George Gissing

"A Son of the Soil"

Having duly scamped his day's work, Jonas Clay left the turnip field and plodded homewards. Plodded, because this was the mode of progression to which he was born and bred had his movements answered to his thoughts, he would have walked with some show of briskness. For there was stirring in his mind a new and hopeful idea, a vividly practical suggestion such as seldom relieved the monotony of this young man's discontent. He wanted a little money, a pound or two, and in a happy moment, as he lay digesting his noontide bacon, the way and the means became clear to him. Why should he pay his mother for board and lodging when a steady refusal to do so for the next three or four weeks would put him in possession of the sum he needed? It was wonderfully simple. His mother, a soft sort of woman, would not turn him out of doors, and somehow would manage to feed him. Why had he not thought of it before?

In his pocket Jonas had a letter from his friend Bill Saggers, who last winter left the village to 'better' himself. Bill was now a Londoner, working in a cab-yard, and thoroughly enjoying his ample leisure. He wrote, not at great length, nor very legibly, but in a strain which doubtless inspired Jonas with his great idea. Half the letter dealt with details not suitable for publication, and over this portion Jonas lingered with many guffaws. Altogether, it was a stirring summons. It bade the rustic shake the mud off his heels, turn his back for ever on the -- unprintable -- country, and enter into the joys of London.

This had been Jonas Clay's ambition ever since he left school. At school he had learnt -- well, what had he learnt? In the main, to spell out police news and to scrawl obscene words. His education, in the real sense, he owed to a powerful but unacknowledged instructor, the Spirit of the Age. Hence his discontent with everything about him, his thorough dishonesty, his blurred, gaslight vision of a remote world. Certain well-meaning persons had given him 'religious teaching,' that is to say, had laboriously brought him to the repetition of phrases he did not understand, to which he attached no particular significance whatever. He could not name the flowers by the wayside; no one had ever thought of teaching him that. He did not know -- he did not hear -- the bird that sang to him at his work; no one had ever spoken to him of such trifles. He was aware, by consequences, that the sun rose and set; but never had he consciously looked at its setting or its rising; for all that Jonas thought about it, the sky might have lowered in a perpetual leadenness. He had no conception of geography -- save that somewhere vaguely to the east lay a huge town called London. Of the men who had lived and wrought before him in this fruitful English county he knew no more than of the Assyrians. Field and farmyard, hedgerow and highway, were hateful in his eyes, to be described only by a foul epithet. Old enough to do a man's work, he had nothing of a man's pride in it; no sense of a man's duties and lawful claims; no impulse of manhood save the fleshly.

Tenacious of his purpose, Jonas, when next he received his wages, hid the money away. He made no declaration of independence; instead of refusing to pay his mother as usual he merely put her off with absurd excuses. Of course, there was wrangling in the cottage, but Jonas had sound nerves. Presently when his slow wit contrived the subterfuge, he gave out that he had been incurring debts, and that he would get into trouble if he did not pay them off. For a second and a third week he sat stolid under his mother's wrath and menaces. Then he could wait no longer. It seemed to him that he had amassed a fortune. Early one morning he unearthed his savings, stealthily put together a small bundle, and, instead of going to work, made for the nearest railway station.

In London, he with difficulty gaped his way to the address with which he had been supplied by Bill Saggers. Bill, as it happened, was taking a holiday, and many hours passed before his friend met with him. After pacing a street and sitting on doorsteps, until he suffered more from fatigue than ever in his life, Jonas beheld a young man whose appearance confounded him; his fellow-yokel of old time had changed amazingly in face and in costume -- nay, even in language; Jonas could hardly understand many of his phrases, and some of his words not at all.

It was eleven at night. They went together to a public-house, and while drinking at his friend's expense Bill bestowed upon the new-comer a great deal of advice and instruction. First of all, Jonas must provide himself with the garb of civilization, not, of course, superior garments such as Bill was at present wearing, but something altogether different from rustic attire: at a slop-shop in the neighbourhood a few shillings would rig him out. And work? Oh, yes no doubt work could be found easily enough by inquiring at the mews and such places. But never mind about work just yet. Bill felt in the mind to take another day off; to-morrow he would show his friend about.

'How did you get the coin?' he inquired genially. 'No coppers after you?'

When the suggestion was explained to him, Jonas indignantly protested his innocence. Bill felt a doubt, but laughed the matter aside.

That night the countryman paid fourpence for his bed at a common lodging-house, and as soon as possible next morning he exchanged his earth-soiled garb for a suit which made him feel very proud of himself; it looked almost as good as new. Bill Saggers, true to his word, turned up in festive spirit, and they devoted the day to sight-seeing. Jonas made the acquaintance of so many gorgeous public-houses that he had soon lost count of them, and before dusk the marvels of London seemed to him to be floating and circling on a tide of mixed beverages. Somehow he quarrelled with Bill Saggers, and fought him. Somehow, later, he made love to a joyous being in a hat with an immense blue feather. At bedtime he had no money left, but that did not matter; the lordly London police took Jonas into their care, and provided him with shelter. On the morrow, though he declared that he was dying, his protectors obliged him to make a public appearance, but only for a few minutes. Then Jonas was again established in a lodging -- where he abode very quietly for seven days.

His courage a trifle damped, but with no thought whatever of leaving the brilliant city, Jonas Clay again sought his friend, and, after a day or two of starvation, he obtained a rough job, which supported him for several weeks. Then came an episode in his story on which it is not good to dwell. Sufficient that he fell into bad health, and, from that, into worse. Now working, now starving, he suffered several months of base torment, which ended, at length, in a hospital. When he came forth again his constitution was wrecked. But, by this time, he knew London, and had not much difficulty in finding employment. Nothing would have induced him to return to rural life; the smell of the pavement was very sweet in his nostrils, and he loathed the memory of the fields. Just think -- so he often said -- of what he had learnt since he came to London!

Jonas was not marked for a career of crime. One experience had given him a wholesome dread of the police, and though at all times he would have lived dishonestly had it come easily within his scope, he felt no inclination to consort with criminals or study their profession. Enough that for every penny he could earn London offered an unmatched pennyworth of enjoyment. In course of time, and again, perhaps, as result of experience, his emotions grew susceptible of the calmer, tenderer delights; Jonas awoke to the charm of London's sweet domestic maidenhood, and from among the shining multitude he chose unto himself a suitable companion. The courtship lasted for three years, and in the meantime he improved his position, until an income of five-and-twenty shillings a-week seemed to him and to his beloved the augury of legitimate happiness.

Just before his marriage Jonas wrote to the mother he had so long forgotten. The letter began, 'How goes it, old woman?' In a few days it was returned to him, marked by the Post Office, 'Dead.' Jonas was so much surprised that he laughed.

Five years of marriage made him the father of three children, miserable, puny creatures, burdened with an unutterable curse. But neither on this part of the story is it pleasant to dwell.

(Provided by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan,
on 27 August 1997.)

* The HTML documents of this e-text are so devised that they can afford a proof of my own drawing up.

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