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CHAPTER XXI.

THE AGITATION OF MISS PURVIS.

That bachelor’s balm, a night at a music hall, was of no avail in diverting my mind from the house in Camford Street. In the body I might be present at a vocal rendering of the latest things in comic songs; in the spirit I was the other side of the water. Before the night was over I was there physically, too.

As the ten o’clock “turn” was coming on, and the brilliancy of the entertainment was supposed to have reached high-water mark, I walked down the stairs of the Cerulean and out into the street. I strolled down the Haymarket without any clear idea of where I meant to go.

“You’re an ass,” I told myself. “An ass, sir! If you’d stopped to see Pollie Floyd she’d have driven the cobwebs out of your head. You pay five shillings for a seat, and when, at last, there is going to be something worth looking at, and listening to, you get out of it, and throw away your money. At this time of night, where do you think you’re going?”

I knew all the time, although even to myself I did not choose to confess it—Camford Street. I made for it as straight as I could. It was past-half past ten when I got there. The street was nearly all in darkness. The public-houses were open; but, as they were not of the resplendent order, they were of but little use as illuminants. Mr. Kennard’s establishment was shut. Lights were visible in but few of the houses. No. 84, in the prevailing shadows, looked black as pitch. If the two girls had been obedient to the injunctions laid down in Mr. Batters’ will—and that first night, at any rate, they would have hardly ventured to contravene them—they were long since within doors. Doing what? Asleep? Were both of them asleep? I wondered, if she was awake, what occupied her thoughts? Was she thinking of—the person in the street?

Too ridiculous! Absurd! It is amazing of what crass stupidity even the wisest men are capable. Why should a girl who was a perfect stranger, be thinking, whether awake or sleeping, at that hour of the night, of an individual who had been brought into accidental business association, on one occasion only, with a friend of hers? I kept on putting such-like brain-splitting questions to myself. Without avail. I simply shirked them. I only hoped. That was all.

I had some nonsensical notion of hammering at the front door to see what would happen. But as I was unable to perceive what could result, except possible scandal—suppose they were in bed! they might think I was burglars, or Mr. Batters’ ghost—I held my hand. I was not too far gone to be incapable of realising that frightening a woman into fits was not the best way of winning her trust and confidence. That she was of a nervous temperament I thought probable. I like a woman to be reasonably timorous.

What might have been expected happened. My persistency in strolling about, and behaving as if I were a suspicious character, at last succeeded in arousing the attention of the police. An overcoated constable strode up to me. I stopped him, feeling that it might be better for me to open the ball.

“Officer, do you know anything about the house opposite—No. 84?”

He eyed me; apparently arriving at a conclusion that I bore no conspicuous signs of belonging to the criminal classes.

“We call it the haunted house.”

“Haunted? Why haunted?”

It was a horrible idea that she should be sleeping alone, or as good as alone, in a house which bore the reputation of being haunted. Not that I placed any credence in such rubbish myself, but when she was concerned it was a different matter.

“I can’t say why; but it’s known as such, in the force, and, I believe, among the people in the neighbourhood.”

“Ah! Well, officer, two friends of mine—ladies—young ladies—have taken up their residence at No. 84, and as they’re all alone I shall be obliged if you’ll keep an eye upon the house. If you see any ghosts about the place you run ’em in.”

I gave that policeman half-a-crown. I do not know what he thought of me. I was completely conscious that if I continued to placate members of the constabulary force with two-and-sixpence each I should not find the Batters’ connection a lucrative one. It was all owing to the state of mind I was in. To have remained in her immediate neighbourhood I would have showered half-crowns.

Yet I tore myself away, and went straight home to bed. Hardly to sleep, for such slumber as visited my eyes was troubled by strange imaginings. It would be incorrect to say that all night I dreamed of her, for most of my dreams took the shape of nightmare visitations; but I do not hesitate to affirm that they were caused by her. I had not been troubled by such things for years. If she was not the cause of them, what was?

I awoke at some most unseemly hour. Since sleep was evidently at an end I concluded that it might be as well to have done with what had been, for the first time for many nights, a bed of discomfort. So I arose and dressed. It was a fine morning. I could see that the sun was shining, even from my window. I concluded that I would put into execution a resolution which I had often formed, and as often broken, of going for a walk before breakfast. One is constantly being told—for the most part by people who know nothing about it—how beautiful London is in the early morning sun.

So soon as I was in Fleet Street I saw something which I had certainly not expected to see, at least, not there, just then—Miss Purvis. Fleet Street was deserted; she was the only living thing to be seen; the sight of her nearly took me off my feet. She had been in my thoughts. Her sudden, instant presence was like the miraculous materialisation of some telepathic vision. I felt as if I had heard her calling me, and had come.

She was distant some fifty yards, and was coming towards me. I was at once struck by the air of wildness which was about her. It moved me strangely. She was not attired for the street, having on neither hat nor bonnet, jacket or gloves. Her hair was in disorder. She looked as if she had been in some singular affray. My heart jumped so within my breast that I had, perforce, to stand as if I had been rooted to the ground. Conscience-stricken, I railed at myself for not having, last night, broken down the door, instead of lounging idly in the street. All the while, I knew that there was something wrong. I owned it now, though I had been reluctant to admit it then.

