The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XI. By the Wayside
"So there ends another chapter. How many more to the end of the story? How many more scenes till the farce is played out? There is something flattering to one's vanity in this careless playing with fate; it is edifying, moreover, to sot circumstances at defiance in this way, now and then, to assert one's freedom. Freedom! What a joke the word must be to whoever is pulling the wires and making us poor puppets dance at his pleasure. Pity that we have to pay the piper so heavily for our involuntary jigging!"
A passage from the letter Waymark wrote to his friend Casti, on the evening when his school-work came to an end. That night he sought rest early, and slept well. The sensations with which he woke next morning were such as he had not experienced for a long time. He was at liberty,--with six pounds ten in his pocket. He could do what he liked and go whither he liked,--till lack of a dinner should remind him that a man's hardest master is his own body. He dressed leisurely, and, having dressed, treated himself to an egg for breakfast. Absolutely no need for hurry; the thought of school-hours dismissed for ever; a horizon quite free from the vision of hateful toil; in the real sky overhead a gleam of real sunshine, as if to make credible this sudden change. His mood was still complete recklessness, a revolt against the idea of responsibility, indifference to all beyond the moment.
It was Thursday; the morrow would be Good Friday; after that the intervention of two clear days before the commencement of a new week In the meantime the sun was really shining, and the fresh spring air invited to the open ways. Waymark closed the door of his room behind him, and went downstairs, whistling to himself. But, before reaching the bottom, he turned and went back again. It seemed warm enough to sit in one of the parks and read. He laid his hand on a book, almost at haphazard, to put in his pocket. Then he walked very leisurely along Kennington Road, and on, and on, till he had crossed the river.
Wondering in which direction he should next turn, he suddenly found himself repeating, with unaccountable transition of thought, the words "South Bank, Regent's Park." In all likelihood, he said to himself presently, they were suggested by some inscription on a passing omnibus, noted unconsciously. The address was that he had read in Miss Enderby's note-book. Why not ramble in that direction as well as another, and amuse himself by guessing which house it was that the governess lived in? He had not seen her since the uproar which had terminated his connection with the young Tootles. Was it true that she had then already decided to give up her position? If not, his outbreak of temper had doubtless resulted unpleasantly for her, seeing that Mrs. Tootle would almost certainly dismiss her out of mere spite. Several times during the last two days he had thought of conveying to her a note by some means, to express in some way or other this fear, and the regret it caused him; the real motive, he knew well enough, would be a hope of receiving a reply from her. But now she had perhaps left the school, and he did not know her exact address. He made his way across the Park in the direction of St. John's Wood, and had soon reached South Bank.
He had walked once the length of the road, and was looking at the nearest houses before he turned, when a lady came round the corner and paused to avoid him, as he stood in the middle of the pavement. It was Miss Enderby herself. Her embarrassment was apparently not as great as his own. She smiled with friendliness; seemed indeed in a happier frame of mind than any in which Waymark had as yet seen her. But she did not offer her hand, and the other, having raised his hat, was almost on the point of passing on, when he overcame his diffidence and spoke.
"I came here to try and discover where you lived, Miss Enderby."
There was something grotesque in this abruptness; his tone only saved it from impertinence. The girl looked at him with frank surprise.
"Pray don't misunderstand me," he went on hurriedly. "I wished, if possible, to--well, to tell you that I feared I acted thoughtlessly the other day; without regard, I mean, to any consequences it might have for yourself."
"Rather I ought to thank you for defending me. It made no difference in the way you mean. It had already been decided that I should leave. I did not suit Mrs. Tootle."
It was very pleasant to look down into her earnest face, and watch it as she spoke in this unrestrained way. She seemed so slight and frail, evidently thought so depreciatingly of herself, looked as though her life had in it so little joy, that Waymark had speedily assumed a confident attitude, and gazed at her as a man does at one whom he would gladly guard and cherish.
"You were certainly unsuited for the work, in every way," he said, with a smile. "Your efforts were quite wasted there. Still, I am sorry you have left."
"I am going into a family," were her next words, spoken almost cheerfully. "It is in the country, in Essex. There are only two children, quite young. I think I shall succeed better with them; I hope so."
"Then I suppose," Waymark said, moving a little and keeping his eyes fixed on her with an uneasy look, "I shall--I must say good-bye to you, for the last time?"
A scarcely heard "yes" fell from her lips. Her eyes were cast down.
