The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 18
I should not myself have cared to live in Camford Street, though it had many residents. It was in the heart, if not exactly of a slum, then certainly of an unsavoury district. Its surroundings, residentially speaking, were about as undesirable as they could have been. Camford Street itself was long, dreary, out-at-elbows, old enough to look as if it would be improved by being rebuilt. Painters, whitewashes, people of that kind, had not been down that way for years; that was obvious from the fronts of the houses. Buildings stretched from end to end in one continuous depressing row. Half-a-dozen houses, then a shop; half-a-dozen more, and a blacking manufactory; three more, and a public-house; another six and a “wardrobe dealer’s,” doubtful third and fourth hand garments dimly visible through dirty panes of glass, and so on, for a good half mile.
Eighty-four looked, what it undoubtedly was, an abode of mystery, as grimy an edifice as the street contained. I know nothing of the value of property thereabouts; whatever it might have been it was not the kind of house I should care to have bequeathed to me. Especially if I had to reside in it. I would rather pass it on to someone who was more deserving. Shutters were up at all the windows. There was not a trace of a blind or curtain. At the front door there was neither bell nor knocker. It seemed deserted. I rapped at the panels with the handle of my stick; once, and then again. An urchin addressed me from the kerb.
“There ain’t no one living in that ’ouse, guv’nor.”
I thanked him for the information; it never occurred to me to shed a shadow of doubt on it. I felt sure that he was right. I crossed to a general shop on the other side of the way.
“Excuse me,” I said to the individual whom I took for the proprietor—“Kennard” was the name over the shop front—“Can you tell me who lives at No. 84?”
Mr. Kennard—I was convinced it was he—was a short, paunchy man, with a bald head and a club foot. He pursed his lips and screwed up his eyes in a fashion which struck me as rather comical.
“Who is the landlord?”
“No one knows.”
“No one?” I smiled. “I presume you mean that you don’t know. Someone must; the local authorities, for instance.”
“The local authorities don’t. I’m a vestryman myself, so you can take that from me. There’s been no rates and taxes paid on that house for twenty years or more; because no one knows to whom to go for them.”
He thrust his hands under his white apron, protruding his stomach in a manner which was a little aggressive.
“The last person who lived at Eighty-four was an old gentleman, named Robertson. He was a customer of mine, and owed me three pound seven and four when he was missing. It’s on my books to this hour.”
“Missing? Did he run away?”
“Not he; he wasn’t that sort. Besides, there was no reason. He was a pensioner; he told me so himself. I don’t know what he got his pension for, but it must have been a pretty comfortable one, because he paid me regular for over seven years; and I understood at that time, from what he said, that the house was his own. If it wasn’t I can’t say to whom he paid rent. The last time I saw him was a Friday night. He came in here and bought a pound of bacon—out of the back; twelve eggs—breakfast; five pounds of cheese—I never knew anyone who was fonder of cheese, he liked it good; a pound of best butter—there was no margarine nor Australian either in those days; and a pound of candles. I’ve never seen or heard anything of him since; and, as I say, that’s more than twenty years ago.”
“But what became of him?”
“That’s more than I can tell you. Perhaps you can tell me. You see, it was this way.”
Mr. Kennard was communicative. Business was slack just then. Apparently I had hit upon a favourite theme.
“Mr. Robertson was one of your quiet kind. Kept himself to himself; lived all alone; seemed to know no one; no one ever came to see him. He never even had any letters; because, afterwards, the post-man told me so with his own lips; he said he’d never known of his having a letter all the time he was in this district. Sometimes nothing would be been of him for three weeks together. Whether he went away or simply shut himself up indoors I never could make out. He was the least talkative old chap I ever came across. When you asked him a question which he didn’t want to answer, which was pretty well always, he pretended he was silly and couldn’t understand. But he was no more silly than I was; eccentric, that was all. Anyhow, when the weeks slipped by, and he wasn’t seen about, no one thought it odd, his habits being generally known. When quarter day came round I sent my little girl, Louisa—she’s married now, and got a family—across with my bill. She came back saying that she could make no one hear; and, through my window, I could see she couldn’t. ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘There’s no fear for Mr. Robertson’—I’d such a respect for the man—‘he’s sure to pay.’ But, if sure, he’s been precious slow; for, as I say, that three seven four is on my books to this hour.”
