Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Song in As You Like It.
Hugh felt rather dreary as, through Bermondsey, he drew nigh to the London Bridge Station. Fog, and drizzle, and smoke, and stench composed the atmosphere. He got out in a drift of human atoms. Leaving his luggage at the office, he set out on foot to explore -- in fact, to go and look for his future, which, even when he met it, he would not be able to recognise with any certainty. The first form in which he was interested to find it embodied, was that of lodgings; but where even to look, he did not know. He had been in London for a few days in the spring on his way to Arnstead, so he was not utterly ignorant of the anatomy of the monster city; but his little knowledge could not be of much service to him now. And how different it was from the London of spring, which had lingered in his memory and imagination; when, transformed by the "heavenly alchemy" of the piercing sunbeams that slanted across the streets from chimney-tops to opposite basements, the dust and smoke showed great inclined planes of light, up whose steep slopes one longed to climb to the fountain glory whence they flowed! Now the streets, from garret to cellar, seemed like huge kennels of muddy, moist, filthy air, down through which settled the heavier particles of smoke and rain upon the miserable human beings who crawled below in the deposit, like shrimps in the tide, or whitebait at the bottom of the muddy Thames. He had to wade through deep thin mud even on the pavements. Everybody looked depressed, and hurried by with a cowed look; as if conscious that the rain and general misery were a plague drawn down on the city by his own individual crime. Nobody seemed to care for anybody or anything. "Good heavens!" thought Hugh; "what a place this must be for one without money!" It looked like a chaos of human nomads. And yet, in reality, the whole mass was so bound together, interwoven, and matted, by the crossing and inter-twisting threads of interest, mutual help, and relationship of every kind, that Hugh soon found how hard it was to get within the mass at all, so as to be in any degree partaker of the benefits it shared within itself.
He did not wish to get lodgings in the outskirts, for he thought that would remove him from every centre of action or employment. But he saw no lodgings anywhere. Growing tired and hungry, he went at length into an eating-house, which he thought looked cheap; and proceeded to dine upon a cinder, which had been a steak. He tried to delude himself into the idea that it was a steak still, by withdrawing his attention from it, and fixing it upon a newspaper two days old. Finding nothing of interest, he dallied with the advertisements. He soon came upon a column from which single gentlemen appeared to be in request as lodgers. Looking over these advertisements, which had more interest for him at the moment than all home and foreign news, battles and murders included, he drew a map from his pocket, and began to try to find out some of the localities indicated. Most of them were in or towards the suburbs. At last he spied one in a certain square, which, after long and diligent search, and with the assistance of the girl who waited on him, he found on his map. It was in the neighbourhood of Holborn, and, from the place it occupied in the map, seemed central enough for his vague purposes. Above all, the terms were said to be moderate. But no description of the character of the lodgings was given, else Hugh would not have ventured to look at them. What he wanted was something of the same sort as he had had in Aberdeen -- a single room, or a room and bed-room, for which he should have to pay only a few shillings a week.
Refreshed by his dinner, wretched as it was, he set out again. To his great joy, the rain was over, and an afternoon sun was trying, with some slight measure of success, to pierce the clouds of the London atmosphere: it had already succeeded with the clouds of the terrene. He soon found his way into Holborn, and thence into the square in question. It looked to him very attractive; for it was quietness itself, and had no thoroughfare, except across one of its corners. True, it was invaded by the universal roar -- for what place in London is not? -- but it contributed little or nothing of its own manufacture to the general production of sound in the metropolis. The centre was occupied by grass and trees, inclosed within an iron railing. All the leaves were withered, and many had dropped already on the pavement below. In the middle stood the statue of a queen, of days gone by. The tide of fashion had rolled away far to the west, and yielded a free passage to the inroads of commerce, and of the general struggle for ignoble existence, upon this once favoured island in its fluctuating waters. Old windows, flush with the external walls, whence had glanced fair eyes to which fashion was even dearer than beauty, now displayed Lodgings to Let between knitted curtains, from which all idea of drapery had been expelled by severe starching. Amongst these he soon found the house he sought, and shrunk from its important size and bright equipments; but, summoning courage, thought it better to ring the bell. A withered old lady, in just the same stage of decay as the square, and adorned after the same fashion as the house, came to the door, cast a doubtful look at Hugh, and when he had stated his object, asked him, in a hard, keen, unmodulated voice, to walk in. He followed her, and found himself in a dining-room, which to him, judging by his purse, and not by what he had been used to of late, seemed sumptuous. He said at once:
"It is needless for me to trouble you further. I see your rooms will not suit me."
The old lady looked annoyed.
"Will you see the drawing-room apartments, then?" she said, crustily.
"No, thank you. It would be giving you quite unnecessary trouble."
"My apartments have always given satisfaction, I assure you, sir."
"Indeed, I have no reason to doubt it. I wish I could afford to take them," said Hugh, thinking it better to be open than to hurt her feelings. "I am sure I should be very comfortable. But a poor -- "
He did not know what to call himself.
