Celia climbed up the steps to her room slowly; not because she was very tired, but because her room was nearly at the top of Brown’s Buildings and she had learnt that, at any rate, it was well to begin slowly. It was only the milk boy and the paper boy who ran up the stairs, and they generally whistled or sang as they ran, heedless of feminine reproofs or masculine curses. There was no lift at Brown’s; its steps were as stony and as steep as those of which Dante complained; the rail on which Celia’s hand rested occasionally was of iron; and Brown’s whitewashed corridors, devoid of ornament, were so severe as to resemble those of a prison; indeed, more than one of the inhabitants of the Buildings spoke of them, with grim facetiousness, as The Jail. Without having to pause to gain her breath, for at twenty-two, when you are well and strong, even sixty steep steps do not matter very much, Celia unlocked a door, bearing the number “105,” and entered her room.
It was not large; to descend to detail, it measured exactly ten feet by fifteen feet; but scantily furnished as it was, it contrasted pleasantly with the prison-like corridor on which it opened. Like that of the Baby Bear, everything in the apartment was small; a tiny table, a diminutive armchair, a miniature bookcase; the one exception was a wardrobe, which was not in reality a wardrobe; it served a double purpose; for when the doors were opened, they disclosed a bed, standing on its head, which came down at night and offered Celia repose. The room had a cheerful air; there was a small fire in the tiny grate, and the light of the flickering coal was reflected on one or two cheap, but artistically good, engravings, and on the deep maroon curtains—”Our celebrated art serge, 1s. 6d. a yard, double width”—which draped the windows looking down on Elsham Street, which runs parallel with its great, roaring, bustling brother, Victoria Street.
There were few prettier rooms in Brown’s than Celia’s; but then, compared with the other inhabitants of The Jail, she was quite well-to-do, not to say rich; for she earned a pound a week; and a pound a week is regarded as representing affluence by those who are earning only fifteen shillings; and that sum, I fancy, represented the top income of most of Celia’s neighbours.
You can do a great deal with a pound a week. Let us consider for a moment: rent, which includes all rates and taxes, five shillings a week; gas, purchased on the beautiful and simple penny-in-the-slot system, say, one shilling and threepence, and firing one shilling and sixpence—at Brown’s you only have a fire when it is really cold, and it is wonderful how far you can make a halfpenny bundle of wood go when you know the trick of it. Now we come to the not unimportant item of food. It is quite easy; breakfast, consisting of an egg, which the grocer, with pleasing optimism, insists upon calling “fresh,” one penny; bread and butter, per week, one shilling and sixpence; tea, milk, and sugar, per week, one and fourpence. Lunch, a really good, substantial meal, of savoury sausage or succulent fish and mashed potato, and a bun. If you are a lady the bun is indispensable; for if there is one faith implanted firmly in the feminine breast, it is that which accepts the penny bun as a form of nutrition not to be equalled. Thrones totter and fall, dynasties stagger and pass away, but the devotion of Woman to the Penny Bun stands firm amidst the cataclysms of nature and nations. This substantial lunch costs sixpence. On Sundays, you dine sumptuously at home on a chop, or eggs and bacon, cooked over your gas-ring, and eaten with the leisure which such luxury deserves. Tea, which if you are in Celia’s case, you take at home, consists of the remains of the loaf and the milk left from breakfast, enhanced by a sausage “Made in Germany,” or, say, for a change, half a haddock, twopence. Of course, this meal is supper and tea combined.
If you tot all this up, you will find it has now reached the not inconsiderable sum of fifteen shillings and tenpence. This is how the rich person like Celia lives. There still remains a balance of four shillings and twopence to be expended on clothing, bus fares, insurance and amusement. Quite an adequate—indeed, an ample sum. At any rate, it seemed so to Celia, who, at present, was well set up with clothes, and found sufficient amusement in the novelty of her life and her surroundings; for, only a few months back, she had been living in comfort and middle-class luxury, with a larger sum for pocket-money than had now to suffice for the necessaries of existence.
