George Gissing

"Our Learned Fellow-Townsman"

IT was the title that, for some fifteen years, had been tacked to the 
name of Percy Marfleet whenever he was mentioned in the local 
newspapers. Not undeservedly, for in his knowledge of books he 
much surpassed the leading men of the town, and his life was 
entirely devoted to study. Miss Cloud, the borough member's 
daughter, who had been at Girton, herself the marvel of 
womanhood in this not altogether benighted region, spoke of Mr. 
Marfleet with respect; indeed, for the last twelvemonth or so it had 
been generally surmised that the friendship between these 
distinguished persons would end in closer alliance - a most 
interesting and delightful prospect. The lady had entered upon her 
twenty-seventh year; Marfleet drew towards forty, but preserved 
the complexion and the carriage of youth. For him, such a union 
would in every way be advantageous, as, from his way of living, he 
evidently possessed but a modest competence, while Miss Cloud 
shone as the sole heiress of her father's fortune.
For a man of parts and ambition, raised above the necessity of 
exerting himself to earn a livelihood, it is dangerous, after academic 
success, to return to his native country-town and settle there with 
the purpose of productive study. As a rule, men have no such 
temptation; Percy Marfleet, whose bent of mind was all towards 
homeliness, and who shrank from the tumult of the great world, 
even while crediting himself with power to win distinction, decided 
after a very brief trial of London that he could not do better than go 
back to the scenes of his youth, where kindly notice would inspire 
him, where his health would be at its best, and where a modest 
income would, he imagined, assure him a much better status than 
among strangers. His family had a good name in the town; since the 
death of his parents and the marriage of his sister, upon him alone 
lay the duty of keeping the name in honourable prominence. 
Moreover, he owned the house in which he had been born, where 
the days of his boyhood had been passed. With infinite contentment 
he read the newspaper paragraph which made known that "Mr. 
Percy Marfleet, the son of our late honoured townsman, having 
completed a distinguished career at the University of Cambridge," 
had returned to the town, and intended to make it his permanent 
From his earliest school-prize to the final honours at Cambridge, 
each step of Percy's progress had been chronicled by the local 
paper. No special brilliance appeared in the successive 
achievements: he had done well, nothing more; but local pride made 
much of his academic record. He was understood to be great in 
"history"; to historic study his life would be dedicated; If he ran up 
to London or to Cambridge, the newspaper announced that he was 
gone for the purpose of "consulting original documents." At first, he 
declined to take any part in the affairs of the town, for which he 
had absolutely no leisure; but little by little certain honours were 
thrust upon him, and the satisfaction of making little speeches, 
carefully prepared and no less carefully reported, lured his mind 
from exclusive occupation with the past. At length he could be 
depended upon for an annual lecture at the Literary Society, for an 
address here or there, for the active patronage of any enlightened 
movement - unconnected with politics. From strictly municipal 
business he succeeded in holding aloof, his true reason being fear of 
expense; but this prudence notwithstanding, the esteem he enjoyed 
necessarily cost him something in coin of the realm, and such 
demands upon his pocket grew heavier and more frequent with the 
progress of time. The day came when Percy had seriously to 
consider his financial position. Seeing no immediate way out of the 
difficulty, and feeling so comfortable in his daily life that a 
complete change could hardly be thought of, he insensibly drifted 
into carelessness of the future. And so it came about that, in his 
thirty-eighth year, having long lived upon capital, with steady 
growth of expenditure from Christmas to Christmas, he saw before 
him an inevitable crisis. Income he no longer possessed; merely a 
sum of money which, even with parsimonious management, could 
last him only a short time, and at the present rate of living would 
dissolve with awful rapidity.
In the way of literary production he had done nothing. Years ago he 
made no secret of his undertaking: the work of his life was to be a 
continuation of Macaulay; latterly he very seldom spoke on this 
subject, or even distantly alluded to it. Since his thirtieth year 
scarcely a jotting had been added to the notes and rough sketches 
previously accumulated. Nowadays he only read, and for the most 
part his reading had no connection with historic research. A large 
library, collected at no small outlay, gathered dust upon the shelves. 
