Throughout the day Marian kept her room. Her intention to leave the house was, of course, abandoned; she was the prisoner of fate. Mrs Yule would have tended her with unremitting devotion, but the girl desired to be alone. At times she lay in silent anguish; frequently her tears broke forth, and she sobbed until weariness overcame her. In the afternoon she wrote a letter to Mr Holden, begging that she might be kept constantly acquainted with the progress of things.
At five her mother brought tea.
'Wouldn't it be better if you went to bed now, Marian?' she suggested.
'To bed? But I am going out in an hour or two.'
'Oh, you can't, dear! It's so bitterly cold. It wouldn't be good for you.'
'I have to go out, mother, so we won't speak of it.'
It was not safe to reply. Mrs Yule sat down, and watched the girl raise the cup to her mouth with trembling hand.
'This won't make any difference to you -- in the end, my darling,' the mother ventured to say at length, alluding for the first time to the effect of the catastrophe on Marian's immediate prospects.
'Of course not,' was the reply, in a tone of self-persuasion.
'Mr Milvain is sure to have plenty of money before long.'
'You feel much better now, don't you?'
'Much. I am quite well again.'
At seven, Marian went out. Finding herself weaker than she had thought, she stopped an empty cab that presently passed her, and so drove to the Milvains' lodgings. In her agitation she inquired for Mr Milvain, instead of for Dora, as was her habit; it mattered very little, for the landlady and her servants were of course under no misconception regarding this young lady's visits. Jasper was at home, and working. He had but to look at Marian to see that something wretched had been going on at her home; naturally he supposed it the result of his letter to Mr Yule.
'Your father has been behaving brutally,' he said, holding her hands and gazing anxiously at her.
'There is something far worse than that, Jasper.'
She threw off her outdoor things, then took the fatal letter from her pocket and handed it to him. Jasper gave a whistle of consternation, and looked vacantly from the paper to Marian's countenance.
'How the deuce comes this about?' he exclaimed. 'Why, wasn't your uncle aware of the state of things?'
'Perhaps he was. He may have known that the legacy was a mere form.'
'You are the only one affected?'
'So father says. It's sure to be the case.'
'This has upset you horribly, I can see. Sit down, Marian. When did the letter come?'
'And you have been fretting over it all day. But come, we must keep up our courage; you may get something substantial out of the scoundrels still.'
Even whilst he spoke his eyes wandered absently. On the last word his voice failed, and he fell into abstraction. Marian's look was fixed upon him, and he became conscious of it. He tried to smile.
'What were you writing?' she asked, making involuntary diversion from the calamitous theme.
'Rubbish for the Will-o'-the-Wisp. Listen to this paragraph about English concert audiences.'
It was as necessary to him as to her to have a respite before the graver discussion began. He seized gladly the opportunity she offered, and read several pages of manuscript, slipping from one topic to another. To hear him one would have supposed that he was in his ordinary mood; he laughed at his own jokes and points.
'They'll have to pay me more,' was the remark with which he closed. 'I only wanted to make myself indispensable to them, and at the end of this year I shall feel pretty sure of that. They'll have to give me two guineas a column; by Jove! they will.'
'And you may hope for much more than that, mayn't you, before long?'
'Oh, I shall transfer myself to a better paper presently. It seems to me I must be stirring to some purpose.'
He gave her a significant look.
'What shall we do, Jasper?'
'Work and wait, I suppose.'
'There's something I must tell you. Father said I had better sign that Harrington article myself. If I do that, I shall have a right to the money, I think. It will at least be eight guineas. And why shouldn't I go on writing for myself -- for us? You can help me to think of subjects.'
'First of all, what about my letter to your father? We are forgetting all about it.'
'He refused to answer.'
Marian avoided closer description of what had happened. It was partly that she felt ashamed of her father's unreasoning wrath, and feared lest Jasper's pride might receive an injury from which she in turn would suffer; partly that she was unwilling to pain her lover by making display of all she had undergone.
'Oh, he refused to reply! Surely that is extreme behaviour.'
What she dreaded seemed to be coming to pass. Jasper stood rather stiffly, and threw his head back.
'You know the reason, dear. That prejudice has entered into his very life. It is not you he dislikes; that is impossible. He thinks of you only as he would of anyone connected with Mr Fadge.'
'Well, well; it isn't a matter of much moment. But what I have in mind is this. Will it be possible for you, whilst living at home, to take a position of independence, and say that you are going to work for your own profit?'
'At least I might claim half the money I can earn. And I was thinking more of ----'
'When I am your wife, I may be able to help. I could earn thirty or forty pounds a year, I think. That would pay the rent of a small house.'
She spoke with shaken voice, her eyes fixed upon his face.
'But, my dear Marian, we surely oughtn't to think of marrying so long as expenses are so nicely fitted as all that?'
'No. I only meant ----'
She faltered, and her tongue became silent as her heart sank.
'It simply means,' pursued Jasper, seating himself and crossing his legs, 'that I must move heaven and earth to improve my position. You know that my faith in myself is not small; there's no knowing what I might do if I used every effort. But, upon my word, I don't see much hope of our being able to marry for a year or two under the most favourable circumstances.'
'No; I quite understand that.'
'Can you promise to keep a little love for me all that time?' he asked with a constrained smile.
'You know me too well to fear.'
'I thought you seemed a little doubtful.'
His tone was not altogether that which makes banter pleasant between lovers. Marian looked at him fearfully. Was it possible for him in truth so to misunderstand her? He had never satisfied her heart's desire of infinite love; she never spoke with him but she was oppressed with the suspicion that his love was not as great as hers, and, worse still, that he did not wholly comprehend the self-surrender which she strove to make plain in every word.
'You don't say that seriously, Jasper?'
'But answer seriously.'
'How can you doubt that I would wait faithfully for you for years if it were necessary?'
'It mustn't be years, that's very certain. I think it preposterous for a man to hold a woman bound in that hopeless way.'
'But what question is there of holding me bound? Is love dependent on fixed engagements? Do you feel that, if we agreed to part, your love would be at once a thing of the past?'
'Why no, of course not.'
'Oh, but how coldly you speak, Jasper!'
She could not breathe a word which might be interpreted as fear lest the change of her circumstances should make a change in his feeling. Yet that was in her mind. The existence of such a fear meant, of course, that she did not entirely trust him, and viewed his character as something less than noble. Very seldom indeed is a woman free from such doubts, however absolute her love; and perhaps it is just as rare for a man to credit in his heart all the praises he speaks of his beloved. Passion is compatible with a great many of these imperfections of intellectual esteem. To see more clearly into Jasper's personality was, for Marian, to suffer the more intolerable dread lest she should lose him.
She went to his side. Her heart ached because, in her great misery, he had not fondled her, and intoxicated her senses with loving words.
'How can I make you feel how much I love you?' she murmured.
'You mustn't be so literal, dearest. Women are so desperately matter-of-fact; it comes out even in their love-talk.'
Marian was not without perception of the irony of such an opinion on Jasper's lips.
'I am content for you to think so,' she said. 'There is only one fact in my life of any importance, and I can never lose sight of it.'
'Well now, we are quite sure of each other. Tell me plainly, do you think me capable of forsaking you because you have perhaps lost your money?'
The question made her wince. If delicacy had held her tongue, it had no control of his.
'How can I answer that better,' she said, 'than by saying I love you?'
It was no answer, and Jasper, though obtuse compared with her, understood that it was none. But the emotion which had prompted his words was genuine enough. Her touch, the perfume of her passion, had their exalting effect upon him. He felt in all sincerity that to forsake her would be a baseness, revenged by the loss of such a wife.
'There's an uphill fight before me, that's all,' he said, 'instead of the pretty smooth course I have been looking forward to. But I don't fear it, Marian. I'm not the fellow to be beaten. You shall be my wife, and you shall have as many luxuries as if you had brought me a fortune.'
'Luxuries! Oh, how childish you seem to think me!'
'Not a bit of it. Luxuries are a most important part of life. I had rather not live at all than never possess them. Let me give you a useful hint; if ever I seem to you to flag, just remind me of the difference between these lodgings and a richly furnished house. Just hint to me that So-and-so, the journalist, goes about in his carriage, and can give his wife a box at the theatre. Just ask me, casually, how I should like to run over to the Riviera when London fogs are thickest. You understand? That's the way to keep me at it like a steam-engine.'
'You are right. All those things enable one to live a better and fuller life. Oh, how cruel that I -- that we are robbed in this way! You can have no idea how terrible a blow it was to me when I read that letter this morning.'
She was on the point of confessing that she had swooned, but something restrained her.
'Your father can hardly be sorry,' said Jasper.
'I think he speaks more harshly than he feels. The worst was, that until he got your letter he had kept hoping that I would let him have the money for a new review.'
'Well, for the present I prefer to believe that the money isn't all lost. If the blackguards pay ten shillings in the pound you will get two thousand five hundred out of them, and that's something. But how do you stand? Will your position be that of an ordinary creditor?'
'I am so ignorant. I know nothing of such things.'
'But of course your interests will be properly looked after. Put yourself in communication with this Mr Holden. I'll have a look into the law on the subject. Let us hope as long as we can. By Jove! There's no other way of facing it.'
'Mrs Reardon and the rest of them are safe enough, I suppose?'
'Oh, no doubt.'
'Confound them! -- It grows upon one. One doesn't take in the whole of such a misfortune at once. We must hold on to the last rag of hope, and in the meantime I'll half work myself to death. Are you going to see the girls?'
'Not to-night. You must tell them.'
'Dora will cry her eyes out. Upon my word, Maud'll have to draw in her horns. I must frighten her into economy and hard work.'
He again lost himself in anxious reverie.
'Marian, couldn't you try your hand at fiction?'
She started, remembering that her father had put the same question so recently.
'I'm afraid I could do nothing worth doing.'
'That isn't exactly the question. Could you do anything that would sell? With very moderate success in fiction you might make three times as much as you ever will by magazine pot-boilers. A girl like you. Oh, you might manage, I should think.'
'A girl like me?'
'Well, I mean that love-scenes, and that kind of thing, would be very much in your line.'
Marian was not given to blushing; very few girls are, even on strong provocation. For the first time Jasper saw her cheeks colour deeply, and it was with anything but pleasure. His words were coarsely inconsiderate, and wounded her.
'I think that is not my work,' she said coldly, looking away.
'But surely there's no harm in my saying ----' he paused in astonishment. 'I meant nothing that could offend you.'
'I know you didn't, Jasper. But you make me think that ----'
'Don't be so literal again, my dear girl. Come here and forgive me.'
She did not approach, but only because the painful thought he had excited kept her to that spot.
'Come, Marian! Then I must come to you.'
He did so and held her in his arms.
'Try your hand at a novel, dear, if you can possibly make time. Put me in it, if you like, and make me an insensible masculine. The experiment is worth a try I'm certain. At all events do a few chapters, and let me see them. A chapter needn't take you more than a couple of hours I should think.'
Marian refrained from giving any promise. She seemed irresponsive to his caresses. That thought which at times gives trouble to all women of strong emotions was working in her: had she been too demonstrative, and made her love too cheap? Now that Jasper's love might be endangered, it behoved her to use any arts which nature prompted. And so, for once, he was not wholly satisfied with her, and at their parting he wondered what subtle change had affected her manner to him.
'Why didn't Marian come to speak a word?' said Dora, when her brother entered the girls' sitting-room about ten o'clock.
'You knew she was with me, then?'
'We heard her voice as she was going away.'
'She brought me some enspiriting news, and thought it better I should have the reporting of it to you.'
With brevity he made known what had befallen.
'Cheerful, isn't it? The kind of thing that strengthens one's trust in Providence.'
The girls were appalled. Maud, who was reading by the fireside, let her book fall to her lap, and knit her brows darkly.
'Then your marriage must be put off of course?' said Dora.
'Well, I shouldn't be surprised if that were found necessary, replied her brother caustically. He was able now to give vent to the feeling which in Marian's presence was suppressed, partly out of consideration for her, and partly owing to her influence.
'And shall we have to go back to our old lodgings again?' inquired Maud.
Jasper gave no answer, but kicked a footstool savagely out of his way and paced the room.
'Oh, do you think we need?' said Dora, with unusual protest against economy.
'Remember that it's a matter for your own consideration,' Jasper replied at length. 'You are living on your own resources, you know.'
Maud glanced at her sister, but Dora was preoccupied.
'Why do you prefer to stay here?' Jasper asked abruptly of the younger girl.
'It is so very much nicer,' she replied with some embarrassment.
He bit the ends of his moustache, and his eyes glared at the impalpable thwarting force that to imagination seemed to fill the air about him.
'A lesson against being over-hasty,' he muttered, again kicking the footstool.
'Did you make that considerate remark to Marian?' asked Maud.
'There would have been no harm if I had done. She knows that I shouldn't have been such an ass as to talk of marriage without the prospect of something to live upon.'
'I suppose she's wretched?' said Dora.
'What else can you expect?'
'And did you propose to release her from the burden of her engagement?' Maud inquired.
'It's a confounded pity that you're not rich, Maud,' replied her brother with an involuntary laugh. 'You would have a brilliant reputation for wit.'
He walked about and ejaculated splenetic phrases on the subject of his ill-luck.
'We are here, and here we must stay,' was the final expression of his mood. 'I have only one superstition that I know of and that forbids me to take a step backward. If I went into poorer lodgings again I should feel it was inviting defeat. I shall stay as long as the position is tenable. Let us get on to Christmas, and then see how things look. Heavens! Suppose we had married, and after that lost the money!'
'You would have been no worse off than plenty of literary men,' said Dora.
'Perhaps not. But as I have made up my mind to be considerably better off than most literary men that reflection wouldn't console me much. Things are in statu quo, that's all. I have to rely upon my own efforts. What's the time? Half-past ten; I can get two hours' work before going to bed.'
And nodding a good-night he left them.
When Marian entered the house and went upstairs, she was followed by her mother. On Mrs Yule's countenance there was a new distress, she had been crying recently.
'Have you seen him?' the mother asked.
'Yes. We have talked about it.'
'What does he wish you to do, dear?'
'There's nothing to be done except wait.'
'Father has been telling me something, Marian,' said Mrs Yule after a long silence. 'He says he is going to be blind. There's something the matter with his eyes, and he went to see someone about it this afternoon. He'll get worse and worse, until there has been an operation; and perhaps he'll never be able to use his eyes properly again.'
The girl listened in an attitude of despair.
'He has seen an oculist? -- a really good doctor?'
'He says he went to one of the best.'
'And how did he speak to you?'
'He doesn't seem to care much what happens. He talked of going to the workhouse, and things like that. But it couldn't ever come to that, could it, Marian? Wouldn't somebody help him?'
'There's not much help to be expected in this world,' answered the girl.
Physical weariness brought her a few hours of oblivion as soon as she had lain down, but her sleep came to an end in the early morning, when the pressure of evil dreams forced her back to consciousness of real sorrows and cares. A fog-veiled sky added its weight to crush her spirit; at the hour when she usually rose it was still all but as dark as midnight. Her mother's voice at the door begged her to lie and rest until it grew lighter, and she willingly complied, feeling indeed scarcely capable of leaving her bed.
The thick black fog penetrated every corner of the house. It could be smelt and tasted. Such an atmosphere produces low-spirited languor even in the vigorous and hopeful; to those wasted by suffering it is the very reek of the bottomless pit, poisoning the soul. Her face colourless as the pillow, Marian lay neither sleeping nor awake, in blank extremity of woe; tears now and then ran down her cheeks, and at times her body was shaken with a throe such as might result from anguish of the torture chamber.
Midway in the morning, when it was still necessary to use artificial light, she went down to the sitting-room. The course of household life had been thrown into confusion by the disasters of the last day or two; Mrs Yule, who occupied herself almost exclusively with questions of economy, cleanliness, and routine, had not the heart to pursue her round of duties, and this morning, though under normal circumstances she would have been busy in 'turning out' the dining-room, she moved aimlessly and despondently about the house, giving the servant contradictory orders and then blaming herself for her absent-mindedness. In the troubles of her husband and her daughter she had scarcely greater share -- so far as active participation went -- than if she had been only a faithful old housekeeper; she could only grieve and lament that such discord had come between the two whom she loved, and that in herself was no power even to solace their distresses. Marian found her standing in the passage, with a duster in one hand and a hearth-brush in the other.
'Your father has asked to see you when you come down,' Mrs Yule whispered.
'I'll go to him.'
Marian entered the study. Her father was not in his place at the writing-table, nor yet seated in the chair which he used when he had leisure to draw up to the fireside; he sat in front of one of the bookcases, bent forward as if seeking a volume, but his chin was propped upon his hand, and he had maintained this position for a long time. He did not immediately move. When he raised his head Marian saw that he looked older, and she noticed -- or fancied she did -- that there was some unfamiliar peculiarity about his eyes.
'I am obliged to you for coming,' he began with distant formality. 'Since I saw you last I have learnt something which makes a change in my position and prospects, and it is necessary to speak on the subject. I won't detain you more than a few minutes.'
He coughed, and seemed to consider his next words.
'Perhaps I needn't repeat what I have told your mother. You have learnt it from her, I dare say.'
'Yes, with much grief.'
'Thank you, but we will leave aside that aspect of the matter. For a few more months I may be able to pursue my ordinary work, but before long I shall certainly be disabled from earning my livelihood by literature. Whether this will in any way affect your own position I don't know. Will you have the goodness to tell me whether you still purpose leaving this house?'
'I have no means of doing so.'
'Is there any likelihood of your marriage taking place, let us say, within four months?'
'Only if the executors recover my money, or a large portion of it.'
'I understand. My reason for asking is this. My lease of this house terminates at the end of next March, and I shall certainly not be justified in renewing it. If you are able to provide for yourself in any way it will be sufficient for me to rent two rooms after that. This disease which affects my eyes may be only temporary; in due time an operation may render it possible for me to work again. In hope of that I shall probably have to borrow a sum of money on the security of my life insurance, though in the first instance I shall make the most of what I can get for the furniture of the house and a large part of my library; your mother and I could live at very slight expense in lodgings. If the disease prove irremediable, I must prepare myself for the worst. What I wish to say is, that it will be better if from to-day you consider yourself as working for your own subsistence. So long as I remain here this house is of course your home; there can be no question between us of trivial expenses. But it is right that you should understand what my prospects are. I shall soon have no home to offer you; you must look to your own efforts for support.'
'I am prepared to do that, father.'
'I think you will have no great difficulty in earning enough for yourself. I have done my best to train you in writing for the periodicals, and your natural abilities are considerable. If you marry, I wish you a happy life. The end of mine, of many long years of unremitting toil, is failure and destitution.'
'That's all I had to say,' concluded her father, his voice tremulous with self-compassion. 'I will only beg that there may be no further profitless discussion between us. This room is open to you, as always, and I see no reason why we should not converse on subjects disconnected with our personal differences.'
'Is there no remedy for cataract in its early stages?' asked Marian.
'None. You can read up the subject for yourself at the British Museum. I prefer not to speak of it.'
'Will you let me be what help to you I can?'
'For the present the best you can do is to establish a connection for yourself with editors. Your name will be an assistance to you. My advice is, that you send your "Harrington" article forthwith to Trenchard, writing him a note. If you desire my help in the suggestion of new subjects, I will do my best to be of use.'
Marian withdrew. She went to the sitting-room, where an ochreous daylight was beginning to diffuse itself and to render the lamp superfluous. With the dissipation of the fog rain had set in; its splashing upon the muddy pavement was audible.
Mrs Yule, still with a duster in her hand, sat on the sofa. Marian took a place beside her. They talked in low, broken tones, and wept together over their miseries.
The chances are that you have neither understanding nor sympathy for men such as Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen. They merely provoke you. They seem to you inert, flabby, weakly envious, foolishly obstinate, impiously mutinous, and many other things. You are made angrily contemptuous by their failure to get on; why don't they bestir themselves, push and bustle, welcome kicks so long as halfpence follow, make place in the world's eye -- in short, take a leaf from the book of Mr Jasper Milvain?
But try to imagine a personality wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world's labour-market. From the familiar point of view these men were worthless; view them in possible relation to a humane order of Society, and they are admirable citizens. Nothing is easier than to condemn a type of character which is unequal to the coarse demands of life as it suits the average man. These two were richly endowed with the kindly and the imaginative virtues; if fate threw them amid incongruous circumstances, is their endowment of less value? You scorn their passivity; but it was their nature and their merit to be passive. Gifted with independent means, each of them would have taken quite a different aspect in your eyes. The sum of their faults was their inability to earn money; but, indeed, that inability does not call for unmingled disdain.
