The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 40

Jane

‘The poisoning business startled me. I shouldn’t at all wonder if I had a precious narrow squeak of something of the kind myself before I took my departure; in fact, a sort of fear of the animal made me settle things as sharp as I could. Let me know the result of the trial. Wonder whether there’ll be any disagreeable remarks about a certain acquaintance of yours, detained abroad on business? Better send me newspapers — same name and address. . . . But I’ve something considerably more important to think about. . . . A big thing; I scarcely dare tell you how big. I stand to win $2,000,000! . . . Not a soul outside suspects the ring. When I tell you that R.S.N. is in it, you’ll see that I’ve struck the right ticket this time. . . . Let me hear about Jane. If all goes well here, and you manage that little business, you shall have $100,000, just for house-furnishing, you know. I suppose you’ll have your partnership in a few months?’

Extracts from a letter, with an American stamp, which Mr. Scawthorne read as he waited for his breakfast. It was the end of October, and cool enough to make the crackling fire grateful. Having mused over the epistle, our friend took up his morning paper and glanced at the report of criminal trials. Whilst he was so engaged his landlady entered, carrying a tray of appetising appearance.

‘Good-morning, Mrs. Byass,’ he said, with much friendliness. Then, in a lower voice, ‘There’s a fuller report here than there was in the evening paper. Perhaps you looked at it?’

‘Well, yes, sir; I thought you wouldn’t mind,’ replied Bessie, arranging the table.

‘She’ll be taken care of or three years, at all events.’

‘If you’d seen her that day she came here after Miss Snowdon, you’d understand how glad I feel that she’s out of the way. I’m sure I’ve been uneasy ever since. If ever there comes a rather loud knock at — there I begin to tremble; I do indeed. I don’t think I shall ever get over it.’

‘I dare say Miss Snowdon will be easier in mind?’

‘I shouldn’t wonder. But she won’t say anything about it. She feels the disgrace so much, and I know it’s almost more than she can do to go to work, just because she thinks they talk about her.’

‘Oh, that’ll very soon pass over. There’s always something new happening, and people quickly forget a case like this.’

Bessie withdrew, and her lodger addressed himself to his breakfast.

He had occupied the rooms on the first floor for about a year and a half. Joseph Snowdon’s proposal to make him acquainted with Jane had not been carried out, Scawthorne deeming it impracticable; but when a year had gone by, and Scawthorne, as Joseph’s confidential correspondent, had still to report that Jane maintained herself in independence, he one day presented himself in Hanover Street, as a total stranger, and made inquiry about the rooms which a card told him were to let. His improved position allowed him to live somewhat more reputably than in the Chelsea lodging, and Hanover Street would suit him well enough until he obtained the promised partnership. Admitted as a friend to Mr. Percival’s house in Highbury, he had by this time made the acquaintance of Miss Lant, whom, by the exercise of his agreeable qualities, he one day led to speak of Jane Snowdon. Miss Lant continued to see Jane, at long intervals, and was fervent in her praise as well as in compassionating the trials through which she had gone. His position in Mr. Percival’s office of course made it natural that Scawthorne should have a knowledge of the girl’s story. When he had established himself in Mrs. Byass’s rooms, he mentioned the fact casually to his friends, making it appear that, in seeking lodgings, he had come upon these by haphazard.

He could not but feel something of genuine interest in a girl who, for whatever reason, declined a sufficient allowance and chose to work for her living. The grounds upon which Jane took this decision were altogether unknown to him until an explanation came from her father. Joseph, when news of the matter reached him, was disposed to entertain suspicions; with every care not to betray his own whereabouts, he wrote to Jane, and in due time received a reply, in which Jane told him truly her reasons for refusing the money. These Joseph communicated to Scawthorne, and the latter’s interest was still more strongly awakened.

