The Nether World, by George Gissing

Chapter 25

A Double Consecration

Bessie Byass and her husband had, as you may suppose, devoted many an hour to intimate gossip on the affairs of their top-floor lodgers. Having no relations with Clerkenwell Close, they did not even hear the rumours which spread from Mrs. Peckover’s house at the time of Jane’s departure thence; their curiosity, which only grew keener as time went on, found no appeasement save in conjecture. That Sidney Kirkwood was in the secret from the first they had no doubt; Bessie made a sly attempt now and then to get a hint from him, but without the least result. The appearance on the scene of Jane’s father revived their speculation, and just after the old man’s illness in the month of August occurred something which gave them still fresh matter for argument. The rooms on the first floor having become vacant, Michael proposed certain new arrangements. His own chamber was too much that of an invalid to serve any longer as sitting-room for Jane; he desired to take the front room below for that purpose, to make the other on the same floor Jane’s bed-room, and then to share with the Byasses the expense of keeping a servant, whose lodging would be in the chamber thus set free. Hitherto Bessie and Jane and an occasional charwoman had done all the work of the house; it was a day of jubilation for Mrs. Byass when she found herself ruling over a capped and aproned maid. All these things set it beyond doubt that Michael Snowdon had means greater than one would have supposed from his way of living hitherto. Jane’s removal from work could, of course, be explained by her grandfather’s growing infirmities, but Bessie saw more than this in the new order of things; she began to look upon the girl with a certain awe, as one whose future might reveal marvels.

For Jane, as we know, the marvels had already begun. She came back from Danbury not alto ether like herself; unsettled a little, as it appeared; and Michael’s illness, befalling so soon, brought her into a nervous state such as she had not known for a long time. The immediate effect of the disclosure made to her by Michael whilst he was recovering was to overwhelm her with a sense of responsibilities, to throw her mind into painful tumult. Slow of thought, habituated to the simplest views of her own existence, very ignorant of the world beyond the little circle in which her life had been passed, she could not at once bring into the control of her reflection this wondrous future to which her eyes had been opened. The way in which she had been made acquainted with the facts was unfortunate. Michael Snowdon, in spite of his deep affection for her, and of the trust he had come to repose in her character, did not understand Jane well enough to bring about this revelation with the needful prudence. Between him, a man burdened with the sorrowful memories of a long life, originally of stern temperament, and now, in the feebleness of his age, possessed by an enthusiasm which in several respects disturbed his judgment, which made him desperately eager to secure his end now that he felt life slipping away from him — between him and such a girl as Jane there was a wider gulf than either of them could be aware of. Little as he desired it, he could not help using a tone which seemed severe rather than tenderly trustful. Absorbed in his great idea, conscious that it had regulated every detail in his treatment of Jane since she came to live with him, he forgot that the girl herself was by no means adequately prepared to receive the solemn injunctions which he now delivered to her. His language was as general as were the ideas of beneficent activity which he desired to embody in Jane’s future; but instead of inspiring her with his own zeal, he afflicted her with grievous spiritual trouble. For a time she could only feel that something great and hard and high was suddenly required of her; the old man’s look seemed to keep repeating, ‘Are you worthy?’ The tremor of bygone days came back upon her as she listened, the anguish of timidity, the heart-sinking, with which she had been wont to strain her attention when Mrs. Peckover or Clem imposed a harsh task.

One thing alone had she grasped as soon as it was uttered; one word of reassurance she could recall when she sat down in solitude to collect her thoughts. Her grandfather had mentioned that Sidney Kirkwood already knew this secret. To Sidney her whole being turned in this hour of distress; he was the friend who would help her with counsel and teach her to be strong. But hereupon there revived in her a trouble which for the moment she had forgotten, and it became so acute that she was driven to speak to Michael in a way which had till now seemed impossible. When she entered his room — it was the morning after their grave conversation — Michael welcomed her with a face of joy, which, however, she still felt to be somewhat stern and searching in its look. When they had talked for a few moments, Jane said:

‘I may speak about this to Mr. Kirkwood, grandfather?’

‘I hope you will, Jane. Strangers needn’t know of it yet, but we can speak freely to him.’

