Born in Exile, by George Gissing

Part IV

Chapter I

Earwaker’s struggle with the editor-inchief of The Weekly Post and the journalist Kenyon came to its natural close about a month after Godwin Peak’s disappearance. Only a vein of obstinacy in his character had kept him so long in a position he knew to be untenable. From the first his sympathy with Mr. Runcorn’s politics had been doubtful, and experience of the working of a Sunday newspaper, which appealed to the ignobly restive, could not encourage his adhesion to this form of Radicalism. He anticipated dismissal by retirement, and Kenyon, a man of coarsely vigorous fibre, at once stepped into his place.

Now that he had leisure to review the conflict, Earwaker understood that circumstances had but hastened his transition from a moderate ardour in the parliamentary cause of the people, to a regretful neutrality regarding all political movements. Birth allied him with the proletarian class, and his sentiment in favour of democracy was unendangered by the disillusions which must come upon every intellectual man brought into close contact with public affairs. The course of an education essentially aristocratic (Greek and Latin can have no other tendency so long as they are the privilege of the few) had not affected his natural bent, nor was he the man to be driven into reaction because of obstacles to his faith inseparable from human weakness. He had learnt that the emancipation of the poor and untaught must proceed more slowly than he once hoped — that was all. Restored to generous calm, he could admit that such men as Runcorn and Kenyon — the one with his polyarchic commercialism, the other with his demagogic violence — had possibly a useful part to play at the present stage of things. He, however, could have no place in that camp. Too indiscreetly he had hoisted his standard of idealism, and by stubborn resistance of insuperable forces he had merely brought forward the least satisfactory elements of his own character. ‘Hold on!’ cried Malkin. ‘Fight the grovellers to the end!’ But Earwaker had begun to see himself in a light of ridicule. There was just time to save his self-respect.

He was in no concern for his daily bread. With narrower resources in the world of print, he might have been compelled, like many another journalist, to swallow his objections and write as Runcorn dictated; for the humble folks at home could not starve to allow him the luxury of conscientiousness, whatever he might have been disposed to do on his own account. Happily, his pen had a scope beyond politics, and by working steadily for reviews, with which he was already connected, he would be able to keep his finances in reasonable order until, perchance, some hopeful appointment offered itself. In a mood of much cheerfulness he turned for ever from party uproar, and focused his mind upon those interests of humanity which so rarely coincide with the aims of any league among men.

Half a year went by, and at length he granted himself a short holiday, the first in a twelvemonth. It took the form of a voyage to Marseilles, and thence of a leisurely ramble up the Rhone. Before returning, he spent a day or two in Paris, for the most part beneath cafe’ awnings, or on garden seats — an indulgence of contented laziness.

On the day of his departure, he climbed the towers of Notre Dame, and lingered for half-an-hour in pleasant solitude among the stone monsters. His reverie was broken by an English voice, loud and animated:

‘Come and look at this old demon of a bird; he has always been a favourite of mine. — Sure you’re not tired, Miss Bella? When you want to rest, Miss Lily, mind you say so at once. What a day! What a sky! — When I was last up here I had my hat blown away. I watched it as far as Montmartre. A fact! Never knew such a wind in my life — unless it was that tornado I told you about — Hollo! By the powers, if that isn’t Earwaker! Confound you, old fellow! How the deuce do you do? What a glorious meeting! Hadn’t the least idea where you were! — Let me have the pleasure of introducing you to Mrs. Jacox — and to Miss Jacox — and to Miss Lily. They all know you thoroughly well. Now who would have thought of our meeting up here! Glorious!’

It was with some curiosity that Earwaker regarded the companions of his friend Malkin — whose proximity was the last thing he could have imagined, as only a few weeks ago he had heard of the restless fellow’s departing, on business unknown, for Boston, US. Mrs. Jacox, the widow whose wrongs had made such an impression on Malkin, announced herself, in a thin, mealy face and rag-doll figure, as not less than forty, though her irresponsible look made it evident that years profited her nothing, and suggested an explanation of the success with which she had been victimised. She was stylishly dressed, and had the air of enjoying an unusual treat. Her children were of more promising type, though Earwaker would hardly have supposed them so old as he knew them to be. Bella, just beyond her fourteenth year, had an intelligent prettiness, but was excessively shy; in giving her hand to the stranger she flushed over face and neck, and her bosom palpitated visibly. Her sister, two years younger, was a mere child, rather self-conscious, but of laughing temper. Their toilet suited ill with that of their mother; its plainness and negligence might have passed muster in London, but here, under the lucent sky, it seemed a wrong to their budding maidenhood.

