Of the acquaintances Yule had retained from his earlier years several were in the well-defined category of men with unpresentable wives. There was Hinks, for instance, whom, though in anger he spoke of him as a bore, Alfred held in some genuine regard. Hinks made perhaps a hundred a year out of a kind of writing which only certain publishers can get rid of and of this income he spent about a third on books. His wife was the daughter of a laundress, in whose house he had lodged thirty years ago, when new to London but already long-acquainted with hunger; they lived in complete harmony, but Mrs Hinks, who was four years the elder, still spoke the laundress tongue, unmitigated and immitigable. Another pair were Mr and Mrs Gorbutt. In this case there were no narrow circumstances to contend with, for the wife, originally a nurse-maid, not long after her marriage inherited house property from a relative. Mr Gorbutt deemed himself a poet; since his accession to an income he had published, at his own expense, a yearly volume of verses; the only result being to keep alive rancour in his wife, who was both parsimonious and vain. Making no secret of it, Mrs Gorbutt rued the day on which she had wedded a man of letters, when by waiting so short a time she would have been enabled to aim at a prosperous tradesman, who kept his gig and had everything handsome about him. Mrs Yule suspected, not without reason, that this lady had an inclination to strong liquors. Thirdly came Mr and Mrs Christopherson, who were poor as church mice. Even in a friend's house they wrangled incessantly, and made tragi-comical revelations of their home life. The husband worked casually at irresponsible journalism, but his chosen study was metaphysics; for many years he had had a huge and profound book on hand, which he believed would bring him fame, though he was not so unsettled in mind as to hope for anything else. When an article or two had earned enough money for immediate necessities he went off to the British Museum, and then the difficulty was to recall him to profitable exertions. Yet husband and wife had an affection for each other. Mrs Christopherson came from Camberwell, where her father, once upon a time, was the smallest of small butchers. Disagreeable stories were whispered concerning her earlier life, and probably the metaphysician did not care to look back in that direction. They had had three children; all were happily buried..
These men were capable of better things than they had done or would ever do; in each case their failure to fulfil youthful promise was largely explained by the unpresentable wife. They should have waited; they might have married a social equal at something between fifty and sixty.
Another old friend was Mr Quarmby. Unwedded he, and perpetually exultant over men who, as he phrased it, had. noosed themselves. He made a fair living, but, like Dr Johnson, had no passion for clean linen.
Yule was not disdainful of these old companions, and the fact that all had a habit of looking up to him increased his pleasure in their occasional society. If, as happened once or twice in half a year, several of them were gathered together at his house, he tasted a sham kind of social and intellectual authority which he could not help relishing. On such occasions he threw off his habitual gloom and talked vigorously, making natural display of his learning and critical ability. The topic, sooner or later, was that which is inevitable in such a circle -- the demerits, the pretentiousness, the personal weaknesses of prominent contemporaries in the world of letters. Then did the room ring with scornful laughter, with boisterous satire, with shouted irony, with fierce invective. After an evening of that kind Yule was unwell and miserable for several days.
It was not to be expected that Mr Quarmby, inveterate chatterbox of the Reading-room and other resorts, should keep silence concerning what he had heard of Mr Rackett's intentions. The rumour soon spread that Alfred Yule was to succeed Fadge in the direction of The Study, with the necessary consequence that Yule found himself an object of affectionate interest to a great many people of whom he knew little or nothing. At the same time the genuine old friends pressed warmly about him, with congratulations, with hints of their sincere readiness to assist in filling the columns of the paper. All this was not disagreeable, but in the meantime Yule had heard nothing whatever from Mr Rackett himself and his doubts did not diminish as week after week went by.
The event justified him. At the end of October appeared an authoritative announcement that Fadge's successor would be -- not Alfred Yule, but a gentleman who till of late had been quietly working as a sub-editor in the provinces, and who had neither friendships nor enmities among the people of the London literary press. A young man, comparatively fresh from the university, and said to be strong in pure scholarship. The choice, as you are aware, proved a good one, and The Study became an organ of more repute than ever.
Yule had been secretly conscious that it was not to men such as he that positions of this kind are nowadays entrusted. He tried to persuade himself that he was not disappointed. But when Mr Quarmby approached him with blank face, he spoke certain wrathful words which long rankled in that worthy's mind. At home he kept sullen silence.
No, not to such men as he -- poor, and without social recommendations. Besides, he was growing too old. In literature, as in most other pursuits, the press of energetic young men was making it very hard for a veteran even to hold the little grazing-plot he had won by hard fighting. Still, Quarmby's story had not been without foundation; it was true that the proprietor of The Study had for a moment thought of Alfred Yule, doubtless as the natural contrast to Clement Fadge, whom he would have liked to mortify if the thing were possible. But counsellors had proved to Mr Rackett the disadvantages of such a choice.
Mrs Yule and her daughter foresaw but too well the results of this disappointment, notwithstanding that Alfred announced it to them with dry indifference. The month that followed was a time of misery for all in the house. Day after day Yule sat at his meals in sullen muteness; to his wife he scarcely spoke at all, and his conversation with Marian did not go beyond necessary questions and remarks on topics of business. His face became so strange a colour that one would have thought him suffering from an attack of jaundice; bilious headaches exasperated his savage mood. Mrs Yule knew from long experience how worse than useless it was for her to attempt consolation; in silence was her only safety. Nor did Marian venture to speak directly of what had happened. But one evening, when she had been engaged in the study and was now saying 'Good-night,' she laid her cheek against her father's, an unwonted caress which had a strange effect upon him. The expression of sympathy caused his thoughts to reveal themselves as they never yet had done before his daughter.
'It might have been very different with me,' he exclaimed abruptly, as if they had already been conversing on the subject. 'When you think of my failures -- and you must often do so now you are grown up and understand things -- don't forget the obstacles that have been in my way. I don't like you to look upon your father as a thickhead who couldn't be expected to succeed. Look at Fadge. He married a woman of good social position; she brought him friends and influence. But for that he would never have been editor of The Study, a place for which he wasn't in the least fit. But he was able to give dinners; he and his wife went into society; everybody knew him and talked of him. How has it been with me? I live here like an animal in its hole, and go blinking about if by chance I find myself among the people with whom I ought naturally to associate. If I had been able to come in direct contact with Rackett and other men of that kind, to dine with them, and have them to dine with me, to belong to a club, and so on, I shouldn't be what I am at my age. My one opportunity -- when I edited The Balance -- wasn't worth much; there was no money behind the paper; we couldn't hold out long enough. But even then, if I could have assumed my proper social standing, if I could have opened my house freely to the right kind of people ---- How was it possible?'
Marian could not raise her head. She recognised the portion of truth in what he said, but it shocked her that he should allow himself to speak thus. Her silence seemed to remind him how painful it must be to her to hear these accusations of her mother, and with a sudden 'Good-night' he dismissed her.
She went up to her room, and wept over the wretchedness of all their lives. Her loneliness had seemed harder to bear than ever since that last holiday. For a moment, in the lanes about Finden, there had come to her a vision of joy such as fate owed her youth; but it had faded, and she could no longer hope for its return. She was not a woman, but a mere machine for reading and writing. Did her father never think of this? He was not the only one to suffer from the circumstances in which poverty had involved him.
She had no friends to whom she could utter her thoughts. Dora Milvain had written a second time, and more recently had come a letter from Maud; but in replying to them she could not give a true account of herself. Impossible, to them. From what she wrote they would imagine her contentedly busy, absorbed in the affairs of literature. To no one could she make known the aching sadness of her heart, the dreariness of life as it lay before her.
That beginning of half-confidence between her and her mother had led to nothing. Mrs Yule found no second opportunity of speaking to her husband about Jasper Milvain, and purposely she refrained from any further hint or question to Marian. Everything must go on as hitherto.
The days darkened. Through November rains and fogs Marian went her usual way to the Museum, and toiled there among the other toilers. Perhaps once a week she allowed herself to stray about the alleys of the Reading-room, scanning furtively those who sat at the desks, but the face she might perchance have discovered was not there.
One day at the end of the month she sat with books open before her, but by no effort could fix her attention upon them. It was gloomy, and one could scarcely see to read; a taste of fog grew perceptible in the warm, headachy air. Such profound discouragement possessed her that she could not even maintain the pretence of study; heedless whether anyone observed her, she let her hands fall and her head droop. She kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day's market. What unspeakable folly! To write -- was not that the joy and the privilege of one who had an urgent message for the world? Her father, she knew well, had no such message; he had abandoned all thought of original production, and only wrote about writing. She herself would throw away her pen with joy but for the need of earning money. And all these people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made Out of theirs? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print -- how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit!
Oh, to go forth and labour with one's hands, to do any poorest, commonest work of which the world had truly need! It was ignoble to sit here and support the paltry pretence of intellectual dignity. A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed 'Literary Machine'; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for to-day's consumption.
The fog grew thicker; she looked up at the windows beneath the dome and saw that they were a dusky yellow. Then her eye discerned an official walking along the upper gallery, and in pursuance of her grotesque humour, her mocking misery, she likened him to a black, lost soul, doomed to wander in an eternity of vain research along endless shelves. Or again, the readers who sat here at these radiating lines of desks, what were they but hapless flies caught in a huge web, its nucleus the great circle of the Catalogue? Darker, darker. From the towering wall of volumes seemed to emanate visible motes, intensifying the obscurity; in a moment the book-lined circumference of the room would be but a featureless prison-limit.
But then flashed forth the sputtering whiteness of the electric light, and its ceaseless hum was henceforth a new source of headache. It reminded her how little work she had done to-day; she must, she must force herself to think of the task in hand. A machine has no business to refuse its duty. But the pages were blue and green and yellow before her eyes; the uncertainty of the light was intolerable. Right or wrong she would go home, and hide herself, and let her heart unburden itself of tears.
On her way to return books she encountered Jasper Milvain. Face to face; no possibility of his avoiding her.
And indeed he seemed to have no such wish. His countenance lighted up with unmistakable pleasure.
'At last we meet, as they say in the melodramas. Oh, do let me help you with those volumes, which won't even let you shake hands. How do you do? How do you like this weather? And how do you like this light?'
'It's very bad.'
'That'll do both for weather and light, but not for yourself. How glad I am to see you! Are you just going?'
'I have scarcely been here half-a-dozen times since I came back to London.'
'But you are writing still?'
'Oh yes! But I draw upon my genius, and my stores of observation, and the living world.'
Marian received her vouchers for the volumes, and turned to face Jasper again. There was a smile on her lips.
'The fog is terrible,' Milvain went on. 'How do you get home?'
'By omnibus from Tottenham Court Road.'
'Then do let me go a part of the way with you. I live in Mornington Road -- up yonder, you know. I have only just come in to waste half an hour, and after all I think I should be better at home. Your father is all right, I hope?'
'He is not quite well.'
'I'm sorry to hear that. You are not exactly up to the mark, either. What weather! What a place to live in, this London, in winter! It would be a little better down at Finden.'
'A good deal better, I should think. If the weather were bad, it would be bad in a natural way; but this is artificial misery.'
'I don't let it affect me much,' said Milvain. 'Just of late I have been in remarkably good spirits. I'm doing a lot of work. No end of work -- more than I've ever done.'
'I am very glad.'
'Where are your out-of-door things? I think there's a ladies' vestry somewhere, isn't there?'
'Then will you go and get ready? I'll wait for you in the hall. But, by-the-bye, I am taking it for granted that you were going alone.'
'I was, quite alone.'
The 'quite' seemed excessive; it made Jasper smile.
'And also,' he added, 'that I shall not annoy you by offering my company?'
'Why should it annoy me?'
Milvain had only to wait a minute or two. He surveyed Marian from head to foot when she appeared -- an impertinence as unintentional as that occasionally noticeable in his speech -- and smiled approval. They went out into the fog, which was not one of London's densest, but made walking disagreeable enough.
'You have heard from the girls, I think?' Jasper resumed.
'Your sisters? Yes; they have been so kind as to write to me.'
'Told you all about their great work? I hope it'll be finished by the end of the year. The bits they have sent me will do very well indeed. I knew they had it in them to put sentences together. Now I want them to think of patching up something or other for The English Girl; you know the paper?'
'I have heard of it.'
'I happen to know Mrs Boston Wright, who edits it. Met her at a house the other day, and told her frankly that she would have to give my sisters something to do. It's the only way to get on; one has to take it for granted that people are willing to help you. I have made a host of new acquaintances just lately.'
'I'm glad to hear it,' said Marian.
'Do you know -- but how should you? I am going to write for the new magazine, The Current.'
'Edited by that man Fadge.'
'Your father has no affection for him, I know.'
'He has no reason to have, Mr Milvain.'
'No, no. Fadge is an offensive fellow, when he likes; and I fancy he very often does like. Well, I must make what use of him I can. You won't think worse of me because I write for him?'
'I know that one can't exercise choice in such things.'
'True. I shouldn't like to think that you regard me as a Fadge-like individual, a natural Fadgeite.'
'There's no danger of my thinking that.'
But the fog was making their eyes water and getting into their throats. By when they reached Tottenham Court Road they were both thoroughly uncomfortable. The 'bus had to be waited for, and in the meantime they talked scrappily, coughily. In the vehicle things were a little better, but here one could not converse with freedom.
'What pestilent conditions of life!' exclaimed Jasper, putting his face rather near to Marian's. 'I wish to goodness we were back in those quiet fields -- you remember? -- with the September sun warm about us. Shall you go to Finden again before long?'
'I really don't know.'
'I'm sorry to say my mother is far from well. In any case I must go at Christmas, but I'm afraid it won't be a cheerful visit.'
Arrived in Hampstead Road he offered his hand for good-bye.
'I wanted to talk about all sorts of things. But perhaps I shall find you again some day.'
He jumped out, and waved his hat in the lurid fog.
Shortly before the end of December appeared the first number of The Current. Yule had once or twice referred to the forthcoming magazine with acrid contempt, and of course he did not purchase a copy.
'So young Milvain has joined Fadge's hopeful standard,' he remarked, a day or two later, at breakfast. 'They say his paper is remarkably clever; I could wish it had appeared anywhere else. Evil communications, &c.'
'But I shouldn't think there's any personal connection,' said Marian.
'Very likely not. But Milvain has been invited to contribute, you see.
'Do you think he ought to have refused?'
'Oh no. It's nothing to me; nothing whatever.'
Mrs Yule glanced at her daughter, but Marian seemed unconcerned. The subject was dismissed. In introducing it Yule had had his purpose; there had always been an unnatural avoidance of Milvain's name in conversation, and he wished to have an end of this. Hitherto he had felt a troublesome uncertainty regarding his position in the matter. From what his wife had told him it seemed pretty certain that Marian was disappointed by the abrupt closing of her brief acquaintance with the young man, and Yule's affection for his daughter caused him to feel uneasy in the thought that perhaps he had deprived her of a chance of happiness. His conscience readily took hold of an excuse for justifying the course he had followed. Milvain had gone over to the enemy. Whether or not the young man understood how relentless the hostility was between Yule and Fadge mattered little; the probability was that he knew all about it. In any case intimate relations with him could not have survived this alliance with Fadge, so that, after all, there had been wisdom in letting the acquaintance lapse. To be sure, nothing could have come of it. Milvain was the kind of man who weighed opportunities; every step he took would be regulated by considerations of advantage; at all events that was the impression his character had made upon Yule. Any hopes that Marian might have been induced to form would assuredly have ended in disappointment. It was kindness to interpose before things had gone so far.
Henceforth, if Milvain's name was unavoidable, it should be mentioned just like that of any other literary man. It seemed very unlikely indeed that Marian would continue to think of him with any special and personal interest. The fact of her having got into correspondence with his sisters was unfortunate, but this kind of thing rarely went on for very long.
Yule spoke of the matter with his wife that evening.
'By-the-bye, has Marian heard from those girls at Finden lately?'
'She had a letter one afternoon last week.'
'Do you see these letters?'
'No; she told me what was in them at first, but now she doesn't.'
'She hasn't spoken to you again of Milvain?'
'Not a word.'
'Well, I understood what I was about,' Yule remarked, with the confident air of one who doesn't wish to remember that he had ever felt doubtful. 'There was no good in having the fellow here. He has got in with a set that I don't at all care for. If she ever says anything -- you understand -- you can just let me know.'
Marian had already procured a copy of The Current, and read it privately. Of the cleverness of Milvain's contribution there could be no two opinions; it drew the attention of the public, and all notices of the new magazine made special reference to this article. With keen interest Marian sought after comments of the press; when it was possible she cut them out and put them carefully away.
January passed, and February. She saw nothing of Jasper. A letter from Dora in the first week of March made announcement that the 'Child's History of the English Parliament' would be published very shortly; it told her, too, that Mrs Milvain had been very ill indeed, but that she seemed to recover a little strength as the weather improved. Of Jasper there was no mention.
A week later came the news that Mrs Milvain had suddenly died.
This letter was received at breakfast-time. The envelope was an ordinary one, and so little did Marian anticipate the nature of its contents that at the first sight of the words she uttered an exclamation of pain. Her father, who had turned from the table to the fireside with his newspaper, looked round and asked what was the matter.
'Mrs Milvain died the day before yesterday.'
He averted his face again and seemed disposed to say no more. But in a few moments he inquired:
'What are her daughters likely to do?'
'I have no idea.'
'Do you know anything of their circumstances?'
'I believe they will have to depend upon themselves.'
Nothing more was said. Afterwards Mrs Yule made a few sympathetic inquiries, but Marian was very brief in her replies.
Ten days after that, on a Sunday afternoon when Marian and her mother were alone in the sitting-room, they heard the knock of a visitor at the front door. Yule was out, and there was no likelihood of the visitor's wishing to see anyone but him. They listened; the servant went to the door, and, after a murmur of voices, came to speak to her mistress.
'It's a gentleman called Mr Milvain,' the girl reported, in a way that proved how seldom callers presented themselves. 'He asked for Mr Yule, and when I said he was out, then he asked for Miss Yule.'
Mother and daughter looked anxiously at each other. Mrs Yule was nervous and helpless.
'Show Mr Milvain into the study,' said Marian, with sudden decision.
'Are you going to see him there?' asked her mother in a hurried whisper.
'I thought you would prefer that to his coming in here.'
'Yes -- yes. But suppose father comes back before he's gone?'
'What will it matter? You forget that he asked for father first.'
'Oh yes! Then don't wait.'
Marian, scarcely less agitated than her mother, was just leaving the room, when she turned back again.
'If father comes in, you will tell him before he goes into the study?'
'Yes, I will.'
The fire in the study was on the point of extinction; this was the first thing Marian's eye perceived on entering, and it gave her assurance that her father would not be back for some hours. Evidently he had intended it to go out; small economies of this kind, unintelligible to people who have always lived at ease, had been the life-long rule with him. With a sensation of gladness at having free time before her, Marian turned to where Milvain was standing, in front of one of the bookcases. He wore no symbol of mourning, but his countenance was far graver than usual, and rather paler. They shook hands in silence.
'I am so grieved ----' Marian began with broken voice.
'Thank you. I know the girls have told you all about it. We knew for the last month that it must come before long, though there was a deceptive improvement just before the end.'
'Please to sit down, Mr Milvain. Father went out not long ago, and I don't think he will be back very soon.'
'It was not really Mr Yule I wished to see,' said Jasper, frankly. 'If he had been at home I should have spoken with him about what I have in mind, but if you will kindly give me a few minutes it will be much better.'
Marian glanced at the expiring fire. Her curiosity as to what Milvain had to say was mingled with an anxious doubt whether it was not too late to put on fresh coals; already the room was growing very chill, and this appearance of inhospitality troubled her.
'Do you wish to save it?' Jasper asked, understanding her look and movement.
'I'm afraid it has got too low.'
'I think not. Life in lodgings has made me skilful at this kind of thing; let me try my hand.'
He took the tongs and carefully disposed small pieces of coal upon the glow that remained. Marian stood apart with a feeling of shame and annoyance. But it is so seldom that situations in life arrange themselves with dramatic propriety; and, after all, this vulgar necessity made the beginning of the conversation easier.
'That will be all right now,' said Jasper at length, as little tongues of flame began to shoot here and there.
Marian said nothing, but seated herself and waited.
'I came up to town yesterday,' Jasper began. 'Of course we have had a great deal to do and think about. Miss Harrow has been very kind indeed to the girls; so have several of our old friends in Wattleborough. It was necessary to decide at once what Maud and Dora are going to do, and it is on their account that I have come to see you.
The listener kept silence, with a face of sympathetic attention.
'We have made up our minds that they may as well come to London. It's a bold step; I'm by no means sure that the result will justify it. But I think they are perhaps right in wishing to try it.'
