The Nether World
A Sunday morning. In their parlour in Burton Crescent, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Snowdon were breakfasting. The sound of church bells -- most depressing of all sounds that mingle in the voice of London -- intimated that it was nearly eleven o'clock, but neither of our friends had in view the attendance of public worship. Blended odours of bacon and kippered herrings filled the room -- indeed, the house, for several breakfasts were in progress under the same roof. For a wonder, the morning was fine, even sunny; a yellow patch glimmered on the worn carpet, and the grime of the window-panes was visible against an unfamiliar sky. Joseph, incompletely dressed, had a Sunday paper propped before him, and read whilst he ate. Clem, also in anything but grande toilette was using a knife for the purpose of conveying to her mouth the juice which had exuded from crisp rashers. As usual, they had very little to say to each other. Clem looked at her husband now and then, from under her eyebrows, surreptitiously.
After one of these glances she said, in a tone which was not exactly hostile, but had a note of suspicion:
'I'd give something to know why he's going to marry Clara Hewett.'
'Not the first time you've made that remark,' returned Joseph, without looking up from his paper.
'I suppose I can speak?'
'Oh, yes. But I'd try to do so in a more lady-like way.'
Clem flashed at him a gleam of hatred. He had become fond lately of drawing attention to her defects of breeding. Clem certainly did not keep up with his own progress in the matter of external refinement; his comments had given her a sense of inferiority, which irritated her solely as meaning that she was not his equal in craft. She let a minute or two pass, then returned to the subject.
'There's something at the bottom of it; I know that. Of course you know more about it than you pretend.'
Joseph leaned back in his chair and regarded her with a smile of the loftiest scorn.
'It never occurs to you to explain it in the simplest way, of course, If ever you hear of a marriage, the first thing you ask yourself is: What has he or she to gain by it? Natural enough -- in you. Now do you really suppose that all marriages come about in the way that yours did -- on your side, I mean?'
Clem was far too dull-witted to be capable of quick retort. She merely replied:
'I don't know what you're talking about.'
'Of course not. But let me assure you that people sometimes think of other things besides making profit when they get married. It's a pity that you always show yourself so coarse-minded.'
Joseph was quite serious in administering this rebuke. He really felt himself justified in holding the tone of moral superiority. The same phenomenon has often been remarked in persons conscious that their affairs are prospering, and whose temptations to paltry meanness are on that account less frequent.
'And what about yourself?' asked his wife, having found her retort at length. 'Why did you want to marry me, I'd like to know?'
'Why? You are getting too modest. How could I live in the same house with such a good-looking and sweet-tempered and well-behaved ----'
'Oh, shut up!' she exclaimed, in a voice such as one hears at the street-corner. 'It was just because you thought we was goin' to be fools enough to keep you in idleness. Who was the fool, after all?'
Joseph smiled, and returned to his newspaper. In satisfaction at having reduced him to silence, Clem laughed aloud and clattered with the knife on her plate. As she was doing so there came a knock at the door.
'A gentleman wants to know if you're in, sir,' said the house-thrall, showing a smeary face. 'Mr. Byass is the name.'
'Mr. Byass? I'll go down and see him.'
Clem's face became alive with suspicion. In spite of her careless attire she intercepted Joseph, and bade the servant ask Mr. Byass to come upstairs. 'How can you go down without a collar?' she said to her husband.
He understood, and was somewhat uneasy, but made no resistance. Mr. Byass presented himself. He had a very long face, and obviously brought news of grave import. Joseph shook hands with him.
'You don't know my wife, I think. Mr. Byass, Clem. Nothing wrong, I hope?'
Samuel, having made his best City bow, swung back from his toes to his heels, and stood looking down into his hat. 'I'm sorry to say,' he began, with extreme gravity, 'that Mr. Snowdon is rather ill -- in fact, very ill. Miss Jane asked me to come as sharp as I could,'
'Ill? In what way?'
'I'm afraid it's a stroke, or something in that line. He fell down without a word of warning, just before ten o'clock. He's lying insensible.'
'I'll come at once,' said Joseph. 'They've got a doctor, I hope?'
'Yes; the doctor had been summoned instantly.'
'I'll go with you,' said Clem, in a tone of decision.
'No, no; what's the good? You'll only be in the way.'
'No, I shan't. If he's as bad as all that, I shall come.'
Both withdrew to prepare themselves. Mr. Byass, who was very nervous and perspiring freely, began to walk round and round the table, inspecting closely, in complete absence of mind, the objects that lay on it.
'We'll have a cab,' cried Joseph, as he came forth equipped. 'Poor Jane's in a sad state, I'm afraid, oh?'
In a few minutes they were driving up Pentonville Road. Clem scarcely ever removed her eye from Joseph's face; the latter held his lips close together and kept his brows wrinkled. Few words passed during the drive.
At the door of the house appeared Bessie, much agitated. All turned into the parlour on the ground floor and spoke together for a few minutes. Michael had been laid on his bed; at present Jane only was with him, but the doctor would return shortly.
'Will you tell her I'm here?' said Joseph to Mrs. Byass. 'I'll see her in the sitting-room.'
He went up and waited. Throughout the house prevailed that unnatural, nerve-distressing quietude which tells the presence of calamity. The church bells had ceased ringing, and Sunday's silence in the street enhanced the effect of blankness and alarming expectancy. Joseph could not keep still; he strained his ears in attention to any slight sound that might come from the floor above, and his heart beat painfully when at length the door opened.
Jane fixed her eyes on him and came silently forward.
'Does he show any signs of coming round?' her father inquired.
'No. He hasn't once moved.'
She spoke only just above a whisper. The shock kept her still trembling and her face bloodless.
'Tell me how it happened, Jane.'
'He'd just got up. I'd taken him his breakfast, and we were talking. All at once he began to turn round, and then he fell down -- before I could reach him.'
'I'll go upstairs, shall I?'
Jane could not overcome her fear; at the door of the bedroom she drew back, involuntarily, that her father might enter before her. When she forced herself to follow, the first glimpse of the motionless form shook her from head to foot. The thought of death was dreadful to her, and death seemed to lurk invisibly in this quiet room. The pale sunlight affected her as a mockery of hope.
'You won't go away again, father?' she whispered.
He shook his head.
In the meantime Bessie and Clem were conversing. On the single previous occasion of Clem's visit to the house they had not met. They examined each other's looks with curiosity. Clem wished it were possible to get at the secrets of which Mrs. Byass was doubtless in possession; Bessie on her side was reserved, circumspect.
'Will he get over it?' the former inquired, with native brutality.
'I'm sure I don't know; I hope he may.'
The medical man arrived, and when he came downstairs again Joseph accompanied him. Clem, when she found that nothing definite could be learned, and that her husband had no intention of leaving, expressed her wish to walk round to Clerkenwell Close and see her mother. Joseph approved.
'You'd better have dinner there,' he said to her privately. 'We can't both of us come down on the Byasses.'
She nodded, and with a parting glance of hostile suspicion set forth. When she had crossed City Road, Clem's foot was on her native soil; she bore herself with conscious importance, hoping to meet some acquaintance who would be impressed by her attire and demeanour. Nothing of the kind happened, however. It was the dead hour of Sunday morning, midway in service-time, and long before the opening of public-houses. In the neighbourhood of those places of refreshment were occasionally found small groups of men and boys, standing with their hands in their pockets, dispirited, seldom caring even to smoke; they kicked their heels against the kerbstone and sighed for one o'clock. Clem went by them with a haughty balance of her head.
As she entered by the open front door and began to descend the kitchen steps, familiar sounds were audible. Mrs. Peckover's voice was raised in dispute with some one; it proved to be a quarrel with a female lodger respecting the sum of threepence-farthing, alleged by the landlady to be owing on some account or other. The two women had already reached the point of calling each other liar and thief. Clem, having no acquaintance with the lodger, walked into the kitchen with an air of contemptuous indifference. The quarrel continued for another ten minutes -- if the head of either had been suddenly cut off it would assuredly have gone on railing for an appreciable time -- and Clem waited, sitting before the fire. At last the lodger had departed, and the last note of her virulence died away.
'And what do you want?' asked Mrs. Peckover, turning sharply upon her daughter.
'I suppose I can come to see you, can't I?'
'Come to see me! Likely! When did you come last? You're a ungrateful beast, that's what you are!'
'All right. Go a'ead! Anything else you'd like to call me?'
Mrs. Peckover was hurt by the completeness with which Clem had established her independence. To do the woman justice, she had been actuated, in her design of capturing Joseph Snowdon, at least as much by a wish to establish her daughter satisfactorily as by the ever-wakeful instinct which bade her seize whenever gain lay near her clutches. Clem was proving disloyal, had grown secretive. Mrs. Peckover did not look for any direct profit worth speaking of from the marriage she had brought about, but she did desire the joy of continuing to plot against Joseph with his wife. Moreover, she knew that Clem was a bungler, altogether lacking in astuteness, and her soul was pained by the thought of chances being missed. Her encounter with the lodger had wrought her up to the point at which she could discuss matters with Clem frankly. The two abused each other for a while, but Clem really desired to communicate her news, so that calmer dialogue presently ensued.
'Old Snowdon's had a stroke, if you'd like to know, and it's my belief he won't get over it.'
'Your belief! And what's your belief worth? Had a stroke, has he? Who told you?'
'I've just come from the 'ouse. Jo's stoppin' there.'
They discussed the situation in all its aspects, but Mrs. Peckover gave it clearly to be understood that, from her point of view, 'the game was spoilt.' As long as Joseph continued living under her roof she could in a measure direct the course of events; Clem had chosen to abet him in his desire for removal, and if ill came of it she had only herself to blame.
'I can look out for myself,' said Clem.
'Can you? I'm glad to hear it.'
And Mrs. Peckover sniffed the air, scornfully. The affectionate pair dined together, each imbibing a pint and a half of 'mild and bitter,' and Clem returned to Hanover Street. From Joseph she could derive no information as to the state of the patient.
'If you will stay here, where you can do no good,' he said, 'sit down and keep quiet.'
'Certainly I shall stay,' said his wife, 'because I know you want to get rid of me.'
Joseph left her in the sitting-room, and went upstairs again to keep his daughter company. Jane would not leave the bedside. To enter the room, after an interval elsewhere, wrung her feelings too painfully; better to keep her eyes fixed on the unmoving form, to overcome the dread by facing it.
She and her father seldom exchanged a word. The latter was experiencing human emotion, but at the same time he had no little anxiety regarding his material interests. It was ten days since he had learnt that there was no longer the least fear of a marriage between Jane and Sidney, seeing that Kirkwood was going to marry some one else -- a piece of news which greatly astonished him, and confirmed him in his judgment that he had been on the wrong tack in judging Kirkwood's character. At the same time he had been privily informed by Scawthorne of an event which had ever since kept him very uneasy -- Michael's withdrawal of his will from the hands of the solicitors. With what purpose this had been done Scawthorne could not conjecture; Mr. Percival had made no comment in hi. hearing. In all likelihood the will was now in this very room. Joseph surveyed every object again and again. He wondered whether Jane knew anything of the matter, but not all his cynicism could persuade him that at the present time her thoughts were taking the same direction as his own.
The day waned. Its sombre close was unspeakably mournful in this haunted chamber. Jane could not bear it; she hid her face and wept.
When the doctor came again, at six o'clock, he whispered to Joseph that the end was nearer than he had anticipated. Near, indeed; less than ten minutes after the warning had been given Michael ceased to breathe.
Jane knelt by the bed, convulsed with grief, unable to hear the words her father addressed to her. He sat for five minutes, then again spoke. She rose and replied.
'Will you come with us, Jane, or would rather stay with Mrs. Byass?'
'I will stay, please, father.'
He hesitated, but the thought that rose was even for him too ignoble to be entertained.
'As you please, my dear. Of course no one must enter your rooms but Mrs. Byass. I must go now, but I shall look in again to-night.'
She spoke mechanically. He had to lead her from the room, and, on quitting the house, left her all but unconscious in Bessie's arms.
'And you mean to say,' cried Clem, when she was in the cab with her husband speeding back to Burton Crescent -- 'you mean to say as you've left them people to do what they like?'
'I suppose I know my own business,' re plied Joseph, wishing to convey the very impression which in fact he did -- that he had the will in his pocket.
On reaching home he sat down at once and penned a letter to Messrs. Percival & Peel, formally apprising them of what had happened. Clem sat by and watched him. Having sealed the envelope, he remarked:
'I'm going out for a couple of hours.'
'Then I shall go with you.'
'You'll do nothing of the kind. Why, what do you mean, you great gaping fool?' The agitation of his nerves made him break into unaccustomed violence. 'Do you suppose you're going to follow me everywhere for the next week? Are you afraid I shall run away? If I mean to do so, do you think you can stop me? You'll just wait here till I come back, which will be before ten o'clock. Do you hear?'
She looked at him fiercely, but his energy was too much for her, and perforce she let him go. As soon as he had left the house, she too sat down and indited a letter. It ran thus:
'DEAR MOTHER, -- The old feller has gawn of it apened at jest after six e'clock if you want to now I shall come and sea you at ten 'clock to-morow moning and I beleve hes got the will but hes a beest and theers a game up you may take your hothe so I remain C. S.'
This document she took to the nearest pillar-post, then returned and sat brooding.
By the first hansom available Joseph was driven right across London to a certain dull street in Chelsea. Before dismissing the vehicle he knocked at the door of a lodging-house and made inquiry for Mr. Scawthorne. To his surprise and satisfaction, Mr. Scawthorne happened to be at home; so the cabman was paid, and Joseph went up to the second floor.
In his shabby little room Scawthorne sat smoking and reading. It was a season of impecuniosity with him, and his mood was anything but cheerful. He did not rise when his visitor entered.
'Well now, what do you think brings me here?' exclaimed Joseph, when he had carefully closed the door.
'Hanged if I know, but it doesn't seem to be particularly bad news.'
Indeed, Joseph had overcome his sensibilities by this time, and his aspect was one of joyous excitement. Seeing on the table a bottle of sherry, loosely corked, he pointed to it.
'If you don't mind, Scaw. I'm a bit upset, a bit flurried. Got another wine-glass?'
From the cupboard Scawthorne produced one and bade the visitor help himself. His face beg auto express curiosity. Joseph tilted the draught down his throat and showed satisfaction.
'That does me good. I've had a troublesome day. It ain't often my feelings are tried.'
'Well, what is it?'
'My boy, we are all mortal. I dare say you've heard that observation before; can you apply it to any particular case?'
Scawthorne was startled; he delayed a moment before speaking.
'You don't mean to say ----'
'Exactly. Died a couple of hours ago, after lying insensible all day, poor old man! I've just written your people a formal announcement. Now, what do you think of that? If you don't mind, old fellow.'
He filled himself another glass, and tilted it off as before. Scawthorne had dropped his eyes to the ground, and stood in meditation.
'Now what about the will?' pursued Joseph.
'You haven't looked for it?' questioned his friend with an odd look.
'Thought it more decent to wait a few hours. The girl was about, you see, and what's more, my wife was. But have you heard anything since I saw you?'
'Why, yes. A trifle.'
'Out with it! What are you grinning about? Don't keep me on hot coals.'
'Well, it's amusing, and that's the fact. Take another glass of sherry; you'll need support.'
'Oh, I'm prepared for the worst. He's cut me out altogether, eh? That comes of me meddling with the girl's affairs -- damnation! When there wasn't the least need, either.'
'A bad job. The fact is, Percival had a letter from him at midday yesterday. The senior had left the office; young Percival opened the letter, and spoke to me about it. Now, prepare yourself. The letter said that he had destroyed his former will, and would come to the office on Monday -- that's to-marrow -- to give instructions for a new one.'
Joseph stood and stared.
'To-morrow? Why, then, there's no will at all?'
'An admirable deduction. I congratulate you on your logic.'
Snowdon flung up his arms wildly, then began to leap about the room.
'Try another glass,' said Scawthorne. 'There's still a bottle in the cupboard; don't be afraid.'
'And you mean to tell me it's all mine?'
'The wine? You're very welcome.'
'Wine be damned! The money, my boy, the money! Scawthorne, I'm not a mean chap. As sure as you and me stand here, you shall have -- you shall have a hundred pounds! I mean it; dash me, I mean it! You've been devilish useful to me; and what's more I haven't done with you yet. Do you twig, old boy?'
'You mean that a confidential agent in England, unsuspected, may be needed?'
'Shouldn't wonder if I do.'
'Can't be managed under double the money, my good sir,' observed Scawthorne, with unmistakable seriousness. 'Worth your while, I promise you. Have another glass. Fair commission. Think it over.'
'Look here! I shall have to make the girl an allowance.'
