replied mechanically.

‘How so?’

‘I offer her the best home I can.’

Reardon felt himself a poor, pitiful creature, and hated the well-dressed man who made him feel so.

‘But really, Reardon,’ began the other, uncrossing and recrossing his legs, ‘do you tell me in seriousness that you expect Amy to live in such lodgings as you can afford on a pound a week?’

‘I don’t. I said that I had offered her the best home I could. I know it’s impossible, of course.’

Either he must speak thus, or break into senseless wrath. It was hard to hold back the angry words that were on his lips, but he succeeded, and he was glad he had done so.

‘Then it doesn’t depend on Amy,’ said John.

‘I suppose not.’

‘You see no reason, then, why she shouldn’t live as at present for an indefinite time?’

To John, whose perspicacity was not remarkable, Reardon’s changed tone conveyed simply an impression of bland impudence. He eyed his brother-in-law rather haughtily.

‘I can only say,’ returned the other, who was become wearily indifferent, ‘that as soon as I can afford a decent home I shall give my wife the opportunity of returning to me.’

‘But, pray, when is that likely to be?’

John had passed the bounds; his manner was too frankly contemptuous.

‘I see no right you have to examine me in this fashion,’ Reardon exclaimed. ‘With Mrs Yule I should have done my best to be patient if she had asked these questions; but you are not justified in putting them, at all events not in this way.’

‘I’m very sorry you speak like this, Reardon,’ said the other, with calm insolence. ‘It confirms unpleasant ideas, you know.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Why, one can’t help thinking that you are rather too much at your ease under the circumstances. It isn’t exactly an everyday thing, you know, for a man’s wife to be sent back to her own people — ’

Reardon could not endure the sound of these words. He interrupted hotly.

‘I can’t discuss it with you. You are utterly unable to comprehend me and my position, utterly! It would be useless to defend myself. You must take whatever view seems to you the natural one.’

John, having finished his cigarette, rose.

‘The natural view is an uncommonly disagreeable one,’ he said. ‘However, I have no intention of quarrelling with you. I’ll only just say that, as I take a share in the expenses of my mother’s house, this question decidedly concerns me; and I’ll add that I think it ought to concern you a good deal more than it seems to.’

Reardon, ashamed already of his violence, paused upon these remarks.

‘It shall,’ he uttered at length, coldly. ‘You have put it clearly enough to me, and you shan’t have spoken in vain. Is there anything else you wish to say?’

‘Thank you; I think not.’

They parted with distant civility, and Reardon closed the door behind his visitor.

He knew that his character was seen through a distorting medium by Amy’s relatives, to some extent by Amy herself; but hitherto the reflection that this must always be the case when a man of his kind is judged by people of the world had strengthened him in defiance. An endeavour to explain himself would be maddeningly hopeless; even Amy did not understand aright the troubles through which his intellectual and moral nature was passing, and to speak of such experiences to Mrs Yule or to John would be equivalent to addressing them in alien tongues; he and they had no common criterion by reference to which he could make himself intelligible. The practical tone in which John had explained the opposing view of the situation made it impossible for him to proceed as he had purposed. Amy would never come to him in his poor lodgings; her mother, her brother, all her advisers would regard such a thing as out of the question. Very well; recognising this, he must also recognise his wife’s claim upon him for material support. It was not in his power to supply her with means sufficient to live upon, but what he could afford she should have.

When he went out, it was with a different purpose from that of half an hour ago. After a short search in the direction of Edgware Road, he found a dealer in second-hand furniture, whom he requested to come as soon as possible to the flat on a matter of business. An hour later the man kept his appointment. Having brought him into the study, Reardon said:

‘I wish to sell everything in this flat, with a few exceptions that I’ll point out to you’.

‘Very good, sir,’ was the reply. ‘Let’s have a look through the rooms.’

That the price offered would be strictly a minimum Reardon knew well enough. The dealer was a rough and rather dirty fellow, with the distrustful glance which distinguishes his class. Men of Reardon’s type, when hapless enough to be forced into vulgar commerce, are doubly at a disadvantage; not only their ignorance, but their sensitiveness, makes them ready victims of even the least subtle man of business. To deal on equal terms with a person you must be able to assert with calm confidence that you are not to be cheated; Reardon was too well aware that he would certainly be cheated, and shrank scornfully from the higgling of the market. Moreover, he was in a half-frenzied state of mind, and cared for little but to be done with the hateful details of this process of ruin.

He pencilled a list of the articles he must retain for his own use; it would of course be cheaper to take a bare room than furnished lodgings, and every penny he could save was of importance to him. The chair-bedstead, with necessary linen and blankets, a table, two chairs, a looking-glass — strictly the indispensable things; no need to complete the list. Then there were a few valuable wedding-presents, which belonged rather to Amy than to him; these he would get packed and send to Westbourne Park.

The dealer made his calculation, with many side-glances at the vendor.

‘And what may you ask for the lot?’

