New Grub Street by George Gissing
Chapter XXV. A Fruitless Meeting
Refuge from despair is often found in the passion of self-pity and that spirit of obstinate resistance which it engenders. In certain natures the extreme of self-pity is intolerable, and leads to self-destruction; but there are less fortunate beings whom the vehemence of their revolt against fate strengthens to endure in suffering. These latter are rather imaginative than passionate; the stages of their woe impress them as the acts of a drama, which they cannot bring themselves to cut short, so various are the possibilities of its dark motive. The intellectual man who kills himself is most often brought to that decision by conviction of his insignificance; self-pity merges in self-scorn, and the humiliated soul is intolerant of existence. He who survives under like conditions does so because misery magnifies him in his own estimate.
It was by force of commiserating his own lot that Edwin Reardon continued to live through the first month after his parting from Amy. Once or twice a week, sometimes early in the evening, sometimes at midnight or later, he haunted the street at Westbourne Park where his wife was dwelling, and on each occasion he returned to his garret with a fortified sense of the injustice to which he was submitted, of revolt against the circumstances which had driven him into outer darkness, of bitterness against his wife for saving her own comfort rather than share his downfall. At times he was not far from that state of sheer distraction which Mrs Edmund Yule preferred to suppose that he had reached. An extraordinary arrogance now and then possessed him; he stood amid his poor surroundings with the sensations of an outraged exile, and laughed aloud in furious contempt of all who censured or pitied him.
On hearing from Jasper Milvain that Amy had fallen ill, or at all events was suffering in health from what she had gone through, he felt a momentary pang which all but determined him to hasten to her side. The reaction was a feeling of distinct pleasure that she had her share of pain, and even a hope that her illness might become grave; he pictured himself summoned to her sick chamber, imagined her begging his forgiveness. But it was not merely, nor in great part, a malicious satisfaction; he succeeded in believing that Amy suffered because she still had a remnant of love for him. As the days went by and he heard nothing, disappointment and resentment occupied him. At length he ceased to haunt the neighbourhood. His desires grew sullen; he became fixed in the resolve to hold entirely apart and doggedly await the issue.
At the end of each month he sent half the money he had received from Carter, simply enclosing postal orders in an envelope addressed to his wife. The first two remittances were in no way acknowledged; the third brought a short note from Amy:
'As you continue to send these sums of money, I had perhaps better let you know that I cannot use them for any purposes of my own. Perhaps a sense of duty leads you to make this sacrifice, but I am afraid it is more likely that you wish to remind me every month that you are undergoing privations, and to pain me in this way. What you have sent I have deposited in the Post Office Savings' Bank in Willie's name, and I shall continue to do so.-- A.R.'
For a day or two Reardon persevered in an intention of not replying, but the desire to utter his turbid feelings became in the end too strong. He wrote:
'I regard it as quite natural that you should put the worst interpretation on whatever I do. As for my privations, I think very little of them; they are a trifle in comparison with the thought that I am forsaken just because my pocket is empty. And I am far indeed from thinking that you can be pained by whatever I may undergo; that would suppose some generosity in your nature.'
This was no sooner posted than he would gladly have recalled it. He knew that it was undignified, that it contained as many falsehoods as lines, and he was ashamed of himself for having written so. But he could not pen a letter of retractation, and there remained with him a new cause of exasperated wretchedness.
Excepting the people with whom he came in contact at the hospital, he had no society but that of Biffen. The realist visited him once a week, and this friendship grew closer than it had been in the time of Reardon's prosperity. Biffen was a man of so much natural delicacy, that there was a pleasure in imparting to him the details of private sorrow; though profoundly sympathetic, he did his best to oppose Reardon's harsher judgments of Amy, and herein he gave his friend a satisfaction which might not be avowed.
'I really do not see,' he exclaimed, as they sat in the garret one night of midsummer, 'how your wife could have acted otherwise. Of course I am quite unable to judge the attitude of her mind, but I think, I can't help thinking, from what I knew of her, that there has been strictly a misunderstanding between you.
