The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 10
BETWEEN 13 AND 14, ROSEMARY STREET.
A church clock struck as we rolled along.
“That sounds like nine—a quarter-past eleven. What shall you do if we can’t get in at all?”
“Not get into my own house? My dear, this is not a case of Cardew and Slaughter’s. What is going to keep me out of my own house—if I choose to enter it with the milk!—I should like to know.”
I did not know. I could not even guess. But all the same I had a sort of feeling that someone could—and might. “My own house” came glibly from her tongue. That morning there had been ten shillings between her and the workhouse; already she had become quite the woman of established means. I might have been the same had the case been mine. You never know. It must be so nice to have something of your very own.
We were nearing the Westminster Bridge Road. Again the driver spoke to us from above; he had hardly slackened pace the whole of the way.
“Coast clear, miss; not had a sight of the party since we lost him. Where shall I put you down?”
“I’ll stop you in a minute; keep on to the left.” Pollie spoke to me. “What did it say in the letter was the name of the street in which is the entrance to the back door?”
“Of course! I couldn’t remember its stupid name.”
“But I shouldn’t tell him to put us down just there. You don’t know who may be waiting for us.”
I was leaning over the front of the cab, keeping a sharp look-out. There were the crowded trams and omnibuses, and many people on the pavements; but I noticed nothing in any way suspicious.
“Who should be waiting for us? Haven’t we shaken Mr. Lander off? Didn’t the cabman say so?”
“Yes. But—you never know.”
“What do you mean? What are you driving at?”
“Nothing. Only it’s past nine. The letter said that it was the time your greatest peril began.”
“What nonsense you do talk! Do you think I pay attention to such stuff? Lucky I’m not nervous, or you’d give me the fidgets. The sooner everybody understands that I intend to go in and out of my own house at any time I please the less trouble there is likely to be. I’m not a child, to be told at what time I’m to come home.”
I was silent. She spoke boldly enough; a trifle too boldly I thought. There was an unnecessary amount of vigour in her tone, as if she wished to impress the whole world with the fact that she was not in the least concerned. But she acted on the hint all the same—she stopped the cab before we reached our destination.
“It’s all right now, miss,” said the driver. It was rather a novel sensation for us to be riding in cabs, and the fare we paid him did make a hole in one’s purse. It was lucky there was that four hundred and eighty-eight pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence to fall back upon. “You’ve seen the last of that fine gentleman, for to-night at any rate. Good-night, miss, and thank you.”
I was not so sure that it was all right. We might have seen the last of “that fine gentleman,” as the cabman called Mr. Lander, though there was nothing particularly “fine” about him that I could see; but there might be other gentlemen, still less “fine,” who had yet to be interviewed. When the hansom had driven off, as we walked along the pavement, I felt more and more uncomfortable, though I would not have hinted at anything of the kind to Pollie for worlds.
“Have we passed Camford Street?” she wondered. “I don’t know which side of it is Rosemary Street.”
“I’m sure I don’t. You had better ask.”
We were standing at the corner of a narrow street, a pretty dark and deserted one it seemed. Pollie turned to make enquiries of some passer-by. A man came towards us.
“Can you tell me which is Rosemary Street?” she said.
“This way! this way!”
He took her by the arm and led her into a gloomy-looking street, as if he were showing her the way. She must have been purblind, or completely off her guard, to have been tricked by him so easily, because directly he spoke I recognised him as the person in the long black coat who had fled from Mr. Lander. I myself was taken by surprise, or I would have called out and warned her. But I suppose that I was bewildered by his sudden and wholly unexpected appearance, because, instead of bidding her look out, I went after her into the narrow lane, for really it seemed to be no more.
The moment we were round the corner two other figures appeared out of the darkness as if by magic. But by now Pollie had taken the alarm.
“Let me go!” she cried to her conductor. “Take your hand away from my arm!”
He showed no inclination to do anything of the kind.
“This way! this way!” he kept repeating, as if he were a parrot. He spoke with a strong foreign accent—as if his stock of English was not a large one.
But Pollie was not to be so easily persuaded. She stood stock still, evincing every disposition to shake herself free from his grasp.
“Let me go! let me go!”
The taller of the two newcomers uttered some words in a language which I had never heard before. Giving Pollie no time to guess what he was about to do he produced a cloth and threw it over her head. The other man sprang at her like a wild animal. Between them they began to bear her to the ground. I was not going to stand quietly by and see that kind of thing go on. I may not be big, and I do not pretend to be brave, but I am not an absolute coward all the same.
The smaller of the newcomers had taken me by the arm. I did my best to make him wish that he had not. I flew at him.
