The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 9


Through the day and through the evening Clara Hewett had her place behind Mrs. Tubbs’s bar. For daylight wear, the dress which had formerly been her best was deemed sufficient; it was simple, but not badly made, and became her figure. Her evening attire was provided by Mrs. Tubbs, who recouped herself by withholding the promised wages for a certain number of weeks. When Clara had surveyed this garment in the bar mirror, she turned away contemptuously; the material was cheap, the mode vulgar. It must be borne with for the present, like other indignities which she found to be inseparable from her position. As soon as her employer’s claim was satisfied, and the weekly five shillings began to be paid, Clara remembered the promise she had volunteered to her father. But John was once more at work; for the present there really seemed no need to give him any of her money, and she herself, on the other hand, lacked so many things. This dress plainly would not be suitable for the better kind of engagement she had in view; it behoved her first of all to have one made in accordance with her own taste. A mantle, too, a silk umbrella, gloves — It would be unjust to herself to share her scanty earnings with those at home.

Yes; but you must try to understand this girl of the people, with her unfortunate endowment of brains and defect of tenderness. That smile of hers, which touched and fascinated and made thoughtful, had of course a significance discoverable by study of her life and character. It was no mere affectation; she was not conscious, in smiling, of the expression upon her face. Moreover, there was justice in the sense of wrong discernible upon her features when the very self looked forth from them. All through his life John Hewett had suffered from the same impulse of revolt; less sensitively constructed than his daughter, uncalculating, inarticulate, he fumed and fretted away his energies in a conflict with forces ludicrously personified. In the matter of his second marriage he was seen at his best, generously defiant of social cruelties; but self-knowledge was denied him, and circumstances condemned his life to futility. Clara inherited his temperament; transferred to her more complex nature, it gained in subtlety and in power of self-direction, but lost in its nobler elements. Her mother was a capable and ambitious woman, one in whom active characteristics were more prominent than the emotional. With such parents, every probability told against her patient acceptance of a lot which allowed her faculties no scope. And the circumstances of her childhood were such as added a peculiar bitterness to the trials waiting upon her maturity.

Clara, you remember, had reached her eleventh year when her father’s brother died and left the legacy of which came so little profit. That was in 1878. State education had recently made a show of establishing itself, and in the Hewetts’ world much argument was going on with reference to the new Board schools, and their advantages or disadvantages when compared with those in which working-folk’s children had hitherto been taught. Clara went to a Church school, and the expense was greater than the new system rendered necessary. Her father’s principles naturally favoured education on an independent basis, but a prejudice then (and still) common among workpeople of decent habits made him hesitate about sending his girl to sit side by side with the children of the street; and he was confirmed by Clara’s own view of the matter. She spoke with much contempt of Board schools, and gave it to be understood that her religious convictions would not suffer her to be taught by those who made light of orthodoxy This attitude was intelligible enough in a child of sharp wit and abundant self-esteem. Notwithstanding her father’s indifferentism, little Clara perceived that a regard for religion gave her a certain distinction at home, and elsewhere placed her apart from ‘common girls.’ She was subject also to special influences: on the one hand, from her favourite teacher, Miss Harrop; on the other, from a school-friend, Grace Rudd.

Miss Harrop was a good, warm-hearted woman of about thirty, one of those unhappy persons who are made for domestic life, but condemned by fate to school-celibacy. Lonely and impulsive, she drew to herself the most interesting girl in her classes, and, with complete indiscretion, made a familiar, a pet, a prodigy of one whose especial need was discipline. By her confidences and her flatteries she set Clara aflame with spiritual pride. Ceaselessly she excited her to ambition, remarked on her gifts, made dazzling forecast of her future. Clara was to be a teacher first of all, but only that she might be introduced to the notice of people who would aid her to better things. And the child came to regard this as the course inevitably before her. Had she not already received school-prizes, among them a much-gilded little volume ‘for religious knowledge’? Did she not win universal applause when she recited a piece of verse on prize-day — Miss Harrop (disastrous kindness!) even saying that the delivery reminded her of Mrs. —— the celebrated actress!

