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CHAPTER XXV

Daisy’s eighteenth birthday dawned uneventfully. Her father gave her what he had always promised she should have on her eighteenth birthday—a watch. It was a pretty little silver watch, which Bunting had bought secondhand on the last day he had been happy—it seemed a long, long time ago now.

Mrs. Bunting thought a silver watch a very extravagant present, but she was far too wretched, far too absorbed in her own thoughts, to trouble much about it. Besides, in such matters she had generally had the good sense not to interfere between her husband and his child.

In the middle of the birthday morning Bunting went out to buy himself some more tobacco. He had never smoked so much as in the last four days, excepting, perhaps, the week that had followed on his leaving service. Smoking a pipe had then held all the exquisite pleasure which we are told attaches itself to the eating of forbidden fruit.

His tobacco had now become his only relaxation; it acted on his nerves as an opiate, soothing his fears and helping him to think. But he had been overdoing it, and it was that which now made him feel so "jumpy," so he assured himself, when he found himself starting at any casual sound outside, or even when his wife spoke to him suddenly.

Just now Ellen and Daisy were down in the kitchen, and Bunting didn’t quite like the sensation of knowing that there was only one pair of stairs between Mr. Sleuth and himself. So he quietly slipped out of the house without telling Ellen that he was going out.

In the last four days Bunting had avoided his usual haunts; above all, he had avoided even passing the time of day to his acquaintances and neighbours. He feared, with a great fear, that they would talk to him of a subject which, because it filled his mind to the exclusion of all else, might make him betray the knowledge—no, not knowledge, rather the—the suspicion—that dwelt within him.

But to-day the unfortunate man had a curious, instinctive longing for human companionship—companionship, that is, other than that of his wife and of his daughter.

This longing for a change of company finally led him into a small, populous thoroughfare hard by the Edgware Road. There were more people there than usual just now, for the housewives of the neighbourhood were doing their Saturday marketing for Sunday. The ex-butler turned into a small old-fashioned shop where he generally bought his tobacco.

Bunting passed the time of day with the tobacconist, and the two fell into desultory talk, but to his customer’s relief and surprise the man made no allusion to the subject of which all the neighbourhood must still be talking.

And then, quite suddenly, while still standing by the counter, and before he had paid for the packet of tobacco he held in his hand, Bunting, through the open door, saw with horrified surprise that Ellen, his wife, was standing, alone, outside a greengrocer’s shop just opposite.

Muttering a word of apology, he rushed out of the shop and across the road.

"Ellen!" he gasped hoarsely, "you’ve never gone and left my little girl alone in the house with the lodger?"

Mrs. Bunting’s face went yellow with fear. "I thought you was indoors," she cried. "You was indoors! Whatever made you come out for, without first making sure I’d stay in?"

Bunting made no answer; but, as they stared at each other in exasperated silence, each now knew that the other knew.

They turned and scurried down the crowded street.

"Don’t run," he said suddenly; "we shall get there just as quickly if we walk fast. People are noticing you, Ellen. Don’t run."

He spoke breathlessly, but it was breathlessness induced by fear and by excitement, not by the quick pace at which they were walking.

At last they reached their own gate, and Bunting pushed past in front of his wife.

After all, Daisy was his child; Ellen couldn’t know how he was feeling.

He seemed to take the path in one leap, then fumbled for a moment with his latchkey.

Opening wide the door, "Daisy!" he called out, in a wailing voice, "Daisy, my dear! where are you?"

"Here I am, father. What is it?"

"She’s all right——" Bunting turned a grey face to his wife. "She’s all right, Ellen."

He waited a moment, leaning against the wall of the passage. "It did give me a turn," he said, and then, warningly, "Don’t frighten the girl, Ellen."

Daisy was standing before the fire in their sitting room, admiring herself in the glass.

"Oh, father," she exclaimed, without turning round, "I’ve seen the lodger! He’s quite a nice gentleman, though, to be sure, he does look a cure. He rang his bell, but I didn’t like to go up; and so he came down to ask Ellen for something. We had quite a nice little chat—that we had. I told him it was my birthday, and he asked me and Ellen to go to Madame Tussaud’s with him this afternoon." She laughed, a little self-consciously. "Of course, I could see he was ‘centric, and then at first he spoke so funnily. ‘And who be you?’ he says, threatening-like. And I says to him, ‘I’m Mr. Bunting’s daughter, sir.’ ‘Then you’re a very fortunate girl’—that’s what he says, Ellen—‘to ’ave such a nice stepmother as you’ve got. That’s why,’ he says, ‘you look such a good, innocent girl.’ And then he quoted a bit of the Prayer Book. ‘Keep innocency,’ he says, wagging his head at me. Lor’! It made me feel as if I was with Old Aunt again."

"I won’t have you going out with the lodger—that’s flat."

Bunting spoke in a muffled, angry tone. He was wiping his forehead with one hand, while with the other he mechanically squeezed the little packet of tobacco, for which, as he now remembered, he had forgotten to pay.

Daisy pouted. "Oh, father, I think you might let me have a treat on my birthday! I told him that Saturday wasn’t a very good day—at least, so I’d heard—for Madame Tussaud’s. Then he said we could go early, while the fine folk are still having their dinners." She turned to her stepmother, then giggled happily. "He particularly said you was to come, too. The lodger has a wonderful fancy for you, Ellen; if I was father, I’d feel quite jealous!"

Her last words were cut across by a tap-tap on the door.

Bunting and his wife looked at each other apprehensively. Was it possible that, in their agitation, they had left the front door open, and that someone, some merciless myrmidon of the law, had crept in behind them?

Both felt a curious thrill of satisfaction when they saw that it was only Mr. Sleuth—Mr. Sleuth dressed for going out; the tall hat he had worn when he had first come to them was in his hand, but he was wearing a coat instead of his Inverness cape.

"I heard you come in"—he addressed Mrs. Bunting in his high, whistling, hesitating voice—"and so I’ve come down to ask you if you and Miss Bunting will come to Madame Tussaud’s now. I have never seen those famous waxworks, though I’ve heard of the place all my life."

As Bunting forced himself to look fixedly at his lodger, a sudden doubt bringing with it a sense of immeasurable relief, came to Mr. Sleuth’s landlord.

Surely it was inconceivable that this gentle, mild-mannered gentleman could be the monster of cruelty and cunning that Bunting had now for the terrible space of four days believed him to be!

He it was who answered, "You’re very kind, I’m sure, sir."

He tried to catch his wife’s eye, but Mrs. Bunting was looking away, staring into vacancy. She still, of course, wore the bonnet and cloak in which she had just been out to do her marketing. Daisy was already putting on her hat and coat.

"Well?" said Mr. Sleuth. Then Mrs. Bunting turned, and it seemed to his landlady that he was looking at her threateningly. "Well?"

"Yes, sir. We’ll come in a minute," she said dully.