Under ground, under ground! Down in the safe soft womb of earth,
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where there is no getting of jobs or losing of jobs, no relatives
or friends to plague you, no hope, fear, ambition, honour, duty--
no DUNS of any kind. That was where he wished to be.
Yet it was not death, actual physical death, that he wished for.
It was a queer feeling that he had. It had been with him ever
since that morning when he had woken up in the police cell. The
evil, mutinous mood that comes after drunkenness seemed to have set
into a habit. That drunken night had marked a period in his life.
It had dragged him downward with strange suddenness. Before, he
had fought against the money-code, and yet he had clung to his
wretched remnant of decency. But now it was precisely from decency
that he wanted to escape. He wanted to go down, deep down, into
some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of
his self-respect, to submerge himself--to SINK, as Rosemary had
said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being
UNDER GROUND. He liked to think about the lost people, the under-
ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a
good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and
spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is
that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no
meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was
where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, BELOW ambition.
It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South
London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you
could lose yourself for ever.
And in a way this job was what he wanted; at any rate, it was
something near what he wanted. Down there in Lambeth, in winter,
in the murky streets where the sepia-shadowed faces of tea-
drunkards drifted through the mist, you had a SUBMERGED feeling.
Down here you had no contact with money or with culture. No
highbrow customers to whom you had to act the highbrow; no one who
was capable of asking you, in that prying way that prosperous
people have, 'What are you, with your brains and education, doing
in a job like this?' You were just part of the slum, and, like all
slum-dwellers, taken for granted. The youths and girls and
draggled middle-aged women who came to the library scarcely even
spotted the fact that Gordon was an educated man. He was just 'the
bloke at the library', and practically one of themselves.
The job itself, of course, was of inconceivable futility. You just
sat there, ten hours a day, six hours on Thursdays, handing out
books, registering them, and receiving twopences. Between whiles
there was nothing to do except read. There was nothing worth
watching in the desolate street outside. The principal event
of the day was when the hearse drove up to the undertaker's
establishment next door. This had a faint interest for Gordon,
because the dye was wearing off one of the horses and it was
assuming by degrees a curious purplish-brown shade. Much of the
time, when no customers came, he spent reading the yellow-jacketed
trash that the library contained. Books of that type you could
read at the rate of one an hour. And they were the kind of books
that suited him nowadays. It is real 'escape literature', that
stuff in the twopenny libraries. Nothing has ever been devised
that puts less strain on the intelligence; even a film, by
comparison, demands a certain effort. And so when a customer
demanded a book of this category or that, whether it was 'Sex' or
'Crime' or 'Wild West' or 'ROmance' (always with the accent on the
O). Gordon was ready with expert advice.
Mr Cheeseman was not a bad person to work for, so long as you
understood that if you worked till the Day of Judgement you would
never get a rise of wages. Needless to say, he suspected Gordon of
pinching the till-money. After a week or two he devised a new
system of booking, by which he could tell how many books had been
taken out and check this with the day's takings. But it was still
(he reflected) in Gordon's power to issue books and make no record
of them; and so the possibility that Gordon might be cheating him
of sixpence or even a shilling a day continued to trouble him, like
the pea under the princess's mattress. Yet he was not absolutely
unlikeable, in his sinister, dwarfish way. In the evenings, after
he had shut the shop, when he came along to the library to collect
the day's takings, he would stay talking to Gordon for a while and
recounting with nosy chuckles any particularly astute swindles that
he had worked lately. From these conversations Gordon pieced
together Mr Cheeseman's history. He had been brought up in the
old-clothes trade, which was his spiritual vocation, so to speak,
and had inherited the bookshop from an uncle three years ago. At
that time it was one of those dreadful bookshops in which there are
not even any shelves, in which the books lie about in monstrous
dusty piles with no attempt at classification. It was frequented
to some extent by book-collectors, because there was occasionally a
valuable book among the piles of rubbish, but mainly it kept going
by selling secondhand paper-covered thrillers at twopence each.
