Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Letting Lodgings : A Widow's Tale

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LETTING LODGINGS.

A WIDOWS TALE.

    THERE are a number of stock subjects, which writers of fiction, concocters of articles for journals and magazines, and delineators of society as it is, or as they imagine it to be, have in a manner seized for their peculiar property, and erected into a sort of literary capital, upon which they consider themselves at liberty to draw upon emergencies. Among these the least remarkable, or to the gentlemen of the quill the least useful is the Lodging-house Keeper - the lone woman whom misfortune has condemned to open her doors to all the world, and to postpone her own ideas of convenience or comfort to those of whomsoever fate may quarter upon her hospitality. It is a noble quarry, doubtless ; and the grey goose shaft when it is winged against the "Landlady,'' must not be deemed ill-directed. There is something very chivalrous and laudable in denouncing her as a thief and a drunkard, under a little ingenious periphrasis - and it is so much more pleasant and profitable to make her the laughing-stock of the public, and to hold her up to the scorn and detestation of good and sober people, than it is punctually to pay her weekly bills, that authors who write for the amusement of their readers, are perfectly justified in the course they have unanimously adopted. It may be thought a piece of gross impertinence, in one of this highly criminal class, whom every writer of the age, from the loftiest genius to the lowest would-be litterateur, has used for the butt of his wit, if he chanced to have any, or of [-208-] his ill-nature, when he had nothing better to display - it may be held unpardonable that such an one should venture to demur to the general verdict, and prefer a claim to be heard on the other side of the question. But I shall venture it notwithstanding - not indeed taking example from the writers aforesaid, or retorting in the same complimentary strain which characterises their productions. I am a Lodging-house Keeper, and the necessities of my position have compelled me to the practice of civility : those who set themselves up for teachers of public morals, through the press, appear to be under no such compulsion, and can do as they list. My arguments will consist of my own experience, or some selected portion of it - and if they serve no other purpose will, I am sure, tend to show that the "Landlady," so far from being a sort of animal of prey, ready to seize upon whom she may devour, rather resembles the poor quadruped, tied to a stake, against whom, in the good old times, any houseless vagabond cur might try his mettle.
    I was the only child of respectable parents, who, after a life of business, retired upon their savings, to a modest cottage in the outskirts of town. With the death of my father, which took place in my twenty-first year, the major part of our revenue ceased, but he left me a small portion, payable upon his policy of insurance. A year after his death, I married a gentleman in the employment of a well-known mercantile firm, and with my mother, who had a small annuity of her own, and in the society of my husband, an excellent and accomplished man, passed eight years of my life in the enjoyment of as much happiness as any woman has reason to expect. At the end of this period my mother died. The same disease that carried her off confined my husband to his room for five months, and so undermined a constitution, which was never strong, as to inspire me with the greatest fears on his account. They proved to be but too well founded. In little more than a year after I had [-209-] buried my mother, my husband was stretched upon a bed of sickness, from which he never rose again. While he lay ill, my youngest child sickened and died, and I was obliged to send away the two eldest, in order to devote myself to the care of my sick partner. He was respected by his employers, and they generously continued his salary, which, though not large, was sufficient for our wants, up to the day of his death. He languished for upwards of twenty months, during which the greater part of my little fortune was expended unavailingly in feeing physicians, none of whom would come to any decision as to the precise nature of his disease. After his departure, I found myself completely alone in the world with my two boy - I had no other relations, that I knew of, living-in possession of about two hundred pounds in cash, and a house full of excellent furniture.
