The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 10

The Last Combat

During these summer months Sidney Kirkwood’s visits to the house in Clerkenwell Close were comparatively rare. It was not his own wish to relax in any degree the close friendship so long subsisting between the Hewetts and himself, but from the day of Clara’s engagement with Mrs. Tubbs John Hewett began to alter in his treatment of him. At first there was nothing more than found its natural explanation in regret of what had happened, a tendency to muteness, to troubled brooding; but before long John made it unmistakable that the young man’s presence was irksome to him. If, on coming home, he found Sidney with Mrs. Hewett and the children, a cold nod was the only greeting he offered; then followed signs of ill-humour, such as Sidney could not in the end fail to interpret as unfavourable to himself. He never heard Clara’s name on her father’s lips, and himself never uttered it when John was in hearing.

‘She told him what passed between us that night,’ Sidney argued inwardly. But it was not so. Hewett had merely abandoned himself to an unreasonable resentment. Notwithstanding his concessions, he blamed Sidney for the girl’s leaving home, and, as his mood grew more irritable, the more hopeless it seemed that Clara would return, he nursed the suspicion of treacherous behaviour on Sidney’s part. He would not take into account any such thing as pride which could forbid the young man to urge a rejected suit. Sidney had grown tired of Clara, that was the truth, and gladly caught at any means of excusing himself. He had made new friends. Mrs. Peckover reported that he was a constant visitor at the old man Snowdon’s lodgings; she expressed her belief that Snowdon had come back from Australia with a little store of money, and if Kirkwood had knowledge of that, would it not explain his interest in Jane Snowdon?

‘For shame to listen to such things!’ cried Mrs. Hewett angrily, when her husband once repeated the landlady’s words, ‘I’d be ashamed of myself, John! If you don’t know him no better than that, you ought to by this time.’

And John did, in fact, take to himself no little shame, but his unsatisfied affection turned all the old feelings to bitterness. In spite of himself, he blundered along the path of perversity. Sidney, too, had his promptings of obstinate humour. When he distinctly recognised Hewett’s feeling it galled him; he was being treated with gross injustice, and temper suggested reprisals which could answer no purpose but to torment him with self-condemnation. However, he must needs consult his own dignity; he could not keep defending himself against ignoble charges. For the present, there was no choice but to accept John’s hints, and hold apart as much as was possible without absolute breach of friendly relations. Nor could he bring himself to approach Clara. It was often in his mind to write to her; had he obeyed the voice of his desire he would have penned such letters as only the self-abasement of a passionate lover can dictate. But herein, too, the strain of sternness that marked his character made its influence felt. He said to himself that the only hope of Clara’s respecting him lay in his preservation of the attitude he had adopted, and as the months went on he found a bitter satisfaction in adhering so firmly to his purpose. The self-flattery with which no man can dispense whispered assurance that Clara only thought the more of him the longer he held aloof. When the end of July came, he definitely prescribed to his patience a trial of yet one more month. Then he would write Clara a long letter, telling her what it had cost him to keep silence, and declaring the constancy he devoted to her.

This resolve he registered whilst at work one morning. The triumphant sunshine, refusing to be excluded even from London workshops, gleamed upon his tools and on the scraps of jewellery before him; he looked up to the blue sky, and thought with heavy heart of many a lane in Surrey and in Essex where he might be wandering but for this ceaseless necessity of earning the week’s wage. A fly buzzed loudly against the grimy window, and by one of those associations which time and change cannot affect, he mused himself back into boyhood. The glimpse before him of St. John’s Arch aided the revival of old impressions; his hand ceased from its mechanical activity, and he was absorbed in a waking dream, when a voice called to him and said that he was wanted. He went down to the entrance, and there found Mrs. Hewett. Her coming at all was enough to signal some disaster, and the trouble on her face caused Sidney to regard her with silent interrogation.

‘I couldn’t help comin’ to you,’ she began, gazing at him fixedly. ‘I know you can’t do anything, but I had to speak to somebody, an’ I know nobody better than you. It’s about Clara.’

‘What about her?’

‘She’s left Mrs. Tubbs. They had words about Bank-holiday last night, an’ Clara went off at once. Mrs. Tubbs thought she’d come ‘ome, but this mornin’ her box was sent for, an’ it was to be took to a house in Islington. An’ then Mrs. Tubbs came an’ told me. An’ there’s worse than that, Sidney. She’s been goin’ about to the theatre an’ such places with a man as she got to know at the bar, an’ Mrs. Tubbs says she believes it’s him has tempted her away.’

She spoke the last sentences in a low voice, painfully watching their effect.

‘And why hasn’t Mrs. Tubbs spoken about this before?’ Sidney asked, also in a subdued voice, but without other show of agitation.

‘That’s just what, I said to her myself. The girl was in her charge, an’ it was her duty to let us know if things went wrong. But how am I to tell her father? I dursn’t do it, Sidney; for my life, I dursn’t! I’d go an’ see her where she’s lodging — see, I’ve got the address wrote down here — but I should do more harm than good; she’d never pay any heed to me at the best of times, an’ it isn’t likely she would now.’

