The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 22

Watching from Ambush

Mr. Joseph Snowdon, though presenting a calm countenance to the world and seeming to enjoy comparative prosperity, was in truth much harassed by the difficulties of his position. Domestic troubles he had anticipated, but the unforeseen sequel of his marriage resulted in a martyrdom at the hands of Clem and her mother such as he had never dreamed of. His faults and weaknesses distinctly those of the civilised man, he found himself in disastrous alliance with two savages, whose characters so supplemented each other as to constitute in unison a formidable engine of tyranny. Clem — suspicious, revengeful, fierce, watching with cruel eyes every opportunity of taking payment on account for the ridicule to which she had exposed herself; Mrs. Peckover — ceaselessly occupied with the basest scheming, keen as an Indian on any trail she happened to strike, excited by the scent of money as a jackal by that of carrion; for this pair Joseph was no match. Not only did they compel him to earn his daily bread by dint of methodical effort such as was torture to his indolent disposition, but, moreover, in pursuance of Mrs. Peckover’s crafty projects, he was constrained to an assiduous hypocrisy in his relations with Michael and Jane which wearied him beyond measure. Joseph did not belong to the most desperate class of hungry mortals; he had neither the large ambitions and the passionate sensual desires which make life an unending fever, nor was he possessed with that foul itch of covetousness which is the explanation of the greater part of the world’s activity. He understood quite sufficiently the advantages of wealth, and was prepared to go considerable lengths for the sake of enjoying them, but his character lacked persistence. This defect explained the rogueries and calamities of his life. He had brains in abundance, and a somewhat better education would have made of him either a successful honest man or a rascal of superior scope — it is always a toss-up between these two results where a character such as his is in question. Ever since he abandoned the craft to which his father had had him trained, he had lived on his wits; there would be matter for a volume in the history of his experiences at home and abroad, a volume infinitely more valuable considered as a treatise on modern civilisation than any professed work on that subject in existence. With one episode only in his past can we here concern ourselves; the retrospect is needful to make clear his relations with Mr. Scawthorne.

On his return from America, Joseph possessed a matter of a hundred pounds; the money was not quite legally earned (pray let us reserve the word honesty for a truer use than the common one), and on the whole he preferred to recommence life in the old country under a pseudonym — that little affair of the desertion of his child would perhaps, in any case, have made this advisable. A hundred pounds will not go very far, but Joseph took care to be well dressed, and allowed it to be surmised by those with whom he came in contact that the resources at his command were considerable. In early days, as we know, he had worked at electroplating, and the natural bent of his intellect was towards mechanical and physical science; by dint of experimenting at his old pursuit, he persuaded himself, or at all events attained plausibility for the persuading of others, that he had discovered a new and valuable method of plating with nickel, He gave it out that he was in search of a partner to join him in putting this method into practice. Gentlemen thus situated naturally avail themselves of the advertisement columns of the newspaper, and Joseph by this means had the happiness to form an acquaintance with one Mr. Polkenhorne, who, like himself, had sundry schemes for obtaining money without toiling for it in the usual vulgar way. Polkenhorne was a man of thirty-five, much of a blackguard, but keen-witted, handsome, and tolerably educated; the son of a Clerkenwell clockmaker, he had run through an inheritance of a few thousand pounds, and made no secret of his history — spoke of his experiences, indeed, with a certain pride. Between these two a close intimacy sprang up, one of those partnerships, beginning with mutual deception, which are so common in the border-land of enterprise just skirting the criminal courts. Polkenhorne resided at this time in Kennington; he was married — or said that he was — to a young lady in the theatrical profession, known to the public as Miss Grace Danver. To Mrs. Polkenhorne, or Miss Danver, Joseph soon had the honour of being presented, for she was just then playing at a London theatre; he found her a pretty but consumptive-looking girl, not at all likely to achieve great successes, earning enough, however, to support Mr. Polkenhorne during this time of his misfortunes — a most pleasant and natural arrangement.

Polkenhorne’s acquaintances were numerous, but, as he informed Joseph, most of them were ‘played out,’ that is to say, no further use could be made of them from Polkenhorne’s point of view. One, however, as yet imperfectly known, promised to be useful, perchance as a victim, more probably as an ally; his name was Scawthorne, and Polkenhorne had come across him in consequence of a friendship existing between Grace Danver and Mrs. Scawthorne — at all events, a young lady thus known — who was preparing herself for the stage. This gentleman was ‘something in the City;’ he had rather a close look, but proved genial enough, and was very ready to discuss things in general with Mr. Polkenhorne and his capitalist friend Mr. Camden, just from the United States.

