The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 7

Mrs. Byass’s Lodgings

‘You are Mr. Kirkwood?’ said his visitor civilly. ‘My name is Snowdon. I should be glad to speak a few words with you, if you could spare the time.’

Sidney’s thoughts were instantly led into the right channel; he identified the old man by his white hair and the cloak. The hat, however, which had been described to him, was now exchanged for a soft felt of a kind common enough; the guernsey, too, had been laid aside. With ready goodwill he invited Mr. Snowdon to enter.

There was not much in the room to distinguish it from the dwelling of any orderly mechanic. A small bed occupied one side; a small table stood before the window; the toilet apparatus was, of course, unconcealed; a half-open cupboard allowed a glimpse of crockery, sundries, and a few books. The walls, it is true, were otherwise ornamented than is usual; engravings, chromo-lithographs, and some sketches of landscape in pencil, were suspended wherever light fell, and the choice manifested in this collection was nowise akin to that which ruled in Mrs. Peckover’s parlour, and probably in all the parlours of Tysoe Street. To select for one’s chamber a woodcut after Constable or Gainsborough is at all events to give proof of a capacity for civilisation.

The visitor made a quick survey of these appearances; then he seated himself on the chair Sidney offered. He was not entirely at his ease, and looked up at the young man twice or thrice before he began to speak again.

‘Mr. Kirkwood, were you ever acquainted with my son, by name Joseph Snowdon?’

‘No; I never knew him,’ was the reply. ‘I have heard his name, and I know where he once lived — not far from here.’

‘You’re wondering what has brought me to you. I have heard of you from people a grandchild of mine is living with. I dare say it is the house you mean — in Clerkenwell Close.’

‘So you have found it!’ exclaimed Sidney with pleasure. ‘I’ve been looking about for you as I walked along the streets these last two or three days.’

‘Looking for me?’ said the other, astonished.

Sidney supplied the explanation, but without remarking on the circumstances which made Jane so anxious to discover a possible friend. Snowdon listened attentively, and at length, with a slight smile; he seemed to find pleasure in the young man’s way of expressing himself. When silence ensued, he looked about absently for a moment; then, meeting Sidney’s eyes, said in a grave voice:

‘That poor child is very ill.’

‘Ill? I’m sorry to hear it.’

‘The reason I’ve come to you, Mr. Kirkwood, is because she’s called out your name so often. They don’t seem able to tell me how she came into this state, but she’s had a fright of some kind, or she’s been living very unhappily. She calls on your name, as if she wanted you to protect her from harm. I didn’t know what to think about it at first. I’m a stranger to everybody — I may tell you I’ve been abroad for several years — and they don’t seem very ready to put trust in me; but I decided at last that I’d come and speak to you. It’s my grandchild, and perhaps the only one of my family left; nobody can give me news of her father since he went away four or five years ago. She came to herself this morning for a little, but I’m afraid she couldn’t understand what I tried to tell her; then I mentioned your name, and I could see it did her good at once. What I wish to ask of you is, would you come to her bedside for a few minutes? She might know you, and I feel sure it would be a kindness to her.’

Sidney appeared to hesitate. It was not, of course, that he dreamt of refusing, but he was busy revolving all he knew of Jane’s life with the Peckovers, and asking himself what it behoved him to tell, what to withhold. Daily experience guarded him against the habit of gossip, which is one of the innumerable curses of the uneducated (whether poor or wealthy), and, notwithstanding the sympathy with which his visitor inspired him, he quickly decided to maintain reserve until he understood more of the situation.

‘Yes, yes; I’ll go with you at once,’ he made haste to reply, when he perceived that his hesitancy was occasioning doubt and trouble. ‘In fact, I was just starting to go and see the Hewetts when you knocked at the door. They’re friends of mine — living in Mrs. Peckover’s house. That’s how I came to know Jane. I haven’t been there for several days, and when I last saw her, as I was saying, she seemed as well as usual.’

