Open main menu

CHAPTER XXVI

Madame Tussaud’s had hitherto held pleasant memories for Mrs. Bunting. In the days when she and Bunting were courting they often spent there part of their afternoon-out.

The butler had an acquaintance, a man named Hopkins, who was one of the waxworks staff, and this man had sometimes given him passes for "self and lady." But this was the first time Mrs. Bunting had been inside the place since she had come to live almost next door, as it were, to the big building.

They walked in silence to the familiar entrance, and then, after the ill-assorted trio had gone up the great staircase and into the first gallery, Mr. Sleuth suddenly stopped short. The presence of those curious, still, waxen figures which suggest so strangely death in life, seemed to surprise and affright him.

Daisy took quick advantage of the lodger’s hesitation and unease.

"Oh, Ellen," she cried, "do let us begin by going into the Chamber of Horrors! I’ve never been in there. Old Aunt made father promise he wouldn’t take me the only time I’ve ever been here. But now that I’m eighteen I can do just as I like; besides, Old Aunt will never know."

Mr. Sleuth looked down at her, and a smile passed for a moment over his worn, gaunt face.

"Yes," he said, "let us go into the Chamber of Horrors; that’s a good idea, Miss Bunting. I’ve always wanted to see the Chamber of Horrors."

They turned into the great room in which the Napoleonic relics were then kept, and which led into the curious, vault-like chamber where waxen effigies of dead criminals stand grouped in wooden docks.

Mrs. Bunting was at once disturbed and relieved to see her husband’s old acquaintance, Mr. Hopkins, in charge of the turnstile admitting the public to the Chamber of Horrors.

"Well, you are a stranger," the man observed genially. "I do believe that this is the very first time I’ve seen you in here, Mrs. Bunting, since you was married!"

"Yes," she said, "that is so. And this is my husband’s daughter, Daisy; I expect you’ve heard of her, Mr. Hopkins. And this"—she hesitated a moment—"is our lodger, Mr. Sleuth."

But Mr. Sleuth frowned and shuffled away. Daisy, leaving her stepmother’s side, joined him.

Two, as all the world knows, is company, three is none.

Mrs. Bunting put down three sixpences.

"Wait a minute," said Hopkins; "you can’t go into the Chamber of Horrors just yet. But you won’t have to wait more than four or five minutes, Mrs. Bunting. It’s this way, you see; our boss is in there, showing a party round." He lowered his voice. "It’s Sir John Burney—I suppose you know who Sir John Burney is?"

"No," she answered indifferently, "I don’t know that I ever heard of him."

She felt slightly—oh, very sightly—uneasy about Daisy. She would have liked her stepdaughter to keep well within sight and sound, but Mr. Sleuth was now taking the girl down to the other end of the room.

"Well, I hope you never will know him—not in any personal sense, Mrs. Bunting." The man chuckled. "He’s the Commissioner of Police—the new one—that’s what Sir John Burney is. One of the gentlemen he’s showing round our place is the Paris Police boss—whose job is on all fours, so to speak, with Sir John’s. The Frenchy has brought his daughter with him, and there are several other ladies. Ladies always likes horrors, Mrs. Bunting; that’s our experience here. ‘Oh, take me to the Chamber of Horrors’—that’s what they say the minute they gets into this here building!"

Mrs. Bunting looked at him thoughtfully. It occurred to Mr. Hopkins that she was very wan and tired; she used to look better in the old days, when she was still in service, before Bunting married her.

"Yes," she said; "that’s just what my stepdaughter said just now. ‘Oh, take me to the Chamber of Horrors’—that’s exactly what she did say when we got upstairs."

· · · · · · ·

A group of people, all talking and laughing together, were advancing, from within the wooden barrier, toward the turnstile.

Mrs. Bunting stared at them nervously. She wondered which of them was the gentleman with whom Mr. Hopkins had hoped she would never be brought into personal contact; she thought she could pick him out among the others. He was a tall, powerful, handsome gentleman, with a military appearance.

Just now he was smiling down into the face of a young lady. "Monsieur Barberoux is quite right," he was saying in a loud, cheerful voice, "our English law is too kind to the criminal, especially to the murderer. If we conducted our trials in the French fashion, the place we have just left would be very much fuller than it is to-day. A man of whose guilt we are absolutely assured is oftener than not acquitted, and then the public taunt us with ‘another undiscovered crime!’"

"D’you mean, Sir John, that murderers sometimes escape scot-free? Take the man who has been committing all these awful murders this last month? I suppose there’s no doubt he’ll be hanged—if he’s ever caught, that is!"

Her girlish voice rang out, and Mrs. Bunting could hear every word that was said.

The whole party gathered round, listening eagerly.

"Well, no." He spoke very deliberately. "I doubt if that particular murderer ever will be hanged——"

"You mean that you’ll never catch him?" the girl spoke with a touch of airy impertinence in her clear voice.

"I think we shall end by catching him—because"—he waited a moment, then added in a lower voice—"now don’t give me away to a newspaper fellow, Miss Rose—because now I think we do know who the murderer in question is——"

Several of those standing near by uttered expressions of surprise and incredulity.

"Then why don’t you catch him?" cried the girl indignantly.

"I didn’t say we knew where he was; I only said we knew who he was, or, rather, perhaps I ought to say that I personally have a very strong suspicion of his identity."

Sir John’s French colleague looked up quickly. "De Leipsic and Liverpool man?" he said interrogatively.

The other nodded. "Yes, I suppose you’ve had the case turned up?"

