Chapter 16




THE CONCERT ROOM.


The house in which they lived, and which was their own, was a somewhat remarkable one--I do not mean because it retained almost all the old-fashionedness of a hundred and fifty years, but for other reasons. Beside the ordinary accommodation of a good-sized London house with three drawing-rooms on the first floor it had a quite unusual provision for the receiving of guests. At the top of the first landing, rather more than half-way up the stair, that is, there was a door through the original wall of the house to a long gallery, which led to a large and lofty room, apparently, from the little orchestra half-way up one of the walls, intended for dancing. Since they had owned the house it had been used only as a playroom for the children; Mr. Raymount always intended to furnish it, but had not yet done so. The house itself was indeed a larger one than they required, but he had a great love of room. It had been in the market for some time when, hearing it was to be had at a low price, he stretched more than a point to secure it. Beneath the concert-room was another of the same area, but so low, being but the height of the first landing of the stairs, that it was difficult to discover any use that could be made of it, and it continued even more neglected than the other. Below this again were cellars of alarming extent and obscurity, reached by a long vaulted passage. What they could have been intended for beyond ministering to the dryness of the rooms above, I cannot imagine; they would have held coal and wood and wine, everything natural to a cellar, enough for one generation at least. The history of the house was unknown. There was a nailed-up door in the second of the rooms I have mentioned which was said to lead into the next house; but as the widow who lived there took every opportunity of making herself disagreeable, they had not ventured to propose an investigation. There was no garden, for the whole of the space corresponding to the gardens on each side was occupied with this addition to the original house. The great room was now haunting Hester's brain and heart; if only her father would allow her to give in it a concert to her lowly friends and acquaintance!

Questions concerning the condition of the poor in our large towns had, from the distance of speculation and the press, been of late occupying a good deal of Mr. Raymount's attention, and he believed that he was enlightening the world on those most important perhaps of all the social questions of our day, their wrongs and their rights. He little suspected that his daughter was doing more for the poor, almost without knowing it, than he with all his conscious wisdom. She could not, however, have made her request at a more auspicious moment, for he was just then feeling specially benignant towards them, an article in which he had, as he believed, uttered himself with power on their behalf, having come forth to the light of eyes that very day. Besides, though far from unprejudiced, he had a horror of prejudice, and the moment he suspected a prejudice, hunted it almost as uncompromisingly in himself as in another: most people surmising a fault in themselves rouse every individual bristle of their nature to defend and retain the thing that degrades them! He therefore speedily overcame his first reluctance, and agreed to his daughter's strange proposal. He was willing to make as much of an attempt towards the establishment of relations with the class he befriended. It was an approach which, if not quite clear of condescension, was not therefore less than kindly meant; and had his guests behaved as well as he, they would from that day have found him a friend as progressive as steady. Hester was greatly delighted with his ready compliance with her request.

From that day for nearly a fortnight there were busy doings in the house. At once a couple of charwomen were turned loose in the great room for a thorough cleaning, but they had made little progress with what might have been done, ere Mr. Raymount perceived that no amount of their cleaning could take away its dirty look, and countermanding and postponing their proceedings, committed the dingy place to painters and paperhangers, under whose hands it was wonderful to see how gradually it put on a gracious look fit to welcome the human race withal. Although no white was left about it except in the ceiling for the sake of the light, scarce in that atmosphere, it looked as if twice the number of windows had been opened in its walls. The place also looked larger, for in its new harmonies of color, one part led to another, introducing it, and by division the eye was enabled to measure and appreciate the space. To Saffy and Mark their playroom seemed transformed into a temple; they were almost afraid to enter it. Every noise in it sounded twice as loud as before, and every muddy shoe made a print.

The day for the concert was at length fixed a week off, and Hester began to invite her poorer friends and neighbors to spend its evening at her father's house, when her mother would give them tea, and she would sing to them. The married women were to bring their husbands if they would come, and each young woman might bring a friend. Most of the men, as a matter of course, turned up their noses at the invitation, but were nevertheless from curiosity inclined to go. Some declared it impossible any house in that square should hold the number invited. Some spoke doubtfully; they might be able to go! they were not sure! and seemed to regard consent as a favor, if not a condescension. Of these, however, two or three were hampered by the uncertainty as to the redemption of their best clothes from the pawnbroker.

In requesting the presence of some of the small tradespeople, Hester asked it as a favor: she begged their assistance to entertain their poorer neighbors; and so put, the invitation was heartily accepted. In one case at least, however, she forgot this precaution; and the consequence was that the wife of a certain small furniture-broker began to fume on recognition of some in her presence. While she was drinking her second cup of tea her eyes kept roving. As she set it down, she caught sight of Long Tim, but a fortnight out of prison, rose at once, made her way out fanning herself vigorously, and hurried home boiling over with wrath--severely scalding her poor husband who had staid from his burial-club that she might leave the shop. The woman was not at all of a bad sort, only her dignity was hurt.

The hall and gallery were brilliantly lighted, and the room itself looked charming--at least in the eyes of those who had been so long watching the process of its resurrection. Tea was ready before the company began to arrive--in great cans with taps, and was handed round by ladies and gentlemen. The meal went off well, with a good buzz of conversation. The only unpleasant thing was, that several of the guests, mindful like other dams of their cubs at home, slipped large pieces of cake into their pockets for their behoof; but this must not be judged without a just regard to their ways of thinking, and was not a tenth part so bad as many of the ways in which well-bred persons appropriate slices of other people's cakes without once suspecting the category in which they are doomed to find themselves.

When the huge urns and the remnants of food were at length removed, and the windows had been opened for a minute to change the air, a curtain rose suddenly at the end of the room, and revealed a small stage decorated with green branches and artificial flowers, in the center of it a piano, on the piano music, and at the piano Hester, now first seen, having reserved her strength for her special duty.

When the assembly caught sight of her turning over the leaves of her music, a great silence fell. The moment she began to play, all began to talk. With the first tone of her voice, every other ceased. She had chosen a ballad with a sudden and powerfully dramatic opening, and, a little anxious, a little irritated also with their talking while she played, began in a style that would have compelled attention from a herd of cattle. But the ballad was a little too long for them, and by the time it was half sung they had begun to talk again, and exchange opinions concerning it. All agreed that Miss Raymount had a splendid voice, but several of those who were there by second-hand invitation could find a woman to beat her easily! Their criticisms were, nevertheless, not unfriendly--in general condescending and patronizing. I believe most of this class regarded their presence as a favor granted her. Had they not come that she might show off to them, and receive their approbation! Amongst the poor the most refined and the coarsest-grained natures are to be met side by side--egg-china and drain-tubing in the same shop--just as in respectable circles. The rudeness of the cream of society is more like that of the unwashed than that of any intermediate class; while often the manners of the well-behaved poor are equalled by those only of the best bred in the country.




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