New Grub Street by George Gissing
Chapter V. The Way Hither
Even in mid-rapture of his marriage month he had foreseen this possibility; but fate had hitherto rescued him in sudden ways when he was on the brink of self-abandonment, and it was hard to imagine that this culmination of triumphant joy could be a preface to base miseries.
He was the son of a man who had followed many different pursuits, and in none had done much more than earn a livelihood. At the age of forty--when Edwin, his only child, was ten years old--Mr Reardon established himself in the town of Hereford as a photographer, and there he abode until his death, nine years after, occasionally risking some speculation not inconsistent with the photographic business, but always with the result of losing the little capital he ventured. Mrs Reardon died when Edwin had reached his fifteenth year. In breeding and education she was superior to her husband, to whom, moreover, she had brought something between four and five hundred pounds; her temper was passionate in both senses of the word, and the marriage could hardly be called a happy one, though it was never disturbed by serious discord. The photographer was a man of whims and idealisms; his wife had a strong vein of worldly ambition. They made few friends, and it was Mrs Reardon's frequently expressed desire to go and live in London, where fortune, she thought, might be kinder to them. Reardon had all but made up his mind to try this venture when he suddenly became a widower; after that he never summoned energy to embark on new enterprises.
The boy was educated at an excellent local school; at eighteen he had a far better acquaintance with the ancient classics than most lads who have been expressly prepared for a university, and, thanks to an anglicised Swiss who acted as an assistant in Mr Reardon's business, he not only read French, but could talk it with a certain haphazard fluency. These attainments, however, were not of much practical use; the best that could be done for Edwin was to place him in the office of an estate agent. His health was indifferent, and it seemed likely that open-air exercise, of which he would have a good deal under the particular circumstances of the case, might counteract the effects of study too closely pursued.
At his father's death he came into possession (practically it was put at his disposal at once, though he was little more than nineteen) of about two hundred pounds--a life-insurance for five hundred had been sacrificed to exigencies not very long before. He had no difficulty in deciding how to use this money. His mother's desire to live in London had in him the force of an inherited motive; as soon as possible he released himself from his uncongenial occupations, converted into money all the possessions of which he had not immediate need, and betook himself to the metropolis.
To become a literary man, of course.
His capital lasted him nearly four years, for, notwithstanding his age, he lived with painful economy. The strangest life, of almost absolute loneliness. From a certain point of Tottenham Court Road there is visible a certain garret window in a certain street which runs parallel with that thoroughfare; for the greater part of these four years the garret in question was Reardon's home. He paid only three-and-sixpence a week for the privilege of living there; his food cost him about a shilling a day; on clothing and other unavoidable expenses he laid out some five pounds yearly. Then he bought books--volumes which cost anything between twopence and two shillings; further than that he durst not go. A strange time, I assure you.
When he had completed his twenty-first year, he desired to procure a reader's ticket for the British Museum. Now this was not such a simple matter as you may suppose; it was necessary to obtain the signature of some respectable householder, and Reardon was acquainted with no such person. His landlady was a decent woman enough, and a payer of rates and taxes, but it would look odd, to say the least of it, to present oneself in Great Russell Street armed with this person's recommendation. There was nothing for it but to take a bold step, to force himself upon the attention of a stranger--the thing from which his pride had always shrunk. He wrote to a well-known novelist--a man with whose works he had some sympathy. 'I am trying to prepare myself for a literary career. I wish to study in the Reading-room of the British Museum, but have no acquaintance to whom I can refer in the ordinary way. Will you help me--I mean, in this particular only?' That was the substance of his letter. For reply came an invitation to a house in the West-end. With fear and trembling Reardon answered the summons. He was so shabbily attired; he was so diffident from the habit of living quite alone; he was horribly afraid lest it should be supposed that he looked for other assistance than he had requested. Well, the novelist was a rotund and jovial man; his dwelling and his person smelt of money; he was so happy himself that he could afford to be kind to others.
'Have you published anything?' he inquired, for the young man's letter had left this uncertain.
