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   Chapter 27 A GOOD NIGHT'S WORK.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 15793

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Is that all you have to tell us," inquired Ronald, "of what came to your knowledge in London and on your journey here?"

"That is all," replied Mr. Rivers.

"Since you took up your quarters in this hotel what have you discovered?"

"Nothing more than I have already told you--that Mr. Nisbet lives in a house about two miles away. I have been expecting your arrival, and my orders are that I place myself at your service. The command is in your hands now."

"Have you seen the house?"

"No."

"From whom did you obtain your information?"

"From one of the waiters here, who is ready enough to talk about everything and everybody in the place. I pumped him cautiously, and learned a lot that I didn't care to hear and a little that I did."

"Do you speak French and German?"

"I can just make myself understood, and the waiter can just make himself understood in English. He is anxious to know more of our language, as he intends to go to London and make his fortune, so I have been teaching him a bit. We are very good friends already, Fran?ois and I."

"Is that his name?"

"I don't know; I call all foreign waiters Fran?ois."

"I suppose you have not discovered whether Mr. Nisbet lives alone?"

"I haven't got as far as that; I thought it advisable to leave it to you gentlemen. It stands to reason that there must be someone in the house to do the domestic work. I have an idea, if you care to listen to it."

"We will listen to everything that is likely to assist us."

"This is likely to do so. Fran?ois will wait upon us at dinner. One of you, Mr. Emery for choice--you have a solid look about you, sir, if you don't mind my saying so--is an hotel keeper in London, and when Fran?ois gets to London, if you haven't a vacancy in your own establishment, you will be able to assist him to obtain a situation in another. That will be a sufficient bribe, and it will insure our being waited upon properly as long as we remain here."

"I will play the part with pleasure," I said. "It is a good idea."

So it was arranged, and at dinner Fran?ois waited upon us with neatness and dispatch, having received a hint from Mr. Rivers as to my supposed vocation in London. In his hearing I dropped a hint or two which I perceived he caught up in praise of his politeness and dexterity, and I saw that, thus encouraged, he would be of service to us. He was also led to understand from our conversation that it was our intention to make a stay here of several days, and in this and other ways we endeavored to lead up to the success of our scheme. It would have been unwise, however, in my opinion, to make any sudden and specific inquiries respecting Mr. Nisbet; I felt that we could not proceed too carefully, and I determined to leave these inquiries till the following day.

Meanwhile we had a difficulty with Ronald. Dinner over, he announced his intention of walking to Mr. Nisbet's house in our company, and it was long before we could dissuade him.

"Why should I not go?" he asked.

"Why should you go?" I asked in return. "You can do nothing until we have laid our plans. If it should happen that Mr. Nisbet sees you, all our labor is thrown away. It is right that the house should be reconnoitered without delay, but for us to do that in a body would be inviting defeat. Mr. Rivers and I will undertake this alone, and you must remain here with your uncle and Barbara."

He consented unwillingly, and we were about to set forth when Barbara plucked my sleeve.

"Well, my child?" I said.

"If yer going to see Molly, sir," she said, with tears in her eyes, "won't yer take me with yer?"

The fears that oppressed me with respect to her sister rendered this imploring appeal of solemn import.

"We don't know that we shall see Molly, my dear," I said gravely. "We must look about us first before we can decide what to do. I am afraid Mr. Nisbet is not a good man, and we must be very careful. You must leave everything to us, Barbara."

"Yes, sir, in course I must do that. But if yer do see Molly, yer'll give 'er my love, won't yer, and arks 'er if I can come to 'er?"

"If we see her, my dear, we will be sure to tell her all about you."

"She will be surprised, won't she, sir?"

"Yes, Barbara, yes," I said, and I left her with a heavy heart.

On the road it occurred to me that, in keeping Mr. Rivers in complete ignorance of the nature of our suspicions respecting Mr. Nisbet, I might be placing difficulties in our way, and weakening the assistance he was ready to give us. Therefore I enlightened him to some extent, being careful to make no mention of the supernatural visitants which had made me take up the matter.

"What I have related," I said in conclusion, "is under the seal of confidence, and is not to be mentioned unless the mystery is brought to light. Just at this moment I confess to feeling dispirited; the web of conjecture is so slight that I am oppressed by the feeling that we may, after all, be following a will-o'-the-wisp, and that there is no ground for the suspicions that have led me on."

