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   Chapter 5 BOB MILLET GIVES US SOME CURIOUS INFORMATION ABOUT THE HOUSE IN LAMB'S TERRACE.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 16069

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Now, Bob," said I, "here's a clean pipe and some bird's eye. Do you remember our first cigar in your little bedroom in your father's house? How we suffered, and vowed never to smoke again! We have time for a pipe and a chat before my wife comes in. She has many virtues, Bob, and a special one for which she deserves a medal--she does not object to my smoking in any room in the house. Heaven knows what rules she will lay down, and what changes for the worse there will be when we move! I am not going to anticipate evils, however. Without pretending that I am a philosopher, I take things as they come, and try to make the best of them; it is the pleasantest way. Tell me what you have been doing all these years."

He told me all about himself--of his leaving school with fair expectations; of his entering into his father's business; of his marrying for love, and, after three years of happy married life, of the death of his wife, and the ruin of his prospects; of his subsequent struggles and disappointments; and of his sinking lower and lower until he found himself fixed upon that depressing platform which is crowded with poor clerks struggling with all their might and main for bread and butter. Except when he spoke of his wife there was no sadness in his voice; and I saw that the cheerful temperament which had distinguished him when we were at school together had not deserted him.

"It has been a tussle," he said, "but I have managed to rub along, and it might have been worse than it is. You don't mind my calling you Ned, do you?"

"If I did," I replied, "I should have good reason to be ashamed of myself. It was Ned and Bob when we were boys; it is Ned and Bob now that we are elderly men. A few pounds more in my purse than in yours can make no difference; and as far as that goes, I can spare a little check if you need it."

"No, Ned," he responded quickly, "that is the last thing in the world I hope I shall have to do. Though I don't sit down to a banquet every day for dinner, I have never borrowed, and I never will if I can possibly help it. Don't judge me by my sad looks--I have a disagreeable impression that I am not a cheerful fellow to contemplate; but if the truth were known there are much harder lots than mine. I have a comical trick of twisting things to my own advantage, and of rather pitying men who could sell me up over and over again. Ned, as there is no station in life, however high, without its miseries, so there is no station in life, however low, without its compensations."

"You're the philosopher, Bob," quoth I.

"I don't know about that. I have grown into the belief that the poor have as much enjoyment as the rich, and when I take a shilling's worth in the gallery of a theater, I am positive that I don't get less pleasure out of it than the people who sit in the stalls do out of their half-guineas. If I am a philosopher that is the use I make of my philosophy. Then, Ned, I have the past to think of; for three years there was no happier man than I, and my sad memories are sweetened with gratitude. And life is short after all; time flies; tomorrow we shall all be on a level, rich and poor alike."

Thus spoke my old schoolfellow, Bob Millet, in his shabby coat, and the regard I used to have for him grew stronger every minute that passed.

When my wife came in, bustling and cheerful as usual, she nodded brightly at us, sat down with a piece of needlework in her hand--she is never idle, this wife of mine--and said:

"Now, Mr. Millet, let us hear about the house in Lamb's Terrace."

"I will tell you all I know. Have you the keys, Ned?"

"My wife has," I replied.

She opened her bag and took them out, remarking, as she wiped her fingers, that they were very dusty.

"As you see," observed Bob, "they are covered with rust."

"They could have been used very little lately," I said.

"Hardly at all," said Bob; "and this is one of the singular features in connection with the house with which you should be made acquainted. Did not the information Mr. Gascoigne gave you of the last tenant strike you as rather extraordinary?" He turned to my wife for an answer, but she did not reply.

"It struck me as very extraordinary," I said. "I could not understand it at all, nor can I now understand why a house, with so many rooms, with stabling, a large garden, and so many other advantages, should be offered at so low a rent."

Bob looked at me, looked at my wife, hesitated, coughed, cleared his throat, and spoke.

"As a matter of fact, the house has been empty for four or five years."

"Really a matter of fact?" inquired my wife. "Within your own knowledge?"

"Not exactly that; I can speak only of what I have gathered."

"So that your matter of fact," observed my wife shrewdly, "is merely hearsay."

"I must admit as much, I am afraid," he said a little awkwardly.

"Why should you be afraid to admit it?"

I detected in these questions one of my wife's favorite maneuvers. When she met with opposition to a project which she had resolved to carry out, she was in the habit of seizing upon any chance words which she could construe in such a way as to confuse and confound the enemy. Often had she driven me so hard that I have been compelled to beat a retreat in despair, and to give up arguing with her.

