The Lodger

CHAPTER X

By what she regarded as a fortunate chance, Mrs. Bunting found
herself for close on an hour quite alone in the house during her
husband’s and Daisy’s jaunt with young Chandler.

Mr. Sleuth did not often go out in the daytime, but on this
particular afternoon, after he had finished his tea, when dusk was
falling, he suddenly observed that he wanted a new suit of clothes,
and his landlady eagerly acquiesced in his going out to purchase it.

As soon as he had left the house, she went quickly up to the
drawing-room floor. Now had come her opportunity of giving the two
rooms a good dusting; but Mrs. Bunting knew well, deep in her heart,
that it was not so much the dusting of Mr. Sleuth’s sitting-room she
wanted to do — as to engage in a vague search for — she hardly knew
for what.

During the years she had been in service Mrs. Bunting had always
had a deep, wordless contempt for those of her fellow-servants who
read their employers’ private letters, and who furtively peeped
into desks and cupboards in the hope, more vague than positive, of
discovering family skeletons.

But now, with regard to Mr. Sleuth, she was ready, aye, eager, to
do herself what she had once so scorned others for doing.

Beginning with the bedroom, she started on a methodical search. He
was a very tidy gentleman was the lodger, and his few things,
under-garments, and so on, were in apple-pie order. She had early
undertaken, much to his satisfaction, to do the very little bit of
washing he required done, with her own and Bunting’s. Luckily he
wore soft shirts.

At one time Mrs. Bunting had always had a woman in to help her with
this tiresome weekly job, but lately she had grown quite clever at
it herself. The only things she had to send out were Bunting’s
shirts. Everything else she managed to do herself.

From the chest of drawers she now turned her attention to the
dressing-table.

Mr. Sleuth did not take his money with him when he went out, he
generally left it in one of the drawers below the old-fashioned
looking-glass. And now, in a perfunctory way, his landlady pulled
out the little drawer, but she did not touch what was lying there;
she only glanced at the heap of sovereigns and a few bits of silver.
The lodger had taken just enough money with him to buy the clothes
he required. He had consulted her as to how much they would cost,
making no secret of why he was going out, and the fact had vaguely
comforted Mrs. Bunting.

Now she lifted the toilet-cover, and even rolled up the carpet a
little way, but no, there was nothing there, not so much as a scrap
of paper. And at last, when more or less giving up the search, as
she came and went between the two rooms, leaving the connecting door
wide open, her mind became full of uneasy speculation and wonder as
to the lodger’s past life.

Odd Mr. Sleuth must surely always have been, but odd in a sensible
sort of way, having on the whole the same moral ideals of conduct
as have other people of his class. He was queer about the drink — one
might say almost crazy on the subject — but there, as to that, he
wasn’t the only one! She, Ellen Bunting, had once lived with a
lady who was just like that, who was quite crazed, that is, on the
question of drink and drunkards — She looked round the neat
drawing-room with vague dissatisfaction. There was only one place
where anything could be kept concealed — that place was the
substantial if small mahogany chiffonnier. And then an idea
suddenly came to Mrs. Bunting, one she had never thought of before.

After listening intently for a moment, lest something should suddenly
bring Mr. Sleuth home earlier than she expected, she went to the
corner where the chiffonnier stood, and, exerting the whole of her
not very great physical strength, she tipped forward the heavy piece
of furniture.

As she did so, she heard a queer rumbling sound, — something rolling
about on the second shelf, something which had not been there before
Mr. Sleuth’s arrival. Slowly, laboriously, she tipped the chiffonnier
backwards and forwards — once, twice, thrice — satisfied, yet strangely
troubled in her mind, for she now felt sure that the bag of which the
disappearance had so surprised her was there, safely locked away by
its owner.

Suddenly a very uncomfortable thought came to Mrs. Bunting’s mind.
She hoped Mr. Sleuth would not notice that his bag had shifted inside
the cupboard. A moment later, with sharp dismay, Mr. Sleuth’s
landlady realised that the fact that she had moved the chiffonnier
must become known to her lodger, for a thin trickle of some
dark-coloured liquid was oozing out though the bottom of the little
cupboard door.

She stooped down and touched the stuff. It showed red, bright red,
on her finger.

Mrs. Bunting grew chalky white, then recovered herself quickly. In
fact the colour rushed into her face, and she grew hot all over.

It was only a bottle of red ink she had upset — that was all! How
could she have thought it was anything else?

It was the more silly of her — so she told herself in scornful
condemnation — because she knew that the lodger used red ink.
Certain pages of Cruden’s Concordance were covered with notes written
in Mr. Sleuth’s peculiar upright handwriting. In fact in some places
you couldn’t see the margin, so closely covered was it with remarks
and notes of interrogation.

Mr. Sleuth had foolishly placed his bottle of red ink in the
chiffonnier — that was what her poor, foolish gentleman had done;
and it was owing to her inquisitiveness, her restless wish to know
things she would be none the better, none the happier, for knowing,
that this accident had taken place.

She mopped up with her duster the few drops of ink which had fallen
on the green carpet and then, still feeling, as she angrily told
herself, foolishly upset she went once more into the back room.

It was curious that Mr. Sleuth possessed no notepaper. She would
have expected him to have made that one of his first purchases — the
more so that paper is so very cheap, especially that rather
dirty-looking grey Silurian paper. Mrs. Bunting had once lived with
a lady who always used two kinds of notepaper, white for her friends
and equals, grey for those whom she called “common people.” She,
Ellen Green, as she then was, had always resented the fact. Strange
she should remember it now, stranger in a way because that employer
of her’s had not been a real lady, and Mr. Sleuth, whatever his
peculiarities, was, in every sense of the word, a real gentleman.
Somehow Mrs. Bunting felt sure that if he had bought any notepaper
it would have been white — white and probably cream-laid — not
grey and cheap.

