Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Tenants at number twenty-seven


TENANTS AT NUMBER TWENTY-SEVEN.

 

 

It was number twenty-seven of a quiet London street, the name of which it is needless to specify here. It had stood empty for a considerable time, and such of the neighbours as were of a speculative turn of mind had begun to wonder among themselves how much longer it would remain without a tenant; when one chill, misty autumn morning, shortly after daybreak, a cab drove up to the empty house, from which alighted a tall, gaunt, middle-aged gentleman, of soldier-like aspect, attired in a foraging cap and a long grey military cloak; whose face was half concealed by a thick tangle of beard and moustache, once black, but now becoming wintry with age. Beneath the shaggy gloom of his eyebrows burnt a strange, restless, fitful fire; and when he removed his cap for a moment, and the whole of his worn and rugged face became visible, the deep tracks and furrows left by care or sickness—perhaps by both—came prominently into view. He held in one hand a small leather-bound box, on the top of which was a tiny brass plate, with “Captain Luard” engraved thereon. He gazed suspiciously up and down the street as he alighted, and at the still undrawn blinds of the opposite houses; nor seemed over-well pleased when he beheld a policeman, moist and red-nosed in the early morning, looking on from over the way with a calmly contemplative glance.

Having satisfied himself that no one else was a witness of his arrival, Captain Luard turned round, and assisted a tall slender young lady to alight, evidently his daughter, from the likeness which, in spite of the difference in sex and age, existed between them; who was followed out of the cab by a tall raw-boned female of severe aspect, dressed in faded black bombazine, and who held in one hand a pair of pattens, and in the other a band-box tied up in a cotton handkerchief. Captain Luard, accompanied by his daughter, ascended the steps, unlocked the door, and entered the house. The female in black, whom the captain addressed by the name of Parish, having paid the driver, at once followed her master; and the door was immediately closed, double-locked, and bolted.

They passed on from one room to another, slowly, and without speaking; for there is something solemn in a large and empty house, especially if seen in the twilight of morning or evening. It was chill and damp outside; but within the walls seemed as though they held prisoner the cold moist atmosphere of a graveyard, nipping the very marrow of those who entered, waking prolonged and hollow echoes of their footsteps, and making the loudness of ordinary conversation seem a profanation of the dim solitude.

“Surely a large house, papa?” whispered the young lady, when they had seen most of the rooms. “Would not a smaller one have satisfied our wants? Our furniture will not fill half of these large rooms.”

“Not too large for the heiress to the Pinchbeck estates,” said the captain, with an extensive sweep of the arm and and of his grey moustache. “Besides, Carry, I never could bear to live in those pottering little holes where common people contrive somehow or other to exist. Spacious and lofty rooms are one of the necessities of life to a gentleman. And then again, you know,” he added mysteriously, laying his hand on her arm, “they will never think of looking for me here. That’s the grand point—to throw them off the track till I’ve had time to complete my case and set them at defiance. For they will shrink from nothing—no, no!—nothing, nothing! Not even my life will be safe from them if they discover my retreat!”

His sallow cheeks flushed as he spoke, and a wild will-o’-the-wisp fire burned in his eyes. He turned and left the room; and tramped heavily up the sounding stairs, still carrying the leather-bound box, till he reached a small room at the very top of the house. Opening a little closet which was built in the wall, he placed the box within it, and having locked the door, proceeded to survey the rest of the rooms up-stairs.

The furniture arrived in the course of the morning. Captain Luard was restless and uneasy till it was all properly fixed, and the men who brought it had departed. Seated on a large box, he then proceeded to give his instructions to his little household.

“You are both of you aware,” he began very gravely, “for what reason I have taken this house. It will continue to present from the street the appearance of being empty and to let. The shutters of the lower front rooms will remain closed; and the upper rooms will remain, as they are now, empty. You, Parish, will take up your quarters in the basement kitchen; you, Carry, in the room to the back immediately over it; while one of the small rooms up-stairs will serve me for a study. Once every evening, Parish, after dark, you will be allowed to go out for the purpose of buying the needful supply of provisions; at which times I will let you out and in myself, and will teach you how to knock so that I may recognise you. Oh! if we can only succeed in remaining concealed for a short time, all will go well. Time is all I want. A few short weeks—perhaps even a few short days—and everything will be clear, and I shall triumph. The other day (was it the other day, though? I almost forget) I had the whole case clearly mapped out in my head; but some one interrupted me, and it all slipped from me in a moment. But it must be found again; for it lies there—there, in my little box—waiting for me. To-morrow I shall begin.”