It was very weak of Harold Biffen to come so near perishing of hunger as he did in the days when he was completing his novel. But he would have vastly preferred to eat and be satisfied had any method of obtaining food presented itself to him. He did not starve for the pleasure of the thing, I assure you. Pupils were difficult to get just now, and writing that he had sent to magazines had returned upon his hands. He pawned such of his possessions as he could spare, and he reduced his meals to the minimum. Nor was he uncheerful in his cold garret and with his empty stomach, for 'Mr Bailey, Grocer,' drew steadily to an end.
He worked very slowly. The book would make perhaps two volumes of ordinary novel size, but he had laboured over it for many months, patiently, affectionately, scrupulously. Each sentence was as good as he could make it, harmonious to the ear, with words of precious meaning skilfully set. Before sitting down to a chapter he planned it minutely in his mind; then he wrote a rough draft of it; then he elaborated the thing phrase by phrase. He had no thought of whether such toil would be recompensed in coin of the realm; nay, it was his conviction that, if with difficulty published, it could scarcely bring him money. The work must be significant, that was all he cared for. And he had no society of admiring friends to encourage him. Reardon understood the merit of the workmanship, but frankly owned that the book was repulsive to him. To the public it would be worse than repulsive -- tedious, utterly uninteresting. No matter; it drew to its end.
The day of its completion was made memorable by an event decidedly more exciting, even to the author.
At eight o'clock in the evening there remained half a page to be written. Biffen had already worked about nine hours, and on breaking off to appease his hunger he doubted whether to finish to-night or to postpone the last lines till tomorrow. The discovery that only a small crust of bread lay in the cupboard decided him to write no more; he would have to go out to purchase a loaf and that was disturbance.
But stay; had he enough money? He searched his pockets. Two pence and two farthings; no more.
You are probably not aware that at bakers' shops in the poor quarters the price of the half-quartern loaf varies sometimes from week to week. At present, as Biffen knew, it was twopence three-farthings, a common figure. But Harold did not possess three farthings, only two. Reflecting, he remembered to have passed yesterday a shop where the bread was marked twopence halfpenny; it was a shop in a very obscure little street off Hampstead Road, some distance from Clipstone Street. Thither he must repair. He had only his hat and a muffler to put on, for again he was wearing his overcoat in default of the under one, and his ragged umbrella to take from the corner; so he went forth.
To his delight the twopence halfpenny announcement was still in the baker's window. He obtained a loaf wrapped it in the piece of paper he had brought -- small bakers decline to supply paper for this purpose -- and strode joyously homeward again.
Having eaten, he looked longingly at his manuscript. But half a page more. Should he not finish it to-night? The temptation was irresistible. He sat down, wrought with unusual speed, and at half-past ten wrote with magnificent flourish 'The End.'
His fire was out and he had neither coals nor wood. But his feet were frozen into lifelessness. Impossible to go to bed like this; he must take another turn in the streets. It would suit his humour to ramble a while. Had it not been so late he would have gone to see Reardon, who expected the communication of this glorious news.
So again he locked his door. Half-way downstairs he stumbled over something or somebody in the dark.
'Who is that?' he cried.
The answer was a loud snore. Biffen went to the bottom of the house and called to the landlady.
'Mrs Willoughby! Who is asleep on the stairs?'
'Why, I 'spect it's Mr Briggs,' replied the woman, indulgently. 'Don't you mind him, Mr Biffen. There's no 'arm: he's only had a little too much. I'll go up an' make him go to bed as soon as I've got my 'ands clean.'
'The necessity for waiting till then isn't obvious,' remarked the realist with a chuckle, and went his way.
He walked at a sharp pace for more than an hour, and about midnight drew near to his own quarter again. He had just turned up by the Middlesex Hospital, and was at no great distance from Clipstone Street, when a yell and scamper caught his attention; a group of loafing blackguards on the opposite side of the way had suddenly broken up, and as they rushed off he heard the word 'Fire!' This was too common an occurrence to disturb his equanimity; he wondered absently in which street the fire might be, but trudged on without a thought of making investigation. Repeated yells and rushes, however, assailed his apathy. Two women came tearing by him, and he shouted to them: 'Where is it?'
'In Clipstone Street, they say,' one screamed back.
He could no longer be unconcerned. If in his own street the conflagration might be in the very house he inhabited, and in that case ---- He set off at a run. Ahead of him was a thickening throng, its position indicating the entrance to Clipstone Street. Soon he found his progress retarded; he had to dodge this way and that, to force progress, to guard himself against overthrows by the torrent of ruffiandom which always breaks forth at the cry of fire. He could now smell the smoke, and all at once a black volume of it, bursting from upper windows, alarmed his sight. At once he was aware that, if not his own dwelling, it must be one of those on either side that was in flames. As yet no engine had arrived, and straggling policemen were only just beginning to make their way to the scene of uproar. By dint of violent effort Biffen moved forward yard by yard. A tongue of flame which suddenly illumined the fronts of the houses put an end to his doubt.
'Let me get past!' he shouted to the gaping and swaying mass of people in front of him. 'I live there! I must go upstairs to save something!'
His educated accent moved attention. Repeating the demand again and again he succeeded in getting forward, and at length was near enough to see that people were dragging articles of furniture out on to the pavement.
'That you, Mr Biffen?' cried someone to him.
He recognised the face of a fellow-lodger.
'Is it possible to get up to my room?' broke frantically from his lips.
'You'll never get up there. It's that ---- Briggs' -- the epithet was alliterative -- ''as upset his lamp, and I 'ope he'll ---- well get roasted to death.'
Biffen leaped on to the threshold, and crashed against Mrs Willoughby, the landlady, who was carrying a huge bundle of household linen.
'I told you to look after that drunken brute;' he said to her. 'Can I get upstairs?'
'What do I care whether you can or not!' the woman shrieked. 'My God! And all them new chairs as I bought ----!'
He heard no more, but bounded over a confusion of obstacles, and in a moment was on the landing of the first storey. Here he encountered a man who had not lost his head, a stalwart mechanic engaged in slipping clothes on to two little children.
'If somebody don't drag that fellow Briggs down he'll be dead,' observed the man. 'He's layin' outside his door. I pulled him out, but I can't do no more for him.'
Smoke grew thick on the staircase. Burning was as yet confined to that front room on the second floor tenanted by Briggs the disastrous, but in all likelihood the ceiling was ablaze, and if so it would be all but impossible for Biffen to gain his own chamber, which was at the back on the floor above. No one was making an attempt to extinguish the fire; personal safety and the rescue of their possessions alone occupied the thoughts of such people as were still in the house. Desperate with the dread of losing his manuscript, his toil, his one hope, the realist scarcely stayed to listen to a warning that the fumes were impassable; with head bent he rushed up to the next landing. There lay Briggs, perchance already stifled, and through the open door Biffen had a horrible vision of furnace fury. To go yet higher would have been madness but for one encouragement: he knew that on his own storey was a ladder giving access to a trap-door, by which he might issue on to the roof, whence escape to the adjacent houses would be practicable. Again a leap forward!
In fact, not two minutes elapsed from his commencing the ascent of the stairs to the moment when, all but fainting, he thrust the key into his door and fell forward into purer air. Fell, for he was on his knees, and had begun to suffer from a sense of failing power, a sick whirling of the brain, a terror of hideous death. His manuscript was on the table, where he had left it after regarding and handling it with joyful self-congratulation; though it was pitch dark in the room, he could at once lay his hand on the heap of paper. Now he had it; now it was jammed tight under his left arm; now he was out again on the landing, in smoke more deadly than ever.
He said to himself: 'If I cannot instantly break out by the trap-door it's all over with me.' That the exit would open to a vigorous thrust he knew, having amused himself not long ago by going on to the roof. He touched the ladder, sprang upwards, and felt the trap above him. But he could not push it back. 'I'm a dead man,' flashed across his mind, 'and all for the sake of "Mr Bailey, Grocer."' A frenzied effort, the last of which his muscles were capable, and the door yielded. His head was now through the aperture, and though the smoke swept up about him, that gasp of cold air gave him strength to throw himself on the flat portion of the roof that he had reached.
So for a minute or two he lay. Then he was able to stand, to survey his position, and to walk along by the parapet. He looked down upon the surging and shouting crowd in Clipstone Street, but could see it only at intervals, owing to the smoke that rolled from the front windows below him.
What he had now to do he understood perfectly. This roof was divided from those on either hand by a stack of chimneys; to get round the end of these stacks was impossible, or at all events too dangerous a feat unless it were the last resource, but by climbing to the apex of the slates he would be able to reach the chimney-pots, to drag himself up to them, and somehow to tumble over on to the safer side. To this undertaking he forthwith addressed himself. Without difficulty he reached the ridge; standing on it he found that only by stretching his arm to the utmost could he grip the top of a chimney-pot. Had he the strength necessary to raise himself by such a hold? And suppose the pot broke?
His life was still in danger; the increasing volumes of smoke warned him that in a few minutes the uppermost storey might be in flames. He took off his overcoat to allow himself more freedom of action; the manuscript, now an encumbrance, must precede him over the chimney-stack, and there was only one way of effecting that. With care he stowed the papers into the pockets of the coat; then he rolled the garment together, tied it up in its own sleeves, took a deliberate aim -- and the bundle was for the present in safety.
Now for the gymnastic endeavour. Standing on tiptoe, he clutched the rim of the chimney-pot, and strove to raise himself. The hold was firm enough, but his arms were far too puny to perform such work, even when death would be the penalty of failure. Too long he had lived on insufficient food and sat over the debilitating desk. He swung this way and that, trying to throw one of his knees as high as the top of the brickwork, but there was no chance of his succeeding. Dropping on to the slates, he sat there in perturbation.
He must cry for help. In front it was scarcely possible to stand by the parapet, owing to the black clouds of smoke, now mingled with sparks; perchance he might attract the notice of some person either in the yards behind or at the back windows of other houses. The night was so obscure that he could not hope to be seen; voice alone must be depended upon, and there was no certainty that it would be heard far enough. Though he stood in his shirt-sleeves in a bitter wind no sense of cold affected him; his face was beaded with perspiration drawn forth by his futile struggle to climb. He let himself slide down the rear slope, and, holding by the end of the chimney brickwork, looked into the yards. At the same instant a face appeared to him -- that of a man who was trying to obtain a glimpse of this roof from that of the next house by thrusting out his head beyond the block of chimneys.
'Hollo!' cried the stranger. 'What are you doing there?'
'Trying to escape, of course. Help me to get on to your roof.'
'By God! I expected to see the fire coming through already. Are you the ---- as upset his lamp an' fired the bloomin' 'ouse?'
'Not I! He's lying drunk on the stairs; dead by this time.'
'By God! I wouldn't have helped you if you'd been him. How are you coming round? Blest if I see! You'll break your bloomin' neck if you try this corner. You'll have to come over the chimneys; wait till I get a ladder.'
'And a rope,' shouted Biffen.
The man disappeared for five minutes. To Biffen it seemed half an hour; he felt, or imagined he felt, the slates getting hot beneath him, and the smoke was again catching his breath. But at length there was a shout from the top of the chimney-stack. The rescuer had seated himself on one of the pots, and was about to lower on Biffen's side a ladder which had enabled him to ascend from the other. Biffen planted the lowest rung very carefully on the ridge of the roof, climbed as lightly as possible, got a footing between two pots; the ladder was then pulled over, and both men descended in safety.
'Have you seen a coat lying about here?' was Biffen's first question. 'I threw mine over.'
'What did you do that for?'
'There are some valuable papers in the pockets.'
They searched in vain; on neither side of the roof was the coat discoverable.
'You must have pitched it into the street,' said the man.
This was a terrible blow; Biffen forgot his rescue from destruction in lament for the loss of his manuscript. He would have pursued the fruitless search, but his companion, who feared that the fire might spread to adjoining houses, insisted on his passing through the trap-door and descending the stairs.
'If the coat fell into the street,' Biffen said, when they were down on the ground floor, 'of course it's lost; it would be stolen at once. But may not it have fallen into your back yard?'
He was standing in the midst of a cluster of alarmed people, who stared at him in astonishment, for the reek through which he had fought his way had given him the aspect of a sweep. His suggestion prompted someone to run into the yard, with the result that a muddy bundle was brought in and exhibited to him.
'Is this your coat, Mister?'
'Heaven be thanked! That's it! There are valuable papers in the pockets.'
He unrolled the garment, felt to make sure that 'Mr Bailey' was safe, and finally put it on.
'Will anyone here let me sit down in a room and give me a drink of water?' he asked, feeling now as if he must drop with exhaustion.
The man who had rescued him performed this further kindness, and for half an hour, whilst tumult indescribable raged about him, Biffen sat recovering his strength. By that time the firemen were hard at work, but one floor of the burning house had already fallen through, and it was probable that nothing but the shell would be saved. After giving a full account of himself to the people among whom he had come, Harold declared his intention of departing; his need of repose was imperative, and he could not hope for it in this proximity to the fire. As he had no money, his only course was to inquire for a room at some house in the immediate neighbourhood, where the people would receive him in a charitable spirit.
With the aid of the police he passed to where the crowd was thinner, and came out into Cleveland Street. Here most of the house-doors were open, and he made several applications for hospitality, but either his story was doubted or his grimy appearance predisposed people against him. At length, when again his strength was all but at an end, he made appeal to a policeman.
'Surely you can tell,' he protested, after explaining his position, 'that I don't want to cheat anybody. I shall have money to-morrow. If no one will take me in you must haul me on some charge to the police-station; I shall have to lie down on the pavement in a minute.'
The officer recognised a man who was standing half-dressed on a threshold close by; he stepped up to him and made representations which were successful. In a few minutes Biffen took possession of an underground room furnished as a bedchamber, which he agreed to rent for a week. His landlord was not ungracious, and went so far as to supply him with warm water, that he might in a measure cleanse himself. This operation rapidly performed, the hapless author flung himself into bed, and before long was fast asleep.
When he went upstairs about nine o'clock in the morning he discovered that his host kept an oil-shop.
'Lost everything, have you?' asked the man sympathetically.
'Everything, except the clothes I wear and some papers that I managed to save. All my books burnt!'
Biffen shook his head dolorously.
'Your account-books!' cried the dealer in oil. 'Dear, dear! -- and what might your business be?'
The author corrected this misapprehension. In the end he was invited to break his fast, which he did right willingly. Then, with assurances that he would return before nightfall, he left the house. His steps were naturally first directed to Clipstone Street; the familiar abode was a gruesome ruin, still smoking. Neighbours informed him that Mr Briggs's body had been brought forth in a horrible condition; but this was the only loss of life that had happened.
Thence he struck eastward, and at eleven came to Manville Street, Islington. He found Reardon by the fireside, looking very ill, and speaking with hoarseness.
'It looks like it. I wish you would take the trouble to go and buy me some vermin-killer. That would suit my case.'
'Then what would suit mine? Behold me, undeniably a philosopher; in the literal sense of the words omnia mea mecum porto.'
He recounted his adventures, and with such humorous vivacity that when he ceased the two laughed together as if nothing more amusing had ever been heard.
'Ah, but my books, my books!' exclaimed Biffen, with a genuine groan. 'And all my notes! At one fell swoop! If I didn't laugh, old friend, I should sit down and cry; indeed I should. All my classics, with years of scribbling in the margins! How am I to buy them again?'
'You rescued "Mr Bailey." He must repay you.'
Biffen had already laid the manuscript on the table; it was dirty and crumpled, but not to such an extent as to render copying necessary. Lovingly he smoothed the pages and set them in order, then he wrapped the whole in a piece of brown paper which Reardon supplied, and wrote upon it the address of a firm of publishers.
'Have you note-paper? I'll write to them; impossible to call in my present guise.'
Indeed his attire was more like that of a bankrupt costermonger than of a man of letters. Collar he had none, for the griminess of that he wore last night had necessitated its being thrown aside; round his throat was a dirty handkerchief. His coat had been brushed, but its recent experiences had brought it one stage nearer to that dissolution which must very soon be its fate. His grey trousers were now black, and his boots looked as if they had not been cleaned for weeks.
'Shall I say anything about the character of the book?' he asked, seating himself with pen and paper. 'Shall I hint that it deals with the ignobly decent?'
'Better let them form their own judgment,' replied Reardon, in his hoarse voice.
'Then I'll just say that I submit to them a novel of modern life, the scope of which is in some degree indicated by its title. Pity they can't know how nearly it became a holocaust, and that I risked my life to save it. If they're good enough to accept it I'll tell them the story. And now, Reardon, I'm ashamed of myself, but can you without inconvenience lend me ten shillings?'
'I must write to two pupils, to inform them of my change of address -- from garret to cellar. And I must ask help from my prosperous brother. He gives it me unreluctantly, I know, but I am always loth to apply to him. May I use your paper for these purposes?'
The brother of whom he spoke was employed in a house of business at Liverpool; the two had not met for years, but they corresponded, and were on terms such as Harold indicated. When he had finished his letters, and had received the half-sovereign from Reardon, he went his way to deposit the brown-paper parcel at the publishers'. The clerk who received it from his hands probably thought that the author might have chosen a more respectable messenger.
Two days later, early in the evening, the friends were again enjoying each other's company in Reardon's room. Both were invalids, for Biffen had of course caught a cold from his exposure in shirt-sleeves on the roof, and he was suffering from the shock to his nerves; but the thought that his novel was safe in the hands of publishers gave him energy to resist these influences. The absence of the pipe, for neither had any palate for tobacco at present, was the only external peculiarity of this meeting. There seemed no reason why they should not meet frequently before the parting which would come at Christmas; but Reardon was in a mood of profound sadness, and several times spoke as if already he were bidding his friend farewell.
'I find it difficult to think,' he said, 'that you will always struggle on in such an existence as this. To every man of mettle there does come an opportunity, and it surely is time for yours to present itself. I have a superstitious faith in "Mr Bailey." If he leads you to triumph, don't altogether forget me.'
'Don't talk nonsense.'
'What ages it seems since that day when I saw you in the library at Hastings, and heard you ask in vain for my book! And how grateful I was to you! I wonder whether any mortal ever asks for my books nowadays? Some day, when I am well established at Croydon, you shall go to Mudie's, and make inquiry if my novels ever by any chance leave the shelves, and then you shall give me a true and faithful report of the answer you get. "He is quite forgotten," the attendant will say; be sure of it.'
'I think not.'
'To have had even a small reputation, and to have outlived it, is a sort of anticipation of death. The man Edwin Reardon, whose name was sometimes spoken in a tone of interest, is really and actually dead. And what remains of me is resigned to that. I have an odd fancy that it will make death itself easier; it is as if only half of me had now to die.'
Biffen tried to give a lighter turn to the gloomy subject.
'Thinking of my fiery adventure,' he said, in his tone of dry deliberation, 'I find it vastly amusing to picture you as a witness at the inquest if I had been choked and consumed. No doubt it would have been made known that I rushed upstairs to save some particular piece of property -- several people heard me say so -- and you alone would be able to conjecture what this was. Imagine the gaping wonderment of the coroner's jury! The Daily Telegraph would have made a leader out of me. "This poor man was so strangely deluded as to the value of a novel in manuscript, which it appears he had just completed, that he positively sacrificed his life in the endeavour to rescue it from the flames." And the Saturday would have had a column of sneering jocosity on the irrepressibly sanguine temperament of authors. At all events, I should have had my day of fame.'
'But what an ignoble death it would have been!' he pursued. 'Perishing in the garret of a lodging-house which caught fire by the overturning of a drunkard's lamp! One would like to end otherwise.'
'Where would you wish to die?' asked Reardon, musingly.
'At home,' replied the other, with pathetic emphasis. 'I have never had a home since I was a boy, and am never likely to have one. But to die at home is an unreasoning hope I still cherish.'
'If you had never come to London, what would you have now been?'
'Almost certainly a schoolmaster in some small town. And one might be worse off than that, you know.'
'Yes, one might live peaceably enough in such a position. And I -- I should be in an estate-agent's office, earning a sufficient salary, and most likely married to some unambitious country girl. I should have lived an intelligible life, instead of only trying to live, aiming at modes of life beyond my reach. My mistake was that of numberless men nowadays. Because I was conscious of brains, I thought that the only place for me was London. It's easy enough to understand this common delusion. We form our ideas of London from old literature; we think of London as if it were still the one centre of intellectual life; we think and talk like Chatterton. But the truth is that intellectual men in our day do their best to keep away from London -- when once they know the place. There are libraries everywhere; papers and magazines reach the north of Scotland as soon as they reach Brompton; it's only on rare occasions, for special kinds of work, that one is bound to live in London. And as for recreation, why, now that no English theatre exists, what is there in London that you can't enjoy in almost any part of England? At all events, a yearly visit of a week would be quite sufficient for all the special features of the town. London is only a huge shop, with an hotel on the upper storeys. To be sure, if you make it your artistic subject, that's a different thing. But neither you nor I would do that by deliberate choice.'
