The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XII. Rent Day
It was much after his usual hour when Waymark awoke on Good Friday morning. He had been troubled throughout the night with a strangely vivid dream, which seemed to have repeated itself several times; when he at length started into consciousness the anguish of the vision was still upon him.
He rose at once, and dressed quickly, doing his best to shake off the clinging misery of sleep. In a little while it had passed, and he tried to go over in his mind the events of the preceding day. Were they, too, only fragments of a long dream? Surely so many and strange events could not have crowded themselves into one period of twelve hours; and for him, whose days passed with such dreary monotony. The interview with Maud Enderby seemed so unnaturally long ago; that with Ida Starr, so impossibly fresh and recent. Yet both had undoubtedly taken place. He, who but yesterday morning had felt so bitterly his loneliness in the world, and, above all, the impossibility of what he most longed for--woman's companionship-- found himself all at once on terms of at least friendly intimacy with two women, both young, both beautiful, yet so wholly different. Each answered to an ideal which he cherished, and the two ideals were so diverse, so mutually exclusive. The experience had left him in a curious frame of mind. For the present, he felt cool, almost indifferent, to both his new acquaintances. He had asked and obtained leave to write to Maud Enderby; what on earth could he write about? How could he address her? He had promised to go and see Ida Starr, on a most impracticable footing. Was it not almost certain that, before the day came round, her caprice would have vanished, and his reception would prove anything but a flattering one? The feelings which both girls had at the time excited in him seemed artificial; in his present mood he in vain tried to resuscitate his interest either in the one or the other. It was as though he had over-exerted his emotional powers, and they lay exhausted. Weariness was the only reality of which he was conscious. He must turn his mind to other things. Having breakfasted, he remembered what day it was, and presently took down a volume of his Goethe, opening at the Easter morning scene in Faust, favourite reading with him. This inspired him with a desire to go into the open air; it was a bright day, and there would be life in the streets. Just as he began to prepare himself for walking, there came a knock at his door, and Julian Casti entered.
"Halloa!" Waymark cried. "I thought you told me you were engaged with your cousin to-day."
"I was, but I sent her a note yesterday to say I was unable to meet her."
"Then why didn't you write at the same time and tell me you were coming? I might have gone out for the day."
"I had no intention of coming then."
"What's the matter? You look out of sorts."
"I don't feel in very good spirits. By the by, I heard from the publishers yesterday. Here's the note."
It simply stated that Messrs. So-and-so had given their best attention to the play of "Stilicho," which Mr. Casti had been so good as to submit to them, and regretted their inability to make any proposal for its publication, seeing that its subject was hardly likely to excite popular interest. They thanked the author for offering it to them, and begged to return the MS.
"Well, it's a disappointment," said Waymark, "but we must try again. I myself am so hardened to this kind of thing that I fear you will think me unsympathetic. It's like having a tooth out. You never quite get used to it, but you learn after two or three experiments to gauge the moment's torture at its true value. Re-direct your parcel, and fresh hope beats out the old discouragement"
"It wasn't altogether that which was making me feel restless and depressed," Casti said, when they had left the house and were walking along. "I suppose I'm not quite right in health just at present. I seem to have lost my natural good spirits of late; the worst of it is, I can't settle to my day's work as I used to. In fact, I have just been applying for a new place, that of dispenser at the All Saints' Hospital. If I get it, it would make my life a good deal more independent. I should live in lodgings of my own, and have much more time to myself."
Waymark encouraged the idea strongly. But his companion could not be roused to the wonted cheerfulness. After a long silence, he all at once put a strange question, and in an abashed way.
"Waymark, have you ever been in love?"
Osmond laughed, and looked at his friend curiously.
"Many thousand times," was his reply.
"No, but seriously," urged Julian.
"With desperate seriousness for two or three days at a time. Never longer."
"Well now, answer me in all earnestness. Do you believe it possible to love a woman whom in almost every respect you regard as your inferior, who you know can't understand your thoughts and aspirations, who has no interest in anything above daily needs?"
"Impossible to say. Is she good-looking?"
"Suppose she is not; yet not altogether plain."
"Then does she love you?"
Julian reddened at the direct application.
"Suppose she seems to."