He was now on terms of personal acquaintance, almost of friendship, with Jane. Miss Lant, he was convinced, did not speak of her too praisingly. Not exactly a pretty girl, though far from displeasing in countenance; very quiet, very gentle, with much natural refinement. Her air of sadness — by no means forced upon the vulgar eye, but unmistakable when you studied her — was indicative of faithful sensibilities. Scawthorne had altogether lost sight of Sidney Kirkwood and of the Hewetts; he knew they were all gone to a remote part of London, and more than this he had no longer any care to discover. On excellent terms with his landlady, he skilfully elicited from her now and then a confidential remark with regard to Jane; of late, indeed, he had established something like a sentimental understanding with the good Bessie, so that, whenever he mentioned Jane, she fell into a pleasant little flutter, feeling that she understood what was in progress. . . . Why not? — he kept asking himself. Joseph Snowdon (who addressed his letters to Hanover Street in a feigned hand) seemed to have an undeniable affection for the girl, and was constant in his promises of providing a handsome dowry. The latter was not a point of such importance as a few years ago, but the dollars would be acceptable. And then, the truth was, Scawthorne felt himself more and more inclined to put a certain question to Jane, dowry or none.

Yes, she felt it as a disgrace, poor girl! When she saw the name ‘Snowdon’ in the newspaper, in such a shameful and horrible connection, her impulse was to flee, to hide herself. It was dreadful to go to her work and hear the girls talking of this attempted murder. The new misery came upon her just as she was regaining something of her natural spirits, after long sorrow and depression which had affected her health. But circumstances, now as ever, seemed to plot that at a critical moment of her own experience she should be called out of herself and constrained to become the consoler of others.

For some months the domestic peace of Mr. and Mrs. Byass had been gravely disturbed. Unlike the household at Crouch End, it was to prosperity that Sam and his wife owed their troubles. Year after year Sam’s position had improved; he was now in receipt of a salary which made — or ought to have made — things at home very comfortable. Though his children were now four in number, he could supply their wants. He could buy Bessie a new gown without very grave consideration, and could regard his own shiny top-hat, when he donned it in the place of one that was really respectable enough, without twinges of conscience.

But Sam was not remarkable for wisdom; indeed, had he been anything more than a foolish calculating-machine, he would scarcely have thriven as he did in the City. When he had grown accustomed to rattling loose silver in his pocket, the next thing, as a matter of course, was that he accustomed himself to pay far too frequent visits to City bars. On certain days in the week he invariably came home with a very red face and a titubating walk; when Bessie received him angrily, he defended himself on the great plea of business necessities. As a town traveller there was no possibility, he alleged, of declining invitations to refresh himself; just as incumbent upon him was it to extend casual hospitality to those with whom he had business.

‘Business! Fiddle!’ cried Bessie. ‘All you City fellows are the same. You encourage each other in drink, drink, drinking whenever you have a chance, and then you say it’s all a matter of business. I won’t have you coming home in that state, so there! I won’t have a husband as drinks! Why, you can’t stand straight.’

‘Can’t stand straight!’ echoed Sam, with vast scorn. ‘Look here!’

And he shouldered the poker, with the result that one of the globes on the chandelier came in shivers about his head. This was too much. Bessie fumed, and for a couple of hours the quarrel was unappeasable.

Worse was to come. Sam occasionally stayed out very late at night, and on his return alleged a ‘business appointment.’ Bessie at length refused to accept these excuses; she couldn’t and wouldn’t believe them.

‘Then don’t!’ shouted Sam. ‘And understand that I shall come home just when I like. If you make a bother I won’t come home at all, so there you have it!’

‘You’re a bad husband and a beast!’ was Bessie’s retort.

Shortly after that Bessie received information of such grave misconduct on her husband’s part that she all but resolved to forsake the house, and with the children seek refuge under her parents’ roof at Woolwich. Sam had been seen in indescribable company; no permissible words would characterise the individuals with whom he had roamed shamelessly on the pavement of Oxford Street. When he next met her, quite sober and with exasperatingly innocent expression, Bessie refused to open her lips. Neither that evening nor the next would she utter a word to him — and the effort it cost her was tremendous. The result was, that on the third evening Sam did not appear.