It was a hard and miserable thing that she should have to leave you for a time, and you couldn't face the necessity in a just spirit. Don't you think there's some truth in this way of looking at it?'
'As a woman, it was her part to soften the hateful necessity; she made it worse.'
'I'm not sure that you don't demand too much of her. Unhappily, I know little or nothing of delicately-bred women, but I have a suspicion that one oughtn't to expect heroism in them, any more than in the women of the lower classes. I think of women as creatures to be protected. Is a man justified in asking them to be stronger than himself?'
'Of course,' replied Reardon, 'there's no use in demanding more than a character is capable of. But I believed her of finer stuff. My bitterness comes of the disappointment.'
'I suppose there were faults of temper on both sides, and you saw at last only each other's weaknesses.'
'I saw the truth, which had always been disguised from me.' Biffen persisted in looking doubtful, and in secret Reardon thanked him for it.
As the realist progressed with his novel, 'Mr Bailey, Grocer,' he read the chapters to Reardon, not only for his own satisfaction, but in great part because he hoped that this example of productivity might in the end encourage the listener to resume his own literary tasks. Reardon found much to criticise in his friend's work; it was noteworthy that he objected and condemned with much less hesitation than in his better days, for sensitive reticence is one of the virtues wont to be assailed by suffering, at all events in the weaker natures. Biffen purposely urged these discussions as far as possible, and doubtless they benefited Reardon for the time; but the defeated novelist could not be induced to undertake another practical illustration of his own views. Occasionally he had an impulse to plan a story, but an hour's turning it over in his mind sufficed to disgust him. His ideas seemed barren, vapid; it would have been impossible for him to write half a dozen pages, and the mere thought of a whole book overcame him with the dread of insurmountable difficulties, immeasurable toil.
In time, however, he was able to read. He had a pleasure in contemplating the little collection of sterling books that alone remained to him from his library; the sight of many volumes would have been a weariness, but these few--when he was again able to think of books at all--were as friendly countenances. He could not read continuously, but sometimes he opened his Shakespeare, for instance, and dreamed over a page or two. From such glimpses there remained in his head a line or a short passage, which he kept repeating to himself wherever he went; generally some example of sweet or sonorous metre which had a soothing effect upon him.
With odd result on one occasion. He was walking in one of the back streets of Islington, and stopped idly to gaze into the window of some small shop. Standing thus, he forgot himself and presently recited aloud:
'Caesar, 'tis his schoolmaster: An argument that he is pluck'd, when hither He sends so poor a pinion of his wing, Which had superfluous kings for messengers Not many moons gone by.'
The last two lines he uttered a second time, enjoying their magnificent sound, and then was brought back to consciousness by the loud mocking laugh of two men standing close by, who evidently looked upon him as a strayed lunatic.
He kept one suit of clothes for his hours of attendance at the hospital; it was still decent, and with much care would remain so for a long time. That which he wore at home and in his street wanderings declared poverty at every point; it had been discarded before he left the old abode. In his present state of mind he cared nothing how disreputable he looked to passers-by. These seedy habiliments were the token of his degradation, and at times he regarded them (happening to see himself in a shop mirror) with pleasurable contempt. The same spirit often led him for a meal to the poorest of eating-houses, places where he rubbed elbows with ragged creatures who had somehow obtained the price of a cup of coffee and a slice of bread and butter. He liked to contrast himself with these comrades in misfortune. 'This is the rate at which the world esteems me; I am worth no better provision than this.' Or else, instead of emphasising the contrast, he defiantly took a place among the miserables of the nether world, and nursed hatred of all who were well-to-do.
