The Nether World
Mrs. Eagles, a middle-aged woman of something more than average girth, always took her time in ascending to that fifth storey where she and her husband shared a tenement with the Hewett family. This afternoon her pause on each landing was longer than usual, for a yellow fog, which mocked the pale glimmer of gas-jets on the staircase, made her gasp asthmatically. She carried, too, a heavy market-bag, having done her Saturday purchasing earlier than of wont on account of the intolerable weather. She reached the door at length, and being too much exhausted to search her pocket for the latchkey, knocked for admission. Amy Hewett opened to her, and she sank on a chair in the first room, where the other two Hewett children were bending over 'home-lessons' with a studiousness not altogether natural. Mrs. Eagles had a shrewd eye; having glanced at Annie and Tom with a discreet smile, she turned her look towards the elder girl, who was standing full in the lamplight.
'Come here, Amy,' she said after a moment's scrutiny. 'So you will keep doin' that foolish thing! Very well, then, I shall have to speak to your father about it; I'm not goin' to see you make yourself ill and do nothing to prevent you.'
Amy, now a girl of eleven, affected much indignation.
'Why, I haven't touched a drop, Mrs. Eagles!'
'Now, now, now, now, now! Why, your lips are shrivelled up like a bit of o' dried orange-peel! You're a silly girl, that's what you are!'
Of late Amy Hewett had become the victim of a singular propensity; whenever she could obtain vinegar, she drank it as a toper does spirits. Inadequate nourishment, and especially an unsatisfied palate, frequently have this result in female children among the poor; it is an anticipation of what will befall them as soon as they find their way to the publichouse.
Having administered a scolding, Mrs. Eagles went into the room which she and her husband occupied. It was so encumbered with furniture that not more than eight or ten square feet of floor can have been available for movement. On the bed sat Mr. Eagles, a spare, large-headed, ugly, but very thoughtful-looking man; he and Sidney Kirkwood had been acquaintances and fellow-workmen for some years, but no close intimacy had arisen between them, owing to the difference of their tastes and views. Eagles was absorbed in the study of a certain branch of political statistics; the enthusiasm of his life was Financial Reform. Every budget presented to Parliament he criticised with extraordinary thoroughness, and, in fact, with an acumen which would have made him no inefficient auxiliary of the Chancellor himself. Of course he took the view that the nation's resources were iniquitously wasted, and of course had little difficulty in illustrating a truth so obvious; what distinguished him from the ordinary malcontent of Clerkenwell Green was his logical faculty and the surprising extent of the information with which he had furnished himself. Long before there existed a 'Financial Reform Almanack,' Eagles practically represented that work in his own person. Disinterested, ardent, with thoughts for but one subject in the scope of human inquiry, he lived contentedly on his two pounds a week, and was for ever engaged in the theoretic manipulation of millions. Utopian budgets multiplied themselves in his brain and his note-books. He devised imposts such as Minister never dreamt of, yet which, he declared, could not fail of vast success. 'You just look at these figures!' he would exclaim to Sidney, in his low, intense voice. 'There it is in black and white!' But Sidney's faculties were quite unequal to calculations of this kind, and Eagles could never summon resolve to explain his schemes before an audience. Indefatigably he worked on, and the work had to be its own reward.
He was busy in the usual way this afternoon, as he sat on the bed, coatless, a trade journal open on his knees. His wife never disturbed him; she was a placid, ruminative woman, generally finding the details of her own weekly budget quite a sufficient occupation. When she had taken off her bonnet and was turning out the contents of her bag, Eagles remarked quietly:
'They'll have a bad journey.'
'What a day for her to be travelling all that distance, poor thing! But perhaps it ain't so bad out o' London.'
Lowering their voices, they began to talk of John Hewett and the daughter he was bringing from Lancashire, where she had lain in hospital for some weeks. Of the girl and her past they knew next to nothing, but Hewett's restricted confidences suggested disagreeable things. The truth of the situation was, that John had received by post, from he knew not whom, a newspaper report of the inquest held on the body of Grace Danver, wherein, of course, was an account of what had happened to Clara Vale; in the margin was pencilled, 'Clara Vale's real name is Clara Hewett.' An hour after receiving this John encountered Sidney Kirkwood. They read the report together. Before the coroner it had been made public that the dead woman was in truth named Rudd; she who was injured refused to give any details concerning herself, and her history escaped the reporters. Harbouring no doubt of the information thus mysteriously sent him -- the handwriting seemed to be that of a man, but gave no further hint as to its origin -- Hewett the next day journeyed down into Lancashire, Sidney supplying him with money. He found Clara in a perilous condition; her face was horribly burnt with vitriol, and the doctors could not as yet answer for the results of the shock she had suffered. One consolation alone offered itself in the course of Hewett's inquiries; Clara, if she recovered, would not have lost her eyesight. The fluid had been thrown too low to effect the worst injury; the accident of a trembling hand, of a movement on her part, had kept her eyes untouched.
Necessity brought the father back to London almost at once, but the news sent him at brief intervals continued to be favourable. Now that the girl could be removed from the infirmary, there was no retreat for her but her father's home. Mr. Peel, the manager, had made her a present of 2Ol. -- it was all he could do; the members of the company had subscribed another 5l., generously enough, seeing that their tour was come perforce to an abrupt close. Clara's career as an actress had ended. . . .
When the fog's artificial night deepened at the close of the winter evening, Mrs. Eagles made the Hewetts' two rooms as cheerful as might be, expecting every moment the arrival of John and his companion. The children were aware that an all but forgotten sister was returning to them, and that she had been very ill; they promised quietude. Amy set the tea-table in order, and kept the kettle ready. . . . The knock for which they were waiting! Mrs. Eagles withdrew into her own room; Amy went to the door.
A tall figure, so wrapped and veiled that nothing but the womanly outline could be discerned, entered, supported by John Hewett.
'Is there a light in the other room, Amy?' John inquired in a thick voice.
He led the muffled form into the chamber where Amy and Annie slept. The door closed, and for several minutes the three children stood regarding each other, alarmed, mute. Then their father joined them. He looked about in an absent way, slowly drew off his overcoat, and when Amy offered to take it, bent and kissed her cheek. The girl was startled to hear him sob and to see tears starting from his eyes. Turning suddenly away, he stood before the fire and made a pretence of warming himself; but his sobs overmastered him. He leaned his arms on the mantel-piece.
'Shall I pour out the tea, father?' Amy ventured to ask, when there was again perfect silence.
'Haven't you had yours?' he replied, half-facing her.
'Get it, then -- all of you. Yes, you can pour me out a cup -- and put another on the little tray. Is this stuff in the saucepan ready?' 'Mrs. Eagles said it would be in five minutes.'.
'All right. Get on with your eatin', all of you.'
He went to Mrs. Eagles' room and talked there for a short time. Presently Mrs. Eagles herself came out and silently removed from the saucepan a mixture of broth and meat. Having already taken the cup of tea to Clara, Hewett now returned to her with this food. She was sitting by the fire, her face resting upon her hands. The lamp was extinguished; she had said that the firelight was enough. John deposited his burden on the table, then touched her shoulder gently and spoke in so soft a voice that one would not have recognised it as his.
'You'll try an' eat a little, my dear? Here's somethin' as has been made particular. After travellin' -- just a spoonful or two.'
Clara expressed reluctance.
'I don't feel hungry, father. Presently, perhaps.'
'Well, well; it do want to cool a bit. Do you feel able to sit up?'
'Yes. Don't take so much trouble, father. I'd rather you left me alone.'
The tone was not exactly impatient; it spoke a weary indifference to everything and every person.
'Yes, I'll go away, dear. But you'll eat just a bit? If you don't like this, you must tell me, and I'll get something you could fancy.'
'It'll do well enough. I'll eat it presently; I promise you.'
John hesitated before going.
'Clara -- shall you mind Amy and Annie comin' to sleep here? If you'd rather, we'll manage it somehow else.'
'No. What does it matter? They can come when they like, only they mustn't want me to talk to them.'
He went softly from the room, and joined the children at their tea. His mood had grown brighter. Though in talking he kept his tone much softened, there was a smile upon his face, and he answered freely the questions put to him about his journey. Overcome at first by the dark aspect of this home-coming, he now began to taste the joy of having Clara under his roof, rescued alike from those vague dangers of the past and from the recent peril. Impossible to separate the sorrow he felt for her blighted life, her broken spirit, and the solace lurking in the thought that henceforth she could not abandon him. Never a word to reproach her for the unalterable; it should be as though there were no gap between the old love and its renewal in the present. For Clara used to love him, and already she had shown that his tenderness did not appeal to her in vain; during the journey she had once or twice pressed his hand in gratitude. How well it was that he had this home in which to receive her! Half a year ago, and what should he have done? He would not admit to himself that there were any difficulties ahead; if it came to that, he would manage to get some extra work in the evening and on Saturday afternoons. He would take Sidney into council. But thereupon his face darkened again, and he lost himself in troubled musing.
Midway in the Sunday morning Amy told him that Clara had risen and would like him to go and sit with her. She would not leave her room; Amy had put it in order, and the blind was drawn low. Clara sat by the fireside, in her attitude of last night, hiding her face as far as she was able. The beauty of her form would have impressed anyone who approached her, the grace of her bent head; but the countenance was no longer that of Clara Hewett; none must now look at her, unless to pity. Feeling herself thus utterly changed, she could not speak in her former natural voice; her utterance was oppressed, unmusical, monotonous.
When her father had taken a place near her she asked him, 'Have you got that piece of newspaper still?'
He had, and at her wish produced it. Clara held it in the light of the fire, and regarded the pencilled words closely. Then she inquired if he wished to keep it, and on his answering in the negative threw it to be burnt. Hewett took her hand, and for a while they kept silence.
'Do you live comfortably here, father?' she said presently.
'We do, Clara. It's a bit high up, but that don't matter much.'
'You've got new furniture.'
'Yes, some new things. The old was all done for, you know.'
'And where did you live before you came here?'
'Oh, we had a place in King's Cross Road -- it wasn't much of a place, but I suppose it might a' been worse.'
'And that was where ----?'
'Yes -- yes -- it was there.'
'And how did you manage to buy this furniture?' Clara asked, after a pause.
'Well, my dear, to tell you the truth -- it was a friend as -- an old friend helped us a bit.'
'You wouldn't care to say who it was?'
John was gravely embarrassed. Clara moved her head a little, so as to regard him, but at once turned away, shrinkingiy, when she met his eyes.
'Why don't you like to tell me, father? Was it Mr. Kirkwood?'
'Yes, my dear, it was.'
Neither spoke for a long time. Clara's head sank lower; she drew her hand away from her father's, and used it to shield her face. When she spoke, it was as if to herself.
'I suppose he's altered in some ways?'
'Not much; I don't see much change, myself, but then of course -- No, he's pretty much the same.'
'He's married, isn't he?
'Married? Why, what made you think that. Clara? No, not he. He had to move not long ago; his lodgin's is in Red Lion Street now.'
'And does he ever come here?'
'He has been -- just now an' then.'
'Have you told him ?'
'Why -- yes, dear -- I felt I had to.'
'There's no harm. You couldn't keep it a secret. But he mustn't come whilst I'm here; you understand that, father?'
'No, no, he shan't. He shall never come, if you don't wish it.'
'Only whilst I'm here.'
'But -- Clara -- you'll always be here.'
'Oh no! Do you think I'm going to burden you all the rest of my life? I shall find some way of earning a living, and then I shall go and get a room for myself.'
'Now don't -- now don't talk like that!' exclaimed her father, putting his hand on her. 'You shall do what else you like, my girl, but don't talk about goin' away from me. That's the one thing as I couldn't bear. I ain't so young as I was, and I've had things as was hard to go through -- I mean when the mother died and -- and other things at that time. Let you an' me stay by each other whilst we may, my girl. You know it was always you as I thought most of, and I want to keep you by me -- I do, Clara. You won't speak about goin' away?'
She remained mute. Shadows from the firelight rose and fell upon the walls of the half-darkened room. It was a cloudy morning; every now and then a gust flung rain against the window.
'If you went,' he continued, huskily, 'I should be afraid myself. I haven't told you. I didn't behave as I'd ought have done to the poor mother, Clara; I got into drinkin' too much; yes, I did. I've broke myself off that; but if you was to leave me ---- I've had hard things to go through. Do you know the Burial Club broke up just before she died? I couldn't get not a ha'penny! A lot o' the money was stolen. You may think how I felt, Clara, with her lyin' there, and I hadn't got as much as would pay for a coffin. It was Sidney Kirkwood found the money -- he did! There was never man had as good a friend as he's been to me; I shall never have a chance of payin' what I owe him. Things is better with me now, but I'd rather beg my bread in the streets than you should go away. Don't be afraid, my dearest. I promise you nobody shan't come near. You won't mind Mrs. Eagles; she's very good to the children. But I must keep you near to me, my poor girl!'
Perhaps sit was that word of pity -- though the man's shaken voice was throughout deeply moving. For the first time since the exultant hope of her life was blasted, Clara shed tears.
With the first breath of winter there passes a voice half-menacing, half-mournful, through all the barren ways and phantom-haunted refuges of the nether world. Too quickly has vanished the brief season when the sky is clement, when a little food suffices, and the chances of earning that little are more numerous than at other times; this wind that gives utterance to its familiar warning is the vaunt-courier of cold and hunger and solicitude that knows not sleep. Will the winter be a hard one? It is the question that concerns this world before all others, that occupies alike the patient workfolk who have yet their home unbroken, the strugglers foredoomed to loss of such scant needments as the summer gifted them withal, the hopeless and the self-abandoned and the lurking creatures of prey. To all of them the first chill breath from a lowering sky has its voice of admonition; they set their faces; they sigh, or whisper a prayer, or fling out a curse, each according to his nature.
And as though the strife here were not already hard enough, behold from many corners of the land come needy emigrants, prospectless among their own people, fearing the dark season which has so often meant for them the end of wages and of food, tempted hither by thought that in the shadow of palaces work and charity are both more plentiful. Vagabonds, too, no longer able to lie about the country roads, creep back to their remembered lairs and join the combat for crusts flung forth by casual hands. Day after day the stress becomes more grim. One would think that hosts of the weaker combatants might surely find it seasonable to let themselves be trodden out of existence, and so make room for those of more useful sinew; somehow they cling to life; so few in comparison yield utterly. The thoughtful in the world above look about them with contentment when carriage-ways are deep with new-fallen snow. 'Good; here is work for the unemployed.' Ah, if the winter did but last a few months longer, if the wonted bounds of endurance were but, by some freak of nature, sensibly overpassed, the carriage-ways would find another kind of sweeping! . . .
This winter was the last that Shooter's Gardens were destined to know. The leases had all but run out; the middlemen were garnering their latest profits; in the spring there would come a wholesale demolition, and model-lodgings would thereafter occupy the site. Meanwhile the Gardens looked their surliest; the walls stood in a perpetual black sweat; a mouldy reek came from the open doorways; the beings that passed in and out seemed soaked with grimy moisture, puffed into distortions, hung about with rotting garments. One such was Mrs. Candy, Pennyloaf's mother. Her clothing consisted of a single gown and a shawl made out of the fragments of an old counterpane; her clothing -- with exception of the shoes on her feet, those two articles were literally all that covered her bare body. Rage for drink was with her reaching the final mania. Useless to bestow anything upon her; straightway it or its value passed over the counter of the beershop in Rosoman Street. She cared only for beer, the brave, thick, medicated draught, that was so cheap and frenzied her so speedily.
Her husband was gone for good. One choking night of November he beat her to such purpose that she was carried off to the police-station as dead; the man effected his escape, and was not likely to show himself in the Gardens again. With her still lived her son Stephen, the potman. His payment was ten shillings a week (with a daily allowance of three pints), and he saw to it that there was always a loaf of bread in the room they occupied together. Stephen took things with much philosophy; his mother would, of course, drink herself to death -- what was there astonishing in that? He himself had heart disease, and surely enough would drop down dead one of these days; the one doom was no more to be quarrelled with than the other. Pennyloaf came to see them at very long intervals; what was the use of making her visits more frequent? She, too, viewed with a certain equanimity the progress of her mother's fate. Vain every kind of interposition; worse than imprudence to give the poor creature money or money's worth. It could only be hoped that the end would come before very long.
An interesting house, this in which Mrs. Candy resided. It contained in all seven rooms, and each room was the home of a family; under the roof slept twenty-five persons, men, women, and children; the lowest rent paid by one of these domestic groups was four-and-sixpence. You would have enjoyed a peep into the rear chamber on the ground floor. There dwelt a family named Hope -- Mr. and Mrs. Hope, Sarah Hope, aged fifteen, Dick Hope, aged twelve, Betsy Hope, aged three. The father was a cripple; he and his wife occupied themselves in the picking of rags -- of course at home -- and I can assure you that the atmosphere of their abode was worthy of its aspect. Mr. Hope drank, but not desperately. His forte was the use of language so peculiarly violent that even in Shooter's Gardens it gained him a proud reputation. On the slightest excuse he would threaten to brain one of his children, to disembowel another, to gouge out the eyes of the third. He showed much ingenuity in varying the forms of menaced punishment. Not a child in the Gardens but was constantly threatened by its parents with a violent death; this was so familiar that it had lost its effect; where the nurse or mother in the upper world cries, 'I shall scold you!' in the nether the phrase is, 'I'll knock yer 'ed orff!' To 'I shall be very angry with you' in the one sphere, corresponds in the other, 'I'll murder you!' These are conventions -- matters of no importance. But Mr. Rope was a man of individuality; he could make his family tremble; he could bring lodgers about the door to listen and admire his resources.