Expensive publications still reached him, simply because he lacked 
the courage to discontinue his subscriptions, and so to confess that 
his one object in life had melted away, together with his money. He 
spent the wonted number of hours locked in his study, but more 
often than not a day dragged through in sluggish mooning or in the 
tortures of anxiety. As usual, he pottered about the garden; as 
usual, he paid and received visits, attended meetings, made little 
speeches, helped to get up little entertainments of an intellectual 
cast. And no fellow-townsman marked the slightest change in him.
One hope remained; yet it could hardly be called a hope: rather, a 
troubled imagination of something that might have fallen to his lot 
in happier circumstances. Until of late no thoughts of marriage had 
lured or perturbed him; he cared but moderately for the society of 
women, and, like most men of his temper, kept very clearly in view 
the sacrifices and perils attaching to wedlock; his pleasant, roomy 
house, always quiet and fragrant under the rule of an excellent 
domestic, would undergo such changes if a mistress entered into 
possession. For all that, there was one woman who often occupied 
his thoughts, and in some degree had power over his emotions; in 
part because of her social rank, partly because of her education, 
and, last but not least, by virtue of her personal charm. Certainly he 
liked Eveline Cloud; he was flattered by the deference she paid him, 
and felt something very attractive in the modesty with which she 
spoke of her own attainments. By slow degrees their intimacy had 
grown and ripened. At first he was slightly afraid of her; the smile 
ever lurking about. her lips seemed to threaten criticism of an 
unfamiliar keenness: who could say what equipment of modern 
views these young ladies brought with them from Girton? Gradually 
he perceived that Eveline's position in the town was somewhat like 
his own - that her prestige rested upon vague report rather than on 
present evidence of learning and ability. He judged her intelligent, 
but certainly not profound. Nor did she make parade of erudition; 
her tastes seemed decidedly simple; if he mistook not, she 
preferred the companionship of her provincial friends to the society 
she met when with her father in London. Her interest in local 
concerns became more pronounced; she was fervent on orthodoxy, 
and, as years went on, accepted with decision her place as leading 
lady in social or charitable organisations. Personally, Miss Cloud no 
longer overawed him, for he felt that he understood her. Her 
behaviour to him was of such frank friendliness that no wonder 
their acquaintances observed them with a genial smile. Marfleet 
sometimes came away from the house brooding. But for his 
incredible folly, which had brought him within sight of disaster he 
saw no means of repairing, might he not reasonably have aspired to 
a marriage which would at once exalt his position and promote his 
happiness? What possibility of it now? The secret, of which no one 
had a suspicion, weighed but the more heavily upon his own mind.
In conversation one day with Miss Cloud, he chanced to speak of 
some political incident in the reign of Queen Anne, a point which it 
seemed to him the historians had misunderstood.
"Have you reached that in your book?" asked Eveline, with a glance 
of interest.

His eyes dropped; he was uncomfortably aware of that lurking 
smile about the fresh-coloured lips.
"In the first rough draft," he constrained himself to answer. And 
Eveline's eyes reassured him, so friendly were they, so devoid of 
troublesome curiosity.
"Have you never thought, Mr. Marfleet, of publishing portions of 
your work in the periodicals - as some writers do?"
Yes, he had thought of it, and very lately. To be sure, no portion of 
his work was written, but might it not be possible to shape out of 
his notes a few interesting chapters, which the reviews would print 
and pay for? Miss Cloud's happy suggestion had a strong effect 
upon him; it revived his energies, and for the next few weeks lie 
actually engaged in literary composition. He wrote a paper of some 
length, and dispatched it to the editor of an important monthly. 
What was more, so sanguine had he become in consequence of this 
effort, that he revealed the matter to Miss Cloud.
"I am delighted!" was her exclamation - and she really looked it. 
"When do you think it will appear!"
"Oh," he faltered, "impossible to say. Perhaps - it might not strike 
the editor as worth much."
"What! the result of years and years of study! That's impossible." 
And Eveline added: "I have noticed, Mr. Marfleet, that you seem 
rather despondent of late."
They were alone on one of the garden terraces, and Eveline's voice 
had an intonation of peculiar gentleness. A more ardent admirer or 
less scrupulous man would have used the opportunity; Marfleet 
merely grew confused.
"It's nothing. I wasn't aware of its ----"
"I'm afraid you work too hard," sounded in the soft, kindly accents.
"Oh dear no!" He laughed. "I feel perfectly well - perfectly."
