The Lodger/Chapter XXI

CHAPTER XXI

It was a very cold night—so cold, so windy, so snow-laden was the atmosphere, that everyone who could do so stayed indoors.

Bunting, however, was now on his way home from what had proved a really pleasant job. A remarkable piece of luck had come his way this evening, all the more welcome because it was quite unexpected! The young lady at whose birthday party he had been present in capacity of waiter had come into a fortune that day, and she had had the gracious, the surprising thought of presenting each of the hired waiters with a sovereign!

This gift, which had been accompanied by a few kind words, had gone to Bunting’s heart. It had confirmed him in his Conservative principles; only gentlefolk ever behaved in that way; quiet, old-fashioned, respectable, gentlefolk, the sort of people of whom those nasty Radicals know nothing and care less!

But the ex-butler was not as happy as he should have been. Slackening his footsteps, he began to think with puzzled concern of how queer his wife had seemed lately. Ellen had become so nervous, so "jumpy," that he didn’t know what to make of her sometimes. She had never been really good-tempered—your capable, self-respecting woman seldom is—but she had never been like what she was now. And she didn’t get better as the days went on; in fact she got worse. Of late she had been quite hysterical, and for no reason at all! Take that little practical joke of young Joe Chandler. Ellen knew quite well he often had to go about in some kind of disguise, and yet how she had gone on, quite foolish-like—not at all as one would have expected her to do.

There was another queer thing about her which disturbed him in more senses than one. During the last three weeks or so Ellen had taken to talking in her sleep. "No, no, no!" she had cried out, only the night before. "It isn’t true—I won’t have it said—it’s a lie!" And there had been a wail of horrible fear and revolt in her usually quiet, mincing voice.

· · · · · · ·

Whew! it was cold; and he had stupidly forgotten his gloves.

He put his hands in his pockets to keep them warm, and began walking more quickly.

As he tramped steadily along, the ex-butler suddenly caught sight of his lodger walking along the opposite side of the solitary street—one of those short streets leading off the broad road which encircles Regent’s Park.

Well! This was a funny time o’ night to be taking a stroll for pleasure, like!

Glancing across, Bunting noticed that Mr. Sleuth’s tall, thin figure was rather bowed, and that his head was bent toward the ground. His left arm was thrust into his long Inverness cape, and so was quite hidden, but the other side of the cape bulged out, as if the lodger were carrying a bag or parcel in the hand which hung down straight.

Mr. Sleuth was walking rather quickly, and as he walked he talked aloud, which, as Bunting knew, is not unusual with gentlemen who live much alone. It was clear that he had not yet become aware of the proximity of his landlord.

Bunting told himself that Ellen was right. Their lodger was certainly a most eccentric, peculiar person. Strange, was it not, that that odd, luny-like gentleman should have made all the difference to his, Bunting’s, and Mrs. Bunting’s happiness and comfort in life?

Again glancing across at Mr. Sleuth, he reminded himself, not for the first time, of this perfect lodger’s one fault—his odd dislike to meat, and to what Bunting vaguely called to himself, sensible food.

But there, you can’t have everything! The more so that the lodger was not one of those crazy vegetarians who won’t eat eggs and cheese. No, he was reasonable in this, as in everything else connected with his dealings with the Buntings.

As we know, Bunting saw far less of the lodger than did his wife. Indeed, he had been upstairs only three or four times since Mr. Sleuth had been with them, and when his landlord had had occasion to wait on him the lodger had remained silent. Indeed, their gentleman had made it very clear that he did not like either the husband or wife to come up to his rooms without being definitely asked to do so.

Now, surely, would be a good opportunity for a little genial conversation? Bunting felt pleased to see his lodger; it increased his general comfortable sense of satisfaction.

So it was that the ex-butler, still an active man for his years, crossed over the road, and, stepping briskly forward, began trying to overtake Mr. Sleuth. But the more he hurried along, the more the other hastened, and that without ever turning round to see whose steps he could hear echoing behind him on the now freezing pavement.

Mr. Sleuth’s own footsteps were quite inaudible—an odd circumstance, when you came to think of it—as Bunting did think of it later, lying awake by Mrs. Bunting’s side in the pitch darkness. What it meant, of course, was that the lodger had rubber soles on his shoes. Now Bunting had never had a pair of rubber-soled shoes sent down to him to clean. He had always supposed the lodger had only one pair of outdoor boots.

The two men—the pursued and the pursuer—at last turned into the Marylebone Road; they were now within a few hundred yards of home. Plucking up courage, Bunting called out, his voice echoing freshly on the still air:

"Mr. Sleuth, sir? Mr. Sleuth!"

The lodger stopped and turned round.

He had been walking so quickly, and he was in so poor a physical condition, that the sweat was pouring down his face.

"Ah! So it’s you, Mr. Bunting? I heard footsteps behind me, and I hurried on. I wish I’d known that it was you; there are so many queer characters about at night in London."

"Not on a night like this, sir. Only honest folk who have business out of doors would be out such a night as this. It is cold, sir!"

And then into Bunting’s slow and honest mind there suddenly crept the query as to what on earth Mr. Sleuth’s own business out could be on this bitter night.

