The Paying Guest by George Gissing
It was Mumford who saw the advertisement and made the suggestion. His wife gave him a startled look.
'But--you don't mean that it's necessary? Have we been extrav--'
'No, no! Nothing of the kind. It just occurred to me that some such arrangement might be pleasant for you. You must feel lonely, now and then, during the day, and as we have plenty of room--'
Emmeline took the matter seriously, but, being a young woman of some discretion, did not voice all her thoughts. The rent was heavy: so was the cost of Clarence's season-ticket. Against this they had set the advantage of the fine air of Sutton, so good for the child and for the mother, both vastly better in health since they quitted London. Moreover, the remoteness of their friends favoured economy; they could easily decline invitations, and need not often issue them. They had a valid excuse for avoiding public entertainments--an expense so often imposed by mere fashion. The house was roomy, the garden delightful. Clarence, good fellow, might be sincere in his wish for her to have companionship; at the same time, this advertisement had probably appealed to him in another way.
'A YOUNG LADY desires to find a home with respectable, well-connected family, in a suburb of London, or not more than 15 miles from Charing Cross. Can give excellent references. Terms not so much a consideration as comfort and pleasant society. No boarding-house.--Address: Louise, Messrs. Higgins & Co., Fenchurch St., E.C.'
She read it again and again.
'It wouldn't be nice if people said that we were taking lodgers.'
'No fear of that. This is evidently some well-to-do person. It's a very common arrangement nowadays, you know; they are called "paying guests." Of course I shouldn't dream of having anyone you didn't thoroughly like the look of.'
'Do you think,' asked Emmeline doubtfully, 'that we should quite _do_? "Well-connected family"--'
'My dear girl! Surely we have nothing to be ashamed of?'
'Of course not, Clarence. But--and "pleasant society." What about that?'
'Your society is pleasant enough, I hope,' answered Mumford, gracefully. 'And the Fentimans--'
This was the only family with whom they were intimate at Sutton. Nice people; a trifle sober, perhaps, and not in conspicuously flourishing circumstances; but perfectly presentable.
'I'm afraid--' murmured Emmeline, and stopped short. 'As you say,' she added presently, 'this is someone very well off. "Terms not so much a consideration"--'
'Well, I tell you what--there can be no harm in dropping a note. The kind of note that commits one to nothing, you know. Shall I write it, or will you?'
They concocted it together, and the rough draft was copied by Emmeline. She wrote a very pretty hand, and had no difficulty whatever about punctuation. A careful letter, calculated for the eye of refinement; it supplied only the indispensable details of the writer's position, and left terms for future adjustment.
'It's so easy to explain to people,' said Mumford, with an air of satisfaction, when he came back from the post, 'that you wanted a companion. As I'm quite sure you do. A friend coming to stay with you for a time--that's how I should put it.'
A week passed, and there came no reply. Mumford pretended not to care much, but Emmeline imagined a new anxiety in his look.
'Do be frank with me, dear,' she urged one evening. 'Are we living too--'
He answered her with entire truthfulness. Ground for serious uneasiness there was none whatever; he could more than make ends meet, and had every reason to hope it would always be so; but it would relieve his mind if the end of the year saw a rather larger surplus. He was now five-and-thirty--getting on in life. A man ought to make provision beyond the mere life-assurance--and so on.
'Shall I look out for other advertisements?' asked Emmeline.
'Oh, dear, no! It was just that particular one that caught my eye.'
Next morning arrived a letter, signed 'Louise E. Derrick.' The writer said she had been waiting to compare and think over some two hundred answers to her advertisement. 'It's really too absurd. How can I remember them all? But I liked yours as soon as I read it, and I am writing to you first of all. Will you let me come and see you? I can tell you about myself much better than writing. Would tomorrow do, in the afternoon? Please telegraph yes or no to Coburg Lodge, Emilia Road, Tulse Hill.'
To think over this letter Mumford missed his ordinary train. It was not exactly the kind of letter he had expected, and Emmeline shared his doubts. The handwriting seemed just passable; there was no orthographic error; but--refinement? This young person wrote, too, with such singular nonchalance. And she said absolutely nothing about her domestic circumstances. Coburg Lodge, Tulse Hill. A decent enough locality, doubtless; but--
'There's no harm in seeing her,' said Emmeline at length. 'Send a telegram, Clarence. Do you know, I think she _may_ be the right kind of girl. I was thinking of someone awfully grand, and it's rather a relief. After all, you see, you--you are in business--'
'To be sure. And this girl seems to belong to a business family. I only wish she wrote in a more ladylike way.'
