The Nether World
Visiting his friends as usual on Sunday evening, Sidney Kirkwood felt, before he had been many minutes in the room, that something unwonted was troubling the quiet he always found here. Michael Snowdon was unlike himself, nervously inattentive, moving frequently, indisposed to converse on any subject. Neither had Jane her accustomed brightness, and the frequent glances she east at her grandfather seemed to show that the latter's condition was causing her anxiety. She withdrew very early, and, as at once appeared, in order that Sidney might hear in private what had that day happened. The story of Clem Peckover's marriage naturally occasioned no little astonishment in Sidney.
'And how will all this affect Jane?' he asked involuntarily.
'That is what I cannot tell,' replied Michael. 'It troubles me. My son is a stranger; all these years have made him quite a different man from what I remember; and the worst is, I can no longer trust myself to judge him. Yet I must know the truth -- Sidney, I must know the truth. It's hard to speak ill of the only son left to me out of the four I once had, but if I think of him as he was seventeen years ago -- no, no, he must have changed as he has grown older. But you must help me to know him, Sidney.'
And in a very few days Sidney had his first opportunity of observing Jane's father. At this meeting Joseph seemed to desire nothing so much as to recommend himself by an amiable bearing. Impossible to speak with more engaging frankness than he did whilst strolling away from Hanover Street in Sidney's company. Thereafter the two saw a great deal of each other. Joseph was soon a familiar visitor in Tysoe Street; he would come about nine o'clock of an evening, and sit till after midnight. The staple of his talk was at first the painfully unnatural relations existing between his father, his daughter, and himself. He had led a most unsatisfactory life; he owned it, deplored it. That the old man should distrust him was but natural; but would not Sidney, as a common friend, do his best to dispel this prejudice? On the subject of his brother Mike he kept absolute silence. The accident of meeting an intimate acquaintance at the office of Messrs. Percival and Peel had rendered it possible for him to pursue his inquiries in that direction without it becoming known to Michael Snowdon that he had done anything of the kind; and the policy he elaborated for himself demanded the appearance of absolute disinterestedness in all his dealings with his father. Aided by the shrewd Mrs. Peckover, he succeeded in reconciling Clem to a present disappointment, bitter as it was, by pointing out that there was every chance of his profiting largely upon the old man's death, which could not be a very remote contingency. At present there was little that could be done save to curry favour in Hanover Street, and keep an eye on what went forward between Kirkwood and Jane. This latter was, of course, an issue of supreme importance. A very little observation convinced Joseph that his daughter had learned to regard Sidney as more than a friend; whether there existed any mutual understanding between them he could only discover by direct inquiry, and for the present it seemed wiser to make no reference to the subject. He preserved the attitude of one who has forfeited his natural rights, and only seeks with humility the chance of proving that he is a reformed character. Was, or was not, Kirkwood aware of the old man's wealth? That too must be left uncertain, though it was more than probable he had seen the advertisement in the newspapers, and, like Mrs. Peckover, had based conclusions thereupon. Another possibility was, that Kirkwood had wormed himself into Michael's complete confidence. From Joseph's point of view, subtle machinations were naturally attributed to the young man -- whose appearance proved him anything but a commonplace person. The situation was full of obscurities and dangers. From Scawthorne Joseph received an assurance that the whole of the Australian property had been capitalised and placed in English investments; also, that the income was regularly drawn and in some way disposed of; the manner of such disposal being kept private between old Mr. Percival and his client.
In the meantime family discussions in the Close had brought to Joseph's knowledge a circumstance regarding Kirkwood which interested him in a high degree. When talking of Sidney's character, it was natural that the Peckovers should relate the story of his relations with Clara Hewett.
'Clara?' exclaimed Mr. Snowdon, as if struck by the name. 'Disappeared, has she? What sort of a girl to look at?'
Clem was ready with a malicious description, whereto her husband attended very carefully. He mused over it, and proceeded to make inquiries about Clara's family. The Hewetts were now living in another part of Clerkenwell, but there was no hostility between them and the Peckovers. Was anything to be gained by keeping up intimacy with them? Joseph, after further musing, decided that it would be just as well to do so; suppose Clem called upon them and presented the husband of whom she was so proud? He would like, if possible, to hear a little more about their daughter; an idea he had -- never mind exactly what. So this call was paid, and in a few weeks Joseph had established an acquaintance with John Hewett.
Sidney, on his part, had a difficulty in coming to definite conclusions respecting Jane's father. Of course he was prejudiced against the man, and though himself too little acquainted with the facts of the case to distinguish Joseph's motives, he felt that the middle-aged prodigal's return was anything but a fortunate event for Michael and his granddaughter. The secret marriage with Clem was not likely, in were not lacking grounds for hesitation in refusing to accept any case, to have a respectable significance. True, there Joseph's account of himself. He had a fund of natural amiability; he had a good provision of intellect; his talk was at times very persuasive and much like that of one who has been brought to a passable degree of honesty by the slow development of his better instincts. But his face was against him; the worn, sallow features, the eyes which so obviously made a struggle to look with frankness, the vicious lower lip, awoke suspicion and told tales of base experience such as leaves its stamp upon a man for ever. All the more repugnant was this face to Sidney because it presented, in certain aspects, an undeniable resemblance to Jane's; impossible to say which feature put forth this claim of kindred, but the impression was there, and it made Sidney turn away his eyes in disgust as often as he perceived it. He strove, however, to behave with friendliness, for it was Michael's desire that he should do so. That Joseph was using every opportunity of prying into his thoughts, of learning the details of his history, he soon became perfectly conscious; but he knew of nothing that he need conceal.
It was impossible that Sidney should not have reflected many a time on Michael Snowdon's position, and have been moved to curiosity by hints of the mysterious when he thought of his friends in Hanover Street. As it happened, he never saw those newspaper advertisements addressed to Joseph, and his speculation had nothing whatever to support it save the very few allusions to the past which Michael had permitted himself in the course of talk. Plainly the old man had means sufficient for his support, end in all likelihood this independence was connected with his visit to Australia; but no act or word of Michael's had ever suggested that he possessed more than a very modest competency. It was not, indeed, the circumstances, so much as the character and views, of his friend that set Kirkwood pondering. He did not yet know Michael Snowdon; of that he was convinced. He had not fathomed his mind, got at the prime motive of his being. Moreover, he felt that the old man was waiting for some moment, or some event, to make revelation of himself. Since Joseph's appearance, it had become more noticeable than ever that Snowdon suffered from some agitation of the mind; Sidney had met his eyes fixed upon him in a painful interrogation, and seemed to discern the importunity of a desire that was refused utterance. His own condition was affected by sympathy with this restlessness, and he could not overcome the feeling that some decisive change was at hand for him. Though nothing positive justified the idea, he began to connect this anticipation of change with the holiday that was approaching, the week to be spent in Essex at the end of July. It had been his fear that Joseph's presence might affect these arrangements, but Michael was evidently resolved to allow nothing of the kind. One evening, a fortnight before the day agreed upon for leaving town, and when Joseph had made a call in Hanover Street, the old man took occasion to speak of the matter. Joseph accepted the information with his usual pliancy.
'I only wish my wife and me could join you,' he remarked. 'But it wouldn't do to take a holiday so soon after settling to business. Better luck for me next year, father, let's hope.'
That he had settled to business was a fact of which Joseph made so much just now that one would have been tempted to suppose it almost a new experience for him. His engagement, he declared, was with a firm of advertising agents in the City; nothing to boast of, unfortunately, and remunerative only in the way of commission; but he saw his way to better things.
'Jane, my girl,' he continued, averting his eyes as if in emotion, 'I don't know how you and me are going to show our gratitude for all this kindness, I'm sure. I hope you haven't got so used to it that you think there's no need to thank your grandfather?'
The girl and the old man exchanged a look. Joseph sighed, and began to speak of another subject in a tone of cheery martyrdom.
Jane herself had not been quite so joyous as was her wont since the occurrence that caused her to take a new view of her position in the world. She understood that her grandfather regarded the change very gravely, and in her own heart awoke all manner of tremulous apprehensions when she tried to look onward a little to the uncertainties of the future. Forecasts had not hitherto troubled her; the present was so rich in satisfactions that she could follow the bent of her nature and live with no anxiety concerning the unknown. It was a great relief to her to be assured that the long-standing plans for the holiday would suffer no change. The last week was a time of impatience, resolutely suppressed. On the Saturday afternoon Sidney was to meet them at Liverpool Street. Would anything happen these last few days -- this last day -- this last hour? No; all three stood together on the platform, and their holiday had already begun.
Over the pest-stricken regions of East London, sweltering in sunshine which served only to reveal the intimacies of abomination; across miles of a city of the damned, such as thought never conceived before this age of ours; above streets swarming with a nameless populace, cruelly exposed by the unwonted light of heaven; stopping at stations which it crushes the heart to think should be the destination of any mortal; the train made its way at length beyond the outmost limits of dread, and entered upon a land of level meadows, of hedges and trees, of crops and cattle. Michael Snowdon was anxious that Jane should not regard with the carelessness of familiarity those desolate tracts from which they were escaping. In Bethnal Green he directed her attention with a whispered word to the view from each window, and Jane had learnt well to understand him. But, the lesson over, it was none of his purpose to spoil her natural mood of holiday. Sidney sat opposite her, and as often as their eyes met a smile of contentment answered on either's face.
They alighted at Chelmsford, and were met by the farmer in whose house they were going to lodge, a stolid, good-natured fellow named Pammenter, with red, leathery cheeks, and a corkscrew curl of black hair coming forward on each temple. His trap was waiting, and in a few minutes they started on the drive to Danbury. The distance is about five miles, and, until Danbury Hill is reached, the countryside has no point of interest to distinguish it from any other representative bit of rural Essex. It is merely one of those quiet corners of flat, homely England, where man and beast seem on good terms with each other, where all green things grow in abundance, where from of old tilth and pasture-land are humbly observant of seasons and alternations, where the brown roads are familiar only with the tread of the labourer, with the light wheel of the farmer's gig, or the rumbling of the solid warn. By the roadside you pass occasionally a mantled pool, where perchance ducks or geese are enjoying themselves; and at times there is a pleasant glimpse of farm-yard, with stacks and barns and stables. All things as simple as could be, but beautiful on this summer afternoon, and priceless when one has come forth from the streets of Clerkenwell.
Farmer Pammenter was talkative, and his honest chest. voice sounded pleasantly; but the matter of his discourse might have been more cheerful. Here, as elsewhere, the evil of the times was pressing upon men and disheartening them from labour. Farms lying barren, ill-will between proprietor and tenant, between tenant and hind, departure of the tillers of the soil to rot in towns that have no need of them -- of such things did honest Pammenter speak, with many a sturdy malediction of landlords and land-laws, whereat Sidney smiled, not unsympathetic.
Danbury Hill, rising thick-wooded to the village church, which is visible for miles around, with stretches of heath about its lower slopes, with its far prospects over the sunny country, was the pleasant end of a pleasant drive. Mrs. Pammenter and her children (seven of them, unhappily) gave the party a rough, warm-hearted welcome. Ha! how good it was to smell the rooms through which the pure air breathed freely! All the front of the house was draped with purple clematis; in the garden were sun-flowers and hollyhocks and lowly plants innumerable; on the red and lichened tiles pigeons were cooing themselves into a doze; the horse's hoofs rang with a pleasant clearness on the stones as he was led to his cool stable. Her heart throbbing with excess of delight, Jane pushed back the diamond-paned casement of her bedroom, the same room she had occupied last year and the year before, and buried her face in clematis. Then the tea that Mrs. Pammenter had made ready; -- how delicious everything tasted! how white the cloth was! how fragrant the cut flowers in the brown jug!
But Michael had found the journey a greater tax upon his strength than he anticipated. Whilst Sidney and Jane talked merrily over the tea-table the old man was thinking. 'Another year they will come without me,' and he smiled just to hide his thoughts. In the evening he smoked his pipe on a garden-seat, for the most part silent, and at sunset he was glad to go up to his chamber.
Jane was renewing her friendship with the Pammenters' eldest girl, an apple-checked, red-haired, ungraceful, but good-natured lass of sixteen. Their voices sounded from all parts of the garden and the farm-yard, Jane's clear-throated laugh contrasting with the rougher utterance of her companion. After supper, in the falling of the dusk, Sidney strolled away from the gossiping circle within-doors, and found a corner of the garden whence there was a view of wooded hillside against the late glow of the heavens. Presently he heard footsteps, and through the leafage of a tree that shadowed him he saw Jane looking this way and that, as if she sought some one. Her dress was a light calico, and she held in her hand a rough garden hat, the property of Miss Pammenter. Sidney regarded her for some moments, then called her by name. She could not see him at first, and looked about anxiously. He moved a branch of the tree and again called her; whereupon she ran forward.
'I thought perhaps you'd gone up the hill,' she said, resting her arms on the wall by which he was standing.
Then they kept silence, enjoying the sweetness of the hour. Differently, it is true; for Kirkwood's natural sensitiveness had been developed and refined by studies of which Jane had no conception. Imperfect as his instruction remained, the sources of spiritual enjoyment were open to him, and with all his feeling there blended that reflective bitterness which is the sad privilege of such as he. Jane's delight was as simple as the language in which she was wont to express herself. She felt infinitely more than Pennyloaf, for instance, would have done under the circumstances; but her joy consisted, in the main, of a satisfaction of pure instincts and a deep sense of gratitude to those who made her life what it was. She could as little have understood Sidney's mind at this moment as she could have given an analytic account of her own sensations. For all that, the two were in profound sympathy; how different soever the ways in which they were affected, the result, as they stood side by side, was identical in the hearts of both.
Sidney began to speak of Michael Snowdon, keeping his voice low, as if in fear of breaking those subtle harmonies wherewith the night descended.
'We must be careful not to over-tire him, He looked very pale when he went upstairs. I've thought lately that he must suffer more than he tells us.'
