New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 30

Waiting on Destiny

Throughout the day Marian kept her room. Her intention to leave the house was, of course, abandoned; she was the prisoner of fate. Mrs Yule would have tended her with unremitting devotion, but the girl desired to be alone. At times she lay in silent anguish; frequently her tears broke forth, and she sobbed until weariness overcame her. In the afternoon she wrote a letter to Mr Holden, begging that she might be kept constantly acquainted with the progress of things.

At five her mother brought tea.

‘Wouldn’t it be better if you went to bed now, Marian?’ she suggested.

‘To bed? But I am going out in an hour or two.’

‘Oh, you can’t, dear! It’s so bitterly cold. It wouldn’t be good for you.’

‘I have to go out, mother, so we won’t speak of it.’

It was not safe to reply. Mrs Yule sat down, and watched the girl raise the cup to her mouth with trembling hand.

‘This won’t make any difference to you — in the end, my darling,’ the mother ventured to say at length, alluding for the first time to the effect of the catastrophe on Marian’s immediate prospects.

‘Of course not,’ was the reply, in a tone of self-persuasion.

‘Mr Milvain is sure to have plenty of money before long.’

‘Yes.’

‘You feel much better now, don’t you?’

‘Much. I am quite well again.’

At seven, Marian went out. Finding herself weaker than she had thought, she stopped an empty cab that presently passed her, and so drove to the Milvains’ lodgings. In her agitation she inquired for Mr Milvain, instead of for Dora, as was her habit; it mattered very little, for the landlady and her servants were of course under no misconception regarding this young lady’s visits.

Jasper was at home, and working. He had but to look at Marian to see that something wretched had been going on at her home; naturally he supposed it the result of his letter to Mr Yule.

‘Your father has been behaving brutally,’ he said, holding her hands and gazing anxiously at her.

‘There is something far worse than that, Jasper.’

‘Worse?’

She threw off her outdoor things, then took the fatal letter from her pocket and handed it to him. Jasper gave a whistle of consternation, and looked vacantly from the paper to Marian’s countenance.

‘How the deuce comes this about?’ he exclaimed. ‘Why, wasn’t your uncle aware of the state of things?’

‘Perhaps he was. He may have known that the legacy was a mere form.’

‘You are the only one affected?’

‘So father says. It’s sure to be the case.’

‘This has upset you horribly, I can see. Sit down, Marian. When did the letter come?’

‘This morning.’

‘And you have been fretting over it all day. But come, we must keep up our courage; you may get something substantial out of the scoundrels still.’

Even whilst he spoke his eyes wandered absently. On the last word his voice failed, and he fell into abstraction. Marian’s look was fixed upon him, and he became conscious of it. He tried to smile.

‘What were you writing?’ she asked, making involuntary diversion from the calamitous theme.

‘Rubbish for the Will-o’-the-Wisp. Listen to this paragraph about English concert audiences.’

It was as necessary to him as to her to have a respite before the graver discussion began. He seized gladly the opportunity she offered, and read several pages of manuscript, slipping from one topic to another. To hear him one would have supposed that he was in his ordinary mood; he laughed at his own jokes and points.

‘They’ll have to pay me more,’ was the remark with which he closed. ‘I only wanted to make myself indispensable to them, and at the end of this year I shall feel pretty sure of that. They’ll have to give me two guineas a column; by Jove! they will.’

‘And you may hope for much more than that, mayn’t you, before long?’

‘Oh, I shall transfer myself to a better paper presently. It seems to me I must be stirring to some purpose.’

He gave her a significant look.

‘What shall we do, Jasper?’

‘Work and wait, I suppose.’

‘There’s something I must tell you. Father said I had better sign that Harrington article myself. If I do that, I shall have a right to the money, I think. It will at least be eight guineas. And why shouldn’t I go on writing for myself — for us? You can help me to think of subjects.’

‘First of all, what about my letter to your father? We are forgetting all about it.’

‘He refused to answer.’

Marian avoided closer description of what had happened. It was partly that she felt ashamed of her father’s unreasoning wrath, and feared lest Jasper’s pride might receive an injury from which she in turn would suffer; partly that she was unwilling to pain her lover by making display of all she had undergone.

