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Riddell, Mrs. J. H / The Uninhabited House
Produced by Suzanne Shell, Martin Agren, Charles Franks
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team




THE UNINHABITED HOUSE

MRS. J.H. RIDDELL



1. MISS BLAKE--FROM MEMORY


If ever a residence, "suitable in every respect for a family of
position," haunted a lawyer's offices, the "Uninhabited House," about
which I have a story to tell, haunted those of Messrs. Craven and Son,
No. 200, Buckingham Street, Strand.

It did not matter in the least whether it happened to be let or unlet:
in either case, it never allowed Mr. Craven or his clerks, of whom I was
one, to forget its existence.

When let, we were in perpetual hot water with the tenant; when unlet, we
had to endeavour to find some tenant to take that unlucky house.

Happy were we when we could get an agreement signed for a couple of
years--although we always had misgivings that the war waged with the
last occupant would probably have to be renewed with his successor.

Still, when we were able to let the desirable residence to a solvent
individual, even for twelve months, Mr. Craven rejoiced.

He knew how to proceed with the tenants who came blustering, or
threatening, or complaining, or bemoaning; but he did not know what
to do with Miss Blake and her letters, when no person was liable
for the rent.

All lawyers--I am one myself, and can speak from a long and varied
experience--all lawyers, even the very hardest, have one client, at all
events, towards whom they exhibit much forbearance, for whom they feel a
certain sympathy, and in whose interests they take a vast deal of
trouble for very little pecuniary profit.

A client of this kind favours me with his business--he has favoured me
with it for many years past. Each first of January I register a vow he
shall cost me no more time or money. On each last day of December I
find he is deeper in my debt than he was on the same date a
twelvemonth previous.

I often wonder how this is--why we, so fierce to one human being,
possibly honest and well-meaning enough, should be as wax in the hand of
the moulder, when another individual, perhaps utterly disreputable,
refuses to take "No" for an answer.

Do we purchase our indulgences in this way? Do we square our accounts
with our own consciences by remembering that, if we have been as stone
to Dick, Tom, and Harry, we have melted at the first appeal of Jack?

My principal, Mr. Craven--than whom a better man never breathed--had an
unprofitable client, for whom he entertained feelings of the profoundest
pity, whom he treated with a rare courtesy. That lady was Miss Blake;
and when the old house on the Thames stood tenantless, Mr. Craven's bed
did not prove one of roses.

In our firm there was no son--Mr. Craven had been the son; but the old
father was dead, and our chief's wife had brought him only daughters.

Still the title of the firm remained the same, and Mr. Craven's own
signature also.

He had been junior for such a number of years, that, when Death sent a
royal invitation to his senior, he was so accustomed to the old form,
that he, and all in his employment, tacitly agreed it was only fitting
he should remain junior to the end.

A good man. I, of all human beings, have reason to speak well of him.
Even putting the undoubted fact of all lawyers keeping one unprofitable
client into the scales, if he had not been very good he must have washed
his hands of Miss Blake and her niece's house long before the period at
which this story opens.

The house did not belong to Miss Blake. It was the property of her
niece, a certain Miss Helena Elmsdale, of whom Mr. Craven always spoke
as that "poor child."

She was not of age, and Miss Blake managed her few pecuniary affairs.

Besides the "desirable residence, suitable," etcetera, aunt and niece
had property producing about sixty-five pounds a year. When we could let
the desirable residence, handsomely furnished, and with every
convenience that could be named in the space of a half-guinea
advertisement, to a family from the country, or an officer just returned
from India, or to an invalid who desired a beautiful and quiet abode
within an easy drive of the West End--when we could do this, I say, the
income of aunt and niece rose to two hundred and sixty-five pounds a
year, which made a very material difference to Miss Blake.

When we could not let the house, or when the payment of the rent was in
dispute, Mr. Craven advanced the lady various five and ten pound notes,
which, it is to be hoped, were entered duly to his credit in the Eternal
Books. In the mundane records kept in our offices, they always appeared
as debits to William Craven's private account.

