The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 15

Sunlight in Dreary Places

Among the by-ways of Clerkenwell you might, with some difficulty, have discovered an establishment known in its neighbourhood as ‘Whitehead’s.’ It was an artificial-flower factory, and the rooms of which it consisted were only to be reached by traversing a timber-yard, and then mounting a wooden staircase outside a saw-mill. Here at busy seasons worked some threescore women and girls, who, owing to the nature of their occupation, were spoken of by the jocose youth of the locality as ‘Whitehead’s pastepots.’

Naturally they varied much in age and aspect. There was the child who had newly left school, and was now invited to consider the question of how to keep herself alive; there was the woman of uncertain age, who had spent long years of long days in the atmosphere of workrooms, and showed the result in her parchmenty cheek and lack-lustre eye; and between these extremes came all the various types of the London crafts-girl: she who is young enough to hope that disappointments may yet be made up for by the future; she who is already tasting such scanty good as life had in store for her; she who has outlived her illusions and no longer cares to look beyond the close of the week. If regularly engaged as time-workers, they made themselves easy in the prospect of wages that allowed them to sleep under a roof and eat at certain intervals of the day; if employed on piece-work they might at any moment find themselves wageless, but this, being a familiar state of things, did not trouble them. With few exceptions, they were clad neatly; on the whole, they plied their task in wonderful contentment. The general tone of conversation among them was not high; moralists unfamiliar with the ways of the nether world would probably have applied a term other than negative to the laughing discussions which now and then enlivened this or that group; but it was very seldom indeed that a child newly arriving heard anything with which she was not already perfectly familiar.

One afternoon at the end of May there penetrated into the largest of the workrooms that rarest of visitants, a stray sunbeam. Only if the sun happened to shine at given moments could any of its light fall directly into the room I speak of; this afternoon, however, all circumstances were favourable, and behold the floor chequered with uncertain gleam. The workers were arranged in groups of three, called ‘parties,’ consisting of a learner, an improver, and a hand. All sat with sleeves pushed up to their elbows, and had a habit of rocking to and fro as they plied their mechanical industry. Owing to the movement of a cloud, the sunlight spread gradually towards one of these groups; it touched the skirt, the arms, the head of one of the girls, who, as if gladdened by the kindly warmth, looked round and smiled. A smile you would have been pleased to observe — unconscious, gently thoughtful, rich in possibilities of happiness. She was quite a young girl, certainly not seventeen, and wore a smooth grey dress, with a white linen collar; her brown hair was closely plaited, her head well-shaped, the bend of her neck very graceful. From her bare arms it could be seen that she was anything but robustly made, yet her general appearance was not one of ill-health, and she held herself, even thus late in the day, far more uprightly than most of her companions. Had you watched her for a while, you would have noticed that her eyes occasionally strayed beyond the work-table, and, perhaps unconsciously, fixed themselves for some moments on one or other of the girls near her; when she remembered herself and looked down again upon her task, there rose to her face a smile of the subtlest meaning, the outcome of busy reflection.

By her side was a little girl just beginning to learn the work, whose employment it was to paper wires and make ‘centres.’ This toil always results in blistered fingers, and frequent was the child’s appeal to her neighbour for sympathy.

‘It’ll be easier soon,’ said the latter, on one of these occasions, bending her head to speak in a low voice. ‘You should have seen what blisters I had when I began.’

‘It’s all very well to say that. I can’t do no more, so there Oh, when’ll it be five o’clock?’

‘It’s a quarter to. Try and go on, Annie.’

Five o’clock did come at length, and with it twenty minutes’ rest for tea. The rule at Whitehead’s was, that you could either bring your own tea, sugar, and eatables, or purchase them here from a forewoman; most of the workers chose to provide themselves. It was customary for each ‘party’ to club together, emptying their several contributions of tea out of little twists of newspaper into one teapot. Wholesome bustle and confusion succeeded to the former silence. One of the learners, whose turn it was to run on errands, was overwhelmed with commissions to a chandler’s shop close by; a wry-faced, stupid little girl she was, and they called her, because of her slowness, the ‘funeral horse.’ She had strange habits, which made laughter for those who knew of them; for instance, it was her custom in the dinner-hour to go apart and eat her poor scraps on a doorstep close by a cook-shop; she confided to a companion that the odour of baked joints seemed to give her food a relish. From her present errand she returned with a strange variety of dainties — for it was early in the week, and the girls still had coppers in their pockets; for two or three she had purchased a farthing’s-worth of jam, which she carried in paper. A bite of this and a taste of that rewarded her for her trouble.

