New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 31

A Rescue and a Summons

The chances are that you have neither understanding nor sympathy for men such as Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen. They merely provoke you. They seem to you inert, flabby, weakly envious, foolishly obstinate, impiously mutinous, and many other things. You are made angrily contemptuous by their failure to get on; why don’t they bestir themselves, push and bustle, welcome kicks so long as halfpence follow, make place in the world’s eye — in short, take a leaf from the book of Mr Jasper Milvain?

But try to imagine a personality wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world’s labour-market. From the familiar point of view these men were worthless; view them in possible relation to a humane order of Society, and they are admirable citizens. Nothing is easier than to condemn a type of character which is unequal to the coarse demands of life as it suits the average man. These two were richly endowed with the kindly and the imaginative virtues; if fate threw them amid incongruous circumstances, is their endowment of less value? You scorn their passivity; but it was their nature and their merit to be passive.

Gifted with independent means, each of them would have taken quite a different aspect in your eyes. The sum of their faults was their inability to earn money; but, indeed, that inability does not call for unmingled disdain.

It was very weak of Harold Biffen to come so near perishing of hunger as he did in the days when he was completing his novel. But he would have vastly preferred to eat and be satisfied had any method of obtaining food presented itself to him. He did not starve for the pleasure of the thing, I assure you. Pupils were difficult to get just now, and writing that he had sent to magazines had returned upon his hands. He pawned such of his possessions as he could spare, and he reduced his meals to the minimum. Nor was he uncheerful in his cold garret and with his empty stomach, for ‘Mr Bailey, Grocer,’ drew steadily to an end.

He worked very slowly. The book would make perhaps two volumes of ordinary novel size, but he had laboured over it for many months, patiently, affectionately, scrupulously. Each sentence was as good as he could make it, harmonious to the ear, with words of precious meaning skilfully set. Before sitting down to a chapter he planned it minutely in his mind; then he wrote a rough draft of it; then he elaborated the thing phrase by phrase. He had no thought of whether such toil would be recompensed in coin of the realm; nay, it was his conviction that, if with difficulty published, it could scarcely bring him money. The work must be significant, that was all he cared for. And he had no society of admiring friends to encourage him. Reardon understood the merit of the workmanship, but frankly owned that the book was repulsive to him. To the public it would be worse than repulsive — tedious, utterly uninteresting. No matter; it drew to its end.

The day of its completion was made memorable by an event decidedly more exciting, even to the author.

At eight o’clock in the evening there remained half a page to be written. Biffen had already worked about nine hours, and on breaking off to appease his hunger he doubted whether to finish to-night or to postpone the last lines till tomorrow. The discovery that only a small crust of bread lay in the cupboard decided him to write no more; he would have to go out to purchase a loaf and that was disturbance.

But stay; had he enough money? He searched his pockets. Two pence and two farthings; no more.

You are probably not aware that at bakers’ shops in the poor quarters the price of the half-quartern loaf varies sometimes from week to week. At present, as Biffen knew, it was twopence three-farthings, a common figure. But Harold did not possess three farthings, only two. Reflecting, he remembered to have passed yesterday a shop where the bread was marked twopence halfpenny; it was a shop in a very obscure little street off Hampstead Road, some distance from Clipstone Street. Thither he must repair. He had only his hat and a muffler to put on, for again he was wearing his overcoat in default of the under one, and his ragged umbrella to take from the corner; so he went forth.

To his delight the twopence halfpenny announcement was still in the baker’s window. He obtained a loaf wrapped it in the piece of paper he had brought — small bakers decline to supply paper for this purpose — and strode joyously homeward again.

Having eaten, he looked longingly at his manuscript. But half a page more. Should he not finish it to-night? The temptation was irresistible. He sat down, wrought with unusual speed, and at half-past ten wrote with magnificent flourish ‘The End.’

His fire was out and he had neither coals nor wood. But his feet were frozen into lifelessness. Impossible to go to bed like this; he must take another turn in the streets. It would suit his humour to ramble a while. Had it not been so late he would have gone to see Reardon, who expected the communication of this glorious news.

So again he locked his door. Half-way downstairs he stumbled over something or somebody in the dark.