After many endeavours to find words that would veil her thought, she constrained herself to ask:

‘Does he think I can be all you wish?’

Michael looked at her with a smile.

‘Sidney has no less faith in you than I have, be sure of that.’

‘I’ve been thinking — that perhaps he distrusted me a little.’

‘Why, my child?’

‘I don’t quite know. But there’s been a little difference in him, I think, since we came back.’

Michael’s countenance fell.

‘Difference? How?’

But Jane could not go further. She wished she had not spoken. Her face began to grow hot, and she moved away.

‘It’s only your fancy,’ continued Michael. ‘But may be that — You think he isn’t quite so easy in his talking to you as he was?’

‘I’ve fancied it. But it was only —’

‘Well, you may be partly right,’ said her grandfather, softening his voice. ‘See, Jane, I’ll tell you something. I think there’s no harm; perhaps I ought to. You must know that I hadn’t meant to speak to Sidney of these things just when I did. It came about, because he had something to tell me, and something I was well pleased to hear. It was about you, Jane, and in that way I got talking — something about you, my child. Afterwards, I asked him whether he wouldn’t speak to you yourself, but he said no — not till you’d heard all that was before you. I think I understood him, and I dare say you will, if you think it over.’

Matter enough for thinking over, in these words. Did she understand them aright? Before leaving the room she had not dared to look her grandfather in the face, but she knew well that he was regarding her still with the same smile. Did she understand him aright?

Try to read her mind. The world had all at once grown very large, a distress to her imagination; worse still, she had herself become a person of magnified importance, irrecognisable in her own sight, moving, thinking so unnaturally. Jane, I assure you, had thought very little of herself hitherto — in both senses of the phrase. Joyous because she could not help it, full of gratitude, admiration, generosity, she occupied her thoughts very much with other people, but knew not self-seeking, knew not self-esteem. The one thing affecting herself over which she mused frequently was her suffering as a little thrall in Clerkenwell Close, and the result was to make her very humble. She had been an ill-used, ragged, work-worn child, and something of that degradation seemed, in her feeling, still to cling to her. Could she have known Bob Hewett’s view of her position, she would have felt its injustice, but at the same time would have bowed her head. And in this spirit had she looked up to Sidney Kirkwood, regarding him as when she was a child, save for that subtle modification which began on the day when she brought news of Clara Hewett’s disappearance. Perfect in kindness, Sidney had never addressed a word to her which implied more than friendship — never until that evening at the farm; then for the first time had he struck a new note. His words seemed spoken with the express purpose of altering his and her relations to each other. So much Jane had felt, and his change since then was all the more painful to her, all the more confusing. Now that of a sudden she had to regard herself in an entirely new way, the dearest interest of her life necessarily entered upon another phase. Struggling to understand how her grandfather could think her worthy of such high trust, she inevitably searched her mind for testimony as to the account in which Sidney held her. A fearful hope had already flushed her cheeks before Michael spoke the words which surely could have but one meaning.

On one point Sidney had left her no doubts; that his love for Clara Hewett was a thing of the past he had told her distinctly. And why did he wish her to be assured of that? Oh, had her grandfather been mistaken in those words he reported? Durst she put faith in them, coming thus to her by another’s voice?

Doubts and dreads and self-reproofs might still visit her from hour to hour, but the instinct of joy would not allow her to refuse admission to this supreme hope. As if in spite of herself, the former gladness — nay, a gladness multiplied beyond conception — reigned once more in her heart. Her grandfather would not speak lightly in such a matter as this; the meaning of his words was confessed, to all eternity immutable. Had it, then, come to this? The friend to whom she looked up with such reverence, with voiceless gratitude, when he condescended to speak kindly to her, the Peckovers’ miserable little servant — he, after all these changes and chances of life, sought her now that she was a woman, and had it on his lips to say that he loved her. Hitherto the impossible, the silly thought to be laughed out of her head, the desire for which she would have chid herself durst she have faced it seriously — was it become a very truth? ‘Keep a good heart, Jane; things’ll be better some day.’ How many years since the rainy and windy night when he threw his coat over her and spoke those words? Yet she could hear them now, and the tears that rushed to her eyes as she blessed him for his manly goodness were as much those of the desolate child as of the full-hearted woman.

