The Poet's Portmanteau
by George Gissing
The poet had been nourishing his soul down in Devon. A petty
windfall, a minim legacy, which plucked him from scholastic bondage in
a London suburb, was now all but consumed. He turned his face once more
to the mart of men, strong in the sanguine courage of two-and-twenty.
His luggage (the sum total of his personal property, except twenty
pounds sterling) consisted of a trunk and a portmanteau. The latter he
kept beside him in the railway carriage — a small and very shabby
portmanteau, but it guarded the result of ten months' work, the
manuscript volume (entitled The Hermit of the Tor; and Other Poems)
whereon rested all his hopes. A few articles of clothing and of daily
necessity were packed in the same receptacle. On reaching London he
would deposit his trunk at the station, and carry the small portmanteau
whilst he searched for a temporary lodging.
Green vales and bosky slopes of Devon; the rolling uplands of
Wiltshire, the streams and heaths and wooded hills of Surrey. It was
late autumn, and the day drew to its close. Through mists of evening a
red orb hung huge above the horizon; it crimsoned and grew lurid,
athwart the first driftings of London smoke; it disappeared amid towers
and chimneys and squalor multiform. The poet grasped his portmanteau,
and leapt out on to the platform of Waterloo Station.
One cheap room was all he wanted, and as he could not carry his
burden very far he turned southward, guided by memory of the gray,
small streets off Kennington Road. Twenty minutes' walk brought him
into a by-way where every other window offered its card of invitation
to wanderers such as he. At this hour of gloom there was little to
choose between one house and another. A few paces ahead of him sounded
the knock of a telegraph messenger. Where telegrams were delivered
there must be, he thought, some measure of civilisation; so he lingered
till the boy had gone away, then directed his steps to that door.
His rat-tat was answered by a young woman, whose personal
appearance surprised him. Her features were handsome and intelligent,
though scarcely amiable; her clothing indicated poverty, but was not
such as would be worn by a girl of the working class; her language and
manner completed the proof that she was no native of this region.
"Yes," she said, speaking distantly and nervously, "a single room was
to let, a room up at the top." The poet, as became a poet, observed
with emotional interest this unexpected figure. Only a wretched little
oil-lamp hung in the passage, and he could not see the girl's face very
distinctly; perhaps the first impression of sullenness was a mistake;
it might be only the shrinking self-respect of one whom circumstances
had forced into a false position. He noticed that in her hand she held
"Would you let me see the room?"
"Please wait a moment."
She went upstairs, and soon reappeared with a lighted candle.
Leaving his portmanteau, he followed her through the usual stuffy
atmosphere to a chamber of the usual dreariness. His attendant placed
her candle within the room, then drew back and waited outside on the
"I think this would do. What is the rent?"
There was hesitation. The poet stepped forward, and endeavoured to
discern a face amid the shadows.
"Eight shillings — I think," he was at length answered.
Ah, then she was not the landlady. Perhaps the daughter of people
who had come to grief. He began to speak of details; she answered
shortly, but to his satisfaction.
"I shall be glad to take the room for a week or two. I'll go and
bring up my portmanteau."
"It is usual" — he still could not see the speaker — "to pay a
week's rent in advance."
"Oh, to be sure."
Determined to see her face in full light he took up the candle, and
stepped with it on to the landing. As if aware of his motive, the girl
stood in a retiring attitude; but she met his gaze, and they looked,
for an instant, steadily at each other. She was handsome, but her lips
had a hard, defiant expression, and in her eyes he read either the
suffering of a womanly nature or the recklessness of one indifferent to
all good. Her speech favoured the pleasanter interpretation; yet, after
all, the countenance disturbed rather than attracted him.
An old box stood by the head of the stairs; on this he placed the
candle, and then drew from his pocket the sum he had to pay. The girl
thanked him coldly. He ran downstairs, fetched his portmanteau, and put
it in a corner of the dark room. Then they again faced each other.
"By-the-bye," he said, wishing he could draw her into conversation,
"what's the address? I have come here by mere chance."
