The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 12

‘Io Saturnalia!’

So at length came Monday, the first Monday in August, a day gravely set apart for the repose and recreation of multitudes who neither know how to rest nor how to refresh themselves with pastime. To-day will the slaves of industrialism don the pileus. It is high summertide. With joy does the awaking publican look forth upon the blue-misty heavens, and address his adorations to the Sun-god, inspirer of thirst. Throw wide the doors of the temple of Alcohol! Behold, we come in our thousands, jingling the coins that shall purchase us this one day of tragical mirth. Before us is the dark and dreary autumn; it is a far cry to the foggy joys of Christmas. Io Saturnalia!

For certain friends of ours this morning brought an event of importance. At a church in Clerkenwell were joined together in holy matrimony Robert Hewett and Penelope (otherwise Pennyloaf) Candy, the former aged nineteen, the latter less than that by nearly three years. John Hewett would have nothing to do with an alliance so disreputable; Mrs. Hewett had in vain besought her stepson not to marry so unworthily. Even as a young man of good birth has been known to enjoy a subtle self-flattery in the thought that he graciously bestows his name upon a maiden who, to all intents and purposes, may be said never to have been born at all, so did Bob Hewett feel when he put a ring upon the scrubby finger of Pennyloaf. Proudly conscious was Bob that he a ‘married beneath him’— conscious also that Clem Peckover was gnawing her lips in rage.

Mrs. Candy was still sober at the hour of the ceremony. Her husband, not a bad fellow in his way, had long since returned to her, and as yet had not done more than threaten a repetition of his assault. Both were present at church. A week ago Bob had established himself in a room in Shooter’s Gardens, henceforth to be shared with him by his bride. Probably he might have discovered a more inviting abode for the early days of married life, but Bob had something of the artist’s temperament and could not trouble about practical details; for the present this room would do as well as another. It was cheap, and he had need of all the money he could save from everyday expenses. Pennyloaf would go en with her shirt-making, of course, and all they wanted was a roof over their heads at night.

And in truth he was fond of Pennyloaf. The poor little slave worshipped him so sincerely; she repaid his affectionate words with such fervent gratitude; and there was no denying that she had rather a pretty face, which had attracted him from the first. But above all, this preference accorded to so humble a rival had set Clem Peckover beside herself. It was all very well for Clem to make pretence of having transferred her affections to Jack Bartley. Why, Suke Jollop (ostensibly Clem’s bosom friend, but treacherous at times because she had herself given an eye to Jack)— Suke Jollop reported that Clem would have killed Pennyloaf had she dared. Pennyloaf had been going about in fear for her life since that attack upon her in Myddelton Passage. ‘I dursn’t marry you, Bob! I dursn’t!’ she kept saying, when the proposal was first made. But Bob laughed with contemptuous defiance. He carried his point, and now he was going to spend his wedding-day at the Crystal Palace — choosing that resort because he knew Clem would be there, and Jack Bartley, and Suke Jollop, and many another acquaintance, before whom he was resolved to make display of magnanimity.

Pennyloaf shone in most unwonted apparel. Everything was new except her boots — it had been decided that these only needed soleing. Her broad-brimmed hat of yellow straw was graced with the reddest feather purchasable in the City Road; she had a dolman of most fashionable cut, blue, lustrous; blue likewise was her dress, hung about with bows and streamers. And the gleaming ring on the scrubby small finger! On that hand most assuredly Pennyloaf would wear no glove. How proud she was of her ring! How she turned it round and round when nobody was looking! Gold, Pennyloaf, real gold! The pawnbroker would lend her seven-and-sixpence on it, any time.

