The Lodger/Chapter XIII

CHAPTER XIII

Daisy’s father and stepmother stood side by side at the front door, watching the girl and young Chandler walk off into the darkness.

A yellow pall of fog had suddenly descended on London, and Joe had come a full half-hour before they expected him, explaining, rather lamely, that it was the fog which had brought him so soon.

"If we was to have waited much longer, perhaps, ’twouldn’t have been possible to walk a yard," he explained, and they had accepted, silently, his explanation.

"I hope it’s quite safe sending her off like that?"

Bunting looked deprecatingly at his wife. She had already told him more than once that he was too fussy about Daisy, that about his daughter he was like an old hen with her last chicken.

"She’s safer than she would be with you or me. She couldn’t have a smarter young fellow to look after her."

"It’ll be awful thick at Hyde Park Corner," said Bunting. "It’s always worse there than anywhere else. If I was Joe I’d ’a taken her by the Underground Railway to Victoria—that ’ud been the best way, considering the weather ’tis."

"They don’t think anything of the weather, bless you!" said his wife. "They’ll walk and walk as long as there’s a glimmer left for ’em to steer by. Daisy’s just been pining to have a walk with that young chap. I wonder you didn’t notice how disappointed they both were when you was so set on going along with them to that horrid place."

"D’you really mean that, Ellen?" Bunting looked upset. "I understood Joe to say he liked my company."

"Oh, did you?" said Mrs. Bunting dryly. "I expect he liked it just about as much as we liked the company of that old cook who would go out with us when we was courting. It always was a wonder to me how the woman could force herself upon two people who didn’t want her."

"But I’m Daisy’s father, and an old friend of Chandler," said Bunting remonstratingly. "I’m quite different from that cook. She was nothing to us, and we was nothing to her."

"She’d have liked to be something to you, I make no doubt," observed his Ellen, shaking her head, and her husband smiled, a little foolishly.

By this time they were back in their nice, cosy sitting-room, and a feeling of not altogether unpleasant lassitude stole over Mrs. Bunting. It was a comfort to have Daisy out of her way for a bit. The girl, in some ways, was very wide awake and inquisitive, and she had early betrayed what her stepmother thought to be a very unseemly and silly curiosity concerning the lodger. "You might just let me have one peep at him, Ellen?" she had pleaded, only that morning. But Ellen had shaken her head. "No, that I won’t! He’s a very quiet gentleman; but he knows exactly what he likes, and he don’t like anyone but me waiting on him. Why, even your father’s hardly seen him."

But that, naturally, had only increased Daisy’s desire to view Mr. Sleuth.

There was another reason why Mrs. Bunting was glad that her stepdaughter had gone away for two days. During her absence young Chandler was far less likely to haunt them in the way he had taken to doing lately, the more so that, in spite of what she had said to her husband, Mrs. Bunting felt sure that Daisy would ask Joe Chandler to call at Belgrave Square. ’Twouldn’t be human nature—at any rate, not girlish human nature—not to do so, even if Joe’s coming did anger Aunt Margaret.

Yes, it was pretty safe that with Daisy away they, the Buntings, would be rid of that young chap for a bit, and that would be a good thing.

When Daisy wasn’t there to occupy the whole of his attention, Mrs. Bunting felt queerly afraid of Chandler. After all, he was a detective—it was his job to be always nosing about, trying to find out things. And, though she couldn’t fairly say to herself that he had done much of that sort of thing in her house, he might start doing it any minute. And then—then—where would she, and—and Mr. Sleuth, be?

She thought of the bottle of red ink—of the leather bag which must be hidden somewhere—and her heart almost stopped beating. Those were the sort of things which, in the stories Bunting was so fond of reading, always led to the detection of famous criminals…

Mr. Sleuth’s bell for tea rang that afternoon far earlier than usual. The fog had probably misled him, and made him think it later than it was.

When she went up, "I would like a cup of tea now, and just one piece of bread-and-butter," the lodger said wearily. "I don’t feel like having anything else this afternoon."

"It’s a horrible day," Mrs. Bunting observed, in a cheerier voice than usual. "No wonder you don’t feel hungry, sir. And then it isn’t so very long since you had your dinner, is it?"

"No," he said absently. "No, it isn’t, Mrs. Bunting."

She went down, made the tea, and brought it up again. And then, as she came into the room, she uttered an exclamation of sharp dismay.

Mr. Sleuth was dressed for going out. He was wearing his long Inverness cloak, and his queer old high hat lay on the table, ready for him to put on.

"You’re never going out this afternoon, sir?" she asked falteringly. "Why, the fog’s awful; you can’t see a yard ahead of you!"

Unknown to herself, Mrs. Bunting’s voice had risen almost to a scream. She moved back, still holding the tray, and stood between the door and her lodger, as if she meant to bar his way—to erect between Mr. Sleuth and the dark, foggy world outside a living barrier.

