The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 9
84, CAMFORD STREET.
(THE FACTS OF THE CASE ACCORDING TO EMILY PURVIS.)
Talk about romance! I never could have believed that after wishing for a thing your whole life long you could have had enough of it in so short a space of time. In the morning Pollie Blyth heard, for the very first time, that a fortune and a house had been left to her, and, before the night of that same day was over, she wished that it had not. And here had I been looking, ever since I was a teeny-weeny little thing, for a touch of romance to give existence a real live flavour, and then, when I got it, the best I could do was to wonder how I had been so silly as ever to have wanted it.
Poor Pollie! That first night in Camford Street she would go out. She said she must go and see her Tom. That he would be waiting, wondering what had become of her, and that nothing should keep her from him. Nothing did. I could not. And when I suggested that it might be as well for her to be a little careful what she did that very first night, she actually proposed that I should stop in that awful house by myself, and wait in it alone till she returned.
I would not have done such a thing for worlds, and she knew it. As a matter of fact I could not have said if I was more unwilling to leave the place, or to stay in it, even with her. The extraordinary conditions of her dreadful old uncle’s horrible will weighed on me much more than they seemed to do on her. I felt sure that something frightful would happen if they were not strictly observed. Nothing could be clearer than his repeated injunction not to be out after nine, and her appointment with Mr. Cooper was for half-past eight.
Cardew and Slaughter are supposed to close at eight, but she knew as well as I did what that really meant. It was a wonder if one of the assistants got out before nine. Mr. Cooper was in the heavy, and the gentlemen in that department were always last. If he appeared till after nine I should be surprised, and, if we were at the other end of London at that hour, with the uncle’s will staring us in the face, what would become of us? Being locked out of Cardew and Slaughter’s was nothing to what that would mean.
But Pollie would not listen to a word. She is as obstinate as obstinate when she likes, though she may not think it.
“My dear,” she said, “I must see Tom. Mustn’t I see Tom? If you were in my place, and he was your Tom, wouldn’t you feel that you must see him?”
There was something in that I acknowledged. It was frightful that you should be cut off from intercourse with the man you loved simply because your hours would not fit his. But then there was so much to be said upon the other side.
“I’m sure he’ll be punctual to-night, he’ll be so anxious. And you know sometimes he can get off a little earlier if he makes an effort. You see if he isn’t there at half-past eight I’ll just speak to him, then start off back at once. He’ll come with us, we shall be back here before nine, and then he’ll leave us at the door.”
That was how it was to turn out, according to her. I had my doubts. When you are with the man to whom you are engaged to be married half an hour is nothing. It’s gone before you know it’s begun.
It was eight o’clock when we left the house. I thought we should never have left it at all. We could not open the door. It had no regular handle; no regular anything. While we were trying to get it open the house was filled with the most extraordinary noises. If it was all rats, as Pollie declared, then rats have got more ways of expressing their feelings than I had imagined. It seemed to me as if the place was haunted by mysterious voices which were warning us to be careful of what we did.
“Of course if we’re prisoners it’s just as well that we should know it now as later on. How do you open this door?”
Just as she spoke the door opened.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She seemed surprised. “I was just pushing at the thing when—it came open. There’s a trick about it I expect; we’ll find out what it is to-morrow, there’s no time now. At present it’s enough that it’s open; out you go!”
When we were out in the street, and she pulled it to, it shut behind us with an ominous clang, like the iron gates used to do in the barons’ castle which we read about in the days of old. We took the tram in the Westminster Bridge Road, then walked the rest of the way. It was half-past eight when we arrived. As I expected, of course Mr. Cooper wasn’t there.
“Pollie, we ought not to stop. We ought to be in before nine this first night, at any rate. We don’t know what will happen if we’re not.”
“You can go back if you like, but I must and will see Tom.”
