Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell

Chapter 9

And, by Jove, tomorrow we WERE sober!

Gordon emerged from some long, sickly dream to the consciousness that the books in the lending library were the wrong way up. They were all lying on their sides. Moreover, for some reason their backs had turned white — white and shiny, like porcelain.

He opened his eyes a little wider and moved an arm. Small rivulets of pain, seemingly touched off by the movement, shot through his body at unexpected places — down the calves of his legs, for instance, and up both sides of his head. He perceived that he was lying on his side, with a hard smooth pillow under his cheek and a coarse blanket scratching his chin and pushing its hairs into his mouth. Apart from the minor pains that stabbed him every time he moved, there was a large, dull sort of pain which was not localized but which seemed to hover all over him.

Suddenly he flung off the blanket and sat up. He was in a police cell. At this moment a frightful spasm of nausea overcame him. Dimly perceiving a W.C. in the corner, he crept towards it and was violently sick, three or four times.

After that, for several minutes, he was in agonizing pain. He could scarcely stand on his feet, his head throbbed as though it were going to burst, and the light seemed like some scalding white liquid pouring into his brain through the sockets of his eyes. He sat on the bed holding his head between his hands. Presently, when some of the throbbing had died down, he had another look about him. The cell measured about twelve feet long by six wide and was very high. The walls were all of white porcelain bricks, horribly white and clean. He wondered dully how they cleaned as high up as the ceiling. Perhaps with a hose, he reflected. At one end there was a little barred window, very high up, and at the other end, over the door, an electric bulb let into the wall and protected by a stout grating. The thing he was sitting on was not actually a bed, but a shelf with one blanket and a canvas pillow. The door was of steel, painted green. In the door there was a little round hole with a flap on the outside.

Having seen this much he lay down and pulled the blanket over him again. He had no further curiosity about his surroundings. As to what had happened last night, he remembered everything — at least, he remembered everything up to the time when he had gone with Dora into the room with the aspidistra. God knew what had happened after that. There had been some kind of bust-up and he had landed in the clink. He had no notion of what he had done; it might be murder for all he knew. In any case he did not care. He turned his face to the wall and pulled the blanket over his head to shut out the light.

After a long time the spyhole in the door was pushed aside. Gordon managed to turn his head round. His neck-muscles seemed to creak. Through the spyhole he could see a blue eye and a semi-circle of pink chubby cheek.

‘‘Ja do with a cup of tea?’ a voice said.

Gordon sat up and instantly felt very sick again. He took his head between his hands and groaned. The thought of a cup of hot tea appealed to him, but he knew it would make him sick if it had sugar in it.

‘Please,’ he said.

The police constable opened a partition in the top half of the door and passed in a thick white mug of tea. It had sugar in it. The constable was a solid rosy young man of about twenty-five, with a kind face, white eyelashes, and a tremendous chest. It reminded Gordon of the chest of a carthorse. He spoke with a good accent but with vulgar turns of speech. For a minute or so he stood regarding Gordon.

‘You weren’t half bad last night,’ he said finally.

‘I’m bad now.’

‘You was worse last night, though. What you go and hit the sergeant for?’

‘Did I hit the sergeant?’

‘Did you? Coo! He wasn’t half wild. He turns to me and he says — holding his ear he was, like this — he says, “Now, if that man wasn’t too drunk to stand, I’d knock his block off.” It’s all gone down on your charge sheet. Drunk and disorderly. You’d only ha’ bin drunk and incapable if you hadn’t of hit the sergeant.’

‘Do you know what I shall get for this?’

‘Five quid or fourteen days. You’ll go up before Mr Groom. Lucky for you it wasn’t Mr Walker. He’d give you a month without the option, Mr Walker would. Very severe on the drunks he is. Teetotaller.’

Gordon had drunk some of the tea. It was nauseatingly sweet but its warmth made him feel stronger. He gulped it down. At this moment a nasty, snarling sort of voice — the sergeant whom Gordon had hit, no doubt — yelped from somewhere outside:

‘Take that man out and get him washed. Black Maria leaves at half past nine.’

The constable hastened to open the cell door. As soon as Gordon stepped outside he felt worse then ever. This was partly because it was much colder in the passage than in the cell. He walked a step or two, and then suddenly his head was going round and round. ‘I’m going to be sick!’ he cried. He was falling — he flung out a hand and stopped himself against the wall. The constable’s strong arm went round him. Across the arm, as over a rail, Gordon sagged, doubled up and limp. A jet of vomit burst from him. It was the tea, of course. There was a gutter running along the stone floor. At the end of the passage the moustachio’d sergeant, in tunic without a belt, stood with his hand on his hip, looking on disgustedly.

‘Dirty little tyke,’ he muttered, and turned away.

‘Come on, old chap,’ said the constable. ‘You’ll be better in half a mo’.’

He half led, half dragged Gordon to a big stone sink at the end of the passage and helped him to strip to the waist. His gentleness was astonishing. He handled Gordon almost like a nurse handling a child. Gordon had recovered enough strength to sluice himself with the ice-cold water and rinse his mouth out. The constable gave him a torn towel to dry himself with and then led him back to the cell.

‘Now you sit quiet till the Black Maria comes. And take my tip — when you go up to the court, you plead guilty and say you won’t do it again. Mr Groom won’t be hard on you.’

‘Where are my collar and tie?’ said Gordon.

‘We took ‘em away last night. You’ll get ‘em back before you go up to court. We had a bloke hung himself with his tie, once.’

