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The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 15157

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

We rose earlier than usual the next morning, and my wife bustled about in lively expectation of a successful and pleasant day. She made no allusion to Bob Millet, and I, well acquainted with her moods, was aware that her silence was no indication that she was not thinking of him. My meeting with him had recalled agreeable memories, and I was sincerely sorry that he had not been successful in life's battle. I resolved to assist him if I could, though I could not exactly see a way to it, because of his aversion to borrowing money, and because, living retired as I was, with no business to attend to, it was out of my power to offer him a better situation than the one he occupied in Mr. Gascoigne's office. Anxious that my wife should have as high an opinion of him as I had myself, I made an effort to reinstate him in her good graces.

"I think, Maria," I said, during breakfast, "that you were inclined to do Bob an injustice last night. He had no desire whatever to set you against the house in Lamb's Terrace, but only to give us some information which he considered it his duty not to withhold from us. He was perfectly sincere in all he said, and perfectly truthful, and you must admit that he did give us some strange news."

"Yes, he did," she replied, "and it remains to be proved whether it is true; we should not be too ready to believe all the idle gossip we hear."

"Undoubtedly we should not; but if there is anything against the place, it is better that we should hear it before we decide upon living in it. When I was a boy an aunt of mine took a house, and afterward discovered that a murder had been committed in her bedroom. She didn't have a moment's peace in her life; she used to wake up in the middle of the night, and fancy all sorts of things. I remember her spending an evening with us at home, and starting at the least sound; her nerves were shattered, and my poor dear mother said she couldn't live long. She told us stories of horrid sights she saw in the house, and horrid sounds she heard, and my hair rose on my head. I didn't sleep a wink myself that night. Now, if she had known all this before she took the house, she would have been spared a great deal of suffering."

"Did she die soon after?" asked my practical wife.

"No," I replied; and I could not help laughing at my defeat, the moral of the story being absolutely destructive of the theory I wished to establish; "as a matter of fact, she lived to a good old age."

"I don't quite see the application, Edward," said my wife dryly; and I deemed it prudent to change the subject. Maria is not an unreasonable or an unjust woman, and I gathered from her manner that she intended to hold over her final verdict upon Bob's character until she had ascertained what dependence could be placed upon the information he had given us.

Upon looking through the local directory, the only reference I could find to Lamb's Terrace was the name under the initial L, "Lamb's Terrace."

"It is singular," I said. "The number of the house we are going to is 79, and the presumption is that there are other houses in the terrace, with people living in them, yet there is no list of them in this directory."

My wife turned over the pages, but could find no further reference to the place.

"It is rather singular," she said, and handed me back the book.

A few minutes afterward we were on our way, having been informed by Mr. Gascoigne on the previous day that a North Star 'bus would take us to the neighborhood in which it was situated.

"How many houses are we going to look over?" I inquired.

"Only one," replied my wife, "and if that doesn't suit us I really don't know what we shall do."

With all my heart I wished that it would not suit us. Reluctant as I had been, when we first commenced these wearisome journeys, to remove from our old home, I felt now, after the experiences I had gone through, that it would be a positive misfortune.

Lamb's Terrace was not easy to find. The conductor of the North Star 'bus knew nothing of it, and said he had best take us as far as his conveyance went, and set us down. This was done, no other course suggesting itself to us; he took us as far as he went, and then cast us adrift upon the world. We made inquiries of many persons, and the replies we received added to our confusion. Women especially set their tongues wagging with astonishing recklessness, for they were totally ignorant of the subject upon which they were offering an opinion. But they gave instructions and advice, which we followed, for the reason that we did not know what else we could do. Some said they thought Lamb's Terrace must lie in this direction; we went in this direction, and did not find it. Others said it must lie in that direction; and we went in that direction, with the same result. We requested sundry cabmen to drive us to 79 Lamb's Terrace, and they nodded their heads cheerfully and asked where Lamb's Terrace was. We could not inform them. "Do you know Lamb's Terrace?" they asked their comrades, who scratched their heads and passed the question along the rank, and eventually said they were blarmed (or something worse) if they did. The consequence was that they lost a fare, and that we were cast adrift again.