'They will go on with literary work?'
'Well, it's our hope that they may be able to. Of course there's no chance of their earning enough to live upon for some time. But the matter stands like this. They have a trifling sum of money, on which, at a pinch, they could live in London for perhaps a year and a half In that time they may find their way to a sort of income; at all events, the chances are that a year and a half hence I shall be able to help them to keep body and soul together.'
The money of which he spoke was the debt owed to their father by William Milvain. In consequence of Mrs Milvain's pressing application, half of this sum had at length been paid and the remainder was promised in a year's time, greatly to Jasper's astonishment. In addition, there would be the trifle realised by the sale of furniture, though most of this might have to go in payment of rent unless the house could be relet immediately.
'They have made a good beginning,' said Marian.
She spoke mechanically, for it was impossible to keep her thoughts under control. If Maud and Dora came to live in London it might bring about a most important change in her life; she could scarcely imagine the happiness of having two such friends always near. On the other hand, how would it be regarded by her father? She was at a loss amid conflicting emotions.
'It's better than if they had done nothing at all,' Jasper replied to her remark. 'And the way they knocked that trifle together promises well. They did it very quickly, and in a far more workmanlike way than I should have thought possible.'
'No doubt they share your own talent.'
'Perhaps so. Of course I know that I have talent of a kind, though I don't rate it very high. We shall have to see whether they can do anything more than mere booksellers' work; they are both very young, you know. I think they may be able to write something that'll do for The English Girl, and no doubt I can hit upon a second idea that will appeal to Jolly and Monk. At all events, they'll have books within reach, and better opportunities every way than at Finden.'
'How do their friends in the country think of it?'
'Very dubiously; but then what else was to be expected? Of course, the respectable and intelligible path marked out for both of them points to a lifetime of governessing. But the girls have no relish for that; they'd rather do almost anything. We talked over all the aspects of the situation seriously enough -- it is desperately serious, no doubt of that. I told them fairly all the hardships they would have to face -- described the typical London lodgings, and so on. Still, there's an adventurous vein in them, and they decided for the risk. If it came to the worst I suppose they could still find governess work.'
'Let us hope better things.'
'Yes. But now, I should have felt far more reluctant to let them come here in this way hadn't it been that they regard you as a friend. To-morrow morning you will probably hear from one or both of them. Perhaps it would have been better if I had left them to tell you all this, but I felt I should like to see you and -- put it in my own way. I think you'll understand this feeling, Miss Yule. I wanted, in fact, to hear from yourself that you would be a friend to the poor girls.'
'Oh, you already know that! I shall be so very glad to see them often.'
Marian's voice lent itself very naturally and sweetly to the expression of warm feeling. Emphasis was not her habit; it only needed that she should put off her ordinary reserve, utter quietly the emotional thought which so seldom might declare itself, and her tones had an exquisite womanliness.
Jasper looked full into her face.
'In that case they won't miss the comfort of home so much. Of course they will have to go into very modest lodgings indeed. I have already been looking about. I should like to find rooms for them somewhere near my own place; it's a decent neighbourhood, and the park is at hand, and then they wouldn't be very far from you. They thought it might be possible to make a joint establishment with me, but I'm afraid that's out of the question. The lodgings we should want in that case, everything considered, would cost more than the sum of our expenses if we live apart. Besides, there's no harm in saying that I don't think we should get along very well together. We're all of us rather quarrelsome, to tell the truth, and We try each other's tempers.'
Marian smiled and looked puzzled.
'Shouldn't you have thought that?'
'I have seen no signs of quarrelsomeness.'
'I'm not sure that the worst fault is on my side. Why should one condemn oneself against conscience? Maud is perhaps the hardest to get along with. She has a sort of arrogance, an exaggeration of something I am quite aware of in myself. You have noticed that trait in me?'
'Arrogance -- I think not. You have self-confidence.'
'Which goes into extremes now and then. But, putting myself aside, I feel pretty sure that the girls won't seem quarrelsome to you; they would have to be very fractious indeed before that were possible.'
'We shall continue to be friends, I am sure.'
Jasper let his eyes wander about the room.
'This is your father's study?'
'Perhaps it would have seemed odd to Mr Yule if I had come in and begun to talk to him about these purely private affairs. He knows me so very slightly. But, in calling here for the first time ----'
An unusual embarrassment checked him.
'I will explain to father your very natural wish to speak of these things,' said Marian, with tact.
She thought uneasily of her mother in the next room. To her there appeared no reason whatever why Jasper should not be introduced to Mrs Yule, yet she could not venture to propose it. Remembering her father's last remarks about Milvain in connection with Fadge's magazine, she must wait for distinct permission before offering the young man encouragement to repeat his visit. Perhaps there was complicated trouble in store for her; impossible to say how her father's deep-rooted and rankling antipathies might affect her intercourse even with the two girls. But she was of independent years; she must be allowed the choice of her own friends. The pleasure she had in seeing Jasper under this roof, in hearing him talk with such intimate friendliness, strengthened her to resist timid thoughts.
'When will your sisters arrive?' she asked.
'I think in a very few days. When I have fixed upon lodgings for them I must go back to Finden; then they will return with me as soon as we can get the house emptied. It's rather miserable selling things one has lived among from childhood. A friend in Wattleborough will house for us what we really can't bear to part with.'
'It must be very sad,' Marian murmured.
'You know,' said the other suddenly, 'that it's my fault the girls are left in such a hard position?'
Marian looked at him with startled eyes. His tone was quite unfamiliar to her.
'Mother had an annuity,' he continued. 'It ended with her life, but if it hadn't been for me she could have saved a good deal out of it. Until the last year or two I have earned nothing, and I have spent more than was strictly necessary. Well, I didn't live like that in mere recklessness; I knew I was preparing myself for remunerative work. But it seems too bad now. I'm sorry for it. I wish I had found some way of supporting myself. The end of mother's life was made far more unhappy than it need have been. I should like you to understand all this.'
The listener kept her eyes on the ground.
'Perhaps the girls have hinted it to you?' Jasper added.
'Selfishness -- that's one of my faults. It isn't a brutal kind of selfishness; the thought of it often enough troubles me. If I were rich, I should be a generous and good man; I know I should. So would many another poor fellow whose worst features come out under hardship. This isn't a heroic type; of course not. I am a civilised man, that's all.'
Marian could say nothing.
'You wonder why I am so impertinent as to talk about myself like this. I have gone through a good deal of mental pain these last few weeks, and somehow I can't help showing you something of my real thoughts. Just because you are one of the few people I regard with sincere respect. I don't know you very well, but quite well enough to respect you. My sisters think of you in the same way. I shall do many a base thing in life, just to get money and reputation; I tell you this that you mayn't be surprised if anything of that kind comes to your ears. I can't afford to live as I should like to.'
She looked up at him with a smile.
'People who are going to live unworthily don't declare it in this way.'
'I oughtn't to; a few minutes ago I had no intention of saying such things. It means I am rather overstrung, I suppose; but it's all true, unfortunately.'
He rose, and began to run his eye along the shelves nearest to him.
'Well, now I will go, Miss Yule.'
Marian stood up as he approached.
'It's all very well,' he said, smiling, 'for me to encourage my sisters in the hope that they may earn a living; but suppose I can't even do it myself? It's by no means certain that I shall make ends meet this year.'
'You have every reason to hope, I think.'
'I like to hear people say that, but it'll mean savage work. When we were all at Finden last year, I told the girls that it would be another twelve months before I could support myself. Now I am forced to do it. And I don't like work; my nature is lazy. I shall never write for writing's sake, only to make money. All my plans and efforts will have money in view -- all. I shan't allow anything to come in the way of my material advancement.'
'I wish you every success,' said Marian, without looking at him, and without a smile.
'Thank you. But that sounds too much like good-bye. I trust we are to be friends, for all that?'
'Indeed, I hope we may be.'
They shook hands, and he went towards the door. But before opening it, he asked:
'Did you read that thing of mine in The Current?'
'It wasn't bad, I think?'
'It seemed to me very clever.'
'Clever -- yes, that's the word. It had a success, too. I have as good a thing half done for the April number, but I've felt too heavy-hearted to go on with it. The girls shall let you know when they are in town.'
Marian followed him into the passage, and watched him as he opened the front door. When it had closed, she went back into the study for a few moments before rejoining her mother.
After all, there came a day when Edwin Reardon found himself regularly at work once more, ticking off his stipulated quantum of manuscript each four-and-twenty hours. He wrote a very small hand; sixty written slips of the kind of paper he habitually used would represent -- thanks to the astonishing system which prevails in such matters: large type, wide spacing, frequency of blank pages -- a passable three-hundred-page volume. On an average he could write four such slips a day; so here we have fifteen days for the volume, and forty-five for the completed book.
Forty-five days; an eternity in the looking forward. Yet the calculation gave him a faint-hearted encouragement. At that rate he might have his book sold by Christmas. It would certainly not bring him a hundred pounds; seventy-five perhaps. But even that small sum would enable him to pay the quarter's rent, and then give him a short time, if only two or three weeks, of mental rest. If such rest could not be obtained all was at an end with him. He must either find some new means of supporting himself and his family, or -- have done with life and its responsibilities altogether.
The latter alternative was often enough before him. He seldom slept for more than two or three consecutive hours in the night, and the time of wakefulness was often terrible. The various sounds which marked the stages from midnight to dawn had grown miserably familiar to him; worst torture to his mind was the chiming and striking of clocks. Two of these were in general audible, that of Marylebone parish church, and that of the adjoining workhouse; the latter always sounded several minutes after its ecclesiastical neighbour, and with a difference of note which seemed to Reardon very appropriate -- a thin, querulous voice, reminding one of the community it represented. After lying awake for awhile he would hear quarters sounding; if they ceased before the fourth he was glad, for he feared to know what time it was. If the hour was complete, he waited anxiously for its number. Two, three, even four, were grateful; there was still a long time before he need rise and face the dreaded task, the horrible four blank slips of paper that had to be filled ere he might sleep again. But such restfulness was only for a moment; no sooner had the workhouse bell become silent than he began to toil in his weary imagination, or else, incapable of that, to vision fearful hazards of the future. The soft breathing of Amy at his side, the contact of her warm limbs, often filled him with intolerable dread. Even now he did not believe that Amy loved him with the old love, and the suspicion was like a cold weight at his heart that to retain even her wifely sympathy, her wedded tenderness, he must achieve the impossible.
The impossible; for he could no longer deceive himself with a hope of genuine success. If he earned a bare living, that would be the utmost. And with bare livelihood Amy would not, could not, be content.
If he were to die a natural death it would be well for all. His wife and the child would be looked after; they could live with Mrs Edmund Yule, and certainly it would not be long before Amy married again, this time a man of whose competency to maintain her there would be no doubt. His own behaviour had been cowardly selfishness. Oh yes, she had loved him, had been eager to believe in him. But there was always that voice of warning in his mind; he foresaw -- he knew ----
And if he killed himself? Not here; no lurid horrors for that poor girl and her relatives; but somewhere at a distance, under circumstances which would render the recovery of his body difficult, yet would leave no doubt of his death. Would that, again, be cowardly? The opposite, when once it was certain that to live meant poverty and wretchedness. Amy's grief; however sincere, would be but a short trial compared with what else might lie before her. The burden of supporting her and Willie would be a very slight one if she went to live in her mother's house. He considered the whole matter night after night, until perchance it happened that sleep had pity upon him for an hour before the time of rising.
Autumn was passing into winter. Dark days, which were always an oppression to his mind, began to be frequent, and would soon succeed each other remorselessly. Well, if only each of them represented four written slips.
Milvain's advice to him had of course proved useless. The sensational title suggested nothing, or only ragged shapes of incomplete humanity that fluttered mockingly when he strove to fix them. But he had decided upon a story of the kind natural to him; a 'thin' story, and one which it would be difficult to spin into three volumes. His own, at all events. The title was always a matter for head-racking when the book was finished; he had never yet chosen it before beginning.
For a week he got on at the desired rate; then came once more the crisis he had anticipated.
A familiar symptom of the malady which falls upon outwearied imagination. There were floating in his mind five or six possible subjects for a book, all dating back to the time when he first began novel-writing, when ideas came freshly to him. If he grasped desperately at one of these, and did his best to develop it, for a day or two he could almost content himself characters, situations, lines of motive, were laboriously schemed, and he felt ready to begin writing. But scarcely had he done a chapter or two when all the structure fell into flatness. He had made a mistake. Not this story, but that other one, was what he should have taken. The other one in question, left out of mind for a time, had come back with a face of new possibility; it invited him, tempted him to throw aside what he had already written. Good; now he was in more hopeful train. But a few days, and the experience repeated itself. No, not this story, but that third one, of which he had not thought for a long time. How could he have rejected so hopeful a subject?
For months he had been living in this way; endless circling, perpetual beginning, followed by frustration. A sign of exhaustion, it of course made exhaustion more complete. At times he was on the border-land of imbecility; his mind looked into a cloudy chaos, a shapeless whirl of nothings. He talked aloud to himself not knowing that he did so. Little phrases which indicated dolorously the subject of his preoccupation often escaped him in the street: 'What could I make of that, now?' 'Well, suppose I made him ----?' 'But no, that wouldn't do,' and so on. It had happened that he caught the eye of some one passing fixed in surprise upon him; so young a man to be talking to himself in evident distress!
The expected crisis came, even now that he was savagely determined to go on at any cost, to write, let the result be what it would. His will prevailed. A day or two of anguish such as there is no describing to the inexperienced, and again he was dismissing slip after slip, a sigh of thankfulness at the completion of each one. It was a fraction of the whole, a fraction, a fraction.
The ordering of his day was thus. At nine, after breakfast, he sat down to his desk, and worked till one. Then came dinner, followed by a walk. As a rule he could not allow Amy to walk with him, for he had to think over the remainder of the day's toil, and companionship would have been fatal. At about half-past three he again seated himself; and wrote until half-past six, when he had a meal. Then once more to work from half-past seven to ten. Numberless were the experiments he had tried for the day's division. The slightest interruption of the order for the time being put him out of gear; Amy durst not open his door to ask however necessary a question.
Sometimes the three hours' labour of a morning resulted in half-a-dozen lines, corrected into illegibility. His brain would not work; he could not recall the simplest synonyms; intolerable faults of composition drove him mad. He would write a sentence beginning thus: 'She took a book with a look of ----;' or thus: 'A revision of this decision would have made him an object of derision.' Or, if the period were otherwise inoffensive, it ran in a rhythmic gallop which was torment to the ear. All this, in spite of the fact that his former books had been noticeably good in style. He had an appreciation of shapely prose which made him scorn himself for the kind of stuff he was now turning out. 'I can't help it; it must go; the time is passing.'
Things were better, as a rule, in the evening. Occasionally he wrote a page with fluency which recalled his fortunate years; and then his heart gladdened, his hand trembled with joy.
Description of locality, deliberate analysis of character or motive, demanded far too great an effort for his present condition. He kept as much as possible to dialogue; the space is filled so much more quickly, and at a pinch one can make people talk about the paltriest incidents of life.
There came an evening when he opened the door and called to Amy.
'What is it?' she answered from the bedroom. 'I'm busy with Willie.'
'Come as soon as you are free.'
In ten minutes she appeared. There was apprehension on her face; she feared he was going to lament his inability to work. Instead of that, he told her joyfully that the first volume was finished.
'Thank goodness!' she exclaimed. 'Are you going to do any more to-night?'
'I think not -- if you will come and sit with me.'
'Willie doesn't seem very well. He can't get to sleep.'
'You would like to stay with him?'
'A little while. I'll come presently.'
She closed the door. Reardon brought a high-backed chair to the fireside, and allowed himself to forget the two volumes that had still to be struggled through, in a grateful sense of the portion that was achieved. In a few minutes it occurred to him that it would be delightful to read a scrap of the 'Odyssey'; he went to the shelves on which were his classical books, took the desired volume, and opened it where Odysseus speaks to Nausicaa:
'For never yet did I behold one of mortals like to thee, neither man nor woman; I am awed as I look upon thee. In Delos once, hard by the altar of Apollo, I saw a young palm-tree shooting up with even such a grace.'
Yes, yes; that was not written at so many pages a day, with a workhouse clock clanging its admonition at the poet's ear. How it freshened the soul! How the eyes grew dim with a rare joy in the sounding of those nobly sweet hexameters!
Amy came into the room again.
'Listen,' said Reardon, looking up at her with a bright smile. 'Do you remember the first time that I read you this?'
And he turned the speech into free prose. Amy laughed.
'I remember it well enough. We were alone in the drawing-room; I had told the others that they must make shift with the dining-room for that evening. And you pulled the book out of your pocket unexpectedly. I laughed at your habit of always carrying little books about.'
The cheerful news had brightened her. If she had been summoned to hear lamentations her voice would not have rippled thus soothingly. Reardon thought of this, and it made him silent for a minute.
'The habit was ominous,' he said, looking at her with an uncertain smile. 'A practical literary man doesn't do such things.'
'Milvain, for instance. No.'
With curious frequency she mentioned the name of Milvain. Her unconsciousness in doing so prevented Reardon from thinking about the fact; still, he had noted it.
'Did you understand the phrase slightingly?' he asked.
'Slightingly? Yes, a little, of course. It always has that sense on your lips, I think.'
In the light of this answer he mused upon her readily-offered instance. True, he had occasionally spoken of Jasper with something less than respect, but Amy was not in the habit of doing so.
'I hadn't any such meaning just then,' he said. 'I meant quite simply that my bookish habits didn't promise much for my success as a novelist.'
'I see. But you didn't think of it in that way at the time.'
'No. At least -- no.'
'At least what?'
'Well, no; on the whole I had good hope.'
Amy twisted her fingers together impatiently.
'Edwin, let me tell you something. You are getting too fond of speaking in a discouraging way. Now, why should you do so? I don't like it. It has one disagreeable effect on me, and that is, when people ask me about you, how you are getting on, I don't quite know how to answer. They can't help seeing that I am uneasy. I speak so differently from what I used to.'
'Do you, really?'
'Indeed I can't help it. As I say, it's very much your own fault.'
'Well, but granted that I am not of a very sanguine nature, and that I easily fall into gloomy ways of talk, what is Amy here for?'
'Yes, yes. But ----'
'I am not here only to try and keep you in good spirits, am I?'
She asked it prettily, with a smile like that of maidenhood.
'Heaven forbid! I oughtn't to have put it in that absolute way. I was half joking, you know. But unfortunately it's true that I can't be as light-spirited as I could wish. Does that make you impatient with me?'
'A little. I can't help the feeling, and I ought to try to overcome it. But you must try on your side as well. Why should you have said that thing just now?'
'You're quite right. It was needless.'
'A few weeks ago I didn't expect you to be cheerful. Things began to look about as bad as they could. But now that you've got a volume finished, there's hope once more.'
Hope? Of what quality? Reardon durst not say what rose in his thoughts. 'A very small, poor hope. Hope of money enough to struggle through another half year, if indeed enough for that.' He had learnt that Amy was not to be told the whole truth about anything as he himself saw it. It was a pity. To the ideal wife a man speaks out all that is in him; she had infinitely rather share his full conviction than be treated as one from whom facts must be disguised. She says: 'Let us face the worst and talk of it together, you and I.' No, Amy was not the ideal wife from that point of view. But the moment after this half-reproach had traversed his consciousness he condemned himself; and looked with the joy of love into her clear eyes.
'Yes, there's hope once more, my dearest. No more gloomy talk to-night! I have read you something, now you shall read something to me; it is a long time since I delighted myself with listening to you. What shall it be?'
'I feel rather too tired to-night.'
'I have had to look after Willie so much. But read me some more Homer; I shall be very glad to listen.'
Reardon reached for the book again, but not readily. His face showed disappointment. Their evenings together had never been the same since the birth of the child; Willie was always an excuse -- valid enough -- for Amy's feeling tired. The little boy had come between him and the mother, as must always be the case in poor homes, most of all where the poverty is relative. Reardon could not pass the subject without a remark, but he tried to speak humorously.
'There ought to be a huge public crèche in London. It's monstrous that an educated mother should have to be nursemaid.'
'But you know very well I think nothing of that. A crèche, indeed! No child of mine should go to any such place.'
There it was. She grudged no trouble on behalf of the child. That was love; whereas ---- But then maternal love was a mere matter of course.
'As soon as you get two or three hundred pounds for a book,' she added, laughing, 'there'll be no need for me to give so much time.'
'Two or three hundred pounds!' He repeated it with a shake of the head. 'Ah, if that were possible!'
