The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 20

A Vision of Noble Things

He slept but for an hour or two, and even then with such disturbance of fitful dreams that he could not be said to rest. At the earliest sound of movements in the house he rose and went out into the morning air. There had fallen a heavy shower just after sunrise, and the glory of the east was still partly veiled with uncertain clouds. Heedless of weather-signs, Sidney strode away at a great pace, urged by his ungovernable thoughts. His state was that miserable one in which a man repeats for the thousandth time something he has said, and torments himself with devising possible and impossible interpretations thereof. Through the night he had done nothing but imagine what significance Jane might have attached to his words about Clara Hewett. Why had he spoken of Clara at all? One moment he understood his reasons, and approved them; the next he was at a loss to account for such needless revival of a miserable story. How had Jane interpreted him? And was it right or wrong to have paused when on the point of confessing that he loved her?

Rain caught him at a distance from home, and he returned to breakfast in rather a cheerless plight. He found that Michael was not feeling quite himself, and would not rise till midday. Jane had a look of anxiety, and he fancied she behaved to him with a constraint hitherto unknown. The fancy was dispelled, however, when, later in the morning, she persuaded him to bring out his sketch-book, and suggested points of view for a drawing of the farm that had been promised to Mr. Pammenter Himself unable to recover the tone of calm intimacy which till yesterday had been natural between them, Sidney found himself studying the girl, seeking to surprise some proof that she too was no longer the same, and only affected this unconsciousness of change. There was, perhaps, a little less readiness in her eyes to meet his, but she talked as naturally as ever, and the spontaneousness of her good-humour was assuredly not feigned.

On Monday the farmer had business in Maldon. Occasionally when he drove over to that town he took one or other of his children with him to visit a relative, and today he proposed that Jane should be of the party. They started after an early dinner. Michael and Sidney stood together in the road, watching the vehicle as it rolled away; then they walked in silence to a familiar spot where they could sit in shadow. Sidney was glad of Jane’s departure for the afternoon. He found it impossible to escape the restlessness into which he had fallen, and was resolved to seek relief by opening his mind to the old man. There could be little doubt that Michael already understood his thoughts, and no better opportunity for such a conversation was likely to present itself. When they had been seated for a minute or two, neither speaking, Sidney turned to his companion with a grave look. At the same instant Michael also had raised his eyes and seemed on the point of saying something of importance. They regarded each other. The old man’s face was set in an expression of profound feeling, and his lips moved tremulously before words rose to them.

‘What were you going to say, Sidney?’ he asked, reading the other’s features.

‘Something which I hope won’t be displeasing to you. I was going to speak of Jane. Since she has been living with you she has grown from a child to a woman. When I was talking with her in the garden on Saturday night I felt this change more distinctly than I had ever done before. I understood that it had made a change in myself. I love her, Mr. Snowdon, and it’s my dearest hope that she may come to feel the same for me.’

Michael was more agitated than the speaker; he raised a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes as if the light pained them. But the smile with which he speedily answered Sidney’s look of trouble was full of reassurance.

‘You couldn’t have said anything that would give me more pleasure,’ he replied, just above his breath. ‘Does she know it? Did you speak to her?’

‘We were talking of years ago, and I mentioned Clara Hewett. I said that I had forgotten all about her except that she’d befriended Jane. But nothing more than that. I couldn’t say what I was feeling just then. Partly I thought that it was right to speak to you first; and then — it seemed to me almost as if I should be treating her unfairly. I’m so much older — she knows that it isn’t the first time I— and she’s always thought of me just as a friend.’

‘So much older?’ repeated Michael, with a grave smile. ‘Why, you’re both children to my sight. Wait and let me think a bit, Sidney. I too have something I want to say. I’m glad you’ve spoken this afternoon, when there’s time for us to talk. Just wait a few minutes, and let me think.’

Sidney had as good as forgotten that there was anything unusual in his friend’s circumstances; this last day or two he had thought of nothing but Jane and his love for her. Now he recalled the anticipation — originating he scarcely knew how — that some kind of disclosure would before long be made to him. The trouble of’ his mind was heightened; he waited with all but dread for the next words.

‘I think I’ve told you,’ Michael resumed at length, steadying his voice, ‘that Joseph is my youngest son, and that I had three others. Three others: Michael, Edward, and Robert — all dead. Edward died when he was a boy of fifteen; Robert was killed on the railway — he was a porter — at three-and-twenty. The eldest went out to Australia; he took a wife there, and had one child; the wife died when they’d been married a year or two, and Michael and his boy were drowned, both together. I was living with them at the time, as you know. But what I’ve never spoken of’ Sidney, is that my son had made his fortune. He left a deal of land, and many thousands of pounds, behind him. There was no finding any will; a lawyer in the nearest town, a man that had known him a long time, said he felt sure there’d been no will made. So, as things were, the law gave everything to his father.’