“If, as you say, the old gentleman lived alone, he may have been lying dead in the house all the time.”
“That’s what I’ve felt. And, what’s more, I’ve felt that his skeleton may be lying there now.”
“You suggest some agreeable reflections. Do you mean to say that, during all these years, no one has been in the house to see?”
“No one.” He paused; presently adding, in a tone which he intended should be pregnant with meaning, “At least, until shortly before this last Christmas. And I’ve no certainty about that. A man can only draw his own conclusions.”
“What do you mean?”
“You see those shutters? Well, for over twenty years there weren’t any shutters hiding those windows. One morning I looked across the street, and there they were.”
“Someone had put them up in the night?”
“That was my impression. But Mrs. Varley, who lives next door to this, says that she noticed them coming for about a week. Each morning there was another window shuttered. She never mentioned a word of it to me; so that I can only tell you that when I saw them first they were all up.”
“Who was responsible for their appearance?”
“That’s what I should like to know. Directly I clapped eyes on them I went straight across the road, and knocked at the door; thinking that if old Robertson had come back—though he’d be pretty ancient if he had—I might get my money after all; and that if he hadn’t there’d be no harm done. But no more attention was paid to me than if I hadn’t been there. I daresay that if I’ve knocked once since I’ve knocked twenty times; but, though I’ve always felt as if there was someone inside listening, I’ve never seen a soul about the place, and no one has ever answered. I tell you what; there’s something queer about that house. More than once it’s been on the tip of my tongue to warn a policeman to keep an eye on it. It’s my opinion that London will hear about it yet.”
Mr. Kennard was oracular. When, however, on quitting his establishment I glanced at No. 84, I myself was conscious of a queer feeling that there was an unusual atmosphere about the house, as if something strange was brooding over it. I told myself that I was still a little bilious, and imagined things.
While I had been in conversation with Mr. Kennard I had observed a curious face peering at us through the window of his shop. Now I noticed a man, who struck me as being the owner of the face, loitering a few doors up the street. As I came out, turning, so that his back was towards me, he began to slowly stroll away. Urged by I know not what odd impulse, I moved quickly after him. Immediately, he crossed the street. I crossed at his heels. As if seized with sudden fear, breaking into a run, he tore off down the street at the top of his speed. I was reminded of the behaviour of the woman who had thrust the God of Fortune into my hand.
All the way back to my chambers I was haunted by a disagreeable sense of being followed. I frequently turned in an endeavour to detect my shadower; each time no one suspicious seemed to be in sight. Yet, so persistent was the feeling that, on entering, after lingering for a second or two in the hall, I darted back again into the court; to cannon against the man who had been loitering in Camford Street. Had I not gripped him by the shoulders he would have been bowled over like a ninepin.
There was no mistaking the individual. I had marked his peculiar figure; the nondescript fashion of his dress—a long black coat, made, apparently, of alpaca, reaching to his heels; a soft black felt hat so much too large for his head that it almost covered his eyes. He was a foreigner, undersized, unnaturally thin.
“Well, my man, what can I do for you?” He did not reply. His countenance assumed an expression of vacuous imbecility. I shook him gently, to spur his wits. “Do you hear, what can I do for you? Since you have taken the trouble to follow me all this way, I suppose there is important business which you wish to transact with me.”
The fellow said nothing. Whether he understood I could not say. He evidently wished me to believe that he did not, shaking his head, as if he had no tongue. I took him for a Chinaman, though he was darker than I imagine Chinamen are wont to be. His two little bead-like eyes burned out of two small round holes, in circumference scarcely larger than a sixpence. Eyebrows or eyelashes he had none. His skin was scarred by smallpox.
