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QUEEN SQUARE, Bloomsbury, is a quiet place. Securely it sleeps within the shelter of the neighbouring Law and the shadow of a few old trees. It hears, indeed, the subdued roar of Holborn, and the distant hum of the city ; but it hears them as in a dream, and, heeding neither, it slumbers and dozes on. Its lot is cast in peace and silence; rude carriages disturb it not, for it has but a few inconvenient outlets, and intruding feet seldom profane the grass that grows freely between its ancient flags. It has seen better days—that a glance will tell—but the ghost of departed greatness protects it from the last humiliation of decay : it is not populous. It has ceased to be fashionable, but, thank heaven, it is still "genteel."
The houses suit the place; they are old, brown, substantial burgher houses—they have never been palatial mansions. They dea] little with the vanities of life, but mind their own concerns, and see to their little gardens behind, and look at their green and quiet square in front, with its damp-stained statue of that Queen Anne who took and filled her father's throne, and was called " Good.”
To persons of a speculative turn who see such a place for the first time, it is a perfect godsend. If they enter it from Gloucester Street, for instance, fresh from the turmoil of Holborn, they are struck with its quaint charm ; for one it has, and quite its
To be sure, it is neither picturesque, nor pretty, nor beau
tiful. It was never meant to answer any of these epithets—but then we do not look for beauty in great commercial cities; and who that is wise would wish to live in a picturesque neighbourhood, or would even indulge in conjectures concerning its inhabitants ? But here the very absence of all that is brilliant or striking is a temptation. In that shady house beyond a student might roost and dream away a lifetime. In its sad-looking neighbour an invalid, to whom country air was no necessity, might pass through querulous years, and not be affronted with the cheerfulness of places more favoured. In this a miser might hoard his gold, and contrive hiding-places of his own. disappointed man might hide his head from the world's cold scorn, and sink unheeded into his grave. But whatever the tenant might be, that decorum which seems innate in Queen Square would be expected to mark his habitation.
Now, it was precisely decorum that was wanting in Mr. Ford's house. It was that which made it look so singular and incongruous a dwelling. It had no business in Queen Square. It was as well built, as valuable a freehold as its neighbours on either hand, but they looked comfortable if not affluent, and Mr. Ford's house was decidedly shabby and poor. Their very plainness was suggestive of citizen comforts; they were homes where a hearty Christmas dinner could be served up, and whence a respectable funeral could issue, after gout and good living had done their work; but Mr. Ford's house, dingy and forlorn, suggested none but images of poverty or avarice. A miserly or a needy man alone could inhabit this desolate abode. Country poverty has its graceful aspect; weeds grow prettily amongst the loose stones, and moss does very well on a roof; we need not even trench upon ivy, which belongs to ruins, to make something nice and becoming of a dilapidated country mansion : but London decay is like London itself, rather grim, smoky, and dirty, and Mr. Ford's house was inconceivably dreary to look at. The doorsteps, that last stronghold of English cleanliness, were of a dull grey, and told of a negligent or overtasked maid-of-all work. The paint on the door was worn away in frightful patches of scarred brown. The handle of the area bell was broken, and the bell itself, when put in motion by some myste. rious piece of mechanism, uttered a faint and ghostlike squeak. The curtains of the kitchen windows were yellow rags torn and never mended. The faded blind of the parlour window was of a common printed pattern; poor and miserable looked its Gothic arches that nearly met a rusty iron screen, savingly substituted
to the clear muslin of the neighbouring houses. The first floor, indeed, had a decent look. The yellow blinds were never raised -but, though yellow, they were whole; and everyone knew, moreover, that behind them there was a tale and a mystery; but the second and third storeys were even more conspicuous than the lower part of the house. Broken panes, mended with brown paper stuck on with wafers, were of common occurrence in those unfortunate regions; it was even said that sundry garments had there been hung out to dry. “ But that must be a slander," as Mrs. Smith kindly remarked, " for had they not the garden and the back windows ?” Mrs. Slater, who owned a house in Devonshire Street, took a less lenient view of the matter, and openly declared, “ Mr. Ford's house was a disgrace to the Square, it was. And she did not care who heard her saying
And she neither cared nor knew who Mr. Ford was."
