IT added to the vagueness due to his growing habit of inattention to anything that did not immediately concern him, that there was a real element of mystery about the occupations of nearly all his fellow-boarders during the middle part of the day. It never dawned upon Edward Albert from first to last that Mr Harold Thump was living almost entirely on the earnings of his wife. The fiction that she was engaged in some literary work of an exalted sort veiled the fact that she managed an ill-ventilated dressmaking workroom in Shaftesbury Avenue with considerable harshness and success. Harold Thump sat about in the parks in fine weather or repaired to Selfridge’s extremely hospitable new premises in Oxford Street when it was cold or wet, or he watched the world go by at some railway station, alert for any conversation that might lead to a lesson in voice production or an invitation to a sing-song. Or if he was in a state of financial elation, he would drift to the Hippodrome corner, and there exchange drinks and reminiscences of success, with various kindred spirits who gathered there, the “Boys”, the ripe characters, the good Old Guard. That way he sometimes heard of opportunities, though they were usually opportunities that fled too quickly to be grasped. But Edward Albert imagined a different picture altogether of his off-stage hours. He thought of a great classroom and Harold leading a large resonant chorus. Harold: “Oorl the Woorrld’s a Stay-je.”
Chorus in thunderous unison: “Oorl the Woorrld’s a Stay-je.”
It did not dawn upon Edward Albert that the young lady from Harley Street, Miss Pooley, whose Christian name was part of her personal reserve, was not a distinguished medical practitioner but the young lady who made appointments for an oculist and stood by helpfully to hand him the various lights, mirrors, spectacle frames, needed in his practice, or that bitter old Mr Blake, who displayed so vivid a hatred and contempt for every prominent scientific reputation, because, it seemed, they appropriated the work that far better men did for them, was in fact a decaying laboratory assistant from University College.
Nor did our hero ever realise that the quiet genteel widow who was constantly referring to “my friend Lady Tweedman”— that Lady Tweedman who “used to say” so many authoritative and quenching things about social behaviour — disappeared so suddenly from Doober’s because, after repeated warnings, she had been caught red-handed shoplifting. The magistrate made an example of her. He swept Lady Tweedman aside. “If this Lady Twiddlum (oh, Tweedman, did you say? Tweedman) can answer for your character, why isn’t she here to do so?”
Edward Albert heard Mrs Doober say “Kleptomania” to Miss Pooley, but it meant nothing to him. Suddenly the widow was not, and dear Lady Tweedman was heard of no more. And he pursued his destiny unobservantly as ever, not missing her.
She was just one less person that you need not listen to.
It took him a long time even to grasp the constitution of Mrs Doober’s staff. The chief assistant was a niece of Mr Doober. Mr Doober was “something in the city” that demanded a punctual departure every morning. He was not, as a matter of fact, a company director or a stockbroker. He was an office cleaner and hall porter, and he changed into a green baize apron for duty.. But he resumed his social importance as he removed the green apron and made his way home, and Edward Albert never found him out. He talked but little, and that mostly of stocks and shares. His advice on promising lock-ups and sound investments was invariably sound. Old Mr Blake, who hunted a small nest egg from nest to nest in search of something called capital appreciation, was guided by him entirely.
Then there was Gawpy. Gawpy was a cousin who had lent her savings to Mrs Doober and acquired a half share in the concern, but as it was impossible for Mrs Doober ever to pay her back, and as she had nowhere else to go, she remained as a general utility, to hold on to and live by her invested bit of money as long as it lasted. To Edward Albert and the rest of the boarders she was just Gawpy, something in the nature of things, like the milkman or atmospheric pressure. You took her for granted. You could not imagine what life would be without her. You asked her for everything and she always got you something more or less.
The rebellious unstable slaveys came and went.
One of them passing Edward Albert on the stairs, addressed him cheerfully in language so filthy and familiar that he could not believe his ears. She grinned back at him over her shoulder and supplemented her words by an even more obscene and incredible gesture. “Leaving my dear!” she said.
“Ain’t it a pity?” He remained aghast on the stair-case. Very slowly he crept on up to his room. It couldn’t have happened. Such things couldn’t happen. Anyhow she was leaving.
After that he remained uncomfortably aware of slaveys. He kept his eye on them, hesitated, and fled their approach.
Whenever Doober’s had rooms to spare a card was put into the ground floor window, and there would be transients for three or four days or perhaps a week. Sometimes they looked odd enough to dislike. If they were alone, they read. If there were several of them they sat and muttered in corners. Sometimes they played strange card games. Nobody took any notice of them unless it was to pass the time of day. Except Gawpy, who would chat to them about the sights of London and the buses and the Underground. Or anything else they seemed disposed to talk about. . . .
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02