"Upon my word I don't know why," said Bob. "It was only a form of speech. I seem to be getting into a tangle."

"I will assist you to get out of it," said my wife, with playful severity. "Go on, Mr. Millet."

"It was originally taken on lease," continued Bob, "and the term having expired, the tenant--I suppose we must call him so--wished to renew. The landlord says, 'I will renew on one condition, that you live in the house.' The tenant objects. 'What does it matter,' he says, 'whether I live in the house or not, so long as the rent is paid?' The landlord replies that it matters a great deal, that a house cannot be kept in a satisfactory condition unless it is occupied, and that he does not like to see his property fall into decay, as this house has been allowed to do."

"Did you hear these words pass, Mr. Millet?" asked my wife.

"No; I am only throwing into shape what I have gathered."

Here we were interrupted by a knock at the door, and my wife was called from the room to see a tradesman whom she had sent for to put some locks in order. As she left us she gave Bob rather a queer look. I took advantage of her absence by asking Bob why he hesitated when he began to speak about the house.

"Well," he answered, "this is the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing your wife, and I don't know if she is a nervous woman."

"She is not easily frightened," I said, "but what has that to do with it?"

"Everything. I have heard that the house is haunted."

I clapped my hand on the table. "And that is the reason of the low rent?"

"It looks like it, doesn't it?"

"And that is why the last tenant did not live in it?"

"Ah," said Bob, "now you strike another key. There is a mystery here which I cannot fathom. Having a house on lease and being responsible for the rent, he is bound to pay till his term has expired. Very well--but here's the point, Ned: The lease having run out, and he having all these years presumably paid a large sum of money every quarter-day for value not received, why should he wish to renew? The house is haunted, he will not live in it, he never even opens the door to say how do you do to the property which is costing him so dear, and now that his responsibility is at an end he wants to take it upon his shoulders again, and to be allowed the privilege of continuing to pay his rent without receiving any return for it. Men don't usually throw their money away without some special reason, and this eccentric proceeding on the part of the last tenant makes one rather curious."

"It is certainly very mysterious," I observed. "What was the rent he paid for it?"

"I heard Mr. Gascoigne say a hundred and fifty pounds."

"And it is offered to us for ninety. Have you seen the house, Bob?"

"No."

"Mr. Gascoigne has, I suppose."

"I don't believe he has."

"Then how have you learnt all you have told me?"

"In this way. I was at my desk when the landlord--who is himself only a leaseholder, having to pay ground rent to a wealthy institution--called upon Mr. Gascoigne, and put the house into his hands. Mr. Gascoigne, when he wrote down the particulars, expressed, as you did, surprise at the low rent, and little by little all the particulars came out. There appeared to me to be some feeling between the landlord and the last tenant, but nothing transpired as to its nature while I was present, and it is my belief that Mr. Gascoigne is as much in the dark as I am. There had been trouble in obtaining the keys, I understood. A house agent, you know, never refuses business, and Mr. Gascoigne put the place on his books, but has not pushed it in any way. He did not mention it to you till he had exhausted the list of other available houses. It was only this morning that the rent was reduced in the books to ninety pounds, in accordance with instructions received from the landlord, and it was probably in accordance with those instructions that Mr. Gascoigne made a strong effort to prepossess you in favor of it. Your wife may be in any moment. Is she to know that the house is haunted?"

I rubbed my forehead; I pondered; I laughed aloud.

"Tell her, Bob," I said; and then, at the idea of all her fond hopes being once more dashed to the ground, I fairly held my sides, while Bob gazed at me in wonder. I did not explain to him the cause of my hilarity; I had no time, indeed, for my wife re-entered the room, and resumed her seat and her needlework. I composed my features the moment I heard her footstep; she would certainly have asked why I was so merry, and any explanation I might have ventured to offer would have been twisted by her to my shame and confusion, and would, moreover, have made her more determined than ever to take the house.

"Where did we leave off, Mr. Millet?" she said, in a suspicious tone. "Let me see--I think it was about the house falling into decay."

"Never mind that just now, Maria," I said. "Bob has something of the utmost importance to impart to you. Brace your nerves--prepare for a shock."

There was a note of triumph in my voice, and she turned her eyes upon me, with an idea, I think, that I was going out of my mind.

"Well, Mr. Millet," she said, with a shrewd glance at him, "what is this something of the highest importance that you have to impart to me?"

"I was reluctant to mention it," said Bob, "before I spoke of it to Ned, because I was doubtful how it would affect you. If you should happen to hear of it when it was too late to retract you might say with very good reason, 'But why did not Mr. Millet tell us before we went over the house? Why did he leave us to find it out for ourselves after we signed the lease?'"

