The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XV. Up the River
Here is an extract from a letter written by Julian Casti to Waymark in the month of May. By this time they were living near to each other, but something was about to happen which Julian preferred to communicate in writing.
"This will be the beginning of a new life for me. Already I have felt a growth in my power of poetical production. Verse runs together in my thoughts without effort; I feel ready for some really great attempt. Have you not noticed something of this in me these last few days? Come and see me to-night, if you can, and rejoice with me."
This meant that Julian was about to be married. Honeymoon journey was out of the question for him. He and his wife established themselves in the lodgings which he was already occupying. And the new life began.
Waymark had made Harriet's acquaintance a couple of weeks before; Julian had brought her with him one Sunday to his friend's room. She was then living alone, having quitted Mrs. Ogle the day after that decisive call upon Julian. There was really no need for her to have done so, Mrs. Ogle's part in the comedy being an imaginary one of Harriet's devising. But Julian was led entirely by his cousin, and, as she knew quite well, there was not the least danger of his going on his own account to the shop in Gray's Inn Road; he dreaded the thought of such an interview.
Waymark was not charmed with Miss Smales; the more he thought of this marriage, the more it amazed him; for, of course, he deemed it wholly of his friend's bringing about.
The marriage affected their intercourse. Harriet did not like to be left alone in the evening, so Julian could not go to Waymark's, as he had been accustomed to, and conversation in Mrs. Casti's presence was, of course, under restraint. Waymark bore this with impatience, and even did his best to alter it. One Sunday afternoon, about three weeks after the marriage, he called and carried Julian off to his room across the street. Harriet's face sufficiently indicated her opinion of this proceeding, and Julian had difficulty m appearing at his case. Waymark understood what was going on, and tried to discuss the matter freely, but the other shrank from it.
"I am grievously impatient of domestic arrangements," Waymark said. "I fancy it would never do for me to marry, unless I had limitless cash, and my wife were as great a Bohemian as myself. By the by, I have another letter from Maud. Her pessimism is magnificent. This intense religiousness is no doubt a mere phase; it will pass, of course; I wonder how things would arrange themselves if she came back to London. Why shouldn't she come here to sit and chat, like you do?"
"That would naturally lead to something definite," said Casti, smiling.
"Oh, I don't know. Why should it? I'm a believer in friendship between men and women. Of course there is in it the spice of the difference of sex, and why not accept that as a pleasant thing? How much better if, when we met a woman we liked, we could say frankly, 'Now let us amuse each other without any arriere pensee. If I married you to-day, even though I feel quite ready to, I should ten to one see some one next week who would make me regret having bound myself. So would you, my dear. Very well, let us tantalise each other agreeably, and be at ease in the sense that we are on the right side of the illusion.' You laugh at the idea?"
Julian laughed, but not heartily. They passed to other things.
"I'm making an article out of Elm Court," said Waymark. "Semi-descriptive, semi-reflective, wholly cynical Maybe it will pay for my summer holiday. And, apropos of the same subject, I've got great ideas. This introduction to such phases of life will prove endlessly advantageous to me, artistically speaking. Let me get a little more experience, and I will write a novel such as no one has yet ventured to write, at all events in England. I begin to see my way to magnificent effects; ye gods, such light and shade! The fact is, the novel of every-day life is getting worn out. We must dig deeper, get to untouched social strata. Dickens felt this, but he had not the courage to face his subjects; his monthly numbers had to lie on the family tea-table. Not virginibus puerisque will be my book, I assure you, but for men and women who like to look beneath the surface, and who understand that only as artistic material has human life any significance. Yes, that is the conclusion I am working round to. The artist is the only sane man. Life for its own sake?--no; I would drink a pint of laudanum to-night. But life as the source of splendid pictures, inexhaustible material for effects --that can reconcile me to existence, and that only. It is a delight followed by no bitter after-taste, and the only such delight I know."
Harriet was very quiet when Julian returned. She went about getting the tea with a sort of indifference; she let a cup fall and break, but made no remark, and left her husband to pick up the pieces.
"Waymark thinks I'm neglecting him," said Julian, with a laugh, as they sat down together.
"It's better to neglect him than to neglect me, I should think," was Harriet's reply, in a quiet ill-natured tone which she was mistress of.
"But couldn't we find out some way of doing neither, dear?" went on Julian, playing with his spoon. "Now suppose I give him a couple of hours one evening every week? You could spare that, couldn't you? Say, from eight to ten on Wednesdays?"
"I suppose you'll go if you want to." said Harriet, rising from the tea-table, and taking a seat sulkily by the window.
