Book IV. In Pursuit
Chapter XXXIX. Miss Louisa Coleman
That the house over the way was tenanted was plain to all the world,--at least one occupant sat gazing through the window of the first floor front room. An old woman in a cap,--one of those large old-fashioned caps which our grandmothers used to wear, tied with strings under the chin. It was a bow window, and as she was seated in the bay looking right in our direction she could hardly have failed to see us as we advanced,--indeed she continued to stare at us all the while with placid calmness. Yet I knocked once, twice, and yet again without the slightest notice being taken of my summons.
Sydney gave expression to his impatience in his own peculiar vein.
'Knockers in this part of the world seem intended for ornament only,--nobody seems to pay any attention to them when they're used. The old lady upstairs must be either deaf or dotty.' He went out into the road to see if she still was there. 'She's looking at me as calmly as you please,--what does she think we're doing here, I wonder; playing a tune on her front door by way of a little amusement?--Madam!' He took off his hat and waved it to her. 'Madam! might I observe that if you won't condescend to notice that we're here your front door will run the risk of being severely injured!--She don't care for me any more than if I was nothing at all,--sound another tattoo upon that knocker. Perhaps she's so deaf that nothing short of a cataclysmal uproar will reach her auditory nerves.'
She immediately proved, however, that she was nothing of the sort. Hardly had the sounds of my further knocking died away than, throwing up the window, she thrust out her head and addressed me in a fashion which, under the circumstances, was as unexpected as it was uncalled for.
'Now, young man, you needn't be in such a hurry!'
'Pardon me, madam, it's not so much a hurry we're in as pressed for time,--this is a matter of life and death.'
She turned her attention to Sydney,--speaking with a frankness for which, I imagine, he was unprepared.
'I don't want none of your imperence, young man. I've seen you before,--you've been hanging about here the whole day long!--and I don't like the looks of you, and so I'll let you know. That's my front door, and that's my knocker,--I'll come down and open when I like, but I'm not going to be hurried, and if the knocker's so much as touched again, I won't come down at all.'
She closed the window with a bang. Sydney seemed divided between mirth and indignation.
'That's a nice old lady, on my honour,--one of the good old crusty sort. Agreeable characters this neighbourhood seems to grow,--a sojourn hereabouts should do one good. Unfortunately I don't feel disposed just now to stand and kick my heels in the road.' Again saluting the old dame by raising his hat he shouted to her at the top of his voice. 'Madam, I beg ten thousand pardons for troubling you, but this is a matter in which every second is of vital importance,--would you allow me to ask you one or two questions?'
Up went the window; out came the old lady's head.
'Now, young man, you needn't put yourself out to holler at me,--I won't be hollered at! I'll come down and open that door in five minutes by the clock on my mantelpiece, and not a moment before.'
The fiat delivered, down came the window. Sydney looked rueful,-- he consulted his watch.
'I don't know what you think, Champnell, but I really doubt if this comfortable creature can tell us anything worth waiting another five minutes to hear. We mustn't let the grass grow under our feet, and time is getting on.'
I was of a different opinion,--and said so.
'I'm afraid, Atherton, that I can't agree with you. She seems to have noticed you hanging about all day; and it is at least possible that she has noticed a good deal which would be well worth our hearing. What more promising witness are we likely to find?--her house is the only one which overlooks the one we have just quitted. I am of opinion that it may not only prove well worth our while to wait five minutes, but also that it would be as well, if possible, not to offend her by the way. She's not likely to afford us the information we require if you do.'
'Good. If that's what you think I'm sure I'm willing to wait,-- only it's to be hoped that that clock upon her mantelpiece moves quicker than its mistress.'
Presently, when about a minute had gone, he called to the cabman.
'Seen a sign of anything?'
The cabman shouted back.
'Ne'er a sign,--you'll hear a sound of popguns when I do.'
Those five minutes did seem long ones. But at last Sydney, from his post of vantage in the road, informed us that the old lady was moving.
