by Wilkie Collins
LAID UP IN LODGINGS.
MY PARIS LODGING.
IT has happened rather whimsically, and not very fortunately for me, that my first experience of living in furnished lodgings abroad, as well as in England, has occurred at the very time when illness has rendered me particularly susceptible to the temporary loss of the comforts of home. I have been ill, alone, in furnished lodgings in Paris--ill, alone, on the journey back to England --ill, alone, again, in furnished lodgings in London. I am a single man; but as I have already intimated, I never knew what it was to enjoy the desolate liberty of the bachelor until I became an invalid. Some of my impressions of things and persons about me formed under these anomalous circumstances, may, perhaps, prove not altogether unworthy of being written down, while they are still fresh in my mind.
How I happen, for a temporary period, to be away from the home in which I have hitherto lived with my nearest relatives, and to which I hope soon to return, it is of no importance to the reader to know. Neither is it at all worth while to occupy time and space with any particular description of the illness from which I have been and am still suffering. It will be enough for preliminary purposes, if I present myself at once in the character of a convalescent visiting Paris, with the double intention of passing agreeably an interval of necessary absence from home, and of promoting, by change of air and scene, my recovery from a distressing and a tedious illness. When I add to this, that although I lived alone in my French bachelor apartment, I had the good fortune at Paris, as afterward in London, to be in the near neighborhood of the most kind, attentive, and affectionate friends, I have said as much as is needful by way of preface, and may get on at once to my main purpose.
What my impressions of my apartment in Paris might have been, if I had recovered there according to my anticipations, I cannot venture to say; for, before I had got fairly settled in my new rooms, I suffered a sudden relapse. My life again became the life of an invalid, and my ways of thought and observation turned back disastrously to the old invalid channel. Change of air and scene--which had done nothing for my body--did nothing either for my mind. At Paris, as before in London, I looked at the world about me purely from the sick man's point of view--or, in other words, the events that passed, the sights that appeared, and the persons who moved around me, interested or repelled me only as they referred more or less directly to myself and my own invalid situation. This curious narrowness of view, of which I am not yet well enough entirely to rid myself, though as conscious as another of the mental weakness that it implies, has no connection that I can discover with excessive selfishness or vanity; it is simply the result of the inevitable increase of a man's importance to himself which the very fact of sickness is only too apt to produce. My own sensations as a sick man now fill up the weary blank of my daily existence when I am alone, and form the main topic of inquiry and conversation when my doctor and my friends enliven my solitude. The concerns of my own poor body, which do not, I thank Heaven, occupy my attention for much more than one hour out of the twenty-four when I am well, become the main business and responsibility of all my waking moments now that I am ill. Pain to suffer, and the swallowing of drugs and taking of nourishment at regulated periods, daily restraints that I must undergo, and hourly precautions that I am forced to practice, all contribute to keep my mind bound down to the level of my body. A flight of thought beyond myself and the weary present time--even supposing I were capable of the exertion--would lead me astray from the small personal rules and regulations on which I now depend absolutely for the recovery of my health.
Have my temper and disposition changed for the worse under these unfavorable circumstances? Not much, I hope. I can honestly say for myself that I envy no other man's health and happiness. I feel no jealous pang when I hear laughter about me. I can look at people out of my window running easily across the road, while I can hardly crawl from one end of my chamber to the other, without feeling insulted by their activity. Still, it is true, at the same time, that I warm to people now exactly in proportion as I see them sensibly and sincerely touched by my suffering condition; and that I like or dislike my habitation for the time being, just as it happens to suit or not to suit all the little requirements of my temporary infirmity. If I were introduced to one of the most eminent men in the country at this moment, and if he did not look sorry to see me ill, I should never care to set eyes on the eminent man again. If I had a superb room with the finest view in the world, but no bedside conveniences for my pill-boxes and medicine-bottles, I would leave that superb room and fine view, and go cheerfully to a garret in an alley, provided it adapted itself comfortably to the arrangement of my indispensable invalid's lumber. This is, doubtless, a humiliating confession; but it is well that I should make it once for all--for the various opinions and impressions which I am about frankly to write down will be found to be more or less colored by what I venture to describe as the involuntary egotism of a sick man. Let us see how my new lodging in Paris suits me, and why it is that I immediately become fond of it.
I live in a little building of my own, called a Pavilion. Outside it resembles, as to size, brightness, and apparent insubstantiality, a private dwelling-house in a Pantomime. I expect as I drive up to it, for the first time, to see Clown grinning at the door, and Harlequin jumping through the window. A key is produced, and an odd little white door, through which no fat man could penetrate even sidewise, is opened; I ascend a steep flight of a dozen steps, and enter my toy castle; my own independent, solitary, miniature mansion.
The first room is the drawing-room. It is about the size of a large packing-case, with a gay looking-glass and clock, with bright red chairs and sofa, with a cozy round table, with a big window looking out on another Pavilion opposite and on a great house set back in a courtyard. To my indescribable astonishment, it actually possesses three doors! One I have just entered by. Another leads into a bed-chamber of the same size as the drawing-room, just as brightly and neatly furnished, with a window that looks out on the everlasting gayety and bustle of the Champs Elysées. The third door leads into a dressing-room half the size of the drawing-room, and having a fourth door which opens into a kitchen half the size of the dressing-room, but of course possessing a fifth door, which leads out again to the head of the staircase. As no two people meeting in the kitchen could possibly pass each other, or remain in the apartment together without serious inconvenience, the two doors leading in and out of it may be pronounced useful as well as ornamental. Into this quaint little culinary crevice the coal-merchant, the wood-merchant, and the water-carrier squeeze their way, and find a doll's cellar and cistern all ready for them. They might be followed, if I were only well enough to give dinners, by a cook and his scullions; for I possess, besides the kitchen and cistern, an elaborate charcoal stove in the kitchen, at which any number of courses might be prepared by any culinary artist who could cook composedly with a row of small fires under his nose, a coal-cellar between his legs, a cistern scrubbing his shoulder, and a lukewarm wall against his back.
