"The Lodger" by Marie Belloc Lowndes - Chapter 6
Mr. Sleuth's bell rang again.
Mr. Sleuth's breakfast was quite ready, but for the first time since he had been her lodger Mrs. Bunting did not answer the summons at once. But when there came the second imperative tinkle -- for electric bells had not been fitted into that old-fashioned house -- she made up her mind to go upstairs.
As she emerged into the hall from the kitchen stairway, Bunting, sitting comfortably in their parlour, heard his wife stepping heavily under the load of the well-laden tray.
"Wait a minute!" he called out. "I'll help you, Ellen," and he came out and took the tray from her.
She said nothing, and together they proceeded up to the drawing-room floor landing.
There she stopped him. "Here," she whispered quickly, "you give me that, Bunting. The lodger won't like your going in to him." And then, as he obeyed her, and was about to turn downstairs again, she added in a rather acid tone, "You might open the door for me, at any rate! How can I manage to do it with this here heavy tray on my hands?"
She spoke in a queer, jerky way, and Bunting felt surprised -- rather put out. Ellen wasn't exactly what you'd call a lively, jolly woman, but when things were going well -- as now -- she was generally equable enough. He supposed she was still resentful of the way he had spoken to her about young Chandler and the new Avenger murder.
However, he was always for peace, so he opened the drawing-room door, and as soon as he had started going downstairs Mrs. Bunting walked into the room.
And then at once there came over her the queerest feeling of relief, of lightness of heart.
As usual, the lodger was sitting at his old place, reading the Bible.
Somehow -- she could not have told you why, she would not willingly have told herself -- she had expected to see Mr. Sleuth looking different. But no, he appeared to be exactly the same -- in fact, as he glanced up at her a pleasanter smile than usual lighted up his thin, pallid face.
"Well, Mrs. Bunting," he said genially, "I overslept myself this morning, but I feel all the better for the rest."
"I'm glad of that, sir," she answered, in a low voice. "One of the ladies I once lived with used to say, 'Rest is an old-fashioned remedy, but it's the best remedy of all.'"
Mr. Sleuth himself removed the Bible and Cruden's Concordance off the table out of her way, and then he stood watching his landlady laying the cloth.
Suddenly he spoke again. He was not often so talkative in the morning. "I think, Mrs. Bunting, that there was someone with you outside the door just now?"
"Yes, sir. Bunting helped me up with the tray."
"I'm afraid I give you a good deal of trouble," he said hesitatingly.
But she answered quickly, "Oh, no, sir! Not at all, sir! I was only saying yesterday that we've never had a lodger that gave us as little trouble as you do, sir."
"I'm glad of that. I am aware that my habits are somewhat peculiar."
He looked at her fixedly, as if expecting her to give some sort of denial to this observation. But Mrs. Bunting was an honest and truthful woman. It never occurred to her to question his statement. Mr. Sleuth's habits were somewhat peculiar. Take that going out at night, or rather in the early morning, for instance? So she remained silent.
After she had laid the lodger's breakfast on the table she prepared to leave the room. "I suppose I'm not to do your room till you goes out, sir?"
And Mr. Sleuth looked up sharply. "No, no!" he said. "I never want my room done when I am engaged in studying the Scriptures, Mrs. Bunting. But I am not going out to-day. I shall be carrying out a somewhat elaborate experiment -- upstairs. If I go out at all" he waited a moment, and again he looked at her fixedly " -- I shall wait till night-time to do so." And then, coming back to the matter in hand, he added hastily, "Perhaps you could do my room when I go upstairs, about five o'clock -- if that time is convenient to you, that is?"
"Oh, yes, sir! That'll do nicely!"
Mrs. Bunting went downstairs, and as she did so she took herself wordlessly, ruthlessly to task, but she did not face -- even in her inmost heart -- the strange tenors and tremors which had so shaken her. She only repeated to herself again and again, "I've got upset -- that's what I've done," and then she spoke aloud, "I must get myself a dose at the chemist's next time I'm out. That's what I must do."