    I was anxious to get my little boys educated. and to put them in a way, as soon as old enough, to earn a living for themselves - and I deliberated long on the best means of investing my little capital in a way that should ultimately ensure this object. It was not from choice that I became a Lodging-house Keeper ; but because nothing else appeared applicable in the circumstances in which I was then placed. I hired a new house, in a pleasant and healthy part of the London suburbs, and situated in the route of the omnibuses to and from the City. This annual rent, together with the rates and taxes, amounted to sixty pounds but, anything respectable such fit for the purpose could not be got for less, such I hoped, by superior accommodation and attention, to succeed in creating a connexion, and to be enabled ultimately to pay my way. When all my goods were arranged in a state of order and cleanliness, I put up a legible announcement in the parlour window, and anxiously waited for occupants - never leaving home, save after dark, for fear of missing an offer - and employing myself in teaching my boys to reach, to distract my mind from the fears and [-210-] responsibilities which began to weigh upon it. Nearly a fortnight passed without an applicant, and then came a commercial gentleman, on the Sunday afternoon, which, he said, was the only time he had to spare for the purpose, to inquire my terms. He was pleased with everything, but objected to the price, and offered me a rent for two rooms, with attendance. which would have barely covered their cost to me if empty. He was huffed at my refusal - said he could get them elsewhere - that people who had rooms to let must let them for what they could get - he would look further. When he was gone away I began to reflect on his offer, and to suspect whether I had not done wrong. I saw the truth of what he said, and that I must let my house at whatever people should give, or do worse. He came back in the evening, and in a very brusque way, said:-
    "What do you pay for this house ?"
    "Sixty pounds, including everything.''
    "Too much - but say sixty - there are ten rooms - bating the kitchens, as common to the whole house, there are eight left for hire - eights in sixty - that's seven pound ten a room, empty - come, I don't mind doubling it for furniture and attendance, if you give me my choice of the rooms - say twelve shillings a week."
    Though internally resenting this mode of calculation, I was too anxious to make a beginning to venture to offend him. As a matter of course, he chose the front parlour and the best best-room - and, leaving a deposit, agreed to send his luggage on the morrow. He came and remained with me two years, at the end of which time he was seduced away by a promising advertisement., in one of the daily papers, offering the same accommodation with "partial board " into the bargain, at the same price. He was a north-countryman, attached to the London department of a Manchester house, at a salary of 400 a year, every farthing of which it was his boast that he banked regularly as he [-211-] received it, paying the whole of his personal expenses from the proceeds of his perquisites, which need not have been very considerable for that purpose. Though he stood fair before the world, his moral character was indescribably loathsome and abhorrent, and I felt relieved when he went away.
    A few days after he had arrived, a stout, ecclesiastical-looking personage, of about fifty, having a languishing lady on his arm, and followed by a Moorish-looking man, in rather doubtful garb, knocked boldly at the door, and demanded to see the drawing-rooms. The girl showed them up. The lady then threw herself upon the sofa and declared she would not search any further, as the house was tolerable, and she was exhausted with the labour they had gone through. The gentleman, who handed use a card, inscribed the " Rev. Mr. Something," agreed to the terms I proposed for the drawing-room floor and an additional bed-room for "Queero,'' so they called the blackamoor, whom, the gentleman accommodatingly observed. I might put where I chose, as he could sleep anywhere, and was not given to complain of his quarters. They took possession of the rooms at once, the lady remaining on the sofa, while the gentleman and Queero set off in a cab to fetch their luggage from the hotel where they had been staying for a few clays, having recently arrived in England. On their return, Queero, having stowed away their trunks and packages, was ordered into the kitchen, an arrangement for which I had not bargained, but against which, finding the man could speak no English, and that he was not, from his attractions, likely to entangle the affections of my maid of all work, I did not think proper to object. Here he was proud to make himself useful, and after cleaning his master's boots and clothes, would draw  water, scour knives or pots, or do anything - grinning and chattering the while in the most laughable and incomprehensible way, vastly to the amusement of my two little boys, whom after a few days it was impossible to keep away from him. He ate [-212-] his meals in the kitchen, after his master and mistress had sent down the dishes ; and had an appetite that was never satisfied so long as anything remained to be consumed. 
