New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 2

The House of Yule

‘I think’ said Jasper, as he entered the room where his mother and Maud were busy with plain needlework, ‘I must have met Alfred Yule and his daughter.’

‘How did you recognise them?’ Mrs Milvain inquired.

‘I passed an old buffer and a pale-faced girl whom I know by sight at the British Museum. It wasn’t near Yule’s house, but they were taking a walk.’

‘They may have come already. When Miss Harrow was here last, she said “in about a fortnight.”’

‘No mistaking them for people of these parts, even if I hadn’t remembered their faces. Both of them are obvious dwellers in the valley of the shadow of books.’

‘Is Miss Yule such a fright then?’ asked Maud.

‘A fright! Not at all. A good example of the modern literary girl. I suppose you have the oddest old-fashioned ideas of such people. No, I rather like the look of her. Simpatica, I should think, as that ass Whelpdale would say. A very delicate, pure complexion, though morbid; nice eyes; figure not spoilt yet. But of course I may be wrong about their identity.’

Later in the afternoon Jasper’s conjecture was rendered a certainty. Maud had walked to Wattleborough, where she would meet Dora on the latter’s return from her teaching, and Mrs Milvain sat alone, in a mood of depression; there was a ring at the door-bell, and the servant admitted Miss Harrow.

This lady acted as housekeeper to Mr John Yule, a wealthy resident in this neighbourhood; she was the sister of his deceased wife — a thin, soft-speaking, kindly woman of forty-five. The greater part of her life she had spent as a governess; her position now was more agreeable, and the removal of her anxiety about the future had developed qualities of cheerfulness which formerly no one would have suspected her to possess. The acquaintance between Mrs Milvain and her was only of twelve months’ standing; prior to that, Mr Yule had inhabited a house at the end of Wattleborough remote from Finden.

‘Our London visitors came yesterday,’ she began by saying.

Mrs Milvain mentioned her son’s encounter an hour or two ago.

‘No doubt it was they,’ said the visitor. ‘Mrs Yule hasn’t come; I hardly expected she would, you know. So very unfortunate when there are difficulties of that kind, isn’t it?’

She smiled confidentially.

‘The poor girl must feel it,’ said Mrs Milvain.

‘I’m afraid she does. Of course it narrows the circle of her friends at home. She’s a sweet girl, and I should so like you to meet her. Do come and have tea with us to-morrow afternoon, will you? Or would it be too much for you just now?’

‘Will you let the girls call? And then perhaps Miss Yule will be so good as to come and see me?’

‘I wonder whether Mr Milvain would like to meet her father? I have thought that perhaps it might be some advantage to him. Alfred is so closely connected with literary people, you know.’

‘I feel sure he would be glad,’ replied Mrs Milvain. ‘But — what of Jasper’s friendship with Mrs Edmund Yule and the Reardons? Mightn’t it be a little awkward?’

‘Oh, I don’t think so, unless he himself felt it so. There would be no need to mention that, I should say. And, really, it would be so much better if those estrangements came to an end. John makes no scruple of speaking freely about everyone, and I don’t think Alfred regards Mrs Edmund with any serious unkindness. If Mr Milvain would walk over with the young ladies to-morrow, it would be very pleasant.’

‘Then I think I may promise that he will. I’m sure I don’t know where he is at this moment. We don’t see very much of him, except at meals.’

‘He won’t be with you much longer, I suppose?’

‘Perhaps a week.’

Before Miss Harrow’s departure Maud and Dora reached home. They were curious to see the young lady from the valley of the shadow of books, and gladly accepted the invitation offered them.

They set out on the following afternoon in their brother’s company. It was only a quarter of an hour’s walk to Mr Yule’s habitation, a small house in a large garden. Jasper was coming hither for the first time; his sisters now and then visited Miss Harrow, but very rarely saw Mr Yule himself who made no secret of the fact that he cared little for female society. In Wattleborough and the neighbourhood opinions varied greatly as to this gentleman’s character, but women seldom spoke very favourably of him. Miss Harrow was reticent concerning her brother-in-law; no one, however, had any reason to believe that she found life under his roof disagreeable. That she lived with him at all was of course occasionally matter for comment, certain Wattleborough ladies having their doubts regarding the position of a deceased wife’s sister under such circumstances; but no one was seriously exercised about the relations between this sober lady of forty-five and a man of sixty-three in broken health.

