The Lodger

CHAPTER XIV

“There he is at last, and I’m glad of it, Ellen. ‘Tain’t a night
you would wish a dog to be out in.”

Bunting’s voice was full of relief, but he did not turn round and
look at his wife as he spoke; instead, he continued to read the
evening paper he held in his hand.

He was still close to the fire, sitting back comfortably in his
nice arm-chair. He looked very well — well and ruddy. Mrs. Bunting
stared across at him with a touch of sharp envy, nay, more, of
resentment. And this was very curious, for she was, in her own dry
way, very fond of Bunting.

“You needn’t feel so nervous about him; Mr. Sleuth can look out for
himself all right.”

Bunting laid the paper he had been reading down on his knee. “I
can’t think why he wanted to go out in such weather,” he said
impatiently.

“Well, it’s none of your business, Bunting, now, is it?”

“No, that’s true enough. Still, ‘twould be a very bad thing for us
if anything happened to him. This lodger’s the first bit of luck
we’ve had for a terrible long time, Ellen.”

Mrs. Bunting moved a little impatiently in her high chair. She
remained silent for a moment. What Bunting had said was too obvious
to be worth answering. Also she was listening, following in
imagination her lodger’s quick, singularly quiet progress —
“stealthy” she called it to herself — through the fog-filled,
lamp-lit hall. Yes, now he was going up the staircase. What
was that Bunting was saying?

“It isn’t safe for decent folk to be out in such weather — no, that
it ain’t, not unless they have something to do that won’t wait till
to-morrow.” The speaker was looking straight into his wife’s narrow,
colourless face. Bunting was an obstinate man, and liked to prove
himself right. “I’ve a good mind to speak to him about it, that
I have! He ought to be told that it isn’t safe — not for the sort
of man he is — to be wandering about the streets at night. I read
you out the accidents in Lloyd’s — shocking, they were, and all
brought about by the fog! And then, that horrid monster ‘ull soon
be at his work again — ”

“Monster?” repeated Mrs. Bunting absently.

She was trying to hear the lodger’s footsteps overhead. She was
very curious to know whether he had gone into his nice sitting-room,
or straight upstairs, to that cold experiment-room, as he now always
called it.

But her husband went on as if he had not heard her, and she gave up
trying to listen to what was going on above.

“It wouldn’t be very pleasant to run up against such a party as that
in the fog, eh, Ellen?” He spoke as if the notion had a certain
pleasant thrill in it after all.

“What stuff you do talk!” said Mrs. Bunting sharply. And then she
got up. Her husband’s remarks had disturbed her. Why couldn’t they
talk of something pleasant when they did have a quiet bit of time
together?

Bunting looked down again at his paper, and she moved quietly about
the room. Very soon it would be time for supper, and to-night she
was going to cook her husband a nice piece of toasted cheese. That
fortunate man, as she was fond of telling him, with mingled contempt
and envy, had the digestion of an ostrich, and yet he was rather
fanciful, as gentlemen’s servants who have lived in good places
often are.

Yes, Bunting was very lucky in the matter of his digestion. Mrs.
Bunting prided herself on having a nice mind, and she would never
have allowed an unrefined word — such a word as “stomach,” for
instance, to say nothing of an even plainer term — to pass her
lips, except, of course, to a doctor in a sick-room.

Mr. Sleuth’s landlady did not go down at once into her cold kitchen;
instead, with a sudden furtive movement, she opened the door leading
into her bedroom, and then, closing the door quietly, stepped back
into the darkness, and stood motionless, listening.

At first she heard nothing, but gradually there stole on her
listening ears the sound of someone moving softly about in the
room just overhead, that is, in Mr. Sleuth’s bedroom. But, try as
she might, it was impossible for her to guess what the lodger was
doing.

At last she heard him open the door leading out on the little
landing. She could hear the stairs creaking. That meant, no doubt,
that Mr. Sleuth would pass the rest of the evening in the cheerless
room above. He hadn’t spent any time up there for quite a long
while — in fact, not for nearly ten days. ‘Twas odd he chose to-night,
when it was so foggy, to carry out an experiment.

She groped her way to a chair and sat down. She felt very tired —
strangely tired, as if she had gone through some great physical
exertion.

Yes, it was true that Mr. Sleuth had brought her and Bunting luck,
and it was wrong, very wrong, of her ever to forget that.

