Amy did not go to church. Before her marriage she had done so as a mere matte_f course, accompanying her mother, but Reardon's attitude with regard to th_opular religion speedily became her own; she let the subject lapse from he_ind, and cared neither to defend nor to attack where dogma was concerned. Sh_ad no sympathies with mysticism; her nature was strongly practical, wit_omething of zeal for intellectual attainment superadded.
This Sunday morning she was very busy with domestic minutiae. Reardon notice_hat looked like preparations for packing, and being as little disposed fo_onversation as his wife, he went out and walked for a couple of hours in th_ampstead region. Dinner over, Amy at once made ready for her journey t_estbourne Park.
'Then you won't come?' she said to her husband.
'No. I shall see your mother before I go away, but I don't care to till yo_ave settled everything.'
It was half a year since he had met Mrs Yule. She never came to thei_welling, and Reardon could not bring himself to visit her.
'You had very much rather we didn't sell the furniture?' Amy asked.
'Ask your mother's opinion. That shall decide.'
'There'll be the expense of moving it, you know. Unless money comes from Th_ayside, you'll only have two or three pounds left.'
Reardon made no reply. He was overcome by the bitterness of shame.
'I shall say, then,' pursued Amy, who spoke with averted face, 'that I am t_o there for good on Tuesday? I mean, of course, for the summer months.'
'I suppose so.'
Then he turned suddenly upon her.
'Do you really imagine that at the end of the summer I shall be a rich man?
What do you mean by talking in this way? If the furniture is sold to supply m_ith a few pounds for the present, what prospect is there that I shall be abl_o buy new?'
'How can we look forward at all?' replied Amy. 'It has come to the question o_ow we are to subsist. I thought you would rather get money in this way tha_orrow of mother—when she has the expense of keeping me and Willie.'
'You are right,' muttered Reardon. 'Do as you think best.' Amy was in her mos_ractical mood, and would not linger for purposeless talk. A few minutes, an_eardon was left alone.
He stood before his bookshelves and began to pick out the volumes which h_ould take away with him. Just a few, the indispensable companions of _ookish man who still clings to life—his Homer, his Shakespeare—
The rest must be sold. He would get rid of them to-morrow morning. Al_ogether they might bring him a couple of sovereigns.
Then his clothing. Amy had fulfilled all the domestic duties of a wife; hi_ardrobe was in as good a state as circumstances allowed. But there was n_bject in burdening himself with winter garments, for, if he lived through th_ummer at all, he would be able to repurchase such few poor things as wer_eedful; at present he could only think of how to get together a few coins. S_e made a heap of such things as might be sold.
The furniture? If it must go, the price could scarcely be more than ten o_welve pounds; well, perhaps fifteen. To be sure, in this way his summer'_iving would be abundantly provided for.
He thought of Biffen enviously. Biffen, if need be, could support life o_hree or four shillings a week, happy in the thought that no mortal had _laim upon him. If he starved to death—well, many another lonely man has com_o that end. If he preferred to kill himself, who would be distressed? Spoil_hild of fortune!
The bells of St Marylebone began to clang for afternoon service. In th_dleness of dull pain his thoughts followed their summons, and he marvelle_hat there were people who could imagine it a duty or find it a solace to g_nd sit in that twilight church and listen to the droning of prayers. H_hought of the wretched millions of mankind to whom life is so barren tha_hey must needs believe in a recompense beyond the grave. For that he neithe_ooked nor longed. The bitterness of his lot was that this world might be _ufficing paradise to him if only he could clutch a poor little share o_urrent coin. He had won the world's greatest prize—a woman's love —but coul_ot retain it because his pockets were empty.
That he should fail to make a great name, this was grievous disappointment t_my, but this alone would not have estranged her. It was the dread and sham_f penury that made her heart cold to him. And he could not in his conscienc_corn her for being thus affected by the vulgar circumstances of life; only _ew supreme natures stand unshaken under such a trial, and though his love o_my was still passionate, he knew that her place was among a certain class o_omen, and not on the isolated pinnacle where he had at first visioned her. I_as entirely natural that she shrank at the test of squalid suffering. _ittle money, and he could have rested secure in her love, for then he woul_ave been able to keep ever before her the best qualities of his heart an_rain. Upon him, too, penury had its debasing effect; as he now presente_imself he was not a man to be admired or loved. It was all simple an_ntelligible enough—a situation that would be misread only by shallo_dealism.
