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CHAPTER II.

LOCKED OUT.

At first I could not make out if it was a man or woman or what it was. But at last I decided that it was a man. I never saw such clothes. Whether it was the darkness, or his costume, or what it was, I cannot say, but he seemed to me to be surprisingly tall. And thin! And old! Nothing less than a walking skeleton he seemed to me, the cheekbones were starting through his skin which was shrivelled and yellow with age. He wore what looked to me, in that light, like a whole length piece of double width yellow canvas cloth. It was wrapped round and round him, as, I am told, it is round mummies. A fold was drawn up over his head, so as to make a kind of hood, and from under this his face looked out.

Fancy coming on such a figure, on a dark night, all of a sudden, and you can guess what my feelings were. I thought I should have dropped. I had to catch tight hold of Tom’s arm.

“Tom,” I gasped, “what—whatever is it?”

“Come on,” he muttered. “Let’s get out of this. Looney, he looks to me.”

Lunatic or not, he did not mean that we should get away from him quite so easily. He took Emily by the shoulder—you should have heard the scream she gave; if it had been louder it would have frightened the neighbourhood. But the lunatic, or whatever the creature was, did not seem to be in the least put out. He held her with both his hands, one on either shoulder, and turned her round to him, and stared at her in the most disgraceful way. He put his face so close to hers that I thought he was going to bite her, or something awful. But no; all at once he thrust her aside as if she was nothing at all.

“It is not she,” he murmured, half to himself, as it seemed, and half to us.

And before I could guess what he was going to do, he laid his hands on me. It was a wonder I did not faint right then and there. He gripped my shoulders so tight that I felt as if he had me screwed in a vice, and for days after my skin was black and blue. He thrust his face so close to mine that I felt his breath upon my cheeks. There was an odd smell about it which made me dizzy. He had little eyes, which were set far back in his head. I had a notion they were short-sighted, he seemed to have to peer so long and closely. At last his lips moved.

“It is she,” he said, in the same half-stifled voice in which he had spoken before. He had a queer accent. There was no mistaking what he said, but it was certain that his tongue was not an Englishman’s. “You will see me again—yes! Soon! You will remember me?”

Remember him? I should never forget him, never! Not if I lived to be as old as Methusaleh. That hideous, hollow-cheeked, saffron-hued face would haunt me in my dreams. I do have dreams, pretty bad ones sometimes. I should see him in them many a time. My head whirled round. The next thing I knew I was in Tom’s arms. He was holding me up against Firandolo’s window. He spoke to me.

“It’s all right now; he’s gone.”

I sighed, and looked round. The wretch had vanished. What had become of him I did not ask, or care to know. It was sufficient for me that he had vanished. As I drew myself up I glanced round towards the restaurant door. Mr. Isaac Rudd’s face was pressed against the glass. Unless I was mistaken, when he perceived I saw him he drew back quickly. I slipped my arm through Tom’s.

“Let’s get away from here; let’s hurry home as fast as we can.”

Off we went, we three. Emily began to talk. Tom and I were silent. It was still as much as I could do to walk; I fancy Tom was thinking.

“It is a wonder I didn’t faint as well as you; if you hadn’t I should. But when you went I felt that it would never do for two of us to go, so I held myself tight in. Did you ever see anything like that awful man? I don’t believe he was alive; at least, I shouldn’t if it wasn’t for the way in which he pinched my shoulders. I shall be ashamed to look at them when I’ve got my dress off, I know I shall. My skin’s so delicate that the least mark shows. What was he dressed in? And who could the creature be? I believe he was something supernatural; there was nothing natural about him that I could see. Then his eye! He looked a thousand years old if he looked a day.”

She ceased. She glanced behind her once or twice. She drew closer to Tom. When she spoke again it was in a lower tone of voice.

“Mr. Cooper, do you mind my taking your arm? There’s—there’s someone following us now.”

Tom looked round. As he did so, two men came past us, one by me, the other one by Emily. The one who passed me was so close that his sleeve brushed mine; as he went he turned and stared at me with might and main. He was short, but very fat. He was shabbily dressed, and wore a cloth cap slouched over his eyes. When he had gone a yard or two the other man fell in at his side. They talked together as they slouched along; we could not but see that, while both of them were short, one was as thin as the other was stout.

“Are you sure they’ve been following us?” whispered Tom to Emily.

“Certain. They’ve been sticking close at our heels ever since we came away from Firandolo’s.”

The fact was put beyond dispute before we had gone another fifty yards. The two men drew up close in front of us, in such a way that it would have been difficult for us to pass without pushing them aside.

“Which of you two ladies is Miss Blyth?” asked the stout man, in the most impudent manner.

On a sudden I was becoming the object of undesired attention which I did not at all understand, and liked, if possible, still less. The fellow looked us up and down, as if we had been objects offered for sale.

