The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 27

Clara’s Return

Mrs. Eagles, a middle-aged woman of something more than average girth, always took her time in ascending to that fifth storey where she and her husband shared a tenement with the Hewett family. This afternoon her pause on each landing was longer than usual, for a yellow fog, which mocked the pale glimmer of gas-jets on the staircase, made her gasp asthmatically. She carried, too, a heavy market-bag, having done her Saturday purchasing earlier than of wont on account of the intolerable weather. She reached the door at length, and being too much exhausted to search her pocket for the latchkey, knocked for admission. Amy Hewett opened to her, and she sank on a chair in the first room, where the other two Hewett children were bending over ‘home-lessons’ with a studiousness not altogether natural. Mrs. Eagles had a shrewd eye; having glanced at Annie and Tom with a discreet smile, she turned her look towards the elder girl, who was standing full in the lamplight.

‘Come here, Amy,’ she said after a moment’s scrutiny. ‘So you will keep doin’ that foolish thing! Very well, then, I shall have to speak to your father about it; I’m not goin’ to see you make yourself ill and do nothing to prevent you.’

Amy, now a girl of eleven, affected much indignation.

‘Why, I haven’t touched a drop, Mrs. Eagles!’

‘Now, now, now, now, now! Why, your lips are shrivelled up like a bit of o’ dried orange-peel! You’re a silly girl, that’s what you are!’

Of late Amy Hewett had become the victim of a singular propensity; whenever she could obtain vinegar, she drank it as a toper does spirits. Inadequate nourishment, and especially an unsatisfied palate, frequently have this result in female children among the poor; it is an anticipation of what will befall them as soon as they find their way to the publichouse.

Having administered a scolding, Mrs. Eagles went into the room which she and her husband occupied. It was so encumbered with furniture that not more than eight or ten square feet of floor can have been available for movement. On the bed sat Mr. Eagles, a spare, large-headed, ugly, but very thoughtful-looking man; he and Sidney Kirkwood had been acquaintances and fellow-workmen for some years, but no close intimacy had arisen between them, owing to the difference of their tastes and views. Eagles was absorbed in the study of a certain branch of political statistics; the enthusiasm of his life was Financial Reform. Every budget presented to Parliament he criticised with extraordinary thoroughness, and, in fact, with an acumen which would have made him no inefficient auxiliary of the Chancellor himself. Of course he took the view that the nation’s resources were iniquitously wasted, and of course had little difficulty in illustrating a truth so obvious; what distinguished him from the ordinary malcontent of Clerkenwell Green was his logical faculty and the surprising extent of the information with which he had furnished himself. Long before there existed a ‘Financial Reform Almanack,’ Eagles practically represented that work in his own person. Disinterested, ardent, with thoughts for but one subject in the scope of human inquiry, he lived contentedly on his two pounds a week, and was for ever engaged in the theoretic manipulation of millions. Utopian budgets multiplied themselves in his brain and his note-books. He devised imposts such as Minister never dreamt of, yet which, he declared, could not fail of vast success. ‘You just look at these figures!’ he would exclaim to Sidney, in his low, intense voice. ‘There it is in black and white!’ But Sidney’s faculties were quite unequal to calculations of this kind, and Eagles could never summon resolve to explain his schemes before an audience. Indefatigably he worked on, and the work had to be its own reward.

He was busy in the usual way this afternoon, as he sat on the bed, coatless, a trade journal open on his knees. His wife never disturbed him; she was a placid, ruminative woman, generally finding the details of her own weekly budget quite a sufficient occupation. When she had taken off her bonnet and was turning out the contents of her bag, Eagles remarked quietly:

‘They’ll have a bad journey.’

‘What a day for her to be travelling all that distance, poor thing! But perhaps it ain’t so bad out o’ London.’

Lowering their voices, they began to talk of John Hewett and the daughter he was bringing from Lancashire, where she had lain in hospital for some weeks. Of the girl and her past they knew next to nothing, but Hewett’s restricted confidences suggested disagreeable things. The truth of the situation was, that John had received by post, from he knew not whom, a newspaper report of the inquest held on the body of Grace Danver, wherein, of course, was an account of what had happened to Clara Vale; in the margin was pencilled, ‘Clara Vale’s real name is Clara Hewett.’ An hour after receiving this John encountered Sidney Kirkwood. They read the report together. Before the coroner it had been made public that the dead woman was in truth named Rudd; she who was injured refused to give any details concerning herself, and her history escaped the reporters. Harbouring no doubt of the information thus mysteriously sent him — the handwriting seemed to be that of a man, but gave no further hint as to its origin — Hewett the next day journeyed down into Lancashire, Sidney supplying him with money. He found Clara in a perilous condition; her face was horribly burnt with vitriol, and the doctors could not as yet answer for the results of the shock she had suffered. One consolation alone offered itself in the course of Hewett’s inquiries; Clara, if she recovered, would not have lost her eyesight. The fluid had been thrown too low to effect the worst injury; the accident of a trembling hand, of a movement on her part, had kept her eyes untouched.

