The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 30

On a Barren Shore

About this time Mr. Scawthorne received one morning a letter which, though not unexpected, caused him some annoyance, and even anxiety. It was signed ‘C. V.,’ and made brief request for an interview on the evening of the next day at Waterloo Station.

The room in which our friend sat at breakfast was of such very modest appearance that it seemed to argue but poor remuneration for the services rendered by him in the office of Messrs. Percival & Peel. It was a parlour on the second floor of a lodging-house in Chelsea; Scawthorne’s graceful person and professional bearing were out of place amid the trivial appointments. He lived here for the simple reason that in order to enjoy a few of the luxuries of civilisation he had to spend as little as possible on bare necessaries. His habits away from home were those of a man to whom a few pounds are no serious consideration; his pleasant dinner at the restaurant, his occasional stall at a theatre, his easy acquaintance with easy livers of various kinds, had become indispensable to him, and as a matter of course his expenditure increased although his income kept at the same figure. That figure was not contemptible, regard had to the path by which he had come thus far; Mr. Percival esteemed his abilities highly, and behaved to him with generosity. Ten years ago Scawthorne would have lost his senses with joy at the prospect of such a salary; today he found it miserably insufficient to the demands he made upon life. Paltry debts harassed him; inabilities fretted his temperament and his pride; it irked him to have no better abode than this musty corner to which he could never invite an acquaintance. And then, notwithstanding his mental endowments, his keen social sense, his native tact, in all London not one refined home was open to him, not one domestic circle of educated people could he approach and find a welcome.

Scawthorne was passing out of the stage when a man seeks only the gratification of his propensities; he began to focus his outlook upon the world, and to feel the significance of maturity. The double existence he was compelled to lead — that of a laborious and clear-brained man of business in office hours, that of a hungry rascal in the time which was his own — not only impressed him with a sense of danger, but made him profoundly dissatisfied with the unreality of what he called his enjoyments. What, he asked himself, had condemned him to this kind of career? Simply the weight under which he started, his poor origin, his miserable youth. However carefully regulated his private life had been, his position today could not have been other than it was; no degree of purity would have opened to him the door of a civilised house. Suppose he had wished to marry; where, pray, was he to find his wife? A barmaid? Why, yes, other men of his standing wedded barmaids and girls from the houses of business, and so on; but they had neither his tastes nor his brains. Never had it been his lot to exchange a word with an educated woman — save in the office on rare occasions. There is such a thing as self-martyrdom in the cause of personal integrity; another man might have said to himself, ‘Providence forbids me the gratification of my higher instincts, and I must be content to live a life of barrenness, that I may at least be above reproach.’ True, but Scawthorne happened not to be so made. He was of the rebels of the earth. Formerly he revolted because he could not indulge his senses to their full; at present his ideal was changed, and the past burdened him.

Yesterday he had had an interview with old Mr. Percival which, for the first time in his life, opened to him a prospect of the only kind of advancement conformable with his higher needs. The firm of Percival & Peel was, in truth, Percival & Son, Mr. Peel having been dead for many years; and the son in question lacked a good deal of being the capable lawyer whose exertions could supplement the failing energy of the senior partner. Mr. Percival having pondered the matter for some time, now proposed that Scawthorne should qualify himself for admission as a solicitor (the circumstances required his being under articles for three years only), and then, if everything were still favourable, accept a junior partnership in the firm. Such an offer was a testimony of the high regard in which Scawthorne was held by his employer; it stirred him with hope he had never dared to entertain since his eyes were opened to the realities of the world, and in a single day did more for the ripening of his prudence than years would have effected had his position remained unaltered. Scawthorne realised more distinctly what a hazardous game he had been playing.