In another room abode a mother with four children. This woman drank moderately, but was very conscientious in despatching her three younger children to school. True, there was just a little inconvenience in this punctuality of hers, at all events from the youngsters' point of view, for only on the first three days of the week had they the slightest chance of a mouthful of breakfast before they departed. 'Never mind, I'll have some dinner for you,' their parent was wont to say. Common enough in the Board schools, this pursuit of knowledge on an empty stomach. But then the end is so inestimable!
Yet another home. It was tenanted by two persons only; they appeared to be man and wife, but in the legal sense were not so, nor did they for a moment seek to deceive their neighbours. With the female you are slightly acquainted; christened Sukey Jollop, she first became Mrs. Jack Bartley, and now, for courtesy's sake, was styled Mrs. Higgs. Sukey had strayed on to a downward path; conscious of it, she abandoned herself to her taste for strong drink, and braved out her degradation. Jealousy of Clem Peckover was the first cause of discord between her and Jack Bartley; a robust young woman, she finally sent Jack about his business by literal force of arms, and entered into an alliance with Ned Higgs, a notorious swashbuckler, the captain of a gang of young ruffians who at this date were giving much trouble to the Clerkenwell police. Their speciality was the skilful use, as an offensive weapon, of a stout leathern belt heavily buckled; Mr. Higgs boasted that with one stroke of his belt he could, if it seemed good to him, kill his man, but the fitting opportunity for this display of prowess had not yet offered. . . .
Now it happened that, at the time of her making Jane Snowdon's acquaintance, Miss Lant was particularly interested in Shooter's Gardens and the immediate vicinity. She had associated herself with certain ladies who undertook the control of a soup-kitchen in the neighbourhood, and as the winter advanced she engaged Jane in this work of charity. It was a good means, as Michael Snowdon agreed, of enabling the girl to form acquaintances among the very poorest, those whom she hoped to serve effectively -- not with aid of money alone, but by her personal influence. And I think it will be worth while to dwell a little on the story of this same soup-kitchen; it is significant, and shall take the place of abstract comment on Miss Lant's philanthropic enterprises.
The kitchen had been doing successful work for some years; the society which established it entrusted its practical conduct to very practical people, a man and wife who were themselves of the nether world, and knew the ways thereof. The 'stock' which formed the basis of the soup was wholesome and nutritious; the peas were of excellent quality; twopence a quart was the price at which this fluid could be purchased (one penny if a ticket from a member of the committee were presented), and sometimes as much as five hundred quarts would be sold in a day. Satisfactory enough this. When the people came with complaints, saying that they were tired of this particular soup, and would like another kind for a change, Mr. and Mrs. Batterby, with perfect understanding of the situation, bade their customers 'take it or leave it -- an' none o' your cheek here, or you won't get nothing at all!' The result was much good-humour all round.
But the present year saw a change in the constitution of the committee: two or three philanthropic ladies of great conscientiousness began to inquire busily into the working of the soup-kitchen, and they soon found reason to be altogether dissatisfied with Mr. and Mrs. Batterby. No, no; these managers were of too coarse a type; they spoke grossly; what possibility of their exerting a humanising influence on the people to whom they dispensed soup? Soup and refinement must be disseminated at one and the same time, over the same counter. Mr. and Mrs. Batterby were dismissed, and quite a new order of things began. Not only were the ladies zealous for a high ideal in the matter of soup-distributing, they also aimed at practical economy in the use of funds. Having engaged a cook after their own hearts, and acting upon the advice of competent physiologists, they proceeded to make a 'stock' out of sheep's and bullocks' heads; moreover, they ordered their peas from the City, thus getting them at two shillings a sack less than the price formerly paid by the Batterbys to a dealer in Clerkenwell. But, alas! these things could not be done secretly; the story leaked out; Shooter's Gardens and vicinity broke into the most excited feeling. I need not tell you that the nether world will consume -- when others supply it -- nothing but the very finest quality of food, that the heads of sheep and bullocks are peculiarly offensive to its stomach, that a saving effected on sacks of peas outrages its dearest sensibilities. What was the result? Shooter's Gardens, convinced of the fraud practised upon them, nobly brought back their quarts of soup to the kitchen, and with proud independence of language demanded to have their money returned. On being met with a refusal, they -- what think you ? -- emptied the soup on to the floor, and went away with heads exalted.
Vast was the indignation of Miss Lant and the other ladies. 'This is their gratitude!' Now if you or I had been there, what an opportunity for easing our minds! 'Gratitude, mesdames? You have entered upon this work with expectation of gratitude? -- And can you not perceive that these people of Shooter's Gardens are poor, besotted, disease-struck creatures, of whom -- in the mass -- scarcely a human quality is to be expected? Have you still to learn what this nether world has been made by those who belong to the sphere above it? -- Gratitude, quotha? -- Nay, do you be grateful that these hapless, half-starved women do not turn and rend you. At present they satisfy themselves with insolence. Take it silently, you who at all events hold some count of their dire state; and endeavour to feed them without arousing their animosity!'
Well, the kitchen threatened to be a failure. It turned out that the cheaper peas were, in fact, of inferior quality, and the ladies hastened to go back to the dealer in Clerkenwell. This was something, but now came a new trouble; the complaint with which Mr. and Mrs. Batterby had known so well how to deal revived in view of the concessions made by the new managers. Shooter's Gardens would have no more peas; let some other vegetable be used. Again the point was conceded; a trial was made of barley soup. Shooter's Gardens came, looked, smelt, and shook their heads. 'it don't look nice,' was their comment; they would none of it.
For two or three weeks, just at this crisis in the kitchen's fate, Jane Snowdon attended with Miss Lant to help in the dispensing of the decoction. Jane was made very nervous by the disturbances that went on, but she was able to review the matter at issue in a far more fruitful way than Miss Lant and the other ladies. Her opinion was not asked, however. In the homely grey dress, with her modest, retiring manner, her gentle, diffident countenance, she was taken by the customers for a paid servant, and if ever it happened that she could not supply a can of soup quickly enough sharp words reached her ear. 'Now then, you gyurl there! Are you goin' to keep me all d'y? I've got somethink else to do but stand 'ere.' And Jane, by her timid hastening, confirmed the original impression, with the result that she was treated yet more unceremoniously next time. Of all forms of insolence there is none more flagrant than that of the degraded poor receiving charity which they have come to regard as a right.
Jane did speak at length. Miss Lant had called to see her in Hanover Street; seated quietly in her own parlour, with Michael Snowdon to approve -- with him she had already discussed the matter -- Jane ventured softly to compare the present state of things and that of former winters, as described to her by various people.
'Wasn't it rather a pity,' she suggested, 'that the old people were sent away?'
'You think so?' returned Miss Lant, with the air of one to whom a novel thought is presented. 'You really think so, Miss Snowdon?'
'They got on so well with everybody,' Jane continued. 'And don't you think it's better, Miss Lant, for everybody to feel satisfied?'
'But really, Mr. Batterby used to speak so very harshly. He destroyed their self-respect.'
'I don't think they minded it,' said Jane, with simple good faith. 'And I'm always hearing them wish he was back, instead of the new managers.'
'I think we shall have to consider this,' remarked the lady, thoughtfully.
Considered it was, and with the result that the Batterbys before long found themselves in their old position, uproariously welcomed by Shooter's Gardens. In a few weeks the soup was once more concocted of familiar ingredients, and customers, as often as they grumbled, had the pleasure of being rebuked in their native tongue.
It was with anything but a cheerful heart that Jane went through this initiation into the philanthropic life. Her brief period of joy and confidence was followed by a return of anxiety, which no resolve could suppress. It was not only that the ideals to which she strove to form herself made no genuine appeal to her nature; the imperative hunger of her heart remained unsatisfied. At first, when the assurance received from Michael began to lose a little of its sustaining force, she could say to herself, 'Patience, patience; be faithful, be trustful, and your reward will soon come.' Nor would patience have failed her had but the current of life flowed on in the old way. It was the introduction of new and disturbing things that proved so great a test of fortitude. Those two successive absences of Sidney on the appointed evening were strangely unlike him, but perhaps could be explained by the unsettlement of his removal; his manner when at length he did come proved that the change in himself was still proceeding. Moreover, the change affected Michael, who manifested increase of mental trouble at the same time that he yielded more and more to physical infirmity.
The letter which Sidney wrote after receiving Joseph Snowdon's confidential communications was despatched two days later. He expressed himself in carefully chosen words, but the purport of the letter was to make known that he no longer thought of Jane save as a friend; that the change in her position had compelled him to take another view of his relations to her than that he had confided to Michael at Danbury. Most fortunately -- he added -- no utterance of his feelings had ever escaped him to Jane herself, and henceforth he should be still more careful to avoid any suggestion of more than brotherly interest. In very deed nothing was altered; he was still her steadfast friend, and would always aid her to his utmost in the work of her life.
That Sidney could send this letter, after keeping it in reserve for a couple of days, proved how profoundly his instincts were revolted by the difficulties and the ambiguity of his position. It had been bad enough when only his own conscience was in play; the dialogue with Joseph, following upon Bessie Byass's indiscretion, threw him wholly off his balance, and he could give no weight to any consideration but the necessity of recovering self-respect. Even the sophistry of that repeated statement that he had never approached Jane as a lover did not trouble him in face of the injury to his pride. Every word of Joseph Snowdon's transparently artful hints was a sting to his sensitiveness; the sum excited him to loathing. It was as though the corner of a curtain had been raised, giving him a glimpse of all the vile greed, the base machination, hovering about this fortune that Jane was to inherit. Of Scawthorne he knew nothing, but his recollection of the Peckovers was vivid enough to suggest what part Mrs. Joseph Snowdon was playing in the present intrigues, and he felt convinced that in the background were other beasts of prey, watching with keen, envious eyes. The sudden revelation was a shock from which he would not soon recover; he seemed to himself to be in a degree contaminated; he questioned his most secret thoughts again and again, recognizing with torment the fears which had already bidden him draw back; he desired to purify himself by some unmistakable action.
That which happened he had anticipated. On receipt of the letter Michael came to see him; he found the old man waiting in front of the house when he returned to Red Lion Street after his work. The conversation that followed was a severe test of Sidney's resolve. Had Michael disclosed the fact of his private understanding with Jane, Sidney would probably have yielded; but the old man gave no hint of what he had done -- partly because he found it difficult to make the admission, partly in consequence of an indecision in his own mind with regard to the very point at issue. Though agitated by the consciousness of suffering in store for Jane, his thoughts disturbed by the derangement of a part of his plan, he did not feel that Sidney's change of mind gravely affected the plan itself. Age had cooled his blood; enthusiasm had made personal interests of comparatively small account to him; he recognised his granddaughter's feeling, but could not appreciate its intensity, its surpreme significance. When Kirkwood made a show of explaining himself, saying that he shrank from that form of responsibility, that such a marriage suggested to him many and insuperable embarrassments, Michael began to reflect that perchance this was the just view. With household and family cares, could Jane devote herself to the great work after the manner of his ideal? Had he not been tempted by his friendship for Sidney to introduce into his scheme what was really an incompatible element? Was it not decidedly, infinitely better that Jane should be unmarried?
Michael had taken the last step in that process of dehumanisation which threatens idealists of his type. He had reached at length the pass of those frenzied votaries of a supernatural creed who exact from their disciples the sacrifice of every human piety. Returning home, he murmured to himself again and again, 'She must not marry. She must overcome this desire of a happiness such as ordinary women may enjoy. For my sake, and for the sake of her suffering fellow-creatures, Jane must win this victory over herself.'
He purposed speaking to her, but put it off from day to day. Sidney paid his visits as usual, and tried desperately to behave as though he had no trouble. Could he have divined why it was that Michael had ended by accepting his vague pretences with apparent calm, indignation, wrath, would have possessed him; he believed, however, that the old man out of kindness subdued what he really felt. Sidney's state was pitiable. He knew not whether he more shrank from the thought of being infected with Joseph Snowdon's baseness or despised himself for his attitude to Jane. Despicable entirely had been his explanations to Michael, but how could he make them more sincere? To tell the whole truth, to reveal Joseph's tactics would be equivalent to taking a part in the dirty contest; Michael would probably do him justice, but who could say how far Joseph's machinations were becoming effectual? The slightest tinct of uncertainty in the old man's thought, and he, Kirkwood, became a plotter, like the others, meeting mine with countermine.
'There will be no possibility of perfect faith between men until there is no such thing as money! H'm, and when is that likely to come to pass?'
Thus he epigrammatised to himself one evening, savagely enough, as with head bent forward he plodded to Red Lion Street. Some one addressed him; he looked up and saw Jane. Seemingly it was a chance meeting, but she put a question at once almost as though she had been waiting for him. 'Have you seen Pennyloaf lately, Mr. Kirkwood?'
Pennyloaf? The name suggested Bob Hewett, who again suggested John Hewett, and so Sidney fell upon thoughts of some one who two days ago had found a refuge in John's home. To Michael he had said nothing of what he knew concerning Clara; a fresh occasion of uneasy thought. Bob Hewett -- so John said -- had no knowledge of his sister's situation, otherwise Pennyloaf might have come to know about it, and in that case, perchance, Jane herself. Why not? Into what a wretched muddle of concealments and inconsistencies and insincerities had he fallen!
'It's far too long since I saw her,' he replied, in that softened tone which he found it impossible to avoid when his eyes met Jane's.
She was on her way home from the soup-kitchen, where certain occupations had kept her much later than usual; this, however, was far out of her way, and Sidney remarked on the fact, perversely, when she had offered this explanation of her meeting him, Jane did not reply. They walked on together, towards Islington.
'Are you going to help at that place all the winter?' he inquired.
'Yes; I think so.'
If he had spoken his thought, he would have railed against the soup-kitchen and all that was connected with it. So far had he got in his revolt against circumstances; Jane's 'mission' was hateful to him; he could not bear to think of her handing soup over a counter to ragged wretches.
'You're nothing like as cheerful as you used to be, he said, suddenly, and all but roughly. 'Why is it?'
What a question! Jane reddened as she tried to look at him with a smile; no words would come to her tongue.
'Do you go anywhere else, besides to -- to that place?'
Not often. She had accompanied Miss Lant on a visit to some people in Shooter's Gardens.
Sidney bent his brows. A nice spot, Shooter's Gardens.
'The houses are going to be pulled down, I'm glad to say,' continued Jane. 'Miss Lant thinks it'll be a good opportunity for helping a few of the families into better lodgings. We're going to buy furniture for them -- so many have as good as none at all, you know. It'll be a good start for them, won't it?'
Sidney nodded. He was thinking of another family who already owed their furniture to Jane's beneficence, though they did not know it.
'Mind you don't throw away kindness on worthless people,' he said presently.
'We can only do our best, and hope they'll keep comfortable for their own sakes.'
'Yes, yes. Well, I'll say good-night to you here. Go home and rest; you look tired.'
He no longer called her by her name. Tearing himself away, with a last look, he raged inwardly that so sweet and gentle a creature should be condemned to such a waste of her young life.
Jane had obtained what she came for. At times the longing to see him grew insupportable, and this evening she had yielded to it, going out of her way in the hope of encountering him as he came from work. He spoke very strangely. What did it all mean, and when would this winter of suspense give sign of vanishing before sunlight?
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Snowdon were now established in rooms in Burton Crescent, which is not far from King's Cross. Joseph had urged that Clerkenwell Close was scarcely a suitable quarter for a man of his standing, and, though with difficulty, he had achieved thus much deliverance. Of Clem he could not get rid -- just yet; but it was something to escape Mrs. Peckover's superintendence. Clem herself favoured the removal, naturally for private reasons. Thus far working in alliance with her shrewd mother, she was now forming independent projects. Mrs. Peckover's zeal was assuredly not disinterested, and why, Clem mused with herself, should the fruits of strategy be shared? Her husband's father could not, she saw every reason to believe, be much longer for this world. How his property was to be divided she had no means of discovering; Joseph professed to have no accurate information, but as a matter of course he was deceiving her. Should he inherit a considerable sum, it was more than probable he would think of again quitting his native land -- and without encumbrances. That movement must somehow be guarded against; how, it was difficult as yet to determine. In the next place, Jane was sure to take a large share of the fortune. To that Clem strongly objected, both on abstract grounds and because she regarded Jane with a savage hatred -- a hatred which had its roots in the time of Jane's childhood, and which had grown in proportion as the girl reaped happiness from life. The necessity of cloaking this sentiment had not, you may be sure, tended to mitigate it. Joseph said that there was no longer any fear of a speedy marriage between Jane and Kirkwood, but that such a marriage would come off some day, -- if not prevented -- Clem held to be a matter of certainty. Sidney Kirkwood was a wide-awake young man; of course he had his satisfactory reasons for delay. Now Clem's hatred of Sidney was, from of old, only less than that wherewith she regarded Jane. To frustrate the hopes of that couple would be a gratification worth a good deal of risk.
She heard nothing of what had befallen Clara Hewett until the latter's return home, and then not from her husband. Joseph and Scawthorne, foiled by that event in an ingenious scheme which you have doubtless understood (they little knowing how easily the severance between Jane and Kirkwood might be effected), agreed that it was well to get Clara restored to her father's household -- for, though it seemed unlikely, it was not impossible that she might in one way or another aid their schemes -- and on that account the anonymous letter was despatched which informed John Hewett of his daughter's position. Between John and Snowdon, now that they stood in the relations of master and servant, there was naturally no longer familiar intercourse, and, in begging leave of absence for his journey northwards, Hewett only said that a near relative had met with a bad accident. But it would be easy, Joseph decided, to win the man's confidence again, and thus be apprised of all that went on. With Clem he kept silence on the subject; not improbably she would learn sooner or later what had happened, and indeed, as things now stood, it did not matter much; but on principle he excluded her as much as possible from his confidence. He knew she hated him, and he was not backward in returning the sentiment, though constantly affecting a cheerful friendliness in his manner to her; after all, their union was but temporary. In Hanover Street he was also silent regarding the Hewetts, for there his rôle was that of a good, simple-minded fellow, incapable of intrigue, living for the domestic affections. If Kirkwood chose to speak to Michael or Jane of the matter, well, one way or another, that would advance things a stage, and there was nothing for it but to watch the progress.