'Yes, I'm afraid he often does,' Jane assented, as if relieved to speak of it. 'Yet he always says it's nothing to trouble about, nothing but what is natural at his age. He's altered a great deal since father came,' she added, regarding him diffidently.
'I hope it isn't because he thinks your father may be wanting to take you away?'
'Oh, it can't be that! Oh, he knows I wouldn't leave him! Mr. Kirkwood, you don't think my father will give us any trouble?'
She revealed an anxiety which delicacy of feeling had hitherto prevented her expressing. Sidney at once spoke reassuringly, though he had in fact no little suspicion of Joseph Snowdon's tactics.
'It's my grandfather that I ought to think most of,' pursued Jane earnestly. 'I can't feel to my father as I do to him. What should I have been now if ----'
Something caused her to leave the speech unfinished, and for a few moments there was silence. From the ground exhaled a sweet fresh odour, soothing to the senses, and at times a breath of air brought subtler perfume from the alleys of the garden. In the branches above them rustled a bird's wing. At a distance on the country road sounded the trotting of a horse.
'I feel ashamed and angry with myself,' said Sidney, in a tone of emotion, 'when I think now of t hose times. I might have done something, Jane. I had no right to know what you were suffering and just go by as if it didn't matter!'
'Oh, but you didn't!' came eagerly from the girl's lips. 'You've forgotten, but I can't. You were very kind to me -- you helped me more than you can think -- you never saw me without speaking kindly. Don't you remember that night when I came to fetch you from the workshop, and you took off your coat and put it over me, because it was cold and raining?'
'Jane, what a long, long time ago that seems!'
'As long as I live I shall never forget it -- never! You were the only friend I had then.'
'No; there was some one else who took thought for you,' said Sidney, regarding her gravely.
Jane met his look for an instant -- they could just read each other's features in the pale light -- then dropped her eyes.
'I don't think you've forgotten that either,' he added, in the same unusual voice.
'No,' said Jane, below her breath.
'Say who it is I mean.'
'You mean Miss Hewett,' was the reply, after a troubled moment.
'I wanted you to say her name. You remember one evening not long ago, when your grandfather was away? I had the same wish then. Why shouldn't we speak of her? She was a friend to you when you needed one badly, and it's right that you should remember her with gratitude. I think of her just like we do of people that are dead.'
Jane stood with one hand on the low wall, half-turned to him, hut her face bent downwards. Regarding her for what seemed a long time, Sidney felt as though the fragrance of the earth and the flowers were mingling with his blood and confusing him with emotions. At the same his tongue was paralysed. Frequently of late he had known a timidity in Jane's presence, which prevented him from meeting her eyes, and now this tremor came upon him with painful intensity. He knew to what his last words had tended; it was with consciousness of a distinct purpose that he had led the conversation to Clara; but now he was powerless to speak the words his heart prompted. Of a sudden he experienced a kind of shame, the result of comparison between himself and the simple girl who stood before him; she was so young, and the memory of passions from which he had suffered years ago affected him with a sense of unworthiness, almost of impurity. Jane had come to be his ideal of maidenhood, but till this moment he had not understood the full significance of the feeling with which he regarded her. He could not transform with a word their relations to each other. The temptation of the hour had hurried him towards an end which he must approach with more thought, more preparation of himself.
It was scarcely for ten heart-beats. Then Jane raised her eyes and said in a voice that trembled:
'I've often wished I could see her again, and thank her for her kindness that night.'
'That will help me to think with less pain of things that are long since over and done with,' Sidney replied, forcing himself to speak firmly. 'We can't alter the past, Jane, but we can try to remember only the best part of it. You, I hope, very seldom look back at all.'
'Grandfather wishes me never to forget it. He often says that.'
'Does he? I think I understand.'
Jane drew down a branch and laid the broad cool leaves against her cheek; releasing it, she moved in the direction of the house. Her companion followed with slow step, his head bent. Before they came to the door Jane drew his attention to a bat that was sweeping duskily above their heads; she began to speak with her wonted cheerfulness.
'How I should like Pennyloaf to be here! I wonder what she'd think of it?'
At the door they bade each other good night. Sidney took yet a few turns in the garden before entering. But that it would have seemed to the Pammenters a crazy proceeding, he would have gladly struck away over the fields and walked for hours.
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 to-day 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 return mg 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.
There is no accounting for tastes. Sidney Kirkwood, spending his Sunday evening in a garden away there in the chaw-bacon regions of Essex, where it was so deadly quiet that you could hear the flutter of a bird's wing or the rustle of a leaf, not once only congratulated himself on his good fortune; yet at that hour he might have stood, as so often, listening to the eloquence, the wit, the wisdom, that give proud distinction to the name of Clerkenwell Green. Towards sundown, that modern Agora rang with the voices of orators, swarmed with listeners, with disputants, with mockers, with indifferent loungers. The circle closing about an agnostic lecturer intersected with one gathered for a prayer-meeting; the roar of an enthusiastic total-abstainer blended with the shriek of a Radical politician. Innumerable were the little groups which had broken away from the larger ones to hold semi-private debate on matters which demanded calm consideration and the finer intellect. From the doctrine of the Trinity to the question of cabbage versus beef; from Neo-Malthusianism to the grievance of compulsory vaccination;'not a subject which modernism has thrown out to the multitude but here received its sufficient mauling. Above the crowd floated wreaths of rank tobacco smoke.
Straying from circle to circle might have been seen Mr. Joseph Snowdon, the baldness of his crown hidden by a most respectable silk hat, on one hand a glove, in the other his walking-stick, a yellow waistcoat enhancing his appearance of dignity, a white necktie spotted with blue and a geranium in his button-hole correcting the suspicion of age suggested by his countenance. As a listener to harangues of the most various tendency, Mr. Snowdon exhibited an impartial spirit; he smiled occasionally, but was never moved to any expression of stronger feeling. His placid front revealed the philosopher.
Yet at length something stirred him to a more pronounced interest. He was on the edge of a dense throng which had just been delighted by the rhetoric of a well-known Clerkenwell Radical; the topic under discussion was Bent, and the last speaker had, in truth, put before them certain noteworthy views of the subject as it affected the poor of London. What attracted Mr. Snowdon's attention was the voice of the speaker who next rose. Pressing a little nearer, he got a glimpse of a lean, haggard, grey-headed man, shabbily dressed, no bad example of a sufferer from the hardships he was beginning to denounce. 'That's old Hewett,' remarked somebody close by. 'He's the feller to let 'em 'ave it!' Yes, it was John Hewett, much older, much more broken, yet much fiercer than when we last saw him. Though it was evident that he spoke often at these meetings, he had no command of his voice and no coherence of style; after the first few words he seemed to be overcome by rage that was little short of frenzy. Inarticulate screams and yells interrupted the torrent of his invective; he raised both hands above his head and clenched them in a gesture of frantic passion; his visage was frightfully distorted, and in a few minutes there actually fell drops of blood from his bitten lip. Rent! -- it was a subject on which the poor fellow could speak to some purpose. What was the root of the difficulty a London workman found in making both ends meet? Wasn't it that accursed law by which the owner of property can make him pay a half, and often more, of his earnings or permission to put his wife and children under a roof? And what sort of dwellings were they, these in which the men who made the wealth of the country were born and lived and died? What would happen to the landlords of Clerkenwell if they got their due? Ay, what shall happen, my boys, and that before so very long? For fifteen or twenty minutes John expended his fury, until, in fact, he was speechless. It was terrible to look at him when at length he made his way out of the crowd; his face was livid, his eyes bloodshot, a red slaver covered his lips and beard; you might have taken him for a drunken man, so feebly did his limbs support him, so shattered was he by the fit through which he had passed.
Joseph followed him, and presently walked along at his side.
'That was about as good a speech as I've heard for a long time, Mr. Hewett,' he began by observing. 'I like to hear a man speak as if he meant it.'
John looked up with a leaden, rheumy eye, but the compliment pleased him, and in a moment he smiled vacantly.
'I haven't said my last word yet,' he replied, with difficulty making himself audible through his hoarseness.
'It takes it out of you, I'm afraid. Suppose we have a drop of something at the corner here?'
'I don't mind, Mr. Snowdon. I thought of looking in at my club for a quarter of an hour; perhaps you'd come round with me afterwards?'
They drank at the public-house, then Hewett led the way by back streets to the quarters of the club of which he had been for many years a member. The locality was not cheerful, and the house itself stood in much need of repair. As they entered, John requested his companion to sign his name in the visitors' book; Mr. Snowdon did so with a flourish. They ascended to the first floor and passed into a room where little could be seen but the gas-jets, and those dimly, owing to the fume of pipes. The rattle of bones, the strumming of a banjo, and a voice raised at intervals in a kind of whoop announced that a nigger entertainment was in progress. Recreation of this kind is not uncommon on Sunday evening at the workmen's clubs; you will find it announced in the remarkable list of lectures, &c., printed in certain Sunday newspapers. The company which was exerting itself in the present instance had at all events an appreciative audience; laughter and applause broke forth very frequently.
'I'd forgot it was this kind o' thing to-night,' said Hewett, when he could discover no vacant seat. 'Do you care about it? No more don't I; let's go down into the readin'-room.'
Downstairs they established themselves at their ease. John ordered two half-pints of ale -- the club supplied refreshment for the body as well as for the mind -- and presently he was more himself.
'How's your wife?' inquired Joseph. 'Better, I hope?'
'I wish I could say so,' answered the other, shaking his head. 'She hasn't been up since Thursday. She's bad, poor woman! she's bad.'
Joseph murmured his sympathy between two draughts of ale.
'Seen young Kirkwood lately?' Hewett asked, averting his eyes and assuming a tone of half-absent indifference.
'He's gone away for his holiday; gone into Essex somewhere. When was it he was speaking of you? Why, one day last week, to be sure.'
'Speakin' about me, eh?' said John, turning his glass round and round on the table. And as the other remained silent, he added, 'You can tell him, if you like, that my wife's been very bad for a long time. Him an' me don't have nothing to say to each other -- but you can tell him that, if you like.'
'So I will,' replied Mr. Snowdon, nodding with a confidential air.
He had noticed from the beginning of his acquaintance with Hewett that the latter showed no disinclination to receive news of Kirkwood. As Clem's husband, Joseph was understood to be perfectly aware of the state of things between the Hewetts and their former friend, and in a recent conversation with Mrs. Hewett he had assured himself that she, at all events, would be glad if the estrangement could come to an end. For reasons of his own, Joseph gave narrow attention to these signs.
The talk was turning to other matters, when a man who had just entered the room and stood looking about him with an uneasy expression caught sight of Hewett and approached him. He was middle-aged, coarse of feature, clad in the creased black which a certain type of artisan wears on Sunday.
'I'd like a word with you, John,' he said, 'if your friend'll excuse.'
Hewett rose from the table, and they walked together to an unoccupied spot.
'Have you heard any talk about the Burial Club?' inquired the man, in a low voice of suspicion, knitting his eyebrows.
'Heard anything? No. What?'
'Why, Dick Smales says he can't get the money for his boy, as died last week.'
'Can't get it? Why not?'
'That's just what I want to know. Some o' the chaps is talkin' about it upstairs. M'Cosh ain't been seen for four or five days. Somebody had news as he was ill in bed, and now there's no findin' him. I've got a notion there's something wrong, my boy.'
Hewett's eyes grew large and the muscles of his mouth contracted.
'Where's Jenkins?' he asked abruptly. 'I suppose he can explain it?'
'No, by God, he can't! He won't say nothing, but he's been runnin' about all yesterday and to-day, lookin' precious queer,
Without paying any further attention to Snowdon, John left the room with his companion, and they went upstairs. Most of the men present were members of the Burial Club in question, an institution of some fifteen years' standing and in connection with the club which met here for social and political purposes; they were in the habit, like John Hewett, of depositing their coppers weekly, thus insuring themselves or their relatives for a sum payable at death. The rumour that something was wrong, that the secretary M'Cosh could not be found, began to create a disturbance; presently the nigger entertainment came to an end, and the Burial Club was the sole topic of conversation.
On the morrow it was an ascertained fact that one of the catastrophes which occasionally befall the provident among wage-earners had come to pass. Investigation showed that for a long time there had been carelessness and mismanagement of funds, and that fraud had completed the disaster. M'Cosh was wanted by the police.
To John Hewett the blow was a terrible one. In spite of his poverty, he had never fallen behind with those weekly payments. The thing he dreaded supremely was, that his wife or one of the children should die and he be unable to provide a decent burial. At the death of the last child born to him the club had of course paid, and the confidence he felt in it for the future was a sensible support under the many miseries of his life, a support of which no idea can be formed by one who has never foreseen the possibility of those dear to him being carried to a pauper's grave. It was a touching fact that he still kept up the payment for Clara; who could say but his daughter might yet come back to him to die? To know that he had lost that one stronghold against fate was a stroke that left him scarcely strength to go about his daily work.
And he could not breathe a word of it to his wife. Oh that better curse of poverty, which puts corrupting poison into the wounds inflicted by nature, which outrages the spirit's tenderness, which profanes with unutterable defilement the secret places of the mourning heart! He could not, durst not, speak a word of this misery to her whose gratitude and love had resisted every trial, who had shared uncomplainingly all the evil of his lot, and had borne with supreme patience those added sufferings of which he had no conception. For she lay on her deathbed. The doctor told him so on the very day when he learnt that it would be out of his power to discharge the fitting pieties at her grave. So far from looking to her for sympathy, it behoved him to keep from her as much as a suspicion of what had happened.
Their home at this time was a kitchen in King's Cross Road. The eldest child, Amy, was now between ten and eleven; Annie was nine; Tom seven. These, of course, went to school every day, and were being taught to appreciate the woefulness of their inheritance. Amy was, on the whole, a good girl; she could make purchases as well as her mother, and when in the mood, look carefully after her little brother and sister; but already she had begun to display restiveness under the hard discipline to which the domestic poverty subjected her. Once she had played truant from school, and told falsehoods to the teachers to explain her absence. It was discovered that she had been tempted by other girls to go and see the Lord Mayor's show. Annie and Tom threatened to be troublesome when they got a little older; the boy could not be taught to speak the truth, and his sister was constantly committing petty thefts of jam, sugar, even coppers; and during the past year their mother was seldom able to exert herself in correcting these faults. Only by dint of struggle which cost her agonies could she discharge the simplest duties of home. She made a brave fight against disease and penury and incessant dread of the coming day, but month after month her strength failed. Now at length she tried vainly to leave her bed. The last reserve of energy was exhausted, and the end near.
