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Chapter 4 An author and his wife

  • Eight flights of stairs, consisting alternately of eight and nine steps. Am_ad made the calculation, and wondered what was the cause of this arrangement.
  • The ascent was trying, but then no one could contest the respectability of th_bode. In the flat immediately beneath resided a successful musician, whos_arriage and pair came at a regular hour each afternoon to take him and hi_ife for a most respectable drive. In this special building no one else seeme_t present to keep a carriage, but all the tenants were gentlefolk.
  • And as to living up at the very top, why, there were distinct advantages—as s_any people of moderate income are nowadays hastening to discover. The nois_rom the street was diminished at this height; no possible tramplers coul_stablish themselves above your head; the air was bound to be purer than tha_f inferior strata; finally, one had the flat roof whereon to sit or expatiat_n sunny weather. True that a gentle rain of soot was wont to interfere wit_ne's comfort out there in the open, but such minutiae are easily forgotten i_he fervour of domestic description. It was undeniable that on a fine day on_njoyed extensive views. The green ridge from Hampstead to Highgate, wit_rimrose Hill and the foliage of Regent's Park in the foreground; the suburba_paces of St John's Wood, Maida Vale, Kilburn; Westminster Abbey and th_ouses of Parliament, lying low by the side of the hidden river, and a glass_leam on far-off hills which meant the Crystal Palace; then the cloude_ajesty of eastern London, crowned by St Paul's dome. These things one'_riends were expected to admire. Sunset often afforded rich effects, but the_ere for solitary musing.
  • A sitting-room, a bedroom, a kitchen. But the kitchen was called dining-room, or even parlour at need; for the cooking-range lent itself to concealmen_ehind an ornamental screen, the walls displayed pictures and bookcases, and _iny scullery which lay apart sufficed for the coarser domestic operations.
  • This was Amy's territory during the hours when her husband was working, o_ndeavouring to work. Of necessity, Edwin Reardon used the front room as hi_tudy. His writing-table stood against the window; each wall had its shelve_f serried literature; vases, busts, engravings (all of the inexpensive kind) served for ornaments.
  • A maid-servant, recently emancipated from the Board school, came at half-pas_even each morning, and remained until two o'clock, by which time the Reardon_ad dined; on special occasions, her services were enlisted for later hours.
  • But it was Reardon's habit to begin the serious work of the day at about thre_'clock, and to continue with brief interruptions until ten or eleven; in man_espects an awkward arrangement, but enforced by the man's temperament and hi_overty.
  • One evening he sat at his desk with a slip of manuscript paper before him. I_as the hour of sunset. His outlook was upon the backs of certain large house_kirting Regent's Park, and lights had begun to show here and there in th_indows:in one room a man was discoverable dressing for dinner, he had no_hought it worth while to lower the blind; in another, some people wer_laying billiards. The higher windows reflected a rich glow from the wester_ky.
  • For two or three hours Reardon had been seated in much the same attitude.
  • Occasionally he dipped his pen into the ink and seemed about to write: bu_ach time the effort was abortive. At the head of the paper was inscribed
  • 'Chapter III.,' but that was all.
  • And now the sky was dusking over; darkness would soon fall.
  • He looked something older than his years, which were two-and- thirty; on hi_ace was the pallor of mental suffering. Often he fell into a fit of absence, and gazed at vacancy with wide, miserable eyes. Returning to consciousness, h_idgeted nervously on his chair, dipped his pen for the hundredth time, ben_orward in feverish determination to work. Useless; he scarcely knew what h_ished to put into words, and his brain refused to construct the simples_entence.
  • The colours faded from the sky, and night came quickly. Reardon threw his arm_pon the desk, let his head fall forward, and remained so, as if asleep.
  • Presently the door opened, and a young, clear voice made inquiry:
  • 'Don't you want the lamp, Edwin?'
  • The man roused himself, turned his chair a little, and looked towards the ope_oor.
  • 'Come here, Amy.'
  • His wife approached. It was not quite dark in the room, for a glimmer cam_rom the opposite houses.
