New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 32

Reardon Becomes Practical

Reardon had never been to Brighton, and of his own accord never would have gone; he was prejudiced against the place because its name has become suggestive of fashionable imbecility and the snobbishness which tries to model itself thereon; he knew that the town was a mere portion of London transferred to the sea-shore, and as he loved the strand and the breakers for their own sake, to think of them in such connection could be nothing but a trial of his temper. Something of this species of irritation affected him in the first part of his journey, and disturbed the mood of kindliness with which he was approaching Amy; but towards the end he forgot this in a growing desire to be beside his wife in her trouble. His impatience made the hour and a half seem interminable.

The fever which was upon him had increased. He coughed frequently; his breathing was difficult; though constantly moving, he felt as if, in the absence of excitement, his one wish would have been to lie down and abandon himself to lethargy. Two men who sat with him in the third-class carriage had spread a rug over their knees and amused themselves with playing cards for trifling sums of money; the sight of their foolish faces, the sound of their laughs, the talk they interchanged, exasperated him to the last point of endurance; but for all that he could not draw his attention from them. He seemed condemned by some spiritual tormentor to take an interest in their endless games, and to observe their visages until he knew every line with a hateful intimacy. One of the men had a moustache of unusual form; the ends curved upward with peculiar suddenness, and Reardon was constrained to speculate as to the mode of training by which this singularity had been produced. He could have shed tears of nervous distraction in his inability to turn his thoughts upon other things.

On alighting at his journey’s end he was seized with a fit of shivering, an intense and sudden chill which made his teeth chatter. In an endeavour to overcome this he began to run towards the row of cabs, but his legs refused such exercise, and coughing compelled him to pause for breath. Still shaking, he threw himself into a vehicle and was driven to the address Amy had mentioned. The snow on the ground lay thick, but no more was falling.

Heedless of the direction which the cab took, he suffered his physical and mental unrest for another quarter of an hour, then a stoppage told him that the house was reached. On his way he had heard a clock strike eleven.

The door opened almost as soon as he had rung the bell. He mentioned his name, and the maid-servant conducted him to a drawing-room on the ground-floor. The house was quite a small one, but seemed to be well furnished. One lamp burned on the table, and the fire had sunk to a red glow. Saying that she would inform Mrs Reardon at once, the servant left him alone.

He placed his bag on the floor, took off his muffler, threw back his overcoat, and sat waiting. The overcoat was new, but the garments beneath it were his poorest, those he wore when sitting in his garret, for he had neither had time to change them, nor thought of doing so.

He heard no approaching footstep but Amy came into the room in a way which showed that she had hastened downstairs. She looked at him, then drew near with both hands extended, and laid them on his shoulders, and kissed him. Reardon shook so violently that it was all he could do to remain standing; he seized one of her hands, and pressed it against his lips.

‘How hot your breath is!’ she said. ‘And how you tremble! Are you ill?’

‘A bad cold, that’s all,’ he answered thickly, and coughed. ‘How is Willie?’

‘In great danger. The doctor is coming again to-night; we thought that was his ring.’

‘You didn’t expect me to-night?’

‘I couldn’t feel sure whether you would come.’

‘Why did you send for me, Amy? Because Willie was in danger, and you felt I ought to know about it?’

‘Yes — and because I— ’

She burst into tears. The display of emotion came very suddenly; her words had been spoken in a firm voice, and only the pained knitting of her brows had told what she was suffering.

‘If Willie dies, what shall I do? Oh, what shall I do?’ broke forth between her sobs.

Reardon took her in his arms, and laid his hand upon her head in the old loving way.

‘Do you wish me to go up and see him, Amy?’

‘Of course. But first, let me tell you why we are here. Edith — Mrs Carter — was coming to spend a week with her mother, and she pressed me to join her. I didn’t really wish to; I was unhappy, and felt how impossible it was to go on always living away from you. Oh, that I had never come! Then Willie would have been as well as ever.’

‘Tell me when and how it began.’

She explained briefly, then went on to tell of other circumstances.

‘I have a nurse with me in the room. It’s my own bedroom, and this house is so small it will be impossible to give you a bed here, Edwin. But there’s an hotel only a few yards away.’

‘Yes, yes; don’t trouble about that.’

‘But you look so ill — you are shaking so. Is it a cold you have had long?’

