New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 36

Jasper’s Delicate Case

Only when he received Miss Rupert’s amiably-worded refusal to become his wife was Jasper aware how firmly he had counted on her accepting him. He told Dora with sincerity that his proposal was a piece of foolishness; so far from having any regard for Miss Rupert, he felt towards her with something of antipathy, and at the same time he was conscious of ardent emotions, if not love, for another woman who would be no bad match even from the commercial point of view. Yet so strong was the effect upon him of contemplating a large fortune, that, in despite of reason and desire, he lived in eager expectation of the word which should make him rich. And for several hours after his disappointment he could not overcome the impression of calamity.

A part of that impression was due to the engagement which he must now fulfil. He had pledged his word to ask Marian to marry him without further delay. To shuffle out of this duty would make him too ignoble even in his own eyes. Its discharge meant, as he had expressed it, that he was ‘doomed’; he would deliberately be committing the very error always so flagrant to him in the case of other men who had crippled themselves by early marriage with a penniless woman. But events had enmeshed him; circumstances had proved fatal. Because, in his salad days, he dallied with a girl who had indeed many charms, step by step he had come to the necessity of sacrificing his prospects to that raw attachment. And, to make it more irritating, this happened just when the way began to be much clearer before him.

Unable to think of work, he left the house and wandered gloomily about Regent’s Park. For the first time in his recollection the confidence which was wont to inspirit him gave way to an attack of sullen discontent. He felt himself ill-used by destiny, and therefore by Marian, who was fate’s instrument. It was not in his nature that this mood should last long, but it revealed to him those darker possibilities which his egoism would develop if it came seriously into conflict with overmastering misfortune. A hope, a craven hope, insinuated itself into the cracks of his infirm resolve. He would not examine it, but conscious of its existence he was able to go home in somewhat better spirits.

He wrote to Marian. If possible she was to meet him at half-past nine next morning at Gloucester Gate. He had reasons for wishing this interview to take place on neutral ground.

Early in the afternoon, when he was trying to do some work, there arrived a letter which he opened with impatient hand; the writing was Mrs Reardon’s, and he could not guess what she had to communicate.

‘DEAR MR MILVAIN, — I am distressed beyond measure to read in this

morning’s newspaper that poor Mr Biffen has put an end to his life. Doubtless you can obtain more details than are given in this bare report of the discovery of his body. Will you let me hear, or come and see me?’

He read and was astonished. Absorbed in his own affairs, he had not opened the newspaper to-day; it lay folded on a chair. Hastily he ran his eye over the columns, and found at length a short paragraph which stated that the body of a man who had evidently committed suicide by taking poison had been found on Putney Heath; that papers in his pockets identified him as one Harold Biffen, lately resident in Goodge Street, Tottenham Court Road; and that an inquest would be held, &c. He went to Dora’s room, and told her of the event, but without mentioning the letter which had brought it under his notice.

‘I suppose there was no alternative between that and starvation. I scarcely thought of Biffen as likely to kill himself. If Reardon had done it, I shouldn’t have felt the least surprise.’

‘Mr Whelpdale will be bringing us information, no doubt,’ said Dora, who, as she spoke, thought more of that gentleman’s visit than of the event that was to occasion it.

‘Really, one can’t grieve. There seemed no possibility of his ever earning enough to live decently upon. But why the deuce did he go all the way out there? Consideration for the people in whose house he lived, I dare say; Biffen had a good deal of native delicacy.’

Dora felt a secret wish that someone else possessed more of that desirable quality.

Leaving her, Jasper made a rapid, though careful, toilet, and was presently on his way to Westbourne Park. It was his hope that he should reach Mrs Yule’s house before any ordinary afternoon caller could arrive; and so he did. He had not been here since that evening when he encountered Reardon on the road and heard his reproaches. To his great satisfaction, Amy was alone in the drawing-room; he held her hand a trifle longer than was necessary, and returned more earnestly the look of interest with which she regarded him.

‘I was ignorant of this affair when your letter came,’ he began, ‘and I set out immediately to see you.’

‘I hoped you would bring me some news. What can have driven the poor man to such extremity?’

