The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXXV. House-Warming
On a Sunday afternoon in October, when Abraham Woodstock had lain in his grave for three months, Waymark met Julian Casti by appointment in Sloane Square, and they set forth together on a journey to Peckham. They were going thither by invitation, and, to judge from the laughter which accompanied their talk, their visit was likely to afford them entertainment. The merriment on Julian's side was not very natural; he looked indeed too ill to enjoy mirth of any kind. As they stood in the Square, waiting for an omnibus, he kept glancing uneasily about him, especially in the direction whence they had come. It had the appearance of a habit, but before they had stood much more than a minute, he started and exclaimed in a low voice to his companion--
"I told you so. She is just behind there. She has come round by the back streets, just to see if I'd told her the truth."
Waymark glanced back and shrugged his shoulders.
"Pooh! Never mind," he said. "You're used to it."
"Used to it! Yes," Julian returned, his face flushing suddenly a deep red, the effect of extraordinary excitement; "and it is driving me mad."
Then, after a fit of coughing--
"She found my poem last night, and burnt it."
"Yes; simply because she could not understand it. She said she thought it was waste paper, but I saw, I saw."
The 'bus they waited for came up, and they went on their way. On reaching the neighbourhood of Peckham, they struck off through a complex of small new streets, apparently familiar to Waymark, and came at length to a little shop, also very new, the windows of which displayed a fresh-looking assortment of miscellaneous goods. There was half a large cheese, marked by the incisions of the tasting-knife; a boiled ham, garlanded; a cone of brawn; a truncated pyramid of spiced beef, released from its American tin; also German sausage and other dainties of the kind. Then there were canisters of tea and coffee, tins of mustard, a basket of eggs, some onions, boxes of baking-powder and of blacking; all arranged so as to make an impression on the passers-by; everything clean and bright. Above the window stood in imposing gilt letters the name of the proprietor: O'Gree.
They entered. The shop was very small and did not contain much stock. The new shelves showed a row of biscuit-tins, but little else, and from the ceiling hung balls of string. On the counter lay an inviting round of boiled beef. Odours of provisions and of fresh paint were strong in the air. Every thing gleamed from resent scrubbing and polishing; the floor only emphasised its purity by a little track where a child's shoes had brought in mud from the street; doubtless it had been washed over since the Sunday morning's custom had subsided. Wherever the walls would have confessed their bareness the enterprising tradesman had hung gorgeous advertising cards. At the sound of the visitors' footsteps, the door leading out of the shop into the parlour behind opened briskly, a head having previously appeared over the red curtain, and Mr. O'Gree, in the glory of Sunday attire, rushed forward with eager hands. His welcome was obstreperous.
"Waymark, you're a brick! Mr. Casti, I'm rejoiced to receive you in my establishment! You're neither a minute too soon nor a minute too late. Mrs. O'Gree only this moment called out from the kitchen that the kettle was boiling and the crumpets at the point of perfection! I knew your punctuality of old, Waymark. Mr. Casti, how does it strike you? Roaring trade, Waymark! Done two shillings and threepence three farthings this Sunday morning. Look here, me boy, --ho, ho!"
He drew out the till behind the counter, and jingled his hand in coppers. Then he rushed about in the wildest fervour from object to object, opening tins which he had forgotten were empty, making passes at the beef and the ham with a formidable carving-knife, demonstrating the use of a sugar-chopper and a coffee-grinder, and, lastly, calling attention with infinite glee to a bad halfpenny which he had detected on the previous afternoon, and had forthwith nailed down to the counter, in terrorem. Then he lifted with much solemnity a hinged portion of the counter, and requested his visitors to pass into the back-parlour. Here there was the same perfect cleanliness, though the furniture was scant and very simple. The round table was laid for tea, with a spotless cloth, plates of a very demonstrative pattern, and knives and forks which seemed only just to have left the ironmonger's shop.
"We pass, you observe, Mr. Casti," cried the ex-teacher, "from the region of commerce to that of domestic intimacy. Here Mrs. O'Gree reigns supreme, as indeed she does in the other department, as far as presiding genius goes. She's in all places at once, like a birrud! Mr. Casti," in a whisper, "I shall have the pleasure of introducing you to one of the most remarkable women it was ever your lot to meet; a phenomenon of--"
The inner door opened, and the lady herself interrupted these eulogies. Sally was charming. Her trim little body attired in the trimmest of homely dresses, her sharp little face shining and just a little red with excitement, her quick movements, her laughing eyes, her restless hands graced with the new wedding-ring--all made up a picture of which her husband might well be proud. He stood and gazed at her in frank admiration; only when she sprang forward to shake hands with Waymark did he recover himself sufficiently to go through the ceremony of introducing Julian. It was done with all stateliness.
"An improvement this on the masters' room, eh, Waymark?" cried Mr. O'Gree. Then, suddenly interrupting him self, "And that reminds me! We've got a lodger."
"And who d'ye think? Who d'ye think? You wouldn't guess if you went on till Christmas. Ho, ho, ho! I'm hanged if I tell you. Wait and see!"