And here was this brief note, signed ‘C. V.’ An ugly affair to look back upon, all that connected itself with those initials. The worst of it was, that it could not be regarded as done with. Had he anything to fear from ‘C. V.’ directly? The meeting must decide that. He felt now what a fortunate thing it was that his elaborate plot to put an end to the engagement between Kirkwood and Jane Snowdon had been accidentally frustrated — a plot which might have availed himself nothing, even had it succeeded. But was he, in his abandonment of rascality in general, to think no more of the fortune which had so long kept his imagination uneasy? Had he not, rather, a vastly better chance of getting some of that money into his own pocket? It really seemed as if Kirkwood — though he might be only artful — had relinquished his claim on the girl, at all events for the present; possibly he was an honest man, which would explain his behaviour. Michael Snowdon could not live much longer; Jane would be the ward of the Percivals, and certainly would be aided to a position more correspondent with her wealth. Why should it then be impossible for him to become Jane’s husband? Joseph, beyond a doubt, could be brought to favour that arrangement, by means of a private understanding more advantageous to him than anything he could reasonably hope from the girl’s merely remaining unmarried. This change in his relations to the Percivals would so far improve his social claims that many of the difficulties hitherto besieging such a scheme as this might easily be set aside. Come, come; the atmosphere was clearing. Joseph himself, now established in a decent business, would become less a fellow-intriguer than an ordinary friend bound to him, in the way of the world, by mutual interests. Things must be put in order; by some device the need of secrecy in his intercourse with Joseph must come to an end. In fact, there remained but two hazardous points. Could the connection between Jane and Kirkwood be brought definitely to an end. And was anything to be feared from poor ‘C. V.’?

Waterloo Station is a convenient rendezvous; its irregular form provides many corners of retirement, out-of-the-way recesses where talk can be carried on in something like privacy. To one of these secluded spots Scawthorne drew aside with the veiled woman who met him at the entrance from Waterloo Road. So closely was her face shrouded, that he had at first a difficulty in catching the words she addressed to him. The noise of an engine getting up steam, the rattle of cabs and porters’ barrows, the tread and voices of a multitude of people made fitting accompaniment to a dialogue which in every word presupposed the corruptions and miseries of a centre of modern life.

‘Why did you send that letter to my father?’ was Clara’s first question.

‘Letter? What letter?’

‘Wasn’t it you who let him know about me?’

‘Certainly not, How should I have known his address? When I saw the newspapers, I went down to Bolton and made inquiries. When I heard your father had been, I concluded you had yourself sent for him. Otherwise, I should, of course, have tried to be useful to you in some way. As it was, I supposed you would scarcely thank me for coming forward.’

It might or might not be the truth, as far as Clara was able to decide. Possibly the information had come from some one else. She knew him well enough to be assured by his tone that nothing more could be elicited from him on that point.

‘You are quite recovered, I hope?’ Scawthorne added, surveying her as she stood in the obscurity. ‘In your general health?’

He was courteous, somewhat distant.

‘I suppose I’m as well as I shall ever be,’ she answered coldly. ‘I asked you to meet me because I wanted to know what it was you spoke of in your last letters. You got my answer, I suppose.’

‘Yes, I received your answer. But — in fact, it’s too late. The time has gone by; and perhaps I was a little hasty in the hopes I held out. I had partly deceived myself.’

‘Never mind. I wish to know what it was,’ she said impatiently.

‘It can’t matter now. Well, there’s no harm in mentioning it. Naturally you went out of your way to suppose it was something dishonourable. Nothing of the kind; I had an idea that you might come to terms with an Australian who was looking out for actresses for a theatre in Melbourne — that was all. But he wasn’t quite the man I took him for. I doubt whether it could have been made as profitable as I thought at first.’

‘You expect me to believe that story?’

‘Not unless you like. It’s some time since you put any faith in my goodwill. The only reason I didn’t speak plainly was because I felt sure that the mention of a foreign country would excite your suspicions. You have always attributed evil motives to me rather than good. However, this is not the time to speak of such things. I sympathise with you — deeply. Will you tell me if I can — can help you at all?’

