The Nether World/Volume 1/Chapter 8

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
1761062The Nether World — Chapter 8George Gissing



In the social classification of the nether world—a subject which so eminently adapts itself to the sportive and gracefully picturesque mode of treatment—it will be convenient to distinguish broadly, and with reference to males alone, the two great sections of those who do, and those who do not, wear collars. Each of these orders would, it is obvious, offer much scope to an analyst delighting in subtle gradation. Taking the collarless, how shrewdly might one discriminate between the many kinds of neckcloth which our climate renders necessary as a substitute for the nobler article of attire! The navvy, the scaffolder, the costermonger, the cab-tout,—innumerable would be the varieties of texture, of fold, of knot, observed in the ranks of unskilled labour. And among those whose higher station is indicated by the linen or paper symbol, what a gap between the mechanic with collar attached to a flannel shirt and just visible along the top of a black tie, and the shopman whose pride it is to adorn himself with the very ugliest neck-encloser put in vogue by aristocratic sanction! For such attractive disquisition I have, unfortunately, no space; it must suffice that I indicate the two genera. And I was led to do so in thinking of Bob Hewett.

Bob wore a collar. In the die-sinking establishment which employed him there were, it is true, two men who belonged to the collarless; but their business was down in the basement of the building, where they kept up a furnace, worked huge stamping-machines, and so on. Bob's workshop was upstairs, and the companions with whom he sat, without exception, had something white and stiff round their necks; in fact, they were every bit as respectable as Sidney Kirkwood, and such as he, who bent over a jeweller's table. To John Hewett it was no slight gratification that he had been able to apprentice his son to a craft which permitted him always to wear a collar. I would not imply that John thought of the matter in these terms, but his reflections bore this significance. Bob was raised for ever above the rank of those who depend merely upon their muscles, even as Clara was saved from the dismal destiny of the women who can do nothing but sew.

There was, on the whole, some reason why John Hewett should feel pride in his eldest son. Like Sidney Kirkwood, Bob had early shown a faculty for draughtsmanship; when at school, he made decidedly clever caricatures of such persons as displeased him, and he drew such wonderful horses (on the racecourse or pulling cabs), such laughable donkeys in costers' carts, such perfect dogs, that on several occasions some friend had purchased with a veritable shilling a specimen of his work. "Put him to the die-sinking," said an acquaintance of the family, himself so employed; "he'll find a use for this kind of thing some day." Die-sinking is not the craft it once was; cheap methods, vulgarising here as everywhere, have diminished the opportunities of capable men; but a fair living was promised the lad if he stuck to his work, and at the age of nineteen he was already earning his pound a week. Then he was clever in a good many other ways. He had an ear for music, played (nothing else was within his reach) the concertina, sang a lively song with uncommon melodiousness—a gift much appreciated at the meetings of a certain Mutual Benefit Club, to which his father had paid a weekly subscription, without fail, through all adversities. In the regular departments of learning, Bob had never shown any particular aptitude; he wrote and read decently, but his speech, as you have had occasion for observing, was not marked by refinement, and for books he had no liking. His father, unfortunately, had spoilt him, just as he had spoilt Clara. Being of the nobly independent sex, between fifteen and sixteen he practically freed himself from parental control. The use he made of his liberty was not altogether pleasing to John, but the time for restraint and training had hopelessly gone by. The lad was selfish, that there was no denying; he grudged the money demanded of him for his support; but in other matters he always showed himself so easy-tempered, so disposed to a genial understanding, that the great fault had to be blinked. Many failings might have been forgiven him in consideration of the fact that he had never yet drunk too much, and indeed cared little for liquor.

Men of talent, as you are aware, not seldom exhibit low tastes in their choice of companionship. Bob was a case in point; he did not sufficiently appreciate social distinctions. He, who wore a collar, seemed to prefer associating with the collarless. There was Jack—more properly "Jeck"—Bartley, for instance, his bosom friend until they began to cool in consequence of a common interest in Miss Peckover. Jack never wore a collar in his life, not even on Sundays, and was closely allied with all sorts of blackguards, who somehow made a living on the outskirts of turf-land. And there was Eli Snape, compared with whom Jack was a person of refinement and culture. Eli dealt surreptitiously in dogs and rats, and the mere odour of him was intolerable to ordinary nostrils; yet he was a species of hero in Bob's regard, such invaluable information could he supply with regard to "events" in which young Hewett took a profound interest. Perhaps a more serious aspect of Bob's disregard for social standing was revealed in his relations with the other sex. Susceptible from his tender youth, he showed no ambition in the bestowal of his amorous homage. At the age of sixteen did he not declare his resolve to wed the daughter of old Sally Budge, who went about selling watercress? and was there not a desperate conflict at home before this project could be driven from his head? It was but the first of many such instances. Had he been left to his own devices, he would already, like numbers of his coevals, have been supporting (or declining to support) a wife and two or three children. At present, he was "engaged" to Clem Peckover; that was an understood thing. His father did not approve it, but this connection was undeniably better than those he had previously declared or concealed. Bob, it seemed evident, was fated to make a mésalliance;—a pity, seeing his parts and prospects. He might have aspired to a wife who had scarcely any difficulty with her h's; whose bringing-up enabled her to look with compassion on girls who could not play the piano; who counted among her relatives not one collarless individual.

