An Oxford Landlady by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayIt was a crisp October afternoon, and along Iffley Road the wind was chivvying the yellow leaves. We stood at the window watching the flappers opposite p …

Story type: Essay

It was a crisp October afternoon, and along Iffley Road the wind was chivvying the yellow leaves. We stood at the window watching the flappers opposite play hockey. One of them had a scarlet tam-o’-shanter and glorious dark hair underneath it…. A quiet tap at the door, gentle but definite, and in came Mrs. Beesley.

If you have been at our digs, you know her by sight, and have not forgotten. Hewn of the real imperial marble is she, not unlike Queen Victoria in shape and stature. She tells us she used to dance featly and with abandon in days gone by, when her girlish slimness was the admiration of every greengrocer’s assistant in Oxford–and even in later days when she and Dr. Warren always opened the Magdalen servants’ ball together. She and the courtly President were always the star couple. I can see her doing the Sir Roger de Coverley. But the virgin zone was loosed long ago, and she has expanded with the British Empire. Not rotund, but rather imposingly cubic. Our hallway is a very narrow one, and when you come to visit us of an evening, after red-cheeked Emily has gone off to better tilting grounds, it is a prime delight to see Mrs. Beesley backing down the passage (like a stately canal boat) before the advancing guest. Very large of head and very pink of cheek, very fond of a brisk conversation, some skill at cooking, slow and full of dignity on the stairs, much reminiscent of former lodgers, bold as a lion when she thinks she is imposed upon, but otherwhiles humorous and placable–such is our Mrs. Beesley.

She saw us standing by the window, and thought we were watching the leaves twisting up the roadway in golden spirals.

“Watching the wind?” she said pleasantly. “I loves to see the leaves ‘avin’ a frolic. They enjoys it, same as young gentlemen do.”

“Or young ladies?” I suggested. “We were watching the flappers play hockey, Mrs. Beesley. One of them is a most fascinating creature. I think her name must be Kathleen….”

Mrs. Beesley chuckled merrily and threw up her head in that delightful way of hers. “Oh, dear, Oh, dear, you’re just like all the other gentlemen,” she said. “Always awatchin’ and awaitin’ for the young ladies. Mr. Bye that used to be ‘ere was just the same, an’ he was engaged to be marrit. ‘Ad some of ’em in to tea once, he did. I thought it was scandalous, and ‘im almost a marrit gentleman.”

“Don’t you remember what the poet says, Mrs. Beesley?” I suggested:

“Beauty must be scorned in none
Though but truly served in one.”

“Not much danger of you gentlemen bein’ too scornful,” said Mrs. Beesley. Her eyes began to sparkle now that she saw herself fairly embarked upon a promising conversation. She sidled a little farther into the room. Lloyd winked at me and quietly escaped behind her.

“Seeing as we’re alone,” said Mrs. Beesley, “I come to you to see about dinner to-night. I knows as you’re the father of ’em all.” (That is her quaint way of saying that she thinks me the leading spirit of the three who dig with her.) “How about a little jugged ‘are? Nice little ‘ares there are in Cowley Road now. I thinks ‘are is very tender an’ tasty. That, an’ a nice ‘ot cup o’ tea?”

The last ‘are had been, in Tennyson’s phrase, “the heir of all the ages,” so I deprecated the suggestion. “I don’t think hare agrees with Mr. Williams,” I said.

“‘Ow about a pheasant?” said Mrs. Beesley, stroking the corner of the table with her hand as she always does when in deep thought. “A pheasant and a Welsh rabbit, not too peppery. That goes well with the cider. Dr. Warren came ‘ere to dinner once, an’ he had a Welsh rabbit and never forgot it. ‘E allus used to say when ‘e saw me, ”Ow about that Welsh rabbit, Mrs. Beesley?’ Oh, dear, Oh, dear, ‘e is a kind gentleman! ‘E gave us a book once–”Istory of Magdalen College,’ I think he wrote it ‘imself.”

“I think a pheasant would be very nice,” I said, and began looking for a book.

“Do you think Mr. Loomis will be back from town in time for dinner?” asked Mrs. Beesley. “I know ‘e’s fond o’ pheasant. He’d come if he knew.”

“We might send him a telegram,” I said.

“Oh, dear, Oh, dear!” sighed Mrs. Beesley, overcome by such a fantastic thought. “You know, Mr. Morley, a funny thing ‘appened this morning,” she said. “Em’ly and I were making Mr. Loomis’s bed. But we didn’t find ‘is clothes all lyin’ about the floor same as ‘e usually does. ‘I wonder what’s ‘appened to Mr. Loomis’s clothes?’ said Em’ly.

“‘P’raps ‘e’s took ’em up to town to pawn ’em.’ I said. (You know we ‘ad a gent’man ‘ere once that pawned nearly all ‘is things–a Jesus gentleman ‘e was.)

“Em’ly says to me, ‘I wonder what the three balls on a pawnbroker’s sign mean?’

“‘Why don’t you know, Em’ly?’ I says. It means it’s two to one you never gets ’em back.”

Just then there was a ring at the bell and Mrs. Beesley rolled away chuckling. And I returned to the window to watch Kathleen play hockey.

October, 1912.

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