This page will take you into pieces of literature that are carefully selected for their great content at the literary, scientific, or philosophical level. A short selection will be presented in full. A long one will be divided into sections that will be refreshed regularly. Emphasis and highlights are mostly ours, not made by the original author.
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Anna the Adventuress (1904) by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter 8. "White's"
Northwards, away from the inhospitality of West Kensington, rumbled the ancient four-wheel cab, laden with luggage and drawn by a wheezy old horse rapidly approaching its last days. Inside was Anna, leaning a little forward to watch the passers-by, bright-eyed, full to the brim of the insatiable curiosity of youth--the desire to understand and appreciate this new world in which she found herself. She was practically an outcast, she had not even the ghost of a plan as to her future, and she had something less than five pounds in her pocket. She watched the people and hummed softly to herself.
Suddenly she thrust her head out of the window.
"Please stop, cabman," she ordered.
The man pulled up. It was not a difficult affair.
"Is this Montague Street, W.C.?" she asked.
The man looked as though he would have liked to deny it, but could not.
"Stay where you are for a moment," she directed. "I want to find an address."
The man contented himself with a nod. Anna rummaged about in her dressing-case, and finally drew out a letter. On the envelope was written--
Sydney Courtlaw, Esq.,
13, Montague St.
She put her head out of the window.
"Number 13, please, cabman."
"We've come past it, miss," the man answered, with a note of finality in his gruff voice.
"Then turn round and go back there," she directed.
The man muttered something inaudible, and gathered up the reins. His horse, which had apparently gone to sleep, preferred to remain where he was. After a certain amount of maneuvering, however, he was induced to crawl around, and in a few minutes came to stop again before a tall brightly-painted house, which seemed like an oasis of colour and assertive prosperity in a long dingy row. This was number 13, Montague Street, familiarly spoken of in the neighbourhood as "White's."
Anna promptly alighted with the letter in her hand. The door was opened for her by a weary-looking youth in a striped jacket several sizes too large for him. The rest of his attire was nondescript.
"Does Mr. Courtlaw, Mr. Sydney Courtlaw, live here, please?" Anna asked him.
"Not home yet, miss," the young man replied. "Generally gets here about seven."
Anna hesitated, and then held out the letter.
"I think that I will leave this letter for him," she said. "It is from his brother in Paris. Say that I will call again or let him know my address in London."
The young man accepted the letter and the message, and seemed about to close the door when a lady issued from one of the front rooms and intervened. She wore a black satin dress, a little shiny at the seams, a purposeless bow of white tulle at the back of her neck, and a huge chatelaine. She addressed Anna with a beaming smile and a very creditable mixture of condescension and officiousness. Under the somewhat trying incandescent light her cheeks pleaded guilty to a recent use of the powder puff.
"I think that you were inquiring for Mr. Courtlaw," she remarked. "He is one of our guests--perhaps I should say boarders here, but he seldom returns before dinner-time. We dine at seven-thirty. Can I give him any message for you?"
"Thank you," Anna answered. "I have a letter for him from his brother, which I was just leaving."
"I will see that he gets it immediately on his return," the lady promised. "You did not wish to see him particularly this evening, then?"
"Well, no," she answered. "To tell you the truth though, I am quite a stranger in London, and it occurred to me that Mr. Courtlaw might have been able to give me an idea where to stop."
The lady in black satin looked at the pile of luggage outside and hesitated.
"Were you thinking of private apartments, a boarding-house or an hotel?" she asked.
"I really had not thought about it at all," Anna answered smiling. "I expected to stay with a relation, but I found that their arrangements did not allow of it. I have been used to living in apartments in Paris, but I suppose the system is different here."
The lady in black satin appeared undecided. She looked from Anna, who was far too nice-looking to be travelling about alone, to that reassuring pile of luggage, and wrinkled her brows thoughtfully.
"Of course," she said diffidently, "this is a boarding house, although we never take in promiscuous travellers. The class of guests we have are all permanent, and I am obliged to be very careful indeed. But--if you are a friend of Mr. Courtlaw's--I should like to oblige Mr. Courtlaw."
"It is very nice of you to think of it," Anna said briskly. "I should really like to find somewhere to stay, if it was only for a few nights."
The lady stood away from the door.
"Will you come this way," she said, "into the drawing room? There is no one there just now. Most of my people are upstairs dressing for dinner. The gentlemen are so particular now, and a good thing too, I say. I was always used to it, and I think it gives quite a tone to an establishment. Please sit down, Miss--dear me, I haven't asked you your name yet."
"My name is Pellissier," Anna said, "Anna Pellissier."
"I am Mrs. White," the lady in black satin remarked. "It makes one feel quite awkward to mention such a thing, but after all I think that it is best for both parties. Could you give me any references?"
"There is Mr. Courtlaw," Anna said, "and my solicitors, Messrs. Le Mercier and Stowe of St. Heliers. They are rather a long way off, but you could write to them. I am sorry that I do not know any one in London. But after all, Mrs. White, I am not sure that I could afford to come to you. I am shockingly poor. Please tell me what your terms are."