‘Please to make an offer.’

‘Most of the things has had a good deal of wear — ’

‘I know, I know. Just let me hear what you will give.’

‘Well, if you want a valuation, I say eighteen pound ten.’

It was more than Reardon had expected, though much less than a man who understood such affairs would have obtained.

‘That’s the most you can give?’

‘Wouldn’t pay me to give a sixpence more. You see — ’

He began to point out defects, but Reardon cut him short.

‘Can you take them away at once?’

‘At wunst? Would two o’clock do?’

‘Yes, it would.’

‘And might you want these other things takin’ anywheres?’

‘Yes, but not till to-morrow. They have to go to Islington. What would you do it for?’

This bargain also was completed, and the dealer went his way. Thereupon Reardon set to work to dispose of his books; by half-past one he had sold them for a couple of guineas. At two came the cart that was to take away the furniture, and at four o’clock nothing remained in the flat save what had to be removed on the morrow.

The next thing to be done was to go to Islington, forfeit a week’s rent for the two rooms he had taken, and find a single room at the lowest possible cost. On the way, he entered an eating-house and satisfied his hunger, for he had had nothing since breakfast. It took him a couple of hours to discover the ideal garret; it was found at length in a narrow little by-way running out of Upper Street. The rent was half-a-crown a week.

At seven o’clock he sat down in what once was called his study, and wrote the following letter:

‘Enclosed in this envelope you will find twenty pounds. I have been reminded that your relatives will be at the expense of your support; it seemed best to me to sell the furniture, and now I send you all the money I can spare at present. You will receive to-morrow a box containing several things I did not feel justified in selling. As soon as I begin to have my payment from Carter, half of it shall be sent to you every week. My address is: 5 Manville Street, Upper Street, Islington. — EDWIN REARDON.’

He enclosed the money, in notes and gold, and addressed the envelope to his wife. She must receive it this very night, and he knew not how to ensure that save by delivering it himself. So he went to Westbourne Park by train, and walked to Mrs Yule’s house.

At this hour the family were probably at dinner; yes, the window of the dining-room showed lights within, whilst those of the drawing-room were in shadow. After a little hesitation he rang the servants’ bell. When the door opened, he handed his letter to the girl, and requested that it might be given to Mrs Reardon as soon as possible. With one more hasty glance at the window — Amy was perhaps enjoying her unwonted comfort — he walked quickly away.

As he re-entered what had been his home, its bareness made his heart sink. An hour or two had sufficed for this devastation; nothing remained upon the uncarpeted floors but the needments he would carry with him into the wilderness, such few evidences of civilisation as the poorest cannot well dispense with. Anger, revolt, a sense of outraged love — all manner of confused passions had sustained him throughout this day of toil; now he had leisure to know how faint he was. He threw himself upon his chair-bedstead, and lay for more than an hour in torpor of body and mind.

But before he could sleep he must eat. Though it was cold, he could not exert himself to light a fire; there was some food still in the cupboard, and he consumed it in the fashion of a tired labourer, with the plate on his lap, using his fingers and a knife. What had he to do with delicacies?

He felt utterly alone in the world. Unless it were Biffen, what mortal would give him kindly welcome under any roof? These stripped rooms were symbolical of his life; losing money, he had lost everything. ‘Be thankful that you exist, that these morsels of food are still granted you. Man has a right to nothing in this world that he cannot pay for. Did you imagine that love was an exception? Foolish idealist! Love is one of the first things to be frightened away by poverty. Go and live upon your twelve-and-sixpence a week, and on your memories of the past.’

In this room he had sat with Amy on their return from the wedding holiday. ‘Shall you always love me as you do now?’ — ‘For ever! for ever!’ — ‘Even if I disappointed you? If I failed?’ — ‘How could that affect my love?’ The voices seemed to be lingering still, in a sad, faint echo, so short a time it was since those words were uttered.

His own fault. A man has no business to fail; least of all can he expect others to have time to look back upon him or pity him if he sink under the stress of conflict. Those behind will trample over his body; they can’t help it; they themselves are borne onwards by resistless pressure.

He slept for a few hours, then lay watching the light of dawn as it revealed his desolation.

The morning’s post brought him a large heavy envelope, the aspect of which for a moment puzzled him. But he recognised the handwriting, and understood. The editor of The Wayside, in a pleasantly-written note, begged to return the paper on Pliny’s Letters which had recently been submitted to him; he was sorry it did not strike him as quite so interesting as the other contributions from Reardon’s pen.

This was a trifle. For the first time he received a rejected piece of writing without distress; he even laughed at the artistic completeness of the situation. The money would have been welcome, but on that very account he might have known it would not come.

The cart that was to transfer his property to the room in Islington arrived about mid-day. By that time he had dismissed the last details of business in relation to the flat, and was free to go back to the obscure world whence he had risen. He felt that for two years and a half he had been a pretender. It was not natural to him to live in the manner of people who enjoy an assured income; he belonged to the class of casual wage-earners. Back to obscurity!

