New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 28

Interim

The rooms which Milvain had taken for himself and his sisters were modest, but more expensive than their old quarters. As the change was on his account he held himself responsible for the extra outlay. But for his immediate prospects this step would have been unwarrantable, as his earnings were only just sufficient for his needs on the previous footing. He had resolved that his marriage must take place before Christmas; till that event he would draw when necessary upon the girls’ little store, and then repay them out of Marian’s dowry.

‘And what are we to do when you are married?’ asked Dora.

The question was put on the first evening of their being all under the same roof. The trio had had supper in the girls’ sitting-room, and it was a moment for frank conversation. Dora rejoiced in the coming marriage; her brother had behaved honourably, and Marian, she trusted, would be very happy, notwithstanding disagreement with her father, which seemed inevitable. Maud was by no means so well pleased, though she endeavoured to wear smiles. It looked to her as if Jasper had been guilty of a kind of weakness not to be expected in him. Marian, as an individual, could not be considered an appropriate wife for such a man with such a future; and as for her five thousand pounds, that was ridiculous. Had it been ten — something can be made of ten thousand; but a paltry five! Maud’s ideas on such subjects had notably expanded of late, and one of the results was that she did not live so harmoniously with her sister as for the first few months of their London career.

‘I have been thinking a good deal about that,’ replied Jasper to the younger girl’s question. He stood with his back to the fire and smoked a cigarette. ‘I thought at first of taking a flat; but then a flat of the kind I should want would be twice the rent of a large house. If we have a house with plenty of room in it you might come and live with us after a time. At first I must find you decent lodgings in our neighbourhood.’

‘You show a good deal of generosity, Jasper,’ said Maud, ‘but pray remember that Marian isn’t bringing you five thousand a year.’

‘I regret to say that she isn’t. What she brings me is five hundred a year for ten years — that’s how I look at it. My own income will make it something between six or seven hundred at first, and before long probably more like a thousand. I am quite cool and collected. I understand exactly where I am, and where I am likely to be ten years hence. Marian’s money is to be spent in obtaining a position for myself. At present I am spoken of as a “smart young fellow,” and that kind of thing; but no one would offer me an editorship, or any other serious help. Wait till I show that I have helped myself and hands will be stretched to me from every side. ’Tis the way of the world. I shall belong to a club; I shall give nice, quiet little dinners to selected people; I shall let it be understood by all and sundry that I have a social position. Thenceforth I am quite a different man, a man to be taken into account. And what will you bet me that I don’t stand in the foremost rank of literary reputabilities ten years hence?’

‘I doubt whether six or seven hundred a year will be enough for this.’

‘If not, I am prepared to spend a thousand. Bless my soul! As if two or three years wouldn’t suffice to draw out the mean qualities in the kind of people I am thinking of! I say ten, to leave myself a great margin.’

‘Marian approves this?’

‘I haven’t distinctly spoken of it. But she approves whatever I think good.’

The girls laughed at his way of pronouncing this.

‘And let us just suppose that you are so unfortunate as to fail?’

‘There’s no supposing it, unless, of course, I lose my health. I am not presuming on any wonderful development of powers. Such as I am now, I need only to be put on the little pedestal of a decent independence and plenty of people will point fingers of admiration at me. You don’t fully appreciate this. Mind, it wouldn’t do if I had no qualities. I have the qualities; they only need bringing into prominence. If I am an unknown man, and publish a wonderful book, it will make its way very slowly, or not at all. If I, become a known man, publish that very same book, its praise will echo over both hemispheres. I should be within the truth if I had said “a vastly inferior book,” But I am in a bland mood at present. Suppose poor Reardon’s novels had been published in the full light of reputation instead of in the struggling dawn which was never to become day, wouldn’t they have been magnified by every critic? You have to become famous before you can secure the attention which would give fame.’

He delivered this apophthegm with emphasis, and repeated it in another form.

