The Lodger

CHAPTER III

But what was a little snub compared with the intense relief and joy
of going down and telling Bunting of the great piece of good fortune
which had fallen their way?

Staid Mrs. Bunting seemed to make but one leap down the steep stairs.
In the hall, however, she pulled herself together, and tried to still
her agitation. She had always disliked and despised any show of
emotion; she called such betrayal of feeling “making a fuss.”

Opening the door of their sitting-room, she stood for a moment
looking at her husband’s bent back, and she realised, with a pang
of pain, how the last few weeks had aged him.

Bunting suddenly looked round, and, seeing his wife, stood up. He
put the paper he had been holding down on to the table: “Well,” he
said, “well, who was it, then?”

He felt rather ashamed of himself; it was he who ought to have
answered the door and done all that parleying of which he had heard
murmurs.

And then in a moment his wife’s hand shot out, and the ten sovereigns
fell in a little clinking heap on the table.

“Look there!” she whispered, with an excited, tearful quiver in her
voice. “Look there, Bunting!”

And Bunting did look there, but with a troubled, frowning gaze.

He was not quick-witted, but at once he jumped to the conclusion
that his wife had just had in a furniture dealer, and that this
ten pounds represented all their nice furniture upstairs. If that
were so, then it was the beginning of the end. That furniture in
the first-floor front had cost — Ellen had reminded him of the fact
bitterly only yesterday — seventeen pounds nine shillings, and
every single item had been a bargain. It was too bad that she had
only got ten pounds for it.

Yet he hadn’t the heart to reproach her.

He did not speak as he looked across at her, and meeting that
troubled, rebuking glance, she guessed what it was that he thought
had happened.

“We’ve a new lodger!” she cried. “And — and, Bunting? He’s quite
the gentleman! He actually offered to pay four weeks in advance, at
two guineas a week.”

“No, never!”

Bunting moved quickly round the table, and together they stood there,
fascinated by the little heap of gold. “But there’s ten sovereigns
here,” he said suddenly.

“Yes, the gentleman said I’d have to buy some things for him
to-morrow. And, oh, Bunting, he’s so well spoken, I really felt
that — I really felt that — ” and then Mrs. Bunting, taking a step
or two sideways, sat down, and throwing her little black apron over
her face burst into gasping sobs.

Bunting patted her back timidly. “Ellen?” he said, much moved by her
agitation, “Ellen? Don’t take on so, my dear — ”

“I won’t,” she sobbed, “I — I won’t! I’m a fool — I know I am!
But, oh, I didn’t think we was ever going to have any luck again!”

And then she told him — or rather tried to tell him — what the
lodger was like. Mrs. Bunting was no hand at talking, but one thing
she did impress on her husband’s mind, namely, that Mr. Sleuth was
eccentric, as so many clever people are eccentric — that is, in a
harmless way — and that he must be humoured.

“He says he doesn’t want to be waited on much,” she said at last
wiping her eyes, “but I can see he will want a good bit of looking
after, all the same, poor gentleman.”

And just as the words left her mouth there came the unfamiliar sound
of a loud ring. It was that of the drawing-room bell being pulled
again and again.

Bunting looked at his wife eagerly. “I think I’d better go up, eh,
Ellen?” he said. He felt quite anxious to see their new lodger.
For the matter of that, it would be a relief to be doing something
again.

“Yes,” she answered, “you go up! Don’t keep him waiting! I wonder
what it is he wants? I said I’d let him know when his supper was
ready.”

A moment later Bunting came down again. There was an odd smile on
his face. “Whatever d’you think he wanted?” he whispered
mysteriously. And as she said nothing, he went on, “He’s asked me
for the loan of a Bible!”

“Well, I don’t see anything so out of the way in that,” she said
hastily, “‘specially if he don’t feel well. I’ll take it up to him.”

And then going to a small table which stood between the two windows,
Mrs. Bunting took off it a large Bible, which had been given to her
as a wedding present by a married lady with whose mother she had
lived for several years.