"Cold?" the lodger repeated; he was panting a little, and his words came out sharp and quick through his thin lips. "I can’t say that I find it cold, Mr. Bunting. When the snow falls, the air always becomes milder."

"Yes, sir; but to-night there’s such a sharp east wind. Why, it freezes the very marrow in one’s bones! Still, there’s nothing like walking in cold weather to make one warm, as you seem to have found, sir."

Bunting noticed that Mr. Sleuth kept his distance in a rather strange way; he walked at the edge of the pavement, leaving the rest of it, on the wall side, to his landlord.

"I lost my way," he said abruptly. "I’ve been over Primrose Hill to see a friend of mine, a man with whom I studied when I was a lad, and then, coming back, I lost my way."

Now they had come right up to the little gate which opened on the shabby, paved court in front of the house—that gate which now was never locked.

Mr. Sleuth, pushing suddenly forward, began walking up the flagged path, when, with a "By your leave, sir," the ex-butler, stepping aside, slipped in front of his lodger, in order to open the front door for him.

As he passed by Mr. Sleuth, the back of Bunting’s bare left hand brushed lightly against the long Inverness cape the lodger was wearing, and, to Bunting’s surprise, the stretch of cloth against which his hand lay for a moment was not only damp, damp may-be from stray flakes of snow which had settled upon it, but wet—wet and gluey.

Bunting thrust his left hand into his pocket; it was with the other that he placed the key in the lock of the door.

The two men passed into the hall together.

The house seemed blackly dark in comparison with the lighted-up road outside, and as he groped forward, closely followed by the lodger, there came over Bunting a sudden, reeling sensation of mortal terror, an instinctive, assailing knowledge of frightful immediate danger.

A stuffless voice—the voice of his first wife, the long-dead girl to whom his mind so seldom reverted nowadays—uttered into his ear the words, "Take care!"

And then the lodger spoke. His voice was harsh and grating, though not loud.

"I’m afraid, Mr. Bunting, that you must have felt something dirty, foul, on my coat? It’s too long a story to tell you now, but I brushed up against a dead animal, a creature to whose misery some thoughtful soul had put an end, lying across a bench on Primrose Hill."

"No, sir, no. I didn’t notice nothing. I scarcely touched you, sir."

It seemed as if a power outside himself compelled Bunting to utter these lying words. "And now, sir, I’ll be saying good-night to you," he said.

Stepping back he pressed with all the strength that was in him against the wall, and let the other pass him.

There was a pause, and then—"Good-night," returned Mr. Sleuth, in a hollow voice.

Bunting waited until the lodger had gone upstairs, and then, lighting the gas, he sat down there, in the hall. Mr. Sleuth’s landlord felt very queer—queer and sick.

He did not draw his left hand out of his pocket till he heard Mr. Sleuth shut the bedroom door upstairs. Then he held up his left hand and looked at it curiously; it was flecked, streaked with pale reddish blood.

Taking off his boots, he crept into the room where his wife lay asleep. Stealthily he walked across to the wash-hand-stand, and dipped a hand into the water-jug.

"Whatever are you doing? What on earth are you doing?" came a voice from the bed, and Bunting started guiltily.

"I’m just washing my hands."

"Indeed, you’re doing nothing of the sort! I never heard of such a thing—putting your hand into the water in which I was going to wash my face to-morrow morning!"

"I’m very sorry, Ellen," he said meekly; "I meant to throw it away. You don’t suppose I would have let you wash in dirty water, do you?"

She said no more, but, as he began undressing himself, Mrs. Bunting lay staring at him in a way that made her husband feel even more uncomfortable than he was already.

At last he got into bed. He wanted to break the oppressive silence by telling Ellen about the sovereign the young lady had given him, but that sovereign now seemed to Bunting of no more account than if it had been a farthing he had picked up in the road outside.

Once more his wife spoke, and he gave so great a start that it shook the bed.

"I suppose that you don’t know that you’ve left the light burning in the hall, wasting our good money?" she observed tartly.

He got up painfully and opened the door into the passage. It was as she had said; the gas was flaring away, wasting their good money—or, rather, Mr. Sleuth’s good money. Since he had come to be their lodger they had not had to touch their rent money.

Bunting turned out the light and groped his way back to the room, and so to bed. Without speaking again to each other, both husband and wife lay awake till dawn.

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The next morning Mr. Sleuth’s landlord awoke with a start; he felt curiously heavy about the limbs, and tired about the eyes.

Drawing his watch from under his pillow, he saw that it was seven o’clock. Without waking his wife, he got out of bed and pulled the blind a little to one side. It was snowing heavily, and, as is the way when it snows, even in London, everything was strangely, curiously still.

After he had dressed he went out into the passage. As he had at once dreaded and hoped, their newspaper was already lying on the mat. It was probably the sound of its being pushed through the letter-box which had waked him from his unrestful sleep.

He picked the paper up and went into the sitting-room then, shutting the door behind him carefully, he spread the newspaper wide open on the table, and bent over it.

As Bunting at last looked up and straightened himself, an expression of intense relief shone upon his stolid face. The item of news he had felt certain would be printed in big type on the middle sheet was not there.