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CHAPTER XVI

Bunting began moving about the room restlessly. He would go to the window; stand there awhile staring out at the people hurrying past; then, coming back to the fireplace, sit down.

But he could not stay long quiet. After a glance at his paper, up he would rise from his chair, and go to the window again.

"I wish you’d stay still," his wife said at last. And then, a few minutes later, "Hadn’t you better put your hat and coat on and go out?" she exclaimed.

And Bunting, with a rather shamed expression, did put on his hat and coat and go out.

As he did so he told himself that, after all, he was but human; it was natural that he should be thrilled and excited by the dreadful, extraordinary thing which had just happened close by. Ellen wasn’t reasonable about such things. How queer and disagreeable she had been that very morning—angry with him because he had gone out to hear what all the row was about, and even more angry when he had come back and said nothing, because he thought it would annoy her to hear about it!

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bunting forced herself to go down again into the kitchen, and as she went through into the low, whitewashed place, a tremor of fear, of quick terror, came over her. She turned and did what she had never in her life done before, and what she had never heard of anyone else doing in a kitchen. She bolted the door.

But, having done this, finding herself at last alone, shut off from everybody, she was still beset by a strange, uncanny dread. She felt as if she were locked in with an invisible presence, which mocked and jeered, reproached and threatened her, by turns.

Why had she allowed, nay encouraged, Daisy to go away for two days? Daisy, at any rate, was company—kind, young, unsuspecting company. With Daisy she could be her old sharp self. It was such a comfort to be with someone to whom she not only need, but ought to, say nothing. When with Bunting she was pursued by a sick feeling of guilt, of shame. She was the man’s wedded wife—in his stolid way he was very kind to her, and yet she was keeping from him something he certainly had a right to know.

Not for worlds, however, would she have told Bunting of her dreadful suspicion—nay, of her almost certainty.

At last she went across to the door and unlocked it. Then she went upstairs and turned out her bedroom. That made her feel a little better.

She longed for Bunting to return, and yet in a way she was relieved by his absence. She would have liked to feel him near by, and yet she welcomed anything that took her husband out of the house.

And as Mrs. Bunting swept and dusted, trying to put her whole mind into what she was doing, she was asking herself all the time what was going on upstairs…

What a good rest the lodger was having! But there, that was only natural. Mr. Sleuth, as she well knew, had been up a long time last night, or rather this morning.

· · · · · · ·

Suddenly, the drawing-room bell rang. But Mr. Sleuth’s landlady did not go up, as she generally did, before getting ready the simple meal which was the lodger’s luncheon and breakfast combined. Instead, she went downstairs again and hurriedly prepared the lodger’s food.

Then, very slowly, with her heart beating queerly, she walked up, and just outside the sitting-room—for she felt sure that Mr. Sleuth had got up, that he was there already, waiting for her—she rested the tray on the top of the banisters and listened. For a few moments she heard nothing; then through the door came the high, quavering voice with which she had become so familiar:

"‘She saith to him, stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he knoweth not that the dead are there, and that her guests are in the depths of hell.’"

There was a long pause. Mrs. Bunting could hear the leaves of her Bible being turned over, eagerly, busily; and then again Mr. Sleuth broke out, this time in a softer voice:

"‘She hath cast down many wounded from her; yea, many strong men have been slain by her.’" And in a softer, lower, plaintive tone came the words: "‘I applied my heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness.’"

And as she stood there listening, a feeling of keen distress, of spiritual oppression, came over Mrs. Bunting. For the first time in her life she visioned the infinite mystery, the sadness and strangeness, of human life.

Poor Mr. Sleuth—poor unhappy, distraught Mr. Sleuth! An overwhelming pity blotted out for a moment the fear, aye, and the loathing, she had been feeling for her lodger.

She knocked at the door, and then she took up her tray.

"Come in, Mrs. Bunting." Mr. Sleuth’s voice sounded feebler, more toneless than usual.