Clem, as we have seen, had already found, or imagined, cause for dissatisfaction with her betrothed. She was well enough acquainted with Bob's repute, and her temper made it improbable, to say the least, that the course of wooing would in this case run very smoothly. At present, various little signs were beginning to convince her that she had a rival, and the hints of her rejected admirer, Jack Bartley, fixed her suspicions upon an acquaintance whom she had hitherto regarded merely with contempt. This was Pennyloaf Candy, formerly, with her parents, a lodger in Mrs. Peckover's house. The family had been ousted some eighteen months ago on account of failure to pay their rent and of the frequent intoxication of Mrs. Candy. Pennyloaf's legal name was Penelope, which, being pronounced as a trisyllable, transformed itself by further corruption into a sound at all events conveying some meaning; applied in the first instance jocosely, the title grew inseparable from her, and was the one she herself always used. Her employment was the making of shirts for export; she earned on an average tenpence a day, and frequently worked fifteen hours between leaving and returning to her home. That Bob Hewett could interest himself, with whatever motive, in a person of this description, Miss Peckover at first declined to believe. A hint, however, was quite enough to excite her jealous temperament; as proof accumulated, cunning and ferocity wrought in her for the devising of such a declaration of war as should speedily scare Pennyloaf from the field. Jane Snowdon's removal had caused her no little irritation; the hours of evening were heavy on her hands, and this new emotion was not unwelcome as a temporary resource.

As he came home from work one Monday towards the end of April, Bob encountered Pennyloaf; she had a bundle in her hands and was walking hurriedly.

"Hallo! that you?" he exclaimed, catching her by the arm. "Where are you going?"

"I can't stop now. I've got some things to put away, an' it's nearly eight."

"Come round to the Passage to-night. Be there at ten."

"I can't give no promise. There's been such rows at 'ome. You know mother summonsed father this mornin'?"

"Yes, I've heard. All right! come if you can; I'll be there."

Pennyloaf hastened on. She was a meagre, hollow-eyed, bloodless girl of seventeen, yet her features had a certain charm, that dolorous kind of prettiness which is often enough seen in the London needle-slave. Her habitual look was one of meaningless surprise; whatever she gazed upon seemed a source of astonishment to her, and when she laughed, which was not very often, her eyes grew wider than ever. Her attire was miserable, but there were signs that she tried to keep it in order; the boots upon her feet were sewn and patched into shapelessness; her limp straw hat had just received a new binding.

By saying that she had things "to put away," she meant that her business was with the pawnbroker, who could not receive pledges after eight o'clock. It wanted some ten minutes of the hour when she entered a side-doorway, and, by an inner door, passed into one of a series of compartments constructed before the pawnbroker's counter. She deposited her bundle, and looked about for some one to attend to her. Two young men were in sight, both transacting business; one was conversing facetiously with a customer on the subject of a pledge. Two or three gas-jets lighted the interior of the shop, but the boxes were in shadow. There was a strong musty odour; the gloom, the narrow compartments, the low tones of conversation, suggested stealth and shame.

Pennyloaf waited with many signs of impatience, until one of the assistants approached, a smartly attired youth, with black hair greased into the discipline he deemed becoming, with an aquiline nose, a coarse mouth, a large horse-shoe pin adorning his neck-tie, and rings on his fingers. He caught hold of the packet and threw it open; it consisted of a petticoat and the skirt of an old dress.

"Well, what is it?" he asked, rubbing his tongue along his upper lip before and after speaking.

"Three an' six, please, sir."

He rolled the things up again with a practised turn of the hand, and said indifferently, glancing towards another box, "Eighteen-pence."

"Oh, sir, we had two shillin's on the skirt not so long ago," pleaded Pennyloaf, with a subservient voice. "Make it two shillin's,—please do, sir!"

The young man paid no attention; he was curling his moustache and exchanging a smile of intelligence with his counter-companion with respect to a piece of business the latter had in hand. Of a sudden he turned and said sharply:

"Well, are you goin' to take it or not?"

Pennyloaf sighed and nodded.

"Got a 'apenny?" he asked.


