Gordon’s heart sickened. To be in there, just to be in there! In the warmth and light, with people to talk to, with beer and cigarettes and a girl to flirt with! After all, why not go in? You could borrow a bob off Flaxman. Flaxman would lend it you all right. He pictured Flaxman’s careless assent—‘What ho, chappie! How’s life? What? A bob? Sure! Take two. Catch, chappie!’—and the florin flicked along the beer-wet bar. Flaxman was a decent sort, in his way.
Gordon put his hand against the swing door. He even pushed it open a few inches. The warm fog of smoke and beer slipped through the crack. A familiar, reviving smell; nevertheless as he smelled it his nerve failed him. No! Impossible to go in. He turned away. He couldn’t go shoving into that saloon bar with only four pence halfpenny in his pocket. Never let other people buy your drinks for you! The first commandment of the moneyless. He made off, down the dark pavement.
‘For ree’s a jorrigoo’ fe-ELL-OW—
And toori oori us!
‘With a toori oori ay!
The voices, diminishing with distance, rolled after him, bearing faint tidings of beer. Gordon took the three penny-bit from his pocket and sent it skimming away into the darkness.
He was going home, if you could call it ‘going’. At any rate he was gravitating in that direction. He did not want to go home, but he had got to sit down. His legs ached and his feet were bruised, and that vile bedroom was the sole place in London where he had purchased the right to sit down. He slipped in quietly, but, as usual, not quite so quietly that Mrs Wisbeach failed to hear him. She gave him a brief nosy glance round the corner of her door. It would be a little after nine. She might get him a meal if he asked her. But she would grizzle and make a favour of it, and he would go to bed hungry sooner than face that.
He started up the stairs. He was half way up the first flight when a double knock behind him made him jump. The post! Perhaps a letter from Rosemary!
Forced from outside, the letter flap lifted, and with an effort, like a heron regurgitating a flatfish, vomited a bunch of letters onto the mat. Gordon’s heart bounded. There were six or seven of them. Surely among all that lot there must be one for himself! Mrs Wisbeach, as usual, had darted from her lair at the sound of the postman’s knock. As a matter of fact, in two years Gordon had never once succeeded in getting hold of a letter before Mrs Wisbeach laid hands on it. She gathered the letters jealously to her breast, and then, holding them up one at a time, scanned their addresses. From her manner you could gather that she suspected each one of them of containing a writ, an improper love letter or an ad for Amen Pills.
‘One for you, Mr Comstock,’ she said sourly, handing him a letter.
His heart shrank and paused in its beat. A long-shaped envelope. Not from Rosemary, therefore. Ah! It was addressed in his own handwriting. From the editor of a paper, then. He had two poems ‘out’ at present. One with the Californian Review, the other with the Primrose Quarterly. But this wasn’t an American stamp. And the Primrose had had his poem at least six weeks! Good God, supposing they’d accepted it!
He had forgotten Rosemary’s existence. He said ‘Thanks!’, stuck the letter in his pocket and started up the stairs with outward calm, but no sooner was he out of Mrs Wisbeach’s sight than he bounded up three steps at a time. He had got to be alone to open that letter. Even before he reached the door he was feeling for his matchbox, but his fingers were trembling so that in lighting the gas he chipped the mantle. He sat down, took the letter from his pocket, and then quailed. For a moment he could not nerve himself to open it. He held it up to the light and felt it to see how thick it was. His poem had been two sheets. Then, calling himself a fool, he ripped the envelope open. Out tumbled his own poem, and with it a neat—oh, so neat!—little printed slip of imitation parchment:
The Editor regrets that he is unable to make use of the enclosed contribution.
The slip was decorated with a design of funereal laurel leaves.
Gordon gazed at the thing with wordless hatred. Perhaps no snub in the world is so deadly as this, because none is so unanswerable. Suddenly he loathed his own poem and was acutely ashamed of it. He felt it the weakest, silliest poem ever written. Without looking at it again he tore it into small bits and flung them into the wastepaper basket. He would put that poem out of mind for ever. The rejection slip, however, he did not tear up yet. He fingered it, feeling its loathly sleekness. Such an elegant little thing, printed in admirable type. You could tell at a glance that it came from a ‘good’ magazine—a snooty highbrow magazine with the money of a publishing house behind it. Money, money! Money and culture! It was a stupid thing that he had done. Fancy sending a poem to a paper like the Primrose! As though they’d accept poems from people like him. The mere fact that the poem wasn’t typed would tell them what kind of person he was. He might as well have dropped a card on Buckingham Palace. He thought of the people who wrote for the Primrose; a coterie of moneyed highbrows—those sleek, refined young animals who suck in money and culture with their mother’s milk. The idea of trying to horn in among that pansy crowd! But he cursed them all the same. The sods! The bloody sods! ‘The Editor regrets!’ Why be so bloody mealy-mouthed about it? Why not say outright, ‘We don’t want your bloody poems. We only take poems from chaps we were at Cambridge with. You proletarians keep your distance’? The bloody, hypocritical sods!