She turned the handle of the door and walked in.

The lodger was not sitting in his usual place; he had taken the little round table on which his candle generally rested when he read in bed, out of his bedroom, and placed it over by the drawing-room window. On it were placed, open, the Bible and the Concordance. But as his landlady came in, Mr. Sleuth hastily closed the Bible, and began staring dreamily out of the window, down at the sordid, hurrying crowd of men and women which now swept along the Marylebone Road.

"There seem a great many people out to-day," he observed, without looking round.

"Yes, sir, there do."

Mrs. Bunting began busying herself with laying the cloth and putting out the breakfast-lunch, and as she did so she was seized with a mortal, instinctive terror of the man sitting there.

At last Mr. Sleuth got up and turned round. She forced herself to look at him. How tired, how worn, he looked, and—how strange!

Walking towards the table on which lay his meal, he rubbed his hands together with a nervous gesture—it was a gesture he only made when something had pleased, nay, satisfied him. Mrs. Bunting, looking at him, remembered that he had rubbed his hands together thus when he had first seen the room upstairs, and realised that it contained a large gas-stove and a convenient sink.

What Mr. Sleuth was doing now also reminded her in an odd way of a play she had once seen—a play to which a young man had taken her when she was a girl, unnumbered years ago, and which had thrilled and fascinated her. "Out, out, damned spot!" that was what the tall, fierce, beautiful lady who had played the part of a queen had said, twisting her hands together just as the lodger was doing now.

"It’s a fine day," said Mr. Sleuth, sitting down and unfolding his napkin. "The fog has cleared. I do not know if you will agree with me, Mrs. Bunting, but I always feel brighter when the sun is shining, as it is now, at any rate, trying to shine." He looked at her inquiringly, but Mrs. Bunting could not speak. She only nodded. However, that did not affect Mr. Sleuth adversely.

He had acquired a great liking and respect for this well-balanced, taciturn woman. She was the first woman for whom he had experienced any such feeling for many years past.

He looked down at the still covered dish, and shook his head. "I don’t feel as if I could eat very much to-day," he said plaintively. And then he suddenly took a half-sovereign out of his waistcoat pocket.

Already Mrs. Bunting had noticed that it was not the same waistcoat Mr. Sleuth had been wearing the day before.

"Mrs. Bunting, may I ask you to come here?"

And after a moment of hesitation his landlady obeyed him.

"Will you please accept this little gift for the use you kindly allowed me to make of your kitchen last night?" he said quietly. "I tried to make as little mess as I could, Mrs. Bunting, but—well, the truth is I was carrying out a very elaborate experiment——"

Mrs. Bunting held out her hand, she hesitated, and then she took the coin. The fingers which for a moment brushed lightly against her palm were icy cold—cold and clammy. Mr. Sleuth was evidently not well.

As she walked down the stairs, the winter sun, a scarlet ball hanging in the smoky sky, glinted in on Mr. Sleuth’s landlady, and threw blood-red gleams, or so it seemed to her, on to the piece of gold she was holding in her hand.

· · · · · · ·

The day went by, as other days had gone by in that quiet household, but, of course, there was far greater animation outside the little house than was usually the case.

Perhaps because the sun was shining for the first time for some days, the whole of London seemed to be making holiday in that part of the town.

When Bunting at last came back, his wife listened silently while he told her of the extraordinary excitement reigning everywhere. And then, after he had been talking a long while, she suddenly shot a strange look at him.

"I suppose you went to see the place?" she said.

And guiltily he acknowledged that he had done so.

"Well?"

"Well, there wasn’t anything much to see—not now. But, oh, Ellen, the daring of him! Why, Ellen, if the poor soul had had time to cry out—which they don’t believe she had—it’s impossible someone wouldn’t ’a heard her. They say that if he goes on doing it like that—in the afternoon, like—he never will be caught. He must have just got mixed up with all the other people within ten seconds of what he’d done!"