After her death, what then? Through the nights of this week after her doom had been spoken she lay questioning the future. She knew that but for her unremitting efforts Hewett would have yielded to the despair of a drunkard; the crucial moment was when he found himself forsaken by his daughter, and no one but this poor woman could know what force of loving will, what entreaties, what tears, had drawn him back a little way from the edge of the gulf. Throughout his life until that day of Clara's disappearance he had seemed in no danger from the deadliest enemy of the poor; one taste of the oblivion that could be bought at any street-corner, and it was as though drinking had been a recognised habit with him. A year, two years, and he still drank himself into forgetfulness as often as his mental suffering waxed unendurable. On the morrow of every such crime -- interpret the word rightly -- he hated himself for his cruelty to that pale sufferer whose reproaches were only the utterances of love. The third year saw an improvement, whether owing to conscious self-control or to the fact that time was blunting his affliction. Instead of the public-house, he frequented all places where the woes of the nether world found fierce expression. He became a constant speaker at the meetings on Clerkenwell Green and at the Radical clubs. The effect upon him of this excitement was evil enough, yet not so evil as the malady of drink. Mrs. Hewett was thankful for the alternative. But when she was no longer at his side -- what then?
His employment was irregular, but for the most part at cabinet-making. The workshop where he was generally to be found was owned by two brothers, who invariably spent the first half of each week in steady drinking. Their money gone, they set to work and made articles of furniture, which on Saturday they took round to the shops of small dealers and sold for what they could get. When once they took up their tools, these men worked with incredible persistency, and they expected the same exertion from those they employed. 'I wouldn't give a ---- for the chap as can't do his six-and-thirty hours at the bench!' remarked one of them on the occasion of a workman falling into a fainting-fit, caused by utter exhaustion. Hewett was anything but strong, and he earned little.
Late on Saturday afternoon, Sidney Kirkwood and his friends were back in London. As he drew near to Tysoe Street, carrying the bag which was all the luggage he had needed, Sidney by chance encountered Joseph Snowdon, who, after inquiring about his relatives, said that he had just come from visiting the Hewetts. Mrs. Hewett was very ill indeed; and it was scarcely to be expected she would live more than a few days.
'You mean that?' exclaimed Kirkwood, upon whom, after his week of holiday and of mental experiences which seemed to have changed the face of the world for him, this sudden announcement came with a painful shock, reviving all the miserable past. 'She is dying?'
'There's no doubt of it.'
And Joseph added his belief that John Hewett would certainly not take it ill if the other went there before it was too late.
Sidney had no appetite now for the meal he would have purchased on reaching home. A profound pity for the poor woman who had given him so many proofs of her affection made his heart heavy almost to tears. The perplexities of the present vanished in a revival of old tenderness, of bygone sympathies and sorrows. He could not doubt but that it was his duty to go to his former friends at a time such as this. Perhaps, if he had overcome his pride, he might have sooner brought the estrangement to an end.
He did not know, and had forgotten to ask of Snowdon, the number of the house in King's Cross Road where the Hewetts lived. He could find it, however, by visiting Pennyloaf. Conquering his hesitation, he was on the point of going forth, when his landlady came up and told him that a young girl wished to see him. It was Amy Hewett, and her face told him on what errand she had come.
'Mr. Kirkwood,' she began, looking up with embarrassment, for he was all but a stranger to her now, 'mother wants to know if you'd come and see her. She's very bad; they're afraid she's ----'
The word was choked. Amy had been crying, and the tears again rose to her eyes.
'I was just coming,' Sidney answered, as he took her hand and pressed it kindly.
They crossed Wilmington Square and descended by the streets that slope to Coldbath Fields Prison. The cellar in which John Hewett and his family were housed was underneath a milk. shop; Amy led the way down stone steps from the pavement of the street into an area, where more than two people would have had difficulty in standing together. Sidney saw that the window which looked upon this space was draped with a sheet. By an open door they entered a passage, then came to the door of the room. Amy pushed it open, and showed that a lamp gave light within.
To poor homes Sidney Kirkwood was no stranger, but a poorer than this now disclosed to him he had never seen. The first view of it made him draw in his breath, as though a pang went through him. Hewett was not here. The two younger children were sitting upon a mattress, eating bread. Amy stepped up to the bedside and bent to examine her mother's face.
'I think she's asleep,' she whispered, turning round to Sidney.
Sleep, or loath? It might well be the latter, for anything Sidney could determine to the contrary. The face he could not recognise, or only when he had gazed at it for several minutes. Oh, pitiless world, that pursues its business and its pleasure, that takes its fill of life from the rising to the going down of the sun, and within sound of its clamour is this hiding-place of anguish and desolation!
'Mother, here's Mr. Kirkwood.'
Repeated several times, the words at length awoke consciousness. The dying woman could not move her head from the pillow; her eyes wandered, but in the end rested upon Sidney. He saw an expression of surprise, of anxiety, then a smile of deep contentment.
'I knew you'd come. I did so want to see you. Don't go just yet, will you?'
The lump in his throat hindered Sidney from replying. Hot tears, an agony in the shedding, began to stream down his cheeks.
'Where's John?' she continued, trying to look about the room. 'Amy, where's your father? He'll come soon, Sidney. I want you and him to be friends again. He knows he'd never ought to a' said what he did. Don't take on so, Sidney! There'll be Amy to look after the others. She'll be a good girl. She's promised me. It's John I'm afraid for. If only he can keep from drink. Will you try and help him, Sidney?'
There was a terrible earnestness of appeal in the look she fixed upon him. Sidney replied that he would hold nothing more sacred than the charge she gave him.
'It'll be easier for them to live,' continued the feeble voice. 'I've been ill so long, and there's been so much expense. Amy'll be earning something before long.'
'Don't trouble,' Sidney answered. 'They shall never want as long as I live -- never!'
'Sidney, come a bit nearer. Do you know anything about her?'
He shook his head.
'If ever -- if ever she comes back, don't turn away from her -- will you?'
'I would welcome her as I would a sister of my own.'
'There's such hard things in a woman's life. What would a' become of me, if John hadn't took pity on me! The world's a hard place; I should be glad to leave it, if it wasn't for them as has to go on in their trouble. I knew you'd come when I sent Amy. Oh, I feel that easier in my mind!'
'Why didn't you send long before? No, it's my fault. Why didn't I come? Why didn't I come?'
There was a footstep in the passage, a slow, uncertain step; then the door moved a little. With blurred vision Sidney saw Hewett enter and come forward. They grasped each other's hands without speaking, and John, as though his strength were at an end, dropped upon the chair by the bedside. For the last four or five nights he had sat there; if he got half an hour's painful slumber now and then it was the utmost. His face was like that of some prisoner, whom the long torture of a foul dungeon has brought to the point of madness. He uttered only a few words during the half-hour that Sidney still remained in the room. The latter, when Mrs. Hewett's relapse into unconsciousness made it useless for him to stay, beckoned Amy to follow him out into the area and put money in her hand, begging her to get whatever was needed without troubling her father. He would come again in the morning.
Mrs. Hewett died just before daybreak without a pang, as though death had compassion on her. When Sidney came, about nine o'clock, he found Amy standing at the door of the milk-shop; the people who kept it had brought the children up into their room. Hewett still sat by the bed; seeing Kirkwood, he pointed to the hidden face.
'How am I to bury her?' he whispered hoarsely. 'Haven't you heard about it? They've stole the club-money; they've robbed me of it; I haven't as much as'll pay for her coffin.'
Sidney fancied at first that the man's mind was wandering, but Hewett took out of his pocket a scrap of newspaper in which the matter was briefly reported.
'See, it's there. I've known since last Sunday, and I had to keep it from her. No need to be afraid of speakin' now. They've robbed me, and I haven't as much as'll pay for her coffin. It's a nice blasted world, this is, where they won't let you live, and then make you pay if you don't want to be buried like a dog! She's had nothing but pain and poverty all her life, and now they'll pitch her out of the way in a parish box. Do you remember what hopes I used to have when we were first married? See the end of 'em -- look at this underground hole -- look at this bed as she lays on! Is it my fault? By God, I wonder I haven't killed myself before this! I've been drove mad, I tell you -- mad! It's well if I don't do murder yet; every man as I see go by with a good coat on his back and a face fat with good feeding, it's all I can do to keep from catchin' his throat an tearin' the life out of him!'
'Let's talk about the burial,' interposed Sidney. 'Make your mind at ease. I've got enough to pay for all that, and you must let me lend you what you want.'
'Lend me money? You as I haven't spoke to for years?'
'The more fault mine. I ought to have come back again long since; you wouldn't have refused an old friend that never meant an unkindness to you.'
'No, it was me as was to blame,' said the other, with choking voice. 'She always told me so, and she always said what was right. But I can't take it of you, Sidney; I can't! Lend it? An' where am I goin' to get it from to pay you back? It won't be so long before I lie like she does there. It's getting too much for me.'
The first tears he had shed rose at this generosity of the man he had so little claim upon. His passionate grief and the spirit of rebellion, which grew more frenzied as he grew older, were subdued to a sobbing gratitude for the kindness which visited him in his need. Nerveless, voiceless, he fell back again upon the chair and let his head lie by that of the dead woman.
Mr. Joseph Snowdon, though presenting a calm countenance to the world and seeming to enjoy comparative prosperity, was in truth much harassed by the difficulties of his position. Domestic troubles he had anticipated, but the unforeseen sequel of his marriage resulted in a martyrdom at the hands of Clem and her mother such as he had never dreamed of. His faults and weaknesses distinctly those of the civilised man, he found himself in disastrous alliance with two savages, whose characters so supplemented each other as to constitute in unison a formidable engine of tyranny. Clem -- suspicious, revengeful, fierce, watching with cruel eyes every opportunity of taking payment on account for the ridicule to which she had exposed herself; Mrs. Peckover -- ceaselessly occupied with the basest scheming, keen as an Indian on any trail she happened to strike, excited by the scent of money as a jackal by that of carrion; for this pair Joseph was no match. Not only did they compel him to earn his daily bread by dint of methodical effort such as was torture to his indolent disposition, but, moreover, in pursuance of Mrs. Peckover's crafty projects, he was constrained to an assiduous hypocrisy in his relations with Michael and Jane which wearied him beyond measure. Joseph did not belong to the most desperate class of hungry mortals; he had neither the large ambitions and the passionate sensual desires which make life an unending fever, nor was he possessed with that foul itch of covetousness which is the explanation of the greater part of the world's activity. He understood quite sufficiently the advantages of wealth, and was prepared to go considerable lengths for the sake of enjoying them, but his character lacked persistence. This defect explained the rogueries and calamities of his life. He had brains in abundance, and a somewhat better education would have made of him either a successful honest man or a rascal of superior scope -- it is always a toss-up between these two results where a character such as his is in question. Ever since he abandoned the craft to which his father had had him trained, he had lived on his wits; there would be matter for a volume in the history of his experiences at home and abroad, a volume infinitely more valuable considered as a treatise on modern civilisation than any professed work on that subject in existence. With one episode only in his past can we here concern ourselves; the retrospect is needful to make clear his relations with Mr. Scawthorne.
On his return from America, Joseph possessed a matter of a hundred pounds; the money was not quite legally earned (pray let us reserve the word honesty for a truer use than the common one), and on the whole he preferred to recommence life in the old country under a pseudonym -- that little affair of the desertion of his child would perhaps, in any case, have made this advisable. A hundred pounds will not go very far, but Joseph took care to be well dressed, and allowed it to be surmised by those with whom he came in contact that the resources at his command were considerable. In early days, as we know, he had worked at electroplating, and the natural bent of his intellect was towards mechanical and physical science; by dint of experimenting at his old pursuit, he persuaded himself, or at all events attained plausibility for the persuading of others, that he had discovered a new and valuable method of plating with nickel, He gave it out that he was in search of a partner to join him in putting this method into practice. Gentlemen thus situated naturally avail themselves of the advertisement columns of the newspaper, and Joseph by this means had the happiness to form an acquaintance with one Mr. Polkenhorne, who, like himself, had sundry schemes for obtaining money without toiling for it in the usual vulgar way. Polkenhorne was a man of thirty-five, much of a blackguard, but keen-witted, handsome, and tolerably educated; the son of a Clerkenwell clockmaker, he had run through an inheritance of a few thousand pounds, and made no secret of his history -- spoke of his experiences, indeed, with a certain pride. Between these two a close intimacy sprang up, one of those partnerships, beginning with mutual deception, which are so common in the border-land of enterprise just skirting the criminal courts. Polkenhorne resided at this time in Kennington; he was married -- or said that he was -- to a young lady in the theatrical profession, known to the public as Miss Grace Danver. To Mrs. Polkenhorne, or Miss Danver, Joseph soon had the honour of being presented, for she was just then playing at a London theatre; he found her a pretty but consumptive-looking girl, not at all likely to achieve great successes, earning enough, however, to support Mr. Polkenhorne during this time of his misfortunes -- a most pleasant and natural arrangement.
Polkenhorne's acquaintances were numerous, but, as he informed Joseph, most of them were 'played out,' that is to say, no further use could be made of them from Polkenhorne's point of view. One, however, as yet imperfectly known, promised to be useful, perchance as a victim, more probably as an ally; his name was Scawthorne, and Polkenhorne had come across him in consequence of a friendship existing between Grace Danver and Mrs. Scawthorne -- at all events, a young lady thus known -- who was preparing herself for the stage. This gentleman was 'something in the City;' he had rather a close look, but proved genial enough, and was very ready to discuss things in general with Mr. Polkenhorne and his capitalist friend Mr. Camden, just from the United States.
