The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 19

A Retreat

Visiting his friends as usual on Sunday evening, Sidney Kirkwood felt, before he had been many minutes in the room, that something unwonted was troubling the quiet he always found here. Michael Snowdon was unlike himself, nervously inattentive, moving frequently, indisposed to converse on any subject. Neither had Jane her accustomed brightness, and the frequent glances she east at her grandfather seemed to show that the latter’s condition was causing her anxiety. She withdrew very early, and, as at once appeared, in order that Sidney might hear in private what had that day happened. The story of Clem Peckover’s marriage naturally occasioned no little astonishment in Sidney.

‘And how will all this affect Jane?’ he asked involuntarily.

‘That is what I cannot tell,’ replied Michael. ‘It troubles me. My son is a stranger; all these years have made him quite a different man from what I remember; and the worst is, I can no longer trust myself to judge him. Yet I must know the truth — Sidney, I must know the truth. It’s hard to speak ill of the only son left to me out of the four I once had, but if I think of him as he was seventeen years ago — no, no, he must have changed as he has grown older. But you must help me to know him, Sidney.’

And in a very few days Sidney had his first opportunity of observing Jane’s father. At this meeting Joseph seemed to desire nothing so much as to recommend himself by an amiable bearing. Impossible to speak with more engaging frankness than he did whilst strolling away from Hanover Street in Sidney’s company. Thereafter the two saw a great deal of each other. Joseph was soon a familiar visitor in Tysoe Street; he would come about nine o’clock of an evening, and sit till after midnight. The staple of his talk was at first the painfully unnatural relations existing between his father, his daughter, and himself. He had led a most unsatisfactory life; he owned it, deplored it. That the old man should distrust him was but natural; but would not Sidney, as a common friend, do his best to dispel this prejudice? On the subject of his brother Mike he kept absolute silence. The accident of meeting an intimate acquaintance at the office of Messrs. Percival and Peel had rendered it possible for him to pursue his inquiries in that direction without it becoming known to Michael Snowdon that he had done anything of the kind; and the policy he elaborated for himself demanded the appearance of absolute disinterestedness in all his dealings with his father. Aided by the shrewd Mrs. Peckover, he succeeded in reconciling Clem to a present disappointment, bitter as it was, by pointing out that there was every chance of his profiting largely upon the old man’s death, which could not be a very remote contingency. At present there was little that could be done save to curry favour in Hanover Street, and keep an eye on what went forward between Kirkwood and Jane. This latter was, of course, an issue of supreme importance. A very little observation convinced Joseph that his daughter had learned to regard Sidney as more than a friend; whether there existed any mutual understanding between them he could only discover by direct inquiry, and for the present it seemed wiser to make no reference to the subject. He preserved the attitude of one who has forfeited his natural rights, and only seeks with humility the chance of proving that he is a reformed character. Was, or was not, Kirkwood aware of the old man’s wealth? That too must be left uncertain, though it was more than probable he had seen the advertisement in the newspapers, and, like Mrs. Peckover, had based conclusions thereupon. Another possibility was, that Kirkwood had wormed himself into Michael’s complete confidence. From Joseph’s point of view, subtle machinations were naturally attributed to the young man — whose appearance proved him anything but a commonplace person. The situation was full of obscurities and dangers. From Scawthorne Joseph received an assurance that the whole of the Australian property had been capitalised and placed in English investments; also, that the income was regularly drawn and in some way disposed of; the manner of such disposal being kept private between old Mr. Percival and his client.

In the meantime family discussions in the Close had brought to Joseph’s knowledge a circumstance regarding Kirkwood which interested him in a high degree. When talking of Sidney’s character, it was natural that the Peckovers should relate the story of his relations with Clara Hewett.

‘Clara?’ exclaimed Mr. Snowdon, as if struck by the name. ‘Disappeared, has she? What sort of a girl to look at?’

Clem was ready with a malicious description, whereto her husband attended very carefully. He mused over it, and proceeded to make inquiries about Clara’s family. The Hewetts were now living in another part of Clerkenwell, but there was no hostility between them and the Peckovers. Was anything to be gained by keeping up intimacy with them? Joseph, after further musing, decided that it would be just as well to do so; suppose Clem called upon them and presented the husband of whom she was so proud? He would like, if possible, to hear a little more about their daughter; an idea he had — never mind exactly what. So this call was paid, and in a few weeks Joseph had established an acquaintance with John Hewett.

