Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
An ordinary young man moves among the proliferation of boardinghouses on the West Side, determinedly on the prowl for a vacant room. Again and again, he tries each of the clustered homes on the brownstone street. On his twelfth attempt, one Mrs. Purdy, an unwholesome appearing housekeeper, answers. She invites this prospective tenant into her home to inspect a recently vacated room. Happy after so many disappointments, the young man follows the woman into an ambience of foul and tainted air, a house reinforcing the hovering gloom he had experienced on the streets. Mrs. Purdy chatters constantly in praise of the furnished room that he is about to see, shrewdly emphasizing its positive attributes: a useful dresser, chairs and tables, plenty of closet space, and a convenient gas connection. She also stresses the class of her operation by telling the young man about the elegant tenants who had recently occupied this room. An upstanding husband and wife vaudeville team—Sprowls and Mooney—recently lodged there, and a framed wedding certificate over the dresser attests the house’s respectability. This is important, as Purdy’s house is situated alongside the theater district and most theater people, unreliable and unpredictable, come and go, even apparently stable ones. Thus, a vacant furnished room is luckily available at this moment in this eminently respectable boardinghouse. Swayed by the landlady’s persuasive presentation but exhibiting no great joy, the young man takes the room and carefully counts out his payment money.
As the satisfied Mrs. Purdy is about to leave, the young man haltingly asks a question, one he has apparently put forth many times in preceding days to other landladies: Has Mrs. Purdy ever rented a room to a Miss Eloise Vashner, a would-be singer looking for a stage career? Eloise is a slim, fair girl with a distinctive dark mole near her left eyebrow. The answer is a quiet but positive no. Mrs. Purdy leaves her guest alone in his furnished quarters to reflect on his strange surroundings and the fruitless, ceaseless, five-month search he has conducted to find his love, Eloise, who had been attracted by the call of glamorous Broadway and its dazzling opportunities. Following the footsteps of many another small-town woman intent on fame and fortune in the theater, she had vanished into the city’s “monstrous quicksand.” He must now be on her trail; there is an ineffable sense that she is nearby, perhaps even waiting.
The sad young man sits inert on a chair surrounded by ragged upholstery; trifling, sentimental pictures; stray playing cards; and soiled throw rugs. The room exudes noxious fumes. He tries to extract some information and meaning from this threadbare ambience. The furniture is chipped and bruised, dull and broken. The mirror is nicked and scratched. The couch is distorted by bulging springs. The mantel is cracked. A sense of malice and injury is reflected in the room. There is even a threatening quality, ominously suggested by smudged fingerprints on the wall, ugly stains on the scraped wallpaper, and the complete tawdriness of his furnished room, further exacerbated by sounds impinging on his sensibilities from the outside: doors banging, voices raucously raised, dice rattling, cats yowling, elevated trains roaring, a fugitive banjo strumming discordant ragtime. All is cold, dank, musty. Wearily he regards the essence of mildew and listens to the sounds of dissonance.
Suddenly and unaccountably, the furnished room seems to fill with the sensuous, sweet, pungent fragrance of mignonette. The aroma apparently is familiar to the tenant, for he speaks to the emptiness about him: “What, dear?” He believes he has been called to action by an invisible presence. Confused and startled, he reaches out his arms as if to feel or grasp the reality of his missing beloved. She is, he dreamily feels, in this very room. Momentarily, he is jolted from his pleasing vision; aroused from lethargy, he frenziedly bolts around the room frantically looking, inspecting, ransacking. Like a madman, he darts about as if driven by a demon. He cries out. He is certain that of all the furnished rooms on the West Side of New York, Eloise Vashner has been in this one. He tears about, convinced that he is on the verge of a vital discovery, a moonstruck detective about to pounce on the final clue he knows is at hand. “Yes, dear!” he calls as he roots about, coming up with a torn handkerchief, an old theater program, a few odd buttons, a pawnbroker’s card—all paraphernalia suggestive but inconclusive. Nevertheless, he knows that his love is nearby.
He dashes from the haunted room to accost his landlady, trying hard to contain his excitement. He quizzes her pointedly on the identities and appearances of all recent female tenants of the furnished room. She responds easily and calmly: Miss Sprowls was short and stout, and her real name was Missis Mooney; Missis Crowder had two children. Other tenants for the past year had been, sad to say, men. Deflated and discouraged, the young man creeps back to the fragrant room, but its atmosphere has changed. The aroma of mignonette has left; all is dead. With hope gone, the disappointed young man methodically cuts up his bedsheets, stuffs the material tightly into all crevices and window sills, extinguishes the gaslight, then turns the gas jet fully on again and lays himself peacefully on the bed to welcome imminent death.
Ironically, while he is upstairs preparing his suicide, Mrs. Purdy and her friend Mrs. McCool are downstairs relaxing in confidential conversation. Mrs. Purdy boasts of her achievement in renting the third-floor room where last week that pretty “slip of a colleen” had killed herself. Both landladies agree on the wisdom of keeping such an event secret, for prospective tenants would be discouraged from renting. It was a sad event, Mrs. Purdy confesses, particularly because that poor girl was so pretty, except for the mole growing by her left eyebrow.