The captain kept his room for the remainder of the day, except when he came down-stairs to let Parish out, and again to admit her when she returned with provisions. He retired to bed at an early hour, after seeing that all the doors and windows were carefully secured. Carry sat up for a short time after, keeping Parish company, for she did not care to sit alone after dark in that gloomy room up-stairs. At length she too retired, and Parish was left alone. That exemplary female continued for some time her occupation of darning the captain’s socks, till catching herself nodding over her work, she took off her spectacles, and put it away.

Tenants at Number Twenty-Seven.png

“A grewsome, ghostly house this,” she muttered, gently rubbing her elbows, and staring at the fire; “far too big for our little family, and I don’t feel half comfortable in it. Why couldn’t the captain take a cottage in the country? But that was always the way with him—big ideas and ways, and little money to keep them up with. And now his poor wits are going wool-gathering worse and worse every day. As for his chance of getting the Pinchbeck estates, I wouldn’t give tuppence for all the papers he has in his box. A grewsome lonely place, indeed; I declare I’m a'most afraid to go up-stairs to bed.”

She looked round with a shudder. The fire was nearly out; the unsnuffed candle shed a dim and ghostly light through the room; and the night had its own sounds, bred of darkness, such as daylight never heeds—the creaking of a distant door, the trembling of a window beneath the invisible fingers of the wind, the scampering of a mouse behind the wainscoat—all sounds of omen at such an hour—and, near at hand, the loud importunate ticking of the clock in the corner, that seemed to have a demon concealed in its case, who was for ever hammering nails into the coffin of Time. The whole affair was becoming too much for Parish’s nerves, when, looking up for a moment, her glance rested on a row of tiny paper boxes ranged symmetrically on one of the shelves that lined the kitchen. Her face brightened at once; and, rising, she took down one of the boxes, opened it, and extracted therefrom three pills, which, after rolling them tenderly for a few seconds between her palms, she proceeded to swallow, one by one, with much apparent satisfaction. Finding herself considerably refreshed by this slight repast, Parish dived deep into her capacious pocket, and produced therefrom a small dog’s-eared, not over clean book of hymns, which, with the exception of one other Book, and now and then a broadsheet of ballads, or a last dying speech and confession, was the sole literature with which she was acquainted. Having read over slowly, and word by word, two or three short hymns—with which, indeed, she was so well acquainted that she had known them by heart any time these twenty years; but that made no difference, they must be read just the same—she closed the book, replaced it in her pocket, and took up her candle to go to bed. Before going up-stairs, however, she thought she would take another glance round the area, and see that the door of the coal-hole was properly secured; so, unfastening the door with as little noise as possible, she stepped out into the darkness, leaving the candle burning on the table inside. But hardly had she crossed the threshold, when a hollow voice whispered suddenly:

“Jane Parish!”

It was all she could do to keep from screaming, as she stepped back into the house and bolted the door. A momentary glance had revealed to her a dark figure standing with folded arms, looking down at her over the area railings. Her heart was still panting with the fright, when she was again startled by hearing herself called a second time.

“Who are you?” asked Parish through the keyhole, grasping the poker in one hand. “You are not known here. We are strangers, and know nobody. If you stay here another minute I’ll call the police.”

“Cruel fair one!” replied the voice outside. “Know that I am desperately in love with you. Oh, relieve my suspense, and say that you will be mine!”

Parish’s brow grew dark and her eyes flashed as she listened to these audacious words.

“Begone, sir, or it will be worse for you! You are not known here,” she exclaimed, in great wrath.

“Send me not away with such cruel words,” replied the stranger, “or I shall do some desperate deed that you will read of in the penny papers.”

“Who are you, sir?—who are you? What’s your name?” screamed the irate Parish.

