The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 37

Mad Jack’s Dream

It was not much more than a quarter of an hour’s walk, but pain and fear made the distance seem long; he went out of his way, too, for the sake of avoiding places that were too well lighted. The chief occupation of his thoughts was in conjecturing what could have led to Bartley’s arrest. Had the fellow been such a fool as to attempt passing a bad coin when he carried others of the same kind in his pocket? Or had the arrest of some other ‘pal’ in some way thrown suspicion on Jack? Be it as it might, the game was up. With the usual wisdom which comes too late, Bob asked himself how he could ever have put trust in Bartley, whom he knew to be as mean-spirited a cur as breathed. On the chance of making things easier for himself, Jack would betray every secret in his possession. What hope was there of escaping capture, even if a hiding-place could be found for a day or two? If he had his hand on Jack Bartley’s gizzard.

Afraid to appear afraid, in dread lest his muddy clothing should attract observation, he kept, as often as possible, the middle of the road, and with relief saw at length the narrow archway, with its descending steps, which was one entrance to Shooter’s Gardens. As usual, two or three loafers were hanging about here, exchanging blasphemies and filthy vocables, but, even if they recognised him, there was not much fear of their giving assistance to the police. With head bent he slouched past them, unchallenged. At the bottom of the steps, where he was in all but utter darkness, his foot slipped on garbage of some kind, and with a groan he fell on his aide.

‘Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall,’ cried a high-pitched voice from close by.

Bob knew that the speaker was the man notorious in this locality as Mad Jack. Raising himself with difficulty, he looked round and saw a shape crouching in the corner.

‘What is the principal thing?’ continued the crazy voice. ‘Wisdom is the principal thing.’

And upon that followed a long speech which to Bob sounded as gibberish, but which was in truth tolerably good French, a language Mad Jack was fond of using, though he never made known how he had acquired it.

Bob stumbled on, and quickly came to the house where he hoped to find a refuge. The door was, of course, open; he went in and groped his way up the staircase. A knock at the door of the room which he believed to be still tenanted by Mrs. Candy and her son brought no reply. He turned the handle, but found that the door was locked.

It was not late, only about ten o’clock. Stephen Candy could not, of course, be back yet from his work, and the woman was probably drinking somewhere. But he must make sure that they still lived here. Going down to the floor below, he knocked at the room occupied by the Hope family, and Mrs. Hope, opening the door a few inches, asked his business.

‘Does Mrs. Candy still live upstairs?’ he inquired in a feigned voice, and standing back in the darkness.

‘For all I know.’

And the door closed sharply. He had no choice but to wait and see if either of his acquaintances returned. For a few minutes he sat on the staircase, but as at any moment some one might stumble over him, he went down to the backdoor, which was open, like that in front, and passed out into the stone-paved yard. Here he seated himself on the ground, leaning against a corner of the wall, He was suffering much from his injury, but could at all events feel secure from the hunters.

The stones were wet, and rain fell upon him. As he looked up at the lighted windows in the back of the house, he thought of Pennyloaf, who by this time most likely knew his danger. Would she be glad of it, feeling herself revenged? His experience of her did not encourage him to believe that. To all his ill-treatment she had never answered with anything but tears and submission. He found himself wishing she were near, to be helpful to him in his suffering.

Clem could not learn immediately what had come to pass. Finding he did not keep his appointment for the day after tomorrow, she would conclude that he had drawn back. But perhaps Jack Bartley’s case would be in the newspapers on that day, and his own name might appear in the evidence before the magistrates; if Clem learnt the truth in that way, she would be not a little surprised. He had never hinted to her the means by which he had been obtaining money.

Voices began to sound from the passage within the house; several young fellows, one or other of whom probably lived here, had entered to be out of the rain. One voice, very loud and brutal, Bob quickly recognised; it was that of Ned Higgs, the ruffian with whom Bartley’s wife had taken up. The conversation was very easy to overhear; it contained no reference to the ‘copping’ of Jack.

‘Fag ends!’ this and that voice kept crying.

Bob understood. One of the noble company had been fortunate enough to pig up the end of a cigar somewhere, and it was the rule among them that he who called out ‘Fag ends!’ established a claim for a few whiffs. In this way the delicacy was passing from mouth to mouth. That the game should end in quarrel was quite in order, and sure enough, before very long, Ned Higgs was roaring his defiances to a companion who had seized the bit of tobacco unjustly.

‘I ‘ollered fag-end after Snuffy Bill!’

