The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 24

The Family History Progresses

What could possess John Hewett that, after resting from the day’s work, he often left his comfortable room late in the evening and rambled about the streets of that part of London which had surely least interest for him, the streets which are thronged with idlers, with carriages going homeward from the theatres, with those who can only come forth to ply their business when darkness has fallen? Did he seek food for his antagonism in observing the characteristics of the world in which he was a stranger, the world which has its garners full and takes its ease amid superfluity? It could scarcely be that, for since his wife’s death an indifference seemed to be settling upon him; he no longer cared to visit the Green or his club on Sunday, and seldom spoke on the subjects which formerly goaded him to madness. He appeared to be drawn forth against his will, in spite of weariness, and his look as he walked on was that of a man who is in search of some one. Yet whom could he expect to meet in these highways of the West End?

Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly, the Strand, the ways about St. James’s Park; John Hewett was not the only father who has come forth after nightfall from an obscure home to look darkly at the faces passing on these broad pavements. At times he would shrink into a shadowed corner, and peer thence at those who went by under the gaslight. When he moved forward, it was with the uneasy gait of one who shuns observation; you would have thought, perchance, that he watched an opportunity of begging and was shamefaced: it happened now and then that he was regarded suspiciously. A rough-looking man, with grizzled beard, with eyes generally bloodshot, his shoulders stooping — naturally the miserable are always suspected where law is conscious of its injustice.

Two years ago he was beset for a time with the same restlessness, and took night-walks in the same directions; the habit wore away, however. Now it possessed him even more strongly. Between ten and eleven o’clock, when the children were in bed, he fell into abstraction, and presently, with an unexpected movement, looked up as if some one had spoken to him — just the look of one who hears a familiar voice; then he sighed, and took his hat and went forth. It happened sometimes when he was sitting with his friends Mr. and Mrs. Eagles; in that case he would make some kind of excuse. The couple suspected that his business would take him to the public-house, but John never came back with a sign about him of having drunk; of that failing he had broken himself. He went cautiously down the atone stairs, averting his face if anyone met him; then by cross-ways he reached Gray’s Inn Road, and so westwards.

He had a well-ordered home, and his children were about him, but these things did not compensate him for the greatest loss his life had suffered. The children, in truth, had no very strong hold upon his affections. Sometimes, when Amy sat and talked to him, he showed a growing nervousness, an impatience, and at length turned away from her as if to occupy himself in some manner. The voice was not that which had ever power to soothe him when it spoke playfully. Memory brought back the tones which had been so dear to him, and at times something more than memory; he seemed really to hear them, as if from a distance. And then it was that he went out to wander in the streets.

Of Bob in the meantime he saw scarcely anything. That young man presented himself one Sunday shortly after his father had become settled in the new home, but practically he was a stranger. John and he had no interests in common; there even existed a slight antipathy on the father’s part of late years. Strangely enough this feeling expressed itself one day in the form of a rebuke to Bob for neglecting Pennyloaf — Pennyloaf, whom John had always declined to recognise.

‘I hear no good of your goin’s on,’ remarked Hewett, on a casual encounter in the street. ‘A married man ought to give up the kind of company as you keep.’

‘I do no harm,’ replied Bob bluntly. ‘Has my wife been complaining to you?’

‘I’ve nothing to do with her; it’s what I’m told.’

‘By Kirkwood, I suppose? You’d better not have made up with him again, if he’s only making mischief.’

‘No, I didn’t mean Kirkwood.’

And John went his way. Odd thing, was it not, that this embittered leveller should himself practise the very intolerance which he reviled in people of the upper world. For his refusal to recognise Pennyloaf he had absolutely no grounds, save — I use the words advisedly — an aristocratic prejudice. Bob had married deplorably beneath him; it was unpardonable, let the character of the girl be what it might. Of course you recognise the item in John Hewett’s personality which serves to explain this singular attitude. But, viewed generally, it was one of those bits of human inconsistency over which the observer smiles, and which should be recommended to good people in search of arguments for the equality of men.

