The Paying Guest by George Gissing
'Runnymede' (so the Mumfords' house was named) stood on its own little plot of ground in one of the tree-shadowed roads which persuade the inhabitants of Sutton that they live in the country. It was of red brick, and double-fronted, with a porch of wood and stucco; bay windows on one side of the entrance, and flat on the other, made a contrast pleasing to the suburban eye. The little front garden had a close fence of unpainted lath, a characteristic of the neighbourhood. At the back of the house lay a long, narrow lawn, bordered with flower-beds, and shaded at the far end by a fine horse-chestnut.
Emmeline talked much of the delightful proximity of the Downs; one would have imagined her taking long walks over the breezy uplands to Ban stead or Epsom, or yet further afield The fact was, she saw no more of the country than if she had lived at Brixton. Her windows looked only upon the surrounding houses and their garden foliage. Occasionally she walked along the asphalte pavement of the Brighton Road--a nursemaids' promenade--as far as the stone which marks twelve miles from Westminster Bridge. Here, indeed, she breathed the air of the hills, but villas on either hand obstructed the view, and brought London much nearer than the measured distance. Like her friends and neighbours, Emmeline enjoyed Sutton because it was a most respectable little portion of the great town, set in a purer atmosphere. The country would have depressed her.
In this respect Miss Derrick proved a congenial companion. Louise made no pretence of rural inclinations, but had a great liking for tree-shadowed asphalte, for the results of elaborate horticulture, for the repose and the quiet of villadom.
'I should like to have a house just like this,' she declared, on her first evening at "Runnymede," talking with her host and hostess out in the garden. 'It's quite big enough, unless, of course, you have a very large family, which must be rather a bore.' She laughed ingenuously. 'And one gets to town so easily. What do you pay for your season-ticket, Mr. Mumford? Oh, well! that isn't much. I almost think I shall get one.'
'Do you wish to go up very often, then?' asked Emmeline, reflecting on her new responsibilities.
'Oh! not every day, of course. But a season-ticket saves the bother each time, and you have a sort of feeling, you know, that you can be in town whenever you like.'
It had not hitherto been the Mumfords' wont to dress for dinner, but this evening they did so, and obviously to Miss Derrick's gratification. She herself appeared in a dress which altogether outshone that of her hostess. Afterwards, in private, she drew Emmeline's attention to this garb, and frankly asked her opinion of it.
'Very nice indeed,' murmured the married lady, with a good-natured smile. 'Perhaps a little--'
'There, I know what you're going to say. You think it's too showy. Now I want you to tell me just what you think about everything--everything. I shan't be offended. I'm not so silly. You know I've come here to learn all sorts of things. To-morrow you shall go over all my dresses with me, and those you don't like I'll get rid of. I've never had anyone to tell me what's nice and what isn't. I want to be--oh, well, you know what I mean.'
'But, my dear,' said Emmeline, 'there's something I don't quite understand. You say I'm to speak plainly, and so I will. How is it that you haven't made friends long ago with the sort of people you wish to know? It isn't as if you were in poor circumstances.'
'How _could_ I make friends with nice people when I was ashamed to have them at home? The best I know are quite poor--girls I went to school with. They're much better educated than I am, but they make their own living, and so I can't see very much of them, and I'm not sure they want to see much of _me_. I wish I knew what people think of me; they call me vulgar, I believe--the kind I'm speaking of. Now, do tell me, Mrs. Mumford, _am_ I vulgar?'
'My dear Miss Derrick--' Emmeline began in protest, but was at once interrupted.
'Oh! that isn't what I want. You must call me Louise, or Lou, if you like, and just say what you really think. Yes, I see, I _am_ rather vulgar, and what can you expect? Look at mother; and if you saw Mr. Higgins, oh! The mistake I made was to leave school so soon. I got sick of it, and left at sixteen, and of course the idiots at home--I mean the foolish people--let me have my own way. I'm not clever, you know, and I didn't get on well at school. They used to say I could do much better if I liked, and perhaps it was more laziness than stupidity, though I don't care for books--I wish I did. I've had lots of friends, but I never keep them for very long. I don't know whether it's their fault or mine. My oldest friends are Amy Barker and Muriel Featherstone; they were both at the school at Clapham, and now Amy does type-writing in the City, and Muriel is at a photographer's. They're awfully nice girls, and t like them so much; but then, you see, they haven't enough money to live in what _I_ call a nice way, and, you know, I should never think of asking them to advise me about my dresses, or anything of that kind. A friend of mine once began to say something and I didn't like it; after that we had nothing to do with each other.'
Emmeline could not hide her amusement.
