The Paying Guest by George Gissing
Miss Derrick had gone back into the drawing-room, and, to Emmeline's surprise, remained there. This retirement was ominous; the girl must be taking some resolve. Emmeline, on her part, braced her courage for the step on which she had decided. Luncheon awaited them, but it would be much better to arrive at an understanding before they sat down to the meal. She entered the room and found Louise leaning on the back of a chair.
'I dare say you heard the row,' Miss Derrick remarked coldly. 'I'm very sorry, but nothing of that kind shall happen again.'
Her countenance was disturbed, she seemed to be putting a restraint upon herself, and only with great effort to subdue her voice.
'What are you going to do?' asked Emmeline, in a friendly tone, but, as it were, from a distance.
'I am going to ask you to do me a great kindness, Mrs. Mumford.'
There was no reply. The girl paused a moment, then resumed impulsively.
'Mr. Higgins says that if I don't come home, he won't let me have any more money. They're going to write and tell you that they won't be responsible after this for my board and lodging. Of course I shall not go home; I shouldn't dream of it; I'd rather earn my living as--as a scullery maid. I want to ask you, Mrs. Mumford, whether you will let me stay on, and trust me to pay what I owe you. It won't be for very long, and I promise you I _will_ pay, every penny.'
The natural impulse of Emmeline's disposition was to reply with hospitable kindliness; she found it very difficult to maintain her purpose; it shamed her to behave like the ordinary landlady, to appear actuated by mean motives. But the domestic strain was growing intolerable, and she felt sure that Clarence would be exasperated if her weakness prolonged it.
'Now do let me advise you, Louise,' she answered gently. 'Are you acting wisely? Wouldn't it be very much better to go home?',
Louise lost all her self-control. Flushed with anger, her eyes glaring, she broke into vehement exclamations.
'You want to get rid of me! Very well, I'll go this moment. I was going to tell you something; but you don't care what becomes of me. I'll send for my luggage; you shan't be troubled with it long. And you'll be paid all that's owing. I didn't think you were one of that kind. I'll go this minute.'
'Just as you please,' said Emmeline, 'Your temper is really so very--'
'Oh, I know. It's always my temper, and nobody else is ever to blame. I wouldn't stay another night in the house, if I had to sleep on the Downs!'
She flung out of the room and flew upstairs. Emmeline, angered by this unwarrantable treatment, determined to hold aloof, and let the girl do as she would. Miss Derrick was of full age, and quite capable of taking care of herself, or at all events ought to be. Perhaps this was the only possible issue of the difficulties in which they had all become involved; neither Louise nor her parents could be dealt with in the rational, peaceful way preferred by well-conditioned people. To get her out of the house was the main point; if she chose to depart in a whirlwind, that was her own affair. All but certainly she would go home, to-morrow if not to-day.
In less than a quarter of an hour her step sounded on the stairs--would she turn into the dining-room, where Emmeline now sat at table? No; straight through the hall, and out at the front door, which closed, however, quite softly behind her. That she did not slam it seemed wonderful to Emmeline. The girl was not wholly a savage.
Presently Mrs. Mumford went up to inspect the forsaken chamber. Louise had packed all her things: of course she must have tumbled them recklessly into the trunks. Drawers were left open, as if to exhibit their emptiness, but in other respects the room looked tidy enough. Neatness and order came by no means naturally to Miss Derrick, and Emmeline did not know what pains the girl had taken, ever since her arrival, to live in conformity with the habits of a 'nice' household.
Louise, meanwhile, had gone to the railway station, intending to take a ticket for Victoria. But half an hour must elapse before the arrival of a train, and she walked about in an irresolute mood. For one thing, she felt hungry; at Sutton her appetite had been keen, and meal-times were always welcome. She entered the refreshment room, and with inward murmurs made a repast which reminded her of the excellent luncheon she might now have been enjoying. All the time, she pondered her situation. Ultimately, instead of booking for Victoria, she procured a ticket for Epsom Downs, and had not long to wait for the train.
It was a hot day at the end of June. Wafts of breezy coolness passed now and then over the high open country, but did not suffice to combat the sun's steady glare. After walking half a mile or so, absorbed in thought, Louise suffered so much that she looked about for shadow. Before her was the towering ugliness of the Grand Stand; this she had seen and admired when driving past it with her friends; it did not now attract her. In another direction the Downs were edged with trees, and that way she turned. All but overcome with heat and weariness, she at length found a shaded spot where her solitude seemed secure. And, after seating herself, the first thing she did was to have a good cry.
