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- The Nether World - 6/92 -
There they was, lookin' ready to fight with one another for the fifteen bob a week. Didn't I come back and tell you about it, mother? An' if they'd all felt like me, they'd a turned against the shop an' smashed it up--ay, an' every other shop in the street! What use? Why, no use; but I tell you that's how I felt. If any man had said as much as a rough word to me, I'd a gone at him like a bulldog. I felt like a beast. I wanted to fight, I tell you--to fight till the life was kicked an' throttled out of me!'
'John, don't, don't go on in that way,' cried his wife, sobbing miserably. 'Don't let him go on like that, Sidney.'
Hewett jumped up and walked about.
'What's the time?' he asked the next moment. And when Sidney told him that it was half-past nine, he exclaimed, 'Then why hasn't Clara come 'ome? What's gone with her?'
'Perhaps she's at Mrs. Tubbs's,' replied his wife, in a low voice, looking at Kirkwood.
'An' what call has she to be there? Who gave her leave to go there?'
There was another exchange of looks between Sidney and Mrs. Hewett; then the latter with hesitation and timidity told of Mrs. Tubbs's visit to her that evening, and of the proposals the woman had made.
'I won't hear of it:' cried John. 'I won't have my girl go for a barmaid, so there's an end of it. I tell you she shan't go!'
'I can understand you, Mr. Hewett,' said Sidney, in a tone of argument softened by deference; 'but don't you think you'd better make a few inquiries, at all events? You see, it isn't exactly a barmaid's place. I mean to say, Mrs. Tubbs doesn't keep a public-house where people stand about drinking all day. It is only a luncheon-bar, and respectable enough.'
John turned and regarded him with astonishment.
'Why, I thought you was as much set against it as me? What's made you come round like this? I s'pose you've got tired of her, an' that's made you so you don't care.'
The young man's eyes flashed angrily, but before he could make a rejoinder Mrs. Hewett interposed.
'For shame o' yourself, John If you can't talk better sense than that, don't talk at all. He don't mean it, Sidney. He's half drove off his head with trouble.'
'If he does think it,' said Kirkwood, speaking sternly but with self-command, 'let him say what he likes. He can't say worse than I should deserve.'
There was an instant of silence. Hewett's head hung with more than the usual doggedness. Then he addressed Sidney, sullenly, but in a tone which admitted his error.
'What have you got to say? Never mind me. I'm only the girl's father, an' there's not much heed paid to fathers nowadays. What have you got to say about Clara? If you've changed your mind about her goin' there, just tell me why.'
Sidney could not bring himself to speak at once, but an appealing look from Mrs. Hewett decided him.
'Look here, Mr. Hewett,' he began, with blunt earnestness. If any harm came to Clara I should feel it every bit as much as you, and that you ought to know by this time. All the same, what I've got to say is this: Let her go to Mrs. Tubbs for a month's trial. If you persist in refusing her, mark my words, you'll be sorry. I've thought it all over, and I know what I'm talking about. The girl can't put up with the work. room any longer. It's ruining her health, for one thing, anybody can see that, and it's making her so discontented, she'll soon get reckless. I understand your feeling well enough, but I understand her as well; at all events, I believe I do. She wants a change; she's getting tired of her very life.'
'Very well,' cried the father in shrill irritation, 'why doesn't she take the change that's offered to her? She's no need to go neither to workroom nor to bar. There's a good home waiting for her, isn't there? What's come to the girl? She used to go on as if she liked you well enough.'
'A girl alters a deal between fifteen and seventeen,' Sidney replied, forcing himself to speak with an air of calmness, of impartiality. 'She wasn't old enough to know her own mind. I'm tired of plaguing her. I feel ashamed to say another word to her, and that's the truth. She only gets more and more set against me. If it's ever to come right, it'll have to be by waiting; we won't talk about that any more. Think of her quite apart from me, and what I've been hoping. She's seventeen years old. You can't deal with a girl of that age like you can with Amy and Annie. You'll have to trust her, Mr. Hewett. You'll have to, because there's no help for it. We're working people, we are; we're the lower orders; our girls have to go out and get their livings. We teach them the best we can, and the devil knows they've got examples enough of misery and ruin before their eyes to help them to keep straight. Rich people can take care of their daughters as much as they like; they can treat them like children till they're married; people of our kind can't do that, and it has to be faced.'
