The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 38

Joseph Transacts Much Business

Amid the anguish of heart and nerve which she had to endure whilst her grandfather lay dead in the house, Jane found and clung to one thought of consolation. He had not closed his eyes in the bitterness of disappointment. The end might have come on that miserable day when her weakness threatened the defeat of all his hopes, and how could she then have borne it? True or not, it would have seemed to her that she had killed him; she could not have looked on his face, and all the rest of her life would have been remorsefully shadowed. Now the dead features were unreproachful; nay, when she overcame her childish tremors and gazed calmly, it was easy to imagine that he smiled. Death itself had come without pain. An old man, weary after his long journeys, after his many griefs and the noble striving of his thought, surely he rested well.

During the last days he had been more affectionate with her than was his habit; she remembered it with gratitude. Words of endearment seldom came to his lips, but since the reconciliation he had more than once spoken tenderly. Doubtless he was anxious to assure her that she had again all his confidence. Strengthening herself in that reflection, she strove to put everything out of her mind save the duty which must henceforth direct her. Happily, there could be no more strife with the promptings of her weaker self; circumstances left but one path open before her; and that, however difficult, the one she desired to tread. Henceforth memory must dwell on one thing only in the past, her rescue by Michael Snowdon, her nurture under his care. Though he could no longer speak, the recollection of his words must be her unfailing impulse. In her his spirit must survive, his benevolence still be operative.

At her wish, her father acquainted Sidney Kirkwood with what had happened. Sidney did not visit her, but he wrote a letter, which, having read it many times, she put carefully away to be a resource if ever her heart failed. Mr. Percival came to the house on Monday, in the company of Joseph Snowdon; he was sympathetic, but made no direct reference to her position either now or in the future. Whilst he and her father transacted matters of business in the upper rooms, Jane remained downstairs with Mrs. Byass. Before quitting the house he asked her if she had had any communication with Miss Lant yet.

‘I ought to write and tell her,’ replied Jane.

‘I will do so for you,’ said the lawyer, kindly.

And on taking leave he held her hand for a moment, looking compassionately into her pale face.

On Thursday morning there arrived a letter from Miss Lant, who happened to be out of town and grieved that she could not return in time for the funeral, which would be that day. There was nothing about the future, excepting a promise that the writer would come very shortly.

Michael was buried at Abney Park Cemetery; no ray of sunlight fell upon his open grave, but the weather was mild, and among the budded trees passed a breath which was the promise of spring. Joseph Snowdon and the Byasses were Jane’s only companions in the mourning-carriage; but at the cemetery they were joined by Sidney Kirkwood. Jane saw him and felt the pressure of his hand, but she could neither speak nor understand anything that was said to her.

On Friday morning, before she had made a show of eating the breakfast Bessie Byass prepared for her, a visitor arrived.

‘She says her name’s Mrs. Griffin,’ said Bessie, ‘and she has something very important to tell you. Do you feel you can see her?’

‘Mrs. Griffin? Oh, I remember; she lives in the same house as Pennyloaf. Yes: let her come in.’

The woman was introduced to the Byasses’ parlour, which Bessie thought more cheerful for Jane just now then the room upstairs.

‘Have you heard anything of what’s been goin on with the Hewetts, Miss?’ she began.

‘No, I haven’t been able to go out this week. I’ve had trouble at home.’

‘I see at once as you was in in mournin’, Miss, an’ I’m sorry for it. You’re lookin’ nothing like yourself. I don’t know whether it’s right to upset you with other people’s bothers, but there’s that poor Mrs. Hewett in such a state, and I said as I’d run round, ‘cause she seems to think there’s nobody else can come to her help as you can. I always knew as something o’ this kind ‘ud be ‘appenin’.’

‘But what is it? What has happened?’

Jane felt her energies revive at this appeal for help. It was the best thing that could have befallen, now that she was wearily despondent after yesterday’s suffering.

