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   Chapter 3 HOUSE-HUNTING à LA MODE.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 12733

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was a satisfaction to me that my wife did not entertain the idea of deserting the northwestern part of London, in which I have lived from my boyhood, and which I regard as the pleasantest district in our modern Babylon. In no other part of London can you see in such perfection the tender green of spring, and enjoy air so pure and bracing, and there are summers when my wife agrees with me that it is a mistake to give up these advantages for the doubtful enjoyment and the distinct discomforts of a few weeks in the country. So, with my mind somewhat relieved, I started upon the expedition which was to lead me to the deserted house in Lamb's Terrace, and thence to the strange and thrilling incidents I am about to narrate. And I may premise here that I do not intend to attempt any explanation of them; I shall simply describe them as they occurred, and I shall leave the solution to students more deeply versed than myself in the mysteries of the visible and invisible life by which we are surrounded. I must, however, make one observation. There is in my mind no doubt that I was the chosen instrument in bringing to light the particulars of a foul and monstrous crime, which might otherwise have remained unrevealed till the Day of Judgment, when all things shall be made clear. Why I was thus inscrutably chosen, and was haunted by the Skeleton Cat until the moment arrived when I was to lay my hand upon the shoulder of the criminal and say, "Thou art the man!" is to me the most awful and inexplicable mystery in my life.

In our search for a new house the story of one day is (with the single exception to which I have incidentally referred) the story of all the days so employed. We set out every morning, my wife fresh and cheerful, and I trotting patiently by her side; we returned home every evening worn out, disheartened, bedraggled, and generally demoralized. My condition was, of course, worse than that of my wife, whom a night's rest happily restored to strength and hope. I used to look at her across the breakfast table in wonder and admiration, for truly her vigor and powers of recuperation were surprising.

"Are you quite well this morning?" I would ask.

"Quite well," she would reply, smiling amiably at me. "I had a lovely night."

Wonderful woman! A lovely night! While I was tossing about feverishly, going up and down innumerable flights of stairs with thousands upon thousands of steps, opening thousands upon thousands of doors, and pacing thousands upon thousands of rooms, measuring their length, breadth, and height with a demon three-foot rule which mocked my most earnest and conscientious efforts to take correct measurements! The impression these expeditions produced upon me was that, of all the trials to which human beings are subject, house-hunting is incomparably the most exasperating and afflicting. Were I a judge with the power to legislate, I would make it a punishment for criminal offenses: "Prisoner at the bar, a jury of your countrymen have very properly found you guilty of the crime for which you have been tried, and it is my duty now to pass sentence upon you. I have no wish to aggravate your sufferings in the painful position in which you have placed yourself, but for the protection of society the sentence must be one of extreme severity. You will be condemned to go house-hunting, and never getting suited, from eight o'clock in the morning until eight o'clock at night, for a term of three years, and I trust that the punishment inflicted upon you will deter you from crime for the rest of your natural life." I should almost be tempted to add, "And the Lord have mercy upon your soul!"

I could not have wished for a better leader than my wife, who continued to take charge of the keys and to keep a record of the premises we had looked over and were still to look over; and in the little book in which this record is made were set down in admirable English--occasionally, perhaps, somewhat too forcible--the reasons why there was not a single house to let which answered her requirements. Many of the houses had been tenantless for years, and reminded me in a depressingly odd way of unfortunate men who had fallen too soon into "the sere and yellow," and were sinking slowly and surely into damp and weedy graves. The discolored ceilings, the moldy walls, the moist basements, the woe-begone back yards, and the equally dismal gardens, the twisted taps, the rusty locks and keys, the dark closets which the agents had the effrontery to call bedrooms, supplied ample evidence that their fate was deserved. There were some in a better condition, having been newly patched and painted; but even to these more likely tenements there was always, I was ever thankful to hear, an objection, from one cause or another, raised by my wife. In one the dining room was too small; in another it was too large; in another the bath was on an unsuitable floor--down in the basement or up on the roof; in another the range was old-fashioned; in another there was no getting into the garden unless you passed through the kitchen or flung yourself out of the drawing-room window; in another there were no cupboards, and so on, and so on, without end. Again and again did I indulge in the hope that she was thoroughly exhausted and would give up the hunt, and again and again did the wonderful woman, a few hours afterward, impart to me the disheartening news--smiling cheerfully as she spoke--that she had been to a fresh house agent and was provided with another batch of keys and "orders to view." After every knock-down blow she "came up smiling," as the sporting reporters say. Meekly I continued to accompany her, knowing that the least resistance on my part would only strengthen her determination to prolong the battle. At the end of a more than usually weary day she observed:

"My dear, if we were rich we would build."

"We would," I said, and, with a cunning of which I felt secretly proud, I encouraged her to describe the house she would like to possess. I am a bit of a draughtsman, and from the descriptions she gave me of the house that would complete her happiness I drew out the plans of an Ideal Residence which I was convinced could not be found anywhere on the face of the earth. This, however, was not my wife's opinion.

