Under ground, under ground! Down in the safe soft womb of earth, where there is no getting of jobs or losing of jobs, no relatives or friends to plague you, no hope, fear, ambition, honour, duty — no DUNS of any kind. That was where he wished to be.
Yet it was not death, actual physical death, that he wished for. It was a queer feeling that he had. It had been with him ever since that morning when he had woken up in the police cell. The evil, mutinous mood that comes after drunkenness seemed to have set into a habit. That drunken night had marked a period in his life. It had dragged him downward with strange suddenness. Before, he had fought against the money-code, and yet he had clung to his wretched remnant of decency. But now it was precisely from decency that he wanted to escape. He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself — to SINK, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being UNDER GROUND. He liked to think about the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, BELOW ambition. It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you could lose yourself for ever.
And in a way this job was what he wanted; at any rate, it was something near what he wanted. Down there in Lambeth, in winter, in the murky streets where the sepia-shadowed faces of tea-drunkards drifted through the mist, you had a SUBMERGED feeling. Down here you had no contact with money or with culture. No highbrow customers to whom you had to act the highbrow; no one who was capable of asking you, in that prying way that prosperous people have, ‘What are you, with your brains and education, doing in a job like this?’ You were just part of the slum, and, like all slum-dwellers, taken for granted. The youths and girls and draggled middle-aged women who came to the library scarcely even spotted the fact that Gordon was an educated man. He was just ‘the bloke at the library’, and practically one of themselves.
The job itself, of course, was of inconceivable futility. You just sat there, ten hours a day, six hours on Thursdays, handing out books, registering them, and receiving twopences. Between whiles there was nothing to do except read. There was nothing worth watching in the desolate street outside. The principal event of the day was when the hearse drove up to the undertaker’s establishment next door. This had a faint interest for Gordon, because the dye was wearing off one of the horses and it was assuming by degrees a curious purplish-brown shade. Much of the time, when no customers came, he spent reading the yellow-jacketed trash that the library contained. Books of that type you could read at the rate of one an hour. And they were the kind of books that suited him nowadays. It is real ‘escape literature’, that stuff in the twopenny libraries. Nothing has ever been devised that puts less strain on the intelligence; even a film, by comparison, demands a certain effort. And so when a customer demanded a book of this category or that, whether it was ‘Sex’ or ‘Crime’ or ‘Wild West’ or ‘ROmance’ (always with the accent on the O). Gordon was ready with expert advice.
Mr Cheeseman was not a bad person to work for, so long as you understood that if you worked till the Day of Judgement you would never get a rise of wages. Needless to say, he suspected Gordon of pinching the till-money. After a week or two he devised a new system of booking, by which he could tell how many books had been taken out and check this with the day’s takings. But it was still (he reflected) in Gordon’s power to issue books and make no record of them; and so the possibility that Gordon might be cheating him of sixpence or even a shilling a day continued to trouble him, like the pea under the princess’s mattress. Yet he was not absolutely unlikeable, in his sinister, dwarfish way. In the evenings, after he had shut the shop, when he came along to the library to collect the day’s takings, he would stay talking to Gordon for a while and recounting with nosy chuckles any particularly astute swindles that he had worked lately. From these conversations Gordon pieced together Mr Cheeseman’s history. He had been brought up in the old-clothes trade, which was his spiritual vocation, so to speak, and had inherited the bookshop from an uncle three years ago. At that time it was one of those dreadful bookshops in which there are not even any shelves, in which the books lie about in monstrous dusty piles with no attempt at classification. It was frequented to some extent by book-collectors, because there was occasionally a valuable book among the piles of rubbish, but mainly it kept going by selling secondhand paper-covered thrillers at twopence each. Over this dustheap Mr Cheeseman had presided, at first, with intense disgust. He loathed books and had not yet grasped that there was money to be made out of them. He was still keeping his old-clothes shop going by means of a deputy, and intended to return to it as soon as he could get a good