One of these he desired to regard with gratitude, but found it difficult to support that feeling. Carter, the vivacious, though at first perfectly unembarrassed in his relations with the City Road clerk, gradually exhibited a change of demeanour. Reardon occasionally found the young man's eye fixed upon him with a singular expression, and the secretary's talk, though still as a rule genial, was wont to suffer curious interruptions, during which he seemed to be musing on something Reardon had said, or on some point of his behaviour. The explanation of this was that Carter had begun to think there might be a foundation for Mrs Yule's hypothesis--that the novelist was not altogether in his sound senses. At first he scouted the idea, but as time went on it seemed to him that Reardon's countenance certainly had a gaunt wildness which suggested disagreeable things. Especially did he remark this after his return from an August holiday in Norway. On coming for the first time to the City Road branch he sat down and began to favour Reardon with a lively description of how he had enjoyed himself abroad; it never occurred to him that such talk was not likely to inspirit the man who had passed his August between the garret and the hospital, but he observed before long that his listener was glancing hither and thither in rather a strange way.
'You haven't been ill since I saw you?' he inquired.
'But you look as if you might have been. I say, we must manage for you to have a fortnight off, you know, this month.'
'I have no wish for it,' said Reardon. 'I'll imagine I have been to Norway. It has done me good to hear of your holiday.'
'I'm glad of that; but it isn't quite the same thing, you know, as having a run somewhere yourself.'
'Oh, much better! To enjoy myself may be mere selfishness, but to enjoy another's enjoyment is the purest satisfaction, good for body and soul. I am cultivating altruism.'
'A highly rarefied form of happiness. The curious thing about it is that it won't grow unless you have just twice as much faith in it as is required for assent to the Athanasian Creed.'
Carter went away more than puzzled. He told his wife that evening that Reardon had been talking to him in the most extraordinary fashion--no understanding a word he said.
All this time he was on the look-out for employment that would be more suitable to his unfortunate clerk. Whether slightly demented or not, Reardon gave no sign of inability to discharge his duties; he was conscientious as ever, and might, unless he changed greatly, be relied upon in positions of more responsibility than his present one. And at length, early in October, there came to the secretary's knowledge an opportunity with which he lost no time in acquainting Reardon. The latter repaired that evening to Clipstone Street, and climbed to Biffen's chamber. He entered with a cheerful look, and exclaimed:
'I have just invented a riddle; see if you can guess it. Why is a London lodging-house like the human body?'
Biffen looked with some concern at his friend, so unwonted was a sally of this kind.
'Why is a London lodging-house--? Haven't the least idea.'
'Because the brains are always at the top. Not bad, I think, eh?'
'Well, no; it'll pass. Distinctly professional though. The general public would fail to see the point, I'm afraid. But what has come to you?'
'Good tidings. Carter has offered me a place which will be a decided improvement. A house found--or rooms, at all events--and salary a hundred and fifty a year.
'By Plutus! That's good hearing. Some duties attached, I suppose?'
'I'm afraid that was inevitable, as things go. It's the secretaryship of a home for destitute boys at Croydon. The post is far from a sinecure, Carter assures me. There's a great deal of purely secretarial work, and there's a great deal of practical work, some of it rather rough, I fancy. It seems doubtful whether I am exactly the man. The present holder is a burly fellow over six feet high, delighting in gymnastics, and rather fond of a fight now and then when opportunity offers. But he is departing at Christmas--going somewhere as a missionary; and I can have the place if I choose.'
'As I suppose you do?'
'Yes. I shall try it, decidedly.'
Biffen waited a little, then asked:
'I suppose your wife will go with you?'
'There's no saying.'
Reardon tried to answer indifferently, but it could be seen that he was agitated between hopes and fears.
'You'll ask her, at all events?'
'Oh yes,' was the half-absent reply.
'But surely there can be no doubt that she'll come. A hundred and fifty a year, without rent to pay. Why, that's affluence!'
'The rooms I might occupy are in the home itself. Amy won't take very readily to a dwelling of that kind. And Croydon isn't the most inviting locality.'
'Close to delightful country.'
'Yes, yes; but Amy doesn't care about that.'
'You misjudge her, Reardon. You are too harsh. I implore you not to lose the chance of setting all right again! If only you could be put into my position for a moment, and then be offered the companionship of such a wife as yours!'
Reardon listened with a face of lowering excitement.
'I should be perfectly within my rights,' he said sternly, 'if I merely told her when I have taken the position, and let her ask me to take her back--if she wishes.'
