New Grub Street by George Gissing
Chapter IV. An Author and His Wife
Eight flights of stairs, consisting alternately of eight and nine steps. Amy had made the calculation, and wondered what was the cause of this arrangement. The ascent was trying, but then no one could contest the respectability of the abode. In the flat immediately beneath resided a successful musician, whose carriage and pair came at a regular hour each afternoon to take him and his wife for a most respectable drive. In this special building no one else seemed at present to keep a carriage, but all the tenants were gentlefolk.
And as to living up at the very top, why, there were distinct advantages--as so many people of moderate income are nowadays hastening to discover. The noise from the street was diminished at this height; no possible tramplers could establish themselves above your head; the air was bound to be purer than that of inferior strata; finally, one had the flat roof whereon to sit or expatiate in sunny weather. True that a gentle rain of soot was wont to interfere with one's comfort out there in the open, but such minutiae are easily forgotten in the fervour of domestic description. It was undeniable that on a fine day one enjoyed extensive views. The green ridge from Hampstead to Highgate, with Primrose Hill and the foliage of Regent's Park in the foreground; the suburban spaces of St John's Wood, Maida Vale, Kilburn; Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, lying low by the side of the hidden river, and a glassy gleam on far-off hills which meant the Crystal Palace; then the clouded majesty of eastern London, crowned by St Paul's dome. These things one's friends were expected to admire. Sunset often afforded rich effects, but they were for solitary musing.
A sitting-room, a bedroom, a kitchen. But the kitchen was called dining-room, or even parlour at need; for the cooking-range lent itself to concealment behind an ornamental screen, the walls displayed pictures and bookcases, and a tiny scullery which lay apart sufficed for the coarser domestic operations. This was Amy's territory during the hours when her husband was working, or endeavouring to work. Of necessity, Edwin Reardon used the front room as his study. His writing-table stood against the window; each wall had its shelves of serried literature; vases, busts, engravings (all of the inexpensive kind) served for ornaments.
A maid-servant, recently emancipated from the Board school, came at half-past seven each morning, and remained until two o'clock, by which time the Reardons had dined; on special occasions, her services were enlisted for later hours. But it was Reardon's habit to begin the serious work of the day at about three o'clock, and to continue with brief interruptions until ten or eleven; in many respects an awkward arrangement, but enforced by the man's temperament and his poverty.
One evening he sat at his desk with a slip of manuscript paper before him. It was the hour of sunset. His outlook was upon the backs of certain large houses skirting Regent's Park, and lights had begun to show here and there in the windows:in one room a man was discoverable dressing for dinner, he had not thought it worth while to lower the blind; in another, some people were playing billiards. The higher windows reflected a rich glow from the western sky.
For two or three hours Reardon had been seated in much the same attitude. Occasionally he dipped his pen into the ink and seemed about to write: but each time the effort was abortive. At the head of the paper was inscribed 'Chapter III.,' but that was all.
And now the sky was dusking over; darkness would soon fall.
He looked something older than his years, which were two-and- thirty; on his face was the pallor of mental suffering. Often he fell into a fit of absence, and gazed at vacancy with wide, miserable eyes. Returning to consciousness, he fidgeted nervously on his chair, dipped his pen for the hundredth time, bent forward in feverish determination to work. Useless; he scarcely knew what he wished to put into words, and his brain refused to construct the simplest sentence.
The colours faded from the sky, and night came quickly. Reardon threw his arms upon the desk, let his head fall forward, and remained so, as if asleep.
Presently the door opened, and a young, clear voice made inquiry:
'Don't you want the lamp, Edwin?'
The man roused himself, turned his chair a little, and looked towards the open door.
'Come here, Amy.'
His wife approached. It was not quite dark in the room, for a glimmer came from the opposite houses.
'What's the matter? Can't you do anything?'
'I haven't written a word to-day. At this rate, one goes crazy. Come and sit by me a minute, dearest.'
'I'll get the lamp.'
'No; come and talk to me; we can understand each other better.'
'Nonsense; you have such morbid ideas. I can't bear to sit in the gloom.'
At once she went away, and quickly reappeared with a reading-lamp, which she placed on the square table in the middle of the room.
'Draw down the blind, Edwin.'
