The Paying Guest by George Gissing
At dinner-time she had not returned. It being Saturday, Mumford was back early in the afternoon, and Miss Derrick's absence caused no grief. Emmeline could play with baby in the garden, whilst her husband smoked his pipe and looked on in the old comfortable way. They already felt that domestic life was not quite the same with a stranger to share it. Doubtless they would get used to the new restraints; but Miss Derrick must not expect them to disorganise their mealtimes on her account. Promptly at half-past seven they sat down to dine, and had just risen from the table, when Louise appeared.
She was in excellent spirits, without a trace of the morning's ill-humour. No apologies! If she didn't feel quite free to come and go, without putting people out, there would be no comfort in life. A slice of the joint, that was all she wanted, and she would have done in a few minutes.
'I've taken tickets for Toole's Theatre on Monday night. You must both come. You can, can't you?'
Mumford and his wife glanced at each other. Yes, they could go; it was very kind of Miss Derrick; but--
'That's all right, it'll be jolly. The idea struck me in the train, as I was going up; so I took a cab from Victoria and booked the places first thing. Third row from the front, dress circle; the best I could do. Please let me have my dinner alone. Mrs. Mumford, I want to tell you something afterwards.'
Clarence went round to see his friend Fentiman, with whom he usually had a chat on Saturday evening. Emmeline was soon joined by the guest in the drawing-room.
'There, you may read that,' said Louise, holding out a letter. 'It's from Mr. Cobb; came yesterday, but I didn't care to talk about it then. Yes, please read it; I want you to.'
Reluctantly, but with curiosity, Emmeline glanced over the sheet. Mr. Cobb wrote in ignorance of Miss Derrick's having left home. It was a plain, formal letter, giving a brief account of his doings in Ireland, and making a request that Louise would meet him, if possible, on Streatham Common, at three o'clock on Saturday afternoon. And he signed himself--'Very sincerely yours.'
'I made up my mind at once,' said the girl, 'that I wouldn't meet him. That kind of thing will have to stop. I'm not going to think any more of him, and it's better to make him understand it at once --isn't it?'
Emmeline heartily concurred.
'Still,' pursued the other, with an air of great satisfaction, 'I thought I had better go home for this afternoon. Because when he didn't see me on the Common he was pretty sure to call at the house, and I didn't want mother or Cissy to be talking about me to him before he had heard my own explanation.'
'Didn't you answer the letter?' asked Emmeline.
'No. I just sent a line to mother, to let her know I was coming over to-day, so that she might stay at home. Well, and it happened just as I thought. Mr. Cobb came to the house at half-past three. But before that I'd had a terrible row with Cissy. That isn't a nice expression, I know, but it really was one of our worst quarrels. Mr. Bowling hasn't been near since I left, and Cissy is furious. She said such things that I had to tell her very plainly what I thought of her; and she positively foamed at the mouth! "Now look here," she said, "if I find out that he goes to Sutton, you'll see what will happen." "_What_ will happen?" I asked. "Father will stop your allowance, and you'll have to get on as best you can." "Oh, very well," I said, "in that case I shall marry Mr. Bowling." You should have seen her rage! "You said you wouldn't marry him if he had ten thousand a year!" she screamed. "I dare say I did; but if I've nothing to live upon--" "You can marry your Mr. Cobb, can't you?" And she almost cried; and I should have felt sorry for her if she hadn't made me so angry. "No," I said, "I can't marry Mr. Cobb. And I never dreamt of marrying Mr. Cobb. And--"'
'Really, Louise, that kind of talk isn't at all ladylike. What a pity you went home.'
'Yes, I was sorry for it afterwards. I shan't go again for a long time; I promise you I won't. However, Mr. Cobb came, and I saw him alone. He was astonished when he heard what had been going on; he was astonished at _me_, too--I mean, the way I spoke. I wanted him to understand at once that there was nothing between us; I talked in rather a--you know the sort of way.' She raised her chin slightly, and looked down from under her eyelids. 'Oh, I assure you I behaved quite nicely. But he got into a rage, as he always does, and began to call me names, and I wouldn't stand it. "Mr. Cobb," I said, very severely, "either you will conduct yourself properly, or you will leave the house." Then he tried another tone, and said very different things--the kind of thing one likes to hear, you know; but I pretended that I didn't care for it a bit. "It's all over between us then?" he shouted at last; yes, really shouted, and I'm sure people must have heard. "All over?" I said. "But there never _was_ anything--nothing serious." "Oh, all right. Good-bye, then." And off he rushed. And I dare say I've seen the last of him--for a time.'