‘Poverty, I can only suppose. But I will see Whelpdale. I hadn’t come across Biffen for a long time.’

‘Was he still so very poor?’ asked Amy, compassionately.

‘I’m afraid so. His book failed utterly.’

‘Oh, if I had imagined him still in such distress, surely I might have done something to help him!’ — So often the regretful remark of one’s friends, when one has been permitted to perish.

With Amy’s sorrow was mingled a suggestion of tenderness which came of her knowledge that the dead man had worshipped her. Perchance his death was in part attributable to that hopeless love.

‘He sent me a copy of his novel,’ she said, ‘and I saw him once or twice after that. But he was much better dressed than in former days, and I thought — ’

Having this subject to converse upon put the two more quickly at ease than could otherwise have been the case. Jasper was closely observant of the young widow; her finished graces made a strong appeal to his admiration, and even in some degree awed him. He saw that her beauty had matured, and it was more distinctly than ever of the type to which he paid reverence. Amy might take a foremost place among brilliant women. At a dinner-table, in grand toilet, she would be superb; at polite receptions people would whisper: ‘Who is that?’

Biffen fell out of the dialogue.

‘It grieved me very much,’ said Amy, ‘to hear of the misfortune that befell my cousin.’

‘The legacy affair? Why, yes, it was a pity. Especially now that her father is threatened with blindness.’

‘Is it so serious? I heard indirectly that he had something the matter with his eyes, but I didn’t know — ’

‘They may be able to operate before long, and perhaps it will be successful. But in the meantime Marian has to do his work.’

‘This explains the — the delay?’ fell from Amy’s lips, as she smiled.

Jasper moved uncomfortably. It was a voluntary gesture.

‘The whole situation explains it,’ he replied, with some show of impulsiveness. ‘I am very much afraid Marian is tied during her father’s life.’

‘Indeed? But there is her mother.’

‘No companion for her father, as I think you know. Even if Mr Yule recovers his sight, it is not at all likely that he will be able to work as before. Our difficulties are so grave that — ’

He paused, and let his hand fail despondently.

‘I hope it isn’t affecting your work — your progress?’

‘To some extent, necessarily. I have a good deal of will, you remember, and what I have set my mind upon, no doubt, I shall some day achieve. But — one makes mistakes.’

There was silence.

‘The last three years,’ he continued, ‘have made no slight difference in my position. Recall where I stood when you first knew me. I have done something since then, I think, and by my own steady effort.’

‘Indeed, you have.’

‘Just now I am in need of a little encouragement. You don’t notice any falling off in my work recently?’

‘No, indeed.’

‘Do you see my things in The Current and so on, generally?’

‘I don’t think I miss many of your articles. Sometimes I believe I have detected you when there was no signature.’

‘And Dora has been doing well. Her story in that girls’ paper has attracted attention. It’s a great deal to have my mind at rest about both the girls. But I can’t pretend to be in very good spirits.’ He rose. ‘Well, I must try to find out something more about poor Biffen.’

‘Oh, you are not going yet, Mr Milvain?’

‘Not, assuredly, because I wish to. But I have work to do.’ He stepped aside, but came back as if on an impulse. ‘May I ask you for your advice in a very delicate matter?’

Amy was a little disturbed, but she collected herself and smiled in a way that reminded Jasper of his walk with her along Gower Street.

‘Let me hear what it is.’

He sat down again, and bent forward.

‘If Marian insists that it is her duty to remain with her father, am I justified or not in freely consenting to that?’

‘I scarcely understand. Has Marian expressed a wish to devote herself in that way?’

‘Not distinctly. But I suspect that her conscience points to it. I am in serious doubt. On the one hand,’ he explained in a tone of candour, ‘who will not blame me if our engagement terminates in circumstances such as these? On the other — you are aware, by-the-by, that her father objects in the strongest way to this marriage?’

‘No, I didn’t know that.’

‘He will neither see me nor hear of me. Merely because of my connection with Fadge. Think of that poor girl thus situated. And I could so easily put her at rest by renouncing all claim upon her.’

‘I surmise that — that you yourself would also be put at rest by such a decision?’

