The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXVIII. Slimy's Day
Waymark had written to Ida just after her imprisonment began, a few words of such comfort as he could send. No answer came; perhaps the prison rules prevented it. When the term was drawing to a close, he wrote again, to let her know that he would meet her on the morning of her release.
It would be on a Tuesday morning. As the time drew near, Waymark did his best to think of the matter quietly. The girl had no one else to help her; it would have been brutality to withdraw and leave her to her fate, merely because he just a little feared the effect upon himself of such a meeting. And the feeling on her side? Well, that he could not pretend to be ignorant of, and, in spite of everything, there was still the same half-acknowledged pleasure in the thought. He tried to persuade himself that he should have the moral courage to let her as soon as possible understand his new position; he also tried to believe that this would not involve any serious shock to Ida. For all that, he knew only too well that man is "ein erbarmlicher Schuft," and there was always the possibility that he might say nothing of what had happened, and let things take their course.
On the Monday he was already looking forward to the meeting with restlessness. Could he have foreseen that anything would occur to prevent his keeping his promise, it would have caused him extreme anxiety. But such a possibility never entered his thoughts, and, shortly before mid-day, he went down to collect his rents as usual.
The effect of a hard winter was seen in the decrease of the collector's weekly receipts. The misery of cold and starvation was growing familiar to Waymark's eyes, and scarcely excited the same feelings as formerly; yet there were some cases in which he had not the heart to press for the payment of rent, and his representations to Mr. Woodstock on behalf of the poor creatures were more frequently successful than in former times. Still, in the absence of then but eviction, and Waymark more than once knew what ideal philanthropy, there was nothing for it every now and it was to be cursed to his face by suffering wretches whom despair made incapable of discrimination. "Where are we to go?" was the oft-repeated question, and the only reply was a shrug of the shoulders; impossible to express oneself otherwise. They clung desperately to habitations so vile that brutes would have forsaken them for cleaner and warmer retreats in archway and by roadside. One family of seven, a man and wife (both ill) with five children, could not be got out, even when a man had been sent by Mr. Woodstock to remove the window-frames and take the door away, furniture having already been seized; only by force at length were they thrown into the street, to find their way to perdition as best they might. Waymark did not relish all this; it cost him a dark hour now and then. But it was rich material; every item was stored up for future use.
Among others, the man named Slimy just managed to hold his footing. Times were hard with Slimy, that was clear; still, he somehow contrived to keep no more than a fortnight behind with his rent. Waymark was studying this creature, and found in him the strangest matter for observation; in Slimy there were depths beyond Caliban, and, at the same time, curious points of contact with average humanity, unexpectedly occurring. He was not ungrateful for the collector's frequent forbearance, and, when able to speak coherently, tried at times to show this. Waymark had got into the habit of sitting with him in his room for a little time, whenever he found him at home. Of late, Slimy had seemed not quite in his usual health; this exhibited itself much as it would in some repulsive animal, which suffers in captivity, and tries to find a remote corner when pains come on. At times Waymark experienced a certain fear in the man's presence; if ever he met the dull glare of that one bleared blood-shot eye, a chill ran through him for a moment, and he drew back a little. Personal uncleanliness made Slimy's proximity at all times unpleasant; and occasionally his gaunt, grimed face grew to an expression suggestive of disagreeable possibilities.
On the present day, Waymark was told by a woman who lived on the ground-floor that Slimy had gone out, but had left word with her, in case the collector called, that he should be back in less than half-an-hour. Doubtless this meant that the rent was not forthcoming. The people who lived on the first floor were out as usual, but had left their rent. Of the two rooms at the top, one was just now vacant. Waymark went on to the two or three houses that remained. On turning back, he met Slimy at the door; the man nodded in his wonted way, grinning like a grisly phantom, and beckoned Waymark to follow him upstairs. The woman below had closed her door again, and in all probability no one observed the two entering together.
