New Grub Street, by George Gissing

Chapter 9

Invita Minerva

After all, there came a day when Edwin Reardon found himself regularly at work once more, ticking off his stipulated quantum of manuscript each four-and-twenty hours. He wrote a very small hand; sixty written slips of the kind of paper he habitually used would represent — thanks to the astonishing system which prevails in such matters: large type, wide spacing, frequency of blank pages — a passable three-hundred-page volume. On an average he could write four such slips a day; so here we have fifteen days for the volume, and forty-five for the completed book.

Forty-five days; an eternity in the looking forward. Yet the calculation gave him a faint-hearted encouragement. At that rate he might have his book sold by Christmas. It would certainly not bring him a hundred pounds; seventy-five perhaps. But even that small sum would enable him to pay the quarter’s rent, and then give him a short time, if only two or three weeks, of mental rest. If such rest could not be obtained all was at an end with him. He must either find some new means of supporting himself and his family, or — have done with life and its responsibilities altogether.

The latter alternative was often enough before him. He seldom slept for more than two or three consecutive hours in the night, and the time of wakefulness was often terrible. The various sounds which marked the stages from midnight to dawn had grown miserably familiar to him; worst torture to his mind was the chiming and striking of clocks. Two of these were in general audible, that of Marylebone parish church, and that of the adjoining workhouse; the latter always sounded several minutes after its ecclesiastical neighbour, and with a difference of note which seemed to Reardon very appropriate — a thin, querulous voice, reminding one of the community it represented. After lying awake for awhile he would hear quarters sounding; if they ceased before the fourth he was glad, for he feared to know what time it was. If the hour was complete, he waited anxiously for its number. Two, three, even four, were grateful; there was still a long time before he need rise and face the dreaded task, the horrible four blank slips of paper that had to be filled ere he might sleep again. But such restfulness was only for a moment; no sooner had the workhouse bell become silent than he began to toil in his weary imagination, or else, incapable of that, to vision fearful hazards of the future. The soft breathing of Amy at his side, the contact of her warm limbs, often filled him with intolerable dread. Even now he did not believe that Amy loved him with the old love, and the suspicion was like a cold weight at his heart that to retain even her wifely sympathy, her wedded tenderness, he must achieve the impossible.

The impossible; for he could no longer deceive himself with a hope of genuine success. If he earned a bare living, that would be the utmost. And with bare livelihood Amy would not, could not, be content.

If he were to die a natural death it would be well for all. His wife and the child would be looked after; they could live with Mrs Edmund Yule, and certainly it would not be long before Amy married again, this time a man of whose competency to maintain her there would be no doubt. His own behaviour had been cowardly selfishness. Oh yes, she had loved him, had been eager to believe in him. But there was always that voice of warning in his mind; he foresaw — he knew —

And if he killed himself? Not here; no lurid horrors for that poor girl and her relatives; but somewhere at a distance, under circumstances which would render the recovery of his body difficult, yet would leave no doubt of his death. Would that, again, be cowardly? The opposite, when once it was certain that to live meant poverty and wretchedness. Amy’s grief, however sincere, would be but a short trial compared with what else might lie before her. The burden of supporting her and Willie would be a very slight one if she went to live in her mother’s house. He considered the whole matter night after night, until perchance it happened that sleep had pity upon him for an hour before the time of rising.

Autumn was passing into winter. Dark days, which were always an oppression to his mind, began to be frequent, and would soon succeed each other remorselessly. Well, if only each of them represented four written slips.

Milvain’s advice to him had of course proved useless. The sensational title suggested nothing, or only ragged shapes of incomplete humanity that fluttered mockingly when he strove to fix them. But he had decided upon a story of the kind natural to him; a ‘thin’ story, and one which it would be difficult to spin into three volumes. His own, at all events. The title was always a matter for head-racking when the book was finished; he had never yet chosen it before beginning.

For a week he got on at the desired rate; then came once more the crisis he had anticipated.

