New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 26

Married Woman’s Property

On her return from church that Sunday Mrs Edmund Yule was anxious to learn the result of the meeting between Amy and her husband. She hoped fervently that Amy’s anomalous position would come to an end now that Reardon had the offer of something better than a mere clerkship. John Yule never ceased to grumble at his sister’s permanence in the house, especially since he had learnt that the money sent by Reardon each month was not made use of; why it should not be applied for household expenses passed his understanding.

‘It seems to me,’ he remarked several times, ‘that the fellow only does his bare duty in sending it. What is it to anyone else whether he lives on twelve shillings a week or twelve pence? It is his business to support his wife; if he can’t do that, to contribute as much to her support as possible. Amy’s scruples are all very fine, if she could afford them; it’s very nice to pay for your delicacies of feeling out of other people’s pockets.’

‘There’ll have to be a formal separation,’ was the startling announcement with which Amy answered her mother’s inquiry as to what had passed.

‘A separation? But, my dear —!’

Mrs Yule could not express her disappointment and dismay.

‘We couldn’t live together; it’s no use trying.’

‘But at your age, Amy! How can you think of anything so shocking? And then, you know it will be impossible for him to make you a sufficient allowance.’

‘I shall have to live as well as I can on the seventy-five pounds a year. If you can’t afford to let me stay with you for that, I must go into cheap lodgings in the country, like poor Mrs Butcher did.’

This was wild talking for Amy. The interview had upset her, and for the rest of the day she kept apart in her own room. On the morrow Mrs Yule succeeded in eliciting a clear account of the conversation which had ended so hopelessly.

‘I would rather spend the rest of my days in the workhouse than beg him to take me back,’ was Amy’s final comment, uttered with the earnestness which her mother understood but too well.

‘But you are willing to go back, dear?’

‘I told him so.’

‘Then you must leave this to me. The Carters will let us know how things go on, and when it seems to be time I must see Edwin myself.’

‘I can’t allow that. Anything you could say on your own account would be useless, and there is nothing to say from me.’

Mrs Yule kept her own counsel. She had a full month before her during which to consider the situation, but it was clear to her that these young people must be brought together again. Her estimate of Reardon’s mental condition had undergone a sudden change from the moment when she heard that a respectable post was within his reach; she decided that he was ‘strange,’ but then all men of literary talent had marked singularities, and doubtless she had been too hasty in interpreting the peculiar features natural to a character such as his.

A few days later arrived the news of their relative’s death at Wattleborough.

This threw Mrs Yule into a commotion. At first she decided to accompany her son and be present at the funeral; after changing her mind twenty times, she determined not to go. John must send or bring back the news as soon as possible. That it would be of a nature sensibly to affect her own position, if not that of her children, she had little doubt; her husband had been the favourite brother of the deceased, and on that account there was no saying how handsome a legacy she might receive. She dreamt of houses in South Kensington, of social ambitions gratified even thus late.

On the morning after the funeral came a postcard announcing John’s return by a certain train, but no scrap of news was added.

‘Just like that irritating boy! We must go to the station to meet him. You’ll come, won’t you, Amy?’

Amy readily consented, for she too had hopes, though circumstances blurred them. Mother and daughter were walking about the platform half an hour before the train was due; their agitation would have been manifest to anyone observing them. When at length the train rolled in and John was discovered, they pressed eagerly upon him.

‘Don’t you excite yourself,’ he said gruffly to his mother. ‘There’s no reason whatever.’

Mrs Yule glanced in dismay at Amy. They followed John to a cab, and took places with him.

‘Now don’t be provoking, Jack. Just tell us at once.’

‘By all means. You haven’t a penny.’

‘I haven’t? You are joking, ridiculous boy!’

‘Never felt less disposed to, I assure you.’

After staring out of the window for a minute or two, he at length informed Amy of the extent to which she profited by her uncle’s decease, then made known what was bequeathed to himself. His temper grew worse every moment, and he replied savagely to each successive question concerning the other items of the will.