offer for the bookshop. But presently it was borne in upon him that books, properly handled, are worth money. As soon as he had made this discovery he developed as astonishing flair for bookdealing. Within two years he had worked his shop up till it was one of the best ‘rare’ bookshops of its size in London. To him a book was as purely an article of merchandise as a pair of second-hand trousers. He had never in his life READ a book himself, nor could he conceive why anyone should want to do so. His attitude towards the collectors who pored so lovingly over his rare editions was that of a sexually cold prostitute towards her clientele. Yet he seemed to know by the mere feel of a book whether it was valuable or not. His head was a perfect mine of auction-records and first-edition dates, and he had a marvellous nose for a bargain. His favourite way of acquiring stock was to buy up the libraries of people who had just died, especially clergymen. Whenever a clergyman died Mr Cheeseman was on the spot with the promptness of a vulture. Clergymen, he explained to Gordon, so often have good libraries and ignorant widows. He lived over the shop, was unmarried, of course, and had no amusements and seemingly no friends. Gordon used sometimes to wonder what Mr Cheeseman did with himself in the evenings, when he was not out snooping after bargains. He had a mental picture of Mr Cheeseman sitting in a double-locked room with the shutters over the windows, counting piles of half-crowns and bundles of pound notes which he stowed carefully away in cigarette-tins.
Mr Cheeseman bullied Gordon and was on the look-out for an excuse to dock his wages; yet he did not bear him any particular ill-will. Sometimes in the evening when he came to the library he would produce a greasy packet of Smith’s Potato Crisps from his pocket, and, holding it out, say in his clipped style:
The packet was always grasped so firmly in his large hand that it was impossible to extract more than two or three chips. But he meant it as a friendly gesture.
As for the place where Gordon lived, in Brewer’s Yard, parallel to Lambeth Cut on the south side, it was a filthy kip. His bed-sitting room was eight shillings a week and was just under the roof. With its sloping ceiling — it was a room shaped like a wedge of cheese — and its skylight window, it was the nearest thing to the proverbial poet’s garret that he had ever lived in. There was a large, low, broken-backed bed with a ragged patchwork quilt and sheets that were changed once fortnightly; a deal table ringed by dynasties of teapots; a rickety kitchen chair; a tin basin for washing in; a gas-ring in the fender. The bare floorboards had never been stained but were dark with dirt. In the cracks in the pink wallpaper dwelt multitudes of bugs; however, this was winter and they were torpid unless you over-warmed the room. You were expected to make your own bed. Mrs Meakin, the landlady, theoretically ‘did out’ the rooms daily, but four days out of five she found the stairs too much for her. Nearly all the lodgers cooked their own squalid meals in their bedrooms. There was no gas-stove, of course; just the gas-ring in the fender, and, down two flights of stairs, a large evil-smelling sink which was common to the whole house.
In the garret adjoining Gordon’s there lived a tall handsome old woman who was not quite right in the head and whose face was often as black as a Negro’s from dirt. Gordon could never make out where the dirt came from. It looked like coal dust. The children of the neighbourhood used to shout ‘Blackie!’ after her as she stalked along the pavement like a tragedy queen, talking to herself. On the floor below there was a woman with a baby which cried, cried everlastingly; also a young couple who used to have frightful quarrels and frightful reconciliations which you could hear all over the house. On the ground floor a house-painter, his wife, and five children existed on the dole and an occasional odd job. Mrs Meakin, the landlady, inhabited some burrow or other in the basement. Gordon liked this house. It was all so different from Mrs Wisbeach’s. There was no mingy lower-middle-class decency here, no feeling of being spied upon and disapproved of. So long as you paid your rent you could do almost exactly as you liked; come home drunk and crawl up the stairs, bring women in at all hours, lie in bed all day if you wanted to. Mother Meakin was not the type to interfere. She was a dishevelled, jelly-soft old creature with a figure like a cottage loaf. People said that in her youth she had been no better than she ought, and probably it was true. She had a loving manner towards anything in trousers. Yet it seemed that traces of respectability lingered in her breast. On the day when Gordon installed himself he heard her puffing and struggling up the stairs, evidently bearing some burden. She knocked softly on the door with her knee, or the place where her knee ought to have been, and he let her in.
