The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXXIV. A Late Revenge
Ida clung to the possibility of Waymark's paying his usual visit on the Sunday, but she was disappointed. This absence had no reason beyond Waymark's choice. It was the last Sunday but one of the month; a week more, and he must keep his word with Mr. Woodstock. The evil day had been put off, and to what purpose? There had been some scarcely confessed hope. Maud's sudden departure from England, and her strange letter, might perhaps mean a change in her which would bring about his freedom; he himself might possibly be driven by his wretchedness to the point of writing to her in a way which would hasten her decision, if indeed she were doubting.
All was over between Ida and himself, so why undergo the torment of still seeing her. In sending his note to Mr. Woodstock, he was on the point of surrendering the week that remained, and begging that Ida might be told at once, but his hand refused to write the words. Through the week that ensued he had no moment's rest. At night he went to places of amusement, to seek distraction; he wished and dreaded the coming of the Sunday. How would Ida receive the revelation? Should he write to her and try to make her understand him? Yet in that he could scarcely succeed, and failure would bring upon him her contempt. The only safety lay in never seeing or communicating with her again.
Even on Saturday night he had not made up his mind how to act. He went to the theatre, but left before the play was half over, and walked slowly homewards. As he drew near to his lodgings, some one hastened towards him with both hands held out. It was Maud Enderby.
"Oh, I have waited so long! I wanted to see you to-night." She was exhausted with fatigue and distress, and still held his hands, as if needing their support. To Waymark, in his then state of mind, she came like an apparition. He could only look at her in astonishment.
"Last night," she said, "I had a telegram from father. He told me to come back at once; he had had to leave, and mother was alone. I was to call for a letter at a place in the city. I was in time to catch the night boat, and when I got his letter it told me dreadful things. Something has happened which compelled him to leave England at once. He could do nothing, make no arrangements. Mother, he said, had a little money; we must sell everything and manage to live somewhere for a little; he would try to send us what he could. Then I went home. There was a police-officer in the house, and mother had gone away, I can't tell where. Father has done something, and-- Oh, what shall I do? You can help me, can't you?"
Waymark, whom this news overwhelmed with blank despair, could at first say nothing; but the very greatness of the blow gradually produced in him the strength to bear it. He saw that fate had taken the future out of his hands; there was no longer even the appearance of choice. To Maud he must now devote himself, aiding her with all his strength in the present and through the days to come.
"Shall I go back home with you?" he asked, pressing her hands to comfort her, and speaking with the calmness of one who had made up his mind.
"Yes; perhaps mother will have returned. But what shall we do? What will happen to father? Do you know anything of all this?"
"Nothing whatever. Walk with me to the top of the street, and we will take a cab."
She hung upon his arm, trembling violently; and during the drive to Paddington, she lay back with her eyes closed, holding Waymark's hands in her own, which burned with fever. On alighting, they found that Mrs. Enderby had indeed returned; the servant told them so, and at the same time whispered something to Maud. They went up into the drawing-room, and there found Mrs. Enderby lying upon the couch. She could not understand when she was spoken to, but nodded her head and looked at them with large, woebegone, wandering eyes. Every effort to rouse her was vain.
It was a dreadful night.
The early dawn was in the sky when Waymark reached Beaufort Street. With no thought of sleep, he sat down at once and wrote to Mr. Woodstock, relating what had happened. "So, you see," he concluded, "with the end of July has come the decision of my fate, as we agreed it should. If I had seen you to-morrow, as I proposed, I know not what folly I might have been guilty of. Tell Ida everything at once; I shall never see her again. But do you, if you can, he my friend still. I need your help in this horrible situation. Meet me--will you?--at the office to-morrow night, say at eight o'clock."
This letter would reach Tottenham on Monday morning. Waymark went to the office at the hour he had mentioned, and waited till ten o'clock. But Mr. Woodstock had not been in St. John Street Road that day, and the waiting was in vain.
The garden-party had not been without its effect upon Mr. Woodstock. On the following day, when he was sitting again with Ida in the garden, he recurred to the conversation of a week ago, and seemed desirous of leading the girl to speak freely on the subjects which had such power to stir her. Ida had been waiting for this; she rejoiced at the promise it held out, and unburdened her heart. Would he not do yet more for the poor people in his houses I could not their homes in some way be made more fit for human beings? With careful observation of his mood, she led him on to entertain thoughts he had never dreamt of, and before they parted she had all but obtained a promise that he would go over the whole of his property and really see what could be done. Ida's influence over him had by this time become very great; the old man was ready to do much for the sake of pleasing her.
On the following Tuesday he went down into Litany Lane in company with a builder, and proceeded to investigate each of the houses. In many instances the repairs, to be of any use, would have to be considerable; there would be a difficulty in executing them whilst the tenants remained in possession. One possibility occurred to him in the course of examination, and he determined to make use of it; he would create room by getting rid of the worst tenants, all those, in fact, whose presence was pollution to the neighbourhood, and whom it was hopeless to think of reforming. In this way he would be able to shift about the remaining lodgers without too great a loss to himself, and avoid the necessity of turning helpless people into the street.
Mr. Woodstock had considerably more knowledge of the state of his property, and of the tenants inhabiting it, than is usual with landlords of his kind; for all that, the present examination brought to light not a few things which were startling even to him. Since Waymark had ceased to act as his collector, the office had been filled by an agent of the ordinary kind, and Mr. Woodstock had, till just now, taken less interest in the property than formerly. Things had got worse on the whole. Whereas Waymark had here and there been successful in suppressing the grosser forms of uncleanliness by threats of expulsion, and at times by the actual enforcement of his threat, no such supervision had of late been exercised. There were very few houses in which the air was at all tolerable; in many instances the vilest odours hung about the open door-ways. To pass out of Elm Court into the wider streets around was like a change to the freshness of woods and fields. And the sources of this miasma were only too obvious.
