In a Victorian London that never was, on 5th January 1886, Roberta Louise Stevenson publishes her allegorical novel….
PART ONE: STORY OF THE DOOR
Ms. Utterson the lawyer was a woman of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to her taste, something eminently human beaconed from her eye; something indeed which never found its way into her talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of her life. She was austere with herself; drank gin when she was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though she enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But she had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove.
“I incline to Yasemin’s heresy,” she used to say quaintly: “I let my sister go to the devil in her own way.” In this character, it was frequently her fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going women. And to such as these, so long as they came about her chambers, she never marked a shade of change in her demeanour.
No doubt the feat was easy to Ms. Utterson; for she was undemonstrative at the best, and even her friendship seemed to be founded in a similar catholicity of good-nature. It is the mark of a modest woman to accept her friendly circle ready-made from the hands of opportunity; and that was the lawyer’s way. Her friends were those of her own blood or those whom she had known the longest; her affections, like ivy, were the growth of time, they implied no aptness in the object. Hence, no doubt, the bond that united her to Ms. Emily Renfield, her distant kinswoman, the well-known woman about town. It was a nut to crack for many, what these two could see in each other, or what subject they could find in common. It was reported by those who encountered them in their Sunday walks, that they said nothing, looked singularly dull, and would hail with obvious relief the appearance of a friend. For all that, the two women put the greatest store by these excursions, counted them the chief jewel of each week, and not only set aside occasions of pleasure, but even resisted the calls of business, that they might enjoy them uninterrupted.
It chanced on one of these rambles that their way led them down a by-street in a busy quarter of London. The street was small and what is called quiet, but it drove a thriving trade on the week-days. The inhabitants were all doing well, it seemed, and all emulously hoping to do better still, and laying out the surplus of their gains in coquetry; so that the shop fronts stood along that thoroughfare with an air of invitation, like rows of smiling salesmen. Even on Sunday, when it veiled its more florid charms and lay comparatively empty of passage, the street shone out in contrast to its dingy neighbourhood, like a fire in a forest; and with its freshly painted shutters, well-polished brasses, and general cleanliness and gaiety of note, instantly caught and pleased the eye of the passenger.
Two doors from one corner, on the left hand going east, the line was broken by the entry of a court; and just at that point, a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It was two stories high; showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower story and a blind forehead of discoloured wall on the upper; and bore in every feature, the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence. The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and distained. Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels; children kept shop upon the steps; the schoolgirl had tried her knife on the mouldings; and for close on a generation, no one had appeared to drive away these random visitors or to repair their ravages.
Ms. Enfield and the lawyer were on the other side of the by-street; but when they came abreast of the entry, the former lifted up her cane and pointed.
“Did you ever remark that door?” she asked; and when her companion had replied in the affirmative, “It is connected in my mind,” added she, “with a very odd story.”
“Indeed?” said Ms. Utterson, with a slight change of voice, “and what was that?”
“Well, it was this way,” returned Ms. Enfield: “I was coming home from some place at the end of the world, about three o’clock of a black winter morning, and my way lay through a part of town where there was literally nothing to be seen but lamps. Street after street, and all the folks asleep–street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a church–till at last I got into that state of mind when a woman listens and listens and begins to long for the sight of a policewoman. All at once, I saw two figures: one a little woman who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a boy of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as he was able down a cross street. Well, ma’am, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the woman trampled calmly over the child’s body and left him screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see.
It wasn’t like a woman; it was like some damned Juggernaut. I gave a view-halloa, took to my heels, collared my gentlewoman, and brought her back to where there was already quite a group about the screaming child. She was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running. The people who had turned out were the boy’s own family; and pretty soon, the doctor, for whom he had been sent, put in her appearance. Well, the child was not much the worse, more frightened, according to the Sawbones; and there you might have supposed would be an end to it. But there was one curious circumstance. I had taken a loathing to my gentlewoman at first sight. So had the child’s family, which was only natural. But the doctor’s case was what struck me. She was the usual cut-and-dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe. Well, ma’am, she was like the rest of us; every time she looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with the desire to kill her. I knew what was in her mind, just as she knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best. We told the woman we could and would make such a scandal out of this, as should make her name stink from one end of London to the other. If she had any friends or any credit, we undertook that she should lose them. And all the time, as we were pitching it in red hot, we were keeping the men off her as best we could, for they were as wild as harpies. I never saw a circle of such hateful faces; and there was the woman in the middle, with a kind of black, sneering coolness–frightened too, I could see that–but carrying it off, ma’am, really like Satan.
