George Gissing


AT the doors of the Free Library waited a dozen men and half as 
many women; the lucky ones, by squeezing very close, partly 
sheltered themselves from a cold drizzle; not a word of conversation 
passed among them, and the minutes seemed to drag interminably. 
Then the clock struck, and the doors opened. There was a break-
neck rush down the stairs to the newspaper-room, a scamper for 
the first sight of this or that morning paper. All the women, and a 
few of the men, were genuinely eager to search columns of 
advertisements, on the chance of finding employment; the rest 
came for betting news, or a murder trial, or some such matter of 
popular interest. In a very short time each of the favourite journals 
had its little crowd, waiting with impatience behind the two or 
three persons who managed to read simultaneously. Silent all, amid 
the sound of rustling pages, and of shoes on the bare boards. 
Without roared the torrent of multitudinous traffic.
One of the first to enter was a young man in a hard felt hat and 
fawn coloured overcoat, his chin stubbly with three days' growth, 
his collar betraying a week or more of use, and his finger-nails 
bitten to the quick. He looked ill-fed and anxious; one could imagine 
him a clerk or shopman badly in want of a place. Yet he exhibited 
no great energy in the hunt for likely advertisements. After holding 
the first place for a minute or two, he drew back from the 
newspaper, and stood apart, gazing idly about him. Then, with 
sauntering step, he approached one of the publications which no 
one else cared to examine - the new number of a religious weekly - 
and over this he spent about a quarter of an hour. The retirement 
of a man from the paper next in the row seemed to give him a 
desired opportunity; he stepped into the vacant place, and read for 
another quarter of an hour. And so all through the morning, from 
paper to paper, as his turn came. He read, it appeared, with languid 
interest, often staring vacantly at the windows, often gnawing the 
stumps of his nails, yet never seeming inclined to go away. He had a 
very common face, touched with amiability, suggestive of average 
intelligence; rarely - very rarely - it changed expression, but it 
never betokened a meditative or animated mood. Read he certainly 
did, for his hand turned the leaves; yet it was difficult to credit him 
with either pleasure or purpose in these hours of quasi-intellectual 
At one o'clock he gave signs of weariness, and stood as though 
debating a question with himself; as a result, he left the reading-
room, walked a little way along the street, and entered a coffee 
tavern. A sausage, with bread and butter and a cup of cocoa, made 
his midday meal; he ate with gusto, which perhaps was not 
surprising. As the rain had ceased, he digested his dinner in half an 
hour's ramble about the neighbourhood, smoking the latter half of a 
pipe which had served him after breakfast. Ultimately his steps 
turned again towards the Free Library, and again- he entered; but 
this time he went up to the magazine-room. Here readers were 
supplied with chairs, and sat at tables and just now all but every 
place was occupied. He sauntered along the floor until, unable to do 
better, he took a chair at the spot devoted to an organ of 
vegetarianism. This subject had no interest whatever for him, but 
he opened the periodical and read therein, until a departing 
neighbour enabled him to exchange it for the Westminster Review. 
And thus again, moving at intervals from seat to seat, he passed the 
With the visage and the gait of a somnambulist he at length betook 
himself homeward - that is to say, to a couple of small rooms in an 
unpleasant street near Euston Station. His wife was awaiting him; 
she had tea ready upon the table, and on her face a not unkindly 
look of expectation. The man did not meet her eyes; after throwing 
his hat and coat on to a chair, he sat down with every sign of 
weariness, and waited for questions.
"Nothing?" asked his wife, in a voice which was meant to anticipate 
Percy Dunn - that was the man's name - shook a dreary head.
"Oh, I've written letters, as usual - two or three letters - and called 
at a place or two. No good."
He spoke with eyes shifting about the floor, and hand rubbing his 
stubbly chin.
"Then how do you spend the time - all day?"
"Oh, I loaf about - sit in the reading-room - anything. What's the 
good of coming 'ome. I can't sit here and do nothing."
