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   Chapter 28 A WORD WITH MME. BERNSTEIN.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 14882

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Nothing of importance happened on the way. We passed one or two stragglers who did not speak to us, and who, in the darkness of the night, could have seen very little of us; we, on our part, were more watchful, and though we exchanged but few words nothing escaped our attention. It behooved us to be thus careful, because there was the risk of our coming into contact with our common foes, Mr. Nisbet and Dr. Cooper. In silence we reached the gloomy wall which surrounded the building, and, marshaled by Mr. Rivers, took up our posts of observation. Rivers and I were together on the hill in the rear of the house, Ronald and his uncle were some dozen yards off. They were to keep their eyes on us, and to observe certain signals which had been arranged upon. Very nearly at the same moment as on the previous night, the gate was slowly opened, and Mme. Bernstein appeared, carrying a dish covered with a white cloth. She paused at the open gate, and peered this way and that, to make sure that she was not seen, and then she closed the gate softly, and proceeded in the direction of the hut. We followed her warily at a safe distance; she reached the hut and entered it, and gave the man and the child food and wine, Rivers and I watching them through the uncurtained window at the back of the hut.

The meal finished, the old woman kissed the child, and issued from the hut. All her movements were in accordance with our anticipation, and this being so, a certain plan we had agreed upon was immediately acted upon. Ronald and his uncle remained behind, the intention being that they should make an endeavor to get into conversation with either the sick man or the child, or with both, and to extract from them some information of Mr. Nisbet's establishment which might assist our operations. Rivers and I played our part in the plan by following Mme. Bernstein. Midway between the hut and Mr. Nisbet's house Rivers nudged me, and we quickened our steps. Hearing the sound the old woman stopped, and we also stopped. After listening a moment or two she fancied she was deceived, and she hobbled on again, we following with rapid steps. Again she paused, and gave a scream as we came close to her. Putting his hand on her shoulder, Rivers said:

"Do you speak English, Mme. Bernstein?"

"Yes, a little," she replied, trembling in every limb. "Do not hurt me--I am an old woman; I have no money."

"You speak English very well," said Rivers. "We will not harm you. It is only that we wish to have a word with you. We do not want money; we have money to give, if you would like to earn it. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir, I understand that you will not hurt an old woman, and that you have money to give."

I ought here to explain that the English Mme. Bernstein spoke was by no means so clear and grammatical as I set it down, but I find myself unable to reproduce her peculiar method and idioms, and consider it best, therefore, to put what she said plainly before the reader. We understood each other, and that was the main point.

"But it must be earned. Do not tremble so; we are not robbers; we are officers of the law. What have you under that cloth? A basin, empty. You took it from the house full. You can be punished for that, Mme. Bernstein. The master did not give you the food, he did not give you the wine. You stole them, Mme. Bernstein."

Overcome with terror she fell upon her knees, and implored us to spare her; she had taken the food to save a little child from starvation; she had never done it before----

Rivers interrupted her. "You do it every night, madame." Which plunged her into deeper despair.

Still keeping her sensible that she was in our power, and that we would have her punished if she did not do as we bade her, Rivers succeeded in pacifying her to some extent.

"There are four of us," he said, when she rose from the ground; "two are here, two are with your brother and his child, who without our aid will starve if you are put in prison or can no longer rob your master of food. It is with you, madame; you can save or ruin them, you can save or ruin yourself."

"What is it that I shall do?" she quavered. "Tell me, and I will do it."

"That is as it should be," said Rivers, "and you shall be rewarded. We must know everything about the master you serve. We are here from England for that purpose, and he must not be told that you have spoken with us. You will swear it by the cross which is hanging from your neck."

She lifted the black wooden cross to her lips, and kissed it. "I swear it, sir," she said. "He shall not be told; he shall not know. But if you keep me here now he will discover it without being told. He will be waiting for supper, and I shall not be there to serve it. He will come and look for me, and then it will be ruin for me and you. He is a hard man, a bad man, a wicked man, and I hate him."

"That pleases me," said Rivers blithely. "Why do you remain in his service?"

