The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 36

The Heir

‘And you mean to say,’ cried Clem, when she was in the cab with her husband speeding back to Burton Crescent —‘you mean to say as you’ve left them people to do what they like?’

‘I suppose I know my own business,’ re plied Joseph, wishing to convey the very impression which in fact he did — that he had the will in his pocket.

On reaching home he sat down at once and penned a letter to Messrs. Percival & Peel, formally apprising them of what had happened. Clem sat by and watched him. Having sealed the envelope, he remarked:

‘I’m going out for a couple of hours.’

‘Then I shall go with you.’

‘You’ll do nothing of the kind. Why, what do you mean, you great gaping fool?’ The agitation of his nerves made him break into unaccustomed violence. ‘Do you suppose you’re going to follow me everywhere for the next week? Are you afraid I shall run away? If I mean to do so, do you think you can stop me? You’ll just wait here till I come back, which will be before ten o’clock. Do you hear?’

She looked at him fiercely, but his energy was too much for her, and perforce she let him go. As soon as he had left the house, she too sat down and indited a letter. It ran thus:

‘DEAR MOTHER— The old feller has gawn of it apened at jest after six e’clock if you want to now I shall come and sea you at ten ‘clock to-morow moning and I beleve hes got the will but hes a beest and theers a game up you may take your hothe so I remain C. S.’

This document she took to the nearest pillar-post, then returned and sat brooding.

By the first hansom available Joseph was driven right across London to a certain dull street in Chelsea. Before dismissing the vehicle he knocked at the door of a lodging-house and made inquiry for Mr. Scawthorne. To his surprise and satisfaction, Mr. Scawthorne happened to be at home; so the cabman was paid, and Joseph went up to the second floor.

In his shabby little room Scawthorne sat smoking and reading. It was a season of impecuniosity with him, and his mood was anything but cheerful. He did not rise when his visitor entered.

‘Well now, what do you think brings me here?’ exclaimed Joseph, when he had carefully closed the door.

‘Hanged if I know, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly bad news.’

Indeed, Joseph had overcome his sensibilities by this time, and his aspect was one of joyous excitement. Seeing on the table a bottle of sherry, loosely corked, he pointed to it.

‘If you don’t mind, Scaw. I’m a bit upset, a bit flurried. Got another wine-glass?’

From the cupboard Scawthorne produced one and bade the visitor help himself. His face beg auto express curiosity. Joseph tilted the draught down his throat and showed satisfaction.

‘That does me good. I’ve had a troublesome day. It ain’t often my feelings are tried.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘My boy, we are all mortal. I dare say you’ve heard that observation before; can you apply it to any particular case?’

Scawthorne was startled; he delayed a moment before speaking.

‘You don’t mean to say —’

‘Exactly. Died a couple of hours ago, after lying insensible all day, poor old man! I’ve just written your people a formal announcement. Now, what do you think of that? If you don’t mind, old fellow.’

He filled himself another glass, and tilted it off as before. Scawthorne had dropped his eyes to the ground, and stood in meditation.

‘Now what about the will?’ pursued Joseph.

‘You haven’t looked for it?’ questioned his friend with an odd look.

‘Thought it more decent to wait a few hours. The girl was about, you see, and what’s more, my wife was. But have you heard anything since I saw you?’

‘Why, yes. A trifle.’

‘Out with it! What are you grinning about? Don’t keep me on hot coals.’

‘Well, it’s amusing, and that’s the fact. Take another glass of sherry; you’ll need support.’

‘Oh, I’m prepared for the worst. He’s cut me out altogether, eh? That comes of me meddling with the girl’s affairs — damnation! When there wasn’t the least need, either.’

‘A bad job. The fact is, Percival had a letter from him at midday yesterday. The senior had left the office; young Percival opened the letter, and spoke to me about it. Now, prepare yourself. The letter said that he had destroyed his former will, and would come to the office on Monday — that’s to-marrow— to give instructions for a new one.’

Joseph stood and stared.

‘To-morrow? Why, then, there’s no will at all?’

‘An admirable deduction. I congratulate you on your logic.’

Snowdon flung up his arms wildly, then began to leap about the room.