'But that's really a paltry sum. What would fifty novelists you could name say if they were offered three hundred pounds for a book? How much do you suppose even Markland got for his last?'
'Didn't sell it at all, ten to one. Gets a royalty.'
'Which will bring him five or six hundred pounds before the book ceases to be talked of.'
'Never mind. I'm sick of the word "pounds."'
'So am I.'
She sighed, commenting thus on her acquiescence.
'But look, Amy. If I try to be cheerful in spite of natural dumps, wouldn't it be fair for you to put aside thoughts of money?'
'Yes. Read some Homer, dear. Let us have Odysseus down in Hades, and Ajax stalking past him. Oh, I like that!'
So he read, rather coldly at first, but soon warming. Amy sat with folded arms, a smile on her lips, her brows knitted to the epic humour. In a few minutes it was as if no difficulties threatened their life. Every now and then Reardon looked up from his translating with a delighted laugh, in which Amy joined.
When he had returned the book to the shelf he stepped behind his wife's chair, leaned upon it, and put his cheek against hers.
'Do you still love me a little?'
'Much more than a little.'
'Though I am sunk to writing a wretched pot-boiler?'
'Is it so bad as all that?'
'Confoundedly bad. I shall be ashamed to see it in print; the proofs will be a martyrdom.'
'Oh, but why? why?'
'It's the best I can do, dearest. So you don't love me enough to hear that calmly.'
'If I didn't love you, I might be calmer about it, Edwin. It's dreadful to me to think of what they will say in the reviews.'
'Curse the reviews!'
His mood had changed on the instant. He stood up with darkened face, trembling angrily.
'I want you to promise me something, Amy. You won't read a single one of the notices unless it is forced upon your attention. Now, promise me that. Neglect them absolutely, as I do. They're not worth a glance of your eyes. And I shan't be able to bear it if I know you read all the contempt that will be poured on me.'
'I'm sure I shall be glad enough to avoid it; but other people, our friends, read it. That's the worst.'
'You know that their praise would be valueless, so have strength to disregard the blame. Let our friends read and talk as much as they like. Can't you console yourself with the thought that I am not contemptible, though I may have been forced to do poor work?'
'People don't look at it in that way.'
'But, darling,' he took her hands strongly in his own, 'I want you to disregard other people. You and I are surely everything to each other? Are you ashamed of me, of me myself?'
'No, not ashamed of you. But I am sensitive to people's talk and opinions.'
'But that means they make you feel ashamed of me. What else?'
There was silence.
'Edwin, if you find you are unable to do good work, you mustn't do bad. We must think of some other way of making a living.'
'Have you forgotten that you urged me to write a trashy sensational story?'
She coloured and looked annoyed.
'You misunderstood me. A sensational story needn't be trash. And then, you know, if you had tried something entirely unlike your usual work, that would have been excuse enough if people had called it a failure.'
'We can't live in solitude, Edwin, though really we are not far from it.' He did not dare to make any reply to this. Amy was so exasperatingly womanlike in avoiding the important issue to which he tried to confine her; another moment, and his tone would be that of irritation. So he turned away and sat down to his desk, as if he had some thought of resuming work.
'Will you come and have some supper?' Amy asked, rising.
'I have been forgetting that to-morrow morning's chapter has still to be thought out.'
'Edwin, I can't think this book will really be so poor. You couldn't possibly give all this toil for no result.'
'No; not if I were in sound health. But I am far from it.'
'Come and have supper with me, dear, and think afterwards.'
He turned and smiled at her.
'I hope I shall never be able to resist an invitation from you, sweet.'
The result of all this was, of course, that he sat down in anything but the right mood to his work next morning. Amy's anticipation of criticism had made it harder than ever for him to labour at what he knew to be bad. And, as ill-luck would have it, in a day or two he caught his first winter's cold. For several years a succession of influenzas, sore-throats, lumbagoes, had tormented him from October to May; in planning his present work, and telling himself that it must be finished before Christmas, he had not lost sight of these possible interruptions. But he said to himself: 'Other men have worked hard in seasons of illness; I must do the same.' All very well, but Reardon did not belong to the heroic class. A feverish cold now put his powers and resolution to the test. Through one hideous day he nailed himself to the desk -- and wrote a quarter of a page. The next day Amy would not let him rise from bed; he was wretchedly ill. In the night he had talked about his work deliriously, causing her no slight alarm.
'If this goes on,' she said to him in the morning, 'you'll have brain fever. You must rest for two or three days.'
'Teach me how to. I wish I could.'
Rest had indeed become out of the question. For two days he could not write, but the result upon his mind was far worse than if he had been at the desk. He looked a haggard creature when he again sat down with the accustomed blank slip before him.
The second volume ought to have been much easier work than the first; it proved far harder. Messieurs and mesdames the critics are wont to point out the weakness of second volumes; they are generally right, simply because a story which would have made a tolerable book (the common run of stories) refuses to fill three books. Reardon's story was in itself weak, and this second volume had to consist almost entirely of laborious padding. If he wrote three slips a day he did well.
And the money was melting, melting, despite Amy's efforts at economy. She spent as little as she could; not a luxury came into their home; articles of clothing all but indispensable were left unpurchased. But to what purpose was all this? Impossible, now, that the book should be finished and sold before the money had all run out.
At the end of November, Reardon said to his wife one morning:
'To-morrow I finish the second volume.'
'And in a week,' she replied, 'we shan't have a shilling left.'
He had refrained from making inquiries, and Amy had forborne to tell him the state of things, lest it should bring him to a dead stop in his writing. But now they must needs discuss their position.
'In three weeks I can get to the end,' said Reardon, with unnatural calmness. 'Then I will go personally to the publishers, and beg them to advance me something on the manuscript before they have read it.'
'Couldn't you do that with the first two volumes?'
'No, I can't; indeed I can't. The other thing will be bad enough; but to beg on an incomplete book, and such a book -- I can't!'
There were drops on his forehead.
'They would help you if they knew,' said Amy in a low voice.
'Perhaps; I can't say. They can't help every poor devil. No; I will sell some books. I can pick out fifty or sixty that I shan't much miss.'
Amy knew what a wrench this would be. The imminence of distress seemed to have softened her.
'Edwin, let me take those two volumes to the publishers, and ask ----'
'Heavens! no. That's impossible. Ten to one you will be told that my work is of such doubtful value that they can't offer even a guinea till the whole book has been considered. I can't allow you to go, dearest. This morning I'll choose some books that I can spare, and after dinner I'll ask a man to come and look at them. Don't worry yourself; I can finish in three weeks, I'm sure I can. If I can get you three or four pounds you could make it do, couldn't you?'
She averted her face as she spoke.
'You shall have that.' He still spoke very quietly. 'If the books won't bring enough, there's my watch -- oh, lots of things.'
He turned abruptly away, and Amy went on with her household work.
It was natural that Amy should hint dissatisfaction with the loneliness in which her days were mostly spent. She had never lived in a large circle of acquaintances; the narrowness of her mother's means restricted the family to intercourse with a few old friends and such new ones as were content with teacup entertainment; but her tastes were social, and the maturing process which followed upon her marriage made her more conscious of this than she had been before. Already she had allowed her husband to understand that one of her strongest motives in marrying him was the belief that he would achieve distinction. At the time she doubtless thought of his coming fame only -- or principally -- as it concerned their relations to each other; her pride in him was to be one phase of her love. Now she was well aware that no degree of distinction in her husband would be of much value to her unless she had the pleasure of witnessing its effect upon others; she must shine with reflected light before an admiring assembly.
The more conscious she became of this requirement of her nature, the more clearly did she perceive that her hopes had been founded on an error. Reardon would never be a great man; he would never even occupy a prominent place in the estimation of the public. The two things, Amy knew, might be as different as light and darkness; but in the grief of her disappointment she would rather have had him flare into a worthless popularity than flicker down into total extinction, which it almost seemed was to be his fate. She knew so well how 'people' were talking of him and her. Even her unliterary acquaintances understood that Reardon's last novel had been anything but successful, and they must of course ask each other how the Reardons were going to live if the business of novel-writing proved unremunerative. Her pride took offence at the mere thought of such conversations. Presently she would become an object of pity; there would be talk of 'poor Mrs Reardon.' It was intolerable.
So during the last half year she had withheld as much as possible from the intercourse which might have been one of her chief pleasures. And to disguise the true cause she made pretences which were a satire upon her state of mind -- alleging that she had devoted herself to a serious course of studies, that the care of house and child occupied all the time she could spare from her intellectual pursuits. The worst of it was, she had little faith in the efficacy of these fictions; in uttering them she felt an unpleasant warmth upon her cheeks, and it was not difficult to detect a look of doubt in the eyes of the listener. She grew angry with herself for being dishonest, and with her husband for making such dishonesty needful.
The female friend with whom she had most trouble was Mrs Carter. You remember that on the occasion of Reardon's first meeting with his future wife, at the Grosvenor Gallery, there were present his friend Carter and a young lady who was shortly to bear the name of that spirited young man. The Carters had now been married about a year; they lived in Bayswater, and saw much of a certain world which imitates on a lower plane the amusements and affectations of society proper. Mr Carter was still secretary to the hospital where Reardon had once earned his twenty shillings a week, but by voyaging in the seas of charitable enterprise he had come upon supplementary sources of income; for instance, he held the post of secretary to the Barclay Trust, a charity whose moderate funds were largely devoted to the support of gentlemen engaged in administering it. This young man, with his air of pleasing vivacity, had early ingratiated himself with the kind of people who were likely to be of use to him; he had his reward in the shape of offices which are only procured through private influence. His wife was a good-natured, lively, and rather clever girl; she had a genuine regard for Amy, and much respect for Reardon. Her ambition was to form a circle of distinctly intellectual acquaintances, and she was constantly inviting the Reardons to her house; a real live novelist is not easily drawn into the world where Mrs Carter had her being, and it annoyed her that all attempts to secure Amy and her husband for five-o'clock teas and small parties had of late failed.
On the afternoon when Reardon had visited a second-hand bookseller with a view of raising money -- he was again shut up in his study, dolorously at work -- Amy was disturbed by the sound of a visitor's rat-tat; the little servant went to the door, and returned followed by Mrs Carter.
Under the best of circumstances it was awkward to receive any but intimate friends during the hours when Reardon sat at his desk. The little dining-room (with its screen to conceal the kitchen range) offered nothing more than homely comfort; and then the servant had to be disposed of by sending her into the bedroom to take care of Willie. Privacy, in the strict sense, was impossible, for the servant might listen at the door (one room led out of the other) to all the conversation that went on; yet Amy could not request her visitors to speak in a low tone. For the first year these difficulties had not been felt; Reardon made a point of leaving the front room at his wife's disposal from three to six; it was only when dread of the future began to press upon him that he sat in the study all day long. You see how complicated were the miseries of the situation; one torment involved another, and in every quarter subjects of discontent were multiplied.
Mrs Carter would have taken it ill had she known that Amy did not regard her as strictly an intimate. They addressed each other by their Christian names, and conversed without ceremony; but Amy was always dissatisfied when the well-dressed young woman burst with laughter and animated talk into this abode of concealed poverty. Edith was not the kind of person with whom one can quarrel; she had a kind heart, and was never disagreeably pretentious. Had circumstances allowed it, Amy would have given frank welcome to such friendship; she would have been glad to accept as many invitations as Edith chose to offer. But at present it did her harm to come in contact with Mrs Carter; it made her envious, cold to her husband, resentful against fate.
'Why can't she leave me alone?' was the thought that rose in her mind as Edith entered. 'I shall let her see that I don't want her here.'
'Your husband at work?' Edith asked, with a glance in the direction of the study, as soon as they had exchanged kisses and greetings.
'Yes, he is busy.'
'And you are sitting alone, as usual. I feared you might be out; an afternoon of sunshine isn't to be neglected at this time of year.'
'Is there sunshine?' Amy inquired coldly.
'Why, look! Do you mean to say you haven't noticed it? What a comical person you are sometimes! I suppose you have been over head and ears in books all day. How is Willie?'
'Very well, thank you.'
'Mayn't I see him?'
'If you like.'
Amy stepped to the bedroom door and bade the servant bring Willie for exhibition. Edith, who as yet had no child of her own, always showed the most flattering admiration of this infant; it was so manifestly sincere that the mother could not but be moved to a grateful friendliness whenever she listened to its expression. Even this afternoon the usual effect followed when Edith had made a pretty and tender fool of herself for several minutes. Amy bade the servant make tea.
At this moment the door from the passage opened, and Reardon looked in.
'Well, if this isn't marvellous!' cried Edith. 'I should as soon have expected the heavens to fall!'
'As what?' asked Reardon, with a pale smile.
'As you to show yourself when I am here.'
'I should like to say that I came on purpose to see you, Mrs Carter, but it wouldn't be true. I'm going out for an hour, so that you can take possession of the other room if you like, Amy.'
'Going out?' said Amy, with a look of surprise.
'Nothing -- nothing. I mustn't stay.'
He just inquired of Mrs Carter how her husband was, and withdrew. The door of the flat was heard to close after him.
'Let us go into the study, then,' said Amy, again in rather a cold voice.
On Reardon's desk were lying slips of blank paper. Edith, approaching on tiptoe with what was partly make believe, partly genuine, awe, looked at the literary apparatus, then turned with a laugh to her friend.
'How delightful it must be to sit down and write about people one has invented! Ever since I have known you and Mr Reardon I have been tempted to try if I couldn't write a story.'
'And I'm sure I don't know how you can resist the temptation. I feel sure you could write books almost as clever as your husband's.'
'I have no intention of trying.'
'You don't seem very well to-day, Amy.'
'Oh, I think I am as well as usual.'
She guessed that her husband was once more brought to a standstill, and this darkened her humour again.
'One of my reasons for corning,' said Edith, 'was to beg and entreat and implore you and Mr Reardon to dine with us next Wednesday. Now, don't put on such a severe face! Are you engaged that evening?'
'Yes; in the ordinary way. Edwin can't possibly leave his work.'
'But for one poor evening! It's such ages since we saw you.'
'I'm very sorry. I don't think we shall ever be able to accept invitations in future.'
Amy spoke thus at the prompting of a sudden impulse. A minute ago, no such definite declaration was in her mind.
'Never?' exclaimed Edith. 'But why? Whatever do you mean?'
'We find that social engagements consume too much time,' Amy replied, her explanation just as much of an impromptu as the announcement had been. 'You see, one must either belong to society or not. Married people can't accept an occasional invitation from friends and never do their social duty in return. We have decided to withdraw altogether -- at all events for the present. I shall see no one except my relatives.'
Edith listened with a face of astonishment.
'You won't even set me?' she exclaimed.
'Indeed, I have no wish to lose your friendship. Yet I am ashamed to ask you to come here when I can never return your visits.'
'Oh, please don't put it in that way! But it seems so very strange.'
Edith could not help conjecturing the true significance of this resolve. But, as is commonly the case with people in easy circumstances, she found it hard to believe that her friends were so straitened as to have a difficulty in supporting the ordinary obligations of a civilised state.
'I know how precious your husband's time is, she added, as to remove the effect of her last remark. 'Surely, there's no harm in my saying -- we know each other well enough -- you wouldn't think it necessary to devote an evening to entertaining us just because you had given us the pleasure of your company. I put it very stupidly, but I'm sure you understand me, Amy. Don't refuse just to come to our house now and then.'
'I'm afraid we shall have to be consistent, Edith.'
'But do you think this is a wise thing to do?'
'You know what you once told me, about how necessary it was for a novelist to study all sorts of people. How can Mr Reardon do this if he shuts himself up in the house? I should have thought he would find it necessary to make new acquaintances.'
'As I said,' returned Amy, 'it won't be always like this. For the present, Edwin has quite enough "material."'
She spoke distantly; it irritated her to have to invent excuses for the sacrifice she had just imposed on herself. Edith sipped the tea which had been offered her, and for a minute kept silence.
'When will Mr Reardon's next book be published?' she asked at length.
'I'm sure I don't know Not before the spring.'
'I shall look so anxiously for it. Whenever I meet new people I always turn the conversation to novels, just for the sake of asking them if they know your husband's books.'
She laughed merrily.
'Which is seldom the case, I should think,' said Amy, with a smile of indifference.
'Well, my dear, you don't expect ordinary novel-readers to know about Mr Reardon. I wish my acquaintances were a better kind of people; then, of course, I should hear of his books more often. But one has to make the best of such society as offers. If you and your husband forsake me, I shall feel it a sad loss; I shall indeed.'
Amy gave a quick glance at the speaker's face.
'Oh, we must be friends just the same,' she said, more naturally than she had spoken hitherto. 'But don't ask us to come and dine just now. All through this winter we shall be very busy, both of us. Indeed, we have decided not to accept any invitations at all.'
'Then, so long as you let me come here now and then, I must give in. I promise not to trouble you with any more complaining. But how you can live such a life I don't know. I consider myself more of a reader than women generally are, and I should be mortally offended if anyone called me frivolous; but I must have a good deal of society. Really and truly, I can't live without it.'
'No?' said Amy, with a smile which meant more than Edith could interpret. It seemed slightly condescending.
'There's no knowing; perhaps if I had married a literary man ----' She paused, smiling and musing. 'But then I haven't, you see.' She laughed. 'Albert is anything but a bookworm, as you know.'
'You wouldn't wish him to be.'
'Oh no! Not a bookworm. To be sure, we suit each other very well indeed. He likes society just as much as I do. It would be the death of him if he didn't spend three-quarters of every day with lively people.'
'That's rather a large portion. But then you count yourself among the lively ones.'
They exchanged looks, and laughed together.
'Of course you think me rather silly to want to talk so much with silly people,' Edith went on. 'But then there's generally some amusement to be got, you know. I don't take life quite so seriously as you do. People are people, after all; it's good fun to see how they live and hear how they talk.'
Amy felt that she was playing a sorry part. She thought of sour grapes, and of the fox who had lost his tail. Worst of all, perhaps Edith suspected the truth. She began to make inquiries about common acquaintances, and fell into an easier current of gossip.
A quarter of an hour after the visitor's departure Reardon came back. Amy had guessed aright; the necessity of selling his books weighed upon him so that for the present he could do nothing. The evening was spent gloomily, with very little conversation.
Next day came the bookseller to make his inspection. Reardon had chosen out and ranged upon a table nearly a hundred volumes. With a few exceptions, they had been purchased second-hand. The tradesman examined them rapidly.
'What do you ask?' he inquired, putting his head aside.
'I prefer that you should make an offer,' Reardon replied, with the helplessness of one who lives remote from traffic.
'I can't say more than two pounds ten.'
'That is at the rate of sixpence a volume ----?'
'To me that's about the average value of books like these.'
Perhaps the offer was a fair one; perhaps it was not. Reardon had neither time nor spirit to test the possibilities of the market; he was ashamed to betray his need by higgling.
'I'll take it,' he said, in a matter-of-fact voice.
A messenger was sent for the books that afternoon. He stowed them skilfully in two bags, and carried them downstairs to a cart that was waiting.
Reardon looked at the gaps left on his shelves. Many of those vanished volumes were dear old friends to him; he could have told you where he had picked them up and when; to open them recalled a past moment of intellectual growth, a mood of hope or despondency, a stage of struggle. In most of them his name was written, and there were often pencilled notes in the margin. Of course he had chosen from among the most valuable he possessed; such a multitude must else have been sold to make this sum of two pounds ten. Books are cheap, you know. At need, one can buy a Homer for fourpence, a Sophocles for sixpence. It was not rubbish that he had accumulated at so small expenditure, but the library of a poor student -- battered bindings, stained pages, supplanted editions. He loved his books, but there was something he loved more, and when Amy glanced at him with eyes of sympathy he broke into a cheerful laugh.
'I'm only sorry they have gone for so little. Tell me when the money is nearly at an end again, and you shall have more. It's all right; the novel will be done soon.'
And that night he worked until twelve o'clock, doggedly, fiercely.
The next day was Sunday. As a rule he made it a day of rest, and almost perforce, for the depressing influence of Sunday in London made work too difficult. Then, it was the day on which he either went to see his own particular friends or was visited by them.
'Do you expect anyone this evening?' Amy inquired.
'Biffen will look in, I dare say. Perhaps Milvain.'
'I think I shall take Willie to mother's. I shall be back before eight.'
'Amy, don't say anything about the books.'
'I suppose they always ask you when we think of removing over the way?'
He pointed in a direction that suggested Marylebone Workhouse. Amy tried to laugh, but a woman with a child in her arms has no keen relish for such jokes.
'I don't talk to them about our affairs,' she said.
