In the evening he trailed back to the flat, footsore and with his nerves on edge from a series of snubs. He was making all his journeys on foot, to economise Ravelston’s two pounds. When he got back Ravelston had just come up from the office and was sitting in one of the armchairs in front of the fire, with some long galley-proofs over his knee. He looked up as Gordon came in.
‘Any luck?’ he said as usual.
Gordon did not answer. If he had answered it would have been with a stream of obscenities. Without even looking at Ravelston he went straight into his bedroom, kicked off his shoes and flung himself on the bed. He hated himself at this moment. Why had he come back? What right had he to come back and sponge on Ravelston when he hadn’t even the intention of looking for a job any longer? He ought to have stayed out in the streets, slept in Trafalgar Square, begged—anything. But he hadn’t the guts to face the streets as yet. The prospect of warmth and shelter had tugged him back. He lay with his hands beneath his head, in a mixture of apathy and self-hatred. After about half an hour he heard the door-bell ring and Ravelston get up to answer it. It was that bitch Hermione Slater, presumably. Ravelston had introduced Gordon to Hermione a couple of days ago, and she had treated him like dirt. But a moment later there was a knock at the bedroom door.
‘What is it?’ said Gordon.
‘Somebody’s come to see you,’ said Ravelston.
‘To see me?’
‘Yes. Come on into the other room.’
Gordon swore and rolled sluggishly off the bed. When he got to the other room he found that the visitor was Rosemary. He had been half expecting her, of course, but it wearied him to see her. He knew why she had come; to sympathise with him, to pity him, to reproach him—it was all the same. In his despondent, bored mood he did not want to make the effort of talking to her. All he wanted was to be left alone. But Ravelston was glad to see her. He had taken a liking to her in their single meeting and thought she might cheer Gordon up. He made a transparent pretext to go downstairs to the office, leaving the two of them together.
They were alone, but Gordon made no move to embrace her. He was standing in front of the fire, round-shouldered, his hands in his coat pockets, his feet thrust into a pair of Ravelston’s slippers which were much too big for him. She came rather hesitantly towards him, not yet taking off her hat or her coat with the lamb-skin collar. It hurt her to see him. In less than a week his appearance had deteriorated strangely. Already he had that unmistakable, seedy, lounging look of a man who is out of work. His face seemed to have grown thinner, and there were rings round his eyes. Also it was obvious that he had not shaved that day.
She laid her hand on his arm, rather awkwardly, as a woman does when it is she who has to make the first embrace.
He said it almost sulkily. The next moment she was in his arms. But it was she who had made the first movement, not he. Her head was on his breast, and behold! she was struggling with all her might against the tears that almost overwhelmed her. It bored Gordon dreadfully. He seemed so often to reduce her to tears! And he didn’t want to be cried over; he only wanted to be left alone—alone to sulk and despair. As he held her there, one hand mechanically caressing her shoulder, his main feeling was boredom. She had made things more difficult for him by coming here. Ahead of him were dirt, cold, hunger, the streets, the workhouse and the jail. It was against that that he had got to steel himself. And he could steel himself, if only she would leave him alone and not come plaguing him with these irrelevant emotions.
He pushed her a little way from him. She had recovered herself quickly, as she always did.
‘Gordon, my dear one! Oh, I’m so sorry, so sorry!’
‘Sorry about what?’
‘You losing your job and everything. You look so unhappy.’
‘I’m not unhappy. Don’t pity me, for God’s sake.’
He disengaged himself from her arms. She pulled her hat off and threw it into a chair. She had come here with something definite to say. It was something she had refrained from saying all these years—something that it had seemed to her a point of chivalry not to say. But now it had got to be said, and she would come straight out with it. It was not in her nature to beat about the bush.
‘Gordon, will you do something to please me?’
‘Will you go back to the New Albion?’
So that was it! Of course he had foreseen it. She was going to start nagging at him like all the others. She was going to add herself to the band of people who worried him and badgered him to ‘get on’. But what else could you expect? It was what any woman would say. The marvel was that she had never said it before. Go back to the New Albion! It had been the sole significant action of his life, leaving the New Albion. It was his religion, you might say, to keep out of that filthy money-world. Yet at this moment he could not remember with any clarity the motives for which he had left the New Albion. All he knew was that he would never go back, not if the skies fell, and that the argument he foresaw bored him in advance.
He shrugged his shoulders and looked away. ‘The New Albion wouldn’t take me back,’ he said shortly.
‘Yes, they would. You remember what Mr Erskine said. It’s not so long ago—only two years. And they’re always on the look-out for good copywriters. Everyone at the office says so. I’m sure they’d give you a job if you went and asked them. And they’d pay you at least four pounds a week.’
‘Four pounds a week! Splendid! I could afford to keep an aspidistra on that, couldn’t I?’
‘No, Gordon, don’t joke about it now.’
‘I’m not joking. I’m serious.’
‘You mean you won’t go back to them—not even if they offered you a job?’
‘Not in a thousand years. Not if they paid me fifty pounds a week.’