‘Her ‘usband’s dead, Miss.’

‘Dead?’

‘But that ain’t the worst of it. He was took by the perlice last night, which they wanted him for makin’ bad money. I always have said as it’s a cruel thing that: ‘cause how can you tell who gets the bad coin, an’ it may be some pore person as can’t afford to lose not a ‘apenny. But that’s what he’s been up to, an’ this long time, as it appears.’

In her dialect, which requires so many words for the narration of a simple story, Mrs. Griffin told what she knew concerning Bob Hewett’s accident and capture; his death had taken place early this morning, and Pennyloaf was all but crazy with grief. To Jane these things sounded so extraordinary that for some time she could scarcely put a question, but sat in dismay, listening to the woman’s prolix description of all that had come to pass since Wednesday evening. At length she called for Mrs. Byass, for whose benefit the story was repeated.

‘I’m sure you oughtn’t to go there today,’ was Bessie’s opinion. ‘You’ve quite enough trouble of your own, my dear.’

‘And that’s just what I was a-sayin’, mum,’ assented Mrs. Griffin, who had won Bessie’s highest opinion by her free use of respectful forms of address. ‘I never saw no one look iller, as you may say, than the young lady.’

‘Yes, yes, I will go,’ said Jane, rising. ‘My trouble’s nothing to hers. Oh, I shall go at once.’

‘But remember your father’s coming at half-past nine,’ urged Bessie, ‘and he said he wanted to speak to you particular.’

‘What is the time now? A quarter to nine. I can be back by half-past, I think, and then I can go again. Father wouldn’t mind waiting a few minutes. I must go at once, Mrs. Byass.’

She would hear no objection, and speedily left the house in Mrs. Griffin’s company.

At half-past nine, punctually, Mr. Snowdon’s double knock sounded at the door. Joseph looked more respectable than ever in his black frock-coat and silk hat with the deep band. His bow to Mrs. Byass was solemn, but gallant; he pressed her fingers like a clergyman paying a visit of consolation, and in a subdued voice made affectionate inquiry after his daughter.

‘She has slept, I hope, poor child?’

Bessie took him into the sitting-room, and explained Jane’s absence.

‘A good girl; a good girl,’ he remarked, after listening with elevated brows, ‘But she must be careful of her health. My visit this morning is on matters of business; no doubt she will tell you the principal points of our conversation afterwards. An excellent friend you have been to her, Mrs. Byass — excellent.’

‘I’m sure I don’t see how anyone could help liking her,’ said Bessie, inwardly delighted with the expectation of hearing at length what Jane’s circumstances really were.

‘Indeed, so good a friend,’ pursued Joseph, ‘that I’m afraid it would distress her if she could no longer live with you. And the fact is’— he bent forward and smiled sadly —‘I’m sure I may speak freely to you, Mrs. Byass — but the fact is, that I’m very doubtful indeed whether she could be happy if she lived with Mrs. Snowdon. I suppose there’s always more or less difficulty where step-children are concerned, and in this case — well, I fear the incompatibility would be too great. To be sure, it places me in a difficult position. Jane’s very young — very young; only just turned seventeen, poor child! Out of the question for her to live with strangers. I had some hopes — I wonder whether I ought to speak of it? You know Mr. Kirkwood?’

‘Yes, indeed. I can’t tell you how surprised I was, Mr. Snowdon. And there seems to be such a mystery about it, too.’

Bessie positively glowed with delight in such confidential talk. It was her dread that Jane’s arrival might put an end to it before everything was revealed.

‘A mystery, you may well say, Mrs. Byass. I think highly of Mr. Kirkwood, very highly; but really in this affair! It’s almost too painful to talk about — to you.’

Bessie blushed, as becomes the Englishwoman of mature years when she is gracefully supposed to be ignorant of all it most behoves her to know.

