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   Chapter 22 BARBARA GIVES US SOME VALUABLE INFORMATION.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 20406

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"We thought you were lost," said Bob, and Barbara looked up with a smile, a sign that she regarded me as a friend.

They had waited dinner for me, and I was surprised to see on the table quite an imposing array of crockery.

"Where does all this come from?" I asked.

"We have made discoveries," replied Bob, giving me a significant look. "Barbara here had no idea what was in the house, which proves that she is not one of the prying kind. All sorts of things have been bundled out of sight in odd nooks and corners, crockery, cutlery, table linen, and goodness only knows what. We have made another room ready for Barbara to sleep in to-night; it is on the same floor as this, and she says she is not afraid."

"Not a bit," said Barbara, "now I aint in the 'ouse alone."

"And she's going to bed early," added Bob.

"As soon as ever you tell me," said Barbara.

The dinner they had prepared was not at all a bad one, and I was hungry enough to enjoy a much worse fare. To Barbara it was a veritable feast, and she did as much justice to it as she had done to the breakfast. The moment we finished she jumped up, and took the plates and dishes to her own room where she washed them up.

"You have something to tell me, Bob," I said, taking advantage of her absence.

"I have. You have something in your budget, too."

"Yes."

"We will wait till Barbara has gone to bed; we can talk more freely then."

"I have a question to ask her first," I said.

"I also want a little information from her, the meaning of which you will understand when we are alone for the night." The little girl entering at this moment, Bob turned his attention to her. "Barbara, was your sister fond of dress?"

"Lor', sir," answered Barbara. "Aint all gals fond of it? She used to say if she was a lady she'd allus dress in silk."

"Do you recollect what frock she wore when you saw her last?"

"It was a cotton frock, sir--pink, with little flowers on it. Miss Beatrice give it to 'er."

"You would know it again, I suppose, if you saw it?"

"In course I should know it, sir, 'cause Molly'd be in it."

"But it would be worn out by this time, Barbara."

"Yes, sir, it would. I didn't think of that."

"Do you recollect the dress that Miss Beatrice wore when you saw her last?"

"I should think I do, sir; it was a beauty. A gray silk, it wos, with steel trimmin's. She looked lovely in it, she did."

Bob conveyed in a glance at me that he had no further questions to ask, and I took up the cue.

"You have a good memory, Barbara, and I dare say you can give me a description of Mr. Nisbet. You told us he was not a nice looking gentleman."

"Not at all, sir, though he did 'ave a 'igh fore'ead. 'E 'ad a look like ice in his eyes."

"What color were they?"

"A kind of cold blue; and 'e 'ad a red beard and mustache."

"A tall gentleman, Barbara?"

"Yes, sir. 'E didn't have no 'at on when 'e came into the kitching, and I sor that 'is 'ead wos bald in the middle, and was flattish at the top. As 'e looked round the kitching 'e put a pair of gold spectacles on, and when they wosn't on 'is eye 'e was allus a-dangling 'em with 'is fingers, twiddling 'em about like."

"You don't seem to have liked his looks?"

"I didn't, sir; there was something about 'im that made my 'eart's blood run cold. I pitied Miss Beatrice, I did."

"For any particular reason, Barbara?"

"Not as I knows on, sir, but I thought to myself, 'I shouldn't like to 'ave a father like that; I'd rather 'ave none at all.'"

"What did your sister Molly think of him?"

"She didn't care for 'im no more than I did, but she didn't say much about 'im. It's my belief she wos frightened of 'im. She told me a funny thing once."

"Yes?"

"She sed that sometimes when he looked at 'er she felt as if she couldn't move or speak of her own accord. 'Barbara,' she sed to me, 'it's my opinion that if 'e ordered me to go up to the roof and stand on the top of one of the chimbley pots I should go and do it without a single word.' But he allus spoke soft to 'er, she sed."

"Thank you, Barbara; and now it will be best for you to get to bed. Last night was a broken night, and you must be tired."

Wishing us good-night the girl went to her room, and when I opened her door a few minutes afterward she was fast asleep.

Then, before asking Bob to speak of what was on his mind, I related my own adventures. He was greatly excited at my description of Dr. Cooper and the supposititious case he had put to me, and also at the news of Mr. Oliver Nisbet being in London.