The quiet-mannered girl whom we were observing took her cup of tea from the pot in which she had a share, and from her bag produced some folded pieces of bread and butter. She had begun her meal, when there came and sat down by her a young woman of very different appearance — our friend, Miss Peckover. They were old acquaintances; but when we first saw them together it would have been difficult to imagine that they would ever sit and converse as at present, apparently in all friendliness. Strange to say, it was Clem who, during the past three years, had been the active one in seeking to obliterate disagreeable memories. The younger girl had never repelled her, but was long in overcoming the dread excited by Clem’s proximity. Even now she never looked straight into Miss Peckover’s face, as she did when speaking with others; there was reserve in her manner, reserve unmistakable, though clothed with her pleasant smile and amiable voice.

‘I’ve got something to tell you, Jane,’ Clem began, in a tone inaudible to those who were sitting near. ‘Something as’ll surprise you.’

‘What is it, I wonder?’

‘You must swear you won’t tell nobody.’

Jane nodded. Then the other brought her head a little nearer, and whispered:

‘I’m goin’ to be married!’

‘Are you really?’

‘In a week. Who do you think it is? Somebody as you know of, but if you guessed till next Christmas you’d never come right.’

Nor had Clem any intention of revealing the name, but she laughed consumedly, as if her reticence covered the most amusing situation conceivable.

‘It’ll be the biggest surprise you ever had in your life. You’ve swore you won’t speak about it. I don’t think I shall come to work after this week — but you’ll have to come an’ see us. You’ll promise to, won’t you?’

Still convulsed with mirth, Clem went off to another part of the room. From Jane’s countenance the look of amusement which she had perforce summoned soon passed; it was succeeded by a shadow almost of pain, and not till she had been at work again for nearly an hour was the former placidity restored to her.

When final release came, Jane was among the first to hasten down the wooden staircase and get clear of the timber yard. By the direct way, it took her twenty minutes to walk from Whitehead’s to her home in Hanover Street, but this evening she had an object in turning aside. The visit she wished to pay took her into a disagreeable quarter, a street of squalid houses, swarming with yet more squalid children. On all the doorsteps Bat little girls, themselves only just out of infancy, nursing or neglecting bald, red-eyed, doughy-limbed abortions in every stage of babyhood, hapless spawn of diseased humanity, born to embitter and brutalise yet further the lot of those who unwillingly gave them life. With wide, pitiful eyes Jane looked at each group she passed. Three years ago she would have seen nothing but the ordinary and the inevitable in such spectacles, but since then her moral and intellectual being had grown on rare nourishment; there was indignation as well as heartache in the feeling with which she had learnt to regard the world of her familiarity. To enter the house at which she paused it was necessary to squeeze through a conglomerate of dirty little bodies. At the head of the first flight of stairs she came upon a girl sitting in a weary attitude on the top step and beating the wood listlessly with the last remnant of a hearth-brush; on her lap was one more specimen of the infinitely-multiplied baby, and a child of two years sprawled behind her on the landing.

‘Waiting for him to come home, Pennyloaf?’ said Jane.

‘Oh, is that you, Miss Snowdon!’ exclaimed the other, returning to consciousness and manifesting some shame at being discovered in this position. Hastily she drew together the front of her dress, which for the baby’s sake had been wide open, and rose to her feet. Pennyloaf was not a bit more womanly in figure than on the day of her marriage; her voice was still an immature treble; the same rueful irresponsibility marked her features; but all her poor prettiness was wasted under the disfigurement of pains and cares, Incongruously enough, she wore a gown of bright-patterned calico, and about her neck had a collar of pretentious lace; her hair was dressed as if for a holiday, and a daub recently made on her cheeks by the baby’s fingers lent emphasis to the fact that she had but a little while ago washed herself with much care.

