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Chapter 14 A man's private life

  • One morning in November, at a little past eight o'clock, Mrs. Arb, watchin_rom behind the door of her yet. unopened shop, saw Mr. Earlforward help Elsi_o carry out the empty bookstand and set it down in front of the window, an_hen, with overcoat, muffler and umbrella, depart from Riceyman Steps o_usiness. Mrs. Arb immediately unlocked her door, went out just as sh_as—hatless, coatless, gloveless, wearing a white apron—locked her door, an_alked across to Mr. Earlforward's. Elsie had already begun to fill the book- stand with books which overnight had been conveniently piled near the entranc_f the shop.
  • "Good morning, Elsie. Dull morning, isn't it? Is master up yet?" said Mrs. Ar_ivaciously, rubbing her hands in the chilly, murky dawn, and brightening th_awn.
  • "Oh, 'm! He's gone out. I don't expect him back till eleven. It's one of hi_uying mornings, ye see."
  • Oh,  _dear,_  dear!" Mrs. Arb exclaimed, with cheerful resignation. "And I'v_nly got ten minutes. Well, I haven't really got that. Shop ought to be ope_ow. But I thought I'd let 'em wait a bit this morning."
  • She glanced anxiously at her own establishment to see whether any customer ha_ome down the steps from the square. But, in truth, as she had now sold th_usiness, and the premises, and was to give possession in a few weeks, she wa_ot genuinely concerned about the possible loss of profit on an ounce or tw_unces of tea. She wandered with apparent aimlessness into Mr. Earlforward'_hop.
  • "Did you want to see him particular, 'm ?"
  • "I won't say so particular as all that. So you look after the shop when Mr.
  • Earlforward is out, Elsie?"
  • "It's like this, 'm. All the books is marked inside, and some outside. I_nybody comes in that looks respectable, I ask 'em to look round fo_hemselves, and if they take a book they pay me, and I ask 'em to write dow_he name of it on a bit of paper." She pointed to some small memorandum sheet_repared from old unassorted envelopes which had been cut open and laid flat, with pencil close by. "If it's some regular customer like, that  _must_  se_r. Earlforward himself, I ask 'em to write their names down. And if I don'_ike the look of anybody, I tell 'em I don't know anything, and out they go."
  • "What a good arrangement!" said Mrs. Arb approvingly. "But if you have t_ttend to the shop, how can you do the cleaning and so on Elsie's ingenuous, kind face showed distress; her dark-blue eyes softened in solicitude.
  • "Ah, 'm! There you've got me. I can't. I can only clean the shop thes_ornings, and not much of that neither, because I must keep my hands dry fo_ustomers."
  • Mrs. Arb, vaguely smiling to herself, trotted to and fro in the gloomy shop, which had the air of a crypt, except that in these days crypts are usuall_ighted by electricity, and the shop was lighted by nature alone on this dar_orning. She peered, bending forward, into the dark spaces between the bays, and descried the heaps of books on the floor. The dirt and the immens_isorder almost frightened her. She had not examined the inside of the sho_efore—had, indeed, previously entered it only once, when she was in n_ondition to observe. Mr. Earlforward had never seized an occasion to invit_er within.
  • "This will want some putting straight," she said, " if ever it is pu_traight."
  • "And well you may say it, 'm," Elsie replied compassionately. "He's alway_rying to get straight, 'specially lately, 'm. We did get one room straigh_pstairs, but it meant letting all the others go. Between you and mc, he'l_ever get straight. But he has hopes, and it's no use saying anything to him."
  • "I suppose you can do this room, too, on his buying mornings," said Mrs. Arb, peeping into Mr. Earlforward's private back-room from which the shop and th_hop-door could be kept under observation.
  • "Oh, 'm! He wouldn't let me. He won't have anything touched in that room."
  • "Then who does it?"
  • "He does it himself, 'm—when it is done."
  • "Does he!" murmured Mrs. Arb in a peculiar tone.
  • The bookshelves went up to the ceiling on every side. The floor was thickl_trewn with books, the table also. Chairs also. The blind lay crumpled on th_ook-covered window-sill. The window was obscured by dirt. The ceiling was _lackish-grey. A heavy deposit of black dust covered all things. The dreadfu_en expressed intolerably to Mrs. Arb the pathos of the existence of a man wh_s determined to look after himself. It convicted a whole sex of bein_eckless, foolish, helpless, infantile, absurd. Mrs. Arb and Elsie exchange_lances. Elsie blushed.
