The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter VI. An Advertisement
In a morning newspaper of March 187--, that is to chapter, appeared a singular advertisement.
"WANTED, human companionship. A young man of four-and-twenty wishes to find a congenial associate of about his own age. He is a student of ancient and modern literatures, a free-thinker in religion, a lover of art in all its forms, a hater of conventionalism. Would like to correspond in the first instance. Address O. W., City News Rooms, W.C."
An advertisement which, naturally, might mean much or little, might be the outcome of an idle whim, or the despairing cry of a hungry heart. It could not be expected to elicit many replies; and brought indeed but one.
Behind the counter of a chemist's shop in Oxford Street there served, day after day, a young assistant much observed of female customers. The young man was handsome, and not with that vulgar handsomeness which is fairly common among the better kind of shop-walkers and counter-keepers. He had rather long black hair, which arranged itself in silky ripples about a face of perfectly clear, though rather dark, complexion. When he smiled, as he frequently did, the effect was very pleasant. He spoke, too, with that musical intonation which is always more or less suggestive of musical thought. He did not seem by any means ideally adapted to the place he occupied here, yet filled it without suspicion of constraint or uneasiness: there was nothing in him to make one suppose that he had ever been accustomed to a better sphere of life.
He lived in the house above the shop, and had done so for about two years; previously he had held a like position in a more modest establishment. His bed-room, which had to serve him as sitting-room also during his free hours, gave indications of a taste not ordinarily found in chemists' assistants. On the walls were several engravings of views in Rome, ancient and modern; and there were two bookcases filled with literature which had evidently known the second-hand stall,--most of the Latin poets, a few Italian books, and some English classics. Not a trace anywhere of the habits and predilections not unfairly associated with the youth of the shop, not even a pipe or a cigar-holder. It was while sitting alone here one evening, half musing, half engaged in glancing over the advertisements in a paper two days old, that the assistant had been attracted by the insertion just quoted. He read and re-read it, became more thoughtful, sighed slightly. Then he moved to the table and took some note-paper out of a writing-case. Still he seemed to be in doubt, hesitated in pressing a pen against his thumb-nail, was on the point of putting the note-paper away again. Ultimately, however, he sat down to write. He covered four pages with a letter, which he then proceeded deliberately to correct and alter, till he had cut it down by about half. Then came another period of doubt before he decided to make a fair copy. But it was finally made, and the signature at the foot was: Julian Casti.
He went out at once to the post.
Two days later he received a reply, somewhat longer than his own epistle. The writer was clearly keeping himself in a tentative attitude. Still, he wrote something about his own position and his needs. He was a teacher in a school in South London, living in lodgings, with his evenings mostly unoccupied. His habits, he declared, were Bohemian. Suppose, by way of testing each other's dispositions, they were to interchange views on some book with which both were likely to be acquainted: say, Keats's poems? In conclusion, the "O. W." of the advertisement signed himself Osmond Waymark.
The result was that, a week after, Casti received an invitation to call on Waymark, at the latter's lodgings in Walcot Square, Kennington. He arrived on a Saturday evening, just after eight o'clock. The house he sought proved to be one of very modest appearance; small, apparently not too clean, generally uninviting. But a decent-looking woman opened the door, and said that Mr. Waymark would be found in response to a knock at the first-floor front. The visitor made his way up the dark, narrow stair-case, and knocked as bidden. A firm voice summoned him to enter.
From a seat by a table which was placed as near as possible to a very large fire rose a young man whose age might have been either twenty-three or twenty-six. Most people would have inclined to give him the latter figure. He was rather above the average stature, and showed well-hung limbs, with a habit of holding himself which suggested considerable toughness of sinews; he moved gracefully, and with head well held up. His attire spoke sedentary habits; would have been decidedly shabby, but for its evident adaptation to easy-chair and fireside. The pure linen and general tone of cleanliness were reassuring; the hand, too, which he extended, was soft, delicate, and finely formed. The head was striking, strongly individual, set solidly on a rather long and shapely neck; a fine forehead, irregular nose, rather prominent jaw-bones, lips just a little sensual, but speaking good-humour and intellectual character. A heavy moustache; no beard. Eyes dark, keen, very capable of tenderness, but perhaps more often shrewdly discerning or cynically speculative. One felt that the present expression of genial friendliness was unfamiliar to the face, though it by no means failed in pleasantness. The lips had the look of being frequently gnawed in intense thought or strong feeling. In the cheeks no healthy colour, but an extreme sallowness on all the features. Smiling, he showed imperfect teeth. Altogether, a young man upon whom one felt it difficult to pronounce in the earlier stages of acquaintance; whose intimacy but few men would exert themselves to seek; who in all likelihood was chary of exhibiting his true self save when secure of being understood.