He fetched a cloth, rolled the articles in it very tightly, and pinned them up; then he made out ticket and duplicate, handling his pen with facile flourish, and having blotted the little piece of card on a box of sand (a custom which survives in this conservative profession), he threw it to the customer. Lastly, he counted out one shilling and fivepence halfpenny. The coins were sandy, greasy, and of scratched surface.

Pennyloaf sped homewards. She lived in Shooter's Gardens, a picturesque locality which demolition and rebuilding have of late transformed. It was a winding alley, with paving raised a foot above the level of the street whence was its main approach. To enter from the obscurer end, you descended a flight of steps, under a low archway, in a court itself not easily discovered. From without, only a glimpse of the Gardens was obtainable; the houses curved out of sight after the first few yards, and left surmise to busy itself with the characteristics of the hidden portion. A stranger bold enough to explore would have discovered that the Gardens had a blind offshoot, known simply as "The Court." Needless to burden description with further detail; the slum was like any other slum; filth, rottenness, evil odours, possessed these dens of superfluous mankind and made them gruesome to the peering imagination. The inhabitants of course felt nothing of the sort; a room in Shooter's Gardens was the only kind of home that most of them knew or desired. The majority preferred it, on all grounds, to that offered them in a block of model-lodgings not very far away; here was independence, that is to say, the liberty to be as vile as they pleased. How they came to love vileness, well, that is quite another matter, and shall not for the present concern us.

Pennyloaf ran into the jaws of this black horror with the indifference of habit; it had never occurred to her that the Gardens were fearful in the night's gloom, nor even that better lighting would have been a convenience. Did it happen that she awoke from her first sleep with the ring of ghastly shrieking in her ears, that was an incident of too common occurrence to cause her more than a brief curiosity; she could wait till the morning to hear who had half killed whom. Four days ago it was her own mother's turn to be pounded into insensibility; her father (a journeyman baker, often working nineteen hours out of the twenty-four, which probably did not improve his temper), maddened by his wife's persistent drunkenness, was stopped just on the safe side of murder. To the amazement and indignation of the Gardens, Mrs. Candy prosecuted her sovereign lord; the case had been heard to-day, and Candy had been cast in a fine. The money was paid, and the baker went his way, remarking that his family were to "expect him back when they saw him." Mrs. Candy, on her return, was hooted through all the length of the Gardens, a demonstration of public feeling probably rather of base than of worthy significance.

As Pennyloaf drew near to the house, a wild, discordant voice suddenly broke forth somewhere in the darkness, singing in a high key, "All ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever!" It was Mad Jack, who had his dwelling in the Court, and at all hours was wont to practise the psalmody which made him notorious throughout Clerkenwell. A burst of laughter followed from a group of men and boys gathered near the archway. Unheeding, the girl passed in at an open door and felt her way up a staircase; the air was noisome, notwithstanding a fierce draught which swept down the stairs. She entered a room lighted by a small metal lamp hanging on the wall—a precaution of Pennyloaf's own contrivance. There was no bed, but one mattress lay with a few rags of bed-clothing spread upon it, and two others were rolled up in a corner. This chamber accommodated, under ordinary circumstances, four persons: Mr. and Mrs. Candy, Pennyloaf, and a son named Stephen, whose years were eighteen. (Stephen pursued the occupation of a potman; his hours were from eight in the morning to midnight on week-days, and on Sunday the time during which a public-house is permitted to be open; once a month he was allowed freedom after six o'clock.) Against the window was hung an old shawl pierced with many rents. By the fire sat Mrs. Candy; she leaned forward, her head, which was bound in linen swathes, resting upon her hands.

"What have you got?" she asked, in the thick voice of a drunkard, without moving.

"Eighteenpence; it's all they'd give me."

The woman cursed in her throat, but exhibited no anger with Pennyloaf.

"Go an' get some tea an' milk," she said, after a pause. "There is sugar. An' bring seven o' coals; there's only a dust."

She pointed to a deal box which stood by the hearth. Pennyloaf went out again.

Over the fireplace, the stained wall bore certain singular ornaments. These were five coloured cards, such as are signed by one who takes a pledge of total abstinence; each presented the signature, "Maria Candy," and it was noticeable that at each progressive date the handwriting had become more unsteady. Yes, five times had Maria Candy "promised, with the help of God, to abstain," &c. &c.; each time she was in earnest. But it appeared that the help of God availed little against the views of one Mrs. Green, who kept the beer-shop in Rosoman Street, once Mrs. Peckover's, and who could on no account afford to lose so good a customer. For many years that house, licensed for the sale of non-spirituous liquors, had been working Mrs. Candy's ruin; not a particle of her frame but was vitiated by the drugs retailed there under the approving smile of civilisation. Spirits would have been harmless in comparison. The advantage of Mrs. Green's ale was that the very first half-pint gave conscience its bemuddling sop; for a penny you forgot all the cares of existence; for threepence you became a yelling maniac.