'Well, that's just it,' went on the other frankly. 'I _have_ rather a sharp temper, and I suppose I don't get on well with most people. I used to quarrel dreadfully with some of the girls at school--the uppish sort. And yet all the time I wanted to be friends with them. But, of course, I could never have taken them home.'
Mrs. Mumford began to read the girl's character, and to understand how its complexity had shaped her life. She was still uneasy as to the impression this guest would make upon their friends, but on the whole it seemed probable that Louise would conscientiously submit herself to instruction, and do her very best to be "nice." Clarence's opinion was still favourable; he pronounced Miss Derrick "very amusing," and less of a savage than his wife's description had led him to expect.
Having the assistance of two servants and a nurse-girl, Emmeline was not overburdened with domestic work. She soon found it fortunate that her child, a girl of two years old, needed no great share of her attention; for Miss Derrick, though at first she affected an extravagant interest in the baby, very soon had enough of that plaything, and showed a decided preference for Emmeline's society out of sight and hearing of nursery affairs. On the afternoon of the second day they went together to call upon Mrs. Fentiman, who lived at a distance of a quarter of an hour's walk, in a house called "Hazeldene"; a semi-detached house, considerably smaller than "Runnymede," and neither without nor within so pleasant to look upon. Mrs. Fentiman, a tall, hard-featured, but amiable lady, had two young children who occupied most of her time; at present one of them was ailing, and the mother could talk of nothing else but this distressing circumstance. The call lasted only for ten minutes, and Emmeline felt that her companion was disappointed.
'Children are a great trouble,' Louise remarked, when they had left the house. 'People ought never to marry unless they can keep a lot of servants. Not long ago I was rather fond of somebody, but I wouldn't have him because he had no money. Don't you think I was quite right?'
'I have no doubt you were.'
'And now,' pursued the girl, poking the ground with her sunshade as she walked, 'there's somebody else. And that's one of the things I want to tell you about. He has about three hundred a year. It isn't much, of course; but I suppose Mr. Higgins would give me something. And yet I'm sure it won't come to anything. Let's go home and have a good talk, shall we?'
Mrs. Higgins's letter had caused Emmeline and her husband no little amusement; but at the same time it led them to reflect. Certainly they numbered among their acquaintances one or two marriageable young men who might perchance be attracted by Miss Derrick, especially if they learnt that Mr. Higgins was disposed to 'behave handsomely' to his stepdaughter; but the Mumfords had no desire to see Louise speedily married. To the bribe with which the letter ended they could give no serious thought. Having secured their "paying guest," they hoped she would remain with them for a year or two at least. But already Louise had dropped hints such as Emmeline could not fail to understand, and her avowal of serious interest in a lover came rather as an annoyance than a surprise to Mrs. Mumford.
It was a hot afternoon, and they had tea brought out into the garden, under the rustling leaves of the chestnut.
'You don't know anyone else at Sutton except Mrs. Fentiman?' said Louise, as she leaned back in the wicker chair.
'Not intimately. But some of our friends from London will be coming on Sunday. I've asked four people to lunch.'
'How jolly! Of course you'll tell me all about them before then. But I want to talk about Mr. Cobb. Please, _two_ lumps of sugar. I've known him for about a year and a half. We seem quite old friends, and he writes to me; I don't answer the letters, unless there's something to say. To tell the truth, I don't like him.'
'How can that be if you seem old friends?'
'Well, he likes _me_; and there's no harm in that, so long as he understands. I'm sure _you_ wouldn't like him. He's a rough, coarse sort of man, and has a dreadful temper.'
'Good gracious! What is his position?'
'Oh, he's connected with the what-d'ye-call-it Electric Lighting Company. He travels about a good deal. I shouldn't mind that; it must be rather nice not to have one's husband always at home. Just now I believe he's in Ireland. I shall be having a letter from him very soon, no doubt. He doesn't know I've left home, and it'll make him wild. Yes, that's the kind of man he is. Fearfully jealous, and such a temper! If I married him, I'm quite sure he would beat me some day.'
'Oh!' Emmeline exclaimed. 'How can you have anything to do with such a man?'
'He's very nice sometimes,' answered Louise, thoughtfully.
'But do you really mean that he is "rough and coarse"?'
'Yes, I do. You couldn't call him a gentleman. I've never seen his people; they live somewhere a long way off; and I shouldn't wonder if they are a horrid lot. His last letter was quite insulting. He said--let me see, what was it? Yes--"You have neither heart nor brains, and I shall do my best not to waste another thought on you?" What do you think of that?'
'It seems very extraordinary, my dear. How can he write to you in that way if you never gave him any encouragement?'
'Well, but I suppose I have done. We've met on the Common now and then, and--and that kind of thing. I'm afraid you're shocked, Mrs. Mumford. I know it isn't the way that nice people behave, and I'm going to give it up.'