‘Who is that?’ he cried.

The answer was a loud snore. Biffen went to the bottom of the house and called to the landlady.

‘Mrs Willoughby! Who is asleep on the stairs?’

‘Why, I ‘spect it’s Mr Briggs,’ replied the woman, indulgently. ‘Don’t you mind him, Mr Biffen. There’s no ‘arm: he’s only had a little too much. I’ll go up an’ make him go to bed as soon as I’ve got my ‘ands clean.’

‘The necessity for waiting till then isn’t obvious,’ remarked the realist with a chuckle, and went his way.

He walked at a sharp pace for more than an hour, and about midnight drew near to his own quarter again. He had just turned up by the Middlesex Hospital, and was at no great distance from Clipstone Street, when a yell and scamper caught his attention; a group of loafing blackguards on the opposite side of the way had suddenly broken up, and as they rushed off he heard the word ‘Fire!’ This was too common an occurrence to disturb his equanimity; he wondered absently in which street the fire might be, but trudged on without a thought of making investigation. Repeated yells and rushes, however, assailed his apathy. Two women came tearing by him, and he shouted to them: ‘Where is it?’

‘In Clipstone Street, they say,’ one screamed back.

He could no longer be unconcerned. If in his own street the conflagration might be in the very house he inhabited, and in that case — He set off at a run. Ahead of him was a thickening throng, its position indicating the entrance to Clipstone Street. Soon he found his progress retarded; he had to dodge this way and that, to force progress, to guard himself against overthrows by the torrent of ruffiandom which always breaks forth at the cry of fire. He could now smell the smoke, and all at once a black volume of it, bursting from upper windows, alarmed his sight. At once he was aware that, if not his own dwelling, it must be one of those on either side that was in flames. As yet no engine had arrived, and straggling policemen were only just beginning to make their way to the scene of uproar. By dint of violent effort Biffen moved forward yard by yard. A tongue of flame which suddenly illumined the fronts of the houses put an end to his doubt.

‘Let me get past!’ he shouted to the gaping and swaying mass of people in front of him. ‘I live there! I must go upstairs to save something!’

His educated accent moved attention. Repeating the demand again and again he succeeded in getting forward, and at length was near enough to see that people were dragging articles of furniture out on to the pavement.

‘That you, Mr Biffen?’ cried someone to him.

He recognised the face of a fellow-lodger.

‘Is it possible to get up to my room?’ broke frantically from his lips.

‘You’ll never get up there. It’s that — Briggs’ — the epithet was alliterative — ‘’as upset his lamp, and I ’ope he’ll — well get roasted to death.’

Biffen leaped on to the threshold, and crashed against Mrs Willoughby, the landlady, who was carrying a huge bundle of household linen.

‘I told you to look after that drunken brute;’ he said to her. ‘Can I get upstairs?’

‘What do I care whether you can or not!’ the woman shrieked. ‘My God! And all them new chairs as I bought —!’

He heard no more, but bounded over a confusion of obstacles, and in a moment was on the landing of the first storey. Here he encountered a man who had not lost his head, a stalwart mechanic engaged in slipping clothes on to two little children.

‘If somebody don’t drag that fellow Briggs down he’ll be dead,’ observed the man. ‘He’s layin’ outside his door. I pulled him out, but I can’t do no more for him.’

Smoke grew thick on the staircase. Burning was as yet confined to that front room on the second floor tenanted by Briggs the disastrous, but in all likelihood the ceiling was ablaze, and if so it would be all but impossible for Biffen to gain his own chamber, which was at the back on the floor above. No one was making an attempt to extinguish the fire; personal safety and the rescue of their possessions alone occupied the thoughts of such people as were still in the house. Desperate with the dread of losing his manuscript, his toil, his one hope, the realist scarcely stayed to listen to a warning that the fumes were impassable; with head bent he rushed up to the next landing. There lay Briggs, perchance already stifled, and through the open door Biffen had a horrible vision of furnace fury. To go yet higher would have been madness but for one encouragement: he knew that on his own storey was a ladder giving access to a trap-door, by which he might issue on to the roof, whence escape to the adjacent houses would be practicable. Again a leap forward!