Worst of all, she was attracted by Jasper Milvain's energy and promise o_uccess. He had no ignoble suspicions of Amy, but it was impossible for hi_ot to see that she habitually contrasted the young journalist, who laughingl_ade his way among men, with her grave, dispirited husband, who was not eve_apable of holding such position as he had gained. She enjoyed Milvain'_onversation, it put her into a good humour; she liked him personally, an_here could be no doubt that she had observed a jealous tendency in Reardon'_ttitude to his former friend— always a harmful suggestion to a woman.
Formerly she had appreciated her husband's superiority; she had smiled a_ilvain's commoner stamp of mind and character. But tedious repetition o_ailure had outwearied her, and now she saw Milvain in the sunshine o_rogress, dwelt upon the worldly advantages of gifts and a temperament such a_is. Again, simple and intelligible enough.
Living apart from her husband, she could not be expected to forswear society, and doubtless she would see Milvain pretty often. He called occasionally a_rs Yule's, and would not do so less often when he knew that Amy was to be me_here. There would be chance encounters like that of yesterday, of which sh_ad chosen to keep silence.
A dark fear began to shadow him. In yielding thus passively to stress o_ircumstances, was he not exposing his wife to a danger which outweighed al_he ills of poverty? As one to whom she was inestimably dear, was he right i_llowing her to leave him, if only for a few months? He knew very well that _an of strong character would never have entertained this project. He had go_nto the way of thinking of himself as too weak to struggle against th_bstacles on which Amy insisted, and of looking for safety in retreat; bu_hat was to be the end of this weakness if the summer did not at all advanc_im? He knew better than Amy could how unlikely it was that he should recove_he energies of his mind in so short a time and under such circumstances; onl_he feeble man's temptation to postpone effort had made him consent to thi_tep, and now that he was all but beyond turning back, the perils of which h_ad thought too little forced themselves upon his mind.
He rose in anguish, and stood looking about him as if aid might somewhere b_isible.
Presently there was a knock at the front door, and on opening he beheld th_ivacious Mr Carter. This gentleman had only made two or three calls her_ince Reardon's marriage; his appearance was a surprise.
'I hear you are leaving town for a time,' he exclaimed. 'Edith told m_esterday, so I thought I'd look you up.'
He was in spring costume, and exhaled fresh odours. The contrast between hi_rosperous animation and Reardon's broken-spirited quietness could not hav_een more striking.
'Going away for your health, they tell me. You've been working too hard, yo_now. You mustn't overdo it. And where do you think of going to?'
'It isn't at all certain that I shall go,' Reardon replied. 'I thought of _ew weeks—somewhere at the seaside.'
'I advise you to go north,' went on Carter cheerily. 'You want a tonic, yo_now. Get up into Scotland and do some boating and fishing—that kind of thing.
You'd come back a new man. Edith and I had a turn up there last year, yo_now; it did me heaps of good.'
'Oh, I don't think I should go so far as that.'
'But that's just what you want—a regular change, something bracing. You don'_ook at all well, that's the fact. A winter in London tries any man—it doe_e, I know. I've been seedy myself these last few weeks. Edith wants me t_ake her over to Paris at the end of this month, and I think it isn't a ba_dea; but I'm so confoundedly busy. In the autumn we shall go to Norway, _hink; it seems to be the right thing to do nowadays. Why shouldn't you have _un over to Norway? They say it can be done very cheaply; the steamers tak_ou for next to nothing.'
He talked on with the joyous satisfaction of a man whose income is assured, and whose future teems with a succession of lively holidays. Reardon coul_ake no answer to such suggestions; he sat with a fixed smile on his face.
'Have you heard,' said Carter, presently, 'that we're opening a branch of th_ospital in the City Road?'
'No; I hadn't heard of it.'
'It'll only be for out-patients. Open three mornings and three evening_lternately.'
'Who'll represent you there?''I shall look in now and then, of course; there'll be a clerk, like at the old place.'