'Nothing. I have tried the magazines, but as yet without success.'
'But what do you write?'
'Chiefly essays on literary subjects.'
'I can understand that you would find a difficulty in disposing of them. That kind of thing is supplied either by men of established reputation, or by anonymous writers who have a regular engagement on papers and magazines. Give me an example of your topics.'
'I have written something lately about Tibullus.'
'Oh, dear! Oh, dear!--Forgive me, Mr Reardon; my feelings were too much for me; those names have been my horror ever since I was a schoolboy. Far be it from me to discourage you, if your line is to be solid literary criticism; I will only mention, as a matter of fact, that such work is indifferently paid and in very small demand. It hasn't occurred to you to try your hand at fiction?'
In uttering the word he beamed; to him it meant a thousand or so a year.
'I am afraid I have no talent for that.'
The novelist could do no more than grant his genial signature for the specified purpose, and add good wishes in abundance. Reardon went home with his brain in a whirl. He had had his first glimpse of what was meant by literary success. That luxurious study, with its shelves of handsomely-bound books, its beautiful pictures, its warm, fragrant air--great heavens! what might not a man do who sat at his ease amid such surroundings!
He began to work at the Reading-room, but at the same time he thought often of the novelist's suggestion, and before long had written two or three short stories. No editor would accept them; but he continued to practise himself in that art, and by degrees came to fancy that, after all, perhaps he had some talent for fiction. It was significant, however, that no native impulse had directed him to novel-writing. His intellectual temper was that of the student, the scholar, but strongly blended with a love of independence which had always made him think with distaste of a teacher's life. The stories he wrote were scraps of immature psychology--the last thing a magazine would accept from an unknown man.
His money dwindled, and there came a winter during which he suffered much from cold and hunger. What a blessed refuge it was, there under the great dome, when he must else have sat in his windy garret with the mere pretence of a fire! The Reading-room was his true home; its warmth enwrapped him kindly; the peculiar odour of its atmosphere--at first a cause of headache--grew dear and delightful to him. But he could not sit here until his last penny should be spent. Something practical must be done, and practicality was not his strong point.
Friends in London he had none; but for an occasional conversation with his landlady he would scarcely have spoken a dozen words in a week. His disposition was the reverse of democratic, and he could not make acquaintances below his own intellectual level. Solitude fostered a sensitiveness which to begin with was extreme; the lack of stated occupation encouraged his natural tendency to dream and procrastinate and hope for the improbable. He was a recluse in the midst of millions, and viewed with dread the necessity of going forth to fight for daily food.
Little by little he had ceased to hold any correspondence with his former friends at Hereford. The only person to whom he still wrote and from whom he still heard was his mother's father--an old man who lived at Derby, retired from the business of a draper, and spending his last years pleasantly enough with a daughter who had remained single. Edwin had always been a favourite with his grandfather, though they had met only once or twice during the past eight years. But in writing he did not allow it to be understood that he was in actual want, and he felt that he must come to dire extremities before he could bring himself to beg assistance.
He had begun to answer advertisements, but the state of his wardrobe forbade his applying for any but humble positions. Once or twice he presented himself personally at offices, but his reception was so mortifying that death by hunger seemed preferable to a continuance of such experiences. The injury to his pride made him savagely arrogant; for days after the last rejection he hid himself in his garret, hating the world.
He sold his little collection of books, and of course they brought only a trifling sum. That exhausted, he must begin to sell his clothes. And then--?
But help was at hand. One day he saw it advertised in a newspaper that the secretary of a hospital in the north of London was in need of a clerk; application was to be made by letter. He wrote, and two days later, to his astonishment, received a reply asking him to wait upon the secretary at a certain hour. In a fever of agitation he kept the appointment, and found that his business was with a young man in the very highest spirits, who walked up and down a little office (the hospital was of the 'special' order, a house of no great size), and treated the matter in hand as an excellent joke.
'I thought, you know, of engaging someone much younger--quite a lad, in fact. But look there! Those are the replies to my advertisement.'
He pointed to a heap of five or six hundred letters, and laughed consumedly.