And the change that she had observed in him since that evening at Danbury? A real change, but only of manner. He would not say to her what he had meant to say until she knew the truth about her own circumstances. In simple words, she being rich and he having only what he earned by his daily work, Sidney did not think it right to speak whilst she was still in ignorance. The delicacy of her instincts, and the sympathies awakened by her affection, made this perfectly clear to her, strange and difficult to grasp as the situation was at first. When she understood, how her soul laughed with exulting merriment! Consecration to a great idea, endowment with the means of wide beneficence — this not only left her cold, but weighed upon her, afflicted her beyond her strength. What was it, in truth, that restored her to herself and made her heart beat joyously? Knit your brows against her; shake your head and raze her name from that catalogue of saints whereon you have inscribed it in anticipation. Jane rejoiced simply because she loved a poor man, and had riches that she could lay at his feet.

Great sums of money, vague and disturbing to her imagination when she was bidden hold them in trust for unknown people, gleamed and made music now that she could think of them as a gift of love. By this way of thought she could escape from the confusion in which Michael’s solemn appeal had left her. Exalted by her great hope, calmed by the assurance of aid that would never fail her, she began to feel the beauty of the task to which she was summoned; the appalling responsibility became a high privilege now that it was to be shared with one in whose wisdom and strength she had measureless confidence. She knew now what wealth meant; it was a great and glorious power, a source of blessings incalculable. This power it would be hers to bestow, and no man more worthy than he who should receive it at her hands.

It was not without result that Jane had been so long a listener to the conversations between Michael and Kirkwood. Defective as was her instruction in the ordinary sense, those evenings spent in the company of the two men had done much to refine her modes of thought. In spite of the humble powers of her mind and her narrow experience, she had learned to think on matters which are wholly strange to girls of her station, to regard the life of the world and the individual in a light of idealism and with a freedom from ignoble association rare enough in any class. Her forecast of the future to be spent with Sidney was pathetic in its simplicity, but had the stamp of nobleness. Thinking of the past years, she made clear to herself all the significance of her training. In her general view of things, wealth was naturally allied with education, but she understood why Michael had had her taught so little. A wealthy woman is called a lady; yes, but that was exactly what she was not to become. On that account she had gone to work, when in reality there was no need for her to do so. Never must she remove herself from the poor and the laborious, her kin, her care; never must she forget those bitter sufferings of her childhood, precious as enabling her to comprehend the misery of others for whom had come no rescue. She saw, moreover, what was meant by Michael’s religious teaching, why he chose for her study such parts of the Bible as taught the beauty of compassion, of service rendered to those whom the world casts forth and leaves to perish. All this grew upon her, when once the gladness of her heart was revived. It was of the essence of her being to exercise all human and self-forgetful virtues, and the consecration to a life of beneficence moved her profoundly now that it followed upon consecration to the warmer love.

When Sidney paid his next visit Jane was alone in the new sitting-room; her grandfather said he did not feel well enough to come down this evening. It was the first time that Kirkwood had seen the new room. After making his inquiries about Michael he surveyed the arrangements, which were as simple as they could be, and spoke a few words regarding the comfort Jane would find in them. He had his hand on a chair, but did not sit down, nor lay aside his hat. Jane suffered from a constraint which she had never before felt in his presence.

‘You know what grandfather has been telling me?’ she said at length, regarding him with grave eyes.

‘Yes. He told me of his intention.’

‘I asked him if I might speak to you about it. It was bard to understand at first.’

‘It would be, I’ve no doubt.’

Jane moved a little, took up some sewing, and seated herself. Sidney let his hat drop on to the chair, but remained standing, his arms resting on the back.

‘It’s a very short time since I myself knew of it,’ he continued. ‘Till then, I as little imagined as you did that —’ He paused, then resumed more quickly, ‘But it explains many things which I had always understood in a simpler way.’

‘I feel, too, that I know grandfather much better than I did,’ Jane said. ‘He’s always been thinking about the time when I should be old enough to hear what plans he’d made for me. I do so hope he really trusts me, Mr. Kirkwood! I don’t know whether I speak about it as he wishes. It isn’t easy to say all I think, but I mean to do my best to be what he —’

‘He knows that very well. Don’t be anxious; he feels that all his hopes have been realised in you.’