Part of this declaration was very true. Mrs. Slater did not know who Mr. Ford was, and Queen Square was no wiser than Mrs. Slater. Some knowledge indeed it had, but of that broad, delusive kind which is almost worse than complete ignorance. This at least leaves imagination free; now to know a little is to be féttered in a most unpleasant manner.
It is in some sort to be compelled to the labour of distorting, and not to be allowed the delightful liberty of invention.
Mr. Ford's house was his own freehold property—that everyone knew; he had also chambers somewhere, but what he did there none seemed able to decide. He led a dull, silent sort of life; his three boys, a grim servant-woman, and Mr. Ford himself, were the only persons on whom the shabby door ever opened and shut again. Visitors being unknown at Mr. Ford's, attention became all the keener: and Mr. Ford, a shabby-genteel man, with a step alternately depressed and elastic, his raw, scapegrace-looking boys, and Susan, who put no questions and answered none, became the legitimate prey of the inquisitive. Very little was made of them. Anyone could see that, though the boys outgrew their trousers and jackets, these were seldom renewed; that Mr. Ford's coat grew whiter at the seams, and his nose rather redder as time passed; and that Susan's temper, as displayed in her conversations at the front door, or from the bottom of the area steps, did not become more mellow as Susan herself ripened. But such general discoveries only heightened curiosity, by suggesting all that remained unknown. That much was left to find out was certain. In the first place, there was Mrs. Ford; what had Mr. Ford done with her ? She was not
dead. Even Susan admitted that by implication, since, when questioned, she invariably answered in her sharpest tones and angriest key, " that Missus was very well, she was.” And it was pretty well ascertained that, well or ill, the missing lady, whom not a soul had seen for the last seven years, was to be found behind those drawing-room blinds, which were never raised in day-time at least. But what did that prove? as the
Was she crazy, a prisoner, an invalid, or a hypo. chondriac? No one knew ; and heaven alone knows what extraordinary conjectures were rife in Queen Square on this subject.
Such being the sort of interest Mr. Ford's house excited in the minds of his neighbours, the vigilance of their curiosity may be imagined. As a general rule, there was little or nothing to repay it; but a most interesting exception occurred on a gusty autumn afternoon. A double knock, a genuine double knock, was heard at Mr. Ford's door. Two cautious heads appeared one at the parlour window of the house on the right-hand side, the other at the attic of that on the left. They were quickly withdrawn as Mr. Ford's visitor looked round and leered at Mrs. Buckly, then nodded waggishly at Mary Anne. He had leisure to do so, for the unusual event of a double knock not have ing been attended to, he had to repeat it with such an increase of force as secured attention. Susan, the sourest of sour-looking housemaids, came and opened, wiping her hands on a greasy apron as she did so, and looking askance at the visitor.
“Mr. Ford at home?" he said, jauntily swinging his cane.
"I shall see, sir," mistrustfully replied Susan; "what name, please, sir?”
“Captain George. Oh! he's at home for Captain George. Tell him his cousin, Captain George, wishes to speak to him five minutes—that's all."
Susan obeyed slowly, not without first giving Captain George a suspicious look.
He was a tall and handsorne man of sixty, or thereabouts. He had brown eyes, dark hair, silvering fast, and mustachios carefully trimmed. He had, also, very good, straight features, and a pleasant smile, that revealed teeth of pearl; and, conscious of these personal advantages, Captain George displayed them to every female gaze with the most graceful liberality. He now smiled at Susan, spite her evident mistrust, and, following her in, kindly shut the street door, and at once made his way to the parlour; but Susan was first, and, laying her hand on the lock,