| Extract from 'The Tower
of London' |
The first place I took lodgings was on high ground to the north of the city. A cosy two-storey, red-brick building took my fancy, so, paying a somewhat expensive two pounds a week, I rented a room at the back. Mr. K, who was at that time the occupant of the front room, was presently touring Scotland and would not be back for a while, the landlady explained.
The landlady had sunken eyes, a turned-up nose, a sharp chin and cheeks; a face so severe and unfeminine it was impossible to judge her age. Perhaps some trait of peevishness, stubbornness or dull-wittedness, some prejudice or suspicion, or all such weaknesses combined had wreaked havoc with a gentle visage and turned it into such a perverse appearance, I reflected.
The landlady's black hair and black eyes were out of place in a northern country. Yet her speech was in no way different to any ordinary English person. On the day I moved in I was offered tea downstairs but upon descending discovered that none of the family were there. In the small north-facing dining room the landlady and I sat alone facing one another. Surveying the gloomy, sunless room, I saw a forlorn daffodil arranged on the mantelpiece. The landlady offered me tea and toast and talked on a variety of subjects. Then, for some reason, she suddenly disclosed that she was not British but French. Turning her black eyes and looking at the daffodil placed in the glass bottle behind her, she told me that Britain was terribly cloudy and cold. She probably meant to imply that even the flowers here were not pretty.
I thought of the sadly drooping daffodil and the trickle of colourless blood pulsing across this woman's shriveled cheeks and imagined what warm dreams they might have seen in distant France. Behind the landlady's black hair and black eyes was probably a sad history of a fragrant springtime that had vanished many years ago.She asked me if I spoke French, heading off any attempt to answer 'no' with a string of mellifluent southern words. It was such a beautiful accent that I wondered how it could have emerged from such a craggy throat.
That evening, at dinner time, a bald white-bearded old man appeared at the table. The landlady introduced him as her father, and so for the first time I realized that the master of this house was an old man. The man had a strange way of speaking. One could immediately tell he was not English. Father and daughter must have crossed the Channel together and settled in London, I surmised. Then without my asking, the old man suddenly announced that he was German. 'Is that so?' I said, realizing I had misapprehended the situation somewhat.
When I returned to my room and opened my books, the father and daughter below strangely stayed in my thoughts. Comparing the old man with the bony-faced daughter, there was no resemblance whatsoever. His whole face was swollen with a pudgy, fleshy nose and two narrow eyes. There used to be a president in southern Africa called Kruger. The old man looked very like him. It is not a face that is pleasant to look at. Moreover this man's way of speaking to his daughter was unpleasant. His teeth might no longer work, and he might mumble, but there was something rough in his manner. The daughter's stern face seemed to only intensify in the presence of her father. It was definitely no ordinary parent-and-child relationship. So thinking, I went to bed.
The next day, when I went down for breakfast, in addition to the father and daughter from last night there was another member of the family. The person present at the table was a fair-complexioned, attractive man of about forty. When I looked at this man's face from the entrance of the dining-room I felt for the first time that I was living amongst real human beings. The landlady introduced this man as 'my brother'. Unsurprisingly, it was not her husband. Yet their faces were so different that one would have never taken them for brother and sister.
That day I dined out for lunch and returned home at past three o'clock, but shortly after entering my room I was called down for tea. That day was also cloudy. When I opened the door of the gloomy dining-room the landlady was sitting on her own next to the stove with the tea things. She had lit the coal fire, so I felt somewhat cheered. I looked at her face lit up by the kindling flames and saw there was a little makeup lightly applied over her flushed cheeks. At the entrance to the room I fully appreciated the sadness of that makeup. She looked at me as if fully aware of the impression she gave. It was then I heard from her the family's history.
The landlady's mother had, some twenty-five years before, married a certain Frenchman and produced this daughter. After being together for a few years the husband died. Her mother now married a German, taking her daughter with her. This German was the old man from last night. He had opened a tailor's shop in the West End and commuted there every day. He had a son from a previous marriage working at the same shop, but relations between father and son were extremely poor. Even though they were living in the same household, they never spoke a word. The son always returned home late at night. At the front door he took off his shoes and crossed the corridor in his bare socks so that his father would not hear him entering his room and going to bed. The landlady had lost her mother a long time ago. At the time of her death her mother had repeatedly spoken concerning her daughter, but afterwards all the property passed into the hands of the father and she was left penniless. Her only option was to try and scrape together some money by taking in boarders. Agnes...
The landlady did not say any more. Agnes was the name of the girl of thirteen or fourteen who was working in the house. I then sensed there was a certain resemblance between the son's face I had seen that morning and Agnes. Just then Agnes appeared from the kitchen with the toast.
'Will you have some toast, Agnes?'
Agnes silently took a piece of toast and retreated to the kitchen.
One month later I left this boarding house.