Then for an hour she sat thinking, and as she thought her face gradually emerged from gloom--the better, truer face which so often allowed itself to be disguised at the prompting of an evil spirit; her softening lips all but smiled, as if at an amusing suggestion, and her eyes, in their reverie, seemed to behold a pleasant promise. Unconsciously she plucked and tasted the sweet stems of grass that grew about her. At length, the sun's movements having robbed her of shadow, she rose, looked at her watch, and glanced around for another retreat. Hard by was a little wood, delightfully grassy and cool, fenced about with railings she could easily have climbed; but a notice-board, severely admonishing trespassers, forbade the attempt. With a petulant remark to herself on the selfishness of "those people," she sauntered past.
Along this edge of the Downs stands a picturesque row of pine-trees, stunted, bittered, and twisted through many a winter by the upland gales. Louise noticed them, only to think for a moment what ugly trees they were. Before her, east, west, and north, lay the wooded landscape, soft of hue beneath the summer sky, spreading its tranquil beauty far away to the mists of the horizon. In vivacious company she would have called it, and perhaps have thought it, a charming view; alone, she had no eye for such things--an indifference characteristic of her mind, and not at all dependent upon its mood. Presently another patch of shade invited her to repose again, and again she meditated for an hour or more.
The sun had grown less ardent, and a breeze, no longer fitful, made walking pleasant. The sight of holiday-making school-children, who, in their ribboned hats and white pinafores, were having tea not far away, suggested to Louise that she also would like such refreshment. Doubtless it might be procured at the inn yonder, near the racecourse, and thither she began to move. Her thoughts were more at rest; she had made her plan for the evening; all that had to be done was to kill time for another hour or so. Walking lightly over the turf, she noticed the chalk marks significant of golf, and wondered how the game was played. Without difficulty she obtained her cup of tea, loitered over it as long as possible, strayed yet awhile about the Downs, and towards half-past six made for the railway station.
She travelled no further than Sutton, and there lingered in the waiting room till the arrival of a certain train from London Bridge. As the train came in she took up a position near the exit. Among the people who had alighted, her eye soon perceived Clarence Mumford. She stepped up to him and drew his attention.
'Oh! have you come by the same train?' he asked, shaking hands with her.
'No. I've been waiting here because I wanted to see you, Mr. Mumford. Will you spare me a minute or two?'
'Here? In the station?'
'Please--if you don't mind.'
Astonished, Mumford drew aside with her to a quiet part of the long platform. Louise, keeping a very grave countenance, told him rapidly all that had befallen since his departure from home in the morning.
'I behaved horridly, and I was sorry for it as soon as I had left the house. After all Mrs. Mumford's kindness to me, and yours, I don't know how I could be so horrid. But the quarrel with mother had upset me so, and I felt so miserable when Mrs. Mumford seemed to want to get rid of me. I feel sure she didn't really want to send me away: she was only advising me, as she thought, for my good. But I can't, and won't, go home. And I've been waiting all the afternoon to see you. No; not here. I went to Epsom Downs and walked about, and then came back just in time. And--do you think I might go back? I don't mean now, at once, but this evening, after you've had dinner. I really don't know where to go for the night, and it's such a stupid position to be in, isn't it?'
With perfect naivete, or with perfect simulation of it, she looked him in the face, and it was Mumford who had to avert his eyes. The young man felt very uncomfortable.
'Oh! I'm quite sure Emmy will be glad to let you come for the night, Miss Derrick--'
'Yes, but--Mr. Mumford, I want to stay longer--a few weeks longer. Do you think Mrs. Mumford would forgive me? I have made up my mind what to do, and I ought to have told her. I should have, if I hadn't lost my temper.'
'Well,' replied the other, in grave embarrassment, but feeling that he had no alternative, 'let us go to the house--'
'Oh! I couldn't. I shouldn't like anyone to know that I spoke to you about it. It wouldn't be nice, would it? I thought if I came later, after dinner. And perhaps you could talk to Mrs. Mumford, and--and prepare her. I mean, perhaps you wouldn't mind saying you were sorry I had gone so suddenly. And then perhaps Mrs. Mumford--she's so kind--would say that she was sorry too. And then I might come into the garden and find you both sitting there--'
Mumford, despite his most uneasy frame of mind, betrayed a passing amusement. He looked into the girl's face and saw its prettiness flush with pretty confusion, and this did not tend to restore his tranquillity.
