New Grub Street by George Gissing
Chapter XX. The End of Waiting
It was more than a fortnight after Reardon's removal to Islington when Jasper Milvain heard for the first time of what had happened. He was coming down from the office of the Will-o'-the-Wisp one afternoon, after a talk with the editor concerning a paragraph in his last week's causerie which had been complained of as libellous, and which would probably lead to the 'case' so much desired by everyone connected with the paper, when someone descending from a higher storey of the building overtook him and laid a hand on his shoulder. He turned and saw Whelpdale.
'What brings you on these premises?' he asked, as they shook hands.
'A man I know has just been made sub-editor of Chat, upstairs. He has half promised to let me do a column of answers to correspondents.'
'Cosmetics? Fashions? Cookery?'
'I'm not so versatile as all that, unfortunately. No, the general information column. "Will you be so good as to inform me, through the medium of your invaluable paper, what was the exact area devastated by the Great Fire of London?"--that kind of thing, you know. Hopburn--that's the fellow's name--tells me that his predecessor always called the paper Chat-moss, because of the frightful difficulty he had in filling it up each week. By-the-bye, what a capital column that is of yours in Will-o'-the-Wisp. I know nothing like it in English journalism; upon my word I don't!'
'Glad you like it. Some people are less fervent in their admiration.'
Jasper recounted the affair which had just been under discussion in the office.
'It may cost a couple of thousands, but the advertisement is worth that, Patwin thinks. Barlow is delighted; he wouldn't mind paying double the money to make those people a laughing-stock for a week or two.'
They issued into the street, and walked on together; Milvain, with his keen eye and critical smile, unmistakably the modern young man who cultivates the art of success; his companion of a less pronounced type, but distinguished by a certain subtlety of countenance, a blending of the sentimental and the shrewd.
'Of course you know all about the Reardons?' said Whelpdale.
'Haven't seen or heard of them lately. What is it?'
'Then you don't know that they have parted?'
'I only heard about it last night; Biffen told me. Reardon is doing clerk's work at a hospital somewhere in the East-end, and his wife has gone to live at her mother's house.'
'Ho, ho!' exclaimed Jasper, thoughtfully. 'Then the crash has come. Of course I knew it must be impending. I'm sorry for Reardon.'
'I'm sorry for his wife.'
'Trust you for thinking of women first, Whelpdale.'
'It's in an honourable way, my dear fellow. I'm a slave to women, true, but all in an honourable way. After that last adventure of mine most men would be savage and cynical, wouldn't they, now? I'm nothing of the kind. I think no worse of women--not a bit. I reverence them as much as ever. There must be a good deal of magnanimity in me, don't you think?'
Jasper laughed unrestrainedly.
'But it's the simple truth,' pursued the other. 'You should have seen the letter I wrote to that girl at Birmingham--all charity and forgiveness. I meant it, every word of it. I shouldn't talk to everyone like this, you know; but it's as well to show a friend one's best qualities now and then.'
'Is Reardon still living at the old place?'
'No, no. They sold up everything and let the flat. He's in lodgings somewhere or other. I'm not quite intimate enough with him to go and see him under the circumstances. But I'm surprised you know nothing about it.'
'I haven't seen much of them this year. Reardon--well, I'm afraid he hasn't very much of the virtue you claim for yourself. It rather annoys him to see me going ahead.'
'Really? His character never struck me in that way.'
'You haven't come enough in contact with him. At all events, I can't explain his change of manner in any other way. But I'm sorry for him; I am, indeed. At a hospital? I suppose Carter has given him the old job again?'
'Don't know. Biffen doesn't talk very freely about it; there's a good deal of delicacy in Biffen, you know. A thoroughly good-hearted fellow. And so is Reardon, I believe, though no doubt he has his weaknesses.'
'Oh, an excellent fellow! But weakness isn't the word. Why, I foresaw all this from the very beginning. The first hour's talk I ever had with him was enough to convince me that he'd never hold his own. But he really believed that the future was clear before him; he imagined he'd go on getting more and more for his books. An extraordinary thing that that girl had such faith in him!'