‘Oh, he refused to reply! Surely that is extreme behaviour.’

What she dreaded seemed to be coming to pass. Jasper stood rather stiffly, and threw his head back.

‘You know the reason, dear. That prejudice has entered into his very life. It is not you he dislikes; that is impossible. He thinks of you only as he would of anyone connected with Mr Fadge.’

‘Well, well; it isn’t a matter of much moment. But what I have in mind is this. Will it be possible for you, whilst living at home, to take a position of independence, and say that you are going to work for your own profit?’

‘At least I might claim half the money I can earn. And I was thinking more of — ’

‘Of what?’

‘When I am your wife, I may be able to help. I could earn thirty or forty pounds a year, I think. That would pay the rent of a small house.’

She spoke with shaken voice, her eyes fixed upon his face.

‘But, my dear Marian, we surely oughtn’t to think of marrying so long as expenses are so nicely fitted as all that?’

‘No. I only meant — ’

She faltered, and her tongue became silent as her heart sank.

‘It simply means,’ pursued Jasper, seating himself and crossing his legs, ‘that I must move heaven and earth to improve my position. You know that my faith in myself is not small; there’s no knowing what I might do if I used every effort. But, upon my word, I don’t see much hope of our being able to marry for a year or two under the most favourable circumstances.’

‘No; I quite understand that.’

‘Can you promise to keep a little love for me all that time?’ he asked with a constrained smile.

‘You know me too well to fear.’

‘I thought you seemed a little doubtful.’

His tone was not altogether that which makes banter pleasant between lovers. Marian looked at him fearfully. Was it possible for him in truth so to misunderstand her? He had never satisfied her heart’s desire of infinite love; she never spoke with him but she was oppressed with the suspicion that his love was not as great as hers, and, worse still, that he did not wholly comprehend the self-surrender which she strove to make plain in every word.

‘You don’t say that seriously, Jasper?’

‘But answer seriously.’

‘How can you doubt that I would wait faithfully for you for years if it were necessary?’

‘It mustn’t be years, that’s very certain. I think it preposterous for a man to hold a woman bound in that hopeless way.’

‘But what question is there of holding me bound? Is love dependent on fixed engagements? Do you feel that, if we agreed to part, your love would be at once a thing of the past?’

‘Why no, of course not.’

‘Oh, but how coldly you speak, Jasper!’

She could not breathe a word which might be interpreted as fear lest the change of her circumstances should make a change in his feeling. Yet that was in her mind. The existence of such a fear meant, of course, that she did not entirely trust him, and viewed his character as something less than noble. Very seldom indeed is a woman free from such doubts, however absolute her love; and perhaps it is just as rare for a man to credit in his heart all the praises he speaks of his beloved. Passion is compatible with a great many of these imperfections of intellectual esteem. To see more clearly into Jasper’s personality was, for Marian, to suffer the more intolerable dread lest she should lose him.

She went to his side. Her heart ached because, in her great misery, he had not fondled her, and intoxicated her senses with loving words.

‘How can I make you feel how much I love you?’ she murmured.

‘You mustn’t be so literal, dearest. Women are so desperately matter-of-fact; it comes out even in their love-talk.’

Marian was not without perception of the irony of such an opinion on Jasper’s lips.

‘I am content for you to think so,’ she said. ‘There is only one fact in my life of any importance, and I can never lose sight of it.’

‘Well now, we are quite sure of each other. Tell me plainly, do you think me capable of forsaking you because you have perhaps lost your money?’

The question made her wince. If delicacy had held her tongue, it had no control of HIS.

‘How can I answer that better,’ she said, ‘than by saying I love you?’

It was no answer, and Jasper, though obtuse compared with her, understood that it was none. But the emotion which had prompted his words was genuine enough. Her touch, the perfume of her passion, had their exalting effect upon him. He felt in all sincerity that to forsake her would be a baseness, revenged by the loss of such a wife.

‘There’s an uphill fight before me, that’s all,’ he said, ‘instead of the pretty smooth course I have been looking forward to. But I don’t fear it, Marian. I’m not the fellow to be beaten.

You shall be my wife, and you shall have as many luxuries as if you had brought me a fortune.’

‘Luxuries! Oh, how childish you seem to think me!’

