New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 6

The Practical Friend

When her husband had set forth, Amy seated herself in the study and took up a new library volume as if to read. But she had no real intention of doing so; it was always disagreeable to her to sit in the manner of one totally unoccupied, with hands on lap, and even when she consciously gave herself up to musing an open book was generally before her. She did not, in truth, read much nowadays; since the birth of her child she had seemed to care less than before for disinterested study. If a new novel that had succeeded came into her hands she perused it in a very practical spirit, commenting to Reardon on the features of the work which had made it popular; formerly, she would have thought much more of its purely literary merits, for which her eye was very keen. How often she had given her husband a thrill of exquisite pleasure by pointing to some merit or defect of which the common reader would be totally insensible! Now she spoke less frequently on such subjects. Her interests were becoming more personal; she liked to hear details of the success of popular authors — about their wives or husbands, as the case might be, their arrangements with publishers, their methods of work. The gossip columns of literary papers — and of some that were not literary — had an attraction for her. She talked of questions such as international copyright, was anxious to get an insight into the practical conduct of journals and magazines, liked to know who ‘read’ for the publishing-houses. To an impartial observer it might have appeared that her intellect was growing more active and mature.

More than half an hour passed. It was not a pleasant train of thought that now occupied her. Her lips were drawn together, her brows were slightly wrinkled; the self-control which at other times was agreeably expressed upon her features had become rather too cold and decided. At one moment it seemed to her that she heard a sound in the bedroom — the doors were purposely left ajar — and her head turned quickly to listen, the look in her eyes instantaneously softening; but all remained quiet. The street would have been silent but for a cab that now and then passed — the swing of a hansom or the roll of a four-wheeler — and within the buildings nothing whatever was audible.

Yes, a footstep, briskly mounting the stone stairs. Not like that of the postman. A visitor, perhaps, to the other flat on the topmost landing. But the final pause was in this direction, and then came a sharp rat-tat at the door. Amy rose immediately and went to open.

Jasper Milvain raised his urban silk hat, then held out his hand with the greeting of frank friendship. His inquiries were in so loud a voice that Amy checked him with a forbidding gesture.

‘You’ll wake Willie!’

‘By Jove! I always forget,’ he exclaimed in subdued tones. ‘Does the infant flourish?’

‘Oh, yes!’

‘Reardon out? I got back on Saturday evening, but couldn’t come round before this.’ It was Monday. ‘How close it is in here! I suppose the roof gets so heated during the day. Glorious weather in the country! And I’ve no end of things to tell you. He won’t be long, I suppose?’

‘I think not.’

He left his hat and stick in the passage, came into the study, and glanced about as if he expected to see some change since he was last here, three weeks ago.

‘So you have been enjoying yourself?’ said Amy as, after listening for a moment at the door, she took a seat.

‘Oh, a little freshening of the faculties. But whose acquaintance do you think I have made?’

‘Down there?’

‘Yes. Your uncle Alfred and his daughter were staying at John Yule’s, and I saw something of them. I was invited to the house.’

‘Did you speak of us?’

‘To Miss Yule only. I happened to meet her on a walk, and in a blundering way I mentioned Reardon’s name. But of course it didn’t matter in the least. She inquired about you with a good deal of interest — asked if you were as beautiful as you promised to be years ago.’

Amy laughed.

‘Doesn’t that proceed from your fertile invention, Mr Milvain?’

‘Not a bit of it! By-the-bye, what would be your natural question concerning her? Do you think she gave promise of good looks?’

‘I’m afraid I can’t say that she did. She had a good face, but — rather plain.’

‘I see.’ Jasper threw back his head and seemed to contemplate an object in memory. ‘Well, I shouldn’t wonder if most people called her a trifle plain even now; and yet — no, that’s hardly possible, after all. She has no colour. Wears her hair short.’

‘Short?’

‘Oh, I don’t mean the smooth, boyish hair with a parting — not the kind of hair that would be lank if it grew long. Curly all over. Looks uncommonly well, I assure you. She has a capital head. Odd girl; very odd girl! Quiet, thoughtful — not very happy, I’m afraid. Seems to think with dread of a return to books.’

