Spring, spring! Bytuene Mershe ant Averil, when spray biginneth to spring! When shaws be sheene and swards full fayre, and leaves both large and longe! When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces, in the spring time, the only pretty ring time, when the birds do sing, hey-ding-a-ding ding, cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-wee, ta-witta-woo! And so on and so on and so on. See almost any poet between the Bronze Age and 1805.
But how absurd that even now, in the era of central heating and tinned peaches, a thousand so-called poets are still writing in the same strain! For what difference does spring or winter or any other time of year make to the average civilized person nowadays? In a town like London the most striking seasonal change, apart from the mere change of temperature, is in the things you see lying about on the pavement. In late winter it is mainly cabbage leaves. In July you tread on cherry stones, in November on burnt-out fireworks. Towards Christmas the orange peel grows thicker. It was a different matter in the Middle Ages. There was some sense in writing poems about spring when spring meant fresh meat and green vegetables after months of frowsting in some windowless hut on a diet of salt fish and mouldy bread.
If it was spring Gordon failed to notice it. March in Lambeth did not remind you of Persephone. The days grew longer, there were vile dusty winds and sometimes in the sky patches of harsh blue appeared. Probably there were a few sooty buds on the trees if you cared to look for them. The aspidistra, it turned out, had not died after all; the withered leaves had dropped off it, but it was putting forth a couple of dull green shoots near its base.
Gordon had been three months at the library now. The stupid slovenly routine did not irk him. The library had swelled to a thousand ‘assorted titles’ and was bringing Mr Cheeseman a pound a week clear profit, so Mr Cheeseman was happy after his fashion. He was, nevertheless, nurturing a secret grudge against Gordon. Gordon had been sold to him, so to speak, as a drunkard. He had expected Gordon to get drunk and miss a day’s work at least once, thus giving a sufficient pretext for docking his wages; but Gordon had failed to get drunk. Queerly enough, he had no impulse to drink nowadays. He would have gone without beer even if he could have afforded it. Tea seemed a better poison. All his desires and discontents had dwindled. He was better off on thirty bob a week than he had been previously on two pounds. The thirty bob covered, without too much stretching, his rent, cigarettes, a washing bill of about a shilling a week, a little fuel, and his meals, which consisted almost entirely of bacon, bread-and-marg, and tea, and cost about two bob a day, gas included. Sometimes he even had sixpence over for a seat at a cheap but lousy picture-house near the Westminster Bridge Road. He still carried the grimy manuscript of London Pleasures to and fro in his pocket, but it was from mere force of habit; he had dropped even the pretence of working. All his evenings were spent in the same way. There in the remote frowzy attic, by the fire if there was any coal left, in bed if there wasn’t, with teapot and cigarettes handy, reading, always reading. He read nothing nowadays except twopenny weekly papers. Tit Bits, Answers, Peg’s Paper, The Gem, The Magnet, Home Notes, The Girl’s Own Paper — they were all the same. He used to get them a dozen at a time from the shop. Mr Cheeseman had great dusty stacks of them, left over from his uncle’s day and used for wrapping paper. Some of them were as much as twenty years old.
He had not seen Rosemary for weeks past. She had written a number of times and then, for some reason, abruptly stopped writing. Ravelston had written once, asking him to contribute an article on twopenny libraries to Antichrist. Julia had sent a desolate little letter, giving family news. Aunt Angela had had bad colds all the winter, and Uncle Walter was complaining of bladder trouble. Gordon did not answer any of their letters. He would have forgotten their existence if he could. They and their affection were only an encumbrance. He would not be free, free to sink down into the ultimate mud, till he had cut his links with all of them, even with Rosemary.
One afternoon he was choosing a book for a tow-headed factory girl, when someone he only saw out of the corner of his eye came into the library and hesitated just inside the door.
‘What kind of book did you want?’ he asked the factory girl.
‘Oo — jest a kind of a ROmance, please.’