In fact, not two minutes elapsed from his commencing the ascent of the stairs to the moment when, all but fainting, he thrust the key into his door and fell forward into purer air. Fell, for he was on his knees, and had begun to suffer from a sense of failing power, a sick whirling of the brain, a terror of hideous death. His manuscript was on the table, where he had left it after regarding and handling it with joyful self-congratulation; though it was pitch dark in the room, he could at once lay his hand on the heap of paper. Now he had it; now it was jammed tight under his left arm; now he was out again on the landing, in smoke more deadly than ever.

He said to himself: ‘If I cannot instantly break out by the trap-door it’s all over with me.’ That the exit would open to a vigorous thrust he knew, having amused himself not long ago by going on to the roof. He touched the ladder, sprang upwards, and felt the trap above him. But he could not push it back. ‘I’m a dead man,’ flashed across his mind, ‘and all for the sake of “Mr Bailey, Grocer.”’ A frenzied effort, the last of which his muscles were capable, and the door yielded. His head was now through the aperture, and though the smoke swept up about him, that gasp of cold air gave him strength to throw himself on the flat portion of the roof that he had reached.

So for a minute or two he lay. Then he was able to stand, to survey his position, and to walk along by the parapet. He looked down upon the surging and shouting crowd in Clipstone Street, but could see it only at intervals, owing to the smoke that rolled from the front windows below him.

What he had now to do he understood perfectly. This roof was divided from those on either hand by a stack of chimneys; to get round the end of these stacks was impossible, or at all events too dangerous a feat unless it were the last resource, but by climbing to the apex of the slates he would be able to reach the chimney-pots, to drag himself up to them, and somehow to tumble over on to the safer side. To this undertaking he forthwith addressed himself. Without difficulty he reached the ridge; standing on it he found that only by stretching his arm to the utmost could he grip the top of a chimney-pot. Had he the strength necessary to raise himself by such a hold? And suppose the pot broke?

His life was still in danger; the increasing volumes of smoke warned him that in a few minutes the uppermost storey might be in flames. He took off his overcoat to allow himself more freedom of action; the manuscript, now an encumbrance, must precede him over the chimney-stack, and there was only one way of effecting that. With care he stowed the papers into the pockets of the coat; then he rolled the garment together, tied it up in its own sleeves, took a deliberate aim — and the bundle was for the present in safety.

Now for the gymnastic endeavour. Standing on tiptoe, he clutched the rim of the chimney-pot, and strove to raise himself. The hold was firm enough, but his arms were far too puny to perform such work, even when death would be the penalty of failure. Too long he had lived on insufficient food and sat over the debilitating desk. He swung this way and that, trying to throw one of his knees as high as the top of the brickwork, but there was no chance of his succeeding. Dropping on to the slates, he sat there in perturbation.

He must cry for help. In front it was scarcely possible to stand by the parapet, owing to the black clouds of smoke, now mingled with sparks; perchance he might attract the notice of some person either in the yards behind or at the back windows of other houses. The night was so obscure that he could not hope to be seen; voice alone must be depended upon, and there was no certainty that it would be heard far enough. Though he stood in his shirt-sleeves in a bitter wind no sense of cold affected him; his face was beaded with perspiration drawn forth by his futile struggle to climb. He let himself slide down the rear slope, and, holding by the end of the chimney brickwork, looked into the yards. At the same instant a face appeared to him — that of a man who was trying to obtain a glimpse of this roof from that of the next house by thrusting out his head beyond the block of chimneys.

‘Hollo!’ cried the stranger. ‘What are you doing there?’

‘Trying to escape, of course. Help me to get on to your roof.’

‘By God! I expected to see the fire coming through already. Are you the — as upset his lamp an’ fired the bloomin’ ’ouse?’

‘Not I! He’s lying drunk on the stairs; dead by this time.’

‘By God! I wouldn’t have helped you if you’d been him. How are you coming round? Blest if I see! You’ll break your bloomin’ neck if you try this corner. You’ll have to come over the chimneys; wait till I get a ladder.’

‘And a rope,’ shouted Biffen.