'There's the filter-works. Don't be stingy.'
Joseph was growing very red in the face. He drank glass after glass; he flung his arms about; he capered.
'Damn me if you shall call me that, Scaw! Two hundred it shall be. But what was the old cove up to? Why did he destroy the other will? What would the new one have been?'
'Can't answer either question, but it's probably as well for you that to-morrow never comes.'
'Now just see how things turn out!' went on the other, in the joy of his heart. 'All the thought and the trouble that I've gone through this last year, when I might have taken it easy and waited for chance to make me rich! Look at Kirkwood's business. There was you and me knocking our heads together and raising lumps on them, as you may say, to find out a plan of keeping him and Jane apart, when all the while we'd nothing to do but to look on and wait, if only we'd known. Now this is what I call the working of Providence, Scawthorne. Who's going to say after this, that things ain't as they should be? Everything's for the best, my boy; I see that clearly enough.'
'Decidedly,' assented Scawthorne, with a smile. 'The honest man is always rewarded in the long run. And that reminds me; I too have had a stroke of luck.'
He went on to relate that his position in the office of Percival & Peel was now nominally that of an articled clerk, and that in three years' time, if all went well, he would be received in the firm as junior partner.
'There's only one little project I am sorry to give up, in connection with your affairs, Snowdon. If it had happened that your daughter had inherited the money, why shouldn't I have had the honour of becoming your son-in-law?'
Joseph stared, then burst into hearty laughter.
'I tell you what,' he said, recovering himself, 'why should you give up that idea? She's as good a girl as you'll ever come across, I can tell you that, my boy. There's better-looking, but you won't find many as modest and good-hearted. Just make her acquaintance, and tell me if I've deceived you. And look here, Scawthorne; by George, I'll make a bargain with you! You say you'll be a partner m three years. Marry Jane when that day comes, and I'll give you a thousand for a wedding present. I mean it! What's more, I'll make my will on your marriage-day and leave everything I've got to you and her. There now!'
'What makes you so benevolent all at once?' inquired Scawthorne, blandly.
'Do you think I've got no fatherly feeling, man? Why, if it wasn't for my wife I'd ask nothing better than to settle down with Jane to keep house for me. She's a good girl, I tell you, and I wish her happiness.'
'And do you think I'm exactly the man to make her a model husband?'
'I don't see why not -- now you're going to be a partner in a good business. Don't you think I'm ten times as honest a man to-day as I was yesterday? Poor devils can't afford to be what they'd wish, in the way of honesty and decent living.'
True enough for once,' remarked the other, without irony.
'You think it over, Scaw. I'm a man of my word. You shall have your money as soon as things are straight; and if you can bring about that affair, I'll do all I said -- so there's my hand on it. Say the word, and I'll make you acquainted with her before -- before I take that little trip you know of, just for my health.'
'We'll speak of it again.'
Thereupon they parted. In the course of the following day Scawthorne's report received official confirmation. Joseph pondered deeply with himself whether he should tell his wife the truth or not; there were arguments for both courses. By Tuesday morning he had decided for the truth; that would give more piquancy to a pleasant little jest he had in mind. At breakfast he informed her, as if casually, and it amused him to see that she did not believe him.
'You'll be anxious to tell your mother. Go and spend the day with her, but be back by five o'clock; then we'll talk things over. I have business with the lawyers again.'
Clem repaired to the Close. Late in the afternoon she and her husband again met at home, and by this time Joseph's elation had convinced her that he was telling the truth. Never had he been in such a suave humour; he seemed to wish to make up for his late severities. Seating himself near her, he began pleasantly:
'Well, things might have been worse, eh?'
'I s'pose they might.'
'I haven't spoken to Jane yet. Time enough after the funeral. What shall we do for the poor girl, eh?'
'How do I know?'
'You won't grudge her a couple of pounds a week, or so, just to enable her to live with the Byasses, as she has been doing?'
'I s'pose the money's your own to do what you like with.'
'Very kind of you to say so, my dear. But we're well-to-do people now, and we must be polite to each other. Where shall we take a house, Clem? Would you like to be a bit out of town? There's very nice places within easy reach of King's Cross, you know, on the Great Northern. A man I know lives at Potter's Bar, and finds it very pleasant; good air. Of course I must be within easy reach of business.'
She kept drawing her nails over a fold in her dress, making a scratchy sound.
'It happened just at the right time,' he continued. 'The business wants a little more capital put into it. I tell you what it is, Clem; in a year or two we shall be coining money, old girl.'
'Right enough. There's just one thing I'm a little anxious about; you won't mind me mentioning it? Do you think your mother'll expect us to do anything for her?'
Clem regarded him with cautious scrutiny. He was acting well, and her profound distrust began to be mingled with irritating uncertainty.
'What can she expect? If she does, she'll have to be disappointed, that's all.'
'I don't want to seem mean, you know. But then she isn't so badly herself, is she?'
'I know nothing about it. You'd better ask her.'
And Clem grinned. Thereupon Joseph struck a facetious note, and for half an hour made himself very agreeable. Now for the first time, he said, could he feel really settled; life was smooth before him. They would have a comfortable home, the kind of place to which he could invite his friends; one or two excellent fellows he knew would bring their wives, and so Clem would have more society.
'Suppose you learn the piano, old girl? It wouldn't be amiss. By-the-by, I hope they'll turn you out some creditable mourning. You'll have to find a West End dressmaker.'
She listened, and from time to time smiled ambiguously. . . .
At noon of the next day Clem was walking on that part of the Thames Embankment which is between Waterloo Bridge and the Temple Pier. It was a mild morning, misty, but illuminated now and then with rays of sunlight, which gleamed dully upon the river and gave a yellowness to remote objects. At the distance of a dozen paces walked Bob Hewett; the two had had a difference in their conversation, and for some minutes kept thus apart, looking sullenly at the ground. Clem turned aside, and leaned her arms on the parapet. Presently her companion drew near and leaned in the same manner.
'What is it you want me to do?' he asked huskily. 'Just speak plain, can't you?'
'If you can't understand -- if you won't, that is -- it's no good speakin' plainer.'
'You said the other night as you didn't care about his money. If you think he means hookin' it, let him go, and good riddance.'
'That's a fool's way of talkin'. I'm not goin' to lose it all, if I can help it. There's a way of stoppin' him, and of gettin' the money too.'
They both stared down at the water; it was full tide, and the muddy surface looked almost solid.
'You wouldn't get it all,' were Bob's next words. 'I've been asking about that.'
'You have? Who did you ask?'
'Oh, a feller you don't know. You'd only have a third part of it, and the girl 'ud get the rest.'
'What do you call a third part?'
So complete was her stupidity, that Bob had to make a laborious explanation of this mathematical term, She could have understood what was meant by a half or a quarter, but the unfamiliar 'third' conveyed no distinct meaning.
'I don't care,' she said at length. 'That 'ud be enough.'
'Clem -- you'd better leave this job alone. You'd better, I warn you.'
Another long silence. A steamboat drew up to the Temple Pier, and a yellow shaft of sunlight fell softly upon its track in the water.
'What do you want me to do?' Bob recommenced. 'How?'
Their eyes met, and in the woman's gaze he found a horrible fascination, a devilish allurement to that which his soul shrank from. She lowered her voice.
'There's lots of ways. It 'ud be easy to make it seem as somebody did it just to rob him. He's always out late at night.'
His face was much the colour of the muddy water yellowed by that shaft of sunlight. His lips quivered. 'I dursn't, Clem. I tell you plain, I dursn't.'
'Coward!' she snarled at him, savagely. 'Coward! All right, Mr. Bob. You go your way, and I'll go mine.'
'Listen here, Clem,' he gasped out, laying his hand on her arm. 'I'll think about it. I won't say no. Give me a day to think about it.'
'Oh, we know what your thinkin' means.'
They talked for some time longer, and before they parted Bob had given a promise to do more than think.
The long, slouching strides with which he went up from the Embankment to the Strand gave him the appearance of a man partly overcome with drink. For hours he walked about the City, in complete oblivion of everything external. Only when the lights began to shine from shop-windows did he consciously turn to his own district. It was raining now. The splashes of cool moisture made him aware how feverishly hot his face was.
When he got among the familiar streets he went slinkingly, hurrying round corners, avoiding glances. Almost at a run he turned into Merlin Place, and he burst into his room as though he were pursued.
Pennyloaf had now but one child to look after, a girl of two years, a feeble thing. Her own state was wretched; professedly recovered from illness, she felt so weak, so low-spirited, that the greater part of her day was spent in crying. The least exertion was too much for her; but for frequent visits from Jane Snowdon she must have perished for very lack of wholesome food. She was crying when startled by her husband's entrance, and though she did her best to hide the signs of it, Bob saw.
'When are you going to stop that?' he shouted.
She shrank away, looking at him with fear in her red eyes.
'Stop your snivelling, and get me some tea!'
It was only of late that Pennyloaf had come to regard him with fear. His old indifference and occasional brutality of language had made her life a misery, but she had never looked for his return home with anything but anxious longing. Now the anticipation was mingled with dread. He not only had no care for her, not only showed that he felt her a burden upon him; his disposition now was one of hatred, and the kind of hatred which sooner or later breaks out in ferocity. Bob would not have come to this pass -- at all events not so soon -- if he had been left to the dictates of his own nature; he was infected by the savagery of the woman who had taken possession of him. Her lust of cruelty crept upon him like a disease, the progress of which was hastened by all the circumstances of his disorderly life. The man was conscious of his degradation; he knew how he had fallen ever since he began criminal practices; he knew the increasing hopelessness of his resolves to have done with dangers and recover his peace of mind. The loss of his daily work, in consequence of irregularity, was the last thing needed to complete his ruin. He did not even try to get new employment, feeling that such a show of honest purpose was useless. Corruption was eating to his heart; from every interview with Clem he came away a feebler and a baser being. And upon the unresisting creature who shared his home he had begun to expend the fury of his self-condemnation.
He hated her because Clem bade him do so. He hated her because her suffering rebuked him, because he must needs be at the cost of keeping her alive, because he was bound to her.
As she moved painfully about the room he watched her with cruel, dangerous eyes. There was a thought tormenting his brain, a terrifying thought he had pledged himself not to dismiss, and it seemed to exasperate him against Pennyloaf. He had horrible impulses, twitches along his muscles; every second the restraint of keeping in one position grew more unendurable, yet he feared to move.
Pennyloaf had the ill-luck to drop a saucer, and it broke on the floor. In the same instant he leapt up and sprang on her, seized her brutally by the shoulders and flung her with all his force against the nearest wall. At her scream the child set up a shrill cry, and this increased his rage. With his clenched fist he dealt blow after blow at the half-prostrate woman, speaking no word, but uttering a strange sound, such as might come from some infuriate animal. Pennyloaf still screamed, till at length the door was thrown open and their neighbour, Mrs. Griffin, showed herself.
'Well, I never!' she cried, wrathfully, rushing upon Bob. 'Now you just stop that, young man! I thought it 'ud be comin' to this before long. I saw you was goin' that way.'
The mildness of her expressions was partly a personal characteristic, partly due to Mrs. Griffin's very large experience of such scenes as this. Indignant she might be, but the situation could not move her to any unwonted force of utterance. Enough that Bob drew back as soon as he was bidden, and seemed from his silence to be half-ashamed of himself.
Pennyloaf let herself lie at full length on the floor, her hands clutched protectingly about her head; she sobbed in a quick, terrified way, and appeared powerless to stop, even when Mrs. Griffin tried to raise her.
'What's he been a-usin' you like this for?' the woman kept asking. 'There, there now! He shan't hit you no more, he shan't!'
Whilst she spoke Bob turned away and went from the room.
From Merlin Place he struck off into Pentonville and walked towards King's Cross at his utmost speed. Not that he had any object in hastening, but a frenzy goaded him along, faster, faster, till the sweat poured from him. From King's Cross, northwards; out to Holloway, to Hornsey. A light rain was ceaselessly falling; at one time he took off his hat and walked some distance bareheaded, because it was a pleasure to feel the rain trickle over him. From Hornsey by a great circuit he made back for Islington. Here he went into a public-house, to quench the thirst that had grown unbearable. He had but a shilling in his pocket, and in bringing it out he was reminded of the necessity of getting more money. He was to have met Jack Bartley to-night, long before this hour.
He took the direction for Smithfield, and soon reached the alley near Bartholomew's Hospital where Bartley dwelt. As he entered the street he saw a small crowd gathered about a public-house door; he hurried nearer, and found that the object of interest was a man in the clutch of two others. The latter, he perceived at a glance, were police-officers in plain clothes; the man arrested was -- Jack Bartley himself.
Jack was beside himself with terror; he had only that moment been brought out of the bar, and was pleading shrilly in an agony of cowardice.
'It ain't me as made 'em! I never made one in my life! I'll tell you who it is -- I'll tell you where to find him -- it's Bob Hewett as lives in Merlin Place! You've took the wrong man. It ain't me as made 'em! I'll tell you the whole truth, or may I never speak another word! It's Bob Hewett made 'em all -- he lives in Merlin Place, Clerkenwell. I'll tell you ----'
Thus far had Bob heard before he recovered sufficiently from the shock to move a limb. The officers were urging their prisoner forward, grinning and nodding to each other, whilst several voices from the crowd shouted abusively at the poltroon whose first instinct was to betray his associate. Bob turned his face away and walked on. He did not dare to run, yet the noises behind him kept his heart leaping with dread. A few paces and he was out of the alley. Even yet he durst not run. He had turned in the unlucky direction; the crowd was still following. For five minutes he had to keep advancing, then at last he was able to move off at right angles. The crowd passed the end of the street.
Only then did complete panic get possession of him. With a bound forward like that of a stricken animal he started in blind flight. He came to a crossing, and rushed upon it regardless of the traffic, Before he could gain the farther pavement the shaft of a cart struck him on the breast and threw him down. The vehicle was going at a slow pace, and could be stopped almost immediately; he was not touched by the wheel. A man helped him to his feet and inquired if he were hurt.
'Hurt? No, no; it's all right.'
To the surprise of those who had witnessed the accident, he walked quickly on, scarcely feeling any pain. But in a few minutes there came a sense of nausea and a warm rush in his throat; he staggered against the wall and vomited a quantity of blood. Again he was surrounded by sympathising people; again he made himself free of them and hastened on. But by now he suffered acutely; he could not run, so great was the pain it cost him when he began to breathe quickly. His mouth was full of blood again.
Where could he find a hiding-place? The hunters were after him, and, however great his suffering, he must go through it in secrecy. But in what house could he take refuge? He had not money enough to pay for a lodging.
He looked about him; tried to collect his thoughts. By this time the police would have visited Merlin Place; they would be waiting there to trap him. He was tempted towards Farringdon Road Buildings; surely his father would not betray him, and he was in such dire need of kindly help. But it would not be safe; the police would search there.
Shooter's Gardens? There was the room where lived Pennyloaf's drunken mother and her brother. They would not give him up. He could think of no other refuge, at all events, and must go there if he would not drop in the street.
It was not much more than a quarter of an hour's walk, but pain and fear made the distance seem long; he went out of his way, too, for the sake of avoiding places that were too well lighted. The chief occupation of his thoughts was in conjecturing what could have led to Bartley's arrest. Had the fellow been such a fool as to attempt passing a bad coin when he carried others of the same kind in his pocket? Or had the arrest of some other 'pal' in some way thrown suspicion on Jack? Be it as it might, the game was up. With the usual wisdom which comes too late, Bob asked himself how he could ever have put trust in Bartley, whom he knew to be as mean-spirited a cur as breathed. On the chance of making things easier for himself, Jack would betray every secret in his possession. What hope was there of escaping capture, even if a hiding-place could be found for a day or two? If he had his hand on Jack Bartley's gizzard
Afraid to appear afraid, in dread lest his muddy clothing should attract observation, he kept, as often as possible, the middle of the road, and with relief saw at length the narrow archway, with its descending steps, which was one entrance to Shooter's Gardens. As usual, two or three loafers were hanging about here, exchanging blasphemies and filthy vocables, but, even if they recognised him, there was not much fear of their giving assistance to the police. With head bent he slouched past them, unchallenged. At the bottom of the steps, where he was in all but utter darkness, his foot slipped on garbage of some kind, and with a groan he fell on his aide.
'Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall,' cried a high-pitched voice from close by.
Bob knew that the speaker was the man notorious in this locality as Mad Jack. Raising himself with difficulty, he looked round and saw a shape crouching in the corner.
'What is the principal thing?' continued the crazy voice. 'Wisdom is the principal thing.'
And upon that followed a long speech which to Bob sounded as gibberish, but which was in truth tolerably good French, a language Mad Jack was fond of using, though he never made known how he had acquired it.