‘Look here if she’s made no attempt to hide away, you may be quite sure there’s no truth in what Mrs. Tubbs says. They’ve quarrelled, and of course the woman makes Clara as black as she can. Tell her father everything as soon as he comes home; you’ve no choice.’

Mrs. Hewett averted her face in profound dejection. Sidney learnt at length what her desire had been in coming to him; she hoped he would see Clara and persuade her to return home.

‘I dursn’t tell her’ father,’ she kept repeating. ‘But perhaps it isn’t true what Mrs. Tubbs says. Do go an’ speak to her before it’s too late. Say we won’t ask her to come ‘ome, if only she’ll let us know what she’s goin’ to do.’

In the end he promised to perform this service, and to communicate the result that evening. It was Saturday; at half-past one he left the workroom, hastened home to prepare himself for the visit, and, without thinking of dinner, set out to find the address Mrs. Hewett had given him. His steps were directed to a dull street on the north of Pentonville Road; the house at which he mad e inquiry was occupied by a drum-manufacturer. Miss Hewett, he learnt, was not at home; she had gone forth two hours ago, and nothing was known of her movements. Sidney turned away and began to walk up and down the shadowed side of the street; there was no breath of air stirring, and from the open windows radiated stuffy odours. A quarter of an hour sufficed to exasperate him with anxiety and physical malaise. He suffered from his inability to do anything at once, from conflict with himself as to whether or not it behoved him to speak with John Hewett; of Clara he thought with anger rather than fear, for her behaviour seemed to prove that nothing had happened save the inevitable breach with Mrs. Tubbs. Just as he had said to himself that it was no use waiting about all the afternoon, he saw Clara approaching. At sight of him she manifested neither surprise nor annoyance, but came forward with eyes carelessly averted. Not having seen her for so long, Sidney was startled by the change in her features; her cheeks had sunk, her eyes were unnaturally dark, there was something worse than the familiar self-will about her lips.

‘I’ve been waiting to see you,’ he said. ‘Will you walk along here for a minute or two?’

‘What do you want to say? I’m tired.’

‘Mrs. Tubbs has told your mother what has happened, and she came to me. Your father doesn’t know yet.’

‘It’s nothing to me whether he knows or not. I’ve left the place, that’s all, and I’m going to live here till I’ve got another.’

‘Why not go home?’

‘Because I don’t choose to. I don’t see that it concerns you, Mr. Kirkwood.’

Their eyes met, and Sidney felt how little fitted he was to reason with the girl, even would she consent to hear him. His mood was the wrong one; the torrid sunshine seemed to kindle an evil fire in him, and with difficulty he kept back words of angry unreason; he even — strangest of inconsistencies — experienced a kind of brutal pleasure in her obvious misery. Already she was reaping the fruit of obstinate folly. Clara read what his eyes expressed; she trembled with responsive hostility.

‘No, it doesn’t concern me,’ Sidney replied, half turning away. ‘But it’s perhaps as well you should know that Mrs. Tubbs is doing her best to take away your good name. However little we are to each other, it’s my duty to tell you that, and put you on your guard. I hope your father mayn’t hear these stories before you have spoken to him yourself.’

Clara listened with a contemptuous smile.

‘What has she been saying?’

‘I shan’t repeat it.’

As he gazed at her, the haggardness of her countenance smote like a sword-edge through all the black humours about his heart, piercing the very core of love and pity. He spoke in a voice of passionate appeal.

‘Clara, come home before it is too late! Come with me — now — come at once? Thank heaven you have got out of that place! Come home, and stay there quietly till we can find you something better.’

‘I’ll die rather than go home!’ was her answer, flung at him as if in hatred. ‘Tell my father that, and tell him anything else you like. I want no one to take any thought for me; and I wouldn’t do as you wish, not to save my soul!’

How often, in passing along the streets, one catches a few phrases of discord such as this! The poor can seldom command privacy; their scenes alike of tenderness and of anger must for the most part be enacted on the peopled ways. It is one of their misfortunes, one of the many necessities which blunt feeling, which balk reconciliation, which enhance the risks of dialogue at best semi-articulate.

Clara, having uttered the rancour which had so long poisoned her mind, straightway crossed the street and entered the house where she was lodging. She had just returned from making several applications for employment — futile, as so many were likely to be, if she persevered in her search for a better place than the last. The wages due to her for the present week she had of course sacrificed; her purchases of clothing — essential and superfluous — had left only a small sum out of her earnings. Food, fortunately, would cost her little; the difficulty, indeed, was to eat anything at all.