‘I’m afraid that wasn’t much to boast of,’ said Snowdon. ‘She’s a poor, thin-looking child.’

Sidney was conscious that the old man did not give expression to all he thought. This mutual exercise of tact seemed, however, to encourage a good understanding between them rather than the reverse.

‘You remain in the house?’ Kirkwood asked as they went downstairs.

‘I stay with her through the night. I didn’t feel much confidence in the doctor that was seeing her, so I made inquiries and found a better man.’

When they reached the Close, the door was opened to them by Clem Peckover. She glared haughtily at Sidney, but uttered no word. To Kirkwood’s surprise, they went up to the Hewetts’ back-room. The mattress that formerly lay upon the floor had been removed; the bed was occupied by the sick girl, with whom at present Mrs. Peckover was sitting. That benevolent person rose on seeing Sidney, and inclined her head with stateliness.

‘She’s just fell asleep,’ was her whispered remark. ‘I shouldn’t say myself as it was good to wake her up, but of course you know best.’

This was in keeping with the attitude Mrs. Peckover had adopted as soon as she understood Snowdon’s resolve to neglect no precaution on the child’s behalf. Her sour dignity was meant to express that she felt hurt at the intervention of others where her affections were so nearly concerned. Sidney could not help a certain fear when he saw this woman installed as sick-nurse. It was of purpose that he caught her eye and regarded her with a gravity she could scarcely fail to comprehend.

Jane awoke from her fitful slumber. She looked with but half-conscious fearfulness at the figures darkening her view. Sidney moved so that his face was in the light, and, bending near to her, asked if she recognised him. A smile — slow-forming, but unmistakable at last — amply justified what her grandfather had said. She made an effort to move her hand towards him. Sidney responded to her wish, and again she smiled, self-forgetfully, contentedly.

Snowdon turned to Mrs. Peckover, and, after a few words with regard to the treatment that was being pursued, said that he would now relieve her; she lingered, but shortly left the room. Sidney, sitting by the bed, in a few minutes saw that Jane once more slept, or appeared to do so. He whispered to Snowdon that he was going to see his friends in the next room, and would look in again before leaving.

His tap at the door was answered by Amy, who at once looked back and said:

‘Can Mr. Kirkwood come in, mother?’

‘Yes; I want to see him,’ was the answer.

Mrs. Hewett was lying in bed; she looked, if possible, more wretchedly ill than four days ago. On the floor were two mattresses, covered to make beds for the children. The baby, held in its mother’s arms, was crying feebly.

‘Why, I hoped you were getting much better by now,’ said Sidney.

Mrs. Hewett told him that she had been to the hospital on Saturday, and seemed to have caught cold. A common enough occurrence; hours of waiting in an out-patients’ room frequently do more harm than the doctor’s advice can remedy. She explained that Mrs. Peckover had requested the use of the other room.

‘There’s too many of us to be livin’ an’ sleepin’ in this Little place,’ she said; ‘but, after all, it’s a savin’ of rent. It’s a good thing Clara isn’t here. An’ you’ve heard as John’s got work?’

He had found a job at length with a cabinet-maker; tonight he would probably be working till ten or eleven o’clock. Good news so far. Then Mrs. Hewett began to speak with curiosity of the old man who claimed Jane as his grandchild. Sidney told her what had just happened.

‘An’ what did you say about the girl?’ she asked anxiously.

‘I said as little as I could; I thought it wisest. Do you know what made her ill?’