"Well," Mrs. White said slowly, "it depends a good deal upon what rooms you have. Just now my best ones are all taken."
"So much the better," Anna declared cheerfully. "The smallest will do for me quite well."
Mrs. White looked mysteriously about the room as though to be sure that no one was listening.
"I should like you to come here," she said. "It's a great deal for a young lady who's alone in the world, as I suppose you are at present, to have a respectable home, and I do not think in such a case that private apartments are at all desirable. We have a very nice set of young people here too just at present, and you would soon make some friends. I will take you for thirty-five shillings a week. Please don't let any one know that."
"I have no idea what it costs to live in London," Anna said, "but I should like very much to come for a short time if I might."
"Certainly," Mrs. White said. "Two days' notice shall be sufficient on either side."
"And I may bring my luggage in and send that cabman away?" Anna asked. "Dear me, what a relief! If I had had any nerves that man would have trampled upon them long ago."
"Cabmen are so trying," Mrs. White assented. "You need have no further trouble. The manservant shall bring your trunks in and pay the fare too, if you like."
Anna drew out her purse at once.
"You are really a good Samaritan," she declared. "I am perfectly certain that that man meant to be rude to me. He has been bottling it up all the way from West Kensington."
Mrs. White rang the bell.
"Come upstairs," she said, "and I will show you your room. And would you mind hurrying a little. You won't want to be late the first evening, and it's ten minutes past seven now. Gracious, there's the gong. This way, my dear--and--you'll excuse my mentioning it, but a quiet blouse and a little chiffon, you know, will be quite sufficient. It's your first evening, and early impressions do count for so much. You understand me, I'm sure."
Anna was a little puzzled, but she only laughed.
"Perhaps, as I've only just arrived," she remarked, "I might be forgiven if I do not change my skirt. I packed so hurriedly that it will take me a long time to find my things."
"Certainly," Mrs. White assured her. "Certainly. I'll mention it. You're tired, of course. This is your room. The gong will go at seven-thirty. Don't be late if you can help it."
Anna was not late, but her heart sank within her when she entered the drawing-room. It was not a hopeful looking group. Two or three podgy-looking old men with wives to match, half-a-dozen overdressed girls, and a couple of underdressed American ones, who still wore the clothes in which they had been tramping half over London since breakfast time. A sprinkling of callow youths, and a couple of pronounced young Jews, who were talking loudly together in some unintelligible jargon of the City. What had she to do with such as these? She had hard work to keep a smiling face, as Mrs. White, who had risen to greet her, proceeded with a formal, and from Anna's point of view, a wholly unnecessary round of introductions. And then suddenly--a relief. A young man--almost a boy, slight, dark, and with his brother's deep grey eyes--came across the room to her.
"You must be the Miss Pellissier of whom David has told me so much," he said, shyly. "I am very glad that you have come here. I heard from David about you only this morning."
"You are marvellously like your brother," Anna said, beaming upon him. "I have a letter for you, and no end of messages. Where can we sit down and talk?"
He led her across the room towards a window recess, in which a tall, fair young man was seated with an evening paper in his hand.
"Let me introduce my friend to you," Courtlaw said. "Arthur, this is Miss Pellissier--Mr. Brendon. Brendon and I are great chums," he went on nervously. "We are clerks in the same bank. I don't think that the rest of the people here like us very well, do they, Arthur, so we're obliged to be friends."
Anna shook hands with Brendon--a young man also, but older and more self-possessed than Sydney Courtlaw.
"Sydney is quite right, Miss Pellissier," he said. "He and I don't seem to get on at all with our fellow-guests, as Mrs. White calls them. You really ought not to stay here and talk to us. It is a most inauspicious start for you."
"Dear me," Anna laughed, "how unfortunate! What ought I to do? Should I be forgiven, do you think, if I were to go and hold that skein of wool for the old lady in the yellow cap?"
"Don't speak of her irreverently," Brendon said, in an awed whisper. "Her husband was a county councillor, and she has a niece who comes to see her in a carriage. I wish she wouldn't look like that at us over her glasses."
Horace, the manservant, transformed now into the semblance of a correctly garbed waiter, threw open the door.
"Dinner is served, ma'am," he announced to Mrs. White.
There was no rush. Everything was done in a genteel and ordinary way, but on the other hand, there was no lingering. Anna found herself next Sydney Courtlaw, with his friend close at hand. Opposite to her was a sallow-visaged young man, whose small tie seemed like a smudge of obtusively shiny black across the front of a high close-drawn collar. As a rule, Courtlaw told her softly, he talked right and left, and to everybody throughout the whole of the meal--tonight he was almost silent, and seemed to devote his whole attention to staring at Anna. After the first courses however she scarcely noticed him. Her two new friends did their best to entertain her.
"I can't imagine, Miss Pellissier," Brendon said, leaning towards her, "whatever made you think of coming to stay if only for a week at a Montague Street boarding-house. Are you going to write a novel?"
