The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXI. Diplomacy
Waymark had a good deal of frank talk with himself before meeting Ida again on the Sunday. Such conversation was, as we know, habitual. Under the circumstances, however, he felt that it behoved him to become especially clear on one or two points; never mind what course he might ultimately pursue, it was always needful to him to dissect his own motives, that he might at least be acting with full consciousness.
One thing was clear enough. The fiction of a mere friendship between himself and Ida was impossible to support. It had been impossible under the very different circumstances of a year ago, and was not likely to last a week, now that Ida could so little conceal how her own feelings had changed. What, then, was to be their future? Could he accept her love, and join their lives without legal bond, thinking only of present happiness, and content to let things arrange themselves as they would in the years to come?
His heart strongly opposed such a step. Clearly Ida had changed her life for his sake, and was undergoing hardships in the hope of winning his respect as well as his love. Would she have done all this without something of a hope that she might regain her place in the every-day world, and be held by Waymark worthy to become his wife? He could not certainly know, but there was little doubt that this hope had led her on. Could he believe her capable of yet nobler ideas; could he think that only in reverence of the sanctity of love, and without regard to other things, she had acted in this way; then, regarding her as indeed his equal, he would open his heart to her and speak somewhat in this way. "Yes, I do love you; but at the same time I know too well the uncertainty of love to go through the pretence of binding myself to you for ever. Will you accept my love in its present sincerity, neither hoping nor fearing, knowing that whatever happens is beyond our own control, feeling with me that only an ignoble nature can descend to the affectation of union when the real links are broken?" Could Waymark but have felt sure of her answer to such an appeal, it would have gone far to make his love for Ida all-engrossing. She would then be his ideal woman, and his devotion to her would have no bounds.
But he felt too strongly that in thus speaking he would sadden her by the destruction of her great hope. On the other hand, to offer to make her his legal wife would be to do her a yet greater injustice, even had he been willing to so sacrifice himself. The necessity for legal marriage would be a confession of her inferiority, and the sense of being thus bound would, he well knew, be the surest means of weakening his affection. This affection he could not trust. How far was it mere passion of the senses, which gratification would speedily kill?
In the case of his feeling towards Maud Enderby there was no such doubt. Never was his blood so calm as in her presence. She was to him a spirit, and in the spirit he loved her. With Maud he might look forward to union at some distant day, a union outwardly of the conventional kind. It would be so, not on account of any inferiority to his ideal in Maud, for he felt that there was no height of his own thought whither she would not in time follow him; but simply because no point of principle would demand a refusal of the yoke of respectability, with its attendant social advantages. And the thought of thus binding himself to Maud had nothing repulsive, for the links between them were not of the kind which easily yield, and loyalty to a higher and nobler nature may well be deemed a duty.
So far logical arguing. But the fact remained that he had not the least intention of breaking off his intercourse with Ida, despite the certainty that passion would grow upon him with each of their meetings, rendering their mutual relations more and more dangerous. Of only one thing could he be sure: marriage was not to be thought of. It remained, then, that he was in danger of being led into conduct which would be the source of grievous unrest to himself, and for Ida would lay the foundation of much suffering. Waymark was honest enough in his self-communing to admit that he could not trust himself. Gross deception he was incapable of, but he would not answer for it that, the temptation pressing him too hard, he might not be guilty of allowing Ida to think his love of more worth than it really was. She knew his contempt of conventional ties, and her faith in him would keep her from pressing him to any step he disliked; she would trust him without that. And such trust would be unmerited.
It was significant that he did not take into account loyalty to Maud as a help in resisting this temptation. He was too sure of himself as regarded that purer love; let what might happen, his loyalty to Maud would be unshaken. It was independent of passion, and passion could not shake it.
