Part 5 out of 5
now Clara scarcely recognized her. Her eyes were sunken, her cheeks had
fallen in, and a bluish pallor gave her the look of one recovering from a
long illness. The room had not been aired, and the accumulated odours of
the night turned Clara sick. She was thinking of some excuse to get away
when Ada began to speak with a curious whine, quite unlike her old manner.
"I'm ashamed ter ask yer in, Miss Grimes, the room's in such a state; but
I've been very ill, with no one ter talk to fer days past. Not that I'm
ter blame. I 'ope it's niver your lot to 'ave a 'usband with thousan's in
the bank, an' too mean ter keep a servant. 'Ere am I from mornin' ter
night, slavin' an' drudgin', an' me with a leg that bad I can 'ardly stand
on it. I'll just show yer wot state I'm in. It's breakin' out all over.
Me blood's that bad fer want of proper food an' nourishment." She began to
unfasten a dirty bandage below her knee. Clara turned her head in disgust.
The flesh was covered with ulcerated sores.
"I don't know 'ow you find 'im, Miss Grimes," she continued, her voice
rising in anger, "but if yer believe me, a meaner man niver walked the
earth. I've 'ad ter pawn the things in this very room ter pay the baker
an' the grocer. That's 'ow 'e makes 'is money. Starvin' 'is own wife ter
squeeze a few shillin's for 'is bankin' account. 'E knows I can't go
outside the door, 'cause I've got nuthin' ter put on; but 'e takes jolly
good care ter go down town an' live on the fat of the land."
From the next room came the fitful, awkward sounds of a five-finger
exercise from Ray. Clara listened with silent contempt to this torrent of
abuse. She knew that it was false that the more Jonah gave her, the more
she spent on drink. And as she looked at Ada's face, ravaged by alcohol,
a stealthy thought crept into her mind that set her heart beating.
Suddenly Ada's anger dropped like a spent fire.
"Did yer say Mr Jones was busy in the shop?" she inquired, feebly.
"No," said Clara, "I understand that he went down town on important
business, and won't be back till late."
"Thank yer," said Ada, with a curious glitter in her eyes. "Would yer
mind callin' Ray in? I want ter send 'im on a message to the grocer's."
Clara went into the next room and sent Ray to his mother, stopping for a
minute to shut the keyboard and put the music straight. After every
lesson she was accustomed to examine the piano as if it were her own
property. When she entered the bedroom again, Ada was whispering rapidly
to Ray. She looked up as Clara entered, and gave him some money in a
piece of paper.
"An' tell 'im I'll send the rest to-morrer," she added aloud. Ray went
down the back stairs, swinging an empty millet-bag in his hand. For
another five minutes Clara remained standing, to show that she was anxious
to get away, while Ada abused her husband, giving detailed accounts of his
meanness and neglect. Suddenly her mood changed.
"I'm afraid I mustn't keep yer any longer, Miss Grimes," she said abruptly;
"an' thank yer fer lookin' in ter see 'ow I was."
Clara, surprised and relieved at the note of dismissal in her voice,
took her leave.
She went down the winding staircase at the rear of the shop, opposite the
cashier's desk. The pungent odour of leather was delightful in her
nostrils after the stale smell of the room above, and she halted at the
turn of the landing to admire the huge shop, glittering with varnish,
mirrors, and brass rods. Then she looked round for Jonah, but he was
nowhere to be seen.
The sight of Ada, ravaged by alcohol, had filled her with strange thoughts,
and she walked up Regent Street, comparing Ada with her own father, who
seemed to thrive on beer. There must be some difference in their
constitutions, for Ada was clearly going to pieces, and...the thought
entered her mind again that quickened her pulse. She had never thought of
that! She was passing the "Angel" with its huge white globes and
glittering mirrors that reflected the sun's rays, when she caught sight of
Ray coming out of the side door, swinging an empty millet-bag in his hand.
A sudden light flashed on her mind. Ada's invitation into the bedroom,
the inquiry about Jonah, and her sudden dismissal all meant this.
"Did you get what your mother wanted?" she asked the child, with a thumping
sensation in her heart.
"No," said Ray carelessly; "the man wouldn't give me the medicine. He
told me to go home and fetch the rest of the money."
