The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXXVI. No Way But This
In the early days of October, Waymark's book appeared. It excited no special attention. Here and there a reviewer was found who ventured to hint that there was powerful writing in this new novel, but no one dared to heartily recommend it to public attention. By some it was classed with the "unsavoury productions of the so-called naturalist school;" others passed it by with a few lines of unfavourable comment. Clearly it was destined to bring the author neither fame nor fortune.
Waymark was surprised at his own indifference. Having given a copy to Casti, and one to Maud, he thought very little more of the production. It had ceased to interest him; he felt that if he were to write again it would be in a very different way and of different people. Even when he prided himself most upon his self-knowledge he had been most ignorant of the direction in which his character was developing. Unconsciously, he had struggled to the extremity of weariness, and now he cared only to let things take their course, standing aside from every shadow of new onset. Above all, he kept away as much as possible from the house at Tottenham, where Ida was still living. To go there meant only a renewal of torment. This was in fact the commonplace period of his life. He had no energy above that of the ordinary young man who is making his living in a commonplace way, and his higher faculties lay dormant.
In one respect, and that, after all, perhaps the most important, his position would soon be changed. Mr. Woodstock's will, when affairs were settled, would make him richer by one thousand pounds; he might, if he chose, presently give up his employment, and either trust to literature, or look out for something less precarious. A year ago, this state of things would have filed him with exultation. As it was, he only saw in it an accident compelling him to a certain fateful duty. There was now no reason why his marriage should be long delayed. For Maud's sake the step was clearly desirable. At present she and her mother were living with Miss Bygrave in the weird old house. Of Paul there had come no tidings. Their home was of course broken up, and they had no income of their own to depend upon. Maud herself, though of course aware of Waymark's prospects, seemed to shrink from speaking of the future. She grew more and more uncertain as to her real thoughts and desires.
And what of Ida? It was hard for her to realise her position; for a time she was conscious only of an overwhelming sense of loneliness. The interval of life with her grandfather was dreamlike as she looked back upon it; yet harder to grasp was the situation in which she now found herself, surrounded by luxuries which had come to her as if from the clouds, her own mistress, free to form wishes merely for the sake of satisfying them. She cared little to realise the minor possibilities of wealth. The great purpose, the noble end to which her active life had shaped itself, was sternly present before her; she would not shirk its demands. But there was lacking the inspiration of joy. Could she harden herself to every personal desire, and forget, in devotion to others, the sickness of one great hope deferred? Did her ideal require this of her?
Would he come, now that she was free to give herself where she would, now that she was so alone? The distance between them had increased ever since the beginning of her new life. She knew well the sort of pride he was capable of; but was there not something else, something she dreaded to observe too closely, in the manner of his speech? Did he think so meanly of her as to deem such precautions necessary against her misconstruction? Nay, could he have guarded himself in that way if he really loved her? Would it not have been to degrade her too much in his own eyes?
He loved her once. Had she in any way grown less noble in his eyes, by those very things which she regarded as help and strengthening? Did he perchance think she had too readily accepted ease when it was offered her, sacrificing the independence which he most regarded? If so, all the more would he shrink from losing for her his own independence.
She imagined herself wedded to him; at liberty to stand before him and confess all the thoughts which now consumed her in the silence of vain longing. "Why did I break free from the fetters of a shameful life? Because I loved, and loved you. What gave me the strength to pass from idle luxury, poisoning the energies of the soul, to that life of lonely toil and misery? My love, and my love for you. I kept apart from you then; I would not even let you know what I was enduring; only because you had spoken a hasty, thoughtless word to me, which showed me with terrible distinctness the meaning of all I had escaped, and filled me with a determination to prove to myself that I had not lost all my better nature, that there was still enough of purity in my being to save me finally. What was it that afflicted me with agony beyond all words when I was made the victim of a cruel and base accusation? Not the fear of its consequences; only the dread lest you should believe me guilty, and no longer deem me worthy of a thought. It is no arrogance to say that I am become a pure woman; not my own merits, but love of you has made me so. I love you as a woman loves only once; if you asked me to give up my life to prove it, I am capable of doing no less a thing than that. Flesh and spirit I lay before you--all yours; do you still think the offering unworthy?"
And yet she knew that she could never thus speak to him; her humility was too great. At moments she might feel this glow of conscious virtue, but for the most part the weight of all the past was so heavy upon her.
Fortunately, her time did not long remain unoccupied. As her grandfather's heiress she found herself owner of the East-end property, and, as soon as it was assured that she would incur no danger, she went over the houses in the company of the builder whom Abraham had chosen to carry out his proposed restorations. The improvements were proceeded with at once, greatly to the astonishment of the tenants, to whom such changes inevitably suggested increase of rent. These fears Ida did her best to dispel. Dressed in the simplest possible way, and with that kind, quiet manner which was natural to her, she went about from room to room, and did her best to become intimately acquainted with the woman-kind of the Lane and the Court. It was not an easy end to compass. She was received at first with extreme suspicion; her appearance aroused that distrust which with the uneducated attaches to everything novel. In many instances she found it difficult to get it believed' that she was really the "landlord." But when this idea had been gradually mastered, and when, moreover, it was discovered that she brought no tracts, spoke not at all of religious matters, was not impertinently curious, and showed indeed that she knew a good deal of what she talked about, something like respect for her began to spring up here and there, and she was spoken of as "the right sort."
