The Lodger/Chapter XXIII

CHAPTER XXIII

All afternoon it went on snowing; and the three of them sat there, listening and waiting—Bunting and his wife hardly knew for what; Daisy for the knock which would herald Joe Chandler.

And about four there came the now familiar sound.

Mrs. Bunting hurried out into the passage, and as she opened the front door she whispered, "We haven’t said anything to Daisy yet. Young girls can’t keep secrets."

Chandler nodded comprehendingly. He now looked the low character he had assumed to the life, for he was blue with cold, disheartened, and tired out.

Daisy gave a little cry of shocked surprise, of amusement, of welcome, when she saw how cleverly he was disguised.

"I never!" she exclaimed. "What a difference it do make, to be sure! Why, you looks quite horrid, Mr. Chandler."

And, somehow, that little speech of hers amused her father so much that he quite cheered up. Bunting had been very dull and quiet all that afternoon.

"It won’t take me ten minutes to make myself respectable again," said the young man rather ruefully.

His host and hostess, looking at him eagerly, furtively, both came to the conclusion that he had been unsuccessful—that he had failed, that is, in getting any information worth having. And though, in a sense, they all had a pleasant tea together, there was an air of constraint, even of discomfort, over the little party.

Bunting felt it hard that he couldn’t ask the questions that were trembling on his lips; he would have felt it hard any time during the last month to refrain from knowing anything Joe could tell him, but now it seemed almost intolerable to be in this queer kind of half suspense. There was one important fact he longed to know, and at last came his opportunity of doing so, for Joe Chandler rose to leave, and this time it was Bunting who followed him out into the hall.

"Where did it happen?" he whispered. "Just tell me that, Joe?"

"Primrose Hill," said the other briefly. "You’ll know all about it in a minute or two, for it’ll be all in the last editions of the evening papers. That’s what’s been arranged."

"No arrest I suppose?"

Chandler shook his head despondently. "No," he said, "I’m inclined to think the Yard was on a wrong tack altogether this time. But one can only do one’s best. I don’t know if Mrs. Bunting told you I’d got to question a barmaid about a man who was in her place just before closing-time. Well, she’s said all she knew, and it’s as clear as daylight to me that the eccentric old gent she talks about was only a harmless luny. He gave her a sovereign just because she told him she was a teetotaller!" He laughed ruefully.

Even Bunting was diverted at the notion. "Well, that’s a queer thing for a barmaid to be!" he exclaimed.

"She’s niece to the people what keeps the public," explained Chandler; and then he went out of the front door with a cheerful "So long!"

When Bunting went back into the sitting-room Daisy had disappeared. She had gone downstairs with the tray. "Where’s my girl?" he said irritably.

"She’s just taken the tray downstairs."

He went out to the top of the kitchen stairs, and called out sharply, "Daisy! Daisy, child! Are you down there?"

"Yes, father," came her eager, happy voice.

"Better come up out of that cold kitchen."

He turned and came back to his wife. "Ellen, is the lodger in? I haven’t heard him moving about. Now mind what I says, please! I don’t want Daisy to be mixed up with him."

"Mr. Sleuth don’t seem very well to-day," answered Mrs. Bunting quietly. "’Tain’t likely I should let Daisy have anything to do with him. Why, she’s never even seen him. ’Tain’t likely I should allow her to begin waiting on him now."

But though she was surprised and a little irritated by the tone in which Bunting had spoken, no glimmer of the truth illumined her mind. So accustomed had she become to bearing alone the burden of her awful secret, that it would have required far more than a cross word or two, far more than the fact that Bunting looked ill and tired, for her to have come to suspect that her secret was now shared by another, and that other her husband.

Again and again the poor soul had agonised and trembled at the thought of her house being invaded by the police, but that was only because she had always credited the police with supernatural powers of detection. That they should come to know the awful fact she kept hidden in her breast would have seemed to her, on the whole, a natural thing, but that Bunting should even dimly suspect it appeared beyond the range of possibility.

And yet even Daisy noticed a change in her father. He sat cowering over the fire—saying nothing, doing nothing.

"Why, father, ain’t you well?" the girl asked more than once.

