You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 11

Introducing Doobers

YOUNG MATTERLOCK, a counting-house clerk of thirty-two, was charged to deal with this responsibility. A boarding-house which offered opportunities for conversation and companionship seemed to be indicated. He found such establishments rare in Kentish Town. There it was mostly lodging-houses. But when one went south and east, he found boarding-houses in an enormous abundance with the utmost variety of — charges, customs, habits and clients. London was a great centre for students of every sort and colour, and for every sort and colour boarding-houses had adapted themselves. It was a museum of nationalities, a kaleidoscope of broken-off social fragments. The difficulty was to find a boarding-house that was just simply a boarding-house.

It did not occur to young Matterlock as anything extraordinary that in all this vast wilderness of lodgings and boarding-houses, not one had ever been planned and built as a lodging-house or boarding-house. Every one had been built to accommodate an imaginary and quite impossible family of considerable means and insanitary habits, with cheap abject servants packed away in the attics and basement, a dining-room, a drawing-room, a parlour and the like. The ground landlords, the architects and builders of the period seem to have been incapable of any other idea. Not ten per cent of these hopeful family residences were ever occupied by that vanishing English family; the rest were sub-divided into “floors” from the first, and nearly all of them, even the family houses, were furnished with faded and misfitting second-hand furniture. With a plentiful lack of imagination, nineteenth-century England had shaped its conduct and future to the forms of an obsolete social dream.

Thackeray has embalmed for ever this particular phase in our decadent and commercialised feudalism for the student of social history. Our concern is wholly and solely with Edward Albert, and it is not for us to speculate here, now that London and most of our other big cities such as they were, have been knocked to pieces, how far England may presently reveal a quickened and creative mind, how far it will still continue to be an unchangeable, unimaginative mother or how far it may lapse into an unpicturesque decay of muddle and misfits. . . . Doober’s, to which young Matterlock finally entrusted Edward Albert, had a fairly handsome facade in Bendle Street, just south of the Euston Road. Its official name of Scartmore House was painted in resolute lettering across its brow. Young Matterlock had inspected it and made the necessary arrangements beforehand. Then he had collected Edward Albert, with a tin box, a cricket bat, an outgrown overcoat and a new portmanteau, from the school, and brought him in a slow, sure four-wheeler to his new habitation.

“I think you’ll find it a very nice homely place,” he said on the way. “Mrs Doober who runs it seems a thoroughly good sort. She’ll introduce you to people and make you feel at home. You’ll soon get used to it. If you fall upon any difficulties you know my address. Your money will come every Saturday from Hooper’s office and you’ll pay the bill that day. The balance over you ought to find enough for clothes, college fees and running-expenses. If you’re careful you can manage. You can’t be too careful.”

Edward Albert made a responsive noise to that familiar phrase..

“I think you ought to get your clothes made to measure. Those cheap ready-mades of Myame’s make you look even worse than you need do. I think Mrs Doober or some one will find you some sort of tailor round the corner. Bespoke tailors I think they call them. You see this doesn’t sit on your shoulders, and your sleeve’s so short it shows too much of your wrists. Wrists aren’t exactly your strong point, Tewler. . . . Well, here we are!”

Mrs Doober opened the door, beaming and being as thoroughly a good sort as she knew how. Behind her hovered the current slavey summoned to help with the luggage.

The “Hall” of Scartmore House, that is to say its passage entrance, testified that Doober’s was reasonably and miscellaneously full. The place had a dingy but nutritious smell, and was toned by oil-cloth and marbled paper to a pale mellow brown. Colour and odour blended together. A row of hat and coat pegs sustained a selection of outer garments above an extensive range of umbrellas and sticks. There was a large hall-stand with a fly-blown mirror and racks for letters and papers.

Largely occluding this mellow background was Mrs Doober’s receptive personality. “And this is our young gentleman?” said she. “A student. We’ll do all we can to make you comfortable. You’re not the only student, you’ll find. There’s young Mr Frankincense from University College. Such a clever young man — the highest honours! — and we’ve got a great teacher of elocution, Mr Harold Thump, and his lady, and a young Indian gentleman.”

She whispered confidentially closer to young Matterlock.

“The son of a rajah. He speaks English beautifully.”

She shot an aside at the slavey. “Number thirteen. If they’re too heavy, take them up one at a time. . . . Well then, ask Gawpy to help you. Don’t stand there helpless.”

She restored her amiability as she turned back to her clients.

Edward Albert listened confusedly. He was doing his best to keep his unfortunate wrists up his sleeves, and he had already acquired a habit of inaccurate attention that would last his lifetime. “We’re a young household,” she was saying.

“There’s only one really old gentleman among us and he’s charming. Such.good stories!. . . . ”

He felt the pressure of young Matterlock’s hand upon his shoulder. 6C You’ll be all right. You’ll feel a little strange at first but you’ll soon settle down to it.”

“Belgians. A family of refugees from Antwerp. So if you want to learn French. . . . ”

“So it’s good-bye and good luck, Tewler.” Matterlock was shaking his hand. And leaving him!

Edward Albert had a wild desire to cry out, “Oh, don’t leave me,” and bolt after his protector before the door closed. Then he was alone with Mrs Doober. Her propitiatory manner was now faintly tinged with proprietorship.

“I must show you our common rooms and explain a few of our rules and regulations — because there must be rules and regulations, you know — and then I will take you up to your own apartment. Just a quiet little room it is,” she said, and then added informatively, “upstairs. It’s number thirteen. I hope you won’t mind that. I’ve sometimes thought of changing it to 12A. But I never have. I do so hope you’ll like it all. We’re all such friends — it’s just like one big family. You must hang up your hat and coat on that peg. . . . ”

And in this manner Edward Albert entered upon a fresh phase in his life and adapted himself discreetly to a new and wider environment. Breakfast was from half-past seven to half-past nine. Then you were supposed to go out and return about six or seven. (But one old gentleman was asleep before the fire in the drawing-room. He woke up, stared for a moment, grunted, and then composed himself for further slumber.) Dinner was from seven-thirty to nine-thirty. There was a large dingy dining-room with shaded gas lamps, a big sideboard, a service lift that came up with a rumble and a smack, and a sort of backward extension to a little sitting-room behind, and on the first floor there was a diffused drawing — room which had once been bisected by folding doors, with armchairs and corners more or less appropriated by books, pieces of knitting, shawls and the like, two fireplaces and a snuggery with two card tables, a chess table, and a sofa at the back. And so upstairs, where Edward Albert was left to unpack, put his things away in a chest of drawers, and spend a long time studying his wrists in the little looking-glass and meditating upon the possibilities of bespoke clothes. If he had long cuffs; if he got one of those new up and then down collars like what Mr Matterlock wore; if he pulled himself up — so. And a dark suit with a touch of blue in it and creased trousers like Mr Matterlock’s. Which fitted. Then it would be different?. . . .

They looked at him at the dinner table when Mrs Doober brought him down — she had to bring him down. They didn’t say so very much to him, but they peeped and looked at him all the time. (He would get those cuffs tomorrow.) People came and went with an extraordinary assurance. Afterwards in the drawing-room a lady said, “You’re a new arrival?” and he said “Yes, Mam.” “And what’s your name?” she said, and he told her quite friendly like, and then he got into a corner and affected to read a very nice book, A Guide to the Hotels of Europe, while he watched his fellow boarders unobtrusively.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30