Alone all through the day, and very often in the evening Clem was not at all disposed to occupy herself in domestic activity. The lodgings were taken furnished, and a bondmaid of the house did such work as was indispensable. Dirt and disorder were matters of indifference to the pair, who represented therein the large class occupying cheap London lodgings; an impure atmosphere, surroundings more or less squalid, constant bickering with the landlady, coarse usage of the servant -- these things Clem understood as necessaries of independent life, and it would have cost her much discomfort had she been required to live in a more civilised manner. Her ambitions were essentially gross. In the way of social advancement she appreciated nothing but an increased power of spending money, and consequently of asserting herself over others. She had no desire whatever to enter a higher class than that in which she was born; to be of importance in her familiar circle was the most she aimed at. In visiting the theatre, she did not so much care to occupy a superior place -- indeed, such a position made her ill at ease -- as to astonish her neighbours in the pit by a lavish style of costume, by loud remarks implying a free command of cash, by purchase between the acts of something expensive to eat or drink. Needless to say that she never read anything but police news; in the fiction of her world she found no charm, so sluggishly unimaginative was her nature. Till of late she had either abandoned herself all day long to a brutal indolence, eating rather too much, and finding quite sufficient occupation for her slow brain in the thought of how pleasant it was not to be obliged to work, and occasionally in reviewing the chances that she might eventually have plenty of money and no Joseph Snowdon as a restraint upon her; or else, her physical robustness demanding exercise, she walked considerable distances about the localities she knew, calling now and then upon an acquaintance.
Till of late; but a change had come upon her life. It was now seldom that she kept the house all day;when within. doors she was restless, quarrelsome. Joseph became aware with surprise that she no longer tried to conceal her enmity against him; on a slight provocation she broke into a fierceness which reminded him of the day when he undeceived her as to his position, and her look at such times was murderous. It might come, he imagined, of her being released from the prudent control of her mother. However, again a few weeks and things were somewhat improved; she eyed him like a wild beast, but was less frequent in her outbreaks. Here, too, it might be that Mrs. Peckover's influence was at work, for Clara spent at least four evenings of the seven away from home, and always said she had been at the Close. As indifferent as it was possible to be, Joseph made no attempt to restrain her independence; indeed he was glad to have her out of his way.
We must follow her on one of these evenings ostensibly passed at Mrs. Peckover's -- no, not follow, but discover her at nine o'clock.
In Old Street, not far from Shoreditch Station, was a shabby little place of refreshment, kept by an Italian; pastry and sweet-stuff filled the window; at the back of the shop, through a doorway on each side of which was looped a pink curtain, a room, furnished with three marble-topped tables, invited those who wished to eat and drink more at ease than was possible before the counter. Except on Sunday evening this room was very little used, and there, on the occasion of which I speak, Clem was sitting with Bob Hewett. They had been having supper together -- French pastry and a cup of cocoa.
She leaned forward on her elbows, and said imperatively, 'Tell Pennyloaf to make it up with her again.'
'Because I want to know what goes on in Hanover Street. You was a fool to send her away, and you'd ought to have told me about it before now. If they was such friends, I suppose the girl told her lots o' things. But I expect they see each other just the same. You don't suppose she does all you tell her?'
'I'll bet you what you like she does!' cried Bob.
Clem glared at him.
'Oh, you an' your Pennyloaf! Likely she tells you the truth. You're so fond of each other, ain't you! Tells you everything, does she ? -- and the way you treat her!'
'Who's always at me to make me treat her worse still?' Bob retorted half angrily, half in expostulation.
'Well, and so I am, 'cause I hate the name of her! I'd like to hear as you starve her and her brats half to death. How much money did you give her last week? Now you just tell me the truth. How much was it?'
'How can I remember? Three or four bob, I s'pose.'
'Three or four bob!' she repeated, snarling. 'Give her one, and make her live all the week on it. Wear her down! Make her pawn all she has, and go cold!'
Her cheeks were on fire; her eyes started in the fury of jealousy; she set her teeth together.
'I'd better do for her altogether,' said Bob, with an evil grin.
Clam looked at him, without speaking; kept her gaze on him; then she said in a thick voice:
'There's many a true word said in joke.'
Bob moved uncomfortably. There was a brief silence, then the other, putting her face nearer his:
'Not just yet. I want to use her to get all I can about that girl and her old beast of a grandfather. Mind you do as I tell you. Pennyloaf's to have her back again, and she's to make her talk, and you're to get all you can from Pennyloaf -- understand?'
There came noises from the shop. Three work-girls had just entered and were buying cakes, which they began to eat at the counter. They were loud in gossip and laughter, and their voices rang like brass against brass. Clem amused herself in listening to them for a few minutes; then she became absent, moving a finger round and round on her plate. A disagreeable flush still lingered under her eyes.
'Have you told her about Clara?'
'Who? Pennyloaf, of course.'
'No, I haven't. Why should I?'
'Oh, you're such a affectionate couple! See, you're only to give her two shillin's next week. Let her go hungry this nice weather.'
'She won't do that if Jane Snowdon comes back, so there you're out of it!'
Clem bit her lip.
'What's the odds? Make it up with a hit in the mouth now and then.'
'What do you expect to know from that girl?' inquired Bob.
'Lots o' things. I want to know what the old bloke's goin' to do with his money, don't I? And I want to know what my beast of a 'usband's got out of him. And I want to know what that feller Kirkwood's goin' to do. He'd ought to marry your sister by rights.'
'Not much fear of that now.'
'Trust him! He'll stick where there's money. See, Bob; if that Jane was to kick the bucket, do you think the old bloke 'ud leave it all to Jo?'
'How can I tell?'
'Well, look here. Supposin' he died an' left most to her; an' then supposin' she was to go off; would Jo have all her tin ?'
'Course he would.'
Clem mused, eating her lower lip.
'But supposin' Jo was to go off first, after the old bloke? Should I have all he left?'
'I think so, but I'm not sure.'
'You think so? And then should I have all hers? If she had a accident, you know.'
'I suppose you would. But then that's only if they didn't make wills, and leave it away from you.'
Clem started. Intent as she had been for a long time on the possibilities hinted at, the thought of unfavourable disposition by will had never occurred to her. She shook it away.
'Why should they make wills? They ain't old enough for that, neither of them.'
'And you might as well say they ain't old enough to be likely to take their hook, either,' suggested Bob, with a certain uneasiness in his tone.
Clem looked about her, as if her fierce eyes sought something. Her brows twitched a little. She glanced at Bob, but he did not meet her look. 'I don't care so much about the money,' she said, in a lower and altered voice. 'I'd be content with a bit of it, if only I could get rid of him at the same time.'
Bob looked gloomy.
'Well, it's no use talking,' he muttered.
'It's all your fault.'
'How do you make that out? It was you quarrelled first.'
'You're a liar!'
'Oh, there's no talking to you!'
He shuffled with his feet, then rose.
'Where can I see you on Wednesday morning?' asked Clem. 'I want to hear about that girl.'
'It can't be Wednesday morning. I tell you I shall be getting the sack next thing; they've promised it. Two days last week I wasn't at the shop, and one day this. It can't go on.'
His companion retorted angrily, and for five minutes they stood in embittered colloquy. It ended in Bob's turning away and going out into the street. Clem followed, and they walked westwards in silence. Beaching City Road, and crossing to the corner where lowers St. Luke's Hospital -- grim abode of the insane, here in the midst of London's squalor and uproar -- they halted to take leave. The last words they exchanged, after making an appointment, were of brutal violence.
This was two days after Clara Hewett's arrival in London, and the same fog still hung about the streets, allowing little to be seen save the blurred glimmer of gas. Bob sauntered through it, his hands in his pockets, observant of nothing; now and then a word escaped his lips, generally an oath. Out of Old Street he turned into Whitecross Street, whence by black and all but deserted ways -- Barbican and Long Lane -- he emerged into West Smithfield. An alley in the shadow of Bartholomew's Hospital brought him to a certain house: just as he was about to knock at the door it opened, and Jack Bartley appeared on the threshold. They exchanged a 'Hello!' of surprise, and after a whispered word or two en the pavement, went in. They mounted the stairs to a bedroom which Jack occupied. When the door was closed:
'Bill's got copped! 'whispered Bartley.
'Copped? Any of it on him?'
'Only the half-crown as he was pitchin', thank God! They let him go again after he'd been to the station. It was a conductor, I'd never try them blokes myself; they're too downy.'
'Let's have a look at 'em,' said Bob, after musing. 'I thought myself as they wasn't quite the reg'lar.'
As he spoke he softly turned the key in the door. Jack then put his arm up the chimney and brought down a small tin box, soot-blackened; he opened it, and showed about a dozen pieces of money -- in appearance half-crowns and florins. One of the commonest of offences against the law in London, this to which our young friends were not unsuccessfully directing their attention; one of the easiest to commit, moreover, for a man with Bob's craft at his finger-ends. A mere question of a mould and a pewter-pot, if one be content with the simpler branches of the industry. 'The snyde' or 'the queer' is the technical name by which such products are known. Distribution is, of course, the main difficulty; it necessitates mutual trust between various confederates. Bob Hewett still kept to his daily work, but gradually he was being drawn into alliance with an increasing number of men who scorned the yoke of a recognised occupation. His face, his clothing, his speech, all told whither he was tending, had one but the experience necessary for the noting of such points. Bob did not find his life particularly pleasant; he was in perpetual fear; many a time he said to himself that he would turn back. Impossible to do so; for a thousand reasons impossible; yet he still believed that the choice lay with him.
His colloquy with Jack only lasted a few minutes, then he walked homewards, crossing the Metropolitan Meat-market, going up St. John's Lane, beneath St. John's Arch, thence to Rosoman Street and Merlin Place, where at present he lived. All the way he pondered Clem's words. Already their import had become familiar enough to lose that first terribleness. Of course he should never take up the proposal seriously; no, no, that was going a bit too far; but suppose Clem's husband were really contriving this plot on his own account? Likely, very likely; but he'd be a clever fellow if he managed such a thing in a way that did not immediately subject him to suspicion. How could it be done? No harm in thinking over an affair of that kind when you have no intention of being drawn into it yourself. There was that man at Peckham who poisoned his sister not long ago; he was a fool to get found out in the way he did; he might have ----
The room in which he found Pennyloaf sitting was so full of fog that the lamp seemed very dim; the fire had all but died out. One of the children lay asleep; the other Pennyloaf was nursing, for it had a bad cough and looked much like a wax doll that has gone through a great deal of ill-usage. A few more weeks and Pennyloaf would be again a mother; she felt very miserable as often as she thought of it, and Bob had several times spoken with harsh impatience on the subject.
At present he was in no mood for conversation; to Pennyloaf's remarks and questions he gave not the slightest heed, but in a few minutes tumbled himself into bed.
'Get that light put out,' he exclaimed, after lying still for a while.
Pennyloaf said she was uneasy about the child; its cough seemed to be better, but it moved about restlessly and showed no sign of getting to sleep.
'Give it some of the mixture, then. Be sharp and put the light out.'
Pennyloaf obeyed the second injunction, and she too lay down, keeping the child in her arms; of the 'mixture' she was afraid, for a few days since the child of a neighbour had died in consequence of an overdose of this same anodyne. For a long time there was silence in the room. Outside, voices kept sounding with that peculiar muffled distinctness which they have on a night of dense fog, when there is little or no wheel-traffic to make the wonted rumbling.
'Are y'asleep?' Bob asked suddenly.
'There's something I wanted to tell you. You can have Jane Snowdon here again, if you like.'
'I can? Really?'
'You may as well make use of her. That'll do; shut up and go to sleep.'
In the morning Pennyloaf was obliged to ask for money; she wished to take the child to the hospital again, and as the weather was very bad she would have to pay an omnibus fare. Bob growled at the demand, as was nowadays his custom. Since he had found a way of keeping his own pocket tolerably well supplied from time to time, he was becoming so penurious at home that Pennyloaf had to beg for what she needed copper by copper. Excepting breakfast, he seldom took a meal with her. The easy good-nature which in the beginning made him an indulgent husband had turned in other directions since his marriage was grown a weariness to him. He did not, in truth, spend much upon himself, but in his leisure time was always surrounded by companions whom he had a pleasure in treating with the generosity of the public-house. A word of flattery was always sure of payment if Bob had a coin in his pocket. Ever hungry for admiration, for prominence, he found new opportunities of gratifying his taste now that he had a resource when his wages ran out. So far from becoming freer-handed again with his wife and children, he grudged every coin that he was obliged to expend on them. Pennyloaf's submissiveness encouraged him in this habit; where other wives would have 'made a row,' she yielded at once to his grumbling and made shift with the paltriest allowance. You should have seen the kind of diet on which she habitually lived. Like all the women of her class, utterly ignorant and helpless in the matter of preparing food, she abandoned the attempt to cook anything, and expended her few pence daily on whatever happened to tempt her in a shop, when meal-time came round. In the present state of her health she often suffered from a morbid appetite and fed on things of incredible unwholesomeness. Thus, there was a kind of cake exposed in a window in Rosoman Street, two layers of pastry with half an inch of something like very coarse mincemeat between; it cost a halfpenny a square, and not seldom she ate four, or even six, of these squares, as heavy as lead, making this her dinner. A cookshop within her range exhibited at midday great dough-puddings, kept hot by jets of steam that came up through the zinc on which they lay; this food was cheap and satisfying, and Pennyloaf often regaled both herself and the children on thick slabs of it. Pease-pudding also attracted her; she fetched it from the pork-butcher's in a little basin, which enabled her to bring away at the same time a spoonful or two of gravy from the joints of which she was not rich enough to purchase a cut. Her drink was tea; she had the pot on the table all day, and kept adding hot water. Treacle she purchased now and then, but only as a treat when her dinner had cost even less than usual; she did not venture to buy more than a couple of ounces at a time, knowing by experience that she could not resist this form of temptation, and must eat and eat till all was finished.
Bob flung sixpence on the table. He was ashamed of himself -- you will not understand him if you fail to recognise that -- but the shame only served to make him fret under his bondage. Was he going to be tied to Pennyloaf all his life, with a family constantly increasing? Practically he had already made a resolve to be free before very long; the way was not quite clear to him as yet. But he went to work still brooding over Clem's words of the night before.
Pennyloaf let the fire go out, locked the elder child into the room for safety against accidents, and set forth for the hospital. It rained heavily, and the wind rendered her umbrella useless. She had to stand for a long time at a street-corner before the omnibus came; the water soaked into her leaky shoes, but that didn't matter; it was the child on whose account she was anxious. Having reached her destination, she sat for a long time waiting her turn among the numerous out-patients. Just as the opportunity for passing into the doctor's room arrived, a movement in the bundle she held made her look closely at the child's face; at that instant it had ceased to live.
The medical man behaved kindly to her, but she gave way to no outburst of grief; with tearless eyes she stared at the unmoving body in a sort of astonishment. The questions addressed to her she could not answer with any intelligence; several times she asked stupidly, 'Is she really dead?' There was nothing to wonder at, however; the doctor glanced at the paper on which he had written prescriptions twice or thrice during the past few weeks, and found the event natural enough. . . .
Towards the close of the afternoon Pennyloaf was in Hanover Street. She wished to see Jane Snowdon, but had a fear of going up to the door and knocking. Jane might not be at home, and, if she were, Pennyloaf did not know in what words to explain her coming and say what had happened. She was in a dazed, heavy, tongue-tied state; indeed she did not clearly remember how she had come thus far, or what she had done since leaving the hospital at midday. However, her steps drew nearer to the house, and at last she had raised the knocker -- just raised it and let it fall.
Mrs. Byass opened; she did not know Pennyloaf by sight. The latter tried to say something, but only stammered a meaningless sound; thereupon Bessie concluded she was a beggar, and with a shake of the head shut the door upon her.
Pennylcaf turned away in confusion and dull misery. She walked to the end of the street and stood there. On leaving home she had forgotten her umbrella, and now it was raining heavily again. Of a sudden her need became powerful enough to overcome all obstacles; she knew that she must see Jane Snowdon, that she could not go home till she had done so. Jane was the only friend she had; the only creature who would speak the kind of words to her for which she longed.
Again the knocker fell, and again Mrs. Byass appeared.
'What do you want? I've got nothing for you,' she cried impatiently.
'I want to see Miss Snowdon, please, mum -- Miss Snowdon, please ----'
'Miss Snowdon? Then why didn't you say so? Step inside.'
A few moments and Jane came running downstairs.
Ah! that was the voice that did good. How it comforted and blessed, after the hospital, and the miserable room in which the dead child was left lying, and the rainy street!
About this time Mr. Scawthorne received one morning a letter which, though not unexpected, caused him some annoyance, and even anxiety. It was signed 'C. V.,' and made brief request for an interview on the evening of the next day at Waterloo Station.
The room in which our friend sat at breakfast was of such very modest appearance that it seemed to argue but poor remuneration for the services rendered by him in the office of Messrs. Percival & Peel. It was a parlour on the second floor of a lodging-house in Chelsea; Scawthorne's graceful person and professional bearing were out of place amid the trivial appointments. He lived here for the simple reason that in order to enjoy a few of the luxuries of civilisation he had to spend as little as possible on bare necessaries. His habits away from home were those of a man to whom a few pounds are no serious consideration; his pleasant dinner at the restaurant, his occasional stall at a theatre, his easy acquaintance with easy livers of various kinds, had become indispensable to him, and as a matter of course his expenditure increased although his income kept at the same figure. That figure was not contemptible, regard had to the path by which he had come thus far; Mr. Percival esteemed his abilities highly, and behaved to him with generosity. Ten years ago Scawthorne would have lost his senses with joy at the prospect of such a salary; to-day he found it miserably insufficient to the demands he made upon life. Paltry debts harassed him; inabilities fretted his temperament and his pride; it irked him to have no better abode than this musty corner to which he could never invite an acquaintance. And then, notwithstanding his mental endowments, his keen social sense, his native tact, in all London not one refined home was open to him, not one domestic circle of educated people could he approach and find a welcome.