‘Oh, my old habit; you remember. One cold after another, all through the accursed winter. What does that matter when you speak kindly to me once more? I had rather die now at your feet and see the old gentleness when you look at me, than live on estranged from you. No, don’t kiss me, I believe these vile sore-throats are contagious.’

‘But your lips are so hot and parched! And to think of your coming this journey, on such a night!’

‘Good old Biffen came to the station with me. He was angry because I had kept away from you so long. Have you given me your heart again, Amy?’

‘Oh, it has all been a wretched mistake! But we were so poor. Now all that is over; if only Willie can be saved to me! I am so anxious for the doctor’s coming; the poor little child can hardly draw a breath. How cruel it is that such suffering should come upon a little creature who has never done or thought ill!’

‘You are not the first, dearest, who has revolted against nature’s cruelty.’

‘Let us go up at once, Edwin. Leave your coat and things here. Mrs Winter — Edith’s mother — is a very old lady; she has gone to bed. And I dare say you wouldn’t care to see Mrs Carter to-night?’

‘No, no! only you and Willie.’

‘When the doctor comes hadn’t you better ask his advice for yourself?’

‘We shall see. Don’t trouble about me.’

They went softly up to the first floor, and entered a bedroom. Fortunately the light here was very dim, or the nurse who sat by the child’s bed must have wondered at the eccentricity with which her patient’s father attired himself. Bending over the little sufferer, Reardon felt for the first time since Willie’s birth a strong fatherly emotion; tears rushed to his eyes, and he almost crushed Amy’s hand as he held it during the spasm of his intense feeling.

He sat here for a long time without speaking. The warmth of the chamber had the reverse of an assuaging effect upon his difficult breathing and his frequent short cough — it seemed to oppress and confuse his brain. He began to feel a pain in his right side, and could not sit upright on the chair.

Amy kept regarding him, without his being aware of it.

‘Does your head ache?’ she whispered.

He nodded, but did not speak.

‘Oh, why doesn’t the doctor come? I must send in a few minutes.’

But as soon as she had spoken a bell rang in the lower part of the house. Amy had no doubt that it announced the promised visit.

She left the room, and in a minute or two returned with the medical man. When the examination of the child was over, Reardon requested a few words with the doctor in the room downstairs.

‘I’ll come back to you,’ he whispered to Amy.

The two descended together, and entered the drawing-room.

‘Is there any hope for the little fellow?’ Reardon asked.

Yes, there was hope; a favourable turn might be expected.

‘Now I wish to trouble you for a moment on my own account. I shouldn’t be surprised if you tell me that I have congestion of the lungs.’

The doctor, a suave man of fifty, had been inspecting his interlocutor with curiosity. He now asked the necessary questions, and made an examination.

‘Have you had any lung trouble before this?’ he inquired gravely.

‘Slight congestion of the right lung not many weeks ago.’

‘I must order you to bed immediately. Why have you allowed your symptoms to go so far without — ’

‘I have just come down from London,’ interrupted Reardon.

‘Tut, tut, tut! To bed this moment, my dear sir! There is inflammation, and — ’

‘I can’t have a bed in this house; there is no spare room. I must go to the nearest hotel.’

‘Positively? Then let me take you. My carriage is at the door.’

‘One thing — I beg you won’t tell my wife that this is serious. Wait till she is out of her anxiety about the child.’

‘You will need the services of a nurse. A most unfortunate thing that you are obliged to go to the hotel.’

‘It can’t be helped. If a nurse is necessary, I must engage one.’

He had the strange sensation of knowing that whatever was needful could be paid for; it relieved his mind immensely. To the rich, illness has none of the worst horrors only understood by the poor.

‘Don’t speak a word more than you can help,’ said the doctor as he watched Reardon withdraw.

Amy stood on the lower stairs, and came down as soon as her husband showed himself.

‘The doctor is good enough to take me in his carriage,’ he whispered. ‘It is better that I should go to bed, and get a good night’s rest. I wish I could have sat with you, Amy.’

‘Is it anything? You look worse than when you came, Edwin.’

‘A feverish cold. Don’t give it a thought, dearest. Go to Willie. Good-night!’

She threw her arms about him.

‘I shall come to see you if you are not able to be here by nine in the morning,’ she said, and added the name of the hotel to which he was to go.