He talked of the matter in detail—of the doctors who would attend, and o_ertain new arrangements to be tried.
'Have you engaged the clerk?' Reardon asked.
'Not yet. I think I know a man who'll suit me, though.'
'You wouldn't be disposed to give me the chance?'
Reardon spoke huskily, and ended with a broken laugh.
'You're rather above my figure nowadays, old man!' exclaimed Carter, joinin_n what he considered the jest.
'Shall you pay a pound a week?'
'Twenty-five shillings. It'll have to be a man who can be trusted to tak_oney from the paying patients.'
'Well, I am serious. Will you give me the place?'
Carter gazed at him, and checked another laugh.
'What the deuce do you mean?'
'The fact is,' Reardon replied, 'I want variety of occupation. I can't stic_t writing for more than a month or two at a time. It's because I have trie_o do so that—well, practically, I have broken down. If you will give me thi_lerkship, it will relieve me from the necessity of perpetually writin_ovels; I shall be better for it in every way. You know that I'm equal to th_ob; you can trust me; and I dare say I shall be more useful than most clerk_ou could get.'
It was done, most happily done, on the first impulse. A minute more of pause, and he could not have faced the humiliation. His face burned, his tongue wa_arched.
'I'm floored!' cried Carter. 'I shouldn't have thought—but of course, if yo_eally want it. I can hardly believe yet that you're serious, Reardon.'
'Why not? Will you promise me the work?'
'When shall I have to begin?'
'The place'll be opened to-morrow week. But how about your holiday?'
'Oh, let that stand over. It'll be holiday enough to occupy myself in a ne_ay. An old way, too; I shall enjoy it.'
He laughed merrily, relieved beyond measure at having come to what seemed a_nd of his difficulties. For half an hour they continued to talk over th_ffair.
'Well, it's a comical idea,' said Carter, as he took his leave, 'but you kno_our own business best.'
When Amy returned, Reardon allowed her to put the child to bed before h_ought any conversation. She came at length and sat down in the study.
'Mother advises us not to sell the furniture,' were her first words.
'I'm glad of that, as I had quite made up my mind not to.' There was a chang_n his way of speaking which she at once noticed.
'Have you thought of something?'
'Yes. Carter has been here, and he happened to mention that they're opening a_ut-patient department of the hospital, in the City Road. He'll want someon_o help him there. I asked for the post, and he promised it me.'
The last words were hurried, though he had resolved to speak wit_eliberation. No more feebleness; he had taken a decision, and would act upo_t as became a responsible man.
'The post?' said Amy. 'What post?'
'In plain English, the clerkship. It'll be the same work as I used t_ave—registering patients, receiving their "letters," and so on. The pay is t_e five-and-twenty shillings a week.'
Amy sat upright and looked steadily at him.
'Is this a joke?'
'Far from it, dear. It's a blessed deliverance.'
'You have asked Mr Carter to take you back as a clerk?'
'And you propose that we shall live on twenty-five shillings a week?'
'Oh no! I shall be engaged only three mornings in the week and three evenings.
In my free time I shall do literary work, and no doubt I can earn fifty pound_ year by it—if I have your sympathy to help me. To-morrow I shall go and loo_or rooms some distance from here; in Islington, I think. We have been livin_ar beyond our means; that must come to an end. We'll have no more keeping u_f sham appearances. If I can make my way in literature, well and good; i_hat case our position and prospects will of course change. But for th_resent we are poor people, and must live in a poor way. If our friends lik_o come and see us, they must put aside all snobbishness, and take us as w_re. If they prefer not to come, there'll be an excuse in our remoteness.'
Amy was stroking the back of her hand. After a long silence, she said in _ery quiet, but very resolute tone:
'I shall not consent to this.'
'In that case, Amy, I must do without your consent. The rooms will be taken, and our furniture transferred to them.'
'To me that will make no difference,' returned his wife, in the same voice a_efore. 'I have decided—as you told me to—to go with Willie to mother's nex_uesday. You, of course, must do as you please. I should have thought a summe_t the seaside would have been more helpful to you; but if you prefer to liv_n Islington—'
Reardon approached her, and laid a hand on her shoulder.
'Amy, are you my wife, or not?'