A word of the family history.

John, Alfred, and Edmund Yule were the sons of a Wattleborough stationer. Each was well educated, up to the age of seventeen, at the town’s grammar school. The eldest, who was a hot-headed lad, but showed capacities for business, worked at first with his father, endeavouring to add a bookselling department to the trade in stationery; but the life of home was not much to his taste, and at one-and-twenty he obtained a clerk’s place in the office of a London newspaper. Three years after, his father died, and the small patrimony which fell to him he used in making himself practically acquainted with the details of paper manufacture, his aim being to establish himself in partnership with an acquaintance who had started a small paper-mill in Hertfordshire.

His speculation succeeded, and as years went on he became a thriving manufacturer. His brother Alfred, in the meantime, had drifted from work at a London bookseller’s into the modern Grub Street, his adventures in which region will concern us hereafter.

Edmund carried on the Wattleborough business, but with small success. Between him and his eldest brother existed a good deal of affection, and in the end John offered him a share in his flourishing paper works; whereupon Edmund married, deeming himself well established for life. But John’s temper was a difficult one; Edmund and he quarrelled, parted; and when the younger died, aged about forty, he left but moderate provision for his widow and two children.

Only when he had reached middle age did John marry; the experiment could not be called successful, and Mrs Yule died three years later, childless.

At fifty-four John Yule retired from active business; he came back to the scenes of his early life, and began to take an important part in the municipal affairs of Wattleborough. He was then a remarkably robust man, fond of out-of-door exercise; he made it one of his chief efforts to encourage the local Volunteer movement, the cricket and football clubs, public sports of every kind, showing no sympathy whatever with those persons who wished to establish free libraries, lectures, and the like. At his own expense he built for the Volunteers a handsome drill-shed; he founded a public gymnasium; and finally he allowed it to be rumoured that he was going to present the town with a park. But by presuming too far upon the bodily vigour which prompted these activities, he passed of a sudden into the state of a confirmed invalid. On an autumn expedition in the Hebrides he slept one night under the open sky, with the result that he had an all but fatal attack of rheumatic fever. After that, though the direction of his interests was unchanged, he could no longer set the example to Wattleborough youth of muscular manliness. The infliction did not improve his temper; for the next year or two he was constantly at warfare with one or other of his colleagues and friends, ill brooking that the familiar control of various local interests should fall out of his hands. But before long he appeared to resign himself to his fate, and at present Wattleborough saw little of him. It seemed likely that he might still found the park which was to bear his name; but perhaps it would only be done in consequence of directions in his will. It was believed that he could not live much longer.

With his kinsfolk he held very little communication. Alfred Yule, a battered man of letters, had visited Wattleborough only twice(including the present occasion) since John’s return hither. Mrs Edmund Yule, with her daughter — now Mrs Reardon — had been only once, three years ago. These two families, as you have heard, were not on terms of amity with each other, owing to difficulties between Mrs Alfred and Mrs Edmund; but John seemed to regard both impartially. Perhaps the only real warmth of feeling he had ever known was bestowed upon Edmund, and Miss Harrow had remarked that he spoke with somewhat more interest of Edmund’s daughter, Amy, than of Alfred’s daughter, Marian. But it was doubtful whether the sudden disappearance from the earth of all his relatives would greatly have troubled him. He lived a life of curious self-absorption, reading newspapers (little else), and talking with old friends who had stuck to him in spite of his irascibility.

Miss Harrow received her visitors in a small and soberly furnished drawing-room. She was nervous, probably because of Jasper Milvain, whom she had met but once — last spring — and who on that occasion had struck her as an alarmingly modern young man. In the shadow of a window-curtain sat a slight, simply-dressed girl, whose short curly hair and thoughtful countenance Jasper again recognised. When it was his turn to be presented to Miss Yule, he saw that she doubted for an instant whether or not to give her hand; yet she decided to do so, and there was something very pleasant to him in its warm softness. She smiled with a slight embarrassment, meeting his look only for a second.

