- CHAPTER VII A HOUSE OF GLOOM
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A HOUSE OF GLOOM
HENRY REVELL held an important post at the British Museum.
His whole life had been devoted to the study of Art treasures; he was one of the best judges of pottery in England, and absorbed in his work.
An Oxford man, son of a clergyman, he had never cared to be wealthy, even if the support of a widowed mother and younger sister, for all the years of his early manhood, had not drained his purse. His only brother, a handsome ne'er-do-weel, had emigrated to Canada, leaving Henry with all the family responsibilities, and only communicating with his people to ask for remittances.
Henry Revell, who had never desired, as far as his family knew, to marry, lived for many years in quiet rooms in Bayswater, but a couple of years before the advent of Phosie he had taken one of the oldest, dullest houses in The Stroll, Hammersmith.
His principal reason for moving being a long-cherished desire to display his collection of pottery, it was not surprising that the best rooms in the house should be devoted to the little museum. He possessed the true nature of the connoisseur, but much as he knew of intrinsic values, he had often shown both originality and even a quaint, whimsical fancy in his own purchases.
Of trained and severe taste, combined with keen judgment in his professional work at the British Museum, at home he took delight in the simplest pleasures. He had travelled extensively in bygone years; but the new life | | 51 of the old lands had utterly failed to turn him into the modern man of modern ideas.
The picture-galleries, the museums, the ancient buildings of cities were the only points he cared to remember. London itself was the London to him of Johnson and Swift, of Addison and Steele. He talked of the Burney family in Soho Square as if they were personal friends. Dickens and Thackeray were his up-to-date novelists. He chuckled over John Leech's pictures as if they had just appeared in the current Punch, and he looked on the aestheticism of the eighties as a very promising movement of the minute.
Little Mrs Bird, to whom he had grown accustomed in his Bayswater rooms, where she had been employed as cook, gratefully accepted the post of housekeeper at the house in The Stroll. Naturally of a cheerful disposition, she tried hard to adapt herself to her new surroundings, but her bustling ways and well-meaning officiousness jarred on Mr Revell, although it would never have entered his head to dismiss her.
She possessed the supreme virtue in his eyes of never touching his curiosities. When it was necessary to clean a room he himself removed the pottery, pictures and books before going to the Museum in the morning, and returned them to their places when he got home at night.
His intimate friends were all men of his own tastes and standing, learned men, and his greatest dissipation was to entertain them and their wives, a couple at a time, to a very quiet dinner at a certain old-fashioned restaurant where Mr Revell himself lunched every day.
On rare occasions he invited some of his younger friends—shy, well-schooled girls for the most part—to tea at his house. Then Mrs Bird was requested to provide seed cake and gingerbread, Mr Revell being under the delusion that these were considered luxuries by all young people.
He lived very plainly himself, his only extravagance | | 52 being a bottle now and again of exceptionally good wine. He smoked, read a great deal, and kept up a voluminous correspondence on literary subjects with two old college friends.
One of them was his junior by several years, so Mr Revell invariably mentioned him as "young Joe Ridge-way," although he had been in business for nearly a quarter of a century, lived in the South of France, and paid a visit to England at intervals of about eight or ten years.
The second, happening to be Mr Revell's senior by a few months, was known as "old Herbert Palgrave," and excused, on the score of age, from travelling as far as London, although he only lived in Surrey.
Phosie and Little Gus, left alone with the housekeeper in their unexpected refuge, at once tried in their different ways to make a good impression.
The girl helped Mrs Bird wash the dishes and tidy the bedrooms, while Gus, on his own initiative, took the kitchen scuttle into the cellar and managed to hurt himself rather badly by tumbling down the steep stairs, not to mention allowing the terrier to accompany him, a kindness which Taffy especially appreciated, as he had been washed on the previous day.
"I can put you to sleep in the little box room at the top of the house, next to mine," said Mrs Bird to Phosie. "But the boy must have a bed downstairs. I don't suppose you mind sleeping in the basement, do you, boy?"
She led the way to a narrow room, half filled with packing cases and with a dreary window overlooking the unkempt garden. Little Gus, who had been accustomed to sleeping in a back kitchen, in company with black-beetles and mice, was delighted with his new apartment, and eagerly helped to move the packing cases and put up a chair bedstead. When an old washstand had been found in the cellar, and a chair added from the kitchen, he looked round with great satisfaction.| | 53
"Cosy!" he said. "Fine! What's all the boxes for?"