The man disappeared for five minutes. To Biffen it seemed half an hour; he felt, or imagined he felt, the slates getting hot beneath him, and the smoke was again catching his breath. But at length there was a shout from the top of the chimney-stack. The rescuer had seated himself on one of the pots, and was about to lower on Biffen’s side a ladder which had enabled him to ascend from the other. Biffen planted the lowest rung very carefully on the ridge of the roof, climbed as lightly as possible, got a footing between two pots; the ladder was then pulled over, and both men descended in safety.

‘Have you seen a coat lying about here?’ was Biffen’s first question. ‘I threw mine over.’

‘What did you do that for?’

‘There are some valuable papers in the pockets.’

They searched in vain; on neither side of the roof was the coat discoverable.

‘You must have pitched it into the street,’ said the man.

This was a terrible blow; Biffen forgot his rescue from destruction in lament for the loss of his manuscript. He would have pursued the fruitless search, but his companion, who feared that the fire might spread to adjoining houses, insisted on his passing through the trap-door and descending the stairs.

‘If the coat fell into the street,’ Biffen said, when they were down on the ground floor, ‘of course it’s lost; it would be stolen at once. But may not it have fallen into your back yard?’

He was standing in the midst of a cluster of alarmed people, who stared at him in astonishment, for the reek through which he had fought his way had given him the aspect of a sweep. His suggestion prompted someone to run into the yard, with the result that a muddy bundle was brought in and exhibited to him.

‘Is this your coat, Mister?’

‘Heaven be thanked! That’s it! There are valuable papers in the pockets.’

He unrolled the garment, felt to make sure that ‘Mr Bailey’ was safe, and finally put it on.

‘Will anyone here let me sit down in a room and give me a drink of water?’ he asked, feeling now as if he must drop with exhaustion.

The man who had rescued him performed this further kindness, and for half an hour, whilst tumult indescribable raged about him, Biffen sat recovering his strength. By that time the firemen were hard at work, but one floor of the burning house had already fallen through, and it was probable that nothing but the shell would be saved. After giving a full account of himself to the people among whom he had come, Harold declared his intention of departing; his need of repose was imperative, and he could not hope for it in this proximity to the fire. As he had no money, his only course was to inquire for a room at some house in the immediate neighbourhood, where the people would receive him in a charitable spirit.

With the aid of the police he passed to where the crowd was thinner, and came out into Cleveland Street. Here most of the house-doors were open, and he made several applications for hospitality, but either his story was doubted or his grimy appearance predisposed people against him. At length, when again his strength was all but at an end, he made appeal to a policeman.

‘Surely you can tell,’ he protested, after explaining his position, ‘that I don’t want to cheat anybody. I shall have money to-morrow. If no one will take me in you must haul me on some charge to the police-station; I shall have to lie down on the pavement in a minute.’

The officer recognised a man who was standing half-dressed on a threshold close by; he stepped up to him and made representations which were successful. In a few minutes Biffen took possession of an underground room furnished as a bedchamber, which he agreed to rent for a week. His landlord was not ungracious, and went so far as to supply him with warm water, that he might in a measure cleanse himself. This operation rapidly performed, the hapless author flung himself into bed, and before long was fast asleep.

When he went upstairs about nine o’clock in the morning he discovered that his host kept an oil-shop.

‘Lost everything, have you?’ asked the man sympathetically.

‘Everything, except the clothes I wear and some papers that I managed to save. All my books burnt!’

Biffen shook his head dolorously.

‘Your account-books!’ cried the dealer in oil. ‘Dear, dear! — and what might your business be?’

The author corrected this misapprehension. In the end he was invited to break his fast, which he did right willingly. Then, with assurances that he would return before nightfall, he left the house. His steps were naturally first directed to Clipstone Street; the familiar abode was a gruesome ruin, still smoking. Neighbours informed him that Mr Briggs’s body had been brought forth in a horrible condition; but this was the only loss of life that had happened.

Thence he struck eastward, and at eleven came to Manville Street, Islington. He found Reardon by the fireside, looking very ill, and speaking with hoarseness.

‘Another cold?’

‘It looks like it. I wish you would take the trouble to go and buy me some vermin-killer. That would suit my case.’

‘Then what would suit mine? Behold me, undeniably a philosopher; in the literal sense of the words omnia mea mecum porto.’