I think she saw me as soon as I saw her. At sight of me she broke into a little tremulous run, swaying from side to side, as if she was so weak that her feet were not entirely under her own control. It was pitiful to watch. Tearing myself from where I seemed to be rooted, I ran to her. I had reached her in less than half-a-dozen seconds. When I was close, stretching out her hands, she cried, in a faint little voice:—

“It’s you! it’s you! Oh, Mr. Paine!”

She did not throw herself into my arms, she had not so much strength; she sank into them, and was still. I saw that she had fainted.

I bore her to my rooms. It was the least that I could do. No one was in sight. And though, no doubt, some straggler might have soon appeared, I could not tell what kind of person it might prove to be. I could hardly keep her out there in the street awaiting the advent of some quite possibly undesirable stranger, even had I been willing, which I was not. Lifting her in my arms, I carried her to my chambers.

Not once did she move. She was limp as some lay figure. I laid her on the couch. So far as I could judge, at first she did not breathe. Then, all at once, she sighed; a tremblement seemed to go all over her. I expected her to open her eyes, and see me there. I felt as if I had been guilty of I knew not what, and feared to meet her accusatory glances. But instead she lay quite still, though I could see that her bosom rose and fell, moved by gentle respirations. My blood boiled as I wondered what could have made her cheek so white.

On a sudden her eyes unclosed. For some seconds she looked neither to the right nor left. She seemed to be considering the ceiling. Then, with a start, she turned and saw me.

“Where am I?” she exclaimed.

“You are safe in my chambers. You know who I am, do you not?”

“You are Mr. Paine. Oh, Mr. Paine!”

She began to cry. Turning from me, she buried her face in the cushion.

“Miss Purvis! What is wrong? What is the matter? Tell me what has happened.”

She continued to cry, her sobs shaking her whole frame. I was beginning to be conscious that the situation was a more delicate one than had at first appeared. After all, the girl was but a stranger to me. I had not the slightest right to attempt to offer her consolation. I remembered to have read somewhere that you ought to know a man intimately for fifteen years before presuming to poke his fire. If that were the case the imagination failed to picture how long a man ought to be acquainted with a girl before venturing to try, with the aid of a pocket handkerchief, to dry her tears.

She kept on crying. It was a severe trial to one’s more or less misty sense of what etiquette demanded. Ought I to remain to be a witness of her tears? She might not like it. She might, very reasonably, resent being practically compelled to exhibit her grief in the presence of a stranger. On the other hand, to leave her alone to, as it were, cry it out, might be regarded, from certain points of view, as the acme of brutality. What I should have liked to have done would have been to take her in my arms, and comfort her as if she had been a child. In the midst of my bewilderment it irritated me to think of the asinine notions which would enter my head. Did I, I inquired of myself, wish to make an enemy, a righteous enemy, of the girl for life?

I tried the effect of another inquiry.

“Miss Purvis, I—I wish you would tell me what has happened.”

“Pollie!”

That was all she said; and that utterance was so blurred by a choking gasp as to render it uncertain if that was what she had said.

“Pollie? Who is Pollie?”

Quite possibly my tone was one of dubiety. Either that or the question itself affected her in a fashion which surprised me. She stopped as suddenly as if the fountain of her tears had been worked by some automatic attachment. Raising herself slightly from the couch, she looked at me, her eyes swollen with weeping.

“Pollie? You ask me who is Pollie? And you’re her lawyer!”

“Her lawyer?—Pollie’s——? You’re not referring to Miss——? Of course, how stupid of me! I had forgotten that Miss Blyth’s Christian name was Mary. I suppose that by her friends she is known as Pollie. I hope that nothing has happened to Miss Blyth.”

“Do you think that I should be here if nothing had happened to Pollie?”

The question was put with an amount of vigour which, in one so fragile, was almost surprising. I was delighted to see in her such a renewal of vigour. It made me feel more at my ease.

“I am only too fortunate, Miss Purvis, whatever the object of your visit. If you will permit me I will get you a cup of tea; that’s what you’re wanting. I live so much alone I’m accustomed to do all sorts of things for myself. Here’s a gas stove; in five minutes the water will be boiling; you shall have your tea. It will do you an immensity of good.”

I had always understood that girls liked tea. But, as I moved about the room, preparing to set the kettle on the stove, she stared at me with an apparent want of comprehension.

“Do you suppose that I’ve come through the streets like this just to get a cup of tea?”

“Never mind for the moment why you’ve come, Miss Purvis; the great thing is that you have come. Tea first: explanation afterwards. If you take my advice you’ll let that be the order of procedure. Nothing like a good brew to promote clarity of exposition.” I lit the stove.

“Mr. Paine! Mr. Paine!”

She jumped off the couch in quite a passion of excitement.

