The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 18

The Joke is Completed

Michael Snowdon — to distinguish the old man by name from the son who thus unexpectedly returned to him — professed no formal religion. He attended no Sunday service, nor had ever shown a wish that Jane should do so. We have seen that he used the Bible as a source of moral instruction; Jane and he still read passages together on a Sunday morning, but only such were chosen as had a purely human significance, and the comments to which they gave occasion never had any but a human bearing. Doubtless Jane reflected on these things; it was her grandfather’s purpose to lead her to such reflection, without himself dogmatising on questions which from his own point of view were unimportant. That Jane should possess the religious spirit was a desire he never lost sight of; the single purpose of his life was involved therein; but formalism was against the bent of his nature. Born and bred amid the indifference of the London working classes, he was one of the very numerous thinking men who have never needed to cast aside a faith of childhood; from the dawn of rationality, they simply stand apart from all religious dogmas, unable to understand the desire of such helps to conduct, untouched by spiritual trouble — as that phrase is commonly interpreted. And it seemed that Jane closely resembled him in this matter. Sensitive to every prompting of humanity, instinct with moral earnestness, she betrayed no slightest tendency to the religion of church, chapel, or street-corner. A promenade of the Salvation Army half-puzzled, half-amused her; she spoke of it altogether without intolerance, as did her grandfather, but never dreamt that it was a phenomenon which could gravely concern her. Prayers she had never said; enough that her last thought before sleeping was one of kindness to those beings amid whom she lived her life, that on awaking her mind turned most naturally to projects of duty and helpfulness.

Excepting the Bible, Snowdon seldom made use of books either for inquiry or amusement. Very imperfectly educated in his youth, he had never found leisure for enriching his mind in the ordinary way until it was too late; as an old man he had so much occupation in his thoughts that the printed page made little appeal to him. Till quite recently he had been in the habit of walking for several hours daily, always choosing poor districts; now that his bodily powers were sensibly failing him, he passed more and more of his time in profound brooding, so forgetful of external things that Jane, on her return from work, had more than once been troubled by noticing that he had taken no midday meal. It was in unconsciousness such as this that he sat when his son Joseph, receiving no reply to his knock, opened the door and entered; but that his eyes were open, the posture of his body and the forward drooping of his head would have made it appear that he slept. Joseph stepped towards him, and at length the old man looked up. He gazed at his visitor first unintelligently, then with wonder and growing emotion.

‘Jo? — Jo, at last? You were in my mind only a few minutes ago, but I saw you as a boy.’

He rose from the chair and held out both his hands, trembling more than they were wont to do.

‘I almost wonder you knew me,’ said Joseph. ‘It’s seventeen years since we saw each other. It was all Jane could do to remember me.’

‘Jane? Where have you seen her? At the house in the Close?’

‘Yes. It was me she went to see, but she didn’t know it. I’ve just been married to Miss Peckover. Sit down again, father, and let’s talk over things quietly.’

‘Married to Miss Peckover?’ repeated the old man, as if making an effort to understand the words. ‘Then why didn’t you come here before?’

Joseph gave the explanation which he had already devised for the benefit of his daughter. His manner of speaking was meant to be very respectful, but it suggested that he looked upon the hearer as suffering from feebleness of mind, as well as of body. He supplemented his sentences with gestures and smiles, glancing about the room meantime with looks of much curiosity.

‘So you’ve been living here a long time, father? It was uncommonly good of you to take care of my girl. I dare say you’ve got so used to having her by you, you wouldn’t care for her to go away now?’

‘Do you wish to take Jane away?’ Michael inquired gravely.

‘No, no; not I! Why, it’s nothing but her duty to keep you company and be what use she can. She’s happy enough, that I can see. Well, well; I’ve gone through a good deal since the old days, father, and I’m not what you used to know me. I’m gladder than I can say to find you so easy in your old age. Neither Mike nor me did our duty by you, that’s only too sure. I wish I could have the time back again; but what’s the good of that? Can you tell me anything about Mike?’

‘Yes. He died in Australia, about four years ago.’