‘Try another glass,’ said Scawthorne. ‘There’s still a bottle in the cupboard; don’t be afraid.’

‘And you mean to tell me it’s all mine?’

‘The wine? You’re very welcome.’

‘Wine be damned! The money, my boy, the money! Scawthorne, I’m not a mean chap. As sure as you and me stand here, you shall have — you shall have a hundred pounds! I mean it; dash me, I mean it! You’ve been devilish useful to me; and what’s more I haven’t done with you yet. Do you twig, old boy?’

‘You mean that a confidential agent in England, unsuspected, may be needed?’

‘Shouldn’t wonder if I do.’

‘Can’t be managed under double the money, my good sir,’ observed Scawthorne, with unmistakable seriousness. ‘Worth your while, I promise you. Have another glass. Fair commission. Think it over.’

‘Look here! I shall have to make the girl an allowance.’

‘There’s the filter-works. Don’t be stingy.’

Joseph was growing very red in the face. He drank glass after glass; he flung his arms about; he capered.

‘Damn me if you shall call me that, Scaw! Two hundred it shall be. But what was the old cove up to? Why did he destroy the other will? What would the new one have been?’

‘Can’t answer either question, but it’s probably as well for you that tomorrow never comes.’

‘Now just see how things turn out!’ went on the other, in the joy of his heart. ‘All the thought and the trouble that I’ve gone through this last year, when I might have taken it easy and waited for chance to make me rich! Look at Kirkwood’s business. There was you and me knocking our heads together and raising lumps on them, as you may say, to find out a plan of keeping him and Jane apart, when all the while we’d nothing to do but to look on and wait, if only we’d known. Now this is what I call the working of Providence, Scawthorne. Who’s going to say after this, that things ain’t as they should be? Everything’s for the best, my boy; I see that clearly enough.’

‘Decidedly,’ assented Scawthorne, with a smile. ‘The honest man is always rewarded in the long run. And that reminds me; I too have had a stroke of luck.’

He went on to relate that his position in the office of Percival & Peel was now nominally that of an articled clerk, and that in three years’ time, if all went well, he would be received in the firm as junior partner.

‘There’s only one little project I am sorry to give up, in connection with your affairs, Snowdon. If it had happened that your daughter had inherited the money, why shouldn’t I have had the honour of becoming your son-inlaw?’

Joseph stared, then burst into hearty laughter.

‘I tell you what,’ he said, recovering himself, ‘why should you give up that idea? She’s as good a girl as you’ll ever come across, I can tell you that, my boy. There’s better-looking, but you won’t find many as modest and good-hearted. Just make her acquaintance, and tell me if I’ve deceived you. And look here, Scawthorne; by George, I’ll make a bargain with you! You say you’ll be a partner in three years. Marry Jane when that day comes, and I’ll give you a thousand for a wedding present. I mean it! What’s more, I’ll make my will on your marriage-day and leave everything I’ve got to you and her. There now!’

‘What makes you so benevolent all at once?’ inquired Scawthorne, blandly.

‘Do you think I’ve got no fatherly feeling, man? Why, if it wasn’t for my wife I’d ask nothing better than to settle down with Jane to keep house for me. She’s a good girl, I tell you, and I wish her happiness.’

‘And do you think I’m exactly the man to make her a model husband?’

‘I don’t see why not — now you’re going to be a partner in a good business. Don’t you think I’m ten times as honest a man today as I was yesterday? Poor devils can’t afford to be what they’d wish, in the way of honesty and decent living.’

True enough for once,’ remarked the other, without irony.

‘You think it over, Scaw. I’m a man of my word. You shall have your money as soon as things are straight; and if you can bring about that affair, I’ll do all I said — so there’s my hand on it. Say the word, and I’ll make you acquainted with her before — before I take that little trip you know of, just for my health.’

‘We’ll speak of it again.’

Thereupon they parted. In the course of the following day Scawthorne’s report received official confirmation. Joseph pondered deeply with himself whether he should tell his wife the truth or not; there were arguments for both courses. By Tuesday morning he had decided for the truth; that would give more piquancy to a pleasant little jest he had in mind. At breakfast he informed her, as if casually, and it amused him to see that she did not believe him.