‘You have to obtain reputation before you can get a fair hearing for that which would justify your repute. It’s the old story of the French publisher who said to Dumas: “Make a name, and I’ll publish anything you write.” “But how the diable,” cries the author, “am I to make a name if I can’t get published?” If a man can’t hit upon any other way of attracting attention, let him dance on his head in the middle of the street; after that he may hope to get consideration for his volume of poems. I am speaking of men who wish to win reputation before they are toothless. Of course if your work is strong, and you can afford to wait, the probability is that half a dozen people will at last begin to shout that you have been monstrously neglected, as you have. But that happens when you are hoary and sapless, and when nothing under the sun delights you.’

He lit a new cigarette.

‘Now I, my dear girls, am not a man who can afford to wait. First of all, my qualities are not of the kind which demand the recognition of posterity. My writing is for to-day, most distinctly hodiernal. It has no value save in reference to to-day. The question is: How can I get the eyes of men fixed upon me? The answer: By pretending I am quite independent of their gaze. I shall succeed, without any kind of doubt; and then I’ll have a medal struck to celebrate the day of my marriage.’

But Jasper was not quite so well assured of the prudence of what he was about to do as he wished his sisters to believe. The impulse to which he had finally yielded still kept its force; indeed, was stronger than ever since the intimacy of lovers’ dialogue had revealed to him more of Marian’s heart and mind. Undeniably he was in love. Not passionately, not with the consuming desire which makes every motive seem paltry compared with its own satisfaction; but still quite sufficiently in love to have a great difficulty in pursuing his daily tasks. This did not still the voice which bade him remember all the opportunities and hopes he was throwing aside. Since the plighting of troth with Marian he had been over to Wimbledon, to the house of his friend and patron Mr Horace Barlow, and there he had again met with Miss Rupert. This lady had no power whatever over his emotions, but he felt assured that she regarded him with strong interest. When he imagined the possibility of contracting a marriage with Miss Rupert, who would make him at once a man of solid means, his head drooped, and he wondered at his precipitation. It had to be confessed that he was the victim of a vulgar weakness. He had declared himself not of the first order of progressive men.

The conversation with Amy Reardon did not tend to put his mind at rest. Amy was astonished at so indiscreet a step in a man of his calibre. Ah! if only Amy herself were free, with her ten thousand pounds to dispose of! She, he felt sure, did not view him with indifference. Was there not a touch of pique in the elaborate irony with which she had spoken of his choice? — But it was idle to look in that direction.

He was anxious on his sisters’ account. They were clever girls, and with energy might before long earn a bare subsistence; but it began to be doubtful whether they would persevere in literary work. Maud, it was clear, had conceived hopes of quite another kind. Her intimacy with Mrs Lane was effecting a change in her habits, her dress, even her modes of speech. A few days after their establishment in the new lodgings, Jasper spoke seriously on this subject with the younger girl.

‘I wonder whether you could satisfy my curiosity in a certain matter,’ he said. ‘Do you, by chance, know how much Maud gave for that new jacket in which I saw her yesterday?’

Dora was reluctant to answer.

‘I don’t think it was very much.’

‘That is to say, it didn’t cost twenty guineas. Well, I hope not.

I notice, too, that she has been purchasing a new hat.’

‘Oh, that was very inexpensive. She trimmed it herself.’

‘Did she? Is there any particular, any quite special, reason for this expenditure?’

‘I really can’t say, Jasper.’

‘That’s ambiguous, you know. Perhaps it means you won’t allow yourself to say?’

‘No, Maud doesn’t tell me about things of that kind.’

He took opportunities of investigating the matter, with the result that some ten days after he sought private colloquy with Maud herself. She had asked his opinion of a little paper she was going to send to a ladies’ illustrated weekly, and he summoned her to his own room.

‘I think this will do pretty well,’ he said. ‘There’s rather too much thought in it, perhaps. Suppose you knock out one or two of the less obvious reflections, and substitute a wholesome commonplace? You’ll have a better chance, I assure you.’

‘But I shall make it worthless.’

