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- The Nether World - 4/92 -
'To think that you should have been just too late!' he exclaimed with annoyance. 'Have you any idea who he was?'
'I can't think, sir,' Jane replied sadly.
Sidney took a hopeful tone--thought it very likely that the inquirer would pursue his search with success, being so near the house where Jane's parents had lived,
'I'll keep my eyes open,' he said. 'Perhaps I might see him. He'd be easy to recognise, I should think.'
'And would you tell him, sir,' Jane asked eagerly.
'Why, of course I would. You'd like me to, wouldn't you?'
Jane's reply left small doubt on that score. Her companion looked down at her again, and said with compassionate gentleness:
'Keep a good heart, Jane. Things'll be better some day, no doubt.'
'Do you think so, sir?'
The significance of the simple words was beyond all that eloquence could have conveyed. Sidney muttered to himself, as he had done before, like one who is angry. He laid his hand on the child's shoulder for a moment.
A few minutes more, and they were passing along by the prison wall, under the ghastly head, now happily concealed by darkness. Jane stopped a little short of the house and removed the coat that had so effectually sheltered her.
'Thank you, sir,' she said, returning it to Sidney.
He took it without speaking, and threw it over his arm. At the door, now closed, Jane gave a single knock; they were admitted by Clem, who, in regarding Kirkwood, wore her haughtiest demeanour. This young man had never paid homage of any kind to Miss Peckover, and such neglect was by no means what she was used to. Other men who came to the house took every opportunity of paying her broad compliments, and some went so far as to offer practical testimony of their admiration. Sidney merely had a 'How do you do, miss?' at her service. Coquetry had failed to soften him; Clem accordingly behaved as if he had given her mortal offence on some recent occasion. She took care, moreover, to fling a few fierce words at Jane before the latter disappeared into the house. Thereupon Sidney looked at her sternly; he said nothing, knowing that interference would only result in harsher treatment for the poor little slave.
'You know your way upstairs, I b'lieve,' said Clem, as if he were all but a stranger.
'Thank you, I do,' was Sidney's reply.
Indeed he had climbed these stairs innumerable times during the last three years; the musty smells were associated with ever so many bygone thoughts and states of feeling; the stains on the wall (had it been daylight), the irregularities of the bare wooden steps, were remembrancers of projects and hopes and disappointments. For many months now every visit had been with heavier heart; his tap at the Hewetts' door had a melancholy sound to him.
A woman's voice bade him enter. He stepped into a room which was not disorderly or unclean, but presented the chill discomfort of poverty. The principal, almost the only, articles of furniture were a large bed, a washhand stand; a kitchen table, and two or three chairs, of which the cane seats were bulged and torn. A few meaningless pictures hung here and there, and on the mantel-piece, which sloped forward somewhat, stood some paltry ornaments, secured m their places by a piece of string stretched in front of them. The living occupants were four children and their mother. Two little girls, six and seven years old respectively, were on the floor near the fire; a boy of four was playing with pieces of fire-wood at the table. The remaining child was an infant, born but a fortnight ago, lying at its mother's breast. Mrs. Hewett sat on the bed, and bent forward in an attitude of physical weakness. Her age was twenty-seven, but she looked several years older. At nineteen she had married; her husband, John Hewett, having two children by a previous union. Her face could never have been very attractive, but it was good-natured, and wore its pleasantest aspect as she smiled on Sidney's entrance. You would have classed her at once with those feeble-willed, weak-minded, yet kindly-disposed women, who are only too ready to meet affliction half-way, and who, if circumstances be calamitous, are more harmful than an enemy to those they hold dear. She was rather wrapped up than dressed, and her hair, thin and pale-coloured, was tied in a ragged knot. She wore slippers, the upper parts of which still adhered to the soles only by miracle. It looked very much as if the same relation subsisted between her frame and the life that informed it, for there was no blood in her cheeks, no lustre in her eye. The baby at her bosom moaned in the act of sucking; one knew not how the poor woman could supply sustenance to another being.
The children were not dirty nor uncared for, but their clothing hung very loosely upon them; their flesh was unhealthy, their voices had an unnatural sound.
Sidney stepped up to the bed and gave his hand.