‘Not a bit of it. Luxuries are a most important part of life. I had rather not live at all than never possess them. Let me give you a useful hint; if ever I seem to you to flag, just remind me of the difference between these lodgings and a richly furnished house. Just hint to me that So-and-so, the journalist, goes about in his carriage, and can give his wife a box at the theatre. Just ask me, casually, how I should like to run over to the Riviera when London fogs are thickest. You understand? That’s the way to keep me at it like a steam-engine.’

‘You are right. All those things enable one to live a better and fuller life. Oh, how cruel that I— that we are robbed in this way! You can have no idea how terrible a blow it was to me when I read that letter this morning.’

She was on the point of confessing that she had swooned, but something restrained her.

‘Your father can hardly be sorry,’ said Jasper.

‘I think he speaks more harshly than he feels. The worst was, that until he got your letter he had kept hoping that I would let him have the money for a new review.’

‘Well, for the present I prefer to believe that the money isn’t all lost. If the blackguards pay ten shillings in the pound you will get two thousand five hundred out of them, and that’s something. But how do you stand? Will your position be that of an ordinary creditor?’

‘I am so ignorant. I know nothing of such things.’

‘But of course your interests will be properly looked after. Put yourself in communication with this Mr Holden. I’ll have a look into the law on the subject. Let us hope as long as we can. By Jove! There’s no other way of facing it.’

‘No, indeed.’

‘Mrs Reardon and the rest of them are safe enough, I suppose?’

‘Oh, no doubt.’

‘Confound them! — It grows upon one. One doesn’t take in the whole of such a misfortune at once. We must hold on to the last rag of hope, and in the meantime I’ll half work myself to death. Are you going to see the girls?’

‘Not to-night. You must tell them.’

‘Dora will cry her eyes out. Upon my word, Maud’ll have to draw in her horns. I must frighten her into economy and hard work.’

He again lost himself in anxious reverie.

‘Marian, couldn’t you try your hand at fiction?’

She started, remembering that her father had put the same question so recently.

‘I’m afraid I could do nothing worth doing.’

‘That isn’t exactly the question. Could you do anything that would sell? With very moderate success in fiction you might make three times as much as you ever will by magazine pot-boilers. A girl like you. Oh, you might manage, I should think.’

‘A girl like me?’

‘Well, I mean that love-scenes, and that kind of thing, would be very much in your line.’

Marian was not given to blushing; very few girls are, even on strong provocation. For the first time Jasper saw her cheeks colour deeply, and it was with anything but pleasure. His words were coarsely inconsiderate, and wounded her.

‘I think that is not my work,’ she said coldly, looking away.

‘But surely there’s no harm in my saying — ‘ he paused in astonishment. ‘I meant nothing that could offend you.’

‘I know you didn’t, Jasper. But you make me think that — ’

‘Don’t be so literal again, my dear girl. Come here and forgive me.’

She did not approach, but only because the painful thought he had excited kept her to that spot.

‘Come, Marian! Then I must come to you.’

He did so and held her in his arms.

‘Try your hand at a novel, dear, if you can possibly make time. Put me in it, if you like, and make me an insensible masculine. The experiment is worth a try I’m certain. At all events do a few chapters, and let me see them. A chapter needn’t take you more than a couple of hours I should think.’

Marian refrained from giving any promise. She seemed irresponsive to his caresses. That thought which at times gives trouble to all women of strong emotions was working in her: had she been too demonstrative, and made her love too cheap? Now that Jasper’s love might be endangered, it behoved her to use any arts which nature prompted. And so, for once, he was not wholly satisfied with her, and at their parting he wondered what subtle change had affected her manner to him.

‘Why didn’t Marian come to speak a word?’ said Dora, when her brother entered the girls’ sitting-room about ten o’clock.

‘You knew she was with me, then?’

‘We heard her voice as she was going away.’

‘She brought me some enspiriting news, and thought it better I should have the reporting of it to you.’

With brevity he made known what had befallen.

‘Cheerful, isn’t it? The kind of thing that strengthens one’s trust in Providence.’

The girls were appalled. Maud, who was reading by the fireside, let her book fall to her lap, and knit her brows darkly.

‘Then your marriage must be put off, of course?’ said Dora.