A familiar symptom of the malady which falls upon outwearied imagination. There were floating in his mind five or six possible subjects for a book, all dating back to the time when he first began novel-writing, when ideas came freshly to him. If he grasped desperately at one of these, and did his best to develop it, for a day or two he could almost content himself; characters, situations, lines of motive, were laboriously schemed, and he felt ready to begin writing. But scarcely had he done a chapter or two when all the structure fell into flatness. He had made a mistake. Not this story, but that other one, was what he should have taken. The other one in question, left out of mind for a time, had come back with a face of new possibility; it invited him, tempted him to throw aside what he had already written. Good; now he was in more hopeful train. But a few days, and the experience repeated itself. No, not this story, but that third one, of which he had not thought for a long time. How could he have rejected so hopeful a subject?

For months he had been living in this way; endless circling, perpetual beginning, followed by frustration. A sign of exhaustion, it of course made exhaustion more complete. At times he was on the border-land of imbecility; his mind looked into a cloudy chaos, a shapeless whirl of nothings. He talked aloud to himself, not knowing that he did so. Little phrases which indicated dolorously the subject of his preoccupation often escaped him in the street: ‘What could I make of that, now?’ ‘Well, suppose I made him —?’ ‘But no, that wouldn’t do,’ and so on. It had happened that he caught the eye of some one passing fixed in surprise upon him; so young a man to be talking to himself in evident distress!

The expected crisis came, even now that he was savagely determined to go on at any cost, to write, let the result be what it would. His will prevailed. A day or two of anguish such as there is no describing to the inexperienced, and again he was dismissing slip after slip, a sigh of thankfulness at the completion of each one. It was a fraction of the whole, a fraction, a fraction.

The ordering of his day was thus. At nine, after breakfast, he sat down to his desk, and worked till one. Then came dinner, followed by a walk. As a rule he could not allow Amy to walk with him, for he had to think over the remainder of the day’s toil, and companionship would have been fatal. At about half-past three he again seated himself; and wrote until half-past six, when he had a meal. Then once more to work from half-past seven to ten. Numberless were the experiments he had tried for the day’s division. The slightest interruption of the order for the time being put him out of gear; Amy durst not open his door to ask however necessary a question.

Sometimes the three hours’ labour of a morning resulted in half-a-dozen lines, corrected into illegibility. His brain would not work; he could not recall the simplest synonyms; intolerable faults of composition drove him mad. He would write a sentence beginning thus: ‘She took a book with a look of —;’ or thus: ‘A revision of this decision would have made him an object of derision.’ Or, if the period were otherwise inoffensive, it ran in a rhythmic gallop which was torment to the ear. All this, in spite of the fact that his former books had been noticeably good in style. He had an appreciation of shapely prose which made him scorn himself for the kind of stuff he was now turning out. ‘I can’t help it; it must go; the time is passing.’

Things were better, as a rule, in the evening. Occasionally he wrote a page with fluency which recalled his fortunate years; and then his heart gladdened, his hand trembled with joy.

Description of locality, deliberate analysis of character or motive, demanded far too great an effort for his present condition. He kept as much as possible to dialogue; the space is filled so much more quickly, and at a pinch one can make people talk about the paltriest incidents of life.

There came an evening when he opened the door and called to Amy.

‘What is it?’ she answered from the bedroom. ‘I’m busy with Willie.’

‘Come as soon as you are free.’

In ten minutes she appeared. There was apprehension on her face; she feared he was going to lament his inability to work. Instead of that, he told her joyfully that the first volume was finished.

‘Thank goodness!’ she exclaimed. ‘Are you going to do any more to-night?’

‘I think not — if you will come and sit with me.’

‘Willie doesn’t seem very well. He can’t get to sleep.’

‘You would like to stay with him?’

‘A little while. I’ll come presently.’

She closed the door. Reardon brought a high-backed chair to the fireside, and allowed himself to forget the two volumes that had still to be struggled through, in a grateful sense of the portion that was achieved. In a few minutes it occurred to him that it would be delightful to read a scrap of the ‘Odyssey’; he went to the shelves on which were his classical books, took the desired volume, and opened it where Odysseus speaks to Nausicaa:

‘For never yet did I behold one of mortals like to thee, neither man nor woman; I am awed as I look upon thee. In Delos once, hard by the altar of Apollo, I saw a young palm-tree shooting up with even such a grace.’