A word or two about Charles Henry Scawthorne, of the circumstances which made him what you know, or what you conjecture. His father had a small business as a dyer in Islington, and the boy, leaving school at fourteen, was sent to become a copying-clerk in a solicitor's office; his tastes were so strongly intellectual that it seemed a pity to put him to work he hated, and the clerkship was the best opening that could be procured for him. Two years after, Mr. Scawthorne died; his wife tried to keep on the business, but soon failed, and thenceforth her son had to support her as well as himself. From sixteen to three-and-twenty was the period of young Scawthorne's life which assured his future advancement -- and his moral ruin. A grave, gentle, somewhat effeminate boy, with a great love of books and a wonderful power of application to study, he suffered so much during those years of early maturity, that, as in almost all such eases, his nature was corrupted. Pity that some self-made intellectual man of our time has not flung in the world's teeth a truthful autobiography. Scawthorne worked himself up to a position which had at first seemed unattainable; what he paid for the success was loss of all his pure ideals, of his sincerity, of his disinterestedness, of the fine perceptions to which he was born. Probably no one who is half-starved and overworked during those critical years comes out of the trial with his moral nature uninjured; to certain characters it is a wrong irreparable. To stab the root of a young tree, to hang crushing burdens upon it, to rend off its early branches -- that is not the treatment likely to result in growth such as nature purposed. There will come of it a vicious formation, and the principle applies also to the youth of men.
Scawthorne was fond of the theatre; as soon as his time of incessant toll was over, he not only attended performances frequently, but managed to make personal acquaintance with sundry theatrical people. Opportunity for this was afforded by his becoming member of a club, consisting chiefly of solicitors' clerks, which was frequently honoured by visits from former associates who had taken to the stage; these happy beings would condescend to recite at times, to give help in getting up a dramatic entertainment, and soon, in this way, Scawthorne came to know an old actor named Drake, who supported himself by instructing novices, male and female, in his own profession; one of Mr. Drake's old pupils was Miss Grace Danver, in whom, as soon as he met her, Scawthorne recognised the Grace Rudd of earlier days. And it was not long after this that he brought to Mr. Drake a young girl of interesting appearance, but very imperfect education, who fancied she had a turn for acting; he succeeded in arranging for her instruction, and a year and a half later she obtained her first engagement at a theatre in Scotland. The name she adopted was Clara Vale. Joseph Snowdon saw her once or twice before she left London, and from Grace Danver he heard that Grace and she had been schoolfellows in Clerkenwell. These facts revived in his memory when he afterwards heard Clem speak of Clara Hewett.
Nothing came of the alliance between Polkenhorne and Joseph; when the latter's money was exhausted, they naturally fell apart. Joseph made a living in sundry precarious ways, but at length sank into such straits that he risked the step of going to Clerkenwell Close. Personal interest in his child he had then none whatever; his short married life seemed an episode in the remote past, recalled with indifference. But in spite of his profound selfishness, it was not solely from the speculative point of view that he regarded Jane, when he had had time to realise that she was his daughter, and in a measure to appreciate her character. With the merely base motives which led him to seek her affection and put him at secret hostility with Sidney Kirkwood, there mingled before long a strain of feeling which was natural and pure; he became a little jealous of his father and of Sidney on other grounds than those of self-interest. Intolerable as his home was, no wonder that he found it a pleasant relief to spend an evening in Hanover Street; he never came away without railing at himself for his imbecility in having married Clem. For the present he had to plot with his wife and Mrs. Peckover, but only let the chance for plotting against them offer itself! The opportunity might come. In the meantime, the great thing was to postpone the marriage -- he had no doubt it was contemplated -- between Jane and Sidney. That would be little less than a fatality.
The week that Jane spent in Essex was of course a time of desperate anxiety with Joseph; immediately on her return he hastened to assure himself that things remained as before. It seemed to him that Jane's greeting had more warmth than she was wont to display when they met; sundry other little changes in her demeanour struck him at the same interview, and he was rather surprised that she had not so much blitheness as before she went away. But his speculation on minutiæ such as these was suddenly interrupted a day or two later by news which threw him into a state of excitement; Jane sent word that her grandfather was very unwell, that he appeared to have caught a chill in the journey home, and could not at present leave his bed. For a week the old man suffered from feverish symptoms, and, though he threw off the ailment, it was in a state of much feebleness that he at length resumed the ordinary tenor of his way. Jane had of course stayed at home to nurse him; a fortnight, a month passed, and Michael still kept her from work. Then it happened that, on Joseph's looking in one evening, the old man said quietly, 'I think I'd rather Jane stayed at home in future. We've had a long talk about it this afternoon.'
Joseph glanced at his daughter, who met the look very gravely. He had a feeling that the girl was of a sudden grown older; when she spoke it was in brief phrases, and with but little of her natural spontaneity; noiseless as always in her movements, she walked with a staider gait, held herself less girlishly, and on saying good-night she let her cheek rest for a moment against her father's, a thing she had never yet done.
The explanation of it all came a few minutes after Jane's retirement. Michael, warned by his illness bow unstable was the tenure on which he henceforth held his life, had resolved to have an end of mystery and explain to his son all that he had already made known to Sidney Kirkwood. With Jane he had spoken a few hours ago, revealing to her the power that was in his hands, the solemn significance he attached to it, the responsibility with which her future was to be invested. To make the same things known to Joseph was a task of more difficulty. He could not here count on sympathetic intelligence; it was but too certain that his son would listen with disappointment, if not with bitterness. In order to mitigate the worst results, he began by making known the fact of his wealth and asking if Joseph had any practical views which could be furthered by a moderate sum put at his disposal.
'At my death,' he added, 'you'll find that I haven't dealt unkindly by you. But you're a man of middle age, and I should like to see you in some fixed way of life before I go.'
Having heard all, Joseph promised to think over the proposal which concerned himself. It was in a strange state of mind that he returned to the Close; one thing only he was clear upon, that to Clem and her mother he would breathe no word of what had been told him. After a night passed without a wink of sleep, struggling with the amazement, the incredulity, the confusion of understanding caused by his father's words, he betook himself to a familiar public-house, and there penned a note to Scawthorne, requesting an interview as soon as possible. The meeting took place that evening at the retreat behind Lincoln's Inn Fields where the two had held colloquies on several occasions during the last half-year. Scawthorne received with gravity what his acquaintance had to communicate. Then he observed:
'The will was executed ten days ago.'
'It was? And what's he left me?'
'Seven thousand pounds -- less legacy duty.'
'And thirty thousand to Jane?'
Joseph drew in his breath; his teeth ground together for a moment; his eyes grew very wide. With a smile Scawthorne proceeded to explain that Jane's trustees were Mr. Percival, senior, and his son. Should she die unmarried before attaining her twenty-first birthday, the money bequeathed to her was to be distributed among certain charities.
'It's my belief there's a crank in the old fellow,' exclaimed Joseph. 'Is he really such a fool as to think Jane won't use the money for herself? And what about Kirkwood? I tell you what it is; he's a deep fellow, is Kirkwood. I wish you knew him.'
Scawthorne confessed that he had the same wish, but added that there was no chance of its being realised; prudence forbade any move in that direction.
'If he marries her,' questioned Joseph, 'will the money be his?'
'No; it will be settled on her. But it comes to very much the same thing; there's to be no restraint on her discretion in using it.'
'She might give her affectionate parent a hundred or so now and then, if she chose?'
'If she chose.'
Scawthorne began a detailed inquiry into the humanitarian projects of which Joseph had given but a rude and contemptuous explanation. The finer qualities of his mind enabled him to see the matter in quite a different light from that in which it presented itself to Jane's father; he had once or twice had an opportunity of observing Michael Snowdon at the office, and could realise in a measure the character which directed its energies to such an ideal aim. Concerning Jane he asked many questions; then the conversation turned once more to Sidney Kirkwood.
'I wish he'd married his old sweetheart,' observed Joseph, watching the other's face.
'Who was that?'
'A girl called Clara Hewett.'
Their looks met. Scawthorne, in spite of habitual self-command, betrayed an extreme surprise.
'I wonder what's become of her?' continued Joseph, still observing his companion, and speaking with unmistakable significance.
'Just tell me something about this,' said Scawthorne peremptorily.
Joseph complied, and ended his story with a few more hints.
'I never saw her myself -- at least I can't be sure that I did. There was somebody of the same name -- Clara -- a friend of Polkenhorne's wife.'
Scawthorne appeared to pay no attention; he mused with a wrinkled brow.
'If only I could put something between Kirkwood and the girl,' remarked Joseph, as if absently. 'I shouldn't wonder if it could be made worth some one's while to give a bit of help that way. Don't you think so?'
In the tone of one turning to a different subject, Scawthorne asked suddenly:
'What use are you going to make of your father's offer?'
'Well, I'm not quite sure, Shouldn't wonder if I go in for filters.'
Joseph explained. In the capacity of 'commission agent' -- denomination which includes and apologises for such a vast variety of casual pursuits -- he had of late been helping to make known to the public a new filter, which promised to be a commercial success. The owner of the patent lacked capital, and a judicious investment might secure a share in the business; Joseph thought of broaching the subject with him next day.
'You won't make a fool of yourself?' remarked Scawthorne.
'Trust me; I think I know my way about.'
For the present these gentlemen had nothing more to say to each other; they emptied their glasses with deliberation, exchanged a look which might mean either much or nothing, and so went their several ways.
The filter project was put into execution. When Joseph had communicated it in detail to his father, the latter took the professional advice of his friend Mr. Percival, and in the course of a few weeks Joseph found himself regularly established in a business which had the -- for him -- novel characteristic of serving the purposes of purity. The manufactory was situated in a by-street on the north of Euston Road: a small concern, but at all events a genuine one. On the window of the office you read, 'Lake, Snowdon, & Co.' As it was necessary to account for this achievement to Clem and Mrs. Peckover, Joseph made known to them a part of the truth; of the will he said nothing, and, for reasons of his own, he allowed these tender relatives to believe that he was in a fair way to inherit the greater part of Michael's possessions. There was jubilation in Clerkenwell Close, but mother and daughter kept stern watch upon Joseph's proceedings.
Another acquaintance of ours benefited by this event. Michael made it a stipulation that some kind of work should be found at the factory for John Hewett, who, since his wife's death, had been making a wretched struggle to establish a more decent home for the children. The firm of Lake, Snowdon, & Co. took Hewett into their employment as a porter, and paid him twenty-five shillings a week -- of which sum, however, the odd five shillings were privately made up by Michael. On receiving this appointment, John drew the sigh of a man who finds himself in haven after perilous beating about a lee shore. The kitchen in King's Cross Bead was abandoned, and with Sidney Kirkwood's aid the family found much more satisfactory quarters. Friends of Sidney's, a man and wife of middle age without children, happened to be looking for lodgings: it was decided that they and John Hewett should join in the tenancy of a fiat, up on the fifth storey of the huge block of tenements called Farringdon Road Buildings. By this arrangement the children would be looked after, and the weekly twenty-five shillings could be made to go much further than on the ordinary system. As soon as everything had been settled, and when Mr. and Mrs. Eagles had already housed themselves in the one room which was all they needed for their private accommodation, Hewett and the children began to pack together their miserable sticks and rags for removal. Just then Sidney Kirkwood looked in.
'Eagles wants to see you for a minute about something,' he said. 'Just walk round with me, will you?'
John obeyed, in the silent, spiritless way now usual with him. It was but a short distance to the buildings: they went up the winding stone staircase, and Sidney gave a hollow-sounding knock at one of the two doors that faced each other on the fifth storey. Mrs. Eagles opened, a decent, motherly woman, with a pleasant and rather curious smile on her face. She led the way into one of the rooms which John had seen empty only a few hours ago. How was this? Oil-cloth on the floor, a blind at the window, a bedstead, a table, a chest of drawers ----
Mrs. Eagles withdrew, discreetly. Hewett stood with a look of uneasy wonderment, and at length turned to his companion.
'Now, look here,' he growled, in an unsteady voice, 'what's all this about?'
'Somebody seems to have got here before you,' replied Sidney, smiling.
'How the devil am I to keep any self-respect if you go on treatin' me in this fashion?' blustered John, hanging his head.
'It isn't my doing, Mr. Hewett.'
'A friend's. Don't make a fuss. You shall know the person some day.'
'I have got your letter, but it tells me no more than the last did. Why don't you say plainly what you mean? I suppose it's something you are ashamed of. You say that there's a chance for me of earning a large sum of money, and if you are in earnest, I shall be only too glad to hear how it's to be done. This life is no better than what I used to lead years ago; I'm no nearer to getting a good part than I was when I first began acting, and unless I can get money to buy dresses and all the rest of it, I may go on for ever at this hateful drudgery. I shall take nothing more from you: I say it, and I mean it; but as you tell me that this chance has nothing to do with yourself, let me know what it really is. For a large sum of money there are few things I wouldn't do. Of course it's something disgraceful, but you needn't be afraid on that account; I haven't lost all my pride yet, but I know what I'm fighting for, and I won't be beaten. Cost what it may, I'll make people hear of me and talk of me, and I'll pay myself back for all I've gone through. So write in plain words, or come and see me.
She wrote at a round table, shaky on its central support, in the parlour of an indifferent lodging-house; the October afternoon drew towards dusk; the sky hung low and murky, or, rather, was itself invisible, veiled by the fume of factory chimneys; a wailing wind rattled the sash and the door. A newly lighted fire refused to flame cheerfully, half smothered in its own smoke, which every now and then was blown downwards and out into the room. The letter finished -- scribbled angrily with a bad pen and in pale ink -- she put it into its envelope -- 'C. H. Scawthorne, Esq.'
Then a long reverie, such as she always fell into when alone and unoccupied. The face was older, but not greatly changed from that of the girl who fought her dread fight with temptation, and lost it, in the lodging at Islington, who, then as now, brooded over the wild passions in her heart and defied the world that was her enemy. Still a beautiful face, its haughty characteristics strengthened, the lips a little more sensual, a little coarser; still the same stamp of intellect upon the forehead, the same impatient scorn and misery in her eyes. She asked no one's pity, but not many women breathed at that moment who knew more of suffering.