"How much more do you want?" asked Clara, in a curious tone.
"Eighteen pence," said Ray, showing two half-crowns in his hand.
Clara hesitated, with parched lips. She remembered Ada's face, ravaged by
brandy. She was a physical wreck, and six months ago...perhaps another
The thought grazed her mind with a stealthy, horrible suggestion. She felt
in her purse with trembling fingers, and found a shilling and a sixpence.
"Go and get your mother's medicine," she whispered, putting the money into
Ray's hand; "but don't tell her that you met me, or she may scold you."
Ray turned in at the side door, and Clara, white to the lips, hurried
round the corner.
It took Ray half an hour to cover the short distance between the Angel and
the Silver Shoe, with a bottle of brandy swinging carelessly in the
millet-bag. Cassidy himself, all smiles, had carefully wrapped it in
paper. Ray had promised to hurry home with the medicine for his mother,
but, as usual, the shop windows were irresistible. Some of his early
trips to the "Angel" had taken half a day.
Meanwhile Ada lay on the bed in an agony of attention, atrociously alert
to every sound, hearing with every nerve in her body. Her nerves had
collapsed under the repeated debauches, and the scream of an engine
shunting in the railway yards went through her like a knife. The confused
rumble of carts in Regent Street, the familiar sounds from the shop below,
the slamming of a door, a voice raised in inquiry, the monotonous, kindly
echoes of life, struck on the raw edges of her nerves, exasperating her
And through it all her ears sought for two sounds with agonizing
acuteness--the firm, rapid step of Jonah mounting the stairs winding from
the shop, or the nonchalant, laggard footfall of Ray ascending from the
stairs at the rear. Would Cassidy send the bottle and trust her for the
other eighteen pence? Would Jonah hurry back to meet Miss Grimes?
Presently her ear distinguished the light, uncertain step of Ray. Every
nerve in her body leapt for joy when she saw the bottle. She looked at
the clock, it was nearly four. She had at least an hour clear, for Jonah
would be in no hurry now that he had missed the music-lesson. She snatched
the bag from the astonished child.
"Go an' see if yer father's in the shop. If 'e ain't there, yer can go
an' play in the lane till 'e comes back," she cried.
Her hands shook as she held the bottle, but with a supreme effort she
controlled her muscles and drew the cork without a sound, an accomplishment
that she had learned in the back parlour of the Angel. She poured out half
a glass, and swallowed it neat. The fiery liquid burnt her throat and
brought the tears to her eyes, but she endured it willingly for the sake
of the blessed relief that always followed. A minute later she repeated
the dose and lay down on the bed. In ten minutes the seductive liquid had
calmed her nerves like oil on troubled waters. She listened to the
familiar sounds of the shop and the street with a delicious languor and
sense of comfort in her body. In an hour she had reached the maudlin
stage, and the bottle was half empty.
She felt at peace with the world, and began to think kindly of Jonah.
Hazily she remembered her bitter speech to Miss Grimes, and wondered at
her violence. There was nothing the matter with him. He had been a good
husband to her, working day and night to get on in the world. She felt
a sudden desire to be friendly with him. Maudlin tears of self-reproach
filled her eyes as she thought how she had stood in his way instead of
helping him. She would mend her ways, give up the drink which was killing
her, and take her proper position, with a fine house and servants. With a
fatuous obstinacy in her sodden brain, she decided not to lose a minute,
but to go and surprise Jonah with her noble resolutions.
She got to her feet, and saw the brandy bottle. Ah! Jonah must not know
that she had been drinking, and with the last conscious act of her clouded
brain she staggered into the sitting-room and hid the bottle under the
cushions of the sofa. Then, conscious of nothing but her resolve, she
lurched to the top of the stairs. It was nearly dark, and she felt for
the railing, but the weight of her body sent an atrocious pain through her
leg, and to ease it she took a step forward to put her weight on the
other. And then, without fear, and without the desire or the power to
save herself, she stepped into space and fell headlong down the winding
staircase that she had always dreaded, rolling and bumping with a horrible
noise on the wooden steps down to the shop, where the electric lights had
just been switched on. She rolled sideways, and lay, with a curious
slackness in her limbs, in front of the cashier's desk. One of the
shopmen, startled by the noise, turned, and then, with a look of horror on
his face, ran to the door. He bumped into Jonah, who was coming from the
"Wot the devil's this?" cried Jonah.
