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- The Nether World - 5/92 -


'Don't, don't speak of that,' interposed Kirkwood, with kindly firmness. 'That's long since over and done with and forgotten.'

'No, no; not forgotten. Clara knows, an' that's partly why she makes so little of me; I know it is.'

'I don't believe it! She's a good-hearted girl--'

A heavy footstep on the stairs checked him. The door was thrown open, and there entered a youth of nineteen, clad as an artisan. He was a shapely fellow, though not quite so stout as perfect health would have made him, and had a face of singular attractiveness, clear-complexioned, delicate featured, a-gleam with intelligence. The intelligence was perhaps even too pronounced; seen in profile, the countenance had an excessive eagerness; there was selfish force about the lips, moreover, which would have been better away. His noisy entrance indicated an impulsive character, and the nod with which he greeted Kirkwood was self-sufficient.

'Where's that medal I cast last night, mother?' he asked, searching in various corners of the room and throwing things about.

'Now, do mind what you're up to, Bob!' remonstrated Mrs. Hewett. 'You'll find it on the mantel in the other room. Don't make such a noise.'

The young man rushed forth, and in a moment returned. In his hand, which was very black, and shone as if from the manipulation of metals, he held a small bright medal. He showed it to Sidney, saying, 'What d'you think o' that?'

The work was delicate and of clever design; it represented a racehorse at full speed, a jockey rising in the stirrups and beating it with orthodox brutality.

'That's "Tally-ho" at the Epsom Spring Meetin',' he said. 'I've got money on him!'

And, with another indifferent nod, he flung out of the room.

Before Mrs. Hewett and Kirkwood could renew their conversation, there was another step at the door, and the father of the family presented himself.

CHAPTER III

A SUPERFLUOUS FAMILY

Kirkwood's face, as he turned to greet the new-comer, changed suddenly to an expression of surprise.

'Why, what have you been doing to your hair?' he asked abruptly.

A stranger would have seen nothing remarkable in John Hewett's hair, unless he had reflected that, being so sparse, it had preserved its dark hue and its gloss somewhat unusually. The short beard and whiskers were also of richer colour than comported with the rest of the man's appearance. Judging from his features alone, one would have taken John for sixty at least; his years were in truth not quite two-and-fifty. He had the look of one worn out with anxiety and hardship; the lines engraven upon his face were of extraordinary depth and frequency; there seemed to be little flesh between the dry skin and the bones which sharply outlined his visage. The lips were, like those of his son, prominent and nervous, but none of Bob's shrewdness was here discoverable; feeling rather than intellect appeared to be the father's characteristic. His eyes expressed self-will, perhaps obstinacy, and he had a peculiarly dogged manner of holding his head. At the present moment he was suffering from extreme fatigue; he let himself sink upon a chair, threw his hat on to the floor, and rested a hand on each knee. His boots were thickly covered with mud; his corduroy trousers were splashed with the same. Rain had drenched him; it trickled to the floor from all his garments.

For answer to Sidney's question, he nodded towards his wife, and said in a thick voice, 'Ask her.'

'He's dyed it,' Mrs. Hewett explained, with no smile. 'He thought one of the reasons why he couldn't get work was his lookin' too old.'

'An' so it was,' exclaimed Hewett, with an angry vehemence which at once declared his position and revealed much of his history. 'So it was My hair was a bit turned, an' nowadays there's no chance for old men. Ask any one you like. Why, there's Sam Lang couldn't even get a job at gardenin' 'cause his hair was a bit turned. It was him as told me what to do. "Dye your hair, Jack," he says; "it's what I've had to myself," he says. "They won't have old men nowadays, at no price." Why, there's Jarvey the painter; you know him, Sidney. His guvnor sent him on a job to Jones's place, an' they sent him back. "Why, he's an old man," they says. "What good's a man of that age for liftin' ladders about?" An' Jarvey's no older than me.'

Sidney knitted his brows. He had heard the complaint from too many men to be able to dispute its justice.

'When there's twice too many of us for the work that's to be done,' pursued John, 'what else can you expect? The old uns have to give way, of course. Let 'em beg; let 'em starve! What use are they?'

Mrs. Hewett had put a kettle on the fire, and began to arrange the table for a meal.