"O-oh!" said the landlady. Then, after a pause -- "Well?" interrogatively.
"Well, I was a tutor last, but I don't know what I may be next."
She kept looking at him. Once or twice she looked at him from head to foot.
"You are respectable?"
"I hope so," said Hugh, laughing.
"Well!" -- this time not interrogatively.
"How many rooms would you like?"
"The fewer the better. Half a one, if there were nobody in the other half."
"Well! --and you wouldn't give much trouble, I daresay."
"Only for coals and water to wash and drink."
"And you wouldn't dine at home?"
"No -- nor anywhere else," said Hugh; but the second and larger clause was sotto voce.
"And you wouldn't smoke in-doors?"
"And you would wipe your boots clean before you went up-stairs?"
"Yes, certainly." Hugh was beginning to be exceedingly amused, but he kept his gravity wonderfully.
"Have you any money?"
"Yes; plenty for the meantime. But when I shall get more, I don't know, you see."
"Well, I've a room at the top of the house, which I'll make comfortable for you; and you may stay as long as you like to behave yourself."
"But what is the rent?"
"Four shillings a week -- to you. Would you like to see it?"
"Yes, if you please."
She conducted him up to the third floor, and showed him a good-sized room, rather bare, but clean.
"This will do delightfully," said Hugh.
"I will make it a little more comfortable for you, you know."
"Thank you very much. Shall I pay you a month in advance?"
"No, no," she answered, with a grim smile. "I might want to get rid of you, you know. It must be a week's warning, no more."
"Very well. I have no objection. I will go and fetch my luggage. I suppose I may come in at once?"
"The sooner the better, young man, in a place like London. The sooner you come home the better pleased I shall be. There now!"
So saying, she walked solemnly down-stairs before him, and let him out. Hugh hurried away to fetch his luggage, delighted that he had so soon succeeded in finding just what he wanted. As he went, he speculated on the nature of his landlady, trying to account for her odd rough manner, and the real kindness of her rude words. He came to the conclusion that she was naturally kind to profusion, and that this kindness had, some time or other, perhaps repeatedly, been taken shameful advantage of; that at last she had come to the resolution to defend herself by means of a general misanthropy, and supposed that she had succeeded, when she had got no further than to have so often imitated the tone of her own behaviour when at its
crossest, as to have made it habitual by repetition.
In all probability some unknown sympathy had drawn her to Hugh. She might have had a son about his age, who had run away thirty years ago. Or rather, for she seemed an old maid, she had been jilted some time by a youth about the same size as Hugh; and therefore she loved him the moment she saw him. Or, in short, a thousand things. Certainly seldom have lodgings been let so oddly or so cheaply. But some impulse or other of the whimsical old human heart, which will have its way, was satisfied therein.
When he returned in a couple of hours, with his boxes on the top of a cab, the door was opened, before he knocked, by a tidy maid, who, without being the least like her mistress, yet resembled her excessively. She helped him to carry his boxes up-stairs; and when he reached his room, he found a fire burning cheerily, a muffin down before it, a tea-kettle singing on the hob, and the tea-tray set upon a nice white cloth on a table right in front of the fire, with an old-fashioned high-backed easy-chair by its side -- the very chair to go to sleep in over a novel. The old lady soon made her appearance, with the teapot in one hand, and a plate of butter in the other.
"Oh! thank you," said Hugh. "This is comfortable!"
She answered only by compressing her lips till her mouth vanished altogether, and nodding her head as much as to say: "I know it is. I intended it should be." She then poured water into the teapot, set it down by the fire, and vanished.
Hugh sat down in the easy-chair, and resolved to be comfortable, at least till he had had his tea; after which he would think what he was to do next. A knock at the door -- and his landlady entered, laid a penny newspaper on the table, and went away. This was just what he wanted to complete his comfort. He took it up, and read while he consumed his bread and butter. When he had had enough of tea and newspaper, he said to himself:
"Now, what am I to do next?"
It is a happy thing for us that this is really all we have to concern ourselves about -- what to do next. No man can do the second thing. He can do the first. If he omits it, the wheels of the social Juggernaut roll over him, and leave him more or less crushed behind. If he does it, he keeps in front, and finds room to do the next again; and so he is sure to arrive at something, for the onward march will carry him with it. There is no saying to what perfection of success a man may come, who begins with what he can do, and uses the means at his hand. He makes a vortex of action, however slight, towards which all the means instantly begin to gravitate. Let a man but lay hold of something -- anything, and he is in the high road to success -- though it may be very long before he can walk comfortably in it. -- It is true the success may be measured out according to a standard very different from his.
But in Hugh's case, the difficulty was to grasp anything -- to make a beginning anywhere. He knew nobody; and the globe of society seemed like a mass of adamant, on which he could not gain the slightest hold, or make the slightest impression. Who would introduce him to pupils? Nobody. He had the testimonials of his professors; but who would ask to see them? -- His eye fell on the paper. He would advertise.