Waymark sat down amid the collection of nondescript articles which always filled the room, and waited for the tenant to produce his rent. Slimy seemed to have other things in mind. After closing the door, he too had taken a seat, upon a heap of filthy sacking, and was running his fingers through the shock of black hair which made his beard. Waymark examined him. There was no sign of intoxication, but something was evidently working in the man's mind, and his breath came quickly, with a kind of asthmatic pant, from between his thin lips, still parted in the uncanny grin.
"Mr. Waymark," he began at length.
"I ain't got no rent."
"That's bad. You're two weeks behind, you know."
The single eye fixed itself on Waymark's face in a way which made the latter feel uncomfortable.
"I ain't a-gem' to pay you no more rent, nor yet no one else, maybe."
"'Cos I ain't, and 'cos I'm tired o' payin' rent."
"I'm afraid you'll find it difficult to get on without, though," said Waymark, trying to get into the jocular tone he sometimes adopted with Slimy, but scarcely succeeding.
There was clearly something wrong. Waymark rose to his feet. Slimy rose also, and at the same time took up a heavy piece of wood, looking like a piece of a cart-shaft, which had lain on the floor beside him. His exclamation elicited no answer, and he spoke again, hoarsely as always, but with a calmness which contrasted strangely with the words he uttered.
"Do you believe in the devil and hell?"
"Why?" returned Waymark, trying hard to command himself, and to face down the man as a wild beast has been known to be out-gazed.
"'Cos, by the devil himself, as 'll have me before many weeks is over, and by the fires of hell, as 'll burn me, if you stir a step, or speak a word above your breath, I'll bring you down just like they do the bullocks. Y' understand!"
Waymark saw that the threat was no idle one. He could scarcely have spoken, had he wished. Slimy grinned at the effect he had produced, and continued in the same matter-of-fact way.
"It takes you back a bit, don't it! Never mind; you'll get over it. I don't mean you no 'arm, Mr. Waymark, but I'll have to put you to a little ill-convenience, that's all. See now; here's a bit o' stout rope. With this 'ere, I'm a-goin' jist to tie you up, 'and an' foot, you see. As I said before, if you give me any trouble, well, I'll 'ave to knock the senses out o' you fust, that's all."
Vain to think of grappling with the man, whose strength Waymark knew to be extraordinary. For a moment, the shock of alarm had deprived him of thought and power of movement; but this passed, and he was able to consider his position. He looked keenly into Slimy's face. Had the man gone mad! His manner was scarcely consistent with that supposition. As the alternative before him was of such a kind, Waymark could but choose the lesser evil. He allowed Slimy to remove from his shoulders the satchel which contained the sums of money he had just collected. It was quietly put aside.
"Now," said Slimy, with the same deliberation, "I have to arst you just to lay down on the floor, just 'ere, see. It's better to lay down quiet than to be knocked down, you see."
Waymark mentally agreed that it was. His behaviour might seem cowardly, but--to say nothing of the loathsomeness of a wrestle with Slimy--he knew very well that any struggle, or a shout for help, would mean his death. He hesitated, felt ashamed, but looked at Slimy's red eye, and lay down. In taking the position indicated, he noticed that three very large iron hooks had been driven firmly into the floor, in a triangular shape. Just beside the lower one of these his feet had to rest; his head lay between the other two. Slimy now proceeded to bind his captive's feet together with strong cord, and then attach them firmly to the hook; then bidding him sit up for a moment, he made his hands fast behind his back; lastly, Waymark being again recumbent, a rope was passed once round his neck, and each end of it firmly fastened to one of the remaining hooks. This was not a pleasant moment, but, the operation completed, Waymark found that, though he could not move his head an inch, there was no danger of strangulation as long as he remained quiet. In short, he was bound as effectually as a man could be, yet without much pain. The only question was, how long he would have to remain thus.
Slimy examined his work, and nodded with satisfaction. Then he took up the satchel again, opened it, and for a few moments kept diving his long black fingers into the coins, whilst his face was transformed to an expression of grim joy. Presently, having satisfied himself with the feel of the money, he transferred it all to a pocket inside his ragged coat.