Scawthorne was passing out of the stage when a man seeks only the gratification of his propensities; he began to focus his outlook upon the world, and to feel the significance of maturity. The double existence he was compelled to lead -- that of a laborious and clear-brained man of business in office hours, that of a hungry rascal in the time which was his own -- not only impressed him with a sense of danger, but made him profoundly dissatisfied with the unreality of what he called his enjoyments. What, he asked himself, had condemned him to this kind of career? Simply the weight under which he started, his poor origin, his miserable youth. However carefully regulated his private life had been, his position to-day could not have been other than it was; no degree of purity would have opened to him the door of a civilised house. Suppose he had wished to marry; where, pray, was he to find his wife? A barmaid? Why, yes, other men of his standing wedded barmaids and girls from the houses of business, and so on; but they had neither his tastes nor his brains. Never had it been his lot to exchange a word with an educated woman -- save in the office on rare occasions. There is such a thing as self-martyrdom in the cause of personal integrity; another man might have said to himself, 'Providence forbids me the gratification of my higher instincts, and I must be content to live a life of barrenness, that I may at least be above reproach.' True, but Scawthorne happened not to be so made. He was of the rebels of the earth. Formerly he revolted because he could not indulge his senses to their full; at present his ideal was changed, and the past burdened him.
Yesterday he had had an interview with old Mr. Percival which, for the first time in his life, opened to him a prospect of the only kind of advancement conformable with his higher needs. The firm of Percival & Peel was, in truth, Percival & Son, Mr. Peel having been dead for many years; and the son in question lacked a good deal of being the capable lawyer whose exertions could supplement the failing energy of the senior partner. Mr. Percival having pondered the matter for some time, now proposed that Scawthorne should qualify himself for admission as a solicitor (the circumstances required his being under articles for three years only), and then, if everything were still favourable, accept a junior partnership in the firm. Such an offer was a testimony of the high regard in which Scawthorne was held by his employer; it stirred him with hope he had never dared to entertain since his eyes were opened to the realities of the world, and in a single day did more for the ripening of his prudence than years would have effected had his position remained unaltered. Scawthorne realised more distinctly what a hazardous game he had been playing.
And here was this brief note, signed 'C. V.' An ugly affair to look back upon, all that connected itself with those initials. The worst of it was, that it could not be regarded as done with. Had he anything to fear from 'C. V.' directly? The meeting must decide that. He felt now what a fortunate thing it was that his elaborate plot to put an end to the engagement between Kirkwood and Jane Snowdon had been accidentally frustrated -- a plot which might have availed himself nothing, even had it succeeded. But was he, in his abandonment of rascality in general, to think no more of the fortune which had so long kept his imagination uneasy? Had he not, rather, a vastly better chance of getting some of that money into his own pocket? It really seemed as if Kirkwood -- though he might be only artful -- had relinquished his claim on the girl, at all events for the present; possibly he was an honest man, which would explain his behaviour. Michael Snowdon could not live much longer; Jane would be the ward of the Percivals, and certainly would be aided to a position more correspondent with her wealth. Why should it then be impossible for him to become Jane's husband? Joseph, beyond a doubt, could be brought to favour that arrangement, by means of a private understanding more advantageous to him than anything he could reasonably hope from the girl's merely remaining unmarried. This change in his relations to the Percivals would so far improve his social claims that many of the difficulties hitherto besieging such a scheme as this might easily be set aside. Come, come; the atmosphere was clearing. Joseph himself, now established in a decent business, would become less a fellow-intriguer than an ordinary friend bound to him, in the way of the world, by mutual interests. Things must be put in order; by some device the need of secrecy in his intercourse with Joseph must come to an end. In fact, there remained but two hazardous points. Could the connection between Jane and Kirkwood be brought definitely to an end. And was anything to be feared from poor 'C. V.'?
Waterloo Station is a convenient rendezvous; its irregular form provides many corners of retirement, out-of-the-way recesses where talk can be carried on in something like privacy. To one of these secluded spots Scawthorne drew aside with the veiled woman who met him at the entrance from Waterloo Road. So closely was her face shrouded, that he had at first a difficulty in catching the words she addressed to him. The noise of an engine getting up steam, the rattle of cabs and porters' barrows, the tread and voices of a multitude of people made fitting accompaniment to a dialogue which in every word presupposed the corruptions and miseries of a centre of modern life.
'Why did you send that letter to my father?' was Clara's first question.
'Letter? What letter?'
'Wasn't it you who let him know about me?'
'Certainly not, How should I have known his address? When I saw the newspapers, I went down to Bolton and made inquiries. When I heard your father had been, I concluded you had yourself sent for him. Otherwise, I should, of course, have tried to be useful to you in some way. As it was, I supposed you would scarcely thank me for coming forward.'
It might or might not be the truth, as far as Clara was able to decide. Possibly the information had come from some one else. She knew him well enough to be assured by his tone that nothing more could be elicited from him on that point.
'You are quite recovered, I hope?' Scawthorne added, surveying her as she stood in the obscurity. 'In your general health?'
He was courteous, somewhat distant.
'I suppose I'm as well as I shall ever be,' she answered coldly. 'I asked you to meet me because I wanted to know what it was you spoke of in your last letters. You got my answer, I suppose.'
'Yes, I received your answer. But -- in fact, it's too late. The time has gone by; and perhaps I was a little hasty in the hopes I held out. I had partly deceived myself.'
'Never mind. I wish to know what it was,' she said im-patiently.
'It can't matter now. Well, there's no harm in mentioning it. Naturally you went out of your way to suppose it was something dishonourable. Nothing of the kind; I had an idea that you might come to terms with an Australian who was looking out for actresses for a theatre in Melbourne -- that was all. But he wasn't quite the man I took him for. I doubt whether it could have been made as profitable as I thought at first.'
'You expect me to believe that story?'
'Not unless you like. It's some time since you put any faith in my goodwill. The only reason I didn't speak plainly was because I felt sure that the mention of a foreign country would excite your suspicions. You have always attributed evil motives to me rather than good. However, this is not the time to speak of such things. I sympathise with you -- deeply. Will you tell me if I can -- can help you at all?'
'No, you can't. I wanted to make quite sure that you were what I thought you, that's all.'
'I don't think, on the whole, you have any reason to complain of ill-faith on my part. I secured you the opportunities that are so hard to find.'
'Yes, you did. We don't owe each other anything -- that's one comfort. I'll just say that you needn't have any fear I shall trouble you in future; I know that's what you're chiefly thinking about.'
'You misjudge me; but that can't be helped. I wish very much it were in my power to be of use to you.'
On that last note of irony they parted. True enough, in one sense, that there remained debt on neither side. But Clara, for all the fierce ambition which had brought her life to this point, could not divest herself of a woman's instincts. That simple fact explained various inconsistencies in her behaviour to Scawthorne since she had made herself independent of him; it explained also why this final interview became the bitterest charge her memory preserved against him.
Her existence for some three weeks kept so gloomy a monotony that it was impossible she should endure it much longer. The little room which she shared at night with Annie and Amy was her cell throughout the day. Of necessity she had made the acquaintance of Mrs. Eagles, but they scarcely saw more of each other than if they had lived in different tenements on the same staircase; she had offered to undertake a share of the housework, but her father knew that everything of the kind was distasteful to her, and Mrs. Eagles continued to assist Amy as hitherto. To save trouble, she came into the middle room for her meals, at these times always keeping as much of her face as possible hidden. The children could not overcome a repulsion, a fear, excited by her veil and the muteness she preserved in their presence; several nights passed before little Annie got to sleep with any comfort. Only with her father did Clara hold converse; in the evening he always sat alone with her for an hour. She went out perhaps every third day, after dark, stealing silently down the long staircase, and walking rapidly until she had escaped the neighbourhood -- like John Hewett when formerly he wandered forth in search of her. Her strength was slight; after half-an-hour's absence she came back so wearied that the ascent of stairs cost her much suffering.
The economy prevailing in to-day's architecture takes good care that no depressing circumstance shall be absent from the dwellings in which the poor find shelter. What terrible barracks, those Farringdon Road Buildings! Vast, sheer walls, unbroken by even an attempt at ornament; row above row of windows in the mud-coloured surface, upwards, upwards, lifeless eyes, murky openings that tell of bareness, disorder, comfortlessness within. One is tempted to say that Shooter's Gardens are a preferable abode. An inner courtyard, asphalted, swept clean -- looking up to the sky as from a prison. Acres of these edifices, the tinge of grime declaring the relative dates of their erection; millions of tons of brute brick and mortar, crushing the spirit as you gaze. Barracks, in truth; housing for the army of industrialism, an army fighting with itself, rank against rank, man against man, that the survivors may have whereon to feed. Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.
Clara hated the place from her first hour in it. It seemed to her that the air was poisoned with the odour of an unclean crowd. The yells of children at play in the courtyard tortured her nerves; the regular sounds on the staircase, day after day repeated at the same hours, incidents of the life of poverty, irritated her sick brain and filled her with despair to think that as long as she lived she could never hope to rise again above this world to which she was born. Gone for ever, for ever, the promise that always gleamed before her whilst she had youth and beauty and talent. With the one, she felt as though she had been robbed of all three blessings; her twenty years were now a meaningless figure; the energies of her mind could avail no more than an idiot's mummery. For the author of her calamity she nourished no memory of hatred: her resentment was against the fate which had cursed her existence from its beginning.
For this she had dared everything, had made the supreme sacrifice. Conscience had nothing to say to her, but she felt herself an outcast even among these wretched toilers whose swarming aroused her disgust. Given the success which had been all but in her grasp, and triumphant pride would have scored out every misgiving as to the cost at which the victory had been won. Her pride was unbroken; under the stress of anguish it became a scorn for goodness and humility; but in the desolation of her future she read a punishment equal to the daring wherewith she had aspired. Excepting her poor old father, not a living soul that held account of her. She might live for years and years. Her father would die, and then no smallest tribute of love or admiration would be hers for ever. More than that; perforce she must gain her own living, and in doing so she must expose herself to all manner of insulting wonder and pity. Was it a life that could be lived?
Hour after hour she sat with her face buried in her hands. She did not weep; tears were trivial before a destiny such as this. But groans and smothered cries often broke the silence of her solitude -- cries of frenzied revolt, wordless curses. Once she rose up suddenly, passed through the middle room, and out on to the staircase; there a gap in the wall, guarded by iron railings breast-high, looked down upon the courtyard. She leaned forward over the bar and measured the distance that separated her from the ground; a ghastly height! Surely one would not feel much after such a fall? In any case, the crashing agony of but an instant. Had not this place tempted other people before now?
Some one coming upstairs made her shrink back into her room, She had felt the horrible fascination of that sheer depth, and thought of it for days, thought of it until she dreaded to quit the tenement, lest a power distinct from will should seize and hurl her to destruction. She knew that that must not happen here; for all her self-absorption, she could not visit with such cruelty the one heart that loved her. And thinking of him, she understood that her father's tenderness was not wholly the idle thing that it had been to her at first; her love could never equal his, had never done so in her childhood, but she grew conscious of a soothing power in the gentle and timid devotion with which he tended her. His appearance of an evening was something more than a relief after the waste of hours which made her day. The rough, passionate man made himself as quiet and sympathetic as a girl when he took his place by her. Compared with her, his other children were as nothing to him. Impossible that Clara should not be touched by the sense that he who had everything to forgive, whom she had despised and abandoned, behaved now as one whose part it is to beseech forgiveness. She became less impatient when he tried to draw her into conversation; when he hold her thin soft hand in those rude ones of his, she knew a solace in which there was something of gratitude.
Yet it was John who revived her misery in its worst form. Pitying her unoccupied loneliness, he brought home one day a book that he had purchased from a stall in Farringdon Street; it was a novel (with a picture on the cover which seemed designed to repel any person not wholly without taste), and might perhaps serve the end of averting her thoughts from their one subject. Clara viewed it contemptuously, but made a show of being thankful, and on the next day she did glance at its pages. The story was better than its illustration; it took a hold upon her; she read all day long. But when she returned to herself, it was to find that she had been exasperating her heart's malady. The book dealt with people of wealth and refinement, with the world to which she had all her life been aspiring, and to which she might have attained. The meanness of her surroundings became in comparison more mean, the bitterness of her fate more bitter. You must not lose sight of the fact that since abandoning her work-girl existence Clara had been constantly educating herself, not only by direct study of books, but through her association with people, her growth in experience. Where in the old days of rebellion she had only an instinct, a divination to guide her, there was now just enough of knowledge to give occupation to her developed intellect and taste. Far keener was her sense of the loss she had suffered than her former longing for what she knew only in dream. The activity of her mind received a new impulse when she broke free from Scawthorne and began her upward struggle in independence. Whatever books were obtainable she read greedily; she purchased numbers of plays in the acting-editions, and studied with the utmost earnestness such parts as she knew by repute; no actress entertained a more superb ambition, none was more vividly conscious of power. But it was not only at stage-triumph that Clara aimed; glorious in itself, this was also to serve her as a means of becoming nationalised among that race of beings whom birth and breeding exalt above the multitude. A notable illusion; pathetic to dwell upon. As a work-girl, she nourished envious hatred of those the world taught her to call superiors; they were then as remote and unknown to her as gods on Olympus. From her place behind the footlights she surveyed the occupants of boxes and stalls in a changed spirit; the distance was no longer insuperable; she heard of fortunate players who mingled on equal terms with men and women of refinement. There, she imagined, was her ultimate goal. 'It is to them that I belong! Be my origin what it may, I have the intelligence and the desires of one born to freedom, Nothing in me, nothing, is akin to that gross world from which I have escaped!' So she thought -- with every drop of her heart's blood crying its source from that red fountain of revolt whereon never yet did the upper daylight gleam! Brain and pulses such as hers belong not to the mild breed of mortals fostered in sunshine. But for the stroke of fate, she might have won that reception which was in her dream, and with what self-mockery when experience had matured itself! Never yet did true rebel, who has burst the barriers of social limitation, find aught but ennui in the trim gardens beyond.
When John asked if the book had given her amusement, she said that reading made her eyes ache. He noticed that her hand felt feverish, and that the dark mood had fallen upon her as badly as ever to-night.
'It's just what I said,' she exclaimed with abruptness, after long refusal to speak. 'I knew your friend would never come as long as I was here.'
John regarded her anxiously. The phrase 'your friend' had a peculiar sound that disturbed him. It made him aware that she had been thinking often of Sidney Kirkwood since his name had been dismissed from their conversation. He, too, had often turned his mind uneasily in the same direction, wondering whether he ought to have spoken of Sidney so freely. At the time it seemed best, indeed almost inevitable; but habit and the force of affection were changing his view of Clara in several respects. He recognised the impossibility of her continuing to live as now, yet it was as difficult as ever to conceive a means of aiding her. Unavoidably he kept glancing towards Kirkwood. He knew that Sidney was no longer a free man; he knew that, even had it been otherwise, Clara could be nothing to him. In spite of facts, the father kept brooding on what might have been. His own love was perdurable; how could it other than intensify when its object was so unhappy? His hot, illogical mood all but brought about a revival of the old resentment against Sidney.
'I haven't seen him for a week or two,' he replied, in an embarrassed way.
'Did he tell you be shouldn't come?'
'No. After we'd talked about it, you know -- when you told me you didn't mind -- I just said a word or two; and he nodded, that was all.'
She became silent. John. racked by doubts as to whether he should say more of Sidney or still hold his peace, sat rubbing the back of one hand with the other and looking about the room.
'Father,' Clara resumed presently, 'what became of that child at Mrs. Peckover's, that her grandfather came and took away? Snowdon; yes, that was her name; Jane Snowdon.'
'You remember they went to live with somebody you used to know,' John replied, with hesitation. 'They're still in the same house.'
'So she's grown up. Did you ever hear about that old man having a lot of money?'
'Why, my dear, I never heard nothing but what them Peckovers talked at the time. But there was a son of his turned up as seemed to have some money. He married Mrs. Peckover's daughter.'
Clara expressed surprise.
'A son of his? Not the girl's father?
'Yes; her father. I don't know nothing about his history. It's for him, or partly for him, as I'm workin' now, Clara. The firm's Lake, Snowdon & Go.'
'Why didn't you mention it before?'
'I don't hardly know, my dear.'
She looked at him, aware that something was being kept back.
'Tell me about the girl. What does she do?'
'She goes to work, I believe; but I haven't heard much about her since a good time. Sidney Kirkwood's a friend of her grandfather. He often goes there, I believe.'
'What is she like?' Clara asked, after a pause. 'She used to be such a weak, ailing thing, I never thought she'd grow up. What's she like to look at?'
'I can't tell you, my dear. I don't know as ever I see her since those times.'
Again a silence.
'Then it's Mr. Kirkwood that has told you what you know of her?'
'Why, no. It was chiefly Mrs. Peckover told me. She did say, Clara -- but then I can't tell whether it's true or not -- she did say something about Sidney and her.'
He spoke with difficulty, feeling constrained to make the disclosure, but anxious as to its result. Clara made no movement, seemed to have heard with indifference.
'It's maybe partly 'cause of that,' added John, in a low voice, 'that he doesn't like to come here.'
'Yes; I understand.'
They spoke no more on the subject.