After that little dialogue, Bob went home in a disagreeable temper. To begin with, his mood had been ruffled, for the landlady at his lodgings — the fourth to which he had removed this year — was ‘nasty’ about a week or two of unpaid rent, and a man on whom he had counted this evening for the payment of a debt was keeping out of his way. He found Pennyloaf sitting on the stairs with her two children, as usual; poor Pennyloaf had not originality enough to discover new expressions of misery, and that one bright idea of donning her best dress was a single instance of ingenuity. In obedience to Jane Snowdon, she kept herself and the babies and the room tolerably clean, but everything was done in the most dispirited way.

‘What are you kicking about here for?’ asked Bob impatiently. ‘That’s how that kid gets its cold — of course it is! — Ger out!’

The last remark was addressed to the elder child, who caught at his legs as he strode past. Bob was not actively unkind to the little wretches for whose being he was responsible; he simply occupied the natural position of unsophisticated man to children of that age, one of indifference, or impatience. The infants were a nuisance; no one desired their coming, and the older they grew the more expensive they were.

It was a cold evening of October; Pennyloaf had allowed the fire to get very low (she knew not exactly where the next supply of coals was to come from), and her husband growled as he made a vain endeavour to warm his hands.

‘Why haven’t you got tea ready?’ he asked,

‘I couldn’t be sure as you was comin’, Bob; how could I? But I’ll soon get the kettle boilin’.’

‘Couldn’t be sure as I was coming? Why, I’ve been back every night this week — except two or three.’

It was Thursday, but Bob meant nothing jocose.

‘Look here!’ he continued, fixing a surly eye upon her. ‘What do you mean by complaining about me to people? Just mind your own business. When was that girl Jane Snowdon here last?’

‘Yesterday, Bob.’

‘I thought as much, Did she give you anything?’ Ho made this inquiry in rather a shamefaced way.

‘No, she didn’t.’

‘Well, I tell you what it is. I’m not going to have her coming about the place, so understand that. When she comes next, you’ll just tell her she needn’t come again.’

Pennyloaf looked at him with dismay. For the delivery of this command Bob had seated himself on the corner of the table and crossed his arms. But for the touch of black-guardism in his appearance, Bob would have been a very good-looking fellow; his face was healthy, by no means commonplace in its mould, and had the peculiar vividness which indicates ability — so impressive, because so rarely seen, in men of his level. Unfortunately his hair was cropped all but to the scalp, in the fashionable manner; it was greased, too, and curled up on one side of his forehead with a peculiarly offensive perkishness. Poor Pennyloaf was in a great degree responsible for the ills of her married life; not only did she believe Bob to be the handsomest man who walked the earth but in her weakness she could not refrain from telling him as much. At the present moment he was intensely self-conscious; with Pennyloaf’s eye upon him, he posed for effect. The idea of forbidding future intercourse with Jane had come to him quite suddenly; it was by no means his intention to make his order permanent, for Jane had now and then brought little presents which were useful, but just now he felt a satisfaction in asserting authority. Jane should understand that he regarded her censure of him with high displeasure.

‘You don’t mean that, Bob?’ murmured Pennyloaf.

‘Of course I do. And let me catch you disobeying me! I should think you might find better friends than a girl as used to be the Peckovers’ dirty little servant.’

Bob turned up his nose and sniffed the air. And Pennyloaf, in spite of the keenest distress, actually felt that there was something in the objection, thus framed! She herself had never been a servant — never; she had never sunk below working with the needle for sixteen hours a day for a payment of ninepence. The work-girl regards a domestic slave as very distinctly her inferior.

‘But that’s a long while ago,’ she ventured to urge, after reflection.

‘That makes no difference. Do as I tell you, and don’t argue.’