"Not I," she answered gaily. "I came to London unexpectedly, and my friends could not take me in. I had a vague sort of idea that this was the region where one finds apartments, so I told my cabman to drive in this direction while I sat inside his vehicle and endeavoured to form a plan of campaign. He brought me past this house, and I thought I would call and leave your brother's letter. Then I saw Mrs. White--"
"No more," Sydney Courtlaw begged, laughingly. "You were booked of course. An unexpected vacancy, wasn't it? Every one comes in on unexpected vacancy."
"And they go?"
"When they get the chance. It really isn't so easy to go as it seems. We have come to the conclusion, Brendon and I, that Mrs. White is psychologically gifted. She throws a sort of spell over us all. We struggle against it at first, but in the end we have to submit. She calls us her guests, but in reality we are her prisoners. We simply can't get away. There's that old gentleman at the end of the table--Bullding his name is. He will tell you confidentially that he simply hates the place. Yet he's been here for six years, and he's as much a fixture as that sham mahogany sideboard. Everyone will grumble to you confidentially--Miss Ellicot, she's our swagger young lady, you know--up there, next to Miss White, she will tell you that it is so out of the world here, so far away from everyone one knows. Old Kesterton, choleric-looking individual nearly opposite, will curse the cooking till he's black in the face, but he never misses a dinner. The Semitic looking young man opposite, who seems to have been committing you to memory piecemeal, will tell you that he was never so bored in all his life as he has been here. Yet he stays. They all stay!"
"And you yourself?"
"Oh, we are also under the spell," he declared, "but I think that we are here mainly because it is cheap. It is really cheap, you know. To appreciate it you should try rooms."
"Is this a fair sample of the dinner?" Anna asked, who had the healthy appetite of a strong young woman.
"It is, if anything, a little above the average," Brendon admitted.
Anna said nothing. The young man opposite was straining his ears to listen to their conversation. Mrs. White caught her eye, and smiled benignly down the table.
"I hope that Mr. Courtlaw is looking after you, Miss Pellissier," she said.
"Admirably, thank you," Anna answered.
The young lady with frizzled hair, whom Brendon had pointed out to her as Miss Ellicot, leaned forward from her hostess's side. She had very frizzy hair indeed, very black eyebrows, a profusion of metallic adornments about her neck and waist, and an engaging smile.
"We are so interested to hear, Miss Pellissier," she said, "that you have been living in Paris. We shall expect you to tell us all what to wear."
Anna smiled very faintly, and shook her head.
"I have come from a very unfashionable quarter," she said, "and I do not think that I have been inside a milliner's shop for a year. Besides, it is all reversed now, you know. Paris copies London."
Brendon leaned over confidentially.
"You are in luck, Miss Pellissier," he declared. "Your success here is absolutely meteoric. Miss Ellicot has spoken to you, the great Mr. Bullding is going to. For five minutes he has been trying to think of something to say. I am not sure, but I believe that he has just thought of something."
"May I be prepared?" Anna asked. "Which is Mr. Bullding?"
"Stout old gentleman four places down on the left. Look out, it's coming."
Anna raised her eyes, and caught the earnest gaze of an elderly gentleman with a double chin, a protuberant under lip, and a snuff-stained coat.
"I was in Paris four years ago," Mr. Bullding announced solemnly. "It rained the whole of the time, but we saw all the sights, and the place never seemed dull."
"It takes a great deal of bad weather to depress the true Parisian," Anna admitted.
"A volatile temperament--yes, a volatile temperament," Mr. Bullding repeated, rather struck with the phrase. "It is a pity that as nations we are not more friendly."
Anna nodded and turned again to Courtlaw.
"I will not be drawn into a conversation with Mr. Bullding," she declared. "I believe that he would bore me. Tell me, what are these bananas and nuts for?"
Anna laid down her serviette.
"Let us escape," she said. "Couldn't we three go out and have some coffee somewhere? The thought of that drawing-room paralyses me."
Brendon laughed softly.
"We can," he said, "and we will. But it is only fair to warn you that it isn't expected. Mrs. White is proud of her drawing-room evenings. There is a musical programme, and we have the windows open and blinds up, and a pink lamp shade over the piano lamp--a sort of advertisement of the place, you know. Strangers look in and long, and neighbours are moved to envy."
Anna hesitated no longer. She almost sprang to her feet. Conscious of Mrs. White's surprise as she swung easily down the room, followed by the two young men, she smiled a careless explanation at her.
"I am dying to renew my acquaintance with London, Mrs. White," she remarked.
"You are not going out--this evening, I trust," that lady asked, a trifle dismayed.
Anna did not pause, but she looked over her shoulder with slightly lifted eyebrows.
"Why not? They tell me that London is impossible till after ten, and I want my first impressions to be favourable."
"There will be some coffee and music in the drawing-room in a few minutes," Mrs. White said.
"Thanks, I'm not very fond of coffee," Anna answered, "and I hate music. Good night."
Mrs. White gasped, and then stiffened. Miss Ellicot, who sang ballads, and liked Brendon to turn over the pages for her, tossed her head. Anna passed serenely out.