New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 37

Rewards

When the fitting moment arrived, Alfred Yule underwent an operation for cataract, and it was believed at first that the result would be favourable. This hope had but short duration; though the utmost prudence was exercised, evil symptoms declared themselves, and in a few months’ time all prospect of restoring his vision was at an end. Anxiety, and then the fatal assurance, undermined his health; with blindness, there fell upon him the debility of premature old age.

The position of the family was desperate. Marian had suffered much all the winter from attacks of nervous disorder, and by no effort of will could she produce enough literary work to supplement adequately the income derived from her fifteen hundred pounds. In the summer of 1885 things were at the worst; Marian saw no alternative but to draw upon her capital, and so relieve the present at the expense of the future. She had a mournful warning before her eyes in the case of poor Hinks and his wife, who were now kept from the workhouse only by charity. But at this juncture the rescuer appeared. Mr Quarmby and certain of his friends were already making a subscription for the Yules’ benefit, when one of their number — Mr Jedwood, the publisher — came forward with a proposal which relieved the minds of all concerned. Mr Jedwood had a brother who was the director of a public library in a provincial town, and by this means he was enabled to offer Marian Yule a place as assistant in that institution; she would receive seventy-five pounds a year, and thus, adding her own income, would be able to put her parents beyond the reach of want. The family at once removed from London, and the name of Yule was no longer met with in periodical literature.

By an interesting coincidence, it was on the day of this departure that there appeared a number of The West End in which the place of honour, that of the week’s Celebrity, was occupied by Clement Fadge. A coloured portrait of this illustrious man challenged the admiration of all who had literary tastes, and two columns of panegyric recorded his career for the encouragement of aspiring youth. This article, of course unsigned, came from the pen of Jasper Milvain.

It was only by indirect channels that Jasper learnt how Marian and her parents had been provided for. Dora’s correspondence with her friend soon languished; in the nature of things this could not but happen; and about the time when Alfred Yule became totally blind the girls ceased to hear anything of each other. An event which came to pass in the spring sorely tempted Dora to write, but out of good feeling she refrained.

For it was then that she at length decided to change her name for that of Whelpdale. Jasper could not quite reconcile himself to this condescension; in various discourses he pointed out to his sister how much higher she might look if she would only have a little patience.

‘Whelpdale will never be a man of any note. A good fellow, I admit, but borne in all senses. Let me impress upon you, my dear girl, that I have a future before me, and that there is no reason — with your charm of person and mind — why you should not marry brilliantly. Whelpdale can give you a decent home, I admit, but as regards society he will be a drag upon you.’

‘It happens, Jasper, that I have promised to marry him,’ replied Dora, in a significant tone.

‘Well, I regret it, but — you are of course your own mistress. I shall make no unpleasantness. I don’t dislike Whelpdale, and I shall remain on friendly terms with him.’

‘That is very kind of you,’ said his sister suavely.

Whelpdale was frantic with exultation. When the day of the wedding had been settled, he rushed into Jasper’s study and fairly shed tears before he could command his voice.

‘There is no mortal on the surface of the globe one-tenth so happy as I am!’ he gasped. ‘I can’t believe it! Why in the name of sense and justice have I been suffered to attain this blessedness? Think of the days when I all but starved in my Albany Street garret, scarcely better off than poor, dear old Biffen! Why should I have come to this, and Biffen have poisoned himself in despair? He was a thousand times a better and cleverer fellow than I. And poor old Reardon, dead in misery! Could I for a moment compare with him?’

‘My dear fellow,’ said Jasper, calmly, ‘compose yourself and be logical. In the first place, success has nothing whatever to do with moral deserts; and then, both Reardon and Biffen were hopelessly unpractical. In such an admirable social order as ours, they were bound to go to the dogs. Let us be sorry for them, but let us recognise causas rerum, as Biffen would have said. You have exercised ingenuity and perseverance; you have your reward.’

‘And when I think that I might have married fatally on thirteen or fourteen different occasions. By-the-by, I implore you never to tell Dora those stories about me. I should lose all her respect. Do you remember the girl from Birmingham?’ He laughed wildly. ‘Heaven be praised that she threw me over! Eternal gratitude to all and sundry of the girls who have plunged me into wretchedness!’