"There's never smoke without a fire," he said. "Dr. Cooper was not drawing upon his imagination when he spoke about poisons and sleeping draughts, and of a poor doctor being called in to testify to a death of which he knew less than nothing. It happened, Ned! it happened; it fits in with what occurred in this house. He supplied the proof in the last words he spoke to you--'there's such a thing as cremation.' It is as clear as the noonday sun. Mr. Nisbet wanted a doctor's certificate of death; he calls in Dr. Cooper and obtains what he requires, in the exact shape he desires, for the payment of a few guineas and the promise of a further reward which has never been fulfilled. What is the consequence? This wretched pettifogger bears an animosity against his employer, which may perhaps be turned to good account--though whether he babbles when sober as he does when he is in his cups remains to be seen. He must not be lost sight of."

"He shall not be. I am thinking whether it will be advisable to put the inquiry agent on his track."

"We can decide nothing as yet, but the thing is moving, that's one comfort. Every day, almost every hour, some new feature seems to come to light. What are you doing?"

"Writing the description of Mr. Nisbet's personal appearance with which Barbara supplied us. I promised to let Mr. Dickson have it as soon as possible, and I shall post it to him to-night. Now for your news, Bob."

"Almost as important as yours. When you left us I commenced to make a thorough examination of the house, as I said I would. Barbara assisted me. I examined every room, every cupboard, and found a lot of things which had apparently been thrown away in haste. These discoveries gave point to an observation I have already made to you--that it is strange the last tenant did not call in a broker and dispose of articles for which he had no use, as he evidently had no intention of occupying the house. Barbara was much surprised at our discoveries, and I shouldn't wonder, honest as I believe the child to be, if the idea occurred to her that she might have made use of the property from time to time to relieve her poverty. However, that is neither here nor there, and I may be doing Barbara an injustice. We had occupied some time in our search, when it became necessary to devote attention to the preparation of dinner, so I sent the girl away, and continued to poke about alone. It was well I did so, for I made what I conceive to be a startling discovery. On the floor above this there are two attics, presumably intended for servants' bedrooms. There is a rather large landing, and in the wall of this landing I observed two low doors. Opening them, I found that they were cupboards for the receptacle of lumber; they extend far into the outer wall of the house. It was in one of these cupboards, at the extreme end, that I made my startling discovery. What kind of dress did Barbara say that Miss Beatrice wore when she last saw her?"

"A gray silk, with steel trimmings."

Bob went to a corner of the room and brought forward a large bundle.

"Here it is."

There it was, sure enough--a very beautiful dress, perfectly made, of expensive material.

"Observe," said Bob, "this is not a dress which has served its day, and which it is at all probable the wearer voluntarily discarded. It is almost new, and could have been worn but a few times. I put this aside, and I produce every other article of a lady's attire--silk stockings, shoes, petticoats, mantle, hat. I produce also a lady's nightdress, and every other requisite--the outfit is complete. All these articles are in good condition; the stockings show no signs of wear, the shoes are nearly new, the mantle must have cost a fair sum of money. To whom did these clothes belong?"

"To Miss Beatrice."

"Yes, to Miss Beatrice. What did Barbara say was her sister's favorite dress?"

"A pink cotton, with little flowers on it."

"Here it is." He produced it. "And also every other article worn by a young woman in Molly's station in life. Nightdress as well. The two outfits, complete in every particular. Now, a singular feature in this discovery is that these things were not thrust hurriedly and hastily into the cupboard. Each article that could be folded was carefully folded, and each costume was carefully packed and wrapped in thick brown paper. Time and attention has been devoted to the task, and there must have been an underlying motive in the care that was exercised in its accomplishment. What was this motive, and how are we to act? My firm opinion is that Mr. Nisbet's hands are responsible for the packing of these clothes. Ordinarily a man could be careless of such things, and would not waste his time upon them. The conjectures that present themselves are so extraordinary that I cannot reduce them to order or reason, but I have an odd conviction--for which I can give you no explanation--that we are on the threshold of further disclosures. What is the next step, Ned?"

"There are several," I replied, "and we will speak of them. First, let me tell you that it is my intention to keep watch on this house."

"To reside here?"

"For a time. To eat, and drink, and sleep here, and to be absent from the house as little as possible."