Grace Rudd was busy in the same fatal work. Four years older than Clara, weakly pretty, sentimental, conceited, she had a fancy for patronising the clever child, to the end that she might receive homage in return. Poor Grace! She left school, spent a year or two at home with parents as foolish as herself, and — disappeared. Prior to that, Miss Harrop had also passed out of Clara’s ken, driven by restlessness to try another school, away from London.

These losses appeared to affect Clara unfavourably. She began to neglect her books, to be insubordinate, to exhibit arrogance, which brought down upon her plenty of wholesome reproof. Her father was not without a share in the responsibility for it all. Entering upon his four hundred pounds, one of the first things John did was to hire a piano, that his child might be taught to play. Pity that Sidney Kirkwood could not then cry with effective emphasis, ‘We are the working classes! we are the lower orders!’ It was exactly what Hewett would not bring himself to understand. What! His Clara must be robbed of chances just because her birth was not that of a young lady? Nay, by all the unintelligible Powers, she should enjoy every help that he could possibly afford her. Bless her bright face and her clever tongue! Yes, it was now a settled thing that she should be trained for a schoolteacher. An atmosphere of refinement must be made for her; she must be better dressed, more delicately fed.

The bitter injustice of it! In the outcome you are already instructed. Long before Clara was anything like ready to enter upon a teacher’s career, her father’s ill-luck once more darkened over the home. Clara had made no progress since Miss Harrop’s day. The authorities directing her school might have come forward with aid of some kind, had it appeared to them that the girl would repay such trouble; but they had their forebodings about her. Whenever she chose, she could learn in five minutes what another girl could scarcely commit to memory in twenty; but it was obviously for the sake of display. The teachers disliked her; among the pupils she had no friends. So at length there came the farewell to school and the beginning of practical life, which took the shape of learning to stamp crests and addresses on note-paper. There was hope that before long Clara might earn thirteen shillings a week.

The bitter injustice of it! Clara was seventeen now, and understood the folly of which she had been guilty a few years ago, but at the same time she felt in her inmost heart the tyranny of a world which takes revenge for errors that are inevitable, which misleads a helpless child and then condemns it for being found astray. She could judge herself, yes, better than Sidney Kirkwood could judge her. She knew her defects, knew her vices, and a feud with fate caused her to accept them defiantly. Many a time had she sobbed out to herself, ‘I wish I could neither read nor write! I wish I had never been told that there is anything better than to work with one’s hands and earn daily bread!’ But she could not renounce the claims that Nature had planted in her, that her guardians had fostered. The better she understood how difficult was every way of advancement, the more fiercely resolute was she to conquer satisfactions which seemed beyond the sphere of her destiny.

Of late she had thought much of her childish successes in reciting poetry. It was not often that she visited a theatre (her father had always refused to let her go with any one save himself or Sidney), but on the rare occasions when her wish was gratified, she had watched each actress with devouring interest, with burning envy, and had said to herself, ‘Couldn’t I soon learn to do as well as that? Can’t I see where it might be made more lifelike? Why should it be impossible for me to go on the stage?’ In passing a shop-window where photographs were exposed, she looked for those of actresses, and gazed at them with terrible intensity. ‘I am as good-looking as she is. Why shouldn’t my portrait be seen some day in the windows?’ And then her heart throbbed, smitten with passionate desire. As she walked on there was a turbid gloom about her, and in her ears the echoing of a dread temptation. Of all this she spoke to nobody.

For she had no friends. A couple of years ago something like an intimacy had sprung up between her and Bessie Jones (since married and become Bessie Byass), seemingly on the principle of contrast in association. Bessie, like most London workgirls, was fond of the theatre, and her talk helped to nourish the ambition which was secretly developing in Clara. But the two could not long harmonise. Bessie, just after her marriage, ventured to speak with friendly reproof of Clara’s behaviour to Sidney Kirkwood. Clara was not disposed to admit freedoms of that kind; she half gave it to be understood that, though others might be easily satisfied, she had views of her own on such subjects. Thereafter Mrs. Byass grew decidedly cool. The other girls with whom Clara had formal intercourse showed no desire to win her confidence; they were kept aloof by her reticent civility.