‘What have you to grumble about?’ asked Amy, whose face was exultant notwithstanding the drawbacks attaching to her good fortune. ‘If Uncle Alfred receives nothing at all, and mother has nothing, you ought to think yourself very lucky.’

‘It’s very easy for you to say that, with your ten thousand.’

‘But is it her own?’ asked Mrs Yule. ‘Is it for her separate use?’

‘Of course it is. She gets the benefit of last year’s Married Woman’s Property Act. The will was executed in January this year, and I dare say the old curmudgeon destroyed a former one.

‘What a splendid Act of Parliament that is!’ cried Amy. ‘The only one worth anything that I ever heard of.’

‘But my dear — ‘ began her mother, in a tone of protest. However, she reserved her comment for a more fitting time and place, and merely said: ‘I wonder whether he had heard what has been going on?’

‘Do you think he would have altered his will if he had?’ asked Amy with a smile of security.

‘Why the deuce he should have left you so much in any case is more than I can understand,’ growled her brother. ‘What’s the use to me of a paltry thousand or two? It isn’t enough to invest; isn’t enough to do anything with.’

‘You may depend upon it your cousin Marian thinks her five thousand good for something,’ said Mrs Yule. ‘Who was at the funeral? Don’t be so surly, Jack; tell us all about it. I’m sure if anyone has cause to be ill-tempered it’s poor me.’

Thus they talked, amid the rattle of the cab-wheels. By when they reached home silence had fallen upon them, and each one was sufficiently occupied with private thoughts.

Mrs Yule’s servants had a terrible time of it for the next few days. Too affectionate to turn her ill-temper against John and Amy, she relieved herself by severity to the domestic slaves, as an English matron is of course justified in doing. Her daughter’s position caused her even more concern than before; she constantly lamented to herself: ‘Oh, why didn’t he die before she was married!’ — in which case Amy would never have dreamt of wedding a penniless author. Amy declined to discuss the new aspect of things until twenty-four hours after John’s return; then she said:

‘I shall do nothing whatever until the money is paid to me. And what I shall do then I don’t know.’

‘You are sure to hear from Edwin,’ opined Mrs Yule.

‘I think not. He isn’t the kind of man to behave in that way.’

‘Then I suppose you are bound to take the first step?’

‘That I shall never do.’

She said so, but the sudden happiness of finding herself wealthy was not without its softening effect on Amy’s feelings. Generous impulses alternated with moods of discontent. The thought of her husband in his squalid lodgings tempted her to forget injuries and disillusions, and to play the part of a generous wife. It would be possible now for them to go abroad and spend a year or two in healthful travel; the result in Reardon’s case might be wonderful. He might recover all the energy of his imagination, and resume his literary career from the point he had reached at the time of his marriage.

On the other hand, was it not more likely that he would lapse into a life of scholarly self-indulgence, such as he had often told her was his ideal? In that event, what tedium and regret lay before her! Ten thousand pounds sounded well, but what did it represent in reality? A poor four hundred a year, perhaps; mere decency of obscure existence, unless her husband could glorify it by winning fame. If he did nothing, she would be the wife of a man who had failed in literature. She would not be able to take a place in society. Life would be supported without struggle; nothing more to be hoped.

This view of the future possessed her strongly when, on the second day, she went to communicate her news to Mrs Carter. This amiable lady had now become what she always desired to be, Amy’s intimate friend; they saw each other very frequently, and conversed of most things with much frankness. It was between eleven and twelve in the morning when Amy paid her visit, and she found Mrs Carter on the point of going out.

‘I was coming to see you,’ cried Edith. ‘Why haven’t you let me know of what has happened?’

‘You have heard, I suppose?’

‘Albert heard from your brother.’

‘I supposed he would. And I haven’t felt in the mood for talking about it, even with you.’

They went into Mrs Carter’s boudoir, a tiny room full of such pretty things as can be purchased nowadays by anyone who has a few shillings to spare, and tolerable taste either of their own or at second-hand. Had she been left to her instincts, Edith would have surrounded herself with objects representing a much earlier stage of artistic development; but she was quick to imitate what fashion declared becoming. Her husband regarded her as a remarkable authority in all matters of personal or domestic ornamentation.