  • 'What's the matter? Can't you do anything?'
  • 'I haven't written a word to-day. At this rate, one goes crazy. Come and si_y me a minute, dearest.'
  • 'I'll get the lamp.'
  • 'No; come and talk to me; we can understand each other better.'
  • 'Nonsense; you have such morbid ideas. I can't bear to sit in the gloom.'
  • At once she went away, and quickly reappeared with a reading-lamp, which sh_laced on the square table in the middle of the room.
  • 'Draw down the blind, Edwin.'
  • She was a slender girl, but not very tall; her shoulders seemed rather broa_n proportion to her waist and the part of her figure below it. The hue of he_air was ruddy gold; loosely arranged tresses made a superb crown to th_eauty of her small, refined head. Yet the face was not of distinctly feminin_ype; with short hair and appropriate clothing, she would have passe_nquestioned as a handsome boy of seventeen, a spirited boy too, and one muc_n the habit of giving orders to inferiors. Her nose would have been perfec_ut for ever so slight a crook which made it preferable to view her in ful_ace than in profile; her lips curved sharply out, and when she straightene_hem of a sudden, the effect was not reassuring to anyone who had counted upo_er for facile humour. In harmony with the broad shoulders, she had a stron_eck; as she bore the lamp into the room a slight turn of her head showe_plendid muscles from the ear downward. It was a magnificently clear-cut bust; one thought, in looking at her, of the newly-finished head which some hones_culptor has wrought with his own hand from the marble block; there was _uggestion of 'planes' and of the chisel. The atmosphere was cold; ruddines_ould have been quite out of place on her cheeks, and a flush must have bee_he rarest thing there.
  • Her age was not quite two-and-twenty; she had been wedded nearly two years, and had a child ten months old.
  • As for her dress, it was unpretending in fashion and colour, but of admirabl_it. Every detail of her appearance denoted scrupulous personal refinement.
  • She walked well; you saw that the foot, however gently, was firmly planted.
  • When she seated herself her posture was instantly graceful, and that of on_ho is indifferent about support for the back.
  • 'What is the matter?' she began. 'Why can't you get on with the story?'
  • It was the tone of friendly remonstrance, not exactly of affection, not at al_f tender solicitude.
  • Reardon had risen and wished to approach her, but could not do so directly. H_oved to another part of the room, then came round to the back of her chair, and bent his face upon her shoulder.
  • 'Amy—'
  • 'Well.'
  • 'I think it's all over with me. I don't think I shall write any more.'
  • 'Don't be so foolish, dear. What is to prevent your writing?'
  • 'Perhaps I am only out of sorts. But I begin to be horribly afraid. My wil_eems to be fatally weakened. I can't see my way to the end of anything; if _et hold of an idea which seems good, all the sap has gone out of it before _ave got it into working shape. In these last few months, I must have begun _ozen different books; I have been ashamed to tell you of each new beginning.
  • I write twenty pages, perhaps, and then my courage fails. I am disgusted wit_he thing, and can't go on with it— can't! My fingers refuse to hold the pen.
  • In mere writing, I have done enough to make much more than three volumes; bu_t's all destroyed.'
  • 'Because of your morbid conscientiousness. There was no need to destroy wha_ou had written. It was all good enough for the market.'
  • 'Don't use that word, Amy. I hate it!'
  • 'You can't afford to hate it,' was her rejoinder, in very practical tones.
  • 'However it was before, you must write for the market now. You have admitte_hat yourself.'
  • He kept silence.
  • 'Where are you?' she went on to ask. 'What have you actually done?'
  • 'Two short chapters of a story I can't go on with. The three volumes li_efore me like an interminable desert. Impossible to get through them. Th_dea is stupidly artificial, and I haven't a living character in it.'
  • 'The public don't care whether the characters are living or not.- -Don't stan_ehind me, like that; it's such an awkward way of talking. Come and sit down.'
  • He drew away, and came to a position whence he could see her face, but kept a_ distance.
  • 'Yes,' he said, in a different way, 'that's the worst of it.'
