Court Royal/Chapter LIX

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter LIX. Without a Watch-dog

Mrs. Rosevere and her daughter had an anxious night with Lazarus. They were afraid to send for a doctor, lest he should discover what had been done. They walked the Jew about, and forced him to drink Ems water, and did not venture to leave him till morning, when they put him to bed in his old room downstairs.

He was obliged to remain in bed next day, and Joanna and her mother attended him. He was surly, and snarled at them. He could not forgive Joanna. He received her attentions with resentment. He was ignorant of the cause of his illness. He supposed that he had had a fit.

As he got better he occupied himself in bed whittling a stick. On Monday, after he had eaten a chop and drunk a bowl of soup made for him by Joanna, and brought him by Mrs. Rosevere, he suddenly leaped out of bed armed with his stick, and chased the woman from his room, then rushed after her into the kitchen, where he fell upon Joanna, full of malice and fury, swore and cursed and threatened, and struck her over the head with the stick. ‘Get out of this place. Never show your face in it again, you ungrateful minx. Eating me out of house and home. Oh, yes! Chops and soup! You can’t stint yourselves when I am ill and unable to look after you.’ Then he drove them out of his house.

As soon as they were gone he bolted and barred the door. He had refused to allow Joanna to take anything away which the girl might claim as her own. She had pleaded for nothing but the pot of lily of the valley, and that he refused.

When Lazarus had thrust Joanna forth, he returned to his room to dress. He trembled with anger, anger that had been simmering in his mind since Sunday morning, but which he had kept in control till he was strong enough to give it vent.

‘I am well rid of her,’ he said, laying aside his stick. ‘Blighted be the day that I took her in. This is the gratitude I receive for having nurtured her in my bosom, a viper that turns and stings me. What is the world coming to? Where is morality left? Here is this girl that I have cared for, and instructed, and fed, and given my society to, turns my head, puts me to frightful expense, makes me sell off a lot of capital furniture at half its value, and involves me in bills to tradesmen for painting and papering, and carpentering and plumbing, turns the whole house upside down, and in the end—flouts me in the face of my own people, makes me ridiculous. Well said the Rabbi Nathan that Manoah was a fool, because it is written in the Book of Judges, “He followed his wife.” For whoever runs after a woman takes leave of his senses.’

Lazarus wandered about his house looking at the changes that had been made in it, and groaning. The bills of the tradesmen had not come in. He would have to pay them. He climbed the stairs to Joanna’s attic-room, and found a malicious pleasure in flinging her pots of flowers out of the window on the stones of the quay or into the water, hoping that she might be near to see and bewail the destruction of her cherished possessions. He found the photograph of herself and Charles Cheek. He had not seen it before.

‘That’s the way my money went! Oh, if I could but find a case on which to prosecute her!’ He tore the picture to pieces and flung it into the street.

There was nothing else in the room that Joanna could have called her own, on which he might vent his spite. He crept downstairs again. His legs were not firm under him, the laudanum or the Ems water had weakened him, and they shook.

‘I’ll have Mrs. Thresher to look in on me every day, I will. She is a sensible woman, and took Joanna’s conduct to heart. I’ll get her to let Polly come and mind the shop. She’s a sharp girl, and if I promise to deal handsomely by her, perhaps she’ll give up the bar and take to the counter. I’ll let that scorpion know that I can do without her.’

He wondered at himself, as he stood in the carpeted and furnished rooms, for having been induced to change his old mode of life. His object for many years had been to revenge himself on the Marquess. For that he had stinted himself; and when his opportunity was taken from him he had been unsettled, without an object for which to work and deny himself. Man must have some aim; when one is taken from him he finds another. When revenge was disappointed, love occupied the held. He had begun to dream of a happy life, such as he had dreamed of when he married his first wife. He had been disappointed in his first dream, now the second was dispelled.

