Open main menu

CHAPTER XXVII

In vain Mr. Hopkins invited Mrs. Bunting and her pretty stepdaughter to step through into the Chamber of Horrors. "I think we ought to go straight home," said Mr. Sleuth’s landlady decidedly. And Daisy meekly assented. Somehow the girl felt confused, a little scared by the lodger’s sudden disappearance. Perhaps this unwonted feeling of hers was induced by the look of stunned surprise and, yes, pain, on her stepmother’s face.

Slowly they made their way out of the building, and when they got home it was Daisy who described the strange way Mr. Sleuth had been taken.

"I don’t suppose he’ll be long before he comes home," said Bunting heavily, and he cast an anxious, furtive look at his wife. She looked as if stricken in a vital part; he saw from her face that there was something wrong—very wrong indeed.

The hours dragged on. All three felt moody and ill at ease. Daisy knew there was no chance that young Chandler would come in to-day.

About six o’clock Mrs. Bunting went upstairs. She lit the gas in Mr. Sleuth’s sitting-room and looked about her with a fearful glance. Somehow everything seemed to speak to her of the lodger, there lay her Bible and his Concordance, side by side on the table, exactly as he had left them, when he had come downstairs and suggested that ill-starred expedition to his landlord’s daughter. She took a few steps forward, listening the while anxiously for the familiar sound of the click in the door which would tell her that the lodger had come back, and then she went over to the window and looked out.

What a cold night for a man to be wandering about, homeless, friendless, and, as she suspected with a pang, with but very little money on him!

Turning abruptly, she went into the lodger’s bedroom and opened the drawer of the looking-glass.

Yes, there lay the much-diminished heap of sovereigns. If only he had taken his money out with him! She wondered painfully whether he had enough on his person to secure a good night’s lodging, and then suddenly she remembered that which brought relief to her mind. The lodger had given something to that Hopkins fellow—either a sovereign or half a sovereign, she wasn’t sure which.

The memory of Mr. Sleuth’s cruel words to her, of his threat, did not disturb her overmuch. It had been a mistake—all a mistake. Far from betraying Mr. Sleuth, she had sheltered him—kept his awful secret as she could not have kept it had she known, or even dimly suspected, the horrible fact with which Sir John Burney’s words had made her acquainted; namely, that Mr. Sleuth was victim of no temporary aberration, but that he was, and had been for years, a madman, a homicidal maniac.

In her ears there still rang the Frenchman’s half careless yet confident question, "De Leipsic and Liverpool man?"

Following a sudden impulse, she went back into the sitting-room, and taking a black-headed pin out of her bodice stuck it amid the leaves of the Bible. Then she opened the Book, and looked at the page the pin had marked:—

"My tabernacle is spoiled and all my cords are broken… There is none to stretch forth my tent any more and to set up my curtains."

At last leaving the Bible open, Mrs. Bunting went downstairs, and as she opened the door of her sitting-room Daisy came towards her stepmother.

"I’ll go down and start getting the lodger’s supper ready for you," said the girl good-naturedly. "He’s certain to come in when he gets hungry. But he did look upset, didn’t he, Ellen? Right down bad—that he did!"

Mrs. Bunting made no answer; she simply stepped aside to allow Daisy to go down.

"Mr. Sleuth won’t never come back no more," she said sombrely, and then she felt both glad and angry at the extraordinary change which came over her husband’s face. Yet, perversely, that look of relief, of right-down joy, chiefly angered her, and tempted her to add, "That’s to say, I don’t suppose he will."

And Bunting’s face altered again; the old, anxious, depressed look, the look it had worn the last few days, returned.

"What makes you think he mayn’t come back?" he muttered.

"Too long to tell you now," she said. "Wait till the child’s gone to bed."

And Bunting had to restrain his curiosity.

And then, when at last Daisy had gone off to the back room where she now slept with her stepmother, Mrs. Bunting beckoned to her husband to follow her upstairs.

Before doing so he went down the passage and put the chain on the door. And about this they had a few sharp whispered words.

"You’re never going to shut him out?" she expostulated angrily, beneath her breath.

"I’m not going to leave Daisy down here with that man perhaps walking in any minute."

"Mr. Sleuth won’t hurt Daisy, bless you! Much more likely to hurt me," and she gave a half sob.

Bunting stared at her. "What do you mean?" he said roughly. "Come upstairs and tell me what you mean."

And then, in what had been the lodger’s sitting-room, Mrs. Bunting told her husband exactly what it was that had happened.

He listened in heavy silence.

"So you see," she said at last, "you see, Bunting, that ’twas me that was right after all. The lodger was never responsible for his actions. I never thought he was, for my part."

And Bunting stared at her ruminatingly. "Depends on what you call responsible——" he began argumentatively.

But she would have none of that. "I heard the gentleman say myself that he was a lunatic," she said fiercely. And then, dropping her voice, "A religious maniac—that’s what he called him."

"Well, he never seemed so to me," said Bunting stoutly. "He simply seemed to me ’centric—that’s all he did. Not a bit madder than many I could tell you of." He was walking round the room restlessly, but he stopped short at last. "And what d’you think we ought to do now?"