It was a week after Clem’s trial. Jane had been keeping to herself as much as possible, but, having occasion to go down into the kitchen late at night, she found Bessie in tears, utterly miserable.

‘Don’t bother about me!’ was the reply to her sympathetic question. ‘You’ve got your own upsets to think of. You might have come to speak to me before this — but never mind. It’s nothing to you.’

It needed much coaxing to persuade her to detail Sam’s enormities, but she found much relief when she had done so, and wept more copiously than ever.

‘It’s nearly twelve o’clock, and there’s no sign of him, Perhaps he won’t come at all. He’s in bad company, and if he stays away all night I’ll never speak to him again as long as I live. Oh, he’s a beast of a husband, is Sam!’

Sam came not. All through that night did Jane keep her friend company, for Sam came not. In the morning a letter, addressed in his well-known commercial hand. Bessie read it and screamed. Sam wrote to her that he had accepted a position as country traveller, and perhaps he might be able to look in at his home on that day month.

Jane could not go to work. The case had become very serious indeed; Bessie was in hysterics; the four children made the roof ring with their lamentations. At this juncture Jane put forth all her beneficent energy. It happened that Bessie was just now servantless. There was Mr. Scawthorne’s breakfast only half prepared; Jane had to see to it herself, and herself take it upstairs. Then Bessie must go to bed, or assuredly she would be so ill that unheard-of calamities would befall the infants. Jane would have an eye to everything; only let Jane be trusted.

The miserable day passed; after trying in vain to sleep, Bessie walked about her sitting-room with tear-swollen face and rumpled gown, always thinking it possible that Sam had only played a trick, and that he would come. But he came not, and again it was night.

At eight o’clock Mr. Scawthorne’s bell rang. Impossible for Bessie to present herself; Jane would go. She ascended to the room which had once — ah! once! — been her own parlour, knocked and entered.

‘I— I wished to speak to Mrs. Byass,’ said Scawthorne, appearing for some reason or other embarrassed by Jane’s presenting herself.

‘Mrs. Byass is not at all well, sir. But I’ll let her know —’

‘No, no; on no account.’

‘Can’t I get you anything, sir?’

‘Miss Snowdon — might I speak with you for a few moments?’

Jane feared it might be a complaint. In a perfectly natural way she walked forward. Scawthorne came in her direction, and — closed the door.

The interview lasted ten minutes, then Jane came forth and with a light, quick step ran up to the floor above. She did not enter the room, however, but stood with her hand on the door, in the darkness. A minute or two, and with the same light, hurried step, she descended the stairs, sprang past the ledger’s room, sped down to the kitchen. Under other circumstances Bessie must surely have noticed a strangeness in her look, in her manner; but to-night Bessie had thought for nothing but her own calamities.

Another day, and no further news from Sam. The next morning, instead of going to work (the loss of wages was most serious, but it couldn’t be helped), Jane privately betook herself to Sam’s house of business. Mrs. Byass was ill; would they let her know Mr. Byass’s address, that he might immediately be communicated with? The information was readily supplied; Mr. Byass was no farther away, at present, than St. Albans. Forth into the street again, and in search of a policeman. ‘Will you please to tell me what station I have to go to for St. Albans?’ Why, Moorgate Street would do; only a few minutes’ walk away. On she hastened. ‘What is the cost of a return ticket to St. Albans, please?’ Three-and-sevenpence. Back into the street again; she must now look for a certain sign, indicating a certain place of business. With some little trouble it is found; she enters a dark passage, and comes before a counter, upon which she lays — a watch, her grandfather’s old watch. ‘How much?’ ‘Four shillings, please.’ She deposits a halfpenny, and receives four shillings, together with a ticket. Now for St. Albans.

