You push the packet open and then register surprise. ‘Hell! I’m down to my last. And I could have sworn I had a full packet.’
‘Oh, I won’t take your last. Have one of mine,’ says the other.
And after that, of course, your host and hostess press cigarettes upon you. But you must have one cigarette, just for honour’s sake.
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over. He would finish that poem presently. He could finish it whenever he chose. It was queer, how the mere prospect of going to a literary tea-party bucked him up. When your income is two quid a week you at least aren’t jaded by too much human contact. Even to see the inside of somebody else’s house is a kind of treat. A padded armchair under your bum, and tea and cigarettes and the smell of women—you learn to appreciate such things when you are starved of them. In practice, though, Doring’s parties never in the least resembled what Gordon looked forward to. Those wonderful, witty, erudite conversations that he imagined beforehand—they never happened or began to happen. Indeed there was never anything that could properly be called conversation at all; only the stupid clacking that goes on at parties everywhere, in Hampstead or Hong Kong. No one really worth meeting ever came to Doring’s parties. Doring was such a very mangy lion himself that his followers were hardly even worthy to be called jackals. Quite half of them were those hen-witted middle-aged women who have lately escaped from good Christian homes and are trying to be literary. The star exhibits were troops of bright young things who dropped in for half an hour, formed circles of their own and talked sniggeringly about other bright young things to whom they referred by nicknames. For the most part Gordon found himself hanging about on the edges of conversations. Doring was kind in a slap-dash way and introduced him to everybody as ‘Gordon Comstock—you know; the poet. He wrote that dashed clever book of poems called Mice. You know.’ But Gordon had never yet encountered anybody who did know. The bright young things summed him up at a glance and ignored him. He was thirtyish, moth-eaten and obviously penniless. And yet, in spite of the invariable disappointment, how eagerly he looked forward to those literary tea-parties! They were a break in his loneliness, anyway. That is the devilish thing about poverty, the ever-recurrent thing—loneliness. Day after day with never an intelligent person to talk to; night after night back to your godless room, always alone. Perhaps it sounds rather fun if you are rich and sought-after; but how different it is when you do it from necessity!
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over. A stream of cars hummed easily up the hill. Gordon eyed them without envy. Who wants a car, anyway? The pink doll-faces of upper-class women gazed at him through the car window. Bloody nit-witted lapdogs. Pampered bitches dozing on their chains. Better the lone wolf than the cringing dog. He thought of the Tube stations at early morning. The black hordes of clerks scurrying underground like ants into a hole; swarms of little ant-like men, each with despatch-case in right hand, newspaper in left hand, and the fear of the sack like a maggot in his heart. How it eats at them, that secret fear! Especially on winter days, when they hear the menace of the wind. Winter, the sack, the workhouse, the Embankment benches! Ah!
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over
The bending poplars, newly bare,
And the dark ribbons of the chimneys
Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,
Tom posters flutter; coldly sound
The boom of trams and the rattle of hooves,
And the clerks who hurry to the station
Look, shuddering, over the eastern rooves,
What do they think? Winter’s coming. Is my job safe? The sack means the workhouse. Circumcise ye your foreskins, saith the Lord. Suck the blacking off the boss’s boots. Yes!
Thinking each one, ‘Here comes the winter!
Please God I keep my job this year!’
And bleakly, as the cold strikes through
Their entrails like an icy spear,
‘Think’ again. No matter. What do they think? Money, money! Rent, rates, taxes, school-bills, season tickets, boots for the children. And the life insurance policy and the skivvy’s wages. And, my God, suppose the wife gets in the family way again! And did I laugh loud enough when the boss made that joke yesterday? And the next instalment on the vacuum cleaner.
Neatly, taking a pleasure in his neatness, with the sensation of dropping piece after piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place, he fashioned another stanza:
They think of rent, rates, season tickets,
Insurance, coal, the skivvy’s wages,
Boots, school-bills, and the next instalment
Upon the two twin beds from Drage’s.
Not bad, not bad at all. Finish it presently. Four or five more stanzas. Ravelston would print it.
A starling sat in the naked boughs of a plane tree, crooning self-pitifully as starlings do on warm winter days when they believe spring is in the air. At the foot of the tree a huge sandy cat sat motionless, mouth open, gazing upwards with rapt desire, plainly expecting that the starling would drop into its mouth. Gordon repeated to himself the four finished stanzas of his poem. It was good. Why had he thought last night that it was mechanical, weak and empty? He was a poet. He walked more upright, arrogantly almost, with the pride of a poet. Gordon Comstock, author of Mice. ‘Of exceptional promise,’ The Times Lit. Supp. had said. Author also of London Pleasures. For that too would be finished quite soon. He knew now that he could finish it when he chose. Why had he ever despaired of it? Three months it might take; soon enough to come out in the summer. In his mind’s eye he saw the ‘slim’ white buckram shape of London Pleasures; the excellent paper, the wide margins, the good Caslon type, the refined dust-jacket. And the reviews in all the best papers. ‘An outstanding achievement’—The Times Lit. Supp. ‘A welcome relief from the Sitwell school’—Scrutiny.