At Holborn Viaduct there was a perpetual rush of people for the trains to the ‘Paliss.’ As soon as a train was full, off it went, and another long string of empty carriages drew up in its place. No distinction between ‘classes’ today; get in where you like, where you can. Positively, Pennyloaf found herself seated in a first-class carriage; she would have been awe-struck, but that Bob flung himself back on the cushions with such an easy air, and nodded laughingly at her. Among their companions was a youth with a concertina; as soon as the train moved he burst into melody. It was the natural invitation to song, and all joined in the latest ditties learnt at the music-hall. Away they sped, over the roofs of South London, about them the universal glare of sunlight, the carriage dense with tobacco-smoke. Ho for the bottle of muddy ale, passed round in genial fellowship from mouth to mouth! Pennyloaf would not drink of it; she had a dread of all such bottles. In her heart she rejoiced that Bob knew no craving for strong liquor. Towards the end of the journey the young man with the concertina passed round his hat.

Clem Peckover had come by the same train; she was one of a large party which had followed close behind Bob and Pennyloaf to the railway station. Now they followed along the long corridors into the ‘Paliss,’ with many a loud expression of mockery, with hee-hawing laughter, with coarse jokes. Depend upon it, Clem was gorgeously arrayed; amid her satellites she swept on ‘like a stately ship of Tarsus, bound for the isles of Javan or Gadire;’ her face was aflame, her eyes flashed in enjoyment of the uproar. Jack Bartley wore a high hat — Bob never had owned one in his life — and about his neck was a tie of crimson; yellow was his waistcoat, even such a waistcoat as you may see in Pall Mall, and his walking-stick had a nigger’s head for handle. He was the oracle of the maidens around him; every moment the appeal was to ‘Jeck! Jeck!’ Suke Jollop, who would in reality have preferred to accompany Bob and his allies, whispered it about that Jack had two-pound-ten in his pocket, and was going to spend every penny of it before he left the ‘Paliss’— yes, ‘every bloomin’ penny!’

Thus early in the day, the grounds were of course preferred to the interior of the glass house. Bob and Pennyloaf bent their steps to the fair. Here already was gathered much goodly company; above their heads hung a thick white wavering cloud of dust. Swing-boats and merry-go-rounds are from of old the chief features of these rural festivities; they soared and dipped and circled to the joyous music of organs which played the same tune automatically for any number of hours, whilst raucous voices invited all and sundry to take their turn. Should this delight pall, behold on every hand such sports as are dearest to the Briton, those which call for strength of sinew and exactitude of aim. The philosophic mind would have noted with interest how ingeniously these games were made to appeal to the patriotism of the throng. Did you choose to ‘shy’ sticks in the contest for cocoa-nuts, behold your object was a wooden model of the treacherous Afghan or the base African. If you took up the mallet to smite upon a spring and make proof of how far you could send a ball flying upwards, your blow descended upon the head of some other recent foeman. Try your fist at the indicator of muscularity, and with zeal you smote full in the stomach of a guy made to represent a Russian. If you essayed the pop-gun, the mark set you was on the flank of a wooden donkey, so contrived that it would kick when hit in the true spot. What a joy to observe the tendency of all these diversions! How characteristic of a high-spirited people that nowhere could be found any amusement appealing to the mere mind, or calculated to effeminate by encouraging a love of beauty.

Bob had a sovereign to get rid of. He shied for cocoa-nuts, he swung in the boat with Pennyloaf, he rode with her on the whirligigs. When they were choked, and whitened from head to foot, with dust, it was natural to seek the nearest refreshment-booth. Bob had some half-dozen male and female acquaintances clustered about him by now; of course. He must celebrate the occasion by entertaining all of them. Consumed with thirst, he began to drink without counting the glasses. Pennyloaf plucked at his elbow, but Bob was beginning to feel that he must display spirit. Because he was married, that was no reason for his relinquishing the claims to leadership in gallantry which had always been recognised. Hollo! Here was Suke Jollop! She had just quarrelled with Clem, and had been searching for the hostile camp. ‘Have a drink, Suke!’ cried Bob, when he heard her acrimonious charges against Clem and Jack. A pretty girl, Suke, and with a hat which made itself proudly manifest a quarter of a mile away. Drink! of course she would drink; that thirsty she could almost drop! Bob enjoyed this secession from the enemy. He knew Suke’s old fondness for him, and began to play upon it. Elated with beer and vanity, he no longer paid the least attention to Pennyloaf’s remonstrances; nay, he at length bade her ‘hold her bloomin’ row!’ Pennyloaf had a tear in her eye; she looked fiercely at Miss Jollop.