'She's getting up;--she's leaving the window;--let's hope to goodness she's coming down to open the door. That's been the longest five minutes I've known.'
I could hear uncertain footsteps descending the stairs. They came along the passage. The door was opened--'on the chain.' The old lady peered at us through an aperture of about six inches.
'I don't know what you young men think you're after, but have all three of you in my house I won't. I'll have him and you'--a skinny finger was pointed to Lessingham and me; then it was directed towards Atherton--'but have him I won't. So if it's anything particular you want to say to me, you'll just tell him to go away.'
On hearing this Sydney's humility was abject. His hat was in his hand,--he bent himself double.
'Suffer me to make you a million apologies, madam, if I have in any way offended you; nothing, I assure you, could have been farther from my intention, or from my thoughts.'
'I don't want none of your apologies, and I don't want none of you neither; I don't like the looks of you, and so I tell you. Before I let anybody into my house you'll have to sling your hook.'
The door was banged in our faces. I turned to Sydney.
'The sooner you go the better it will be for us. You can wait for us over the way.'
He shrugged his shoulders, and groaned,--half in jest, half in earnest.
'If I must I suppose I must,--it's the first time I've been refused admittance to a lady's house in all my life! What have I done to deserve this thing?--If you keep me waiting long I'll tear that infernal den to pieces!'
He sauntered across the road, viciously kicking the stones as he went. The door reopened.
'Has that other young man gone?'
'Then now I'll let you in. Have him inside my house I won't.'
The chain was removed. Lessingham and I entered. Then the door was refastened and the chain replaced. Our hostess showed us into the front room on the ground floor; it was sparsely furnished and not too clean,--but there were chairs enough for us to sit upon; which she insisted on our occupying.
'Sit down, do,--I can't abide to see folks standing; it gives me the fidgets.'
So soon as we were seated, without any overture on our parts she plunged in medias res.
'I know what it is you've come about,--I know! You want me to tell you who it is as lives in the house over the road. Well, I can tell you,--and I dare bet a shilling that I'm about the only one who can.'
I inclined my head.
'Indeed. Is that so, madam?'
She was huffed at once.
'Don't madam me,--I can't bear none of your lip service. I'm a plain-spoken woman, that's what I am, and I like other people's tongues to be as plain as mine. My name's Miss Louisa Coleman; but I'm generally called Miss Coleman,--I'm only called Louisa by my relatives.'
Since she was apparently between seventy and eighty--and looked every year of her apparent age--I deemed that possible. Miss Coleman was evidently a character. If one was desirous of getting information out of her it would be necessary to allow her to impart it in her own manner,--to endeavour to induce her to impart it in anybody else's would be time clean wasted. We had Sydney's fate before our eyes.
She started with a sort of roundabout preamble.
'This property is mine; it was left me by my uncle, the late George Henry Jobson,--he's buried in Hammersmith Cemetery just over the way,--he left me the whole of it. It's one of the finest building sites near London, and it increases in value every year, and I'm not going to let it for another twenty, by which time the value will have more than trebled,--so if that is what you've come about, as heaps of people do, you might have saved yourselves the trouble. I keep the boards standing, just to let people know that the ground is to let,--though, as I say, it won't be for another twenty years, when it'll be for the erection of high-class mansions only, same as there is in Grosvenor Square,--no shops or public houses, and none of your shanties. I live in this place just to keep an eye upon the property,--and as for the house over the way, I've never tried to let it, and it never has been let, not until a month ago, when, one morning, I had this letter. You can see it if you like.'
She handed me a greasy envelope which she ferreted out of a capacious pocket which was suspended from her waist, and which she had to lift up her skirt to reach. The envelope was addressed, in unformed characters, 'Miss Louisa Coleman, The Rhododendrons, Convolvulus Avenue, High Oaks Park, West Kensington.'--I felt, if the writer had not been of a humorous turn of mind, and drawn on his imagination, and this really was the lady's correct address, then there must be something in a name.