Bob interrupted me by asking if the apparition of the cat was in the room.

"It is on the hearthrug," I replied, "seemingly waiting, as we are waiting, for developments." Then I continued speaking of the realities of the position. "I suppose it would be too much to ask you to keep me company here this week, after your office work is o

ver?"

"It is not too much to expect; I should have proposed it myself if you had not suggested it. Every evening, directly my work is done, I will come and join you."

"You are a good fellow. I intend to be very careful in my movements, and, so far as possible, not to let it be known that the house is occupied. I do not wish Barbara to remain. We must find a home for her somewhere, and we must pledge her to secrecy. I would take her to my own house, but at present I do not consider it prudent to do so. My wife is an inquisitive woman, and something might leak out; besides, in order that my time may be perfectly free, I intend to send her into the country for a fortnight; she shall go to-morrow. I can easily find an excuse for not accompanying her. You lodge in a quiet part of London, and you have spoken in praise of your landlady. Would she, for a consideration, give Barbara board and lodging for a little while?"

"No doubt she would. In fact, I think she is looking for a girl to assist her in the house."

"Very well. At what hour in the morning are you due at your office?"

"Half-past nine."

"Then you will be able, if you leave here at about seven or half-past, to take Barbara to Canonbury, and get to the office in time."

"Yes, I can do that, and in the evening I will join you."

"Thanks. The next thing is about your nephew, Ronald. It appears to me to be almost an act of treachery to conceal from him what has occurred."

"What good purpose would be served," asked Bob, "by disclosing it to him? He is blind, and could not assist us. By and by, perhaps, he may be of use, though I do not see in what way; at present it would only distress him to let him into the secret."

"We will wait, then; but I shall call upon him to-morrow and have a little chat with him about Mr. Nisbet. It will be a busy day for all of us, and I shall be absent from the house till evening, but you will find me here when you come. Another thing that is in my mind is whether there is any special motive for Mr. Nisbet's return to London--any special motive, I mean, in relation to this mystery."

"Impossible to say, Ned."

"That is so. Well, we must wait. Now I think we have threshed matters out, and we will get to bed. I will just run out and post my letter to Mr. Dickson, and this exciting day's work will be over."

We were all up next morning before seven o'clock, and after a hasty breakfast I told Barbara of our plans with respect to her. She was quite willing, and expressed her gratitude; her only trouble was about her sister Molly, who, she said, might come to the house in search for her when she was absent. It was not difficult to set her mind at ease upon this point, and she departed with Bob in perfect contentment.

The first call I made--at ten o'clock--was upon Mr. Dickson. He had received my letter, and he informed me that the description I had given of Mr. Oliver Nisbet tallied exactly with that gentleman's appearance. He had not ascertained from what part of the Continent Mr. Nisbet had come, but he had learned that he had been abroad for some time past. Our relations with each other being now on a more confidential footing, I spoke to him about Dr. Cooper, and instructed him to keep his eye on the pettifogger. From his office I proceeded to the residence of Ronald Elsdale, and opened up a conversation with him, leading artfully to the subject upon which I desired information.

"From certain events that have transpired lately," I said, "I am curious to learn something more of his character. Were you aware at the time of your intimacy with him that his stepdaughter was heiress to a large fortune?"

No, he answered, he was not aware of it. From the manner in which they traveled he judged Mr. Nisbet to be a man of means, but he knew nothing further.

"Respecting his acquirements," I said. "Was he of a scientific turn of mind?"

"He was fond of chemistry, I believe," said Ronald, "and of experimentalizing. Your question brings to my mind a conversation which took place at table d'h?te when we were in Chamounix. It was on the subject of an?sthetics, and the effect of certain poisonous chemicals upon different temperaments. I fancy that Mr. Nisbet was at first disinclined to take part in the discussion, but a remark escaped him which was disputed by a person at the table, and he grew warm, and spoke with authority upon the subject, with which he was evidently familiar. It was the only occasion upon which I heard him speak freely, and I think he was not pleased at having been drawn into the conversation, for he stopped suddenly in the middle of a sentence, and left the room. Beatrice told me afterward that he was very clever in those matters, and that on occasions when she had passed a sleepless night from toothache or some other ailment, he had given her a draught which produced a good night's rest. I recollect now that she related an incident which strangely interested me. She had been restless and in pain for two or three days, and her stepfather prescribed for her. When she awoke in the morning her pain had passed away, and she was quite well physically, but a singular thing happened to her. She had lost her memory. She could not recall what happened yesterday or the day before, and she said with a smile that it was with difficulty she remembered her name. Gradually her power of memory came back to her, and she recollected everything perfectly."