And just as she murmured the word "do," there came a loud double knock on the front door.
It was only the postman's knock, but the postman was an unfamiliar visitor in that house, and Mrs. Bunting started violently. She was nervous, that's what was the matter with her, -- so she told herself angrily. No doubt this was a letter for Mr. Sleuth; the lodger must have relations and acquaintances somewhere in the world. All gentlefolk have. But when she picked the small envelope off the hall floor, she saw it was a letter from Daisy, her husband's daughter.
"Bunting!" she called out sharply. "Here's a letter for you."
She opened the door of their sitting-room and looked in. Yes, there was her husband, sitting back comfortably in his easy chair, reading a paper. And as she saw his broad, rather rounded back, Mrs. Bunting felt a sudden thrill of sharp irritation. There he was, doing nothing -- in fact, doing worse than nothing -- wasting his time reading all about those horrid crimes.
She sighed -- a long, unconscious sigh. Bunting was getting into idle ways, bad ways for a man of his years. But how could she prevent it? He had been such an active, conscientious sort of man when they had first made acquaintance. . .
She also could remember, even more clearly than Bunting did himself, that first meeting of theirs in the dining-room of No. 90 Cumberland Terrace. As she had stood there, pouring out her mistress's glass of port wine, she had not been too much absorbed in her task to have a good out-of-her-eye look at the spruce, nice, respectable-looking fellow who was standing over by the window. How superior he had appeared even then to the man she already hoped he would succeed as butler!
To-day, perhaps because she was not feeling quite herself, the past rose before her very vividly, and a lump came into her throat.
Putting the letter addressed to her husband on the table, she closed the door softly, and went down into the kitchen; there were various little things to put away and clean up, as well as their dinner to cook. And all the time she was down there she fixed her mind obstinately, determinedly on Bunting and on the problem of Bunting. She wondered what she'd better do to get him into good ways again.
Thanks to Mr. Sleuth, their outlook was now moderately bright. A week ago everything had seemed utterly hopeless. It seemed as if nothing could save them from disaster. But everything was now changed!
Perhaps it would be well for her to go and see the new proprietor of that registry office, in Baker Street, which had lately changed hands. It would be a good thing for Bunting to get even an occasional job -- for the matter of that he could now take up a fairly regular thing in the way of waiting. Mrs. Bunting knew that it isn't easy to get a man out of idle ways once he has acquired those ways.
When, at last, she went upstairs again she felt a little ashamed of what she had been thinking, for Bunting had laid the cloth, and laid it very nicely, too, and brought up the two chairs to the table.
"Ellen?" he cried eagerly, "here's news! Daisy's coming to-morrow! There's scarlet fever in their house. Old Aunt thinks she'd better come away for a few days. So, you see, she'll be here for her birthday. Eighteen, that's what she be on the nineteenth! It do make me feel old -- that it do!"
Mrs. Bunting put down the tray. "I can't have the girl here just now," she said shortly. "I've just as much to do as I can manage. The lodger gives me more trouble than you seem to think for."
"Rubbish!" he said sharply. "I'll help you with the lodger. It's your own fault you haven't had help with him before. Of course, Daisy must come here. Whatever other place could the girl go to?"
Bunting felt pugnacious -- so cheerful as to be almost light-hearted. But as he looked across at his wife his feeling of satisfaction vanished. Ellen's face was pinched and drawn to-day; she looked ill -- ill and horribly tired. It was very aggravating of her to go and behave like this -- just when they were beginning to get on nicely again.
"For the matter of that," he said suddenly, "Daisy'll be able to help you with the work, Ellen, and she'll brisk us both up a bit."
Mrs. Bunting made no answer. She sat down heavily at the table. And then she said languidly, "You might as well show me the girl's letter."
He handed it across to her, and she read it slowly to herself.