‘I have seen you several times, Miss Yule,’ he said in a friendly way, ‘though without knowing your name. It was under the great dome.’

She laughed, readily understanding his phrase.

‘I am there very often,’ was her reply.

‘What great dome?’ asked Miss Harrow, with surprise.

‘That of the British Museum Reading-room,’ explained Jasper; ‘known to some of us as the valley of the shadow of books. People who often work there necessarily get to know each other by sight.

In the same way I knew Miss Yule’s father when I happened to pass him in the road yesterday.’

The three girls began to converse together, perforce of trivialities. Marian Yule spoke in rather slow tones, thoughtfully, gently; she had linked her fingers, and laid her hands, palms downwards, upon her lap — a nervous action. Her accent was pure, unpretentious; and she used none of the fashionable turns of speech which would have suggested the habit of intercourse with distinctly metropolitan society.

‘You must wonder how we exist in this out-of-the-way place,’ remarked Maud.

‘Rather, I envy you,’ Marian answered, with a slight emphasis.

The door opened, and Alfred Yule presented himself. He was tall, and his head seemed a disproportionate culmination to his meagre body, it was so large and massively featured. Intellect and uncertainty of temper were equally marked upon his visage; his brows were knitted in a permanent expression of severity. He had thin, smooth hair, grizzled whiskers, a shaven chin. In the multitudinous wrinkles of his face lay a history of laborious and stormy life; one readily divined in him a struggling and embittered man. Though he looked older than his years, he had by no means the appearance of being beyond the ripeness of his mental vigour.

‘It pleases me to meet you, Mr Milvain,’ he said, as he stretched out his bony hand. ‘Your name reminds me of a paper in The Wayside a month or two ago, which you will perhaps allow a veteran to say was not ill done.’

‘I am grateful to you for noticing it,’ replied Jasper.

There was positively a touch of visible warmth upon his cheek. The allusion had come so unexpectedly that it caused him keen pleasure.

Mr Yule seated himself awkwardly, crossed his legs, and began to stroke the back of his left hand, which lay on his knee. He seemed to have nothing more to say at present, and allowed Miss Harrow and the girls to support conversation. Jasper listened with a smile for a minute or two, then he addressed the veteran. ‘Have you seen The Study this week, Mr Yule?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did you notice that it contains a very favourable review of a novel which was tremendously abused in the same columns three weeks ago?’

Mr Yule started, but Jasper could perceive at once that his emotion was not disagreeable.

‘You don’t say so.’

‘Yes. The novel is Miss Hawk’s “On the Boards.” How will the editor get out of this?’

‘H’m! Of course Mr Fadge is not immediately responsible; but it’ll be unpleasant for him, decidedly unpleasant.’ He smiled grimly. ‘You hear this, Marian?’

‘How is it explained, father?’

‘May be accident, of course; but — well, there’s no knowing. I think it very likely this will be the end of Mr Fadge’s tenure of office. Rackett, the proprietor, only wants a plausible excuse for making a change. The paper has been going downhill for the last year; I know of two publishing houses who have withdrawn their advertising from it, and who never send their books for review. Everyone foresaw that kind of thing from the day Mr Fadge became editor. The tone of his paragraphs has been detestable. Two reviews of the same novel, eh? And diametrically opposed? Ha!

ha!’

Gradually he had passed from quiet appreciation of the joke to undisguised mirth and pleasure. His utterance of the name ‘Mr Fadge’ sufficiently intimated that he had some cause of personal discontent with the editor of The Study.

‘The author,’ remarked Milvain, ‘ought to make a good thing out of this.’

‘Will, no doubt. Ought to write at once to the papers, calling attention to this sample of critical impartiality. Ha! ha!’

