The first of the series of curious happenings, which led to such a surprising and, indeed, extraordinary denouement, occurred on the twelfth of October. It was a Monday; about four-thirty in the afternoon. Madge Brodie was alone in the house. The weather was dull, a suspicion of mist was in the air, already the day was drawing in.
Madge was writing away with might and main, hard at work on one of those MSS. with which she took such peculiar pains; and with which the editors for whom they were destined took so little. If they would only take a little more–enough to read them through, say–Madge felt sure they would not be so continually returned. Her pen went tearing away at a gallop–it had reached the last few lines–they were finished. She turned to glance at the clock which was on the mantelshelf behind her.
“Gracious!–I had no idea it was so late. Ella will be home in an hour, and there is nothing in the place for her to eat!”
She caught up the sheets of paper, fastened them together at the corner, crammed them into an envelope, scribbled a note, crammed it in after them, addressed the envelope, closed it, jumped up to get her hat, just as there came a rat-tat-tat at the hall-door knocker.
“Now, who’s that? I wonder if it is that Miss Brice come for her lesson after all–three hours late. It will be like her if it is–but she sha’n’t have it now. We’ll see if she shall.”
She caught up her hat from the couch, perched it on her head, pushed a pin through the crown.
“If she sees that I am just going out, I should think that even she will hardly venture to ask me to give her a lesson three hours after the time which she herself appointed.”
As she spoke she was crossing the little passage towards the front door.
It was not Miss Brice–it was a man. A man, too, who behaved somewhat oddly. No sooner had Madge opened the door, than stepping into the tiny hall, without waiting for any sort of invitation, taking the handle from her hand, he shut it after him with considerably more haste than ceremony. She stared, while he leaned against the wall as if he was short of breath.
He was tall; she only reached to his shoulder, and she was scarcely short. He was young–there was not a hair on his face. He was dressed in blue serge, and when he removed his felt hat he disclosed a well-shaped head covered with black hair, cut very short, with the apparent intention of getting the better of its evident tendency to curl at the tips. His marked feature, at that moment, was his obvious discomposure. He did not look as if he was a nervous sort of person; yet, just then, the most bashful bumpkin could not have seemed more ill at ease. Madge was at a loss what to make of him.
“I’m feeling a little faint.”
The words were stammered out, as if with a view of explaining the singularity of his bearing–yet he did not appear to be the kind of individual who might be expected to feel “a little faint,” unless nature belied her own handwriting. The strength and constitution of a Samson was written large all over him. It seemed to strike him that his explanation–such as it was–was a little lame, so he stammered something else.
“You give music lessons?”
“Yes, we do give music lessons–at least, I do.”
“You? Oh!–You do?”
His tone implied–or seemed to imply–that her appearance was hardly consistent with that of a giver of music lessons. She drew herself a little up.
“I do give music lessons. Have you been recommended by one of my pupils?”
She cast her mind over the scanty list to ascertain which of them might be likely to give such a recommendation. His stumbling answer saved her further trouble on that score.
“No, I–I saw the plate on the gate, so I–I thought I’d just come in and ask you to give me one.”
“Give you a music lesson?”
“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“But”–she paused, hardly knowing what to say. She had never contemplated giving lessons to pupils of this description. “I never have given lessons to a–gentleman. I supposed they always went to professors of their own sex.”
“Do they? I don’t know. I hope you don’t mind making an exception in my case. I–I’m so fond of music.” Suddenly he changed the subject. “This is Clover Cottage?”
“Yes, this is Clover Cottage.”
“Are you–pardon me–but are you Miss Ossington?”
“Ossington? No–that is not my name.”
“But doesn’t some one of that name live here?”
“No one. I never heard it before. I think there must be some mistake.”
She laid her hand on the latch–by way of giving him a hint to go. He prevented her opening it, placing his own hand against the door; courteously, yet unmistakably.
“Excuse me–but I hope you will give me a lesson; if it is only of a quarter of an hour, to try what I can do–to see if it would be worth your while to have me as a pupil. I have been long looking for an opportunity of taking lessons, and when I saw your plate on the gate I jumped at the chance.”