They parted soon after this, and Milvain went homeward, musing upon what he had heard. It was his purpose to spend the whole evening on some work which pressed for completion, but he found an unusual difficulty in settling to it. About eight o'clock he gave up the effort, arrayed himself in the costume of black and white, and journeyed to Westbourne Park, where his destination was the house of Mrs Edmund Yule. Of the servant who opened to him he inquired if Mrs Yule was at home, and received an answer in the affirmative.
'Any company with her?'
'A lady--Mrs Carter.'
'Then please to give my name, and ask if Mrs Yule can see me.'
He was speedily conducted to the drawing-room, where he found the lady of the house, her son, and Mrs Carter. For Mrs Reardon his eye sought in vain.
'I'm so glad you have come,' said Mrs Yule, in a confidential tone. 'I have been wishing to see you. Of course, you know of our sad trouble?'
'I have heard of it only to-day.'
'From Mr Reardon himself?'
'No; I haven't seen him.'
'I do wish you had! We should have been so anxious to know how he impressed you.'
'How he impressed me?'
'My mother has got hold of the notion,' put in John Yule, 'that he's not exactly compos mentis. I'll admit that he went on in a queer sort of way the last time I saw him.'
'And my husband thinks he is rather strange,' remarked Mrs Carter.
'He has gone back to the hospital, I understand--'
'To a new branch that has just been opened in the City Road,' replied Mrs Yule. 'And he's living in a dreadful place--one of the most shocking alleys in the worst part of Islington. I should have gone to see him, but I really feel afraid; they give me such an account of the place. And everyone agrees that he has such a very wild look, and speaks so strangely.'
'Between ourselves,' said John, 'there's no use in exaggerating. He's living in a vile hole, that's true, and Carter says he looks miserably ill, but of course he may be as sane as we are.
Jasper listened to all this with no small astonishment.
'And Mrs Reardon?' he asked.
'I'm sorry to say she is far from well,' replied Mrs Yule. 'To-day she has been obliged to keep her room. You can imagine what a shock it has been to her. It came with such extraordinary suddenness. Without a word of warning, her husband announced that he had taken a clerkship and was going to remove immediately to the East-end. Fancy! And this when he had already arranged, as you know, to go to the South Coast and write his next book under the influences of the sea air. He was anything but well; we all knew that, and we had all joined in advising him to spend the summer at the seaside. It seemed better that he should go alone; Mrs Reardon would, of course, have gone down for a few days now and then. And at a moment's notice everything is changed, and in such a dreadful way! I cannot believe that this is the behaviour of a sane man!'
Jasper understood that an explanation of the matter might have been given in much more homely terms; it was natural that Mrs Yule should leave out of sight the sufficient, but ignoble, cause of her son-in-law's behaviour.
'You see in what a painful position we are placed,' continued the euphemistic lady. 'It is so terrible even to hint that Mr Reardon is not responsible for his actions, yet how are we to explain to our friends this extraordinary state of things?'
'My husband is afraid Mr Reardon may fall seriously ill,' said Mrs Carter. 'And how dreadful! In such a place as that!'
'It would be so kind of you to go and see him, Mr Milvain,' urged Mrs Yule. 'We should be so glad to hear what you think.'
'Certainly, I will go,' replied Jasper. 'Will you give me his address?'
He remained for an hour, and before his departure the subject was discussed with rather more frankness than at first; even the word 'money' was once or twice heard.
'Mr Carter has very kindly promised,' said Mrs Yule, 'to do his best to hear of some position that would be suitable. It seems a most shocking thing that a successful author should abandon his career in this deliberate way; who could have imagined anything of the kind two years ago? But it is clearly quite impossible for him to go on as at present--if there is really no reason for believing his mind disordered.'
A cab was summoned for Mrs Carter, and she took her leave, suppressing her native cheerfulness to the tone of the occasion. A minute or two after, Milvain left the house.
He had walked perhaps twenty yards, almost to the end of the silent street in which his friends' house was situated, when a man came round the corner and approached him. At once he recognised the figure, and in a moment he was face to face with Reardon. Both stopped. Jasper held out his hand, but the other did not seem to notice it.
'You are coming from Mrs Yule's?' said Reardon, with a strange smile.
By the gaslight his face showed pale and sunken, and he met Jasper's look with fixedness.