‘Well, well; he is on the point of marrying a young person with whom I should certainly not like my daughter to associate — fortunately there is little chance of that. You were never acquainted with Miss Hewett?’

‘Ye — yes. A long time ago.’

‘Well, well; we must be charitable. You know that she is dreadfully disfigured?’

‘Disfigured? Jane didn’t say a word about that. She only told me that Mr. Kirkwood was going to marry her, and I didn’t like to ask too many questions. I hadn’t even heard as she was at home.’

Joseph related to her the whole story, whilst Bessie fidgeted with satisfaction.

‘I thought,’ he added, ‘that you could perhaps throw some light on the mystery. We can only suppose that Kirkwood has acted from the highest motives, but I really think — well, well, we won’t talk of it any more. I was led to this subject from speaking of this poor girl’s position. I wonder whether it will be possible for her to continue to live in your friendly care Mrs. Byass?’

‘Oh, I shall be only too glad, Mr. Snowdon!’

‘Now how kind that is of you! Of course she wouldn’t want more than two rooms.’

‘Of course not.’

Joseph was going further into details, when a latch-key was heard opening the front door. Jane entered hurriedly. The rapid walk had brought colour to her check; in her simple mourning attire she looked very interesting, very sweet and girlish. She had been shedding tears, and it was with unsteady voice that she excused herself for keeping her father waiting.

‘Never mind that, my dear,’ replied Joseph, as he kissed her cheek. ‘You have been doing good — unselfish as always. Sit down and rest; you must be careful not to over-exert yourself.’

Bessie busied herself affectionately in removing Jane’s hat and jacket, then withdrew that father and child might converse in private. Joseph looked at his daughter. His praise of her was not all mere affectation of sentiment. He had spoken truly when he said to Scawthorne that, but for Clem, he would ask nothing better than to settle down with this gentle girl for his companion. Selfishness, for the most part, but implying appreciation of her qualities. She did not love him, but he was sincere enough with himself to admit that this was perfectly natural. Had circumstances permitted, he would have tried hard to win some affection from her. Poor little girl! How would it affect her when she heard what he was going to say? He felt angry with Kirkwood; yes, truly indignant — men are capable of greater inconsistencies than this. She would not have cared much about the money had Kirkwood married her; of that he felt sure. She had lost her lover; now he was going to deprive her of her inheritance. Cruel! Yes; but he really felt so well-disposed to her, so determined to make her a comfortable provision for the future; and had the money been hers, impossible to have regarded her thus. Joseph was thankful to the chance which, in making him wealthy, had also enabled him to nourish such virtuous feeling.

How should he begin? He had a bright idea, an idea worthy of him. Thrusting his hand into his pocket he brought out half-a-crown. Then:

‘Your humble friend’s in a sad condition, I’m afraid, Jane?’

‘She is, father.’

‘Suppose you give her this! Every little helps, you know.’

Jane received the coin and murmured thanks for his kindness, but could not help betraying some surprise. Joseph was on the watch for this. It gave him his exquisite opportunity.

‘You’re surprised at me offering you money, Jane? I believe your poor grandfather led you to suppose that — that his will was made almost entirely in your favour?’

Jane could not reply; she searched his face.

‘Would it disappoint you very much, my child,’ he continued, sympathetically, ‘if it turned out that he had either’ altered his mind or by some accident had neglected to make his will? I speak as your father, Janey, and I think I have some knowledge of your character. I think I know that you are as free from avarice as anyone could be.’

Was it true? he began to ask himself. Why, then, had her countenance fallen? Why did such a look of deep distress pass over it?

‘The fact is, Janey,’ he continued, hardening himself a little as he noted her expression, ‘your grandfather left no will. The result — the legal result — of that is, that all his property becomes — ah — mine. He — in fact he destroyed his will a very short time, comparatively speaking, before he died, and he neglected to make another. Unfortunately, you see, under these circumstances we can’t be sure what his wish was.’

She was deadly pale; there was anguish in the look with which she regarded her father.

