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- The Nether World - 40/92 -
forehead and closed his eyes as if the light pained them. But the smile with which he speedily answered Sidney's look of trouble was full of reassurance.
'You couldn't have said anything that would give me more pleasure,' he replied, just above his breath. 'Does she know it? Did you speak to her?'
'We were talking of years ago, and I mentioned Clara Hewett. I said that I had forgotten all about her except that she'd befriended Jane. But nothing more than that. I couldn't say what I was feeling just then. Partly I thought that it was right to speak to you first; and then--it seemed to me almost as if I should be treating her unfairly. I'm so much older--she knows that it isn't the first time I--and she's always thought of me just as a friend.'
'So much older?' repeated Michael, with a grave smile. 'Why, you're both children to my sight. Wait and let me think a bit, Sidney. I too have something I want to say. I'm glad you've spoken this afternoon, when there's time for us to talk. Just wait a few minutes, and let me think.'
Sidney had as good as forgotten that there was anything unusual in his friend's circumstances; this last day or two he had thought of nothing but Jane and his love for her. Now he recalled the anticipation--originating he scarcely knew how--that some kind of disclosure would before long be made to him. The trouble of' his mind was heightened; he waited with all but dread for the next words.
'I think I've told you,' Michael resumed at length, steadying his voice, 'that Joseph is my youngest son, and that I had three others. Three others: Michael, Edward, and Robert--all dead. Edward died when he was a boy of fifteen; Robert was killed on the railway--he was a porter--at three-and-twenty. The eldest went out to Australia; he took a wife there, and had one child; the wife died when they'd been married a year or two, and Michael and his boy were drowned, both together. I was living with them at the time, as you know. But what I've never spoken of' Sidney, is that my son had made his fortune. He left a deal of land, and many thousands of pounds, behind him. There was no finding any will; a lawyer in the nearest town, a man that had known him a long time, said he felt sure there'd been no will made. So, as things were, the law gave everything to his father.'
He related it with subdued voice, in a solemn and agitated tone. The effect of the news upon Sidney was a painful constriction of the heart, a rush of confused thought, an involvement of all his perceptions in a sense of fear. The pallor of his cheeks and the pained parting of his lips bore witness to how little he was prepared for such a story.
'I've begun with what ought by rights to have come last,' pursued Michael, after drawing a deep sigh. 'But it does me good to get it told; it's been burdening me this long while. Now you must listen, Sidney, whilst I show you why I've kept this a secret. I've no fear but _you_'ll understand me, though most people wouldn't. It's a secret from everybody except a lawyer in London, who does business for me; a right-hearted man he is, in most things, and I'm glad I met with him, but he doesn't understand me as you will; he thinks I'm making a mistake. My son knows nothing about it; at least, it's my hope and belief he doesn't. He told me he hadn't heard of his brother's death. I say I hope he doesn't know; it isn't selfishness, that; I needn't tell you. I've never for a minute thought of myself as a rich man, Sidney; I've never thought of the money as my own, never; and if Joseph proves himself honest, I'm ready to give up to him the share of his brother's property that it seems to me ought to be rightly his, though the law for some reason looks at it in a different way. I'm ready, but I must know that he's an honest man; I must prove him first.'
The eagerness of his thought impelled him to repetitions and emphasis. His voice fell upon a note of feebleness, and with an effort he recovered the tone in which he had begun.
'As soon as I knew that all this wealth had fallen to me I decided at once to come back to England. What could I do out there? I decided to come to England, but I couldn't see farther ahead than that. I sold all the land; I had the business done for me by that lawyer I spoke of, that had known my son, and he recommended me to a Mr. Percival in London. I came back, and I found little Jane, and then bit by bit I began to understand what my duty was. It got clear in my mind; I formed a purpose, a plan, and it's as strong in me now as ever. Let me think again for a little, Sidney. I want to make it as plain to you as it is to me. You'll understand me best if I go back and tell you more than I have done yet about my life before I left England. Let me think a while.'
He was overcome with a fear that he might not be able to convey with sufficient force the design which had wholly possessed him. So painful was the struggle in him between enthusiasm and a consciousness of failing faculties, that Sidney grasped his hand and begged him to speak simply, without effort.
'Have no fear about my understanding you. We've talked a great deal together, and I know very well what your strongest motives are. Trust me to sympathise with you.'
