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.