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- The Nether World - 70/92 -


Clara put her hands upon his shoulders and kissed him. 'I didn't quite know whether it was true or not, father.'

'My darling! My dear girl! Come an' sit on my knee, like you used to when you was a little 'un. I'm a rough old father for such as you, but nobody'll never love you better than I do, an' always have done. So he's been faithful to you, for all they said. There ain't a better man livin'! "It's a long time since I first asked the question," he says, "but she's give me the right answer at last." And he looks that glad of it.'

'He does? You're sure he does?'

'Sure? Why, you should a' seen him when I went into the room! There's nothing more as I wish for now. I only hope I may live a while longer, to see you forget all your troubles, my dear. He'll make you happy, will Sidney; he's got a deal more education than anyone else I ever knew, and you'll suit each other. But you won't forget all about your old father? You'll let me come an' have a talk with you now and then, my dear, just you an' me together, you know?'

'I shall love you and be grateful to you always, father You've kept a warm heart for me all this time.'

'I couldn't do nothing else, Clara; you've always been what I loved most, and you always will be.'

'If I hadn't had you to come back to, what would have become of me?'

'We'll never think of that. We'll never speak another word of that.'

'Father--Oh, if I had my face again! If I had my own face!'

A great anguish shook her; she lay hi his arms and sobbed. It was the farewell, even in her fulness of heart and deep sense of consolation, to all she had most vehemently desired, Gratitude and self-pity being indivisible in her emotions, she knew not herself whether the ache of regret or the soothing restfulness of deliverance made her tears flow. But at least there was no conscious duplicity, and for the moment no doubt that she had found her haven. It is a virtuous world, and our frequent condemnations are invariably based on justice; will it be greatly harmful if for once we temper our righteous judgment with ever so little mercy?

CHAPTER XXXIII

A FALL FROM THE IDEAL

Joseph Snowdon waxed daily in respectability. He was, for one thing, clothing himself in flesh, and, though still any. thing but a portly man, bore himself as becomes one who can indulge a taste for eating and drinking; his step was more deliberate, he no longer presented the suppleness of limb that so often accompanies a needy condition in the man of wits, he grew attentive to his personal equipment, he was always well combed and well shaven, and generally, in hours of leisure, you perceived a fragrance breathing from his handkerchief. Nor was this refinement addressed only to the public. To Clem he behaved with a correctness which kept that lady in a state of acute suspicion; not seldom he brought her a trifling gift, which he would offer with compliments, and he made a point of consulting her pleasure or convenience in all matters that affected them in common. A similar dignity of bearing marked his relations with Hanover Street, When he entered Jane's parlour it was with a beautiful blending of familiarity and courtesy; he took his daughter's hand with an air of graceful affection, retaining it for a moment between his own, and regarding her with a gentle smile which hinted the pride of a parent. In speaking with the old man he habitually subdued his voice, respectfully bending forward, solicitously watching the opportunity of a service. Michael had pleasure in his company and conversation. Without overdoing it, Joseph accustomed himself to speak of philanthropic interests. He propounded a scheme for supplying the poor with a certain excellent filter at a price all but nominal; who did not know the benefit to humble homes of pure water for use as a beverage? The filter was not made yet, but Lake, Snowdon, & Co., had it under their consideration.

Michael kept his room a good deal in these wretched days of winter, so that Joseph had no difficulty in obtaining private interviews with his daughter. Every such occasion he used assiduously, his great end being to possess himself of Jane's confidence. He did not succeed quite so well with the girl as with her grandfather; there was always a reserve in her behaviour which as yet he found it impossible to overcome. Observation led him to conclude that much of this arose from the view she took of his relations with Sidney Kirkwood. Jane was in love with Sidney; on that point he could have no doubt; and in all likelihood she regarded him as unfriendly to Sidney's suit--women are so shrewd in these affairs. Accordingly, Joseph made it his business by artful degrees to remove this prepossession from her mind. In the course of this endeavour he naturally pressed into his service the gradually discovered fact that Sidney had scruples of conscience regarding Jane's fortune. Marvellous as it appeared to him, he had all but come to the conclusion that this _was_ a fact. Now, given Jane's character, which he believed he had sounded; given her love for Kirkwood, which was obviously causing her anxiety and unhappiness; Joseph saw his way to an admirable piece of strategy. What could be easier, if he played his cards well and patiently enough, than to lead Jane to regard the fortune as her most threatening enemy? Valuable results might come of that, whether before or after the death of the old man.

The conversation in which he first ventured to strike this note undisguisedly took place on the same evening as that unpleasant scene when Sidney as good as quarrelled with him--the evening before the day on which Sidney asked Clara Hewett to be his wife. Having found Jane alone, he began to talk in his most paternal manner, his chair very near hers, his eyes fixed on her sewing. And presently, when the ground was prepared:

'Jane, there's something I've been wanting to say to you for a long time. My dear, I'm uneasy about you.'

'Uneasy, father?' and she glanced at him nervously.

'Yes, I'm uneasy. But whether I ought to tell you why, I'm sure I don't know. You're my own child, Janey, and you become dearer to me every day; but--it's hard to say it--there naturally isn't all the confidence between us that there might have been if--well, well, I won't speak of that.'

'But won't you tell me what makes you anxious?'

He laid the tips of his fingers on her head. 'Janey, shall you be offended if I speak about Mr. Kirkwood?'

'No, father.'

She tried in vain to continue sewing.

'My dear--I believe there's no actual engagement between you?'

'Oh no, father,' she replied, faintly.

'And yet--don't be angry with me, my child--I think you are something more than friends?'

She made no answer.

'And I can't help thinking, Janey--I think about you very often indeed--that Mr. Kirkwood has rather exaggerated views about the necessity of--of altering things between you.'

Quite recently Joseph had become aware of the under. standing between Michael and Kirkwood. The old man still hesitated to break the news to Jane, saying to himself that it was better for Sidney to prepare her by the change in his behaviour.

'Of altering things?' Jane repeated, under her breath.

'It seems to me wrong--wrong to both of you,' Joseph pursued, in a pathetic voice. 'I can't help noticing my child's looks. I know she isn't what she used to be, poor little girl! And I know Kirkwood isn't what he used to be. It's very hard, and I feel for you--for both of you.'

Jane sat motionless, not daring to lift her eyes, scarcely daring to breathe.

'Janey.'

' Yes, father.'

'I wonder whether I'm doing wrong to your grandfather in speaking to you confidentially like this? I can't believe he notices things as I do; he'd never wish you to be unhappy.'

'But I don't quite understand, father. What do you mean about Mr. Kirkwood? Why should he--'

The impulse failed her. A fear which she had harboured for many weary days was being confirmed and she could not ask directly for the word that would kill hope.

'Have I a right to tell you? I thought perhaps you understood.'

'As you have gone So far, I think you must explain. I don't see how you can be doing wrong.'

'Poor Kirkwood! You see, he's in such a delicate position, my dear. I think myself that he's acting rather strangely, after everything; but it's--it's your money, Jane. He doesn't think he ought to ask you to marry him, under the circumstances.'

She trembled.

'Now who should stand by you, in a case like this, if not your own father? Of course he can't say a word to you himself; and of course you can't say a word to him; and altogether it's a pitiful business.'

Jane shrank from discussing such a topic with her father. Her next words were uttered with difficulty.


The Nether World - 70/92

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