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A House to Let, Part 4: Three Evenings in the House

by Adelaide Procter

Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 18 (1858)

Pages 23-26

A sample page from A House to Let, Part 4: Three Evenings in the House by Adelaide Procter
From "A House to Let." Used by permission, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.

Introductory Note: “A House to Let” is a portmanteau story and frame narrative written by Charles Dickens, William Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Adelaide Anne Proctor for the 1858 Christmas issue of Household Words. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins collaboratively wrote the first and last chapters, “Over the Way” and “Let at Last.” Each of the four authors individually contributed one of the intervening chapters, “The Manchester Marriage,” “Going into Society,” “Three Evenings in the House,” and “Trottle’s Report.”

“A House to Let” illustrates the multiform nature of Victorian short fiction. The narrative in its entirety functions as a piece of short fiction, and at the same time several of its chapters are brief stand-alone tales as well. (See Frame Narratives and Interrelated Stories for more information.) Most notably, Elizabeth Gaskell’s “A Manchester Marriage” is often printed with minor alterations as an independent short story. The various tales are framed by the main narrative, in which an elderly woman sees signs of life in a seemingly abandoned house and enlists the help of two friends to discover its history.

In “Over the Way,” the main character, Sophonisba, sees movement in the empty house across the street and enlists the help of her servant, Mr. Trottle, and an elderly admirer, Mr. Jabez Jarber, who are constantly at odds with each other, to solve the mystery of who is in the House to Let.

Serial Information

This entry was published as the fourth of six parts:

  1. A House to Let, Part 1: Over the Way (1858)
  2. A House to Let, Part 2: The Manchester Marriage (1858)
  3. A House to Let, Part 3: Going into Society (1858)
  4. A House to Let, Part 4: Three Evenings in the House (1858)
  5. A House to Let, Part 5: Trottle's Report (1858)
  6. A House to Let, Part 6: Let at Last (1858)

THREE EVENINGS IN THE HOUSE

 

NUMBER ONE.

I.

YES, it look’d dark and dreary

That long and narrow street:

Only the sound of the rain,

And the tramp of passing feet,

The duller glow of the fire,

And gathering mists of night

To mark how slow and weary

The long day’s cheerless flight!

II.

Watching the sullen fire,

Hearing the dreary rain,

Drop after drop, run down

On the darkening window-pane:

Chill was the heart of Bertha,

Chill as that winter day, –

For the star of her life had risen

Only to fade away.

III.

The voice that had been so strong

To bid the snare depart,

The true and earnest will,

And the calm and steadfast heart,

Were now weigh’d down by sorrow,

Were quivering now with pain;

The clear path now seem’d clouded,

And all her grief in vain.

IV.

Duty, Right, Truth, who promised

To help and save their own,

Seem’d spreading wide their pinions

To leave her there alone.

So, turning from the Present

To well-known days of yore,

She call’d on them to strengthen

And guard her soul once more.

V.

She thought how in her girlhood

Her life was given away,

The solemn promise spoken

She kept so well to-day;

How to her brother Herbert

She had been help and guide,

And how his artist-nature

On her calm strength relied.

VI.

How through life’s fret and turmoil

The passion and fire of art

In him was soothed and quicken’d

By her true sister heart;

How future hopes had always

Been for his sake alone;

And now, what strange new feeling

Possess’d her as its own?

VII.

Her home; each flower that breathed there;

The wind’s sigh, soft and low;

Each trembling spray of ivy;

The river’s murmuring flow;

The shadow of the forest;

Sunset, or twilight dim;

Dear as they were, were dearer

By leaving them for him.

VIII.

And each year as it found her

In the dull, feverish town,

Saw self still more forgotten,

And selfish care kept down

By the calm joy of evening

That brought him to her side,

To warn him with wise counsel,

Or praise with tender pride.

IX.

Her heart, her life, her future,

Her genius, only meant

Another thing to give him,

And be therewith content.

To-day, what words had stirr’d her,

Her soul could not forget?

What dream had fill’d her spirit

With strange and wild regret?

X.

To leave him for another:

Could it indeed be so?

Could it have cost such anguish

To bid this vision go?

Was this her faith? Was Herbert

The second in her heart?

Did it need all this struggle

To bid a dream depart?

XI.

And yet, within her spirit

A far-off land was seen;

A home, which might have held her;

A love, which might have been;

And Life: not the mere being

Of daily ebb and flow,

But Life itself had claim’d her,

And she had let it go!

XII.

Within her heart there echo’d

Again the well-known tone

That promised this bright future,

And ask’d her for its own:

Then words of sorrow, broken

By half-reproachful pain;

And then a farewell, spoken

In words of cold disdain.

XIII.

Where now was the stern purpose

That nerved her soul so long?

Whence came the words she utter’d,

So hard, so cold, so strong?

What right had she to banish

A hope that God had given?

Why must she choose earth’s portion,

And turn aside from Heaven?

XIV.

To-day! Was it this morning?

If this long, fearful strife

Was but the work of hours,

What would be years of life?

