The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter VII. Between Old and New
Julian Casti's uncle had been three years dead. It was well for him that he lived no longer; his business had continued to dwindle, and the last months of the poor man's life were embittered by the prospect of inevitable bankruptcy. He died of an overdose of some opiate, which the anguish of sleeplessness brought him into the habit of taking. Suicide it might have been, yet that was scarcely probable; he was too anxious on his daughter's account to abandon her in this way, for certainly his death could be nothing to her profit. Julian was then already eighteen, and quickly succeeded in getting a situation. Harriet Smales left London, and went to live with her sole relative, except Julian, an aunt who kept a stationer's shop in Colchester. She was taught the business, and assisted her aunt for more than two years, when, growing tired of the life of a country town, she returned to London, and succeeded in getting a place at a stationer's in Gray's Inn Road. This was six months ago. Having thus established herself, she wrote to Julian, and told him where she was.
Julian never forgot the promise he had made to his uncle that Christmas night, eight years ago, when he was a lad of thirteen. Harriet he had always regarded as his sister, and never yet had he failed in brotherly duty to her. When the girl left Colchester, she was on rather bad terms with her aunt, and the latter wrote to Julian, saying that she knew nothing of Harriet's object in going to London, but that it was certainly advisable that some friend should be at hand, if possible, to give her advice; though advice (she went on to say) was seldom acceptable to Harriet. This letter alarmed Julian, as it was the first he had heard of his cousin's new step; the letter from herself at the end of a week's time greatly relieved him, and he went off as soon as possible to see her. He found her living in the house where she was engaged, apparently with decent people, and moderately contented; more than this could never be said of the girl. Since then, he had seen her at least once every week. Sometimes he visited her at the shop; when the weather was fine, they spent the Sunday afternoon in walking together. Harriet's health seemed to have improved since her return to town. Previously, as in her childhood, she had always been more or less ailing. From both father and mother she had inherited an unhealthy body; there was a scrofulous tendency in her constitution, and the slightest casual ill-health, a cold or any trifling accident, always threatened her with serious results. She was of mind corresponding to her body; restless, self-willed, discontented, sour-tempered, querulous. She certainly used no special pains to hide these faults from Julian, perhaps was not herself sufficiently conscious of them, but the young man did not seem to be repelled by her imperfections; he invariably treated her with gentle forbearance, pitied her sufferings, did many a graceful little kindness in hope of pleasing her.
The first interview between Julian and Waymark was followed by a second a few days after, when it was agreed that they should spend each Sunday evening together in Kennington; Julian had no room in which he could well receive visitors. The next Sunday proved fine; Julian planned to take Harriet for a walk in the afternoon, then, after accompanying her home, to proceed to Walcot Square. As was usual on these occasions, he was to meet his cousin at the Holborn end of Gray's Inn Road, and, as also was the rule, Harriet came some twenty minutes late. Julian was scrupulously punctual, and waiting irritated him not a little, but he never allowed himself to show his annoyance. There was always the same kind smile on his handsome face, and the pressure of his hand was warm.
Harriet Smales was about a year younger than her cousin. Her dress showed moderately good taste, with the usual fault of a desire to imitate an elegance which she could not in reality afford. She wore a black jacket, fur-trimmed, over a light grey dress; her black straw hat had a few flowers in front. Her figure was good and her movements graceful; she was nearly as tall as Julian. Her face, however, could not be called attractive; it was hollow and of a sickly hue, even the lips scarcely red. Grey eyes, beneath which were dark circles, looked about with a quick, suspicious glance; the eye-brows made almost a straight line. The nose was of a coarse type, the lips heavy and indicative of ill-temper. The disagreeable effect of these lineaments was heightened by a long scar over her right temple; she evidently did her best to conceal it by letting her hair come forward very much on each side, an arrangement in itself unsuited to her countenance.
"I think I'm going to leave my place," was her first remark to-day, as they turned to walk westward. She spoke in a dogged way with which Julian was familiar enough, holding her eyes down, and, as she walked, swinging her arms impatiently.
