The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XX. A Suggestion
Waymark and Julian Casti were sitting together in the former's room. It was Saturday evening--two days after Waymark's visit to Ida. Julian had fallen into a sad reverie.
"How is your wife?" asked his friend, after watching the melancholy face for a while.
"She said her headache was worse to-night."
"Curiously," observed Waymark, with a little acidity, "it always is when you have to leave home."
Julian looked up, and seemed to reach a crisis in his thoughts.
"Waymark," he began, reddening as he still always did when greatly moved, "I fear I have been behaving very foolishly. Many a time I have wished to speak out to you plainly, but a sort of delicacy--a wrong kind of delicacy, I think--prevented me. I can't keep this attitude any longer. I must tell you how things are going on, and you must give me what help you can. And perhaps I shall be telling you what you already know?"
"I have suspected."
"Where is the blame?" Julian broke out, with sudden vehemence. "I cannot think that ever husband was more patient and more indulgent than I have been. I have refused her nothing that my means could possibly obtain. I have given up all the old quiet habits of my life that she mightn't think I slighted her; I scarcely ever open a book at home, knowing that it irritates her to see me reading; I do my best to amuse her at all times. How does she reward me? For ever she grumbles that I can't perform impossibilities,--take her to theatres, buy her new dresses, procure for her friends and acquaintances. My wishes, expressed or understood, weigh with her less than the least of her own caprices. She wantonly does things which she knows will cause me endless misery. Her companions are gross and depraved people, who constantly drag her lower and lower, to their own level. The landlady has told me that, in my absence, women have called to see her who certainly ought not to enter any decent house. When I entreat her to give up such associates, her only answer is to accuse me of selfishness, since I have friends myself, and yet won't permit her to have any. And things have gone from bad to worse. Several nights of late, when I have got home, she has been away, and has not returned till much after midnight. Hour after hour I have sat there in the extremest misery, waiting, waiting, feeling as though my brain would burst with its strain! I have no idea where she goes to. If I ask, she only retorts by asking me where I spend the nights when I am with you, and laughs contemptuously when I tell her the truth. Her suspicions and jealousy are incessant, and torture me past endurance. Once or twice, I confess, I have lost patience, and have spoken angrily, too angrily; then she has accused me of brutal disregard of her sufferings. It would hurt me less if she pierced me with a knife. Only this morning there was a terrible scene; she maddened me past endurance by her wretched calumnies--accusing me of I know not what disgraceful secrets--and when words burst from me involuntarily, she fell into hysterics, and shrieked till all the people in the house ran up in alarm. Can you understand what this means to one of my temperament? To have my private affairs forced upon strangers in this way tortures me with the pains of hell. I am naturally reticent and retiring--too much so, I dare say--and no misery could have been devised for me more dreadful than this. Her accusations are atrocious, such as could only come from a grossly impure mind, or at the suggestion of vile creatures. You she hates with a rabid hatred--God only knows why. She would hate any one who was my friend, and whose society relieved me for a moment from my ghastly torments!"
He ceased for very exhaustion, so terribly did the things he described work upon him.
"What am I to do, Waymark? Can you give me advice?"
Waymark had listened with his eyes cast down, and he was silent for some time after Julian ceased.
"You couldn't well ask for advice in a more difficult case," he said at length. "There's nothing for it but to strengthen yourself and endure. Force yourself into work. Try to forget her when she is out of sight."
"But," broke in Julian, "this amounts to a sentence of death! What of the life before me, of the years I shall have to spend with her? Work, forget myself, forget her,--that is just what I cannot do! My nerves are getting weaker every day; I am beginning to have fits of trembling and horrible palpitation; my dreams are hideous with vague apprehensions, only to be realised when I wake. Work! Half my misery is caused by the thought that my work is at an end for ever. It is all forsaking me, the delight of imagining great things, what power I had of putting my fancies into words, the music that used to go with me through the day's work. It is long since I wrote a line of verse. Quietness, peace, a calm life of thought, these things are what I must have; I thought I should have them in a higher degree than ever, and I find they are irretrievably lost. I feel my own weakness, as I never could before. When you bid me strengthen myself, you tell me to alter my character. The resolution needed to preserve the better part of my nature through such a life as this, will never be within my reach. It is fearful to think of what I shall become as time goes on. I dread myself! There have been revealed to me depths of passion and misery in my own heart which I had not suspected. I shall lose all self-control, and become as selfish and heedless as she is."