Necessity brought the father back to London almost at once, but the news sent him at brief intervals continued to be favourable. Now that the girl could be removed from the infirmary, there was no retreat for her but her father’s home. Mr. Peel, the manager, had made her a present of 20l. — it was all he could do; the members of the company had subscribed another 5l., generously enough, seeing that their tour was come perforce to an abrupt close. Clara’s career as an actress had ended . . . .

When the fog’s artificial night deepened at the close of the winter evening, Mrs. Eagles made the Hewetts’ two rooms as cheerful as might be, expecting every moment the arrival of John and his companion. The children were aware that an all but forgotten sister was returning to them, and that she had been very ill; they promised quietude. Amy set the tea-table in order, and kept the kettle ready. . . . The knock for which they were waiting! Mrs. Eagles withdrew into her own room; Amy went to the door.

A tall figure, so wrapped and veiled that nothing but the womanly outline could be discerned, entered, supported by John Hewett.

‘Is there a light in the other room, Amy?’ John inquired in a thick voice.

‘Yes, father.’

He led the muffled form into the chamber where Amy and Annie slept. The door closed, and for several minutes the three children stood regarding each other, alarmed, mute. Then their father joined them. He looked about in an absent way, slowly drew off his overcoat, and when Amy offered to take it, bent and kissed her cheek. The girl was startled to hear him sob and to see tears starting from his eyes. Turning suddenly away, he stood before the fire and made a pretence of warming himself; but his sobs overmastered him. He leaned his arms on the mantel-piece.

‘Shall I pour out the tea, father?’ Amy ventured to ask, when there was again perfect silence.

‘Haven’t you had yours?’ he replied, half-facing her.

‘Not yet.’

‘Get it, then — all of you. Yes, you can pour me out a cup — and put another on the little tray. Is this stuff in the saucepan ready?’ ‘Mrs. Eagles said it would be in five minutes.’.

‘All right. Get on with your eatin’, all of you.’

He went to Mrs. Eagles’ room and talked there for a short time. Presently Mrs. Eagles herself came out and silently removed from the saucepan a mixture of broth and meat. Having already taken the cup of tea to Clara, Hewett now returned to her with this food. She was sitting by the fire, her face resting upon her hands. The lamp was extinguished; she had said that the firelight was enough. John deposited his burden on the table, then touched her shoulder gently and spoke in so soft a voice that one would not have recognised it as his.

‘You’ll try an’ eat a little, my dear? Here’s somethin’ as has been made particular. After travellin’— just a spoonful or two.’

Clara expressed reluctance.

‘I don’t feel hungry, father. Presently, perhaps.’

‘Well, well; it do want to cool a bit. Do you feel able to sit up?’

‘Yes. Don’t take so much trouble, father. I’d rather you left me alone.’

The tone was not exactly impatient; it spoke a weary indifference to everything and every person.

‘Yes, I’ll go away, dear. But you’ll eat just a bit? If you don’t like this, you must tell me, and I’ll get something you could fancy.’

‘It’ll do well enough. I’ll eat it presently; I promise you.’

John hesitated before going.

‘Clara — shall you mind Amy and Annie comin’ to sleep here? If you’d rather, we’ll manage it somehow else.’

‘No. What does it matter? They can come when they like, only they mustn’t want me to talk to them.’

He went softly from the room, and joined the children at their tea. His mood had grown brighter. Though in talking he kept his tone much softened, there was a smile upon his face, and he answered freely the questions put to him about his journey. Overcome at first by the dark aspect of this home-coming, he now began to taste the joy of having Clara under his roof, rescued alike from those vague dangers of the past and from the recent peril. Impossible to separate the sorrow he felt for her blighted life, her broken spirit, and the solace lurking in the thought that henceforth she could not abandon him. Never a word to reproach her for the unalterable; it should be as though there were no gap between the old love and its renewal in the present. For Clara used to love him, and already she had shown that his tenderness did not appeal to her in vain; during the journey she had once or twice pressed his hand in gratitude. How well it was that he had this home in which to receive her! Half a year ago, and what should he have done? He would not admit to himself that there were any difficulties ahead; if it came to that, he would manage to get some extra work in the evening and on Saturday afternoons. He would take Sidney into council. But thereupon his face darkened again, and he lost himself in troubled musing.

