"The Lodger" by Marie Belloc Lowndes - Chapter 18
Any ordeal is far less terrifying, far easier to meet with courage, when it is repeated, than is even a milder experience which is entirely novel.
Mrs. Bunting had already attended an inquest, in the character of a witness, and it was one of the few happenings of her life which was sharply etched against the somewhat blurred screen of her memory.
In a country house where the then Ellen Green had been staying for a fortnight with her elderly mistress, there had occurred one of those sudden, pitiful tragedies which occasionally destroy the serenity, the apparent decorum, of a large, respectable household.
The under-housemaid, a pretty, happy-natured girl, had drowned herself for love of the footman, who had given his sweetheart cause for bitter jealousy. The girl had chosen to speak of her troubles to the strange lady's maid rather than to her own fellow-servants, and it was during the conversation the two women had had together that the girl had threatened to take her own life.
As Mrs. Bunting put on her outdoor clothes, preparatory to going out, she recalled very clearly all the details of that dreadful affair, and of the part she herself had unwillingly played in it.
She visualised the country inn where the inquest on that poor, unfortunate creature had been held.
The butler had escorted her from the Hall, for he also was to give evidence, and as they came up there had been a look of cheerful animation about the inn yard; people coming and going, many women as well as men, village folk, among whom the dead girl's fate had aroused a great deal of interest, and the kind of horror which those who live on a dull countryside welcome rather than avoid.
Everyone there had been particularly nice and polite to her, to Ellen Green; there had been a time of waiting in a room upstairs in the old inn, and the witnesses had been accommodated, not only with chairs, but with cake and wine.
She remembered how she had dreaded being a witness, how she had felt as if she would like to run away from her nice, easy place, rather than have to get up and tell the little that she knew of the sad business.
But it had not been so very dreadful after all. The coroner had been a kindly-spoken gentleman; in fact he had complimented her on the clear, sensible way she had given her evidence concerning the exact words the unhappy girl had used.
One thing Ellen Green had said, in answer to a question put by an inquisitive juryman, had raised a laugh in the crowded, low-ceilinged room. "Ought not Miss Ellen Green," so the man had asked, "to have told someone of the girl's threat? If she had done so, might not the girl have been prevented from throwing herself into the lake?" And she, the witness, had answered, with some asperity -- for by that time the coroner's kind manner had put her at her ease -- that she had not attached any importance to what the girl had threatened to do, never believing that any young woman could be so silly as to drown herself for love!
Vaguely Mrs. Bunting supposed that the inquest at which she was going to be present this afternoon would be like that country inquest of long ago.
It had been no mere perfunctory inquiry; she remembered very well how little by little that pleasant-spoken gentleman, the coroner, had got the whole truth out -- the story, that is, of how that horrid footman, whom she, Ellen Green, had disliked from the first minute she had set eyes on him, had taken up with another young woman. It had been supposed that this fact would not be elicited by the coroner; but it had been, quietly, remorselessly; more, the dead girl's letters had been read out -- piteous, queerly expressed letters, full of wild love and bitter, threatening jealousy. And the jury had censured the young man most severely; she remembered the look on his face when the people, shrinking back, had made a passage for him to slink out of the crowded room.
Come to think of it now, it was strange she had never told Bunting that long-ago tale. It had occurred years before she knew him, and somehow nothing had ever happened to make her tell him about it.
She wondered whether Bunting had ever been to an inquest. She longed to ask him. But if she asked him now, this minute, he might guess where she was thinking of going.
And then, while still moving about her bedroom, she shook her head -- no, no, Bunting would never guess such a thing; he would never, never suspect her of telling him a lie.
Stop -- had she told a lie? She did mean to go to the doctor after the inquest was finished -- if there was time, that is. She wondered uneasily how long such an inquiry was likely to last. In this case, as so very little had been discovered, the proceedings would surely be very formal -- formal and therefore short.
She herself had one quite definite object -- that of hearing the evidence of those who believed they had seen the murderer leaving the spot where his victims lay weltering in their still flowing blood. She was filled with a painful, secret, and, yes, eager curiosity to hear how those who were so positive about the matter would describe the appearance of The Avenger. After all, a lot of people must have seen him, for, as Bunting had said only the day before to young Chandler, The Avenger was not a ghost; he was a living man with some kind of hiding-place where he was known, and where he spent his time between his awful crimes.