But what is the main secret of my fondness for the Pavilion? It does not, I am afraid, lie in the brightness and elegance of the little rooms, or even in the delightful independence of inhabiting a lodging, which is also a house of my own, where I can neither be disturbed nor overlooked by any other lodgers. The one irresistible appeal which my Parisian apartment makes to my sympathies consists in the perfect manner in which it fits my wants and flatters my weaknesses as an invalid.
I have quite a little druggist's stock in trade of physic-bottles, glasses, spoons, card-boxes, and prescriptions; I have all sorts of queer vestments and coverings, intended to guarantee me against all variations of temperature and all degrees of exposure, by night as well as by day; I have ready remedies that must be kept in my bed-chamber, and elaborate applications that I must find handy in my dressing-room. In short, I myself am nothing but the center of a vast medical litter, and the closer the said litter revolves round me the more comfortable I am. In a house of the usual size, and in rooms arranged on the ordinary plan, I should be driven distracted (being an untidy man even in my healthiest moments) by mislaying things every hour in the day, by having to get up to look for them, and by being compelled to walk up and downstairs, or to make others do so for me, when I want to establish communications between dressing-room, bedroom, drawing-room, coal-cellar, and kitchen. In my tiny Parisian house of one small story, I can wait on myself with the most perfect ease; in my wee sitting-room, nine-tenths of the things I want are within arms-length of me, as I repose in my elbow-chair; if I must move, I can get from my bed-chamber to my kitchen in less time than it would take me to walk across an English drawing-room; if I lose my morning draught, mislay my noontide drops, or leave my evening pill-box under my afternoon dressing-gown, I can take my walking-stick or my fire-tongs and poke or fish for missing articles in every corner of the room, without doing more than turning round in my chair. If I had been well and had given dinner-parties, I might have found my habitation rather too small for me. As it is, if my Pavilion had been built on purpose for a solitary lodger to fall ill in with the least possible amount of personal discomfort, it could not have suited my sad case better. Sick, I love and honor the skillful architect who contrived it. Well, I am very much afraid I should never have bestowed so much as a single thought on him.
Why do I become, in one cordial quarter of an hour, friendly, familiar, and even affectionate with my portress? Because it is part of my unhealthy condition of body and mind that I like nothing so well as being pitied; and my portress sweetens my daily existence with so much compassion that she does me more good, I think, than my doctor or my drugs.
Let me try to describe her. She is a thin, rapid, cheerful little woman, with a tiny face and bright brown eyes. She has a husband (Hippolyte senior) and a son (Hippolyte junior), and a lodge of one room to live in with her family. She has not been in bed, for years past, before two or three in the morning; for my Pavilion and the second Pavilion opposite and the large house behind are all shut in from the roadway by handsome iron gates, which it is the business of somebody in the porter's lodge to open (by pulling a string communicating with the latch) at all hours of the night to homeward-bound lodgers. The large house has so many tenants that some one is always out at a party or a theater--so the keeping of late hours becomes a necessary part of the service in the lodge, and the poor little portress is the victim who suffers as perpetual night-watch. Hippolyte senior absorbs his fair share of work in the day, and takes the early-rising department cheerfully, but he does not possess the gift of keeping awake at night. By eleven o'clock (such is sometimes the weakness even of the most amiable human nature) it is necessary that Hippolyte senior should be stretched on his back on the nuptial bedstead, snoring impervious to all sounds and all in-comers. Hippolyte junior, or the son, is too young, to be trusted with the supervision of the gate-string. He sleeps, sound as his father, with a half-developed snore and a coiled-up body, in a crib at the foot of the parental bed. On the other side of the room, hard by the lodgers' keys and candlesticks, with a big stove behind her and a gaslight before her eyes, sits the faithful little portress, watching out the weary hours as wakefully as she can. She trusts entirely to strong coffee and the near flare of the gas-light to combat the natural sleepiness which follows a hard day's work begun at eight o'clock every morning. The coffee and the gas deserve, to a certain extent, the confidence she places in them. They keep her bright, brown eyes wide open, staring with unwinking pertinacity at the light before them. They keep her back very straight against her chair, and her arms crossed tightly over her bosom, and her feet set firmly on her footstool. But though they stop sleep from shutting her eyes or relaxing her limbs, they cannot prevent some few latent Morphian influences from stealthily reaching her. Open as her eyes may be, the little woman nevertheless does start guiltily when the ring at the bell comes at last; does stare fixedly for a moment before she can get up; has to fight resolutely with something drowsy and clinging in the shape of a trance, before she can fly to the latch-string, and hang on to it wearily, instead of pulling at it with the proper wakeful jerk. Night after night she has now drunk the strong coffee, and propped herself up stiffly in her straight chair, and stared hard at the flaring gas-light, for nearly seven years past. Some people would have lost their tempers and their spirits under these hard circumstances, but the cheerful little portress has only lost flesh. In a dark corner of the room hangs a daguerreotype likeness. It represents a buxom woman, with round cheeks and a sturdy waist, and dates from the period when she was the bride of Hippolyte senior, and was thinking of following him into the porter's lodge. "Ah, my dear sir," she says, when I condole with her, "if we do get a little money sometimes in our way of life, we don't earn it too easily. Aïe, Aïe, Aïe! I should like a good sleep; I should like to be as fat as my portrait again!"
The same friendly relations--arising entirely, let it always be remembered, out of my illness and the portress's compassion for me--which have let me into the secrets of the strong coffee, the daguerreotype portrait, and the sleepy constitution of Hippolyte senior, also enable me to ascertain, by special invitation, how the inhabitants of the lodge dispose of some of the hardly-earned profits of their situation.