“My name is Proggins. I am a young man, and have a little money in the bank.”

“You scamp!” said Parish, shaking the poker as though he could see her through the door. “Begone this instant, or I will call my master, and I warn you he’ll shoot you like a dog!”

A low, peculiar laugh was the only reply, but Parish recognised it in an instant, and flung the door open the moment she heard it.

“Mr. Henry Welford, sir, for shame!” she cried. “I think you might have found some other way of letting us know of your return, without frightening an old woman like me.”

“Parish, old girl, don’t be angry with me,” exclaimed a tall, sunburnt young man, springing nimbly over the railings, and then jumping down and grasping the housekeeper’s hand.

“It was not kind of you, Harry. But you never did things like anybody else.”

“Nonsense, old friend. I meant no harm, I assure you. In fact, you ought to feel highly gratified, for when you next write home to your friends, you may say with truth that you have had an advantageous offer of marriage, but that you didn’t choose to accept it. And now tell me how the captain and Carry both are. I have heard no news of them for an age.”

“Before I answer your question,” said Parish, “tell me how you found us out. The captain thinks we are concealed from all the world.”

“Oh, that’s a very simple matter,” replied Welford. “On landing from the vessel I found a note from Captain Luard, dated only two days ago, informing me of his change of residence. I set off as soon as I could, found the street and the house, but, seeing no light in any of the windows, was afraid of disturbing you, and was just about to retire when you opened the area door.”

“And you have been away three years?” said Parish, interrogatively.

“Three years and nine days. But tell me how Carry and the captain are?”

Parish shook her head sadly; and, while she set about preparing him some coffee, opened to him a full budget of news concerning the family: how poor they were; how the captain’s property had dwindled away in law expenses incurred in contesting a hopeless suit, till but a mere trifle of it remained; of the captain’s present infatuation; and of the gloomy prospect before them. They sat up talking far into the night; after which, Parish prepared a shakedown for Harry before the kitchen fire, and then bade him good night.

Welford’s presence there was a glad surprise next morning both to Carry and her father, for he was dear to both. He was the son of Captain Luard’s oldest friend; and when that friend died, a poor man, the captain took the lad home, educated him, and, when he was old enough, in accordance with Harry’s own wish, obtained for him a situation with an eminent mercantile firm abroad. Carry and he had grown up together like brother and sister; and when the time came for them to part, although they entered into no engagement, they separated without fear, confident that neither of them would forget the other. It seemed an understood thing in the family that they two should marry as soon as the proper time should come; and though the captain had never said a word to countenance such a scheme, he could hardly have been blind to the facts; and the two people most concerned in the matter never had a doubt as to the result.

Carry and Welford went out after breakfast for a walk, and a very interesting one, doubtless, it proved, they having been so long separated, and having so much to tell one another. Harry’s love, hitherto unspoken, now found winged words; and he determined to take an early opportunity of speaking to the captain on the subject of his marriage.

Captain Luard invited Welford up into his study after dinner.

“Only a poor place this to receive you in, Harry, my boy,” he said; “but the next time you come, I hope we shall have a better: in fact, there is no doubt of it. These are the papers that you see spread over the table. I am going through them myself. There is only one little point to lay hold of—the hidden spring, as I may term it, of the machine; and then the whole affair will be as clear as daylight, and equity cannot refuse to find a verdict in our favour; in fact, you may consider the whole matter as settled. Of course it will make a great change in Carry’s prospects, as she will then be heiress to about £15,000 a year; and I think I am not going too far in saying that she will then be one of the most eligible young ladies in England; in fact, between ourselves, I intend her to marry into the aristocracy. But remember, Harry, my boy, wherever my home is, there is yours also. I hope then to have influence to get you some snug little thing under Government, far better than the miserable affair you are at now. Oh never fear that I shall forget your interests!”