John sat with dark brow, his eyes staring on vacancy.
'It's right what Sidney says, father,' put in Mrs. Hewett; 'we can't help it.'
'You may perhaps have done harm when you meant only to do good,' pursued Sidney. 'Always being so anxious, and showing what account you make of her, perhaps you've led her to think a little too much of herself. She knows other fathers don't go on in that way. And now she wants more freedom, she feels it worse than other girls do when you begin to deny her. Talk to her in a different way; talk as if you trusted her. Depend upon it, it's the only hold you have upon her. Don't be so much afraid. Clara has her faults--see them as well as any one--but I'll never believe she'd darken your life of her own free will.'
There was an unevenness, a jerky vehemence, in his voice, which told how difficult it was for him to take this side in argument. He often hesitated, obviously seeking phrases which should do least injury to the father's feelings. The expression of pain on his forehead and about his lips testified to the sincerity with which he urged his views, at the same time to a lurking fear lest impulse should be misleading him. Hewett kept silence, in aspect as far as ever from yielding. Of a sudden he raised his hand, and said, 'Husht!' There was a familiar step on the stairs. Then the door opened and admitted Clara.
The girl could not but be aware that the conversation she interrupted had reference to herself. Her father gazed fixedly at her; Sidney glanced towards her with self-consciousness, and at once averted his eyes; Mrs. Hewett examined her with apprehension. Having carelessly closed the door with a push, she placed her umbrella in the corner and began to unbutton her gloves. Her attitude was one of affected unconcern; she held her head stiffly, and let her eyes wander to the farther end of the room. The expression of her face was cold, preoccupied; she bit her lower lip so that the under part of it protruded.
'Where have you been, Clara?' her father asked.
She did not answer immediately, but finished drawing off her gloves and rolled them up by turning one over the other. Then she said indifferently:
'I've been to see Mrs. Tubbs.'
'And who gave you leave?' asked Hewett with irritation.
'I don't see that I needed any leave. I knew she was coming here to speak to you or mother, so I went, after work, to ask what you'd said.'
She was not above the middle stature of women, but her slimness and erectness, and the kind of costume she wore made her seem tall as she stood in this low-ceiled room. Her features were of very uncommon type, at once sensually attractive and bearing the stamp of intellectual vigour. The profile was cold, subtle, original; in full face, her high cheekbones and the heavy, almost horizontal line of her eyebrows were the points that first drew attention, conveying an idea of force of character. The eyes themselves were hazel-coloured, and, whatever her mood, preserved a singular pathos of expression, a look as of self-pity, of unconscious appeal against some injustice. In contrast with this her lips were defiant, insolent, unscrupulous; a shadow of the naivete of childhood still lingered upon them, but, though you divined the earlier pout of the spoilt girl, you felt that it must have foretold this danger-signal in the mature woman. Such cast of countenance could belong only to one who intensified in her personality an inheritance of revolt; who, combining the temper of an ambitious woman with the forces of a man's brain, had early learnt that the world was not her friend nor the world's law.
Her clothing made but poor protection against the rigours of a London winter. Its peculiarity (bearing in mind her position) was the lack of any pretended elegance. A close-fitting, short jacket of plain cloth made evident the grace of her bust; beneath was a brown dress with one row of kilting. She wore a hat of brown felt, the crown rising from back to front, the narrow brim closely turned up all round. The high collar of the jacket alone sheltered her neck. Her gloves, though worn, were obviously of good kid; her boots-- strangest thing of all in a work-girl's daily attire--were both strong and shapely. This simplicity seemed a declaration that she could not afford genuine luxuries and scorned to deck herself with shams.
The manner of her reply inflamed Hewett with impotent wrath. He smote the table violently, then sprang up and flung his chair aside.
'Is that the way you've learnt to speak to your father?' he shouted. 'Haven't I told you you're not to go nowhere without my leave or your mother's? Do you pay no heed to what I bid you? If so, say it! Say it at once, and have done with it.'
Clara was quietly removing her hat. In doing so, she disclosed the one thing which gave proof of regard for personal appearance. Her hair was elaborately dressed. Drawn up from the neck, it was disposed in thick plaits upon the top of her head; in front were a few rows of crisping. She affected to be quite unaware that words
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