"Come, come, we won't say any more about it, if it's so disagreeable to you," said Julian, going up to her, and coaxing her back to her place. "You don't feel well to-day, do you? I oughtn't to have left you this afternoon, but it was difficult to refuse, wasn't it?"
"He had no business to ask you to go. He could see I didn't like it."
Waymark grew so accustomed to receiving Ida's note each Monday morning, that when for the first time it failed to conic he was troubled seriously. It happened, too, that he was able to attach a particular significance to the omission. When they had last parted, instead of just pressing her hand as usual, he had raised it to his lips. She frowned and turned quickly away, saying no word. He had offended her by this infringement of the conditions of their friendship; for once before, when he had uttered a word which implied more than she was willing to allow, Ida had engaged him in the distinct agreement that he should never do or say anything that approached love-making. As, moreover, it was distinctly understood that he should never visit her save at times previously appointed, he could not see her till she chose to write. After waiting in the vain expectation of some later post bringing news, he himself wrote, simply asking the cause of her silence. The reply came speedily.
"I have no spare time in the week. I thought you would understand this.
It was her custom to write without any formal beginning or ending; yet Waymark felt that this note was briefer than it would have been, had all been as usual between them. The jealousy which now often tortured him awoke with intolerable vehemence. He spent a week of misery.
But late on Saturday evening came a letter addressed in the well-known hand. It said--
"Sally and I are going up the river to-morrow, if it is fine. Do you care to meet us on the boat which reaches Chelsea Pier at 10.30?
It seemed he did care; at all events he was half an hour too soon at the pier. As the boat approached his eye soon singled out two very quietly-dressed girls, who sat with their backs to him, and neither turned nor made any sign of expecting any addition to their party. With like undemonstrativeness he took a seat at Ida's side, and returned Sally's nod and smile. Ida merely said "Good morning;" there was nothing of displeasure on her face, however, and when he began to speak of indifferent things she replied with the usual easy friendliness.
It was the first time he had seen her by daylight. He had been uncertain whether she used any artificial colour on her cheeks; seemingly she did, for now she looked much paler than usual. But the perfect clearness of her complexion, the lustre of her eyes, appeared to indicate complete health. She breathed the fresh sun-lit air with frank enjoyment, and smiled to herself at objects on either side of the river.
"By the by," Waymark said, when no words had been exchanged for some minutes, "you didn't tell me where you were going; so I took no ticket, and left matters to fate."
"Are you a good walker?" Ida asked.
"Fairly good, I flatter myself."
"Then this is what I propose. It's a plan I carried out two or three times by myself last summer, and enjoyed. We get off at Putney, walk through Roehampton, then over the park into Richmond. By that time we shall be ready for dinner, and I know a place where we can have it in comfort."
There was little thought of weariness throughout the delightful walk. All three gave themselves up for the time to simple enjoyment; their intercourse became that of children; the troubles of passion, the miseries of self-consciousness, the strain of mutual observation fell from them as the city dropped behind; they were once more creatures for whom the external world alone had reality. There was a glorious June sky; there were country roads scented with flower and tree; the wide-gleaming common with its furze and bramble; then the great park, with felled trunks to rest upon, and prospects of endlessly-varied green to soothe the eye. The girls exhibited their pleasure each in her own way. Sally threw off restraint, and sprang about in free happiness, like one of the young roes, the sight of which made her utter cries like a delighted child. She remembered scenes of home, and chattered in her dialect of people and places strange enough to both her companions. She was in constant expectation of catching a glimpse of the sea; in spite of all warnings it was a great surprise and disappointment to her that Richmond Hill did not end in cliffs and breakers. Ida talked less, but every now and then laughed in her deep enjoyment. She had no reminiscence of country life it was enough that all about her was new and fresh and pure; nothing to remind her of Regent Street and the Strand. Waymark talked of he knew not what, cheerful things that came by chance to his tongue, trifling stories, descriptions of places, ideal plans for spending of ideal holidays; but nothing of London, nothing of what at other times his thoughts most ran upon. He came back to himself now and then, and smiled as he looked at the girls, but this happened seldom.
The appetites of all three were beyond denying when they had passed the "Star and Garter" and began to walk down into the town. Waymark wondered whither their guide would lead them, but asked no questions. To his surprise, Ida stopped at a small inn half way down the hill.
"You are to go straight in," she said, with a smile, to Waymark, "and are to tell the first person you meet that three people want dinner. There's no choice--roast beef and vegetables, and some pudding or other afterwards. Then you are to walk straight upstairs, as if you knew your way, and we will follow."