She was a slender girl, but not very tall; her shoulders seemed rather broad in proportion to her waist and the part of her figure below it. The hue of her hair was ruddy gold; loosely arranged tresses made a superb crown to the beauty of her small, refined head. Yet the face was not of distinctly feminine type; with short hair and appropriate clothing, she would have passed unquestioned as a handsome boy of seventeen, a spirited boy too, and one much in the habit of giving orders to inferiors. Her nose would have been perfect but for ever so slight a crook which made it preferable to view her in full face than in profile; her lips curved sharply out, and when she straightened them of a sudden, the effect was not reassuring to anyone who had counted upon her for facile humour. In harmony with the broad shoulders, she had a strong neck; as she bore the lamp into the room a slight turn of her head showed splendid muscles from the ear downward. It was a magnificently clear-cut bust; one thought, in looking at her, of the newly-finished head which some honest sculptor has wrought with his own hand from the marble block; there was a suggestion of 'planes' and of the chisel. The atmosphere was cold; ruddiness would have been quite out of place on her cheeks, and a flush must have been the rarest thing there.
Her age was not quite two-and-twenty; she had been wedded nearly two years, and had a child ten months old.
As for her dress, it was unpretending in fashion and colour, but of admirable fit. Every detail of her appearance denoted scrupulous personal refinement. She walked well; you saw that the foot, however gently, was firmly planted. When she seated herself her posture was instantly graceful, and that of one who is indifferent about support for the back.
'What is the matter?' she began. 'Why can't you get on with the story?'
It was the tone of friendly remonstrance, not exactly of affection, not at all of tender solicitude.
Reardon had risen and wished to approach her, but could not do so directly. He moved to another part of the room, then came round to the back of her chair, and bent his face upon her shoulder.
'I think it's all over with me. I don't think I shall write any more.'
'Don't be so foolish, dear. What is to prevent your writing?'
'Perhaps I am only out of sorts. But I begin to be horribly afraid. My will seems to be fatally weakened. I can't see my way to the end of anything; if I get hold of an idea which seems good, all the sap has gone out of it before I have got it into working shape. In these last few months, I must have begun a dozen different books; I have been ashamed to tell you of each new beginning. I write twenty pages, perhaps, and then my courage fails. I am disgusted with the thing, and can't go on with it-- can't! My fingers refuse to hold the pen. In mere writing, I have done enough to make much more than three volumes; but it's all destroyed.'
'Because of your morbid conscientiousness. There was no need to destroy what you had written. It was all good enough for the market.'
'Don't use that word, Amy. I hate it!'
'You can't afford to hate it,' was her rejoinder, in very practical tones. 'However it was before, you must write for the market now. You have admitted that yourself.'
He kept silence.
'Where are you?' she went on to ask. 'What have you actually done?'
'Two short chapters of a story I can't go on with. The three volumes lie before me like an interminable desert. Impossible to get through them. The idea is stupidly artificial, and I haven't a living character in it.'
'The public don't care whether the characters are living or not.- -Don't stand behind me, like that; it's such an awkward way of talking. Come and sit down.'
He drew away, and came to a position whence he could see her face, but kept at a distance.
'Yes,' he said, in a different way, 'that's the worst of it.'
'That you--well, it's no use.'
She did not look at him; her lips, after she had spoken, drew in a little.
'That your disposition towards me is being affected by this miserable failure. You keep saying to yourself that I am not what you thought me. Perhaps you even feel that I have been guilty of a sort of deception. I don't blame you; it's natural enough.'
'I'll tell you quite honestly what I do think,' she replied, after a short silence. 'You are much weaker than I imagined. Difficulties crush you, instead of rousing you to struggle.'
'True. It has always been my fault.'
'But don't you feel it's rather unmanly, this state of things? You say you love me, and I try to believe it. But whilst you are saying so, you let me get nearer and nearer to miserable, hateful poverty. What is to become of me--of us? Shall you sit here day after day until our last shilling is spent?'
'No; of course I must do something.'
'When shall you begin in earnest? In a day or two you must pay this quarter's rent, and that will leave us just about fifteen pounds in the world. Where is the rent at Christmas to come from?
What are we to live upon? There's all sorts of clothing to be bought; there'll be all the extra expenses of winter. Surely it's bad enough that we have had to stay here all the summer; no holiday of any kind. I have done my best not to grumble about it, but I begin to think that it would be very much wiser if I did grumble.'
She squared her shoulders, and gave her head just a little shake, as if a fly had troubled her.
'You bear everything very well and kindly,' said Reardon. 'My behaviour is contemptible; I know that. Good heavens! if I only had some business to go to, something I could work at in any state of mind, and make money out of! Given this chance, I would work myself to death rather than you should lack anything you desire. But I am at the mercy of my brain; it is dry and powerless. How I envy those clerks who go by to their offices in the morning! There's the day's work cut out for them; no question of mood and feeling; they have just to work at something, and when the evening comes, they have earned their wages, they are free to rest and enjoy themselves. What an insane thing it is to make literature one's only means of support! When the most trivial accident may at any time prove fatal to one's power of work for weeks or months. No, that is the unpardonable sin! To make a trade of an art! I am rightly served for attempting such a brutal folly.'
