The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 28

The Soup-kitchen

With the first breath of winter there passes a voice half-menacing, half-mournful, through all the barren ways and phantom-haunted refuges of the nether world. Too quickly has vanished the brief season when the sky is clement, when a little food suffices, and the chances of earning that little are more numerous than at other times; this wind that gives utterance to its familiar warning is the vaunt-courier of cold and hunger and solicitude that knows not sleep. Will the winter be a hard one? It is the question that concerns this world before all others, that occupies alike the patient workfolk who have yet their home unbroken, the strugglers foredoomed to loss of such scant needments as the summer gifted them withal, the hopeless and the self-abandoned and the lurking creatures of prey. To all of them the first chill breath from a lowering sky has its voice of admonition; they set their faces; they sigh, or whisper a prayer, or fling out a curse, each according to his nature.

And as though the strife here were not already hard enough, behold from many corners of the land come needy emigrants, prospectless among their own people, fearing the dark season which has so often meant for them the end of wages and of food, tempted hither by thought that in the shadow of palaces work and charity are both more plentiful. Vagabonds, too, no longer able to lie about the country roads, creep back to their remembered lairs and join the combat for crusts flung forth by casual hands. Day after day the stress becomes more grim. One would think that hosts of the weaker combatants might surely find it seasonable to let themselves be trodden out of existence, and so make room for those of more useful sinew; somehow they cling to life; so few in comparison yield utterly. The thoughtful in the world above look about them with contentment when carriage-ways are deep with new-fallen snow. ‘Good; here is work for the unemployed.’ Ah, if the winter did but last a few months longer, if the wonted bounds of endurance were but, by some freak of nature, sensibly overpassed, the carriage-ways would find another kind of sweeping! . . .

This winter was the last that Shooter’s Gardens were destined to know. The leases had all but run out; the middlemen were garnering their latest profits; in the spring there would come a wholesale demolition, and model-lodgings would thereafter occupy the site. Meanwhile the Gardens looked their surliest; the walls stood in a perpetual black sweat; a mouldy reek came from the open doorways; the beings that passed in and out seemed soaked with grimy moisture, puffed into distortions, hung about with rotting garments. One such was Mrs. Candy, Pennyloaf’s mother. Her clothing consisted of a single gown and a shawl made out of the fragments of an old counterpane; her clothing — with exception of the shoes on her feet, those two articles were literally all that covered her bare body. Rage for drink was with her reaching the final mania. Useless to bestow anything upon her; straightway it or its value passed over the counter of the beershop in Rosoman Street. She cared only for beer, the brave, thick, medicated draught, that was so cheap and frenzied her so speedily.

Her husband was gone for good. One choking night of November he beat her to such purpose that she was carried off to the police-station as dead; the man effected his escape, and was not likely to show himself in the Gardens again. With her still lived her son Stephen, the potman. His payment was ten shillings a week (with a daily allowance of three pints), and he saw to it that there was always a loaf of bread in the room they occupied together. Stephen took things with much philosophy; his mother would, of course, drink herself to death — what was there astonishing in that? He himself had heart disease, and surely enough would drop down dead one of these days; the one doom was no more to be quarrelled with than the other. Pennyloaf came to see them at very long intervals; what was the use of making her visits more frequent? She, too, viewed with a certain equanimity the progress of her mother’s fate. Vain every kind of interposition; worse than imprudence to give the poor creature money or money’s worth. It could only be hoped that the end would come before very long.

An interesting house, this in which Mrs. Candy resided. It contained in all seven rooms, and each room was the home of a family; under the roof slept twenty-five persons, men, women, and children; the lowest rent paid by one of these domestic groups was four-and-sixpence. You would have enjoyed a peep into the rear chamber on the ground floor. There dwelt a family named Hope — Mr. and Mrs. Hope, Sarah Hope, aged fifteen, Dick Hope, aged twelve, Betsy Hope, aged three. The father was a cripple; he and his wife occupied themselves in the picking of rags — of course at home — and I can assure you that the atmosphere of their abode was worthy of its aspect. Mr. Hope drank, but not desperately. His forte was the use of language so peculiarly violent that even in Shooter’s Gardens it gained him a proud reputation. On the slightest excuse he would threaten to brain one of his children, to disembowel another, to gouge out the eyes of the third. He showed much ingenuity in varying the forms of menaced punishment. Not a child in the Gardens but was constantly threatened by its parents with a violent death; this was so familiar that it had lost its effect; where the nurse or mother in the upper world cries, ‘I shall scold you!’ in the nether the phrase is, ‘I’ll knock yer ‘ed orff!’ To ‘I shall be very angry with you’ in the one sphere, corresponds in the other, ‘I’ll murder you!’ These are conventions — matters of no importance. But Mr. Rope was a man of individuality; he could make his family tremble; he could bring lodgers about the door to listen and admire his resources.