‘I’ll send for Crudge to-morrow,’ he said. ‘I’ll see if I can’t have that confounded settlement altered. What a fool I was to have any at all, but I was infatuated. I thought, after all the marks of tenderness I showered on the girl, she must love me. What wicked ingratitude after all I have done! Her keep must have cost five-and-twenty pounds per annum, and she has been with me seven years, that is a hundred-and-seventy-five pounds—then her clothing. Why! I’ve spent on the minx two hundred pounds at the lowest computation—and now to desert me! What I have wasted on her would have brought me in ten pound per annum at five per cent.’

He fussed about his shop, now closed. He routed in the drawers, he poked about in the kitchen, in the vain hope of discovering that he had been robbed of something by Joanna, so as to be able to take out a summons against her. He could not find that anything was gone. Darkness closed in. The wind piped and sobbed under the doors and in at the keyholes, and the rain drizzled against the window-panes.

‘Ah!’ said Lazarus, shuddering, ‘a south-west wind blowing up Channel, charged with moisture. Twenty-four hours of rain. I hope Joanna and her mother are out in it, without shelter for their heads to-night.’ He listened to the drip from the window-ledges, and the pour down the fall pipe. ‘They were wet when first they came into this house, may they be as wet and shivery now they leave it!’

He groped for sticks to light his fire. He was unsuccessful. The art of making a fire is not in man, it is instinctive in woman. He either lays it or lights it wrong. Lazarus found out that he had to deal with a most intractable art. The sticks were too thick, or the paper too profuse, or the coals sluggish in kindling. A whole newspaper went in a flare without lighting the wood, and when the wood was kindled with the application of a candle, it refused to communicate its fire to the coals.

So he sat in the cold and dark, growling and miserable. Then he heard a scratching noise about him, like the uncurling of crumbled paper. He struck a match, relit the candle which had been extinguished whilst applied to the sticks in the grate, and saw that the floor was alive with blackbeetles, which fled in all directions when the match flared.

He left the candle lighted on the table, and relapsed into his chair, and into brooding over his wrongs.

He was dissatisfied with the prospect before him. He would never be able to replace Joanna. Mrs. Thresher was a voracious eater, and would expect her meals at his house. He would have to keep Polly as well, and he was doubtful whether Polly would settle into the business after the more lively experiences of the bar. He reasoned with himself that life with Joanna would have been a daily struggle. Set a beggar on horseback and he will ride to the devil; give a savage clothes, and a wardrobe will not suffice him. Translated from the kitchen to the parlour, from being in subjection to sharing the rule, she would have indulged in extravagance, have loved idleness, neglected business for pleasure. Then he thought of Charles Cheek; and he asked whether Joanna was not really fond of him. How she had interceded for him! His picture taken hand-in-hand with her he had discovered in her bedroom. If he had Joamia as his wife, might he not expect a similar experience to that he had undergone with Rachel?

Then he felt again the sting of the blows Charles had dealt him, the shaking, the humiliation before the eyes of Joanna, and his blood rushed to his face. Charles had been in confinement since Saturday afternoon. On Monday, being a Bank holiday, no magistrate was sitting. Tuesday, at eleven, he would go and take out a proper summons against him. The police were not likely to act heartily in the matter. They knew Charles Cheek, and had received many a tip from him.

How badly the candle burned! What was that? He had lighted a wax candle from upstairs instead of a kitchen dip. That came of having strangers in the house! Mrs. Thresher could use nothing but the best for the kitchen. A curl of wax was formed at the side of the candle, folding over and over like a winding-sheet. No wonder the candle burnt badly, a thief was in it. Lazarus snuffed the wick with his fingers, and snuffed out the light.

At once, from all sides, came the rustling of the blackbeetles emerging from their holes and spreading over the floor. Lazarus fancied they were about his chair, scrambling up his legs. He stood up, shook himself, relit the candle, and ran about, stamping on the retreating insects.

