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- The Nether World - 10/92 -


At ten o'clock next morning Mrs. Peckover reached home. She was a tall, big-boned woman of fifty, with an arm like a coalheaver's. She had dark hair, which shone and was odorous with unguents; a sallow, uncomely face, and a handsome moustache. Her countenance was more difficult to read than Clem's; a coarse, and most likely brutal, nature was plain enough in its lines, but there was also a suggestion of self-restraint, of sagacity, at all events of cunning--qualities which were decidedly not inherited by her daughter. With her came the relative whose presence had been desired at the funeral to-day. This was Mrs. Gully, a stout person with a very red nose and bleared eyes. The credit of the family demanded that as many relatives as possible should follow the hearse, and Mrs. Peckover's reason for conducting Mrs. Gully hither was a justifiable fear lest, if she came alone, the latter would arrive in too manifest a state of insobriety. A certain amount of stimulant had been permitted on the way, just enough to assist a genteel loquacity, for which Mrs. Gully had a reputation. She had given her word to abstain from further imbibing until after the funeral.

The news which greeted her arrival was anything but welcome to Mrs. Peckover. In the first place, there. would be far more work than usual to be performed in the house to-day, and Jane could be ill spared. Worse than that, however, Clara Hewett, who was losing half a day's work on Jane's account, made a very emphatic statement as to the origin of the illness, and said that if anything happened to Jane, there would be disagreeable facts forthcoming at a coroner's inquest. Having looked at the sick child, Mrs. Peckover went downstairs and shut herself up with Clem. There was a stormy interview.

'So you thought you'd have yer fling, did you, just because I wasn't 'ere? You must go makin' trouble, just to suit yer own fancies! I'll pay you, my lady Gr-r-r!'

Whereupon followed the smack of a large hand on a fleshy cheek, so vigorous and unexpected a blow that even the sturdy Clem staggered back.

'You leave me alone, will you?' she roared out, her smitten cheek in a flame. 'Do that again, an' I'll give you somethin' for yerself! See if I don't! You just try it on!'

The room rang with uproarious abuse, with disgusting language, with the terrific threats which are such common flowers of rhetoric in that world, and generally mean nothing whatever. The end of it all was that Clem went to fetch a doctor; one in whom Mrs. Peckover could repose confidence. The man was, in fact, a druggist, with a shop in an obscure street over towards St. Luke's; in his window was exhibited a card which stated that a certain medical man could be consulted here daily. The said medical man had, in fact, so much more business than he could attend to--his name appearing in many shops--that the druggist was deputed to act as his assistant, and was considerately supplied with death-certificates, already signed, and only needing to be filled in with details. Summoned by Mrs. Peckover, whose old acquaintance he was, the druggist left the shop in care of his son, aged fifteen, and sped to Clerkenwell Close. He made light of Jane's ailment. 'A little fever, that was all--soon pull her round. Any wounds, by-the-by? No? Oh, soon pull her round. Send for medicines.'

'We'll have her down in the back-kitchen as soon as the corffin's away,' said Mrs. Peckover to Mrs. Hewett. 'Don't you upset yerself about it, my dear; you've got quite enough to think about. Yer 'usband got anythink yet? Dear, dear! Don't you put yerself out. I'm sure it was a great kindness of you to let the troublesome thing lay 'ere all night.'

Funeral guests were beginning to assemble. On arriving, they were conducted first of all into the front-room on the ground-floor, the Peckovers' parlour. It was richly furnished. In the centre stood a round table, which left small space for moving about, and was at present covered with refreshments. A polished sideboard supported a row of dessert-plates propped on their edges, and a number of glass vessels, probably meant for ornament alone, as they could not possibly have been put to any use. A low cupboard in a recess was surmounted by a frosted cardboard model of St. Paul's under a glass case, behind which was reared an oval tray painted with flowers.. Over the mantel-piece was the regulation mirror, its gilt frame enveloped in coarse yellow gauze; the mantel-piece itself bore a 'wealth' of embellishments in glass and crockery. On each side of it hung a framed silhouette, portraits of ancestors. Other pictures there were many, the most impressive being an ancient oil-painting, of which the canvas bulged forth from the frame; the subject appeared to be a ship, but was just as likely a view of the Alps. Several German prints conveyed instruction as well as delight; one represented the trial of Strafford in Westminster Hall; another, the trial of William Lord Russell, at the Old Bailey. There was also a group of engraved portraits, the Royal Family of England early in the reign of Queen Victoria; and finally, 'The Destruction of Nineveh,' by John Martin. Along the window-sill were disposed flower-pots containing artificial plants; one or other was always being knocked down by the curtains or blinds.

