"The Lodger" by Marie Belloc Lowndes - Chapter 3
But what was a little snub compared with the intense relief and joy of going down and telling Bunting of the great piece of good fortune which had fallen their way?
Staid Mrs. Bunting seemed to make but one leap down the steep stairs. In the hall, however, she pulled herself together, and tried to still her agitation. She had always disliked and despised any show of emotion; she called such betrayal of feeling "making a fuss."
Opening the door of their sitting-room, she stood for a moment looking at her husband's bent back, and she realised, with a pang of pain, how the last few weeks had aged him.
Bunting suddenly looked round, and, seeing his wife, stood up. He put the paper he had been holding down on to the table: "Well," he said, "well, who was it, then?"
He felt rather ashamed of himself; it was he who ought to have answered the door and done all that parleying of which he had heard murmurs.
And then in a moment his wife's hand shot out, and the ten sovereigns fell in a little clinking heap on the table.
"Look there!" she whispered, with an excited, tearful quiver in her voice. "Look there, Bunting!"
And Bunting did look there, but with a troubled, frowning gaze.
He was not quick-witted, but at once he jumped to the conclusion that his wife had just had in a furniture dealer, and that this ten pounds represented all their nice furniture upstairs. If that were so, then it was the beginning of the end. That furniture in the first-floor front had cost -- Ellen had reminded him of the fact bitterly only yesterday -- seventeen pounds nine shillings, and every single item had been a bargain. It was too bad that she had only got ten pounds for it.
Yet he hadn't the heart to reproach her.
He did not speak as he looked across at her, and meeting that troubled, rebuking glance, she guessed what it was that he thought had happened.
"We've a new lodger!" she cried. "And -- and, Bunting? He's quite the gentleman! He actually offered to pay four weeks in advance, at two guineas a week."
Bunting moved quickly round the table, and together they stood there, fascinated by the little heap of gold. "But there's ten sovereigns here," he said suddenly.
"Yes, the gentleman said I'd have to buy some things for him to-morrow. And, oh, Bunting, he's so well spoken, I really felt that -- I really felt that -- " and then Mrs. Bunting, taking a step or two sideways, sat down, and throwing her little black apron over her face burst into gasping sobs.
Bunting patted her back timidly. "Ellen?" he said, much moved by her agitation, "Ellen? Don't take on so, my dear -- "
"I won't," she sobbed, "I -- I won't! I'm a fool -- I know I am! But, oh, I didn't think we was ever going to have any luck again!"
And then she told him -- or rather tried to tell him -- what the lodger was like. Mrs. Bunting was no hand at talking, but one thing she did impress on her husband's mind, namely, that Mr. Sleuth was eccentric, as so many clever people are eccentric -- that is, in a harmless way -- and that he must be humoured.
"He says he doesn't want to be waited on much," she said at last wiping her eyes, "but I can see he will want a good bit of looking after, all the same, poor gentleman."
And just as the words left her mouth there came the unfamiliar sound of a loud ring. It was that of the drawing-room bell being pulled again and again.
Bunting looked at his wife eagerly. "I think I'd better go up, eh, Ellen?" he said. He felt quite anxious to see their new lodger. For the matter of that, it would be a relief to be doing something again.
"Yes," she answered, "you go up! Don't keep him waiting! I wonder what it is he wants? I said I'd let him know when his supper was ready."
A moment later Bunting came down again. There was an odd smile on his face. "Whatever d'you think he wanted?" he whispered mysteriously. And as she said nothing, he went on, "He's asked me for the loan of a Bible!"
"Well, I don't see anything so out of the way in that," she said hastily, "'specially if he don't feel well. I'll take it up to him."
And then going to a small table which stood between the two windows, Mrs. Bunting took off it a large Bible, which had been given to her as a wedding present by a married lady with whose mother she had lived for several years.
"He said it would do quite well when you take up his supper," said Bunting; and, then, "Ellen? He's a queer-looking cove -- not like any gentleman I ever had to do with."
"He is a gentleman," said Mrs. Bunting rather fiercely.
"Oh, yes, that's all right." But still he looked at her doubtfully. "I asked him if he'd like me to just put away his clothes. But, Ellen, he said he hadn't got any clothes!"
"No more he hasn't;" she spoke quickly, defensively. "He had the misfortune to lose his luggage. He's one dishonest folk 'ud take advantage of."
"Yes, one can see that with half an eye," Bunting agreed.
And then there was silence for a few moments, while Mrs. Bunting put down on a little bit of paper the things she wanted her husband to go out and buy for her. She handed him the list, together with a sovereign. "Be as quick as you can," she said, "for I feel a bit hungry. I'll be going down now to see about Mr. Sleuth's supper. He only wants a glass of milk and two eggs. I'm glad I've never fallen to bad eggs!"
"Sleuth," echoed Bunting, staring at her. "What a queer name! How d'you spell it -- S-l-u-t-h?"
"No," she shot out, "S-l-e -- u -- t -- h."
"Oh," he said doubtfully.
"He said, 'Think of a hound and you'll never forget my name,'" and Mrs. Bunting smiled.
When he got to the door, Bunting turned round: "We'll now be able to pay young Chandler back some o' that thirty shillings. I am glad." She nodded; her heart, as the saying is, too full for words.
And then each went about his and her business -- Bunting out into the drenching fog, his wife down to her cold kitchen.
The lodger's tray was soon ready; everything upon it nicely and daintily arranged. Mrs. Bunting knew how to wait upon a gentleman.