He related it with subdued voice, in a solemn and agitated tone. The effect of the news upon Sidney was a painful constriction of the heart, a rush of confused thought, an involvement of all his perceptions in a sense of fear. The pallor of his cheeks and the pained parting of his lips bore witness to how little he was prepared for such a story.

‘I’ve begun with what ought by rights to have come last,’ pursued Michael, after drawing a deep sigh. ‘But it does me good to get it told; it’s been burdening me this long while. Now you must listen, Sidney, whilst I show you why I’ve kept this a secret. I’ve no fear but you’ll understand me, though most people wouldn’t. It’s a secret from everybody except a lawyer in London, who does business for me; a right-hearted man he is, in most things, and I’m glad I met with him, but he doesn’t understand me as you will; he thinks I’m making a mistake. My son knows nothing about it; at least, it’s my hope and belief he doesn’t. He told me he hadn’t heard of his brother’s death. I say I hope he doesn’t know; it isn’t selfishness, that; I needn’t tell you. I’ve never for a minute thought of myself as a rich man, Sidney; I’ve never thought of the money as my own, never; and if Joseph proves himself honest, I’m ready to give up to him the share of his brother’s property that it seems to me ought to be rightly his, though the law for some reason looks at it in a different way. I’m ready, but I must know that he’s an honest man; I must prove him first.’

The eagerness of his thought impelled him to repetitions and emphasis. His voice fell upon a note of feebleness, and with an effort he recovered the tone in which he had begun.

‘As soon as I knew that all this wealth had fallen to me I decided at once to come back to England. What could I do out there? I decided to come to England, but I couldn’t see farther ahead than that. I sold all the land; I had the business done for me by that lawyer I spoke of, that had known my son, and he recommended me to a Mr. Percival in London. I came back, and I found little Jane, and then bit by bit I began to understand what my duty was. It got clear in my mind; I formed a purpose, a plan, and it’s as strong in me now as ever. Let me think again for a little, Sidney. I want to make it as plain to you as it is to me. You’ll understand me best if I go back and tell you more than I have done yet about my life before I left England. Let me think a while.’

He was overcome with a fear that he might not be able to convey with sufficient force the design which had wholly possessed him. So painful was the struggle in him between enthusiasm and a consciousness of failing faculties, that Sidney grasped his hand and begged him to speak simply, without effort.

‘Have no fear about my understanding you. We’ve talked a great deal together, and I know very well what your strongest motives are. Trust me to sympathise with you.’

‘I do! If I hadn’t that trust, Sidney, I couldn’t have felt the joy I did when you spoke to me of my Jane. You’ll help me to carry out my plan; you and Jane will; you and Jane! I’ve got to be such an old man all at once, as it seems, and I dursn’t have waited much longer without telling you what I had in my mind. See now, I’ll go back to when I was a boy, as far back as I can remember. You know I was born in Clerkenwell, and I’ve told you a little now and then of the hard times I went through. My poor father and mother came out of the country, thinking to better themselves; instead of that, they found nothing but cold and hunger, and toil and moil. They were both dead by when I was between thirteen and fourteen. They died in the same winter — a cruel winter. I used to go about begging bits of firewood from the neighbours. There was a man in our house who kept dogs, and I remember once catching hold of a bit of dirty meat — I can’t call it meat — that one of them had gnawed and left on the stairs; and I ate it, as if I’d been a dog myself, I was that driven with hunger. Why, I feel the cold and the hunger at this minute! It was a cruel winter, that, and it left me alone. I had to get my own living as best I could.

‘No teaching. I was nineteen before I could read the signs over shops, or write my own name. Between nineteen and twenty I got all the education I ever was to have, paying a man with what I could save out of my earnings. The blessing was I had health and strength, and with hard struggling I got into a regular employment. At five-and-twenty I could earn my pound a week, pretty certain. When it got to five shillings more, I must needs have a wife to share it with me. My poor girl came to live with me in a room in Hill Street.

