The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter XXXVIII. Orders of Release
Waymark and Casti spent their Christmas Eve together. They spoke freely of each other's affairs, saving that there was no mention of Ida. Waymark had of course said nothing of that parting between Ida and himself. Of the hope which supported him he could not speak to his friend.
A month had told upon Julian as months do when the end draws so near. In spite of his suffering he still discharged his duties at the hospital, but it was plain that he would not be able to do so much longer. And what would happen then?
"Casti," Waymark exclaimed suddenly, when a hint of this thought had brought both of them to a pause, "come away with me."
Julian looked up in bewilderment.
"Anywhere. To some place where the sun shines."
"What an impossible idea! How am I to get my living? And how is she to live?"
"Look here," Waymark said, smiling, "my will is a little stronger than yours, and in the present case I mean to exercise it. I have said, and there's an end of it. You say she'll be away from home to-morrow. Good. We go together, pack up your books and things in half an hour or so, bring them here,--and then off! Sic volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas!"
And it was done, though not till Waymark had overcome the other's opposition by the most determined effort. Julian understood perfectly well the full significance of the scheme, for all Waymark's kind endeavour to put a hopeful and commonplace aspect on his proposal. He resisted as long as his strength would allow, then put himself in his friend's hands.
It was some time before Julian could set his mind at rest with regard to the desertion of his wife. Though no one capable of judging the situation could have cast upon him a shadow of blame, the first experience of peace mingled itself in his mind with self-reproach. Waymark showed him how utterly baseless any such feeling was. Harriet had proved herself unworthy of a moment's consideration, and it was certain that, as long as she received her weekly remittance--paid through an agent in London,--she would trouble herself very little about the rest; or, at all events, any feeling that might possess her would be wholly undeserving of respect. Gradually Julian accustomed himself to this thought.
They were in the Isle of Wight; comfortably housed, with the sea before their eyes, and the boon of sunshine which Casti had so longed for.
Waymark gave himself wholly to the invalid. He had no impulse to resume literary work; anything was welcome which enabled him to fill up the day and reach the morrow. Whilst Julian lay on the couch, which was drawn up to the fireside, Waymark read aloud anything that could lead them to forget themselves. At other times, Julian either read to himself or wrote verse, which, however, he did not show to his friend. Before springtime came he found it difficult even to maintain a sitting attitude for long. His cough still racked him terribly. Waymark often lay awake in the night, listening to that fearful sound in the next room. At such times he tried to fancy himself in the dying man's position, and then the sweat of horror came upon his brow. Deeply he sympathised with the misery he could do so little to allay. Yet he was doing what he might to make the end a quiet one, and the consciousness of this brought him many a calm moment.
However it might be in those fearful vigils, Julian's days did not seem unhappy. He was resigning himself to the inevitable, in the strength of that quiet which sometimes ensues upon despair. Now and then he could even be, to all appearances, light-hearted.
With the early May he had a revival of inspiration. Strangely losing sight of his desperate condition, he spoke once more of beginning the great poem planned long ago. It was living within his mind and heart, he said. Waymark listened to him whilst he unfolded book after book of glorious vision; listened, and wondered.
There was a splendid sunset one evening at this time, and the two watched it together from the room in which they always sat. Seas of molten gold, strands and promontories of jasper and amethyst, illimitable mountain-ranges, cities of unimagined splendour, all were there in that extent of evening sky. They watched it till the vision wasted before the breath of night.
"What shall I read?" Waymark asked, when the lamp was lit.
"Read that passage in the Georgics which glorifies Italy," Julian replied. "It will suit my mood to-night."
Waymark took down his Virgil.
"Sed neque Medorum silvae, ditissima terra, Nec pulcher Ganges atque auro turbibus Hermus Laudibus Italiae certent, non Bactra, neque Indi, Totaque turiferis Panchaia pinguis arenis."
Julian's eyes glistened as the melody rolled on, and when it ceased, both were quiet for a time.
"Waymark," Julian said presently, a gentle tremor in his voice, "why do we never speak of her?"
"Can we speak of her?" Waymark returned, knowing well who was meant.
"A short time ago I could not; now I feel the need. It will give me no pain, but great happiness.',
"That is all gone by," he continued, with a solemn smile. "To me she is no longer anything but a remembrance, an ideal I once knew. The noblest and sweetest woman I have known, or shall know, on earth."
They talked of her with subdued voices, reverently and tenderly. Waymark described what he knew or divined of the life she was now leading, her beneficent activity, her perfect adaptation to the new place she filled.
"In a little while," Julian said, when they had fallen into thought again, "you will have your second letter. And then?"
There was no answer. Julian waited a moment, then rose and, clasping his friend's hand, bade him good night.
Waymark awoke once or twice before morning, but there was no coughing in the next room. He felt glad, and wondered whether there was indeed any improvement in the invalid's health. But at the usual breakfast-time Julian did not appear. Waymark knocked at his door, with no result. He turned the handle and entered.
On this same day, Ida was visiting her houses. Litany lane and Elm Court now wore a changed appearance. At present it was possible to breathe even in the inmost recesses of the Court. There the fronts of the houses were fresh white-washed; in the Lane they were new-painted. Even the pavement and the road-way exhibited an improvement. If you penetrated into garrets and cellars you no longer found squalor and dilapidation; poverty in plenty, but at all events an attempt at cleanliness everywhere, as far, that is to say, as a landlord's care could ensure it. The stair-cases had ceased to be rotten pit-falls; the ceilings showed traces of recent care; the walls no longer dripped with moisture or were foul with patches of filth. Not much change, it is true, in the appearance of the inhabitants; yet close inquiry would have elicited comforting assurances of progressing reform, results of a supervision which was never offensive, never thoughtlessly exaggerated. Especially in the condition of the children improvement was discernible. Lodgers in the Lane and the Court had come to understand that not even punctual payment of weekly rent was sufficient to guarantee them stability of tenure. Under this singular lady-landlord something more than that was expected and required, and, whilst those who were capable of adjusting themselves to the new regime found, on the whole, that things went vastly better with them, such as could by no means overcome their love of filth, moral and material, troubled themselves little when the notice to quit came, together with a little sum of ready money to cover the expenses of removal.