She was exhausted after her long walk, and the scene with Sidney had made her tremulous. In thrusting open the windows, as soon as she entered, she broke a pane which was already cracked; the glass cut into her palm, and blood streamed forth. For a moment she watched the red drops falling to the floor, then began to sob miserably, almost as a child might have done. The exertion necessary for binding the wound seemed beyond her strength; sobbing and moaning, she stood in the same attitude until the blood began to congeal. The tears, too, she let dry unneeded upon her eyelashes and her cheeks; the mist with which for a time they obscured her vision was nothing amid that cloud of misery which blackened about her spirit as she brooded. The access of self-pity was followed, as always, by a persistent sense of intolerable wrong, and that again by a fierce desire to plunge herself into ruin, as though by such act she could satiate her instincts of defiance. It is a phase of exasperated egotism common enough in original natures frustrated by circumstance — never so pronounced as in those who suffer from the social disease. Such mood perverts everything to cause of bitterness. The very force of sincerity, which Clara could not but recognise in Kirkwood’s appeal, inflamed the resentment she nourished against him; she felt that to yield would be salvation and happiness, yet yield she might not, and upon him she visited the anger due to the evil impulses in her own heart. He spoke of her father, and in so doing struck the only nerve in her which conveyed an emotion of tenderness; instantly the feeling begot self-reproach, and of self-reproach was born as quickly the harsh self-justification with which her pride ever answered blame. She had made her father’s life even more unhappy than it need have been, and to be reminded of that only drove her more resolutely upon the recklessness which would complete her ingratitude.

The afternoon wore away, the evening, a great part of the night. She ate a few mouthfuls of bread, but could not exert herself to make tea. It would be necessary to light a fire, and already the air of the room was stifling.

After a night of sleeplessness, she could only lie on her bed through the Sunday morning, wretched in a sense of abandonment. And then began to assail her that last and subtlest of temptations, the thought that already she had taken an irrevocable step, that an endeavour to return would only be trouble spent in vain, that the easy course was, in truth, the only one now open to her. Mrs. Tubbs was busy circulating calumnies; that they were nothing more than calumnies could never be proved; all who heard them would readily enough believe. Why should she struggle uselessly to justify herself in the eyes of people predisposed to condemn her? Fate was busy in all that had happened during the last two days. Why had she quitted her situation at a moment’s notice? Why on this occasion rather than fifty times previously? It was not her own doing; something impelled her, and the same force — call it chance or destiny — would direct the issue once more. All she could foresee was the keeping of her appointment with Scawthorne tomorrow morning; what use to try and look further, when assuredly a succession of circumstances impossible to calculate would in the end constrain her? The best would be if she could sleep out the interval.

At mid-day she rose, ate and drank mechanically, then contemplated the hours that must somehow be killed. There was sunlight in the sky, but to what purpose should she go out? She went to the window, and surveyed the portion of street that was visible. On the opposite pavement, at a little distance, a man was standing; it was Sidney Kirkwood. The sight of him roused her from apathy; her blood tingled, rushed into her cheeks and throbbed at her temples. So, for all she had said, he was daring to act the spy! He suspected her; he was lurking to surprise visitors, to watch her outgoing and coming in. Very well; at least he had provided her with occupation.

Five minutes later she saw that he had gone away. Thereupon — having in the meantime clad herself — she left the house and walked at a quick step towards a region Of North London with which she had no acquaintance. In an hour’s time she had found another lodging, which she took by the day only. Then back again to Islington. She told her landlady that a sudden necessity compelled her to leave; she would have a cab and remove her box at once. There was the hazard that Sidney might return just as she was leaving; she braved it, and in another ten minutes was out of reach. .

Let his be the blame. She had warned him, and he chose to disregard her wish. Now she had cut the last bond that fretted her, and the hours rushed on like a storm-wind driving her whither they would.

Her mind was relieved from the stress of conflict; despair had given place to something that made her laugh at all the old scruples. So far from dreading the judgments that would follow her disappearance, she felt a pride in evil repute. Let them talk of her! If she dared everything, it would be well understood that she had not done so without a prospect worthy of herself. If she broke away from the obligations of a life that could never be other than poor and commonplace, those who knew her would estimate the compensation she had found. Sidney Kirkwood was aware of her ambitions; for his own sake he had hoped to keep her on the low level to which she was born; now let him recognise his folly! Some day she would present herself before him:—‘Very sorry that I could not oblige you, my dear sir, but you see that my lot was to be rather different from that you kindly planned for me.’ Let them gossip and envy!

It was a strange night that followed. Between one and two o’clock the heavens began to be overflashed with summer lightning; there was no thunder, no rain. The blue gleams kept illuminating the room for more than an hour. Clara could not lie in bed. The activity of her brain became all but delirium; along her nerves, through all the courses of her blood, seemed to run fires which excited her with an indescribable mingling of delight and torment. She walked to and fro, often speaking aloud, throwing up her arms. She leaned from the open window and let the lightning play freely upon her face: she fancied it had the effect of restoring her wasted health. Whatever the cause, she felt stronger and more free from pain than for many months.

At dawn she slept. The striking of a church-clock woke her at nine, giving her just time to dress with care and set forth to keep her appointment.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:18