"I hope not," said her cousin, looking at her anxiously. "What has happened?"
"Oh, I don't know; it's always the same; people treat you as if you was so much dirt. I haven't been accustomed to it, and I don't see why I should begin now. I can soon enough get a new shop."
"Has Mrs. Ogle been unkind to you?"
"Oh, I don't know, and I don't much care. You're expected to slave just the same, day after day, whether you're feeling well or not."
This indirect and querulous mode of making known her grievances was characteristic of the girl. Julian bore with it very patiently.
"Haven't you been feeling well?" he asked, with the same kindness.
"Well, no, I haven't. My head fairly splits now, and this sun isn't likely to make it any better."
"Let us cross to the shady side."
"'Twon't make any difference; I can't run to get out of the way of horses."
Julian was silent for a little.
"Why didn't you write to me in the week?" she asked presently. "I'm sure it would be a relief to hear from somebody sometimes. It's like a year from one Sunday to another."
"Did I promise to write? I really didn't remember having done so; I'm very sorry. I might have told you about a new friend I've got."
Harriet looked sharply into his face. Julian had made no mention of Waymark on the preceding Sunday; it had been a rainy day, and they had only spent a few minutes together in the parlour which Mrs. Ogle, the keeper of the shop, allowed them to use on these occasions.
"What sort of a friend?" the girl inquired rather sourly.
"A very pleasant fellow, rather older than myself; I made his acquaintance by chance."
Julian avoided reference to the real circumstances. He knew well the difficulty of making Harriet understand them.
"We are going to see each other every Sunday," he went on.
"Then I suppose you'll give up coming for me?"
"Oh no, not at all. I shall see him at night always, after I have left you."
"Where does he live?"
"Rather far off; in Kennington."
"What is he?"
"A teacher in a school. I hope to get good from being with him; we're going to read together, and so on. I wish you could find some pleasant companion of the same kind, Harriet; you wouldn't feel so lonely."
"I dare say I'm better off without anybody. I shouldn't suit them. It's very few people I do suit, or else people don't suit me, one or the other. What's his name, your new friend's?"
"And he lives in Kennington? Whereabouts?"
"In Walcot Square. I don't think you know that part, do you?"
Julian looked at her with some surprise. He found her eyes fixed with penetrating observation upon his face. He mentioned the number, and she evidently made a mental note of it. She was silent for some minutes.
"I suppose you'll go out at nights with him?" was her next remark.
"It is scarcely likely. Where should we go to?"
"Oh, I don't know, and I don't suppose it matters much, to me."
"You seem vexed at this, Harriet. I'm very sorry. Really, it's the first friend I've ever had. I've often felt the need of some such companionship."
"I'm nobody?" she said, with a laugh, the first today.
Julian's face registered very perfectly the many subtle phases of thought and emotion which succeeded each other in his mind. This last remark distressed him for a moment; he could not bear to hurt another's feelings.
"Of course I meant male friend," he said quickly. "You are my sister."
"No, I'm not," was the reply; and, as she spoke, Harriet glanced sideways at him in a particularly unpleasant manner. She herself meant it to be pleasant.
"Oh yes, you are, Harriet," he insisted good-humouredly. "We've been brother and sister ever since we can remember, haven't we?"
"But we aren't really, for all that," said the girl, looking away. "Well, now you've got somebody else to take you up, I know very well I shall see less of you. You'll be making excuses to get out of the rides when the summer comes again."
"Pray don't say or think anything of the kind, Harriet," urged Julian with feeling. "I should not think of letting anything put a stop to our picnics. It will soon be getting warm enough to think of the river, won't it? And then, if you would like it, there is no reason why my friend shouldn't come with us, sometimes."
"Oh, nonsense! Why, you'd be ashamed to let him know me."
"Ashamed! How can you possibly think so? But you don't mean it; you are joking."