Sidney, on his part, had a difficulty in coming to definite conclusions respecting Jane’s father. Of course he was prejudiced against the man, and though himself too little acquainted with the facts of the case to distinguish Joseph’s motives, he felt that the middle-aged prodigal’s return was anything but a fortunate event for Michael and his granddaughter. The secret marriage with Clem was not likely, in were not lacking grounds for hesitation in refusing to accept any case, to have a respectable significance. True, there Joseph’s account of himself. He had a fund of natural amiability; he had a good provision of intellect; his talk was at times very persuasive and much like that of one who has been brought to a passable degree of honesty by the slow development of his better instincts. But his face was against him; the worn, sallow features, the eyes which so obviously made a struggle to look with frankness, the vicious lower lip, awoke suspicion and told tales of base experience such as leaves its stamp upon a man for ever. All the more repugnant was this face to Sidney because it presented, in certain aspects, an undeniable resemblance to Jane’s; impossible to say which feature put forth this claim of kindred, but the impression was there, and it made Sidney turn away his eyes in disgust as often as he perceived it. He strove, however, to behave with friendliness, for it was Michael’s desire that he should do so. That Joseph was using every opportunity of prying into his thoughts, of learning the details of his history, he soon became perfectly conscious; but he knew of nothing that he need conceal.

It was impossible that Sidney should not have reflected many a time on Michael Snowdon’s position, and have been moved to curiosity by hints of the mysterious when he thought of his friends in Hanover Street. As it happened, he never saw those newspaper advertisements addressed to Joseph, and his speculation had nothing whatever to support it save the very few allusions to the past which Michael had permitted himself in the course of talk. Plainly the old man had means sufficient for his support, end in all likelihood this independence was connected with his visit to Australia; but no act or word of Michael’s had ever suggested that he possessed more than a very modest competency. It was not, indeed, the circumstances, so much as the character and views, of his friend that set Kirkwood pondering. He did not yet know Michael Snowdon; of that he was convinced. He had not fathomed his mind, got at the prime motive of his being. Moreover, he felt that the old man was waiting for some moment, or some event, to make revelation of himself. Since Joseph’s appearance, it had become more noticeable than ever that Snowdon suffered from some agitation of the mind; Sidney had met his eyes fixed upon him in a painful interrogation, and seemed to discern the importunity of a desire that was refused utterance. His own condition was affected by sympathy with this restlessness, and he could not overcome the feeling that some decisive change was at hand for him. Though nothing positive justified the idea, he began to connect this anticipation of change with the holiday that was approaching, the week to be spent in Essex at the end of July. It had been his fear that Joseph’s presence might affect these arrangements, but Michael was evidently resolved to allow nothing of the kind. One evening, a fortnight before the day agreed upon for leaving town, and when Joseph had made a call in Hanover Street, the old man took occasion to speak of the matter. Joseph accepted the information with his usual pliancy.

‘I only wish my wife and me could join you,’ he remarked. ‘But it wouldn’t do to take a holiday so soon after settling to business. Better luck for me next year, father, let’s hope.’

That he had settled to business was a fact of which Joseph made so much just now that one would have been tempted to suppose it almost a new experience for him. His engagement, he declared, was with a firm of advertising agents in the City; nothing to boast of, unfortunately, and remunerative only in the way of commission; but he saw his way to better things.

‘Jane, my girl,’ he continued, averting his eyes as if in emotion, ‘I don’t know how you and me are going to show our gratitude for all this kindness, I’m sure. I hope you haven’t got so used to it that you think there’s no need to thank your grandfather?’

The girl and the old man exchanged a look. Joseph sighed, and began to speak of another subject in a tone of cheery martyrdom.

Jane herself had not been quite so joyous as was her wont since the occurrence that caused her to take a new view of her position in the world. She understood that her grandfather regarded the change very gravely, and in her own heart awoke all manner of tremulous apprehensions when she tried to look onward a little to the uncertainties of the future. Forecasts had not hitherto troubled her; the present was so rich in satisfactions that she could follow the bent of her nature and live with no anxiety concerning the unknown. It was a great relief to her to be assured that the long-standing plans for the holiday would suffer no change. The last week was a time of impatience, resolutely suppressed. On the Saturday afternoon Sidney was to meet them at Liverpool Street. Would anything happen these last few days — this last day — this last hour? No; all three stood together on the platform, and their holiday had already begun.

Over the pest-stricken regions of East London, sweltering in sunshine which served only to reveal the intimacies of abomination; across miles of a city of the damned, such as thought never conceived before this age of ours; above streets swarming with a nameless populace, cruelly exposed by the unwonted light of heaven; stopping at stations which it crushes the heart to think should be the destination of any mortal; the train made its way at length beyond the outmost limits of dread, and entered upon a land of level meadows, of hedges and trees, of crops and cattle. Michael Snowdon was anxious that Jane should not regard with the carelessness of familiarity those desolate tracts from which they were escaping. In Bethnal Green he directed her attention with a whispered word to the view from each window, and Jane had learnt well to understand him. But, the lesson over, it was none of his purpose to spoil her natural mood of holiday. Sidney sat opposite her, and as often as their eyes met a smile of contentment answered on either’s face.