As for Sidney himself, it was not without reason that he had seen encouragement in the girl’s first reply to his advances. At sixteen, Clara found it agreeable to have her good graces sought by the one man in whom she recognised superiority of mind and purpose. Of all the unbetrothed girls she knew not one but would have felt flattered had Kirkwood thus distinguished her. Nothing common adhered to his demeanour, to his character; he had the look of one who will hold his own in life; his word had the ring of truth. Of his generosity she had innumerable proofs, and it contrasted nobly with the selfishness of young men as she knew them; she appreciated it all the more because her own frequent desire to be unselfish was so fruitless. Of awakening tenderness towards him she knew nothing, but she gave him smiles and words which might mean little or much, just for the pleasure of completing a conquest. Nor did she, in truth, then regard it as impossible that, sooner or later, she might become his wife. If she must marry a workman, assuredly it should be Sidney. He thought so highly of her, he understood things in her to which the ordinary artisan would have been dead; he had little delicacies of homage which gave her keen pleasure. And yet — well, time enough!

Time went very quickly, and changed both herself and Sidney in ways she could not foresee. It was true, all he said to her in anger that night by the prison wall — true and deserved every word of it. Even in acknowledging that, she hardened herself against him implacably. Since he chose to take this tone with her, to throw aside all his graceful blindness to her faults, he had only himself to blame if she considered everything at an end between them. She tried to believe herself glad this had happened; it relieved her from an embarrassment, and made her absolutely free to pursue the ambitions which now gave her no rest. For all that, she could not dismiss Sidney from her mind; indeed, throughout the week that followed their parting, she thought of him more persistently than for many months. That he would before long seek pardon for his rudeness she felt certain, she felt also that such submission would gratify her in a high degree. But the weeks were passing and no letter came; in vain she glanced from the window of the bar at the faces which moved by. Even on Sunday, when she went home for an hour or two, she neither saw nor heard of Kirkwood. She could not bring herself to ask a question.

Under any circumstances Clara would ill have borne a suspense that irritated her pride, and at present she lived amid conditions so repugnant, that her nerves were ceaselessly strung almost beyond endurance. Before entering upon this engagement she had formed but an imperfect notion of what would be demanded of her. To begin with, Mrs. Tubbs belonged to the order of women who are by nature slave-drivers; though it was her interest to secure Clara for a permanency, she began by exacting from the girl as much labour as could possibly be included in their agreement. The hours were insufferably long; by nine o’clock each evening Clara was so outworn that with difficulty she remained standing, yet not until midnight was she released. The unchanging odours of the place sickened her, made her head ache, and robbed her of all appetite. Many of the duties were menial, and to perform them fevered her with indignation. Then the mere waiting upon such men as formed the majority of the customers, vulgarly familiar, when not insolent, in their speech to her, was hateful beyond anything she had conceived. Had there been no one to face but her father, she would have returned home and resumed her old occupation at the end of the first fortnight, so extreme was her suffering in mind and body; but rather than give Sidney Kirkwood such a triumph, she would work on, and breathe no word of what she underwent. Even in her anger against him, the knowledge of his forgiving disposition, of the sincerity of his love, was an unavowed support. She knew he could not utterly desert her; when some day he sought a reconciliation, the renewal of conflict between his pride and her own would, she felt, supply her with new courage.

Early one Saturday afternoon she was standing by the windows, partly from heavy idleness of thought, partly on the chance that Kirkwood might go by, when a young, well-dressed man, who happened to be passing at a slow walk, turned his head and looked at her. He went on, but in a few moments Clara, who had moved back into the shop, saw him enter and come forwards. He took a seat at the counter and ordered a luncheon. Clara waited upon him with her customary cold reserve, and he made no remark until she returned him change out of the coin he offered.

Then he said with an apologetic smile:

‘We are old acquaintances, Miss Hewett, but I’m afraid you’ve forgotten me.’