He turned away in a passion of misery.
'How very silly it is to talk like this!' came in Amy's voice, clearly critical. 'Art must be practised as a trade, at all events in our time. This is the age of trade. Of course if one refuses to be of one's time, and yet hasn't the means to live independently, what can result but breakdown and wretchedness? The fact of the matter is, you could do fairly good work, and work which would sell, if only you would bring yourself to look at things in a more practical way. It's what Mr Milvain is always saying, you know.'
'Milvain's temperament is very different from mine. He is naturally light-hearted and hopeful; I am naturally the opposite.
What you and he say is true enough; the misfortune is that I can't act upon it. I am no uncompromising artistic pedant; I am quite willing to try and do the kind of work that will sell; under the circumstances it would be a kind of insanity if I refused. But power doesn't answer to the will. My efforts are utterly vain; I suppose the prospect of pennilessness is itself a hindrance; the fear haunts me. With such terrible real things pressing upon me, my imagination can shape nothing substantial. When I have laboured out a story, I suddenly see it in a light of such contemptible triviality that to work at it is an impossible thing.'
'You are ill, that's the fact of the matter. You ought to have had a holiday. I think even now you had better go away for a week or two. Do, Edwin!'
'Impossible! It would be the merest pretence of holiday. To go away and leave you here--no!'
'Shall I ask mother or Jack to lend us some money?'
'That would be intolerable.'
'But this state of things is intolerable!'
Reardon walked the length of the room and back again.
'Your mother has no money to lend, dear, and your brother would do it so unwillingly that we can't lay ourselves under such an obligation.'
'Yet it will come to that, you know,' remarked Amy, calmly.
'No, it shall not come to that. I must and will get something done long before Christmas. If only you--'
He came and took one of her hands.
'If only you will give me more sympathy, dearest. You see, that's one side of my weakness. I am utterly dependent upon you. Your kindness is the breath of life to me. Don't refuse it!'
'But I have done nothing of the kind.'
'You begin to speak very coldly. And I understand your feeling of disappointment. The mere fact of your urging me to do anything that will sell is a proof of bitter disappointment. You would have looked with scorn at anyone who talked to me like that two years ago. You were proud of me because my work wasn't altogether common, and because I had never written a line that was meant to attract the vulgar. All that's over now. If you knew how dreadful it is to see that you have lost your hopes of me!'
'Well, but I haven't--altogether,' Amy replied, meditatively. 'I know very well that, if you had a lot of money, you would do better things than ever.'
'Thank you a thousand times for saying that, my dearest.'
'But, you see, we haven't money, and there's little chance of our getting any. That scrubby old uncle won't leave anything to us; I feel too sure of it. I often feel disposed to go and beg him on my knees to think of us in his will.' She laughed. 'I suppose it's impossible, and would be useless; but I should be capable of it if I knew it would bring money.'
Reardon said nothing.
'I didn't think so much of money when we were married,' Amy continued. 'I had never seriously felt the want of it, you know. I did think--there's no harm in confessing it--that you were sure to be rich some day; but I should have married you all the same if I had known that you would win only reputation.'
'You are sure of that?'
'Well, I think so. But I know the value of money better now. I know it is the most powerful thing in the world. If I had to choose between a glorious reputation with poverty and a contemptible popularity with wealth, I should choose the latter.'
'Perhaps you are right.'
He turned away with a sigh.
'Yes, you are right. What is reputation? If it is deserved, it originates with a few score of people among the many millions who would never have recognised the merit they at last applaud. That's the lot of a great genius. As for a mediocrity like me-- what ludicrous absurdity to fret myself in the hope that half-a-dozen folks will say I am "above the average!" After all, is there sillier vanity than this? A year after I have published my last book, I shall be practically forgotten; ten years later, I shall be as absolutely forgotten as one of those novelists of the early part of this century, whose names one doesn't even recognise. What fatuous posing!'
Amy looked askance at him, but replied nothing.
'And yet,' he continued, 'of course it isn't only for the sake of reputation that one tries to do uncommon work. There's the shrinking from conscious insincerity of workmanship--which most of the writers nowadays seem never to feel. "It's good enough for the market"; that satisfies them. And perhaps they are justified.