"I am going to make a bold request," Waymark exclaimed, with a sort of recklessness, though his voice expressed no less respect than hitherto. "Will you tell me where you are going to?"
She told him, without looking up, and with a recurrence to the timid manner which had marked her in the schoolroom. This gave Waymark encouragement; his confidence grew as hers diminished.
"Will you let me write to you--occasionally? Would you let me keep up our acquaintance in this way,--so that, if you return to London, I might look forward to meeting you again some time?"
The girl answered timidly--
"I shall be glad to keep up our acquaintance. I shall be glad to hear from you."
Then, at once feeling that she had gone too far, her confusion made her pale. Waymark held out his hand, as if to take leave.
"Thank you very much," he said warmly. "I am very grateful."
She gave him a quick "good-bye," and then passed on. Waymark moved at once in the opposite direction, turning the corner. Then he wished to go back and notice which house she entered, but would not do so lest she should observe him. He walked straight forwards.
How the aspect of the world had changed for him in these few minutes; what an incredible revolution had come to pass in his own desires and purposes t The intellectual atmosphere he breathed was of his own creation; the society of cultured people he had never had an opportunity of enjoying. A refined and virtuous woman had hitherto existed for him merely in the sanctuary of his imagination; he had known not one such. If he passed one in the street, the effect of the momentary proximity was only to embitter his thoughts, by reminding him of the hopeless gulf fixed between his world and that in which such creatures had their being. In revenge, he tried to soil the purity of his ideals; would have persuaded himself that the difference between the two spheres was merely in externals, that he was imposed upon by wealth, education, and superficial refinement of manners. Happily he had never really succeeded in thus deceiving himself, and the effort had only served to aggravate his miseries. The habit of mind, however, had shown itself in the earlier stages of his acquaintance with Miss Enderby. The first sight of her had moved him somewhat, but scarcely with any foreshadowing of serious emotion. He felt that she was different from any woman with whom he had ever stood on an equal footing; but, at the same time, the very possibility of establishing more or less intimate relations with her made him distrustful of his judgment. In spite of himself, he tried to disparage her qualities. She was pretty, he admitted, but then of such a feeble, characterless type; doubtless her understanding corresponded with the weakness of her outward appearance. None the less, he had continued to observe her keenly, and had noted with pleasure every circumstance which contradicted his wilful depreciation of her. His state of mind after the thrashing he gave to young Tootle had been characteristic. What had been the cause of his violence? Certainly not uncontrollable anger, for he had in reality been perfectly cool throughout the affair; simply, then, the pleasure of avenging Miss Enderby. And for this he had sacrificed his place, and left himself without resources. He had acted absurdly; certainly would not have repeated the absurdity had the scene been to act over again. This was not the attitude of one in love, and he knew it. Moreover, though he had thought of writing to her, it would in reality have cost him nothing if she had forthwith passed out of his sight and knowledge. Now how all this had been altered, by a mere chance meeting. The doubts had left him; she was indeed the being from a higher world that he would have liked to believe her from the first; the mysterious note of true sympathy had been struck in that short exchange of words and looks, and, though they had taken leave of each other for who could say how long, mutual knowledge was just beginning, real intercourse about to be established between them. He might write to her, and of course she would reply.
He walked without much perception of time or distance, and found himself at home just before nightfall. He felt disposed for a quiet evening, to be spent in the companionship of his thoughts. But when he had made his coffee and eaten with appetite after the day's rambling, restlessness again possessed him. After all, it was not retirement that he needed; these strange new Imaginings would consort best with motion and the liveliness of the streets. So he put out his lamp, and once more set forth. The night air freshened his spirits; he sang to himself as he went along. It was long since he had been to a theatre, and just now he 'vas so hopelessly poor that he could really afford a little extravagance. So he was soon sitting before the well-known drop of a favourite play-house, as full of light-hearted expectancy as a boy who is enjoying a holiday. The evening was delightful, and passed all too quickly.
