The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter IX. The Cousins
Harriet Smales had left home in a bad temper that Sunday afternoon, and when she came back to tea, after her walk with Julian, her state of mind did not appear to have undergone any improvement. She took her place at the tea-table in silence. She and Mrs. Ogle were alone this evening; the latter's husband--he was a journeyman printer, and left entirely in his wife's hands the management of the shop in Gray's Inn Road--happened to be away. Mrs. Ogle was a decent, cheerful woman, of motherly appearance. She made one or two attempts to engage Harriet in conversation, but, failing, subsided into silence, only looking askance at the girl from time to time. When she had finished her tea and bread-and-butter, Harriet coughed, and, without facing her companion, spoke in rather a cold way.
"I may be late back to-night, Mrs. Ogle. You won't lock the door?"
"I sha'n't go to bed till eleven myself," was the reply.
"But it may be after twelve when I get back."
"Where are you going to, Harriet?"
"If you must know always, Mrs. Ogle, I'm going to see my friend in Westminster."
"Well, it ain't no business of mine, my girl," returned the woman, not unkindly, "but I think it's only right I should have some idea where you spend your nights. As long as you live in my house, I'm responsible for you, in a way."
"I don't want any one to be responsible for me, Mrs. Ogle."
"Maybe not, my girl. But young people ain't always the best judges of what's good for them, and what isn't. I don't think your cousin 'ud approve of your being out so late. I shall sit up for you, and you mustn't be after twelve."
It was said very decidedly. Harriet made no reply, but speedily dressed and went out. She took an omnibus eastward, and sought a neighbourhood which most decently dressed people would have been chary of entering after nightfall, or indeed at any other time, unless compelled to do so. The girl found the object of her walk in a dirty little public-house at the corner of two foul and narrow by-ways. She entered by a private door, and passed into a parlour, which was behind the bar.
A woman was sitting in the room, beguiling her leisure with a Sunday paper. She was dressed with vulgar showiness, and made a lavish display of jewellery, more or less valuable. Eight years ago she was a servant in Mr. Smales's house, and her name was Sarah. She had married in the meanwhile, and become Mrs. Sprowl.
She welcomed her visitor with a friendly nod, but did not rise.
"I thought it likely you'd look in, as you missed larst week. How's things goin' in your part o' the world?"
"Very badly," returned Harriet, throwing off her hat and cloak, and going to warm her hands and feet at the fire. "It won't last much longer, that's the truth of it."
"Eh well, it's all in a life; we all has our little trials an' troubles, as the sayin' is."
"How's the baby?" asked Harriet looking towards a bundle of wrappers which lay on a sofa.
"I doubt it's too good for this world," returned the mother, grinning in a way which made her ugly face peculiarly revolting. "Dessay it'll join its little brother an' sister before long. Mike put it in the club yes'day."
The burial-club, Mrs. Sprowl meant, and Harriet evidently understood the allusion.
"Have you walked?" went on the woman, doubling up her paper, and then throwing it aside. "Dessay you could do with somethin' to take the cold orff yer chest.--Liz," she called out to some one behind the bar, with which the parlour communicated by an open door; "two Irish!"
The liquor was brought. Presently some one called to Mrs. Sprowl, who went out. Leaning on the counter, in one of the compartments, was something which a philanthropist might perhaps have had the courage to claim as a human being; a very tall creature, with bent shoulders, and head seeming to grow straight out of its chest; thick, grizzled hair hiding almost every vestige of feature, with the exception of one dreadful red eye, its fellow being dead and sightless. He had laid on the counter, with palms downward as if concealing something, two huge hairy paws. Mrs. Sprowl seemed familiar with the appearance of this monster; she addressed him rather bad-temperedly, but otherwise much as she would have spoken to any other customer.
"No, you don't, Slimy! No, you don't! What you have in this house you pay for in coppers, so you know. Next time I catch you tryin' to ring the changes, I'll have you run in, and then you'll get a warm bath, which you wouldn't partic'lar care for."
