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CHAPTER XXIV

Each hour of the days that followed held for Bunting its full meed of aching fear and suspense.

The unhappy man was ever debating within himself what course he should pursue, and, according to his mood and to the state of his mind at any particular moment, he would waver between various widely-differing lines of action.

He told himself again and again, and with fretful unease, that the most awful thing about it all was that he wasn’t sure. If only he could have been sure, he might have made up his mind exactly what it was he ought to do.

But when telling himself this he was deceiving himself, and he was vaguely conscious of the fact; for, from Bunting’s point of view, almost any alternative would have been preferable to that which to some, nay, perhaps to most, householders would have seemed the only thing to do, namely, to go to the police. But Londoners of Bunting’s class have an uneasy fear of the law. To his mind it would be ruin for him and for his Ellen to be mixed up publicly in such a terrible affair. No one concerned in the business would give them and their future a thought, but it would track them to their dying day, and, above all, it would make it quite impossible for them ever to get again into a good joint situation. It was that for which Bunting, in his secret soul, now longed with all his heart.

No, some other way than going to the police must be found—and he racked his slow brain to find it.

The worst of it was that every hour that went by made his future course more difficult and more delicate, and increased the awful weight on his conscience.

If only he really knew! If only he could feel quite sure! And then he would tell himself that, after all, he had very little to go upon; only suspicion—suspicion, and a secret, horrible certainty that his suspicion was justified.

And so at last Bunting began to long for a solution which he knew to be indefensible from every point of view; he began to hope, that is, in the depths of his heart, that the lodger would again go out one evening on his horrible business and be caught—red-handed.

But far from going out on any business, horrible or other, Mr. Sleuth now never went out at all. He kept upstairs, and often spent quite a considerable part of his day in bed. He still felt, so he assured Mrs. Bunting, very far from well. He had never thrown off the chill he had caught on that bitter night he and his landlord had met on their several ways home.

Joe Chandler, too, had become a terrible complication to Daisy’s father. The detective spent every waking hour that he was not on duty with the Buntings; and Bunting, who at one time had liked him so well and so cordially, now became mortally afraid of him.

But though the young man talked of little else than The Avenger, and though on one evening he described at immense length the eccentric-looking gent who had given the barmaid a sovereign, picturing Mr. Sleuth with such awful accuracy that both Bunting and Mrs. Bunting secretly and separately turned sick when they listened to him, he never showed the slightest interest in their lodger.

At last there came a morning when Bunting and Chandler held a strange conversation about The Avenger. The young fellow had come in earlier than usual, and just as he arrived Mrs. Bunting and Daisy were starting out to do some shopping. The girl would fain have stopped behind, but her stepmother had given her a very peculiar, disagreeable look, daring her, so to speak, to be so forward, and Daisy had gone on with a flushed, angry look on her pretty face.

And then, as young Chandler stepped through into the sitting-room, it suddenly struck Bunting that the young man looked unlike himself—indeed, to the ex-butler’s apprehension there was something almost threatening in Chandler’s attitude.

"I want a word with you, Mr. Bunting," he began abruptly, falteringly. "And I’m glad to have the chance now that Mrs. Bunting and Miss Daisy are out."

Bunting braced himself to hear the awful words—the accusation of having sheltered a murderer, the monster whom all the world was seeking, under his roof. And then he remembered a phrase, a horrible legal phrase—"Accessory after the fact." Yes, he had been that, there wasn’t any doubt about it!

"Yes?" he said. "What is it, Joe?" and then the unfortunate man sat down in his chair. "Yes?" he said again uncertainly; for young Chandler had now advanced to the table, he was looking at Bunting fixedly—the other thought threateningly. "Well, out with it, Joe! Don’t keep me in suspense."

And then a slight smile broke over the young man’s face. "I don’t think what I’ve got to say can take you by surprise, Mr. Bunting."

And Bunting wagged his head in a way that might mean anything—yes or no, as the case might be.