‘Mrs. Jacox is on the point of returning to England,’ Malkin explained. ‘I happened to meet her, by chance — I’m always meeting my friends by chance; you, for instance, Earwaker. She is so good as to allow me to guide her and the young ladies to a few of the sights of Paris.’

‘O Mr. Malkin!’ exclaimed the widow, with a stress on the exclamation peculiar to herself — two notes of deprecating falsetto. ‘How can you say it is good of me, when I’m sure there are no words for your kindness to us all! If only you knew our debt to your friend, Mr Earwaker! To our dying day we must all remember it. It is entirely through Mr. Malkin that we are able to leave that most disagreeable Rouen — a place I shall never cease to think of with horror. O Mr Earwaker! you have only to think of that wretched railway station, stuck between two black tunnels! O Mr. Malkin!’

‘What are you doing?’ Malkin inquired of the journalist. ‘How long shall you be here? Why haven’t I heard from you?’

‘I go to London to-night.’

‘And we tomorrow. On Friday I’ll look you up. Stay, can’t you dine with me this evening? Anywhere you like. These ladies will be glad to be rid of me, and to dine in peace at their hotel.’

‘O Mr. Malkin!’ piped the widow, ‘you know how very far that is from the truth. But we shall be very glad indeed to know that you are enjoying yourself with Mr. Earwaker.’

The friends made an appointment to meet near the Madeleine, and Earwaker hastened to escape the sound of Mrs. Jacox’s voice.

Punctual at the rendezvous, Malkin talked with his wonted effusiveness as he led towards the Cafe Anglais.

‘I’ve managed it, my boy! The most complete success! I had to run over to Boston to get hold of a scoundrelly relative of that poor woman. You should have seen how I came over him — partly dignified sternness, partly justifiable cajolery. The affair only wanted some one to take it up in earnest. I have secured her about a couple of hundred a year — withheld on the most paltry and transparent pretences. They’re going to live at Wrotham, in Kent, where Mrs Jacox has friends. I never thought myself so much of a man of business. Of course old Haliburton, the lawyer, had a hand in it, but without my personal energy it would have taken him a year longer. What do you think of the girls? How do you like Bella?’

‘A pretty child.’

‘Child? Well, yes, yes — immature of course; but I’m rather in the habit of thinking of her as a young lady. In three years she’ll be seventeen, you know. Of course you couldn’t form a judgment of her character. She’s quite remarkably mature for her age; and, what delights me most of all, a sturdy Radical! She takes the most intelligent interest in all political and social movements, I assure you! There’s a great deal of democratic fire in her.’

‘You’re sure it isn’t reflected from your own fervour?’

‘Not a bit of it! You should have seen her excitement when we were at the Bastille Column yesterday. She’ll make a splendid woman, I assure you. Lily’s very interesting, too — profoundly interesting. But then she is certainly very young, so I can’t feel so sure of her on the great questions. She hasn’t her sister’s earnestness, I fancy.’

In the after-glow of dinner, Malkin became still more confidential.

‘You remember what I said to you long since? My mind is made up — practically made up. I shall devote myself to Bella’s education, in the hope — you understand me? Impossible to have found a girl who suited better with my aspirations. She has known the hardships of poverty, poor thing, and that will keep her for ever in sympathy with the downtrodden classes. She has a splendid intelligence, and it shall be cultivated to the utmost.’

‘One word,’ said Earwaker, soberly. ‘We have heard before of men who waited for girls to grow up. Be cautious, my dear fellow, both on your own account and hers.’

‘My dear Earwaker! Don’t imagine for a moment that I take it for granted she will get to be fond of me. My attitude is one of the most absolute discretion. You must have observed how I behaved to them all — scrupulous courtesy, I trust; no more familiarity than any friend might be permitted. I should never dream of addressing the girls without ceremonious prefix — never! I talk of Bella’s education, but be assured that I regard my own as a matter of quite as much importance. I mean, that I shall strive incessantly to make myself worthy of her. No laxity! For these next three years I shall live as becomes a man who has his eyes constantly on a high ideal — the pure and beautiful girl whom he humbly hopes to win for a wife.’

The listener was moved. He raised his wine-glass to conceal the smile which might have been misunderstood. In his heart he felt more admiration than had yet mingled with his liking for this strange fellow.

‘And Mrs. Jacox herself,’ pursued Malkin; ‘she has her weaknesses, as we all have. I don’t think her a very strong-minded woman, to tell the truth. But there’s a great deal of goodness in her. If there’s one thing I desire in people, it is the virtue of gratitude, and Mrs Jacox is grateful almost to excess for the paltry exertions I have made on her behalf. You know that kind of thing costs me nothing; you know I like running about and getting things done. But the poor woman imagines that I have laid her under an eternal obligation. Of course I shall show her in time that it was nothing at all; that she might have done just as much for herself if she had known how to go about it.’