‘You’ll be anxious to tell your mother. Go and spend the day with her, but be back by five o’clock; then we’ll talk things over. I have business with the lawyers again.’

Clem repaired to the Close. Late in the afternoon she and her husband again met at home, and by this time Joseph’s elation had convinced her that he was telling the truth. Never had he been in such a suave humour; he seemed to wish to make up for his late severities. Seating himself near her, he began pleasantly:

‘Well, things might have been worse, eh?’

‘I s’pose they might.’

‘I haven’t spoken to Jane yet. Time enough after the funeral. What shall we do for the poor girl, eh?’

‘How do I know?’

‘You won’t grudge her a couple of pounds a week, or so, just to enable her to live with the Byasses, as she has been doing?’

‘I s’pose the money’s your own to do what you like with.’

‘Very kind of you to say so, my dear. But we’re well-to-do people now, and we must be polite to each other. Where shall we take a house, Clem? Would you like to be a bit out of town? There’s very nice places within easy reach of King’s Cross, you know, on the Great Northern. A man I know lives at Potter’s Bar, and finds it very pleasant; good air. Of course I must be within easy reach of business.’

She kept drawing her nails over a fold in her dress, making a scratchy sound.

‘It happened just at the right time,’ he continued. ‘The business wants a little more capital put into it. I tell you what it is, Clem; in a year or two we shall be coining money, old girl.’

‘Shall you?’

‘Right enough. There’s just one thing I’m a little anxious about; you won’t mind me mentioning it? Do you think your mother’ll expect us to do anything for her?’

Clem regarded him with cautious scrutiny. He was acting well, and her profound distrust began to be mingled with irritating uncertainty.

‘What can she expect? If she does, she’ll have to be disappointed, that’s all.’

‘I don’t want to seem mean, you know. But then she isn’t so badly herself, is she?’

‘I know nothing about it. You’d better ask her.’

And Clem grinned. Thereupon Joseph struck a facetious note, and for half an hour made himself very agreeable. Now for the first time, he said, could he feel really settled; life was smooth before him. They would have a comfortable home, the kind of place to which he could invite his friends; one or two excellent fellows he knew would bring their wives, and so Clem would have more society.

‘Suppose you learn the piano, old girl? It wouldn’t be amiss. By-the-by, I hope they’ll turn you out some creditable mourning. You’ll have to find a West End dressmaker.’

She listened, and from time to time smiled ambiguously . . . .

At noon of the next day Clem was walking on that part of the Thames Embankment which is between Waterloo Bridge and the Temple Pier. It was a mild morning, misty, but illuminated now and then with rays of sunlight, which gleamed dully upon the river and gave a yellowness to remote objects. At the distance of a dozen paces walked Bob Hewett; the two had had a difference in their conversation, and for some minutes kept thus apart, looking sullenly at the ground. Clem turned aside, and leaned her arms on the parapet. Presently her companion drew near and leaned in the same manner.

‘What is it you want me to do?’ he asked huskily. ‘Just speak plain, can’t you?’

‘If you can’t understand — if you won’t, that is — it’s no good speakin’ plainer.’

‘You said the other night as you didn’t care about his money. If you think he means hookin’ it, let him go, and good riddance.’

‘That’s a fool’s way of talkin’. I’m not goin’ to lose it all, if I can help it. There’s a way of stoppin’ him, and of gettin’ the money too.’

They both stared down at the water; it was full tide, and the muddy surface looked almost solid.

‘You wouldn’t get it all,’ were Bob’s next words. ‘I’ve been asking about that.’

‘You have? Who did you ask?’

‘Oh, a feller you don’t know. You’d only have a third part of it, and the girl ‘ud get the rest.’

‘What do you call a third part?’

So complete was her stupidity, that Bob had to make a laborious explanation of this mathematical term, She could have understood what was meant by a half or a quarter, but the unfamiliar ‘third’ conveyed no distinct meaning.

‘I don’t care,’ she said at length. ‘That ‘ud be enough.’

‘Clem — you’d better leave this job alone. You’d better, I warn you.’

‘I shan’t,’

Another long silence. A steamboat drew up to the Temple Pier, and a yellow shaft of sunlight fell softly upon its track in the water.