The kettle was boiling, she set the tea; and while she was arranging in a vase—”Given away with every half-pound of our choice Congo!”—the penny bunch of violets which she had been unable to resist, her lips were moving to the strains of the hackneyed but ever beautiful intermezzo in “Cavalleria Rusticana,” which floated up from the room immediately underneath hers; but as she drew her chair up to the fire, the music of the violin ceased, and presently she heard footsteps ascending the stairs slowly. There came a knock at the door, and she opened it to an old man with a frame so attenuated that it appeared to be absolutely fleshless. His hair was white and almost touching his shoulders, and his face so colourless and immobile that it looked as if it were composed of wax; but the dark eyes under the white, shaggy brows were full of life, and piercing.
“Oh, good evening, Mr. Clendon!” said Celia, in the tone a woman uses when she is really pleased, and not affecting to be pleased, at the advent of a visitor. “Come in.”
“Thank you, Miss Grant,” said the old man, in a peculiar voice that was quite low and yet strangely vibrant, like the note of a muted violin. “I have come to ask you if you could oblige me with a couple of pieces of sugar. I have run out, and somehow—one has one’s foolish weaknesses—I dislike my tea without sugar.”
“Why of course,” said Celia, with a touch of eagerness. “But—but won’t you come in and have your tea with me?”
The old man shook his head; but his eyes, taking in the comfort of the tiny, fire-lit room, the aspect of home, grew wistful; besides, there was a note of entreaty in the invitation; and “Thank you,” he said, simply.
With a nod of satisfaction Celia insisted upon his taking the easy chair, gave him a cup of tea—”Three lumps, please,” he said—and seated herself opposite him and smiled on him with the sweetness that is as indefinable as it is irresistible. Mr. Clendon, who played in the orchestra at the Hilarity Theatre of Varieties, just below Brown’s Buildings, being a gentleman as well as a broken-down fiddler, was conscious of, and appreciated, the subtle manner. He sat quite silent for a time, then, as his eyes wandered to the violets, he said:
“They smell of the country.”
Celia nodded. “Yes; that is why I bought them. It doesn’t often run to the luxury of flowers; but I could not resist them.”
“You are fond of the country?” he said.
“Oh, yes!” she responded, turning her eyes to the fire. “I have lived there all my life, until—until quite recently—until I came here.” She was silent for a moment or so. This old man was the only person she knew in Brown’s Buildings; they had made acquaintance on the stairs, and they had now and again borrowed little things—sugar, salt, a candle—from each other. She liked him, and—she was a woman and only twenty-two—she craved for some companionship, someone on whom she could bestow the gentle word and the smile which all good women and true long to give. At this moment she wanted to tell him something of her past life; but she hesitated; for when one is poor and alone in the world, one shrinks keenly from speaking of the happiness that is past. But the longing was too much for her. “I used to live in Berkshire.”
She paused, and stifled a sigh.
“My father bought a house there; we had plenty of money—I mean, at that time.” She coloured and was silent again for a moment. “My father was a business man and very lucky—for a time. Then luck changed. When he died, nearly six months ago, we found that he was ruined; he left very little, only a few pounds.”
The old man nodded again.
“I understand,” he said, with neither awkward sympathy nor intrusive curiosity.
“I was an only child, and suddenly found myself alone in the world. Oh, of course, there were relatives and friends, and some of them were kind, oh, very kind”—once more Mr. Clendon nodded, as if he understood—”but—but I felt that I would rather make my own way. I dare say it was foolish; there have been times when I have been tempted to—to accept help—throw up the sponge,” she smiled; “but—well, Mr. Clendon, most of us dislike charity, I suppose.”
“Some of us,” he admitted, dryly. “You found it hard work at first? Sometimes, when I hear stories like yours, Miss Grant, when I pass young girls, thin, white-faced, poorly-clothed, going to their work, with the look of old men on their faces—I mean old men, not women, mind!—I ask myself whether there is not some special place, with a special kind of punishment, appointed for selfish fathers, who have consigned their daughters to life-long toil and misery. I beg your pardon!”
“No, I don’t think my father was selfish,” said Celia, more to herself than to her listener. “Not consciously so; he was sanguine, too sanguine; he lived in the moment——”
“I know,” said Mr. Clendon. “Some men are born like that, and can’t help themselves. Well, what did you do?”
