The Lodger

CHAPTER XV

The Buntings went to bed early that night. But Mrs. Bunting made
up her mind to keep awake. She was set upon knowing at what hour
of the night the lodger would come down into her kitchen to carry
through his experiment, and, above all, she was anxious to know
how long he would stay there.

But she had had a long and a very anxious day, and presently she
fell asleep.

The church clock hard by struck two, and, suddenly Mrs. Bunting
awoke. She felt put out, sharply annoyed with herself. How could
she have dropped off like that? Mr. Sleuth must have been down
and up again hours ago!

Then, gradually, she became aware that there was a faint acrid
odour in the room. Elusive, intangible, it yet seemed to encompass
her and the snoring man by her side, almost as a vapour might have
done.

Mrs. Bunting sat up in bed and sniffed; and then, in spite of the
cold, she quietly crept out of her nice, warm bedclothes, and
crawled along to the bottom of the bed. When there, Mr. Sleuth’s
landlady did a very curious thing; she leaned over the brass rail
and put her face close to the hinge of the door giving into the
hall. Yes, it was from here that this strange, horrible odor was
coming; the smell must be very strong in the passage.

As, shivering, she crept back under the bedclothes, she longed to
give her sleeping husband a good shake, and in fancy she heard
herself saying, “Bunting, get up! There’s something strange and
dreadful going on downstairs which we ought to know about.”

But as she lay there, by her husband’s side, listening with painful
intentness for the slightest sound, she knew very well that she
would do nothing of the sort.

What if the lodger did make a certain amount of mess — a certain
amount of smell — in her nice clean kitchen? Was he not — was he
not an almost perfect lodger? If they did anything to upset him,
where could they ever hope to get another like him?

Three o’clock struck before Mrs. Bunting heard slow, heavy steps
creaking up the kitchen stairs. But Mr. Sleuth did not go straight
up to his own quarters, as she had expected him to do. Instead, he
went to the front door, and, opening it, put on the chain. Then he
came past her door, and she thought — but could not be sure — that
he sat down on the stairs.

At the end of ten minutes or so she heard him go down the passage
again. Very softly he closed the front door. By then she had
divined why the lodger had behaved in this funny fashion. He wanted
to get the strong, acrid smell of burning — was it of burning wool?
— out of the house.

But Mrs. Bunting, lying there in the darkness, listening to the
lodger creeping upstairs, felt as if she herself would never get
rid of the horrible odour.

Mrs. Bunting felt herself to be all smell.

At last the unhappy woman fell into a deep, troubled sleep; and
then she dreamed a most terrible and unnatural dream. Hoarse
voices seemed to be shouting in her ear: “The Avenger close here!
The Avenger close here!” “‘Orrible murder off the Edgware Road!”
“The Avenger at his work again!”

And even in her dream Mrs. Bunting felt angered — angered and
impatient. She knew so well why she was being disturbed by this
horrid nightmare! It was because of Bunting — Bunting, who could
think and talk of nothing else than those frightful murders, in
which only morbid and vulgar-minded people took any interest.

Why, even now, in her dream, she could hear her husband speaking
to her about it:

“Ellen” — so she heard Bunting murmur in her ear — “Ellen, my dear,
I’m just going to get up to get a paper. It’s after seven o’clock.”

The shouting — nay, worse, the sound of tramping, hurrying feet
smote on her shrinking ears. Pushing back her hair off her forehead
with both hands, she sat up and listened.

It had been no nightmare, then, but something infinitely worse —
reality.

Why couldn’t Bunting have lain quiet abed for awhile longer, and
let his poor wife go on dreaming? The most awful dream would have
been easier to bear than this awakening.

She heard her husband go to the front door, and, as he bought the
paper, exchange a few excited words with the newspaper-seller. Then
he came back. There was a pause, and she heard him lighting the
gas-ring in the sitting-room.