Then came the subject of the proposed acquaintance between Ida and Mrs. Casti. An impulse of friendship had led to his conceiving the idea; together, perhaps, with the recollection of what Ida had said about her loneliness, and the questions she had asked about Mrs. Casti. Waymark had little doubt that those questions indicated a desire to become acquainted with his friends; the desire was natural, under the circumstances. Still, he regretted what he had done. To introduce Ida to his friends would be almost equivalent to avowing some conventional relations between her and himself. And, in the next place, it would be an obstacle in the way of those relations becoming anything but conventional. Well, and was not this exactly the kind of aid he needed in pursuing the course which he felt to be right? Truly; yet--
At this point Waymark broke into that half contemptuous, half indulgent laugh which so frequently interrupted his self-communings, and, it being nearly one o'clock, set out to call for Ida. The day was fine, and, when they left the steamer at Putney, they walked on to the heath in good spirits and with cheerful talk. To be with Ida under these circumstances, in the sunlight and the fresh breeze, was very different from sitting with her yonder in the little room, with the lamp burning on the table, and the quietness of night around. The calm pleasure of passionless intercourse was realised and sufficing. Ida, too, seemed content to enjoy the moment; there was not that wistfulness in her eyes which had been so new to him and so strong in its influence. It was easy to find indifferent subjects of conversation, and to avoid the seriousness which would have been fatal.
When they had found a pleasant spot to rest awhile before turning back, Waymark made up his mind to fulfil his promise to Julian.
"It's rather strange," he said, "that you should have been asking me questions about Mrs. Casti. Since then I've discovered that you probably know her, or once did."
Ida looked surprised.
"Do you remember once having a schoolfellow called Harriet Smales?"
"Is that her name?"
"It was, before her marriage."
Ida became grave, and thought for some moments before speaking again.
"Yes, I remember her," she said, "and not pleasantly."
"You wouldn't care to renew her acquaintance then?" said Waymark, half glad, in spite of himself, that she spoke in this way.
Ida asked, with earnestness, how he had made this discovery. Waymark hesitated, but at length told the truth. He explained that Mrs. Casti suffered from the want of companionship, and that he had mentioned Ida's name to Julian; whence the discovery.
"Has she been told about me?" asked Ida.
"Nothing was to be said till I had spoken to you."
Waymark paused, but presently continued in a more serious tone. In recurring to that conversation with Julian, his friend's trouble spoke strongly to him once more, and overcame selfish thoughts.
"I said that I had come to know you by chance, and that--strange as it might sound--we were simply friends." He glanced for an instant at Ida; her eyes were turned to the ground. "You will believe me," he went on quickly, "when I tell you that I really said nothing more?"
"I never doubt a word of yours," was Ida's quiet reply.
"Casti was overjoyed at the thought of finding such a friend for his wife. Of course I told him that he must not certainly count either on your consent or on his wife's. Hers I thought to be perhaps more doubtful than yours."
"Could I really be of any use to her," asked Ida, after a silence, "with so little free time as I have?"
"Supposing she would welcome you, I really believe you could be of great use. She is a strange creature, miserably weak in body and mind. If you could get to regard this as a sort of good work you were called upon to undertake, you would very likely be little less than an angel of mercy to both of them. Casti is falling into grievous unhappiness--why, you will understand sufficiently if you come to know them."
"Do you think she bears malice against me?"
"Of that I know nothing. Casti said she had never spoken of you in that way. By-the-by, she still has a scar on her forehead, I often wondered how it came there."
"What a little termagant you must have been!" exclaimed Waymark, laughing. "How hard it is to fancy you at that age, Ida.--What was the quarrel all about?"
"I can't speak of it," she replied, in a low, sad voice. "It is so long ago; and I want to forget it."
Waymark kept silence.
"Do you wish me to be her friend?" Ida asked, suddenly looking up.
"Certainly not if you dislike the thought."
"No, no. But you think it would be doing good? you would like me to help your friend if I can?"
"Yes, I should," was Waymark's reply.
"Then I hope she will be willing to let me go and see her. I will do my very best. Let us lose no time in trying. It is such a strange thing that we should meet again in this way; perhaps it is something more than chance."
"You think I am superstitious?" she asked quickly. "I often feel so. I have all sorts of hopes and faiths that you would laugh at."