"Seems to, eh?--On the whole, I should say that I couldn't declare it possible or the contrary till I had seen the girl. I myself should be very capable of falling desperately in love with a girl who hadn't an idea in her head, and didn't know her letters. All I should ask would be passion in return, and--well, yes, a pliant and docile character."
"You are right; the character would go for much. Never mind, we won't speak any more of the subject. It was an absurd question to ask you."
"Nevertheless, you have made me very curious."
"I will tell you more some other time; not now. Tell me about your own plans. What decision have you come to?"
Waymark professed to have formed no plan whatever. This was not strictly true. For some months now, ever and again, as often indeed as he had felt the burden of his schoolwork more than usually intolerable, his thoughts had turned to the one person who could be of any assistance to him, and upon whom he had any kind of claim; that was Abraham Woodstock, his father's old friend. He had held no communication with Mr. Woodstock for four years; did not even know whether he was living. But of him he still thought, now that absolute need was close at hand, and, as soon as Julian Casti had left him to-day, he examined a directory to ascertain whether the accountant still occupied the house in St. John Street Road. Apparently he did. And the same evening Waymark made up his mind to visit Mr. Woodstock on the following day.
The old gentleman was sitting alone when the servant announced a visitor. In personal appearance he was scarcely changed since the visit of his little grand-daughter. Perhaps the eye was not quite so vivid, the skin on forehead and cheeks a trifle less smooth, but his face had the same healthy colour; there was the same repose of force in the huge limbs, and his voice had lost nothing of its resonant firmness.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, as Waymark entered. "You! I've been wondering where you were to be found."
The visitor held out his hand, and Abraham, though he did not rise, smiled not unpleasantly as he gave his own.
"You wanted to see me?" Waymark asked.
"Well, yes. I suppose you've come about the mines."
"Mines? What mines?"
"Oh, then you haven't come about them. You didn't know the Llwg Valley people have begun to pay a dividend?"
Waymark remembered that one of his father's unfortunate speculations had been the purchase of certain shares in some Welsh mines. The money thus invested had remained, for the last nine years, wholly unproductive. Mr. Woodstock explained that things were looking up with the company in question, who had just declared a dividend of 4 per cent. on all their paid-up shares.
"In other words," exclaimed Waymark eagerly, "they owe me some money?"
"Which you can do with, eh?" said Abraham, with a twinkle of good-humoured commiseration in his eye.
"Perfectly. What are the details?"
"There are fifty ten-pound shares. Dividend accordingly twenty pounds."
"By Jingo! How is it to be got at?"
"Do you feel disposed to sell the shares?" asked the old man, looking up sideways, and still smiling.
"No; on the whole I think not."
"Ho, ho, Osmond, where have you learnt prudence, eh?--Why don't you sit down?--If you didn't come about the mines, why did you come, eh?"
"Not to mince matters," said Waymark, taking a chair, and speaking in an off-hand way which cost him much effort, "I came to ask you to help me to some way of getting a living."
"Hollo!" exclaimed the old man, chuckling. "Why, I should have thought you'd made your fortune by this time. Poetry doesn't pay, it seems?"
"It doesn't. One has to buy experience. It's no good saying that I ought to have been guided by you five years ago. Of course I wish I had been, but it wasn't possible. The question is, do you care to help me now?"
"What's your idea?" asked Abraham, playing with his watch-guard, a smile as of inward triumph flitting about his lips.
"I have none. I only know that I've been half-starved for years in the cursed business of teaching, and that I can't stand it any longer. I want some kind of occupation that will allow me to have three good meals every day, and leave me my evenings free. That isn't asking much, I imagine; most men manage to find it. I don't care what the work is, not a bit. If it's of a kind which gives a prospect of getting on, all the better; if that's out of the question, well, three good meals and a roof shall suffice."
"You're turning out a devilish sensible lad, Osmond," said Mr. Woodstock, still smiling. "Better late than never, as they say. But I don't see what you can do. You literary chaps get into the way of thinking that any fool can make a man of business, and that it's only a matter of condescending to turn your hands to desk work and the ways clear before you. It's a mistake, and you're not the first that'll find it out."
"This much I know," replied Waymark, with decision. "Set me to anything that can be learnt, and I'll be perfect in it in a quarter the time it would take the average man."