‘‘Ere y’are, then,’ she wheezed kindly as she came in with her arms full. ‘I knew as ‘ow you’d like this. I likes all my lodgers to feel comfortable-like. Lemme put it on the table for you. There! That makes the room like a bit more ‘ome-like, don’t it now?’
It was an aspidistra. It gave him a bit of a twinge to see it. Even here, in this final refuge! Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? But it was a poor weedy specimen — indeed, it was obviously dying.
In this place he could have been happy if only people would let him alone. It was a place where you COULD be happy, in a sluttish way. To spend your days in meaningless mechanical work, work that could be slovened through in a sort of coma; to come home and light the fire when you had any coal (there were sixpenny bags at the grocer’s) and get the stuffy little attic warm; to sit over a squalid meal of bacon, bread-and-marg and tea, cooked over the gas-ring; to lie on the frowzy bed, reading a thriller or doing the Brain Brighteners in Tit Bits until the small hours; it was the kind of life he wanted. All his habits had deteriorated rapidly. He never shaved more than three times a week nowadays, and only washed the parts that showed. There were good public baths near by, but he hardly went to them as often as once in a month. He never made his bed properly, but just turned back the sheets, and never washed his few crocks till all of them had been used twice over. There was a film of dust on everything. In the fender there was always a greasy frying-pan and a couple of plates coated with the remnants of fried eggs. One night the bugs came out of one of the cracks and marched across the ceiling two by two. He lay on his bed, his hands under his head, watching them with interest. Without regret, almost intentionally, he was letting himself go to pieces. At the bottom of all his feelings there was sulkiness a je m’en fous in the face of the world. Life had beaten him; but you can still beat life by turning your face away. Better to sink than rise. Down, down into the ghost-kingdom, the shadowy world where shame, effort, decency do not exist!
To sink! How easy it ought to be, since there are so few competitors! But the strange thing is that often it is harder to sink than to rise. There is always something that drags one upwards. After all, one is never quite alone; there are always friends, lovers, relatives. Everyone Gordon knew seemed to be writing him letters, pitying him or bullying him. Aunt Angela had written, Uncle Walter had written, Rosemary had written over and over again, Ravelston had written, Julia had written. Even Flaxman had sent a line to wish him luck. Flaxman’s wife had forgiven him, and he was back at Peckham, in aspidistral bliss. Gordon hated getting letters nowadays. They were a link with that other world from which he was trying to escape.
Even Ravelston had turned against him. That was after he had been to see Gordon in his new lodgings. Until this visit he had not realized what kind of neighbourhood Gordon was living in. As his taxi drew up at the corner, in the Waterloo Road, a horde of ragged shock-haired boys came swooping from nowhere, to fight round the taxi door like fish at a bait. Three of them clung to the handle and hauled the door open simultaneously. Their servile, dirty little faces, wild with hope, made him feel sick. He flung some pennies among them and fled up the alley without looking at them again. The narrow pavements were smeared with a quantity of dogs’ excrement that was surprising, seeing that there were no dogs in sight. Down in the basement Mother Meakin was boiling a haddock, and you could smell it half-way up the stairs. In the attic Ravelston sat on the rickety chair, with the ceiling sloping just behind his head. The fire was out and there was no light in the room except four candles guttering in a saucer beside the aspidistra. Gordon lay on the ragged bed, fully dressed but with no shoes on. He had scarcely stirred when Ravelston came in. He just lay there, flat on his back, sometimes smiling a little, as though there were some private joke between himself and the ceiling. The room had already the stuffy sweetish smell of rooms that have been lived in a long time and never cleaned. There were dirty crocks lying about in the fender.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ Gordon said, without stirring.
