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- The Nether World - 2/92 -
'Little liar! that's what you always was, an' always will be.-- Take that!'
The speaker was a girl of sixteen, tall, rather bony, rudely handsome; the hand with which she struck was large and coarse-fibred, the muscles that impelled it vigorous. Her dress was that of a work-girl, unsubstantial, ill-fitting, but of ambitious cut; her hair was very abundant, and rose upon the back of her head in thick coils, an elegant fringe depending in front. The fire had made her face scarlet, and in the lamplight her large eyes glistened with many joys.
First and foremost, Miss Clementina Peckover rejoiced because she had left work much earlier than usual, and was about to enjoy what she would have described as a 'blow out.' Secondly, she rejoiced because her mother, the landlady of the house, was absent for the night, and consequently she would exercise sole authority over the domestic slave, Jane Snowdon--that is to say, would indulge to the uttermost her instincts of cruelty in tormenting a defenceless creature. Finally--a cause of happiness antecedent to the others, but less vivid in her mind at this moment--in the next room lay awaiting burial the corpse of Mrs. Peckover's mother-in-law, whose death six days ago had plunged mother and daughter into profound delight, partly because they were relieved at length from making a pretence of humanity to a bed-ridden old woman, partly owing to the fact that the deceased had left behind her a sum of seventy-five pounds, exclusive of moneys due from a burial-club.
'Ah!' exclaimed Miss Peckover (who was affectionately known to her intimates as 'Clem'), as she watched Jane stagger back from the blow, and hide her face in silent endurance of pain. 'That's just a morsel to stay your appetite, my lady! You didn't expect me back 'ome at this time, did you? You thought as you was goin' to have the kitchen to yourself when mother went. Ha ha! ho ho!--These sausages is done; now you clean that fryin'-pan; and if I can find a speck of dirt in it as big as 'arlf a farden, I'll take you by the 'air of the 'ed an' clean it with your face, _that's_ what I'll do I Understand? Oh, I mean what I say, my lady! Me an' you's a-goin' to spend a evenin' together, there's no two ways about that. Ho ho! he he!'
The frankness of Clem's brutality went far towards redeeming her character. The exquisite satisfaction with which she viewed Jane's present misery, the broad joviality with which she gloated over the prospect of cruelties shortly to be inflicted, put her at once on a par with the noble savage running wild in woods. Civilisation could bring no charge against this young woman; it and she had no common criterion. Who knows but this lust of hers for sanguinary domination was the natural enough issue of the brutalising serfdom of her predecessors in the family line of the Peckovers? A thrall suddenly endowed with authority will assuredly make bitter work for the luckless creature in the next degree of thraldom.
A cloth was already spread across one end of the deal table, with such other preparations for a meal as Clem deemed adequate. The sausages--five in number--she had emptied from the frying-pan directly on to her plate, and with them all the black rich juice that had exuded in the process of cooking--particularly rich, owing to its having several times caught fire and blazed triumphantly. On sitting down and squaring her comely frame to work, the first thing Clem did was to take a long draught out of the beer-jug; refreshed thus, she poured the remaining liquor into a glass. Ready at hand was mustard, made in a tea-cup; having taken a certain quantity of this condiment on to her knife, she proceeded to spread each sausage with it from end to end, patting them in a friendly way as she finished the operation. Next she sprinkled them with pepper, and after that she constructed a little pile of salt on the side of the plate, using her fingers to convey it from the salt-cellar. It remained to cut a thick slice of bread--she held the loaf pressed to her bosom whilst doing this--and to crush it down well into the black grease beside the sausages; then Clem was ready to begin.
For five minutes she fed heartily, showing really remarkable skill in conveying pieces of sausage to her mouth by means of the knife alone. Finding it necessary to breathe at last, she looked round at Jane. The hand-maiden was on her knees near the fire, scrubbing very hard at the pan with successive pieces of newspaper. It was a sight to increase the gusto of Clem's meal, but of a sudden there came into the girl's mind a yet more delightful thought. I have mentioned that in the back-kitchen lay the body of a dead woman; it was already encoffined, and waited for interment on the morrow, when Mrs. Peckover would arrive with a certain female relative from St. Albans. Now the proximity of this corpse was a ceaseless occasion of dread and misery to Jane Snowdon; the poor child had each night to make up a bed for herself in this front-room, dragging together a little heap of rags when mother and daughter were gone up to their chamber, and since the old woman's death it was much if Jane had enjoyed one hour of unbroken sleep. She endeavoured to hide these feelings, but Clem, with her Bed Indian scent, divined them accurately enough. She hit upon a good idea.