She hesitated. The situation was an odd one–and yet she had already been for some time aware that young women who are fighting for daily bread have not seldom to face odd situations. Funds were desperately low. She had to contribute her share to the expenses of the little household, and that share was in arrear. Of late MSS. had been coming back more monotonously than ever. Pupils–especially those who were willing to pay possible prices–were few and far between. Who was she, that she should turn custom from the door? It was nothing that this was a stranger–all her pupils were strangers at the beginning; most of them were still strangers at the end. Men, she had heard, pay better than women. She might take advantage of this person’s sex to charge him extra terms–even to the extent of five shillings a lesson instead of half a crown. It was an opportunity she could not afford to lose. She resolved to at least go so far as to learn exactly what it was he wanted; and then if, from any point of view, it seemed advisable, to make an appointment for a future date.
She led the way into the sitting room–he following.
“Are you quite a beginner?” she asked.
“No, not–not altogether.”
“Let me see what you can do.”
She went to a pile of music which was on a little table, for the purpose of selecting a piece of sufficient simplicity to enable a tyro to display his powers, or want of them. He was between her and the window. In passing the window he glanced through it. As he did so, he gave a sudden start–a start, in fact, which amounted to a positive jump. His hat dropped from his hand, and, wholly regardless that he was leaving it lying on the floor, he hurried backwards, keeping in the shadow, and as far as possible from the window. The action was so marked that it was impossible it should go unnoticed. It filled Madge Brodie with a sense of shock which was distinctly disagreeable. Her eyes, too, sought the window–it looked out on to the road. A man, it struck her, of emphatically sinister appearance, was loitering leisurely past. As she looked he stopped dead, and, leaning over the palings, stared intently through the window. It was true that the survey only lasted for a moment, and that then he shambled off again, but the thing was sufficiently conspicuous to be unpleasant.
So startled was she by the connection which seemed to exist between the fellow’s insolence and her visitor’s perturbation that, without thinking of what she was doing, she placed the first piece she came across upon the music-stand–saying, as she did so:
“Let me see what you can do with this.”
Her words were unheeded. Her visitor was drawing himself into an extreme corner of the room, in a fashion which, considering his size and the muscle which his appearance suggested, was, in its way, ludicrous. It was not, however, the ludicrous side which occurred to Madge; his uneasiness made her uneasy too. She spoke a little sharply, as if involuntarily.
“Do you hear me? Will you be so good as to try this piece, and let me see what you can make of it.”
Her words seemed to rouse him to a sense of misbehaviour.
“I beg your pardon; I am afraid you will think me rude, but the truth is, I–I have been a little out of sorts just lately.” He came briskly towards the piano; glancing however, as Madge could not help but notice, nervously through the window as he came. The man outside was gone; his absence seemed to reassure him. “Is this the piece you wish me to play? I will do my best.”
He did his best–or, if it was not his best, his best must have been something very remarkable indeed.
The piece she had selected–unwittingly–was a Minuet of Mozart’s. A dainty trifle; a pitfall for the inexperienced; seeming so simple, yet needing the soul, and knowledge, of a virtuoso to make anything of it at all. Hardly the sort of thing to set before a seeker after music lessons, whose acquaintance with music, for all she knew, was limited to picking out the notes upon the keyboard. At her final examination she herself had chosen it, first because she loved it, and, second, because she deemed it to be something which would enable her to illustrate her utmost powers at their very best.
It was only when he struck the first few notes that she realised what it was she had put in front of him; when she did, she was startled. Whether he understood what the piece was there for–that he was being set to play it as an exhibition of his ignorance rather than of his knowledge–was difficult to say. It is quite possible that in the preoccupation of his mind it had escaped him altogether that the sole excuse for his presence in that room lay in the fact that he was seeking lessons from this young girl. There could be no doubt whatever that at least one of the things that he had said of himself was true, and that he did love music; there could be just as little doubt that he already was a musician of a quite unusual calibre–one who had been both born and made.
He played the delicate fragment with an exquisite art which filled Madge Brodie with amazement. She had never heard it played like that before–never! Not even by her own professor. Perhaps her surprise was so great that, in the first flush of it, she exaggerated the player’s powers.
It seemed to her that this man played like one who saw into the very depths of the composer’s soul, and who had all the highest resources of his art at his command to enable him to give a perfect–an ideal–rendering. Such an exquisite touch! such masterly fingering! such wondrous phrasing! such light and shade! such insight and such execution! She had not supposed that her cheap piano had been capable of such celestial harmony. She listened spellbound–for she, too, had imagination, and she, too, loved music. All was forgotten in the moment’s rapture–in her delight at hearing so unexpectedly sounding in her ears, what seemed to her, in her excitement, the very music of the spheres. The player seemed to be as oblivious of his surroundings as Madge Brodie–his very being seemed wrapped up in the ecstasy of producing the quaint, sweet music for the stately old-time measure.