For three weeks she had belonged to a company on tour in the northern counties. In accordance with the modern custom -- so beneficial to actors and the public -- their repertory consisted of one play, the famous melodrama, 'A Secret of the Thames,' recommended to provincial audiences by its run of four hundred and thirty-seven nights at a London theatre. These, to be sure, were not the London actors, but advertisements in local newspapers gave it to be understood that they 'made an ensemble in no respect inferior to that which was so long the delight of the metropolis.' Starred on the placards was the name of Mr. Samuel Peel, renowned in the North of England; his was the company, and his the main glory in the piece. As leading lady he had the distinguished Miss Erminia Walcott; her part was a trying one, for she had to be half-strangled by ruffians and flung -- most decorously -- over the parapet of London Bridge. In the long list of subordinate performers occurred two names with which we are familiar, Miss Grace Danver and Miss Clara Vale. The present evening would be the third and last in a certain town of Lancashire, one of those remarkable centres of industry which pollute heaven and earth, and on that account are spoken of with somewhat more of pride than stirred the Athenian when he named his Acropolis.
Clara had just risen to stir the fire, compelled to move by the smoke that was annoying her, when, after a tap at the door, there came in a young woman of about five-and-twenty, in a plain walking costume, tall, very slender, pretty, but looking ill. At this moment there was a slight flush on her cheeks and a brightness in her eyes which obviously came of some excitement. She paused just after entering and said in an eager voice, which had a touch of huskiness:
'What do you think? Miss Walcott's taken her hook!'
Clara did not allow herself to be moved at this announcement. For several days what is called unpleasantness had existed between the leading lady and the manager: in other words, they had been quarrelling violently on certain professional matters, and Miss Walcott had threatened to ruin the tour by withdrawing her invaluable services. The menace was at last executed, in good earnest, and the cause of Grace Danver's excitement was that she, as Miss Walcott's understudy, would to-night, in all probability, be called upon to take the leading part.
'I'm glad to hear it,' Clara replied, very soberly.
'You don't look as if you cared much,' rejoined the other, with a little irritation.
'What do you want me to do? Am I to scream with joy because the greatest actress in the world has got her chance at last?'
There was bitterness in the irony. Whatever their friendship in days gone by, these two were clearly not on the most amiable terms at present. This was their first engagement in the same company, and it had needed but a week of association to put a jealousy and ill-feeling between them which proved fatal to such mutual kindness as they had previously cherished. Grace, now no less than in her schooldays, was fond of patronising: as the elder in years and in experience, she adopted a tone which Clara speedily resented. To heighten the danger of a conflict between natures essentially incompatible, both were in a morbid and nervous state, consumed with discontent, sensitive to the most trifling injury, abandoned to a fierce egoism, which the course of their lives and the circumstances of their profession kept constantly inflamed. Grace was of acrid and violent temper; when stung with words such as Clara was only too apt at using, she speedily lost command of herself and spoke, or even acted, frantically. Except that she had not Clara's sensibilities, her lot was the harder of the two; for she knew herself stricken with a malady which would hunt her unsparingly to the grave. On her story I have no time to dwell; it was fall of wretchedness, which had caused her, about a year ago, to make an attempt at suicide. A little generosity, and Clara might have helped to soothe the pains of one so much weaker than herself; but noble feeling was extinct in the girl, or so nearly extinct that a breath of petty rivalry could make her base, cruel, remorseless.
'At all events I have got my chance !' exclaimed Grace, with a harsh laugh. 'When you get yours, ask me to congratulate you.'
And she swept her skirts out of the room. In a few minutes Clara put a stamp on her letter and went out to the post. Her presence at the theatre would not be necessary for another two hours, but as the distance was slight, and nervousness would not let her remain at home, she walked on to make inquiry concerning Grace's news. Rain had just begun to fall, and with it descended the smut and grime that darkened above the houses; the pavement was speedily over-smeared with sticky mud, and passing vehicles flung splashes in every direction. Odours of oil and shoddy, and all such things as characterised the town, grew more pungent under the heavy shower. On reaching the stage-door, Clara found two or three of her companions just within; the sudden departure of Miss Walcott had become known to everyone, and at this moment Mr. Peel was holding a council, to which, as the doorkeeper testified, Miss Danver had been summoned.
The manager decided to make no public announcement of what had happened before the hour came for drawing up the curtain. A scrappy rehearsal for the benefit of Grace Danver and the two or three other ladies who were affected by the necessary rearrangement went on until the last possible moment, then Mr. Peel presented himself before the drop and made a little speech. The gallery was fall of mill-hands; in the pit was a sprinkling of people; the circles and boxes presented half a dozen occupants. 'Sudden domestic calamity . . . enforced absence of the lady who played . . . efficient substitution . . . deep regret, but confidence in the friendly feeling of audience on this last evening.'
They growled, but in the end applauded the actor-manager, who had succeeded in delicately hinting that, after all, the great attraction was still present in his own person. The play went very much as usual, but those behind the scenes were not allowed to forget that Mr. Peel was in a furious temper: the ladies noticed with satisfaction that more than once he glared ominously at Miss Danver, who naturally could not aid him to make his 'points' as Miss Walcott had accustomed herself to do. At his final exit, it was observed that he shrugged his shoulders and muttered a few oaths.
Clara had her familiar part; it was a poor one from every point of view, and the imbecility of the words she had to speak affected her to-night with exceptional irritation. Clara always acted in ill-humour. She despised her audience for their acceptance of the playwright's claptrap; she felt that she could do better than any of the actresses entrusted with the more important characters; her imagination was for ever turning to powerful scenes in plays she had studied privately, and despair possessed her at the thought that she would perhaps never have a chance of putting forth her strength. Tonight her mood was one of sullen carelessness; she did little more than 'walk through' her part, feeling a pleasure in thus insulting the house. One scrap of dialogue she had with Grace, and her eyes answered with a flash of hatred to the arrogance of the other's regard. At another point she all but missed her cue, for her thoughts were busy with that letter to which she had replied this afternoon. Mr. Peel looked at her savagely, and she met his silent rebuke with an air of indifference. After that the manager appeared to pay peculiar attention to her as often as they were together before the footlights. It was not the first time that Mr. Peel had allowed her to see that she was an object of interest to him.
There was an after-piece, but Clara was not engaged in it. When, at the fall of the curtain on the melodrama, she went to the shabby dressing-room which she shared with two companions, a message delivered by the call boy bade her repair as soon as possible to the manager's office. What might this mean? She was startled on the instant, but speedily recovered her self-control; most likely she was to receive a rating -- let it come! Without unusual hurry, she washed, changed her dress, and obeyed the summons.
Mr. Peel was still a young man, of tall and robust stature, sanguine, with much sham refinement in his manner; he prided himself on the civility with which he behaved to all who had business relations with him, but every now and then the veneer gave an awkward crack, and, as in his debate with Miss Walcott, the man himself was discovered to be of coarse grain. His aspect was singular when, on Clara's entrance into the private room, he laid down his cigarette and scrutinised her. There was a fiery hue on his visage, and the scowl of his black eyebrows had a peculiar ugliness.
'Miss Vale,' he began, after hesitation, 'do you consider that you played your part this evening with the conscientiousness that may fairly be expected of you?'
'Perhaps not,' replied the girl, averting her eyes, and resting her hand on the table.
'And may I ask why not?'
'I didn't feel in the humour. The house saw no difference.'
'Indeed? The house saw no difference? Do you mean to imply that you always play badly?'
'I mean that the part isn't worth any attention -- even if they were able to judge.'
There was a perfection of insolence in her tone that in itself spoke strongly for the abilities she could display if occasion offered.
'This is rather an offhand way of treating the subject, madam,' cried Mr. Peel. 'If you disparage our audiences, I beg you to observe that it is much the same thing as telling me that my own successes are worthless!'
'I intended nothing of the kind.'
'Perhaps not.' He thrust his hands into his pockets, and looked down at his boots for an instant. 'So you are discontented with your part?'
'It's only natural that I should be.'
'I presume you think yourself equal to Juliet, or perhaps Lady Macbeth?'
'I could play either a good deal better than most women do.'
The manager laughed, by no means ill-humouredly.
'I'm sorry I can't bring you out in Shakespeare just at present, Miss Vale; but -- should you think it a condescension to play Laura Denton?'
This was Miss Walcott's part, now Grace Danver's. Clara looked at him with mistrust; her breath did not come quite naturally.
'How long would it take you, do you think,' pursued the other, 'to get the words?'
'An hour or two; I all but know them.'
The manager took a few paces this way and that.
'We go on to Bolton to-morrow morning. Could you undertake to be perfect for the afternoon rehearsal?'
'Then I'll try you. Here's a copy you can take. I make no terms, you understand; it's an experiment. We'll have another talk to-morrow. Good-night.'
She left the room. Near the door stood Grace Danver and another actress, both of whom were bidden to wait upon the manager before leaving. Clara passed under the fire of their eyes, but scarcely observed them.
Rain drenched her between the theatre and her lodgings, for she did not think of putting up an umbrella; she thought indeed of nothing; there was fire and tumult in her brain. On the round table in her sitting-room supper was made ready, but she did not heed it. Excitement compelled her to walk incessantly round and round the scanty space of floor. Already she had begun to rehearse the chief scenes of Laura Denton; she spoke the words with all appropriate loudness and emphasis; her gestures were those of the stage, as though an audience sat before her; she seemed to have grown taller. There came a double knock at the house-door, but it did not attract her attention; a knock at her own room, and only when some one entered was she recalled to the present. It was Grace again; her lodging was elsewhere, and this late visit could have but one motive.
They stood face to face. The elder woman was so incensed that her lips moved fruitlessly, like those of a paralytic.
'I suppose you're going to make a scene,' Clara addressed her. 'Please remember how late it is, and don't let all the house hear you.'
'You mean to tell me you accepted that offer of Peel's -- without saying a word -- without as much as telling him that he ought to speak to me first?'
'Certainly I did. I've waited long enough; I'm not going to beat about the bush when my chance comes.'
'And you called yourself my friend?'
'I'm nobody's friend but my own in an affair of this kind. If you'd been in my place you'd have done just the same.'
'I wouldn't! I couldn't have been such a mean creature! Every man and woman in the company'll cry shame on you.'
'Don't deafen me with your nonsense! If you played the part badly, I suppose some one else must take it. You were only on trial, like I shall be.'
Grace was livid with fury.
'Played badly! As if we didn't all know how you've managed it! Much it has to do with good or bad acting! We know how creatures of your kind get what they want.'
Before the last word was uttered she was seized with a violent fit of coughing; her cheeks flamed, and spots of blood reddened on the handkerchief she put to her mouth. Half-stifled, she lay back in the angle of the wall by the door. Clara regarded her with a contemptuous pity, and when the cough had nearly ceased, said coldly:
'I'm not going to try and match you in insulting language; I dare say you'd beat me at that. If you take my advice, you'll go home and take care of yourself; you look ill enough to be in bed. I don't care what you or anyone else thinks of me; what you said just now was a lie, but it doesn't matter. I've got the part, and I'll take good care that I keep it. You talk about us being friends; I should have thought you knew by this time that there's no such thing as friendship or generosity or feeling for women who have to make their way in the world. You've had your hard times as well as I, and what's the use of pretending what you don't believe? You wouldn't give up a chance for me; I'm sure I should never expect you to. We have to fight, to fight for everything, and the weak get beaten. That's what life has taught me.'
'You're right,' was the other's reply. given with a strangely sudden calmness. 'And we'll see who wins.'
Clara gave no thought to the words, nor to the look of deadly enmity that accompanied them. Alone again, she speedily became absorbed in a vision of the triumph which she never doubted was near at hand. A long, long time it seemed since she had sold herself to degradation: with this one hope. You see that she had formulated her philosophy of life since then; a child of the nether world whom fate had endowed with intellect, she gave articulate utterance to what is seething in the brains of thousands who fight and perish in the obscure depths. The bitter bargain was issuing to her profit at last; she would yet attain that end which had shone through all her misery -- to be known as a successful actress by those she had abandoned, whose faces were growing dim to her memory, but of whom, in truth, she still thought more than of all the multitudinous unknown public. A great success during the remainder of this tour, and she might hope for an engagement in London. Her portraits would at length be in the windows; some would recognise her.
Yet she was not so pitiless as she boasted. The next morning, when she met Grace, there came a pain at her heart in seeing the ghastly, bloodless countenance which refused to turn towards her. Would Grace be able to act at all at the next town? Yes, one more scene.
They reached Bolton. In the afternoon the rehearsal took place, but the first representation was not until to-morrow. Clara saw her name attached to the leading female character on bills rapidly printed and distributed through the town. She went about in a dream, rather a delirium. Mr. Peel used his most affable manner to her; his compliments after the rehearsal were an augury of great things. And the eventful evening approached.
To give herself plenty of time to dress (the costumes needed for the part were fortunately simple, and Mr. Peel had advanced her money to make needful purchases) she left her lodgings at half-past six. It was a fine evening, but very dark in the two or three by-streets along which she had to pass to reach the theatre. She waited a minute on the doorstep to let a troop of female mill-hands go by; their shoes clanked on the pavement, and they were singing in chorus, a common habit of their kind in leaving work. Then she started and walked quickly. .
Close by the stage-door, which was in a dark, narrow passage, stood a woman with veiled face, a shawl muffling the upper part of her body. Since six o'clock she had been waiting about the spot, occasionally walking to a short distance, but always keeping her face turned towards the door. One or two persons came up and entered; she observed them, but held aloof. Another drew near. The woman advanced, and, as she did so, freed one of her arms from the shawl.
'That you, Grace?' said Clara, almost kindly, for in her victorious joy she was ready to be at peace with all the world.
The answer was something dashed violently in her face -- something fluid and fiery -- something that ate into her flesh, that frenzied her with pain, that drove her shrieking she knew not whither.
