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"The Lodger" by Marie Belloc Lowndes - Chapter 17

Chapter XVII

Mrs. Bunting slept well the night following that during which the lodger had been engaged in making his mysterious experiments in her kitchen. She was so tired, so utterly exhausted, that sleep came to her the moment she laid her head upon her pillow.

Perhaps that was why she rose so early the next morning. Hardly giving herself time to swallow the tea Bunting had made and brought her, she got up and dressed.

She had suddenly come to the conclusion that the hall and staircase required a thorough "doing down," and she did not even wait till they had eaten their breakfast before beginning her labours. It made Bunting feel quite uncomfortable. As he sat by the fire reading his morning paper -- the paper which was again of such absorbing interest -- he called out, "There's no need for so much hurry, Ellen. Daisy'll be back to-day. Why don't you wait till she's come home to help you?"

But from the hall where she was busy dusting, sweeping, polishing, his wife's voice came back: "Girls ain't no good at this sort of work. Don't you worry about me. I feel as if I'd enjoy doing an extra bit of cleaning to-day. I don't like to feel as anyone could come in and see my place dirty."

"No fear of that!" Bunting chuckled. And then a new thought struck him. "Ain't you afraid of waking the lodger?" he called out.

"Mr. Sleuth slept most of yesterday, and all last night," she answered quickly. "As it is, I study him over-much; it's a long, long time since I've done this staircase down."

All the time she was engaged in doing the hall, Mrs. Bunting left the sitting-room door wide open.

That was a queer thing of her to do, but Bunting didn't like to get up and shut her out, as it were. Still, try as he would, he couldn't read with any comfort while all that noise was going on. He had never known Ellen make such a lot of noise before. Once or twice he looked up and frowned rather crossly.

There came a sudden silence, and he was startled to see that. Ellen was standing in the doorway, staring at him, doing nothing.

"Come in," he said, "do! Ain't you finished yet?"

"I was only resting a minute," she said. "You don't tell me nothing. I'd like to know if there's anything -- I mean anything new -- in the paper this morning."

She spoke in a muffled voice, almost as if she were ashamed of her unusual curiosity; and her look of fatigue, of pallor, made Bunting suddenly uneasy. "Come in -- do!" he repeated sharply. "You've done quite enough -- and before breakfast, too. 'Tain't necessary. Come in and shut that door."

He spoke authoritatively, and his wife, for a wonder, obeyed him.

She came in, and did what she had never done before -- brought the broom with her, and put it up against the wall in the corner.

Then she sat down.

"I think I'll make breakfast up here," she said. "I -- I feel cold, Bunting." And her husband stared at her surprised, for drops of perspiration were glistening on her forehead.

He got up. "All right. I'll go down and bring the eggs up. Don't you worry. For the matter of that, I can cook them downstairs if you like."

"No," she said obstinately. "I'd rather do my own work. You just bring them up here -- that'll be all right. To-morrow morning we'll have Daisy to help see to things."

"Come over here and sit down comfortable in my chair," he suggested kindly. "You never do take any bit of rest, Ellen. I never see'd such a woman!"

And again she got up and meekly obeyed him, walking across the room with languid steps.

He watched her, anxiously, uncomfortably.

She took up the newspaper he had just laid down, and Bunting took two steps towards her.

"I'll show you the most interesting bit" he said eagerly. "It's the piece headed, 'Our Special Investigator.' You see, they've started a special investigator of their own, and he's got hold of a lot of little facts the police seem to have overlooked. The man who writes all that -- I mean the Special Investigator -- was a famous 'tec in his time, and he's just come back out of his retirement o' purpose to do this bit of work for the paper. You read what he says -- I shouldn't be a bit surprised if he ends by getting that reward! One can see he just loves the work of tracking people down."

"There's nothing to be proud of in such a job," said his wife listlessly.

"He'll have something to be proud of if he catches The Avenger!" cried Bunting. He was too keen about this affair to be put off by Ellen's contradictory remarks. "You just notice that bit about the rubber soles. Now, no one's thought o' that. I'll just tell Chandler -- he don't seem to me to be half awake, that young man don't."

"He's quite wide awake enough without you saying things to him! How about those eggs, Bunting? I feel quite ready for my breakfast even if you don't -- "

Mrs. Bunting now spoke in what her husband sometimes secretly described to himself as "Ellen's snarling voice."