‘No; you’ll probably make it worth a guinea or so. You must remember that the people who read women’s papers are irritated, simply irritated, by anything that isn’t glaringly obvious. They hate an unusual thought. The art of writing for such papers — indeed, for the public in general — is to express vulgar thought and feeling in a way that flatters the vulgar thinkers and feelers. Just abandon your mind to it, and then let me see it again.’

Maud took up the manuscript and glanced over it with a contemptuous smile. Having observed her for a moment, Jasper threw himself back in the chair and said, as if casually:

‘I am told that Mr Dolomore is becoming a great friend of yours.’

The girl’s face changed. She drew herself up, and looked away towards the window.

‘I don’t know that he is a “great” friend.’

‘Still, he pays enough attention to you to excite remark.’

‘Whose remark?’

‘That of several people who go to Mrs Lane’s.’

‘I don’t know any reason for it,’ said Maud coldly.

‘Look here, Maud, you don’t mind if I give you a friendly warning?’

She kept silence, with a look of superiority to all monition.

‘Dolomore,’ pursued her brother, ‘is all very well in his way, but that way isn’t yours. I believe he has a good deal of money, but he has neither brains nor principle. There’s no harm in your observing the nature and habits of such individuals, but don’t allow yourself to forget that they are altogether beneath you.’

‘There’s no need whatever for you to teach me self-respect,’ replied the girl.

‘I’m quite sure of that; but you are inexperienced. On the whole, I do rather wish that you would go less frequently to Mrs Lane’s.

It was rather an unfortunate choice of yours. Very much better if you could have got on a good footing with the Barnabys. If you are generally looked upon as belonging to the Lanes’ set it will make it difficult for you to get in with the better people.’

Maud was not to be drawn into argument, and Jasper could only hope that his words would have some weight with her. The Mr Dolomore in question was a young man of rather offensive type — athletic, dandiacal, and half-educated. It astonished Jasper that his sister could tolerate such an empty creature for a moment; who has not felt the like surprise with regard to women’s inclinations? He talked with Dora about it, but she was not in her sister’s confidence.

‘I think you ought to have some influence with her,’ Jasper said.

‘Maud won’t allow anyone to interfere in — her private affairs.’

‘It would be unfortunate if she made me quarrel with her.’

‘Oh, surely there isn’t any danger of that?’

‘I don’t know, she mustn’t be obstinate.’

Jasper himself saw a good deal of miscellaneous society at this time. He could not work so persistently as usual, and with wise tactics he used the seasons of enforced leisure to extend his acquaintance. Marian and he were together twice a week, in the evening.

Of his old Bohemian associates he kept up intimate relations with one only, and that was Whelpdale. This was in a measure obligatory, for Whelpdale frequently came to see him, and it would have been difficult to repel a man who was always making known how highly he esteemed the privilege of Milvain’s friendship, and whose company on the whole was agreeable enough. At the present juncture Whelpdale’s cheery flattery was a distinct assistance; it helped to support Jasper in his self-confidence, and to keep the brightest complexion on the prospect to which he had committed himself.

‘Whelpdale is anxious to make Marian’s acquaintance,’ Jasper said to his sisters one day. ‘Shall we have him here tomorrow evening?’

‘Just as you like,’ Maud replied.

‘You won’t object, Dora?’

‘Oh no! I rather like Mr Whelpdale.’

‘If I were to repeat that to him he’d go wild with delight. But don’t be afraid; I shan’t. I’ll ask him to come for an hour, and trust to his discretion not to bore us by staying too long.’

A note was posted to Whelpdale; he was invited to present himself at eight o’clock, by which time Marian would have arrived. Jasper’s room was to be the scene of the assembly, and punctual to the minute the literary adviser appeared. He was dressed with all the finish his wardrobe allowed, and his face beamed with gratification; it was rapture to him to enter the presence of these three girls, one of whom he had, more suo, held in romantic remembrance since his one meeting with her at Jasper’s old lodgings. His eyes melted with tenderness as he approached Dora and saw her smile of gracious recognition. By Maud he was profoundly impressed. Marian inspired him with no awe, but he fully appreciated the charm of her features and her modest gravity. After all, it was to Dora that his eyes turned again most naturally. He thought her exquisite, and, rather than be long without a glimpse of her, he contented himself with fixing his eyes on the hem of her dress and the boot-toe that occasionally peeped from beneath it.