‘Indeed! But I had understood that she was a reader.’

‘Reading enough for six people, probably. Perhaps her health is not very robust. Oh, I knew her by sight quite well — had seen her at the Reading-room. She’s the kind of girl that gets into one’s head, you know — suggestive; much more in her than comes out until one knows her very well.’

‘Well, I should hope so,’ remarked Amy, with a peculiar smile.

‘But that’s by no means a matter of course. They didn’t invite me to come and see them in London.’

‘I suppose Marian mentioned your acquaintance with this branch of the family?’

‘I think not. At all events, she promised me she wouldn’t.’

Amy looked at him inquiringly, in a puzzled way.

‘She promised you?’

‘Voluntarily. We got rather sympathetic. Your uncle — Alfred, I mean — is a remarkable man; but I think he regarded me as a youth of no particular importance. Well, how do things go?’

Amy shook her head.

‘No progress?’

‘None whatever. He can’t work; I begin to be afraid that he is really ill. He must go away before the fine weather is over. Do persuade him to-night! I wish you could have had a holiday with him.’

‘Out of the question now, I’m sorry to say. I must work savagely. But can’t you all manage a fortnight somewhere — Hastings, Eastbourne?’

‘It would be simply rash. One goes on saying, “What does a pound or two matter?” — but it begins at length to matter a great deal.’

‘I know, confound it all! Think how it would amuse some rich grocer’s son who pitches his half-sovereign to the waiter when he has dined himself into good humour! But I tell you what it is: you must really try to influence him towards practicality. Don’t you think —?’

He paused, and Amy sat looking at her hands.

‘I have made an attempt,’ she said at length, in a distant undertone.

‘You really have?’

Jasper leaned forward, his clasped hands hanging between his knees. He was scrutinising her face, and Amy, conscious of the too fixed regard, at length moved her head uneasily.

‘It seems very clear to me,’ she said, ‘that a long book is out of the question for him at present. He writes so slowly, and is so fastidious. It would be a fatal thing to hurry through something weaker even than the last.’

‘You think “The Optimist” weak?’ Jasper asked, half absently.

‘I don’t think it worthy of Edwin; I don’t see how anyone can.

‘I have wondered what your opinion was. Yes, he ought to try a new tack, I think.’

Just then there came the sound of a latch-key opening the outer door. Jasper lay back in his chair and waited with a smile for his expected friend’s appearance; Amy made no movement.

‘Oh, there you are!’ said Reardon, presenting himself with the dazzled eyes of one who has been in darkness; he spoke in a voice of genial welcome, though it still had the note of depression. ‘When did you get back?’

Milvain began to recount what he had told in the first part of his conversation with Amy. As he did so, the latter withdrew, and was absent for five minutes; on reappearing she said:

‘You’ll have some supper with us, Mr Milvain?’

‘I think I will, please.’

Shortly after, all repaired to the eating-room, where conversation had to be carried on in a low tone because of the proximity of the bedchamber in which lay the sleeping child. Jasper began to tell of certain things that had happened to him since his arrival in town.

‘It was a curious coincidence — but, by-the-bye, have you heard of what The Study has been doing?’

‘I should rather think so,’ replied Reardon, his face lighting up. ‘With no small satisfaction.’

‘Delicious, isn’t it?’ exclaimed his wife. ‘I thought it too good to be true when Edwin heard of it from Mr Biffen.’

All three laughed in subdued chorus. For the moment, Reardon became a new man in his exultation over the contradictory reviewers.