During the afternoon Bunting bought papers recklessly—in fact, he must have spent the best part of sixpence. But in spite of all the supposed and suggested clues, there was nothing—nothing at all new to read, less, in fact than ever before.

The police, it was clear, were quite at a loss, and Mrs. Bunting began to feel curiously better, less tired, less ill, less—less terrified than she had felt through the morning.

And then something happened which broke with dramatic suddenness the quietude of the day.

They had had their tea, and Bunting was reading the last of the papers he had run out to buy, when suddenly there came a loud, thundering, double knock at the door.

Mrs. Bunting looked up, startled. "Why, whoever can that be?" she said.

But as Bunting got up she added quickly, "You just sit down again. I’ll go myself. Sounds like someone after lodgings. I’ll soon send them to the right-about!"

And then she left the room, but not before there had come another loud double knock.

Mrs. Bunting opened the front door. In a moment she saw that the person who stood there was a stranger to her. He was a big, dark man, with fierce, black moustaches. And somehow—she could not have told you why—he suggested a policeman to Mrs. Bunting’s mind.

This notion of hers was confirmed by the very first words he uttered. For, "I’m here to execute a warrant!" he exclaimed in a theatrical, hollow tone.

With a weak cry of protest Mrs. Bunting suddenly threw out her arms as if to bar the way; she turned deadly white—but then, in an instant the supposed stranger’s laugh rang out, with loud, jovial, familiar sound!

"There now, Mrs. Bunting! I never thought I’d take you in as well as all that!"

It was Joe Chandler—Joe Chandler dressed up, as she knew he sometimes, not very often, did dress up in the course of his work.

Mrs. Bunting began laughing—laughing helplessly, hysterically, just as she had done on the morning of Daisy’s arrival, when the newspaper-sellers had come shouting down the Marylebone Road.

"What’s all this about?" Bunting came out

Young Chandler ruefully shut the front door. "I didn’t mean to upset her like this," he said, looking foolish; "’twas just my silly nonsense, Mr. Bunting." And together they helped her into the sitting-room.

But, once there, poor Mrs. Bunting went on worse than ever; she threw her black apron over her face, and began to sob hysterically.

"I made sure she’d know who I was when I spoke," went on the young fellow apologetically. "But, there now, I have upset her. I am sorry!"

"It don’t matter!" she exclaimed, throwing the apron off her face, but the tears were still streaming from her eyes as she sobbed and laughed by turns. "Don’t matter one little bit, Joe! ’Twas stupid of me to be so taken aback. But, there, that murder that’s happened close by, it’s just upset me—upset me altogether to-day."

"Enough to upset anyone—that was," acknowledged the young man ruefully. "I’ve only come in for a minute, like. I haven’t no right to come when I’m on duty like this——"

Joe Chandler was looking longingly at what remains of the meal were still on the table.

"You can take a minute just to have a bite and a sup," said Bunting hospitably; "and then you can tell us any news there is, Joe. We’re right in the middle of everything now, ain’t we?" He spoke with evident enjoyment, almost pride, in the gruesome fact.

Joe nodded. Already his mouth was full of bread-and-butter. He waited a moment, and then: "Well I have got one piece of news—not that I suppose it’ll interest you very much."

They both looked at him—Mrs. Bunting suddenly calm, though her breast still heaved from time to time.

"Our Boss has resigned!" said Joe Chandler slowly, impressively.

"No! Not the Commissioner o’ Police?" exclaimed Bunting.

"Yes, he has. He just can’t bear what’s said about us any longer—and I don’t wonder! He done his best, and so’s we all. The public have just gone daft—in the West End, that is, to-day. As for the papers, well, they’re something cruel—that’s what they are. And the ridiculous ideas they print! You’d never believe the things they asks us to do—and quite serious-like."

"What d’you mean?" questioned Mrs. Bunting. She really wanted to know.

