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   Chapter 17 IN 79 LAMB'S TERRACE.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 15785

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


As I supposed, my wife was entirely agreeable to the seaside excursion, and professed herself delighted at the idea.

"You should go about more," she said. "Too much moping at home is bad for a man. We don't notice the changes that take place in ourselves, but others do."

"You have noticed some change in me?" I asked.

"I have. You are not half the man you used to be; your good spirits seem to have quite deserted you, and you keep looking about you in a most suspicious way."

"Tell me, Maria, in what particular way?"

"Well, as if you were afraid somebody was going to pick your pocket, or as if you fancied you had a shadow for a companion. My opinion is that you have not got over that unfortunate visit we paid to the house in Lamb's Terrace."

"Have you got over it?"

"No, and never shall. I can't keep my thoughts away from the place, and I often feel as if something was dragging me to the house again, though a second visit would be the death of me."

"Never be tempted, Maria; don't go near the neighborhood. We both need change of scene to clear the cobwebs away. When I come back from Brighton you shall run off to the seaside for a day or two; you can easily get a lady friend to keep you company, especially if I pay all the expenses."

"Why should we not go together?"

"Because in each other's society we should brood over the frightful adventure we had. Change of company, Maria, as well as change of scene; that is what will do us good."

This conversation proved that my wife had not succeeded in forgetting the adventure, and had only refrained from speaking of it out of consideration for me. Her confession that she sometimes felt as if she was being dragged to the house against her will rather alarmed me, and I determined to adopt some means to send her from London for longer than a day or two. It would be beneficial to her, and would leave me free to act.

Before the hour arrived upon which Bob and I were to set out upon our pretended holiday, I paid a second visit to the inquiry agent, Mr. Dickson, and commissioned him to ascertain for me:

First. The name of the servant girl who was sent to Switzerland by Mr. Nisbet; where her family lived; when she returned from the Continent.

Second. The names and residences of the other servants in Mr. Nisbet's employ who had discharged themselves.

Third. Where Miss Beatrice Lockyer was buried.

Fourth. Any particulars he could gather relating to the death of Miss Beatrice's mother.

Fifth. Where Mr. Nisbet was living at the present time.

Mr. Dickson informed me that these inquiries could scarcely be answered in less than a couple of weeks, and I left them in his hands, requesting him to use expedition.

Contrary to my expectation I received a letter from him on Saturday morning, in which he informed me that he was enabled to give me imperfect answers to three of my questions.

First. The name of the servant girl who was sent to Switzerland was Molly Brand. She had no parents, and the people she lived with when she entered Mr. Nisbet's service had emigrated. At that time she had a little sister dependent upon her, a child of some six years of age. This child had presumably been taken by Molly's friends to Australia, but upon this point, and upon the point of the child's age, he could not speak with any certainty. He had not yet succeeded in obtaining any traces of Molly from the time of her departure from London, and could not therefore say whether she had returned or where she was.

Second. From what he could gather Mr. Nisbet had had no other servants in his employ.

Third. The young lady was not buried. She was cremated at Woking.

To these scanty particulars was attached a memorandum to the effect that he was cramped by a limit I had mentioned as to the amount of the expenses to be incurred in his investigation. It was a measure of prudence I had adopted, for I was not inclined to give him quite a free hand, but it seemed to be fated that my desires to reach the heart of the mystery should be continually baffled by meeting with closed doors, and I now determined to be more liberal in my instructions. I wrote to Mr. Dickson to this effect, inwardly marveling as I wrote the letter that, in a matter in which I did not appear to be in any way personally interested, I should be impelled into a reckless course of expenditure. But, casting my eyes downward, I saw the phantom cat at my feet, and I felt that I should not be released from this frightful companion until my task was completed.

"Rest content," I said to the specter; "I will pursue it to the end."

There was no sign, no movement from it. Waiting for the development of events, it was ever on the watch. If, like Poe's raven, it had uttered but a word, it would have been a relief to me, for nothing could intensify the terror of the dread silence it preserved. There was within me a conviction that a moment would arrive when it would take some action toward the unraveling of the mystery, but in what shape this action would display itself was to me unfathomable.

At one o'clock Bob called for me, and I bade Maria good-by.

"Now, mind you enjoy yourselves," she said; "and take good care of him, Mr. Millet."