I find myself suffering rather painfully one morning, under some aggravated symptoms of my illness, and my friend, the portress, comes into the Pavilion to talk to me and keep up my spirits She has had an hour's extra sleep, for a wonder, and is in a chirping state of cheerfulness in consequence. She shudders and makes faces at my physic-bottles; entreats me to throw them away, to let her put me to bed and administer a light tea to begin with, and a broth to follow (un Thé léger et un Bouillon). If I will only stick to these remedies, she will have them ready, if necessary, every hour in the day, and will guarantee my immediate restoration to health and strength. While we are arguing the question of the uselessness of drugs and the remedial excellence of tea and broth, Hippolyte senior, with a look of mysterious triumph, which immediately communicates itself to the face of his wife, enters the room to tell her that she is wanted below in the lodge. She goes to his side and takes his arm, as if he was a strange gentleman waiting to lead her down to dinner, nods to him confidentially, then glances at me. Her husband follows her example, and the two stand quite unconfusedly, arm in arm, smiling upon me and my physic-bottles, as if they were a pair of lovers, and I was the venerable parent whose permission and blessing they were waiting to receive.
"Have you been getting a new doctor for me?" I ask, excessively puzzled by their evident desire to connect me with some secret in the lodge.
"No," says the portress, "I believe in no doctors. I believe in nothing but a light tea and a broth."
("My sentiments also!" adds her husband, parenthetically.)
"But we have something to show you in the lodge," continues the portress.
(Hippolyte senior arches his eyebrows, and says "Aha!")
"And when you feel better," proceeds my cheerful little friend, "only have the politeness to come down to us, and you will see a marvelous sight!"
Hippolyte senior depresses his eyebrows, and says "Hush!"
"Enough," replies the portress, understanding him; "let us retire."
And they leave the room immediately, still arm in arm--the fondest and most mysterious married couple that I have ever set eyes on.
That day I do not feel quite strong enough to encounter great surprises; so my visit to the lodge is deferred until the next morning. Rather to my amazement, the portress does not pay me her usual visit at my waking on the eventful day. I descend to the lodge, wondering what this change means, and see three or four strangers assembled in the room, which is bed-chamber, parlor, and porter's office all in one. The strangers, I find, are admiring friends; they surround Hippolyte senior, and all look one way with an expression of intense pleasure and surprise. My eyes follow the direction of theirs, and I see, above the shabby little lodge table, a resplendent new looking-glass in the brightest of frames. On either side of it rise two blush-colored wax-tapers. Below it are three ornamental pots, with blooming rose-trees in them, backed by a fan-like screen of fair white paper. This is the surprise that was in store for me; and this is also the security in which the inhabitants of the lodge have invested their last hard-earned savings. The whole thing has the effect upon my mind of an amateur high altar; and I admire the new purchase accordingly with such serious energy of expression that Hippolyte senior, in the first sweetness of triumph, forgets the modesty proper to his position as proprietor of the new treasure, and apostrophizes his own property as Magnifique, with a power of voice and an energy of gesticulation which I have never noticed in him before. When his enthusiasm has abated, and just as I am on the point of asking where my friend the portress is, I hear a faint little voice speaking behind the group of admiring friends:
"Perhaps, messieurs et mesdames, you think this an extravagance for people in our situation," says the voice, in feebly polite tones of apology; "but, alas! how could we resist it? It is so beautiful; it brightens the room so; it gives us such a noble appearance. And, then, it is also a property--something to leave to our children --in short, a pardonable extravagance. Aïe! I am shaking all over again; I can say no more!"
While these words are in course of utterance, the group of friends separate, and I see sitting behind them, close to the big stove, the little portress, looking sadly changed for the worse. Her tiny face has become very yellow; her bright brown eyes look disproportionately large; she has an old shawl twisted round her shoulders, and shivers in it perpetually. I ask what is the matter, imagining that the poor little woman has got a fit of the ague. The portress contrives to smile as usual before she answers, though her teeth are chattering audibly.
"You will not give me drugs, if I tell you?" she says.
"I will do nothing that is not perfectly agreeable to you," I reply, evasively.
"My complaint is a violent indigestion (uneforte indigestion)," continues the portress, indicatively laying one trembling forefinger on the region of her malady. "And I am curing myself with a light tea."
Here the forefinger changes its direction and points to a large white earthenware tea-pot, with an empty mug by the side of it. To save the portress the trouble of replenishing her drinking-vessel, I pour out a dose of the light tea. It is a liquid of a faint straw color, totally unlike any English tea that ever was made; and it tastes as a quart of hot water might taste after a wisp of hay had been dipped into it. The portress swallows three mugfuls of her medicine in my presence, smiling and shivering, looking rapturously at the magnificent new mirror with its attendant flower-pots and tapers, and rejecting, with grimaces of comic disgust, all overtures of medical help on my part, even to the modest offering of one small pill. An hour or two later I descend to the lodge again to see how she is. She has been persuaded to go to bed; is receiving, in bed, a levée of friends; in answering, in the same interesting situation, the questions of all the visitors of the day relating to all the lodgers in the house; has begun a fresh potful of the light tea; is still smiling; still shivering; still contemptuously skeptical on the subject of drugs.
In the evening I go down again. The teapot is not done with yet, and the hay-flavored hot water is still pouring inexhaustibly into the system of the little portress. She happens now to be issuing directions relative to the keeping awake of Hippolyte senior, who, for this night at least, must watch by the gate-string. He is to have a pint of strong coffee and a pipe; he is to have the gas turned on very strong; and he is to be excited by the presence of a brisk and wakeful friend. The next morning, just as I am thinking of making inquiries at the lodge, who should enter my room but the dyspeptic patient herself, cured, and ready to digest anything but a doctor's advice or a small pill? Hippolyte senior, I hear, has not fallen asleep over the gate-string for more than half an hour every now and then, and the portress has had a long night's rest. She does not consider this unusual occurrence as reckoning in any degree among the agencies which have accomplished her rapid recovery. It is the light tea alone that has done it; and, if I still doubt the inestimable virtues of the hot hay water-cure, then, of all the prejudiced gentlemen the portress has ever heard of, I am the most deplorably obstinate in opening my arms to error and shutting my eyes to truth.
Such is the little domestic world about me, in some of the more vivid lights in which it presents itself to my own peculiar view.