‘And what are you going to do?’ she inquired, examining Amy from head to foot, as if she thought that the inheritance of so substantial a sum must have produced visible changes in her friend.

‘I am going to do nothing.’

‘But surely you’re not in low spirits?’

‘What have I to rejoice about?’

They talked for a while before Amy brought herself to utter what she was thinking.

‘Isn’t it a most ridiculous thing that married people who both wish to separate can’t do so and be quite free again?’

‘I suppose it would lead to all sorts of troubles — don’t you think?’

‘So people say about every new step in civilisation. What would have been thought twenty years ago of a proposal to make all married women independent of their husbands in money matters? All sorts of absurd dangers were foreseen, no doubt. And it’s the same now about divorce. In America people can get divorced if they don’t suit each other — at all events in some of the States — and does any harm come of it? Just the opposite I should think.’

Edith mused. Such speculations were daring, but she had grown accustomed to think of Amy as an ‘advanced’ woman, and liked to imitate her in this respect.

‘It does seem reasonable,’ she murmured.

‘The law ought to encourage such separations, instead of forbidding them,’ Amy pursued. ‘If a husband and wife find that they have made a mistake, what useless cruelty it is to condemn them to suffer the consequences for the whole of their lives!’

‘I suppose it’s to make people careful,’ said Edith, with a laugh.

‘If so, we know that it has always failed, and always will fail; so the sooner such a profitless law is altered the better. Isn’t there some society for getting that kind of reform? I would subscribe fifty pounds a year to help it. Wouldn’t you?’

‘Yes, if I had it to spare,’ replied the other.

Then they both laughed, but Edith the more naturally.

‘Not on my own account, you know,’ she added.

‘It’s because women who are happily married can’t and won’t understand the position of those who are not that there’s so much difficulty in reforming marriage laws.’

‘But I understand you, Amy, and I grieve about you. What you are to do I can’t think.’

‘Oh, it’s easy to see what I shall do. Of course I have no choice really. And I ought to have a choice; that’s the hardship and the wrong of it. Perhaps if I had, I should find a sort of pleasure in sacrificing myself.’

There were some new novels on the table; Amy took up a volume presently, and glanced over a page or two.

‘I don’t know how you can go on reading that sort of stuff, book after book,’ she exclaimed.

‘Oh, but people say this last novel of Markland’s is one of his best.’

‘Best or worst, novels are all the same. Nothing but love, love, love; what silly nonsense it is! Why don’t people write about the really important things of life? Some of the French novelists do; several of Balzac’s, for instance. I have just been reading his “Cousin Pons,” a terrible book, but I enjoyed it ever so much because it was nothing like a love story. What rubbish is printed about love!’

‘I get rather tired of it sometimes,’ admitted Edith with amusement.

‘I should hope you do, indeed. What downright lies are accepted as indisputable! That about love being a woman’s whole life; who believes it really? Love is the most insignificant thing in most women’s lives. It occupies a few months, possibly a year or two, and even then I doubt if it is often the first consideration.’

Edith held her head aside, and pondered smilingly.

‘I’m sure there’s a great opportunity for some clever novelist who will never write about love at all.’

‘But then it does come into life.’

‘Yes, for a month or two, as I say. Think of the biographies of men and women; how many pages are devoted to their love affairs? Compare those books with novels which profess to be biographies, and you see how false such pictures are. Think of the very words “novel,” “romance” — what do they mean but exaggeration of one bit of life?’

‘That may be true. But why do people find the subject so interesting?’

‘Because there is so little love in real life. That’s the truth of it. Why do poor people care only for stories about the rich? The same principle.’

‘How clever you are, Amy!’

‘Am I? It’s very nice to be told so. Perhaps I have some cleverness of a kind; but what use is it to me? My life is being wasted. I ought to have a place in the society of clever people. I was never meant to live quietly in the background. Oh, if I hadn’t been in such a hurry, and so inexperienced!’