“What has it to do with you?” returned Tom. “Who are you, anyhow?”

The thin man answered; the stout man had spoken in a shrill squeaky treble, he had the deepest possible bass.

“We’re the young lady’s friends; her two friends. Ain’t that gospel, Sam?”

“It’s that, William; it’s gospel truth. Truer friends than us she’ll never have, nor none what’s more ready to do her a good turn.”

“Not if she was to spend the rest of her days sailing round the world looking for ’em, she’d never find ’em, that she wouldn’t. All we ask is for her to treat us as her friends.” The thin man spat upon the pavement. “Now then, out with it; which of you two ladies is Miss Blyth?”

“I’m not,” cried Emily.

Which I thought was distinctly mean of her, because, of course, it was as good as saying that I was. Once more the stout man looked me up and down.

“You’re her, are you? So I thought. The other’s too pretty, by chalks. You’re a chip of the old block, and there wasn’t no beauty thrown away on him; plain he was, as ever I saw a man; and plainer.”

The fellow was ruder than ever. I am aware that Emily Purvis is a beauty, and that I am not, but at the same time one does not expect to be stopped and told so by two perfect strangers, at that hour of the night.

“For goodness’ sake,” I said to Tom, “let’s get away from these dreadful persons as fast as we possibly can.”

I made him come. The fat man called after us—in his squeaky treble.

“Dreadful, are we? Maybe you’ll change your mind before you’ve done. Don’t you be so fast in judging of your true friends, it don’t become a young woman. There’s more dreadful persons than us about, as perhaps you’ll find.”

“It is to be hoped,” I observed to Tom, and paying no attention whatever to Emily Purvis, who I knew was smiling on the other side of him, “that we shall meet no more objectionable characters before we get safely in.”

“They’re friends of yours, my dear.”

This was Emily.

“I don’t see how you make that out, seeing that I never saw them before, and never want to again.”

“Some of us have more friends than we know, my love.” Her love! “We’ve seen four of yours already; I shouldn’t be surprised if we saw another still before we’re in.”

As it happened, in a manner of speaking, it turned out that she was right; though, of course, to speak of the creature we encountered, even sarcastically, as a friend of mine, would be absurd. We were going along the Fenton Road. As we were passing a street, which branched off upon our right, there popped out of it, for all the world as if he had been waiting for us to come along, a man in a long black coat, reaching nearly to his heels, and a felt hat, which was crammed down so tight, that it almost covered his face as well as his head. I thought at first he was a beggar, or some object of the tramp kind, because he fell in at our side, and moved along with us, as some persistent beggars will do. But one glance at what could be seen of his features was sufficient to show that he was something more out of the common than that. He had a round face; almond-shaped eyes which looked out of narrow slits; a flat nose; a mouth which seemed to reach from ear to ear. There was no mistaking that this was a case of another ugly foreigner. The consciousness that he was near made me shudder; as he trudged along beside us I went uncomfortable all over.

“Go away! Make him go away!” I said to Tom.

Tom stood still.

“Now then, off you go! We’ve nothing for you. The sooner you try it off on somebody else, the less of your valuable time you’ll waste.”

Tom took him for a beggar. But he was wrong, and I was right; the man was not a beggar.

“Which is little lady?”

I don’t pretend that was exactly what he said. Thank goodness, I am English, and I know no language but my own, and that is quite enough for me, so it would be impossible for me to reproduce precisely a foreign person’s observations; but that is what he meant. Tom was angry.

“Little lady? What little lady? There’s no lady here, big or little, who has anything to do with you; so, now then, you just clear off.”

But the man did nothing of the kind. He hopped to Emily, and back again to me, peering at us both out of his narrow eyes.

“Which of you is Missee Blyth?”

“Miss Blyth! Is the whole world, all at once, on the look-out for Miss Blyth? What is the meaning of this little game? You, there, hook it!”

But instead of hooking it, to use Tom’s own language, and gentlemen will use slang, the man grew more and more insistent. He must have gone backwards and forwards between Emily and me half-a-dozen times.

“Quick! Tellee me! Which is Missee Blyth? Quick, quick! tellee me! I have something to give to Missee Blyth.”

“I am Miss Blyth.”

I did not suppose, for an instant, that he really had anything to give me. But the man seemed to be in such a state of agitation, that I felt that perhaps the best way to put an end to what was becoming a painful situation would be for me to declare myself without delay. However, to my surprise, hardly were the words out of my lips, than the man came rushing to me, thrusting something into my hand. From what I could feel of it, it appeared to be something small and hard, wrapped in a scrap of paper. But I had no chance of discovering anything further, because, before I had a chance of even peeping, the two short men, the fat and thin one, came rushing up, goodness only knows from where, and I heard the thin one call out, in his deep bass voice, to the other:

“He’s given it her—I saw him! At her, Sam, before she has a chance of pouching it.”