"It is the exact thing, Edward," she said, and she

took my plans to the agents, who said they were very nice, and that they had on their books just the place she was looking for--with one trifling exception scarcely worth mentioning. But this trifling exception proved ever to be of alarming proportions, was often hydra-headed, and was always insurmountable. Then would she glow with indignation at the duplicity of the agents, and would call them names which, had they been publicly uttered, would have laid us open to a great number of actions for libel and slander. Thus a month passed by, and, except for prostration of spirits, we were precisely where we had been when we commenced. The Ideal Residence was still a castle in Spain.

One evening, when we were so tired out that we could hardly crawl along, my indomitable wife, after slamming the last street door behind her, informed me that she intended to call upon another house agent whom she had not yet patronized.

"That will be the ninth, I think," I said, in a mild tone.

"Yes, the ninth," she said. "They are a dreadful lot. You can't place the slightest dependence upon them."

Gascoigne was the name of the agent we now visited, and he entertained us in the old familiar way. As a matter of course, he had the very house to suit us; in fact, he had a dozen, and he went through them seriatim. But my wife, who during the past month had learned something, managed, by dint of skillful questioning, to lay her hand on the one weak spot which presented itself in all.

"I am afraid they will not do," she said, "but we will look at them all the same."

I sighed; I was in for it once more. A dozen fresh keys, a dozen fresh orders to view--in a word, a wasted, weary week. Mr. Gascoigne drummed with his fingers on his office table, and, after a pause, said:

"I have left the best one to the last."

"Indeed!" said my wife, brightening up.

"The house that cannot fail," said he; "a chance seldom met with--perhaps once in a lifetime. I shall not have it long on my books; it will be snapped up in no time. It possesses singular advantages."

"Where is it?" asked my wife eagerly.

"In Lamb's Terrace, No. 79. Detached and charmingly situated. Ten bedrooms, three reception rooms, two bath rooms, hot and cold water to top floor, commodious kitchen and domestic offices, conservatory, stabling, coach house, coachman's rooms over, two stalls and loose box, large garden well stocked with fruit trees, and two greenhouses."

My wife's eyes sparkled. I also was somewhat carried away, but I soon cooled down. Such an establishment would be far beyond my means.

"To be let on lease?" I inquired.

"To be let on lease," Mr. Gascoigne replied.

"The rent would be too high," I observed.

"I don't think so. Ninety pounds a year."

"What?" I cried.

"Ninety pounds a year," he repeated.

I looked at my wife; her face fairly beamed. She whispered to me, "A prize! Why did we not come here before? It would have saved us a world of trouble."

For my part, I could not understand it. Ninety pounds a year! It was a ridiculous rent for such a mansion.

I turned to the agent. "Is there a care-taker in the house?"

"No," he replied, "it is quite empty."

"Has it been long unlet?"

"Scarcely any time."

"The tenant has only just left it, I suppose?"

"The tenant has not been living in it."

"He has been abroad?"

"I really cannot say. I know nothing of his movements. You see, we are not generally acquainted with personal particulars. A gentleman has a house which he wishes to let, and he places it in our hands. All that we have to do is to ascertain that the particulars with which he furnishes us are correct. We let the house, and there is an end of the matter so far as we are concerned."

I recognized the common sense of this explanation, and yet there appeared to me something exceedingly strange in such a house being to let at so low a rent, and which had just lost a tenant who had not occupied it.

"Is it in good repair?" I asked.

"Frankly, it is not; but that is to your advantage."

"How do you make that out?"

"Because the landlord is inclined to be unusually liberal in the matter. He will allow the incoming tenant a handsome sum in order that he may effect the repairs in the manner that suits him best. There is a little dilapidation, I believe, in one or two of the rooms, a bit of the flooring loose here and there, some plaster has dropped from the ceilings, and a few other such trifling details to be seen to; and the garden, I think, will want attention."

"The house seems to be completely out of repair?"

"Oh, no, not at all; I am making the worst of it, so that you shall not be disappointed. But there is the money provided to set things in order."

"Roughly speaking, what sum does the landlord propose to allow?"

"Roughly speaking, a hundred pounds or so."

"About one-third," I remarked, "of what I should judge to be necessary."

"Not at all; a great deal can be done with a hundred pounds; and my client might feel disposed to increase the amount. You can examine the house and see if it suits you, which I feel certain it will."

Here my wife broke in. She had listened impatiently to my questions, and had nodded her head in approval of every answer given by the agent to the objections I had raised.

"I am sure it will suit us," she said. "The next best thing to building a house for one's self is to have a sufficient sum of money allowed to spend on one already built; to repair it, and paint and paper it after our own taste."

"I agree with you, madam," said the agent, "and you will find the landlord not at all a hard man to deal with. He makes only one stipulation--that whoever takes the house shall live in it."

"Why, of course we should live in it," said my wife. "What on earth should we take it for if we didn't?"

"Quite so," said the agent.

"I should like to ask two more questions," I said. "Are the drains in good order?"

"The drains," replied the agent, "are perfection."

"And is it damp?"

"It is as dry," replied the agent, "as a bone."

Some further conversation ensued, in which, however, I took no part, leaving the management to my wife, who had evidently set her heart upon moving to No. 79 Lamb's Terrace. The agent handed her the keys with a bow and a smile, and we left his office.

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