‘Oh, I wanted to ask you,’ said Edith, soon after this. ‘Do you wish Albert to say anything about you — at the hospital?’

‘There’s no reason why he shouldn’t.’

‘You won’t even write to say —?’

‘I shall do nothing.’

Since the parting from her husband, there had proceeded in Amy a noticeable maturing of intellect. Probably the one thing was a consequence of the other. During that last year in the flat her mind was held captive by material cares, and this arrest of her natural development doubtless had much to do with the appearance of acerbity in a character which had displayed so much sweetness, so much womanly grace. Moreover, it was arrest at a critical point. When she fell in love with Edwin Reardon her mind had still to undergo the culture of circumstances; though a woman in years she had seen nothing of life but a few phases of artificial society, and her education had not progressed beyond the final schoolgirl stage. Submitting herself to Reardon’s influence, she passed through what was a highly useful training of the intellect; but with the result that she became clearly conscious of the divergence between herself and her husband. In endeavouring to imbue her with his own literary tastes, Reardon instructed Amy as to the natural tendencies of her mind, which till then she had not clearly understood. When she ceased to read with the eyes of passion, most of the things which were Reardon’s supreme interests lost their value for her. A sound intelligence enabled her to think and feel in many directions, but the special line of her growth lay apart from that in which the novelist and classical scholar had directed her.

When she found herself alone and independent, her mind acted like a spring when pressure is removed. After a few weeks of desoeuvrement she obeyed the impulse to occupy herself with a kind of reading alien to Reardon’s sympathies. The solid periodicals attracted her, and especially those articles which dealt with themes of social science. Anything that savoured of newness and boldness in philosophic thought had a charm for her palate. She read a good deal of that kind of literature which may be defined as specialism popularised; writing which addresses itself to educated, but not strictly studious, persons, and which forms the reservoir of conversation for society above the sphere of turf and west-endism. Thus, for instance, though she could not undertake the volumes of Herbert Spencer, she was intelligently acquainted with the tenor of their contents; and though she had never opened one of Darwin’s books, her knowledge of his main theories and illustrations was respectable. She was becoming a typical woman of the new time, the woman who has developed concurrently with journalistic enterprise.

Not many days after that conversation with Edith Carter, she had occasion to visit Mudie’s, for the new number of some periodical which contained an appetising title. As it was a sunny and warm day she walked to New Oxford Street from the nearest Metropolitan station. Whilst waiting at the library counter, she heard a familiar voice in her proximity; it was that of Jasper Milvain, who stood talking with a middle-aged lady. As Amy turned to look at him his eye met hers; clearly he had been aware of her. The review she desired was handed to her; she moved aside, and turned over the pages. Then Milvain walked up.

He was armed cap-a-pie in the fashions of suave society; no Bohemianism of garb or person, for Jasper knew he could not afford that kind of economy. On her part, Amy was much better dressed than usual, a costume suited to her position of bereaved heiress.

‘What a time since we met!’ said Jasper, taking her delicately gloved hand and looking into her face with his most effective smile.

‘And why?’ asked Amy.

‘Indeed, I hardly know. I hope Mrs Yule is well?’

‘Quite, thank you.’

It seemed as if he would draw back to let her pass, and so make an end of the colloquy. But Amy, though she moved forward, added a remark:

‘I don’t see your name in any of this month’s magazines.’

‘I have nothing signed this month. A short review in The Current, that’s all.’

‘But I suppose you write as much as ever?’

‘Yes; but chiefly in weekly papers just now. You don’t see the Will-o’-the-Wisp?’

‘Oh yes. And I think I can generally recognise your hand.’

They issued from the library.

‘Which way are you going?’ Jasper inquired, with something more of the old freedom.

‘I walked from Gower Street station, and I think, as it’s so fine, I shall walk back again.’

He accompanied her. They turned up Museum Street, and Amy, after a short silence, made inquiry concerning his sisters.

‘I am sorry I saw them only once, but no doubt you thought it better to let the acquaintance end there.’

‘I really didn’t think of it in that way at all,’ Jasper replied.

‘We naturally understood it so, when you even ceased to call, yourself.’

