By 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 breakneck 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 occupation.
At one o'clock he gave signs of weariness, and stood as though debating a question with himself; as the 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 mid-day meal; he ate without 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 for the Westminster Review. And thus again, moving at intervals from seat to seat, he passed the afternoon.
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 consolation.
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 clean 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 altogether 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 again?"
"I don't know. Why not? Unless, of course, we had a 'ouse of our own."
"And so we will!" exclaimed Dunn fervently, a sanguine flush upon his cheeks.
"A nice tittle '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 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 reading.
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 graver 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 failure.
"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 began to grumble at not being paid, a piece of ingratitude which Mr. 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 mid-day 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. An hour passed before he remembered that he had had no dinner.
He ate with strict economy, and hurried back again, this time to the upper hall. 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 welcome."
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, Willie?"
"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.