The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The Lodger: Chapter 22

Another murder grips the city, and secrets swirl around the unsuspecting Bunting household. With each passing moment, the stakes escalate.

Feeling amazingly light-hearted, almost light-headed, Bunting lit the gas-ring to make his wife her morning cup of tea.

While he was doing it, he suddenly heard her call out:

“Bunting!” she cried weakly. “Bunting!” Quickly he hurried in response to her call. “Yes,” he said. “What is it, my dear? I won’t be a minute with your tea.” And he smiled broadly, rather foolishly.

She sat up and looked at him, a dazed expression on her face.

“What are you grinning at?” she asked suspiciously.

“I’ve had a wonderful piece of luck,” he explained. “But you was so cross last night that I simply didn’t dare tell you about it.”

“Well, tell me now,” she said in a low voice.

“I had a sovereign given me by the young lady. You see, it was her birthday party, Ellen, and she’d come into a nice bit of money, and she gave each of us waiters a sovereign.”

Mrs. Bunting made no comment. Instead, she lay back and closed her eyes.

“What time d’you expect Daisy?” she asked languidly. “You didn’t say what time Joe was going to fetch her, when we was talking about it yesterday.”

“Didn’t I? Well, I expect they’ll be in to dinner.”

“I wonder, how long that old aunt of hers expects us to keep her?” said Mrs. Bunting thoughtfully. All the cheer died out of Bunting’s round face. He became sullen and angry. It would be a pretty thing if he couldn’t have his own daughter for a bit—especially now that they were doing so well!

“Daisy’ll stay here just as long as she can,” he said shortly. “It’s too bad of you, Ellen, to talk like that! She helps you all she can; and she brisks us both up ever so much. Besides, ’twould be cruel—cruel to take the girl away just now, just as she and that young chap are making friends-like. One would suppose that even you would see the justice o’ that!”

But Mrs. Bunting made no answer.

Bunting went off, back into the sitting-room. The water was boiling now, so he made the tea; and then, as he brought the little tray in, his heart softened. Ellen did look really ill—ill and wizened. He wondered if she had a pain about which she wasn’t saying anything. She had never been one to grouse about herself.

“The lodger and me came in together last night,” he observed genially. “He’s certainly a funny kind of gentleman. It wasn’t the sort of night one would have chosen to go out for a walk, now was it? And yet he must ’a been out a long time if what he said was true.”

“I don’t wonder a quiet gentleman like Mr. Sleuth hates the crowded streets,” she said slowly. “They gets worse every day—that they do! But go along now; I want to get up.”

He went back into their sitting-room, and, having laid the fire and put a match to it, he sat down comfortably with his newspaper.

Deep down in his heart Bunting looked back to this last night with a feeling of shame and self-rebuke. Whatever had made such horrible thoughts and suspicions as had possessed him suddenly come into his head? And just because of a trifling thing like that blood. No doubt Mr. Sleuth’s nose had bled—that was what had happened; though, come to think of it, he had mentioned brushing up against a dead animal.

Perhaps Ellen was right after all. It didn’t do for one to be always thinking of dreadful subjects, of murders and such-like. It made one go dotty—that’s what it did.

And just as he was telling himself that, there came to the door a loud knock, the peculiar rat-tat-tat of a telegraph boy. But before he had time to get across the room, let alone to the front door, Ellen had rushed through the room, clad only in a petticoat and shawl.

“I’ll go,” she cried breathlessly. “I’ll go, Bunting; don’t you trouble.”

He stared at her, surprised, and followed her into the hall.

She put out a hand, and hiding herself behind the door, took the telegram from the invisible boy. “You needn’t wait,” she said. “If there’s an answer we’ll send it out ourselves.” Then she tore the envelope open—“Oh!” she said with a gasp of relief. “It’s only from Joe Chandler, to say he can’t go over to fetch Daisy this morning. Then you’ll have to go.”

She walked back into their sitting-room. “There!” she said. “There it is, Bunting. You just read it.”

“Am on duty this morning. Cannot fetch Miss Daisy as arranged.—CHANDLER.”

“I wonder why he’s on duty?” said Bunting slowly, uncomfortably. “I thought Joe’s hours was as regular as clockwork—that nothing could make any difference to them. However, there it is. I suppose it’ll do all right if I start about eleven o’clock? It may have left off snowing by then. I don’t feel like going out again just now. I’m pretty tired this morning.”

“You start about twelve,” said his wife quickly.

“That’ll give plenty of time.”

The morning went on quietly, uneventfully. Bunting received a letter from Old Aunt saying Daisy must come back next Monday, a little under a week from now. Mr. Sleuth slept soundly, or, at any rate, he made no sign of being awake; and though Mrs. Bunting often, stopped to listen, while she was doing her room, there came no sounds at all from overhead.

Scarcely aware that it was so, both Bunting and his wife felt more cheerful than they had done for a long time. They had quite a pleasant little chat when Mrs. Bunting came and sat down for a bit, before going down to prepare Mr. Sleuth’s breakfast.