‘Well, I shouldn’t be surprised if that were found necessary,’ replied her brother caustically. He was able now to give vent to the feeling which in Marian’s presence was suppressed, partly out of consideration for her, and partly owing to her influence.

‘And shall we have to go back to our old lodgings again?’ inquired Maud.

Jasper gave no answer, but kicked a footstool savagely out of his way and paced the room.

‘Oh, do you think we need?’ said Dora, with unusual protest against economy.

‘Remember that it’s a matter for your own consideration,’ Jasper replied at length. ‘You are living on your own resources, you know.’

Maud glanced at her sister, but Dora was preoccupied.

‘Why do you prefer to stay here?’ Jasper asked abruptly of the younger girl.

‘It is so very much nicer,’ she replied with some embarrassment.

He bit the ends of his moustache, and his eyes glared at the impalpable thwarting force that to imagination seemed to fill the air about him.

‘A lesson against being over-hasty,’ he muttered, again kicking the footstool.

‘Did you make that considerate remark to Marian?’ asked Maud.

‘There would have been no harm if I had done. She knows that I shouldn’t have been such an ass as to talk of marriage without the prospect of something to live upon.’

‘I suppose she’s wretched?’ said Dora.

‘What else can you expect?’

‘And did you propose to release her from the burden of her engagement?’ Maud inquired.

‘It’s a confounded pity that you’re not rich, Maud,’ replied her brother with an involuntary laugh. ‘You would have a brilliant reputation for wit.’

He walked about and ejaculated splenetic phrases on the subject of his ill-luck.

‘We are here, and here we must stay,’ was the final expression of his mood. ‘I have only one superstition that I know of and that forbids me to take a step backward. If I went into poorer lodgings again I should feel it was inviting defeat. I shall stay as long as the position is tenable. Let us get on to Christmas, and then see how things look. Heavens! Suppose we had married, and after that lost the money!’

‘You would have been no worse off than plenty of literary men,’ said Dora.

‘Perhaps not. But as I have made up my mind to be considerably better off than most literary men that reflection wouldn’t console me much. Things are in statu quo, that’s all. I have to rely upon my own efforts. What’s the time? Half-past ten; I can get two hours’ work before going to bed.’

And nodding a good-night he left them.

When Marian entered the house and went upstairs, she was followed by her mother. On Mrs Yule’s countenance there was a new distress, she had been crying recently.

‘Have you seen him?’ the mother asked.

‘Yes. We have talked about it.’

‘What does he wish you to do, dear?’

‘There’s nothing to be done except wait.’

‘Father has been telling me something, Marian,’ said Mrs Yule after a long silence. ‘He says he is going to be blind. There’s something the matter with his eyes, and he went to see someone about it this afternoon. He’ll get worse and worse, until there has been an operation; and perhaps he’ll never be able to use his eyes properly again.’

The girl listened in an attitude of despair.

‘He has seen an oculist? — a really good doctor?’

‘He says he went to one of the best.’

‘And how did he speak to you?’

‘He doesn’t seem to care much what happens. He talked of going to the workhouse, and things like that. But it couldn’t ever come to that, could it, Marian? Wouldn’t somebody help him?’

‘There’s not much help to be expected in this world,’ answered the girl.

Physical weariness brought her a few hours of oblivion as soon as she had lain down, but her sleep came to an end in the early morning, when the pressure of evil dreams forced her back to consciousness of real sorrows and cares. A fog-veiled sky added its weight to crush her spirit; at the hour when she usually rose it was still all but as dark as midnight. Her mother’s voice at the door begged her to lie and rest until it grew lighter, and she willingly complied, feeling indeed scarcely capable of leaving her bed.

The thick black fog penetrated every corner of the house. It could be smelt and tasted. Such an atmosphere produces low-spirited languor even in the vigorous and hopeful; to those wasted by suffering it is the very reek of the bottomless pit, poisoning the soul. Her face colourless as the pillow, Marian lay neither sleeping nor awake, in blank extremity of woe; tears now and then ran down her cheeks, and at times her body was shaken with a throe such as might result from anguish of the torture chamber.

