The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 31

Woman and Actress

In a tenement on the same staircase, two floors below, lived a family with whom John Hewett was on friendly terms. Necessity calling these people out of London for a few days, they had left with John the key of their front door; a letter of some moment might arrive in their absence, and John undertook to repost it to them. The key was hung on a nail in Clara’s room.

‘I’ll just go down and see if the postman’s left anything at Holland’s this morning,’ said Amy Hewett, coming in between breakfast and the time of starting for school.

She reached up to the key, but Clara, who sat by the fire with a cup of tea on her lap, the only breakfast she ever took, surprised her by saying, ‘You needn’t trouble, Amy. I shall be going out soon, and I’ll look in as I pass.’

The girl was disappointed, for she liked this private incursion into the abode of other people, but the expression of a purpose by her sister was so unusual that, after a moment’s hesitating, she said, ‘Very well,’ and left the room again.

When silence informed Clara that the children were gone, Mrs. Eagles being the only person besides herself who remained in the tenement, she put on her hat, drew down the veil which was always attached to it, and with the key in her hand descended to the Hollands’ rooms. Had a letter been delivered that morning, it would have been — in default of box — just inside the door; there was none, but Clara seemed to have another purpose in view. She closed the door and walked forward into the nearest room; the blind was down, but the dusk thus produced was familiar to her in consequence of her own habit, and, her veil thrown back, she examined the chamber thoughtfully. It was a sitting-room, ugly, orderly; the air felt damp, and even in semi-darkness she was conscious of the layers of London dust which had softly deposited themselves since the family went away forty-eight hours ago. A fire was laid ready for lighting, and the smell of moist soot spread from the grate. Having stood on one spot for nearly ten minutes, Clara made a quick movement and withdrew; she latched the front door with as little noise as possible, ran upstairs and shut herself again in her own room.

Presently she was standing at her window, the blind partly raised. On a clear day the view from this room was of wide extent, embracing a great part of the City; seen under a low, blurred, dripping sky, through the ragged patches of smoke from chimneys innumerable, it had a gloomy impressiveness well in keeping with the mind of her who brooded over it. Directly in front, rising mist-detached from the lower masses of building, stood in black majesty the dome of St. Paul’s; its vastness suffered no diminution from this high outlook, rather was exaggerated by the flying scraps of mirky vapour which softened its outline and at times gave it the appearance of floating on a vague troubled sea. Somewhat nearer, amid many spires and steeples, lay the surly bulk of Newgate, the lines of its construction shown plan-wise; its little windows multiplied for points of torment to the vision. Nearer again, the markets of Smithfield, Bartholomew’s Hospital, the tract of modern deformity, cleft by a gulf of railway, which spreads between Clerkenwell Road and Charterhouse Street. Down in Farringdon Street the carts, waggons, vans, cabs, omnibuses, crossed and intermingled in a steaming splash-bath of mud; human beings, reduced to their due paltriness, seemed to toil in exasperation along the strips of pavement, bound on errands, which were a mockery, driven automaton-like by forces they neither understood nor could resist.

‘Can I go out into a world like that — alone?’ was the thought which made Clara’s spirit fail as she stood gazing. ‘Can I face life as it is for women who grow old in earning bare daily bread among those terrible streets? Year after year to go in and out from some wretched garret that I call home, with my face hidden, my heart stabbed with misery till it is cold and bloodless!

Then her eye fell upon the spire of St. James’s Church, on Clerkenwell Green, whose bells used to be so familiar to her. The memory was only of discontent and futile aspiration, but — Oh, if it were possible to be again as she was then, and yet keep the experience with which life had since endowed her! With no moral condemnation did she view the records of her rebellion; but how easy to see now that ignorance had been one of the worst obstacles in her path, and that, like all unadvised purchasers, she had paid a price that might well have been spared. A little more craft, a little more patience — it is with these that the world is conquered. The world was her enemy, and had proved too strong; woman though she was — only a girl striving to attain the place for which birth adapted her — pursuing only her irrepressible instincts — fate flung her to the ground pitilessly, and bade her live out the rest of her time in wretchedness.