‘I admit that you have run the gauntlet, and that you have had marvellous escapes. But be good enough to leave me alone for the present. I must finish this review by midday.’

‘Only one word. I don’t know how to thank Dora, how to express my infinite sense of her goodness. Will you try to do so for me? You can speak to her with calmness. Will you tell her what I have said to you?’

‘Oh, certainly. — I should recommend a cooling draught of some kind. Look in at a chemist’s as you walk on.’

The heavens did not fall before the marriage-day, and the wedded pair betook themselves for a few weeks to the Continent. They had been back again and established in their house at Earl’s Court for a month, when one morning about twelve o’clock Jasper dropped in, as though casually. Dora was writing; she had no thought of entirely abandoning literature, and had in hand at present a very pretty tale which would probably appear in The English Girl. Her boudoir, in which she sat, could not well have been daintier and more appropriate to the charming characteristics of its mistress.

Mrs Whelpdale affected no literary slovenliness; she was dressed in light colours, and looked so lovely that even Jasper paused on the threshold with a smile of admiration.

‘Upon my word,’ he exclaimed, ‘I am proud of my sisters! What did you think of Maud last night? Wasn’t she superb?’

‘She certainly did look very well. But I doubt if she’s very happy.’

‘That is her own look out; I told her plainly enough my opinion of Dolomore. But she was in such a tremendous hurry.’

‘You are detestable, Jasper! Is it inconceivable to you that a man or woman should be disinterested when they marry?’

‘By no means.’

‘Maud didn’t marry for money any more than I did.’

‘You remember the Northern Farmer: “Doan’t thou marry for money, but go where money is.” An admirable piece of advice. Well, Maud made a mistake, let us say. Dolomore is a clown, and now she knows it. Why, if she had waited, she might have married one of the leading men of the day. She is fit to be a duchess, as far as appearance goes; but I was never snobbish. I care very little about titles; what I look to is intellectual distinction.’

‘Combined with financial success.’

‘Why, that is what distinction means.’ He looked round the room with a smile. ‘You are not uncomfortable here, old girl. I wish mother could have lived till now.’

‘I wish it very, very often,’ Dora replied in a moved voice.

‘We haven’t done badly, drawbacks considered. Now, you may speak of money as scornfully as you like; but suppose you had married a man who could only keep you in lodgings! How would life look to you?’

‘Who ever disputed the value of money? But there are things one mustn’t sacrifice to gain it.’

‘I suppose so. Well, I have some news for you, Dora. I am thinking of following your example.’

Dora’s face changed to grave anticipation.

‘And who is it?’

‘Amy Reardon.’

His sister turned away, with a look of intense annoyance.

‘You see, I am disinterested myself,’ he went on. ‘I might find a wife who had wealth and social standing. But I choose Amy deliberately.’

‘An abominable choice!’

‘No; an excellent choice. I have never yet met a woman so well fitted to aid me in my career. She has a trifling sum of money, which will be useful for the next year or two — ’

‘What has she done with the rest of it, then?’

‘Oh, the ten thousand is intact, but it can’t be seriously spoken of. It will keep up appearances till I get my editorship and so on. We shall be married early in August, I think. I want to ask you if you will go and see her.’

‘On no account! I couldn’t be civil to her.’

Jasper’s brows blackened.

‘This is idiotic prejudice, Dora. I think I have some claim upon you; I have shown some kindness — ’

‘You have, and I am not ungrateful. But I dislike Mrs Reardon, and I couldn’t bring myself to be friendly with her.’

‘You don’t know her.’

‘Too well. You yourself have taught me to know her. Don’t compel me to say what I think of her.’

‘She is beautiful, and high-minded, and warm-hearted. I don’t know a womanly quality that she doesn’t possess. You will offend me most seriously if you speak a word against her.’

‘Then I will be silent. But you must never ask me to meet her.’

‘Never?’

‘Never!’

‘Then we shall quarrel. I haven’t deserved this, Dora. If you refuse to meet my wife on terms of decent friendliness, there’s no more intercourse between your house and mine. You have to choose. Persist in this fatuous obstinacy, and I have done with you!’