'You have changed a great deal this last year,' replied Biffen, shaking his head, 'a great deal. I hope to see you your old self again before long. I should have declared it impossible for you to become so rugged. Go and see your wife, there's a good fellow.'
'No; I shall write to her.'
'Go and see her, I beg you! No good ever came of letter-writing between two people who have misunderstood each other. Go to Westbourne Park to-morrow. And be reasonable; be more than reasonable. The happiness of your life depends on what you do now. Be content to forget whatever wrong has been done you. To think that a man should need persuading to win back such a wife!'
In truth, there needed little persuasion. Perverseness, one of the forms or issues of self-pity, made him strive against his desire, and caused him to adopt a tone of acerbity in excess of what he felt; but already he had made up his mind to see Amy. Even if this excuse had not presented itself he must very soon have yielded to the longing for a sight of his wife's face which day by day increased among all the conflicting passions of which he was the victim. A month or two ago, when the summer sunshine made his confinement to the streets a daily torture, he convinced himself that there remained in him no trace of his love for Amy; there were moments when he thought of her with repugnance, as a cold, selfish woman, who had feigned affection when it seemed her interest to do so, but brutally declared her true self when there was no longer anything to be hoped from him. That was the self- deception of misery. Love, even passion, was still alive in the depths of his being; the animation with which he sped to his friend as soon as a new hope had risen was the best proof of his feeling.
He went home and wrote to Amy.
'I have a reason for wishing to see you. Will you have the kindness to appoint an hour on Sunday morning when I can speak with you in private? It must be understood that I shall see no one else.'
She would receive this by the first post to-morrow, Saturday, and doubtless would let him hear in reply some time in the afternoon. Impatience allowed him little sleep, and the next day was a long weariness of waiting. The evening he would have to spend at the hospital; if there came no reply before the time of his leaving home, he knew not how he should compel himself to the ordinary routine of work. Yet the hour came, and he had heard nothing. He was tempted to go at once to Westbourne Park, but reason prevailed with him. When he again entered the house, having walked at his utmost speed from the City Road, the letter lay waiting for him; it had been pushed beneath his door, and when he struck a match he found that one of his feet was upon the white envelope.
Amy wrote that she would be at home at eleven to-morrow morning. Not another word.
In all probability she knew of the offer that had been made to him; Mrs Carter would have told her. Was it of good or of ill omen that she wrote only these half-dozen words? Half through the night he plagued himself with suppositions, now thinking that her brevity promised a welcome, now that she wished to warn him against expecting anything but a cold, offended demeanour. At seven he was dressed; two hours and a half had to be killed before he could start on his walk westward. He would have wandered about the streets, but it rained.
He had made himself as decent as possible in appearance, but he must necessarily seem an odd Sunday visitor at a house such as Mrs Yule's. His soft felt hat, never brushed for months, was a greyish green, and stained round the band with perspiration. His necktie was discoloured and worn. Coat and waistcoat might pass muster, but of the trousers the less said the better. One of his boots was patched, and both were all but heelless.
Very well; let her see him thus. Let her understand what it meant to live on twelve and sixpence a week.
Though it was cold and wet he could not put on his overcoat. Three years ago it had been a fairly good ulster; at present, the edges of the sleeves were frayed, two buttons were missing, and the original hue of the cloth was indeterminable.
At half-past nine he set out and struggled with his shabby umbrella against wind and rain. Down Pentonville Hill, up Euston Road, all along Marylebone Road, then north-westwards towards the point of his destination. It was a good six miles from the one house to the other, but he arrived before the appointed time, and had to stray about until the cessation of bell-clanging and the striking of clocks told him it was eleven. Then he presented himself at the familiar door.
On his asking for Mrs Reardon, he was at once admitted and led up to the drawing-room; the servant did not ask his name.
Then he waited for a minute or two, feeling himself a squalid wretch amid the dainty furniture. The door opened. Amy, in a simple but very becoming dress, approached to within a yard of him; after the first glance she had averted her eyes, and she did not offer to shake hands. He saw that his muddy and shapeless boots drew her attention.