At this establishment the doctor was well known. By midnight Reardon lay in a comfortable room, a huge cataplasm fixed upon him, and other needful arrangements made. A waiter had undertaken to visit him at intervals through the night, and the man of medicine promised to return as soon as possible after daybreak.

What sound was that, soft and continuous, remote, now clearer, now confusedly murmuring? He must have slept, but now he lay in sudden perfect consciousness, and that music fell upon his ears. Ah! of course it was the rising tide; he was near the divine sea.

The night-light enabled him to discern the principal objects in the room, and he let his eyes stray idly hither and thither. But this moment of peacefulness was brought to an end by a fit of coughing, and he became troubled, profoundly troubled, in mind. Was his illness really dangerous? He tried to draw a deep breath, but could not. He found that he could only lie on his right side with any ease. And with the effort of turning he exhausted himself; in the course of an hour or two all his strength had left him. Vague fears flitted harassingly through his thoughts. If he had inflammation of the lungs — that was a disease of which one might die, and speedily. Death? No, no, no; impossible at such a time as this, when Amy, his own dear wife, had come back to him, and had brought him that which would insure their happiness through all the years of a long life.

He was still quite a young man; there must be great reserves of strength in him. And he had the will to live, the prevailing will, the passionate all-conquering desire of happiness.

How he had alarmed himself! Why, now he was calmer again, and again could listen to the music of the breakers. Not all the folly and baseness that paraded along this strip of the shore could change the sea’s eternal melody. In a day or two he would walk on the sands with Amy, somewhere quite out of sight of the repulsive town. But Willie was ill; he had forgotten that. Poor little boy! In future the child should be more to him; though never what the mother was, his own love, won again and for ever.

Again an interval of unconsciousness, brought to an end by that aching in his side. He breathed very quickly; could not help doing so. He had never felt so ill as this, never. Was it not near morning?

Then he dreamt. He was at Patras, was stepping into a boat to be rowed out to the steamer which would bear him away from Greece. A magnificent night, though at the end of December; a sky of deep blue, thick set with stars. No sound but the steady splash of the oars, or perhaps a voice from one of the many vessels that lay anchored in the harbour, each showing its lantern-gleams. The water was as deep a blue as the sky, and sparkled with reflected radiance.

And now he stood on deck in the light of early morning. Southward lay the Ionian Islands; he looked for Ithaca, and grieved that it had been passed in the hours of darkness. But the nearest point of the main shore was a rocky promontory; it reminded him that in these waters was fought the battle of Actium.

The glory vanished. He lay once more a sick man in a hired chamber, longing for the dull English dawn.

At eight o’clock came the doctor. He would allow only a word or two to be uttered, and his visit was brief. Reardon was chiefly anxious to have news of the child, but for this he would have to wait.

At ten Amy entered the bedroom. Reardon could not raise himself, but he stretched out his hand and took hers, and gazed eagerly at her. She must have been weeping, he felt sure of that, and there was an expression on her face such as he had never seen there.

‘How is Willie?’

‘Better, dear; much better.’

He still searched her face.

‘Ought you to leave him?’

‘Hush! You mustn’t speak.’

Tears broke from her eyes, and Reardon had the conviction that the child was dead.

‘The truth, Amy!’

She threw herself on her knees by the bedside, and pressed her wet cheek against his hand.

‘I am come to nurse you, dear husband,’ she said a moment after, standing up again and kissing his forehead. ‘I have only you now.’

His heart sank, and for a moment so great a terror was upon him that he closed his eyes and seemed to pass into utter darkness. But those last words of hers repeated themselves in his mind, and at length they brought a deep solace. Poor little Willie had been the cause of the first coldness between him and Amy; her love for him had given place to a mother’s love for the child. Now it would be as in the first days of their marriage; they would again be all in all to each other.

‘You oughtn’t to have come, feeling so ill,’ she said to him. ‘You should have let me know, dear.’

He smiled and kissed her hand.

‘And you kept the truth from me last night, in kindness.’

She checked herself, knowing that agitation must be harmful to him. She had hoped to conceal the child’s death, but the effort was too much for her overstrung nerves. And indeed it was only possible for her to remain an hour or two by this sick-bed, for she was exhausted by her night of watching, and the sudden agony with which it had concluded. Shortly after Amy’s departure, a professional nurse came to attend upon what the doctor had privately characterised as a very grave case.

