A touch of congestion in the right lung was a warning to Reardon that his half-year of insufficient food and general waste of strength would make the coming winter a hard time for him, worse probably than the last. Biffen, responding in person to the summons, found him in bed, waited upon by a gaunt, dry, sententious woman of sixty — not the landlady, but a lodger who was glad to earn one meal a day by any means that offered.
‘It wouldn’t be very nice to die here, would it?’ said the sufferer, with a laugh which was cut short by a cough. ‘One would like a comfortable room, at least. Why, I don’t know. I dreamt last night that I was in a ship that had struck something and was going down; and it wasn’t the thought of death that most disturbed me, but a horror of being plunged in the icy water. In fact, I have had just the same feeling on shipboard. I remember waking up midway between Corfu and Brindisi, on that shaky tub of a Greek boat; we were rolling a good deal, and I heard a sort of alarmed rush and shouting up on deck. It was so warm and comfortable in the berth, and I thought with intolerable horror of the possibility of sousing into the black depths.’
‘Don’t talk, my boy,’ advised Biffen. ‘Let me read you the new chapter of “Mr Bailey.” It may induce a refreshing slumber.’
Reardon was away from his duties for a week; he returned to them with a feeling of extreme shakiness, an indisposition to exert himself, and a complete disregard of the course that events were taking. It was fortunate that he had kept aside that small store of money designed for emergencies; he was able to draw on it now to pay his doctor, and provide himself with better nourishment than usual. He purchased new boots, too, and some articles of warm clothing of which he stood in need — an alarming outlay.
A change had come over him; he was no longer rendered miserable by thoughts of Amy — seldom, indeed, turned his mind to her at all. His secretaryship at Croydon was a haven within view; the income of seventy-five pounds (the other half to go to his wife) would support him luxuriously, and for anything beyond that he seemed to care little. Next Sunday he was to go over to Croydon and see the institution.
One evening of calm weather he made his way to Clipstone Street and greeted his friend with more show of light-heartedness than he had been capable of for at least two years.
‘I have been as nearly as possible a happy man all to-day,’ he said, when his pipe was well lit. ‘Partly the sunshine, I suppose. There’s no saying if the mood will last, but if it does all is well with me. I regret nothing and wish for nothing.’
‘A morbid state of mind,’ was Biffen’s opinion.
‘No doubt of that, but I am content to be indebted to morbidness. One must have a rest from misery somehow. Another kind of man would have taken to drinking; that has tempted me now and then, I assure you. But I couldn’t afford it. Did you ever feel tempted to drink merely for the sake of forgetting trouble?’
‘Often enough. I have done it. I have deliberately spent a certain proportion of the money that ought to have gone for food in the cheapest kind of strong liquor.’
‘Ha! that’s interesting. But it never got the force of a habit you had to break?’
‘No. Partly, I dare say, because I had the warning of poor Sykes before my eyes.’
‘You never see that poor fellow?’
‘Never. He must be dead, I think. He would die either in the hospital or the workhouse.’
‘Well,’ said Reardon, musing cheerfully, ‘I shall never become a drunkard; I haven’t that diathesis, to use your expression. Doesn’t it strike you that you and I are very respectable persons? We really have no vices. Put us on a social pedestal, and we should be shining lights of morality. I sometimes wonder at our inoffensiveness. Why don’t we run amuck against law and order? Why, at the least, don’t we become savage revolutionists, and harangue in Regent’s Park of a Sunday?’
‘Because we are passive beings, and were meant to enjoy life very quietly. As we can’t enjoy, we just suffer quietly, that’s all. By-the-bye, I want to talk about a difficulty in one of the Fragments of Euripides. Did you ever go through the Fragments?’
This made a diversion for half an hour. Then Reardon returned to his former line of thought.