As was to be expected in such a circle, conversation soon turned to the subject of literary struggles.

‘I always feel it rather humiliating,’ said Jasper, ‘that I have gone through no very serious hardships. It must be so gratifying to say to young fellows who are just beginning:

“Ah, I remember when I was within an ace of starving to death,” and then come out with Grub Street reminiscences of the most appalling kind. Unfortunately, I have always had enough to eat.’

‘I haven’t,’ exclaimed Whelpdale. ‘I have lived for five days on a few cents’ worth of pea-nuts in the States.’

‘What are pea-nuts, Mr Whelpdale?’ asked Dora.

Delighted with the question, Whelpdale described that undesirable species of food.

‘It was in Troy,’ he went on, ‘Troy, N.Y. To think that a man should live on pea-nuts in a town called Troy!’

‘Tell us those adventures,’ cried Jasper. ‘It’s a long time since I heard them, and the girls will enjoy it vastly.’

Dora looked at him with such good-humoured interest that the traveller needed no further persuasion.

‘It came to pass in those days,’ he began, ‘that I inherited from my godfather a small, a very small, sum of money. I was making strenuous efforts to write for magazines, with absolutely no encouragement. As everybody was talking just then of the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia, I conceived the brilliant idea of crossing the Atlantic, in the hope that I might find valuable literary material at the Exhibition — or Exposition, as they called it — and elsewhere. I won’t trouble you with an account of how I lived whilst I still had money; sufficient that no one would accept the articles I sent to England, and that at last I got into perilous straits. I went to New York, and thought of returning home, but the spirit of adventure was strong in me. “I’ll go West,” I said to myself. “There I am bound to find material.” And go I did, taking an emigrant ticket to Chicago. It was December, and I should like you to imagine what a journey of a thousand miles by an emigrant train meant at that season. The cars were deadly cold, and what with that and the hardness of the seats I found it impossible to sleep; it reminded me of tortures I had read about; I thought my brain would have burst with the need of sleeping. At Cleveland, in Ohio, we had to wait several hours in the night; I left the station and wandered about till I found myself on the edge of a great cliff that looked over Lake Erie. A magnificent picture! Brilliant moonlight, and all the lake away to the horizon frozen and covered with snow. The clocks struck two as I stood there.’

He was interrupted by the entrance of a servant who brought coffee.

‘Nothing could be more welcome,’ cried Dora. ‘Mr Whelpdale makes one feel quite chilly.’

There was laughter and chatting whilst Maud poured out the beverage. Then Whelpdale pursued his narrative.

‘I reached Chicago with not quite five dollars in my pockets, and, with a courage which I now marvel at, I paid immediately four dollars and a half for a week’s board and lodging. “Well,” I said to myself, “for a week I am safe. If I earn nothing in that time, at least I shall owe nothing when I have to turn out into the streets.” It was a rather dirty little boarding-house, in Wabash Avenue, and occupied, as I soon found, almost entirely by actors. There was no fireplace in my bedroom, and if there had been I couldn’t have afforded a fire. But that mattered little; what I had to do was to set forth and discover some way of making money. Don’t suppose that I was in a desperate state of mind; how it was, I don’t quite know, but I felt decidedly cheerful. It was pleasant to be in this new region of the earth, and I went about the town like a tourist who has abundant resources.’

He sipped his coffee.