"Shall I call him down?" asked Sally, who in the meantime had brought in the tea-pot, and the crumpets, and a dish of slices from the round of beef on the counter, and boiled eggs, and sundry other dainties.
O'Gree, unable to speak for mirth, nodded his head, and presently Sally returned, followed by--Mr. Egger. Waymark scarcely recognised his old friend, so much had the latter changed: instead of the old woe-begone look, Egger's face wore a joyous smile, and his outer man was so vastly improved that he had evidently fallen on a more lucrative profession. Waymark remembered O'Gree's chance meeting with the Swiss, but had heard nothing of him since; nor indeed had O'Gree till a day or two ago.
"How do things go?" Waymark inquired heartily. "Found a better school?"
"No, no, my friend," returned Egger, in his very bad English. "At the school I made my possible; I did till I could no more. I have made like Mr. O'Gree; it is to say, quite a change in my life. I am waiter at a restaurant. And see me; am I not the better quite? No fear!" This cockneyism came in with comical effect. "I have enough to eat and to drink, and money in my pocket. The school may go to ----"
O'Gree coughed violently to cover the last word, and looked reproachfully at his old colleague. Poor Egger, who had been carried away by his joyous fervour, was abashed, and glanced timidly at Sally, who replied by giving him half a dozen thick rounds of German sausage. On his requesting mustard, she fetched some from the shop and mixed it, but, in doing so, had the misfortune to pour too much water.
"There!" she exclaimed; "I've doubted the miller's eye."
O'Gree laughed when he saw Waymark looking for an explanation.
"That's a piece of Weymouth," he remarked. "Mrs. O'Gree comes from the south-west of England," he added, leaning towards Casti. "She's constantly teaching me new and interesting things. Now, if I was to spill the salt here--"
He put his Ii and on the salt-cellar, as if to do so, but Sally rapped his knuckles with a fork.
"None of your nonsense, sir! Give Mr. Casti some more meat, instead."
It was a merry party. The noise of talk grew so loud that it was only the keenness of habitual attention on Sally's part which enabled her to observe that a customer was knocking on the counter. She darted out, but returned with a disappointed look on her face.
"Pickles?" asked her husband, frowning.
"Now, look here, Waymark," cried O'Gree, rising in indignation from his seat. "Look here, Mr. Casti. The one drop of bitterness in our cup is--pickles; the one thing that threatens to poison our happiness is--pickles. We're always being asked for pickles; just as if the people knew about it, and came on purpose!"
"Knew About what?" asked Waymark, in astonishment.
"Why, that we mayn't sell 'em! A few doors off there's a scoundrel of a grocer. Now, his landlord's the same as ours, and when we took this shop there was one condition attached. Because the grocer sells pickles, and makes a good thing of them, we had to undertake that, in that branch of commerce, we wouldn't compete with him. Pickles are forbidden."
Waymark burst into a most unsympathetic roar of laughter, but with O'Gree the grievance was evidently a serious one, and it was some few moments before he recovered his equanimity. Indeed it was not quite restored till the entrance of another customer, who purchased two ounces of butter. When, in the dead silence which ensued, Sally was heard weighing out the order, O'Gree's face beamed; and when there followed the chink of coins in the till, he brought his fist down with a triumphant crash upon the table.
When tea was over, O'Gree managed to get Waymark apart from the rest, and showed him a small photograph of Sally which had recently been taken.
"Sally's great ambition," he whispered, "is to be taken cabinet-size, and in a snow-storm. You've seen the kind of thing in the shop-windows? We'll manage that before long, but this will do for the present. You don't see a face like that every day; eh, Waymark?"
Sally, her housewifery duly accomplished in the invisible regions, came back and sat by the fireside. She had exchanged her work-a-day costume for one rather more ornate. Noticeable was a delicate gold chain which hung about her neck, and Waymark smiled when he presently saw her take out her watch and seem to compare its time with that of the clock on the mantelpiece. It was a wedding present from Ida.
Sally caught the smile, and almost immediately came over to a seat by Waymark; and, whilst the others were engaged in loud talk, spoke with him privately.
"Have you seen her lately?" she asked.
"Not for some weeks," the other replied, shaking his head.
"Well, it's the queerest thing I ever knew, s'nough! But, there," she added, with an arch glance, "some men are that stupid--"
Waymark laughed slightly, and again shook his head.
"All a mistake," he said.
"Yes, that's just what it is, you may depend upon it. I more'n half believe you're telling fibs."
Tumblers of whisky were soon smoking on the table, and all except Casti laughed and talked to their heart's content. Casti was no kill-joy; he smiled at all that went on, now and then putting in a friendly word; but the vitality of the others was lacking in him, and the weight which crushed him night and day could not so easily be thrown aside. O'Gree was abundant in reminiscences of academic days, and it would not have been easy to resist altogether the comical vigour of his stories, all without one touch of real bitterness or malice.
"Bedad," he cried, "I sent old Pendy a business prospectus, with my compliments written on the bottom of it. I thought he might perhaps be disposed to give me a contract for victualling the Academy. I wish he had, for the boys' sake."
