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  ― 6 ―

A Row in Our Boarding-House.

THE trouble began on the night when a newly-imported British youth named Johnson appeared at our boarding-house.

There were ten of us there before his arrival, including Bem, the Polish tailor, who was vaguely understood to have thrown bombs at all the royal families of Europe, and then gone into exile. We paid seventeen shillings a week each, not including washing; and we lived riotously on boiled mutton. There were more empty beer-bottles in the bedrooms, and more laughter, and more grease slopped on the floor, and the candle-ends got into the soup oftener in that boarding-house than in any other I ever heard of. Also, the neighbours got less sleep than anybody ever did in the vicinity of any other boarding-house. The dining-room had not been papered since the beginning of history, and the landlady had only one eye; also, her daughter had recently eloped with a non-union printer. She, the landlady, was aged about 40, and wore a green dress, and in the evenings she used to sing songs to us with her hair down. These few details will convey a reasonably good idea of the nature of that wild Bohemian establishment.

One windy evening in March, the landlady had agitated the bell on the stairs, as was her custom. Her weapon was a sort of cowbell, and when she wrestled with it on the murky staircase she looked like a witch dancing on a heath. Her arms, her hair, her feet, her green dress, her trodden-down shoes flew in eight different directions, and her one eye and the bell flew in two more. Strangers coming down in the dark, and meeting this apparition suddenly, generally took her for a heap of boa-constrictor, or an immense octopus leaping on the top step. Poor old agitated female—she is dead now. She broke her neck in the passage one day, rushing


  ― 7 ―
down to look at a funeral. But if she had kept on ringing that dinner-bell she would have been immortal. Death couldn't have aimed straight enough to hit her in her gambols.

I rushed down to the dining-room at the first signal, and, meeting Bem and two more coming tumultuously in the opposite direction, we got jammed in the doorway. I was just going to pass some uncomplimentary observations when we all caught sight of a spectacle such as the oldest individual in that boarding-house had never seen before. A great calm descended upon us, and we disentangled ourselves and went in silently.

What I saw was an object like a naked infant's hind-leg, resting in a careless, graceful attitude against a chair. There was a bracelet on it, and attached to one end of it was a woman. She was attired in a silk dress which exposed her right down to the fifth knob of her spine, or thereabouts, and she had a necklace, and an eye-glass, and sundry rings. There was a frozen expression in her eye—a look of cold derision that seemed to fall like a curse upon the whole company. This was Johnson's wife. Johnson himself was there, in a tail-coat, and a tremendous collar, and another eye-glass, and he had a silver bangle on his wrist. He was the first male human being that I ever saw inside a bangle, and I am prepared to swear that he was the very first who ever wore a bangle in a boarding-house.

Between them they made just one remark all dinner-time. It was “Haw!” I could have said the same thing myself if I had been dead.

We did not eat much that evening, and there was very little conversation. We were all paralysed by the spectacle of Johnson and his wife. They kept looking round the table in a pensive, perplexed sort of way, as if they were searching for some of the commonest necessaries of life, such as were to be found in stacks in their ancestral castle; and then they would wake up as from a dream, and recollect suddenly that they were castaways in a savage land where the wild aborigines never heard of the article, whatever it might be. And when they were finished the lady went and


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smote the piano with an arm of might for about 38 minutes, after which the pair retired and were seen no more that night.

That was the beginning of the row in our boarding-house.

Next morning the owner of the establishment came down early and refreshed herself with a few melodies before breakfast. She was a strange, promiscuous, half-savage female, and was wont at times to get up before daybreak, and thud out all manner of lost chords on the keyboard, and then she would keep time with her slippers and her head, and whirl her tangled locks in the air, and cast the tails of her dressing-gown out behind her in a frenzy of inspiration. After that she would scuttle away with a prodigious clatter, and clutch the sausages that were to be fried for breakfast, and for about half-an-hour the air would be darkened with a chaos of food and dishes, and it would blow a gale of gravy, cruets, loaves, and similar properties. When she entered with the breakfast-tray it always made me think of Napoleon's commissariat-department flying from Moscow, for she generally arrived at a gallop, shoving one-half the provisions in front of her and dragging the other half behind, and hissing to scare off the cat, which ran with its tail up in the rear of the procession, trying vainly to claw at the alleged eatables.

Then she would fling herself on the bell like a hash-house keeper possessed, and make a riot that was calculated to wake the lost souls of all the dead boarders who had shuffled off this mortal coil, and were eating spectral ham and eggs in the fields of asphodel. On this morning I found her leaping and gambolling on the stairs as usual, and I stopped to propound a solemn question.

