The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XIV. Near and Far
Osmond Waymark was light-hearted; and with him such a state meant something not at all to be understood by those with whom lightness of heart is a chronic affection. The man who dwells for long periods face to face with the bitter truths of life learns so to distrust a fleeting moment of joy, gives habitually so cold a reception to the tardy messenger of delight, that, when the bright guest outdares his churlishness and perforce tarries with him, there ensues a passionate revulsion unknown to hearts which open readily to every fluttering illusive bliss. Illusion it of course remains; is ever recognised as that; but illusion so sweet and powerful that he thanks the god that blinds him, and counts off with sighs of joy the hours thus brightly winged.
He awaited with extreme impatience the evening on which he would again see Ida. Distrustful always, he could not entirely dismiss the fear that his first impressions might prove mistaken in the second interview; yet he tried his best to do so, and amused himself with imagining for Ida a romantic past, for her and himself together a yet more romantic future. In spite of the strange nature of their relations, he did not delude himself with the notion that the girl had fallen in love with him at first sight, and that she stood before him to take or reject as he chose. He had a certain awe of her. He divined in her a strength of character which made her his equal; it might well be, his superior. Take, for instance, the question of the life she was at present leading. In the case of an ordinary pretty and good-natured girl falling in his way as Ida Starr had done, he would have exerted whatever influence he might acquire over her to persuade her into better paths. Any such direct guidance was, he felt, out of the question here. The girl had independence of judgment; she would resent anything said by him on the assumption of her moral inferiority, and, for aught he knew, with justice. The chances were at least as great that he might prove unworthy of her, as that she should prove unworthy of him.
When he presented himself at the house in the little court by Temple Bar, it was the girl Sally who opened the door to him. She beckoned him to follow, and ran before him upstairs. The sitting-room presented the same comfortable appearance, and Grim, rising lazily from the hearthrug, came forward purring a welcome, but Ida was not there.
"She was obliged to go out," said Sally, in answer to his look of inquiry. "She won't be long, and she said you was to make yourself comfortable till she came back."
On a little side-table stood cups and saucers, and a box of cigars. The latter Sally brought forward.
"I was to ask you to smoke, and whether you'd like a cup of coffee with it?" she asked, with the curious naivete which marked her mode of speech.
"The kettle's boiling on the side," she added, seeing that Waymark hesitated. "I can make it in a minute."
"In that case, I will."
"You don't mind me having one as well?"
"Of course not."
"Shall I talk, or shall I keep quiet? I'm not a servant here, you know," she added, with an amusing desire to make her position clear. "Ida and me's friends, and she'd do just as much for I."
"Talk by all means," said Waymark, smiling, as he lit his cigar. The result was that, in a quarter of an hour Sally had related her whole history. As Ida had said, she came from Weymouth, where her father was a fisherman, and owner of bum-boats. Her mother kept a laundry, and the family had all lived together in easy circumstances. She herself had come to London--well, just for a change. And what was she doing? Oh, getting her living as best she could. In the day-time she worked in a city workroom.
"And how much do you think I earn a week?" she asked.
"Fifteen shillings or so, I suppose?"
"Ah, that's all you know about it! Now, last week was the best I've had yet, and I made seven shillings."
"What do you do?"
"Machine work; makin' ulsters. How much do you think we get, now, for makin' a ulster--one like this?" pointing to one which hung behind the door.
"Have no idea."
"Well,--fourpence: there now!"
"And how many can you make in a day?"
"I can't make no more than two. Some make three, but it's blessed hard work. But I get a little job now and then to do at home."
"But you can't live on seven shillings a week?"
"I sh'd think not, indeed. We have to make up the rest as best we can, s'nough."
"But your employers must know that?"
"In course. What's the odds? All us girls are the same; we have to keep on the two jobs at the same time. But I'll give up the day-work before long, s'nough. I come home at night that tired out I ain't fit for nothing. I feel all eyes, as the sayin' is. And it's hard to have to go out into the Strand, when you're like that."
"But do they know about all this at home?"
"No fear! If our father knew, he'd be down here precious soon, and the house wouldn't hold him. But I shall go back some day, when I've got a good fit-out."
The door opened quietly, and Ida came in.
"Well, young people, so you are making yourselves at home."
The sweet face, the eyes and lips with their contained mirth, the light, perfect form, the graceful carriage,--Waymark felt his pulses throb at the sound of her voice and the touch of her hand.