'I think not.'
'It's a huge misfortune, this will-o'-the-wisp attraction exercised by London on young men of brains. They come here to be degraded, or to perish, when their true sphere is a life of peaceful remoteness. The type of man capable of success in London is more or less callous and cynical. If I had the training of boys, I would teach them to think of London as the last place where life can be lived worthily.'
'And the place where you are most likely to die in squalid wretchedness.'
'The one happy result of my experiences,' said Reardon, is that they have cured me of ambition. What a miserable fellow I should be if I were still possessed with the desire to make a name! I can't even recall very clearly that state of mind. My strongest desire now is for peaceful obscurity. I am tired out; I want to rest for the remainder of my life.'
'You won't have much rest at Croydon.'
'Oh, it isn't impossible. My time will be wholly occupied in a round of all but mechanical duties, and I think that will be the best medicine for my mind. I shall read very little, and that only in the classics. I don't say that I shall always be content in such a position; in a few years perhaps something pleasanter will offer. But in the meantime it will do very well. Then there is our expedition to Greece to look forward to. I am quite in earnest about that. The year after next, if we are both alive, assuredly we go.'
'The year after next.' Biffen smiled dubiously.
'I have demonstrated to you mathematically that it is possible.'
'You have; but so are a great many other things that one does not dare to hope for.'
Someone knocked at the door, opened it, and said:
'Here's a telegram for you, Mr Reardon.'
The friends looked at each other, as if some fear had entered the minds of both. Reardon opened the despatch. It was from his wife, and ran thus:
'Willie is ill of diphtheria. Please come to us at once. I am staying with Mrs Carter, at her mother's, at Brighton.'
The full address was given.
'You hadn't heard of her going there?' said Biffen, when he had read the lines.
'No. I haven't seen Carter for several days, or perhaps he would have told me. Brighton, at this time of year? But I believe there's a fashionable "season" about now, isn't there? I suppose that would account for it.'
He spoke in a slighting tone, but showed increasing agitation.
'Of course you will go?'
'I must. Though I'm in no condition for making a journey.'
His friend examined him anxiously.
'Are you feverish at all this evening?'
Reardon held out a hand that the other might feel his pulse. The beat was rapid to begin with, and had been heightened since the arrival of the telegram.
'But go I must. The poor little fellow has no great place in my heart, but, when Amy sends for me, I must go. Perhaps things are at the worst.'
'When is there a train? Have you a time table?'
Biffen was despatched to the nearest shop to purchase one, and in the meanwhile Reardon packed a few necessaries in a small travelling-bag, ancient and worn, but the object of his affection because it had accompanied him on his wanderings in the South. When Harold returned, his appearance excited Reardon's astonishment -- he was white from head to foot.
'It must have been falling heavily for an hour or more.'
'Can't be helped; I must go.'
The nearest station for departure was London Bridge, and the next train left at 7.20. By Reardon's watch it was now about five minutes to seven.
'I don't know whether it's possible,' he said, in confused hurry, 'but I must try. There isn't another train till ten past nine. Come with me to the station, Biffen.'
Both were ready. They rushed from the house, and sped through the soft, steady fall of snowflakes into Upper Street. Here they were several minutes before they found a disengaged cab. Questioning the driver, they learnt what they would have known very well already but for their excitement: impossible to get to London Bridge Station in a quarter of an hour.
'Better to go on, all the same,' was Reardon's opinion. 'If the snow gets deep I shall perhaps not be able to have a cab at all. But you had better not come; I forgot that you are as much out of sorts as I am.'
'How can you wait a couple of hours alone? In with you!'
'Diphtheria is pretty sure to be fatal to a child of that age, isn't it?' Reardon asked when they were speeding along City Road.
'I'm afraid there's much danger.'
'Why did she send?'
'What an absurd question! You seem to have got into a thoroughly morbid state of mind about her. Do be human, and put away your obstinate folly.'
'In my position you would have acted precisely as I have done. I have had no choice.'
'I might; but we have both of us too little practicality. The art of living is the art of compromise. We have no right to foster sensibilities, and conduct ourselves as if the world allowed of ideal relations; it leads to misery for others as well as ourselves. Genial coarseness is what it behoves men like you and me to cultivate. Your reply to your wife's last letter was preposterous. You ought to have gone to her of your own accord as soon as ever you heard she was rich; she would have thanked you for such common-sense disregard of delicacies. Let there be an end of this nonsense, I implore you!'
Reardon stared through the glass at the snow that fell thicker and thicker.
'What are we -- you and I?' pursued the other. 'We have no belief in immortality; we are convinced that this life is all; we know that human happiness is the origin and end of all moral considerations. What right have we to make ourselves and others miserable for the sake of an obstinate idealism? It is our duty to make the best of circumstances. Why will you go cutting your loaf with a razor when you have a serviceable bread-knife?'
Still Reardon did not speak. The cab rolled on almost silently.
'You love your wife, and this summons she sends is proof that her thought turns to you as soon as she is in distress.'
'Perhaps she only thought it her duty to let the child's father know ----'
'Perhaps -- perhaps -- perhaps!' cried Biffen, contemptuously. 'There goes the razor again! Take the plain, human construction of what happens. Ask yourself what the vulgar man would do, and do likewise; that's the only safe rule for you.'
They were both hoarse with too much talking, and for the last half of the drive neither spoke.
At the railway-station they ate and drank together, but with poor pretence of appetite. As long as possible they kept within the warmed rooms. Reardon was pale, and had anxious, restless eyes; he could not remain seated, though when he had walked about for a few minutes the trembling of his limbs obliged him to sink down. It was an unutterable relief to both when the moment of the train's starting approached.
They clasped hands warmly, and exchanged a few last requests and promises.
'Forgive my plain speech, old fellow,' said Biffen. 'Go and be happy!'
Then he stood alone on the platform, watching the red light on the last carriage as the train whirled away into darkness and storm.
Reardon had never been to Brighton, and of his own accord never would have gone; he was prejudiced against the place because its name has become suggestive of fashionable imbecility and the snobbishness which tries to model itself thereon; he knew that the town was a mere portion of London transferred to the sea-shore, and as he loved the strand and the breakers for their own sake, to think of them in such connection could be nothing but a trial of his temper. Something of this species of irritation affected him in the first part of his journey, and disturbed the mood of kindliness with which he was approaching Amy; but towards the end he forgot this in a growing desire to be beside his wife in her trouble. His impatience made the hour and a half seem interminable.
The fever which was upon him had increased. He coughed frequently; his breathing was difficult; though constantly moving, he felt as if, in the absence of excitement, his one wish would have been to lie down and abandon himself to lethargy. Two men who sat with him in the third-class carriage had spread a rug over their knees and amused themselves with playing cards for trifling sums of money; the sight of their foolish faces, the sound of their laughs, the talk they interchanged, exasperated him to the last point of endurance; but for all that he could not draw his attention from them. He seemed condemned by some spiritual tormentor to take an interest in their endless games, and to observe their visages until he knew every line with a hateful intimacy. One of the men had a moustache of unusual form; the ends curved upward with peculiar suddenness, and Reardon was constrained to speculate as to the mode of training by which this singularity had been produced. He could have shed teats of nervous distraction in his inability to turn his thoughts upon other things.
On alighting at his journey's end he was seized with a fit of shivering, an intense and sudden chill which made his teeth chatter. In an endeavour to overcome this he began to run towards the row of cabs, but his legs refused such exercise, and coughing compelled him to pause for breath. Still shaking, he threw himself into a vehicle and was driven to the address Amy had mentioned. The snow on the ground lay thick, but no more was falling.
Heedless of the direction which the cab took, he suffered his physical and mental unrest for another quarter of an hour, then a stoppage told him that the house was reached. On his way he had heard a clock strike eleven.
The door opened almost as soon as he had rung the bell. He mentioned his name, and the maid-servant conducted him to a drawing-room on the ground-floor. The house was quite a small one, but seemed to be well furnished. One lamp burned on the table, and the fire had sunk to a red glow. Saying that she would inform Mrs Reardon at once, the servant left him alone.
He placed his bag on the floor, took off his muffler, threw back his overcoat, and sat waiting. The overcoat was new, but the garments beneath it were his poorest, those he wore when sitting in his garret, for he had neither had time to change them, nor thought of doing so.
He heard no approaching footstep but Amy came into the room in a way which showed that she had hastened downstairs. She looked at him, then drew near with both hands extended, and laid them on his shoulders, and kissed him. Reardon shook so violently that it was all he could do to remain standing; he seized one of her hands, and pressed it against his lips.
'How hot your breath is!' she said. 'And how you tremble! Are you ill?'
'A bad cold, that's all,' he answered thickly, and coughed. 'How is Willie?'
'In great danger. The doctor is coming again to-night; we thought that was his ring.'
'You didn't expect me to-night?'
'I couldn't feel sure whether you would come.'
'Why did you send for me, Amy? Because Willie was in danger, and you felt I ought to know about it?'
'Yes -- and because I ----'
She burst into tears. The display of emotion came very suddenly; her words had been spoken in a firm voice, and only the pained knitting of her brows had told what she was suffering.
'If Willie dies, what shall I do? Oh, what shall I do?' broke forth between her sobs.
Reardon took her in his arms, and laid his hand upon her head in the old loving way.
'Do you wish me to go up and see him, Amy?'
'Of course. But first, let me tell you why we are here. Edith -- Mrs Carter -- was coming to spend a week with her mother, and she pressed me to join her. I didn't really wish to; I was unhappy, and felt how impossible it was to go on always living away from you. Oh, that I had never come! Then Willie would have been as well as ever.'
'Tell me when and how it began.'
She explained briefly, then went on to tell of other circumstances.
'I have a nurse with me in the room. It's my own bedroom, and this house is so small it will be impossible to give you a bed here, Edwin. But there's an hotel only a few yards away.'
'Yes, yes; don't trouble about that.'
'But you look so ill -- you are shaking so. Is it a cold you have had long?'
'Oh, my old habit; you remember. One cold after another, all through the accursed winter. What does that matter when you speak kindly to me once more? I had rather die now at your feet and see the old gentleness when you look at me, than live on estranged from you. No, don't kiss me, I believe these vile sore-throats are contagious.'
'But your lips are so hot and parched! And to think of your coming this journey, on such a night!'
'Good old Biffen came to the station with me. He was angry because I had kept away from you so long. Have you given me your heart again, Amy?'
'Oh, it has all been a wretched mistake! But we were so poor. Now all that is over; if only Willie can be saved to me! I am so anxious for the doctor's coming; the poor little child can hardly draw a breath. How cruel it is that such suffering should come upon a little creature who has never done or thought ill!'
'You are not the first, dearest, who has revolted against nature's cruelty.'
'Let us go up at once, Edwin. Leave your coat and things here. Mrs Winter -- Edith's mother -- is a very old lady; she has gone to bed. And I dare say you wouldn't care to see Mrs Carter to-night?'
'No, no! only you and Willie.'
'When the doctor comes hadn't you better ask his advice for yourself?'
'We shall see. Don't trouble about me.'
They went softly up to the first floor, and entered a bedroom. Fortunately the light here was very dim, or the nurse who sat by the child's bed must have wondered at the eccentricity with which her patient's father attired himself. Bending over the little sufferer, Reardon felt for the first time since Willie's birth a strong fatherly emotion; tears rushed to his eyes, and he almost crushed Amy's hand as he held it during the spasm of his intense feeling.
He sat here for a long time without speaking. The warmth of the chamber had the reverse of an assuaging effect upon his difficult breathing and his frequent short cough -- it seemed to oppress and confuse his brain. He began to feel a pain in his right side, and could not sit upright on the chair.
Amy kept regarding him, without his being aware of it.
'Does your head ache?' she whispered.
He nodded, but did not speak.
'Oh, why doesn't the doctor come? I must send in a few minutes.'
But as soon as she had spoken a bell rang in the lower part of the house. Amy had no doubt that it announced the promised visit. She left the room, and in a minute or two returned with the medical man. When the examination of the child was over, Reardon requested a few words with the doctor in the room downstairs.
'I'll come back to you,' he whispered to Amy.
The two descended together, and entered the drawing-room.
'Is there any hope for the little fellow?' Reardon asked.
Yes, there was hope; a favourable turn might be expected.
'Now I wish to trouble you for a moment on my own account. I shouldn't be surprised if you tell me that I have congestion of the lungs.'
The doctor, a suave man of fifty, had been inspecting his interlocutor with curiosity. He now asked the necessary questions, and made an examination.
'Have you had any lung trouble before this?' he inquired gravely.
'Slight congestion of the right lung not many weeks ago.'
'I must order you to bed immediately. Why have you allowed your symptoms to go so far without ----'
'I have just come down from London,' interrupted Reardon.
'Tut, tut, tut! To bed this moment, my dear sir! There is inflammation, and ----'
'I can't have a bed in this house; there is no spare room. I must go to the nearest hotel.'
'Positively? Then let me take you. My carriage is at the door.'
'One thing -- I beg you won't tell my wife that this is serious. Wait till she is out of her anxiety about the child.'
'You will need the services of a nurse. A most unfortunate thing that you are obliged to go to the hotel.'
'It can't be helped. If a nurse is necessary, I must engage one.'
He had the strange sensation of knowing that whatever was needful could be paid for; it relieved his mind immensely. To the rich, illness has none of the worst horrors only understood by the poor.
'Don't speak a word more than you can help,' said the doctor as he watched Reardon withdraw.
Amy stood on the lower stairs, and came down as soon as her husband showed himself.
'The doctor is good enough to take me in his carriage,' he whispered. 'It is better that I should go to bed, and get a good night's rest. I wish I could have sat with you, Amy.'
'Is it anything? You look worse than when you came, Edwin.'
'A feverish cold. Don't give it a thought, dearest. Go to Willie. Good-night!'
She threw her arms about him.
'I shall come to see you if you are not able to be here by nine in the morning,' she said, and added the name of the hotel to which he was to go.
At this establishment the doctor was well known. By midnight Reardon lay in a comfortable room, a huge cataplasm fixed upon him, and other needful arrangements made. A waiter had undertaken to visit him at intervals through the night, and the man of medicine promised to return as soon as possible after daybreak.
What sound was that, soft and continuous, remote, now clearer, now confusedly murmuring? He must have slept, but now he lay in sudden perfect consciousness, and that music fell upon his ears. Ah! of course it was the rising tide; he was near the divine sea.
The night-light enabled him to discern the principal objects in the room, and he let his eyes stray idly hither and thither. But this moment of peacefulness was brought to an end by a fit of coughing, and he became troubled, profoundly troubled, in mind. Was his illness really dangerous? He tried to draw a deep breath, but could not. He found that he could only lie on his right side with any ease. And with the effort of turning he exhausted himself; in the course of an hour or two all his strength had left him. Vague fears flitted harassingly through his thoughts. If he had inflammation of the lungs -- that was a disease of which one might die, and speedily. Death? No, no, no; impossible at such a time as this, when Amy, his own dear wife, had come back to him, and had brought him that which would insure their happiness through all the years of a long life.
He was still quite a young man; there must be great reserves of strength in him. And he had the will to live, the prevailing will, the passionate all-conquering desire of happiness.
How he had alarmed himself! Why, now he was calmer again, and again could listen to the music of the breakers. Not all the folly and baseness that paraded along this strip of the shore could change the sea's eternal melody. In a day or two he would walk on the sands with Amy, somewhere quite out of sight of the repulsive town. But Willie was ill; he had forgotten that. Poor little boy! In future the child should be more to him; though never what the mother was, his own love, won again and for ever.
Again an interval of unconsciousness, brought to an end by that aching in his side. He breathed very quickly; could not help doing so. He had never felt so ill as this, never. Was it not near morning?
Then he dreamt. He was at Patras, was stepping into a boat to be rowed out to the steamer which would bear him away from Greece. A magnificent night, though at the end of December; a sky of deep blue, thick set with stars. No sound but the steady splash of the oars, or perhaps a voice from one of the many vessels that lay anchored in the harbour, each showing its lantern-gleams. The water was as deep a blue as the sky, and sparkled with reflected radiance.
And now he stood on deck in the light of early morning. Southward lay the Ionian Islands; he looked for Ithaca, and grieved that it had been passed in the hours of darkness. But the nearest point of the main shore was a rocky promontory; it reminded him that in these waters was fought the battle of Actium.
The glory vanished. He lay once more a sick man in a hired chamber, longing for the dull English dawn.
At eight o'clock came the doctor. He would allow only a word or two to be uttered, and his visit was brief. Reardon was chiefly anxious to have news of the child, but for this he would have to wait.
At ten Amy entered the bedroom. Reardon could not raise himself, but he stretched out his hand and took hers, and gazed eagerly at her. She must have been weeping, he felt sure of that, and there was an expression on her face such as he had never seen there.
'How is Willie?'
'Better, dear; much better.'
He still searched her face.
'Ought you to leave him?'
'Hush! You mustn't speak.'
Tears broke from her eyes, and Reardon had the conviction that the child was dead.
'The truth, Amy!'
She threw herself on her knees by the bedside, and pressed her wet cheek against his hand.
'I am come to nurse you, dear husband,' she said a moment after, standing up again and kissing his forehead. 'I have only you now.'
His heart sank, and for a moment so great a terror was upon him that he closed his eyes and seemed to pass into utter darkness. But those last words of hers repeated themselves in his mind, and at length they brought a deep solace. Poor little Willie had been the cause of the first coldness between him and Amy; her love for him had given place to a mother's love for the child. Now it would be as in the first days of their marriage; they would again be all in all to each other.
'You oughtn't to have come, feeling so ill,' she said to him. 'You should have let me know, dear.'
He smiled and kissed her hand.
'And you kept the truth from me last night, in kindness.'
She checked herself, knowing that agitation must be harmful to him. She had hoped to conceal the child's death, but the effort was too much for her overstrung nerves. And indeed it was only possible for her to remain an hour or two by this sick-bed, for she was exhausted by her night of watching, and the sudden agony with which it had concluded. Shortly after Amy's departure, a professional nurse came to attend upon what the doctor had privately characterised as a very grave case.
By the evening its gravity was in no respect diminished. The sufferer had ceased to cough and to make restless movements, and had become lethargic; later, he spoke deliriously, or rather muttered, for his words were seldom intelligible. Amy had returned to the room at four o'clock, and remained till far into the night; she was physically exhausted, and could do little but sit in a chair by the bedside and shed silent tears, or gaze at vacancy in the woe of her sudden desolation. Telegrams had been exchanged with her mother, who was to arrive in Brighton to-morrow morning; the child's funeral would probably be on the third day from this.
When she rose to go away for the night, leaving the nurse in attendance, Reardon seemed to lie in a state of unconsciousness, but just as she was turning from the bed, he opened his eyes and pronounced her name.
'I am here, Edwin,' she answered, bending over him.
'Will you let Biffen know?' he said in low but very clear tones.
'That you are ill dear? I will write at once, or telegraph, if you like. What is his address?'
He had closed his eyes again, and there came no reply. Amy repeated her question twice; she was turning from him in hopelessness when his voice became audible.
'I can't remember his new address. I know it, but I can't remember.'
She had to leave him thus.
The next day his breathing was so harassed that he had to be raised against pillows. But throughout the hours of daylight his mind was clear, and from time to time he whispered words of tenderness in reply to Amy's look. He never willingly relinquished her hand, and repeatedly he pressed it against his cheek or lips. Vainly he still endeavoured to recall his friend's address.
'Couldn't Mr Carter discover it for you?' Amy asked.
'Perhaps. You might try.'
She would have suggested applying to Jasper Milvain, but that name must not be mentioned. Whelpdale, also, would perchance know where Biffen lived, but Whelpdale's address he had also forgotten.
At night there were long periods of delirium; not mere confused muttering, but continuous talk which the listeners could follow perfectly.
For the most part the sufferer's mind was occupied with revival of the distress he had undergone whilst making those last efforts to write something worthy of himself. Amy's heart was wrung as she heard him living through that time of supreme misery -- misery which she might have done so much to alleviate, had not selfish fears and irritated pride caused her to draw further and further from him. Hers was the kind of penitence which is forced by sheer stress of circumstances on a nature which resents any form of humiliation; she could not abandon herself to unreserved grief for what she had done or omitted, and the sense of this defect made a great part of her affliction. When her husband lay in mute lethargy, she thought only of her dead child, and mourned the loss; but his delirious utterances constrained her to break from that bittersweet preoccupation, to confuse her mourning with self-reproach and with fears.
