Behind the Venetian blinds of a respectable middle-class, fifty-pound-a-year, “semi-detached,” “family” house, in a respectable middle-class road of the little north-county town of Sidon, midway between the trees of wealth upon the hill, and the business quarters that ended in squalor on the bank of the broad and busy river,—a house boasting a few shabby trees of its own, in its damp little rockeried slips of front and back gardens,—on a May evening some ten or twelve years ago, a momentous crisis of contrasts had been reached.
The house was still as for a battle. It was holding its breath to hear what was going on in the front parlour, the door of which seemed to wear an expression of being more than usually closed. A mournful half-light fell through a little stained-glass vestibule into a hat-racked hall, on the walls of which hung several pictures of those great steamships known as “Atlantic liners” in big gilt frames—pictures of a significance presently to be noted. A beautiful old eight-day clock ticked solemnly to the flickering of the hall lamp. From below came occasionally a furtive creaking of the kitchen stairs. The two servants were half way up them listening. The stairs a flight above the hall also creaked at intervals. Two young girls, respectively about fourteen and fifteen, were craning necks out of nightdresses over the balusters in a shadowy angle of the staircase. On the floor above them three other little girls of gradually diminishing ages slept, unconscious of the issues being decided between their big brother and their eldest sister on the one side, and their father and mother on the other, in the front parlour below.
That parlour, a room of good size, was unostentatiously furnished with good bourgeois mahogany. A buxom mahogany chiffonier, a large square dining-table, a black marble clock with two dials, one being a barometer, three large oil landscapes of exceedingly umbrageous trees and glassy lakes, inoffensively uninteresting, more Atlantic liners, and a large bookcase, apparently filled with serried lines of bound magazines, and an excellent Brussels carpet of quiet pattern, were mainly responsible for a general effect of middle-class comfort, in which, indeed, if beauty had not been included, it had not been wilfully violated, but merely unthought of. The young people for whom these familiar objects meant a symbolism deep-rooted in their earliest memories could hardly in fairness have declared anything positively painful in that room—except perhaps those Atlantic liners; their charges against furniture, which was unconsciously to them accumulating memories that would some day bring tears of tenderness to their eyes, could only have been negative. Beauty had been left out, but at least ugliness had not been ostentatiously called in. There was no bad taste.