The Paying Guest by George Gissing
'Accept it? Certainly. Why should we bear the loss if he's able to make it good? He seems to be very well off for an unmarried man.'
'Yes,' replied Mumford, 'but he's just going to marry, and it seems--Well, after all, you know, he didn't really cause the damage. I should have felt much less scruple if Higgins had offered to pay--'
'He _did_ cause the damage,' asseverated Emmeline. 'It was his gross or violent behaviour. If we had been insured it wouldn't matter so much. And pray let this be a warning, and insure at once. However you look at it, he ought to pay.'
Emmeline's temper had suffered much since she made the acquaintance of Miss Derrick. Aforetime, she could discuss difference of opinion; now a hint of diversity drove her at once to the female weapon-- angry and iterative assertion. Her native delicacy, also, seemed to have degenerated. Mumford could only hold his tongue and trust that this would be but a temporary obscurement of his wife's amiable virtues.
Cobb had written from Bristol, a week after the accident, formally requesting a statement of the pecuniary loss which the Mumfords had suffered; he was resolved to repay them, and would do so, if possible, as soon as he knew the sum. Mumford felt a trifle ashamed to make the necessary declaration; at the outside, even with expenses of painting and papering, their actual damage could not be estimated at more than fifty pounds, and even Emmeline did not wish to save appearances by making an excessive demand. The one costly object in the room--the piano--was practically uninjured, and sundry other pieces of furniture could easily be restored; for Cobb and his companion, as amateur firemen, had by no means gone recklessly to work. By candle-light, when the floor was still a swamp, things looked more desperate than they proved to be on subsequent investigation; and it is wonderful at how little outlay, in our glistening times, a villa drawing-room may be fashionably equipped. So Mumford wrote to his correspondent that only a few 'articles' had absolutely perished; that it was not his wish to make any demand at all; but that, if Mr. Cobb insisted on offering restitution, why, a matter of fifty pounds, etc. etc. And in a few days this sum arrived, in the form of a draft upon respectable bankers.
Of course the house was in grievous disorder. Upholsterers' workmen would have been bad enough, but much worse was the establishment of Mrs. Higgins by her daughter's bedside, which naturally involved her presence as a guest at table, and the endurance of her conversation whenever she chose to come downstairs. Mumford urged his wife to take her summer holiday--to go away with the child until all was put right again--a phrase which included the removal of Miss Derrick to her own home; but of this Emmeline would not hear. How could she enjoy an hour of mental quietude when, for all she knew, Mrs. Higgins and the patient might be throwing lamps at each other? And her jealousy was still active, though she did not allow it to betray itself in words. Clarence seemed to her quite needlessly anxious in his inquiries concerning Miss Derrick's condition. Until that young lady had disappeared from 'Runnymede' for ever, Emmeline would keep matronly watch and ward.
Mrs. Higgins declared at least a score of times every day that she could _not_ understand how this dreadful affair had come to pass. The most complete explanation from her daughter availed nothing; she deemed the event an insoluble mystery, and, in familiar talk with Mrs. Mumford, breathed singular charges against Louise's lover. 'She's shielding him, my dear. I've no doubt of it. I never had a very good opinion of him, but now she shall never marry him with _my_ consent.' To this kind of remark Emmeline at length deigned no reply. She grew to detest Mrs. Higgins, and escaped her society by every possible manoeuvre.
'Oh, how pleasant it is,' she explained bitterly to her husband, 'to think that everybody in the road is talking about us with contempt! Of course tile servants have spread nice stories. And the Wilkinsons'--these were the people next door--'look upon us as hardly respectable. Even Mrs. Fentiman said yesterday that she really could not conceive how I came to take that girl into the house. I acknowledged that I must have been crazy.'
'Whilst we're thoroughly upset,' replied Mumford, with irritation at this purposeless talk, 'hadn't we better leave the house and go to live as far away as possible?'
'Indeed, I very much wish we could. I don't think I shall ever be happy again at Sutton.'
And Clarence went off muttering to himself about the absurdity and the selfishness of women.
For a week or ten days Louise lay very ill; then her vigorous constitution began to assert itself. It helped her greatly towards convalescence when she found that the scorches on her face would not leave a permanent blemish. Mrs. Mumford came into the room once a day and sat for a few minutes, neither of them desiring longer communion, but they managed to exchange inquiries and remarks with a show of came from Cobb, Emmeline made no friendliness. When the fifty pounds mention of it. The next day, however, Mrs. Higgins being absent when Emmeline looked in, Louise said with an air of satisfaction
'So he has paid the money! I'm very glad of that.'
