The Paying Guest by George Gissing
Glad of a free evening, Emmeline, after dinner, walked round to Mrs. Fentiman's. Louise had put a restraint upon the wonted friendly intercourse between the Mumfords and their only familiar acquaintances at Sutton. Mrs. Fentiman liked to talk of purely domestic matters, and in a stranger's presence she was never at ease. Coming alone, and when the children were all safe in bed, Emmeline had a warm welcome. For the first time she spoke of her troublesome guest without reserve. This chat would have been restful and enjoyable but for a most unfortunate remark that fell from the elder lady, a perfectly innocent mention of something her husband had told her, but, secretly, so disturbing Mrs. Mumford that, after hearing it, she got away as soon as possible, and walked quickly home with dark countenance.
It was ten o'clock; Louise had not yet returned, but might do so any moment. Wishing to be sure of privacy in a conversation with her husband, Emmeline summoned him from his book to the bedroom.
'Well, what has happened now?' exclaimed Mumford. 'If this kind of thing goes on much longer I shall feel inclined to take a lodging in town.'
'I have heard something very strange. I can hardly believe it; there must have been a mistake.'
'What is it? Really, one's nerves--'
'Is it true that, on Thursday evening, you and Miss Derrick were seen talking together at the station? Thursday: the day she went off and came back again after dinner.'
Mumford would gladly have got out of this scrape at any expense of mendacity, but he saw at once how useless such an attempt would prove. Exasperated by the result of his indiscretion, and resenting, as all men do, the undignified necessity of defending himself, he flew into a rage. Yes, it _was_ true, and what next? The girl had waylaid him, begged him to intercede for her with his wife. Of course it would have been better to come home and reveal the matter; he didn't do so because it seemed to put him in a silly position. For Heaven's sake, let the whole absurd business be forgotten and done with!
Emmeline, though not sufficiently enlightened to be above small jealousies, would have been ashamed to declare her feeling with the energy of unsophisticated female nature. She replied coldly and loftily that the matter, of course, _was_ done with; that it interested her no more; but that she could not help regretting an instance of secretiveness such as she had never before discovered in her husband. Surely he had put himself in a much sillier position, as things turned out, than if he had followed the dictates of honour.
'The upshot of it is this,' cried Mumford: 'Miss Derrick has to leave the house, and, if necessary, I shall tell her so myself.'
Again Emmeline was cold and lofty. There was no necessity whatever for any further communication between Clarence and Miss Derrick. Let the affair be left entirely in her hands. Indeed, she must very specially request that Clarence would have nothing more to do with Miss Derrick's business. Whereupon Mumford took offence. Did Emmeline wish to imply that there had been anything improper in his behaviour beyond the paltry indiscretion to which he had confessed? No; Emmeline was thankful to say that she did not harbour base suspicions. Then, rejoined Mumford, let this be the last word of a difference as hateful to him as to her. And he left the room.
His wife did not linger more than a minute behind him, and she sat in the drawing-room to await Miss Derrick's return; Mumford kept apart in what was called the library. To her credit, Emmeline tried hard to believe that she had learnt the whole truth; her mind, as she had justly declared, was not prone to ignoble imaginings; but acquitting her husband by no means involved an equal charity towards Louise. Hitherto uncertain in her judgment, she had now the relief of an assurance that Miss Derrick was not at all a proper person to entertain as a guest, on whatever terms. The incident of the railway station proved her to be utterly lacking in self-respect, in feminine modesty, even if her behaviour merited no darker description. Emmeline could now face with confidence the scene from which she had shrunk; not only was it a duty to insist upon Miss Derrick's departure, it would be a positive pleasure.
Louise very soon entered; she came into the room with her brightest look, and cried gaily:
'Oh, I hope I haven't kept you waiting for me. Are you alone?'
'No. I have been out.'
'Had you the storm here? I'm not going to keep you talking; you look tired.'
'I am rather,' said Emmeline, with reserve. She had no intention of allowing Louise to suspect the real cause of what she was about to say--that would have seemed to her undignified; but she could not speak quite naturally. 'Still, I should be glad if you would sit down for a minute.'
The girl took a chair and began to draw off her gloves. She understood what was coming; it appeared in Emmeline's face.
'Something to say to me, Mrs. Mumford?'
'I hope you won't think me unkind. I feel obliged to ask you when you will be able to make new arrangements.'
'You would like me to go soon?' said Louise, inspecting her finger-nails, and speaking without irritation.
'I am sorry to say that I think it better you should leave us. Forgive this plain speaking, Miss Derrick. It's always best to be perfectly straightforward, isn't it?'