She left home about three o'clock, the servant going with her to carry the child.
At five a familiar knock sounded through the flat; it was a heavy rap followed by half-a-dozen light ones, like a reverberating echo, the last stroke scarcely audible. Reardon laid down his book, but kept his pipe in his mouth, and went to the door. A tall, thin man stood there, with a slouch hat and long grey overcoat. He shook hands silently, hung his hat in the passage, and came forward into the study.
His name was Harold Biffen, and, to judge from his appearance, he did not belong to the race of common mortals. His excessive meagreness would all but have qualified him to enter an exhibition in the capacity of living skeleton, and the garments which hung upon this framework would perhaps have sold for three-and-sixpence at an old-clothes dealer's. But the man was superior to these accidents of flesh and raiment. He had a fine face: large, gentle eyes, nose slightly aquiline, small and delicate mouth. Thick black hair fell to his coat-collar; he wore a heavy moustache and a full beard. In his gait there was a singular dignity; only a man of cultivated mind and graceful character could move and stand as he did.
His first act on entering the room was to take from his pocket a pipe, a pouch, a little tobacco-stopper, and a box of matches, all of which he arranged carefully on a corner of the central table. Then he drew forward a chair and seated himself.
'Take your top-coat off;' said Reardon.
'Thanks, not this evening.'
'Why the deuce not?'
'Not this evening, thanks.'
The reason, as soon as Reardon sought for it, was obvious. Biffen had no ordinary coat beneath the other. To have referred to this fact would have been indelicate; the novelist of course understood it, and smiled, but with no mirth.
'Let me have your Sophocles,' were the visitor's next words.
Reardon offered him a volume of the Oxford Pocket Classics.
'I prefer the Wunder, please.'
'It's gone, my boy.'
'Wanted a little cash.'
Biffen uttered a sound in which remonstrance and sympathy were blended.
'I'm sorry to hear that; very sorry. Well, this must do. Now, I want to know how you scan this chorus in the "Oedipus Rex."'
Reardon took the volume, considered, and began to read aloud with metric emphasis.
'Choriambics, eh?' cried the other. 'Possible, of course; but treat them as Ionics a minore with an anacrusis, and see if they don't go better.'
He involved himself in terms of pedantry, and with such delight that his eyes gleamed. Having delivered a technical lecture, he began to read in illustration, producing quite a different effect from that of the rhythm as given by his friend. And the reading was by no means that of a pedant, rather of a poet.
For half an hour the two men talked Greek metres as if they lived in a world where the only hunger known could be satisfied by grand or sweet cadences.
They had first met in an amusing way. Not long after the publication of his book 'On Neutral Ground' Reardon was spending a week at Hastings. A rainy day drove him to the circulating library, and as he was looking along the shelves for something readable a voice near at hand asked the attendant if he had anything 'by Edwin Reardon.' The novelist turned in astonishment; that any casual mortal should inquire for his books seemed incredible. Of course there was nothing by that author in the library, and he who had asked the question walked out again. On the morrow Reardon encountered this same man at a lonely part of the shore; he looked at him, and spoke a word or two of common civility; they got into conversation, with the result that Edwin told the story of yesterday. The stranger introduced himself as Harold Biffen, an author in a small way, and a teacher whenever he could get pupils; an abusive review had interested him in Reardon's novels, but as yet he knew nothing of them but the names.
Their tastes were found to be in many respects sympathetic, and after returning to London they saw each other frequently. Biffen was always in dire poverty, and lived in the oddest places; he had seen harder trials than even Reardon himself. The teaching by which he partly lived was of a kind quite unknown to the respectable tutorial world. In these days of examinations, numbers of men in a poor position -- clerks chiefly -- conceive a hope that by 'passing' this, that, or the other formal test they may open for themselves a new career. Not a few such persons nourish preposterous ambitions; there are warehouse clerks privately preparing (without any means or prospect of them) for a call to the Bar, drapers' assistants who 'go in' for the preliminary examination of the College of Surgeons, and untaught men innumerable who desire to procure enough show of education to be eligible for a curacy. Candidates of this stamp frequently advertise in the newspapers for cheap tuition, or answer advertisements which are intended to appeal to them; they pay from sixpence to half-a-crown an hour -- rarely as much as the latter sum. Occasionally it happened that Harold Biffen had three or four such pupils in hand, and extraordinary stories he could draw from his large experience in this sphere.
Then as to his authorship. -- But shortly after the discussion of Greek metres he fell upon the subject of his literary projects, and, by no means for the first time, developed the theory on which he worked.
'I have thought of a new way of putting it. What I really aim at is an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent. The field, as I understand it, is a new one; I don't know any writer who has treated ordinary vulgar life with fidelity and seriousness. Zola writes deliberate tragedies; his vilest figures become heroic from the place they fill in a strongly imagined drama. I want to deal with the essentially unheroic, with the day-to-day life of that vast majority of people who are at the mercy of paltry circumstance. Dickens understood the possibility of such work, but his tendency to melodrama on the one hand, and his humour on the other, prevented him from thinking of it. An instance, now. As I came along by Regent's Park half an hour ago a man and a girl were walking close in front of me, love-making; I passed them slowly and heard a good deal of their talk -- it was part of the situation that they should pay no heed to a stranger's proximity. Now, such a love-scene as that has absolutely never been written down; it was entirely decent, yet vulgar to the nth power. Dickens would have made it ludicrous -- a gross injustice. Other men who deal with low-class life would perhaps have preferred idealising it -- an absurdity. For my own part, I am going to reproduce it verbatim, without one single impertinent suggestion of any point of view save that of honest reporting. The result will be something unutterably tedious. Precisely. That is the stamp of the ignobly decent life. If it were anything but tedious it would be untrue. I speak, of course, of its effect upon the ordinary reader.' 'I couldn't do it,' said Reardon.
'Certainly you couldn't. You -- well, you are a psychological realist in the sphere of culture. You are impatient of vulgar circumstances.'
'In a great measure because my life has been martyred by them.'
'And for that very same reason I delight in them,' cried Biffen. 'You are repelled by what has injured you; I am attracted by it. This divergence is very interesting; but for that, we should have resembled each other so closely. You know that by temper we are rabid idealists, both of us.'
'I suppose so.'
'But let me go on. I want, among other things, to insist upon the fateful power of trivial incidents. No one has yet dared to do this seriously. It has often been done in farce, and that's why farcical writing so often makes one melancholy. You know my stock instances of the kind of thing I mean. There was poor Allen, who lost the most valuable opportunity of his life because he hadn't a clean shirt to put on; and Williamson, who would probably have married that rich girl but for the grain of dust that got into his eye, and made him unable to say or do anything at the critical moment.'
Reardon burst into a roar of laughter.
'There you are!' cried Biffen, with friendly annoyance. 'You take the conventional view. If you wrote of these things you would represent them as laughable.'
'They are laughable,' asserted the other, 'however serious to the persons concerned. The mere fact of grave issues in life depending on such paltry things is monstrously ludicrous. Life is a huge farce, and the advantage of possessing a sense of humour is that it enables one to defy fate with mocking laughter.'
'That's all very well, but it isn't an original view. I am not lacking in sense of humour, but I prefer to treat these aspects of life from an impartial standpoint. The man who laughs takes the side of a cruel omnipotence, if one can imagine such a thing. I want to take no side at all; simply to say, Look, this is the kind of thing that happens.'
'I admire your honesty, Biffen,' said Reardon, sighing. 'You will never sell work of this kind, yet you have the courage to go on with it because you believe in it.'
'I don't know; I may perhaps sell it some day.'
'In the meantime,' said Reardon, laying down his pipe, 'suppose we eat a morsel of something. I'm rather hungry.'
In the early days of his marriage Reardon was wont to offer the friends who looked in on Sunday evening a substantial Supper; by degrees the meal had grown simpler, until now, in the depth of his poverty, he made no pretence of hospitable entertainment. It was only because he knew that Biffen as often as not had nothing whatever to eat that he did not hesitate to offer him a slice of bread and butter and a cup of tea. They went into the back room, and over the Spartan fare continued to discuss aspects of fiction.
'I shall never,' said Biffen, 'write anything like a dramatic scene. Such things do happen in life, but so very rarely that they are nothing to my purpose. Even when they happen, by-the-bye, it is in a shape that would be useless to the ordinary novelist; he would have to cut away this circumstance, and add that. Why? I should like to know. Such conventionalism results from stage necessities. Fiction hasn't yet outgrown the influence of the stage on which it originated. Whatever a man writes for effect is wrong and bad.'
'Only in your view. There may surely exist such a thing as the art of fiction.'
'It is worked out. We must have a rest from it. You, now -- the best things you have done are altogether in conflict with novelistic conventionalities. It was because that blackguard review of "On Neutral Ground" clumsily hinted this that I first thought of you with interest. No, no; let us copy life. When the man and woman are to meet for a great scene of passion, let it all be frustrated by one or other of them having a bad cold in the head, and so on. Let the pretty girl get a disfiguring pimple on her nose just before the ball at which she is going to shine. Show the numberless repulsive features of common decent life. Seriously, coldly; not a hint of facetiousness, or the thing becomes different.'
About eight o'clock Reardon heard his wife's knock at the door. On opening he saw not only Amy and the servant, the latter holding Willie in her arms, but with them Jasper Milvain.
'I have been at Mrs Yule's,' Jasper explained as he came in. 'Have you anyone here?'
'Ah, then we'll discuss realism.'
'That's over for the evening. Greek metres also.'
The three men seated themselves with joking and laughter, and the smoke of their pipes gathered thickly in the little room. It was half an hour before Amy joined them. Tobacco was no disturbance to her, and she enjoyed the kind of talk that was held on these occasions; but it annoyed her that she could no longer play the hostess at a merry supper-table.
'Why ever are you sitting in your overcoat, Mr Biffen?' were her first words when she entered.
'Please excuse me, Mrs Reardon. It happens to be more convenient this evening.'
She was puzzled, but a glance from her husband warned her not to pursue the subject.
Biffen always behaved to Amy with a sincerity of respect which had made him a favourite with her. To him, poor fellow, Reardon seemed supremely blessed. That a struggling man of letters should have been able to marry, and such a wife, was miraculous in Biffen's eyes. A woman's love was to him the unattainable ideal; already thirty-five years old, he had no prospect of ever being rich enough to assure himself a daily dinner; marriage was wildly out of the question. Sitting here, he found it very difficult not to gaze at Amy with uncivil persistency. Seldom in his life had he conversed with educated women, and the sound of this clear voice was always more delightful to him than any music.
Amy took a place near to him, and talked in her most charming way of such things as she knew interested him. Biffen's deferential attitude as he listened and replied was in strong contrast with the careless ease which marked Jasper Milvain. The realist would never smoke in Amy's presence, but Jasper puffed jovial clouds even whilst she was conversing with him.
'Whelpdale came to see me last night,' remarked Milvain, presently. 'His novel is refused on all hands. He talks of earning a living as a commission agent for some sewing-machine people.'
'I can't understand how his book should be positively refused,' said Reardon. 'The last wasn't altogether a failure.'
'Very nearly. And this one consists of nothing but a series of conversations between two people. It is really a dialogue, not a novel at all. He read me some twenty pages, and I no longer wondered that he couldn't sell it.'
'Oh, but it has considerable merit,' put in Biffen. 'The talk is remarkably true.'
'But what's the good of talk that leads to nothing?' protested Jasper.
'It's a bit of real life.'
'Yes, but it has no market value. You may write what you like, so long as people are willing to read you. Whelpdale's a clever fellow, but he can't hit a practical line.'
'Like some other people I have heard of;' said Reardon, laughing.
'But the odd thing is, that he always strikes one as practical-minded. Don't you feel that, Mrs Reardon?'
He and Amy talked for a few minutes, and Reardon, seemingly lost in meditation, now and then observed them from the corner of his eye.
At eleven o'clock husband and wife were alone again.
'You don't mean to say,' exclaimed Amy, 'that Biffen has sold his coat?'
'Or pawned it.'
'But why not the overcoat?'
'Partly, I should think, because it's the warmer of the two; partly, perhaps, because the other would fetch more.'
'That poor man will die of starvation, some day, Edwin.'
'I think it not impossible.'
'I hope you gave him something to eat?'
'Oh yes. But I could see he didn't like to take as much as he wanted. I don't think of him with so much pity as I used that's a result of suffering oneself.'
Amy set her lips and sighed.
The last volume was written in fourteen days. In this achievement Reardon rose almost to heroic pitch, for he had much to contend with beyond the mere labour of composition. Scarcely had he begun when a sharp attack of lumbago fell upon him; for two or three days it was torture to support himself at the desk, and he moved about like a cripple. Upon this ensued headaches, sore-throat, general enfeeblement. And before the end of the fortnight it was necessary to think of raising another small sum of money; he took his watch to the pawnbroker's (you can imagine that it would not stand as security for much), and sold a few more books. All this notwithstanding, here was the novel at length finished. When he had written 'The End' he lay back, closed his eyes, and let time pass in blankness for a quarter of an hour.
It remained to determine the title. But his brain refused another effort; after a few minutes' feeble search he simply took the name of the chief female character, Margaret Home. That must do for the book. Already, with the penning of the last word, all its scenes, personages, dialogues had slipped away into oblivion; he knew and cared nothing more about them.
'Amy, you will have to correct the proofs for me. Never as long as I live will I look upon a page of this accursed novel. It has all but killed me.'
'The point is,' replied Amy, 'that here we have it complete. Pack it up and take it to the publishers' to-morrow morning.'
'And -- you will ask them to advance you a few pounds?'
But that undertaking was almost as hard to face as a rewriting of the last volume would have been. Reardon had such superfluity of sensitiveness that, for his own part, he would far rather have gone hungry than ask for money not legally his due. To-day there was no choice. In the ordinary course of business it would be certainly a month before he heard the publishers' terms, and perhaps the Christmas season might cause yet more delay. Without borrowing, he could not provide for the expenses of more than another week or two.
His parcel under his arm, he entered the ground-floor office, and desired to see that member of the firm with whom he had previously had personal relations. This gentleman was not in town; he would be away for a few days. Reardon left the manuscript, and came out into the street again.
He crossed, and looked up at the publishers' windows from the opposite pavement. 'Do they suspect in what wretched circumstances I am? Would it surprise them to know all that depends upon that budget of paltry scribbling? I suppose not; it must be a daily experience with them. Well, I must write a begging letter.'
It was raining and windy. He went slowly homewards, and was on the point of entering the public door of the flats when his uneasiness became so great that he turned and walked past. If he went in, he must at once write his appeal for money, and he felt that he could not. The degradation seemed too great.
Was there no way of getting over the next few weeks? Rent, of course, would be due at Christmas, but that payment might be postponed; it was only a question of buying food and fuel. Amy had offered to ask her mother for a few pounds; it would be cowardly to put this task upon her now that he had promised to meet the difficulty himself. What man in all London could and would lend him money? He reviewed the list of his acquaintances, but there was only one to whom he could appeal with the slightest hope -- that was Carter.
Half an hour later he entered that same hospital door through which, some years ago, he had passed as a half-starved applicant for work. The matron met him.
'Is Mr Carter here?'
'No, sir. But we expect him any minute. Will you wait?'
He entered the familiar office, and sat down. At the table where he had been wont to work, a young clerk was writing. If only all the events of the last few years could be undone, and he, with no soul dependent upon him, be once more earning his pound a week in this room! What a happy man he was in those days!
Nearly half an hour passed. It is the common experience of beggars to have to wait. Then Carter came in with quick step; he wore a heavy ulster of the latest fashion, new gloves, a resplendent silk hat; his cheeks were rosy from the east wind.
'Ha, Reardon! How do? how do? Delighted to see you!'
'Are you very busy?'
'Well, no, not particularly. A few cheques to sign, and we're just getting out our Christmas appeals. You remember?'
He laughed gaily. There was a remarkable freedom from snobbishness in this young man; the fact of Reardon's intellectual superiority had long ago counteracted Carter's social prejudices.
'I should like to have a word with you.'
'Right you are!'
They went into a small inner room. Reardon's pulse beat at fever-rate; his tongue was cleaving to his palate.
'What is it, old man?' asked the secretary, seating himself and flinging one of his legs over the other. 'You look rather seedy, do you know. Why the deuce don't you and your wife look us up now and then?'
'I've had a hard pull to finish my novel.'
'Finished, is it? I'm glad to hear that. When'll it be out? I'll send scores of people to Mudie's after it.
'Thanks; but I don't think much of it, to tell you the truth.'
'Oh, we know what that means.'
Reardon was talking like an automaton. It seemed to him that he turned screws and pressed levers for the utterance of his next words.
'I may as well say at once what I have come for. Could you lend me ten pounds for a month -- in fact, until I get the money for my book?'
The secretary's countenance fell, though not to that expression of utter coldness which would have come naturally under the circumstances to a great many vivacious men. He seemed genuinely embarrassed.
'By Jove! I -- confound it! To tell you the truth, I haven't ten pounds to lend. Upon my word, I haven't, Reardon! These infernal housekeeping expenses! I don't mind telling you, old man, that Edith and I have been pushing the pace rather.' He laughed, and thrust his hands down into his trousers-pockets. 'We pay such a darned rent, you know -- hundred and twenty-five. We've only just been saying we should have to draw it mild for the rest of the winter. But I'm infernally sorry; upon my word I am.'
'And I am sorry to have annoyed you by the unseasonable request.'
'Devilish seasonable, Reardon, I assure you!' cried the secretary, and roared at his joke. It put him into a better temper than ever, and he said at length: 'I suppose a fiver wouldn't be much use? -- For a month, you say? -- 1 might manage a fiver, I think.'
'It would be very useful. But on no account if ----'
'No, no; I could manage a fiver, for a month. Shall I give you a cheque?'
'I'm ashamed ----'
'Not a bit of it! I'll go and write the cheque.'
Reardon's face was burning. Of the conversation that followed when Carter again presented himself he never recalled a word. The bit of paper was crushed together in his hand. Out in the street again, he all but threw it away, dreaming for the moment that it was a 'bus ticket or a patent medicine bill.
He reached home much after the dinner-hour. Amy was surprised at his long absence.
'Got anything?' she asked.
It was half his intention to deceive her, to say that the publishers had advanced him five pounds. But that would be his first word of untruth to Amy, and why should he be guilty of it? He told her all that had happened. The result of this frankness was something that he had not anticipated; Amy exhibited profound vexation.
'Oh, you shouldn't have done that!' she exclaimed. 'Why didn't you come home and tell me? I would have gone to mother at once.'
'But does it matter?'
'Of course it does,' she replied sharply. 'Mr Carter will tell his wife, and how pleasant that is?'
'I never thought of that. And perhaps it wouldn't have seemed to me so annoying as it does to you.'
'Very likely not.'
She turned abruptly away, and stood at a distance in gloomy muteness.
'Well,' she said at length, 'there's no helping it now. Come and have your dinner.'
'You have taken away my appetite.'
'Nonsense! I suppose you're dying of hunger.'
They had a very uncomfortable meal, exchanging few words. On Amy's face was a look more resembling bad temper than anything Reardon had ever seen there. After dinner he went and sat alone in the study. Amy did not come near him. He grew stubbornly angry; remembering the pain he had gone through, he felt that Amy's behaviour to him was cruel. She must come and speak when she would.
At six o'clock she showed her face in the doorway and asked if he would come to tea.
'Thank you,' he replied, 'I had rather stay here.'
'As you please.'
And he sat alone until about nine. It was only then he recollected that he must send a note to the publishers, calling their attention to the parcel he had left. He wrote it, and closed with a request that they would let him hear as soon as they conveniently could. As he was putting on his hat and coat to go out and post the letter Amy opened the dining-room door.
'You're going out?'
'Shall you be long?'
'I think not.'
He was away only a few minutes. On returning he went first of all into the study, but the thought of Amy alone in the other room would not let him rest. He looked in and saw that she was sitting without a fire.
'You can't stay here in the cold, Amy.'
'I'm afraid I must get used to it,' she replied, affecting to be closely engaged upon some sewing.
That strength of character which it had always delighted him to read in her features was become an ominous hardness. He felt his heart sink as he looked at her.
'Is poverty going to have the usual result in our case?' he asked, drawing nearer.
'I never pretended that I could be indifferent to it.'
'Still, don't you care to try and resist it?'
She gave no answer. As usual in conversation with an aggrieved woman it was necessary to go back from the general to the particular.
'I'm afraid,' he said, 'that the Carters already knew pretty well how things were going with us.'
'That's a very different thing. But when it comes to asking them for money ----'
'I'm very sorry. I would rather have done anything if I had known how it would annoy you.'
