Book IV. In Pursuit
Chapter XL. What Miss Coleman Saw Through the Window
As Miss Coleman had paused, as if her narrative was approaching a conclusion, I judged it expedient to make an attempt to bring the record as quickly as possible up to date.
'I take it, Miss Coleman, that you have observed what has occurred in the house to-day.'
She tightened her nut-cracker jaws and glared at me disdainfully, --her dignity was ruffled.
'I'm coming to it, aren't I?--if you'll let me. If you've got no manners I'll learn you some. One doesn't like to be hurried at my time of life, young man.'
I was meekly silent;--plainly, if she was to talk, every one else must listen.
'During the last few days there have been some queer goings on over the road,--out of the common queer, I mean, for goodness knows that they always have been queer enough. That Arab party has been flitting about like a creature possessed,--I've seen him going in and out twenty times a day. This morning--'
She paused,--to fix her eyes on Lessingham. She apparently observed his growing interest as she approached the subject which had brought us there,--and resented it.
'Don't look at me like that, young man, because I won't have it. And as for questions, I may answer questions when I'm done, but don't you dare to ask me one before, because I won't be interrupted.'
Up to then Lessingham had not spoken a word,--but it seemed as if she was endowed with the faculty of perceiving the huge volume of the words which he had left unuttered.
'This morning--as I've said already,--' she glanced at Lessingham as if she defied his contradiction--'when that Arab party came home it was just on the stroke of seven. I know what was the exact time because, when I went to the door to the milkman, my clock was striking the half hour, and I always keep it thirty minutes fast. As I was taking the milk, the man said to me, "Hollo, Miss Coleman, here's your friend coming along." "What friend?" I says, --for I ain't got no friends, as I know, round here, nor yet, I hope no enemies neither.
'And I looks round, and there was the Arab party coming tearing down the road, his bedcover thing all flying in the wind, and his arms straight out in front of him,--I never did see anyone go at such a pace. "My goodness," I says, "I wonder he don't do himself an injury." "I wonder someone else don't do him an injury," says the milkman. "The very sight of him is enough to make my milk go sour." And he picked up his pail and went away quite grumpy,-- though what that Arab party's done to him is more than I can say. --I have always noticed that milkman's temper's short like his measure. I wasn't best pleased with him for speaking of that Arab party as my friend, which he never has been, and never won't be, and never could be neither.
'Five persons went to the house after the milkman was gone, and that there Arab party was safe inside,--three of them was commercials, that I know, because afterwards they came to me. But of course they none of them got no chance with that there Arab party except of hammering at his front door, which ain't what you might call a paying game, nor nice for the temper but for that I don't blame him, for if once those commercials do begin talking they'll talk for ever.
'Now I'm coming to this afternoon.'
I thought it was about time,--though for the life of me, I did not dare to hint as much.
'Well, it might have been three, or it might have been half past, anyhow it was thereabouts, when up there comes two men and a woman, which one of the men was that young man what's a friend of yours. "Oh," I says to myself, "here's something new in callers, I wonder what it is they're wanting." That young man what was a friend of yours, he starts hammering, and hammering, as the custom was with every one who came, and, as usual, no more notice was taken of him than nothing,--though I knew that all the time the Arab party was indoors.'
At this point I felt that at all hazards I must interpose a question.
'You are sure he was indoors?'
She took it better than I feared she might.
'Of course I'm sure,--hadn't I seen him come in at seven, and he never hadn't gone out since, for I don't believe that I'd taken my eyes off the place not for two minutes together, and I'd never had a sight of him. If he wasn't indoors, where was he then?'
For the moment, so far as I was concerned, the query was unanswerable. She triumphantly continued:
'Instead of doing what most did, when they'd had enough of hammering, and going away, these three they went round to the back, and I'm blessed if they mustn't have got through the kitchen window, woman and all, for all of a sudden the blind in the front room was pulled not up, but down--dragged down it was, and there was that young man what's a friend of yours standing with it in his hand.
'"Well," I says to myself, "if that ain't cool I should like to know what is. If, when you ain't let in, you can let yourself in, and that without so much as saying by your leave, or with your leave, things is coming to a pretty pass. Wherever can that Arab party be, and whatever can he be thinking of, to let them go on like that because that he's the sort to allow a liberty to be took with him, and say nothing, I don't believe."
