The Paying Guest by George Gissing
'It may be someone calling upon me,' said Louise to the servant. 'Let me know the name before you show anyone in.'
'Of course, miss,' replied the domestic, with pert familiarity, and took her time in arranging the shade of the lamp. When she returned from the door it was to announce, smilingly, that Mr. Cobb wished to see Miss Derrick.
'Please to show him in.'
Louise stood in an attitude of joyous excitement, her eyes sparkling. But at the first glance she perceived that her lover's mood was by no means correspondingly gay. Cobb stalked forward and kept a stern gaze upon her, but said nothing.
'Well? You got my letter, I suppose?'
He had not been home since breakfast-time, so Louise's appeal to him for advice lay waiting his arrival. Impatiently, she described the course of events. As soon as she had finished, Cobb threw his hat aside and addressed her harshly.
'I want to know what you mean by writing to your sister that you are going to marry Bowling. I saw your mother this morning, and that's what she told me. It must have been only a day or two ago that you said that. Just explain, if you please. I'm about sick of this kind of thing, and I'll have the truth out of you.'
His anger had never taken such a form as this; for the first time Louise did in truth feel afraid of him. She shrank away, her heart throbbed, and her tongue refused its office.
'Say what you mean by it!' Cobb repeated, in a voice that was all the more alarming because he kept it low.
'Did you write that to your sister?'
'Yes--but I never meant it--it was just to make her angry--'
'You expect me to believe that? And, if it's true, doesn't it make you out a nice sort of girl? But I don't believe it You've been thinking of him in that way all along; and you've been writing to him, or meeting him, since you came here. What sort of behaviour do you call this?'
Louise was recovering self-possession; the irritability of her own temper began to support her courage.
'What if I have? I'd never given _you_ any promise till last night, had I? I was free to marry anyone I liked, wasn't I? What do _you_ mean by coming here and going on like this? I've told you the truth about that letter, and I've always told you the truth about everything. If you don't like it, say so and go.'
Cobb was impressed by the energy of her defence. He looked her straight in the eyes, and paused a moment; then spoke less violently.
'You haven't told me the _whole_ truth. I want to know when you saw Bowling last.'
'I haven't seen him since I left home.'
'When did you write to him last?'
'The same day I wrote to Cissy. And I shall answer no more questions.'
'Of course not. But that's quite enough. You've been playing a double game; if you haven't told lies, you've acted them. What sort of a wife would you make? How could I ever believe a word you said? I shall have no more to do with you.'
He turned away, and, in the violence of the movement, knocked over a little toy chair, one of those perfectly useless, and no less ugly, impediments which stand about the floor of a well-furnished drawing-room. Too angry to stoop and set the object on its legs again, he strode towards the door. Louise followed him.
'You are going?' she asked, in a struggling voice.
Cobb paid no attention, and all but reached the door. She laid a hand upon him.
'You are going?'
The touch and the voice checked him. Again he turned abruptly and seized the hand that rested upon his arm.
'Why are you stopping me? What do you want with me? I'm to help you out of the fix you've got into, is that it? I'm to find you a lodging, and take no end of trouble, and then in a week's time get a letter to say that you want nothing more to do with me.'
Louise was pale with anger and fear, and as many other emotions as her little heart and brain could well hold. She did not look her best--far from it but the man saw something in her eyes which threw a fresh spell upon him. Still grasping her one hand, he caught her by the other arm, held her as far off as he could, and glared passionately as he spoke.
'What do you want?'
'You know--I've told you the truth--'
His grasp hurt her; she tried to release herself, and moved backwards. For a moment Cobb left her free; she moved backward again, her eyes drawing him on. She felt her power, and could not be content with thus much exercise of it.
'You may go if you like. But you understand, if you do--'
Cobb, inflamed with desire and jealousy, made an effort to recapture her. Louise sprang away from him; but immediately behind her lay the foolish little chair which he had kicked over, and just beyond _that_ stood the scarcely less foolish little table which supported the heavy lamp, with its bowl of coloured glass and its spreading yellow shade. She tottered back, fell with all her weight against the table, and brought the lamp crashing to the floor. A shriek of terror from Louise, from her lover a shout of alarm, blended with the sound of breaking glass. In an instant a great flame shot up half way to the ceiling. The lamp-shade was ablaze; the much-embroidered screen, Mrs. Mumford's wedding present, forthwith caught fire from a burning tongue that ran along the carpet; and Louise's dress, well sprinkled with paraffin, aided the conflagration. Cobb, of course, saw only the danger to the girl. He seized the woollen hearthrug and tried to wrap it about her; but with screams of pain and frantic struggles, Louise did her best to thwart his purpose.
