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CHAPTER XIV

"There he is at last, and I’m glad of it, Ellen. ’Tain’t a night you would wish a dog to be out in."

Bunting’s voice was full of relief, but he did not turn round and look at his wife as he spoke; instead, he continued to read the evening paper he held in his hand.

He was still close to the fire, sitting back comfortably in his nice arm-chair. He looked very well—well and ruddy. Mrs. Bunting stared across at him with a touch of sharp envy, nay, more, of resentment. And this was very curious, for she was, in her own dry way, very fond of Bunting.

"You needn’t feel so nervous about him; Mr. Sleuth can look out for himself all right."

Bunting laid the paper he had been reading down on his knee. "I can’t think why he wanted to go out in such weather," he said impatiently.

"Well, it’s none of your business, Bunting, now, is it?"

"No, that’s true enough. Still, ’twould be a very bad thing for us if anything happened to him. This lodger’s the first bit of luck we’ve had for a terrible long time, Ellen."

Mrs. Bunting moved a little impatiently in her high chair. She remained silent for a moment. What Bunting had said was too obvious to be worth answering. Also she was listening, following in imagination her lodger’s quick, singularly quiet progress—"stealthy" she called it to herself—through the fog-filled, lamp-lit hall. Yes, now he was going up the staircase. What was that Bunting was saying——?

"It isn’t safe for decent folk to be out in such weather—no, that it ain’t, not unless they have something to do that won’t wait till to-morrow." The speaker was looking straight into his wife’s narrow, colourless face. Bunting was an obstinate man, and liked to prove himself right. "I’ve a good mind to speak to him about it, that I have! He ought to be told that it isn’t safe—not for the sort of man he is—to be wandering about the streets at night. I read you out the accidents in Lloyd’s—shocking, they were, and all brought about by the fog! And then, that horrid monster ’ull soon be at his work again——"

"Monster?" repeated Mrs. Bunting absently.

She was trying to hear the lodger’s footsteps overhead. She was very curious to know whether he had gone into his nice sitting-room, or straight upstairs, to that cold experiment-room, as he now always called it.

But her husband went on as if he had not heard her, and she gave up trying to listen to what was going on above.

"It wouldn’t be very pleasant to run up against such a party as that in the fog, eh, Ellen?" He spoke as if the notion had a certain pleasant thrill in it after all.

"What stuff you do talk!" said Mrs. Bunting sharply. And then she got up. Her husband’s remarks had disturbed her. Why couldn’t they talk of something pleasant when they did have a quiet bit of time together?

Bunting looked down again at his paper, and she moved quietly about the room. Very soon it would be time for supper, and to-night she was going to cook her husband a nice piece of toasted cheese. That fortunate man, as she was fond of telling him, with mingled contempt and envy, had the digestion of an ostrich, and yet he was rather fanciful, as gentlemen’s servants who have lived in good places often are.

Yes, Bunting was very lucky in the matter of his digestion. Mrs. Bunting prided herself on having a nice mind, and she would never have allowed an unrefined word—such a word as "stomach," for instance, to say nothing of an even plainer term—to pass her lips, except, of course, to a doctor in a sick-room.

Mr. Sleuth’s landlady did not go down at once into her cold kitchen; instead, with a sudden furtive movement, she opened the door leading into her bedroom, and then, closing the door quietly, stepped back into the darkness, and stood motionless, listening.

At first she heard nothing, but gradually there stole on her listening ears the sound of someone moving softly about in the room just overhead, that is, in Mr. Sleuth’s bedroom. But, try as she might, it was impossible for her to guess what the lodger was doing.

At last she heard him open the door leading out on the little landing. She could hear the stairs creaking. That meant, no doubt, that Mr. Sleuth would pass the rest of the evening in the cheerless room above. He hadn’t spent any time up there for quite a long while—in fact, not for nearly ten days. ’Twas odd he chose to-night, when it was so foggy, to carry out an experiment.

She groped her way to a chair and sat down. She felt very tired—strangely tired, as if she had gone through some great physical exertion.

Yes, it was true that Mr. Sleuth had brought her and Bunting luck, and it was wrong, very wrong, of her ever to forget that.