Over this dustheap Mr Cheeseman had presided, at first, with
intense disgust. He loathed books and had not yet grasped that
there was money to be made out of them. He was still keeping his
old-clothes shop going by means of a deputy, and intended to return
to it as soon as he could get a good offer for the bookshop. But
presently it was borne in upon him that books, properly handled,
are worth money. As soon as he had made this discovery he
developed as astonishing flair for bookdealing. Within two years
he had worked his shop up till it was one of the best 'rare'
bookshops of its size in London. To him a book was as purely an
article of merchandise as a pair of second-hand trousers. He had
never in his life READ a book himself, nor could he conceive why
anyone should want to do so. His attitude towards the collectors
who pored so lovingly over his rare editions was that of a sexually
cold prostitute towards her clientele. Yet he seemed to know by
the mere feel of a book whether it was valuable or not. His head
was a perfect mine of auction-records and first-edition dates, and
he had a marvellous nose for a bargain. His favourite way of
acquiring stock was to buy up the libraries of people who had just
died, especially clergymen. Whenever a clergyman died Mr Cheeseman
was on the spot with the promptness of a vulture. Clergymen, he
explained to Gordon, so often have good libraries and ignorant
widows. He lived over the shop, was unmarried, of course, and had
no amusements and seemingly no friends. Gordon used sometimes to
wonder what Mr Cheeseman did with himself in the evenings, when he
was not out snooping after bargains. He had a mental picture of Mr
Cheeseman sitting in a double-locked room with the shutters over
the windows, counting piles of half-crowns and bundles of pound
notes which he stowed carefully away in cigarette-tins.
Mr Cheeseman bullied Gordon and was on the look-out for an excuse
to dock his wages; yet he did not bear him any particular ill-will.
Sometimes in the evening when he came to the library he would
produce a greasy packet of Smith's Potato Crisps from his pocket,
and, holding it out, say in his clipped style:
The packet was always grasped so firmly in his large hand that it
was impossible to extract more than two or three chips. But he
meant it as a friendly gesture.
As for the place where Gordon lived, in Brewer's Yard, parallel to
Lambeth Cut on the south side, it was a filthy kip. His bed-
sitting room was eight shillings a week and was just under the
roof. With its sloping ceiling--it was a room shaped like a wedge
of cheese--and its skylight window, it was the nearest thing to the
proverbial poet's garret that he had ever lived in. There was a
large, low, broken-backed bed with a ragged patchwork quilt and
sheets that were changed once fortnightly; a deal table ringed by
dynasties of teapots; a rickety kitchen chair; a tin basin for
washing in; a gas-ring in the fender. The bare floorboards had
never been stained but were dark with dirt. In the cracks in the
pink wallpaper dwelt multitudes of bugs; however, this was winter
and they were torpid unless you over-warmed the room. You were
expected to make your own bed. Mrs Meakin, the landlady,
theoretically 'did out' the rooms daily, but four days out of five
she found the stairs too much for her. Nearly all the lodgers
cooked their own squalid meals in their bedrooms. There was no
gas-stove, of course; just the gas-ring in the fender, and, down
two flights of stairs, a large evil-smelling sink which was common
to the whole house.
In the garret adjoining Gordon's there lived a tall handsome old
woman who was not quite right in the head and whose face was often
as black as a Negro's from dirt. Gordon could never make out where
the dirt came from. It looked like coal dust. The children of the
neighbourhood used to shout 'Blackie!' after her as she stalked
along the pavement like a tragedy queen, talking to herself. On
the floor below there was a woman with a baby which cried, cried
everlastingly; also a young couple who used to have frightful
quarrels and frightful reconciliations which you could hear all
over the house. On the ground floor a house-painter, his wife, and
five children existed on the dole and an occasional odd job. Mrs
Meakin, the landlady, inhabited some burrow or other in the
basement. Gordon liked this house. It was all so different from
Mrs Wisbeach's. There was no mingy lower-middle-class decency
here, no feeling of being spied upon and disapproved of. So long
as you paid your rent you could do almost exactly as you liked;
come home drunk and crawl up the stairs, bring women in at all
hours, lie in bed all day if you wanted to. Mother Meakin was not
the type to interfere. She was a dishevelled, jelly-soft old
creature with a figure like a cottage loaf. People said that in
her youth she had been no better than she ought, and probably it
was true. She had a loving manner towards anything in trousers.