Since, apparently, nothing could be done with him, I let him go. So soon as my hand was off him he darted into the Strand like some eager wild thing. After momentary hesitation I went to see what had become of him. Already the traffic had swallowed him up. He was out of sight.
Gregory Pryor was in when I called the second time. I laid the God of Fortune down before him on the table.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a joss.”
“A joss?” The promptness of his reply took me aback. “I thought a joss was an idol.”
“So it is; what you might call an idol. A symbol some would style it. They’re of all sorts, shapes and sizes; that is one of the waistcoat pocket kind. I was once in a case for a Chinaman with an unpronounceable name. He spoke English better than you and I, knew the ropes at least as well, yet he had one of these things in each of about twenty-seven pockets. He was a member of one of the thirteen thousand Taoist sects. He told me that they’d a joss for everything; a joss for the hearth, another for the roof, another for the chimney; three for the beard, whiskers and moustache. In every twig of every tree they saw a joss of some sort. Where did you get yours from?”
I informed him; then spoke of the contents of the parcel which the morning’s post had brought.
“I can give you one assurance—this bond’s all right. At a shade under the market price, I can do with any number. As for your missionary’s letter, let’s see if Great Ka Island is on the map.”
He got down a gazetteer and an atlas.
“The gazetteer’s an old one. There’s no mention of it here, so it seems that it was either not known when this was published, or it was too obscure a spot to be worth recording. The atlas is newer. Ah! here we have it. Arafura Sea—New Guinea—Dutch New Guinea. There’s a group of Ka Islands—Great Ka, Little Ka, and others. Great Ka’s largish, nearly one hundred miles long, but narrow; apparently not ten miles at the broadest part, and tapering to a point. Sort of reef, I fancy. A good deal out of the way, and not in any steamer route I ever heard of. A convenient address for a man who wishes to avoid inquiries.”
Leaning back in his chair, pressing the tips of his fingers together, Pryor regarded the ceiling.
“Letter’s fishy, and, being undated, no use as evidence. Will’s fishy, too. But there are the bonds. So long as a lawyer sees his way to his fee, what else matters? I take it that there was a Benjamin Batters, and that there is a Mary Blyth. I also fancy that there’s more in the matter than meets the eye. It has come to you in an irregular fashion, and therefore, in the nature of things, it is sniffy. My advice to you is, move warily. Discover Mary Blyth; hand over the estate to her, accepting no responsibility; present your bill, get your money; and, unless you see good reason to the contrary, wipe your hands of her thenceforward. If you do that you won’t do very far wrong. Now, good-bye; I’ve got all this stuff to wade through before I dine.”
I left him to the study of his briefs. His advice I turned over in my mind, finally resolving that I would move even more warily than he suggested. Before introducing myself to Mary Blyth, I would spend a day in endeavouring to discover something about the late Benjamin Batters, and, particularly, I would try to learn how it was that, after his death, his affairs had chanced to fall into my hands.
I work, live, eat and sleep in my chambers. As it happens I am the only person on the premises who does so. There used to be others. But now, with the exception of my set, what were living rooms are used as offices, and I am the only actual resident the house contains. After dark—sometimes before—the workers flit away. I have the entire building to myself until they return with the morning.
My rooms are four: bedroom; an apartment in which I am supposed to take my meals; one which I use as an office; and the den, opening immediately on to the staircase, in which Crumper has his being. That night I was roused suddenly from sleep. At first I could not make out what had woke me. Then I heard what was unmistakably the clatter of something falling.
“There’s someone in the office.”
Slipping out of bed, picking up a hockey stick, making as little noise as possible, I stole officewards. Intuitively I guessed who was there, and proposed to interview my uninvited visitor.
My hasty conclusions proved, however, to be a little out.