"DEAR FATHER (it ran) -- I hope this finds you as well at it leaves me. Mrs. Puddle's youngest has got scarlet fever, and Aunt thinks I had better come away at once, just to stay with you for a few days. Please tell Ellen I won't give her no trouble. I'll start at ten if I don't hear nothing. -- Your loving daughter,
"Yes, I suppose Daisy will have to come here," Mrs. Bunting slowly. "It'll do her good to have a bit of work to do for once in her life."
And with that ungraciously worded permission Bunting had to content himself.
Quietly the rest of that eventful day sped by. When dusk fell Mr. Sleuth's landlady heard him go upstairs to the top floor. She remembered that this was the signal for her to go and do his room.
He was a tidy man, was the lodger; he did not throw his things about as so many gentlemen do, leaving them all over the place. No, he kept everything scrupulously tidy. His clothes, and the various articles Mrs. Bunting had bought for him during the first two days he had been there, were carefully arranged in the chest of drawers. He had lately purchased a pair of boots. Those he had arrived in were peculiar-looking footgear, buff leather shoes with rubber soles, and he had told his landlady on that very first day that he never wished them to go down to be cleaned.
A funny idea -- a funny habit that, of going out for a walk after midnight in weather so cold and foggy that all other folk were glad to be at home, snug in bed. But then Mr. Sleuth himself admitted that he was a funny sort of gentleman.
After she had done his bedroom the landlady went into the sitting-room and gave it a good dusting. This room was not kept quite as nice as she would have liked it to be. Mrs. Bunting longed to give the drawing-room something of a good turn out; but Mr. Sleuth disliked her to be moving about in it when he himself was in his bedroom; and when up he sat there almost all the time. Delighted as he had seemed to be with the top room, he only used it when making his mysterious experiments, and never during the day-time.
And now, this afternoon, she looked at the rosewood chiffonnier with longing eyes -- she even gave that pretty little piece of furniture a slight shake. If only the doors would fly open, as the locked doors of old cupboards sometimes do, even after they have been securely fastened, how pleased she would be, how much more comfortable somehow she would feel!
But the chiffonnier refused to give up its secret.
About eight o'clock on that same evening Joe Chandler came in, just for a few minutes' chat. He had recovered from his agitation of the morning, but he was full of eager excitement, and Mrs. Bunting listened in silence, intensely interested in spite of herself, while he and Bunting talked.
"Yes," he said, "I'm as right as a trivet now! I've had a good rest -- laid down all this afternoon. You see, the Yard thinks there's going to be something on to-night. He's always done them in pairs."
"So he has," exclaimed Bunting wonderingly. "So he has! Now, I never thought o' that. Then you think, Joe, that the monster'll be on the job again to-night?"
Chandler nodded. "Yes. And I think there's a very good chance of his being caught too -- "
"I suppose there'll be a lot on the watch to-night, eh?"
"I should think there will be! How many of our men d'you think there'll be on night duty to-night, Mr. Bunting?"
Bunting shook his head. "I don't know," he said helplessly.
"I mean extra," suggested Chandler, in an encouraging voice.
"A thousand?" ventured Bunting.
"Five thousand, Mr. Bunting."
"Never!" exclaimed Bunting, amazed.
And even Mrs. Bunting echoed "Never!" incredulously.
"Yes, that there will. You see, the Boss has got his monkey up!" Chandler drew a folded-up newspaper out of his coat pocket. "Just listen to this:
"'The police have reluctantly to admit that they have no clue to the perpetrators of these horrible crimes, and we cannot feel any surprise at the information that a popular attack has been organised on the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. There is even talk of an indignation mass meeting.'
"What d'you think of that? That's not a pleasant thing for a gentleman as is doing his best to read, eh?"
"Well, it does seem queer that the police can't catch him, now doesn't it?" said Bunting argumentatively.
"I don't think it's queer at all," said young Chandler crossly. "Now you just listen again! Here's a bit of the truth for once -- in a newspaper." And slowly he read out:
"'The detection of crime in London now resembles a game of blind man's buff, in which the detective has his hands tied and his eyes bandaged. Thus is he turned loose to hunt the murderer through the slums of a great city.'"