"I will do that," said Bob, rather guiltily.

He was not an adept in deception, but my wife had no suspicion that we were deceiving her, and we took our departure in peace, each of us provided with a Gladstone bag, Bob's being the bulkier of the two. In mine my wife had placed, in addition to toilet necessaries, two flat bottles, one containing brandy, the other port wine, and the usual packet of sandwiches which the middle-class feminine mind deems a positive essential for a railway journey. Bob had also provided himself with food and liquids, and thus furnished we started upon our expedition.

On our road we discussed the information I had received from Mr. Dickson, each item of which strengthened our suspicion of foul play. The strongest feature in confirmation of this suspicion was the cremation of the body of the unfortunate young lady. We would not for one moment admit that Mr. Nisbet was an enthusiast on the subject of cremation, but accepted the course he had adopted as damning evidence against him. I mention it to show to what lengths the prejudiced mind will go in arriving at a conclusion upon an open matter; but, apart from this consideration, we certainly had ample reason for the strong feelings we entertained. A hasty inquest held by incompetent persons, the acceptance of conclusive statements from the party most interested in the young lady's death, the falsehoods of which he already stood convicted, and other falsehoods which I had little doubt would be in a short time discovered, pointed one and all to a miscarriage of justice. Bob no longer disputed the conclusions at which I arrived, but accepted them with gloomy avidity.

Needless to say that we did not set out upon our expedition without the society of my spectral familiar, and that we were both in a state of nervous excitement as to what would occur. Bob had never been in the neighborhood of Lamb's Terrace, and its desolate appearance surprised him. Dismal and forlorn as was its aspect on the occasion of my first introduction to the region, it was still more so now. This sharpened accentuation of its desolate condition was probably caused by the knowledge I had since gained, and by the vagaries of our beautiful London climate. When we stated from home there was the promise of a tolerably fine day, but during the last half hour the sky had become overcast and dreary mists were gathering.

"Cheerful, isn't it, Bob?" I said.

"Do you mean to tell me," was his response, "that having come so far on your first visit, your wife did not immediately abandon the idea of taking a house in such a locality?"

"Whatever

may have been in her mind," I replied, "she certainly insisted upon finding the house and going over it. It was offered to us at half the value of a house of such dimensions, and did you ever know a woman sufficiently strong minded to resist a bargain? I do not believe she would have had the courage to complete the arrangement, but she went quite far enough."

We turned down the narrow lane and skirted the dilapidated wall till we arrived at our destination. As we walked through the front garden entrance, choked up with its weeds and rank grass, and ascended the flight of steps, I asked Bob how he felt.

"It is impossible not to feel depressed," he answered; "but you will not find me fail you, Ned. We will go through what we have undertaken."

"Well said. We shall get along all right till Monday morning. There was a little furniture in one or two of the rooms, and I do not suppose it has been removed. When my wife was here we only examined the front room on the second floor; the rooms I have not seen may be habitable. I expect we shall have to go out and buy some necessaries. What have you got in your bag?"

"You shall see presently."

The cat entered the house with us, but it did not remain with us in the lobby. I saw it pass down to the basement, and it gave no sign of expectation that I should accompany it.

"That's a comfort," I remarked.

I had to explain my meaning to Bob, and he seemed to regard the departure as a significant commencement of our enterprise. We did not follow our spectral companion to the basement, but proceeded upstairs to the apartments I had already seen. In all, with the exception of the front room on the second floor, in which I had rang the bell which summoned the apparitions, there was some furniture left, and Bob expressed his astonishment that it had not been removed or sold by the last tenant.

"It would have been a simple matter," he said, "to call in a broker, who would very soon have cleared the house of every stick in it."

"He must have had his reasons," I observed. "Perhaps his coming into possession of a large fortune made him careless of these trifles."

"They are not exactly trifles," said Bob, who was better able than I to speak on the subject. "A broker would give at least fifty pounds for what is on this floor. The wonder is that the place has not been robbed."