No! There remained one more endeavour that was possible to her, one bare hope of saving herself from the extremity which only now she estimated at its full horror. If that failed, why, then, there was a way to cure all ills.

From her box, that in which were hidden away many heart-breaking mementoes of her life as an actress, she took out a sheet of notepaper and an envelope. Without much thought, she wrote nearly three pages, folded the letter, addressed it with a name only ‘Mr. Kirkwood.’ Sidney’s address she did not know; her father had mentioned Red Lion Street, that was all. She did not even know whether he still worked at the old place, but in that way she must try to find him. She cloaked herself, took her umbrella, and went out.

At a corner of St. John’s Square she soon found an urchin who would run an errand for her. He was to take this note to a house that she indicated, and to ask if Mr. Kirkwood was working there. She scarcely durst hope to see the messenger returning with empty hands, but he did so. A terrible throbbing at her heart, she went home again.

In the evening, when her father returned, she surprised him by saying that she expected a visitor.

‘Do you want me to go out of the way?’ he asked, eager to submit to her in everything.

‘No. I’ve asked my friend to come to Mrs. Holland’s. I thought there would be no great harm. I shall go down just before nine o’clock.’

‘Oh no, there’s no harm,’ conceded her father. ‘It’s only if the neighbours opposite got talkin’ to them when they come back.’

‘I can’t help it. They won’t mind. I can’t help it.’

John noticed her agitated repetition, the impatience with which she flung aside difficulties.

‘Clara — it ain’t anything about work, my dear?’

‘No, father. I wouldn’t do anything without telling you; I’ve promised.’

‘Then I don’t care; it’s all right.’

She had begun to speak immediately on his entering the room, and so it happened that he had not kissed her as he always did at home-coming. When she had sat down, he came with awkwardness and timidity and bent his face to hers.

‘What a hot cheek it is to-night, my little girl!’ he murmured. ‘I don’t like it; you’ve got a bit of fever hangin’ about you.’

She wished to be alone; the children must not come into the room until she had gone downstairs. When her father had left her, she seated herself before the looking-glass, abhorrent as it was to her to look thus in her own face, and began dressing her hair with quite unusual attention. This beauty at least remained to her; arranged as she had learned to do it for the stage, the dark abundance of her tresses crowned nobly the head which once held itself with such defiant grace. She did not change her dress, which, though it had suffered from wear, was well-fitting and of better material than Farringdon Road Buildings were wont to see; a sober draping which became her tall elegance as she moved. At a quarter to nine she arranged the veil upon her head so that she could throw her hat aside without disturbing it; then, taking the lamp in her hand, and the key of the Hollands’ door, she went forth.

No one met her on the stairs. She was safe in the cold deserted parlour where she had stood this morning. Cold, doubtless, but she could not be conscious of it; in her veins there seemed rather to be fire than blood. Her brain was clear, but in an unnatural way; the throbbing at her temples ought to have been painful, but only excited her with a strange intensity of thought. And she felt, amid it all, a dread of what was before her; only the fever, to which she abandoned herself with a sort of reckless confidence, a faith that it would continue till this interview was over, overcame an impulse to rush back into her hiding-place, to bury herself in shame, or desperately whelm her wretchedness in the final oblivion . . . .

He was very punctual. The heavy bell of St. Paul’s had not reached its ninth stroke when she heard his knock at the door.

He came in without speaking, and stood as if afraid to look at her. The lamp, placed on a side-table, barely disclosed all the objects within the four walls; it illumined Sidney’s face, but Clara moved so that she was in shadow. She began to speak.

‘You understood my note? The people who live here are away, and I have ventured to borrow their room. They are friends of my father’s.’

