The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 16

Dialogue and Comment

‘Will it be late before he comes back?’ asked Sidney, his smile of greeting shadowed with disappointment.

‘Not later than half-past ten, he said.’

Sidney turned his face to the stairs. The homeward prospect was dreary after that glimpse of the familiar mom through the doorway. The breach of habit discomposed him, and something more positive strengthened his reluctance to be gone. It was not his custom to hang in hesitancy and court chance by indirectness of speech; recognising and admitting his motives, he said simply:

‘I should like to stay a little, if you will let me — if I shan’t be in your way?’

‘Oh no! Please come in. I’m only sewing.’

There were two round-backed wooden chairs in the room; one stood on each side of the fireplace, and between them, beside the table, Jane always had her place on a small chair of the ordinary comfortless kind. She seated herself as usual, and Sidney took his familiar position, with the vacant chair opposite. Snowdon and he were accustomed to smoke their pipes whilst conversing, but this evening Sidney dispensed with tobacco.

It was very quiet here. On the floor below dwelt at present two sisters who kept themselves alive (it is quite inaccurate to use any other phrase in such instances) by doing all manner of skilful needlework; they were middle-aged women, gentle-natured, and so thoroughly subdued to the hopelessness of their lot that scarcely ever could even their footfall be heard as they went up and down stairs; their voices were always sunk to a soft murmur. Just now no infant wailing came from the Byasses’ regions. Kirkwood enjoyed a sense of restfulness, intenser, perhaps, for the momentary disappointment he had encountered. He had no desire to talk; enough for a few minutes to sit and watch Jane’s hand as it moved backwards and forwards with the needle.

‘I went to see Pennyloaf as I came back from work,’ Jane said at length, just looking up.

‘Did you? Do things seem to be any better?’

‘Not much, I’m afraid. Mr. Kirkwood, don’t you think you might do something? If you tried again with her husband?’

‘The fact is,’ replied Sidney, ‘I’m so afraid of doing more harm than good.’

‘You think — But then perhaps that’s just what I’m doing?’

Jane let her hand fall on the sewing and regarded him anxiously.

‘No, no! I’m quite sure you can’t do harm. Pennyloaf can get nothing but good from having you as a friend. She likes you; she misses you when you happen not to have seen her for a few days. I’m sorry to say it’s quite a different thing with Bob and me. We’re friendly enough — as friendly as ever — but I haven’t a scrap of influence with him like you have with his wife. It was all very well to get hold of him once, and try to make him understand, in a half-joking way, that he wasn’t behaving as well as he might. He didn’t take it amiss — just that once. But you can’t think how difficult it is for one man to begin preaching to another. The natural thought is: Mind your own business. If I was the parson of the parish —’

He paused, and in the same instant their eyes met. The suggestion was irresistible; Jane began to laugh merrily.

What sweet laughter it was? How unlike the shrill discord whereby the ordinary workgirl expresses her foolish mirth! For years Sidney Kirkwood had been unused to utter any sound of merriment; even his smiling was done sadly. But of late he had grown conscious of the element of joy in Jane’s character, had accustomed himself to look for its manifestations — to observe the brightening of her eyes which foretold a smile, the moving of her lips which suggested inward laughter — and he knew that herein, as in many another matter, a profound sympathy was transforming him. Sorrow such as he had suffered will leave its mark upon the countenance long after time has done its kindly healing, and in Sidney’s case there was more than the mere personal affliction tending to confirm his life in sadness. With the ripening of his intellect, he saw only more and more reason to condemn and execrate those social disorders of which his own wretched experience was but an illustration. From the first, his friendship with Snowdon had exercised upon him a subduing influence; the old man was stern enough in his criticism of society, but he did not belong to the same school as John Hewett, and the sober authority of his character made appeal to much in Sidney that had found no satisfaction amid the uproar of Clerkenwell Green. For all that, Kirkwood could not become other than himself; his vehemence was moderated, but he never affected to be at one with Snowdon in that grave enthusiasm of far-off hope which at times made the old man’s speech that of an exhorting prophet. Their natural parts were reversed; the young eyes declared that they could see nothing but an horizon of blackest cloud, whilst those enfeebled by years bore ceaseless witness to the raying forth of dawn.