In another room abode a mother with four children. This woman drank moderately, but was very conscientious in despatching her three younger children to school. True, there was just a little inconvenience in this punctuality of hers, at all events from the youngsters’ point of view, for only on the first three days of the week had they the slightest chance of a mouthful of breakfast before they departed. ‘Never mind, I’ll have some dinner for you,’ their parent was wont to say. Common enough in the Board schools, this pursuit of knowledge on an empty stomach. But then the end is so inestimable!

Yet another home. It was tenanted by two persons only; they appeared to be man and wife, but in the legal sense were not so, nor did they for a moment seek to deceive their neighbours. With the female you are slightly acquainted; christened Sukey Jollop, she first became Mrs. Jack Bartley, and now, for courtesy’s sake, was styled Mrs. Higgs. Sukey had strayed on to a downward path; conscious of it, she abandoned herself to her taste for strong drink, and braved out her degradation. Jealousy of Clem Peckover was the first cause of discord between her and Jack Bartley; a robust young woman, she finally sent Jack about his business by literal force of arms, and entered into an alliance with Ned Higgs, a notorious swashbuckler, the captain of a gang of young ruffians who at this date were giving much trouble to the Clerkenwell police. Their speciality was the skilful use, as an offensive weapon, of a stout leathern belt heavily buckled; Mr. Higgs boasted that with one stroke of his belt he could, if it seemed good to him, kill his man, but the fitting opportunity for this display of prowess had not yet offered . . . .

Now it happened that, at the time of her making Jane Snowdon’s acquaintance, Miss Lant was particularly interested in Shooter’s Gardens and the immediate vicinity. She had associated herself with certain ladies who undertook the control of a soup-kitchen in the neighbourhood, and as the winter advanced she engaged Jane in this work of charity. It was a good means, as Michael Snowdon agreed, of enabling the girl to form acquaintances among the very poorest, those whom she hoped to serve effectively — not with aid of money alone, but by her personal influence. And I think it will be worth while to dwell a little on the story of this same soup-kitchen; it is significant, and shall take the place of abstract comment on Miss Lant’s philanthropic enterprises.

The kitchen had been doing successful work for some years; the society which established it entrusted its practical conduct to very practical people, a man and wife who were themselves of the nether world, and knew the ways thereof. The ‘stock’ which formed the basis of the soup was wholesome and nutritious; the peas were of excellent quality; twopence a quart was the price at which this fluid could be purchased (one penny if a ticket from a member of the committee were presented), and sometimes as much as five hundred quarts would be sold in a day. Satisfactory enough this. When the people came with complaints, saying that they were tired of this particular soup, and would like another kind for a change, Mr. and Mrs. Batterby, with perfect understanding of the situation, bade their customers ‘take it or leave it — an’ none o’ your cheek here, or you won’t get nothing at all!’ The result was much good-humour all round.