'Yes, I am. The fact is, I went there to hear of your address. Why haven't you let me know about all this?'
'You went to the flat?'
'No, I was told about you by Whelpdale.'
Reardon turned in the direction whence he had come, and began to walk slowly; Jasper kept beside him.
'I'm afraid there's something amiss between us, Reardon,' said the latter, just glancing at his companion.
'There's something amiss between me and everyone,' was the reply, in an unnatural voice.
'You look at things too gloomily. Am I detaining you, by-the-bye? You were going--'
'Then come to my rooms, and let us see if we can't talk more in the old way.'
'Your old way of talk isn't much to my taste, Milvain. It has cost me too much.'Jasper gazed at him. Was there some foundation for Mrs Yule's seeming extravagance? This reply sounded so meaningless, and so unlike Reardon's manner of speech, that the younger man experienced a sudden alarm.
'Cost you too much? I don't understand you.'
They had turned into a broader thoroughfare, which, however, was little frequented at this hour. Reardon, his hands thrust into the pockets of a shabby overcoat and his head bent forward, went on at a slow pace, observant of nothing. For a moment or two he delayed reply, then said in an unsteady voice:
'Your way of talking has always been to glorify success, to insist upon it as the one end a man ought to keep in view. If you had talked so to me alone, it wouldn't have mattered. But there was generally someone else present. Your words had their effect; I can see that now. It's very much owing to you that I am deserted, now that there's no hope of my ever succeeding.'
Jasper's first impulse was to meet this accusation with indignant denial, but a sense of compassion prevailed. It was so painful to see the defeated man wandering at night near the house where his wife and child were comfortably sheltered; and the tone in which he spoke revealed such profound misery.
'That's a most astonishing thing to say,' Jasper replied. 'Of course I know nothing of what has passed between you and your wife, but I feel certain that I have no more to do with what has happened than any other of your acquaintances.'
'You may feel as certain as you will, but your words and your example have influenced my wife against me. You didn't intend that; I don't suppose it for a moment. It's my misfortune, that's all.'
'That I intended nothing of the kind, you need hardly say, I should think. But you are deceiving yourself in the strangest way. I'm afraid to speak plainly; I'm afraid of offending you. But can you recall something that I said about the time of your marriage? You didn't like it then, and certainly it won't be pleasant to you to remember it now. If you mean that your wife has grown unkind to you because you are unfortunate, there's no need to examine into other people's influence for an explanation of that.'
Reardon turned his face towards the speaker.
'Then you have always regarded my wife as a woman likely to fail me in time of need?'
'I don't care to answer a question put in that way. If we are no longer to talk with the old friendliness, it's far better we shouldn't discuss things such as this.'
'Well, practically you have answered. Of course I remember those words of yours that you refer to. Whether you were right or wrong doesn't affect what I say.'
He spoke with a dull doggedness, as though mental fatigue did not allow him to say more.
'It's impossible to argue against such a charge,' said Milvain. 'I am convinced it isn't true, and that's all I can answer. But perhaps you think this extraordinary influence of mine is still being used against you?'
'I know nothing about it,' Reardon replied, in the same unmodulated voice.
'Well, as I have told you, this was my first visit to Mrs Yule's since your wife has been there, and I didn't see her; she isn't very well, and keeps her room. I'm glad it happened so--that I didn't meet her. Henceforth I shall keep away from the family altogether, so long, at all events, as your wife remains with them. Of course I shan't tell anyone why; that would be impossible. But you shan't have to fear that I am decrying you. By Jove! an amiable figure you make of me!'
'I have said what I didn't wish to say, and what I oughtn't to have said. You must misunderstand me; I can't help it.'
Reardon had been walking for hours, and was, in truth, exhausted.
He became mute. Jasper, whose misrepresentation was wilful, though not maliciously so, also fell into silence; he did not believe that his conversations with Amy had seriously affected the course of events, but he knew that he had often said things to her in private which would scarcely have fallen from his lips if her husband had been present--little depreciatory phrases, wrong rather in tone than in terms, which came of his irresistible desire to assume superiority whenever it was possible. He, too, was weak, but with quite another kind of weakness than Reardon's. His was the weakness of vanity, which sometimes leads a man to commit treacheries of which he would believe himself incapable. Self-accused, he took refuge in the pretence of misconception, which again was a betrayal of littleness.