Emmeline set her house in order, filled the drawing-room with flowers, made the spare bedroom as inviting as possible, and, after luncheon, spent a good deal of time in adorning her person. She was a slight, pretty woman of something less than thirty; with a good, but pale, complexion, hair tending to auburn, sincere eyes. Her little vanities had no roots of ill-nature; she could admire without envy, and loved an orderly domestic life. Her husband's desire to increase his income had rather unsettled her; she exaggerated the importance of to-day's interview, and resolved with nervous energy to bring it to a successful issue, if Miss Derrick should prove a possible companion.
About four o'clock sounded the visitor's ring. From her bedroom window Emmeline had seen Miss Derrick's approach. As the distance from the station was only five minutes' walk, the stranger naturally came on foot. A dark girl, and of tolerably good features; rather dressy; with a carriage corresponding to the tone of her letter--an easy swing; head well up and shoulders squared. 'Oh, how I _hope_ she isn't vulgar!' said Emmeline to herself. 'I don't like the bat--I don't. And that sunshade with the immense handle.' From the top of the stairs she heard a clear, unaffected voice: 'Mrs. Mumford at home?' Yes, the aspirate _was_ sounded--thank goodness!
It surprised her, on entering the room, to find that Miss Derrick looked no less nervous than she was herself. The girl's cheeks were flushed, and she half choked over her 'How do you do?'
'I hope you had no difficulty in finding the house. I would have met you at the station if you had mentioned the train. Oh, but--how silly!--I shouldn't have known you.'
Miss Derrick laughed, and seemed of a sudden much more at ease.
'Oh, I like you for that!' she exclaimed mirthfully. 'It's just the kind of thing I say myself sometimes. And I'm so glad to see that you are--you mustn't be offended--I mean you're not the kind of person to be afraid of.'
They laughed together. Emmeline could not subdue her delight when she found that the girl really might be accepted as a lady. There were faults of costume undeniably; money had been misspent in several directions; but no glaring vulgarity hurt the eye. And her speech, though not strictly speaking refined, was free from the faults that betray low origin. Then, she seemed good-natured though there was something about her mouth not altogether charming.
'Do you know Sutton at all?' Emmeline inquired.
'Never was here before. But I like the look of it. I like this house, too. I suppose you know a lot of people here, Mrs. Mumford?'
'Well--no. There's only one family we know at all well. Our friends live in London. Of course they often come out here. I don't know whether you are acquainted with any of them. The Kirby Simpsons, of West Kensington; and Mrs. Hollings, of Highgate--'
Miss Derrick cast down her eyes and seemed to reflect. Then she spoke abruptly.
'I don't know any people to speak of. I ought to tell you that my mother has come down with me. She's waiting at the station till I go back; then she'll come and see you. You're surprised? Well, I had better tell you that I'm leaving home because I can't get on with my people. Mother and I have always quarrelled, but it has been worse than ever lately. I must explain that she has married a second time, and Mr. Higgins--I'm glad to say that isn't _my_ name--has a daughter of his own by a first marriage; and we can't bear each other--Miss Higgins, I mean. Some day, if I come to live here, I daresay I shall tell you more. Mr. Higgins is rich, and I can't say he's unkind to me; he'll give me as much as I want; but I'm sure he'll be very glad to get me out of the house. I have no money of my own--worse luck! Well, we thought it best for me to come alone, first, and see--just to see, you know--whether we were likely to suit each other. Then mother will come and tell you all she has to say about me. Of course I know what it'll be. They all say I've a horrible temper. I don't think so myself; and I'm sure I don't think I should quarrel with _you_, you look so nice. But I can't get on at home, and it's better for all that we should part. I'm just two-and-twenty--do I look older? I haven't learnt to do anything, and I suppose I shall never need to.'
'Do you wish to see _much_ society?' inquired Mrs. Mumford, who was thinking rapidly, 'or should you prefer a few really nice people? I'm afraid I don't quite understand yet whether you want society of the pleasure-seeking kind, or--'
She left the alternative vague. Miss Derrick again reflected for a moment before abruptly declaring herself.
'I feel sure that your friends are the kind I want to know. At all events, I should like to try. The great thing is to get away from home and see how things look.'