Why did a cruel Heaven

For such great suffering call?

And why – O, still more cruel! –

Must her own words do all?

XV.

Did she repent? O Sorrow!

Why do we linger still

To take thy loving message,

And do they gentle will?

See, her tears fall more slowly;

The passionate murmurs cease,

And back upon her spirit

Flow strength, and love, and peace.

XVI.

The fire burns more brightly,

The rain has passed away,

Herbert will see no shadow

Upon his home to-day;

Only that Bertha greets him

With doubly tender care,

Kissing a fonder blessing

Down on his golden hair.

 

NUMBER TWO.

I.

THE studio is deserted,

Palette and brush laid by,

The sketch rests on the easel,

The paint is scarcely dry:

And Silence– who seems always

Within her depths to bear

The next sound that will utter—

Now holds a dumb despair.

II.

So Bertha feels it: listening

With breathless, stony fear,

Waiting the dreadful summons

Each minute brings more near:

When the young life, now ebbing,

Shall fail, and pass away

Into that mighty shadow

Who shrouds the house to-day.

III.

By why – when they sick chamber

Is on the upper floor –

Why dares not Bertha enter

Within the close-shut door?

If he – her all – her Brother,

Lies dying in that gloom,

What strange mysterious power

Has sent her from the room?

IV.

It is not one week’s anguish

That can have changed her so;

Joy has not died here lately,

Struck down by one quick blow;

But cruel months have needed

Their long relentless chain,

To teach that shrinking manner

Of helpless, hopeless pain.

V.

The struggle was scarce over

Last Christmas Eve had brought:

The fibres still were quivering

Of the one wounded thought,

When Herbert – who, unconscious,

Had guessed no inward strife –

Bade her, in pride and pleasure,

Welcome his fair young wife.

VI.

Bade her rejoice, and smiling,

Although his eyes were dim,

Thank’d God he thus could pay her

The care she gave to him.

This fresh bright life would bring her

A new and joyous fate –

O Bertha, check the murmur

That cries, Too late! too late!

VII.

Too late! Could she have known it

A few short weeks before,

That his life was completed,

And needing hers no more,

She might – O sad repining!

What “might have been,” forget;

“It was not,” should suffice us

To stifle vain regret.

VIII.

He needed her no longer,

Each day it grew more plain;

First with a startled wonder,

Then with a wondering pain.

Love: why, his wife best gave it;

Comfort: durst Bertha speak?

Counsel: when quick resentment

Flush’d on the young wife’s cheek.

IX.

No more long talks by firelight

Of childish times long past,

And dreams of future greatness

Which he must reach at last;

Dreams, where her purer instinct

With truth unerring told

Where was the worthless gilding,

And where refinèd gold.

X.

Slowly, but surely ever,

Dora’s poor jealous pride,

Which she call’d love for Herbert,

Drove Bertha from his side;

And, spite of nervous effort

To share their alter’d life,

She felt a check to Herbert,

A burden to his wife.

XI.

This was the least; for Bertha

Fear’d, dreaded, knew at length,

How much his nature owed her

Of truth, and power, and strength;

And watch’d the daily failing

Of all his nobler part:

Low aims, weak purpose, telling

In lower, weaker art.

XII.

And now, when he is dying,

The last words she could hear

Must not be hers, but given

The bride of one short year.

The last care is another’s;

The last prayer must not be

The one they learnt together

Beside their mother’s knee.

XIII.

Summon’d at last: she kisses

The clay-cold stiffening hand;

And, reading pleading efforts

To make her understand,

Answers, with solemn promise,

In clear but trembling tone,

To Dora’s life henceforward

She will devote her own.

XIV.

Now all is over. Bertha

Dares not remain to weep,

But soothes the frightened Dora

Into a sobbing sleep.

The poor weak child will need her:

O, who can dare complain,

When God sends a new Duty

To comfort each new Pain!

NUMBER THREE

I.

THE House is all deserted

In the dim evening gloom,

Only one figure passes

Slowly from room to room;

And, pausing at each doorway,

Seems gathering up again

Within her heart the relics

Of bygone joy and pain.

II.

There is an earnest longing

In those who onward gaze,

Looking with weary patience

Towards the coming days.

There is a deeper longing,

More sad, more strong, more keen:

Those know it who look backward,

And yearn for what has been.

III.

At every hearth she pauses,

Touches each well known chair;

Gazes from every window,

Lingers on every stair.

What have these months brought Bertha

Now one more year is past?

This Christmas Eve shall tell us,

The third one and the last.

IV.

The willful, wayward Dora,

In those first weeks of grief,

Could seek and find in Bertha

Strength, soothing, and relief.

And Bertha – last sad comfort

True woman-heart can take –

Had something still to suffer

And do for Herbert’s sake.

V.

Spring, with her western breezes,

From Indian islands bore

To Bertha news that Leonard

Would seek his home once more.

What was it – joy, or sorrow?

What were they – hopes, or fears?

That flush’d her cheeks with crimson,

And fill’d her eyes with tears?