He recounted his adventures, and with such humorous vivacity that when he ceased the two laughed together as if nothing more amusing had ever been heard.

‘Ah, but my books, my books!’ exclaimed Biffen, with a genuine groan. ‘And all my notes! At one fell swoop! If I didn’t laugh, old friend, I should sit down and cry; indeed I should. All my classics, with years of scribbling in the margins! How am I to buy them again?’

‘You rescued “Mr Bailey.” He must repay you.’

Biffen had already laid the manuscript on the table; it was dirty and crumpled, but not to such an extent as to render copying necessary. Lovingly he smoothed the pages and set them in order, then he wrapped the whole in a piece of brown paper which Reardon supplied, and wrote upon it the address of a firm of publishers.

‘Have you note-paper? I’ll write to them; impossible to call in my present guise.’

Indeed his attire was more like that of a bankrupt costermonger than of a man of letters. Collar he had none, for the griminess of that he wore last night had necessitated its being thrown aside; round his throat was a dirty handkerchief. His coat had been brushed, but its recent experiences had brought it one stage nearer to that dissolution which must very soon be its fate. His grey trousers were now black, and his boots looked as if they had not been cleaned for weeks.

‘Shall I say anything about the character of the book?’ he asked, seating himself with pen and paper. ‘Shall I hint that it deals with the ignobly decent?’

‘Better let them form their own judgment,’ replied Reardon, in his hoarse voice.

‘Then I’ll just say that I submit to them a novel of modern life, the scope of which is in some degree indicated by its title. Pity they can’t know how nearly it became a holocaust, and that I risked my life to save it. If they’re good enough to accept it I’ll tell them the story. And now, Reardon, I’m ashamed of myself, but can you without inconvenience lend me ten shillings?’

‘Easily.’

‘I must write to two pupils, to inform them of my change of address — from garret to cellar. And I must ask help from my prosperous brother. He gives it me unreluctantly, I know, but I am always loth to apply to him. May I use your paper for these purposes?’

The brother of whom he spoke was employed in a house of business at Liverpool; the two had not met for years, but they corresponded, and were on terms such as Harold indicated. When he had finished his letters, and had received the half-sovereign from Reardon, he went his way to deposit the brown-paper parcel at the publishers’. The clerk who received it from his hands probably thought that the author might have chosen a more respectable messenger.

Two days later, early in the evening, the friends were again enjoying each other’s company in Reardon’s room. Both were invalids, for Biffen had of course caught a cold from his exposure in shirt-sleeves on the roof, and he was suffering from the shock to his nerves; but the thought that his novel was safe in the hands of publishers gave him energy to resist these influences. The absence of the pipe, for neither had any palate for tobacco at present, was the only external peculiarity of this meeting. There seemed no reason why they should not meet frequently before the parting which would come at Christmas; but Reardon was in a mood of profound sadness, and several times spoke as if already he were bidding his friend farewell.

‘I find it difficult to think,’ he said, ‘that you will always struggle on in such an existence as this. To every man of mettle there does come an opportunity, and it surely is time for yours to present itself. I have a superstitious faith in “Mr Bailey.” If he leads you to triumph, don’t altogether forget me.’

‘Don’t talk nonsense.’

‘What ages it seems since that day when I saw you in the library at Hastings, and heard you ask in vain for my book! And how grateful I was to you! I wonder whether any mortal ever asks for my books nowadays? Some day, when I am well established at Croydon, you shall go to Mudie’s, and make inquiry if my novels ever by any chance leave the shelves, and then you shall give me a true and faithful report of the answer you get. “He is quite forgotten,” the attendant will say; be sure of it.’

‘I think not.’

‘To have had even a small reputation, and to have outlived it, is a sort of anticipation of death. The man Edwin Reardon, whose name was sometimes spoken in a tone of interest, is really and actually dead. And what remains of me is resigned to that. I have an odd fancy that it will make death itself easier; it is as if only half of me had now to die.’

Biffen tried to give a lighter turn to the gloomy subject.