Here was an end to all Harry’s brilliant visions, for the captain spoke with such seeming authority—with so much pretension and earnestness—that the young man could hardly believe that such vast expectations had no foundation in fact. Anyway, it would not do for him to stay there any longer, stealing away the heart of his benefactor’s daughter. Let the cost and pain be what they might, he must go at once. He was constrained and silent for the remainder of the day, and though Carry perceived the change in his demeanour, she was at a loss to account for it. He parted from her that night with a tenderness which he tried in vain to conceal; but next morning, when they all expected him there to breakfast, they found a note on the table, addressed to Captain Luard, in which Welford stated that sudden business had called him away to Liverpool, and that several weeks would probably elapse before his return. Carry felt hurt and grieved that he should go away so suddenly without a parting word to her, but was too proud to show how deeply her feelings were wounded. Parish was out of temper all that day, and kept muttering under her breath something about the lad being a fool, and not knowing when he was well off.

So day after day passed away, and matters resumed their old course in the house. There was neither letter nor message from Welford, and it seemed, to Carry at least, as though he had entirely forgotten them. Day after day, from breakfast-time till midnight, the captain sat in his scantily-furnished room, poring over the documents pertaining to the great Pinchbeck suit—title-deeds, mortgages, bills of sale, genealogical tables, abstracts of counsel’s opinion, deeds of transfer, extracts from parish registers, bills of costs, and copies of wills, all mixed up in inextricable confusion—filling one sheet of foolscap after another with figures and remarks; striving in vain to pick out from the dismal chaos before him that hidden link, that magical Open Sesame, which, he was firmly persuaded, would banish poverty from his hearth for ever. Every morning he set to work with renewed vigour, and every evening he retired from the contest with weary brain, with fainting heart, and aching eyes. He became more gaunt and fierce-looking every day. He had been weak and suffering in health for a long time, and it was evident that he was only upheld by the strange feverish excitement in which he lived; and that had any rude hand scattered the foundations of his airy castle, both the mind and body of the builder would have gone to pieces in the wreck.

The house still continued to present from the street a shut-up, desolate, and forlorn appearance; and among the children of the neighbourhood it soon acquired the delightfully dreadful reputation of being haunted. For, coming home from school in the drear November afternoons, between daylight and dark, did they not sometimes hear strange noises, ghostly trampings up and down stairs, weird coughings and moanings; and if one were bold enough to peep through the key-hole, might not one sometimes discern a tall figure, dressed in black, coming slowly down-stairs with a lighted candle in its hand—a sight to make a schoolboy’s flesh creep, and his blood run cold!

So dull November passed away, and the last month of the year was come, when one evening Captain Luard startled his daughter and Parish by bursting into the room where they were sitting—a wild flame of excitement burning in his eyes.

“I’ve seen him!” he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper. “I knew he would find me out wherever I might be! Something bade me go into the front room and look out of the window; and I saw him standing under the lamp-post, looking up at the house. There is no more peace for us here.”

“What man is it, papa?”

“The man with the green studs.”

“But you may have been mistaken, papa. How could you distinguish his studs from the place where you were standing?”

“Mistaken, girl! A man is never mistaken in the person of his bitterest enemy. What nonsense you talk! I tell you that I saw him—nay, he is probably there still. Come, let us go and look; but be careful that his sharp eyes do not find you out. Allons!”

They followed him up-stairs, trembling a little, and hardly knowing what to think. He led them into one of the front rooms, which was faintly lighted up by a lamp on the opposite side of the street.

“Behold him!” he whispered, seizing Carry by the shoulders. “See, he is leaning with folded arms against the lamp-post. His green studs shine in the dark like serpents’ eyes.”

There was no one there.

Next morning Captain Luard was so ill as to be unable to rise. The doctor who was called in merely shook his head when Parish took him on one side to ask his opinion, and said, “Wait awhile; I cannot pronounce at present.”

But day after day passed without much visible change in the captain’s condition. He remained too weak to rise, and lay there—a feeble wreck of a man—heedless, for the most part, of what was passing around; buried in his own sad reflections, and, perhaps, discerning dimly the dark issue whither he was tending. Now and always he was very anxious about his box of papers, and had it placed close to his bed, so that he could both see and feel it; but his former interest in the lawsuit seemed to have partly died away; and, though he often talked of resuming his labours, it was in a hopeless despairing way, as though he saw at last how fruitless all his efforts would be. Still the old idea never left him,—that some mysterious foe was endeavouring to track him out in his retreat; and it was a source of much anxiety to him that he could no longer look after the proper security of the house, and see that no strangers were, on any account, allowed to set foot across the threshold. It was not that he had any want of confidence in the discretion either of Carry or of Parish, but it was a matter that he would have preferred looking after himself: women are so easily imposed upon, as he often remarked.