'Do you know why I have come?' he asked.
He meant the tone to be conciliatory, but he could not command his voice, and it sounded rough, hostile.
'I think so,' Amy answered, seating herself gracefully. She would have spoken with less dignity but for that accent of his.
'The Carters have told you?'
'Yes; I have heard about it.'
There was no promise in her manner. She kept her face turned away, and Reardon saw its beautiful profile, hard and cold as though in marble.
'It doesn't interest you at all?'
'I am glad to hear that a better prospect offers for you.'
He did not sit down, and was holding his rusty hat behind his back.
'You speak as if it in no way concerned yourself. Is that what you wish me to understand?'
'Won't it be better if you tell me why you have come here? As you are resolved to find offence in whatever I say, I prefer to keep silence. Please to let me know why you have asked to see me.'
Reardon turned abruptly as if to leave her, but checked himself at a little distance.
Both had come to this meeting prepared for a renewal of amity, but in these first few moments each was so disagreeably impressed by the look and language of the other that a revulsion of feeling undid all the more hopeful effects of their long severance. On entering, Amy had meant to offer her hand, but the unexpected meanness of Reardon's aspect shocked and restrained her. All but every woman would have experienced that shrinking from the livery of poverty. Amy had but to reflect, and she understood that her husband could in no wise help this shabbiness; when he parted from her his wardrobe was already in a long-suffering condition, and how was he to have purchased new garments since then? None the less such attire degraded him in her eyes; it symbolised the melancholy decline which he had suffered intellectually. On Reardon his wife's elegance had the same repellent effect, though this would not have been the case but for the expression of her countenance. Had it been possible for them to remain together during the first five minutes without exchange of words, sympathies might have prevailed on both sides; the first speech uttered would most likely have harmonised with their gentler thoughts. But the mischief was done so speedily.
A man must indeed be graciously endowed if his personal appearance can defy the disadvantage of cheap modern clothing worn into shapelessness. Reardon had no such remarkable physique, and it was not wonderful that his wife felt ashamed of him. Strictly ashamed; he seemed to her a social inferior; the impression was so strong that it resisted all memory of his spiritual qualities. She might have anticipated this state of things, and have armed herself to encounter it, but somehow she had not done so. For more than five months she had been living among people who dressed well; the contrast was too suddenly forced upon her. She was especially susceptible in such matters, and had become none the less so under the demoralising influence of her misfortunes. True, she soon began to feel ashamed of her shame, but that could not annihilate the natural feeling and its results.
'I don't love him. I can't love him.' Thus she spoke to herself, with immutable decision. She had been doubtful till now, but all doubt was at an end. Had Reardon been practical man enough to procure by hook or by crook a decent suit of clothes for this interview, that ridiculous trifle might have made all the difference in what was to result.
He turned again, and spoke with the harshness of a man who feels that he is despised, and is determined to show an equal contempt.
'I came to ask you what you propose to do in case I go to Croydon.'
'I have no proposal to make whatever.'
'That means, then, that you are content to go on living here?'
'If I have no choice, I must make myself content.'
'But you have a choice.'
'None has yet been offered me.'
'Then I offer it now,' said Reardon, speaking less aggressively. 'I shall have a dwelling rent free, and a hundred and fifty pounds a year--perhaps it would be more in keeping with my station if I say that I shall have something less than three pounds a week. You can either accept from me half this money, as up to now, or come and take your place again as my wife. Please to decide what you will do.'
'I will let you know by letter in a few days.'
It seemed impossible to her to say she would return, yet a refusal to do so involved nothing less than separation for the rest of their lives. Postponement of decision was her only resource.
'I must know at once,' said Reardon.
'I can't answer at once.'
'If you don't, I shall understand you to mean that you refuse to come to me. You know the circumstances; there is no reason why you should consult with anyone else. You can answer me immediately if you will.'
'I don't wish to answer you immediately,' Amy replied, paling slightly.
'Then that decides it. When I leave you we are strangers to each other.'