How lonely he felt in the house! How still it was, like a house that was dead! A chill sense of solitude crept over him. What if he had another fit in the night. What if he woke up, feeling ill, wanting brandy, or to be bled, and no one was in the house to come to his help; and he was senseless or weak in the morning, unable to open the door when Mrs. Thresher came? But—would Mrs. Thresher come? Perhaps she did not know that he had driven away Joanna and her mother. Lazarus was alarmed. He went to the house door, and unchained and unlocked it, opened, and stood in the doorway, looking out into the doleful night. The rain came down like a fine spray between him and the lamp. The illuminated windows of the houses were surrounded by fog bows and magnified to stars of the first magnitude. Those persons who went by were buried under umbrellas. A rill ran in the gutter, spinning cabbage leaves, stray fish heads on its surface. He would get very wet if he went along the Barbican quay to the ham and sausage shop. Besides, he was ashamed to appear there and confess that he was afraid to spend the night alone in the house. Mrs. Thresher knew nothing of his fit. That insulting old Radical, Mr. Thresher, would twit him with the events of Saturday evening.

As he stood in the door, doubtful what to do, something rubbed against his shin and stole past him. He looked down, but could make nothing out in the dark. He re-shut and re-barred the door, and went back to the kitchen.

‘I will try again to light a fire,’ he said; ‘then I sha’n’t feel so miserable and solitary. It is all Joanna’s doing.’

He relaid the fire, and poured some paraffin over the coals. He was successful this time. The flames ascended to the sticks, the sticks crackled, and then with a leap the fire was on the top, the mineral oil was ablaze, and the coals emitted puffs of flame, and began to glow.

Lazarus was so occupied with the fire that he did not observe the presence of a black cat, watching him out of its green eyes, seated on the table. Only when the Jew got up from his knees and took the kettle to fill it did he notice the creature. He stood still, staring at it in surprise, holding the kettle in one hand. Lazarus had a great dislike to cats. As he looked at the cat the cat looked at him. In the dark the narrow slits of iris had expanded. The eyes shone like moonstones in the candlelight.

‘Get out,’ said Lazarus; ‘I don’t want cats here.’ The monition was unheeded.

‘Do you hear what I say? Get out with you.’

The cat rose and stretched itself, driving its claws into the deal of the table top, and then reseated itself.

‘Is that done to insult me?’ asked Lazarus. ‘What have you come here for? Do you think to hunt mice among my valuable china, and to kitten and rear a family among costly garments? Wait a bit, Yowler! I’ll make you yowl!’ He took his light, and went into the shop to get a whip.

He laid hold of the stick that Charles had employed on his own back, and brought it with him into the kitchen. When he returned the cat was gone.

‘Where the devil is the creature?’ asked Lazarus, looking about him, and switching about with the stick.

He laid the stick on the table, and reseated himself in his chair. But he could now think of nothing but the cat. What had become of the beast? Was it in the larder, getting at the bread and the butter, or the milk, or the mutton chops? He listened, but heard no sound save the drip of the water. Was it in the shop? Or had it got into his own little room, and was prowling among some Capo di Monte, Dresden, and Chelsea figures he had there? He took up the stick again. It was weighted with lead in the handle. If he had the chance he would bring that end down on the head of the cat and kill it. He held the candle in one hand and the stick in the other. He thrust the stick into every corner of the kitchen without dislodging his visitor. He peered into the coal closet, he searched the back kitchen, he examined the larder; the cat was nowhere to be found. Then he went down the passage to the shop. It was hopeless to expect to discover the cat there if it had chosen to conceal itself among the sundry objects piled and scattered through it. He held his breath and listened. Was that the cat purring? On tiptoe he crept near to the place whence the noise came. It was in the window. He craned his ear, then thrust forward the candle, and had it nearly blown out. A pane had been starred by a stone some time ago, and he had mended it with strips of adhesive paper from a sheet of postage stamps. One strip was loose, and the indriving draught fluttered it and made a sound like the purring of a cat. Then the Jew left the shop and fastened the door behind him, and explored his little sanctum. That door had been left ajar, and it was quite possible that the cat had entered. He sought it in every corner, under the presses, under the bed, behind the sedans. He could see nothing of it. He listened; he could not hear it. Yet the cat must be in the house somewhere, and when he was quiet, and fallen asleep, he would be startled by the gleam of the moony eyes, and a crash; the cat had upset and broken some valuable porcelain. He shut his bedroom door; he shut the passage door, and was again in the kitchen, and there, on the table in the same place as before, as though it had remained there undisturbed, was the black cat, watching him out of its lambent eyes.