‘Oh, Biffen told you, did he? Well,’ continued Jasper, ‘it was an odd thing, but when I reached my lodgings on Saturday evening there lay a note from Horace Barlow, inviting me to go and see him on Sunday afternoon out at Wimbledon, the special reason being that the editor of The Study would be there, and Barlow thought I might like to meet him. Now this letter gave me a fit of laughter; not only because of those precious reviews, but because Alfred Yule had been telling me all about this same editor, who rejoices in the name of Fadge. Your uncle, Mrs Reardon, declares that Fadge is the most malicious man in the literary profession; though that’s saying such a very great deal — well, never mind! Of course I was delighted to go and meet Fadge. At Barlow’s I found the queerest collection of people, most of them women of the inkiest description. The great Fadge himself surprised me; I expected to see a gaunt, bilious man, and he was the rosiest and dumpiest little dandy you can imagine; a fellow of forty-five, I dare say, with thin yellow hair and blue eyes and a manner of extreme innocence. Fadge flattered me with confidential chat, and I discovered at length why Barlow had asked me to meet him; it’s Fadge that is going to edit Culpepper’s new monthly — you’ve heard about it? — and he had actually thought it worth while to enlist me among contributors! Now, how’s that for a piece of news?’

The speaker looked from Reardon to Amy with a smile of vast significance.

‘I rejoice to hear it!’ said Reardon, fervently.

‘You see! you see!’ cried Jasper, forgetting all about the infant in the next room, ‘all things come to the man who knows how to wait. But I’m hanged if I expected a thing of this kind to come so soon! Why, I’m a man of distinction! My doings have been noted; the admirable qualities of my style have drawn attention; I’m looked upon as one of the coming men! Thanks, I confess, in some measure, to old Barlow; he seems to have amused himself with cracking me up to all and sundry. That last thing of mine in The West End has done me a vast amount of good, it seems. And Alfred Yule himself had noticed that paper in The Wayside. That’s how things work, you know; reputation comes with a burst, just when you’re not looking for anything of the kind.’

‘What’s the new magazine to be called?’ asked Amy.

‘Why, they propose The Current. Not bad, in a way; though you imagine a fellow saying “Have you seen the current Current?” At all events, the tone is to be up to date, and the articles are to be short; no padding, merum sal from cover to cover. What do you think I have undertaken to do, for a start? A paper consisting of sketches of typical readers of each of the principal daily and weekly papers. A deuced good idea, you know — my own, of course — but deucedly hard to carry out. I shall rise to the occasion, see if I don’t. I’ll rival Fadge himself in maliciousness — though I must confess I discovered no particular malice in the fellow’s way of talking. The article shall make a sensation. I’ll spend a whole month on it, and make it a perfect piece of satire.’

‘Now that’s the kind of thing that inspires me with awe and envy,’ said Reardon. ‘I could no more write such a paper than an article on Fluxions.’

‘’Tis my vocation, Hal! You might think I hadn’t experience enough, to begin with. But my intuition is so strong that I can make a little experience go an immense way. Most people would imagine I had been wasting my time these last few years, just sauntering about, reading nothing but periodicals, making acquaintance with loafers of every description. The truth is, I have been collecting ideas, and ideas that are convertible into coin of the realm, my boy; I have the special faculty of an extempore writer. Never in my life shall I do anything of solid literary value; I shall always despise the people I write for. But my path will be that of success. I have always said it, and now I’m sure of it.’

‘Does Fadge retire from The Study, then?’ inquired Reardon, when he had received this tirade with a friendly laugh.

‘Yes, he does. Was going to, it seems, in any case. Of course I heard nothing about the two reviews, and I was almost afraid to smile whilst Fadge was talking with me, lest I should betray my thought. Did you know anything about the fellow before?’

‘Not I. Didn’t know who edited The Study.’

‘Nor I either. Remarkable what a number of illustrious obscure are going about. But I have still something else to tell you. I’m going to set my sisters afloat in literature.’

‘How!’

‘Well, I don’t see why they shouldn’t try their hands at a little writing, instead of giving lessons, which doesn’t suit them a bit. Last night, when I got back from Wimbledon, I went to look up Davies. Perhaps you don’t remember my mentioning him; a fellow who was at Jolly and Monk’s, the publishers, up to a year ago. He edits a trade journal now, and I see very little of him. However, I found him at home, and had a long practical talk with him. I wanted to find out the state of the market as to such wares as Jolly and Monk dispose of. He gave me some very useful hints, and the result was that I went off this morning and saw Monk himself — no Jolly exists at present. “Mr Monk,” I began, in my blandest tone — you know it — “I am requested to call upon you by a lady who thinks of preparing a little volume to be called ‘A Child’s History of the English Parliament.’ Her idea is, that” — and so on. Well, I got on admirably with Monk, especially when he learnt that I was to be connected with Culpepper’s new venture; he smiled upon the project, and said he should be very glad to see a specimen chapter; if that pleased him, we could then discuss terms.’