Mrs. Bunting shook her head impatiently. "I don’t think we ought to do nothing," she said. "Why should we?"

And then again he began walking round the room in an aimless fashion that irritated her.

"If only I could put out a bit of supper for him somewhere where he would get it! And his money, too? I hate to feel it’s in there."

"Don’t you make any mistake—he’ll come back for that," said Bunting, with decision.

But Mrs. Bunting shook her head. She knew better.

"Now," she said, "you go off up to bed. It’s no use us sitting up any longer."

And Bunting acquiesced.

She ran down and got him a bedroom candle—there was no gas in the little back bedroom upstairs. And then she watched him go slowly up.

Suddenly he turned and came down again. "Ellen," he said, in an urgent whisper, "if I was you I’d take the chain off the door, and I’d lock myself in—that’s what I’m going to do. Then he can sneak in and take his dirty money away."

Mrs. Bunting neither nodded nor shook her head. Slowly she went downstairs, and there she carried out half of Bunting’s advice. She took, that is, the chain off the front door. But she did not go to bed, neither did she lock herself in. She sat up all night, waiting.

At half-past seven she made herself a cup of tea, and then she went into her bedroom.

Daisy opened her eyes.

"Why, Ellen," she said, "I suppose I was that tired, and slept so sound, that I never heard you come to bed or get up—funny, wasn’t it?"

"Young people don’t sleep as light as do old folks," Mrs. Bunting said sententiously.

"Did the lodger come in after all? I suppose he’s upstairs now?"

Mrs. Bunting shook her head. "It looks as if ’twould be a fine day for you down at Richmond," she observed in a kindly tone.

And Daisy smiled, a very happy, confident little smile.

· · · · · · ·

That evening Mrs. Bunting forced herself to tell young Chandler that their lodger had, so to speak, disappeared. She and Bunting had thought carefully over what they would say, and so well did they carry out their programme, or, what is more likely, so full was young Chandler of the long happy day he and Daisy had spent together, that he took their news very calmly.

"Gone away, has he?" he observed casually. "Well, I hope he paid up all right?"

"Oh, yes, yes," said Mrs. Bunting hastily. "No trouble of that sort."

And Bunting said shamefacedly, "Aye, aye, the lodger was quite an honest gentleman, Joe. But I feel worried about him. He was such a poor, gentle chap—not the sort o’ man one likes to think of as wandering about by himself."

"You always said he was ’centric," said Joe thoughtfully.

"Yes, he was that," said Bunting slowly. "Regular right-down queer. Leetle touched, you know, under the thatch," and, as he tapped his head significantly, both young people burst out laughing.

"Would you like a description of him circulated?" asked Joe good-naturedly.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunting looked at one another.

"No, I don’t think so. Not yet awhile at any rate. ’Twould upset him awfully, you see."

And Joe acquiesced. "You’d be surprised at the number o’ people who disappears and are never heard of again——" he said cheerfully. And then he got up, very reluctantly.

Daisy, making no bones about it this time, followed him out into the passage, and shut the sitting-room door behind her.

When she came back she walked over to where her father was sitting in his easy chair, and standing behind him she put her arms round his neck.

Then she bent down her head. "Father," she said, "I’ve a bit of news for you!"

"Yes, my dear?"

"Father, I’m engaged! Aren’t you surprised?"

"Well, what do you think?" said Bunting fondly. Then he turned round and, catching hold of her head, gave her a good, hearty kiss.

"What’ll Old Aunt say, I wonder?" he whispered.

"Don’t you worry about Old Aunt," exclaimed his wife suddenly. "I’ll manage Old Aunt! I’ll go down and see her. She and I have always got on pretty comfortable together, as you knows well, Daisy."

"Yes," said Daisy a little wonderingly. "I know you have, Ellen."

· · · · · · ·

Mr. Sleuth never came back, and at last after many days and many nights had gone by, Mrs. Bunting left off listening for the click of the lock which she at once hoped and feared would herald her lodger’s return.

As suddenly and as mysteriously as they had begun the "Avenger" murders stopped, but there came a morning in the early spring when a gardener, working in the Regent’s Park, found a newspaper in which was wrapped, together with a half-worn pair of rubber-soled shoes, a long, peculiarly shaped knife. The fact, though of considerable interest to the police, was not chronicled in any newspaper, but about the same time a picturesque little paragraph went the round of the press concerning a small boxful of sovereigns which had been anonymously forwarded to the Governors of the Foundling Hospital.

Meanwhile Mrs. Bunting had been as good as her word about "Old Aunt," and that lady had received the wonderful news concerning Daisy in a more philosophical spirit than her great-niece had expected her to do. She only observed that it was odd to reflect that if gentlefolks leave a house in charge of the police a burglary is pretty sure to follow—a remark which Daisy resented much more than did her Joe.

Mr. Bunting and his Ellen are now in the service of an old lady, by whom they are feared as well as respected, and whom they make very comfortable.