"Well, the Courier declares that there ought to be a house-to-house investigation—all over London. Just think of it! Everybody to let the police go all over their house, from garret to kitchen, just to see if The Avenger isn’t concealed there. Dotty, I calls it! Why, ’twould take us months and months just to do that one job in a town like London."

"I’d like to see them dare come into my house!" said Mrs. Bunting angrily.

"It’s all along of them blarsted papers that The Avenger went to work a different way this time," said Chandler slowly.

Bunting had pushed a tin of sardines towards his guest, and was eagerly listening. "How d’you mean?" he asked. "I don’t take your meaning, Joe."

"Well, you see, it’s this way. The newspapers was always saying how extraordinary it was that The Avenger chose such a peculiar time to do his deeds—I mean, the time when no one’s about the streets. Now, doesn’t it stand to reason that the fellow, reading all that, and seeing the sense of it, said to himself, ‘I’ll go on another tack this time’? Just listen to this!" He pulled a strip of paper, part of a column cut from a newspaper, out of his pocket:

"‘An ex-Lord Mayor of London on The Avenger

"‘Will the murderer be caught? Yes,’ replied Sir John, ‘he will certainly be caught—probably when he commits his next crime. A whole army of bloodhounds, metaphorical and literal, will be on his track the moment he draws blood again. With the whole community against him, he cannot escape, especially when it be remembered that he chooses the quietest hour in the twenty-four to commit his crimes.

"‘Londoners are now in such a state of nerves—if I may use the expression, in such a state of funk—that every passer-by, however innocent, is looked at with suspicion by his neighbour if his avocation happens to take him abroad between the hours of one and three in the morning.’

"I’d like to gag that ex-Lord Mayor!" concluded Joe Chandler wrathfully.

Just then the lodger’s bell rang.

"Let me go up, my dear," said Bunting.

His wife still looked pale and shaken by the fright she had had.

"No, no," she said hastily. "You stop down here, and talk to Joe. I’ll look after Mr. Sleuth. He may be wanting his supper just a bit earlier than usual to-day."

Slowly, painfully, again feeling as if her legs were made of cotton wool, she dragged herself up to the first floor, knocked at the door, and then went in.

"You did ring, sir?" she said, in her quiet, respectful way.

And Mr. Sleuth looked up.

She thought—but, as she reminded herself afterwards, it might have been just her idea, and nothing else—that for the first time the lodger looked frightened—frightened and cowed.

"I heard a noise downstairs," he said fretfully, "and I wanted to know what it was all about. As I told you, Mrs. Bunting, when I first took these rooms, quiet is essential to me."

"It was just a friend of ours, sir. I’m sorry you were disturbed. Would you like the knocker taken off to-morrow? Bunting ’ll be pleased to do it if you don’t like to hear the sound of the knocks."

"Oh, no, I wouldn’t put you to such trouble as that." Mr. Sleuth looked quite relieved. "Just a friend of yours, was it, Mrs. Bunting? He made a great deal of noise."

"Just a young fellow," she said apologetically. "The son of one of Bunting’s old friends. He often comes here, sir; but he never did give such a great big double knock as that before. I’ll speak to him about it."

"Oh, no, Mrs. Bunting. I would really prefer you did nothing of the kind. It was just a passing annoyance—nothing more."

She waited a moment. How strange that Mr. Sleuth said nothing of the hoarse cries which had made of the road outside a perfect Bedlam every hour or two throughout that day. But no, Mr. Sleuth made no allusion to what might well have disturbed any quiet gentleman at his reading.

"I thought maybe you’d like to have supper a little earlier to-night, sir?"

"Just when you like, Mrs. Bunting—just when it’s convenient. I do not wish to put you out in any way."

She felt herself dismissed, and going out quietly, closed the door.

As she did so, she heard the front door banging to. She sighed—Joe Chandler was really a very noisy young fellow.