And, indeed, there was little amiss in his appearance. He had a 
pleasant colour, a clear eye, the excellent teeth of a healthy man 
who did not smoke. For years he had gone to bed at eleven o'clock 
and risen only at nine; he had never fallen short in exercise, ate 
heartily, and found plenty of amusement. It would take a long time 
before mental distress such as he was now suffering wrote itself 
upon his countenance. No one thought it unnatural for Miss Cloud to 
take an interest in Mr. Marfleet; decidedly he was a personable 
man, well set up, well featured, and always carefully dressed. 
Eveline, for her part, could not be called handsome; but for her 
position, suitors would hardly have singled her from a group of 
amiable-looking young women. Yet the good blood in her veins, the 
kindly, intelligent light of her eyes, and that lurking smile, wrought 
durable bonds for the heart of any man once thoroughly subdued to 
their charm.
Not long after this conversation, Miss Cloud went with her father to 
Town, where she remained for more than three months. For nearly 
the same period Percy Marfleet lived in uncertainty as to the fate of 
his historical essay, and the time passed drearily enough. When 
Eveline's return grew near he resolved to make inquiry of the silent 
editor, and a speedy reply put an end to his suspense. The editor 
regretted that he could not make use of Mr. Marfleet's interesting 
paper, which he now sent back. It was a blow to Marfleet, and after 
a few days spent in recovering from dizziness, the poor fellow took 
a dark resolve.
While he still had a little money left he would go to London, and 
there, as a literary man at anyone's disposal, face the struggle for 
No need to make known his intention to the old friends. His 
departure should be explained as a temporary removal to London 
for purposes of study. In a month or so he could write that 
circumstances obliged him to stay in Town for an indefinite period; 
his library should be sent up as if for use, but really for sale; and 
the house there would be no difficulty in letting for some fifty 
pounds a year - just enough, if the worst came to the worst, to save 
him from destitution. Of course, he must break the habits and the 
connections of a lifetime; unless he were so fortunate as to establish 
himself in a decent literary career, of which he had painfully little 
hope. The probability was that he would come to be thankful for 
hack work at the British Museum, such as he himself had 
occasionally employed a poor devil to do, ere yet the day of evil 
dawned on his life.
The resolve taken, he bore up manfully. All he had to do before 
actually leaving the town was to go through his papers, destroying 
and packing, and meanwhile to wear the accustomed face. Not a 
soul suspected him. He even took the chair at the annual meeting of 
the Literary Society, and made a speech which was considered 
brilliant. Not the faintest hint that he might be obliged to sever his 
connection with this and other local organisations. Two days later 
"our learned fellow-townsman" was reported as usual in the 
borough press, with wonted encomium; and Marfleet smiled 
dolefully as he glanced at the familiar column.

He knew the day of Miss Cloud's return; the day before would see 
his departure. To meet her, and answer questions about his 
historical essay, was a humiliation he could not endure. Doubtless, 
she had mentioned the matter to other people, and this disaster 
alone would have been all but sufficient to drive him into exile. 
How foolish to have spoken of his attempt! But it was all one, now. 
On the last day he sat hour after hour in his study, totally 
unoccupied, his mind a miserable blank; he sat till late at night, and 
on going to bed had but snatches of unrefreshing sleep. Early next 
morning, when only the humbler classes of the townsfolk were 
about, a cab conveyed him to the station. His servants understood 
that he would be away for two or three weeks - nothing more. 
When the moment came for breaking up the establishment, he must 
rely upon his sister, or her husband, resident a few miles out of the 
town, to transact the necessary business for him. Before midday he 
arrived in London, and went first of all to an hotel where he was 
known; but before nightfall he had searched for and settled upon a 
lodging; modest, as befitted his humble prospects. The address, 
however, was not such as would excite surprise when 
communicated to his friends.
Oddly enough, the next day brought him an access of cheerful, even 
sanguine spirits. Though late in December, the weather was 
remarkably bright; he walked about the streets with a revival of 
bodily vigour, and saw his position from quite a changed point of 
view. After all, was not this supposed calamity the very best thing 
that could have befallen him? Down yonder he was merely rusting, 
sinking into premature old age; here, "in streaming London's central 
roar," his energies would rise to the demand upon them. Pooh! as if 
such a man as he could not make a place for himself in literary life! 