Bunting always made his wife a cup of tea in the morning. He had
promised to do this when they first married, and he had never yet
broken his word. It was a very little thing and a very usual thing,
no doubt, for a kind husband to do, but this morning the knowledge
that he was doing it brought tears to Mrs. Bunting’s pale blue eyes.
This morning he seemed to be rather longer than usual over the job.

When, at last, he came in with the little tray, Bunting found his
wife lying with her face to the wall.

“Here’s your tea, Ellen,” he said, and there was a thrill of eager,
nay happy, excitement in his voice.

She turned herself round and sat up. “Well?” she asked. “Well?
Why don’t you tell me about it?”

“I thought you was asleep,” he stammered out. “I thought, Ellen,
you never heard nothing.”

“How could I have slept through all that din? Of course I heard.
Why don’t you tell me?”

“I’ve hardly had time to glance at the paper myself,” he said slowly.

“You was reading it just now,” she said severely, “for I heard the
rustling. You begun reading it before you lit the gas-ring. Don’t
tell me! What was that they was shouting about the Edgware Road?”

“Well,” said Bunting, “as you do know, I may as well tell you. The
Avenger’s moving West — that’s what he’s doing. Last time ’twas
King’s Cross — now ’tis the Edgware Road. I said he’d come our way,
and he has come our way!”

“You just go and get me that paper,” she commanded. “I wants to
see for myself.”

Bunting went into the next room; then he came back and handed her
silently the odd-looking, thin little sheet.

“Why, whatever’s this?” she asked. “This ain’t our paper!”

“‘Course not,” he answered, a trifle crossly. “It’s a special early
edition of the Sun, just because of The Avenger. Here’s the bit
about it” — he showed her the exact spot. But she would have found
it, even by the comparatively bad light of the gas-jet now flaring
over the dressing-table, for the news was printed in large, clear
characters: —

“Once more the murder fiend who chooses to call himself The Avenger
has escaped detection. While the whole attention of the police,
and of the great army of amateur detectives who are taking an
interest in this strange series of atrocious crimes, were
concentrating their attention round the East End and King’s Cross,
he moved swiftly and silently Westward. And, choosing a time when
the Edgware Road is at its busiest and most thronged, did another
human being to death with lightning-like quickness and savagery.

“Within fifty yards of the deserted warehouse yard where he had
lured his victim to destruction were passing up and down scores of
happy, busy people, intent on their Christmas shopping. Into that
cheerful throng he must have plunged within a moment of committing
his atrocious crime. And it was only owing to the merest accident
that the body was discovered as soon as it was — that is, just
after midnight.

“Dr. Dowtray, who was called to the spot at once, is of opinion that
the woman had been dead at least three hours, if not four. It was at
first thought — we were going to say, hoped — that this murder had
nothing to do with the series which is now puzzling and horrifying
the whole of the civilised world. But no — pinned on the edge of the
dead woman’s dress was the usual now familiar triangular piece of
grey paper — the grimmest visiting card ever designed by the wit of
man! And this time The Avenger has surpassed himself as regards his
audacity and daring — so cold in its maniacal fanaticism and abhorrent
wickedness.”

All the time that Mrs. Bunting was reading with slow, painful
intentness, her husband was looking at her, longing, yet afraid, to
burst out with a new idea which he was burning to confide even to his
Ellen’s unsympathetic ears.

At last, when she had quite finished, she looked up defiantly.

“Haven’t you anything better to do than to stare at me like that?”
she said irritably. “Murder or no murder, I’ve got to get up! Go
away — do!”

And Bunting went off into the next room.

After he had gone, his wife lay back and closed her eyes. She tried
to think of nothing. Nay, more — so strong, so determined was her
will that for a few moments she actually did think of nothing. She
felt terribly tired and weak, brain and body both quiescent, as does
a person who is recovering from a long, wearing illness.

Presently detached, puerile thoughts drifted across the surface of
her mind like little clouds across a summer sky. She wondered if
those horrid newspaper men were allowed to shout in Belgrave Square;
she wondered if, in that case, Margaret, who was so unlike her
brother-in-law, would get up and buy a paper. But no. Margaret
was not one to leave her nice warm bed for such a silly reason as
that.