‘No, you can’t. I wanted to make quite sure that you were what I thought you, that’s all.’

‘I don’t think, on the whole, you have any reason to complain of ill-faith on my part. I secured you the opportunities that are so hard to find.’

‘Yes, you did. We don’t owe each other anything — that’s one comfort. I’ll just say that you needn’t have any fear I shall trouble you in future; I know that’s what you’re chiefly thinking about.’

‘You misjudge me; but that can’t be helped. I wish very much it were in my power to be of use to you.’

‘Thank you.’

On that last note of irony they parted. True enough, in one sense, that there remained debt on neither side. But Clara, for all the fierce ambition which had brought her life to this point, could not divest herself of a woman’s instincts. That simple fact explained various inconsistencies in her behaviour to Scawthorne since she had made herself independent of him; it explained also why this final interview became the bitterest charge her memory preserved against him.

Her existence for some three weeks kept so gloomy a monotony that it was impossible she should endure it much longer. The little room which she shared at night with Annie and Amy was her cell throughout the day. Of necessity she had made the acquaintance of Mrs. Eagles, but they scarcely saw more of each other than if they had lived in different tenements on the same staircase; she had offered to undertake a share of the housework, but her father knew that everything of the kind was distasteful to her, and Mrs. Eagles continued to assist Amy as hitherto. To save trouble, she came into the middle room for her meals, at these times always keeping as much of her face as possible hidden. The children could not overcome a repulsion, a fear, excited by her veil and the muteness she preserved in their presence; several nights passed before little Annie got to sleep with any comfort. Only with her father did Clara hold converse; in the evening he always sat alone with her for an hour. She went out perhaps every third day, after dark, stealing silently down the long staircase, and walking rapidly until she had escaped the neighbourhood — like John Hewett when formerly he wandered forth in search of her. Her strength was slight; after half-an-hour’s absence she came back so wearied that the ascent of stairs cost her much suffering.

The economy prevailing in today’s architecture takes good care that no depressing circumstance shall be absent from the dwellings in which the poor find shelter. What terrible barracks, those Farringdon Road Buildings! Vast, sheer walls, unbroken by even an attempt at ornament; row above row of windows in the mud-coloured surface, upwards, upwards, lifeless eyes, murky openings that tell of bareness, disorder, comfortlessness within. One is tempted to say that Shooter’s Gardens are a preferable abode. An inner courtyard, asphalted, swept clean — looking up to the sky as from a prison. Acres of these edifices, the tinge of grime declaring the relative dates of their erection; millions of tons of brute brick and mortar, crushing the spirit as you gaze. Barracks, in truth; housing for the army of industrialism, an army fighting with itself, rank against rank, man against man, that the survivors may have whereon to feed. Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

Clara hated the place from her first hour in it. It seemed to her that the air was poisoned with the odour of an unclean crowd. The yells of children at play in the courtyard tortured her nerves; the regular sounds on the staircase, day after day repeated at the same hours, incidents of the life of poverty, irritated her sick brain and filled her with despair to think that as long as she lived she could never hope to rise again above this world to which she was born. Gone for ever, for ever, the promise that always gleamed before her whilst she had youth and beauty and talent. With the one, she felt as though she had been robbed of all three blessings; her twenty years were now a meaningless figure; the energies of her mind could avail no more than an idiot’s mummery. For the author of her calamity she nourished no memory of hatred: her resentment was against the fate which had cursed her existence from its beginning.

For this she had dared everything, had made the supreme sacrifice. Conscience had nothing to say to her, but she felt herself an outcast even among these wretched toilers whose swarming aroused her disgust. Given the success which had been all but in her grasp, and triumphant pride would have scored out every misgiving as to the cost at which the victory had been won. Her pride was unbroken; under the stress of anguish it became a scorn for goodness and humility; but in the desolation of her future she read a punishment equal to the daring wherewith she had aspired. Excepting her poor old father, not a living soul that held account of her. She might live for years and years. Her father would die, and then no smallest tribute of love or admiration would be hers for ever. More than that; perforce she must gain her own living, and in doing so she must expose herself to all manner of insulting wonder and pity. Was it a life that could be lived?

