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   Chapter 18 BARBARA.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 22000

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


I sat up in bed, and quickly lit a candle. Bob was sleeping soundly, and I saw nothing in the room to alarm me; I was quite prepared to greet once more the apparition of my faithful companion, but as the cat was not in sight I inferred that it was contented with its quarters in the basement. On a small table by Bob's side lay his revolver, ready to his hand, and even in this moment of apprehension I smiled at the idea of my friend--the most humane man in the world--possessing so murderous an instrument. I was thankful, however, that he had brought it; powerless as it would be against spectral foes it inspired me with confidence. I slid from my bed, seized the pistol, stepped to the door and listened. My movements aroused Bob, as I intended they should, and he jumped up.

"Who's there?" he cried, clapping his hand on the table. "What's the matter?"

"Hush," I said, "make no noise. Your pistol's all right; I've got it. Slip on your clothes, and come and keep watch while I get into mine. There's someone--or something--downstairs."

He was soon ready and he took his station by the door while I dressed myself.

"I don't hear anything," he said, when I joined him.

"All is quiet just now, Bob, but I was not mistaken. I am positive I heard it."

"What was it like?"

"Like somebody moving softly about, wishing not to be heard."

"Rats or mice, perhaps. I shouldn't wonder if the lower part of the house is full of them."

I caught his arm. "Listen, Bob."

With our ears close to the door, we both caught the sound of a stealthy movement below.

"There it is," he whispered, and I felt his arm tremble in my grasp. A moment afterward he said, "We are trapped."

"Don't lose your nerve," I responded, in as cheerful a tone as I could command; "we must see it through, now we are here. I am sorry I brought you, Bob; the next time I come, I will come alone."

"Indeed you shall not, Ned," he replied, "and I am ashamed of my weakness. I was prepared for something of the sort, and here am I showing the white feather. I am all right now, old fellow."

"Bravo! Take your pistol; I brought a weapon with me."

It was a thick flat strip of iron, tapered at one end, which I used at home to open cases, and which, unknown to my wife, I had secreted about me. Bob nodded as I produced it.

"A formidable weapon," he said, "but useless against apparitions; we may have more formidable foes to contend with, however, and it is as well to be provided. It would be foolhardy to leave the room. We should have to carry a candle, and it might be dashed from our hands; the darkness would be horrible. We are safer where we are."

"We will not go out yet, Bob. The sound has ceased. Take a nip of brandy, and give me one."

This dialogue was carried on at intervals. We paused in the middle of sentences, and finished them as though it was our customary method of pursuing a conversation. In the fever of our senses we lost sight of the natural order of things, and the shadows created by the flickering light appeared to be in harmony with the position in which we were placed. The silence--as dread in its mysterious possibilities as threatening sounds would have been--continuing, Bob rekindled the fire, and we remained quiescent for an hour and more. Bob looked at his watch.

"It is past two, Ned."

"Yes. I have been thinking over what is best to be done."

"Have you decided?"

"I have, but I hardly like to propose it to you."

"I am ready for anything," he said, divining my wish. "Every moment that we are shut up here grows more oppressive."

"My feeling. We are fairly strong men, and are well armed. Have you the courage to explore the house with me?"

He straightened himself and replied, "Let us set about it at once."

We adopted every reasonable precaution. We each carried a candle, and held pistol and iron bar in our right hands, firmly resolved to use them promptly in case we were attacked. Throwing open the door we stepped into the passage.

So far as we could judge from the evidence of our senses, there was not a movement in the house which did not proceed from ourselves. Slowly and cautiously I led the way downstairs, and when we reached the hall I unlocked the street door and left it ajar, thus affording a readier means of escape should the need for flight present itself. In our progress we entered and examined every room on the three floors, and saw no spiritual or material foe. Then we descended to the basement.

As I touched the handle of the kitchen door I fancied I heard a faint sound, and looking at Bob I gathered from the expression on his face that he also was impressed by a similar fancy.

"What do you think it is?" I asked in a whisper.

"It sounds like soft breathing," he replied, in a voice as low as my own.

We paused a while, and then, receiving from Bob a silent approval, I gently pushed the door and we entered. We had not been beguiled by our fancies. In the extreme corner of the kitchen we observed a huddled heap of clothes and coverings, from beneath which issued the low breathing of a person asleep. Treading very softly we drew near to the spot, and to our astonishment beheld--no form of ruffian or bloodthirsty marauder, but the form of a child, deep in slumber.