Though unconsciously, he was addressing her: 'I can do no more, Amy. My brain seems to be worn out; I can't compose, I can't even think. Look! I have been sitting here for hours, and I have done only that little bit, half a dozen lines. Such poor stuff too! I should burn it, only I can't afford. I must do my regular quantity every day, no matter what it is.'
The nurse, who was present when he talked in this way, looked to Amy for an explanation.
'My husband is an author,' Amy answered. 'Not long ago he was obliged to write when he was ill and ought to have been resting.'
'I always thought it must be hard work writing books,' said the nurse with a shake of her head.
'You don't understand me,' the voice pursued, dreadful as a voice always is when speaking independently of the will. 'You think I am only a poor creature, because I can do nothing better than this. If only I had money enough to rest for a year or two, you should see. Just because I have no money I must sink to this degradation. And I am losing you as well; you don't love me!'
He began to moan in anguish.
But a happy change presently came over his dreaming. He fell into animated description of his experiences in Greece and Italy, and after talking for a long time, he turned his head and said in a perfectly natural tone:
'Amy, do you know that Biffen and I are going to Greece?'
She believed he spoke consciously, and replied:
'You must take me with you, Edwin.'
He paid no attention to this remark, but went on with the same deceptive accent.
'He deserves a holiday after nearly getting burnt to death to save his novel. Imagine the old fellow plunging headlong into the flames to rescue his manuscript! Don't say that authors can't be heroic!'
And he laughed gaily.
Another morning broke. It was possible, said the doctors (a second had been summoned), that a crisis which drew near might bring the favourable turn; but Amy formed her own opinion from the way in which the nurse expressed herself. She felt sure that the gravest fears were entertained. Before noon Reardon awoke from what had seemed natural sleep -- save for the rapid breathing -- and of a sudden recollected the number of the house in Cleveland Street at which Biffen was now living. He uttered it without explanation. Amy at once conjectured his meaning, and as soon as her surmise was confirmed she despatched a telegram to her husband's friend.
That evening, as Amy was on the point of returning to the sick-room after having dined at her friend's house, it was announced that a gentleman named Biffen wished to see her. She found him in the dining-room, and, even amid her distress, it was a satisfaction to her that he presented a far more conventional appearance than in the old days. All the garments he wore, even his hat, gloves, and boots, were new; a surprising state of things, explained by the fact of his commercial brother having sent him a present of ten pounds, a practical expression of sympathy with him in his recent calamity. Biffen could not speak; he looked with alarm at Amy's pallid face. In a few words she told him of Reardon's condition.
'I feared this,' he replied under his breath. 'He was ill when I saw him off at London Bridge. But Willie is better, I trust?'
Amy tried to answer, but tears filled her eyes and her head drooped. Harold was overcome with a sense of fatality; grief and dread held him motionless.
They conversed brokenly for a few minutes, then left the house, Biffen carrying the hand-bag with which he had travelled hither. When they reached the hotel he waited apart until it was ascertained whether he could enter the sick-room. Amy rejoined him and said with a faint smile:
'He is conscious, and was very glad to hear that you had come. But don't let him try to speak much.'
The change that had come over his friend's countenance was to Harold, of course, far more gravely impressive than to those who had watched at the bedside. In the drawn features, large sunken eyes, thin and discoloured lips, it seemed to him that he read too surely the presage of doom. After holding the shrunken hand for a moment he was convulsed with an agonising sob, and had to turn away.
Amy saw that her husband wished to speak to her; she bent over him.
'Ask him to stay, dear. Give him a room in the hotel.'
Biffen sat down by the bedside, and remained for half an hour. His friend inquired whether he had yet heard about the novel; the answer was a shake of the head. When he rose, Reardon signed to him to bend down, and whispered:
'It doesn't matter what happens; she is mine again.'
The next day was very cold, but a blue sky gleamed over land and sea. The drives and promenades were thronged with people in exuberant health and spirits. Biffen regarded this spectacle with resentful scorn; at another time it would have moved him merely to mirth, but not even the sound of the breakers when he had wandered as far as possible from human contact could help him to think with resignation of the injustice which triumphs so flagrantly in the destinies of men. Towards Amy he had no shadow of unkindness; the sight of her in tears had impressed him as profoundly, in another way, as that of his friend's wasted features. She and Reardon were again one, and his love for them both was stronger than any emotion of tenderness he had ever known.
In the afternoon he again sat by the bedside. Every symptom of the sufferer's condition pointed to an approaching end: a face that had grown cadaverous, livid lips, breath drawn in hurrying gasps. Harold despaired of another look of recognition. But as he sat with his forehead resting on his hand Amy touched him; Reardon had turned his face in their direction, and with a conscious gaze.
'I shall never go with you to Greece,' he said distinctly.
There was silence again. Biffen did not move his eyes from the deathly mask; in a minute or two he saw a smile soften its lineaments, and Reardon again spoke:
'How often you and I have quoted it! -- "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our ----"'
The remaining words were indistinguishable, and, as if the effort of utterance had exhausted him, his eyes closed, and he sank into lethargy.
When he came down from his bedroom on the following morning, Biffen was informed that his friend had died between two and three o'clock. At the same time he received a note in which Amy requested him to come and see her late in the afternoon. He spent the day in a long walk along the eastward cliffs; again the sun shone brilliantly, and the sea was flecked with foam upon its changing green and azure. It seemed to him that he had never before known solitude, even through all the years of his lonely and sad existence.
At sunset he obeyed Amy's summons. He found her calm, but with the signs of long weeping.
'At the last moment,' she said, 'he was able to speak to me, and you were mentioned. He wished you to have all that he has left in his room at Islington. When I come back to London, will you take me there and let me see the room just as when he lived in it? Let the people in the house know what has happened, and that I am responsible for whatever will be owing.'
Her resolve to behave composedly gave way as soon as Harold's broken voice had replied. Hysterical sobbing made further speech from her impossible, and Biffen, after holding her hand reverently for a moment, left her alone.
On an evening of early summer, six months after the death of Edwin Reardon, Jasper of the facile pen was bending over his desk, writing rapidly by the warm western light which told that sunset was near. Not far from him sat his younger sister; she was reading, and the book in her hand bore the title, 'Mr Bailey, Grocer.'
'How will this do?' Jasper exclaimed, suddenly throwing down his pen.
And he read aloud a critical notice of the book with which Dora was occupied; a notice of the frankly eulogistic species, beginning with: 'It is seldom nowadays that the luckless reviewer of novels can draw the attention of the public to a new work which is at once powerful and original;' and ending: 'The word is a bold one, but we do not hesitate to pronounce this book a masterpiece.'
'Is that for The Current?' asked Dora, when he had finished.
'No, for The West End. Fadge won't allow anyone but himself to be lauded in that style. I may as well do the notice for The Current now, as I've got my hand in.'
He turned to his desk again, and before daylight failed him had produced a piece of more cautious writing, very favourable on the whole, but with reserves and slight censures. This also he read to Dora.
'You wouldn't suspect they were written by the same man, eh?'
'No. You have changed the style very skilfully.'
'I doubt if they'll be much use. Most people will fling the book down with yawns before they're half through the first volume. If I knew a doctor who had many cases of insomnia in hand, I would recommend "Mr Bailey" to him as a specific.'
'Oh, but it is really clever, Jasper!'
'Not a doubt of it. I half believe what I have written. And if only we could get it mentioned in a leader or two, and so on, old Biffen's fame would be established with the better sort of readers. But he won't sell three hundred copies. I wonder whether Robertson would let me do a notice for his paper?'
'Biffen ought to be grateful to you, if he knew,' said Dora, laughing.
'Yet, now, there are people who would cry out that this kind of thing is disgraceful. It's nothing of the kind. Speaking seriously, we know that a really good book will more likely than not receive fair treatment from two or three reviewers; yes, but also more likely than not it will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week, and won't have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute. The struggle for existence among books is nowadays as severe as among men. If a writer has friends connected with the press,. it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him. What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie? The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to, and it's only by volume of shouting that the ear of the public is held. What use is it to Biffen if his work struggles to slow recognition ten years hence? Besides, as I say, the growing flood of literature swamps everything but works of primary genius. If a clever and conscientious book does not spring to success at once, there's precious small chance that it will survive. Suppose it were possible for me to write a round dozen reviews of this book, in as many different papers, I would do it with satisfaction. Depend upon it, this kind of thing will be done on that scale before long. And it's quite natural. A man's friends must be helped, by whatever means, quocunque modo, as Biffen himself would say.'
'I dare say he doesn't even think of you as a friend now.'
'Very likely not. It's ages since I saw him. But there's much magnanimity in my character, as I have often told you. It delights me to be generous, whenever I can afford it.'
Dusk was gathering about them. As they sat talking, there came a tap at the door, and the summons to enter was obeyed by Mr Whelpdale.
'I was passing,' he said in his respectful voice, 'and couldn't resist the temptation.'
Jasper struck a match and lit the lamp. In this clearer light Whelpdale was exhibited as a young man of greatly improved exterior; he wore a cream-coloured waistcoat, a necktie of subtle hue, and delicate gloves; prosperity breathed from his whole person. It was, in fact, only a moderate prosperity to which he had as yet attained, but the future beckoned to him flatteringly. Early in this year, his enterprise as 'literary adviser' had brought him in contact with a man of some pecuniary resources, who proposed to establish an agency for the convenience of authors who were not skilled in disposing of their productions to the best advantage. Under the name of Fleet & Co., this business was shortly set on foot, and Whelpdale's services were retained on satisfactory terms. The birth of the syndicate system had given new scope to literary agencies, and Mr Fleet was a man of keen eye for commercial opportunities.
'Well, have you read Biffen's book?' asked Jasper.
'Wonderful, isn't it! A work of genius, I am convinced. Ha! you have it there, Miss Dora. But I'm afraid it is hardly for you.'
'And why not, Mr Whelpdale?'
'You should only read of beautiful things, of happy lives. This book must depress you.'
'But why will you imagine me such a feeble-minded person?' asked Dora. 'You have so often spoken like this. I have really no ambition to be a doll of such superfine wax.'
The habitual flatterer looked deeply concerned.
'Pray forgive me!' he murmured humbly, leaning forwards towards the girl with eyes which deprecated her displeasure. 'I am very far indeed from attributing weakness to you. It was only the natural, unreflecting impulse; one finds it so difficult to associate you, even as merely a reader, with such squalid scenes. The ignobly decent, as poor Biffen calls it, is so very far from that sphere in which you are naturally at home.'
There was some slight affectation in his language, but the tone attested sincere feeling. Jasper was watching him with half an eye, and glancing occasionally at Dora.
'No doubt,' said the latter, 'it's my story in The English Girl that inclines you to think me a goody-goody sort of young woman.'
'So far from that, Miss Dora, I was only waiting for an opportunity to tell you how exceedingly delighted I have been with the last two weeks' instalments. In all seriousness, I consider that story of yours the best thing of the kind that ever came under my notice. You seem to me to have discovered a new genre; such writing as this has surely never been offered to girls, and all the readers of the paper must be immensely grateful to you. I run eagerly to buy the paper each week; I assure you I do. The stationer thinks I purchase it for a sister, I suppose. But each section of the story seems to be better than the last. Mark the prophecy which I now make: when this tale is published in a volume its success will be great. You will be recognised, Miss Dora, as the new writer for modern English girls.'
The subject of this panegyric coloured a little and laughed. Unmistakably she was pleased.
'Look here, Whelpdale,' said Jasper, 'I can't have this; Dora's conceit, please to remember, is, to begin with, only a little less than my own, and you will make her unendurable. Her tale is well enough in its way, but then its way is a very humble one.'
'I deny it!' cried the other, excitedly. 'How can it be called a humble line of work to provide reading, which is at once intellectual and moving and exquisitely pure, for the most important part of the population -- the educated and refined young people who are just passing from girlhood to womanhood?'
'The most important fiddlestick!'
'You are grossly irreverent, my dear Milvain. I cannot appeal to your sister, for she's too modest to rate her own sex at its true value, but the vast majority of thoughtful men would support me. You yourself do, though you affect this profane way of speaking. And we know,' he looked at Dora, 'that he wouldn't talk like this if Miss Yule were present.'
Jasper changed the topic of conversation, and presently Whelpdale was able to talk with more calmness. The young man, since his association with Fleet & Co., had become fertile in suggestions of literary enterprise, and at present he was occupied with a project of special hopefulness.
'I want to find a capitalist,' he said, 'who will get possession of that paper Chat, and transform it according to an idea I have in my head. The thing is doing very indifferently, but I am convinced it might be made splendid property, with a few changes in the way of conducting it.'
'The paper is rubbish,' remarked Jasper, 'and the kind of rubbish -- oddly enough -- which doesn't attract people.'
'Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. I have talked to the people about it again and again, but I can't get them to believe what I say. Now just listen to my notion. In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat I should call it Chit-Chat!'
Jasper exploded with mirth.
'That's brilliant!' he cried. 'A stroke of genius!'
'Are you serious? Or are you making fun of me? I believe it is a stroke of genius. Chat doesn't attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America. I know I am right; laugh as you will.'
'On the same principle,' cried Jasper, 'if The Tatler were changed to Tittle-Tattle, its circulation would be trebled.'
Whelpdale smote his knee in delight.
'An admirable idea! Many a true word uttered in joke, and this is an instance! Tittle- Tattle -- a magnificent title; the very thing to catch the multitude.'
Dora was joining in the merriment, and for a minute or two nothing but bursts of laughter could be heard.
'Now do let me go on,' implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. 'That's only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this: -- I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.'
'But you are joking, Mr Whelpdale!' exclaimed Dora.
'No, I am perfectly serious. Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on 'buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information -- bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can't sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.'
Jasper had begun to listen seriously.
'There's something in this, Whelpdale,' he remarked.
'Ha! I have caught you?' cried the other delightedly. 'Of course there's something in it?'
'But ----' began Dora, and checked herself.
'You were going to say ----' Whelpdale bent towards her with deference.
'Surely these poor, silly people oughtn't to be encouraged in their weakness.'
Whelpdale's countenance fell. He looked ashamed of himself. But Jasper came speedily to the rescue.
'That's twaddle, Dora. Fools will be fools to the world's end. Answer a fool according to his folly; supply a simpleton with the reading he craves, if it will put money in your pocket. You have discouraged poor Whelpdale in one of the most notable projects of modern times.'
'I shall think no more of it,' said Whelpdale, gravely. 'You are right, Miss Dora.'
Again Jasper burst into merriment. His sister reddened, and looked uncomfortable. She began to speak timidly:
'You said this was for reading in trains and 'buses?'
Whelpdale caught at hope.
'Yes. And really, you know, it may be better at such times to read chit-chat than to be altogether vacant, or to talk unprofitably. I am not sure; I bow to your opinion unreservedly.'
'So long as they only read the paper at such times,' said Dora, still hesitating. 'One knows by experience that one really can't fix one's attention in travelling; even an article in a newspaper is often too long.'
'Exactly! And if you find it so, what must be the case with the mass of untaught people, the quarter-educated? It might encourage in some of them a taste for reading -- don't you think?'
'It might,' assented Dora, musingly. 'And in that case you would be doing good!'
They smiled joyfully at each other. Then Whelpdale turned to Jasper:
'You are convinced that there is something in this?'
'Seriously, I think there is. It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item -- we won't call it article. For instance, you might display on a placard: "What the Queen eats!" or "How Gladstone's collars are made!" -- things of that kind.'
'To be sure, to be sure. And then, you know,' added Whelpdale, glancing anxiously at Dora, 'when people had been attracted by these devices, they would find a few things that were really profitable. We would give nicely written little accounts of exemplary careers, of heroic deeds, and so on. Of course nothing whatever that could be really demoralising -- cela va sans dire. Well, what I was going to say was this: would you come with me to the office of Chat, and have a talk with my friend Lake, the sub-editor? I know your time is very valuable, but then you're often running into the Will-o'-the-Wisp, and Chat is just upstairs, you know.'
'What use should I be?'
'Oh, all the use in the world. Lake would pay most respectful attention to your opinion, though he thinks so little of mine. You are a man of note, I am nobody. I feel convinced that you could persuade the Chat people to adopt my idea, and they might be willing to give me a contingent share of contingent profits, if I had really shown them the way to a good thing.'
Jasper promised to think the matter over. Whilst their talk still ran on this subject, a packet that had come by post was brought into the room. Opening it, Milvain exclaimed:
'Ha! this is lucky. There's something here that may interest you, Whelpdale.'
'Yes. A paper I have written for The Wayside.' He looked at Dora, who smiled. 'How do you like the title? -- "The Novels of Edwin Reardon!"'
'You don't say so!' cried the other. 'What a good-hearted fellow you are, Milvain! Now that's really a kind thing to have done. By Jove! I must shake hands with you; I must indeed! Poor Reardon! Poor old fellow!'
His eyes gleamed with moisture. Dora, observing this, looked at him so gently and sweetly that it was perhaps well he did not meet her eyes; the experience would have been altogether too much for him.
'It has been written for three months,' said Jasper, 'but we have held it over for a practical reason. When I was engaged upon it, I went to see Mortimer, and asked him if there was any chance of a new edition of Reardon's books. He had no idea the poor fellow was dead, and the news seemed really to affect him. He promised to consider whether it would be worth while trying a new issue, and before long I heard from him that he would bring out the two best books with a decent cover and so on, provided I could get my article on Reardon into one of the monthlies. This was soon settled. The editor of The Wayside answered at once, when I wrote to him, that he should be very glad to print what I proposed, as he had a real respect for Reardon. Next month the books will be out -- "Neutral Ground," and "Hubert Reed." Mortimer said he was sure these were the only ones that would pay for themselves. But we shall see. He may alter his opinion when my article has been read.'
'Read it to us now, Jasper, will you?' asked Dora.
The request was supported by Whelpdale, and Jasper needed no pressing. He seated himself so that the lamplight fell upon the pages, and read the article through. It was an excellent piece of writing (see The Wayside, June 1884), and in places touched with true emotion. Any intelligent reader would divine that the author had been personally acquainted with the man of whom he wrote, though the fact was nowhere stated. The praise was not exaggerated, yet all the best points of Reardon's work were admirably brought out. One who knew Jasper might reasonably have doubted, before reading this, whether he was capable of so worthily appreciating the nobler man.
'I never understood Reardon so well before,' declared Whelpdale, at the close. 'This is a good thing well done. It's something to be proud of, Miss Dora.'
'Yes, I feel that it is,' she replied.
'Mrs Reardon ought to be very grateful to you, Milvain. By-the-by, do you ever see her?'
'I have met her only once since his death -- by chance.'
'Of course she will marry again. I wonder who'll be the fortunate man?'
'Fortunate, do you think?' asked Dora quietly, without looking at him.
'Oh, I spoke rather cynically, I'm afraid,' Whelpdale hastened to reply. 'I was thinking of her money. Indeed, I knew Mrs Reardon only very slightly.'
'I don't think you need regret it,' Dora remarked.
'Oh, well, come, come!' put in her brother. 'We know very well that there was little enough blame on her side.'
'There was great blame!' Dora exclaimed. 'She behaved shamefully! I wouldn't speak to her; I wouldn't sit down in her company!'
'Bosh! What do you know about it? Wait till you are married to a man like Reardon, and reduced to utter penury.'
'Whoever my husband was, I would stand by him, if I starved to death.'
'If he ill-used you?'
'I am not talking of such cases. Mrs Reardon had never anything of the kind to fear. It was impossible for a man such as her husband to behave harshly. Her conduct was cowardly, faithless, unwomanly!'
'Trust one woman for thinking the worst of another,' observed Jasper with something like a sneer.
Dora gave him a look of strong disapproval; one might have suspected that brother and sister had before this fallen into disagreement on the delicate topic. Whelpdale felt obliged to interpose, and had of course no choice but to support the girl.
'I can only say,' he remarked with a smile, 'that Miss Dora takes a very noble point of view. One feels that a wife ought to be staunch. But it's so very unsafe to discuss matters in which one cannot know all the facts.'
'We know quite enough of the facts,' said Dora, with delightful pertinacity.
'Indeed, perhaps we do,' assented her slave. Then, turning to her brother, 'Well, once more I congratulate you. I shall talk of your article incessantly, as soon as it appears. And I shall pester every one of my acquaintances to buy Reardon's books -- though it's no use to him, poor fellow. Still, he would have died more contentedly if he could have foreseen this. By-the-by, Biffen will be profoundly grateful to you, I'm sure.'
