The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 5

Jane is Visited

At ten o’clock next morning Mrs. Peckover reached home. She was a tall, big-boned woman of fifty, with an arm like a coalheaver’s. She had dark hair, which shone and was odorous with unguents; a sallow, uncomely face, and a handsome moustache. Her countenance was more difficult to read than Clem’s; a coarse, and most likely brutal, nature was plain enough in its lines, but there was also a suggestion of self-restraint, of sagacity, at all events of cunning — qualities which were decidedly not inherited by her daughter. With her came the relative whose presence had been desired at the funeral today. This was Mrs. Gully, a stout person with a very red nose and bleared eyes. The credit of the family demanded that as many relatives as possible should follow the hearse, and Mrs. Peckover’s reason for conducting Mrs. Gully hither was a justifiable fear lest, if she came alone, the latter would arrive in too manifest a state of insobriety. A certain amount of stimulant had been permitted on the way, just enough to assist a genteel loquacity, for which Mrs. Gully had a reputation. She had given her word to abstain from further imbibing until after the funeral.

The news which greeted her arrival was anything but welcome to Mrs. Peckover. In the first place, there would be far more work than usual to be performed in the house today, and Jane could be ill spared. Worse than that, however, Clara Hewett, who was losing half a day’s work on Jane’s account, made a very emphatic statement as to the origin of the illness, and said that if anything happened to Jane, there would be disagreeable facts forthcoming at a coroner’s inquest. Having looked at the sick child, Mrs. Peckover went downstairs and shut herself up with Clem. There was a stormy interview.

‘So you thought you’d have yer fling, did you, just because I wasn’t ’ere? You must go makin’ trouble, just to suit yer own fancies! I’ll pay you, my lady! Gr-r-r!’

Whereupon followed the smack of a large hand on a fleshy cheek, so vigorous and unexpected a blow that even the sturdy Clem staggered back.

‘You leave me alone, will you?’ she roared out, her smitten cheek in a flame. ‘Do that again, an’ I’ll give you somethin’ for yerself! See if I don’t! You just try it on!’

The room rang with uproarious abuse, with disgusting language, with the terrific threats which are such common flowers of rhetoric in that world, and generally mean nothing whatever. The end of it all was that Clem went to fetch a doctor; one in whom Mrs. Peckover could repose confidence. The man was, in fact, a druggist, with a shop in an obscure street over towards St. Luke’s; in his window was exhibited a card which stated that a certain medical man could be consulted here daily. The said medical man had, in fact, so much more business than he could attend to — his name appearing in many shops — that the druggist was deputed to act as his assistant, and was considerately supplied with death-certificates, already signed, and only needing to be filled in with details. Summoned by Mrs. Peckover, whose old acquaintance he was, the druggist left the shop in care of his son, aged fifteen, and sped to Clerkenwell Close. He made light of Jane’s ailment. ‘A little fever, that was all — soon pull her round. Any wounds, by-the-by? No? Oh, soon pull her round. Send for medicines.’

‘We’ll have her down in the back-kitchen as soon as the corffin’s away,’ said Mrs. Peckover to Mrs. Hewett. ‘Don’t you upset yerself about it, my dear; you’ve got quite enough to think about. Yer ‘usband got anythink yet? Dear, dear! Don’t you put yerself out. I’m sure it was a great kindness of you to let the troublesome thing lay ’ere all night.’

Funeral guests were beginning to assemble. On arriving, they were conducted first of all into the front-room on the ground-floor, the Peckovers’ parlour. It was richly furnished. In the centre stood a round table, which left small space for moving about, and was at present covered with refreshments. A polished sideboard supported a row of dessert-plates propped on their edges, and a number of glass vessels, probably meant for ornament alone, as they could not possibly have been put to any use. A low cupboard in a recess was surmounted by a frosted cardboard model of St. Paul’s under a glass case, behind which was reared an oval tray painted with flowers.. Over the mantel-piece was the regulation mirror, its gilt frame enveloped in coarse yellow gauze; the mantel-piece itself bore a ‘wealth’ of embellishments in glass and crockery. On each side of it hung a framed silhouette, portraits of ancestors. Other pictures there were many, the most impressive being an ancient oil-painting, of which the canvas bulged forth from the frame; the subject appeared to be a ship, but was just as likely a view of the Alps. Several German prints conveyed instruction as well as delight; one represented the trial of Strafford in Westminster Hall; another, the trial of William Lord Russell, at the Old Bailey. There was also a group of engraved portraits, the Royal Family of England early in the reign of Queen Victoria; and finally, ‘The Destruction of Nineveh,’ by John Martin. Along the window-sill were disposed flower-pots containing artificial plants; one or other was always being knocked down by the curtains or blinds.