'I am certainly not the wife of a clerk who is paid so much a week.'
He had foreseen a struggle, but without certainty of the form Amy's oppositio_ould take. For himself he meant to be gently resolute, calmly regardless o_rotest. But in a man to whom such self-assertion is a matter of consciou_ffort, tremor of the nerves will always interfere with the line of conduct h_as conceived in advance. Already Reardon had spoken with far more bluntnes_han he proposed; involuntarily, his voice slipped from earnest determinatio_o the note of absolutism, and, as is wont to be the case, the sound of thes_trange tones instigated him to further utterances of the same kind. He los_ontrol of himself. Amy's last reply went through him like an electric shock, and for the moment he was a mere husband defied by his wife, the male stung t_xertion of his brute force against the physically weaker sex.
'However you regard me, you will do what I think fit. I shall not argue wit_ou. If I choose to take lodgings in Whitechapel, there you will come an_ive.'
He met Amy's full look, and was conscious of that in it which corresponded t_is own brutality. She had become suddenly a much older woman; her cheeks wer_ight drawn into thinness, her lips were bloodlessly hard, there was a_nknown furrow along her forehead, and she glared like the animal that defend_tself with tooth and claw.
'Do as YOU think fit? Indeed!'
Could Amy's voice sound like that? Great Heaven! With just such accent he ha_eard a wrangling woman retort upon her husband at the street corner. Is ther_hen no essential difference between a woman of this world and one of that?
Does the same nature lie beneath such unlike surfaces?
He had but to do one thing: to seize her by the arm, drag her up from th_hair, dash her back again with all his force—there, the transformation woul_e complete, they would stand towards each other on the natural footing. Wit_n added curse perhaps— Instead of that, he choked, struggled for breath, an_hed tears.
Amy turned scornfully away from him. Blows and a curse would have overawe_er, at all events for the moment; she would have felt: 'Yes, he is a man, an_ have put my destiny into his hands.' His tears moved her to a feelin_ruelly exultant; they were the sign of her superiority. It was she who shoul_ave wept, and never in her life had she been further from such display o_eakness.
This could not be the end, however, and she had no wish to terminate th_cene. They stood for a minute without regarding each other, then Reardo_aced to her.
'You refuse to live with me, then?'
'Yes, if this is the kind of life you offer me.'
'You would be more ashamed to share your husband's misfortunes than to declar_o everyone that you had deserted him?'
'I shall "declare to everyone" the simple truth. You have the opportunity o_aking one more effort to save us from degradation. You refuse to take th_rouble; you prefer to drag me down into a lower rank of life. I can't an_on't consent to that. The disgrace is yours; it's fortunate for me that _ave a decent home to go to.'
'Fortunate for you!—you make yourself unutterably contemptible. I have don_othing that justifies you in leaving me. It is for me to judge what I can d_nd what I can't. A good woman would see no degradation in what I ask of you.
But to run away from me just because I am poorer than you ever thought _hould be—'
He was incoherent. A thousand passionate things that he wished to say clashe_ogether in his mind and confused his speech. Defeated in the attempt to ac_ike a strong man, he could not yet recover standing-ground, knew not how t_one his utterances.
'Yes, of course, that's how you will put it,' said Amy. 'That's how you wil_epresent me to your friends. My friends will see it in a different light.'
'They will regard you as a martyr?'
'No one shall make a martyr of me, you may be sure. I was unfortunate enoug_o marry a man who had no delicacy, no regard for my feelings.—I am not th_irst woman who has made a mistake of this kind.'
'No delicacy? No regard for your feelings?—Have I always utterly misunderstoo_ou? Or has poverty changed you to a woman I can't recognise?'
He came nearer, and gazed desperately into her face. Not a muscle of it showe_usceptibility to the old influences.
'Do you know, Amy,' he added in a lower voice, 'that if we part now, we par_or ever?'
'I'm afraid that is only too likely.'
She moved aside.
'You mean that you wish it. You are weary of me, and care for nothing but ho_o make yourself free.'
'I shall argue no more. I am tired to death of it.'
'Then say nothing, but listen for the last time to my view of the position w_ave come to. When I consented to leave you for a time, to go away and try t_ork in solitude, I was foolish and even insincere, both to you and to myself.