Gordon sat down on the bed. For a little while he occupied himself by calculating the number of porcelain bricks in the walls, then sat with his elbows on his knees, his head between his hands. He was still aching all over; he felt weak, cold, jaded, and, above all, bored. He wished that boring business of going up to the court could be avoided somehow. The thought of being put into some jolting vehicle and taken across London to hang about in chilly cells and passages, and of having to answer questions and be lectured by magistrates, bored him indescribably. All he wanted was to be left alone. But presently there was the sound of several voices farther down the passage, and then of feet approaching. The partition in the door was opened.

‘Couple of visitors for you,’ the constable said.

Gordon was bored by the very thought of visitors. Unwillingly he looked up, and saw Flaxman and Ravelston looking in upon him. How they had got there together was a mystery, but Gordon felt not the faintest curiosity about it. They bored him. He wished they would go away.

‘Hullo, chappie!’ said Flaxman.

‘YOU here?’ said Gordon with a sort of weary offensiveness.

Ravelston looked miserable. He had been up since the very early morning, looking for Gordon. This was the first time he had seen the interior of a police cell. His face shrank with disgust as he looked at the chilly white-tiled place with its shameless W.C. in the corner. But Flaxman was more accustomed to this kind of thing. He cocked a practised eye at Gordon.

‘I’ve seen ‘em worse,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Give him a prairie oyster and he’d buck up something wonderful. D’you know what your eyes look like, chappie?’ he added to Gordon. ‘They look as if they’d been taken out and poached.’

‘I was drunk last night,’ said Gordon, his head between his hands.

‘I gathered something of the kind, old chappie.’

‘Look here, Gordon,’ said Ravelston, ‘we came to bail you out, but it seems we’re too late. They’re taking you up to court in a few minutes’ time. This is a bloody show. It’s a pity you didn’t give them a false name when they brought you here last night.’

‘Did I tell them my name?’

‘You told them everything. I wish to God I hadn’t let you out of my sight. You slipped out of that house somehow and into the street.’

‘Wandering up and down Shaftesbury Avenue, drinking out of a bottle,’ said Flaxman appreciatively. ‘But you oughtn’t to have hit the sergeant, old chappie! That was a bit of bloody foolishness. And I don’t mind telling you Mother Wisbeach is on your track. When your pal here came round this morning and told her you’d been for a night on the tiles, she took on as if you’d done a bloody murder.’

‘And look here, Gordon,’ said Ravelston.

There was the familiar note of discomfort in his face. It was something about money, as usual. Gordon looked up. Ravelston was gazing into the distance.

‘Look here.’

‘What?’

‘About your fine. You’d better leave that to me. I’ll pay it.’

‘No, you won’t.’

‘My dear old chap! They’ll send you to jail if I don’t.’

‘Oh, hell! I don’t care.’

He did not care. At this moment he did not care if they sent him to prison for a year. Of course he couldn’t pay his fine himself. He knew without even needing to look that he had no money left. He would have given it all to Dora, or more probably she would have pinched it. He lay down on the bed again and turned his back on the others. In the sulky, sluggish state that he was in, his sole desire was to get rid of them. They made a few more attempts to talk to him, but he would not answer, and presently they went away. Flaxman’s voice boomed cheerfully down the passage. He was giving Ravelston minute instructions as to how to make a prairie oyster.

The rest of that day was very beastly. Beastly was the ride in the Black Maria, which, inside, was like nothing so much as a miniature public lavatory, with tiny cubicles down each side, into which you were locked and in which you had barely room to sit down. Beastlier yet was the long wait in one of the cells adjoining the magistrate’s court. This cell was an exact replica of the cell at the police station, even to having precisely the same number of porcelain bricks. But it differed from the police station cell in being repulsively dirty. It was cold, but the air was so fetid as to be almost unbreathable. Prisoners were coming and going all the time. They would be thrust into the cell, taken out after an hour or two to go up to the court, and then perhaps brought back again to wait while the magistrate decided upon their sentence or fresh witnesses were sent for. There were always five or six men in the cell, and there was nothing to sit on except the plank bed. And the worst was that nearly all of them used the W.C. — there, publicly, in the tiny cell. They could not help it. There was nowhere else to go. And the plug of the beastly thing did not even pull properly.

Until the afternoon Gordon felt sick and weak. He had had no chance to shave, and his face was hatefully scrubby. At first he merely sat on the corner of the plank bed, at the end nearest the door, as far away from the W.C. as he could get, and took no notice of the other prisoners. They bored and disgusted him; later, as his headache wore off, he observed them with a faint interest. There was a professional burglar, a lean worried-looking man with grey hair, who was in a terrible stew about what would happen to his wife and kids if he were sent to jail. He had been arrested for ‘loitering with intent to enter’— a vague offence for which you generally get convicted if there are previous convictions against you. He kept walking up and down, flicking the fingers of his right hand with a curious nervous gesture, and exclaiming against the unfairness of it. There was also a deaf mute who stank like a ferret, and a small middle-aged Jew with a fur-collared overcoat, who had been buyer to a large firm of kosher butchers. He had bolted with twenty-seven pounds, gone to Aberdeen, of all places, and spent the money on tarts. He too had a grievance, for he said his case ought to have been tried in the rabbi’s court instead of being turned over to the police. There was also a publican who had embezzled his Christmas club money. He was a big, hearty, prosperous-looking man of about thirty-five, with a loud red face and a loud blue overcoat — the sort of man who, if he were not a publican, would be a bookie. His relatives had paid back the embezzled money, all except twelve pounds, but the club members had decided to prosecute. There was something in this man’s eyes that troubled Gordon. He carried everything off with a swagger, but all the while there was that blank, staring look in his eyes; he would fall into a kind of reverie at every gap in the conversation. It was somehow rather dreadful to see him. There he was, still in his smart clothes, with the splendour of a publican’s life only a month or two behind him; and now he was ruined, probably for ever. Like all London publicans he was in the claw of the brewer, he would be sold up and his furniture and fittings seized, and when he came out of jail he would never have a pub or a job again.