The day wore on. For utter weariness Pennyloaf was constrained to beg that they might go into the ‘Paliss’ and find a shadowed seat. Her tone revived tenderness in Bob; again he became gracious, devoted; he promised that not another glass of beer should pass his lips, and Sake Jollop, with all her like, might go to perdition. But heavens! how sweltering it was under this glass canopy How the dust rose from the trampled boards! Come, let’s have tea. The programme says there’ll be a military band playing presently, and we shall return refreshed to hear it.

So they made their way to the ‘Shilling Tea-room.’ Having paid at the entrance, they were admitted to feed freely on all that lay before them. With difficulty could a seat be found in the huge room; the uproar of voices was deafening. On the tables lay bread, butter, cake in hunches, tea-pots, milk-jugs, sugar-basins — all things to whomso could secure them in the conflict. Along the gangways coursed perspiring waiters, heaping up giant structures of used plates and cups, distributing clean utensils, and miraculously sharp in securing the gratuity expected from each guest as he rose satiate. Muscular men in aprons wheeled hither the supplies of steaming fluid in immense cans on heavy trucks. Here practical joking found the most graceful of opportunities, whether it were the deft direction of a piece of cake at the nose of a person sitting opposite, or the emptying of a saucer down your neighbour’s back, or the ingenious jogging of an arm which was in the act of raising a full tea-cup. Now and then an ill-conditioned fellow, whose beer disagreed with him, would resent some piece of elegant trifling, and the waiters would find it needful to request gentlemen not to fight until they had left the room. These cases, however, were exceptional. On the whole there reigned a spirit of imbecile joviality. Shrieks of female laughter testified to the success of the entertainment.

As Bob and his companion quitted this sphere of delight, ill-luck brought it to pass that Mr. Jack Bartley and his train were on the point of entering. Jack uttered a phrase of stinging sarcasm with reference to Pennyloaf’s red feather; whereupon Bob smote him exactly between the eyes. Yells arose; there was a scuffle, a rush, a tumult. The two were separated before further harm came of the little misunderstanding, but Jack went to the tea-tables vowing vengeance.

Poor Pennyloaf shed tears as Bob led her to the place where the band had begun playing. Only her husband’s anger prevented her from yielding to utter misery. But now they had come to the centre of the building, and by dint of much struggle in the crowd they obtained a standing whence they could see the vast amphitheatre, filled with thousands of faces. Here at length was quietness, intermission of folly and brutality. Bob became another man as he stood and listened. He looked with kindness into Pennyloaf’s pale, weary face, and his arm stole about her waist to support her. Ha! Pennyloaf was happy! The last trace of tears vanished. She too was sensible of the influences of music; her heart throbbed as she let herself lean against her husband.

Well, as every one must needs have his panacea for the ills of society, let me inform you of mine. To humanise the multitude two things are necessary — two things of the simplest kind conceivable. In the first place, you must effect an entire change of economic conditions: a preliminary step of which every tyro will recognise the easiness; then you must bring to bear on the new order of things the constant influence of music. Does not the prescription recommend itself? It is jesting in earnest. For, work as you will, there is no chance of a new and better world until the old be utterly destroyed. Destroy, sweep away, prepare the ground; then shall music the holy, music the civiliser, breathe over the renewed earth, and with Orphean magic raise in perfected beauty the towers of the City of Man.