I knew that I was undertaking the impossible. It was just putting off the evi_ay, that was all—putting off the time when I should have to say plainly: "_an't live by literature, so I must look out for some other employment." _houldn't have been so weak but that I knew how you would regard such _ecision as that. I was afraid to tell the truth—afraid. Now, when Carter of _udden put this opportunity before me, I saw all the absurdity of th_rrangements we had made. It didn't take me a moment to make up my mind.
Anything was to be chosen rather than a parting from you on false pretences, _idiculous affectation of hope where there was no hope.'
He paused, and saw that his words had no effect upon her.
'And a grievous share of the fault lies with you, Amy. You remember very wel_hen I first saw how dark the future was. I was driven even to say that w_ught to change our mode of living; I asked you if you would be willing t_eave this place and go into cheaper rooms. And you know what your answer was.
Not a sign in you that you would stand by me if the worst came. I knew the_hat I had to look forward to, but I durst not believe it. I kept saying t_yself: "She loves me, and as soon as she really understands—" That was al_elf-deception. If I had been a wise man, I should have spoken to you in a wa_ou couldn't mistake. I should have told you that we were living recklessly, and that I had determined to alter it. I have no delicacy? No regard for you_eelings? Oh, if I had had less! I doubt whether you can even understand som_f the considerations that weighed with me, and made me cowardly—though I onc_hought there was no refinement of sensibility that you couldn't enter into.
Yes, I was absurd enough to say to myself: "It will look as if I ha_onsciously deceived her; she may suffer from the thought that I won her a_ll hazards, knowing that I should soon expose her to poverty and all sorts o_umiliation." Impossible to speak of that again; I had to struggle desperatel_n, trying to hope. Oh! if you knew—'
His voice gave way for an instant.
'I don't understand how you could be so thoughtless and heartless. You kne_hat I was almost mad with anxiety at times. Surely, any woman must have ha_he impulse to give what help was in her power. How could you hesitate? Ha_ou no suspicion of what a relief and encouragement it would be to me, if yo_aid: "Yes, we must go and live in a simpler way?" If only as a proof that yo_oved me, how I should have welcomed that! You helped me in nothing. You thre_ll the responsibility upon me—always bearing in mind, I suppose, that ther_as a refuge for you. Even now, I despise myself for saying such things o_ou, though I know so bitterly that they are true. It takes a long time to se_ou as such a different woman from the one I worshipped. In passion, I ca_ling out violent words, but they don't yet answer to my actual feeling. I_ill be long enough yet before I think contemptuously of you. You know tha_hen a light is suddenly extinguished, the image of it still shows before you_yes. But at last comes the darkness.'
Amy turned towards him once more.
'Instead of saying all this, you might be proving that I am wrong. Do so, an_ will gladly confess it.'
'That you are wrong? I don't see your meaning.'
'You might prove that you are willing to do your utmost to save me fro_umiliation.'
'Amy, I have done my utmost. I have done more than you can imagine.'
'No. You have toiled on in illness and anxiety—I know that. But a chance i_ffered you now of working in a better way. Till that is tried, you have n_ight to give all up and try to drag me down with you.'
'I don't know how to answer. I have told you so often— You can't understan_e!'
'I can! I can!' Her voice trembled for the first time. 'I know that you are s_eady to give in to difficulties. Listen to me, and do as I bid you.' Sh_poke in the strangest tone of command.
It was command, not exhortation, but there was no harshness in her voice. 'G_t once to Mr Carter. Tell him you have made a ludicrous mistake—in a fit o_ow spirits; anything you like to say. Tell him you of course couldn't drea_f becoming his clerk. To-night; at once! You understand me, Edwin? Go now, this moment.'
'Have you determined to see how weak I am? Do you wish to be able to despis_e more completely still?'
'I am determined to be your friend, and to save you from yourself. Go at once!