At length, after tramping about for nearly two hours, we found ourselves in what I can only describe as a locality which had lost its place in civilized society. It was deplorably desolate and forlorn, and its dismal aspect suggested the thought that it had been abandoned in despair. Fields had been dug up, but not leveled; roads had been marked out, but not formed; buildings had been commenced, but not proceeded with. Rubbish had been shot there freely. Empty cans, battered out of shape, broken bottles, dead branches, musty rags, useless pieces of iron and wood, and the worst refuse of the dustbin, lay all around. If there had ever been a time in its history--and it seemed as if there had been, and not so very long ago--when it deserved to be regarded as a region of good intentions, its character was gone entirely, and it could now only be regarded as a region of desolation. Wandering about this mournful region, my wife suddenly exclaimed:

"Why, here it is!"

And there it was. A narrow thoroughfare, not wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other, with the words "Lamb's Terrace" faintly discernible on the crumbling stones.

"Shall we go on?" I asked.

"Of course we will go on," replied my wife. "What did we come out for? And after the trouble we have had to get here!"

We turned at once into the narrow lane. On the right-hand side was a gloomy house, untenanted. Beyond this was a long wall, very much out of repair. On the opposite side there were no houses at all, but another long wall, also very much out of repair. I searched for the number of the gloomy untenanted house, but could not see one, and my wife suggested that the house we wanted was lower down. We went lower down, and passed the gloomy house a distance of fifty or sixty yards, between the said walls. So still and deathlike was everything around, and so secluded did Lamb's Terrace appear to be that I regarded it as being not only lost to society, but almost out of the world.

I glanced at my wife, and saw on her face no traces of disappointment. Her spirits were not so easily dashed as mine.

Having traversed these fifty or sixty yards we came to the end of the right-hand wall. Adjoining it was a large building, in rueful harmony with all the depressing characteristics of the neighbo

rhood. The house was approached by a front garden choked up with weeds and rank grass, and inclosed by rusty and broken railings; at the end of this garden was a flight of stone steps. The gate creaked on its hinges as I pushed it open, and a prolonged wheeze issued from the joints; the sound was ludicrously and painfully human, and resembled that which might have been uttered by a rheumatic old woman in pain. My wife pushed past me, and I followed her up the flight of stone steps.

"There is a number on the door," she said, tiptoeing. "Yes, here it is, 79, almost rubbed out."

"Numbers 1 to 78," I grimly remarked, "must be somewhere round the corner, if there is any round the corner in the neighborhood; they are perhaps two or three miles off."

"My dear," said my wife bravely, "don't be prejudiced. Here is the house; what we have to do is to see whether it will suit us."

"You would not care to go into it alone," I said.

"I should not," she admitted, with praiseworthy candor; "but that is not to the point."

I thought it was; but I did not argue the matter. She had removed from the keys as much rust as she could, and had had the foresight to bring with her a small bottle of oil, without the aid of which I doubt if we should have been able to turn the key in the lock. After a deal of trouble this was accomplished, and the mysterious tenement was open to us; as the door creaked upon its hinges, the sound that tortured my ears was infinitely more lugubrious than that which had issued from the gate, and it produced upon me the same impression of human resemblance. When we entered the hall I asked my wife whether I should close the street door.

"Certainly," she said. "Why not?"

I did not answer her. Have her way she would, and it was useless to argue with her. I closed the door, and felt as if I had entered a tomb.

The entrance hall was spacious, and shaped like an alcove; there was a door on the right, and another on the left; in the center was a wide staircase, leading to the rooms above; farther along the passage was a masked door, leading to the rooms below.

"Upstairs or downstairs first?" I inquired.

"Downstairs," my wife replied.