They laughed together. Emmeline, after a little more talk, offered to take her visitor over the house, and Miss Derrick had loud praise for everything she saw.
'What I like about you,' she exclaimed of a sudden, as they stood looking from a bedroom window on to the garden, 'is that you don't put on any--you know what I mean. People seem to me to be generally either low and ignorant, or so high and mighty there's no getting on with them at all. You're just what I wanted to find. Now I must go and send mother to see you.'
Emmeline protested against this awkward proceeding. Why should not both come together and have a cup of tea? If it were desired, Miss Derrick could step into the garden whilst her mother said whatever she wished to say. The girl assented, and in excellent spirits betook herself to the railway station. Emmeline waited something less than a quarter of an hour; then a hansom drove up, and Mrs. Higgins, after a deliberate surveyal of the house front, followed her daughter up the pathway.
The first sight of the portly lady made the situation clearer to Mrs. Mumford. Louise Derrick represented a certain stage of civilisation, a degree of conscious striving for better things; Mrs. Higgins was prosperous and self-satisfied vulgarity. Of a complexion much lighter than the girl's, she still possessed a coarse comeliness, which pointed back to the dairymaid type of damsel. Her features revealed at the same time a kindly nature and an irascible tendency. Monstrously overdressed, and weighted with costly gewgaws, she came forward panting and perspiring, and, before paying any heed to her hostess, closely surveyed the room.
'Mrs. Mumford,' said the girl, 'this is my mother. Mother, this is Mrs. Mumford. And now, please, let me go somewhere while you have your talk.'
'Yes, that'll be best, that'll be best,' exclaimed Mrs. Higgins. 'Dear, 'ow 'ot it is! Run out into the garden, Louise. Nice little 'ouse, Mrs. Mumford. And Louise seems quite taken with you. She doesn't take to people very easy, either. Of course, you can give satisfactory references? I like to do things in a business-like way. I understand your 'usband is in the City; shouldn't wonder if he knows some of Mr. 'Iggins's friends. Yes, I will take a cup, if you please. I've just had one at the station, but it's such thirsty weather. And what do you think of Louise? Because I'd very much rather you said plainly if you don't think you could get on.'
'But, indeed, I fancy we could, Mrs. Higgins.'
'Well, I'm sure I'm very glad _of_ it. It isn't everybody can get on with Louise. I dessay she's told you a good deal about me and her stepfather. I don't think she's any reason to complain of the treatment--'
'She said you were both very kind to her,' interposed the hostess.
'I'm sure we _try_ to be, and Mr. 'Iggins, he doesn't mind what he gives her. A five-pound note, if you'll believe me, is no more than a sixpence to him when he gives her presents. You see, Mrs. Rumford--no, Mumford, isn't it?--I was first married very young--scarcely eighteen, I was; and Mr. Derrick died on our wedding-day, two years after. Then came Mr. 'Iggins. Of course I waited a proper time. And one thing I can say, that no woman was ever 'appier with two 'usbands than I've been. I've two sons growing up, hearty boys as ever you saw. If it wasn't for this trouble with Louise--' She stopped to wipe her face. 'I dessay she's told you that Mr. 'Iggins, who was a widower when I met him, has a daughter of his first marriage--her poor mother died at the birth, and she's older than Louise. I don't mind telling _you_, Mrs. Mumford, she's close upon six-and-twenty, and nothing like so good-looking as Louise, neither. Mr. 'Iggins, he's kindness itself; but when it comes to differences between his daughter and _my_ daughter, well, it isn't in nature he shouldn't favour his own. There's more be'ind, but I dessay you can guess, and I won't trouble you with things that don't concern you. And that's how it stands, you see.'
By a rapid calculation Emmeline discovered; with surprise, that Mrs. Higgins could not be much more than forty years of age. It must have been a life of gross self-indulgence that had made the woman look at least ten years older. This very undesirable parentage naturally affected Emmeline's opinion of Louise, whose faults began to show in a more pronounced light. One thing was clear: but for the fact that Louise aimed at a separation from her relatives, it would be barely possible to think of receiving her. If Mrs. Higgins thought of coming down to Sutton at unexpected moments--no, that was too dreadful.
'Should you wish, Mrs. Higgins, to entrust your daughter to me entirely?'
'My dear Mrs. Rumford, it's very little that _my_ wishes has to do with it! She's made up her mind to leave 'ome, and all I can do is to see she gets with respectable people, which I feel sure you are; and of course I shall have your references.'
