The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 11

A Disappointment

On ordinary Sundays the Byasses breakfasted at ten o’clock; this morning the meal was ready at eight, and Bessie’s boisterous spirits declared the exception to be of joyous significance. Finding that Samuel’s repeated promises to rise were the merest evasion, she rushed into the room where he lay fly-fretted, dragged the pillows from under his tousled head, and so belaboured him in schoolboy fashion that he had no choice but to leap towards his garments. In five minutes he roared down the kitchen-stairs for shaving-water, and in five minutes more was seated in his shirt-sleeves, consuming fried bacon with prodigious appetite. Bessie had the twofold occupation of waiting upon him and finishing the toilet of the baby; she talked incessantly and laughed with an echoing shrillness which would have given a headache for the rest of the day to any one of average nervous sensibility.

They were going to visit Samuel’s parents, who lived at Greenwich. Bessie had not yet enjoyed an opportunity of exhibiting her first-born to the worthy couple; she had, however, written many and long letters on the engrossing subject, and was just a little fluttered with natural anxiety lest the infant’s appearance or demeanour should disappoint the expectations she had excited. Samuel found his delight in foretelling the direst calamities.

‘Don’t say I didn’t advise you to draw it mild,’ he remarked whilst breakfasting, when Bessie had for the tenth time obliged him to look round and give his opinion on points of costume. ‘Remember it was only last week you told them that the imp had never cried since the day of his birth, and I’ll bet you three half-crowns to a bad halfpenny he roars all through to-night.’

‘Hold your tongue, Sam, or I’ll throw something at you!’

Samuel had just appeased his morning hunger, and was declaring that the day promised to be the hottest of the year, such a day as would bring out every vice inherent in babies, when a very light tap at the door caused Bessie to abandon her intention of pulling his ears.

‘That’s Jane,’ she said. ‘Come in!’

The Jane who presented herself was so strangely unlike her namesake who lay ill at Mrs. Peckover’s four months ago, that one who had not seen her in the interval would with difficulty have recognised her. To begin with, she had grown a little; only a little, but enough to give her the appearance of her full thirteen years. Then her hair no longer straggled in neglect, but was brushed very smoothly back from her forehead, and behind was plaited in a coil of perfect neatness; one could see now that it was soft, fine, mouse-coloured hair, such as would tempt the fingers to the lightest caress. No longer were her limbs huddled over with a few shapeless rags; she wore a full-length dress of quiet grey, which suited well with her hair and the pale tones of her complexion. As for her face — oh yes, it was still the good, simple, unremarkable countenance, with the delicate arched eyebrows, with the diffident lips, with the cheeks of exquisite smoothness, but so sadly thin.

Here too, however, a noteworthy change was beginning to declare itself. You were no longer distressed by the shrinking fear which used to be her constant expression; her eyes no longer reminded you of a poor animal that has been beaten from every place where it sought rest and no longer expects anything but a kick and a curse. Timid they were, drooping after each brief glance, the eyes of one who has suffered and cannot but often brood over wretched memories, who does not venture to look far forward lest some danger may loom inevitable — meet them for an instant, however, and you saw that lustre was reviving in their still depths, that a woman’s soul had begun to manifest itself under the shadow of those gently falling lids. A kind word, and with what purity of silent gratitude the grey pupils responded! A merry word, and mark if the light does not glisten on them, if the diffident lips do not form a smile which you would not have more decided lest something of its sweetness should be sacrificed.

‘Now come and tell me what you think about baby,’ cried Bessie. ‘Will he do? Don’t pay any attention to my husband; he’s a vulgar man!’

Jane stepped forward.

‘I’m sure he looks very nice, Mrs. Byass.’

‘Of course he does, bless him! Sam, get your coat on, and brush your hat, and let Miss Snowdon teach you how to behave yourself. Well, we’re going to leave the house in your care, Jane. We shall be back some time tomorrow night, but goodness knows when. Don’t you sit up for us.’

‘You know where to wire to if there’s a fire breaks out in the back kitchen,’ observed Samuel facetiously. ‘If you hear footsteps in the passage at half-past two tomorrow morning don’t trouble to come down; wait till daylight to see whether they’ve carried off the dresser.’

Bessie screamed with laughter.

‘What a fool you are, Sam! If you don’t mind, you’ll be making Jane laugh. You’re sure you’ll be home before dark tomorrow, Jane?’

‘Oh, quite sure. Mr. Kirkwood says there’s a train gets to Liverpool Street about seven, and grandfather thought that would suit us.’

‘You’ll be here before eight then. Do see that your fire’s out before you leave. And you’ll be sure to pull the door to? And see that the area-gate’s fastened.’