There was silence. Jane made a pretence of using her needle, and Sidney watched her hands.

‘He spoke to you of a lady called Mrs. Lant?’ were his next words.

‘Yes. He just mentioned her.’

‘Are you going to see her soon?’

‘I don’t know. Have you seen her?’

‘No. But I believe she’s a woman you could soon he friendly with. I hope your grandfather will ask her to come here before long.’

‘I’m rather afraid of strangers.’

‘No doubt,’ said the other, smiling. ‘But you’ll get over that. I shall do my best to persuade Mr. Snowdon to make you acquainted with her.’

Jane drew in her breath uneasily.

‘She won’t want me to know other people, I hope?’

‘Oh, if she does, they’ll be kind and nice and easy to talk to.’

Jane raised her eyes and said half-laughingly:

‘I feel as if I was very childish, and that makes me feel it still more. Of course, if it’s necessary, I’ll do my best to talk to strangers. But they won’t expect too much of me, at first? I mean, if they find me a little slow, they won’t be impatient?’

‘You mustn’t think that hard things are going to be asked of you. You’ll never be required to say or do anything that you haven’t already said and done many a time, quite naturally. Why, it’s some time since you began the kind of work of which your grandfather has been speaking.’

‘I have begun it? How?’

‘Who has been such a good friend to Pennyloaf, and helped her as nobody else could have done?’

‘Oh, but that’s nothing!’

Sidney was on the point of replying! but suddenly altered his intention. He raised himself from the leaning attitude, and took his hat.

‘Well, we’ll talk about it another time,’ he said carelessly. ‘I can’t stop long to-night, so I’ll go up and see your grandfather.’

Jane rose silently.

‘I’ll just look in and say good-night before I go,’ Sidney added, as he left the room.

He did so, twenty minutes after. When he opened the door Jane was sewing busily, but it was only on hearing his footsteps that she had so applied herself. He gave a friendly nod, and departed.

Still the same change in his manner. A little while ago he would have chatted freely and forgotten the time.

Another week, and Jane made the acquaintance of the lady whose name we have once or twice heard, Miss Lant, the friend of old Mr. Percival. Of middle age and with very plain features, Miss Lant had devoted herself to philanthropic work; she had an income of a few hundred pounds, and lived almost as simply as the Snowdons in order to save money for charitable expenditure. Unfortunately the earlier years of her life had been joyless, and in the energy which she brought to this self-denying enterprise there was just a touch of excess, common enough in those who have been defrauded of their natural satisfactions and find a resource in altruism. She was no pietist, but there is nowadays coming into existence a class of persons who substitute for the old religious acerbity a narrow and oppressive zeal for good works of purely human sanction, and to this order Miss Lant might be said to belong. However, nothing but what was agreeable manifested itself in her intercourse with Michael and Jane; the former found her ardent spirit very congenial, and the latter was soon at ease in her company.

It was a keen distress to Jane when she heard from Pennyloaf that Bob would allow no future meetings between them. In vain she sought an explanation; Pennyloaf professed to know nothing of her husband’s motives, but implored her friend to keep away for a time, as any disregard of Bob’s injunction would only result in worse troubles than she yet had to endure. Jane sought the aid of Kirkwood, begging him to interfere with young Hewett; the attempt was made, but proved fruitless. ‘Sic volo, sic jubeo,’ was Bob’s standpoint, and he as good as bade Sidney mind his own affairs.

Jane suffered, and more than she herself would have anticipated. She had conceived a liking, almost an affection, for poor, shiftless Pennyloaf, strengthened, of course, by the devotion with which the latter repaid her. But something more than this injury to her feelings was involved in her distress on being excluded from those sorry lodgings. Pennyloaf was comparatively an old friend; she represented the past, its contented work, its familiar associations, its abundant happiness. And now, though Jane did not acknowledge to herself that she regretted the old state of things, still less that she feared the future, it was undeniable that the past seemed very bright in her memory, and that something weighed upon her heart, forbidding such gladsomeness as she had known.

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