Yes, yes; THAT was not written at so many pages a day, with a workhouse clock clanging its admonition at the poet’s ear. How it freshened the soul! How the eyes grew dim with a rare joy in the sounding of those nobly sweet hexameters!

Amy came into the room again.

‘Listen,’ said Reardon, looking up at her with a bright smile. ‘Do you remember the first time that I read you this?’

And he turned the speech into free prose. Amy laughed.

‘I remember it well enough. We were alone in the drawing-room; I had told the others that they must make shift with the dining-room for that evening. And you pulled the book out of your pocket unexpectedly. I laughed at your habit of always carrying little books about.’

The cheerful news had brightened her. If she had been summoned to hear lamentations her voice would not have rippled thus soothingly. Reardon thought of this, and it made him silent for a minute.

‘The habit was ominous,’ he said, looking at her with an uncertain smile. ‘A practical literary man doesn’t do such things.’

‘Milvain, for instance. No.’

With curious frequency she mentioned the name of Milvain. Her unconsciousness in doing so prevented Reardon from thinking about the fact; still, he had noted it.

‘Did you understand the phrase slightingly?’ he asked.

‘Slightingly? Yes, a little, of course. It always has that sense on your lips, I think.’

In the light of this answer he mused upon her readily-offered instance. True, he had occasionally spoken of Jasper with something less than respect, but Amy was not in the habit of doing so.

‘I hadn’t any such meaning just then,’ he said. ‘I meant quite simply that my bookish habits didn’t promise much for my success as a novelist.’

‘I see. But you didn’t think of it in that way at the time.’

He sighed.

‘No. At least — no.’

‘At least what?’

‘Well, no; on the whole I had good hope.’

Amy twisted her fingers together impatiently.

‘Edwin, let me tell you something. You are getting too fond of speaking in a discouraging way. Now, why should you do so? I don’t like it. It has one disagreeable effect on me, and that is, when people ask me about you, how you are getting on, I don’t quite know how to answer. They can’t help seeing that I am uneasy. I speak so differently from what I used to.’

‘Do you, really?’

‘Indeed I can’t help it. As I say, it’s very much your own fault.’

‘Well, but granted that I am not of a very sanguine nature, and that I easily fall into gloomy ways of talk, what is Amy here for?’

‘Yes, yes. But — ’

‘But?’

‘I am not here only to try and keep you in good spirits, am I?’

She asked it prettily, with a smile like that of maidenhood.

‘Heaven forbid! I oughtn’t to have put it in that absolute way. I was half joking, you know. But unfortunately it’s true that I can’t be as light-spirited as I could wish. Does that make you impatient with me?’

‘A little. I can’t help the feeling, and I ought to try to overcome it. But you must try on your side as well. Why should you have said that thing just now?’

‘You’re quite right. It was needless.’

‘A few weeks ago I didn’t expect you to be cheerful. Things began to look about as bad as they could. But now that you’ve got a volume finished, there’s hope once more.’

Hope? Of what quality? Reardon durst not say what rose in his thoughts. ‘A very small, poor hope. Hope of money enough to struggle through another half year, if indeed enough for that.’ He had learnt that Amy was not to be told the whole truth about anything as he himself saw it. It was a pity. To the ideal wife a man speaks out all that is in him; she had infinitely rather share his full conviction than be treated as one from whom facts must be disguised. She says: ‘Let us face the worst and talk of it together, you and I.’ No, Amy was not the ideal wife from that point of view. But the moment after this half-reproach had traversed his consciousness he condemned himself; and looked with the joy of love into her clear eyes.

‘Yes, there’s hope once more, my dearest. No more gloomy talk to-night! I have read you something, now you shall read something to me; it is a long time since I delighted myself with listening to you. What shall it be?’

‘I feel rather too tired to-night.’

‘Do you?’

‘I have had to look after Willie so much. But read me some more Homer; I shall be very glad to listen.’