The letter within was written in the same straggling, characterless caligraphy,--I should have said, had I been asked offhand, that the whole thing was the composition of a servant girl. The composition was about on a par with the writing.
'The undersigned would be oblidged if Miss Coleman would let her emptey house. I do not know the rent but send fifty pounds. If more will send. Please address, Mohamed el Kheir, Post Office, Sligo Street, London.'
It struck me as being as singular an application for a tenancy as I remembered to have encountered. When I passed it on to Lessingham, he seemed to think so too.
'This is a curious letter, Miss Coleman.'
'So I thought,--and still more so when I found the fifty pounds inside. There were five ten-pound notes, all loose, and the letter not even registered. If I had been asked what was the rent of the house, I should have said, at the most, not more than twenty pounds,--because, between you and me, it wants a good bit of doing up, and is hardly fit to live in as it stands.'
I had had sufficient evidence of the truth of this altogether apart from the landlady's frank admission.
'Why, for all he could have done to help himself I might have kept the money, and only sent him a receipt for a quarter. And some folks would have done,--but I'm not one of that sort myself, and shouldn't care to be. So I sent this here party,--I never could pronounce his name, and never shall--a receipt for a year.'
Miss Coleman paused to smooth her apron, and consider.
'Well, the receipt should have reached this here party on the Thursday morning, as it were,--I posted it on the Wednesday night, and on the Thursday, after breakfast, I thought I'd go over the way to see if there was any little thing I could do,--because there wasn't hardly a whole pane of glass in the place,--when I all but went all of a heap. When I looked across the road, blessed it the party wasn't in already,--at least as much as he ever was in, which, so far as I can make out, never has been anything particular,--though how he had got in, unless it was through a window in the middle of the night, is more than I should care to say,--there was nobody in the house when I went to bed, that I could pretty nearly take my Bible oath,--yet there was the blind up at the parlour, and, what's more, it was down, and it's been down pretty nearly ever since.
'"Well," I says to myself, "for right down imperence this beats anything,--why he's in the place before he knows if I'll let him have it. Perhaps he thinks I haven't got a word to say in the matter,--fifty pounds or no fifty pounds, I'll soon show him." So I slips on my bonnet, and I walks over the road, and I hammers at the door.
'Well, I have seen people hammering since then, many a one, and how they've kept it up has puzzled me,--for an hour, some of them,--but I was the first one as begun it. I hammers, and I hammers, and I kept on hammering, but it wasn't no more use than if I'd been hammering at a tombstone. So I starts rapping at the window, but that wasn't no use neither. So I goes round behind, and I hammers at the back door,--but there, I couldn't make anyone hear nohow. So I says to myself, "Perhaps the party as is in, ain't in, in a manner of speaking; but I'll keep an eye on the house, and when he is in I'll take care that he ain't out again before I've had a word to say."
'So I come back home, and as I said I would, I kept an eye on the house the whole of that livelong day, but never a soul went either out or in. But the next day, which it was a Friday, I got out of bed about five o'clock, to see if it was raining, through my having an idea of taking a little excursion if the weather was fine, when I see a party coming down the road. He had on one of them dirty-coloured bed-cover sort of things, and it was wrapped all over his head and round his body, like, as I have been told, them there Arabs wear,--and, indeed, I've seen them in them myself at West Brompton, when they was in the exhibition there. It was quite fine, and broad day, and I see him as plainly as I see you, --he comes skimming along at a tear of a pace, pulls up at the house over the way, opens the front door, and lets himself in.
'"So," I says to myself, "there you are. Well, Mr Arab, or whatever, or whoever, you may be, I'll take good care that you don't go out again before you've had a word from me. I'll show you that landladies have their rights, like other Christians, in this country, however it may be in yours." So I kept an eye on the house, to see that he didn't go out again, and nobody never didn't, and between seven and eight I goes and I knocks at the door,--because I thought to myself that the earlier I was the better it might be.