"Well, come and have your tea and then I'll tell you something."
Dunn glanced quickly at her, a ray of shamefaced hope on his 
countenance. In spite of hard times, these two had not quarrelled, 
and were not weary of each other; which is as much as to say that 
Mrs. Dunn was not quite the ordinary wife of a man in this station. 
Indeed, she looked a pleasant and capable little woman. Her dress, 
though poor enough, had a becoming neatness; she showed very 
dean hands, and knew how to arrange her hair. She had ideas, too, 
on the subject of laying a poor table, so as to make it seem less 
poor, and, in the true sense, altogether homely.
"What is it?" said the husband, trying not to smile.
"Have your tea."
But he could not, until he had heard what there was to be told; so 
Mrs. Dunn, with a jest at his familiar impatience, made known to 
him that she had "gone back to the mantles." Twelve shillings a 
week, the best she could obtain just now, and much better than 
nothing. What choice had she? In two months of undesired leisure, 
Dunn had drawn near to the end of his resources; if he could not 
earn money, she must.
"Oh, be hanged to that!" muttered the young man, keeping his face 
down. "I don't want you to go."
"It's done, so there's no good talking about it. Get your tea."
They had been married three years, and, happily, had no child. 
Dunn was a draper's salesman, generally in good employment, 
though he had changed his shop more often than was desirable. His 
last place he had quitted involuntarily, and under circumstances 
which he did not fully explain to his wife; in fact, he was found 
guilty, on two occasions, of such gross carelessness at the counter, 
that his employers could neither keep him in their service nor 
recommend him to anyone else. Mr. Dunn had grown aweary of 
standing behind a counter; he entertained hopes - the vaguest - of 
entering upon some new career; his health was indifferent, and he 
talked of getting a country place. Or someone might engage him as 
traveller. Or he might hear of something fresh and new. He would 
look about a bit. He had looked about, though not very 
energetically, for the first two or three weeks; then he fell a prey to 
the Free Library.
"Well, see here, Maggie; it's only for a time, you know. I can't allow 
you to go back to work. That won't do at all. I don't believe in 
married women going to work-rooms."
"All right; get your tea."
"Well, but - look here, now. I'm - not going to live on your earnings. 
That's not my sort; I'm not one of that kind. You don't think I am, 
do you?"
"Course I don't, Percy. What's the good of bothering? You'll get a 
place before long."
"Why, I must. How are we to live? Of course I must."
They had furniture of their own, and paid only eight shillings for 
the two rooms; of late, the total of their expenditure had been some 
fifteen shillings a week. Dunn, with no base intention, asked himself 
whether they could live on his wife's wages. Impossible, of course. 
To-morrow he would really "look about" it was high time. 
He ate his meal and enjoyed it. Good-humour shone upon his pasty 
visage. He drew Maggie to him, made her sit upon his knee, and 
talked affectionately.
"You're a good sort, old girl. And I've given you a lot o' worry. And 

"Oh, shut up. What's the odds? I'd just as soon work as not. What's 
the good of sitting at 'ome all day, when it doesn't take me more 
than an hour or two to do all there is to do?"
"But you wouldn't want to go to the mantles if I earned good money 
"I don't know. Why not? Unless, of course, we had a 'ouse of our 
"And so we will!" exclaimed Dunn fervently, a sanguine flush upon 
his cheeks.
"A nice little 'ouse somewhere out north. There's splendid little 
'ouses for little enough; it's only making the start. I ought to have 
saved more. It's all my fault - don't say it isn't. I go buying this and 
that, and wasting coin every sort of way. There! we'll have a little 
'ouse of our own."
He began to discuss localities, rents, the price of furniture; all with a 
dreamy satisfaction, as if the means were already in hand. His wife, 
though of more practical temper, found the dream pleasant, and 
encouraged it. And, just as they had decided upon a Brussels carpet 
for the best room, someone knocked at their door.