'Impossible to read them all, you know. It seemed to me that the fairest thing would be to shake them together, stick my hand in, and take out one by chance. If it didn't seem very promising, I would try a second time. But the first letter was yours, and I thought the fair thing to do was at all events to see you, you know. The fact is, I am only able to offer a pound a week.'
'I shall be very glad indeed to take that,' said Reardon, who was bathed in perspiration.
'Then what about references, and so on?' proceeded the young man, chuckling and rubbing his hands together.
The applicant was engaged. He had barely strength to walk home; the sudden relief from his miseries made him, for the first time, sensible of the extreme physical weakness into which he had sunk. For the next week he was very ill, but he did not allow this to interfere with his new work, which was easily learnt and not burdensome.
He held this position for three years, and during that time important things happened. When he had recovered from his state of semi-starvation, and was living in comfort (a pound a week is a very large sum if you have previously had to live on ten shillings), Reardon found that the impulse to literary production awoke in him more strongly than ever. He generally got home from the hospital about six o'clock, and the evening was his own. In this leisure time he wrote a novel in two volumes; one publisher refused it, but a second offered to bring it out on the terms of half profits to the author. The book appeared, and was well spoken of in one or two papers; but profits there were none to divide. In the third year of his clerkship he wrote a novel in three volumes; for this his publishers gave him twenty-five pounds, with again a promise of half the profits after deduction of the sum advanced. Again there was no pecuniary success. He had just got to work upon a third book, when his grandfather at Derby died and left him four hundred pounds.
He could not resist the temptation to recover his freedom. Four hundred pounds, at the rate of eighty pounds a year, meant five years of literary endeavour. In that period he could certainly determine whether or not it was his destiny to live by the pen.
In the meantime his relations with the secretary of the hospital, Carter by name, had grown very friendly. When Reardon began to publish books, the high-spirited Mr Carter looked upon him with something of awe; and when the literary man ceased to be a clerk, there was nothing to prevent association on equal terms between him and his former employer. They continued to see a good deal of each other, and Carter made Reardon acquainted with certain of his friends, among whom was one John Yule, an easy-going, selfish, semi-intellectual young man who had a place in a Government office. The time of solitude had gone by for Reardon. He began to develop the power that was in him.
Those two books of his were not of a kind to win popularity. They dealt with no particular class of society (unless one makes a distinct class of people who have brains), and they lacked local colour. Their interest was almost purely psychological. It was clear that the author had no faculty for constructing a story, and that pictures of active life were not to be expected of him; he could never appeal to the multitude. But strong characterisation was within his scope, and an intellectual fervour, appetising to a small section of refined readers, marked all his best pages.
He was the kind of man who cannot struggle against adverse conditions, but whom prosperity warms to the exercise of his powers. Anything like the cares of responsibility would sooner or later harass him into unproductiveness. That he should produce much was in any case out of the question; possibly a book every two or three years might not prove too great a strain upon his delicate mental organism, but for him to attempt more than that would certainly be fatal to the peculiar merit of his work. Of this he was dimly conscious, and, on receiving his legacy, he put aside for nearly twelve months the new novel he had begun. To give his mind a rest he wrote several essays, much maturer than those which had formerly failed to find acceptance, and two of these appeared in magazines.
The money thus earned he spent--at a tailor's. His friend Carter ventured to suggest this mode of outlay.
His third book sold for fifty pounds. It was a great improvement on its predecessors, and the reviews were generally favourable. For the story which followed, 'On Neutral Ground,' he received a hundred pounds. On the strength of that he spent six months travelling in the South of Europe.
He returned to London at mid-June, and on the second day after his arrival befell an incident which was to control the rest of his life. Busy with the pictures in the Grosvenor Gallery, he heard himself addressed in a familiar voice, and on turning he was aware of Mr Carter, resplendent in fashionable summer attire, and accompanied by a young lady of some charms. Reardon had formerly feared encounters of this kind, too conscious of the defects of his attire; but at present there was no reason why he should shirk social intercourse. He was passably dressed, and the half-year of travel had benefited his appearance in no slight degree. Carter presented him to the young lady, of whom the novelist had already heard as affianced to his friend.