At last he crumpled up the rejection slip, threw it away and stood up. Better get to bed while he had the energy to undress. Bed was the only place that was warm. But wait. Wind the clock, set the alarm. He went through the familiar action with a sense of deadly staleness. His eye fell upon the aspidistra. Two years he had inhabited this vile room; two mortal years in which nothing had been accomplished. Seven hundred wasted days, all ending in the lonely bed. Snubs, failures, insults, all of them unavenged. Money, money, all is money! Because he had no money the Dorings snubbed him, because he had no money the Primrose had turned down his poem, because he had no money Rosemary wouldn’t sleep with him. Social failure, artistic failure, sexual failure—they are all the same. And lack of money is at the bottom of them all.
He must hit back at somebody or something. He could not go to bed with that rejection slip as the last thing in his mind. He thought of Rosemary. It was five days now since she had written. If there had been a letter from her this evening even that rap over the knuckles from the Primrose Quarterly would have mattered less. She declared that she loved him, and she wouldn’t sleep with him, wouldn’t even write to him! She was the same as all the others. She despised him and forgot about him because he had no money and therefore didn’t matter. He would write her an enormous letter, telling her what it felt like to be ignored and insulted, making her see how cruelly she had treated him.
He found a clean sheet of paper and wrote in the top right-hand corner:
31 Willowbed Road, NW, December 1st, 9.30 p.m.
But having written that much, he found that he could write no more. He was in the defeated mood when even the writing of a letter is too great an effort. Besides, what was the use? She would never understand. No woman ever understands. But he must write something. Something to wound her—that was what he most wanted, at this moment. He meditated for a long time, and at last wrote, exactly in the middle of the sheet:
You have broken my heart.
No address, no signature. Rather neat it looked, all by itself, there in the middle of the sheet, in his small ‘scholarly’ handwriting. Almost like a little poem in itself. This thought cheered him up a little.
He stuck the letter in an envelope and then went out and posted it at the post office on the corner, spending his last three halfpence on a penny stamp and a halfpenny stamp out of the slot machine.
‘WE’RE PRINTING that poem of yours in next month’s Antichrist,’ said Ravelston from his first-floor window.
Gordon, on the pavement below, affected to have forgotten the poem Ravelston was speaking about; he remembered it intimately, of course, as he remembered all his poems.
‘Which poem?’ he said.
‘The one about the dying prostitute. We thought it was rather successful.’
Gordon laughed a laugh of gratified conceit, and managed to pass it off as a laugh of sardonic amusement.
‘Aha! A dying prostitute! That’s rather what you might call one of my subjects. I’ll do you one about an aspidistra next time.’
Ravelston’s over-sensitive, boyish face, framed by nice dark-brown hair, drew back a little from the window.
‘It’s intolerably cold,’ he said. ‘You’d better come up and have some food, or something.’
‘No, you come down. I’ve had dinner. Let’s go to a pub and have some beer.’
‘All right, then. Half a minute while I get my shoes on.’
They had been talking for some minutes, Gordon on the pavement, Ravelston leaning out of the window above. Gordon had announced his arrival not by knocking at the door but by throwing a pebble against the window pane. He never, if he could help it, set foot inside Ravelston’s flat. There was something in the atmosphere of the flat that upset him and made him feel mean, dirty and out of place. It was so overwhelmingly, though unconsciously, upper-class. Only in the street or in a pub could he feel himself approximately Ravelston’s equal. It would have astonished Ravelston to learn that his four-roomed flat, which he thought of as a poky little place, had this effect upon Gordon. To Ravelston, living in the wilds of Regent’s Park was practically the same thing as living in the slums; he had chosen to live there, en bon socialiste, precisely as your social snob will live in a mews in Mayfair for the sake of the ‘WI’ on his notepaper. It was part of a lifelong attempt to escape from his own class and become, as it were, an honorary member of the proletariat. Like all such attempts, it was foredoomed to failure. No rich man ever succeeds in disguising himself as a poor man; for money, like murder, will out.
On the street door there was a brass plate inscribed:
P. W. H. Ravelston
Ravelston lived on the first floor, and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle- to highbrow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets. This was not really Ravelston’s character; merely he was softer-hearted than an editor ought to be, and consequently was at the mercy of his contributors. Practically anything got printed in Antichrist if Ravelston suspected that its author was starving.
Ravelston appeared a moment later, hatless and pulling on a pair of gauntlet gloves. You could tell him at a glance for a rich young man. He wore the uniform of the moneyed intelligentsia; an old tweed coat—but it was one of those coats which have been made by a good tailor and grow more aristocratic as they grow older—very loose grey flannel bags, a grey pullover, much-worn brown shoes. He made a point of going everywhere, even to fashionable houses and expensive restaurants, in these clothes, just to show his contempt for upper-class conventions; he did not fully realise that it is only the upper classes who can do these things. Though he was a year older than Gordon he looked much younger. He was very tall, with a lean, wide-shouldered body and the typical lounging grace of the upper-class youth. But there was something curiously apologetic in his movements and in the expression of his face. He seemed always in the act of stepping out of somebody else’s way. When expressing an opinion he would rub his nose with the back of his left forefinger. The truth was that in every moment of his life he was apologising, tacitly, for the largeness of his income. You could make him uncomfortable as easily by reminding him that he was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was poor.