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NOBODIES AT HOME

GEORGE GISSING.


V.
Humble Felicity

IN the world of refinement, when it regards the unlovely multitude, there is much wasted compassion. Witness the case of Mr. and Mrs. Batty, whose mode of life to an observer from above would assuredly have seemed sordid and wearisome; yet in their own eyes these good people were more than enviable, and their happiness, in relation to their demands, probably exceeded that of any well-graced couple in London.

To begin with, they had a house in Kennington Road; a large house, which all day, and half through the night, shook to the ceaseless clang of highway traffic. True, they occupied only two rooms, and those in the gloomy basement of the edifice; but they felt proud of its commanding position, proud of the high rent, and of the superior class of lodgers among whom the upper rooms were apportioned. They seldom had a vacancy, and their lodgers were for the most part professional people; that is to say, actors and music-hall artistes. By virtue of this connection, they often enjoyed an evening's entertainment without paying for it, which in itself seemed to them one of the prime blessings of life.

Mr. Batty was employed by a great furniture-removing establishment. In no menial capacity; for it behoved him to wear a high hat, and to comport himself so as to inspire confidence in all manner of people, even the great ones of the southern suburbs. He visited houses, viewed their contents, and supplied estimates of the cost of removal. Fate had dealt kindly with him in permitting him to earn his bread in a manner admirably suited to his tastes; for Mr. Batty was of all men the most prying and inquisitive; it delighted him to enter other folks' abodes, and to scrutinise with all-valuing eye the nature of their possessions. On his return home, he spent hours in relating to his wife all that he had seen and surmised. When the interior of a house failed to correspond with its outward dignity, Mr. Batty chuckled over the poor display. "I could buy up every stick in the place for "so-and-so much; thus would he remark with fine scorn, as he sat over his supper in the dirty cellar-kitchen.

Dirty it was; but this never troubled him. Mrs. Batty had so much to do in looking after her lodgers that she could give no thought to the two dark rooms which represented her home. Ceiling, walls, and floor shone with ancient filth, and the atmosphere declared a perpetual use of the frying-pan. Of the room which served as bedchamber there is perhaps no need to speak. Mrs. Batty's domestic assistant was a young woman who came at seven in the morning, and went home, as a rule, at midnight. The professional lodgers showed themselves tolerant in the matter of cleanliness; if protest were ever made, Mrs. Batty knew how to resent it, and the sound of her voice, when she was really wounded in self-respect, had occasionally drawn the attention of pedestrians in Kennington Road.

They had no children and desired none. Mrs. Batty always spoke of offspring as "encumbrance." It was a great thing, she declared in confidential talk with music-hall ladies, for married people to be "without encumbrance"; in fact, she regarded it as essential to matrimonal happiness. "I feel quite free. If I want to go out in a evening, there's nothing to stop me. When my 'usband comes 'ome, he just sits down and feels comfortable, which a man can't never do if there's children crying and messing about. In my belief, it's the children as lies at the root of all the drink. Yes, if you arst me, it really is."

Mr. Batty prided himself on many advantages over common mortals, but most of all on this one fact—that whatever he needed or chose to buy, he knew how to obtain the article at a price below its market value. Rarely, indeed, did it occur to this man of great resource to enter a shop like anyone else and pay down at the counter what was demanded. His domestic supplies of food and liquor, his clothing, his casual needments, were all procured through irregular channels, by the exercise of wonder-craft, experience, and audacity. He boasted, with perfect justice, that all the furniture in his house, much of it superior to that of ordinary lodging-houses, had cost him only about half what any other man must have paid. He went about with eyes sharpened for the discovery of bargains, and his income was much increased by the irregular system of brokerage which he managed to carry on concurrently with his recognised vocation. On a Saturday evening he would walk as far as the Farringdon Street meat market, for the sake of purchasing joints which are sold there at Dutch auction; returning laden and weary, but exultant in his economies, and in the foretaste of his wife's joyous astonishment. His cigars were purchased from a friendly pawnbroker: a peculiarly gratifying transaction, inasmuch as he knew what he was buying, and was well aware how other men overreach themselves in this sort of enterprise. If he wanted a pennyworth of hair oil, he would succeed in getting it at wholesale price. With the natural aptitude of her sex Mrs. Batty had learnt almost to rival her husband in this pursuit of economy. As a landlady, she, of course, regarded her lodgers as the source of multifarious profit; but the skill with which she used her opportunities, whilst avoiding, for the most part, what she would have called "unpleasantness," and carefully keeping on the windy side of the law, altogether outshone the precedents even of Kennington Road.

For all this they by no means led a miserly life; to imagine that, would be utterly to mistake their genius. In the matter of creature comforts they denied themselves nothing that they really cared for. Down in the malodorous kitchen, their table displayed not only abundance, but gross luxury. Mrs. Batty's attire when she sallied forth to enjoy herself aroused envy in all her acquaintances; she had silks, furs, and jewels galore—only sham when that appealed more strongly to her taste than the real thing. When occasion demanded it, Mr. Batty could don his evening suit, with linen of the best; and particularly handsome shoes. The couple were to be seen in local ball-rooms, and sometimes appeared in scenes of public festivity side by side with guests of very different social standing. Mr. Batty held out to his wife the sure and certain hope of one day dining at the Mansion House—an ambition not difficult to sustain by familiar instance.

Perfectly happy in London, they cared little for change of air, and, indeed, found it awkward to leave the house both together for more than a few hours; but fashion compelled them to display an annual holiday, and their chosen resort was Hastings. Year after year they had spent an autumnal week at Hastings, but never twice in the same lodgings. Naturally, seeing that from the moment of arrival to that of departure Mrs. Batty was on bellicose terms with the lady of the house. True to their principles, they made it a point to pay less for the lodging than the landlady had ever before accepted; and having established themselves to their indifferent satisfaction—the first day was wholly devoted to this business—they spent the rest of the time in regretting their choice, in abusing the cookery, in guarding against imposition, and in talking very loudly, with the door open, of the comforts to which they were accustomed at home. They looked forward with growing impatience to the day of return. Ennui tormented them. The sun was too hot, the wind too high, the sea an intolerable bore. And who could say what might be happening in Kennington Road, where Mrs. Batty's lame and half-blind sister saw to the house and the lodgers?

So admirably were they suited to each other, that, in reply to those rash, immoral persons who seek to undermine the institution of marriage, it should be quite enough to bring forward the case of Mr. and Mrs. Batty.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.