‘But has one of your sisters really begun such a book?’ inquired Amy.

‘Neither of them knows anything of the matter, but they are certainly capable of doing the kind of thing I have in mind, which will consist largely of anecdotes of prominent statesmen. I myself shall write the specimen chapter, and send it to the girls to show them what I propose. I shouldn’t wonder if they make some fifty pounds out of it. The few books that will be necessary they can either get at a Wattleborough library, or I can send them.’

‘Your energy is remarkable, all of a sudden,’ said Reardon.

‘Yes. The hour has come, I find. “There is a tide” — to quote something that has the charm of freshness.’

The supper — which consisted of bread and butter, cheese, sardines, cocoa — was now over, and Jasper, still enlarging on his recent experiences and future prospects, led the way back to the sitting-room. Not very long after this, Amy left the two friends to their pipes; she was anxious that her husband should discuss his affairs privately with Milvain, and give ear to the practical advice which she knew would be tendered him.

‘I hear that you are still stuck fast,’ began Jasper, when they had smoked awhile in silence.

‘Yes.’

‘Getting rather serious, I should fear, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ repeated Reardon, in a low voice.

‘Come, come, old man, you can’t go on in this way. Would it, or wouldn’t it, be any use if you took a seaside holiday?’

‘Not the least. I am incapable of holiday, if the opportunity were offered. Do something I must, or I shall fret myself into imbecility.’

‘Very well. What is it to be?’

‘I shall try to manufacture two volumes. They needn’t run to more than about two hundred and seventy pages, and those well spaced out.’

‘This is refreshing. This is practical. But look now: let it be something rather sensational. Couldn’t we invent a good title — something to catch eye and ear? The title would suggest the story, you know.’

Reardon laughed contemptuously, but the scorn was directed rather against himself than Milvain.

‘Let’s try,’ he muttered.

Both appeared to exercise their minds on the problem for a few minutes. Then Jasper slapped his knee.

‘How would this do: “The Weird Sisters”? Devilish good, eh? Suggests all sorts of things, both to the vulgar and the educated. Nothing brutally clap-trap about it, you know.’

‘But — what does it suggest to you?’

‘Oh, witch-like, mysterious girls or women. Think it over.’

There was another long silence. Reardon’s face was that of a man in blank misery.

‘I have been trying,’ he said at length, after an attempt to speak which was checked by a huskiness in his throat, ‘to explain to myself how this state of things has come about. I almost think I can do so.’

‘How?’

‘That half-year abroad, and the extraordinary shock of happiness which followed at once upon it, have disturbed the balance of my nature. It was adjusted to circumstances of hardship, privation, struggle. A temperament like mine can’t pass through such a violent change of conditions without being greatly affected; I have never since been the man I was before I left England. The stage I had then reached was the result of a slow and elaborate building up; I could look back and see the processes by which I had grown from the boy who was a mere bookworm to the man who had all but succeeded as a novelist. It was a perfectly natural, sober development. But in the last two years and a half I can distinguish no order. In living through it, I have imagined from time to time that my powers were coming to their ripest; but that was mere delusion. Intellectually, I have fallen back. The probability is that this wouldn’t matter, if only I could live on in peace of mind; I should recover my equilibrium, and perhaps once more understand myself. But the due course of things is troubled by my poverty.’

He spoke in a slow, meditative way, in a monotonous voice, and without raising his eyes from the ground.

‘I can understand,’ put in Jasper, ‘that there may be philosophical truth in all this. All the same, it’s a great pity that you should occupy your mind with such thoughts.’

