He descended the stairs softly. Mrs. Wilson’s sitting-room opened on to the passage; she might step out at any moment, and intercept his exit. He had nearly reached the last flight when he remembered that he had forgotten his manuscripts. His flesh turned cold, his heart stood still. There was nothing for it but to ascend those creaking stairs again. His already heavily encumbered pockets could not be persuaded to receive more than a small portion of the manuscripts. He gathered them in his hand, and prepared to redescend the perilous stairs. He walked as lightly as possible, dreading that every creak would bring Mrs. Wilson from her parlour. A few more steps, and he would be in the passage. A smell of dust, sounds of children crying, children talking in the kitchen! A few more steps, and, with his eyes on the parlour door, Hubert had reached the rug at the foot of the stairs. He hastened along, the passage. Mrs. Wilson was a moment too late. His hand was on the street-door when she appeared at the door of her parlour.
‘Mr. Price, I want to speak to you before you go out. There has——’
’I can’t wait—running to catch a train. You’ll find a letter on my table. It will explain.’
Hubert slipped out, closed the door, and ran down the street, and it was not until he had put two or three streets between him and Fitzroy Street that he relaxed his pace, and could look behind him without dreading to feel the hand of the ‘writter’ upon his shoulder.
Then he wandered, not knowing where he was going, still in the sensation of his escape, a little amused, and yet with a shadow of fear upon his soul, for he grew more and more conscious of the fact that he was homeless, if not quite penniless. Suddenly he stopped walking. Night was thickening in the street, and he had to decide where he would sleep. He could not afford to pay more than five or six shillings a week for a room, and he thought of Holloway, as being a neighbourhood where creditors would not be able to find him. So he retraced his steps, and, tired and footsore, entered the Tottenham Court Road by the Oxford Street end.
There the omnibuses stopped. A conductor shouted for fares, with the light of the public-house lamps on his open mouth. There was smell of mud, of damp clothes, of bad tobacco, and where the lights of the costermongers’ barrows broke across the footway the picture was of a group of three coarse, loud-voiced girls, followed by boys. There were fish shops, cheap Italian restaurants, and the long lines of low houses vanished in crapulent night. The characteristics of the Tottenham Court Road impressed themselves on Hubert’s mind, and he thought how he would have to bear for at least three weeks with all the grime of its poverty. It would take about that time to finish his play, and the neighbourhood would suit his purpose excellently well. So long as he did not pass beyond it he ran little risk of discovery, and to secure himself against friends and foes he penetrated farther northward, not stopping till he reached the confines of Holloway.