‘No thanks awfully — no,’ said Ravelston, a little too hastily.
He had seen the brown-stained cups in the fender and the repulsive common sink downstairs. Gordon knew quite well why Ravelston refused the tea. The whole atmosphere of this place had given Ravelston a kind of shock. That awful mixed smell of slops and haddock on the stairs! He looked at Gordon, supine on the ragged bed. And, dash it, Gordon was a gentleman! At another time he would have repudiated that thought; but in this atmosphere pious humbug was impossible. All the class-instincts which he believed himself not to possess rose in revolt. It was dreadful to think of anyone with brains and refinement living in a place like this. He wanted to tell Gordon to get out of it, pull himself together, earn a decent income, and live like a gentleman. But of course he didn’t say so. You can’t say things like that. Gordon was aware of what was going on inside Ravelston’s head. It amused him, rather. He felt no gratitude towards Ravelston for coming here and seeing him; on the other hand, he was not ashamed of his surroundings as he would once have been. There was a faint, amused malice in the way he spoke.
‘You think I’m a B.F., of course,’ he remarked to the ceiling.
‘No, I don’t. Why should I?’
‘Yes, you do. You think I’m a B.F. to stay in this filthy place instead of getting a proper job. You think I ought to try for that job at the New Albion.’
‘No, dash it! I never thought that. I see your point absolutely. I told you that before. I think you’re perfectly right in principle.’
‘And you think principles are all right so long as one doesn’t go putting them into practice.’
‘No. But the question always is, when IS one putting them into practice?’
‘It’s quite simple. I’ve made war on money. This is where it’s led me.’
Ravelston rubbed his nose, then shifted uneasily on his chair.
‘The mistake you make, don’t you see, is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself. After all, what do you achieve by refusing to make money? You’re trying to behave as though one could stand right outside our economic system. But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing. One can’t put things right in a hole-and-corner way, if you take my meaning.’
Gordon waved a foot at the buggy ceiling.
‘Of course this IS a hole-and-corner, I admit.’
‘I didn’t mean that,’ said Ravelston, pained.
‘But let’s face facts. You think I ought to be looking about for a GOOD job, don’t you?’
‘It depends on the job. I think you’re quite right not to sell yourself to that advertising agency. But it does seem rather a pity that you should stay in that wretched job you’re in at present. After all, you HAVE got talents. You ought to be using them somehow.’
‘There are my poems,’ said Gordon, smiling at his private joke.
Ravelston looked abashed. This remark silenced him. Of course, there WERE Gordon’s poems. There was London Pleasures, for instance. Ravelston knew, and Gordon knew, and each knew that the other knew, that London Pleasures would never be finished. Never again, probably, would Gordon write a line of poetry; never, at least, while he remained in this vile place, this blind-alley job and this defeated mood. He had finished with all that. But this could not be said, as yet. The pretence was still kept up that Gordon was a struggling poet — the conventional poet-in-garret.
It was not long before Ravelston rose to go. This smelly place oppressed him, and it was increasingly obvious that Gordon did not want him here. He moved hesitantly towards the door, pulling on his gloves, then came back again, pulling off his left glove and flicking it against his leg.
‘Look here, Gordon, you won’t mind my saying it — this is a filthy place, you know. This house, this street — everything.’
‘I know. It’s a pigsty. It suits me.’
‘But do you HAVE to live in a place like this?’
‘My dear chap, you know what my wages are. Thirty bob a week.’
‘Yes, but —! Surely there ARE better places? What rent are you paying?’
‘Eight bob? You could get a fairly decent unfurnished room for that. Something a bit better than this, anyway. Look here, why don’t you take an unfurnished place and let me lend you ten quid for furniture?’
‘“Lend” me ten quid! After all you’ve “lent” me already? GIVE me ten quid, you mean.’