It was not often that visitors sought Bob at his home of an evening, but whilst this dialogue was still going on an acquaintance made his arrival known by a knock at the door. It was a lank and hungry individual, grimy of face and hands, his clothing such as in the country would serve well for a scarecrow. Who could have recognised in him the once spruce and spirited Mr. Jack Bartley, distinguished by his chimney-pot hat at the Crystal Palace on Bob’s wedding-day? At the close of that same day, as you remember, he and Bob engaged in terrific combat, the outcome of earlier rivalry for the favour of Clem Peckover. Notwithstanding that memory, the two were now on very friendly terms. You have heard from Clem’s lips that Jack Bartley, failing to win herself, ended by espousing Miss Susan Jollop; also what was the result of that alliance. Mr. Bartley was an unhappy man. His wife had a ferocious temper, was reckless with money, and now drank steadily; the consequence was, that Jack had lost all regular employment, and only earned occasional pence in the most various ways. Broken in spirit, he himself first made advances to his companion of former days, and Bob, flattered by the other’s humility, encouraged him as a hanger-on. — Really, we shall soon be coming to a conclusion that the differences between the nether and the upper world are purely superficial.

Whenever Jack came to spend an hour with Mr. and Mrs. Hewett, he was sure sooner or later to indulge the misery that preyed upon him and give way to sheer weeping. He did so this evening, almost as soon as he entered.

‘I ain’t had a mouthful past my lips since last night, I ain’t!’ he sobbed. ‘It’s ‘ard on a feller as used to have his meals regular. I’ll murder Suke yet, see if I don’t! I’ll have her life! She met me last night and gave me this black eye as you see — she did! It’s ‘ard on a feller.’

‘You mean to say as she ‘it you?’ cried Pennyloaf.

Bob chuckled, thrust his hands into his pockets, spread himself out. His own superiority was so gloriously manifest.

‘Suppose you try it on with me, Penny!’ he cried.

‘You’d give me something as I should remember,’ she answered, smirking, the good little slavey.

‘Shouldn’t wonder if I did,’ assented Bob.

Mr. Bartley’s pressing hunger was satisfied with some bread and butter and a cup of tea. Whilst taking a share of the meal, Bob brought a small box on to the table; it had a sliding lid, and inside were certain specimens of artistic work with which he was wont to amuse himself when tired of roaming the streets in jovial company. Do you recollect that, when we first made Bob’s acquaintance, he showed Sidney Kirkwood a medal of his own design and casting? His daily work at die-sinking had of course supplied him with this suggestion, and he still found pleasure in work of the same kind. In days before commercialism had divorced art and the handicrafts, a man with Bob’s distinct faculty would have found encouragement to exercise it for serious ends; as it was, he remained at the semi-conscious stage with regard to his own aptitudes, and cast leaden medals just as a way of occupying his hands when a couple of hours hung heavy on them. Partly with the thought of amusing the dolorous Jack, yet more to win laudation, he brought forth DOW a variety of casts and moulds and spread them on the table. His latest piece of work was a medal in high relief bearing the heads of the Prince and Princess of Wales surrounded with a wreath. Bob had no political convictions; with complacency he drew these royal features, the sight of which would have made his father foam at the mouth. True, he might have found subjects artistically more satisfying, but he belonged to the people, and the English people.

Jack Bartley, having dried his eyes and swallowed his bread and butter, considered the medal with much attention.

‘I say,’ he remarked at length, ‘will you give me this, Bob?’

‘I don’t mind, You can take it if you like.’

‘Thanks!’

Jack wrapped it up and put it in his waistcoat pocket, and before long rose to take leave of his friends.

‘I only wish I’d got a wife like you,’ he observed at the door, as he saw Pennyloaf bending over the two children, recently put to bed.

Pennyloaf’s eyes gleamed at the compliment, and she turned them to her husband.

‘She’s nothing to boast of,’ said Bob, judicially and masculinely. ‘All women are pretty much alike.’

And Pennyloaf tried to smile at the snub.