The two men looked at one another for what seemed a very, very long time to the elder of them. And then, making a great effort, Joe Chandler brought out the words, "Well, I suppose you know what it is I want to talk about. I’m sure Mrs. Bunting would, from a look or two she’s lately cast on me. It’s your daughter—it’s Miss Daisy."

And then Bunting gave a kind of cry, ’twixt a sob and a laugh. "My girl?" he cried. "Good Lord, Joe! Is that all you wants to talk about? Why, you fair frightened me—that you did!"

And, indeed, the relief was so great that the room swam round as he stared across it at his daughter’s lover, that lover who was also the embodiment of that now awful thing to him, the law. He smiled, rather foolishly, at his visitor; and Chandler felt a sharp wave of irritation, of impatience sweep over his good-natured soul. Daisy’s father was an old stupid—that’s what he was.

And then Bunting grew serious. The room ceased to go round. "As far as I’m concerned," he said, with a good deal of solemnity, even a little dignity, "you have my blessing, Joe. You’re a very likely young chap, and I had a true respect for your father."

"Yes," said Chandler, "that’s very kind of you, Mr. Bunting. But how about her—her herself?"

Bunting stared at him. It pleased him to think that Daisy hadn’t given herself away, as Ellen was always hinting the girl was doing.

"I can’t answer for Daisy," he said heavily. "You’ll have to ask her yourself—that’s not a job any other man can do for you, my lad."

"I never gets a chance. I never sees her, not by our two selves," said Chandler, with some heat. "You don’t seem to understand, Mr. Bunting, that I never do see Miss Daisy alone," he repeated. "I hear now that she’s going away Monday, and I’ve only once had the chance of a walk with her. Mrs. Bunting’s very particular, not to say pernickety in her ideas, Mr. Bunting——"

"That’s a fault on the right side, that is—with a young girl," said Bunting thoughtfully.

And Chandler nodded. He quite agreed that as regarded other young chaps Mrs. Bunting could not be too particular.

"She’s been brought up like a lady, my Daisy has," went on Bunting, with some pride. "That Old Aunt of hers hardly lets her out of her sight."

"I was coming to the old aunt," said Chandler heavily. "Mrs. Bunting she talks as if your daughter was going to stay with that old woman the whole of her natural life—now is that right? That’s what I wants to ask you, Mr. Bunting,—is that right?"

"I’ll say a word to Ellen, don’t you fear," said Bunting abstractedly.

His mind had wandered off, away from Daisy and this nice young chap, to his now constant anxious preoccupation. "You come along to-morrow," he said, "and I’ll see you gets your walk with Daisy. It’s only right you and she should have a chance of seeing one another without old folk being by; else how’s the girl to tell whether she likes you or not! For the matter of that, you hardly knows her, Joe——" He looked at the young man consideringly.

Chandler shook his head impatiently. "I knows her quite as well as I wants to know her," he said. "I made up my mind the very first time I see’d her, Mr. Bunting."

"No! Did you really?" said Bunting. "Well, come to think of it, I did so with her mother; aye, and years after, with Ellen, too. But I hope you’ll never want no second, Chandler."

"God forbid!" said the young man under his breath. And then he asked, rather longingly, "D’you think they’ll be out long now, Mr. Bunting?"

And Bunting woke up to a due sense of hospitality. "Sit down, sit down; do!" he said hastily. "I don’t believe they’ll be very long. They’ve only got a little bit of shopping to do."

And then, in a changed, in a ringing, nervous tone, he asked, "And how about your job, Joe? Nothing new, I take it? I suppose you’re all just waiting for the next time?"

"Aye—that’s about the figure of it." Chandler’s voice had also changed; it was now sombre, menacing. "We’re fair tired of it—beginning to wonder when it’ll end, that we are!"

"Do you ever try and make to yourself a picture of what the master’s like?" asked Bunting. Somehow, he felt he must ask that.