‘You’re a —— liar! I did!’

‘You! You’re a ——! I’ll —— your —— in arf a —— second!’

Then came the sound of a scuffle, the thud of blows, the wild-beast bellowing of infuriate voices. Above all could be heard the roar of Ned Higgs. A rush, and it was plain that the combatants had gone out into the alley to have more room. For a quarter of an hour the yells from their drink-sodden throats echoed among the buildings. Quietness was probably caused by the interference of police; knowing that, Bob shrank together in his lurking-place.

When all had been still for some time he resolved to go upstairs again and try the door, for his breathing grew more and more painful, and there was a whirling in his head which made him fear that he might become insensible. To rise was more difficult than he had imagined; his head overweighted him, all but caused him to plunge forward; he groped this way and that with his hands, seeking vainly for something to cling to on the whitewashed wall. In his depth of utter misery he gave way and sobbed several times. Then once more he had the warm taste of blood in his mouth. Terror-stricken, he staggered into the house.

This time a voice answered to his knock. He opened the door.

The room contained no article of furniture. In one corner lay some rags, and on the mantel-piece stood a tin teapot, two cups, and a plate. There was no fire, but a few pieces of wood lay near the hearth, and at the bottom of the open cupboard remained a very small supply of coals. A candle made fast in the neck of a bottle was the source of light.

On the floor was sitting, or lying, an animated object, indescribable; Bob knew it for Mrs. Candy. Her eyes looked up at him apprehensively.

‘I want to stay the night over, if you’ll let me.’ he said, when he had closed the door. ‘I’ve got to hide away; nobody mustn’t know as I’m here.’

‘You’re welcome,’ the woman replied, in a voice which was horrible to hear.

Then she paid no more attention to him, but leaned her head upon her hand and began a regular moaning, as if she suffered some dull, persistent pain.

Bob crept up to the wall and let himself sink there. He could not reflect for more than a minute or two continuously; his brain then became a mere confused whirl. In one of the intervals of his perfect consciousness he asked Mrs. Candy if Stephen would come here to-night. She did not heed him till he had twice repeated the question, and then she started and looked at him in wild fear.

‘Will Stephen be coming?’

‘Stephen? Yes, yes. I shouldn’t wonder.’

She seemed to fall asleep as soon as she had spoken; her bead dropped heavily on the boards.

Not long after midnight the potman made his appearance. As always, on returning from his sixteen-hour day of work, he was all but insensible with fatigue. Entering the room, he turned his white face with an expression of stupid wonderment to the corner in which Bob lay. The latter raised himself to a sitting posture.

‘That you, Bob Hewett?’

‘I want to stop here over the night,’ replied the other, speaking with difficulty. ‘I can’t go home. There’s something up.’

‘With Pennyloaf?’

‘No. I’ve got to hide away. And I’m feeling bad — awful bad. Have you got anything to drink?’

Stephen, having listened with a face of a somnambulist, went to the mantel-piece and looked into the teapot. It was empty.

‘You can go to the tap in the yard,’ he said.

‘I couldn’t get so far. Oh, I feel bad!’

‘I’ll fetch you some water.’

A good-hearted animal, this poor Stephen; a very tolerable human being, had he had fair-play. He would not abandon his wretched mother, though to continue living with her meant hunger and cold and yet worse evils. For himself, his life was supported chiefly on the three pints of liquor which he was allowed every day. His arms and legs were those of a living skeleton; his poor idiotic face was made yet more repulsive by disease. Yet you could have seen that he was the brother of Pennyloaf; there was Pennyloaf’s submissive beast-of-burden look in his eyes, and his voice had something that reminded one of hers.

‘The coppers after you?’ he whispered, stooping down to Bob with the teacup he had filled with water.

Bob nodded, then drained the cup eagerly.

‘I get knocked down by a cab or something,’ he added. ‘It hit me just here. I may feel better when I’ve rested a bit. ‘Haven’t you got no furniture left?’

‘They took it last Saturday was a week. Took it for rent. I thought we didn’t owe nothing, but mother told me she’d paid when she hadn’t. I got leave to stop, when I showed ’em as I could pay in future; but they wouldn’t trust me to make up them three weeks. They took the furniture. It’s ‘ard, I call it. I asked my guvnor if it was law for them to take mother’s bed-things, an’ he said yes it was. When it’s for rent they can take everything, even to your beddin’ an’ tools.’

Yes; they can take everything. How foolish of Stephen Candy and his tribe not to be born of the class of landlords! The inconvenience of having no foothold on the earth’s surface is so manifest.

