The Lodger/Chapter XV

CHAPTER XV

The Buntings went to bed early that night. But Mrs. Bunting made up her mind to keep awake. She was set upon knowing at what hour of the night the lodger would come down into her kitchen to carry through his experiment, and, above all, she was anxious to know how long he would stay there.

But she had had a long and a very anxious day, and presently she fell asleep.

The church clock hard by struck two, and suddenly Mrs. Bunting awoke. She felt put out, sharply annoyed with herself. How could she have dropped off like that? Mr. Sleuth must have been down and up again hours ago!

Then, gradually, she became aware that there was a faint acrid odour in the room. Elusive, intangible, it yet seemed to encompass her and the snoring man by her side, almost as a vapour might have done.

Mrs. Bunting sat up in bed and sniffed; and then, in spite of the cold, she quietly crept out of her nice, warm bedclothes, and crawled along to the bottom of the bed. When there, Mr. Sleuth’s landlady did a very curious thing; she leaned over the brass rail and put her face close to the hinge of the door giving into the hall. Yes, it was from here that this strange, horrible odour was coming; the smell must be very strong in the passage.

As, shivering, she crept back under the bedclothes, she longed to give her sleeping husband a good shake, and in fancy she heard herself saying, "Bunting, get up! There’s something strange and dreadful going on downstairs which we ought to know about."

But as she lay there, by her husband’s side, listening with painful intentness for the slightest sound, she knew very well that she would do nothing of the sort.

What if the lodger did make a certain amount of mess—a certain amount of smell—in her nice clean kitchen? Was he not—was he not an almost perfect lodger? If they did anything to upset him, where could they ever hope to get another like him?

Three o’clock struck before Mrs. Bunting heard slow, heavy steps creaking up the kitchen stairs. But Mr. Sleuth did not go straight up to his own quarters, as she had expected him to do. Instead, he went to the front door, and, opening it, put on the chain. Then he came past her door, and she thought—but could not be sure—that he sat down on the stairs.

At the end of ten minutes or so she heard him go down the passage again. Very softly he closed the front door. By then she had divined why the lodger had behaved in this funny fashion. He wanted to get the strong, acrid smell of burning—was it of burning wool?—out of the house.

But Mrs. Bunting, lying there in the darkness, listening to the lodger creeping upstairs, felt as if she herself would never get rid of the horrible odour.

Mrs. Bunting felt herself to be all smell.

At last the unhappy woman fell into a deep, troubled sleep; and then she dreamed a most terrible and unnatural dream. Hoarse voices seemed to be shouting in her ear: "The Avenger close here! The Avenger close here!" "’Orrible murder off the Edgware Road!" "The Avenger at his work again!"

And even in her dream Mrs. Bunting felt angered—angered and impatient. She knew so well why she was being disturbed by this horrid nightmare! It was because of Bunting—Bunting, who could think and talk of nothing else than those frightful murders, in which only morbid and vulgar-minded people took any interest.

Why, even now, in her dream, she could hear her husband speaking to her about it:

"Ellen"—so she heard Bunting murmur in her ear—"Ellen, my dear, I’m just going to get up to get a paper. It’s after seven o’clock."

The shouting—nay, worse, the sound of tramping, hurrying feet smote on her shrinking ears. Pushing back her hair off her forehead with both hands, she sat up and listened.

It had been no nightmare, then, but something infinitely worse—reality.

Why couldn’t Bunting have lain quiet abed for awhile longer, and let his poor wife go on dreaming? The most awful dream would have been easier to bear than this awakening.

She heard her husband go to the front door, and, as he bought the paper, exchange a few excited words with the newspaper-seller. Then he came back. There was a pause, and she heard him lighting the gas-ring in the sitting-room.

Bunting always made his wife a cup of tea in the morning. He had promised to do this when they first married, and he had never yet broken his word. It was a very little thing and a very usual thing, no doubt, for a kind husband to do, but this morning the knowledge that he was doing it brought tears to Mrs. Bunting’s pale blue eyes. This morning he seemed to be rather longer than usual over the job.

When, at last, he came in with the little tray, Bunting found his wife lying with her face to the wall.

"Here’s your tea, Ellen," he said, and there was a thrill of eager, nay happy, excitement in his voice.

She turned herself round and sat up. "Well?" she asked. "Well? Why don’t you tell me about it?"

"I thought you was asleep," he stammered out. "I thought, Ellen, you never heard nothing."

"How could I have slept through all that din? Of course I heard. Why don’t you tell me?"

"I’ve hardly had time to glance at the paper myself," he said slowly.

"You was reading it just now," she said severely, "for I heard the rustling. You begun reading it before you lit the gas-ring. Don’t tell me! What was that they was shouting about the Edgware Road?"

"Well," said Bunting, "as you do know, I may as well tell you. The Avenger’s moving West—that’s what he’s doing. Last time ’twas King’s Cross—now ’tis the Edgware Road. I said he’d come our way, and he has come our way!"

"You just go and get me that paper," she commanded. "I wants to see for myself."

Bunting went into the next room; then he came back and handed her silently the odd-looking, thin little sheet.

"Why, whatever’s this?" she asked. "This ain’t our paper!"

"’Course not," he answered, a trifle crossly. "It’s a special early edition of the Sun, just because of The Avenger. Here’s the bit about it"—he showed her the exact spot. But she would have found it, even by the comparatively bad light of the gas-jet now flaring over the dressing-table, for the news was printed in large, clear characters:—

"Once more the murder fiend who chooses to call himself The Avenger has escaped detection. While the whole attention of the police, and of the great army of amateur detectives who are taking an interest in this strange series of atrocious crimes, were concentrating their attention round the East End and King’s Cross, he moved swiftly and silently Westward. And, choosing a time when the Edgware Road is at its busiest and most thronged, did another human being to death with lightning-like quickness and savagery.