‘So be it!’

‘That is your final answer?’

Dora, who was now as angry as he, gave a short affirmative, and Jasper at once left her.

But it was very unlikely that things should rest at this pass. The brother and sister were bound by a strong mutual affection, and Whelpdale was not long in effecting a compromise.

‘My dear wife,’ he exclaimed, in despair at the threatened calamity, ‘you are right, a thousand times, but it’s impossible for you to be on ill terms with Jasper. There’s no need for you to see much of Mrs Reardon — ’

‘I hate her! She killed her husband; I am sure of it.’

‘My darling!’

‘I mean by her base conduct. She is a cold, cruel, unprincipled creature! Jasper makes himself more than ever contemptible by marrying her.’

All the same, in less than three weeks Mrs Whelpdale had called upon Amy, and the call was returned. The two women were perfectly conscious of reciprocal dislike, but they smothered the feeling beneath conventional suavities. Jasper was not backward in making known his gratitude for Dora’s concession, and indeed it became clear to all his intimates that this marriage would be by no means one of mere interest; the man was in love at last, if he had never been before.

Let lapse the ensuing twelve months, and come to an evening at the end of July, 1886. Mr and Mrs Milvain are entertaining a small and select party of friends at dinner. Their house in Bayswater is neither large nor internally magnificent, but it will do very well for the temporary sojourn of a young man of letters who has much greater things in confident expectation, who is a good deal talked of, who can gather clever and worthy people at his table, and whose matchless wife would attract men of taste to a very much poorer abode.

Jasper had changed considerably in appearance since that last holiday that he spent in his mother’s house at Finden. At present he would have been taken for five-and-thirty, though only in his twenty-ninth year; his hair was noticeably thinning; his moustache had grown heavier; a wrinkle or two showed beneath his eyes; his voice was softer, yet firmer. It goes without saying that his evening uniform lacked no point of perfection, and somehow it suggested a more elaborate care than that of other men in the room. He laughed frequently, and with a throwing back of the head which seemed to express a spirit of triumph.

Amy looked her years to the full, but her type of beauty, as you know, was independent of youthfulness. That suspicion of masculinity observable in her when she became Reardon’s wife impressed one now only as the consummate grace of a perfectly-built woman. You saw that at forty, at fifty, she would be one of the stateliest of dames. When she bent her head towards the person with whom she spoke, it was an act of queenly favour. Her words were uttered with just enough deliberation to give them the value of an opinion; she smiled with a delicious shade of irony; her glance intimated that nothing could be too subtle for her understanding.

The guests numbered six, and no one of them was insignificant. Two of the men were about Jasper’s age, and they had already made their mark in literature; the third was a novelist of circulating fame, spirally crescent. The three of the stronger sex were excellent modern types, with sweet lips attuned to epigram, and good broad brows.

The novelist at one point put an interesting question to Amy.

‘Is it true that Fadge is leaving The Current?’

‘It is rumoured, I believe.’

‘Going to one of the quarterlies, they say,’ remarked a lady. ‘He is getting terribly autocratic. Have you heard the delightful story of his telling Mr Rowland to persevere, as his last work was one of considerable promise?’

Mr Rowland was a man who had made a merited reputation when Fadge was still on the lower rungs of journalism. Amy smiled and told another anecdote of the great editor. Whilst speaking, she caught her husband’s eye, and perhaps this was the reason why her story, at the close, seemed rather amiably pointless — not a common fault when she narrated.

When the ladies had withdrawn, one of the younger men, in a conversation about a certain magazine, remarked:

‘Thomas always maintains that it was killed by that solemn old stager, Alfred Yule. By the way, he is dead himself, I hear.’

Jasper bent forward.

‘Alfred Yule is dead?’

‘So Jedwood told me this morning. He died in the country somewhere, blind and fallen on evil days, poor old fellow.’

All the guests were ignorant of any tie of kindred between their host and the man spoken of.

‘I believe,’ said the novelist, ‘that he had a clever daughter who used to do all the work he signed. That used to be a current bit of scandal in Fadge’s circle.’