Whether she felt the force of this innuendo or not, Louise took it in good part. As if the idea had only just struck her, she looked up cheerfully.
'You're quite right, Mrs. Mumford. I'm sure you've been very kind to me, and I've had a very pleasant time here, but it wouldn't do for me to stay longer. May I wait over to-morrow, just till Wednesday morning, to have an answer to a letter?'
'Certainly, if it is quite understood that there will be no delay beyond that. There are circumstances--private matters--I don't feel quite able to explain. But I must be sure that you will have left us by Wednesday afternoon.'
'You may be sure of it. I will write a line and post it to-night, for it to go as soon as possible.'
Therewith Louise stood up and, smiling, withdrew. Emmeline was both relieved and surprised; she had not thought it possible for the girl to conduct herself at such a juncture with such perfect propriety. An outbreak of ill-temper, perhaps of insolence, had seemed more than likely; at best she looked for tears and entreaties. Well, it was over, and by Wednesday the house would be restored to its ancient calm. Ancient, indeed! One could not believe that so short a time had passed since Miss Derrick first entered the portals. Only one more day.
'Oh, blindness to the future, kindly given, That each may fill the circle marked by Heaven.' At school, Emmeline had learnt and recited these lines; but it was long since they had recurred to her memory.
In ten minutes Louise had written her letter. She went out, returned, and looked in at the drawing-room, with a pleasant smile. 'Good-night, Mrs. Mumford.' 'Good-night, Miss Derrick.' For the grace of the thing, Emmeline would have liked to say 'Louise,' but could not bring her lips to utter the name.
About a year ago there had been a little misunderstanding between Mr. and Mrs. Mumford, which lasted for some twenty-four hours, during which they had nothing to say to each other. To-night they found themselves in a similar situation, and remembered that last difference, and wondered, both of them, at the harmony of their married life. It was in truth wonderful enough; twelve months without a shadow of ill-feeling between them. The reflection compelled Mumford to speak when his head was on the pillow.
'Emmy, we're making fools of ourselves. Just tell me what you have done.'
'I can't see how _I_ am guilty of foolishness,' was the clear-cut reply.
'Then why are you angry with me?'
'I don't like deceit.'
'Hanged if I don't dislike it just as much. When is that girl going?'
Emmeline made known the understanding at which she had arrived, and her husband breathed an exclamation of profound thankfulness. But peace was not perfectly restored.
In another room, Louise lay communing with her thoughts, which were not at all disagreeable. She had written to Cobb, telling him what had happened, and asking him to let her know by Wednesday morning what she was to do. She could not go home; he must not bid her do so; but she would take a lodging wherever he liked. The position seemed romantic and enjoyable. Not till after her actual marriage should the people at home know what had become of her. She was marrying with utter disregard of all her dearest ambitions all the same, she had rather be the wife of Cobb than of anyone else. Her stepfather might recover his old kindness and generosity as soon as he knew she no longer stood in Cissy's way, and that she had never seriously thought of marrying Mr. Bowling. Had she not thought of it? The question did not enter her own mind, and she would have been quite incapable of passing a satisfactory cross-examination on the subject.
Mrs. Mumford, foreseeing the difficulty of spending the next day at home, told her husband in the morning that she would have early luncheon and go to see Mrs. Grove.
'And I should like you to fetch me from there, after business, please.'
'I will,' answered Clarence readily. He mentally added a hope that his wife did not mean to supervise him henceforth and for ever. If so, their troubles were only beginning.
At breakfast, Louise continued to be discretion itself. She talked of her departure on the morrow as though it had long been a settled thing, and was quite unconnected with disagreeable circumstances. Only midway in the morning did Mrs. Mumford, who had been busy with her child, speak of the early luncheon and her journey to town. She hoped Miss Derrick would not mind being left alone.
'Oh, don't speak of it,' answered Louise. 'I've lots to do. You'll give my kind regards to Mrs. Grove?'
So they ate together at midday, rather silently, but with faces composed. And Emmeline, after a last look into the nursery, hastened away to catch her train. She had no misgivings; during her absence, all would be well as ever.
Louise passed the time without difficulty, and at seven o'clock made an excellent dinner. This evening no reply could be expected from Cobb, as he was not likely to have received her letter of last night till his return home from business. Still, there might be something from someone; she always looked eagerly for the postman.
The weather was gloomy. Not long after eight the housemaid brought in a lighted lamp, and set it, as usual, upon the little black four-legged table in the drawing-room. And in the same moment the knocker of the front door sounded a vigorous rat-tat-tat, a visitor's summons.