The creature spoke, in hoarse, jumbled words, not easy to catch unless you listened closely.
"If you've any accusion to make agin me, Mrs. Sprowl, p'r'aps you'll wait till you can prove it. I want change for arf a suvrin: ain't that straight, now?"
"Straight or not, you won't get no change over this counter, so there you've the straight tip. Now sling yer 'ook, Slimy, an' get it somewhere else."
"If you've any accusion to make--"
"Hold yer noise!--What's he ordered, Liz?"
"Pot o' old six," answered the girl.
"Got sixpence, Slimy?"
"No, I ain't, Mrs. Sprowl," muttered the creature. "I've got arf a suvrin."
"Then go an' get change for it. Now, once more, sling yer 'ook."
The man moved away, sending back a horrible glare from his one fiery eyeball.
Mrs. Sprowl re-entered the parlour.
"I wish you'd take me on as barmaid, Sarah," Harriet said, when she had drunk her glass of spirits.
"Take you on?" exclaimed the other, with surprise. "Why, have you fallen out with your cousin? I thought you was goin' to be married soon."
"I didn't say for sure that I was; I only said I might be. Any way it won't be just yet, and I'm tired of my place in the shop."
"Don't you be a fool, Harriet," said the other, with genial frankness. "You're well enough off. You stick where you are till you get married. You wouldn't make nothin' at our business; 'tain't all sugar an' lemon, an' sittin' drinkin' twos o' whisky till further orders. You want a quiet, easy business, you do, an' you've got it. If you keep worritin' yerself this way, you won't never make old bones, an' that's the truth. You wait a bit, an' give yer cousin a chance to arst you,--if that's what you're troublin' about"
"I've given him lots o' chances," said Harriet peevishly.
"Eh well, give him lots more, an' it'll all come right. We're all born, but we're not buried.--Hev' another Irish?"
Harriet allowed herself to be persuaded to take another glass.
When the clock pointed to half-past nine, she rose and prepared to depart. She had told Mrs. Sprowl that she would take the 'bus and go straight home; but something seemed to have led her to alter her purpose, for she made her way to Westminster Bridge, and crossed the river. Then she made some inquiries of a policeman, and, in consequence, got into a Kennington omnibus. Very shortly she was set down close by Walcot Square. She walked about till, with some difficulty in the darkness, she had discovered the number at which Julian had told her his friend lived. The house found, she began to pace up and down on the opposite pavement, always keeping her eyes fixed on the same door. She was soon shivering in the cold night air, and quickened her walk. It was rather more than an hour before the door she was watching at length opened, and two friends came out together. Harriet followed them as closely as she could, until she saw that she herself was observed. Thereupon she walked away, and, by a circuit, ultimately came back into the main road, where she took a 'bus going northwards.
Harriet's cousin, when alone of an evening, sat in his bedroom, the world shut out, his thoughts in long past times, rebuilding the ruins of a fallen Empire.
When he was eighteen, the lad had the good luck to light upon a cheap copy of Gibbon in a second-hand book-shop. It was the first edition; six noble quarto volumes, clean and firm in the old bindings. Often he had turned longing eyes upon newer copies of the great book, but the price had always put them beyond his reach. That very night he solemnly laid open the first volume at the first page, propping it on a couple of meaner books, and, after glancing through the short Preface, began to read with a mind as devoutly disposed as that of any pious believer poring upon his Bible. "In the second century of the Christian AEra, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour." With what a grand epic roll, with what anticipations of solemn music, did the noble history begin! Far, far into the night Julian turned over page after page, thoughtless of sleep and the commonplace duties of the morrow.