They alighted at Chelmsford, and were met by the farmer in whose house they were going to lodge, a stolid, good-natured fellow named Pammenter, with red, leathery cheeks, and a corkscrew curl of black hair coming forward on each temple. His trap was waiting, and in a few minutes they started on the drive to Danbury. The distance is about five miles, and, until Danbury Hill is reached, the countryside has no point of interest to distinguish it from any other representative bit of rural Essex. It is merely one of those quiet corners of flat, homely England, where man and beast seem on good terms with each other, where all green things grow in abundance, where from of old tilth and pasture-land are humbly observant of seasons and alternations, where the brown roads are familiar only with the tread of the labourer, with the light wheel of the farmer’s gig, or the rumbling of the solid warn. By the roadside you pass occasionally a mantled pool, where perchance ducks or geese are enjoying themselves; and at times there is a pleasant glimpse of farm-yard, with stacks and barns and stables. All things as simple as could be, but beautiful on this summer afternoon, and priceless when one has come forth from the streets of Clerkenwell.

Farmer Pammenter was talkative, and his honest chest-voice sounded pleasantly; but the matter of his discourse might have been more cheerful. Here, as elsewhere, the evil of the times was pressing upon men and disheartening them from labour. Farms lying barren, ill-will between proprietor and tenant, between tenant and hind, departure of the tillers of the soil to rot in towns that have no need of them — of such things did honest Pammenter speak, with many a sturdy malediction of landlords and land-laws, whereat Sidney smiled, not unsympathetic.

Danbury Hill, rising thick-wooded to the village church, which is visible for miles around, with stretches of heath about its lower slopes, with its far prospects over the sunny country, was the pleasant end of a pleasant drive. Mrs. Pammenter and her children (seven of them, unhappily) gave the party a rough, warm-hearted welcome. Ha! how good it was to smell the rooms through which the pure air breathed freely! All the front of the house was draped with purple clematis; in the garden were sun-flowers and hollyhocks and lowly plants innumerable; on the red and lichened tiles pigeons were cooing themselves into a doze; the horse’s hoofs rang with a pleasant clearness on the stones as he was led to his cool stable. Her heart throbbing with excess of delight, Jane pushed back the diamond-paned casement of her bedroom, the same room she had occupied last year and the year before, and buried her face in clematis. Then the tea that Mrs. Pammenter had made ready; — how delicious everything tasted! how white the cloth was! how fragrant the cut flowers in the brown jug!

But Michael had found the journey a greater tax upon his strength than he anticipated. Whilst Sidney and Jane talked merrily over the tea-table the old man was thinking. ‘Another year they will come without me,’ and he smiled just to hide his thoughts. In the evening he smoked his pipe on a garden-seat, for the most part silent, and at sunset he was glad to go up to his chamber.

Jane was renewing her friendship with the Pammenters’ eldest girl, an apple-checked, red-haired, ungraceful, but good-natured lass of sixteen. Their voices sounded from all parts of the garden and the farm-yard, Jane’s clear-throated laugh contrasting with the rougher utterance of her companion. After supper, in the falling of the dusk, Sidney strolled away from the gossiping circle within-doors, and found a corner of the garden whence there was a view of wooded hillside against the late glow of the heavens. Presently he heard footsteps, and through the leafage of a tree that shadowed him he saw Jane looking this way and that, as if she sought some one. Her dress was a light calico, and she held in her hand a rough garden hat, the property of Miss Pammenter. Sidney regarded her for some moments, then called her by name. She could not see him at first, and looked about anxiously. He moved a branch of the tree and again called her; whereupon she ran forward.

‘I thought perhaps you’d gone up the hill,’ she said, resting her arms on the wall by which he was standing.

Then they kept silence, enjoying the sweetness of the hour. Differently, it is true; for Kirkwood’s natural sensitiveness had been developed and refined by studies of which Jane had no conception. Imperfect as his instruction remained, the sources of spiritual enjoyment were open to him, and with all his feeling there blended that reflective bitterness which is the sad privilege of such as he. Jane’s delight was as simple as the language in which she was wont to express herself. She felt infinitely more than Pennyloaf, for instance, would have done under the circumstances; but her joy consisted, in the main, of a satisfaction of pure instincts and a deep sense of gratitude to those who made her life what it was. She could as little have understood Sidney’s mind at this moment as she could have given an analytic account of her own sensations. For all that, the two were in profound sympathy; how different soever the ways in which they were affected, the result, as they stood side by side, was identical in the hearts of both.