"Should I not starve if I went away? I get my food, and I save it and give it to my dying brother and the little child. That is something. Do not keep me here too long. Englishmen are rich; you have a watch. What hour is it?"

"Half past ten," said Rivers.

"At eleven they have supper. If I am not in the house----"

"You shall be there. Let us walk on, Mme. Bernstein. In ten minutes we shall reach the gate, and he will not know. Does he go to bed late?"

"Sometimes at twelve, sometimes at one; it is not certain."

"At what hour last night?"

"At twelve."

"Keep watch, madame, to-night, and when he goes to his room and the house is quiet, you will come out to us, and we will talk."

"Yes, I will come."

"By the back gate, madame; we shall be on the hill. Do not forget--you shall be rewarded, And do not forget that you have sworn upon the cross. Here, to commence with, are two francs, to prove that we are in earnest, and are men of our word."

She clutched the coins eagerly, and said in a whisper: "We are near the house--do not speak loud, or he will hear us. There is something strange and terrible. You shall be told of it. I will come when they sleep."

We did not accompany her to the gate. She glided forward, opened it quietly, and disappeared.

"Now, Mr. Emery," said Rivers, "can you find your way alone to the hut?"

"Yes, it is a straight road."

"Go, and bring your friends here. There is strength in numbers. Something strange and terrible, she said. We have not come a moment too soon. Hurry back quickly."

I wasted no time, and soon reached the hut. Ronald and Bob were within; I heard them talking to the little girl. When I tapped at the door and called to them, they joined me immediately, and hearing that they were to return with me they spoke a few parting words to the child, and promised to call and see her again. I briefly related what had passed between ourselves and Mme. Bernstein, and asked if they had obtained any information.

"None," replied Bob, "that is likely to assist us. Some general expressions of dislike toward Mme. Bernstein's employer, of whom they seem to stand in some sort of fear--that is all. Neither the man nor the child has ever been inside the house. But we made friends with them, and that might have served us with Mme. Bernstein if you had not already enlisted her. Everything seems to depend upon what will occur during the next twenty-four hours."

We found River

s lying on his back on the hill, with his hands clasped behind his head.

"I have been watching the windows," he said, "and making a mental map of the house. All the bedrooms seem to be situated at the back; the ordinary living rooms are in front. See--there is a light in only one of the rooms; there was a light in that room last night. It burns steadily, and without flickering; the room is occupied, but no shadow has appeared on the blind, nor has the light been shifted. Someone is sleeping there, and sleeping undisturbed. If we stopped here till daylight we should probably find that light still burning. Afraid to sleep in the dark, denoting a nervous organization. Ah, observe. Two rooms have just been entered; each person, entering, carried in a candle with him; the lights shift and waver; there are shadows on the blinds. One is the shadow of Mr. Nisbet, the other the shadow of Dr. Cooper; their bedrooms adjoin. Rather restless those shadows. We have the advantage of them; we can see them, they cannot see us lying here in black darkness. I am in my element, and can work out theories. I have done the same in country places in England, and the theories I have worked out there have led to very useful conclusions. Isn't there a German or French story of a man who sold his shadow to the devil? I can imagine occasions when our friend Mr. Nisbet would gladly sell his, for shadows are sometimes criminating witnesses. Those men do not seem in a hurry to get to bed. One has gone into the other's room; the flaring of the candle shows that he has left his door open. The shadows of the two men are now in one room. They walk up and down in their slippers--of that you may be sure. There is something so secret and mysterious going on in the house--which might be a prison or a private lunatic asylum--that the principal conspirators are careful to make no noise. They have no wish to disturb the sleeper in the third room, which, by a stretch of the fancy, we might suppose to be occupied by a dead person. By the way, did Dr. Cooper have time to bring his slippers with him from London? I should say not; therefore he is wearing a pair of Mr. Nisbet's or is walking in his stocking feet. Now they stop, now they walk about again, and now--yes, now they go into the room which the first man left. Science has been busily at work of late years, but it has not yet discovered a means of bringing sound to our ears as this glass which I am holding brings the figures of those men near to my eyes. There is the telephone, but you cannot carry a telephone about with you in a little pocket case. I dare say the discovery will be made one of these days. Mr. Nisbet is a couple of inches taller than Dr. Cooper, and as they are now standing quite still I know which is one, and which the other; therefore I shall presently know which is Mr. Nisbet's bedroom, and which Dr. Cooper's. If we could only hear what they are saying to each other! Speaking in whispers, of course--again for the reason that they do not wish to disturb the sleeper in the third room. Mme. Bernstein will inform us who it is who sleeps there. What do you say--a man or a woman?"