Late in the same night, a pointsman, walking a long the railway a little distance out of the town, came upon the body of a woman, train-crushed, horrible to view. She wore the dress of a lady; a shawl was still partly wrapped about her, and her hands were gloved. Nothing discoverable upon her would have helped strangers in the task of identification, and as for her face ---- But a missing woman was already sought by the police, and when certain persons were taken to view this body, they had no difficulty in pronouncing it that of Grace Danver.
What could possess John Hewett that, after resting from the day's work, he often left his comfortable room late in the evening and rambled about the streets of that part of London which had surely least interest for him, the streets which are thronged with idlers, with carriages going homeward from the theatres, with those who can only come forth to ply their business when darkness has fallen? Did he seek food for his antagonism in observing the characteristics of the world in which he was a stranger, the world which has its garners full and takes its ease amid superfluity? It could scarcely be that, for since his wife's death an indifference seemed to be settling upon him; he no longer cared to visit the Green or his club on Sunday, and seldom spoke on the subjects which formerly goaded him to madness. He appeared to be drawn forth against his will, in spite of weariness, and his look as he walked on was that of a man who is in search of some one. Yet whom could he expect to meet in these highways of the West End?
Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly, the Strand, the ways about St. James's Park; John Hewett was not the only father who has come forth after nightfall from an obscure home to look darkly at the faces passing on these broad pavements. At times he would shrink into a shadowed corner, and peer thence at those who went by under the gaslight. When he moved forward, it was with the uneasy gait of one who shuns observation; you would have thought, perchance, that he watched an opportunity of begging and was shamefaced: it happened now and then that he was regarded suspiciously. A rough-looking man, with grizzled beard, with eyes generally bloodshot, his shoulders stooping -- naturally the miserable are always suspected where law is conscious of its injustice.
Two years ago he was beset for a time with the same restlessness, and took night-walks in the same directions; the habit wore away, however. Now it possessed him even more strongly. Between ten and eleven o'clock, when the children were in bed, he fell into abstraction, and presently, with an unexpected movement, looked up as if some one had spoken to him -- just the look of one who hears a familiar voice; then he sighed, and took his hat and went forth. It happened sometimes when he was sitting with his friends Mr. and Mrs. Eagles; in that case he would make some kind of excuse. The couple suspected that his business would take him to the public-house, but John never came back with a sign about him of having drunk; of that failing he had broken himself. He went cautiously down the atone stairs, averting his face if anyone met him; then by cross-ways he reached Gray's Inn Road, and so westwards.
He had a well-ordered home, and his children were about him, but these things did not compensate him for the greatest loss his life had suffered. The children, in truth, had no very strong hold upon his affections. Sometimes, when Amy sat and talked to him, he showed a growing nervousness, an impatience, and at length turned away from her as if to occupy himself in some manner. The voice was not that which had ever power to soothe him when it spoke playfully. Memory brought back the tones which had been so dear to him, and at times something more than memory; he seemed really to hear them, as if from a distance. And then it was that he went out to wander in the streets.
Of Bob in the meantime he saw scarcely anything. That young man presented himself one Sunday shortly after his father had become settled in the new home, but practically he was a stranger. John and he had no interests in common; there even existed a slight antipathy on the father's part of late years. Strangely enough this feeling expressed itself one day in the form of a rebuke to Bob for neglecting Pennyloaf -- Pennyloaf, whom John had always declined to recognise.
'I hear no good of your goin's on,' remarked Hewett, on a casual encounter in the street. 'A married man ought to give up the kind of company as you keep.'
'I do no harm,' replied Bob bluntly. 'Has my wife been complaining to you?'
'I've nothing to do with her; it's what I'm told.'
'By Kirkwood, I suppose? You'd better not have made up with him again, if he's only making mischief.'
'No, I didn't mean Kirkwood.'
And John went his way. Odd thing, was it not, that this embittered leveller should himself practise the very intolerance which he reviled in people of the upper world. For his refusal to recognise Pennyloaf he had absolutely no grounds, save -- I use the words advisedly -- an aristocratic prejudice. Bob had married deplorably beneath him; it was unpardonable, let the character of the girl be what it might. Of course you recognise the item in John Hewett's personality which serves to explain this singular attitude. But, viewed generally, it was one of those bits of human inconsistency over which the observer smiles, and which should be recommended to good people in search of arguments for the equality of men.
After that little dialogue, Bob went home in a disagreeable temper. To begin with, his mood had been ruffled, for the landlady at his lodgings -- the fourth to which he had removed this year -- was 'nasty' about a week or two of unpaid rent, and a man on whom he had counted this evening for the payment of a debt was keeping out of his way. He found Pennyloaf sitting on the stairs with her two children, as usual; poor Pennyloaf had not originality enough to discover new expressions of misery, and that one bright idea of donning her best dress was a single instance of ingenuity. In obedience to Jane Snowdon, she kept herself and the babies and the room tolerably clean, but everything was done in the most dispirited way.
'What are you kicking about here for?' asked Bob impatiently. 'That's how that kid gets its cold -- of course it is! -- Ger out!'
The last remark was addressed to the elder child, who caught at his legs as he strode past. Bob was not actively unkind to the little wretches for whose being he was responsible; he simply occupied the natural position of unsophisticated man to children of that age, one of indifference, or impatience. The infants were a nuisance; no one desired their coming, and the older they grew the more expensive they were.
It was a cold evening of October; Pennyloaf had allowed the fire to get very low (she knew not exactly where the next supply of coals was to come from), and her husband growled as he made a vain endeavour to warm his hands.
'Why haven't you got tea ready?' he asked,
'I couldn't be sure as you was comin', Bob; how could I? But I'll soon get the kettle boilin'.'
'Couldn't be sure as I was coming? Why, I've been back every night this week -- except two or three.'
It was Thursday, but Bob meant nothing jocose.
'Look here!' he continued, fixing a surly eye upon her. 'What do you mean by complaining about me to people? Just mind your own business. When was that girl Jane Snowdon here last?'
'I thought as much, Did she give you anything?' Ho made this inquiry in rather a shamefaced way.
'No, she didn't.'
'Well, I tell you what it is. I'm not going to have her coming about the place, so understand that. When she comes next, you'll just tell her she needn't come again.'
Pennyloaf looked at him with dismay. For the delivery of this command Bob had seated himself on the corner of the table and crossed his arms. But for the touch of black-guardism in his appearance, Bob would have been a very good-looking fellow; his face was healthy, by no means commonplace in its mould, and had the peculiar vividness which indicates ability -- so impressive, because so rarely seen, in men of his level. Unfortunately his hair was cropped all but to the scalp, in the fashionable manner; it was greased, too, and curled up on one side of his forehead with a peculiarly offensive perkishness. Poor Pennyloaf was in a great degree responsible for the ills of her married life; not only did she believe Bob to be the handsomest man who walked the earth but in her weakness she could not refrain from telling him as much. At the present moment he was intensely self-conscious; with Pennyloaf's eye upon him, he posed for effect. The idea of forbidding future intercourse with Jane had come to him quite suddenly; it was by no means his intention to make his order permanent, for Jane had now and then brought little presents which were useful, but just now he felt a satisfaction in asserting authority. Jane should understand that he regarded her censure of him with high displeasure.
'You don't mean that, Bob?' murmured Pennyloaf.
'Of course I do. And let me catch you disobeying me! I should think you might find better friends than a girl as used to be the Peckovers' dirty little servant.'
Bob turned up his nose and sniffed the air. And Pennyloaf, in spite of the keenest distress, actually felt that there was something in the objection, thus framed! She herself had never been a servant -- never; she had never sunk below working with the needle for sixteen hours a day for a payment of ninepence. The work-girl regards a domestic slave as very distinctly her inferior.
'But that's a long while ago,' she ventured to urge, after reflection.
'That makes no difference. Do as I tell you, and don't argue.'
It was not often that visitors sought Bob at his home of an evening, but whilst this dialogue was still going on an acquaintance made his arrival known by a knock at the door. It was a lank and hungry individual, grimy of face and hands, his clothing such as in the country would serve well for a scarecrow. Who could have recognised in him the once spruce and spirited Mr. Jack Bartley, distinguished by his chimney-pot hat at the Crystal Palace on Bob's wedding-day? At the close of that same day, as you remember, he and Bob engaged in terrific combat, the outcome of earlier rivalry for the favour of Clem Peckover. Notwithstanding that memory, the two were now on very friendly terms. You have heard from Clem's lips that Jack Bartley, failing to win herself, ended by espousing Miss Susan Jollop; also what was the result of that alliance. Mr. Bartley was an unhappy man. His wife had a ferocious temper, was reckless with money, and now drank steadily; the consequence was, that Jack had lost all regular employment, and only earned occasional pence in the most various ways. Broken in spirit, he himself first made advances to his companion of former days, and Bob, flattered by the other's humility, encouraged him as a hanger-on. -- Really, we shall soon be coming to a conclusion that the differences between the nether and the upper world are purely superficial.
Whenever Jack came to spend an hour with Mr. and Mrs. Hewett, he was sure sooner or later to indulge the misery that preyed upon him and give way to sheer weeping. He did so this evening, almost as soon as he entered.
'I ain't had a mouthful past my lips since last night, I ain't!' he sobbed. 'It's 'ard on a feller as used to have his meals regular. I'll murder Suke yet, see if I don't! I'll have her life! She met me last night and gave me this black eye as you see -- she did! It's 'ard on a feller.'
'You mean to say as she 'it you?' cried Pennyloaf.
Bob chuckled, thrust his hands into his pockets, spread himself out. His own superiority was so gloriously manifest.
'Suppose you try it on with me, Penny!' he cried.
'You'd give me something as I should remember,' she answered, smirking, the good little slavey.
'Shouldn't wonder if I did,' assented Bob.
Mr. Bartley's pressing hunger was satisfied with some bread and butter and a cup of tea. Whilst taking a share of the meal, Bob brought a small box on to the table; it had a sliding lid, and inside were certain specimens of artistic work with which he was wont to amuse himself when tired of roaming the streets in jovial company. Do you recollect that, when we first made Bob's acquaintance, he showed Sidney Kirkwood a medal of his own design and casting? His daily work at die-sinking had of course supplied him with this suggestion, and he still found pleasure in work of the same kind. In days before commercialism had divorced art and the handicrafts, a man with Bob's distinct faculty would have found encouragement to exercise it for serious ends; as it was, he remained at the semi-conscious stage with regard to his own aptitudes, and cast leaden medals just as a way of occupying his hands when a couple of hours hung heavy on them. Partly with the thought of amusing the dolorous Jack, yet more to win laudation, he brought forth DOW a variety of casts and moulds and spread them on the table. His latest piece of work was a medal in high relief bearing the heads of the Prince and Princess of Wales surrounded with a wreath. Bob had no political convictions; with complacency he drew these royal features, the sight of which would have made his father foam at the mouth. True, he might have found subjects artistically more satisfying, but he belonged to the people, and the English people.
Jack Bartley, having dried his eyes and swallowed his bread and butter, considered the medal with much attention.
'I say,' he remarked at length, 'will you give me this, Bob?'
'I don't mind, You can take it if you like.'
Jack wrapped it up and put it in his waistcoat pocket, and before long rose to take leave of his friends.
'I only wish I'd got a wife like you,' he observed at the door, as he saw Pennyloaf bending over the two children, recently put to bed.
Pennyloaf's eyes gleamed at the compliment, and she turned them to her husband.
'She's nothing to boast of,' said Bob, judicially and masculinely. 'All women are pretty much alike.'
And Pennyloaf tried to smile at the snub.
Having devoted one evening to domestic quietude, Bob naturally felt himself free to dispose of the next in a manner more to his taste. The pleasures which sufficed to keep him from home had the same sordid monotony which characterises life in general for the lower strata of society. If he had money, there was the music-hall; if he had none, there were the streets. Being in the latter condition to-night, he joined a company of male and female intimates, and with them strolled aimlessly from one familiar rendezvous to another. Would that it were possible to set down a literal report of the conversation which passed during hours thus spent! Much of it, of course, would be merely revolting, but for the most part it would consist of such wearying, such incredible imbecilities as no human patience could endure through five minutes' perusal. Realise it, however, and you grasp the conditions of what is called the social problem. As regards Robert Hewett in particular, it would help you to understand the momentous change in his life which was just coming to pass.
On his reaching home at eleven o'clock, Pennyloaf met him with the news that Jack Bartley had looked in twice and seemed very anxious to see him. To-morrow being Saturday, Jack would call again early in the afternoon. When the time came, he presented himself, hungry and dirty as ever, but with an unwonted liveliness in his eye.
'I've got something to say to you,' be began, in a low voice, nodding significantly towards Pennyloaf.
'Go and buy what you want for to-morrow,' said Bob to his wife, giving her some money out of his wages. 'Take the kids.'
Disappointed in being thus excluded from confidence, but obedient as ever, Pennyloaf speedily prepared herself and the children, the younger of whom she still had to carry. When she was gone Mr. Bartley assumed a peculiar attitude and began to speak in an undertone.
'You know that medal as you gave me the other night?'
'What about it?'
'I sold it for fourpence to a chap I know. It got me a bed at the lodgings in Pentonville Road.'
'Oh, you did! Well, what else?'
Jack was writhing in the most unaccountable way, peering hither and thither out of the corners of his eyes. seeming to have an obstruction in his throat.
'It was in a public-house as I sold it -- a chap I know. There was another chap as I didn't know standing just by -- see? He kep' looking at the medal, and he kep' looking at me. When I went out the chap as I didn't know followed behind me. I didn't see him at first, but he come up with me just at the top of Rosoman Street -- a red-haired chap, looked like a corster. "Hollo!" says he. "Hollo!" says I. "Got any more o' them medals?" he says, in a quiet way like. "What do you want to know for?" I says -- 'cos you see he was a bloke as I didn't know nothing about, and there's no good being over-free with your talk. He got me to walk on a bit with him, and kept talking. "You didn't buy that nowhere," he says, with a sort of wink. "What if I didn't?" I says. "There's no harm as I know." Well, he kept on with his sort o' winks, and then he says, "Got any queer to put round?"'