"All right; it's only me," said a boyish voice.
Willie Smith, Mrs. Dunn's brother, showed himself; a lad of eighteen, 
comely, like his sister, and very good-natured. Young as he was, 
Willie had for several years supported himself.
"Thought I'd just look in and tell you. Got another rise. It's a pound 
a week now! - and there's something else."
He spoke of family affairs, of certain changes which would affect his 
own position and make it necessary for him to find a new abode.
"Why, you'd better come and live with us," said Mrs. Dunn. "There's 
a room to let upstairs, if it would suit you. Things would cost you 
less than anywhere else."
The lad stood dubious. Hitherto under the eyes of relatives, he had 
looked forward with no little satisfaction to a life of independence 
in manly lodgings; his sister's suggestion disturbed him; he wished 
to put it aside, but knew not how to do so without giving offence. 
Mrs. Dunn again urged the advantages of his taking a room in this 
house; - she could look after his comfort, and (as she said to herself) 
after his welfare in other respects. Being of a pliable disposition, 
Willie swallowed his private objections to the scheme, and all three 
agreed that nothing could be better.
So, a week later, the family had three members. Mrs. Dunn and her 
brother were absent at work all day; the husband, as usual, betook 
himself each morning to St. Martin's Lane, ostensibly to search the 
newspapers for a likely advertisement, but in reality to indulge the 
form of idleness which had taken an irresistible hold upon him; to 
moon for hours over columns and pages of print, stupefying himself 
as with a drug which lulled his anxieties, obscured his conscience.
The presence of a third person at home made it easier for him to 
avoid talking of his perilous situation, but in a fortnight's time, 
when he had nothing whatever to live upon save his wife's 
earnings, he was driven by very, shame to a new confession of 
hopelessness. It was after Willie had left them for the night.
"How are you managing?" he asked with a timid glance at his wife.
"Oh, it's all right; we can just get along."
"Yes, but how?"
He insisted, and Maggie with some confusion made known to him at 
length that her brother had saved a few pounds, which he was 
willing to lend them until things improved.
"He just lets me have a shilling or two as I want it. He don't mind; 
he's a good boy."
"Look here, Maggie. I can't stand this," muttered Dunn, genuinely 
moved. "It's a mean thing to do."
"But you'll pay it all back. And what else can we do?"

"I tell you what," he exclaimed, "if I don't earn something to-
morrow I won't come 'ome at all. You can get along well enough 
without me. I won't come 'ome till I've got something in my pocket 
- I swear I won't."
His voice and aspect alarmed the impressible wife. Of late she had 
observed a growing strangeness in him, a lethargy which held him 
mute, and seemed to weigh upon his limbs; he sometimes looked at 
her with disquieting eyes, a dull stare as though his wits were 
leaving him. Hearing him speak thus, she had visions of tragic 
calamity; he would drown himself, or commit ghastly suicide on the 
railway line. With all the animation of which she was capable, 
Maggie exhorted him to be more hopeful. When things were at the 
worst they always mended - and so on. Dunn allowed her to soothe 
him; he promised to come home as usual, even though with empty 
pockets; but his resolve to make some kind of effort expressed itself 
with vehemence. He would be idle no longer, even if he had to go 
and work at the docks or sweep a crossing.
And the next day he did, in fact, take a practical step. He applied at 
a city warehouse for an itinerant agency, and, after depositing a 
small sum (obtained from Willie Smith), was allowed to take 
samples of certain goods, for sale on commission. His wife lamented, 
but Dunn was heroically determined. One whole day he spent in 
house-to-house visitation of a likely suburb, and his earnings at the 
close amounted to fourpence. Well, it was a beginning: fourpence is 
better than nothing. On the second morning he set forth again with 
aching limbs and a sinking heart. As it happened, his route led him 
past the doors of a newly-opened Free Library. It was like the sight 
of a public-house to the habitual drinker; he quivered under the 
temptation, and whipped himself forward; but his weary legs were 
traitorous. The reading-room, with its smell of new print, once more 
drugged 'his conscience, and there he sat until nightfall.