As she sat there she also reminded herself, and not for the first time, what the lodger’s departure would mean. It would almost certainly mean ruin; just as his staying meant all sorts of good things, of which physical comfort was the least. If Mr. Sleuth stayed on with them, as he showed every intention of doing, it meant respectability, and, above all, security.

Mrs. Bunting thought of Mr. Sleuth’s money. He never received a letter, and yet he must have some kind of income—so much was clear. She supposed he went and drew his money, in sovereigns, out of a bank as he required it.

Her mind swung round, consciously, deliberately, away from Mr. Sleuth.

The Avenger? What a strange name! Again she assured herself that there would come a time when The Avenger, whoever he was, must feel satiated; when he would feel himself to be, so to speak, avenged.

To go back to Mr. Sleuth; it was lucky that the lodger seemed so pleased, not only with the rooms, but with his landlord and landlady—indeed, there was no real reason why Mr. Sleuth should ever wish to leave such nice lodgings.

· · · · · · ·

Mrs. Bunting suddenly stood up. She made a strong effort, and shook off her awful sense of apprehension and unease. Feeling for the handle of the door giving into the passage she turned it, and then, with light, firm steps, she went down into the kitchen.

When they had first taken the house, the basement had been made by her care, if not into a pleasant, then, at any rate, into a very clean place. She had had it whitewashed, and against the still white walls the gas-stove loomed up, a great square of black iron and bright steel. It was a large gas-stove, the kind for which one pays four shillings a quarter rent to the gas company, and here, in the kitchen, there was no foolish shilling-in-the-slot arrangement. Mrs. Bunting was too shrewd a woman to have anything to do with that kind of business. There was a proper gas-meter, and she paid for what she consumed after she had consumed it.

Putting her candle down on the well-scrubbed wooden table, she turned up the gas-jet, and blew out the candle.

Then, lighting one of the gas-rings, she put a frying-pan on the stove, and once more her mind reverted, as if in spite of herself, to Mr. Sleuth. Never had there been a more confiding or trusting gentleman than the lodger, and yet in some ways he was so secret, so—so peculiar.

She thought of the bag—that bag which had rumbled about so queerly in the chiffonnier. Something seemed to tell her that tonight the lodger had taken that bag out with him.

And then she thrust away the thought of the bag almost violently from her mind, and went back to the more agreeable thought of Mr. Sleuth’s income, and of how little trouble he gave. Of course, the lodger was eccentric, otherwise he wouldn’t be their lodger at all—he would be living in quite a different sort of way with some of his relations, or with a friend in his own class.

While these thoughts galloped disconnectedly through her mind, Mrs. Bunting went on with her cooking, preparing the cheese, cutting it up into little shreds, carefully measuring out the butter, doing everything, as was always her way, with a certain delicate and cleanly precision.

And then, while in the middle of toasting the bread on which was to be poured the melted cheese, she suddenly heard sounds which startled her, made her feel uncomfortable.

Shuffling, hesitating steps were creaking down the house.

She looked up and listened.

Surely the lodger was not going out again into the cold and foggy night—going out, as he had done the other evening, for a second time? But no; the sounds she heard, the sounds of now familiar footsteps, did not continue down the passage leading to the front door.

Instead—— Why, what was this she heard now? She began to listen so intently that the bread she was holding at the end of the toasting-fork grew quite black. With a start she became aware that this was so, and she frowned, vexed with herself. That came of not attending to one’s work.

Mr. Sleuth was evidently about to do what he had never yet done. He was coming down into the kitchen.

Nearer and nearer came the thudding sounds, treading heavily on the kitchen stairs, and Mrs. Bunting’s heart began to beat as if in response. She put out the flame of the gas-ring, unheedful of the fact that the cheese would stiffen and spoil in the cold air.

Then she turned and faced the door.

There came a fumbling at the handle, and a moment later the door opened, and revealed, as she had at once known and feared it would do, the lodger.

Mr. Sleuth looked even odder than usual. He was clad in a plaid dressing-gown, which she had never seen him wear before, though she knew that he had purchased it not long after his arrival. In his hand was a lighted candle.

When he saw the kitchen all lighted up, and the woman standing in it, the lodger looked inexplicably taken aback, almost aghast.

"Yes, sir? What can I do for you, sir? I hope you didn’t ring, sir?"