Amy made a rapid study of his countenance. She had never entertained for a moment the supposition that his wits were unsettled, but none the less the constant recurrence of that idea in her mother's talk had subtly influenced her against her husband. It had confirmed her in thinking that his behaviour was inexcusable. And now it seemed to her that anyone might be justified in holding him demented, so reckless was his utterance.
It was difficult to know him as the man who had loved her so devotedly, who was incapable of an unkind word or look.
'If that is what you prefer,' she said, 'there must be a formal separation. I can't trust my future to your caprice.'
'You mean it must be put into the hands of a lawyer?'
'Yes, I do.'
'That will be the best, no doubt.'
'Very well; I will speak with my friends about it.'
'Your friends!' he exclaimed bitterly. 'But for those friends of yours, this would never have happened. I wish you had been alone in the world and penniless.'
'A kind wish, all things considered.'
'Yes, it is a kind wish. Then your marriage with me would have been binding; you would have known that my lot was yours, and the knowledge would have helped your weakness. I begin to see how much right there is on the side of those people who would keep women in subjection. You have been allowed to act with independence, and the result is that you have ruined my life and debased your own. If I had been strong enough to treat you as a child, and bid you follow me wherever my own fortunes led, it would have been as much better for you as for me. I was weak, and I suffer as all weak people do.'
'You think it was my duty to share such a home as you have at present?'
'You know it was. And if the choice had lain between that and earning your own livelihood you would have thought that even such a poor home might be made tolerable. There were possibilities in you of better things than will ever come out now.'
There followed a silence. Amy sat with her eyes gloomily fixed on the carpet; Reardon looked about the room, but saw nothing. He had thrown his hat into a chair, and his fingers worked nervously together behind his back.
'Will you tell me,' he said at length, 'how your position is regarded by these friends of yours? I don't mean your mother and brother, but the people who come to this house.'
'I have not asked such people for their opinion.'
'Still, I suppose some sort of explanation has been necessary in your intercourse with them. How have you represented your relations with me?'
'I can't see that that concerns you.'
'In a manner it does. Certainly it matters very little to me how I am thought of by people of this kind, but one doesn't like to be reviled without cause. Have you allowed it to be supposed that I have made life with me intolerable for you?'
'No, I have not. You insult me by asking the question, but as you don't seem to understand feelings of that kind I may as well answer you simply.'
'Then have you told them the truth? That I became so poor you couldn't live with me?'
'I have never said that in so many words, but no doubt it is understood. It must be known also that you refused to take the step which might have helped you out of your difficulties.'
She reminded him of his intention to spend half a year in working at the seaside.
'I had utterly forgotten it,' he returned with a mocking laugh. 'That shows how ridiculous such a thing would have been.'
'You are doing no literary work at all?' Amy asked.
'Do you imagine that I have the peace of mind necessary for anything of that sort?'
This was in a changed voice. It reminded her so strongly of her husband before his disasters that she could not frame a reply.
'Do you think I am able to occupy myself with the affairs of imaginary people?'
'I didn't necessarily mean fiction.'
'That I can forget myself, then, in the study of literature?--I wonder whether you really think of me like that. How, in Heaven's name, do you suppose I spend my leisure time?'
She made no answer.
'Do you think I take this calamity as light-heartedly as you do, Amy?'
'I am far from taking it light-heartedly.'
'Yet you are in good health. I see no sign that you have suffered.'
She kept silence. Her suffering had been slight enough, and chiefly due to considerations of social propriety; but she would not avow this, and did not like to make admission of it to herself. Before her friends she frequently affected to conceal a profound sorrow; but so long as her child was left to her she was in no danger of falling a victim to sentimental troubles.
'And certainly I can't believe it,' he continued, 'now you declare your wish to be formally separated from me.'
'I have declared no such wish.'
'Indeed you have. If you can hesitate a moment about returning to me when difficulties are at an end, that tells me you would prefer final separation.'
'I hesitate for this reason,' Amy said after reflecting. 'You are so very greatly changed from what you used to be, that I think it doubtful if I could live with you.'
