English Literature

Great Porter Square by Benjamin Leopold Farjeon

Great Porter Square by Benjamin Leopold Farjeon.jpg

CHAPTER I.

INTRODUCES MRS. JAMES PREEDY; HINTS AT THE TROUBLE INTO WHICH SHE HAS FALLEN; AND GIVES AN INSIGHT INTO HER SOCIAL POSITION.

MRS. JAMES PREEDY, lodging-house keeper, bred and born in the vocation, and consequently familiar with all the moves of that extensive class of persons in London that has no regular home, and has to be cooked for, washed for, and generally done for, sat in the kitchen of her house, No. 118, Great Porter Square. This apartment was situated in the basement, and here Mrs. Preedy received her friends and “did” for[2] her lodgers, in so far as the cooking for them can be said to be included in that portentous and significant term. The floor of the kitchen was oil-clothed, with, in distinguished places, strips of carpet of various patterns and colours, to give it an air. Over the mantelpiece was a square looking-glass in a mahogany frame, ranged on each side of which were faded photographs of men, women, and children, and of one gentleman in particular pretending to smoke a long pipe. This individual, whose face was square, whose aspect was frowning, and whose shirt sleeves were tucked up in an exceedingly free and easy fashion, was the pictorial embodiment of Mrs. Preedy’s deceased husband. While he lived he was “a worryer, my dear,” to quote Mrs. Preedy—and to do the lady justice, he looked it; but being gone to that bourne from which no lodging-house keeper ever returns, he immediately took his place in the affections of his widow as “the dear departed” and a “blessed angel.” Thus do we often find tender appreciation budding into flower even[3] at the moment the undertaker nails the lid upon the coffin, and Mr. Preedy, when the breath was out of his body, might (spiritually) have consoled himself with the reflection that he was not the only person from whose grave hitherto unknown or unrecognised virtues ascend. The weapons of the dead warrior, two long and two short pipes, were ranged crosswise on the wall with mathematical tenderness. When her day’s work was over, and Mrs. Preedy, a lonely widow, sat by herself in the kitchen, she was wont to look regretfully at those pipes, wishing that he who had smoked them were alive to puff again as of yore; forgetting, in the charity of her heart, the crosses and vexations of her married life, and how often she had called her “blessed angel” a something I decline to mention for defiling the kitchen with his filthy smoke.

The other faded photographs of men, women, and children, represented three generations of Mrs. Preedy’s relations. They were not a handsome family; family portraits, as a rule,[4] when the sun is the painter, are not remarkable for beauty, but these were a worse lot than usual. In their painful anxiety to exhibit themselves in a favourable light, Mrs. Preedy’s relations had leered and stared to such a degree that it must have been no easy matter for them to get their features back into their natural shape after the photographer in the City Road was done with them. To make things worse, they were in their Sunday clothes, and if they had just been going into the penitentiary they could not have looked more unhappy and uncomfortable.

On the mantelpiece, also, were two odd broken lustres which, in the course of their chequered career, had lost half their crystal drops; two fat vases, with a neat device of cabbage roses painted on them; an erratic clock, whose vagaries supplied a healthy irritant to its mistress; and a weather indicator, in the shape of an architectural structure representing two rural bowers, in one of which, suspended on catgut, dwelt an old wooden farmer, and in the other, also suspended on[5] catgut, a young wooden woman. When the weather was going to be stormy, the wooden old farmer swung out, and with an assumption of preternatural wisdom stared vacantly before him; when it was going to be fine, the wooden young woman made her appearance, with a smirk and a leer indicative of weak brains. They never appeared together; when one was in the other was out; and that they were more frequently wrong than right in their vaticinations concerning the weather (being out when they ought to have been in, and in when they ought to have been out: which, in an odd way, has a political signification) did not in the slightest degree affect the wooden impostors. In this respect they were no worse than other impostors, not made of wood, who set themselves up as prophets (announcing, for instance, from time to time, the end of the world), and exhibit no sense of shame at the continual confounding of their predictions.

The other furnishings of the room were in keeping. The kitchen range; the dresser,[6] with its useful array of plates and dishes, and pots and pans; the sideboard, with its obstinate drawers, which, when they did allow themselves to be pulled out, gave way with a suddenness which brought confusion on the operator; the six odd chairs, one of black horsehair, bits of which peeped up, curious to see what was going on; one very sad, of green rep, representing faded gentility; two of wood and two of cane, and all of different breeds; the sofa, with a treacherous sinking in its inside, indicative of spasms and rickets; the solid, useful kitchen table, upon which many a pudding had been made, and many a slice cut from lodger’s joints; the what-not of walnut wood, utterly useless, despite its pretension; the old-fashioned high-backed piano, with very little music in it, which had been taken for a debt from two old maiden sisters who had seen better days, and who had drifted, drifted, till they had drifted to Great Porter Square; the extraordinary production in water colours, which might have been a ship on fire, or a cornfield in a fit, or a pig cut[7] open, or a castle on a sunlit mountain, or the “last-day,” or a prairie of wild buffaloes, executed by one of Mrs. Preedy’s nephews, and regarded as a triumph of art; the two coloured prints, one of the Queen, the other of Prince Albert; the six odd volumes of books, all tattered and torn, like the man in the nursery rhyme;—these were the elegant surroundings which set the stamp upon Mrs. Preedy’s social standing in the neighbourhood of Great Porter Square.