Midway in the morning, when it was still necessary to use artificial light, she went down to the sitting-room. The course of household life had been thrown into confusion by the disasters of the last day or two; Mrs Yule, who occupied herself almost exclusively with questions of economy, cleanliness, and routine, had not the heart to pursue her round of duties, and this morning, though under normal circumstances she would have been busy in ‘turning out’ the dining-room, she moved aimlessly and despondently about the house, giving the servant contradictory orders and then blaming herself for her absent-mindedness. In the troubles of her husband and her daughter she had scarcely greater share — so far as active participation went — than if she had been only a faithful old housekeeper; she could only grieve and lament that such discord had come between the two whom she loved, and that in herself was no power even to solace their distresses. Marian found her standing in the passage, with a duster in one hand and a hearth-brush in the other.

‘Your father has asked to see you when you come down,’ Mrs Yule whispered.

‘I’ll go to him.’

Marian entered the study. Her father was not in his place at the writing-table, nor yet seated in the chair which he used when he had leisure to draw up to the fireside; he sat in front of one of the bookcases, bent forward as if seeking a volume, but his chin was propped upon his hand, and he had maintained this position for a long time. He did not immediately move. When he raised his head Marian saw that he looked older, and she noticed — or fancied she did — that there was some unfamiliar peculiarity about his eyes.

‘I am obliged to you for coming,’ he began with distant formality. ‘Since I saw you last I have learnt something which makes a change in my position and prospects, and it is necessary to speak on the subject. I won’t detain you more than a few minutes.’

He coughed, and seemed to consider his next words.

‘Perhaps I needn’t repeat what I have told your mother. You have learnt it from her, I dare say.’

‘Yes, with much grief.’

‘Thank you, but we will leave aside that aspect of the matter. For a few more months I may be able to pursue my ordinary work, but before long I shall certainly be disabled from earning my livelihood by literature. Whether this will in any way affect your own position I don’t know. Will you have the goodness to tell me whether you still purpose leaving this house?’

‘I have no means of doing so.’

‘Is there any likelihood of your marriage taking place, let us say, within four months?’

‘Only if the executors recover my money, or a large portion of it.’

‘I understand. My reason for asking is this. My lease of this house terminates at the end of next March, and I shall certainly not be justified in renewing it. If you are able to provide for yourself in any way it will be sufficient for me to rent two rooms after that. This disease which affects my eyes may be only temporary; in due time an operation may render it possible for me to work again. In hope of that I shall probably have to borrow a sum of money on the security of my life insurance, though in the first instance I shall make the most of what I can get for the furniture of the house and a large part of my library; your mother and I could live at very slight expense in lodgings. If the disease prove irremediable, I must prepare myself for the worst. What I wish to say is, that it will be better if from to-day you consider yourself as working for your own subsistence. So long as I remain here this house is of course your home; there can be no question between us of trivial expenses. But it is right that you should understand what my prospects are. I shall soon have no home to offer you; you must look to your own efforts for support.’

‘I am prepared to do that, father.’

‘I think you will have no great difficulty in earning enough for yourself. I have done my best to train you in writing for the periodicals, and your natural abilities are considerable. If you marry, I wish you a happy life. The end of mine, of many long years of unremitting toil, is failure and destitution.’

Marian sobbed.

‘That’s all I had to say,’ concluded her father, his voice tremulous with self-compassion. ‘I will only beg that there may be no further profitless discussion between us. This room is open to you, as always, and I see no reason why we should not converse on subjects disconnected with our personal differences.’

‘Is there no remedy for cataract in its early stages?’ asked Marian.

‘None. You can read up the subject for yourself at the British Museum. I prefer not to speak of it.’

‘Will you let me be what help to you I can?’

‘For the present the best you can do is to establish a connection for yourself with editors. Your name will be an assistance to you. My advice is, that you send your “Harrington” article forthwith to Trenchard, writing him a note. If you desire my help in the suggestion of new subjects, I will do my best to be of use.’

Marian withdrew. She went to the sitting-room, where an ochreous daylight was beginning to diffuse itself and to render the lamp superfluous. With the dissipation of the fog rain had set in; its splashing upon the muddy pavement was audible.

Mrs Yule, still with a duster in her hand, sat on the sofa. Marian took a place beside her. They talked in low, broken tones, and wept together over their miseries.

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