And, looking up, he would answer, "Yes, I’m well enough, my girl, but I feels cold. It’s awful cold. I never did feel anything like the cold we’ve got just now."

· · · · · · ·

At eight the now familiar shouts and cries began again outside.

"The Avenger again!" "Another horrible crime!" "Extra speshul edition!"—such were the shouts, the exultant yells, hurled through the clear, cold air. They fell, like bombs into the quiet room.

Both Bunting and his wife remained silent, but Daisy’s cheeks grew pink with excitement, and her eye sparkled.

"Hark, father! Hark, Ellen! D’you hear that?" she exclaimed childishly, and even clapped her hands. "I do wish Mr. Chandler had been here. He would ’a been startled!"

"Don’t, Daisy!" and Bunting frowned.

Then, getting up, he stretched himself. "It’s fair getting on my mind," he said, "these horrible things happening. I’d like to get right away from London, just as far as I could—that I would!"

"Up to John-o’-Groat’s?" said Daisy, laughing. And then, "Why, father, ain’t you going out to get a paper?"

"Yes, I suppose I must."

Slowly he went out of the room, and, lingering a moment in the hall, he put on his greatcoat and hat. Then he opened the front door, and walked down the flagged path. Opening the iron gate, he stepped out on the pavement, then crossed the road to where the newspaper-boys now stood.

The boy nearest to him only had the Sun—a late edition of the paper he had already read. It annoyed Bunting to give a penny for a ha’penny rag of which he already knew the main contents. But there was nothing else to do.

Standing under a lamp-post, he opened out the newspaper. It was bitingly cold; that, perhaps, was why his hand shook as he looked down at the big headlines. For Bunting had been very unfair to the enterprise of the editor of his favourite evening paper. This special edition was full of new matter—new matter concerning The Avenger.

First, in huge type right across the page, was the brief statement that The Avenger had now committed his ninth crime, and that he had chosen quite a new locality, namely, the lonely stretch of rising ground known to Londoners as Primrose Hill.

"The police," so Bunting read, "are very reserved as to the circumstances which led to the finding of the body of The Avenger’s latest victim. But we have reason to believe that they possess several really important clues, and that one of them is concerned with the half-worn rubber sole of which we are the first to reproduce an outline to-day. (See over page.)"

And Bunting, turning the sheet round about, saw the irregular outline he had already seen in the early edition of the Sun, that purporting to be a facsimile of the imprint left by The Avenger’s rubber sole.

He stared down at the rough outline which took up so much of the space which should have been devoted to reading matter with a queer, sinking feeling of terrified alarm. Again and again criminals had been tracked by the marks their boots or shoes had made at or near the scenes of their misdoings.

Practically the only job Bunting did in his own house of a menial kind was the cleaning of the boots and shoes. He had already visualised early this very afternoon the little row with which he dealt each morning—first came his wife’s strong, serviceable boots, then his own two pairs, a good deal patched and mended, and next to his own Mr. Sleuth’s strong, hardly worn, and expensive buttoned boots. Of late a dear little coquettish high-heeled pair of outdoor shoes with thin, paperlike soles, bought by Daisy for her trip to London, had ended the row. The girl had worn these thin shoes persistently, in defiance of Ellen’s reproof and advice, and he, Bunting, had only once had to clean her more sensible country pair, and that only because the others had become wet though the day he and she had accompanied young Chandler to Scotland Yard.

Slowly he returned across the road. Somehow the thought of going in again, of hearing his wife’s sarcastic comments, of parrying Daisy’s eager questions, had become intolerable. So he walked slowly, trying to put off the evil moment when he would have to tell them what was in his paper.

The lamp under which he had stood reading was not exactly opposite the house. It was rather to the right of it. And when, having crossed over the roadway, he walked along the pavement towards his own gate, he heard odd, shuffling sounds coming from the inner side of the low wall which shut off his little courtyard from the pavement.

Now, under ordinary circumstances Bunting would have rushed forward to drive out whoever was there. He and his wife had often had trouble, before the cold weather began, with vagrants seeking shelter there. But to-night he stayed outside, listening intently, sick with suspense and fear.