'If we have to wait a month, five pounds will be very little use to us.
She detailed all manner of expenses that had to be met -- outlay there was no possibility of avoiding so long as their life was maintained on its present basis.
'However, you needn't trouble any more about it. I'll see to it. Now you are free from your book try to rest.'
'Come and sit by the fire. There's small chance of rest for me if we are thinking unkindly of each other.'
A doleful Christmas. Week after week went by and Reardon knew that Amy must have exhausted the money he had given her. But she made no more demands upon him, and necessaries were paid for in the usual way. He suffered from a sense of humiliation; sometimes he found it difficult to look in his wife's face.
When the publishers' letter came it contained an offer of seventy-five pounds for the copyright of 'Margaret Home,' twenty-five more to be paid if the sale in three-volume form should reach a certain number of copies.
Here was failure put into unmistakable figures. Reardon said to himself that it was all over with his profession of authorship. The book could not possibly succeed even to the point of completing his hundred pounds; it would meet with universal contempt, and indeed deserved nothing better.
'Shall you accept this?' asked Amy, after dreary silence.
'No one else would offer terms as good.'
'Will they pay you at once?'
'I must ask them to.'
Well, it was seventy-five pounds in hand. The cheque came as soon as it was requested, and Reardon's face brightened for the moment. Blessed money! root of all good, until the world invent some saner economy.
'How much do you owe your mother?' he inquired, without looking at Amy.
'Six pounds,' she answered coldly.
'And five to Carter; and rent, twelve pounds ten. We shall have a matter of fifty pounds to go on with.'
The prudent course was so obvious that he marvelled at Amy's failing to suggest it. For people in their circumstances to be paying a rent of fifty pounds when a home could be found for half the money was recklessness; there would be no difficulty in letting the flat for this last year of their lease, and the cost of removal would be trifling. The mental relief of such a change might enable him to front with courage a problem in any case very difficult, and, as things were, desperate. Three months ago, in a moment of profoundest misery, he had proposed this step; courage failed him to speak of it again, Amy's look and voice were too vivid in his memory. Was she not capable of such a sacrifice for his sake? Did she prefer to let him bear all the responsibility of whatever might result from a futile struggle to keep up appearances?
Between him and her there was no longer perfect confidence. Her silence meant reproach, and -- whatever might have been the case before -- there was no doubt that she now discussed him with her mother, possibly with other people. It was not likely that she concealed his own opinion of the book he had just finished; all their acquaintances would be prepared to greet its publication with private scoffing or with mournful shaking of the head. His feeling towards Amy entered upon a new phase. The stability of his love was a source of pain; condemning himself, he felt at the same time that he was wronged. A coldness which was far from representing the truth began to affect his manner and speech, and Amy did not seem to notice it, at all events she made no kind of protest. They no longer talked of the old subjects, but of those mean concerns of material life which formerly they had agreed to dismiss as quickly as possible. Their relations to each other -- not long ago an inexhaustible topic -- would not bear spoken comment; both were too conscious of the danger-signal when they looked that way.
In the time of waiting for the publishers' offer, and now again when he was asking himself how he should use the respite granted him, Reardon spent his days at the British Museum. He could not read to much purpose, but it was better to sit here among strangers than seem to be idling under Amy's glance. Sick of imaginative writing, he turned to the studies which had always been most congenial, and tried to shape out a paper or two like those he had formerly disposed of to editors. Among his unused material lay a mass of notes he had made in a reading of Diogenes Laertius, and it seemed to him now that he might make something salable out of these anecdotes of the philosophers. In a happier mood he could have written delightfully on such a subject -- not learnedly, but in the strain of a modern man whose humour and sensibility find free play among the classic ghosts; even now he was able to recover something of the light touch which had given value to his published essays.
Meanwhile the first number of The Current had appeared, and Jasper Milvain had made a palpable hit. Amy spoke very often of the article called 'Typical Readers,' and her interest in its author was freely manifested. Whenever a mention of Jasper came under her notice she read it Out to her husband. Reardon smiled and appeared glad, but he did not care to discuss Milvain with the same frankness as formerly.
One evening at the end of January he told Amy what he had been writing at the Museum, and asked her if she would care to hear it read.
'I began to wonder what you were doing,' she replied.
'Then why didn't you ask me?'
'I was rather afraid to.'
'It would have seemed like reminding you that -- you know what I mean.'
'That a month or two more will see us at the same crisis again. Still, I had rather you had shown an interest in my doings.'
After a pause Amy asked:
'Do you think you can get a paper of this kind accepted?'
'It isn't impossible. I think it's rather well done. Let me read you a page ----'
'Where will you send it?' she interrupted.
'To The Wayside.'
'Why not try The Current? Ask Milvain to introduce you to Mr Fadge. They pay much better, you know.'
'But this isn't so well suited for Fadge. And I much prefer to be independent, as long as it's possible.'
'That's one of your faults, Edwin,' remarked his wife, mildly. 'It's only the strongest men that can make their way independently. You ought to use every means that offers.'
'Seeing that I am so weak?'
'I didn't think it would offend you. I only meant ----'
'No, no; you are quite right. Certainly, I am one of the men who need all the help they can get. But I assure you, this thing won't do for The Current.'
'What a pity you will go hack to those musty old times! Now think of that article of Milvain's. If only you could do something of that kind! What do people care about Diogenes and his tub and his lantern?'
'My dear girl, Diogenes Laertius had neither tub nor lantern, that I know of. You are making a mistake; but it doesn't matter.'
'No, I don't think it does.' The caustic note was not very pleasant on Amy's lips. 'Whoever he was, the mass of readers will be frightened by his name.'
'Well, we have to recognise that the mass of readers will never care for anything I do.'
'You will never convince me that you couldn't write in a popular way if you tried. I'm sure you are quite as clever as Milvain ----'
Reardon made an impatient gesture.
'Do leave Milvain aside for a little! He and I are as unlike as two men could be. What's the use of constantly comparing us?'
Amy looked at him. He had never spoken to her so brusquely.
'How can you say that I am constantly comparing you?'
'If not in spoken words, then in your thoughts.'
'That's not a very nice thing to say, Edwin.'
'You make it so unmistakable, Amy. What I mean is, that you are always regretting the difference between him and me. You lament that I can't write in that attractive way. Well, I lament it myself -- for your sake. I wish I had Milvain's peculiar talent, so that I could get reputation and money. But I haven't, and there's an end of it. It irritates a man to be perpetually told of his disadvantages.'
'I will never mention Milvain's name again,' said Amy coldly.
'Now that's ridiculous, and you know it.'
'I feel the same about your irritation. I can't see that I have given any cause for it.'
'Then we'll talk no more of the matter.'
Reardon threw his manuscript aside and opened a book. Amy never asked him to resume his intention of reading what he had written.
However, the paper was accepted. It came out in The Wayside for March, and Reardon received seven pounds ten for it. By that time he had written another thing of the same gossipy kind, suggested by Pliny's Letters. The pleasant occupation did him good, but there was no possibility of pursuing this course. 'Margaret Home' would be published in April; he might get the five-and-twenty pounds contingent upon a certain sale, yet that could in no case be paid until the middle of the year, and long before then he would be penniless. His respite drew to an end.
But now he took counsel of no one; as far as it was possible he lived in solitude, never seeing those of his acquaintances who were outside the literary world, and seldom even his colleagues. Milvain was so busy that he had only been able to look in twice or thrice since Christmas, and Reardon nowadays never went to Jasper's lodgings.
He had the conviction that all was over with the happiness of his married life, though how the events which were to express this ruin would shape themselves he could not foresee. Amy was revealing that aspect of her character to which he had been blind, though a practical man would have perceived it from the first; so far from helping him to support poverty, she perhaps would even refuse to share it with him. He knew that she was slowly drawing apart; already there was a divorce between their minds, and he tortured himself in uncertainty as to how far he retained her affections. A word of tenderness, a caress, no longer met with response from her; her softest mood was that of mere comradeship. All the warmth of her nature was expended upon the child; Reardon learnt how easy it is for a mother to forget that both parents have a share in her offspring.
He was beginning to dislike the child. But for Willie's existence Amy would still love him with undivided heart; not, perhaps, so passionately as once, but still with lover's love. And Amy understoed -- or, at all events, remarked -- this change in him. She was aware that he seldom asked a question about Willie, and that he listened with indifference when she spoke of the little fellow's progress. In part offended, she was also in part pleased.
But for the child, mere poverty, he said to himself, should never have sundered them. In the strength of his passion he could have overcome all her disappointments; and, indeed, but for that new care, he would most likely never have fallen to this extremity of helplessness. It is natural in a weak and sensitive man to dream of possibilities disturbed by the force of circumstance. For one hour which he gave to conflict with his present difficulties, Reardon spent many in contemplation of the happiness that might have been.
Even yet, it needed but a little money to redeem all. Amy had no extravagant aspirations; a home of simple refinement and freedom from anxiety would restore her to her nobler self. How could he find fault with her? She knew nothing of such sordid life as he had gone through, and to lack money for necessities seemed to her degrading beyond endurance. Why, even the ordinary artisan's wife does not suffer such privations as hers at the end of the past year. For lack of that little money his life must be ruined. Of late he had often thought about the rich uncle, John Yule, who might perhaps leave something to Amy; but the hope was so uncertain. And supposing such a thing were to happen; would it be perfectly easy to live upon his wife's bounty -- perhaps exhausting a small capital, so that, some years hence, their position would be no better than before? Not long ago, he could have taken anything from Amy's hand; would it be so simple since the change that had come between them?
Having written his second magazine-article (it was rejected by two editors, and he had no choice but to hold it over until sufficient time had elapsed to allow of his again trying The Wayside), he saw that he must perforce plan another novel. But this time he was resolute not to undertake three volumes. The advertisements informed him that numbers of authors were abandoning that procrustean system; hopeless as he was, he might as well try his chance with a book which could be written in a few weeks. And why not a glaringly artificial story with a sensational title? It could not be worse than what he had last written.
So, without a word to Amy, he put aside his purely intellectual work and began once more the search for a 'plot.' This was towards the end of February. The proofs of 'Margaret Home' were coming in day by day; Amy had offered to correct them, but after all he preferred to keep his shame to himself as long as possible, and with a hurried reading he dismissed sheet after sheet. His imagination did not work the more happily for this repugnant task; still, he hit at length upon a conception which seemed absurd enough for the purpose before him. Whether he could persevere with it even to the extent of one volume was very doubtful. But it should not be said of him that he abandoned his wife and child to penury without one effort of the kind that Milvain and Amy herself had recommended.
Writing a page or two of manuscript daily, and with several holocausts to retard him, he had done nearly a quarter of the story when there came a note from Jasper telling of Mrs Milvain's death. He handed it across the breakfast-table to Amy, and watched her as she read it.
'I suppose it doesn't alter his position,' Amy remarked, without much interest.
'I suppose not appreciably. He told me once his mother had a sufficient income; but whatever she leaves will go to his sisters, I should think. He has never said much to me.'
Nearly three weeks passed before they heard anything more from Jasper himself; then he wrote, again from the country, saying that he purposed bringing his sisters to live in London. Another week, and one evening he appeared at the door.
A want of heartiness in Reardon's reception of him might have been explained as gravity natural under the circumstances. But Jasper had before this become conscious that he was not welcomed here quite so cheerily as in the old days. He remarked it distinctly on that evening when he accompanied Amy home from Mrs Yule's; since then he had allowed his pressing occupations to be an excuse for the paucity of his visits. It seemed to him perfectly intelligible that Reardon, sinking into literary insignificance, should grow cool to a man entering upon a successful career; the vein of cynicism in Jasper enabled him to pardon a weakness of this kind, which in some measure flattered him. But he both liked and respected Reardon, and at present he was in the mood to give expression to his warmer feelings.
'Your book is announced, I see,' he said with an accent of pleasure, as soon as he had seated himself.
'I didn't know it.'
'Yes. "New novel by the author of 'On Neutral Ground.'" Down for the sixteenth of April. And I have a proposal to make about it. Will you let me ask Fadge to have it noticed in "Books of the Month," in the May Current?'
'I strongly advise you to let it take its chance. The book isn't worth special notice, and whoever undertook to review it for Fadge would either have to lie, or stultify the magazine.'
Jasper turned to Amy.
'Now what is to be done with a man like this? What is one to say to him, Mrs Reardon?'
'Edwin dislikes the book,' Amy replied, carelessly.
'That has nothing to do with the matter. We know quite well that in anything he writes there'll be something for a well-disposed reviewer to make a good deal of. If Fadge will let me, I should do the thing myself.'
Neither Reardon nor his wife spoke.
'Of course,' went on Milvain, looking at the former, 'if you had rather I left it alone ----'
'I had much rather. Please don't say anything about it.'
There was an awkward silence. Amy broke it by saying:
'Are your sisters in town, Mr Milvain?'
'Yes. We came up two days ago. I found lodgings for them not far from Mornington Road. Poor girls! they don't quite know where they are, yet. Of course they will keep very quiet for a time, then I must try to get friends for them. Well, they have one already -- your cousin, Miss Yule. She has already been to see them.'
'I'm very glad of that.'
Amy took an opportunity of studying his face. There was again a silence as if of constraint. Reardon, glancing at his wife, said with hesitation:
'When they care to see other visitors, I'm sure Amy would be very glad ----'
'Certainly!' his wife added.
'Thank you very much. Of course I knew I could depend on Mrs Reardon to show them kindness in that way. But let me speak frankly of something. My sisters have made quite a friend of Miss Yule, since she was down there last year. Wouldn't that' -- he turned to Amy -- 'cause you a little awkwardness?'
Amy had a difficulty in replying. She kept her eyes on the ground.
'You have had no quarrel with your cousin,' remarked Reardon.
'None whatever. It's only my mother and my uncle.'
'I can't imagine Miss Yule having a quarrel with anyone,' said Jasper. Then he added quickly: 'Well, things must shape themselves naturally. We shall see. For the present they will be fully occupied. Of course it's best that they should be. I shall see them every day, and Miss Yule will come pretty often, I dare say.'
Reardon caught Amy's eye, but at once looked away again.
'My word!' exclaimed Milvain, after a moment's meditation. 'It's well this didn't happen a year ago. The girls have no income; only a little cash to go on with. We shall have our work set. It's a precious lucky thing that I have just got a sort of footing.'
Reardon muttered an assent.
'And what are you doing now?' Jasper inquired suddenly.
'Writing a one-volume story.'
'I'm glad to hear that. Any special plan for its publication?'
'Then why not offer it to Jedwood? He's publishing a series of one-volume novels. You know of Jedwood, don't you? He was Culpepper's manager; started business about half a year ago, and it looks as if he would do well. He married that woman -- what's her name? -- Who wrote "Mr Henderson's Wives"?'
'Never heard of it.'
'Nonsense! -- Miss Wilkes, of course. Well, she married this fellow Jedwood, and there was a great row about something or other between him and her publishers. Mrs Boston Wright told me all about it. An astonishing woman that; a cyclopædia of the day's small talk. I'm quite a favourite with her; she's promised to help the girls all she can. Well, but I was talking about Jedwood. Why not offer him this book of yours? He's eager to get hold of the new writers. Advertises hugely; he has the whole back page of The Study about every other week. I suppose Miss Wilkes's profits are paying for it. He has just given Markland two hundred pounds for a paltry little tale that would scarcely swell out to a volume. Markland told me himself. You know that I've scraped an acquaintance with him? Oh! I suppose I haven't seen you since then. He's a dwarfish fellow with only one eye. Mrs Boston Wright cries him up at every opportunity.'
'Who is Mrs Boston Wright?' asked Reardon, laughing impatiently.
'Edits The English Girl, you know. She's had an extraordinary life. Was born in Mauritius -- no, Ceylon -- I forget; some such place. Married a sailor at fifteen. Was shipwrecked somewhere, and only restored to life after terrific efforts; -- her story leaves it all rather vague. Then she turns up as a newspaper correspondent at the Cape. Gave up that, and took to some kind of farming, I forget where. Married again (first husband lost in aforementioned shipwreck), this time a Baptist minister, and began to devote herself to soup-kitchens in Liverpool. Husband burned to death, somewhere. She's next discovered in the thick of literary society in London. A wonderful woman, I assure you. Must be nearly fifty, but she looks twenty-five.'
He paused, then added impulsively:
'Let me take you to one of her evenings -- nine on Thursday. Do persuade him, Mrs Reardon?'
Reardon shook his head.
'No, no. I should be horribly out of my element.'
'I can't see why. You would meet all sorts of well-known people; those you ought to have met long ago. Better still, let me ask her to send an invitation for both of you. I'm sure you'd like her, Mrs Reardon. There's a good deal of humbug about her, it's true, but some solid qualities as well. No one has a word to say against her. And it's a splendid advertisement to have her for a friend. She'll talk about your books and articles till all is blue.'
Amy gave a questioning look at her husband. But Reardon moved in an uncomfortable way.
'We'll see about it,' he said. 'Some day, perhaps.'
'Let me know whenever you feel disposed. But about Jedwood: I happen to know a man who reads for him.'
'Heavens!' cried Reardon. 'Who don't you know?'
'The simplest thing in the world. At present it's a large part of my business to make acquaintances. Why, look you; a man who has to live by miscellaneous writing couldn't get on without a vast variety of acquaintances. One's own brain would soon run dry; a clever fellow knows how to use the brains of other people.'
Amy listened with an unconscious smile which expressed keen interest.
'Oh,' pursued Jasper, 'when did you see Whelpdale last?'
'Haven't seen him for a long time.'
'You don't know what he's doing? The fellow has set up as a "literary adviser." He has an advertisement in The Study every week. "To Young Authors and Literary Aspirants" -- something of the kind. "Advice given on choice of subjects, MSS. read, corrected, and recommended to publishers. Moderate terms." A fact! And what's more, he made six guineas in the first fortnight; so he says, at all events. Now that's one of the finest jokes I ever heard. A man who can't get anyone to publish his own books makes a living by telling other people how to write!'
'But it's a confounded swindle!'
'Oh, I don't know. He's capable of correcting the grammar of "literary aspirants," and as for recommending to publishers -- well, anyone can recommend, I suppose.'
Reardon's indignation yielded to laughter.
'It's not impossible that he may thrive by this kind of thing.'
'Not at all,' assented Jasper.
Shortly after this he looked at his watch.
'I must be off my friends. I have something to write before I can go to my truckle-bed, and it'll take me three hours at least. Good-bye, old man. Let me know when your story's finished, and we'll talk about it. And think about Mrs Boston Wright; oh, and about that review in The Current. I wish you'd let me do it. Talk it over with your guide, philosopher, and friend.'
He indicated Amy, who laughed in a forced way.
When he was gone, the two sat without speaking for several minutes.
'Do you care to make friends with those girls?' asked Reardon at length.
'I suppose in decency I must call upon them?'
'I suppose so.'
'You may find them very agreeable.'
They conversed with their own thoughts for a while. Then Reardon burst out laughing.
'Well, there's the successful man, you see. Some day he'll live in a mansion, and dictate literary opinions to the universe.'
'How has he offended you?'
'Offended me? Not at all. I am glad of his cheerful prospects.'
'Why should you refuse to go among those people? It might be good for you in several ways.'
'If the chance had come when I was publishing my best work, I dare say I shouldn't have refused. But I certainly shall not present myself as the author of "Margaret Home," and the rubbish I'm now writing.'
'Then you must cease to write rubbish.'
'Yes. I must cease to write altogether.'
'And do what?'
'I wish to Heaven I knew!'
In the spring list of Mr Jedwood's publications, announcement was made of a new work by Alfred Yule. It was called 'English Prose in the Nineteenth Century,' and consisted of a number of essays (several of which had already seen the light in periodicals) strung into continuity. The final chapter dealt with contemporary writers, more especially those who served to illustrate the author's theme -- that journalism is the destruction of prose style: on certain popular writers of the day there was an outpouring of gall which was not likely to be received as though it were sweet ointment. The book met with rather severe treatment in critical columns; it could scarcely be ignored (the safest mode of attack when one's author has no expectant public), and only the most skilful could write of it in a hostile spirit without betraying that some of its strokes had told. An evening newspaper which piqued itself on independence indulged in laughing appreciation of the polemical chapter, and the next day printed a scornful letter from a thinly-disguised correspondent who assailed both book and reviewer. For the moment people talked more of Alfred Yule than they had done since his memorable conflict with Clement Fadge.