The play over, he was in no mood to go straight home. He lit a cigar and drifted with the current westward, out of the Strand and into Pall Mall. A dispute between a cabdriver and his fare induced him to pause for a moment under the colonnade, and, when the little cluster of people had moved on, he still stood leaning against one of the pillars, enjoying the mild air and the scent of his cigar. He felt his elbow touched, and, looking round with indifference, met the kind of greeting for which he was prepared. He shook his head and did not reply; then the sham gaiety of the voice all at once turned to a very real misery, and the girl began to beg instead of trying to entice him in the ordinary way. He looked at her again, and was shocked at the ghastly wretchedness of her daubed face. She was ill, she said, and could scarcely walk about, but must get money somehow; if she didn't, her landlady wouldn't let her sleep in the house again, and she had nowhere else to go to. There could be no mistake about the genuineness of her story, at all events as far as bodily suffering went. Waymark contrasted her state with his own, and took out what money he had in his pocket; it was the change out of a sovereign which he had received at the theatre, and he gave her it all. She stared, and did not understand.
"Are you coming with me?" she asked, feeling obliged to make a hideous attempt at professional coaxing in return for such generosity.
"Good God, no!" Waymark exclaimed. "Go home and take care of yourself."
She thanked him warmly, and turned away at once. As his eye followed her, he was aware that somebody else had drawn near to him from behind. This also was a girl, but of a different kind. She was well dressed, and of graceful, rounded form; a veil almost hid her face, but enough could be seen to prove that she had good looks.
"That a friend of yours?" she asked abruptly, and her voice was remarkably full, clear, and sweet.
Waymark answered with a negative, looking closely at her.
"Then why did you give her all that money?"
"How do you know what I gave her?"
"I was standing just behind here, and could see."
"Nothing; only I should think you are one out of a thousand. You saved me a sovereign, too; I've watched her begging of nearly a dozen people, and I couldn't have stood it much longer."
"You would have given her a sovereign?"
"I meant to, if she'd failed with you."
"Is she a friend of yours?"
"Never saw her before to-night."
"Then you must be one out of a thousand."
The girl laughed merrily.
"In that case," she said, "we ought to know each other, shouldn't we?"
"If we began by thinking so well of each other," returned Waymark, smiling, "we should not improbably suffer a grievous disappointment before long."
"Well, you might. You have to take my generosity on trust, but I have proof of yours."
"You're an original sort of girl," said Waymark, throwing away the end of his cigar. "Do you talk to everybody in this way?"
"Pooh, of course not. I shouldn't be worth much if I couldn't suit my conversation to the man I want to make a fool of. Would you rather have me talk in the usual way? Shall I say--"
"I had rather not."
"Well, I knew that."
"Well, you don't wear a veil, if I do."
"You can read faces?"
"A little, I flatter myself. Can you?"
"Give me a chance of trying."
She raised her veil, and he inspected her for some moments, then looked away.
"Excellently well, if God did all," he observed, with a smile.
"That's out of a play," she replied quickly. "I heard it a little time ago, but I forget the answer. I'd have given anything to be able to cap you! Then you'd have put me down for a clever woman, and I should have lived on the reputation henceforth and for ever. But it's all my own, indeed; I'm not afraid of crying."
"Do you ever cry? I can't easily imagine it."
"Oh yes, sometimes," she answered, sighing, and at the same time lowering her veil again. "But you haven't read my face for me."
"It's a face I'm sorry to have seen."
"Why?" she asked, holding her hands clasped before her, the palms turned outwards.
"I shall think of it often after tonight, and imagine it with all its freshness gone, and marks of suffering and degradation upon it."
"Suffering, perhaps; degradation, no. Why should I be degraded?"
"You can't help yourself. The life you have chosen brings its inevitable consequences."
"Chosen!" she repeated, with an indignant face. "How do you know I had any choice in the matter? You have no right to speak contemptuously, like that."
"Perhaps not. Certainly not. I should have said--the life you are evidently leading."
"Well, I don't know that it makes so much difference. I suppose everybody has a choice at all events between life and death, and you mean that I ought to have killed myself rather than come to this. That's my own business, however, and--"
A man had just passed behind them, and, catching the sound of the girl's voice, had turned suddenly to look at her. She, at the same moment, looked towards him, and stopped all at once in her speech.
"Are you walking up Regent Street?" she asked Waymark, in quite a different voice. "Give me your arm, will you?"
Waymark complied, and they walked together in the direction she suggested.
"What is the matter with you?" he asked. "Why are you trembling?"
"Don't look round. It's that fellow behind us; I know he is following."
"Somebody you know?"
"Yes, and hate. Worse than that, I'm afraid of him. Will you keep with me till he's gone?"
"Of course I will. What harm can he do you though?"
"None that I know of. It's a strange stupid feeling I have. I can't bear the sight of him. Don't look round!"
"Has he been a--a friend of yours?"