A word or two about Charles Henry Scawthorne, of the circumstances which made him what you know, or what you conjecture. His father had a small business as a dyer in Islington, and the boy, leaving school at fourteen, was sent to become a copying-clerk in a solicitor’s office; his tastes were so strongly intellectual that it seemed a pity to put him to work he hated, and the clerkship was the best opening that could be procured for him. Two years after, Mr. Scawthorne died; his wife tried to keep on the business, but soon failed, and thenceforth her son had to support her as well as himself. From sixteen to three-and-twenty was the period of young Scawthorne’s life which assured his future advancement — and his moral ruin. A grave, gentle, somewhat effeminate boy, with a great love of books and a wonderful power of application to study, he suffered so much during those years of early maturity, that, as in almost all such eases, his nature was corrupted. Pity that some self-made intellectual man of our time has not flung in the world’s teeth a truthful autobiography. Scawthorne worked himself up to a position which had at first seemed unattainable; what he paid for the success was loss of all his pure ideals, of his sincerity, of his disinterestedness, of the fine perceptions to which he was born. Probably no one who is half-starved and overworked during those critical years comes out of the trial with his moral nature uninjured; to certain characters it is a wrong irreparable. To stab the root of a young tree, to hang crushing burdens upon it, to rend off its early branches — that is not the treatment likely to result in growth such as nature purposed. There will come of it a vicious formation, and the principle applies also to the youth of men.

Scawthorne was fond of the theatre; as soon as his time of incessant toll was over, he not only attended performances frequently, but managed to make personal acquaintance with sundry theatrical people. Opportunity for this was afforded by his becoming member of a club, consisting chiefly of solicitors’ clerks, which was frequently honoured by visits from former associates who had taken to the stage; these happy beings would condescend to recite at times, to give help in getting up a dramatic entertainment, and soon, in this way, Scawthorne came to know an old actor named Drake, who supported himself by instructing novices, male and female, in his own profession; one of Mr. Drake’s old pupils was Miss Grace Danver, in whom, as soon as he met her, Scawthorne recognised the Grace Rudd of earlier days. And it was not long after this that he brought to Mr. Drake a young girl of interesting appearance, but very imperfect education, who fancied she had a turn for acting; he succeeded in arranging for her instruction, and a year and a half later she obtained her first engagement at a theatre in Scotland. The name she adopted was Clara Vale. Joseph Snowdon saw her once or twice before she left London, and from Grace Danver he heard that Grace and she had been schoolfellows in Clerkenwell. These facts revived in his memory when he afterwards heard Clem speak of Clara Hewett.

Nothing came of the alliance between Polkenhorne and Joseph; when the latter’s money was exhausted, they naturally fell apart. Joseph made a living in sundry precarious ways, but at length sank into such straits that he risked the step of going to Clerkenwell Close. Personal interest in his child he had then none whatever; his short married life seemed an episode in the remote past, recalled with indifference. But in spite of his profound selfishness, it was not solely from the speculative point of view that he regarded Jane, when he had had time to realise that she was his daughter, and in a measure to appreciate her character. With the merely base motives which led him to seek her affection and put him at secret hostility with Sidney Kirkwood, there mingled before long a strain of feeling which was natural and pure; he became a little jealous of his father and of Sidney on other grounds than those of self-interest. Intolerable as his home was, no wonder that he found it a pleasant relief to spend an evening in Hanover Street; he never came away without railing at himself for his imbecility in having married Clem. For the present he had to plot with his wife and Mrs. Peckover, but only let the chance for plotting against them offer itself! The opportunity might come. In the meantime, the great thing was to postpone the marriage — he had no doubt it was contemplated — between Jane and Sidney. That would be little less than a fatality.