'I'm doing what I can for him, too. Run your eye over these slips.'
Whelpdale exhausted himself in terms of satisfaction.
'You deserve to get on, my dear fellow. In a few years you will be the Aristarchus of our literary world.'
When the visitor rose to depart, Jasper said he would walk a short distance with him. As soon as they had left the house, the future Aristarchus made a confidential communication.
'It may interest you to know that my sister Maud is shortly to be married.'
'Indeed! May I ask to whom?'
'A man you don't know. His name is Dolomore -- a fellow in society.'
'Rich, then, I hope?'
'Tolerably well-to-do. I dare say he has three or four thousand a year!'
'Gracious heavens! Why, that's magnificent.'
But Whelpdale did not look quite so much satisfaction as his words expressed.
'Is it to be soon?' he inquired.
'At the end of the season. Make no difference to Dora and me, of course.'
'Oh? Really? No difference at all? You will let me come and see you -- both -- just in the old way, Milvain?'
'Why the deuce shouldn't you?'
'To be sure, to be sure. By Jove! I really don't know how I should get on if I couldn't look in of an evening now and then. I have got so much into the habit of it. And -- I'm a lonely beggar, you know. I don't go into society, and really ----'
He broke off, and Jasper began to speak of other things.
When Milvain re-entered the house, Dora had gone to her own sitting-room. It was not quite ten o'clock. Taking one set of the proofs of his 'Reardon' article, he put it into a large envelope; then he wrote a short letter, which began 'Dear Mrs Reardon,' and ended 'Very sincerely yours,' the communication itself being as follows:
'I venture to send you the proofs of a paper which is to appear in next month's Wayside, in the hope that it may seem to you not badly done, and that the reading of it may give you pleasure. If anything occurs to you which you would like me to add, or if you desire any omission, will you do me the kindness to let me know of it as soon as possible, and your suggestion shall at once be adopted. I am informed that the new edition of "On Neutral Ground" and "Hubert Reed" will be ready next month. Need I say how glad I am that my friend's work is not to be forgotten?'
This note he also put into the envelope, which he made ready for posting. Then he sat for a long time in profound thought.
Shortly after eleven his door opened, and Maud came in. She had been dining at Mrs Lane's. Her attire was still simple, but of quality which would have signified recklessness, but for the outlook whereof Jasper spoke to Whelpdale. The girl looked very beautiful. There was a flush of health and happiness on her cheek, and when she spoke it was in a voice that rang quite differently from her tones of a year ago; the pride which was natural to her had now a firm support; she moved and uttered herself in queenly fashion.
'Has anyone been?' she asked.
'Oh! I wanted to ask you, Jasper: do you think it wise to let him come quite so often?'
'There's a difficulty, you see. I can hardly tell him to sheer off. And he's really a decent fellow.'
'That may be. But -- I think it's rather unwise. Things are changed. In a few months, Dora will be a good deal at my house, and will see all sorts of people.'
'Yes; but what if they are the kind of people she doesn't care anything about? You must remember, old girl, that her tastes are quite different from yours. I say nothing, but -- perhaps it's as well they should be.'
'You say nothing, but you add an insult,' returned Maud, with a smile of superb disregard. 'We won't reopen the question.'
'Oh dear no! And, by-the-by, I have a letter from Dolomore. It came just after you left.'
'He is quite willing to settle upon you a third of his income from the collieries; he tells me it will represent between seven and eight hundred a year. I think it rather little, you know; but I congratulate myself on having got this out of him.'
'Don't speak in that unpleasant way! It was only your abruptness that made any kind of difficulty.'
'I have my own opinion on that point, and I shall beg leave to keep it. Probably he will think me still more abrupt when I request, as I am now going to do, an interview with his solicitors.'
'Is that allowable?' asked Maud, anxiously. 'Can you do that with any decency?'
'If not, then I must do it with indecency. You will have the goodness to remember that if I don't look after your interests, no one else will. It's perhaps fortunate for you that I have a good deal of the man of business about me. Dolomore thought I was a dreamy, literary fellow. I don't say that he isn't entirely honest, but he shows something of a disposition to play the autocrat, and I by no means intend to let him. If you had a father, Dolomore would have to submit his affairs to examination. I stand to you in loco parentis, and I shall bate no jot of my rights.'
'But you can't say that his behaviour hasn't been perfectly straightforward.'
'I don't wish to. I think, on the whole, he has behaved more honourably than was to be expected of a man of his kind. But he must treat me with respect. My position in the world is greatly superior to his. And, by the gods! I will be treated respectfully! It wouldn't be amiss, Maud, if you just gave him a hint to that effect.'
'All I have to say is, Jasper, don't do me an irreparable injury. You might, without meaning it.'
'No fear whatever of it. I can behave as a gentleman, and I only expect Dolomore to do the same.'
Their conversation lasted for a long time, and when he was again left alone Jasper again fell into a mood of thoughtfulness.
By a late post on the following day he received this letter:
'DEAR MR MILVAIN, -- I have received the proofs, and have just read them; I hasten to thank you with all my heart. No suggestion of mine could possibly improve this article; it seems to me perfect in taste, in style, in matter. No one but you could have written this, for no one else understood Edwin so well, or had given such thought to his work. If he could but have known that such justice would be done to his memory! But he died believing that already he was utterly forgotten, that his books would never again be publicly spoken of. This was a cruel fate. I have shed tears over what you have written, but they were not only tears of bitterness; it cannot but be a consolation to me to think that, when the magazine appears, so many people will talk of Edwin and his books. I am deeply grateful to Mr Mortimer for having undertaken to republish those two novels; if you have an opportunity, will you do me the great kindness to thank him on my behalf? At the same time, I must remember that it was you who first spoke to him on this subject. You say that it gladdens you to think Edwin will not be forgotten, and I am very sure that the friendly office you have so admirably performed will in itself reward you more than any poor expression of gratitude from me. I write hurriedly, anxious to let you hear as soon as possible.
'Believe me, dear Mr Milvain,
Marian was at work as usual in the Reading-room. She did her best, during the hours spent here, to convert herself into the literary machine which it was her hope would some day be invented for construction in a less sensitive material than human tissue. Her eyes seldom strayed beyond the limits of the desk; and if she had occasion to rise and go to the reference shelves, she looked at no one on the way. Yet she herself was occasionally an object of interested regard. Several readers were acquainted with the chief facts of her position; they knew that her father was now incapable of work, and was waiting till his diseased eyes should be ready for the operator; it was surmised, moreover, that a good deal depended upon the girl's literary exertions. Mr Quarmby and his gossips naturally took the darkest view of things; they were convinced that Alfred Yule could never recover his sight, and they had a dolorous satisfaction in relating the story of Marian's legacy. Of her relations with Jasper Milvain none of these persons had heard; Yule had never spoken of that matter to any one of his friends.
Jasper had to look in this morning for a hurried consultation of certain encyclopædic volumes, and it chanced that Marian was standing before the shelves to which his business led him. He saw her from a little distance, and paused; it seemed as if he would turn back; for a moment he wore a look of doubt and worry. But after all he proceeded. At the sound of his 'Good-morning,' Marian started -- she was standing with an open book in hand -- and looked up with a gleam of joy on her face.
'I wanted to see you to-day,' she said, subduing her voice to the tone of ordinary conversation. 'I should have come this evening.'
'You wouldn't have found me at home. From five to seven I shall be frantically busy, and then I have to rush off to dine with some people.'
'I couldn't see you before five?'
'Is it something important?'
'Yes, it is.'
'I tell you what. If you could meet me at Gloucester Gate at four, then I shall be glad of half an hour in the park. But I mustn't talk now; I'm driven to my wits' end. Gloucester Gate, at four sharp. I don't think it'll rain.'
He dragged out a tome of the 'Britannica.' Marian nodded, and returned to her seat.
At the appointed hour she was waiting near the entrance of Regent's Park which Jasper had mentioned. Not long ago there had fallen a light shower, but the sky was clear again. At five minutes past four she still waited, and had begun to fear that the passing rain might have led Jasper to think she would not come. Another five minutes, and from a hansom that rattled hither at full speed, the familiar figure alighted.
'Do forgive me!' he exclaimed. 'I couldn't possibly get here before. Let us go to the right.'
They betook themselves to that tree-shadowed strip of the park which skirts the canal.
'I'm so afraid that you haven't really time,' said Marian, who was chilled and confused by this show of hurry. She regretted having made the appointment; it would have been much better to postpone what she had to say until Jasper was at leisure. Yet nowadays the hours of leisure seemed to come so rarely.
'If I get home at five, it'll be all right,' he replied. 'What have you to tell me, Marian?'
'We have heard about the money, at last.'
'Oh?' He avoided looking at her. 'And what's the upshot?'
'I shall have nearly fifteen hundred pounds.'
'So much as that? Well, that's better than nothing, isn't it?'
'Very much better.'
They walked on in silence. Marian stole a glance at her companion.
'I should have thought it a great deal,' she said presently, 'before I had begun to think of thousands.'
'Fifteen hundred. Well, it means fifty pounds a year, I suppose.'
He chewed the end of his moustache.
'Let us sit down on this bench. Fifteen hundred -- h'm! And nothing more is to be hoped for?'
'Nothing. I should have thought men would wish to pay their debts, even after they had been bankrupt; but they tell us we can't expect anything more from these people.'
'You are thinking of Walter Scott, and that kind of thing' -- Jasper laughed. 'Oh, that's quite unbusinesslike; it would be setting a pernicious example nowadays. Well, and what's to be done?'
Marian had no answer for such a question. The tone of it was a new stab to her heart, which had suffered so many during the past half-year.
'Now, I'll ask you frankly,' Jasper went on, 'and I know you will reply in the same spirit: would it be wise for us to marry on this money?'
'On this money?'
She looked into his face with painful earnestness.
'You mean,' he said, 'that it can't be spared for that purpose?'
What she really meant was uncertain even to herself. She had wished to hear how Jasper would receive the news, and thereby to direct her own course. Had he welcomed it as offering a possibility of their marriage, that would have gladdened her, though it would then have been necessary to show him all the difficulties by which she was beset; for some time they had not spoken of her father's position, and Jasper seemed willing to forget all about that complication of their troubles. But marriage did not occur to him, and he was evidently quite prepared to hear that she could no longer regard this money as her own to be freely disposed of. This was on one side a relief but on the other it confirmed her fears. She would rather have heard him plead with her to neglect her parents for the sake of being his wife. Love excuses everything, and his selfishness would have been easily lost sight of in the assurance that he still desired her.
'You say,' she replied, with bent head, 'that it would bring us fifty pounds a year. If another fifty were added to that, my father and mother would be supported in case the worst comes. I might earn fifty pounds.'
'You wish me to understand, Marian, that I mustn't expect that you will bring me anything when we are married.'
His tone was that of acquiescence; not by any means of displeasure. He spoke as if desirous of saying for her something she found a difficulty in saying for herself.
'Jasper, it is so hard for me! So hard for me! How could I help remembering what you told me when I promised to be your wife?'
'I spoke the truth rather brutally,' he replied, in a kind voice. 'Let all that be unsaid, forgotten. We are in quite a different position now. Be open with me, Marian; surely you can trust my common sense and good feeling. Put aside all thought of things I have said, and don't be restrained by any fear lest you should seem to me unwomanly -- you can't be that. What is your own wish? What do you really wish to do, now that there is no uncertainty calling for postponements?'
Marian raised her eyes, and was about to speak as she regarded him; but with the first accent her look fell.
'I wish to be your wife.'
He waited, thinking and struggling with himself.
'Yet you feel that it would be heartless to take and use this money for our own purposes?'
'What is to become of my parents, Jasper?'
'But then you admit that the fifteen hundred pounds won't support them. You talk of earning fifty pounds a year for them.'
'Need I cease to write, dear, if we were married? Wouldn't you let me help them?'
'But, my dear girl, you are taking for granted that we shall have enough for ourselves.'
'I didn't mean at once,' she explained hurriedly. 'In a short time -- in a year. You are getting on so well. You will soon have a sufficient income, I am sure.'
'Let us walk as far as the next seat. Don't speak. I have something to think about.'
Moving on beside him, she slipped her hand softly within his arm; but Jasper did not put the arm into position to support hers, and her hand fell again, dropped suddenly. They reached another bench, and again became seated.
'It comes to this, Marian,' he said, with portentous gravity. 'Support you, I could -- I have little doubt of that. Maud is provided for, and Dora can make a living for herself. I could support you and leave you free to give your parents whatever you can earn by your own work. But ----'
He paused significantly. It was his wish that Marian should supply the consequence, but she did not speak.
'Very well,' he exclaimed. 'Then when are we to be married?'
The tone of resignation was too marked. Jasper was not good as a comedian; he lacked subtlety.
'We must wait,' fell from Marian's lips, in the whisper of despair.
'Wait? But how long?' he inquired, dispassionately.
'Do you wish to be freed from your engagement, Jasper?'
He was not strong enough to reply with a plain 'Yes,' and so have done with his perplexities. He feared the girl's face, and he feared his own subsequent emotions.
'Don't talk in that way, Marian. The question is simply this: Are we to wait a year, or are we to wait five years? In a year's time, I shall probably be able to have a small house somewhere out in the suburbs. If we are married then, I shall be happy enough with so good a wife, but my career will take a different shape. I shall just throw overboard certain of my ambitions, and work steadily on at earning a livelihood. If we wait five years, I may perhaps have obtained an editorship, and in that case I should of course have all sorts of better things to offer you.'
'But, dear, why shouldn't you get an editorship all the same if you are married?'
'I have explained to you several times that success of that kind is not compatible with a small house in the suburbs and all the ties of a narrow income. As a bachelor, I can go about freely, make acquaintances, dine at people's houses, perhaps entertain a useful friend now and then -- and so on. It is not merit that succeeds in my line; it is merit plus opportunity. Marrying now, I cut myself off from opportunity, that's all.'
She kept silence.
'Decide my fate for me, Marian,' he pursued, magnanimously. 'Let us make up our minds and do what we decide to do. Indeed, it doesn't concern me so much as yourself. Are you content to lead a simple, unambitious life? Or should you prefer your husband to be a man of some distinction?'
'I know so well what your own wish is. But to wait for years -- you will cease to love me, and will only think of me as a hindrance in your way.'
'Well now, when I said five years, of course I took a round number. Three -- two might make all the difference to me.'
'Let it be just as you wish. I can bear anything rather than lose your love.'
'You feel, then, that it will decidedly be wise not to marry whilst we are still so poor?'
'Yes; whatever you are convinced of is right.'
He again rose, and looked at his watch.
'Jasper, you don't think that I have behaved selfishly in wishing to let my father have the money?'
'I should have been greatly surprised if you hadn't wished it. I certainly can't imagine you saying: "Oh, let them do as best they can!" That would have been selfish with a vengeance.'
'Now you are speaking kindly! Must you go, Jasper?'
'I must indeed. Two hours' work I am bound to get before seven o'clock.'
'And I have been making it harder for you, by disturbing your mind.'
'No, no; it's all right now. I shall go at it with all the more energy, now we have come to a decision.'
'Dora has asked me to go to Kew on Sunday. Shall you be able to come, dear?'
'By Jove, no! I have three engagements on Sunday afternoon. I'll try and keep the Sunday after; I will indeed.'
'What are the engagements?' she asked timidly.
As they walked back towards Gloucester Gate, he answered her question, showing how unpardonable it would be to neglect the people concerned. Then they parted, Jasper going off at a smart pace homewards.
Marian turned down Park Street, and proceeded for some distance along Camden Road. The house in which she and her parents now lived was not quite so far away as St Paul's Crescent; they rented four rooms, one of which had to serve both as Alfred Yule's sitting-room and for the gatherings of the family at meals. Mrs Yule generally sat in the kitchen, and Marian used her bedroom as a study. About half the collection of books had been sold; those that remained were still a respectable library, almost covering the walls of the room where their disconsolate possessor passed his mournful days.
He could read for a few hours a day, but only large type, and fear of consequences kept him well within the limit of such indulgence laid down by his advisers. Though he inwardly spoke as if his case were hopeless, Yule was very far from having resigned himself to this conviction; indeed, the prospect of spending his latter years in darkness and idleness was too dreadful to him to be accepted so long as a glimmer of hope remained. He saw no reason why the customary operation should not restore him to his old pursuits, and he would have borne it ill if his wife or daughter had ever ceased to oppose the despair which it pleased him to affect.
On the whole, he was noticeably patient. At the time of their removal to these lodgings, seeing that Marian prepared herself to share the change as a matter of course, he let her do as she would without comment; nor had he since spoken to her on the subject which had proved so dangerous. Confidence between them there was none; Yule addressed his daughter in a grave, cold, civil tone, and Marian replied gently, but without tenderness. For Mrs Yule the disaster to the family was distinctly a gain; she could not but mourn her husband's affliction, yet he no longer visited her with the fury or contemptuous impatience of former days. Doubtless the fact of needing so much tendance had its softening influence on the man; he could not turn brutally upon his wife when every hour of the day afforded him some proof of her absolute devotion. Of course his open-air exercise was still unhindered, and in this season of the returning sun he walked a great deal, decidedly to the advantage of his general health -- which again must have been a source of benefit to his temper. Of evenings, Marian sometimes read to him. He never requested this, but he did not reject the kindness.
This afternoon Marian found her father examining a volume of prints which had been lent him by Mr Quarmby. The table was laid for dinner (owing to Marian's frequent absence at the Museum, no change had been made in the order of meals), and Yule sat by the window, his book propped on a second chair. A whiteness in his eyes showed how the disease was progressing, but his face had a more wholesome colour than a year ago.
'Mr Hinks and Mr Gorbutt inquired very kindly after you to-day,' said the girl, as she seated herself.
'Oh, is Hinks out again?'
'Yes, but he looks very ill.'
They conversed of such matters until Mrs Yule -- now her own servant -- brought in the dinner. After the meal, Marian was in her bedroom for about an hour; then she went to her father, who sat in idleness, smoking.
'What is your mother doing?' he asked, as she entered.
'I had perhaps better say' -- he spoke rather stiffly, and with averted face -- 'that I make no exclusive claim to the use of this room. As I can no longer pretend to study, it would be idle to keep up the show of privacy that mustn't be disturbed. Perhaps you will mention to your mother that she is quite at liberty to sit here whenever she chooses.'
It was characteristic of him that he should wish to deliver this permission by proxy. But Marian understood how much was implied in such an announcement.
'I will tell mother,' she said. 'But at this moment I wished to speak to you privately. How would you advise me to invest my money?'
Yule looked surprised, and answered with cold dignity.
'It is strange that you should put such a question to me. I should have supposed your interests were in the hands of -- of some competent person.'
'This will be my private affair, father. I wish to get as high a rate of interest as I safely can.'
'I really must decline to advise, or interfere in any way. But, as you have introduced this subject, I may as well put a question which is connected with it. Could you give me any idea as to how long you are likely to remain with us?'
'At least a year,' was the answer, 'and very likely much longer.'
'Am I to understand, then, that your marriage is indefinitely postponed?'
'And will you tell me why?'
'I can only say that it has seemed better -- to both of us.'
Yule detected the sorrowful emotion she was endeavouring to suppress. His conception of Milvain's character made it easy for him to form a just surmise as to the reasons for this postponement; he was gratified to think that Marian might learn how rightly he had judged her wooer, and an involuntary pity for the girl did not prevent his hoping that the detestable alliance was doomed. With difficulty he refrained from smiling.
'I will make no comment on that,' he remarked, with a certain emphasis. 'But do you imply that this investment of which you speak is to be solely for your own advantage?'
'For mine, and for yours and mother's.'
There was a silence of a minute or two. As yet it had not been necessary to take any steps for raising money, but a few months more would see the family without resources, save those provided by Marian, who, without discussion, had been simply setting aside what she received for her work.
'You must be well aware,' said Yule at length, 'that I cannot consent to benefit by any such offer. When it is necessary, I shall borrow on the security of ----'
'Why should you do that, father?' Marian interrupted. 'My money is yours. If you refuse it as a gift, then why may not I lend to you as well as a stranger? Repay me when your eyes are restored. For the present, all our anxieties are at an end. We can live very well until you are able to write again.'
For his sake she put it in his way. Supposing him never able to earn anything, then indeed would come a time of hardship; but she could not contemplate that. The worst would only befall them in case she was forsaken by Jasper, and if that happened all else would be of little account.
'This has come upon me as a surprise,' said Yule, in his most reserved tone. 'I can give no definite reply; I must think of it.'