Yet it seemed that traces of respectability lingered in her breast.
On the day when Gordon installed himself he heard her puffing and
struggling up the stairs, evidently bearing some burden. She
knocked softly on the door with her knee, or the place where her
knee ought to have been, and he let her in.
''Ere y'are, then,' she wheezed kindly as she came in with her arms
full. 'I knew as 'ow you'd like this. I likes all my lodgers to
feel comfortable-like. Lemme put it on the table for you. There!
That makes the room like a bit more 'ome-like, don't it now?'
It was an aspidistra. It gave him a bit of a twinge to see it.
Even here, in this final refuge! Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?
But it was a poor weedy specimen--indeed, it was obviously dying.
In this place he could have been happy if only people would let him
alone. It was a place where you COULD be happy, in a sluttish way.
To spend your days in meaningless mechanical work, work that could
be slovened through in a sort of coma; to come home and light the
fire when you had any coal (there were sixpenny bags at the
grocer's) and get the stuffy little attic warm; to sit over a
squalid meal of bacon, bread-and-marg and tea, cooked over the gas-
ring; to lie on the frowzy bed, reading a thriller or doing the
Brain Brighteners in Tit Bits until the small hours; it was the
kind of life he wanted. All his habits had deteriorated rapidly.
He never shaved more than three times a week nowadays, and only
washed the parts that showed. There were good public baths near
by, but he hardly went to them as often as once in a month. He
never made his bed properly, but just turned back the sheets, and
never washed his few crocks till all of them had been used twice
over. There was a film of dust on everything. In the fender there
was always a greasy frying-pan and a couple of plates coated with
the remnants of fried eggs. One night the bugs came out of one of
the cracks and marched across the ceiling two by two. He lay on
his bed, his hands under his head, watching them with interest.
Without regret, almost intentionally, he was letting himself go to
pieces. At the bottom of all his feelings there was sulkiness a je
m'en fous in the face of the world. Life had beaten him; but you
can still beat life by turning your face away. Better to sink than
rise. Down, down into the ghost-kingdom, the shadowy world where
shame, effort, decency do not exist!
To sink! How easy it ought to be, since there are so few
competitors! But the strange thing is that often it is harder to
sink than to rise. There is always something that drags one
upwards. After all, one is never quite alone; there are always
friends, lovers, relatives. Everyone Gordon knew seemed to be
writing him letters, pitying him or bullying him. Aunt Angela had
written, Uncle Walter had written, Rosemary had written over and
over again, Ravelston had written, Julia had written. Even Flaxman
had sent a line to wish him luck. Flaxman's wife had forgiven him,
and he was back at Peckham, in aspidistral bliss. Gordon hated
getting letters nowadays. They were a link with that other world
from which he was trying to escape.
Even Ravelston had turned against him. That was after he had been
to see Gordon in his new lodgings. Until this visit he had not
realized what kind of neighbourhood Gordon was living in. As his
taxi drew up at the corner, in the Waterloo Road, a horde of ragged
shock-haired boys came swooping from nowhere, to fight round the
taxi door like fish at a bait. Three of them clung to the handle
and hauled the door open simultaneously. Their servile, dirty
little faces, wild with hope, made him feel sick. He flung some
pennies among them and fled up the alley without looking at them
again. The narrow pavements were smeared with a quantity of dogs'
excrement that was surprising, seeing that there were no dogs in
sight. Down in the basement Mother Meakin was boiling a haddock,
and you could smell it half-way up the stairs. In the attic
Ravelston sat on the rickety chair, with the ceiling sloping just
behind his head. The fire was out and there was no light in the
room except four candles guttering in a saucer beside the
aspidistra. Gordon lay on the ragged bed, fully dressed but with
no shoes on. He had scarcely stirred when Ravelston came in. He
just lay there, flat on his back, sometimes smiling a little, as
though there were some private joke between himself and the
ceiling. The room had already the stuffy sweetish smell of rooms
that have been lived in a long time and never cleaned. There were
dirty crocks lying about in the fender.