The publisher had hoped for this. Mr Jedwood was an energetic and sanguine man, who had entered upon his business with a determination to rival in a year or so the houses which had slowly risen into commanding stability. He had no great capital, but the stroke of fortune which had wedded him to a popular novelist enabled him to count on steady profit from one source, and boundless faith in his own judgment urged him to an initial outlay which made the prudent shake their heads. He talked much of 'the new era,' foresaw revolutions in publishing and book-selling, planned every week a score of untried ventures which should appeal to the democratic generation just maturing; in the meantime, was ready to publish anything which seemed likely to get talked about.
The May number of The Current, in its article headed 'Books of the Month,' devoted about half a page to 'English Prose in the Nineteenth Century.' This notice was a consummate example of the flippant style of attack. Flippancy, the most hopeless form of intellectual vice, was a characterising note of Mr Fadge's periodical; his monthly comments on publications were already looked for with eagerness by that growing class of readers who care for nothing but what can be made matter of ridicule. The hostility of other reviewers was awkward and ineffectual compared with this venomous banter, which entertained by showing that in the book under notice there was neither entertainment nor any other kind of interest. To assail an author without increasing the number of his readers is the perfection of journalistic skill, and The Current, had it stood alone, would fully have achieved this end. As it was, silence might have been better tactics. But Mr Fadge knew that his enemy would smart under the poisoned pin-points, and that was something gained.
On the day that The Current appeared, its treatment of Alfred Yule was discussed in Mr Jedwood's private office. Mr Quarmby, who had intimate relations with the publisher, happened to look in just as a young man (one of Mr Jedwood's 'readers') was expressing a doubt whether Fadge himself was the author of the review.
'But there's Fadge's thumb-mark all down the page,' cried Mr Quarmby.
'He inspired the thing, of course; but I rather think it was written by that fellow Milvain.'
'Think so?' asked the publisher.
'Well, I know with certainty that the notice of Markland's novel is his writing, and I have reasons for suspecting that he did Yule's book as well.'
'Smart youngster, that,' remarked Mr Jedwood. 'Who is he, by-the-bye?'
'Somebody's illegitimate son, I believe,' replied the source of trustworthy information, with a laugh. 'Denham says he met him in New York a year or two ago, under another name.
'Excuse me,' interposed Mr Quarmby, 'there's some mistake in all that.'
He went on to state what he knew, from Yule himself, concerning Milvain's history. Though in this instance a corrector, Mr Quarmby took an opportunity, a few hours later, of informing Mr Hinks that the attack on Yule in The Current was almost certainly written by young Milvain, with the result that when the rumour reached Yule's ears it was delivered as an undoubted and well-known fact.
It was a month prior to this that Milvain made his call upon Marian Yule, on the Sunday when her father was absent. When told of the visit, Yule assumed a manner of indifference, but his daughter understood that he was annoyed. With regard to the sisters who would shortly be living in London, he merely said that Marian must behave as discretion directed her. If she wished to invite the Miss Milvains to St Paul's Crescent, he only begged that the times and seasons of the household might not be disturbed.
As her habit was, Marian took refuge in silence. Nothing could have been more welcome to her than the proximity of Maud and Dora, but she foresaw that her own home would not be freely open to them; perhaps it might be necessary to behave with simple frankness, and let her friends know the embarrassments of the situation. But that could not be done in the first instance; the unkindness would seem too great. A day after the arrival of the girls, she received a note from Dora, and almost at once replied to it by calling at her friends' lodgings. A week after that, Maud and Dora came to St Paul's Crescent; it was Sunday, and Mr Yule purposely kept away from home. They had only been once to the house since then, again without meeting Mr Yule. Marian, however, visited them at their lodgings frequently; now and then she met Jasper there. The latter never spoke of her father, and there was no question of inviting him to repeat his call.
In the end, Marian was obliged to speak on the subject with her mother. Mrs Yule offered an occasion by asking when the Miss Milvains were coming again.
'I don't think I shall ever ask them again,' Marian replied.
Her mother understood, and looked troubled.
'I must tell them how it is, that's all,' the girl went on. 'They are sensible; they won't be offended with me.'
'But your father has never had anything to say against them,' urged Mrs Yule. 'Not a word to me, Marian. I'd tell you the truth if he had.'
'It's too disagreeable, all the same. I can't invite them here with pleasure. Father has grown prejudiced against them all, and he won't change. No, I shall just tell them.'
'It's very hard for you,' sighed her mother. 'If I thought I could do any good by speaking -- but I can't, my dear.'
'I know it, mother. Let us go on as we did before.'
The day after this, when Yule came home about the hour of dinner, he called Marian's name from within the study. Marian had not left the house to-day; her work had been set, in the shape of a long task of copying from disorderly manuscript. She left the sitting-room in obedience to her father's summons.
'Here's something that will afford you amusement,' he said, holding to her the new number of The Current, and indicating the notice of his book.
She read a few lines, then threw the thing on to the table.
'That kind of writing sickens me,' she exclaimed, with anger in her eyes. 'Only base and heartless people can write in that way. You surely won't let it trouble you?'
'Oh, not for a moment,' her father answered, with exaggerated show of calm. 'But I am surprised that you don't see the literary merit of the work. I thought it would distinctly appeal to you.'
There was a strangeness in his voice, as well as in the words, which caused her to look at him inquiringly. She knew him well enough to understand that such a notice would irritate him profoundly; but why should he go out of his way to show it her, and with this peculiar acerbity of manner?
'Why do you say that, father?'
'It doesn't occur to you who may probably have written it?'
She could not miss his meaning; astonishment held her mute for a moment, then she said:
'Surely Mr Fadge wrote it himself?'
'I am told not. I am informed on very good authority that one of his young gentlemen has the credit of it.'
'You refer, of course, to Mr Milvain,' she replied quietly. 'But I think that can't be true.'
He looked keenly at her. He had expected a more decided protest.
'I see no reason for disbelieving it.'
'I see every reason, until I have your evidence.'
This was not at all Marian's natural tone in argument with him. She was wont to be submissive.
'I was told,' he continued, hardening face and voice, 'by someone who had it from Jedwood.'
Yule was conscious of untruth in this statement, but his mood would not allow him to speak ingenuously, and he wished to note the effect upon Marian of what he said. There were two beliefs in him: on the one hand, he recognised Fadge in every line of the writing; on the other, he had a perverse satisfaction in convincing himself that it was Milvain who had caught so successfully the master's manner. He was not the kind of man who can resist an opportunity of justifying, to himself and others, a course into which he has been led by mingled feelings, all more or less unjustifiable.
'How should Jedwood know?' asked Marian.
Yule shrugged his shoulders.
'As if these things didn't get about among editors and publishers!'
'In this case, there's a mistake.'
'And why, pray?' His voice trembled with choler. 'Why need there be a mistake?'
'Because Mr Milvain is quite incapable of reviewing your book in such a spirit.'
'There is your mistake, my girl. Milvain will do anything that's asked of him, provided he's well enough paid.'
Marian reflected. When she raised her eyes again they were perfectly calm.
'What has led you to think that?'
'Don't I know the type of man? Noscitur ex sociis -- have you Latin enough for that?'
'You'll find that you are misinformed,' Marian replied, and therewith went from the room.
She could not trust herself to converse longer. A resentment such as her father had never yet excited in her -- such, indeed, as she had seldom, if ever, conceived -- threatened to force utterance for itself in words which would change the current of her whole life. She saw her father in his worst aspect, and her heart was shaken by an unnatural revolt from him. Let his assurance of what he reported be ever so firm, what right had he to make this use of it? His behaviour was spiteful. Suppose he entertained suspicions which seemed to make it his duty to warn her against Milvain, this was not the way to go about it. A father actuated by simple motives of affection would never speak and look thus.
It was the hateful spirit of literary rancour that ruled him; the spirit that made people eager to believe all evil, that blinded and maddened. Never had she felt so strongly the unworthiness of the existence to which she was condemned. That contemptible review, and now her father's ignoble passion -- such things were enough to make all literature appear a morbid excrescence upon human life.
Forgetful of the time, she sat in her bedroom until a knock at the door, and her mother's voice, admonished her that dinner was waiting. An impulse all but caused her to say that she would rather not go down for the meal, that she wished to be left alone. But this would be weak peevishness. She just looked at the glass to see that her face bore no unwonted signs, and descended to take her place as usual.
Throughout the dinner there passed no word of conversation. Yule was at his blackest; he gobbled a few mouthfuls, then occupied himself with the evening paper. On rising, he said to Marian:
'Have you copied the whole of that?'
The tone would have been uncivil if addressed to an impertinent servant.
'Not much more than hall,' was the cold reply.
'Can you finish it to-night?'
'I'm afraid not. I am going out.'
'Then I must do it myself'
And he went to the study.
Mrs Yule was in an anguish of nervousness.
'What is it, dear?' she asked of Marian, in a pleading whisper. 'Oh, don't quarrel with your father! Don't!'
'I can't be a slave, mother, and I can't be treated unjustly.'
'What is it? Let me go and speak to him.'
'It's no use. We can't live in terror.'
For Mrs Yule this was unimaginable disaster. She had never dreamt that Marian, the still, gentle Marian, could be driven to revolt. And it had come with the suddenness of a thunderclap. She wished to ask what had taken place between father and daughter in the brief interview before dinner; but Marian gave her no chance, quitting the room upon those last trembling words.
The girl had resolved to visit her friends, the sisters, and tell them that in future they must never come to see her at home. But it was no easy thing for her to stifle her conscience, and leave her father to toil over that copying which had need of being finished. Not her will, but her exasperated feeling, had replied to him that she would not do the work; already it astonished her that she had really spoken such words. And as the throbbing of her pulses subsided, she saw more clearly into the motives of this wretched tumult which possessed her. Her mind was harassed with a fear lest in defending Milvain she had spoken foolishly. Had he not himself said to her that he might be guilty of base things, just to make his way? Perhaps it was the intolerable pain of imagining that he had already made good his words, which robbed her of self-control and made her meet her father's rudeness with defiance.
Impossible to carry out her purpose; she could not deliberately leave the house and spend some hours away with the thought of such wrath and misery left behind her. Gradually she was returning to her natural self; fear and penitence were chill at her heart.
She went down to the study, tapped, and entered.
'Father, I said something that I did not really mean. Of course I shall go on with the copying and finish it as soon as possible.'
'You will do nothing of the kind, my girl.' He was in his usual place, already working at Marian's task; he spoke in a low, thick voice. 'Spend your evening as you choose, I have no need of you.'
'I behaved very ill-temperedly. Forgive me, father.'
'Have the goodness to go away. You hear me?'
His eyes were inflamed, and his discoloured teeth showed themselves savagely. Marian durst not, really durst not approach him. She hesitated, but once more a sense of hateful injustice moved within her, and she went away as quietly as she had entered.
She said to herself that now it was her perfect right to go whither she would. But the freedom was only in theory; her submissive and timid nature kept her at home -- and upstairs in her own room; for, if she went to sit with her mother, of necessity she must talk about what had happened, and that she felt unable to do. Some friend to whom she could unbosom all her sufferings would now have been very precious to her, but Maud and Dora were her only intimates, and to them she might not make the full confession which gives solace.
Mrs Yule did not venture to intrude upon her daughter's privacy. That Marian neither went out nor showed herself in the house proved her troubled state, but the mother had no confidence in her power to comfort. At the usual time she presented herself in the study with her husband's coffee; the face which was for an instant turned to her did not invite conversation, but distress obliged her to speak.
'Why are you cross with Marian, Alfred?'
'You had better ask what she means by her extraordinary behaviour.'
A word of harsh rebuff was the most she had expected. Thus encouraged, she timidly put another question.
'How has she behaved?'
'I suppose you have ears?'
'But wasn't there something before that? You spoke so angry to her.'
'Spoke so angry, did I? She is out, I suppose?'
'No, she hasn't gone out.'
'That'll do. Don't disturb me any longer.'
She did not venture to linger.
The breakfast next morning seemed likely to pass without any interchange of words. But when Yule was pushing back his chair, Marian -- who looked pale and ill -- addressed a question to him about the work she would ordinarily have pursued to-day at the Reading-room. He answered in a matter-of-fact tone, and for a few minutes they talked on the subject much as at any other time. Half an hour after, Marian set forth for the Museum in the usual way. Her father stayed at home.
It was the end of the episode for the present. Marian felt that the best thing would be to ignore what had happened, as her father evidently purposed doing. She had asked his forgiveness, and it was harsh in him to have repelled her; but by now she was able once more to take into consideration all his trials and toils, his embittered temper and the new wound he had received. That he should resume his wonted manner was sufficient evidence of regret on his part. Gladly she would have unsaid her resentful words; she had been guilty of a childish outburst of temper, and perhaps had prepared worse sufferings for the future.
And yet, perhaps it was as well that her father should be warned. She was not all submission, he might try her beyond endurance; there might come a day when perforce she must stand face to face with him, and make it known she had her own claims upon life. It was as well he should hold that possibility in view.
This evening no work was expected of her. Not long after dinner she prepared for going out; to her mother she mentioned she should be back about ten o'clock.
'Give my kind regards to them, dear -- if you like to,' said Mrs Yule just above her breath.
'Certainly I will.'
Marian walked to the nearest point of Camden Road, and there waited for an omnibus, which conveyed her to within easy reach of the street where Maud and Dora Milvain had their lodgings. This was at the north-east of Regent's Park, and no great distance from Mornington Road, where Jasper still dwelt.
On learning that the young ladies were at home and alone, she ascended to the second floor and knocked.
'That's right!' exclaimed Dora's pleasant voice, as the door opened and the visitor showed herself And then came the friendly greeting which warmed Marian's heart, the greeting which until lately no house in London could afford her.
The girls looked oddly out of place in this second-floor sitting-room, with its vulgar furniture and paltry ornaments. Maud especially so, for her fine figure was well displayed by the dress of mourning, and her pale, handsome face had as little congruence as possible with a background of humble circumstances. Dora impressed one as a simpler nature, but she too had distinctly the note of refinement which was out of harmony with these surroundings. They occupied only two rooms, the sleeping-chamber being double-bedded; they purchased food for themselves and prepared their own meals, excepting dinner. During the first week a good many tears were shed by both of them; it was not easy to transfer themselves from the comfortable country home to this bare corner of lodgers' London. Maud, as appeared at the first glance, was less disposed than her sister to make the best of things; her countenance wore an expression rather of discontent than of sorrow, and she did not talk with the same readiness as Dora.
On the round table lay a number of books; when disturbed, the sisters had been engaged in studious reading.
'I'm not sure that I do right in coming again so soon,' said Marian as she took off her things. 'Your time is precious.'
'So are you,' replied Dora, laughing. 'It's only under protest that we work in the evening when we have been hard at it all day.'
'We have news for you, too,' said Maud, who sat languidly on an uneasy chair.
'Good, I hope?'
'Someone called to see us yesterday. I dare say you can guess who it was.'
'And how did you like her?'
The sisters seemed to have a difficulty in answering. Dora was the first to speak.
'We thought she was sadly out of spirits. Indeed she told us that she hasn't been very well lately. But I think we shall like her if we come to know her better.'
'It was rather awkward, Marian,' the elder sister explained. 'We felt obliged to say something about Mr Reardon's books, but we haven't read any of them yet, you know, so I just said that I hoped soon to read his new novel. "I suppose you have seen reviews of it?" she asked at once. Of course I ought to have had the courage to say no, but I admitted that I had seen one or two -- Jasper showed us them. She looked very much annoyed, and after that we didn't find much to talk about.'
'The reviews are very disagreeable,' said Marian with a troubled face. 'I have read the book since I saw you the other day, and I am afraid it isn't good, but I have seen many worse novels more kindly reviewed.'
'Jasper says it's because Mr Reardon has no friends among the journalists.'
'Still,' replied Marian, 'I'm afraid they couldn't have given the book much praise, if they wrote honestly. Did Amy ask you to go and see her?'
'Yes, but she said it was uncertain how long they would be living at their present address. And really. we can't feel sure whether we should be welcome or not just now.'
Marian listened with bent head. She too had to make known to her friends that they were not welcome in her own home; but she knew not how to utter words which would sound so unkind.
'Your brother,' she said after a pause, 'will soon find suitable friends for you.'
'Before long,' replied Dora, with a look of amusement, 'he's going to take us to call on Mrs Boston Wright. I hardly thought he was serious at first, but he says he really means it.'
Marian grew more and more silent. At home she had felt that it would not be difficult to explain her troubles to these sympathetic girls, but now the time had come for speaking, she was oppressed by shame and anxiety. True, there was no absolute necessity for making the confession this evening, and if she chose to resist her father's prejudice, things might even go on in a seemingly natural way. But the loneliness of her life had developed in her a sensitiveness which could not endure situations such as the present; difficulties which are of small account to people who take their part in active social life, harassed her to the destruction of all peace. Dora was not long in noticing the dejected mood which had come upon her friend.
'What's troubling you, Marian?'
'Something I can hardly bear to speak of. Perhaps it will be the end of your friendship for me, and I should find it very hard to go back to my old solitude.'
The girls gazed at her, in doubt at first whether she spoke seriously.
'What can you mean?' Dora exclaimed. 'What crime have you been committing?'
Maud, who leaned with her elbows on the table, searched Marian's face curiously, but said nothing.
'Has Mr Milvain shown you the new number of The Current?' Marian went on to ask.
They replied with a negative, and Maud added:
'He has nothing in it this month, except a review.'
'A review?' repeated Marian in a low voice.
'Yes; of somebody's novel.'
'Markland's,' supplied Dora.
Marian drew a breath, but remained for a moment with her eyes cast down.
'Do go on, dear,' urged Dora. 'Whatever are you going to tell us?'
'There's a notice of father's book,' continued the other, 'a very ill-natured one; it's written by the editor, Mr Fadge. Father and he have been very unfriendly for a long time. Perhaps Mr Milvain has told you something about it?'
Dora replied that he had.
'I don't know how it is in other professions,' Marian resumed, 'but I hope there is less envy, hatred and malice than in this of ours. The name of literature is often made hateful to me by the things I hear and read. My father has never been very fortunate, and many things have happened to make him bitter against the men who succeed; he has often quarrelled with people who were at first his friends, but never so seriously with anyone as with Mr Fadge. His feeling of enmity goes so far that it includes even those who are in any way associated with Mr Fadge. I am sorry to say' -- she looked with painful anxiety from one to the other of her hearers -- 'this has turned him against your brother, and ----'
Her voice was checked by agitation.
'We were afraid of this,' said Dora, in a tone of sympathy.
'Jasper feared it might be the case,' added Maud, more coldly, though with friendliness.
'Why I speak of it at all,' Marian hastened to say, 'is because I am so afraid it should make a difference between yourselves and me.'
'Oh! don't think that!' Dora exclaimed.
'I am so ashamed,' Marian went on in an uncertain tone, 'but I think it will be better if I don't ask you to come and see me. It sounds ridiculous; it is ridiculous and shameful. I couldn't complain if you refused to have anything more to do with me.'
'Don't let it trouble you,' urged Maud, with perhaps a trifle more of magnanimity in her voice than was needful. We quite understand. Indeed, it shan't make any difference to us.
But Marian had averted her face, and could not meet these assurances with any show of pleasure. Now that the step was taken she felt that her behaviour had been very weak. Unreasonable harshness such as her father's ought to have been met more steadily; she had no right to make it an excuse for such incivility to her friends. Yet only in some such way as this could she make known to Jasper Milvain how her father regarded him, which she felt it necessary to do. Now his sisters would tell him, and henceforth there would be a clear understanding on both sides. That state of things was painful to her, but it was better than ambiguous relations.
'Jasper is very sorry about it,' said Dora, glancing rapidly at Marian.
'But his connection with Mr Fadge came about in such a natural way,' added the eldest sister. 'And it was impossible for him to refuse opportunities.'
'Impossible; I know,' Marian replied earnestly. 'Don't think that I wish to justify my father. But I can understand him, and it must be very difficult for you to do so. You can't know, as I do, how intensely he has suffered in these wretched, ignoble quarrels. If only you will let me come here still, in the same way, and still be as friendly to me. My home has never been a place to which I could have invited friends with any comfort, even if I had had any to invite. There were always reasons -- but I can't speak of them.'
'My dear Marian,' appealed Dora, 'don't distress yourself so! Do believe that nothing whatever has happened to change our feeling to you. Has there, Maud?'
'Nothing whatever. We are not unreasonable girls, Marian.'
'I am more grateful to you than I can say.'
It had seemed as if Marian must give way to the emotions which all but choked her voice; she overcame them, however, and presently was able to talk in pretty much her usual way, though when she smiled it was but faintly. Maud tried to lead her thoughts in another direction by speaking of work in which she and Dora were engaged. Already the sisters were doing a new piece of compilation for Messrs Jolly and Monk; it was more exacting than their initial task for the book market, and would take a much longer time.