As for the young men about our establishment, of whom I was one, we
anathematised that house. I do not intend to reproduce the language we
used concerning it at one period of our experience, because eventually
the evil wore itself out, as most evils do, and at last we came to look
upon the desirable residence as an institution of our firm--as a sort of
_cause célèbre_, with which it was creditable to be associated--as a
species of remarkable criminal always on its trial, and always certain
to be defended by Messrs. Craven and Son.

In fact, the Uninhabited House--for uninhabited it usually was, whether
anyone was answerable for the rent or not--finally became an object of
as keen interest to all Mr. Craven's clerks as it became a source of
annoyance to him.

So the beam goes up and down. While Mr. Craven pooh-poohed the
complaints of tenants, and laughed at the idea of a man being afraid of
a ghost, we did not laugh, but swore. When, however, Mr. Craven began to
look serious about the matter, and hoped some evil-disposed persons were
not trying to keep the place tenantless, our interest in the old house
became absorbing. And as our interest in the residence grew, so,
likewise, did our appreciation of Miss Blake.

We missed her when she went abroad--which she always did the day a fresh
agreement was signed--and we welcomed her return to England and our
offices with effusion. Safely I can say no millionaire ever received
such an ovation as fell to the lot of Miss Blake when, after a foreign
tour, she returned to those lodgings near Brunswick Square, which her
residence ought, I think, to have rendered classic.

She never lost an hour in coming to us. With the dust of travel upon
her, with the heat and burden of quarrels with railway porters, and
encounters with cabmen, visible to anyone who chose to read the signs
of the times, Miss Blake came pounding up our stairs, wanting to see
Mr. Craven.

If that gentleman was engaged, she would sit down in the general office,
and relate her latest grievance to a posse of sympathising clerks.

"And he says he won't pay the rent," was always the refrain of these
lamentations.

"It is in Ireland he thinks he is, poor soul!" she was wont to declare.

"We'll teach him different, Miss Blake," the spokesman of the party
would declare; whilst another ostentatiously mended a pen, and a
third brought down a ream of foolscap and laid it with a thump before
him on the desk.

"And, indeed, you're all decent lads, though full of your tricks,"
Miss Blake would sometimes remark, in a tone of gentle reproof. "But
if you had a niece just dying with grief, and a house nobody will live
in on your hands, you would not have as much heart for fun, I can tell
you that."

Hearing which, the young rascals tried to look sorrowful, and failed.

In the way of my profession I have met with many singular persons,
but I can safely declare I never met with any person so singular as
Miss Blake.

She was--I speak of her in the past tense, not because she is dead, but
because times and circumstances have changed since the period when we
both had to do with the Uninhabited House, and she has altered in
consequence--one of the most original people who ever crossed my path.

Born in the north of Ireland, the child of a Scottish-Ulster mother and
a Connaught father, she had ingeniously contrived to combine in her own
person the vices of two distinct races, and exclude the virtues of both.

Her accent was the most fearful which could be imagined. She had the
brogue of the West grafted on the accent of the North. And yet there
was a variety about her even in this respect. One never could tell,
from visit to visit, whether she proposed to pronounce "written" as
"wrutten" or "wretten";[Footnote: The wife of a celebrated Indian
officer stated that she once, in the north of Ireland, heard Job's
utterance thus rendered--"Oh! that my words were wr_u_tten, that they
were pr_e_nted in a b_u_ke."] whether she would elect to style her
parents, to whom she made frequent reference, her "pawpaw and mawmaw,"
or her "pepai and memai."

It all depended with whom Miss Blake had lately been most intimate. If
she had been "hand and glove" with a "nob" from her own country--she was
in no way reticent about thus styling her grander acquaintances, only
she wrote the word "knob"--who thought to conceal his nationality by
"awing" and "hawing," she spoke about people being "morried" and wearing
"sockcloth and oshes." If, on the contrary, she had been thrown into the
society of a lady who so far honoured England as to talk as some people
do in England, we had every A turned into E, and every U into O, while
she minced her words as if she had been saying "niminy piminy" since she
first began to talk, and honestly believed no human being could ever
have told she had been born west of St. George's Channel.

But not merely in accent did Miss Blake evidence the fact that her birth
had been the result of an injudicious cross; the more one knew of her,
the more clearly one saw the wrong points she threw out.

