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- The Nether World - 50/92 -

Pennyloaf's eyes gleamed at the compliment, and she turned them to her husband.

'She's nothing to boast of,' said Bob, judicially and masculinely. 'All women are pretty much alike.'

And Pennyloaf tried to smile at the snub.

Having devoted one evening to domestic quietude, Bob naturally felt himself free to dispose of the next in a manner more to his taste. The pleasures which sufficed to keep him from home had the same sordid monotony which characterises life in general for the lower strata of society. If he had money, there was the music-hall; if he had none, there were the streets. Being in the latter condition to-night, he joined a company of male and female intimates, and with them strolled aimlessly from one familiar rendezvous to another. Would that it were possible to set down a literal report of the conversation which passed during hours thus spent! Much of it, of course, would be merely revolting, but for the most part it would consist of such wearying, such incredible imbecilities as no human patience could endure through five minutes' perusal. Realise it, however, and you grasp the conditions of what is called the social problem. As regards Robert Hewett in particular, it would help you to understand the momentous change in his life which was just coming to pass.

On his reaching home at eleven o'clock, Pennyloaf met him with the news that Jack Bartley had looked in twice and seemed very anxious to see him. To-morrow being Saturday, Jack would call again early in the afternoon. When the time came, he presented himself, hungry and dirty as ever, but with an unwonted liveliness in his eye.

'I've got something to say to you,' be began, in a low voice, nodding significantly towards Pennyloaf.

'Go and buy what you want for to-morrow,' said Bob to his wife, giving her some money out of his wages. 'Take the kids.'

Disappointed in being thus excluded from confidence, but obedient as ever, Pennyloaf speedily prepared herself and the children, the younger of whom she still had to carry. When she was gone Mr. Bartley assumed a peculiar attitude and began to speak in an undertone.

'You know that medal as you gave me the other night?'

'What about it?'

'I sold it for fourpence to a chap I know. It got me a bed at the lodgings in Pentonville Road.'

'Oh, you did! Well, what else?'

Jack was writhing in the most unaccountable way, peering hither and thither out of the corners of his eyes. seeming to have an obstruction in his throat.

'It was in a public-house as I sold it--a chap I know. There was another chap as I didn't know standing just by--see? He kep' looking at the medal, and he kep' looking at me. When I went out the chap as I didn't know followed behind me. I didn't see him at first, but he come up with me just at the top of Rosoman Street--a red-haired chap, looked like a corster. "Hollo!" says he. "Hollo!" says I. "Got any more o' them medals?" he says, in a quiet way like. "What do you want to know for?" I says--'cos you see he was a bloke as I didn't know nothing about, and there's no good being over-free with your talk. He got me to walk on a bit with him, and kept talking. "You didn't buy that nowhere," he says, with a sort of wink. "What if I didn't?" I says. "There's no harm as I know." Well, he kept on with his sort o' winks, and then he says, "Got any _queer_ to put round?"'

At this point Jack lowered his voice to a whisper and looked timorously towards the door.

'You know what he meant, Bob?'

Bob nodded and became reflective.

'Well, I didn't say nothing.' pursued Bartley, 'but the chap stuck to me. "A fair price for a fair article," he says. "You'll always find me there of a Thursday night, if you've got any business going. Give me a look round," he says. "It ain't in my line," I says. So he gave a grin like, and kep' on talking. "If you want a _four-half shiner_," he says, "you know where to come. Reasonable with them as is reasonable. Thursday night," he says, and then he slung his hook round the corner.'

'What's a four-half shiner?' inquired Bob, looking from under his eyebrows.

'Well, I didn't know myself, just then: but I've found out. It's a public-house pewter--see?'

A flash of intelligence shot across Bob's face.

When Pennyloaf returned she found her husband with his box of moulds and medals on the table. He was turning over its contents, meditatively. On the table there also lay a half crown and a florin, as though Bob had been examining these products of the Royal Mint with a view to improving the artistic quality of his amateur workmanship. He took up the coins quietly as his wife entered and put them in his pocket.