I’ve never spoken to you of her, but you shall hear it all now, cost me what it may in the telling. Of course she was out of a poor home, and she’d known as well as me what it was to go cold and hungry. I sometimes think, Sidney, I can see a look of her in Jane’s face — but she was prettier than Jane; yes, yes, prettier than Jane. And to think a man could treat a poor little thing like her the way I did! — you don’t know what sort of a man Michael Snowdon was then; no, you don’t know what I was then. You’re not to think I ill-used her in the common way; I never raised my hand, thank God! and I never spoke a word a man should be ashamed of. But I was a hard, self-willed, stubborn fool How she came to like me and to marry me, I don’t know; we were so different in every way. Well, it was partly my nature and partly what I’d gone through; we hadn’t been married more than a month or two when I began to find fault with her, and from that day on she could never please me. I earned five-and-twenty shillings a week, and I’d made up my mind that we must save out of it. I wouldn’t let her work; no, what she had to do was to keep the home on as little as possible, and always have everything clean and straight when I got back at night. But Jenny hadn’t the same ideas about things as I had. She couldn’t pinch and pare, and our plans of saving came to nothing. It grew worse as the children were horn. The more need there was for carefulness, the more heedless Jenny seemed to get. And it was my fault, mine from beginning to end. Another man would have been gentle with her and showed her kindly when she was wrong, and have been thankful for the love she gave him, whatever her faults. That wasn’t my way. I got angry, and made her life a burden to her. I must have things done exactly as I wished; if not, there was no end to my fault-finding. And yet, if you’ll believe it, I loved my wife as truly as man ever did. Jenny couldn’t understand that — and how should she? At last she began to deceive me in all sorts of little things; she got into debt with shop-people, she showed me false accounts, she pawned things without my knowing. Last of all, she began to drink. Our fourth child was born just at that time; Jenny had a bad illness, and I believe it set her mind wrong. I lost all control of her, and she used to say if it wasn’t for the children she’d go and leave me. One morning we quarrelled very badly, and I did as I’d threatened to — I walked about the streets all the night that followed, never coming home. I went to work next day, but at dinner-time I got frightened and ran home just to speak a word. Little Mike, the eldest, was playing on the stairs, and he said his mother was asleep. I went into the room, and saw Jenny lying on the bed dressed. There was something queer in the way her arms were stretched out. When I got near I saw she was dead. She’d taken poison.

‘And it was I had killed her, just as much as if I’d put the poison to her lips. All because I thought myself such a wise fellow, because I’d resolved to live more prudently than other men of my kind did. I wanted to save money for the future — out of five-and-twenty shillings a week. Many and many a day I starved myself to try and make up for expenses of the home. Sidney, you remember that man we once went to hear lecture, the man that talked of nothing but the thriftlessness of the poor, and how it was their own fault they suffered? I was very near telling you my story when we came away that night. Why, look; I myself was just the kind of poor man that would have suited that lecturer. And what came of it? If I’d let my poor Jenny go her own way from the first, we should have had hard times now and then, but there’d have been our love to help us, and we should have been happy enough. They talk about thriftiness, and it just means that poor people are expected to practise a self-denial that the rich can’t even imagine, much less carry out You know now why this kind of talk always angers me.’

Michael brooded for a few moments, his eyes straying sadly over the landscape before him.

‘I was punished,’ he continued, ‘and in the fittest way. The two of my boys who showed most love for me, Edward and Robert, died young. The eldest and youngest were a constant trouble to me. Michael was quick-tempered and self-willed, like myself; I took the wrong way with him, just like I had with his mother, and there was no peace till he left home. Joseph was still harder to deal with; but he’s the only one left alive, and there is no need to bring up things against him. With him I wasn’t to blame, unless I treated him too kindly and spoilt him. He was my favourite, was Jo, and he repaid me cruelly. When he married, I only heard of it from other people; we’d been parted for a long time already. And just about then I had a letter from Michael, asking me if I was willing to go out and live with him in Australia. I hadn’t heard from him more than two or three times in twelve years, and when this letter came to me I was living in Sheffield; I’d been there about five years. He wrote to say he was doing well, and that he didn’t like to think of me being left to spend my old age alone. It was a kind letter, and it warmed my heart. Lonely I was; as lonely and sorrowful a man as any in England. I wrote back to say that I’d come to him gladly if he could promise to put me in the way of earning my own living. He agreed to that, and I left the old country, little thinking I should ever see it again. I didn’t see Joseph before I went. All I knew of him was, that he lived in Clerkenwell Close, married; and that was all I had to guide me when I tried to find him a few years after. I was bitter against him, and went without trying to say good-bye.

