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CHAPTER VII.

ENTERING INTO POSSESSION.

It was Mr. Paine who settled with the cabman. It had not struck me that we had been passing through an over-savoury neighbourhood; we drew up in front of a perfectly disreputable-looking house. Not that it was particularly small; there were three storeys; but it looked so dirty. And if there is one thing I cannot stand it is dirt. I could easily believe that no one had lived in it for twenty years; it was pretty plain that the windows had not been cleaned for quite as long as that.

“Well,” I declared as I got out of the cab, “of all the dirty-looking places I ever saw! If no one is to be allowed to set foot inside except Emily and me, who do you suppose is going to clean those windows?”

“That, I am afraid, is a matter which you must arrange with Miss Purvis; the will makes no exception in favour of window cleaners.”

“Then all I can say is that that’s a nice thing.” I turned to Emily. “This is going to turn out a pretty sort of romance—charwomen is what we shall have to commence by being.”

“I’m not afraid of a little work,” she laughed.

I looked at the door.

“That writing on the label said that we were not to go into the house when anyone was looking. How are we going to manage that? Are you and the cabman to turn your backs?”

“I don’t think that that is necessary; this shall be an exception. After you’ve opened the door we’ll hand the luggage to you when you’re inside.”

Mr. Paine and the cabman were not by any means the only two persons who were looking. Our stoppage in front of No. 84 had created quite a wave of interest. People were watching us at doors and through windows, and a small crowd of children had gathered round us in a circle on the pavement. As it was out of the question for us to wait till all eyes were off us, I straightaway disobeyed at least one of the directions which were on the label.

What looked like an ordinary opening for a latch-key was in its usual place on the right hand side of the door, but when I slipped my key into that it turned round and round without producing any visible effect whatever. So I examined the other side. There, sure enough, so high up as to be almost beyond my reach, was what looked like a small dab of green paint. When I pushed the key against it it gave way. The key went into the apparently solid wood-work right up to the handle. I gave it an upward jerk; the door was open. However neglected the windows were, that lock seemed to be in good condition.

The door had opened about an inch. We all stared at it as if something wonderful had happened. I confess that I was a little startled, because I had used so little force that it was a wonder to me how it had come open. The children, giving a sort of cheer, came crowding close round. Mr. Paine had to order them back. I pressed my hand against the door. As it swung upon its hinges a bell sounded somewhere in the house. It seemed to come from upstairs, with a shrill, metallic clanging.

“There might be someone in already, who wanted to have warning of anyone’s approach.”

This was Emily. She was staring into the passage as if she expected to see something strange.

“Come,” said Mr. Paine. “Let me help you in with the luggage; then I must leave you. People are taking a greater interest in the proceedings than is altogether desirable. You may find them a nuisance if you don’t look out.”

The crowd was being reinforced by children of an older growth. Loiterers were stopping to stare. People were coming out of their houses. As Mr. Paine said, their interest was becoming too demonstrative. He helped the cabman to get our boxes into the passage. Then he went. We shut the door after him in the faces of the crowd. Emily and I were left alone.

It was an odd sensation which I felt during those first few moments in which I realised that she and I were alone in my Uncle Benjamin’s old house. I was conscious of a foolish desire to call the crowd to keep us company. Emily Purvis was hardly the kind of girl I should myself have chosen to be my sole companion in a tight place; and I had a kind of feeling that before very long it might turn out that I was in a tight place now.

It had all come on me so suddenly. More things had happened in a few hours than in all my life before. Yesterday I had thought myself a fixture at Cardew & Slaughter’s; with marriage with Tom in the far-off distance; when the skies had fallen; or he had become a shopwalker and I a buyer; or we had saved up enough to start a small shop of our own. Now, Cardew & Slaughter’s had gone from me for ever. So far as money went I was free to marry Tom next week. But there was this horrid house—already I was calling it horrid—and my uncle’s absurd conditions. If I was to observe them during the rest of my life I might as well write myself a nun at once, and worse. Better Cardew & Slaughter’s—or anything.

We could hear the sound of traffic and voices in the street. Within the house all was still. There was no window over the door. In the passage it was so dark that it was as much as we could do to make out where we were. Emily put her hand upon my arm, as if she wished to make sure that I was close.

“It’s no good our stopping here,” I said. “We’d better light a candle and look about us. If the whole house is as light as this it must be a cheerful place to live in.”

Acting on Mr. Paine’s suggestion, as we had come along in the cab we had bought some candles and matches, and enough provisions to carry us on to tomorrow. Routing out a box, I struck a match. I gave Emily a candle and took one myself.

“Now to explore!”

We were brought to a standstill at the very start. In front of us was a door which led into a room opening out of the passage, or ought to have done. When I tried the handle I found that it was locked. I shook it, I even thumped at the panels, I searched for a key; it was no good. Against us the door was sealed.

“This is a comfortable beginning! If all the doors are locked it will be really nice. Perhaps Uncle Benjamin intended that I should merely have the run of the passage and the stairs.”

Such, however, fortunately or otherwise, was not the case. The room behind the one which was closed was the kitchen; that was open, and a delightful state it was in. Not only was it inches thick in dust, but it was in a state of astonishing confusion. Pots and pans were everywhere. The last person who had used that kitchen to cook a meal in had apparently simply let the utensils drop from her hand when she had done with them, and left them lying where they fell. There was a saucepan here, a frying-pan there, a baking tin in the corner. Another thing we soon became conscious of—that the place was alive with cockroaches.