He rose and went to the window, where for several minutes he stood gazing at vacancy, the same grim smile still on his face. Jasper in the meantime amused the ladies (his sisters had heard him on the subject already) with a description of the two antagonistic notices. But he did not trust himself to express so freely as he had done at home his opinion of reviewing in general; it was more than probable that both Yule and his daughter did a good deal of such work.

‘Suppose we go into the garden,’ suggested Miss Harrow, presently. ‘It seems a shame to sit indoors on such a lovely afternoon.’

Hitherto there had been no mention of the master of the house. But Mr Yule now remarked to Jasper:

‘My brother would be glad if you would come and have a word with him. He isn’t quite well enough to leave his room to-day.’

So, as the ladies went gardenwards, Jasper followed the man of letters upstairs to a room on the first floor. Here, in a deep cane chair, which was placed by the open window, sat John Yule. He was completely dressed, save that instead of coat he wore a dressing-gown. The facial likeness between him and his brother was very strong, but John’s would universally have been judged the finer countenance; illness notwithstanding, he had a complexion which contrasted in its pure colour with Alfred’s parchmenty skin, and there was more finish about his features. His abundant hair was reddish, his long moustache and trimmed beard a lighter shade of the same hue.

‘So you too are in league with the doctors,’ was his bluff greeting, as he held a hand to the young man and inspected him with a look of slighting good-nature.

‘Well, that certainly is one way of regarding the literary profession,’ admitted Jasper, who had heard enough of John’s way of thinking to understand the remark.

‘A young fellow with all the world before him, too. Hang it, Mr Milvain, is there no less pernicious work you can turn your hand to?’

‘I’m afraid not, Mr Yule. After all, you know, you must be held in a measure responsible for my depravity.’

‘How’s that?’

‘I understand that you have devoted most of your life to the making of paper. If that article were not so cheap and so abundant, people wouldn’t have so much temptation to scribble.’

Alfred Yule uttered a short laugh.

‘I think you are cornered, John.’

‘I wish,’ answered John, ‘that you were both condemned to write on such paper as I chiefly made; it was a special kind of whitey-brown, used by shopkeepers.’

He chuckled inwardly, and at the same time reached out for a box of cigarettes on a table near him. His brother and Jasper each took one as he offered them, and began to smoke.

‘You would like to see literary production come entirely to an end?’ said Milvain.

‘I should like to see the business of literature abolished.’

‘There’s a distinction, of course. But, on the whole, I should say that even the business serves a good purpose.’

‘What purpose?’

‘It helps to spread civilisation.’

‘Civilisation!’ exclaimed John, scornfully. ‘What do you mean by civilisation? Do you call it civilising men to make them weak, flabby creatures, with ruined eyes and dyspeptic stomachs? Who is it that reads most of the stuff that’s poured out daily by the ton from the printing-press? Just the men and women who ought to spend their leisure hours in open-air exercise; the people who earn their bread by sedentary pursuits, and who need to live as soon as they are free from the desk or the counter, not to moon over small print. Your Board schools, your popular press, your spread of education! Machinery for ruining the country, that’s what I call it.’

‘You have done a good deal, I think, to counteract those influences in Wattleborough.’

‘I hope so; and if only I had kept the use of my limbs I’d have done a good deal more. I have an idea of offering substantial prizes to men and women engaged in sedentary work who take an oath to abstain from all reading, and keep it for a certain number of years. There’s a good deal more need for that than for abstinence from strong liquor. If I could have had my way I would have revived prize-fighting.’

His brother laughed with contemptuous impatience.

‘You would doubtless like to see military conscription introduced into England?’ said Jasper.

‘Of course I should! You talk of civilising; there’s no such way of civilising the masses of the people as by fixed military service. Before mental training must come training of the body. Go about the Continent, and see the effect of military service on loutish peasants and the lowest classes of town population. Do you know why it isn’t even more successful? Because the damnable education movement interferes. If Germany would shut up her schools and universities for the next quarter of a century and go ahead like blazes with military training there’d be a nation such as the world has never seen. After that, they might begin a little book-teaching again — say an hour and a half a day for everyone above nine years old. Do you suppose, Mr Milvain, that society is going to be reformed by you people who write for money? Why, you are the very first class that will be swept from the face of the earth as soon as the reformation really begins!’