Gordon selected a ROmance. As he turned, his heart bounded violently. The person who had just come in was Rosemary. She did not make any sign, but stood waiting, pale, and worried-looking, with something ominous in her appearance.
He sat down to enter the book on the girl’s ticket, but his hands had begun trembling so that he could hardly do it. He pressed the rubber stamp in the wrong place. The girl trailed out, peeping into the book as she went. Rosemary was watching Gordon’s face. It was a long time since she had seen him by daylight, and she was struck by the change in him. He was shabby to the point of raggedness, his face had grown much thinner and had the dingy, greyish pallor of people who live on bread and margarine. He looked much older — thirty-five at the least. But Rosemary herself did not look quite as usual. She had lost her gay trim bearing, and her clothes had the appearance of having been thrown on in a hurry. It was obvious that there was something wrong.
He shut the door after the factory girl. ‘I wasn’t expecting you,’ he began.
‘I had to come. I got away from the studio at lunch time. I told them I was ill.’
‘You don’t look well. Here, you’d better sit down.’
There was only one chair in the library. He brought it out from behind the desk and was moving towards her, rather vaguely, to offer some kind of caress. Rosemary did not sit down, but laid her small hand, from which she had removed the glove, on the top rung of the chair-back. By the pressure of her fingers he could see how agitated she was.
‘Gordon, I’ve a most awful thing to tell you. It’s happened after all.’
‘I’m going to have a baby.’
‘A baby? Oh, Christ!’
He stopped short. For a moment he felt as though someone had struck him a violent blow under the ribs. He asked the usual fatuous question:
‘Are you sure?’
‘Absolutely. It’s been weeks now. If you knew the time I’ve had! I kept hoping and hoping — I took some pills — oh, it was too beastly!’
‘A baby! Oh, God, what fools we were! As though we couldn’t have foreseen it!’
‘I know. I suppose it was my fault. I—’
‘Damn! Here comes somebody.’
The door-bell ping’d. A fat, freckled woman with an ugly under-lip came in at a rolling gait and demanded ‘Something with a murder in it.’ Rosemary had sat down and was twisting her glove round and round her fingers. The fat woman was exacting. Each book that Gordon offered her she refused on the ground that she had ‘had it already’ or that it ‘looked dry’. The deadly news that Rosemary had brought had unnerved Gordon. His heart pounding, his entrails constricted, he had to pull out book after book and assure the fat woman that this was the very book she was looking for. At last, after nearly ten minutes, he managed to fob her off with something which she said grudgingly she ‘didn’t think she’d had before’.
He turned back to Rosemary. ‘Well, what the devil are we going to do about it?’ he said as soon as the door had shut.
‘I don’t see what I can do. If I have this baby I’ll lose my job, of course. But it isn’t only that I’m worrying about. It’s my people finding out. My mother — oh, dear! It simply doesn’t bear thinking of.’
‘Ah, your people! I hadn’t thought of them. One’s people! What a cursed incubus they are!’
‘MY people are all right. They’ve always been good to me. But it’s different with a thing like this.’
He took a pace or two up and down. Though the news had scared him he had not really grasped it as yet. The thought of a baby, his baby, growing in her womb had awoken in him no emotion except dismay. He did not think of the baby as a living creature; it was a disaster pure and simple. And already he saw where it was going to lead.
‘We shall have to get married, I suppose,’ he said flatly.
‘Well, shall we? That’s what I came here to ask you.’
‘But I suppose you want me to marry you, don’t you?’
‘Not unless YOU want to. I’m not going to tie you down. I know it’s against your ideas to marry. You must decide for yourself.’
‘But we’ve no alternative — if you’re really going to have this baby.’
‘Not necessarily. That’s what you’ve got to decide. Because after all there IS another way.’
‘Oh, YOU know. A girl at the studio gave me an address. A friend of hers had it done for only five pounds.’