Bob stumbled on, and quickly came to the house where be hoped to find a refuge. The door was, of course, open; he went in and groped his way up the staircase. A knock at the door of the room which he believed to be still tenanted by Mrs. Candy and her son brought no reply. He turned the handle, but found that the door was locked.
It was not late, only about ten o'clock. Stephen Candy could not, of course, be back yet from his work, and the woman was probably drinking somewhere. But he must make sure that they still lived here. Going down to the floor below, he knocked at the room occupied by the Hope family, and Mrs. Hope, opening the door a few inches, asked his business.
'Does Mrs. Candy still live upstairs?' he inquired in a feigned voice, and standing back in the darkness.
'For all I know.'
And the door closed sharply. He had no choice but to wait and see if either of his acquaintances returned. For a few minutes he sat on the staircase, but as at any moment some one might stumble over him, he went down to the backdoor, which was open, like that in front, and passed out into the stone-paved yard. Here he seated himself on the ground, leaning against a corner of the wall, He was suffering much from his injury, but could at all events feel secure from the hunters.
The stones were wet, and rain fell upon him. As he looked up at the lighted windows in the back of the house, he thought of Pennyloaf, who by this time most likely knew his danger. Would she be glad of it, feeling herself revenged?. His experience of her did not encourage him to believe that. To all his ill-treatment she had never answered with anything but tears and submission. He found himself wishing she were near, to be helpful to him in his suffering.
Clem could not learn immediately what had come to pass. Finding he did not keep his appointment for the day after to-morrow, she would conclude that he had drawn back. But perhaps Jack Bartley's case would be in the newspapers on that day, and his own name might appear in the evidence before the magistrates; if Clem learnt the truth in that way, she would be not a little surprised. He had never hinted to her the means by which he had been obtaining money.
Voices began to sound from the passage within the house; several young fellows, one or other of whom probably lived here, had entered to be out of the rain. One voice, very loud and brutal, Bob quickly recognised; it was that of Ned Higgs, the ruffian with whom Bartley's wife had taken up. The conversation was very easy to overhear; it contained no reference to the 'copping' of Jack.
'Fag ends!' this and that voice kept crying.
Bob understood. One of the noble company had been fortunate enough to pig up the end of a cigar somewhere, and it was the rule among them that he who called out 'Fag ends!' established a claim for a few whiffs. In this way the delicacy was passing from mouth to mouth. That the game should end in quarrel was quite in order, and sure enough, before very long, Ned Higgs was roaring his defiances to a companion who had seized the bit of tobacco unjustly.
'I 'ollered fag-end after Snuffy Bill!'
'You're a ---- liar! I did!'
'You! You're a ------------! I'll ---- your ---- in arf a ---- second!'
Then came the sound of a scuffle, the thud of blows, the wild-beast bellowing of infuriate voices. Above all could be heard the roar of Ned Higgs. A rush, and it was plain that the combatants had gone out into the alley to have more room. For a quarter of an hour the yells from their drink-sodden throats echoed among the buildings. Quietness was probably caused by the interference of police; knowing that, Bob shrank together in his lurking-place.
When all had been still for some time he resolved to go upstairs again and try the door, for his breathing grew more and more painful, and there was a whirling in his head which made him fear that he might become insensible. To rise was more difficult than he had imagined; his head overweighted him, all but caused him to plunge forward; he groped this way and that with his hands, seeking vainly for something to cling to on the whitewashed wall. In his depth of utter misery he gave way and sobbed several times. Then once more he had the warm taste of blood in his mouth. Terror-stricken, he staggered into the house.
This time a voice answered to his knock. He opened the door.
The room contained no article of furniture. In one corner lay some rags, and on the mantel-piece stood a tin teapot, two cups, and a plate. There was no fire, but a few pieces of wood lay near the hearth, and at the bottom of the open cupboard remained a very small supply of coals. A candle made fast in the neck of a bottle was the source of light.
On the floor was sitting, or lying, an animated object, indescribable; Bob knew it for Mrs. Candy. Her eyes looked up at him apprehensively.
'I want to stay the night over, if you'll let me.' he said, when he had closed the door. 'I've got to hide away; nobody mustn't know as I'm here.'
'You're welcome,' the woman replied, in a voice which was horrible to hear.
Then she paid no more attention to him, but leaned her head upon her hand and began a regular moaning, as if she suffered some dull, persistent pain.
Bob crept up to the wall and let himself sink there. He could not reflect for more than a minute or two continuously; his brain then became a mere confused whirl. In one of the intervals of his perfect consciousness he asked Mrs. Candy if Stephen would come here to-night. She did not heed him till he had twice repeated the question, and then she started and looked at him in wild fear.
'Will Stephen be coming?'
'Stephen? Yes, yes. I shouldn't wonder.'
She seemed to fall asleep as soon as she had spoken; her bead dropped heavily on the boards.
Not long after midnight the potman made his appearance. As always, on returning from his sixteen-hour day of work, he was all but insensible with fatigue. Entering the room, he turned his white face with an expression of stupid wonderment to the corner in which Bob lay. The latter raised himself to a sitting posture.
'That you, Bob Hewett?'
'I want to stop here over the night,' replied the other, speaking with difficulty. 'I can't go home. There's something up.'
'No. I've got to hide away. And I'm feeling bad -- awful bad. Have you got anything to drink?'
Stephen, having listened with a face of a somnambulist, went to the mantel-piece and looked into the teapot. It was empty.
'You can go to the tap in the yard,' he said.
'I couldn't get so far. Oh, I feel bad!'
'I'll fetch you some water.'
A good-hearted animal, this poor Stephen; a very tolerable human being, had he had fair-play. He would not abandon his wretched mother, though to continue living with her meant hunger and cold and yet worse evils. For himself, his life was supported chiefly on the three pints of liquor which he was allowed every day. His arms and legs were those of a living skeleton; his poor idiotic face was made yet more repulsive by disease. Yet you could have seen that he was the brother of Pennyloaf; there was Pennyloaf's submissive beast-of-burden look in his eyes, and his voice had something that reminded one of hers.
'The coppers after you?' he whispered, stooping down to Bob with the teacup he had filled with water.
Bob nodded, then drained the cup eagerly.
'I get knocked down by a cab or something,' he added. 'It hit me just here. I may feel better when I've rested a bit. 'Haven't you got no furniture left?'
'They took it last Saturday was a week. Took it for rent. I thought we didn't owe nothing, but mother told me she'd paid when she hadn't. I got leave to stop, when I showed 'em as I could pay in future; but they wouldn't trust me to make up them three weeks. They took the furniture. It's 'ard, I call it. I asked my guvnor if it was law for them to take mother's bed-things, an' he said yes it was. When it's for rent they can take everything, even to your beddin' an' tools.'
Yes; they can take everything. How foolish of Stephen Candy and his tribe not to be born of the class of landlords! The inconvenience of having no foothold on the earth's surface is so manifest.
'I couldn't say nothing to her,' he continued, nodding towards the prostrate woman. 'She was sorry for it, an' you can't ask no more. It was my fault for trustin' her with the money to pay, but I get a bit careless now an' then, an' forgot. You do look bad, Bob, an' there's no mistake. Would you feel better if I lighted a bit o' fire?'
'Yes; I feel cold. I was hot just now.'
'You needn't be afraid o' the coals. Mother goes round the streets after the coal-carts, an' you wouldn't believe what a lot she picks up some days. You see, we're neither of us in the 'ouse very often; we don't burn much.'
He lit a fire, and Bob dragged himself near to it. In the meantime the quietness of the house was suffering a disturbance familiar to its denizens. Mr. Hope -- you remember Mr. Hope? -- had just returned from an evening at the public-house, and was bent on sustaining his reputation for unmatched vigour of language. He was quarrelling with his wife and daughters; their high notes of vituperation mingled in the most effective way with his manly thunder. To hear Mr. Hope's expressions, a stranger would have imagined him on the very point of savagely murdering all his family.
Another voice became audible. It was that of Ned Higgs, who had opened his door to bellow curses at the disturbers of his rest.
'They'll be wakin' mother,' said Stephen. 'There, I knew they would.'
Mrs. Candy stirred, and, after a few vain efforts to raise herself, started up suddenly. She fixed her eyes on the fire, which was just beginning to blaze, and uttered a dreadful cry, a shriek of mad terror.
'O God!' groaned her son. 'I hope it ain't goin' to be one of her bad nights. Mother, mother! what's wrong with you? See, come to the fire an' warm yourself, mother.'
She repeated the cry two or three times, but with less violence; then, as though exhausted, she fell face downwards, her arms folded about her head. The moaning which Bob had beard earlier in the evening recommenced.
Happily, it was not to be one of her bad nights. Fits of the horrors only came upon her twice before morning. Towards one o'clock Stephen had sunk into a sleep which scarcely any conceivable uproar could have broken; he lay with his head on his right arm, his legs stretched out at full length; his breathing was light. Bob was much later in getting rest. As often as he slumbered for an instant, the terrible image of his fear rose manifest before him; he saw himself in the clutch of his hunters, just like Jack Bartley, and woke to lie quivering. Must not that be the end of it, sooner or later? Might he not as well give himself up to-morrow? But the thought of punishment such as his crime receives was unendurable. It haunted him in nightmare when sheer exhaustion had at length weighed down his eyelids.
Long before daybreak he was conscious again, tormented with thirst and his head aching woefully. Someone had risen in the room above, and was tramping about in heavy boots. The noise seemed to disturb Mrs. Candy; she cried out in her sleep. In a few minutes the early riser came forth and began to descend the stairs; he was going to his work.
A little while, and in the court below a voice shouted, 'Bill Bill!' Another worker being called, doubtless.
At seven o'clock Stephen roused himself. He took a piece of soap from a shelf of the cupboard, threw a dirty rag over his arm, and went down to wash at the tap in the yard. Only on returning did he address Bob.
'Feelin' any better?'
'I think so. But I'm very bad.'
'Are you goin' to stay here?'
'I don't know.'
'Got any money?'
'Yes. Ninepence. Could you get me something to drink?'
Stephen took twopence, went out, and speedily returned with a large mug of coffee; from his pocket he brought forth a lump of cake, which had cost a halfpenny. This, he thought. might tempt a sick appetite. His own breakfast he would take at the coffee-shop.
'Mother'll get you anything else you want,' he said. 'She knows herself generally first thing in the morning. Let her take back the mug; I had to leave threepence on it.'
So Stephen also went forth to his labour -- in this case, it may surely be said, the curse of curses. . . .
At this hour Pennyloaf bestirred herself after a night of weeping. Last evening the police had visited her room, and had searched it thoroughly. The revelation amazed her; she would not believe the charge that was made against her husband. She became angry with Mrs. Griffin when that practical woman said she was not at all surprised. Utterly gone was her resentment of Bob's latest cruelty. His failure to return home seemed to prove that he had been arrested, and she could think of nothing but the punishment that awaited him.
'It's penal servitude,' remarked Mrs. Griffin, frankly. 'Five, or p'r'aps ten years. I've heard of 'em gettin' sent for life.'
Pennyloaf would not believe in the possibility of this befalling her husband. It was too cruel. There would be some pity, some mercy. She had a confused notion of witnesses being called to give a man a good character, and strengthened herself in the thought of what she would say, under such circumstances on Bob's behalf. 'He's been a good 'usband,' she kept repeating to Mrs. Griffin, and to the other neighbours who crowded to indulge their curiosity. 'There's nobody can say as he ain't been a good 'usband; it's a lie if they do.'
By eight o'clock she was at the police-station. With fear she entered the ugly doorway and approached a policeman who stood in the ante-room. When she had made her inquiry, the man referred her to the inspector. She was asked many questions, but to her own received no definite reply; she had better look in again the next morning.
'It's my belief they ain't got him,' said Mrs. Griffin. 'He's had a warnin' from his pals.'
Pennyloaf would dearly have liked to communicate with Jane Snowdon, but shame prevented her. All day she stood by the house door, looking eagerly now this way, now that, with an unreasoning hope that Bob might show himself. She tried to believe that he was only keeping away because of his behaviour to her the night before; it was the first time he had laid hand upon her, and he felt ashamed of himself. He would come back, and this charge against him would be proved false; Pennyloaf could not distinguish between her desire that something might happen and the probability of its doing so.
But darkness fell upon the streets, and her watch was kept in rain. She dreaded the thought of passing another night in uncertainty. Long ago her tears had dried up; she had a parched throat and trembling, feverish hands. Between seven and eight o'clock she went to Mrs. Griffin and begged her to take care of the child for a little while.
'I'm goin' to see if I can hear anything about him. Somebody may know where he is.'
And first of all she directed her steps to Shooter's Gardens. It was very unlikely that her mother could be of any use, but she would seek there. Afterwards she must go to Farringdon Road Buildings, though never yet had she presented herself to Bob's father.
You remember that the Gardens had an offshoot, which was known simply as The Court. In this blind alley there stood throughout the day a row of baked-potato ovens, ten or a dozen of them, chained together, the property of a local capitalist who let them severally to men engaged in this business. At seven o'clock of an evening fires were wont to be lighted under each of these baking-machines, preparatory to their being wheeled away, each to its customary street-corner. Now the lighting of fires entails the creation of smoke, and whilst these ten or twelve ovens were getting ready to bake potatoes the Court was in a condition not easily described. A single lamp existed for the purpose of giving light to the alley, and at no time did this serve much more than to make darkness visible; at present the blind man would have fared as well in that retreat as he who had eyes, and the marvel was how those who lived there escaped suffocation. In the Gardens themselves volumes of dense smoke every now and then came driven along by the cold gusts; the air had a stifling smell and a bitter taste.
Pennyloaf found nothing remarkable in this phenomenon; it is hard to say what would have struck her as worthy of indignant comment in her world of little ease. But near the entrance to the Court, dimly discernible amid sagging fumes, was a cluster of people, and as everything of that kind just now excited her apprehensions, she drew near to see what was happening. The gathering was around Mad Jack; he looked more than usually wild, and with one hand raised above his head was on the point of relating a vision he had had the night before.
'Don't laugh! Don't any of you laugh; for as sure as I live it was an angel stood in the room and spoke to me. There was a light such as none of you ever saw, and the angel stood in the midst of it. And he said to me: "Listen, whilst I reveal to you the truth, that you may know where you arc and what you are; and this is done for a great purpose." And I fell down on my knees; but never a word could I have spoken. Then the angel said: "You are passing through a state of punishment. You, and all the poor among whom you live; all those who are in suffering of body and darkness of mind, were once rich people, with every blessing the world can bestow, with every opportunity of happiness in yourselves and of making others happy. Because you made an ill use of your wealth, because you were selfish and hard-hearted and oppressive and sinful in every kind of indulgence -- therefore after death you received the reward of wickedness. This life you are now leading is that of the damned; this place to which you are confined is Hell! There is no escape for you. From poor you shall become poorer; the older you grow the lower shall you sink in want and misery; at the end there is waiting for you, one and all, a death in abandonment and despair. This is Hell -- Hell -- Hell!"'
His voice had risen in pitch, and the last cry was so terrifying that Pennyloaf fled to be out of hearing. She reached the house to which her visit was, and in the dark passage leaned for a moment against the wall, trembling all over. Then she began to ascend the stairs. At Mrs. Candy's door she knocked gently. There was at first no answer, but when she had knocked again, a strange voice that she did not recognise asked 'Who's that?' It seemed to come from low down, as if the speaker were lying on the floor.
'It's me,' she replied, again trembling, she knew not with what fear. 'Mrs. Hewett -- Pennyloaf.'
'Are you alone?'
She bent down, listening eagerly.
'Who's that speakin'?'
'Are you alone?'
Strange; the voice was again different, very feeble, a thick whisper.
'Yes, there's nobody else. Can I come in?'
There was a shuffling sound, then the key turned in the lock, Pennyloaf entered, and found herself in darkness. She shrank back.
'Who's there? Is it you, mother? Is it you, Stephen?'
Some one touched her, at the same time shutting the door; and the voice whispered:
'Penny -- it's me -- Bob.'
She uttered a cry, stretching out her hands. A head was leaning against her, and she bent down to lay hers against it.
'O Bob! What are you doin' here? Why are you in the dark? What's the matter, Bob?'
'I've had an accident, Penny. I feel awful bad. Your mother's gone out to buy a candle. Have they been coming after me?'
'Yes, yes. But I didn't know you was here. I came to ask if they knew where you was. O Bob! what's happened to you? Why are you lyin' there, Bob?'
She had folded her arms about him, and held his face to hers, sobbing, kissing him.
'It's all up,' he gasped. 'I've been getting worse all day. You'll have to fetch the parish doctor. They'll have me, but I can't help it. I feel as if I was going.'