"You didn't mind waiting a little for me? I really couldn't help it. And then, after all, I thought you mightn't come."
"But I promised to."
"Promises, promises, oh dear!" laughed Ida. "Sally, here's an orange for you."
"You are a duck!" was the girl's reply, as she caught it, and, with a nod to Waymark, left the room.
"And so you've really come," Ida went on, sitting down and beginning to draw off her gloves.
"You find it surprising? To begin with, I have come to pay my debts."
"Is there another cup of coffee?" she asked, seeming not to have heard. "I'm too tired to get up and see."
Waymark felt a keen delight in waiting upon her, in judging to a nicety the true amount of sugar and cream, in drawing the little table just within her reach.
"Mr. Waymark," she exclaimed, all at once, "if you had had supper with a friend, and your friend had paid the bill, should you take out your purse and pay him back at your next meeting?"
"It would depend entirely on circumstances."
"Just so. Then the present circumstances don't permit anything of the kind, and there's an end of that matter. Light another cigar, will you?"
"You don't dislike the smoke?"
"If I did, I should say so."
Having removed her outer garments one by one, she rose and took them into the inner room. On reappearing, she went to the sitting-room door and turned the key in the lock.
"Could you let me have some more books to read?" she asked.
"I have brought one, thinking you might be ready for it."
It was "Jane Eyre." She glanced over the pages eagerly.
"I don't know how it is," she said, "I have grown so hungry for reading of late. Till just now I never cared for it. When I was a child and went to school, I didn't like my lessons. Still I learned a good deal, for a little girl, and it has stayed by me. And oh, it seems so long ago! Never mind, perhaps I will tell you all about that some day."
They were together for an hour or so. Waymark, uneasily watching his companion's every movement, rose as soon as she gave sign of weariness, and Ida did not seek to detain him.
"I shall think much of you," he said.
"The less the better," was Ida's reply.
For his comfort, yes,--Waymark thought, as he walked homewards. Ida had already a dangerous hold upon him; she possessed his senses, and set him on fire with passionate imaginings. Here, as on every hand, his cursed poverty closed against him the possibilities of happiness. That she should ever come to love him, seemed very unlikely; the alliance between them could only be a mere caprice on her part, such as girls of her kind are very subject to; he might perhaps fill up her intervals of tedium, but would have no share in her real life. And the thought of that life fevered him with jealousy. She might say what she liked about never having known love, but it was of course impossible that she should not have a preference among her lovers. And to think of the chances before such a girl, so blessed with rare beauty and endless charms. In the natural order of events she would become the mistress of some rich man; might even, as at times happens, be rescued by marriage; in either case, their acquaintance must cease. And, indeed, what right had he to endeavour to gain her love having nothing but mere beggarly devotion to offer her in return? He had not even the excuse of one who could offer her married life in easy circumstances,-- supposing that to be an improvement on her present position. Would it not be better at once to break off these impossible relations? How often he had promised himself, in moments of clear thought, never again to enter on a course which would obviously involve him in futile suffering. Why had he not now the strength to obey his reason, and continue to possess his soul in the calm of which he had enjoyed a brief taste?
The novel circumstances of the past week had almost driven from his mind all thought of Maud Enderby. He regretted having asked and obtained permission to write to her. She seemed so remote from him, their meeting so long past. What could there be in common between himself and that dim, quiet little girl, who had excited his sympathy merely because her pretty face was made sad by the same torments which had afflicted him? He needed some strong, vehement, original nature, such as Ida Starr's; how would Maud's timid conventionality--doubtless she was absolutely conventional--suit with the heresies of which he was all compact? Still, he could not well ignore what had taken place between them, and, after all, there would be a certain pleasant curiosity in awaiting her reply. In any case, he would write just such a letter as came naturally from him. If she were horrified, well, there was an end of the matter.
Accordingly, he sat down on the morning after his visit to Ida, and, after a little difficulty in beginning, wrote a long letter. It was mainly occupied with a description of his experiences in Litany Lane and Elm Court. He made no apology for detailing such unpleasant matters, and explained that he would henceforth be kept in pretty close connection with this unknown world. Even this, he asserted, was preferable to the world of Dr. Tootle's Academy. Then he dwelt a little on the contrast between this life of his and that which Maud was doubtless leading in her home on the Essex coast; and finally he hoped she would write to him when she found leisure, and be able to let him know that she was no longer so unhappy as formerly.