‘I can’t stop,’ said Jane, ‘but I thought I’d just look in and speak a word. How have you been getting on?’

‘Oh, do come in for just a minute!’ pleaded Pennyloaf, moving backwards to an open door, whither Jane followed. They entered a room — much like other rooms that we have looked into from time to time. Following the nomadic custom of their kind, Bob Hewett and his wife had lived in six or seven different lodgings since their honeymoon in Shooter’s Gardens. Mrs. Candy first of all made a change necessary, as might have been anticipated, and the restlessness of domestic ill-being subsequently drove them from place to place. ‘Come in ’ere, Johnny,’ she Called to the child lying on the landing. ‘What’s the good o’ washin’ you, I’d like to know? Just see, Miss Snowdon, he’s made his face all white with the milk as the boy spilt on the stairs! Take this brush an’ play with it, do! I can’t keep ’em clean, Miss Snowdon, so it’s no use talkin’.’

‘Are you going somewhere to-night?’ Jane inquired, with a glance at the strange costume.

Pennyloaf looked up and down in a shamefaced way.

‘I only did it just because I thought he might like to see me. He promised me faithful as he’d come ‘ome to-night, and I thought — it’s only somethink as got into my ‘ed today, Miss Snowdon.’

‘But hasn’t he been coming home since I saw you last?’

‘He did just once, an’ then it was all the old ways again. I did what you told me; I did, as sure as I’m a-standin’ ’ere! I made the room so clean you wouldn’t have believed; I scrubbed the floor an’ the table, an’ I washed the winders — you can see they ain’t dirty yet. An’ he’d never a’ paid a bit o’ notice if I hadn’t told him, He was jolly enough for one night, just like he can be when he likes. But I knew as it wouldn’t last, an’ the next night he was off with a lot o’ fellers an’ girls, same as ever. I didn’t make no row when he came ‘ome; I wish I may die if I said a word to set his back up! An’ I’ve gone on just the same all the week; we haven’t had not the least bit of a row; so you see I kep’ my promise. But it’s no good; he won’t come ‘ome; he’s always got fellers an’ girls to go round with. He took his hoath as he’d come back to-night, an’ then it come into my ‘ed as I’d put my best things on, just to — you know what I mean, Miss Snowdon. But he won’t come before twelve o’clock; I know he won’t. An’ I get that low sittin’ ’ere, you can’t think I can’t go nowhere, because o’ the children. If it wasn’t for them I could go to work again, an’ I’d be that glad; I feel as if my ‘ed would drop off sometimes! I ham so glad you just come in!’

Jane had tried so many forms of encouragement, of consolation, on previous occasions that she knew not how to repeat herself. She was ashamed to speak words which sounded so hollow and profitless. This silence was only too significant to Pennyloaf, and in a moment she exclaimed with querulous energy:

‘I know what’ll be the bend of it! I’ll go an’ do like mother does — I will! I will! I’ll put my ring away, an’ I’ll go an’ sit all night in the public-’ouse! It’s what all the others does, an’ I’ll do the same. I often feel I’m a fool to go on like this. I don’t know what I live for, P’r’aps he’ll be sorry when I get run in like mother.’

‘Don’t talk like that, Pennyloaf!’ cried Jane, stamping her foot, (It was odd how completely difference of character had reversed their natural relations to each other; Pennyloaf was the child, Jane the mature woman.) ‘You know better, and you’ve no right to give way to such thoughts. I was going to say I’d come and be with you all Saturday afternoon, but I don’t know whether I shall now. And I’d been thinking you might like to come and see me on Sunday, but I can’t have people that go to the public-house, so we won’t say anything more about it. I shall have to be off; good-bye!’

She stepped to the door.

‘Miss Snowdon!’

Jane turned, and after an instant of mock severity, broke into a laugh which seemed to fill the wretched den with sunlight. Words, too, she found; words of soothing influence such as leap from the heart to the tongue in spite of the heavy thoughts that try to check them. Pennyloaf was learning to depend upon these words for strength in her desolation. They did not excite her to much hopefulness, but there was a sustaining power in their sweet sincerity which made all the difference between despair tending to evil and the sigh of renewed effort. ‘I don’t care,’ Pennyloaf had got into the habit of thinking, after her friend’s departure, ‘I won’t give up as long as she looks in now and then.’