As she sat there she also reminded herself, and not for the first
time, what the lodger’s departure would mean. It would almost
certainly mean ruin; just as his staying meant all sorts of good
things, of which physical comfort was the least. If Mr. Sleuth
stayed on with them, as he showed every intention of doing, it
meant respectability, and, above all, security.

Mrs. Bunting thought of Mr. Sleuth’s money. He never received a
letter, and yet he must have some kind of income — so much was
clear. She supposed he went and drew his money, in sovereigns, out
of a bank as he required it.

Her mind swung round, consciously, deliberately, away from Mr.
Sleuth.

The Avenger? What a strange name! Again she assured herself that
there would come a time when The Avenger, whoever he was, must feel
satiated; when he would feel himself to be, so to speak, avenged.

To go back to Mr. Sleuth; it was lucky that the lodger seemed so
pleased, not only with the rooms, but with his landlord and landlady
— indeed, there was no real reason why Mr. Sleuth should ever wish
to leave such nice lodgings.

******

Mrs. Bunting suddenly stood up. She made a strong effort, and shook
off her awful sense of apprehension and unease. Feeling for the
handle of the door giving into the passage she turned it, and then,
with light, firm steps, she went down into the kitchen.

When they had first taken the house, the basement had been made by
her care, if not into a pleasant, then, at any rate, into a very
clean place. She had had it whitewashed, and against the still
white walls the gas stove loomed up, a great square of black iron
and bright steel. It was a large gas-stove, the kind for which one
pays four shillings a quarter rent to the gas company, and here, in
the kitchen, there was no foolish shilling-in-the-slot arrangement.
Mrs. Bunting was too shrewd a woman to have anything to do with that
kind of business. There was a proper gas-meter, and she paid for
what she consumed after she had consumed it.

Putting her candle down on the well-scrubbed wooden table, she
turned up the gas-jet, and blew out the candle.

Then, lighting one of the gas-rings, she put a frying-pan on the
stove, and once more her mind reverted, as if in spite of herself,
to Mr. Sleuth. Never had there been a more confiding or trusting
gentleman than the lodger, and yet in some ways he was so secret,
so — so peculiar.

She thought of the bag — that bag which had rumbled about so
queerly in the chiffonnier. Something seemed to tell her that
tonight the lodger had taken that bag out with him.

And then she thrust away the thought of the bag almost violently
from her mind, and went back to the more agreeable thought of Mr.
Sleuth’s income, and of how little trouble he gave. Of course,
the lodger was eccentric, otherwise he wouldn’t be their lodger
at all — he would be living in quite a different sort of way with
some of his relations, or with a friend in his own class.

While these thoughts galloped disconnectedly through her mind,
Mrs. Bunting went on with her cooking, preparing the cheese, cutting
it up into little shreds, carefully measuring out the butter, doing
everything, as was always her way, with a certain delicate and
cleanly precision.

And then, while in the middle of toasting the bread on which was to
be poured the melted cheese, she suddenly heard sounds which startled
her, made her feel uncomfortable.

Shuffling, hesitating steps were creaking down the house.

She looked up and listened.

Surely the lodger was not going out again into the cold and foggy
night — going out, as he had done the other evening, for a second
time? But no; the sounds she heard, the sounds of now familiar
footsteps, did not continue down the passage leading to the front
door.

Instead — Why, what was this she heard now? She began to listen
so intently that the bread she was holding at the end of the
toasting-fork grew quite black. With a start she became aware
that this was so, and she frowned, vexed with herself. That came
of not attending to one’s work.

Mr. Sleuth was evidently about to do what he had never yet done.
He was coming down into the kitchen.

Nearer and nearer came the thudding sounds, treading heavily on the
kitchen stairs, and Mrs. Bunting’s heart began to beat as if in
response. She put out the flame of the gas-ring, unheedful of the
fact that the cheese would stiffen and spoil in the cold air.

Then she turned and faced the door.

There came a fumbling at the handle, and a moment later the door
opened, and revealed, as she had at once known and feared it would
do, the lodger.

Mr. Sleuth looked even odder than usual. He was clad in a plaid
dressing-gown, which she had never seen him wear before, though
she knew that he had purchased it not long after his arrival. In
his hand was a lighted candle.

When he saw the kitchen all lighted up, and the woman standing in
it, the lodger looked inexplicably taken aback, almost aghast.

“Yes, sir? What can I do for you, sir? I hope you didn’t ring, sir?”