‘I saw nothing for it but to apply at the office of some newspaper, and as I happened to light upon the biggest of them first of all, I put on a bold face, marched in, asked if I could see the editor. There was no difficulty whatever about this; I was told to ascend by means of the “elevator” to an upper storey, and there I walked into a comfortable little room where a youngish man sat smoking a cigar at a table covered with print and manuscript. I introduced myself, stated my business. “Can you give me work of any kind on your paper?” “Well, what experience have you had?” “None whatever.” The editor smiled. “I’m very much afraid you would be no use to us. But what do you think you could do?” Well now, there was but one thing that by any possibility I could do. I asked him: “Do you publish any fiction — short stories?” “Yes, we’re always glad of a short story, if it’s good.” This was a big daily paper; they have weekly supplements of all conceivable kinds of matter. “Well,” I said, “if I write a story of English life, will you consider it?” “With pleasure.” I left him, and went out as if my existence were henceforth provided for.’

He laughed heartily, and was joined by his hearers.

‘It was a great thing to be permitted to write a story, but then — what story? I went down to the shore of Lake Michigan; walked there for half an hour in an icy wind. Then I looked for a stationer’s shop, and laid out a few of my remaining cents in the purchase of pen, ink, and paper — my stock of all these things was at an end when I left New York. Then back to the boarding-house. Impossible to write in my bedroom, the temperature was below zero; there was no choice but to sit down in the common room, a place like the smoke-room of a poor commercial hotel in England. A dozen men were gathered about the fire, smoking, talking, quarrelling. Favourable conditions, you see, for literary effort. But the story had to be written, and write it I did, sitting there at the end of a deal table; I finished it in less than a couple of days, a good long story, enough to fill three columns of the huge paper. I stand amazed at my power of concentration as often as I think of it!’

‘And was it accepted?’ asked Dora.

‘You shall hear. I took my manuscript to the editor, and he told me to come and see him again next morning. I didn’t forget the appointment. As I entered he smiled in a very promising way, and said, “I think your story will do. I’ll put it into the Saturday supplement. Call on Saturday morning and I’ll remunerate you.” How well I remember that word “remunerate”! I have had an affection for the word ever since. And remunerate me he did; scribbled something on a scrap of paper, which I presented to the cashier. The sum was eighteen dollars. Behold me saved!’

He sipped his coffee again.

‘I have never come across an English editor who treated me with anything like that consideration and general kindliness. How the man had time, in his position, to see me so often, and do things in such a human way, I can’t understand. Imagine anyone trying the same at the office of a London newspaper! To begin with, one couldn’t see the editor at all. I shall always think with profound gratitude of that man with the peaked brown beard and pleasant smile.’

‘But did the pea-nuts come after that!’ inquired Dora.

‘Alas! they did. For some months I supported myself in Chicago, writing for that same paper, and for others. But at length the flow of my inspiration was checked; I had written myself out. And I began to grow home-sick, wanted to get back to England. The result was that I found myself one day in New York again, but without money enough to pay for a passage home. I tried to write one more story. But it happened, as I was looking over newspapers in a reading-room, that I saw one of my Chicago tales copied into a paper published at Troy. Now Troy was not very far off; and it occurred to me that, if I went there, the editor of this paper might be disposed to employ me, seeing he had a taste for my fiction. And I went, up the Hudson by steamboat. On landing at Troy I was as badly off as when I reached Chicago; I had less than a dollar. And the worst of it was I had come on a vain errand; the editor treated me with scant courtesy, and no work was to be got. I took a little room, paying for it day by day, and in the meantime I fed on those loathsome pea-nuts, buying a handful in the street now and then. And I assure you I looked starvation in the face.’

‘What sort of a town is Troy?’ asked Marian, speaking for the first time.

‘Don’t ask me. They make straw hats there principally, and they sell pea-nuts. More I remember not.’

‘But you didn’t starve to death,’ said Maud.