'If you'll believe me, no more notice was taken of me than if I was one of the dead. I hammers, and I hammers, till my wrist was aching, I daresay I hammered twenty times,--and then I went round to the back door, and I hammers at that,--but it wasn't the least good in the world. I was that provoked to think I should be treated as if I was nothing and nobody, by a dirty foreigner, who went about in a bed-gown through the public streets, that it was all I could do to hold myself.
'I comes round to the front again, and I starts hammering at the window, with every knuckle on my hands, and I calls out, "I'm Miss Louisa Coleman, and I'm the owner of this house, and you can't deceive me,--I saw you come in, and you're in now, and if you don't come and speak to me this moment I'll have the police."
'All of a sudden, when I was least expecting it, and was hammering my very hardest at the pane, up goes the blind, and up goes the window too, and the most awful-looking creature ever I heard of, not to mention seeing, puts his head right into my face,--he was more like a hideous baboon than anything else, let alone a man. I was struck all of a heap, and plumps down on the little wall, and all but tumbles head over heels backwards, And he starts shrieking, in a sort of a kind of English, and in such a voice as I'd never heard the like,--it was like a rusty steam engine.
'"Go away! go away! I don't want you! I will not have you,--never! You have your fifty pounds,--you have your money,--that is the whole of you,--that is all you want! You come to me no more!-- never!--never no more!--or you be sorry!--Go away!"
'I did go away, and that as fast as ever my legs would carry me,-- what with his looks, and what with his voice, and what with the way that he went on, I was nothing but a mass of trembling. As for answering him back, or giving him a piece of my mind, as I had meant to, I wouldn't have done it not for a thousand pounds. I don't mind confessing, between you and me, that I had to swallow four cups of tea, right straight away, before my nerves was steady.
'"Well," I says to myself, when I did feel, as it might be, a little more easy, "you never have let that house before, and now you've let it with a vengeance,--so you have. If that there new tenant of yours isn't the greatest villain that ever went unhung it must be because he's got near relations what's as bad as himself,--because two families like his I'm sure there can't be. A nice sort of Arab party to have sleeping over the road he is!"
'But after a time I cools down, as it were,--because I'm one of them sort as likes to see on both sides of a question. "After all," I says to myself, "he has paid his rent, and fifty pounds is fifty pounds,--I doubt if the whole house is worth much more, and he can't do much damage to it whatever he does."
'I shouldn't have minded, so far as that went, if he'd set fire to the place, for, between ourselves, it's insured for a good bit over its value. So I decided that I'd let things be as they were, and see how they went on. But from that hour to this I've never spoken to the man, and never wanted to, and wouldn't, not of my own free will, not for a shilling a time,--that face of his will haunt me if I live till Noah, as the saying is. I've seen him going in and out at all hours of the day and night,--that Arab party's a mystery if ever there was one,--he always goes tearing along as if he's flying for his life. Lots of people have come to the house, all sorts and kinds, men and women--they've been mostly women, and even little children. I've seen them hammer and hammer at that front door, but never a one have I seen let in,--or yet seen taken any notice of, and I think I may say, and yet tell no lie, that I've scarcely took my eye off the house since he's been inside it, over and over again in the middle of the night have I got up to have a look, so that I've not missed much that has took place.
'What's puzzled me is the noises that's come from the house. Sometimes for days together there's not been a sound, it might have been a house of the dead; and then, all through the night, there've been yells and screeches, squawks and screams,--I never heard nothing like it. I have thought, and more than once, that the devil himself must be in that front room, let alone all the rest of his demons. And as for cats!--where they've come from I can't think. I didn't use to notice hardly a cat in the neighbourhood till that there Arab party came,--there isn't much to attract them; but since he came there's been regiments. Sometimes at night there's been troops about the place, screeching like mad,--I've wished them farther, I can tell you. That Arab party must be fond of 'em. I've seen them inside the house, at the windows, upstairs and downstairs, as it seemed to me, a dozen at a time.