‘I’m very sorry it pains you so, my dear,’ Joseph remarked, still more coldly. ‘I didn’t think you were so taken up with the thought of money. Really, Jane, a young girl at your time of life —’

‘Father, father, how can you think that? It wasn’t to be for myself; I thought you knew; indeed you did know!’

‘But you looked so very strange, my dear. Evidently you felt —’

‘Yes — I feel it — I do feel it! But because it means that grandfather couldn’t get back his trust in me. Oh, it is too hard! When did he destroy his will? When, father?’

‘Ten days before his death.’

‘Yes; that was when it happened. You never heard; he promised to tell nobody. I disappointed him. I showed myself very foolish and weak in-in something that happened then. I made grandfather think that I was too selfish to live as he hoped — that I couldn’t do what I’d undertaken. That was why he destroyed his will. And I thought he had forgiven me! I thought he trusted me again! O grandfather!’

Snowdon was astonished at the explanation of his own good luck, and yet more at Jane’s display of feeling. So quiet, so reserved as he had always known her, she seemed to have become another person. For some moments he could only gaze at her in wonder. Never yet had he heard, never again would he hear, the utterance of an emotion so profound and so noble.

‘Jane — try and control yourself, my dear. Let’s talk it over, Jane.’

‘I feel as if it would break my heart. I thought I had that one thing to comfort me. It’s like losing him again — losing his confidence. To think I should have disappointed him in just what he hoped more than anything!’

‘But you’re mistaken,’ Joseph exclaimed, a generous feeling for once getting the better of prudence. ‘Listen, my dear, and I’ll explain to you. I hadn’t finished when you interrupted me.’

She clasped her hands upon her lap and gazed at him in eager appeal.

‘Did he say anything to you, father?’

‘No — and you may be quite sure that if he hasn’t trusted you, he would have said something. What’s more, on the very day before his death he wrote a letter to Mr. Percival, to say that he wanted to make his will again. He was going to do it on the Monday — there now It was only an accident; he hadn’t time to do what he wished.’

This was making a concession which he had expressly resolved to guard against; but Joseph’s designs ripened, lost their crudity, as he saw more and more of his daughter’s disposition. He was again grateful to her; she had made things smoother than he could have hoped.

‘You really think, father, that he would have made the same will as before?’

‘Not a doubt about it, my love; not a doubt of it. In fact — now let me set your poor little mind at rest — only two days before his death — when was it I saw him last? Friday? Thursday? — he said to me that he had a higher opinion of you than ever. There now, Jane!’

She would have deemed it impossible for anyone to utter less than truth in such connection as this. Her eyes gleamed with joy.

‘Now you understand just how it was, Jane. What we have to talk about now is, how we can arrange things so as to carry out your grandfather’s wish. I am your guardian, my dear. Now I’m sure you wouldn’t desire to have command of large sums of money before you are twenty-one? Just so; your grandfather didn’t intend it. Well, first let me ask you this question. Would you rather live with — with your stepmother, or with your excellent friend Mrs. Byass? I see what your answer is, and I approve it; I fully approve it. Now suppose we arrange that you are to have an allowance of two pounds a week? It is just possible — just possible — that I may have to go abroad on business before long; in that case the payment would be made to you through an agent. Do you feel it would be satisfactory?’

Jane was thinking how much of this sum could be saved to give away.

‘It seems little? But you see —’

‘No, no, father. It is quite enough.’

‘Good. We understand each other. Of course this is a temporary arrangement. I must have time to think over grandfather’s ideas. Why, you are a mere child yet, Janey. Seventeen! A mere child, my dear!’

Forgetting the decorum imposed by his costume, Joseph became all but gay, so delightfully were things arranging themselves. A hundred a year he could very well afford just to keep his conscience at ease; and for Jane it would be wealth. Excellent Mrs. Byass was as good a guardian as could anywhere be found, and Jane’s discretion forbade any fear on her account when — business should take him away.

