New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 35

Fever and Rest

Milvain’s skilful efforts notwithstanding, ‘Mr Bailey, Grocer,’ had no success. By two publishers the book had been declined; the firm which brought it out offered the author half profits and fifteen pounds on account, greatly to Harold Biffen’s satisfaction. But reviewers in general were either angry or coldly contemptuous. ‘Let Mr Biffen bear in mind,’ said one of these sages, ‘that a novelist’s first duty is to tell a story.’ ‘Mr Biffen,’ wrote another, ‘seems not to understand that a work of art must before everything else afford amusement.’ ‘A pretentious book of the genre ennuyant,’ was the brief comment of a Society journal. A weekly of high standing began its short notice in a rage: ‘Here is another of those intolerable productions for which we are indebted to the spirit of grovelling realism. This author, let it be said, is never offensive, but then one must go on to describe his work by a succession of negatives; it is never interesting, never profitable, never — ’ and the rest. The eulogy in The West End had a few timid echoes. That in The Current would have secured more imitators, but unfortunately it appeared when most of the reviewing had already been done. And, as Jasper truly said, only a concurrence of powerful testimonials could have compelled any number of people to affect an interest in this book. ‘The first duty of a novelist is to tell a story:’ the perpetual repetition of this phrase is a warning to all men who propose drawing from the life. Biffen only offered a slice of biography, and it was found to lack flavour.

He wrote to Mrs Reardon: ‘I cannot thank you enough for this very kind letter about my book; I value it more than I should the praises of all the reviewers in existence. You have understood my aim. Few people will do that, and very few indeed could express it with such clear conciseness.’

If Amy had but contented herself with a civil acknowledgment of the volumes he sent her! She thought it a kindness to write to him so appreciatively, to exaggerate her approval. The poor fellow was so lonely. Yes, but his loneliness only became intolerable when a beautiful woman had smiled upon him, and so forced him to dream perpetually of that supreme joy of life which to him was forbidden.

It was a fatal day, that on which Amy put herself under his guidance to visit Reardon’s poor room at Islington. In the old times, Harold had been wont to regard his friend’s wife as the perfect woman; seldom in his life had he enjoyed female society, and when he first met Amy it was years since he had spoken with any woman above the rank of a lodging-house keeper or a needle-plier. Her beauty seemed to him of a very high order, and her mental endowments filled him with an exquisite delight, not to be appreciated by men who have never been in his position. When the rupture came between Amy and her husband, Harold could not believe that she was in any way to blame; held to Reardon by strong friendship, he yet accused him of injustice to Amy. And what he saw of her at Brighton confirmed him in this judgment. When he accompanied her to Manville Street, he allowed her, of course, to remain alone in the room where Reardon had lived; but Amy presently summoned him, and asked him questions. Every tear she shed watered a growth of passionate tenderness in the solitary man’s heart. Parting from her at length, he went to hide his face in darkness and think of her — think of her.

A fatal day. There was an end of all his peace, all his capacity for labour, his patient endurance of penury. Once, when he was about three-and-twenty, he had been in love with a girl of gentle nature and fair intelligence; on account of his poverty, he could not even hope that his love might be returned, and he went away to bear the misery as best he might. Since then the life he had led precluded the forming of such attachments; it would never have been possible for him to support a wife of however humble origin. At intervals he felt the full weight of his loneliness, but there were happily long periods during which his Greek studies and his efforts in realistic fiction made him indifferent to the curse laid upon him. But after that hour of intimate speech with Amy, he never again knew rest of mind or heart.

Accepting what Reardon had bequeathed to him, he removed the books and furniture to a room in that part of the town which he had found most convenient for his singular tutorial pursuits. The winter did not pass without days of all but starvation, but in March he received his fifteen pounds for ‘Mr Bailey,’ and this was a fortune, putting him beyond the reach of hunger for full six months. Not long after that he yielded to a temptation that haunted him day and night, and went to call upon Amy, who was still living with her mother at Westbourne Park. When he entered the drawing-room Amy was sitting there alone; she rose with an exclamation of frank pleasure.

‘I have often thought of you lately, Mr Biffen. How kind to come and see me!’

He could scarcely speak; her beauty, as she stood before him in the graceful black dress, was anguish to his excited nerves, and her voice was so cruel in its conventional warmth. When he looked at her eyes, he remembered how their brightness had been dimmed with tears, and the sorrow he had shared with her seemed to make him more than an ordinary friend. When he told her of his success with the publishers, she was delighted.

‘Oh, when is it to come out? I shall watch the advertisements so anxiously.’

‘Will you allow me to send you a copy, Mrs Reardon?’

‘Can you really spare one?’