Extravagant to a fault, like her Connaught father, she was in no respect
generous, either from impulse or calculation.

Mean about minor details, a turn of character probably inherited from
the Ulster mother, she was utterly destitute of that careful and honest
economy which is an admirable trait in the natives of the north of
Ireland, and which enables them so frequently, after being strictly
just, to be much more than liberal.

Honest, Miss Blake was not--or, for that matter, honourable either. Her
indebtedness to our firm could not be considered other than a matter of
honour, and yet she never dreamt of paying her debt to Mr. Craven.

Indeed, to do Miss Blake strict justice, she never thought of paying the
debts she owed to anyone, unless she was obliged to do so.

Nowadays, I fear it would fare hard with her were she to try her old
tactics with the British tradesman; but, in the time of which I am
writing, co-operative societies were not, and then the British tradesman
had no objection, I fancy, to be gulled.

Perhaps, like the lawyer and the unprofitable client, he set-off being
gulled on one side his ledger against being fleeced on the other.

Be this as it may, we were always compounding some liability for Miss
Blake, as well as letting her house and fighting with the tenants.

At first, as I have said, we found Miss Blake an awful bore, but we
generally ended by deciding we could better spare a better man. Indeed,
the months when she did not come to our office seemed to want flavour.

Of gratitude--popularly supposed to be essentially characteristic of the
Irish--Miss Blake was utterly destitute. I never did know--I have never
known since, so ungrateful a woman.

Not merely did she take everything Mr. Craven did for her as a right,
but she absolutely turned the tables, and brought him in her debtor.

Once, only once, that I can remember, he ventured to ask when it would
be convenient for her to repay some of the money he had from time to
time advanced.

Miss Blake was taken by surprise, but she rose equal to the occasion.

"You are joking, Mr. Craven," she said. "You mean, when will I want to
ask you to give me a share of the profits you have made out of the
estate of my poor sister's husband. Why, that house has been as good as
an annuity to you. For six long years it has stood empty, or next to
empty, and never been out of law all the time."

"But, you know, Miss Blake, that not a shilling of profit has accrued to
me from the house being in law," he pleaded. "I have always been too
glad to get the rent for you, to insist upon my costs, and, really--."

"Now, do not try to impose upon me," she interrupted, "because it is of
no use. Didn't you make thousands of the dead man, and now haven't you
got the house? Why, if you never had a penny of costs, instead of all
you have pocketed, that house and the name it has brought to you, and
the fame which has spread abroad in consequence, can't be reckoned as
less than hundreds a year to your firm. And yet you ask me for the
return of a trumpery four or five sovereigns--I am ashamed of you! But I
won't imitate your bad example. Let me have five more to-day, and you
can stop ten out of the Colonel's first payment."

"I am very sorry," said my employer, "but I really have not five pounds
to spare."

"Hear him," remarked Miss Blake, turning towards me. "Young man"--Miss
Blake steadily refused to recognise the possibility of any clerk being
even by accident a gentleman--"will you hand me over the newspaper?"

I had not the faintest idea what she wanted with the newspaper, and
neither had Mr. Craven, till she sat down again deliberately--the latter
part of this conversation having taken place after she rose, preparatory
to saying farewell--opened the sheet out to its full width, and
commenced to read the debates.

"My dear Miss Blake," began Mr. Craven, after a minute's pause, "you
know my time, when it is mine, is always at your disposal, but at the
present moment several clients are waiting to see me, and--"

"Let them wait," said Miss Blake, as he hesitated a little. "Your time
and their time is no more valuable than mine, and I mean to stay
_here_," emphasising the word, "till you let me have that five pounds.
Why, look, now, that house is taken on a two years' agreement, and you
won't see me again for that time--likely as not, never; for who can tell
what may happen to anybody in foreign parts? Only one charge I lay upon
you, Mr. Craven: don't let me be buried in a strange country. It is bad
enough to be so far as this from my father and my mother's remains, but
I daresay I'll manage to rest in the same grave as my sister, though
Robert Elmsdale lies between. He separated us in life--not that she ever
cared for him; but it won't matter much when we are all bones and dust
together--"

"If I let you have that five pounds," here broke in Mr. Craven, "do I
clearly understand that I am to recoup myself out of Colonel Morris'
first payment?"

