New Grub Street by George Gissing
Chapter XI. Respite
The last volume was written in fourteen days. In this achievement Reardon rose almost to heroic pitch, for he had much to contend with beyond the mere labour of composition. Scarcely had he begun when a sharp attack of lumbago fell upon him; for two or three days it was torture to support himself at the desk, and he moved about like a cripple. Upon this ensued headaches, sore-throat, general enfeeblement. And before the end of the fortnight it was necessary to think of raising another small sum of money; he took his watch to the pawnbroker's (you can imagine that it would not stand as security for much), and sold a few more books. All this notwithstanding, here was the novel at length finished. When he had written 'The End' he lay back, closed his eyes, and let time pass in blankness for a quarter of an hour.
It remained to determine the title. But his brain refused another effort; after a few minutes' feeble search he simply took the name of the chief female character, Margaret Home. That must do for the book. Already, with the penning of the last word, all its scenes, personages, dialogues had slipped away into oblivion; he knew and cared nothing more about them.
'Amy, you will have to correct the proofs for me. Never as long as I live will I look upon a page of this accursed novel. It has all but killed me.'
'The point is,' replied Amy, 'that here we have it complete. Pack it up and take it to the publishers' to-morrow morning.'
'And--you will ask them to advance you a few pounds?'
But that undertaking was almost as hard to face as a rewriting of the last volume would have been. Reardon had such superfluity of sensitiveness that, for his own part, he would far rather have gone hungry than ask for money not legally his due. To-day there was no choice. In the ordinary course of business it would be certainly a month before he heard the publishers' terms, and perhaps the Christmas season might cause yet more delay. Without borrowing, he could not provide for the expenses of more than another week or two.
His parcel under his arm, he entered the ground-floor office, and desired to see that member of the firm with whom he had previously had personal relations. This gentleman was not in town; he would be away for a few days. Reardon left the manuscript, and came out into the street again.
He crossed, and looked up at the publishers' windows from the opposite pavement. 'Do they suspect in what wretched circumstances I am? Would it surprise them to know all that depends upon that budget of paltry scribbling? I suppose not; it must be a daily experience with them. Well, I must write a begging letter.'
It was raining and windy. He went slowly homewards, and was on the point of entering the public door of the flats when his uneasiness became so great that he turned and walked past. If he went in, he must at once write his appeal for money, and he felt that he could not. The degradation seemed too great.
Was there no way of getting over the next few weeks? Rent, of course, would be due at Christmas, but that payment might be postponed; it was only a question of buying food and fuel. Amy had offered to ask her mother for a few pounds; it would be cowardly to put this task upon her now that he had promised to meet the difficulty himself. What man in all London could and would lend him money? He reviewed the list of his acquaintances, but there was only one to whom he could appeal with the slightest hope--that was Carter.
Half an hour later he entered that same hospital door through which, some years ago, he had passed as a half-starved applicant for work. The matron met him.
'Is Mr Carter here?'
'No, sir. But we expect him any minute. Will you wait?'
He entered the familiar office, and sat down. At the table where he had been wont to work, a young clerk was writing. If only all the events of the last few years could be undone, and he, with no soul dependent upon him, be once more earning his pound a week in this room! What a happy man he was in those days!
Nearly half an hour passed. It is the common experience of beggars to have to wait. Then Carter came in with quick step; he wore a heavy ulster of the latest fashion, new gloves, a resplendent silk hat; his cheeks were rosy from the east wind.
'Ha, Reardon! How do? how do? Delighted to see you!'
'Are you very busy?'
'Well, no, not particularly. A few cheques to sign, and we're just getting out our Christmas appeals. You remember?'
He laughed gaily. There was a remarkable freedom from snobbishness in this young man; the fact of Reardon's intellectual superiority had long ago counteracted Carter's social prejudices.
'I should like to have a word with you.'
'Right you are!'
They went into a small inner room. Reardon's pulse beat at fever- rate; his tongue was cleaving to his palate.
'What is it, old man?' asked the secretary, seating himself and flinging one of his legs over the other. 'You look rather seedy, do you know. Why the deuce don't you and your wife look us up now and then?'
'I've had a hard pull to finish my novel.'
'Finished, is it? I'm glad to hear that. When'll it be out? I'll send scores of people to Mudie's after it.
'Thanks; but I don't think much of it, to tell you the truth.'
'Oh, we know what that means.'
Reardon was talking like an automaton. It seemed to him that he turned screws and pressed levers for the utterance of his next words.
'I may as well say at once what I have come for. Could you lend me ten pounds for a month--in fact, until I get the money for my book?'
The secretary's countenance fell, though not to that expression of utter coldness which would have come naturally under the circumstances to a great many vivacious men. He seemed genuinely embarrassed.
'By Jove! I--confound it! To tell you the truth, I haven't ten pounds to lend. Upon my word, I haven't, Reardon! These infernal housekeeping expenses! I don't mind telling you, old man, that Edith and I have been pushing the pace rather.' He laughed, and thrust his hands down into his trousers-pockets. 'We pay such a darned rent, you know--hundred and twenty-five. We've only just been saying we should have to draw it mild for the rest of the winter. But I'm infernally sorry; upon my word I am.'
