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   Chapter 13 A HOUSE ON FIRE.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 8598

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Bob's phantom visitor and my faithful companion had no objection to the tiles, in which it may have found an endearing memory of old associations. Bob had fixed a couple of seats to the roof, where we sat and chatted and smoked, and enjoyed the usual prospect of chimney pots and attic windows. Sitting upon that height, accompanied by the spectral cat, reminded me in an odd way of one of Cruikshank's pictures, and I made an observation to this effect to Bob.

"It is rather weird," he said, "and especially in this light."

The sun had set, and in the skies we saw the reflection of the yellow glare from the shops of crowded neighborhoods. Our conversation was confined within narrow limits because of the one engrossing subject which occupied my mind, and as we had pretty well threshed that out, and there was nothing particularly new to say about it, we fell into occasional silences, which suited the mood I was in. During one of these silences I observed what appeared to be an unusual restlessness in the cat. Instead of sitting quietly at my feet it crept backward and forward, and at length paused at a little distance from me, with its face to the west. I described these movements to Bob, and remarked that it seemed to be expecting something.

"I wish with all my heart," was his reply, "that we could find some other subject to talk about than this wretched creature."

"I wish so, too; but I don't see how it is possible till it bids me farewell. I no longer possess a will of my own, but am led or driven as if I were a machine."

"Keep cool, Ned. I am not going to argue with you any more about the spiritual existence of your apparition. I accept it, and almost wish that it were as plain to my eyes as it is to yours. But what I want you to do, old fellow, while this visitation is upon you, is to keep cool. For less cause than you have, men have gone mad. That is an unusual glare in the sky; it can hardly be the reflection of gaslights."

He extended his hand to the west--the direction in which the spectral cat was looking.

"Do you see any connection," I asked, "between that glare and the attention which the apparition is bestowing upon it?"

"No," replied Bob.

"I do. That is the reflection of a house on fire."

As the words passed my lips the cat glided up to me, and I could almost have deluded myself into the belief that it plucked at my trousers. This, of course, from so unsubstantial and impalpable a figure could not have been; but it is certain that by its motion it made me understand that I must not remain idle on the roof of Bob's house--that there was a fire in the distance, and that I must go to it.

I obeyed the voiceless command.

"Come!" I said to Bob.

"Where to?"

"To the fire, in which my spectral friend is taking the greatest possible interest."

Bob shrugged his shoulders. "It must be a long way off."

"We shall find it. Come!"

There was no excitement in the immediate neighborhood as we walked along in the direction of the fire, being guided by the glare in the sky. A few persons turned their eyes upward, and, remarking that there was a fire somewhere, passed on. Their indifference arose from the circumstance that they were in no danger; I could not help reflecting upon the selfishness of human nature which causes men to look unmoved upon tragedies in which they themselves are not involved. Being anxious to reach the spot quickly I called a cab, which in half an hour conveyed us to the corner of Stanmore Street, West. This was as far as the driver could go, the street being deluged with water, and blocked with fire engines and firemen. It had been a serious conflagration while it lasted, but the efforts made by the brigade to confine it to the house in which it broke out were successful. This one building, however, was completely gutted, even in that short space of time, and the enthralling incident in connection with it which was upon every man's tongue was that a gentleman had perished in the flames. From the remarks that reached my ears I gathered that the house had been let out as chambers, and that when the fire arose there were no other persons in it except the housekeeper and the gentleman who lived on the first floor. The housekeeper was saved; the gentleman was burne

d to death.

As I stood pondering, Bob at my side, the spectral figure of the cat at my feet, Bob asked, "Well, Ned, where's the connection?"

"Wait," I replied, rather irritably.

A woman, supported by two female friends, passed us. She was crying, and wringing her hands, and I learned that she was the housekeeper who had been saved. Instinctively I followed her, and my visible and invisible companions accompanied me. It was not a difficult matter to elicit from the housekeeper all the information it was in her power to impart. The gentleman who had met with so untimely an end was a single man, with few friends and no relations.

"I don't think," said the housekeeper, "that he had a brother, or a sister, or a cousin in the world; leastways, so far as I know, no one ever came to see him who had any claim upon him. He was a quiet gentleman, and didn't give no trouble. What do you want to know, sir? Was he very rich? All I can say is he always paid his way, and always seemed to have plenty and to spare. His name? Mr. Alfred Warner, sir. Are you a friend of his?"

"No," I replied--for it was I who had asked the questions to which she had replied--"I was not acquainted with him."

"What name did she say?" asked Bob, in a whisper.

"Mr. Alfred Warner," I said.

Bob caught his breath, and said, "That's strange! It is the name of the gentleman who put into our hands No. 79 Lamb's Terrace."

"There is the connection, Bob," I said. "What do you say now to the spectral cat and its having urged us to come to this fire?"

"What can I say, except that it is most bewildering and mysterious?"

"Do you think I am still laboring under a delusion?"

"No, I do not."

"It was not without a motive," I said, "that I asked your nephew this evening whether he believed that a man who is not interested in something which, to make myself fairly clear, I called a crime, might receive a spiritual visitation which compelled him to take an active part in its discovery. His reply was that he did believe such a thing could be. I believe it, too, more than ever now, after this strange fire; and I believe, also, that there is a crime involved in it, and that I--whether by design or accident I will not pretend to say--shall be instrumental in its discovery. My memory does not deceive me, does it, Bob? You told me yesterday that the gentleman who has met his death in that fire, Mr. Alfred Warner, when he placed 79 Lamb's Terrace in your employer's hands to let, did not mention the name of his last tenant."

"Yes, I told you so," Bob answered, "and there seemed to be no reason why we should ask for it."

"So that it is probable," I continued, "that there is not a disinterested person in London to whom we could go to obtain the name of the last tenant."

"Not that I am aware of," said Bob.

I looked at my watch. It was ten o'clock. "If we went to your nephew's house, do you think we should find him up?"

"Very likely."

"I am going there, Bob. I have a question to ask him."

He put no opposition in my way. A kind of stupefaction appeared to have come over him. We drove to the residence of Ronald Elsdale, and found him up; his mother had gone to bed. As we entered his room, I observed again an uneasy expression flash into his face, and I saw his blind eyes turn toward the spectral cat.

"Only yourselves?" he inquired.

I left it to Bob to reply, and he said, "Only ourselves."

"It is very odd," said Ronald, "but I have the same impression that I had when I entered my uncle's room this evening, that there is somebody or something else present. It is useless trying to account for it." Then he asked, "Is there anything you wish to know?"

"It is a late hour to visit you," I said; "but I have a reason, which I cannot at present explain, for asking you where the young lady to whom you were attached lived when she was in London?"

He turned his troubled face toward his uncle, who said, "It is not an idle question, Ronald. I should like you to answer it."

"She may not have lived there all the time she was in London," said Ronald; "but I heard where it is supposed she met her death. It was in the Northwestern district--Lamb's Terrace, No. 79."

"Thank you," I said.

We wished him good-night, and left the house.

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