The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes
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Title: The Lodger
Author: Marie Belloc Lowndes
Release Date: March 13, 2005 [EBook #2014]
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by Marie Belloc Lowndes
"Lover and friend hast thou put far from me,and mine acquaintance into darkness." PSALM lxxxviii. 18
Robert Bunting and Ellen his wife sat before their dully burning,carefully-banked-up fire.
The room, especially when it be known that it was part of a housestanding in a grimy, if not exactly sordid, London thoroughfare,was exceptionally clean and well-cared-for. A casual stranger,more particularly one of a Superior class to their own, on suddenlyopening the door of that sitting-room; would have thought that Mr.and Mrs. Bunting presented a very pleasant cosy picture ofcomfortable married life. Bunting, who was leaning back in a deepleather arm-chair, was clean-shaven and dapper, still in appearancewhat he had been for many years of his life—a self-respectingman-servant.
On his wife, now sitting up in an uncomfortable straight-backedchair, the marks of past servitude were less apparent; but theywere there all the same—in her neat black stuff dress, and inher scrupulously clean, plain collar and cuffs. Mrs. Bunting, asa single woman, had been what is known as a useful maid.
But peculiarly true of average English life is the time-wornEnglish proverb as to appearances being deceitful. Mr. and Mrs.Bunting were sitting in a very nice room and in their time—howlong ago it now seemed!—both husband and wife had been proud oftheir carefully chosen belongings. Everything in the room wasstrong and substantial, and each article of furniture had beenbought at a well-conducted auction held in a private house.
Thus the red damask curtains which now shut out the fog-laden,drizzling atmosphere of the Marylebone Road, had cost a mere song,and yet they might have been warranted to last another thirty years.A great bargain also had been the excellent Axminster carpet whichcovered the floor; as, again, the arm-chair in which Bunting now satforward, staring into the dull, small fire. In fact, that arm-chairhad been an extravagance of Mrs. Bunting. She had wanted her husbandto be comfortable after the day's work was done, and she had paidthirty-seven shillings for the chair. Only yesterday Bunting hadtried to find a purchaser for it, but the man who had come to look atit, guessing their cruel necessities, had only offered them twelveshillings and sixpence for it; so for the present they were keepingtheir arm-chair.
But man and woman want something more than mere material comfort,much as that is valued by the Buntings of this world. So, on thewalls of the sitting-room, hung neatly framed if now rather fadedphotographs—photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Bunting's various formeremployers, and of the pretty country houses in which they hadseparately lived during the long years they had spent in a notunhappy servitude.
But appearances were not only deceitful, they were more thanusually deceitful with regard to these unfortunate people. Inspite of their good furniture—that substantial outward sign ofrespectability which is the last thing which wise folk who fallinto trouble try to dispose of—they were almost at the end oftheir tether. Already they had learnt to go hungry, and they werebeginning to learn to go cold. Tobacco, the last thing the soberman foregoes among his comforts, had been given up some time agoby Bunting. And even Mrs. Bunting—prim, prudent, careful womanas she was in her way—had realised what this must mean to him.So well, indeed, had she understood that some days back she hadcrept out and bought him a packet of Virginia.
Bunting had been touched—touched as he had not been for years byany woman's thought and love for him. Painful tears had forcedthemselves into his eyes, and husband and wife had both felt intheir odd, unemotional way, moved to the heart.
Fortunately he never guessed—how could he have guessed, with hisslow, normal, rather dull mind?—that his poor Ellen had sincemore than once bitterly regretted that fourpence-ha'penny, for theywere now very near the soundless depths which divide those who dwellon the safe tableland of security—those, that is, who are sure ofmaking a respectable, if not a happy, living—and the submergedmultitude who, through some lack in themselves, or owing to theconditions under which our strange civilisation has become organised,struggle rudderless till they die in workhouse, hospital, or prison.
Had the Buntings been in a class lower than their own, had theybelonged to the great company of human beings technically known toso many of us as the poor, there would have been friendly neighboursready to help them, and the same would have been the case had theybelonged to the class of smug, well-meaning, if unimaginative, folkwhom they had spent so much of their lives in serving.
There was only one person in the world who might possibly be broughtto help them. That was an aunt of Bunting's first wife. With thiswoman, the widow of a man who had been well-to-do, lived Daisy,Bunting's only child by his first wife, and during the last long twodays he had been trying to make up his mind to write to the old lady,and that though he suspected that she would almost certainly retortwith a cruel, sharp rebuff.
As to their few acquaintances, former fellow-servants, and so on,they had gradually fallen out of touch with them. There was butone friend who often came to see them in their deep trouble. Thiswas a young fellow named Chandler, under whose grandfather Buntinghad been footman years and years ago. Joe Chandler had never goneinto service; he was attached to the police; in fact not to put toofine a point upon it, young Chandler was a detective.