‘As I was entering patients yesterday, there came up to the table a tall, good-looking, very quiet girl, poorly dressed, but as neat as could be. She gave me her name, then I asked “Occupation?” She said at once, “I’m unfortunate, sir.” I couldn’t help looking up at her in surprise; I had taken it for granted she was a dressmaker or something of the kind. And, do you know, I never felt so strong an impulse to shake hands, to show sympathy, and even respect, in some way. I should have liked to say, “Why, I am unfortunate, too!” such a good, patient face she had.’
‘I distrust such appearances,’ said Biffen in his quality of realist.
‘Well, so do I, as a rule. But in this case they were convincing. And there was no need whatever for her to make such a declaration; she might just as well have said anything else; it’s the merest form. I shall always hear her voice saying, “I’m unfortunate, sir.” She made me feel what a mistake it was for me to marry such a girl as Amy. I ought to have looked about for some simple, kind-hearted work-girl; that was the kind of wife indicated for me by circumstances. If I had earned a hundred a year she would have thought we were well-to-do. I should have been an authority to her on everything under the sun — and above it. No ambition would have unsettled her. We should have lived in a couple of poor rooms somewhere, and — we should have loved each other.’
‘What a shameless idealist you are!’ said Biffen, shaking his head. ‘Let me sketch the true issue of such a marriage. To begin with, the girl would have married you in firm persuasion that you were a “gentleman” in temporary difficulties, and that before long you would have plenty of money to dispose of. Disappointed in this hope, she would have grown sharp-tempered, querulous, selfish. All your endeavours to make her understand you would only have resulted in widening the impassable gulf. She would have misconstrued your every sentence, found food for suspicion in every harmless joke, tormented you with the vulgarest forms of jealousy. The effect upon your nature would have been degrading. In the end, you must have abandoned every effort to raise her to your own level, and either have sunk to hers or made a rupture. Who doesn’t know the story of such attempts? I myself ten years ago, was on the point of committing such a folly, but, Heaven be praised! an accident saved me.’
‘You never told me that story.’
‘And don’t care to now. I prefer to forget it.’
‘Well, you can judge for yourself but not for me. Of course I might have chosen the wrong girl, but I am supposing that I had been fortunate. In any case there would have been a much better chance than in the marriage that I made.’
‘Your marriage was sensible enough, and a few years hence you will be a happy man again.’
‘You seriously think Amy will come back to me?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Upon my word, I don’t know that I desire it.’
‘Because you are in a strangely unhealthy state.’
‘I rather think I regard the matter more sanely than ever yet. I am quite free from sexual bias. I can see that Amy was not my fit intellectual companion, and all emotion at the thought of her has gone from me. The word “love” is a weariness to me. If only our idiotic laws permitted us to break the legal bond, how glad both of us would be!’
‘You are depressed and anaemic. Get yourself in flesh, and view things like a man of this world.’
‘But don’t you think it the best thing that can happen to a man if he outgrows passion?’
‘In certain circumstances, no doubt.’
‘In all and any. The best moments of life are those when we contemplate beauty in the purely artistic spirit — objectively. I have had such moments in Greece and Italy; times when I was a free spirit, utterly remote from the temptations and harassings of sexual emotion. What we call love is mere turmoil. Who wouldn’t release himself from it for ever, if the possibility offered?’
‘Oh, there’s a good deal to be said for that, of course.’
Reardon’s face was illumined with the glow of an exquisite memory.
‘Haven’t I told you,’ he said, ‘of that marvellous sunset at Athens? I was on the Pnyx; had been rambling about there the whole afternoon. For I dare say a couple of hours I had noticed a growing rift of light in the clouds to the west; it looked as if the dull day might have a rich ending. That rift grew broader and brighter — the only bit of light in the sky. On Parnes there were white strips of ragged mist, hanging very low; the same on Hymettus, and even the peak of Lycabettus was just hidden. Of a sudden, the sun’s rays broke out. They showed themselves first in a strangely beautiful way, striking from behind the seaward hills through the pass that leads to Eleusis, and so gleaming on the nearer slopes of Aigaleos, making the clefts black and the rounded parts of the mountain wonderfully brilliant with golden colour. All the rest of the landscape, remember, was untouched with a ray of light. This lasted only a minute or two, then the sun itself sank into the open patch of sky and shot glory in every direction; broadening beams smote upwards over the dark clouds, and made them a lurid yellow. To the left of the sun, the gulf of Aegina was all golden mist, the islands floating in it vaguely. To the right, over black Salamis, lay delicate strips of pale blue — indescribably pale and delicate.’