"That is one way of putting it," observed Mr. Rivers, "but as you suspect that a crime has been committed, would it not be a relief to you to find that there is no ground for the suspicion?" I was at a loss to reply to this question, and he proceeded. "It may be due to the occupation I follow, but I generally place the worst construction upon these matters. If I were otherwise inclined, I should place the worst construction upon this, and my belief is that Mr. Nisbet has been guilty of nothing less than murder. Every circumstance in the case points to the conclusion, which is strengthened by the impression he has produced upon me. He is a man capable of any desperate deed, or I am no judge of character. I am obliged to you for the confidence you have placed in me; it certainly renders me less powerless in the assistance I may be able to render. I have a starting point, you see. Just at present there are two questions in my mind to which we must endeavor to find an answer. First, what has become of the girl Molly? I should know how to work her if I could lay hands on her. Second, what is the meaning of the association of Mr. Nisbet and Dr. Cooper? To their former association, when Mr. Nisbet and his stepdaughter were living in Lamb's Terrace, where the poor lady met her death, there is an absolutely plain answer. Mr. Nisbet wanted a death certificate from a doctor who was imperfectly acquainted with the facts, and he paid Dr. Cooper to supply it. This certificate being accepted at the inquest, and the body cremated, Mr. Nisbet was safe. In the absence of proof, of what practical value would mere suspicion be? He could snap his fingers at it. But the circumstance of his taking Dr. Cooper suddenly and unexpectedly from London, and of the doctor being in his house at this moment, puzzles me."

"Mr. Nisbet requires his assistance again," I suggested.

"That is the natural inference, and we have to discover the exact nature of this required assistance. If bold measures are necessary we must adopt them."

"I am ready. Have you any theory as to Molly?"

"I can think of more than one. The girl was young at the time of the lady's death; Barbara is by no means bad looking; Molly was pretty, I dare say; she was poor, she was ignorant; Mr. Nisbet may have taken a fancy to her----"

I interrupted him. "No, Mr. Rivers, I cannot entertain the theory that Molly consented to become Mr. Nisbet's mistress."

"I will not force it upon you," said he dryly, "but perhaps I am a better judge of human nature than yourself. However, we shall soon discover something; we shall not be kept long in the dark."

We had little difficulty in finding the house inhabited by Mr. Nisbet, and its appearance deepened my apprehensions. In saying that we found the house I am not quite

exact, for a high wall surrounded it, and only the gables could be seen. This wall was of surprising extent, and could have occupied not less than an acre of ground. It was of stone, and might have been built round a prison. We walked cautiously around it, keeping close in its shadow and prepared at any moment to stroll carelessly away in the event of an inmate issuing from either of the gates--one in the front, the other in the rear--which afforded ingress to it.

Night had fallen, and there was no moon, so that we were comparatively safe from observation, but this did not make us less cautious in our movements. We were waging our silent battle with a wary foe, and to be taken unaware would be fatal to us.

There was no other house near the building. At no great distance were towering ranges of rock and tree which intensified the gloom of the habitation. Retreating to a hillock we ascended it, and from that height perceived lights in some of the upper windows.

"A pleasant residence," said Mr. Rivers, with a slight shiver. "One can imagine any deed of darkness being perpetrated within those walls. Hush! Don't move!"

I saw the reason for the caution. The hill on which we stood faced the gate in the rear of the house, and as Mr. Rivers laid hold of me and whispered in my ear, this gate was slowly opened and a form issued from it. I could not at that distance distinguish whether it was the form of a man or a woman; what I could distinguish was that the figure paused a moment or two and seemed to peer within the grounds. Then, closing the gate with an appearance of caution, the figure came into the open, and limped away.

"Step softly," whispered Mr. Rivers, and taking me by the hand we followed the figure, which we presently discerned to be that of an old woman, who walked as if she were lame. I stepped almost as softly as my companion, and we succeeded in approaching close to her without being observed. She was carrying something in her hands, covered with a white cloth. Night's shadows befriended us, and it was evident that the woman had no notion that she was being followed. Mr. Rivers did not speak, nor did I. We must have walked half a mile when the woman stopped before a wretched hut, which she entered without knocking.

"We must see what she's up to," whispered Mr. Rivers. "She belongs to Mr. Nisbet's house, and has crept away in secret. It is my opinion we're in luck."