‘Thinking of my fiery adventure,’ he said, in his tone of dry deliberation, ‘I find it vastly amusing to picture you as a witness at the inquest if I had been choked and consumed. No doubt it would have been made known that I rushed upstairs to save some particular piece of property — several people heard me say so — and you alone would be able to conjecture what this was. Imagine the gaping wonderment of the coroner’s jury! The Daily Telegraph would have made a leader out of me. “This poor man was so strangely deluded as to the value of a novel in manuscript, which it appears he had just completed, that he positively sacrificed his life in the endeavour to rescue it from the flames.” And the Saturday would have had a column of sneering jocosity on the irrepressibly sanguine temperament of authors. At all events, I should have had my day of fame.’

‘But what an ignoble death it would have been!’ he pursued. ‘Perishing in the garret of a lodging-house which caught fire by the overturning of a drunkard’s lamp! One would like to end otherwise.’

‘Where would you wish to die?’ asked Reardon, musingly.

‘At home,’ replied the other, with pathetic emphasis. ‘I have never had a home since I was a boy, and am never likely to have one. But to die at home is an unreasoning hope I still cherish.’

‘If you had never come to London, what would you have now been?’

‘Almost certainly a schoolmaster in some small town. And one might be worse off than that, you know.’

‘Yes, one might live peaceably enough in such a position. And I— I should be in an estate-agent’s office, earning a sufficient salary, and most likely married to some unambitious country girl.

I should have lived an intelligible life, instead of only trying to live, aiming at modes of life beyond my reach. My mistake was that of numberless men nowadays. Because I was conscious of brains, I thought that the only place for me was London. It’s easy enough to understand this common delusion. We form our ideas of London from old literature; we think of London as if it were still the one centre of intellectual life; we think and talk like Chatterton. But the truth is that intellectual men in our day do their best to keep away from London — when once they know the place. There are libraries everywhere; papers and magazines reach the north of Scotland as soon as they reach Brompton; it’s only on rare occasions, for special kinds of work, that one is bound to live in London. And as for recreation, why, now that no English theatre exists, what is there in London that you can’t enjoy in almost any part of England? At all events, a yearly visit of a week would be quite sufficient for all the special features of the town. London is only a huge shop, with an hotel on the upper storeys. To be sure, if you make it your artistic subject, that’s a different thing. But neither you nor I would do that by deliberate choice.’

‘I think not.’

‘It’s a huge misfortune, this will-o’-the-wisp attraction exercised by London on young men of brains. They come here to be degraded, or to perish, when their true sphere is a life of peaceful remoteness. The type of man capable of success in London is more or less callous and cynical. If I had the training of boys, I would teach them to think of London as the last place where life can be lived worthily.’

‘And the place where you are most likely to die in squalid wretchedness.’

‘The one happy result of my experiences,’ said Reardon, is that they have cured me of ambition. What a miserable fellow I should be if I were still possessed with the desire to make a name! I can’t even recall very clearly that state of mind. My strongest desire now is for peaceful obscurity. I am tired out; I want to rest for the remainder of my life.’

‘You won’t have much rest at Croydon.’

‘Oh, it isn’t impossible. My time will be wholly occupied in a round of all but mechanical duties, and I think that will be the best medicine for my mind. I shall read very little, and that only in the classics. I don’t say that I shall always be content in such a position; in a few years perhaps something pleasanter will offer. But in the meantime it will do very well. Then there is our expedition to Greece to look forward to. I am quite in earnest about that. The year after next, if we are both alive, assuredly we go.’

‘The year after next.’ Biffen smiled dubiously.

‘I have demonstrated to you mathematically that it is possible.’

‘You have; but so are a great many other things that one does not dare to hope for.’

Someone knocked at the door, opened it, and said:

‘Here’s a telegram for you, Mr Reardon.’

The friends looked at each other, as if some fear had entered the minds of both. Reardon opened the despatch. It was from his wife, and ran thus:

‘Willie is ill of diphtheria. Please come to us at once. I am staying with Mrs Carter, at her mother’s, at Brighton.’

The full address was given.

‘You hadn’t heard of her going there?’ said Biffen, when he had read the lines.

‘No. I haven’t seen Carter for several days, or perhaps he would have told me. Brighton, at this time of year? But I believe there’s a fashionable “season” about now, isn’t there? I suppose that would account for it.’