‘I couldn’t say nothing to her,’ he continued, nodding towards the prostrate woman. ‘She was sorry for it, an’ you can’t ask no more. It was my fault for trustin’ her with the money to pay, but I get a bit careless now an’ then, an’ forgot. You do look bad, Bob, an’ there’s no mistake. Would you feel better if I lighted a bit o’ fire?’

‘Yes; I feel cold. I was hot just now.’

‘You needn’t be afraid o’ the coals. Mother goes round the streets after the coal-carts, an’ you wouldn’t believe what a lot she picks up some days. You see, we’re neither of us in the ’ouse very often; we don’t burn much.’

He lit a fire, and Bob dragged himself near to it. In the meantime the quietness of the house was suffering a disturbance familiar to its denizens. Mr. Hope — you remember Mr. Hope? — had just returned from an evening at the public-house, and was bent on sustaining his reputation for unmatched vigour of language. He was quarrelling with his wife and daughters; their high notes of vituperation mingled in the most effective way with his manly thunder. To hear Mr. Hope’s expressions, a stranger would have imagined him on the very point of savagely murdering all his family.

Another voice became audible. It was that of Ned Higgs, who had opened his door to bellow curses at the disturbers of his rest.

‘They’ll be wakin’ mother,’ said Stephen. ‘There, I knew they would.’

Mrs. Candy stirred, and, after a few vain efforts to raise herself, started up suddenly. She fixed her eyes on the fire, which was just beginning to blaze, and uttered a dreadful cry, a shriek of mad terror.

‘O God!’ groaned her son. ‘I hope it ain’t goin’ to be one of her bad nights. Mother, mother! what’s wrong with you? See, come to the fire an’ warm yourself, mother.’

She repeated the cry two or three times, but with less violence; then, as though exhausted, she fell face downwards, her arms folded about her head. The moaning which Bob had beard earlier in the evening recommenced.

Happily, it was not to be one of her bad nights. Fits of the horrors only came upon her twice before morning. Towards one o’clock Stephen had sunk into a sleep which scarcely any conceivable uproar could have broken; he lay with his head on his right arm, his legs stretched out at full length; his breathing was light. Bob was much later in getting rest. As often as he slumbered for an instant, the terrible image of his fear rose manifest before him; he saw himself in the clutch of his hunters, just like Jack Bartley, and woke to lie quivering. Must not that be the end of it, sooner or later? Might he not as well give himself up tomorrow? But the thought of punishment such as his crime receives was unendurable. It haunted him in nightmare when sheer exhaustion had at length weighed down his eyelids.

Long before daybreak he was conscious again, tormented with thirst and his head aching woefully. Someone had risen in the room above, and was tramping about in heavy boots. The noise seemed to disturb Mrs. Candy; she cried out in her sleep. In a few minutes the early riser came forth and began to descend the stairs; he was going to his work.

A little while, and in the court below a voice shouted, ‘Bill Bill!’ Another worker being called, doubtless.

At seven o’clock Stephen roused himself. He took a piece of soap from a shelf of the cupboard, threw a dirty rag over his arm, and went down to wash at the tap in the yard. Only on returning did he address Bob.

‘Feelin’ any better?’

‘I think so. But I’m very bad.’

‘Are you goin’ to stay here?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Got any money?’

‘Yes. Ninepence. Could you get me something to drink?’

Stephen took twopence, went out, and speedily returned with a large mug of coffee; from his pocket he brought forth a lump of cake, which had cost a halfpenny. This, he thought, might tempt a sick appetite. His own breakfast he would take at the coffee-shop.

‘Mother’ll get you anything else you want,’ he said. ‘She knows herself generally first thing in the morning. Let her take back the mug; I had to leave threepence on it.’

So Stephen also went forth to his labour — in this case, it may surely be said, the curse of curses . . . .

At this hour Pennyloaf bestirred herself after a night of weeping. Last evening the police had visited her room, and had searched it thoroughly. The revelation amazed her; she would not believe the charge that was made against her husband. She became angry with Mrs. Griffin when that practical woman said she was not at all surprised. Utterly gone was her resentment of Bob’s latest cruelty. His failure to return home seemed to prove that he had been arrested, and she could think of nothing but the punishment that awaited him.

‘It’s penal servitude,’ remarked Mrs. Griffin, frankly. ‘Five, or p’r’aps ten years. I’ve heard of ’em gettin’ sent for life.’