“Mrs. Jones,” I said sternly, “who are the partially-dressed intruder in the bed-furniture, and the tailor's advertisement with the jewellery on his fore-leg?”

“He's in the Gas-Office!” she replied in gasps, as she threw herself up against the air with the bell. “Newly-married! He's English, and got £80 a year! I took them in at a reduced rate!”




  ― 9 ―

“Oh, you did! Now, look here; have you any reason to suppose he's a duke or an emperor, or anything of the sort?”

“No!”

“Do you suppose, as a respectable Christian woman, that he's got a castle anywhere?”

“No, I don't s'pose he has.”

Did he come in with the Conqueror, now?”

“There wasn't anybody with him when he came in, that I saw.”

“And did you know when you took them in that she was going to stick so far out of her clothes?”

“No, I DID N'T. If I'd knowed it I'd have throwed her out.”

I went in to breakfast in a subdued mood. Johnson was there, looking with a shocked expression at the sausages, and shuddering in a new bangle and a collar that was six times taller than the previous one. His wife, with a fresh bracelet, was glaring at the same viand, and the expression in her eye seemed to say, “Where am I? Is this a horrid dream?” It was the only morning in six months, too, when the sausages hadn't either fallen under the grate or been dropped on the stairs, and this made their conduct all the more uncalled-for.

At lunch-time Johnson's wife appeared in another fresh bracelet, and with a profusion of jewellery on her right forefinger. And as for Johnson, astounding as it may seem, he had a third bangle on. Evidently he had one for each meal, and this was his lunch-bangle.

In the evening the lady had another silk dress on, and it exposed one knob more of her spine than her previous one. Johnson wore his second clean collar and his dinner-bangle, and his small countenance, looming over his great expanse of shirt-front, looked like a pallid bird of prey on the top of an icy mountain. They talked together in scraps of inferior French, and when the meal was over Mrs. Johnson again smote the piano, and then retired coldly to her own apartments.




  ― 10 ―

That night we held an indignation meeting on the balcony. The landlady had deposited the vegetable-dish out there through the window when she was getting ready to make her turbulent entry with the pudding, and had forgotten it Inside there were two candles burning, and one lamp with a broken shade—the gas had been cut off for non-payment. The bread was in a plate on top of the piano, and the dishes were in an unwashed condition downstairs, and the mistress of the house was singing a shrill melody in the kitchen. And amid these surroundings Bem, the Polish tailor, passed a resolution that he would drive Johnson off the premises, or die in the attempt. After that our souls felt relieved, and we settled down to placid harmony. Somebody found some liquor in a bottle under his bed and brought it down. The cards were fished out, and we played Nap, and gave each other I O U's on a lavish scale. The lamp flickered and went out with an awful smell. Then one of the candles died amid a tremendous blob of grease, and we gave up playing, and smoked in the semi-darkness. The bread cast a long, gaunt shadow on top of the piano, and the vegetable-dish was still forgotten on the balcony. And, finally, our landlady burst in with the green dress partially open at the back, and wearing a hat decorated with six broken feathers; and fell over the cat in the doorway; and played some tune that was all discords, on the piano, while Bem sang a dirge about some forgotten period when he lived alongside a river, and went out musing with a female by moonlight. He was so moved by the recollection that he wept into the last candle, and it went out also, leaving us in darkness.

I woke on that third morning with a vague and indefinable feeling that somebody had died in the night. There was a Sabbath calm brooding over Jones's boarding-house which was quite foreign to that clamorous establishment, and as I listened it suddenly occurred to me that Bem must have carried out his threat, and dynamited Johnson in the darkness. All the doors seemed to close softly, instead of shutting with a soul-destroying bang as usual. The landlady flopped about gently on her trodden-down shoes,


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instead of bringing in the breakfast with a crash and a shriek, and shedding dishes about in all directions; and she rang the bell gently, whereas she usually rang it like a dray-load of escaped lunatics. I descended the stairs amid a prevailing smell of ham and eggs, and went into the dining-room.

Johnson was breakfasting with a troubled expression and a bangle, and his wife was glaring across the table. Opposite them Bem was solemnly feeding in evening dress. He looked absolutely vacant, and seemed to be lost in profound thought, and the frantic excitement of the other eight boarders made no impression on him at all. He wore a pair of kid gloves and a bracelet, and his moustache was elegantly waxed. Johnson rose at last, and walked round this apparition, but the apparition never moved. Finally the Pole got up, and thoughtfully extracted an ancient, battered straw hat from under his chair, and, having jammed it hard down on his head, he went out of the room and out of the house like a man who was lost in profound vacancy.