‘Can’t you find a few more orders?’ observed Samuel.

‘Hold your tongue! Jane doesn’t mind; do you, Jane? Now, Sam, are you ready? Bless the man, if he hasn’t got a great piece of bread sticking in his whiskers! How did it get there? Off you go!’

Jane followed them, and stood at the front door for a moment, watching them as they departed.

Then she went upstairs. On the first floor the doors of the two rooms stood open, and the rooms were bare. The lodgers who had occupied this part of the house had recently left; a card was again hanging in the window of Bessie’s parlour. Jane passed up the succeeding flight and entered the chamber which looked out upon Hanover Street. The truckle-bed on which her grandfather slept had been arranged for the day some two hours ago; Snowdon rose at six, and everything was orderly in the room when Jane came to prepare breakfast an hour later. At present the old man was sitting by the open window, smoking a pipe. He spoke a few words with reference to the Byasses, then seemed to resume a train of thought, and for a long time there was unbroken silence. Jane seated herself at a table, on which were a few books and writing materials. She began to copy something, using the pen with difficulty, and taking extreme pains. Occasionally her eyes wandered, and once they rested upon her grandfather’s face for several minutes. But for the cry of a milkman or a paper-boy in the street, no sound broke the quietness of the summer morning. The blessed sunshine, so rarely shed from a London sky — sunshine, the source of all solace to mind and body — reigned gloriously in heaven and on earth.

When more than an hour had passed, Snowdon came and sat down beside the girl. Without speaking she showed him what she had written. He nodded approvingly.

‘Shall I say it to you, grandfather?’

‘Yes.’

Jane collected her thoughts, then began to repeat the parable of the Samaritan. From the first words it was evident that she frequently thus delivered passages committed to memory; evident, too, that instruction and a natural good sense guarded her against the gabbling method of recitation. When she had finished Snowdon spoke with her for awhile on the subject of the story. In all he said there was the earnestness of deep personal feeling. His theme was the virtue of Compassion; he appeared to rate it above all other forms of moral goodness, to regard it as the saving principle of human life.

‘If only we had pity on one another, all the worst things we suffer from in this world would be at an end. It’s because men’s hearts are hard that life is so full of misery. If we could only learn to be kind and gentle and forgiving — never mind anything else. We act as if we were all each other’s enemies; we can’t be merciful, because we expect no mercy; we struggle to get as much as we can for ourselves and care nothing for others. Think about it; never let it go out of your mind. Perhaps some day it’ll help you in your own life.’

Then there was silence again. Snowdon went back to his scat by the window and relit his pipe; to muse in the sunshine seemed sufficient occupation for him. Jane opened another book and read to herself.

In the afternoon they went out together. The old man had grown more talkative. He passed cheerfully from subject to subject, now telling a story of his experiences abroad, now reviving recollections of London as he had known it sixty years ago. Jane listened with quiet interest. She did not say much herself, and when she did speak it was with a noticeable effort to overcome her habit of diffidence. She was happy, but her nature had yet to develop itself under these strangely novel conditions.

A little before sunset there came a knocking at the house-door. Jane went down to open, and found that the visitor was Sidney Kirkwood. The joyful look with which she recognised him changed almost in the same moment; his face wore an expression that alarmed her; it was stern, hard-set in trouble, and his smile could not disguise the truth. Without speaking, he walked upstairs and entered Snowdon’s room. To Sidney there was always something peculiarly impressive in the first view of this quiet chamber; simple as were its appointments, it produced a sense of remoteness from the common conditions of life. Invariably he subdued his voice when conversing here. A few flowers such as can be bought in the street generally diffused a slight scent through the air, making another peculiarity which had its effect on Sidney’s imagination. When Jane moved about, it was with a soundless step; if she placed a chair or arranged things on the table, it was as if with careful avoidance of the least noise. When his thoughts turned hitherwards, Sidney always pictured the old man sitting in his familiar mood of reverie, and Jane, in like silence, bending over a book at the table. Peace, the thing most difficult to find in the world that Sidney knew, had here made itself a dwelling.

He shook hands with Snowdon and seated himself. A few friendly words were spoken, and the old man referred to an excursion they had agreed to make together on the morrow, the general holiday.

‘I’m very sorry,’ replied Kirkwood, ‘but it’ll be impossible for me to go.’

Jane was standing near him; her countenance fell, expressing uttermost disappointment.

‘Something has happened,’ pursued Sidney, ‘that won’t let me go away, even for a few hours. I don’t mean to say that it would really prevent me, but I should be so uneasy in my mind all the time that I couldn’t enjoy myself, and I should only spoil your pleasure. Of course you’ll go just the same?’