As for the great Parisian world outside, my experience of it is bounded by the prospect I obtain of the Champs Elysées from my bedroom window. Fashionable Paris spins and prances by me every afternoon in all its glory; but what interest have healthy princes and counts and blood-horses, and blooming ladies, plunged in abysses of circumambiant crinoline, for me, in my sick situation? They all fly by me in one confused phantasmagoria of gay colors and rushing forms, which I look at with lazy eyes. The sights I watch with interest are those only which seem to refer in some degree to my own invalid position. My sick man's involuntary egotism clings as close to me when I look outward at the great highway, as when I look inward at my own little room. Thus the only objects which I now notice attentively from my window are, oddly enough, chiefly those which I should have missed altogether, or looked at with indifference if I had occupied my bachelor apartment in the enviable character of a healthy man.
For example, out of the various vehicles which pass me by dozens in the morning, and by hundreds in the afternoon, only two succeed in making anything like a lasting impression on my mind. I have only vague ideas of dust, dashing, and magnificence in connection with the rapid carriages late in the day, and of bells and hollow yelping of carters' voices in connection with the deliberate wagons early in the morning. But I have, on the other hand, a very distinct remembrance of one sober brown omnibus, belonging to a sanitary asylum, and of a queer little truck which carries baths and hot water to private houses, from a bathing establishment near me. The omnibus, as it passes my window at a solemn jog-trot, is full of patients getting their airing. I can see them dimly, and I fall into curious fancies about their various cases, and wonder what proportion of the afflicted passengers are near the time of emancipation from their sanitary prison on wheels. As for the little truck, with its empty zinc bath and barrel of warm water, I am probably wrong in sympathetically associating it as frequently as I do with cases of illness. It is doubtless often sent for by healthy people, too luxurious in their habits to walk abroad for a bath. But there must be a proportion of cases of illness to which the truck ministers; and when I see it going faster than usual, I assume that it must be wanted by some person in a fit, grow suddenly agitated by the idea, and watch the empty bath and the hot-water barrel with breathless interest until they rumble away together out of sight.
So, again, with regard to the men and women who pass my window by thousands every day; my view of them is just as curiously circumscribed as my view of the vehicles. Out of all the crowd, I now find, on taxing my memory, that I have noticed particularly just three people (a woman and two men) who have chanced to appeal to my invalid curiosity.
The woman is a nursemaid, neither young nor pretty, very clean and neat in her dress, with an awful bloodless paleness in her face, and a hopeless consumptive languor in her movements. She has only one child to take care of--a robust little girl of cruelly active habits. There is a stone bench opposite my window; and on this the wan and weakly nursemaid often sits, not bumping down on it with the heavy thump of honest exhaustion, but sinking on it listlessly, as if in changing from walking to sitting she were only passing from one form of weariness to another. The robust child remains mercifully near the feeble guardian for a few minutes--then becomes, on a sudden, pitilessly active again, laughs and dances from a distance, when the nurse makes weary signs to her, and runs away altogether when she is faintly entreated to be quiet for a few minutes longer. The nurse looks after her in despair for a moment, draws her neat black shawl, with a shiver, over her sharp shoulders, rises resignedly, and disappears from my eyes in pursuit of the pitiless child. I see this mournful little drama acted many times over, always in the same way, and wonder sadly how long the wan nursemaid will hold out. Not being a family man, and having nervously acute sympathies for sickness and suffering just now, it would afford me genuine satisfaction to see the oppressed nurse beat the tyrannical child; but she seems fond of the little despot; and besides, she is so weak that, if it came to blows, I am afraid, grown woman as she is, she might get the worst of it.
The men whom I observe are not such interesting cases, but they exhibit, in a minor degree, the peculiarities that are sure to attract my attention. The first of the two is a gentleman--lonely and rich, as I imagine. He is fat, yellow, and gloomy, and has evidently been ordered horse exercise for the benefit of his health. He rides a quiet English cob; never has any friend with him; never--so far as I can see--exchanges greetings with any other horseman; is never smiled at from a carriage, nor bowed to by a foot-passenger. He rides with his flaccid chin sunk on his fat breast; sits his horse as if his legs were stuffed, and his back boneless; always attracts me because he is the picture of dyspeptic wretchedness, and always passes me at the same mournful jog-trot pace. The second man is a police agent. I cannot sympathize with him, in consequence of his profession; but I can observe, with a certain lukewarm interest, that he is all but worked to death. He yawns and stretches himself in corners; sometimes drops furtively on to the stone bench before my window; then starts up from it suddenly, as if he felt himself falling asleep the moment he sat down. He has hollow places where other people have cheeks; and, judging by his walk, must be quite incapable of running after a prisoner who might take to flight. On the whole, he presents to my mind the curious spectacle of a languid man trying to adapt himself to a brisk business, and failing palpably in the effort. As the sick child of a thriving system, he attracts my attention. I devoutly hope that he will not return the compliment by honoring me with his notice.
Such are the few short steps that I take in advance to get a moderately close glance at French humanity. If my view is absurdly limited to my own dim horizon, this defect has at least one advantage for the reader: it prevents all danger of my troubling him with my ideas and observations at any great length. If other people value this virtue of brevity in writers, orators, and preachers as sincerely as I do, perhaps I may hope, on account of my short range of observation and my few words, to get another hearing, if I write the second chapter of my invalid experiences. I began the first half of them (as herein related) in France; and I am now completing the second (yet to be recorded) in England. When the curtain rises on my sick-bed again, the scene will be London.
CHAPTER THE SECOND.--MY LONDON LODGING.
I last had the honor of presenting myself to the reader's notice in the character of an invalid laid up in lodgings at Paris. Let me now be permitted to reappear as an invalid laid up, for the time being, in a London cab. Let it be imagined that I have got through the journey from Paris, greatly to my own surprise and satisfaction, without breaking down by the way; that I have slept one night at a London hotel for the first time in my life; and that I am now helplessly adrift, looking out for furnished apartments as near as may be to my doctor's place of abode.
The cab is fusty, the driver is sulky, the morning is foggy. A dry dog-kennel would be a pleasant refuge by comparison with the miserable vehicle in which I am now jolting my way over the cruel London stones. On our road to my doctor's neighborhood, we pass through Smeary Street--a locality well known to the inhabitants of Northern London. I feel that I can go no further. I remember that some friends of mine live not far off, and I recklessly emancipate myself from the torment of the cab by stopping the driver at the very first house in the windows of which I see a bill with the announcement that apartments are to let.