Nobody spoke. A species of paralysis seemed to have descended on that boarding-house. But, after a moment, Johnson rushed on to the balcony and glared in a cataleptic fashion after this unaccountable visitant. And outside, on the stairs, stood a petrified landlady, in a smudged green dress, and with a hat with six broken feathers in it cocked rakishly over one eye, and two misfit shoes that seemed to have taken root in the floor. She held a teapot in one hand and a pie in the other, and she was unconsciously pouring the tea into the pie, and the pie on to the staircase.

Bem turned up in the evening costume again at lunch-time, but, though expectation rose to fever-heat, nothing happened. Owing to mental strain, however, the landlady fainted in the sink in the course of the afternoon.

At dinner, the Johnsons began to show signs of wear and tear. Mrs. Johnson's left eyebrow was out of line, and her complexion had shifted round to her ear. Evidently it had been put on with a


  ― 12 ―
reckless hand, while the wearer was under the influence of considerable excitement. Her husband had an enraged and harassed look, and his tie was off the straight, and his hair was crumpled. The landlady's shoes were in the hall, from which I gathered that she had lost them in her agitation; and her hat was under the table. As for that joyous Bohemian herself, she was dodging round in a semi-hysterical condition, and when I entered she had just given Johnson the whole dish of potatoes, and had shoved the entire joint on another boarder's plate, after which she deposited the kettle in an abstracted manner on the tablecloth. Then she fled unaccountably round the table and supplied us all with a number of other remarkable things too numerous aud too badly assorted to mention. There was a dead and awful silence in the company—a silence that was too awful to be accounted for on the supposition that Bem had appeared again in evening-dress and caused a panic. For one awful moment the thought occurred to me that the insane Pole might possibly have appeared clothed in a marked scarcity of dress of any kind——

He entered at that moment, carefully removing a shiny bell-topper as he came in, and depositing a pair of gloves in its inmost recesses. He was attired in grey pants and a linen jacket, but he had taken the sleeves out of the jacket and out of his shirt, and he was “cut low” at the neck. Also, he wore a gold bracelet—in fact, he was a remarkably good copy of Johnson's wife. The landlady uttered a shriek when she saw him, and disappeared down the stairs. The cat escaped up the chimney, scattering last night's dead ashes out of the grate as it went. The other boarders choked with insane glee, but Bem only contemplated them for an instant with a lack-lustre eye and a funereal visage, and sat down. He was the one unmoved individual in the company.

Then Johnson arose, and shaking a fork in the air with a palsied hand, he made a brief oration.

“I give notice,” he shrieked, “that I will leave this den of infamy at the end of this week. I am accustomed—I mean, I am not accustomed—British constitution—degraded parody upon a


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human being—I refuse to associate—dash and confound the—the—objectionable ruffian opposite—insolent outrage upon all gentlemanly sentiment—gorilla on the other side of the table——”

He gave out there, and choked. With a wild howl he heaved up the table and capsized the ruins of it bodily at Bem, and then he tramped heavily over the débris and engaged his enemy in mortal combat. The Pole emerged from the wreckage, and with his hair full of gravy, and corned beef in both ears, and one eye stopped up with cabbage, and mustard streaming down his back, he flew at Johnson like a wild cat. The candles went out; Mrs. Johnson shrieked in the passage; the landlady wailed dismally in the kitchen; and all was horror and confusion.

There was an item in Johnson's bill when he left, which read: “Broken crockery, 22s. 6d.” I believe he hypothecated his lunch-bangle to pay it. The gas has been turned on again since then, and the landlady sings weird songs to us in the gloaming, with her hair down as of old. She wears the same green dress, and drops her shoes all over the house as before, but it isn't the same landlady—the old one broke her neck on the stairs as beforementioned, and her daughter has inherited her clothes and the business, and she rings the dinner-bell with even more vim than her lamented predecessor. She reminds me very much of her mother, for she drops the meals on the stairs in a way that calls up sad, pathetic memories; and she rushes in as recklessly holding out the gravy in front of her, and rushes out again as madly to look for the vegetables, as her deceased relative could have done. Johnson is in gaol somewhere—there was a gap in his accounts which even his jewellery could not fill; and the wife has eloped with our new landlady's husband, the printer. Also, nobody wears evening-dress at our boarding-house any more.

JAMES EDMOND.

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