‘Did he now? Well, I’ve been in America, but I never got so far as Australia. So Mike’s dead, is he? I hope he had better luck than me.’

The old man did not cease from examining his son’s countenance.

‘What is your position, at present?’ he asked, after a pause. ‘You don’t look unprosperous.’

‘Nothing to boast of, father. I’ve gone through all kinds of trades. In the States I both made and lost money. I invented a new method of nickel-plating, but it did me no good, and then I gave up that line altogether. Since I’ve been back in England — two years about — I’ve mostly gone in for canvassing, advertising agencies, and that kind of thing. I make an honest living, and that’s about all. But I shouldn’t wonder if things go a bit better now; I feel as if I was settled at last. What with having a home of my own, and you and Janey near at hand — You won’t mind if I come and see you both now and then?’

‘I shall hope to see you often,’ replied the other, still keeping his grave face and tone. ‘It’s been my strong desire that we might come together again, and I’ve done the best I could to find you. But, as you said, we’ve been parted for a very long time, and it isn’t in a day that we can come to understand each other. These seventeen years have made an old man of me, Jo; I think and speak and act slowly:— better for us all if I had learned to do so long ago! Your coming was unexpected; I shall need a little time to get used to the change it makes.’

‘To be sure; that’s true enough. Plenty of time to talk over things. As far as I’m concerned, father, the less said about bygones the better; it’s the future that I care about now. I want to put things right between us — as they ought to be between father and son. You understand me, I hope?’

Michael nodded, keeping his eyes upon the ground. Again there was a silence, then Joseph said that if Jane would come in and speak a few words — so as to make things home-like — it would be time for him to take his leave for the present. At her grandfather’s summons Jane entered the room. She was still oppressed by the strangeness of her position, and with difficulty took part in the colloquy. Joseph, still touching the note of humility in his talk, eyed his relatives alternately, and exhibited reluctance to quit them.

When he returned to the Close, it was with a face expressing dissatisfaction. Clem’s eager inquiries he met at first with an ill-tempered phrase or two, which informed her of nothing; but when dinner was over he allowed himself to be drawn into a confidential talk, in which Mrs. Peckover took part. The old man, he remarked, was devilish close; it looked as if ‘some game was on.’ Mrs. Peckover ridiculed this remark; of course there was a game on; she spoke of Sidney Kirkwood, the influence he had obtained over Snowdon, the designs he was obviously pursuing. If Joseph thought he would recover his rights, at this time of day, save by direct measures, it only proved how needful it was for him to be instructed by shrewd people. The old man was a hard nut to crack; why he lived in Hanover Street, and sent Jane to work, when it was certain that he had wealth at command, Mrs. Peckover could not pretend to explain, but in all probability he found a pleasure in accumulating money, and was abetted therein by Sidney Kirkwood. Clem could bear witness that Jane always seemed to have secrets to hide; nevertheless a good deal of information had been extracted from the girl during the last year or so, and it all went to confirm the views which Mrs. Peckover now put forth. After long discussion, it was resolved that Joseph should call upon the lawyers whose names had appeared in the advertisement addressed to himself. If he was met with any shuffling, or if they merely referred him to his father, the next step would be plain enough.

Clem began to exhibit sullenness; her words were few, and it was fortunate for Joseph that he could oppose a philosophical indifference to the trouble with which his honeymoon was threatened. As early as possible on Monday morning he ascended the stairs of a building in Furnival’s Inn and discovered the office Of Messrs. Percival and Feel. He was hesitating whether to knock or simply turn the handle, when a man came up to the same door, with the quick step of one at home in the place.

‘Business with us?’ inquired the newcomer, as Joseph drew back.

They looked at each other. He who had spoken was comparatively a young man, dressed with much propriety, gravely polite in manner.

‘Ha! How do you do?’ exclaimed Snowdon, with embarrassment, and in an undertone. ‘I wasn’t expecting —’

The recognition was mutual, and whilst Joseph, though disconcerted, expressed his feelings in a familiar smile, the other cast a quick glance of uneasiness towards the stairs, his mouth compressed, his eyebrows twitching a little.