She gave the information as briefly as possible.
"Thank you. Now I must go out and get something to eat."
The girl would not speak. There was nothing for it but to turn and
descend the stairs. She followed, and half-way down her voice stopped
"When shall you be back to-night?"
"Not later than eleven, I think."
And so they parted, the poet taking a last look at her as he opened
the front door.
She had strongly affected his imagination. As he walked towards
Westminster, new rhymes and rhythms sang within him to the roaring
music of the street. The Devon hermitage was a far, faint memory.
London had welcomed him with so sudden a glimpse of her infinite
romance that he half repented his long seclusion.
At about the hour he had mentioned he returned to seek a night's
rest. Would the same face appear when the door opened? He waited
anxiously, and suffered a sad disappointment, for his knock was
answered by Just the kind of person that might have been expected —
the typical landlady of cheap lodgings, a puffy, slatternly woman
chewing a mouthful of the supper from which she had risen.
"Good evening," said the poet, as cheerfully as he could. "I am
your new lodger."
The woman stared, as if failing to understand him.
"I took a room at the top, early this evening."
"You've made a mistake. It's the wrong 'ouse."
"But isn't this —?" he named the address which the girl had given
"Yes, that's 'ere."
"I thought so. I remember the house perfectly. You were out, I
suppose. I saw a — a young woman. I paid a week's rent in advance."
This circumstantial story increased the listener's astonishment.
She glared with protuberant eyes, breathed quickly, and gave a snort.
"Well, that's a queer thing. Wait a minute."
She went upstairs, and could be heard to tap at a door; but there
followed no sound of voices. Then she came down again, and asked for a
description of the young woman who had acted as her representative. The
poet answered rather vaguely.
"We have somebody of that sort lodgin' 'ere, but she's out. You say
you paid eight shillin's?"
"Yes. And left my portmanteau; you'll find it upstairs.
Again the landlady disappeared. When she returned her face
exhibited a contemptuous satisfaction.
"There's no portmanty nowheres in this 'ouse. I told you you'd made
a mistake. Try next door!"
The poet was staggered. Mistaken he could not be; the little
oil-lamp, a dirty engraving on the wall of the passage, remained so
clearly in his mind. A shapeless fear took hold upon him.
"Pray let me go up with you to the top room. I know this was the
house. Let me see the room."
The woman was impatient and suspicious. At this moment there
sounded from the back of the passage a male voice, asking, "What's up?"
A man came forward; the difficulty was explained. For a second time the
baffled poet essayed a description of the girl he remembered so well.
"He means Miss Rowe," said the husband. "She ain't in? Then you
just take a light, and 'ave a good look in her room."
They went up together to the first floor, and the poet, unable to
keep still, followed them at a distance. He was seriously alarmed. If
his portmanteau were to be lost — heavens! His poems — his only copy!
Some of the shorter ones he could rewrite from memory, but the backbone
of his volume, The Hermit of the Tor, could not be reproduced. And how
could the portmanteau have vanished? That girl — Surely, surely,
impossible! Much rather suspect these vulgar people, or someone else of
whom he knew nothing.
Man and wife were searching within the room. He heard feminine
exclamations and a masculine oath. Unable to control himself he pushed
open the door.
"She's took her 'ook," said the man, looking at him with a grin.
"See — 'ere's her tin box — empty! nothing as belongs to her in the
"And owin' a week's rent!" cried his wife. "I might 'a' known
better than to trust her. There wasn't no good in her face. She's
sloped with your eight bob and your portmanty, I'll take my hoath!"
The poet seized the candle, and strode up the higher flight of
stairs. Yes, there was the old box on the landing; yes, this was the
room he had paid for. Pheu! pheu!
"Sal!" roared the man's voice, "'ev a look and see if she's laid
'ands on anything of ours!"
The woman yelled at the suggestion, and began a fierce rummage,
high and low.
