The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 14

A Welcome Guest

The bells of St. James’s, Clerkenwell, ring melodies in intervals of the pealing for service-time. One morning of spring their music, like the rain that fell intermittently, was flung westwards by the boisterous wind, away over Clerkenwell Close, until the notes failed one by one, or were clashed out of existence by the clamour of a less civilised steeple. Had the wind been under mortal control it would doubtless have blown thus violently and in this quarter in order that the inhabitants of the House of Detention might derive no solace from the melody. Yet I know not; just now the bells were playing ‘There is a happy land, far, far away,’ and that hymn makes too great a demand upon the imagination to soothe amid instant miseries.

In Mrs. Peckover’s kitchen the music was audible in bursts. Clem and her mother, however, it neither summoned to prepare for church, nor lulled into a mood of restful reverie. The two were sitting very close together before the fire, and holding intimate converse; their voices kept a low murmur, as if; though the door was shut, they felt it necessary to use every precaution against being overheard. Three years have come and gone since we saw these persons. On the elder time has made little impression; but Clem has developed noticeably. The girl is now in the very prime of her ferocious beauty. She has grown taller and somewhat stouter; her shoulders spread like those of a caryatid; the arm with which she props her head is as strong as a carter’s and magnificently moulded. The head itself looks immense with its pile of glossy hair. Reddened by the rays of the fire, her features had a splendid savagery which seemed strangely at discord with the paltry surroundings amid which she sat; her eyes just now were gleaming with a crafty and cruel speculation which would have become those of a barbarian in ambush. I wonder how it came about that her strain, after passing through the basest conditions of modern life, had thus reverted to a type of ancestral exuberance.

‘If only he doesn’t hear about the old man or the girl from somebody!’ said Mrs. Peckover. ‘I’ve been afraid of it ever since he come into the ’ouse. There’s so many people might tell him. You’ll have to come round him sharp, Clem.’

The mother was dressed as her kind are wont to be on Sunday morning — that is to say, not dressed at all, but hung about with coarse garments, her hair in unbeautiful disarray. Clem, on the other hand, seemed to have devoted much attention to her morning toilet; she wore a dark dress trimmed with velveteen, and a metal ornament of primitive taste gleamed amid her hair.

‘There ain’t no mistake?’ she asked, after a pause. ‘You’re jolly sure of that?’

‘Mistake? What a blessed fool you must be! Didn’t they advertise in the papers for him? Didn’t the lawyers themselves say as it was something to his advantage? Don’t you say yourself as Jane says her grandfather’s often spoke about him and wished he could find him? How can it be a mistake? If it was only Bill’s letter we had to go on, you might talk; but — there, don’t be a ijiot!’

‘If it turned out as he hadn’t nothing,’ remarked Clem resolutely, ‘I’d leave him, if I was married fifty times.’

Her mother uttered a contemptuous sound. At the same time she moved her head as if listening; some one was, in fact, descending the stairs.

‘Here he comes,’ she whispered. ‘Get the eggs ready, an’ I’ll make the corffee.’

A tap at the door, then entered a tallish man of perhaps forty, though he might be a year or two younger. His face was clean-shaven, harsh-featured, unwholesome of complexion; its chief peculiarity was the protuberance of the bone in front of each temple, which gave him a curiously animal aspect. His lower lip hung and jutted forward; when he smiled, as now in advancing to the fire, it slightly overlapped the one above. His hair was very sparse; he looked, indeed, like one who has received the tonsure. The movement of his limbs betokened excessive indolence; he dragged his feet rather than walked. His attire was equally suggestive; not only had it fallen into the last degree of shabbiness (having originally been such as is worn by a man above the mechanic ranks), but it was patched with dirt of many kinds, and held together by a most inadequate supply of buttons. At present he wore no collar, and his waistcoat, half-open, exposed a red shirt.

‘Why, you’re all a-blowin’ and a-growin’ this morning, Peckover,’ was his first observation, as he dropped heavily into a wooden arm-chair. ‘I shall begin to think that colour of yours ain’t natural. Dare you let me rub it with a handkerchief?’

‘Course I dare,’ replied Clem, tossing her head. ‘Don’t be so forward, Mr. Snowdon.’

‘Forward? Not I. I’m behind time if anything. I hope I haven’t kept you from church.’

He chuckled at his double joke. Mother and daughter laughed appreciatively.

‘Will you take your eggs boiled or fried?’ inquired Mrs. Peckover.