‘Business with Mr. Percival?’ he inquired confidentially, but without Joseph’s familiar accentuation.

‘Yes. That is — Is he here?’

‘Won’t be for another hour. Anything I could see about for you?’

Joseph moved in uncertainty, debating with himself. Their eyes met again.

‘Well, we might have a word or two about it,’ he said. ‘Better meet somewhere else, perhaps?’

‘Could you be at the top of Chancery Lane at six o’clock?’

With a look of mutual understanding, they parted. Joseph went home, and explained that, to his surprise, he had found an old acquaintance at the lawyer’s office, a man named Scawthorne, whom lie was going to see in private before having an interview with the lawyer himself. At six o’clock the appointed meeting took place, and from Chancery Lane the pair walked to a quiet house of refreshment in the vicinity of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. On the way they exchanged a few insignificant remarks, having reference to a former intimacy and a period during which they had not come across each other. Established in a semi-private room, with a modest stimulant to aid conversation, they became more at ease; Mr. Scawthorne allowed himself a discreet smile, and Joseph, fingering his glass, broached the matter at issue with a cautious question.

‘Do you know anything of a man called Snowdon?’

‘What Snowdon?’

‘Joseph James Snowdon — a friend of mine. Your people advertised for him about three years ago. Perhaps you haven’t been at the office as long as that?’

‘Oh yes. I remember the name. What about him?’

‘Your people wanted to find him — something to his advantage. Do you happen to know whether it’s any use his coming forward now?’

Mr. Scawthorne was not distinguished by directness of gaze. He had handsome features, and a not unpleasant cast of countenance, but something, possibly the habit of professional prudence, made his regard coldly, fitfully, absently observant. It was markedly so as he turned his face towards Joseph whilst the latter was speaking. After a moment’s silence he remarked, without emphasis:

‘A relative of yours, you said?’

‘No, I said a friend — intimate friend. Polkenhorne knows him too.’

‘Does he? I haven’t seen Polkenhorne for a long time.’

‘You don’t care to talk about the business? Perhaps you’d better introduce me to Mr. Percival.’

‘By the name of Camden?’

‘Hang it! I may as well tell you at once. Snowdon is my own name.’

‘Indeed? And how am I to be sure of that?’

‘Come and see me where I’m living, in Clerkenwell Close, and then make inquiries of my father, in Hanover Street, Islington. There’s no reason now for keeping up the old name — a little affair — all put right. But the fact is, I’d as soon find out what this business is with your office without my father knowing. I have reasons; shouldn’t mind talking them over with you, if you can give me the information I want.’

‘I can do that,’ replied Scawthorne with a smile. ‘If you are J. J. Snowdon, you are requested to communicate with Michael Snowdon — that’s all.’

‘Oh! but I have communicated with him, and he’s nothing particular to say to me, as far as I can see.’

Scawthorne sipped at his glass, gave a stroke to each side of his moustache, and seemed to reflect.

‘You were coming to ask Mr. Percival privately for information?’

‘That’s just it. Of course if you can’t give me any, I must see him tomorrow.’

‘He won’t tell you anything more than I have.’

‘And you don’t know anything more?’

‘I didn’t say that, my dear fellow. Suppose you begin by telling me a little more about yourself?’

It was a matter of time, but at length the dialogue took another character. The glasses of stimulant were renewed, and as Joseph grew expansive Scawthorne laid aside something of his professional reserve, without, however, losing the discretion which led him to subdue his voice and express himself in uncompromising phrases. Their sitting lasted about an hour, and before taking leave of each other they arranged for a meeting at a different place in the course of a few days.

Joseph walked homewards with deliberation, in absent mood, his countenance alternating strangely between a look of mischievous jocoseness and irritable concern; occasionally he muttered to himself. Just before reaching the Close he turned into a public-house; when he came forth the malicious smile was on his face, and he walked with the air of a man who bas business of moment before him. He admitted himself to the house.

‘That you, Jo?’ cried Clem’s voice from upstairs.