What then would have been his surprise and anger had he seen Parish enter the house, as she did one evening, accompanied by a woman whom she had apparently picked up in the street; who followed her down the steps into the basement-story, stepping lightly in the echo of the housekeeper’s resonant footfall!

Parish struck a light, and then turned round and confronted her companion with a stern searching gaze, as though asking her by what right she had intruded there.

She was a woman who, years before, had probably been fair enough to look upon; and a faint shadow of the beauty of former times still clung to her. But whatever of sweet bloom and culture her life might once have shown, was now choked up, overgrown, and all but lost to view beneath the coarse growth of after years—years of despair, and hopeless misery, and disbelief in her better self.

“Thus, then, we meet again,” said Parish, in a low, stern, concentrated voice.

“Thus again,” replied the woman, “after seventeen weary years.”

“It should have been seventeen more before we met. Why have you sought me?”

“Not to ask your pity; nor to make any claim on the forgiveness which you, perhaps, think yourself entitled to dispense. I come to see him.”

“Madness! What is he to you, or you to him? Nothing—less than nothing—less than if he had never seen you!”

“So you think, so you preach, as ignorance ever preaches till suffering brings knowledge. Nothing to me! O heaven! can I ever forget that he once called me his wife; that his lips kissed me; that his arms sheltered me; that his child called me mother; that he lived but to make me happy! Nothing to me!”

“You forget,” said the stern unmoved housekeeper, “that when you left his house of your own accord, that when in one day he lost both his wife and his friend—that wife and that friend became, in point of fact, dead to him for ever; as dead as if the green sod had been laid over them both; that he wore mourning for them as if such had been the case; and that for him there are no such persons as Emily Luard and Richard Marfleet in existence.”

“I forget nothing. I know everything you would say—all the reproaches you would heap upon me, and how your wrath has been gathering strength through long years. What then? I know things that you can never know; that if he has suffered, I have suffered, too—Oh! how bitterly! that if I wrecked his happiness, I wrecked my own also. I make no claim on that score either on your compassion or on his. What would it avail me if he were to forgive me the great wrong I did him? If he were to pardon me a thousand times, I could never pardon myself, and there lies the sting. But let that pass. I came neither to talk about myself, nor to exchange idle words with you. The man whom I once called my husband lies ill, perhaps dying, up-stairs; and him once more I am determined to see.”

“You cannot—he would not receive you.”

“I do not want him to receive me. All I want is to see him again, even though he be asleep.”

Parish considered for a moment.

“Wait here,” she said, “while I go up-stairs and see how he is.”

The woman bowed her head, and Parish took the candle and went up-stairs. In a minute or two she returned.

“Come,” she said; and the woman flitted upstairs, behind her, noiseless as a shadow.

“He is asleep,” whispered Parish, when they reached the door of Captain Luard’s room. “Remember that you look only, and do not speak. I would not for the world that he should awake and find you here.”

“Fear not,” replied the stranger. “Let me but see him, and I shall go on my way content.”

Parish opened the door gently, and holding the candle aloft with one hand, shaded it with the other, so that the light should not fall too strongly on the sleeper’s eyes. He lay there calmly enough, one arm thrown over the coverlid, and the other coiled beneath his head; his thin and careworn face looking more wan and ghastly still from its setting of beard and moustache.

“What a change! What a change!” muttered the woman. “Lost to me for ever!” It was all that she could say.

“Enough,” said Parish, at length, turning to leave the room. But before she was aware the woman had glided from her side, and stooping over the sick man, had imprinted a light kiss on his lips. Light as it was, it was sufficient to break his feverish slumber, and he called out feebly:

“Parish, is that you? You should not have disturbed me. Give me something to drink.”