"Find what out, Mr. Millet?"

"As a matter of fact," said Bob, and quickly withdrew the unfortunate phrase, "I mean that I have heard the house has a bad name."

She frowned.

"A bad name!"

"Bad, in a certain way, They say it is haunted."

"Oh," said my wife, smiling, "is that all? They say? Who say?"

"I can't give you names," replied Bob, conspicuously nonplused, "because I don't know them. I can only tell you what I have heard."

"I thought as much," she said, her eyes twinkling with amusement. "Merely hearsay. You might be more explicit, Mr. Millet. Haunted? By what?"

"I don't know."

"When does It appear?"

"I can't say."

"How tantalizing! Don't you think, Edward, that the news Mr. Millet has given us makes the house all the more interesting?"

Thus effectually did she sweep away all my fond expectations. She made no more of a haunted house than she would have done of a loose handle to a door.

"If that is the view you take of it," I said, "perhaps it does. I am always ready to please you, Maria, but till this moment I had no idea that your taste lay in the direction of haunted houses. At all events, you will not be able to say that you were not warned."

"You will not hear me say it. There is a proverb about giving a dog a bad name and hanging him at once, and it seems to me to apply to the house in Lamb's Terrace. If Mr. Millet could give us something to lay hold of I might express myself differently."

"You can't lay hold of a ghost, Maria, unless those gentry have undergone a radical change. For my part, I am much obliged to Bob. It was out of consideration for you that he did not mention it at first."

"Mr. Millet was very kind, I am sure," she said stiffly; and then, addressing him as though she would give him another chance, "Are you acquainted with the last tenant?"

"No, I have never seen him."

"What is his name?"

"I do not know."

"Where does he live?"

"I do not know."

"Now, do you think," she said, quizzing him, "that it is quite fair to take away the character of an empty house upon such slender grounds? It is like hitting a man when he's down, which I have heard is not considered manly."

"I assure you," replied Bob gravely, "that what I have said has been said with the best intentions."

"No doubt," said my wife composedly, meaning quite the other thing. "Edward, our best plan will be to go and look over the house the first thing in the morning."

"That settles it, Bob," I said, "for the present, at all events. What do you say to coming here tomorrow evening and hearing our report of the house?"

He looked at my wife, as if doubtful whether a second visit would be agreeable to her; but she nodded pleasantly, and said:

"Yes, come, Mr. Millet; perhaps we shall be able to surprise you."

"Thank you," said Bob, and we talked of old times with rather eager readiness, and for the rest of the evening carefully avoided the subject which had so nearly brought him to grief. At ten o'clock he took his departure, and a few minutes afterward Maria and I retired to our bedroom.

"Good-night, dear," she said, in her most amiable tone, as I put out the light.

"Good-night, dear," I replied, and disposed myself for sleep.

We are both healthy sleepers, and generally go off like a top, as the saying is, a very short time after our heads touch the pillows. But this night proved to be an exception, for we must have lain quite a quarter of an hour in darkness when my wife began to speak.

"Are you asleep, Edward?"

"No, Maria."

"Do you know," she said drowsily, "I have a funny idea in my head."

"Have you?"

"Yes. It is that you and Mr. Millet laid a little plot for me."

"It isn't a funny idea, Maria; it is a perfectly absurd idea."

"That is what you say, dear; it is never agreeable to be found out. I dare say you thought yourselves very clever. It hasn't raised my opinion of Mr. Millet. I should have liked to believe him a different kind of person."

"Whatever are you driving at, Maria?" I said. "Bob Millet is the simplest fellow in the world, and is incapable of laying a plot."

"Oh, there's no telling. You were old playmates, and he is anxious to please you; he will find out by and by, perhaps, that I am not quite the simpleton he takes me for."

"Poor old Bob!" I thought. "His ill-luck sticks to him."

Aloud I said, "You are a conundrum, Maria; I shall give you up."

"Better give up the plot," she said pleasantly.

"I will, when I know what it is."

"It was this--that you would invent a ridiculous story about the house I have set my heart upon taking being haunted, so that I should be frightened to go near it. You ought to have known me better, Edward, and I must say you did it very clumsily; my consolation is that you did not succeed. I am so sorry for you! Good-night, dear; I hope you will sleep well."

I did sleep fairly well, though I was kept awake longer than usual by my annoyance at the prejudice Maria entertained against my old friend Bob.

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