The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XIX. In the Meantime
It was one Wednesday evening in early April, that Waymark found a letter awaiting him, addressed in a hand he at once recognised.
"Will you come and see me? I am at home after eight o'clock till the end of the week, and all day on Sunday.
No distinct pleasure was aroused in Waymark as he read this. As was always the case for hours after he had left Maud's presence, her face and voice lived with him to the exclusion of every other thought. There was even something of repulsion in the feeling excited by his thus having the memory of Ida brought suddenly before him; her face came as an unwelcome intruder upon the calm, grave mood which always possessed him on these evenings. In returning home each Wednesday night, Waymark always sought the speediest and quietest route, unwilling to be brought in contact with that life of the streets which at other times delighted him. Ida's note seemed a summons from that world which, for the moment, he held at a distance. But the call was not to be silenced at his will. He began to wonder about her life during the past half-year. Why had she written just now, after so long a silence? Where, and under what circumstances, should he meet her? Did she think to find him the same as when they last talked together?
Through the night he woke constantly, and always with thoughts busy about Ida. In the morning his first impulse was to re-read her message; received so carelessly, it had in the meantime become of more account, and Waymark laughed in his wonted way as he saw himself thus swayed between forces he could not control. The ordinary day's task was neglected, and he impatiently waited for the hour when he could be sure of finding Ida at home. The address was at Fulham, and, on reaching it, he found a large new block of the kind known as model lodging-houses. Ida's number was up at the very top. When he knocked, the door opened immediately, and she stood there, holding out her hand to him.
She wore the same dress that she had worn at Hastings, but the gold brooch and watch-chain were missing, and her hair was arranged in a simpler way. She was a trifle pale, perhaps, but that might be due to the excitement of the moment; her voice shook a little as she spoke.
Waymark looked about him as he went in. There appeared to be two rooms, one of them a very small bedroom, the other fitted with a cooking-grate and oven; the kind of tenement suitable to very poor working-people. The floors were bare, and there was nothing in the way of furniture beyond the most indispensable articles: a table, two chairs, and a few cups, saucers, and plates on a shelf; through the half-open door, he saw that the bed-room was equally plain. A fire was burning, and a kettle on it; and in front, on a little square piece of carpet, lay Ida's inseparable friend, Grim. Grim had lifted his head at Waymark's entrance, and, with gathering curiosity in his eyes, slowly stood up; then stretched himself, and, looking first at one, then at the other, waited in doubt.
Ida stooped and took him up in her arms.
"And who's this?" she asked, talking to him as one talks to a child, whilst she pressed his warm black cheek against her own. "Does Grim remember who this is? We still keep together," she added, looking at Waymark. "All day long, whilst I'm away, he keeps house; I'm often afraid he suffers dreadfully from loneliness, but, you see, I'm obliged to lock him in. And he knows exactly the time when I come home. I always find him sitting on that chair by the door, waiting, waiting, oh so patiently! And I often bring him back something nice, don't I, Grimmy? You should see how delighted he is as soon as I enter the door."
Ida was changed, and in many ways. She seemed to have grown younger; in her voice and manner there was a girlishness which was quite new to Waymark. Her motions were lighter and nimbler; there was no longer that slow grace of step and carriage which had expressed absolute leisure, and with it had gone, perhaps, something of dignity, which used to sit so well upon her. She laughed from time to time in a free, careless way; formerly she seldom did more than smile. In the old days, there was nothing about her suggestive of what are called the domestic virtues; now she seemed perfectly at home amid these simple surroundings, and, almost as soon as her visitor had sat down, she busied herself in laying the table in a quick, ready way, which came of the habit of waiting upon herself.
"You'll have a cup of tea with me?" she said, looking at Waymark with the curiosity which seemed to show that she also found something changed in him. "I only get home about eight o'clock, and this is the quietest and pleasantest meal in the day for me."
"What do you do all day, then?" Waymark asked, softening the bluntness of his question with a smile.
She stepped near to him, and held out her hands for him to look at; then, as he met her eyes again, laughed merrily.
"Do you guess?" she asked.
"I believe I can. You have gone back to the laundry again?"
"And how long is it since you did so?"
"How long is it since we last saw each other?"
"Did you begin at once when you returned to London?"
Waymark kept silence, whilst Ida poured out a cup of tea for him, and then took her seat at the table.
"Don't you think I'm comfortable here?" Ida said. "It's like having a house of my own. I see nothing of the other people in the building, and feel independent."
"Did you buy the furniture yourself?"
"Yes; just the things I couldn't do without. I pay only three-and-sixpence a week, and so long as I can earn that, I'm sure at all events of a home, where I can be happy or miserable, as I please."