The week that Jane spent in Essex was of course a time of desperate anxiety with Joseph; immediately on her return he hastened to assure himself that things remained as before. It seemed to him that Jane’s greeting had more warmth than she was wont to display when they met; sundry other little changes in her demeanour struck him at the same interview, and he was rather surprised that she had not so much blitheness as before she went away. But his speculation on minutiae such as these was suddenly interrupted a day or two later by news which threw him into a state of excitement; Jane sent word that her grandfather was very unwell, that he appeared to have caught a chill in the journey home, and could not at present leave his bed. For a week the old man suffered from feverish symptoms, and, though he threw off the ailment, it was in a state of much feebleness that he at length resumed the ordinary tenor of his way. Jane had of course stayed at home to nurse him; a fortnight, a month passed, and Michael still kept her from work. Then it happened that, on Joseph’s looking in one evening, the old man said quietly, ‘I think I’d rather Jane stayed at home in future. We’ve had a long talk about it this afternoon.’

Joseph glanced at his daughter, who met the look very gravely. He had a feeling that the girl was of a sudden grown older; when she spoke it was in brief phrases, and with but little of her natural spontaneity; noiseless as always in her movements, she walked with a staider gait, held herself less girlishly, and on saying good-night she let her cheek rest for a moment against her father’s, a thing she had never yet done.

The explanation of it all came a few minutes after Jane’s retirement. Michael, warned by his illness bow unstable was the tenure on which he henceforth held his life, had resolved to have an end of mystery and explain to his son all that he had already made known to Sidney Kirkwood. With Jane he had spoken a few hours ago, revealing to her the power that was in his hands, the solemn significance he attached to it, the responsibility with which her future was to be invested. To make the same things known to Joseph was a task of more difficulty. He could not here count on sympathetic intelligence; it was but too certain that his son would listen with disappointment, if not with bitterness. In order to mitigate the worst results, he began by making known the fact of his wealth and asking if Joseph had any practical views which could be furthered by a moderate sum put at his disposal.

‘At my death,’ he added, ‘you’ll find that I haven’t dealt unkindly by you. But you’re a man of middle age, and I should like to see you in some fixed way of life before I go.’

Having heard all, Joseph promised to think over the proposal which concerned himself. It was in a strange state of mind that he returned to the Close; one thing only he was clear upon, that to Clem and her mother he would breathe no word of what had been told him. After a night passed without a wink of sleep, struggling with the amazement, the incredulity, the confusion of understanding caused by his father’s words, he betook himself to a familiar public-house, and there penned a note to Scawthorne, requesting an interview as soon as possible. The meeting took place that evening at the retreat behind Lincoln’s Inn Fields where the two had held colloquies on several occasions during the last half-year. Scawthorne received with gravity what his acquaintance had to communicate. Then he observed:

‘The will was executed ten days ago.’

‘It was? And what’s he left me?’

‘Seven thousand pounds — less legacy duty.’

‘And thirty thousand to Jane?’

‘Just so.’

Joseph drew in his breath; his teeth ground together for a moment; his eyes grew very wide. With a smile Scawthorne proceeded to explain that Jane’s trustees were Mr. Percival, senior, and his son. Should she die unmarried before attaining her twenty-first birthday, the money bequeathed to her was to be distributed among certain charities.

‘It’s my belief there’s a crank in the old fellow,’ exclaimed Joseph. ‘Is he really such a fool as to think Jane won’t use the money for herself? And what about Kirkwood? I tell you what it is; he’s a deep fellow, is Kirkwood. I wish you knew him.’

Scawthorne confessed that he had the same wish, but added that there was no chance of its being realised; prudence forbade any move in that direction.

‘If he marries her,’ questioned Joseph, ‘will the money be his?’

‘No; it will be settled on her. But it comes to very much the same thing; there’s to be no restraint on her discretion in using it.’

‘She might give her affectionate parent a hundred or so now and then, if she chose?’

‘If she chose.’

Scawthorne began a detailed inquiry into the humanitarian projects of which Joseph had given but a rude and contemptuous explanation. The finer qualities of his mind enabled him to see the matter in quite a different light from that in which it presented itself to Jane’s father; he had once or twice had an opportunity of observing Michael Snowdon at the office, and could realise in a measure the character which directed its energies to such an ideal aim. Concerning Jane he asked many questions; then the conversation turned once more to Sidney Kirkwood.

‘I wish he’d married his old sweetheart,’ observed Joseph, watching the other’s face.

‘Who was that?’

‘A girl called Clara Hewett.’

Their looks met. Scawthorne, in spite of habitual self-command, betrayed an extreme surprise.

‘I wonder what’s become of her?’ continued Joseph, still observing his companion, and speaking with unmistakable significance.

‘Just tell me something about this,’ said Scawthorne peremptorily.