"Whatever does that mean?" said Bunting. "Your hands aren't tied, and your eyes aren't bandaged, Joe?"
"It's metaphorical-like that it's intended, Mr. Bunting. We haven't got the same facilities -- no, not a quarter of them -- that the French 'tecs have."
And then, for the first time, Mrs. Bunting spoke: "What was that word, Joe -- 'perpetrators'? I mean that first bit you read out."
"Yes," he said, turning to her eagerly.
"Then do they think there's more than one of them?" she said, and a look of relief came over her thin face.
"There's some of our chaps thinks it's a gang," said Chandler. "They say it can't be the work of one man."
"What do you think, Joe?"
"Well, Mrs. Bunting, I don't know what to think. I'm fair puzzled."
He got up. "Don't you come to the door. I'll shut it all right. So long! See you to-morrow, perhaps." As he had done the other evening, Mr. and Mrs. Bunting's visitor stopped at the door. "Any news of Miss Daisy?" he asked casually.
"Yes; she's coming to-morrow," said her father. "They've got scarlet fever at her place. So Old Aunt thinks she'd better clear out."
The husband and wife went to bed early that night, but Mrs. Bunting found she could not sleep. She lay wide awake, hearing the hours, the half-hours, the quarters chime out from the belfry of the old church close by.
And then, just as she was dozing off -- it must have been about one o'clock -- she heard the sound she had half unconsciously been expecting to hear, that of the lodger's stealthy footsteps coming down the stairs just outside her room.
He crept along the passage and let himself out very, very quietly.
But though she tried to keep awake, Mrs. Bunting did not hear him come in again, for she soon fell into a heavy sleep.
Oddly enough, she was the first to wake the next morning; odder still, it was she, not Bunting, who jumped out of bed, and going out into the passage, picked up the newspaper which had just been pushed through the letter-box.
But having picked it up, Mrs. Bunting did not go back at once into her bedroom. Instead she lit the gas in the passage, and leaning up against the wall to steady herself, for she was trembling with cold and fatigue, she opened the paper.
Yes, there was the heading she sought:
"The AVENGER Murders"
But, oh, how glad she was to see the words that followed:
"Up to the time of going to press there is little new to report concerning the extraordinary series of crimes which are amazing, and, indeed, staggering not only London, but the whole civilised world, and which would seem to be the work of some woman-hating teetotal fanatic. Since yesterday morning, when the last of these dastardly murders was committed, no reliable clue to the perpetrator, or perpetrators, has been obtained, though several arrests were made in the course of the day. In every case, however, those arrested were able to prove a satisfactory alibi."
And then, a little lower down:
"The excitement grows and grows. It is not too much to say that even a stranger to London would know that something very unusual was in the air. As for the place where the murder was committed last night -- "
"Last night!" thought Mrs. Bunting, startled; and then she realised that "last night," in this connection, meant the night before last.
She began the sentence again:
"As for the place where the murder was committed last night, all approaches to it were still blocked up to a late hour by hundreds of onlookers, though, of course, nothing now remains in the way of traces of the tragedy."
Slowly and carefully Mrs. Bunting folded the paper up again in its original creases, and then she stooped and put it back down on the mat where she had found it. She then turned out the gas, and going back into bed she lay down by her still sleeping husband.
"Anything the matter?" Bunting murmured, and stirred uneasily. "Anything the matter, Ellen?"
She answered in a whisper, a whisper thrilling with a strange gladness, "No, nothing, Bunting -- nothing the matter! Go to sleep again, my dear."
They got up an hour later, both in a happy, cheerful mood. Bunting rejoiced at the thought of his daughter's coming, and even Daisy's stepmother told herself that it would be pleasant having the girl about the house to help her a bit.
About ten o'clock Bunting went out to do some shopping. He brought back with him a nice little bit of pork for Daisy's dinner, and three mince-pies. He even remembered to get some apples for the sauce.