‘It was that Clem as did it,’ Mrs. Hewett replied, subduing her voice, And she related what had befallen after Sidney’s last visit. ‘Mrs. Peckover, she’s that afraid the truth should get out. Of course I don’t want to make no bother, but I do feel that glad the poor thing’s got somebody to look after her at last. I never told you half the things as used to go on. That Clem’s no better than a wild-beast tiger; but then what can you do? There’s never any good comes out of makin’ a bother with other people’s business, is there? Fancy him comin’ to see you! Mrs. Peckover’s afraid of him, I can see that, though she pretends she isn’t goin’ to stand him interferin’. What do you think about him, Sidney? He’s sent for a doctor out of Islington; wouldn’t have nothin’ to say to the other. He must have plenty of money, don’t you think? Mrs. Peckover says he’s goin’ to pay the money owin’ to her for Jane’s keep. As if the poor thing hadn’t more than paid for her bits of meals an’ her bed in the kitchen! Do you think that woman ‘ud ever have kept her if it wasn’t she could make her a servant with no wages? If Jane ‘ud been a boy, she’d a gone to the workhouse long ago. She’s been that handy, poor little mite! I’ve always done what I could for her; you know that, Sidney. I do hope she’ll get over it. If anything happens, mind my word, there’ll be a nice to-do! Clara says she’ll go to a magistrate an’ let it all out, if nobody else will. She hates the Peckovers, Clara does.’

‘It won’t come to that,’ said Sidney. ‘I can see the old man’ll take her away as soon as possible. He may have a little money; he’s just come back from Australia. I like the look of him myself.’

He began to talk of other subjects; waxed wrath at the misery of this housing to which the family had shrunk; urged a removal from the vile den as soon as ever it could be managed. Sidney always lost control of himself when he talked with the Hewetts of their difficulties; the people were, from his point of view, so lacking in resource, so stubbornly rooted in profitless habit. Over and over again he had implored them to take a rational view of the case, to borrow a few pounds of him, to make a new beginning on clean soil. It was like contending with some hostile force of nature; lie spent himself in vain.

As Hewett did not return, he at length took his leave, and went into the back-room for a moment.

‘She’s asleep,’ said Snowdon, rising from the chair where he had been sitting deep in thought. ‘It’s a good sign.’

Sidney just looked towards the bed, and nodded with satisfaction. The old man gave him a warm pressure of the hand, and he departed. All the way home, he thought with singular interest of the bare sick-room, of the white-headed man watching through the night; the picture impressed him in a way that could not be explained by its natural pathos merely; it kept suggesting all sorts of fanciful ideas, due in a measure, possibly, to Mrs. Hewett’s speculations. For an hour he was so lost in musing on the subject that he even rested from the misery of his ceaseless thought of Clara.

He allowed three days to pass, then went to inquire about Jane’s progress. It had been satisfactory. Subsequent visits brought him to terms of a certain intimacy with Snowdon. The latter mentioned at length that he was looking for two rooms, suitable for himself and Jane. He wished them to be in a decent house, somewhere in Clerkenwell, and the rent was not to be more than a working man could afford.

‘You don’t know of anything in your street?’ he asked diffidently.

Something in the tone struck Sidney. It half expressed a wish to live in his neighbourhood if possible. He looked at his companion (they were walking together), and was met in return with a glance of calm friendliness; it gratified him, strengthened the feeling of respect and attachment which had already grown out of this intercourse. In Tysoe Street, however, no accommodation could be found. Sidney had another project in his thoughts; pursuing it, he paid a visit the next evening to certain acquaintances of his named Byass, who had a house in Hanover Street, Islington, and let lodgings. Hanover Street lies to the north of City Road; it is a quiet byway, of curving form, and consists of dwellings only. Squalor is here kept at arm’s length; compared with regions close at hand, this and the contiguous streets have something of a suburban aspect.

Three or four steps led up to the house-door. Sidney’s knock summoned a young, healthy-faced, comely woman, who evinced hearty pleasure on seeing who her visitor was. She brought him at once into a parlour on the ground-floor.

‘Well, an’ I was only this mornin’ tellin’ Sam to go an’ look after you, or write a note, or somethin’! Why can’t you come round oftener? I’ve no patience with you! You just sit at ‘ome an’ get humped, an’ what’s the good o’ that, I should like to know? I thought you’d took offence with me, an’ so I told Sam. Do you want to know how baby is? Why don’t you ask, then, as you ought to do the first thing? He’s a good deal better than he deserves to be, young rascal — all the trouble he gives me! He’s fast asleep, I’m glad to say, so you can’t see him. Sam’ll be back in a few minutes; at least I expect him, but there’s no knowin’ nowadays when lie can leave the warehouse. What’s brought you to-night, I wonder? You needn’t tell me anything about the Upper Street business; I know all about that!’

