The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 35

The Treasury Unlocked

A Sunday morning. In their parlour in Burton Crescent, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Snowdon were breakfasting. The sound of church bells — most depressing of all sounds that mingle in the voice of London — intimated that it was nearly eleven o’clock, but neither of our friends had in view the attendance of public worship. Blended odours of bacon and kippered herrings filled the room — indeed, the house, for several breakfasts were in progress under the same roof. For a wonder, the morning was fine, even sunny; a yellow patch glimmered on the worn carpet, and the grime of the window-panes was visible against an unfamiliar sky. Joseph, incompletely dressed, had a Sunday paper propped before him, and read whilst he ate. Clem, also in anything but grande toilette was using a knife for the purpose of conveying to her mouth the juice which had exuded from crisp rashers. As usual, they had very little to say to each other. Clem looked at her husband now and then, from under her eyebrows, surreptitiously.

After one of these glances she said, in a tone which was not exactly hostile, but had a note of suspicion:

‘I’d give something to know why he’s going to marry Clara Hewett.’

‘Not the first time you’ve made that remark,’ returned Joseph, without looking up from his paper.

‘I suppose I can speak?’

‘Oh, yes. But I’d try to do so in a more lady-like way.’

Clem flashed at him a gleam of hatred. He had become fond lately of drawing attention to her defects of breeding. Clem certainly did not keep up with his own progress in the matter of external refinement; his comments had given her a sense of inferiority, which irritated her solely as meaning that she was not his equal in craft. She let a minute or two pass, then returned to the subject.

‘There’s something at the bottom of it; I know that. Of course you know more about it than you pretend.’

Joseph leaned back in his chair and regarded her with a smile of the loftiest scorn.

‘It never occurs to you to explain it in the simplest way, of course, If ever you hear of a marriage, the first thing you ask yourself is: What has he or she to gain by it? Natural enough — in you. Now do you really suppose that all marriages come about in the way that yours did — on your side, I mean?’

Clem was far too dull-witted to be capable of quick retort. She merely replied:

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Of course not. But let me assure you that people sometimes think of other things besides making profit when they get married. It’s a pity that you always show yourself so coarse-minded.’

Joseph was quite serious in administering this rebuke. He really felt himself justified in holding the tone of moral superiority. The same phenomenon has often been remarked in persons conscious that their affairs are prospering, and whose temptations to paltry meanness are on that account less frequent.

‘And what about yourself?’ asked his wife, having found her retort at length. ‘Why did you want to marry me, I’d like to know?’

‘Why? You are getting too modest. How could I live in the same house with such a good-looking and sweet-tempered and well-behaved —’

‘Oh, shut up!’ she exclaimed, in a voice such as one hears at the street-corner. ‘It was just because you thought we was goin’ to be fools enough to keep you in idleness. Who was the fool, after all?’

Joseph smiled, and returned to his newspaper. In satisfaction at having reduced him to silence, Clem laughed aloud and clattered with the knife on her plate. As she was doing so there came a knock at the door.

‘A gentleman wants to know if you’re in, sir,’ said the house-thrall, showing a smeary face. ‘Mr. Byass is the name.’

‘Mr. Byass? I’ll go down and see him.’

Clem’s face became alive with suspicion. In spite of her careless attire she intercepted Joseph, and bade the servant ask Mr. Byass to come upstairs. ‘How can you go down without a collar?’ she said to her husband.

He understood, and was somewhat uneasy, but made no resistance. Mr. Byass presented himself. He had a very long face, and obviously brought news of grave import. Joseph shook hands with him.

‘You don’t know my wife, I think. Mr. Byass, Clem. Nothing wrong, I hope?’

Samuel, having made his best City bow, swung back from his toes to his heels, and stood looking down into his hat. ‘I’m sorry to say,’ he began, with extreme gravity, ‘that Mr. Snowdon is rather ill — in fact, very ill. Miss Jane asked me to come as sharp as I could.’

‘Ill? In what way?’

‘I’m afraid it’s a stroke, or something in that line. He fell down without a word of warning, just before ten o’clock. He’s lying insensible.’

‘I’ll come at once,’ said Joseph. ‘They’ve got a doctor, I hope?’