Having devoted one evening to domestic quietude, Bob naturally felt himself free to dispose of the next in a manner more to his taste. The pleasures which sufficed to keep him from home had the same sordid monotony which characterises life in general for the lower strata of society. If he had money, there was the music-hall; if he had none, there were the streets. Being in the latter condition to-night, he joined a company of male and female intimates, and with them strolled aimlessly from one familiar rendezvous to another. Would that it were possible to set down a literal report of the conversation which passed during hours thus spent! Much of it, of course, would be merely revolting, but for the most part it would consist of such wearying, such incredible imbecilities as no human patience could endure through five minutes’ perusal. Realise it, however, and you grasp the conditions of what is called the social problem. As regards Robert Hewett in particular, it would help you to understand the momentous change in his life which was just coming to pass.

On his reaching home at eleven o’clock, Pennyloaf met him with the news that Jack Bartley had looked in twice and seemed very anxious to see him. To-morrow being Saturday, Jack would call again early in the afternoon. When the time came, he presented himself, hungry and dirty as ever, but with an unwonted liveliness in his eye.

‘I’ve got something to say to you,’ he began, in a low voice, nodding significantly towards Pennyloaf.

‘Go and buy what you want for tomorrow,’ said Bob to his wife, giving her some money out of his wages. ‘Take the kids.’

Disappointed in being thus excluded from confidence, but obedient as ever, Pennyloaf speedily prepared herself and the children, the younger of whom she still had to carry. When she was gone Mr. Bartley assumed a peculiar attitude and began to speak in an undertone.

‘You know that medal as you gave me the other night?’

‘What about it?’

‘I sold it for fourpence to a chap I know. It got me a bed at the lodgings in Pentonville Road.’

‘Oh, you did! Well, what else?’

Jack was writhing in the most unaccountable way, peering hither and thither out of the corners of his eyes, seeming to have an obstruction in his throat.

‘It was in a public-house as I sold it — a chap I know. There was another chap as I didn’t know standing just by — see? He kep’ looking at the medal, and he kep’ looking at me. When I went out the chap as I didn’t know followed behind me. I didn’t see him at first, but he come up with me just at the top of Rosoman Street — a red-haired chap, looked like a corster. “Hollo!” says he. “Hollo!” says I. “Got any more o’ them medals?” he says, in a quiet way like. “What do you want to know for?” I says —‘cos you see he was a bloke as I didn’t know nothing about, and there’s no good being over-free with your talk. He got me to walk on a bit with him, and kept talking. “You didn’t buy that nowhere,” he says, with a sort of wink. “What if I didn’t?” I says. “There’s no harm as I know.” Well, he kept on with his sort o’ winks, and then he says, “Got any queer to put round?”’

At this point Jack lowered his voice to a whisper and looked timorously towards the door.

‘You know what he meant, Bob?’

Bob nodded and became reflective.

‘Well, I didn’t say nothing.’ pursued Bartley, ‘but the chap stuck to me. “A fair price for a fair article,” he says. “You’ll always find me there of a Thursday night, if you’ve got any business going. Give me a look round,” he says. “It ain’t in my line,” I says. So he gave a grin like, and kep’ on talking. “If you want a four-half shiner,” he says, “you know where to come. Reasonable with them as is reasonable. Thursday night,” he says, and then he slung his hook round the corner.’

‘What’s a four-half shiner?’ inquired Bob, looking from under his eyebrows.

‘Well, I didn’t know myself, just then: but I’ve found out. It’s a public-house pewter — see?’

A flash of intelligence shot across Bob’s face.

When Pennyloaf returned she found her husband with his box of moulds and medals on the table. He was turning over its contents, meditatively. On the table there also lay a half crown and a florin, as though Bob had been examining these products of the Royal Mint with a view to improving the artistic quality of his amateur workmanship. He took up the coins quietly as his wife entered and put them in his pocket.

‘Mrs. Rendal’s been at me again, Bob,’ Pennyloaf said, as she set down her market-basket. ‘You’ll have to give her something today.’

He paid no attention, and Pennyloaf had a difficulty in bringing him to discuss the subject of the landlady’s demands. Ultimately, however, he admitted with discontent the advisability of letting Mrs. Rendal have something on account. Though it was Saturday night, he let hour after hour go by and showed no disposition to leave home; to Pennyloaf’s surprise, he sat almost without moving by the fire, absorbed in thought.