'Would you like a cup of tea?' Gordon said, without stirring.
'No thanks awfully--no,' said Ravelston, a little too hastily.
He had seen the brown-stained cups in the fender and the repulsive
common sink downstairs. Gordon knew quite well why Ravelston
refused the tea. The whole atmosphere of this place had given
Ravelston a kind of shock. That awful mixed smell of slops and
haddock on the stairs! He looked at Gordon, supine on the ragged
bed. And, dash it, Gordon was a gentleman! At another time he
would have repudiated that thought; but in this atmosphere pious
humbug was impossible. All the class-instincts which he believed
himself not to possess rose in revolt. It was dreadful to think of
anyone with brains and refinement living in a place like this. He
wanted to tell Gordon to get out of it, pull himself together, earn
a decent income, and live like a gentleman. But of course he didn't
say so. You can't say things like that. Gordon was aware of what
was going on inside Ravelston's head. It amused him, rather. He
felt no gratitude towards Ravelston for coming here and seeing him;
on the other hand, he was not ashamed of his surroundings as he
would once have been. There was a faint, amused malice in the way
'You think I'm a B.F., of course,' he remarked to the ceiling.
'No, I don't. Why should I?'
'Yes, you do. You think I'm a B.F. to stay in this filthy place
instead of getting a proper job. You think I ought to try for that
job at the New Albion.'
'No, dash it! I never thought that. I see your point absolutely.
I told you that before. I think you're perfectly right in
'And you think principles are all right so long as one doesn't go
putting them into practice.'
'No. But the question always is, when IS one putting them into
'It's quite simple. I've made war on money. This is where it's
Ravelston rubbed his nose, then shifted uneasily on his chair.
'The mistake you make, don't you see, is in thinking one can live
in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself. After all,
what do you achieve by refusing to make money? You're trying to
behave as though one could stand right outside our economic system.
But one can't. One's got to change the system, or one changes
nothing. One can't put things right in a hole-and-corner way, if
you take my meaning.'
Gordon waved a foot at the buggy ceiling.
'Of course this IS a hole-and-corner, I admit.'
'I didn't mean that,' said Ravelston, pained.
'But let's face facts. You think I ought to be looking about for a
GOOD job, don't you?'
'It depends on the job. I think you're quite right not to sell
yourself to that advertising agency. But it does seem rather a
pity that you should stay in that wretched job you're in at
present. After all, you HAVE got talents. You ought to be using
'There are my poems,' said Gordon, smiling at his private joke.
Ravelston looked abashed. This remark silenced him. Of course,
there WERE Gordon's poems. There was London Pleasures, for
instance. Ravelston knew, and Gordon knew, and each knew that the
other knew, that London Pleasures would never be finished. Never
again, probably, would Gordon write a line of poetry; never, at
least, while he remained in this vile place, this blind-alley job
and this defeated mood. He had finished with all that. But this
could not be said, as yet. The pretence was still kept up that
Gordon was a struggling poet--the conventional poet-in-garret.
It was not long before Ravelston rose to go. This smelly place
oppressed him, and it was increasingly obvious that Gordon did not
want him here. He moved hesitantly towards the door, pulling on
his gloves, then came back again, pulling off his left glove and
flicking it against his leg.
'Look here, Gordon, you won't mind my saying it--this is a filthy
place, you know. This house, this street--everything.'
'I know. It's a pigsty. It suits me.'
'But do you HAVE to live in a place like this?'
'My dear chap, you know what my wages are. Thirty bob a week.'