"I can't miss nothin'," she kept shouting. And at length, "Go and
fetch a p'liceman. D' y'ear, Matt? Go and fetch a p'liceman. This 'ere
young gent 'll be chargin' us with robbin' him."
"Where's your receipt for the eight bob?" asked her husband,
turning angrily upon the poet.
"I took no receipt."
"That doesn't sound very likely."
"Likely or not, it's true," cried the other, exasperated by this
insult added to his misfortune. "Fetch a policeman, or else I shall.
We'll have this investigated."
"I'll jolly soon do that," was the man's retort. "Think you're
dealin' with thieves, do you? Begin that kind o' talk, and I'll —
'Ere, Sal, keep a heye on him whilst I go for the copper."
What ensued calls for no detailed narrative. Suffice it that by
midnight all had been done that could be done in the way of charges,
defences, and official interrogation. Later, the poet sat talking with
his rough acquaintances in their own parlour. After all, the people had
lost nothing but a week's rent, and they were at length brought to some
show of sympathy with the stranger so shamefully treated under their
roof. He, for his part, decided still to occupy the bedroom, which
would be let to him, magnanimously, for seven-and-sixpence: whilst the
police were trying to track his plunderer he might as well remain on
the spot. At one o'clock he went gloomily to bed, and in his troubled
sleep dreamt that he was chasing that mysterious girl up hill and down
dale amid the Devon moorland; she, always far in advance, held his
fated manuscript above her head, and laughed maliciously.
On the eighth anniversary of that memorable day the poet could look
back upon his loss with an amused indifference. He was a poet still,
but no longer uttered himself in verse. The success of an essay in
romantic fiction had shown him how to live by his pen, and a second
book made his name familiar "at all the libraries." For a man of simple
tastes he was in clover. He dwelt among the Surrey hills, and on his
occasional visits to London did not seek a lodging in the neighbourhood
of Kennington Road.
As for The Hermit of the Tor, though often enough he wondered as to
its fate, on the whole he was glad it had never been published. To be
sure, no publisher would have risked money on it. In his vague
recollection, the thing seemed horribly crude; he remembered a line or
two that made him shut his eyes and mutter inarticulately. The lyrics
might be passable; a couple of them, preserved in his mind, had got
printed in a magazine some five years ago. One of his ambitions at
present was to write a poetical drama, but he merely mused over the
He was thus occupied one winter afternoon as he strolled from the
outlying cottage, which he had made his home, to the nearest village. A
footstep on the hard road caused him to look up, and he saw the postman
drawing near. This encounter saved the humble official a half-mile
walk; he delivered a letter into the poet's hands.
A letter redirected by his publishers; probably the tribute of an
admiring reader, such as he had not seldom received of late. With a
smile he opened it, and the contents proved to be of more interest than
he had anticipated.
'SIR, — I have in my possession a manuscript which bears your
name, as that of its author, and dates from some years back. It
consists of poetical compositions, the longest of them entitled The
Hermit of the Tor. I cannot at present explain to you how these papers
came into my hands, but I should like to return them to their true
owner, and for this purpose I should be glad if you would allow me to
meet you, at your own place and time. But for a residence abroad, I
should probably have addressed you on the subject long before this, as
I find that your name is well known to English readers. Please direct
your reply to Penwell's Library, Westbourne Grove, W., and believe me,
EUSTACE GREY.' At the head of the letter there was no address.
'Eustace Grey' sounded uncommonly like a pseudonym. Altogether a very
surprising sequel to the adventure of eight years ago. Was the writer
man or woman? Impossible to decide from the penmanship, which was bold,
careless, indicative of character and of education. As a man, at all
events, the mysterious person must be answered, and curiosity permitted
no delay. Where should the meeting take place? He had no inclination to
breathe the air of London just now, and a journey of twenty miles might
fairly be exacted from a correspondent who chose to write in the strain
of melodrama. Let 'Eustace Grey' come hither.
With all brevity the poet invited him to take a certain train from
Waterloo, which would enable him to reach the cottage at about four in
the afternoon, on a specified day.