‘Well now, we’ve talked quite long enough. Don’t think for a moment that you hadn’t your grandfather’s confidence, my dear; it would be distressing yourself wholly without reason — wholly. Be a good girl — why, there you see; I speak to you as if you were a child. And so you are, poor little girl — far too young to have worldly troubles. No, no; I must relieve you of all that, until — Well now, I’ll leave you for today. Good-bye, my dear.’

He kissed her cheek, but Jane, sobbing a little, put her pure lips to his. Joseph looked about him for an instant as if he had forgotten something, then departed with what seemed unnecessary haste.

Jane and Mrs. Byass had a long talk before dinner-time. Mystery was at an end between them now; they talked much of the past, more of the future.

At two o’clock Jane received a visit from Miss Lant. This lady was already apprised by her friend Mr. Percival of all that had come to pass; she was prepared to exercise much discretion, but Jane soon showed her that this was needless, The subject of pressing importance to the latter was Pennyloaf’s disastrous circumstances; unable to do all she wished, Jane was much relieved when her charitable friend proposed to set off to Merlin Place forthwith and ascertain how help could most effectually be given. Yes; it was good to be constrained to think of another’s sorrows.

There passed a fortnight, during which Jane spent some hours each day with Pennyloaf. By the kindness of fate only one of Bob’s children survived him, but it was just this luckless infant whose existence made Pennyloaf’s position so difficult. Alone, she could have gone back to her slop-work, or some less miserable slavery might have been discovered; but Pennyloaf dreaded leaving her child each day in the care of strangers, being only too well aware what that meant. Mrs. Candy was, of course, worse than useless; Stephen the potman had more than his work set in looking after her. Whilst Miss Lant and Jane were straining their wits on the hardest of all problems — to find a means of livelihood for one whom society pronounced utterly superfluous, Pennyloaf most unexpectedly solved the question by her own effort. Somewhere near the Meat Market, one night, she encountered an acquaintance, a woman of not much more than her own age, who had recently become a widow, and was supporting herself (as well as four little ones) by keeping a stall at which she sold children’s secondhand clothing; her difficulty was to dispose of her children whilst she was doing business at night. Pennyloaf explained her own position, and with the result that her acquaintance, by name Mrs. Todd, proposed a partnership. Why shouldn’t they share a room, work together with the needle in patching and making, and by Pennyloaf’s staying at home each evening keep the tribe of youngsters out of danger? This project was carried out; the two brought their furniture together into a garret, and it seemed probable that they would succeed in keeping themselves alive.

But before this settlement was effected Jane’s own prospects had undergone a change of some importance. For a fortnight nothing was heard of Joseph Snowdon in Hanover Street; then there came a letter from him; it bore a Liverpool postmark, but was headed with no address. Joseph wrote that the business to which he had alluded was already summoning him from England; he regretted that there had not even been time for him to say farewell to his daughter. However, he would write to her occasionally during his absence, and hoped to hear from her. The allowance of two pounds a week would be duly paid by an agent, and on receiving it each Saturday she was to forward an acknowledgment to ‘Mr. H. Jones,’ at certain reading-rooms in the City. Let her in the meantime be a good girl, remain with her excellent friend Mrs. Byass, and repose absolute confidence in her affectionate father — J. S.

That same morning there came also a letter from Liverpool to Mrs. Joseph Snowdon, a letter which ran thus:

‘Clem, old girl, I regret very much that affairs of pressing importance call me away from my happy home. It is especially distressing that this occurs just at the time when we were on the point of taking our house, in which we hoped to spend the rest of cur lives in bliss. Alas, that is not to be! Do not repine, and do not break the furniture in the lodgings, as your means will henceforth be limited, I fear. You will remember that I was in your debt, with reference to a little affair which happened in Clerkenwell Close, not such a long time ago; please accept this intimation as payment in full. When I am established in the country to which business summons me, I shall of course send for you immediately, but it may happen that some little time will intervene before I am able to take that delightful step. In the meanwhile your mother will supply you with all the money you need; she has full authority from me to do so. All blessings upon you, and may you be happy. — With tears I sign myself,

‘YOUR BROKEN-HEARTED HUSBAND.’