Was it to-morrow Daisy was coming back? Yes — to-morrow, not
to-day. Well, that was a comfort, at any rate. What amusing things
Daisy would be able to tell about her visit to Margaret! The girl
had an excellent gift of mimicry. And Margaret, with her precise,
funny ways, her perpetual talk about “the family,” lent herself to
the cruel gift.

And then Mrs. Bunting’s mind — her poor, weak, tired mind — wandered
off to young Chandler. A funny thing love was, when you came to
think of it — which she, Ellen Bunting, didn’t often do. There was
Joe, a likely young fellow, seeing a lot of young women, and pretty
young women, too, — quite as pretty as Daisy, and ten times more
artful — and yet there! He passed them all by, had done so ever
since last summer, though you might be sure that they, artful minxes,
by no manner of means passed him by, — without giving them a thought!
As Daisy wasn’t here, he would probably keep away to-day. There
was comfort in that thought, too.

And then Mrs. Bunting sat up, and memory returned in a dreadful
turgid flood. If Joe did come in, she must nerve herself to hear
all that — that talk there’d be about The Avenger between him and
Bunting.

Slowly she dragged herself out of bed, feeling exactly as if she
had just recovered from an illness which had left her very weak,
very, very tired in body and soul.

She stood for a moment listening — listening, and shivering, for
it was very cold. Considering how early it still was, there
seemed a lot of coming and going in the Marylebone Road. She could
hear the unaccustomed sounds through her closed door and the tightly
fastened windows of the sitting-room. There must be a regular
crowd of men and women, on foot and in cabs, hurrying to the scene
of The Avenger’s last extraordinary crime.

She heard the sudden thud made by their usual morning paper falling
from the letter-box on to the floor of the hall, and a moment later
came the sound of Bunting quickly, quietly going out and getting it.
She visualised him coming back, and sitting down with a sigh of
satisfaction by the newly-lit fire.

Languidly she began dressing herself to the accompaniment of distant
tramping and of noise of passing traffic, which increased in volume
and in sound as the moments slipped by.

******

When Mrs. Bunting went down into her kitchen everything looked just
as she had left it, and there was no trace of the acrid smell she
had expected to find there. Instead, the cavernous, whitewashed
room was full of fog, but she noticed that, though the shutters were
bolted and barred as she had left them, the windows behind them had
been widely opened to the air. She had left them shut.

Making a “spill” out of a twist of newspaper — she had been taught
the art as a girl by one of her old mistresses — she stooped and
flung open the oven-door of her gas-stove. Yes, it was as she had
expected, a fierce heat had been generated there since she had last
used the oven, and through to the stone floor below had fallen a
mass of black, gluey soot.

Mrs. Bunting took the ham and eggs that she had bought the previous
day for her own and Bunting’s breakfast upstairs, and broiled them
over the gas-ring in their sitting-room. Her husband watched her in
surprised silence. She had never done such a thing before.

“I couldn’t stay down there,” she said; “it was so cold and foggy.
I thought I’d make breakfast up here, just for to-day.”

“Yes,” he said kindly; “that’s quite right, Ellen. I think you’ve
done quite right, my dear.”

But, when it came to the point, his wife could not eat any of the
nice breakfast she had got ready; she only had another cup of tea.

“I’m afraid you’re ill, Ellen?” Bunting asked solicitously.

“No,” she said shortly; “I’m not ill at all. Don’t be silly! The
thought of that horrible thing happening so close by has upset me,
and put me off my food. Just hark to them now!”

Through their closed windows penetrated the sound of scurrying feet
and loud, ribald laughter. What a crowd; nay, what a mob, must be
hastening busily to and from the spot where there was now nothing
to be seen!

Mrs. Bunting made her husband lock the front gate. “I don’t want
any of those ghouls in here!” she exclaimed angrily. And then,
“What a lot of idle people there are in the world!” she said.