‘Oh, do you? From Clara herself?’

‘Yes. Don’t talk to me about her! There! I’m sick an tired of her — an’ so are you, I should think, if you’ve any sense left. Her an’ me can’t get along, an’ that’s the truth. Why, when I met her on Sunday afternoon, she was that patronisin’ you’d have thought she’d got a place in Windsor Castle. Would she come an’ have a cup of tea? Oh dear, no! Hadn’t time! The Princess of Wales, I suppose, was waitin’ round the corner!’

Having so relieved her mind, Mrs. Byass laughed with a genuine gaiety which proved how little malice there was in her satire. Sidney could not refuse a smile, but it was a gloomy one.

‘I’m not sure you’ve done all you might have to keep her friends with you,’ he said seriously, but with a good-natured look.

‘There you go!’ exclaimed Mrs. Byass, throwing back her head. ‘Of course everybody must be in fault sooner than her! She’s an angel is Miss Hewett! Poor dear! to think how shameful she’s been used! Now I do wonder how you’ve the face to say such things, Mr. Kirkwood! Why, there’s nobody else livin’ would have been as patient with her as I always was. I’m not bad-tempered, I will say that for myself, an’ I’ve put up with all sorts of things (me, a married woman), when anyone else would have boxed her ears and told her she was a conceited minx. I used to be fond of Clara; you know I did. But she’s got beyond all bearin’; and if you wasn’t just as foolish as men always are, you’d see her in her true colours. Do shake yourself a bit, do! Oh, you silly, silly man!’

Again she burst into ringing laughter, throwing herself backwards and forwards, and at last covering her face with her hands. Sidney looked annoyed, but the contagion of such spontaneous merriment in the end brought another smile to his face. He moved his head in sign of giving up the argument, and, as soon as there was silence, turned to the object of his visit.

‘I see you’ve still got the card in the window. I shouldn’t wonder if I could find you a lodger for those top-rooms.’

‘And who’s that? No children, mind.’

Sidney told her what he could of the old man. Of Jane he only said that she had hitherto lived with the Hewetts’ landlady, and was now going to be removed by her grandfather, having just got through an illness. Dire visions of infection at once assailed Mrs. Byass; impossible to admit under the same roof with her baby a person who had just been ill. This scruple was, however, overcome; the two rooms at the top of the house — unfurnished — had been long vacant, owing to fastidiousness in Mr. and Mrs. Byass, since their last lodger, after a fortnight of continuous drunkenness, broke the windows, ripped the paper off the walls, and ended by trying to set fire to the house. Sidney was intrusted with an outline treaty, to be communicated to Mr. Snowdon.

This discussion was just concluded when Mr. Samuel Byass presented himself — a slender, large-headed young man, with very light hair cropped close upon the scalp, and a foolish face screwed into an expression of facetiousness. He was employed in some clerkly capacity at a wholesale stationer’s in City Road. Having stepped into the room, he removed a very brown silk hat and laid it on a chair, winking the while at Sidney with his right eye; then he removed his overcoat, winking with the left eye. Thus disembarrassed, he strode gravely to the fireplace, took up the poker, held it in the manner of a weapon upright against his shoulder, and exclaimed in a severe voice, ‘Eyes right!’ Then, converting the poker into a sword, he drew near to Sidney and affected to practise upon him the military cuts, his features distorted into grotesque ferocity. Finally, assuming the attitude of a juggler, he made an attempt to balance the poker perpendicularly upon his nose, until it fell with a crash, just missing the ornaments on the mantel-piece. All this time Mrs. Byass shrieked with laughter, with difficulty keeping her chair.