‘You remember it very clearly.’
‘As if I saw it now! But wait. I turned eastward, and there to my astonishment was a magnificent rainbow, a perfect semicircle, stretching from the foot of Parnes to that of Hymettus, framing Athens and its hills, which grew brighter and brighter — the brightness for which there is no name among colours. Hymettus was of a soft misty warmth, a something tending to purple, its ridges marked by exquisitely soft and indefinite shadows, the rainbow coming right down in front. The Acropolis simply glowed and blazed. As the sun descended all these colours grew richer and warmer; for a moment the landscape was nearly crimson. Then suddenly the sun passed into the lower stratum of cloud, and the splendour died almost at once, except that there remained the northern half of the rainbow, which had become double. In the west, the clouds were still glorious for a time; there were two shaped like great expanded wings, edged with refulgence.’
‘Stop!’ cried Biffen, ‘or I shall clutch you by the throat. I warned you before that I can’t stand those reminiscences.’
‘Live in hope. Scrape together twenty pounds, and go there, if you die of hunger afterwards.’
‘I shall never have twenty shillings,’ was the despondent answer.
‘I feel sure you will sell “Mr Bailey.”’
‘It’s kind of you to encourage me; but if “Mr Bailey” is ever sold I don’t mind undertaking to eat my duplicate of the proofs.’
‘But now, you remember what led me to that. What does a man care for any woman on earth when he is absorbed in contemplation of that kind?’
‘But it is only one of life’s satisfactions.’
‘I am only maintaining that it is the best, and infinitely preferable to sexual emotion. It leaves, no doubt, no bitterness of any kind. Poverty can’t rob me of those memories. I have lived in an ideal world that was not deceitful, a world which seems to me, when I recall it, beyond the human sphere, bathed in diviner light.’
It was four or five days after this that Reardon, on going to his work in City Road, found a note from Carter. It requested him to call at the main hospital at half-past eleven the next morning. He supposed the appointment had something to do with his business at Croydon, whither he had been in the mean time. Some unfavourable news, perhaps; any misfortune was likely.
He answered the summons punctually, and on entering the general office was requested by the clerk to wait in Mr Carter’s private room; the secretary had not yet arrived. His waiting lasted some ten minutes, then the door opened and admitted, not Carter, but Mrs Edmund Yule.
Reardon stood up in perturbation. He was anything but prepared, or disposed, for an interview with this lady. She came towards him with hand extended and a countenance of suave friendliness.
‘I doubted whether you would see me if I let you know,’ she said. ‘Forgive me this little bit of scheming, will you? I have something so very important to speak to you about.’
He said nothing, but kept a demeanour of courtesy.
‘I think you haven’t heard from Amy?’ Mrs Yule asked.
‘Not since I saw her.’
‘And you don’t know what has come to pass?’
‘I have heard of nothing.’
‘I am come to see you quite on my own responsibility, quite. I took Mr Carter into my confidence, but begged him not to let Mrs Carter know, lest she should tell Amy; I think he will keep his promise. It seemed to me that it was really my duty to do whatever I could in these sad, sad circumstances.’
Reardon listened respectfully, but without sign of feeling.
‘I had better tell you at once that Amy’s uncle at Wattleborough is dead, and that in his will he has bequeathed her ten thousand pounds.’
Mrs Yule watched the effect of this. For a moment none was visible, but she saw at length that Reardon’s lips trembled and his eyebrows twitched.
‘I am glad to hear of her good fortune,’ he said distantly and in even tones.
‘You will feel, I am sure,’ continued his mother-in-law, ‘that this must put an end to your most unhappy differences.’
‘How can it have that result?’