Since then he had mastered his Gibbon, knew him from end to end, and joyed in him more than ever. Whenever he had a chance of obtaining any of the writers, ancient or modern, to whom Gibbon refers, he read them and added to his knowledge. About a year ago, he had picked up an old Claudian, and the reading of the poet had settled him to a task which he had before that doubtfully sought. He wanted to write either a poem or a drama on some subject taken from the "Decline and Fall," and now, with Claudian's help, he fixed upon Stilicho for his hero. The form, he then decided, should be dramatic. Upon "Stilicho" he had now been engaged for a year, and to-night he is writing the last words of the last scene. Shortly after twelve he has finished it, and, throwing down his pen, he paces about the room with enviable feelings.
He had not as yet mentioned to Waymark the work he was engaged upon, though he had confessed that he wrote verses at times. He wished to complete it, and then read it to his friend. It was now only the middle of the week, and though he had decided previously to wait till his visit to Walcot Square next Sunday before saying a word about "Stilicho," he could not refrain now from hastily penning a note to Waymark, and going out to post it at once.
When the day came, the weather would not allow the usual walk with Harriet, and Julian could not help feeling glad that it was so. He was too pre-occupied to talk in the usual way with the girl, and he knew how vain it would be to try and make her understand his state of mind. Still, he went to see her as usual, and sat for an hour in Mrs. Ogle's parlour. At times, throughout the week, he had thought of the curious resemblance between Harriet and the girl he had noticed on leaving Waymark's house last Sunday, and now he asked her, in a half-jesting way, whether it had really been she.
"How could it be?" said Harriet carelessly. "I can't be in two places at once."
"Did you stay at home that evening?"
"No,--not all the evening."
"What friends are they you go to, when you are out at night, Harriet?"
"Oh, some relations of the Colchester people.--I suppose you've been spending most of your time in Kennington since Sunday?"
"I haven't left home. In fact, I've been very busy. I've just finished some work that has occupied me for nearly a year."
After all, he could not refrain from speaking of it, though he had made up his mind not to do so.
"Work? What work?" asked Harriet, with the suspicious look which came into her grey eyes whenever she heard something she could not understand.
"Some writing. I've written a play."
"A play? Will it be acted?"
"Oh no, it isn't meant for acting."
"What's the good of it then?"
"It's written in verse. I shall perhaps try to get it published."
"Shall you get money for it?"
"That is scarcely likely. In all probability I shall not be able to get it printed at all."
"Then what's the good of it?" repeated Harriet, still suspicious, and a little contemptuous.
"It has given me pleasure, that's all."
Julian was glad when at length he could take his leave. Waymark received him with a pleased smile, and much questioning.
"Why did you keep it such a secret? I shall try my hand at a play some day or other, but, as you can guess, the material will scarcely be sought in Gibbon. It will be desperately modern, and possibly not altogether in accordance with the views of the Lord Chamberlain. What's the time? Four o'clock. We'll have a cup of coffee and then fall to. I'm eager to hear your 'deep-chested music,' your 'hollow oes and aes.'"
The reading took some three hours; Waymark smoked a vast number of pipes the while, and was silent till the close. Then he got up from his easy-chair, took a step forward, and held out his hand. His face shone with the frankest enthusiasm. He could not express himself with sufficient vehemence. Julian sat with the manuscript rolled up in his hands, on his face a glow of delight.
"It's very kind of you to speak in this way," he faltered at length.
"Kind! How the deuce should I speak? But come, we will have this off to a publisher's forth with. Have you any ideas for the next work?"
"Yes; but so daring that they hardly bear putting into words."
"Try the effect on me."
"I have thought," said Julian, with embarrassment, "of a long poem --an Epic. Virgil wrote of the founding of Rome; her dissolution is as grand a subject. It would mean years of preparation, and again years in the writing. The siege and capture of Rome by Alaric-- what do you think?"
"A work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine. But who knows?"
There was high talk in Walcot Square that evening. All unknown to its other inhabitants, the poor lodging-house was converted into a temple of the Muses, and harmonies as from Apollo's lyre throbbed in the hearts of the two friends. The future was their inexhaustible subject, the seed-plot of strange hopes and desires. They talked the night into morning, hardly daunted when perforce they remembered the day's work.