“Oh, it was what I tried to do,” said Celia, with a laugh. “I tried to do all sorts of things. But no one seemed inclined to give me a chance of doing anything; and, as I say, I was on the point of giving in, when I met in the street, and quite by chance, an old acquaintance of my father. He is a literary man, an antiquarian, and he is writing a big book; he has been writing it, and I think will continue to write it, all his life. He wanted, or said he wanted, a secretary, someone to look up facts and data at the British Museum; and he offered me the work. I—well, I just jumped at it. Fortunately for me, I have had what most persons call a good education. I know French and one or two other foreign languages, and although I have ‘little Latin and less Greek,’ I manage to do what Mr. Bishop wants. He gives me a pound a week; and that’s a very good salary, isn’t it? You see, so many persons can do what I am doing.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Mr. Clendon assented; he glanced at the slight, girlish figure in its black dress, at the beautiful face, with its clear and sweetly-grave eyes, the soft, dark hair, the mobile lips with a little droop at the ends which told its story so plainly to the world-worn old man who noted it. “And you work in the Reading Room all day?”
“Yes,” said Celia, cheerfully, and with something like pride. “It is a splendid place, isn’t it? Sometimes I can scarcely work, I’m so interested in the people there. There are so many types; and yet there is a kind of sameness in them all. One seems to lose one’s identity the moment one enters, to become merged in the general—general——”
“Stuffiness,” he said. “I know; I have been there. Do you manage to keep your health? I have noticed that you are rather pale.”
“Oh, I am quite well and strong,” she said, with a laugh. “I always walk there and back, unless it rains very hard; and I take long walks, sometimes in the early morning; sometimes at night, when it is fine. I think London is wonderful in the moonlight. You know the view from Westminster Bridge?”
“Yes,” he said. “And you are always alone?”
“Why, yes,” she assented. “I know no one in London, excepting yourself; for Mr. Bishop lives in the country, in Sussex, and we work by correspondence. Oh, yes; I am lonely sometimes,” she added, as if he had asked a question. “But then, I am very busy. I am very much interested in what I am doing, and besides—well, when one is poor, after ‘seeing better days'”—she laughed apologetically—”it is, perhaps, better—one can bear it better—to be alone.”
He gave another nod which indicated his complete comprehension.
“And there is so much to interest one in the people one sees and lives amongst. Now here, in Brown’s Buildings, in The Jail, one finds quite a large amount of amusement in—well, in noticing one’s neighbours and fitting a history to them. There is the young girl who lives on your floor; the girl who, you told me, is in the chorus of the ‘Baby Queen’; I am sure she is dreaming of, and looking forward to, the time when she will be—principal lady, don’t you call it?—and there is the lady who lives opposite her; the old lady who always wears a black silk dress, a satin cloak, and a crape bonnet. I am sure she has been ‘somebody’ in her time. I met her one day on the stairs, carrying a milk-can. I should have been cowardly enough to put it under my jacket or behind me; but she held it out in front of her and stared at me with haughty defiance. And there is my opposite neighbour”—she jerked her head, with a pretty, graceful motion, towards the door fronting her own—”that handsome, good-looking young fellow who comes up the steps two at a time and bangs his door after him, as if he were entering a mansion.”
“I know the young man you mean,” said Mr. Clendon. “Have you fitted a history to him?”
“Well, no; he puzzles me rather. I am sure he is a gentleman, and, of course, he must be poor, or he would not be here. Sometimes I think he is a clerk looking for a situation; but he has not the appearance of a clerk, has he? He looks more like an—an engineer; but then, his hands are always clean. He is well groomed, though his clothes are old.”
She paused a moment.
“Do you know, Mr. Clendon, I fancy that he has been in trouble lately; I mean, that something is worrying him. Yesterday, I heard him sigh as he unlocked his door. He used to sing and whistle; but, for the last few days, he has been quite quiet, and as I came in last evening I heard him walking up and down his room, as men do when they have something on their minds. Do you know his name?”
“No,” said Mr. Clendon, shaking his head; “he is a comparatively new-comer. I could find out for you, if you like.”