Hour after hour she sat with her face buried in her hands. She did not weep; tears were trivial before a destiny such as this. But groans and smothered cries often broke the silence of her solitude — cries of frenzied revolt, wordless curses. Once she rose up suddenly, passed through the middle room, and out on to the staircase; there a gap in the wall, guarded by iron railings breast-high, looked down upon the courtyard. She leaned forward over the bar and measured the distance that separated her from the ground; a ghastly height! Surely one would not feel much after such a fall? In any case, the crashing agony of but an instant. Had not this place tempted other people before now?

Some one coming upstairs made her shrink back into her room, She had felt the horrible fascination of that sheer depth, and thought of it for days, thought of it until she dreaded to quit the tenement, lest a power distinct from will should seize and hurl her to destruction. She knew that that must not happen here; for all her self-absorption, she could not visit with such cruelty the one heart that loved her. And thinking of him, she understood that her father’s tenderness was not wholly the idle thing that it had been to her at first; her love could never equal his, had never done so in her childhood, but she grew conscious of a soothing power in the gentle and timid devotion with which he tended her. His appearance of an evening was something more than a relief after the waste of hours which made her day. The rough, passionate man made himself as quiet and sympathetic as a girl when he took his place by her. Compared with her, his other children were as nothing to him. Impossible that Clara should not be touched by the sense that he who had everything to forgive, whom she had despised and abandoned, behaved now as one whose part it is to beseech forgiveness. She became less impatient when he tried to draw her into conversation; when he hold her thin soft hand in those rude ones of his, she knew a solace in which there was something of gratitude.

Yet it was John who revived her misery in its worst form. Pitying her unoccupied loneliness, he brought home one day a book that he had purchased from a stall in Farringdon Street; it was a novel (with a picture on the cover which seemed designed to repel any person not wholly without taste), and might perhaps serve the end of averting her thoughts from their one subject. Clara viewed it contemptuously, but made a show of being thankful, and on the next day she did glance at its pages. The story was better than its illustration; it took a hold upon her; she read all day long. But when she returned to herself, it was to find that she had been exasperating her heart’s malady. The book dealt with people of wealth and refinement, with the world to which she had all her life been aspiring, and to which she might have attained. The meanness of her surroundings became in comparison more mean, the bitterness of her fate more bitter. You must not lose sight of the fact that since abandoning her work-girl existence Clara had been constantly educating herself, not only by direct study of books, but through her association with people, her growth in experience. Where in the old days of rebellion she had only an instinct, a divination to guide her, there was now just enough of knowledge to give occupation to her developed intellect and taste. Far keener was her sense of the loss she had suffered than her former longing for what she knew only in dream. The activity of her mind received a new impulse when she broke free from Scawthorne and began her upward struggle in independence. Whatever books were obtainable she read greedily; she purchased numbers of plays in the acting-editions, and studied with the utmost earnestness such parts as she knew by repute; no actress entertained a more superb ambition, none was more vividly conscious of power. But it was not only at stage-triumph that Clara aimed; glorious in itself, this was also to serve her as a means of becoming nationalised among that race of beings whom birth and breeding exalt above the multitude. A notable illusion; pathetic to dwell upon. As a work-girl, she nourished envious hatred of those the world taught her to call superiors; they were then as remote and unknown to her as gods on Olympus. From her place behind the footlights she surveyed the occupants of boxes and stalls in a changed spirit; the distance was no longer insuperable; she heard of fortunate players who mingled on equal terms with men and women of refinement. There, she imagined, was her ultimate goal. ‘It is to them that I belong! Be my origin what it may, I have the intelligence and the desires of one born to freedom, Nothing in me, nothing, is akin to that gross world from which I have escaped!’ So she thought — with every drop of her heart’s blood crying its source from that red fountain of revolt whereon never yet did the upper daylight gleam! Brain and pulses such as hers belong not to the mild breed of mortals fostered in sunshine. But for the stroke of fate, she might have won that reception which was in her dream, and with what self-mockery when experience had matured itself! Never yet did true rebel, who has burst the barriers of social limitation, find aught but ennui in the trim gardens beyond.