He turned away and left the room, feeling oddly troubled. There was something queer about her, and he couldn't make it out. He didn't mind it when she spoke sharply and nastily to him. He was used to that. But now she was so up and down; so different from what she used to be! In old days she had always been the same, but now a man never knew where to have her.

And as he went downstairs he pondered uneasily over his wife's changed ways and manner.

Take the question of his easy chair. A very small matter, no doubt, but he had never known Ellen sit in that chair -- no, not even once, for a minute, since it had been purchased by her as a present for him.

They had been so happy, so happy, and so -- so restful, during that first week after Mr. Sleuth had come to them. Perhaps it was the sudden, dramatic change from agonising anxiety to peace and security which had been too much for Ellen -- yes, that was what was the matter with her, that and the universal excitement about these Avenger murders, which were shaking the nerves of all London. Even Bunting, unobservant as he was, had come to realise that his wife took a morbid interest in these terrible happenings. And it was the more queer of her to do so that at first she refused to discuss them, and said openly that she was utterly uninterested in murder or crime of any sort.

He, Bunting, had always had a mild pleasure in such things. In his time he had been a great reader of detective tales, and even now he thought there was no pleasanter reading. It was that which had first drawn him to Joe Chandler, and made him welcome the young chap as cordially as he had done when they first came to London.

But though Ellen had tolerated, she had never encouraged, that sort of talk between the two men. More than once she had exclaimed reproachfully: "To hear you two, one would think there was no nice, respectable, quiet people left in the world!"

But now all that was changed. She was as keen as anyone could be to hear the latest details of an Avenger crime. True, she took her own view of any theory suggested. But there! Ellen always had had her own notions about everything under the sun. Ellen was a woman who thought for herself -- a clever woman, not an everyday woman by any manner of means.

While these thoughts were going disconnectedly through his mind, Bunting was breaking four eggs into a basin. He was going to give Ellen a nice little surprise -- to cook an omelette as a French chef had once taught him to do, years and years ago. He didn't know how she would take his doing such a thing after what she had said; but never mind, she would enjoy the omelette when done. Ellen hadn't been eating her food properly of late.

And when he went up again, his wife, to his relief, and, it must be admitted, to his surprise, took it very well. She had not even noticed how long he had been downstairs, for she had been reading with intense, painful care the column that the great daily paper they took in had allotted to the one-time famous detective.

According to this Special Investigator's own account he had discovered all sorts of things that had escaped the eye of the police and of the official detectives. For instance, owing, he admitted, to a fortunate chance, he had been at the place where the two last murders had been committed very soon after the double crime had been discovered -- in fact within half an hour, and he had found, or so he felt sure, on the slippery, wet pavement imprints of the murderer's right foot.

The paper reproduced the impression of a half-worn rubber sole. At the same time, he also admitted -- for the Special Investigator was very honest, and he had a good bit of space to fill in the enterprising paper which had engaged him to probe the awful mystery -- that there were thousands of rubber soles being worn in London. . . .

And when she came to that statement Mrs. Bunting looked up, and there came a wan smile over her thin, closely-shut lips. It was quite true -- that about rubber soles; there were thousands of rubber soles being worn just now. She felt grateful to the Special Investigator for having stated the fact so clearly.

The column ended up with the words:

"And to-day will take place the inquest on the double crime of ten days ago. To my mind it would be well if a preliminary public inquiry could be held at once. Say, on the very day the discovery of a fresh murder is made. In that way alone would it be possible to weigh and sift the evidence offered by members of the general public. For when a week or more has elapsed, and these same people have been examined and cross-examined in private by the police, their impressions have had time to become blurred and hopelessly confused. On that last occasion but one there seems no doubt that several people, at any rate two women and one man, actually saw the murderer hurrying from the scene of his atrocious double crime -- this being so, to-day's investigation may be of the highest value and importance. To-morrow I hope to give an account of the impression made on me by the inquest, and by any statements made during its course."

Even when her husband had come in with the tray Mrs. Bunting had gone on reading, only lifting up her eyes for a moment. At last he said rather crossly, "Put down that paper, Ellen, this minute! The omelette I've cooked for you will be just like leather if you don't eat it."

But once his wife had eaten her breakfast -- and, to Bunting's mortification, she left more than half the nice omelette untouched -- she took the paper up again. She turned over the big sheets, until she found, at the foot of one of the ten columns devoted to The Avenger and his crimes, the information she wanted, and then uttered an exclamation under her breath.

What Mrs. Bunting had been looking for -- what at last she had found -- was the time and place of the inquest which was to be held that day. The hour named was a rather odd time -- two o'clock in the afternoon, but, from Mrs. Bunting's point of view, it was most convenient.

