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- The Nether World - 3/92 -


'See 'ere,' she addressed Jane. 'You know where Mr. Kirkwood works in St. John's Square? You've been before now. Well, you're to go an' wait at the door till he comes out, and then you're to tell him to come to Mrs. Hewett at wunst. Understand?--Why ain't these tea-things all cleared away? All right Wait till you come back, that's all. Now be off, before I skin you alive!'

On the floor in a corner of the kitchen lay something that had once been a girl's hat. This Jane at once snatched up and put on her head. Without other covering, She ran forth upon her errand.

CHAPTER II

A FRIEND IN REQUEST

It was the hour of the unyoking of men. In the highways and byways of Clerkenwell there was a thronging of released toilers, of young and old, of male and female. Forth they streamed from factories and workrooms, anxious to make the most of the few hours during which they might live for themselves. Great numbers were still bent over their labour, and would be for hours to come, but the majority had leave to wend stablewards. Along the main thoroughfares the wheel-track was clangorous; every omnibus that clattered by was heavily laden with passengers; tarpaulins gleamed over the knees of those who sat outside. This way and that the lights were blurred into a misty radiance; overhead was mere blackness, whence descended the lashing rain. There was a ceaseless scattering of mud; there were blocks in the traffic, attended with rough jest or angry curse; there was jostling on the crowded pavement. Public-houses began to brighten up, to bestir themselves for the evening's business. Streets that had been hives of activity since early morning were being abandoned to silence and darkness and the sweeping wind.

At noon to-day there was sunlight on the Surrey hills; the fields and lanes were fragrant with the first breath of spring, and from the shelter of budding copses many a primrose looked tremblingly up to the vision of blue sky. But of these things Clerkenwell takes no count; here it had been a day like any other, consisting of so many hours, each representing a fraction of the weekly wage. Go where you may in Clerkenwell, on every hand are multiform evidences of toil, intolerable as a nightmare. It is not as in those parts of London where the main thoroughfares consist of shops and warehouses and workrooms, whilst the streets that are hidden away on either hand are devoted in the main to dwellings Here every alley is thronged with small industries; all but every door and window exhibits the advertisement of a craft that is carried on within. Here you may see how men have multiplied toil for toil's sake, have wrought to devise work superfluous, have worn their lives away in imagining new forms of weariness. The energy, the ingenuity daily put forth in these grimy burrows task the brain's power of wondering. But that those who sit here through the livelong day, through every season, through all the years of the life that is granted them, who strain their eyesight, who overtax their muscles, who nurse disease in their frames, who put resolutely from them the thought of what existence _might_ be--that these do it all without prospect or hope of reward save the permission to eat and sleep and bring into the world other creatures to strive with them for bread, surely that thought is yet more marvellous.

Workers in metal, workers in glass and in enamel, workers in weed, workers in every substance on earth, or from the waters under the earth, that can be made commercially valuable. In Clerkenwell the demand is not so much for rude strength as for the cunning fingers and the contriving brain. The inscriptions on the house-fronts would make you believe that you were in a region of gold and silver and precious stones. In the recesses of dim byways, where sunshine and free air are forgotten things, where families herd together in dear-rented garrets and cellars, craftsmen are for ever handling jewellery, shaping bright ornaments for the necks and arms of such as are born to the joy of life. Wealth inestimable is ever flowing through these workshops, and the hands that have been stained with gold-dust may, as likely as not, some day extend themselves in petition for a crust. In this house, as the announcement tells you, business is carried on by a trader in diamonds, and next door is a den full of children who wait for their day's one meal until their mother has come home with her chance earnings. A strange enough region wherein to wander and muse. Inextinguishable laughter were perchance the fittest result of such musing; yet somehow the heart grows heavy, somehow the blood is troubled in its course, and the pulses begin to throb hotly.