The morning wore on with dismal slowness. You were allowed to smoke — matches were forbidden, but the constable on duty outside would give you a light through the trap in the door. Nobody had any cigarettes except the publican, who had his pockets full of them and distributed them freely. Prisoners came and went. A ragged dirty man who claimed to be a coster ‘up’ for obstruction was put into the cell for half an hour. He talked a great deal, but the others were deeply suspicious of him; when he was taken out again they all declared he was a ‘split’. The police, it was said, often put a ‘split’ into the cells, disguised as a prisoner, to pick up information. Once there was great excitement when the constable whispered through the trap that a murderer, or would-be murderer, was being put into the cell next door. He was a youth of eighteen who had stabbed his ‘tart’ in the belly, and she was not expected to live. Once the trap opened and the tired, pale face of a clergyman looked in. He saw the burglar, said wearily, ‘YOU here again, Jones?’ and went away again. Dinner, so-called, was served out at about twelve o’clock. All you got was a cup of tea and two slices of bread and marg. You could have food sent in, though, if you could pay for it. The publican had a good dinner sent in in covered dishes; but he had no appetite for it, and gave most of it away. Ravelston was still hanging about the court, waiting for Gordon’s case to come on, but he did not know the ropes well enough to have food sent in to Gordon. Presently the burglar and the publican were taken away, sentenced, and brought back to wait till the Black Maria should take them off to jail. They each got nine months. The publican questioned the burglar about what prison was like. There was a conversation of unspeakable obscenity about the lack of women there.

Gordon’s case came on at half past two, and it was over so quickly that it seemed preposterous to have waited all that time for it. Afterwards he could remember nothing about the court except the coat of arms over the magistrate’s chair. The magistrate was dealing with the drunks at the rate of two a minute. To the tune of ‘John-Smith-drunk six-shillings-move-on-NEXT!’ they filed past the railings of the dock, precisely like a crowd taking tickets at a booking-office. Gordon’s case, however, took two minutes instead of thirty seconds, because he had been disorderly and the sergeant had to testify that Gordon had struck him on the ear and called him a —— bastard. There was also a mild sensation in the court because Gordon, when questioned at the police station, had described himself as a poet. He must have been very drunk to say a thing like that. The magistrate looked at him suspiciously.

‘I see you call yourself a POET. ARE you a poet?’

‘I write poetry,’ said Gordon sulkily.

‘Hm! Well, it doesn’t seem to teach you to behave yourself, does it? You will pay five pounds or go to prison for fourteen days. NEXT!’

And that was all. Nevertheless, somewhere at the back of the court a bored reporter had pricked up his ears.

On the other side of the court there was a room where a police sergeant sat with a large ledger, entering up the drunks’ fines and taking payment. Those who could not pay were taken back to the cells. Gordon had expected this to happen to himself. He was quite resigned to going to prison. But when he emerged from the court it was to find that Ravelston was waiting there and had already paid his fine for him. Gordon did not protest. He allowed Ravelston to pack him into a taxi and take him back to the flat in Regent’s Park. As soon as they got there Gordon had a hot bath; he needed one, after the beastly contaminating grime of the last twelve hours. Ravelston lent him a razor, lent him a clean shirt and pyjamas and socks and underclothes, even went out of doors and bought him a toothbrush. He was strangely solicitous about Gordon. He could not rid himself of a guilty feeling that what had happened last night was mainly his own fault; he ought to have put his foot down and taken Gordon home as soon as he showed signs of being drunk. Gordon scarcely noticed what was being done for him. Even the fact the Ravelston had paid his fine failed to trouble him. For the rest of that afternoon he lay in one of the armchairs in front of the fire, reading a detective story. About the future he refused to think. He grew sleepy very early. At eight o’clock he went to bed in the spare bedroom and slept like a log for nine hours.

It was not till next morning that he began to think seriously about his situation. He woke in the wide caressing bed, softer and warmer than any bed he had ever slept in, and began to grope about for his matches. Then he remembered that in places like this you didn’t need matches to get a light, and felt for the electric switch that hung on a cord at the bedhead. Soft light flooded the room. There was a syphon of soda water on the bed-table. Gordon discovered that even after thirty-six hours there was still a vile taste in his mouth. He had a drink and looked about him.

It was a queer feeling, lying there in somebody else’s pyjamas in somebody else’s bed. He felt that he had no business there — that this wasn’t the sort of place where he belonged. There was a sense of guilt in lying here in luxury when he was ruined and hadn’t a penny in the world. For he was ruined right enough, there was no doubt about that. He seemed to know with perfect certainty that his job was lost. God knew what was going to happen next. The memory of that stupid dull debauch rolled back upon him with beastly vividness. He could recall everything, from his first pink gin before he started out to Dora’s peach-coloured garters. He squirmed when he thought of Dora. WHY does one do these things? Money again, always money! The rich don’t behave like that. The rich are graceful even in their vices. But if you have no money you don’t even know how to spend it when you get it. You just splurge it frantically away, like a sailor in a bawdy-house his first night ashore.