Ida's thoughts were busy that night with the past and the future. The first mention of Harriet's name had given her a shock; it brought back with vividness the saddest moments of her life; it awoke a bitter resentment which mere memory had no longer kept the power to revive. That was only for a moment, however. The more she accustomed herself to the thought, the easier it seemed to be to bury the past in forgiveness. Harriet must have changed so much since those days. Possibly there would never be a mention between them of the old trouble; practically they would be new acquaintances, and would be very little helped to an understanding of each other by the recollections of childhood. And then Ida felt there was so much to be glad of in the new prospects. She longed for a world more substantial than that of her own imaginations, and here, as she thought, it would be opened to her. Above all, by introducing her to his friends, Waymark had strengthened the relations between her and himself. He was giving her, too, a chance of showing herself to him in a new light. For the first time he would see her under the ordinary conditions of a woman's life in a home circle Ida had passed from one extreme to the other. At present there was nothing she desired so much as the simple, conventional, every-day existence of the woman who has never swerved from the beaten track. She never saw a family group anywhere without envying the happiness which to her seemed involved in the mere fact of a home and relations. Her isolation weighed heavily upon her. If there were but some one who could claim her services, as of right, and in return render her the simple hum-drum affection which goes for so much in easing the burden of life. She was weary of her solitary heroism, though she never regarded it as heroism, but merely as the path in which she was naturally led by her feelings. Waymark could not but still think of her very much in the old light, and she wished to prove to him how completely she was changed. The simple act of making tea for him when he came to see her had been a pleasure; it was domestic and womanly, and she had often glanced at his face to see whether he noticed it at all. Then the fact of Harriet's being an invalid would give her many opportunities for showing that she could be gentle and patient and serviceable. Casti would observe these things, and doubtless would speak of them to Waymark. Thinking in this way, Ida became all eagerness for the new friendship. There was of course the possibility that Harriet would refuse to accept her offered kindness, but it seemed very unlikely, and the disappointment would be so great that she could not bear to dwell on the thought. Waymark had promised to come as soon as he had any news. The time would go very slowly till she saw him.
Waymark had met Harriet very seldom of late. Julian spent regularly one evening a week with him, but it was only occasionally that Waymark paid a visit in turn. He knew that he was anything but welcome to Mrs. Casti, who of course had neither interest nor understanding for the conversation between himself and Julian. Formerly he had now and then tried his best to find some common subject for talk with her, but the effort had been vain; she was hopelessly stupid, and more often than not in a surly mood, which made her mere presence difficult to be endured. Of late, whenever he came, she made her illness an excuse for remaining in her bed-room. And hence arose another trouble. The two rooms were only divided by folding doors, and when Harriet got impatient with what she conceived to be the visitor's undue stay, she would rap on the doors, to summon Julian to her. This rapping would take place sometimes six or seven times in half an hour, till Waymark hastened away in annoyance. And indeed there was little possibility of conversing in Julian's own room. Julian sat for ever in a state of nervous apprehension, dreading the summons which was sure to come before long. When he left the room for a moment, in obedience to it, Waymark could hear Harriet's voice speaking in a peevish or ill-tempered tone, and Julian would return pale with agitation, unable to utter consecutive words. It was a little better when the meeting was at Waymark's, but even then Julian was anything but at his ease. He would often sit for a long time in gloomy silence, and seldom could even affect his old cheerfulness. The change which a year had made in him was painful. His face was growing haggard with ceaseless anxiety. The slightest unexpected noise made him start nervously. His old enthusiasms were dying away. His daily work was a burden which grew more and more oppressive. He always seemed weary, alike in body and mind.
Harriet's ailments were not of that unreal kind which hysterical women often affect, for the mere sake of demanding sympathy, though it was certain she made the most of them. The scrofulous taint in her constitution was declaring itself in many ways. The most serious symptoms took the form of convulsive fits. On Julian's return home one evening, he had found her stretched upon the floor, unconscious, foaming at the mouth, and struggling horribly. Since then, he had come back every night in agonies of miserable anticipation. Her illness, and his own miseries, were of course much intensified by her self-willed habits. When she remained away from home till after midnight, Julian was always in fear lest some accident had happened to her, and once or twice of late she had declared (whether truly or not it was impossible to say) that she had had fits in the open street. Weather made no difference to her; she would leave home on the pretence of making necessary purchases, and would come back drenched with rain. Protest availed nothing, save to irritate her. At times her conduct was so utterly unreasonable that Julian looked at her as if to see whether she had lost her senses. And all this he bore with a patience which few could have rivalled. Moments there were when she softened, and, in a burst of hysterical weeping, begged him to forgive her for some unusual violence, pleading her illness as the cause; and so sensible was he to compassion, that he always vowed in his mind to bear anything rather than deal harshly with her. Love for her, in the true sense, he had never felt, but his pity often led him to effusions of tenderness which love could scarcely have exceeded. He was giving up everything for her. Through whole evenings he would sit by her, as she lay in pain, holding her hands, and talking in a way which he thought would amuse or interest her.