“Daisy will be surprised to see you—not to say disappointed!” she observed, and she could not help laughing a little to herself at the thought. And when, at eleven, Bunting got up to go, she made him stay on a little longer. “There’s no such great hurry as that,” she said good-temperedly. “It’ll do quite well if you’re there by half-past twelve. I’ll get dinner ready myself. Daisy needn’t help with that. I expect Margaret has worked her pretty hard.”

But at last there came the moment when Bunting had to start, and his wife went with him to the front door. It was still snowing, less heavily, but still snowing. There were very few people coming and going, and only just a few cabs and carts dragging cautiously along through the slush.

Mrs. Bunting was still in the kitchen when there came a ring and a knock at the door—a now very familiar ring and knock. “Joe thinks Daisy’s home again by now!” she said, smiling to herself.

Before the door was well open, she heard Chandler’s voice. “Don’t be scared this time, Mrs. Bunting!” But though not exactly scared, she did give a gasp of surprise. For there stood Joe, made up to represent a public-house loafer; and he looked the part to perfection, with his hair combed down raggedly over his forehead, his seedy-looking, ill-fitting, dirty clothes, and greenish-black pot hat.

“I haven’t a minute,” he said a little breathlessly. “But I thought I’d just run in to know if Miss Daisy was safe home again. You got my telegram all right? I couldn’t send no other kind of message.”

“She’s not back yet. Her father hasn’t been gone long after her.” Then, struck by a look in his eyes, “Joe, what’s the matter?” she asked quickly.

There came a thrill of suspense in her voice, her face grew drawn, while what little colour there was in it receded, leaving it very pale.

“Well,” he said. “Well, Mrs. Bunting, I’ve no business to say anything about it—but I will tell you!

He walked in and shut the door of the sitting-room carefully behind him. “There’s been another of ’em!” he whispered. “But this time no one is to know anything about it—not for the present, I mean,” he corrected himself hastily. “The Yard thinks we’ve got a clue—and a good clue, too, this time.”

“But where—and how?” faltered Mrs. Bunting.

“Well, ’twas just a bit of luck being able to keep it dark for the present”—he still spoke in that stifled, hoarse whisper. “The poor soul was found dead on a bench on Primrose Hill. And just by chance ’twas one of our fellows saw the body first. He was on his way home, over Hampstead way. He knew where he’d be able to get an ambulance quick, and he made a very clever, secret job of it. I ’spect he’ll get promotion for that!”

“What about the clue?” asked Mrs. Bunting, with dry lips. “You said there was a clue?”

“Well, I don’t rightly understand about the clue myself. All I knows is it’s got something to do with a public-house, ‘The Hammer and Tongs,’ which isn’t far off there. They feels sure The Avenger was in the bar just on closing-time.”

And then Mrs. Bunting sat down. She felt better now. It was natural the police should suspect a public-house loafer. “Then that’s why you wasn’t able to go and fetch Daisy, I suppose?”

He nodded. “Mum’s the word, Mrs. Bunting! It’ll all be in the last editions of the evening newspapers—it can’t be kep’ out. There’d be too much of a row if ’twas!”

“Are you going off to that public-house now?” she asked.

“Yes, I am. I’ve got a awk’ard job—to try and worm something out of the barmaid.”

“Something out of the barmaid?” repeated Mrs. Bunting nervously. “Why, whatever for?”

He came and stood close to her. “They think ’twas a gentleman,” he whispered.

“A gentleman?”

Mrs. Bunting stared at Chandler with a scared expression. “Whatever makes them think such a silly thing as that?”

“Well, just before closing-time a very peculiar-looking gent, with a leather bag in his hand, went into the bar and asked for a glass of milk. And what d’you think he did? Paid for it with a sovereign! He wouldn’t take no change—just made the girl a present of it! That’s why the young woman what served him seems quite unwilling to give him away. She won’t tell now what he was like. She doesn’t know what he’s wanted for, and we don’t want her to know just yet. That’s one reason why nothing’s being said public about it. But there! I really must be going now. My time’ll be up at three o’clock. I thought of coming in on the way back, and asking you for a cup o’ tea, Mrs. Bunting.”

“Do,” she said. “Do, Joe. You’ll be welcome,” but there was no welcome in her tired voice.

She let him go alone to the door, and then she went down to her kitchen, and began cooking Mr. Sleuth’s breakfast.

The lodger would be sure to ring soon; and then any minute Bunting and Daisy might be home, and they’d want something, too. Margaret always had breakfast even when “the family” were away, unnaturally early.

As she bustled about Mrs. Bunting tried to empty her mind of all thought. But it is very difficult to do that when one is in a state of torturing uncertainty. She had not dared to ask Chandler what they supposed that man who had gone into the public-house was really like. It was fortunate, indeed, that the lodger and that inquisitive young chap had never met face to face.

At last Mr. Sleuth’s bell rang—a quiet little tinkle. But when she went up with his breakfast the lodger was not in his sitting-room.