Pennyloaf would not believe in the possibility of this befalling her husband. It was too cruel. There would be some pity, some mercy. She had a confused notion of witnesses being called to give a man a good character, and strengthened herself in the thought of what she would say, under such circumstances on Bob’s behalf. ‘He’s been a good ‘usband,’ she kept repeating to Mrs. Griffin, and to the other neighbours who crowded to indulge their curiosity. ‘There’s nobody can say as he ain’t been a good ‘usband; it’s a lie if they do.’

By eight o’clock she was at the police-station. With fear she entered the ugly doorway and approached a policeman who stood in the ante-room. When she had made her inquiry, the man referred her to the inspector. She was asked many questions, but to her own received no definite reply; she had better look in again the next morning.

‘It’s my belief they ain’t got him,’ said Mrs. Griffin. ‘He’s had a warnin’ from his pals.’

Pennyloaf would dearly have liked to communicate with Jane Snowdon, but shame prevented her. All day she stood by the house door, looking eagerly now this way, now that, with an unreasoning hope that Bob might show himself. She tried to believe that he was only keeping away because of his behaviour to her the night before; it was the first time he had laid hand upon her, and he felt ashamed of himself. He would come back, and this charge against him would be proved false; Pennyloaf could not distinguish between her desire that something might happen and the probability of its doing so.

But darkness fell upon the streets, and her watch was kept in rain. She dreaded the thought of passing another night in uncertainty. Long ago her tears had dried up; she had a parched throat and trembling, feverish hands. Between seven and eight o’clock she went to Mrs. Griffin and begged her to take care of the child for a little while.

‘I’m goin’ to see if I can hear anything about him. Somebody may know where he is.’

And first of all she directed her steps to Shooter’s Gardens. It was very unlikely that her mother could be of any use, but she would seek there. Afterwards she must go to Farringdon Road Buildings, though never yet had she presented herself to Bob’s father.

You remember that the Gardens had an offshoot, which was known simply as The Court. In this blind alley there stood throughout the day a row of baked-potato ovens, ten or a dozen of them, chained together, the property of a local capitalist who let them severally to men engaged in this business. At seven o’clock of an evening fires were wont to be lighted under each of these baking-machines, preparatory to their being wheeled away, each to its customary street-corner. Now the lighting of fires entails the creation of smoke, and whilst these ten or twelve ovens were getting ready to bake potatoes the Court was in a condition not easily described. A single lamp existed for the purpose of giving light to the alley, and at no time did this serve much more than to make darkness visible; at present the blind man would have fared as well in that retreat as he who had eyes, and the marvel was how those who lived there escaped suffocation. In the Gardens themselves volumes of dense smoke every now and then came driven along by the cold gusts; the air had a stifling smell and a bitter taste.

Pennyloaf found nothing remarkable in this phenomenon; it is hard to say what would have struck her as worthy of indignant comment in her world of little ease. But near the entrance to the Court, dimly discernible amid sagging fumes, was a cluster of people, and as everything of that kind just now excited her apprehensions, she drew near to see what was happening. The gathering was around Mad Jack; he looked more than usually wild, and with one hand raised above his head was on the point of relating a vision he had had the night before.

‘Don’t laugh! Don’t any of you laugh; for as sure as I live it was an angel stood in the room and spoke to me. There was a light such as none of you ever saw, and the angel stood in the midst of it. And he said to me: “Listen, whilst I reveal to you the truth, that you may know where you arc and what you are; and this is done for a great purpose.” And I fell down on my knees; but never a word could I have spoken. Then the angel said: “You are passing through a state of punishment. You, and all the poor among whom you live; all those who are in suffering of body and darkness of mind, were once rich people, with every blessing the world can bestow, with every opportunity of happiness in yourselves and of making others happy. Because you made an ill use of your wealth, because you were selfish and hard-hearted and oppressive and sinful in every kind of indulgence — therefore after death you received the reward of wickedness. This life you are now leading is that of the damned; this place to which you are confined is Hell! There is no escape for you. From poor you shall become poorer; the older you grow the lower shall you sink in want and misery; at the end there is waiting for you, one and all, a death in abandonment and despair. This is Hell — Hell — Hell!”’

His voice had risen in pitch, and the last cry was so terrifying that Pennyloaf fled to be out of hearing. She reached the house to which her visit was, and in the dark passage leaned for a moment against the wall, trembling all over. Then she began to ascend the stairs. At Mrs. Candy’s door she knocked gently. There was at first no answer, but when she had knocked again, a strange voice that she did not recognise asked ‘Who’s that?’ It seemed to come from low down, as if the speaker were lying on the floor.