Out from the swarm of babies Jane hurried homewards. She had a reason for wishing to be back in good time to-night; it was Wednesday, and on Wednesday evening there was wont to come a visitor, who sat for a couple of hours in her grandfather’s room and talked, talked — the most interesting talk Jane had ever heard or could imagine. A latch-key admitted her; she ran up to the second floor. A voice from the front-room caught her ear; certainly not his voice — it was too early — but that of some unusual visitor. She was on the point of entering her own chamber, when the other door opened, and somebody exclaimed, ‘Ah, here she is!’

The speaker was an old gentleman, dressed in black, bald, with small and rather rugged features; his voice was pleasant. A gold chain and a bunch of seals shone against his waistcoat, also a pair of eye-glasses. A professional man, obviously. Jane remembered that she had seen him once before, about a year ago, when he had talked with her for a few minutes, very kindly.

‘Will you come in here, Jane?’ her grandfather’s voice called to her.

Snowdon had changed much. Old age was heavy upon his shoulders, and had even produced a slight tremulousness in his hands; his voice told the same story of enfeeblement. Even more noticeable was the ageing of his countenance. Something more, however, than the progress of time seemed to be here at work. He looked strangely careworn; his forehead was set in lines of anxiety; his mouth expressed a nervousness of which formerly there had been no trace. One would have said that some harassing preoccupation must have seized his mind. His eyes were no longer merely sad and absent, but restless with fatiguing thought. As Jane entered the room he fixed his gaze upon her — a gaze that appeared to reveal worrying apprehension.

‘You remember Mr. Percival, Jane,’ he said.

The old gentleman thus presented held out his hand with something of fatherly geniality.

‘Miss Snowdon, I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you again before long, but just now I am carrying off your grandfather for a couple of hours, and indeed we mustn’t linger that number of minutes. You look well, I think?’

He stood and examined her intently, then cried:

‘Come, my dear sir, come! we shall be late.’

Snowdon was already prepared for walking. He spoke a few words to Jane, then followed Mr. Percival downstairs.

Flurried by the encounter, Jane stood looking about her. Then came a rush of disappointment as she reflected that the visitor of Wednesday evenings would call in vain. Hearing that her grandfather was absent, doubtless he would take his leave at once. Or, would he —

In a minute or two she ran downstairs to exchange a word with Mrs. Byass. On entering the kitchen she was surprised to see Bessie sitting idly by the fire. At this hour it was usual for Mr. Byass to have returned, and there was generally an uproar of laughing talk. This evening, dead silence, and a noticeable something in the air which told of trouble. The baby — of course a new baby — lay in a bassinette near its mother, seemingly asleep; the other child was sitting in a high chair by the table, clattering ‘bricks.’

Bessie did not even look round.

‘Is Mr. Byass late?’ inquired Jane, in an apprehensive voice.

‘He’s somewhere in the house, I believe,’ was the answer, in monotone.

‘Oh dear!’ Jane recognised a situation which had already come under her notice once or twice during the last six months She drew near, and asked in a low voice:

‘What’s happened, Mrs. Byass?’

‘He’s a beast! If he doesn’t mind I shall go and leave him. I mean it!’

Bessie was in a genuine fit of sullenness. One of her hands was clenched below her chin; her pretty lips were not pretty at all; her brow was rumpled. Jane began to seek for the cause of dissension, to put affectionate questions, to use her voice soothingly.

‘He’s a beast!’ was Bessie’s reiterated observation; but by degrees she added phrases more explanatory. ‘How can I help it if he cuts himself when he’s shaving? — Serve him right! — What for? Why, for saying that babies was nothing but a nuisance, and that my baby was the ugliest and noisiest ever born!’

‘Did she cry in the night?’ inquired Jane, with sympathy.

‘Of course she did! Hasn’t she a right to?’

‘And then Mr. Byass cut himself with his razor?’

