The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter I. Mr. Gammon breakfasts in Bed
Moggie, the general, knocked at Mr. Gammon's door, and was answered by a sleepy "Hallo?"
"Mrs. Bubb wants to know if you know what time it is, sir? 'Cos it's half-past eight an' more."
"All right!" sounded cheerfully from within. "Any letters for me?"
"Yes, sir; a 'eap."
"Bring 'em up, and put 'em under the door. And tell Mrs. Bubb I'll have breakfast in bed; you can put it down outside and shout. And I say, Moggie, ask somebody to run across and get me a 'Police News' and 'Clippings' and 'The Kennel'--understand? Two eggs, Moggie, and three rashers, toasted crisp--understand?"
As the girl turned to descend a voice called to her from another room on the same floor, a voice very distinctly feminine, rather shrill, and a trifle imperative.
"Moggie, I want my hot water-sharp!"
"It ain't nine yet, miss," answered Moggie in a tone of remonstrance.
"I know that--none of your cheek! If you come up here hollering at people's doors, how can anyone sleep? Bring the hot water at once, and mind it is hot."
"You'll have to wait till it gits 'ot, miss."
"Shall I? If it wasn't too much trouble I'd come out and smack your face for you, you dirty little wretch!"
The servant--she was about sixteen, and no dirtier than became her position--scampered down the stairs, burst into the cellar kitchen, and in a high, tearful wail complained to her mistress of the indignity she had suffered. There was no living in the house with that Miss Sparkes, who treated everybody like dirt under her feet. Smack her face, would she? What next? And all because she said the water would have to be 'otted. And Mr. Gammon wanted his breakfast in bed, and--and--why, there now, it had all been drove out of her mind by that Miss Sparkes.
Mrs. Bubb, the landlady, was frying some sausages for her first-floor lodgers; as usual at this hour she wore (presumably over some invisible clothing) a large shawl and a petticoat, her thin hair, black streaked with grey, knotted and pinned into a ball on the top of her head. Here and there about the kitchen ran four children, who were snatching a sort of picnic breakfast whilst they made ready for school. They looked healthy enough, and gabbled, laughed, sang, without heed to the elder folk. Their mother, healthy too, and with no ill-natured face-a slow, dull, sluggishly-mirthful woman of a common London type-heard Moggie out, and shook up the sausages before replying.
"Never you mind Miss Sparkes; I'll give her a talkin' to when she comes down. What was it as Mr. Gammon wanted? Breakfast in bed? And what else? I never see such a girl for forgetting!"
"Well, didn't I tell you as my 'ead had never closed the top!" urged Moggie in plaintive key. "How can I 'elp myself?"
"Here, take them letters up to him, and ask again; and if Miss Sparkes says anything don't give her no answer--see? Billy, fill the big kettle, and put it on before you go. Sally, you ain't a-goin' to school without brushin' your 'air? Do see after your sister, Janey, an' don't let her look such a slap-cabbage. Beetrice, stop that 'ollerin'; it fair mismerizes me!"
Having silently thrust five letters under Mr. Gammon's door, Moggie gave a very soft tap, and half whispered a request that the lodger would repeat his orders. Mr. Gammon did so with perfect good humour. As soon as his voice had ceased that of Miss Sparkes sounded from the neighbouring bedroom.
"Is that the water?"
For the pleasure of the thing Moggie stood to listen, an angry grin on her flushed face.
"Moggie!--I'll give that little beast what for! Are you there?"
The girl made a quick motion with both her hands as if clawing an enemy's face, then coughed loudly, and went away with a sound of stamping on the thinly-carpeted stairs. One minute later Miss Sparkes' door opened and Miss Sparkes herself rushed forth--a startling vision of wild auburn hair about a warm complexion, and a small, brisk figure girded in a flowery dressing-gown. She called at the full pitch of her voice for Mrs. Bubb.
"Do you hear me? Mrs. Bubb, have the kindness to send me up my hot water immejately! This moment, if you please!"
There came an answer, but not from the landlady. It sounded so near to Miss Sparkes that she sprang back into her room.
"Patience, Polly! All in good time, my dear. Wrong foot out of bed this morning?"
Her door slammed, and there followed a lazy laugh from Mr. Gammon's chamber.
In due time the can of hot water was brought up, and soon after it came a tray for Mr. Gammon, on which, together with his breakfast, lay the three newspapers he had bespoken. Polly Sparkes throughout her leisurely toilet was moved to irritation and curiosity by the sound of frequent laughter on the other side of the party wall-- uproarious peals, long chucklings in a falsetto key, staccato bursts of mirth.
"That is the comic stuff in 'Clippings,'" she said to herself with an involuntary grin. "What a fool he is! And why's he staying in bed this morning? Got his holiday, I suppose. I'd make better use of it than that."
She came forth presently in such light and easy costume as befitted a young lady of much leisure on a hot morning of June. Meaning to pass an hour or two in quarrelling with Mrs. Bubb she had arrayed herself thus early with more care than usual, that her colours and perfumes might throw contempt upon the draggle-tailed landlady, whom, by the by, she had known since her childhood. On the landing, where she paused for a moment, she hummed an air, with the foreseen result that Mr. Gammon called out to her.
She vouchsafed no answer.
"Will you come with me to see my bow-wows this fine day?"
"No, Mr. Gammon, I certainly will not!"
"Thank you, Polly, I felt a bit afraid you might say yes."
The tone was not offensive, whatever the words might be, and the laugh that came after would have softened any repartee, with its undernote of good humour and harmless gaiety. Biting her lips to preserve the dignity of silence, Polly passed downstairs. Sunshine through a landing window illumined the dust floating thickly about the staircase and heated the familiar blend of lodging-house smells--the closeness of small rooms that are never cleansed, the dry rot of wall-paper, plaster, and old wood, the fustiness of clogged carpets trodden thin, the ever-rising vapours from a sluttish kitchen. As Moggie happened to be wiping down the front steps the door stood open, affording a glimpse of trams and omnibuses, cabs and carts, with pedestrians bobbing past in endless variety--the life of Kennington Road--all dust and sweat under a glaring summer sun. To Miss Sparkes a cheery and inviting spectacle--for the whole day was before her, to lounge or ramble until the hour which summoned her to the agreeable business of selling programmes at a fashionable theatre. The employment was precarious; even with luck in the way of tips it meant nothing very brilliant; but something had happened lately which made Polly indifferent to this view of the matter. She had a secret, and enjoyed it all the more because it enabled her to excite not envy alone, but dark suspicions in the people who observed her.
Mrs. Bubb, for instance--who so far presumed upon old acquaintance as to ask blunt questions, and offer homely advice--plainly thought she was going astray. It amused Polly to encourage this misconception, and to take offence on every opportunity. As she went down into the kitchen she fingered a gold watch-chain that hung from her blouse to a little pocket at her waist. Mrs. Bubb would spy it at once, and in course of the quarrel about this morning's hot water would be sure to allude to it.
It turned out one of the finest frays Polly had ever enjoyed, and was still rich in possibilities when, at something past eleven, the kitchen door suddenly opened and there entered Mr. Gammon.