‘Going to give me eggs, are you? Well, I’ve no objection, I assure you. And I think I’ll have them fried, Mrs. Peckover. But, I say, you mustn’t be running up too big a bill. The Lord only knows when I shall get anything to do, and it ain’t very likely to be a thousand a year when it does come.’

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ replied the landlady, as if sordid calculation were a thing impossible to her. ‘I can’t say as you behaved quite straightforward years ago, Mr. Snowdon, but I ain’t one to make a row about bygones, an’ as you say you’ll put it all straight as soon as you can, well, I won’t refuse to trust you once more.’

Mr. Snowdon lay back in the chair, his hands in his waistcoat pockets, his legs outstretched upon the fender. He was smiling placidly, now at the preparing breakfast, now at Clem. The latter he plainly regarded with much admiration, and cared not to conceal it. When, in a few minutes, it was announced to him that the meal was ready, he dragged his chair up to the table and reseated himself with a sigh of satisfaction. A dish of excellent ham, and eggs as nearly fresh as can be obtained in Clerkenwell, invited him with appetising odour; a large cup of what is known to the generality of English people as coffee steamed at his right hand; slices of new bread lay ready cut upon a plate; a slab of the most expensive substitute for butter caught his eye with yellow promise; vinegar and mustard appealed to the refinements of his taste.

‘I’ve got a couple more eggs, if you’d like them doin’,’ said Mrs. Peckover, when she had watched the beginning of his attack upon the viands.

‘I think I shall manage pretty well with this supply,’ returned Mr. Snowdon.

As he ate he kept silence, partly because it was his habit, partly in consequence of the activity of his mind. He was, in fact, musing upon a question which he found it very difficult to answer in any satisfactory way. ‘What’s the meaning of all this?’ he asked himself, and not for the first time. ‘What makes them treat me in this fashion? A week ago I came here to look up Mrs. Peckover, just because I’d run down to my last penny, and I didn’t know where to find a night’s lodging. I’d got an idea, too, that I should like to find out what had become of my child, whom I left here nine or ten years ago; possibly she was still alive, and might welcome the duty of supporting her parent. The chance was, to be sure, that the girl had long since been in her grave, and that Mrs. Peckover no longer lived in the old quarters; if I discovered the woman, on the other hand, she was not very likely to give me an affectionate reception, seeing that I found it inconvenient to keep sending her money for Jane’s keep in the old days. The queer thing is, that everything turned out exactly the opposite of what I had expected. Mrs. Peckover had rather a sour face at first, but after a little talk she began to seem quite glad to see me. She put me into a room, undertook to board me for a while — till I find work, and I wonder when that’ll be? — and blest if this strapping daughter of hers doesn’t seem to have fallen in love with me from the first go off! As for my girl, I’m told she was carried off by her grandfather, my old dad, three years ago, and where they went nobody knows. Very puzzling all this. How on earth came it that Mrs. Peckover kept the child so long, and didn’t send her to the workhouse? If I’m to believe her, she took a motherly kindness for the poor brat. But that won’t exactly go down with J. J. Snowdon; he’s seen a bit too much in his knocking about the world, Still, what if I’m making a mistake about the old woman? There are some people do things of that sort; upon my soul, I’ve known people be kind even to me, without a chance of being paid back! You may think you know a man or a woman, and then all at once they’ll go and do something you’d have taken your davy couldn’t possibly happen. I’d have sworn she was nothing but a skinflint and a lying old witch. And so she maybe; the chances are there’s some game going on that I can’t see through. Make inquiries? Why, so I have done, as far as I know how. I’ve only been able to hit on one person who knows anything about the matter, and he tells me it’s true enough the girl was taken away about three years ago, but he’s no idea where she went to. Surely the old man must be dead b now, though he was tough. Well, the fact of the matter is, I’ve got a good berth, and I’m a precious sight too lazy to go on the private detective job. Here’s this girl Clem, the finest bit of flesh I’ve seen for a long time; I’ve more than half a mind to see if she won’t be fool enough to marry me. I’m not a bad-looking fellow, that’s the truth, and she may have taken a real liking to me. Seems to me that I should have come in for a Comfortable thing in my old age; if I haven’t a daughter to provide for my needs, at all events I shall have a wife who can be persuaded into doing so. When the old woman gets out of the way I must have a little quiet talk with Clem.’

