“I dare say this will do for the present,” said my landlady, and though my heart was in my mouth I compelled myself to agree.
“My terms, including meals and all extras, will be a pound a week,” she added, and to that also, with a lump in my throat I assented, whereupon my landlady left me, saying luncheon was on and I could come downstairs when I was ready.
A talkative cockney chambermaid, with a good little face, brought me a fat blue jug of hot water, and after I had washed and combed I found my way down to the dining-room.
What I expected to find there I hardly know. What I did find was a large chamber, as dingy as the rest of the house, and as much in need of refreshing, with a long table down the middle, at which some twenty persons sat eating, with the landlady presiding at the top.
The company, who were of both sexes and chiefly elderly, seemed to me at that first sight to be dressed in every variety of out-of-date clothes, many of them rather shabby and some almost grotesque.
Raising their faces from their plates they looked at me as I entered, and I was so confused that I stood hesitating near the door until the landlady called to me.
“Come up here,” she said, and when I had done so, and taken the seat by her side, which had evidently been reserved for me, she whispered:
“I don’t think my sister mentioned your name, my dear. What is it?”
I had no time to deliberate.
“O’Neill,” I whispered back, and thereupon my landlady, raising her voice, and addressing the company as if they had been members of her family, said:
“Mrs. O’Neill, my dears.”
Then the ladies at the table inclined their heads at me and smiled, while the men (especially those who were the most strangely dressed) rose from their seats and bowed deeply.
Of all houses in London this, I thought, was the least suitable to me.
Looking down the table I told myself that it must be the very home of idle gossip and the hot-bed of tittle-tattle.
I was wrong. Hardly had I been in the house a day when I realised that my fellow-guests were the most reserved and self-centred of all possible people.
One old gentleman who wore a heavy moustache, and had been a colonel in the Indian army, was understood to be a student of Biblical prophecy, having collected some thousands of texts which established the identity of the British nation with the lost tribes of Israel.
Another old gentleman, who wore a patriarchal beard and had taken orders without securing a living, was believed to be writing a history of the world and (after forty years of continuous labour) to have reached the century before Christ.
An elderly lady with a benign expression was said to be a tragic actress who was studying in secret for a season at the National Theatre.