Nine o’clock came and still no Mr. Cooper. I was in such a state I was ready to drop. It was nearly a quarter-past before he turned up. Then they both began talking together at such a rate that it was impossible to get a word in edgeways. When I did succeed in bringing Pollie to some consciousness of the position we were in, and she asked Mr. Cooper to start back with us at once, he would not go. He said that he had had such a narrow escape the night before, and had had such difficulty in getting in—so far as I could make out he had had to climb up a pipe, or something, and had scraped a hole in both knees of his trousers against the wall—that he had determined that it should be some time before he ran such a risk again, and had therefore made up his mind that he would be in extra early as a sort of set-off. It was no good Pollie talking. For some cause or other he did not seem to be in the best of tempers. And then, when she found that, after all our waiting, he would not see us home, she got excited. They began saying things to each other which they never meant. So they quarrelled.
Finally Mr. Cooper marched off in a rage, declaring that now she had come into a fortune she looked upon him as a servant, and that though she had inherited £488 9s. 6d. a year, and a house, he would not be treated like a lackey. She was in such a fury that she was almost crying. She assured me that she would never speak to him again until she was compelled, and that they would both be grey before that time came. All I wanted to do was to keep outside the quarrel, because they had behaved like a couple of stupids, and to find myself in safe quarters for the night.
“I don’t know, my dear Pollie, if you’re aware that it’s past half-past ten. Do you propose to return to Camford Street?”
“Past half-past ten!” She started. Her thoughts flew off to Mr. Cooper. “Then he’ll be late again! Whatever will he do?”
“It’s not of what he’ll do I’m thinking, but of what we’re going to do. After what your uncle said, do you propose to return to Camford Street at this hour of the night?”
“We shall have to. There’s nowhere else to go. I wish I’d never come to see him now; it hasn’t been a very pleasant interview, I’m sure.” I cordially agreed with her—I wished she had not. But it was too late to shut the stable-door after the steed was stolen. “Let’s hurry. There’s one thing, I’ve got the back-door key in my pocket, if the worst does come to the worst.”
What she meant I do not think she quite knew herself. She was in a state of mind in which she was inclined to talk at random.
We had not gone fifty yards when a man, coming to us from across the street, took off his hat to Pollie. I had noticed him when she was having her argument with Mr. Cooper, and had felt sure that he was watching us. There was something about the way in which he kept walking up and down which I had not liked, and now that Mr. Cooper had gone I was not at all surprised that he accosted us. He looked about thirty; had a short light brown beard and whiskers, which were very nicely trimmed; a pair of those very pale blue eyes which are almost the colour of steel; and there was something about him which made one think that he had spent most of his life in open air. He wore what looked, in that light—he had stopped us almost immediately under a gas-lamp—like a navy blue serge suit and a black bowler hat.
“Miss Blyth, I believe, the niece of my old friend Batters. My name is Max Lander. Perhaps you have heard him speak of me.”
His manner could not have been more civil. Yet, under the circumstances, it was not singular that Pollie shrank from being addressed by a stranger. Putting her arm through mine, she looked him in the face.
“I don’t know you.”
“Have you never heard your uncle speak of me—Max Lander?”
“I never knew my uncle.”
“You never knew your uncle?” He spoke, in echoing her words, almost as if he doubted her. “Then where is your uncle now?”
“He is dead.”
“If you knew my uncle, as you say you did, you must know that he is dead. Come, Emily, let us go. I think this gentleman has made a mistake.”
“Stop, Miss Blyth, I beg of you. Where did your uncle die?”
“I don’t know where exactly, it was somewhere in Australia.”
“In Australia!” I never saw surprise written more plainly on a person’s face. “But when?”
“If, as you say, you knew him, then you ought to know better than I, who never did.”
“When I last saw Mr. Batters he didn’t look as if he meant to die.”
He gave a short laugh, as if he were enjoying some curious little joke of his own.
“Where did you see him last?”
“On the Flying Scud."
“The Flying Scud? What’s that?”
“My ship. Or, rather, it was my ship. The devil knows whose it is now.”
“Mr. Lander, if that really is your name, I don’t know anything about my uncle, except that he is dead. Was he a sailor?”
“A sailor?” He seemed as if he could not make her out. I stood close to him, so that I saw him well; it struck me that he looked at her with suspicion in his eyes. “He was no sailor. At least, so far as I know. But he was the most remarkable man who ever drew breath. In saying that I’m saying little. You can’t know much of him if you don’t know so much. Then, if he’s dead, where’s Luke?”