The man turned and pointed to the huddled heap at the foot of the stairs.
"It's yer missis. She fell from the top. 'Er face is looking the
Jonah ran forward and shouted for a doctor. Then he knelt down and tried
to lift Ada into a sitting posture, but her head sagged on one side. And
Jonah realized suddenly, with a curious feeling of detachment, that he was
free. When the doctor arrived, he told them that death had been
instantaneous, as she had broken her neck in the fall.
The next day the "Silver Shoe" was closed on account of the funeral. The
Grimes family sent a wreath, but Jonah looked in vain for Clara among the
mourners. He was disappointed but relieved, fearing that the exultation
in his heart would betray him in the presence of strangers. He dwelt with
rapture on the moment in which he would meet her face to face, free to
love and be loved, willing to lose some precious hours for the sake of
rehearsing schemes for the future in his mind. He listened without emotion
to the conventional regrets of the mourners, agreeing mechanically with
their empty remarks on his great loss, a mocking devil in his brain.
The day after the funeral the Silver Shoe returned to business, and Jonah
spent the morning in the shop, too nervous to sit idle. He had spent a
sleepless night debating whether he should go to Clara or wait till she
came to him of her own accord. The shop was alive with customers, drawn
by the red-letter sale, but there was no sign of the one woman above all
he desired to see. Suddenly he decided, with a certainty that astonished
him, that she would come in the afternoon. After dinner he stayed in the
sitting-room, fidgeting with impatience. He looked for something to do,
and remembered that he had still to clear up the mystery of Ada's drunken
bout. All the shop-hands had denied lending her money, and the mystery
was increased by his finding no bottle in the usual hiding places. Ray,
when questioned about brandy, had stared at him with bewildered eyes. And
to calm his nerves he made another search of the rooms.
He turned out the drawers and cupboards, meeting everywhere evidence of
Ada's slovenly habits. And at the sight and touch of the tawdry laces and
flaring ribbons he was surprised by an emotion of tenderness and pity for
his dead wife. He realized that the last link had snapped that bound him
to Cardigan Street and the Push. Something vibrated in him as he thought
of the woman who had shared his youth, and he understood suddenly that no
other woman could disturb her possession of the years that were dead.
Clara could share the future with him, but half his life belonged
irrevocably to Ada.
He had searched every likely nook and corner of the rooms, and found
nothing. The absence of the bottle set him thinking. He became certain
that the hand of another was in this. Ada had never left her room;
therefore the bottle had been brought to her. And the one who brought it
had taken it away again. Clara had been the last one to see her alive,
and of course...He stopped with an unshaped thought in his mind, and then
smiled at it for an absurdity. Tired with his exertions, he sat on the
sofa, digging his elbow into the cushion, and instantly felt something
hard underneath. The next moment he was on his feet, holding in his hands
the bottle of brandy, half empty. He stared stupidly at the bottle that
had sent Ada to her death and set him free, wondering who had paid for it
and brought it into the house. As he turned the bottle in his hands,
examining it with the morbid interest with which one examines a
bloodstained knife, he heard a light tap on the door.
"Come in," he cried, absorbed in his discovery.
He turned with the bottle in his hands, to find Clara standing in the
doorway with a tremulous smile on her lips. But, as Jonah turned, her
eye fell on the bottle.
"I've been a day findin' this," said Jonah; "but now..."
An extraordinary change in Clara's face stopped the words on his lips.
The tremulous smile on her parted lips changed to a nervous grin, and her
colour turned to a greyish white as she stared at the bottle, her eyes
dilated with horror. For some moments there was a dreadful silence, in
which Jonah distinctly heard Miss Giltinan giving an order downstairs.
Slowly he looked from Clara to the bottle. Again he stared at the
frightened woman, and his mind leapt to a dreadful certainty.
"Come in, an' shut the door," he said. His voice was little more than
Clara obeyed him mechanically.
"Sit down," he added, putting the bottle on the table.
For a while each stared at the other, too stunned to move or speak.
Jonah's world had fallen about his ears, and Clara's dreams of wealth
mocked at her and fled.