The question was addressed to us, and we expressed our inability to answer it.

"I say a woman," continued Rivers, who was certainly in his element, as he had declared, "and until Mme. Bernstein favors us with her company we remain in ignorance as to who the woman is. Our little Barbara's sister? Perhaps. But Barbara describes her sister as being a lively young person, and no lively young person lies sleeping there. How do I arrive at that conclusion? Impossible to say. Mental cerebration, if you like. We work out plots as novelists do, or rather, they work out themselves. Concentration is the agent. The same process leads me to the conclusion that the conspirators yonder are walking and talking noiselessly because of their fear of being overheard. The same process leads me to the conclusion that they are quietly discussing an important and dangerous matter. How did Mr. Nisbet's stepdaughter meet her death? Asphyxiation caused by an escape of gas while sleeping in a bedroom almost hermetically sealed. But there is no gas in these parts, and their light is supplied by oil and candle. Therefore they are deprived of that means of causing death. What are they doing now? The shorter of the two, Dr. Cooper, holds something up to the light. The object is too small to be discerned at this distance, but I take it to be a vial. Not a wine bottle, nor a bottle containing brandy or whisky. A small vial. And now Mr. Nisbet hands his co-conspirator a wineglass; he holds that up also; the shadow is reflected on the blind, and you can see by the shape that it is not a tumbler. The vial in one hand, the wineglass--it may be a medicine glass--in the other, Dr. Cooper is pouring a few drops from the vial into the glass. He counts the drops; I can't see his lips move, but unless I am dreaming he is counting the drops. He puts down the vial, and Mr. Nisbet takes the glass from him. To drink? No. He dips his finger into the liquid, and puts that finger to his lips. He stands still a while; he is deliberating. Is it satisfactory, Mr. Nisbet? If it is, and you need a sleeping draught, drink it off, and wish your companion good-night. You do nothing of the kind. You come to the window; you draw aside the blind; you open the window."

"We shall be seen," whispered Bob, in great alarm.

"We are as safe," said Rivers calmly, "as if we wore caps that rendered us invisible, as in the fairy tale. As they stand side by side at the window, the position of the light enables me to see them clearly. They are Mr. Nisbet and Dr. Cooper. Provoking! What is it that Mr. Nisbet has just done? Why did you move, you fool of a doctor? But I guess what he did. He emptied the glass out of the window. Of course, of course; that was it. They have been making a chemical experiment, testing a liquid--to what end? Mr. Nisbet peers into the dark grounds, he stares straight at the hill upon which we are lying. Don't stir a finger. It is curious that criminals almost invariably overlook some slight circumstance which supplies the clew to their conviction. It has been so in thousands of cases. The window is closed, the blind is pulled down. See the shadows of the men as they approach and retreat, growing to monstrous proportions, dwindling to nearly natural size. The shadows of Fate. I suppose by this time the conference is at an end. It is. They separate. Each is in his own room. Ah, I see which room is occupied by Mr. Nisbet, and which by Dr. Cooper. The doctor gets into bed first. Out goes his light. Sleep the sleep of the just, doctor, if you can. Mr. Nisbet lingers; his is the greater stake. He is the principal, his companion is the tool. Take care, the pair of you; the dogs are on your track. Mr. Nisbet puts out his light; all the windows are masked except the window of the third room. Good-night, good-night."

These ingenious theories filled me with wonder, and I accepted them as if they were proved testimony; and I am positive, from the remarks made by Bob and Ronald, that they also accepted them as I did. Rivers chuckled, and said:

"It is a fine art, and we become masters only by long study. Now for Mme. Bernstein. She will not keep us waiting long."

She did not. In a few minutes the gate was opened, and the old woman appeared.

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