‘It puts you both in a very different position, does it not? But for your distressing circumstances, I am sure there would never have been such unpleasantness — never. Neither you nor Amy is the kind of person to take a pleasure in disagreement. Let me beg you to go and see her again. Everything is so different now. Amy has not the faintest idea that I have come to see you, and she mustn’t on any account be told, for her worst fault is that sensitive pride of hers. And I’m sure you won’t be offended, Edwin, if I say that you have very much the same failing. Between two such sensitive people differences might last a lifetime, unless one could be persuaded to take the first step. Do be generous! A woman is privileged to be a little obstinate, it is always said. Overlook the fault, and persuade her to let bygones be bygones.’
There was an involuntary affectedness in Mrs Yule’s speech which repelled Reardon. He could not even put faith in her assurance that Amy knew nothing of this intercession. In any case it was extremely distasteful to him to discuss such matters with Mrs Yule.
‘Under no circumstances could I do more than I already have done,’ he replied. ‘And after what you have told me, it is impossible for me to go and see her unless she expressly invites me.’
‘Oh, if only you would overcome this sensitiveness!’
‘It is not in my power to do so. My poverty, as you justly say, was the cause of our parting; but if Amy is no longer poor, that is very far from a reason why I should go to her as a suppliant for forgiveness.’
‘But do consider the facts of the case, independently of feeling.
I really think I don’t go too far in saying that at least some — some provocation was given by you first of all. I am so very, very far from wishing to say anything disagreeable — I am sure you feel that — but wasn’t there some little ground for complaint on Amy’s part? Wasn’t there, now?’
Reardon was tortured with nervousness. He wished to be alone, to think over what had happened, and Mrs Yule’s urgent voice rasped upon his ears. Its very smoothness made it worse.
‘There may have been ground for grief and concern,’ he answered, ‘but for complaint, no, I think not.’
‘But I understand’ — the voice sounded rather irritable now — ‘that you positively reproached and upbraided her because she was reluctant to go and live in some very shocking place.’
‘I may have lost my temper after Amy had shown — But I can’t review our troubles in this way.’
‘Am I to plead in vain?’
‘I regret very much that I can’t possibly do as you wish. It is all between Amy and myself. Interference by other people cannot do any good.’
‘I am sorry you should use such a word as “interference,”’ replied Mrs Yule, bridling a little. ‘Very sorry, indeed. I confess it didn’t occur to me that my good-will to you could be seen in that light.’
‘Believe me that I didn’t use the word offensively.’
‘Then you refuse to take any step towards a restoration of good feeling?’
‘I am obliged to, and Amy would understand perfectly why I say so.’
His earnestness was so unmistakable that Mrs Yule had no choice but to rise and bring the interview to an end. She commanded herself sufficiently to offer a regretful hand.
‘I can only say that my daughter is very, very unfortunate.’
Reardon lingered a little after her departure, then left the hospital and walked at a rapid pace in no particular direction.
Ah! if this had happened in the first year of his marriage, what more blessed man than he would have walked the earth! But it came after irreparable harm. No amount of wealth could undo the ruin caused by poverty.
It was natural for him, as soon as he could think with deliberation, to turn towards his only friend. But on calling at the house in Clipstone Street he found the garret empty, and no one could tell him when its occupant was likely to be back. He left a note, and made his way back to Islington. The evening had to be spent at the hospital, but on his return Biffen sat waiting for him.
‘You called about twelve, didn’t you?’ the visitor inquired.
‘I was at the police-court. Odd thing — but it always happens so — that I should have spoken of Sykes the other night. Last night I came upon a crowd in Oxford Street, and the nucleus of it was no other than Sykes himself very drunk and disorderly, in the grip of two policemen. Nothing could be done for him; I was useless as bail; he e’en had to sleep in the cell. But I went this morning to see what would become of him. Such a spectacle when they brought him forward! It was only five shillings fine, and to my astonishment he produced the money. I joined him outside — it required a little courage — and had a long talk with him. He’s writing a London Letter for some provincial daily, and the first payment had thrown him off his balance.’