‘Yes. And he said it was because he was woke so often, and it made him nervous, and his hand shook. And then I told him he’d better cut himself on the other side, and it wouldn’t matter. And then he complained because he had to wait for breakfast. And he said there’d been no comfort in the house since we’d had children. And I cared nothing about him, he said, and only about the baby and Ernest. And he went on like a beast, as he is! I hate him!’

‘Oh no, not a bit of it!’ said Jane, seeing the opportunity for a transition to jest.

‘I do! And you may go upstairs and tell him so.’

‘All right; I will.’

Jane ran upstairs and knocked at the door of the parlour. A gruff voice bade her enter, but the room was nearly in darkness.

‘Will you have a light, Mr. Byass?’

‘No — thank you.’

‘Mr. Byass, Mrs. Byass says I’m to say she hates you.’

‘All right. Tell her I’ve known it a long time. She needn’t trouble about me; I’m going out to enjoy myself.’

Jane ran back to the kitchen.

‘Mr. Byass says he’s known it a long time,’ she reported, with much gravity. ‘And he’s going out to enjoy himself.’

Bessie remained mute.

‘What message shall I take back, Mrs. Byass?’

‘Tell him if he dares to leave the house, I’ll go to mother’s the first thing tomorrow, and let them know how he’s treating me.’

‘Tell her,’ was Mr. Byass’s reply, ‘that I don’t see what it matters to her whether I’m at home or away. And tell her she’s a cruel wife to me.’

Something like the sound of a snivel came out of the darkness as he concluded. Jane, in reporting his speech, added that she thought he was shedding tears. Thereupon Bessie gave a sob, quite in earnest.

‘So am I,’ she said chokingly. ‘Go and tell him, Jane.’

‘Mr. Byass, Mrs. Byass is crying,’ whispered Jane at the parlour-door. ‘Don’t you think you’d better, go downstairs?’

Hearing a movement, she ran to be out of the way. Samuel left the dark room, and with slow step descended to the kitchen. Then Jane knew that it was all right, and tripped up to her room humming a song of contentment.

Had she, then, wholly outgrown the bitter experiences of her childhood? Had the cruelty which tortured her during the years when the soul is being fashioned left upon her no brand of slavish vice, nor the baseness of those early associations affected her with any irremovable taint? As far as human observation could probe her, Jane Snowdon had no spot of uncleanness in her being; she had been rescued while it was yet time, and the subsequent period of fostering had enabled features of her character, which no one could have discerned in the helpless child, to expand with singular richness. Two effects of the time of her bondage were, however, clearly to be distinguished. Though nature had endowed her with a good intelligence, she could only with extreme labour acquire that elementary book-knowledge which vulgar children get easily enough; it seemed as if the bodily overstrain at a critical period of life had affected her memory, and her power of mental application generally. In spite of ceaseless endeavour, she could not yet spell words of the least difficulty; she could not do the easiest sums with accuracy; geographical names were her despair. The second point in which she had suffered harm was of more serious nature. She was subject to fits of hysteria, preceded and followed by the most painful collapse of that buoyant courage which was her supreme charm and the source of her influence. Without warning, an inexplicable terror would fall upon her; like the weakest child, she craved protection from a dread inspired solely by her imagination, and solace for an anguish of wretchedness to which she could give no form in words. Happily this illness afflicted her only at long intervals, and her steadily improving health gave warrant for hoping that in time it would altogether pass away.

Whenever an opportunity had offered for struggling successfully with some form of evil — were it poor Pennyloaf’s dangerous despair, or the very human difficulties between Bessie and her husband — Jane lived at her highest reach of spiritual joy. For all that there was a disappointment on her mind, she felt this joy to-night, and went about her pursuits in happy self-absorption. So it befell that she did not hear a knock at the house-door. Mrs. Byass answered it, and not knowing that Mr. Snowdon was from home, bade his usual visitor go upstairs. The visitor did so, and announced his presence at the door of the room.

‘Oh, Mr. Kirkwood,’ said Jane, ‘I’m so sorry, but grandfather had to go out with a gentleman.’

And she waited, looking at him, a gentle warmth on her face.

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