Each guest having taken a quaff of ale or spirits or what was called wine, with perhaps a mouthful of more solid sustenance, was then led down into the back-kitchen to view the coffin and the corpse. I mention the coffin first, because in everyone’s view this was the main point of interest. Could Mrs. Peckover have buried the old woman in an orange-crate, she would gladly have done so for the saving of expense; but with relatives and neighbours to consider, she drew a great deal of virtue out of necessity, and dealt so very handsomely with the undertaker, that this burial would be the talk of the Close for some weeks. The coffin was inspected inside and out, was admired and appraised, Mrs. Peckover being at hand to check the estimates. At the same time every most revolting detail of the dead woman’s last illness was related and discussed and mused over and exclaimed upon. ‘A lovely corpse, considerin’ her years,’ was the general opinion. Then all went upstairs again, and once more refreshed themselves. The house smelt like a bar-room.

‘Everythink most respectable, I’m sure!’ remarked the female mourners to each other, as they crowded together in the parlour.

‘An’ so it had ought to be!’ exclaimed one, in an indignant tone, such as is reserved for the expression of offence among educated people, but among the poor — the London poor, least original and least articulate beings within the confines of civilisation — has also to do duty for friendly emphasis. ‘If Mrs. Peckover can’t afford to do things respectable, who can?’

And the speaker looked defiantly about her, as if daring contradiction. But only approving murmurs replied. Mrs. Peckover had, in fact, the reputation of being wealthy; she was always inheriting, always accumulating what her friends called ‘interess,’ never expending as other people needs must. The lodgings she let enabled her to live rent-free and rate-free. Clem’s earnings at an artificial-flower factory more than paid for that young lady’s board and clothing, and all other outlay was not worth mentioning as a deduction from the income created by her sundry investments. Her husband — ten years deceased — had been a ‘moulder’; he earned on an average between three and four pounds a week, and was so prudently disposed that, for the last decade of his life, he made it a rule never to spend a farthing of his wages. Mrs. Peckover at that time kept a small beer-shop in Rosoman Street — small and unpretending in appearance, but through it there ran a beery Pactolus. By selling the business shortly after her husband’s death, Mrs. Peckover realised a handsome capital. She retired into private life, having a strong sense of personal dignity, and feeling it necessary to devote herself to the moral training of her only child.

At half-past eleven Mrs. Peckover was arrayed in her mourning robes — new, dark-glistening. During her absence Clem had kept guard over Mrs. Gully, whom it was very difficult indeed to restrain from the bottles and decanters; the elder lady coming to relieve, Clem could rush away and don her own solemn garments. The undertaker with his men arrived; the hearse and coaches drove up; the Close was in a state of excitement. ‘Now that’s what I call a respectable turn-out!’ was the phrase passed from mouth to mouth in the crowd gathering near the door. Children in great numbers had absented themselves from school for the purpose of beholding this procession. ‘I do like to see spirited ‘orses at a funeral!’ remarked one of the mourners, who had squeezed his way to the parlour window. ‘It puts the finishin’ touch, as you may say, don’t it?’ When the coffin was borne forth, there was such a press in the street that the men with difficulty reached the hearse. As the female mourners stepped across the pavement with handkerchiefs held to their mouths, a sigh of satisfaction was audible throughout the crowd; the males were less sympathetically received, and some jocose comments from a costermonger, whose business was temporarily interrupted, excited indulgent smiles.

The procession moved slowly away, and the crowd, unwilling to disperse immediately, looked about for some new source of entertainment. They were fortunate, for at this moment came round the corner an individual notorious throughout Clerkenwell as ‘Mad Jack.’ Mad he presumably was — at all events, an idiot. A lanky, raw-boned, red-beaded man, perhaps forty years old; not clad, but hung over with the filthiest rags; hatless, shoeless. He supported himself by singing in the streets, generally psalms, and with eccentric modulations of the voice which always occasioned mirth in hearers. Sometimes he stood at a corner and began the delivery of a passage of Scripture in French; how, where, or when he could have acquired this knowledge was a mystery, and Jack would throw no light on his own past. At present, having watched the funeral coaches pass away, he lifted up his voice in a terrific blare, singing, ‘All ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever.’ Instantly he was assailed by the juvenile portion of the throng, was pelted with anything that came to hand, mocked mercilessly, buffeted from behind. For a while he persisted in his psalmody, but at length, without warning, he rushed upon his tormentors, and with angry shrieks endeavoured to take revenge. The uproar continued till a policeman came and cleared the way. Then Jack went off again, singing, ‘All ye works of the Lord.’ With his voice blended that of the costermonger, ‘Penny a bundill!’