Stealing round the hut we came to a window at the back over which there was no curtain, so that, although the glass was to some extent obscured by dust and mud, we could see what was passing within. On the ground lay a gaunt man, and by his side on a low stool sat a girl about twelve years of age, as nearly as I could judge. The girl had jumped up at the entrance of the old woman, but the man appeared to be too weak to raise himself. This was proved by the woman kneeling by him on one side and the girl kneeling by him on the other; by their united efforts they lifted him into a sitting posture, and then the woman removed the white cloth from the article she had carried from Mr. Nisbet's house; it was a large dish filled with food, and though she had come some distance the ascending steam proclaimed that it was still warm. The woman fed him with a spoon, and presently drew from a capacious pocket a bottle of red wine; he ate sparely, but he drank with avidity. When he had finished the girl partook of the food, and the eager way in which she ate reminded me of the night we found little Barbara in Lamb's Terrace. There was a pathos in the scene that touched me to the heart, but of course I could not hear what was said by the poor actors therein.

We waited till the old woman left the hut; she took the empty dish and the white cloth with her. When she came out we followed her back to Mr. Nisbet's house, which she entered by the back gate, adopting similar precautions to those which had marked her departure from it.

"A winning move," said Mr. Rivers in a tone of satisfaction as we retraced our steps to the H?tel-Pension zur Tellsplatte.

"In what way?" I asked, for though I was impressed by what I had witnessed, I did not at the moment see in what way it could be turned to our advantage.

"The food and wine were stolen from Mr. Nisbet," replied Mr. Rivers, "and in that wretched hut we shall obtain the key to his house. We have done a good night's work."

During our absence Ronald and Bob had not been idle. By promising Fran?ois pecuniary assistance to enable him to reach the paradise of waiters, they had won him completely over, and he had disclosed everything he knew relating to Mr. Nisbet's domestic affairs, and to the estimation in which he was held. He was not in favor, it appeared; he kept himself aloof from everybody in the place, and lived the life of an eccentric and a recluse. Reputed to be rich, he had not been known to do a single act of kindness to the poor peasantry in the district. There had been an explosion in a mine, there had been a conflagration, a neighboring village had been inundated, and he did not contribute a franc to the relief of the sufferers. Some people declared that he possessed "the evil eye," and that he could "will" misfortune upon those who offended him. As for his establishment, it consisted of himself, a young female, who was said to be daft, and an old woman who acted as cook and general housekeeper. The old woman's name was Bernstein, the young woman's was not known. She had not been seen for years outside the walls of the house. When Mr. Nisbet went away Mme. Bernstein was left in charge of the establishment, and neither then nor at any other time was any person admitted inside the grounds. Food and wine were taken in at the gates, by the master himself when he was at home, by Mme. Bernstein when he was absent. This was the sum total of the information which had been elicited from Fran?ois.

After hearing this we related to Bob and Ronald our own adventure, and then we fell to discussing the next step to be taken, and Ronald urged that an endeavor should be made to obtain admission to the house.

"It will be dangerous to attempt such a thing," said Bob, "while Mr. Nisbet and Dr. Cooper are there. Fran?ois tells us that the master is sometimes seen out searching for herbs or specimens. If he continues the practice it is likely that Dr. Cooper will accompany him on these expeditions. Then will be the time."

"My opinion is," I said, "that, before we attempt so bold a move, we shall win Mme. Bernstein over to our side."

"I undertake to accomplish that," said Mr. Rivers, "and not later than to-morrow night. But first let us have Fran?ois in. I should like to get something more out of him."

Fran?ois was summoned, and wine was ordered. When he brought the bottle in, Mr. Rivers held a conversation with him. Was he acquainted with Mme. Bernstein? No, he was not, but he had heard something of her brother. Ah, she had a brother? Yes, a poor fellow very near death's door, and without a sou in the world. She had a little niece also, the brother's child. Where did they live? He described the hut to which Mme. Bernstein had taken the food and wine. Was Mme. Bernstein kind to them? He did not know--he had not heard; nobody took any trouble about them; the child begged of passing tourists, but she got very little, not enough to keep body and soul together. Fran?ois could tell us nothing more.

Before we went to bed we decided to keep watch on Mme. Bernstein the next night, and to be guided by what occurred. Needless to say that Barbara was not present at this discussion. She was too young to be admitted fully into our confidence. We kept ourselves very quiet during the following day, and when night set in the four of us set out for Mr. Nisbet's house. Ronald insisted upon accompanying us, and we could not but submit.

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