Of the half-dozen he would receive, he scarcely knew how to dispose of three. And Amy expressed her gratitude in the most charming way. She had gained much in point of manner during the past twelve months; her ten thousand pounds inspired her with the confidence necessary to a perfect demeanour. That slight hardness which was wont to be perceptible in her tone had altogether passed away; she seemed to be cultivating flexibility of voice.

Mrs Yule came in, and was all graciousness. Then two callers presented themselves. Biffen’s pleasure was at an end as soon as he had to adapt himself to polite dialogue; he escaped as speedily as possible.

He was not the kind of man that deceives himself as to his own aspect in the eyes of others. Be as kind as she might, Amy could not set him strutting Malvolio-wise; she viewed him as a poor devil who often had to pawn his coat — a man of parts who would never get on in the world — a friend to be thought of kindly because her dead husband had valued him. Nothing more than that; he understood perfectly the limits of her feeling. But this could not put restraint upon the emotion with which he received any most trifling utterance of kindness from her. He did not think of what was, but of what, under changed circumstances, might be. To encourage such fantasy was the idlest self-torment, but he had gone too far in this form of indulgence. He became the slave of his inflamed imagination.

In that letter with which he replied to her praises of his book, perchance he had allowed himself to speak too much as he thought.

He wrote in reckless delight, and did not wait for the prudence of a later hour. When it was past recall, he would gladly have softened many of the expressions the letter contained. ‘I value it more than the praises of all the reviewers in existence’ — would Amy be offended at that? ‘Yours in gratitude and reverence,’ he had signed himself — the kind of phrase that comes naturally to a passionate man, when he would fain say more than he dares. To what purpose this half-revelation? Unless, indeed, he wished to learn once and for ever, by the gentlest of repulses, that his homage was only welcome so long as it kept well within conventional terms.

He passed a month of distracted idleness, until there came a day when the need to see Amy was so imperative that it mastered every consideration. He donned his best clothes, and about four o’clock presented himself at Mrs Yule’s house. By ill luck there happened to be at least half a dozen callers in the drawing-room; the strappado would have been preferable, in his eyes, to such an ordeal as this. Moreover, he was convinced that both Amy and her mother received him with far less cordiality than on the last occasion. He had expected it, but he bit his lips till the blood came. What business had he among people of this kind? No doubt the visitors wondered at his comparative shabbiness, and asked themselves how he ventured to make a call without the regulation chimney-pot hat. It was a wretched and foolish mistake.

Ten minutes saw him in the street again, vowing that he would never approach Amy more. Not that he found fault with her; the blame was entirely his own.

He lived on the third floor of a house in Goodge Street, above a baker’s shop. The bequest of Reardon’s furniture was a great advantage to him, as he had only to pay rent for a bare room; the books, too, came as a godsend, since the destruction of his own. He had now only one pupil, and was not exerting himself to find others; his old energy had forsaken him.

For the failure of his book he cared nothing. It was no more than he anticipated. The work was done — the best he was capable of — and this satisfied him.

It was doubtful whether he loved Amy, in the true sense of exclusive desire. She represented for him all that is lovely in womanhood; to his starved soul and senses she was woman, the complement of his frustrate being. Circumstance had made her the means of exciting in him that natural force which had hitherto either been dormant or had yielded to the resolute will.

Companionless, inert, he suffered the tortures which are so ludicrous and contemptible to the happily married. Life was barren to him, and would soon grow hateful; only in sleep could he cast off the unchanging thoughts and desires which made all else meaningless. And rightly meaningless: he revolted against the unnatural constraints forbidding him to complete his manhood.

By what fatality was he alone of men withheld from the winning of a woman’s love?

He could not bear to walk the streets where the faces of beautiful women would encounter him. When he must needs leave the house, he went about in the poor, narrow ways, where only spectacles of coarseness, and want, and toil would be presented to him. Yet even here he was too often reminded that the poverty-stricken of the class to which poverty is natural were not condemned to endure in solitude. Only he who belonged to no class, who was rejected alike by his fellows in privation and by his equals in intellect, must die without having known the touch of a loving woman’s hand.

The summer went by, and he was unconscious of its warmth and light. How his days passed he could not have said.

One evening in early autumn, as he stood before the book-stall at the end of Goodge Street, a familiar voice accosted him. It was Whelpdale’s. A month or two ago he had stubbornly refused an invitation to dine with Whelpdale and other acquaintances — you remember what the occasion was — and since then the prosperous young man had not crossed his path.

‘I’ve something to tell you,’ said the assailer, taking hold of his arm. ‘I’m in a tremendous state of mind, and want someone to share my delight. You can walk a short way, I hope? Not too busy with some new book?’

