The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 6

Glimpses of the Past

Sidney Kirkwood had a lodging in Tysoe Street, Clerkenwell. It is a short street, which, like so many in London, begins reputably and degenerates in its latter half. The cleaner end leads into Wilmington Square, which consists of decently depressing houses, occupied in the main, as the lower windows and front-doors indicate, by watchmakers, working jewellers, and craftsmen of allied pursuits. The open space, grateful in this neighbourhood, is laid out as a garden, with trees, beds, and walks. Near the iron gate, which, for certain hours in the day, gives admission, is a painted notice informing the public that, by the grace of the Marquis of Northampton, they may here take their ease on condition of good behaviour; to children is addressed a distinct warning that ‘This is not a playing ground.’ From his window Sidney had a good view of the Square. The house in which he lived was of two storeys; a brass plate on the door showed the inscription, ‘Hodgson, Dial Painter.’ The window on the ground-floor was arched, as in the other dwellings at this end of the street, and within stood an artistic arrangement of wax fruit under a glass shade, supported by a heavy volume of Biblical appearance. The upper storey was graced with a small iron balcony, on which straggled a few flower-pots. However, the exterior of this abode was, by comparison, promising; the curtains and blinds were clean, the step was washed and whitened, the brass plate shone, the panes of glass had at all events acquaintance with a duster. A few yards in the direction away from the Square, and Tysoe Street falls under the dominion of dry-rot.

It was not until he set forth to go to work next morning that Sidney called to mind his conversation with Jane. That the child should have missed by five minutes a meeting with someone who perchance had the will and the power to befriend her, seemed to him, in his present mood, merely an illustration of a vice inherent in the nature of things. He determined to look in at the public-house of which she had spoken, and hear for himself what manner of man had made inquiries for people named Snowdon. The name was not a common one; it was worth while to spend a hope or two on the chance of doing Jane a kindness. Her look and voice when he bade her be of good courage had touched him. In his rejected state, he felt that it was pleasant to earn gratitude even from so humble a being as the Peckovers’ drudge.

His workshop, it has been mentioned, was in St. John’s Square. Of all areas in London thus defined, this Square of St. John is probably the most irregular in outline. It is cut in two by Clerkenwell Road, and the buildings which compose it form such a number of recesses, of abortive streets, of shadowed alleys, that from no point of the Square can anything like a general view of its totality be obtained. The exit from it on the south side is by St. John’s Lane, at the entrance to which stands a survival from a buried world — the embattled and windowed archway which is all that remains above ground of the great Priory of St. John of Jerusalem. Here dwelt the Knights Hospitallers, in days when Clerkenwell was a rural parish, distant by a long stretch of green country from the walls of London. But other and nearer memories are revived by St. John’s Arch. In the rooms above the gateway dwelt, a hundred and fifty years ago, one Edward Cave, publisher of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and there many a time has sat a journeyman author of his, by name Samuel Johnson, too often impransus. There it was that the said Samuel once had his dinner handed to him behind a screen, because of his unpresentable costume, when Cave was entertaining an aristocratic guest. In the course of the meal, the guest happened to speak with interest of something he had recently read by an obscure Mr. Johnson; whereat there was joy behind the screen, and probably increased appreciation of the unwonted dinner. After a walk amid the squalid and toil-infested ways of Clerkenwell, it impresses one strangely to come upon this monument of old time. The archway has a sad, worn, grimy aspect. So closely is it packed in among buildings which suggest nothing but the sordid struggle for existence, that it looks depressed, ashamed, tainted by the ignobleness of its surroundings. The wonder is that it has not been swept away, in obedience to the great law of traffic and the spirit of the time.

St. John’s Arch had a place in Sidney Kirkwood’s earliest memories. From the window of his present workshop he could see its grey battlements, and they reminded him of the days when, as a lad just beginning to put questions about the surprising world in which he found himself, he used to listen to such stories as his father could tell him of the history of Clerkenwell. Mr. Kirkwood occupied part of a house in St. John’s Lane, not thirty yards from the Arch; he was a printers’ roller maker, and did but an indifferent business. A year after the birth of Sidney, his only child, he became a widower. An intelligent, warm-hearted man, the one purpose of his latter years was to realise such moderate competency as should place his son above the anxieties which degrade. The boy had a noticeable turn for drawing and colouring; at ten years old, when (as often happened) his father took him for a Sunday in the country, he carried a sketch-book and found his delight in using it. Sidney was to be a draughtsman of some kind; perhaps an artist, if all went well. Unhappily things went the reverse of well. In his anxiety to improve his business, Mr. Kirkwood invented a new kind of ‘composition’ for printers’ use; he patented it, risked capital upon it, made in a short time some serious losses. To add to his troubles, young Sidney was giving signs of an unstable character; at fifteen he had grown tired of his drawing, wanted to be this, that, and the other thing, was self-willed, and showed no consideration for his father’s difficulties. It was necessary to take a decided step, and, though against his will, Sidney was apprenticed to an uncle, a Mr. Roach, who also lived in Clerkenwell, and was a working jeweller. Two years later the father died, all but bankrupt. The few pounds realised from his effects passed into the hands of Mr. Roach, and were soon expended in payment for Sidney’s board and lodging.