"Now, Mr. Waymark," he recommenced, seating himself on the chair Waymark had previously occupied, "I ain't quite done with ill-conveniencin' you. I'm sorry to say I'll 'ave jist to put a bit of a gag on, to prevent you from 'ollerin' out too soon; but before I do that, I've jist got a word or two to say. Let's spend our last time together in a friendly way."
In spite of his alarm, Waymark observed with astonishment the change which had come over the man's mode of speech. In all their previous intercourse, Slimy had shown himself barely articulate; for the most part it was difficult to collect meaning from his grunts and snarls. His voice was still dreadfully husky, and indeed seemed unused to the task of uttering so many words, but for all that he spoke without hesitation, and with a reserve of force which made his utterances all the more impressive. Having bespoken his hearer's attention in this deliberate way, he became silent, and for a while sat brooding, his fingers still busy among the coins in his pocket.
"I don't rightly know how old I may be," he began at length, "but it's most like about fifty; we'll say fifty. For fifty years I've lived in this world, and in all that time I can't remember not one single 'appy day, not one. I never knowed neither father nor mother; I never knowed not a soul as belonged to me. Friends I 'ave had; four of 'em; and their names was Brandy, Whisky, Rum, an' Gin. But they've cost me a good deal, an' somehow they ain't quite what they used to be. They used to make me merry for a while, now and then; but they've taken now to burnin' up my inside, an' filling my 'ead with devils; an' I'm gettin' afeard of 'em, an' they'll 'ave to see me through to the end.
"Fifty year," he resumed, after another interval of brooding, "an' not one 'appy day. I was a-thinkin' of it over to myself, and, says I, 'What's the reason on it?' The reason is, 'cos I ain't never 'ad money. Money means 'appiness, an' them as never 'as money, 'll never be 'appy, live as long as they may. Well, I went on a-sayin' to myself, 'Ain't I to 'ave not one 'appy day in all my life?' An' it come to me all at once, with a flash like, that money was to be 'ad for the trouble o' takin' it--money an' 'appiness."
The bleared eye rolled with a sort of self-congratulation, and the coins jingled more loudly.
"A pound ain't no use; nor yet two pound; nor yet five pound. An' five pound's what I never 'ad in fifty year. There's a good deal more than five pound 'ere now, Mr. Waymark; I've reckoned it up in my 'cad. What d' you think I'm a-goin' for to do with it?"
He asked this question after a pause, with his head bent forward, his countenance screwed into the most hideous expression of cunning and gratified desire.
"I'm a-goin'," he said, with the emphasis of a hoarse whisper, "I a-goin' to drink myself dead! That's what I'm a-goin' to do, Mr. Waymark. My four friends ain't what they used for to be, an' 'cos I ain't got enough of 'em. It's unsatisfaction, that's what it is, as brings the burnin' i' th' inside, an' the devils in the 'cad. Now I've got money, an' for wunst in my life I'll be satisfied an' 'appy. And then I'll go where there's real burnin', an' real devils--an' let 'em make the most o' Slimy!"
Waymark felt his blood chill with horror. For years after, the face of Slimy, as it thus glared at him, haunted him in dreamful nights. Dante saw nothing more fearful in any circle of hell.
"Well, I've said my say," Slimy remarked, rising from his seat. "An' now, I'm sorry I'll 'ave to ill-convenience you, Mr. Waymark. You've behaved better to me than most has, and I wouldn't pay you in ill-convenience, if I could help it. But I must have time enough to get off clear. I'll 'ave jist to keep you from 'ollerin'--this way, see--but I won't hurt you; the nose is good enough for breathin'. I'll see as some one comes to let you out before to-morrow mornin'. An' now I'll say good-bye, Mr. Waymark. You won't see Slimy in this world again, an' if I only knowed 'ow to say a prayer, why, I'd pray as you mightn't never see him in the next."
With one more look, a look at once of wild anticipation and friendly regret, Slimy disappeared.