‘But don’t you feel that there would have been a good deal of awkwardness in my coming to Mrs Yule’s?’

‘Seeing that you looked at things from my husband’s point of view?’

‘Oh, that’s a mistake! I have only seen your husband once since he went to Islington.’

Amy gave him a look of surprise.

‘You are not on friendly terms with him?’

‘Well, we have drifted apart. For some reason he seemed to think that my companionship was not very profitable. So it was better, on the whole, that I should see neither you nor him.’

Amy was wondering whether he had heard of her legacy. He might have been informed by a Wattleborough correspondent, even if no one in London had told him.

‘Do your sisters keep up their friendship with my cousin Marian?’ she asked, quitting the previous difficult topic.

‘Oh yes!’ He smiled. ‘They see a great deal of each other.’

‘Then of course you have heard of my uncle’s death?’

‘Yes. I hope all your difficulties are now at an end.’

Amy delayed a moment, then said: ‘I hope so,’ without any emphasis.

‘Do you think of spending this winter abroad?’

It was the nearest he could come to a question concerning the future of Amy and her husband.

‘Everything is still quite uncertain. But tell me something about our old acquaintances. How does Mr Biffen get on?’

‘I scarcely ever see him, but I think he pegs away at an interminable novel, which no one will publish when it’s done. Whelpdale I meet occasionally.’

He talked of the latter’s projects and achievements in a lively strain.

‘Your own prospects continue to brighten, no doubt,’ said Amy.

‘I really think they do. Things go fairly well. And I have lately received a promise of very valuable help.’

‘From whom?’

‘A relative of yours.’

Amy turned to interrogate him with a look.

‘A relative? You mean —?’

‘Yes; Marian.’

They were passing Bedford Square. Amy glanced at the trees, now almost bare of foliage; then her eyes met Jasper’s, and she smiled significantly.

‘I should have thought your aim would have been far more ambitious,’ she said, with distinct utterance.

‘Marian and I have been engaged for some time — practically.’

‘Indeed? I remember now how you once spoke of her. And you will be married soon?’

‘Probably before the end of the year. I see that you are criticising my motives. I am quite prepared for that in everyone who knows me and the circumstances. But you must remember that I couldn’t foresee anything of this kind. It enables us to marry sooner, that’s all.’

‘I am sure your motives are unassailable,’ replied Amy, still with a smile. ‘I imagined that you wouldn’t marry for years, and then some distinguished person. This throws new light upon your character.’

‘You thought me so desperately scheming and cold-blooded?’

‘Oh dear no! But — well, to be sure, I can’t say that I know Marian. I haven’t seen her for years and years. She may be admirably suited to you.’

‘Depend upon it, I think so.’

‘She’s likely to shine in society? She is a brilliant girl, full of tact and insight?’

‘Scarcely all that, perhaps.’

He looked dubiously at his companion.

‘Then you have abandoned your old ambitions?’ Amy pursued.

‘Not a bit of it. I am on the way to achieve them.’

‘And Marian is the ideal wife to assist you?’

‘From one point of view, yes. Pray, why all this ironic questioning?’

‘Not ironic at all.’

‘It sounded very much like it, and I know from of old that you have a tendency that way.’

‘The news surprised me a little, I confess. But I see that I am in danger of offending you.’

‘Let us wait another five years, and then I will ask your opinion as to the success of my marriage. I don’t take a step of this kind without maturely considering it. Have I made many blunders as yet?’

‘As yet, not that I know of.’

‘Do I impress you as one likely to commit follies?’

‘I had rather wait a little before answering that.’

‘That is to say, you prefer to prophesy after the event. Very well, we shall see.’

In the length of Gower Street they talked of several other things less personal. By degrees the tone of their conversation had become what it was used to be, now and then almost confidential.

‘You are still at the same lodgings?’ asked Amy, as they drew near to the railway station.

‘I moved yesterday, so that the girls and I could be under the same roof — until the next change.’

‘You will let us know when that takes place?’

He promised, and with exchange of smiles which were something like a challenge they took leave of each other.

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