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- The Nether World - 90/92 -

But Sam was not remarkable for wisdom; indeed, had he been anything more than a foolish calculating-machine, he would scarcely have thriven as he did in the City. When he had grown accustomed to rattling loose silver in his pocket, the next thing, as a matter of course, was that he accustomed himself to pay far too frequent visits to City bars. On certain days in the week he invariably came home with a very red face and a titubating walk; when Bessie received him angrily, he defended himself on the great plea of business necessities. As a town traveller there was no possibility, he alleged, of declining invitations to refresh himself; just as incumbent upon him was it to extend casual hospitality to those with whom he had business.

'Business! Fiddle!' cried Bessie. 'All you City fellows are the same. You encourage each other in drink, drink, drinking whenever you have a chance, and then you say it's all a matter of business. I won't have you coming home in that state, so there! I won't have a husband as drinks! Why, you can't stand straight.'

'Can't stand straight!' echoed Sam, with vast scorn. 'Look here!'

And he shouldered the poker, with the result that one of the globes on the chandelier came in shivers about his head. This was too much. Bessie fumed, and for a couple of hours the quarrel was unappeasable.

Worse was to come. Sam occasionally stayed out very late at night, and on his return alleged a 'business appointment.' Bessie at length refused to accept these excuses; she couldn't and wouldn't believe them.

'Then don't!' shouted Sam. 'And understand that I shall come home just when I like. If you make a bother I won't come home at all, so there you have it!'

'You're a bad husband and a beast!' was Bessie's retort.

Shortly after that Bessie received information of such grave misconduct on her husband's part that she all but resolved to forsake the house, and with the children seek refuge under her parents' roof at Woolwich. Sam had been seen in indescribable company; no permissible words would characterise the individuals with whom he had roamed shamelessly on the pavement of Oxford Street. When he next met her, quite sober and with exasperatingly innocent expression, Bessie refused to open her lips. Neither that evening nor the next would she utter a word to him--and the effort it cost her was tremendous. The result was, that on the third evening Sam did not appear.

It was a week after Clem's trial. Jane had been keeping to herself as much as possible, but, having occasion to go down into the kitchen late at night, she found Bessie in tears, utterly miserable.

'Don't bother about me!' was the reply to her sympathetic question. 'You've got your own upsets to think of. You might have come to speak to me before this--but never mind. It's nothing to you.'

It needed much coaxing to persuade her to detail Sam's enormities, but she found much relief when she had done so, and wept more copiously than ever.

'It's nearly twelve o'clock, and there's no sign of him, Perhaps he won't come at all. He's in bad company, and if he stays away all night I'll never speak to him again as long as I live. Oh, he's a beast of a husband, is Sam!'

Sam came not. All through that night did Jane keep her friend company, for Sam came not. In the morning a letter, addressed in his well-known commercial hand. Bessie read it and screamed. Sam wrote to her that he had accepted a position as country traveller, and _perhaps_ he might be able to look in at his home on that day month.

Jane could not go to work. The case had become very serious indeed; Bessie was in hysterics; the four children made the roof ring with their lamentations. At this juncture Jane put forth all her beneficent energy. It happened that Bessie was just now servantless. There was Mr. Scawthorne's breakfast only half prepared; Jane had to see to it herself, and herself take it upstairs. Then Bessie must go to bed, or assuredly she would be so ill that unheard-of calamities would befall the infants. Jane would have an eye to everything; only let Jane be trusted.

The miserable day passed; after trying in vain to sleep, Bessie walked about her sitting-room with tear-swollen face and rumpled gown, always thinking it possible that Sam had only played a trick, and that he would come. But he came not, and again it was night.

At eight o'clock Mr. Scawthorne's bell rang. Impossible for Bessie to present herself; Jane would go. She ascended to the room which had once--ah! once!--been her own parlour, knocked and entered.

'I--I wished to speak to Mrs. Byass,' said Scawthorne, appearing for some reason or other embarrassed by Jane's presenting herself.

'Mrs. Byass is not at all well, sir. But I'll let her know--'

'No, no; on no account.'

'Can't I get you anything, sir?'

