The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 33

A Fall from the Ideal

Joseph Snowdon waxed daily in respectability. He was, for one thing, clothing himself in flesh, and, though still anything but a portly man, bore himself as becomes one who can indulge a taste for eating and drinking; his step was more deliberate, he no longer presented the suppleness of limb that so often accompanies a needy condition in the man of wits, he grew attentive to his personal equipment, he was always well combed and well shaven, and generally, in hours of leisure, you perceived a fragrance breathing from his handkerchief. Nor was this refinement addressed only to the public. To Clem he behaved with a correctness which kept that lady in a state of acute suspicion; not seldom he brought her a trifling gift, which he would offer with compliments, and he made a point of consulting her pleasure or convenience in all matters that affected them in common. A similar dignity of bearing marked his relations with Hanover Street, When he entered Jane’s parlour it was with a beautiful blending of familiarity and courtesy; he took his daughter’s hand with an air of graceful affection, retaining it for a moment between his own, and regarding her with a gentle smile which hinted the pride of a parent. In speaking with the old man he habitually subdued his voice, respectfully bending forward, solicitously watching the opportunity of a service. Michael had pleasure in his company and conversation. Without overdoing it, Joseph accustomed himself to speak of philanthropic interests. He propounded a scheme for supplying the poor with a certain excellent filter at a price all but nominal; who did not know the benefit to humble homes of pure water for use as a beverage? The filter was not made yet, but Lake, Snowdon, & Co., had it under their consideration.

Michael kept his room a good deal in these wretched days of winter, so that Joseph had no difficulty in obtaining private interviews with his daughter. Every such occasion he used assiduously, his great end being to possess himself of Jane’s confidence. He did not succeed quite so well with the girl as with her grandfather; there was always a reserve in her behaviour which as yet he found it impossible to overcome. Observation led him to conclude that much of this arose from the view she took of his relations with Sidney Kirkwood. Jane was in love with Sidney; on that point he could have no doubt; and in all likelihood she regarded him as unfriendly to Sidney’s suit — women are so shrewd in these affairs. Accordingly, Joseph made it his business by artful degrees to remove this prepossession from her mind. In the course of this endeavour he naturally pressed into his service the gradually discovered fact that Sidney had scruples of conscience regarding Jane’s fortune. Marvellous as it appeared to him, he had all but come to the conclusion that this was a fact. Now, given Jane’s character, which he believed he had sounded; given her love for Kirkwood, which was obviously causing her anxiety and unhappiness; Joseph saw his way to an admirable piece of strategy. What could be easier, if he played his cards well and patiently enough, than to lead Jane to regard the fortune as her most threatening enemy? Valuable results might come of that, whether before or after the death of the old man.

The conversation in which he first ventured to strike this note undisguisedly took place on the same evening as that unpleasant scene when Sidney as good as quarrelled with him — the evening before the day on which Sidney asked Clara Hewett to be his wife. Having found Jane alone, he began to talk in his most paternal manner, his chair very near hers, his eyes fixed on her sewing. And presently, when the ground was prepared:

‘Jane, there’s something I’ve been wanting to say to you for a long time. My dear, I’m uneasy about you.’

‘Uneasy, father?’ and she glanced at him nervously.

‘Yes, I’m uneasy. But whether I ought to tell you why, I’m sure I don’t know. You’re my own child, Janey, and you become dearer to me every day; but — it’s hard to say it — there naturally isn’t all the confidence between us that there might have been if — well, well, I won’t speak of that.’

‘But won’t you tell me what makes you anxious?’

He laid the tips of his fingers on her head. ‘Janey, shall you be offended if I speak about Mr. Kirkwood?’

‘No, father.’

She tried in vain to continue sewing.

‘My dear — I believe there’s no actual engagement between you?’

‘Oh no, father,’ she replied, faintly.

‘And yet — don’t be angry with me, my child — I think you are something more than friends?’

She made no answer.

‘And I can’t help thinking, Janey — I think about you very often indeed — that Mr. Kirkwood has rather exaggerated views about the necessity of — of altering things between you.’

Quite recently Joseph had become aware of the understanding between Michael and Kirkwood. The old man still hesitated to break the news to Jane, saying to himself that it was better for Sidney to prepare her by the change in his behaviour.

‘Of altering things?’ Jane repeated, under her breath.

‘It seems to me wrong — wrong to both of you,’ Joseph pursued, in a pathetic voice. ‘I can’t help noticing my child’s looks. I know she isn’t what she used to be, poor little girl! And I know Kirkwood isn’t what he used to be. It’s very hard, and I feel for you — for both of you.’

Jane sat motionless, not daring to lift her eyes, scarcely daring to breathe.

‘Janey.’

‘Yes, father.’