A couple of hours went by, and Marian had just spoken of taking her leave, when a man's step was heard rapidly ascending the nearest flight of stairs.
'Here's Jasper,' remarked Dora, and in a moment there sounded a short, sharp summons at the door.
Jasper it was; he came in with radiant face, his eyes blinking before the lamplight.
'Well, girls! Ha! how do you do, Miss Yule? I had just the vaguest sort of expectation that you might be here. It seemed a likely night; I don't know why. I say, Dora, we really must get two or three decent easy-chairs for your room. I've seen some outside a second-hand furniture shop in Hampstead Road, about six shillings apiece. There's no sitting on chairs such as these.'
That on which he tried to dispose himself, when he had flung aside his trappings, creaked and shivered ominously.
'You hear? I shall come plump on to the floor, if I don't mind. My word, what a day I have had! I've just been trying what I really could do in one day if I worked my hardest. Now just listen; it deserves to be chronicled for the encouragement of aspiring youth. I got up at 7.30, and whilst I breakfasted I read through a volume I had to review. By 10.30 the review was written -- three-quarters of a column of the Evening Budget.'
'Who is the unfortunate author?' interrupted Maud, caustically.
'Not unfortunate at all. I had to crack him up; otherwise I couldn't have done the job so quickly. It's the easiest thing in the world to write laudation; only an inexperienced grumbler would declare it was easier to find fault. The book was Billington's "Vagaries"; pompous idiocy, of course, but he lives in a big house and gives dinners. Well, from 10.30 to 11, I smoked a cigar and reflected, feeling that the day wasn't badly begun. At eleven I was ready to write my Saturday causerie for the Will o' the Wisp; it took me till close upon one o'clock, which was rather too long. I can't afford more than an hour and a half for that job. At one, I rushed out to a dirty little eating-house in Hampstead Road. Was back again by a quarter to two, having in the meantime sketched a paper for The West End. Pipe in mouth, I sat down to leisurely artistic work; by five, half the paper was done; the other half remains for to-morrow. From five to half-past I read four newspapers and two magazines, and from half-past to a quarter to six I jotted down several ideas that had come to me whilst reading. At six I was again in the dirty eating-house, satisfying a ferocious hunger. Home once more at 6.45, and for two hours wrote steadily at a long affair I have in hand for The Current. Then I came here, thinking hard all the way. What say you to this? Have I earned a night's repose?'
'And what's the value of it all?' asked Maud.
'Probably from ten to twelve guineas, if I calculated.'
'I meant, what was the literary value of it?' said his sister, with a smile.
'Equal to that of the contents of a mouldy nut.'
'Pretty much what I thought.'
'Oh, but it answers the purpose,' urged Dora, 'and it does no one any harm.'
'Honest journey-work!' cried Jasper. 'There are few men in London capable of such a feat. Many a fellow could write more in quantity, but they couldn't command my market. It's rubbish, but rubbish of a very special kind, of fine quality.'
Marian had not yet spoken, save a word or two in reply to Jasper's greeting; now and then she just glanced at him, but for the most part her eyes were cast down. Now Jasper addressed her.
'A year ago, Miss Yule, I shouldn't have believed myself capable of such activity. In fact I wasn't capable of it then.'
'You think such work won't be too great a strain upon you?' she asked.
'Oh, this isn't a specimen day, you know. To-morrow I shall very likely do nothing but finish my West End article, in an easy two or three hours. There's no knowing; I might perhaps keep up the high pressure if I tried. But then I couldn't dispose of all the work. Little by little -- or perhaps rather quicker than that -- I shall extend my scope. For instance, I should like to do two or three leaders a week for one of the big dailies. I can't attain unto that just yet.'
'Not political leaders?'
'By no means. That's not my line. The kind of thing in which one makes a column out of what would fill six lines of respectable prose. You call a cigar a "convoluted weed," and so on, you know; that passes for facetiousness. I've never really tried my hand at that style yet; I shouldn't wonder if I managed it brilliantly. Some day I'll write a few exercises; just take two lines of some good prose writer, and expand them into twenty, in half-a-dozen different ways. Excellent mental gymnastics!'
Marian listened to his flow of talk for a few minutes longer, then took the opportunity of a brief silence to rise and put on her hat. Jasper observed her, but without rising; he looked at his sisters in a hesitating way. At length he stood up, and declared that he too must be off. This coincidence had happened once before when he met Marian here in the evening.
'At all events, you won't do any more work to-night,' said Dora.
'No; I shall read a page of something or other over a glass of whisky, and seek the sleep of a man who has done his duty.'
'Why the whisky?' asked Maud.
'Do you grudge me such poor solace?'
'I don't see the need of it.'
'Nonsense, Maud!' exclaimed her sister. 'He needs a little stimulant when he works so hard.'
Each of the girls gave Marian's hand a significant pressure as she took leave of them, and begged her to come again as soon as she had a free evening. There was gratitude in her eyes.
The evening was clear, and not very cold.
'It's rather late for you to go home,' said Jasper, as they left the house. 'May I walk part of the way with you?'
Marian replied with a low 'Thank you.'
'I think you get on pretty well with the girls, don't you?'
'I hope they are as glad of my friendship as I am of theirs.'
'Pity to see them in a place like that, isn't it? They ought to have a good house, with plenty of servants. It's bad enough for a civilised man to have to rough it, but I hate to see women living in a sordid way. Don't you think they could both play their part in a drawing-room, with a little experience?'
'Surely there's no doubt of it.'
'Maud would look really superb if she were handsomely dressed. She hasn't a common face, by any means. And Dora is pretty, I think. Well, they shall go and see some people before long. The difficulty is, one doesn't like it to be known that they live in such a crib; but I daren't advise them to go in for expense. One can't be sure that it would repay them, though ---- Now, in my own case, if I could get hold of a few thousand pounds I should know how to use it with the certainty of return; it would save me, probably, a clear ten years of life; I mean, I should go at a jump to what I shall be ten years hence without the help of money. But they have such a miserable little bit of capital, and everything is still so uncertain. One daren't speculate under the circumstances.'
Marian made no reply.
'You think I talk of nothing but money?' Jasper said suddenly, looking down into her face.
'I know too well what it means to be without money.'
'Yes, but -- you do just a little despise me?'
'Indeed, I don't, Mr Milvain.'
'If that is sincere, I'm very glad. I take it in a friendly sense. I am rather despicable, you know; it's part of my business to be so. But a friend needn't regard that. There is the man apart from his necessities.'
The silence was then unbroken till they came to the lower end of Park Street, the junction of roads which lead to Hampstead, to Highgate, and to Holloway.
'Shall you take an omnibus?' Jasper asked.
'Or will you give me the pleasure of walking on with you? You are tired, perhaps?'
'Not the least.'
For the rest of her answer she moved forward, and they crossed into the obscurity of Camden Road.
'Shall I be doing wrong, Mr Milvain,' Marian began in a very low voice, 'if I ask you about the authorship of something in this month's Current?'
'I'm afraid I know what you refer to. There's no reason why I shouldn't answer a question of the kind.'
'It was Mr Fadge himself who reviewed my father's book?'
'It was -- confound him! I don't know another man who could have done the thing so vilely well.'
'I suppose he was only replying to my father's attack upon him and his friends.'
'Your father's attack is honest and straightforward and justifiable and well put. I read that chapter of his book with huge satisfaction. But has anyone suggested that another than Fadge was capable of that masterpiece?'
'Yes. I am told that Mr Jedwood, the publisher, has somehow made a mistake.'
'Jedwood? And what mistake?'
'Father heard that you were the writer.'
'I?' Jasper stopped short. They were in the rays of a street-lamp, and could see each other's faces. 'And he believes that?'
'I'm afraid so.'
'And you believe -- believed it?'
'Not for a moment.'
'I shall write a note to Mr Yule.'
Marian was silent a while, then said:
'Wouldn't it be better if you found a way of letting Mr Jedwood know the truth?'
'Perhaps you are right.'
Jasper was very grateful for the suggestion. In that moment he had reflected how rash it would be to write to Alfred Yule on such a subject, with whatever prudence in expressing himself. Such a letter, coming under the notice of the great Fadge, might do its writer serious harm.
'Yes, you are right,' he repeated. 'I'll stop that rumour at its source. I can't guess how it started; for aught I know, some enemy hath done this, though I don't quite discern the motive. Thank you very much for telling me, and still more for refusing to believe that I could treat Mr Yule in that way, even as a matter of business. When I said that I was despicable, I didn't mean that I could sink quite to such a point as that. If only because it was your father ----'
He checked himself and they walked on for several yards without speaking.
'In that case,' Jasper resumed at length, 'your father doesn't think of me in a very friendly way?'
'He scarcely could ----'
'No, no. And I quite understand that the mere fact of my working for Fadge would prejudice him against me. But that's no reason, I hope, why you and I shouldn't be friends?'
'I hope not.'
'I don't know that my friendship is worth much,' Jasper continued, talking into the upper air, a habit of his when he discussed his own character. 'I shall go on as I have begun, and fight for some of the good things of life. But your friendship is valuable. If I am sure of it, I shall be at all events within sight of the better ideals.'
Marian walked on with her eyes upon the ground. To her surprise she discovered presently that they had all but reached St Paul's Crescent.
'Thank you for having come so far,' she said, pausing.
'Ah, you are nearly home. Why, it seems only a few minutes since we left the girls. Now I'll run back to the whisky of which Maud disapproves.'
'May it do you good!' said Marian with a laugh.
A speech of this kind seemed unusual upon her lips. Jasper smiled as he held her hand and regarded her.
'Then you can speak in a joking way?'
'Do I seem so very dull?'
'Dull, by no means. But sage and sober and reticent -- and exactly what I like in my friend, because it contrasts with my own habits. All the better that merriment lies below it. Goodnight, Miss Yule.'
He strode off and in a minute or two turned his head to look at the slight figure passing into darkness.
Marian's hand trembled as she tried to insert her latch-key. When she had closed the door very quietly behind her she went to the sitting-room; Mrs Yule was just laying aside the sewing on which she had occupied herself throughout the lonely evening.
'I'm rather late,' said the girl, in a voice of subdued joyousness.
'Yes; I was getting a little uneasy, dear.'
'Oh, there's no danger.'
'You have been enjoying yourself, I can see.'
'I have had a pleasant evening.'
In the retrospect it seemed the pleasantest she had yet spent with her friends, though she had set out in such a different mood. Her mind was relieved of two anxieties; she felt sure that the girls had not taken ill what she told them, and there was no longer the least doubt concerning the authorship of that review in The Current.
She could confess to herself now that the assurance from Jasper's lips was not superfluous. He might have weighed profit against other considerations, and have written in that way of her father; she had not felt that absolute confidence which defies every argument from human frailty. And now she asked herself if faith of that unassailable kind is ever possible; is it not only the poet's dream, the far ideal?
Marian often went thus far in her speculation. Her candour was allied with clear insight into the possibilities of falsehood; she was not readily the victim of illusion; thinking much, and speaking little, she had not come to her twenty-third year without perceiving what a distance lay between a girl's dream of life as it might be and life as it is. Had she invariably disclosed her thoughts, she would have earned the repute of a very sceptical and slightly cynical person.
But with what rapturous tumult of the heart she could abandon herself to a belief in human virtues when their suggestion seemed to promise her a future of happiness!
Alone in her room she sat down only to think of Jasper Milvain, and extract from the memory of his words, his looks, new sustenance for her hungry heart. Jasper was the first man who had ever evinced a man's interest in her. Until she met him she had not known a look of compliment or a word addressed to her emotions. He was as far as possible from representing the lover of her imagination, but from the day of that long talk in the fields near Wattleborough the thought of him had supplanted dreams. On that day she said to herself: I could love him if he cared to seek my love. Premature, perhaps; why, yes, but one who is starving is not wont to feel reluctance at the suggestion of food. The first man who had approached her with display of feeling and energy and youthful self-confidence; handsome too, it seemed to her. Her womanhood went eagerly to meet him.
Since then she had made careful study of his faults. Each conversation had revealed to her new weakness and follies. With the result that her love had grown to a reality.
He was so human, and a youth of all but monastic seclusion had prepared her to love the man who aimed with frank energy at the joys of life. A taint of pedantry would have repelled her. She did not ask for high intellect or great attainments; but vivacity, courage, determination to succeed, were delightful to her senses. Her ideal would not have been a literary man at all; certainly not a man likely to be prominent in journalism; rather a man of action, one who had no restraints of commerce or official routine. But in Jasper she saw the qualities that attracted her apart from the accidents of his position. Ideal personages do not descend to girls who have to labour at the British Museum; it seemed a marvel to her, and of good augury, that even such a man as Jasper should have crossed her path.
It was as though years had passed since their first meeting. Upon her return to London had followed such long periods of hopelessness. Yet whenever they encountered each other he had look and speech for her with which surely he did not greet every woman. From the first his way of regarding her had shown frank interest. And at length had come the confession of his 'respect,' his desire to be something more to her than a mere acquaintance. It was scarcely possible that he should speak as he several times had of late if he did not wish to draw her towards him.
That was the hopeful side of her thoughts. It was easy to forget for a time those words of his which one might think were spoken as distinct warning; but they crept into the memory, unwelcome, importunate, as soon as imagination had built its palace of joy. Why did he always recur to the subject of money? 'I shall allow nothing to come in my way;' he once said that as if meaning, 'certainly not a love affair with a girl who is penniless.' He emphasised the word 'friend,' as if to explain that he offered and asked nothing more than friendship.
But it only meant that he would not be in haste to. declare himself. Of a certainty there was conflict between his ambition and his love, but she recognised her power over him and exulted in it. She had observed his hesitancy this evening, before he rose to accompany her from the house; her heart laughed within her as the desire drew him. And henceforth such meetings would be frequent, with each one her influence would increase. How kindly fate had dealt with her in bringing Maud and Dora to London!
It was within his reach to marry a woman who would bring him wealth. He had that in mind; she understood it too well. But not one moment's advantage would she relinquish. He must choose her in her poverty, and be content with what his talents could earn for him. Her love gave her the right to demand this sacrifice; let him ask for her love, and the sacrifice would no longer seem one, so passionately would she reward him.
He would ask it. To-night she was full of a rich confidence, partly, no doubt, the result of reaction from her miseries. He had said at parting that her character was so well suited to his; that he liked her. And then he had pressed her hand so warmly. Before long he would ask her love.
The unhoped was all but granted her. She could labour on in the valley of the shadow of books, for a ray of dazzling sunshine might at any moment strike into its musty gloom.
The past twelve months had added several years to Edwin Reardon's seeming age; at thirty-three he would generally have been taken for forty. His bearing, his personal habits, were no longer those of a young man; he walked with a stoop and pressed noticeably on the stick he carried; it was rare for him to show the countenance which tells of present cheerfulness or glad onward-looking; there was no spring in his step; his voice had fallen to a lower key, and often he spoke with that hesitation in choice of words which may be noticed in persons whom defeat has made self-distrustful. Ceaseless perplexity and dread gave a wandering, sometimes a wild, expression to his eyes.
He seldom slept, in the proper sense of the word; as a rule he was conscious all through the night of 'a kind of fighting' between physical weariness and wakeful toil of the mind. It often happened that some wholly imaginary obstacle in the story he was writing kept him under a sense of effort throughout the dark hours; now and again he woke, reasoned with himself, and remembered clearly that the torment was without cause, but the short relief thus afforded soon passed in the recollection of real distress. In his unsoothing slumber he talked aloud, frequently wakening Amy; generally he seemed to be holding a dialogue with someone who had imposed an intolerable task upon him; he protested passionately, appealed, argued in the strangest way about the injustice of what was demanded. Once Amy heard him begging for money -- positively begging, like some poor wretch in the street; it was horrible, and made her shed tears; when he asked what he had been saying, she could not bring herself to tell him.
When the striking clocks summoned him remorselessly to rise and work he often reeled with dizziness. It seemed to him that the greatest happiness attainable would be to creep into some dark, warm corner, out of the sight and memory of men, and lie there torpid, with a blessed half-consciousness that death was slowly overcoming him. Of all the sufferings collected into each four-and-twenty hours this of rising to a new day was the worst.
The one-volume story which he had calculated would take him four or five weeks was with difficulty finished in two months. March winds made an invalid of him; at one time he was threatened with bronchitis, and for several days had to abandon even the effort to work. In previous winters he had been wont to undergo a good deal of martyrdom from the London climate, but never in such a degree as now; mental illness seemed to have enfeebled his body.
It was strange that he succeeded in doing work of any kind, for he had no hope from the result. This one last effort he would make, just to complete the undeniableness of his failure, and then literature should be thrown behind him; what other pursuit was possible to him he knew not, but perhaps he might discover some mode of earning a livelihood. Had it been a question of gaining a pound a week, as in the old days, he might have hoped to obtain some clerkship like that at the hospital, where no commercial experience or aptitude was demanded; but in his present position such an income would be useless. Could he take Amy and the child to live in a garret? On less than a hundred a year it was scarcely possible to maintain outward decency. Already his own clothing began to declare him poverty-stricken, and but for gifts from her mother Amy would have reached the like pass. They lived in dread of the pettiest casual expense, for the day of pennilessness was again approaching.
Amy was oftener from home than had been her custom. Occasionally she went away soon after breakfast, and spent the whole day at her mother's house. 'It saves food,' she said with a bitter laugh, when Reardon once expressed surprise that she should be going again so soon.
'And gives you an opportunity of bewailing your hard fate,' he returned coldly.
The reproach was ignoble, and he could not be surprised that Amy left the house without another word to him. Yet he resented that, as he had resented her sorrowful jest. The feeling of unmanliness in his own position tortured him into a mood of perversity. Through the day he wrote only a few lines, and on Amy's return he resolved not to speak to her. There was a sense of repose in this change of attitude; he encouraged himself in the view that Amy was treating him with cruel neglect. She, surprised that her friendly questions elicited no answer, looked into his face and saw a sullen anger of which hitherto Reardon had never seemed capable. Her indignation took fire, and she left him to himself.
For a day or two he persevered in his muteness, uttering a word only when it could not be avoided. Amy was at first so resentful that she contemplated leaving him to his ill-temper and dwelling at her mother's house until he chose to recall her. But his face grew so haggard in fixed misery that compassion at length prevailed over her injured pride. Late in the evening she went to the study, and found him sitting unoccupied.
'What do you want?' he asked indifferently.
'Why are you behaving to me like this?'
'Surely it makes no difference to you how I behave? You can easily forget that I exist, and live your own life.'
'What have I done to make this change in you?'
'Is it a change?'
'You know it is.'
'How did I behave before?' he asked, glancing at her.
'Like yourself -- kindly and gently.'
'If I always did so, in spite of things that might have embittered another man's temper, I think it deserved some return of kindness from you.'
'What "things" do you mean?'
'Circumstances for which neither of us is to blame.'
'I am not conscious of having failed in kindness,' said Amy, distantly.
'Then that only shows that you have forgotten your old self, and utterly changed in your feeling to me. When we first came to live here could you have imagined yourself leaving me alone for long, miserable days, just because I was suffering under misfortunes? You have shown too plainly that you don't care to give me the help even of a kind word. You get away from me as often as you can, as if to remind me that we have no longer any interests in common. Other people are your confidants; you speak of me to them as if I were purposely dragging you down into a mean condition.'
'How can you know what I say about you?'
'Isn't it true?' he asked, flashing an angry glance at her.
'It is not true. Of course I have talked to mother about our difficulties; how could I help it?'
'And to other people.'
'Not in a way that you could find fault with.'
'In a way that makes me seem contemptible to them. You show them that I have made you poor and unhappy, and you are glad to have their sympathy.'
'What you mean is, that I oughtn't to see anyone. There's no other way of avoiding such a reproach as this. So long as I don't laugh and sing before people, and assure them that things couldn't be more hopeful, I shall be asking for their sympathy, and against you. I can't understand your unreasonableness.'
'I'm afraid there is very little in me that you can understand. So long as my prospects seemed bright, you could sympathise readily enough; as soon as ever they darkened, something came between us. Amy, you haven't done your duty. Your love hasn't stood the test as it should have done. You have given me no help; besides the burden of cheerless work I have had to bear that of your growing coldness. I can't remember one instance when you have spoken to me as a wife might -- a wife who was something more than a man's housekeeper.'
The passion in his voice and the harshness of the accusation made her unable to reply.