‘Yes; the doctor had been summoned instantly.’

‘I’ll go with you,’ said Clem, in a tone of decision.

‘No, no; what’s the good? You’ll only be in the way.’

‘No, I shan’t. If he’s as bad as all that, I shall come.’

Both withdrew to prepare themselves. Mr. Byass, who was very nervous and perspiring freely, began to walk round and round the table, inspecting closely, in complete absence of mind, the objects that lay on it.

‘We’ll have a cab,’ cried Joseph, as he came forth equipped. ‘Poor Jane’s in a sad state, I’m afraid, oh?’

In a few minutes they were driving up Pentonville Road. Clem scarcely ever removed her eye from Joseph’s face; the latter held his lips close together and kept his brows wrinkled. Few words passed during the drive.

At the door of the house appeared Bessie, much agitated. All turned into the parlour on the ground floor and spoke together for a few minutes. Michael had been laid on his bed; at present Jane only was with him, but the doctor would return shortly.

‘Will you tell her I’m here?’ said Joseph to Mrs. Byass. ‘I’ll see her in the sitting-room.’

He went up and waited. Throughout the house prevailed that unnatural, nerve-distressing quietude which tells the presence of calamity. The church bells had ceased ringing, and Sunday’s silence in the street enhanced the effect of blankness and alarming expectancy. Joseph could not keep still; he strained his ears in attention to any slight sound that might come from the floor above, and his heart beat painfully when at length the door opened.

Jane fixed her eyes on him and came silently forward.

‘Does he show any signs of coming round?’ her father inquired.

‘No. He hasn’t once moved.’

She spoke only just above a whisper. The shock kept her still trembling and her face bloodless.

‘Tell me how it happened, Jane.’

‘He’d just got up. I’d taken him his breakfast, and we were talking. All at once he began to turn round, and then he fell down — before I could reach him.’

‘I’ll go upstairs, shall I?’

Jane could not overcome her fear; at the door of the bedroom she drew back, involuntarily, that her father might enter before her. When she forced herself to follow, the first glimpse of the motionless form shook her from head to foot. The thought of death was dreadful to her, and death seemed to lurk invisibly in this quiet room. The pale sunlight affected her as a mockery of hope.

‘You won’t go away again, father?’ she whispered.

He shook his head.

In the meantime Bessie and Clem were conversing. On the single previous occasion of Clem’s visit to the house they had not met. They examined each other’s looks with curiosity. Clem wished it were possible to get at the secrets of which Mrs. Byass was doubtless in possession; Bessie on her side was reserved, circumspect.

‘Will he get over it?’ the former inquired, with native brutality.

‘I’m sure I don’t know; I hope he may.’

The medical man arrived, and when he came downstairs again Joseph accompanied him. Clem, when she found that nothing definite could be learned, and that her husband had no intention of leaving, expressed her wish to walk round to Clerkenwell Close and see her mother. Joseph approved.

‘You’d better have dinner there,’ he said to her privately. ‘We can’t both of us come down on the Byasses.’

She nodded, and with a parting glance of hostile suspicion set forth. When she had crossed City Road, Clem’s foot was on her native soil; she bore herself with conscious importance, hoping to meet some acquaintance who would be impressed by her attire and demeanour. Nothing of the kind happened, however. It was the dead hour of Sunday morning, midway in service-time, and long before the opening of public-houses. In the neighbourhood of those places of refreshment were occasionally found small groups of men and boys, standing with their hands in their pockets, dispirited, seldom caring even to smoke; they kicked their heels against the kerbstone and sighed for one o’clock. Clem went by them with a haughty balance of her head.

As she entered by the open front door and began to descend the kitchen steps, familiar sounds were audible. Mrs. Peckover’s voice was raised in dispute with some one; it proved to be a quarrel with a female lodger respecting the sum of threepence-farthing, alleged by the landlady to be owing on some account or other. The two women had already reached the point of calling each other liar and thief. Clem, having no acquaintance with the lodger, walked into the kitchen with an air of contemptuous indifference. The quarrel continued for another ten minutes — if the head of either had been suddenly cut off it would assuredly have gone on railing for an appreciable time — and Clem waited, sitting before the fire. At last the lodger had departed, and the last note of her virulence died away.