'Should you like me to ask mother to bring her sewing here now?' asked Marian, rising.
'Yes, you may do so.'
In this way the awkwardness of the situation was overcome, and when Marian next had occasion to speak of money matters no serious objection was offered to her proposal.
Dora Milvain of course learnt what had come to pass; to anticipate criticism, her brother imparted to her the decision at which Marian and he had arrived. She reflected with an air of discontent.
'So you are quite satisfied,' was her question at length, 'that Marian should toil to support her parents as well as herself?'
'Can I help it?'
'I shall think very ill of you if you don't marry her in a year at latest.'
'I tell you, Marian has made a deliberate choice. She understands me perfectly, and is quite satisfied with my projects. You will have the kindness, Dora, not to disturb her faith in me.'
'I agree to that; and in return I shall let you know when she begins to suffer from hunger. It won't be very long till then, you may be sure. How do you suppose three people are going to live on a hundred a year? And it's very doubtful indeed whether Marian can earn as much as fifty pounds. Never mind; I shall let you know when she is beginning to starve, and doubtless that will amuse you.'
At the end of July Maud was married. Between Mr Dolomore and Jasper existed no superfluous kindness, each resenting the other's self-sufficiency; but Jasper, when once satisfied of his proposed brother-in-law's straightforwardness, was careful not to give offence to a man who might some day serve him. Provided this marriage resulted in moderate happiness to Maud, it was undoubtedly a magnificent stroke of luck. Mrs Lane, the lady who has so often been casually mentioned, took upon herself those offices in connection with the ceremony which the bride's mother is wont to perform; at her house was held the wedding-breakfast, and such other absurdities of usage as recommend themselves to Society. Dora of course played the part of a bridesmaid, and Jasper went through his duties with the suave seriousness of a man who has convinced himself that he cannot afford to despise anything that the world sanctions.
About the same time occurred another event which was to have more importance for this aspiring little family than could as yet be foreseen. Whelpdale's noteworthy idea triumphed; the weekly paper called Chat was thoroughly transformed, and appeared as Chit-Chat. From the first number, the success of the enterprise was beyond doubt; in a month's time all England was ringing with the fame of this noble new development of journalism; the proprietor saw his way to a solid fortune, and other men who had money to embark began to scheme imitative publications. It was clear that the quarter-educated would soon be abundantly provided with literature to their taste.
Whelpdale's exultation was unbounded, but in the fifth week of the life of Chit-Chat something happened which threatened to overturn his sober reason. Jasper was walking along the Strand one afternoon, when he saw his ingenious friend approaching him in a manner scarcely to be accounted for, unless Whelpdale's abstemiousness had for once given way before convivial invitation. The young man's hat was on the back of his head, and his coat flew wildly as he rushed forwards with perspiring face and glaring eyes. He would have passed without observing Jasper, had not the latter called to him; then he turned round, laughed insanely, grasped his acquaintance by the wrists, and drew him aside into a court.
'What do you think?' he panted. 'What do you think has happened?'
'Not what one would suppose, I hope. You seem to have gone mad.'
'I've got Lake's place on Chit-Chat!' cried the other hoarsely. 'Two hundred and fifty a year! Lake and the editor quarrelled -- pummelled each other -- neither know nor care what it was about. My fortune's made!'
'You're a modest man,' remarked Jasper, smiling.
'Certainly I am. I have always admitted it. But remember that there's my connection with Fleet as well; no need to give that up. Presently I shall be making a clear six hundred, my dear sir! A clear six hundred, if a penny!'
'Satisfactory, so far.'
'But you must remember that I'm not a big gun, like you! Why, my dear Milvain, a year ago I should have thought an income of two hundred a glorious competence. I don't aim at such things as are fit for you. You won't be content till you have thousands; of course I know that. But I'm a humble fellow. Yet no; by Jingo, I'm not! In one way I'm not -- I must confess it.'
'In what instance are you arrogant?'
'I can't tell you -- not yet; this is neither time nor place. I say, when will you dine with me? I shall give a dinner to half a dozen of my acquaintances somewhere or other. Poor old Biffen must come. When can you dine?'
'Give me a week's notice, and I'll fit it in.'
That dinner came duly off. On the day that followed, Jasper and Dora left town for their holiday; they went to the Channel Islands, and spent more than half of the three weeks they had allowed themselves in Sark. Passing over from Guernsey to that island, they were amused to see a copy of Chit-Chat in the hands of an obese and well-dressed man.
'Is he one of the quarter-educated?' asked Dora, laughing.
'Not in Whelpdale's sense of the word. But, strictly speaking, no doubt he is. The quarter-educated constitute a very large class indeed; how large, the huge success of that paper is demonstrating. I'll write to Whelpdale, and let him know that his benefaction has extended even to Sark.'
This letter was written, and in a few days there came a reply.
'Why, the fellow has written to you as well!' exclaimed Jasper, taking up a second letter; both were on the table of their sitting-room when they came to their lodgings for lunch. 'That's his hand.'
'It looks like it.'
Dora hummed an air as she regarded the envelope, then she took it away with her to her room upstairs.
'What had he to say?' Jasper inquired, when she came down again and seated herself at the table.
'Oh, a friendly letter. What does he say to you?'
Dora had never looked so animated and fresh of colour since leaving London; her brother remarked this, and was glad to think that the air of the Channel should be doing her so much good. He read Whelpdale's letter aloud; it was facetious, but oddly respectful.
'The reverence that fellow has for me is astonishing,' he observed with a laugh. 'The queer thing is, it increases the better he knows me.'
Dora laughed for five minutes.
'Oh, what a splendid epigram!' she exclaimed. 'It is indeed a queer thing, Jasper! Did you mean that to be a good joke, or was it better still by coming out unintentionally?'
'You are in remarkable spirits, old girl. By-the-by, would you mind letting me see that letter of yours?'
He held out his hand.
'I left it upstairs,' Dora replied carelessly.
'Rather presumptuous in him, it seems to me.'
'Oh, he writes quite as respectfully to me as he does to you,' she returned, with a peculiar smile.
'But what business has he to write at all? It's confounded impertinence, now I come to think of it. I shall give him a hint to remember his position.'
Dora could not be quite sure whether he spoke seriously or not. As both of them had begun to eat with an excellent appetite, a few moments were allowed to pass before the girl again spoke.
'His position is as good as ours,' she said at length.
'As good as ours? The "sub." of a paltry rag like Chit-Chat, and assistant to a literary agency!'
'He makes considerably more money than we do.'
'Money! What's money?'
Dora was again mirthful.
'Oh, of course money is nothing! We write for honour and glory. Don't forget to insist on that when you reprove Mr Whelpdale; no doubt it will impress him.'
Late in the evening of that day, when the brother and sister had strolled by moonlight up to the windmill which occupies the highest point of Sark, and as they stood looking upon the pale expanse of sea, dotted with the gleam of light-houses near and far, Dora broke the silence to say quietly:
'I may as well tell you that Mr Whelpdale wants to know if I will marry him.'
'The deuce he does!' cried Jasper, with a start. 'If I didn't half suspect something of that kind! What astounding impudence!'
'You seriously think so?'
'Well, don't you? You hardly know him, to begin with. And then -- oh, confound it!'
'Very well, I'll tell him that his impudence astonishes me.'
'Certainly. Of course in civil terms. But don't let this make any difference between you and him. Just pretend to know nothing about it; no harm is done.'
'You are speaking in earnest?'
'Quite. He has written in a very proper way, and there's no reason whatever to disturb our friendliness with him. I have a right to give directions in a matter like this, and you'll please to obey them.'
Before going to bed Dora wrote a letter to Mr Whelpdale, not, indeed, accepting his offer forthwith, but conveying to him with much gracefulness an unmistakable encouragement to persevere. This was posted on the morrow, and its writer continued to benefit most remarkably by the sun and breezes and rock-scrambling of Sark.
Soon after their return to London, Dora had the satisfaction 6f paying the first visit to her sister at the Dolomores' house in Ovington Square. Maud was established in the midst of luxuries, and talked with laughing scorn of the days when she inhabited Grub Street; her literary tastes were henceforth to serve as merely a note of distinction, an added grace which made evident her superiority to the well-attired and smooth-tongued people among whom she was content to shine. On the one hand, she had contact with the world of fashionable literature, on the other with that of fashionable ignorance. Mrs Lane's house was a meeting-point of the two spheres.
'I shan't be there very often,' remarked Jasper, as Dora and he discussed their sister's magnificence. 'That's all very well in its way, but I aim at something higher.'
'So do I,' Dora replied.
'I'm very glad to hear that. I confess it seemed to me that you were rather too cordial with Whelpdale yesterday.'
'One must behave civilly. Mr Whelpdale quite understands me.'
'You are sure of that? He didn't seem quite so gloomy as he ought to have been.'
'The success of Chit-Chat keeps him in good spirits.'
It was perhaps a week after this that Mrs Dolomore came quite unexpectedly to the house by Regent's Park, as early as eleven o'clock in the morning. She had a long talk in private with Dora. Jasper was not at home; when he returned towards evening, Dora came to his room with a countenance which disconcerted him.
'Is it true,' she asked abruptly, standing before him with her hands strained together, 'that you have been representing yourself as no longer engaged to Marian?'
'Who has told you so?'
'That doesn't matter. I have heard it, and I want to know from you that it is false.'
Jasper thrust his hands into his pockets and walked apart.
'I can take no notice,' he said with indifference, 'of anonymous gossip.'
'Well, then, I will tell you how I have heard. Maud came this morning, and told me that Mrs Betterton had been asking her about it. Mrs Betterton had heard from Mrs Lane.'
'From Mrs Lane? And from whom did she hear, pray?'
'That I don't know. Is it true or not?'
'I have never told anyone that my engagement was at an end,' replied Jasper, deliberately.
The girl met his eyes.
'Then I was right,' she said. 'Of course I told Maud that it was impossible to believe this for a moment. But how has it come to be said?'
'You might as well ask me how any lie gets into circulation among people of that sort. I have told you the truth, and there's an end of it.'
Dora lingered for a while, but left the room without saying anything more.
She sat up late, mostly engaged in thinking, though at times an open book was in her hand. It was nearly half-past twelve when a very light rap at the door caused her to start. She called, and Jasper came in.
'Why are you still up?' he asked, avoiding her look as he moved forward and took a leaning attitude behind an easy-chair.
'Oh, I don't know. Do you want anything?'
There was a pause; then Jasper said in an unsteady voice:
'I am not given to lying, Dora, and I feel confoundedly uncomfortable about what I said to you early this evening. I didn't lie in the ordinary sense; it's true enough that I have never told anyone that my engagement was at an end. But I have acted as if it were, and it's better I should tell you.'
His sister gazed at him with indignation.
'You have acted as if you were free?'
'Yes. I have proposed to Miss Rupert. How Mrs Lane and that lot have come to know anything about this I don't understand. I am not aware of any connecting link between them and the Ruperts, or the Barlows either. Perhaps there are none; most likely the rumour has no foundation in their knowledge. Still, it is better that I should have told you. Miss Rupert has never heard that I was engaged, nor have her friends the Barlows -- at least I don't see how they could have done. She may have told Mrs Barlow of my proposal -- probably would; and this may somehow have got round to those other people. But Maud didn't make any mention of Miss Rupert, did she?'
Dora replied with a cold negative.
'Well, there's the state of things. It isn't pleasant, but that's what I have done.'
'Do you mean that Miss Rupert has accepted you?'
'No. I wrote to her. She answered that she was going to Germany for a few weeks, and that I should have her reply whilst she was away. I am waiting.'
'But what name is to be given to behaviour such as this?'
'Listen: didn't you know perfectly well that this must be the end of it?'
'Do you suppose I thought you utterly shameless and cruel beyond words?'
'I suppose I am both. It was a moment of desperate temptation, though. I had dined at the Ruperts' -- you remember -- and it seemed to me there was no mistaking the girl's manner.'
'Don't call her a girl!' broke in Dora, scornfully. 'You say she is several years older than yourself.'
'Well, at all events, she's intellectual, and very rich. I yielded to the temptation.'
'And deserted Marian just when she has most need of help and consolation? It's frightful!'
Jasper moved to another chair and sat down. He was much perturbed.
'Look here, Dora, I regret it; I do, indeed. And, what's more, if that woman refuses me -- as it's more than likely she will -- I will go to Marian and ask her to marry me at once. I promise that.'
His sister made a movement of contemptuous impatience.
'And if the woman doesn't refuse you?'
'Then I can't help it. But there's one thing more I will say. Whether I marry Marian or Miss Rupert, I sacrifice my strongest feelings -- in the one case to a sense of duty, in the other to worldly advantage. I was an idiot to write that letter, for I knew at the time that there was a woman who is far more to me than Miss Rupert and all her money -- a woman I might, perhaps, marry. Don't ask any questions; I shall not answer them. As I have said so much, I wished you to understand my position fully. You know the promise I have made. Don't say anything to Marian; if I am left free I shall marry her as soon as possible.'
And so he left the room.
For a fortnight and more he remained in uncertainty. His life was very uncomfortable, for Dora would only speak to him when necessity compelled her; and there were two meetings with Marian, at which he had to act his part as well as he could. At length came the expected letter. Very nicely expressed, very friendly, very complimentary, but -- a refusal.
He handed it to Dora across the breakfast-table, saying with a pinched smile:
'Now you can look cheerful again. I am doomed.'
Milvain's skilful efforts notwithstanding, 'Mr Bailey, Grocer,' had no success. By two publishers the book had been declined; the firm which brought it out offered the author half profits and fifteen pounds on account, greatly to Harold Biffen's satisfaction. But reviewers in general were either angry or coldly contemptuous. 'Let Mr Biffen bear in mind,' said one of these sages, 'that a novelist's first duty is to tell a story.' 'Mr Biffen,' wrote another, 'seems not to understand that a work of art must before everything else afford amusement.' 'A pretentious book of the genre ennuyant,' was the brief comment of a Society journal. A weekly of high standing began its short notice in a rage: 'Here is another of those intolerable productions for which we are indebted to the spirit of grovelling realism. This author, let it be said, is never offensive, but then one must go on to describe his work by a succession of negatives; it is never interesting, never profitable, never ----' and the rest. The eulogy in The West End had a few timid echoes. That in The Current would have secured more imitators, but unfortunately it appeared when most of the reviewing had already been done. And, as Jasper truly said, only a concurrence of powerful testimonials could have compelled any number of people to affect an interest in this book. 'The first duty of a novelist is to tell a story:' the perpetual repetition of this phrase is a warning to all men who propose drawing from the life. Biffen only offered a slice of biography, and it was found to lack flavour.
He wrote to Mrs Reardon: 'I cannot thank you enough for this very kind letter about my book; I value it more than I should the praises of all the reviewers in existence. You have understood my aim. Few people will do that, and very few indeed could express it with such clear conciseness.'
If Amy had but contented herself with a civil acknowledgment of the volumes he sent her! She thought it a kindness to write to him so appreciatively, to exaggerate her approval. The poor fellow was so lonely. Yes, but his loneliness only became intolerable when a beautiful woman had smiled upon him, and so forced him to dream perpetually of that supreme joy of life which to him was forbidden.
It was a fatal day, that on which Amy put herself under his guidance to visit Reardon's poor room at Islington. In the old times, Harold had been wont to regard his friend's wife as the perfect woman; seldom in his life had he enjoyed female society, and when he first met Amy it was years since he had spoken with any woman above the rank of a lodging-house keeper or a needle-plier. Her beauty seemed to him of a very high order, and her mental endowments filled him with an exquisite delight, not to be appreciated by men who have never been in his position. When the rupture came between Amy and her husband, Harold could not believe that she was in any way to blame; held to Reardon by strong friendship, he yet accused him of injustice to Amy. And what he saw of her at Brighton confirmed him in this judgment. When he accompanied her to Manville Street, he allowed her, of course, to remain alone in the room where Reardon had lived; but Amy presently summoned him, and asked him questions. Every tear she shed watered a growth of passionate tenderness in the solitary man's heart. Parting from her at length, he went to hide his face in darkness and think of her -- think of her.
A fatal day. There was an end of all his peace, all his capacity for labour, his patient endurance of penury. Once, when he was about three-and-twenty, he had been in love with a girl of gentle nature and fair intelligence; on account of his poverty, he could not even hope that his love might be returned, and he went away to bear the misery as best he might. Since then the life he had led precluded the forming of such attachments; it would never have been possible for him to support a wife of however humble origin. At intervals he felt the full weight of his loneliness, but there were happily long periods during which his Greek studies and his efforts in realistic fiction made him indifferent to the curse laid upon him. But after that hour of intimate speech with Amy, he never again knew rest of mind or heart.
Accepting what Reardon had bequeathed to him, he removed the books and furniture to a room in that part of the town which he had found most convenient for his singular tutorial pursuits. The winter did not pass without days of all but starvation, but in March he received his fifteen pounds for 'Mr Bailey,' and this was a fortune, putting him beyond the reach of hunger for full six months. Not long after that he yielded to a temptation that haunted him day and night, and went to call upon Amy, who was still living with her mother at Westbourne Park. When he entered the drawing-room Amy was sitting there alone; she rose with an exclamation of frank pleasure.
'I have often thought of you lately, Mr Biffen. How kind to come and see me!'
He could scarcely speak; her beauty, as she stood before him in the graceful black dress, was anguish to his excited nerves, and her voice was so cruel in its conventional warmth. When he looked at her eyes, he remembered how their brightness had been dimmed with tears, and the sorrow he had shared with her seemed to make him more than an ordinary friend. When he told her of his success with the publishers, she was delighted.
'Oh, when is it to come out? I shall watch the advertisements so anxiously.'
'Will you allow me to send you a copy, Mrs Reardon?'
'Can you really spare one?'
Of the half-dozen he would receive, he scarcely knew how to dispose of three. And Amy expressed her gratitude in the most charming way. She had gained much in point of manner during the past twelve months; her ten thousand pounds inspired her with the confidence necessary to a perfect demeanour. That slight hardness which was wont to be perceptible in her tone had altogether passed away; she seemed to be cultivating flexibility of voice.
Mrs Yule came in, and was all graciousness. Then two callers presented themselves. Biffen's pleasure was at an end as soon as he had to adapt himself to polite dialogue; he escaped as speedily as possible.
He was not the kind of man that deceives himself as to his own aspect in the eyes of others. Be as kind as she might, Amy could not set him strutting Malvolio-wise; she viewed him as a poor devil who often had to pawn his coat -- a man of parts who would never get on in the world -- a friend to be thought of kindly because her dead husband had valued him. Nothing more than that; he understood perfectly the limits of her feeling. But this could not put restraint upon the emotion with which he received any most trifling utterance of kindness from her. He did not think of what was, but of what, under changed circumstances, might be. To encourage such fantasy was the idlest self-torment, but he had gone too far in this form of indulgence. He became the slave of his inflamed imagination.
In that letter with which he replied to her praises of his book, perchance he had allowed himself to speak too much as he thought. He wrote in reckless delight, and did not wait for the prudence of a later hour. When it was past recall, he would gladly have softened many of the expressions the letter contained. 'I value it more than the praises of all the reviewers in existence' -- would Amy be offended at that? 'Yours in gratitude and reverence,' he had signed himself -- the kind of phrase that comes naturally to a passionate man, when he would fain say more than he dares. To what purpose this half-revelation? Unless, indeed, he wished to learn once and for ever, by the gentlest of repulses, that his homage was only welcome so long as it kept well within conventional terms.
He passed a month of distracted idleness, until there came a day when the need to see Amy was so imperative that it mastered every consideration. He donned his best clothes, and about four o'clock presented himself at Mrs Yule's house. By ill luck there happened to be at least half a dozen callers in the drawing-room; the strappado would have been preferable, in his eyes, to such an ordeal as this. Moreover, he was convinced that both Amy and her mother received him with far less cordiality than on the last occasion. He had expected it, but he bit his lips till the blood came. What business had he among people of this kind? No doubt the visitors wondered at his comparative shabbiness, and asked themselves how he ventured to make a call without the regulation chimney-pot hat. It was a wretched and foolish mistake.
Ten minutes. saw him in the street again, vowing that he would never approach Amy more. Not that he found fault with her; the blame was entirely his own.
He lived on the third floor of a house in Goodge Street, above a baker's shop. The bequest of Reardon's furniture was a great advantage to him, as he had only to pay rent for a bare room; the books, too, came as a godsend, since the destruction of his own. He had now only one pupil, and was not exerting himself to find others; his old energy had forsaken him.
For the failure of his book he cared nothing. It was no more than he anticipated. The work was done -- the best he was capable of -- and this satisfied him.
