By W. PETT RIDGE
HE was not (said Mrs. Bosnell) what you would call an attractive-looking gentleman, but, so far as I am aware, there is no law to prevent anyone from having a sturdy figure and rather prominent ears, if they care to do so. He had an agitated way with him on the occasion when he called to ask if I'd got a room to let, and I suppose it was partly this which made me say "Yes!" without thinking. On the moment, he stepped inside, hung up his soft hat, and murmured to himself "Sanctuary, sanctuary!" I have heard people say grace in a less thankful manner.
"Your name, sir, please," I asked, glancing at the blank label on his suit-case.
"Darling," he ejaculated.
I told him pretty sharply he was not to talk to a woman of my age in that way. He answered that he shared the surname with a well-known judge. I mentioned the inclusive terms per week, and he agreed to them so promptly that I half wished—— But I shall know what to ask another time.
My two daughters came home from business that evening at the usual hour, and their young gentlemen called in at their usual hour. Your girls of to-day can always find fault in anything their mothers do, and mine declared I ought not to have taken Mr. Darling without references. They appealed to the gentlemen, who, very wisely, declined to take sides, and some argument followed, and went on until a knock came at the door.
"Mrs. Bosnell!" called Mr. Darling.
"Yes, sir?" I said.
"Would you mind asking your visitors to make less noise. I can't get on with my writing."
"I'll give them a hint, sir."
My daughters quietened down. They admitted Mr. Darling had a pleasant way of speaking, and this was in his favour; the great point was the discovery that he wrote. Both Muriel and Queenie are gone on books, and it has always been a desire with them to meet an author. They wondered whether he chanced to be a bachelor. The young gentlemen believed that, in a general way, authors were married men, but, on being challenged, were unable to give any reason for this view; one said that most of them gave way, sooner or later, to drink, and Queenie remarked that genius was entitled to certain peculiarities. We laid the table for supper, and Queenie went up to tell Mr. Darling the meal was ready. She returned with her eyes nearly bolting out of her head.
"He's evidently," she announced in a whisper, "in what is called the throes of composition." I suggested the cough mixture that I always pin my faith to; Queenie and Muriel exclaimed, "Oh, mother, you are, really!" and I held my tongue. Mr. Darling, it appeared, did not want supper, but wished for an evening newspaper. Queenie's young gentleman took a penny from the mantelpiece and went along to the newsagent shop; when he came back he mentioned that cricket was opening well. Queenie snatched the journal from him and glanced at the headlines. We all looked over her shoulder.
"There you are!" she cried, pointing to one of the columns. "What did I tell you?" It was headed "Strange Disappearance of a Novelist." I took the newspaper upstairs when we had had a read and a good look at the portrait; it was a snapshot, rather blurred, and conveyed nothing in particular. Over supper we discussed the matter. Muriel's young gentleman said, "Wait. Do nothing until a reward is offered," and this was carried, as they say at committee meetings, verb. sap.
I felt somewhat worried about it all, but interested, too. Mr. Darling (to keep to the name he had first offered) gave little or no trouble, and a more considerate lodger I could not wish for. He kept to the house all day, and strolled out only in the evenings, and on these occasions muffled himself up around his neck, and pulled his soft hat well over the eyes. Whilst he was out, the girls and myself went through the contents of his suit-case, more out of curiosity than anything else, and Queenie pointed out that he owned no less than two fountain pens. The foolscap sheets on which he had been writing were torn up; Muriel said it was a shame to think a masterpiece had thus been lost to the world. The suit-case contained a photograph, and my girls said that the lady seemed to have a will of her own.
Something else of importance happened in London, and the newspapers, after the early burst of information, made no further comment on the disappeared novelist. But the matter became talked about in our road; it is just likely I threw out a hint to the party next door when we were setting the washing on the clothes lines. Folk began to call who had never called before, and eventually Mr. Challin barged in. Mr. Challin, having retired from the Post Office Savings Bank, had nothing to do but to interfere in matters which did not concern him, and he told me, in his brusque way, that he was going to have the mystery cleared up.
"For all we know," he said resolutely, "the chap may have a wife and children, all broken down in health, owing to his departure from home. They may be at death's door. They may be on the edge of going out of their mind."
"He's unmarried. The newspaper said so."
"That makes it worse," declared Mr. Challin, "because it deprives him of any excuse for vanishing. Anyway, I'm going to have a talk to him."
"Not on my premises," I said.
"Is he in at the present moment?"
"At the present moment he is not in."
"Then he must be out," said Mr. Challin. "Consequently, I shall take up position near to yonder gate, and stay there until he returns. I must bring all my persuasive powers to bear on the man, and, if necessary, I shall use force."
"Mr. Challin," I said, "you are nothing more nor less than an old meddler."
"Mrs. Bosnell," said he, "take care you don't bring yourself within the law of libel."
I watched from the ground floor window, and sure enough when Mr. Darling returned, carrying his evening journal under his arm, the fusser engaged him in conversation. Mr. Darling appeared to be nervous, but he stood his ground and shook his head definitely. Mr. Challin called to a policeman who was going by. The three argued. Mr. Darling suddenly opened his newspaper and indicated a paragraph. The constable said something to Mr. Challin, who lifted his hat apologetically to Mr. Darling.