Emmeline turned pale at the suggestion. She all but decided that the matter must go no further.
'And what might your terms be--inclusive?' Mrs. Higgins proceeded to inquire.
At this moment a servant entered with tea, and Emmeline, sorely flurried, talked rapidly of the advantages of Sutton as a residence. She did not allow her visitor to put in a word till the door closed again. Then, with an air of decision, she announced her terms; they would be three guineas a week. It was half a guinea more than she and Clarence had decided to ask. She expected, she hoped, Mrs. Higgins would look grave. But nothing of the kind; Louise's mother seemed to think the suggestion very reasonable. Thereupon Emmeline added that, of course, the young lady would discharge her own laundress's bill. To this also Mrs. Higgins readily assented.
'A hundred and sixty pounds per annum!' Emmeline kept repeating to herself. And, alas! it looked as if she might have asked much more. The reference difficulty might be minimised by naming her own married sister, who lived at Blackheath, and Clarence's most intimate friend, Mr. Tarling, who held a good position in a City house, and had a most respectable address at West Kensington. But her heart misgave her. She dreaded her husband's return home.
The conversation was prolonged for half-an-hour. Emmeline gave her references, and in return requested the like from Mrs. Higgins. This astonished the good woman. Why, her husband was Messrs. 'Iggins of Fenchurch Street! Oh, a mere formality, Emmeline hastened to add--for Mr. Mumford's satisfaction. So Mrs. Higgins very pompously named two City firms, and negotiations, for the present, were at an end.
Louise, summoned to the drawing-room, looked rather tired of waiting.
'When can you have me, Mrs. Mumford?' she asked. 'I've quite made up my mind to come.'
'I'm afraid a day or two must pass, Miss Derrick--'
'The references, my dear,' began Mrs. Higgins.
'Oh, nonsense! It's all right; anyone can see.'
'There you go! Always cutting short the words in my mouth. I can't endure such behaviour, and I wonder what Mrs. Rumford thinks of it. I've given Mrs. Rumford fair warning--'
They wrangled for a few minutes, Emmeline feeling too depressed and anxious to interpose with polite commonplaces. When at length they took their leave, she saw the last of them with a sigh of thanksgiving. It had happened most fortunately that no one called this afternoon.
'Clarence, it's _quite_ out of the question.' Thus she greeted her husband. 'The girl herself I could endure, but oh, her odious mother!--Three guineas a week! I could cry over the thought.'
By the first post in the morning came a letter from Louise. She wrote appealingly, touchingly. 'I know you couldn't stand my mother, but do please have me. I like Sutton, and I like your house, and I like you. I promise faithfully nobody from home shall ever come to see me, so don't be afraid. Of course if you won't have me, somebody else will; I've got two hundred to choose from, but I'd rather come to you. Do write and say I may come. I'm so sorry I quarrelled with mother before you. I promise never to quarrel with you. I'm very good-tempered when I get what I want.' With much more to the same effect.
'We _will_ have her,' declared Mumford. 'Why not, if the old people keep away?--You are quite sure she sounds her _h's_?'
'Oh, quite. She has been to pretty good schools, I think. And I dare say I could persuade her to get other dresses and hats.'
'Of course you could. Really, it seems almost a duty to take her-- doesn't it?'
So the matter was settled, and Mumford ran off gaily to catch his train.
Three days later Miss Derrick arrived, bringing with her something like half-a-ton of luggage. She bounded up the doorsteps, and, meeting Mrs. Mumford in the hall, kissed her fervently.
'I've got such heaps to tell you Mr. Higgins has given me twenty pounds to go on with--for myself; I mean; of course he'll pay everything else. How delighted I am to be here! Please pay the cabman I've got no change.'
A few hours before this there had come a letter from Mrs. Higgins; better written and spelt than would have seemed likely.
'Dear Mrs. Mumford,' it ran, 'L. is coming to-morrow morning, and I hope you won't repent. There's just one thing I meant to have said to you but forgot, so I'll say it now. If it should happen that any gentleman of your acquaintance takes a fancy to L., and if it should come to anything, I'm sure both Mr. H. and me would be _most thankful_, and Mr. H. would behave handsome to her. And what's more, I'm sure he would be only too glad to show _in a handsome way_ the thanks he would owe to you and Mr. M.--Very truly yours, Susan H. Higgins.'