Julian Casti was timid with strangers; his eyes fell before the other's look, and he shook hands without speaking. The contrast in mere appearance between the two was very pronounced; both seemed in some degree to be aware of it. Waymark seemed more rugged than in ordinary companionship; the slightly effeminate beauty of Casti, and his diffident, shyly graceful manners, were more noticeable than usual. Waymark inspected his visitor closely and directly; the latter only ventured upon one or two quick side glances. Yet the results were, on the whole, mutually satisfactory.
Julian's eyes glistened at the sight of two goodly bookcases, reaching from floor to ceiling. There were, too, pictures of other than the lodging-house type; engraved heads of the great in art and science, and a few reproductions in pencil or chalk of known subjects, perchance their possessor's own work. On the table lay traces of literary occupation, sheets of manuscript, open books, and the like. On another table stood a tray, with cups and saucers. A kettle was boiling on the fire.
Waymark helped the conversation by offering a cup of coffee, which he himself made.
"You smoke, I hope?" he asked, reaching some cigars from the mantelpiece.
Julian shook his head, with a smile.
"No? How on earth do you support existence?--At all events, you don't, as the railway-carriage phrase has it, object to smoking?"
"Not at all. I like the scent, but was never tempted to go further."
Waymark filled his pipe, and made himself conformable in a low cane-bottom chair, which had stood folded-up against the wall. Talk began to range over very various topics, Waymark leading the way, his visitor only gradually venturing to take the initiative. Theatres were mentioned, but Julian knew little of them; recent books, but with these he had small acquaintance; politics, but in these he had clearly no interest.
"That's a point of contact, at all events," exclaimed Waymark. "I detest the very name of Parliament, and could as soon read Todhunter on Conic Sections as the reports of a debate. Perhaps you're a mathematician?" This with a smile.
"By no means," was the reply. "In fact," Casti went on, "I'm afraid you begin to think my interests are very narrow indeed. My opportunities have been small. I left a very ordinary school at fourteen, and what knowledge I have since got has come from my own efforts. I am sure the profit from our intercourse would be entirely on my side. I have the wish to go in for many things, however,--"
"Oh," broke in the other, "don't suppose that I am a scholar in any sense of the word, or a man of more than average culture. My own regular education came to an end pretty much at the same age, and only a certain stubbornness has forced me into an intellectual life, if you can call it so. Not much intellect required in my every-day business, at all events. The school in which I teach is a fair type of the middle-class commercial 'academy;' the headmaster a nincompoop and charlatan, my fellow-assistants poor creatures, who must live, I suppose,--though one doesn't well understand why. I had always a liking for Greek and Latin and can make shift to read both in a way satisfactory to myself, though I dare say it wouldn't go for much with college examiners. Then, as for my scribbling, well, it has scarcely yet passed the amateur stage. It will some day; simply because I've made up my mind that it shall; but as yet I haven't got beyond a couple of weak articles in weak magazines, and I don't exactly feel sure of my way. I rather think we shall approach most nearly in our taste for poetry. I liked much what you had to say about Keats. It decided me that we ought to go on."
Julian looked up with a bright smile.
"What did you think at first of my advertisement, eh?" cried Waymark, with a sudden burst of loud laughter. "Queer idea, wasn't it?"
"It came upon me curiously. It was so like a frequent thought of my own actually carried out."
"It was? You have felt that same desperate need of congenial society?"
"I have felt it very strongly indeed. I live so very much alone, and have always done so. Fortunately I am of a very cheerful disposition, or I might have suffered much. The young fellows I see every day haven't much intellect, it must be confessed. I used to try to get them under the influence of my own enthusiasms, but they didn't seem to understand me. They care only for things which either repel me, or are utterly without interest."