'They shan't take you, Bob. Oh no, they shan't. The doctor needn't know who you are.'
'It was a cab knocked me down, when I was running. I'm awful bad, Penny. You'll do something for me, won't you?'
'Oh, why didn't you send mother for me?'
The door opened. It was Mrs. Candy who entered. She slammed the door, turned the key, and exclaimed in a low voice of alarm:
'Bob, there's the p'lice downstairs! They come just this minute. There's one gone to the back-door, and there's one talkin' to Mrs. Hope at the front.'
'Then they've followed Pennyloaf,' he replied, in a tone of despair. 'They've followed Pennyloaf.'
It was the truth. She had been watched all day, and was now tracked to Shooter's Gardens, to this house. Mrs. Candy struck a match, and for an instant illuminated the wretched room; she looked at the two, and they at length saw each other's faces. Then the little flame was extinguished, and a red spot marked the place where the remnant of the match lay.
'Shall I light the candle?' the woman asked in a whisper.
Neither replied, for there was a heavy foot on the stairs. It came nearer. A hand tried the door, then knocked loudly.
'Mrs. Candy,' cried a stranger.
The three crouched together, terror-stricken, holding their breath. Pennyloaf pressed her husband in an agonised embrace.
'Mrs. Candy, you're wanted on business. Open the door. If you don't open, we shall force it.'
'No -- no!' Pennyloaf whispered in her mother's ear. 'They shan't come in! Don't stir.'
'Are you going to open the door?'
It was a different speaker -- brief, stern. Ten seconds, and there came a tremendous crash; the crazy door, the whole wall, quivered and cracked and groaned. The crash was repeated, and effectually; with a sound of ripping wood the door flew open and a light streamed into the room.
Useless, Pennyloaf, useless. That fierce kick, making ruin of your rotten barrier, is dealt with the whole force of Law, of Society; you might as well think of resisting death when your hour shall come.
'There he is,' observed one of the men, calmly. 'Hollo! what's up?'
'You can't take him away!' Pennyloaf cried, falling down again by Bob and clinging to him. 'He's ill, You can't take him like this!'
'Ill, is he? Then the sooner our doctor sees him the better. Up you get, my man!'
But there are some things that even Law and Society cannot command. Bob lay insensible. Shamming? Well, no; it seemed not. Send for a stretcher, quickly.
No great delay. Pennyloaf sat in mute anguish, Bob's head on her lap. On the staircase was a crowd of people, talking, shouting, whistling; presently they were cleared away by a new arrival of officials. Room for Law and Society!
The stretcher arrived; the senseless body was carried down and laid upon it -- a policeman at each end, and, close clinging, Pennyloaf.
Above the noise of the crowd rose a shrill, wild voice, chanting:
'All ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; praise Him and magnify Him for ever!'
Amid the anguish of heart and nerve which she had to endure whilst her grandfather lay dead in the house, Jane found and clung to one thought of consolation. He had not closed his eyes in the bitterness of disappointment. The end might have come on that miserable day when her weakness threatened the defeat of all his hopes, and how could she then have borne it? True or not, it would have seemed to her that she had killed him; she could not have looked on his face, and all the rest of her life would have been remorsefully shadowed. Now the dead features were unreproachful; nay, when she overcame her childish tremors and gazed calmly, it was easy to imagine that he smiled. Death itself had come without pain. An old man, weary after his long journeys, after his many griefs and the noble striving of his thought, surely he rested well.
During the last days be had been more affectionate with her than was his habit; she remembered it with gratitude. Words of endearment seldom came to his lips, but since the reconciliation he had more than once spoken tenderly. Doubtless he was anxious to assure her that she had again all his confidence. Strengthening herself in that reflection, she strove to put everything out of her mind save the duty which must henceforth direct her. Happily, there could be no more strife with the promptings of her weaker self; circumstances left but one path open before her; and that, however difficult, the one she desired to tread. Henceforth memory must dwell on one thing only in the past, her rescue by Michael Snowdon, her nurture under his care. Though he could no longer speak, the recollection of his words must be her unfailing impulse. In her his spirit must survive, his benevolence still be operative.
At her wish, her father acquainted Sidney Kirkwood with what had happened. Sidney did not visit her, but he wrote a letter, which, having read it many times, she put carefully away to be a resource if ever her heart failed. Mr. Percival came to the house on Monday, in the company of Joseph Snowdon; he was sympathetic, but made no direct reference to her position either now or in the future. Whilst he and her father transacted matters of business in the upper rooms, Jane remained downstairs with Mrs. Byass. Before quitting the house he asked her if she had had any communication with Miss Lant yet.
'I ought to write and tell her,' replied Jane.
'I will do so for you,' said the lawyer, kindly.
And on taking leave he held her hand for a moment, looking compassionately into her pale face.
On Thursday morning there arrived a letter from Miss Lant, who happened to be out of town and grieved that she could not return in time for the funeral, which would be that day. There was nothing about the future, excepting a promise that the writer would come very shortly.
Michael was buried at Abney Park Cemetery; no ray of sunlight fell upon his open grave, but the weather was mild, and among the budded trees passed a breath which was the promise of spring. Joseph Snowdon and the Byasses were Jane's only companions in the mourning-carriage; but at the cemetery they were joined by Sidney Kirkwood. Jane saw him and felt the pressure of his hand, but she could neither speak nor understand anything that was said to her.
On Friday morning, before she had made a show of eating the breakfast Bessie Byass prepared for her, a visitor arrived.
'She says her name's Mrs. Griffin,' said Bessie, 'and she has something very important to tell you. Do you feel you can see her?'
'Mrs. Griffin? Oh, I remember; she lives in the same house as Pennyloaf. Yes: let her come in.'
The woman was introduced to the Byasses' parlour, which Bessie thought more cheerful for Jane just now then the room upstairs.
'Have you heard anything of what's been goin on with the Hewetts, Miss?' she began.
'No, I haven't been able to go out this week. I've had trouble at home.'
'I see at once as you was in in mournin', Miss, an' I'm sorry for it. You're lookin' nothing like yourself. I don't know whether it's right to upset you with other people's bothers, but there's that poor Mrs. Hewett in such a state, and I said as I'd run round, 'cause she seems to think there's nobody else can come to her help as you can. I always knew as something o' this kind 'ud be 'appenin'.'
'But what is it? What has happened?'
Jane felt her energies revive at this appeal for help. It was the best thing that could have befallen, now that she was wearily despondent after yesterday's suffering.
'Her 'usband's dead, Miss.'
'But that ain't the worst of it. He was took by the perlice last night, which they wanted him for makin' bad money. I always have said as it's a cruel thing that: 'cause how can you tell who gets the bad coin, an' it may be some pore person as can't afford to lose not a 'apenny. But that's what he's been up to, an' this long time, as it appears.'
In her dialect, which requires so many words for the narration of a simple story, Mrs. Griffin told what she knew concerning Bob Hewett's accident and capture; his death had taken place early this morning, and Pennyloaf was all but crazy with grief. To Jane these things sounded so extraordinary that for some time she could scarcely put a question, but sat in dismay, listening to the woman's prolix description of all that had come to pass since Wednesday evening. At length she called for Mrs. Byass, for whose benefit the story was repeated.
'I'm sure you oughtn't to go there to-day,' was Bessie's opinion. 'You've quite enough trouble of your own, my dear.'
'And that's just what I was a-sayin', mum,' assented Mrs. Griffin, who had won Bessie's highest opinion by her free use of respectful forms of address. 'I never saw no one look iller, as you may say, than the young lady.'
'Yes, yes, I will go,' said Jane, rising. 'My trouble's nothing to hers. Oh, I shall go at once.'
'But remember your father's coming at half-past nine,' urged Bessie, 'and he said he wanted to speak to you particular.'
'What is the time now? A quarter to nine. I can be back by half-past, I think, and then I can go again. Father wouldn't mind waiting a few minutes. I must go at once, Mrs. Byass.'
She would hear no objection, and speedily left the house in Mrs. Griffin's company.
At half-past nine, punctually, Mr. Snowdon's double knock sounded at the door. Joseph looked more respectable than ever in his black frock-coat and silk hat with the deep band. His bow to Mrs. Byass was solemn, but gallant; he pressed her fingers like a clergyman paying a visit of consolation, and in a subdued voice made affectionate inquiry after his daughter.
'She has slept, I hope, poor child?'
Bessie took him into the sitting-room, and explained Jane's absence.
'A good girl; a good girl,' he remarked, after listening with elevated brows, 'But she must be careful of her health. My visit this morning is on matters of business; no doubt she will tell you the principal points of our conversation afterwards. An excellent friend you have been to her, Mrs. Byass -- excellent.'
'I'm sure I don't see how anyone could help liking her,' said Bessie, inwardly delighted with the expectation of hearing at length what Jane's circumstances really were.
'Indeed, so good a friend,' pursued Joseph, 'that I'm afraid it would distress her if she could no longer live with you. And the fact is' -- he bent forward and smiled sadly -- 'I'm sure I may speak freely to you, Mrs. Byass -- but the fact is, that I'm very doubtful indeed whether she could be happy if she lived with Mrs. Snowdon. I suppose there's always more or less difficulty where step-children are concerned, and in this case -- well, I fear the incompatibility would be too great. To be sure, it places me in a difficult position. Jane's very young -- very young; only just turned seventeen, poor child! Out of the question for her to live with strangers. I had some hopes -- I wonder whether I ought to speak of it? You know Mr. Kirkwood?'
'Yes, indeed. I can't tell you how surprised I was, Mr. Snowdon. And there seems to be such a mystery about it, too.'
Bessie positively glowed with delight in such confidential talk. It was her dread that Jane's arrival might put an end to it before everything was revealed.
'A mystery, you may well say, Mrs. Byass. I think highly of Mr. Kirkwood, very highly; but really in this affair! It's almost too painful to talk about -- to you.'
Bessie blushed, as becomes the Englishwoman of mature years when she is gracefully supposed to be ignorant of all it most behoves her to know.
'Well, well; he is on the point of marrying a young person with whom I should certainly not like my daughter to associate -- fortunately there is little chance of that. You were never acquainted with Miss Hewett?'
'Ye -- yes. A long time ago.'
'Well, well; we must be charitable. You know that she is dreadfully disfigured?'
'Disfigured? Jane didn't say a word about that. She on]y told me that Mr. Kirkwood was going to marry her, and I didn't like to ask too many questions. I hadn't even heard as she was at home.'
Joseph related to her the whole story, whilst Bessie fidgeted with satisfaction.
'I thought,' he added, 'that you could perhaps throw some light on the mystery. We can only suppose that Kirkwood has acted from the highest motives, but I really think -- well, well, we won't talk of it any more. I was led to this subject from speaking of this poor girl's position. I wonder whether it will be possible for her to continue to live in your friendly care Mrs. Byass?'
'Oh, I shall be only too glad, Mr. Snowdon!'
'Now how kind that is of you! Of course she wouldn't want more than two rooms.'
'Of course not.'
Joseph was going further into details, when a latch-key was heard opening the front door. Jane entered hurriedly. The rapid walk had brought colour to her check; in her simple mourning attire she looked very interesting, very sweet and girlish. She had been shedding tears, and it was with unsteady voice that she excused herself for keeping her father waiting.
'Never mind that, my dear,' replied Joseph, as he kissed her cheek. 'You have been doing good -- unselfish as always. Sit down and rest; you must be careful not to over-exert yourself.'
Bessie busied herself affectionately in removing Jane's hat and jacket, then withdrew that father and child might converse in private. Joseph looked at his daughter. His praise of her was not all mere affectation of sentiment. He had spoken truly when he said to Scawthorne that, but for Clem, he would ask nothing better than to settle down with this gentle girl for his companion. Selfishness, for the most part, but implying appreciation of her qualities. She did not love him, but he was sincere enough with himself to admit that this was perfectly natural. Had circumstances permitted, he would have tried hard to win some affection from her. Poor little girl! How would it affect her when she heard what he was going to say? He felt angry with Kirkwood; yes, truly indignant -- men are capable of greater inconsistencies than this. She would not have cared much about the money had Kirkwood married her; of that he felt sure. She had lost her lover; now he was going to deprive her of her inheritance. Cruel! Yes; but he really felt so well-disposed to her, so determined to make her a comfortable provision for the future; and had the money been hers, impossible to have regarded her thus. Joseph was thankful to the chance which, in making him wealthy, had also enabled him to nourish such virtuous feeling.
How should he begin? He had a bright idea, an idea worthy of him. Thrusting his hand into his pocket he brought out half-a-crown. Then:
'Your humble friend's in a sad condition, I'm afraid, Jane?'
'She is, father.'
'Suppose you give her this! Every little helps, you know.'
Jane received the coin and murmured thanks for his kindness, but could not help betraying some surprise. Joseph was on the watch for this. It gave him his exquisite opportunity.
'You're surprised at me offering you money, Jane? I believe your poor grandfather led you to suppose that -- that his will was made almost entirely in your favour?'
Jane could not reply; she searched his face.
'Would it disappoint you very much, my child,' he continued, sympathetically, 'if it turned out that he had either' altered his mind or by some accident had neglected to make his will? I speak as your father, Janey, and I think I have some knowledge of your character. I think I know that you are as free from avarice as anyone could be.'
Was it true? he began to ask himself. Why, then, had her countenance fallen? Why did such a look of deep distress pass over it?
'The fact is, Janey,' he continued, hardening himself a little as he noted her expression, 'your grandfather left no will. The result -- the legal result -- of that is, that all his property beoomes -- ah -- mine. He -- in fact he destroyed his will a very short time, comparatively speaking, before he died, and he neglected to make another. Unfortunately, you see, under these circumstances we can't be sure what his wish was.'
She was deadly pale; there was anguish in the look with which she regarded her father.
'I'm very sorry it pains you so, my dear,' Joseph remarked, still more coldly. 'I didn't think you were so taken up with the thought of money. Really, Jane, a young girl at your time of life ----'
'Father, father, how can you think that? It wasn't to be for myself; I thought you knew; indeed you did know!'
'But you looked so very strange, my dear. Evidently you felt ----'
'Yes -- I feel it -- I do feel it! But because it means that grandfather couldn't get back his trust in me. Oh, it is too hard! When did he destroy his will? When, father?'
'Ten days before his death.'
'Yes; that was when it happened. You never heard; he promised to tell nobody. I disappointed him. I showed myself very foolish and weak in -- in something that happened then. I made grandfather think that I was too selfish to live as he hoped -- that I couldn't do what I'd undertaken. That was why he destroyed his will. And I thought he had forgiven me! I thought he trusted me again! O grandfather!'
Snowdon was astonished at the explanation of his own good luck, and yet more at Jane's display of feeling. So quiet, so reserved as he had always known her, she seemed to have become another person. For some moments he could only gaze at her in wonder. Never yet had he heard, never again would he hear, the utterance of an emotion so profound and so noble.
'Jane -- try and control yourself, my dear. Let's talk it over, Jane.'
'I feel as if it would break my heart. I thought I had that one thing to comfort me. It's like losing him again -- losing his confidence. To think I should have disappointed him in just what he hoped more than anything!'
'But you're mistaken,' Joseph exclaimed, a generous feeling for once getting the better of prudence. 'Listen, my dear, and I'll explain to you. I hadn't finished when you interrupted me.'
She clasped her hands upon her lap and gazed at him in eager appeal.
'Did he say anything to you, father?'
'No -- and you may be quite sure that if he hasn't trusted you, he wouldhave said something. What's more, on the very day before his death be wrote a letter to Mr. Percival, to say that he wanted to make his will again. He was going to do it on the Monday -- there now It was only an accident; he hadn't time to do what he wished.'
This was making a concession which he had expressly resolved to guard against; but Joseph's designs ripened, lost their crudity, as he saw more and more of his daughter's disposition. He was again grateful to her; she had made things smoother than he could have hoped.
'You really think, father, that he would have made the same will as before?'
'Not a doubt about it, my love; not a doubt of it. In fact -- now let me set your poor little mind at rest -- only two days before his death -- when was it I saw him last? Friday? Thursday? -- he said to me that he had a higher opinion of you than ever. There now, Jane!'
She would have deemed it impossible for anyone to utter less than truth in such connection as this. Her eyes gleamed with joy.
'Now you understand just how it was, Jane. What we have to talk about now is, how we can arrange things so as to carry out your grandfather's wish. I am your guardian, my dear. Now I'm sure you wouldn't desire to have command of large sums of money before you are twenty-one? Just so; your grandfather didn't intend it. Well, first let me ask you this question. Would you rather live with -- with your stepmother, or with your excellent friend Mrs. Byass? I see what your answer is, and I approve it; I fully approve it. Now suppose we arrange that you are to have an allowance of two pounds a week? It is just possible -- just possible -- that I may have to go abroad on business before long; in that case the payment would be made to you through an agent. Do you feel it would be satisfactory?'