He had been in the clink, twelve hours. He thought of the cold faecal stench of that cell at the police court. A foretaste of future days. And everyone would know that he had been in the clink. With luck it might be kept from Aunt Angela and Uncle Walter, but Julia and Rosemary probably knew already. With Rosemary it didn’t matter so much, but Julia would be ashamed and miserable. He thought of Julia. Her long thin back as she bent over the tea-caddy; her good, goose-like, defeated face. She had never lived. From childhood she had been sacrificed to him — to Gordon, to ‘the boy’. It might be a hundred quid he had ‘borrowed’ from her in all these years; and then even five quid he couldn’t spare her. Five quid he had set aside for her, and then spent it on a tart!

He turned out the light and lay on his back, wide awake. At this moment he saw himself with frightful clarity. He took a sort of inventory of himself and his possessions. Gordon Comstock, last of the Comstocks, thirty years old, with twenty-six teeth left; with no money and no job; in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed; with nothing before him except cadging and destitution, and nothing behind him except squalid fooleries. His total wealth a puny body and two cardboard suitcases full of worn-out clothes.

At seven Ravelston was awakened by a tap on his door. He rolled over and said sleepily, ‘Hullo?’ Gordon came in, a dishevelled figure almost lost in the borrowed silk pyjamas. Ravelston roused himself, yawning. Theoretically he got up at the proletarian hour of seven. Actually he seldom stirred until Mrs Beaver, the charwoman, arrived at eight. Gordon pushed the hair out of his eyes and sat down on the foot of Ravelston’s bed.

‘I say, Ravelston, this is bloody. I’ve been thinking things over. There’s going to be hell to pay.’

‘What?’

‘I shall lose my job. McKechnie can’t keep me on after I’ve been in the clink. Besides, I ought to have been at work yesterday. Probably the shop wasn’t opened all day.’

Ravelston yawned. ‘It’ll be all right, I think. That fat chap — what’s his name? Flaxman — rang McKechnie up and told him you were down with flu. He made it pretty convincing. He said your temperature was a hundred and three. Of course your landlady knows. But I don’t suppose she’d tell McKechnie.’

‘But suppose it’s got into the papers!’

‘Oh, lord! I suppose that might happen. The char brings the papers up at eight. But do they report drunk cases? Surely not?’

Mrs Beaver brought the Telegraph and the Herald. Ravelston sent her out for the Mail and the Express. They searched hurriedly through the police-court news. Thank God! it hadn’t ‘got into the papers’ after all. There was no reason why it should, as a matter of fact. It was not as if Gordon had been a racing motorist or a professional footballer. Feeling better, Gordon managed to eat some breakfast, and after breakfast Ravelston went out. It was agreed that he should go up to the shop, see Mr McKechnie, give him further details of Gordon’s illness, and find out how the land lay. It seemed quite natural to Ravelston to waste several days in getting Gordon out of his scrape. All the morning Gordon hung about the flat, restless and out of sorts, smoking cigarettes in an endless chain. Now that he was alone, hope had deserted him. He knew by profound instinct that Mr McKechnie would have heard about his arrest. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could keep dark. He had lost his job, and that was all about it.

He lounged across to the window and looked out. A desolate day; the whitey-grey sky looked as if it could never be blue again; the naked trees wept slowly into the gutters. Down a neighbouring street the cry of the coal-man echoed mournfully. Only a fortnight to Christmas now. Jolly to be out of work at this time of year! But the thought, instead of frightening him, merely bored him. The peculiar lethargic feeling, the stuffy heaviness behind the eyes, that one has after a fit of drunkenness, seemed to have settled upon him permanently. The prospect of searching for another job bored him even more than the prospect of poverty. Besides, he would never find another job. There are no jobs to be had nowadays. He was going down, down into the sub-world of the unemployed — down, down into God knew what workhouse depths of dirt and hunger and futility. And chiefly he was anxious to get it over with as little fuss and effort as possible.

Ravelston came back at about one o’clock. He pulled his gloves off and threw them into a chair. He looked tired and depressed. Gordon saw at a glance that the game was up.

‘He’s heard, of course?’ he said.

‘Everything, I’m afraid.’

‘How? I suppose that cow of a Wisbeach woman went and sneaked to him?’

‘No. It was in the paper after all. The local paper. He got it out of that.’

‘Oh, hell! I’d forgotten that.’

Ravelston produced from his coat pocket a folded copy of a bi-weekly paper. It was one that they took in at the shop because Mr McKechnie advertised in it — Gordon had forgotten that. He opened it. Gosh! What a splash! It was all over the middle page.

BOOKSELLER’S ASSISTANT FINED

MAGISTRATE’S SEVERE STRICTURE

‘DISGRACEFUL FRACAS’

There were nearly two columns of it. Gordon had never been so famous before and never would be again. They must have been very hard up for a bit of news. But these local papers have a curious notion of patriotism. They are so avid for local news that a bicycle-accident in the Harrow Road will occupy more space than a European crisis, and such items of news as ‘Hampstead Man on Murder Charge’ or ‘Dismembered Baby in Cellar in Camberwell’ are displayed with positive pride.