There were four doors in the kitchen—one leading into the passage which communicated with the upper portion of the house, another affording an entrance into Mrs. Preedy’s bedchamber, another disclosing a dark cupboard, apparently about four feet square, but which, being used as a bedroom by the maid-of-all-work, must have been slightly larger, and the last conducting to the scullery, which opened into the area, through the iron grating of which in the pavement above, human nature monotonously presented itself in a panoramic prospect of definite and indefinite[8] human legs and ankles. Here, also, glimpses of a blissful earthly paradise were enjoyed by the various maids-of-all-work who came and went (for none stopped long at No. 118), through the medium of the baker, and the butcher, and even of the scavenger who called to collect the dust. Many a flirtation had been carried on in that dark nook. Beneath area railings, as in the fragrant air of fashionable conservatories, Love is lord of all.

Mrs. Preedy was alone. Not a soul was in the kitchen but herself. In the dark cupboard the maid-of-all-work was enjoying, apparently, a sleep as peaceful and noiseless as the sleep of a flower. It was nearly twelve o’clock at night, and not a sound was to be heard but Mrs. Preedy’s heavy breathing, as, with many a sigh, she read, in the columns of a much-thumbed newspaper, an item of news in the shape of a police report, which must have possessed a singular magnetic power, inasmuch as she had read it so often that she ought to have known it by heart. Nevertheless, upon[9] the present occasion, she did not miss a single word. Spectacles on nose, she followed the report line by line, keeping faithful mark with her forefinger until she reached the end; and then she commenced it all over again, and inflicted what was evidently a serious mortification upon herself. For it was not to be doubted, from the various shades of inquietude and distress which passed over her face as she proceeded, that the subject matter was exceedingly distasteful to her. It would have been the dryest of dry work but for the glass of gin and water from which Mrs. Preedy occasionally took a sip—moistening her grief, as it were. The liquid might have been supposed to have some kind of sympathy for her, exciting her to tears, which flowed the more freely the more she sipped.

Once, treading very softly, she crept out of the room into the passage, and looked up the dark staircase. As she did so, she was seized with a fit of trembling, and was compelled to cling to the balustrade for support. She crept upstairs to the street[10] door, at which she listened for a familiar sound. With her hand on the handle she waited until she heard the measured tread of a policeman; then she opened the door suddenly. It was a complaining, querulous door, and as she opened it a jarring sound escaped from its hinges. This sound produced an effect upon the policeman. He started back in affright, and with one leap placed himself outside the kerb of the pavement. No cause for reasonable alarm presenting itself, he looked up, and saw Mrs. Preedy standing upon the threshhold.

“O, it’s you, Mrs. Preedy?” he said, half-questioning.

“Yes,” she replied, “it’s me.”

“You startled me,” he said, coming close to her. “As the door opened it sounded like a smothered cry for ‘Help,’ and I won’t deny that it startled me.”

“I don’t wonder at it,” said Mrs. Preedy; “sometimes the least sound sends my ’eart into my mouth.”

By one impulse they both looked at the[11] house next door, No. 119 Great Porter Square. The next moment they turned their heads away from the house.

“Will you have a glass of gin?” asked Mrs. Preedy.

“I’ve no objections,” replied the guardian of the night.

He stepped inside the passage, and waited while Mrs. Preedy went downstairs—now with a brisker step—and returned with a glass of liquor, which he emptied at a gulp. Thus refreshed, he gave the usual policeman’s pull at his belt, and with a “thank ’ee,” stepped outside the street door.

“A fine night,” he said.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Preedy.

“But dark.”

“Yes,” acquiesced Mrs. Preedy, with a slight shudder, “but dark. ‘As anythink been discovered?” with another shrinking glance at No. 119.

“Nothing.”

“‘As nobody been took up?” she asked.

“No,” replied the policeman. “One man[12] come to the station last night and said he done it; but he had the delirium trimmings very bad, and we found out this morning that he was in Margate at the time. So of course it couldn’t have been him.”

“No,” said Mrs. Preedy, “but only to think of it—though it’s more than two months ago—sends the cold shivers over me.”

“Well, don’t you be frightened more than you can help. I’ll look after you.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

She closed the door and crept down to her kitchen, and sat down once more to a perusal of the newspaper.

There were other papers on the table at which she occasionally glanced, and also a quarto bill printed in large type, with a coat of arms at the top, which caused her to shudder when her eyes lighted on it; but this one paper which she read and re-read in anguish and tribulation of soul, appeared to enchain her sole attention and sympathy. The[13] quarto bill was carefully folded, and what was printed thereon was concealed from view; but its contents were as vivid in Mrs. Preedy’s sight as they would have been if they had been printed in blood.