The door is opened by a tall, muscular woman, with a knobbed face and knotty arms besprinkled with a layer of grate-dust in a state of impalpable powder. She shows me up into a second-floor front bedroom. My first look of scrutiny is naturally directed at the bed. It is of the negative sort, neither dirty nor clean; but by its side I see a positive advantage in connection with it, in the shape of a long mahogany shelf, fixed into the wall a few inches above the bed, and extending down its whole length from head to foot. My sick man's involuntary egotism is as predominant an impulse within me at London as at Paris. I think directly of my invalid's knick-knacks; I see that the mahogany shelf will serve to keep them all within my reach when I am in bed; I know that it will be wanted for no other purpose than that to which I design to put it; that it need not be cleared for dinner every day, like a table, or disturbed when the servant cleans the room, like a movable stand. I satisfy myself that it holds out all these rare advantages to me, in my peculiar situation, and I snap at them on the instant--or, in other words, I take the room immediately.
If I had been in health, I think I should have had two cogent reasons for acting otherwise, and seeking apartments elsewhere. In the first place, I should have observed that the room was not very clean, or very comfortably furnished. I should have noticed that the stained and torn drugget on the floor displayed a margin of dirty boards all round the bed-chamber; and I should no sooner have set eyes on the venerable armchair by the bedside than I should have heard it saying privately in my ear, in an ominous language of its own, "Stranger, I am let to the Fleas; take me at your peril." Even if these signs and portents had not been enough to send me out into the street again, I should certainly have found the requisite warning to quit the house written legibly in the face, figure, and manner of the landlady. I should probably have seen something to distrust and dislike in everything connected with her, down even to her name, which was Mrs. Glutch; I should have made my escape into the street again, and should not have ventured near it any more for the rest of the day. But as it was, my fatal invalid prepossessions blinded me to everything but the unexpected blessing of that mahogany shelf by the bedside. I overlooked the torn drugget, the flea-peopled armchair, and the knotty-faced landlady with the ominous name. The shelf was bait enough for me, and the moment the trap was open I collected my train of medicine-bottles and confidently walked in.
It is a general subject of remark among observant travelers, that the two nations of the civilized world which appear to be most widely separated as to the external aspects of life respectively presented by them are also the two which are most closely brought together by the neighborly ties of local situation. Before I had been many days established in Smeary Street, I found that I myself, in my own circumscribed sphere, offered a remarkable example of the truth of the observation just recorded. The strong contrast between my present and my past life was a small individual proof of the great social contrasts between England and France.
I have truly presented myself at Paris as living independently in a little toy house of my own; as looking out upon a scene of almost perpetual brightness and gayety; and as having people to attend on me whose blessed levity of disposition kept them always cheerful, always quaintly characteristic, always unexpectedly amusing, even to the languid eye of a sick man. With equal candor I must now record of my indoor life in London that it was passed, with many other lodgers, in a large house, without a vestige of toy-shop prettiness in any part of it. I must acknowledge that I looked out upon drab-colored walls and serious faces through a smoke-laden atmosphere; and I must admit that I was waited on (so far as the actual house service was concerned) by people whose cloudy countenances seemed unconscious of a gleam of inner sunshine for days and days together. Nor did the contrast end here. In my lodgings at Paris, I have represented myself as having about me a variety of animate and inanimate objects, which I might notice or not, just as I pleased, and as using my freedom of choice in a curiously partial and restricted manner, in consequence of the narrowing effect of my illness on my sympathies and powers of observation. In my London lodging, I enjoyed no such liberty. I could not get even a temporary freedom of selection, except by fighting for it resolutely at odds and ends of time. I had but one object which offered itself to my observation, which perpetually presented itself, which insisted on being noticed, no matter how mentally unfit and morally unwilling my illness rendered me to observe it; and that object was--my landlady, Mrs. Glutch.
Behold me, then, now no longer a free agent; no longer a fanciful invalid with caprices to confide to the ear of the patient reader. My health is no better in Smeary Street than it was in the Champs Elysées; I take as much medicine in London as I took in Paris; but my character is altered in spite of myself, and the form and color of my present fragment of writing will, I fear, but too truly reflect the change.
I was a sick man, with several things to discourse of--I am a sick man, with only one topic to talk about. I may escape from it for a few sentences at a time in these pages, as I escaped from it for a few minutes at a time in Smeary Street; but the burden of my song will be now what the burden of my life has been lately--my landlady. I am going to begin with her--I shall go on with her--I shall try to wander away from her--I shall get back to her--I shall end with her. She will mix herself up with everything I have to say; will intrude on my observations out of window; will get into my victuals and drink, and drops, and draughts, and pills; will come between me and my studies of character among maids of all work, in this too faithful narrative, just as she did in the real scenes which it endeavors to represent. While I make this acknowledgment as a proper warning to the reader that I have changed into a monotonous sick man since we met last, let me add, in justice to myself, that my one subject has at least the advantage of being a terrible one. Think of a sick fly waited on by a healthy blue-bottle, and you will have a fair idea of the relative proportions and positions of myself and Mrs. Glutch.