After this he yielded utterly to his vice. Pretending at home that no 
discouragement should daunt him, that he would work on until his 
agency became remunerative, he stood every morning before the 
familiar doors in St. Martin's Lane, and entered with the first rush. 
But now he did not even glance at the advertisements. First of all he 
made for one or other of the journals little in demand, and read it 
through at his ease. On certain mornings of the week the illustrated 
papers were his leading attraction; he darted upon the London 
News, the Graphic, and the rest of them with breathless excitement; 
and having satisfied his curiosity, could relinquish them to others 
for the next six days, until, mere tattered, grimy rags, they gave 
place to the new issue. Knowing the moment when the evening 
papers would arrive, he stood ready to pounce upon this or that 
before anyone could anticipate him. No matter the subject, its 
display in fresh-smelling print sufficed to interest him, or, at all 
events, to hold his eyes; there he stood, spellbound, unresisting, 
oblivious of everything save his gratification in the mere act of 
Upstairs, in the magazine-room, he read through everything that 
did not utterly defy his intelligence, and at the end of an article in 
one of the grave monthlies he would sigh with satisfaction, 
persuading himself that he had enriched his mind. For thus had he 
now begun to justify himself: on his walk home, when conscience 
tried to speak, he replied that he had been "studying," making up 
for the defects of his education, preparing for "something better," 
when fortune should put it in his way. He wished he could tell his 
wife and get her to approve, but he feared Maggie would not 
understand him.
Before long it was necessary to avow that the agency had proved a 
"It won't do," he said gravely. "I'm wearing out shoe leather. I must 
have a try at something else. I've got an idea, but I won't say 
anything about it just yet."
And he nodded several times with owlish impressiveness.
Mrs. Dunn and her young brother held private talk. 

"I don't know what to make of Percy," she said anxiously. "He 
doesn't seem quite right in his 'ead - what do you think?"
"He's queer sometimes I, must say."
"And I am so ashamed at taking your money - that I am. It isn't 
right - that it isn't."
"Oh, don't you make any fuss," answered the good-natured lad. "I've 
got no use for it; I can't see you hard up, can I?"
Their earnings, put together, amply sufficed for the week's 
expenses; and, but for her uneasiness on Dunn's account, Maggie 
would have found nothing to complain of. It relieved her from an 
increasing apprehension when, one evening, her husband came 
home more like his old self, and announced a new project. Having 
heard by chance that an old acquaintance of his, a fellow-shopman, 
had started a drapery business at Croydon, he had been over there 
to have a talk, and not without result. The Croydon man had no 
particular need of an assistant, but was willing to take Dunn in that 
capacity, if board and lodging were all he asked.
"And I'm going," declared the out-of-work. "It's better than 'anging 
about doing nothing. I shall come 'ome on Saturday night and go 
back on the Monday morning. If the business does well, he'll be 
able to pay me before long; and if he can't I shall have time to look 
out for another place."
Maggie agreed that this sort of engagement was preferable to none 
at all, but it would be necessary for Dunn to have a new outfit of 
clothes. He had grown so shabby as to be quite unpresentable 
behind a counter. Maggie and her brother managed to find the 
money for this outlay, and in a day or two Dunn took leave of them. 
He possessed not a farthing of his own; the cost of his travelling 
backwards and forwards each week, with other small expenditures 
not to be avoided, would, of course, be borne by the faithful two 
who worked to keep up the home.
"I shall pay you back every penny, boy," said Dunn to his brother-
in-law in an outburst of sanguine gratitude. "Mind you keep an 
account. Make him keep an account of every penny we have from 
him, Maggie. There's better days coming don't you fear!"