'Yes, but--! Surely there ARE better places? What rent are you
'Eight bob? You could get a fairly decent unfurnished room for
that. Something a bit better than this, anyway. Look here, why
don't you take an unfurnished place and let me lend you ten quid
'"Lend" me ten quid! After all you've "lent" me already? GIVE me
ten quid, you mean.'
Ravelston gazed unhappily at the wall. Dash it, what a thing to
say! He said flatly:
'All right, if you like to put it like that. GIVE you ten quid.'
'But as it happens, you see, I don't want it.'
'But dash it all! You might as well have a decent place to live
'But I don't want a decent place. I want an indecent place. This
one, for instance.'
'But why? Why?'
'It's suited to my station,' said Gordon, turning his face to the
A few days later Ravelston wrote him a long, diffident sort of
letter. It reiterated most of what he had said in their
conversation. Its general effect was that Ravelston saw Gordon's
point entirely, that there was a lot of truth in what Gordon said,
that Gordon was absolutely right in principle, but--! It was the
obvious, the inevitable 'but'. Gordon did not answer. It was
several months before he saw Ravelston again. Ravelston made
various attempts to get in touch with him. It was a curious fact--
rather a shameful fact from a Socialist's point of view--that the
thought of Gordon, who had brains and was of gentle birth, lurking
in that vile place and that almost menial job, worried him more
than the thought of ten thousand unemployed in Middlesbrough.
Several times, in hope of cheering Gordon up, he wrote asking him
to send contributions to Antichrist. Gordon never answered. The
friendship was at an end, it seemed to him. The evil time when he
had lived on Ravelston had spoiled everything. Charity kills
And then there were Julia and Rosemary. They differed from
Ravelston in this, that they had no shyness about speaking their
minds. They did not say euphemistically that Gordon was 'right in
principle'; they knew that to refuse a 'good' job can never be
right. Over and over again they besought him to go back to the New
Albion. The worst was that he had both of them in pursuit of him
together. Before this business they had never met, but now
Rosemary had got to know Julia somehow. They were in feminine
league against him. They used to get together and talk about the
'maddening' way in which Gordon was behaving. It was the only
thing they had in common, their feminine rage against his
'maddening' behaviour. Simultaneously and one after the other, by
letter and by word of mouth, they harried him. It was unbearable.
Thank God, neither of them had seen his room at Mother Meakin's
yet. Rosemary might have endured it, but the sight of that filthy
attic would have been almost the death of Julia. They had been
round to see him at the library, Rosemary a number of times, Julia
once, when she could make a pretext to get away from the teashop.
Even that was bad enough. It dismayed them to see what a mean,
dreary little place the library was. The job at McKechnie's,
though wretchedly paid, had not been the kind of job that you need
actually be ashamed of. It brought Gordon into touch with
cultivated people; seeing that he was a 'writer' himself, it might
conceivably 'lead to something'. But here, in a street that was
almost a slum, serving out yellow-jacketed trash at thirty bob a
week--what hope was there in a job like that? It was just a
derelict's job, a blind-alley job. Evening after evening, walking
up and down the dreary misty street after the library was shut,
Gordon and Rosemary argued about it. She kept on and on at him.
WOULD he go back to the New Albion? WHY wouldn't he go back to the
New Albion? He always told her that the New Albion wouldn't take
him back. After all, he hadn't applied for the job and there was
no knowing whether he could get it; he preferred to keep it
uncertain. There was something about him now that dismayed and
frightened her. He seemed to have changed and deteriorated so
suddenly. She divined, though he did not speak to her about it,
that desire of his to escape from all effort and all decency, to
sink down, down into the ultimate mud. It was not only from money
but from life itself that he was turning away. They did not argue
now as they had argued in the old days before Gordon had lost his
job. In those days she had not paid much attention to his
preposterous theories. His tirades against the money-morality had
been a kind of joke between them. And it had hardly seemed to
matter that time was passing and that Gordon's chance of earning a
decent living was infinitely remote. She had still thought of
herself as a young girl and of the future as limitless. She had
watched him fling away two years of his life--two years of HER
life, for that matter; and she would have felt it ungenerous to
But now she was growing frightened. Time's winged chariot was
hurrying near. When Gordon lost his job she had suddenly realized,
with the sense of making a startling discovery, that after all she
was no longer very young. Gordon's thirtieth birthday was past;
her own was not far distant. And what lay ahead of them? Gordon
was sinking effortless into grey, deadly failure. He seemed to
WANT to sink. What hope was there that they could ever get married
now? Gordon knew that she was right. The situation was impossible.