Alfred puffed at his cigarette. His thoughts were occupied with Mr Fadge and The Study. He was considering whether he could aid in bringing public contempt upon that literary organ and its editor. Milvain listened to the elder man’s diatribe with much amusement.

‘You, now,’ pursued John, ‘what do you write about?’

‘Nothing in particular. I make a salable page or two out of whatever strikes my fancy.’

‘Exactly! You don’t even pretend that you’ve got anything to say. You live by inducing people to give themselves mental indigestion — and bodily, too, for that matter.’

‘Do you know, Mr Yule, that you have suggested a capital idea to me? If I were to take up your views, I think it isn’t at all unlikely that I might make a good thing of writing against writing. It should be my literary specialty to rail against literature. The reading public should pay me for telling them that they oughtn’t to read. I must think it over.’

‘Carlyle has anticipated you,’ threw in Alfred.

‘Yes, but in an antiquated way. I would base my polemic on the newest philosophy.’

He developed the idea facetiously, whilst John regarded him as he might have watched a performing monkey.

‘There again! your new philosophy!’ exclaimed the invalid. ‘Why, it isn’t even wholesome stuff, the kind of reading that most of you force on the public. Now there’s the man who has married one of my nieces — poor lass! Reardon, his name is. You know him, I dare say. Just for curiosity I had a look at one of his books; it was called “The Optimist.” Of all the morbid trash I ever saw, that beat everything. I thought of writing him a letter, advising a couple of anti-bilious pills before bedtime for a few weeks.’

Jasper glanced at Alfred Yule, who wore a look of indifference.

‘That man deserves penal servitude in my opinion,’ pursued John. ‘I’m not sure that it isn’t my duty to offer him a couple of hundred a year on condition that he writes no more.’

Milvain, with a clear vision of his friend in London, burst into laughter. But at that point Alfred rose from his chair.

‘Shall we rejoin the ladies?’ he said, with a certain pedantry

of phrase and manner which often characterised him.

‘Think over your ways whilst you’re still young,’ said John as he shook hands with his visitor.

‘Your brother speaks quite seriously, I suppose?’ Jasper remarked when he was in the garden with Alfred.

‘I think so. It’s amusing now and then, but gets rather tiresome when you hear it often. By-the-bye, you are not personally acquainted with Mr Fadge?’

‘I didn’t even know his name until you mentioned it.’

‘The most malicious man in the literary world. There’s no uncharitableness in feeling a certain pleasure when he gets into a scrape. I could tell you incredible stories about him; but that kind of thing is probably as little to your taste as it is to mine.’

Miss Harrow and her companions, having caught sight of the pair, came towards them. Tea was to be brought out into the garden.

‘So you can sit with us and smoke, if you like,’ said Miss Harrow to Alfred. ‘You are never quite at your ease, I think, without a pipe.’

But the man of letters was too preoccupied for society. In a few minutes he begged that the ladies would excuse his withdrawing; he had two or three letters to write before post-time, which was early at Finden.

Jasper, relieved by the veteran’s departure, began at once to make himself very agreeable company. When he chose to lay aside the topic of his own difficulties and ambitions, he could converse with a spontaneous gaiety which readily won the good-will of listeners. Naturally he addressed himself very often to Marian Yule, whose attention complimented him. She said little, and evidently was at no time a free talker, but the smile on her face indicated a mood of quiet enjoyment. When her eyes wandered, it was to rest on the beauties of the garden, the moving patches of golden sunshine, the forms of gleaming cloud. Jasper liked to observe her as she turned her head: there seemed to him a particular grace in the movement; her head and neck were admirably formed, and the short hair drew attention to this.

It was agreed that Miss Harrow and Marian should come on the second day after to have tea with the Milvains. And when Jasper took leave of Alfred Yule, the latter expressed a wish that they might have a walk together one of these mornings.

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