Hours yet before the fireworks begin. Never mind; here by good luck we find seats where we can watch the throng passing and repassing. It is a great review of the People. On the whole how respectable they are, how sober, how deadly dull! See how worn-out the poor girls are becoming, how they gape, what listless eyes most of them have! The stoop in the shoulders so universal among them merely means over-toil in the workroom. Not one in a thousand shows the elements of taste in dress; vulgarity and worse glares in all but every costume. Observe the middle-aged women; it would be small surprise that their good looks had vanished, but whence comes it they are animal, repulsive, absolutely vicious in ugliness? Mark the men in their turn: four in every six have visages so deformed by ill-health that they excite disgust; their hair is cut down to within half an inch of the scalp; their legs are twisted out of shape by evil conditions of life from birth upwards. Whenever a youth and a girl come along arm-inarm, how flagrantly shows the man’s coarseness! They are pretty, so many of these girls, delicate of feature, graceful did but their slavery allow them natural development; and the heart sinks as one sees them side by side with the men who are to be their husbands.

One of the livelier groups is surging hitherwards; here we have frolic, here we have humour. The young man who leads them has been going about all day with the lining of his hat turned down over his forehead; for the thousandth time those girls are screaming with laughter at the sight of him. Ha, ha! He has slipped and fallen upon the floor, and makes an obstruction; his companions treat him like a horse that is ‘down’ in the street. ‘Look out for his ‘eels!’ cries one; and another, ‘Sit on his ‘ed!’ If this doesn’t come to an end we shall die of laughter. Lot one of the funniest of the party is wearing a gigantic cardboard nose and flame-coloured whiskers. There, the stumbler is on his feet again. ”Ere he comes up smilin’!’ cries his friend of the cardboard nose, and we shake our diaphragms with mirth. One of the party is an unusually tall man. ‘When are you comin’ down to have a look at us?’ cries a pert lass as she skips by him.

A great review of the People. Since man came into being did the world ever exhibit a sadder spectacle?

Evening advances; the great ugly building will presently be lighted with innumerable lamps. Away to the west yonder the heavens are afire with sunset, but at that we do not care to look; never in our lives did we regard it. We know not what is meant by beauty or grandeur. Here under the glass roof stand white forms of undraped men and women — casts of antique statues — but we care as little for the glory of art as for that of nature; we have a vague feeling that, for some reason or other, antiquity excuses the indecent, but further than that we do not get.

As the dusk descends there is a general setting of the throng towards the open air; all the pathways swarm with groups which have a tendency to disintegrate into couples; universal is the protecting arm. Relief from the sweltering atmosphere of the hours of sunshine causes a revival of hilarity; those who have hitherto only bemused themselves with liquor now pass into the stage of jovial recklessness, and others, determined to prolong a flagging merriment, begin to depend upon their companions for guidance. On the terraces dancing has commenced; the players of violins, concertinas, and penny-whistles do a brisk trade among the groups eager for a rough-and-tumble valse; so do the pickpockets. Vigorous and varied is the jollity that occupies the external galleries, filling now in expectation of the fireworks; indescribable the mingled tumult that roars heavenwards. Girls linked by the half-dozen arm-inarm leap along with shrieks like grotesque maenads; a rougher horseplay finds favour among the youths, occasionally leading to fisticuffs. Thick voices bellow in fragmentary chorus; from every side comes the yell, the eat-call, the ear-rending whistle; and as the bass, the never-ceasing accompaniment, sounds myriad-footed tramp, tramp along the wooden flooring. A fight, a scene of bestial drunkenness, a tender whispering between two lovers, proceed concurrently in a space of five square yards. — Above them glimmers the dawn of starlight.

For perhaps the first time in his life Bob Hewett has drunk more than he can well carry. To Pennyloaf’s remonstrances he answers more and more impatiently: ‘Why does she talk like a bloomin’ fool? — one doesn’t get married every day.’ He is on the look-out for Jack Bartley now; only let him meet Jack, and it shall be seen who is the better man. Pennyloaf rejoices that the hostile party are nowhere discoverable. She is persuaded to join in a dance, though every moment it seems to her that she must sink to the ground in uttermost exhaustion. Naturally she does not dance with sufficient liveliness to please Bob; he seizes another girl, a stranger, and whirls round the six-foot circle with a laugh of triumph. Pennyloaf’s misery is relieved by the beginning of the fireworks. Up shoot the rockets, and all the reeking multitude utters a huge ‘Oh’ of idiot admiration.