‘And what do you want?’ asked Mrs. Peckover, turning sharply upon her daughter.

‘I suppose I can come to see you, can’t I?’

‘Come to see me! Likely! When did you come last? You’re a ungrateful beast, that’s what you are!’

‘All right. Go a’ead! Anything else you’d like to call me?’

Mrs. Peckover was hurt by the completeness with which Clem had established her independence. To do the woman justice, she had been actuated, in her design of capturing Joseph Snowdon, at least as much by a wish to establish her daughter satisfactorily as by the ever-wakeful instinct which bade her seize whenever gain lay near her clutches. Clem was proving disloyal, had grown secretive. Mrs. Peckover did not look for any direct profit worth speaking of from the marriage she had brought about, but she did desire the joy of continuing to plot against Joseph with his wife. Moreover, she knew that Clem was a bungler, altogether lacking in astuteness, and her soul was pained by the thought of chances being missed. Her encounter with the lodger had wrought her up to the point at which she could discuss matters with Clem frankly. The two abused each other for a while, but Clem really desired to communicate her news, so that calmer dialogue presently ensued.

‘Old Snowdon’s had a stroke, if you’d like to know, and it’s my belief he won’t get over it.’

‘Your belief! And what’s your belief worth? Had a stroke, has he? Who told you?’

‘I’ve just come from the ’ouse. Jo’s stoppin’ there.’

They discussed the situation in all its aspects, but Mrs. Peckover gave it clearly to be understood that, from her point of view, ‘the game was spoilt.’ As long as Joseph continued living under her roof she could in a measure direct the course of events; Clem had chosen to abet him in his desire for removal, and if ill came of it she had only herself to blame.

‘I can look out for myself,’ said Clem.

‘Can you? I’m glad to hear it.’

And Mrs. Peckover sniffed the air, scornfully. The affectionate pair dined together, each imbibing a pint and a half of ‘mild and bitter,’ and Clem returned to Hanover Street. From Joseph she could derive no information as to the state of the patient.

‘If you will stay here, where you can do no good,’ he said, ‘sit down and keep quiet.’

‘Certainly I shall stay,’ said his wife, ‘because I know you want to get rid of me.’

Joseph left her in the sitting-room, and went upstairs again to keep his daughter company. Jane would not leave the bedside. To enter the room, after an interval elsewhere, wrung her feelings too painfully; better to keep her eyes fixed on the unmoving form, to overcome the dread by facing it.

She and her father seldom exchanged a word. The latter was experiencing human emotion, but at the same time he had no little anxiety regarding his material interests. It was ten days since he had learnt that there was no longer the least fear of a marriage between Jane and Sidney, seeing that Kirkwood was going to marry some one else — a piece of news which greatly astonished him, and confirmed him in his judgment that he had been on the wrong tack in judging Kirkwood’s character. At the same time he had been privily informed by Scawthorne of an event which had ever since kept him very uneasy — Michael’s withdrawal of his will from the hands of the solicitors. With what purpose this had been done Scawthorne could not conjecture; Mr. Percival had made no comment in his hearing. In all likelihood the will was now in this very room. Joseph surveyed every object again and again. He wondered whether Jane knew anything of the matter, but not all his cynicism could persuade him that at the present time her thoughts were taking the same direction as his own.

The day waned. Its sombre close was unspeakably mournful in this haunted chamber. Jane could not bear it; she hid her face and wept.

When the doctor came again, at six o’clock, he whispered to Joseph that the end was nearer than he had anticipated. Near, indeed; less than ten minutes after the warning had been given Michael ceased to breathe.

Jane knelt by the bed, convulsed with grief, unable to hear the words her father addressed to her. He sat for five minutes, then again spoke. She rose and replied.

‘Will you come with us, Jane, or would rather stay with Mrs. Byass?’

‘I will stay, please, father.’

He hesitated, but the thought that rose was even for him too ignoble to be entertained.

‘As you please, my dear. Of course no one must enter your rooms but Mrs. Byass. I must go now, but I shall look in again to-night.’

‘Yes, father.’

She spoke mechanically. He had to lead her from the room, and, on quitting the house, left her all but unconscious in Bessie’s arms.

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