“Oh, Mr Careless!” and grins. You wait an anxious minute, to postpone the disappointment which you feel by instinct is coming, and then ask hopelessly whether there are any letters for you.
“No, there’s nothing for you, Mr Careless.” Then in answer to the unspoken question, “The postman’s been, but there’s nothing for you.”
You hang up your hat in the stuffy little passage, and start upstairs, when, “Oh, Mr Careless, mother wants to know if you’ve had yer dinner.”
You haven’t, but you say you have. You are empty enough inside, but the emptiness is filled up, as it were, with the wrong sort of hungry vacancy—gnawing anxiety. You haven’t any stomach for the warm, tasteless mess which has been “kep’ ’ot” for you in a cold stove. You feel just physically tired enough to go to your room, he down on the bed, and snatch twenty minutes’ rest from that terrible unemployed restlessness which, you know, is sure to drag you to your feet to pace the room or tramp the pavement even before your bodily weariness has nearly left you. So you start up the narrow, stuffy little flight of steps call the “stairs.” Three small doors open from the landing—a square place of about four feet by four. The first door is yours; it is open, and—
Decided odour of bedroom dust and fluff, damped and kneaded with cold soap-suds. Rear view of a girl covered with a damp, draggled, dirt-coloured skirt, which gapes at the waistband from the “body,” disclosing a good glimpse of soiled stays (ribs burst), and yawns behind over a decidedly dirty white petticoat, the slit of which last, as she reaches forward and backs out convulsively, half opens and then comes together in an unsatisfactory, startling, tantalizing way, and allows a hint of a red flannel under-something. The frayed ends of the skirt lie across a hopelessly-burst pair of elastic-sides which rest on their inner edges—toes out—and jerk about in a seemingly undecided manner. She is damping and working up the natural layer on the floor with a piece of old flannel petticoat dipped occasionally in a bucket which stands by her side, containing about a quart of muddy water. She looks round and exclaims, “Oh, did you want to come in, Mr Careless?” Then she says she’ll be done in a minute; furthermore she remarks that if you want to come in you won’t be in her road. You don’t—you go down to the dining-room—parlour—sitting-room—nursery—and stretch yourself on the sofa in the face of the painfully-evident disapproval of the landlady.
You have been here, say, three months, and are only about two weeks behind. The landlady still says, “Good morning, Mr Careless,” or “Good evening, Mr Careless,” but there is an unpleasant accent on the “Mr,” and a still more unpleasantly pronounced stress on the “morning” or “evening.” While your money lasted you paid up well and regularly—sometimes in advance—and dined out most of the time; but that doesn’t count now.
Ten minutes pass, and then the landlady’s disapproval becomes manifest and aggressive. One of the little girls, a sharp-faced little larrikiness, who always wears a furtive grin of cunning—it seems as though it were born with her, and is perhaps more a misfortune than a fault—comes in and says please she wants to tidy up.
So you get up and take your hat and go out again to look for a place to rest in—to try not to think.
You wish you could get away up-country. You also wish you were dead.
The landlady, Mrs Jones, is a widow, or grass-widow, Welsh, of course, and clannish; flat face, watery grey eyes, shallow, selfish, ignorant, and a hypocrite unconsciously—by instinct.
But the worst of it is that Mrs Jones takes advantage of the situation to corner you in the passage when you want to get out, or when you come in tired, and talk. It amounts to about this She has been fourteen years in this street, taking in boarders; everybody knows her; everybody knows Mrs Jones; her poor husband died six years ago (God rest his soul); she finds it hard to get a living these times; work, work, morning, noon, and night (talk, talk, talk, more likely). “Do you know Mr Duff of the Labour Bureau?” He has known her family for years; a very nice gentleman—a very nice gentleman indeed; he often stops at the gate to have a yarn with her on his way to the office (he must be hard up for a yarn). She doesn’t know hardly nobody in this street; she never gossips; it takes her all her time to get a living; she can’t be bothered with neighbours; it’s always best to keep to yourself and keep neighbours at a distance. Would you believe it, Mr Careless, she has been two years in this house and hasn’t said above a dozen words to the woman next door; she’d just know her by sight if she saw her; as for the other woman she wouldn’t know her from a crow. Mr Blank and Mrs Blank could tell you the same. . . . She always had gentlemen staying with her; she never had no cause to complain of one of them except once; they always treated her fair and honest. Here follows story about the exception; he, I gathered, was a journalist, and she could never depend on him. He seemed, from her statements, to have been decidedly erratic in his movements, mode of life and choice of climes. He evidently caused her a great deal of trouble and anxiety, and I felt a kind of sneaking sympathy for his memory. One young fellow stayed with her five years; he was, etc. She couldn’t be hard on any young fellow that gets out of work; of course if he can’t get it he can’t pay; she can’t get blood out of a stone; she couldn’t turn him out in the street. “I’ve got sons of my own, Mr Careless, I’ve got sons of my own.” . . . She is sure she always does her best to make her boarders comfortable, and if they want anything they’ve only got to ask for it. The kettle is always on the stove if you want a cup of tea, and if you come home late at night and want a bit of supper you’ve only got to go to the safe (which of us would dare?). She never locks it, she never did. . . . And then she begins about her wonderful kids, and it goes on hour after hour. Lord! it’s enough to drive a man mad.