Sam! Sam! Ay, well might he turn red and stutter and look generally foolish when that quiet little girl stood before him in his ‘stock-room’ at the hotel. Her words were as quiet as her look. ‘I’ll write her a letter,’ he cries. ‘Stop; you shall take it back. I can’t give up the job at once, but you may tell her I’m up to no harm. Where’s the pen? Where’s the cursed ink?’ And she takes the letter.

‘Why, you’ve lost a day’s work, Jane! She gave you the money for the journey, I suppose?’

‘Yes, yes, of course.’

‘Tell her she’s not to make a fool of herself in future.’

‘No, I shan’t say that, Mr. Byass. But I’m half-tempted to say it to someone else!’

It was the old, happy smile, come back for a moment; the voice that had often made peace so merrily. The return journey seemed short, and with glad heart-beating she hastened from the City to Hanover Street.

Well, well; of course it would all begin over again; Jane herself knew it. But is not all life a struggle onward from compromise to compromise, until the day of final pacification?

Through that winter she lived with a strange secret in her mind, a secret which was the source of singularly varied feelings — of astonishment, of pain, of encouragement, of apprehension, of grief. To no one could she speak of it; no one could divine its existence — no one save the person to whom she owed this surprising novelty in her experience. She would have given much to be rid of it; and yet, again, might she not legitimately accept that pleasure which at times came of the thought? — the thought that, as a woman, her qualities were of some account in the world.

She did her best to keep it out of her consciousness, and in truth had so many other things to think about that it was seldom she really had trouble with it. Life was not altogether easy; regular work was not always to be kept; there was much need of planning and pinching, that her independence might suffer no wound, Bessie Byass was always in arms against that same independent spirit; she scoffed at it, assailed it with treacherous blandishment, made direct attacks upon it.

‘I must live in my own way, Mrs. Byass. I don’t want to have to leave you.’

And if ever life seemed a little too hard, if the image of the past grew too mournfully persistent, she knew where to go for consolation. Let us follow her, one Saturday afternoon early in the year.

In a poor street in Clerkenwell was a certain poor little shop — built out as an afterthought from an irregular lump of houses; a shop with a room behind it and a cellar below; no more. Here was sold second-hand clothing, women’s and children’s. No name over the front, but neighbours would have told you that it was kept by one Mrs. Todd, a young widow with several children. Mrs. Todd, not long ago, used to have only a stall in the street; but a lady named Miss Lant helped her to start in a more regular way of business.

‘And does she carry it on quite by herself?’

No; with her lived another young woman, also a widow, who had one child. Mrs. Hewett, her name. She did sewing in the room behind, or attended to the shop when Mrs. Todd was away making purchases.

There Jane Snowdon entered. The clothing that hung in the window made it very dark inside; she had to peer a little before she could distinguish the person who sat behind the counter. ‘Is Pennyloaf in, Mrs. Todd?’

‘Yes, Miss. Will you walk through?’

The room behind is lighted from the ceiling. It is heaped with the most miscellaneous clothing. It contains two beds, some shelves with crockery, a table, some chairs — but it would have taken you a long time to note all these details, so huddled together was everything. Part of the general huddling were five children, of various ages; and among them, very busy, sat Pennyloaf.

‘Everything going on well?’ was Jane’s first question.

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘Then I know it isn’t. Whenever you call me “Miss,” there’s something wrong; I’ve learnt that.’

Pennyloaf smiled, sadly but with affection in her eyes. ‘Well, I have been a bit low, an’ that’s the truth. It takes me sometimes, you know. I’ve been thinkin’, when I’d oughtn’t.’

‘Same with me, Pennyloaf. We can’t help thinking, can we? What a good thing if we’d nothing more to think about than these children! Where’s little Bob? Why, Bob, I thought you were old clothes; I did, really! You may well laugh!’

The laughter was merry, and Jane encouraged it, inventing all sorts of foolish jokes. ‘Pennyloaf, I wish you’d ask me to stay to tea.’