Poor, poor creature! She was sober tonight, sitting over the fire with her face battered into shapelessness; and now that her fury had had its way, she bitterly repented invoking the help of the law against her husband. What use? what use? Perhaps he had now abandoned her for good, and it was certain that the fear of him was the only thing that ever checked her on the ruinous road she would so willingly have quitted. But for the harm to himself, the only pity was he had not taken her life outright. She knew all the hatefulness of her existence; she knew also that only the grave would rescue her from it. The struggle was too unequal between Mrs. Candy with her appeal to Providence, and Mrs. Green with the forces of civilisation at her back.

Pennyloaf speedily returned with a hap'orth of milk, a pennyworth of tea, and seven pounds (also price one penny) of coals in an apron. It was very seldom indeed that the Candys had more of anything in their room than would last them for the current day. There being no kettle, water was put on to boil in a tin saucepan; the tea was made in a jug. Pennyloaf had always been a good girl to her mother; she tended her as well as she could to-night; but there was no word of affection from either. Kindly speech was stifled by the atmosphere of Shooter's Gardens.

Having drunk her tea, Mrs. Candy lay down, as she was, on the already extended mattress and drew the ragged coverings about her. In half an hour she slept.

Pennyloaf then put on her hat and jacket again and left the house. She walked away from the denser regions of Clerkenwell, came to Sadler's Wells Theatre (gloomy in its profitless recollection of the last worthy manager that London knew), and there turned into Myddelton Passage. It is a narrow paved walk between brick walls seven feet high; on the one hand lies the New River Head, on the other are small gardens behind Myddelton Square. The branches of a few trees hang over; there are doors, seemingly never opened, belonging one to each garden; a couple of gas-lamps shed feeble light. Pennyloaf paced the length of the Passage several times, meeting no one. Then a policeman came along with echoing tread, and eyed her suspiciously. She had to wait more than a quarter of an hour before Bob Hewett made his appearance. Greeting her with a nod and a laugh, he took up a leaning position against the wall, and began to put questions concerning the state of things at her home.

"And what'll your mother do if the old man don't give her nothing to live on?" he inquired, when he had listened good-naturedly to the recital of domestic difficulties.

"Don't know," replied the girl, shaking her head, the habitual surprise of her countenance becoming a blank interrogation of destiny. Bob kept kicking the wall, first with one heel, then with the other. He whistled a few bars of the last song he had learnt at the music-hall.

"Say, Penny," he remarked at length, with something of shamefacedness, "there's a namesake of mine here as I shan't miss, if you can do any good with it."

He held a shilling towards her under his hand. Pennyloaf turned away, casting down her eyes and looking troubled.

"We can get on for a bit," she said indistinctly. Bob returned the coin to his pocket. He whistled again for a moment, then asked abruptly:

"Say! have you seen Clem again?"

"No," replied the girl, examining him with sudden acuteness. "What about her?"

"Nothing much. She's got her back up a bit, that's all."

"About me?" Pennyloaf asked anxiously.

Bob nodded. As he was making some further remarks on the subject, a man's figure appeared at a little distance, and almost immediately withdrew again round a winding of the Passage. A moment after there sounded from that direction a shrill whistle. Bob and the girl regarded each other.

"Who was that?" said the former suspiciously. "I half believe it was Jeck Bartley. If Jeck is up to any of his larks, I'll make him remember it. You wait here a minute!"

He walked at a sharp pace towards the suspected quarter. Scarcely had he gone half a dozen yards, when there came running from the other end of the Passage a girl whom Pennyloaf at once recognised. It was Clem Peckover; with some friend's assistance she had evidently tracked the couple and was now springing out of ambush. She rushed upon Pennyloaf, who for very alarm could not flee, and attacked her with clenched fists. A scream of terror and pain caused Bob to turn and run back. Pennyloaf could not even ward off the blows that descended upon her head; she was pinned against the wall, her hat was torn away, her hair began to fly in disorder. But Bob effected a speedy rescue. He gripped Clem's muscular arms, and forced them behind her back as if he meant to dismember her. Even then it was with no slight effort that he restrained the girl's fury.

"You run off 'ome!" he shouted to Pennyloaf. "If she tries this on again, I'll murder her!"

Pennyloaf's hysterical cries and the frantic invectives of her assailant made the Passage ring. Again Bob roared to the former to be off, and was at length obeyed. When Pennyloaf was out of sight he released Clem. Her twisted arms caused her such pain that she threw herself against the wall, mingling maledictions with groans. Bob burst into scornful laughter.

Clem went home vowing vengeance. In the nether world this trifling dissension might have been expected to bear its crop of violent language and straightway pass into oblivion; but Miss Peckover's malevolence was of no common stamp, and the scene of to-night originated a feud which in the end concerned many more people than those immediately interested.