‘What do you want me to do?’ Bob recommenced. ‘How?’

Their eyes met, and in the woman’s gaze he found a horrible fascination, a devilish allurement to that which his soul shrank from. She lowered her voice.

‘There’s lots of ways. It ‘ud be easy to make it seem as somebody did it just to rob him. He’s always out late at night.’

His face was much the colour of the muddy water yellowed by that shaft of sunlight. His lips quivered. ‘I dursn’t, Clem. I tell you plain, I dursn’t.’

‘Coward!’ she snarled at him, savagely. ‘Coward! All right, Mr. Bob. You go your way, and I’ll go mine.’

‘Listen here, Clem,’ he gasped out, laying his hand on her arm. ‘I’ll think about it. I won’t say no. Give me a day to think about it.’

‘Oh, we know what your thinkin’ means.’

They talked for some time longer, and before they parted Bob had given a promise to do more than think.

The long, slouching strides with which he went up from the Embankment to the Strand gave him the appearance of a man partly overcome with drink. For hours he walked about the City, in complete oblivion of everything external. Only when the lights began to shine from shop-windows did he consciously turn to his own district. It was raining now. The splashes of cool moisture made him aware how feverishly hot his face was.

When he got among the familiar streets he went slinkingly, hurrying round corners, avoiding glances. Almost at a run he turned into Merlin Place, and he burst into his room as though he were pursued.

Pennyloaf had now but one child to look after, a girl of two years, a feeble thing. Her own state was wretched; professedly recovered from illness, she felt so weak, so low-spirited, that the greater part of her day was spent in crying. The least exertion was too much for her; but for frequent visits from Jane Snowdon she must have perished for very lack of wholesome food. She was crying when startled by her husband’s entrance, and though she did her best to hide the signs of it, Bob saw.

‘When are you going to stop that?’ he shouted.

She shrank away, looking at him with fear in her red eyes.

‘Stop your snivelling, and get me some tea!’

It was only of late that Pennyloaf had come to regard him with fear. His old indifference and occasional brutality of language had made her life a misery, but she had never looked for his return home with anything but anxious longing. Now the anticipation was mingled with dread. He not only had no care for her, not only showed that he felt her a burden upon him; his disposition now was one of hatred, and the kind of hatred which sooner or later breaks out in ferocity. Bob would not have come to this pass — at all events not so soon — if he had been left to the dictates of his own nature; he was infected by the savagery of the woman who had taken possession of him. Her lust of cruelty crept upon him like a disease, the progress of which was hastened by all the circumstances of his disorderly life. The man was conscious of his degradation; he knew how he had fallen ever since he began criminal practices; he knew the increasing hopelessness of his resolves to have done with dangers and recover his peace of mind. The loss of his daily work, in consequence of irregularity, was the last thing needed to complete his ruin. He did not even try to get new employment, feeling that such a show of honest purpose was useless. Corruption was eating to his heart; from every interview with Clem he came away a feebler and a baser being. And upon the unresisting creature who shared his home he had begun to expend the fury of his self-condemnation.

He hated her because Clem bade him do so. He hated her because her suffering rebuked him, because he must needs be at the cost of keeping her alive, because he was bound to her.

As she moved painfully about the room he watched her with cruel, dangerous eyes. There was a thought tormenting his brain, a terrifying thought he had pledged himself not to dismiss, and it seemed to exasperate him against Pennyloaf. He had horrible impulses, twitches along his muscles; every second the restraint of keeping in one position grew more unendurable, yet he feared to move.

Pennyloaf had the ill-luck to drop a saucer, and it broke on the floor. In the same instant he leapt up and sprang on her, seized her brutally by the shoulders and flung her with all his force against the nearest wall. At her scream the child set up a shrill cry, and this increased his rage. With his clenched fist he dealt blow after blow at the half-prostrate woman, speaking no word, but uttering a strange sound, such as might come from some infuriate animal. Pennyloaf still screamed, till at length the door was thrown open and their neighbour, Mrs. Griffin, showed herself.

‘Well, I never!’ she cried, wrathfully, rushing upon Bob. ‘Now you just stop that, young man! I thought it ‘ud be comin’ to this before long. I saw you was goin’ that way.’