‘Oh, Sam,’ she panted forth, her handkerchief at her eyes, ‘what a fool you are! Do stop, or you’ll kill me!’

Vastly gratified, Samuel advanced with ludicrous gestures towards the visitor, held out his hand, and said with affected nasality, ‘How do you do, sir? It’s some time since I had the pleasure of seeing you, sir. I hope you have been pretty tolerable.’

Isn’t he a fool, Mr. Kirkwood?’ cried the delighted wife. ‘Do just give him a smack on the side of the head, to please me! Sam, go an’ wash, an’ we’ll have supper. What do you mean by being so late to-night?’

‘Where’s the infant?’ asked Mr. Byass, thrusting his hands into his waistcoat pockets and peering about the room. ‘Bring forth the infant! Let a fond parent look upon his child.’

‘Go an’ wash, or I’ll throw something at you. Baby’s in bed, and mind, you wake him if you dare!’

Sidney would have taken his leave, but found it impossible. Mrs. Byass declared that if he would not stay to supper he should never enter the house again.

‘Let’s make a night of it!’ cried Sam, standing in the doorway. ‘Let’s have three pots of six ale and a bottle of old Tom! Let us be reckless!’

His wife caught up the pillow from the sofa and hurled it at him. Samuel escaped just in time. The next moment his head was again thrust forward.

‘Let’s send to the High Street for three cold roast fowls and a beef-steak pie! Let’s get custards and cheese-cakes and French pastry! Let’s have a pine-apple and preserved ginger! Who says, Go it for once?’

Mrs. Byass caught up the poker and sprang after him. From the passage came sounds of scuffling and screaming, and in the end of something produced by the lips. Mrs. Byass then showed a very red face at the door, and said:

Isn’t he a fool? Just wait a minute while I get the table laid.’

Supper was soon ready in the comfortable kitchen. A cold shoulder of mutton, a piece of cheese, pickled beetroot, a seed-cake, and raspberry jam; such was the fare to which Bessie Byass invited her husband and her guest. On a side-table were some open cardboard boxes containing artificial flowers and leaves; for Bessie had now and then a little ‘mounting’ to do for a shop in Upper Street, and in that way aided the income of the family. She was in even better spirits than usual at the prospect of letting her top-rooms. On hearing that piece of news, Samuel, who had just come from the nearest public-house with a foaming jug, executed a wild dance round the room and inadvertently knocked two plates from the dresser. This accident made his wife wrathful, but only for a moment; presently she was laughing as unrestrainedly as ever, and bestowing upon the repentant young man her familiar flattery.

At eleven o’clock Sidney left them, and mused with smiles on his way home. This was not exactly his ideal of domestic happiness, yet it was better than the life led by the Hewetts — better than that of other households with which he was acquainted — better far, it seemed to him, than the aspirations which were threatening to lead poor Clara — who knew whither? A temptation beset him to walk round into Upper Street and pass Mrs. Tubbs’s bar. He resisted it, knowing that the result would only be a night of sleepless anger and misery.

The next day he again saw Snowdon, and spoke to him of Mrs. Byass’s rooms. The old man seemed at first indisposed to go so far; but when he had seen the interior of the house and talked with the landlady, his objections disappeared. Before another week had passed the two rooms were furnished in the simplest possible way, and Snowdon brought Jane from Clerkenwell Close.

Kirkwood came by invitation as soon as the two were fairly established in their home. He found Jane sitting by the fire in her grandfather’s room; a very little exertion still out-wearied her, and the strange things that had come to pass had made her habitually silent. She looked about her wonderingly, seemed unable to realise her position, was painfully conscious of her new clothes, ever and again started as if in fear.

‘Well, what did I say that night?’ was Sidney’s greeting. ‘Didn’t I tell you it would be all right soon?’

Jane made no answer in words, but locked at him timidly; and then a smile came upon her face, an expression of joy that could not trust itself, that seemed to her too boldly at variance with all she had yet known of life.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/nether-world/chapter7.html

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