"The master packed his treasures in them," explained the housekeeper. "Don't you touch them."
Phosie's room was almost as sparely furnished, but she cried with joy to call it hers. Her gratitude to Henry Revell was painful to bear; no words could express it; it positively made her heart ache.
Mrs Bird was a great talker, and, when she was out of her master's hearing, a great laugher. She entertained Phosie with lengthy stories of herself, her late husband, and all her relations. Being used to the sole society of Taffy and a cat, she found it most exciting to have a human being for a listener.
Mr Revell returned to dinner at seven o'clock. When Phosie heard the click of his key in the door she stood still on the stairs, happening to be descending at that minute from the room where she was to sleep, at the top of the house, overcome with shyness.
Her impulse was to run away, but after a minute to pull herself together, she boldly advanced and met him in the hall. He peered at her curiously, for the gas was turned low, and he could not see her face.
"Oh, the little girl!" he exclaimed. "I had forgotten you for the minute. Yes! Well, you haven't run away again?"
"You speak as if running away were a habit of mine," she answered, unable to keep from smiling out of sheer pleasure at seeing him smile.
"So it is, isn't it?" he said. "How do I know you haven't run away from half a dozen schools as well as from Airy Street? You don't speak like a general servant at a lodging-house. I think you are playing me a trick. I believe you're a fairy princess in disguise!"
Vastly amused at his little joke, Mr Revell led her by the hand down into the breakfast-room, where the table was set for his dinner. He looked at her long and search- | | 54 ingly. Washed, brushed, and refreshed by food and sleep, she had lost the abject look which had touched his heart in the morning.
Her eyes were brimming over with tears—clear, dark-fringed, grey eyes—and her usually smiling mouth quivered with unspoken words of gratitude. But even at that emotional minute, that was not half so alarming as her new friend had anticipated, there was something baffling in Phosie's expression. The spirit that possessed so fair a dwelling was an unchangeably mischievous, happy, illusive spirit—a spirit of mirth.
"I'm rather a lonely man," said Mr Revell, slowly. "But if you can be content to stop here, Euphrosyne—you see I remember your Greek name—I will do my best to take care of you. Indeed, I am honoured by your presence," he continued whimsically. "You are the namesake of the most gracious of the Three Graces, a daughter of Zeus and Eurynome, sister of Aglaia and Thalia; and do you know that Euphrosyne was descended from the most ancient deities of all, born of the ocean, the earth, and the air. I wonder whether you can be trusted."
"I'll always tell you the truth—" she began earnestly, but he interrupted quickly.
"I mean, trusted not to smash anything," said Mr Revell. "Now, Mrs Bird is a treasure, quite a treasure, but utterly unreliable. As careless as a child of a year old."
"Do give me a chance!" pleaded Phosie "I have very safe fingers. I never remember breaking any of Mrs Simmons's crockery. Now Little Gus—"
"Little Gus? Is that the boy?" asked Mr Revell. "I wouldn't allow him to handle any of my things for the world. He's got hands like a frog's feet—like starfish—they make me shudder. I don't want to see him again."| | 55
"If he goes away, I must go," said Phosie, blanching at the thought.
Mr Revell took off his spectacles and polished them thoughtfully on his coloured silk handkerchief. Then he put them on again and Phosie's anxious face came into focus. He was almost blind without glasses.
"If Mrs Bird can make him useful he can stop, but I can't have him on the same footing as yourself, Euphrosyne," he said, with a touch of severity. "He is one of those undeveloped creatures whose proper place is a glass bottle in a laboratory, something between the monkey and the man, without the quickness of the one or the possibilities of the other. He ought not to have been born, that's the real truth of the matter."
"Oh, Mr Revell!" cried Phosie.
"Well, my dear child, he is your property, not mine. I regard him in the same light as the terrier. He is quite at liberty to live in the house, if he doesn't make a noise or worry me."
Phosie, with one little sigh of regret, accepted the situation.
Nobody wanted Little Gus. All the more reason that she should cherish him.
"Have you seen over the house?" asked Mr Revell.
"Only the little room on the top floor, the box-room, and Mrs Bird's bedroom," replied Phosie.
"I will show you everything myself to-morrow morning," he said.
The following day was Sunday. Mr Revell, according to his invariable custom, breakfasted half an hour later and ate a poached egg on toast instead of his usual porridge. He preferred porridge, but his old landlady in Bayswater having established the egg precedent he had mentioned it to Mrs Bird, as a matter of course, when first engaging her services.