Reardon laughed gaily, and made inquiries about the eccentric gentleman. Only when the subject was exhausted did he speak of his own concerns, relating quietly what he had learnt from Mrs Yule. Biffen’s eyes widened.
‘So,’ Reardon cried with exultation, ‘there is the last burden off my mind! Henceforth I haven’t a care! The only thing that still troubled me was my inability to give Amy enough to live upon. Now she is provided for in secula seculorum. Isn’t this grand news?’
‘Decidedly. But if she is provided for, so are you.’
‘Biffen, you know me better. Could I accept a farthing of her money? This has made our coming together again for ever impossible, unless — unless dead things can come to life. I know the value of money, but I can’t take it from Amy.’
The other kept silence.
‘No! But now everything is well. She has her child, and can devote herself to bringing the boy up. And I— but I shall be rich on my own account. A hundred and fifty a year; it would be a farce to offer Amy her share of it. By all the gods of Olympus, we will go to Greece together, you and I!’
‘I swear it! Let me save for a couple of years, and then get a good month’s holiday, or more if possible, and, as Pallas Athene liveth! we shall find ourselves at Marseilles, going aboard some boat of the Messageries. I can’t believe yet that this is true. Come, we will have a supper to-night. Come out into Upper Street, and let us eat, drink, and be merry!’
‘You are beside yourself. But never mind; let us rejoice by all means. There’s every reason.’
‘That poor girl! Now, at last, she’ll be at ease.’
‘Amy, of course! I’m delighted on her account. Ah! but if it had come a long time ago, in the happy days! Then she, too, would have gone to Greece, wouldn’t she? Everything in life comes too soon or too late. What it would have meant for her and for me! She would never have hated me then, never. Biffen, am I base or contemptible? She thinks so. That’s how poverty has served me. If you had seen her, how she looked at me, when we met the other day, you would understand well enough why I couldn’t live with her now, not if she entreated me to. That would make me base if you like. Gods! how ashamed I should be if I yielded to such a temptation! And once — ’
He had worked himself to such intensity of feeling that at length his voice choked and tears burst from his eyes.
‘Come out, and let us have a walk,’ said Biffen.
On leaving the house they found themselves in a thick fog, through which trickled drops of warm rain. Nevertheless, they pursued their purpose, and presently were seated in one of the boxes of a small coffee-shop. Their only companion in the place was a cab-driver, who had just finished a meal, and was now nodding into slumber over his plate and cup. Reardon ordered fried ham and eggs, the luxury of the poor, and when the attendant woman was gone away to execute the order, he burst into excited laughter.
‘Here we sit, two literary men! How should we be regarded by — ’
He named two or three of the successful novelists of the day.
‘With what magnificent scorn they would turn from us and our squalid feast! They have never known struggle; not they. They are public-school men, University men, club men, society men. An income of less than three or four hundred a year is inconceivable to them; that seems the minimum for an educated man’s support. It would be small-minded to think of them with rancour, but, by Apollo! I know that we should change places with them if the work we have done were justly weighed against theirs.’
‘What does it matter? We are different types of intellectual workers. I think of them savagely now and then, but only when hunger gets a trifle too keen. Their work answers a demand; ours — or mine at all events — doesn’t. They are in touch with the reading multitude; they have the sentiments of the respectable; they write for their class. Well, you had your circle of readers, and, if things hadn’t gone against you, by this time you certainly could have counted on your three or four hundred a year.’
‘It’s unlikely that I should ever have got more than two hundred pounds for a book; and, to have kept at my best, I must have been content to publish once every two or three years. The position was untenable with no private income. And I must needs marry a wife of dainty instincts! What astounding impudence! No wonder Fate pitched me aside into the gutter.’
They ate their ham and eggs, and exhilarated themselves with a cup of chicory — called coffee. Then Biffen drew from the pocket of his venerable overcoat the volume of Euripides he had brought, and their talk turned once more to the land of the sun. Only when the coffee-shop was closed did they go forth again into the foggy street, and at the top of Pentonville Hill they stood for ten minutes debating a metrical effect in one of the Fragments.