In a tenement on the same staircase, two floors below, lived a family with whom John Hewett was on friendly terms. Necessity calling these people out of London for a few days, they had left with John the key of their front door; a letter of some moment might arrive in their absence, and John undertook to re-post it to them. The key was hung on a nail in Clara's room.
'I'll just go down and see if the postman's left anything at Holland's this morning,' said Amy Hewett, coming in between breakfast and the time of starting for school.
She reached up to the key, but Clara, who sat by the fire with a cup of tea on her lap, the only breakfast she ever took, surprised her by saying, 'You needn't trouble, Amy. I shall be going out soon, and I'll look in as I pass.'
The girl was disappointed, for she liked this private incursion into the abode of other people, but the expression of a purpose by her sister was so unusual that, after a moment's hesitating, she said, 'Very well,' and left the room again.
When silence informed Clara that the children were gone, Mrs. Eagles being the only person besides herself who remained in the tenement, she put on her hat, drew down the veil which was always attached to it, and with the key in her hand descended to the Hollands' rooms. Had a letter been delivered that morning, it would have been -- in default of box -- just inside the door; there was none, but Clara seemed to have another purpose in view. She closed the door and walked forward into the nearest room; the blind was down, but the dusk thus produced was familiar to her in consequence of her own habit, and, her veil thrown back, she examined the chamber thoughtfully. It was a sitting-room, ugly, orderly; the air felt damp, and even in semi-darkness she was conscious of the layers of London dust which had softly deposited themselves since the family went away forty-eight hours ago. A fire was laid ready for lighting, and the smell of moist soot spread from the grate. Having stood on one spot for nearly ten minutes, Clara made a quick movement and withdrew; she latched the front door with as little noise as possible, ran upstairs and shut herself again in her own room.
Presently she was standing at her window, the blind partly raised. On a clear day the view from this room was of wide extent, embracing a great part of the City; seen under a low, blurred, dripping sky, through the ragged patches of smoke from chimneys innumerable, it had a gloomy impressiveness well in keeping with the mind of her who brooded over it. Directly in front, rising mist-detached from the lower masses of building, stood in black majesty the dome of St. Paul's; its vastness suffered no diminution from this high outlook, rather was exaggerated by the flying scraps of mirky vapour which softened its outline and at times gave it the appearance of floating on a vague troubled sea. Somewhat nearer, amid many spires and steeples, lay the surly bulk of Newgate, the lines of its construction shown plan-wise; its little windows multiplied for points of torment to the vision. Nearer again, the markets of Smithfield, Bartholomew's Hospital, the tract of modern deformity, cleft by a gulf of railway, which spreads between Clerkenwell Road and Charterhouse Street. Down in Farringdon Street the carts, waggons, vans, cabs, omnibuses, crossed and intermingled in a steaming splash-bath of mud; human beings, reduced to their due paltriness, seemed to toil in exasperation along the strips of pavement, bound on errands, which were a mockery, driven automaton-like by forces they neither understood nor could resist.
'Can I go out into a world like that -- alone?' was the thought which made Clara's spirit fail as she stood gazing. 'Can I face life as it is for women who grow old in earning bare daily bread among those terrible streets? Year after year to go in and out from some wretched garret that I call home, with my face hidden, my heart stabbed with misery till it is cold and bloodless!
Then her eye fell upon the spire of St. James's Church, on Clerkenwell Green, whose bells used to be so familiar to her. The memory was only of discontent and futile aspiration, but -- Oh, if it were possible to be again as she was then, and yet keep the experience with which life had since endowed her! With no moral condemnation did she view the records of her rebellion; but how easy to see now that ignorance had been one of the worst obstacles in her path, and that, like all unadvised purchasers, she had paid a price that might well have been spared. A little more craft, a little more patience -- it is with these that the world is conquered. The world was her enemy, and had proved too strong; woman though she was -- only a girl striving to attain the place for which birth adapted her -- pursuing only her irrepressible instincts -- fate flung her to the ground pitilessly, and bade her live out the rest of her time in wretchedness.
No! There remained one more endeavour that was possible to her, one bare hope of saving herself from the extremity which only now she estimated at its full horror. If that failed, why, then, there was a way to cure all ills.
From her box, that in which were hidden away many heart-breaking mementoes of her life as an actress, she took out a sheet of notepaper and an envelope. Without much thought, she wrote nearly three pages, folded the letter, addressed it with a name only 'Mr. Kirkwood.' Sidney's address she did not know; her father had mentioned Red Lion Street, that was all. She did not even know whether he still worked at the old place, but in that way she must try to find him. She cloaked herself, took her umbrella, and went out.
At a corner of St. John's Square she soon found an urchin who would run an errand for her. He was to take this note to a house that she indicated, and to ask if Mr. Kirkwood was working there. She scarcely durst hope to see the messenger returning with empty hands, but he did so. A terrible throbbing at her heart, she went home again.
In the evening, when her father returned, she surprised him by saying that she expected a visitor.
'Do you want me to go out of the way?' he asked, eager to submit to her in everything.
'No. I've asked my friend to come to Mrs. Hollsnd's. I thought there would be no great harm. I shall go down just before nine o'clock.'
'Oh no, there's no harm,' conceded her father. 'It's only if the neighbours opposite got talkin' to them when they come back.'
'I can't help it. They won't mind. I can't help it.'
John noticed her agitated repetition, the impatience with which she flung aside difficulties.
'Clara -- it ain't anything about work, my dear?'
'No, father. I wouldn't do anything without telling you; I've promised.'
'Then I don't care; it's all right.'
She had begun to speak immediately on his entering the room, and so it happened that he had not kissed her as he always did at home-coming. When she had sat down, he came with awkwardness and timidity and bent his face to hers.
'What a hot cheek it is to-night, my little girl!' he murmured. 'I don't like it; you've got a bit of fever hangin' about you.'
She wished to be alone; the children must not come into the room until she had gone downstairs. When her father had left her, she seated herself before the looking-glass, abhorrent as it was to her to look thus in her own face, and began dressing her hair with quite unusual attention. This beauty at least remained to her; arranged as she had learned to do it for the stage, the dark abundance of her tresses crowned nobly the head which once held itself with such defiant grace. She did not change her dress, which, though it had suffered from wear, was well-fitting and of better material than Farringdon Road Buildings were wont to see; a sober draping which became her tall elegance as she moved. At a quarter to nine she arranged the veil upon her head so that she could throw her hat aside without disturbing it; then, taking the lamp in her hand, and the key of the Hollands' door, she went forth.
No one met her on the stairs. She was safe in the cold deserted parlour where she had stood this morning. Cold, doubtless, but she could not be conscious of it; in her veins there seemed rather to be fire than blood. Her brain was clear, but in an unnatural way; the throbbing at her temples ought to have been painful, but only excited her with a strange intensity of thought. And she felt, amid it all, a dread of what was before her; only the fever, to which she abandoned herself with a sort of reckless confidence, a faith that it would continue till this interview was over, overcame an impulse to rush back into her hiding-place, to bury herself in shame, or desperately whelm her wretchedness in the final oblivion. . . .
He was very punctual. The heavy bell of St. Paul's had not reached its ninth stroke when she heard his knock at the door.
He came in without speaking, and stood as if afraid to look at her. The lamp, placed on a side-table, barely disclosed all the objects within the four walls; it illumined Sidney's face, but Clara moved so that she was in shadow. She began to speak.
'You understood my note? The people who live here are away, and I have ventured to borrow their room. They are friends of my father's.'
At the first word, he was surprised by the change in her voice and accentuation. Her speech was that of an educated woman; the melody which always had such a charm for him had gained wonderfully in richness. Yet it was with difficulty that she commanded utterance, and her agitation touched him in a way quite other than he was prepared for. In truth, he knew not what experience he had anticipated, but the reality, now that it came, this unimaginable blending of memory with the unfamiliar, this refinement of something that he had loved, this note of pity struck within him by such subtle means, affected his inmost self. Immediately he laid stern control upon his feelings, but all the words which he had designed to speak were driven from memory. He could say nothing, could only glance at her veiled face and await what she had to ask of him.
'Will you sit down? I shall feel grateful if you can spare me a few minutes. I have asked you to see me because -- indeed, because I am sadly in want of the kind of help a friend might give me. I don't venture to call you that, but I thought of you; I hoped you wouldn't refuse to let me speak to you. I am in such difficulties -- such a hard position ----'
'You may be very sure I will do anything I can to be of use to you,' Sidney replied, his thick voice contrasting so strongly with that which had just failed into silence that he coughed and lowered his tone after the first few syllables. He meant to express himself without a hint of emotion, but it was beyond his power. The words in which she spoke of her calamity seemed so pathetically simple that they went to his heart. Clara had recovered all her faculties. The fever and the anguish and the dread were no whit diminished, but they helped instead of checking her. An actress improvising her part, she regulated every tone with perfect skill, with inspiration; the very attitude in which she seated herself was a triumph of the artist's felicity.
'I just said a word or two in my note,' she resumed, 'that you might have replied if you thought nothing could be gained by my speaking to you. I couldn't explain fully what I had in mind. I don't know that I've anything very clear to say even now, but -- you know what has happened to me; you know that I have nothing to look forward to, that I can only hope to keep from being & burden to my father. I am getting stronger; it's time I tried to find something to do. But I ----'
Her voice failed again. Sidney gazed at her, and saw the dull lamplight just glisten on her hair. She was bending forward a little, her hands joined and resting on her knee.
'Have you thought what kind of -- of work would be best for you?' Sidney asked. The 'work' stuck in his throat, and he seemed to himself brutal in his way of uttering it. But he was glad when he had put the question thus directly; one at least of his resolves was carried out.
'I know I've no right to choose, when there's necessity,' she answered, in a very low tone. 'Most women would naturally think of needlework; but I know so little of it; I scarcely ever did any. If I could -- I might perhaps do that at home, and I feel -- if I could only avoid -- if I could only be spared going among strangers ----'
Her faltering voice sank lower and lower; she seemed as if she would have hidden her face even under its veil.
'I feel sure you will have no difficulty,' Sidney hastened to reply, his own voice unsteady. 'Certainly you can get work at home. Why do you trouble yourself with the thought of going among strangers? There'll never be the least need for that; I'm sure there won't. Haven't you spoken about it to your father?'
'Yes. But he is so kind to me that he won't hear of work at all. It was partly on that account that I took the step of appealing to you. He doesn't know who I am meeting here to-night. Would you -- I don't know whether I ought to ask -- but perhaps if you spoke to him in a day or two, and made him understand how strong my wish is. He dreads lest we should be parted, but I hope I shall never have to leave him. And then, of course, father is not very well able to advise me -- about work, I mean. You have more experience. I am so helpless. Oh, if you knew how helpless I feel!'
'If you really wish it, I will talk with your father ----'
'Indeed, I do wish it. My coming to live here has made everything so uncomfortable for him and the children. Even his friends can't visit him as they would; I feel that, though he won't admit that it's made any difference.'
Sidney looked to the ground. He heard her voice falter as it continued.
'If I'm to live here still, it mustn't be at the cost of all his comfort. I keep almost always in the one room. I shouldn't be in the way if anyone came. I've been afraid, Mr. Kirkwood, that perhaps you feared to come lest, whilst I was not very well, it might have been an inconvenience to us. Please don't think that. I shall never -- see either friends or strangers unless it is absolutely needful.'
There was silence.
'You do feel much better, I hope?' fell from Sidney's lips.
'Much stronger. It's only my mind; everything is so dark to me. You know how little patience I always had. It was enough if any one said, 'You must do this,' or 'You must put up with that' -- at once I resisted. It was my nature; I couldn't bear the feeling of control. That's what I've had to struggle with since I recovered from my delirium at the hospital, and hadn't even the hope of dying. Can you put yourself in my place, and imagine what I have suffered?'
Sidney was silent. His own life had not been without its passionate miseries, but the modulations of this voice which had no light of countenance to aid it raised him above the plane of common experience and made actual to him the feelings he knew only in romantic story. He could not stir, lest the slightest sound should jar on her speaking. His breath rose visibly upon the chill air, but the discomfort of the room was as indifferent to him as to his companion. Clara rose, as it impelled by mental anguish; she stretched out her band to the mantel-piece, and so stood, between him and the light, her admirable figure designed on a glimmering background.
'I know why you say nothing,' she continued, abruptly but without resentment. 'You cannot use words of sympathy which would be anything but formal, and you prefer to let me understand that. It is like you. Oh, you mustn't think I mean the phrase as a reproach. Anything but that. I mean that you were always honest, and time hasn't changed you -- in that.' A slight, very slight, tremor on the close. 'I'd rather you behaved to me like your old self. A sham sympathy would drive me mad.'
'I said nothing,' he replied, 'only because words seemed meaningless.'
'Not only that. You feel for me, I know, because you are not heartless; but at the same time you obey your reason, which tells you that all I suffer comes of my own self-will.'
'I should like you to think better of me than that. I'm not one of those people, I hope, who use every accident to point a moral, and begin by inventing the moral to suit their own convictions. I know all the details of your misfortune.'
'Oh, wasn't it cruel that she should take such revenge upon me!' Her voice rose in unrestrained emotion. 'Just because she envied me that poor bit of advantage over her! How could I be expected to refuse the chance that was offered? It would have been no use; she couldn't have kept the part. And I was so near success. I had never had a chance of showing what I could do. It wasn't much of a part, really, but it was the lead, at all events, and it would have made people pay attention to me. You don't know how strongly I was always drawn to the stage; there I found the work for which I was meant. And I strove so hard to make my way. I had no friends, no money. I earned only just enough to supply my needs. I know what people think about actresses. Mr. Kirkwood, do you imagine I have been living at my ease, congratulating myself that I had escaped from all hardships?'
He could not raise his eyes. As she still awaited his answer, he said in rather a hard voice:
'As I have told you, I read all the details that were published.
'Then you know that I was working hard and honestly -- working far, far harder than when I lived in Clerkenwell Close. But I don't know why I am talking to you about it. It's all over. I went my own way, and I all but won what I fought for. You may very well say, what's the use of mourning over one's fate?'
Sidney had risen.
'You were strong in your resolve to succeed,' he said gravely, 'and you will find strength to meet even this trial.'
'A weaker woman would suffer far less. One with a little more strength of character would kill herself.'
'No. In that you mistake. You have not yourself only to think of. It would be an easy thing to put an end to your life. You have a duty to your father.'
She bent her head.
'I think of him. He is goodness itself to me. There are fathers who would have shut the door in my face. I know better now than I could when I was only a child how hard his life has been; he and I are like each other so many ways; he has always been fighting against cruel circumstances. It's right that you, who have been his true and helpful friend, should remind me of my duty to him.'
A pause; then Sidney asked:
'Do you wish me to speak to him very soon about your finding occupation?'
'If you will. If you could think of anything.'
He moved, but still delayed his offer to take leave.
'You said just now,' Clara continued, falteringly, 'that you did not try to express sympathy, because words seemed of no use. How am I to find words of thanks to you for coming here and listening to what I had to say?'
'But surely so simple an act of friendship ----'
'Have I so many friends? And what right have I to look to you for an act of kindness? Did I merit it by my words when I last ----'
There came a marvellous change -- a change such as it needed either exquisite feeling or the genius of simulation to express by means so simple. Unable to show him by a smile, by a light in her eyes, what mood had come upon her, what subtle shifting in the direction of her thought had checked her words -- by her mere movement as she stepped lightly towards him, by the carriage of her head, by her hands half held out and half drawn back again, she prepared him for what she was about to say. No piece of acting was ever more delicately finished. He knew that she smiled, though nothing of her face was visible; he knew that her look was one of diffident, half-blushing pleasure. And then came the sweetness of her accents, timorous, joyful, scarcely to be recognised as the voice which an instant ago had trembled sadly in self-reproach.
'But that seems to you so long ago, doesn't it? You can forgive me now. Father has told me what happiness you have found, and I -- I am so glad!'
Sidney drew back a step, involuntarily; the movement came of the shock with which he heard her make such confident reference to the supposed relations between himself and Jane Snowdon. He reddened -- stood mute. For a few seconds his mind was in the most painful whirl and conflict; a hundred impressions, arguments, apprehensions, crowded upon him, each with its puncturing torment. And Clara stood there waiting for his reply, in the attitude of consummate grace.
'Of course I know what you speak of,' he said at length, with the bluntness of confusion. 'But your father was mistaken. I don't know who can have led him to believe that ---- It's a mistake, altogether.'
Sidney would not have believed that anyone could so completely rob him of self-possession, least of all Clara Hewett. His face grew still more heated. He was angry with he knew not whom, he knew not why -- perhaps with himself in the first instance.
'A mistake?' Clara murmured, under her breath. 'Oh, you mean people have been too hasty in speaking about it. Do pardon me. I ought never to have taken such a liberty -- but I felt ----'
'It was no liberty at all. I dare say the mistake is natural enough to those who know nothing of Miss Snowdon's circumstances. I myself, however, have no right to talk about her. But what you have been told is absolute error.'
Clara walked a few paces aside.
'Again I ask you to forgive me.' Her tones had not the same clearness as hitherto. 'In any case, I had no right to approach such a subject in speaking with you.'
'Let us put it aside,' said Sidney, mastering himself. 'We were just agreeing that I should see your father, and make known your wish to him.'
'Thank you. I shall tell him, when I go upstairs, that you were the friend whom I had asked to come here. I felt it to be so uncertain whether you would come.'
'I hope you couldn't seriously doubt it.'
'You teach me to tell the truth. No. I knew too well your kindness. I knew that even to me ---- '
Sidney could converse no longer. He felt the need of being alone, to put his thoughts in order, to resume his experiences during this strange hour. An extreme weariness was possessing him, as though he had been straining his intellect in attention to some difficult subject. And all at once the dank, cold atmosphere of the room struck into his blood; he had a fit of trembling.