And so it was with a sensation of surprise that Sidney first became aware of light-heartedness in the young girl who was a silent hearer of so many lugubrious discussions. Ridiculous as it may sound — as Sidney felt it to be-he almost resented this evidence of happiness; to him, only just recovering from a shock which would leave its mark upon his life to the end, his youth wronged by bitter necessities, forced into brooding over problems of ill when nature would have bidden him enjoy, it seemed for the moment a sign of shallowness that Jane could look and speak cheerfully. This extreme of morbid feeling proved its own cure; even in reflecting upon it, Sidney was constrained to laugh contemptuously at himself. And therewith opened for him a new world of thought. He began to study the girl. Of course he had already occupied himself much with the peculiarities of her position, but of Jane herself he knew very little; she was still, in his imagination, the fearful and miserable child over whose shoulders he had thrown his coat one bitter night; his impulse towards her was one of compassion merely, justified now by what he heard of her mental slowness, her bodily sufferings. It would take very long to analyse the process whereby this mode of feeling was changed, until it became the sense of ever-deepening sympathy which so possessed him this evening. Little by little Jane’s happiness justified itself to him, and in so doing began subtly to modify his own temper. With wonder he recognised that the poor little serf of former days had been meant by nature for one of the most joyous among children. What must that heart have suffered, so scorned and trampled upon! But now that the days of misery were over, behold nature having its way after all. If the thousands are never rescued from oppression, if they perish abortive in their wretchedness, is that a reason for refusing to rejoice with the one whom fate has blest? Sidney knew too much of Jane by this time to judge her shallow-hearted. This instinct of gladness had a very different significance from the animal vitality which prompted the constant laughter of Bessie Byass; it was but one manifestation of a moral force which made itself nobly felt in many another way. In himself Sidney was experiencing its pure effects, and it was owing to his conviction of Jane’s power for good that he had made her acquainted with Bob Hewett’s wife. Snowdon warmly approved of this; the suggestion led him to speak expressly of Jane, a thing he very seldom did, and to utter a strong wish that she should begin to concern herself with the sorrows she might in some measure relieve.

Sidney joined in the laughter he had excited by picturing himself the parson of the parish. But the topic under discussion was a serious one, and Jane speedily recovered her gravity.

‘Yes, I see how hard it is,’ she said. ‘But it’s a cruel thing for him to neglect poor Pennyloaf as he does. She never gave him any cause.’

‘Not knowingly, I quite believe,’ replied Kirkwood. ‘But what a miserable home it is!’

‘Yes.’ Jane shook her head. ‘She doesn’t seem to know how to keep things in order. She doesn’t seem even to understand me when I try to show her how it might be different.’

‘There’s the root of the trouble, Jane. What chance had Pennyloaf of ever learning how to keep a decent home, and bring up her children properly? How was she brought up? The wonder is that there’s so much downright good in her; I feel the same wonder about people every day. Suppose Pennyloaf behaved as badly as her mother does, who on earth would have the right to blame her? But we can’t expect miracles; so long as she lives decently, it’s the most that can be looked for. And there you are; that isn’t enough to keep a fellow like Bob Hewett in order. I doubt whether any wife would manage it, but as for poor Pennyloaf —’

‘I shall speak to him myself,’ said Jane quietly.

‘Do! There’s much more hope in that than in anything I could say. Bob isn’t a bad fellow; the worst thing I know of him is his conceit. He’s good-looking, and he’s clever in all sorts of ways, and unfortunately he can’t think of anything but his own merits. Of course he’d no business to marry at all whilst he was nothing but a boy.’

Jane plied her needle, musing.

‘Do you know whether he ever goes to see his father?’ Sidney inquired presently.

‘No, I don’t,’ Jane answered, looking at him, but immediately dropping her eyes.

‘If he doesn’t I should think worse of him. Nobody ever had a kinder father, and there’s many a reason why he should be careful to pay the debt he owes.’

Jane waited a moment, then again raised her eyes to him. It seemed as though she would ask a question, and Sidney’s grave attentiveness indicated a surmise of what she was about to say. But her thought remained unuttered, and there was a prolongation of silence.