"No, you will not," said Waymark encouragingly. "This crisis will pass over, and strength will be developed. We have a wonderful faculty for accommodating ourselves to wretchedness; how else would the world have held together so long? When you begin to find your voice again, maybe you won't sing of the dead world any longer, but of the living and suffering. Your thoughts were fine; they showed you to be a poet; but I have never hidden from you how I wished that you had been on my side. Art, nowadays, must be the mouthpiece of misery, for misery is the key-note of modern life."
They talked on, and Julian, so easily moulded by a strong will, became half courageous.
"One of her reproaches," he said, "is just; I can't meet it. If I object to her present companions it is my duty to find her more suitable ones. She lives too much alone. No doubt it is every husband's duty to provide his wife with society. But how am I to find it? I am so isolated, and always have been. I know not a soul who could be a friend to her."
Waymark grew thoughtful, and kept silent.
"One person I know," he said presently, and in a cautious way, "who might perhaps help you."
"You do?" cried Julian eagerly.
"You know that I make all sorts of queer acquaintances in my wanderings. Well, I happen to know a girl of about your wife's age, who, if she were willing, would be just the person you want. She is quite alone, parentless, and almost without friends. She lives by herself, and supports herself by working in a laundry. For all this, she is by no means the ordinary London work-girl; you can't call her educated, but she speaks purely, and has a remarkably good intelligence. I met her by chance, and kept up her acquaintance. There has been nothing wrong--bah! how conventional one is, in spite of oneself!--I mean to say there has been nothing more than a pleasant friendship between us; absolutely nothing. We see each other from time to time, and have a walk, perhaps a meal, together, and I lend her books. Now, do you think there would be any way of getting your wife to accept her society, say of an evening now and then? Don't do anything rash; it is of course clear that you must have no hand in this. I must manage it if it is to be done. Naturally, I can't answer at once for the girl's readiness; but I believe she would do what I asked her to. Do you think it is worth entertaining, this idea?"
"I do, indeed; it would be salvation, I really believe."
"Don't be too sanguine, Casti; that's another of your faults. Still, I know very well that this girl could cure your wife of her ill propensities if any living creature could. She is strong in character, admirably clear-headed, mild, gentle, womanly; in fact, there is perhaps no one I respect so much, on the whole."
"Respect, only?" asked Julian, smiling.
"Ye-es; yes, I believe I am perfectly honest in saying so, though I couldn't have been so sure about it some little time ago. Our relations, no doubt, are peculiar; on her side there is no more warmth than on mine"--Waymark tried so to believe--"and indeed her clear sight has no doubt gauged me fairly well at my true value."
"What is her name?"
"What!" cried Julian startled. "That is a strange thing! You have noticed the scar on Harriet's forehead?"
"Why, it was a wound given her at school by a girl of that very name! I remember the name as well as possible. It was a blow with a slate dealt in passion--some quarrel or other. They were both children then, and Ida Starr left the school in consequence."
"Is it possible that it is the same person?" asked Waymark, wondering and reflecting.
"If so, that puts a new difficulty in our way."
"Removes one, I should have thought"
"Harriet is not of a very forgiving nature," said Julian gravely.
"I shouldn't have supposed she was; but a long time has gone by since then, and, after all, one is generally glad to see an old school-fellow."
At this point the conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door, followed by the announcement that a gentleman named O'Gree wished to see Mr. Waymark. Waymark smiled at Julian.
"Don't run away," he said. "You ought to know O'Gree in the flesh."
The teacher came into the room with a rush, and was much taken aback at the sight of a stranger present. Perspiration was streaming profusely from his face, which was aglow with some great intelligence. After being introduced to Casti, he plunged down on a chair, and mopped himself with his handkerchief, uttering incoherencies about the state of the weather. Waymark made an effort to bring about a general conversation, but failed; O'Gree was so preoccupied that any remark addressed to him had to be repeated before he understood it, and Julian was in no mood for making new acquaintances. So, in a few minutes, the latter took his hat and left, Waymark going with him to the door to speak a few words of encouragement.
"The battle's won!" cried O'Gree, with much gesticulation, as soon as Waymark returned. "The campaign's at an end!--I'm sorry if I've driven your friend away, but I was bound to tell you."