Among those whom Ida called upon this afternoon was an old woman who, in addition to her own voluminous troubles, was always in a position to give a compte-rendu of the general distress of the neighbourhood. People had discovered that her eloquence could be profitably made use of in their own service, and not infrequently, when speaking with Ida, she was in reality holding a brief from this or that neighbour, marked, not indeed in guineas, but in "twos" of strong beverage, obtainable at her favourite house of call. To-day she held such a brief, and was more than usually urgent in the representation of a deserving case.
"Oh, Miss Woodstock, mem, there's a poor young 'oman a-lyin' at the Clock 'Ouse, as it really makes one's 'art bleed to tell of her! For all she's so young, she's a widder, an' pr'aps it's as well she should be, seein' how shockin' her 'usband treated her afore he was took where no doubt he's bein' done as he did by. It's fair cruel, Miss Woodstock, mem, to see her sufferin's. She has fits, an' falls down everywheres; it's a mercy as she 'asn't been run over in the public street long ago. They're hepiplectic fits, I'm told, an' laws o' me! the way she foams at the mouth! No doubt as they was brought on by her 'usband's etrocious treatment. I understand as he was a man as called hisself a gentleman. He was allus that jealous of the pore innocent thing, mem--castin' in her teeth things as I couldn't bring myself not even to 'int at in your presence, Miss Woodstock, mem. Many's the time he's beat her black an' blue, when she jist went out to get a bit o' somethink for his tea at night, 'cos he would 'ave it she'd been a-doin' what she 'adn't ought--"
"Where is she?" Ida asked, thinking she had now gathered enough of the features of the case.
"I said at the Clock 'Ouse, mem. Mrs. Sprowl's took her in' mem, and is be'avin' to her like a mother. She knew her, did Mrs. Sprowl, in the pore thing's 'appy days, before ever she married. But of course it ain't likely as Mrs. Sprowl can keep her as long as her pore life lasts; not to speak of the expense; its a terrible responsibility, owin' to the hepiplectic ailment, mem, as of course you understand."
"Can't she get into any hospital!"
"She only just came out, mem, not two weeks ago. They couldn't do no more for the pore creature, and so she had to go. An' she 'asn't not a friend in the world, 'ceptin' Mrs. Sprowl, as is no less than a mother to her."
"Do you know her name?"
"Mrs. Casty, mem. It's a Irish name, I b'lieve, an' I can't say as I'm partial to the Irish, but--"
"Very well," Ida broke in hastily. "I'll see if I can do anything."
Paying no attention to the blessings showered upon her by the counsel in this case, blessings to which she was accustomed, and of which she well understood the value, Ida went out into the Lane, and walked away quickly. She did not pause at the Clock House, but walked as far as a quiet street some little distance off, and then paced the pavement for a while, in thought. Who this "Mrs. Casty" was she could have little doubt. The calumnies against her husband were just such as Harriet Casti would be likely to circulate.
For a moment it had seemed possible to go to the public-house and make personal inquiries, but reflection showed her that this would be a needless imprudence, even had she been able to overcome herself sufficiently for such an interview. She went home instead, and at once despatched Miss Hurst to the Clock House to discover whether it was indeed Harriet Casti who lay there, and, if so, what her real condition was. That lady returned with evidence establishing the sick woman's identity. Harriet, she reported, was indeed m a sad state, clearly incapable of supporting herself by any kind of work. Her husband--Miss Hurst was told--had deserted her, leaving her entirely without means, and now, but for Mrs. Sprowl's charity, she would have been in the workhouse. This story sounded very strangely to Ida. It might mean that Julian was dead. She wrote a few lines to Waymark, at the old address, and had a speedy reply. Yes, Julian Casti was dead, but the grave had not yet closed over him. Harriet had been in receipt of money, and need have wanted for nothing; but now she must expect no more.
The result of it all was that, in the course of a week, Harriet was informed by Miss Hurst that a place was open to her in a hospital near London, where she could remain as long as her ailments rendered it necessary; the expense would be provided for by a lady who had been told of the case, and wished to give what aid she could. The offer was rejected, and with insult. When next she visited Litany Lane, Ida learnt that "pore Mrs. Casty," after a quarrel with her friend Mrs. Sprowl, had fallen downstairs in a fit and broken her neck.
Waymark lived on in the Isle of Wight, until a day when there came to him a letter from Miss Bygrave. It told him that Maud's resolve was immutable, and added that aunt and niece, having become members of "the true Church," were about to join a sisterhood in a midland town, where their lives would be devoted to work of charity.
Not many days after this, Ida, in London, received a letter, addressed in a hand she knew well. There was a flush on her face as she began to read; but presently came the pallor of a sudden joy almost too great to be borne. The letter was a long one, containing the story of several years of the writer's life, related with unflinching sincerity, bad and good impartially set down, and all leading up to words which danced in golden sunlight before her tear-dimmed eyes.
For an hour she sat alone, scarce moving. Yet it seemed to her that only a few minutes were allowed to pass before she took her pen and wrote.