The opportunity he desired was not long in offering itself. Having made an excellent breakfast, he dragged his chair up to the fender again, and reached a pipe from the mantel-piece, where he had left it last night. Tobacco he carried loose in his waistcoat pocket; it came forth in the form of yellowish dust, intermingled with all sorts of alien scraps. When he had lit his pipe, he poised the chair on its hind-legs, clasped his hands over his bald crown, and continued his musing with an air of amiable calm. Smoke curled up from the corner of his loose lips, and occasionally, removing his pipe for an instant, he spat skilfully between the bars of the grate. Assured of his comfort, Mrs. Peckover said she must go and look after certain domestic duties. Her daughter had begun to clean some vegetables that would be cooked for dinner.

‘How old may you be, Clem?’ Mr. Snowdon inquired genially, when they had been alone together for a few minutes.

‘What’s that to you? Guess.’

‘Why, let me see; you was not much more than a baby when I went away. You’ll be eighteen or nineteen, I suppose.’

‘Yes, I’m nineteen — last sixth of February. Pity you come too late to give me a birthday present, ain’t it?’

‘Ah! And who’d have thought you’d have grown up such a beauty! I say, Clem, how many of the young chaps about here have been wanting to marry you, eh?’

‘A dozen or two, I dessay,’ Clem replied, shrugging her shoulders scornfully.

Mr. Snowdon laughed, and then spat into the fire.

‘Tell me about some o’ them, will you? Who is it you’re keeping company with now?’

‘Who, indeed? Why, there isn’t one I’d look at! Several of ’em’s took to drinking ‘cause I won’t have nothing to do with ’em.’

This excited Mr. Snowdon’s mirth in a high degree; he rolled on his chair, and almost pitched backwards.

‘I suppose you give one or other a bit of encouragement now and then, just to make a fool of him, eh?’

‘Course I do. There was Bob Hewett; he used to lodge here, but that was after your time. I kep’ him off an’ on till he couldn’t bear it no longer; then he went an’ married a common slut of a thing, just because he thought it ‘ud make me mad. Ha, ha! I believe he’d give her poison an’ risk it any day, if only I promised to marry him afterwards. Then there was a feller called Jeck Bartley. I set him an’ Bob fightin’ one Bank-holiday — you should a’ seen ’em go at it! Jack went an’ got married a year ago to a girl called Suke Jollop; her mother forced him. How I did laugh! Last Christmas Day they smashed up their ‘ome an’ threw the bits out into the street. Jack got one of his eyes knocked out — I thought I should a’ died o’ laughin’ when I saw him next mornin’.’

The hearer became uproarious in merriment.

‘Tell you what it is, Clem,’ he cried, ‘you’re something like a girl! Darn me if I don’t like you! I say, I wonder what my daughter’s grown up? Like her mother, I suppose. You an’ she was sort of sisters, wasn’t you?’

He observed her closely. Clem laughed and shrugged her shoulders.

‘Queer sort o’ sisters. She was a bit too quiet-like for me. There never was no fun in her.’

‘Aye, like her mother. And where did you say she went to with the old man?’

‘Where she went to?’ repeated Clem, regarding him steadily with her big eyes, ‘I never said nothing about it, ‘cause I didn’t know.’

‘Well, I shan’t cry about her, and I don’t suppose she misses me much, wherever she is. All the same, Clem, I’m a domesticated sort of man; you can see that, can’t you? I shouldn’t wonder if I marry again one of these first days. Just tell me where to find a girl of the right sort. I dare say you know heaps.’

‘Dessay I do. What sort do you want?’

‘Oh, a littlish girl — yellow hair, you know — one of them that look as if they didn’t weigh half-a-stone.’

‘I’ll throw this parsnip at you, Mr. Snowdon!’

‘What’s up now. You don’t Call yourself littlish, do you?’

Clem snapped the small end off the vegetable she was paring, and aimed it at his head. He ducked just in time. Then there was an outburst of laughter from both.

‘Say, Clem, you haven’t got a glass of beer in the house?’

‘You’ll have to wait till openin’ time,’ replied the girl sourly, going away to the far end of the room.

‘Have I offended you, Clem?’

‘Offended, indeed As if I cared what you say!’

‘Do you care what I think?’

‘Not I!’

‘That means you do. Say, Clem, just come here; I’ve something to tell you.’

‘You’re a nuisance. Let me get on with my work, can’t you?’

‘No, I can’t. You just come here. You’d better not give me the trouble of fetching you!’

The girl obeyed him. Her cheeks were very hot, and the danger-signal was flashing in her eyes. Ten minutes later she went upstairs, and had a vivacious dialogue of whispers with Mrs. Peckover.

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