"The Lodger" by Marie Belloc Lowndes - Chapter 7
Just as twelve was striking a four-wheeler drew up to the gate.
It brought Daisy -- pink-cheeked, excited, laughing-eyed Daisy -- a sight to gladden any father's heart.
"Old Aunt said I was to have a cab if the weather was bad," she cried out joyously.
There was a bit of a wrangle over the fare. King's Cross, as all the world knows, is nothing like two miles from the Marylebone Road, but the man clamoured for one and sixpence, and hinted darkly that he had done the young lady a favour in bringing her at all.
While he and Bunting were having words, Daisy, leaving them to it, walked up the flagged path to the door where her stepmother was awaiting her.
As they were exchanging a rather frigid kiss, indeed, 'twas a mere peck on Mrs. Bunting's part, there fell, with startling suddenness, loud cries on the still, cold air. Long-drawn and wailing, they sounded strangely sad as they rose and fell across the distant roar of traffic in the Edgware Road.
"What's that?" exclaimed Bunting wonderingly. "Why, whatever's that?"
The cabman lowered his voice. "Them's 'a-crying out that 'orrible affair at King's Cross. He's done for two of 'em this time! That's what I meant when I said I might 'a got a better fare. I wouldn't say nothink before little missy there, but folk 'ave been coming from all over London the last five or six hours; plenty of toffs, too -- but there, there's nothing to see now!"
"What? Another woman murdered last night?"
Bunting felt tremendously thrilled. What had the five thousand constables been about to let such a dreadful thing happen?
The cabman stared at him, surprised. "Two of 'em, I tell yer -- within a few yards of one another. He 'ave -- got a nerve -- But, of course, they was drunk. He are got a down on the drink!"
"Have they caught him?" asked Bunting perfunctorily.
"Lord, no! They'll never catch 'im! It must 'ave happened hours and hours ago -- they was both stone cold. One each end of a little passage what ain't used no more. That's why they didn't find 'em before."
The hoarse cries were coming nearer and nearer -- two news vendors trying to outshout each other.
"'Orrible discovery near King's Cross!" they yelled exultingly. "The Avenger again!"
And Bunting, with his daughter's large straw hold-all in his hand, ran forward into the roadway and recklessly gave a boy a penny for a halfpenny paper.
He felt very much moved and excited. Somehow his acquaintance with young Joe Chandler made these murders seem a personal affair. He hoped that Chandler would come in soon and tell them all about it, as he had done yesterday morning when he, Bunting, had unluckily been out.
As he walked back into the little hall, he heard Daisy's voice -- high, voluble, excited -- giving her stepmother a long account of the scarlet fever case, and how at first Old Aunt's neighbours had thought it was not scarlet fever at all, but just nettlerash.
But as Bunting pushed open the door of the sitting-room, there came a note of sharp alarm in his daughter's voice, and he heard her cry, "Why, Ellen, whatever is the matter? You do look bad!" and his wife's muffled answer, "Open the window -- do."
"'Orrible discovery near King's Cross -- a clue at last!" yelled the newspaper-boys triumphantly.
And then, helplessly, Mrs. Bunting began to laugh. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, rocking herself to and fro as if in an ecstasy of mirth.
"Why, father, whatever's the matter with her?"
Daisy looked quite scared.
"She's in 'sterics -- that's what it is," he said shortly. "I'll just get the water-jug. Wait a minute!"
Bunting felt very put out. Ellen was ridiculous -- that's what she was, to be so easily upset.
The lodger's bell suddenly pealed through the quiet house. Either that sound, or maybe the threat of the water-jug, had a magical effect on Mrs. Bunting. She rose to her feet, still shaking all over, but mentally composed.
"I'll go up," she said a little chokingly. "As for you, child, just run down into the kitchen. You'll find a piece of pork roasting in the oven. You might start paring the apples for the sauce."
As Mrs. Bunting went upstairs her legs felt as if they were made of cotton wool. She put out a trembling hand, and clutched at the banister for support. But soon, making a great effort over herself, she began to feel more steady; and after waiting for a few moments on the landing, she knocked at the door of the drawing-room.
Mr. Sleuth's voice answered her from the bedroom. "I'm not well," he called out querulously; "I think I've caught a chill. I should be obliged if you would kindly bring me up a cup of tea, and put it outside my door, Mrs. Bunting."
"Very well, sir."
Mrs. Bunting turned and went downstairs. She still felt queer and giddy, so instead of going into the kitchen, she made the lodger his cup of tea over her sitting-room gas-ring.