Now at length must we think of tearing ourselves away from these delights. Already the more prudent people are hurrying to the railway, knowing by dire experience what it means to linger until the last cargoes. Pennyloaf has hard work to get her husband as far as the station; Bob is not quite steady upon his feet, and the hustling of the crowd perpetually excites him to bellicose challenges. They reach the platform somehow; they stand wedged amid a throng which roars persistently as a substitute for the activity of limb Row become impossible. A train is drawing up slowly; the danger is lest people in the front row should be pushed over the edge of the platform, but porters exert themselves with success. A rush, a tumble, curses, blows, laughter, screams of pain — and we are in a carriage. Pennyloaf has to be dragged up from under the seat, and all her indignation cannot free her from the jovial embrace of a man who insists that there is plenty of room on his knee. Off we go! It is a long third-class coach, and already five or six musical instruments have struck up. We smoke and sing at the same time; we quarrel and make love — the latter in somewhat primitive fashion; we roll about with the rolling of the train; we nod into hoggish sleep.

The platform at Holborn Viaduct; and there, to Pennyloaf’s terror, it is seen that Clem Peckover and her satellites have come by the same train. She does her best to get Bob quickly away, but Clem keeps close in their neighbourhood. Just as they issue from the station Pennyloaf feels herself bespattered from head to foot with some kind of fluid; turning, she is aware that all her enemies have squirts in their hands, and are preparing for a second discharge of filthy water. Anguish for the ruin of her dress overcomes all other fear; she calls upon Bob to defend her.

But an immediate conflict was not Jack Bartley’s intention. He and those with him made off at a run, Bob pursuing as closely as his unsteadiness would permit. In this way they all traversed the short distance to Clerkenwell Green, either party echoing the other’s objurgations along the thinly-peopled streets. At length arrived the suitable moment. Near St. James’s Church Jack Bartley made a stand, and defied his enemy to come on. Bob responded with furious eagerness; amid a press of delighted spectators, swelled by people just turned out of the public-houses, the two lads fought like wild animals. Nor were they the only combatants. Exasperated by the certainty that her hat and dolman were ruined, Pennyloaf flew with erected nails at Clem Peckover. It was just what the latter desired. In an instant she had rent half Pennyloaf’s garments off her back, and was tearing her face till the blood streamed. Inconsolable was the grief of the crowd when a couple of stalwart policemen came hustling forward, thrusting to left and right, irresistibly clearing the corner. There was no question of making arrests; it was the night of Bank-holiday, and the capacity of police-cells is limited. Enough that the fight perforce came to an end. Amid frenzied blasphemy Bob and Jack went their several ways; so did Clem and Pennyloaf.

Poor Pennyloaf! Arrived at Shooter’s Gardens, and having groped her way blindly up to the black hole which was her wedding-chamber, she just managed to light a candle, then sank down upon the bare floor and wept. You could not have recognised her; her pretty face was all blood and dirt. She held in her hand the fragment of a hat, and her dolman had disappeared. Her husband was not in much better plight; his waistcoat and shirt were rent open, his coat was filth-smeared, and it seemed likely that he had lost the sight of one eye. Sitting there in drunken lassitude, he breathed nothing but threats of future vengeance.

An hour later noises of a familiar kind sounded beneath the window. A woman’s voice was raised in the fury of mad drunkenness, and a man answered her with threats and blows.

‘That’s mother,’ sobbed Pennyloaf. ‘I knew she wouldn’t get over today. She never did get over a Bank-holiday.’

Mrs. Candy had taken the pledge when her husband consented to return and live with her. Unfortunately she did not at the same time transfer herself to a country where there are no beer-shops and no Bank-holidays. Short of such decisive change, what hope for her?

Bob was already asleep, breathing stertorously. As for Pennyloaf, she was so overwearied that hours passed before oblivion fell upon her aching eyelids. She was thinking all the time that on the morrow it would be necessary to pawn her wedding-ring.

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