Jane was thinking how much of this sum could be saved to give away.
'It seems little? But you see ----'
'No, no, father. It is quite enough.'
'Good. We understand each other. Of course this is a temporary arrangement. I must have time to think over grandfather's ideas. Why, you are a mere child yet, Janey. Seventeen! A mere child, my dear!'
Forgetting the decorum imposed by his costume, Joseph became all but gay, so delightfully were things arranging themselves. A hundred a year he could very well afford just to keep his conscience at ease; and for Jane it would be wealth. Excellent Mrs. Byass was as good a guardian as could anywhere be found, and Jane's discretion forbade any fear on her account when -- business should take him away.
'Well now, we've talked quite long enough. Don't think for a moment that you hadn't your grandfather's confidence, my dear; it would be distressing yourself wholly without reason -- wholly. Be a good girl -- why, there you see; I speak to you as if you were a child. And so you are, poor little girl -- far too young to have worldly troubles. No, no; I must relieve you of all that, until ---- Well now, I'll leave you for to-day. Good-bye, my dear.'
He kissed her cheek, but Jane, sobbing a little, put her pure lips to his. Joseph looked about him for an instant as if he had forgotten something, then departed with what seemed unnecessary haste.
Jane and Mrs. Byass had a long talk before dinner-time. Mystery was at an end between them now; they talked much of the past, more of the future.
At two o'clock Jane received a visit from Miss Lant. This lady was already apprised by her friend Mr. Percival of all that had come to pass; she was prepared to exercise much discretion, but Jane soon showed her that this was needless, The subject of pressing importance to the latter was Pennyloaf's disastrous circumstances; unable to do all she wished, Jane was much relieved when her charitable friend proposed to set off to Merlin Place forthwith and ascertain how help could most effectually be given. Yes; it was good to be constrained to think of another's sorrows.
There passed a fortnight, during which Jane spent some hours each day with Pennyloaf. By the kindness of fate only one of Bob's children survived him, but it was just this luckless infant whose existence made Pennyloaf's position so difficult. Alone, she could have gone back to her slop-work, or some less miserable slavery might have been discovered; but Pennyloaf dreaded leaving her child each day in the care of strangers, being only too well aware what that meant. Mrs. Candy was, of course, worse than useless; Stephen the potman had more than his work set in looking after her. Whilst Miss Lant and Jane were straining their wits on the hardest of all problems -- to find a means of livelihood for one whom society pronounced utterly superfluous, Pennyloaf most unexpectedly solved the question by her own effort. Somewhere near the Meat Market, one night, she encountered an acquaintance, a woman of not much more than her own age, who had recently become a widow, and was supporting herself (as well as four little ones) by keeping a stall at which she sold children's secondhand clothing; her difficulty was to dispose of her children whilst she was doing business at night. Pennyloaf explained her own position, and with the result that her acquaintance, by name Mrs. Todd, proposed a partnership. Why shouldn't they share a room, work together with the needle in patching and making, and by Pennyloaf's staying at home each evening keep the tribe of youngsters out of danger? This project was carried out; the two brought their furniture together into a garret, and it seemed probable that they would succeed in keeping themselves alive.
But before this settlement was effected Jane's own prospects had undergone a change of some importance. For a fortnight nothing was heard of Joseph Snowdon in Hanover Street; then there came a letter from him; it bore a Liverpool postmark, but was headed with no address. Joseph wrote that the business to which he had alluded was already summoning him from England; he regretted that there had not even been time for him to say farewell to his daughter. However, he would write to her occasionally during his absence, and hoped to hear from her. The allowance of two pounds a week would be duly paid by an agent, and on receiving it each Saturday she was to forward an acknowledgment to 'Mr. H. Jones,' at certain reading-rooms in the City. Let her in the meantime be a good girl, remain with her excellent friend Mrs. Byass, and repose absolute confidence in her affectionate father -- J. S.
That same morning there came also a letter from Liverpool to Mrs. Joseph Snowdon, a letter which ran thus:
'Clem, old girl, I regret very much that affairs of pressing importance call me away from my happy home. It is especially distressing that this occurs just at the time when we were on the point of taking our house, in which we hoped to spend the rest of cur lives in bliss. Alas, that is not to be! Do not repine, and do not break the furniture in the lodgings, as your means will henceforth be limited, I fear. You will remember that I was in your debt, with reference to a little affair which happened in Clerkenwell Close, not such a long time ago; please accept this intimation as payment in full. When I am established in the country to which business summons me, I shall of course send for you immediately, but it may happen that some little time will intervene before I am able to take that delightful step. In the meanwhile your mother will supply you with all the money you need; she has full authority from me to do so. All blessings upon you, and may you be happy. -- With tears I sign myself,
'YOUR BROKEN-HEARTED HUSBAND.'
Joseph's absence through the night had all but prepared Clem for something of this kind, yet he had managed things so well that up to the time of his departure she had not been able to remark a single suspicious circumstance, unless, indeed, it were the joyous affectionateness with which he continued to behave, She herself had been passing through a time of excitement and even of suffering. When she learned from the newspaper what fate had befallen Bob Hewett, it was as though someone had dealt her a half-stunning blow; in her fierce animal way she was attached to Bob, and for the first time in her life she knew a genuine grief. The event seemed at first impossible; she sped hither and thither, making inquiries, and raged in her heart against everyone who confirmed the newspaper report. Combined with the pain of loss was her disappointment at the frustration of the scheme Bob had undertaken in concert with her. Brooding on her deadly purpose, she had come to regard it as a certain thing that before long her husband would be killed. The details were arranged; all her cunning had gone to the contrivance of a plot for disguising the facts of his murder. Savagely she had exulted in the prospect, not only of getting rid of him, but of being revenged for her old humiliation. A thousand times she imagined herself in Bob's lurking-place, raising the weapon, striking the murderous blow, rifling the man's pockets to mislead those who found his body, and had laughed to herself triumphantly. Joseph out of the way, the next thing was to remove Pennyloaf. Oh, that would easily have been contrived. Then she and Bob would have been married.
Very long since Clem had shed tears, but she did so this day when there was no longer a possibility of doubting that Bob was dead. She shut herself in her room and moaned like a wild beast in pain. Joseph could not but observe, when he came home, that she was suffering in some extraordinary way. When he spoke jestingly about it, she all but rushed upon him with her fists. And in the same moment She determined that he should not escape, even if she had to murder him with her own hands. From that day her constant occupation was searching the newspapers to get hints about poisons. Doubtless it was as well for Joseph to be speedy in his preparations for departure.
She was present in the police-court when Jack Bartley came forward to be dealt with. Against him she stored up hatred and the resolve of vengeance; if it were years before she had the opportunity, Jack should in the end pay for what he had done.
And now Joseph had played her the trick she anticipated; he had saved himself out of her clutches, and had carried off all his money with him. She knew well enough what was meant by his saying that her mother would supply what she needed; very likely that he had made any such arrangement! You should have heard the sterling vernacular in which Clem gave utterance to her feelings as soon as she had deciphered the mocking letter?
Without a minute's delay she dressed and left the house. Having a few shillings in her pocket, she took a cab at King's Cross and bade the driver drive his hardest to Clerkenwell Close. Up Pentonville Hill panted the bony horse, Clem swearing all the time because it could go no quicker. But the top was reached; she shouted to the man to whip, whip? By the time they pulled up at Mrs. Peckover's house Clem herself perspired as profusely as the animal.
Mrs. Peckover was at breakfast, alone.
'Read that, will you? Read that?' roared Clem, rushing upon her and dashing the letter in her face.
'Why, you mad cat!' cried her mother, starting up in anger. 'What's wrong with you now?'
'Read that there letter! That's your doin', that is! Read it? Read it!'
Half-frightened, Mrs. Peckover drew away from the table and managed to peruse Joseph's writing. Having come to the end, she burst into jeering laughter.
'He's done it, has he? He's took his 'ook, has he? What did I tell you? Don't swear at me, or I'll give you something to swear about -- such languidge in a respectable 'ouse! Ha, ha? What did I tell you? You wouldn't take my way. Oh no, you must go off and be independent. Serve you right! Ha, ha! Serve you right! You'll get no pity from me.'
'You 'old your jaw, mother, or I'll precious soon set my marks on your ugly old face! What does he say there about you? You're to pay me money. He's made arrangements with you. Don't try to cheat me, or I'll -- soon have a summons out against you. The letter's proof; it's lawyer's proof. You try to cheat me and see.'
Clem had sufficient command of her faculties to devise this line of action. She half believed, too, that the letter would be of some legal efficacy, as against her mother.
'You bloomin' fool!' screamed Mrs. Peckover. 'Do you think I was born yesterday? Not one farden do you get out of me if you starve in the street -- not one farden! It's my turn now. I've had about enough o' your cheek an' your hinsults. You'll go and work for your livin', you great cart-horse!'
'Work! No fear! I'll set the perlice after him.'
'The perlice! What can they do?'
'Is it law as he can go off and leave me with nothing to live on?'
'Course it is! Unless you go to the work'us an' throw yourself on the parish. Do, do! Oh my! Shouldn't I like to see you brought down to the work'us, like Mrs. Igginbottom, the wife of the cat's-meat man, him as they stuck up wanted for desertion!'
'You're a liar!' Clem shouted. 'I can make you support me before it comes to that.'
The wrangle continued for some time longer; then Clem bethought herself of another person with whom she must have the satisfaction of speaking her mind. On the impulse, she rushed away, out of Clerkenwell Close, up St. John Street Road, across City Read, down to Hanover Street, literally running for most of the time. Her knock at Mrs. Byass's door was terrific.
'I want to see Jane Snowdon,' was her address to Bessie.
'Do you? I think you might have knocked more like civilisation,' replied Mrs. Byass, proud of expressing herself with superior refinement.
But Clem pushed her way forward. Jane, alarmed at the noise, showed herself on the stairs.
'You just come 'ere!' cried Clem to her. 'I've got something to say to you, Miss!'
Jane was of a sudden possessed with terror, the old terror with which Clem had inspired her years ago. She shrank back, but Bessie Byass was by no means disposed to allow this kind of thing to go on in her house.
'Mrs. Snowdon,' she exclaimed, 'I don't know what your business may be, but if you can't behave yourself, you'll please to go away a bit quicker than you came. The idea! Did anyone ever hear!'
'I shan't go till I choose,' replied Clem, 'and that won't be till I've had my say with that little ----! Where's your father, Jane Snowdon? You just tell me that.'
'My father,' faltered Jane, in the silence. 'I haven't seen him for a fortnight.'
'You haven't, eh? Little liar! It's what I used to call you when you scrubbed our kitchen floor, and it's what I call you now. D'you remember when you did the 'ouse-work, an' slept under the kitchen table? D'you remember, eh? Haven't seen him for a fortnight, ain't you? Oh, he's a nice man, is your father! He ran away an' deserted your mother. But he's done it once too often, I'll precious soon have the perlice after him! Has he left you to look after yourself? Has he, eh? You just tell me that!'
Jane and Mrs. Byass stared at each other in dismay. The letter that had come this morning enabled them to guess the meaning of Clem's fury. The latter interpreted their looks as an admission that Jane too was a victim. She laughed aloud.
'How does it taste, little liar, oh? A second disappointment! You thought you was a-goin' to have all the money; now you've got none, and you may go back to Whitehead's. They'll be glad to see you, will Whitehead's. Oh, he's a nice man, your father! Would you like to know what's been goin' on ever since he found out your old grandfather? Would you like to know how he put himself out to prevent you an' that Kirkwood feller gettin' married, just so that the money mightn't get into other people's 'ands? Would you like to know how my beast of a mother and him put their 'eds together to see how they could get hold of the bloomin' money? An' you thought you was sure of it, didn't you? Will you come with me to the perlice-station, just to help to describe what he looks like? An affectionate father, ain't he? Almost as good as he is a 'usband. You just listen to me, Jane Snowdon. If I find out as you're havin' money from him, I'll be revenged on you, mind that! I'll be revenged on you! D'you remember what my hand feels like? You've had it on the side of your ---- 'ed often enough. You just look out for yourself!'
'And you just turn out of my house,' cried Bessie, scarlet with wrath. 'This minute! Sarah! Sarah! Run out by the arey-steps and fetch a p'liceman, this minute! The idea!'
Clem had said her say, however, and with a few more volleys of atrocious language was content to retire. Having slammed the door upon her, Bessie cried in a trembling voice:
'Oh, if only Sam had been here! My, how I should have liked Sam to have been here! Wouldn't he have given her something for herself! Why, such a creature oughtn't be left loose. Oh, if Sam had been here!'
Jane had sat down on the stairs; her face was hidden in her hands. That brutal voice had carried her back to her wretched childhood; everything about her in the present was unreal in comparison with the terrors, the hardships, the humiliations revived by memory. As she sat at this moment, so had she sat many a time on the cellar-steps at Mrs. Peckover's. So powerfully was her imagination affected that she had a feeling as if her hands were grimy from toil, as if her limbs ached. Oh, that dreadful voice! Was she never, never to escape beyond hearing of it?
'Jane, my dear, come into the sitting-room,' said Bessie 'No wonder it's upset you. What can it all mean?'
The meaning was not far to seek; Jane understood everything -- yes, even her father's hypocrisies. She listened for a few minutes to her friend's indignant exclamations, then looked up, her resolve taken.
'Mrs. Byass, I shall take no more money. I shall go to work again and earn my living. How thankful I am that I can!'
'Why, what nonsense are you talking, child! Just because that -- that creature ---- Why, I've no patience with you, Jane! As if she durst touch you! Touch you? I'd like to see her indeed.'
'It isn't that, Mrs. Byass. I can't take money from father. I haven't felt easy in my mind ever since he told me about it, and now I can't take the money. Whether it's true or not, all she said, I should never have a night's rest if I consented to live in this way.'
'Oh, you don't really mean it, Jane?'
Bessie all but sobbed with vexation.
'I mean it, and I shall never alter my mind. I shall send back the money, and write to the man that he needn't send any more. However often it comes, I shall always return it. I couldn't, I couldn't live on that money! Never ask me to, Mrs. Byass.'
Practical Bessie had already begun to ask herself what arrangement Jane proposed to make about lodgings. She was no Mrs. Peckover, but neither did circumstances allow her to disregard the question of rent. It cut her to the heart to think of refusing an income of two pounds per week.
Jane too saw all the requirements of the case.
'Mrs. Byass, will you let me have one room -- my old room upstairs? I have been very happy there, and I should like to stay if I can. You know what I can earn; can you afford to let me live there? I'd do my utmost to help you in the house; I'll be as good as a servant, if you can't keep Sarah. I should so like to stay with you!'
'You just let me hear you talk about leaving, that's all! Wait till I've talked it over with Sam.'
Jane went upstairs, and for the rest of the day the house was very quiet.
Not Whitehead's; there were other places where work might be found. And before many days she had found it. Happily there were no luxuries to be laid aside; her ordinary dress was not too good for the workroom. She had no habits of idleness to overcome, and an hour at the table made her as expert with her fingers as ever.
Returning from the first day's work, she sat in her room -- the little room which used to be hers -- to rest and think for a moment before going down to Bessie's supper-table. And her thought was:
'He, too, is just coming home from work. Why should my life be easier than his?'
Look at a map of greater London, a map on which the town proper shows as a dark, irregularly rounded patch against the whiteness of suburban districts, and just on the northern limit of the vast network of streets you will distinguish the name of Crouch End. Another decade, and the dark patch will have spread greatly further; for the present, Crouch End is still able to remind one that it was in the country a very short time ago. The streets have a smell of newness, of dampness; the bricks retain their complexion, the stucco has not rotted more than one expects in a year or two; poverty tries to hide itself with venetian blinds, until the time when an advanced guard of houses shall justify the existence of the slum.
Characteristic of the locality is a certain row of one-storey cottages -- villas, the advertiser calls them -- built of white brick, each with one bay window on the ground floor, a window pretentiously fashioned and desiring to be taken for stone, though obviously made of bad plaster. Before each house is a garden, measuring six feet by three, entered by a little iron gate, which grinds as you push it, and at no time would latch. The front-door also grinds on the sill; it can only be opened by force, and quivers in a way that shows how unsubstantially it is made. As you set foot in the pinched passage, the sound of your tread proves the whole fabric a thing of lath and sand. The ceilings, the walls, confess themselves neither water-tight nor air-tight. Whatever you touch is at once found to be sham.
