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CHAPTER XX

It was not late even now, for the inquest had begun very punctually, but Mrs. Bunting felt that no power on earth should force her to go to Ealing. She felt quite tired out and as if she could think of nothing.

Pacing along very slowly, as if she were an old, old woman, she began listlessly turning her steps towards home. Somehow she felt that it would do her more good to stay out in the air than take the train. Also she would thus put off the moment—the moment to which she looked forward with dread and dislike—when she would have to invent a circumstantial story as to what she had said to the doctor, and what the doctor had said to her.

Like most men and women of his class, Bunting took a great interest in other people’s ailments, the more interest that he was himself so remarkably healthy. He would feel quite injured if Ellen didn’t tell him everything that had happened; everything, that is, that the doctor had told her.

As she walked swiftly along, at every corner, or so it seemed to her, and outside every public-house, stood eager boys selling the latest edition of the afternoon papers to equally eager buyers. "Avenger Inquest?" they shouted exultantly. "All the latest evidence!" At one place, where there were a row of contents-bills pinned to the pavement by stones, she stopped and looked down. "Opening of the Avenger Inquest. What is he really like? Full description." On yet another ran the ironic query: "Avenger Inquest. Do you know him?"

And as that facetious question stared up at her in huge print, Mrs. Bunting turned sick—so sick and faint that she did what she had never done before in her life—she pushed her way into a public-house, and, putting two pennies down on the counter, asked for, and received, a glass of cold water.

As she walked along the now gas-lit streets, she found her mind dwelling persistently—not on the inquest at which she had been present, not even on The Avenger, but on his victims.

Shudderingly, she visualised the two cold bodies lying in the mortuary. She seemed also to see that third body, which, though cold, must yet be warmer than the other two, for at this time yesterday The Avenger’s last victim had been alive, poor soul—alive and, according to a companion of hers whom the papers had already interviewed, particularly merry and bright.

Hitherto Mrs. Bunting had been spared in any real sense a vision of The Avenger’s victims. Now they haunted her, and she wondered wearily if this fresh horror was to be added to the terrible fear which encompassed her night and day.

As she came within sight of home, her spirit suddenly lightened. The narrow, drab-coloured little house, flanked each side by others exactly like it in every single particular, save that their front yards were not so well kept, looked as if it could, aye, and would, keep any secret closely hidden.

For a moment, at any rate, The Avenger’s victims receded from her mind. She thought of them no more. All her thoughts were concentrated on Bunting—Bunting and Mr. Sleuth. She wondered what had happened during her absence—whether the lodger had rung his bell, and, if so, how he had got on with Bunting, and Bunting with him?

She walked up the little flagged path wearily, and yet with a pleasant feeling of home-coming. And then she saw that Bunting must have been watching for her behind the now closely drawn curtains, for before she could either knock or ring he had opened the door.

"I was getting quite anxious about you," he exclaimed. "Come in, Ellen, quick! You must be fair perished a day like now—and you out so little as you are. Well? I hope you found the doctor all right?" He looked at her with affectionate anxiety.

And then there came a sudden, happy thought to Mrs. Bunting. "No," she said slowly, "Doctor Evans wasn’t in. I waited, and waited, and waited, but he never came in at all. ’Twas my own fault," she added quickly. Even at such a moment as this she told herself that though she had, in a sort of way, a kind of right to lie to her husband, she had no right to slander the doctor who had been so kind to her years ago. "I ought to have sent him a card yesterday night," she said. "Of course, I was a fool to go all that way, just on chance of finding a doctor in. It stands to reason they’ve got to go out to people at all times of day."

"I hope they gave you a cup of tea?" he said.

And again she hesitated, debating a point with herself: if the doctor had a decent sort of servant, of course, she, Ellen Bunting, would have been offered a cup of tea, especially if she explained she’d known him a long time.

She compromised. "I was offered some," she said, in a weak, tired voice. "But there, Bunting, I didn’t feel as if I wanted it. I’d be very grateful for a cup now—if you’d just make it for me over the ring."

"’Course I will," he said eagerly. "You just come in and sit down, my dear. Don’t trouble to take your things off now—wait till you’ve had tea."

And she obeyed him. "Where’s Daisy?" she asked suddenly. "I thought the girl would be back by the time I got home."

"She ain’t coming home to-day"—there was an odd, sly, smiling look on Bunting’s face.

"Did she send a telegram?" asked Mrs. Bunting.

"No. Young Chandler’s just come in and told me. He’s been over there and,—would you believe it, Ellen?—he’s managed to make friends with Margaret. Wonderful what love will do, ain’t it? He went over there just to help Daisy carry her bag back, you know, and then Margaret told him that her lady had sent her some money to go to the play, and she actually asked Joe to go with them this evening—she and Daisy—to the pantomime. Did you ever hear o’ such a thing?"