I have hardly been settled an hour in my second-floor front room before the conviction is forced on my mind that Mrs. Glutch is resolved to make a conquest of me--of the maternal or platonic kind, let me hasten to add, so as to stop the mouth of scandal before it is well opened. I find that she presents herself before me in the character of a woman suffused in a gentle melancholy, proceeding from perpetual sympathy for my suffering condition. It is part of my character as a sick man that I know by instinct when people really pity me, just as children and dogs know when people really like them; and I have, consequently, not been five minutes in Mrs. Glutch's society before I know that her sympathy for me is entirely of that sort of which (in the commercial phrase) a large assortment is always on hand. I take no pains to conceal from Mrs. Glutch that I have found her out; but she is too innocent to understand me, and goes on sympathizing in the very face of detection. She becomes, in spite of her knobbed face, knotty arms, and great stature and strength, languidly sentimental in manner the moment she enters my room. Language runs out of her in a perpetual flow, and politeness encircles her as with a halo that can never be dimmed. "I have been so anxious about you!" is her first morning's salutation to me. The words are preceded by a faint cough, and followed by an expressively weary sigh, as if she had passed a sleepless night on my account. The next morning she appears with a bunch of wall-flowers in her mighty fist, and with another faint prefatory cough, "I beg pardon, sir; but I have brought you a few flowers. I think they relieve the mind." The expressively weary sigh follows again, as if it would suggest this time that she has toiled into the country to gather me the flowers at early dawn. I do not find, strange as it may seem, that they relieve my mind at all; but of course I say, "Thank you."--"Thank you, sir," rejoins Mrs. Glutch; for it is a part of this woman's system of oppressive politeness always to thank me for thanking her. She invariably contrives to have the last word, no matter in what circumstances the courteous contention which is the main characteristic of our daily intercourse may take its rise.
Let us say, for instance, that she comes into my room and gets into my way (which she always does) at the very time when she ought to be out of it--her first words are necessarily, "I beg pardon." I growl (not so brutally as I could wish, being weak), "Never mind."-- "Thank you, sir," says Mrs. Glutch, and coughs faintly, and sighs, and delays going out as long as possible. Or, take another example: "Mrs. Glutch, this plate's dirty."--"I am much obliged to you, sir, for telling me of it." "It isn't the first dirty plate I have had."--"Really now, sir?" "You may take away the fork; for that is dirty, too."--"Thank you, sir." Oh, for one hour of my little Parisian portress! Oh, for one day's respite from the politeness of Mrs. Glutch!
Let me try if I cannot get away from the subject for a little while. What have I to say about the other lodgers in the house? Not much; for how can I take any interest in people who never make inquiries after my health, though they must all know, by the frequent visits of the doctor and the chemist's boy, that I am ill?
The first floor is inhabited by a mysterious old gentleman and his valet. He brought three cartloads of gorgeous furniture with him, to fit up two rooms; he possesses an organ, on which, greatly to his credit, he never plays; he receives perfumed notes, goes out beautifully dressed, is brought back in private carriages, with tall footmen in attendance to make as much noise as possible with the door-knocker. Nobody knows where he comes from, or believes that he passes in the house under his real name. If any aged aristocrat be missing from the world of fashion, we rather think we have got him in Smeary Street, and should feel willing to give him up to his rightful owners on payment of a liberal reward. Next door to me, in the second floor back, I hear a hollow cough and sometimes a whispering; but I know nothing for certain--not even whether the hollow cougher is also the whisperer, or whether they are two, or whether there is or is not a third silent and Samaritan person who relieves the cough and listens to the whisper. Above me, in the attics, there is a matutinal stamping and creaking of boots, which go downstairs at an early hour in a hurry, which never return all day, but which come upstairs again in a hurry late at night. The boots evidently belong to shop-men or clerks. Below, in the parlors, there seems to be a migratory population, which comes in one week and goes out the next, and is, in some cases, not at all to be depended upon in the matter of paying rent. I happen to discover this latter fact, late one night, in rather an alarming and unexpected manner. Just before bed-time I descend, candle in hand, to a small back room at the end of the passage, on the ground-floor (used all day for the reception of general visitors, and empty, as I rashly infer, all night), for the purpose of getting a sofa-cushion to eke out my scanty allowance of pillows. I no sooner open the door and approach the sofa, than I behold, to my horror and amazement, Mrs. Glutch coiled up on it, with all her clothes on, and with a wavy, coffee-colored wrapper flung over her shoulders. Before I can turn round to run away, she is on her legs, wide awake in an instant, and politer than ever. She makes me a long speech of explanation, which begins with "I beg pardon," and ends with "Thank you, sir;" and from the substance of which I gather that the parlor lodgers for the past week are going away the next morning; that they are the likeliest people in the world to forget to pay their lawful debts; and that Mrs. Glutch is going to lie in ambush for them all night in the coffee-colored wrapper, ready the instant the parlor door opens to spring out into the passage and call for her rent.
What am I about? I am relapsing insensibly into the inevitable and abhorrent subject of Mrs. Glutch, exactly in accordance with my foreboding of a few pages back. Let me make one more attempt to get away from my landlady. If I try to describe my room, I am sure to get back to her, because she is always in it. Suppose I get out of the house altogether, and escape into the street?
All men, I imagine, have an interest of some kind in the locality in which they live. My interest in Smeary Street is entirely associated with my daily meals, which are publicly paraded all day long on the pavement. In explanation of this rather original course of proceeding, I must mention that I am ordered to eat "little and often," and must add that I cannot obey the direction if the food is cooked on the premises in which I live, because I have had the misfortune to look down certain underground stairs and to discover that in the lowest depth of dirt, which I take to be the stairs themselves, there is a lower deep still, which is the kitchen at the bottom of them. Under these peculiar circumstances, I am reduced to appeal for nourishment and cleanliness in combination to the tender mercies (and kitchen) of the friends in my neighborhood, to whom I have alluded at the outset of this narrative. They commiserate and help me with the readiest kindness. Devoted messengers, laden with light food, pass and repass all day long between their house and my bedroom. The dullness of Smeary Street is enlivened by perpetual snacks carried in public procession. The eyes of my opposite neighbors, staring out of window, and not looking as if they cared about my being ill, are regaled from morning to night by passing dishes and basins, which go westward full and steaming, and return eastward eloquently empty. My neighborhood knows when I dine, and can smell out, if it pleases, what I have for dinner. The early housemaid kneeling on the doorstep can stay her scrubbing hand, and turn her pensive head and scan my simple breakfast, before I know what it will be myself. The midday idler, lounging along Smeary Street, is often sweetly reminded of his own luncheon by meeting mine. Friends who knock at my door may smell my dinner behind them, and know how I am keeping up my stamina, before they have had time to inquire after my health. My supper makes the outer darkness savory as the evening closes in; and my empty dishes startle the gathering silence with convivial clatter as they wend on their homeward way the last thing at night.