'Miss Snowdon--might I speak with you for a few moments?'

Jane feared it might be a complaint. In a perfectly natural way she walked forward. Scawthorne came in her direction, and--closed the door.

The interview lasted ten minutes, then Jane came forth and with a light, quick step ran up to the floor above. She did not enter the room, however, but stood with her hand on the door, in the darkness. A minute or two, and with the same light, hurried step, she descended the stairs, sprang past the ledger's room, sped down to the kitchen. Under other circumstances Bessie must surely have noticed a strangeness in her look, in her manner; but to-night Bessie had thought for nothing but her own calamities.

Another day, and no further news from Sam. The next morning, instead of going to work (the loss of wages was most serious, but it couldn't be helped), Jane privately betook herself to Sam's house of business. Mrs. Byass was ill; would they let her know Mr. Byass's address, that he might immediately be communicated with? The information was readily supplied; Mr. Byass was no farther away, at present, than St. Albans. Forth into the street again, and in search of a policeman. 'Will you please to tell me what station I have to go to for St. Albans?' Why, Moorgate Street would do; only a few minutes' walk away. On she hastened. 'What is the cost of a return ticket to St. Albans, please?' Three-and-sevenpence. Back into the street again; she must now look for a certain sign, indicating a certain place of business. With some little trouble it is found; she enters a dark passage, and comes before a counter, upon which she lays--a watch, her grandfather's old watch. 'How much?' 'Four shillings, please.' She deposits a halfpenny, and receives four shillings, together with a ticket. Now for St. Albans.

Sam! Sam! Ay, well might he turn red and stutter and look generally foolish when that quiet little girl stood before him in his 'stock-room' at the hotel. Her words were as quiet as her look. 'I'll write her a letter,' he cries. 'Stop; you shall take it back. I can't give up the job at once, but you may tell her I'm up to no harm. Where's the pen? Where's the cursed ink?' And she takes the letter.

'Why, you've lost a day's work, Jane! She gave you the money for the journey, I suppose?'

'Yes, yes, of course.'

'Tell her she's not to make a fool of herself in future.'

'No, I shan't say that, Mr. Byass. But I'm half-tempted to say it to someone else!'

It was the old, happy smile, come back for a moment; the voice that had often made peace so merrily. The return journey seemed short, and with glad heart-beating she hastened from the City to Hanover Street.

Well, well; of course it would all begin over again; Jane herself knew it. But is not all life a struggle onward from compromise to compromise, until the day of final pacification?

Through that winter she lived with a strange secret in her mind, a secret which was the source of singularly varied feelings--of astonishment, of pain, of encouragement, of apprehension, of grief. To no one could she speak of it; no one could divine its existence--no one save the person to whom she owed this surprising novelty in her experience. She would have given much to be rid of it; and yet, again, might she not legitimately accept that pleasure which at times came of the thought?--the thought that, as a woman, her qualities were of some account in the world.

She did her best to keep it out of her consciousness, and in truth had so many other things to think about that it was seldom she really had trouble with it. Life was not altogether easy; regular work was not always to be kept; there was much need of planning and pinching, that her independence might suffer no wound, Bessie Byass was always in arms against that same independent spirit; she scoffed at it, assailed it with treacherous blandishment, made direct attacks upon it.

'I must live in my own way, Mrs. Byass. I don't want to have to leave you.'

And if ever life seemed a little too hard, if the image of the past grew too mournfully persistent, she knew where to go for consolation. Let us follow her, one Saturday afternoon early in the year.

In a poor street in Clerkenwell was a certain poor little shop-- built out as an afterthought from an irregular lump of houses; a shop with a room behind it and a cellar below; no more. Here was sold second-hand clothing, women's and children's. No name over the front, but neighbours would have told you that it was kept by one Mrs. Todd, a young widow with several children. Mrs. Todd, not long ago, used to have only a stall in the street; but a lady named Miss Lant helped her to start in a more regular way of business.

'And does she carry it on quite by herself?'

No; with her lived another young woman, also a widow, who had one child. Mrs. Hewett, her name. She did sewing in the room behind, or

The Nether World - 90/92

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