'Let us say good-bye for the present.'
Clara gave her hand silently. He touched it for the first time, and could not but notice its delicacy; it was very warm, too, and moist. Without speaking she went with him to the outer door. His footsteps sounded along the stone staircase; Clara listened until the last echo was silent.
She too had begun to feel the chilly air. Hastily putting on her hat, she took up the lamp, glanced round the room to see that nothing was left in disorder, and hastened up to the fifth storey.
In the middle room, through which she had to pass, her father and Mr. Eagles were talking together. The latter gave her a 'good-evening,' respectful, almost as to a social superior. Within, Amy and Annie were just going to bed. She sat with them in her usual silence for a quarter of an hour, then, having ascertained that Eagles was gone into his own chamber, went out to speak to her father.
'My friend came,' she said. ' Do you suspect who it was?'
'Why, no, I can't guess, Clara.'
'Haven't you thought of Mr. Kirkwood?'
'You don't mean that?'
'Father, you are quite mistaken about Jane Snowdon -- quite.'
John started up from his seat.
'Has he told you so, himself?'
'Yes. But listen; you are not to say a word on that subject to him. You will be very careful, father?'
John gazed at her wonderingly. She kissed his forehead, and withdrew to the other room.
John Hewett no longer had membership in club or society. The loss of his insurance-money made him for the future regard all such institutions with angry suspicion. 'Workin' men ain't satisfied with bein' robbed by the upper classes; they must go and rob one another.' He had said good-bye to Clerkenwell Green; the lounging crowd no longer found amusement in listening to his frenzied voice and in watching the contortions of his rugged features. He discussed the old subjects with Eagles, but the latter's computative mind was out of sympathy with zeal of the tumid description; though quite capable of working himself into madness on the details of the Budget, John was easily soothed by his friend's calmer habits of debate. Kirkwood's influence, moreover, was again exerting itself upon him -- an influence less than ever likely to encourage violence of thought or speech. In Sidney's company the worn rebel became almost placid; his rude, fretted face fell into a singular humility and mildness. Having ended by accepting what he would formerly have called charity, and that from a man whom he had wronged with obstinate perverseness, John neither committed the error of obtruding his gratitude, nor yet suffered it to be imagined that obligation sat upon him too lightly. He put no faith in Sidney's assertion that some unknown benefactor was to be thanked for the new furniture; one and the same pocket had supplied that and the money for Mrs. Hewett's burial. Gratitude was all very well, but he could not have rested without taking some measures towards a literal repayment of his debt. The weekly coppers which had previously gone for club subscriptions were now put away in a money-box; they would be long enough in making an appreciable sum, but yet, if he himself could never discharge the obligation, his children must take it up after him, and this he frequently impressed upon Amy, Annie, and Tom.
Nothing, however, could have detached John's mind so completely from its habits of tumult, nor have fixed it so firmly upon the interests of home, as his recovery of his daughter. From the day of Clara's establishment under his roof he thought of her, and of her only. Whilst working at the filter-factory he remained in imagination by her side, ceaselessly repeating her words of the night before, eagerly looking for the hour that would allow him to return to her. Joy and trouble mingled in an indescribable way to constitute his ordinary mood; one moment he would laugh at a thought, and before a companion could glance at him his gladness would be overshadowed as if with the heaviest anxiety. Men who saw him day after day said at this time that he seemed to be growing childish; he muttered to himself a good deal, and looked blankly at you when you addressed him. In the course of a fortnight his state became more settled, but it was not the cheerful impulse that predominated. Out of the multitude of thoughts concerning Clara, one had fixed itself as the main controller of his reflection. Characteristically, John hit upon what seemed an irremediable misfortune, and brooded over it with all his might. If only Sidney Kirkwood were in the same mind as four years ago!
And now was he to believe that what he had been told about Sidney and Jane Snowdon was misleading? Was the impossible no longer so? He almost leapt from his chair when he heard that Sidney was the visitor with whom his daughter had been having her private conversation. How came they to make this appointment? There was something in Clara's voice that set his nerves a-tremble. That night he could not sleep, and next morning he went to work with a senile quiver in his body. For the first time for more than two months he turned into a public-house on his way, just to give himself a little 'tone.' The natural result of such a tonic was to heighten the fever of his imagination; goodness knows how far he had got in a drama of happiness before he threw off his coat and settled to his day's labour.
Clara, in the meanwhile, suffered a corresponding agitation, more penetrative in proportion to the finer substance of her nature. She did not know until the scene was over how much vital force it had cost her; when she took off the veil a fire danced before her eyes, and her limbs ached and trembled as she lay down in the darkness. All night long she was acting her part over and over; when she woke up, it was always at the point where Sidney replied to her, 'But you are mistaken!'
Acting her part; yes, but a few hours had turned the make-believe into something earnest enough. She could not now have met Kirkwood with the self-possession of last evening. The fever that then sustained her was much the same as she used to know before she had thoroughly accustomed herself to appearing in front of an audience; it exalted all her faculties, gifted her with a remarkable self-consciousness. It was all very well as long as there was need of it, but why did it afflict her in this torturing form now that she desired to rest, to think of what she had gained, of what hope she might reasonably nourish? The purely selfish project which, in her desperation, had seemed the only resource remaining to her against a life of intolerable desolateness, was taking hold upon her in a way she could not understand. Had she not already made a discovery that surpassed all expectation? Sidney Kirkwood was not bound to another woman; why could she not accept that as so much clear gain, and deliberate as to her next step? She had been fully prepared for the opposite state of things, prepared to strive against any odds, to defy all probabilities, all restraints; why not thank her fortune and plot collectedly now that the chances were so much improved?
But from the beginning of her interview with him, Clara knew that something more entered into her designs on Sidney than a cold self-interest. She had never loved him; she never loved anyone; yet the inclinations of her early girlhood had been drawn by the force of the love he offered her, and to this day she thought of him with a respect and liking such as she had for no other man. When she heard from her father that Sidney had forgotten her, had found some one by whom his love was prized, her instant emotion was so like a pang of jealousy that she marvelled at it. Suppose fate had prospered her, and she had heard in the midst of triumphs that Sidney Kirkwood, the working man in Clerkenwell, was going to marry a girl he loved, would any feeling of this kind have come to her? Her indifference would have been complete. It was calamity that made her so sensitive. Self-pity longs for the compassion of others. That Sidney, who was once her slave, should stand aloof in freedom now that she wanted sympathy so sorely, this was a wound to her heart. That other woman had robbed her of something she could not spare.
Jane Snowdon, too! She found it scarcely conceivable that the wretched little starveling of Mrs. Peckover's kitchen should have grown into anything that a man like Sidney could love. To be sure, there was a mystery in her lot. Clara remembered perfectly how Scawthorne pointed out of the cab at the old man Snowdon, and said that he was very rich. A miser, or what? More she had never tried to discover. Now Sidney himself had hinted at something in Jane's circumstances which, he professed, put it out of the question that he could contemplate marrying her. Had he told her the truth? Could she in fact consider him free? Might there not be some reason for his wishing to keep a secret?
With burning temples, with feverish lips, she moved about her little room like an animal in a cage, finding the length of the day intolerable. She was constrained to inaction, when it seemed to her that every moment in which she did not do something to keep Sidney in mind of her was worse than lost. Could she not see that girl, Jane Snowdon? But was not Sidney's denial as emphatic as it could be? She recalled his words, and tried numberless interpretations. Would anything that he had said bear being interpreted as a sign that something of the old tenderness still lived in him? And the strange thing was, that she interrogated herself on these points not at all like a coldly scheming woman, who aims at something that is to be won, if at all, by the subtlest practising on another's emotions, whilst she remains unaffected. Rather like a woman who loves passionately, whose ardour and jealous dread wax moment by moment.
For what was she scheming? For food, clothing, assured comfort during her life? Twenty-four hours ago Clara would most likely have believed that she had indeed fallen to this; but the meeting with Sidney enlightened her. Least of all women could she live by bread alone; there was the hunger of her brain, the hunger of her heart. I spoke once, you remember, of her 'defect of tenderness;' the fault remained, but her heart was no longer so sterile of the tender emotions as when revolt and ambition absorbed all her energies. She had begun to feel gently towards her father; it was an intimation of the need which would presently bring all the forces of her nature into play. She dreaded a life of drudgery; she dreaded humiliation among her inferiors; but that which she feared most of all was the barrenness of a lot into which would enter none of the passionate joys of existence. Speak to Clara of renunciation, of saintly glories, of the stony way of perfectness, and you addressed her in an unknown tongue; nothing in her responded to these ideas. Hopelessly defeated in the one way of aspiration which promised a large life, her being, rebellious against the martyrdom it had suffered, went forth eagerly towards the only happiness which was any longer attainable. Her beauty was a dead thing; never by that means could she command homage. But there is love, ay, and passionate love, which can be independent of mere charm of face. In one man only could she hope to inspire it; successful in that, she would taste victory, and even in this fallen estate could make for herself a dominion.
In these few hours she so wrought upon her imagination as to believe that the one love of her life had declared itself. She revived every memory she possibly could of those years on the far side of the gulf, and convinced herself that even then she had loved Sidney. Other love of a certainty she had not known. In standing face to face with him after so long an interval, she recognised the qualities which used to impress her, and appraised them as formerly she could not. His features had gained in attractiveness; the refinement which made them an index to his character was more noticeable at the first glance, or perhaps she was better able to distinguish it. The slight bluntness in his manner reminded her of the moral force which she had known only as something to be resisted; it was now one of the influences that drew her to him. Had she not always admitted that he stood far above the other men of his class whom she used to know? Between his mind and hers there was distinct kinship; the sense that he had both power and right to judge her explained in a great measure her attitude of defiance towards him when she was determined to break away from her humble conditions. All along, had not one of her main incentives to work and strive been the resolve to justify herself in his view, to prove to him that she possessed talent, to show herself to him as one whom the world admired? The repugnance with which she thought of meeting him, when she came home with her father, meant in truth that she dreaded to be assured that he could only shrink from her. All her vital force.. setting in this wild current, her self. deception complete, she experienced the humility of supreme egoism -- that state wherein self multiplies its claims to pity in passionate support of its demand for the object of desire. She felt capable of throwing herself at Sidney's feet, and imploring him not to withdraw from her the love of which he had given her so many assurances. She gazed at her scarred face until the image was blurred with tears; then, as though there were luxury in weeping, sobbed for an hour, crouching down in a corner of her room. Even though his love were as dead as her beauty, must lib not be struck to the heart with compassion, realising her woeful lot? She asked nothing more eagerly than to humiliate herself before him, to confess that her pride was broken. Not a charge he could bring against her but Bile would admit its truth. Had she been humble enough last night? When he came again -- and he must soon -- she would throw aside every vestige of dignity, lest he should think that she was strong enough to bear her misery alone. No matter how poor-spirited she seemed, if only she could move his sympathies.
Poor rebel heart! Beat for beat, in these moments it matched itself with that of the purest woman who surrenders to a despairing love. Had one charged her with insincerity, how vehemently would her conscience have declared against the outrage! Natures such as hers are as little to be judged by that which is conventionally the highest standard as by that which is the lowest. The tendencies which we agree to call good and bad became in her merely directions of a native force which was at all times in revolt against circumstance. Characters thus moulded may go far in achievement, but can never pass beyond the bounds of suffering. Never is the world their friend, nor the world's law. As often as our conventions give us the opportunity, we crush them out of being; they are noxious; they threaten the frame of society. Oftenest the crushing is done in such a way that the hapless creatures seem to have brought about their own destruction. Let us congratulate ourselves; in one way or other it is assured that they shall not trouble us long.
Her father was somewhat later than usual in returning from work. When he entered her room she looked at him anxiously, and as he seemed to have nothing particular to say, she asked if he had seen Mr. Kirkwood.
'No, my dear, I ain't seen him.'
Their eyes met for an instant. Clara was in anguish at the thought that another night and day must pass and nothing be altered.
'When did you see him last? A week or more ago, wasn't it?'
'Couldn't you go round to his lodgings to-night? I know he's got something he wants to speak to you about.'
He assented. But on his going into the other room Eagles met him with a message from Sidney, anticipating his design, and requesting him to step over to Bed Lion Street in the course of the evening. John instantly announced this to his daughter. She nodded, but said nothing.
In a few minutes John went on his way. The day's work had tired him exceptionally, doubtless owing to his nervousness, and again on the way to Sidney's he had recourse to a dose of the familiar stimulant. With our eyes on a man of Hewett's station we note these little things; we set them down as a point scored against him; yet if our business were with a man of leisure, who, owing to worry, found his glass of wine at luncheon and again at dinner an acceptable support, we certainly should not think of paying attention to the matter. Poverty makes a crime of every indulgence. John himself came out of the public-house in a slinking way, and hoped Kirkwood might not scent the twopenny-worth of gin.
Sidney was in anything but a mood to detect this little lapse in his visitor. He gave John a chair, but could not sit still himself. The garret was a spacious one, and whilst talking he moved from wall to wall.
'You know that I saw Clara last night? She told me she should mention it to you.'
'Yes, yes. I was afraid she'd never have made up her mind to it. It was the best way for you to see her alone first, poor girl! You won't mind comin' to us now, like you used?'
'Did she tell you what she wished to speak to me about?'
'Why, no, she hasn't. Was there -- anything particular?'
'She feels the time very heavy on her hands. It seems you don't like the thought of her looking for employment?'
John rose from his chair and grasped the back of it.
'You ain't a-goin' to encourage her to leave us? It ain't that you was talkin' about, Sidney?'
'Leave you? Why, where should she go?'
'No, no; it's all right; so long as you wasn't thinkin' of her goin' away again. See, Sidney, I ain't got nothing to say against it, if she can find some kind of job for home. I know as the time must hang heavy. There she sit, poor thing! from mornin' to night, an' can't get her thoughts away from herself. It's easy enough to understand, ain't it? I took a book home for her the other day, but she didn't seem to care about it. There she sit, with her poor face on her hands, thinkin' and thinkin'. It breaks my heart to see her. I'd rather she had some work, but she mustn't go away from home for it.'
Sidney took a few steps in silence.
'You don't misunderstand me,' resumed the other, with suddenncss. 'You don't think as I won't trust her away from me. If she went, it 'ud be because she thinks herself a burden -- as if I wouldn't gladly live on a crust for my day's food an' spare her goin' among strangers! You can think yourself what it 'ud be to her, Sidney. No, no, it mustn't be nothing o' that kind. But I can't ear to see her livin' as she does; it's no life at all. I sit with her when I get back home at night, an' I'm glad to say she seems to find it a pleasure to have me by her; but it's the only bit o' pleasure she gets, an' there's all the hours whilst I'm away. You see she don't take much to Mrs. Eagles; that ain't her sort of friend. Not as she's got any pride left about her, poor girl don't think that. I tell you, Sidney, she's a dear good girl to her old father. If I could only see her a bit happier, I'd never grumble again as long as I lived, I wouldn't!'
Is there such a thing in this world as speech that has but one simple interpretation, one for him who utters it and for him who hears? Honester words were never spoken than these in which Hewett strove to represent Clara in a favourable light, and to show the pitifulness of her situation; yet he himself was conscious that they implied a second meaning, and Sidney was driven restlessly about the room by his perception of the same lurking motive in their pathos. John felt half-ashamed of himself when he ceased; it was a new thing for him to be practising subtleties with a view to his own ends. But had he said a word more than the truth?
I suppose it was the association of contrast that turned Sidney's thoughts to Joseph Snowdon. At all events it was of him he was thinking in the silence that followed. Which silence having been broken by a tap at the door, oddly enough there stood Joseph himself. Hewett, taken by surprise, showed embarrassment and awkwardness; it was always hard for him to reconcile his present subordination to Mr. Snowdon with the familiar terms on which they had been not long ago.
'Ah, you here, Hewett!' exclaimed Joseph, in a genial tone, designed to put the other at his ease. 'I just wanted a word with our friend. Never mind; some other time.'
For all that, he did not seem disposed to withdraw, but stood with a hand on the door, smiling. Sidney, having nodded to him, walked the length of the room, his head bent and his hands behind him.
'Suppose I look in u bit later,' said Hewett. 'Or tomorrow night, Sidney?'
'Very well, to-morrow night.'
John took his leave, and on the visitor who remained Sidney turned a face almost of anger. Mr. Snowdon seated himself, supremely indifferent to the inconvenience he had probably caused. He seemed in excellent humour.
'Decent fellow, Hewett,' he observed, putting up one leg against the fireplace. 'Very decent fellow. He's getting old, unfortunately. Had a good deal of trouble, I understand; it breaks a man up.'
Sidney scowled, and said nothing.
'I thought I'd stay, as I was here,' continued Joseph, unbuttoning his respectable overcoat and throwing it open. 'There was something rather particular I had in mind. Won't you sit down?'
'No, thank you.'
Joseph glanced at him, and smiled all the more.
'I've had a little talk with the old man about Jane. By-the-by, I'm sorry to say he's very shaky; doesn't look himself at all. I didn't know you had spoken to him quite so -- you know what I mean. It seems to be his idea that everything's at an end between you.'
'Well, now, look here. You won't mind me just ---- Do you think it was wise to put it in that way to him? I'm afraid you're making him feel just a little uncertain about you. I'm speaking as a friend, you know. In your own interest, Kirkwood. Old men get queer ideas into their heads. You know, he might begin to think that you had some sort of -- eh?'
It was not the second, nor yet the third, time that Joseph had looked in and begun to speak in this scrappy way, continuing the tone of that dialogue in which he had assumed a sort of community of interest between Kirkwood and himself. But the limit of Sidney's endurance was reached.