‘Then that I will, Miss Jane, an’ gladly. Would you like it soon?’

‘No; in an hour will do, won’t it? Give me something that wants sewing, a really hard bit, something that’ll break needles. Yes, that’ll do. Where’s Mrs. Todd’s thimble? Now we’re all going to be comfortable, and we’ll have a good talk.’

Pennyloaf found the dark thoughts slip away insensibly. And she talked, she talked — where was there such a talker as Pennyloaf nowadays, when she once began?

Mr. Byass was not very willing, after all, to give up his country travelling. That his departure on that business befell at a moment of domestic quarrel was merely chance; secretly he had made the arrangement with his firm some weeks before. The penitence which affected him upon Jane’s appeal could not be of abiding result; for, like all married men at a certain point of their lives, he felt heartily tired of home and wished to see the world a little. Hanover Street heard endless discussions of the point between Sam and Bessie, between Bessie and Jane, between Jane and Sam, between all three together. And the upshot was that Mr. Byass gained his point. For a time he would go on country journeys. Bessie assented sullenly, but, strange to say, she had never been in better spirits than on the day after this decision had been arrived at.

On that day, however — it was early in March — an annoying incident happened. Mr. Scawthorne, who always dined in town and seldom returned to his lodgings till late in the evening, rang his bell about eight o’clock and sent a message by the servant that he wished to see Mrs. Byass. Bessie having come up, he announced to her with gravity that his tenancy of the rooms would be at an end in a fortnight. Various considerations necessitated his livin in a different part of London. Bessie frankly lamented; she would never again find such an estimable lodger. But, to be sure, Mr. Scawthorne had prepared her for this, three months ago. Well, what must be, must be.

‘Is Miss Snowdon in the house, Mrs. Byass?’ Scawthorne went on to inquire.

‘Miss Snowdon? Yes.’

‘This letter from America, which I found on coming in, contains news she must hear — disagreeable news, I’m sorry to say.’

‘About her father?’ Bessie inquired anxiously.

Scawthorne nodded a grave and confidential affirmative. He had never given Mrs. Byass reason to suppose that he knew anything of Joseph’s whereabouts, but Bessie’s thoughts naturally turned in that direction.

‘The news comes to me by chance,’ he continued. ‘I think I ought to communicate it to Miss Snowdon privately, and leave her to let you know what it is, as doubtless she will. Would it be inconvenient to you to let me have the use of your parlour for five minutes?’

‘I’ll go and light the gas at once, and toil Miss Snowdon.’

‘Thank you, Mrs. Byass.’

He was nervous, a most unusual thing with him. Till Bessie’s return he p aced the room irregularly, chewing the ends of his moustache. When it was announced to him that the parlour was ready he went down, the letter in his hand. At the half-open door came a soft knock. Jane entered.

She showed signs of painful agitation.

‘Will you sit down, Miss Snowdon? It happens that I have a correspondent in the United States, who has lately had — had business relations with Mr. Joseph Snowdon, your father. On returning this evening I found a letter from my friend, in which there is news of a distressing kind.’

He paused. What he was about to say was — for once — the truth. The letter, however, came from a stranger, a lawyer in Chicago.

‘Your father, I understand, has lately been engaged in-in commercial speculation on a great scale. His enterprises have proved unfortunate. One of those financial crashes which are common in America caused his total ruin.’

Jane drew a deep breath.

‘I am sorry to say that is not all. The excitement of the days when his fate was hanging in the balance led to illness — fatal illness. He died on the sixth of February.’

Jane, with her eyes bent down, was motionless. After a pause, Scawthorne continued:

‘I will speak of this with Mr. Percival tomorrow, and every inquiry shall be made — on your behalf.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

She rose, very pale, but with more self-command than on entering the room. The latter part of his communication seemed to have affected her as a relief.