"Yes," said Joe slowly. "I’ve a sort of notion—a savage, fierce-looking devil, the chap must be. It’s that description that was circulated put us wrong. I don’t believe it was the man that knocked up against that woman in the fog—no, not one bit I don’t. But I wavers, I can’t quite make up my mind. Sometimes I think it’s a sailor—the foreigner they talks about, that goes away for eight or nine days in between, to Holland maybe, or to France. Then, again, I says to myself that it’s a butcher, a man from the Central Market. Whoever it is, it’s someone used to killing, that’s flat."

"Then it don’t seem to you possible——?" (Bunting got up and walked over to the window.) "You don’t take any stock, I suppose, in that idea some of the papers put out, that the man is"—then he hesitated and brought out, with a gasp—"a gentleman?"

Chandler looked at him, surprised. "No," he said deliberately. "I’ve made up my mind that’s quite a wrong tack, though I knows that some of our fellows—big pots, too—are quite sure that the fellow what gave the girl the sovereign is the man we’re looking for. You see, Mr. Bunting, if that’s the fact—well, it stands to reason the fellow’s an escaped lunatic; and if he’s an escaped lunatic he’s got a keeper, and they’d be raising a hue and cry after him; now, wouldn’t they?"

"You don’t think," went on Bunting, lowering his voice, "that he could be just staying somewhere, lodging like?"

"D’you mean that The Avenger may be a toff, staying in some West-end hotel, Mr. Bunting? Well, things almost as funny as that ’ud be have come to pass." He smiled as if the notion was a funny one.

"Yes, something o’ that sort," muttered Bunting.

"Well, if your idea’s correct, Mr. Bunting——"

"I never said ’twas my idea," said Bunting, all in a hurry.

"Well, if that idea’s correct then, ’twill make our task more difficult than ever. Why, ’twould be looking for a needle in a field of hay, Mr. Bunting! But there! I don’t think it’s anything quite so unlikely as that—not myself I don’t." He hesitated. "There’s some of us"—he lowered his voice—"that hopes he’ll betake himself off—The Avenger, I mean—to another big city, to Manchester or to Edinburgh. There’d be plenty of work for him to do there," and Chandler chuckled at his own grim joke.

And then, to both men’s secret relief, for Bunting was now mortally afraid of this discussion concerning The Avenger and his doings, they heard Mrs. Bunting’s key in the lock.

Daisy blushed rosy-red with pleasure when she saw that young Chandler was still there. She had feared that when they got home he would be gone, the more so that Ellen, just as if she was doing it on purpose, had lingered aggravatingly long over each small purchase.

"Here’s Joe come to ask if he can take Daisy out for a walk," blurted out Bunting.

"My mother says as how she’d like you to come to tea, over at Richmond," said Chandler awkwardly, "I just come in to see whether we could fix it up, Miss Daisy."

And Daisy looked imploringly at her stepmother.

"D’you mean now—this minute?" asked Mrs. Bunting tartly.

"No, o’ course not"—Bunting broke in hastily. "How you do go on, Ellen!"

"What day did your mother mention would be convenient to her?" asked Mrs. Bunting, looking at the young man satirically.

Chandler hesitated. His mother had not mentioned any special day—in fact, his mother had shown a surprising lack of anxiety to see Daisy at all. But he had talked her round.

"How about Saturday?" suggested Bunting. "That’s Daisy’s birthday. ’Twould be a birthday treat for her to go to Richmond, and she’s going back to Old Aunt on Monday."

"I can’t go Saturday," said Chandler disconsolately.

"I’m on duty Saturday."

"Well, then, let it be Sunday," said Bunting firmly. And his wife looked at him surprised; he seldom asserted himself so much in her presence.

"What do you say, Miss Daisy?" said Chandler.

"Sunday would be very nice," said Daisy demurely. And then, as the young man took up his hat, and as her stepmother did not stir, Daisy ventured to go out into the hall with him for a minute.

Chandler shut the door behind them, and so was spared the hearing of Mrs. Bunting’s whispered remark: "When I was a young woman folk didn’t gallivant about on Sunday; those who was courting used to go to church together, decent-like——"