CHAPTER I

I return to London — Searching for rooms — St John's Wood in the 'eighties — A bed-sitting room in Wellington Road — The buxom landlady — A tempting offer — A mysterious hat and stick — A little incident during the night — The defunct lodger, pathetic episode — In search of a studio — Rents in London as compared with Paris — I take a furnished studio — My landlady — "Dear Old Jeph"

It was with mingled feelings of regret and trepidation that I returned to London after the four never-to-be-forgotten years I had spent as a student in Paris, for I realized that my boisterous days of youthful insouciance were over, and that arduous uphill work was facing me. Henceforth I had to pull myself together and rely entirely on my own efforts to carve out for myself a career in the precarious profession I had chosen. The situation I had to face was to me almost tragic, the small income on which I had hitherto depended for daily bread and butter, and an occasional pot of jam, had been snatched away from me through a financial failure, and I found myself practically on my beam-ends with no option but to start out at once and work for my living.

The seriousness of this will be only appreciated by those, who like myself, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in similar circumstances. The question now was, what was to be done and how to begin? I was little more than a youth, and had been brought up with the idea that I should never have to depend on my art for a livelihood; young as I was I had already learned that, as a profession, art was not a money-maker to be relied upon. I knew from what I had seen in Paris that it was a lottery in which the prizes are few and the blanks many. It was too late, however, for me to think of taking up one of the many trades or professions which might offer more lucrative promise. I had no inclination for any other than an artistic career; nought remained, therefore, but to make the best of things and put my back to the wall.

Before leaving Paris, in order to avoid expense of packing, I had decided to sell my modest furniture and household goods, though I must admit that it was not without an acute pang of regret that I was forced to come to this decision, and when I saw everything being taken away it was almost like parting with old friends, and I felt a choking feeling in my throat. What stories of tender romance, of heart-burnings, of joys and sorrows these insignificant Lares and Penates could have told; the poor little fauteuils seemed as though holding out their arms to me in mute adieu — all were associated with my innermost recollection of all the romance in my student days, alas! now over. It was useless repining, so I stiffened my back and endeavored to persuade myself, much against my own conviction, that it was Kismet, and always for the best.  I arrived in London, therefore, with absolutely no belongings; with no souvenirs of my Paris life beyond my personal effects, my paint-box, sketch easel, camp stool, and a big bundle of canvases. I certainly could not, therefore, under any circumstances, have been considered a possessor of worldly goods and chattels.

Everything seemed very strange and cheerless to me at first I remember, as I had no home to go to, and but few relations or friends in London, so I felt almost like a traveler in some foreign city; but I had made up my mind that there was no time to be lost, and I was in a feverish hurry to make a start. The day after my arrival then saw me searching for rooms. I had been recommended to look round St John's Wood as being a most likely place to suit me and my exiguous purse, so I decided not to be fastidious, and settle on anything so long as it was clean, and at any rate make a beginning.

In the 'eighties St John's Wood was the quarter most favored by artists, and although this explained to a certain extent how I found my way up there, I cannot help feeling now that it was also the peculiar notoriety of the district that attracted me. There was in those days an éclat about the very name that raised visions of a repetition in London of the joyous times I had spent in Paris, and I must confess now, that as a substitute for the Montmartre of my student days, I found St John's Wood in the 'eighties not altogether out of the running. Of course it was but a quiet suburb, and had none of the life or go of the French Quartier, but there was, as will be seen, plenty of fun and adventure there for those who were so minded, whilst as a place for work it was positively delightful in its almost rural quietude.

I found a nice bed-sitting-room on the second floor in Wellington Road in a small semi-detached house, with a garden back and front, for which I paid the modest sum of 10s. a week, including my breakfast, and an ample one at that; cheap enough in all conscience sake, but there was a somewhat curious little incident that perhaps explained how I came to be thus favored, for Wellington Road was not usually so inexpensive in the way of lodgings.

When I went to make enquiries about the room to let, the door was opened by the landlady herself, a buxom fair haired person of uncertain age, got up "lamb fashion." She had a certain flirtatious look, and gave me an unmistakable "St John's Wood glad-eye," as she invited me in to see the room, which as it turned out suited me very well. It was the only one she let, so she told me, as she was a widow, and could not afford to keep servants; but the rent of it was 15s. a week, and was more than I wanted to give, and I told her so. She seemed disappointed rather than annoyed when she learned this.

To my surprise, as I was going downstairs she suddenly said that she would reduce it to 10s. if I would take it at once, as she felt she was sure she would like to have me as her lodger, and then to my still further surprise she added, "that will of course include your breakfast as well." This was too tempting an offer to refuse, so I accepted without hesitation. I was young then, and perhaps somewhat dense at times, anyhow I arranged to move in that day. As I was passing through the hall I noticed a man's hat hanging on the hat-stand with a very truculent looking stick near it. Somehow I did not like the look of them, they had an aggressive air; the owner I thought could not be an agreeable sort of gentleman. However, I wasn't obliged to know him, so it didn't really matter, so I said nothing, but it struck me as somewhat strange to see them as though quite in their accustomed place after what she had told me about herself. Well, I moved in and found my room very clean and comfortable, and forgot all about the hat and stick for the moment.

