New Grub Street by George Gissing
Chapter XVI. Rejection
One of Reardon's minor worries at this time was the fear that by chance he might come upon a review of 'Margaret Home.' Since the publication of his first book he had avoided as far as possible all knowledge of what the critics had to say about him; his nervous temperament could not bear the agitation of reading these remarks, which, however inept, define an author and his work to so many people incapable of judging for themselves. No man or woman could tell him anything in the way of praise or blame which he did not already know quite well; commendation was pleasant, but it so often aimed amiss, and censure was for the most part so unintelligent. In the case of this latest novel he dreaded the sight of a review as he would have done a gash from a rusty knife. The judgments could not but be damnatory, and their expression in journalistic phrase would disturb his mind with evil rancour. No one would have insight enough to appreciate the nature and cause of his book's demerits; every comment would be wide of the mark; sneer, ridicule, trite objection, would but madden him with a sense of injustice.
His position was illogical--one result of the moral weakness which was allied with his aesthetic sensibility. Putting aside the worthlessness of current reviewing, the critic of an isolated book has of course nothing to do with its author's state of mind and body any more than with the condition of his purse. Reardon would have granted this, but he could not command his emotions. He was in passionate revolt against the base necessities which compelled him to put forth work in no way representing his healthy powers, his artistic criterion. Not he had written this book, but his accursed poverty. To assail him as the author was, in his feeling, to be guilty of brutal insult. When by ill-hap a notice in one of the daily papers came under his eyes, it made his blood boil with a fierceness of hatred only possible to him in a profoundly morbid condition; he could not steady his hand for half an hour after. Yet this particular critic only said what was quite true--that the novel contained not a single striking scene and not one living character; Reardon had expressed himself about it in almost identical terms. But he saw himself in the position of one sickly and all but destitute man against a relentless world, and every blow directed against him appeared dastardly. He could have cried 'Coward!' to the writer who wounded him.
The would-be sensational story which was now in Mr Jedwood's hands had perhaps more merit than 'Margaret Home'; its brevity, and the fact that nothing more was aimed at than a concatenation of brisk events, made it not unreadable. But Reardon thought of it with humiliation. If it were published as his next work it would afford final proof to such sympathetic readers as he might still retain that he had hopelessly written himself out, and was now endeavouring to adapt himself to an inferior public. In spite of his dire necessities he now and then hoped that Jedwood might refuse the thing.
At moments he looked with sanguine eagerness to the three or four months he was about to spend in retirement, but such impulses were the mere outcome of his nervous disease. He had no faith in himself under present conditions; the permanence of his sufferings would mean the sure destruction of powers he still possessed, though they were not at his command. Yet he believed that his mind was made up as to the advisability of trying this last resource; he was impatient for the day of departure, and in the interval merely killed time as best he might. He could not read, and did not attempt to gather ideas for his next book; the delusion that his mind was resting made an excuse to him for the barrenness of day after day. His 'Pliny' article had been despatched to The Wayside, and would possibly be accepted. But he did not trouble himself about this or other details; it was as though his mind could do nothing more than grasp the bald fact of impending destitution; with the steps towards that final stage he seemed to have little concern.
One evening he set forth to make a call upon Harold Biffen, whom he had not seen since the realist called to acknowledge the receipt of a copy of 'Margaret Home' left at his lodgings when he was out. Biffen resided in Clipstone Street, a thoroughfare discoverable in the dim district which lies between Portland Place and Tottenham Court Road. On knocking at the door of the lodging-house, Reardon learnt that his friend was at home. He ascended to the third storey and tapped at a door which allowed rays of lamplight to issue from great gaps above and below. A sound of voices came from within, and on entering he perceived that Biffen was engaged with a pupil.
'They didn't tell me you had a visitor,' he said. 'I'll call again later.'
'No need to go away,' replied Biffen, coming forward to shake hands. 'Take a book for a few minutes. Mr Baker won't mind.'