Joseph complied, and ended his story with a few more hints.

‘I never saw her myself — at least I can’t be sure that I did. There was somebody of the same name — Clara — a friend of Polkenhorne’s wife.’

Scawthorne appeared to pay no attention; he mused with a wrinkled brow.

‘If only I could put something between Kirkwood and the girl,’ remarked Joseph, as if absently. ‘I shouldn’t wonder if it could be made worth some one’s while to give a bit of help that way. Don’t you think so?’

In the tone of one turning to a different subject, Scawthorne asked suddenly:

‘What use are you going to make of your father’s offer?’

‘Well, I’m not quite sure, Shouldn’t wonder if I go in for filters.’

‘Filters?’

Joseph explained. In the capacity of ‘commission agent’— denomination which includes and apologises for such a vast variety of casual pursuits — he had of late been helping to make known to the public a new filter, which promised to be a commercial success. The owner of the patent lacked capital, and a judicious investment might secure a share in the business; Joseph thought of broaching the subject with him next day.

‘You won’t make a fool of yourself?’ remarked Scawthorne.

‘Trust me; I think I know my way about.’

For the present these gentlemen had nothing more to say to each other; they emptied their glasses with deliberation, exchanged a look which might mean either much or nothing, and so went their several ways.

The filter project was put into execution. When Joseph had communicated it in detail to his father, the latter took the professional advice of his friend Mr. Percival, and in the course of a few weeks Joseph found himself regularly established in a business which had the — for him — novel characteristic of serving the purposes of purity. The manufactory was situated in a by-street on the north of Euston Road: a small concern, but at all events a genuine one. On the window of the office you read, ‘Lake, Snowdon, & Co.’ As it was necessary to account for this achievement to Clem and Mrs. Peckover, Joseph made known to them a part of the truth; of the will he said nothing, and, for reasons of his own, he allowed these tender relatives to believe that he was in a fair way to inherit the greater part of Michael’s possessions. There was jubilation in Clerkenwell Close, but mother and daughter kept stern watch upon Joseph’s proceedings.

Another acquaintance of ours benefited by this event. Michael made it a stipulation that some kind of work should be found at the factory for John Hewett, who, since his wife’s death, had been making a wretched struggle to establish a more decent home for the children. The firm of Lake, Snowdon, & Co. took Hewett into their employment as a porter, and paid him twenty-five shillings a week — of which sum, however, the odd five shillings were privately made up by Michael. On receiving this appointment, John drew the sigh of a man who finds himself in haven after perilous beating about a lee shore. The kitchen in King’s Cross Bead was abandoned, and with Sidney Kirkwood’s aid the family found much more satisfactory quarters. Friends of Sidney’s, a man and wife of middle age without children, happened to be looking for lodgings: it was decided that they and John Hewett should join in the tenancy of a fiat, up on the fifth storey of the huge block of tenements called Farringdon Road Buildings. By this arrangement the children would be looked after, and the weekly twenty-five shillings could be made to go much further than on the ordinary system. As soon as everything had been settled, and when Mr. and Mrs. Eagles had already housed themselves in the one room which was all they needed for their private accommodation, Hewett and the children began to pack together their miserable sticks and rags for removal. Just then Sidney Kirkwood looked in.

‘Eagles wants to see you for a minute about something,’ he said. ‘Just walk round with me, will you?’

John obeyed, in the silent, spiritless way now usual with him. It was but a short distance to the buildings: they went up the winding stone staircase, and Sidney gave a hollow-sounding knock at one of the two doors that faced each other on the fifth storey. Mrs. Eagles opened, a decent, motherly woman, with a pleasant and rather curious smile on her face. She led the way into one of the rooms which John had seen empty only a few hours ago. How was this? Oil-cloth on the floor, a blind at the window, a bedstead, a table, a chest of drawers  —

Mrs. Eagles withdrew, discreetly. Hewett stood with a look of uneasy wonderment, and at length turned to his companion.

‘Now, look here,’ he growled, in an unsteady voice, ‘what’s all this about?’

‘Somebody seems to have got here before you,’ replied Sidney, smiling.

‘How the devil am I to keep any self-respect if you go on treatin’ me in this fashion?’ blustered John, hanging his head.

‘It isn’t my doing, Mr. Hewett.’

‘Whose, then?’

‘A friend’s. Don’t make a fuss. You shall know the person some day.’

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