"Very nice for them, I’m sure," said Mrs. Bunting absently. But she was pleased—pleased to have her mind taken off herself. "Then when is that girl coming home?" she asked patiently.

"Well, it appears that Chandler’s got to-morrow morning off too—this evening and to-morrow morning. He’ll be on duty all night, but he proposes to go over and bring Daisy back in time for early dinner. Will that suit you, Ellen?"

"Yes. That’ll be all right," she said. "I don’t grudge the girl her bit of pleasure. One’s only young once. By the way, did the lodger ring while I was out?"

Bunting turned round from the gas-ring, which he was watching to see the kettle boil. "No," he said. "Come to think of it, it’s rather a funny thing, but the truth is, Ellen, I never gave Mr. Sleuth a thought. You see, Chandler came in and was telling me all about Margaret, laughing-like, and then something else happened while you was out, Ellen."

"Something else happened?" she said in a startled voice. Getting up from her chair she came towards her husband: "What happened? Who came?"

"Just a message for me, asking if I could go to-night to wait at a young lady’s birthday party. In Hanover Terrace it is. A waiter—one of them nasty Swiss fellows as works for nothing—fell out just at the last minute and so they had to send for me."

His honest face shone with triumph. The man who had taken over his old friend’s business in Baker Street had hitherto behaved very badly to Bunting, and that though Bunting had been on the books for ever so long, and had always given every satisfaction. But this new man had never employed him—no, not once.

"I hope you didn’t make yourself too cheap?" said his wife jealously.

"No, that I didn’t! I hum’d and haw’d a lot; and I could see the fellow was quite worried—in fact, at the end he offered me half-a-crown more. So I graciously consented!"

Husband and wife laughed more merrily than they had done for a long time.

"You won’t mind being alone, here? I don’t count the lodger—he’s no good——" Bunting looked at her anxiously. He was only prompted to ask the question because lately Ellen had been so queer, so unlike herself. Otherwise it never would have occurred to him that she could be afraid of being alone in the house. She had often been so in the days when he got more jobs.

She stared at him, a little suspiciously. "I be afraid?" she echoed. "Certainly not. Why should I be? I’ve never been afraid before. What d’you exactly mean by that, Bunting?"

"Oh, nothing. I only thought you might feel funny-like, all alone on this ground floor. You was so upset yesterday when that young fool Chandler came, dressed up, to the door."

"I shouldn’t have been frightened if he’d just been an ordinary stranger," she said shortly. "He said something silly to me—just in keeping with his character-like, and it upset me. Besides, I feel better now."

As she was sipping gratefully her cup of tea, there came a noise outside, the shouts of newspaper-sellers.

"I’ll just run out," said Bunting apologetically, "and see what happened at that inquest to-day. Besides, they may have a clue about the horrible affair last night. Chandler was full of it—when he wasn’t talking about Daisy and Margaret, that is. He’s on to-night, luckily not till twelve o’clock; plenty of time to escort the two of ’em back after the play. Besides, he said he’ll put them into a cab and blow the expense, if the panto’ goes on too long for him to take ’em home."

"On to-night?" repeated Mrs. Bunting. "Whatever for?"

"Well, you see, The Avenger’s always done ’em in couples, so to speak. They’ve got an idea that he’ll have a try again to-night. However, even so, Joe’s only on from midnight till five o’clock. Then he’ll go and turn in a bit before going off to fetch Daisy. Fine thing to be young, ain’t it, Ellen?"

"I can’t believe that he’d go out on such a night as this!"

"What do you mean?" said Bunting, staring at her. Ellen had spoken so oddly, as if to herself, and in so fierce and passionate a tone.

"What do I mean?" she repeated—and a great fear clutched at her heart. What had she said? She had been thinking aloud.

"Why, by saying he won’t go out. Of course, he has to go out. Besides, he’ll have been to the play as it is. ’Twould be a pretty thing if the police didn’t go out, just because it was cold!"

"I—I was thinking of The Avenger," said Mrs. Bunting. She looked at her husband fixedly. Somehow she had felt impelled to utter those true words.

"He don’t take no heed of heat nor cold," said Bunting sombrely. "I take it the man’s dead to all human feeling—saving, of course, revenge."

"So that’s your idea about him, is it?" She looked across at her husband. Somehow this dangerous, this perilous conversation between them attracted her strangely. She felt as if she must go on with it. "D’you think he was the man that woman said she saw? That young man what passed her with a newspaper parcel?"