When John asked if the book had given her amusement, she said that reading made her eyes ache. He noticed that her hand felt feverish, and that the dark mood had fallen upon her as badly as ever to-night.

‘It’s just what I said,’ she exclaimed with abruptness, after long refusal to speak. ‘I knew your friend would never come as long as I was here.’

John regarded her anxiously. The phrase ‘your friend’ had a peculiar sound that disturbed him. It made him aware that she had been thinking often of Sidney Kirkwood since his name had been dismissed from their conversation. He, too, had often turned his mind uneasily in the same direction, wondering whether he ought to have spoken of Sidney so freely. At the time it seemed best, indeed almost inevitable; but habit and the force of affection were changing his view of Clara in several respects. He recognised the impossibility of her continuing to live as now, yet it was as difficult as ever to conceive a means of aiding her. Unavoidably he kept glancing towards Kirkwood. He knew that Sidney was no longer a free man; he knew that, even had it been otherwise, Clara could be nothing to him. In spite of facts, the father kept brooding on what might have been. His own love was perdurable; how could it other than intensify when its object was so unhappy? His hot, illogical mood all but brought about a revival of the old resentment against Sidney.

‘I haven’t seen him for a week or two,’ he replied, in an embarrassed way.

‘Did he tell you be shouldn’t come?’

‘No. After we’d talked about it, you know — when you told me you didn’t mind — I just said a word or two; and he nodded, that was all.’

She became silent. John, racked by doubts as to whether he should say more of Sidney or still hold his peace, sat rubbing the back of one hand with the other and looking about the room.

‘Father,’ Clara resumed presently, ‘what became of that child at Mrs. Peckover’s, that her grandfather came and took away? Snowdon; yes, that was her name; Jane Snowdon.’

‘You remember they went to live with somebody you used to know,’ John replied, with hesitation. ‘They’re still in the same house.’

‘So she’s grown up. Did you ever hear about that old man having a lot of money?’

‘Why, my dear, I never heard nothing but what them Peckovers talked at the time. But there was a son of his turned up as seemed to have some money. He married Mrs. Peckover’s daughter.’

Clara expressed surprise.

‘A son of his? Not the girl’s father?

‘Yes; her father. I don’t know nothing about his history. It’s for him, or partly for him, as I’m workin’ now, Clara. The firm’s Lake, Snowdon & Go.’

‘Why didn’t you mention it before?’

‘I don’t hardly know, my dear.’

She looked at him, aware that something was being kept back.

‘Tell me about the girl. What does she do?’

‘She goes to work, I believe; but I haven’t heard much about her since a good time. Sidney Kirkwood’s a friend of her grandfather. He often goes there, I believe.’

‘What is she like?’ Clara asked, after a pause. ‘She used to be such a weak, ailing thing, I never thought she’d grow up. What’s she like to look at?’

‘I can’t tell you, my dear. I don’t know as ever I see her since those times.’

Again a silence.

‘Then it’s Mr. Kirkwood that has told you what you know of her?’

‘Why, no. It was chiefly Mrs. Peckover told me. She did say, Clara — but then I can’t tell whether it’s true or not — she did say something about Sidney and her.’

He spoke with difficulty, feeling constrained to make the disclosure, but anxious as to its result. Clara made no movement, seemed to have heard with indifference.

‘It’s maybe partly ‘cause of that,’ added John, in a low voice, ‘that he doesn’t like to come here.’

‘Yes; I understand.’

They spoke no more on the subject.

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