Mrs. Bunting held her ground in front of the stove. Mr. Sleuth had no business to come like this into her kitchen, and she intended to let him know that such was her view.

"No, I—I didn’t ring," he stammered awkwardly. "The truth is, I didn’t know you were here, Mrs. Bunting. Please excuse my costume. My gas-stove has gone wrong, or, rather, that shilling-in-the-slot arrangement has done so. So I came down to see if you had a gas-stove. I am going to ask you to allow me to use it to-night for an important experiment I wish to make."

Mrs. Bunting’s heart was beating quickly—quickly. She felt horribly troubled, unnaturally so. Why couldn’t Mr. Sleuth’s experiment wait till the morning? She stared at him dubiously, but there was that in his face that made her at once afraid and pitiful. It was a wild, eager, imploring look.

"Oh, certainly, sir; but you will find it very cold down here."

"It seems most pleasantly warm," he observed, his voice full of relief, "warm and cosy, after my cold room upstairs."

Warm and cosy? Mrs. Bunting stared at him in amazement. Nay, even that cheerless room at the top of the house must be far warmer and more cosy than this cold underground kitchen could possibly be.

"I’ll make you a fire, sir. We never use the grate, but it’s in perfect order, for the first thing I did after I came into the house was to have the chimney swept. It was terribly dirty. It might have set the house on fire." Mrs. Bunting’s housewifely instincts were roused. "For the matter of that, you ought to have a fire in your bedroom this cold night."

"By no means—I would prefer not. I certainly do not want a fire there. I dislike an open fire, Mrs. Bunting. I thought I had told you as much."

Mr. Sleuth frowned. He stood there, a strange-looking figure, his candle still alight, just inside the kitchen door.

"I shan’t be very long, sir. Just about a quarter of an hour. You could come down then. I’ll have everything quite tidy for you. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

"I do not require the use of your kitchen yet—thank you all the same, Mrs. Bunting. I shall come down later—altogether later—after you and your husband have gone to bed. But I should be much obliged if you would see that the gas people come to-morrow and put my stove in order. It might be done while I am out. That the shilling-in-the-slot machine should go wrong is very unpleasant. It has upset me greatly."

"Perhaps Bunting could put it right for you, sir. For the matter of that, I could ask him to go up now."

"No, no, I don’t want anything of that sort done to-night. Besides, he couldn’t put it right. I am something of an expert, Mrs. Bunting, and I have done all I could. The cause of the trouble is quite simple. The machine is choked up with shillings; a very foolish plan, so I always felt it to be."

Mr. Sleuth spoke pettishly, with far more heat than he was wont to speak, but Mrs. Bunting sympathised with him in this matter. She had always suspected that those slot machines were as dishonest as if they were human. It was dreadful, the way they swallowed up the shillings! She had had one once, so she knew.

And as if he were divining her thoughts, Mr. Sleuth walked forward and stared at the stove. "Then you haven’t got a slot machine?" he said wonderingly. "I’m very glad of that, for I expect my experiment will take some time. But, of course, I shall pay you something for the use of the stove, Mrs. Bunting."

"Oh, no, sir, I wouldn’t think of charging you anything for that. We don’t use our stove very much, you know, sir. I’m never in the kitchen a minute longer than I can help this cold weather."

Mrs. Bunting was beginning to feel better. When she was actually in Mr. Sleuth’s presence her morbid fears would be lulled, perhaps because his manner almost invariably was gentle and very quiet. But still there came over her an eerie feeling, as, with him preceding her, they made a slow progress to the ground floor.

Once there, the lodger courteously bade his landlady good-night, and proceeded upstairs to his own apartments.

Mrs. Bunting returned to the kitchen. Again she lighted the stove; but she felt unnerved, afraid of she knew not what. As she was cooking the cheese, she tried to concentrate her mind on what she was doing, and on the whole she succeeded. But another part of her mind seemed to be working independently, asking her insistent questions.

The place seemed to her alive with alien presences, and once she caught herself listening—which was absurd, for, of course, she could not hope to hear what Mr. Sleuth was doing two, if not three, flights upstairs. She wondered in what the lodger's experiments consisted. It was odd that she had never been able to discover what it was he really did with that big gas-stove. All she knew was that he used a very high degree of heat.