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- The Nether World - 80/92 -

Yes; they can take everything. How foolish of Stephen Candy and his tribe not to be born of the class of landlords! The inconvenience of having no foothold on the earth's surface is so manifest.

'I couldn't say nothing to her,' he continued, nodding towards the prostrate woman. 'She was sorry for it, an' you can't ask no more. It was my fault for trustin' her with the money to pay, but I get a bit careless now an' then, an' forgot. You do look bad, Bob, an' there's no mistake. Would you feel better if I lighted a bit o' fire?'

'Yes; I feel cold. I was hot just now.'

'You needn't be afraid o' the coals. Mother goes round the streets after the coal-carts, an' you wouldn't believe what a lot she picks up some days. You see, we're neither of us in the 'ouse very often; we don't burn much.'

He lit a fire, and Bob dragged himself near to it. In the meantime the quietness of the house was suffering a disturbance familiar to its denizens. Mr. Hope--you remember Mr. Hope?--had just returned from an evening at the public-house, and was bent on sustaining his reputation for unmatched vigour of language. He was quarrelling with his wife and daughters; their high notes of vituperation mingled in the most effective way with his manly thunder. To hear Mr. Hope's expressions, a stranger would have imagined him on the very point of savagely murdering all his family.

Another voice became audible. It was that of Ned Higgs, who had opened his door to bellow curses at the disturbers of his rest.

'They'll be wakin' mother,' said Stephen. 'There, I knew they would.'

Mrs. Candy stirred, and, after a few vain efforts to raise herself, started up suddenly. She fixed her eyes on the fire, which was just beginning to blaze, and uttered a dreadful cry, a shriek of mad terror.

'O God!' groaned her son. 'I hope it ain't goin' to be one of her bad nights. Mother, mother! what's wrong with you? See, come to the fire an' warm yourself, mother.'

She repeated the cry two or three times, but with less violence; then, as though exhausted, she fell face downwards, her arms folded about her head. The moaning which Bob had beard earlier in the evening recommenced.

Happily, it was not to be one of her bad nights. Fits of the horrors only came upon her twice before morning. Towards one o'clock Stephen had sunk into a sleep which scarcely any conceivable uproar could have broken; he lay with his head on his right arm, his legs stretched out at full length; his breathing was light. Bob was much later in getting rest. As often as he slumbered for an instant, the terrible image of his fear rose manifest before him; he saw himself in the clutch of his hunters, just like Jack Bartley, and woke to lie quivering. Must not that be the end of it, sooner or later? Might he not as well give himself up to-morrow? But the thought of punishment such as his crime receives was unendurable. It haunted him in nightmare when sheer exhaustion had at length weighed down his eyelids.

Long before daybreak he was conscious again, tormented with thirst and his head aching woefully. Someone had risen in the room above, and was tramping about in heavy boots. The noise seemed to disturb Mrs. Candy; she cried out in her sleep. In a few minutes the early riser came forth and began to descend the stairs; he was going to his work.

A little while, and in the court below a voice shouted, 'Bill Bill!' Another worker being called, doubtless.

At seven o'clock Stephen roused himself. He took a piece of soap from a shelf of the cupboard, threw a dirty rag over his arm, and went down to wash at the tap in the yard. Only on returning did he address Bob.

'Feelin' any better?'

'I think so. But I'm very bad.'

'Are you goin' to stay here?'

'I don't know.'

'Got any money?'

'Yes. Ninepence. Could you get me something to drink?'

Stephen took twopence, went out, and speedily returned with a large mug of coffee; from his pocket he brought forth a lump of cake, which had cost a halfpenny. This, he thought. might tempt a sick appetite. His own breakfast he would take at the coffee-shop.

'Mother'll get you anything else you want,' he said. 'She knows herself generally first thing in the morning. Let her take back the mug; I had to leave threepence on it.'

So Stephen also went forth to his labour--in this case, it may surely be said, the curse of curses. . . .

At this hour Pennyloaf bestirred herself after a night of weeping. Last evening the police had visited her room, and had searched it thoroughly. The revelation amazed her; she would not believe the charge that was made against her husband. She became angry with Mrs. Griffin when that practical woman said she was not at all surprised. Utterly gone was her resentment of Bob's latest cruelty. His failure to return home seemed to prove that he had been arrested, and she could think of nothing but the punishment that awaited him.