“You villain! Let me go, or I’ll scratch your eyes out!”
The little wretch—he was little; I do not believe he was any bigger than I was, or perhaps I should not be alive to tell this tale—actually tried to throw a cloth over my head. When I put up my arms, and stopped his doing that, he began to dab it against my mouth, as if to prevent my screaming. There was a nasty smell about that cloth. It was damp. All of a sudden it struck me that he was trying to take away my senses with chloroform, or some awful stuff of that kind. And then didn’t I start shrieking; I should think they might have heard me on the other side of the bridge.
In less than no time—or so it seemed to me—a policeman came round the corner. Apparently he was the only one who had heard; but he was quite enough.
“What’s the matter here?” How I could have kissed him for his dear official voice. “What’s the meaning of all this?”
Those three cowards did not wait to explain. Really before the words were out of his lips they were off down the lane like streaks of lightning. All my man left behind him was the smell of his horrid cloth. Beyond disarranging my hat and my hair, and that kind of thing, I knew that he had not damaged me almost before, so to speak, I examined myself to see.
“Has he hurt you?” asked the constable. “What was he trying to do?”
“He has not hurt me, thanks to you; but in another half second I’m quite sure he would have done. He was trying to chloroform me, or something frightful, I smelt it on his cloth.”
“Who’s this on the ground?”
It was Pollie. In my excitement I had quite forgotten to notice what had become of her. She lay all of a heap. Down I plumped on my knees beside her.
“Pollie!” I cried. “Has he killed you?”
“No fear,” said the policeman. “She’s only a bit queer. I shouldn’t be surprised if they’ve played the same sort of trick on her they tried to play on you.”
It was so. That policeman was a most intelligent man, and quite good-looking, with a fair moustache which turned up a little at the ends. They had endeavoured to stupefy her with some drug; the policeman said he didn’t think it was chloroform, it didn’t smell like it. I didn’t know—to my knowledge I have never smelt chloroform in my life, nor do I ever want to. They had so far succeeded that she had nearly lost her senses, but not entirely. When I lifted her head she gave several convulsive twitches, so that it was all I could do to retain my hold. Then she opened her eyes and she asked where she was.
“It’s all right,” I told her. “They’ve gone. I hope they haven’t hurt you.”
She sat up, and she looked about her. She saw me, and she saw the constable, which fact she at once made plain.
“Oh, you’re a policeman, are you? It’s as well that there are such things as policemen after all.” Her meaning was not precisely clear, but I hardly think it was altogether flattering to the force, which was ungrateful on her part. “I don’t think they’ve hurt me. I believe it was the keys they were after, though they’ve left them both behind. Perhaps that was because they hadn’t time to properly search for them.” She was feeling in her pocket. “But they have taken Uncle Benjamin’s letter—the one in which he told us how to get in at the back door.”
There was a pause. I realised all that the abstraction might mean. If it had told us how to enter, it would tell them too. It was lucky they had had to go without the key.
“Do you know the men?” inquired the officer. “You had better charge them.”
“Charge them?” She put her hand up to her head, as if she were dazed. I rather fancied she was making as much of her feelings as she could. Unless I was mistaken she was endeavouring to gain time to consider the policeman’s words. Under the circumstances it might not be altogether convenient to charge them, even though they had proved themselves to be such utter scoundrels. “But I don’t know what men they were.”
“That doesn’t matter; I daresay we know. You mustn’t allow an outrage like this to pass unnoticed; they might have murdered you. I’ll take the charge.”
“Thank you.” She stood up. He had produced his notebook. “I don’t think I’ll trouble you. There are circumstances connected with the matter which render it necessary that I should think it over.”
“What’s there to think about? It was an attempt to rob with violence, that’s what it was; as clear a case as ever I knew. Come, give me your name, miss, then I’ll have the particulars. What name?”
“I’m afraid you must excuse me. When I’ve thought the matter over you shall hear from me again, but I cannot act without consideration. Thank you all the same.”
She carried it off with an air which took the constable aback. He was not best pleased. He eyed her for a second or two, then he closed his notebook with a snap.
“Very good. Of course, if you won’t make a charge I can’t take it. All I can say is, that if you find yourself in the same hole again, it’ll about serve you right if no one comes to help you. It’s because people won’t go into court that there’s so much of this sort of thing about. What’s the good of having laws if you won’t let them protect you.”
Off he strode in a huff. I stared after him a little blankly.
“I don’t think, Pollie, that you need have been quite so short with him. What he says is true; we might have been murdered if it hadn’t been for him.”
“I wasn’t short with him; I didn’t mean to be. But I couldn’t charge them—could I? Besides, I want to get in. I didn’t want to have him hanging about, for I don’t know how long, watching us.”