"I'm sure I'm not. I should make mistakes in talking, and all sorts of things. You don't think much of me, as it is, and that would make you like me worse still."
She tossed her head nervously, and swung her arms with the awkward restlessness which always denoted some strong feeling in her.
"Come, Harriet, this is too bad," Julian exclaimed, smiling. "Why, I shall have to quarrel with you, to prove that we're good friends."
"I wish you would quarrel with me sometimes," said the girl, laughing in a forced way. "You take all my bad-temper always just in the same quiet way. I'd far rather you fell out with me. It's treating me too like a child, as if it didn't matter how I went on, and I wasn't anything to you."
Of late, Harriet had been getting much into the habit of this ambiguous kind of remark when in her cousin's company. Julian noticed it, and it made him a trifle uneasy. He attributed it, however, to the girl's strangely irritable disposition, and never failed to meet such outbreaks with increased warmth and kindness of tone. To-day, Harriet's vagaries seemed to affect him somewhat unusually. He became silent at times, and then tried to laugh away the unpleasantness, but the laughter was not exactly spontaneous. At length he brought back the conversation to the point from which it had started, and asked if she had any serious intention of leaving Mrs. Ogle.
"I'm tired of being ordered about by people!" Harriet exclaimed. "I know I sha'n't put up with it much longer. I only wish I'd a few pounds to start a shop for myself."
"I heartily wish I had the money to give you," was Julian's reply.
"Don't you save anything at all?" asked his cousin, with affected indifference.
"A little; very little. At all events, I think we shall be able to have our week at the seaside when the time comes. Have you thought where you'd like to go to?"
"No; I haven't thought anything about it. What time shall you get back home to-night?"
"Rather late, I dare say. We sit talking and forget the time. It may be after twelve o'clock."
Harriet became silent again. They reached Hyde Park, and joined the crowds of people going in all directions about the walks. Harriet had always a number of ill-natured comments to make on the dress and general appearance of people they passed. Julian smiled, but with no genuine pleasure. As always, he did his best to lead the girl's thoughts away from their incessant object, hers, elf.
They were back again at the end of Gray's Inn Road by half-past four.
"Well, I won't keep you," said Harriet, with the sour smile. "I know you're in a hurry to be off. Are you going to walk?"
"Yes; I can do it in about an hour."
The girl turned away without further leave-taking, and Julian walked southwards with a troubled face.
Waymark expected him to tea. At this, their third meeting, the two were already on very easy terms. Waymark did the greater share of the talking, for Julian was naturally of fewer words; from the beginning it was clear that the elder of the friends would have the initiative in most things. Waymark unconsciously displayed something of that egoism which is inseparable from force of character, and to the other this was far from disagreeable; Julian liked the novel sensation of having a strong nature to rely upon. Already he was being led by his natural tendency to hero-worship into a fervid admiration for his friend.
"What have you' been doing with yourself this fine day?" Waymark asked, as they sat down to table.
"I always spend Sunday afternoon with a cousin of mine," replied Julian, with the unhesitating frankness which was natural to him.
"Male or female?"
"Female." There was a touch of colour on his face as he met the other's eye, and he continued rather quickly. "We lived together always as children, and were only separated at my uncle's death, three years ago. She is engaged at a stationer's shop."
