From a London Balcony
FROM A LONDON BALCONY.
The balcony runs the whole length of the terrace, and by its several stages of decrepitude serviceable indicates the prosperity of the occupants. In some places it is gay with hanging plants and festoons of creepers; in others neglected, unpainted, and falling to pieces. Years ago fair ladies and brave men found it a charming vantage point to sit and gossip and flirt, or watch their neighbours while "taking the air." Below, the iron stanchions still remain where hung the swinging lanthorns which threw an uncertain glimmer over voluptuous sedans or stately carriages. That was before civilisation swept further west, and before the people of the Square were content and even proud to describe their neighbourhood as "quite respectable."
All the houses are large and uniform, but no one who could afford the rent would ever dream of living there unless, as they say, "there was something coming back." In most cases this resolves itself into letting apartments.
There is little traffic in the Square, and its quietness is mentioned as a particular recommendation. As the night deepens, there are strange sounds to be heard, and strange sights to be seen from the balcony. The sounds are the weirdest, for often they are inexplicable and insoluble; just haunting. Lately a little child lost itself—so someone said—and its incessant cries rang out like the bleating of a strayed lamb. Not a window was thrown up, not a door opened; it was nothing. Presently the policeman came his round, and took it away.
My balcony enjoys a happy mean. There are no flowers, nothing fancy about it, but it is painted, like the rest of the house, once every three years. The house on the left is dingy and jealous. The balcony there is latticed all round, and on the roof, high above, two jagged chevaux-de-frise mark the boundaries. The home on the right seems ordinary and common-place. At certain and regular hours the door opens, and a white-haired lady, leaning heavily on a gold-headed stick, walks out and across the road into the garden beyond. She has a kind, benevolent face; a face that instinctively inspires confidence and trust. No one else ever seems to leave the house, but on a sunny afternoon a light-haired girl may occasionally be seen for a moment, hanging a caged goldfinch out or watering the ferns and plants.
To the friendless, aimless man there is a humanising fascination in idly watching the meaningless trivialities of the little world around him. In piecing together the casual incidents, and building upon the passing commonplaces he loses his oppressing sense of utter loneliness, and invests his neighbour with an interest of comedy or tragedy, as may seem most appropriate. A passing word, an intercepted smile, a shrinking look, each becomes the key to a chapter of romance, and contributes to the unreal creation of his imagination.
In this way I had come to take an interest in the silver, haired lady next door, and assigned to her the rôle of fairy godmother, and pictured her as a benevolent intervener in the destinies of numerous protégés. One evening this imaginative conceit was strengthened by a pretty incident. I was on the balcony watching the white light of the evening pale into a faint opal dusk, when a cab rumbled along the road below me, and stopped at the next house. First of all my fairy godmother alighted, slowly, as all her actions were, and then followed the veritable Cinderella of my fancy. Cinderella just from the fields and monotonous toil, with her eyes shining out to the first mad glamour of London town; Cinderella, in poor, coarse dress, with the face of an angel and the form of a perfect woman.
For a few minutes she stood there, watching her corded wood box being lifted down, while her companion walked slowly into the house, and—in my imagination—stood waiting in the hall to welcome her when the girl rejoined her.
Whether it was that after the new arrival I began to notice the house on the right more closely than before, or whether other people also had gone in, I cannot say, but certainly from that time I grew conscious of new and unascribable sounds and incidents. Through the open window came the frequent sounds of voices in dispute, a voice in tears and entreaty, and a hard, coarse female voice—utterly irreconcilable with anyone I had seen—raised in threats and anger. I came to the absolute certainty that the house was occupied by more than one party.
The houses are substantial and the partitions thick, for they were built at a Georgian period, when ugliness and solidity were alike aimed at. But one night there came a knocking at the wall on the right, that no amount of brick and mortar could quite deaden. It was the mad beating of two clenched hands, like the dashing of the wings of a newly caged bird against the wires of its prison. I flung open a window and stepped out. At the same moment a door in the next room slammed, the light went out, and all was still. From one balcony to another is only a step; but what can one do? A shrug of the shoulders, and back in again.
With the vibration of a piercing shriek still ringing through my brain, I jumped out of bed and to the window.
Where do the people come from at such a moment? It could not have been more than a couple of seconds, but already there were half-a-dozen collected round outside.
Ugh! it was too ghastly. There on the horrid spiked railings, twenty feet below——
I turned sick and faint, and I, at the moment, had not the nerve even to look at what a weak woman had dared to do.
They lifted her off, and put her gently down on the cold flags in the grey, early morning. They reverently straightened her limbs, and closed her eyes, and drew back her dabbled black hair; and presently they carried her in.
For weeks after, no matter how muddy the road might be, people stepped off the path, to avoid crossing those stains.
It must have been terribly distressing to the people in the house. They left almost immediately; but I saw the white-haired lady only yesterday at Paddington. She was talking to a very pretty girl, and she looked as nice and sympathetic as ever.
As for the house, it is still empty. Such houses do not readily let.