"All right. Let me have a description of the manoeuvres."
"Look here, my boy," said O'Gree, with sudden solemnity, "you've never been very willing to talk to me about her. Now, before I tell you anything, I want to know this. Why wouldn't you tell me how you first got to know her, and so on?"
"Before I answer, I want to know this: have you found out why I wouldn't?"
"Yes, I have--that is, I suppose I have--and from her own lips, too! You knew her when she lived near the Strand there, eh?"
"Well now, understand, my boy. I don't want to hear anything disagreeable; in fact, I won't listen to anything disagreeable;-- all I want to know is, whether I may safely tell you what she has told me. If you don't know it already, there's no need to talk of it."
"I understand, and I don't think you can tell me anything I'm not well aware of."
"Sure, then, I will tell you, and if there's another girl as brave and honest as Sally in all this worruld, I'll be obliged if you'll make me acquainted with her! Well, you know she has a Saturday afternoon off every month. It hasn't been a very cheerful day, but it couldn't be missed; and, as it was too rainy to walk about, I couldn't think of any better place to go to than the British Museum. Of course I wanted to find a quiet corner, but there were people about everywhere, and the best we could manage was in the mummy-room. We looked at all the mummies, and I told her all I knew about them, and I kept thinking to myself: Now, how can I work round to it? I've tried so often, you know, and she's always escaped me, somehow, and I couldn't help thinking it was because I hadn't gone about it in the proper way. Well, we'd been staring at a mummy for about a quarter of an hour, and neither of us said anything, when all at once a rare idea came into my head. 'Sally,' I said, glancing round to see that there was no one by, 'that mummy was very likely a pretty girl like you, once.' 'Do you think so?' she said, with that look of hers which makes me feel like a galvanic battery. 'I do,' I said, 'and what's more, there may once have been another mummy, a man-mummy, standing by her just as I am standing by you, and wanting very much to ask her something, and shaking in his shoes for fear he shouldn't get the right answer.' 'Did the mummies wear shoes when they were alive?' she asked, all at once. 'Wear shoes!' I cried out. 'I can't tell you, Sally; but one thing I feel very sure of, and that is that they had hearts. Now, suppose,' I said, 'we're those two mummies--' 'I'm sure it's bad luck!' interrupted Sally. 'Oh no, it isn't,' said I, seeing something in her face which made me think it was the opposite. 'Let me go on. Now, suppose the one mummy said to the other, "Sally--"' 'Were the girl-mummies called Sally?' she interrupted again. 'Sure I can't say,' said I, 'but we'll suppose so. Well, suppose he said, "Sally if I can hit on some means of making a comfortable home here by the Nile,--that's to say, the Thames, you know,--will you come and keep it in order for me, and live with me for all the rest of our lives?' Now what do you think the girl-mummy would have answered:'"
Waymark laughed, but O'Gree had become solemn.
"She didn't answer at once, and there was something very queer in her face. All at once she said, 'What has Mr. Waymark told you about me?' 'Why, just nothing at all,' I said, rather puzzled. 'And do you know,' she asked then, without looking at me, 'what sort of a girl I am?' Well, all at once there came something into my head that I'd never thought of before, and I was staggered for a moment; I couldn't say anything. But I got over it. 'I don't want to know anything,' I said. 'All I know is, that I like you better than I ever shall any one else, and I want you to promise to be my wife, some day.' 'Then you must let me tell you all my story first,' she said. 'I won't answer till you know everything.' And so she told me what it seems you know. Well, if I thought much of her before, I thought a thousand times as much after that! And do you know what? I believe it was on my account that she want and took that place in the shop."
"Precisely," said Waymark.
"You think so?" cried the other, delighted.
"I guessed as much when she met me that day and said I might let you know where she was."
"Ha!" exclaimed O'Gree, with a long breath.
"And so the matter is settled?"
"All but the most important part of it. There's no chance of my being able to marry for long enough to come. Now, can you give me any advice? I've quite made up my mind to leave Tootle. The position isn't worthy of a gentleman; I'm losing my self-respect. The she-Tootle gets worse and worse. If I don't electrify her, one of these days, with an outburst of ferocious indignation, she will only have my patience to thank. Let her beware how she drives the lion to bay!"
"Couldn't you get a non-resident mastership?"
"I must try, but the pay is so devilish small."
"We must talk the matter over."