Just as the landlady was going up the kitchen stair, she suddenly remembered Mr. Sleuth's request for a Bible. Putting the tray down in the hall, she went into her sitting-room and took up the Book; but when back in the hall she hesitated a moment as to whether it was worth while to make two journeys. But, no, she thought she could manage; clasping the large, heavy volume under her arm, and taking up the tray, she walked slowly up the staircase.
But a great surprise awaited her; in fact, when Mr. Sleuth's landlady opened the door of the drawing-room she very nearly dropped the tray. She actually did drop the Bible, and it fell with a heavy thud to the ground.
The new lodger had turned all those nice framed engravings of the early Victorian beauties, of which Mrs. Bunting had been so proud, with their faces to the wall!
For a moment she was really too surprised to speak. Putting the tray down on the table, she stooped and picked up the Book. It troubled her that the Book should have fallen to the ground; but really she hadn't been able to help it -- it was mercy that the tray hadn't fallen, too.
Mr. Sleuth got up. "I -- I have taken the liberty to arrange the room as I should wish it to be," he said awkwardly. "You see, Mrs. -- er -- Bunting, I felt as I sat here that these women's eyes followed me about. It was a most unpleasant sensation, and gave me quite an eerie feeling."
The landlady was now laying a small tablecloth over half of the table. She made no answer to her lodger's remark, for the good reason that she did not know what to say.
Her silence seemed to distress Mr. Sleuth. After what seemed a long pause, he spoke again.
"I prefer bare walls, Mrs. Bunting," he spoke with some agitation. "As a matter of fact, I have been used to seeing bare walls about me for a long time." And then, at last his landlady answered him, in a composed, soothing voice, which somehow did him good to hear. "I quite understand, sir. And when Bunting comes in he shall take the pictures all down. We have plenty of space in our own rooms for them."
"Thank you -- thank you very much."
Mr. Sleuth appeared greatly relieved.
"And I have brought you up my Bible, sir. I understood you wanted the loan of it?"
Mr. Sleuth stared at her as if dazed for a moment; and then, rousing himself, he said, "Yes, yes, I do. There is no reading like the Book. There is something there which suits every state of mind, aye, and of body too -- "
"Very true, sir." And then Mrs. Bunting, having laid out what really looked a very appetising little meal, turned round and quietly shut the door.
She went down straight into her sitting-room and waited there for Bunting, instead of going to the kitchen to clear up. And as she did so there came to her a comfortable recollection, an incident of her long-past youth, in the days when she, then Ellen Green, had maided a dear old lady.
The old lady had a favourite nephew -- a bright, jolly young gentleman, who was learning to paint animals in Paris. And one morning Mr. Algernon -- that was his rather peculiar Christian name -- had had the impudence to turn to the wall six beautiful engravings of paintings done by the famous Mr. Landseer!
Mrs. Bunting remembered all the circumstances as if they had only occurred yesterday, and yet she had not thought of them for years.
It was quite early; she had come down -- for in those days maids weren't thought so much of as they are now, and she slept with the upper housemaid, and it was the upper housemaid's duty to be down very early -- and, there, in the dining-room, she had found Mr. Algernon engaged in turning each engraving to the wall! Now, his aunt thought all the world of those pictures, and Ellen had felt quite concerned, for it doesn't do for a young gentleman to put himself wrong with a kind aunt.
"Oh, sir," she had exclaimed in dismay, "whatever are you doing?" And even now she could almost hear his merry voice, as he had answered, "I am doing my duty, fair Helen" -- he had always called her "fair Helen" when no one was listening. "How can I draw ordinary animals when I see these half-human monsters staring at me all the time I am having my breakfast, my lunch, and my dinner?" That was what Mr. Algernon had said in his own saucy way, and that was what he repeated in a more serious, respectful manner to his aunt, when that dear old lady had come downstairs. In fact he had declared, quite soberly, that the beautiful animals painted by Mr. Landseer put his eye out!
But his aunt had been very much annoyed -- in fact, she had made him turn the pictures all back again; and as long as he stayed there he just had to put up with what he called "those half-human monsters." Mrs. Bunting, sitting there, thinking the matter of Mr. Sleuth's odd behaviour over, was glad to recall that funny incident of her long-gone youth. It seemed to prove that her new lodger was not so strange as he appeared to be. Still, when Bunting came in, she did not tell him the queer thing which had happened. She told herself that she would be quite able to manage the taking down of the pictures in the drawing-room herself.
But before getting ready their own supper, Mr. Sleuth's landlady went upstairs to clear away, and when on the staircase she heard the sound of -- was it talking, in the drawing-room? Startled, she waited a moment on the landing outside the drawing-room door, then she realised that it was only the lodger reading aloud to himself. There was something very awful in the words which rose and fell on her listening ears:
"A strange woman is a narrow gate. She also lieth in wait as for a prey, and increaseth the transgressors among men."
She remained where she was, her hand on the handle of the door, and again there broke on her shrinking ears that curious, high, sing-song voice, "Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death."
It made the listener feel quite queer. But at last she summoned up courage, knocked, and walked in.
"I'd better clear away, sir, had I not?" she said. And Mr. Sleuth nodded.
Then he got up and closed the Book. "I think I'll go to bed now," he said. "I am very, very tired. I've had a long and a very weary day, Mrs. Bunting."
After he had disappeared into the back room, Mrs. Bunting climbed up on a chair and unhooked the pictures which had so offended Mr. Sleuth. Each left an unsightly mark on the wall -- but that, after all, could not be helped.
Treading softly, so that Bunting should not hear her, she carried them down, two by two, and stood them behind her bed.