‘My son’s fortune seems to have been made chiefly out of horse-dealing and what they call “land-grabbing”— buying sheep-runs over the heads of squatters, to be bought out again at a high profit. Well, you know what my opinion is of trading at the best, and as far as I could understand it, it was trading at about its worst that had filled Michael’s pockets. He’d had a partner for a time, and very ugly stories were told me about the man. However, Michael gave me as kind a welcome as his letter promised; prosperity had done him good, and he seemed only anxious to make up for the years of unkindness that had gone by. Had I been willing, I might have lived under his roof at my ease; but I held him to his bargain, and worked like any other man who goes there without money. It’s a comfort to me to think of those few years spent in quiet and goodwill with my eldest boy. His own lad would have given trouble, I’m afraid, if he’d lived; Michael used to talk to me uneasily about him, poor fellow! But they both came to their end before the world had parted them.

‘If I’d been a young man, I dare say I should have felt different when they told me how rich I was; it gave me no pleasure at first, and when I’d had time to think about it I only grew worried. I even thought once or twice of getting rid of the burden by giving all the money to a hospital in Sydney or Melbourne. But then I remembered that the poor in the old country had more claim on me, and when I’d got used to the idea of being a wealthy man, I found myself recalling all sorts of fancies and wishes that used to come into my head when I was working hard for a poor living. It took some time to get all the lawyer’s business finished, and by when it was done I began to see a way before me. First of all I must find my son in England, and see if he needed help. I hadn’t made any change in my way of living, and I came back from Australia as a steerage passenger, wearing the same clothes that I’d worked in. The lawyer laughed at me, but I’m sure I should have laughed at myself if I’d dressed up as a gentleman and begun to play the fool in my old age. The money wasn’t to be used in that way. I’d got my ideas, and they grew clearer during the voyage home.

‘You know how I found Jane. Not long after, I put an advertisement in the papers, asking my son, if he saw it, to communicate with Mr. Percival — that’s the lawyer I was recommended to in London. There was no answer; Joseph was in America at that time. I hadn’t much reason to like Mrs. Peckover and her daughter, but I kept up acquaintance with them because I thought they might hear of Jo some day. And after a while I sent Jane to learn a business. Do you know why I did that? Can you think why I brought up the child as if I’d only had just enough to keep us both, and never gave a sign that I could have made a rich lady of her?’

In asking the question, he bent forward and laid his hand on Sidney’s shoulder. His eyes gleamed with that light which betrays the enthusiast, the idealist. As he approached the explanation to which his story had tended, the signs of age and weakness disappeared before the intensity of his feeling. Sidney understood now why he had always been conscious of something in the man’s mind that was not revealed to him, of a life-controlling purpose but vaguely indicated by the general tenor of Michael’s opinions. The latter’s fervour affected him, and he replied with emotion:

‘You wish Jane to think of this money as you do yourself — not to regard it as wealth, but as the means of bringing help to the miserable.’

‘That is my thought, Sidney. It came to me in that form whilst I was sitting by her bed, when she was ill at Mrs. Peckover’s. I knew nothing of her character then, and the idea I had might have come to nothing through her turning out untrustworthy. But I thought to myself: Suppose she grows up to be a good woman — suppose I can teach her to look at things in the same way as I do myself, train her to feel that no happiness could be greater than the power to put an end to ever so little of the want and wretchedness about her — suppose when I die I could have the certainty that all this money was going to be used for the good of the poor by a woman who herself belonged to the poor? You understand me? It would have been easy enough to leave it among charities in the ordinary way; but my idea went beyond that. I might have had Jane schooled and fashioned into a lady, and still have hoped that she would use the money well; but my idea went beyond that. There’s plenty of ladies nowadays taking an interest in the miserable, and spending their means unselfishly. What I hoped was to raise up for the poor and the untaught a friend out of their own midst, some one who had gone through all that they suffer, who was accustomed to earn her own living by the work of her hands as they do, who had never thought herself their better, who saw the world as they see it and knew all their wants. A lady may do good, we know that; but she can’t be the friend of the poor as I understand it; there’s too great a distance between her world and theirs. Can you picture to yourself how anxiously I’ve watched this child from the first day she came to live with me? I’ve scarcely had a thought but about her. I saw very soon that she had good feelings, and I set myself to encourage them. I wanted her to be able to read and write, but there was no need of any more education than that; it was the heart I cared about, not the mind. Besides, I had always to keep saying to myself that perhaps, after all, she wouldn’t turn out the kind of woman I wished, and in that case she mustn’t be spoiled for an ordinary life. Sidney, it’s this money that has made me a weak old man when I might still have been as strong as many at fifty; the care of it has worn me out; I haven’t slept quietly since it came into my hands. But the worst is over. I shan’t be disappointed. Jane will be the woman I’ve hoped for, and however soon my own life comes to an end, I shall die knowing that there’s a true man by her side to help her to make my idea a reality.