“Someone else may be watching us.”
“No fear of that; they’ve had enough of it for to-night.”
“So you said before, and hardly had you said there was nothing to fear when they had us at their mercy. It’s my belief that what your uncle said in that letter—which now they’ve got—is true, and that we are in peril, dreadful peril, and that though we mayn’t know it someone is watching us all the time. For my part I should like that policeman to have kept his eye upon us until we were safe indoors.”
“After what my uncle said about allowing no one to see us enter?”
“It’s a pity you are not equally particular about everything your uncle said, my dear.”
Off we started down the lane, or street, or whatever it was. If I had had my way, after all that had happened, I would not have attempted to enter the house until at any rate next morning; I would rather have wandered about the streets all night. But I could see that she was set on at least trying to get in. I did not wish to quarrel, or to be accused of a wish to desert her after promising to be her companion. So I stuck to her side. Presently she spoke.
“Do you know, Emily, I believe I haven’t got the very clearest recollection of the directions in uncle’s letter. Didn’t he say something about a passage?”
“He said that there was one between 13 and 14 Rosemary Street. The question is, is this Rosemary Street? We don’t know.”
“We’ll soon find out. Which are 13 and 14? It’s so dark it’s hard to tell.”
It was dark; which fact lent an additional charm to the situation. On one side were the backs of what seemed like mews; all they presented to us was a high dead wall. On the other was a row of cottages. If they were occupied all the inhabitants were in bed. There was not a light to be seen at any of the windows. Pollie began to peer at the numbers on the doors.
“This is 26.” She passed on. “And this is 25; so 13 and 14 must be this way.” We went farther along the street. “Here is 14—and here’s the passage.”
There was a passage, between two of the mean little houses. But so narrow an one that, if we had not been on the look-out for it, we should have passed it by unnoticed. Such was the darkness that we could not see six feet down it, so that it was impossible to tell where it led to, or what was at the end. I did not like the idea of venturing into it at all. I would have given almost anything to have flown down the street and sought the protection of that nice policeman. My heart was going pitter patter; I could feel it knocking against my corsets. I did not know if Pollie really was nervous, though I do not believe that it was in feminine human nature to have been anything else; but she behaved as though she wasn’t. I could not have made believe so well. She apparently did not hesitate about what was the best, and proper, and only thing to do. There was not even a tremor in her voice.
“What did uncle say—at the end there is a wall?”
“I—I think he did.”
“Then now for the wall.”
She dashed into the passage. I was afraid to do anything else—and she did not give me a chance to remonstrate—so I went after her. I am thankful to say that nothing happened to us as we went, though I seemed to see and hear all sorts of things. After we had gone what appeared to be a mile Pollie suddenly stopped.
“Here is the wall. Now to climb it. Didn’t uncle say we should find two stanchions? Was it on the right or on the left? Here they are, on the right; at least, I suppose they’re stanchions. They feel like two pieces of iron driven into the brickwork. Now for a climb. One good thing—the wall isn’t high.”
Since I could only perceive her dim outline, and didn’t wish to have her vanish altogether in the darkness, I had kept my hand on her. I could feel, rather than see, her going through the motions of climbing. I was conscious she had reached the top.
“Now, Emily, you come. It’s easy; give me your hand.”
I gave her my hand. In a second or two I was beside her, on the crest of the wall.
“Now let’s go together, it’s nothing of a drop.”
As she said, it was nothing of a drop, and we went together. I suppose the wall was not much, if at all, over five feet in height. We landed on what felt like a pavement of bricks.
“It’s a pity it’s so dark. Here it’s worse than ever. I can’t see my hand before my face, can you?” I could not. I told her so.
“Well, we’ll have to feel, that’s all; and we’ll hope that we’re in the right backyard. It would be something more than a joke if we weren’t; they might take us for burglars. Come on; give me your hand again; we’ll feel our way—tread carefully whatever you do. Hollo! here is a door. And—Emily, there’s the spot of light! Do you see it there upon the door? As uncle says, it shines at us. Whether it’s luminous paint, or whether it’s something much more wonderful, truly, it lightens our darkness. Doesn’t it, my dear? Where is that key?”
I could see, straight in front of us, a round spot of something which gleamed. It was not bigger than a threepenny piece. It might have been a monster glow-worm. Or, as Polly said, a dab of luminous paint. But there was no time to ascertain what it was, because, almost as soon as I saw it, I heard something too.
“Pollie, there’s someone coming along the passage.”
In the silence, there was what was obviously the sound of feet, feet which were apparently moving as if they did not wish to be heard.