Each guest having taken a quaff of ale or spirits or what was called wine, with perhaps a mouthful of more solid sustenance, was then led down into the back-kitchen to view the coffin and the corpse. I mention the coffin first, because in everyone's view this was the main point of interest. Could Mrs. Peckover have buried the old woman in an orange-crate, she would gladly have done so for the saving of expense; but with relatives and neighbours to consider, she drew a great deal of virtue out of necessity, and dealt so very handsomely with the undertaker, that this burial would be the talk of the Close for some weeks. The coffin was inspected inside and out, was admired and appraised, Mrs. Peckover being at hand to check the estimates. At the same time every most revolting detail of the dead woman's last illness was related and discussed and mused over and exclaimed upon. 'A lovely corpse, considerin' her years,' was the general opinion. Then all went upstairs again, and once more refreshed themselves. The house smelt like a bar-room.

'Everythink most respectable, I'm sure!' remarked the female mourners to each other, as they crowded together in the parlour.

'An' so it had ought to be!' exclaimed one, in an indignant tone, such as is reserved for the expression of offence among educated people, but among the poor--the London poor, least original and least articulate beings within the confines of civilisation--has also to do duty for friendly emphasis. 'If Mrs. Peckover can't afford to do things respectable, who can?'

And the speaker looked defiantly about her, as if daring contradiction. But only approving murmurs replied. Mrs. Peckover had, in fact, the reputation of being wealthy; she was always inheriting, always accumulating what her friends called 'interess,' never expending as other people needs must. The lodgings she let enabled her to live rent-free and rate-free. Clem's earnings at an artificial-flower factory more than paid for that young lady's board and clothing, and all other outlay was not worth mentioning as a deduction from the income created by her sundry investments. Her husband--ten years deceased--had been a 'moulder'; he earned on an average between three and four pounds a week, and was so prudently disposed that, for the last decade of his life, he made it a rule never to spend a farthing of his wages. Mrs. Peckover at that time kept a small beer-shop in Rosoman Street--small and unpretending in appearance, but through it there ran a beery Pactolus. By selling the business shortly after her husband's death, Mrs. Peckover realised a handsome capital. She retired into private life, having a strong sense of personal dignity, and feeling it necessary to devote herself to the moral training of her only child.

At half-past eleven Mrs. Peckover was arrayed in her mourning robes--new, dark-glistening. During her absence Clem had kept guard over Mrs. Gully, whom it was very difficult indeed to restrain from the bottles and decanters; the elder lady coming to relieve, Clem could rush away and don her own solemn garments. The undertaker with his men arrived; the hearse and coaches drove up; the Close was in a state of excitement. 'Now that's what I call a respectable turn-out!' was the phrase passed from mouth to mouth in the crowd gathering near the door. Children in great numbers had absented themselves from school for the purpose of beholding this procession. 'I do like to see spirited 'orses at a funeral!' remarked one of the mourners, who had squeezed his way to the parlour window. 'It puts the finishin' touch, as you may say, don't it?' When the coffin was borne forth, there was such a press in the street that the men with difficulty reached the hearse. As the female mourners stepped across the pavement with handkerchiefs held to their mouths, a sigh of satisfaction was audible throughout the crowd; the males were less sympathetically received, and some jocose comments from a costermonger, whose business was temporarily interrupted, excited indulgent smiles.

The procession moved slowly away, and the crowd, unwilling to disperse immediately, looked about for some new source of entertainment. They were fortunate, for at this moment came round the corner an individual notorious throughout Clerkenwell as 'Mad Jack.' Mad he presumably was--at all events, an idiot. A lanky, raw-boned, red-beaded man, perhaps forty years old; not clad, but hung over with the filthiest rags; hatless, shoeless. He supported himself by singing in the streets, generally psalms, and with eccentric modulations of the voice which always occasioned mirth in hearers. Sometimes he stood at a corner and began the delivery of a passage of Scripture in French; how, where, or when he could have acquired this knowledge was a mystery, and Jack would throw no light on his own past. At present, having watched the funeral coaches pass away, he lifted up his voice in a terrific blare, singing, 'All ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever.' Instantly he was assailed by the juvenile portion of the throng, was pelted with anything that came to an, mocked mercilessly, buffeted from behind. For a while he persisted in his psalmody, but at length, without warning, he rushed upon his tormentors, and with angry shrieks endeavoured to take revenge. The uproar continued till a policeman came and cleared the way. Then Jack went off again, singing, 'All ye works of the Lord.' With his voice blended that of the costermonger, 'Penny a bundill!'

Up in the Hewetts' back-room lay Jane Snowdon, now seemingly asleep, now delirious. When she talked, a name was constantly upon her lips; she kept calling for 'Mr. Kirkwood.' Amy was at school; Annie and Tom frequently went into the room and gazed curiously at the sick girl. Mrs. Hewett felt so ill to-day that she could only lie on the bed and try to silence her baby's crying.

The house-door was left wide open between the departure and return of the mourners; a superstition of the people demands this. The Peckovers brought back with them some half a dozen relatives and friends, invited to a late dinner. The meal had been in preparation at an eating-house close by, and was now speedily made ready in the parlour. A liberal supply of various ales was furnished by the agency of a pot-boy (Jane's absence being much felt), and in the course of half an hour or so the company were sufficiently restored


The Nether World - 10/92

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