At this point Jack lowered his voice to a whisper and looked timorously towards the door.
'You know what he meant, Bob?'
Bob nodded and became reflective.
'Well, I didn't say nothing.' pursued Bartley, 'but the chap stuck to me. "A fair price for a fair article," he says. "You'll always find me there of a Thursday night, if you've got any business going. Give me a look round," he says. "It ain't in my line," I says. So he gave a grin like, and kep' on talking. "If you want a four-half shiner," he says, "you know where to come. Reasonable with them as is reasonable. Thursday night," he says, and then he slung his hook round the corner.'
'What's a four-half shiner?' inquired Bob, looking from under his eyebrows.
'Well, I didn't know myself, just then: but I've found out. It's a public-house pewter -- see?'
A flash of intelligence shot across Bob's face.
When Pennyloaf returned she found her husband with his box of moulds and medals on the table. He was turning over its contents, meditatively. On the table there also lay a half crown and a florin, as though Bob had been examining these products of the Royal Mint with a view to improving the artistic quality of his amateur workmanship. He took up the coins quietly as his wife entered and put them in his pocket.
'Mrs. Rendal's been at me again, Bob,' Pennyloaf said, as she set down her market-basket. 'You'll have to give her something to-day.'
He paid no attention, and Pennyloaf had a difficulty in bringing him to discuss the subject of the landlady's demands. Ultimately. however, he admitted with discontent the advisability of letting Mrs. Rendal have something on account. Though it was Saturday night, he let hour after hour go by and showed no disposition to leave home; to Pennyloaf's surprise, he sat almost without moving by the fire, absorbed in thought.
Genuine respect for law is the result of possessing something which the law exerts itself to guard. Should it happen that you possess nothing. and that your education in metaphysics has been grievously neglected, the strong probability is, that your mind will reduce the principle of society to its naked formula: Get, by whatever means, so long as with impunity. On that formula Bob Hewett was brooding; in the hours of this Saturday evening he exerted his mind more strenuously than ever before in the course of his life. And to a foregone result. Here is a man with no moral convictions, with no conscious relations to society save those which are hostile, with no personal affections; at the same time, vaguely aware of certain faculties in himself for which life affords no scope and encouraged in various kinds of conceit by the crass stupidity of all with whom he associates. It is suggested to him all at once that there is a very easy way of improving his circumstances, and that by exercise of a certain craft with which he is perfectly familiar; only, the method happens to be criminal. 'Men who do this kind of thing are constantly being caught and severely punished. Yes; men of a certain kind; not Robert Hewett. Robert Hewett is altogether an exceptional being; he is head and shoulders above the men with whom he mixes; he is clever, he is remarkably good-looking. If anyone in this world, of a truth Robert Hewett may reckon on impunity when he sets his wits against the law. Why, his arrest and punishment is an altogether inconceivable thing; he never in his life had a charge brought against him.'
Again and again it came back to that. Every novice in unimpassioned crime has that thought, and the more self-conscious the man, the more impressed with a sense of his own importance, so much the weightier is its effect with him.
We know in what spirit John Hewett regarded rebels against the law. Do not imagine that any impulse of that nature actuated his son. Clara alone had inherited her father's instinct of revolt. Bob's temperament was, in a certain measure, that of the artist; he felt without reasoning; he let himself go whither his moods propelled him. Not a man of evil propensities; entertain no such thought for a moment. Society produces many a monster, but the mass of those whom, after creating them, it pronounces bad are merely bad from the conventional point of view; they are guilty of weaknesses, not of crimes. Bob was not incapable of generosity; his marriage had, in fact, implied more of that quality than you in the upper world can at all appreciate. He neglected his wife, of course, for he had never loved her, and the burden of her support was too great a trial for his selfishness. Weakness, vanity, a sense that he has not satisfactions proportionate to his desert, a strong temptation -- here are the data which, in ordinary cases, explain a man's deliberate attempt to profit by criminality.
In a short time Pennyloaf began to be aware of peculiarities of behaviour in her husband for which she could not account. Though there appeared no necessity for the step, he insisted on their once more seeking new lodgings, and, before the removal, he destroyed all his medals and moulds.
'What's that for, Bob?' Pennyloaf inquired.
'I'll tell you, and mind you hold your tongue about it. Somebody's been saying as these things might get me into trouble. Just you be careful not to mention to people that I used to make these kind of things.'
'But why should it get you into trouble?'
'Mind what I tell you, and don't ask questions. You're always too ready at talking.'
His absences of an evening were nothing new, but his manner on returning was such as Pennyloaf had never seen in him. He appeared to be suffering from some intense excitement; his hands were unsteady; he showed the strangest nervousness if there were any unusual sounds in the house. Then he certainly obtained money of which his wife did not know the source; he bought new articles of clothing, and in explanation said that he had won bets. Pennyloaf remarked these things with uneasiness; she had a fear during her lonely evenings for which she could give no reason. Poor slowwitted mortal though she was, a devoted fidelity attached her to her husband, and quickened wonderfully her apprehension in everything that concerned him.
'Miss Snowdon came to-day, Bob,' she had said, about a week after his order with regard to Jane.
'Oh, she did? And did you tell her she'd better keep away?'
'Yes,' was the dispirited answer.
'Glad to hear it.'
As for Jack Bartley, he never showed himself at the new lodgings.
Bob shortly became less regular in his attendance at the workshop. An occasional Monday he had, to be sure, been in the habit of allowing himself, but as the winter wore on he was more than once found straying about the streets in midweek. One morning towards the end of November, as he strolled along High Holborn, a hand checked his progress; he gave almost a leap, and turned a face of terror upon the person who stopped him. It was Clem -- Mrs. Snowdon. They had, of course, met casually since Bob's marriage, and in progress of time the ferocious glances they were wont to exchange had softened into a grin of half-friendly recognition; Clem's behaviour at present was an unexpected revival of familiarity. When he had got over his shock Bob felt surprised, and expressed the feeling in a -- 'Well, what have you got to say for yourself?'
'You jumped as if I'd stuck a pin in you,' replied Clem. 'Did you think it was a copper?'
Bob looked at her with a surly smile. Though no one could have mistaken the class she belonged to, Clem was dressed in a way which made her companionship with Bob in his workman's clothing somewhat incongruous; she wore a heavily trimmed brown hat, a long velveteen jacket, and carried a little bag of imitation fur.
'Why ain't you at work?' she added. 'Does Mrs. Pennyloaf Hewett know how you spend your time?'
'Hasn't your husband taught you to mind your own business?'
Clem took the retort good-humouredly, and they walked on conversing. Not altogether at his ease thus companioned, Bob turned out of the main street, and presently they came within sight of the British Museum.
'Ever been in that place?' Clem asked.
'Of course I have,' he replied, with his air of superiority.
'I haven't. Is there anything to pay? Let's go in for half an hour.'
It was an odd freak, but Bob began to have a pleasure in this renewal of intimacy; he wished he had been wearing his best suit. Years ago his father had brought him on a public holiday to the Museum, and his interest was chiefly excited by the collection of the Royal Seals. To that quarter he first led his companion, and thence directed her towards objects more likely to supply her with amusement; he talked freely, and was himself surprised at the show of information his memory allowed him to make -- desperately vague and often ludicrously wide of the mark, but still a something of knowledge, retained from all sorts of chance encounters by his capable mind. Had the British Museum been open to visitors in the hours of the evening, or on Sundays, Bob Hewitt would possibly have been employing his leisure nowadays in more profitable pursuits. Possibly; one cannot say more than that; for the world to which he belonged is above all a world of frustration, and only the one man in half a million has fate for his friend.
Much Clem cared for antiquities; when she had wearied herself in pretending interest, a seat in an unvisited corner gave her an opportunity for more congenial dialogue.
'How's Mrs. Pennyloaf?' she asked, with a smile of malice.
'How's Mr. What's-his-name Snowdon?' was the reply.
'My husband's a gentleman. Good thing for me I had the sense to wait.'
'And for me too, I dare say.'
'Why ain't you at work? Got the sack?'
'I can take a day off if I like, can't I?'
'And you'll go 'ome and tell your wife as you've been working. I know what you men are. What 'ud Mrs. Pennyloaf say if she knew you was here with me? You daren't tell her; you daren't!'
'I'm not doing any harm as I know of. I shall tell her if I choose, and if I choose I shan't. I don't ask her what I'm to do.'
'I dare say. And how does that mother of hers get on? And her brother at the public? Nice relations for Mr. Bob Hewett. Do they come to tea on a Sunday?'
Bob glared at her, and Clem laughed, showing all her teeth. From this exchange of pleasantries the talk passed to various subjects -- the affairs of Jack Bartley and his precious wife, changes in Clerkenwell Close, then to Clem's own circumstances; she threw out hints of brilliant things in store for her.
'Do you come here often?' she asked at length.
'Can't say I do.'
'Thought p'r'aps you brought Mrs. Pennyloaf. When'll you be here again?'
'Don't know,' Bob replied, fidgeting and looking to a distance.
'I shouldn't wonder if I'm here this day next week,' said Clem, after a pause. 'You can bring Pennyloaf if you like.'
It was dinner-time, and they left the building together. At the end of Museum Street they exchanged a careless nod and went their several ways.
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.
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. Iii 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.
In the dreary days when autumn is being choked by the first fogs, Sidney Kirkwood had to bestir himself and to find new lodgings. The cheerless task came upon him just when he had already more than sufficient trouble, and to tear himself out of the abode in which he had spent eight years caused him more than regret; he felt superstitiously about it, and questioned fate as to what sorrows might be lurking for him behind this corner in life's journey. Move he must; his landlady was dead, and the house would perhaps be vacant for a long time. After making search about Islington one rainy evening, he found himself at the end of Hanover Street, and was drawn to the familiar house; not, however, to visit the Snowdons, but to redeem a promise recently made to Bessie Byass, who declared herself vastly indignant at the neglect with which he treated her. So, instead of going up the steps to the front door, he descended into the area. Bessie herself opened to him, and after a shrewd glance, made as though she would close the door again. 'Nothing for you! The idea of beggars coming down the area-steps Be off!'
'I'm worse than a beggar,' replied Sidney. 'Housebreaking's more in my line,'
And he attempted to force an entrance. Bessie struggled, but had to give in, overcome with laughter. Samuel was enjoying a pipe in the front kitchen; in spite of the dignity of keeping a servant (to whom the back kitchen was sacred), Mr. and Mrs. Byass frequently spent their evenings below stairs in the same manner as of old.
The talk began with Sidney's immediate difficulties.
'Now if it had only happened half a year ago,' said Bessie, 'I should have got you into our first-floor rooms.'
'Shouldn't wonder if we have him there yet, some day,' remarked Sam, winking at his wife.
'Not him,' was Bessie's rejoinder, with a meaning smile. 'He's a cool hand, is Mr. Kirkwood. He knows how to wait. When something happens, we shall have him taking a house out at Highbury, you see if he don't.'
Sidney turned upon her with anything but a jesting look.
'What do you mean by that, Mrs. Byass?' he asked, sharply. 'When what happens? What are you hinting at?'
'Bless us and save us!' cried Bessie. 'Here, Sam, he's going to swallow me. What harm have I done?'
'Please tell me what you meant?' Sidney urged, his face expressing strong annoyance. 'Why do you call me a "cool hand," and say that "I know how to wait"? What did you mean? I'm serious; I want you to explain.'
Whilst he was speaking there came a knock at the kitchen door. Bessie cried, 'Come in,' and Jane showed herself; she glanced in a startled way at Sidney, murmured a 'good-evening' to him, and made a request of Bessie for some trifle she needed. Sidney, after just looking round, kept his seat and paid no further attention to Jane, who speedily retired.
Silence followed, and in the midst of it Kirkwood pushed his chair impatiently.
'Bess,' cried Samuel, with an affected jocoseness, 'you're called upon to apologise. Don't make a fool of yourself again.'
'I don't see why he need be so snappish with me,' replied his wife. 'I beg his pardon, if he wants me.'
But Sidney was laughing now, though not in a very natural way. He put an end to the incident, and led off into talk of quite a different kind. When supper-time was at hand he declared that it was impossible for him to stay. The hour had been anything but a lively one, and when he was gone his friends discussed at length this novel display of ill-humour on Sidney's part.
He went home muttering to himself, and passed as bad a night as he had ever known. Two days later his removal to new lodgings was effected; notwithstanding his desire to get into a cleaner region, he had taken a room at the top of a house in Red Lion Street, in the densest part of Clerkenwell, where his neighbours under the same roof were craftsmen, carrying on their business at home.
'It'll do well enough just for a time,' he said to himself. 'Who can say when I shall be really settled again, or whether I ever shall?'
Midway in an attempt to put his things in order, to nail his pictures on the walls and ring forth his books again, he was seized with such utter discouragement that he let a volume drop from his hand and threw himself into a seat. A moan escaped his lips -- 'That cursed money!'
Ever since the disclosure made to him by Michael Snowdon at Danbury he had been sensible of a grave uneasiness respecting his relations with Jane. At the moment he might imagine himself to share the old man's enthusiasm, or dream, or craze -- whichever name were the most appropriate -- but not an hour had passed before he began to lament that such a romance as this should envelop the life which had so linked itself with his own. Immediately there arose in him a struggle between the idealist tendency, of which he had his share, and stubborn everyday sense, supported by his knowledge of the world and of his own being -- a struggle to continue for months, thwarting the natural current of his life, racking his intellect, embittering his heart's truest emotions. Conscious of mystery in Snowdon's affairs, he had never dreamed of such a solution as this; the probability was -- so he had thought -- that Michael received an annuity under the will of his son who died in Australia. No word of the old man's had ever hinted at wealth in his possession; the complaints he frequently made of the ill use to which wealthy people put their means seemed to imply a regret that he, with his purer purposes, had no power of doing anything. There was no explaining the manner of Jane's bringing-up if it were not necessary that she should be able to support herself; the idea on which Michael acted was not such as would suggest itself, even to Sidney's mind. Deliberately to withhold education from a girl who was to inherit any property worth speaking of would be acting with such boldness of originality that Sidney could not seriously have attributed it to his friend. In fact, he did not know Michael until the revelation was made; the depths of the man's character escaped him.