The relief consequent upon the certainty that no worse could happen had brought Waymark into a state of mind in which he could regard his position with equanimity. The loss of the money seemed now to be the most serious result of the affair. Slimy had promised that release should come before the morning, and would doubtless keep his word Waymark had a certain confidence in this, which a less interested person would perhaps have deemed scarcely warrantable. In the meantime, the discomfort was not extreme to lie gagged and bound on a garret-floor for some few hours was, after all, a situation which a philosopher might patiently endure, and to an artist it might well be suggestive of hints. Breathing, to be sure, was not easy, but became more so by degrees.
But with the complete recollection of his faculties came back the thought of what was involved in the question of release before the following day. Early in the morning he had to be at the door of Tothill Fields' Prison. How if his release were delayed, through Slimy's neglect or that of the agent he might employ? As the first hour passed slowly by, this became the chief anxiety in Waymark's mind. It made him forgetful of the aching in his arms, caused by the bind ing together of his hands behind him, and left no room for anticipation of the other sufferings which would result from his being left thus for an indefinite period. What would Ida do, if she came out and found no one to meet her?
His absence would make no one anxious, at all events not till more than a day had gone by. Hitherto he had always taken his rents at once to Mr. Woodstock's office, but the old gentleman was not likely to be disturbed by his non appearance; it would be accounted for in some simple way, and his coming expected on the following morning. Then it was as good as certain that no one would come to Slimy's room. And, by the by, had not there been a sound of the turning of a key when Slimy took his departure? He could not be quite sure of this; just then he had noticed all things so imperfectly. Was it impossible to free a limb, or to ungag his mouth? He tried to turn his head, but it was clear that throttling would be the only result of any such effort; and the bonds on hands and feet were immoveable. No escape, save by Slimy's aid.
He determined not to face the possibility of Slimy's failing in his word; otherwise, anxiety would make him desperate. He recognised now, for the first time fully, how much it meant to him, that meeting with Ida. The shock he had experienced on hearing her sentence and beholding her face as she left the court had not, apparently, produced lasting results; his weakness surprised him when he looked back upon it. In a day or two he had come to regard the event as finally severing him from Ida, and a certain calm ensuing hereupon led to the phase which ultimately brought him to Maud once more. But Waymark's introspection was at fault; he understood himself less in proportion as he felt that the ground was growing firmer under his feet. Even when he wrote the letter to the prison, promising to meet Ida, he had acted as if out of mere humanity. It needed a chance such as the present to open his eyes. That she should quit the prison, and, not finding him, wander away in blank misery and hopelessness, most likely embittered by the thought that he had carelessly neglected to meet her, and so driven to despair--such a possibility was intolerable. The fear of it began to goad him in flesh and spirit. With a sudden violent stringing of all his sinews, he wrenched at the bonds, but only with the effect of exhausting himself and making the walls and ceiling reel before his eyes. The attempt to utter cries resulted in nothing but muffled moaning. Then, mastering himself once more, he resolved to be patient. Slimy would not fail him.
He tried not to think of Ida in any way, but this was beyond his power. Again and again she came before his mind. When he endeavoured to supplant her by the image of Maud Enderby, the latter's face only irritated him. Till now, it had been just the reverse; the thought of Maud had always brought quietness; Ida he had recognised as the disturbing element of his life, and had learned to associate her with his least noble instincts. Thinking of this now, he began to marvel how it could have been so. Was it true that Maud was his good angel, that in her he had found his ideal? He had forced himself to believe this, now that he was in honour bound to her; yet she had never made his pulse quicken, as it had often done when he had approached Ida. True, that warmth of feeling had come to represent merely a temptation to him; but was not that the consequence of his own ambiguous attitude? Suppose he had not known Maud Enderby, how would he then have regarded Ida, and his relations to her? Were these in very deed founded on nothing but selfish feeling? Then he reviewed all his acquaintanceship with her from the first, and every detail of the story grew to a new aspect.