The mildness of her expressions was partly a personal characteristic, partly due to Mrs. Griffin’s very large experience of such scenes as this. Indignant she might be, but the situation could not move her to any unwonted force of utterance. Enough that Bob drew back as soon as he was bidden, and seemed from his silence to be half-ashamed of himself.

Pennyloaf let herself lie at full length on the floor, her hands clutched protectingly about her head; she sobbed in a quick, terrified way, and appeared powerless to stop, even when Mrs. Griffin tried to raise her.

‘What’s he been a-usin’ you like this for?’ the woman kept asking. ‘There, there now! He shan’t hit you no more, he shan’t!’

Whilst she spoke Bob turned away and went from the room.

From Merlin Place he struck off into Pentonville and walked towards King’s Cross at his utmost speed. Not that he had any object in hastening, but a frenzy goaded him along, faster, faster, till the sweat poured from him. From King’s Cross, northwards; out to Holloway, to Hornsey. A light rain was ceaselessly falling; at one time he took off his hat and walked some distance bareheaded, because it was a pleasure to feel the rain trickle over him. From Hornsey by a great circuit he made back for Islington. Here he went into a public-house, to quench the thirst that had grown unbearable. He had but a shilling in his pocket, and in bringing it out he was reminded of the necessity of getting more money. He was to have met Jack Bartley to-night, long before this hour.

He took the direction for Smithfield, and soon reached the alley near Bartholomew’s Hospital where Bartley dwelt. As he entered the street he saw a small crowd gathered about a public-house door; he hurried nearer, and found that the object of interest was a man in the clutch of two others. The latter, he perceived at a glance, were police-officers in plain clothes; the man arrested was — Jack Bartley himself.

Jack was beside himself with terror; he had only that moment been brought out of the bar, and was pleading shrilly in an agony of cowardice.

‘It ain’t me as made ’em! I never made one in my life! I’ll tell you who it is — I’ll tell you where to find him — it’s Bob Hewett as lives in Merlin Place! You’ve took the wrong man. It ain’t me as made ’em! I’ll tell you the whole truth, or may I never speak another word! It’s Bob Hewett made ’em all — he lives in Merlin Place, Clerkenwell. I’ll tell you —’

Thus far had Bob heard before he recovered sufficiently from the shock to move a limb. The officers were urging their prisoner forward, grinning and nodding to each other, whilst several voices from the crowd shouted abusively at the poltroon whose first instinct was to betray his associate. Bob turned his face away and walked on. He did not dare to run, yet the noises behind him kept his heart leaping with dread. A few paces and he was out of the alley. Even yet he durst not run. He had turned in the unlucky direction; the crowd was still following. For five minutes he had to keep advancing, then at last he was able to move off at right angles. The crowd passed the end of the street.

Only then did complete panic get possession of him. With a bound forward like that of a stricken animal he started in blind flight. He came to a crossing, and rushed upon it regardless of the traffic, Before he could gain the farther pavement the shaft of a cart struck him on the breast and threw him down. The vehicle was going at a slow pace, and could be stopped almost immediately; he was not touched by the wheel. A man helped him to his feet and inquired if he were hurt.

‘Hurt? No, no; it’s all right.’

To the surprise of those who had witnessed the accident, he walked quickly on, scarcely feeling any pain. But in a few minutes there came a sense of nausea and a warm rush in his throat; he staggered against the wall and vomited a quantity of blood. Again he was surrounded by sympathising people; again he made himself free of them and hastened on. But by now he suffered acutely; he could not run, so great was the pain it cost him when he began to breathe quickly. His mouth was full of blood again.

Where could he find a hiding-place? The hunters were after him, and, however great his suffering, he must go through it in secrecy. But in what house could he take refuge? He had not money enough to pay for a lodging.

He looked about him; tried to collect his thoughts. By this time the police would have visited Merlin Place; they would be waiting there to trap him. He was tempted towards Farringdon Road Buildings; surely his father would not betray him, and he was in such dire need of kindly help. But it would not be safe; the police would search there.

Shooter’s Gardens? There was the room where lived Pennyloaf’s drunken mother and her brother. They would not give him up. He could think of no other refuge, at all events, and must go there if he would not drop in the street.

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