The struggle went all against idealism. It was a noble vision, that of Michael's, but too certainly Jane Snowdon was not the person to make it a reality; the fearful danger was, that all the possibilities of her life might be sacrificed to a vain conscientiousness. Her character was full of purity and sweetness and self-forgetful warmth, but it had not the strength necessary for the carrying out of a purpose beset with difficulties and perils. Michael, it was true, appeared to be aware of this; it did not, however, gravely disturb him, and for the simple reason that not to Jane alone did he look for the completion of his design; destiny had brought him aid such as he could never have anticipated; Jane's helpmate was at hand, in whom his trust was unbounded.
What was in his way, that Sidney should not accept the responsibility? Conscience from the first whispered against his doing so, and the whisper was grown to so loud a voice that not an adverse argument could get effective hearing. Temptations lurked for him and sprang out in moments of his weakness, but as temptations they were at once recognised. 'He had gone too far to retire; he would be guilty of sheer treachery to Jane; he would break the old man's heart.' All which meant merely that he loved the girl, and that it would be like death to part from her. But why part? What had conscience got hold of, that it made all this clamour? Oh, it was simple enough; Sidney not only had no faith in the practicability of such a life's work as Michael visioned, but he had the profoundest distrust of his own moral strength if he should allow himself to be committed to lifelong renunciation. 'I am no hero,' he said, 'no enthusiast. The time when my whole being could be stirred by social questions has gone by. I am a man in love, and in proportion as my love has strengthened, so has my old artist-self revived in me, until now I can imagine no bliss so perfect as to marry Jane Snowdon and go off to live with her amid fields and trees, where no echo of the suffering world should ever reach us.' To confess this was to make it terribly certain that sooner or later the burden of conscientiousness would become intolerable. Not from Jane would support come in that event; she, poor child I would fall into miserable perplexity, in conflict between love and duty, and her life would be rained.
Of course a man might have said, 'What matter how things arrange themselves when Michael is past knowledge of them? I will marry the woman I honestly desire, and together we will carry out this humanitarian project so long as it be possible. When it ceases to be so, well ----.' But Sidney could not take that view. It shamed him beyond endurance to think that he must ever avoid Jane's look, because he had proved himself dishonest, and, what were worse, had tempted her to become so.
The conflict between desire and scruple made every day a weariness. Instead of looking forward eagerly to the evening in the week which he spent with Michael and Jane, he dreaded its approach. Scarcely had he met Jane's look since this trouble began; he knew that her voice when she spoke to him expressed consciousness of something new in their relations, and even whilst continuing to act his part he suffered ceaselessly. Had Michael ever repeated to his granddaughter the confession which Sidney would now have given anything to recall? It was more than possible. Of Jane's feeling Sidney could not entertain a serious doubt, and he knew that for a long time he had done his best to encourage it. It was unpardonable to draw aloof from her just because these circumstances had declared themselves, circumstances which brought perplexity into her life and doubtless made her long for another kind of support than Michael could afford her. The old man himself appeared to be waiting anxiously; he had fallen back into his habit of long silences, and often regarded Sidney in a way which the latter only too well understood.
He tried to help himself through the time of indecision by saying that there was no hurry. Jane was very young, and with the new order of things her life had in truth only just begun. She must have a space to look about her; all the better if she could form various acquaintances. On that account he urged so strongly that she should be brought into relation with Miss Lant, and, if possible, with certain of Miss Lant's friends. All very well, had not the reasoning been utterly insincere. It might have applied to another person; in Jane's case it was mere sophistry. Her nature was home-keeping; to force her into alliance with conscious philanthropists was to set her in the falsest position conceivable; striving to mould herself to the desires of those she loved, she would suffer patiently and in secret mourn for the time when she had been obscure and happy. These things Sidney knew with a certainty only less than that wherewith he judged his own sensations; between Jane and himself the sympathy was perfect. And in despite of scruple he would before long have obeyed the natural impulse of his heart, had it not been that still graver complications declared themselves, and by exasperating his over-sensitive pride made him reckless of the pain he gave to others so long as his own self-torture was made sufficiently acute.
With Joseph Snowdon he was doing his best to be on genial terms, but the task was a hard one. The more he saw of Joseph, the less he liked him. Of late the filter manufacturer had begun to strike notes in his conversation which jarred on Sidney's sensibilities, and made him disagreeably suspicious that something more was meant than Joseph cared to put into plain speech. Since his establishment in business Joseph had become remarkably attentive to his father; he appeared to enter with much zeal into all that concerned Jane; he conversed privately with the old man for a couple of hours at a time, and these dialogues, for some reason or other, he made a point of reporting to Sidney. According to these reports -- and Sidney did not wholly discredit them -- Michael was coming to have a far better opinion of his son than formerly, was even disposed to speak with him gravely of his dearest interests.
'We talked no end about you, Sidney, last night,' said Joseph on one occasion, with the smile, whereby he meant to express the last degree of friendly intelligence.
And Sidney, though anxiously desiring to know the gist of the conversation, in this instance was not gratified. He could not bring himself to put questions, and went away in a mood of vague annoyance which Joseph had the especial power of exciting.
With the Byasses, Joseph was forming an intimacy; of this too Sidney became aware, and it irritated him. The exact source of this irritation he did not at first recognise, but it was disclosed at length unmistakably enough, and that on the occasion of the visit recently described. Bessie's pleasantry, which roused him in so unwonted a manner, could bear, of course, but one meaning; as soon as he heard it, Sidney saw as in a flash that one remaining aspect of his position which had not as yet attracted his concern. The Byasses had learnt, or had been put in the way of surmising, that Michael Snowdon was wealthy; instantly they passed to the reflection that in marrying Jane their old acquaintance would be doing an excellent stroke of business. They were coarse-minded, and Bessie could even venture to jest with him on this detestable view of his projects. But was it not very likely that they derived their information from Joseph Snowdon? And if so, was it not all but certain that Joseph had suggested to them this way of regarding Sidney himself?
So when Jane's face appeared at the door he held himself in stubborn disregard of her. A thing impossible to him, he would have said a few minutes ago. He revenged himself upon Jane. Good; in this way he was likely to make noble advances.
The next evening he was due at the Snowdons', and for the very first time he voluntarily kept away. He posted a note to say that the business of his removal had made him irregular; he would come next week, when things were settled once more.
Thus it came to pass that he sat wretchedly in his unfamiliar room and groaned about 'that accursed money.' His only relief was in bursts of anger. Why had he not the courage to go to Michael and say plainly what he thought? 'You have formed a wild scheme, the project of a fanatic. Its realisation would be a miracle, and in your heart you must know that Jane's character contains no miraculous possibilities. You are playing with people's lives, as fanatics always do. For Heaven's sake, bestow your money on the practical folks who make a solid business of relieving distress! Jane, I know, will bless you for making her as poor as ever. Things are going on about you which you do not suspect. Your son is plotting, plotting; I can see it. This money will be the cause of endless suffering to those you really love, and will never be of as much benefit to the unknown as if practical people dealt with it. Jane is a simple girl, of infinite goodness; what possesses you that you want to make her an impossible sort of social saint?' Too hard to speak thus frankly. Michael had no longer the mental pliancy of even six months ago; his idea was everything to him; as he became weaker, it would gain the dire force of an hallucination. And in the meantime he, Sidney, must submit to be slandered by that fellow who had his own ends to gain.
To marry Jane, and, at the old man's death, resign every farthing of the money to her trustees, for charitable uses? -- But the old pang of conscience; the life-long wound to Jane's tender heart.
A day of headache and incapacity, during which it was all he could do to attend to his mechanical work, and again the miserable loneliness of his attic. It rained, it rained. He had half a mind to seek refuge at some theatre, but the energy to walk so far was lacking. And whilst he stood stupidly abstracted there came a knock at his door.
'I thought I'd just see if you'd got straight,' said Joseph Snowdon, entering with his genial smile.
Sidney made no reply, but turned as if to stir the fire. Hands in pockets, Joseph sauntered to a seat.
'Think you'll be comfortable here?' he went on. 'Well, well; of course it's only temporary.'
'I don't know about that,' returned Sidney. 'I may stay here as long as I was at the last place -- eight years.'
Joseph laughed, with exceeding good-nature.
'Oh yes; I shouldn't wonder,' he said, entering into the joke. 'Still' -- becoming serious -- 'I wish you'd found a pleasanter place. With the winter coming on, you see ----'
Sidney broke in with splenetic perversity.
'I don't know that I shall pass the winter here. My arrangements are all temporary -- all of them.'
After glancing at him the other crossed his legs and seemed to dispose himself for a stay of some duration.
'You didn't turn up the other night -- in Hanover Street.'
'I was there. We talked about you. My father has a notion you haven't been quite well lately. I dare say you're worrying a little, eh?'
Sidney remained standing by the fireplace, turned so that his face was in shadow.
'Worry? Oh, I don't know,' he replied, idly.
'Well, I'm worried a good deal, Sidney, and that's the fact.'
'All sorts of things. I've meant to have a long talk with you; but then I don't quite know how to begin. Well, see, it's chiefly about Jane.'
Sidney neither moved nor spoke.
'After all, Sidney,' resumed the other, softening his voice, 'I am her father, you see. A precious bad one I've been, that there's no denying, and dash it if I don't sometimes feel ashamed of myself. I do when she speaks to me in that pleasant way she has -- you know what I mean. For all that, I am her father, and I think it's only right I should do my best to make her happy. You agree with that, I know.'
'Certainly I do.'
'You won't take it ill if I ask whether -- in fact, whether you've ever asked her -- you know what I mean.'
'I have not,' Sidney replied, in a clear, unmoved tone, changing his position at the same time so as to look his interlocutor in the face.
Joseph seemed relieved.
'Still,' he continued, 'you've given her to understand -- eh? I suppose there's no secret about that?'
'I've often spoken to her very intimately, but I have used no words such as you are thinking of. It's quite true that my way of behaving has meant more than ordinary friendship.'
'Yes, yes; you're not offended at me bringing this subject up, old man? You see, I'm her father, after all, and I think we ought to understand each other.'
'You are quite right.'
'Well, now, see.' He fidgeted a little. 'Has my father ever told you that his friend the lawyer, Percival, altogether went against that way of bringing up Jane?'
'Yes, I know that.'
'You do?' Joseph paused before proceeding. 'To tell you the truth, I don't much care about Percival. I had a talk with him, you know, when my business was being settled. No, I don't quite take to him, so to say. Now, you won't be offended? The fact of the matter is, he asked some rather queer questions about you -- or, at all events, if they weren't exactly questions, they -- they came to the same thing.'
Sidney was beginning to glare under his brows. Commonsense told him how very unlikely it was that a respectable solicitor should compromise himself in talk with a stranger, and that such a man as J. J. Snowdon; yet, whether the story were true or not, it meant that Joseph was plotting in some vile way, and thus confirmed his suspicions. He inquired, briefly and indifferently, what Mr. Percival's insinuations had been.
'Well, I told you I don't much care for the fellow. He didn't say as much, mind, but he seemed to be hinting-like that, as Jane's father, I should do well to -- to keep an eye on you -- ha, ha! It came to that, I thought -- though, of course, I may have been mistaken. It shows how little he knows about you and father. I fancy he'd got it into his head that it was you set father on those plans about Jane -- though why I'd like to know.'
He paused. Sidney kept his eyes down, and said nothing.
'Well, there's quite enough of that; too much. Still I thought I'd tell you, you see. It's well to know when we've got enemies behind our backs. But see, Sidney; to speak seriously, between ourselves.' He leaned forward in the confidential attitude. 'You say you've gone just a bit further than friendship with our Janey. Well, I don't know a better man, and that's the truth -- but don't you think we might put this off for a year or two? Look now, here's this lady, Miss Lant, taking up the girl, and it's an advantage to her; you won't deny that. I sympathise with my good old dad; I do, honestly; but I can't help thinking that Janey, in her position, ought to see a little of the world. There's no secrets between us; you know what she'll have as well as I do. I should be a brute if I grudged it her, after all she's suffered from my neglect. But don't you think we might leave her free for a year or two?'
'Yes, I agree with you.'
'You do? I thought you and I could understand each other, if we only got really talking. Look here, Sidney; I don't mind just whispering to you. For anything I know, Percival is saying disagreeable things to the old man; but don't you worry about that. It don't matter a scrap, you see, so long as you and I keep friendly, eh? I'm talking very open to you, but it's all for Janey's sake. If you went and told father I'd been saying anything against Percival -- well, it would make things nasty for me. I've put myself in your hands, but I know the kind of man you are. It's only right you should hear of what's said. Don't worry; we'll just wait a little, that's all. I mean it all for the little girl's sake. It wouldn't be nice if you married her and then she was told -- eh?'
Sidney looked at the speaker steadily, then stirred the fire and moved about for a few moments. As he kept absolute silence, Joseph, after throwing out a few vague assurances of goodwill and trust, rose to take his leave. Kirkwood shook hands with him, but spoke not a word. Late the same night Sidney penned a letter to Michael Snowdon. In the morning he read it over, and instead of putting it into an envelope, locked it away in one of his drawers.
When the evening for his visit to Hanover Street again came round he again absented himself, this time just calling to leave word with the servant that business kept him away. The business was that of walking aimlessly about Clerkenwell, in mud and fog. About ten o'clock he came to Farringdon Road Buildings, and with a glance up towards the Hewetts' window he was passing by when a hand clutched at him. Turning, he saw the face of John Hewett, painfully disturbed, strained in some wild emotion.
'Sidney! Come this way; I want to speak to you.'
'Why, what's wrong?'
'Come over here. Sidney -- I've found my girl -- I've found Clara!'
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