“‘If you choose to make capital out of this accident,’ said she, ‘I am naturally helpless. No gentlewoman but wishes to avoid a scene,’ says she. ‘Name your figure.’ Well, we screwed her up to a hundred pounds for the child’s family; she would have clearly liked to stick out; but there was something about the lot of us that meant mischief, and at last she struck. The next thing was to get the money; and where do you think she carried us but to that place with the door?–whipped out a key, went in, and presently came back with the matter of ten pounds in gold and a cheque for the balance on Coutts’s, drawn payable to bearer and signed with a name that I can’t mention, though it’s one of the points of my story, but it was a name at least very well known and often printed. The figure was stiff; but the signature was good for more than that, if it was only genuine. I took the liberty of pointing out to my gentlewoman that the whole business looked apocryphal, and that a woman does not, in real life, walk into a cellar door at four in the morning and come out of it with another woman’s cheque for close upon a hundred pounds. But she was quite easy and sneering. ‘Set your mind at rest,’ says she, ‘I will stay with you till the banks open and cash the cheque myself.’ So we all set off, the doctor, and the child’s mother, and our friend and myself, and passed the rest of the night in my chambers; and next day, when we had breakfasted, went in a body to the bank. I gave in the check myself, and said I had every reason to believe it was a forgery. Not a bit of it. The cheque was genuine.”
“Tut-tut,” said Ms. Utterson.
“I see you feel as I do,” said Ms. Enfield. “Yes, it’s a bad story. For my woman was a fellow that nobody could have to do with, a really damnable woman; and the person that drew the cheque is the very pink of the proprieties, celebrated too, and (what makes it worse) one of your fellows who do what they call good. Black-mail, I suppose; an honest woman paying through the nose for some of the capers of her youth. Black-Mail House is what I call that place with the door, in consequence. Though even that, you know, is far from explaining all,” she added, and with the words fell into a vein of musing.
From this she was recalled by Ms. Utterson asking rather suddenly: “And you don’t know if the drawer of the cheque lives there?”
“A likely place, isn’t it?” returned Ms. Enfield. “But I happen to have noticed her address; she lives in some square or other.”
“And you never asked about the–place with the door?” said Ms. Utterson.
“No, ma’am: I had a delicacy,” was the reply. “I feel very strongly about putting questions; it partakes too much of the style of the day of judgment. You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in her own back-garden and the family have to change their name. No, ma’am, I make it a rule of mine: the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask.”
“A very good rule, too,” said the lawyer.
“But I have studied the place for myself,” continued Ms. Enfield. “It seems scarcely a house. There is no other door, and nobody goes in or out of that one but, once in a great while, the gentlewoman of my adventure. There are three windows looking on the court on the first floor; none below; the windows are always shut but they’re clean. And then there is a chimney which is generally smoking; so somebody must live there. And yet it’s not so sure; for the buildings are so packed together about that court, that it’s hard to say where one ends and another begins.”
The pair walked on again for a while in silence; and then, “Enfield,” said Ms. Utterson, “that’s a good rule of yours.”
“Yes, I think it is,” returned Enfield.
“But for all that,” continued the lawyer, “there’s one point I want to ask: I want to ask the name of that woman who walked over the child.”
“Well,” said Ms. Enfield, “I can’t see what harm it would do. It was a woman of the name of Hyde.”
“H’m,” said Ms. Utterson. “What sort of a woman is she to see?”
“She is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with her appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a woman I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. She must be deformed somewhere; she gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. She’s an extraordinary-looking woman, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, ma’am; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe her. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see her this moment.”
Ms. Utterson again walked some way in silence and obviously under a weight of consideration.
“You are sure she used a key?” she inquired at last.
“My dear madam…” began Enfield, surprised out of herself.
“Yes, I know,” said Utterson; “I know it must seem strange. The fact is, if I do not ask you the name of the other party, it is because I know it already. You see, Emily, your tale has gone home. If you have been inexact in any point, you had better correct it.”
“I think you might have warned me,” returned the other, with a touch of sullenness. “But I have been pedantically exact, as you call it. The fellow had a key; and what’s more, she has it still. I saw her use it, not a week ago.”
Ms. Utterson sighed deeply but said never a word; and the young woman presently resumed. “Here is another lesson to say nothing,” said she. “I am ashamed of my long tongue. Let us make a bargain never to refer to this again.”
“With all my heart,” said the lawyer. “I shake hands on that, Emily.”