That pulled him up. For the first time he grasped, with the only kind of knowledge that matters, what they were really talking about. The words ‘a baby’ took on a new significance. They did not mean any longer a mere abstract disaster, they meant a bud of flesh, a bit of himself, down there in her belly, alive and growing. His eyes met hers. They had a strange moment of sympathy such as they had never had before. For a moment he did feel that in some mysterious way they were one flesh. Though they were feet apart he felt as though they were joined together — as though some invisible living cord stretched from her entrails to his. He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating — a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning. Yet if it had been put otherwise he might not have recoiled from it. It was the squalid detail of the five pounds that brought it home.
‘No fear!’ he said. ‘Whatever happens we’re not going to do THAT. It’s disgusting.’
‘I know it is. But I can’t have the baby without being married.’
‘No! If that’s the alternative I’ll marry you. I’d sooner cut my right hand off than do a thing like that.’
Ping! went the door-bell. Two ugly louts in cheap bright blue suits, and a girl with a fit of the giggles, came in. One of the youths asked with a sort of sheepish boldness for ‘something with a kick in it — something smutty’. Silently, Gordon indicated the shelves where the ‘sex’ books were kept. There were hundreds of them in the library. They had titles like Secrets of Paris and The Man She Trusted; on their tattered yellow jackets were pictures of half-naked girls lying on divans with men in dinner-jackets standing over them. The stories inside, however, were painfully harmless. The two youths and the girl ranged among them, sniggering over the pictures on their covers, the girl letting out little squeals and pretending to be shocked. They disgusted Gordon so much that he turned his back on them till they had chosen their books.
When they had gone he came back to Rosemary’s chair. He stood behind her, took hold of her small firm shoulders, then slid a hand inside her coat and felt the warmth of her breast. He liked the strong springy feeling of her body; he liked to think that down there, a guarded seed, his baby was growing. She put a hand up and caressed the hand that was on her breast, but did not speak. She was waiting for him to decide.
‘If I marry you I shall have to turn respectable,’ he said musingly.
‘Could you?’ she said with a touch of her old manner.
‘I mean I shall have to get a proper job — go back to the New Albion. I suppose they’d take me back.’
He felt her grow very still and knew that she had been waiting for this. Yet she was determined to play fair. She was not going to bully him or cajole him.
‘I never said I wanted you to do that. I want you to marry me — yes, because of the baby. But it doesn’t follow you’ve got to keep me.’
‘There’s no sense in marrying if I can’t keep you. Suppose I married you when I was like I am at present — no money and no proper job? What would you do then?’
‘I don’t know. I’d go on working as long as I could. And afterwards, when the baby got too obvious — well, I suppose I’d have to go home to father and mother.’
‘That would be jolly for you, wouldn’t it? But you were so anxious for me to go back to the New Albion before. You haven’t changed your mind?’
‘I’ve thought things over. I know you’d hate to be tied to a regular job. I don’t blame you. You’ve got your own life to live.’
He thought it over a little while longer. ‘It comes down to this. Either I marry you and go back to the New Albion, or you go to one of those filthy doctors and get yourself messed about for five pounds.’
At this she twisted herself out of his grasp and stood up facing him. His blunt words had upset her. They had made the issue clearer and uglier than before.
‘Oh, why did you say that?’
‘Well, those ARE the alternatives.’
‘I’d never thought of it like that. I came here meaning to be fair. And now it sounds as if I was trying to bully you into it — trying to play on your feelings by threatening to get rid of the baby. A sort of beastly blackmail.’
‘I didn’t mean that. I was only stating facts.’
Her face was full of lines, the black brows drawn together. But she had sworn to herself that she would not make a scene. He could guess what this meant to her. He had never met her people, but he could imagine them. He had some notion of what it might mean to go back to a country town with an illegitimate baby; or, what was almost as bad, with a husband who couldn’t keep you. But she was going to play fair. No blackmail! She drew a sharp inward breath, taking a decision.