They drew near to Westbourne Park station.
'You are living a long way from here,' Jasper said, coldly. 'Are you going by train?'
'No. You said my wife was ill?'
'Oh, not ill. At least, I didn't understand that it was anything serious. Why don't you walk back to the house?'
'I must judge of my own affairs.'
'True; I beg your pardon. I take the train here, so I'll say good-night.'
They nodded to each other, but did not shake hands.
A day or two later, Milvain wrote to Mrs Yule, and told her that he had seen Reardon; he did not describe the circumstances under which the interview had taken place, but gave it as his opinion that Reardon was in a state of nervous illness, and made by suffering quite unlike himself. That he might be on the way to positive mental disease seemed likely enough. 'Unhappily, I myself can be of no use to him; he has not the same friendly feeling for me as he used to have. But it is very certain that those of his friends who have the power should exert themselves to raise him out of this fearful slough of despond. If he isn't effectually helped, there's no saying what may happen. One thing is certain, I think: he is past helping himself. Sane literary work cannot be expected from him. It seems a monstrous thing that so good a fellow, and one with such excellent brains too, should perish by the way when influential people would have no difficulty in restoring him to health and usefulness.'
All the months of summer went by. Jasper kept his word, and never visited Mrs Yule's house; but once in July he met that lady at the Carters', and heard then, what he knew from other sources, that the position of things was unchanged. In August, Mrs Yule spent a fortnight at the seaside, and Amy accompanied her. Milvain and his sisters accepted an invitation to visit friends at Wattleborough, and were out of town about three weeks, the last ten days being passed in the Isle of Wight; it was an extravagant holiday, but Dora had been ailing, and her brother declared that they would all work better for the change. Alfred Yule, with his wife and daughter, rusticated somewhere in Kent. Dora and Marian exchanged letters, and here is a passage from one written by the former:
'Jasper has shown himself in an unusually amiable light since we left town. I looked forward to this holiday with some misgivings, as I know by experience that it doesn't do for him and us to be too much together; he gets tired of our company, and then his selfishness--believe me, he has a good deal of it--comes out in a way we don't appreciate. But I have never known him so forbearing. To me he is particularly kind, on account of my headaches and general shakiness. It isn't impossible that this young man, if all goes well with him, may turn out far better than Maud and I ever expected. But things will have to go very well, if the improvement is to be permanent. I only hope he may make a lot of money before long. If this sounds rather gross to you, I can only say that Jasper's moral nature will never be safe as long as he is exposed to the risks of poverty. There are such people, you know. As a poor man, I wouldn't trust him out of my sight; with money, he will be a tolerable creature--as men go.'
Dora, no doubt, had her reasons for writing in this strain. She would not have made such remarks in conversation with her friend, but took the opportunity of being at a distance to communicate them in writing.
On their return, the two girls made good progress with the book they were manufacturing for Messrs Jolly and Monk, and early in October it was finished. Dora was now writing little things for The English Girl, and Maud had begun to review an occasional novel for an illustrated paper. In spite of their poor lodgings, they had been brought into social relations with Mrs Boston Wright and a few of her friends; their position was understood, and in accepting invitations they had no fear lest unwelcome people should pounce down upon them in their shabby little sitting-room. The younger sister cared little for society such as Jasper procured them; with Marian Yule for a companion she would have been quite content to spend her evenings at home. But Maud relished the introduction to strangers. She was admired, and knew it. Prudence could not restrain her from buying a handsomer dress than those she had brought from her country home, and it irked her sorely that she might not reconstruct all her equipment to rival the appearance of well-to-do girls whom she studied and envied. Her disadvantages, for the present, were insuperable. She had no one to chaperon her; she could not form intimacies because of her poverty. A rare invitation to luncheon, a permission to call at the sacred hour of small-talk--this was all she could hope for.