I was busy the next week or so hunting for a cheap studio, and was out most of the time, so had not much opportunity for chatting with her, much as she would have liked me to, as I could not fail to notice, for she was a most loquacious and skittish person, and seemed to be always on the slightest excuse waiting to pounce out on me whenever I came in at any time, even late at night. As I went up to my room she would open the door of her bedroom, and peeping out coyly, ask me kindly if I had all I required. At times almost whispering tenderly that I must not mind asking her for anything I fancied, as she wanted me to be quite happy and feel myself at home.

I often think of a glimpse I got of her on one of these occasions. The light of the candle I was carrying lit up her face with startling effect as she stood in the half-open door of her bedroom, arrayed in a flimsy sort of dressing-gown which only partially hid her ample figure. To my youthful eyes, fresh from Paris, and with the recollections still vivid in my memory of my delightfully young and piquant petites amies, this middle-aged passée individual, old enough to be my mother, with her dyed hair, pasty face, and sickly provocative leer was as a sort of vision of another world, which was new to me, and I hastily thanked her, and felt relieved when I found myself in my room, and with the door bolted. I remember I almost felt afraid she would come after me and try to get in.

The next morning she laughingly twitted me about coming in so late, and said that I had no doubt learned some bad habits in Paris, which by all accounts was a very "naughty place" — not that she minded what people did if they chose to — and, in fact, she rather approved of youth having its fling, she added significantly. I did not feel inclined to discuss the subject with her, but she was quite a character in her way, and it was most difficult to stop her talking once she started. Still, I could have forgiven her a good deal, for she was a kindly motherly person once she forgot her aspirations to be considered a young and beautiful girl.

One morning whilst I was having breakfast, which by the way she let me have in her own sitting-room, I asked casually about her other lodger — that I had not seen anything of him. "Her other lodger! " she exclaimed with surprise. "What other lodger?"

"The one whose hat and stick are in the hall."

Then to my intense surprise she suddenly burst into tears, and letting herself drop into an arm-chair by the fire she buried her face in her hands and sobbed hysterically. I was so taken aback that I did not know what to say; all that I could do was to assure her as sympathetically as I could that I was very sorry indeed if I had said anything to upset her — that it was quite unintentional on my part, and so forth — and then I sat and waited until the crisis passed.

In a few minutes she became calm again, and smiled sadly at me through her tear-dimmed eyes. I shall never forget what she looked like. She was not beautiful at any time of the day, and in the early morning least of all, and moreover she had a fancy for an excessive amount of a peculiarly white face powder, so the effect of her tears on this pastel-like surface may be imagined; they had formed little lines all over her cheeks. I should have laughed outright had it not been that I realized her grief was quite real and unassumed.

"You must forgive me making such a show of myself; I know it's very silly of me," she said, as she mopped her streaming eyes again and again with her wet handkerchief;" but I could not help it — I feel so lonely and miserable at times. That was his hat and stick, the poor old dear, just as he left them before he was taken ill — he has been dead ten years now, and I haven't the heart to move them. I feel somehow as though he is still about the house when I see them out in the hall in their old place, and sometimes when I am all alone I go out there and sit and talk with them. It is very silly I know; but somehow it seems to relieve me."

I said nothing; the mirth her woe-begone appearance had roused in me disappeared, and I felt a deep pang of sympathy in my heart for her, and I realized that behind her skittishness and frivolity was anyhow the heart of a real woman.

From this moment her manner towards me completely changed, she abandoned her captivating and alluring ways, and turned out to be so kindly and homely a creature that I was positively loathe to leave her, when I decided to move into a studio. I have often thought since, and with a certain regret of the cozy sitting room with its cheerful fire when I came down to breakfast; how she would fuss around and make me comfortable, and tell me all the news, and talk about my work of the day. She was indeed a "find" as a landlady, and there are probably few like her nowadays in St John's Wood.

My search for a cheap studio was not an easy one, considering how little I was prepared to pay. My Paris experience had spoiled me in this respect, and I soon discovered that it was a complete impossibility to get anything at all in London for the same rent I paid in Montmartre. The reason for this was not difficult to explain. In the artists' quarter of Paris the landlords often build with a view to attracting artists, and studios with north lights are to be found readily throughout the district. In London this was quite the exception in the days of which I am writing, and if there happened to be a large room in a house facing north, which could be converted into a studio, a fancy price was immediately asked.