His bereavement possibly saved Sidney from a young-manhood of foolishness and worse. In the upper world a youth may ‘sow his wild oats’ and have done with it; in the nether, ‘to have your fling’ is almost necessarily to fall among criminals. The death was sudden; it affected the lad profoundly, and filled him with a remorse which was to influence the whole of his life. Mr. Roach, a thick-skinned and rather thick-headed person, did not spare to remind his apprentice of the most painful things wherewith the latter had to reproach himself. Sidney bore it, from this day beginning a course of self-discipline of which not many are capable at any age, and very few indeed at seventeen. Still, there had never been any sympathy between him and his uncle, and before very long the young man saw his way to live under another roof and find work with a new employer.

It was just after leaving his uncle’s house that Sidney came to know John Hewett; the circumstances which fostered their friendship were such as threw strong light on the characters of both. Sidney had taken a room in Islington, and two rooms on the floor beneath him were tenanted by a man who was a widower and had two children. In those days, our young friend found much satisfaction in spending his Sunday evenings on Clerkenwell Green, where fervent, if ungrammatical, oratory was to be heard, and participation in debate was open to all whom the spirit moved. One whom the spirit did very frequently move was Sidney’s fellow-lodger; he had no gift of expression whatever, but his brief, stammering protests against this or that social wrong had such an honest, indeed such a pathetic sound, that Sidney took an opportunity of walking home with him and converting neighbourship into friendly acquaintance. John Hewett gave the young man an account of his life. He had begun as a lath-render; later he had got into cabinet-making, started a business on his own account, and failed. A brother of his, who was a builder’s foreman, then found employment for him in general carpentry on some new houses; but John quarrelled with his brother, and after many difficulties fell to the making of packing-cases; that was his work at present, and with much discontent he pursued it. John was curiously frank in owning all the faults in himself which had helped to make his career so unsatisfactory. He confessed that he had an uncertain temper, that he soon became impatient with work ‘which led to nothing,’ that he was tempted out of his prudence by anything which seemed to offer ‘a better start.’ With all these admissions, he maintained that he did well to be angry. It was wrong that life should be so hard; so much should not be required of a man. In body he was not strong; the weariness of interminable days over-tried him and excited his mind to vain discontent. His wife was the only one who could ever keep him cheerful under his lot, and his wedded life had lasted but six years; now there was his lad Bob and his little girl Clara to think of, and it only made him more miserable to look forward and see them going through hardships like his own. Things were wrong somehow, and it seemed to him that ‘if only we could have universal suffrage —’

Sidney was only eighteen, and strong in juvenile Radicalism, but he had a fund of common sense, and such a conclusion as this of poor John’s half-astonished, half-amused him. However, the man’s personality attracted him; it was honest, warm-hearted, interesting; the logic of his pleadings might be at fault, but Sidney sympathised with him, for all that. He too felt that ‘things were wrong somehow,’ and had a pleasure in joining the side of revolt for revolt’s sake.

Now in the same house with them dwelt a young woman of about nineteen years old; she occupied a garret, was seldom seen about, and had every appearance of being a simple, laborious girl, of the kind familiar enough as the silent victims of industrialism. One day the house was thrown into consternation by the news that Miss Barnes — so she was named — had been arrested on a charge of stealing her employer’s goods. It was true, and perhaps the best way of explaining it will be to reproduce a newspaper report which Sidney Kirkwood thereafter preserved.