“What is it we are stepping on?” asked Emily.

“Why, it’s beetles.”

She picked up her skirts, she gave a scream, and back she scurried into the passage. I am not fond of the creatures; I never met anyone who was; but I am not afraid of them, and I was not going to let them drive me out of my own kitchen.

“There’s one thing wanted, and that’s light and fresh air. Only let me get those shutters down, and the window open, and then we’ll see. I should say from the smell of the place that there has never been any proper ventilation since the house was built.”

But it was easier said than done. Those shutters would not come down. How to begin to get them down was more than I could understand. To my astonishment, when I rapped them with my knuckles, they rang.

“I do believe,” I said, “they’re made of iron—they’re a metal of some kind. They seem to have been built into the solid wall, as if they had never intended them to be moved. No wonder the place smells like a vault, and beetles, and other nice things, flourish, if they’re fixtures.”

A scullery led out of the kitchen. It was in the same state. One crunched blackbeetles at every step. There was a shutter before the window, which had evidently never been meant to be taken down. Where, apparently, there had been a door leading into a backyard or something, was a sheet of solid metal. No one was going to get out that way in a hurry; or in either.

“But what can be the meaning of it all?” I cried. “There must be an object in all this display of plate armour, or whatever it is. The place is fortified as if it were meant to stand a siege. I shall begin to wonder if there isn’t a treasure hidden somewhere in the house; a great store of gold and precious stones, and that Uncle Benjamin made up his mind that at any rate thieves should not break through and steal.”

“Oh, Pollie, do you think there is? Perhaps it’s in the next room—perhaps that’s why the door is locked.”

“Perhaps so; and perhaps the key’s upstairs, waiting for us to come and find it. Anyhow we’ll go and see.”

When I rejoined Emily it struck me that she was not looking quite so happy as she might have done; as if the romance was not taking altogether the shape she either expected or desired. I led the way upstairs. There was a carpet on them; but by the illumination afforded by a guttering candle, it only needed a glance to see that, if you once took it up, you would probably never be able to put it down again—it would fall to pieces. We had hardly gone up half-a-dozen steps when there came a clitter-clatter from above. Emily, who was behind, caught me by the skirt.

“Pollie! Stop! Whatever’s that? There’s someone there!”

“Rats, most likely. In a house like this there are sure to be all sorts of agreeable things. Where there aren’t blackbeetles there are rats; and where there’s either there’s probably both.”

Rats it was. Before we had mounted another tread two or three came flying down, brushing against our skirts as they passed. You should have heard Emily scream.

“Don’t be silly,” I said, “You talk about liking romance, and you make all that fuss because of a rat or two.”

“It isn’t exactly that I’m afraid of them, but—they startled me so. I daresay I shan’t mind them when I’ve got used to them, only—I’ve got to get used to them first.”

She was likely to have every opportunity. Presently two or three more came down. They seemed be in a hurry. One, which was not looking where it was going, struck itself against my foot, and squeaked. Emily squealed too. When we reached the landing we could hear them scampering in all directions.

On that floor there were three rooms and a cupboard. The cupboard was empty. So was one of the rooms; that is, so far as furniture was concerned. But it was plain where, at any rate, some of the rats were. When I went into the room I stepped on a loose board. As it gave way beneath my tread I never heard such an extraordinary noise as came from under it. Apparently a legion of rats had their habitations underneath that flooring. I half expected them to rush out and make for us. I was out of the room quicker than I went in, and took care to close the door behind me. Emily had turned as white as a sheet.

“I can’t stop in this place—I can’t.”

I was scornful.

“I thought you couldn’t. You’ll remember I told you that you wouldn’t be my companion long. I knew that was the sort you were.”

“It isn’t fair of you to talk like that—it isn’t. I don’t mind ordinary things—and I’ll not leave you, you know I won’t. But all those rats! Did you hear them?”

“I heard them, and they’ll hear me before long. There’s going to be a wholesale slaughter of rats, and blackbeetles. There’ll soon be a clearance when they’ve sampled some of the stuff I know of. I’m not going to be driven out of my own house by trifles.”

One of the other rooms was a bedroom, a sort of skeleton of one. There was some carpet on the floor, or what had been carpet. There was an iron bedstead, on which were the remains of what might have been a mattress. But there were no signs of sheets or blankets; I wondered if the rats had eaten them.

After what we had seen of the rest of the house, the third room, which was in front, was a surprise. It was a parlour; not the remnants of one, but an actual parlour. There was what seemed to be a pretty good carpet on the floor. There was a round table, with a tapestry cover. There were two easy chairs, four small ones, a couch. On the sideboard were plates and dishes, cups and saucers. On the stove, which was a small kitchener, was a kettle, two saucepans, and a frying pan, all of them in decent order. Although the usual shutters screened the window, the place was clean, comparatively speaking. And when I went to a cupboard which was in one corner, I found that in it there were coals and wood.

“It is not twenty years since this room was occupied, there’s that much certain; nor, from the look of it, should I say it was twenty hours. I should say there had been a fire in that stove this very day, and there’s water in the kettle now.”

“What’s this?”

Emily was holding out something which she had picked up from the floor. It was a woman’s bracelet, a gold bangle; though I had never seen one like it before. It was made of plain, flat gold, very narrow, twisted round and round; there was so much of it that, when it was in its place, it must have wound round the wearer’s arm, like a sort of serpent, from the wrist to the elbow. At one end of it was something, the very sight of which gave me quite a qualm.