‘A pity — no! I must remain a reasoning creature. Disaster may end by driving me out of my wits, but till then I won’t abandon my heritage of thought.’

‘Let us have it out, then. You think it was a mistake to spend those months abroad?’

‘A mistake from the practical point of view. That vast broadening of my horizon lost me the command of my literary resources. I lived in Italy and Greece as a student, concerned especially with the old civilisations; I read little but Greek and Latin. That brought me out of the track I had laboriously made for myself I often thought with disgust of the kind of work I had been doing; my novels seemed vapid stuff so wretchedly and shallowly modern. If I had had the means, I should have devoted myself to the life of a scholar. That, I quite believe, is my natural life; it’s only the influence of recent circumstances that has made me a writer of novels. A man who can’t journalise, yet must earn his bread by literature, nowadays inevitably turns to fiction, as the Elizabethan men turned to the drama. Well, but I should have got back, I think, into the old line of work. It was my marriage that completed what the time abroad had begun.’

He looked up suddenly, and added:

‘I am speaking as if to myself. You, of course, don’t misunderstand me, and think I am accusing my wife.’

‘No, I don’t take you to mean that, by any means.’

‘No, no; of course not. All that’s wrong is my accursed want of money. But that threatens to be such a fearful wrong, that I begin to wish I had died before my marriage-day. Then Amy would have been saved. The Philistines are right: a man has no business to marry unless he has a secured income equal to all natural demands. I behaved with the grossest selfishness. I might have known that such happiness was never meant for me.’

‘Do you mean by all this that you seriously doubt whether you will ever be able to write again?’

‘In awful seriousness, I doubt it,’ replied Reardon, with haggard face.

‘It strikes me as extraordinary. In your position I should work as I never had done before.’

‘Because you are the kind of man who is roused by necessity. I am overcome by it. My nature is feeble and luxurious. I never in my life encountered and overcame a practical difficulty.’

‘Yes; when you got the work at the hospital.’

‘All I did was to write a letter, and chance made it effective.’

‘My view of the case, Reardon, is that you are simply ill.’

‘Certainly I am; but the ailment is desperately complicated. Tell me: do you think I might possibly get any kind of stated work to do? Should I be fit for any place in a newspaper office, for instance?’

‘I fear not. You are the last man to have anything to do with journalism.’

‘If I appealed to my publishers, could they help me?’

‘I don’t see how. They would simply say: Write a book and we’ll buy it.’

‘Yes, there’s no help but that.’

‘If only you were able to write short stories, Fadge might be useful.’

‘But what’s the use? I suppose I might get ten guineas, at most, for such a story. I need a couple of hundred pounds at least. Even if I could finish a three-volume book, I doubt if they would give me a hundred again, after the failure of “The Optimist”; no, they wouldn’t.’

‘But to sit and look forward in this way is absolutely fatal, my dear fellow. Get to work at your two-volume story. Call it “The Weird Sisters,” or anything better that you can devise; but get it done, so many pages a day. If I go ahead as I begin to think I shall, I shall soon be able to assure you good notices in a lot of papers. Your misfortune has been that you had no influential friends. By-the-bye, how has The Study been in the habit of treating you?’

‘Scrubbily.’

‘I’ll make an opportunity of talking about your books to Fadge. I think Fadge and I shall get on pretty well together. Alfred Yule hates the man fiercely, for some reason or other. By the way, I may as well tell you that I broke short off with the Yules on purpose.’

‘Oh?’

‘I had begun to think far too much about the girl. Wouldn’t do, you know. I must marry someone with money, and a good deal of it.

That’s a settled point with me.’

‘Then you are not at all likely to meet them in London?’

‘Not at all. And if I get allied with Fadge, no doubt Yule will involve me in his savage feeling. You see how wisely I acted. I have a scent for the prudent course.’

They talked for a long time, but again chiefly of Milvain’s affairs. Reardon, indeed, cared little to say anything more about his own. Talk was mere vanity and vexation of spirit, for the spring of his volition seemed to be broken, and, whatever resolve he might utter, he knew that everything depended on influences he could not even foresee.

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