He spoke with sudden heat, as if a thought had all at once occurred to him.
“Luke? What is Luke?—another ship?”
“Another ship? Great Cæsar!” Taking off his hat, he ran his fingers through his short brown hair. “Miss Blyth, either you’re a chip of the old block, in which case I’m sorry for you, and for myself too, or, somewhere, there’s something very queer. Hollo! Who are you?”
While we had been talking a man had been sidling towards us along the pavement. He had on a long black coat, and a hat crammed over his eyes. As he passed behind Mr. Lander he stopped. Mr. Lander spun round. On the instant he tore off as if for his life. Without a moment’s hesitation Mr. Lander rushed full speed after him. Pollie and I stood staring in the direction they had gone.
“Whatever is the matter now?” I asked. “What did the man do to Mr. Lander?”
“Emily, that’s the man who slipped the paper into my hand last night—you remember? There’s a cab across the road; let’s get into it and get away from here as fast as we can.”
We crossed and hailed the cabman. As he drew up beside the kerb, and we were about to enter, who should come tearing over the road to us again but Mr. Lander. He was panting for breath.
“Miss Blyth, I do beg that you will let me speak to you. If not here, then let me come with you and speak to you elsewhere.”
“I would rather you did not come with us, thank you, I would very much rather that you did not.”
He stood with his hand on the apron of the hansom in such a way that he prevented us from entering.
“Miss Blyth, you don’t look like your uncle—God forbid! You look honest and true. If you have a woman’s heart in your bosom I entreat you to hear me. Your uncle did me the greatest injury a man could have done. I implore you to help me to undo that injury, so far as, by the grace of God, it can be undone.”
He spoke in a strain of passion which I could see that Pollie did not altogether relish. I didn’t either.
“I will give you my solicitor’s name and address, then you can call on him, and tell him all you have to say.”
“Your solicitor! I don’t want to speak to your solicitor; he may be another rogue like your uncle. I want to speak to you.”
Before Pollie could answer, another man came up. He touched his hat to Mr. Lander.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but this is the young lady I told you about. Miss Blyth will remember me, because I was so fortunate as to do her a small service last night. May I hope, Miss Blyth, that you have not forgotten me?”
The man spoke in a small, squeaky voice, which was in ridiculous contrast to his enormous size. It was actually the creature who had paid the bill for us the night before at Firandolo’s—one shilling and three-pence! My impulse was to take out my purse, give him this money, and be rid of him for good and all. But, before I had a chance of doing so, Mr. Lander turned upon him in quite a passion.
“What do you mean by thrusting in your oar? Get out of it, Ike Rudd!”
“I beg your pardon, sir, I’m sure, if I’m intruding, and the young lady’s; but, seeing that I was able to do her a little service, I thought that perhaps she might be willing——”
Mr. Lander cut him short with a positive roar.
“Dont you hear me tell you to take yourself out of this, you blundering ass!”
In his anger with Mr. Rudd he moved away from the cab. Without a moment’s delay Pollie jumped into it, and dragged me after her.
“Drive off, and don’t stop for anyone!”
It was done so quickly that before Mr. Lander had an opportunity to realise what was happening the driver gave his horse a cut of the whip. The creature gave a bound which it was a wonder to me did not upset the hansom, and when his master struck him again he galloped off as if he were racing for the Derby.
After we had gone a little way—at full pelt!—the driver spoke to us through the trap-door overhead.
“Where to, miss?”
“Is he following us?” “Not he. He tried a step or two, but when he saw at what a lick we were going he jerked it up. He went back and had a row with the other chap instead, the one who came up and spoke to him I mean. They’re at it now. Has he been bothering you, miss?”
“I don’t know anything at all about him. He’s a perfect stranger to me. I think he must be mad. Drive us to the Westminster Bridge Road, if you are sure that he’s not following.”
“I’ll see that that’s all right, you trust me.” He swung round a corner. “He’s out of sight now, I should think for good; but if he does come in sight again I’ll let you know. What part of the Westminster Bridge Road?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”