Earwaker was musing, a wrinkle of uneasiness at the corner of his eye.

‘She isn’t the kind of woman, you know, one can regard as a mother. But we are the best possible friends. She may, perhaps, think of me as a possible son-inlaw. Poor thing; I hope she does. Perhaps it will help to put her mind at rest about the girls.’

‘Then shall you often be down at Wrotham?’ inquired the journalist, abstractedly.

‘Oh, not often — that is to say, only once a month or so, just to look in. I wanted to ask you: do you think I might venture to begin a correspondence with Bella?’

‘M— m — m! I can’t say.’

‘It would be so valuable, you know. I could suggest books for her reading; I could help her in her study of politics, and so on.’

‘Well, think about it. But be cautious, I beg of you. Now I must be off. Only just time enough to get my traps to the station.’

‘I’ll come with you. Gare du Nord? Oh, plenty of time, plenty of time! Nothing so abominable as waiting for trains. I make a point of never getting to the station more than three minutes before time. Astonishing what one can do in three minutes! I want to tell you about an adventure I had in Boston. Met a fellow so devilish like Peak that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t he himself. I spoke to him, but he swore that he knew not the man. Never saw such a likeness!’

‘Curious. It may have been Peak.’

‘By all that’s suspicious, I can’t help thinking the same! He had an English accent, too.’

‘Queer business, this of Peak’s. I hope I may live to hear the end of the story.’

They left the restaurant, and in a few hours Earwaker was again on English soil.

At Staple Inn a pile of letters awaited him, among them a note from Christian Moxey, asking for an appointment as soon as possible after the journalist’s return. Earwaker at once sent an invitation, and on the next evening Moxey came. An intimacy had grown up between the two, since the mysterious retreat of their common friend. Christian was at first lost without the companionship of Godwin Peak; he forsook his studies, and fell into a state of complete idleness which naturally fostered his tendency to find solace in the decanter. With Earwaker, he could not talk as unreservedly as with Peak, but on the other hand there was a tonic influence in the journalist’s personality which he recognised as beneficial. Earwaker was steadily making his way in the world, lived a life of dignified independence. What was the secret of these strong, calm natures? Might it not be learnt by studious inspection?

‘How well you look!’ Christian exclaimed, on entering. ‘We enjoyed your Provencal letter enormously. That’s a ramble I have always meant to do. Next year perhaps.’

‘Why not this? Haven’t you got into a dangerous habit of postponement?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid I have. But, by-the-bye, no news of Peak, I suppose?’

Earwaker related the story he had heard from Malkin, adding:

‘You must remember that they met only once in London; Malkin might very well mistake another man for Peak.’

‘Yes,’ replied the other musingly. ‘Yet it isn’t impossible that Peak has gone over there. If so, what on earth can he be up to? Why should he hide from his friends?’

Cherchez la femme,’ said the journalist, with a smile. ‘I can devise no other explanation.’

‘But I can’t see that it would be an explanation at all. Grant even — something unavowable, you know — are we Puritans? How could it harm him, at all events, to let us know his whereabouts? No such mystery ever came into my experience. It is too bad of Peak; it’s confoundedly unkind.’

‘Suppose he has found it necessary to assume a character wholly fictitious — or, let us say, quite inconsistent with his life and opinions as known to us?’

This was a fruitful suggestion, long in Earwaker’s mind, but not hitherto communicated. Christian did not at once grasp its significance.

‘How could that be necessary? Peak is no swindler. You don’t imply that he is engaged in some fraud?’

‘Not in the ordinary sense, decidedly. But picture some girl or woman of conventional opinions and surroundings. What if he resolved to win such a wife, at the expense of disguising his true self?’

‘But what an extraordinary idea!’ cried Moxey. ‘Why Peak is all but a woman-hater!’

The journalist uttered croaking laughter.

‘Have I totally misunderstood him?’ asked Christian, confused and abashed.

‘I think it not impossible.’

‘You amaze me! — But no, no; you are wrong, Earwaker. Wrong in your suggestion, I mean. Peak could never sink to that. He is too uncompromising’——

‘Well, it will be explained some day, I suppose.’

And with a shrug of impatience, the journalist turned to another subject. He, too, regretted his old friend’s disappearance, and in a measure resented it. Godwin Peak was not a man to slip out of one’s life and leave no appreciable vacancy. Neither of these men admired him, in the true sense of the word, yet had his voice sounded at the door both would have sprung up with eager welcome. He was a force — and how many such beings does one encounter in a lifetime?

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54