Carrying a bag which contained a few things best kept in his own care, he went by train to King’s Cross, and thence walked up Pentonville Hill to Upper Street and his own little by-way. Manville Street was not unreasonably squalid; the house in which he had found a home was not alarming in its appearance, and the woman who kept it had an honest face. Amy would have shrunk in apprehension, but to one who had experience of London garrets this was a rather favourable specimen of its kind. The door closed more satisfactorily than poor Biffen’s, for instance, and there were not many of those knot-holes in the floor which gave admission to piercing little draughts; not a pane of the window was cracked, not one. A man might live here comfortably — could memory be destroyed.

‘There’s a letter come for you,’ said the landlady as she admitted him. ‘You’ll find it on your mantel.’

He ascended hastily. The letter must be from Amy, as no one else knew his address. Yes, and its contents were these:

‘As you have really sold the furniture, I shall accept half this money that you send. I must buy clothing for myself and Willie. But the other ten pounds I shall return to you as soon as possible. As for your offer of half what you are to receive from Mr Carter, that seems to me ridiculous; in any case, I cannot take it. If you seriously abandon all further hope from literature, I think it is your duty to make every effort to obtain a position suitable to a man of your education. — AMY REARDON.’

Doubtless Amy thought it was her duty to write in this way. Not a word of sympathy; he must understand that no one was to blame but himself; and that her hardships were equal to his own.

In the bag he had brought with him there were writing materials. Standing at the mantelpiece, he forthwith penned a reply to this letter:

‘The money is for your support, as far as it will go. If it comes back to me I shall send it again. If you refuse to make use of it, you will have the kindness to put it aside and consider it as belonging to Willie. The other money of which I spoke will be sent to you once a month. As our concerns are no longer between us alone, I must protect myself against anyone who would be likely to accuse me of not giving you what I could afford. For your advice I thank you, but remember that in withdrawing from me your affection you have lost all right to offer me counsel.’

He went out and posted this at once.

By three o’clock the furniture of his room was arranged. He had not kept a carpet; that was luxury, and beyond his due. His score of volumes must rank upon the mantelpiece; his clothing must be kept in the trunk. Cups, plates, knives, forks, and spoons would lie in the little open cupboard, the lowest section of which was for his supply of coals. When everything was in order he drew water from a tap on the landing and washed himself; then, with his bag, went out to make purchases. A loaf of bread, butter, sugar, condensed milk; a remnant of tea he had brought with him. On returning, he lit as small a fire as possible, put on his kettle, and sat down to meditate.

How familiar it all was to him! And not unpleasant, for it brought back the days when he had worked to such good purpose. It was like a restoration of youth.

Of Amy he would not think. Knowing his bitter misery, she could write to him in cold, hard words, without a touch even of womanly feeling. If ever they were to meet again, the advance must be from her side. He had no more tenderness for her until she strove to revive it.

Next morning he called at the hospital to see Carter. The secretary’s peculiar look and smile seemed to betray a knowledge of what had been going on since Sunday, and his first words confirmed this impression of Reardon’s.

‘You have removed, I hear?’

‘Yes; I had better give you my new address.’

Reardon’s tone was meant to signify that further remark on the subject would be unwelcome. Musingly, Carter made a note of the address.

‘You still wish to go on with this affair?’

‘Certainly.’

‘Come and have some lunch with me, then, and afterwards we’ll go to the City Road and talk things over on the spot.’

The vivacious young man was not quite so genial as of wont, but he evidently strove to show that the renewal of their relations as employer and clerk would make no difference in the friendly intercourse which had since been established; the invitation to lunch evidently had this purpose.

‘I suppose,’ said Carter, when they were seated in a restaurant, ‘you wouldn’t object to anything better, if a chance turned up?’

‘I should take it, to be sure.’

‘But you don’t want a job that would occupy all your time? You’re going on with writing, of course?’

‘Not for the present, I think.’

‘Then you would like me to keep a look-out? I haven’t anything in view — nothing whatever. But one hears of things sometimes.’

‘I should be obliged to you if you could help me to anything satisfactory.’

Having brought himself to this admission, Reardon felt more at ease. To what purpose should he keep up transparent pretences? It was manifestly his duty to earn as much money as he could, in whatever way. Let the man of letters be forgotten; he was seeking for remunerative employment, just as if he had never written a line.

Amy did not return the ten pounds, and did not write again. So, presumably, she would accept the moiety of his earnings; he was glad of it. After paying half-a-crown for rent, there would be left ten shillings. Something like three pounds that still remained to him he would not reckon; this must be for casualties.

Half-a-sovereign was enough for his needs; in the old times he had counted it a competency which put his mind quite at rest.

The day came, and he entered upon his duties in City Road. It needed but an hour or two, and all the intervening time was cancelled; he was back once more in the days of no reputation, a harmless clerk, a decent wage-earner.

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