  • 'What is?'
  • 'That you—well, it's no use.'
  • 'That I—what?'
  • She did not look at him; her lips, after she had spoken, drew in a little.
  • 'That your disposition towards me is being affected by this miserable failure.
  • You keep saying to yourself that I am not what you thought me. Perhaps yo_ven feel that I have been guilty of a sort of deception. I don't blame you; it's natural enough.'
  • 'I'll tell you quite honestly what I do think,' she replied, after a shor_ilence. 'You are much weaker than I imagined. Difficulties crush you, instea_f rousing you to struggle.'
  • 'True. It has always been my fault.'
  • 'But don't you feel it's rather unmanly, this state of things? You say yo_ove me, and I try to believe it. But whilst you are saying so, you let me ge_earer and nearer to miserable, hateful poverty. What is to become of me—o_s? Shall you sit here day after day until our last shilling is spent?'
  • 'No; of course I must do something.'
  • 'When shall you begin in earnest? In a day or two you must pay this quarter'_ent, and that will leave us just about fifteen pounds in the world. Where i_he rent at Christmas to come from?
  • What are we to live upon? There's all sorts of clothing to be bought; there'l_e all the extra expenses of winter. Surely it's bad enough that we have ha_o stay here all the summer; no holiday of any kind. I have done my best no_o grumble about it, but I begin to think that it would be very much wiser i_ did grumble.'
  • She squared her shoulders, and gave her head just a little shake, as if a fl_ad troubled her.
  • 'You bear everything very well and kindly,' said Reardon. 'My behaviour i_ontemptible; I know that. Good heavens! if I only had some business to go to, something I could work at in any state of mind, and make money out of! Give_his chance, I would work myself to death rather than you should lack anythin_ou desire. But I am at the mercy of my brain; it is dry and powerless. How _nvy those clerks who go by to their offices in the morning! There's the day'_ork cut out for them; no question of mood and feeling; they have just to wor_t something, and when the evening comes, they have earned their wages, the_re free to rest and enjoy themselves. What an insane thing it is to mak_iterature one's only means of support! When the most trivial accident may a_ny time prove fatal to one's power of work for weeks or months. No, that i_he unpardonable sin! To make a trade of an art! I am rightly served fo_ttempting such a brutal folly.'
  • He turned away in a passion of misery.
  • 'How very silly it is to talk like this!' came in Amy's voice, clearl_ritical. 'Art must be practised as a trade, at all events in our time. Thi_s the age of trade. Of course if one refuses to be of one's time, and ye_asn't the means to live independently, what can result but breakdown an_retchedness? The fact of the matter is, you could do fairly good work, an_ork which would sell, if only you would bring yourself to look at things in _ore practical way. It's what Mr Milvain is always saying, you know.'
  • 'Milvain's temperament is very different from mine. He is naturally light- hearted and hopeful; I am naturally the opposite.
  • What you and he say is true enough; the misfortune is that I can't act upo_t. I am no uncompromising artistic pedant; I am quite willing to try and d_he kind of work that will sell; under the circumstances it would be a kind o_nsanity if I refused. But power doesn't answer to the will. My efforts ar_tterly vain; I suppose the prospect of pennilessness is itself a hindrance; the fear haunts me. With such terrible real things pressing upon me, m_magination can shape nothing substantial. When I have laboured out a story, _uddenly see it in a light of such contemptible triviality that to work at i_s an impossible thing.'
  • 'You are ill, that's the fact of the matter. You ought to have had a holiday.
  • I think even now you had better go away for a week or two. Do, Edwin!'
  • 'Impossible! It would be the merest pretence of holiday. To go away and leav_ou here—no!'
  • 'Shall I ask mother or Jack to lend us some money?'
  • 'That would be intolerable.'
  • 'But this state of things is intolerable!'
  • Reardon walked the length of the room and back again.
  • 'Your mother has no money to lend, dear, and your brother would do it s_nwillingly that we can't lay ourselves under such an obligation.'
  • 'Yet it will come to that, you know,' remarked Amy, calmly.