'I advise you to possess your soul in patience,' Jasper said to her, as they talked one day on the sea-shore. 'You are not to blame that you live without conventional protection, but it necessitates your being very careful. These people you are getting to know are not rigid about social observances, and they won't exactly despise you for poverty; all the same, their charity mustn't be tested too severely. Be very quiet for the present; let it be seen that you understand that your position isn't quite regular--I mean, of course, do so in a modest and nice way. As soon as ever it's possible, we'll arrange for you to live with someone who will preserve appearances. All this is contemptible, of course; but we belong to a contemptible society, and can't help ourselves. For Heaven's sake, don't spoil your chances by rashness; be content to wait a little, till some more money comes in.'
Midway in October, about half-past eight one evening, Jasper received an unexpected visit from Dora. He was in his sitting-room, smoking and reading a novel.
'Anything wrong?' he asked, as his sister entered.
'No; but I'm alone this evening, and I thought I would see if you were in.
'Where's Maud, then?'
'She went to see the Lanes this afternoon, and Mrs Lane invited her to go to the Gaiety to-night; she said a friend whom she had invited couldn't come, and the ticket would be wasted. Maud went back to dine with them. She'll come home in a cab.'
'Why is Mrs Lane so affectionate all at once? Take your things off; I have nothing to do.'
'Miss Radway was going as well.'
'Who's Miss Radway?'
'Don't you know her? She's staying with the Lanes. Maud says she writes for The West End.'
'And will that fellow Lane be with them?'
'I think not.'
Jasper mused, contemplating the bowl of his pipe.
'I suppose she was in rare excitement?'
'Pretty well. She has wanted to go to the Gaiety for a long time. There's no harm, is there?'
Dora asked the question with that absent air which girls are wont to assume when they touch on doubtful subjects.
'Harm, no. Idiocy and lively music, that's all. It's too late, or I'd have taken you, for the joke of the thing. Confound it! she ought to have better dresses.'
'Oh, she looked very nice, in that best.'
'Pooh! But I don't care for her to be running about with the Lanes. Lane is too big a blackguard; it reflects upon his wife to a certain extent.'
They gossiped for half an hour, then a tap at the door interrupted them; it was the landlady.
'Mr Whelpdale has called to see you, sir. I mentioned as Miss Milvain was here, so he said he wouldn't come up unless you sent to ask him.'
Jasper smiled at Dora, and said in a low voice.
'What do you say? Shall he come up? He can behave himself.'
'Just as you please, Jasper.'
'Ask him to come up, Mrs Thompson, please.'
Mr Whelpdale presented himself. He entered with much more ceremony than when Milvain was alone; on his visage was a grave respectfulness, his step was light, his whole bearing expressed diffidence and pleasurable anticipation.
'My younger sister, Whelpdale,' said Jasper, with subdued amusement.
The dealer in literary advice made a bow which did him no discredit, and began to speak in a low, reverential tone not at all disagreeable to the ear. His breeding, in truth, had been that of a gentleman, and it was only of late years that he had fallen into the hungry region of New Grub Street.
'How's the "Manual" going off?' Milvain inquired.
'Excellently! We have sold nearly six hundred.'
'My sister is one of your readers. I believe she has studied the book with much conscientiousness.'
'Really? You have really read it, Miss Milvain?'
Dora assured him that she had, and his delight knew no bounds.
'It isn't all rubbish, by any means,' said Jasper, graciously. 'In the chapter on writing for magazines, there are one or two very good hints. What a pity you can't apply your own advice, Whelpdale!'
'Now that's horribly unkind of you!' protested the other. 'You might have spared me this evening. But unfortunately it's quite true, Miss Milvain. I point the way, but I haven't been able to travel it myself. You mustn't think I have never succeeded in getting things published; but I can't keep it up as a profession.
Your brother is the successful man. A marvellous facility! I envy him. Few men at present writing have such talent.'
'Please don't make him more conceited than he naturally is,' interposed Dora.
'What news of Biffen?' asked Jasper, presently.
'He says he shall finish "Mr Bailey, Grocer," in about a month. He read me one of the later chapters the other night. It's really very fine; most remarkable writing, it seems to me. It will be scandalous if he can't get it published; it will, indeed.'
'I do hope he may!' said Dora, laughing. 'I have heard so much of "Mr Bailey," that it will be a great disappointment if I am never to read it.'
'I'm afraid it would give you very little pleasure,' Whelpdale replied, hesitatingly. 'The matter is so very gross.'