'Every moment I expects to hear a noise and see a row begin, but, so far as I could make out, all was quiet and there wasn't nothing of the kind. So I says to myself, "There's more in this than meets the eye, and them three parties must have right upon their side, or they wouldn't be doing what they are doing in the way they are, there'd be a shindy."
'Presently, in about five minutes, the front door opens, and a young man--not the one what's your friend, but the other--comes sailing out, and through the gate, and down the road, as stiff and upright as a grenadier,--I never see anyone walk more upright, and few as fast. At his heels comes the young man what is your friend, and it seems to me that he couldn't make out what this other was a-doing of. I says to myself, "There's been a quarrel between them two, and him as has gone has hooked it." This young man what is your friend he stood at the gate, all of a fidget, staring after the other with all his eyes, as if he couldn't think what to make of him, and the young woman, she stood on the doorstep, staring after him too.
'As the young man what had hooked it turned the corner, and was out of sight, all at once your friend he seemed to make up his mind, and he started off running as hard as he could pelt,--and the young woman was left alone. I expected, every minute, to see him come back with the other young man, and the young woman, by the way she hung about the gate, she seemed to expect it too. But no, nothing of the kind. So when, as I expect, she'd had enough of waiting, she went into the house again, and I see her pass the front room window. After a while, back she comes to the gate, and stands looking and looking, but nothing was to be seen of either of them young men. When she'd been at the gate, I daresay five minutes, back she goes into the house,--and I never saw nothing of her again.'
'You never saw anything of her again?--Are you sure she went back into the house?'
'As sure as I am that I see you.'
'I suppose that you didn't keep a constant watch upon the premises?'
'But that's just what I did do. I felt something queer was going on, and I made up my mind to see it through. And when I make up my mind to a thing like that I'm not easy to turn aside. I never moved off the chair at my bedroom window, and I never took my eyes off the house, not till you come knocking at my front door.'
'But, since the young lady is certainly not in the house at present, she must have eluded your observation, and, in some manner, have left it without your seeing her.'
'I don't believe she did, I don't see how she could have done,-- there's something queer about that house, since that Arab party's been inside it. But though I didn't see her, I did see someone else.'
'Who was that?'
'A young man.'
'A young man?'
'Yes, a young man, and that's what puzzled me, and what's been puzzling me ever since, for see him go in I never did do.'
'Can you describe him?'
'Not as to the face, for he wore a dirty cloth cap pulled down right over it, and he walked so quickly that I never had a proper look. But I should know him anywhere if I saw him, if only because of his clothes and his walk.'
'What was there peculiar about his clothes and his walk?'
'Why, his clothes were that old, and torn, and dirty, that a ragman wouldn't have given a thank you for them,--and as for fit, --there wasn't none, they hung upon him like a scarecrow--he was a regular figure of fun; I should think the boys would call after him if they saw him in the street. As for his walk, he walked off just like the first young man had done, he strutted along with his shoulders back, and his head in the air, and that stiff and straight that my kitchen poker would have looked crooked beside of him.'
'Did nothing happen to attract your attention between the young lady's going back into the house and the coming out of this young man?'
Miss Coleman cogitated.
'Now you mention it there did,--though I should have forgotten all about it if you hadn't asked me,--that comes of your not letting me tell the tale in my own way. About twenty minutes after the young woman had gone in someone put up the blind in the front room, which that young man had dragged right down, I couldn't see who it was for the blind was between us, and it was about ten minutes after that that young man came marching out.'
'And then what followed?'
'Why, in about another ten minutes that Arab party himself comes scooting through the door.'
'The Arab party?'
'Yes, the Arab party! The sight of him took me clean aback. Where he'd been, and what he'd been doing with himself while them there people played hi-spy-hi about his premises I'd have given a shilling out of my pocket to have known, but there he was, as large as life, and carrying a bundle.'
'A bundle, on his head, like a muffin-man carries his tray. It was a great thing, you never would have thought he could have carried it, and it was easy to see that it was as much as he could manage; it bent him nearly double, and he went crawling along like a snail,--it took him quite a time to get to the end of the road.'
Mr Lessingham leaped up from his seat, crying, 'Marjorie was in that bundle!'
'I doubt it,' I said.
He moved about the room distractedly, wringing his hands.
'She was! she must have been! God help us all!'
'I repeat that I doubt it. If you will be advised by me you will wait awhile before you arrive at any such conclusion.'
All at once there was a tapping at the window pane. Atherton was staring at us from without.
He shouted through the glass, 'Come out of that, you fossils!-- I've news for you!'