Sidney began to speak of Michael Snowdon, keeping his voice low, as if in fear of breaking those subtle harmonies wherewith the night descended.

‘We must be careful not to over-tire him, He looked very pale when he went upstairs. I’ve thought lately that he must suffer more than he tells us.’

‘Yes, I’m afraid he often does,’ Jane assented, as if relieved to speak of it. ‘Yet he always says it’s nothing to trouble about, nothing but what is natural at his age. He’s altered a great deal since father came,’ she added, regarding him diffidently.

‘I hope it isn’t because he thinks your father may be wanting to take you away?’

‘Oh, it can’t be that! Oh, he knows I wouldn’t leave him! Mr. Kirkwood, you don’t think my father will give us any trouble?’

She revealed an anxiety which delicacy of feeling had hitherto prevented her expressing. Sidney at once spoke reassuringly, though he had in fact no little suspicion of Joseph Snowdon’s tactics.

‘It’s my grandfather that I ought to think most of,’ pursued Jane earnestly. ‘I can’t feel to my father as I do to him. What should I have been now if —’

Something caused her to leave the speech unfinished, and for a few moments there was silence. From the ground exhaled a sweet fresh odour, soothing to the senses, and at times a breath of air brought subtler perfume from the alleys of the garden. In the branches above them rustled a bird’s wing. At a distance on the country road sounded the trotting of a horse.

‘I feel ashamed and angry with myself,’ said Sidney, in a tone of emotion, ‘when I think now of t hose times. I might have done something, Jane. I had no right to know what you were suffering and just go by as if it didn’t matter!’

‘Oh, but you didn’t!’ came eagerly from the girl’s lips. ‘You’ve forgotten, but I can’t. You were very kind to me — you helped me more than you can think — you never saw me without speaking kindly. Don’t you remember that night when I came to fetch you from the workshop, and you took off your coat and put it over me, because it was cold and raining?’

‘Jane, what a long, long time ago that seems!’

‘As long as I live I shall never forget it — never! You were the only friend I had then.’

‘No; there was some one else who took thought for you,’ said Sidney, regarding her gravely.

Jane met his look for an instant — they could just read each other’s features in the pale light — then dropped her eyes.

‘I don’t think you’ve forgotten that either,’ he added, in the same unusual voice.

‘No,’ said Jane, below her breath.

‘Say who it is I mean.’

‘You mean Miss Hewett,’ was the reply, after a troubled moment.

‘I wanted you to say her name. You remember one evening not long ago, when your grandfather was away? I had the same wish then. Why shouldn’t we speak of her? She was a friend to you when you needed one badly, and it’s right that you should remember her with gratitude. I think of her just like we do of people that are dead.’

Jane stood with one hand on the low wall, half-turned to him, but her face bent downwards. Regarding her for what seemed a long time, Sidney felt as though the fragrance of the earth and the flowers were mingling with his blood and confusing him with emotions. At the same his tongue was paralysed. Frequently of late he had known a timidity in Jane’s presence, which prevented him from meeting her eyes, and now this tremor came upon him with painful intensity. He knew to what his last words had tended; it was with consciousness of a distinct purpose that he had led the conversation to Clara; but now he was powerless to speak the words his heart prompted. Of a sudden he experienced a kind of shame, the result of comparison between himself and the simple girl who stood before him; she was so young, and the memory of passions from which he had suffered years ago affected him with a sense of unworthiness, almost of impurity. Jane had come to be his ideal of maidenhood, but till this moment he had not understood the full significance of the feeling with which he regarded her. He could not transform with a word their relations to each other. The temptation of the hour had hurried him towards an end which he must approach with more thought, more preparation of himself.

It was scarcely for ten heart-beats. Then Jane raised her eyes and said in a voice that trembled:

‘I’ve often wished I could see her again, and thank her for her kindness that night.’

‘That will help me to think with less pain of things that are long since over and done with,’ Sidney replied, forcing himself to speak firmly. ‘We can’t alter the past, Jane, but we can try to remember only the best part of it. You, I hope, very seldom look back at all.’

‘Grandfather wishes me never to forget it. He often says that.’

‘Does he? I think I understand.’

Jane drew down a branch and laid the broad cool leaves against her cheek; releasing it, she moved in the direction of the house. Her companion followed with slow step, his head bent. Before they came to the door Jane drew his attention to a bat that was sweeping duskily above their heads; she began to speak with her wonted cheerfulness.

‘How I should like Pennyloaf to be here! I wonder what she’d think of it?’

At the door they bade each other good night. Sidney took yet a few turns in the garden before entering. But that it would have seemed to the Pammenters a crazy proceeding, he would have gladly struck away over the fields and walked for hours.

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