'Now do try to live quietly, my dear,' said Emmeline. 'Go on with your music, and read a little each day--'
'Yes, that's just what I'm going to do, dear Mrs. Mumford. And your friends will be here to-morrow; it'll be so quiet and nice. And on Monday we shall go to the theatre, just for a change. And I'm not going to think of those people. It's all settled. I shall live very quietly indeed.'
She banged on the piano till nearly eleven o'clock, and went off to bed with a smile of virtuous contentment.
The guests who arrived on Sunday morning were Mr. and Mrs. Grove, Mr. Bilton, and Mr. Dunnill. Mrs. Grove was Emmeline's elder sister, a merry, talkative, kindly woman. Aware of the circumstances, she at once made friends with Miss Derrick, and greatly pleased that young lady by a skilful blending of "superior" talk with easy homeliness. Mr. Bilton, a stockbroker's clerk, represented the better kind of City young man--athletic, yet intelligent, spirited without vulgarity a breezy, good-humoured, wholesome fellow. He came down on his bicycle, and would return in the same way. Louise at once made a resolve to learn cycling.
'I wish you lived at Sutton, Mr. Bilton. I should ask you to teach me.'
'I'm really very sorry that I don't,' replied the young man discreetly.
'Oh, never mind. I'll find somebody.'
The fourth arrival, Mr. Dunnill, was older and less affable. He talked chiefly with Mr. Grove, a very quiet, somewhat careworn man; neither of them seemed able to shake off business, but they did not obtrude it on the company in general. The day passed pleasantly, but in Miss Derrick's opinion, rather soberly. Doing her best to fascinate Mr. Bilton, she felt a slight disappointment at her inability to engross his attention, and at the civil friendliness which he thought a sufficient reply to her gay sallies. For so good-looking and well-dressed a man he struck her as singularly reserved. But perhaps he was "engaged"; yes, that must be the explanation. When the guests had left, she put a plain question to Mrs. Mumford.
'I don't _think_ he is engaged,' answered Emmeline, who on the whole was satisfied with Miss Derrick's demeanour throughout the day.
'Oh! But, of course, he _may_ be, without you knowing it. Or is it always made known?'
'There's no rule about it, my dear.'
'Well, they're very nice people,' said Louise, with a little sigh. 'And I like your sister so much. I'm glad she asked me to go and see her. Is Mr. Bilton often at her house?--Don't misunderstand me, Mrs. Mumford. It's only that I _do_ like men's society; there's no harm, is there? And people like Mr. Bilton are very different from those I've known; and I want to see more of them, you know.'
'There's no harm in saying that to _me_, Louise,' replied Mrs. Mumford. 'But pray be careful not to seem "forward." People think--and say--such disagreeable things.'
Miss Derrick was grateful, and again gave an assurance that repose and modesty should be the rule of her life.
At the theatre on Monday evening she exhibited a childlike enjoyment which her companions could not but envy. The freshness of her sensibilities was indeed remarkable, and Emmeline observed with pleasure that her mind seemed to have a very wholesome tone. Louise might commit follies, and be guilty of bad taste to any extent, but nothing in her savoured of depravity.
Tuesday she spent at home, pretending to read a little, and obviously thinking a great deal. On Wednesday morning she proposed of a sudden that Emmeline should go up to town with her on a shopping expedition. They had already turned over her wardrobe, numerous articles whereof were condemned by Mrs. Mumford's taste, and by Louise cheerfully sacrificed; she could not rest till new purchases had been made. So, after early luncheon, they took train to Victoria, Louise insisting that all the expenses should be hers. By five o'clock she had laid out some fifteen pounds, vastly to her satisfaction. They took tea at a restaurant, and reached Sutton not long before Mumford's return.
On Friday they went to London again, to call upon Mrs. Grove. Louise promised that this should be her last "outing" for a whole week. She admitted a feeling of restlessness, but after to-day she would overcome it. And that night she apologised formally to Mumford for taking his wife so much from home.
'Please don't think I shall always be running about like this. I feel that I'm settling down. We are going to be very comfortable and quiet.'
And, to the surprise of her friends, more than a week went by before she declared that a day in town was absolutely necessary. Mr. Higgins had sent her a fresh supply of money, as there were still a few things she needed to purchase. But this time Emmeline begged her to go alone, and Louise seemed quite satisfied with the arrangement.