"I said so as plain as I could speak," agreed Miss Blake; and her speech
was very plain indeed.

Mr. Craven lifted his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders, while he drew
his cheque-book towards him.

"How is Helena?" he asked, as he wrote the final legendary flourish
after Craven and Son.

"Helena is but middling, poor dear," answered Miss Blake--on that
occasion she called her niece Hallana. "She frets, the creature, as is
natural; but she will get better when we leave England. England is a
hard country for anyone who is all nairves like Halana."

"Why do you never bring her to see me?" asked Mr. Craven, folding up
the cheque.

"Bring her to be stared at by a parcel of clerks!" exclaimed Miss Blake,
in a tone which really caused my hair to bristle. "Well-mannered, decent
young fellows in their own rank, no doubt, but not fit to look at my
sister's child. Now, now, Mr. Craven, ought Kathleen Blake's--or,
rather, Kathleen Elmsdale's daughter to serve as a fifth of November guy
for London lads? You know she is handsome enough to be a duchess, like
her mother."

"Yes, yes, I know," agreed Mr. Craven, and handed over the cheque.

After I had held the door open for Miss Blake to pass out, and closed it
securely and resumed my seat, Miss Blake turned the handle and treated
us to another sight of her bonnet.

"Good-bye, William Craven, for two years at any rate; and if I never see
you again, God bless you, for you've been a true friend to me and that
poor child who has nobody else to look to," and then, before Mr. Craven
could cross the room, she was gone.

"I wonder," said I, "if it will be two years before we see her again?"

"No, nor the fourth of two years," answered my employer. "There is
something queer about that house."

"You don't think it is haunted, sir, do you?" I ventured.

"Of course not," said Mr. Craven, irritably; "but I do think some one
wants to keep the place vacant, and is succeeding admirably."

The question I next put seemed irrelevant, but really resulted from a
long train of thought. This was it:

"Is Miss Elmsdale very handsome, sir?"

"She is very beautiful," was the answer; "but not so beautiful as her
mother was."

Ah me! two old, old stories in a sentence. He had loved the mother, and
he did not love the daughter. He had seen the mother in his bright,
hopeful youth, and there was no light of morning left for him in which
he could behold the child.

To other eyes she might, in her bright spring-time, seem lovely as an
angel from heaven, but to him no more such visions were to be
vouchsafed.

If beauty really went on decaying, as the ancients say, by this time
there could be no beauty left. But oh! greybeard, the beauty remains,
though our eyes may be too dim to see it; the beauty, the grace, the
rippling laughter, and the saucy smiles, which once had power to stir to
their very depths our hearts, friend--our hearts, yours and mine,
comrade, feeble, and cold, and pulseless now.



2. THE CORONER'S INQUEST


The story was told to me afterwards, but I may as well weave it in with
mine at this juncture.

From the maternal ancestress, the Demoiselles Blake inherited a certain
amount of money. It was through no fault of the paternal Blake--through
no want of endeavours on his part to make ducks and drakes of all
fortune which came in his way, that their small inheritance remained
intact; but the fortune was so willed that neither the girls nor he
could divert the peaceful tenure of its half-yearly dividends.

The mother died first, and the father followed her ere long, and then
the young ladies found themselves orphans, and the possessors of a fixed
income of one hundred and thirty pounds a year.

A modest income, and yet, as I have been given to understand, they might
have married well for the money.

In those days, particularly in Ireland, men went very cheap, and the
Misses Blake, one and both, could, before they left off mourning, have
wedded, respectively, a curate, a doctor, a constabulary officer, and
the captain of a government schooner.

The Misses Blake looked higher, however, and came to England, where rich
husbands are presumably procurable. Came, but missed their market. Miss
Kathleen found only one lover, William Craven, whose honest affection
she flouted; and Miss Susannah found no lover at all.

Miss Kathleen wanted a duke, or an earl--a prince of the blood royal
being about that time unprocurable; and an attorney, to her Irish ideas,
seemed a very poor sort of substitute. For which reason she rejected the
attorney with scorn, and remained single, the while dukes and earls were
marrying and intermarrying with their peers or their inferiors.