Ida was excellently fitted for the work she had undertaken. She knew so well, from her own early experience, the nature of the people with whom she was brought in contact, and had that instinctive sympathy with their lives without which it is so vain to attempt practical social reform. She started with no theory, and as yet had no very definite end in view; it simply appeared to her that, as owner of these slums, honesty and regard for her own credit required that she should make them decent human habitations, and give what other help she could to people obviously so much in need of it. The best was that she understood how and when such help could be afforded. To native practicality and prudence she added a keen recollection of the wants and difficulties she had struggled through in childhood; there was no danger of her being foolishly lavish in charity, when she could foresee with sympathy all the evil results which would ensue. Her only temptation to imprudence was when, as so often happened, she saw some little girl in a position which reminded her strongly of her own dark days; all such she would have liked to take home with her and somehow provide for, saving them from the wretched alternatives which were all that life had to offer them. So, little by little, she was brought to think in a broader way of problems puzzling enough to wiser heads than hers. Social miseries, which she had previously regarded as mere matters of fact, having never enjoyed the opportunities of comparison which alone can present them in any other light, began to move her to indignation. Often it was with a keen sense of shame that she took the weekly rent, a sum scraped together Heaven knew how, representing so much deduction from the food of the family. She knew that it would be impossible to remit the rent altogether, but at all events there was the power of reducing it, and this she did in many cases.
The children she came to regard as her peculiar care. Her strong common sense taught her that it was with these that most could be done. The parents could not be reformed; at best they might be kept from that darkest depth of poverty which corrupts soul and body alike. But might not the girls be somehow put into the way of earning a decent livelihood? Ida knew so well the effect upon them of the occupations to which they mostly turned, occupations degrading to womanhood, blighting every hope. Even to give them the means of remaining at home would not greatly help them; there they still breathed a vile atmosphere. To remove them altogether was the only efficient way, and how could that be done?
The months of late summer and autumn saw several more garden-parties. These, Ida knew, were very useful, but more enduring things must be devised. Miss Hurst was the only person with whom she could consult, and that lady's notions were not very practical. If only she could have spoken freely with Waymark; but that she could no longer on any subject, least of all on this. As winter set in, he had almost forsaken her. He showed no interest in her life, beyond asking occasionally what she was reading, and taking the opportunity to talk of books. Throughout November she neither saw him nor heard from him. Then one evening he came.
She was alone when the servant announced him; with her sat her old companion, Grim. As Waymark entered, she looked at him with friendly smile, and said quietly--
"I thought you would never come again"
"I have not kept away through thoughtlessness," he replied. "Believe that; it is the truth. And to-night I have only come to say good-bye. I am going to leave London."
You used to say nothing would induce you to leave London, and that you couldn't live anywhere else."
"Yes; that was one of my old fancies. I am going right away into the country, at all events for a year or two. I suppose I shall write novels."
He moved uneasily under her gaze, and affected a cheerfulness which could not deceive her.
"Has your book been a success?" Ida asked.
"No; it fell dead."
"Why didn't you give me a copy?"
"I thought too little of it. It's poor stuff. Better you shouldn't read it"
"But I have read it."
"Got it from the library, did you?"
"No; I bought it."
"What a pity to waste so much money!"
"Why do you speak like that? You know how anything of yours would interest me."
"Oh yes, in a certain way, of course."
"For its own sake, too. I can't criticise, but I know it held me as nothing else ever did. It was horrible in many parts, but I was the better for reading it."
He could not help showing pleasure, and grew more natural. Ida had purposely refrained from speaking of the book when she read it, more than a month ago, always hoping that he would be the first to say something about it. But the news he had brought her to-night put an end to reticence on her side. She must speak out her heart, cost her what it might.
"Who should read it, if not I?" she said, as he remained silent. "Who can possibly understand it half so well as I do?"
"Yes," he remarked, with wilful misunderstanding, "you have seen the places and the people. And I hear you are going on with the work your grandfather began?"
"I am trying to do something. If you had been able to give me a little time now and then, I should have asked you to advise and help me. It is hard to work there single-handed."
"You are too good for that; I should have liked to think of you as far apart from those vile scenes."
"Too good for it?" Her voice trembled. "How can any one be too good to help the miserable? If you had said that I was not worthy of such a privilege--Can you, knowing me as no one else does or ever will, think that I could live here in peace, whilst those poor creatures stint and starve themselves every week to provide me with comforts? Do I seem to you such a woman?"
He only smiled, his lips tortured to hold their peace.
"I had hoped you understood me better than that. Is that why you have left me to myself? Do you doubt my sincerity? Why do you speak so cruelly, saying I am too good, when your real thoughts must be so different? You mean that I am incapable of really doing anything; you have no faith in me. I seem to you too weak to pursue any high end. You would not even speak to me of your book, because you felt I should not appreciate it. And yet you do know me--"
"Yes; I know you well," Waymark said.