"The weather never affects me at all," he said sullenly; and he looked at her with so wild and pleading a look in his eyes that, slowly, reluctantly, she moved aside. As she did so she noticed for the first time that Mr. Sleuth held something in his right hand. It was the key of the chiffonnier cupboard. He had been on his way there when her coming in had disturbed him.

"It’s very kind of you to be so concerned about me," he stammered, "but—but, Mrs. Bunting, you must excuse me if I say that I do not welcome such solicitude. I prefer to be left alone. I—I cannot stay in your house if I feel that my comings and goings are watched—spied upon."

She pulled herself together. "No one spies upon you, sir," she said, with considerable dignity. "I’ve done my best to satisfy you——"

"You have—you have!" he spoke in a distressed, apologetic tone. "But you spoke just now as if you were trying to prevent my doing what I wish to do—indeed, what I have to do. For years I have been misunderstood—persecuted"—he waited a moment, then in a hollow voice added the one word, "tortured! Do not tell me that you are going to add yourself to the number of my tormentors, Mrs. Bunting?"

She stared at him helplessly. "Don’t you be afraid I’ll ever be that, sir. I only spoke as I did because—well, sir, because I thought it really wasn’t safe for a gentleman to go out this afternoon. Why, there’s hardly anyone about, though we’re so near Christmas."

He walked across to the window and looked out. "The fog is clearing somewhat, Mrs. Bunting," but there was no relief in his voice, rather was there disappointment and dread.

Plucking up courage, she followed him. Yes, Mr. Sleuth was right. The fog was lifting—rolling off in that sudden, mysterious way in which local fogs sometimes do lift in London.

He turned sharply from the window. "Our conversation has made me forget an important thing, Mrs. Bunting. I should be glad if you would just leave out a glass of milk and some bread-and-butter for me this evening. I shall not require supper when I come in, for after my walk I shall probably go straight upstairs to carry through a very difficult experiment."

"Very good, sir." And then Mrs. Bunting left the lodger.

But when she found herself downstairs in the fog-laden hall, for it had drifted in as she and her husband had stood at the door seeing Daisy off, instead of going in to Bunting she did a very odd thing—a thing she had never thought of doing in her life before. She pressed her hot forehead against the cool bit of looking-glass let into the hat-and-umbrella stand. "I don’t know what to do!" she moaned to herself, and then, "I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it!"

But though she felt that her secret suspense and trouble was becoming intolerable, the one way in which she could have ended her misery never occurred to Mrs. Bunting.

In the long history of crime it has very, very seldom happened that a woman has betrayed one who has taken refuge with her. The timorous and cautious woman has not infrequently hunted a human being fleeing from his pursuer from her door, but she has not revealed the fact that he was ever there. In fact, it may almost be said that such betrayal has never taken place unless the betrayer has been actuated by love of gain, or by a longing for revenge. So far, perhaps because she is subject rather than citizen, her duty as a component part of civilised society weighs but lightly on woman’s shoulders.

And then—and then, in a sort of way, Mrs. Bunting had become attached to Mr. Sleuth. A wan smile would sometimes light up his sad face when he saw her come in with one of his meals, and when this happened Mrs. Bunting felt pleased—pleased and vaguely touched. In between those—those dreadful events outside, which filled her with such suspicion, such anguish and such suspense, she never felt any fear, only pity, for Mr. Sleuth.

Often and often, when lying wide awake at night, she turned over the strange problem in her mind. After all, the lodger must have lived somewhere during his forty-odd years of life. She did not even know if Mr. Sleuth had any brothers or sisters; friends she knew he had none. But, however odd and eccentric he was, he had evidently, or so she supposed, led a quiet, undistinguished kind of life, till—till now.

What had made him alter all of a sudden—if, that is, he had altered? That was what Mrs. Bunting was always debating fitfully with herself; and, what was more, and very terribly, to the point, having altered, why should he not in time go back to what he evidently had been—that is, a blameless, quiet gentleman?

If only he would! If only he would!

As she stood in the hall, cooling her hot forehead, all these thoughts, these hopes and fears, jostled at lightning speed through her brain.

She remembered what young Chandler had said the other day—that there had never been, in the history of the world, so strange a murderer as The Avenger had proved himself to be.

She and Bunting, aye, and little Daisy too, had hung, fascinated, on Joe’s words, as he had told them of other famous series of murders which had taken place in the past, not only in England but abroad—especially abroad.

One woman, whom all the people round her believed to be a kind, respectable soul, had poisoned no fewer than fifteen people in order to get their insurance money. Then there had been the terrible tale of an apparently respectable, contented innkeeper and his wife, who, living at the entrance to a wood, killed all those humble travellers who took shelter under their roof, simply for their clothes, and any valuables they possessed. But in all those stories the murderer or murderers always had a very strong motive, the motive being, in almost every case, a wicked lust for gold.