Again she opened the drawer of the old-fashioned wardrobe and lifted
up the few pieces of underclothing Mr. Sleuth now possessed.

But there was nothing there — nothing, that is, hidden away. When
one came to think of it there seemed something strange in the notion
of leaving all one’s money where anyone could take it, and in locking
up such a valueless thing as a cheap sham leather bag, to say nothing
of a bottle of ink.

Mrs. Bunting once more opened out each of the tiny drawers below the
looking-glass, each delicately fashioned of fine old mahogany. Mr.
Sleuth kept his money in the centre drawer.

The glass had only cost seven-and-sixpence, and, after the auction
a dealer had come and offered her first fifteen shillings, and then
a guinea for it. Not long ago, in Baker Street, she had seen a
looking-glass which was the very spit of this one, labeled
“Chippendale, Antique. £21 5s 0d.”

There lay Mr. Sleuth’s money — the sovereigns, as the landlady well
knew, would each and all gradually pass into her’s and Bunting’s
possession, honestly earned by them no doubt but unattainable — in
act unearnable — excepting in connection with the present owner of
those dully shining gold sovereigns.

At last she went downstairs to await Mr. Sleuth’s return.

When she heard the key turn in the door, she came out into the
passage.

“I’m sorry to say I’ve had an accident, sir,” she said a little
breathlessly. “Taking advantage of your being out I went up to
dust the drawing-room, and while I was trying to get behind the
chiffonnier it tilted. I’m afraid, sir, that a bottle of ink that
was inside may have got broken, for just a few drops oozed out,
sir. But I hope there’s no harm done. I wiped it up as well as
I could, seeing that the doors of the chiffonnier are locked.”

Mr. Sleuth stared at her with a wild, almost a terrified glance.
But Mrs. Bunting stood her ground. She felt far less afraid now
than she had felt before he came in. Then she had been so
frightened that she had nearly gone out of the house, on to the
pavement, for company.

“Of course I had no idea, sir, that you kept any ink in there.”

She spoke as if she were on the defensive, and the lodger’s brow
cleared.

“I was aware you used ink, sir,” Mrs. Bunting went on, “for I have
seen you marking that book of yours — I mean the book you read
together with the Bible. Would you like me to go out and get you
another bottle, sir?”

“No,” said Mr. Sleuth. “No, I thank you. I will at once proceed
upstairs and see what damage has been done. When I require you I
shall ring.”

He shuffled past her, and five minutes later the drawing-room bell
did ring.

At once, from the door, Mrs. Bunting saw that the chiffonnier was
wide open, and that the shelves were empty save for the bottle of
red ink which had turned over and now lay in a red pool of its own
making on the lower shelf.

“I’m afraid it will have stained the wood, Mrs. Bunting. Perhaps I
was ill-advised to keep my ink in there.”

“Oh, no, sir! That doesn’t matter at all. Only a drop or two fell
out on to the carpet, and they don’t show, as you see, sir, for it’s
a dark corner. Shall I take the bottle away? I may as well.”

Mr. Sleuth hesitated. “No,” he said, after a long pause, “I think
not, Mrs. Bunting. For the very little I require it the ink
remaining in the bottle will do quite well, especially if I add a
little water, or better still, a little tea, to what already
remains in the bottle. I only require it to mark up passages which
happen to be of peculiar interest in my Concordance — a work, Mrs.
Bunting, which I should have taken great pleasure in compiling
myself had not this — ah — this gentleman called Cruden, been before.”

******

Not only Bunting, but Daisy also, thought Ellen far pleasanter in
her manner than usual that evening. She listened to all they had
to say about their interesting visit to the Black Museum, and did
not snub either of them — no, not even when Bunting told of the
dreadful, haunting, silly-looking death-masks taken from the hanged.

But a few minutes after that, when her husband suddenly asked her
a question, Mrs. Bunting answered at random. It was clear she had
not heard the last few words he had been saying.

“A penny for your thoughts!” he said jocularly. But she shook her
head.

Daisy slipped out of the room, and, five minutes later, came back
dressed up in a blue-and-white check silk gown.

“My!” said her father. “You do look fine, Daisy. I’ve never seen
you wearing that before.”

“And a rare figure of fun she looks in it!” observed Mrs. Bunting
sarcastically. And then, “I suppose this dressing up means that
you’re expecting someone. I should have thought both of you must
have seen enough of young Chandler for one day. I wonder when that
young chap does his work — that I do! He never seems too busy to
come and waste an hour or two here.”

But that was the only nasty thing Ellen said all that evening. And
even Daisy noticed that her stepmother seemed dazed and unlike
herself. She went about her cooking and the various little things
she had to do even more silently than was her wont.

Yet under that still, almost sullen, manner, how fierce was the
storm of dread, of sombre anguish, and, yes, of sick suspense,
which shook her soul, and which so far affected her poor, ailing
body that often she felt as if she could not force herself to
accomplish her simple round of daily work.

After they had finished supper Bunting went out and bought a penny
evening paper, but as he came in he announced, with a rather rueful
smile, that he had read so much of that nasty little print this
last week or two that his eyes hurt him.

“Let me read aloud a bit to you, father,” said Daisy eagerly, and he
handed her the paper.

Scarcely had Daisy opened her lips when a loud ring and a knock
echoed through the house.