And so the thought, unspoken as yet, grew gradually in both their
minds that they would have to part--for good.
One night they were to meet under the railway arches. It was a
horrible January night; no mist, for once, only a vile wind that
screeched round corners and flung dust and torn paper into your
face. He waited for her, a small slouching figure, shabby almost
to raggedness, his hair blown about by the wind. She was punctual,
as usual. She ran towards him, pulled his face down, and kissed
his cold cheek.
'Gordon, dear, how cold you are! Why did you come out without an
'My overcoat's up the spout. I thought you knew.'
'Oh, dear! Yes.'
She looked up at him, a small frown between her black brows. He
looked so haggard, so despondent, there in the ill-lit archway, his
face full of shadows. She wound her arm through his and pulled him
out into the light.
'Let's keep walking. It's too cold to stand about. I've got
something serious I want to say to you.'
'I expect you'll be very angry with me.'
'What is it?'
'This afternoon I went and saw Mr Erskine. I asked leave to speak
to him for a few minutes.'
He knew what was coming. He tried to free his arm from hers, but
she held on to it.
'Well?' he said sulkily.
'I spoke to him about you. I asked him if he'd take you back. Of
course he said trade was bad and they couldn't afford to take on
new staff and all that. But I reminded him of what he'd said to
you, and he said, Yes, he'd always thought you were very promising.
And in the end he said he'd be quite ready to find a job for you if
you'd come back. So you see I WAS right. They WILL give you the
He did not answer. She squeezed his arm. 'So NOW what do you
think about it?' she said.
'You know what I think,' he said coldly.
Secretly he was alarmed and angry. This was what he had been
fearing. He had known all along that she would do it sooner or
later. It made the issue more definite and his own blame clearer.
He slouched on, his hands still in his coat pockets, letting her
cling to his arm but not looking towards her.
'You're angry with me?' she said.
'No, I'm not. But I don't see why you had to do it--behind my
That wounded her. She had had to plead very hard before she had
managed to extort that promise from Mr Erskine. And it had needed
all her courage to beard the managing director in his den. She had
been in deadly fear that she might be sacked for doing it. But she
wasn't going to tell Gordon anything of that.
'I don't think you ought to say BEHIND YOUR BACK. After all, I was
only trying to help you.'
'How does it help me to get the offer of a job I wouldn't touch
with a stick?'
'You mean you won't go back, even now?'
'MUST we go into it again?' he said wearily.
She squeezed his arm with all her strength and pulled him round,
making him face her. There was a kind of desperation in the way
she clung to him. She had made her last effort and it had failed.
It was as though she could feel him receding, fading away from her
like a ghost.
'You'll break my heart if you go on like this,' she said.
'I wish you wouldn't trouble about me. It would be so much simpler
if you didn't.'
'But why do you have to throw your life away?'
'I tell you I can't help it. I've got to stick to my guns.'
'You know what this will mean?'
With a chill at his heart, and yet with a feeling of resignation,
even of relief, he said: 'You mean we shall have to part--not see
each other again?'
They had walked on, and now they emerged into the Westminster
Bridge Road. The wind met them with a scream, whirling at them a
cloud of dust that made both of them duck their heads. They halted
again. Her small face was full of lines, and the cold wind and the
cold lamplight did not improve it.
'You want to get rid of me,' he said.
'No. No. It's not exactly that.'
'But you feel we ought to part.'
'How can we go on like this?' she said desolately.
'It's difficult, I admit.'