At the first word, he was surprised by the change in her voice and accentuation. Her speech was that of an educated woman; the melody which always had such a charm for him had gained wonderfully in richness. Yet it was with difficulty that she commanded utterance, and her agitation touched him in a way quite other than he was prepared for. In truth, he knew not what experience he had anticipated, but the reality, now that it came, this unimaginable blending of memory with the unfamiliar, this refinement of something that he had loved, this note of pity struck within him by such subtle means, affected his inmost self. Immediately he laid stern control upon his feelings, but all the words which he had designed to speak were driven from memory. He could say nothing, could only glance at her veiled face and await what she had to ask of him.

‘Will you sit down? I shall feel grateful if you can spare me a few minutes. I have asked you to see me because — indeed, because I am sadly in want of the kind of help a friend might give me. I don’t venture to call you that, but I thought of you; I hoped you wouldn’t refuse to let me speak to you. I am in such difficulties — such a hard position —’

‘You may be very sure I will do anything I can to be of use to you,’ Sidney replied, his thick voice contrasting so strongly with that which had just failed into silence that he coughed and lowered his tone after the first few syllables. He meant to express himself without a hint of emotion, but it was beyond his power. The words in which she spoke of her calamity seemed so pathetically simple that they went to his heart. Clara had recovered all her faculties. The fever and the anguish and the dread were no whit diminished, but they helped instead of checking her. An actress improvising her part, she regulated every tone with perfect skill, with inspiration; the very attitude in which she seated herself was a triumph of the artist’s felicity.

‘I just said a word or two in my note,’ she resumed, ‘that you might have replied if you thought nothing could be gained by my speaking to you. I couldn’t explain fully what I had in mind. I don’t know that I’ve anything very clear to say even now, but — you know what has happened to me; you know that I have nothing to look forward to, that I can only hope to keep from being & burden to my father. I am getting stronger; it’s time I tried to find something to do. But I—’

Her voice failed again. Sidney gazed at her, and saw the dull lamplight just glisten on her hair. She was bending forward a little, her hands joined and resting on her knee.

‘Have you thought what kind of — of work would be best for you?’ Sidney asked. The ‘work’ stuck in his throat, and he seemed to himself brutal in his way of uttering it. But he was glad when he had put the question thus directly; one at least of his resolves was carried out.

‘I know I’ve no right to choose, when there’s necessity,’ she answered, in a very low tone. ‘Most women would naturally think of needlework; but I know so little of it; I scarcely ever did any. If I could — I might perhaps do that at home, and I feel — if I could only avoid — if I could only be spared going among strangers —’

Her faltering voice sank lower and lower; she seemed as if she would have hidden her face even under its veil.

‘I feel sure you will have no difficulty,’ Sidney hastened to reply, his own voice unsteady. ‘Certainly you can get work at home. Why do you trouble yourself with the thought of going among strangers? There’ll never be the least need for that; I’m sure there won’t. Haven’t you spoken about it to your father?’

‘Yes. But he is so kind to me that he won’t hear of work at all. It was partly on that account that I took the step of appealing to you. He doesn’t know who I am meeting here to-night. Would you — I don’t know whether I ought to ask — but perhaps if you spoke to him in a day or two, and made him understand how strong my wish is. He dreads lest we should be parted, but I hope I shall never have to leave him. And then, of course, father is not very well able to advise me — about work, I mean. You have more experience. I am so helpless. Oh, if you knew how helpless I feel!’

‘If you really wish it, I will talk with your father —’

‘Indeed, I do wish it. My coming to live here has made everything so uncomfortable for him and the children. Even his friends can’t visit him as they would; I feel that, though he won’t admit that it’s made any difference.’

Sidney looked to the ground. He heard her voice falter as it continued.

‘If I’m to live here still, it mustn’t be at the cost of all his comfort. I keep almost always in the one room. I shouldn’t be in the way if anyone came. I’ve been afraid, Mr. Kirkwood, that perhaps you feared to come lest, whilst I was not very well, it might have been an inconvenience to us. Please don’t think that. I shall never — see either friends or strangers unless it is absolutely needful.’

There was silence.

‘You do feel much better, I hope?’ fell from Sidney’s lips.