‘Don’t look at me with that ironical smile,’ he pleaded. ‘What you have said is true. And really, why should I not be glad of it? I couldn’t go about declaring that I was heartbroken, in any event; I must be content for people to judge me according to their disposition, and judgments are pretty sure to be unfavourable. What can I do? In either case I must to a certain extent be in the wrong. To tell the truth, I was wrong from the first.’

There was a slight movement about Amy’s lips as these words were uttered: she kept her eyes down, and waited before replying.

‘The case is too delicate, I fear, for my advice.’

‘Yes, I feel it; and perhaps I oughtn’t to have spoken of it at all. Well, I’ll go back to my scribbling. I am so very glad to have seen you again.’

‘It was good of you to take the trouble to come — whilst you have so much on your mind.’

Again Jasper held the white, soft hand for a superfluous moment.

The next morning it was he who had to wait at the rendezvous; he was pacing the pathway at least ten minutes before the appointed time. When Marian joined him, she was panting from a hurried walk, and this affected Jasper disagreeably; he thought of Amy Reardon’s air of repose, and how impossible it would be for that refined person to fall into such disorder. He observed, too, with more disgust than usual, the signs in Marian’s attire of encroaching poverty — her unsatisfactory gloves, her mantle out of fashion. Yet for such feelings he reproached himself, and the reproach made him angry.

They walked together in the same direction as when they met here before. Marian could not mistake the air of restless trouble on her companion’s smooth countenance. She had divined that there was some grave reason for this summons, and the panting with which she had approached was half caused by the anxious beats of her heart. Jasper’s long silence again was ominous. He began abruptly:

‘You’ve heard that Harold Biffen has committed suicide?’

‘No!’ she replied, looking shocked.

‘Poisoned himself. You’ll find something about it in today’s Telegraph.’

He gave her such details as he had obtained, then added:

‘There are two of my companions fallen in the battle. I ought to think myself a lucky fellow, Marian. What?’

‘You are better fitted to fight your way, Jasper.’

‘More of a brute, you mean.’

‘You know very well I don’t. You have more energy and more intellect.’

‘Well, it remains to be seen how I shall come out when I am weighted with graver cares than I have yet known.’

She looked at him inquiringly, but said nothing.

‘I have made up my mind about our affairs,’ he went on presently. ‘Marian, if ever we are to be married, it must be now.’

The words were so unexpected that they brought a flush to her cheeks and neck.

‘Now?’

‘Yes. Will you marry me, and let us take our chance?’

Her heart throbbed violently.

‘You don’t mean at once, Jasper? You would wait until I know what father’s fate is to be?’

‘Well, now, there’s the point. You feel yourself indispensable to your father at present?’

‘Not indispensable, but — wouldn’t it seem very unkind? I should be so afraid of the effect upon his health, Jasper. So much depends, we are told, upon his general state of mind and body. It would be dreadful if I were the cause of — ’

She paused, and looked up at him touchingly.

‘I understand that. But let us face our position. Suppose the operation is successful; your father will certainly not be able to use his eyes much for a long time, if ever; and perhaps he would miss you as much then as now. Suppose he does not regain his sight; could you then leave him?’

‘Dear, I can’t feel it would be my duty to renounce you because my father had become blind. And if he can see pretty well, I don’t think I need remain with him.’

‘Has one thing occurred to you? Will he consent to receive an allowance from a person whose name is Mrs Milvain?’

‘I can’t be sure,’ she replied, much troubled.

‘And if he obstinately refuses — what then? What is before him?’

Marian’s head sank, and she stood still.

‘Why have you changed your mind so, Jasper?’ she inquired at length.

‘Because I have decided that the indefinitely long engagement would be unjust to you — and to myself. Such engagements are always dangerous; sometimes they deprave the character of the man or woman.’

She listened anxiously and reflected.

‘Everything,’ he went on, ‘would be simple enough but for your domestic difficulties. As I have said, there is the very serious doubt whether your father would accept money from you when you are my wife. Then again, shall we be able to afford such an allowance?’

‘I thought you felt sure of that?’

‘I’m not very sure of anything, to tell the truth. I am harassed.