When he had finished, the couple came back to earth, with a rush.
With an apparent burst of recollection his hands came off the keyboard, and he wheeled round upon the music-stool with an air of conscience-stricken guilt. Madge stood close by, actually quivering with a conflict of emotions. He met her eyes–instantly to avert his own. There was silence–then a slight tremor in her voice in spite of her effort to prevent it.
“I suppose you have been having a little jest at my expense.”
“A jest at your expense?”
“I daresay that is what you call it–though I believe in questions of humour there is room for wide differences of opinion. I should call it something else.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“That is false.”
At this point-blank contradiction, the blood showed through his sallow cheeks.
“Yes, false. You do understand me. Did you not say that you had been for some time seeking for an opportunity to take lessons in music?”
Confronted by her red-hot accusatory glances, he stammered, stumbled, stopped.
“I have been seeking such an opportunity.”
“Indeed? And do you wish me to suppose that you believed that you–you–could be taught anything in music by an unknown creature who fastened a plate announcing lessons in music, to the palings of such a place as this?”
He was silent–looking as if he would have spoken, but could not. She went on:
“I thank you for the pleasure you have given me–the unexpected pleasure. It is a favourite piece of mine which you have just performed–I say ‘performed’ advisedly. I never heard it better played by any one–never! and I never shall. You are a great musician. I?–I am a poor teacher of the rudiments of the art in which you are such an adept. I am obliged by your suggestion that I should give you lessons. I regret that to do so is out of my power. You already play a thousand times better than I ever shall–I was just going out as you came in. I must ask you to be so good as to permit me to go now.”
He rose from the music stool–towering above her higher and higher. From his altitude he looked down at her for some seconds in silence. Then, in his deep bass voice, he began, as it seemed, to excuse himself.
She cut him short.
“I believe nothing–and wish to believe nothing. You had reasons of your own for coming here; what they were I do not know, nor do I seek to know. All I desire is that you should take yourself away.”
He stooped to pick up his hat. Rising with it in his hand, he glanced towards the window. As he did so, the man who had leaned over the palings came strolling by again. The sight of this man filled him with his former uneasiness. He retreated further back into the room–all but stumbling over Miss Brodie in his haste. In a person of his physique the agitation he displayed was pitiful. It suggested a degree of cowardice which nothing in his appearance seemed to warrant.
“I–I beg your pardon–but might I ask you a favour?”
“A favour? What is it?”
“I will be frank with you. I am being watched by a person whose scrutiny I wish to avoid. Because I wished to escape him was one reason why I came in here.”
Madge went to the window. The man in the road was lounging lazily along with an air of indifference which was almost too marked to be real. He gave a backward glance as he went. At sight of Madge he quickened his pace.
“Is that the man who is watching you?”
“Yes, I–I fancy it is.”
“You fancy? Don’t you know?”
“It is the man.”
“He is shorter than you–smaller altogether. Compared to you he is a dwarf. Why are you afraid of him?”
Either the question itself, or the tone in which it was asked, brought the blood back into his cheeks.
“I did not say I was afraid.”
“No? Then if you are not afraid, why should you have been so anxious to avoid him as to seek refuge, on so shallow a pretext, in a stranger’s house?”
The intruder bit his lip. His manner was sullen.
“I regret that the circumstances which have brought me here are of so singular and complicated a character as to prevent my giving you the full explanation to which you may consider yourself entitled. I am sorry that I should have sought refuge beneath your roof as I own I did; and the more so as I am compelled to ask you another favour–permission to leave that refuge by means of the back door.”
She twirled round on her heels and faced him.
“The back door!”
“I presume there is a back door?”
“Certainly–only it leads to the front.”
Again he bit his lip. His temper did not seem to be improving. The girl’s tone, face, bearing, were instinct with scorn.
“Is there no means of getting away by the back without returning to the front?”
“Only by climbing a hedge and a fence on to the common.”
“Perhaps the feat will be within my powers–if you will allow me to try.”
“Allow you to try! And is it possible that you forced your way into the house on the pretence of seeking lessons in music, when your real motive was to seek an opportunity of evading pursuit by means of the back door?”