‘Oh, there was much exaggeration in that,’ remarked Jasper, blandly. ‘His daughter assisted him, doubtless, but in quite a legitimate way. One used to see her at the Museum.’

The subject was dropped.

An hour and a half later, when the last stranger had taken his leave, Jasper examined two or three letters which had arrived since dinner-time and were lying on the hall table. With one of them open in his hand, he suddenly sprang up the stairs and leaped, rather than stepped, into the drawing-room. Amy was reading an evening paper.

‘Look at this!’ he cried, holding the letter to her.

It was a communication from the publishers who owned The Current; they stated that the editorship of that review would shortly be resigned by Mr Fadge, and they inquired whether Milvain would feel disposed to assume the vacant chair.

Amy sprang up and threw her arms about her husband’s neck, uttering a cry of delight.

‘So soon! Oh, this is great! this is glorious!’

‘Do you think this would have been offered to me but for the spacious life we have led of late? Never! Was I right in my calculations, Amy?’

‘Did I ever doubt it?’

He returned her embrace ardently, and gazed into her eyes with profound tenderness.

‘Doesn’t the future brighten?’

‘It has been very bright to me, Jasper, since I became your wife.’

‘And I owe my fortune to you, dear girl. Now the way is smooth!’

They placed themselves on a settee, Jasper with an arm about his wife’s waist, as if they were newly plighted lovers. When they had talked for a long time, Milvain said in a changed tone:

‘I am told that your uncle is dead.’

He mentioned how the news had reached him.

‘I must make inquiries to-morrow. I suppose there will be a notice in The Study and some of the other papers. I hope somebody will make it an opportunity to have a hit at that ruffian Fadge. By-the-by, it doesn’t much matter now how you speak of Fadge; but I was a trifle anxious when I heard your story at dinner.’

‘Oh, you can afford to be more independent. — What are you thinking about?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Why do you look sad? — Yes, I know, I know. I’ll try to forgive you.’

‘I can’t help thinking at times of the poor girl, Amy. Life will be easier for her now, with only her mother to support. Someone spoke of her this evening, and repeated Fadge’s lie that she used to do all her father’s writing.’

‘She was capable of doing it. I must seem to you rather a poor-brained woman in comparison. Isn’t it true?’

‘My dearest, you are a perfect woman, and poor Marian was only a clever school-girl. Do you know, I never could help imagining that she had ink-stains on her fingers. Heaven forbid that I should say it unkindly! It was touching to me at the time, for I knew how fearfully hard she worked.’

‘She nearly ruined your life; remember that.’

Jasper was silent.

‘You will never confess it, and that is a fault in you.’

‘She loved me, Amy.’

‘Perhaps! as a school-girl loves. But you never loved her.’

‘No.’

Amy examined his face as he spoke.

‘Her image is very faint before me,’ Jasper pursued, ‘and soon I shall scarcely be able to recall it. Yes, you are right; she nearly ruined me. And in more senses than one. Poverty and struggle, under such circumstances, would have made me a detestable creature. As it is, I am not such a bad fellow, Amy.’

She laughed, and caressed his cheek.

‘No, I am far from a bad fellow. I feel kindly to everyone who deserves it. I like to be generous, in word and deed. Trust me, there’s many a man who would like to be generous, but is made despicably mean by necessity. What a true sentence that is of Landor’s: “It has been repeated often enough that vice leads to misery; will no man declare that misery leads to vice?” I have much of the weakness that might become viciousness, but I am now far from the possibility of being vicious. Of course there are men, like Fadge, who seem only to grow meaner the more prosperous they are; but these are exceptions. Happiness is the nurse of virtue.’

‘And independence the root of happiness.’

‘True. “The glorious privilege of being independent” — yes, Burns understood the matter. Go to the piano, dear, and play me something. If I don’t mind, I shall fall into Whelpdale’s vein, and talk about my “blessedness”. Ha! isn’t the world a glorious place?’

‘For rich people.’

‘Yes, for rich people. How I pity the poor devils! — Play anything. Better still if you will sing, my nightingale!’

So Amy first played and then sang, and Jasper lay back in dreamy bliss.

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