Genuine respect for law is the result of possessing something which the law exerts itself to guard. Should it happen that you possess nothing, and that your education in metaphysics has been grievously neglected, the strong probability is, that your mind will reduce the principle of society to its naked formula: Get, by whatever means, so long as with impunity. On that formula Bob Hewett was brooding; in the hours of this Saturday evening he exerted his mind more strenuously than ever before in the course of his life. And to a foregone result. Here is a man with no moral convictions, with no conscious relations to society save those which are hostile, with no personal affections; at the same time, vaguely aware of certain faculties in himself for which life affords no scope and encouraged in various kinds of conceit by the crass stupidity of all with whom he associates. It is suggested to him all at once that there is a very easy way of improving his circumstances, and that by exercise of a certain craft with which he is perfectly familiar; only, the method happens to be criminal. ‘Men who do this kind of thing are constantly being caught and severely punished. Yes; men of a certain kind; not Robert Hewett. Robert Hewett is altogether an exceptional being; he is head and shoulders above the men with whom he mixes; he is clever, he is remarkably good-looking. If anyone in this world, of a truth Robert Hewett may reckon on impunity when he sets his wits against the law. Why, his arrest and punishment is an altogether inconceivable thing; he never in his life had a charge brought against him.’

Again and again it came back to that. Every novice in unimpassioned crime has that thought, and the more self-conscious the man, the more impressed with a sense of his own importance, so much the weightier is its effect with him.

We know in what spirit John Hewett regarded rebels against the law. Do not imagine that any impulse of that nature actuated his son. Clara alone had inherited her father’s instinct of revolt. Bob’s temperament was, in a certain measure, that of the artist; he felt without reasoning; he let himself go whither his moods propelled him. Not a man of evil propensities; entertain no such thought for a moment. Society produces many a monster, but the mass of those whom, after creating them, it pronounces bad are merely bad from the conventional point of view; they are guilty of weaknesses, not of crimes. Bob was not incapable of generosity; his marriage had, in fact, implied more of that quality than you in the upper world can at all appreciate. He neglected his wife, of course, for he had never loved her, and the burden of her support was too great a trial for his selfishness. Weakness, vanity, a sense that he has not satisfactions proportionate to his desert, a strong temptation — here are the data which, in ordinary cases, explain a man’s deliberate attempt to profit by criminality.

In a short time Pennyloaf began to be aware of peculiarities of behaviour in her husband for which she could not account. Though there appeared no necessity for the step, he insisted on their once more seeking new lodgings, and, before the removal, he destroyed all his medals and moulds.

‘What’s that for, Bob?’ Pennyloaf inquired.

‘I’ll tell you, and mind you hold your tongue about it. Somebody’s been saying as these things might get me into trouble. Just you be careful not to mention to people that I used to make these kind of things.’

‘But why should it get you into trouble?’

‘Mind what I tell you, and don’t ask questions. You’re always too ready at talking.’

His absences of an evening were nothing new, but his manner on returning was such as Pennyloaf had never seen in him. He appeared to be suffering from some intense excitement; his hands were unsteady; he showed the strangest nervousness if there were any unusual sounds in the house. Then he certainly obtained money of which his wife did not know the source; he bought new articles of clothing, and in explanation said that he had won bets. Pennyloaf remarked these things with uneasiness; she had a fear during her lonely evenings for which she could give no reason. Poor slowwitted mortal though she was, a devoted fidelity attached her to her husband, and quickened wonderfully her apprehension in everything that concerned him.

‘Miss Snowdon came today, Bob,’ she had said, about a week after his order with regard to Jane.

‘Oh, she did? And did you tell her she’d better keep away?’

‘Yes,’ was the dispirited answer.

‘Glad to hear it.’

As for Jack Bartley, he never showed himself at the new lodgings.