"Let me see," he said slowly. "I thought that ’twas from the bedroom window a woman saw him?"

"No, no. I mean the other woman, what was taking her husband’s breakfast to him in the warehouse. She was far the most respectable-looking woman of the two," said Mrs. Bunting impatiently.

And then, seeing her husband’s look of utter, blank astonishment, she felt a thrill of unreasoning terror. She must have gone suddenly mad to have said what she did! Hurriedly she got up from her chair. "There, now," she said; "here I am gossiping all about nothing when I ought to be seeing about the lodger’s supper. It was someone in the train talked to me about that person as thinks she saw The Avenger."

Without waiting for an answer, she went into her bedroom, lit the gas, and shut the door. A moment later she heard Bunting go out to buy the paper they had both forgotten during their dangerous discussion.

As she slowly, languidly took off her nice, warm coat and shawl, Mrs. Bunting found herself shivering. It was dreadfully cold, quite unnaturally cold even for the time of year.

She looked longingly towards the fireplace. It was now concealed by the washhand-stand, but how pleasant it would be to drag that stand aside and light a bit of fire, especially as Bunting was going to be out to-night. He would have to put on his dress clothes, and she didn’t like his dressing in the sitting-room. It didn’t suit her ideas that he should do so. How if she did light the fire here, in their bedroom? It would be nice for her to have bit of fire to cheer her up after he had gone.

Mrs. Bunting knew only too well that she would have very little sleep the coming night. She looked over, with shuddering distaste, at her nice, soft bed. There she would lie, on that couch of little ease, listening—listening…

· · · · · · ·

She went down to the kitchen. Everything was ready for Mr. Sleuth’s supper, for she had made all her preparations before going out so as not to have to hurry back before it suited her to do so.

Leaning the tray for a moment on the top of the banisters, she listened. Even in that nice warm drawing-room, and with a good fire, how cold the lodger must feel sitting studying at the table! But unwonted sounds were coming through the door. Mr. Sleuth was moving restlessly about the room, not sitting reading, as was his wont at this time of the evening.

She knocked, and then waited a moment.

There came the sound of a sharp click, that of the key turning in the lock of the chiffonnier cupboard—or so Mr. Sleuth’s landlady could have sworn.

There was a pause—she knocked again.

"Come in," said Mr. Sleuth loudly, and she opened the door and carried in the tray.

"You are a little earlier than usual, are you not Mrs. Bunting?" he said, with a touch of irritation in his voice.

"I don’t think so, sir, but I’ve been out. Perhaps I lost count of the time. I thought you’d like your breakfast early, as you had dinner rather sooner than usual."

"Breakfast? Did you say breakfast, Mrs. Bunting?"

"I beg your pardon, sir, I’m sure! I meant supper."

He looked at her fixedly. It seemed to Mrs. Bunting that there was a terrible questioning look in his dark, sunken eyes.

"Aren’t you well?" he said slowly. "You don’t look well, Mrs. Bunting."

"No, sir," she said. "I’m not well. I went over to see a doctor this afternoon, to Ealing, sir."

"I hope he did you good, Mrs. Bunting"—the lodger’s voice had become softer, kinder in quality.

"It always does me good to see the doctor," said Mrs. Bunting evasively.

And then a very odd smile lit up Mr. Sleuth’s face. "Doctors are a maligned body of men," he said. "I’m glad to hear you speak well of them. They do their best, Mrs. Bunting. Being human they are liable to err, but I assure you they do their best."

"That I’m sure they do, sir"—she spoke heartily, sincerely. Doctors had always treated her most kindly, and even generously.

And then, having laid the cloth, and put the lodger’s one hot dish upon it, she went towards the door.

"Wouldn’t you like me to bring up another scuttleful of coals, sir? it’s bitterly cold—getting colder every minute. A fearful night to have to go out in——" she looked at him deprecatingly.

And then Mr. Sleuth did something which startled her very much. Pushing his chair back, he jumped up and drew himself to his full height.

"What d’you mean?" he stammered. "Why did you say that, Mrs. Bunting?"

She stared at him, fascinated, affrighted. Again there came an awful questioning look over his face.

"I was thinking of Bunting, sir. He’s got a job to-night. He’s going to act as waiter at a young lady’s birthday party. I was thinking it’s a pity he has to turn out, and in his thin clothes, too"—she brought out her words jerkily.

Mr. Sleuth seemed somewhat reassured, and again he sat down. "Ah!" he said. "Dear me—I’m sorry to hear that! I hope your husband will not catch cold, Mrs. Bunting."

And then she shut the door, and went downstairs.

· · · · · · ·

Without telling Bunting what she meant to do, she dragged the heavy washhand-stand away from the chimneypiece, and lighted the fire.