'Mr. Cobb insisted on paying,' Mrs. Mumford answered with reserve. 'We could not hurt his feelings by refusing.'
'Well, that's all right, isn't it? You won't think so badly of us now? Of course you wish you'd never set eyes on me, Mrs. Mumford; but that's only natural: in your place I'm sure I should feel the same. Still, now the money's paid, you won't always think unkindly of me, will you?'
The girl lay propped on pillows; her pale face, with its healing scars, bore witness to what she had undergone, and. one of her arms was completely swathed in bandages. Emmeline did not soften towards her, but the frank speech, the rather pathetic little smile, in decency demanded a suave response.
'I shall wish you every happiness, Louise.'
'Thank you. We shall be married as soon as ever I'm well, but I'm sure I don't know where. Mother hates his very name, and does her best to set me against him; but I just let her talk. We're beginning to quarrel a little--did you hear us this morning? I try to keep down my voice, and I shan't be here much longer, you know. I shall go home at first my stepfather has written a kind letter, and of course he's glad to know I shall marry Mr. Cobb. But I don't think the wedding will be there. It wouldn't be nice to go to church in a rage, as I'm sure I should with mother and Cissy looking on.'
This might, or might not, signify a revival of the wish to be married from 'Runnymede.' Emmeline quickly passed to another subject.
Mrs. Higgins was paying a visit to Coburg Lodge, where, during the days of confusion, the master of the house had been left at his servants' mercy. On her return, late in the evening, she entered flurried and perspiring, and asked the servant who admitted her where Mrs. Mumford was.
'With master, in the library, 'm.'
'Tell her I wish to speak to her at once.'
Emmeline came forth, and a lamp was lighted in the dining-room, for the drawing-room had not yet been restored to a habitable condition. Silent, and wondering in gloomy resignation what new annoyance was prepared for her, Emmeline sat with eyes averted, whilst the stout woman mopped her face and talked disconnectedly of the hardships of travelling in such weather as this; when at length she reached her point, Mrs. Higgins became lucid and emphatic.
'I've heard things as have made me that angry I can hardly bear myself. Would you believe that people are trying to take away my daughter's character? It's Cissy 'Iggins's doing: I'm sure of it, though I haven't brought it 'ome to her yet. I dropped in to see some friends of ours--I shouldn't wonder if you know the name; it's Mrs. Jolliffe, a niece of Mr. Baxter--Baxter, Lukin and Co., you know. And she told me in confidence what people are saying--as how Louise was to marry Mr. Bowling, but he broke it off when he found _the sort of people she was living with_, here at Sutton--and a great many more things as I shouldn't like to tell you. Now what _do_ you think of--'
Emmeline, her eyes flashing, broke in angrily:
'I think nothing at all about it, Mrs. Higgins, and I had very much rather not hear the talk of such people.'
'I don't wonder it aggravates you, Mrs. Mumford. Did anyone ever hear such a scandal! I'm sure nobody that knows you could say a word against your respectability, and, as I told Mrs. Jolliffe, she's quite at liberty to call here to-morrow or the next day--'
'Not to see _me_, I hope,' said Emmeline. 'I must refuse--'
'Now just let me tell you what I've thought,' pursued the stout lady, hardly aware of this interruption. 'This'll have to be set right, both for Lou's sake and for yours, and to satisfy us all. They're making a mystery, d'you see, of Lou leaving 'ome and going off to live with strangers; and Cissy's been doing her best to make people think there's something wrong--the spiteful creature! And there's only one way of setting it right. As soon as Lou can be dressed and got down, and when the drawing-room's finished, I want her to ask all our friends here to five o'clock tea, just to let them see with their own eyes--'
'Of course there'll be no expense for _you_, Mrs. Mumford--not a farthing. I'll provide everything, and all I ask of you is just to sit in your own drawing-room--'
'Mrs. Higgins, be so kind as to listen to me. This is quite impossible. I can't dream of allowing any such thing.'
The other glared in astonishment, which tended to wrath.
'But can't you see, Mrs. Mumford, that it's for your _own_ good as well as ours? Do you want people to be using your name--'
'What can it matter to me how _such_ people think or speak of me?' cried Emmeline, trembling with exasperation.
'Such people! I don't think you know who you're talking about, Mrs. Mumford. You'll let me tell you that my friends are as respectable as yours--'
'I shall not argue about it,' said Emmeline, standing up. 'You will please to remember that already I've had a great deal of trouble and annoyance, and what you propose would be quite intolerable. Once for all, I can't dream of such a thing.'