Then, to bring back completely the old times, Mr. Egger was prevailed upon to sing one of his Volkslieder, that which had been Waymark's especial favourite, and which he had sung--on an occasion memorable to Sally and her husband--in the little dining-room at Richmond.
"Die Schwalb'n flieg'n fort, doch sie zieh'n wieder her; Der Mensch wenn er fortgeht, er kommt nimmermehr!"
Waymark was silent for a little after that.
When it was nearly eleven o'clock, Casti looked once or twice meaningly at Waymark, and the friends at length rose to take their leave, in spite of much protest. O'Gree accompanied them as far as the spot where they would meet the omnibus, then, with assurances that to-night had been but the beginning of glorious times, sent them on their way. Julian was silent during the journey home; he looked very wearied. For lack of a timely conveyance the last mile or so had to be walked. Julian's cough had been bad during the evening, and now the cold night-air seemed to give him much trouble. Presently, just as they turned a corner, a severe blast of wind met them full in the face. Julian began coughing violently, and all at once became so weak that he had to lean against a palisading. Waymark, looking closer in alarm, saw that the handkerchief which the poor fellow was holding to his mouth was covered with blood.
"We must have a cab," he exclaimed. "It is impossible for you to walk in this state."
Julian resisted, with assurances that the worst was over for the time. If Waymark would give the support of his arm, he would get on quite well. There was no overcoming his resolution to proceed.
"There's no misunderstanding this, old fellow," he said, with a laugh, when they had walked a few paces.
Waymark made no reply.
"You'll laugh at me," Julian went on, "but isn't there a certain resemblance between my case and that of Keats? He too was a drug-pounder; he liked it as little as I do; and he died young of consumption. I suppose a dying man may speak the truth about himself. I too might have been a poet, if life had dealt more kindly with me. I think you would have liked the thing I was writing; I'd finished some three hundred lines; but now you'll never see it. Well, I don't know that it matters."
Waymark tried to speak in a tone of hopefulness, but it was hard to give his words the semblance of sincerity.
"Do you remember," Casti continued, "when all my talk used to be about Rome, and how I planned to see it one day--see it again. I should say? Strange to think that I really was born in Rome. I used to call myself a Roman, you know, and grow hot with pride when I thought of it. Those were dreams. Oh, I was to do wonderful things! Poetry was to make me rich, and then I would go and live in Italy, and fill my lungs with the breath of the Forum, and write my great Epic. How good that we can't foresee our lives!"
"I wish to heaven," Waymark exclaimed, when they were parting, "that you would be a man and shake this monstrous yoke from off your neck! It is that that is killing you. Give yourself a chance. Defy everything and make yourself free."
Julian shook his head sadly.
"Too late! I haven't the courage. My mind weakens with my body."
He went to his lodgings, and, as he anticipated, found that Harriet had not yet come home. She was almost always out very late, and he had learnt too well what t expect on her return. In spite of her illness, of which she made the most when it suited her purpose, she was able t wander about at all hours with the acquaintances her husband did not even know by name, and Julian had no longer the strength even to implore her to have pity on him. He absence racked him with nervous fears; her presence tortured him to agony. Weakness in him had reached a criminal degree. Once or twice he had all but made up his mind to flee secretly, and only let her know his determination when he had gone; but his poverty interposed such obstacles that he ended by accepting them as excuses for his hesitation. The mere thought of fulfilling the duty which he owed to himself, of speaking out with manly firmness, and telling her that here at length all ended between them--that was a terror to his soul. So he stayed on and allowed her to kill him by slow torment. He was at least carrying out to the letter the promise he had made to her father, and this thought supplied him with a flattering unction which, such was his disposition, at times even brought him a moment's solace.
There was no fire in the room; he sank upon a chair and waited. Every sound in the street below sent the blood back upon his heart. At length there came the fumbling of a latch-key--he could hear it plainly--and then the heavy foot ascending the stairs. Her glazed eyes and red cheeks told the familiar tale. She sat down opposite him and was silent for a minute, half dozing; then she seemed suddenly to become conscious of his presence, and the words began to flow from her tongue, every one cutting him to the quick, poisoning his soul with their venom of jealousy and vulgar spite. Contention was the breath of her nostrils; the prime impulse of her heart was suspicion. Little by little she came round to the wonted topic. Had he been to see his friend the thief? Was she in prison again yet? Whom had she been stealing from of late? Oh, she was innocence itself, of course; too good for this evil-speaking world.
Tonight he could not bear it. He rose from his chair like a drunken man, and staggered to the door. She sprang after him, but he was just in time to escape her grasp and spring down the stairs; then, out into the night. Once before, not quite a month ago, be had been driven thus in terror from the sound of her voice, and had slept at a coffeehouse. Now, as soon as he had got out of the street and saw that he was not being pursued, he discovered that he had given away his last copper for the omnibus fare. No matter; the air was pleasant upon his throbbing temples. It was too late to think of knocking at the house where Waymark lodged. Nothing remained but to walk about the streets all night, resting on a stone when he became too weary to go further, sheltering a little here or there when the wind cut him too keenly. Rather this, oh, a thousand times rather, than the hell behind him.