Waymark wondered. There was no mistaking the genuineness of her tone. What, then, had been the reason for this astonishing change, a change extending, it would seem, almost to temperament? What intermediate phases had led up to this result? He wished to ask her for an explanation, but to do so would be to refer to the condition she had left, and that he did not wish to do. All would no doubt explain itself as they talked; in the meantime she told him how her days were ordered, and the details of her life.
"Have you brought your pipe?" she asked, when they had drank their tea.
"May I smoke?"
"Of course,--just as you used to."
"But it is not the same," Waymark said, half to himself.
"Are you sorry for the change?" Ida asked, as she handed him a box of matches.
"What induced you to make it?"
"Oh, I have strange fancies. The idea came, just like others do. Are you sorry?"
"The opposite. Did the idea come whilst we were at Hastings?"
"Before that. Do you remember my telling you that I had a letter calling me back to London?"
"It was from the laundry, to say I could go to work as soon as I liked."
"And why didn't you tell me that?"
Ida seemed about to reply, but altered her intention, and, after being silent for a moment, asked another question.
"Did you think you would ever hear from me?"
"I had given up hope."
"And did you wonder what had become of me?"
"Often. Why didn't you write before?"
"I wasn't ready."
"What does that mean?" Waymark asked, looking closely at her.
"Perhaps I shall be able to explain some day. If not, well, it won't matter."
"And will you let me see you often?" said Waymark, after thinking a little. "Are we to be friends again, as we used to be?"
"If you would care for it."
Waymark turned away as their eyes met.
"Certainly I should care for it," he said, feeling all at once a difficulty in speaking naturally. Then he looked at Ida again; she was bending down and stroking Grim's ears. There was rather a long silence, which Waymark at length forced himself to break.
"Shall I bring you books again?" he said.
"I have very little time for reading," was Ida's reply. "It's better, perhaps, that it is so."
"Perhaps it would make me discontented with my work, and want all sorts of things I couldn't have."
"You have your Sundays free?" Waymark said, after another rather long silence.
"Then we must have some expeditions again, now that the fine days have come. By the by, do you ever see Sally?"
Ida looked up with a smile and said, "Yes; do you?"
"No; but I hear of her."
"From your friend?"
"Yes, from O'Gree."
"Do your other friends still live near you?" Ida asked, speaking quickly, as if to interrupt what Waymark was about to say.
"The Castis? Oh yes."
"What is Mrs. Casti like?" she said, in a tone which attracted Waymark's attention.
"Well," he replied, "it's difficult to describe her. There's nothing very good about her, and I suppose nothing very bad. I see little of her now; she's almost always ill."
"What's the matter with her?"
"Can't say; general weakness and ill health, I think?"
"But she's so young, isn't she? Has she friends to go and see her?"
"Very few, I think."
"It must be dreadful to be like that," said Ida. "I'm thankful that I have my health, at all events. Loneliness isn't so hard to bear, as it must he in illness."
"Do you feel lonely?"
"A little, sometimes," said Ida. "But it's ungrateful to poor old Grim to say so."
"Have you no acquaintances except the people you work with?"
She shook her head.
"And you don't read? Wouldn't you like to go on reading as you used to? You have a better head than most women, and it's a pity not to make use of it. That's all nonsense about in making you discontented. You won't always be living like this, I suppose."
"Why not?" Ida asked simply.
"Well," said Waymark, without meeting her look, "even if you do, it will be gain to you to cultivate your mind?"
"Do you wish me to cultivate my mind?"
"You know I do."
Waymark seemed uneasy. He rose and leaned against the mantelpiece.
"I will do whatever you bid me," Ida said. "I can get an hour or so each night, and I have all Sunday."
Waymark felt only too well the effect of the tone he was adopting. The situation was by this time clear enough to him, and his own difficulties no less clear. He avoided looking at Ida as much as he could. A change had again come over her manner; the girlishness was modified, the old sadder tone was audible at moments.
"If it's fine on Sunday," he said, "will you go with me to Richmond, and let us have dinner at the old place?"
"No," was Ida's reply, with a smile, "I can't afford it."
"But I invite you. Of course I didn't mean that it should be any expense."
She still shook her head.
"No, I must take my own share, wherever we go."
"Then I shall certainly refuse your cup of tea next time I come," said Waymark jestingly.
"That's quite different," said Ida. "But if you like, we can go in the afternoon, and walk about Roehampton; that I can afford."
"As you please. When shall I call for you?"
She opened the door for him, and held out her hand. Their eyes did not meet as they said good-bye. The door closed, and Waymark went so slowly down the stone steps that he seemed at every moment on the point of stopping and turning back.