Whilst they stood conversing, there approached two ladies, evidently mother and daughter, whose attendant was another of Reardon's acquaintances, Mr John Yule. This gentleman stepped briskly forward and welcomed the returned wanderer.
'Let me introduce you,' he said, 'to my mother and sister. Your fame has made them anxious to know you.'
Reardon found himself in a position of which the novelty was embarrassing, but scarcely disagreeable. Here were five people grouped around him, all of whom regarded him unaffectedly as a man of importance; for though, strictly speaking, he had no 'fame' at all, these persons had kept up with the progress of his small repute, and were all distinctly glad to number among their acquaintances an unmistakable author, one, too, who was fresh from Italy and Greece. Mrs Yule, a lady rather too pretentious in her tone to be attractive to a man of Reardon's refinement, hastened to assure him how well his books were known in her house, 'though for the run of ordinary novels we don't care much.' Miss Yule, not at all pretentious in speech, and seemingly reserved of disposition, was good enough to show frank interest in the author. As for the poor author himself, well, he merely fell in love with Miss Yule at first sight, and there was an end of the matter.
A day or two later he made a call at their house, in the region of Westbourne Park. It was a small house, and rather showily than handsomely furnished; no one after visiting it would be astonished to hear that Mrs Edmund Yule had but a small income, and that she was often put to desperate expedients to keep up the gloss of easy circumstances. In the gauzy and fluffy and varnishy little drawing-room Reardon found a youngish gentleman already in conversation with the widow and her daughter. This proved to be one Mr Jasper Milvain, also a man of letters. Mr Milvain was glad to meet Reardon, whose books he had read with decided interest.
'Really,' exclaimed Mrs Yule, 'I don't know how it is that we have had to wait so long for the pleasure of knowing you, Mr Reardon. If John were not so selfish he would have allowed us a share in your acquaintance long ago.'
Ten weeks thereafter, Miss Yule became Mrs Reardon.
It was a time of frantic exultation with the poor fellow. He had always regarded the winning of a beautiful and intellectual wife as the crown of a successful literary career, but he had not dared to hope that such a triumph would be his. Life had been too hard with him on the whole. He, who hungered for sympathy, who thought of a woman's love as the prize of mortals supremely blessed, had spent the fresh years of his youth in monkish solitude. Now of a sudden came friends and flattery, ay, and love itself. He was rapt to the seventh heaven.
Indeed, it seemed that the girl loved him. She knew that he had but a hundred pounds or so left over from that little inheritance, that his books sold for a trifle, that he had no wealthy relatives from whom he could expect anything; yet she hesitated not a moment when he asked her to marry him.
'I have loved you from the first.'
'How is that possible?' he urged. 'What is there lovable in me? I am afraid of waking up and finding myself in my old garret, cold and hungry.'
'You will be a great man.'
'I implore you not to count on that! In many ways I am wretchedly weak. I have no such confidence in myself.'
'Then I will have confidence for both.'
'But can you love me for my own sake--love me as a man?'
'I love you!'
And the words sang about him, filled the air with a mad pulsing of intolerable joy, made him desire to fling himself in passionate humility at her feet, to weep hot tears, to cry to her in insane worship. He thought her beautiful beyond anything his heart had imagined; her warm gold hair was the rapture of his eyes and of his reverent hand. Though slenderly fashioned, she was so gloriously strong. 'Not a day of illness in her life,' said Mrs Yule, and one could readily believe it.
She spoke with such a sweet decision. Her 'I love you!' was a bond with eternity. In the simplest as in the greatest things she saw his wish and acted frankly upon it. No pretty petulance, no affectation of silly-sweet languishing, none of the weaknesses of woman. And so exquisitely fresh in her twenty years of maidenhood, with bright young eyes that seemed to bid defiance to all the years to come.