“I am aware that the seeming anomaly of my conduct entitles you to think the worst of me.”
“Seeming anomaly!” She laughed contemptuously. “Pray, sir, permit me to lead the way–to the back door.”
She strode off, with her head in the air; he came after, with a brow as black as night. At the back door they paused.
“I thank you for having afforded me shelter, and apologise for having sought it.”
She looked him up and down, as if she were endeavouring, by mere force of visual inspection, to make out what kind of a man he was.
“I want to ask you a question. Answer it truthfully, if you can. Is the man in front a policeman?”
He started with what seemed genuine surprise.
“A policeman! Good heavens, no.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. He’s very far from being a policeman–rather, if anything, the other way.” What he meant to infer, she did not know; but he laughed shortly, “What makes you ask such a thing?”
She was holding the door open in her hand. He had crossed the threshold and stood without. Malice–and something else–gleamed in her eyes.
“Because,” she answered, “I wondered if you were a thief.”
With that she slammed the door in his face and turned the key. Then, slipping into the kitchen which was on her left, keeping the door on the jar, remaining well in the shadow, she watched his proceedings through the window.
For a moment he stayed where she had left him standing, as if rooted to the spot. Then, with an exaggerated courtesy, taking off his hat, he bowed to the door. Turning, he marched down the garden path, his tall figure seeming more gigantic than ever as she noted how straight he held himself. In a twinkling he was over the fence and hedge. Once on the other side, he shook his fist at Clover Cottage.
The watcher in the kitchen clenched her teeth as she perceived the gesture.
“Ungrateful creature! And to think that a man who has the very spirit of music in his soul, and who plays the piano like an angel, should be such a wretch! That a monster seven feet high, who looks like a combination of Samson and Goliath rolled into one, should be such a coward and a cur–afraid of a pigmy five foot high! I hope I’ve seen the last of him. If I have any more such pupils I shall have to shut up shop. Now perhaps I shall be allowed to post my MS. and run across to Brown’s to get a chop for Ella’s tea.”
With that she passed from the back to the front. Outside the front door she paused to look around her and take her bearings, half doubtful as to whether any more dubious strangers might not be in sight.
The only person to be seen was the man whose presence had proved so disconcerting to her recent visitor. He had reached the corner of the street, and, turning, strolled slowly back towards Clover Cottage. He gave one quick, shifty glance at her as she came out, but beyond that he took–or appeared to take–no notice of her appearance.
“Now, I wonder,” she said to herself, “who you may be. Your friend, who, for all I know, is now running for his life across the common, said you were no policeman–and, I am bound to say, you don’t look as if you were; he added that, if anything, you were rather the other way. If, by that, he meant you were a thief, I’m free to admit you look your profession to the life. I wonder if it would be safe to run across to Brown’s while you’re about;–not that I’m afraid of you, as I’ll prove to your entire satisfaction if you only let me have the chance. Only you seem to be one of those agreeable creatures who, if they are only sure that a house is empty, and there’s not even a girl inside, can enact to perfection the part of area sneak; and neither Ella nor I wish to lose any of the few possessions which we have.”
While she hesitated a curious scene took place–a scene in which the gentleman on the prowl played a leading rôle.
The road in which Clover Cottage stood was bisected on the right and left by other streets, within a hundred yards of the house itself. On reaching the corner of the street on the left, the gentleman on the prowl, as we have seen, had performed a right-about-face, and returned to the cottage. As he advanced, a woman came round the corner of the street, upon the right. He saw her the instant she appeared, and the sight had on him an astonishing effect. He stopped, as if petrified; stared, as if the eyes were starting from his head; gave a great gasp; turned; tore off like a hunted animal; dashed round the corner on the left; and vanished out of sight. Having advanced to within a few feet of where Madge was standing, she was a close spectator of his singular behaviour. As she looked to see what had been the exciting cause, half expecting that her recent visitor had come back and that the tables had been turned, and the gentleman on the prowl had played the coward in his turn, the woman who had come round the other corner had already reached the cottage. Pushing the gate unceremoniously open, she strode straight past Madge, and, without a with-your-leave or by-your-leave, marched through the open door into the hall beyond.
As Madge eyed her with mingled surprise and indignation she exclaimed, with what seemed unnecessary ferocity–
“I’ve come to see the house.”
Categories: The Book Lover