"No, no; not in that way. But he follows me about. He'll drive me out of London, I know."
They had reached Piccadilly Circus.
"Look back now," she said, "and see if he's following still."
Waymark turned his head; the man was at a little distance behind. He stopped when be saw himself observed, and stood on the edge of the pavement, tapping his boot with his cane. He was a tall and rather burly fellow, well dressed, with a clean-shaven face.
"Let's make haste round the corner," the girl said, "and get into the restaurant. You must have some supper with me."
"I should be very happy, had I a penny in my pocket."
"See how easily good deeds are forgotten," returned the other, laughing in the old way. "Now comes my turn to give proof of generosity. Come and have some supper all the same."
"No; that's out of the question."
"Fiddlestick Surely you won't desert me when I ask your protection? Come along, and pay me back another time, if you like."
They walked round the corner, then the girl started and ran at her full speed. Waymark followed in the same way, somewhat oppressed by a sense of ridiculousness. They reached the shelter of the restaurant, and the girl led the way upstairs, laughing immoderately.
Supper was served to them, and honoured with due attention by both. Waymark had leisure to observe his companion's face in clearer light. It was beautiful, and, better still, full of character.
He presently bent forward to her, and spoke in a low voice.
"Isn't this the man who followed us just coming in now? Look, he has gone to the table on the right."
She looked round hastily, and shuddered, for she had met the man's eyes.
"Why did you tell me?" she exclaimed impatiently. "Now I can't finish my supper. Wait till he has given his order, and then we will go."
Waymark examined this mysterious persecutor. In truth, the countenance was no good one, and a woman might well dislike to have such eyes turned upon her. It was a strong face; coarse originally, and, in addition to the faults of nature, it now bore the plainest traces of hard living. As soon as he perceived Waymark and his companion, he fixed them with his eyes, and scarcely looked away as long as they remained in the room. The girl seemed shrinking under this gaze, though she sat almost with her back to him. She ceased talking, and, as soon as she saw that Waymark had finished, made a sign to him to pay quickly (with a sovereign she pushed across the table) and let them be gone. They rose, accordingly, and left. The man watched them, but remained seated.
"Are you in a hurry to get home?" the girl asked, when they were in the street again.
"No; time is of no consequence to me."
"Do you live far off?"
"In Kennington. And you?"
"If you like, I'll show you. Let us walk quickly. I feel rather cold."
She led the way into the Strand. At no great distance from Temple Bar she turned off into a small court.
"This is a queer place to live in," observed Waymark, as he looked up at the dark houses.
"Don't be afraid," was the good-humoured reply, as she opened the door with a latch-key. They went up two flights of stairs, then entered a room where a bright fire was burning. Waymark's conductor held a piece of paper to the flame, and lit a lamp. It was a small, pleasantly furnished sitting-room.
"Do you play?" Waymark asked, seeing an open piano, with music upon it.
"I only wish I could. My landlady's daughter is giving me lessons. But I think I'm getting on. Listen to me do this exercise."
She sat down, and, with much conscientious effort, went over some simple bars. Then she looked up at her companion and caught him smiling.
"Well," she exclaimed, in a pet, "you must begin at the beginning in everything, mustn't you? Come and let me hear what you can do."
"Not even so much."
"Then don't laugh at a poor girl doing her best. You have such a queer smile too; it seems both ill-natured and good-natured at the same time. Now wait a minute till I come back."
She went into an inner room, and closed the door behind her. In five minutes it opened again. She appeared in a dressing gown and with her feet in slippers. Her fine hair fell heavily about her shoulders; in her arms she held a beautiful black cat, with white throat and paws.
"This is my child. Don't you admire him? Shake hands, Grim."
"It's short for Grimalkin. the name of a cat in a hook of fairy tales I used to be fond of reading. Don't you think he's got a beautiful face, and a good deal more intelligent than some people we could mention? I picked him up on our door-step, two months ago. Oh, you never saw such a wretched little object, dripping with rain, and with such a poor starved little face, and bones almost coming through the skin. He looked up at me, and begged me as plain as plain could be to have pity on him and help him; didn't you, Grimmy? And so I brought him upstairs, and made him comfortable, and now we shall never part.--Do you like animals?"
The door of the room suddenly opened, and there sprang in a fresh-coloured young girl in hat and jacket, short, plump, pretty, and looking about seventeen. She started back on seeing that the room was occupied.