Up in the Hewetts’ back-room lay Jane Snowdon, now seemingly asleep, now delirious. When she talked, a name was constantly upon her lips; she kept calling for ‘Mr. Kirkwood.’ Amy was at school; Annie and Tom frequently went into the room and gazed curiously at the sick girl. Mrs. Hewett felt so ill today that she could only lie on the bed and try to silence her baby’s crying.

The house-door was left wide open between the departure and return of the mourners; a superstition of the people demands this. The Peckovers brought back with them some half a dozen relatives and friends, invited to a late dinner. The meal had been in preparation at an eating-house close by, and was now speedily made ready in the parlour. A liberal supply of various ales was furnished by the agency of a pot-boy (Jane’s absence being much felt), and in the course of half an hour or so the company were sufficiently restored to address themselves anew to the bottles and decanters. Mrs. Gully was now permitted to obey her instincts; the natural result could be attributed to overstrung feelings.

Just when the mourners had grown noisily hilarious, testifying thereby to the respectability with which things were being conducted to the very end, Mrs. Peckover became aware of a knocking at the front-door. She bade her daughter go and see who it was. Clem, speedily returning, beckoned her mother from among the guests.

‘It’s somebody wants to know if there ain’t somebody called Snowdon livin’ ’ere,’ she whispered in a tone of alarm. ‘An old man.’

Mrs. Peckover never drank more than was consistent with the perfect clearness of her brain. At present she had very red cheeks, and her cat-like eyes gleamed noticeably, but any kind of business would have found her as shrewdly competent as ever.

‘What did you say?’ she whispered savagely

‘Said I’d come an’ ask.’

‘You stay ’ere. Don’t say nothink.’

Mrs. Peckover left the room, closed the door behind her, and went along the passage. On the doorstep stood a man with white hair, wearing an unusual kind of cloak and a strange hat. He looked at the landlady without speaking.

‘What was you wantin’, mister?’

‘I have been told,’ replied the man in a clear, grave voice, ‘that a child of the name of Snowdon lives in your house, ma’am.’

‘Eh? Who told you that?’

‘The people next door but one. I’ve been asking at many houses in the neighbourhood. There used to be relations of mine lived somewhere here; I don’t know the house, nor the street exactly. The name isn’t so very common. If you don’t mind, I should like to ask you who the child’s parents was.’

Mrs. Peckover’s eyes were searching the speaker with the utmost closeness.

‘I don’t mind tellin’ you,’ she said, ‘that there is a child of that name in the ’ouse, a young girl, at least. Though I don’t rightly know her age, I take her for fourteen or fifteen.’

The old man seemed to consult his recollections.

‘If it’s anyone I’m thinking of,’ he said slowly, ‘she can’t be quite as old as that.’

The woman’s face changed; she looked away for a moment.

‘Well, as I was sayin’, I don’t rightly know her age. Any way, I’m responsible for her. I’ve been a mother to her, an’ a good mother — though I say it myself — these six years or more. I look on her now as a child o’ my own. I don’t know who you may be, mister. P’r’aps you’ve come from abroad?’

‘Yes, I have. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t tell you that I’m trying to find any of my kin that are still alive, There was a married son of mine that once lived somewhere about here. His name was Joseph James Snowdon. When I last heard of him, he was working at a ‘lectroplater’s in Clerkenwell. That was thirteen years ago. I deal openly with you; I shall thank you if you’ll do the like with me.’

‘See, will you just come in? I’ve got a few friends in the front-room; there’s been a death in the ’ouse, an’ there’s sickness, an’ we’re out of order a bit, I’ll ask you to come downstairs.’

It was late in the afternoon, and though lights were not yet required in the upper rooms, the kitchen would have been all but dark save for the fire. Mrs. Peckover lit a lamp and bade her visitor be seated. Then she reexamined his face, his attire, his hands. Everything about him told of a life spent in mechanical labour. His speech was that of an untaught man, yet differed greatly from the tongue prevailing in Clerkenwell; he was probably not a Londoner by birth, and — a point of more moment — he expressed himself in the tone of one who is habitually thoughtful, who, if the aid of books has been denied to him, still has won from life the kind of knowledge which develops character. Mrs. Peckover had small experience of faces which bear the stamp of simple sincerity. This man’s countenance put her out. As a matter of course, he wished to overreach her in some way, but he was obviously very deep indeed. And then she found it so difficult to guess his purposes. How would he proceed if she gave him details of Jane’s history, admitting that she was the child of Joseph James Snowdon? What, again, had he been told by the people of whom he had made inquiries? She needed time to review her position.