‘On Friday, Margaret Barnes, nineteen, a single woman, was indicted for stealing six jackets, value 5l., the property of Mary Oaks, her mistress. The prisoner, who cried bitterly during the proceedings, pleaded guilty. The prosecutrix is a single woman, and gets her living by mantle-making, She engaged the prisoner to do what is termed “finishing off,” that is, making the button-holes and sewing on the buttons. The prisoner was also employed to fetch the work from the warehouse, and deliver it when finished. On September 7th her mistress sent her with the six jackets, and she never returned. Sergeant Smith, a detective, who apprehended the prisoner, said he had made inquiries in the case, and found that up to this time the prisoner had borne a good character as an honest, hard-working girl. She had quitted her former lodgings, which had no furniture but a small table and a few rags in a corner, and he discovered her in a room which was perfectly bare. Miss Oaks was examined, and said the prisoner was employed from nine in the morning to eight at night. The Judge: How much did you pay her per week? Miss Oaks: Four shillings. The Judge: Did you give her her food? Miss Oaks: No; I only get one shilling each for the jackets myself when completed. I have to use two sewing-machines, find my own cotton and needles, and I can, by working hard, make two in a day. The Judge said it was a sad state of things. The prisoner, when called upon, said she had had nothing to eat for three days, and so gave way to temptation, hoping to get better employment. The Judge, while commiserating with the prisoner, said it could not be allowed that distress should justify dishonesty, and sentenced the prisoner to six weeks’ imprisonment.’

The six weeks passed, and about a fortnight after that, John Hewett came into Sidney’s room one evening with a strange look on his face. His eyes were very bright, the hand which he held out trembled.

‘I’ve something to tell you,’ he said. ‘I’m going to get married again.’

‘Really? Why, I’m glad to hear it!’

‘And who do you think? Miss Barnes.’

Sidney was startled for a moment. John had had no acquaintance with the girl prior to her imprisonment. He had said that he should meet her when she came out and give her some money, and Sidney had added a contribution. For a man in Hewett’s circumstances this latest step was somewhat astonishing, but his character explained it.

‘I’m goin’ to marry her,’ he exclaimed excitedly, ‘and I’m doing the right thing! I respect her more than all the women as never went wrong because they never had occasion to. I’m goin’ to put her as a mother over my children, and I’m goin’ to make a happier life for her. She’s a good girl, I tell you. I’ve seen her nearly every day this fortnight; I know all about her. She wouldn’t have me when I first asked her — that was a week ago. She said no; she’d disgrace me. If you can’t respect her as you would any other woman, never come into my lodging!’

Sidney was warm with generous glow. He wrung Hewett’s hand and stammered incoherent words.

John took new lodgings in an obscure part of Clerkenwell, and seemed to have become a young man once more. His complaints ceased; the energy with which he went about his work was remarkable. He said his wife was the salvation of him. And then befell one of those happy chances which supply mankind with instances for its pathetic faith that a good deed will not fail of reward. John’s brother died, and bequeathed to him some four hundred pounds. Hereupon, what must the poor fellow do but open workshops on his own account, engage men, go about crying that his opportunity had come at last. Here was the bit of rock by means of which he could save himself from the sea of competition that had so nearly whelmed him! Little Clara, now eleven years old, could go on steadily at school; no need to think of how the poor child should earn a wretched living. Bob, now thirteen, should shortly be apprenticed to some better kind of trade. New rooms were taken and well furnished. Maggie, the wife, could have good food, such as she needed in her constant ailing, alas! The baby just born was no longer a cause of anxious thought, but a joy in the home. And Sidney Kirkwood came to supper as soon as the new rooms were in order, and his bright, manly face did everyone good to look at. He still took little Clara upon his knee. Ha! there would come a day before long when he would not venture to do that, and then perhaps — perhaps! What a supper that was, and how smoothly went the great wheels of the world that evening!

One baby, two babies, three babies; before the birth of the third, John’s brow was again clouded, again he had begun to rail and fume at the unfitness of things. His business was a failure, partly because he dealt with a too rigid honesty, partly because of his unstable nature, which left him at the mercy of whims and obstinacies and airy projects. He did not risk the ordinary kind of bankruptcy, but came down and down, until at length he was the only workman in his own shop; then the shop itself had to be abandoned; then he was searching for someone who would employ him.

Bob had been put to the die-sinker’s craft; Clara was still going to school, and had no thought of earning a livelihood — ominous state of things, When it shortly became clear even to John Hewett that he would wrong the girl if he did not provide her with some means of supporting herself, she was sent to learn ‘stamping’ with the same employer for whom her brother worked. The work was light; it would soon bring in a little money. John declared with fierceness that his daughter should never be set to the usual needle-slavery, and indeed it seemed very unlikely that Clara would ever be fit for that employment, as she could not do the simplest kind of sewing. In the meantime the family kept changing their abode, till at length they settled in Mrs. Peckover’s house. All the best of their furniture was by this time sold; but for the two eldest children, there would probably have been no home at all. Bob, aged nineteen, earned at this present time a pound weekly; his sister, an average of thirteen shillings. Mrs. Hewett’s constant ill-health (the result, doubtless, of semi-starvation through the years of her girlhood), would have excused defects of housekeeping; but indeed the poor woman was under any circumstances incapable of domestic management, and therein represented her class. The money she received was wasted in comparison with what might have been done with it. I suppose she must not be blamed for bringing children into the world when those already born to her were but half-clothed, half-fed; she increased the sum total of the world’s misery in obedience to the laws of the Book of Genesis. And one virtue she had which compensated for all that was lacking — a virtue merely negative among the refined, but in that other world the rarest and most precious of moral distinctions — she resisted the temptations of the public-house.