'Does your mother know him?'
'Oh, yes! there's no secret about it. Mother rather likes him. Of course he behaves himself when he's at the house. I've a good mind to ask him to call here so that you could see him. Yes, I should like you to sea him. You wouldn't mind?'
'Not if you really wish it, Louise. But--I can't help thinking you exaggerate his faults.'
'Not a bit. He's a regular brute when he gets angry.'
'My dear,' Emmeline interposed softly, 'that isn't quite a ladylike expression.'
'No, it isn't. Thank you, Mrs. Mumford. I meant to say he is horrid --very disagreeable. Then there's something else I want to tell you about. Cissy Higgins--that's Mr. Higgins's daughter, you know--is half engaged to a man called Bowling--an awful idiot--'
'I don't think I would use that word, dear.'
'Thank you, Mrs. Mumford. I mean to say he's a regular silly. But he's in a very good position--a partner in Jannaway Brothers of Woolwich, though he isn't thirty yet. Well, now, what do you think? Mr. Bowling doesn't seem to know his own mind, and just lately he's been paying so much attention to _me_ that Cissy has got quite frantic about it. This was really and truly the reason why I left home.'
'I see,' murmured the listener, with a look of genuine interest.
'Yes. They wanted to get me out of the way. There wasn't the slightest fear that I should try to cut Cissy Higgins out; but it was getting very awkward for her, I admit. Now that's the kind of thing that doesn't go on among nice people, isn't it?'
'But what do you mean, Louise, when you say that Miss Higgins and Mr.--Mr. Bowling are _half_ engaged?'
'Oh, I mean she has refused him once, just for form's sake; but he knows very well she means to have him. People of your kind don't do that sort of thing, do they?'
'I hardly know,' Emmeline replied, colouring a little at certain private reminiscences. 'And am I to understand that you wouldn't on any account listen to Mr. Bowling?'
'Oh, there's no knowing what I might do to spite Cissy. We hate each other, of course. But I can't fancy myself marrying him, He has a long nose, and talks through it. And he says "think you" for "thank you," and he sings--oh, to hear him sing! I can't bear the man.'
The matter of this conversation Emmeline reported to her husband at night, and they agreed in the hope that neither Mr. Cobb nor Mr. Bowling would make an appearance at "Runnymede." Mumford opined that these individuals were "cads." Small wonder, he said, that the girl wished to enter a new social sphere. His wife, on the other hand, had a suspicion that Miss Derrick would not be content to see the last of Mr. Cobb. He, the electrical engineer, or whatever he was, could hardly be such a ruffian as the girl depicted. His words, 'You have neither heart nor brains,' seemed to indicate anything but a coarse mind.
'But what a bad-tempered lot they are!' Mumford observed. 'I suppose people of that sort quarrel and abuse each other merely to pass the time. They seem to be just one degree above the roughs who come to blows and get into the police court. You must really do your best to get the girl out of it; I'm sure she is worthy of better things.'
'She is--in one way,' answered his wife judicially. 'But her education stopped too soon. I doubt if it's possible to change her very much. And--I really should like, after all, to see Mr. Cobb.'
Mumford broke into a laugh.
'There you go! The eternal feminine. You'll have her married in six months.'
'Don't be vulgar, Clarence. And we've talked enough of Louise for the present.'
Miss Derrick's presentiment that a letter from Mr. Cobb would soon reach her was justified the next day; it arrived in the afternoon, readdressed from Tulse Hill. Emmeline observed the eagerness with which this epistle was pounced upon and carried off for private perusal. She saw, too, that in half-an-hour's time Louise left the house--doubtless to post a reply. But, to her surprise, not a word of the matter escaped Miss Derrick during the whole evening.
In her school-days, Louise had learned to "play the piano," but, caring little or nothing for music, she had hardly touched a key for several years. Now the idea possessed her that she must resume her practising, and to-day she had spent hours at the piano, with painful effect upon Mrs. Mumford's nerves. After dinner she offered to play to Mumford, and he, good-natured fellow, stood by her to turn over the leaves. Emmeline, with fancy work in her hands, watched the two. She was not one of the most foolish of her sex, but it relieved her when Clarence moved away.
The next morning Louise was an hour late for breakfast. She came down when Mumford had left the house, and Emmeline saw with surprise that she was dressed for going out.
'Just a cup of coffee, please. I've no appetite this morning, and I want to catch a train for Victoria as soon as possible.'
'When will you be back?'
'Oh, I don't quite know. To tea, I think.'
The girl had all at once grown reticent, and her lips showed the less amiable possibilities of their contour.