"What is a fellow to do to get money?" Waymark exclaimed, when his pipe was well alight. "I'm growing sick of this hand-to-mouth existence. Now if one had a bare competency, what glorious possibilities would open out. The vulgar saying has it that 'time is money;' like most vulgar sayings putting the thing just the wrong way about. 'Money is time,' I prefer to say; it means leisure, and all that follows. Why don't you write a poem on Money, Casti? I almost feel capable of it myself. what can claim precedence, in all this world, over hard cash? It is the fruitful soil wherein is nourished the root of the tree of life; it is the vivifying principle of human activity. Upon it luxuriate art, letters, science; rob them of its sustenance, and they droop like withering leaves. Money means virtue; the lack of it is vice. The devil loves no lurking-place like an empty purse. Give me a thousand pounds to-morrow, and I become the most virtuous man in England. I satisfy all my instincts freely, openly, with no petty makeshifts and vile hypocrisies. To scorn and revile wealth is the mere resource of splenetic poverty. What cannot be purchased with coin of the realm? First and foremost, freedom. The moneyed man is the sole king; the herds of the penniless are but as slaves before his footstool. He breathes with a sense of proprietorship in the whole globe-enveloping atmosphere; for is it not in his power to inhale it wheresoever he pleases? He puts his hand in his pocket, and bids with security for every joy of body and mind; even death he faces with the comforting consciousness that his defeat will only coincide with that of human science. He buys culture, he buys peace of mind, he buys love.--You think not! I don't use the word cynically, but in very virtuous earnest. Make me a millionaire, and I will purchase the passionate devotion of any free-hearted woman the world contains!"
Waymark's pipe had gone out; he re-lit it, with the half-mocking smile which always followed upon any more vehement utterance.
"That I am poor," he went on presently, "is the result of my own pigheadedness. My father was a stock-broker, in anything but flourishing circumstances. He went in for some cursed foreign loan or other,--I know nothing of such things,--and ruined himself completely. He had to take a subordinate position, and died in it. I was about seventeen then, and found myself alone in the world. A friend of my father's, also a city man, Woodstock by name, was left my guardian. He wanted me to begin a business career, and, like a fool, I wouldn't hear of it. Mr. Woodstock and I quarrelled; he showed himself worthy of his name, and told me plainly that, if I didn't choose to take his advice, I must shift for myself. That I professed myself perfectly ready to do; I was bent on an intellectual life, forsooth; couldn't see that the natural order of things was to make money first and be intellectual afterwards. So, lad as I was, I got a place as a teacher, and that's been my business ever since."
Waymark threw himself back and laughed carelessly. He strummed a little with his fingers on the arm of the chair, and resumed:
"I interested myself in religion and philosophy; I became an aggressive disciple of free-thought, as it is called. Radicalism of every kind broke out in me, like an ailment. I bought cheap free-thought literature; to one or two papers of the kind I even contributed. I keep these effusions carefully locked up, for salutary self-humiliation at some future day, when I shall have grown conceited. Nay, I went further. I delivered lectures at working-men's clubs, lectures with violent titles. One, I remember, was called 'The Gospel of Rationalism.' And I was enthusiastic in the cause, with an enthusiasm such as I shall never experience again. Can I imagine myself writing and speaking such things now-a-days? Scarcely: yet the spirit remains, it is only the manifestations which have changed. I am by nature combative; I feel the need of attacking the cherished prejudices of society; I have a joy in outraging what are called the proprieties. And I wait for my opportunity, which has yet to come."
"How commonplace my life has been, in comparison," said Julian, after an interval of thoughtfulness.
"Your nature, I believe, is very pure, and therefore very happy. I am what Browning somewhere calls a 'beast with a speckled hide,' and happiness, I take it, I shall never know."
Julian could begin to see that his friend took something of a pleasure in showing and dwelling upon the worst side of his own character.
"You will be happy," he said, "when you once find your true work, and feel that you are doing it well."
"But the motives, the motives!--Never mind, I've talked enough of myself for one sitting. Don't think I've told you everything. Plenty more confessions to come, when time and place shall serve. Little by little you will get to know me, and by then will most likely have had enough of me."
"That is not at all likely; rather the opposite."
When they left the house together, shortly after eleven, Julian's eye fell upon the dark figure of a girl, standing by a gas-lamp on the opposite side of the way. The figure held his gaze. Waymark moved on, and he had to follow, but still looked back. The girl had a veil half down upon her face; she was gazing after the two. She moved, and the resemblance to Harriet was so striking that Julian again stopped. As he did so, the figure turned away, and walked in the opposite direction, till it was lost in the darkness.
Julian went on, and for a time was very silent.