‘All right, then, I’m not going to hold THAT over your head. It’s too mean. Marry me or don’t marry me, just as you like. But I’ll have the baby, anyway.’
‘You’d do that? Really?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
He took her in his arms. Her coat had come open, her body was warm against him. He thought he would be a thousand kinds of fool if he let her go. Yet the alternative was impossible, and he did not see it any less clearly because he held her in his arms.
‘Of course, you’d like me to go back to the New Albion,’ he said.
‘No, I wouldn’t. Not if you don’t want to.’
‘Yes, you would. After all, it’s natural. You want to see me earning a decent income again. In a GOOD job, with four pounds a week and an aspidistra in the window. Wouldn’t you, now? Own up.’
‘All right, then — yes, I would. But it’s only something I’d LIKE to see happening; I’m not going to MAKE you do it. I’d just hate you to do it if you didn’t really want to. I want you to feel free.’
‘Really and truly free?’
‘You know what that means? Supposing I decided to leave you and the baby in the lurch?’
‘Well — if you really wanted to. You’re free — quite free.’
After a little while she went away. Later in the evening or tomorrow he would let her know what he decided. Of course it was not absolutely certain that the New Albion would give him a job even if he asked them; but presumably they would, considering what Mr Erskine had said. Gordon tried to think and could not. There seemed to be more customers than usual this afternoon. It maddened him to have to bounce out of his chair every time he had sat down and deal with some fresh influx of fools demanding crime-stories and sex-stories and ROmances. Suddenly, about six o’clock, he turned out the lights, locked up the library, and went out. He had got to be alone. The library was not due to shut for two hours yet. God knew what Mr Cheeseman would say when he found out. He might even give Gordon the sack. Gordon did not care.
He turned westward, up Lambeth Cut. It was a dull sort of evening, not cold. There was muck underfoot, white lights, and hawkers screaming. He had got to think this thing out, and he could think better walking. But it was so hard, so hard! Back to the New Albion, or leave Rosemary in the lurch; there was no other alternative. It was no use thinking, for instance, that he might find some ‘good’ job which would offend his sense of decency a bit less. There aren’t so many ‘good’ jobs waiting for moth-eaten people of thirty. The New Albion was the only chance he had or ever would have.
At the corner, on the Westminster Bridge Road, he paused a moment. There were some posters opposite, livid in the lamplight. A monstrous one, ten feet high at least, advertised Bovex. The Bovex people had dropped Corner Table and got on to a new tack. They were running a series of four-line poems — Bovex Ballads, they were called. There was a picture of a horribly eupeptic family, with grinning ham-pink faces, sitting at breakfast; underneath, in blatant lettering:
Why should YOU be thin and white? And have that washed-out feeling? Just take hot Bovex every night — Invigorating — healing!
Gordon gazed at the thing. He drank in its puling silliness. God, what trash! ‘Invigorating — healing!’ The weak incompetence of it! It hadn’t even the vigorous badness of the slogans that really stick. Just soppy, lifeless drivel. It would have been almost pathetic in its feebleness if one hadn’t reflected that all over London and all over every town in England that poster was plastered, rotting the minds of men. He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom — bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.
He crossed the road and walked on, southward. A curious thought had struck him. He did not any longer want that war to happen. It was the first time in months — years, perhaps — that he had thought of it and not wanted it.
If he went back to the New Albion, in a month’s time he might be writing Bovex Ballads himself. To go back to THAT! Any ‘good’ job was bad enough; but to be mixed up in THAT! Christ! Of course he oughtn’t to go back. It was just a question of having the guts to stand firm. But what about Rosemary? He thought of the kind of life she would live at home, in her parents’ house, with a baby and no money; and of the news running through that monstrous family that Rosemary had married some awful rotter who couldn’t even keep her. She would have the whole lot of them nagging at her together. Besides, there was the baby to think about. The money-god is so cunning. If he only baited his traps with yachts and race-horses, tarts and champagne, how easy it would be to dodge them. It is when he gets at you through your sense of decency that he finds you helpless.