We had not yet reached the second floor, and we now ascended to the room in which my wife and I had met with our appalling experience. Before entering it we examined the back rooms, and in one, a bedroom, we found two beds, which we determined to occupy for the night. Bob, having lived a bachelor life for many years, now showed his handiness. He examined the stove, to see that the register was up, and then he opened his Gladstone bag, the contents of which surprised me. He produced first a bundle of wood, then a remarkable case which contained within its exceedingly limited space a kettle with a folding handle, a gridiron, two tin pannikins, knives, forks, and spoons, and a spirit lamp, fitting in each other.

"Bravo, Bob," I said; "living alone has taught you something."

He smiled, and proceeded to further surprise me, fishing out a loaf of bread, tea, sugar, a tin of condensed milk, sausages, salt, pepper, a revolver, a pack of cards, and a Bible--a motley collection of articles.

"A bachelor's multum in parvo," he said, adding, as he touched the revolver, "wouldn't be bad for the bush. We are short of two things, coal and water. But look here--we are in luck. A scuttle nearly full. There will be no water in the house fit to drink. We shall have to go and market, but there will not be so much to get in as I expected."

With the manner of a man accustomed to attend to his wants he knelt down and burned some paper and wood in the grate, and the draught being all right, laid the fire, but did not set light to it. Rising, he expressed a wish to see the front room.

It was, as before, quite bare and empty, and Bob said it looked as if it had not been furnished. The bell ropes were there, one broken, the other in a workable condition. I laid my hand on the unbroken cord, and cast an inquiring glance at Bob.

"Yes," he said, "pull it."

He threw the door wide open, and stood with his back to it, to prevent its closing. He held his revolver in his hand, his finger on the trigger. I gave the rope a smart tug, and, as on the previous eventful occasion, it was followed by the jangle of a host of discordant bells. The sounds died away in a low wail, and we waited in silent apprehension. But this time there was no response to the call; it was answered only by a dead silence. The feeling of relief I experienced was shared by Bob, though, curiously enough, there was an expression of disappointment in his face.

"Of course it is better as it is," he said, "but I expected something very different. Where is your apparition, Ned?"

"I cannot tell you. Thank Heaven, it is not in sight!"

"Perhaps this is an end of the matter."

"You are wrong, Bob; there is more to come before we finally leave the house."

"We will wait for it, then," he said, and I saw that he was beginning again to believe that I had been under the spell of a delusion. "And now, as we have determined to remain here two nights, we had best go and get in the things we want to make us comfortable. I will empty my bag to carry back what we purchase, and if what we leave behind us is carried away we shall know that human, and not supernatural, agency is at work. Come along, old fellow."

We left the house and no spectral apparition accompanied us. Bob's spirits rose, and I confess that I myself was somewhat shaken by the desertion of my familiar.

We had to go some distance before arriving at a line of shops, and not wishing to attract attention I purposely selected those which lay apart from the principal thoroughfares. Our principal difficulty was water, and this we carried back with us in a zinc bucket I purchased. The shopkeeper stared at us when I asked him to fill it, but he did not refuse, and, furnished with all we required, we returned to Lamb's Terrace, and ascended to the room we intended to occupy for the night. By this time it was dark, and we lit the fire and saw to the beds. Then we prepared a meal, and were fairly jolly over it. Every few minutes one of us went into the passage and listened, but we were not disturbed by any sounds from below or above. It had been my intention to search the various rooms for some chance clew relating to the last tenant, but it was too late and dark to carry it out; I therefore postponed it till the morning. Bob proposed a game of cards, and we sat down to cribbage, which we played till ten o'clock. Under such circumstances it was rather a lugubrious amusement, but it was better than doing nothing. After the game we drank hot brandy and water out of the pannikins, and prepared for bed. The lock of the door was in workable order, and for a wonder the key was there. We turned it, undressed, put out the light, and wished each other goodnight.

"If your good wife had the slightest suspicion of our proceedings," said Bob drowsily, "she would never forgive me. I have an odd Robinson Crusoe-ish feeling upon me, as though the civilized world were thousands of miles away."

I answered him briefly, and soon heard him breathing deeply. For my part I could not get to sleep so easily. For a long time I lay awake, closing my eyes only to open them and gaze upon the monstrous, uncouth shadows which the dying fire threw upon the walls and ceiling. At length, however, I closed my eyes and did not open them again till, as I judged from the circumstance of the fire being quite out, some hours had passed. It was not a natural awakening; I was aroused by the sound of something moving in the lower part of the house.

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