‘Much stronger. It’s only my mind; everything is so dark to me. You know how little patience I always had. It was enough if any one said, ‘You must do this,’ or ‘You must put up with that’— at once I resisted. It was my nature; I couldn’t bear the feeling of control. That’s what I’ve had to struggle with since I recovered from my delirium at the hospital, and hadn’t even the hope of dying. Can you put yourself in my place, and imagine what I have suffered?’

Sidney was silent. His own life had not been without its passionate miseries, but the modulations of this voice which had no light of countenance to aid it raised him above the plane of common experience and made actual to him the feelings he knew only in romantic story. He could not stir, lest the slightest sound should jar on her speaking. His breath rose visibly upon the chill air, but the discomfort of the room was as indifferent to him as to his companion. Clara rose, as it impelled by mental anguish; she stretched out her band to the mantel-piece, and so stood, between him and the light, her admirable figure designed on a glimmering background.

‘I know why you say nothing,’ she continued, abruptly but without resentment. ‘You cannot use words of sympathy which would be anything but formal, and you prefer to let me understand that. It is like you. Oh, you mustn’t think I mean the phrase as a reproach. Anything but that. I mean that you were always honest, and time hasn’t changed you — in that.’ A slight, very slight, tremor on the close. ‘I’d rather you behaved to me like your old self. A sham sympathy would drive me mad.’

‘I said nothing,’ he replied, ‘only because words seemed meaningless.’

‘Not only that. You feel for me, I know, because you are not heartless; but at the same time you obey your reason, which tells you that all I suffer comes of my own self-will.’

‘I should like you to think better of me than that. I’m not one of those people, I hope, who use every accident to point a moral, and begin by inventing the moral to suit their own convictions. I know all the details of your misfortune.’

‘Oh, wasn’t it cruel that she should take such revenge upon me!’ Her voice rose in unrestrained emotion. ‘Just because she envied me that poor bit of advantage over her! How could I be expected to refuse the chance that was offered? It would have been no use; she couldn’t have kept the part. And I was so near success. I had never had a chance of showing what I could do. It wasn’t much of a part, really, but it was the lead, at all events, and it would have made people pay attention to me. You don’t know how strongly I was always drawn to the stage; there I found the work for which I was meant. And I strove so hard to make my way. I had no friends, no money. I earned only just enough to supply my needs. I know what people think about actresses. Mr. Kirkwood, do you imagine I have been living at my ease, congratulating myself that I had escaped from all hardships?’

He could not raise his eyes. As she still awaited his answer, he said in rather a hard voice:

‘As I have told you, I read all the details that were published.

‘Then you know that I was working hard and honestly — working far, far harder than when I lived in Clerkenwell Close. But I don’t know why I am talking to you about it. It’s all over. I went my own way, and I all but won what I fought for. You may very well say, what’s the use of mourning over one’s fate?’

Sidney had risen.

‘You were strong in your resolve to succeed,’ he said gravely, ‘and you will find strength to meet even this trial.’

‘A weaker woman would suffer far less. One with a little more strength of character would kill herself.’

‘No. In that you mistake. You have not yourself only to think of. It would be an easy thing to put an end to your life. You have a duty to your father.’

She bent her head.

‘I think of him. He is goodness itself to me. There are fathers who would have shut the door in my face. I know better now than I could when I was only a child how hard his life has been; he and I are like each other so many ways; he has always been fighting against cruel circumstances. It’s right that you, who have been his true and helpful friend, should remind me of my duty to him.’

A pause; then Sidney asked:

‘Do you wish me to speak to him very soon about your finding occupation?’

‘If you will. If you could think of anything.’

He moved, but still delayed his offer to take leave.

‘You said just now,’ Clara continued, falteringly, ‘that you did not try to express sympathy, because words seemed of no use. How am I to find words of thanks to you for coming here and listening to what I had to say?’