'And the hero grocer!' shouted Jasper, mirthfully. 'Oh, but it's quite decent; only rather depressing. The decently ignoble--or, the ignobly decent? Which is Biffen's formula? I saw him a week ago, and he looked hungrier than ever.'
'Ah, but poor Reardon! I passed him at King's Cross not long ago.
He didn't see me--walks with his eyes on the ground always--and I hadn't the courage to stop him. He's the ghost of his old self He can't live long.'
Dora and her brother exchanged a glance. It was a long time since Jasper had spoken to his sisters about the Reardons; nowadays he seldom heard either of husband or wife.
The conversation that went on was so agreeable to Whelpdale, that he lost consciousness of time. It was past eleven o'clock when Jasper felt obliged to remind him.
'Dora, I think I must be taking you home.'
The visitor at once made ready for departure, and his leave-taking was as respectful as his entrance had been. Though he might not say what he thought, there was very legible upon his countenance a hope that he would again be privileged to meet Miss Dora Milvain.
'Not a bad fellow, in his way,' said Jasper, when Dora and he were alone again.
'Not at all.'
She had heard the story of Whelpdale's hapless wooing half a year ago, and her recollection of it explained the smile with which she spoke.
'Never get on, I'm afraid,' Jasper pursued. 'He has his allowance of twenty pounds a year, and makes perhaps fifty or sixty more. If I were in his position, I should go in for some kind of regular business; he has people who could help him. Good-natured fellow; but what's the use of that if you've no money?'
They set out together, and walked to the girls' lodgings. Dora was about to use her latch-key, but Jasper checked her. 'No. There's a light in the kitchen still; better knock, as we're so late.'
'Never mind; do as I tell you.'
The landlady admitted them, and Jasper spoke a word or two with her, explaining that he would wait until his elder sister's return; the darkness of the second-floor windows had shown that Maud was not yet back.
'What strange fancies you have!' remarked Dora, when they were upstairs.
'So have people in general, unfortunately.'
A letter lay on the table. It was addressed to Maud, and Dora recognised the handwriting as that of a Wattleborough friend.
'There must be some news here,' she said. 'Mrs Haynes wouldn't write unless she had something special to say.
Just upon midnight, a cab drew up before the house. Dora ran down to open the door to her sister, who came in with very bright eyes and more colour than usual on her cheeks.
'How late for you to be here!' she exclaimed, on entering the sitting-room and seeing Jasper.
'I shouldn't have felt comfortable till I knew that you were back all right.'
'What fear was there?'
She threw off her wraps, laughing.
'Well, have you enjoyed yourself?'
'Oh yes!' she replied, carelessly. 'This letter for me? What has Mrs Haynes got to say, I wonder?'
She opened the envelope, and began to glance hurriedly over the sheet of paper. Then her face changed.
'What do you think? Mr Yule is dead!'
Dora uttered an exclamation; Jasper displayed the keenest interest.
'He died yesterday--no, it would be the day before yesterday. He had a fit of some kind at a public meeting, was taken to the hospital because it was nearest, and died in a few hours. So that has come, at last! Now what'll be the result of it, I wonder?'
'When shall you be seeing Marian?' asked her brother.
'She might come to-morrow evening.'
'But won't she go to the funeral?' suggested Dora.
'Perhaps; there's no saying. I suppose her father will, at all events. The day before yesterday? Then the funeral will be on Saturday, I should think.'
'Ought I to write to Marian?' asked Dora.
'No; I wouldn't,' was Jasper's reply. 'Better wait till she lets you hear. That's sure to be soon. She may have gone to Wattleborough this afternoon, or be going to-morrow morning.'
The letter from Mrs Haynes was passed from hand to hand. 'Everybody feels sure,' it said, 'that a great deal of his money will be left for public purposes. The ground for the park being already purchased, he is sure to have made provision for carrying out his plans connected with it. But I hope your friends in London may benefit.'
It was some time before Jasper could put an end to the speculative conversation and betake himself homewards. And even on getting back to his lodgings he was little disposed to go to bed. This event of John Yule's death had been constantly in his mind, but there was always a fear that it might not happen for long enough; the sudden announcement excited him almost as much as if he were a relative of the deceased.
'Confound his public purposes!' was the thought upon which he at length slept.