Day after day Reardon went about with a fever upon him. By evening his pulse was always rapid, and no extremity of weariness brought him a refreshing sleep. In conversation he seemed either depressed or excited, more often the latter. Save when attending to his duties at the hospital, he made no pretence of employing himself; if at home, he sat for hours without opening a book, and his walks, excepting when they led him to Clipstone Street, were aimless.
The hours of postal delivery found him waiting in an anguish of suspense. At eight o’clock each morning he stood by his window, listening for the postman’s knock in the street. As it approached he went out to the head of the stairs, and if the knock sounded at the door of his house, he leaned over the banisters, trembling in expectation. But the letter was never for him. When his agitation had subsided he felt glad of the disappointment, and laughed and sang.
One day Carter appeared at the City Road establishment, and made an opportunity of speaking to his clerk in private.
‘I suppose,’ he said with a smile, ‘they’ll have to look out for someone else at Croydon?’
‘By no means! The thing is settled. I go at Christmas.’
‘You really mean that?’
Seeing that Reardon was not disposed even to allude to private circumstances, the secretary said no more, and went away convinced that misfortunes had turned the poor fellow’s brain.
Wandering in the city, about this time, Reardon encountered his friend the realist.
‘Would you like to meet Sykes?’ asked Biffen. ‘I am just going to see him.’
‘Where does he live?’
‘In some indiscoverable hole. To save fuel, he spends his mornings at some reading-rooms; the admission is only a penny, and there he can see all the papers and do his writing and enjoy a grateful temperature.’
They repaired to the haunt in question. A flight of stairs brought them to a small room in which were exposed the daily newspapers; another ascent, and they were in a room devoted to magazines, chess, and refreshments; yet another, and they reached the department of weekly publications; lastly, at the top of the house, they found a lavatory, and a chamber for the use of those who desired to write. The walls of this last retreat were of blue plaster and sloped inwards from the floor; along them stood school desks with benches, and in one place was suspended a ragged and dirty card announcing that paper and envelopes could be purchased downstairs. An enormous basket full of waste-paper, and a small stove, occupied two corners; ink blotches, satirical designs, and much scribbling in pen and pencil served for mural adornment. From the adjacent lavatory came sounds of splashing and spluttering, and the busy street far below sent up its confused noises.
Two persons only sat at the desks. One was a hunger-bitten, out-of-work clerk, evidently engaged in replying to advertisements; in front of him lay two or three finished letters, and on the ground at his feet were several crumpled sheets of note-paper, representing abortive essays in composition. The other man, also occupied with the pen, looked about forty years old, and was clad in a very rusty suit of tweeds; on the bench beside him lay a grey overcoat and a silk hat which had for some time been moulting. His face declared the habit to which he was a victim, but it had nothing repulsive in its lineaments and expression; on the contrary, it was pleasing, amiable, and rather quaint. At this moment no one would have doubted his sobriety. With coat-sleeve turned back, so as to give free play to his right hand and wrist, revealing meanwhile a flannel shirt of singular colour, and with his collar unbuttoned (he wore no tie) to leave his throat at ease as he bent myopically over the paper, he was writing at express speed, evidently in the full rush of the ardour of composition. The veins of his forehead were dilated, and his chin pushed forward in a way that made one think of a racing horse.
‘Are you too busy to talk?’ asked Biffen, going to his side.
‘I am! Upon my soul I am!’ exclaimed the other looking up in alarm. ‘For the love of Heaven don’t put me out! A quarter of an hour!’
‘All right. I’ll come up again.’
The friends went downstairs and turned over the papers.
‘Now let’s try him again,’ said Biffen, when considerably more than the requested time had elapsed. They went up, and found Mr Sykes in an attitude of melancholy meditation. He had turned back his coat sleeve, had buttoned his collar, and was eyeing the slips of completed manuscript. Biffen presented his companion, and Mr Sykes greeted the novelist with much geniality.