‘I’ll have a watch-dog. If I have to pay fifteen shillings for one I will have one, if only to keep cats away.’

Lazarus was sly. He put the stick behind his back, and turned it in his hand so as to hold the slight end. Then he came towards the table step by step; he would not rouse the suspicions of the creature. He put the candle on the floor.

‘Pretty! pretty!’ said the Jew in a caressing tone. ‘Will I hurt my beauty? Oh no! it is not in the heart of old Lazarus to do you harm. Do you want milk? There is some in the jug in the larder. What do you say to a herring’s head? There are some in the sink. May I chuck you under the chin? May I scratch your back, you beauty?’

But the creature did not suffer him to approach without rising, setting up its back, and charging its tail and hair with electricity so that they bristled like the hairs of a flue-brush. The expression of its eyes was threatening. It half opened its mouth and showed the long white teeth that armed the gums. Lazarus was afraid the cat would leap at his face, and he put up his arm to protect his eyes, thought better of his attempt, and backed, still watching the cat, into the outer kitchen.

‘The black imp!’ he muttered. ‘I must make a way for it to escape.’ Then he unbolted the back door into the yard, and left it ajar.

Having done this he returned to the kitchen. The cat was no longer on the table, no longer visible. Whither it had gone he could not guess. He was afraid to search, lest it should leap out upon him with extended claws, and flaming eyes, and keen teeth to fasten in his flesh.

‘I’ll have a watch-dog. I must—I will. If it cost me thirty shillings I’ll have one to-morrow. As long as Joanna was here none was needed. This is another expense she is putting me to. Oh, I wish the cat would find her, and fly in her face and tear her wicked eyes out.’

He fetched a bottle of brandy from the cupboard, took the kettle from the fire, and mixed himself a strong glass. Then he drew his chair close to the stove and drank his brandy-and-water, listening for the cat, and cursing it, and then Joanna, and thinking he heard a step, and found it was the girl, with a cat’s face, and flaming eyes, and a chain of Roman pearls dangling round the neck, and then—somehow the pink silk dress flickered before him, but the brush of the cat hung below it and swept the floor; and then the howdah upstairs began to dance by itself, and the Sabbatical lamp to swing as a flaming pendulum, all its seven jets alight as he watched it, and wondered whether it would swing so high as to unhook itself from the ceiling and come down with a crash and go out. He poured out more brandy, but was dozing and waking intermittently, and forgot to add the water, and the loaded stick was on the table trying to lift itself on its ferule and dance, but the head was heavy, and at each effort down it came again with a bang.

So he slept, with feverish dreams, sitting in his chair, waiting for the cat to go out at the back-door, when he would lock it and retire to his bed, and then for a while forgetting why he sat up. The coals crackled and grew cold. The candle burnt down to the socket and dissolved all the wax, and the flame turned blue and danced over the molten wax.

Then—all at once Lazarus sprang up with a cry, and caught at the stick. Before him stood two figures. He could see their faces indistinctly by the flicker of the expiring candle—one a coarse face marked with scars, and a heavy lower jaw. He felt the stick wrenched from his trembling hand, and after that he saw and felt no more.

On the following morning there was a stir at the Barbican. During the night the Golden Balls had been entered, robbed, and Lazarus had been found lying dead in his kitchen with his skull broken. A loaded stick lay at his side. On the table, purring and complacent, beside an empty candlestick, sat an ownerless black cat.