'Changed?--Yes, that is true, I am afraid. But how do you think this change will affect my behaviour to you?'
'Remember how you have been speaking to me.'
'And you think I should treat you brutally if you came into my power?'
'Not brutally, in the ordinary sense of the word. But with faults of temper which I couldn't bear. I have my own faults. I can't behave as meekly as some women can.'
It was a small concession, but Reardon made much of it.
'Did my faults of temper give you any trouble during the first year of our married life?' he asked gently.
'No,' she admitted.
'They began to afflict you when I was so hard driven by difficulties that I needed all your sympathy, all your forbearance. Did I receive much of either from you, Amy?'
'I think you did--until you demanded impossible things of me.'
'It was always in your power to rule me. What pained me worst, and hardened me against you, was that I saw you didn't care to exert your influence. There was never a time when I could have resisted a word of yours spoken out of your love for me. But even then, I am afraid, you no longer loved me, and now--'
He broke off, and stood watching her face.
'Have you any love for me left?' burst from his lips, as if the words all but choked him in the utterance.
Amy tried to shape some evasive answer, but could say nothing.
'Is there ever so small a hope that I might win some love from you again?'
'If you wish me to come and live with you when you go to Croydon I will do so.'
'But that is not answering me, Amy.'
'It's all I can say.'
'Then you mean that you would sacrifice yourself out of--what? Out of pity for me, let us say.'
'Do you wish to see Willie?' asked Amy, instead of replying.
'No. It is you I have come to see. The child is nothing to me, compared with you. It is you, who loved me, who became my wife-- you only I care about. Tell me you will try to be as you used to be. Give me only that hope, Amy; I will ask nothing except that, now.'
'I can't say anything except that I will come to Croydon if you wish it.'
'And reproach me always because you have to live in such a place, away from your friends, without a hope of the social success which was your dearest ambition?'
Her practical denial that she loved him wrung this taunt from his anguished heart. He repented the words as soon as they were spoken.
'What is the good?' exclaimed Amy in irritation, rising and moving away from him. 'How can I pretend that I look forward to such a life with any hope?'
He stood in mute misery, inwardly cursing himself and his fate.
'I have said I will come,' she continued, her voice shaken with nervous tension. 'Ask me or not, as you please, when you are ready to go there. I can't talk about it.'
'I shall not ask you,' he replied. 'I will have no woman slave dragging out a weary life with me. Either you are my willing wife, or you are nothing to me.'
'I am married to you, and that can't be undone. I repeat that I shan't refuse to obey you. I shall say no more.'
She moved to a distance, and there seated herself, half turned from him.
'I shall never ask you to come,' said Reardon, breaking a short silence. 'If our married life is ever to begin again it must be of your seeking. Come to me of your own will, and I shall never reject you. But I will die in utter loneliness rather than ask you again.'
He lingered a few moments, watching her; she did not move. Then he took his hat, went in silence from the room, and left the house.
It rained harder than before. As no trains were running at this hour, he walked in the direction where he would be likely to meet with an omnibus. But it was a long time before one passed which was any use to him. When he reached home he was in cheerless plight enough; to make things pleasanter, one of his boots had let in water abundantly.
'The first sore throat of the season, no doubt,' he muttered to himself.
Nor was he disappointed. By Tuesday the cold had firm grip of him. A day or two of influenza or sore throat always made him so weak that with difficulty he supported the least physical exertion; but at present he must go to his work at the hospital. Why stay at home? To what purpose spare himself? It was not as if life had any promise for him. He was a machine for earning so much money a week, and would at least give faithful work for his wages until the day of final breakdown.
But, midway in the week, Carter discovered how ill his clerk was.
'You ought to be in bed, my dear fellow, with gruel and mustard plasters and all the rest of it. Go home and take care of yourself--I insist upon it.'
Before leaving the office, Reardon wrote a few lines to Biffen, whom he had visited on the Monday. 'Come and see me if you can. I am down with a bad cold, and have to keep in for the rest of the week. All the same, I feel far more cheerful. Bring a new chapter of your exhilarating romance.'