The Bovex Ballad jungled in Gordon’s head. He ought to stand firm. He had made war on money — he ought to stick it out. After all, hitherto he HAD stuck it out, after a fashion. He looked back over his life. No use deceiving himself. It had been a dreadful life — lonely, squalid, futile. He had lived thirty years and achieved nothing except misery. But that was what he had chosen. It was what he WANTED, even now. He wanted to sink down, down into the muck where money does not rule. But this baby-business had upset everything. It was a pretty banal predicament, after all. Private vices, public virtues — the dilemma is as old as the world.
He looked up and saw that he was passing a public library. A thought struck him. That baby. What did it mean, anyway, having a baby? What was it that was actually happening to Rosemary at this moment? He had only vague and general ideas of what pregnancy meant. No doubt they would have books in there that would tell him about it. He went in. The lending library was on the left. It was there that you had to ask for works of reference.
The woman at the desk was a university graduate, young, colourless, spectacled, and intensely disagreeable. She had a fixed suspicion that no one — at least, no male person — ever consulted works of reference except in search of pornography. As soon as you approached she pierced you through and through with a flash of her pince-nez and let you know that your dirty secret was no secret from HER. After all, all works of reference are pornographical, except perhaps Whitaker’s Almanack. You can put even the Oxford Dictionary to evil purposes by looking up words like —— and ——.
Gordon knew her type at a glance, but he was too preoccupied to care. ‘Have you any book on gynaecology?’ he said.
‘Any WHAT?’ demanded the young woman with a pince-nez flash of unmistakable triumph. As usual! Another male in search of dirt!
‘Well, any books on midwifery? About babies being born, and so forth.’
‘We don’t issue books of that description to the general public,’ said the young woman frostily.
‘I’m sorry — there’s a point I particularly want to look up.’
‘Are you a medical student?’
‘Then I don’t QUITE see what you want with books on midwifery.’
Curse the woman! Gordon thought. At another time he would have been afraid of her; at present, however, she merely bored him.
‘If you want to know, my wife’s going to have a baby. We neither of us know much about it. I want to see whether I can find out anything useful.’
The young woman did not believe him. He looked too shabby and worn, she decided, to be a newly married man. However, it was her job to lend out books, and she seldom actually refused them, except to children. You always got your book in the end, after you had been made to feel yourself a dirty swine. With an aseptic air she led Gordon to a small table in the middle of the library and presented him with two fat books in brown covers. Thereafter she left him alone, but kept an eye on him from whatever part of the library she happened to be in. He could feel her pince-nez probing the back of his neck at long range, trying to decide from his demeanour whether he was really searching for information or merely picking out the dirty bits.
He opened one of the books and searched inexpertly through it. There were acres of close-printed text full of Latin words. That was no use. He wanted something simple — pictures, for choice. How long had this thing been going on? Six weeks — nine weeks, perhaps. Ah! This must be it.
He came on a print of a nine weeks’ foetus. It gave him a shock to see it, for he had not expected it to look in the least like that. It was a deformed, gnomelike thing, a sort of clumsy caricature of a human being, with a huge domed head as big as the rest of its body. In the middle of the great blank expanse of head there was a tiny button of an ear. The thing was in profile; its boneless arm was bent, and one hand, crude as a seal’s flipper, covered its face — fortunately, perhaps. Below were little skinny legs, twisted like a monkey’s with the toes turned in. It was a monstrous thing, and yet strangely human. It surprised him that they should begin looking human so soon. He had pictured something much more rudimentary; a mere blob of nucleus, like a bubble of frog-spawn. But it must be very tiny, of course. He looked at the dimensions marked below. Length 30 millimetres. About the size of a large gooseberry.