Ravelston described his interview with Mr McKechnie. Mr McKechnie, it seemed, was torn between his rage against Gordon and his desire not to offend such a good customer as Ravelston. But of course, after such a thing like that, you could hardly expect him to take Gordon back. These scandals were bad for trade, and besides, he was justly angry at the lies Flaxman had told him over the phone. But he was angriest of all at the thought of HIS assistant being drunk and disorderly. Ravelston said that the drunkenness seemed to anger him in a way that was peculiar. He gave the impression that he would almost have preferred Gordon to pinch money out of the till. Of course, he was a teetotaller himself. Gordon had sometimes wondered whether he wasn’t also a secret drinker, in the traditional Scottish style. His nose was certainly very red. But perhaps it was snuff that did it. Anyway, that was that. Gordon was in the soup, full fathom five.

‘I suppose the Wisbeach will stick to my clothes and things,’ he said. ‘I’m not going round there to fetch them. Besides, I owe her a week’s rent.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll see to your rent and everything.’

‘My dear chap, I can’t let you pay my rent!’

‘Oh, dash it!’ Ravelston’s face grew faintly pink. He looked miserably into the distance, and then said what he had to say all in a sudden burst: ‘Look here, Gordon, we must get this settled. You’ve just got to stay here till this business has blown over. I’ll see you through about money and all that. You needn’t think you’re being a nuisance, because you’re not. And anyway, it’s only till you get another job.’

Gordon moved moodily away from him, his hands in his pockets. He had foreseen all this, of course. He knew that he ought to refuse, he WANTED to refuse, and yet he had not quite the courage.

‘I’m not going to sponge on you like that,’ he said sulkily.

‘Don’t use such expressions, for God’s sake! Besides, where could you go if you didn’t stay here?’

‘I don’t know — into the gutter, I suppose. It’s where I belong. The sooner I get there the better.’

‘Rot! You’re going to stay here till you’ve found another job.’

‘But there isn’t a job in the world. It might be a year before I found a job. I don’t WANT a job.’

‘You mustn’t talk like that. You’ll find a job right enough. Something’s bound to turn up. And for God’s sake don’t talk about SPONGING on me. It’s only an arrangement between friends. If you really want to, you can pay it all back when you’ve got the money.’

‘Yes — WHEN!’

But in the end he let himself be persuaded. He had known that he would let himself be persuaded. He stayed on at the flat, and allowed Ravelston to go round to Willowbed Road and pay his rent and recover his two cardboard suitcases; he even allowed Ravelston to ‘lend’ him a further two pounds for current expenses. His heart sickened while he did it. He was living on Ravelston — sponging on Ravelston. How could there ever be a real friendship between them again? Besides, in his heart he didn’t want to be helped. He only wanted to be left alone. He was headed for the gutter; better to reach the gutter quickly and get it over. Yet for the time being he stayed, simply because he lacked the courage to do otherwise.

But as for this business of getting a job, it was hopeless from the start. Even Ravelston, though rich, could not manufacture jobs out of nothing. Gordon knew beforehand that there were no jobs going begging in the book trade. During the next three days he wore his shoes out traipsing from bookseller to bookseller. At shop after shop he set his teeth, marched in, demanded to see the manager, and three minutes later marched out again with his nose in the air. The answer was always the same — no jobs vacant. A few booksellers were taking on an extra man for the Christmas rush, but Gordon was not the type they were looking for. He was neither smart nor servile; he wore shabby clothes and spoke with the accent of a gentleman. Besides, a few questions always brought it out that he had been sacked from his last job for drunkenness. After only three days he gave it up. He knew it was no use. It was only to please Ravelston that he had even been pretending to look for work.

In the evening he trailed back to the flat, footsore and with his nerves on edge from a series of snubs. He was making all his journeys on foot, to economize Ravelston’s two pounds. When he got back Ravelston had just come up from the office and was sitting in one of the armchairs in front of the fire, with some long galley-proofs over his knee. He looked up as Gordon came in.

‘Any luck?’ he said as usual.

Gordon did not answer. If he had answered it would have been with a stream of obscenities. Without even looking at Ravelston he went straight into his bedroom, kicked off his shoes, and flung himself on the bed. He hated himself at this moment. Why had he come back? What right had he to come back and sponge on Ravelston when he hadn’t even the intention of looking for a job any longer? He ought to have stayed out in the streets, slept in Trafalgar Square, begged — anything. But he hadn’t the guts to face the streets as yet. The prospect of warmth and shelter had tugged him back. He lay with his hands beneath his head, in a mixture of apathy and self-hatred. After about half an hour he heard the door-bell ring and Ravelston get up to answer it. It was that bitch Hermione Slater, presumably. Ravelston had introduced Gordon to Hermione a couple of days ago, and she had treated him like dirt. But a moment later there was a knock at the bedroom door.

‘What is it?’ said Gordon.

‘Somebody’s come to see you,’ said Ravelston.

‘To see ME?’

‘Yes. Come on into the other room.’

Gordon swore and rolled sluggishly off the bed. When he got to the other room he found that the visitor was Rosemary. He had been half expecting her, of course, but it wearied him to see her. He knew why she had come; to sympathize with him, to pity him, to reproach him — it was all the same. In his despondent, bored mood he did not want to make the effort of talking to her. All he wanted was to be left alone. But Ravelston was glad to see her. He had taken a liking to her in their single meeting and thought she might cheer Gordon up. He made a transparent pretext to go downstairs to the office, leaving the two of them together.

They were alone, but Gordon made no move to embrace her. He was standing in front of the fire, round-shouldered, his hands in his coat pockets, his feet thrust into a pair of Ravelston’s slippers which were much too big for him. She came rather hesitantly towards him, not yet taking off her hat or her coat with the lamb-skin collar. It hurt her to see him. In less than a week his appearance had deteriorated strangely. Already he had that unmistakable, seedy, lounging look of a man who is out of work. His face seemed to have grown thinner, and there were rings round his eyes. Also it was obvious that he had not shaved that day.