I can’t get on with my work.’

‘I am very, very sorry.’

‘It isn’t your fault, Marian, and — Well, then, there’s only one thing to do. Let us wait, at all events, till your father has undergone the operation. Whichever the result, you say your own position will be the same.’

‘Except, Jasper, that if father is helpless, I must find means of assuring his support.’

‘In other words, if you can’t do that as my wife, you must remain Marian Yule.’

After a silence, Marian regarded him steadily.

‘You see only the difficulties in our way,’ she said, in a colder voice. ‘They are many, I know. Do you think them insurmountable?’

‘Upon my word, they almost seem so,’ Jasper exclaimed, distractedly.

‘They were not so great when we spoke of marriage a few years hence.’

‘A few years!’ he echoed, in a cheerless voice. ‘That is just what I have decided is impossible. Marian, you shall have the plain truth. I can trust your faith, but I can’t trust my own. I will marry you now, but — years hence — how can I tell what may happen? I don’t trust myself.’

‘You say you “will” marry me now; that sounds as if you had made up your mind to a sacrifice.’

‘I didn’t mean that. To face difficulties, yes.’

Whilst they spoke, the sky had grown dark with a heavy cloud, and now spots of rain began to fall. Jasper looked about him in annoyance as he felt the moisture, but Marian did not seem aware of it.

‘But shall you face them willingly?’

‘I am not a man to repine and grumble. Put up your umbrella, Marian.’

‘What do I care for a drop of rain,’ she exclaimed with passionate sadness, ‘when all my life is at stake! How am I to understand you? Every word you speak seems intended to dishearten me. Do you no longer love me? Why need you conceal it, if that is the truth? Is that what you mean by saying you distrust yourself?

If you do so, there must be reason for it in the present. Could I distrust myself? Can I force myself in any manner to believe that I shall ever cease to love you?’

Jasper opened his umbrella.

‘We must see each other again, Marian. We can’t stand and talk in the rain — confound it! Cursed climate, where you can never be sure of a clear sky for five minutes!’

‘I can’t go till you have spoken more plainly, Jasper! How am I to live an hour in such uncertainty as this? Do you love me or not? Do you wish me to be your wife, or are you sacrificing yourself?’

‘I do wish it!’ Her emotion had an effect upon him, and his voice trembled. ‘But I can’t answer for myself — no, not for a year. And how are we to marry now, in face of all these — ’

‘What can I do? What can I do?’ she sobbed. ‘Oh, if I were but heartless to everyone but to you! If I could give you my money, and leave my father and mother to their fate! Perhaps some could do that. There is no natural law that a child should surrender everything for her parents. You know so much more of the world than I do; can’t you advise me? Is there no way of providing for my father?’

‘Good God! This is frightful, Marian. I can’t stand it. Live as you are doing. Let us wait and see.’

‘At the cost of losing you?’

‘I will be faithful to you!’

‘And your voice says you promise it out of pity.’

He had made a pretence of holding his umbrella over her, but Marian turned away and walked to a little distance, and stood beneath the shelter of a great tree, her face averted from him. Moving to follow, he saw that her frame was shaken by soundless sobbing. When his footsteps came close to her, she again looked at him.

‘I know now,’ she said, ‘how foolish it is when they talk of love being unselfish. In what can there be more selfishness? I feel as if I could hold you to your promise at any cost, though you have made me understand that you regard our engagement as your great misfortune. I have felt it for weeks — oh, for months! But I couldn’t say a word that would seem to invite such misery as this. You don’t love me, Jasper, and that’s an end of everything.

I should be shamed if I married you.’

‘Whether I love you or not, I feel as if no sacrifice would be too great that would bring you the happiness you deserve.’

‘Deserve!’ she repeated bitterly. ‘Why do I deserve it? Because I long for it with all my heart and soul? There’s no such thing as deserving. Happiness or misery come to us by fate.’

‘Is it in my power to make you happy?’

‘No; because it isn’t in your power to call dead love to life again. I think perhaps you never loved me. Jasper, I could give my right hand if you had said you loved me before — I can’t put it into words; it sounds too base, and I don’t wish to imply that you behaved basely. But if you had said you loved me before that, I should have it always to remember.’