"Tell me," said Mr. Darling, coming in, "who is that extraordinary person who has been talking to me? Do you know, Mrs. Bosnell, who he thought me to be? He had the impression that I was the well-known novelist who has apparently been missing for some days. Very complimentary, no doubt, but I had to show him the news that the party in question had returned home, after a brief and quiet holiday in the Isle of Wight."
"People about here, sir," I remarked, "are fond of getting strange ideas into their heads. My advice to you is to take no notice."
My two girls were terribly disappointed. It seemed they had given private hints to other young ladies in the warehouse, and obtained a good deal of esteem and respect in consequence; they had to face the necessity of offering some explanation. Queenie felt certain, in spite of the discovery of the writer person, that Mr. Darling was, in some way or other, connected with a mystery. Queenie's young gentleman agreed with her view, and said we all ought to form ourselves into a committee for the purpose of keeping an eye on our first-floor back, and thus giving assistance to the law. I said that if I found myself attending a police court, I should, in all probability, expire of the shock before starting out. Meanwhile Mr. Darling paid his bill for the week and told me he was well satisfied.
Mr. Challin, when I caught sight of him from the window, looked very sorry for himself, and I hoped the blunder would be a lesson to him. He was everything a retired Government official could be; what I mean to say is, he had been elected on the borough council, and he was a guardian and a school manager, but he still had the leisure to attend to other people's business, and to write notes to the local paper about every blessed subject he could think of, and to attend public meetings and call out "Question!" It was on the Wednesday afternoon of Mr. Darling's second week with us that Mr. Challin, in going by, beckoned to show that he wanted to talk. I had some idea of turning one of the rooms out, but the charwoman had not arrived, and I was glad of an excuse for postponing a start. I went to the gate.
"I have solved the riddle, Mrs. Bosnell," he said pompously.
"Which one? The one about why does a sheep——"
"I have discovered the explanation," he went on, "of your so-called Mr. Darling's real identity. The particulars came to my knowledge quite by chance, and the description given to me absolutely tallies."
The charwoman was coming along from the tram-lines, and I told him to cut a long story short. Put in a few words, Mr. Challin's news was that a boxing man who had arranged to fight another boxing man at a place in Holborn was missing. Nothing had yet appeared in the newspapers, but folk who were in the know had acquaintance with the facts, and private inquiries were being made.
"Well," I interrupted, to put the charwoman off the scent, "all I can say is, Mr. Challin, that if the rates go up much higher, some of us will know how to vote when the next election comes round. Good morning!"
I was certainly under the impression that my woman had not caught anything of the matter we had talked about, but she very soon put me right on this. Her husband, it seemed, took an interest in boxing, and, in fact, did nothing else for a living. The running away, she said, of the pugilist in question was a serious affair for his backers, and they were hunting high and low to discover him, and to induce him to face his opponent. Mr. Darling, at this moment, was out on what my daughters call the lawn, at the back of the house, and he appeared to be going through some kind of gymnastic exercises.
"That proves it!" said the charwoman. I ordered her not to jump at conclusions, and to refrain from saying a word on the subject outside my house.
The two girls, that evening, were naturally astonished, but when we had debated the matter thoroughly, they agreed Mr. Darling did look more like a fighting man than anything else. They spoke about his ears; they now understood why his hair was cut so short. There came a ring at the door, and Muriel went to answer it, because it was just the time for her young gentleman to make a call. A scream from her called me and Queenie, and we rushed out to find a mob—nothing less, I give you my word—a mob trying to force a way in. I flung one of the shortest down the steps, and a man, edging forward, announced they had come on a peaceful mission. He instructed the others to keep quiet and remain outside, and we gave him permission to enter the house.
"A friend of mine, ladies," he said respectfully, "has took up his abode in this 'ere domicile. All I ask is to be allowed to favour him with one minute's conversation. That over, I guarantee you won't, be further disturbed, or worried, or incommoded."
He marched up the staircase. He came down in less than the minute.
"Lads," he said to the crowd, "we've made a bloomer. He's no more like Bat Jenkins than I am like the Prince of Wales. Bunk off!"
You would have thought that Mr. Challin, as a busybody, had been sufficiently discouraged to leave us and our first-floor back alone. Not him! The girls had gone to bed, and I was locking up, when I heard the flap of the letter-box give a clip. Outside I heard Mr. Challin's cough as he tiptoed away, and something assured me more trouble was afoot. In the letter-box I found a copy of a police notice headed "Murder." It gave a description of a man who was wanted for a crime at Shepherd's Bush, and finished by announcing a reward of a hundred pounds.
Mr. Darling came down to the kitchen in the morning, whilst I was still in my disables, and said, with a cheerful manner, that he would have his egg poached. I had scarcely slept a wink all night, and my nerves were not what you would call first-class.
"Tell me," he said at the doorway, and glancing back at the pictures which had been taken down in the passage, "this horrible and exasperating business of turning out rooms in a house—how long does it generally last? I happen to be new to it."
"A week, sir. Or ten days at the utmost."
"Mrs. Bosnell," he said, "in that case, I am going home to-day. Going home to my wife. Her spring domestic industries are, or should be, over, and if you can give me a written document to prove that I have stayed here all the time of my absence, I think she will understand and forgive. By the by, I see in this morning's newspaper they have caught that Shepherd's Bush man. Our London detectives are pretty smart, aren't they?"