    I do not pretend to be void of the curiosity which is said to he characteristic of the sex, and I will confess to puzzling myself a good deal to no purpose on the score of Queero. It was so strange a position which the man, who was a mere savage, occupied, that I could not make it out. The reverend gentleman, his master, never spoke to him but with an assumption of the greatest dignity, while his mistress loathed the very sight of him, and would not have passed him on the stairs, or approached him closely, for any earthly consideration ; though she tolerated his presence in the drawing-room, upon occasions, like one submitting to unavoidable tortures. These occasions were invariably when visitors arrived, when Queero always formed one of the party, and jabbered long and loudly in his native dialect, in reply to questions from his reverend patron in the same tongue. When the guests were gone he descended again to the kitchen - but two or three times in the week he dressed himself in a gentlemanly suit and rode out with his master early in the evening, not returning till late at night.
    The mystery came out at last. My commercial lodger happening one evening to follow the crowd into a great public meeting, was startled by the spectacle of Queero on the platform in the character of an African Prince, addressing the assembly with an enthusiasm which, combined with most rapid gesticulations, threw him into a violent perspiration, and the audience into a rapture of delight. The reverend Something stood by his side, and interpreted his address to the assembly. My informant was very jocose on the subject - wondered where the missionary had bagged the prince - and set himself earnestly to calculate the profits of the speculation, which he estimated at an enormous sum, and marvelled where it all went to. I wish to make no [-213-] remarks on this serious matter, as I am incapable of judging of such things ; but if the man was a prince in his own country, as the parson, in my hearing (for I was curious enough to go and witness Queero's performance) said he was, I think it is rather hard that he should have been compelled to turn shoe-black in ours. This remarkable triad remained with me three months and though the lady could do nothing for herself but talk and ring the bell, which latter she would do twenty times a day to summon the servant to poke the fire, I was sorry when they went away, as they paid me well and punctually.
    Before they baa left., I had let my remaining bed-room, with the use of my own sitting-room, to a teacher of languages, who came in and went out at all hours of the day and night too, having stipulated for a latch-key. For months before I got used to it, I lay awake whenever he was out, till I heard him let himself in and go to bed but this feeling passed away in time, and I learned to sleep whenever leisure could be found for so unprofitable employment of time. A few weeks after the missionary had left, the drawing-rooms were taken by a new-married couple - the husband a clerk in a mercantile house. Their rounds of visiting and receiving visits led to a succession of late hours and vigils on my part which laid me up at length with fatigue. When, after a fortnight's illness, I rose from my bed, I found that my teacher of languages - he was a German - had departed without paving his bill, leaving me his creditor to the extent of nearly seven pounds. I had never seen any of his money, as he had proposed paying quarterly when his pupils paid him. Shortly after this, the young couple, anticipating parental duties, hired a small cottage and removed to it. They were succeeded in less than a month by two friends, clerks in a banking-house, who passed their evenings generally in smoking and fiddling together, varied with card-parties in winter time. These [-214-] two young gentlemen understood economy, if one may judge of their practice within doors, to perfection. They never breakfasted on Sunday, because they dined with me at one o'clock, at the cost of eighteen pence a head. At Michaelmas, one of them had a goose sent him, and made me a present of it, mentioning at the time, that he should take the liberty of inviting his partner and the gentleman in the front parlour to dinner on Sunday when it would be dressed. The accompaniments to the goose, together with the pastry, cost me nine shillings the three gentlemen cleared the whole, with the execution of the little which I ate myself, and thus my dinner cost me six times the amount they were accustomed to pay for theirs, while the liberal donor plumed himself en his generosity. I dared not hazard a hint of the different notions I entertained, for fear of offending and losing my lodgers.