In the kitchen of one of these houses, at two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon in September, three young people were sitting down to the dinner-table: a girl of nearly fourteen, her sister, a year younger, and their brother not yet eleven. All were decently dressed, but very poorly; a glance at them, and you knew that in this house there was little money to spend on superfluities. The same impression was produced by the appointments of the kitchen, which was disorderly, too, and spoke neglect of the scrubbing-brush. As for the table, it was ill laid and worse supplied. The meal was to consist of the fag-end of a shoulder of mutton, some villainously cooked potatoes (à l'Anglaise) and bread.
'Oh, I can't eat this rot again!' cried the boy, making a dig with his fork at the scarcely clad piece of bone. 'I shall have bread and cheese. Lug the cheese out, Annie!'
'No, you won't,' replied the elder girl, in a disagreeable voice. 'You'll eat this or go without.'
She had an unpleasing appearance. Her face was very thin, her lips pinched sourly together, her eyes furtive, hungry, malevolent. Her movements were awkward and impatient, and a morbid nervousness kept her constantly starting, with a stealthy look here or there.
'I shall have the cheese if I like!' shouted the boy, a very ill-conditioned youngster, whose face seemed to have been damaged in recent conflict. His clothes were dusty, and his hair stood up like stubble.
'Hold your row, Tom,' said the younger girl, who was quiet and had the look of an invalid. 'It's always you begins. Besides, you can't have cheese; there's only a little bit, and Sidney said he was going to make his dinner of it to-day.'
'Of course -- selfish beast!'
'Selfish! Now just listen to that, Amy! when he said it just that we mightn't be afraid to finish the meat.'
Amy said nothing, but began to hack fragments off the bone.
'Put some aside for father first,' continued Annie, holding a plate.
'Father be blowed!' cried Tom. 'You just give me that first cut. Give it here, Annie, or I'll crack you on the head!'
As he struggled for the plate, Amy bent forward and hit his arm violently with the handle of the knife. This was the signal for a general scrimmage, in the midst of which Tom caught up a hearth-brush and flung it at Amy's head. The missile went wide of its mark and shivered one of the windowpanes.
'There now!' exclaimed Annie, who had begun to cry in consequence of a blow from Tom's fist. 'See what father says to that!'
'If I was him,' said Amy, in a low voice of passion, 'I'd tie you to something and beat you till you lost your senses. Ugly brute!'
The warfare would not have ended here but that the door opened and he of whom they spoke made his appearance.
In the past two years and a half John Hewett had become a shaky old man. Of his grizzled hair very little remained, and little of his beard; his features were shrunken, his neck scraggy; he stooped much, and there was a senile indecision in his movements. He wore rough, patched clothing, had no collar, and seemed, from the state of his hands, to have been engaged in very dirty work. As he entered and came upon the riotous group his eyes lit up with anger. In a strained voice he shouted a command of silence.
'It's all that Tom, father,' piped Annie. 'There's no living with him.'
John's eye fell on the broken window.
'Which of you's done that?' he asked sternly, pointing to it.
No one spoke.
'Who's goin' to pay for it, I'd like to know? Doesn't it cost enough to keep you, but you must go makin' extra expense? Where's the money to come from, I want to know, if you go on like this?'
He turned suddenly upon the elder girl.
'I've got something to say to you, Miss. Why wasn't you at work this morning?'
Amy avoided his look. Her pale face became mottled with alarm, but only for an instant; then she hardened herself and moved her head insolently.
'Why Wasn't you at work? Where's your week's money?'
'I haven't got any.'
'You haven't got any? Why not?'
For a while she was stubbornly silent, but Hewett constrained her to confession at length. On his way home to-day he had been informed by an acquaintance that Amy was wandering about the streets at an hour when she ought to have been at her employment. Unable to put off the evil moment any longer, the girl admitted that four days ago she was dismissed for bad behaviour, and that since then she had pretended to go to work as usual. The trifling sum paid to her on dismissal she had spent.
John turned to his youngest daughter and asked in a hollow voice:
'She's got one of her headaches, father,' replied the girl, trembling.
He turned and went from the room.
It was long since he had lost his place of porter at the filter-works. Before leaving England, Joseph Snowdon managed to dispose of his interest in the firm of Lake, Snowdon, & Co., and at the same time Hewett was informed that his wages would be reduced by five shillings a week -- the sum which had been supplied by Michael Snowdon's benevolence. It was a serious loss. Clara's marriage removed one grave anxiety, but the three children had still to be brought up, and with every year John's chance of steady employment would grow less. Sidney Kirkwood declared himself able and willing to help substantially, but he might before long have children of his own to think of, and in any case it was Shameful to burden him in this way.
Shameful or not, it very soon came to pass that Sidney had the whole family on his hands. A bad attack of rheumatism in the succeeding winter made John incapable of earning any. thing at all; for two months he was a cripple. Till then Sidney and his wife had occupied lodgings in Holloway; when it became evident that Hewett must not hope to be able to support his children, and when Sidney had for many weeks p aid the rent (as well as supplying the money to live upon) in Farringdon Road Buildings, the house at Crouch End was taken, and there all went to live together. Clara's health was very uncertain, and though at first she spoke frequently of finding work to do at home, the birth of a child put an end to such projects. Amy Hewett was shortly at the point when the education of a board-school child is said to be 'finished;' by good luck, employment was found for her in Kentish Town, with three shillings a week from the first. John could not resign himself to being a mere burden on the home. Enforced idleness so fretted him that at times he seemed all but out of his wits. In despair he caught at the strangest kinds of casual occupation; when earning nothing, he would barely eat enough to keep himself alive, and if he succeeded in bringing home a shilling or two, he turned the money about in his hands with a sort of angry joy that it would have made your heart ache to witness. Just at present he had a job of cleaning and whitewashing some cellars in Stoke Newington.
He was absent from the kitchen for five minutes, during which time the three sat round the table. Amy pretended to eat unconcernedly; Tom made grimaces at her. As for Annie, she cried. Their father entered the room again.
'Why didn't you tell us about this at once?' he asked, in a shaking voice, looking at his daughter with eyes of blank misery.
'I don't know.'
'You're a bad, selfish girl!' he broke out, again overcome with anger. 'Haven't you got neither sense nor feelin' nor honesty? Just when you ought to have begun to earn a bit higher wages -- when you ought to have been glad to work your hardest, to show you wasn't unthankful to them as has done so much for you! Who earned money to keep you when you was goin' to school? Who fed and clothed you, and saw as you didn't want for nothing? Who is it as you owe everything to? -- just tell me that.'
Amy affected to pay no attention. She kept swallowing morsels, with ugly movements of her lips and jaws.
'How often have I to tell you all that if it wasn't for Sidney Kirkwood you'd have been workhouse children? As sure as you're livin', you'd all of you have gone to the workhouse! And you go on just as if you didn't owe thanks to nobody. I tell you it'll be years and years before one of you'll have a penny you can call your own. If it was Annie or Tom behaved so careless, there'd be less wonder; but for a girl of your age -- I'm ashamed as you belong to me! You can't even keep your tongue from bein' impudent to Clara, her as you ain't worthy to be a servant to!'
'Clara's a sneak,' observed Tom, with much coolness. 'She's always telling lies about us.'
'I'll half-knock your young head off your shoulders,' cried his father, furiously, 'if you talk to me like that! Not one of you's fit to live in the same house with her.'
'Father, I haven't done nothing,' whimpered Annie, hurt by being thus included in his reprobation.
'No more you have -- not just now, but you're often enough more trouble to your sister than you need be. But it's you I'm talkin' to, Amy. You dare to leave this house again till there's another place found for you! If you'd any self-respect, you couldn't bear to look Sidney in the face. Suppose you hadn't such a brother to work for you, what would you do, eh? Who'd buy your food? Who'd pay the rent of the house you live in?'
A noteworthy difference between children of this standing and such as pass their years of play-time in homes unshadowed by poverty. For these, life had no illusions. Of every mouthful that they ate, the price was known to them. The roof over their heads was there by no grace of Providence, but solely because such-and-such a sum was paid weekly in hard cash, when the collector came; let the payment fail, and they knew perfectly well what the result would be. The children of the upper world could not even by chance give a thought to the sources whence their needs are supplied; speech on such a subject in their presence would be held indecent. In John Hewett's position, the indecency, the crime, would have been to keep silence and pretend that the needs of existence are ministered to as a matter of course.
His tone and language were pitifully those of feeble age. The emotion proved too great a strain upon his body, and he had at length to sit down in a tremulous state, miserable with the consciousness of failing authority. He would have made but a poor figure now upon Clerkenwell Green. Even as his frame was shrunken, so had the circle of his interests contracted; he could no longer speak or think on the subjects which had fired him through the better part of his life; if he was driven to try and utter himself on the broad questions of social wrong, of the people's cause, a senile stammering of incoherencies was the only result. The fight had. ever gone against John Hewett; he was one of those who are born to be defeated. His failing energies spent themselves in conflict with his own children; the concerns of a miserable home were all his mind could now cope with.
'Come and sit down to your dinner, father,' Annie said, when he became silent.
'Dinner? I want no dinner. I've no stomach for food when it's stolen. What's Sidney goin' to have when he comes home?'
'He said he'd do with bread and cheese to-day. See, we've cut some meat for you?'
'You keep that for Sidney, then, and don't one of you dare to say anything about it. Cut me a bit of bread, Annie.'
She did so. He ate it, standing by the fireplace, drank a glass of water, and went into the sitting-room. There he sat unoccupied for nearly an hour, his head at times dropping forward as if he were nearly asleep; but it was only in abstraction. The morning's work had wearied him excessively, as such effort always did, but the mental misery he was suffering made him unconscious of bodily fatigue.
The clinking and grinding of the gate drew his attention; he stood up and saw his son-in-law, returned from Clerkenwell. When he had heard the house-door grind and shake and close, he called 'Sidney!'
Sidney looked into the parlour, with a smile.
'Come in here a minute; I want to speak to you.'
It was a face that told of many troubles. Sidney might resolutely keep a bright countenance, but there was no hiding the sallowness of his cheeks and the lines drawn by ever-wakeful anxiety. The effect of a struggle with mean necessities is seldom anything but degradation, in look and in character; but Sidney's temper, and the conditions of his life, preserved him against that danger. His features, worn into thinness, seem to present more distinctly than ever their points of refinement. You saw that he was habitually a grave and silent man; all the more attractive his aspect when, as now, he seemed to rest from thought and give expression to his natural kindliness. In the matter of attire he was no longer as careful as he used to be; the clothes he wore had done more than just service, and hung about him unregarded.
'Clara upstairs?' he asked, when he had noticed Hewett's look.
'Yes; she's lying down. May's been troublesome all the morning. But it was something else I meant.'
And John began to speak of Amy's ill-doing. He had always in some degree a sense of shame when he spoke privately with Sidney, always felt painfully the injustice involved in their relations. At present he could not look Kirkwood in the face, and his tone was that of a man who abases himself to make confession of guilt.
Sidney was gravely concerned. It was his habit to deal with the children's faults good-naturedly, to urge John not to take a sombre view of their thoughtlessness; but the present instance could not be made light of. Secretly he had always expected that the girl would be a source of more serious trouble the older she grew. He sat in silence, leaning forward, his eyes bent down.
'It's no good whatever I say,' lamented Hewett. 'They don't heed me. Why must I have children like these? Haven't I always done my best to teach them to be honest and good-hearted? If I'd spent my life in the worst ways a man can, they couldn't have turned out more worthless. Haven't I wished always what was right and good and true? Haven't I always spoke up for justice in the world? Haven't I done what I could, Sidney, to be helpful to them as fell into misfortune? And now in my old age I'm only a burden, and the children as come after me are nothing but a misery to all as have to do with them. If it wasn't for Clara I feel I couldn't live my time out. She's the one that pays me back for the love I've given her. All the others -- I can't feel as they're children of mine at all.'
It was a strange and touching thing that he seemed nowadays utterly to have forgotten Clara's past. Invariably he spoke of her as if she had at all times been his stay and comfort. The name of his son who was dead never passed his lips, but of Clara he could not speak too long or too tenderly.
'I can't think what to do,' Sidney said. 'If I talk to her in a fault-finding way, she'll only dislike me the more; she feels I've no business to interfere.'
'You're too soft with them. You spoil them. Why, there's one of them broken a pane in the kitchen to-day, end they know you'll take it quiet, like you do everything else.'
Sidney wrinkled his brow. These petty expenses, ever repeated, were just what made the difficulty in his budget; he winced whenever such demands encroached upon the poor weekly income of which every penny was too little for the serious needs of the family. Feeling that if he sat and thought much longer a dark mood would seize upon him, he rose hastily.
'I shall try kindness with her. Don't say anything more in her hearing.'
He went to the kitchen-door, and cried cheerfully, 'My dinner ready, girls?'
Annie's voice replied with a timorous affirmative.
'All right; I'll be down in a minute.'
Treading as gently as possible, he ascended the stairs and entered his bedroom. The blind was drawn down, but sunlight shone through it and made a softened glow in the chamber. In a little cot was sitting his child, May, rather more than a year old; she had toys about her, and was for the moment contented. Clara lay on the bed, her face turned so that Sidney could not see it. He spoke to her, and she just moved her arm, but gave no reply.
'Do you wish to be left alone?' he asked, in a subdued and troubled voice.
'Shall I take May downstairs?'
'If you like. Don't speak to me now.'
He remained standing by the bed for a minute, then turned his eyes on the child, who smiled at him. He could not smile in return, but went quietly away.
'It's one of her bad days,' whispered Hewett, who met him at the foot of the stairs. 'She can't help it, poor girl!'
Sidney ate what was put before him without giving a thought to it. When his eyes wandered round the kitchen the disorder and dirt worried him, but on that subject he could not speak. His hunger appeased, he looked steadily at Amy, and said in a kindly tone:
'Father tells me you've had a stroke of bad luck, Amy. We must have a try at another place, mustn't we? Hollo, there's a window broken! Has Tom been playing at cricket in the room, eh?'
The girls kept silence.
'Come and let's make out the list for our shopping this afternoon,' he continued. 'I'm afraid there'll have to be something the less for that window, girls; what do you say?'
'We'll do without a pudding to-morrow, Sidney,' suggested Annie.
'Oh come, now! I'm fond of pudding.'
Thus it was always; if he could not direct by kindness, he would never try to rule by harsh words. Six years ago it was not so easy for him to be gentle under provocation, and he would then have made a better disciplinarian in such a home as this. On Amy and Tom all his rare goodness was thrown away. Never mind; shall one go over to the side of evil because one despairs of vanquishing it?
The budget, the budget! Always so many things perforce cut out; always such cruel pressure of things that could not be cut out. In the early days of his marriage he had accustomed himself to a liberality of expenditure out of proportion to his income; the little store of savings allowed him to indulge his kindness to Clara and her relatives, and he kept putting off to the future that strict revision of outlay which his position of course demanded. The day when he had no longer a choice came all too soon; with alarm he discovered that his savings had melted away; the few sovereigns remaining must be sternly guarded for the hour of stern necessity. How it ground on his sensibilities when he was compelled to refuse some request from Clara or the girls! His generous nature suffered pangs of self-contempt as often as there was talk of economy. To-day, for instance, whilst he was worrying in thought over Amy's behaviour, and at the same time trying to cut down the Saturday's purchases in order to pay for the broken window, up comes Tom with the announcement that he lost his hat this morning, and had to return bareheaded. Another unforeseen expense! And Sidney was angry with himself for his impulse of anger against the boy.
Clara never went out to make purchases, seldom indeed left the house for any reason, unless Sidney persuaded her to walk a short distance with him after sundown, when she veiled herself closely. Neither Amy nor Anne could be trusted to do all the shopping, so that Sidney generally accompanied one or other of them for that purpose on Saturday afternoon. To-day he asked Amy to go with him, wishing, if possible, to influence her for good by kind, brotherly talk. Whilst she was getting ready he took John aside into the parlour, to impart a strange piece of news he had brought from Clerkenwell.
'Mrs. Peckover has had a narrow escape of being poisoned. She was found by one of her lodgers all but dead, and last night the police arrested her daughter on the charge.'
'Yes. The mother has accused her. There's a man concerned in the affair. One of the men showed me a report in to-day's paper; I didn't buy one, because we shall have it in the Sunday paper to-morrow. Nice business, oh?'
'That's for the old woman's money, I'll wager!' exclaimed Hewett, in an awed voice. 'I can believe it of Clem; if ever there was a downright bad 'un! Was she living in the Close?'
'Mrs. Snowdon wasn't. Somewhere in Hoxton. No doubt it was for the money -- if the charge is true. We won't speak of it before the children.'
'Think of that, now! Many's the time I've looked at Clem Peckover and said to myself, "You'll come to no good end, my lady!" She was a fierce an' bad 'un.'