  • "Yes. I'm that ashamed of it, 'm!" said Elsie. "But you know what they are!"
  • Mrs. Arb gave two short nods. She moved her hand as if to plumb the layer o_ust with one feminine finger, but refrained; she dared not.
  • "And do you do his cooking, too?" she asked.
  • "Well, 'm. He gets his own breakfast, and he makes his own bed—it's alway_one before I come of a morning—and he cleans his own boots. I begin hi_inner, but, seeing as I go at twelve, he finishes it. He gets his own tea. _ust say he isn't what you call a big eater."
  • "Seems to me it's all very cleverly organized."
  • "Oh, it is, 'm! There's not many gentlemen could manage as he does. But it's _readful pity. Makes me fair cry sometimes. And him so clean and neat himself, too."
  • "Yes," said Mrs. Arb, agreeing that the contrast between the master and hi_ome was miraculous, awful, and tragic.
  • "I suppose I'd better not go upstairs as he isn't here, Elsie?"
  • The two women exchanged more glances. Elsie perfectly comprehended the case o_rs. Arb, and sympathized with her. Mrs. Arb was being courted. Mrs. Arb ha_ome to no decision. Mrs. Arb desired as much information as possible befor_oming to a decision. Women had the right to look after themselves against n_atter what man. Women were women, and men were men. The Arb-Earlforwar_ffair was crucial for both parties.
  • "Oh! I think you might, 'm. But I can't go with you." Sex-loyalty ha_riumphed over a too-strict interpretation of the duty of the employed to th_mployer. A conspiracy had been set up.
  • Mrs. Arb had to step over hummocks of books in order to reach the foot of th_tairs. The left-hand half of every step of the stairs was stacked wit_ooks—cheap editions of novels in paper jackets, under titles such as "Just _irl," "Not Like Other Girls," "A Girl Alone." Weak but righteous an_ictorious girls crowded the stairs from top to bottom, so that Mrs. Arb coul_carcely get up. The landing also was full of girls. The front-room on th_irst floor was, from the evidence of its furniture, a dining-room, though no_sed as such. The massive mahogany table was piled up with books, as also th_ig sideboard, the mantelpiece, various chairs. The floor was carpeted wit_ooks. Less dust than in the den below, but still a great deal. The Victoria_urniture was "good"; it was furniture meant to survive revolutions an_onflagrations and generations; it was everlasting furniture; it would comman_espect through any thickness of dust.
  • The back-room, with quite as large a number of books as the front-room, bu_ven less dust, was a bedroom. The very wide bed had been neatly made. Mrs.
  • Arb turned down the corner of the coverlet; a fairly clean pillow-slip, n_heets, only blankets! She drew open drawers in a great mahogany chest. Two o_hem were full of blue suits, absolutely new. In another drawer were at leas_ dozen quite new grey flannel shirts. A wardrobe was stuffed with books.
  • Coming out of the bedroom, she perceived between it and the stairs a long, narrow room. Impossible to enter this room because of books; but Mrs. Arb di_he impossible, and after some excavation with her foot disclosed a bath, which was full to the brim and overflowing with books. Now Mrs. Arb was prett_ell accustomed to baths; she was not aware of the extreme rarity of baths i_lerkenwell, and hence she could not adequately appreciate the heroism of _ero who, possessing such a treasure, had subdued it to the uses of mer_usiness. Nevertheless, her astonishment and amaze were sufficientl_oticeable, and she felt, disturbingly and delightfully, the thrill o_urprising clandestinely the secrets of a man's intimate personal existence.
  • Then she caught the sound of dropping water; it was on the second-floor, in _oom shaped like the bathroom, a room with two shelves, a gas-ring, and _ink. The water was dropping with a queer reverberation on to the sink from _ap above. There were a few plates, cups, saucers, jugs, saucepans, dishes; half a loaf of bread, a slice of cooked bacon; there was no milk, no butter.
  • His kitchen and larder! One gas-ring! No fireplace! Mrs. Arb was impressed.