Ravelston gazed unhappily at the wall. Dash it, what a thing to say! He said flatly:
‘All right, if you like to put it like that. GIVE you ten quid.’
‘But as it happens, you see, I don’t want it.’
‘But dash it all! You might as well have a decent place to live in.’
‘But I don’t want a decent place. I want an indecent place. This one, for instance.’
‘But why? Why?’
‘It’s suited to my station,’ said Gordon, turning his face to the wall.
A few days later Ravelston wrote him a long, diffident sort of letter. It reiterated most of what he had said in their conversation. Its general effect was that Ravelston saw Gordon’s point entirely, that there was a lot of truth in what Gordon said, that Gordon was absolutely right in principle, but —! It was the obvious, the inevitable ‘but’. Gordon did not answer. It was several months before he saw Ravelston again. Ravelston made various attempts to get in touch with him. It was a curious fact — rather a shameful fact from a Socialist’s point of view — that the thought of Gordon, who had brains and was of gentle birth, lurking in that vile place and that almost menial job, worried him more than the thought of ten thousand unemployed in Middlesbrough. Several times, in hope of cheering Gordon up, he wrote asking him to send contributions to Antichrist. Gordon never answered. The friendship was at an end, it seemed to him. The evil time when he had lived on Ravelston had spoiled everything. Charity kills friendship.
And then there were Julia and Rosemary. They differed from Ravelston in this, that they had no shyness about speaking their minds. They did not say euphemistically that Gordon was ‘right in principle’; they knew that to refuse a ‘good’ job can never be right. Over and over again they besought him to go back to the New Albion. The worst was that he had both of them in pursuit of him together. Before this business they had never met, but now Rosemary had got to know Julia somehow. They were in feminine league against him. They used to get together and talk about the ‘maddening’ way in which Gordon was behaving. It was the only thing they had in common, their feminine rage against his ‘maddening’ behaviour. Simultaneously and one after the other, by letter and by word of mouth, they harried him. It was unbearable.
Thank God, neither of them had seen his room at Mother Meakin’s yet. Rosemary might have endured it, but the sight of that filthy attic would have been almost the death of Julia. They had been round to see him at the library, Rosemary a number of times, Julia once, when she could make a pretext to get away from the teashop. Even that was bad enough. It dismayed them to see what a mean, dreary little place the library was. The job at McKechnie’s, though wretchedly paid, had not been the kind of job that you need actually be ashamed of. It brought Gordon into touch with cultivated people; seeing that he was a ‘writer’ himself, it might conceivably ‘lead to something’. But here, in a street that was almost a slum, serving out yellow-jacketed trash at thirty bob a week — what hope was there in a job like that? It was just a derelict’s job, a blind-alley job. Evening after evening, walking up and down the dreary misty street after the library was shut, Gordon and Rosemary argued about it. She kept on and on at him. WOULD he go back to the New Albion? WHY wouldn’t he go back to the New Albion? He always told her that the New Albion wouldn’t take him back. After all, he hadn’t applied for the job and there was no knowing whether he could get it; he preferred to keep it uncertain. There was something about him now that dismayed and frightened her. He seemed to have changed and deteriorated so suddenly. She divined, though he did not speak to her about it, that desire of his to escape from all effort and all decency, to sink down, down into the ultimate mud. It was not only from money but from life itself that he was turning away. They did not argue now as they had argued in the old days before Gordon had lost his job. In those days she had not paid much attention to his preposterous theories. His tirades against the money-morality had been a kind of joke between them. And it had hardly seemed to matter that time was passing and that Gordon’s chance of earning a decent living was infinitely remote. She had still thought of herself as a young girl and of the future as limitless. She had watched him fling away two years of his life — two years of HER life, for that matter; and she would have felt it ungenerous to protest.