Then suddenly there came a frightful day when Kathleen and Susannah
learned they were penniless, when they understood their trustee had
robbed them, as he had robbed others, and had been paying their interest
out of what was left of their principal.

They tried teaching, but they really had nothing to teach. They tried
letting lodgings. Even lodgers rebelled against their untidiness and
want of punctuality.

The eldest was very energetic and very determined, and the youngest very
pretty and very conciliatory. Nevertheless, business is business, and
lodgings are lodgings, and the Misses Blake were on the verge of
beggary, when Mr. Elmsdale proposed for Miss Kathleen and was accepted.

Mr. Craven, by that time a family man, gave the bride away, and secured
Mr. Elmsdale's business.

Possibly, had Mrs. Elmsdale's marriage proved happy, Mr. Craven might
have soon lost sight of his former love. In matrimony, as in other
matters, we are rarely so sympathetic with fulfilment as with
disappointment. The pretty Miss Blake was a disappointed woman after she
had secured Mr. Elmsdale. She then understood that the best life could
offer her was something very different indeed from the ideal duke her
beauty should have won, and she did not take much trouble to conceal her
dissatisfaction with the arrangements of Providence.

Mr. Craven, seeing what Mr. Elmsdale was towards men, pitied her.
Perhaps, had he seen what Mrs. Elmsdale was towards her husband, he
might have pitied him; but, then, he did not see, for women are
wonderful dissemblers.

There was Elmsdale, bluff in manner, short in person, red in the face,
cumbersome in figure, addicted to naughty words, not nice about driving
fearfully hard bargains, a man whom men hated, not undeservedly; and
yet, nevertheless, a man capable of loving a woman with all the veins of
his heart, and who might, had any woman been found to love him, have
compassed earthly salvation.

There were those who said he never could compass eternal; but they
chanced to be his debtors--and, after all, that question lay between
himself and God. The other lay between himself and his wife, and it must
be confessed, except so far as his passionate, disinterested love for an
utterly selfish woman tended to redeem and humanise his nature, she
never helped him one step along the better path.

But, then, the world could not know this, and Mr. Craven, of whom I am
speaking at the moment, was likely, naturally, to think Mr. Elmsdale all
in the wrong.

On the one hand he saw the man as he appeared to men: on the other he
saw the woman as she appeared to men, beautiful to the last; fragile,
with the low voice, so beautiful in any woman, so more especially
beautiful in an Irish woman; with a languid face which insured
compassion while never asking for it; with the appearance of a martyr,
and the tone and the manner of a suffering saint.

Everyone who beheld the pair together, remarked, "What a pity it was
such a sweet creature should be married to such a bear!" but Mr.
Elmsdale was no bear to his wife: he adored her. The selfishness, the
discontent, the ill-health, as much the consequence of a peevish,
petted temper, as of disease, which might well have exhausted the
patience and tired out the love of a different man, only endeared her
the more to him.

She made him feel how inferior he was to her in all respects; how
tremendously she had condescended, when she agreed to become his wife;
and he quietly accepted her estimation of him, and said with a humility
which was touching from its simplicity:

"I know I am not worthy of you, Kathleen, but I do my best to make
you happy."

For her sake, not being a liberal man, he spent money freely; for her
sake he endured Miss Blake; for her sake he bought the place which
afterwards caused us so much trouble; for her sake, he, who had always
scoffed at the folly of people turning their houses into stores for
"useless timber," as he styled the upholsterer's greatest triumphs,
furnished his rooms with a lavish disregard of cost; for her sake, he,
who hated society, smiled on visitors, and entertained the guests she
invited, with no grudging hospitality. For her sake he dressed well,
and did many other things which were equally antagonistic to his
original nature; and he might just as well have gone his own way, and
pleased himself only, for all the pleasure he gave her, or all the
thanks she gave him.

If Mr. Elmsdale had come home drunk five evenings a week, and beaten his
wife, and denied her the necessaries of life, and kept her purse in a
chronic state of emptiness, she might very possibly have been extremely
grateful for an occasional kind word or smile; but, as matters stood,
Mrs. Elmsdale was not in the least grateful for a devotion, as beautiful
as it was extraordinary, and posed herself on the domestic sofa in the
character of a martyr.