By the evening its gravity was in no respect diminished. The sufferer had ceased to cough and to make restless movements, and had become lethargic; later, he spoke deliriously, or rather muttered, for his words were seldom intelligible. Amy had returned to the room at four o’clock, and remained till far into the night; she was physically exhausted, and could do little but sit in a chair by the bedside and shed silent tears, or gaze at vacancy in the woe of her sudden desolation. Telegrams had been exchanged with her mother, who was to arrive in Brighton to-morrow morning; the child’s funeral would probably be on the third day from this.

When she rose to go away for the night, leaving the nurse in attendance, Reardon seemed to lie in a state of unconsciousness, but just as she was turning from the bed, he opened his eyes and pronounced her name.

‘I am here, Edwin,’ she answered, bending over him.

‘Will you let Biffen know?’ he said in low but very clear tones.

‘That you are ill dear? I will write at once, or telegraph, if you like. What is his address?’

He had closed his eyes again, and there came no reply. Amy repeated her question twice; she was turning from him in hopelessness when his voice became audible.

‘I can’t remember his new address. I know it, but I can’t remember.’

She had to leave him thus.

The next day his breathing was so harassed that he had to be raised against pillows. But throughout the hours of daylight his mind was clear, and from time to time he whispered words of tenderness in reply to Amy’s look. He never willingly relinquished her hand, and repeatedly he pressed it against his cheek or lips. Vainly he still endeavoured to recall his friend’s address.

‘Couldn’t Mr Carter discover it for you?’ Amy asked.

‘Perhaps. You might try.’

She would have suggested applying to Jasper Milvain, but that name must not be mentioned. Whelpdale, also, would perchance know where Biffen lived, but Whelpdale’s address he had also forgotten.

At night there were long periods of delirium; not mere confused muttering, but continuous talk which the listeners could follow perfectly.

For the most part the sufferer’s mind was occupied with revival of the distress he had undergone whilst making those last efforts to write something worthy of himself. Amy’s heart was wrung as she heard him living through that time of supreme misery — misery which she might have done so much to alleviate, had not selfish fears and irritated pride caused her to draw further and further from him. Hers was the kind of penitence which is forced by sheer stress of circumstances on a nature which resents any form of humiliation; she could not abandon herself to unreserved grief for what she had done or omitted, and the sense of this defect made a great part of her affliction. When her husband lay in mute lethargy, she thought only of her dead child, and mourned the loss; but his delirious utterances constrained her to break from that bittersweet preoccupation, to confuse her mourning with self-reproach and with fears.

Though unconsciously, he was addressing her: ‘I can do no more, Amy. My brain seems to be worn out; I can’t compose, I can’t even think. Look! I have been sitting here for hours, and I have done only that little bit, half a dozen lines. Such poor stuff too! I should burn it, only I can’t afford. I must do my regular quantity every day, no matter what it is.’

The nurse, who was present when he talked in this way, looked to Amy for an explanation.

‘My husband is an author,’ Amy answered. ‘Not long ago he was obliged to write when he was ill and ought to have been resting.’

‘I always thought it must be hard work writing books,’ said the nurse with a shake of her head.

‘You don’t understand me,’ the voice pursued, dreadful as a voice always is when speaking independently of the will. ‘You think I am only a poor creature, because I can do nothing better than this. If only I had money enough to rest for a year or two, you should see. Just because I have no money I must sink to this degradation. And I am losing you as well; you don’t love me!’

He began to moan in anguish.

But a happy change presently came over his dreaming. He fell into animated description of his experiences in Greece and Italy, and after talking for a long time, he turned his head and said in a perfectly natural tone:

‘Amy, do you know that Biffen and I are going to Greece?’

She believed he spoke consciously, and replied:

‘You must take me with you, Edwin.’

He paid no attention to this remark, but went on with the same deceptive accent.

‘He deserves a holiday after nearly getting burnt to death to save his novel. Imagine the old fellow plunging headlong into the flames to rescue his manuscript! Don’t say that authors can’t be heroic!’

And he laughed gaily.

Another morning broke. It was possible, said the doctors (a second had been summoned), that a crisis which drew near might bring the favourable turn; but Amy formed her own opinion from the way in which the nurse expressed herself. She felt sure that the gravest fears were entertained. Before noon Reardon awoke from what had seemed natural sleep — save for the rapid breathing — and of a sudden recollected the number of the house in Cleveland Street at which Biffen was now living. He uttered it without explanation. Amy at once conjectured his meaning, and as soon as her surmise was confirmed she despatched a telegram to her husband’s friend.