'What shall you do in the meantime?'
'Oh! go into the town and have something to eat, and then walk about.'
'You must be dreadfully tired already.'
'Just a little; but I don't mind. It serves me right. I shall be so grateful to you, Mr. Mumford. If you won't let me come, I suppose I must go to London and ask one of my friends to take me in.'
'I will arrange it. Come about half-past eight. We shall be in the garden by then.'
Avoiding her look, he moved away and ran up the stairs. But from the exit of the station he walked slowly, in part to calm himself, to assume his ordinary appearance, and in part to think over the comedy he was going to play.
Emmeline met him at the door, herself too much flurried to notice anything peculiar in her husband's aspect. She repeated the story with which he was already acquainted.
'And really, after all, I am so glad!' was her conclusion. 'I didn't think she had really gone; all the afternoon I've been expecting to see her back again. But she won't come now, and it is a good thing to have done with the wretched business. I only hope she will tell the truth to her people. She might say that we turned her out of the house. But I don't think so; in spite of all her faults, she never seemed deceitful or malicious.'
Mumford was strongly tempted to reveal what had happened at the station, but he saw danger alike in disclosure and in reticence.
When there enters the slightest possibility of jealousy, a man can never be sure that his wife will act as a rational being. He feared to tell the simple truth lest Emmeline should not believe his innocence of previous plotting with Miss Derrick, or at all events should be irritated by the circumstances into refusing Louise a lodging for the night. And with no less apprehension he decided at length to keep the secret, which might so easily become known hereafter, and would then have such disagreeable consequences.
'Well, let us have dinner, Emmy; I'm hungry. Yes, it's a good thing she has gone; but I wish it hadn't happened in that way. What a spitfire she is!'
'I never, never saw the like. And if you had heard Mrs. Higgins! Oh, what dreadful people! Clarence, hear me register a vow--'
'It was my fault, dear. I'm awfully sorry I got you in for such horrors. It was wholly and entirely my fault.'
By due insistence on this, Mumford of course put his wife into an excellent humour, and, after they had dined, she returned to her regret that the girl should have gone so suddenly. Clarence, declaring that he would allow himself a cigar, instead of the usual pipe, to celebrate the restoration of domestic peace, soon led Emmeline into the garden.
'Heavens! how hot it has been. Eighty-five in our office at noon--eighty-five! Fellows are discarding waistcoats and wearing what they call a cummerbund--silk sash round the waist. I think I must follow the fashion. How should I look, do you think?'
'You don't really mind that we lose the money?' Emmeline asked presently.
'Pooh! We shall do well enough.--Who's that?'
Someone was entering the garden by the side path. And in a moment there remained no doubt who the person was. Louise came forward, her head bent, her features eloquent of fatigue and distress.
'Mrs. Mumford--I couldn't--without asking you to forgive me--'
Her voice broke with a sob. She stood in a humble attitude, and Emmeline, though pierced with vexation, had no choice but to hold out a welcoming hand.
'Have you come all the way back from London just to say this?'
'I haven't been to London. I've walked about--all day--and oh, I'm so tired and miserable! Will you let me stay, just for to-night? I shall be so grateful.'
'Of course you may stay, Miss Derrick. It was very far from my wish to see you go off at a moment's notice. But I really couldn't stop you.'
Mumford had stepped aside, out of hearing. He forgot his private embarrassment in speculation as to the young woman's character. That she was acting distress and penitence he could hardly believe; indeed, there was no necessity to accuse her of dishonest behaviour. The trivial concealment between him and her amounted to nothing, did not alter the facts of the situation. But what could be at the root of her seemingly so foolish existence? Emmeline held to the view that she was in love with the man Cobb, though perhaps unwilling to admit it, even in her own silly mind. It might be so, and, _if_ so, it made her more interesting; for one was tempted to think that Louise had not the power of loving at all. Yet, for his own part, he couldn't help liking her; the eyes at had looked into his at the station haunted him a little, and would not let him think of her contemptuously. But what a woman to make ones wife! Unless--unless--
Louise had gone into the house. Emmeline approached her husband.
'There! I foresaw it. Isn't vexing?'
'Never mind, dear. She'll go to morrow, or the day after.'
'I wish I could be sure of that.'