‘Miss Snowdon — if you would allow me to say a few more words. You will remember I mentioned to you that there was a prospect of my becoming a partner in the firm which I have hitherto served as clerk. A certain examination had to be passed that I might be admitted a solicitor. That is over; in a few days my position as a member of the firm will be assured.’

Jane waited, her eyes still east down.

‘I feel that it may seem to you an ill-chosen time; but the very fact that I have just been the bearer of such sad news impels me to speak. I cannot keep the promise that I would never revive the subject on which I spoke to you not long ago. Forgive me; I must ask you again if you cannot think of me as I wish? Miss Snowdon, will you let me devote myself to making your life happy? It has always seemed to me that if I could attain a position such as I now have, there would be little else to ask for. I began life poor and half-educated, and you cannot imagine the difficulties I have overcome. But if I go away from this house, and leave you so lonely, living such a hard life, there will be very little satisfaction for me in my success. Let me try to make for you a happiness such as you merit. It may seem as if we were very slightly acquainted, but I know you well enough to esteem you more highly than any women I ever met, and if you could but think of me —’

He was sincere. Jane had brought out the best in him. With the death of Snowdon all his disreputable past seemed swept away, and he had no thought of anything but a decent rectitude, a cleanly enjoyment of existence, for the future, but Jane was answering:

‘I can’t change what I said before, Mr. Scawthorne. I am very content to live as I do now. I have friends I am very fond of. Thank you for your kindness — but I can’t change.’

Without intending it, she ceased upon a word which to her hearer conveyed a twofold meaning. He understood; offer what he might, it could not tempt her to forget the love which had been the best part of her life. She was faithful to the past, and unchanging.

Mrs. Byass never suspected the second purpose for which her lodger had desired to speak with Jane this evening. Scawthorne in due time took his departure, with many expressions of goodwill, many assurances that nothing could please him better than to be of service to Bessie and her husband.

‘He wished me to say good-bye to you for him,’ said Bessie, when Jane came back from her work.

So the romance in her life was over. Michael Snowdon’s wealth had melted away; with it was gone for ever the hope of realising his high projects. All passed into the world of memory, of dream — all save the spirit which had ennobled him, the generous purpose bequeathed to those two hearts, which had loved him best.

To his memory all days were sacred; but one, that of his burial, marked itself for Jane as the point in each year to which her life was directed, the saddest, yet bringing with it her supreme solace.

A day in early spring, cloudy, cold. She left the workroom in the dinner-hour, and did net return. But instead of going to Hanover Street, she walked past Islington Green, all along Essex Road, northward thence to Stoke Newington, and so came to Abney Park Cemetery; a long way, but it did not weary her.

In the cemetery she turned her steps to a grave with a plain headstone. Before leaving England, Joseph Snowdon had discharged this duty. The inscription was simply a name, with dates of birth and death.

And, as she stood there, other footsteps approached the spot. She looked up, with no surprise, and gave her hand for a moment. On the first anniversary the meeting had been unanticipated; the same thought led her and Sidney to the cemetery at the same hour. This was the third year, and they met as if by understanding, though neither had spoken of it.

When they had stood in silence for a while, Jane told of her father’s death and its circumstances. She told him, too, of Pennyloaf’s humble security.

‘You have kept well all the year?’ he asked.

‘And you too, I hope?’

Then they bade each other good-bye . . . .

In each life little for congratulation. He with the ambitions of his youth frustrated; neither an artist, nor a leader of men in the battle for justice. She, no saviour of society by the force of a superb example; no daughter of the people, holding wealth in trust for the people’s needs. Yet to both was their work given. Unmarked, unencouraged save by their love of uprightness and mercy, they stood by the side of those more hapless, brought some comfort to hearts less courageous than their own. Where they abode it was not all dark. Sorrow certainly awaited them, perchance defeat in even the humble aims that they had set themselves; but at least their lives would remain a protest against those brute forces of society which fill with wreck the abysses of the nether world.

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