At about ten o'clock he rang the bell for Phosie, who instantly appeared.| | 56
She had neatly plaited her long hair and wore one of the housekeeper's aprons over her old frock. In her bodice she had pinned a small bunch of wild roses from a neglected bush in the garden. Mr Revell was as much surprised to hear they grew in his own garden as he would have been if she had appeared with the rarest orchid and told him the same fact.
He gravely led the way upstairs, and ushered her into the largest room in the house on the ground floor. The blinds were lowered; there was a peculiarly close, but not unpleasant smell, suggestive of cedar wood; the folding doors between the front and back rooms had been removed, and the floor was covered with dark linoleum.
Mr Revell pulled up the blinds. Phosie found herself surrounded by rare and beautiful works of art. Down the centre of the rooms, reaching from end to end, was a three-storied table, or stand, laden with pottery.
The walls were hung with china plates and old, flat dishes; a couple of high cases, with glass doors, stood on either side of the front room, and in the back room was an ancient spinet. Mounting guard over the empty grate, which was most inappropriately filled with a bright green paper "waterfall"—Mrs Bird's purchase—was a tall Chinese stork in bronze, over six feet high, and in one corner was a finely-wrought suit of armour, looking, with its closed visor, like a real man in the shadows.
The front room on the floor above was even more crowded with antique treasures, which had overflowed into Mr Revell's bedroom behind it, and even the staircase was adorned with quaint and curious "finds" of the collector—barbarous weapons, old prints, strange garments, Japanese scrolls, framed samplers.
It was like a new world to Phosie, or rather the old world of a fairy tale, where everything she touched had its history to unfold.
Her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. Mr Revell's bony fingers, grasping her warm little hand, guided her | | 57 through the old furniture and round the laden cases. Slowly the beauty of form in vase and vessel made itself felt, and the lurking loveliness of colour grew out of the darkness.
He lifted down a piece of Derby china, comparing the rich gros-blue and deep pink, but her eyes wandered in greater admiration to the flush of the rose in a Sèvres vase.
"Very pretty! Very pretty!" agreed Mr Revell. "But look at this little casket, Euphrosyne. Here's a jewel box for a runaway princess!"
It was in three shades of amber, decorated with figures in carved ivory, the work of a cunning Sicilian. Phosie was allowed to open it, Mr Revell's fingers hovering over hers, while he murmured a prolonged—"Careful! Careful!" Within the casket lay a quaint Chinese chatelaine of silver and pale jade.
He drew it out and held it against her side, while the young girl's thoughts flew to an old-world satin gown, with a lace fichu round her shoulders and mittens to her elbows. She gave a laugh of pleasure, glancing down at the captivating chatelaine.
"We're getting frivolous!" said Mr Revell.
So he returned the glowing casket to its shelf and showed her a plaque of white biscuit.
"Best specimen of Bristol work," he said. "And here's a rare bit of Worcester—look at it, Euphrosyne! The colour of lapis-lazuli, adorned with floral sprays—only look at it!"
Phosie obeyed in admiring silence. Mr Revell's eyes beamed through his spectacles, but it was not wholly artistic appreciation of his rare bit of Worcester. He had snapped it up for a mere song when it was neglected and overlooked, by some mischance, at one of the biggest auction rooms in London. That was a fact never to be forgotten. He had told the story dozens of times, and he told it again to Phosie, chuckling and gloating over his bargain.| | 58
This led him to descriptions of memorable sales in Paris, Berlin, Vienna; old anecdotes of art collectors; his personal "discoveries"; the strange vicissitudes of famous pictures; the rare charm of cameos and intaglios; the beauty of enamels—Mr Revell was the happy possessor of eighteenth-century specimens of the delicate Bilston and Battersea work—the value of early Chelsea porcelain; the unending interest in old silver—so his talk rambled on and on and on.
Phosie listened with closest attention; once or twice the quiet rooms were filled with her gay laughter, and she learned, in a single lesson, to appreciate the unswerving patience, the innate refinement, the fine training of eye and taste which distinguish such men as Henry Revell.
The cases which she had noticed, on first entering the biggest rooms, were filled with his collection of scent bottles and powder boxes, together with a number of small Chinese bronzes. These pretty things delighted Phosie, and Mr Revell, after much hesitation, allowed her to lift them off the narrow shelves—delighted, in his turn, by the firmness and care with which she handled them.