As she came back to the sitting-room, her extreme pallor struck her husband.
"Why, Ellen," he said, "it is time you went to the doctor. You looks just as if you was going to a funeral. I'll come along with you as far as the station. You're going by train, ain't you? Not by bus, eh? It's a very long way to Ealing, you know."
"There you go! Breaking your solemn promise to me the very first minute!" But somehow she did not speak unkindly, only fretfully and sadly.
And Bunting hung his head. "Why, to be sure I'd gone and clean forgot the lodger! But will you be all right, Ellen? Why not wait till to-morrow, and take Daisy with you?"
"I like doing my own business in my own way, and not in someone else's way!" she snapped out; and then more gently, for Bunting really looked concerned, and she did feel very far from well, "I'll be all right, old man. Don't you worry about me!"
As she turned to go across to the door, she drew the black shawl she had put over her long jacket more closely round her.
She felt ashamed, deeply ashamed, of deceiving so kind a husband. And yet, what could she do? How could she share her dreadful burden with poor Bunting? Why, 'twould be enough to make a man go daft. Even she often felt as if she could stand it no longer -- as if she would give the world to tell someone -- anyone -- what it was that she suspected, what deep in her heart she so feared to be the truth.
But, unknown to herself, the fresh outside air, fog-laden though it was, soon began to do her good. She had gone out far too little the last few days, for she had had a nervous terror of leaving the house unprotected, as also a great unwillingness to allow Bunting to come into contact with the lodger.
When she reached the Underground station she stopped short. There were two ways of getting to St. Pancras -- she could go by bus, or she could go by train. She decided on the latter. But before turning into the station her eyes strayed over the bills of the early afternoon papers lying on the ground.
stared up at her in varying type.
Drawing her black shawl yet a little closer about her shoulders, Mrs. Bunting looked down at the placards. She did not feel inclined to buy a paper, as many of the people round her were doing. Her eyes were smarting, even now, from their unaccustomed following of the close print in the paper Bunting took in.
Slowly she turned, at last, into the Underground station.
And now a piece of extraordinary good fortune befell Mrs. Bunting.
The third-class carriage in which she took her place happened to be empty, save for the presence of a police inspector. And once they were well away she summoned up courage, and asked him the question she knew she would have to ask of someone within the next few minutes.
"Can you tell me," she said, in a low voice, "where death inquests are held" -- she moistened her lips, waited a moment, and then concluded -- "in the neighbourhood of King's Cross?"
The man turned and, looked at her attentively. She did not look at all the sort of Londoner who goes to an inquest -- there are many such -- just for the fun of the thing. Approvingly, for he was a widower, he noted her neat black coat and skirt; and the plain Princess bonnet which framed her pale, refined face.
"I'm going to the Coroner's Court myself." he said good-naturedly. "So you can come along of me. You see there's that big Avenger inquest going on to-day, so I think they'll have had to make other arrangements for -- hum, hum -- ordinary cases." And as she looked at him dumbly, he went on, "There'll be a mighty crowd of people at The Avenger inquest -- a lot of ticket folk to be accommodated, to say nothing of the public."
"That's the inquest I'm going to," faltered Mrs. Bunting. She could scarcely get the words out. She realised with acute discomfort, yes, and shame, how strange, how untoward, was that which she was going to do. Fancy a respectable woman wanting to attend a murder inquest!
During the last few days all her perceptions had become sharpened by suspense and fear. She realised now, as she looked into the stolid face of her unknown friend, how she herself would have regarded any woman who wanted to attend such an inquiry from a simple, morbid feeling of curiosity. And yet -- and yet that was just what she was about to do herself.
"I've got a reason for wanting to go there," she murmured. It was a comfort to unburden herself this little way even to a stranger.
"Ah!" he said reflectively. "A -- a relative connected with one of the two victims' husbands, I presume?"
And Mrs. Bunting bent her head.
"Going to give evidence?" he asked casually, and then he turned and looked at Mrs. Bunting with far more attention than he had yet done.