But the present year saw a change in the constitution of the committee: two or three philanthropic ladies of great conscientiousness began to inquire busily into the working of the soup-kitchen, and they soon found reason to be altogether dissatisfied with Mr. and Mrs. Batterby. No, no; these managers were of too coarse a type; they spoke grossly; what possibility of their exerting a humanising influence on the people to whom they dispensed soup? Soup and refinement must be disseminated at one and the same time, over the same counter. Mr. and Mrs. Batterby were dismissed, and quite a new order of things began. Not only were the ladies zealous for a high ideal in the matter of soup-distributing, they also aimed at practical economy in the use of funds. Having engaged a cook after their own hearts, and acting upon the advice of competent physiologists, they proceeded to make a ‘stock’ out of sheep’s and bullocks’ heads; moreover, they ordered their peas from the City, thus getting them at two shillings a sack less than the price formerly paid by the Batterbys to a dealer in Clerkenwell. But, alas! these things could not be done secretly; the story leaked out; Shooter’s Gardens and vicinity broke into the most excited feeling. I need not tell you that the nether world will consume — when others supply it — nothing but the very finest quality of food, that the heads of sheep and bullocks are peculiarly offensive to its stomach, that a saving effected on sacks of peas outrages its dearest sensibilities. What was the result? Shooter’s Gardens, convinced of the fraud practised upon them, nobly brought back their quarts of soup to the kitchen, and with proud independence of language demanded to have their money returned. On being met with a refusal, they — what think you? — emptied the soup on to the floor, and went away with heads exalted.

Vast was the indignation of Miss Lant and the other ladies. ‘This is their gratitude!’ Now if you or I had been there, what an opportunity for easing our minds! ‘Gratitude, mesdames? You have entered upon this work with expectation of gratitude? — And can you not perceive that these people of Shooter’s Gardens are poor, besotted, disease-struck creatures, of whom — in the mass — scarcely a human quality is to be expected? Have you still to learn what this nether world has been made by those who belong to the sphere above it? — Gratitude, quotha? — Nay, do you be grateful that these hapless, half-starved women do not turn and rend you. At present they satisfy themselves with insolence. Take it silently, you who at all events hold some count of their dire state; and endeavour to feed them without arousing their animosity!’

Well, the kitchen threatened to be a failure. It turned out that the cheaper peas were, in fact, of inferior quality, and the ladies hastened to go back to the dealer in Clerkenwell. This was something, but now came a new trouble; the complaint with which Mr. and Mrs. Batterby had known so well how to deal revived in view of the concessions made by the new managers. Shooter’s Gardens would have no more peas; let some other vegetable be used. Again the point was conceded; a trial was made of barley soup. Shooter’s Gardens came, looked, smelt, and shook their heads. ‘It don’t look nice,’ was their comment; they would none of it.

For two or three weeks, just at this crisis in the kitchen’s fate, Jane Snowdon attended with Miss Lant to help in the dispensing of the decoction. Jane was made very nervous by the disturbances that went on, but she was able to review the matter at issue in a far more fruitful way than Miss Lant and the other ladies. Her opinion was not asked, however. In the homely grey dress, with her modest, retiring manner, her gentle, diffident countenance, she was taken by the customers for a paid servant, and if ever it happened that she could not supply a can of soup quickly enough sharp words reached her ear. ‘Now then, you gyurl there! Are you goin’ to keep me all d’y? I’ve got somethink else to do but stand ’ere.’ And Jane, by her timid hastening, confirmed the original impression, with the result that she was treated yet more unceremoniously next time. Of all forms of insolence there is none more flagrant than that of the degraded poor receiving charity which they have come to regard as a right.

Jane did speak at length. Miss Lant had called to see her in Hanover Street; seated quietly in her own parlour, with Michael Snowdon to approve — with him she had already discussed the matter — Jane ventured softly to compare the present state of things and that of former winters, as described to her by various people.

‘Wasn’t it rather a pity,’ she suggested, ‘that the old people were sent away?’

‘You think so?’ returned Miss Lant, with the air of one to whom a novel thought is presented. ‘You really think so, Miss Snowdon?’

‘They got on so well with everybody,’ Jane continued. ‘And don’t you think it’s better, Miss Lant, for everybody to feel satisfied?’

‘But really, Mr. Batterby used to speak so very harshly. He destroyed their self-respect.’

‘I don’t think they minded it,’ said Jane, with simple good faith. ‘And I’m always hearing them wish he was back, instead of the new managers.’

‘I think we shall have to consider this,’ remarked the lady, thoughtfully.

Considered it was, and with the result that the Batterbys before long found themselves in their old position, uproariously welcomed by Shooter’s Gardens. In a few weeks the soup was once more concocted of familiar ingredients, and customers, as often as they grumbled, had the pleasure of being rebuked in their native tongue.