The stout man caught me by the wrist, gave it a twist, which hurt me dreadfully, and, before I could say Jack Robinson, he had the little packet out of my hand. It was like a conjuror’s trick, it all took place so rapidly, and before I had the least notion of what was going to happen. The foreign person, however, seemed to understand what had occurred better than I did. Clearly he did not want courage. With a sort of snarl he sprang at the stout man, and with both hands took him by the throat, as, I have heard, bulldogs have a way of doing. The stout man did not relish the attack at all.

“Pull him off me, William,” he squeaked.

The thin man endeavoured to do as he was told. And, in a moment, out in the open street there, the most dreadful fight was going on. What it was all about I had not the faintest idea, but they attacked each other like wild beasts. The foreign person did not seem to be at all dismayed by the odds of two to one. He assailed them with frightful violence.

Plainly it would be as much as they could do to deal with him between them. I certainly expected every second to see someone killed, Emily went off her head with terror. She rushed, screaming up the street. Tom dashed after her, whether to stop her or not I could not tell. And, of course, I rushed after Tom. And the three men were left alone to fight it out together.

Emily never drew breath till we were quite close to Cardew & Slaughter’s. Then a church clock rang out. It struck the half-hour. It might have struck her, she stopped so suddenly.

“Half-past eleven!” she cried. “My gracious! whatever shall we do?”

It was a rule of the firm that the assistants were to be in by half-past ten. Between the half-hour and the quarter there was a fine of sixpence, and between the quarter and the hour one of half-a-crown. After eleven no one was admitted at all. The doors had been closed for more than half-an-hour! We stood, panting for breath, staring at one another. Emily began to cry.

“I daren’t stop out in the streets all night—I daren’t!”

“I know a trick worth two of that,” declared Tom. “There’s a way in which is known to one or two of us; I’ve had to use it before, and I daresay I can use it again.”

“It’s all very well for you!” cried Emily. “But we can’t climb windows; and, if we could, there are no windows for us to climb.”

Tom hesitated. I could see he did not like to leave us in the lurch. The gentlemen slept right up at the other end of the building; there was no connection between his end and ours. I had heard of what Tom hinted at before; but then things are always different with gentlemen. As Emily said, for the ladies there was no way in but the door. Somehow I felt that, after all we had gone through, I did not mean to be trampled on.

“You go, Tom, and get in as best you can. Emily and I will get in too, or I’ll know the reason why.”

Away went. Tom; and off started Emily and I to try our luck. She was not sanguine.

“They’ll never let us in, never!”

“We’ll see about that.”

I gritted my teeth, as I have a trick of doing when I am in earnest. I was in earnest then. It is owing to the firm’s artfulness that there are no bells or knockers on the doors leading to the assistants’ quarters. When they are open you can get in; when they are closed there are no means provided to call attention to the fact that you require admission. They had been unloading some packing-cases, I picked up two heavy pieces of wood which had been left lying about; with them I started to hammer at the door. How I did hammer! I kept it up ever so long; but no one paid the slightest heed. I began to despair. Emily was crying all the while. I felt like crying with her. Instead, I gritted my teeth still more, and I hammered, and I hammered. At last a window was opened overhead, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Galloway, put her head out.

“Who’s that making this disgraceful noise at this hour of the night?”

“It’s Miss Purvis and Miss Blyth. Come down and let us in; we’ve been nearly robbed and murdered.”

“I daresay! You don’t enter this house to-night; you know the rules. And if you don’t take yourselves off this instant I’ll send for the police.”

“Send for the police, that’s what we want you to do. The police will soon see if you won’t let us in.”

Mrs. Galloway’s head disappeared; the window was banged. Emily cried louder than ever.

“I told you she’d never let us in.”

“We’ll see if she won’t.”

Off I started again to hammer. Presently steps were heard coming along the passage. Mrs. Galloway’s voice came from the other side of the door.

“Stop that disgraceful noise! Go away! Do you hear me, go away!”

“If we do it will be to fetch the police. They’ll soon show you if you can keep us out all night when we’ve been nearly robbed and murdered.”

The door was opened perhaps three inches; as I believed, upon the chain. I knew Mrs. Galloway’s little tricks. But if it was upon the chain what occurred was odd. Someone came hurrying up the steps behind us. To my amazement it was the dreadful old man in the yellow canvas cloth. I was too bewildered to even try to guess where he had come from; I had never supposed that he, or anybody else, was near. He pointed to the door.

“Open!” he said, in that queer, half-stifled voice in which he had spoken to me before.

The door was opened wide, though how the housekeeper had had time to remove the chain, if it was chained, was more than I could understand. Emily and I marched into the passage—sneaked, I daresay, would have been the better word. As I went the stranger slipped something into my hand; a hard something, wrapped in a scrap of paper.