It was doubtful whether he loved Amy, in the true sense of exclusive desire. She represented for him all that is lovely in womanhood; to his starved soul and senses she was woman, the complement of his frustrate being. Circumstance had made her the means of exciting in him that natural force which had hitherto either been dormant or had yielded to the resolute will.
Companionless, inert, he suffered the tortures which are so ludicrous and contemptible to the happily married. Life was barren to him, and would soon grow hateful; only in sleep could he cast off the unchanging thoughts and desires which made all else meaningless. And rightly meaningless: he revolted against the unnatural constraints forbidding him to complete his manhood. By what fatality was he alone of men withheld from the winning of a woman's love?
He could not bear to walk the streets where the faces of beautiful women would encounter him. When he must needs leave the house, he went about in the poor, narrow ways, where only spectacles of coarseness, and want, and toil would be presented to him. Yet even here he was too often reminded that the poverty-stricken of the class to which poverty is natural were not condemned to endure in solitude. Only he who belonged to no class, who was rejected alike by his fellows in privation and by his equals in intellect, must die without having known the touch of a loving woman's hand.
The summer went by, and he was unconscious of its warmth and light. How his days passed he could not have said.
One evening in early autumn, as he stood before the book-stall at the end of Goodge Street, a familiar voice accosted him. It was Whelpdale's. A month or two ago he had stubbornly refused an invitation to dine with Whelpdale and other acquaintances -- you remember what the occasion was -- and since then the prosperous young man had not crossed his path.
'I've something to tell you,' said the assailer, taking hold of his arm. 'I'm in a tremendous state of mind, and want someone to share my delight. You can walk a short way, I hope? Not too busy with some new book?'
Biffen gave no answer, but went whither he was led.
'You arewriting a new book, I suppose? Don't be discouraged, old fellow. "Mr Bailey" will have his day yet; I know men who consider it an undoubted work of genius. What's the next to deal with?'
'I haven't decided yet,' replied Harold, merely to avoid argument. He spoke so seldom that the sound of his own voice was strange to him.
'Thinking over it, I suppose, in your usual solid way. Don't be hurried. But I must tell you of this affair of mine. You know Dora Milvain? I have asked her to marry me, and, by the Powers! she has given me an encouraging answer. Not an actual yes, but encouraging! She's away in the Channel Islands, and I wrote ----'
He talked on for a quarter of an hour. Then, with a sudden movement, the listener freed himself.
'I can't go any farther,' he said hoarsely. 'Good-bye!'
Whelpdale was disconcerted.
'I have been boring you. That's a confounded fault of mine; I know it.'
Biffen had waved his hand, and was gone.
A week or two more would see him at the end of his money. He had no lessons now, and could not write; from his novel nothing was to be expected. He might apply again to his brother, but such dependence was unjust and unworthy. And why should he struggle to preserve a life which had no prospect but of misery?
It was in the hours following his encounter with Whelpdale that he first knew the actual desire of death, the simple longing for extinction. One must go far in suffering before the innate will-to-live is thus truly overcome; weariness of bodily anguish may induce this perversion of the instincts; less often, that despair of suppressed emotion which had fallen upon Harold. Through the night he kept his thoughts fixed on death in its aspect of repose, of eternal oblivion. And herein he had found solace.
The next night it was the same. Moving about among common needs and occupations, he knew not a moment's cessation of heart-ache, but when he lay down in the darkness a hopeful summons whispered to him. Night, which had been the worst season of his pain, had now grown friendly; it came as an anticipation of the sleep that is everlasting.
A few more days, and he was possessed by a calm of spirit such as he had never known. His resolve was taken, not in a moment of supreme conflict, but as the result of a subtle process by which his imagination had become in love with death. Turning from contemplation of life's one rapture, he looked with the same intensity of desire to a state that had neither fear nor hope.
One afternoon he went to the Museum Reading-room, and was busy for a few minutes in consultation of a volume which he took from the shelves of medical literature. On his way homeward he entered two or three chemists' shops. Something of which he had need could be procured only in very small quantities; but repetition of his demand in different places supplied him sufficiently. When he reached his room, he emptied the contents of sundry little bottles into one larger, and put this in his pocket. Then he wrote rather a long letter, addressed to his brother at Liverpool.
It had been a beautiful day, and there wanted still a couple of hours before the warm, golden sunlight would disappear. Harold stood and looked round his room. As always, it presented a neat, orderly aspect, but his eye caught sight of a volume which stood upside down, and this fault -- particularly hateful to a bookish man -- he rectified. He put his blotting-pad square on the table, closed the lid of the inkstand, arranged his pens. Then he took his hat and stick, locked the door behind him, and went downstairs. At the foot he spoke to his landlady, and told her that he should not return that night. As soon as possible after leaving the house he posted his letter.
His direction was westward; walking at a steady, purposeful pace, with cheery countenance and eyes that gave sign of pleasure as often as they turned to the sun-smitten clouds, he struck across Kensington Gardens, and then on towards Fulham, where he crossed the Thames to Putney. The sun was just setting; he paused a few moments on the bridge, watching the river with a quiet smile, and enjoying the splendour of the sky. Up Putney Hill he walked slowly; when he reached the top it was growing dark, but an unwonted effect in the atmosphere caused him to turn and look to the east. An exclamation escaped his lips, for there before him was the new-risen moon, a perfect globe, vast and red. He gazed at it for a long time.
When the daylight had entirely passed, he went forward on to the heath, and rambled, as if idly, to a secluded part, where trees and bushes made a deep shadow under the full moon. It was still quite warm, and scarcely a breath of air moved among the reddening leaves.
Sure at length that he was remote from all observation, he pressed into a little copse, and there reclined on the grass, leaning against the stem of a tree. The moon was now hidden from him, but by looking upward he could see its light upon a long, faint cloud, and the blue of the placid sky. His mood was one of ineffable peace. Only thoughts of beautiful things came into his mind; he had reverted to an earlier period of life, when as yet no mission of literary realism had been imposed upon him, and when his passions were still soothed by natural hope. The memory of his friend Reardon was strongly present with him, but of Amy he thought only as of that star which had just come into his vision above the edge of dark foliage -- beautiful, but infinitely remote.
Recalling Reardon's voice, it brought to him those last words whispered by his dying companion. He remembered them now:
Only when he received Miss Rupert's amiably-worded refusal to become his wife was Jasper aware how firmly he had counted on her accepting him. He told Dora with sincerity that his proposal was a piece of foolishness; so far from having any regard for Miss Rupert, he felt towards her with something of antipathy, and at the same time he was conscious of ardent emotions, if not love, for another woman who would be no bad match even from the commercial point of view. Yet so strong was the effect upon him of contemplating a large fortune, that, in despite of reason and desire, he lived in eager expectation of the word which should make him rich. And for several hours after his disappointment he could not overcome the impression of calamity.
A part of that impression was due to the engagement which he must now fulfil. He had pledged his word to ask Marian to marry him without further delay. To shuffle out of this duty would make him too ignoble even in his own eyes. Its discharge meant, as he had expressed it, that he was 'doomed'; he would deliberately be committing the very error always so flagrant to him in the case of other men who had crippled themselves by early marriage with a penniless woman. But events had enmeshed him; circumstances had proved fatal. Because, in his salad days, he dallied with a girl who had indeed many charms, step by step he had come to the necessity of sacrificing his prospects to that raw attachment. And, to make it more irritating, this happened just when the way began to be much clearer before him.
Unable to think of work, he left the house and wandered gloomily about Regent's Park. For the first time in his recollection the confidence which was wont to inspirit him gave way to an attack of sullen discontent. He felt himself ill-used by destiny, and therefore by Marian, who was fate's instrument. It was not in his nature that this mood should last long, but it revealed to him those darker possibilities which his egoism would develop if it came seriously into conflict with overmastering misfortune. A hope, a craven hope, insinuated itself into the cracks of his infirm resolve. He would not examine it, but conscious of its existence he was able to go home in somewhat better spirits.
He wrote to Marian. If possible she was to meet him at half-past nine next morning at Gloucester Gate. He had reasons for wishing this interview to take place on neutral ground.
Early in the afternoon, when he was trying to do some work, there arrived a letter which he opened with impatient hand; the writing was Mrs Reardon's, and he could not guess what she had to communicate.
'DEAR MR MILVAIN, -- I am distressed beyond measure to read in this morning's newspaper that poor Mr Biffen has put an end to his life. Doubtless you can obtain more details than are given in this bare report of the discovery of his body. Will you let me hear, or come and see me?'
He read and was astonished. Absorbed in his own affairs, he had not opened the newspaper to-day; it lay folded on a chair. Hastily he ran his eye over the columns, and found at length a short paragraph which stated that the body of a man who had evidently committed suicide by taking poison had been found on Putney Heath; that papers in his pockets identified him as one Harold Biffen, lately resident in Goodge Street, Tottenham Court Road; and that an inquest would be held, &C He went to Dora's room, and told her of the event, but without mentioning the letter which had brought it under his notice.
'I suppose there was no alternative between that and starvation. I scarcely thought of Biffen as likely to kill himself. If Reardon had done it, I shouldn't have felt the least surprise.'
'Mr Whelpdale will be bringing us information, no doubt,' said Dora, who, as she spoke, thought more of that gentleman's visit than of the event that was to occasion it.
'Really, one can't grieve. There seemed no possibility of his ever earning enough to live decently upon. But why the deuce did he go all the way out there? Consideration for the people in whose house he lived, I dare say; Biffen had a good deal of native delicacy.'
Dora felt a secret wish that someone else possessed more of that desirable quality.
Leaving her, Jasper made a rapid, though careful, toilet, and was presently on his way to Westbourne Park. It was his hope that he should reach Mrs Yule's house before any ordinary afternoon caller could arrive; and so he did. He had not been here since that evening when he encountered Reardon on the road and heard his reproaches. To his great satisfaction, Amy was alone in the drawing-room; he held her hand a trifle longer than was necessary, and returned more earnestly the look of interest with which she regarded him.
'I was ignorant of this affair when your letter came,' he began, 'and I set out immediately to see you.'
'I hoped you would bring me some news. What can have driven the poor man to such extremity?'
'Poverty, I can only suppose. But I will see Whelpdale. I hadn't come across Biffen for a long time.'
'Was he still so very poor?' asked Amy, compassionately.
'I'm afraid so. His book failed utterly.'
'Oh, if I had imagined him still in such distress, surely I might have done something to help him!' -- So often the regretful remark of one's friends, when one has been permitted to perish.
With Amy's sorrow was mingled a suggestion of tenderness which came of her knowledge that the dead man had worshipped her. Perchance his death was in part attributable to that hopeless love.
'He sent me a copy of his novel,' she said, 'and I saw him once or twice after that. But he was much better dressed than in former days, and I thought ----'
Having this subject to converse upon put the two more quickly at ease than could otherwise have been the case. Jasper was closely observant of the young widow; her finished graces made a strong appeal to his admiration, and even in some degree awed him. He saw that her beauty had matured, and it was more distinctly than ever of the type to which he paid reverence. Amy might take a foremost place among brilliant women. At a dinner-table, in grand toilet, she would be superb; at polite receptions people would whisper: 'Who is that?'
Biffen fell out of the dialogue.
'It grieved me very much,' said Amy, 'to hear of the misfortune that befell my cousin.'
'The legacy affair? Why, yes, it was a pity. Especially now that her father is threatened with blindness.'
'Is it so serious? I heard indirectly that he had something the matter with his eyes, but I didn't know ----'
'They may be able to operate before long, and perhaps it will be successful. But in the meantime Marian has to do his work.'
'This explains the -- the delay?' fell from Amy's lips, as she smiled.
Jasper moved uncomfortably. It was a voluntary gesture.
'The whole situation explains it,' he replied, with some show of impulsiveness. 'I am very much afraid Marian is tied during her father's life.'
'Indeed? But there is her mother.'
'No companion for her father, as I think you know. Even if Mr Yule recovers his sight, it is not at all likely that he will be able to work as before. Our difficulties are so grave that ----'
He paused, and let his hand fail despondently.
'I hope it isn't affecting your work -- your progress?'
'To some extent, necessarily. I have a good deal of will, you remember, and what I have set my mind upon, no doubt, I shall some day achieve. But -- one makes mistakes.'
There was silence.
'The last three years,' he continued, 'have made no slight difference in my position. Recall where I stood when you first knew me. I have done something since then, I think, and by my own steady effort.'
'Indeed, you have.'
'Just now I am in need of a little encouragement. You don't notice any falling off in my work recently?'
'Do you see my things in The Current and so on, generally?'
'I don't think I miss many of your articles. Sometimes I believe I have detected you when there was no signature.'
'And Dora has been doing well. Her story in that girls' paper has attracted attention. It's a great deal to have my mind at rest about both the girls. But I can't pretend to be in very good spirits.' He rose. 'Well, I must try to find out something more about poor Biffen.'
'Oh, you are not going yet, Mr Milvain?'
'Not, assuredly, because I wish to. But I have work to do.' He stepped aside, but came back as if on an impulse. 'May I ask you for your advice in a very delicate matter?'
Amy was a little disturbed, but she collected herself and smiled in a way that reminded Jasper of his walk with her along Gower Street.
'Let me hear what it is.'
He sat down again, and bent forward.
'If Marian insists that it is her duty to remain with her father, am I justified or not in freely consenting to that?'
'I scarcely understand. Has Marian expressed a wish to devote herself in that way?'
'Not distinctly. But I suspect that her conscience points to it. I am in serious doubt. On the one hand,' he explained in a tone of candour, 'who will not blame me if our engagement terminates in circumstances such as these? On the other -- you are aware, by-the-by, that her father objects in the strongest way to this marriage?'
'No, I didn't know that.'
'He will neither see me nor hear of me. Merely because of my connection with Fadge. Think of that poor girl thus situated. And I could so easily put her at rest by renouncing all claim upon her.'
'I surmise that -- that you yourself would also be put at rest by such a decision?'
'Don't look at me with that ironical smile,' he pleaded. 'What you have said is true. And really, why should I not be glad of it? I couldn't go about declaring that I was heartbroken, in any event; I must be content for people to judge me according to their disposition, and judgments are pretty sure to be unfavourable. What can I do? In either case I must to a certain extent be in the wrong. To tell the truth, I was wrong from the first.'
There was a slight movement about Amy's lips as these words were uttered: she kept her eyes down, and waited before replying.
'The case is too delicate, I fear, for my advice.'
'Yes, I feel it; and perhaps I oughtn't to have spoken of it at all. Well, I'll go back to my scribbling. I am so very glad to have seen you again.'
'It was good of you to take the trouble to come -- whilst you have so much on your mind.'
Again Jasper held the white, soft hand for a superfluous moment.
The next morning it was he who had to wait at the rendezvous; he was pacing the pathway at least ten minutes before the appointed time. When Marian joined him, she was panting from a hurried walk, and this affected Jasper disagreeably; he thought of Amy Reardon's air of repose, and how impossible it would be for that refined person to fall into such disorder. He observed, too, with more disgust than usual, the signs in Marian's attire of encroaching poverty -- her unsatisfactory gloves, her mantle out of fashion. Yet for such feelings he reproached himself, and the reproach made him angry.
They walked together in the same direction as when they met here before. Marian could not mistake the air of restless trouble on her companion's smooth countenance. She had divined that there was some grave reason for this summons, and the panting with which she had approached was half caused by the anxious beats of her heart. Jasper's long silence again was ominous. He began abruptly:
'You've heard that Harold Biffen has committed suicide?'
'No!' she replied, looking shocked.
'Poisoned himself. You'll find something about it in today's Telegraph.'
He gave her such details as he had obtained, then added:
'There are two of my companions fallen in the battle. I ought to think myself a lucky fellow, Marian. What?'
'You are better fitted to fight your way, Jasper.'
'More of a brute, you mean.'
'You know very well I don't. You have more energy and more intellect.'
'Well, it remains to be seen how I shall come out when I am weighted with graver cares than I have yet known.'
She looked at him inquiringly, but said nothing.
'I have made up my mind about our affairs,' he went on presently. 'Marian, if ever we are to be married, it must be now.'
The words were so unexpected that they brought a flush to her cheeks and neck.
'Yes. Will you marry me, and let us take our chance?'
Her heart throbbed violently.
'You don't mean at once, Jasper? You would wait until I know what father's fate is to be?'
'Well, now, there's the point. You feel yourself indispensable to your father at present?'
'Not indispensable, but -- wouldn't it seem very unkind? I should be so afraid of the effect upon his health, Jasper. So much depends, we are told, upon his general state of mind and body. It would be dreadful if I were the cause of ----'
She paused, and looked up at him touchingly.
'I understand that. But let us face our position. Suppose the operation is successful; your father will certainly not be able to use his eyes much for a long time, if ever; and perhaps he would miss you as much then as now. Suppose he does not regain his sight; could you then leave him?'
'Dear, I can't feel it would be my duty to renounce you because my father had become blind. And if he can see pretty well, I don't think I need remain with him.'
'Has one thing occurred to you? Will he consent to receive an allowance from a person whose name is Mrs Milvain?'
'I can't be sure,' she replied, much troubled.
'And if he obstinately refuses -- what then? What is before him?'
Marian's head sank, and she stood still.
'Why have you changed your mind so, Jasper?' she inquired at length.
'Because I have decided that the indefinitely long engagement would be unjust to you -- and to myself. Such engagements are always dangerous; sometimes they deprave the character of the man or woman.'
She listened anxiously and reflected.
'Everything,' he went on, 'would be simple enough but for your domestic difficulties. As I have said, there is the very serious doubt whether your father would accept money from you when you are my wife. Then again, shall we be able to afford such an allowance?'
'I thought you felt sure of that?'
'I'm not very sure of anything, to tell the truth. I am harassed. I can't get on with my work.'
'I am very, very sorry.'
'It isn't your fault, Marian, and ---- Well, then, there's only one thing to do. Let us wait, at all events, till your father has undergone the operation. Whichever the result, you say your own position will be the same.'
'Except, Jasper, that if father is helpless, I must find means of assuring his support.'
'In other words, if you can't do that as my wife, you must remain Marian Yule.'
After a silence, Marian regarded him steadily.
'You see only the difficulties in our way,' she said, in a colder voice. 'They are many, I know. Do you think them insurmountable?'
'Upon my word, they almost seem so,' Jasper exclaimed, distractedly.
'They were not so great when we spoke of marriage a few years hence.'
'A few years!' he echoed, in a cheerless voice. 'That is just what I have decided is impossible. Marian, you shall have the plain truth. I can trust your faith, but I can't trust my own. I will marry you now, but -- years hence -- how can I tell what may happen? I don't trust myself.'
'You say you "will" marry me now; that sounds as if you had made up your mind to a sacrifice.'
'I didn't mean that. To face difficulties, yes.'
Whilst they spoke, the sky had grown dark with a heavy cloud, and now spots of rain began to fall. Jasper looked about him in annoyance as he felt the moisture, but Marian did not seem aware of it.
'But shall you face them willingly?'
'I am not a man to repine and grumble. Put up your umbrella, Marian.'
'What do I care for a drop of rain,' she exclaimed with passionate sadness, 'when all my life is at stake! How am I to understand you? Every word you speak seems intended to dishearten me. Do you no longer love me? Why need you conceal it, if that is the truth? Is that what you mean by saying you distrust yourself? If you do so, there must be reason for it in the present. Could I distrust myself? Can I force myself in any manner to believe that I shall ever cease to love you?'
Jasper opened his umbrella.
'We must see each other again, Marian. We can't stand and talk in the rain -- confound it! Cursed climate, where you can never be sure of a clear sky for five minutes!'
'I can't go till you have spoken more plainly, Jasper! How am I to live an hour in such uncertainty as this? Do you love me or not? Do you wish me to be your wife, or are you sacrificing yourself?'
'I do wish it!' Her emotion had an effect upon him, and his voice trembled. 'But I can't answer for myself -- no, not for a year. And how are we to marry now, in face of all these ----'
'What can I do? What can I do?' she sobbed. 'Oh, if I were but heartless to everyone but to you! If I could give you my money, and leave my father and mother to their fate! Perhaps some could do that. There is no natural law that a child should surrender everything for her parents. You know so much more of the world than I do; can't you advise me? Is there no way of providing for my father?'
'Good God! This is frightful, Marian. I can't stand it. Live as you are doing. Let us wait and see.'
'At the cost of losing you?'
'I will be faithful to you!'
'And your voice says you promise it out of pity.'