Midway in the Sunday morning Amy told him that Clara had risen and would like him to go and sit with her. She would not leave her room; Amy had put it in order, and the blind was drawn low. Clara sat by the fireside, in her attitude of last night, hiding her face as far as she was able. The beauty of her form would have impressed anyone who approached her, the grace of her bent head; but the countenance was no longer that of Clara Hewett; none must now look at her, unless to pity. Feeling herself thus utterly changed, she could not speak in her former natural voice; her utterance was oppressed, unmusical, monotonous.

When her father had taken a place near her she asked him, ‘Have you got that piece of newspaper still?’

He had, and at her wish produced it. Clara held it in the light of the fire, and regarded the pencilled words closely. Then she inquired if he wished to keep it, and on his answering in the negative threw it to be burnt. Hewett took her hand, and for a while they kept silence.

‘Do you live comfortably here, father?’ she said presently.

‘We do, Clara. It’s a bit high up, but that don’t matter much.’

‘You’ve got new furniture.’

‘Yes, some new things. The old was all done for, you know.’

‘And where did you live before you came here?’

‘Oh, we had a place in King’s Cross Road — it wasn’t much of a place, but I suppose it might a’ been worse.’

‘And that was where —?’

‘Yes — yes — it was there.’

‘And how did you manage to buy this furniture?’ Clara asked, after a pause.

‘Well, my dear, to tell you the truth — it was a friend as — an old friend helped us a bit.’

‘You wouldn’t care to say who it was?’

John was gravely embarrassed. Clara moved her head a little, so as to regard him, but at once turned away, shrinkingly, when she met his eyes.

‘Why don’t you like to tell me, father? Was it Mr. Kirkwood?’

‘Yes, my dear, it was.’

Neither spoke for a long time. Clara’s head sank lower; she drew her hand away from her father’s, and used it to shield her face. When she spoke, it was as if to herself.

‘I suppose he’s altered in some ways?’

‘Not much; I don’t see much change, myself, but then of course — No, he’s pretty much the same.’

‘He’s married, isn’t he?

‘Married? Why, what made you think that. Clara? No, not he. He had to move not long ago; his lodgin’s is in Red Lion Street now.’

‘And does he ever come here?’

‘He has been — just now an’ then.’

‘Have you told him?’

‘Why — yes, dear — I felt I had to.’

‘There’s no harm. You couldn’t keep it a secret. But he mustn’t come whilst I’m here; you understand that, father?’

‘No, no, he shan’t. He shall never come, if you don’t wish it.’

‘Only whilst I’m here.’

‘But — Clara — you’ll always be here.’

‘Oh no! Do you think I’m going to burden you all the rest of my life? I shall find some way of earning a living, and then I shall go and get a room for myself.’

‘Now don’t — now don’t talk like that!’ exclaimed her father, putting his hand on her. ‘You shall do what else you like, my girl, but don’t talk about goin’ away from me. That’s the one thing as I couldn’t bear. I ain’t so young as I was, and I’ve had things as was hard to go through — I mean when the mother died and — and other things at that time. Let you an’ me stay by each other whilst we may, my girl. You know it was always you as I thought most of, and I want to keep you by me — I do, Clara. You won’t speak about goin’ away?’

She remained mute. Shadows from the firelight rose and fell upon the walls of the half-darkened room. It was a cloudy morning; every now and then a gust flung rain against the window.

‘If you went,’ he continued, huskily, ‘I should be afraid myself. I haven’t told you. I didn’t behave as I’d ought have done to the poor mother, Clara; I got into drinkin’ too much; yes, I did. I’ve broke myself off that; but if you was to leave me — I’ve had hard things to go through. Do you know the Burial Club broke up just before she died? I couldn’t get not a ha’penny! A lot o’ the money was stolen. You may think how I felt, Clara, with her lyin’ there, and I hadn’t got as much as would pay for a coffin. It was Sidney Kirkwood found the money — he did! There was never man had as good a friend as he’s been to me; I shall never have a chance of payin’ what I owe him. Things is better with me now, but I’d rather beg my bread in the streets than you should go away. Don’t be afraid, my dearest. I promise you nobody shan’t come near. You won’t mind Mrs. Eagles; she’s very good to the children. But I must keep you near to me, my poor girl!’

Perhaps sit was that word of pity — though the man’s shaken voice was throughout deeply moving. For the first time since the exultant hope of her life was blasted, Clara shed tears.

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