Joseph’s absence through the night had all but prepared Clem for something of this kind, yet he had managed things so well that up to the time of his departure she had not been able to remark a single suspicious circumstance, unless, indeed, it were the joyous affectionateness with which he continued to behave, She herself had been passing through a time of excitement and even of suffering. When she learned from the newspaper what fate had befallen Bob Hewett, it was as though someone had dealt her a half-stunning blow; in her fierce animal way she was attached to Bob, and for the first time in her life she knew a genuine grief. The event seemed at first impossible; she sped hither and thither, making inquiries, and raged in her heart against everyone who confirmed the newspaper report. Combined with the pain of loss was her disappointment at the frustration of the scheme Bob had undertaken in concert with her. Brooding on her deadly purpose, she had come to regard it as a certain thing that before long her husband would be killed. The details were arranged; all her cunning had gone to the contrivance of a plot for disguising the facts of his murder. Savagely she had exulted in the prospect, not only of getting rid of him, but of being revenged for her old humiliation. A thousand times she imagined herself in Bob’s lurking-place, raising the weapon, striking the murderous blow, rifling the man’s pockets to mislead those who found his body, and had laughed to herself triumphantly. Joseph out of the way, the next thing was to remove Pennyloaf. Oh, that would easily have been contrived. Then she and Bob would have been married.

Very long since Clem had shed tears, but she did so this day when there was no longer a possibility of doubting that Bob was dead. She shut herself in her room and moaned like a wild beast in pain. Joseph could not but observe, when he came home, that she was suffering in some extraordinary way. When he spoke jestingly about it, she all but rushed upon him with her fists. And in the same moment She determined that he should not escape, even if she had to murder him with her own hands. From that day her constant occupation was searching the newspapers to get hints about poisons. Doubtless it was as well for Joseph to be speedy in his preparations for departure.

She was present in the police-court when Jack Bartley came forward to be dealt with. Against him she stored up hatred and the resolve of vengeance; if it were years before she had the opportunity, Jack should in the end pay for what he had done.

And now Joseph had played her the trick she anticipated; he had saved himself out of her clutches, and had carried off all his money with him. She knew well enough what was meant by his saying that her mother would supply what she needed; very likely that he had made any such arrangement! You should have heard the sterling vernacular in which Clem gave utterance to her feelings as soon as she had deciphered the mocking letter?

Without a minute’s delay she dressed and left the house. Having a few shillings in her pocket, she took a cab at King’s Cross and bade the driver drive his hardest to Clerkenwell Close. Up Pentonville Hill panted the bony horse, Clem swearing all the time because it could go no quicker. But the top was reached; she shouted to the man to whip, whip? By the time they pulled up at Mrs. Peckover’s house Clem herself perspired as profusely as the animal.

Mrs. Peckover was at breakfast, alone.

‘Read that, will you? Read that?’ roared Clem, rushing upon her and dashing the letter in her face.

‘Why, you mad cat!’ cried her mother, starting up in anger. ‘What’s wrong with you now?’

‘Read that there letter! That’s your doin’, that is! Read it? Read it!’

Half-frightened, Mrs. Peckover drew away from the table and managed to peruse Joseph’s writing. Having come to the end, she burst into jeering laughter.

‘He’s done it, has he? He’s took his ‘ook, has he? What did I tell you? Don’t swear at me, or I’ll give you something to swear about — such languidge in a respectable ’ouse! Ha, ha? What did I tell you? You wouldn’t take my way. Oh no, you must go off and be independent. Serve you right! Ha, ha! Serve you right! You’ll get no pity from me.’