'It's all so miserable, so hopeless! What can it ever lead to?'
'So you don't love me after all?' he said.
'I do, I do! You know I do.'
'In a way, perhaps. But not enough to go on loving me when it's
certain I'll never have the money to keep you. You'll have me as a
husband, but not as a lover. It's still a question of money, you
'It is NOT money, Gordon! It's NOT that.'
'Yes, it's just money. There's been money between us from the
start. Money, always money!'
The scene continued, but not for very much longer. Both of them
were shivering with cold. There is no emotion that matters greatly
when one is standing at a street corner in a biting wind. When
finally they parted it was with no irrevocable farewell. She
simply said, 'I must get back,' kissed him, and ran across the road
to the tram-stop. Mainly with relief he watched her go. He could
not stop now to ask himself whether he loved her. Simply he wanted
to get away--away from the windy street, away from scenes and
emotional demands, back in the frowzy solitude of his attic. If
there were tears in his eyes it was only from the cold of the wind.
With Julia it was almost worse. She asked him to go and see her
one evening. This was after she had heard, from Rosemary, of Mr
Erksine's offer of a job. The dreadful thing with Julia was that
she understood nothing, absolutely nothing, of his motives. All
she understood was that a 'good' job had been offered him and that
he had refused it. She implored him almost on her knees not to
throw this chance away. And when he told her that his mind was
made up, she wept, actually wept. That was dreadful. The poor
goose-like girl, with streaks of grey in her hair, weeping without
grace or dignity in her little Drage-furnished bed-sitting room!
This was the death of all her hopes. She had watched the family
go down and down, moneyless and childless, into grey obscurity.
Gordon alone had had it in him to succeed; and he, from mad
perverseness, would not. He knew what she was thinking; he had to
induce in himself a kind of brutality to stand firm. It was only
because of Rosemary and Julia that he cared. Ravelston did not
matter, because Ravelston understood. Aunt Angela and Uncle
Walter, of course, were bleating weakly at him in long, fatuous
letters. But them he disregarded.
In desperation Julia asked him, what did he mean to DO now that he
had flung away his last chance of succeeding in life. He answered
simply, 'My poems.' He had said the same to Rosemary and to
Ravelston. With Ravelston the answer had sufficed. Rosemary had
no longer any belief in his poems, but she would not say so. As
for Julia, his poems had never at any time meant anything to her.
'I don't see much sense in writing if you can't make money out of
it,' was what she had always said. And he himself did not believe
in his poems any longer. But he still struggled to 'write', at
least at times. Soon after he changed his lodgings he had copied
out on to clean sheets the completed portions of London Pleasures--
not quite four hundred lines, he discovered. Even the labour of
copying it out was a deadly bore. Yet he still worked on it
occasionally; cutting out a line here, altering another there, not
making or even expecting to make any progress. Before long the
pages were as they had been before, a scrawled, grimy labyrinth of
words. He used to carry the wad of grimy manuscript about with him
in his pocket. The feeling of it there upheld him a little; after
all it was a kind of achievement, demonstrable to himself though to
nobody else. There it was, sole product of two years--of a
thousand hours' work, it might be. He had no feeling for it any
longer as a poem. The whole concept of poetry was meaningless to
him now. It was only that if London Pleasures were ever finished
it would be something snatched from fate, a thing created OUTSIDE
the money-world. But he knew, far more clearly than before, that
it never would be finished. How was it possible that any creative
impulse should remain to him, in the life he was living now? As
time went on, even the desire to finish London Pleasures vanished.
He still carried the manuscript about in his pocket; but it was
only a gesture, a symbol of his private war. He had finished for
ever with that futile dream of being a 'writer'. After all, was
not that too a species of ambition? He wanted to get away from all
that, BELOW all that. Down, down! Into the ghost-kingdom, out of
the reach of hope, out of the reach of fear! Under ground, under
ground! That was where he wished to be.