But perhaps it had not been going on quite so long as that. He turned back a page or two and found a print of a six weeks’ foetus. A really dreadful thing this time — a thing he could hardly even bear to look at. Strange that our beginnings and endings are so ugly — the unborn as ugly as the dead. This thing looked as if it were dead already. Its huge head, as though too heavy to hold upright, was bent over at right angles at the place where its neck ought to have been. There was nothing you could call a face, only a wrinkle representing the eye — or was it the mouth? It had no human resemblance this time; it was more like a dead puppy-dog. Its short thick arms were very doglike, the hands being mere stumpy paws. 15.5 millimetres long — no bigger than a hazel nut.
He pored for a long time over the two pictures. Their ugliness made them more credible and therefore more moving. His baby had seemed real to him from the moment when Rosemary spoke of abortion; but it had been a reality without visual shape — something that happened in the dark and was only important after it had happened. But here was the actual process taking place. Here was the poor ugly thing, no bigger than a gooseberry, that he had created by his heedless act. Its future, its continued existence perhaps, depended on him. Besides, it was a bit of himself — it WAS himself. Dare one dodge such a responsibility as that?
But what about the alternative? He got up, handed over his books to the disagreeable young woman, and went out; then, on an impulse, turned back and went into the other part of the library, where the periodicals were kept. The usual crowd of mangy-looking people were dozing over the papers. There was one table set apart for women’s papers. He picked up one of them at random and bore it off to another table.
It was an American paper of the more domestic kind, mainly adverts with a few stories lurking apologetically among them. And WHAT adverts! Quickly he flicked over the shiny pages. Lingerie, jewellery, cosmetics, fur coats, silk stockings flicked up and down like the figures in a child’s peepshow. Page after page, advert after advert. Lipsticks, undies, tinned food, patent medicines, slimming cures, face-creams. A sort of cross-section of the money-world. A panorama of ignorance, greed, vulgarity, snobbishness, whoredom, and disease.
And THAT was the world they wanted him to re-enter. THAT was the business in which he had a chance of Making Good. He flicked over the pages more slowly. Flick, flick. Adorable — until she smiles. The food that is shot out of a gun. Do you let foot-fag affect your personality? Get back that peach-bloom on a Beautyrest Mattress. Only a PENETRATING face-cream will reach that undersurface dirt. Pink toothbrush is HER trouble. How to alkalize your stomach almost instantly. Roughage for husky kids. Are you one of the four out of five? The world-famed Culturequick Scrapbook. Only a drummer and yet he quoted Dante.
Christ, what muck!
But of course it was an American paper. The Americans always go one better on any kinds of beastliness, whether it is ice-cream soda, racketeering, or theosophy. He went over to the women’s table and picked up another paper. An English one this time. Perhaps the ads in an English paper wouldn’t be quite so bad — a little less brutally offensive?
He opened the paper. Flick, flick. Britons never shall be slaves!
Flick, flick. Get that waist-line back to normal! She SAID ‘Thanks awfully for the lift,’ but she THOUGHT, ‘Poor boy, why doesn’t somebody tell him?’ How a woman of thirty-two stole her young man from a girl of twenty. Prompt relief for feeble kidneys. Silkyseam — the smooth-sliding bathroom tissue. Asthma was choking her! Are YOU ashamed of your undies? Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps. Now I’ve a schoolgirl complexion all over. Hike all day on a slab of Vitamalt!
To be mixed up in THAT! To be in it and of it — part and parcel of it! God, God, God!
Presently he went out. The dreadful thing was that he knew already what he was going to do. His mind was made up — had been made up for a long time past. When this problem appeared it had brought its solution with it; all his hesitation had been a kind of make-believe. He felt as though some force outside himself were pushing him. There was a telephone booth near by. Rosemary’s hostel was on the phone — she ought to be at home by now. He went into the booth, feeling in his pocket. Yes, exactly two pennies. He dropped them into the slot, swung the dial.
A refaned, adenoidal feminine voice answered him: ‘Who’s thyah, please?’
He pressed Button A. So the die was cast.
‘Is Miss Waterlow in?’