Coleridge Grove was a damp, shadowy, secluded road, a blind alley and therefore void of traffic. Literary associations of the wrong kind (Coleridge was rumoured to have lived there for six weeks in the summer of 1821) hung heavy upon it. You could not look at its antique decaying houses, standing back from the road in dank gardens under heavy trees, without feeling an atmosphere of outmoded ‘culture’ envelop you. In some of those houses, undoubtedly, Browning Societies still flourished, and ladies in art serge sat at the feet of extinct poets talking about Swinburne and Walter Pater. In spring the gardens were sprinkled with purple and yellow crocuses, and later with harebells, springing up in little Wendy rings among the anæmic grass; and even the trees, it seemed to Gordon, played up to their environment and twisted themselves into whimsy Rackhamesque attitudes. It was queer that a prosperous hack critic like Paul Doring should live in such a place. For Doring was an astonishingly bad critic. He reviewed novels for the Sunday Post and discovered the great English novel with Walpolean regularity once a fortnight. You would have expected him to live in a flat on Hyde Park Corner. Perhaps it was a kind of penance that he had imposed upon himself, as though by living in the refined discomfort of Coleridge Grove he propitiated the injured gods of literature.
Gordon came round the corner, turning over in his mind a line from London Pleasures. And then suddenly he stopped short. There was something wrong about the look of the Dorings’ gate. What was it? Ah, of course! There were no cars waiting outside.
He paused, walked on a step or two and stopped again, like a dog that smells danger. It was all wrong. There ought to be some cars. There were always quite a lot of people at the Dorings’ parties, and half of them came in cars. Why had nobody else arrived? Could he be too early? But no! They had said half past three and it was at least twenty to four.
He hastened towards the gate. Already he felt practically sure that the party had been put off. A chill like the shadow of a cloud had fallen across him. Suppose the Dorings weren’t at home! Suppose the party had been put off! And this thought, though it dismayed him, did not strike him as in the least improbable. It was his special bugbear, the especial childish dread he carried about with him, to be invited to people’s houses and then find them not at home. Even when there was no doubt about the invitation he always half expected that there would be some hitch or other. He was never quite certain of his welcome. He took it for granted that people would snub him and forget about him. Why not, indeed? He had no money. When you have no money your life is one long series of snubs.
He swung the iron gate open. It creaked with a lonely sound. The dank mossy path was bordered with chunks of some Rackhamesque pinkish stone. Gordon inspected the house-front narrowly. He was so used to this kind of thing. He had developed a sort of Sherlock Holmes technique for finding out whether a house was inhabited or not. Ah! Not much doubt about it this time. The house had a deserted look. No smoke coming from the chimneys, no windows lighted. It must be getting darkish indoors—surely they would have lighted the lamps? And there was not a single footmark on the steps; that settled it. Nevertheless with a sort of desperate hope he tugged at the bell. An old-fashioned wire bell, of course. In Coleridge Grove it would have been considered low and unliterary to have an electric bell.
Clang, clang, clang! went the bell.
Gordon’s last hope vanished. No mistaking the hollow clangour of a bell echoing through an empty house. He seized the handle again and gave it a wrench that almost broke the wire. A frightful, clamorous peal answered him. But it was useless, quite useless. Not a foot stirred within. Even the servants were out. At this moment he became aware of a lace cap, some dark hair and a pair of youthful eyes regarding him furtively from the basement of the house next door. It was a servant-girl who had come out to see what all the noise was about. She caught his eye and gazed into the middle distance. He looked a fool and knew it. One always does look a fool when one rings the bell of an empty house. And suddenly it came to him that that girl knew all about him—knew that the party had been put off and that everyone except Gordon had been told of it—knew that it was because he had no money that he wasn’t worth the trouble of telling. She knew. Servants always know.
He turned and made for the gate. Under the servant’s eye he had to stroll casually away, as though this were a small disappointment that scarcely mattered. But he was trembling so with anger that it was difficult to control his movements. The sods! The bloody sods! To have played a trick like that on him! To have invited him, and then changed the day and not even bothered to tell him! There might be other explanations—he just refused to think of them. The sods, the bloody sods! His eye fell upon one of the Rackhamesque chunks of stone. How he’d love to pick that thing up and bash it through the window! He grasped the rusty gate-bar so hard that he hurt his hand and almost tore it. The physical pain did him good. It counteracted the agony at his heart. It was not merely that he had been cheated of an evening spent in human company, though that was much. It was the feeling of helplessness, of insignificance, of being set aside, ignored—a creature not worth worrying about. They’d changed the day and hadn’t even bothered to tell him. Told everybody else, but not him. That’s how people treat you when you’ve no money! Just wantonly, cold-bloodedly insult you. It was likely enough, indeed, that the Dorings had honestly forgotten, meaning no harm; it was even possible that he himself had mistaken the date. But no! He wouldn’t think of it. The Dorings had done it on purpose. Of course they had done it on purpose! Just hadn’t troubled to tell him, because he had no money and consequently didn’t matter. The sods!