“Oh, no, no!” she said, quickly, and with a touch of colour. “I am not at all curious. I mean,” she explained, “that knowing his name would not increase my interest in him; quite the reverse. You know what I mean? But I fancy I am interested in him because I think he may be in trouble. You see, when one has suffered oneself——”
“Yes, that is the way with you women,” said the old man. “In fact, I suppose that, until you have suffered, you do not become women.” He glanced at the sheets of paper which lay on the little writing-desk and added, “I am afraid I am keeping you from your work. It was very kind of you to ask me to stay to tea—and to tell me what you have told me. I wish I could help you——. But, no, I don’t; for, if I could be of any assistance to you, you would not let me; you are too proud, Miss Grant. I like you all the better for the fact.”
“Oh, but you have helped me, more than you know,” Celia said, quickly. “You don’t know what a delight it is to me to hear the violin you play so beautifully; but, of course, you are an artist.”
“Thank you,” he said, his voice almost inaudible, and yet with that peculiar vibrance in it. “I was afraid I worried you.”
“No, no,” said Celia; “I am always sorry when you leave off. You play me to sleep sometimes and—and keep me from brooding. Not that I have any cause to brood,” she added, quickly; “for I count myself lucky.”
“Yes,” he said; “you are lucky; for you have youth, beauty—I beg your pardon,” he apologized with a little bow and a gesture which were strangely courtly. “And best of all, you have hope; without that, one is indeed unfortunate.”
He rose, and Celia accompanied him to the door; it was only a few steps distant; but the old man moved towards it as if he had been accustomed to traversing apartments of a larger size. As Celia opened the door, the one opposite hers opened at the same moment, and a lady came out. Judging by her figure, for her face was thickly veiled, she was young; she was plainly but richly dressed, and wore a coat and muff of sable. Her appearance was so strangely different from that of the residents and visitors of the Buildings that Celia could not help staring at her with surprise. As if she were conscious of, and resented, Celia’s intent regard, the lady turned her head away, and, keeping as near the wall as possible, descended the stairs quickly.
Celia and Mr. Clendon neither exchanged glances nor made any remark. With a gesture of farewell and thanks, he went down. Half-unconsciously, she stood looking at the door which the lady had closed after her; then Celia shut hers and went back to clearing away the tea.
When Mr. Clendon had asked her if she had fitted a history to the young man who had interested her so much, she had replied in the negative; but now, involuntarily, she began to do so. Of course, he was in trouble; probably in debt; this beautifully-dressed woman was his sister, or, perhaps, his sweetheart; she had come to help him, to comfort him. Something in the idea was pleasant and welcome to Celia; he was such a good-looking young fellow; that voice of his, which used to sing but had become silent lately, had a good, true ring in it; yes, it was nice to think that his sister—or his sweetheart—had come to bring him comfort.
She sat down to her notes; but she could not concentrate herself upon her work. The imaginary history of the young man obtruded upon her; she decided that she would go out for a walk, and take up her work again when she returned. She was getting her coat and hat when Mr. Clendon began to play; she changed her mind about the walk and went to the door to open it an inch or so, that she might hear more distinctly the soft strains of the Beethoven Sonata which came floating up to her. As she opened the door, she heard a strange sound rising above the notes of the music; it was that, perhaps, most terrible of all sounds, the unbidden, irresistible groan, rising from a man’s tortured heart; and it came from the young man’s room.
Startled, chilled, by the sound, she wondered that she could hear it so plainly; then she saw that the door opposite was slightly ajar; evidently the visitor had failed to close it. Celia waited, with the familiar horror, the tense expectation, for a repetition of the groan. It came. Obeying an impulse, a womanly impulse, to fly to the call of such poignant distress, Celia crossed the corridor softly and opened the door.
By the light of a single candle, she saw the young man seated at a table; his head was resting, face downward, on one arm; his whole attitude was eloquent of despair; but it was not this abandonment of grief which caused her to thrill with quick terror; it was because the hand held clenched in its grasp a revolver.
Most women have a horror of firearms; Celia stood motionless, her eyes fixed on the shining, deadly weapon, as if it were a poisonous snake. She wanted to cry out, to rush at the beastly thing and snatch it from the hand that gripped it; but she felt incapable of speech or movement; she could only stare with distended eyes at the revolver and the head lying on the arm.