"You're sorry you married me," she would often say at such times. "It's no good saying no; I'm sure you are."
That always made Julian think of her father, and of his own promise always to be a friend to the poor, weak, ailing creature; and he strengthened himself in his resolution to bear everything.
Waymark decided that he would venture on the step of going to see Harriet during the daytime, whilst Julian was away, in order to speak of Ida. This he did on the Monday, and was lucky enough to find her at home. She was evidently surprised at his visit, and perhaps still more so at the kind and friendly way in which he began to speak to her. In a few minutes he had worked round to his subject. He had, he said, a friend, a young lady who was very lonely, and for whom he wanted to find an agreeable companion. It had occurred to him that perhaps he might ask to be allowed to introduce her. Waymark had concluded that this would probably be the best way of putting it; Harriet would perhaps be flattered by being asked to confer the favour of her acquaintance. And indeed she seemed so; there was even something like a momentary touch of colour in her pale cheek.
"Does Julian know her?" she asked, fixing her eyes on his with the closest scrutiny.
"No, he does not."
He would leave her to what conclusion she liked about his relations to Ida; in reality that mattered little.
"She is some one," he went on, "for whom I have a great regard. As I say, she has really no friends, and she earns her own living. I feel sure you would find her company pleasant; she is sensible and cheerful, and would be very grateful for any kindness you showed her. Her name, by-the-by, is Ida Starr."
"Is the name familiar to you?"
"I used to know some one called that."
"Indeed? How strange it would be if you knew her already. I have spoken to her of you, but she didn't tell me she knew your name."
"Oh no, she wouldn't. It was years and years ago. We used to go to school together--if it's the same."
The way in which this was spoken was not very promising, but Waymark would not be discouraged, having once brought himself to the point of carrying the scheme through. Harriet went on to ask many questions, all of which he answered as satisfactorily as he could, and in the end she expressed herself quite willing to renew Ida's acquaintance. Waymark had watched her face as closely as she did his, and he was able to read pretty accurately what was passing in her mind. Curiosity, it was clear, was her main incentive. Good will there was none; its growth, if at all possible, would depend upon Ida herself. There was even something very like a gleam of hate in her dark eyes when Ida's name was first spoken.
"When may I bring her!" Waymark asked. "Perhaps you would like to talk it over with Julian first? By-the-by, perhaps he remembers her as your schoolfellow?"
"I don't know, I'm sure," she said, with a pretence of indifference. "I don't see what he can have to say against it. Bring her as soon as you like."
"She is not free till seven at night. Perhaps we had better leave it till next Sunday?"
"Why? Why couldn't she come to-morrow night?"
"It is very good of you. I have no doubt she would be glad."
With this understanding Waymark took his departure.
"Do you remember Ida Starr?" was Harriet's first question to her husband when he returned that evening.
"Certainly I do," replied Julian, with complete self-control. "Why?"
"When did you see her last?" followed quickly, whilst she examined him as keenly as she had done Waymark.
"See her?" repeated Julian, laughing. "Do you mean the girl you went to school with?"
"Of course I do."
"I don't know that I ever saw her in my life."
"Well, she's coming here to-morrow night."
An explanation followed.
"Hasn't he ever spoken to you about her?" Harriet asked.
"No," said Julian, smiling. "I suppose he thought it was a private affair, in which no one else had any interest."
"I hope you will like her," he said presently. "It will be very nice to have a friend of that kind, won't it?"
"Yes,--if she doesn't throw one of my own plates at me."