‘I’ve mentioned Mr. Percival, the lawyer. He’s an old man like myself, and we’ve had many a long talk together. About a year and a half ago I told him what I’ve told you now. Since I came back to England he’s been managing the money for me; he’s paid me the little we needed, and the rest of the income has been used in charity by some people we could trust. Well, Mr. Percival doesn’t go with me in my plans for Jane. He thinks I’m making a mistake, that I ought to have had the child educated to fit her to live with rich people. It’s no use; I can’t get him to feel what a grand thing it’ll be for Jane to go about among her own people and help them as nobody ever could. He said to me not long ago, “And isn’t the girl ever to have a husband?” It’s my hope that she will, I told him. “And do you suppose,” he went on, “that whoever marries her will let her live in the way you talk of? Where are you going to find a working man that’ll be content never to touch this money — to work on for his weekly wages, when he might be living at his ease?” And I told him that it wasn’t as impossible as he thought. What do you think, Sidney?’

The communication of a noble idea has the same effect upon the brains of certain men — of one, let us say, in every hundred thousand — as a wine that exalts and enraptures. As Sidney listened to the old man telling of his wondrous vision, he became possessed with ardour such as he had known but once or twice in his life. Idealism such as Michael Snowdon had developed in these latter years is a form of genius; given the susceptible hearer, it dazzles, inspires, raises to heroic contempt of the facts of life. Had this story been related to him of some unknown person, Sidney would have admired, but as one admires the nobly impracticable; subject to the electric influence of a man who was great enough to conceive and direct his life by such a project, who could repose so supreme a faith in those he loved, all the primitive nobleness of his character asserted itself, and he could accept with a throbbing heart the superb challenge addressed to him.

‘If Jane can think me worthy to be her husband,’ he replied, ‘your friend shall see that he has feared without cause.’

‘I knew it, Sidney; I knew it!’ exclaimed the old man. ‘How much younger I feel now that I have shared this burden with you!’

‘And shall you now tell Jane?’ the other inquired.

‘Not yet; not just yet. She is very young; we must wait a little. But there can be no reason why you shouldn’t speak to her — of yourself.’

Sidney was descending from the clouds. As the flush of his humanitarian enthusiasm passed away, and he thought of his personal relations to Jane, a misgiving, a scruple began to make itself heard within him. Worldly and commonplace the thought, but — had he a right to ask the girl to pledge herself to him under circumstances such as these? To be sure, it was not as if Jane were an heiress in the ordinary way; for all that, would it not be a proceeding of doubtful justice to woo her when as yet she was wholly ignorant of the most important item in her situation? His sincerity was unassailable, but — suppose, in fact, he had to judge the conduct of another man thus placed? Upon the heated pulsing of his blood succeeded a coolness, almost a chill; he felt as though he had been on the verge of a precipice, and had been warned to draw back only just in time. Every second showed him more distinctly what his duty was. He experienced a sensation of thankfulness that he had not spoken definitely on Saturday evening. His instinct had guided him aright; Jane was still too young to be called upon solemnly to decide her whole future.

‘That, too, had better wait, Mr. Snowdon,’ he said, after a pause of a minute. ‘I should like her to know everything before I speak to her in that way. In a year it will be time enough.’

Michael regarded him thoughtfully.

‘Perhaps you are right. I wish you knew Mr. Percival; but there is time, there is time. He still thinks I shall be persuaded to alter my plans. That night you came to Hanover Street and found me away, he took me to see a lady who works among the poor in Clerkenwell; she knew me by name, because Mr. Percival had given her money from me to use, but we’d never seen each other till then. He wants me to ask her opinion about Jane.’

‘Has he spoken of her to the lady, do you think?’

‘Oh no!’ replied the other, with perfect confidence. ‘He has promised me to keep all that a secret as long as I wish. The lady — her name is Miss Lant — seemed all that my friend said she was, and perhaps Jane might do well to make her acquaintance some day; but that mustn’t be till Jane knows and approves the purpose of my life and hers. The one thing that troubles me still, Sidney, is — her father. It’s hard that I can’t be sure whether my son will be a help or a hindrance. I must wait, and try to know him better.’

The conversation had so wearied Michael, that in returning to the house he had to lean on his companion’s arm. Sidney was silent, and yielded, he scarce knew why, to a mood of depression. When Jane returned from Maldon in the evening, and he heard her happy voice as the children ran out to welcome her, there was a heaviness at his heart. Perhaps it came only of hope deferred.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54