'There's no knowing,' he exclaimed, 'what anyone may think of me, if people who have their own ends to serve go spreading calumnies. Let us understand each other, and have done with it. I told Mr. Snowdon that I could never be anything but a friend to Jane. I said it, and I meant it. If you've any doubt remaining, in a few days I hope it'll be removed. What your real wishes maybe I don't know, and I shall never after this have any need to know. I can't help speaking in this way, and I want to tell you once for all that there shall never again be a word about Jane between us. Wait a day or two, and you'll know the reason.'
Joseph affected an air of gravity -- of offended dignity.
'That's rather a queer sort of way to back out of your engagements, Kirkwood. I won't say anything about myself, but with regard to my daughter ----'
'What do you mean by speaking like that?' cried the young man, sternly. 'You know very well that it's what you wish most of all, to put an end to everything between your daughter and me t You've succeeded; be satisfied. If you've anything to say to me on any other subject, say it. If not, please let's have done for the present. I don't feel in a mood for beating about the bush any longer.'
'You've misunderstood me altogether, Kirkwood,' said Joseph, unable to conceal a twinkle of satisfaction in his eyes.
'No; I've understood you perfectly well -- too well. I don't want to hear another word on the subject, and I won't. It's over; understand that,'
'Well, well; you're a bit out of sorts. I'll say good-bye for the present.'
He retired, and for a long time Sidney sat in black brooding.
John Hewett did not fail to present himself next evening. As he entered the room he was somewhat surprised at the cheerful aspect with which Sidney met him; the grasp which his hand received seemed to have a significance. Sidney, after looking at him steadily, asked if he had not been home.
'Yes, I've been home. Why do you want to know?'
'Hadn't Clara anything to tell you?'
'No. What is it?'
'Did she know you were coming here?'
'Why, yes; I mentioned it.'
Sidney again regarded him fixedly, with a smile.
'I suppose she preferred that I should tell you. I looked in at the Buildings this afternoon, and had a talk with Clara.'
John hung upon his words, with lips slightly parted, with a trembling in the hairs of his grey beard.
'I had something to ask her, so I went when she was likely to be alone. It's a long while ago since I asked her the question for the first time -- but I've got the right answer at last,'
John stared at him in pathetic agitation.
'You mean to tell me you've asked Clara to marry you?'
'There's nothing very dreadful in that, I should think.'
'Give us your hand again! Sidney Kirkwood, give us your hand again! If there's a good-hearted man in this world, if there's a faithful, honest man, as only lives to do kindness ---- What am I to say to you? It's too much for me. I can't find a word as I'd wish to speak. Stand out and let's look at you. You make me as I can't neither speak nor see -- I'm just like a child ----'
He broke down utterly, and shook with the choking struggle of laughter and sobs. His emotion affected Sidney, who looked pale and troubled in spite of the smile still clinging feebly about his lips.
'If it makes you glad to hear it,' said the young man, in an uncertain voice, 'I'm all the more glad myself, on that account.'
'Makes me glad? That's no word for it, boy; that's no word for it! Give us your hand again. I feel as if I'd ought to go down on my old knees and crave your pardon. If only she could have lived to see this, the poor woman as died when things was at their worst! If I'd only listened to her there'd never have been them years of unfriendliness between us. You've gone on with one kindness after another, but this is more than I could ever a' thought possible. Why, I took it for certain as you was goin' to marry that other young girl; they told me as it was all settled.'
'I'd never have dared to hope it, Sidney. The one thing as I wished more than anything else on earth, and I couldn't think ever to see it. Glad's no word for what I feel. And to think as my girl kep' it from me! Yes, yes; there was something on her face; I remember it now. "I'm just goin' round to have a word with Sidney," I says. "Are you, father?" she says. "Don't stay too long." And she had a sort o' smile I couldn't quite understand. She'll be a good wife to you, Sidney. Her heart's softened to all as she used to care for. She'll be a good and faithful wife to you as long as she lives. But I must go back home and speak to her. There ain't a man livin', let him be as rich as he may, that feels such happiness as you've given me to-night.'
He went stumbling down the stairs, and walked homewards at a great speed, so that when he reached the Buildings he had to wipe his face and stand for a moment before beginning the ascent. The children were at their home lessons; he astonished them by flinging his hat mirthfully on to the table.
'Now then, father!' cried young Tom, the eight-year-old, whose pen was knocked out of his hand.
With a chuckle John advanced to Clara's room. As he closed the door behind him she rose. His face was mottled; there were tear-stains about his eyes, and he had a wild, breathless look.
'An' you never told me! You let me go without half a word!'
Clara put her hands upon his shoulders and kissed him. 'I didn't quite know whether it was true or not, father.'
'My darling! My dear girl! Come an' sit on my knee, like you used to when you was a little 'un. I'm a rough old father for such as you, but nobody'll never love you better than I do, an' always have done. So he's been faithful to you, for all they said. There ain't a better man livin'! "It's a long time since I first asked the question," he says, "but she's give me the right answer at last." And he looks that glad of it.'
'He does? You're sure he does?'
'Sure? Why, you should a' seen him when I went into the room! There's nothing more as I wish for now. I only hope I may live a while longer, to see you forget all your troubles, my dear. He'll make you happy, will Sidney; he's got a deal more education than anyone else I ever knew, and you'll suit each other. But you won't forget all about your old father? You'll let me come an' have a talk with you now and then, my dear, just you an' me together, you know?'
'I shall love you and be grateful to you always, father You've kept a warm heart for me all this time.'
'I couldn't do nothing else, Clara; you've always been what I loved most, and you always will be.'
'If I hadn't had you to come back to, what would have become of me?'
'We'll never think of that. We'll never speak another word of that.'
'Father ---- Oh, if I had my face again! If I had my own face!'
A great anguish shook her; she lay hi his arms and sobbed. It was the farewell, even in her fulness of heart and deep sense of consolation, to all she had most vehemently desired, Gratitude and self-pity being indivisible in her emotions, she knew not herself whether the ache of regret or the soothing restfulness of deliverance made her tears flow. But at least there was no conscious duplicity, and for the moment no doubt that she had found her haven. It is a virtuous world, and our frequent condemnations are invariably based on justice; will it be greatly harmful if for once we temper our righteous judgment with ever so little mercy?
Joseph Snowdon waxed daily in respectability. He was, for one thing, clothing himself in flesh, and, though still any. thing but a portly man, bore himself as becomes one who can indulge a taste for eating and drinking; his step was more deliberate, he no longer presented the suppleness of limb that so often accompanies a needy condition in the man of wits, he grew attentive to his personal equipment, he was always well combed and well shaven, and generally, in hours of leisure, you perceived a fragrance breathing from his handkerchief. Nor was this refinement addressed only to the public. To Clem he behaved with a correctness which kept that lady in a state of acute suspicion; not seldom he brought her a trifling gift, which he would offer with compliments, and he made a point of consulting her pleasure or convenience in all matters that affected them in common. A similar dignity of bearing marked his relations with Hanover Street, When he entered Jane's parlour it was with a beautiful blending of familiarity and courtesy; he took his daughter's hand with an air of graceful affection, retaining it for a moment between his own, and regarding her with a gentle smile which hinted the pride of a parent. In speaking with the old man he habitually subdued his voice, respectfully bending forward, solicitously watching the opportunity of a service. Michael had pleasure in his company and conversation. Without overdoing it, Joseph accustomed himself to speak of philanthropic interests. He propounded a scheme for supplying the poor with a certain excellent filter at a price all but nominal; who did not know the benefit to humble homes of pure water for use as a beverage? The filter was not made yet, but Lake, Snowdon, & Co., had it under their consideration.
Michael kept his room a good deal in these wretched days of winter, so that Joseph had no difficulty in obtaining private interviews with his daughter. Every such occasion he used assiduously, his great end being to possess himself of Jane's confidence. He did not succeed quite so well with the girl as with her grandfather; there was always a reserve in her behaviour which as yet he found it impossible to overcome. Observation led him to conclude that much of this arose from the view she took of his relations with Sidney Kirkwood. Jane was in love with Sidney; on that point he could have no doubt; and in all likelihood she regarded him as unfriendly to Sidney's suit -- women are so shrewd in these affairs. Accordingly, Joseph made it his business by artful degrees to remove this prepossession from her mind. In the course of this endeavour he naturally pressed into his service the gradually discovered fact that Sidney had scruples of conscience regarding Jane's fortune. Marvellous as it appeared to him, he had all but come to the conclusion that this was a fact. Now, given Jane's character, which he believed he had sounded; given her love for Kirkwood, which was obviously causing her anxiety and unhappiness; Joseph saw his way to an admirable piece of strategy. What could be easier, if he played his cards well and patiently enough, than to lead Jane to regard the fortune as her most threatening enemy? Valuable results might come of that, whether before or after the death of the old man.
The conversation in which he first ventured to strike this note undisguisedly took place on the same evening as that unpleasant scene when Sidney as good as quarrelled with him -- the evening before the day on which Sidney asked Clara Hewett to be his wife. Having found Jane alone, he began to talk in his most paternal manner, his chair very near hers, his eyes fixed on her sewing. And presently, when the ground was prepared:
'Jane, there's something I've been wanting to say to you for a long time. My dear, I'm uneasy about you.'
'Uneasy, father?' and she glanced at him nervously.
'Yes, I'm uneasy. But whether I ought to tell you why, I'm sure I don't know. You're my own child, Janey, and you become dearer to me every day; but -- it's hard to say it -- there naturally isn't all the confidence between us that there might have been if -- well, well, I won't speak of that.'
'But won't you tell me what makes you anxious?'
He laid the tips of his fingers on her head. 'Janey, shall you be offended if I speak about Mr. Kirkwood?'
She tried in vain to continue sewing.
'My dear -- I believe there's no actual engagement between you?'
'Oh no, father,' she replied, faintly.
'And yet -- don't be angry with me, my child -- I think you are something more than friends?'
She made no answer.
'And I can't help thinking, Janey -- I think about you very often indeed -- that Mr. Kirkwood has rather exaggerated views about the necessity of -- of altering things between you.'
Quite recently Joseph had become aware of the under. standing between Michael and Kirkwood. The old man still hesitated to break the news to Jane, saying to himself that it was better for Sidney to prepare her by the change in his behaviour.
'Of altering things?' Jane repeated, under her breath.
'It seems to me wrong -- wrong to both of you,' Joseph pursued, in a pathetic voice. 'I can't help noticing my child's looks. I know she isn't what she used to be, poor little girl! And I know Kirkwood isn't what he used to be. It's very hard, and I feel for you -- for both of you.'
Jane sat motionless, not daring to lift her eyes, scarcely daring to breathe.
' Yes, father.'
'I wonder whether I'm doing wrong to your grandfather in speaking to you confidentially like this? I can't believe he notices things as I do; he'd never wish you to be unhappy.'
'But I don't quite understand, father. What do you mean about Mr. Kirkwood? Why should he ----'
The impulse failed her. A fear which she had harboured for many weary days was being confirmed and she could not ask directly for the word that would kill hope.
'Have I a right to tell you? I thought perhaps you understood.'
'As you have gone So far, I think you must explain. I don't see how you can be doing wrong.'
'Poor Kirkwood! You see, he's in such a delicate position, my dear. I think myself that he's acting rather strangely, after everything; but it's -- it's your money, Jane. He doesn't think he ought to ask you to marry him, under the circumstances.'
'Now who should stand by you, in a case like this, if not your own father? Of course he can't say a word to you himself; and of course you can't say a word to him; and altogether it's a pitiful business.'
Jane shrank from discussing such a topic with her father. Her next words were uttered with difficulty.
'But the money isn't my own -- it'll never be my own. He -- Mr. Kirkwood knows that.'
'He does, to be sure. But it makes no difference. He has told your grandfather, my love, that -- that the responsibility would be too great. He has told him distinctly that everything's at an end -- everything that might have happened.'
She just looked at him, then dropped her eyes on her sewing.
'Now, as your father, Janey, I know it's right that you should be told of this. I feel you're being very cruelly treated, my child. And I wish to goodness I could only see any way out of it for you both. Of course I'm powerless either for acting or speaking: you can understand that. But I want you to think of me as your truest friend, my love.'
More still he said, but Jane had no ears for it. When he left her, she bade him good-bye mechanically, and stood on the same spot by the door, without thought, stunned by what she had learnt.
That Sidney would be impelled to such a decision as this she had never imagined. His reserve whilst yet she was in ignorance of her true position she could understand: also his delaying for a while even after everything had been explained to her. But that he should draw away from her altogether seemed inexplicable, for it implied a change in him which nothing had prepared her to think possible. Unaltered in his love, he refused to share the task of her life, to aid in. the work which he regarded with such fervent sympathy. Her mind was not subtle enough to conceive those objections to Michael's idea which had weighed with Sidney almost from the first, for though she had herself shrunk from the great undertaking, it was merely in weakness -- a reason she never dreamt of attributing to him. Nor had she caught as much as a glimpse of those base, scheming interests, contact with which had aroused Sidney's vehement disgust. Was her father to be trusted? This was the first question that shaped itself in her mind. He did not like Sidney; that she had felt all along, as well as the reciprocal coldness on Sidney's part. But did his unfriendliness go so far as to prompt him to intervene with untruths? 'Of course you can't say a word to him' -- that remark would bear an evil interpretation, which her tormented mind did not fail to suggest. Moreover, he had seemed so anxious that she should not broach the subject with her grandfather. But what constrained her to silence? If, indeed, he had nothing but her happiness at heart, he could not take it ill that she should seek to understand the whole truth, and Michael must tell her whether Sidney had indeed thus spoken to him.
Before she had obtained any show of control over her agitation Michael came into the room. Evening was the old man's best time, and when he had kept his own chamber through the day he liked to come and sit with Jane as she had her supper.
'Didn't I hear your father's voice?' he asked, as he moved slowly to his accustomed chair.
'Yes. He couldn't stay.'
Jane stood in an attitude of indecision. Having seated himself, Michael glanced at her. His regard had not its old directness; it seemed apprehensive, as if seeking to probe her thought.
'Has Miss Lent sent you the book she promised?'
This was a recently published volume dealing with charitable enterprise in some part of London. Michael noticed with surprise the uninterested tone of Jane's reply. Again he looked at her, and more searchingly.
'Would you like to read me a little of it?'
She reached the book from a side-table, drew near, and stood turning the pages. The confusion of her mind was such that she could not have read a word with understanding. Then she spoke, involuntarily.
'Grandfather, has Mr. Kirkwood said anything more -- about me?'
The words made painful discord in her cars, but instead of showing heightened colour she grew pallid. Holding the book partly open, she felt all her nerves and muscles strained as if in some physical effort; her feet were rooted to the spot.
'Have you heard anything from him?' returned the old man, resting his hands on the sides of the easy-chair.
'Father has been speaking about him. He says Mr. Kirkwood has told you something.'
'Yes. Come and sit down by me, Jane.'
She could not move nearer. Though unable to form a distinct conception, she felt a foreboding of what must come to pass. The dread failure of strength was more than threatening her; her heart was sinking, and by no effort of will could she summon the thoughts that should aid her against herself.
'What has your father told you?' Michael asked, when he perceived her distress. He spoke with a revival of energy, clearly, commandingly.
'He says that Mr. Kirkwood wishes you to forget what he told you, and what you repeated to me.'
'Did he give you any reason?'
'Yes. I don't understand, though.'
'Come here by me, Jane. Let's talk about it quietly. Sidney doesn't feel able to help you as he thought he could. We mustn't blame him for that; he must judge for himself. He thinks it'll be better if you continue to be only friends.'
Jane averted her face, his steady look being more than she could bear. For an instant a sense of uttermost shame thrilled through her, and without knowing what she did, she moved a little and laid the book down.
'Come here, my child,' he repeated, in a gentler voice.
She approached him.
'You feel it hard. But when you've thought about it a little you won't grieve; I'm sure you won't. Remember, your life is not to be like that of ordinary women. You've higher objects before you, and you'll find a higher reward. You know that, don't you? There's no need for me to remind you of what we've talked about so often, is there? If it's a sacrifice, you're strong enough to face it; yes, yes, strong enough to face more than this, my Jane is! Only fix your thoughts on the work you're going to do. It'll take up all your life, Jane, won't it? You'll have no time to give to such things as occupy other women -- no mind for them.'
His grey eyes searched her countenance with that horrible intensity of fanaticism which is so like the look of cruelty, of greed, of any passion originating in the baser self. Unlike too, of course, but it is the pitilessness common to both extremes that shows most strongly in an old, wrinkled visage. He had laid his hand upon her. Every word was a stab ill the girl's heart, and so dreadful became her torture, so intolerable the sense of being drawn by a fierce will away from all she desired, that at length a cry escaped her lips. She fell on her knees by him, and pleaded in a choking voice.
'I can't! Grandfather, don't ask it of me! Give it all to some one else -- to some one else! I'm not strong enough to make such a sacrifice. Let me be as I was before!'
Michael's face darkened. He drew his hand away and rose from the seat; with more than surprise, with anger and even bitterness, he looked down at the crouching girl. She did not sob; her face buried in her arms, she lay against the chair, quivering, silent.
'Jane, stand up and speak to me!'
She did not move.
He laid his hand on her. Jane raised her head, and endeavoured to obey him; in the act she moaned and fell insensible.
Michael strode to the door and called twice or thrice for Mrs. Byass; then he stooped by the lifeless girl and supported her head. Bessie was immediately at hand, with a cry of consternation, but also with helpful activity.
'Why, I thought she'd got over this; it's a long time since she was took last isn't it? Sam's downstairs, Mr. Snowdon; do just shout out to him to go for some brandy. Tell him to bring my smelling-bottle first, if he knows where it is -- I'm blest if I do! Poor thing! She ain't been at all well lately, and that's the truth.'