'It's penal servitude,' remarked Mrs. Griffin, frankly. 'Five, or p'r'aps ten years. I've heard of 'em gettin' sent for life.'

Pennyloaf would not believe in the possibility of this befalling her husband. It was too cruel. There would be some pity, some mercy. She had a confused notion of witnesses being called to give a man a good character, and strengthened herself in the thought of what she would say, under such circumstances on Bob's behalf. 'He's been a good 'usband,' she kept repeating to Mrs. Griffin, and to the other neighbours who crowded to indulge their curiosity. 'There's nobody can say as he ain't been a good 'usband; it's a lie if they do.'

By eight o'clock she was at the police-station. With fear she entered the ugly doorway and approached a policeman who stood in the ante-room. When she had made her inquiry, the man referred her to the inspector. She was asked many questions, but to her own received no definite reply; she had better look in again the next morning.

'It's my belief they ain't got him,' said Mrs. Griffin. 'He's had a warnin' from his pals.'

Pennyloaf would dearly have liked to communicate with Jane Snowdon, but shame prevented her. All day she stood by the house door, looking eagerly now this way, now that, with an unreasoning hope that Bob might show himself. She tried to believe that he was only keeping away because of his behaviour to her the night before; it was the first time he had laid hand upon her, and he felt ashamed of himself. He would come back, and this charge against him would be proved false; Pennyloaf could not distinguish between her desire that something might happen and the probability of its doing so.

But darkness fell upon the streets, and her watch was kept in rain. She dreaded the thought of passing another night in uncertainty. Long ago her tears had dried up; she had a parched throat and trembling, feverish hands. Between seven and eight o'clock she went to Mrs. Griffin and begged her to take care of the child for a little while.

'I'm goin' to see if I can hear anything about him. Somebody may know where he is.'

And first of all she directed her steps to Shooter's Gardens. It was very unlikely that her mother could be of any use, but she would seek there. Afterwards she must go to Farringdon Road Buildings, though never yet had she presented herself to Bob's father.

You remember that the Gardens had an offshoot, which was known simply as The Court. In this blind alley there stood throughout the day a row of baked-potato ovens, ten or a dozen of them, chained together, the property of a local capitalist who let them severally to men engaged in this business. At seven o'clock of an evening fires were wont to be lighted under each of these baking-machines, preparatory to their being wheeled away, each to its customary street-corner. Now the lighting of fires entails the creation of smoke, and whilst these ten or twelve ovens were getting ready to bake potatoes the Court was in a condition not easily described. A single lamp existed for the purpose of giving light to the alley, and at no time did this serve much more than to make darkness visible; at present the blind man would have fared as well in that retreat as he who had eyes, and the marvel was how those who lived there escaped suffocation. In the Gardens themselves volumes of dense smoke every now and then came driven along by the cold gusts; the air had a stifling smell and a bitter taste.

Pennyloaf found nothing remarkable in this phenomenon; it is hard to say what would have struck her as worthy of indignant comment in her world of little ease. But near the entrance to the Court, dimly discernible amid sagging fumes, was a cluster of people, and as everything of that kind just now excited her apprehensions, she drew near to see what was happening. The gathering was around Mad Jack; he looked more than usually wild, and with one hand raised above his head was on the point of relating a vision he had had the night before.

'Don't laugh! Don't any of you laugh; for as sure as I live it was an angel stood in the room and spoke to me. There was a light such as none of you ever saw, and the angel stood in the midst of it. And he said to me: "Listen, whilst I reveal to you the truth, that you may know where you arc and what you are; and this is done for a great purpose." And I fell down on my knees; but never a word could I have spoken. Then the angel said: "You are passing through a state of punishment. You, and all the poor among whom you live; all those who are in suffering of body and darkness of mind, were once rich people, with every blessing the world can bestow, with every opportunity of happiness in yourselves and of making others happy. Because you made an ill use of your wealth, because you were selfish and hard-hearted and oppressive and sinful in every kind of indulgence--therefore after death you received the reward of wickedness. This life you are now leading is that of the damned; this place to which you are confined is Hell! There is no escape for

The Nether World - 80/92

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