'Mrs. Rendal's been at me again, Bob,' Pennyloaf said, as she set down her market-basket. 'You'll have to give her something to-day.'

He paid no attention, and Pennyloaf had a difficulty in bringing him to discuss the subject of the landlady's demands. Ultimately. however, he admitted with discontent the advisability of letting Mrs. Rendal have something on account. Though it was Saturday night, he let hour after hour go by and showed no disposition to leave home; to Pennyloaf's surprise, he sat almost without moving by the fire, absorbed in thought.

Genuine respect for law is the result of possessing something which the law exerts itself to guard. Should it happen that you possess nothing. and that your education in metaphysics has been grievously neglected, the strong probability is, that your mind will reduce the principle of society to its naked formula: Get, by whatever means, so long as with impunity. On that formula Bob Hewett was brooding; in the hours of this Saturday evening he exerted his mind more strenuously than ever before in the course of his life. And to a foregone result. Here is a man with no moral convictions, with no conscious relations to society save those which are hostile, with no personal affections; at the same time, vaguely aware of certain faculties in himself for which life affords no scope and encouraged in various kinds of conceit by the crass stupidity of all with whom he associates. It is suggested to him all at once that there is a very easy way of improving his circumstances, and that by exercise of a certain craft with which he is perfectly familiar; only, the method happens to be criminal. 'Men who do this kind of thing are constantly being caught and severely punished. Yes; men of a certain kind; not Robert Hewett. Robert Hewett is altogether an exceptional being; he is head and shoulders above the men with whom he mixes; he is clever, he is remarkably good-looking. If anyone in this world, of a truth Robert Hewett may reckon on impunity when he sets his wits against the law. Why, his arrest and punishment is an altogether inconceivable thing; he never in his life had a charge brought against him.'

Again and again it came back to that. Every novice in unimpassioned crime has that thought, and the more self-conscious the man, the more impressed with a sense of his own importance, so much the weightier is its effect with him.

We know in what spirit John Hewett regarded rebels against the law. Do not imagine that any impulse of that nature actuated his son. Clara alone had inherited her father's instinct of revolt. Bob's temperament was, in a certain measure, that of the artist; he felt without reasoning; he let himself go whither his moods propelled him. Not a man of evil propensities; entertain no such thought for a moment. Society produces many a monster, but the mass of those whom, after creating them, it pronounces bad are merely bad from the conventional point of view; they are guilty of weaknesses, not of crimes. Bob was not incapable of generosity; his marriage had, in fact, implied more of that quality than you in the upper world can at all appreciate. He neglected his wife, of course, for he had never loved her, and the burden of her support was too great a trial for his selfishness. Weakness, vanity, a sense that he has not satisfactions proportionate to his desert, a strong temptation-- here are the data which, in ordinary cases, explain a man's deliberate attempt to profit by criminality.

In a short time Pennyloaf began to be aware of peculiarities of behaviour in her husband for which she could not account. Though there appeared no necessity for the step, he insisted on their once more seeking new lodgings, and, before the removal, he destroyed all his medals and moulds.

'What's that for, Bob?' Pennyloaf inquired.

'I'll tell you, and mind you hold your tongue about it. Somebody's been saying as these things might get me into trouble. Just you be careful not to mention to people that I used to make these kind of things.'

'But why should it get you into trouble?'

'Mind what I tell you, and don't ask questions. You're always too ready at talking.'

His absences of an evening were nothing new, but his manner on returning was such as Pennyloaf had never seen in him. He appeared to be suffering from some intense excitement; his hands were unsteady; he showed the strangest nervousness if there were any unusual sounds in the house. Then he certainly obtained money of which his wife did not know the source; he bought new articles of clothing, and in explanation said that he had won bets. Pennyloaf remarked these things with uneasiness; she had a fear during her lonely evenings for which she could give no reason. Poor slowwitted mortal though she was, a devoted fidelity attached her to her husband, and quickened wonderfully her apprehension in everything that concerned him.

'Miss Snowdon came to-day, Bob,' she had said, about a week after his order with regard to Jane.

'Oh, she did? And did you tell her she'd better keep away?'

The Nether World - 50/92

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