'Then all I can say is, Mrs. Mumford'--the speaker rose with heavy dignity--'that you're not behaving in a very ladylike way. I'm not a quarrelsome person, as you well know, and I don't say nasty things if I can help it. But there's one thing I _must_ say and _will_ say, and that is, that when we first came here you gave a very different account of yourself to what it's turned out. You told me and my daughter distinctly that you had a great deal of the very best society, and that was what Lou came here _for_, and you knew it, and you can't deny that you did. And I should like to know how much society she's seen all the time she's been here--that's the question I _ask_ you. I don't believe she's seen more than three or four people altogether. They may have been respectable enough, and I'm not the one to say they weren't, but I _do_ say it isn't what we was led to expect, and that you can't deny, Mrs. Mumford.'
She paused for breath. Emmeline had moved towards the door, and stood struggling with the feminine rage which impelled her to undignified altercation. To withdraw in silence would be like a shamed confession of the charge brought against her, and she suffered not a little from her consciousness of the modicum of truth therein.
'It was a most unfortunate thing, Mrs. Higgins,' burst from her lips, 'that I ever consented to receive your daughter, knowing as I did that she wasn't our social equal.'
'Wasn't _what_?' exclaimed the other, as though the suggestion startled her by its novelty. 'You think yourself superior to us? You did us a favour--'
Whilst Mrs. Higgins was uttering these words the door opened, and there entered a figure which startled her into silence. It was that of Louise, in a dressing-gown and slippers, with a shawl wrapped about the upper part of her body.
'I heard you quarrelling,' she began. (Her bedroom was immediately above, and at this silent hour the voices of the angry ladies had been quite audible to her as she lay in bed.) 'What _is_ it all about? It's too bad of you, mother--'
'The idea, Louise, of coming down like that!' cried her parent indignantly. 'How did you know Mr. Mumford wasn't here? For shame! Go up again this moment.'
'I don't see any harm if Mr. Mumford had been here,' replied the girl calmly.
'I'm sure it's most unwise of you to leave your bed,' began Emmeline, with anxious thought for Louise's health, due probably to her dread of having the girl in the house for an indefinite period.
'Oh, I've wrapped up. I feel shaky, that's all, and I shall have to sit down.' She did so, on the nearest chair, with a little laugh at her strange feebleness.
'Now please _don't_ quarrel, you two. Mrs. Mumford, don't mind anything that mother says.'
Thereupon Louise's mother burst into a vehement exposition of the reasons of discord, beginning with the calumnious stories she had heard at Mrs. Jolliffe's, and ending with the outrageous arrogance of Mrs. Mumford's latest remark. Louise listened with a smile.
'Now look here, mother,' she said, when silence came for a moment, 'you can't expect Mrs. Mumford to have a lot of strangers coming to the house just on my account. She's sick and tired of us all, and wants to see our backs as soon as ever she can. I don't say it to offend you, Mrs. Mumford, but you know it's true. And I tell you what it is: To-morrow morning I'm going back home. Yes, I am. You can't stay here, mother, after this, and I'm not going to have anyone new to wait on me. I shall go home in a cab, straight from this house to the other, and I'm quite sure I shan't take any harm.'
'You won't do it till the doctor's given you leave,' said Mrs. Higgins with concern.
'He'll be here at ten in the morning, and I know he will give me leave. So there's an end of it. And you can go to bed and sleep in peace, Mrs. Mumford.'
It was not at all unamiably said. But for Mrs. Higgins's presence, Emmeline would have responded with a certain kindness. Still smarting under the stout lady's accusations, which continued to sound in sniffs and snorts, she answered as austerely as possible.
'I must leave you to judge, Miss Derrick, how soon you feel able to go. I don't wish you to do anything imprudent. But it will be much better if Mrs. Higgins regards me as a stranger during the rest of her stay here. Any communication she wishes to make to me must be made through a servant.'
Having thus delivered herself; Emmeline quitted the room. From the library, of which the door was left ajar, she heard Louise and her mother pass upstairs, both silent. Mumford, too well aware that yet another disturbance had come upon his unhappy household, affected to read, and it was only when the door of Louise's room had closed that Emmeline spoke to him.
'Mrs. Higgins will breakfast by herself to-morrow,' she said severely. 'She may perhaps go before lunch; but in any case we shall not sit down at table with her again.'