Is there no dark side to this bright picture? Is there never any hitch in these friendly arrangements for feeding me in the cleanest way, on the most appetizing diet? Yes, there is a hitch. Will you give it a name? I will. Its name is Mrs. Glutch.
It is, I am well aware, only to be expected that my landlady should resent the tacit condemnation of her cleanliness and cookery implied in the dietary arrangements which I have made with my friends. If she would only express her sense of offense by sulking or flying into a passion, I should not complain; for, in the first case supposed, I might get the better of her by noticing nothing, and, in the second, I might hope in course of time to smooth her down by soft answers and polite prevarications. But the means she actually takes of punishing me for my too acute sense of the dirtiness of her kitchen are of such a diabolically ingenious nature, and involve such a continuous series of small persecutions, that I am rendered, from first to last, quite powerless to oppose her. Shall I describe her plan of annoyance? I must describe it--I must return to my one prohibited topic (as I foreboded I should) in spite of myself.
Mrs. Glutch, then, instead of visiting her wrath on me, or my food, or my friends, or my friends' messengers, avenges herself entirely on their tray-cloths and dishes. She does not tear the first nor break the second--for that would be only a simple and primitive system of persecution --but she smuggles them, one by one, out of my room, and merges them inextricably with her own property, in the grimy regions of the kitchen. She has a power of invisibly secreting the largest pie-dishes and the most voluminous cloths under my very eyes, which I can compare to nothing but slight of hand. Every morning I see table utensils which my friends lent me, ranged ready to go back, in my own room. Every evening, when they are wanted, I find that some of them are missing, and that my landlady is even more surprised by that circumstance than I am myself. If my friends' servant ventures to say, in her presence, that the cook wants her yesterday's tray-cloth, and if I refer him to Mrs. Glutch, the immovable woman only sniffs, tosses her head, and "wonders how the young man can have demeaned himself by bringing her such a peremptory message." If I try on my own sole responsibility to recover the missing property, she lets me see, by her manner at the outset, that she thinks I suspect her of stealing it. If I take no notice of this maneuver, and innocently persist in asking additional questions about the missing object, the following is a sample of the kind of dialogue that is sure to pass between us:
"I think, Mrs. Glutch--"
"I think one of my friends' large pudding-basins has gone downstairs."
"Really, now, sir? A large pudding-basin? No, I think not."
"But I can't find it up here, and it is wanted back."
"I put it on the drawers, Mrs. Glutch, ready to go back, last night."
"Did you, indeed, sir?"
"Perhaps the servant took it downstairs to clean it?"
"Not at all likely, sir. If you will please to remember, you told her last Monday evening-- or, no, I beg pardon--last Tuesday morning, that your friends cleaned up their own dishes, and that their things was not to be touched."
"Perhaps you took it downstairs, then, yourself, Mrs. Glutch, by mistake?"
"I, sir! I didn't. I couldn't. Why should I? I think you said a large pudding-basin, sir?"
"Yes, I did say so."
"I have ten large pudding-basins of my own, sir"
"I am very glad to hear it. Will you be so good as to look among them, and see if my friends' basin has not got mixed up with your crockery?"
Mrs. Glutch turns very red in the face, slowly scratches her muscular arms, as if she felt a sense of pugilistic irritation in them, looks at me steadily with a pair of glaring eyes, and leaves the room at the slowest possible pace. I wait and ring--wait and ring--wait and ring. After the third waiting and the third ringing, she re-appears, redder of face and slower of march than before, with the missing article of property held out before her at arms-length.
"I beg pardon, sir," she says, "but is this anything like your friends' large pudding-basin?"
"That is the basin itself, Mrs. Glutch."
"Really, now, sir? Well, as you seem so positive, it isn't for me to contradict you. But I hope I shall give no offense if I mention that I had ten large pudding-basins of my own, and that I miss one of them."
With that last dexterous turn of speech, she gives up the basin with the air of a high-minded woman, who will resign her own property rather than expose herself to the injurious doubts of a morbidly suspicious man. When I add that the little scene just described takes place between us nearly every day, the reader will admit that, although Mrs. Glutch cannot prevent me from enjoying on her dirty premises the contraband luxury of a clean dinner, she can at least go great lengths toward accomplishing the secondary annoyance of preventing me from digesting it.
I have hinted at a third personage in the shape of a servant, in my report of the foregoing dialogue, and I have previously alluded to myself (in paving the way for the introduction of my landlady) as extending my studies of human character, in my London lodging, to those forlorn members of the population called maids of all work. The maids--I use the plural number advisedly--present themselves to me to be studied, as apprentices to the hard business of service, under the matronly superintendence of Mrs. Glutch. The succession of them is brisk enough to keep all the attention I can withdraw from my landlady constantly employed in investigating their peculiarities. By the time I have been three weeks in Smeary Street, I have had three maids of all work to study--a new servant for each week! In reviewing the three individually before the reader, I must be allowed to distinguish them by numbers instead of names. Mrs. Glutch screams at them all indiscriminately by the name of Mary, just as she would scream at a succession of cats by the name of Puss. Now, although I am always writing about Mrs. Glutch, I have still spirit enough left to vindicate my own individuality by abstaining from following her example. In obedience, therefore, to these last relics of independent sentiment, permit me the freedom of numbering my maids of all work as I introduce them to public notice in these pages. Number One is amazed by the spectacle of my illness, and always stares at me. If I fell ill one evening, went to a dispensary, asked for a bottle of physic, and got well on it the next morning; or if I presented myself before her at the last gasp, and died forthwith in Smeary Street, she would, in either case, be able to understand me. But an illness on which medicine produces no immediate effect and which does not keep the patient always groaning in bed, is beyond her comprehension. Personally, she is very short and sturdy, and is always covered from head to foot with powdered black, which seems to lie especially thick on her in the morning. How does she accumulate it? Does she wash herself with the ordinary liquid used for ablutions, or does she take a plunge-bath every morning under the kitchen-grate? I am afraid to ask this question of her, but I contrive to make her talk to me about other things. She looks very much surprised, poor creature, when I first let her see that I have other words to utter, in addressing her, besides the word of command, and seems to think me the most eccentric of mankind when she finds that I have a decent anxiety to spare her all useless trouble in waiting on me. Young as she is, she has drudged so long over the wickedest ways of this world, without one leisure moment to look up from the everlasting dirt on the road at the green landscape around and the pure sky above, that she has become hardened to the saddest, surely, of human lots before she is yet a woman grown. Life means dirty work, small wages, hard words, no holidays, no social station, no future, according to her experience of it. No human being ever was created for this. No state of society which composedly accepts this, in the cases of thousands, as one of the necessary conditions of its selfish comforts, can pass itself off as civilized, except under the most audacious of all false pretenses. These thoughts rise in me often when I ring the bell, and the maid of all work answers it wearily. I cannot communicate them to her; I can only encourage her to talk to me now and then on something like equal terms. Just as I am succeeding in the attainment of this object, Number One scatters all my plans and purposes to the winds by telling me that she is going away.