It was a very small room, with a ceiling so low that the tall lodger could only just stand upright with safety; perhaps three inches intervened between his head and the plaster, which was cracked, grimy, cobwebby. A small scrap of weedy carpet lay in front of the fireplace; elsewhere the chinky boards were unconcealed. The furniture consisted of a round table, which kept such imperfect balance on its central support that the lamp entrusted to it looked in a dangerous position, of three small cane-bottomed chairs, a small wash-hand-stand with sundry rude appurtenances, and a chair-bedstead which the tenant opened at the hour of repose and spread with certain primitive trappings at present kept in a cupboard. There was no bookcase, but a few hundred battered volumes were arranged some on the floor and some on a rough chest. The weather was too characteristic of an English spring to make an empty grate agreeable to the eye, but Biffen held it an axiom that fires were unseasonable after the first of May.
The individual referred to as Mr Baker, who sat at the table in the attitude of a student, was a robust, hard-featured, black-haired young man of two-or three-and-twenty; judging from his weather-beaten cheeks and huge hands, as well as from the garb he wore, one would have presumed that study was not his normal occupation. There was something of the riverside about him; he might be a dockman, or even a bargeman. He looked intelligent, however, and bore himself with much modesty.
'Now do endeavour to write in shorter sentences,' said Biffen, who sat down by him and resumed the lesson, Reardon having taken up a volume. 'This isn't bad--it isn't bad at all, I assure you; but you have put all you had to say into three appalling periods, whereas you ought to have made about a dozen.'
'There it is, sir; there it is!' exclaimed the man, smoothing his wiry hair. 'I can't break it up. The thoughts come in a lump, if I may say so. To break it up--there's the art of compersition.'
Reardon could not refrain from a glance at the speaker, and Biffen, whose manner was very grave and kindly, turned to his friend with an explanation of the difficulties with which the student was struggling.
'Mr Baker is preparing for the examination of the outdoor Customs Department. One of the subjects is English composition, and really, you know, that isn't quite such a simple matter as some people think.'
Baker beamed upon the visitor with a homely, good-natured smile.
'I can make headway with the other things, sir,' he said, striking the table lightly with his clenched fist. 'There's handwriting, there's orthography, there's arithmetic; I'm not afraid of one of 'em, as Mr Biffen 'll tell you, sir. But when it comes to compersition, that brings out the sweat on my forehead, I do assure you.
'You're not the only man in that case, Mr Baker,' replied Reardon.
'It's thought a tough job in general, is it, sir?'
'It is indeed.'
'Two hundred marks for compersition,' continued the man. 'Now how many would they have given me for this bit of a try, Mr Biffen?'
'Well, well; I can't exactly say. But you improve; you improve, decidedly. Peg away for another week or two.'
'Oh, don't fear me, sir! I'm not easily beaten when I've set my mind on a thing, and I'll break up the compersition yet, see if I don't!'
Again his fist descended upon the table in a way that reminded one of the steam-hammer cracking a nut.
The lesson proceeded for about ten minutes, Reardon, under pretence of reading, following it with as much amusement as anything could excite in him nowadays. At length Mr Baker stood up, collected his papers and books, and seemed about to depart; but, after certain uneasy movements and glances, he said to Biffen in a subdued voice:
'Perhaps I might speak to you outside the door a minute, sir?'
He and the teacher went out, the door closed, and Reardon heard sounds of muffled conversation. In a minute or two a heavy footstep descended the stairs, and Biffen re-entered the room.
'Now that's a good, honest fellow,' he said, in an amused tone. 'It's my pay-night, but he didn't like to fork out money before you. A very unusual delicacy in a man of that standing. He pays me sixpence for an hour's lesson; that brings me two shillings a week. I sometimes feel a little ashamed to take his money, but then the fact is he's a good deal better off than I am.'
'Will he get a place in the Customs, do you think?'
'Oh, I've no doubt of it. If it seemed unlikely, I should have told him so before this. To be sure, that's a point I have often to consider, and once or twice my delicacy has asserted itself at the expense of my pocket. There was a poor consumptive lad came to me not long ago and wanted Latin lessons; talked about going in for the London Matric., on his way to the pulpit. I couldn't stand it. After a lesson or two I told him his cough was too bad, and he had no right to study until he got into better health; that was better, I think, than saying plainly he had no chance on earth. But the food I bought with his money was choking me. Oh yes, Baker will make his way right enough. A good, modest fellow.
You noticed how respectfully he spoke to me? It doesn't make any difference to him that I live in a garret like this; I'm a man of education, and he can separate this fact from my surroundings.'
'Biffen, why don't you get some decent position? Surely you might.'