Biffen gave no answer, but went whither he was led.

‘You are writing a new book, I suppose? Don’t be discouraged, old fellow. “Mr Bailey” will have his day yet; I know men who consider it an undoubted work of genius. What’s the next to deal with?’

‘I haven’t decided yet,’ replied Harold, merely to avoid argument. He spoke so seldom that the sound of his own voice was strange to him.

‘Thinking over it, I suppose, in your usual solid way. Don’t be hurried. But I must tell you of this affair of mine. You know Dora Milvain? I have asked her to marry me, and, by the Powers! she has given me an encouraging answer. Not an actual yes, but encouraging! She’s away in the Channel Islands, and I wrote — ’

He talked on for a quarter of an hour. Then, with a sudden movement, the listener freed himself.

‘I can’t go any farther,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Good-bye!’

Whelpdale was disconcerted.

‘I have been boring you. That’s a confounded fault of mine; I know it.’

Biffen had waved his hand, and was gone.

A week or two more would see him at the end of his money. He had no lessons now, and could not write; from his novel nothing was to be expected. He might apply again to his brother, but such dependence was unjust and unworthy. And why should he struggle to preserve a life which had no prospect but of misery?

It was in the hours following his encounter with Whelpdale that he first knew the actual desire of death, the simple longing for extinction. One must go far in suffering before the innate will-to-live is thus truly overcome; weariness of bodily anguish may induce this perversion of the instincts; less often, that despair of suppressed emotion which had fallen upon Harold. Through the night he kept his thoughts fixed on death in its aspect of repose, of eternal oblivion. And herein he had found solace.

The next night it was the same. Moving about among common needs and occupations, he knew not a moment’s cessation of heart-ache, but when he lay down in the darkness a hopeful summons whispered to him. Night, which had been the worst season of his pain, had now grown friendly; it came as an anticipation of the sleep that is everlasting.

A few more days, and he was possessed by a calm of spirit such as he had never known. His resolve was taken, not in a moment of supreme conflict, but as the result of a subtle process by which his imagination had become in love with death. Turning from contemplation of life’s one rapture, he looked with the same intensity of desire to a state that had neither fear nor hope.

One afternoon he went to the Museum Reading-room, and was busy for a few minutes in consultation of a volume which he took from the shelves of medical literature. On his way homeward he entered two or three chemists’ shops. Something of which he had need could be procured only in very small quantities; but repetition of his demand in different places supplied him sufficiently. When he reached his room, he emptied the contents of sundry little bottles into one larger, and put this in his pocket. Then he wrote rather a long letter, addressed to his brother at Liverpool.

It had been a beautiful day, and there wanted still a couple of hours before the warm, golden sunlight would disappear. Harold stood and looked round his room. As always, it presented a neat, orderly aspect, but his eye caught sight of a volume which stood upside down, and this fault — particularly hateful to a bookish man — he rectified. He put his blotting-pad square on the table, closed the lid of the inkstand, arranged his pens. Then he took his hat and stick, locked the door behind him, and went downstairs. At the foot he spoke to his landlady, and told her that he should not return that night. As soon as possible after leaving the house he posted his letter.

His direction was westward; walking at a steady, purposeful pace, with cheery countenance and eyes that gave sign of pleasure as often as they turned to the sun-smitten clouds, he struck across Kensington Gardens, and then on towards Fulham, where he crossed the Thames to Putney. The sun was just setting; he paused a few moments on the bridge, watching the river with a quiet smile, and enjoying the splendour of the sky. Up Putney Hill he walked slowly; when he reached the top it was growing dark, but an unwonted effect in the atmosphere caused him to turn and look to the east. An exclamation escaped his lips, for there before him was the new-risen moon, a perfect globe, vast and red. He gazed at it for a long time.

When the daylight had entirely passed, he went forward on to the heath, and rambled, as if idly, to a secluded part, where trees and bushes made a deep shadow under the full moon. It was still quite warm, and scarcely a breath of air moved among the reddening leaves.

Sure at length that he was remote from all observation, he pressed into a little copse, and there reclined on the grass, leaning against the stem of a tree. The moon was now hidden from him, but by looking upward he could see its light upon a long, faint cloud, and the blue of the placid sky. His mood was one of ineffable peace. Only thoughts of beautiful things came into his mind; he had reverted to an earlier period of life, when as yet no mission of literary realism had been imposed upon him, and when his passions were still soothed by natural hope. The memory of his friend Reardon was strongly present with him, but of Amy he thought only as of that star which had just come into his vision above the edge of dark foliage — beautiful, but infinitely remote.

Recalling Reardon’s voice, it brought to him those last words whispered by his dying companion. He remembered them now:

We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.

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