"What small, dainty fingers!" he exclaimed, as she turned and twisted a silver-gilt pendant scent-case, with enamelled pansies on a white ground.
"Will you trust me to touch all your things?" asked Phosie.
The worried expression, that had been absent all the morning, returned to Mr Revell's face.
"I don't know. I really can't say," he answered. "Young people are so very reckless. You must give me time to make up my mind, my dear child, for I never do anything in a hurry. Although I live in the rush and fuss of modern life it doesn't suit me at all. I ought to have been born in another era—say the fourteenth century. Then I should have gone into a monastery, I expect, and spent my life illuminating missals."| | 59
"I wonder what he means by the modern rush and fuss?" thought Phosie.
The house was absolutely quiet, for Mrs Bird had strict orders to keep the kitchen door shut, to save her master from the sound of her voice or Taffy's occasional barking.
The dark breakfast-room was dull and sunless. Mr Revell, after thoroughly polishing his spectacle glasses, a habit of his which Phosie already knew, selected a book from the shelves, opened it at a particular page, and passed it to the girl.
"Read aloud, my dear, if you don't object," he said. "Read slowly and mind your stops."
The book was Marcus Aurelius, and Phosie, only too pleased to do anything he asked, began to read. Before she had turned half a dozen pages Mr Revell was fast asleep. Made aware of the fact by the sound of a gentle snore, she ventured to raise her eyes and saw that his body had sunk low in his chair, and his spectacles nearly to the end of his nose. He looked very old, and his hands, with their yellow nails and heavy gold rings slipping down to the knuckles, were the colour of old parchment.
Phosie read on mechanically, and the words dropped from her lips with no expression beyond the unconscious, incomplete music of youth in her voice:
"Time is like a rapid river, and a rushing torrent of all that comes and passes. A thing is no sooner well come, but it is past; and then another is born after it, and this too will be carried away. Whatever happens is as common and well known as a rose in the spring, or an apple in autumn."
For two hours she went on reading, and at intervals Mr Revell awoke, nodded and smiled if she happened to glance at him, pushed up his spectacles and slept again.
When the housekeeper entered with the tray for early dinner, he took the book out of Phosie's hand and marked the place with a strip of postcard—all postcards he re- | | 60 ceived were cut into strips for this purpose—and returned it to the shelf.
"Whatever you do, never turn down the page of a book," he said to her. "here is only one deeper insult you can offer to the great body of craftsmen who print our books, and that is to wet your thumb when you turn the leaves. Remember that, Euphrosyne!"
Phosie left him carving his little joint of roast mutton and went towards the kitchen, to dine with Mrs Bird and Little Gus.
The back door was open and Taffy was tearing round the garden. Phosie stepped out into the sunshine. It was past two o'clock. She blinked and shaded her eyes with one hand.
The grass was long and unkempt, and the flower-beds overgrown with weeds. A giant wild convolvulus twined about the privet hedge from end to end, here and there flaunting a lovely blossom.
The house behind her was a house of gloom, in spite of all its treasures, and she suddenly felt like a prisoner set free. After one swift glance at the blank windows, she spread out her arms, as Little Gus had seen her do in the area at Airy Street, and danced down the garden on the tips of her toes, swinging and swaying to an unheard melody in her own brain.
On reaching the broken-down wall, at the farther end, she stopped dancing and gathered a handful of dandelions and puff balls, childishly blowing the seeds into the air, where they floated like fairy feathers.
Then she began to romp with the dog, snatching up the old rubber ball he had dropped at her feet and keeping it just high enough to tempt him to crazy leaps, then stooping down and teasing him by little darts and rushes, while Taffy, in a frenzy of delight, jumped from side to side, barked and gasped, his eyes brimming over, his red tongue hanging out, every wiry hair on his body quivering.
Away flew the ball and they both gave chase, the terrier | | 61 winning by the length of a paw, but before he could get a grip on the prize the girl had snatched it away and was kneeling down in front of him, with the ball flying from hand to hand, and all the splendid sport—the teasing, the toss, the chase, the possession—began over again. Taffy had not enjoyed himself so much in all his puppy days.
Phosie gave the ball a final spin to the end of the garden, when she was tired out, and danced once more down the grassy, gravel path. Then she smoothed away the hair blown over her eyes, pressed her lips demurely together, and re-entered the house in a slow, dignified manner.
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