Reardon reached for the book again, but not readily. His face showed disappointment. Their evenings together had never been the same since the birth of the child; Willie was always an excuse — valid enough — for Amy’s feeling tired. The little boy had come between him and the mother, as must always be the case in poor homes, most of all where the poverty is relative. Reardon could not pass the subject without a remark, but he tried to speak humorously.

‘There ought to be a huge public creche in London. It’s monstrous that an educated mother should have to be nursemaid.’

‘But you know very well I think nothing of that. A creche, indeed! No child of mine should go to any such place.’

There it was. She grudged no trouble on behalf of the child. That was love; whereas — But then maternal love was a mere matter of course.

‘As soon as you get two or three hundred pounds for a book,’ she added, laughing, ‘there’ll be no need for me to give so much time.’

‘Two or three hundred pounds!’ He repeated it with a shake of the head. ‘Ah, if that were possible!’

‘But that’s really a paltry sum. What would fifty novelists you could name say if they were offered three hundred pounds for a book? How much do you suppose even Markland got for his last?’

‘Didn’t sell it at all, ten to one. Gets a royalty.’

‘Which will bring him five or six hundred pounds before the book ceases to be talked of.’

‘Never mind. I’m sick of the word “pounds.”’

‘So am I.’

She sighed, commenting thus on her acquiescence.

‘But look, Amy. If I try to be cheerful in spite of natural dumps, wouldn’t it be fair for you to put aside thoughts of money?’

‘Yes. Read some Homer, dear. Let us have Odysseus down in Hades, and Ajax stalking past him. Oh, I like that!’

So he read, rather coldly at first, but soon warming. Amy sat with folded arms, a smile on her lips, her brows knitted to the epic humour. In a few minutes it was as if no difficulties threatened their life. Every now and then Reardon looked up from his translating with a delighted laugh, in which Amy joined.

When he had returned the book to the shelf he stepped behind his wife’s chair, leaned upon it, and put his cheek against hers.

‘Amy!’

‘Yes, dear?’

‘Do you still love me a little?’

‘Much more than a little.’

‘Though I am sunk to writing a wretched pot-boiler?’

‘Is it so bad as all that?’

‘Confoundedly bad. I shall be ashamed to see it in print; the proofs will be a martyrdom.’

‘Oh, but why? why?’

‘It’s the best I can do, dearest. So you don’t love me enough to hear that calmly.’

‘If I didn’t love you, I might be calmer about it, Edwin. It’s dreadful to me to think of what they will say in the reviews.’

‘Curse the reviews!’

His mood had changed on the instant. He stood up with darkened face, trembling angrily.

‘I want you to promise me something, Amy. You won’t read a single one of the notices unless it is forced upon your attention. Now, promise me that. Neglect them absolutely, as I do. They’re not worth a glance of your eyes. And I shan’t be able to bear it if I know you read all the contempt that will be poured on me.’

‘I’m sure I shall be glad enough to avoid it; but other people, our friends, read it. That’s the worst.’

‘You know that their praise would be valueless, so have strength to disregard the blame. Let our friends read and talk as much as they like. Can’t you console yourself with the thought that I am not contemptible, though I may have been forced to do poor work?’

‘People don’t look at it in that way.’

‘But, darling,’ he took her hands strongly in his own, ‘I want you to disregard other people. You and I are surely everything to each other? Are you ashamed of me, of me myself?’

‘No, not ashamed of you. But I am sensitive to people’s talk and opinions.’

‘But that means they make you feel ashamed of me. What else?’

There was silence.

‘Edwin, if you find you are unable to do good work, you mustn’t do bad. We must think of some other way of making a living.’

‘Have you forgotten that you urged me to write a trashy sensational story?’

She coloured and looked annoyed.

‘You misunderstood me. A sensational story needn’t be trash. And then, you know, if you had tried something entirely unlike your usual work, that would have been excuse enough if people had called it a failure.’

‘People! People!’

‘We can’t live in solitude, Edwin, though really we are not far from it.’ He did not dare to make any reply to this. Amy was so exasperatingly womanlike in avoiding the important issue to which he tried to confine her; another moment, and his tone would be that of irritation. So he turned away and sat down to his desk, as if he had some thought of resuming work.