Was it possible that their place was being watched—already? He thought it only too likely. Bunting, like Mrs. Bunting, credited the police with almost supernatural powers, especially since he had paid that visit to Scotland Yard.

But to Bunting’s amazement, and, yes, relief, it was his lodger who suddenly loomed up in the dim light.

Mr. Sleuth must have been stooping down, for his tall, lank form had been quite concealed till he stepped forward from behind the low wall on to the flagged path leading to the front door.

The lodger was carrying a brown paper parcel, and, as he walked along, the new boots he was wearing creaked, and the tap-tap of hard nail-studded heels rang out on the flat-stones of the narrow path.

Bunting, still standing outside the gate, suddenly knew what it was his lodger had been doing on the other side of the low wall. Mr. Sleuth had evidently been out to buy himself another pair of new boots, and then he had gone inside the gate and had put them on, placing his old footgear in the paper in which the new pair had been wrapped.

The ex-butler waited—waited quite a long time, not only until Mr. Sleuth had let himself into the house, but till the lodger had had time to get well away, upstairs.

Then he also walked up the flagged pathway, and put his latchkey in the door. He lingered as long over the job of hanging his hat and coat up in the hall as he dared, in fact till his wife called out to him. Then he went in, and throwing the paper down on the table, he said sullenly: "There it is! You can see it all for yourself—not that there’s very much to see," and groped his way to the fire.

His wife looked at him in sharp alarm. "Whatever have you done to yourself?" she exclaimed. "You’re ill—that’s what it is, Bunting. You got a chill last night!"

"I told you I’d got a chill," he muttered. "’Twasn’t last night, though; ’twas going out this morning, coming back in the bus. Margaret keeps that housekeeper’s room o’ hers like a hothouse—that’s what she does. ’Twas going out from there into the biting wind, that’s what did for me. It must be awful to stand about in such weather; ’tis a wonder to me how that young fellow, Joe Chandler, can stand the life—being out in all weathers like he is."

Bunting spoke at random, his one anxiety being to get away from what was in the paper, which now lay, neglected, on the table.

"Those that keep out o’ doors all day never do come to no harm," said his wife testily. "But if you felt so bad, whatever was you out so long for, Bunting? I thought you’d gone away somewhere! D’you mean you only went to get the paper?"

"I just stopped for a second to look at it under the lamp," he muttered apologetically.

"That was a silly thing to do!"

"Perhaps it was," he admitted meekly.

Daisy had taken up the paper. "Well, they don’t say much," she said disappointedly. "Hardly anything at all! But perhaps Mr. Chandler ’ll be in soon again. If so, he’ll tell us more about it."

"A young girl like you oughtn’t to want to know anything about murders," said her stepmother severely. "Joe won’t think any the better of you for your inquisitiveness about such things. If I was you, Daisy, I shouldn’t say nothing about it if he does come in—which I fair tell you I hope he won’t. I’ve seen enough of that young chap to-day."

"He didn’t come in for long—not to-day," said Daisy, her lip trembling.

"I can tell you one thing that’ll surprise you, my dear"—Mrs. Bunting looked significantly at her stepdaughter. She also wanted to get away from that dread news—which yet was no news.

"Yes?" said Daisy, rather defiantly. "What is it, Ellen?"

"Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear that Joe did come in this morning. He knew all about that affair then, but he particular asked that you shouldn’t be told anything about it."

"Never!" cried Daisy, much mortified.

"Yes," went on her stepmother ruthlessly. "You just ask your father over there if it isn’t true."

"’Tain’t a healthy thing to speak overmuch about such happenings," said Bunting heavily.

"If I was Joe," went on Mrs. Bunting, quickly pursuing her advantage, "I shouldn’t want to talk about such horrid things when I comes in to have a quiet chat with friends. But the minute he comes in that poor young chap is set upon—mostly, I admit, by your father," she looked at her husband severely. "But you does your share, too, Daisy! You asks him this, you asks him that—he’s fair puzzled sometimes. It don’t do to be so inquisitive."

· · · · · · ·

And perhaps because of this little sermon on Mrs. Bunting’s part when young Chandler did come in again that evening, very little was said of the new Avenger murder.