A comparison between the rents of London and Paris of that time may be of interest. I shared a studio with a friend in the Passage Lathuile in the Avenue de Clichy, for which we paid £15 a year. It certainly was not pretentious or extremely commodious, but it answered our purpose well, as it was on the ground floor, and had a good light. For £25 a year we could have easily found quite a luxurious place with bedroom and dressing-room. In London, in St John's Wood, such rents were unknown, and even for a small workshop in a mews a much higher figure would be cheerfully asked, whilst one had to be getting on very well to afford a real studio.

Of course as against this must be considered the fact that if one got on only fairly well, the prices obtainable for one's work ruled much higher than across the Channel — still it was purely problematical whether one did ever get on sufficiently to even make a living by art, leave alone pay an exorbitant rent. I realized, therefore, that for the first few years, whilst endeavoring to make headway, it practically meant working for one's landlord most of the time — a thankless task, as will be admitted. Still there was no help for it, so I continued my search with unabated energy buoyed up with a dogged determination to see it through, if with hard work it were possible.

I was particularly keen on settling in St John's Wood, as the district had, as I have said, somehow appealed to me from the very first, and after many days of fruitless search for cheap rooms or a workshop that could be converted into a studio, I suddenly heard of a furnished studio at 36 Marlboro' Hill, which was to let for a year at a very reasonable rental to a responsible tenant. I was indeed in luck's way, as it turned out to be the very sort of place I had been looking for, and could not have been better suited for my purpose, since I had no furniture whatever.

The owner, a rather well-known painter, Ponsonby Staples, was not exacting in his idea of rent, since he was only asking £50 for a twelve months' tenancy, which was indeed remarkably cheap considering the place was completely furnished, in fact there was everything an artist could reasonably require, even to crockery, such as it was, and a gas cooking stove. It was arranged with the artistic taste one might have expected from a man of Staples' reputation.

The premises, which were on the ground floor, and were separate from the house, consisted of a large studio with top light, an alcove with a bed in it, and a sort of annex which had been converted into a kitchen. There was a tiny little garden at the back in which, at a pinch, one could make open-air studies, and there were two entrances, one at the front and the other at the back through the garden. It was a delightfully cheery place, and appeared still more so on the sunny spring morning I visited it.

Without hesitation I signed the agreement, and entered into possession at once, and it was with the most pleasurable feelings that I moved in. My sympathetic landlady in Wellington Road was, I believe, genuinely sorry to lose me; but she agreed that it was a stroke of luck having dropped on such a place at all. She made me promise to come in and see her, and have a cup of tea whenever I felt I should like to have a change and a quiet chat.

As I have said, the studio was ready for immediate occupation — in fact, Staples had left all his belongings lying about in the most unconventional manner, very different to what one would have expected from one's landlord. If I remember rightly, he did not even make an inventory of what was in the place. All I had to do, therefore, was to move a canvas or so, put my own studies on the easels, get out my paint-box and start work without further delay. It was very delightful, and I was quite buoyed up with enthusiasm; although I was surrounded by some one else's belongings, everything was so in unison with my own ideas that it was as though I had furnished and fitted it all up myself. Moreover, Staples had, like myself, studied abroad, so there was the added charm of a certain continental touch which struck me as soon as I entered the place, and which not a little had induced me to take it.

I had, as I have explained, nothing in the world except my personal belongings, and did not wish to encroach on my tiny capital, if I could possibly help it, by buying anything except actual necessities for the moment, and in this resolve I was strenuously backed up by my ci-devant guardian, an uncle of mine named Jephson, a middle-aged bachelor, who, after living many years in China and Japan, had retired and settled down in London. He lived sufficiently close to St John's Wood to afford him an excuse for a daily stroll round to Marlboro' Hill to see how I was getting on. Despite the disparity in our ages we soon became the staunchest of chums, and it was mainly due to his sound advice that I managed to pull through as I did, for it was hard and uphill work at first.

"Dear old Jeph!" as he was always affectionately called — I can see him now — so spruce and well-groomed, and it was at all times a delight and a source of inward merriment to me to watch him fussing about the studio, good-naturedly doing his best to be of assistance to me in one way or another, without soiling his immaculate attire. He was at heart a bit of a dilletante, and I fancy he really imagined he was getting on closer terms with art when sitting about the studio trying to smoke a big pipe, which never agreed with him, or helping to prepare a little Bohemian lunch.

One day comes back to me. Some friends arrived when he was busily occupied in the kitchen, and he hadn't heard the bell ring. He had been in there some little time, and, curiosity as to the reason leading us to peep through the door, imagine our amusement at finding Jeph in his shirt sleeves, the char-woman's apron about his dapper figure, with lemon-colored kid gloves on, intently engaged trying his hand at making what he was pleased afterwards to inform us was a curry as his "boy" used to make it in Shanghai.

His was a personality between the levelheadedness of the travelled man of the world and the irresponsible impetuosity of one who in middle-age has not outgrown his youth, which was strangely fascinating. Beyond all was his cheery optimism, which helped me to bear many disillusions and disappointments, and assisted considerably to cheer up my early studio days in London.




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