It was a girl whose age appeared to be eleven or twelve. She was undressed, and was lying upon some strips of old carpet; other strips of old carpet and the clothes she had taken off comprised her bed coverings. Her face was not clean, but there dwelt upon it, even in her sleep, a pathetic expression of want and suffering. There was a loneliness and helplessness in the figure of this young child slumbering unprotected in such a place which stirred me to pity. Her tangled hair lay loose across her face, and her eyelids were swollen, as if she had been weeping before the angel of sleep brought ease and oblivion to her troubled heart; one little naked arm had released itself from its wrappings, and lay exposed; it was thin, and sharp, and pointed, and the tale of woe it told accentuated the pity I felt for the child.

Bob put his pistol in his pocket, and I buttoned my coat over my weapon.

"Nothing to scare us here," he said.

"No, indeed," I replied. "See, Bob--there are three boxes of matches which look as if they have been carried in her little hands for hours. She has been trying to sell them, perhaps, to get a bit of supper. Poor soul! What brings her to this dismal, haunted hole?"

"No other roof to cover her," suggested Bob.

So engrossed had I been in the contemplation of the pathetic figure that I had not noticed another figure crouching close to it. It was the apparition of the skeleton cat, seemingly keeping guard over the child. The moment my eyes fell upon it Bob knew from my startled movement what it was I beheld.

"It is there, Ned," he said quietly.

"Yes, it is there, and this child has some connection with the mystery which hangs over this house."

He did not dispute with me. The hour, the scene, and all that had passed, were favorable to my opinion, and he accepted it without question or remonstrance. The presence of the apparition, although it was not evident to his senses, disturbed him more than it disturbed me. I was by this time accustomed to it, and the feeling of horror with which it had at first inspired me was now replaced by a feeling of agitated curiosity as to the issue of the mission upon which I was convinced we were both engaged. There was not the slightest doubt in my mind that its presence by the side of the sleeping child, in conjunction with our discovery of the child herself, was an indication that I had advanced another step toward the unraveling of the mystery.

The latter part of our conversation had been carried on in our natural voices, our desire being to arouse the child from her slumbers. As, however, she still slept on, I knelt by her side and laid my hand upon her shoulder. Even then she did not awake, and it was not till I had shaken her--which I need scarcely say I did with a gentle hand--that she opened her eyes. With a terrified scream she started up, and then she plunged down again, and hiding her face in her clothes, began to shake and sob.

"We are not going to hurt you, my child," I said. "We are your friends. You have nothing to fear from us."

"I aint got no friends," she sobbed, "and I aint done no 'arm. Oh, please, please, let me go away!"

"Where to?" I asked.

"I don't know, I don't know," she sobbed. "Please don't do nothink to me, and let me go away."

"You shall go away if you like," I said, to soothe her, "but you must dress yourself first, you know."

"I will this minute, sir, if you'll only let me alone. Oh, my! oh, my! What shall I do, what shall I do?"

"You shall be let alone--you shall do exactly what you want to do. Only believe, my child, that we are really your friends and that we want to help you. You went to bed hungry, did you not?"

"Yes, I did, sir. I 'ad three boxes of matches, and I couldn't sell 'em, though I tried ever so. I've been all day at it, and nobody'd buy a box or give me a ha'penny."

"Been all day at it," I said, the tears starting to my eyes at the infinite pathos in the girl's voice; "you have been hungry all day?"

"Yes, sir, I 'ave," she answered plaintively. "I'm used to it. A boy give me a bit of bread this morning, and nothink else 'as passed my mouth all the blessed day."

"He was a good boy to be so kind to you." I turned to Bob. "Would you mind going upstairs alone, Bob, and bringing down some bread and butter and sausage. Then the little girl will believe that we wish to be as good to her as the boy was this morning."

Bob did not hesitate. All his fears had vanished, and he hastened from the kitchen, and soon returned with food and a cup of cold tea. Meanwhile I continued to speak to the child in my kindest tones, and she mustered courage to peep at me two or three times, and each time, I was pleased to observe, with renewed confidence. Once she asked why I had asked the gentleman if he wouldn't mind going upstairs alone, and I replied that my friend was rather timid because the house was so lonely.

"It is, sir," she said upon this; "it's awful!"

"In what way, my dear?" I inquired, but she closed her lips, firmly, and did not answer. I did not urge her, deeming it prudent not to press her until her confidence in us was completely won.

"Now, my dear," I said upon Bob's return, "sit up and eat this. The tea is cold, but we will give you a cup of hot tea presently if you care to have it. And see--I will buy your matches of you. Here is sixpence for them."

Her eyes, with wonder in them, were raised to mine, and her hot fingers closed over the coin, as she tremblingly sat up in her wretched bed, and wiped her tears away with her naked arm.

"Thank yer, sir," she murmured, and she began to eat and drink. Never in my life have I beheld a human

being devour food so eagerly and ravenously, and she made no pause till she had drained the cup and disposed of every crumb.

"Do you feel better?" I asked, with a smiling nod at her.

"Ever so much, sir; thank yer kindly," she said humbly and gratefully. "I'm good for another day."