‘What do you think this is?’ he exclaimed, pointing to his work. ‘The first instalment of my autobiography for the “Shropshire Weekly Herald.” Anonymous, of course, but strictly veracious, with the omission of sundry little personal failings which are nothing to the point. I call it “Through the Wilds of Literary London.” An old friend of mine edits the “Herald,” and I’m indebted to him for the suggestion.’
His voice was a trifle husky, but he spoke like a man of education.
‘Most people will take it for fiction. I wish I had inventive power enough to write fiction anything like it. I have published novels, Mr Reardon, but my experience in that branch of literature was peculiar — as I may say it has been in most others to which I have applied myself. My first stories were written for “The Young Lady’s Favourite,” and most remarkable productions they were, I promise you. That was fifteen years ago, in the days of my versatility. I could throw off my supplemental novelette of fifteen thousand words without turning a hair, and immediately after it fall to, fresh as a daisy, on the “Illustrated History of the United States,” which I was then doing for Edward Coghlan. But presently I thought myself too good for the “Favourite”; in an evil day I began to write three-volume novels, aiming at reputation. It wouldn’t do. I persevered for five years, and made about five failures. Then I went back to Bowring. “Take me on again, old man, will you?” Bowring was a man of few words; he said, “Blaze away, my boy.” And I tried to. But it was no use; I had got out of the style; my writing was too literary by a long chalk. For a whole year I deliberately strove to write badly, but Bowring was so pained with the feebleness of my efforts that at last he sternly bade me avoid his sight. “What the devil,” he roared one day, “do you mean by sending me stories about men and women? You ought to know better than that, a fellow of your experience!” So I had to give it up, and there was an end of my career as a writer of fiction.’
He shook his head sadly.
‘Biffen,’ he continued, ‘when I first made his acquaintance, had an idea of writing for the working classes; and what do you think he was going to offer them? Stories about the working classes! Nay, never hang your head for it, old boy; it was excusable in the days of your youth. Why, Mr Reardon, as no doubt you know well enough, nothing can induce working men or women to read stories that treat of their own world. They are the most consumed idealists in creation, especially the women. Again and again work-girls have said to me: “Oh, I don’t like that book; it’s nothing but real life.”’
‘It’s the fault of women in general,’ remarked Reardon.
‘So it is, but it comes out with delicious naivete in the working classes. Now, educated people like to read of scenes that are familiar to them, though I grant you that the picture must be idealised if you’re to appeal to more than one in a thousand. The working classes detest anything that tries to represent their daily life. It isn’t because that life is too painful; no, no; it’s downright snobbishness. Dickens goes down only with the best of them, and then solely because of his strength in farce and his melodrama.’
Presently the three went out together, and had dinner at an a la mode beef shop. Mr Sykes ate little, but took copious libations of porter at twopence a pint. When the meal was over he grew taciturn.
‘Can you walk westwards?’ Biffen asked.
‘I’m afraid not, afraid not. In fact I have an appointment at two — at Aldgate station.’
They parted from him.
‘Now he’ll go and soak till he’s unconscious,’ said Biffen. ‘Poor fellow! Pity he ever earns anything at all. The workhouse would be better, I should think.’
‘No, no! Let a man drink himself to death rather. I have a horror of the workhouse. Remember the clock at Marylebone I used to tell you about.’
‘Unphilosophic. I don’t think I should be unhappy in the workhouse. I should have a certain satisfaction in the thought that I had forced society to support me. And then the absolute freedom from care! Why, it’s very much the same as being a man of independent fortune.’
It was about a week after this, midway in November, that there at length came to Manville Street a letter addressed in Amy’s hand. It arrived at three one afternoon; Reardon heard the postman, but he had ceased to rush out on every such occasion, and to-day he was feeling ill. Lying upon the bed, he had just raised his head wearily when he became aware that someone was mounting to his room. He sprang up, his face and neck flushing.
This time Amy began ‘Dear Edwin’; the sight of those words made his brain swim.