I can't pretend that I rule my life by absolute ideals; I admit that everything is relative. There is no such thing as goodness or badness, in the absolute sense, of course. Perhaps I am absurdly inconsistent when--though knowing my work can't be first rate--I strive to make it as good as possible. I don't say this in irony, Amy; I really mean it. It may very well be that I am just as foolish as the people I ridicule for moral and religious superstition. This habit of mine is superstitious. How well I can imagine the answer of some popular novelist if he heard me speak scornfully of his books. "My dear fellow," he might say, "do you suppose I am not aware that my books are rubbish? I know it just as well as you do. But my vocation is to live comfortably. I have a luxurious house, a wife and children who are happy and grateful to me for their happiness. If you choose to live in a garret, and, what's worse, make your wife and children share it with you, that's your concern." The man would be abundantly right.'
'But,' said Amy, 'why should you assume that his books are rubbish? Good work succeeds--now and then.'
'I speak of the common kind of success, which is never due to literary merit. And if I speak bitterly, well, I am suffering from my powerlessness. I am a failure, my poor girl, and it isn't easy for me to look with charity on the success of men who deserved it far less than I did, when I was still able to work.'
'Of course, Edwin, if you make up your mind that you are a failure, you will end by being so. But I'm convinced there's no reason that you should fail to make a living with your pen. Now let me advise you; put aside all your strict ideas about what is worthy and what is unworthy, and just act upon my advice. It's impossible for you to write a three-volume novel; very well, then do a short story of a kind that's likely to be popular. You know Mr Milvain is always saying that the long novel has had its day, and that in future people will write shilling books. Why not try?
Give yourself a week to invent a sensational plot, and then a fortnight for the writing. Have it ready for the new season at the end of October. If you like, don't put your name to it; your name certainly would have no weight with this sort of public. Just make it a matter of business, as Mr Milvain says, and see if you can't earn some money.'
He stood and regarded her. His expression was one of pained perplexity.
'You mustn't forget, Amy, that it needs a particular kind of faculty to write stories of this sort. The invention of a plot is just the thing I find most difficult.'
'But the plot may be as silly as you like, providing it holds the attention of vulgar readers. Think of "The Hollow Statue", what could be more idiotic? Yet it sells by thousands.'
'I don't think I can bring myself to that,' Reardon said, in a low voice.
'Very well, then will you tell me what you propose to do?'
'I might perhaps manage a novel in two volumes, instead of three.'
He seated himself at the writing-table, and stared at the blank sheets of paper in an anguish of hopelessness.
'It will take you till Christmas,' said Amy, 'and then you will get perhaps fifty pounds for it.'
'I must do my best. I'll go out and try to get some ideas. I--'
He broke off and looked steadily at his wife.
'What is it?' she asked.
'Suppose I were to propose to you to leave this flat and take cheaper rooms?'
He uttered it in a shamefaced way, his eyes falling. Amy kept silence.
'We might sublet it,' he continued, in the same tone, 'for the last year of the lease.'
'And where do you propose to live?' Amy inquired, coldly.
'There's no need to be in such a dear neighbourhood. We could go to one of the outer districts. One might find three unfurnished rooms for about eight-and-sixpence a week--less than half our rent here.'
'You must do as seems good to you.'
'For Heaven's sake, Amy, don't speak to me in that way! I can't stand that! Surely you can see that I am driven to think of every possible resource. To speak like that is to abandon me. Say you can't or won't do it, but don't treat me as if you had no share in my miseries!'
She was touched for the moment.
'I didn't mean to speak unkindly, dear. But think what it means, to give up our home and position. That is open confession of failure. It would be horrible.'
'I won't think of it. I have three months before Christmas, and I will finish a book!'
'I really can't see why you shouldn't. Just do a certain number of pages every day. Good or bad, never mind; let the pages be finished. Now you have got two chapters--'
'No; that won't do. I must think of a better subject.'
Amy made a gesture of impatience.
'There you are! What does the subject matter? Get this book finished and sold, and then do something better next time.'
'Give me to-night, just to think. Perhaps one of the old stories I have thrown aside will come back in a clearer light. I'll go out for an hour; you don't mind being left alone?'
'You mustn't think of such trifles as that.'
'But nothing that concerns you in the slightest way is a trifle to me--nothing! I can't bear that you should forget that. Have patience with me, darling, a little longer.'
He knelt by her, and looked up into her face.
'Say only one or two kind words--like you used to!'
She passed her hand lightly over his hair, and murmured something with a faint smile.
Then Reardon took his hat and stick and descended the eight flights of stone steps, and walked in the darkness round the outer circle of Regent's Park, racking his fagged brain in a hopeless search for characters, situations, motives.