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NOBODIES AT HOME

GEORGE GISSING.


VI.
A Man of Leisure.

WHEN, at the age of eight-and-twenty, Isherwood inherited his modest competence he took the matter in a very serious spirit. He was a reflective young man, emancipated from what it pleased him to call Superstition, a frequenter of "secularist" lecture-halls, a clean liver, and dogmatic in support of "natural morality." How could he best employ a fixed income of two hundred pounds per annum? His occupation at a wharf in Pickle Herring Street was neither lucrative nor congenial, and there must be innumerable openings for such as he, all manner of agreeable and worthy pursuits, easy to be discovered now that he had leisure to look about him. He had never been conscious of any particular vocation, save indeed for a life of contemplative ease; but his theories favoured a strenuous view of existence; he was resolved, in the spirit of lay religion, to use his opportunity nobly, that his own good fortune might be the world's advantage.

Ten years later Isherwood was still reflecting on this problem. Since his abandonment of Pickle Herring Street he had done nothing whatever save consuming the annual two hundred pounds. Never allowing himself to exceed his income, he never spent less than the weekly fractions into which he had exactly divided it. He neither owed nor lent to any man. And every night of his life he came home—not exactly drunk, but alcoholically cheerful.

Since he left the country, in his eighteenth year, the man had never known domestic life; a common enough case, and generally fraught with great perils. Isherwood's temperament, and the peculiar cast of his mind, protected him in a singular way. He had not been tempted to the damnation of a foolish marriage, nor at any time had entangled himself with women; yet he enjoyed female society, and innocently had a good deal of it. His male acquaintances were numerous, and many of them disreputable; yet their companionship never led him into disaster. Conscious of the homeliest desires, of the commonest ambitions, wishing for a house of his own, with wife and children and social consideration, he lived in completest detachment from the world of respectability, and could discover no mode of connecting himself with it. Still he firmly believed that the future had happy things in store for him, and on that account, nothing could have induced him to encroach upon his capital.

His days followed an all but invariable routine. At nine o'clock he began to rouse himself, feeling unwell, wishing he had drunk rather less the night before, and resolving to be more prudent in future. At half-past nine, the lodging-house slavey (he had a bedroom in Thanet Place, off the Strand) brought him tea and a bloater, over which he dawdled, still dressing, for about an hour. Regardless of weather, he then went forth to his "toilet club," in Holywell Street, and chatted under the hands of the barber. Much refreshed with the fragrance of bay rum—it often surprised him that he had once been able to live without bay rum—he set off on what he called his "constitutional," a walk to the Exchange and back, seriously undertaken out of regard for his health; and on the way he considered where he should have luncheon, for it was his custom never to eat at the same place on two successive days. No man had a larger acquaintance with the eating-places of the Metropolis. His palate did not demand luxuries; at lunch he seldom spent more than eighteenpence, and at dinner rarely exceeded half-a-crown; but in homely dishes he was critical.

After the mid-day meal, he began to drink. The habit had grown upon him; the need was physical; yet it connected itself with his desire for society. At this time of the day it was not easy to find men at leisure; at all events, the kind of men with whom he cared to associate in his daylight mood, which always tended to the rigidly moral, and, as years went on, grew tinged with a certain penitential gravity. Consequently, his afternoon was spent in "private" bars, where he conversed with the young woman who supplied his chosen beverage. Among a score or two of barmaids to whom his pleasant, though plain, countenance was very familiar, Isherwood felt himself privileged to distinguish some half-dozen as his intimate friends; and with these he would talk by the hour. Remarkable dialogue. Invariably it began with light-hearted facetiousness, with mutual banter of a wholly inoffensive kind; then Isherwood, after a few sips at his glass, fell into a softer tone, and little by little led the talk to matters of private, of domestic concern. These young women had learnt to confide in him, even to the extent of discussing their love affairs. For some singular reason they did not regard him as a possible wooer; he, on his part, desired only to be their familiar friend. In many instance he had given excellent advice, when good and disinterested counsel was hardly to be had from anyone else. He spoke, when it seemed necessary, in the tone of fatherly admonition, and in the end was always seriously heard. A calamity befalling one of his protégés troubled him for many days; he would talk about it with the others, and make it the text of sober little discourses, thoroughly well-meant.

And all the time he drank. By six o'clock he began to feel the exhilaration which is part of the alcoholic appetite for food; with approach of dinner the pleasantest hours of the day gleamed before him. He now encountered his boon companions, elaborated plans for the evening, forgot all his cares, all his graver resolves. Not a piece was produced at any West-end theatre but Isherwood saw it on the first night; every music-hall of repute had a share of his attentions. Yet he had long ago ceased to care genuinely for these entertainments; for the most part, he neither saw nor listened, but sat dreaming of the things his soul desired—a home, a wife, a child, and respectability. Music often affected him to tears, and then he would make noble resolutions, always involving a departure for distant lands, where a "new life" might be entered upon. He talked of it to his companion as a settled thing. "We shan't see much more of each other, old man; in a week I start." Whereupon the companion smiled or guffawed according to his nature.

It was with reluctance that he turned homeward. The bedroom in Thanet Place had few attractions: in summer it smelt of everything that a room should not, and in winter no fire could abate its clammy cold. Unless the weather was very bad indeed, Isherwood sauntered about the Strand till long after midnight, and however late the hour, he always found someone with whom to gossip. For the women of the street knew him well, and like the barmaids, regarded him with peculiar friendliness. They expected nothing from him, but perhaps it pleased them to talk with a decent man who never disagreeably reminded them of their outcast state. He chatted pleasantly of everyday things—actors, singers, the latest murder, the state of trade, and occasionally something of this kind would pass:—

"Heard anything from your people in the country?"

"Oh, they've given up writing."

"Why don't you run down and see them? I would if I were you, Jenny. You want a change you know, and there might be some sort of chance—eh?"

And it did happen, once or twice, that his counsel came at the right moment.

He himself had now no "people in the country" to think of. His kinsfolk were dead, or scattered and lost to sight. Sometimes, when he tossed sleepless on his uncomfortable bed, he asked himself what would become of his money if he were to fall ill and die. Ought he not to make a will? If he did so, what purpose of public utility could he serve? On the whole, he inclined to benefit a Children's Hospital. His name would appear in the Annual Report, and possibly might get into the newspapers.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.