‘I wonder whether I’m doing wrong to your grandfather in speaking to you confidentially like this? I can’t believe he notices things as I do; he’d never wish you to be unhappy.’

‘But I don’t quite understand, father. What do you mean about Mr. Kirkwood? Why should he —’

The impulse failed her. A fear which she had harboured for many weary days was being confirmed and she could not ask directly for the word that would kill hope.

‘Have I a right to tell you? I thought perhaps you understood.’

‘As you have gone So far, I think you must explain. I don’t see how you can be doing wrong.’

‘Poor Kirkwood! You see, he’s in such a delicate position, my dear. I think myself that he’s acting rather strangely, after everything; but it’s — it’s your money, Jane. He doesn’t think he ought to ask you to marry him, under the circumstances.’

She trembled.

‘Now who should stand by you, in a case like this, if not your own father? Of course he can’t say a word to you himself; and of course you can’t say a word to him; and altogether it’s a pitiful business.’

Jane shrank from discussing such a topic with her father. Her next words were uttered with difficulty.

‘But the money isn’t my own — it’ll never be my own. He — Mr. Kirkwood knows that.’

‘He does, to be sure. But it makes no difference. He has told your grandfather, my love, that — that the responsibility would be too great. He has told him distinctly that everything’s at an end — everything that might have happened.’

She just looked at him, then dropped her eyes on her sewing.

‘Now, as your father, Janey, I know it’s right that you should be told of this. I feel you’re being very cruelly treated, my child. And I wish to goodness I could only see any way out of it for you both. Of course I’m powerless either for acting or speaking: you can understand that. But I want you to think of me as your truest friend, my love.’

More still he said, but Jane had no ears for it. When he left her, she bade him good-bye mechanically, and stood on the same spot by the door, without thought, stunned by what she had learnt.

That Sidney would be impelled to such a decision as this she had never imagined. His reserve whilst yet she was in ignorance of her true position she could understand: also his delaying for a while even after everything had been explained to her. But that he should draw away from her altogether seemed inexplicable, for it implied a change in him which nothing had prepared her to think possible. Unaltered in his love, he refused to share the task of her life, to aid in the work which he regarded with such fervent sympathy. Her mind was not subtle enough to conceive those objections to Michael’s idea which had weighed with Sidney almost from the first, for though she had herself shrunk from the great undertaking, it was merely in weakness — a reason she never dreamt of attributing to him. Nor had she caught as much as a glimpse of those base, scheming interests, contact with which had aroused Sidney’s vehement disgust. Was her father to be trusted? This was the first question that shaped itself in her mind. He did not like Sidney; that she had felt all along, as well as the reciprocal coldness on Sidney’s part. But did his unfriendliness go so far as to prompt him to intervene with untruths? ‘Of course you can’t say a word to him’— that remark would bear an evil interpretation, which her tormented mind did not fail to suggest. Moreover, he had seemed so anxious that she should not broach the subject with her grandfather. But what constrained her to silence? If, indeed, he had nothing but her happiness at heart, he could not take it ill that she should seek to understand the whole truth, and Michael must tell her whether Sidney had indeed thus spoken to him.

Before she had obtained any show of control over her agitation Michael came into the room. Evening was the old man’s best time, and when he had kept his own chamber through the day he liked to come and sit with Jane as she had her supper.

‘Didn’t I hear your father’s voice?’ he asked, as he moved slowly to his accustomed chair.

‘Yes. He couldn’t stay.’

Jane stood in an attitude of indecision. Having seated himself, Michael glanced at her. His regard had not its old directness; it seemed apprehensive, as if seeking to probe her thought.

‘Has Miss Lent sent you the book she promised?’

‘Yes, grandfather.’

This was a recently published volume dealing with charitable enterprise in some part of London. Michael noticed with surprise the uninterested tone of Jane’s reply. Again he looked at her, and more searchingly.

‘Would you like to read me a little of it?’

She reached the book from a side-table, drew near, and stood turning the pages. The confusion of her mind was such that she could not have read a word with understanding. Then she spoke, involuntarily.

‘Grandfather, has Mr. Kirkwood said anything more — about me?’

The words made painful discord in her cars, but instead of showing heightened colour she grew pallid. Holding the book partly open, she felt all her nerves and muscles strained as if in some physical effort; her feet were rooted to the spot.

‘Have you heard anything from him?’ returned the old man, resting his hands on the sides of the easy-chair.

‘Father has been speaking about him. He says Mr. Kirkwood has told you something.’

‘Yes. Come and sit down by me, Jane.’

She could not move nearer. Though unable to form a distinct conception, she felt a foreboding of what must come to pass. The dread failure of strength was more than threatening her; her heart was sinking, and by no effort of will could she summon the thoughts that should aid her against herself.