When they had first taken the house which had brought them, so theyboth thought, such bad luck, Bunting had encouraged the young chapto come often, for his tales were well worth listening to—quiteexciting at times. But now poor Bunting didn't want to hear thatsort of stories—stories of people being cleverly "nabbed," orstupidly allowed to escape the fate they always, from Chandler'spoint of view, richly deserved.
But Joe still came very faithfully once or twice a week, so timinghis calls that neither host nor hostess need press food upon him—nay, more, he had done that which showed him to have a good andfeeling heart. He had offered his father's old acquaintance a loan,and Bunting, at last, had taken 30s. Very little of that moneynow remained: Bunting still could jingle a few coppers in his pocket;and Mrs. Bunting had 2s. 9d.; that and the rent they would have topay in five weeks, was all they had left. Everything of the light,portable sort that would fetch money had been sold. Mrs. Buntinghad a fierce horror of the pawnshop. She had never put her feet insuch a place, and she declared she never would—she would ratherstarve first.
But she had said nothing when there had occurred the gradualdisappearance of various little possessions she knew that Buntingvalued, notably of the old-fashioned gold watch-chain which had beengiven to him after the death of his first master, a master he hadnursed faithfully and kindly through a long and terrible illness.There had also vanished a twisted gold tie-pin, and a large mourningring, both gifts of former employers.
When people are living near that deep pit which divides the securefrom the insecure—when they see themselves creeping closer andcloser to its dread edge—they are apt, however loquacious bynature, to fall into long silences. Bunting had always been atalker, but now he talked no more. Neither did Mrs. Bunting, butthen she had always been a silent woman, and that was perhaps onereason why Bunting had felt drawn to her from the very first momenthe had seen her.
It had fallen out in this way. A lady had just engaged him asbutler, and he had been shown, by the man whose place he was totake, into the dining-room. There, to use his own expression, hehad discovered Ellen Green, carefully pouring out the glass of portwine which her then mistress always drank at 11.30 every morning.And as he, the new butler, had seen her engaged in this task, as hehad watched her carefully stopper the decanter and put it back intothe old wine-cooler, he had said to himself, "That is the woman forme!"
But now her stillness, her—her dumbness, had got on theunfortunate man's nerves. He no longer felt like going into thevarious little shops, close by, patronised by him in more prosperousdays, and Mrs. Bunting also went afield to make the slender purchaseswhich still had to be made every day or two, if they were to besaved from actually starving to death.
Suddenly, across the stillness of the dark November evening therecame the muffled sounds of hurrying feet and of loud, shrill shoutingoutside—boys crying the late afternoon editions of the eveningpapers.
Bunting turned uneasily in his chair. The giving up of a dailypaper had been, after his tobacco, his bitterest deprivation. Andthe paper was an older habit than the tobacco, for servants aregreat readers of newspapers.
As the shouts came through the closed windows and the thick damaskcurtains, Bunting felt a sudden sense of mind hunger fall upon him.
It was a shame—a damned shame—that he shouldn't know what washappening in the world outside! Only criminals are kept from hearingnews of what is going on beyond their prison walls. And thoseshouts, those hoarse, sharp cries must portend that something reallyexciting had happened, something warranted to make a man forget forthe moment his own intimate, gnawing troubles.
He got up, and going towards the nearest window strained his ears tolisten. There fell on them, emerging now and again from the confusedbabel of hoarse shouts, the one clear word "Murder!"
Slowly Bunting's brain pieced the loud, indistinct cries into somesort of connected order. Yes, that was it—"Horrible Murder!Murder at St. Pancras!" Bunting remembered vaguely another murderwhich had been committed near St. Pancras—that of an old lady byher servant-maid. It had happened a great many years ago, but wasstill vividly remembered, as of special and natural interest, amongthe class to which he had belonged.
The newsboys—for there were more than one of them, a rather unusualthing in the Marylebone Road—were coming nearer and nearer; nowthey had adopted another cry, but he could not quite catch what theywere crying. They were still shouting hoarsely, excitedly, but hecould only hear a word or two now and then. Suddenly "The Avenger!The Avenger at his work again!" broke on his ear.
During the last fortnight four very curious and brutal murders hadbeen committed in London and within a comparatively small area.
The first had aroused no special interest—even the second had onlybeen awarded, in the paper Bunting was still then taking in, quite asmall paragraph.
Then had come the third—and with that a wave of keen excitement,for pinned to the dress of the victim—a drunken woman—had beenfound a three-cornered piece of paper, on which was written, in redink, and in printed characters, the words,
It was then realised, not only by those whose business it is toinvestigate such terrible happenings, but also by the vast worldof men and women who take an intelligent interest in such sinistermysteries, that the same miscreant had committed all three crimes;and before that extraordinary fact had had time to soak well intothe public mind there took place yet another murder, and again themurderer had been to special pains to make it clear that someobscure and terrible lust for vengeance possessed him.
Now everyone was talking of The Avenger and his crimes! Even theman who left their ha'porth of milk at the door each morning hadspoken to Bunting about them that very day.
Bunting came back to the fire and