He spoke in a slighting tone, but showed increasing agitation.

‘Of course you will go?’

‘I must. Though I’m in no condition for making a journey.’

His friend examined him anxiously.

‘Are you feverish at all this evening?’

Reardon held out a hand that the other might feel his pulse. The beat was rapid to begin with, and had been heightened since the arrival of the telegram.

‘But go I must. The poor little fellow has no great place in my heart, but, when Amy sends for me, I must go. Perhaps things are at the worst.’

‘When is there a train? Have you a time table?’

Biffen was despatched to the nearest shop to purchase one, and in the meanwhile Reardon packed a few necessaries in a small travelling-bag, ancient and worn, but the object of his affection because it had accompanied him on his wanderings in the South. When Harold returned, his appearance excited Reardon’s astonishment — he was white from head to foot.

‘Snow?’

‘It must have been falling heavily for an hour or more.’

‘Can’t be helped; I must go.’

The nearest station for departure was London Bridge, and the next train left at 7.20. By Reardon’s watch it was now about five minutes to seven.

‘I don’t know whether it’s possible,’ he said, in confused hurry, ‘but I must try. There isn’t another train till ten past nine. Come with me to the station, Biffen.’

Both were ready. They rushed from the house, and sped through the soft, steady fall of snowflakes into Upper Street. Here they were several minutes before they found a disengaged cab. Questioning the driver, they learnt what they would have known very well already but for their excitement: impossible to get to London Bridge Station in a quarter of an hour.

‘Better to go on, all the same,’ was Reardon’s opinion. ‘If the snow gets deep I shall perhaps not be able to have a cab at all. But you had better not come; I forgot that you are as much out of sorts as I am.’

‘How can you wait a couple of hours alone? In with you!’

‘Diphtheria is pretty sure to be fatal to a child of that age, isn’t it?’ Reardon asked when they were speeding along City Road.

‘I’m afraid there’s much danger.’

‘Why did she send?’

‘What an absurd question! You seem to have got into a thoroughly morbid state of mind about her. Do be human, and put away your obstinate folly.’

‘In my position you would have acted precisely as I have done. I have had no choice.’

‘I might; but we have both of us too little practicality. The art of living is the art of compromise. We have no right to foster sensibilities, and conduct ourselves as if the world allowed of ideal relations; it leads to misery for others as well as ourselves. Genial coarseness is what it behoves men like you and me to cultivate. Your reply to your wife’s last letter was preposterous. You ought to have gone to her of your own accord as soon as ever you heard she was rich; she would have thanked you for such common-sense disregard of delicacies. Let there be an end of this nonsense, I implore you!’

Reardon stared through the glass at the snow that fell thicker and thicker.

‘What are we — you and I?’ pursued the other. ‘We have no belief in immortality; we are convinced that this life is all; we know that human happiness is the origin and end of all moral considerations. What right have we to make ourselves and others miserable for the sake of an obstinate idealism? It is our duty to make the best of circumstances. Why will you go cutting your loaf with a razor when you have a serviceable bread-knife?’

Still Reardon did not speak. The cab rolled on almost silently.

‘You love your wife, and this summons she sends is proof that her thought turns to you as soon as she is in distress.’

‘Perhaps she only thought it her duty to let the child’s father know — ’

‘Perhaps — perhaps — perhaps!’ cried Biffen, contemptuously. ‘There goes the razor again! Take the plain, human construction of what happens. Ask yourself what the vulgar man would do, and do likewise; that’s the only safe rule for you.’

They were both hoarse with too much talking, and for the last half of the drive neither spoke.

At the railway-station they ate and drank together, but with poor pretence of appetite. As long as possible they kept within the warmed rooms. Reardon was pale, and had anxious, restless eyes; he could not remain seated, though when he had walked about for a few minutes the trembling of his limbs obliged him to sink down. It was an unutterable relief to both when the moment of the train’s starting approached.

They clasped hands warmly, and exchanged a few last requests and promises.

‘Forgive my plain speech, old fellow,’ said Biffen. ‘Go and be happy!’

Then he stood alone on the platform, watching the red light on the last carriage as the train whirled away into darkness and storm.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/g53ne/chapter31.html

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