  • The other rooms on the second-floor were full of books and dust. One of the_ad recently been cleaned and tidied, but dozens of books still lay on th_loor. She picked up a book, a large, thick volume, for no other reason tha_hat the cover bore a representation of a bird. It was a heavy book, with man_oloured pictures of birds. She thought it was quite a pretty thing to loo_t. By accident she noticed the price pencilled inside the front cover. £40.
  • She was not astonished nor amazed, she was staggered. Mrs. Arb had probabl_ot read ten books since girlhood. To her, reading was a refuge from eithe_dleness or life. She was never idle, and she loved life. Thus sh_ondescended towards books. That any book, least of all a picture-book o_irds, could be worth £40 had not occurred to her mind. (And this one lying o_he floor!) Instantly, in spite of her commonsense, she thought for a brie_pace of all the books in the establishment as worth £40 apiece! Befor_eturning down the book-encumbered stairs, she paused on the top landing. He_hroat was coated with the dust which she had displaced in her passage throug_he house. Her hands were very dirty and very cold—they shone with cold. N_ire could have burnt in any of those rooms for years. She dared not touch th_andrail of the staircase, even with her fingers all dirty. She paused becaus_he was disconcerted and wanted to arrange the perplexing confusion of he_houghts. The more she reflected the better she realized how strange an_owerful and ruthless a person was Mr. Earlforward. She admired, comprehended, sympathized, and yet was intimidated. The character of the man was displaye_eyond any misunderstanding by the house with its revelations of his dail_ife; but there was no clue to it in his appearance and deportment. She wa_ore than intimidated—she was frightened. Withal, the terror—for it amounte_o terror—fascinated her. She went down gingerly, hesitating at every step… .
  • At the bottom of the lower flight she heard, with new alarm, the bland voic_f Mr. Earlforward himself. He was talking with a customer in his den.
  • "I'll slip out," she very faintly whispered to Elsie, who was sweeping nea_he stairs. Elsie nodded— like a conspirator. But at the same moment Mr.
  • Earlforward and his customer emerged from the back room, and Mrs. Arb wa_rapped.
  • "I didn't notice you come in," said the bookseller most amiably. "What can _o for you?"
  • "Oh, thank you, but I only stepped across to speak to Elsie about something."
  • The lie, invented on the instant, succeeded perfectly. And Elsie, th_onestest soul in Clerkenwell, gave it the support of her silence in the grea_ause of women against men.
  • "I'm glad to see you in here," said Mr. Earlforward gently, having dismisse_he customer. " It's a bit of luck. I'd gone off for Houndsditch, but _appened to meet someone on the road, and nothing would do but I must com_ack with him. Come in here."
  • He drew her by the attraction of his small eyes into the back room. Books ha_een tipped off one of the chairs on to the floor. She sat down. Surely Mr.
  • Earl-forward was the most normal being in the world, the mildest, th_uietest, the easiest! But the bath, the kitchen, the blankets, the filth, th_ood, the £40 book, and all those new suits and new shirts! She had never eve_onceived such an inside of a house! She could hardly credit the evidence o_er senses.
  • "I've wanted to see you in here, in this room," said Mr. Earlforward in a war_oice. And then no more.
  • She could not withstand his melting glance. She knew that their intimacy, having developed gradually through weeks, was startlingly on the point o_ursting into a new phase. The sense of danger with her, as with nearly al_omen, was intermittent. The man was in love with her. He was in her hands.
  • What could she not do with him? Could she not accomplish marvels?
  • Could she not tame monsters? And he understood his instincts; she shared them.
  • And he was a rock of defence, shelter, safety! … The alternative: solitude, celibacy, spinsterishness, eternal self-defence, eternal misgivings about he_ecurity; horrible!
  • "I must be opening my shop," she said nervously.
  • "And I must be getting away again, too," he said, and put on his hat and bega_o button his overcoat. Nothing more. But at the door he added:
  • Maybe I'll come across and see you to-night, if it isn't intruding."
  • "You'll be very welcome, I'm sure," she answered, modestly smiling.
  • She was no better than a girl, then. She knew she had uttered the decidin_ord of her fate. She trembled with apprehension and felicity. He was _onderful man and an enigma. He inspired love and dread. As the day passed he_eeling for him became intense. At closing time her ecstatic heart was liqui_ith acquiescence. And she had, too, a bright, adventurous valour, but sho_hrough with forebodings.