The appointed hour was just upon nightfall. With blind drawn, lamp
lit, and a log blazing in the old fireplace, the poet awaited his
visitor, who might or might not come, for no second communication had
been received from him. If he came, he would doubtless take a
conveyance from the railway station, a mile and a half away; a rumble
of wheels would announce him. At a quarter past four no such signal was
yet audible, but five minutes later it struck upon the listener's ear.
He stood up, and waited in nervous expectancy.
The vehicle stopped by the door; a knock sounded. A tap at the door
of the sitting-room, and there appeared, led by the servant, a tall
lady. She was warmly and expensively clad; wraps and furs disguised the
outline of her figure, and allowed but an imperfect view of her
features. In a moment, however, she threw some of the superfluities
aside, and stood gazing at the poet, who saw now that she was a woman
of not more than thirty, with a strong, handsome face, and a form that
pleased his eye. She offered a hand.
"If I had known —" he began, breaking the silence with voice
apologetic. But she interrupted him.
"You wouldn't have brought me all this way. Never mind. It's
better. I shall be glad to have made a pilgrimage to the home of the
Her language and utterance certainly did not lack refinement, but
she spoke with more familiarity than the poet was prepared for. He
judged her a type of the woman that lives in so-called smart society.
His pulses had a slight flutter; in observing and admiring her he all
but forgot the strange history in which she was concerned.
"The cab will wait for me," she continued, "so I mustn't be long."
"I'm sorry for that," replied the poet, so far imitating her as to
talk like an old acquaintance. "You shall have a cup of tea at once."
He rang a hand-bell. "You've had a cold journey."
Whilst he spoke he saw her lay upon the table a rolled packet,
which was doubtless his manuscript. Then she seated herself in an easy
chair by the fireside, glanced round the room, smiled at her own
thoughts, and met his look with a steady gaze.
"Are you Eustace Grey?" he inquired, taking a seat over against
"I chose the name at random. My own doesn't matter. I am only an —
an intermediary, as you would say in a book."
He searched her countenance closely, persistently, without regard
to good manners. It was no common face. Had he ever seen it before? It
did not charm him, but decidedly it affected his imagination. This
could not be an ordinary woman of fashion. He knew little of the
wealthy world, but his experience of life assured him that 'Eustace
Grey' was not now for the first time engaged in transactions which had
a savour of romance.
"Those are my verses?" He pointed towards the table.
"Exactly as they left your hands," she answered calmly.
"Or my portmanteau, rather."
"Yes, your portmanteau." She accepted the correction with a smile.
Surely he had not seen her face before? Surely he had never heard
her voice? At this moment the servant entered with a tea-tray. The poet
stood up and waited upon his visitor, As soon as the door had closed
"You are not married?"
"No — unhappily."
"Please don't add the word in compliment to me. I'm delighted to
know that you keep your independence. Don't marry for a long time. And
you live here always?"
"Most of the year."
"Ah, you are not like ordinary men.
"Nor you — I was thinking — like ordinary women."
"Well, no; I suppose not. She looked at him with a peculiar
frankness, with a softer expression than her face had yet shown, and,
whilst speaking, she drew off her left-hand glove. A peculiarity in the
movement excited her companion's attention; he saw that she wore two
rings, one of them of plain gold.
"I like your books," was her next remark.
"I'm glad of it."
"Have you good health? You look rather pale — for one who lives in
"Oh, I am very well."
"To be sure you have brains, and use them. It's pleasant to know
that there are such men." She sipped her tea. "But time is going, and
the driver and horse will freeze."
"I have no stable," said the poet, "but the man can sit by the
kitchen fire and have some ale. Anything to make your visit longer."
"Complimentary; but I am here on business." She had grown more
distant. "Of course, you want to know how those papers came into my
hands. I'll tell you, and make a short story of it. I had them a year
or two ago from a friend of mine — a girl, who died. She had stolen
them." The listener gave a start, and looked at the face before him
more intently than ever. He detected no shrinking, but a certain
suggestion of defiance.