Sidney nodded, and went off for his walk with Amy. . . .
It was a difficult thing to keep any room in the house orderly, and Sidney, as part of his struggle against the downward tendency in all about him, against the forces of chaos, often did the work of housemaid in the parlour; a little laxity in the rules which made this a sacred corner, and there would have been no spot where he could rest. With some suceess, too, he had resisted the habit prevalent in working-class homes of prolonging Saturday evening's occupations until the early hours of Sunday morning. At a little after ten o'clock tonight John Hewett and the children were in bed; he too, weary in mind and body, would gladly have gone upstairs, but he lingered from one five minutes to the next, his heart sinking at the certainty that he would find Clara in sleepless misery which he had no power to allay.
Round the walls of the parlour were hung his own drawings, which used to conceal the bareness of his lodging in Tysoe Street. It was three years since he had touched a pencil; the last time having been when he made holiday with Michael Snowdon and Jane at the farm-house by Danbury Hill. The impulse would never come again. It was associated with happiness, with hope; and What had his life to do with one or the other? Could he have effected the change without the necessity of explaining it, he would gladly have put those drawings out of sight. Whenever, as now, he consciously regarded them, they plucked painfully at his heart-strings, and threatened to make him a coward.
None of that! He had his work to do, happiness or no happiness, and by all the virtue of manhood he would not fail in it -- as far as success or failure was a question of his own resolve.
The few books he owned were placed on hanging shelves; among them those which he had purchased for Clara since their marriage. But reading was as much a thing of the past as drawing. Never a moment when his mind was sufficiently at ease to refresh itself with other men's thoughts or fancies. As with John Hewett, so with himself; the circle of his interests had shrivelled, until it included nothing but the cares of his family, the cost of house and food and firing. As a younger man, he had believed that he knew what was meant by the struggle for existence in the nether world; it seemed to him now as if such knowledge had been only theoretical. Oh, it was easy to preach a high ideal of existence for the poor, as long as one had a considerable margin over the week's expenses; easy to rebuke the men and women who tried to forget themselves in beer-shops and gin-houses, as long as one could take up some rational amusement with a quiet heart. Now, on his return home from labour, it was all he could do not to sink in exhaustion and defeat of spirit. Shillings and pence; shillings and pence -- never a question of pounds, unfortunately; and always too few of them. He understood how men have gone mad under pressure of household cares; he realised the horrible temptation which has made men turn dastardly from the path leading homeward and leave those there to shift for themselves.
When on the point of lowering the lamp he heard someone coming downstairs. The door opened, and, to his surprise, Clara came in. Familiarity could not make him insensible to that disfigurement of her once beautiful face; his eyes always fell before her at the first moment of meeting.
'What are you doing?' she asked. 'Why don't you come up?'
'I was that minute coming.'
His hand went again to the lamp, but she checked him. In a low, wailing, heart-breaking voice, and with a passionate gesture, she exclaimed, 'Oh, I feel as if I should go mad I can't bear it much longer!'
Sidney was silent at first, then said quietly, 'Let's sit here for a little. No wonder you feel low-spirited, lying in that room all day. I'd gladly have come and sat with you, but my company only seems to irritate you.'
'What good can you do me? You only think I'm making you miserable without a cause. You won't say it, but that's what you always think; and when I feel that, I can't bear to have you near. If only I could die and come to the end of it! How can you tell what I suffer? Oh yes, you speak so calmly -- as good as telling me I am unreasonable because I can't do the same. I hate to hear your voice when it's like that! I'd rather you raged at me or struck me!'
The beauty of her form had lost nothing since the evening when he visited her in Farringdon Road Buildings; now, as then, all her movements were full of grace and natural dignity. Whenever strong feeling was active in her, she could not but manifest it in motion unlike that of ordinary women. Her hair hung in disorder, though net at its full length, massing itself upon her shoulders, shadowing her forehead. Half-consumed by the fire that only death would extinguish, she looked the taller for her slenderness. Ah, had the face been untouched!
'You are unjust to me,' Sidney replied, with emotion, but not resentfully. 'I can enter into all your sufferings. If I speak calmly, it's because I must, because I daren't give way. One of us must try and be strong, Clara, or else ----'
He turned away.
'Let us leave this house,' she continued, hardly noticing what he said, 'Let us live in some other place. Never any change -- always, always the same walls to look at day and night -- it's driving me mad!'
'Clara, we can't move. I daren't spend even the little money it would cost. Do you know what Amy has been doing?'
'Yes; father told me.'
'How can we go to the least needless expense, when every day makes living harder for us?'
'What have we to do with them? How can you be expected to keep a whole family? It isn't fair to you or to me. You sacrifice me to them. It's nothing to you what I endure, so long as they are kept in comfort!'
He stepped nearer to her.
'What do you really mean by that? Is it seriously your wish that I should tell them -- your father and your sisters and our brother -- to leave the house and support themselves as best they can? Pray, what would become of them? Kept in comfort, are they? How much comfort does your poor father enjoy? Do you wish me to tell him to go out into the street, as I can help him no more?'
She moaned and made a wild gesture.
'You know all this to be impossible; you don't wish it; you couldn't bear it. Then why will you drive me almost to despair by complaining so of what can't be helped? Surely you foresaw it all. You knew that I was only a working man. It isn't as if there had been any hope of my making a larger income, and you were disappointed.'
'Does it make it easier to bear because there is no hope of relief?' she cried,
'For me, yes. If there were hope, I might fret under the misery.'
'Oh, I had hope once! It might have been so different with me. The thought burns and burns and burns, till I am frantic. You don't help me to bear it. You leave me alone when I most need help. How can you know what it means to me to look back and think of what might have been? You say to yourself I am selfish, that I ought to be thankful some. one took pity on me, poor, wretched creature that I am. It would have been kinder never to have come near me. I should have killed myself long ago, and there an end. You thought it was a great thing to take me, when you might have had a wife who would ----'
'Clara! Clara! When you speak like that, I could almost believe you are really mad. For Heaven's sake, think what you are saying! Suppose I were to reproach you with having consented to marry me? I would rather die than let such a word pass my lips -- but suppose you heard me speaking to you like this?'
She drew a deep sigh, and let her hands fall. Sidney continued in quite another voice:
'It's one of the hardest things I have to bear, that I can't make your life pleasanter. Of course you need change; I know it only too well. You and I ought to have our holiday at this time of the year, like other people. I fancy I should like to go into the country myself; Clerkenwell isn't such a beautiful place that one can be content to go there day after day, year after year, without variety. But we have no money. Suffer as we may, there's no help for it -- because we have no money. Lives may be wasted -- worse, far worse than wasted -- just because there is no money. At this moment a whole world of men and women is in pain and sorrow -- because they have no money. How often have we said that? The world is made so; everything has to be bought with money.'
'You find it easier to bear than I do.'
'Yes; I find it easier. I am stronger-bodied, and at all events I have some variety, whilst you have none. I know it. If I could take your share of the burden, how gladly I'd do so! If I could take your suffering upon myself, you shouldn't be unhappy for another minute. But that is another impossible thing. People who are fortunate in life may ask each day what they can do; we have always to remind ourselves what we can't.'
'You take a pleasure in repeating such things; it shows how little you feel them.'
'It shows how I have taken to heart the truth of them.'
She waved her hand impatiently, again sighed, and moved towards the door.
'Don't go just yet,' said Sidney. 'We have more to say to each other,'
'I have nothing more to say. I am miserable, and you can't help me.'
'I can, Clara.'
She looked at him with wondering, estranged eyes. 'How? What are you going to do?'
'Only speak to you, that's all. I have nothing to give but words. But ----'
She would have left him. Sidney stepped forward and prevented her.
'No; you must hear what I have got to say. They may be only words, but if I have no power to move you with my words, then our life has come to utter ruin, and I don't know what dreadful things lie before us.'
'I can say the same,' she replied, in a despairing tone.
'But neither you nor I shall say it! As long as I have strength to speak, I won't consent to say that Clara, you must put your hand in mine, and think of your life and mine as one. If not for my sake, then for your child's. Think; do you wish May to suffer for the faults of her parents?'
'I wish she had never been born!'
'And yet you were the happier for her birth. It's only these last six months that you have fallen again into misery. You indulge it, and it grows worse, harder to resist. You may say that life seems to grow worse. Perhaps so. This affair of Amy's has been a heavy blow, and we shall miss the little money she brought; goodness knows when another place will be found for her. But all the more reason why we should help each other to struggle. Perhaps just this year or two will be our hardest time. If Amy and Annie and Tom were once all earning something, the worst would be over -- wouldn't it? And can't we find strength to hold out a little longer, just to give the children a start in life, just to make your father's last years a bit happier? If we manage it, shan't we feel glad in looking back? Won't it be something worth having lived for?'
He paused, but Clara had no word for him.
'There's Amy. She's a hard girl to manage, partly because she has very bad health. I always think of that -- or try to -- when she irritates me. This afternoon I took her out with me, and spoke as kindly as I could; if she isn't better for it, she surely can't be worse, and in any case I don't know what else to do. Look, Clara, you and I are going to do what we can for these children; we're not going to give up the work now we've begun it. Mustn't all of us who are poor stand together and help one another? We have to fight against the rich world that's always crushing us down, down -- whether it means to or not. Those people enjoy their lives. Well, I shall find my enjoyment in defying them to make me despair? But I can't do without your help. I didn't feel very cheerful as I sat here a while ago, before you came down; I was almost afraid to go upstairs, lest the sight of what you were suffering should be too much for me. Am I to ask a kindness of you and be refused, Clara?'
It was not the first time that she had experienced the constraining power of his words when he was moved with passionate earnestness. Her desire to escape was due to a fear of yielding, of suffering her egotism to fail before a stronger will.
'Let me go,' she said, whilst he held her arm. 'I feel too ill to talk longer.'
'Only one word -- only one promise -- now whilst we are the only ones awake in the house. We are husband and wife, Clara, and we must be kind to each other. We are not going to be like the poor creatures who let their misery degrade them. We are both too proud for that -- what? We can think and express our thoughts; we can speak to each other's minds and hearts. Don't let us be beaten!'
'What's the good of my promising? I can't keep it. I suffer too much.'
'Promise, and keep the promise for a few weeks, a few days; then I'll find strength to help you once more. But now it's your turn to help me. To-morrow begins a new week; the rich world allows us to rest to-morrow, to be with each other. Shall we make it a quiet, restful, hopeful day? When they go out in the morning, you shall read to father and me -- read as you know how to, so much better than I can. What? Was that really a smile?'
'Let me go, Sidney. Oh, I'm tired, I'm tired!'
'And the promise?'
'I'll do my best. It won't last long, but I'll try.'
'Thank you, dear.'
'No,' she replied, despondently. 'It's I that ought to thank you. But I never shall -- never. I only understand you now and then -- just for an hour -- and all the selfishness comes back again. It'll be the same till I'm dead.'
He put out the lamp and followed her upstairs. His limbs ached; he could scarcely drag one leg after the other. Never mind; the battle was gained once more.
'The poisoning business startled me. I shouldn't at all wonder if I had a precious narrow squeak of something of the kind myself before I took my departure; in fact, a sort of fear of the animal made me settle things as sharp as I could. Let me know the result of the trial. Wonder whether there'll be any disagreeable remarks about a certain acquaintance of yours, detained abroad on business? Better send me newspapers -- same name and address. . . . But I've something considerably more important to think about. . . . A big thing; I scarcely dare tell you how big. I stand to win $2,000,000! . . . Not a soul outside suspects the ring. When I tell you that R.S.N. is in it, you'll see that I've struck the right ticket this time. . . . Let me hear about Jane. If all goes well here, and you manage that little business, you shall have $100,000, just for house-furnishing, you know. I suppose you'll have your partnership in a few months?'
Extracts from a letter, with an American stamp, which Mr. Scawthorne read as he waited for his breakfast. It was the end of October, and cool enough to make the crackling fire grateful. Having mused over the epistle, our friend took up his morning paper and glanced at the report of criminal trials. Whilst he was so engaged his landlady entered, carrying a tray of appetising appearance.
'Good-morning, Mrs. Byass,' he said, with much friendliness. Then, in a lower voice, 'There's a fuller report here than there was in the evening paper. Perhaps you looked at it?'
'Well, yes, sir; I thought you wouldn't mind,' replied Bessie, arranging the table.
'She'll be taken care of or three years, at all events.'
'If you'd seen her that day she came here after Miss Snowdon, you'd understand how glad I feel that she's out of the way. I'm sure I've been uneasy ever since. If ever there comes a rather loud knock at -- there I begin to tremble; I do indeed. I don't think I shall ever get over it.'
'I dare say Miss Snowdon will be easier in mind?'
'I shouldn't wonder. But she won't say anything about it. She feels the disgrace so much, and I know it's almost more than she can do to go to work, just because she thinks they talk about her.'
'Oh, that'll very soon pass over. There's always something new happening, and people quickly forget a case like this.'
Bessie withdrew, and her lodger addressed himself to his breakfast.
He had occupied the rooms on the first floor for about a year and a half. Joseph Snowdon's proposal to make him acquainted with Jane had not been carried out, Scawthorne deeming it impracticable; but when a year had gone by, and Scawthorne, as Joseph's confidential correspondent, had still to report that Jane maintained herself in independence, he one day presented himself in Hanover Street, as a total stranger, and made inquiry about the rooms which a card told him were to let. His improved position allowed him to live somewhat more reputably than in the Chelsea lodging, and Hanover Street would suit him well enough until he obtained the promised partnership. Admitted as a friend to Mr. Percival's house in Highbury, he had by this time made the acquaintance of Miss Lant, whom, by the exercise of his agreeable qualities, he one day led to speak of Jane Snowdon. Miss Lant continued to see Jane, at long intervals, and was fervent in her praise as well as in compassionating the trials through which she had gone. His position in Mr. Percival's office of course made it natural that Scawthorne should have a knowledge of the girl's story. When he had established himself in Mrs. Byass's rooms, he mentioned the fact casually to his friends, making it appear that, in seeking lodgings, he had come upon these by haphazard.
He could not but feel something of genuine interest in a girl who, for whatever reason, declined a sufficient allowance and chose to work for her living. The grounds upon which Jane took this decision were altogether unknown to him until an explanation came from her father. Joseph, when news of the matter reached him, was disposed to entertain suspicions; with every care not to betray his own whereabouts, he wrote to Jane, and in due time received a reply, in which Jane told him truly her reasons for refusing the money. These Joseph communicated to Scawthorne, and the latter's interest was still more strongly awakened.
He was now on terms of personal acquaintance, almost of friendship, with Jane. Miss Lant, he was convinced, did not speak of her too praisingly. Not exactly a pretty girl, though far from displeasing in countenance; very quiet, very gentle, with much natural refinement. Her air of sadness -- by no means forced upon the vulgar eye, but unmistakable when you studied her -- was indicative of faithful sensibilities. Scawthorne had altogether lost sight of Sidney Kirkwood and of the Hewetts; he knew they were all gone to a remote part of London, and more than this he had no longer any care to discover. On excellent terms with his landlady, he skilfully elicited from her now and then a confidential remark with regard to Jane; of late, indeed, he had established something like a sentimental understanding with the good Bessie, so that, whenever he mentioned Jane, she fell into a pleasant little flutter, feeling that she understood what was in progress. . . . Why not? -- he kept asking himself. Joseph Snowdon (who addressed his letters to Hanover Street in a feigned hand) seemed to have an undeniable affection for the girl, and was constant in his promises of providing a handsome dowry. The latter was not a point of such importance as a few years ago, but the dollars would be acceptable. And then, the truth was, Scawthorne felt himself more and more inclined to put a certain question to Jane, dowry or none.
Yes, she felt it as a disgrace, poor girl! When she saw the name 'Snowdon' in the newspaper, in such a shameful and horrible connection, her impulse was to flee, to hide herself. It was dreadful to go to her work and hear the girls talking of this attempted murder. The new misery came upon her just as she was regaining something of her natural spirits, after long sorrow and depression which had affected her health. But circumstances, now as ever, seemed to plot that at a critical moment of her own experience she should be called out of herself and constrained to become the consoler of others.
For some months the domestic peace of Mr. and Mrs. Byass had been gravely disturbed. Unlike the household at Crouch End, it was to prosperity that Sam and his wife owed their troubles. Year after year Sam's position had improved; he was now in receipt of a salary which made -- or ought to have made -- things at home very comfortable. Though his children were now four in number, he could supply their wants. He could buy Bessie a new gown without very grave consideration, and could regard his own shiny top-hat, when he donned it in the place of one that was really respectable enough, without twinges of conscience.