Early in the afternoon, as Mrs. Mumford was making ready to go out, the servant announced to her that a gentleman had called to see Miss Derrick; on learning that Miss Derrick was away, he had asked sundry questions, and ended by requesting an interview with Mrs. Mumford. His name was Cobb.
'Show him into the drawing-room,' said Emmeline, a trifle agitated. 'I will be down in a few moments.'
Beset by anxious anticipations, she entered the room, and saw before her a figure not wholly unlike what she had imagined: a wiry, resolute-looking man, with knitted brows, lips close-set, and heavy feet firmly planted on the carpet. He was respectably dressed, but nothing more, and in his large bare hands held a brown hat marked with a grease spot. One would have judged him a skilled mechanic. When he began to speak, his blunt but civil phrases were in keeping with this impression. He had not the tone of an educated man, yet committed no vulgar errors.
'My name is Cobb. I must beg your pardon for troubling you. Perhaps you have heard of me from Miss Derrick?'
'Yes, Mr. Cobb, your name has been mentioned,' Emmeline replied nervously. 'Will you sit down?'
'Thank you, I will.'
He twisted his hat about, and seemed to prepare with difficulty the next remark, which at length burst, rather than fell, from his lips.
'I wanted to see Miss Derrick. I suppose she is still living with you? They told me so.'
A terrible man, thought Emmeline, when roused to anger; his words must descend like sledge-hammers. And it would not take much to anger him. For all that, he had by no means a truculent countenance. He was trying to smile, and his features softened agreeably enough. The more closely she observed him, the less grew Emmeline's wonder that Louise felt an interest in the man.
'Miss Derrick is likely to stay with us for some time, I believe. She has only gone to town, to do some shopping.'
'I see. When I met her last she talked a good deal about you, Mrs. Mumford, and that's why I thought I would ask to see you. You have a good deal of influence over her.'
'Do you think so?' returned Emmeline, not displeased. 'I hope I may use it for her good.'
'So do I. But--well, it comes to this, Mrs. Mumford. She seemed to hint--though she didn't exactly say so--that you were advising her to have nothing more to do with me. Of course you don't know me, and I've no doubt you do what you think the best for her. I should feel it a kindness if you would just tell me whether you are really persuading her to think no more about me.'
It was an alarming challenge. Emmeline's fears returned; she half expected an outbreak of violence. The man was growing very nervous, and his muscles showed the working of strong emotion.
'I have given her no such advice, Mr. Cobb,' she answered, with an attempt at calm dignity. 'Miss Derrick's private affairs don't at all concern me. In such matters as this she is really quite old enough to judge for herself.'
'That's what _I_ should have said,' remarked Mr. Cobb sturdily. 'I hope you'll excuse me; I don't wish to make myself offensive. After what she said to me when we met last, I suppose most men would just let her go her own way. But--but somehow I can't do that. The thing is, I can't trust what she says; I don't believe she knows her own mind. And so long as you tell me that you're not interfering--I mean, that you don't think it right to set her against me--'
'I assure you, nothing of the kind.'
There was a brief silence, then Cobb's voice again sounded with blunt emphasis.
'We're neither of us very good-tempered. We've known each other about a year, and we must have quarrelled about fifty times.'
'Do you think, then,' ventured the hostess, 'that it would ever be possible for you to live peacefully together?'
'Yes, I do,' was the robust answer. 'It would be a fight for the upper hand, but I know who'd get it, and after that things would be all right.'
Emmeline could not restrain a laugh, and her visitor joined in it with a heartiness which spoke in his favour.
'I promise you, Mr. Cobb, that I will do nothing whatever against your interests.'
'That's very kind of you, and it's all I wanted to know.'
He stood up. Emmeline, still doubtful how to behave, asked him if he would call on another day, when Miss Derrick might be at home.
'It's only by chance I was able to get here this afternoon,' he replied. 'I haven't much time to go running about after her, and that's where I'm at a disadvantage. I don't know whether there's anyone else, and I'm not asking you to tell me, if you know. Of course I have to take my chance; but so long as you don't speak against me--and she thinks a great deal of your advice--'
'I'm very glad to be assured of that. All I shall do, Mr. Cobb, is to keep before her mind the duty of behaving straightforwardly.'
'That's the thing! Nobody can ask more than that.'
Emmeline hesitated, but could not dismiss him without shaking hands. That he did not offer to do so until invited, though he betrayed no sense of social inferiority, seemed another point in his favour.