"Did this occur to her again, Mr. Elsdale?"

"So far as I know it occurred only once. I suppose you will not tell me why you are asking these questions, Mr. Emery?"

"Not yet; and I am going to ask you two more. Do you believe that you will ever see the young lady again?"

"See her? No. How can I? You forget that I am blind. But I have the firmest belief that I shall come into association with her again."

"In life?"

"In life," he replied gravely.

"My other question is this. On former occasions, when we were in each other's company, your uncle being present, you have had an impression that there was a dog, or some other living creature, in the room. Have you such an impression now?"

"No." (I may mention that the apparition of the cat was not visible to me.) "I know, Mr. Emery, that you must think I am laboring under some hallucination, but I cannot help that. You must take me as you find me, and make the best, and not the worst, of me. I have an engagement with a pupil, and you will excuse me now."

I had studied the time-tables, and, it being twelve o'clock, it was safe for me to present myself to my poor deluded wife. On my way home I met with another adventure. There was a block of vehicles in the road, and cabs, omnibuses, and carts were waiting for the policeman's instruction to proceed. In one of these cabs, a hansom, a gentleman was sitting whom I immediately recognized as Mr. Oliver Nisbet. He had a red beard and mustache, he had a high forehead, his eyes were of a cold blue, and he was impatiently dangling a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses between his fingers. The faithfulness of Barbara's description rather startled me, and I should scarcely have been surprised if he had accosted me. But I was a stranger to him, and he took no notice of me; this gave me the opportunity of observing him closely, and I was confident that I was not mistaken. What particularly struck me was the steely blue of his eyes; there seemed to be a compelling power in them which strangely affected me, and I could not help thinking that I should not relish coming under their influence. The policeman stood aside, and the vehicles passed on. In a moment or two he was out of sight.

My wife opened the door for me, and kissed me affectionately.

"Have you enjoyed yourself?" she asked.

"Immensely," I replied, with a guilty feeling.

"I am glad to hear it," was her response, "though I must say, Edward, you don't look much the better for the trip."

"That is only your fancy, Maria. It has done me so much good that I want you to spend a couple of weeks in Brighton."

"I shall be very glad of the change. When shall we start?"

"I cannot go with you," I said, "as I have business to attend to in London. You can easily get a lady friend to accompany you, and I will be responsible for all the expenses. Maria, I insist upon it. You are pale, you are out of sorts, and the change will set you up. I intend to exercise my authority, and to insist upon it."

"You are very kind; but----"

"I will have no 'buts.' It has to be done, and done it shall be."

And I was so determined that done it was. I did not leave home till I had seen Maria and a lady friend off; then, and then only, did I look upon myself as free. If the necessity arose I could easily keep her away for a longer time than two weeks.

Once more I set my face toward Lamb's Terrace, riding in a cab, and furnished with provisions, in the shape of a cooked ham, a supply of chops, bread, butter, tea, and everything that was necessary to victual the garrison. I took the things with me in a hamper, and at the corner of the desolate thoroughfare I discharged the cab, and carried the hamper to the house.

It is necessary here to mention what I did before I left the house in the morning. I can give no reason for my proceedings, and therefore I must content myself with relating what it was I did. The two dresses found in the attic cupboard I repacked carefully in their wrapping of brown paper, and replaced them in the cupboard. I locked the two rooms which had been occupied by Bob and me and Barbara, and I removed all traces of any persons having been in the house. Again, I say, I do not know why I adopted these apparently unnecessary precautions; I must have been mysteriously prompted, as I had been on other occasions in the course of my strange adventures.

I did not expect Bob for an hour, and I busied myself with arranging the supply of food I had brought with me. Then I went to the attic cupboard, with the intention of bringing down the women's garments I had discovered there. To my astonishment they were gone. Some person had been in the house during my absence, and had taken them away.

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