Yet in a way it was not so easy. One night about nine he was lying
on his bed, with the ragged counterpane over his feet, his hands
under his head to keep them warm. The fire was out. The dust was
thick on everything. The aspidistra had died a week ago and was
withering upright in its pot. He slid a shoeless foot from under
the counterpane, held it up, and looked at it. His sock was full
of holes--there were more holes than sock. So here he lay, Gordon
Comstock, in a slum attic on a ragged bed, with his feet sticking
out of his socks, with one and fourpence in the world, with three
decades behind him and nothing, nothing accomplished! Surely NOW
he was past redemption? Surely, try as they would, they couldn't
prise him out of a hole like this? He had wanted to reach the mud--
well, this was the mud, wasn't it?
Yet he knew that it was not so. That other world, the world of
money and success, is always so strangely near. You don't escape
it merely by taking refuge in dirt and misery. He had been
frightened as well as angry when Rosemary told him about Mr
Erskine's offer. It brought the danger so close to him. A letter,
a telephone message, and from this squalor he could step straight
back into the money-world--back to four quid a week, back to effort
and decency and slavery. Going to the devil isn't so easy as it
sounds. Sometimes your salvation hunts you down like the Hound of
For a while he lay in an almost mindless state, gazing at the
ceiling. The utter futility of just lying there, dirty and cold,
comforted him a little. But presently he was roused by a light tap
at the door. He did not stir. It was Mother Meakin, presumably,
though it did not sound like her knock.
'Come in,' he said.
The door opened. It was Rosemary.
She stepped in, and then stopped as the dusty sweetish smell of the
room caught her. Even in the bad light of the lamp she could see
the state of filth the room was in--the litter of food and papers
on the table, the grate full of cold ashes, the foul crocks in the
fender, the dead aspidistra. As she came slowly towards the bed
she pulled her hat off and threw it on to the chair.
'WHAT a place for you to live in!' she said.
'So you've come back?' he said.
He turned a little away from her, his arm over his face. 'Come
back to lecture me some more, I suppose?'
She had knelt down beside the bed. She pulled his arm away, put
her face forward to kiss him, then drew back, surprised, and began
to stroke the hair over his temple with the tips of her fingers.
'You've got grey in your hair!'
'Have I? Where?'
'Here--over the temple. There's quite a little patch of it. It
must have happened all of a sudden.'
'"My golden locks time hath to silver turned,"' he said
'So we're both going grey,' she said.
She bent her head to show him the three white hairs on her crown.
Then she wriggled herself on to the bed beside him, put an arm
under him, pulled him towards her, covered his face with kisses.
He let her do it. He did not want this to happen--it was the very
thing that he least wanted. But she had wriggled herself beneath
him; they were breast to breast. Her body seemed to melt into his.
By the expression of her face he knew what had brought her here.
After all, she was virgin. She did not know what she was doing.
It was magnanimity, pure magnanimity, that moved her. His
wretchedness had drawn her back to him. Simply because he was
penniless and a failure she had got to yield to him, even if it was
'I had to come back,' she said.
'I couldn't bear to think of you here alone. It seemed so awful,
leaving you like that.'
'You did quite right to leave me. You'd much better not have come
back. You know we can't ever get married.'
'I don't care. That isn't how one behaves to people one loves. I
don't care whether you marry me or not. I love you.'
'This isn't wise,' he said.
'I don't care. I wish I'd done it years ago.'
'We'd much better not.'
After all, she was too much for him. He had wanted her so long,
and he could not stop to weigh the consequences. So it was done
at last, without much pleasure, on Mother Meakin's dingy bed.
Presently Rosemary got up and rearranged her clothes. The room,
though stuffy, was dreadfully cold. They were both shivering a
little. She pulled the coverlet further over Gordon. He lay
without stirring, his back turned to her, his face hidden against
his arm. She knelt down beside the bed, took his other hand, and
laid it for a moment against her cheek. He scarcely noticed her.
Then she shut the door quietly behind her and tiptoed down the
bare, evil-smelling stairs. She felt dismayed, disappointed, and