"And for many more after that," I said. "I dare say we shall be able to do something for you if you are a good girl."

"I aint bad, sir," she said, with an imploring look; "don't believe that I am. I never forgit what Molly sed----" she stopped with a sudden gasp. "You aint come from 'er, 'ave yer, sir?"

"From Molly, my dear? No, we have not come from her. Who is Molly?"

"My sister, sir," she replied with a sigh; "the only one, I aint got no other brothers or sisters."

"You have a mother and father, my dear?"

"No, sir, there was only Molly and me."

"Some relatives, surely?"

"No, sir, not as I knows on."

"Have you no home, my dear?"

"No, sir, 'xcept this, unless you turn me out of it."

"If we do turn you out of it, my child, it will be to put you in a better one."

"Don't, sir; oh, please don't!" she cried.

"Not put you in a more comfortable home, my dear?" I asked in surprise.

"I don't want a more comfortable one, sir, till Molly comes back. If she don't find me 'ere, where's she to look for me, and 'ow am I to know? I 'ope you won't turn me away; I do 'ope it, sir!"

"There, there, my dear," I said, "you need not distress yourself. Depend upon it we will do nothing that you do not wish done, and that is not for your good. We will see about it all presently. Where is your sister?"

"That's wot I want to know, sir; that's wot I want to find out. Oh, wot wouldn't I give if I knew where Molly was!"

There was pregnant matter here for me to think about. The child did not want to find another home till her sister came back. Came back where? To this Heaven-forsaken house. It was here that Molly would come to look for the poor little waif. The conclusion was that Molly knew something of the house, was familiar with it, else she would not expect to find her young sister in it. Was it a reasonable conclusion that she knew something of the last tenant, and could give me some information concerning him? I did not pursue the subject with the little girl in this direction, deeming it best to await a more advantageous opportunity for learning what I desired to know.

"What was it Molly said to you that you will never forget?" I asked.

"She said, Molly did, 'Look 'ere, Barbara, mind you're good, and mind you allus keep good. If you don't you shan't be no sister of mine.' That's wot I won't forgit as long as ever I live. But O Molly, Molly, why don't you come back? Why don't you come back!"

The imploring earnestness of this appeal powerfully affected me, and I gazed pitifully at poor Barbara, from whose eyes the tears were streaming. That when she put her hands up to her eyes, she should keep her little fist tightly clenched, touched me to the heart; the little silver piece was her shield against hunger, for a few hours at least, and she clung to it instinctively through all her grief. I waited till she was calmer before I said:

"Dress yourself quickly, Barbara, and come upstairs with us. There's a nice fire there, and I want to talk to you about Molly. We will try and find her for you, and you shall not be hungry again. Will you trust me?"

"Yes, sir, I will; no one could speak kinder, and you're not the sort of gentleman to take me in. Perhaps you won't mind telling me 'ow long you've been 'ere. I didn't know there was anybody in the house but me."

"We came only a few hours ago, Barbara," I answered, "and I have been here but once before."

"Wot did you come the first time for, sir?"

"The house is to let, and I thought of taking it."

"To live in, sir?"

"Yes, to live in."

"But you're never going to, sir?"

"No, I am not going to."

"I should say yer wouldn't," she muttered. "Who would, I'd like to know? What did you come for this time, sir?"

"I will tell you more when you're dressed," I said. "It will be warmer and nicer upstairs. Be as quick as you can."

Bob and I went out of the kitchen while Barbara put on her ragged garments, in which she looked a truly miserable object; Bob patted her cheek, and I took her hand and led her upstairs, the cat following at our heels. I noticed that she kept her eyes closed most of the time, and that when she lifted her lids she did so timorously and apprehensively, but I refrained at present from asking her the reason of this. It was only when we were in the room which we had selected for our sleeping apartment that she opened her eyes and kept them open.

"Now, Barbara," I said, putting a chair by the fireside for her, "sit down there, and warm yourself; then we will talk."

She sat down obediently, and spread out her thin hands to the comforting flame, and with a kind of wonder watched Bob as he put the kettle on and prepared to make the tea. He poured out a cup, and put in milk and sugar liberally, and gave it to her. She thanked him and drank it, saying when the cup was empty, "That's good, sir."

"Are you ready to talk, Barbara?" I asked.

"Yes, if you please, sir."

"I am going to ask you a good many questions, and perhaps they'll lead to good."

"I'll answer all I can, sir."

"So you sleep in this house regularly, Barbara?"

"Yes, sir; I aint got no other place. Where else'd I go to, I'd like to know?"

"How long have you lived here?"

"I can't tell you that, sir; it must be years and years."

"Since the house has been untenanted, perhaps?"

"Unwhat, sir?"

"I mean, Barbara, since it has been empty?"