VI.

He came. And who so kindly

Could ask and hear her tell

Herbert’s last hours; for Leonard

Had known and loved him well.

Daily he came; and Bertha

Poor weary heart, at length,

Weigh’d down by other’s weakness,

Could rest upon his strength.

VII.

Yet not the voice of Leonard

Could her true care beguile,

That turn’d to watch, rejoicing,

Dora’s reviving smile.

So, from that little household

The worst gloom pass’d away,

The one bright hour of evening

Lit up the livelong day.

VIII.

Days passed. The golden summer

In sudden heat bore down

Its blue, bright, glowing sweetness

Upon the scorching town.

And sights and sounds of country

Came in the warm soft tune

Sung by the honey’d breezes

Borne on the wings of June.

IX.

One twilight hour, but earlier

Than usual, Bertha thought

She knew the fresh sweet fragrance

Of flowers that Leonard brought;

Through open’d doors and windows

It stole up through the gloom,

And with appealing sweetness

Drew Bertha from her room.

X.

Yes, he was there; and pausing

Just near the open’d door,

To check her heart’s quick beating,

She heard – and paused still more –

His low voice – Dora’s answers –

His pleading – Yes, she knew

The tone – the words – the accents:

She once had heard them too.

XI.

“Would Bertha blame her?” Leonard’s

Low, tender answer came:

“Bertha was far too noble

To think or dream of blame.”

“And was he sure he loved her?”

“Yes, with the one love given

Once in a lifetime only,

With one soul and one heaven!”

XII.

Then came a plaintive murmur, –

“Dora had once been told

That he and Bertha” – “Dearest,

Bertha is far too cold

To love; and I, my Dora,

If once I fancied so,

It was a brief delusion,

And over, – long ago.”

XIII.

Between the Past and Present,

On that bleak moment’s height,

She stood. As some lost traveler

By a quick flash of light

Seeing a gulf before him,

With dizzy, sick despair,

Reels to clutch backward, but to find

A deeper chasm there.

XIV.

The twilight grew still darker,

The fragrant flowers more sweet,

The stars shone out in heaven,

The lamps gleam’d down the street;

And hours pass’d in dreaming

Over their new found fate,

Ere they could think of wondering

Why Bertha was so late.

XV.

She came, and calmly listen’d

In vain they strove to trace

If Herbert’s memory shadow’d

In grief upon her face.

No blame, no wonder show’d there,

No feeling could be told;

Her voice was not less steady,

Her manner not more cold.

XVI.

They could no hear the anguish

That broke in words of pain

Through that calm summer midnight, –

“My Herbert – mine again!”

Yes, they have once been parted,

But this day shall restore

The long lost one: she claims him:

“My Herbert – mine once more!”

XVII.

Now Christmas Eve returning,

Saw Bertha stand beside,

The altar, greeting Dora,

Again a smiling bride;

And now the gloomy evening

Sees Bertha pale and worn,

Leaving the house for ever,

To wander out forlorn.

XVIII.

Forlorn – nay, not so. Anguish

Shall do its work at length;

Her soul, pass’d through the fire,

Shall gain still purer strength.

Somewhere there waits for Bertha

An earnest noble part;

And, meanwhile, God is with her, –

God, and her own true heart!

--------

I could warmly and sincerely praise the little poem, when Jarber had done reading it; but I could not say that it tended in any degree towards clearing up the mystery of the empty House.

Whether it was the absence of the irritating influence of Trottle, or whether it was simple fatigue, I cannot say, but Jarber did not strike me, that evening, as being in his usual spirits. And though he declared that he was not in the least daunted by his want of success thus far, and that he was resolutely determined to make more discoveries, he spoke in a languid absent manner, and shortly afterwards took his leave at rather an early hour.

When Trottle came back, and when I indignantly taxed him with Philandering, he not only denied the imputation, but asserted that he had been employed on my service, and, in consideration of that, boldly asked for leave of absence for the two days, and for a morning to himself afterwards, to complete the business, in which he solemnly declared that I was interested. In remembrance of his long and faithful service to me, I did violence to myself, and granted his request. And he, on his side, engaged to explain himself to my satisfaction, in a week’s time, on Monday evening the twentieth.

A day or two before, I sent to Jarber’s lodgings to ask him to drop in to tea. His landlady sent back an apology for him that made my hair stand on end. His feet were in hot water; his head was in a flannel petticoat; a green shade was over his eyes; the rheumatism was in his legs; and a mustard-poultice was on his chest. He was also a little feverish, and rather distracted in his mind about Manchester Marriages, a Dwarf, and Three Evenings, or Evening Parties – his landlady was not sure which – in an empty House, with Water Rate unpaid.

Under these distressing circumstances, I was necessarily left alone with Trottle. His promised explanation began, like Jarber’s discoveries, with the reading of a written paper. The only difference was that Trottle introduced his manuscript under the name of a Report.

This story is continued in A House to Let, Part 5: Trottle's Report.

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2 July 2020

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