'And I am sorry to have annoyed you by the unseasonable request.'
'Devilish seasonable, Reardon, I assure you!' cried the secretary, and roared at his joke. It put him into a better temper than ever, and he said at length: 'I suppose a fiver wouldn't be much use?--For a month, you say?--1 might manage a fiver, I think.'
'It would be very useful. But on no account if ---'
'No, no; I could manage a fiver, for a month. Shall I give you a cheque?'
'I'm ashamed ---'
'Not a bit of it! I'll go and write the cheque.'
Reardon's face was burning. Of the conversation that followed when Carter again presented himself he never recalled a word. The bit of paper was crushed together in his hand. Out in the street again, he all but threw it away, dreaming for the moment that it was a 'bus ticket or a patent medicine bill.
He reached home much after the dinner-hour. Amy was surprised at his long absence.
'Got anything?' she asked.
It was half his intention to deceive her, to say that the publishers had advanced him five pounds. But that would be his first word of untruth to Amy, and why should he be guilty of it? He told her all that had happened. The result of this frankness was something that he had not anticipated; Amy exhibited profound vexation.
'Oh, you shouldn't have done that!' she exclaimed. 'Why didn't you come home and tell me? I would have gone to mother at once.'
'But does it matter?'
'Of course it does,' she replied sharply. 'Mr Carter will tell his wife, and how pleasant that is?'
'I never thought of that. And perhaps it wouldn't have seemed to me so annoying as it does to you.'
'Very likely not.'
She turned abruptly away, and stood at a distance in gloomy muteness.
'Well,' she said at length, 'there's no helping it now. Come and have your dinner.'
'You have taken away my appetite.'
'Nonsense! I suppose you're dying of hunger.'
They had a very uncomfortable meal, exchanging few words. On Amy's face was a look more resembling bad temper than anything Reardon had ever seen there. After dinner he went and sat alone in the study. Amy did not come near him. He grew stubbornly angry; remembering the pain he had gone through, he felt that Amy's behaviour to him was cruel. She must come and speak when she would.
At six o'clock she showed her face in the doorway and asked if he would come to tea.
'Thank you,' he replied, 'I had rather stay here.'
'As you please.'
And he sat alone until about nine. It was only then he recollected that he must send a note to the publishers, calling their attention to the parcel he had left. He wrote it, and closed with a request that they would let him hear as soon as they conveniently could. As he was putting on his hat and coat to go out and post the letter Amy opened the dining-room door.
'You're going out?'
'Shall you be long?'
'I think not.'
He was away only a few minutes. On returning he went first of all into the study, but the thought of Amy alone in the other room would not let him rest. He looked in and saw that she was sitting without a fire.
'You can't stay here in the cold, Amy.'
'I'm afraid I must get used to it,' she replied, affecting to be closely engaged upon some sewing.
That strength of character which it had always delighted him to read in her features was become an ominous hardness. He felt his heart sink as he looked at her.
'Is poverty going to have the usual result in our case?' he asked, drawing nearer.
'I never pretended that I could be indifferent to it.'
'Still, don't you care to try and resist it?'
She gave no answer. As usual in conversation with an aggrieved woman it was necessary to go back from the general to the particular.
'I'm afraid,' he said, 'that the Carters already knew pretty well how things were going with us.'
'That's a very different thing. But when it comes to asking them for money--'
'I'm very sorry. I would rather have done anything if I had known how it would annoy you.'
'If we have to wait a month, five pounds will be very little use to us.'
She detailed all manner of expenses that had to be met--outlay there was no possibility of avoiding so long as their life was maintained on its present basis.
'However, you needn't trouble any more about it. I'll see to it. Now you are free from your book try to rest.'
'Come and sit by the fire. There's small chance of rest for me if we are thinking unkindly of each other.'
A doleful Christmas. Week after week went by and Reardon knew that Amy must have exhausted the money he had given her. But she made no more demands upon him, and necessaries were paid for in the usual way. He suffered from a sense of humiliation; sometimes he found it difficult to look in his wife's face.
When the publishers' letter came it contained an offer of seventy-five pounds for the copyright of 'Margaret Home,' twenty-five more to be paid if the sale in three-volume form should reach a certain number of copies.
Here was failure put into unmistakable figures. Reardon said to himself that it was all over with his profession of authorship. The book could not possibly succeed even to the point of completing his hundred pounds; it would meet with universal contempt, and indeed deserved nothing better.
'Shall you accept this?' asked Amy, after dreary silence.
'No one else would offer terms as good.'
'Will they pay you at once?'
'I must ask them to.'
Well, it was seventy-five pounds in hand. The cheque came as soon as it was requested, and Reardon's face brightened for the moment. Blessed money! root of all good, until the world invent some saner economy.
'How much do you owe your mother?' he inquired, without looking at Amy.
'Six pounds,' she answered coldly.
'And five to Carter; and rent, twelve pounds ten. We shall have a matter of fifty pounds to go on with.'