'What position? No school would take me; I have neither credentials nor conventional clothing. For the same reason I couldn't get a private tutorship in a rich family. No, no; it's all right. I keep myself alive, and I get on with my work.-- By-the-bye, I've decided to write a book called "Mr Bailey, Grocer."'
'What's the idea?'
'An objectionable word, that. Better say: "What's the reality?" Well, Mr Bailey is a grocer in a little street by here. I have dealt with him for a long time, and as he's a talkative fellow I've come to know a good deal about him and his history. He's fond of talking about the struggle he had in his first year of business. He had no money of his own, but he married a woman who had saved forty-five pounds out of a cat's-meat business. You should see that woman! A big, coarse, squinting creature; at the time of the marriage she was a widow and forty-two years old. Now I'm going to tell the true story of Mr Bailey's marriage and of his progress as a grocer. It'll be a great book--a great book!'
He walked up and down the room, fervid with his conception.
'There'll be nothing bestial in it, you know. The decently ignoble--as I've so often said. The thing'll take me a year at least. I shall do it slowly, lovingly. One volume, of course; the length of the ordinary French novel. There's something fine in the title, don't you think? "Mr Bailey, Grocer"!'
'I envy you, old fellow,' said Reardon, sighing. 'You have the right fire in you; you have zeal and energy. Well, what do you think I have decided to do?'
'I should like to hear.'
Reardon gave an account of his project. The other listened gravely, seated across a chair with his arms on the back.
'Your wife is in agreement with this?'
'Oh yes.' He could not bring himself to say that Amy had suggested it. 'She has great hopes that the change will be just what I need.'
'I should say so too--if you were going to rest. But if you have to set to work at once it seems to me very doubtful.'
'Never mind. For Heaven's sake don't discourage me! If this fails I think--upon my soul, I think I shall kill myself.'
'Pooh!' exclaimed Biffen, gently. 'With a wife like yours?'
'Just because of that.'
'No, no; there'll be some way out of it. By-the-bye, I passed Mrs Reardon this morning, but she didn't see me. It was in Tottenham Court Road, and Milvain was with her. I felt myself too seedy in appearance to stop and speak.'
'In Tottenham Court Road?'
That was not the detail of the story which chiefly held Reardon's attention, yet he did not purposely make a misleading remark. His mind involuntarily played this trick.
'I only saw them just as they were passing,' pursued Biffen. 'Oh, I knew I had something to tell you! Have you heard that Whelpdale is going to be married?'
Reardon shook his head in a preoccupied way.
'I had a note from him this morning, telling me. He asked me to look him up to-night, and he'd let me know all about it. Let's go together, shall we?'
'I don't feel much in the humour for Whelpdale. I'll walk with you, and go on home.'
'No, no; come and see him. It'll do you good to talk a little.-- But I must positively eat a mouthful before we go. I'm afraid you won't care to join?'
He opened his cupboard, and brought out a loaf of bread and a saucer of dripping, with salt and pepper.
'Better dripping this than I've had for a long time. I get it at Mr Bailey's--that isn't his real name, of course. He assures me it comes from a large hotel where his wife's sister is a kitchen-maid, and that it's perfectly pure; they very often mix flour with it, you know, and perhaps more obnoxious things that an economical man doesn't care to reflect upon. Now, with a little pepper and salt, this bread and dripping is as appetising food as I know. I often make a dinner of it.'
'I have done the same myself before now. Do you ever buy pease- pudding?'
'I should think so! I get magnificent pennyworths at a shop in Cleveland Street, of a very rich quality indeed. Excellent faggots they have there, too. I'll give you a supper of them some night before you go.'
Biffen rose to enthusiasm in the contemplation of these dainties.
He ate his bread and dripping with knife and fork; this always made the fare seem more substantial.
'Is it very cold out?' he asked, rising from the table. 'Need I put my overcoat on?'
This overcoat, purchased second-hand three years ago, hung on a door-nail. Comparative ease of circumstances had restored to the realist his ordinary indoor garment--a morning coat of the cloth called diagonal, rather large for him, but in better preservation than the other articles of his attire.
Reardon judging the overcoat necessary, his friend carefully brushed it and drew it on with a caution which probably had reference to starting seams. Then he put into the pocket his pipe, his pouch, his tobacco-stopper, and his matches, murmuring to himself a Greek iambic line which had come into his head a propos of nothing obvious.