Bunting made no reference to it at all, and though Daisy said a word, it was but a word. And Joe Chandler thought he had never spent a pleasanter evening in his life—for it was he and Daisy who talked all the time, their elders remaining for the most part silent.

Daisy told of all that she had done with Aunt Margaret. She described the long, dull hours and the queer jobs her aunt set her to do—the washing up of all the fine drawing-room china in a big basin lined with flannel, and how terrified she (Daisy) had been lest there should come even one teeny little chip to any of it. Then she went on to relate some of the funny things Aunt Margaret had told her about "the family."

There came a really comic tale, which hugely interested and delighted Chandler. This was of how Aunt Margaret’s lady had been taken in by an impostor—an impostor who had come up, just as she was stepping out of her carriage, and pretended to have a fit on the doorstep. Aunt Margaret’s lady, being a soft one, had insisted on the man coming into the hall, where he had been given all kinds of restoratives. When the man had at last gone off, it was found that he had "wolfed" young master’s best walking-stick, one with a fine tortoise-shell top to it. Thus had Aunt Margaret proved to her lady that the man had been shamming, and her lady had been very angry—near had a fit herself!

"There’s a lot of that about," said Chandler, laughing. "Incorrigible rogues and vagabonds—that’s what those sort of people are!"

And then he, in his turn, told an elaborate tale of an exceptionally clever swindler whom he himself had brought to book. He was very proud of that job, it had formed a white stone in his career as a detective. And even Mrs. Bunting was quite interested to hear about it.

Chandler was still sitting there when Mr. Sleuth’s bell rang. For awhile no one stirred; then Bunting looked questioningly at his wife.

"Did you hear that?" he said. "I think, Ellen, that was the lodger’s bell."

She got up, without alacrity, and went upstairs.

"I rang," said Mr. Sleuth weakly, "to tell you I don’t require any supper to-night, Mrs. Bunting. Only a glass of milk, with a lump of sugar in it. That is all I require—nothing more. I feel very very far from well"—and he had a hunted, plaintive expression on his face. "And then I thought your husband would like his paper back again, Mrs. Bunting."

Mrs. Bunting, looking at him fixedly, with a sad intensity of gaze of which she was quite unconscious, answered, "Oh, no, sir! Bunting don’t require that paper now. He read it all through." Something impelled her to add, ruthlessly, "He’s got another paper by now, sir. You may have heard them come shouting outside. Would you like me to bring you up that other paper, sir?"

And Mr. Sleuth shook his head. "No," he said querulously. "I much regret now having asked for the one paper I did read, for it disturbed me, Mrs. Bunting. There was nothing of any value in it—there never is in any public print. I gave up reading newspapers years ago, and I much regret that I broke though my rule to-day."

As if to indicate to her that he did not wish for any more conversation, the lodger then did what he had never done before in his landlady’s presence. He went over to the fireplace and deliberately turned his back on her.

She went down and brought up the glass of milk and the lump of sugar he had asked for.

Now he was in his usual place, sitting at the table, studying the Book.

When Mrs. Bunting went back to the others they were chatting merrily. She did not notice that the merriment was confined to the two young people.

"Well?" said Daisy pertly. "How about the lodger, Ellen? Is he all right?"

"Yes," she said stiffly. "Of course he is!"

"He must feel pretty dull sitting up there all by himself—awful lonely-like, I call it," said the girl.

But her stepmother remained silent.

"Whatever does he do with himself all day?" persisted Daisy.

"Just now he’s reading the Bible," Mrs. Bunting answered, shortly and dryly.

"Well, I never! That’s a funny thing for a gentleman to do!"

And Joe, alone of her three listeners, laughed—a long hearty peal of amusement.

"There’s nothing to laugh at," said Mrs. Bunting sharply. "I should feel ashamed of being caught laughing at anything connected with the Bible."

And poor Joe became suddenly quite serious. This was the first time that Mrs. Bunting had ever spoken really nastily to him, and he answered very humbly, "I beg pardon. I know I oughtn’t to have laughed at anything to do with the Bible, but you see, Miss Daisy said it so funny-like, and, by all accounts, your lodger must be a queer card, Mrs. Bunting."

"He’s no queerer than many people I could mention," she said quickly; and with these enigmatic words she got up, and left the room.