In the course of the first week he wrote an encouraging letter, and 
late on Saturday night he was welcomed back. Undoubtedly he 
looked better already; his report of the Croydon business was very 
hopeful. What the shop wanted was just the energy and experience 
which he brought to it; why, Tomlinson admitted that the takings 
had already increased. Though it had never been his speciality, 
Dunn flattered himself that he knew better than most men how to 
dress a window, and Tomlinson, already convinced of this, promised 
him the control of that department. Of course in such a little shop 
one couldn't do much in the way of artistic exhibition, but one had 
only to watch the passers-by to see how great an improvement had 
already been effected. Thus, while eating the tasty supper provided 
for him, Dunn talked till long after midnight. Next morning, to 
complete the enjoyment of his holiday, he bought three Sunday 
newspapers, and abandoned himself to luxurious reading.
On his next return home, he did not report the serious differences 
which had arisen between him and his employer in the course of 
the week; all went well, he declared - save that the diet might be 
improved; in that respect Tomlinson and his wife were rather mean. 
As a matter of fact, Dunn already felt his duties so burdensome that 
he had begun to grumble at not being paid, a piece of ingratitude 
which Mrs. Tomlinson not unnaturally resented. "Words," had 
passed between the two; moreover, there had been "words" 
between Tomlinson and his wife, and Mrs. Tomlinson had made up 
her mind to starve out the intruder. Dunn, speedily aware of this 
female hostility, knew how it would end; there is no holding one's 
ground against the Mrs. Tomlinsons of small drapers' shops. But not 
a syllable of this was allowed to pass his lips, and on Monday 
morning he went off with a show of excellent spirits.
By Wednesday things came to a head. There was a three-cornered 
combat. Tomlinson abused Dunn for laziness and incompetence; Mrs. 
Tomlinson reviled her husband for foolish good nature, and the 
assistant for every conceivable fault; and Dunn fired away at both 
with the recklessness of a man who knows that he has nothing to 
gain by moderation. It ended in the only possible way: Dunn, 
bidden to pack his traps and be off, did so with all speed, and at 
midday was back in London.
His modest luggage he had despatched by the parcel delivery 
company; unencumbered, and rejoicing in recovered freedom, he 
strolled from Victoria Station up to Charing Cross, and thence into 
St. Martin's Lane. The direction was fatal. Though he had no such 
thing in mind, he became aware that he was passing the door of the 
Free Library; the old spell seized upon him; he was drawn across 
the threshold and down the stairs. The scent of newspapers, 
mingled with the odour of filthy garments and unwashed humanity, 
put him beside himself with joy; his nostrils quivered, his eyes 
sparkled, he strode towards the dinner hour throng which pressed 
about the illustrated weeklies. Between musty heads he caught a 
glimpse of the tatters of last Saturday's London News; in five 
minutes' time he found his opportunity and leapt to the front.
He ate with strict economy, and hurried back again, this time to the 
upper hail. As usual, it was not easy to find a vacant chair. The sight 
of a labourer fast asleep on the pages of the Nineteenth Century 
roused him to indignation; he touched the man, then shook him. 
"Here, I say, you don't seem to be reading!"
"All right, Guv'nor," growled the individual disturbed; "you're 

Dunn seized the chair, turned to the first page of the review, and 
began to read an article on "Hypnotism."
Reaching home at supper time, he professed to have come straight 
from Croydon. He made known his wrongs, the disgraceful 
treatment to which he had been subjected.
"Look here, Maggie, could you stand it? What do you advise me to 
do? Am I to go back and beg them to keep me?"
"I should think not!" cried the indignant wife. "What do you say, 
"I should chuck it up," said the lad unconcernedly.
So on the morrow Dunn resumed his visits to St. Martin's Lane. 
Week after week went by, and he sat reading; spellbound, 
hypnotised. Month after month, and still he read. Maggie and her 
brother worked to keep up the home.


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

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