I ask why; and am told that she cannot bear being a-railed at and a-hunted about by Mrs. Glutch any longer. The oppressively polite woman who cannot address me without begging my pardon can find no hard words in the vocabulary hard enough for the maid of all work. "I am frightened of my life," says Number One, apologizing to me for leaving the place. "I am so little, and she's so big. She heaves things at my head, she does. Work as hard as you may, you can't work hard enough for her. I must go, if you please, sir. Whatever do you think she done this morning? She up and druv the creases at me." With these words (which I find mean in genteel English that Mrs. Glutch has enforced her last orders to the servant by throwing a bunch of water-cresses at her head), Number-One courtesies and says "Good-by!" and goes out resignedly once again into the hard world. I follow her a little while, in imagination, with no very cheering effect on my spirits--for what do I see awaiting her at each stage of her career? Alas for Number One, it is always a figure in the likeness of Mrs. Glutch!
Number Two fairly baffles me. I see her grin perpetually at me, and imagine at first that I am regarded by her in the light of a new kind of impostor, who shams illness as a way of amusing himself. But I soon discover that she grins at everything--at the fire that she lights, at the cloth she lays for dinner, at the medicine-bottles she brings upstairs, at the furibund visage of Mrs. Glutch, ready to drive whole basketfuls of creases at her head every morning. Looking at her with the eye of an artist, I am obliged to admit that Number Two is, as the painters say, out of drawing. The longest things about her are her arms; the thickest thing about her is her waist. It is impossible to believe that she has any legs, and it is not easy to find out the substitute which, in the absence of a neck, is used to keep her big head from rolling off her round shoulders. I try to make her talk, but only succeed in encouraging her to grin at me. Have ceaseless foul words and ceaseless dirty work clouded over all the little light that has ever been let in on her mind? I suspect that it is so, but I have no time to acquire any positive information on the subject. At the end of Number Two's first week of service, Mrs. Glutch discovers, to her horror and indignation, that the new maid of all work possesses nothing in the shape of wearing-apparel except the worn-out garments actually on her back; and, to make matters worse, a lady-lodger in the parlor misses one of a pair of lace cuffs, and feels sure that the servant has taken it. There is not a particle of evidence to support this view of the case; but Number Two being destitute, is consequently condemned without a trial, and dismissed without a character. She, too, wanders off forlorn into a world that has no haven of rest or voice of welcome for her--wanders off, without so much as a dirty bundle in her hand--wanders off, voiceless, with the unchanging grin on the smut-covered face. How shocked we should all be if we opened a book about a savage country and saw a portrait of Number Two in the frontispiece as a specimen of the female population!
Number Three comes to us all the way from Wales; arrives late one evening, and is found at seven the next morning, crying as if she would break her heart, on the doorstep. It is the first time she has been away from home. She has not got used yet to being a forlorn castaway among strangers. She misses the cows of a morning, the blessed fields with the blush of sunrise on them, the familiar faces, the familiar sounds, the familiar cleanliness of her country home. There is not the faintest echo of mother's voice, or of father's sturdy footfall here. Sweetheart John Jones is hundreds of miles away; and little brother Joe toddles up doorsteps far from these to clamor for the breakfast which he shall get this morning from other than his sister's hands. Is there nothing to cry for in this? Absolutely nothing, as Mrs. Glutch thinks. What does this Welsh barbarian mean by clinging to my area railings when she ought to be lighting the fire; by sobbing in full view of the public of Smeary Street when the lodgers' bells are ringing angrily for breakfast? Will nothing get the girl indoors? Yes, a few kind words from the woman who passes by her with my breakfast will. She knows that the Welsh girl is hungry as well as homesick, questions her, finds out that she has had no supper after her long journey, and that she has been used to breakfast with the sunrise at the farm in Wales. A few merciful words lure her away from the railings, and a little food inaugurates the process of breaking her in to London service. She has but a few days allowed her, however, to practice the virtue of dogged resignation in her first place. Before she has given me many opportunities of studying her character, before she has done knitting her brows with the desperate mental effort of trying to comprehend the mystery of my illness, before the smut has fairly settled on her rosy cheeks, before the London dirt has dimmed the pattern on her neat print gown, she, too, is cast adrift into the world. She has not suited Mrs. Glutch (being, as I imagine, too offensively clean to form an appropriate part of the kitchen furniture); a friendly maid of all work in service near us has heard of a place for her, and she is forthwith sent away, to be dirtied and deadened down to her proper social level in another lodging-house.
With her, my studies of character among maids of all work come to an end. I hear vague rumors of the arrival of Number Four. But before she appears, I have got the doctor's leave to move into the country, and have terminated my experience of London lodgings by making my escape with all convenient speed from the perpetual presence and persecutions of Mrs. Glutch. I have witnessed some sad sights during my stay in Smeary Street, which have taught me to feel for my poor and forlorn fellow-creatures as I do not think I ever felt for them before, and which have inclined me to doubt for the first time whether worse calamities might not have overtaken me than the hardship of falling ill.