“Now, Miss Purvis, I do beg you will control yourself. I give you my word that in less than five minutes the water will be boiling.”

She stamped her foot; rage certainly became her.

“You keep talking about your tea, when Pollie’s killed!”

“Killed—Miss Purvis! You don’t mean that Miss Blyth is—killed?”

“She is!—or something awful—and worse!”

“But”—I placed the kettle on the stove to free my hand—“let me understand you plainly. Do you wish to be taken literally when you say that Miss Blyth is—killed?”

“If she isn’t she will be soon.”

“I’m afraid I must ask you to be a little plainer. Where is Miss Blyth?”

“She’s in one of Bluebeard’s Chambers!”

I began to wonder if her mind was wandering.

“I’m afraid that I still don’t——

“That’s the name she gave them. In that dreadful house in Camford Street there are two rooms locked up, and Pollie’s in one,”

“I see.” I did not, though, at the same time, I fancied that I began to perceive a dim glimmer of light. “But if, as you say, the rooms were locked, how did she get in, and what happened to her when she was in?”

In reply Miss Purvis poured out a series of disjointed statements which I experienced some difficulty in following, and more in reconciling. As I listened, in spite of her manifold attractions, I could not but feel that if she should figure in the witness box, in a case in which I was concerned, I would rather that she gave evidence for the other side.

“That house was full of wickedness!”

“Indeed. In what sense?”

“There’s a woman in it!”

“A woman? There is a woman? Then that’s all right.”

“All right?”

“I was afraid there wouldn’t be another woman.”

“Afraid! Women are ever so much worse than men. And she’s—awful. She says she’s the daughter of the gods.”

“A little wanting, perhaps.”

I touched my head. Apparently Miss Purvis did not catch the allusion.

“Wanting! She’s wanting in everything she ought to have. She’s—she’s not to be described. I thought she was rats.”

“You thought she was rats?”

“The house is full of them—in swarms! They’d have eaten me—picked the flesh off my bones!—if I’d given them the chance.”

I was becoming more and more persuaded that agitation had been too much for her. I had never encountered a case of a person being eaten alive by rats, except the leading one of Bishop Hatto in his rat tower on the Rhine, and that was scarcely quotable.

“Now, Miss Purvis, the kettle is just on the boil. I do beg you’ll have a cup of tea before we go any further.”

“With Pollie lying dead?”

“But is she lying dead?”

“I believe she’s eaten!”

“Eaten?—by rats?”

There was a dryness in my tone which was, perhaps, rather more significant than I had intended.

“Are you laughing at me?—Are you—laughing at me?”

She repeated her inquiry for the second time with a great sob in her voice, which made me realise what a brute I was.

“I am very far from laughing. I am only anxious that you should not make yourself ill.”

“You’re not! you’re not!” She stamped her foot again. I gazed at her with admiration. She was the first beautiful woman I remembered to have seen whose personal appearance was positively improved by getting into a temper.

“You’re laughing at me all the time; you haven’t a spark of human feeling in you!” This was an outrageous charge. At that moment I would have given a great part of what I possessed to have been able to take her in my arms. “What I’ve endured this night no tongue can tell, no pen describe. I’ve gone through enough to make my hair turn white. Hasn’t it turned white?”

“It certainly hasn’t. It’s lovely hair.”

“Lovely——?” She stopped, to look at me; seeing something in my countenance—she alone knew what it was—which made her put her hands up to her face, and burst again into tears. “Oh, Mr. Paine!”

My name, as it came from her lips, was a wail which cut me to the heart. Her agitation was making me agitated too. I had only one resource.

“Now, Miss Purvis, this kettle is really boiling.”

“If you say another word about that kettle I’ll knock it over!”

The small virago was facing me, the tears running down her cheeks, her small fists clenched, as if, on that point at least, she was capable of being as good as her word.

“Knock it over by all means, Miss Purvis, if it pleases you. I—I only want to give you pleasure.”

“Mr. Paine!”

Up went her hands again.

“Don’t do that. I—I can’t bear to see you cry.”

“Then why are you so unkind?”

“I don’t know; it’s my stupidity, I suppose; it’s far from my intention to be unkind.”

“I know! I know! I’m a nothing and a nobody; an impertinent creature who has come to bother you with a tale which you don’t believe, and which wouldn’t interest you if you did; and so you just make fun of me.”

“Don’t say that; not that. Don’t say that to me you are a nothing and a nobody.”

“I am! I am!”

“You are not.”

“Then, why do you treat me as you do?”

“Treat you! How do I treat you? There is nothing I wouldn’t do for you—nothing!”

“Mr. Paine!”

“Miss Purvis!”

I do not know how it happened. I protest, in cold blood, and in black and white, that I have no idea. But, on a sudden, I found that I had my arms about her. A moment before I had no intention of doing anything of the kind—that I swear. And I can only suppose that it was because, in her agitation, she really did not know what was happening, that she allowed her head to rest against my breast.

It was while it was there that a voice said, proceeding from the neighbourhood of the door:—

“This is a bit of all right; but where do I come in?”