‘As I was sayin’,’ she resumed, poking the fire, ‘I’ve been a mother to her these six years or more, an’ I feel I done the right thing by her. She was left on my ‘ands by them as promised to pay for her keep; an’ a few months, I may say a few weeks, was all as ever I got. Another woman would a sent the child to the ‘Ouse; but that’s always the way with me; I’m always actin’ against my own interesses.’

‘You say that her parents went away and left her?’ asked the old man, knitting his brows.

‘Her father did. Her mother, she died in this very ’ouse, an’ she was buried from it. He gave her a respectable burial, I’ll say that much for him. An’ I shouldn’t have allowed anything but one as was respectable to leave this ’ouse; I’d sooner a paid money out o’ my own pocket. That’s always the way with me. Mr. Willis, he’s my undertaker; you’ll find him at Number 17 Green Passage He buried my ‘usband; though that wasn’t from the Close; but I never knew a job turned out more respectable. He was ’ere today; we’ve only just buried my ‘usband’s mother. That’s why I ain’t quite myself — see?’

Mrs. Peckover was not wont to be gossippy. She became so at present, partly in consequence of the stimulants she had taken to support her through a trying ceremony, partly as a means of obtaining time to reflect. Jane’s unlucky illness made an especial difficulty in her calculations. She felt that the longer she delayed mention of the fact, the more likely was she to excite suspicion; on the other hand, she could not devise the suitable terms in which to reveal it. The steady gaze of the old man was disconcerting. Not that he searched her face with a cunning scrutiny, such as her own eyes expressed; she would have found that less troublesome, as being familiar. The anxiety, the troubled anticipation, which her words had aroused in him, were wholly free from shadow of ignoble motive; he was pained, and the frequent turning away of his look betrayed that part of the feeling was caused by observation of the woman herself, but every movement visible on his features was subdued by patience and mildness. Suffering was a life’s habit with him, and its fruit in this instance that which (spite of moral commonplace) it least often bears-self-conquest.

‘You haven’t told me yet,’ he said, with quiet disregard of her irrelevancies, ‘whether or not her father’s name was Joseph Snowdon.’

‘There’s no call to hide it. That was his name. I’ve got letters of his writin’. “J. J. Snowdon” stands at the end, plain enough. And he was your son, was he?’

‘He was. But have you any reason to think he’s dead?’

‘Dead! I never heard as he was. But then I never heard as he was livin’, neither. When his wife went, poor thing — an’ it was a chill on the liver, they said; it took her very sudden — he says to me, “Mrs. Peckover,” he says, “I know you for a motherly woman”— just like that — see? —“I know you for a motherly woman,” he says, “an’ the idea I have in my ‘ed is as I should like to leave Janey in your care, ‘cause,” he says, “I’ve got work in Birmingham, an’ I don’t see how I’m to take her with me. Understand me?” he says. “Oh!” I says — not feelin’ quite sure what I’d ought to do — see? “Oh!” I says. “Yes,” he says; “an’ between you an’ me,” he says, “there won’t be no misunderstanding. If you’ll keep Janey with you”— an’ she was goin’ to school at the time, ‘cause she went to the same as my own Clem — that’s Clemintiner — understand? —“if you’ll keep Janey with you,” he says, “for a year, or maybe two years, or maybe three years —‘cause that depends on cirkinstances”— understand? —“I’m ready,” he says, “to pay you what it’s right that pay I should, an’ I’m sure,” he says, “as we shouldn’t misunderstand one another.” Well, of course I had my own girl to bring up, an’ my own son to look after too. A nice sort o’ son; just when he was beginnin’ to do well, an’ ought to a paid me back for all the expense I was at in puttin’ him to a business, what must he do but take his ‘ook to Australia.’

Her scrutiny discerned something in the listener’s face which led her to ask:

‘Perhaps you’ve been in Australia yourself, mister?’

‘I have.’

The woman paused, speculation at work in her eyes.

‘Do you know in what part of the country your son is?’ inquired the old man absently.

‘He’s wrote me two letters, an’ the last, as come more than a year ago, was from a place called Maryborough.’

The other still preserved an absent expression; his eyes travelled about the room.