    In the room of the teacher of languages came the secretary to a benevolent society, a man of a very religious turn. He agreed to board with me (taking his dinner on week-days in the City), at the lowest charge which with safety I could name. His acquaintance among religions people in the neighbourhood was pretty large, and he was often absent at meals ; but lest I should gain by this, he kept an accurate register of every meal he missed, and balanced them off by inviting a party of ten or a dozen to tea or supper, when he had sufficient arrears outstanding to enable him to exhibit such hospitality without a demand on his purse. Being, in his way, a conscientious man, he felt some qualms that his guests should sweeten their grog with my sugar ; but reflecting that when he was absent I sat without a fire, he told me that I should consider the coals thus saved a fair set-off against the lumps of sugar consumed by his friends, who he had not the sense to see were really entertained at my expense. He married, after three mouths' courtship, a lady of property and, I have no doubt, takes excellent care of it. [-215-] At parting, this careful Christian recommended a traveller to a firm in the City to take his place - at the same time cautioning me to make the necessary inquiries, as he made it a point to be responsible for nobody. This traveller, who was but a sorry sort of fellow, stayed three months, often lying in bed the whole of the clay, having been discharged by the firm, and waiting for a new engagement. He never paid me a farthing, and when at last he got an appointment in Manchester, walked off without even saying that he was going, leaving nothing behind him but an empty trunk, value three-and-sixpence.
    At the end of my first year I began to review my speculation, and drew out as well as I could a debtor and creditor account of my affairs for the past twelvemonth. The landlord of my house had assured me that the rent and taxes together would be under 60, and I found them accordingly to be 59 18s. 6d. My whole receipts from lodgers had been 129 12s. 0d., out of which I had paid 10 for wages to servant, 12 12s. 0d. for wood and coal, leaving 47 1s. 6d. to pay for the maintenance of four persons, the partial board of the lodgers, and incidental expenses. The reader will not be surprised to hear that I had drawn considerably upon my little stock of money, and that I looked forward to the final close of the speculation in no very hopeful spirit.
    The second year brought experience with it, and the dearly-bought knowledge of a multitude of shifts and contrivances to save a penny by the avoidance of expenditure. I knew by this time that the proper education of my boys was not to be thought of, and sent them to a cheap day-school, where, for five shillings a quarter each, they were roughly taught the elements of commercial knowledge. I have never been able to do more for them in that way and up to the last twelve months, that is for more than seven years, I have made all their clothing with my own hands.
    I need not go on with the catalogue of the different cha-[-216-]racters who have done me the honour of making my house their home. I have had, during the period of my servitude, men of all professions under my roof. Far be it from me to deny that I have met with kindness and generosity where I had no reason to expect, much less right to demand it. But my experience upon the whole is not very creditable to that section of human nature which lives in lodgings. I derive that impression not so much from any outraged feelings of my own - the world I move in having long since taught me that such things as feelings are not recognised in one of my condition - as from the information of my ledger, which shows an average of bad debts amounting to something over fourteen per cent, upon my entire receipts ; and, from the state of my savings'-bank book, which shows that less than ten pounds remains to be drawn out, the last relic of the two hundred which comforted me and gave me courage at the commencement of my career of "landlady." Candour compels me to say that a most disproportionate share of defaulters in my case are literary men, or, perhaps, I should call them "booksellers' hacks," who live or starve, as it may happen, by the labour of their brains.
    The end of my landladyship is drawing nigh. Without a fund in store, it is impossible that I can continue to furnish bed and board, for less than they cost, to the homeless public. I have spent the best days of my life, and the whole of my little substance, in providing for their accommodation - and now, after nine years of such toil and anxiety as no Carolinian negro ever endured, the widow's house is devoured. My two boys are not educated, but they are grown big enough to labour, and, for a small premium each, will be taken out of my hands and taught to work hard at an honest trade. The premiums I must pay by the sale of my furniture, which is well nigh worn out in the service of those who, having none of their own, have abused it on the most disinterested principle. It is good for little else now [-217-] than the hammer of the auctioneer, who will consign it a prey to the broker. When it is gone and transformed into an outfit for my dear boys, I shall consult the columns of the Times for a situation that will suit me. I feel already exhilarated by the bare thought of emancipation from the lot and the load which has weighed me down so long, and which, while compelling me to act as the ever grateful recipient of obligations without number, has broken my spirit and beggared my resources. As housekeeper  -as maid of all work - as cook in a respectable family, I may retain my self-respect, and indulge the consciousness that the philosophers who in our day instruct mankind in the truths of life, regard me as something better than that canting, lying, thieving, drunken specimen of filthy and degraded humanity which, according to their unanimous verdict, lets lodgings.