  • 'No, it shall not come to that. I must and will get something done long befor_hristmas. If only you—'
  • He came and took one of her hands.
  • 'If only you will give me more sympathy, dearest. You see, that's one side o_y weakness. I am utterly dependent upon you. Your kindness is the breath o_ife to me. Don't refuse it!'
  • 'But I have done nothing of the kind.'
  • 'You begin to speak very coldly. And I understand your feeling o_isappointment. The mere fact of your urging me to do anything that will sel_s a proof of bitter disappointment. You would have looked with scorn a_nyone who talked to me like that two years ago. You were proud of me becaus_y work wasn't altogether common, and because I had never written a line tha_as meant to attract the vulgar. All that's over now. If you knew how dreadfu_t is to see that you have lost your hopes of me!'
  • 'Well, but I haven't—altogether,' Amy replied, meditatively. 'I know very wel_hat, if you had a lot of money, you would do better things than ever.'
  • 'Thank you a thousand times for saying that, my dearest.'
  • 'But, you see, we haven't money, and there's little chance of our getting any.
  • That scrubby old uncle won't leave anything to us; I feel too sure of it. _ften feel disposed to go and beg him on my knees to think of us in his will.'
  • She laughed. 'I suppose it's impossible, and would be useless; but I should b_apable of it if I knew it would bring money.'
  • Reardon said nothing.
  • 'I didn't think so much of money when we were married,' Amy continued. 'I ha_ever seriously felt the want of it, you know. I did think—there's no harm i_onfessing it—that you were sure to be rich some day; but I should hav_arried you all the same if I had known that you would win only reputation.'
  • 'You are sure of that?'
  • 'Well, I think so. But I know the value of money better now. I know it is th_ost powerful thing in the world. If I had to choose between a gloriou_eputation with poverty and a contemptible popularity with wealth, I shoul_hoose the latter.'
  • 'No!'
  • 'I should.'
  • 'Perhaps you are right.'
  • He turned away with a sigh.
  • 'Yes, you are right. What is reputation? If it is deserved, it originates wit_ few score of people among the many millions who would never have recognise_he merit they at last applaud. That's the lot of a great genius. As for _ediocrity like me— what ludicrous absurdity to fret myself in the hope tha_alf-a-dozen folks will say I am "above the average!" After all, is ther_illier vanity than this? A year after I have published my last book, I shal_e practically forgotten; ten years later, I shall be as absolutely forgotte_s one of those novelists of the early part of this century, whose names on_oesn't even recognise. What fatuous posing!'
  • Amy looked askance at him, but replied nothing.
  • 'And yet,' he continued, 'of course it isn't only for the sake of reputatio_hat one tries to do uncommon work. There's the shrinking from consciou_nsincerity of workmanship—which most of the writers nowadays seem never t_eel. "It's good enough for the market"; that satisfies them. And perhaps the_re justified.
  • I can't pretend that I rule my life by absolute ideals; I admit tha_verything is relative. There is no such thing as goodness or badness, in th_bsolute sense, of course. Perhaps I am absurdly inconsistent when—thoug_nowing my work can't be first rate—I strive to make it as good as possible. _on't say this in irony, Amy; I really mean it. It may very well be that I a_ust as foolish as the people I ridicule for moral and religious superstition.
  • This habit of mine is superstitious. How well I can imagine the answer of som_opular novelist if he heard me speak scornfully of his books. "My dea_ellow," he might say, "do you suppose I am not aware that my books ar_ubbish? I know it just as well as you do. But my vocation is to liv_omfortably. I have a luxurious house, a wife and children who are happy an_rateful to me for their happiness. If you choose to live in a garret, and, what's worse, make your wife and children share it with you, that's you_oncern." The man would be abundantly right.'
  • 'But,' said Amy, 'why should you assume that his books are rubbish? Good wor_ucceeds—now and then.'
  • 'I speak of the common kind of success, which is never due to literary merit.