"Ha! you understand what that means!" Waymark had risen from his low chair, and stood with his back to the fire. His eyes had a new life, and he spoke in a strong, emphatic way which suited well with his countenance. "You know what it is to have to do exclusively with fools and brutes, to rave under the vile restraints of Philistine surroundings? Then you can form some notion of the state I was in when I took the step of writing that advertisement; I was, I firmly believe, on the verge of lunacy! For two or three days I had come back home from the school only to pace up and down the room in an indescribable condition. I get often like that, but this time things seemed reaching a head. Why, I positively cried with misery, absurd as it may sound. My blood seemed too hot, seemed to be swelling out the veins beyond endurance. As a rule I get over these moods by furious walking about the streets half through the night, but I couldn't even do that. I had no money to go in for dissipation: that often helps me. Every book was loathsome to me. My landlady must have overheard something, for she came in and began a conversation about God knows what; I fear I mortally offended her; I could have pitched the poor old woman out of the window! Heavens, how did I get through those nights?"
"And the fit has passed?" inquired Julian when the other ceased.
"The Lord be praised; yes!" Waymark laughed half-scornfully. "There came an editor's note, accepting a thing that had been going from magazine to magazine for three months. This snatched me up into furious spirits. I rushed out to a theatre, drank more than was good for me, made a fool of myself in general,--and then received your letter. Good luck never comes singly."
Julian had watched the strange workings of Waymark's face with close interest. When the latter suddenly turned his eyes, as if to see the effect of all his frankness, Casti coloured slightly and looked away, but with a look of friendly sympathy.
"Do I shock you?" asked the other. "Do you think me rather too much of an animal, for all my spiritual longings?"
"Certainly not, I can well understand you, I believe."
The conversation passed to quieter things. Julian seemed afraid of saying too much about his own experiences, but found opportunities of showing his acquaintance with English poetry, which was quite as extensive as that of his new friend, excepting in the case of a few writers of the day, whom he had not been able to procure. He had taught himself Italian, too, and had read considerably in that language. He explained that his father was an Italian, but had died when he himself was still an infant.
"You have been in Italy?" asked Waymark, with interest.
A strange look came over Julian's features, a look at once bright and melancholy; his fine eyes gleamed as was their wont eight years ago, in the back-parlour in Boston Street, when he was telling tales from Plutarch.
"Not," he said, in a low voice charged with feeling, "since I was three years old.--You will think it strange, but I don't so much long for the modern Italy, for the beautiful scenery and climate, not even for the Italy of Raphael, or of Dante. I think most of classical Italy. I am no scholar, but I love the Latin writers, and can forget myself for hours, working through Livy or Tacitus. I want to see the ruins of Rome; I want to see the Tiber, the Clitumnus, the Aufidus, the Alban Hills, Lake Trasimenus,--a thousand places! It is strange how those old times have taken hold upon me. The mere names in Roman history make my blood warm.--And there is so little chance that I shall ever be able to go there; so little chance."
Waymark had watched the glowing face with some surprise.
"Why, this is famous!" he exclaimed. "We shall suit each other splendidly. Who knows? We may see Italy together, and look back upon these times of miserable struggle. By the by, have you ever written verses?"
Julian reddened, like a girl.
"I have tried to," he said.
"And do still?"
"I thought as much. Some day you shall let me hear them; won't you? And I will read you some of my own. But mine are in the savage vein, a mere railing against the universe, altogether too furious to be anything like poetry; I know that well enough. I have long since made up my mind to stick to prose; it is the true medium for a polemical egotist. I want to find some new form of satire; I feel capabilities that way which shall by no means rust unused. It has pleased Heaven to give me a splenetic disposition, and some day or other I shall find the tongue."
It was midnight before Julian rose to leave, and he was surprised when he discovered how time had flown. Waymark insisted on his guest's having some supper before setting out on his walk home; he brought out of a cupboard a tin of Australian mutton, which, with bread and pickles, afforded a very tolerable meal after four hours' talk. They then left the house together, and Waymark accompanied his friend as far as Westminster Bridge.
"It's too bad to have brought you so far at this hour," said Julian, as they parted.
"Oh, it is my hour for walking," was the reply. "London streets at night are my element. Depend upon it, Rome was poor in comparison!"
He went off laughing and waving his hand.