Supposing him to be still in his bedroom, Mrs. Bunting put the cloth on the table, and then she heard the sound of his footsteps coming down the stairs, and her quick ears detected the slight whirring sound which showed that the gas-stove was alight. Mr. Sleuth had already lit the stove; that meant that he would carry out some elaborate experiment this afternoon.

“Still snowing?” he said doubtfully. “How very, very quiet and still London is when under snow, Mrs. Bunting. I have never known it quite as quiet as this morning. Not a sound, outside or in. A very pleasant change from the shouting which sometimes goes on in the Marylebone Road.”

“Yes,” she said dully. “It’s awful quiet to-day—too quiet to my thinking. ’Tain’t natural-like.”

The outside gate swung to, making a noisy clatter in the still air.

“Is that someone coming in here?” asked Mr. Sleuth, drawing a quick, hissing breath. “Perhaps you will oblige me by going to the window and telling me who it is, Mrs. Bunting?”

And his landlady obeyed him.

“It’s only Bunting, sir—Bunting and his daughter.”

“Oh! Is that all?”

Mr. Sleuth hurried after her, and she shrank back a little. She had never been quite so near to the lodger before, save on that first day when she had been showing him her rooms.

Side by side they stood, looking out of the window. And, as if aware that someone was standing there, Daisy turned her bright face up towards the window and smiled at her stepmother, and at the lodger, whose face she could only dimly discern.

“A very sweet-looking young girl,” said Mr. Sleuth thoughtfully. And then he quoted a little bit of poetry, and this took Mrs. Bunting very much aback.

“Wordsworth,” he murmured dreamily. “A poet too little read nowadays, Mrs. Bunting; but one with a beautiful feeling for nature, for youth, for innocence.”

“Indeed, sir?” Mrs. Bunting stepped back a little. “Your breakfast will be getting cold, sir, if you don’t have it now.”

He went back to the table, obediently, and sat down as a child rebuked might have done.

And then his landlady left him.

“Well?” said Bunting cheerily. “Everything went off quite all right. And Daisy’s a lucky girl—that she is! Her Aunt Margaret gave her five shillings.”

But Daisy did not look as pleased as her father thought she ought to do.

“I hope nothing’s happened to Mr. Chandler,” she said a little disconsolately. “The very last words he said to me last night was that he’d be there at ten o’clock. I got quite fidgety as the time went on and he didn’t come.”

“He’s been here,” said Mrs. Bunting slowly.

“Been here?” cried her husband. “Then why on earth didn’t he go and fetch Daisy, if he’d time to come here?”

“He was on the way to his job,” his wife answered. “You run along, child, downstairs. Now that you are here you can make yourself useful.”

And Daisy reluctantly obeyed. She wondered what it was her stepmother didn’t want her to hear.

“I’ve something to tell you, Bunting.”

“Yes?” He looked across uneasily. “Yes, Ellen?”

“There’s been another o’ those murders. But the police don’t want anyone to know about it—not yet. That’s why Joe couldn’t go over and fetch Daisy. They’re all on duty again.”

Bunting put out his hand and clutched hold of the edge of the mantelpiece. He had gone very red, but his wife was far too much concerned with her own feelings and sensations to notice it.

There was a long silence between them. Then he spoke, making a great effort to appear unconcerned.

“And where did it happen?” he asked. “Close to the other one?”

She hesitated, then: “I don’t know. He didn’t say. But hush!” she added quickly. “Here’s Daisy! Don’t let’s talk of that horror in front of her-like. Besides, I promised Chandler I’d be mum.”

And he acquiesced.

“You can be laying the cloth, child, while I go up and clear away the lodger’s breakfast.” Without waiting for an answer, she hurried upstairs.

Mr. Sleuth had left the greater part of the nice lemon sole untouched. “I don’t feel well to-day,” he said fretfully. “And, Mrs. Bunting? I should be much obliged if your husband would lend me that paper I saw in his hand. I do not often care to look at the public prints, but I should like to do so now.”

She flew downstairs. “Bunting,” she said a little breathlessly, “the lodger would like you just to lend him the Sun.”

Bunting handed it over to her. “I’ve read it through,” he observed. “You can tell him that I don’t want it back again.”

On her way up she glanced down at the pink sheet. Occupying a third of the space was an irregular drawing, and under it was written, in rather large characters:

“We are glad to be able to present our readers with an authentic reproduction of the footprint of the half-worn rubber sole which was almost certainly worn by The Avenger when he committed his double murder ten days ago.”

She went into the sitting-room. To her relief it was empty.

“Kindly put the paper down on the table,” came Mr. Sleuth’s muffled voice from the upper landing.

She did so. “Yes, sir. And Bunting don’t want the paper back again, sir. He says he’s read it.” And then she hurried out of the room.

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The Lodger: Chapter 23

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

As Daisy innocently chatters, Mr. Bunting struggles with a terrifying revelation from the newspaper, while Mrs. Bunting's composed facade begins to crack.