‘Me, sure enough,’ was the reply, with a chuckle. ‘Come up sharp, then.’

Humming a tune, Joseph ascended to the sitting-room on the first floor, and threw himself on a seat. His wife stood just in front of him, her sturdy arms a-kimbo; her look was fiercely expectant, answering in some degree to the smile with which he looked here and there.

‘Well, can’t you speak?’

‘No hurry, Mrs. Clem; no hurry, my dear. It’s all right. The old man’s rolling in money.’

‘And what about your share?’

Joseph laughed obstreperously, his wife’s brow lowering the while.

‘Just tell me, can’t you?’ she cried.

‘Of course I will. The best joke you ever heard. You had yours yesterday, Mrs. Clem; my turn comes today. My share is — just nothing at all. Not a penny! Not a cent! Swallow that, old girl, and tell me how it tastes.’

‘You’re a liar!’ shouted the other, her face flushing scarlet, her eyes aflame with rage.

‘Never told a lie in my life,’ replied her husband, still laughing noisily. But for that last glass of cordial on the way home he could scarcely have enjoyed so thoroughly the dramatic flavour of the situation. Joseph was neither a bully nor a man of courage; the joke with which he was delighting himself was certainly a rich one, but it had its element of danger, and only by abandoning himself to riotous mirth could he overcome the nervousness with which Clem’s fury threatened to affect him. She, coming forward in the attitude of an enraged fishwife, for a few moments made the room ring with foul abuse, that vituperative vernacular of the nether world, which has never yet been exhibited by typography, and presumably never will be.

‘Go it, Clem!’ cried her husband, pushing his chair a little back. ‘Go it, my angel! When you’ve eased your mind a little, I’ll explain how it happens.’

She became silent, glaring at him with murderous eyes. But just at that moment Mrs. Peckover put her head in at the door, inquiring ‘What’s up?’

‘Come in, if you want to know,’ cried her daughter. ‘See what you’ve let me in for! Didn’t I tell you as it might be all a mistake? Oh yes, you may look!’

Mrs. Peckover was startled; her small, cunning eyes went rapidly from Clem to Joseph, and she fixed the latter with a gaze of angry suspicion.

‘Got a bit of news for you, mother,’ resumed Joseph, nodding. ‘You and Clem were precious artful, weren’t you now? It’s my turn now. Thought I’d got money — ha, ha!’

‘And so you have,’ replied Mrs. Peckover. ‘We know all about it, so you needn’t try your little game.’

‘Know all about it, do you? Well, see here. My brother Mike died out in Australia, and his son died at the same time — they was drowned. Mike left no will, and his wife was dead before him. What’s the law, eh? Pity you didn’t make sure of that. Why, all his money went to the old man, every cent of it. I’ve no claim on a penny. That’s the law, my pretty dears!’

‘He’s a —— liar!’ roared Clem, who at the best of times would have brought small understanding to a legal question. ‘What did my brother say in his letter?’

‘He was told wrong, that’s all, or else he got the idea out of his own head.’

‘Then why did they advertise for you?’ inquired Mrs. Peckover, keeping perfect command of her temper.

‘The old man thought he’d like to find his son again, that’s all. Ha, ha! Why can’t you take it good-humoured, Clem? You had your joke yesterday, and you can’t say I cut up rough about it. I’m a good-natured fellow, I am. There’s many a man would have broke every bone in your body, my angel, you just remember that!’

It rather seemed as if the merry proceeding would in this case be reversed; Joseph had risen, and was prepared to defend himself from an onslaught. But Mrs. Peckover came between the newly-wedded pair, and by degrees induced Clem to take a calmer view of the situation, or at all events to postpone her vengeance. It was absurd, she argued, to act as if the matter were hopeless. Michael Snowdon would certainly leave Joseph money in his will, if only the right steps were taken to secure his favour. Instead of quarrelling, they must put their heads together and scheme. She had her ideas; let them listen to her.

‘Clem, you go and get a pot of old six for supper, and don’t be such a —— fool,’ was her final remark.

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