‘Who’s THYAH, please?’
‘Say it’s Mr Comstock. She’ll know. Is she at home?’
‘Ay’ll see. Hold the lane, please.’
‘Hullo! Is that you, Gordon?’
‘Hullo! Hullo! Is that you, Rosemary? I just wanted to tell you. I’ve thought it over — I’ve made up my mind.’
‘Oh!’ There was another pause. With difficulty mastering her voice, she added: ‘Well, what did you decide?’
‘It’s all right. I’ll take the job — if they’ll give it me, that is.’
‘Oh, Gordon, I’m so glad! You’re not angry with me? You don’t feel I’ve sort of bullied you into it?’
‘No, it’s all right. It’s the only thing I can do. I’ve thought everything out. I’ll go up to the office and see them tomorrow.’
‘I AM so glad!’
‘Of course, I’m assuming they’ll give me the job. But I suppose they will, after what old Erskine said.’
‘I’m sure they will. But, Gordon, there’s just one thing. You will go there nicely dressed, won’t you? It might make a lot of difference.’
‘I know. I’ll have to get my best suit out of pawn. Ravelston will lend me the money.’
‘Never mind about Ravelston. I’ll lend you the money. I’ve got four pounds put away. I’ll run out and wire it you before the post-office shuts. I expect you’ll want some new shoes and a new tie as well. And, oh, Gordon!’
‘Wear a hat when you go up to the office, won’t you? It looks better, wearing a hat.’
‘A hat! God! I haven’t worn a hat for two years. Must I?’
‘Well — it does look more business-like, doesn’t it?’
‘Oh, all right. A bowler hat, even, if you think I ought.’
‘I think a soft hat would do. But get your hair cut, won’t you, there’s a dear?’
‘Yes, don’t you worry. I’ll be a smart young business man. Well groomed, and all that.’
‘Thanks ever so, Gordon dear. I must run out and wire that money. Good night and good luck.’
He came out of the booth. So that was that. He had torn it now, right enough.
He walked rapidly away. What had he done? Chucked up the sponge! Broken all his oaths! His long and lonely war had ended in ignominious defeat. Circumcise ye your foreskins, saith the Lord. He was coming back to the fold, repentant. He seemed to be walking faster than usual. There was a peculiar sensation, an actual physical sensation, in his heart, in his limbs, all over him. What was it? Shame, misery, despair? Rage at being back in the clutch of money? Boredom when he thought of the deadly future? He dragged the sensation forth, faced it, examined it. It was relief.
Yes, that was the truth of it. Now that the thing was done he felt nothing but relief; relief that now at last he had finished with dirt, cold, hunger, and loneliness and could get back to decent, fully human life. His resolutions, now that he had broken them, seemed nothing but a frightful weight that he had cast off. Moreover, he was aware that he was only fulfilling his destiny. In some corner of his mind he had always known that this would happen. He thought of the day when he had given them notice at the New Albion; and Mr Erskine’s kind, red, beefish face, gently counselling him not to chuck up a ‘good’ job for nothing. How bitterly he had sworn, then, that he was done with ‘good’ jobs for ever! Yet it was foredoomed that he should come back, and he had known it even then. And it was not merely because of Rosemary and the baby that he had done it. That was the obvious cause, the precipitating cause, but even without it the end would have been the same; if there had been no baby to think about, something else would have forced his hand. For it was what, in his secret heart, he had desired.
After all he did not lack vitality, and that moneyless existence to which he had condemned himself had thrust him ruthlessly out of the stream of life. He looked back over the last two frightful years. He had blasphemed against money, rebelled against money, tried to live like an anchorite outside the money-world; and it had brought him not only misery, but also a frightful emptiness, an inescapable sense of futility. To abjure money is to abjure life. Be not righteous over much; why shouldst thou die before thy time? Now he was back in the money-world, or soon would be. Tomorrow he would go up to the New Albion, in his best suit and overcoat (he must remember to get his overcoat out of pawn at the same time as his suit), in homburg hat of the correct gutter-crawling pattern, neatly shaved and with his hair cut short. He would be as though born anew. The sluttish poet of today would be hardly recognizable in the natty young business man of tomorrow. They would take him back, right enough; he had the talent they needed. He would buckle to work, sell his soul, and hold down his job.