‘You will do me no wrong if you charge me with baseness,’ he replied gloomily. ‘If I believe anything, I believe that I did love you. But I knew myself and I should never have betrayed what I felt, if for once in my life I could have been honourable.’

The rain pattered on the leaves and the grass, and still the sky darkened.

‘This is wretchedness to both of us,’ Jasper added. ‘Let us part now, Marian. Let me see you again.’

‘I can’t see you again. What can you say to me more than you have said now? I should feel like a beggar coming to you. I must try and keep some little self-respect, if I am to live at all.’

‘Then let me help you to think of me with indifference. Remember me as a man who disregarded priceless love such as yours to go and make himself a proud position among fools and knaves — indeed that’s what it comes to. It is you who reject me, and rightly. One who is so much at the mercy of a vulgar ambition as I am, is no fit husband for you. Soon enough you would thoroughly despise me, and though I should know it was merited, my perverse pride would revolt against it. Many a time I have tried to regard life practically as I am able to do theoretically, but it always ends in hypocrisy. It is men of my kind who succeed; the conscientious, and those who really have a high ideal, either perish or struggle on in neglect.’

Marian had overcome her excess of emotion.

‘There is no need to disparage yourself’ she said. ‘What can be simpler than the truth? You loved me, or thought you did, and now you love me no longer. It is a thing that happens every day, either in man or woman, and all that honour demands is the courage to confess the truth. Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you knew that I was burdensome to you?’

‘Marian, will you do this? — will you let our engagement last for another six months, but without our meeting during that time?’

‘But to what purpose?’

‘Then we would see each other again, and both would be able to speak calmly, and we should both know with certainty what course we ought to pursue.’

‘That seems to me childish. It is easy for you to contemplate months of postponement. There must be an end now; I can bear it no longer.’

The rain fell unceasingly, and with it began to mingle an autumnal mist. Jasper delayed a moment, then asked calmly:

‘Are you going to the Museum?’

‘Yes.’

‘Go home again for this morning, Marian. You can’t work — ’

‘I must; and I have no time to lose. Good-bye!’

She gave him her hand. They looked at each other for an instant, then Marian left the shelter of the tree, opened her umbrella, and walked quickly away. Jasper did not watch her; he had the face of a man who is suffering a severe humiliation.

A few hours later he told Dora what had come to pass, and without extenuation of his own conduct. His sister said very little, for she recognised genuine suffering in his tones and aspect. But when it was over, she sat down and wrote to Marian.

‘I feel far more disposed to congratulate you than to regret what has happened. Now that there is no necessity for silence, I will tell you something which will help you to see Jasper in his true light. A few weeks ago he actually proposed to a woman for whom he does not pretend to have the slightest affection, but who is very rich, and who seemed likely to be foolish enough to marry him. Yesterday morning he received her final answer — a refusal. I am not sure that I was right in keeping this a secret from you, but I might have done harm by interfering. You will understand (though surely you need no fresh proof) how utterly unworthy he is of you. You cannot, I am sure you cannot, regard it as a misfortune that all is over between you. Dearest Marian, do not cease to think of me as your friend because my brother has disgraced himself. If you can’t see me, at least let us write to each other. You are the only friend I have of my own sex, and I could not bear to lose you.’

And much more of the same tenor.

Several days passed before there came a reply. It was written with undisturbed kindness of feeling, but in few words.

‘For the present we cannot see each other, but I am very far from wishing that our friendship should come to an end. I must only ask that you will write to me without the least reference to these troubles; tell me always about yourself, and be sure that you cannot tell me too much. I hope you may soon be able to send me the news which was foreshadowed in our last talk — though “foreshadowed” is a wrong word to use of coming happiness, isn’t it? That paper I sent to Mr Trenchard is accepted, and I shall be glad to have your criticism when it comes out; don’t spare my style, which needs a great deal of chastening. I have been thinking: couldn’t you use your holiday in Sark for a story? To judge from your letters, you could make an excellent background of word-painting.’

Dora sighed, and shook her little head, and thought of her brother with unspeakable disdain.

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