These directions were obeyed, with the result that all reached an upper chamber, wherein a table was cleanly and comfortably laid, as if expecting them. French windows led out on to a quaint little verandah at the back of the house, and the view thence was perfect. The river below, winding between wooded banks, and everywhere the same splendour of varied green which had delighted their eyes all the morning. Just below the verandah was the tiled roof of an outhouse, whereon lay a fine black and white cat, basking in the hot sun. Ida clapped her hands.
"He's like poor old Grim," she cried. Then, turning to Waymark: "If you are good, you may bring out a chair and smoke a cigar here after dinner."
They had just began to eat, when footsteps were heard coining up the stairs.
"Oh bother!" exclaimed Sally. "There's some one else a-comin', s'nough."
There was. The door opened, and two gentlemen walked in. Waymark looked up, and to his astonishment recognised his old friends O'Gree and Egger. Mr. O'Gree was mopping his face with a handkerchief, and looked red and hungry; Mr. Egger was resplendent in a very broad-brimmed straw hat, the glistening newness of which contrasted with the rest of his attire, which had known no variation since his first arrival at Dr. Tootle's. He, too, was perspiring profusely, and, as he entered, was just in the act of taking out the great yellow handkerchief which Waymark had seen him chewing so often in the bitterness of his spirit.
"Hollo, Waymark, is it you?" cried Mr. O'Gree, forgetting the presence of the strangers in his astonishment. "Sure, and they told us we'd find a gentleman here."
"And I was the last person you would have thought of as answering that description?"
"Well, no, I didn't mean that. I meant there was no mention of the ladies."
Waymark flashed a question at Ida with his eyes, and understood her assent in the smile and slight motion of the head.
"Then let me introduce you to the ladies."
The new-comers accordingly made the acquaintance of Miss Starr and Miss Fisher (that was Sally's name), and took seats at the table, to await the arrival of their dinners. Both were on their good behaviour. Mr. O'Gree managed to place himself at Sally's left hand, and led the conversation with the natural ease of an Irishman, especially delighted if Sally herself seemed to appreciate his efforts to be entertaining.
"Now, who'd have thought of the like of this." he exclaimed. "And we came in here by the merest chance; sure, there's a fatality in these things. We've walked all the way from Hammersmith."
"And we from Putney," said Waymark.
"You don't mean it? It's been a warm undertaking."
"How did you find the walk, Mr. Egger?"
"Bedad," replied that gentleman, who had got hold of his friend's exclamation, and used it with killing effect; "I made my possible, but, bedad, I could not much more."
"You both look warm," Waymark observed, smiling. "I fear you hurried. You should have been leisurely, as we were."
"Now that's cruel, Waymark. You needn't have reflected upon our solitariness. If we'd been blessed with society such as you had, we'd have come slow enough. As it was, we thought a good deal of our dinners."
No fresh guests appeared to disturb the party. When all had appeased their hunger, Waymark took a chair out on to the verandah for Ida. He was spared the trouble of providing in the same way for Sally by Mr. O'Gree's ready offices. Poor Egger, finding himself deserted, opened a piano there was in the room, and began to run his finger over the keys.
"Let us have one of your German songs, my boy," cried O'Gree.
"But it is the Sunday, and we arc still in England," said the Swiss, hesitating.
"Pooh, never mind," said Waymark. "We'll shut the door. Sing my favourite, Mr. Egger,--'Wenn's Mailufterl.'"
When they left the inn, Waymark walked first with Ida, and Mr. O'Gree followed with Sally. Egger brought up the rear; he had relapsed into a dreamy mood, and his mind seemed occupied with unearthly things.
With no little amusement Waymark had noted Sally's demeanour under Mr. O'Gree's attentions. The girl had evidently made up her mind to be absolutely proper. The Irishman's respectful delicacy was something so new to her and so pleasant, and the question with her was how she could sufficiently show her appreciation without at the same time forfeiting his good opinion for becoming modesty. All so new to her, accustomed to make an art of forwardness, and to school herself in the endurance of brutality. She was constantly blushing in the most unfeigned way at his neatly-turned little compliments, and, when she spoke, did so with a pretty air of self-distrust which sat quite charmingly on her. Fain, fain would O'Gree have proposed to journey back to London by the same train, but good taste and good sense prevailed with him. At the ticket-barrier there was a parting.
"How delightful it would be, Miss Fisher," said Mr. O'Gree, in something like a whisper, "if this lucky chance happened again. If I only knew when you were coming again, there's no telling but it might."
Sally gave her hand, smiled, evidently wished to say something, but ended by turning away and running after her companions.