Parish was too angry at what she had just seen to venture a reply, and gave her master a drink without speaking. At that moment, Caroline, who had been out to purchase some little delicacy for her father, entered the house. The woman had disappeared from the room, and Parish was in an agony of fear lest Caroline should encounter her on the stairs. No such meeting, however, took place; for Carry entered the room as quietly as usual, and sat down by her father’s side.

The captain again disposed himself for sleep; so, leaving Caroline at her post, Parish hastened down to see what had become of her strange guest.

She found her kneeling on the rug before the kitchen fire, her arms pressed tightly across her chest, rocking herself to and fro. She neither spoke nor wept, but as Parish looked down on her, there was such a hard, dry, rigid agony cut with such ineffaceable lines into her face, that the words of reproach died away on her lips as she gazed. At length the woman roused herself like one trying to shake off an overwhelming dream; and stood up before the housekeeper, terrible in her misery.

“I crouched into a dark corner,” she began, in a slow, measured voice, very different from her former vehement tone; “and she, my daughter, passed me, and knew not that I was there. Her dress brushed across my face, and I kissed it as it passed; and for one brief moment the soft perfume of her presence was about me; and this is all of her that I may know. Sad, is it not? And yet she is my own—people may say what they will, but she is my own Carry, my own daughter. She used to call me ‘mamma,’ and go to sleep on my breast; and now I may neither touch her, nor kiss her, not even speak to her. Sad again, is it not? Oh yes, I know all about its being my own fault; but is that any comfort to me? Don’t be alarmed. I am not going to intrude myself before her, and shut out the happiness of her life. I have a touch of my old pride yet. But I want you to feel how sad it is that I may not speak to my own darling. It has come into my head, Jane Parish, that there is one thing you can do for me—one little kindness you can do to a poor wretched woman, once your mistress, now a beggar before you. Procure me a lock of my darling’s hair. Will you?”

“I will; you may trust me.”

“Then let me go; my business here is done. I will meet you to-morrow evening in the street; and after that you shall see me no more. I dare not come here again. If I did, I should drown myself afterwards; and I am not fit to die.”

Parish opened the door.

“Dear ones, farewell!” murmured the unhappy woman; and passing out was lost to view.

Captain Luard lingered on for some time after this, apparently neither better nor worse than before; but one morning, when Parish entered his room, she found that a dread visitor had been there in the night, and that in silence and darkness her master had departed with him.

When the first burst of grief was over, and the necessity of immediate action made itself felt, Parish telegraphed for Welford, who was not long in answering the summons; and all the onerous duties which must be performed at such a time he took upon himself. The events of the next few days need not be dwelt on here. It was finally arranged that Caroline, accompanied by Parish, should go and reside with a maiden aunt in Derbyshire. From the wreck of the captain’s property was saved sufficient to enable them both to live in modest independence.

Tenants at Number Twenty-Seven (2).png

Whatever fleeting clouds had at one time interposed between Caroline and Welford had now vanished for ever. They could not speak of love at such a season, but they understood each other without words.

On the afternoon of the last day of the year, they set off, arm-in-arm, to pay a last visit to the cemetery where all that remained of Captain Luard now lay; for Carry was to leave London on the following morning. The sky was overcast when they set out, and the weather bitterly cold. A few premonitory flakes of snow fell at intervals, forerunners of what the night would bring. They passed slowly into the field of the dead, took their last look in silence, and then turned to depart.

A short distance from the path stood a woman, faded and miserable looking, whose eyes were fixed earnestly on them as they drew near. Instinctively Welford slipped a coin out of his pocket, and offered it to the woman; but she drew back with a slight wave of the hand. Welford coloured up.

“I ask your pardon for the mistake,” said he.

The woman did not reply, but drew her shawl more closely round her; and Caroline, looking back at the turn of the walk, saw her still standing there, with her eyes fixed earnestly on them. She did not stir till they were out of sight, and then she approached the grave they had just left, but with a more importunate grief than theirs—a grief that heeded neither darkness nor storm.

Meanwhile Caroline and Welford paused slowly on through the lighted streets of the great city; sorrowful, indeed, and mourning for their loss; but in their hearts young love sat brooding with folded wings, and all the future lay golden before them.

Thomas Speight.