‘You ‘old your jaw, mother, or I’ll precious soon set my marks on your ugly old face! What does he say there about you? You’re to pay me money. He’s made arrangements with you. Don’t try to cheat me, or I’ll — soon have a summons out against you. The letter’s proof; it’s lawyer’s proof. You try to cheat me and see.’

Clem had sufficient command of her faculties to devise this line of action. She half believed, too, that the letter would be of some legal efficacy, as against her mother.

‘You bloomin’ fool!’ screamed Mrs. Peckover. ‘Do you think I was born yesterday? Not one farden do you get out of me if you starve in the street — not one farden! It’s my turn now. I’ve had about enough o’ your cheek an’ your hinsults. You’ll go and work for your livin’, you great cart-horse!’

‘Work! No fear! I’ll set the perlice after him.’

‘The perlice! What can they do?’

‘Is it law as he can go off and leave me with nothing to live on?’

‘Course it is! Unless you go to the work’us an’ throw yourself on the parish. Do, do! Oh my! Shouldn’t I like to see you brought down to the work’us, like Mrs. Igginbottom, the wife of the cat’s-meat man, him as they stuck up wanted for desertion!’

‘You’re a liar!’ Clem shouted. ‘I can make you support me before it comes to that.’

The wrangle continued for some time longer; then Clem bethought herself of another person with whom she must have the satisfaction of speaking her mind. On the impulse, she rushed away, out of Clerkenwell Close, up St. John Street Road, across City Read, down to Hanover Street, literally running for most of the time. Her knock at Mrs. Byass’s door was terrific.

‘I want to see Jane Snowdon,’ was her address to Bessie.

‘Do you? I think you might have knocked more like civilisation,’ replied Mrs. Byass, proud of expressing herself with superior refinement.

But Clem pushed her way forward. Jane, alarmed at the noise, showed herself on the stairs.

‘You just come ’ere!’ cried Clem to her. ‘I’ve got something to say to you, Miss!’

Jane was of a sudden possessed with terror, the old terror with which Clem had inspired her years ago. She shrank back, but Bessie Byass was by no means disposed to allow this kind of thing to go on in her house.

‘Mrs. Snowdon,’ she exclaimed, ‘I don’t know what your business may be, but if you can’t behave yourself, you’ll please to go away a bit quicker than you came. The idea! Did anyone ever hear!’

‘I shan’t go till I choose,’ replied Clem, ‘and that won’t be till I’ve had my say with that little ——! Where’s your father, Jane Snowdon? You just tell me that.’

‘My father,’ faltered Jane, in the silence. ‘I haven’t seen him for a fortnight.’

‘You haven’t, eh? Little liar! It’s what I used to call you when you scrubbed our kitchen floor, and it’s what I call you now. D’you remember when you did the ’ouse-work, an’ slept under the kitchen table? D’you remember, eh? Haven’t seen him for a fortnight, ain’t you? Oh, he’s a nice man, is your father! He ran away an’ deserted your mother. But he’s done it once too often, I’ll precious soon have the perlice after him! Has he left you to look after yourself? Has he, eh? You just tell me that!’

Jane and Mrs. Byass stared at each other in dismay. The letter that had come this morning enabled them to guess the meaning of Clem’s fury. The latter interpreted their looks as an admission that Jane too was a victim. She laughed aloud.

‘How does it taste, little liar, oh? A second disappointment! You thought you was a-goin’ to have all the money; now you’ve got none, and you may go back to Whitehead’s. They’ll be glad to see you, will Whitehead’s. Oh, he’s a nice man, your father! Would you like to know what’s been goin’ on ever since he found out your old grandfather? Would you like to know how he put himself out to prevent you an’ that Kirkwood feller gettin’ married, just so that the money mightn’t get into other people’s ‘ands? Would you like to know how my beast of a mother and him put their ‘eds together to see how they could get hold of the bloomin’ money? An’ you thought you was sure of it, didn’t you? Will you come with me to the perlice-station, just to help to describe what he looks like? An affectionate father, ain’t he? Almost as good as he is a ‘usband. You just listen to me, Jane Snowdon. If I find out as you’re havin’ money from him, I’ll be revenged on you, mind that! I’ll be revenged on you! D’you remember what my hand feels like? You’ve had it on the side of your —— ‘ed often enough. You just look out for yourself!’