"Within fifty yards of the deserted warehouse yard where he had lured his victim to destruction were passing up and down scores of happy, busy people, intent on their Christmas shopping. Into that cheerful throng he must have plunged within a moment of committing his atrocious crime. And it was only owing to the merest accident that the body was discovered as soon as it was—that is, just after midnight.

"Dr. Dowtray, who was called to the spot at once, is of opinion that the woman had been dead at least three hours, if not four. It was at first thought—we were going to say, hoped—that this murder had nothing to do with the series which is now puzzling and horrifying the whole of the civilised world. But no—pinned on the edge of the dead woman’s dress was the usual now familiar triangular piece of grey paper—the grimmest visiting card ever designed by the wit of man! And this time The Avenger has surpassed himself as regards his audacity and daring—so cold in its maniacal fanaticism and abhorrent wickedness."

All the time that Mrs. Bunting was reading with slow, painful intentness, her husband was looking at her, longing, yet afraid, to burst out with a new idea which he was burning to confide even to his Ellen’s unsympathetic ears.

At last, when she had quite finished, she looked up defiantly.

"Haven’t you anything better to do than to stare at me like that?" she said irritably. "Murder or no murder, I’ve got to get up! Go away—do!"

And Bunting went off into the next room.

After he had gone, his wife lay back and closed her eyes.

She tried to think of nothing. Nay, more—so strong, so determined was her will that for a few moments she actually did think of nothing. She felt terribly tired and weak, brain and body both quiescent, as does a person who is recovering from a long, wearing illness.

Presently detached, puerile thoughts drifted across the surface of her mind like little clouds across a summer sky. She wondered if those horrid newspaper men were allowed to shout in Belgrave Square; she wondered if, in that case, Margaret, who was so unlike her brother-in-law, would get up and buy a paper. But no. Margaret was not one to leave her nice warm bed for such a silly reason as that.

Was it to-morrow Daisy was coming back? Yes—to-morrow, not to-day. Well, that was a comfort, at any rate. What amusing things Daisy would be able to tell about her visit to Margaret! The girl had an excellent gift of mimicry. And Margaret, with her precise, funny ways, her perpetual talk about "the family," lent herself to the cruel gift.

And then Mrs. Bunting’s mind—her poor, weak, tired mind—wandered off to young Chandler. A funny thing love was, when you came to think of it—which she, Ellen Bunting, didn’t often do. There was Joe, a likely young fellow, seeing a lot of young women, and pretty young women, too,—quite as pretty as Daisy, and ten times more artful,—and yet there! He passed them all by, had done so ever since last summer, though you might be sure that they, artful minxes, by no manner of means passed him by,—without giving them a thought! As Daisy wasn’t here, he would probably keep away to-day. There was comfort in that thought, too.

And then Mrs. Bunting sat up, and memory returned in a dreadful turgid flood. If Joe did come in, she must nerve herself to hear all that—that talk there’d be about The Avenger between him and Bunting.

Slowly she dragged herself out of bed, feeling exactly as if she had just recovered from an illness which had left her very weak, very, very tired in body and soul.

She stood for a moment listening—listening, and shivering, for it was very cold. Considering how early it still was, there seemed a lot of coming and going in the Marylebone Road. She could hear the unaccustomed sounds through her closed door and the tightly fastened windows of the sitting-room. There must be a regular crowd of men and women, on foot and in cabs, hurrying to the scene of The Avenger’s last extraordinary crime…

She heard the sudden thud made by their usual morning paper falling from the letter-box on to the floor of the hall, and a moment later came the sound of Bunting quickly, quietly going out and getting it. She visualised him coming back, and sitting down with a sigh of satisfaction by the newly-lit fire.

Languidly she began dressing herself to the accompaniment of distant tramping and of noise of passing traffic, which increased in volume and in sound as the moments slipped by.

· · · · · · ·

When Mrs. Bunting went down into her kitchen everything looked just as she had left it, and there was no trace of the acrid smell she had expected to find there. Instead, the cavernous, whitewashed room was full of fog, but she noticed that, though the shutters were bolted and barred as she had left them, the windows behind them had been widely opened to the air. She had left them shut.

Making a "spill" out of a twist of newspaper—she had been taught the art as a girl by one of her old mistresses—she stooped and flung open the oven-door of her gas-stove. Yes, it was as she had expected; a fierce heat had been generated there since she had last used the oven, and through to the stone floor below had fallen a mass of black, gluey soot.

Mrs. Bunting took the ham and eggs that she had bought the previous day for her own and Bunting’s breakfast upstairs, and broiled them over the gas-ring in their sitting-room. Her husband watched her in surprised silence. She had never done such a thing before.

"I couldn’t stay down there," she said; "it was so cold and foggy. I thought I’d make breakfast up here, just for to-day."

"Yes," he said kindly; "that’s quite right, Ellen. I think you’ve done quite right, my dear."

But, when it came to the point, his wife could not eat any of the nice breakfast she had got ready; she only had another cup of tea.

"I’m afraid you’re ill, Ellen?" Bunting asked solicitously.

"No," she said shortly; "I’m not ill at all. Don’t be silly! The thought of that horrible thing happening so close by has upset me, and put me off my food. Just hark to them now!"

Through their closed windows penetrated the sound of scurrying feet and loud, ribald laughter. What a crowd, nay, what a mob, must be hastening busily to and from the spot where there was now nothing to be seen!

Mrs. Bunting made her husband lock the front gate. "I don’t want any of those ghouls in here!" she exclaimed angrily. And then, "What a lot of idle people there are in the world!" she said.