‘I always said,’ pursued Mrs. Peckover, ‘as it was Snowdon as put Australia into the boy’s ‘ed. He used to tell us he’d got a brother there, doin’ well. P’r’aps it wasn’t true.’

‘Yes, it was true,’ replied the old man coldly. ‘But you haven’t told me what came to pass about the child.’

An exact report of all that Mrs. Peckover had to say on this subject would occupy more space than it merits. The gist of it was that for less than a year she had received certain stipulated sums irregularly; that at length no money at all was forthcoming; that in the tenderness of her heart she had still entertained the child, sent her to school, privately instructed her in the domestic virtues, trusting that such humanity would not lack even its material reward, and that either Joseph Snowdon or someone akin to him would ultimately make good to her the expenses she had not grudged.

‘She’s a child as pays you back for all the trouble you take, so much I will say for her,’ observed the matron in conclusion. ‘Not as it hasn’t been a little ‘ard to teach her tidiness, but she’s only a young thing still. I shouldn’t wonder but she’s felt her position a little now an’ then; it’s only natural in a growin’ girl, do what you can to prevent it. Still, she’s willin’; that nobody can deny, an’ I’m sure I should never wish to. Her cirkinstances has been peculiar; that you’ll understand, I’m sure. But I done my best to take the place of the mother as is gone to a better world. An’ now that she’s layin’ ill, I’m sure no mother could feel it more —’

‘Ill? Why didn’t you mention that before?’

‘Didn’t I say as she was ill? Why, I thought it was the first word I spoke as soon as you got into the ’ouse. You can’t a noticed it, or else it was me as is so put about. What With havin’ a burial —’

‘Where is she?’ asked the old man anxiously.

‘Where? Why, you don’t think as I’d a sent her to be looked after by strangers? She’s layin’ in Mrs. Hewett’s room — that’s one o’ the lodgers — all for the sake o’ comfort. A better an’ kinder woman than Mrs. Hewett you wouldn’t find, not if you was to —’

With difficulty the stranger obtained a few details of the origin and course of the illness — details wholly misleading, but devised to reassure. When he desired to see Jane, Mrs. Peckover assumed an air of perfect willingness, but reminded him that she had nothing save his word to prove that he had indeed a legitimate interest in the girl.

‘I can do no more than tell you that Joseph James Snowdon was my younger son,’ replied the old man simply. ‘I’ve come back to spend my last years in England, and I hoped — I hope still — to find my son. I wish to take his child into my own care; as he left her to strangers — perhaps he didn’t do it willingly; he may be dead — he could have nothing to say against me giving her the care of a parent. You’ve been at expense —’

Mrs. Peckover waited with eagerness, but the sentence remained incomplete. Again the old man’s eyes strayed about the room. The current of his thoughts seemed to change, and he said:

‘You could show me those letters you spoke of — of my son’s writing?’

‘Of course I could,’ was the reply, in the tone of coarse resentment whereby the scheming vulgar are wont to testify to their dishonesty.

‘Afterwards — afterwards. I should like to see Jane, if you’ll be so good.’

The mild voice, though often diffident, now and then fell upon a note of quiet authority which suited well with the speaker’s grave, pure countenance. As he spoke thus, Mrs. Peckover rose, and said she would first go upstairs just to see how things were. She was absent ten minutes, then a little girl — Amy Hewett — came into the kitchen and asked the stranger to follow her.

Jane had been rapidly transferred from the mattress to the bedstead, and the room had been put into such order as was possible. A whisper from Mrs. Peckover to Mrs. Hewett, promising remission of half a week’s rent, had sufficed to obtain for the former complete freedom in her movements. The child, excited by this disturbance, had begun to moan and talk inarticulately. Mrs. Peckover listened for a moment, but heard nothing dangerous. She bade the old man enter noiselessly, and herself went about on tip-toe, speaking only in a hoarse whisper.

The visitor had just reached the bedside, and was gazing with deep, compassionate interest at the unconscious face, when Jane, as if startled, half rose and cried painfully, ‘Mr. Kirkwood! oh, Mr. Kirkwood!’ and she stretched her hand out, appearing to believe that the friend she called upon was near her.

‘Who is that?’ inquired the old man, turning to his companion.

‘Only a friend of ours,’ answered Mrs. Peckover, herself puzzled and uneasy.

Again the sick girl called ‘Mr. Kirkwood!’ but without other words. Mrs. Peckover urged the danger of this excitement, and speedily led the way downstairs.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/nether-world/chapter5.html

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