Amid the crowds of workpeople, Jane Snowdon made what speed she might. It was her custom, whenever dispatched on an errand, to run till she could run no longer, then to hasten along panting until breath and strength were recovered. When it was either of the Peckovers who sent her, she knew that reprimand was inevitable on her return, be she ever so speedy; but her nature was incapable alike of rebellion and of that sullen callousness which would have come to the aid of most girls in her position. She did not serve her tyrants with willingness, for their brutality filled her with a sense of injustice; yet the fact that she was utterly dependent upon them for her livelihood, that but for their grace--as they were perpetually reminding her--she would have been a workhouse child, had a mitigating effect upon the bitterness she could not wholly subdue.

There was, however, another reason why she sped eagerly on her present mission. The man to whom she was conveying Mrs. Hewett's message was one of the very few persons who had ever treated her with human kindness. She had known him by name and by sight for some years, and since her mother's death (she was eleven when that happened) he had by degrees grown to represent all that she understood by the word 'friend.' It was seldom that words were exchanged between them; the opportunity came scarcely oftener than once a month; but whenever it did come, it made a bright moment in her existence. Once before she had fetched him of an evening to see Mrs. Hewett, and as they walked together he had spoken with what seemed to her wonderful gentleness, with consideration inconceivable from a tall, bearded man, well-dressed, and well to do in the world. Perhaps he would speak in the same way to-night; the thought of it made her regardless of the cold rain that was drenching her miserable garment, of the wind that now and then, as she turned a corner, took away her breath, and made her cease from running.

She reached St. John's Square, and paused at length by a door on which was the inscription: 'H. Lewis, Working Jeweller.' It was just possible that the men had already left; she waited for several minutes with anxious mind. No; the door opened, and two workmen came forth. Jane's eagerness impelled her to address one of them.

'Please, sir, Mr. Kirkwood hasn't gone yet, has he?'

'No, he ain't,' the man answered pleasantly; and turning back, he called to some one within the doorway; 'Hello, Sidney! here's your sweetheart waiting for you.'

Jane shrank aside; but in a moment she saw a familiar figure; she advanced again, and eagerly delivered her message.

'All right, Jane! I'll walk on with you,' was the reply. And whilst the other two men were laughing good-naturedly, Kirkwood strode away by the girl's side. He seemed to be absent-minded, and for some hundred yards' distance was silent; then he stopped of a sudden and looked down at his companion.

'Why, Jane,' he said, 'you'll get your death, running about in weather like this.' He touched her dress. 'I thought so; you're wet through.'

There followed an inarticulate growl, and immediately he stripped off his short overcoat.

'Here, put this on, right over your head. Do as I tell you, child!'

He seemed impatient to-night. Wasn't he going to talk with her as before? Jane felt her heart sinking. With her hunger for kind and gentle words, she thought nothing of the character of the night, and that Sidney Kirkwood might reasonably be anxious to get over the ground as quickly as possible.

'How is Mrs. Hewett?' Sidney asked, when they were walking on again. 'Still poorly, eh? And the baby?'

Then he was again mute. Jane had something she wished to say to him--wished very much indeed, yet she felt it would have been difficult even if he had encouraged her. As he kept silence and walked so quickly, speech on her part was utterly forbidden. Kirkwood, however, suddenly remembered that his strides were disproportionate to the child's steps. She was an odd figure thus disguised in his over-jacket; he caught a glimpse of her face by a street lamp, and smiled, but with a mixture of pain.

'Feel a bit warmer so?' he asked.

'Oh yes, sir.'

'Haven't you got a jacket, Jane?'

'It's all to pieces, sir. They're goin' to have it mended, I think.'

'They' was the word by which alone Jane ventured to indicate her aunt.

'Going to, eh? I think they'd better be quick about it.'

Ha! that was the old tone of kindness! How it entered into her blood and warmed it! She allowed herself one quick glance at him.

'Do I walk too quick for you?'

'Oh no, sir. Mr. Kirkwood, please, there's something I--'

The sentence had, as it were, begun itself, but timidity cut it short. Sidney stopped and looked at her.

'What? Something you wanted to tell me, Jane?'

He encouraged her, and at length she made her disclosure. It was of what had happened in the public-house. The young man listened with much attention, walking very slowly. He got her to repeat her second-hand description of the old man who had been inquiring for people named Snowdon.


The Nether World - 3/92

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