She laid her hand on his arm, rather awkwardly, as a woman does when it is she who has to make the first embrace.

‘Gordon —’

‘Well?’

He said it almost sulkily. The next moment she was in his arms. But it was she who had made the first movement, not he. Her head was on his breast, and behold! she was struggling with all her might against the tears that almost overwhelmed her. It bored Gordon dreadfully. He seemed so often to reduce her to tears! And he didn’t want to be cried over; he only wanted to be left alone — alone to sulk and despair. As he held her there, one hand mechanically caressing her shoulder, his main feeling was boredom. She had made things more difficult for him by coming here. Ahead of him were dirt, cold, hunger, the streets, the workhouse, and the jail. It was against THAT that he had got to steel himself. And he could steel himself, if only she would leave him alone and not come plaguing him with these irrelevant emotions.

He pushed her a little way from him. She had recovered herself quickly, as she always did.

‘Gordon, my dear one! Oh, I’m so sorry, so sorry!’

‘Sorry about what?’

‘You losing your job and everything. You look so unhappy.’

‘I’m not unhappy. Don’t pity me, for God’s sake.’

He disengaged himself from her arms. She pulled her hat off and threw it into a chair. She had come here with something definite to say. It was something she had refrained from saying all these years — something that it had seemed to her a point of chivalry not to say. But now it had got to be said, and she would come straight out with it. It was not in her nature to beat about the bush.

‘Gordon, will you do something to please me?’

‘What?’

‘Will you go back to the New Albion?’

So that was it! Of course he had foreseen it. She was going to start nagging at him like all the others. She was going to add herself to the band of people who worried him and badgered him to ‘get on’. But what else could you expect? It was what any woman would say. The marvel was that she had never said it before. Go back to the New Albion! It had been the sole significant action of his life, leaving the New Albion. It was his religion, you might say, to keep out of that filthy money-world. Yet at this moment he could not remember with any clarity the motives for which he had left the New Albion. All he knew was that he would never go back, not if the skies fell, and that the argument he foresaw bored him in advance.

He shrugged his shoulders and looked away. ‘The New Albion wouldn’t take me back,’ he said shortly.

‘Yes, they would. You remember what Mr Erskine said. It’s not so long ago — only two years. And they’re always on the look-out for good copywriters. Everyone at the office says so. I’m sure they’d give you a job if you went and asked them. And they’d pay you at least four pounds a week.’

‘Four pounds a week! Splendid! I could afford to keep an aspidistra on that, couldn’t I?’

‘No, Gordon, don’t joke about it now.’

‘I’m not joking. I’m serious.’

‘You mean you won’t go back to them — not even if they offered you a job?’

‘Not in a thousand years. Not if they paid me fifty pounds a week.’

‘But why? Why?’

‘I’ve told you why,’ he said wearily.

She looked at him helplessly. After all, it was no use. There was this money-business standing in the way — these meaningless scruples which she had never understood but which she had accepted merely because they were his. She felt all the impotence, the resentment of a woman who sees an abstract idea triumphing over common sense. How maddening it was, that he should let himself be pushed into the gutter by a thing like that! She said almost angrily:

‘I don’t understand you, Gordon, I really don’t. Here you are out of work, you may be starving in a little while for all you know; and yet when there’s a good job which you can have almost for the asking, you won’t take it.’

‘No, you’re quite right. I won’t.’

‘But you must have SOME kind of job, mustn’t you?’

‘A job, but not a GOOD job. I’ve explained that God knows how often. I dare say I’ll get a job of sorts sooner or later. The same kind of job as I had before.’

‘But I don’t believe you’re even TRYING to get a job, are you?’

‘Yes, I am. I’ve been out all today seeing booksellers.’

‘And you didn’t even shave this morning!’ she said, changing her ground with feminine swiftness.

He felt his chin. ‘I don’t believe I did, as a matter of fact.’

‘And then you expect people to give you a job! Oh, Gordon!’

‘Oh, well, what does it matter? It’s too much fag to shave every day.’

‘You’re letting yourself go to pieces,’ she said bitterly. ‘You don’t seem to WANT to make any effort. You want to sink — just SINK!’

‘I don’t know — perhaps. I’d sooner sink than rise.’

There were further arguments. It was the first time she had ever spoken to him like this. Once again the tears came into her eyes, and once again she fought them back. She had come here swearing to herself that she would not cry. The dreadful thing was that her tears, instead of distressing him, merely bored him. It was as though he COULD not care, and yet at his very centre there was an inner heart that cared because he could not care. If only she would leave him alone! Alone, alone! Free from the nagging consciousness of his failure; free to sink, as she had said, down, down into quiet worlds where money and effort and moral obligation did not exist. Finally he got away from her and went back to the spare bedroom, it was definitely a quarrel — the first really deadly quarrel they had ever had. Whether it was to be final he did not know. Nor did he care, at this moment. He locked the door behind him and lay on the bed smoking a cigarette. He must get out of this place, and quickly! Tomorrow morning he would clear out. No more sponging on Ravelston! No more blackmail to the gods of decency! Down, down, into the mud — down to the streets, the workhouse, and the jail. It was only there that he could be at peace.

Ravelston came upstairs to find Rosemary alone and on the point of departure. She said good-bye and then suddenly turned to him and laid her hand on his arm. She felt that she knew him well enough now to take him into her confidence.