Clara regarded him in astonishment. His age seemed to be something short of thirty; he had a long, grave, intelligent face, smiled enigmatically, spoke in a rather slow voice. His silk hat, sober necktie drawn through a gold ring, and dark morning-coat, made it probable that he was ‘in the City.’

‘We used to know each other very well about five years ago,’ he pursued, pocketing his change carelessly. ‘Don’t you remember a Mr. Scawthorne, who used to be a lodger with some friends of yours called Rudd?’

On the instant memory revived in Clara. In her schooldays she often spent a Sunday afternoon with Grace Rudd, and this Mr. Scawthorne was generally at the tea-table. Mr. and Mrs. Rudd made much of him, said that he held a most important post in a lawyer’s office, doubtless had private designs concerning him and their daughter. Thus aided, she even recognised his features.

‘And you knew me again after all this time?’

‘Yours isn’t an easy face to forget,’ replied Mr. Scawthorne, with the subdued polite smile which naturally accompanied his tone of unemotional intimacy. ‘To tell you the whole truth, however, I happened to hear news of you a few days ago. I met Grace Rudd; she told me you were here. Some old friend had told her.’

Grace’s name awoke keen interest in Clara. She was startled to hear it, and did not venture to make the inquiry her mind at once suggested. Mr. Scawthorne observed her for an instant, then proceeded to satisfy her curiosity. Grace Rudd was on the stage; she had been acting in provincial theatres under the name of Miss Danvers, and was now waiting for a promised engagement at a minor London theatre.

‘Do you often go to the theatre?’ he added carelessly. ‘I have a great many acquaintances connected with the stage in one way or another. If you would like, I should be very glad to send you tickets now and then. I always have more given me than I can well use.’

Clara thanked him rather coldly, and said that she was very seldom free in the evening. Thereupon Mr. Scawthorne again smiled, raised his hat, and departed.

Possibly he had some consciousness of the effect of his words, but it needed a subtler insight, a finer imagination than his, to interpret the pale, beautiful, harassed face which studiously avoided looking towards him as he paused before stepping out on to the pavement. The rest of the evening, the hours of night that followed, passed for Clara in bet tumult of heart and brain. The news of Grace Rudd had flashed upon her as revelation of a clear possibility where hitherto she had seen only mocking phantoms of futile desire. Grace was an actress; no matter by what course, to this she had attained. This man, Scawthorne, spoke of the theatrical life as one to whom all its details were familiar; acquaintance with him of a sudden bridged over the chasm which had seemed impassable. Would he come again to see her? Had her involuntary reserve put an end to any interest he might have felt in her? Of him personally she thought not at all; she could not have recalled his features; he was a mere abstraction, the representative of a wild hope which his conversation had inspired.

From that day the character of her suffering was altered; it became less womanly, it defied weakness and grew to a fever of fierce, unscrupulous rebellion. Whenever she thought of Sidney Kirkwood, the injury he was inflicting upon her pride rankled into bitter resentment, unsoftened by the despairing thought of self-subdual which had at times visited her sick weariness. She bore her degradations with the sullen indifference of one who is supported by the hope of a future revenge. The disease inherent in her being, that deadly outcome of social tyranny which perverts the generous elements of youth into mere seeds of destruction, developed day by day, blighting her heart, corrupting her moral sense, even setting marks of evil upon the beauty of her countenance. A passionate desire of self-assertion familiarised her with projects, with ideas, which formerly she had glanced at only to dismiss as ignoble. In proportion as her bodily health failed, the worst possibilities of her character came into prominence. Like a creature that is beset by unrelenting forces, she summoned and surveyed all the craft faculties lurking in the dark places of her nature; theoretic y she had now accepted every debasing compact by which a woman can spite herself on the world’s injustice. Self-assertion; to be no longer an unregarded atom in the mass of those who are born only to labour for others; to find play for the strength and the passion which, by no choice of her own, distinguished her from the tame slave. Sometimes in the silence of night she suffered from a dreadful need of crying aloud, of uttering her anguish in a scream like that of insanity. She stifled it only by crushing her face into the pillow until the hysterical fit had passed, and she lay like one dead.