Of course they were both thinking of Clara. That name had never been spoken by either of them in the other’s presence, but as often as conversation turned upon the Hewetts, it was impossible for them not to supplement their spoken words by a silent colloquy of which Clara was the subject. From her grandfather Jane knew that, to this day, nothing had been heard of Hewett’s daughter; what people said at the time of the girl’s disappearance she had learned fully enough from Clem Peckover, who even yet found it pleasant to revive the scandal, and by contemptuous comments revenge herself for Clara’s haughty usage in old days. Time had not impaired Jane’s vivid recollection of that Bank-holiday morning when she herself was the first to make it known that Clara had gone away. Many a time since then she had visited the street whither Snowdon led her — had turned aside from her wonted paths in the thought that it was not impossible she might meet Clara, though whether with more hope or fear of such a meeting she could not have said. When two years had gone by, her grandfather one day led the talk to that subject; he was then beginning to change in certain respects the tone he had hitherto used with her, and to address her as one who had outgrown childhood. He explained to her how it came about that Sidney could no longer be even on terms of acquaintance with John Hewett. The conversation originated in Jane’s bringing the news that Hewett and his family had at length left Mrs. Peckover’s house. For two years things had gone miserably with them, their only piece of good fortune being the death of the youngest child. John was confirmed in a habit of drinking. Not that he had become a brutal sot; sometimes for as much as a month he would keep sober, and even when he gave way to temptation he never behaved with violence to his wife and children. Still, the character of his life had once more suffered a degradation, and he possessed no friends who could be of the least use to him. Snowdon, for some reason of his own, maintained a slight intercourse with the Peckovers, and through them he endeavoured to establish an intimacy with Hewett; but the project utterly failed. Probably on Kirkwood’s account, John met the old man’s advances with something more than coldness. Sternly he had forbidden his wife and the little ones to exchange a word of any kind with Sidney, or with any friend of his. He appeared to nourish incessantly the bitter resentment to which he gave expression when Sidney and he last met.

There was no topic on which Sidney was more desirous of speaking with Jane than this which now occupied both their minds. How far she understood Clara’s story, and his part in it, he had no knowledge; for between Snowdon and himself there had long been absolute silence on that matter. It was not improbable that Jane had been instructed in the truth; he hoped she had not been left to gather what she could from Clem Peckover’s gossip. Yet the difficulty with which he found himself beset, now that an obvious opportunity offered for frank speech, was so great that, after a few struggles, he fell back on the reflection with which he was wont to soothe himself: Jane was still so young, and the progress of time, by confirming her knowledge of him, would make it all the simpler to explain the miserable past. Had he, in fact, any right to relate this story, to seek her sympathy in that direct way? It was one aspect of a very grave question which occupied more and more of Sidney’s thought.

With an effort, he turned the dialogue into quite a new direction, and Jane, though a little absent for some minutes, seemed at length to forget the abruptness of the change. Sidney had of late been resuming his old interest in pencil-work; two or three of his drawings hung on these walls, and he spoke of making new sketches when he next went into the country. Years ago, one of his favourite excursions — of the longer ones which he now and then allowed himself — was to Danbury Hill, some five miles to the east of Chelmsford, one of the few pieces of rising ground in Essex, famous for its view over Maldon and the estuary of the Blackwater. Thither Snowdon and Jane accompanied him during the last summer but one, and the former found so much pleasure in the place that he took lodgings with certain old friends of Sidney’s, and gave his granddaughter a week of healthful holiday. In the summer that followed, the lodgings were again taken for a week, and this year the same expedition was in view. Sidney had as good as promised that he would join his friends for the whole time of their absence, and now he talked with Jane of memories and anticipations. Neither was sensible how the quarters and the half-hours went by in such chatting. Sidney abandoned himself to the enjoyment of peace such as he had never known save in this room, to a delicious restfulness such as was always inspired in him by the girl’s gentle voice, by her laughter, by her occasional quiet movements. The same influence was affecting his whole life. To Jane he owed the gradual transition from tumultuous politics and social bitterness to the mood which could find pleasure as of old in nature and art. This was his truer self, emancipated from the distorting effect of the evil amid which he perforce lived. He was recovering somewhat of his spontaneous boyhood; at the same time, reaching after a new ideal of existence which only ripened manhood could appreciate.

Snowdon returned at eleven; it alarmed Sidney to find how late he had allowed himself to remain, and he began shaping apologies. But the old man had nothing but the familiar smile and friendly words.

‘Haven’t you given Mr. Kirkwood any supper?’ he asked of Jane, looking at the table.

‘I really forgot all about it, grandfather,’ was the laughing reply.

Then Snowdon laughed, and Sidney joined in the merriment; but he would not be persuaded to stay longer.

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