‘And you just turn out of my house,’ cried Bessie, scarlet with wrath. ‘This minute! Sarah! Sarah! Run out by the arey-steps and fetch a p’liceman, this minute! The idea!’

Clem had said her say, however, and with a few more volleys of atrocious language was content to retire. Having slammed the door upon her, Bessie cried in a trembling voice:

‘Oh, if only Sam had been here! My, how I should have liked Sam to have been here! Wouldn’t he have given her something for herself! Why, such a creature oughtn’t be left loose. Oh, if Sam had been here!’

Jane had sat down on the stairs; her face was hidden in her hands. That brutal voice had carried her back to her wretched childhood; everything about her in the present was unreal in comparison with the terrors, the hardships, the humiliations revived by memory. As she sat at this moment, so had she sat many a time on the cellar-steps at Mrs. Peckover’s. So powerfully was her imagination affected that she had a feeling as if her hands were grimy from toil, as if her limbs ached. Oh, that dreadful voice! Was she never, never to escape beyond hearing of it?

‘Jane, my dear, come into the sitting-room,’ said Bessie ‘No wonder it’s upset you. What can it all mean?’

The meaning was not far to seek; Jane understood everything — yes, even her father’s hypocrisies. She listened for a few minutes to her friend’s indignant exclamations, then looked up, her resolve taken.

‘Mrs. Byass, I shall take no more money. I shall go to work again and earn my living. How thankful I am that I can!’

‘Why, what nonsense are you talking, child! Just because that — that creature— Why, I’ve no patience with you, Jane! As if she durst touch you! Touch you? I’d like to see her indeed.’

‘It isn’t that, Mrs. Byass. I can’t take money from father. I haven’t felt easy in my mind ever since he told me about it, and now I can’t take the money. Whether it’s true or not, all she said, I should never have a night’s rest if I consented to live in this way.’

‘Oh, you don’t really mean it, Jane?’

Bessie all but sobbed with vexation.

‘I mean it, and I shall never alter my mind. I shall send back the money, and write to the man that he needn’t send any more. However often it comes, I shall always return it. I couldn’t, I couldn’t live on that money! Never ask me to, Mrs. Byass.’

Practical Bessie had already begun to ask herself what arrangement Jane proposed to make about lodgings. She was no Mrs. Peckover, but neither did circumstances allow her to disregard the question of rent. It cut her to the heart to think of refusing an income of two pounds per week.

Jane too saw all the requirements of the case.

‘Mrs. Byass, will you let me have one room — my old room upstairs? I have been very happy there, and I should like to stay if I can. You know what I can earn; can you afford to let me live there? I’d do my utmost to help you in the house; I’ll be as good as a servant, if you can’t keep Sarah. I should so like to stay with you!’

‘You just let me hear you talk about leaving, that’s all! Wait till I’ve talked it over with Sam.’

Jane went upstairs, and for the rest of the day the house was very quiet.

Not Whitehead’s; there were other places where work might be found. And before many days she had found it. Happily there were no luxuries to be laid aside; her ordinary dress was not too good for the workroom. She had no habits of idleness to overcome, and an hour at the table made her as expert with her fingers as ever.

Returning from the first day’s work, she sat in her room — the little room which used to be hers — to rest and think for a moment before going down to Bessie’s supper-table. And her thought was:

‘He, too, is just coming home from work. Why should my life be easier than his?’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/nether-world/chapter38.html

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