So quick, so noiseless had been her entrance, that the man had not heard her; but presently, after a few moments which seemed years to her, he became conscious of her presence. He raised his head slowly and looked at her with vacant eyes, as if he were half-dazed and were asking himself if she were a vision. The movement released Celia from her spell; a pang of pity smote her at the sight of the white, drawn face, the hopeless despair in the young fellow’s eyes; her womanly compassion, that maternal instinct which the youngest of girl-children possesses, gave her courage. She leant forward, loosened the stiff, cold fingers and took the revolver from them. He submitted, as if he were still only half-conscious of her presence, and her action; and he glanced at his empty hand, at the revolver in hers, and then at her face. Guided once more by impulse, Celia closed the door, then went back and seated herself in a chair on the other side of the table; and so, face to face, they regarded each other in silence.
The man broke it.
“How—how did you know?” he asked. He spoke almost in a whisper, as a man speaks who is recovering from an anæsthetic.
“I heard you—groan,” said Celia, also almost in a whisper.
“You did?” he said, more clearly, and with disgust. “I must have groaned pretty loudly.” His self-contempt was evident.
There was a pause, then he said: “You are the girl who lives opposite?” A flicker of irritation and impatience shone in his eyes. “Why do you interfere? It is no business of yours!”
“Yes, it is,” she said, and there was something like a note of anger in her voice; for it seemed to her that he was extremely ungrateful. “It is the duty of anyone to prevent a man making—a—a fool of himself. You ought to be ashamed.”
Unwittingly, she had used the right tone. He leant back in the chair and stared at her with a mixture of resentment and amusement.
“You have plenty of confidence, anyhow, young lady,” he said.
“And you have none,” retorted Celia, with a dash of colour. “Fancy a man of your age trying to—to kill himself!”
“My age!” He laughed mirthlessly, ironically. “You talk to me, look at me, as if I were a boy.”
“You are not much more,” said Celia; “and a foolish one into the bargain.”
He pushed impatiently the short lock of hair from his forehead, which was dank with sweat.
“Be that as it may,” he said, “you have interfered most unwarrantably in a matter which does not concern you. All the same, I suppose you expect me to say that I am obliged to you. Well, I’m not; I don’t like being interfered with, especially—by a woman. You come into my room——” He tried to rise with an air of dignity, but he sank back, as if he were weak, and with his arms extended along those of the chair regarded her with a grim smile of whimsicality. “Well, I suppose I ought to say I am obliged to you. Consider that I have said it and—pray, don’t let me keep you.”
Celia rose, the revolver still in her hand.
“Good night,” she said.
“Here!” he called out to her, wearily; “give me back that thing; put it down.”
“Certainly not,” said Celia, with decision. “You are not fit to be trusted with it.”
“Oh, am I not?” he said, sarcastically.
“You know you are not. What were you doing with it, what were you going to do with it, when I came in?” she demanded.
“What an unnecessary question,” he retorted. “I was going to shoot myself, of course.”
“Exactly. That is why I am taking it away from you.”
“You are very clever,” he said, with an attempt at sarcasm. “I can go out and buy another. No, I can’t”—he laughed rather quaveringly—”I haven’t the coin. Put that revolver down, young lady, and leave me alone.”
“I shall do nothing of the kind,” said Celia, her eyes bright, her lips drawn straight. “I mean, that I am going to take the revolver. And I am not sure that I ought to leave you alone. If I do, will you promise me——”
“That I won’t try to kill myself in some other way? I will promise you nothing of the sort; you don’t know what you are asking. But, as I said before, I don’t want to detain you. In fact, if you knew—what I am——” his voice faltered for a moment—”you would clear out without any urging on my part.”
There was a pause, then: “What are you?” asked Celia, in a low voice.
“I am a forger,” he replied, after another pause.
The colour left Celia’s face, her lips quivered for a moment, but her eyes did not turn from him; and his eyes, after an attempt on his part to keep them steady, drooped before her intent gaze.
There was a silence which could be felt; then Celia said, very slowly, very quietly:
“I don’t believe you.”
Categories: English Literature