'Go out,' he said, 'and then I'll extinguish the lamp. Mind the second step down, as usual.'
They issued into Clipstone Street, turned northward, crossed Euston Road, and came into Albany Street, where, in a house of decent exterior, Mr Whelpdale had his present abode. A girl who opened the door requested them to walk up to the topmost storey.
A cheery voice called to them from within the room at which they knocked. This lodging spoke more distinctly of civilisation than that inhabited by Biffen; it contained the minimum supply of furniture needed to give it somewhat the appearance of a study, but the articles were in good condition. One end of the room was concealed by a chintz curtain; scrutiny would have discovered behind the draping the essential equipments of a bedchamber.
Mr Whelpdale sat by the fire, smoking a cigar. He was a plain- featured but graceful and refined-looking man of thirty, with wavy chestnut hair and a trimmed beard which became him well. At present he wore a dressing-gown and was without collar.
'Welcome, gents both!' he cried facetiously. 'Ages since I saw you, Reardon. I've been reading your new book. Uncommonly good things in it here and there--uncommonly good.'
Whelpdale had the weakness of being unable to tell a disagreeable truth, and a tendency to flattery which had always made Reardon rather uncomfortable in his society. Though there was no need whatever of his mentioning 'Margaret Home,' he preferred to frame smooth fictions rather than keep a silence which might be construed as unfavourable criticism.
'In the last volume,' he went on, 'I think there are one or two things as good as you ever did; I do indeed.'
Reardon made no acknowledgment of these remarks. They irritated him, for he knew their insincerity. Biffen, understanding his friend's silence, struck in on another subject.
'Who is this lady of whom you write to me?'
'Ah, quite a story! I'm going to be married, Reardon. A serious marriage. Light your pipes, and I'll tell you all about it. Startled you, I suppose, Biffen? Unlikely news, eh? Some people would call it a rash step, I dare say. We shall just take another room in this house, that's all. I think I can count upon an income of a couple of guineas a week, and I have plans without end that are pretty sure to bring in coin.'
Reardon did not care to smoke, but Biffen lit his pipe and waited with grave interest for the romantic narrative. Whenever he heard of a poor man's persuading a woman to share his poverty he was eager of details; perchance he himself might yet have that heavenly good fortune.
'Well,' began Whelpdale, crossing his legs and watching a wreath he had just puffed from the cigar, 'you know all about my literary advisership. The business goes on reasonably well. I'm going to extend it in ways I'll explain to you presently. About six weeks ago I received a letter from a lady who referred to my advertisements, and said she had the manuscript of a novel which she would like to offer for my opinion. Two publishers had refused it, but one with complimentary phrases, and she hoped it mightn't be impossible to put the thing into acceptable shape. Of course I wrote optimistically, and the manuscript was sent to me.
Well, it wasn't actually bad--by Jove! you should have seen some of the things I have been asked to recommend to publishers! It wasn't hopelessly bad by any means, and I gave serious thought to it. After exchange of several letters I asked the authoress to come and see me, that we might save postage stamps and talk things over. She hadn't given me her address: I had to direct to a stationer's in Bayswater. She agreed to come, and did come. I had formed a sort of idea, but of course I was quite wrong. Imagine my excitement when there came in a very beautiful girl, a tremendously interesting girl, about one-and-twenty--just the kind of girl that most strongly appeals to me; dark, pale, rather consumptive-looking, slender--no, there's no describing her; there really isn't! You must wait till you see her.'
'I hope the consumption was only a figure of speech,' remarked Biffen in his grave way.
'Oh, there's nothing serious the matter, I think. A slight cough, poor girl.'
'The deuce!' interjected Reardon.
'Oh, nothing, nothing! It'll be all right. Well, now, of course we talked over the story--in good earnest, you know. Little by little I induced her to speak of herself--this, after she'd come two or three times--and she told me lamentable things. She was absolutely alone in London, and hadn't had sufficient food for weeks; had sold all she could of her clothing; and so on. Her home was in Birmingham; she had been driven away by the brutality of a stepmother; a friend lent her a few pounds, and she came to London with an unfinished novel. Well, you know, this kind of thing would be enough to make me soft-hearted to any girl, let alone one who, to begin with, was absolutely my ideal. When she began to express a fear that I was giving too much time to her, that she wouldn't be able to pay my fees, and so on, I could restrain myself no longer. On the spot I asked her to marry me. I didn't practise any deception, mind. I told her I was a poor devil who had failed as a realistic novelist and was earning bread in haphazard ways; and I explained frankly that I thought we might carry on various kinds of business together: she might go on with her novel-writing, and--so on. But she was frightened; I had been too abrupt. That's a fault of mine, you know; but I was so confoundedly afraid of losing her. And I told her as much, plainly.'