"You want your evenings free?" asked the other, after a short reflection. "What will you do with them?"
"I shall give them to literary work."
"I thought as much. And you think you can be a man of business and a poet at the same time? No go, my boy. If you take up business, you drop poetising. Those two horses never yet pulled at the same shaft, and never will."
Mr. Woodstock pondered for a few moments. He thrust out his great legs with feet crossed on the fender, and with his hands jingled coin in his trouser-pockets.
"I tell you what," he suddenly began. "There's only one thing I know of at present that you're likely to be able to do. Suppose I gave you the job of collecting my rents down east."
"Weekly. It's a rough quarter, and they're a shady lot of customers. You wouldn't find the job over-pleasant, but you might try, eh?"
"What would it bring me in,--to go at once to the point?"
"The rents average twenty-five pounds. Your commission would be seven per cent. You might reckon, I dare say, on five-and-thirty shillings a week."
"What is the day for collecting?"
"Mondays; but there's lots of 'em you'd have to look up several times in a week. If you like I'll go round myself on Tuesday-- Easter Monday's no good--and you can come with me."
"I will go, by all means," exclaimed Waymark
Talk continued for some half-hour. When Waymark rose at length, he expressed his gratitude for the assistance promised.
"Well, well," said the other, "wait till we see how things work. I shouldn't wonder if you throw it up after a week or two. However, be here on Tuesday at ten. And prompt, mind: I don't wait for any man."
Waymark was punctual enough on the following Tuesday, and the two drove in a hansom eastward. It was rather a foggy morning, and things looked their worst. After alighting they had a short walk. Mr. Woodstock stopped at the end of an alley.
"You see," he said, "that's Litany Lane. There are sixteen houses in it, and they're all mine. Half way down, on the left, runs off Elm Court, where there are fourteen houses, and those are all mine, too."
Waymark looked. Litany Lane was a narrow passage, with houses only on one side; opposite to them ran a long high wall, apparently the limit of some manufactory. Two posts set up at the entrance to the Lane showed that it was no thoroughfare for vehicles. The houses were of three storeys. There were two or three dirty little shops, but the rest were ordinary lodging-houses, the front-doors standing wide open as a matter of course, exhibiting a dusky passage, filthy stairs, with generally a glimpse right through into the yard in the rear. In Elm Court the houses were smaller, and had their fronts whitewashed. Under the archway which led into the Court were fastened up several written notices of rooms to be let at this or that number. The paving was in evil repair, forming here and there considerable pools of water, the stench and the colour whereof led to the supposition that the inhabitants facilitated domestic operations by emptying casual vessels out of the windows. The dirty little casements on the ground floor exhibited without exception a rag of red or white curtain on the one side, prevailing fashion evidently requiring no corresponding drapery on the other. The Court was a cul de sac, and at the far end stood a receptacle for ashes, the odour from which was intolerable. Strangely enough, almost all the window-sills displayed flower-pots, and, despite the wretched weather, several little bird-cages hung out from the upper storeys. In one of them a lark was singing briskly.
They began their progress through the tenements, commencing at the top of Litany Lane. Many of the rooms were locked, the occupiers being away at their work, but in such case the rent had generally been left with some other person in the house, and was forthcoming. But now and then neither rent nor tenant was to be got at, and dire were the threats which Abraham bade the neighbours convey to the defaulters on their return. His way with one and all was curt and vigorous; to Waymark it seemed needlessly brutal. A woman pleading inability to make up her total sum would be cut short with a thunderous oath, and the assurance that, if she did not pay up in a day or two, every stick would be carried off. Pitiful pleading for time had absolutely no effect upon Abraham. Here and there e tenant would complain of high rent, and point out a cracked ceiling, a rotten piece of stairs, or something else imperatively calling for renovation. "If you don't like the room, clear out," was the landlord's sole reply to all such speeches.
In one place they came across an old Irish woman engaged in washing. The room was hung with reeking clothes from wall to wall. For a time it was difficult to distinguish objects through the steam, and Waymark, making his way in, stumbled and almost fell over an open box. From the box at once proceeded a miserable little wail, broken by as terrible a cough as a child could be afflicted with; and Waymark then perceived that the box was being used as a cradle, in which lay a baby gasping in the agonies of some throat disease, whilst drops from the wet clothing trickled on to its face.