Thinking of Ida, he found himself wondering how it was that Mr. Woodstock appeared to take so much interest in her fate. Several times during the past six months the old man had referred to her, generally inquiring whether Waymark had written to or heard from her. And, only two days ago, he had shown that he remembered the exact date of her release, in asking whether Waymark meant to do anything. Waymark replying that he intended to meet her, and give her what assistance he could, the old gentleman had signified his strong approval, and had even gone on to mention a house in the neighbourhood of the office, where Ida could be lodged at first. A room had accordingly been secured beforehand, and it was arranged that Waymark should take her directly thither on the Tuesday morning. In reviewing all this, Waymark found it more significant than he had imagined. Why, he wondered, had Mr. Woodstock grown so philanthrophic all at once? Why had he been so particular in making sure that Waymark would meet the girl? Indeed, from the very beginning of this affair, he had behaved with regard to it in a manner quite unlike himself. Waymark had leisure now to ponder these things, but could only conjecture explanations.
The hours went by; a church clock kept him aware of their progress. The aching in his arms became severe; he suffered from cold. The floor was swept by a draught which seemed strong and keen as a blast of east wind; it made his eyes smart, and he kept them closed, with some slight hope that this might also have the effect of inducing sleep. Sleep, however, held far aloof from him. When he had wearied his brain with other thoughts, his attention began to turn to sounds in the court below. There, just as it grew dusk, some children were playing, and he tried to get amusement from their games. One of them was this. A little girl would say to the rest:--"I sent my daughter to the oil-shop, and the first thing she saw was C;" and the task was to guess for what article this initial stood. "Carrots!" cried one, but was laughed to scorn. "Candles!" cried another, and triumphed. Then there were games which consisted in the saying of strange incantations. The children would go round and round, as was evident from the sound of their feet, chanting the while:--"Sally, Sally Wallflower, Sprinkle in a pan; Rise, Sally Wallflower, And choose your young man. Choose for the fairest one, Choose for the best, Choose for the rarest one, That you love best!" Upon this followed words and movements only half understood; then at length broke out a sort of hymeneal chorus:--"Here stands a young couple, Just married and settled: Their father and mother they must obey. They love one another like sister and brother. So pray, young couple, come kiss together!" Lastly, laughter and screams and confusion. This went on till it was quite dark.
Pitch dark in Slimy's room; only the faintest reflection on a portion of the ceiling of lamplight from without. Waymark's sufferings became extreme. The rope about his neck seemed to work itself tighter; there were moments when he had to struggle for the scant breath which the gag allowed him. He feared lest he should become insensible, and so perhaps be suffocated. His arms were entirely numbed; he could not feel that he was lying on them. Surely Slimy's emissary would come before midnight.
"One, two, three, four--twelve!" How was it that e had lost all count of the hours since eight o'clock? Whether that had been sleep or insensibility, Waymark could not decide. Intensity of cold must have brought back consciousness; his whole body seemed to be frozen; his eyes ached insufferably. Continuous thought had somehow become an impossibility; he knew that Ida was constantly in his mind, and her image clear at times in the dark before him, but he could not think about her as he wished and tried to do. Who was it that seemed to come between her and him?--some one he knew, yet could not identify. Then the hours sounded uncertainly; some he appeared to have missed. There, at length, was seven. Why, this was morning; and Slimy had promised that he should be set free before this. What was it that tortured his struggling brain so? A thought he strove in vain for a time to grasp. The meaning flashed upon him. By a great effort he regained complete consciousness; mind alone seemed to be left to him, his body was dead. Was he, then, really to be prevented from keeping his promise to Ida? All the suffering of his previous life amassed was nothing to what Waymark endured during the successive quarters of this hour. His brain burned: his eyes had no power to gather the growing daylight. That one name was his single perception; the sound of it, uttered incessantly in thought, alone seemed to keep him conscious. He could feel something slightly warm on his cheeks, but did not know that it was the streaming of tears from his darkened eyes. Then he lost consciousness once more.
The clock struck eight.