Then in some triumph she called Bunting in.

"Time for you to dress," she cried out cheerfully, "and I’ve got a little bit of fire for you to dress by."

As he exclaimed at her extravagance, "Well, ’twill be pleasant for me, too; keep me company-like while you’re out; and make the room nice and warm when you come in. You’ll be fair perished, even walking that short way," she said.

And then, while her husband was dressing, Mrs. Bunting went upstairs and cleared away Mr. Sleuth’s supper.

The lodger said no word while she was so engaged—no word at all.

He was sitting away from the table, rather an unusual thing for him to do, and staring into the fire, his hands on his knees.

Mr. Sleuth looked lonely, very, very lonely and forlorn. Somehow, a great rush of pity, as well as of horror, came over Mrs. Bunting’s heart. He was such a—a—she searched for a word in her mind, but could only find the word "gentle"—he was such a nice, gentle gentleman, was Mr. Sleuth. Lately he had again taken to leaving his money about, as he had done the first day or two, and with some concern his landlady had seen that the store had diminished a good deal. A very simple calculation had made her realise that almost the whole of that missing money had come her way, or, at any rate, had passed through her hands.

Mr. Sleuth never stinted himself as to food, or stinted them, his landlord and his landlady, as to what he had said he would pay. And Mrs. Bunting’s conscience pricked her a little, for he hardly ever used that room upstairs—that room for which he had paid extra so generously. If Bunting got another job or two through that nasty man in Baker Street,—and now that the ice had been broken between them it was very probable that he would do so, for he was a very well-trained, experienced waiter—then she thought she would tell Mr. Sleuth that she no longer wanted him to pay as much as he was now doing.

She looked anxiously, deprecatingly, at his long, bent back.

"Good-night, sir," she said at last.

Mr. Sleuth turned round. His face looked sad and worn.

"I hope you’ll sleep well, sir."

"Yes, I’m sure I shall sleep well. But perhaps I shall take a little turn first. Such is my way, Mrs. Bunting; after I have been studying all day I require a little exercise."

"Oh, I wouldn’t go out to-night," she said deprecatingly. "’Tisn’t fit for anyone to be out in the bitter cold."

"And yet—and yet"—he looked at her attentively—"there will probably be many people out in the streets to-night."

"A many more than usual, I fear, sir."

"Indeed?" said Mr. Sleuth quickly. "Is it not a strange thing, Mrs. Bunting, that people who have all day in which to amuse themselves should carry their revels far into the night?"

"Oh, I wasn’t thinking of revellers, sir; I was thinking"—she hesitated, then, with a gasping effort Mrs. Bunting brought out the words, "of the police."

"The police?" He put up his right hand and stroked his chin two or three times with a nervous gesture. "But what is man—what is man’s puny power or strength against that of God, or even of those over whose feet God has set a guard?"

Mr. Sleuth looked at his landlady with a kind of triumph lighting up his face, and Mrs. Bunting felt a shuddering sense of relief. Then she had not offended her lodger? She had not made him angry by that, that—was it a hint she had meant to convey to him?

"Very true, sir," she said respectfully. "But Providence means us to take care o’ ourselves too." And then she closed the door behind her and went downstairs.

But Mr. Sleuth’s landlady did not go on, down to the kitchen. She came into her sitting-room, and, careless of what Bunting would think the next morning, put the tray with the remains of the lodger’s meal on her table. Having done that, and having turned out the gas in the passage and the sitting-room, she went into her bedroom and closed the door.

The fire was burning brightly and clearly. She told herself that she did not need any other light to undress by.

But once she was in bed Mrs. Bunting turned restless. She tossed this way and that, full of discomfort and unease. Perhaps it was the unaccustomed firelight dancing on the walls, making queer shadows all round her, which kept her so wide awake.

She lay thinking and listening—listening and thinking. It even occurred to her to do the one thing that might have quieted her excited brain—to get a book, one of those detective stories of which Bunting had a slender store in the next room, and then, lighting the gas, to sit up and read.

No, Mrs. Bunting had always been told it was very wrong to read in bed, and she was not in a mood just now to begin doing anything that she had been told was wrong…

What was it made the flames of the fire shoot up, shoot down, in that queer way? But, watching it for awhile, she did at last doze off a bit.

And then—and then Mrs. Bunting woke with a sudden thumping of her heart. Woke to see that the fire was almost out—woke to hear a quarter to twelve chime out—woke at last to the sound she had been listening for before she fell asleep—the sound of Mr. Sleuth, wearing his rubber-soled shoes, creeping downstairs, along the passage, and so out, very, very quietly by the front door.