Ida looked steadily at him. "If you are speaking to me for the last time, won't you be sincere, and tell me of my faults? Do you think I could not bear it? You can say nothing to me--nothing from your heart--that I won't accept in all humility. Are we no longer even friends?"
"You mistake me altogether."
"And you are still my friend?" she uttered warmly. "But why do you think me unfit for good work?"
"I had no such thought. You know how my ideals oppose each other. I spoke on the impulse of the moment; I often find it so hard to reconcile myself to anything in life that is not, still and calm and beautiful. I am just now bent on forgetting all the things about which you are so earnest."
"Earnest? Yes. But I cannot give my whole self to the work. I am so lonely."
"You will not be so for long," he answered with more cheerfulness. "You have every opportunity of making for yourself a good social position. You will soon have friends, if only you seek them. Your goodness will make you respected. Indeed I wonder at your remaining so isolated. It need not be; I am sure it need not. Your wealth--I have no thought of speaking cynically--your wealth must--"
"My wealth! What is it to me? What do I care for all the friends it might bring? They are nothing to me in my misery. But you . . . I would give all I possess for one kind word from you."
Flushing over forehead and cheeks, she compelled herself to meet his look. It was her wealth that stood between her and him. Her position was not like that of other women. Conventionalities were meaningless, set against a life.
"I have tried hard to make myself ever so little worthy of you," she murmured, when her voice would again obey her will. "Am I still-- still too far beneath you?"
He stood like one detected in a crime, and stammered the words.
"Ida, I am not free."
He had risen. Ida sprang up, and moved towards him.
"This was your secret? Tell me, then. Look--I am strong! Tell me about it. I might have thought of this. I thought only of myself. I might have known there was good reason for the distance you put between us. Forgive me--oh, forgive the pain I have caused you!
"You asking for forgiveness? How you must despise me."
"Why should I despise you? You have never said a word to me that any friend, any near friend, might not have said, never since I myself, in my folly, forbade you to. You were not bound to tell me--"
"I had told your grandfather," Waymark said in a broken voice. "In a letter I wrote the very day he was taken ill, I begged him to let you know that I had bound myself."
As he spoke he knew that he was excusing himself with a truth which implied a falsehood, and before it was too late his soul revolted against the unworthiness.
"But it was my own fault that it was left so long. I would not let him tell you when he wished to; I put off the day as long as I could."
"Since you first knew me?" she asked, in a low voice.
"No! Since you came to live here. I was free before."
It was the part of his confession which cost him most to utter, and the hearing of it chilled Ida's heart. Whilst she had been living through her bitterest shame and misery, he had given his love to another woman, forgetful of her. For the first time, weakness overcame her.
"I thought you loved me," she sobbed, bowing her head.
"I did--and I do. I can't understand myself, and it would be worse than vain to try to show you how it came about. I have brought a curse upon my life, and worse than my own despair is your misery."
"Is she a good woman you are going to marry?" Ida asked simply and kindly.
"Only less noble than yourself."
"And she loves you--no, she cannot love as I do--but she loves you worthily and with all her soul?"
"Worthily and with all her soul--the greater my despair."
"Then I dare not think of her one unkind thought. We must remember her, and be strong for her sake. You will leave London and forget me soon,--yes, yes, you will try to forget me. You owe it to her; it is your duty."
"Duty!" he broke out passionately. "What have I to do with duty? Was it not my duty to be true to you? Was it not my duty to confess my hateful weakness, when I had taken the fatal step? Duty has no meaning for me. I have set it aside at every turn. Even now there would be no obligation on me to keep my word, but that I am too great a coward to revoke it."
She stood near to him.
"Dear,--I will call you so, it is for the last time,--you think these things in the worst moment of our suffering; afterwards you will thank me for having been strong enough, or cold enough, to be your conscience. There is such a thing as duty; it speaks in your heart and in mine, and tells us that we must part."
"You speak so lightly of parting. If you felt all that I--"
"My love is no shadow less than yours," she said, with earnestness which was well nigh severity. "I have never wavered from you since I knew you first"
"I meant no reproach, but it will perhaps help you to think of that. You did love her, if it was only for a day, and that love will return."
She moved from him, and he too rose.
"You shame me," he said, under his breath. "I am not worthy to touch your hand."
"Yes," she returned, smiling amid her tears, "very worthy of all the love I have given you, and of the love with which she will make you happy. I shall suffer, but the thought of your happiness will help me to bear up and try to live a life you would not call ignoble. You will do great things, and I shall hear of them, and be glad. Yes; I know that is before you. You are one of those who cannot rest till they have won a high place. I, too, have my work, and--"
Her voice failed.
"Shall we never see each other again, Ida?"
"Perhaps. In a few years we might meet, and be friends. But I dare not think of that now."
They clasped hands, for one dread moment resisted the lure of eyes and lips, and so parted.