The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXV. Art and Misery
One Monday afternoon at the end of October--three months had gone by since the trial--Waymark carried his rents to St. John Street Road as usual.
"I'm going to Tottenham," said Mr. Woodstock. "You may as well come with me."
"By the by, I finished my novel the other day," Waymark said, as they drove northward.
"That's right. No doubt you're on your way to glory, as the hymn says."
Abraham was in good spirits. One would have said that he had grown younger of late. That heaviness and tendency to absent brooding which not long ago seemed to indicate the tightening grip of age, was disappearing; he was once more active and loud and full of his old interests.
"How's Casti?" Mr. Woodstock went on to ask.
"A good deal better, I think, but shaky. Of course things will be as bad as ever when his wife comes out of the hospital."
"Pity she can't come out heels first," muttered Abraham.
Waymark found that the purpose of their journey was to inspect a large vacant house, with a good garden and some fine trees about it. The old man wished for his opinion, and, by degrees, let it be known that he thought of buying the property.
"I suppose you think me an old fool to want a house like this at my time of life, eh?"
There was a twinkle in his eye, and a moment after he fairly burst into a laugh of pleasure. Waymark asked no questions, and received no more information; but a thought rose in his mind which occupied him for the rest of the day.
In the evening Julian came. He looked like one who had recovered from a long illness, very pale and thin, and his voice had tremblings and uncertainties of key. In fact, a feverish disorder had been upon him for some weeks, never severe enough to prevent his getting about, but weakening him to a serious degree. It would doubtless have developed into some more pronounced illness, but for the period of comparative rest and quietness which had begun shortly after the miseries of the trial. Harriet's ailments had all at once taken such a decided turn for the worse--her fits becoming incessant, and other disorders traceable to the same source suddenly taking hold upon her--that Julian had obtained her admission to the hospital, where she still remained. He went to see her in the ward two or three times a week, though he dreaded the necessity. From little incidents which occurred at such times, he was convinced that all her fellow-patients, as well as the "sister" and nurses of the wards, had been prejudiced against him by her reports and accusations. To meet their looks occasioned him the most acute suffering. Sometimes he sat by the bedside for half an hour without speaking, then rose and hastened away to hide himself and be alone with his misery.
He was earnest and eager to-night in his praise of Waymark's book, which he had just read in manuscript.
"It is horrible," he exclaimed; "often hideous and revolting to me; but I feel its absolute truth. Such a book will do more good than half a dozen religious societies."
"If only people can be got to read it. Yet I care nothing for that aspect of the thing. Is it artistically strong? Is it good as a picture? There was a time when I might have written in this way with a declared social object. That is all gone by. I have no longer a spark of social enthusiasm. Art is all I now care for, and as art I wish my work to be judged."
"One would have thought," said Julian, "that increased knowledge of these fearful things would have had just the opposite effect."
"Yes," exclaimed the other, with the smile which always prefaced some piece of self-dissection, "and so it would in the case of a man born to be a radical. I often amuse myself with taking to pieces my former self. I was not a conscious hypocrite in those days of violent radicalism, working-man's-club lecturing, and the like; the fault was that I understood myself as yet so imperfectly. That zeal on behalf of the suffering masses was nothing more nor less than disguised zeal on behalf of my own starved passions. I was poor and desperate, life had no pleasures, the future seemed hopeless, yet I was overflowing with vehement desires, every nerve in me was a hunger which cried to be appeased. I identified myself with the poor and ignorant; I did not make their cause my own, but my own cause theirs. I raved for freedom because I was myself in the bondage of unsatisfiable longing."
"Well," he went on, after regarding his listener with still the same smile, "I have come out of all that, in proportion as my artistic self-consciousness has developed. For one thing, I am not so miserable as I was then, personally; then again, I have found my vocation. You know pretty well the phases I have passed through. Upon ranting radicalism followed a period of philosophical study. My philosophy, I have come to see, was worth nothing; what philosophy is worth anything? It had its use for myself, however; it made me by degrees self-conscious, and brought me to see that in art alone I could find full satisfaction."
"Yet," urged Julian, "the old direction still shows itself in your choice of subjects. Granting that this is pure art, it is a kind of art only possible to an age in which the social question is predominant."
"True, very likely. Every strong individuality is more or less the expression of its age. This direction may be imposed upon me; for all that, I understand why I pursue it."