Suddenly, in the deadly silence, Jonah began to speak.
"So it was you, was it? I never thought of that. I wonder what brought
yer 'ere just as I found this? They say murder will out, an' I believe
it now. If this 'appened to anybody else, 'e'd go mad. But I can stand
it. I'm tough. I fought my way up from the gutter. An' ye're the woman
that I worshipped....For God's sake, woman, speak! Make up something that
I can believe. Say yer never 'ad a 'and in this, an' I'll kiss the
ground yer walk on. No, it wouldn't be any use. I couldn't believe the
angel Gabriel, if he looked at me with that face. Yer paid for that
bottle an' brought it 'ere. I saw that the moment yer set eyes on it.
Yer thought Ada wasn't goin' ter hell fast enough, an' yer'd give 'er a
shove. An' I see now why yer did it. Yer wanted ter step into 'er shoes,
an' 'andle my money. It wasn't me yer wanted. I might 'ave known that.
It was the shop that yer were always talkin' about. An' if yer 'adn't
walked in at that door just now, I should never 'ave suspected. Screamin'
funny, ain't it? She wasn't much loss, but she was a thousand times
better than the ladylike devil that killed her. I don't know 'ow the law
stands in a case like this. Yer may be safe from that, but yer've got me
ter deal with first. Yer led me on with yer damned airs to believe in
things I've never dreamt of before. An' now yer've killed the best in me
as sure as yer murdered my wife. Well, yer must pay for that, too."
Clara sat on the chair like one in a trance. She understood in a numbed
kind of way that something dreadful was going to happen. O God, she had
never meant to do wrong! And if this was the punishment, let it come
quickly. Jonah had been walking backwards and forwards with nervous
steps, and she noted every detail of his person with a fixed stare. The
early repugnance to his deformity returned with horror as she studied the
large head, wedged between the shoulders as if a giant's hand had pressed
it down, the projecting hump, and the unnaturally long arms ending in the
hard, hairy fist of the shoemaker.
She felt that he was going to kill her. She wanted to speak, to cry out
that she was not so guilty as he thought, but her tongue was like a rasp.
Suddenly Jonah stopped in front of her. Her stony silence had maddened
him, and in a moment he was transformed into the old-time larrikin,
accustomed to demand an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. He rushed
at her with a cry like an animal, and caught her by the throat with his
powerful hands. But the contact of his fingers with that delicate flesh
that he had never dared to touch before brought him to his senses. A
violent shudder shook him like ague, his fingers relaxed, and with a
sobbing cry, dreadful to hear, he dragged the fainting woman to her feet
and pushed her towards the door, crying "Go, go, for God's sake!"
She walked unsteadily through the shop with a face the colour of chalk,
hearing and seeing nothing. The red-letter sale was in full swing. A
crowd of customers jostled one another as they passed in and out; the
coins clinked merrily in the till. Miss Giltinan caught sight of her
face, and wondered. Half an hour later, growing suspicious, she ran
upstairs, and knocked at the door on a pretext of business. Hearing
nothing, she opened the door, with her heart in her mouth, and looked in.
Jonah was crouching motionless on the end of the sofa, his head buried
among the cushions, like a stricken animal. Puzzled, but reassured, she
closed the door gently and went downstairs.
Jonah never saw Clara again. He spent a week in the depths, groping
blindly, hating life for its deceptions. Then, one day, his passion of
hatred and loathing for Clara left him suddenly, as a garrison surrenders
without a blow. He took a cab to her house, and knocked at the door. A
curtain moved, but the door remained unopened. A month later he learned
that she had married her old love, the clerk in the Lands Department,
transferred by request to Wagga, beyond the reach of Dad and his
reputation. The following year Jonah married Miss Giltinan, chiefly on
account of Ray, who was growing unmanageable; and on Monday morning it was
one of the sights of Regent Street to see the second Mrs Jones step into
her sulky to drive round and inspect the suburban branches of the "Silver
Shoe" which Jonah had opened under her direction.
Chook and Pinkey did not need to stare at sixpence before spending it,
but their fortune was long in the making. Meanwhile Chook consoled
himself with the presence of a sturdy son, the image of Pinkey, with a mop
of curls the colour of a new penny.