Bob shortly became less regular in his attendance at the workshop. An occasional Monday he had, to be sure, been in the habit of allowing himself, but as the winter wore on he was more than once found straying about the streets in midweek. One morning towards the end of November, as he strolled along High Holborn, a hand checked his progress; he gave almost a leap, and turned a face of terror upon the person who stopped him. It was Clem — Mrs. Snowdon. They had, of course, met casually since Bob’s marriage, and in progress of time the ferocious glances they were wont to exchange had softened into a grin of half-friendly recognition; Clem’s behaviour at present was an unexpected revival of familiarity. When he had got over his shock Bob felt surprised, and expressed the feeling in a —‘Well, what have you got to say for yourself?’

‘You jumped as if I’d stuck a pin in you,’ replied Clem. ‘Did you think it was a copper?’

Bob looked at her with a surly smile. Though no one could have mistaken the class she belonged to, Clem was dressed in a way which made her companionship with Bob in his workman’s clothing somewhat incongruous; she wore a heavily trimmed brown hat, a long velveteen jacket, and carried a little bag of imitation fur.

‘Why ain’t you at work?’ she added. ‘Does Mrs. Pennyloaf Hewett know how you spend your time?’

‘Hasn’t your husband taught you to mind your own business?’

Clem took the retort good-humouredly, and they walked on conversing. Not altogether at his ease thus companioned, Bob turned out of the main street, and presently they came within sight of the British Museum.

‘Ever been in that place?’ Clem asked.

‘Of course I have,’ he replied, with his air of superiority.

‘I haven’t. Is there anything to pay? Let’s go in for half an hour.’

It was an odd freak, but Bob began to have a pleasure in this renewal of intimacy; he wished he had been wearing his best suit. Years ago his father had brought him on a public holiday to the Museum, and his interest was chiefly excited by the collection of the Royal Seals. To that quarter he first led his companion, and thence directed her towards objects more likely to supply her with amusement; he talked freely, and was himself surprised at the show of information his memory allowed him to make — desperately vague and often ludicrously wide of the mark, but still a something of knowledge, retained from all sorts of chance encounters by his capable mind. Had the British Museum been open to visitors in the hours of the evening, or on Sundays, Bob Hewitt would possibly have been employing his leisure nowadays in more profitable pursuits. Possibly; one cannot say more than that; for the world to which he belonged is above all a world of frustration, and only the one man in half a million has fate for his friend.

Much Clem cared for antiquities; when she had wearied herself in pretending interest, a seat in an unvisited corner gave her an opportunity for more congenial dialogue.

‘How’s Mrs. Pennyloaf?’ she asked, with a smile of malice.

‘How’s Mr. What’s-his-name Snowdon?’ was the reply.

‘My husband’s a gentleman. Good thing for me I had the sense to wait.’

‘And for me too, I dare say.’

‘Why ain’t you at work? Got the sack?’

‘I can take a day off if I like, can’t I?’

‘And you’ll go ‘ome and tell your wife as you’ve been working. I know what you men are. What ‘ud Mrs. Pennyloaf say if she knew you was here with me? You daren’t tell her; you daren’t!’

‘I’m not doing any harm as I know of. I shall tell her if I choose, and if I choose I shan’t. I don’t ask her what I’m to do.’

‘I dare say. And how does that mother of hers get on? And her brother at the public? Nice relations for Mr. Bob Hewett. Do they come to tea on a Sunday?’

Bob glared at her, and Clem laughed, showing all her teeth. From this exchange of pleasantries the talk passed to various subjects — the affairs of Jack Bartley and his precious wife, changes in Clerkenwell Close, then to Clem’s own circumstances; she threw out hints of brilliant things in store for her.

‘Do you come here often?’ she asked at length.

‘Can’t say I do.’

‘Thought p’r’aps you brought Mrs. Pennyloaf. When’ll you be here again?’

‘Don’t know,’ Bob replied, fidgeting and looking to a distance.

‘I shouldn’t wonder if I’m here this day next week,’ said Clem, after a pause. ‘You can bring Pennyloaf if you like.’

It was dinner-time, and they left the building together. At the end of Museum Street they exchanged a careless nod and went their several ways.

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