‘You must, of course, have heard [she wrote] that my uncle John has left me ten thousand pounds. It has not yet come into my possession, and I had decided that I would not write to you till that happened, but perhaps you may altogether misunderstand my silence.
‘If this money had come to me when you were struggling so hard to earn a living for us, we should never have spoken the words and thought the thoughts which now make it so difficult for me to write to you. What I wish to say is that, although the property is legally my own, I quite recognise that you have a right to share in it. Since we have lived apart you have sent me far more than you could really afford, believing it your duty to do so; now that things are so different I wish you, as well as myself, to benefit by the change.
‘I said at our last meeting that I should be quite prepared to return to you if you took that position at Croydon. There is now no need for you to pursue a kind of work for which you are quite unfitted, and I repeat that I am willing to live with you as before. If you will tell me where you would like to make a new home I shall gladly agree. I do not think you would care to leave London permanently, and certainly I should not.
‘Please to let me hear from you as soon as possible. In writing like this I feel that I have done what you expressed a wish that I should do. I have asked you to put an end to our separation, and I trust that I have not asked in vain.
The letter fell from his hand. It was such a letter as he might have expected, but the beginning misled him, and as his agitation throbbed itself away he suffered an encroachment of despair which made him for a time unable to move or even think.
His reply, written by the dreary twilight which represented sunset, ran thus.
‘Dear Amy, — I thank you for your letter, and I appreciate your motive in writing it. But if you feel that you have “done what I expressed a wish that you should do,” you must have strangely misunderstood me.
‘The only one thing that I wished was, that by some miracle your love for me might be revived. Can I persuade myself that this is the letter of a wife who desires to return to me because in her heart she loves me? If that is the truth you have been most unfortunate in trying to express yourself.
‘You have written because it seemed your duty to do so. But, indeed, a sense of duty such as this is a mistaken one. You have no love for me, and where there is no love there is no mutual obligation in marriage. Perhaps you think that regard for social conventions will necessitate your living with me again. But have more courage; refuse to act falsehoods; tell society it is base and brutal, and that you prefer to live an honest life.
‘I cannot share your wealth, dear. But as you have no longer need of my help — as we are now quite independent of each other — I shall cease to send the money which hitherto I have considered yours. In this way I shall have enough, and more than enough, for my necessities, so that you will never have to trouble yourself with the thought that I am suffering privations. At Christmas I go to Croydon, and I will then write to you again.
‘For we may at all events be friendly. My mind is relieved from ceaseless anxiety on your account. I know now that you are safe from that accursed poverty which is to blame for all our sufferings. You I do not blame, though I have sometimes done so. My own experience teaches me how kindness can be embittered by misfortune. Some great and noble sorrow may have the effect of drawing hearts together, but to struggle against destitution, to be crushed by care about shillings and sixpences — that must always degrade.
‘No other reply than this is possible, so I beg you not to write in this way again. Let me know if you go to live elsewhere. I hope Willie is well, and that his growth is still a delight and happiness to you.
That one word ‘dear,’ occurring in the middle of the letter, gave him pause as he read the lines over. Should he not obliterate it, and even in such a way that Amy might see what he had done? His pen was dipped in the ink for that purpose, but after all he held his hand. Amy was still dear to him, say what he might, and if she noted the word — if she pondered over it —
A street gas lamp prevented the room from becoming absolutely dark. When he had closed the envelope he lay down on his bed again, and watched the flickering yellowness upon the ceiling. He ought to have some tea before going to the hospital, but he cared so little for it that the trouble of boiling water was too great.
The flickering light grew fainter; he understood at length that this was caused by fog that had begun to descend. The fog was his enemy; it would be wise to purchase a respirator if this hideous weather continued, for sometimes his throat burned, and there was a rasping in his chest which gave disagreeable admonition.
He fell asleep for half an hour, and on awaking he was feverish, as usual at this time of day. Well, it was time to go to his work. Ugh! That first mouthful of fog!
Last updated Sunday, September 20, 2015 at 14:17