The window was open, and now a servant, rushing in to see what the uproar meant, gave the blaze every benefit of draught.
'Bring water!' roared Cobb, who had just succeeded in extinguishing Louise's dress, and was carrying her, still despite her struggles, out of the room. 'Here, one of you take Miss Derrick to the next house. Bring water, you!'
All three servants were scampering and screeching about the hall. Cobb caught hold of one of them and all but twisted her arm out of its socket. At his fierce command, the woman supported Louise into the garden, and thence, after a minute or two of faintness on the sufferer's part, led her to the gate of the neighbouring house. The people who lived there chanced to be taking the air on their front lawn. Without delay, Louise was conveyed beneath the roof, and her host, a man of energy, sped towards the fire to be of what assistance he could.
The lamp-shade, the screen, the little table and the diminutive chair blazed gallantly, and with such a volleying of poisonous fumes that Cobb could scarce hold his ground to do battle. Louise out of the way, he at once became cool and resourceful. Before a flame could reach the window he had rent down the flimsy curtains and flung them outside. Bellowing for the water which was so long in coming, he used the hearthrug to some purpose on the outskirts of the bonfire, but had to keep falling back for fresh air. Then appeared a pail and a can, which he emptied effectively, and next moment sounded the voice of the gentleman from next door.
'Have you a garden hose? Set it on to the tap, and bring it in here.'
The hose was brought into play, and in no great time the last flame had flickered out amid a deluge. When all danger was at an end, one of the servants, the nurse-girl, uttered a sudden shriek; it merely signified that she had now thought for the first time of the little child asleep upstairs. Aided by the housemaid, she rushed to the nursery, snatched her charge from bed, and carried the unhappy youngster into the breezes of the night, where he screamed at the top of his gamut.
Cobb, when he no longer feared that the house would be burnt down, hurried to inquire after Louise. She lay on a couch, wrapped in a dressing-gown; for the side and one sleeve of her dress had been burnt away. Her moaning never ceased; there was a fire-mark on the lower part of her face, and she stared with eyes of terror and anguish at whoever approached her. Already a doctor had been sent for, and Cobb, reporting that all was safe at 'Runnymede,' wished to remove her at once to her own bed room, and the strangers were eager to assist.
'What will the Mumfords say?' Louise asked of a sudden, trying to raise herself.
'Leave all that to me,' Cobb replied reassuringly. 'I'll make it all right; don't trouble yourself.'
The nervous shock had made her powerless; they carried her in a chair back to 'Runnymede,' and upstairs to her bedroom. Scarcely was this done when Mr. and Mrs. Mumford, after a leisurely walk from the station, approached their garden gate. The sight of a little crowd of people in the quiet road, the smell of burning, loud voices of excited servants, caused them to run forward in alarm. Emmeline, frenzied by the certainty that her own house was on fire, began to cry aloud for her child, and Mumford rushed like a madman through the garden.
'It's all right,' said a man who stood in the doorway. 'You Mr. Mumford? It's all right. There's been a fire, but we've got it out.'
Emmeline learnt at the same moment that her child had suffered no harm, but she would not pause until she saw the little one and held him in her embrace. Meanwhile, Cobb and Mumford talked in the devastated drawing-room, which was illumined with candles.
'It's a bad job, Mr. Mumford. My name is Cobb: I daresay you've heard of me. I came to see Miss Derrick, and I was clumsy enough to knock the lamp over.'
'Knock the lamp over! How could you do that? Were you drunk?'
'No, but you may well ask the question. I stumbled over something--a little chair, I think--and fell against the table with the lamp on it.'
'Where's Miss Derrick?'
'Upstairs. She got rather badly burnt, I'm afraid. We've sent for a doctor.'
'And here I am,' spoke a voice behind them. 'Sorry to see this, Mr. Mumford.'
The two went upstairs together, and on the first landing encountered Emmeline, sobbing and wailing hysterically with the child in her arms. Her husband spoke soothingly.