'All right,' Mumford replied, studiously refraining from any hint of curiosity.
So, next morning, their breakfast was served in the library. Mrs. Higgins came down at the usual hour, found the dining-room at her disposal, and ate with customary appetite, alone. Had Emmeline's experience lain among the more vigorously vulgar of her sex she would have marvelled at Mrs. Higgins's silence and general self-restraint during these last hours. Louise's mother might, without transgressing the probabilities of the situation, have made this a memorable morning indeed. She confined herself to a rather frequent ringing of the bedroom bell. Her requests of the servants became orders, such as she would have given in a hotel or lodging-house, but no distinctly offensive word escaped her. And this was almost entirely due to Louise's influence for the girl impressed upon her mother that 'to make a row' would be the sure and certain way of proving that Mrs. Mumford was justified in claiming social superiority over her guests.
The doctor, easily perceiving how matters stood, made no difficulty about the patient's removal in a closed carriage, and, with exercise of all obvious precautions, she might travel as soon as she liked. Anticipating this, Mrs. Higgins had already packed all the luggage, and Louise, as well as it could be managed, had been clad for the journey.
'I suppose you'll go and order the cab yourself?' she said to her mother, when they were alone again.
'Yes, I must, on account of making a bargain about the charge. A nice expense you've been to us, Louise. That man ought to pay every penny.'
'I'll tell him you say so, and no doubt he will.'
They wrangled about this whilst Mrs. Higgins was dressing to go out. As soon as her mother had left the house Louise stole downstairs and to the door of the drawing-room, which was half open. Emmeline, her back turned, stood before the fireplace, as if considering some new plan of decoration; she did not hear the girl's light step. Whitewashers and paperhangers had done their work; a new carpet was laid down; but pictures had still to be restored to their places, and the furniture stood all together in the middle of the room. Not till Louise had entered did her hostess look round.
'Mrs. Mumford, I want to say good-bye.'
'Oh, yes,' Emmeline answered civilly, but without a smile. 'Good-bye, Miss Derrick.'
And she stepped forward to shake hands.
'Don't be afraid,' said the girl, looking into her face good-humouredly. 'You shall never see me again unless you wish to.'
'I'm sure I wish you all happiness,' was the embarrassed reply. 'And--I shall be glad to hear of your marriage.'
'I'll write to you about it. But you won't talk--unkindly about me when I've gone--you and Mr. Mumford?'
'No, no; indeed we shall not.'
Louise tried to say something else, but without success. She pressed Emmeline's hand, turned quickly, and disappeared. In half-an-hour's time arrived the vehicle Mrs. Higgins had engaged; without delay mother and daughter left the house, and were driven off. Mrs. Mumford kept a strict retirement. When the two had gone she learnt from the housemaid that their luggage would be removed later in the day.
A fortnight passed, and the Mumfords once more lived in enjoyment of tranquillity, though Emmeline could not quite recover her old self. They never spoke of the dread experiences through which they had gone. Mumford's holiday time approached, and they were making arrangements for a visit to the seaside, when one morning a carrier's cart delivered a large package, unexpected and of unknown contents. Emmeline stripped off the matting, and found-- a drawing-room screen, not unlike that which she had lost in the fire. Of course it came from Louise, and, though she professed herself very much annoyed, Mrs. Mumford had no choice but to acknowledge it in a civil little note addressed to Coburg Lodge.
They were away from home for three weeks. On returning, Emmeline found a letter which had arrived for her the day before; it was from Louise, and announced her marriage. 'Dear Mrs. Mumford,--I know you'll be glad to hear it's all over. It was to have been at the end of October, when our house was ready for us. We have taken a very nice one at Holloway. But of course something happened, and mother and Cissy and I quarrelled so dreadfully that I went off and took a lodging. And then Tom said that we must be married at once; and so we were, without any fuss at all, and I think it was ever so much better, though some girls would not care to go in their plain dress and without friends or anything. After it was over, Tom and I had just a little disagreement about something, but of course he gave way, and I don't think we shall get on together at all badly. My stepfather has been very nice, and is paying for all the furniture, and has promised me a lot of things. Of course he is delighted to see me out of the house, just as you were. You see that I write from Broadstairs, where we are spending our honeymoon. Please remember me to Mr. Mumford, and believe me, very sincerely yours, Louise L. Cobb.'
Enclosed was a wedding-card.
'Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Cobb,' in gilt lettering, occupied the middle, and across the right-hand upper corner ran 'Louise E. Derrick,' an arrow transfixing the maiden surname.