A fortnight after his first visit Mr. Scawthorne again presented himself, polite, smiling, perhaps rather more familiar. He stayed talking for nearly an hour, chiefly of the theatre. Casually he mentioned that Grace Rudd had got her engagement — only a little part in a farce. Suppose Clara came to see her play some evening? Might he take her? He could at any time have places in the dress-circle.

Clara accepted the invitation. She did so without consulting Mrs. Tubbs, and when it became necessary to ask for the evening’s freedom, difficulties were made. ‘Very well,’ said Clara, in a tone she had never yet used to her employer, ‘then I shall leave you.’ She spoke without a moment’s reflection; something independent of her will seemed to direct her in speech and act. Mrs. Tubbs yielded.

Clara had not yet been able to obtain the dress she wished for. Her savings, however, were sufficient for the purchase of a few accessories, which made her, she considered, not unpresentable. Scawthorne was to have a cab waiting for her at a little distance from the luncheon-bar. It was now June, and at the hour of their meeting still broad daylight, but Clara cared nothing for the chance that acquaintances might see her; nay, she had a reckless desire that Sidney Kirkwood might pass just at this moment. She noticed no one whom she knew, however; but just as the cab was turning into Pentonville Road, Scawthorne drew her attention to a person on the pavement.

‘You see that old fellow,’ he said. ‘Would you believe that he is very wealthy?’

Clara had just time to perceive an old man with white hair, dressed as a mechanic.

‘But I know him,’ she replied. ‘His name’s Snowdon.’

‘So it is. How do you come to know him?’ Scawthorne inquired with interest.

She explained.

‘Better not say anything about it,’ remarked her companion. ‘He’s an eccentric chap. I happen to know his affairs in the way of business. I oughtn’t to have told secrets, but I can trust you.’

A gentle emphasis on the last word, and a smile of more than usual intimacy. But his manner was, and remained through the evening, respectful almost to exaggeration. Clara seemed scarcely conscious of his presence, save in the act of listening to what he said. She never met his look, never smiled. From entering the theatre to leaving it, she had a high flush on her face. Impossible to recognise her friend in the actress whom Scawthorne indicated; features and voice were wholly strange to her. In the intervals, Scawthorne spoke of the difficulties that beset an actress’s career at its beginning.

‘I suppose you never thought of trying it?’ he asked. ‘Yet I fancy you might do well, if only you could have a few months’ training, just to start you. Of course it all depends on knowing how to go about it. A little money would be necessary — not much.’

Clara made no reply. On the way home she was mute. Scawthorne took leave of her in Upper Street, and promised to look in again before long . . . .

Under the heat of these summer days, in the reeking atmosphere of the bar, Clara panted fever-stricken. The weeks went on; what strength supported her from the Monday morning to the Saturday midnight she could not tell. Acting and refraining, speaking and holding silence, these things were no longer the consequences of her own volition. She wished to break free from her slavery, but had not the force to do so; something held her voice as often as she was about to tell Mrs. Tubbs that this week would be the last. Her body wasted so that all the garments she wore were loose upon her. The only mental process of which she was capable was reviewing the misery of days just past and anticipating that of the days to come. Her only feelings were infinite self-pity and a dull smouldering hatred of all others in the world. A doctor would have bidden her take to bed, as one in danger of grave illness. She bore through it without change in her habits, and in time the strange lethargy passed.

Scawthorne came to the bar frequently. He remarked often on her look of suffering, and urged a holiday. At length, near the end of July, he invited her to go up the river with him on the coming Bank-holiday. Clara consented, though aware that her presence would be more than ever necessary at the bar on the day of much drinking. Later in the evening she addressed her demand to Mrs. Tubbs. It was refused.

Without a word of anger, Clara went upstairs, prepared herself for walking, and set forth among the by-ways of Islington. In half an hour she had found a cheap bedroom, for which she paid a week’s rent in advance. She purchased a few articles of food and carried them to her lodging, then lay down in the darkness.

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