This was the story present in Sidney Kirkwood’s mind as often as he climbed the staircase in Clerkenwell Close. By contrast, his own life seemed one of unbroken ease. Outwardly it was smooth enough. He had no liking for his craft, and being always employed upon the meaningless work which is demanded by the rich vulgar, he felt such work to be paltry and ignoble; but there seemed no hope of obtaining better, and he made no audible complaint. His wages were consider ably more than he needed, and systematically he put money aside each week.

But this orderly existence concealed conflicts of heart and mind which Sidney himself could not have explained, could not lucidly have described. The moral shock which he experienced at his father’s death put an end to the wanton play of his energies, but it could not ripen him before due time; his nature was not of the sterile order common in his world, and through passion, through conflict, through endurance, it had to develop such maturity as fate should permit. Saved from self-indulgence, he naturally turned into the way of political enthusiasm; thither did his temper point him. With some help — mostly negative — from Clerkenwell Green, he reached the stage of confident and aspiring Radicalism, believing in the perfectibility of man, in human brotherhood, in-anything you like that is the outcome of a noble heart sheltered by ignorance. It had its turn, and passed.

To give place to nothing very satisfactory. It was not a mere coincidence that Sidney was going through a period of mental and moral confusion just in those years which brought Clara Hewett from childhood to the state of woman. Among the acquaintances of Sidney’s boyhood there was not one but had a chosen female companion from the age of fifteen or earlier; he himself had been no exception to the rule in his class, but at the time of meeting with Hewett he was companionless, and remained so. The Hewetts became his closest friends; in their brief prosperity he rejoiced with them, in their hardships he gave them all the assistance to which John’s pride would consent; his name was never spoken among them but with warmth and gratitude. And of course the day came to which Hewett had looked forward — the day when Sidney could no longer take Clara upon his knee and stroke her brown hair and joke with her about her fits of good and ill humour. Sidney knew well enough what was in his friend’s mind, and, though with no sense of constraint, he felt that this handsome, keen-eyed, capricious girl was destined to be his wife. He liked Clara; she always attracted him and interested him; but her faults were too obvious to escape any eye, and the older she grew, the more was he impressed and troubled by them. The thought of Clara became a preoccupation, and with the love which at length he recognised there blended a sense of fate fulfilling itself. His enthusiasms, his purposes, never defined as education would have defined them, were dissipated into utter vagueness. He lost his guiding interests, and found himself returning to those of boyhood. The country once more attracted him; he took out his old sketch-books, bought a new one, revived the regret that he could not be a painter of landscape. A visit to one or two picture-galleries, and then again profound discouragement, recognition of the fact that he was a mechanic and never could be anything else.

It was the end of his illusions. For him not even passionate love was to preserve the power of idealising its object. He loved Clara with all the desire of his being, but could no longer deceive himself in judging her character. The same sad clearness of vision affected his judgment of the world about him, of the activities in which he had once been zealous, of the conditions which enveloped his life and the lives of those dear to him. The spirit of revolt often enough stirred within him, but no longer found utterance in the speech which brings relief; he did his best to dispel the mood, mocking at it as folly. Consciously he set himself the task of becoming a practical man, of learning to make the best of life as he found it, of shunning as the fatal error that habit of mind which kept John Hewett on the rack. Who was he that he should look for pleasant things in his course through the world? ‘We are the lower orders; we are the working classes,’ he said bitterly to his friend, and that seemed the final answer to all his aspirations.

This was a dark day with him. The gold he handled stung him to hatred and envy, and every feeling which he had resolved to combat as worse than profitless. He could not speak to his fellow-workmen. From morning to night it had rained. St. John’s Arch looked more broken-spirited than ever, drenched in sooty moisture.

During the dinner-hour he walked over to the public-house of which Jane had spoken, and obtained from the barman as full a description as possible of the person he hoped to encounter. Both then and on his return home in the evening he shunned the house where his friends dwelt.

It came round to Monday. For the first time for many months he had allowed Sunday to pass without visiting the Hewetts. He felt that to go there at present would only be to increase the parents’ depression by his own low spirits. Clara had left them now, however, and if he still stayed away, his behaviour might be misinterpreted. On returning from work, he washed, took a hurried meal, and was on the point of going out when someone knocked at his door. He opened, and saw an old man who was a stranger to him.

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