It was with anything but a cheerful heart that Jane went through this initiation into the philanthropic life. Her brief period of joy and confidence was followed by a return of anxiety, which no resolve could suppress. It was not only that the ideals to which she strove to form herself made no genuine appeal to her nature; the imperative hunger of her heart remained unsatisfied. At first, when the assurance received from Michael began to lose a little of its sustaining force, she could say to herself, ‘Patience, patience; be faithful, be trustful, and your reward will soon come.’ Nor would patience have failed her had but the current of life flowed on in the old way. It was the introduction of new and disturbing things that proved so great a test of fortitude. Those two successive absences of Sidney on the appointed evening were strangely unlike him, but perhaps could be explained by the unsettlement of his removal; his manner when at length he did come proved that the change in himself was still proceeding. Moreover, the change affected Michael, who manifested increase of mental trouble at the same time that he yielded more and more to physical infirmity.

The letter which Sidney wrote after receiving Joseph Snowdon’s confidential communications was despatched two days later. He expressed himself in carefully chosen words, but the purport of the letter was to make known that he no longer thought of Jane save as a friend; that the change in her position had compelled him to take another view of his relations to her than that he had confided to Michael at Danbury. Most fortunately — he added — no utterance of his feelings had ever escaped him to Jane herself, and henceforth he should be still more careful to avoid any suggestion of more than brotherly interest. In very deed nothing was altered; he was still her steadfast friend, and would always aid her to his utmost in the work of her life.

That Sidney could send this letter, after keeping it in reserve for a couple of days, proved how profoundly his instincts were revolted by the difficulties and the ambiguity of his position. It had been bad enough when only his own conscience was in play; the dialogue with Joseph, following upon Bessie Byass’s indiscretion, threw him wholly off his balance, and he could give no weight to any consideration but the necessity of recovering self-respect. Even the sophistry of that repeated statement that he had never approached Jane as a lover did not trouble him in face of the injury to his pride. Every word of Joseph Snowdon’s transparently artful hints was a sting to his sensitiveness; the sum excited him to loathing. It was as though the corner of a curtain had been raised, giving him a glimpse of all the vile greed, the base machination, hovering about this fortune that Jane was to inherit. Of Scawthorne he knew nothing, but his recollection of the Peckovers was vivid enough to suggest what part Mrs. Joseph Snowdon was playing in the present intrigues, and he felt convinced that in the background were other beasts of prey, watching with keen, envious eyes. The sudden revelation was a shock from which he would not soon recover; he seemed to himself to be in a degree contaminated; he questioned his most secret thoughts again and again, recognizing with torment the fears which had already bidden him draw back; he desired to purify himself by some unmistakable action.

That which happened he had anticipated. On receipt of the letter Michael came to see him; he found the old man waiting in front of the house when he returned to Red Lion Street after his work. The conversation that followed was a severe test of Sidney’s resolve. Had Michael disclosed the fact of his private understanding with Jane, Sidney would probably have yielded; but the old man gave no hint of what he had done — partly because he found it difficult to make the admission, partly in consequence of an indecision in his own mind with regard to the very point at issue. Though agitated by the consciousness of suffering in store for Jane, his thoughts disturbed by the derangement of a part of his plan, he did not feel that Sidney’s change of mind gravely affected the plan itself. Age had cooled his blood; enthusiasm had made personal interests of comparatively small account to him; he recognised his granddaughter’s feeling, but could not appreciate its intensity, its surpreme significance. When Kirkwood made a show of explaining himself, saying that he shrank from that form of responsibility, that such a marriage suggested to him many and insuperable embarrassments, Michael began to reflect that perchance this was the just view. With household and family cares, could Jane devote herself to the great work after the manner of his ideal? Had he not been tempted by his friendship for Sidney to introduce into his scheme what was really an incompatible element? Was it not decidedly, infinitely better that Jane should be unmarried?

Michael had taken the last step in that process of dehumanisation which threatens idealists of his type. He had reached at length the pass of those frenzied votaries of a supernatural creed who exact from their disciples the sacrifice of every human piety. Returning home, he murmured to himself again and again, ‘She must not marry. She must overcome this desire of a happiness such as ordinary women may enjoy. For my sake, and for the sake of her suffering fellow-creatures, Jane must win this victory over herself.’