The truth was, Mrs. Preedy was in trouble. A terrible misfortune had fallen upon her, and had occasioned a shock to her nervous system from which she declared she could never recover. But even this affliction might have been borne (as are many silent griefs from which, not unfrequently, the possessors contrive to extract a sweet and mournful consolation), had it not been accompanied by a trouble of a more practical nature. Mrs. Preedy’s means of livelihood were threatened, and she was haunted by grim visions of the workhouse.

The whole of the upper part of her lodging-house—the dining rooms, the drawing rooms, the second and third floors, and the garrets or attics, the boards of which were very close to the roof—were ordinarily let to lodgers in various ranks and stations of life, none apparently[14] above the grade of the middle class, and some conspicuously below it. Many strange tenants had that house accommodated. Some had come “down” in life; some had been born so low that there was no lower depth for them; some had risen from the gutters, without adding to their respectability thereby; some had floated from green lanes on the tide which is ever flowing from country to city. How beautiful is the glare of lights, seen from afar! “Come!” they seem to say; “we are waiting for you; we are shining for you. Why linger in the dark, when, with one bold plunge, you can walk through enchanted streets? See the waving of the flags! Listen to the musical murmur of delight and happiness! Come then, simple ones, and enjoy! It is the young we want, the young and beautiful, in this city of the wise, the fair, the great!” How bright, even in fragrant lanes and sweet-smelling meadows, are the dreams of the great city in the minds of the young! How bewitching the panorama of eager forms moving this way and that, and crossing each[15] other in restless animation! Laughter, the sound of silver trumpets, the rustle of silken dresses, the merry chink of gold, all are there, waiting to be enjoyed. The low murmur of voices is like the murmur of bees laden with sweet pleasure. Distance lends enchantment, and the sound of pain, the cry of agony, the wail and murmur of those who suffer, are not heard; the rags, the cruelty, the misery, the hollow cheeks and despairing eyes, are not seen. So the ships are fully freighted, and on the bosom of the tide innocence sails to shame, and bright hope to disappointment and despair.

But it mattered not to Mrs. Preedy what kind of lives those who lodged with her followed. In one room a comic singer in low music-halls; in another a betting man; in another a needle-woman and her child; in another a Frenchman who lay abed all day and kept out all night; in another a ballet girl, ignorant and pretty; in another the poor young “wife” of a rich old city man; and a hundred such, in infinite variety. Mrs. Preedy had but one positive test of the respectability[16] of her lodgers—the regular payment of their rent. Never—except, indeed, during the last few weeks to one person—was a room let in her house without a deposit. When a male lodger settled his rent to the day, he was “quite a gentleman;” when a female lodger did the same, she was “quite a lady.” Failing in punctuality, the man was “a low feller,” and the woman “no better than she should be, my dear.”

At the present time the house was more than half empty, and Mrs. Preedy, therefore, was not in an amiable mood. Many times lately had she said to neighbour and friend that she did not know what would become of her; and more than once in the first flush of her trouble, she had been heard to declare that she did not know whether she stood on her head or her heels. If the declaration were intended to bear a literal interpretation, it was on the face of it ridiculous, for upon such a point Mrs. Preedy’s knowledge must have been exact; but at an important period she had persisted in it, and, as the matter was[17] a public one, her words had found their way into the newspapers in a manner not agreeable or complimentary to her. Indeed, in accordance with the new spirit of journalism which is now all the fashion, three or four smartly-conducted newspapers inserted personal and quizzical leading articles on the subject, and Mrs. Preedy was not without good-natured friends who, in a spirit of the greatest kindness, brought these editorial pleasantries to her notice. She read them in fear and trembling at first, then with tears and anger, and fright and indignation. She did not really understand them. All that she did understand was that the cruel editors were making fun of the misfortunes of a poor unprotected female. Curious is it to record that the departed Mr. James Preedy came in for a share of her indignation for being dead at this particular juncture. He ought to have been alive to protect her. Had the “blessed angel” been in the flesh, he would have had a warm time of it; as it was, perhaps, he was having—— But theological problems had best be set aside.

[18]

Mrs. Preedy read and read, and sipped and sipped. Long habit had endowed her with a strength of resistance to the insidious liquid, and, although her senses were occasionally clouded, she was never inebriated. She read so long and sipped so frequently, that presently her eyes began to close. She nodded and nodded, bringing her nose often in dangerous proximity with the table, but invariably, at the critical moment, a violent and spasmodic jerk upwards was the means of saving that feature from fracture, though at the imminent risk of a dislocation of the slumberer’s neck.

While she nods in happy unconsciousness, an opportunity is afforded of looking over the newspapers, especially that which so closely concerns herself, and the quarto bill, printed in large type, the contents of which she so carefully conceals from sight.

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Categories: English Literature

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