‘What has your father told you?’ Michael asked, when he perceived her distress. He spoke with a revival of energy, clearly, commandingly.

‘He says that Mr. Kirkwood wishes you to forget what he told you, and what you repeated to me.’

‘Did he give you any reason?’

‘Yes. I don’t understand, though.’

‘Come here by me, Jane. Let’s talk about it quietly. Sidney doesn’t feel able to help you as he thought he could. We mustn’t blame him for that; he must judge for himself. He thinks it’ll be better if you continue to be only friends.’

Jane averted her face, his steady look being more than she could bear. For an instant a sense of uttermost shame thrilled through her, and without knowing what she did, she moved a little and laid the book down.

‘Come here, my child,’ he repeated, in a gentler voice.

She approached him.

‘You feel it hard. But when you’ve thought about it a little you won’t grieve; I’m sure you won’t. Remember, your life is not to be like that of ordinary women. You’ve higher objects before you, and you’ll find a higher reward. You know that, don’t you? There’s no need for me to remind you of what we’ve talked about so often, is there? If it’s a sacrifice, you’re strong enough to face it; yes, yes, strong enough to face more than this, my Jane is! Only fix your thoughts on the work you’re going to do. It’ll take up all your life, Jane, won’t it? You’ll have no time to give to such things as occupy other women — no mind for them.’

His grey eyes searched her countenance with that horrible intensity of fanaticism which is so like the look of cruelty, of greed, of any passion originating in the baser self. Unlike too, of course, but it is the pitilessness common to both extremes that shows most strongly in an old, wrinkled visage. He had laid his hand upon her. Every word was a stab ill the girl’s heart, and so dreadful became her torture, so intolerable the sense of being drawn by a fierce will away from all she desired, that at length a cry escaped her lips. She fell on her knees by him, and pleaded in a choking voice.

‘I can’t! Grandfather, don’t ask it of me! Give it all to some one else — to some one else! I’m not strong enough to make such a sacrifice. Let me be as I was before!’

Michael’s face darkened. He drew his hand away and rose from the seat; with more than surprise, with anger and even bitterness, he looked down at the crouching girl. She did not sob; her face buried in her arms, she lay against the chair, quivering, silent.

‘Jane, stand up and speak to me!’

She did not move.

‘Jane!’

He laid his hand on her. Jane raised her head, and endeavoured to obey him; in the act she moaned and fell insensible.

Michael strode to the door and called twice or thrice for Mrs. Byass; then he stooped by the lifeless girl and supported her head. Bessie was immediately at hand, with a cry of consternation, but also with helpful activity.

‘Why, I thought she’d got over this; it’s a long time since she was took last isn’t it? Sam’s downstairs, Mr. Snowdon; do just shout out to him to go for some brandy. Tell him to bring my smelling-bottle first, if he knows where it is — I’m blest if I do! Poor thing! She ain’t been at all well lately, and that’s the truth.’

The truth, beyond a doubt. Pale face, showing now the thinness which it had not wholly outgrown, the inheritance from miserable childhood; no face of a stern heroine, counting as idle all the natural longings of the heart, consecrated to a lifelong combat with giant wrongs. Nothing better nor worse than the face of one who can love and must be loved in turn.

She came to herself, and at the same moment Michael went from the room.

‘There now; there now,’ crooned Bessie, with much patting of the hands and stroking of the checks. ‘Why, what’s come to you, Jane? Cry away; don’t try to prevent yourself; it’ll do you good to cry a bit. Of course, here comes Sam with all sorts of things, when there’s no need of him, He’s always either too soon or too late, is Sam. Just look at him, Jane; now if he don’t make you laugh, nothing will!’

Mr. Byass retired, shamefaced. Leaning against Bessie’s shoulder, Jane sobbed for a long time, sobbed in the misery of shame. She saw that her grandfather had gone away. How should she ever face him after this? It was precious comfort to feel Bessie’s sturdy arms about her, and to hear the foolish affectionate words, which asked nothing but that she should take them kindly and have done with her trouble.

‘Did grandfather tell you how it was?’ she asked, with a sudden fear lest Bessie should have learnt her pitiful weakness.

‘Why, no; how did it come?’

‘I don’t know. We were talking. I can stand up now, Mrs. Byass, thank you. I’ll go up to my room. I’ve forgotten the time; is it late?’

It was only nine o’clock. Bessie would have gone upstairs with her, but Jane insisted that she was quite herself. On the stairs she trod as lightly as possible, and she closed her door without a sound. Alone, she again gave way to tears. Michael’s face was angry in her memory; he had never looked at her in that way before, and now he would never look with the old kindness. What a change had been wrought in these few minutes!

And Sidney never anything but her friend — cold, meaningless word! If he knew how she had fallen, would that be likely to bring him nearer to her? She had lost both things, that was all.

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