He purposed speaking to her, but put it off from day to day. Sidney paid his visits as usual, and tried desperately to behave as though he had no trouble. Could he have divined why it was that Michael had ended by accepting his vague pretences with apparent calm, indignation, wrath, would have possessed him; he believed, however, that the old man out of kindness subdued what he really felt. Sidney’s state was pitiable. He knew not whether he more shrank from the thought of being infected with Joseph Snowdon’s baseness or despised himself for his attitude to Jane. Despicable entirely had been his explanations to Michael, but how could he make them more sincere? To tell the whole truth, to reveal Joseph’s tactics would be equivalent to taking a part in the dirty contest; Michael would probably do him justice, but who could say how far Joseph’s machinations were becoming effectual? The slightest tinct of uncertainty in the old man’s thought, and he, Kirkwood, became a plotter, like the others, meeting mine with countermine.

‘There will be no possibility of perfect faith between men until there is no such thing as money! H’m, and when is that likely to come to pass?’

Thus he epigrammatised to himself one evening, savagely enough, as with head bent forward he plodded to Red Lion Street. Some one addressed him; he looked up and saw Jane. Seemingly it was a chance meeting, but she put a question at once almost as though she had been waiting for him. ‘Have you seen Pennyloaf lately, Mr. Kirkwood?’

Pennyloaf? The name suggested Bob Hewett, who again suggested John Hewett, and so Sidney fell upon thoughts of some one who two days ago had found a refuge in John’s home. To Michael he had said nothing of what he knew concerning Clara; a fresh occasion of uneasy thought. Bob Hewett — so John said — had no knowledge of his sister’s situation, otherwise Pennyloaf might have come to know about it, and in that case, perchance, Jane herself. Why not? Into what a wretched muddle of concealments and inconsistencies and insincerities had he fallen!

‘It’s far too long since I saw her,’ he replied, in that softened tone which he found it impossible to avoid when his eyes met Jane’s.

She was on her way home from the soup-kitchen, where certain occupations had kept her much later than usual; this, however, was far out of her way, and Sidney remarked on the fact, perversely, when she had offered this explanation of her meeting him, Jane did not reply. They walked on together, towards Islington.

‘Are you going to help at that place all the winter?’ he inquired.

‘Yes; I think so.’

If he had spoken his thought, he would have railed against the soup-kitchen and all that was connected with it. So far had he got in his revolt against circumstances; Jane’s ‘mission’ was hateful to him; he could not bear to think of her handing soup over a counter to ragged wretches.

‘You’re nothing like as cheerful as you used to be, he said, suddenly, and all but roughly. ‘Why is it?’

What a question! Jane reddened as she tried to look at him with a smile; no words would come to her tongue.

‘Do you go anywhere else, besides to — to that place?’

Not often. She had accompanied Miss Lant on a visit to some people in Shooter’s Gardens.

Sidney bent his brows. A nice spot, Shooter’s Gardens.

‘The houses are going to be pulled down, I’m glad to say,’ continued Jane. ‘Miss Lant thinks it’ll be a good opportunity for helping a few of the families into better lodgings. We’re going to buy furniture for them — so many have as good as none at all, you know. It’ll be a good start for them, won’t it?’

Sidney nodded. He was thinking of another family who already owed their furniture to Jane’s beneficence, though they did not know it.

‘Mind you don’t throw away kindness on worthless people,’ he said presently.

‘We can only do our best, and hope they’ll keep comfortable for their own sakes.’

‘Yes, yes. Well, I’ll say good-night to you here. Go home and rest; you look tired.’

He no longer called her by her name. Tearing himself away, with a last look, he raged inwardly that so sweet and gentle a creature should be condemned to such a waste of her young life.

Jane had obtained what she came for. At times the longing to see him grew insupportable, and this evening she had yielded to it, going out of her way in the hope of encountering him as he came from work. He spoke very strangely. What did it all mean, and when would this winter of suspense give sign of vanishing before sunlight?

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