'I'm so glad you've come before Clara,' said Mrs. Hewett. 'I hoped you would. But she can't be long, an' I want to speak to you first. It's a bad night, isn't it? Yes, I feel it in my throat, and it goes right through my chest--just 'ere, look! And I haven't slep' not a hour a night this last week; it makes me feel that low. I want to get to the Orspital, if I can, in a day or two.'
'But doesn't the doctor come still?' asked Sidney, drawing a chair near to her.
'Well, I didn't think it was right to go on payin' him, an' that's the truth. I'll go to the Orspital, an' they'll give me somethin'. I look bad, don't I, Sidney?'
'You look as if you'd no business to be out of bed,' returned the young man in a grumbling voice.
'Oh, I _can't_ lie still, so it's no use talkin'! But see, I want to speak about Clara. That woman Mrs. Tubbs has been here to see me, talkin' an' talkin'. She says she'll give Clara five shillin' a week, as well as board an' lodge her. I don't know what to do about it, that I don't. Clara, she's that set on goin', an' her father's that set against it. It seems as if it 'ud be a good thing, don't it, Sidney? I know _you_ don't want her to go, but what's to be done? What _is_ to be done?'
Her wailing voice caused the baby to wail likewise. Kirkwood looked about the room with face set in anxious discontent.
'Is it no use, Mrs. Hewett?' he exclaimed suddenly, turning to her. 'Does she mean it? Won't she ever listen to me?'
The woman shook her head miserably; her eyes filled with tears.
'I've done all I could,' she replied, half sobbing. 'I have; you know I have, Sidney! She's that 'eadstrong, it seems as if she wouldn't listen to nobody--at least nobody as we knows anything about.'
'What do you mean by that?' he inquired abruptly. 'Do you think there's any one else?'
'How can I tell? I've got no reason for thinkin' it, but how can I tell? No, I believe it's nothin' but her self-will an' the fancies she's got into her 'ead. Both her an' Bob, there's no doin' nothin' with them. Bob, he's that wasteful with his money; an' now he talks about goin' an' gettin' a room in another 'ouse, when he might just as well make all the savin' he can. But no, that ain't his idea, nor yet his sister's. I suppose it's their mother as they take after, though their father he won't own to it, an' I don't blame him for not speakin' ill of her as is gone. I should be that wretched if I thought my own was goin' to turn out the same. But there's John, he ain't a wasteful man; no one can't say it of him. He's got his fancies, but they've never made him selfish to others, as well you know, Sidney. He's been the best 'usband to me as ever a poor woman had, an' I'll say it with my last breath.'
She cried pitifully for a few moments. Sidney, mastering his own wretchedness, which he could not altogether conceal, made attempts to strengthen her.
'When things are at the worst they begin to mend,' he said. 'It can't be much longer before he gets work. And look here, Mrs. Hewett, I won't hear a word against it; you must and shall let me lend you something to go on with!'
'I dursn't, I dursn't, Sidney! John won't have it. He's always a-saying: "Once begin that, an' it's all up; you never earn no more of your own." It's one of his fancies, an' you know it is. You'll only make trouble, Sidney.'
'Well, all I can say is, he's an unreasonable and selfish man!'
'No, no; John ain't selfish! Never say that! It's only his fancies, Sidney.'
'Well, there's one trouble you'd better get rid of, at all events. Let Clara go to Mrs. Tubbs. You'll never have any peace till she does, I can see that. Why shouldn't she go, after all? She's seventeen; if she can't respect herself now, she never will, and there's no help for it. Tell John to let her go.'
There was bitterness in the tone with which he gave this advice; he threw out his hands impatiently, and then flung himself back, so that the cranky chair creaked and tottered.
'An' if 'arm comes to her, what then?' returned Mrs. Hewett plaintively. 'We know well enough why Mrs. Tubbs wants her; it's only because she's good-lookin', an' she'll bring more people to the bar. John knows that, an' it makes him wild. Mind what I'm tellin' you, Sidney; if any 'arm comes to that girl, her father'll go out of his 'ead. I know he will! I know he will! He worships the ground as she walks on, an' if it hadn't been for that, she'd never have given him the trouble as she is doin'. It 'ud a been better for her if she'd had a father like mine, as was a hard, careless man. I don't wish to say no 'arm of him as is dead an' buried, an' my own father too, but he was a hard father to us, an' as long as he lived we dursn't say not a word as he didn't like. He'd a killed me if I'd gone on like Clara. It was a good thing as he was gone, before--'
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