On leaving this house, they entered Elm Court. Here, sitting on the doorstep of the first house, was a child of apparently nine or ten, and seemingly a girl, though the nondescript attire might have concealed either sex, and the face was absolutely sexless in its savagery. Her hair was cut short, and round her neck was a bit of steel chain, fastened with string. On seeing the two approach, she sprang up, and disappeared with a bound into the house.
"That's the most infernal little devil in all London, I do believe," said Mr. Woodstock, as they began to ascend the stairs. "Her mother owes two weeks, and if she don't pay something to-day, I'll have her out. She'll be shamming illness, you'll see. The child ran up to prepare her."
The room in question was at the top of the house. It proved to be quite bare of furniture. On a bundle of straw in one corner was lying a woman, to all appearances in extremis. She lay looking up to the ceiling, her face distorted into the most ghastly anguish, her lips foaming; her whole frame shivered incessantly.
"Ha, I thought so," exclaimed Abraham as he entered. "Are you going to pay anything this week?"
The woman seemed to be unconscious.
"Have you got the rent?" asked Mr. Woodstock, turning to the child, who had crouched down in another corner.
"No, we ain't," was the reply, with a terribly fierce glare from eyes which rather seemed to have looked on ninety years than nine.
"Then out you go! Come, you, get up now; d' you hear? Very well; come along, Waymark; you take hold of that foot, and I'll take this. Now, drag her out on to the landing."
They dragged her about half-way to the door, when suddenly Waymark felt the foot he had hold of withdrawn from his grasp, and at once the woman sprang upright. Then she fell on him, tooth and nail, screaming like some evil beast. Had not Abraham forthwith come to the rescue, he would have been seriously torn about the face, but just in time the woman's arms were seized in a giant grip, and she was flung bodily out of the room, falling with a crash upon the landing. Then from her and the child arose a most terrific uproar of commination; both together yelled such foulness and blasphemy as can only be conceived by those who have made a special study of this vocabulary, and the vituperation of the child was, if anything, richer in quality than the mother's. The former, moreover, did not confine herself to words, but all at once sent her clenched fist through every pain of glass in the window, heedless of the fearful cuts she inflicted upon herself, and uttering a wild yell of triumph at each fracture. Mr. Woodstock was too late to save his property, but he caught up the creature like a doll, and flung her out also on to the landing, then coolly locked the door behind him, put the key in his pocket, and, letting Waymark pass on first, descended the stairs. The yelling and screeching behind them continued as long as they were in the Court, but it drew no attention from the neighbours, who were far too accustomed to this kind of thing to heed it.
In the last house they had to enter they came upon a man asleep on a bare bedstead. It was difficult to wake him. When at length he was aroused, he glared at them for a moment with one blood-shot eye (the other was sightless), looking much like a wild beast which doubts whether to spring or to shrink back.
"Rent, Slimy," said Mr. Woodstock with more of good humour than usual.
The man pointed to the mantelpiece, where the pieces of money were found to be lying. Waymark looked round the room. Besides the bedstead, a table was the only article of furniture, and on it stood a dirty jug and a glass. Lying about was a strange collection of miscellaneous articles, heaps of rags and dirty paper, bottles, boots, bones. There were one or two chairs in process of being new-caned; there was a wooden frame for holding glass, such as is carried about by itinerant glaziers, and, finally, there was a knife-grinding instrument, adapted for wheeling about the streets. The walls were all scribbled over with obscene words and drawings. On the inside of the door had been fitted two enormous bolts, one above and one below.
"How's trade, Slimy?" inquired Mr. Woodstock.
"Which trade, Mr. Woodstock?" asked the man in return, in a very husky voice.
"Oh, trade in general."
"There never was sich times since old Scratch died," replied Slimy, shaking his head. "No chance for a honest man."
"Then you're in luck. This is the new collector, d'you see."
"I've been a-looking at him," said Slimy, whose one eye, for all that, had seemed busy all the time in quite a different direction. "I seen him somewheres, but I can't just make out where."
"Not many people you haven't seen, I think," said Abraham, nodding, as he went out of the room. Waymark followed, and was glad to get into the open streets again.