But now she was growing frightened. Time’s winged chariot was hurrying near. When Gordon lost his job she had suddenly realized, with the sense of making a startling discovery, that after all she was no longer very young. Gordon’s thirtieth birthday was past; her own was not far distant. And what lay ahead of them? Gordon was sinking effortless into grey, deadly failure. He seemed to WANT to sink. What hope was there that they could ever get married now? Gordon knew that she was right. The situation was impossible. And so the thought, unspoken as yet, grew gradually in both their minds that they would have to part — for good.
One night they were to meet under the railway arches. It was a horrible January night; no mist, for once, only a vile wind that screeched round corners and flung dust and torn paper into your face. He waited for her, a small slouching figure, shabby almost to raggedness, his hair blown about by the wind. She was punctual, as usual. She ran towards him, pulled his face down, and kissed his cold cheek.
‘Gordon, dear, how cold you are! Why did you come out without an overcoat?’
‘My overcoat’s up the spout. I thought you knew.’
‘Oh, dear! Yes.’
She looked up at him, a small frown between her black brows. He looked so haggard, so despondent, there in the ill-lit archway, his face full of shadows. She wound her arm through his and pulled him out into the light.
‘Let’s keep walking. It’s too cold to stand about. I’ve got something serious I want to say to you.’
‘I expect you’ll be very angry with me.’
‘What is it?’
‘This afternoon I went and saw Mr Erskine. I asked leave to speak to him for a few minutes.’
He knew what was coming. He tried to free his arm from hers, but she held on to it.
‘Well?’ he said sulkily.
‘I spoke to him about you. I asked him if he’d take you back. Of course he said trade was bad and they couldn’t afford to take on new staff and all that. But I reminded him of what he’d said to you, and he said, Yes, he’d always thought you were very promising. And in the end he said he’d be quite ready to find a job for you if you’d come back. So you see I WAS right. They WILL give you the job.’
He did not answer. She squeezed his arm. ‘So NOW what do you think about it?’ she said.
‘You know what I think,’ he said coldly.
Secretly he was alarmed and angry. This was what he had been fearing. He had known all along that she would do it sooner or later. It made the issue more definite and his own blame clearer. He slouched on, his hands still in his coat pockets, letting her cling to his arm but not looking towards her.
‘You’re angry with me?’ she said.
‘No, I’m not. But I don’t see why you had to do it — behind my back.’
That wounded her. She had had to plead very hard before she had managed to extort that promise from Mr Erskine. And it had needed all her courage to beard the managing director in his den. She had been in deadly fear that she might be sacked for doing it. But she wasn’t going to tell Gordon anything of that.
‘I don’t think you ought to say BEHIND YOUR BACK. After all, I was only trying to help you.’
‘How does it help me to get the offer of a job I wouldn’t touch with a stick?’
‘You mean you won’t go back, even now?’
‘MUST we go into it again?’ he said wearily.
She squeezed his arm with all her strength and pulled him round, making him face her. There was a kind of desperation in the way she clung to him. She had made her last effort and it had failed. It was as though she could feel him receding, fading away from her like a ghost.
‘You’ll break my heart if you go on like this,’ she said.
‘I wish you wouldn’t trouble about me. It would be so much simpler if you didn’t.’
‘But why do you have to throw your life away?’
‘I tell you I can’t help it. I’ve got to stick to my guns.’
‘You know what this will mean?’
With a chill at his heart, and yet with a feeling of resignation, even of relief, he said: ‘You mean we shall have to part — not see each other again?’
They had walked on, and now they emerged into the Westminster Bridge Road. The wind met them with a scream, whirling at them a cloud of dust that made both of them duck their heads. They halted again. Her small face was full of lines, and the cold wind and the cold lamplight did not improve it.
‘You want to get rid of me,’ he said.
‘No. No. It’s not exactly that.’
‘But you feel we ought to part.’
‘How can we go on like this?’ she said desolately.
‘It’s difficult, I admit.’
‘It’s all so miserable, so hopeless! What can it ever lead to?’