The truth, beyond a doubt. Pale face, showing now the thinness which it had not wholly outgrown, the inheritance from miserable childhood; no face of a stern heroine, counting as idle all the natural longings of the heart, consecrated to a lifelong combat with giant wrongs. Nothing better nor worse than the face of one who can love and must be loved in turn.
She came to herself, and at the same moment Michael went from the room.
'There now; there now,' crooned Bessie, with much patting of the hands and stroking of the checks. 'Why, what's come to you, Jane? Cry away; don't try to prevent yourself; it'll do you good to cry a bit. Of course, here comes Sam with all sorts of things, when there's no need of him, He's always either too soon or too late, is Sam. Just look at him, Jane; now if he don't make you laugh, nothing will!'
Mr. Byass retired, shamefaced. Leaning against Bessie's shoulder, Jane sobbed for a long time, sobbed in the misery of shame. She saw that her grandfather had gone away. How should she ever face him after this? It was precious comfort to feel Bessie's sturdy arms about her, and to hear the foolish affectionate words, which asked nothing but that she should take them kindly and have done with her trouble.
'Did grandfather tell you how it was?' she asked, with a sudden fear lest Bessie should have learnt her pitiful weakness.
'Why, no; how did it come?'
'I don't know. We were talking. I can stand up now, Mrs. Byass, thank you. I'll go up to my room. I've forgotten the time; is it late?'
It was only nine o'clock. Bessie would have gone upstairs with her, but Jane insisted that she was quite herself. On the stairs she trod as lightly as possible, and she closed her door without a sound. Alone, she again gave way to tears. Michael's face was angry in her memory; he had never looked at her in that way before, and now he would never look with the old kindness. What a change had been wrought in these few minutes!
And Sidney never anything but her friend -- cold, meaning. less word! If he knew how she had fallen, would that be likely to bring him nearer to her? She had lost both things, that was all.
She rose early, in the murky cola of the winter morning. When, at eight o'clock, she knocked as usual at her grandfather's door his answer made her tremble.
'I shall be down in a few minutes, Jane; I'll have breakfast with you.'
It was long since he had risen at this hour. His voice sounded less like that of an old man, and, in spite of his calling her by her name, she felt the tone to be severe. When he reached the parlour he did not offer to take her hand, and she feared to approach him. She saw that his features bore the mark of sleeplessness. Hers, poor girl! were yet more woeful in their pallor.
Through the meal he affected to occupy himself with the book Miss Lant had sent -- the sight of which was intolerable to Jane. And not for a full hour did he speak anything but casual words. Jane had taken her sewing; unexpectedly he addressed her.
'Let's have a word or two together, Jane. I think we ought to, oughtn't we?'
She forced herself to regard him.
'I think you meant what you said last night?'
'Grandfather, I will do whatever you bid me. I'll do it faithfully. I was ungrateful. I feel ashamed to have spoken so.'
'That's nothing to do with it, Jane. You're not ungrateful; anything but that. But I've had a night to think over your words. You couldn't speak like that if you weren't driven to it by the strongest feeling you ever knew or will know. I hadn't thought of it in that way; I hadn't thought of you in that way.'
He began gently, but in the last words was a touch of reproof, almost of scorn. He gazed at her from under his grey eyebrows, perhaps hoping to elicit some resistance of her spirit, some sign of strength that would help him to reconstruct his shattered ideal.
'Grandfather, I'll try with all my strength to be what you wish -- I will!'
'And suppose the strength isn't sufficient, child?'
Even in her humility she could not but feel that this was unjust. Had she ever boasted? Had she ever done more than promise tremblingly what he demanded? But the fear was legitimate. A weak thing, all but heart-broken, could she hope to tread firmly in any difficult path? She hung her head, making no answer.
He examined her, seeming to measure the slightness of her frame. Sad, unutterably sad, was the deep breath he drew as he turned his eyes away again.
'Do you feel well this morning, Jane?'
'Have you slept?'
'I couldn't, You were grieving about me. I hoped never to have disappointed you.'
He fell into reverie. Was he thinking of that poor wife of his, dead long, long ago, the well-meaning girl of whom he had expected impossible things? A second time had he thus erred, no longer with the excuse of inexperience and hot blood. That cry of Jane's had made its way to his heart. An enthusiast, he was yet capable of seeing by the common light of day, when his affections were deeply stirred. And in the night he had pondered much over his son's behaviour. Was he being deceived in that quarter also, and there intentionally? Did Joseph know this child better than he had done, and calculate upon her weakness? The shock, instead of disabling him, had caused a revival of his strength. He could walk more firmly this morning than at any time since his accident. His brain was clear and active; he knew that it behoved him to reconsider all he had been doing, and that quickly, ere it was too late. He must even forget that aching of the heart until he had leisure to indulge it.
'You shan't disappoint me, my dear,' he said gravely. 'It's my own fault if I don't take your kindness as you mean it. I have to go out, Jane, but I shall be back to dinner. Perhaps we'll talk again afterwards.'
Of late, on the rare occasions of his leaving the house, he had always told her where he was going, and for what purpose; Jane understood that this confidence was at an end. When he was gone she found occupation for a short time, but presently could only sit over the fire, nursing her many griefs. She was no longer deemed worthy of confidence; worse than that, she had no more faith in herself. If Sidney learnt what had happened he could not even retain his respect for her. In this way she thought of it, judging Kirkwood by the ideal standard, which fortunately is so unlike human nature; taking it for granted -- so oppressed was her mind by the habit of dwelling on artificial motives -- that he only liked her because he had believed her strong in purpose, forgetting altogether that his love had grown before he was aware that anything unusual was required of her. She did remember, indeed, that it was only the depth of her love for him which had caused her disgrace; but, even if he came to understand that, it would not, she feared, weigh in her favour against his judgment.
It was the natural result of the influences to which she had been subjected. Her mind, overwrought by resolute contemplation of ideas beyond its scope, her gentle nature bent beneath a burden of duty to which it was unequal, and taught to consider with painful solemnity those impulses of kindness which would otherwise have been merely the simple joys of life, she had come to distrust every instinct which did not subserve the supreme purpose. Even of Sidney's conduct she could not reason in a natural way. Instinct would have bidden her reproach him, though ever so gently; was it well done to draw away when he must have known how she looked for his aid? Her artificial self urged, on the other hand, that he had not acted thus without some gravely considered motive. What it was she could not pretend to divine; her faith in his nobleness overcame every perplexity. Of the persons constituting this little group and playing their several parts, she alone had fallen altogether below what was expected of her. As humble now as in the days of her serfdom, Jane was incapable of revolting against the tyranny of circumstances. Life had grown very hard for her again, but she believed that this was to a great extent her own fault, the outcome of her own unworthy weakness.
At Michael's return she did her best to betray no idle despondency. Their midday meal was almost as silent as breakfast had been; his eyes avoided her, and frequently he lost himself in thought. As he was rising from the table Jane observed an unsteadiness in his movement; he shook his head mechanically and leaned forward on both his hands, as if feeling giddy. She approached him, but did not venture to speak.
'I'll go upstairs,' he said, having sighed slightly.
'May I come and read to you, grandfather?'
'Not just now, Jane. Go out whilst it's a bit fine.'
He went from the room, still with an unsteady walk. Reaching his own room, where there was a cheerful fire, he sat down, and remained for a long time unoccupied, save with his reflections. This chamber had scarcely changed in a detail of its arrangement since he first came to inhabit it. There was the chair which Sidney always used, and that on which Jane had sat since she was the silent, frail child of thirteen. Here had his vision taken form, growing more definite with the growth of his granddaughter, seeming to become at length a splendid reality. What talk had been held here between Kirkwood and himself whilst Jane listened! All gone into silence; gone, too, the hope it had encouraged.
He was weary after the morning's absence from home, and fell into a light slumber. Dreams troubled him. First he found himself in Australia; he heard again the sudden news of his son's death; the shook awoke him. Another dozing fit, and he was a young man with a wife and children to support; haunted with the fear of coming to want; harsh, unreasonable in his exactions at home. Something like a large black coffin came into his dream, and in dread of it he again returned to consciousness.
All night he had been thinking of the dark story of long ago -- his wife's form motionless on the bed -- the bottle which told him what had happened. Why must that memory revive to trouble his last days? Part of his zeal for the great project had come of a feeling that he might thus in some degree repair his former ill-doing; Jane would be a providence to many hapless women whose burden was as heavy as his own wife's had been, Must he abandon that solace? In any case he could bestow his money for charitable purposes, but it would not be the same, it would not effect what he had aimed at.
Late in the afternoon he drew from the inner pocket of his coat a long envelope and took thence a folded paper. It was covered with clerkly writing, which he perused several times. At length he tore the paper slowly across the middle, again tore the fragments, and threw them on to the fire. . . .
Jane obeyed her grandfather's word and went out for an hour. She wished for news of Pennyloaf, who had been ill, and was now very near the time of her confinement. At the door of the house in Merlin Place she was surprised to encounter Bob Hewett, who stood in a lounging attitude; he had never appeared to her so disreputable -- not that his clothes were worse than usual, but his face and hands were dirty, and the former was set in a hang-dog look.
'Is your wife upstairs, Mr. Hewett?' Jane asked, when he had nodded sullenly in reply to her greeting.
'Yes; and somebody else too as could have been dispensed with. There's another mouth to feed.'
'No, there ain't,' cried a woman's voice just behind him.
Jane recognised the speaker, a Mrs. Griffin, who lived in the house and was neighbourly to Pennyloaf.
'There ain't?' inquired Bob, gruffly.
'The child's dead.'
'Thank goodness for that, any way!'
Mrs. Griffin explained to Jane that the birth had taken place twelve hours ago. Pennyloaf was 'very low,' but not in a state to cause anxiety; perhaps it would be better for Jane to wait until to-morrow before seeing her.
'She didn't say "thank goodness," added the woman, with a scornful glance at Bob, 'but I don't think she's over sorry as it's gone, an' small blame to her. There's some people as doesn't care much what sort o' times she has -- not meanin' you, Miss, but them as had ought to care.'
Bob looked more disreputable than ever. His eyes were fixed on Jane, and with such a singular expression that the latter, meeting their gaze, felt startled, she did not know why. At the same moment he stepped down from the threshold and walked away without speaking.
'I shouldn't care to have him for a 'usband,' pursued Mrs. Griffin. 'Of course he must go an' lose his work, just when his wife's wantin' a few little extries, as you may say.'
'Lost his work?'
'Day 'fore yes'day. I don't like him, an' I don't like his ways; he'll be gettin' into trouble before long, you mind what I say. His family's a queer lot, 'cordin' to what they tell. Do you know them, Miss?'
'I used to, a long time ago.'
'You knew his sister -- her as is come 'ome?'
'Her as was a actress. Mrs. Bannister was tellin' me only last night; she had it from Mrs. Horrocks, as heard from a friend of hers as lives in the Farrin'don Buildin's, where the Hewetts lives too. They tell me it was in the Sunday paper, though I don't remember nothing about it at the time. It seems as how a woman threw vitrol over her an' burnt her face so as there's no knowin' her, an' she goes about with a veil, an' 'cause she can't get her own livin' no more, of course she's come back 'ome, for all she ran away an' disgraced herself shameful.'
Jane gazed fixedly at the speaker, scarcely able to gather the sense of what was said.
'Miss Hewett, you mean? Mr. Hewett's eldest daughter?'
'So I understand.'
'She has come home? When?'
'I can't just say; but a few weeks ago, I believe. They say it's nearly two months since it was in the paper.'
'Does Mrs. Hewett know about it?'
'I can't say. She's never spoke to me as if she did. And, as I tell you, I only heard yes'day myself. If you're a friend of theirs, p'r'aps I hadn't oughtn't to a' mentioned it. It just come to my lips in the way o' tallin'. Of course I don't know nothin' about the young woman myself; it's only what you comes to 'ear in the way o' talkin', you know.'
This apology was doubtless produced by the listener's troubled countenance. Jane asked no further question, but said she would come to see Pennyloaf on the morrow, and so took her leave.
At ten o'clock next morning, just when Jane was preparing for her visit to Merlin Place, so possessed with anxiety to ascertain if Pennyloaf knew anything about Clara Hewett that all her troubles were for the moment in the back ground, Bessie Byass came running upstairs with a strange announcement. Sidney Kirkwood had called, and wished to see Miss Snowdon in private for a few minutes.
'Something must have happened,' said Jane, her heart standing still.
Bessie had a significant smile, but suppressed it when she noticed the agitation into which her friend was fallen.
'Shall I ask him up into the front room?'
Michael was in his own chamber, which he had not left this morning. On going to the parlour Jane found her visitor standing in expectancy. Yes, something had happened; it needed but to look at him to be convinced of that. And before a word was spoken Jane knew that his coming had reference to Clara Hewett, knew it with the strangest certainty.
'I didn't go to work this morning,' Sidney began, 'because I was very anxious to see you -- alone. I have something to speak about -- to tell you.'
'Let us sit down.'
Sidney waited till he met her look; she regarded him without self-consciousness, without any effort to conceal her agitated interest.
'You see young Hewett and his wife sometimes. Have you heard from either of them that Clara Hewett is living with her father again?'
'Not from them. A person in their house spoke about it yesterday. It was the first I had heard.'
'Spoke of Miss Hewett? In a gossiping way, do you mean?'
'Then you know what has happened to her?'
'If the woman told the truth.'
There was silence.
'Miss Snowdon ----'
'Oh, I don't like you to speak so. You used to call me Jane.'
He looked at her in distress. She had spoken impulsively, but not with the kind of emotion the words seem to imply. It was for his sake, not for hers, that she broke that formal speech.
'You called me so when I was a child, Mr. Kirkwood,' she continued, smiling for all she was so pale. 'It sounds as if something had altered. You're my oldest friend, and won't you always be so? Whatever you're going to tell me, surely it doesn't prevent us from being friends, just the same as always?'
He had not seen her in her weakness, the night before last. As little as he could imagine that, was he able to estimate the strength with which she now redeemed her womanly dignity. His face told her what he had to disclose. No question now of proving herself superior to common feelings; it was Sidney who made appeal to her, and her heart went forth to grant him all he desired.
'Jane -- dear, good Jane -- you remember what I said to you in the garden at Danbury -- that I had forgotten her. I thought it was true. But you know what a terrible thing has befallen her. I should be less than a man if I could say that she is nothing to me.'
'Have you spoken to her?'
'I have asked her to be my wife. Jane, if I had come to you yesterday, before going to her, and had told you what I meant to do, and explained all I felt, how the love of years ago had grown in me again, wouldn't you have given me a friendly hand?'
'Just like I do now. Do you think I have forgotten one night when she stood by me and saved me from cruel treatment, and then nursed me when I fell ill?'
Neither of them had the habit of making long speeches. They understood each other -- very nearly; sufficiently, at all events, to make the bond of sympathy between them stronger than ever. Jane was misled a little, for she thought that here was the explanation of Sidney's withdrawing his word to her grandfather; doubtless he heard of the calamity when it happened. But on a more essential point she fell into no misconception. Did Sidney desire that she should?
He held her hand until she gently drew it away.
'You will go up and tell grandfather,' she said, gravely; then added, before he could speak, 'But I'll just see him first for a minute. He hasn't been out of his room this morning yet. Please wait here.'
She left him, and Sidney fell back on his chair, woebegone, distracted.
Michael, brooding sorrowfully, at first paid no heed to Jane when she entered his room. It was not long since he had risen, and his simple breakfast, scarcely touched, was still on the table.
'Grandfather, Mr. Kirkwood is here, and wishes to speak to you.'
He collected himself, and, regarding her, became aware that she was strongly moved.
'Wishes to see me, Jane? Then I suppose he came to see you first?'
Prepared now for anything unexpected, feeling that the links between himself and these young people were artificial, and that he could but watch, as if from a distance, the course of their lives, his first supposition was, that Sidney had again altered his mind. He spoke coldly, and had little inclination for the interview.
'Yes,' Jane replied, 'he came to see me, but only to tell me that he is going to be married.'
His wrinkled face slowly gathered an expression of surprise.
'He will tell you who it is; he will explain. But I wanted to speak to you first. Grandfather, I was afraid yea might say something about me. Will you -- will you forget my foolishness? Will you think of me as you did before? When he has spoken to you, you will understand why I am content to put everything out of my mind, everything you and I talked of. But I couldn't bear for him to know how I have disappointed you. Will you let me be all I was to you before? Will you trust me again, grandfather? You haven't spoken to him yet about me, have you?'
Michael shook his head.
'Then you will let it be as if nothing had happened? Grandfather ----'
She bent beside him and took his hand. Michael looked at her with a light once more in his eyes.
'Tell him to come. He shall hear nothing from me, Jane.'
'And you will try to forget it?'
'I wish nothing better. Tell him to come here, my child. When he's gone we'll talk together again.'
The interview did not last long, and Sidney left the house without seeing Jane a second time.
She would have promised anything now. Seeing that life had but one path of happiness for her, the path hopelessly closed, what did it matter by which of the innumerable other ways she accomplished her sad journey? For an instant, whilst Sidney was still speaking, she caught a gleam of hope in renunciation itself, the kind of strength which idealism is fond of attributing to noble natures. A gleam only, and deceptive; she knew it too well after the day spent by her grandfather's side, encouraging, at the expense of her heart's blood, all his revived faith in her. But she would not again give way. The old man should reap fruit of her gratitude and Sidney should never suspect how nearly she had proved herself unworthy of his high opinion.
She had dreamed her dream, and on awaking must be content to take up the day's duties. Just in the same way, when she was a child at Mrs. Peckover's, did not sleep often bring a vision of happiness, of freedom from bitter tasks, and had she not to wake in the miserable mornings, trembling lest she had lain too long? Her condition was greatly better than then, so much better that it seemed wicked folly to lament because one joy was not granted her. -- Why, in the meantime she had forgotten all about Pennyloaf. That visit must be paid the first thing this morning.
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