'I do! If I hadn't that trust, Sidney, I couldn't have felt the joy I did when you spoke to me of my Jane. You'll help me to carry out my plan; you and Jane will; you and Jane! I've got to be such an old man all at once, as it seems, and I dursn't have waited much longer without telling you what I had in my mind. See now, I'll go back to when I was a boy, as far back as I can remember. You know I was born in Clerkenwell, and I've told you a little now and then of the hard times I went through. My poor father and mother came out of the country, thinking to better themselves; instead of that, they found nothing but cold and hunger, and toil and moil. They were both dead by when I was between thirteen and fourteen. They died in the same winter--a cruel winter. I used to go about begging bits of firewood from the neighbours. There was a man in our house who kept dogs, and I remember once catching hold of a bit of dirty meat--I can't call it meat--that one of them had gnawed and left on the stairs; and I ate it, as if I'd been a dog myself, I was that driven with hunger. Why, I feel the cold and the hunger at this minute! It was a cruel winter, that, and it left me alone. I had to get my own living as best I could.
'No teaching. I was nineteen before I could read the signs over shops, or write my own name. Between nineteen and twenty I got all the education I ever was to have, paying a man with what I could save out of my earnings. The blessing was I had health and strength, and with hard struggling I got into a regular employment. At five-and-twenty I could earn my pound a week, pretty certain. When it got to five shillings more, I must needs have a wife to share it with me. My poor girl came to live with me in a room in Hill Street.
I've never spoken to you of her, but you shall hear it all now, cost me what it may in the telling. Of course she was out of a poor home, and she'd known as well as me what it was to go cold and hungry. I sometimes think, Sidney, I can see a look of her in Jane's face-- but she was prettier than Jane; yes, yes, prettier than Jane. And to think a man could treat a poor little thing like her the way I did!--you don't know what sort of a man Michael Snowdon was then; no, you don't know what I was then. You're not to think I ill-used her in the common way; I never raised my hand, thank God! and I never spoke a word a man should be ashamed of. But I was a hard, self-willed, stubborn fool How she came to like me and to marry me, I don't know; we were so different in every way. Well, it was partly my nature and partly what I'd gone through; we hadn't been married more than a month or two when I began to find fault with her, and from that day on she could never please me. I earned five-and-twenty shillings a week, and I'd made up my mind that we must save out of it. I wouldn't let _her_ work; no, what _she_ had to do was to keep the home on as little as possible, and always have everything clean and straight when I got back at night. But Jenny hadn't the same ideas about things as I had. She couldn't pinch and pare, and our plans of saving came to nothing. It grew worse as the children were horn. The more need there was for carefulness, the more heedless Jenny seemed to get. And it was my fault, mine from beginning to end. Another man would have been gentle with her and showed her kindly when she was wrong, and have been thankful for the love she gave him, whatever her faults. That wasn't my way. I got angry, and made her life a burden to her. I must have things done exactly as I wished; if not, there was no end to my fault-finding. And yet, if you'll believe it, I loved my wife as truly as man ever did. Jenny couldn't understand that--and how should she? At last she began to deceive me in all sorts of little things; she got into debt with shop-people, she showed me false accounts, she pawned things without my knowing. Last of all, she began to drink. Our fourth child was born just at that time; Jenny had a bad illness, and I believe it set her mind wrong. I lost all control of her, and she used to say if it wasn't for the children she'd go and leave me. One morning we quarrelled very badly, and I did as I'd threatened to--I walked about the streets all the night that followed, never coming home. I went to work next day, but at dinner-time I got frightened and ran home just to speak a word. Little Mike, the eldest, was playing on the stairs, and he said his mother was asleep. I went into the room, and saw Jenny lying on the bed dressed. There was something queer in the way her arms were stretched out. When I got near I saw she was dead. She'd taken poison.
'And it was I had killed her, just as much as if I'd put the poison to her lips. All because I thought myself such a wise fellow, because I'd resolved to live more prudently than other men of my kind did. I wanted to save money for the future--out of five-and-twenty shillings a week. Many and many a day I starved myself to try and make up for expenses of the home. Sidney, you remember that man we once went to hear lecture, the man that talked of nothing but the thriftlessness of the poor, and how it was their own fault they suffered? I was very near telling you my story when we came away that night. Why, look; I myself was just the kind of poor man that would have suited that lecturer. And what came of it? If I'd let my poor Jenny go her own way from the first, we should have had hard times now and then, but there'd have been our love to help us, and we should have been happy enough. They talk about thriftiness, and it just means that poor people are expected to practise a self-denial that the rich can't even imagine, much less carry out You know now why this kind of talk always angers me.'
Michael brooded for a few moments, his eyes straying sadly over the landscape before him.
'I was punished,' he continued, 'and in the fittest way. The two of my boys who showed most love for me, Edward and Robert, died young. The eldest and youngest were a constant trouble to me. Michael was quick-tempered and self-willed, like myself; I took the wrong way with him, just like I had with his mother, and there was no peace till he left home. Joseph was still harder to deal with; but he's the only one left alive, and there is no need to bring up things
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