'You said rightly,' he went on, 'that I have always been kind and gentle. I never thought I could speak to you or feel to you in any other way. But I have undergone too much, and you have deserted me. Surely it was too soon to do that. So long as I endeavoured my utmost, and loved you the same as ever, you might have remembered all you once said to me. You might have given me help, but you haven't cared to.'
The impulses which had part in this outbreak were numerous and complex. He felt all that he expressed, but at the same time it seemed to him that he had the choice between two ways of uttering his emotion -- the tenderly appealing and the sternly reproachful: he took the latter course because it was less natural to him than the former. His desire was to impress Amy with the bitter intensity of his sufferings; pathos and loving words seemed to have lost their power upon her, but perhaps if he yielded to that other form of passion she would be shaken out of her coldness. The stress of injured love is always tempted to speech which seems its contradiction. Reardon had the strangest mixture of pain and pleasure in flinging out these first words of wrath that he had ever addressed to Amy; they consoled him under the humiliating sense of his weakness, and yet he watched with dread his wife's countenance as she listened to him. He hoped to cause her pain equal to his own, for then it would be in his power at once to throw off this disguise and soothe her with every softest word his heart could suggest. That she had really ceased to love him he could not, durst not, believe; but his nature demanded frequent assurance of affection. Amy had abandoned too soon the caresses of their ardent time; she was absorbed in her maternity, and thought it enough to be her husband's friend. Ashamed to make appeal directly for the tenderness she no longer offered, he accused her of utter indifference, of abandoning him and all but betraying him, that in self-defence she might show what really was in her heart.
But Amy made no movement towards him.
'How can you say that I have deserted you?' she returned, with cold indignation. 'When did I refuse to share your poverty? When did I grumble at what we have had to go through?'
'Ever since the troubles really began you have let me know what your thoughts were, even if you didn't speak them. You have never shared my lot willingly. I can't recall one word of encouragement from you, but many, many which made the struggle harder for me.'
'Then it would be better for you if I went away altogether, and left you free to do the best for yourself. If that is what you mean by all this, why not say it plainly? I won't be a burden to you. Someone will give me a home.'
'And you would leave me without regret? Your only care would be that you were still bound to me?'
'You must think of me what you like. I don't care to defend myself.'
'You won't admit, then, that I have anything to complain of? I seem to you simply in a bad temper without a cause?'
'To tell you the truth, that's just what I do think. I came here to ask what I had done that you were angry with me, and you break out furiously with all sorts of vague reproaches. You have much to endure, I know that, but it's no reason why you should turn against me. I have never neglected my duty. Is the duty all on my side? I believe there are very few wives who would be as patient as I have been.'
Reardon gazed at her for a moment, then turned away. The distance between them was greater than he had thought, and now he repented of having given way to an impulse so alien to his true feelings; anger only estranged her, whereas by speech of a different kind he might have won the caress for which he hungered.
Amy, seeing that he would say nothing more, left him to himself.
It grew late in the night. The fire had gone out, but Reardon still sat in the cold room. Thoughts of self-destruction were again haunting him, as they had done during the black months of last year. If he had lost Amy's love, and all through the mental impotence which would make it hard for him even to earn bread, why should he still live? Affection for his child had no weight with him; it was Amy's child rather than his, and he had more fear than pleasure in the prospect of Willie's growing to manhood.
He had just heard the workhouse clock strike two, when, without the warning of a footstep, the door opened. Amy came in; she wore her dressing-gown, and her hair was arranged for the night.
'Why do you stay here?' she asked.
It was not the same voice as before. He saw that her eyes were red and swollen.
'Have you been crying, Amy?'
'Never mind. Do you know what time it is?'
He went towards her.
'Why have you been crying?'
'There are many things to cry for.'
'Amy, have you any love for me still, or has poverty robbed me of it all?'
'I have never said that I didn't love you. Why do you accuse me of such things?'
He took her in his arms and held her passionately and kissed her face again and again. Amy's tears broke forth anew.
'Why should we come to such utter ruin?' she sobbed. 'Oh, try, try if you can't save us even yet! You know without my saying it that I do love you; it's dreadful to me to think all our happy life should be at an end, when we thought of such a future together. Is it impossible? Can't you work as you used to and succeed as we felt confident you would? Don't despair yet, Edwin; do, do try, whilst there is still time!'
'Darling, darling -- if only I could!'
'I have thought of something, dearest. Do as you proposed last year; find a tenant for the flat whilst we still have a little money, and then go away into some quiet country place, where you can get back your health and live for very little, and write another book -- a good book, that'll bring you reputation again. I and Willie can go and live at mother's for the summer months. Do this! It would cost you so little, living alone, wouldn't it? You would know that I was well cared for; mother would be willing to have me for a few months, and it's easy to explain that your health has failed, that you're obliged to go away for a time.'
'But why shouldn't you go with me, if we are to let this place?'
'We shouldn't have enough money. I want to free your mind from the burden whilst you are writing. And what is before us if we go on in this way? You don't think you will get much for what you're writing now, do you?'
Reardon shook his head.
'Then how can we live even till the end of the year? Something must be done, you know. If we get into poor lodgings, what hope is there that you'll be able to write anything good?'
'But, Amy, I have no faith in my power of ----'
'Oh, it would be different! A few days -- a week or a fortnight of real holiday in this spring weather. Go to some seaside place. How is it possible that all your talent should have left you? It's only that you have been so anxious and in such poor health. You say I don't love you, but I have thought and thought what would be best for you to do, how you could save yourself How can you sink down to the position of a poor clerk in some office? That can't be your fate, Edwin; it's incredible. Oh, after such bright hopes, make one more effort! Have you forgotten that we were to go to the South together -- you were to take me to Italy and Greece? How can that ever be if you fail utterly in literature? How can you ever hope to earn more than bare sustenance at any other kind of work?'
He all but lost consciousness of her words in gazing at the face she held up to his.
'You love me? Say again that you love me!'
'Dear, I love you with all my heart. But I am so afraid of the future. I can't bear poverty; I have found that I can't bear it. And I dread to think of your becoming only an ordinary man ----'
'But I am not "only an ordinary man," Amy! If I never write another line, that won't undo what I have done. It's little enough, to be sure; but you know what I am. Do you only love the author in me? Don't you think of me apart from all that I may do or not do? If I had to earn my living as a clerk, would that make me a clerk in soul?'
'You shall not fall to that! It would be too bitter a shame to lose all you have gained in these long years of work. Let me plan for you; do as I wish. You are to be what we hoped from the first. Take all the summer months. How long will it be before you can finish this short book?'
'A week or two.'
'Then finish it, and see what you can get for it. And try at once to find a tenant to take this place off our hands; that would be twenty-five pounds saved for the rest of the year. You could live on so little by yourself couldn't you?'
'Oh, on ten shillings a week, if need be.'
'But not to starve yourself you know. Don't you feel that my plan is a good one? When I came to you to-night I meant to speak of this, but you were so cruel ----'
'Forgive me, dearest love! I was half a madman. You have been so cold to me for a long time.'
'I have been distracted. It was as if we were drawing nearer and nearer to the edge of a cataract.'
'Have you spoken to your mother about this?' he asked uneasily.
'No -- not exactly this. But I know she will help us in this way.
He had seated himself and was holding her in his arms, his face laid against hers.
'I shall dread to part from you, Amy. That's such a dangerous thing to do. It may mean that we are never to live as husband and wife again.'
'But how could it? It's just to prevent that danger. If we go on here till we have no money -- what's before us then? Wretched lodgings at the best. And I am afraid to think of that. I can't trust myself if that should come to pass.'
'What do you mean?' he asked anxiously.
'I hate poverty so. It brings out all the worst things in me; you know I have told you that before, Edwin?'
'But you would never forget that you are my wife?'
'I hope not. But -- I can't think of it; I can't face it! That would be the very worst that can befall us, and we are going to try our utmost to escape from it. Was there ever a man who did as much as you have done in literature and then sank into hopeless poverty?'
'But at your age, I mean. Surely not at your age?'
'I'm afraid there have been such poor fellows. Think how often one hears of hopeful beginnings, new reputations, and then -- you hear no more. Of course it generally means that the man has gone into a different career; but sometimes, sometimes ----'
'The abyss.' He pointed downward. 'Penury and despair and a miserable death.'
'Oh, but those men haven't a wife and child! They would struggle ----'
'Darling, they do struggle. But it's as if an ever-increasing weight were round their necks; it drags them lower and lower. The world has no pity on a man who can't do or produce something it thinks worth money. You may be a divine poet, and if some good fellow doesn't take pity on you you will starve by the roadside. Society is as blind and brutal as fate. I have no right to complain of my own ill-fortune; it's my own fault (in a sense) that I can't continue as well as I began; if I could write books as good as the early ones I should earn money. For all that, it's hard that I must be kicked aside as worthless just because I don't know a trade.'
'It shan't be! I have only to look into your face to know that you will succeed after all. Yours is the kind of face that people come to know in portraits.'
He kissed her hair, and her eyes, and her mouth.
'How well I remember your saying that before! Why have you grown so good to me all at once, my Amy? Hearing you speak like that I feel there's nothing beyond my reach. But I dread to go away from you. If I find that it is hopeless; if I am alone somewhere, and know that the effort is all in vain ----'
'Well, I can leave you free. If I can't support you, it will be only just that I should give you back your freedom.'
'I don't understand ----'
She raised herself and looked into his eyes.
'We won't talk of that. If you bid me go on with the struggle, I shall do so.'
Amy had hidden her face, and lay silently in his arms for a minute or two. Then she murmured:
'It is so cold here, and so late. Come!'
'So early. There goes three o'clock.'
The next day they talked much of this new project. As there was sunshine Amy accompanied her husband for his walk in the afternoon; it was long since they had been out together. An open carriage that passed, followed by two young girls on horseback, gave a familiar direction to Reardon's thoughts.
'If one were as rich as those people! They pass so close to us; they see us, and we see them; but the distance between is infinity. They don't belong to the same world as we poor wretches. They see everything in a different light; they have powers which would seem supernatural if we were suddenly endowed with them.'
'Of course,' assented his companion with a sigh.
'Just fancy, if one got up in the morning with the thought that no reasonable desire that occurred to one throughout the day need remain ungratified! And that it would be the same, any day and every day, to the end of one's life! Look at those houses; every detail, within and without, luxurious. To have such a home as that!'
'And they are empty creatures who live there.'
'They do live, Amy, at all events. Whatever may be their faculties, they all have free scope. I have often stood staring at houses like these until I couldn't believe that the people owning them were mere human beings like myself The power of money is so hard to realise; one who has never had it marvels at the completeness with which it transforms every detail of life. Compare what we call our home with that of rich people; it moves one to scornful laughter. I have no sympathy with the stoical point of view; between wealth and poverty is just the difference between the whole man and the maimed. If my lower limbs are paralysed I may still be able to think, but then there is such a thing in life as walking. As a poor devil I may live nobly; but one happens to be made with faculties of enjoyment, and those have to fall into atrophy. To be sure, most rich people don't understand their happiness; if they did, they would move and talk like gods -- which indeed they are.'
Amy's brow was shadowed. A wise man, in Reardon's position, would not have chosen this subject to dilate upon.
'The difference,' he went on, 'between the man with money and the man without is simply this: the one thinks, "How shall I use my life?" and the other, "How shall I keep myself alive?" A physiologist ought to be able to discover some curious distinction between the brain of a person who has never given a thought to the means of subsistence, and that of one who has never known a day free from such cares. There must be some special cerebral development representing the mental anguish kept up by poverty.'
'I should say,' put in Amy, 'that it affects every function of the brain. It isn't a special point of suffering, but a misery that colours every thought.'
'True. Can I think of a single subject in all the sphere of my experience without the consciousness that I see it through the medium of poverty? I have no enjoyment which isn't tainted by that thought,. and I can suffer no pain which it doesn't increase. The curse of poverty is to the modern world just what that of slavery was to the ancient. Rich and destitute stand to each other as free man and bond. You remember the line of Homer I have often quoted about the demoralising effect of enslavement; poverty degrades in the same way.'
'It has had its effect upon me -- I know that too well,' said Amy, with bitter frankness.
Reardon glanced at her, and wished to make some reply, but he could not say what was in his thoughts.
He worked on at his story. Before he had reached the end of it, 'Margaret Home' was published, and one day arrived a parcel containing the six copies to which an author is traditionally entitled. Reardon was not so old in authorship that he could open the packet without a slight flutter of his pulse. The book was tastefully got up; Amy exclaimed with pleasure as she caught sight of the cover and lettering:
'It may succeed, Edwin. It doesn't look like a book that fails, does it?'
She laughed at her own childishness. But Reardon had opened one of the volumes, and was glancing over the beginning of a chapter.
'Good God!' he cried. 'What hellish torment it was to write that page! I did it one morning when the fog was so thick that I had to light the lamp. It brings cold sweat to my forehead to read the words. And to think that people will skim over it without a suspicion of what it cost the writer! -- What execrable style! A potboy could write better narrative.'
'Who are to have copies?'
'No one, if I could help it. But I suppose your mother will expect one?'
'And -- Milvain?'
'I suppose so,' he replied indifferently. 'But not unless he asks for it. Poor old Biffen, of course; though it'll make him despise me. Then one for ourselves. That leaves two -- to light the fire with. We have been rather short of fire-paper since we couldn't afford our daily newspaper.'
'Will you let me give one to Mrs Carter?'
'As you please.'
He took one set and added it to the row of his productions which stood on a topmost shelf Amy laid her hand upon his shoulder and contemplated the effect of this addition.
'The works of Edwin Reardon,' she said, with a smile.
'The work, at all events -- rather a different thing, unfortunately. Amy, if only I were back at the time when I wrote "On Neutral Ground," and yet had you with me! How full my mind was in those days! Then I had only to look, and I saw something; now I strain my eyes, but can make out nothing more than nebulous grotesques. I used to sit down knowing so well what I had to say; now I strive to invent, and never come at anything. Suppose you pick up a needle with warm, supple fingers; try to do it when your hand is stiff and numb with cold; there's the difference between my manner of work in those days and what it is now.'
'But you are going to get back your health. You will write better than ever.'
'We shall see. Of course there was a great deal of miserable struggle even then, but I remember it as insignificant compared with the hours of contented work. I seldom did anything in the mornings except think and prepare; towards evening I felt myself getting ready, and at last I sat down with the first lines buzzing in my head. And I used to read a great deal at the same time. Whilst I was writing "On Neutral Ground" I went solidly through the "Divina Commedia," a canto each day. Very often I wrote till after midnight, but occasionally I got my quantum finished much earlier, and then I used to treat myself to a ramble about the streets. I can recall exactly the places where some of my best ideas came to me. You remember the scene in Prendergast's lodgings? That flashed on me late one night as I was turning out of Leicester Square into the slum that leads to Clare Market; ah, how well I remember! And I went home to my garret in a state of delightful fever, and scribbled notes furiously before going to bed.'
'Don't trouble; it'll all come back to you.'
'But in those days I hadn't to think of money. I could look forward and see provision for my needs. I never asked myself what I should get for the book; I assure you, that never came into my head -- never. The work was done for its own sake. No hurry to finish it; if I felt that I wasn't up to the mark, I just waited till the better mood returned. "On Neutral Ground" took me seven months; now I have to write three volumes in nine weeks, with the lash stinging on my back if I miss a day.'
He brooded for a little.
'I suppose there must be some rich man somewhere who has read one or two of my books with a certain interest. If only I could encounter him and tell him plainly what a cursed state I am in, perhaps he would help me to some means of earning a couple of pounds a week. One has heard of such things.'
'In the old days.'
'Yes. I doubt if it ever happens now. Coleridge wouldn't so easily meet with his Gillman nowadays. Well, I am not a Coleridge, and I don't ask to be lodged under any man's roof; but if I could earn money enough to leave me good long evenings unspoilt by fear of the workhouse ----'
Amy turned away, and presently went to look after her little boy.
A few days after this they had a visit from Milvain. He came about ten o'clock in the evening.
'I'm not going to stay,' he announced. 'But where's my copy of "Margaret Home"? I am to have one, I suppose?'
'I have no particular desire that you should read it,' returned Reardon.
'But I have read it, my dear fellow. Got it from the library on the day of publication; I had a suspicion that you wouldn't send me a copy. But I must possess your opera omnia.'
'Here it is. Hide it away somewhere. -- You may as well sit down for a few minutes.'
'I confess I should like to talk about the book, if you don't mind. It isn't so utterly and damnably bad as you make out, you know. The misfortune was that you had to make three volumes of it. If I had leave to cut it down to one, it would do you credit. The motive is good enough.'
'Yes. Just good enough to show how badly it's managed.'
Milvain began to expatiate on that well-worn topic, the evils of the three-volume system.
'A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists. One might design an allegorical cartoon for a comic literary paper. By-the-bye, why doesn't such a thing exist? -- a weekly paper treating of things and people literary in a facetious spirit. It would be caviare to the general, but might be supported, I should think. The editor would probably be assassinated, though.'
'For anyone in my position,' said Reardon, 'how is it possible to abandon the three volumes? It is a question of payment. An author of moderate repute may live on a yearly three-volume novel -- I mean the man who is obliged to sell his book out and out, and who gets from one to two hundred pounds for it. But he would have to produce four one-volume novels to obtain the same income; and I doubt whether he could get so many published within the twelve months. And here comes in the benefit of the libraries; from the commercial point of view the libraries are indispensable. Do you suppose the public would support the present number of novelists if each book had to be purchased? A sudden change to that system would throw three-fourths of the novelists out of work.'
'But there's no reason why the libraries shouldn't circulate novels in one volume.'
'Profits would be less, I suppose. People would take the minimum subscription.'
'Well, to go to the concrete, what about your own one-volume?'
'All but done.'
'And you'll offer it to Jedwood? Go and see him personally. He's a very decent fellow, I believe.'
Milvain stayed only half an hour. The days when he was wont to sit and talk at large through a whole evening were no more; partly because of his diminished leisure, but also for a less simple reason -- the growth of something like estrangement between him and Reardon.
'You didn't mention your plans,' said Amy, when the visitor had been gone some time.
Reardon was content with the negative, and his wife made no further remark.
The result of advertising the flat was that two or three persons called to make inspection. One of them, a man of military appearance, showed himself anxious to come to terms; he was willing to take the tenement from next quarter-day (June), but wished, if possible, to enter upon possession sooner than that.
'Nothing could be better,' said Amy in colloquy with her husband. 'If he will pay for the extra time, we shall be only too glad.'
Reardon mused and looked gloomy. He could not bring himself to regard the experiment before him with hopefulness, and his heart sank at the thought of parting from Amy.
'You are very anxious to get rid of me,' he answered, trying to smile.
'Yes, I am,' she exclaimed; 'but simply for your own good, as you know very well.'
'Suppose I can't sell this book?'
'You will have a few pounds. Send your "Pliny" article to The Wayside. If you come to an end of all your money, mother shall lend you some.'
'I am not very likely to do much work in that case.'
'Oh, but you will sell the book. You'll get twenty pounds for it, and that alone would keep you for three months. Think -- three months of the best part of the year at the seaside! Oh, you will do wonders!'
The furniture was to be housed at Mrs Yule's. Neither of them durst speak of selling it; that would have sounded too ominous. As for the locality of Reardon's retreat, Amy herself had suggested Worthing, which she knew from a visit a few years ago; the advantages were its proximity to London, and the likelihood that very cheap lodgings could be found either in the town or near it. One room would suffice for the hapless author, and his expenses, beyond a trifling rent, would be confined to mere food. Oh yes, he might manage on considerably less than a pound a week.
Amy was in much better spirits than for a long time; she appeared to have convinced herself that there was no doubt of the issue of this perilous scheme; that her husband would write a notable book, receive a satisfactory price for it, and so re-establish their home. Yet her moods varied greatly. After all, there was delay in the letting of the flat, and this caused her annoyance. It was whilst the negotiations were still pending that she made her call upon Maud and Dora Milvain; Reardon did not know of her intention to visit them until it had been carried out. She mentioned what she had done in almost a casual manner.
'I had to get it over,' she said, when Reardon exhibited surprise, 'and I don't think I made a very favourable impression.'
'You told them, I suppose, what we are going to do?'
'No; I didn't say a word of it.'
'But why not? It can't be kept a secret. Milvain will have heard of it already, I should think, from your mother.'
'From mother? But it's the rarest thing for him to go there. Do you imagine he is a constant visitor? I thought it better to say nothing until the thing is actually done. Who knows what may happen?'
She was in a strange, nervous state, and Reardon regarded her uneasily. He talked very little in these days, and passed hours in dark reverie. His book was finished, and he awaited the publisher's decision.
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