We were recommended to this place on the day of our arrival by a young dealer in the furniture line, whose name was Moses—and he looked like it, but we didn’t think of that at the time. He had Mrs Jones’s card in his window, and he left the shop in charge of his missus and came round with us at once. He assured us that we couldn’t do better than stay with her. He said she was a most respectable lady, and all her boarders were decent young fellows—gentlemen; she kept everything scrupulously clean, and kept the best table in town, and she’d do for us (washing included) for eighteen shillings per week; she generally took the first week in advance. We asked him to have a beer—for the want of somebody else to ask—and after that he said that Mrs Jones was a kind, motherly body, and understood young fellows; and that we’d be even more comfortable than in our own home; that we’d be allowed to do as we liked—she wasn’t particular; she wouldn’t mind it a bit if we came home late once in a way—she was used to that, in fact; she liked to see young fellows enjoying themselves. We afterwards found out that he got so much on every boarder he captured. We also found out—after paying in advance—that her gentlemen generally sent out their white things to be done; she only did the coloured things, so we had to pay a couple of bob extra a week to have our “biled” rags and collars sent out and done; and after the first week they bore sad evidence of having been done on the premises by one of the frowsy daughters. But we paid all the same. And, good Lord! if she keeps the best table in town, we are curious to see the worst. When you go down to breakfast you find on the table in front of your chair a cold plate, with a black something—God knows what it looks like—in the centre of it. It eats like something scraped off the inside of a hide and burnt; and with this you have a cup of warm grey slush called a “cup of tea.” Dinner: A slice of alleged roast beef or boiled mutton, of no particular colour or taste; three new spuds, of which the largest is about the size of an ordinary hen’s egg, the smallest that of a bantam’s, and the middle one in between, and which eat soggy and have no taste to speak of, save that they are a trifle bitter; a dab of unhealthy-looking green something, which might be either cabbage leaves or turnip-tops, and a glass of water. The whole mess is lukewarm, including the water—it would all be better cold. Tea: A thin slice of the aforesaid alleged roast or mutton, and the pick of about six thin slices of stale bread—evidently cut the day before yesterday. This is the way Mrs Jones “does” for us for eighteen shillings a week. The bread gave out at tea-time this evening, and a mild financial boarder tapped his plate with his knife, and sent the bread plate out to be replenished. It came back with one slice on it.
The mild financial boarder, with desperate courage, is telling the landlady that he’ll have to shift next week—it is too far to go to work, he cannot always get down in time; he is very sorry he has to go, he says; he is very comfortable here, but it can’t be helped; anyway, as soon as he can get work nearer, he’ll come back at once; also (oh, what cowards men are when women are concerned), he says he wishes she could shift and take a house down at the other end of the town. She says (at least here are some fragments of her gabble which we caught and shorthanded): “Well, I’m very sorry to lose you, Mr Sampson, very sorry indeed; but of course if you must go, you must. Of course you can’t be expected to walk that distance every morning, and you mustn’t be getting to work late, and losing your place . . . Of course we could get breakfast an hour earlier if . . . well, as I said before, I’m sorry to lose you and, indeed . . . You won’t forget to come and see us . . . glad to see you at any time . . . Well, any way, if you ever want to come back, you know, your bed will be always ready for you, and you’ll be treated just the same, and made just as comfortable—you won’t forget that” (he says he won’t); “and you won’t forget to come to dinner sometimes” (he says he won’t); “and, of course . . . You know I always try . . . Don’t forget to drop in sometimes . . . Well, anyway, if you ever do happen to hear of a decent young fellow who wants a good, clean, comfortable home, you’ll be sure to send him to me, will you?” (He says he will.) “Well, of course, Air Sampson, etc., etc., etc., and-so-on, and-so-on, and-so-on, and-so-on, . . .” It’s enough to give a man rats.
He escapes, and we regard his departure very much as a gang of hopeless convicts might regard the unexpected liberation of one of their number.
This is the sort of life that gives a man a God-Almighty longing to break away and take to the bush.