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    House Hunting as an Outdoor Amusement

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    Chapter 11
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    Since Adam and Eve went hand in hand out of the gates of Paradise, the
    world has travailed under an infinite succession of house-hunts. To-day
    in every eligible suburb you may see New Adams and New Eves by the
    score, with rusty keys and pink order-forms in hand, wandering still, in
    search of the ideal home. To them it is anything but an amusement. Most
    of these poor pilgrims look simply tired, some are argumentative in
    addition, but all are disappointed, anxious, and unhappy, their hands
    dirty with prying among cisterns, and their garments soiled from cellar
    walls. All, in the exaltation of the wooing days, saw at least the
    indistinct reflection of the perfect house, but now the Quest is
    irrevocably in hand they seek and do not find. And such a momentous
    question it is to them. Are they not choosing the background, the air
    and the colour, as it were, of the next three or four years, the
    cardinal years, too! of their lives?

    Perhaps the exquisite exasperation of the business for the man who hunts
    among empty houses for a home is, that it is so entirely a choice of
    second-hand, or at least ready-made goods. To me, at least, there is a
    decided suggestion of the dead body in your empty house that has once
    been occupied. Here, like pale ghosts upon the wall paper, are outlined
    the pictures of the departed tenant; here are the nails of the invisible
    curtains, this dent in the wall is all that is sensible of a vanished
    piano. I could fancy all these things creeping back to visibility as the
    light grew dim. Someone was irritable in the house, perhaps, and a
    haunting fragrance of departed quarrels is to be found in the loose
    door-handles, and the broken bell-pull. Then the blind in the bedroom
    has a broken string. He was a beer-drinker, for the drip of the tap has
    left its mark in the cellar; a careless man, for this wall is a record
    of burst water-pipes; and rough in his methods, as his emendation of the
    garden gate--a remedy rather worse than the disease--shows. The mark of
    this prepotent previous man is left on the house from cellar to attic.
    It is his house really, not mine. And against these haunting
    individualities set the horrible wholesale flavour, the obvious
    dexterous builder's economies of a new house. Yet, whatever your
    repulsion may be, the end is always the same. After you have asked for
    your ideal house a hundred times or so you begin to see you do not get
    it. You go the way of your kind. All houses are taken in despair.

    But such disgusts as this are for the man who really aims at taking a
    house. The artist house-hunter knows better than that. He hunts for the
    hunt's sake, and does not mar his work with a purpose. Then
    house-hunting becomes a really delightful employment, and one strangely
    neglected in this country. I have heard, indeed, of old ladies who
    enlivened the intervals of their devotions in this manner, but to the
    general run of people the thing is unknown. Yet a more entertaining way
    of spending a half-holiday--having regard to current taste--it should be
    difficult to imagine. An empty house is realistic literature in the
    concrete, full of hints and allusions if a little wanting in tangible
    humanity, and it outdoes the modern story in its own line, by beginning
    as well as ending in a note of interrogation. That it is not more
    extensively followed I can only explain by supposing that its merits are
    generally unsuspected. In which case this book should set a fashion.

    One singular thing the house-hunter very speedily discovers is, that the
    greater portion of the houses in this country are owned by old gentlemen
    or old ladies who live next door. After a certain age, and especially
    upon retired tradespeople, house property, either alone or in common
    with gardening, exercises an irresistible fascination. You always know
    you are going to meet a landlord or landlady of this type when you read
    on your order to view, "Key next door but one." Calling next door but
    one, you are joined after the lapse of a few minutes by a bald, stout
    gentleman, or a lady of immemorial years, who offers to go over "the
    property" with you. Apparently the intervals between visits to view are
    spent in slumber, and these old people come out refreshed and keen to
    scrutinise their possible new neighbours. They will tell you all about
    the last tenant, and about the present tenants on either side, and about
    themselves, and how all the other houses in the neighbourhood are damp,
    and how they remember when the site of the house was a cornfield, and
    what they do for their rheumatism. As one hears them giving a most
    delightful vent to their loquacity, the artistic house-hunter feels all
    the righteous self-applause of a kindly deed. Sometimes they get
    extremely friendly. One old gentleman--to whom anyone under forty must
    have seemed puerile--presented the gentle writer with three fine large
    green apples as a kind of earnest of his treatment: apples, no doubt, of
    some little value, since they excited the audible envy of several little
    boys before they were disposed of.

    Sometimes the landlord has even superintended the building of the house
    himself, and then it often has peculiar distinctions--no coal cellar, or
    a tower with turrets, or pillars of ornamental marble investing the
    portico with disproportionate dignity. One old gentleman, young as old
    gentlemen go, short of stature, of an agreeable red colour, and with
    short iron-grey hair, had a niche over the front door containing a piece
    of statuary. It gave one the impression of the Venus of Milo in
    chocolate pyjamas. "It was nood at first," said the landlord, "but the
    neighbourhood is hardly educated up to art, and objected. So I gave it
    that brown paint."

    On one expedition the artistic house-hunter was accompanied by Euphemia.
    Then it was he found Hill Crest, a vast edifice at the incredible rent
    of £40 a year, with which a Megatherial key was identified. It took the
    two of them, not to mention an umbrella, to turn this key. The rent was
    a mystery, and while they were in the house--a thunderstorm kept them
    there some time--they tried to imagine the murder. From the top windows
    they could see the roofs of the opposite houses in plan.

    "I wonder how long it would take to get to the top of the house from the
    bottom?" said Euphemia.

    "Certainly longer than we could manage every day," said the artistic
    house-hunter. "Fancy looking for my pipe in all these rooms. Starting
    from the top bedroom at the usual time, I suppose one would arrive
    downstairs to breakfast about eleven, and then we should have to be
    getting upstairs again by eight o'clock if we wanted any night's rest
    worth having. Or we might double or treble existence, live a Gargantuan
    life to match the house, make our day of forty-eight hours instead of
    twenty-four. By doubling everything we should not notice the hole it
    made in our time getting about the place. Perhaps by making dinner last
    twice as long, eating twice as much, and doing everything on the scale
    of two to one, we might adapt ourselves to our environment in time, grow
    twice as big."

    "_Then_ we might be very comfortable here," said Euphemia.

    They went downstairs again. By that time it was thundering and raining
    heavily. The rooms were dark and gloomy. The big side door, which would
    not shut unless locked from the outside, swayed and banged as the gusts
    of wind swept round the house. But they had a good time in the front
    kitchen, playing cricket with an umbrella and the agent's order crumpled
    into a ball. Presently the artistic house-hunter lifted Euphemia on to
    the tall dresser, and they sat there swinging their feet patiently until
    the storm should leave off and release them.

    "I should feel in this kitchen," said Euphemia, "like one of my little
    dolls must have felt in the dolls'-house kitchen I had once. The top of
    her head just reached the level of the table. There were only four
    plates on the dresser, but each was about half her height across----"

    "Your reminiscences are always entertaining," said the artistic
    house-hunter; "still they fail to explain the absorbing mystery of this
    house being to let at £40 a year." The problem raised his curiosity, but
    though he made inquiries he found no reason for the remarkably low rent
    or the continued emptiness of the house. It was a specimen puzzle for
    the house-hunter. A large house with a garden of about half an acre, and
    with accommodation for about six families, going begging for £40 a year.
    Would it let at eighty? Some such problem, however, turns up in every
    house-hunt, and it is these surprises that give the sport its particular
    interest and delight. Always provided the mind is not unsettled by any
    ulterior notion of settling down.
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