"Oh, no!" There was a world of horror, of fear in the speaker's voice.
And the inspector felt concerned and sorry. "Hadn't seen her for quite a long time, I suppose?"
"Never had, seen her. I'm from the country." Something impelled Mrs. Bunting to say these words. But she hastily corrected herself, "At least, I was."
"Will he be there?"
She looked at him dumbly; not in the least knowing to whom he was alluding.
"I mean the husband," went on the inspector hastily. "I felt sorry for the last poor chap -- I mean the husband of the last one -- he seemed so awfully miserable. You see, she'd been a good wife and a good mother till she took to the drink."
"It always is so," breathed out Mrs. Bunting.
"Aye." He waited a moment. "D'you know anyone about the court?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Well, don't you worry. I'll take you in along o' me. You'd never get in by yourself."
They got out; and oh, the comfort of being in some one's charge, of having a determined man in uniform to look after one! And yet even now there was to Mrs. Bunting something dream-like, unsubstantial about the whole business.
"If he knew -- if he only knew what I know!" she kept saying over and over again to herself as she walked lightly by the big, burly form of the police inspector.
"'Tisn't far -- not three minutes," he said suddenly. "Am I walking too quick for you, ma'am?"'
"No, not at all. I'm a quick walker."
And then suddenly they turned a corner and came on a mass of people, a densely packed crowd of men and women, staring at a mean-looking little door sunk into a high wall.
"Better take my arm," the inspector suggested. "Make way there! Make way!" he cried authoritatively; and he swept her through the serried ranks which parted at the sound of his voice, at the sight of his uniform.
"Lucky you met me," he said, smiling. "You'd never have got through alone. And 'tain't a nice crowd, not by any manner of means."
The small door opened just a little way, and they found themselves on a narrow stone-flagged path, leading into a square yard. A few men were out there, smoking.
Before preceding her into the building which rose at the back of the yard, Mrs. Bunting's kind new friend took out his watch. "There's another twenty minutes before they'll begin," he said. "There's the mortuary" -- he pointed with his thumb to a low room built out to the right of the court. "Would you like to go in and see them?" he whispered.
"Oh, no!" she cried, in a tone of extreme horror. And he looked down at her with sympathy, and with increased respect. She was a nice, respectable woman, she was. She had not come here imbued with any morbid, horrible curiosity, but because she thought it her duty to do so. He suspected her of being sister-in-law to one of The Avenger's victims.
They walked through into a big room or hall, now full of men talking in subdued yet eager, animated tones.
"I think you'd better sit down here," he said considerately, and, leading her to one of the benches that stood out from the whitewashed walls -- "unless you'd rather be with the witnesses, that is."
But again she said, "Oh, no!" And then, with an effort, "Oughtn't I to go into the court now, if it's likely to be so full?"
"Don't you worry," he said kindly. "I'll see you get a proper place. I must leave you now for a minute, but I'll come back in good time and look after you."
She raised the thick veil she had pulled down over her face while they were going through that sinister, wolfish-looking crowd outside, and looked about her.
Many of the gentlemen -- they mostly wore tall hats and good overcoats -- standing round and about her looked vaguely familiar. She picked out one at once. He was a famous journalist, whose shrewd, animated face was familiar to her owing to the fact that it was widely advertised in connection with a preparation for the hair -- the preparation which in happier, more prosperous days Bunting had had great faith in, and used, or so he always said, with great benefit to himself. This gentleman was the centre of an eager circle; half a dozen men were talking to him, listening deferentially when he spoke, and each of these men, so Mrs. Bunting realised, was a Somebody.
How strange, how amazing, to reflect that from all parts of London, from their doubtless important avocations, one unseen, mysterious beckoner had brought all these men here together, to this sordid place, on this bitterly cold, dreary day. Here they were, all thinking of, talking of, evoking one unknown, mysterious personality -- that of the shadowy and yet terribly real human being who chose to call himself The Avenger. And somewhere, not so very far away from them all The Avenger was keeping these clever, astute, highly trained minds -- aye, and bodies, too -- at bay.
Even Mrs. Bunting, sitting here unnoticed, realised the irony of her presence among them.