"She was a girl who did what is supposed to be the privilege of men
— sowed wild oats. She came to an end of her money, and found herself
in a poor lodging — somewhere in the south of London —"
"Off Kennington Road," murmured the poet.
"Very likely. I forget. She had got rid of all the clothing she
could spare. She was a week behind with her rent. Another day or two,
and she would starve. No way of earning money, it seemed. Poor thing,
she thought herself something of an artist, and went about offering
drawings to the papers and the publishers; but I'm afraid the work was
poor to begin with, and got poorer as she did. The desperate state of
things made her fierce and ready for anything."
"However, she had a girl friend who wrote to her now and then,
addressing to the name she had assumed. This friend lived far away in
the north, and earned her own living. One afternoon, just when things
were at the blackest, there arrived a telegram: 'If you come at once, I
can promise you employment. Start immediately.' All very well, but how
was she to raise fifteen shillings or so for her journey? Now it
happened that at this moment she was the only person in the house. The
landlady, she knew, would be away for two or three hours; the husband
wouldn't be home till eight (it was now five), and another lodger had
just gone out. I mention this — you know why. Whilst she was still
standing with the telegram in her hand, some one knocked. She opened
the door. A young man, carrying a portmanteau — a very nice-looking
young man, who spoke softly and pleasantly — had come for a lodging;
he wanted one room. She let him in, and took him upstairs.
"She did," murmured the poet, his eyes staying about the room.
"And you remembered what followed?"
"Remarkably well. I can see-well, I'm not quite sure; but I think I
can see her face."
"Can you? Well, until you had left the house her intention was
perfectly honest. She thought that, in return for her service in
letting the room the landlady might perhaps lend her money for the
journey north, and trust for repayment. But as soon as you had gone the
devil began whispering. Your money lay in her hand. Your portmanteau
contained things that would sell or pawn. The chance of a loan from the
landlady was dreadfully slight. You see? A man of imagination ought to
"I do — perfectly."
"She tried her keys on the portmanteau. No use. But it was old and
shaky. She prised open the lock. What she found disappointed her; it
wouldn't fetch many shillings. But she had taken the fatal step. No
staying in the house now. She put on her hat and jacket, stuffed into
her pockets the few things still left to her, caught up the portmanteau
— and away!"
The poet could not help a laugh, and his companion joined in it.
But she was agitated, and her mirth had not a genuine ring.
"And how much were my poor old rags worth?"
"By Jove! You don't say so!"
"She pawned them in a street somewhere north of the Strand. But
this gave her only thirteen shillings. Then she sold the portmanteau;
that brought eighteen-pence. Fourteen shillings and sixpence. Next she
sold or pawned her jacket; it brought three shillings."
"Poor girl! With such a journey before her on a cold might! But the
"She looked at them, and was on the point of throwing them away,
but she didn't. She read some of them in the train that night. And oh
— oh — oh! how ashamed of herself she was then and for many a long
day! So much ashamed that she couldn't even feel afraid."
"And she got the employment promised?"
"Yes. And sowed no more wild oats. It was a poor living, but she
struggled on — until by chance she met a very rich man, who took a
fancy to her. She didn't care for him. In her life she had only seen
one man who really attracted her, but — well, she made up her mind to
marry the rich man; and then — she died. I knew her story already, and
at her death she left your poems in my care, to be restored if
possible. There they are."
With a careless gesture she rose.
"You are not going yet," exclaimed the poet.
"I am; this moment. I have a train to catch."
"Hang the train! There's one at about nine o'clock. I shall send
away your cab."
She looked at him very coldly.
"I am going at once, and you will be good enough to stay where you
"You won't even tell me your name?"
"Not even that. Good-bye, poet!"
She gave him her hand. Holding it, he gazed at her with bright
"I do remember your friend's face. And how I wish' she could have
spoken to me that night!"
"The ideal is never met in life," she answered softly. "Put it into
your books — which I shall always read."
The door closed, and he heard the cab rumble away.