‘It’s me,’ she replied, again trembling, she knew not with what fear. ‘Mrs. Hewett — Pennyloaf.’

‘Are you alone?’

She bent down, listening eagerly.

‘Who’s that speakin’?’

‘Are you alone?’

Strange; the voice was again different, very feeble, a thick whisper.

‘Yes, there’s nobody else. Can I come in?’

There was a shuffling sound, then the key turned in the lock, Pennyloaf entered, and found herself in darkness. She shrank back.

‘Who’s there? Is it you, mother? Is it you, Stephen?’

Some one touched her, at the same time shutting the door; and the voice whispered:

‘Penny — it’s me — Bob.’

She uttered a cry, stretching out her hands. A head was leaning against her, and she bent down to lay hers against it.

‘O Bob! What are you doin’ here? Why are you in the dark? What’s the matter, Bob?’

‘I’ve had an accident, Penny. I feel awful bad. Your mother’s gone out to buy a candle. Have they been coming after me?’

‘Yes, yes. But I didn’t know you was here. I came to ask if they knew where you was. O Bob! what’s happened to you? Why are you lyin’ there, Bob?’

She had folded her arms about him, and held his face to hers, sobbing, kissing him.

‘It’s all up,’ he gasped. ‘I’ve been getting worse all day. You’ll have to fetch the parish doctor. They’ll have me, but I can’t help it. I feel as if I was going.’

‘They shan’t take you, Bob. Oh no, they shan’t. The doctor needn’t know who you are.’

‘It was a cab knocked me down, when I was running. I’m awful bad, Penny. You’ll do something for me, won’t you?’

‘Oh, why didn’t you send mother for me?’

The door opened. It was Mrs. Candy who entered. She slammed the door, turned the key, and exclaimed in a low voice of alarm:

‘Bob, there’s the p’lice downstairs! They come just this minute. There’s one gone to the back-door, and there’s one talkin’ to Mrs. Hope at the front.’

‘Then they’ve followed Pennyloaf,’ he replied, in a tone of despair. ‘They’ve followed Pennyloaf.’

It was the truth. She had been watched all day, and was now tracked to Shooter’s Gardens, to this house. Mrs. Candy struck a match, and for an instant illuminated the wretched room; she looked at the two, and they at length saw each other’s faces. Then the little flame was extinguished, and a red spot marked the place where the remnant of the match lay.

‘Shall I light the candle?’ the woman asked in a whisper.

Neither replied, for there was a heavy foot on the stairs. It came nearer. A hand tried the door, then knocked loudly.

‘Mrs. Candy,’ cried a stranger.

The three crouched together, terror-stricken, holding their breath. Pennyloaf pressed her husband in an agonised embrace.

‘Mrs. Candy, you’re wanted on business. Open the door. If you don’t open, we shall force it.’

‘No — no!’ Pennyloaf whispered in her mother’s ear. ‘They shan’t come in! Don’t stir.’

‘Are you going to open the door?’

It was a different speaker — brief, stern. Ten seconds, and there came a tremendous crash; the crazy door, the whole wall, quivered and cracked and groaned. The crash was repeated, and effectually; with a sound of ripping wood the door flew open and a light streamed into the room.

Useless, Pennyloaf, useless. That fierce kick, making ruin of your rotten barrier, is dealt with the whole force of Law, of Society; you might as well think of resisting death when your hour shall come.

‘There he is,’ observed one of the men, calmly. ‘Hollo! what’s up?’

‘You can’t take him away!’ Pennyloaf cried, falling down again by Bob and clinging to him. ‘He’s ill, You can’t take him like this!’

‘Ill, is he? Then the sooner our doctor sees him the better. Up you get, my man!’

But there are some things that even Law and Society cannot command. Bob lay insensible. Shamming? Well, no; it seemed not. Send for a stretcher, quickly.

No great delay. Pennyloaf sat in mute anguish, Bob’s head on her lap. On the staircase was a crowd of people, talking, shouting, whistling; presently they were cleared away by a new arrival of officials. Room for Law and Society!

The stretcher arrived; the senseless body was carried down and laid upon it — a policeman at each end, and, close clinging, Pennyloaf.

Above the noise of the crowd rose a shrill, wild voice, chanting:

‘All ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; praise Him and magnify Him for ever!’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/nether-world/chapter37.html

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