This he posted on Friday. On the following Monday morning, the post brought two letters for him, both addressed in female hand, one bearing a city, the other a country, post-mark. Waymark smiled as he compared the two envelopes, on one of which his name stood in firm, upright characters, on the other in slender, sloping, delicate writing. The former he pressed to his lips, then tore open eagerly; it was the promised intimation that Ida would be at home after eight o'clock on Wednesday and Friday evenings, nothing more. The second letter he allowed to lie by till he had breakfasted. He could see that it contained more than one sheet. When at length he opened it, he read this:--
"DEAR MR. WAYMARK,--I have an hour of freedom this Sunday afternoon, and I will spend it in replying as well as I can to your very interesting letter. My life is, as you say, very quiet and commonplace compared with that you find yourself suddenly entering upon. I have no such strange and moving things to write about, but I will tell you in the first place how I live and what I do, then put down some of the thoughts your letter has excited in me.
"The family I am with consists of very worthy but commonplace people. They treat me with more consideration than I imagine governesses usually get, and I am grateful to them for this, but their conversation, especially that of Mrs. Epping, I find rather wearisome. It deals with very trivial concerns of everyday life, in which I vainly endeavour to interest myself.
"Then there is the religious formalism of the Eppings and their friends. They are High Church. They discuss with astonishing vigour and at dreadful length what seems to me the most immaterial points in the Church service, and just at present an impulse is given to their zeal by the fact of their favourite clergyman being threatened with a prosecution for ritualistic practices. Of course I have to feign a becoming interest in all this, and to take part in all their religious forms and ceremonies. And indeed it is all so new to me that I have scarcely yet got over the first feelings of wonder and curiosity.
"Have I not, then, you will ask, the courage of my opinions? But indeed my religious opinions are so strangely different from those which prevail here, that I fear it would be impossible to make my thoughts clear to these good people. They would scarcely esteem me a Christian; and yet I cannot but think that it is they who are widely astray from Christian belief and practice. The other evening the clergyman dined with us, and throughout the meal discussions of the rubric alternated with talk about delicacies of the table! That the rubric should be so interesting amazes me, but that an earnest Christian should think it compatible with his religion to show the slightest concern in what he shall eat or drink is unspeakably strange to me. Surely, if Christianity means anything it means asceticism. My experience of the world is so slight. I believe this is the first clergyman I ever met in private life. Surely they cannot all be thus?
"I knew well how far the world at large had passed from true Christianity; that has been impressed upon me from my childhood. But how strange it seems to me to hear proposed as a remedy the formalism to which my friends here pin their faith! How often have I burned to speak up among them, and ask--'What think ye, then, of Christ? Is He, or is He not, our exemplar? Was not His life meant to exhibit to us the ideal of the completest severance from the world which is consistent with human existence? To follow Him, should we not, at least in the spirit, cast off everything which may tempt us to consider life, as life, precious?' We cannot worship both God and the world, and yet nowadays Christians seem to make a merit of doing so. When I conceive a religious revival, my thought does not in the least concern itself with forms and ceremonies. I imagine another John the Baptist inciting the people, with irresistible fervour, to turn from their sins--that is, from the world and all its concerns --and to purify themselves by Renunciation. What they call 'Progress,' I take to be the veritable Kingdom of Antichrist. The world is evil, life is evil; only by renunciation of the very desire for life can we fulfil the Christian idea. What then of the civilisation which endeavours to make the world more and more pleasant as a dwelling-place, life more and more desirable for its own sake?
"And so I come to the contents of your own letter. You say you marvel that these wretched people you visited do not, in a wild burst of insurrection, overthrow all social order, and seize for themselves a fair share of the world's goods. I marvel also;--all the more that their very teachers in religion seem to lay such stress on the joys of life. And yet what profit would a real Christian preacher draw for them from this very misery of their existence! He would teach them that herein lay their supreme blessing, not their curse; that in their poverty and nakedness lay means of grace and salvation such as the rich can scarcely by any means attain to; that they should proudly, devoutly, accept their heritage of woe, and daily thank God for depriving them of all that can make life dear. Only awaken the spirit in these poor creatures, and how near might they be to the true Kingdom of Heaven! And surely such a preacher will yet arise, and there will be a Reformation very different from the movement we now call by that name. But I weary you, perhaps. It may be you have no interest in all this. Yet I think you would wish me to write from what I am.
"It would interest me to hear your further experiences in the new work. Believe me to be your sincere friend,
Waymark read, and thought, and wondered.
Then it was time to go and collect his rents.