'Go an' get your wet things off, John,' she said. 'You'll be havin' your rheumatics again.'

'Never mind me, Maggie. What business have you to be up an' about? You need a good deal more takin' care of than I do. Here, let Amy get the tea.'

The three children, Amy, Annie, and Tom, had come forward, as only children do who are wont to be treated affectionately on their father's return. John had a kiss and a caress for each of them; then he stepped to the bed and looked at his latest born. The baby was moaning feebly; he spoke no word to it, and on turning away glanced about the room absently. In the meantime his wife had taken some clothing from a chest of drawers, and at length he was persuaded to go into the other room and change. When he returned, the meal was ready. It consisted of a scrap of cold steak, left over from yesterday, and still upon the original dish amid congealed fat; a spongy half-quartern loaf, that species of baker's bread of which a great quantity can be consumed with small effect on the appetite; a shapeless piece of something purchased under the name of butter, dabbed into a shallow basin; some pickled cabbage in a tea-cup; and, lastly, a pot of tea, made by adding a teaspoonful or two to the saturated leaves which had already served at breakfast and mid-day. This repast was laid on a very dirty cloth. The cups were unmatched and chipped, the knives were in all stages of decrepitude; the teapot was of dirty tin, with a damaged spout.

Sidney began to affect cheerfulness. He took little Annie on one of his knees, and Tom on the other. The mature Amy presided. Hewett ate the morsel of meat, evidently without thinking about it; he crumbled a piece of bread, and munched mouthfuls in silence. Of the vapid liquor called tea he drank cup after cup.

'What's the time?' he asked at length. 'Where's Clara?'

'I daresay she's doin' overtime,' replied his wife. 'She won't be much longer.'

The man was incapable of remaining in one spot for more than a few minutes. Now he went to look at the baby; now he stirred the fire; now he walked across the room aimlessly. He was the embodiment of worry. As soon as the meal was over, Amy, Annie, and Tom were sent off to bed. They occupied the second room, together with Clara; Bob shared the bed of a fellow-workman upstairs. This was great extravagance, obviously; other people would have made two rooms sufficient for all, and many such families would have put up with one. But Hewett had his ideas of decency, and stuck to them with characteristic wilfulness.

'Where do you think I've been this afternoon?' John began, when the three little ones were gone, and Mrs. Hewett had been persuaded to lie down upon the bed. 'Walked to Enfleld an' back. I was told of a job out there; but it's no good; they're full up. They say exercise is good for the 'ealth. I shall be a 'ealthy man before long, it seems to me. What do _you_ think?'

'Have you been to see Corder again?' asked Sidney, after reflecting anxiously.

'No, I haven't!' was the angry reply; 'an' what's more, I ain't goin' to! He's one o' them men I can't get on with. As long as you make yourself small before him, an' say "sir" to him with every other word, an' keep tellin' him as he's your Providence on earth, an' as you don't know how ever you'd get on without him--well, it's all square, an' he'll keep you on the job. That's just what I _can't_ do--never could, an' never shall. I should have to hear them children cryin' for food before I could do it. So don't speak to me about Corder again. It makes me wild!'

Sidney tapped the floor with his foot. Himself a single man, without responsibilities, always in fairly good work, he could not invariably sympathise with Hewett's sore and impracticable pride. His own temper did not err in the direction of meekness, but as he looked round the room he felt that a home such as this would drive him to any degree of humiliation. John knew what the young man's thoughts were; he resumed in a voice of exasperated bitterness.

'No, I haven't been to Corder--I beg his pardon; _Mister_ Corder--James Corder, Esquire. But where do you think I went this mornin'? Mrs. Peckover brought up a paper an' showed me an advertisement. Gorbutt in Goswell Bead wanted a man to clean windows an' sweep up, an' so on;--offered fifteen bob a week. Well, I went. Didn't I, mother? Didn't I go after that job? I got there at half-past eight; an' what do you think I found? If there was one man standin' at Gorbutt's door, _there was five hundred_! Don't you believe me? You go an' ask them as lives about there. If there was one, there was five hundred! Why, the p'lice had to come an' keep the road clear. Fifteen bob What was the use o' me standin' there, outside the crowd? What was the use, I say? Such a lot o' poor starvin' devils you never saw brought together in all your life.


The Nether World - 5/92

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