“He said it would do quite well when you take up his supper,” said
Bunting; and, then, “Ellen? He’s a queer-looking cove — not like
any gentleman I ever had to do with.”

“He is a gentleman,” said Mrs. Bunting rather fiercely.

“Oh, yes, that’s all right.” But still he looked at her doubtfully.
“I asked him if he’d like me to just put away his clothes. But,
Ellen, he said he hadn’t got any clothes!”

“No more he hasn’t;” she spoke quickly, defensively. “He had the
misfortune to lose his luggage. He’s one dishonest folk ‘ud take
advantage of.”

“Yes, one can see that with half an eye,” Bunting agreed.

And then there was silence for a few moments, while Mrs. Bunting
put down on a little bit of paper the things she wanted her husband
to go out and buy for her. She handed him the list, together with
a sovereign. “Be as quick as you can,” she said, “for I feel a bit
hungry. I’ll be going down now to see about Mr. Sleuth’s supper.
He only wants a glass of milk and two eggs. I’m glad I’ve never
fallen to bad eggs!”

“Sleuth,” echoed Bunting, staring at her. “What a queer name!
How d’you spell it — S-l-u-t-h?”

“No,” she shot out, “S-l-e — u — t — h.”

“Oh,” he said doubtfully.

“He said, ‘Think of a hound and you’ll never forget my name,'”
and Mrs. Bunting smiled.

When he got to the door, Bunting turned round: “We’ll now be able
to pay young Chandler back some o’ that thirty shillings. I am
glad.” She nodded; her heart, as the saying is, too full for words.

And then each went about his and her business — Bunting out into
the drenching fog, his wife down to her cold kitchen.

The lodger’s tray was soon ready; everything upon it nicely and
daintily arranged. Mrs. Bunting knew how to wait upon a gentleman.

Just as the landlady was going up the kitchen stair, she suddenly
remembered Mr. Sleuth’s request for a Bible. Putting the tray down
in the hall, she went into her sitting-room and took up the Book;
but when back in the hall she hesitated a moment as to whether it
was worth while to make two journeys. But, no, she thought she
could manage; clasping the large, heavy volume under her arm, and
taking up the tray, she walked slowly up the staircase.

But a great surprise awaited her; in fact, when Mr. Sleuth’s
landlady opened the door of the drawing-room she very nearly dropped
the tray. She actually did drop the Bible, and it fell with a heavy
thud to the ground.

The new lodger had turned all those nice framed engravings of the
early Victorian beauties, of which Mrs. Bunting had been so proud,
with their faces to the wall!

For a moment she was really too surprised to speak. Putting the
tray down on the table, she stooped and picked up the Book. It
troubled her that the Book should have fallen to the ground; but
really she hadn’t been able to help it — it was mercy that the
tray hadn’t fallen, too.

Mr. Sleuth got up. “I — I have taken the liberty to arrange the
room as I should wish it to be,” he said awkwardly. “You see,
Mrs. — er — Bunting, I felt as I sat here that these women’s eyes
followed me about. It was a most unpleasant sensation, and gave
me quite an eerie feeling.”

The landlady was now laying a small tablecloth over half of the
table. She made no answer to her lodger’s remark, for the good
reason that she did not know what to say.

Her silence seemed to distress Mr. Sleuth. After what seemed a
long pause, he spoke again.

“I prefer bare walls, Mrs. Bunting,” he spoke with some agitation.
“As a matter of fact, I have been used to seeing bare walls about
me for a long time.” And then, at last his landlady answered him,
in a composed, soothing voice, which somehow did him good to hear.
“I quite understand, sir. And when Bunting comes in he shall take
the pictures all down. We have plenty of space in our own rooms
for them.”

“Thank you — thank you very much.”

Mr. Sleuth appeared greatly relieved.

“And I have brought you up my Bible, sir. I understood you wanted
the loan of it?”