By two o'clock, nay, by half-past one, the lodger would have had his lunch; by hurrying matters a little she and Bunting would have had their dinner, and -- and Daisy wasn't coming home till tea-time.

She got up out of her husband's chair. "I think you're right," she said, in a quick, hoarse tone. "I mean about me seeing a doctor, Bunting. I think I will go and see a doctor this very afternoon."

"Wouldn't you like me to go with you?" he asked.

"No, that I wouldn't. In fact I wouldn't go at all you was to go with me."

"All right," he said vexedly. "Please yourself, my dear; you know best."

"I should think I did know best where my own health is concerned."

Even Bunting was incensed by this lack of gratitude. "'Twas I said, long ago, you ought to go and see the doctor; 'twas you said you wouldn't!" he exclaimed pugnaciously.

"Well, I've never said you was never right, have I? At any rate, I'm going."

"Have you a pain anywhere?" He stared at her with a look of real solicitude on his fat, phlegmatic face.

Somehow Ellen didn't look right, standing there opposite him. Her shoulders seemed to have shrunk; even her cheeks had fallen in a little. She had never looked so bad -- not even when they had been half starving, and dreadfully, dreadfully worked.

"Yes," she said briefly, "I've a pain in my head, at the back of my neck. It doesn't often leave me; it gets worse when anything upsets me, like I was upset last night by Joe Chandler."

"He was a silly ass to come and do a thing like that!" said Bunting crossly. "I'd a good mind to tell him so, too. But I must say, Ellen, I wonder he took you in -- he didn't me!"

"Well, you had no chance he should -- you knew who it was," she said slowly.

And Bunting remained silent, for Ellen was right. Joe Chandler had already spoken when he, Bunting, came out into the hall, and saw their cleverly disguised visitor.

"Those big black moustaches," he went on complainingly, "and that black wig -- why, 'twas too ridic'lous -- that's what I call it!"

"Not to anyone who didn't know Joe," she said sharply.

"Well, I don't know. He didn't look like a real man -- nohow. If he's a wise lad, he won't let our Daisy ever see him looking like that!" and Bunting laughed, a comfortable laugh.

He had thought a good deal about Daisy and young Chandler the last two days, and, on the whole, he was well pleased. It was a dull, unnatural life the girl was leading with Old Aunt. And Joe was earning good money. They wouldn't have long to wait, these two young people, as a beau and his girl often have to wait, as he, Bunting, and Daisy's mother had had to do, for ever so long before they could be married. No, there was no reason why they shouldn't be spliced quite soon -- if so the fancy took them. And Bunting had very little doubt that so the fancy would take Joe, at any rate.

But there was plenty of time. Daisy wouldn't be eighteen till the week after next. They might wait till she was twenty. By that time Old Aunt might be dead, and Daisy might have come into quite a tidy little bit of money.

"What are you smiling at?" said his wife sharply.

And he shook himself. "I -- smiling? At nothing that I knows of." Then he waited a moment. "Well, if you will know, Ellen, I was just thinking of Daisy and that young chap Joe Chandler. He is gone on her, ain't he?"

"Gone?" And then Mrs. Bunting laughed, a queer, odd, not unkindly laugh. "Gone, Bunting?" she repeated. "Why, he's out o' sight -- right, out of sight!"

Then hesitatingly, and looking narrowly at her husband, she went on, twisting a bit of her black apron with her fingers as she spoke: -- "I suppose he'll be going over this afternoon to fetch her? Or -- or d'you think he'll have to be at that inquest, Bunting?"

"Inquest? What inquest?" He looked at her puzzled.

"Why, the inquest on them bodies found in the passage near by King's Cross."

"Oh, no; he'd have no call to be at the inquest. For the matter o' that, I know he's going over to fetch Daisy. He said so last night -- just when you went up to the lodger."

"That's just as well." Mrs. Bunting spoke with considerable satisfaction. "Otherwise I suppose you'd ha' had to go. I wouldn't like the house left -- not with us out of it. Mr. Sleuth would be upset if there came a ring at the door."

"Oh, I won't leave the house, don't you be afraid, Ellen -- not while you're out."

"Not even if I'm out a good while, Bunting."

"No fear. Of course, you'll be a long time if it's your idea to see that doctor at Ealing?"

He looked at her questioningly, and Mrs. Bunting nodded. Somehow nodding didn't seem as bad as speaking a lie.