That evening, as Amy was on the point of returning to the sick-room after having dined at her friend’s house, it was announced that a gentleman named Biffen wished to see her. She found him in the dining-room, and, even amid her distress, it was a satisfaction to her that he presented a far more conventional appearance than in the old days. All the garments he wore, even his hat, gloves, and boots, were new; a surprising state of things, explained by the fact of his commercial brother having sent him a present of ten pounds, a practical expression of sympathy with him in his recent calamity. Biffen could not speak; he looked with alarm at Amy’s pallid face. In a few words she told him of Reardon’s condition.

‘I feared this,’ he replied under his breath. ‘He was ill when I saw him off at London Bridge. But Willie is better, I trust?’

Amy tried to answer, but tears filled her eyes and her head drooped. Harold was overcome with a sense of fatality; grief and dread held him motionless.

They conversed brokenly for a few minutes, then left the house, Biffen carrying the hand-bag with which he had travelled hither. When they reached the hotel he waited apart until it was ascertained whether he could enter the sick-room. Amy rejoined him and said with a faint smile:

‘He is conscious, and was very glad to hear that you had come. But don’t let him try to speak much.’

The change that had come over his friend’s countenance was to Harold, of course, far more gravely impressive than to those who had watched at the bedside. In the drawn features, large sunken eyes, thin and discoloured lips, it seemed to him that he read too surely the presage of doom. After holding the shrunken hand for a moment he was convulsed with an agonising sob, and had to turn away.

Amy saw that her husband wished to speak to her; she bent over him.

‘Ask him to stay, dear. Give him a room in the hotel.’

‘I will.’

Biffen sat down by the bedside, and remained for half an hour. His friend inquired whether he had yet heard about the novel; the answer was a shake of the head. When he rose, Reardon signed to him to bend down, and whispered:

‘It doesn’t matter what happens; she is mine again.’

The next day was very cold, but a blue sky gleamed over land and sea. The drives and promenades were thronged with people in exuberant health and spirits. Biffen regarded this spectacle with resentful scorn; at another time it would have moved him merely to mirth, but not even the sound of the breakers when he had wandered as far as possible from human contact could help him to think with resignation of the injustice which triumphs so flagrantly in the destinies of men. Towards Amy he had no shadow of unkindness; the sight of her in tears had impressed him as profoundly, in another way, as that of his friend’s wasted features. She and Reardon were again one, and his love for them both was stronger than any emotion of tenderness he had ever known.

In the afternoon he again sat by the bedside. Every symptom of the sufferer’s condition pointed to an approaching end: a face that had grown cadaverous, livid lips, breath drawn in hurrying gasps. Harold despaired of another look of recognition. But as he sat with his forehead resting on his hand Amy touched him; Reardon had turned his face in their direction, and with a conscious gaze.

‘I shall never go with you to Greece,’ he said distinctly.

There was silence again. Biffen did not move his eyes from the deathly mask; in a minute or two he saw a smile soften its lineaments, and Reardon again spoke:

‘How often you and I have quoted it! — “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our — “’

The remaining words were indistinguishable, and, as if the effort of utterance had exhausted him, his eyes closed, and he sank into lethargy.

When he came down from his bedroom on the following morning, Biffen was informed that his friend had died between two and three o’clock. At the same time he received a note in which Amy requested him to come and see her late in the afternoon. He spent the day in a long walk along the eastward cliffs; again the sun shone brilliantly, and the sea was flecked with foam upon its changing green and azure. It seemed to him that he had never before known solitude, even through all the years of his lonely and sad existence.

At sunset he obeyed Amy’s summons. He found her calm, but with the signs of long weeping.

‘At the last moment,’ she said, ‘he was able to speak to me, and you were mentioned. He wished you to have all that he has left in his room at Islington. When I come back to London, will you take me there and let me see the room just as when he lived in it? Let the people in the house know what has happened, and that I am responsible for whatever will be owing.’

Her resolve to behave composedly gave way as soon as Harold’s broken voice had replied. Hysterical sobbing made further speech from her impossible, and Biffen, after holding her hand reverently for a moment, left her alone.

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