‘But surely so simple an act of friendship —’

‘Have I so many friends? And what right have I to look to you for an act of kindness? Did I merit it by my words when I last —’

There came a marvellous change — a change such as it needed either exquisite feeling or the genius of simulation to express by means so simple. Unable to show him by a smile, by a light in her eyes, what mood had come upon her, what subtle shifting in the direction of her thought had checked her words — by her mere movement as she stepped lightly towards him, by the carriage of her head, by her hands half held out and half drawn back again, she prepared him for what she was about to say. No piece of acting was ever more delicately finished. He knew that she smiled, though nothing of her face was visible; he knew that her look was one of diffident, half-blushing pleasure. And then came the sweetness of her accents, timorous, joyful, scarcely to be recognised as the voice which an instant ago had trembled sadly in self-reproach.

‘But that seems to you so long ago, doesn’t it? You can forgive me now. Father has told me what happiness you have found, and I— I am so glad!’

Sidney drew back a step, involuntarily; the movement came of the shock with which he heard her make such confident reference to the supposed relations between himself and Jane Snowdon. He reddened — stood mute. For a few seconds his mind was in the most painful whirl and conflict; a hundred impressions, arguments, apprehensions, crowded upon him, each with its puncturing torment. And Clara stood there waiting for his reply, in the attitude of consummate grace.

‘Of course I know what you speak of,’ he said at length, with the bluntness of confusion. ‘But your father was mistaken. I don’t know who can have led him to believe that — It’s a mistake, altogether.’

Sidney would not have believed that anyone could so completely rob him of self-possession, least of all Clara Hewett. His face grew still more heated. He was angry with he knew not whom, he knew not why — perhaps with himself in the first instance.

‘A mistake?’ Clara murmured, under her breath. ‘Oh, you mean people have been too hasty in speaking about it. Do pardon me. I ought never to have taken such a liberty — but I felt —’

She hesitated.

‘It was no liberty at all. I dare say the mistake is natural enough to those who know nothing of Miss Snowdon’s circumstances. I myself, however, have no right to talk about her. But what you have been told is absolute error.’

Clara walked a few paces aside.

‘Again I ask you to forgive me.’ Her tones had not the same clearness as hitherto. ‘In any case, I had no right to approach such a subject in speaking with you.’

‘Let us put it aside,’ said Sidney, mastering himself. ‘We were just agreeing that I should see your father, and make known your wish to him.’

‘Thank you. I shall tell him, when I go upstairs, that you were the friend whom I had asked to come here. I felt it to be so uncertain whether you would come.’

‘I hope you couldn’t seriously doubt it.’

‘You teach me to tell the truth. No. I knew too well your kindness. I knew that even to me —’

Sidney could converse no longer. He felt the need of being alone, to put his thoughts in order, to resume his experiences during this strange hour. An extreme weariness was possessing him, as though he had been straining his intellect in attention to some difficult subject. And all at once the dank, cold atmosphere of the room struck into his blood; he had a fit of trembling.

‘Let us say good-bye for the present.’

Clara gave her hand silently. He touched it for the first time, and could not but notice its delicacy; it was very warm, too, and moist. Without speaking she went with him to the outer door. His footsteps sounded along the stone staircase; Clara listened until the last echo was silent.

She too had begun to feel the chilly air. Hastily putting on her hat, she took up the lamp, glanced round the room to see that nothing was left in disorder, and hastened up to the fifth storey.

In the middle room, through which she had to pass, her father and Mr. Eagles were talking together. The latter gave her a ‘good-evening,’ respectful, almost as to a social superior. Within, Amy and Annie were just going to bed. She sat with them in her usual silence for a quarter of an hour, then, having ascertained that Eagles was gone into his own chamber, went out to speak to her father.

‘My friend came,’ she said. ‘Do you suspect who it was?’

‘Why, no, I can’t guess, Clara.’

‘Haven’t you thought of Mr. Kirkwood?’

‘You don’t mean that?’

‘Father, you are quite mistaken about Jane Snowdon — quite.’

John started up from his seat.

‘Has he told you so, himself?’

‘Yes. But listen; you are not to say a word on that subject to him. You will be very careful, father?’

John gazed at her wonderingly. She kissed his forehead, and withdrew to the other room.

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