After reflecting, Julian spoke in another tone. "Imagine yourself in my position. Could you appreciate the artistic effect of your own circumstances?"
"Probably not. And it is because I recognise that, that I grow more and more careful to hold aloof from situations that would threaten my peace of mind. My artistic egotism bids fair to ally itself with vulgar selfishness. That tendency I must resist. For the artist ought to be able to make material of his own sufferings, even while the suffering is at its height. To what other end does he suffer? In very deed, he is the only man whose misery finds justification in apparent result."
"I am not an artist," sighed Julian.
"On the contrary, I firmly believe that you are. And it makes me angry to see the impulse dying in you."
"What am I to do?" Julian cried, almost with a voice of anguish. "I am so helpless, so hopelessly fettered! Release is impossible. No words could express the desperate struggles I go through when I recognise how my life is being wasted and my powers, whatever they may be, numbed and crushed. Something I might do, if I were free; I feel that! But there is no hope of freedom. I shall fall into darker and darker depths of weakness and ruin, always conscious of what I am losing. What will be the end?"
"What the end will be, under the present circumstances, is only too clear to me. But it might easily be averted?"
"How? Give me some practical advice, Waymark! Let us talk of the matter freely. Tell me what you would do!"
Waymark thought for a moment.
"Does there seem any chance of her health being permanently improved?" he asked.
"I can't say. She says she is better. It's no use my asking the doctors; they despise me, and would not think of treating me with any consideration."
"Why don't you do this?" began Waymark, after another pause. "Use all means to find some convalescent home where she can be received when she leaves the hospital. Then, if her fits and the rest of it still continue, find some permanent place for her. You can afford it. Never mind if it reduces you for a time to a garret and a crust."
"She would refuse to go to such places," said Julian despondently.
"Then refuse to take her back! Sell your furniture; take one room for yourself; and tell her she must live where she likes on a sufficient allowance from you."
"I dare not. It is impossible. She would never leave me in peace."
"You will have to do this ultimately, if you are to continue to live. Of that there is no doubt. So why not now?"
"I must think; it is impossible to make up my mind to such a thing at once. I know you advise what is best; I have thought of it myself. But I shall never have the courage! I am so miserably weak. If only I could get my health back! Good God, how I suffer!"
Waymark did his best to familiarise Julian with the thought, and to foster in him something of resoluteness, but he had small hope of succeeding. The poor fellow was so incapable of anything which at all resembled selfishness, and so dreaded the results of any such severity on his part as that proposed. There were moments when indignation almost nerved him to independence, but there returned so soon the souse of pity, and, oftener still, the thought of that promise made to Harriet's father, long ago, in the dark little parlour which smelt of drugs. The poor chemist, whose own life was full of misery, had been everything to him; but for Mr. Smales, he might now have been an ignorant, coarse-handed working man, if not worse. Was Harriet past all rescue? Was there not even yet a chance of saving her from herself and those hateful friends of hers?
This was the natural reaction after listening to Waymark's remorseless counsel. Going home, Julian fought once more the battle with himself, till the usual troubled sleep severed his thoughts into fragments of horrible dreams. The next day he felt differently; Waymark's advice seemed more practical. In the afternoon he should have visited Harriet in the ward, but an insuperable repulsion kept him away, and for the first time. It was a bleak, cheerless day; the air was cold with the breath of the nearing winter; At night he found it impossible to sit in his own room, and dreaded to talk with any one. His thoughts were fixed upon one place; a great longing drew him forth, into the darkness and the rain of the streets, onwards in a fixed direction. It brought him to Westminster, and to the gate of Tothill Fields Prison. The fetters upon the great doors were hideous in the light of the lamps above them; the mean houses around the gaol seemed to be rotting in its accursed shadow. A deadly stillness possessed the air; there was blight in the dropping of the rain.
He leaned against the great, gloomy wall, and thought of Ida. At this hour she was most likely asleep, unless sorrow kept her waking. What unimagined horrors did she suffer day after day in that accursed prison-house? How did she bear her torments? Was she well or ill? What brutality might she not be subjected to? He pictured her face wasted with secret tears, those eyes which were the light of his soul fixed on the walls of the cell, hour after hour, in changeless despair, the fire of passionate resentment feeding at her life's core.
The night became calmer. The rained ceased, and a sudden gleam made him look up, to behold the moon breaking her way through billows of darkness.