‘No, I just didn’t. I went one afternoon into a lawyer’s office, thinking I might get some copying work, and there I found an odd-looking old man, sitting with an open Bible on his knees. He explained to me that he wasn’t the lawyer; that the lawyer was away on business, and that he was just guarding the office. Well, could he help me? He meditated, and a thought occurred to him. “Go,” he said, “to such-and-such a boarding-house, and ask for Mr Freeman Sterling. He is just starting on a business tour, and wants a young man to accompany him.” I didn’t dream of asking what the business was, but sped, as fast as my trembling limbs would carry me, to the address he had mentioned. I asked for Mr Freeman Sterling, and found him. He was a photographer, and his business at present was to go about getting orders for the reproducing of old portraits. A good-natured young fellow. He said he liked the look of me, and on the spot engaged me to assist him in a house-to-house visitation. He would pay for my board and lodging, and give me a commission on all the orders I obtained. Forthwith I sat down to a “square meal,” and ate — my conscience, how I ate!’

‘You were not eminently successful in that pursuit, I think?’ said Jasper.

‘I don’t think I got half-a-dozen orders. Yet that good Samaritan supported me for five or six weeks, whilst we travelled from Troy to Boston. It couldn’t go on; I was ashamed of myself; at last I told him that we must part. Upon my word, I believe he would have paid my expenses for another month; why, I can’t understand. But he had a vast respect for me because I had written in newspapers, and I do seriously think that he didn’t like to tell me I was a useless fellow. We parted on the very best of terms in Boston.’

‘And you again had recourse to pea-nuts?’ asked Dora.

‘Well, no. In the meantime I had written to someone in England, begging the loan of just enough money to enable me to get home. The money came a day after I had seen Sterling off by train.’

An hour and a half quickly passed, and Jasper, who wished to have a few minutes of Marian’s company before it was time for her to go, cast a significant glance at his sisters. Dora said innocently:

‘You wished me to tell you when it was half-past nine, Marian.’

And Marian rose. This was a signal Whelpdale could not disregard. Immediately he made ready for his own departure, and in less than five minutes was gone, his face at the last moment expressing blended delight and pain.

‘Too good of you to have asked me to come,’ he said with gratitude to Jasper, who went to the door with him. ‘You are a happy man, by Jove! A happy man!’

When Jasper returned to the room his sisters had vanished. Marian stood by the fire. He drew near to her, took her hands, and repeated laughingly Whelpdale’s last words.

‘Is it true?’ she asked.

‘Tolerably true, I think.’

‘Then I am as happy as you are.’

He released her hands, and moved a little apart.

‘Marian, I have been thinking about that letter to your father. I had better get it written, don’t you think?’

She gazed at him with troubled eyes.

‘Perhaps you had. Though we said it might be delayed until — ’

‘Yes, I know. But I suspect you had rather I didn’t wait any longer. Isn’t that the truth?’

‘Partly. Do just as you wish, Jasper.’

‘I’ll go and see him, if you like.’

‘I am so afraid — No, writing will be better.’

‘Very well. Then he shall have the letter to-morrow afternoon.’

‘Don’t let it come before the last post. I had so much rather not. Manage it, if you can.’

‘Very well. Now go and say good-night to the girls. It’s a vile night, and you must get home as soon as possible.’

She turned away, but again came towards him, murmuring:

‘Just a word or two more.’

‘About the letter?’

‘No. You haven’t said — ’

He laughed.

‘And you couldn’t go away contentedly unless I repeated for the hundredth time that I love you?’

Marian searched his countenance.

‘Do you think it foolish? I live only on those words.’

‘Well, they are better than pea-nuts.’

‘Oh don’t! I can’t bear to — ’

Jasper was unable to understand that such a jest sounded to her like profanity. She hid her face against him, and whispered the words that would have enraptured her had they but come from his lips. The young man found it pleasant enough to be worshipped, but he could not reply as she desired. A few phrases of tenderness, and his love-vocabulary was exhausted; he even grew weary when something more — the indefinite something — was vaguely required of him.

‘You are a dear, good, tender-hearted girl,’ he said, stroking her short, soft hair, which was exquisite to the hand. ‘Now go and get ready.’

She left him, but stood for a few moments on the landing before going to the girls’ room.

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