There were at least two or three old college friends with whom he 
might renew intimacy - men pretty well to the front in various 
callings, and more likely than not able to be of use to him. He had 
done most unwisely in neglecting those early acquaintances. Nay - 
he saw it now - he ought never to have made his home in that dull 
little country town, where ignorant flattery and facile triumphs 
fostered all the weaknesses of his temperament. Heaven be 
thanked, he was not yet forty, and his resources would last till he 
had got an independent footing. Ho, ho! How many a poor devil 
would be glad to exchange positions with him!
This mood lasted for about a week; a long time, considering that 
Marfleet lived alone in lodgings, and permitted his landlady to 
supply him with meals. But he was sustained by the renewal of 
acquaintance with two of those old friends of his, who really 
seemed quite glad to meet him again, and asked him to dinner, and 
talked as men do whom the world has provided with store of goods. 
To these men he by no means revealed the truth, but fell into their 
complacent tone, and spoke for the most part as if all were well 
with him. The second week saw him meditative, and inclined to 
solitude - which he had so little difficulty in securing. He now 
reproved himself for having struck a false note with his genial 
friends; it would be doubly hard to ask their advice or assistance. 
The weather, too, had turned to normal wretchedness, and his 
rooms were cold, dark, depressing. He began to suffer from 
indigestion, the natural result of his landlady's meals. Then a bilious 
headache and a severe catarrh simultaneously seized upon him; he 
could not go out, and just as little could think of inviting anyone to 
come and see him in his dreary durance.
Recovered from these transitory ills, he saw the solid features of his 
situation in a gloomier light than ever. It was folly to postpone the 
decisive step; he must dismiss his servants, sell his library, let the 
dear old home as soon as possible. He tried to write the fateful 
letter, but his hand dropped. There came a moment when, as he sat 
by the alien fireside, bitter thoughts were too much for him, and his 
eyes filled with despairing tears.
Percy Marfleet lived thus for a month. Day by day home-sickness 
ate into his heart; day by day the great, roaring, fog-choked City 
crushed his soul and became unutterably hateful. In imagination he 
visited the beloved house, sat in his library, walked about his 
garden; heard the voices of companionable men and women, above 
all, the voice of Eveline Cloud; took the chair at the Literary 
Institute, listened to friendly proposals that he should stand for this 
or that ward at the next municipal elections. What a Christmas he 
had passed! And how delightful it always was, the Christmas of old 
times! And so it came to pass that, on a day, he found himself at the 
railway station; in one hand a travelling-bag, clasped in the other a 
ticket for his native town. Why he was going back, he knew not; 
enough that he was booked and would see his home again this very 
He reached it at nine o'clock. He rang a merry peal at the front door, 
and, when the door opened, had much ado not to embrace his 
honest, smiling housekeeper.
"No, no, Mrs. Robinson; it's all right. I didn't send notice - had to 
come unexpectedly. And how are you, eh? Cold night - ah, but how 
good the air tastes! Fire in the study, is there? Splendid? Something 
to eat - hungry - ha, ha, ha!"
Mrs. Robinson felt a strange suspicion. She had never known her 
master to exceed becoming limits in the matter of strong drink; but 
really ---- And he had such an unaccountable look; dark eyes; 
sunken cheeks; utterly unlike himself. At his supper, too, he drank 
a great deal of bottled beer; after it he called joyously for whisky. 
And there he sat until long after midnight, singing to himself 
snatches of old songs.
The next morning - it was frosty and bright - he went forth, walked 
through the town, greeted cheerily such friends as he chanced to 
encounter. As though bent on a country walk, he crossed the bridge 
and passed at his usual brisk pace through the suburb of mean little 
houses; from the highway beyond he struck into a field path, and 
by way of a great semicircle drew towards the point he had in 
mind, which he might have reached in a quarter of the time by 
starting on another route. He was going to call upon Miss Cloud. 
With what purpose, he did not try to make dear to himself; he must 
see Eveline; that was the immediate necessity of a life which had 
lost all conscious self-direction.
Mr. Cloud's residence, built but a few years ago, stood amid a young 
plantation, and at this time of the year had a chilly aspect. As he 
walked up the shrub-bordered drive, Marfleet felt a misgiving, and 
when his hand was on the bell he asked himself abruptly why he 
had come; but the speedy opening of the door gave him no time to 
answer the question. Miss Cloud, as he knew, was at present living 
alone, unless there happened to be some female relative in the 
house, for her father had gone to London again after the 
Parliamentary recess. As a matter of course he was straightway led 
to the drawing-room, and in a moment Eveline joined him.