‘Mr Ravelston, please — WILL you try and persuade Gordon to get a job?’

‘I’ll do what I can. Of course it’s always difficult. But I expect we’ll find him a job of sorts before long.’

‘It’s so dreadful to see him like this! He goes absolutely to pieces. And all the time, you see, there’s a job he could quite easily get if he wanted it — a really GOOD job. It’s not that he can’t, it’s simply that he won’t.’

She explained about the New Albion. Ravelston rubbed his nose.

‘Yes. As a matter of fact I’ve heard all about that. We talked it over when he left the New Albion.’

‘But you don’t think he was right to leave them?’ she said, promptly divining that Ravelston DID think Gordon right.

‘Well — I grant you it wasn’t very wise. But there’s a certain amount of truth in what he says. Capitalism’s corrupt and we ought to keep outside it — that’s his idea. It’s not practicable, but in a way it’s sound.’

‘Oh, I dare say it’s all right as a theory! But when he’s out of work and when he could get this job if he chose to ask for it — SURELY you don’t think he’s right to refuse?’

‘Not from a common-sense point of view. But in principle — well, yes.’

‘Oh, in principle! We can’t afford principles, people like us. THAT’S what Gordon doesn’t seem to understand.’

Gordon did not leave the flat next morning. One resolves to do these things, one WANTS to do them; but when the time comes, in the cold morning light, they somehow don’t get done. He would stay just one day more he told himself; and then again it was ‘just one day more’, until five whole days had passed since Rosemary’s visit, and he was still lurking there, living on Ravelston, with not even a flicker of a job in sight. He still made some pretence of searching for work, but he only did it to save his face. He would go out and loaf for hours in public libraries, and then come home to lie on the bed in the spare bedroom, dressed except for his shoes, smoking endless cigarettes. And for all that inertia and the fear of the streets still held him there, those five days were awful, damnable, unspeakable. There is nothing more dreadful in the world than to live in somebody else’s house, eating his bread and doing nothing in return for it. And perhaps it is worst of all when your benefactor won’t for a moment admit that he is your benefactor. Nothing could have exceeded Ravelston’s delicacy. He would have perished rather than admit that Gordon was sponging on him. He had paid Gordon’s fine, he had paid his arrears of rent, he had kept him for a week, and he had ‘lent’ him two pounds on top of that; but it was nothing, it was a mere arrangement between friends, Gordon would do the same for him another time. From time to time Gordon made feeble efforts to escape, which always ended in the same way.

‘Look here, Ravelston, I can’t stay here any longer. You’ve kept me long enough. I’m going to clear out tomorrow morning.’

‘But my dear old chap! Do be sensible. You haven’t —’ But no! Not even now, when Gordon was openly on the rocks, could Ravelston say, ‘You haven’t got any money.’ One can’t say things like that. He compromised: ‘Where are you going to live, anyway?’

‘God knows — I don’t care. There are common lodging-houses and places. I’ve got a few bob left.’

‘Don’t be such an ass. You’d much better stay here till you’ve found a job.’

‘But it might be months, I tell you. I can’t live on you like this.’

‘Rot, my dear chap! I like having you here.’

But of course, in his inmost heart, he didn’t really like having Gordon there. How should he? It was an impossible situation. There was a tension between them all the time. It is always so when one person is living on another. However delicately disguised, charity is still horrible; there is a malaise, almost a secret hatred, between the giver and the receiver. Gordon knew that his friendship with Ravelston would never be the same again. Whatever happened afterwards, the memory of this evil time would be between them. The feeling of his dependent position, of being in the way, unwanted, a nuisance, was with him night and day. At meals he would scarcely eat, he would not smoke Ravelston’s cigarettes, but bought himself cigarettes out of his few remaining shillings. He would not even light the gas-fire in his bedroom. He would have made himself invisible if he could. Every day, of course, people were coming and going at the flat and at the office. All of them saw Gordon and grasped his status. Another of Ravelston’s pet scroungers, they all said. He even detected a gleam of professional jealousy in one or two of the hangers-on of Antichrist. Three times during that week Hermione Slater came. After his first encounter with her he fled from the flat as soon as she appeared; on one occasion, when she came at night, he had to stay out of doors till after midnight. Mrs Beaver, the charwoman, had also ‘seen through’ Gordon. She knew his type. He was another of those good-for-nothing young ‘writing gentlemen’ who sponged on poor Mr Ravelston. So in none too subtle ways she made things uncomfortable for Gordon. Her favourite trick was to rout him out with broom and pan —‘Now, Mr Comstock, I’ve got to do this room out, IF you please’— from whichever room he had settled down in.

But in the end, unexpectedly and through no effort of his own, Gordon did get a job. One morning a letter came for Ravelston from Mr McKechnie. Mr McKechnie had relented — not to the extent of taking Gordon back, of course, but to the extent of helping him find another job. He said that a Mr Cheeseman, a bookseller in Lambeth, was looking for an assistant. From what he said it was evident that Gordon could get the job if he applied for it; it was equally evident that there was some snag about the job. Gordon had vaguely heard of Mr Cheeseman — in the book trade everybody knows everybody else. In his heart the news bored him. He didn’t really want this job. He didn’t want ever to work again; all he wanted was to sink, sink, effortless, down into the mud. But he couldn’t disappoint Ravelston after all Ravelston had done for him. So the same morning he went down to Lambeth to inquire about the job.