"What is it, Sally?" asked Grim's mistress, with a good-natured laugh.
"Why, Mrs. Walter told me you wasn't in yet; I'm awful sorry, I beg your pardon."
She spoke with a strong south-west-country accent.
"Do you want me?"
"It's only for Grim," returned Sally. showing something which she held wrapped up in paper. "I'd brought un home a bit o' fish, a nice bit without bone; it'll just suit he."
"Then come and give it he," said the other, with a merry glance at Waymark. "But he mustn't make a mess on the hearthrug."
"Oh, trust un for that," cried Sally. "He won't pull it off the paper."
Grim was accordingly provided with his supper, and Sally ran away with a "good-night."
"Who's that?" Waymark asked. "Where on earth does she come from?"
"She's from Weymouth. They talk queerly there, don't they? She lives in the house, and goes to business. Sally and I are great friends."
"Do you come from the country?" Waymark inquired, as she sat down in an easy-chair and watched the cat eating.
"No, I'm a London girl. I've never been out of the town since I was a little child."
"And how old are you now?"
"Eighteen a month ago. All my life before me, isn't it?"
Waymark kept silence for a moment.
"How do you like my room?" she asked suddenly, looking round.
"It's very comfortable. I always thought there were nothing but business places all about here. I should rather like to live in the very middle of the town, like this."
"Should you? That's just what I like. Oh, how I enjoy the noise and the crowds! I should be ill if I had to live in one of those long, dismal streets, where the houses are all the same shape, and costermongers go bawling about all day long. I suppose you live in a place like that?"
"Very much the same."
In taking his handkerchief out, Waymark just happened to feel a book in his overcoat-pocket. He drew it forth to see what it was, having forgotten entirely that he had been carrying the volume about with him since morning.
"What's that?" asked the girl. "Will you let me look? Is it a tale? Lend it me; will you?"
"Do you read books?"
"Oh yes; why not? Let me keep this till you come again. Is this your name written here--Osmond Waymark?"
"Yes. And what is your name?"
"Ida? That's a beautiful name. I was almost afraid to ask you, for fear it should be something common."
"And why shouldn't I have a common name?"
"Because you are by no means a common girl."
"You think not? Well, perhaps you are right. But may I keep the book till I see you again?"
"I had better give it you, for it isn't very likely you will see me again."
"My acquaintance would be anything but profitable to you. I often haven't enough money to live on, and--"
Ida stooped down and played for a few moments with Grim, who turned over lazily on to his back, and stroked his mistress's hands delicately with his soft white paws.
"But you are a gentleman," she said, rising again, and rustling over the pages of the book she still held. "Are you in the city?"
"The Lord deliver me!"
"I am nothing."
"Then you must be rich."
"It by no means follows. Yesterday I was a teacher in a school. To-day I am what is called out of work."
"A teacher. But I suppose you'll get another place."
"No. I've given it up because I couldn't endure it any longer."
"And how are you going to live?"
"I have no idea."
"Then you must have been very foolish to give away your money like that to-night."
"I don't pretend to much wisdom. If I had had another sovereign in my pocket, no doubt I should have given it you before this, and you wouldn't have refused it."
"How do you know?" she asked sharply. "Why should you think me selfish?"
"Certainly I have no reason to. And by the by, I already owe you money for the supper. I will send it you to-morrow."
"Why not bring it?"
"Better not. I have a good deal of an unpleasant quality which people call pride, and I don't care to make myself uncomfortable unnecessarily."
"You can't have more pride than I have. Look." She held out her hands. "Will you be my friend, really my friend? You understand me?"
"I think I understand, but I doubt whether it is possible."
"Everything is possible. Will you shake hands with me, and, when you come to see me again, let us meet as if I were a modest girl, and you had got to know me in a respectable house, and not in the street at midnight?"
"You really wish it? You are not joking?"
"I am in sober earnest, and I wish it. You won't refuse?"
"If I did I should refuse a great happiness."
He took her hand and again released it.
"And now look at the time," said she, pointing to a clock on the mantelpiece. "Half-past one. How will you get home?"
"Walk. It won't take me more than an hour. May I light my pipe before I start?"
"Of course you may. When shall I see you again?"
"Shall we say this night next week?"
"Very well. Come here any time you like in the evening. I will be at home after six. And then I can give you your book back."
Waymark lit his pipe, stooped to give Grim a stroke, and buttoned up his coat. Ida led the way downstairs. They shook hands again, and parted.