But Sam was not remarkable for wisdom; indeed, had he been anything more than a foolish calculating-machine, he would scarcely have thriven as he did in the City. When he had grown accustomed to rattling loose silver in his pocket, the next thing, as a matter of course, was that he accustomed himself to pay far too frequent visits to City bars. On certain days in the week he invariably came home with a very red face and a titubating walk; when Bessie received him angrily, he defended himself on the great plea of business necessities. As a town traveller there was no possibility, he alleged, of declining invitations to refresh himself; just as incumbent upon him was it to extend casual hospitality to those with whom he had business.
'Business! Fiddle!' cried Bessie. 'All you City fellows are the same. You encourage each other in drink, drink, drinking whenever you have a chance, and then you say it's all a matter of business. I won't have you coming home in that state, so there! I won't have a husband as drinks! Why, you can't stand straight.'
'Can't stand straight!' echoed Sam, with vast scorn. 'Look here!'
And he shouldered the poker, with the result that one of the globes on the chandelier came in shivers about his head. This was too much. Bessie fumed, and for a couple of hours the quarrel was unappeasable.
Worse was to come. Sam occasionally stayed out very late at night, and on his return alleged a 'business appointment.' Bessie at length refused to accept these excuses; she couldn't and wouldn't believe them.
'Then don't!' shouted Sam. 'And understand that I shall come home just when I like. If you make a bother I won't come home at all, so there you have it!'
'You're a bad husband and a beast!' was Bessie's retort.
Shortly after that Bessie received information of such grave misconduct on her husband's part that she all but resolved to forsake the house, and with the children seek refuge under her parents' roof at Woolwich. Sam had been seen in indescribable company; no permissible words would characterise the individuals with whom he had roamed shamelessly on the pavement of Oxford Street. When he next met her, quite sober and with exasperatingly innocent expression, Bessie refused to open her lips. Neither that evening nor the next would she utter a word to him -- and the effort it cost her was tremendous. The result was, that on the third evening Sam did not appear.
It was a week after Clem's trial. Jane had been keeping to herself as much as possible, but, having occasion to go down into the kitchen late at night, she found Bessie in tears, utterly miserable.
'Don't bother about me!' was the reply to her sympathetic question. 'You've got your own upsets to think of. You might have come to speak to me before this -- but never mind. It's nothing to you.'
It needed much coaxing to persuade her to detail Sam's enormities, but she found much relief when she had done so, and wept more copiously than ever.
'It's nearly twelve o'clock, and there's no sign of him, Perhaps he won't come at all. He's in bad company, and if he stays away all night I'll never speak to him again as long as I live. Oh, he's a beast of a husband, is Sam!'
Sam came not. All through that night did Jane keep her friend company, for Sam came not. In the morning a letter, addressed in his well-known commercial hand. Bessie read it and screamed. Sam wrote to her that he had accepted a position as country traveller, and perhaps he might be able to look in at his home on that day month.
Jane could not go to work. The case had become very serious indeed; Bessie was in hysterics; the four children made the roof ring with their lamentations. At this juncture Jane put forth all her beneficent energy. It happened that Bessie was just now servantless. There was Mr. Scawthorne's breakfast only half prepared; Jane had to see to it herself, and herself take it upstairs. Then Bessie must go to bed, or assuredly she would be so ill that unheard-of calamities would befall the infants. Jane would have an eye to everything; only let Jane be trusted.
The miserable day passed; after trying in vain to sleep, Bessie walked about her sitting-room with tear-swollen face and rumpled gown, always thinking it possible that Sam had only played a trick, and that he would come. But he came not, and again it was night.
At eight o'clock Mr. Scawthorne's bell rang. Impossible for Bessie to present herself; Jane would go. She ascended to the room which had once -- ah! once! -- been her own parlour, knocked and entered.
'I -- I wished to speak to Mrs. Byass,' said Scawthorne, appearing for some reason or other embarrassed by Jane's presenting herself.
'Mrs. Byass is not at all well, sir. But I'll let her know ----'
'No, no; on no account.'
'Can't I get you anything, sir?'
'Miss Snowdon -- might I speak with you for a few moments?'
Jane feared it might be a complaint. In a perfectly natural way she walked forward. Scawthorne came in her direction, and -- closed the door.
The interview lasted ten minutes, then Jane came forth and with a light, quick step ran up to the floor above. She did not enter the room, however, but stood with her hand on the door, in the darkness. A minute or two, and with the same light, hurried step, she descended the stairs, sprang past the ledger's room, sped down to the kitchen. Under other circumstances Bessie must surely have noticed a strangeness in her look, in her manner; but to-night Bessie had thought for nothing but her own calamities.
Another day, and no further news from Sam. The next morning, instead of going to work (the loss of wages was most serious, but it couldn't be helped), Jane privately betook herself to Sam's house of business. Mrs. Byass was ill; would they let her know Mr. Byass's address, that he might immediately be communicated with? The information was readily supplied; Mr. Byass was no farther away, at present, than St. Albans. Forth into the street again, and in search of a policeman. 'Will you please to tell me what station I have to go to for St. Albans?' Why, Moorgate Street would do; only a few minutes' walk away. On she hastened. 'What is the cost of a return ticket to St. Albans, please?' Three-and-sevenpence. Back into the street again; she must now look for a certain sign, indicating a certain place of business. With some little trouble it is found; she enters a dark passage, and comes before a counter, upon which she lays -- a watch, her grandfather's old watch. 'How much?' 'Four shillings, please.' She deposits a halfpenny, and receives four shillings, together with a ticket. Now for St. Albans.
Sam! Sam! Ay, well might he turn red and stutter and look generally foolish when that quiet little girl stood before him in his 'stock-room' at the hotel. Her words were as quiet as her look. 'I'll write her a letter,' he cries. 'Stop; you shall take it back. I can't give up the job at once, but you may tell her I'm up to no harm. Where's the pen? Where's the cursed ink?' And she takes the letter.
'Why, you've lost a day's work, Jane! She gave you the money for the journey, I suppose?'
'Yes, yes, of course.'
'Tell her she's not to make a fool of herself in future.'
'No, I shan't say that, Mr. Byass. But I'm half-tempted to say it to someone else!'
It was the old, happy smile, come back for a moment; the voice that had often made peace so merrily. The return journey seemed short, and with glad heart-beating she hastened from the City to Hanover Street.
Well, well; of course it would all begin over again; Jane herself knew it. But is not all life a struggle onward from compromise to compromise, until the day of final pacification?
Through that winter she lived with a strange secret in her mind, a secret which was the source of singularly varied feelings -- of astonishment, of pain, of encouragement, of apprehension, of grief. To no one could she speak of it; no one could divine its existence -- no one save the person to whom she owed this surprising novelty in her experience. She would have given much to be rid of it; and yet, again, might she not legitimately accept that pleasure which at times came of the thought? -- the thought that, as a woman, her qualities were of some account in the world.
She did her best to keep it out of her consciousness, and in truth had so many other things to think about that it was seldom she really had trouble with it. Life was not altogether easy; regular work was not always to be kept; there was much need of planning and pinching, that her independence might suffer no wound, Bessie Byass was always in arms against that same independent spirit; she scoffed at it, assailed it with treacherous blandishment, made direct attacks upon it.
'I must live in my own way, Mrs. Byass. I don't want to have to leave you.'
And if ever life seemed a little too hard, if the image of the past grew too mournfully persistent, she knew where to go for consolation. Let us follow her, one Saturday afternoon early in the year.
In a poor street in Clerkenwell was a certain poor little shop -- built out as an afterthought from an irregular lump of houses; a shop with a room behind it and a cellar below; no more. Here was sold second-hand clothing, women's and children's. No name over the front, but neighbours would have told you that it was kept by one Mrs. Todd, a young widow with several children. Mrs. Todd, not long ago, used to have only a stall in the street; but a lady named Miss Lant helped her to start in a more regular way of business.
'And does she carry it on quite by herself?'
No; with her lived another young woman, also a widow, who had one child. Mrs. Hewett, her name. She did sewing in the room behind, or attended to the shop when Mrs. Todd was away making purchases.
There Jane Snowdon entered. The clothing that hung in the window made it very dark inside; she had to peer a little before she could distinguish the person who sat behind the counter. 'Is Pennyloaf in, Mrs. Todd?'
'Yes, Miss. Will you walk through?'
The room behind is lighted from the ceiling. It is heaped with the most miscellaneous clothing. It contains two beds, some shelves with crockery, a table, some chairs -- but it would have taken you a long time to note all these details, so huddled together was everything. Part of the general huddling were five children, of various ages; and among them, very busy, sat Pennyloaf.
'Everything going on well?' was Jane's first question.
'Then I know it isn't. Whenever you call me "Miss," there's something wrong; I've learnt that.'
Pennyloaf smiled, sadly but with affection in her eyes. 'Well, I have been a bit low, an' that's the truth. It takes me sometimes, you know. I've been thinkin', when I'd oughtn't.'
'Same with me, Pennyloaf. We can't help thinking, can we? What a good thing if we'd nothing more to think about than these children! Where's little Bob? Why, Bob, I thought you were old clothes; I did, really! You may well laugh!'
The laughter was merry, and Jane encouraged it, inventing all sorts of foolish jokes. 'Pennyloaf, I wish you'd ask me to stay to tea.'
'Then that I will, Miss Jane, an' gladly. Would you like it soon?'
'No; in an hour will do, won't it? Give me something that wants sewing, a really hard bit, something that'll break needles. Yes, that'll do. Where's Mrs. Todd's thimble? Now we're all going to be comfortable, and we'll have a good talk.'
Pennyloaf found the dark thoughts slip away insensibly. And she talked, she talked -- where was there such a talker as Pennyloaf nowadays, when she once began?
Mr. Byass was not very willing, after all, to give up his country travelling. That his departure on that business befell at a moment of domestic quarrel was merely chance; secretly he had made the arrangement with his firm some weeks before. The penitence which affected him upon Jane's appeal could not be of abiding result; for, like all married men at a certain point of their lives, he felt heartily tired of home and wished to see the world a little. Hanover Street heard endless discussions of the point between Sam and Bessie, between Bessie and Jane, between Jane and Sam, between all three together. And the upshot was that Mr. Byass gained his point. For a time he would go on country journeys. Bessie assented sullenly, but, strange to say, she had never been in better spirits than on the day after this decision had been arrived at.
On that day, however -- it was early in March -- an annoying incident happened. Mr. Scawthorne, who always dined in town and seldom returned to his lodgings till late in the evening, rang his bell about eight o'clock and sent a message by the servant that he wished to see Mrs. Byass. Bessie having come up, he announced to her with gravity that his tenancy of the rooms would be at an end in a fortnight. Various considerations necessitated his livin in a different part of London. Bessie frankly lamented; she would never again find such an estimable lodger. But, to be sure, Mr. Scawthorne had prepared her for this, three months ago. Well, what must be, must be.
'Is Miss Snowdon in the house, Mrs. Byass?' Scawthorne went on to inquire.
'Miss Snowdon? Yes.'
'This letter from America, which I found on coming in, contains news she must hear -- disagreeable news, I'm sorry to say.'
'About her father?' Bessie inquired anxiously.
Scawthorne nodded a grave and confidential affirmative. He had never given Mrs. Byass reason to suppose that he knew anything of Joseph's whereabouts, but Bessie's thoughts naturally turned in that direction.
'The news comes to me by chance,' he continued. 'I think I ought to communicate it to Miss Snowdon privately, and leave her to let you know what it is, as doubtless she will. Would it be inconvenient to you to let me have the use of your parlour for five minutes?'
'I'll go and light the gas at once, and toil Miss Snowdon.'
'Thank you, Mrs. Byass.'
He was nervous, a most unusual thing with him. Till Bessie's return he p aced the room irregularly, chewing the ends of his moustache. When it was announced to him that the parlour was ready he went down, the letter in his hand. At the half-open door came a soft knock. Jane entered.
She showed signs of painful agitation.
'Will you sit down, Miss Snowdon? It happens that I have a correspondent in the United States, who has lately had -- had business relations with Mr. Joseph Snowdon, your father. On returning this evening I found a letter from my friend, in which there is news of a distressing kind,'
He paused. What he was about to say was -- for once -- the truth. The letter, however, came from a stranger, a lawyer in Chicago.
'Your father, I understand, has lately been engaged in -- in commercial speculation on a great scale. His enterprises have proved unfortunate. One of those financial crashes which are common in America caused his total ruin.'
Jane drew a deep breath.
'I am sorry to say that is not all. The excitement of the days when his fate was hanging in the balance led to illness -- fatal illness. He died on the sixth of February.'
Jane, with her eyes bent down, was motionless. After a pause, Scawthorne continued:
'I will speak of this with Mr. Percival to-morrow, and every inquiry shall be made -- on your behalf.'
'Thank you, sir.'
She rose, very pale, but with more self-command than on entering the room. The latter part of his communication seemed to have affected her as a relief.
'Miss Snowdon -- if you would allow me to say a few more words. You will remember I mentioned to you that there was a prospect of my becoming a partner in the firm which I have hitherto served as clerk. A certain examination had to be passed that I might be admitted a solicitor. That is over; in a few days my position as a member of the firm will be assured.'
Jane waited, her eyes still east down.
'I feel that it may seem to you an ill-chosen time; but the very fact that I have just been the bearer of such sad news impels me to speak. I cannot keep the promise that I would never revive the subject on which I spoke to you not long ago. Forgive me; I must ask you again if you cannot think of me as I wish? Miss Snowdon, will you let me devote myself to making your life happy? It has always seemed to me that if I could attain a position such as I now have, there would be little else to ask for. I began life poor and half-educated, and you cannot imagine the difficulties I have overcome. But if I go away from this house, and leave you so lonely, living such a hard life, there will be very little satisfaction for me in my success. Let me try to make for you a happiness such as you merit. It may seem as if we were very slightly acquainted, but I know you well enough to esteem you more highly than any women I ever met, and if you could but think of me ----'
He was sincere. Jane had brought out the best in him. With the death of Snowdon all his disreputable past seemed swept away, and he had no thought of anything but a decent rectitude, a cleanly enjoyment of existence, for the future. but Jane was answering:
'I can't change what I said before, Mr. Scawthorne. I am very content to live as I do now. I have friends I am very fond of. Thank you for your kindness -- but I can't change.'
Without intending it, she ceased upon a word which to her hearer conveyed a twofold meaning. He understood; offer what he might, it could not tempt her to forget the love which had been the best part of her life. She was faithful to the past, and unchanging.
Mrs. Byass never suspected the second purpose for which her lodger had desired to speak with Jane this evening. Scawthorne in due time took his departure, with many expressions of goodwill, many assurances that nothing could please him better than to be of service to Bessie and her husband.
'He wished me to say good-bye to you for him,' said Bessie, when Jane came back from her work.
So the romance in her life was over. Michael Snowdon's wealth had melted away; with it was gone for ever the hope of realising his high projects. All passed into the world of memory, of dream -- all save the spirit which had ennobled him, the generous purpose bequeathed to those two hearts. which had loved him best.
To his memory all days were sacred; but one, that of his burial, marked itself for Jane as the point in each year to which her life was directed, the saddest, yet bringing with it her supreme solace.
A day in early spring, cloudy, cold. She left the workroom in the dinner-hour, and did net return. But instead of going to Hanover Street, she walked past Islington Green, all along Essex Road, northward thence to Stoke Newington, and so came to Abney Park Cemetery; a long way, but it did not weary her.
In the cemetery she turned her steps to a grave with a, plain headstone. Before leaving England, Joseph Snowdon had discharged this duty. The inscription was simply a name, with dates of birth and death.
And, as she stood there, other footsteps approached the spot. She looked up, with no surprise, and gave her hand for a moment. On the first anniversary the meeting had been unanticipated; the same thought led her and Sidney to the cemetery at the same hour. This was the third year, and they met as if by understanding, though neither had spoken of it.
When they had stood in silence for a while, Jane told of her father's death and its circumstances. She told him, too, of Pennyloaf's humble security.
'You have kept well all the year?' he asked.
'And you too, I hope?'
Then they bade each other good-bye. . . .
In each life little for congratulation. He with the ambitions of his youth frustrated; neither an artist, nor a leader of men in the battle for justice. She, no saviour of society by the force of a superb example; no daughter of the people, holding wealth in trust for the people's needs. Yet to both was their work given. Unmarked, unencouraged save by their love of uprightness and mercy, they stood by the side of those more hapless, brought some comfort to hearts less courageous than their own. Where they abode it was not all dark. Sorrow certainly awaited them, perchance defeat in even the humble aims that they had set themselves; but at least their lives would remain a protest against those brute forces of society which fill with wreck the abysses of the nether world.
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