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House Hunting as an Outdoor Amusement

Since Adam and Eve went hand in hand out of the gates of Paradise, the
world has travailed under an infinite succession of house-hunts. To-day
in every eligible suburb you may see New Adams and New Eves by the
score, with rusty keys and pink order-forms in hand, wandering still, in
search of the ideal home. To them it is anything but an amusement. Most
of these poor pilgrims look simply tired, some are argumentative in
addition, but all are disappointed, anxious, and unhappy, their hands
dirty with prying among cisterns, and their garments soiled from cellar
walls. All, in the exaltation of the wooing days, saw at least the
indistinct reflection of the perfect house, but now the Quest is
irrevocably in hand they seek and do not find. And such a momentous
question it is to them. Are they not choosing the background, the air
and the colour, as it were, of the next three or four years, the
cardinal years, too! of their lives?

Perhaps the exquisite exasperation of the business for the man who hunts
among empty houses for a home is, that it is so entirely a choice of
second-hand, or at least ready-made goods. To me, at least, there is a
decided suggestion of the dead body in your empty house that has once
been occupied. Here, like pale ghosts upon the wall paper, are outlined
the pictures of the departed tenant; here are the nails of the invisible
curtains, this dent in the wall is all that is sensible of a vanished
piano. I could fancy all these things creeping back to visibility as the
light grew dim. Someone was irritable in the house, perhaps, and a
haunting fragrance of departed quarrels is to be found in the loose
door-handles, and the broken bell-pull. Then the blind in the bedroom
has a broken string. He was a beer-drinker, for the drip of the tap has
left its mark in the cellar; a careless man, for this wall is a record
of burst water-pipes; and rough in his methods, as his emendation of the
garden gate--a remedy rather worse than the disease--shows. The mark of
this prepotent previous man is left on the house from cellar to attic.
It is his house really, not mine. And against these haunting
individualities set the horrible wholesale flavour, the obvious
dexterous builder's economies of a new house. Yet, whatever your
repulsion may be, the end is always the same. After you have asked for
your ideal house a hundred times or so you begin to see you do not get
it. You go the way of your kind. All houses are taken in despair.

But such disgusts as this are for the man who really aims at taking a
house. The artist house-hunter knows better than that. He hunts for the
hunt's sake, and does not mar his work with a purpose. Then
house-hunting becomes a really delightful employment, and one strangely
neglected in this country. I have heard, indeed, of old ladies who
enlivened the intervals of their devotions in this manner, but to the
general run of people the thing is unknown. Yet a more entertaining way
of spending a half-holiday--having regard to current taste--it should be
difficult to imagine. An empty house is realistic literature in the
concrete, full of hints and allusions if a little wanting in tangible
humanity, and it outdoes the modern story in its own line, by beginning
as well as ending in a note of interrogation. That it is not more
extensively followed I can only explain by supposing that its merits are
generally unsuspected. In which case this book should set a fashion.

One singular thing the house-hunter very speedily discovers is, that the
greater portion of the houses in this country are owned by old gentlemen
or old ladies who live next door. After a certain age, and especially
upon retired tradespeople, house property, either alone or in common
with gardening, exercises an irresistible fascination. You always know
you are going to meet a landlord or landlady of this type when you read
on your order to view, "Key next door but one." Calling next door but
one, you are joined after the lapse of a few minutes by a bald, stout
gentleman, or a lady of immemorial years, who offers to go over "the
property" with you. Apparently the intervals between visits to view are
spent in slumber, and these old people come out refreshed and keen to
scrutinise their possible new neighbours. They will tell you all about
the last tenant, and about the present tenants on either side, and about
themselves, and how all the other houses in the neighbourhood are damp,
and how they remember when the site of the house was a cornfield, and
what they do for their rheumatism. As one hears them giving a most
delightful vent to their loquacity, the artistic house-hunter feels all
the righteous self-applause of a kindly deed. Sometimes they get
extremely friendly. One old gentleman--to whom anyone under forty must
have seemed puerile--presented the gentle writer with three fine large
green apples as a kind of earnest of his treatment: apples, no doubt, of
some little value, since they excited the audible envy of several little
boys before they were disposed of.

Sometimes the landlord has even superintended the building of the house
himself, and then it often has peculiar distinctions--no coal cellar, or
a tower with turrets, or pillars of ornamental marble investing the
portico with disproportionate dignity. One old gentleman, young as old
gentlemen go, short of stature, of an agreeable red colour, and with
short iron-grey hair, had a niche over the front door containing a piece
of statuary. It gave one the impression of the Venus of Milo in
chocolate pyjamas. "It was nood at first," said the landlord, "but the
neighbourhood is hardly educated up to art, and objected. So I gave it
that brown paint."

On one expedition the artistic house-hunter was accompanied by Euphemia.
Then it was he found Hill Crest, a vast edifice at the incredible rent
of 40 a year, with which a Megatherial key was identified. It took the
two of them, not to mention an umbrella, to turn this key. The rent was
a mystery, and while they were in the house--a thunderstorm kept them
there some time--they tried to imagine the murder. From the top windows
they could see the roofs of the opposite houses in plan.

"I wonder how long it would take to get to the top of the house from the
bottom?" said Euphemia.

"Certainly longer than we could manage every day," said the artistic
house-hunter. "Fancy looking for my pipe in all these rooms. Starting
from the top bedroom at the usual time, I suppose one would arrive
downstairs to breakfast about eleven, and then we should have to be
getting upstairs again by eight o'clock if we wanted any night's rest
worth having. Or we might double or treble existence, live a Gargantuan
life to match the house, make our day of forty-eight hours instead of
twenty-four. By doubling everything we should not notice the hole it
made in our time getting about the place. Perhaps by making dinner last
twice as long, eating twice as much, and doing everything on the scale
of two to one, we might adapt ourselves to our environment in time, grow
twice as big."

"_Then_ we might be very comfortable here," said Euphemia.

They went downstairs again. By that time it was thundering and raining
heavily. The rooms were dark and gloomy. The big side door, which would
not shut unless locked from the outside, swayed and banged as the gusts
of wind swept round the house. But they had a good time in the front
kitchen, playing cricket with an umbrella and the agent's order crumpled
into a ball. Presently the artistic house-hunter lifted Euphemia on to
the tall dresser, and they sat there swinging their feet patiently until
the storm should leave off and release them.

"I should feel in this kitchen," said Euphemia, "like one of my little
dolls must have felt in the dolls'-house kitchen I had once. The top of
her head just reached the level of the table. There were only four
plates on the dresser, but each was about half her height across----"

"Your reminiscences are always entertaining," said the artistic
house-hunter; "still they fail to explain the absorbing mystery of this
house being to let at 40 a year." The problem raised his curiosity, but
though he made inquiries he found no reason for the remarkably low rent
or the continued emptiness of the house. It was a specimen puzzle for
the house-hunter. A large house with a garden of about half an acre, and
with accommodation for about six families, going begging for 40 a year.
Would it let at eighty? Some such problem, however, turns up in every
house-hunt, and it is these surprises that give the sport its particular
interest and delight. Always provided the mind is not unsettled by any
ulterior notion of settling down.

H.G. Wells