'This would be exciting,' he said, 'if we didn't know the end of the story.'
'Yes. Pity I didn't keep it a secret. Well, she wouldn't say yes, but I could see that she didn't absolutely say no. "In any case," I said, "you'll let me see you often? Fees be hanged! I'll work day and night for you. I'll do my utmost to get your novel accepted." And I implored her to let me lend her a little money. It was very difficult to persuade her, but at last she accepted a few shillings. I could see in her face that she was hungry. Just imagine! A beautiful girl absolutely hungry; it drove me frantic!
But that was a great point gained. After that we saw each other almost every day, and at last--she consented! Did indeed! I can hardly believe it yet. We shall be married in a fortnight's time.'
'I congratulate you,' said Reardon.
'So do I,' sighed Biffen.
'The day before yesterday she went to Birmingham to see her father and tell him all about the affair. I agreed with her it was as well; the old fellow isn't badly off; and he may forgive her for running away, though he's under his wife's thumb, it appears. I had a note yesterday. She had gone to a friend's house for the first day. I hoped to have heard again this morning--must to-morrow, in any case. I live, as you may imagine, in wild excitement. Of course, if the old man stumps up a wedding present, all the better. But I don't care; we'll make a living somehow. What do you think I'm writing just now? An author's Guide. You know the kind of thing; they sell splendidly. Of course I shall make it a good advertisement of my business. Then I have a splendid idea. I'm going to advertise: "Novel-writing taught in ten lessons!" What do you think of that? No swindle; not a bit of it. I am quite capable of giving the ordinary man or woman ten very useful lessons. I've been working out the scheme; it would amuse you vastly, Reardon. The first lesson deals with the question of subjects, local colour--that kind of thing. I gravely advise people, if they possibly can, to write of the wealthy middle class; that's the popular subject, you know. Lords and ladies are all very well, but the real thing to take is a story about people who have no titles, but live in good Philistine style. I urge study of horsey matters especially; that's very important. You must be well up, too, in military grades, know about Sandhurst, and so on. Boating is an important topic. You see? Oh, I shall make a great thing of this. I shall teach my wife carefully, and then let her advertise lessons to girls; they'll prefer coming to a woman, you know.'
Biffen leant back and laughed noisily.
'How much shall you charge for the course?' asked Reardon.
'That'll depend. I shan't refuse a guinea or two; but some people may be made to pay five, perhaps.'
Someone knocked at the door, and a voice said:
'A letter for you, Mr Whelpdale.'
He started up, and came back into the room with face illuminated.
'Yes, it's from Birmingham; posted this morning. Look what an exquisite hand she writes!'
He tore open the envelope. In delicacy Reardon and Biffen averted their eyes. There was silence for a minute, then a strange ejaculation from Whelpdale caused his friends to look up at him. He had gone pale, and was frowning at the sheet of paper which trembled in his hand.
'No bad news, I hope?' Biffen ventured to say.
Whelpdale let himself sink into a chair.
'Now if this isn't too bad!' he exclaimed in a thick voice. 'If this isn't monstrously unkind! I never heard anything so gross as this--never!'
The two waited, trying not to smile.
'She writes--that she has met an old lover--in Birmingham--that it was with him she had quarrelled-not with her father at all-- that she ran away to annoy him and frighten him--that she has made it up again, and they're going to be married!'
He let the sheet fall, and looked so utterly woebegone that his friends at once exerted themselves to offer such consolation as the case admitted of. Reardon thought better of Whelpdale for this emotion; he had not believed him capable of it.