Mrs. Bunting held her ground in front of the stove. Mr. Sleuth had
no business to come like this into her kitchen, and she intended to
let him know that such was her view.

“No, I — I didn’t ring,” he stammered awkwardly. “The truth is, I
didn’t know you were here, Mrs. Bunting. Please excuse my costume.
My gas-stove has gone wrong, or, rather, that shilling-in-the-slot
arrangement has done so. So I came down to see if you had a
gas-stove. I am going to ask you to allow me to use it to-night for
an important experiment I wish to make.”

Mrs. Bunting’s heart was beating quickly — quickly. She felt
horribly troubled, unnaturally so. Why couldn’t Mr. Sleuth’s
experiment wait till the morning? She stared at him dubiously, but
there was that in his face that made her at once afraid and pitiful.
It was a wild, eager, imploring look.

“Oh, certainly, sir; but you will find it very cold down here.”

“It seems most pleasantly warm,” he observed, his voice full of
relief, “warm and cosy, after my cold room upstairs.”

Warm and cosy? Mrs. Bunting stared at him in amazement. Nay, even
that cheerless room at the top of the house must be far warmer and
more cosy than this cold underground kitchen could possibly be.

“I’ll make you a fire, sir. We never use the grate, but it’s in
perfect order, for the first thing I did after I came into the house
was to have the chimney swept. It was terribly dirty. It might
have set the house on fire.” Mrs. Bunting’s housewifely instincts
were roused. “For the matter of that, you ought to have a fire in
your bedroom this cold night.”

“By no means — I would prefer not. I certainly do not want a fire
there. I dislike an open fire, Mrs. Bunting. I thought I had told
you as much.”

Mr. Sleuth frowned. He stood there, a strange-looking figure, his
candle still alight, just inside the kitchen door.

“I shan’t be very long, sir. Just about a quarter of an hour. You
could come down then. I’ll have everything quite tidy for you. Is
there anything I can do to help you?”

“I do not require the use of your kitchen yet — thank you all the
same, Mrs. Bunting. I shall come down later — altogether later —
after you and your husband have gone to bed. But I should be much
obliged if you would see that the gas people come to-morrow and
put my stove in order. It might be done while I am out. That the
shilling-in-the-slot machine should go wrong is very unpleasant.
It has upset me greatly.”

“Perhaps Bunting could put it right for you, sir. For the matter
of that, I could ask him to go up now.”

“No, no, I don’t want anything of that sort done to-night. Besides,
he couldn’t put it right. I am something of an expert, Mrs. Bunting,
and I have done all I could. The cause of the trouble is quite
simple. The machine is choked up with shillings; a very foolish
plan, so I always felt it to be.”

Mr. Sleuth spoke pettishly, with far more heat than he was wont to
speak, but Mrs. Bunting sympathised with him in this matter. She
had always suspected that those slot machines were as dishonest as
if they were human. It was dreadful, the way they swallowed up
the shillings! She had had one once, so she knew.

And as if he were divining her thoughts, Mr. Sleuth walked forward
and stared at the stove. “Then you haven’t got a slot machine?” he
said wonderingly. “I’m very glad of that, for I expect my experiment
will take some time. But, of course, I shall pay you something for
the use of the stove, Mrs. Bunting.”

“Oh, no, sir, I wouldn’t think of charging you anything for that.
We don’t use our stove very much, you know, sir. I’m never in the
kitchen a minute longer than I can help this cold weather.”

Mrs. Bunting was beginning to feel better. When she was actually
in Mr. Sleuth’s presence her morbid fears would be lulled, perhaps
because his manner almost invariably was gentle and very quiet.
But still there came over her an eerie feeling, as, with him
preceding her, they made a slow progress to the ground floor.

Once there, the lodger courteously bade his landlady good-night,
and proceeded upstairs to his own apartments.

Mrs. Bunting returned to the kitchen. Again she lighted the stove;
but she felt unnerved, afraid of she knew not what. As she was
cooking the cheese, she tried to concentrate her mind on what she
was doing, and on the whole she succeeded. But another part of her
mind seemed to be working independently, asking her insistent
questions.

The place seemed to her alive with alien presences, and once she
caught herself listening — which was absurd, for, of course, she
could not hope to hear what Mr. Sleuth was doing two, if not three,
flights upstairs. She wondered in what the lodger’s experiments
consisted. It was odd that she had never been able to discover what
it was he really did with that big gas-stove. All she knew was
that he used a very high degree of heat.