The stairs to the basement were very dark, and my wife, prepared for all such emergencies, produced a candle and matches. Lighting the candle we descended to the stone passage. There was a dreary and gloomy kitchen; there was a large scullery, a larder and all necessary offices, cobwebbed and musty; also two rooms which could be used as living rooms. The glass-paneled doors of both these rooms opened out into the back garden, which was in worse condition and more choked up with weeds, and rank grass, and monstrous creepers than the ground in front of the house; two greenhouses were at the extreme end, and there were some trees dotted about, but whether they were fruit trees it was impossible to say without a closer examination.

"I don't think," said my wife, "we will go over the garden just now. It looks as if it was full of creeping things."

"The rooms we have seen are not much better, Maria."

"They are not, indeed; I never saw a place in such a dreadful state."

I was more than ordinarily depressed. As a rule these expeditions invariably had a dispiriting effect upon me, but I had never felt so melancholy as I did on this occasion. I made no inquiry into my wife's feelings; I considered it best that she should work out the matter for herself; the chances of my emerging a victor from the contest in which we were engaged would be all the more promising.

We ascended to the hall, and then I observed to my wife that we had forgotten to examine the stabling and the wine cellar; we had even neglected the coal cellars.

"We won't bother about them to-day," she said, and despite my despondency I inwardly rejoiced.

I had also learned to prepare myself for the trials of this house-hunting. In my side pocket were two flasks, one containing water, the other brandy. I had often grown faint during our wanderings, and a sup of brandy now and then had kept up my strength. I saw that my wife was lower spirited than usual, and I mixed some spirits and water in the tin cup attached to one of the flasks. She accepted the refreshment eagerly, and I took a larger draught myself, and was much cheered by it.

"It always," said my wife, in a brighter tone, "makes one feel rather faint to look over a house which has been empty a long time, especially a house which is so far away from--from any others."

"It is almost as if we were in a grave," I observed.

"How can you say such dreadful things!" she retorted. "If I were a man I should have more courage."

There were three rooms on the ground floor, each of considerable dimensions, and all in shocking dilapidation. The paper had peeled off the walls, and was hanging in tattered strips to the ground; quantities of plaster had dropped from the ceilings, and here and there the bare rafters were exposed; there were holes in the flooring; the grates were cracked, the hearths broken up.

"A hundred pounds," I observed, "would not go far toward making this house habitable."

"It wouldn't be half enough," said my wife.

Upon quitting the dining room I inquired whether she wished to go any further.

"I am going," she said stoutly, "all over the house."

Upstairs we went to the first floor, where we found the rooms in a similar condition to those below.

"Disgraceful!" exclaimed my wife. "No wonder the landlord was indignant with the last tenant."

In due course we found ourselves on the second floor, and we stood in a large room, the windows of which faced the garden in the rear. I had opened the door of this room with difficulty, and the moment we entered it slammed to, which I ascribed to the wind blowing through some broken panes. By this time I perceived plainly that my wife's spirits were down to zero, and I was comforted by the reflection that looking over a house so wretched, so forlorn, so woe-begone, would, after all we had gone through, be the last straw that would break the back of her determination to move. We had been in the house about half an hour, and nothing but her indomitable spirit had sustained her in the trying ordeal.

In the room in which we were now standing there were two bell-pulls; one was broken, the other appeared to be in workable condition. It was not to prove this, but out of an idle humor as I thought at the time--though I was afterward inclined to change my opinion, and to ascribe the action to a spiritual impulse--that I stepped to the unbroken bell-pull, and gave it a jerk. It is not easy to describe what followed. Bells jangled and tolled and clanged as though I had set in motion a host in of infernal and discordant tongues of metal, and had raised the dead from their graves to take part in the harsh concert, for indeed there seemed to be something horribly fiendish, in the discord, which was at once hoarse, strident, shrill, and sepulchral, and finally resolved itself into a low, muffled wail which ran through the house like a funereal peal. With the exception of our own voices and footsteps and the slamming of the doors we had opened and shut, these were the only sounds we had heard, and they brought a chill to our hearts.

"How awful!" whispered my wife.

I nodded, and held up my hand. The last echo of the bells had died away, and now there came another sound, so startling and appalling that my wife clutched me in terror.

"My God!" she cried; "someone is coming upstairs!"

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