Leave all the rest to me. If I have let things take their course till now, i_han't be so in future. The responsibility shall be with me. Only do as I tel_ou'
'You know it's impossible—'
'It is not! I will find money. No one shall be allowed to say that we ar_arting; no one has any such idea yet. You are going away for your health, just three summer months. I have been far more careful of appearances than yo_magine, but you give me credit for so little. I will find the money you need, until you have written another book. I promise; I undertake it. Then I wil_ind another home for us, of the proper kind. You shall have no trouble. Yo_hall give yourself entirely to intellectual things.
But Mr Carter must be told at once, before he can spread a report. If he ha_poken, he must contradict what he has said.'
'But you amaze me, Amy. Do you mean to say that you look upon it as _eritable disgrace, my taking this clerkship?'
'I do. I can't help my nature. I am ashamed through and through that yo_hould sink to this.'
'But everyone knows that I was a clerk once!'
'Very few people know it. And then that isn't the same thing. It doesn'_atter what one has been in the past. Especially a literary man; everyon_xpects to hear that he was once poor. But to fall from the position you no_ave, and to take weekly wages —you surely can't know how people of my worl_egard that.'
'Of your world? I had thought your world was the same as mine, and kne_othing whatever of these imbecilities.'
'It is getting late. Go and see Mr Carter, and afterwards I will talk as muc_s you like.'
He might perhaps have yielded, but the unemphasised contempt in that las_entence was more than he could bear. It demonstrated to him more completel_han set terms could have done what a paltry weakling he would appear in Amy'_yes if he took his hat down from the peg and set out to obey her orders.
'You are asking too much,' he said, with unexpected coldness. 'If my opinion_re so valueless to you that you dismiss them like those of a troublesom_hild, I wonder you think it worth while to try and keep up appearances abou_e. It is very simple: make known to everyone that you are in no way connecte_ith the disgrace I have brought upon myself. Put an advertisement in th_ewspapers to that effect, if you like—as men do about their wives' debts. _ave chosen my part. I can't stultify myself to please you.'
She knew that this was final. His voice had the true ring of shame in revolt.
'Then go your way, and I will go mine!'
Amy left the room.
When Reardon went into the bedchamber an hour later, he unfolded a chair- bedstead that stood there, threw some rugs upon it, and so lay down to pas_he night. He did not close his eyes. Amy slept for an hour or two befor_awn, and on waking she started up and looked anxiously about the room. Bu_either spoke.
There was a pretence of ordinary breakfast; the little servant necessitate_hat. When she saw her husband preparing to go out, Amy asked him to come int_he study.
'How long shall you be away?' she asked, curtly.
'It is doubtful. I am going to look for rooms.'
'Then no doubt I shall be gone when you come back. There's no object, now, i_y staying here till to-morrow.'
'As you please.'
'Do you wish Lizzie still to come?'
'No. Please to pay her wages and dismiss her. Here is some money.'
'I think you had better let me see to that.'
He flung the coin on to the table and opened the door. Amy stepped quickl_orward and closed it again.
'This is our good-bye, is it?' she asked, her eyes on the ground.
'As you wish it—yes.'
'You will remember that I have not wished it.'
'In that case, you have only to go with me to the new home.'
'Then you have made your choice.'
She did not prevent his opening the door this time, and he passed out withou_ooking at her.
His return was at three in the afternoon. Amy and the child were gone; th_ervant was gone. The table in the dining-room was spread as if for on_erson's meal.
He went into the bedroom. Amy's trunks had disappeared. The child's cot wa_overed over. In the study, he saw that the sovereign he had thrown on to th_able still lay in the same place.
As it was a very cold day he lit a fire. Whilst it burnt up he sat reading _orn portion of a newspaper, and became quite interested in the report of _ommercial meeting in the City, a thing he would never have glanced at unde_rdinary circumstances. The fragment fell at length from his hands; his hea_rooped; he sank into a troubled sleep.
About six he had tea, then began the packing of the few books that were to g_ith him, and of such other things as could be enclosed in box or portmanteau.
After a couple of hours of this occupation he could no longer resist hi_eariness, so he went to bed. Before falling asleep he heard the two familia_locks strike eight; this evening they were in unusual accord, and th_uerulous notes from the workhouse sounded between the deeper ones from S_arylebone. Reardon tried to remember when he had last observed this; th_atter seemed to have a peculiar interest for him, and in dreams he worrie_imself with a grotesque speculation thence derived.