And what about the future? Perhaps it would turn out that these last two years had not left much mark upon him. They were merely a gap, a small setback in his career. Quite quickly, now that he had taken the first step, he would develop the cynical, blinkered business mentality. He would forget his fine disgusts, cease to rage against the tyranny of money — cease to be aware of it, even — cease to squirm at the ads for Bovex and Breakfast Crisps. He would sell his soul so utterly that he would forget it had ever been his. He would get married, settle down, prosper moderately, push a pram, have a villa and a radio and an aspidistra. He would be a law-abiding little cit like any other law-abiding little cit — a soldier in the strap-hanging army. Probably it was better so.
He slowed his pace a little. He was thirty and there was grey in his hair, yet he had a queer feeling that he had only just grown up. It occurred to him that he was merely repeating the destiny of every human being. Everyone rebels against the money-code, and everyone sooner or later surrenders. He had kept up his rebellion a little longer than most, that was all. And he had made such a wretched failure of it! He wondered whether every anchorite in his dismal cell pines secretly to be back in the world of men. Perhaps there were a few who did not. Somebody or other had said that the modern world is only habitable by saints and scoundrels. He, Gordon, wasn’t a saint. Better, then, to be an unpretending scoundrel along with the others. It was what he had secretly pined for; now that he had acknowledged his desire and surrendered to it, he was at peace.
He was making roughly in the direction of home. He looked up at the houses he was passing. It was a street he did not know. Oldish houses, mean-looking and rather dark, let off in flatlets and single rooms for the most part. Railed areas, smoke-grimed bricks, whited steps, dingy lace curtains. ‘Apartments’ cards in half the windows, aspidistras in nearly all. A typical lower-middle-class street. But not, on the whole, the kind of street that he wanted to see blown to hell by bombs.
He wondered about the people in houses like those. They would be, for example, small clerks, shop-assistants, commercial travellers, insurance touts, tram conductors. Did THEY know that they were only puppets dancing when money pulled the strings? You bet they didn’t. And if they did, what would they care? They were too busy being born, being married, begetting, working, dying. It mightn’t be a bad thing, if you could manage it, to feel yourself one of them, one of the ruck of men. Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras — they lived by the money-code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They ‘kept themselves respectable’— kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were ALIVE. They were bound up in the bundle of life. They begot children, which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.
The aspidistra is the tree of life, he thought suddenly.
He was aware of a lumpish weight in his inner pocket. It was the manuscript of London Pleasures. He took it out and had a look at it under a street lamp. A great wad of paper, soiled and tattered, with that peculiar, nasty, grimed-at-the-edges look of papers which have been a long time in one’s pocket. About four hundred lines in all. The sole fruit of his exile, a two years’ foetus which would never be born. Well, he had finished with all that. Poetry! POETRY, indeed! In 1935.
What should he do with the manuscript? Best thing, shove it down the W.C. But he was a long way from home and had not the necessary penny. He halted by the iron grating of a drain. In the window of the nearest house an aspidistra, a striped one, peeped between the yellow lace curtains.
He unrolled a page of London Pleasures. In the middle of the labyrinthine scrawlings a line caught his eye. Momentary regret stabbed him. After all, parts of it weren’t half bad! If only it could ever be finished! It seemed such a shame to shy it away after all the work he had done on it. Save it, perhaps? Keep it by him and finish it secretly in his spare time? Even now it might come to something.
No, no! Keep your parole. Either surrender or don’t surrender.
He doubled up the manuscript and stuffed it between the bars of the drain. It fell with a plop into the water below.
Vicisti, O aspidistra!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58