During their midday dinner the husband and wife had a little discussion as to where Daisy should sleep. It had been settled that a bed should be made up for her in the top back room, but Mrs. Bunting saw reason to change this plan. "I think 'twould be better if Daisy were to sleep with me, Bunting, and you was to sleep upstairs."
Bunting felt and looked rather surprised, but he acquiesced. Ellen was probably right; the girl would be rather lonely up there, and, after all, they didn't know much about the lodger, though he seemed a respectable gentleman enough.
Daisy was a good-natured girl; she liked London, and wanted to make herself useful to her stepmother. "I'll wash up; don't you bother to come downstairs," she said cheerfully.
Bunting began to walk up and down the room. His wife gave him a furtive glance; she wondered what he was thinking about.
"Didn't you get a paper?" she said at last.
"Yes, of course I did," he answered hastily. "But I've put it away. I thought you'd rather not look at it, as you're that nervous."
Again she glanced at him quickly, furtively, but he seemed just as usual -- he evidently meant just what he said and no more.
"I thought they was shouting something in the street -- I mean just before I was took bad."
It was now Bunting's turn to stare at his wife quickly and rather furtively. He had felt sure that her sudden attack of queerness, of hysterics -- call it what you might -- had been due to the shouting outside. She was not the only woman in London who had got the Avenger murders on her nerves. His morning paper said quite a lot of women were afraid to go out alone. Was it possible that the curious way she had been taken just now had had nothing to do with the shouts and excitement outside?
"Don't you know what it was they were calling out?" he asked slowly.
Mrs. Bunting looked across at him. She would have given a very great deal to be able to lie, to pretend that she did not know what those dreadful cries had portended. But when it came to the point she found she could not do so.
"Yes," she said dully. "I heard a word here and there. There's been another murder, hasn't there?"
"Two other murders," he said soberly.
"Two? That's worse news!" She turned so pale -- a sallow greenish-white -- that Bunting thought she was again going queer.
"Ellen?" he said warningly, "Ellen, now do have a care! I can't think what's come over you about these murders. Turn your mind away from them, do! We needn't talk about them -- not so much, that is -- "
"But I wants to talk about them," cried Mrs. Bunting hysterically.
The husband and wife were standing, one each side of the table, the man with his back to the fire, the woman with her back to the door.
Bunting, staring across at his wife, felt sadly perplexed and disturbed. She really did seem ill; even her slight, spare figure looked shrunk. For the first time, so he told himself ruefully, Ellen was beginning to look her full age. Her slender hands -- she had kept the pretty, soft white hands of the woman who has never done rough work -- grasped the edge of the table with a convulsive movement.
Bunting didn't at all like the look of her. "Oh, dear," he said to himself, "I do hope Ellen isn't going to be ill! That would be a to-do just now."
"Tell me about it," she commanded, in a low voice. "Can't you see I'm waiting to hear? Be quick now, Bunting!"
"There isn't very much to tell," he said reluctantly. "There's precious little in this paper, anyway. But the cabman what brought Daisy told me -- "
"What I said just now. There's two of 'em this time, and they'd both been drinking heavily, poor creatures."
"Was it where the others was done?" she asked looking at her husband fearfully.
"No," he said awkwardly. "No, it wasn't, Ellen. It was a good bit farther West -- in fact, not so very far from here. Near King's Cross -- that's how the cabman knew about it, you see. They seems to have been done in a passage which isn't used no more." And then, as he thought his wife's eyes were beginning to look rather funny, he added hastily. "There, that's enough for the present! We shall soon be hearing a lot more about it from Joe Chandler. He's pretty sure to come in some time to-day."
"Then the five thousand constables weren't no use?" said Mrs. Bunting slowly.
She had relaxed her grip of the table, and was standing more upright.
"No use at all," said Bunting briefly. "He is artful and no mistake about it. But wait a minute -- " he turned and took up the paper which he had laid aside, on a chair. "Yes they says here that they has a clue."
"A clue, Bunting?" Mrs. Bunting spoke in a soft, weak, die-away voice, and again, stooping somewhat, she grasped the edge of the table.
But her husband was not noticing her now. He was holding the paper close up to his eyes, and he read from it, in a tone of considerable satisfaction:
"'It is gratifying to be able to state that the police at last believe they are in possession of a clue which will lead to the arrest of the -- '" and then Bunting dropped the paper and rushed round the table.
His wife, with a curious sighing moan, had slipped down on to the floor, taking with her the tablecloth as she went. She lay there in what appeared to be a dead faint. And Bunting, scared out of his wits, opened the door and screamed out, "Daisy! Daisy! Come up, child. Ellen's took bad again."