  • And if I speak bitterly, well, I am suffering from my powerlessness. I am _ailure, my poor girl, and it isn't easy for me to look with charity on th_uccess of men who deserved it far less than I did, when I was still able t_ork.'
  • 'Of course, Edwin, if you make up your mind that you are a failure, you wil_nd by being so. But I'm convinced there's no reason that you should fail t_ake a living with your pen. Now let me advise you; put aside all your stric_deas about what is worthy and what is unworthy, and just act upon my advice.
  • It's impossible for you to write a three-volume novel; very well, then do _hort story of a kind that's likely to be popular. You know Mr Milvain i_lways saying that the long novel has had its day, and that in future peopl_ill write shilling books. Why not try?
  • Give yourself a week to invent a sensational plot, and then a fortnight fo_he writing. Have it ready for the new season at the end of October. If yo_ike, don't put your name to it; your name certainly would have no weight wit_his sort of public. Just make it a matter of business, as Mr Milvain says, and see if you can't earn some money.'
  • He stood and regarded her. His expression was one of pained perplexity.
  • 'You mustn't forget, Amy, that it needs a particular kind of faculty to writ_tories of this sort. The invention of a plot is just the thing I find mos_ifficult.'
  • 'But the plot may be as silly as you like, providing it holds the attention o_ulgar readers. Think of "The Hollow Statue", what could be more idiotic? Ye_t sells by thousands.'
  • 'I don't think I can bring myself to that,' Reardon said, in a low voice.
  • 'Very well, then will you tell me what you propose to do?'
  • 'I might perhaps manage a novel in two volumes, instead of three.'
  • He seated himself at the writing-table, and stared at the blank sheets o_aper in an anguish of hopelessness.
  • 'It will take you till Christmas,' said Amy, 'and then you will get perhap_ifty pounds for it.'
  • 'I must do my best. I'll go out and try to get some ideas. I—'
  • He broke off and looked steadily at his wife.
  • 'What is it?' she asked.
  • 'Suppose I were to propose to you to leave this flat and take cheaper rooms?'
  • He uttered it in a shamefaced way, his eyes falling. Amy kept silence.
  • 'We might sublet it,' he continued, in the same tone, 'for the last year o_he lease.'
  • 'And where do you propose to live?' Amy inquired, coldly.
  • 'There's no need to be in such a dear neighbourhood. We could go to one of th_uter districts. One might find three unfurnished rooms for about eight-and- sixpence a week—less than half our rent here.'
  • 'You must do as seems good to you.'
  • 'For Heaven's sake, Amy, don't speak to me in that way! I can't stand that!
  • Surely you can see that I am driven to think of every possible resource. T_peak like that is to abandon me. Say you can't or won't do it, but don'_reat me as if you had no share in my miseries!'
  • She was touched for the moment.
  • 'I didn't mean to speak unkindly, dear. But think what it means, to give u_ur home and position. That is open confession of failure. It would b_orrible.'
  • 'I won't think of it. I have three months before Christmas, and I will finis_ book!'
  • 'I really can't see why you shouldn't. Just do a certain number of pages ever_ay. Good or bad, never mind; let the pages be finished. Now you have got tw_hapters—'
  • 'No; that won't do. I must think of a better subject.'
  • Amy made a gesture of impatience.
  • 'There you are! What does the subject matter? Get this book finished and sold, and then do something better next time.'
  • 'Give me to-night, just to think. Perhaps one of the old stories I have throw_side will come back in a clearer light. I'll go out for an hour; you don'_ind being left alone?'
  • 'You mustn't think of such trifles as that.'
  • 'But nothing that concerns you in the slightest way is a trifle to me—nothing!
  • I can't bear that you should forget that. Have patience with me, darling, _ittle longer.'
  • He knelt by her, and looked up into her face.
  • 'Say only one or two kind words—like you used to!'
  • She passed her hand lightly over his hair, and murmured something with a fain_mile.
  • Then Reardon took his hat and stick and descended the eight flights of ston_teps, and walked in the darkness round the outer circle of Regent's Park, racking his fagged brain in a hopeless search for characters, situations, motives.