'Go into the next room,' she commanded suddenly, 'and fetch the matches off of the mantel-piece. I shall want to go upstairs presently, to see if you've scrubbed the bed-room well.'
Jane was blanched; but she rose from her knees at once, and reached a candlestick from above the fireplace.
'What's that for?' shouted Clem, with her mouth full. 'You've no need of a light to find the mantel-piece. If you're not off--'
Jane hastened from the kitchen. Clem yelled to her to close the door, and she had no choice but to obey. In the dark passage outside there was darkness that might be felt. The child all but fainted with the sickness of horror as she turned the handle of the other door and began to grope her way. She knew exactly where the coffin was; she knew that to avoid touching it in the diminutive room was all but impossible. And touch it she did. Her anguish uttered itself, not in a mere sound of terror, but in a broken word or two of a prayer she knew by heart, including a name which sounded like a charm against evil. She had reached the mantel-piece; oh, she could not, could not find the matches I Yes, at last her hand closed on them. A blind rush, and she was out again in the passage. She re-entered the front-kitchen with limbs that quivered, with the sound of dreadful voices ringing about her, and blankness before her eyes.
Clem laughed heartily, then finished her beer in a long, enjoyable pull. Her appetite was satisfied; the last trace of oleaginous matter had disappeared from her plate, and now she toyed with little pieces of bread lightly dipped into the mustard-pot. These _bonnes bouches_ put her into excellent humour; presently she crossed her arms and leaned back. There was no denying that Clem was handsome; at sixteen she had all her charms in apparent maturity, and they were of the coarsely magnificent order. Her forehead was low and of great width; her nose was well shapen, and had large sensual apertures; her cruel lips may be seen on certain fine antique busts; the neck that supported her heavy head was splendidly rounded. In laughing, she became a model for an artist, an embodiment of fierce life independent of morality. Her health was probably less sound than it seemed to be; one would have compared her, not to some piece of exuberant normal vegetation, but rather to a rank, evilly-fostered growth. The putrid soil of that nether world yields other forms besides the obviously blighted and sapless.
'Have you done any work for Mrs. Hewett to-day?' she asked of her victim, after sufficiently savouring the spectacle of terror.
'Yes, miss; I did the front-room fireplace, an' fetched fourteen of coals, an' washed out a few things.'
'What did she give you?'
'A penny, miss. I gave it to Mrs. Peckover before she went.'
'Oh, you did? Well, look 'ere; you'll just remember in future that all you get from the lodgers belongs to me, an' not to mother. It's a new arrangement, understand. An' if you dare to give up a 'apenny to mother, I'll lick you till you're nothin' but a bag o' bones. Understand?'
Having on the spur of the moment devised this ingenious difficulty for the child, who was sure to suffer in many ways from such a conflict of authorities, Clem began to consider how she should spend her evening. After all, Jane was too poor-spirited a victim to afford long entertainment. Clem would have liked dealing with some one who showed fight--some one with whom she could try savage issue in real tooth-and-claw conflict. She had in mind a really exquisite piece of cruelty, but it was a joy necessarily postponed to a late hour of the night. In the meantime, it would perhaps be as well to take a stroll, with a view of meeting a few friends as they came away from the work-rooms. She was pondering the invention of some long and hard task to be executed by Jane in her absence, when a knocking at the house-door made itself heard. Clem at once went up to see who the visitor was.
A woman in a long cloak and a showy bonnet stood on the step, protecting herself with an umbrella from the bitter sleet which the wind was now driving through the darkness. She said that she wished to see Mrs. Hewett.
'Second-floor front,' replied Clem in the offhand, impertinent tone wherewith she always signified to strangers her position in the house.
The visitor regarded her with a look of lofty contempt, and, having deliberately closed her umbrella, advanced towards the stairs. Clem drew into the back regions for a few moments, but as soon as she heard the closing of a door in the upper part of the house, she too ascended, going on tip-toe, with a noiselessness which indicated another side of her character. Having reached the room which the visitor had entered, she brought her ear close to the keyhole, and remained in that attitude for a long time--nearly twenty minutes, in fact. Her sudden and swift return to the foot of the stairs was followed by the descent of the woman in the showy bonnet.
'Miss Peckover I' cried the latter when she had reached the foot of the stairs.
'Well, what is it?' asked Clem, seeming to come up from the kitchen.
'Will you 'ave the goodness to go an' speak to Mrs. Hewett for a hinstant?' said the woman, with much affectation of refined speech.
'All right! I will just now, if I've time.'
The visitor tossed her head and departed, whereupon Clem at once ran upstairs. In five minutes she was back in the kitchen.
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