'Don't, don't, Emmy. Here's Dr. Billings come to see Miss Derrick. She's the only one that has been hurt. Go down, there's a good girl, and send somebody to help in Miss Derrick's room; you can't be any use yourself just now.'
'But how did it happen? Oh, _how_ did it happen?'
'I'll come and tell you all about it. Better put the boy to bed again, hadn't you?'
When she had recovered her senses Emmeline took this advice, and, leaving the nurse by the child's cot, went down to survey the ruin of her property. It was a sorry sight. Where she had left a reception-room such as any suburban lady in moderate circumstances might be proud of; she now beheld a mere mass of unrecognisable furniture, heaped on what had once been a carpet, amid dripping walls and under a grimed ceiling.
'Oh! Oh!' She all but sank before the horror of the spectacle. Then, in a voice of fierce conviction, 'She did it! _She_ did it! It was because I told her to leave. I _know_ she did it on purpose!'
Mumford closed the door of the room, shutting out Cobb and the cook and the housemaid. He repeated the story Cobb had told him, and quietly urged the improbability of his wife's explanation. Miss Derrick, he pointed out, was lying prostrate from severe burns; the fire must have been accidental, but the accident, to be sure, was extraordinary enough. Thereupon Mrs. Mumford's wrath turned against Cobb. What business had such a man--a low-class savage--in _her_ drawing-room? He must have come knowing that she and her husband were away for the evening.
'You can question him, if you like,' said Mumford. 'He's out there.'
Emmeline opened the door, and at once heard a cry of pain from upstairs. Mumford, also hearing it, and seeing Cobb's misery-stricken face by the light of the hall lamp, whispered to his wife:
'Hadn't you better go up, dear? Dr. Billings may think it strange.'
It was much wiser to urge this consideration than to make a direct plea for mercy. Emmeline did not care to have it reported that selfish distress made her indifferent to the sufferings of a friend staying in her house. But she could not pass Cobb without addressing him severely.
'So _you_ are the cause of this!'
'I am, Mrs. Mumford, and I can only say that I'll do my best to make good the damage to your house.'
'Make good I fancy you have strange ideas of the value of the property destroyed.'
Insolence was no characteristic of Mrs. Mumford. But calamity had put her beside herself; she spoke, not in her own person, but as a woman whose carpets, curtains and bric-a-brac have ignominiously perished.
'I'll make it good,' Cobb repeated humbly, 'however long it takes me. And don't be angry with that poor girl, Mrs. Mumford. It wasn't her fault, not in any way. She didn't know I was coming; she hadn't asked me to come. I'm entirely to blame.'
'You mean to say you knocked over the table by accident?'
'I did indeed. And I wish I'd been burnt myself instead of her.'
He had suffered, by the way, no inconsiderable scorching, to which his hands would testify for many a week; but of this he was still hardly aware. Emmeline, with a glance of uttermost scorn, left him, and ascended to the room where the doctor was busy. Free to behave as he thought fit, Mumford beckoned Cobb to follow him into the front garden, where they conversed with masculine calm.
'I shall put up at Sutton for the night,' said Cobb, 'and perhaps you'll let me call the first thing in the morning to ask how she gets on.'
'Of course. We'll see the doctor when he comes down. But I wish I could understand how you managed to throw the lamp down.'
'The truth is,' Cobb replied, 'we were quarrelling. I'd heard something about her that made me wild, and I came and behaved like a fool. I feel just now as if I could go and cut my throat, that's the fact. If anything happens to her, I believe I shall. I might as well, in any case; she'll never look at me again.'
'Oh, don't take such a dark view of it.'
The doctor came out, on his way to fetch certain requirements, and the two men walked with him to his house in the next road. They learned that Louise was not dangerously injured; her recovery would be merely a matter of time and care. Cobb gave a description of the fire, and his hearers marvelled that the results were no worse.
'You must have some burns too?' said the doctor, whose curiosity was piqued by everything he saw and heard of the strange occurrence. 'I thought so; those hands must be attended to.'
Meanwhile, Emmeline sat by the bedside and listened to the hysterical lamentation in which Louise gave her own--the true--account of the catastrophe. It was all her fault, and upon her let all the blame fall. She would humble herself to Mr. Higgins and get him to pay for the furniture destroyed. If Mrs. Mumford would but forgive her! And so on, as her poor body agonised, and the blood grew feverish in her veins.