Mr. Sleuth stared at her as if dazed for a moment; and then, rousing
himself, he said, “Yes, yes, I do. There is no reading like the Book.
There is something there which suits every state of mind, aye, and of
body too — ”

“Very true, sir.” And then Mrs. Bunting, having laid out what really
looked a very appetising little meal, turned round and quietly shut
the door.

She went down straight into her sitting-room and waited there for
Bunting, instead of going to the kitchen to clear up. And as she
did so there came to her a comfortable recollection, an incident of
her long-past youth, in the days when she, then Ellen Green, had
maided a dear old lady.

The old lady had a favourite nephew — a bright, jolly young gentleman,
who was learning to paint animals in Paris. And one morning Mr.
Algernon — that was his rather peculiar Christian name — had had the
impudence to turn to the wall six beautiful engravings of paintings
done by the famous Mr. Landseer!

Mrs. Bunting remembered all the circumstances as if they had only
occurred yesterday, and yet she had not thought of them for years.

It was quite early; she had come down — for in those days maids
weren’t thought so much of as they are now, and she slept with the
upper housemaid, and it was the upper housemaid’s duty to be down
very early — and, there, in the dining-room, she had found Mr.
Algernon engaged in turning each engraving to the wall! Now, his
aunt thought all the world of those pictures, and Ellen had felt
quite concerned, for it doesn’t do for a young gentleman to put
himself wrong with a kind aunt.

“Oh, sir,” she had exclaimed in dismay, “whatever are you doing?”
And even now she could almost hear his merry voice, as he had
answered, “I am doing my duty, fair Helen” — he had always called
her “fair Helen” when no one was listening. “How can I draw ordinary
animals when I see these half-human monsters staring at me all the
time I am having my breakfast, my lunch, and my dinner?” That was
what Mr. Algernon had said in his own saucy way, and that was what
he repeated in a more serious, respectful manner to his aunt, when
that dear old lady had come downstairs. In fact he had declared,
quite soberly, that the beautiful animals painted by Mr. Landseer
put his eye out!

But his aunt had been very much annoyed — in fact, she had made him
turn the pictures all back again; and as long as he stayed there he
just had to put up with what he called “those half-human monsters.”
Mrs. Bunting, sitting there, thinking the matter of Mr. Sleuth’s
odd behaviour over, was glad to recall that funny incident of her
long-gone youth. It seemed to prove that her new lodger was not so
strange as he appeared to be. Still, when Bunting came in, she did
not tell him the queer thing which had happened. She told herself
that she would be quite able to manage the taking down of the
pictures in the drawing-room herself.

But before getting ready their own supper, Mr. Sleuth’s landlady
went upstairs to clear away, and when on the staircase she heard the
sound of — was it talking, in the drawing-room? Startled, she
waited a moment on the landing outside the drawing-room door, then
she realised that it was only the lodger reading aloud to himself.
There was something very awful in the words which rose and fell on
her listening ears:

“A strange woman is a narrow gate. She also lieth in wait as for
a prey, and increaseth the transgressors among men.”

She remained where she was, her hand on the handle of the door,
and again there broke on her shrinking ears that curious, high,
sing-song voice, “Her house is the way to hell, going down to
the chambers of death.”

It made the listener feel quite queer. But at last she summoned up
courage, knocked, and walked in.

“I’d better clear away, sir, had I not?” she said. And Mr. Sleuth
nodded.

Then he got up and closed the Book. “I think I’ll go to bed now,”
he said. “I am very, very tired. I’ve had a long and a very
weary day, Mrs. Bunting.”

After he had disappeared into the back room, Mrs. Bunting climbed
up on a chair and unhooked the pictures which had so offended Mr.
Sleuth. Each left an unsightly mark on the wall — but that, after
all, could not be helped.

Treading softly, so that Bunting should not hear her, she carried
them down, two by two, and stood them behind her bed.