He had made a pretence of holding his umbrella over her, but Marian turned away and walked to a little distance, and stood beneath the shelter of a great tree, her face averted from him. Moving to follow, he saw that her frame was shaken by soundless sobbing. When his footsteps came close to her, she again looked at him.
'I know now,' she said, 'how foolish it is when they talk of love being unselfish. In what can there be more selfishness? I feel as if I could hold you to your promise at any cost, though you have made me understand that you regard our engagement as your great misfortune. I have felt it for weeks -- oh, for months! But I couldn't say a word that would seem to invite such misery as this. You don't love me, Jasper, and that's an end of everything. I should be shamed if I married you.'
'Whether I love you or not, I feel as if no sacrifice would be too great that would bring you the happiness you deserve.'
'Deserve!' she repeated bitterly. 'Why do I deserve it? Because I long for it with all my heart and soul? There's no such thing as deserving. Happiness or misery come to us by fate.'
'Is it in my power to make you happy?'
'No; because it isn't in your power to call dead love to life again. I think perhaps you never loved me. Jasper, I could give my right hand if you had said you loved me before -- I can't put it into words; it sounds too base, and I don't wish to imply that you behaved basely. But if you had said you loved me before that, I should have it always to remember.'
'You will do me no wrong if you charge me with baseness,' he replied gloomily. 'If I believe anything, I believe that I did love you. But I knew myself and I should never have betrayed what I felt, if for once in my life I could have been honourable.'
The rain pattered on the leaves and the grass, and still the sky darkened.
'This is wretchedness to both of us,' Jasper added. 'Let us part now, Marian. Let me see you again.'
'I can't see you again. What can you say to me more than you have said now? I should feel like a beggar coming to you. I must try and keep some little self-respect, if L am to live at all.'
'Then let me help you to think of me with indifference. Remember me as a man who disregarded priceless love such as yours to go and make himself a proud position among fools and knaves -- indeed that's what it comes to. It is you who reject me, and rightly. One who is so much at the mercy of a vulgar ambition as I am, is no fit husband for you. Soon enough you would thoroughly despise me, and though I should know it was merited, my perverse pride would revolt against it. Many a time I have tried to regard life practically as I am able to do theoretically, but it always ends in hypocrisy. It is men of my kind who succeed; the conscientious, and those who really have a high ideal, either perish or struggle on in neglect.'
Marian had overcome her excess of emotion.
'There is no need to disparage yourself' she said. 'What can be simpler than the truth? You loved me, or thought you did, and now you love me no longer. It is a thing that happens every day, either in man or woman, and all that honour demands is the courage to confess the truth. Why didn't you tell me as soon as you knew that I was burdensome to you?'
'Marian, will you do this? -- will you let our engagement last for another six months, but without our meeting during that time?'
'But to what purpose?'
'Then we would see each other again, and both would be able to speak calmly, and we should both know with certainty what course we ought to pursue.'
'That seems to me childish. It is easy for you to contemplate months of postponement. There must be an end now; I can bear it no longer.'
The rain fell unceasingly, and with it began to mingle an autumnal mist. Jasper delayed a moment, then asked calmly:
'Are you going to the Museum?'
'Go home again for this morning, Marian. You can't work ----'
'I must; and I have no time to lose. Good-bye!'
She gave him her hand. They looked at each other for an instant, then Marian left the shelter of the tree, opened her umbrella, and walked quickly away. Jasper did not watch her; he had the face of a man who is suffering a severe humiliation.
A few hours later he told Dora what had come to pass, and without extenuation of his own conduct. His sister said very little, for she recognised genuine suffering in his tones and aspect. But when it was over, she sat down and wrote to Marian.
'I feel far more disposed to congratulate you than to regret what has happened. Now that there is no necessity for silence, I will tell you something which will help you to see Jasper in his true light. A few weeks ago he actually proposed to a woman for whom he does not pretend to have the slightest affection, but who is very rich, and who seemed likely to be foolish enough to marry him. Yesterday morning he received her final answer -- a refusal. I am not sure that I was right in keeping this a secret from you, but I might have done harm by interfering. You will understand (though surely you need no fresh proof) how utterly unworthy he is of you. You cannot, I am sure you cannot, regard it as a misfortune that all is over between you. Dearest Marian, do not cease to think of me as your friend because my brother has disgraced himself. If you can't see me, at least let us write to each other. You are the only friend I have of my own sex, and I could not bear to lose you.'
And much more of the same tenor.
Several days passed before there came a reply. It was written with undisturbed kindness of feeling, but in few words.
'For the present we cannot see each other, but I am very far from wishing that our friendship should come to an end. I must only ask that you will write to me without the least reference to these troubles; tell me always about yourself, and be sure that you cannot tell me too much. I hope you may soon be able to send me the news which was foreshadowed in our last talk -- though "foreshadowed" is a wrong word to use of coming happiness, isn't it? That paper I sent to Mr Trenchard is accepted, and I shall be glad to have your criticism when it comes out; don't spare my style, which needs a great deal of chastening. I have been thinking: couldn't you use your holiday in Sark for a story? To judge from your letters, you could make an excellent background of word-painting.'
Dora sighed, and shook her little head, and thought of her brother with unspeakable disdain.
When the fitting moment arrived, Alfred Yule underwent an operation for cataract, and it was believed at first that the result would be favourable. This hope had but short duration; though the utmost prudence was exercised, evil symptoms declared themselves, and in a few months' time all prospect of restoring his vision was at an end. Anxiety, and then the fatal assurance, undermined his health; with blindness, there fell upon him the debility of premature old age.
The position of the family was desperate. Marian had suffered much all the winter from attacks of nervous disorder, and by no effort of will could she produce enough literary work to supplement adequately the income derived from her fifteen hundred pounds. In the summer of 1885 things were at the worst; Marian saw no alternative but to draw upon her capital, and so relieve the present at the expense of the future. She had a mournful warning before her eyes in the case of poor Hinks and his wife, who were now kept from the workhouse only by charity. But at this juncture the rescuer appeared. Mr Quarmby and certain of his friends were already making a subscription for the Yules' benefit, when one of their number -- Mr Jedwood, the publisher -- came forward with a proposal which relieved the minds of all concerned. Mr Jedwood had a brother who was the director of a public library in a provincial town, and by this means he was enabled to offer Marian Yule a place as assistant in that institution; she would receive seventy-five pounds a year, and thus, adding her own income, would be able to put her parents beyond the reach of want. The family at once removed from London, and the name of Yule was no longer met with in periodical literature.
By an interesting coincidence, it was on the day of this departure that there appeared a number of The West End in which the place of honour, that of the week's Celebrity, was occupied by Clement Fadge. A coloured portrait of this illustrious man challenged the admiration of all who had literary tastes, and two columns of panegyric recorded his career for the encouragement of aspiring youth. This article, of course unsigned, came from the pen of Jasper Milvain.
It was only by indirect channels that Jasper learnt how Marian and her parents had been provided for. Dora's correspondence with her friend soon languished; in the nature of things this could not but happen; and about the time when Alfred Yule became totally blind the girls ceased to hear anything of each other. An event which came to pass in the spring sorely tempted Dora to write, but out of good feeling she refrained.
For it was then that she at length decided to change her name for that of Whelpdale. Jasper could not quite reconcile himself to this condescension; in various discourses he pointed out to his sister how much higher she might look if she would only have a little patience.
'Whelpdale will never be a man of any note. A good fellow, I admit, but borné in all senses. Let me impress upon you, my dear girl, that I have a future before me, and that there is no reason -- with your charm of person and mind -- why you should not marry brilliantly. Whelpdale can give you a decent home, I admit, but as regards society he will be a drag upon you.'
'It happens, Jasper, that I have promised to marry him,' replied Dora, in a significant tone.
'Well, I regret it, but -- you are of course your own mistress. I shall make no unpleasantness. I don't dislike Whelpdale, and I shall remain on friendly terms with him.'
'That is very kind of you,' said his sister suavely.
Whelpdale was frantic with exultation. When the day of the wedding had been settled, he rushed into Jasper's study and fairly shed tears before he could command his voice.
'There is no mortal on the surface of the globe one-tenth so happy as I am!' he gasped. 'I can't believe it! Why in the name of sense and justice have I been suffered to attain this blessedness? Think of the days when I all but starved in my Albany Street garret, scarcely better off than poor, dear old Biffen! Why should I have come to this, and Biffen have poisoned himself in despair? He was a thousand times a better and cleverer fellow than I. And poor old Reardon, dead in misery! Could I for a moment compare with him?'
'My dear fellow,' said Jasper, calmly, 'compose yourself and be logical. In the first place, success has nothing whatever to do with moral deserts; and then, both Reardon and Biffen were hopelessly unpractical. In such an admirable social order as ours, they were bound to go to the dogs. Let us be sorry for them, but let us recognise causas rerum, as Biffen would have said. You have exercised ingenuity and perseverance; you have your reward.'
'And when I think that I might have married fatally on thirteen or fourteen different occasions. By-the-by, I implore you never to tell Dora those stories about me. I should lose all her respect. Do you remember the girl from Birmingham?' He laughed wildly. 'Heaven be praised that she threw me over! Eternal gratitude to all and sundry of the girls who have plunged me into wretchedness!'
'I admit that you have run the gauntlet, and that you have had marvellous escapes. But be good enough to leave me alone for the present. I must finish this review by midday.'
'Only one word. I don't know how to thank Dora, how to express my infinite sense of her goodness. Will you try to do so for me? You can speak to her with calmness. Will you tell her what I have said to you?'
'Oh, certainly. -- I should recommend a cooling draught of some kind. Look in at a chemist's as you walk on.'
The heavens did not fall before the marriage-day, and the wedded pair betook themselves for a few weeks to the Continent. They had been back again and established in their house at Earl's Court for a month, when one morning about twelve o'clock Jasper dropped in, as though casually. Dora was writing; she had no thought of entirely abandoning literature, and had in hand at present a very pretty tale which would probably appear in The English Girl. Her boudoir, in which she sat, could not well have been daintier and more appropriate to the charming characteristics of its mistress. Mrs Whelpdale affected no literary slovenliness; she was dressed in light colours, and looked so lovely that even Jasper paused on the threshold with a smile of admiration.
'Upon my word,' he exclaimed, 'I am proud of my sisters! What did you think of Maud last night? Wasn't she superb?'
'She certainly did look very well. But I doubt if she's very happy.'
'That is her own look out; I told her plainly enough my opinion of Dolomore. But she was in such a tremendous hurry.'
'You are detestable, Jasper! Is it inconceivable to you that a man or woman should be disinterested when they marry?'
'By no means.'
'Maud didn't marry for money any more than I did.'
'You remember the Northern Farmer: "Doän't thou marry for money, but go where money is." An admirable piece of advice. Well, Maud made a mistake, let us say. Dolomore is a clown, and now she knows it. Why, if she had waited, she might have married one of the leading men of the day. She is fit to be a duchess, as far as appearance goes; but I was never snobbish. I care very little about titles; what I look to is intellectual distinction.'
'Combined with financial success.'
'Why, that is what distinction means.' He looked round the room with a smile. 'You are not uncomfortable here, old girl. I wish mother could have lived till now.'
'I wish it very, very often,' Dora replied in a moved voice.
'We haven't done badly, drawbacks considered. Now, you may speak of money as scornfully as you like; but suppose you had married a man who could only keep you in lodgings! How would life look to you?'
'Who ever disputed the value of money? But there are things one mustn't sacrifice to gain it.'
'I suppose so. Well, I have some news for you, Dora. I am thinking of following your example.'
Dora's face changed to grave anticipation.
'And who is it?'
His sister turned away, with a look of intense annoyance.
'You see, I am disinterested myself,' he went on. 'I might find a wife who had wealth and social standing. But I choose Amy deliberately.'
'An abominable choice!'
'No; an excellent choice. I have never yet met a woman so well fitted to aid me in my career. She has a trifling sum of money, which will be useful for the next year or two ----'
'What has she done with the rest of it, then?'
'Oh, the ten thousand is intact, but it can t be seriously spoken of. It will keep up appearances till I get my editorship and so on. We shall be married early in August, I think. I want to ask you if you will go and see her.'
'On no account! I couldn't be civil to her.'
Jasper's brows blackened.
'This is idiotic prejudice, Dora. I think I have some claim upon you; I have shown some kindness ----'
'You have, and I am not ungrateful. But I dislike Mrs Reardon, and I couldn't bring myself to be friendly with her.'
'You don't know her.'
'Too well. You yourself have taught me to know her. Don't compel me to say what I think of her.'
'She is beautiful, and high-minded, and warm-hearted. I don't know a womanly quality that she doesn't possess. You will offend me most seriously if you speak a word against her.'
'Then I will be silent. But you must never ask me to meet her.'
'Then we shall quarrel. I haven't deserved this, Dora. If you refuse to meet my wife on terms of decent friendliness, there's no more intercourse between your house and mine. You have to choose. Persist in this fatuous obstinacy, and I have done with you!'
'So be it!'
'That is your final answer?'
Dora, who was now as angry as he, gave a short affirmative, and Jasper at once left her.
But it was very unlikely that things should rest at this pass. The brother and sister were bound by a strong mutual affection, and Whelpdale was not long in effecting a compromise.
'My dear wife,' he exclaimed, in despair at the threatened calamity, 'you are right, a thousand times, but it's impossible for you to be on ill terms with Jasper. There's no need for you to see much of Mrs Reardon ----'
'I hate her! She killed her husband; I am sure of it.'
'I mean by her base conduct. She is a cold, cruel, unprincipled creature! Jasper makes himself more than ever contemptible by marrying her.'
All the same, in less than three weeks Mrs Whelpdale had called upon Amy, and the call was returned. The two women were perfectly conscious of reciprocal dislike, but they smothered the feeling beneath conventional suavities. Jasper was not backward in making known his gratitude for Dora's concession, and indeed it became clear to all his intimates that this marriage would be by no means one of mere interest; the man was in love at last, if he had never been before.
Let lapse the ensuing twelve months, and come to an evening at the end of July, 1886. Mr and Mrs Milvain are entertaining a small and select party of friends at dinner. Their house in Bayswater is neither large nor internally magnificent, but it will do very well for the temporary sojourn of a young man of letters who has much greater things in confident expectation, who is a good deal talked of, who can gather clever and worthy people at his table, and whose matchless wife would attract men of taste to a very much poorer abode.
Jasper had changed considerably in appearance since that last holiday that he spent in his mother's house at Finden. At present he would have been taken for five-and-thirty, though only in his twenty-ninth year; his hair was noticeably thinning; his moustache had grown heavier; a wrinkle or two showed beneath his eyes; his voice was softer, yet firmer. It goes without saying that his evening uniform lacked no point of perfection, and somehow it suggested a more elaborate care than that of other men in the room. He laughed frequently, and with a throwing back of the head which seemed to express a spirit of triumph.
Amy looked her years to the full, but her type of beauty, as you know, was independent of youthfulness. That suspicion of masculinity observable in her when she became Reardon's wife impressed one now only as the consummate grace of a perfectly-built woman. You saw that at forty, at fifty, she would be one of the stateliest of dames. When she bent her head towards the person with whom she spoke, it was an act of queenly favour. Her words were uttered with just enough deliberation to give them the value of an opinion; she smiled with a delicious shade of irony; her glance intimated that nothing could be too subtle for her understanding.
The guests numbered six, and no one of them was insignificant. Two of the men were about Jasper's age, and they had already made their mark in literature; the third was a novelist of circulating fame, spirally crescent. The three of the stronger sex were excellent modern types, with sweet lips attuned to epigram, and good broad brows.
The novelist at one point put an interesting question to Amy.
'Is it true that Fadge is leaving The Current?'
'It is rumoured, I believe.'
'Going to one of the quarterlies, they say,' remarked a lady. 'He is getting terribly autocratic. Have you heard the delightful story of his telling Mr Rowland to persevere, as his last work was one of considerable promise?'
Mr Rowland was a man who had made a merited reputation when Fadge was still on the lower rungs of journalism. Amy smiled and told another anecdote of the great editor. Whilst speaking, she caught her husband's eye, and perhaps this was the reason why her story, at the close, seemed rather amiably pointless -- not a common fault when. she narrated.
When the ladies had withdrawn, one of the younger men, in a conversation about a certain magazine, remarked:
'Thomas always maintains that it was killed by that solemn old stager, Alfred Yule. By the way, he is dead himself, I hear.'
Jasper bent forward.
'Alfred Yule is dead?'
'So Jedwood told me this morning. He died in the country somewhere, blind and fallen on evil days, poor old fellow.'
All the guests were ignorant of any tie of kindred between their host and the man spoken of.
'I believe,' said the novelist, 'that he had a clever daughter who used to do all the work he signed. That used to be a current bit of scandal in Fadge's circle.'
'Oh, there was much exaggeration in that,' remarked Jasper, blandly. 'His daughter assisted him, doubtless, but in quite a legitimate way. One used to see her at the Museum.'
The subject was dropped.
An hour and a half later, when the last stranger had taken his leave, Jasper examined two or three letters which had arrived since dinner-time and were lying on the hall table. With one of them open in his hand, he suddenly sprang up the stairs and leaped, rather than stepped, into the drawing-room. Amy was reading an evening paper.
'Look at this!' he cried, holding the letter to her.
It was a communication from the publishers who owned The Current; they stated that the editorship of that review would shortly be resigned by Mr Fadge, and they inquired whether Milvain would feel disposed to assume the vacant chair.
Amy sprang up and threw her arms about her husband's neck, uttering a cry of delight.
'So soon! Oh, this is great! this is glorious!'
'Do you think this would have been offered to me but for the spacious life we have led of late? Never! Was I right in my calculations, Amy?'
'Did I ever doubt it?'
He returned her embrace ardently, and gazed into her eyes with profound tenderness.
'Doesn't the future brighten?'
'It has been very bright to me, Jasper, since I became your wife.'
'And I owe my fortune to you, dear girl. Now the way is smooth!'
They placed themselves on a settee, Jasper with an arm about his wife's waist, as if they were newly plighted lovers. When they had talked for a long time, Milvain said in a changed tone:
'I am told that your uncle is dead.'
He mentioned how the news had reached him.
'I must make inquiries to-morrow. I suppose there will be a notice in The Study and some of the other papers. I hope somebody will make it an opportunity to have a hit at that ruffian Fadge. By-the-by, it doesn't much matter now how you speak of Fadge; but I was a trifle anxious when I heard your story at dinner.'
'Oh, you can afford to be more independent. -- What are you thinking about?'
'Why do you look sad? -- Yes, I know, I know. I'll try to forgive you.'
'I can't help thinking at times of the poor girl, Amy. Life will be easier for her now, with only her mother to support. Someone spoke of her this evening, and repeated Fadge's lie that she used to do all her father's writing.'
'She was capable of doing it. I must seem to you rather a poor-brained woman in comparison. Isn't it true?'
'My dearest, you are a perfect woman, and poor Marian was only a clever school-girl. Do you know, I never could help imagining that she had ink-stains on her fingers. Heaven forbid that I should say it unkindly! It was touching to me at the time, for I knew how fearfully hard she worked.'
'She nearly ruined your life; remember that.'
Jasper was silent.
'You will never confess it, and that is a fault in you.'
'She loved me, Amy.'
'Perhaps! as a school-girl loves. But you never loved her.'
Amy examined his face as he spoke.
'Her image is very faint before me,' Jasper pursued, 'and soon I shall scarcely be able to recall it. Yes, you are right; she nearly ruined me. And in more senses than one. Poverty and struggle, under such circumstances, would have made me a detestable creature. As it is, I am not such a bad fellow, Amy.'
She laughed, and caressed his cheek.
'No, I am far from a bad fellow. I feel kindly to everyone who deserves it. I like to be generous, in word and deed. Trust me, there's many a man who would like to be generous, but is made despicably mean by necessity. What a true sentence that is of Landor's: "It has been repeated often enough that vice leads to misery; will no man declare that misery leads to vice?" I have much of the weakness that might become viciousness, but I am now far from the possibility of being vicious. Of course there are men, like Fadge, who seem only to grow meaner the more prosperous they are; but these are exceptions. Happiness is the nurse of virtue.'
'And independence the root of happiness.'
'True. "The glorious privilege of being independent" -- yes, Burns understood the matter. Go to the piano, dear, and play me something. If I don't mind, I shall fall into Whelpdale's vein, and talk about my "blessedness". Ha! isn't the world a glorious place?'
'For rich people.'
'Yes, for rich people. How I pity the poor devils! -- Play anything. Better still if you will sing, my nightingale!'
So Amy first played and then sang, and Jasper lay back in dreamy bliss.
(Provided by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan,
on 25 October 1997.)
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