He went about like one dazzled with excessive light. He talked as he had never talked before, recklessly, exultantly, insolently-- in the nobler sense. He made friends on every hand; he welcomed all the world to his bosom; he felt the benevolence of a god.
'I love you!' It breathed like music at his ears when he fell asleep in weariness of joy; it awakened him on the morrow as with a glorious ringing summons to renewed life.
Delay? Why should there be delay? Amy wished nothing but to become his wife. Idle to think of his doing any more work until he sat down in the home of which she was mistress. His brain burned with visions of the books he would henceforth write, but his hand was incapable of anything but a love-letter. And what letters! Reardon never published anything equal to those. 'I have received your poem,' Amy replied to one of them. And she was right; not a letter, but a poem he had sent her, with every word on fire.
The hours of talk! It enraptured him to find how much she had read, and with what clearness of understanding. Latin and Greek, no. Ah! but she should learn them both, that there might be nothing wanting in the communion between his thought and hers. For he loved the old writers with all his heart; they had been such strength to him in his days of misery.
They would go together to the charmed lands of the South. No, not now for their marriage holiday--Amy said that would be an imprudent expense; but as soon as he had got a good price for a book. Will not the publishers be kind? If they knew what happiness lurked in embryo within their foolish cheque-books!
He woke of a sudden in the early hours of one morning, a week before the wedding-day. You know that kind of awaking, so complete in an instant, caused by the pressure of some troublesome thought upon the dreaming brain. 'Suppose I should not succeed henceforth? Suppose I could never get more than this poor hundred pounds for one of the long books which cost me so much labour? I shall perhaps have children to support; and Amy-- how would Amy bear poverty?'
He knew what poverty means. The chilling of brain and heart, the unnerving of the hands, the slow gathering about one of fear and shame and impotent wrath, the dread feeling of helplessness, of the world's base indifference. Poverty! Poverty!
And for hours he could not sleep. His eyes kept filling with tears, the beating of his heart was low; and in his solitude he called upon Amy with pitiful entreaty: 'Do not forsake me! I love you! I love you!'
But that went by. Six days, five days, four days--will one's heart burst with happiness? The flat is taken, is furnished, up there towards the sky, eight flights of stone steps.
'You're a confoundedly lucky fellow, Reardon,' remarked Milvain, who had already become very intimate with his new friend. 'A good fellow, too, and you deserve it.'
'But at first I had a horrible suspicion.'
'I guess what you mean. No; I wasn't even in love with her, though I admired her. She would never have cared for me in any case; I am not sentimental enough.'
'I mean it in an inoffensive sense. She and I are rather too much alike, I fancy.'
'How do you mean?' asked Reardon, puzzled, and not very well pleased.
'There's a great deal of pure intellect about Miss Yule, you know. She was sure to choose a man of the passionate kind.'
'I think you are talking nonsense, my dear fellow.'
'Well, perhaps I am. To tell you the truth, I have by no means completed my study of women yet. It is one of the things in which I hope to be a specialist some day, though I don't think I shall ever make use of it in novels--rather, perhaps, in life.'
Three days--two days--one day.
Now let every joyous sound which the great globe can utter ring forth in one burst of harmony! Is it not well done to make the village-bells chant merrily when a marriage is over? Here in London we can have no such music; but for us, my dear one, all the roaring life of the great city is wedding-hymn. Sweet, pure face under its bridal-veil! The face which shall, if fate spare it, be as dear to me many a long year hence as now at the culminating moment of my life!
As he trudged on in the dark, his tortured memory was living through that time again. The images forced themselves upon him, however much he tried to think of quite other things--of some fictitious story on which he might set to work. In the case of his earlier books he had waited quietly until some suggestive 'situation,' some group of congenial characters, came with sudden delightfulness before his mind and urged him to write; but nothing so spontaneous could now be hoped for. His brain was too weary with months of fruitless, harassing endeavour; moreover, he was trying to devise a 'plot,' the kind of literary Jack-in-the-box which might excite interest in the mass of readers, and this was alien to the natural working of his imagination. He suffered the torments of nightmare--an oppression of the brain and heart which must soon be intolerable.