At last, after having passed her handkerchief over her forehead, she went into the room where Bunting was sitting smoking his pipe.

"The fog’s lifting a bit," she said in an ill-assured voice. "I hope that by this time Daisy and that Joe Chandler are right out of it."

But the other shook his head silently. "No such luck!" he said briefly. "You don’t know what it’s like in Hyde Park, Ellen. I expect ’twill soon be just as heavy here as ’twas half an hour ago!"

She wandered over to the window, and pulled the curtain back. "Quite a lot of people have come out, anyway," she observed.

"There’s a fine Christmas show in the Edgware Road. I was thinking of asking if you wouldn’t like to go along there with me."

"No," she said dully. "I’m quite content to stay at home."

She was listening—listening for the sounds which would betoken that the lodger was coming downstairs.

At last she heard the cautious, stuffless tread of his rubber-soled shoes shuffling along the hall. But Bunting only woke to the fact when the front door shut to.

"That’s never Mr. Sleuth going out?" He turned on his wife, startled. "Why, the poor gentleman’ll come to harm—that he will! One has to be wide awake on an evening like this. I hope he hasn’t taken any of his money out with him."

"’Tisn’t the first time Mr. Sleuth’s been out in a fog," said Mrs. Bunting sombrely.

Somehow she couldn’t help uttering these over-true words. And then she turned, eager and half frightened, to see how Bunting had taken what she said.

But he looked quite placid, as if he had hardly heard her. "We don’t get the good old fogs we used to get—not what people used to call ‘London particulars.’ I expect the lodger feels like Mrs. Crowley—I’ve often told you about her, Ellen?"

Mrs. Bunting nodded.

Mrs. Crowley had been one of Bunting’s ladies, one of those he had liked best—a cheerful, jolly lady, who used often to give her servants what she called a treat. It was seldom the kind of treat they would have chosen for themselves, but still they appreciated her kind thought.

"Mrs. Crowley used to say," went on Bunting, in his slow, dogmatic way, "that she never minded how bad the weather was in London, so long as it was London and not the country. Mr. Crowley, he liked the country best, but Mrs. Crowley always felt dull-like there. Fog never kept her from going out—no, that it didn’t. She wasn’t a bit afraid. But—" he turned round and looked at his wife—"I am a bit surprised at Mr. Sleuth. I should have thought him a timid kind of gentleman——"

He waited a moment, and she felt forced to answer him.

"I wouldn’t exactly call him timid," she said, in a low voice, "but he is very quiet, certainly. That’s why he dislikes going out when there are a lot of people bustling about the streets. I don’t suppose he’ll be out long."

She hoped with all her soul that Mr. Sleuth would be in very soon—that he would be daunted by the now increasing gloom.

Somehow she did not feel she could sit still for very long. She got up, and went over to the farthest window.

The fog had lifted, certainly. She could see the lamp-lights on the other side of the Marylebone Road, glimmering redly; and shadowy figures were hurrying past, mostly making their way towards the Edgware Road, to see the Christmas shops.

At last to his wife’s relief, Bunting got up too. He went over to the cupboard where he kept his little store of books, and took one out.

"I think I’ll read a bit," he said. "Seems a long time since I’ve looked at a book. The papers was so jolly interesting for a bit, but now there’s nothing in ’em."

His wife remained silent. She knew what he meant. A good many days had gone by since the last two Avenger murders, and the papers had very little to say about them that they hadn’t said in different language a dozen times before.

She went into her bedroom and came back with a bit of plain sewing.

Mrs. Bunting was fond of sewing, and Bunting liked to see her so engaged. Since Mr. Sleuth had come to be their lodger she had not had much time for that sort of work.

It was funny how quiet the house was without either Daisy, or—or the lodger, in it.

At last she let her needle remain idle, and the bit of cambric slipped down on her knee, while she listened, longingly, for Mr. Sleuth’s return home.

And as the minutes sped by she fell to wondering with a painful wonder if she would ever see her lodger again, for, from what she knew of Mr. Sleuth, Mrs. Bunting felt sure that if he got into any kind of—well, trouble outside, he would never betray where he had lived during the last few weeks.

No, in such a case the lodger would disappear in as sudden a way as he had come. And Bunting would never suspect, would never know, until, perhaps—God, what a horrible thought!—a picture published in some newspaper might bring a certain dreadful fact to Bunting’s knowledge.

But if that happened—if that unthinkably awful thing came to pass, she made up her mind, here and now, never to say anything. She also would pretend to be amazed, shocked, unutterably horrified at the astounding revelation.