The larger houses which made up Litany Lane had underground cellars; in the court there were fortunately no such retreats. On entering one of these former houses, the two were aware of an especially offensive odour rising from below the stairs. Pursuing, however, their plan of beginning at the garrets, they went up together. In the room at the top they came upon a miserable spectacle. On something which, for want of another name, was probably called a bed, there lay a woman either already dead or in a state of coma, and on the floor sat two very young children, amusing themselves with a dead kitten, their only toy. Mr. Woodstock bent over the woman and examined her. He found that she was breathing, though in a slow and scarcely perceptible way; her eyes were open, but expressed no consciousness. The slightly-parted lips were almost black, and here and there on her face there seemed to be a kind of rash. Mr. Woodstock's companion, after taking one glance, drew hastily back.
"Looks like small-pox," he said, in an alarmed voice. "I wouldn't stand so near, sir, if I was you."
"Isn't there any one to look to her?" said Abraham. Then turning to one of the children, "Where's your father?" he asked.
"Dono," was the little fellow's indifferent reply.
"Are you alone?"
They went down to the floor below, and there found a woman standing at her door.
"What's the matter with her up there?" asked Mr. Woodstock.
"She's very bad, sir. Her Susan's gone to get a order for the parish doctor, I b'lieve. I was just a-goin' to look after the children when you came up. I've only just come 'ome myself, you see."
"What's that horrible stench down below?"
"I didn't notice nothink, sir," said the woman, looking over the banisters as if the odour might be seen.
"Any one living in the kitchen?"
"There was some one, I b'lieve, sir, but I don't exac'ly know if they's there yet."
Presently they reached the region below. In absolute darkness they descended steps which were covered with a sort of slime, and then, by striking a light, found themselves in front of a closed door. Opening this, they entered a vile hole where it could scarcely be said to be daylight, so thickly was the little window patched with filth. Groping about in the stifling atmosphere, they discovered in one corner a mass of indescribable matter, from which arose, seemingly, the worst of the effluvia.
"What is it?" asked Mr. Woodstock, holding a lighted match.
"Rotten fish, it seems to me," said the other, holding his nose.
Abraham turned away; then, as if his eye had suddenly caught something, strode to another corner. There lay the body of a dead child, all but naked, upon a piece of sacking.
"We'd better get out of this, sir," said the builder. "We shall be poisoned. Wonder they haven't the plague here."
"Seems to me they have," returned Mr. Woodstock.
They went out into the street, and hailed the first policeman in sight. Then, giving up his investigations for that morning, Mr. Woodstock repaired to the police-station, and after a good deal of trouble, succeeded in getting the attendance of a medical man, with the result that the woman they had seen up in the garret was found to be in truth dying of small-pox. If the contagion spread, as probably it had by this time begun to, there would be a pleasant state of things in Litany Lane.
In the evening, before going home, Abraham had a bath. He was not a nervous man, but the possibilities of the risk he had run were not agreeable to contemplate. Two or three days went by without any alarming symptoms, but as he learnt that another case of small-pox had declared itself in the Lane, he postponed his personal activity there for the present, and remained a good deal at home. On the Sunday morning--when Waymark's letter had already been posted-- he awoke with a headache, continued from the night before. It grew worse during the day, and he went to bed early with a dull pain across the forehead, which prevented him from sleeping. On the following morning the headache still remained; he felt a disinclination to rise, and now, for the first time, began to be troubled with vague fears, which blended themselves with his various pre-occupations in a confusing way. The letter which arrived from Waymark was taken up to him. It caused him extreme irritation, which was followed by uneasy dozing, the pain across his forehead growing worse the while. A doctor was summoned.
The same day Ida and Miss Hurst left the house, to occupy lodgings hard by; it was done at Mr. Woodstock's peremptory bidding. Ida at once wrote to Waymark, begging him to come; he arrived early next morning, and learnt the state of things.
"The doctor tells me," said Ida, "there is a case in Litany Lane. It is very cruel. Grandfather went to make arrangements for having the houses repaired."
"There I recognise your hand," Waymark observed, as she made a pause.
"Why have you so deserted us?" Ida asked. "Why do we see you so seldom?"
"It is so late every evening before I leave the library, and I am busy with all sorts of things."
They had little to say to each other, Waymark promised to communicate at once with a friend of Mr. Woodstock's, a man of business, and to come again as soon as possible, to give any help he could. Whether Ida had been told of his position remained uncertain.
For Ida they were sad, long days. Troubles which she had previously managed to keep in the background now again beset her. She had attached herself to her grandfather; gratitude for all that he was doing at her wish strengthened her affection, and she awaited each new day with fear. Waymark seemed colder to her in these days than he had ever been formerly. The occasion ought, she felt, to have brought them nearer together; but on his side there appeared to be no such feeling. The time hung very heavily on her hands. She tried to go on with her studies, but it was a mere pretence.
Soon, she learnt that there was no hope; the sick man had sunk into a state of unconsciousness from which he would probably not awake. She haunted the neighbourhood of the house, or, in her lodging, sat like one who waits, and the waiting was for she knew not what. There was once more to be a great change in her life, but of what kind she could not foresee. She wished her suffering had been more acute; her only relative was dying, yet no tear would come to her eyes; it was heartless, and to weep would have brought relief to her. She could only sit and wait.
When Waymark came, on the evening of the next day, he heard that all was over. Ida saw him, but only for a few minutes. In going away, he paused by the gates of the silent house.
"The slums have avenged themselves," he said to himself sadly, "though late."