Snowdon reassured him on this point. Jane had just been about to lay supper; she continued her task, and Sidney made a show of sharing the meal. Soon after, as if conscious that Sidney would speak with more freedom of his trouble but for her presence, Jane bade them good-night and went to her own room. There ensued a break in the conversation; then Kirkwood said, with the abruptness of one who is broaching a difficult subject:

‘I should like to tell you what it is that’s going wrong with me. I don’t think anyone’s advice would be the least good, but it’s a miserable affair, and I shall feel better for speaking about it.’

Snowdon regarded him with eyes of calm sympathy. There is a look of helpful attention peculiar to the faces of some who have known much suffering; in this instance, the grave force of character which at all times made the countenance impressive heightened the effect of its gentleness. In external matters, the two men knew little more of each other now than after their first meeting, but the spiritual alliance between them had strengthened with every conversation. Each understood the other’s outlook upon problems of life, which are not commonly discussed in the top rooms of lodging-houses; they felt and thought differently at times, but in essentials they were at one, and it was the first time that either had found such fruitful companionship.

‘Did you hear anything from the Peckovers of Clara Hewett?’ Sidney began by asking.

‘Not from them. Jane has often spoken of her.’

Sidney again hesitated, then, from a fragmentary beginning, passed into a detailed account of his relations with Clara. The girl herself, had she overheard him, could not have found fault with the way in which the story was narrated. He represented his love as from the first without response which could give him serious hope; her faults he dealt with not as characteristics to be condemned, but as evidences of suffering, the outcome of cruel conditions. Her engagement at the luncheon-bar he spoke of as a detestable slavery, which had wasted her health and driven her in the end to an act of desperation. What now could be done to aid her? John Hewett was still in ignorance of the step she had taken, and Sidney described himself as distracted by conflict between what he felt to be his duty, and fear of what might happen if he invoked Hewett’s authority. At intervals through the day he had been going backwards and forwards in the street where Clara had her lodging. He did not think she would seek to escape from her friends altogether, but her character and circumstances made it perilous for her to live thus alone.

‘What does she really wish for?’ inquired Snowdon, when there had been a short silence.

‘She doesn’t know, poor girl! Everything in the life she has been living is hateful to her — everything since she left school. She can’t rest in the position to which she was born; she aims at an impossible change of circumstances. It comes from her father; she can’t help rebelling against what seem to her unjust restraints. But what’s to come of it? She may perhaps get a place in a large restaurant — and what does that mean?’

He broke off, but in a moment resumed even more passionately:

‘What a vile, cursed world this is, where you may see men and women perish before your eyes, and no more chance of saving them than if they were going down in mid-ocean! She’s only a child — only just seventeen — and already she’s gone through a lifetime of miseries. And I, like a fool, I’ve often been angry with her; I was angry yesterday. How can she help her nature? How can we any of us help what we’re driven to in a world like this? Clara isn’t made to be one of those who slave to keep themselves alive. Just a chance of birth! Suppose she’d been the daughter of a rich man; then everything we now call a fault in her would either have been of no account or actually a virtue. Just because we haven’t money we may go to perdition, and comfortable people tell us we’ve only ourselves to blame. Put them in our place!’

Snowdon’s face had gone through various changes as Sidney flung out his vehement words. When he spoke, it was in a tone of some severity.

‘Has she no natural affection for her father? Does she care nothing for what trouble she brings him?’

Sidney did not reply at once; as he was about to speak, Snowdon bent forward suddenly and touched his arm.

‘Let me see her. Let me send Jane to her tomorrow morning, and ask her to come here. I might — I can’t say — but I might do some good.’

To this Sidney gave willing assent, but without sanguine expectation. In further talk it was agreed between them that, if this step had no result, John Hewett ought to be immediately informed of the state of things.

This was at ten o’clock on Sunday evening. So do we play our tragi-comedies in the eye of fate.

The mention of Jane led to a brief conversation regarding her before Sidney took his leave. Since her recovery she had been going regularly to school, to make up for the time of which she had been defrauded by Mrs. Peckover. Her grand-father’s proposal was, that she should continue thus for another six months, after which, he said, it would be time for her to learn a business. Mrs. Byass had suggested the choice of artificial-flower making, to which she herself had been brought up; possibly that would do as well as anything else.

‘I suppose so,’ was Sidney’s reluctant acquiescence. ‘Or as ill as anything else, would be a better way to put it.’

Snowdon regarded him with unusual fixedness, and seemed on the point of making some significant remark; but immediately his face expressed change of purpose, and he said, without emphasis:

‘Jane must be able to earn her own living.’

Sidney, before going home, walked round to the street in which he had already lingered several times today, and where yesterday he had spoken with Clara. The windows of the house he gazed at were dark.

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