‘So you don’t love me after all?’ he said.
‘I do, I do! You know I do.’
‘In a way, perhaps. But not enough to go on loving me when it’s certain I’ll never have the money to keep you. You’ll have me as a husband, but not as a lover. It’s still a question of money, you see.’
‘It is NOT money, Gordon! It’s NOT that.’
‘Yes, it’s just money. There’s been money between us from the start. Money, always money!’
The scene continued, but not for very much longer. Both of them were shivering with cold. There is no emotion that matters greatly when one is standing at a street corner in a biting wind. When finally they parted it was with no irrevocable farewell. She simply said, ‘I must get back,’ kissed him, and ran across the road to the tram-stop. Mainly with relief he watched her go. He could not stop now to ask himself whether he loved her. Simply he wanted to get away — away from the windy street, away from scenes and emotional demands, back in the frowzy solitude of his attic. If there were tears in his eyes it was only from the cold of the wind.
With Julia it was almost worse. She asked him to go and see her one evening. This was after she had heard, from Rosemary, of Mr Erksine’s offer of a job. The dreadful thing with Julia was that she understood nothing, absolutely nothing, of his motives. All she understood was that a ‘good’ job had been offered him and that he had refused it. She implored him almost on her knees not to throw this chance away. And when he told her that his mind was made up, she wept, actually wept. That was dreadful. The poor goose-like girl, with streaks of grey in her hair, weeping without grace or dignity in her little Drage-furnished bed-sitting room! This was the death of all her hopes. She had watched the family go down and down, moneyless and childless, into grey obscurity. Gordon alone had had it in him to succeed; and he, from mad perverseness, would not. He knew what she was thinking; he had to induce in himself a kind of brutality to stand firm. It was only because of Rosemary and Julia that he cared. Ravelston did not matter, because Ravelston understood. Aunt Angela and Uncle Walter, of course, were bleating weakly at him in long, fatuous letters. But them he disregarded.
In desperation Julia asked him, what did he mean to DO now that he had flung away his last chance of succeeding in life. He answered simply, ‘My poems.’ He had said the same to Rosemary and to Ravelston. With Ravelston the answer had sufficed. Rosemary had no longer any belief in his poems, but she would not say so. As for Julia, his poems had never at any time meant anything to her. ‘I don’t see much sense in writing if you can’t make money out of it,’ was what she had always said. And he himself did not believe in his poems any longer. But he still struggled to ‘write’, at least at times. Soon after he changed his lodgings he had copied out on to clean sheets the completed portions of London Pleasures — not quite four hundred lines, he discovered. Even the labour of copying it out was a deadly bore. Yet he still worked on it occasionally; cutting out a line here, altering another there, not making or even expecting to make any progress. Before long the pages were as they had been before, a scrawled, grimy labyrinth of words. He used to carry the wad of grimy manuscript about with him in his pocket. The feeling of it there upheld him a little; after all it was a kind of achievement, demonstrable to himself though to nobody else. There it was, sole product of two years — of a thousand hours’ work, it might be. He had no feeling for it any longer as a poem. The whole concept of poetry was meaningless to him now. It was only that if London Pleasures were ever finished it would be something snatched from fate, a thing created OUTSIDE the money-world. But he knew, far more clearly than before, that it never would be finished. How was it possible that any creative impulse should remain to him, in the life he was living now? As time went on, even the desire to finish London Pleasures vanished. He still carried the manuscript about in his pocket; but it was only a gesture, a symbol of his private war. He had finished for ever with that futile dream of being a ‘writer’. After all, was not that too a species of ambition? He wanted to get away from all that, BELOW all that. Down, down! Into the ghost-kingdom, out of the reach of hope, out of the reach of fear! Under ground, under ground! That was where he wished to be.