‘Will you come and have some supper?’ Amy asked, rising.

‘I have been forgetting that to-morrow morning’s chapter has still to be thought out.’

‘Edwin, I can’t think this book will really be so poor. You couldn’t possibly give all this toil for no result.’

‘No; not if I were in sound health. But I am far from it.’

‘Come and have supper with me, dear, and think afterwards.’

He turned and smiled at her.

‘I hope I shall never be able to resist an invitation from you, sweet.’

The result of all this was, of course, that he sat down in anything but the right mood to his work next morning. Amy’s anticipation of criticism had made it harder than ever for him to labour at what he knew to be bad. And, as ill-luck would have it, in a day or two he caught his first winter’s cold. For several years a succession of influenzas, sore-throats, lumbagoes, had tormented him from October to May; in planning his present work, and telling himself that it must be finished before Christmas, he had not lost sight of these possible interruptions. But he said to himself: ‘Other men have worked hard in seasons of illness; I must do the same.’ All very well, but Reardon did not belong to the heroic class. A feverish cold now put his powers and resolution to the test. Through one hideous day he nailed himself to the desk — and wrote a quarter of a page. The next day Amy would not let him rise from bed; he was wretchedly ill. In the night he had talked about his work deliriously, causing her no slight alarm.

‘If this goes on,’ she said to him in the morning, ‘you’ll have brain fever. You must rest for two or three days.’

‘Teach me how to. I wish I could.’

Rest had indeed become out of the question. For two days he could not write, but the result upon his mind was far worse than if he had been at the desk. He looked a haggard creature when he again sat down with the accustomed blank slip before him.

The second volume ought to have been much easier work than the first; it proved far harder. Messieurs and mesdames the critics are wont to point out the weakness of second volumes; they are generally right, simply because a story which would have made a tolerable book (the common run of stories) refuses to fill three books. Reardon’s story was in itself weak, and this second volume had to consist almost entirely of laborious padding. If he wrote three slips a day he did well.

And the money was melting, melting, despite Amy’s efforts at economy. She spent as little as she could; not a luxury came into their home; articles of clothing all but indispensable were left unpurchased. But to what purpose was all this? Impossible, now, that the book should be finished and sold before the money had all run out.

At the end of November, Reardon said to his wife one morning:

‘To-morrow I finish the second volume.’

‘And in a week,’ she replied, ‘we shan’t have a shilling left.’

He had refrained from making inquiries, and Amy had forborne to tell him the state of things, lest it should bring him to a dead stop in his writing. But now they must needs discuss their position.

‘In three weeks I can get to the end,’ said Reardon, with unnatural calmness. ‘Then I will go personally to the publishers, and beg them to advance me something on the manuscript before they have read it.’

‘Couldn’t you do that with the first two volumes?’

‘No, I can’t; indeed I can’t. The other thing will be bad enough; but to beg on an incomplete book, and such a book — I can’t!’

There were drops on his forehead.

‘They would help you if they knew,’ said Amy in a low voice.

‘Perhaps; I can’t say. They can’t help every poor devil. No; I will sell some books. I can pick out fifty or sixty that I shan’t much miss.’

Amy knew what a wrench this would be. The imminence of distress seemed to have softened her.

‘Edwin, let me take those two volumes to the publishers, and ask — ’

‘Heavens! no. That’s impossible. Ten to one you will be told that my work is of such doubtful value that they can’t offer even a guinea till the whole book has been considered. I can’t allow you to go, dearest. This morning I’ll choose some books that I can spare, and after dinner I’ll ask a man to come and look at them. Don’t worry yourself; I can finish in three weeks, I’m sure I can. If I can get you three or four pounds you could make it do, couldn’t you?’

‘Yes.’

She averted her face as she spoke.

‘You shall have that.’ He still spoke very quietly. ‘If the books won’t bring enough, there’s my watch — oh, lots of things.’

He turned abruptly away, and Amy went on with her household work.

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