The shop was in the desolate stretch of road south of Waterloo Bridge. It was a poky, mean-looking shop, and the name over it, in faded gilt, was not Cheeseman but Eldridge. In the window, however, there were some valuable calf folios, and some sixteenth-century maps which Gordon thought must be worth money. Evidently Mr Cheeseman specialized in ‘rare’ books. Gordon plucked up his courage and went in.

As the door-bell ping’d, a tiny, evil-looking creature, with a sharp nose and heavy black eyebrows, emerged from the office behind the shop. He looked up at Gordon with a kind of nosy malice. When he spoke it was in an extraordinary clipped manner, as though he were biting each word in half before it escaped from him. ‘Ot c’n I do f’yer!’— that approximately was what it sounded like. Gordon explained why he had come. Mr Cheeseman shot a meaning glance at him and answered in the same clipped manner as before:

‘Oh, eh? Comstock, eh? Come ‘is way. Got mi office back here. Bin ‘specting you.’

Gordon followed him. Mr Cheeseman was a rather sinister little man, almost small enough to be called a dwarf, with very black hair, and slightly deformed. As a rule a dwarf, when malformed, has a full-sized torso and practically no legs. With Mr Cheeseman it was the other way about. His legs were normal length, but the top half of his body was so short that his buttocks seemed to sprout almost immediately below his shoulder blades. This gave him, in walking, a resemblance to a pair of scissors. He had the powerful bony shoulders of the dwarf, the large ugly hands, and the sharp nosing movements of the head. His clothes had that peculiar hardened, shiny texture of clothes that are very old and very dirty. They were just going into the office when the door-bell ping’d again, and a customer came in, holding out a book from the sixpenny box outside and half a crown. Mr Cheeseman did not take the change out of the till — apparently there was no till — but produced a very greasy wash-leather purse from some secret place under his waistcoat. He handled the purse, which was almost lost in his big hands, in a peculiarly secretive way, as though to hide it from sight.

‘I like keep mi money i’ mi pocket,’ he explained, with an upward glance, as they went into the office.

It was apparent that Mr Cheeseman clipped his words from a notion that words cost money and ought not to be wasted. In the office they had a talk, and Mr Cheeseman extorted from Gordon the confession that he had been sacked for drunkenness. As a matter of fact he knew all about this already. He had heard about Gordon from Mr McKechnie, whom he had met at an auction a few days earlier. He had pricked up his ears when he heard the story, for he was on the look-out for an assistant, and clearly an assistant who had been sacked for drunkenness would come at reduced wages. Gordon saw that his drunkenness was going to be used as a weapon against him. Yet Mr Cheeseman did not seem absolutely unfriendly. He seemed to be the kind of person who will cheat you if he can, and bully you if you give him the chance, but who will also regard you with a contemptuous good-humour. He took Gordon into his confidence, talked of conditions in the trade, and boasted with much chuckling of his own astuteness. He had a peculiar chuckle, his mouth curving upwards at the corners and his large nose seeming about to disappear into it.

Recently, he told Gordon, he had had an idea for a profitable side-line. He was going to start a twopenny library; but it would have to be quite separate from the shop, because anything so low-class would frighten away the book-lovers who came to the shop in search of ‘rare’ books. He had taken premises a little distance away, and in the lunch-hour he took Gordon to see them. They were farther down the dreary street, between a flyblown ham-and-beef shop and a smartish undertaker. The ads in the undertaker’s window caught Gordon’s eye. It seems you can get underground for as little as two pounds ten nowadays. You can even get buried on the hire-purchase. There was also an ad for cremations —‘Reverent, Sanitary, and Inexpensive.’

The premises consisted of a single narrow room — a mere pipe of a room with a window as wide as itself, furnished with a cheap desk, one chair, and a card index. The new-painted shelves were ready and empty. This was not, Gordon saw at a glance, going to be the kind of library that he had presided over at McKechnie’s. McKechnie’s library had been comparatively highbrow. It had dredged no deeper than Dell, and it even had books by Lawrence and Huxley. But this was one of those cheap arid evil little libraries (‘mushroom libraries’, they are called) which are springing up all over London and are deliberately aimed at the uneducated. In libraries like these there is not a single book that is ever mentioned in the reviews or that any civilized person has ever heard of. The books are published by special low-class firms and turned out by wretched hacks at the rate of four a year, as mechanically as sausages and with much less skill. In effect they are merely fourpenny novelettes disguised as novels, and they only cost the library-proprietor one and eightpence a volume. Mr Cheeseman explained that he had not ordered the books yet. He spoke of ‘ordering the books’ as one might speak of ordering a ton of coals. He was going to start with five hundred assorted titles, he said. The shelves were already marked off into sections —‘Sex’, ‘Crime’, ‘Wild West’, and so forth.

He offered Gordon the job. It was very simple. All you had to do was to remain there ten hours a day, hand out the book, take the money, and choke off the more obvious book-pinchers. The pay, he added with a measuring, sidelong glance, was thirty shillings a week.

Gordon accepted promptly. Mr Cheeseman was perhaps faintly disappointed. He had expected an argument, and would have enjoyed crushing Gordon by reminding him that beggars can’t be choosers. But Gordon was satisfied. The job would do. There was no TROUBLE about a job like this; no room for ambition, no effort, no hope. Ten bob less — ten bob nearer the mud. It was what he wanted.

He ‘borrowed’ another two pounds from Ravelston and took a furnished bed-sitting room, eight bob a week, in a filthy alley parallel to Lambeth Cut. Mr Cheeseman ordered the five hundred assorted titles, and Gordon started work on the twentieth of December. This, as it happened, was his thirtieth birthday.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 20:48