"I dessay, sir. I know one thing--it was three weeks to a day after Molly went away that I first come 'ere, and I've 'ardly missed a night all the time. There was twice I couldn't git in for the snow, and I was 'most perished. When I did git in I was that numbed and froze that I could 'ardly move, but I knew I was done for if I didn't stir my pegs, so I put some sticks on the 'earthstone and set fire to 'em, and little by little I got thawed. It was touch and go with me then, sir, but I managed to dodge 'em that time. I don't know as I'd 'ave cared much one way or the other if it 'adn't been for Molly. Once there wos a gal she knew that throwed 'erself in the water, and she sed to me, sed Molly, 'It wos a wicked thing to do, Barbara,' she sed. 'There's 'eaven,' sed Molly, 'and there's 'ell,' she sed. 'If we do good things we go to 'eaven, if we do wicked things we go to the other place.' It's the way Molly used to talk to me that's kept me up over and over agin."

I had made up my mind not to interrupt Barbara even when she wandered from the subject in which I was most interested. By doing so I might lose valuable suggestions to be gathered from her chance words, and I naturally wished to hear everything it was in her power to impart. Impatient as I was to learn more of Molly--who evidently was imbued with a strong sense of duty, and whose story, I felt convinced, had a direct connection with the mystery I was endeavoring to solve--I recognized the advantage of leading gradually up to it. It was by far the wisest plan to allow her to ramble on in her own way, and not to startle her by abrupt questions.

"Why did you not light the fire in the stove, Barbara?"

"I wosn't sech a mug as that, sir," she replied with a faint dash of humor. "When smoke comes out of the chimney of a empty 'ouse the peeler sez, 'Ho, ho!' and in he pops to find out who's done it. Wot'd become of me then, I'd like to know? They'd 'ave made precious short work of me."

"And you have not lit a fire in a stove all the time you have been here."

"Never once, sir."

"How did you manage for coals, Barbara?"

"Well, sir, when I first come, there was a lot of coal in the cellar, and I used it all up. It lasted ever so long, but there was a end to it. Then I begun on the furniture and odd bits of sticks I found inside the house and out. Sometimes when it was dark and rainy I foller the coal wagons, and pick up wot drops from the sacks. Then there's dead branches; I've got 'arf a cupboardful downstairs."

"What time did you come"--I hesitated at the word--"home to-night?"

"Past one, I think, sir. I kep' out late trying to sell my matches, but I 'ad to give it up for a bad job."

"It was you we heard moving about?"

"Did I make a noise, sir? I don't, 'ardly ever, but I s'ppose I wos desp'rate, being so 'ungry, and thinking wot I should do to-morrer for grub. I wosn't long gitting my clothes off, cos I wanted to git to sleep quick and forgit everythink and everybody--everybody but Molly. I'm 'appy when I'm asleep, sir."

"Poor child! Do you mean to tell me, Barbara, that all these years you have never once been found out, that all these years you have come and gone from the house without being seen."

"Yes, sir, as fur as I know. If I aint clever in nothink else I've been clever in that. Oh, but the way I've had to dodge, and the tricks I've played! They'd fill a book if they wos took down. Allus coming 'ome late at night, looking about me, and turning another way if anybody wos near; allus very careful when I went out agin, peeping round corners, and 'iding quick if I 'eerd a step. Eyes, sir! I can see a mile off. Ears, sir! I could 'ear a blade o' grass whisper."

"You have had a hard life, my dear," I said, taking her hand. Despite her ragged clothes she looked more comfortable now. There was no wolf tearing at her vitals for food. This, and the warmth of the fire, the excitement of the conversation, the consciousness that we were her friends, and the novelty of such an association in a house in which she had not heard the voice of a human being during all the years she had slept and starved in it, had caused her cheeks to glow and her eyes to sparkle.

"Yes, sir, there's no denying it's 'ard, but it'll be all right when I see Molly agin."

"You expected to do so long before now?"

"Oh, yes, sir, ever so long before. She can't 'ave forgot me, she can't 'ave forgot me! You don't think that, do yer, sir?"

"I am sure she has not, my dear. She was always a good sister to you, from what you have told me, and always a good girl."

"The best in all the wide world, sir. There's nobody like 'er, I don't care where you look. 'I'm more than yer sister Molly,' she sed, 'I'm yer mother, and I'll never, never turn from yer as long as I live.'"

"Tell me, Barbara. What was your sister?"

"A servant gal, sir. I'd like to be one."

"Was she in a situation in London?"

"In course she wos, sir."

"Where?"

"In this 'ouse, sir. That's why I'm 'ere now."

And that, thought I, looking down at the cat, is why I am here now. I glanced at Bob; the revelation that poor Barbara's sister was in domestic service with the last tenant had brought a flush of expectation into his face.

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