Then, speaking very quickly, as if he wished to dismiss the subject from his own mind, and from that of his auditors, he went on:

"Four murders of the kind were committed eight years ago—two in Leipsic, the others, just afterwards, in Liverpool,—and there were certain peculiarities connected with the crimes which made it clear they were committed by the same hand. The perpetrator was caught, fortunately for us, red-handed, just as he was leaving the house of his last victim, for in Liverpool the murder was committed in a house. I myself saw the unhappy man—I say unhappy, for there is no doubt at all that he was mad"—he hesitated, and added in a lower tone—"suffering from an acute form of religious mania. I myself saw him, as I say, at some length. But now comes the really interesting point. I have just been informed that a month ago this criminal lunatic, as we must of course regard him, made his escape from the asylum where he was confined. He arranged the whole thing with extraordinary cunning and intelligence, and we should probably have caught him long ago, were it not that he managed, when on his way out of the place, to annex a considerable sum of money in gold, with which the wages of the asylum staff were about to be paid. It is owing to that fact that his escape was, very wrongly, concealed——"

He stopped abruptly, as if sorry he had said so much, and a moment later the party were walking in Indian file through the turnstile, Sir John Burney leading the way.

Mrs. Bunting looked straight before her. She felt—so she expressed it to her husband later—as if she had been turned to stone.

Even had she wished to do so, she had neither the time nor the power to warn her lodger of his danger, for Daisy and her companion were now coming down the room, bearing straight for the Commissioner of Police.

In another moment Mrs. Bunting’s lodger and Sir John Burney were face to face.

Mr. Sleuth swerved to one side; there came a terrible change over his pale, narrow face; it became discomposed, livid with rage and terror.

But, to Mrs. Bunting’s relief—yes, to her inexpressible relief—Sir John Burney and his friends swept on. They passed Mr. Sleuth and the girl by his side, unaware, or so it seemed to her, that there was anyone else in the room but themselves.

"Hurry up, Mrs. Bunting," said the turnstile-keeper; "you and your friends will have the place all to yourselves for a bit." From an official he had become a man, and it was the man in Mr. Hopkins that gallantly addressed pretty Daisy Bunting: "It seems strange that a young lady like you should want to go in and see all those ’orrible frights," he said jestingly…

"Mrs. Bunting, may I trouble you to come over here for a moment?"

The words were hissed rather than spoken by Mr. Sleuth’s lips.

His landlady took a doubtful step towards him.

"A last word with you, Mrs. Bunting." The lodger’s face was still distorted with fear and passion. "Do not think to escape the consequences of your hideous treachery. I trusted you, Mrs. Bunting, and you betrayed me! Put I am protected by a higher power, for I still have much to do." Then, his voice sinking to a whisper, he hissed out, "Your end will be bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword. Your feet shall go down to death, and your steps take hold on hell."

Even while Mr. Sleuth was muttering these strange, dreadful words, he was looking round, glancing this way and that, seeking a way of escape.

At last his eyes became fixed on a small placard placed above a curtain. "Emergency Exit" was written there. Mrs. Bunting thought he was going to make a dash for the place; but Mr. Sleuth did something very different. Leaving his landlady’s side, he walked over to the turnstile. He fumbled in his pocket for a moment, and then touched the man on the arm. "I feel ill," he said, speaking very rapidly; "very ill indeed! It is the atmosphere of this place. I want you to let me out by the quickest way. It would be a pity for me to faint here—especially with ladies about."

His left hand shot out and placed what he had been fumbling for in his pocket on the other’s bare palm. "I see there’s an emergency exit over there. Would it be possible for me to get out that way?"

"Well, yes, sir; I think so."

The man hesitated; he felt a slight, a very sight, feeling of misgiving. He looked at Daisy, flushed and smiling, happy and unconcerned, and then at Mrs. Bunting. She was very pale; but surely her lodger’s sudden seizure was enough to make her feel worried. Hopkins felt the half-sovereign pleasantly tickling his palm. The Paris Prefect of Police had given him only half-a-crown—mean, shabby foreigner!

"Yes, sir; I can let you out that way," he said at last, "and p’raps when you’re standing out in the air, on the iron balcony, you’ll feel better. But then, you know, sir, you’ll have to come round to the front if you wants to come in again, for those emergency doors only open outward."

"Yes, yes," said Mr. Sleuth hurriedly. "I quite understand! If I feel better I’ll come in by the front way, and pay another shilling—that’s only fair."

"You needn’t do that if you’ll just explain what happened here."

The man went and pulled the curtain aside, and put his shoulder against the door. It burst open, and the light, for a moment, blinded Mr. Sleuth.

He passed his hand over his eyes. "Thank you," he muttered, "thank you. I shall get all right out there."

An iron stairway led down into a small stable yard, of which the door opened into a side street.

Mr. Sleuth looked round once more; he really did feel very ill—ill and dazed. How pleasant it would be to take a flying leap over the balcony railing and find rest, eternal rest, below.

But no—he thrust the thought, the temptation, from him. Again a convulsive look of rage came over his face. He had remembered his landlady. How could the woman whom he had treated so generously have betrayed him to his arch-enemy?—to the official, that is, who had entered into a conspiracy years ago to have him confined—him, an absolutely sane man with a great avenging work to do in the world—in a lunatic asylum.

He stepped out into the open air, and the curtain, falling-to behind him, blotted out the tall, thin figure from the little group of people who had watched him disappear.

Even Daisy felt a little scared. "He did look bad, didn't he, now?" she turned appealingly to Mr. Hopkins.

"Yes, that he did, poor gentleman—your lodger, too?" he looked sympathetically at Mrs. Bunting.

She moistened her lips with her tongue. "Yes," she repeated dully, "my lodger."