'It isn't a case of vulgar cheating!' cried the forsaken one presently. 'Don't go away thinking that. She writes in real distress and penitence--she does indeed. Oh, the devil! Why did I let her go to Birmingham? A fortnight more, and I should have had her safe. But it's just like my luck. Do you know that this is the third time I've been engaged to be married?--no, by Jove, the fourth! And every time the girl has got out of it at the last moment. What an unlucky beast I am! A girl who was positively my ideal! I haven't even a photograph of her to show you; but you'd be astonished at her face. Why, in the devil's name, did I let her go to Birmingham?'
The visitors had risen. They felt uncomfortable, for it seemed as if Whelpdale might find vent for his distress in tears.
'We had better leave you,' suggested Biffen. 'It's very hard--it is indeed.'
'Look here! Read the letter for yourselves! Do!'
They declined, and begged him not to insist.
'But I want you to see what kind of girl she is. It isn't a case of farcical deceiving--not a bit of it! She implores me to forgive her, and blames herself no end. Just my luck! The third-- no, the fourth time, by Jove! Never was such an unlucky fellow with women. It's because I'm so damnably poor; that's it, of course!'
Reardon and his companion succeeded at length in getting away, though not till they had heard the virtues and beauty of the vanished girl described again and again in much detail. Both were in a state of depression as they left the house.
'What think you of this story?' asked Biffen. 'Is this possible in a woman of any merit?'
'Anything is possible in a woman,' Reardon replied, harshly.
They walked in silence as far as Portland Road Station. There, with an assurance that he would come to a garret-supper before leaving London, Reardon parted from his friend and turned westward.
As soon as he had entered, Amy's voice called to him:
'Here's a letter from Jedwood, Edwin!'
He stepped into the study.
'It came just after you went out, and it has been all I could do to resist the temptation to open it.'
'Why shouldn't you have opened it?' said her husband, carelessly.
He tried to do so himself, but his shaking hand thwarted him at first. Succeeding at length, he found a letter in the publisher's own writing, and the first word that caught his attention was 'regret.' With an angry effort to command himself he ran through the communication, then held it out to Amy.
She read, and her countenance fell. Mr Jedwood regretted that the story offered to him did not seem likely to please that particular public to whom his series of one-volume novels made appeal. He hoped it would be understood that, in declining, he by no means expressed an adverse judgment on the story itself &c.
'It doesn't surprise me,' said Reardon. 'I believe he is quite right. The thing is too empty to please the better kind of readers, yet not vulgar enough to please the worse.'
'But you'll try someone else?'
'I don't think it's much use.'
They sat opposite each other, and kept silence. Jedwood's letter slipped from Amy's lap to the ground.
'So,' said Reardon, presently, 'I don't see how our plan is to be carried out.'
'Oh, it must be!'
'You'll get seven or eight pounds from The Wayside. And--hadn't we better sell the furniture, instead of--'
His look checked her.
'It seems to me, Amy, that your one desire is to get away from me, on whatever terms.'
'Don't begin that over again!' she exclaimed, fretfully. 'If you don't believe what I say--'
They were both in a state of intolerable nervous tension. Their voices quivered, and their eyes had an unnatural brightness.
'If we sell the furniture,' pursued Reardon, 'that means you'll never come back to me. You wish to save yourself and the child from the hard life that seems to be before us.'
'Yes, I do; but not by deserting you. I want you to go and work for us all, so that we may live more happily before long. Oh, how wretched this is!'
She burst into hysterical weeping. But Reardon, instead of attempting to soothe her, went into the next room, where he sat for a long time in the dark. When he returned Amy was calm again; her face expressed a cold misery.
'Where did you go this morning?' he asked, as if wishing to talk of common things.
'I told you. I went to buy those things for Willie.'
There was a silence.
'Biffen passed you in Tottenham Court Road,' he added.
'I didn't see him.'
'No; he said you didn't.'
'Perhaps,' said Amy, 'it was just when I was speaking to Mr Milvain.'
'You met Milvain?'
'Why didn't you tell me?'
'I'm sure I don't know. I can't mention every trifle that happens.'
'No, of course not.'
Amy closed her eyes, as if in weariness, and for a minute or two Reardon observed her countenance.
'So you think we had better sell the furniture.'
'I shall say nothing more about it. You must do as seems best to you, Edwin.'
'Are you going to see your mother to-morrow?'
'Yes. I thought you would like to come too.'
'No; there's no good in my going.'
He again rose, and that night they talked no more of their difficulties, though on the morrow (Sunday) it would be necessary to decide their course in every detail.