‘But why? Why?’
‘I’ve told you why,’ he said wearily.
She looked at him helplessly. After all, it was no use. There was this money-business standing in the way—these meaningless scruples which she had never understood but which she had accepted merely because they were his. She felt all the impotence, the resentment of a woman who sees an abstract idea triumphing over common sense. How maddening it was, that he should let himself be pushed into the gutter by a thing like that! She said almost angrily:
‘I don’t understand you, Gordon, I really don’t. Here you are out of work, you may be starving in a little while for all you know; and yet when there’s a good job which you can have almost for the asking, you won’t take it.’
‘No, you’re quite right. I won’t.’
‘But you must have some kind of job, mustn’t you?’
‘A job, but not a good job. I’ve explained that God knows how often. I dare say I’ll get a job of sorts sooner or later. The same kind of job as I had before.’
‘But I don’t believe you’re even trying to get a job, are you?’
‘Yes, I am. I’ve been out all today seeing booksellers.’
‘And you didn’t even shave this morning!’ she said, changing her ground with feminine swiftness.
He felt his chin. ‘I don’t believe I did, as a matter of fact.’
‘And then you expect people to give you a job! Oh, Gordon!’
‘Oh, well, what does it matter? It’s too much fag to shave every day.’
‘You’re letting yourself go to pieces,’ she said bitterly. ‘You don’t seem to want to make any effort. You want to sink—just sink!’
‘I don’t know—perhaps. I’d sooner sink than rise.’
There were further arguments. It was the first time she had ever spoken to him like this. Once again the tears came into her eyes, and once again she fought them back. She had come here swearing to herself that she would not cry. The dreadful thing was that her tears, instead of distressing him, merely bored him. It was as though he could not care, and yet at his very centre there was an inner heart that cared because he could not care. If only she would leave him alone! Alone, alone! Free from the nagging consciousness of his failure; free to sink, as she said, down, down into quiet worlds where money and effort and moral obligation did not exist. Finally he got away from her and went back to the spare bedroom. It was definitely a quarrel—the first really deadly quarrel they had ever had. Whether it was to be final he did not know. Nor did he care, at this moment. He locked the door behind him and lay on the bed smoking a cigarette. He must get out of this place, and quickly! Tomorrow morning he would clear out. No more sponging on Ravelston! No more blackmail to the gods of decency! Down, down, into the mud—down to the streets, the workhouse and the jail. It was only there that he could be at peace.
Ravelston came upstairs to find Rosemary alone and on the point of departure. She said good-bye and then suddenly turned to him and laid her hand on his arm. She felt that she knew him well enough now to take him into her confidence.
‘Mr Ravelston, please—will you try and persuade Gordon to get a job?’
‘I’ll do what I can. Of course it’s always difficult. But I expect we’ll find him a job of sorts before long.’
‘It’s so dreadful to see him like this! He goes absolutely to pieces. And all the time, you see, there’s a job he could quite easily get if he wanted it—a really good job. It’s not that he can’t, it’s simply that he won’t.’
She explained about the New Albion. Ravelston rubbed his nose.
‘Yes. As a matter of fact I’ve heard all about that. We talked it over when he left the New Albion.’
‘But you don’t think he was right to leave them?’ she said, promptly divining that Ravelston did think Gordon right.
‘Well—I grant you it wasn’t very wise. But there’s a certain amount of truth in what he says. Capitalism’s corrupt and we ought to keep outside it—that’s his idea. It’s not practicable, but in a way it’s sound.’
‘Oh, I dare say it’s all right as a theory! But when he’s out of work and when he could get this job if he chose to ask for it—surely you don’t think he’s right to refuse?’
‘Not from a commonsense point of view. But in principle—well, yes.’
‘Oh, in principle! We can’t afford principles, people like us. That’s what Gordon doesn’t seem to understand.’
Gordon did not leave the flat next morning. One resolves to do these things, one wants to do them; but when the time comes, in the cold morning light, they somehow don’t get done. He would stay just one day more, he told himself; and then again it was ‘just one day more’, until five whole days had passed since Rosemary’s visit, and he was still lurking there, living on Ravelston, with not even a flicker of a job in sight. He still made some pretence of searching for work, but he only did it to save his face. He would go out and loaf for hours in public libraries, and then come home to lie on the bed in the spare bedroom, dressed except for his shoes, smoking endless cigarettes. And for all that inertia and the fear of the streets still held him there, those five days were awful, damnable, unspeakable. There is nothing more dreadful in the world than to live in somebody else’s house, eating his bread and doing nothing in return for it. And perhaps it is worst of all when your benefactor won’t for a moment admit that he is your benefactor. Nothing could have exceeded Ravelston’s delicacy. He would have perished rather than admit that Gordon was sponging on him. He had paid Gordon’s fine, he had paid his arrears of rent, he had kept him for a week and he had ‘lent’ him two pounds on top of that; but it was nothing, it was a mere arrangement between friends, Gordon would do the same for him another time. From time to time Gordon made feeble efforts to escape, which always ended in the same way.