Yet in a way it was not so easy. One night about nine he was lying on his bed, with the ragged counterpane over his feet, his hands under his head to keep them warm. The fire was out. The dust was thick on everything. The aspidistra had died a week ago and was withering upright in its pot. He slid a shoeless foot from under the counterpane, held it up, and looked at it. His sock was full of holes — there were more holes than sock. So here he lay, Gordon Comstock, in a slum attic on a ragged bed, with his feet sticking out of his socks, with one and fourpence in the world, with three decades behind him and nothing, nothing accomplished! Surely NOW he was past redemption? Surely, try as they would, they couldn’t prise him out of a hole like this? He had wanted to reach the mud — well, this was the mud, wasn’t it?
Yet he knew that it was not so. That other world, the world of money and success, is always so strangely near. You don’t escape it merely by taking refuge in dirt and misery. He had been frightened as well as angry when Rosemary told him about Mr Erskine’s offer. It brought the danger so close to him. A letter, a telephone message, and from this squalor he could step straight back into the money-world — back to four quid a week, back to effort and decency and slavery. Going to the devil isn’t so easy as it sounds. Sometimes your salvation hunts you down like the Hound of Heaven.
For a while he lay in an almost mindless state, gazing at the ceiling. The utter futility of just lying there, dirty and cold, comforted him a little. But presently he was roused by a light tap at the door. He did not stir. It was Mother Meakin, presumably, though it did not sound like her knock.
‘Come in,’ he said.
The door opened. It was Rosemary.
She stepped in, and then stopped as the dusty sweetish smell of the room caught her. Even in the bad light of the lamp she could see the state of filth the room was in — the litter of food and papers on the table, the grate full of cold ashes, the foul crocks in the fender, the dead aspidistra. As she came slowly towards the bed she pulled her hat off and threw it on to the chair.
‘WHAT a place for you to live in!’ she said.
‘So you’ve come back?’ he said.
He turned a little away from her, his arm over his face. ‘Come back to lecture me some more, I suppose?’
She had knelt down beside the bed. She pulled his arm away, put her face forward to kiss him, then drew back, surprised, and began to stroke the hair over his temple with the tips of her fingers.
‘You’ve got grey in your hair!’
‘Have I? Where?’
‘Here — over the temple. There’s quite a little patch of it. It must have happened all of a sudden.’
‘“My golden locks time hath to silver turned,”’ he said indifferently.
‘So we’re both going grey,’ she said.
She bent her head to show him the three white hairs on her crown. Then she wriggled herself on to the bed beside him, put an arm under him, pulled him towards her, covered his face with kisses. He let her do it. He did not want this to happen — it was the very thing that he least wanted. But she had wriggled herself beneath him; they were breast to breast. Her body seemed to melt into his. By the expression of her face he knew what had brought her here. After all, she was virgin. She did not know what she was doing. It was magnanimity, pure magnanimity, that moved her. His wretchedness had drawn her back to him. Simply because he was penniless and a failure she had got to yield to him, even if it was only once.
‘I had to come back,’ she said.
‘I couldn’t bear to think of you here alone. It seemed so awful, leaving you like that.’
‘You did quite right to leave me. You’d much better not have come back. You know we can’t ever get married.’
‘I don’t care. That isn’t how one behaves to people one loves. I don’t care whether you marry me or not. I love you.’
‘This isn’t wise,’ he said.
‘I don’t care. I wish I’d done it years ago.’
‘We’d much better not.’
After all, she was too much for him. He had wanted her so long, and he could not stop to weigh the consequences. So it was done at last, without much pleasure, on Mother Meakin’s dingy bed. Presently Rosemary got up and rearranged her clothes. The room, though stuffy, was dreadfully cold. They were both shivering a little. She pulled the coverlet further over Gordon. He lay without stirring, his back turned to her, his face hidden against his arm. She knelt down beside the bed, took his other hand, and laid it for a moment against her cheek. He scarcely noticed her. Then she shut the door quietly behind her and tiptoed down the bare, evil-smelling stairs. She felt dismayed, disappointed, and very cold.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58