"How delightful, Mr. Marfleet! I was just wishing that I could see 
you, but had no idea you were back again. Will you come into the 
library? There's a bit of crabbed old law-Latin I can't understand at 
all ----"
For some time Eveline had been making a study of the antiquities of 
the town, and in her last conversation with.. Marfleet she had 
laughingly suggested that they should collaborate on a local history. 
By good luck (he trembled with apprehension) the man of learning 
was able to solve this present difficulty, and the feat exhilarated 
him; his countenance became that of one who had not a care in the 
"You have been a long time in London," said Eveline, with one of her 
shy glances. Alone with Marfleet, she always looked rather shy, 
however spirited her talk.
"Yes - a month or so. And I think I must go back again. In fact, Miss 
Cloud, I have all but made up my mind to live there altogether."
The announcement startled her so much that she looked at him in 
silence - looked at him for a moment fixedly. Marfleet was swaying 
on his feet and twisting his hands together behind him; he talked on 
with nervous rapidity and vigour.
"The truth is, I'm not getting on so well with my work as I ought to 
be. For a long timevit's a shameful confession - I have been 
shockingly idle. Do you think our climate is just a trifle relaxing I 
I'm afraid I must take a decided step; really, I'm afraid I must. 
After all, London is the place for work; don't you think so? In the 
country one has so many temptations to indolence. I mean ----"
He grew confused, and began to swallow his words.
"I can quite understand," said Eveline in a low voice as she stood 
before him with head bent, "that you feel the need of - of more 
intellectual society. You must find us very dull."
"No, no, no!" he exclaimed in agitation. "I meant nothing of the kind. 
The society is delightful. I was thinking of the - the libraries and 
that kind of thing - the general atmosphere of ----"
"I quite understand." Eveline was eager to justify him. "For a serious 
student the advantages of London are very great. Of course, I am 
very sorry, but ----"
A crisis of nervous torture drove the man to plain speech.
"Miss Cloud, the matter is more serious than you could suspect. You 
remember the paper I wrote - for the Review? It was rejected."
The word seemed to echo from every surface of the room. Eveline 
stood motionless, and durst not raise her eyes.
"You can imagine how that affected me," he rushed on, with hot 
cheeks. "It made me aware of my culpable folly. Miss Cloud, you say 
that I must feel the society of your town dull. Oh, if you will believe 
me, how gladly I would live here for the rest of my days! This is my 
home; I love it. London will always be a miserable exile. If you 
knew how I felt last night on coming back! If I could but stay here, 
and lead the same quiet, happy life ----"
His voice grew thick, and he had to pause. Eveline looked at him 
with gentle surprise, and her breath came quickly as she spoke.
"You feel it a duty to use your great gifts ----"
"I will tell you the whole wretched truth. I cannot stay here. I have 
been living like a simpleton - spending twice my income. I must go 
to London to earn a living. There, now, that is what I came this 
morning to tell you."
And he laughed as if it were an excellent joke.
"Mr. Marfieet ----"
Even on those lips his name had never sounded so pleasantly. He 
gazed at her and waited.
"Don't you think," she proceeded, with diffidence yet with courage, 
"that it's a great pity for towns like ours to lose all their most 
capable men I Wouldn't it be much better if - such a man as 
yourself were to stay, and use his talents in the service of the place 
he loves and the people he cares for I We are so much in want of a 
higher type of mind ----"
"Ah, if it were possible! I regret bitterly that I did not enter into the 
life of the town in earnest, years and years ago."
Eveline's smile came from its lurking-place, and made sunny all her 
sweet countenance.
"You would have been mayor by now. And think how much better 
for all of us!"
"I would give years of my life," exclaimed Marfleet, "if that could 
be! "
"Is it really impossible?"
Their eyes met. Eveline, sister to the rose, trembled as if on the 
verge of happy laughter. Marfleet, his face radiant yet ashamed, 
tried vainly to speak.
"Who knows of your difficulties?" she asked softly.
"Not a soul but you."
She did not laugh, but again seemed scarce able to help it. 
Marfleet's hand stole forth and was met half-way.
"We will write the history of our town!" broke joyously from his 


Provided by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan,
on 18 July 2002.

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