And Daisy, hurrying in, showed an amount of sense and resource which even at this anxious moment roused her fond father's admiration.
"Get a wet sponge, Dad -- quick!" she cried, "a sponge, -- and, if you've got such a thing, a drop o' brandy. I'll see after her!" And then, after he had got the little medicine flask, "I can't think what's wrong with Ellen," said Daisy wonderingly. "She seemed quite all right when I first came in. She was listening, interested-like, to what I was telling her, and then, suddenly -- well, you saw how she was took, father? 'Tain't like Ellen this, is it now?"
"No," he whispered. "No, 'tain't. But you see, child, we've been going through a pretty bad time -- worse nor I should ever have let you know of, my dear. Ellen's just feeling it now -- that's what it is. She didn't say nothing, for Ellen's a good plucked one, but it's told on her -- it's told on her!"
And then Mrs. Bunting, sitting up, slowly opened her eyes, and instinctively put her hand up to her head to see if her hair was all right.
She hadn't really been quite "off." It would have been better for her if she had. She had simply had an awful feeling that she couldn't stand up -- more, that she must fall down. Bunting's words touched a most unwonted chord in the poor woman's heart, and the eyes which she opened were full of tears. She had not thought her husband knew how she had suffered during those weeks of starving and waiting.
But she had a morbid dislike of any betrayal of sentiment. To her such betrayal betokened "foolishness," and so all she said was, "There's no need to make a fuss! I only turned over a little queer. I never was right off, Daisy."
Pettishly she pushed away the glass in which Bunting had hurriedly poured a little brandy. "I wouldn't touch such stuff -- no, not if I was dying!" she exclaimed.
Putting out a languid hand, she pulled herself up, with the help of the table, on to her feet. "Go down again to the kitchen, child"; but there was a sob, a kind of tremor in her voice.
"You haven't been eating properly, Ellen -- that's what's the matter with you," said Bunting suddenly. "Now I come to think of it, you haven't eat half enough these last two days. I always did say -- in old days many a time I telled you -- that a woman couldn't live on air. But there, you never believed me!"
Daisy stood looking from one to the other, a shadow over her bright, pretty face. "I'd no idea you'd had such a bad time, father," she said feelingly. "Why didn't you let me know about it? I might have got something out of Old Aunt."
"We didn't want anything of that sort," said her stepmother hastily. "But of course -- well, I expect I'm still feeling the worry now. I don't seem able to forget it. Those days of waiting, of -- of -- " she restrained herself; another moment and the word "starving" would have left her lips.
"But everything's all right now," said Bunting eagerly, "all right, thanks to Mr. Sleuth, that is."
"Yes," repeated his wife, in a low, strange tone of voice. "Yes, we're all right now, and as you say, Bunting, it's all along of Mr. Sleuth."
She walked across to a chair and sat down on it. "I'm just a little tottery still," she muttered.
And Daisy, looking at her, turned to her father and said in a whisper, but not so low but that Mrs. Bunting heard her, "Don't you think Ellen ought to see a doctor, father? He might give her something that would pull her round."
"I won't see no doctor!" said Mrs. Bunting with sudden emphasis. "I saw enough of doctors in my last place. Thirty-eight doctors in ten months did my poor missis have. Just determined on having 'em she was! Did they save her? No! She died just the same! Maybe a bit sooner."
"She was a freak, was your last mistress, Ellen," began Bunting aggressively.
Ellen had insisted on staying on in that place till her poor mistress died. They might have been married some months before they were married but for that fact. Bunting had always resented it.
His wife smile wanly. "We won't have no words about that," she said, and again she spoke in a softer, kindlier tone than usual. "Daisy? If you won't go down to the kitchen again, then I must" -- she turned to her stepdaughter, and the girl flew out of the room.
"I think the child grows prettier every minute," said Bunting fondly.
"Folks are too apt to forget that beauty is but skin deep," said his wife. She was beginning to feel better. "But still, I do agree, Bunting, that Daisy's well enough. And she seems more willing, too."
"I say, we mustn't forget the lodger's dinner," Bunting spoke uneasily. "It's a bit of fish to-day, isn't it? Hadn't I better just tell Daisy to see to it, and then I can take it up to him, as you're not feeling quite the thing, Ellen?"
"I'm quite well enough to take up Mr. Sleuth's luncheon," she said quickly. It irritated her to hear her husband speak of the lodger's dinner. They had dinner in the middle of the day, but Mr. Sleuth had luncheon. However odd he might be, Mrs. Bunting never forgot her lodger was a gentleman.
"After all, he likes me to wait on him, doesn't he? I can manage all right. Don't you worry," she added after a long pause.