Most people accepted the representation as true, and pitied her. Miss
Blake, blissfully forgetful of that state of impecuniosity from which
Mr. Elmsdale's proposal had extricated herself and her sister, never
wearied of stating that "Katty had thrown herself away, and that Mr.
Elmsdale was not fit to tie her shoe-string."

She generously admitted the poor creature did his best; but, according
to Blake, the poor creature's best was very bad indeed.

"It's not his fault, but his misfortune," the lady was wont to remark,
"that he's like dirt beside her. He can't help his birth, and his
dragging-up, and his disreputable trade, or business, or whatever he
likes to call it; he can't help never having had a father nor mother to
speak of, and not a lady or gentleman belonging to the family since it
came into existence. I'm not blaming him, but it is hard for Kathleen,
and she reared as she was, and accustomed to the best society in
Ireland,--which is very different, let me tell you, from the best
anybody ever saw in England."

There were some who thought, if Mrs. Elmsdale could tolerate her
sister's company, she might without difficulty have condoned her
husband's want of acquaintance with some points of grammar and
etiquette; and who said, amongst themselves, that whereas he only
maltreated, Miss Blake mangled every letter in the alphabet; but these
carping critics were in the minority.

Mrs. Elmsdale was a beauty, and a martyr; Mr. Elmsdale a rough beast,
who had no capacity of ever developing into a prince. Miss Blake was a
model of sisterly affection, and if eccentric in her manner, and
bewildering in the vagaries of her accent, well, most Irish people, the
highest in rank not excepted, were the same. Why, there was Lord
So-and-so, who stated at a public meeting that "roight and moight were
not always convartible tarms"; and accepted the cheers and laughter
which greeted his utterance as evidence that he had said something
rather neat.

Miss Blake's accent was a very different affair indeed from those
wrestles with his foe in which her brother-in-law always came off
worsted. He endured agonies in trying to call himself Elmsdale, and
rarely succeeded in styling his wife anything except Mrs. HE. I am told
Miss Blake's mimicry of this peculiarity was delicious: but I never was
privileged to hear her delineation, for, long before the period when
this story opens, Mr. Elmsdale had departed to that land where no
confusion of tongues can much signify, and where Helmsdale no doubt
served his purpose just as well as Miss Blake's more refined
pronunciation of his name.

Further, Miss Helena Elmsdale would not allow a word in depreciation of
her father to be uttered when she was near, and as Miss Helena could on
occasion develop a very pretty little temper, as well as considerable
power of satire, Miss Blake dropped out of the habit of ridiculing Mr.
Elmsdale's sins of omission and commission, and contented herself by
generally asserting that, as his manner of living had broken her poor
sister's heart, so his manner of dying had broken her--Miss
Blake's--heart.

"It is only for the sake of the orphan child I am able to hold up at
all," she would tell us. "I would not have blamed him so much for
leaving us poor, but it was hard and cruel to leave us disgraced into
the bargain"; and then Miss Blake would weep, and the wag of the office
would take out his handkerchief and ostentatiously wipe his eyes.

She often threatened to complain of that boy--a merry, mischievous young
imp--to Mr. Craven; but she never did so. Perhaps because the clerks
always gave her rapt attention; and an interested audience was very
pleasant to Miss Blake.

Considering the nature of Mr. Elmsdale's profession, Miss Blake had
possibly some reason to complain of the extremely unprofitable manner in
which he cut up. He was what the lady described as "a dirty
money-lender."

Heaven only knows how he drifted into his occupation; few men, I
imagine, select such a trade, though it is one which seems to exercise
an enormous fascination for those who have adopted it.

The only son of a very small builder who managed to leave a few hundred
pounds behind him for the benefit of Elmsdale, then clerk in a
contractor's office, he had seen enough of the anxieties connected with
his father's business to wash his hands of bricks and mortar.

Experience, perhaps, had taught him also that people who advanced money
to builders made a very nice little income out of the capital so
employed; and it is quite possible that some of his father's
acquaintances, always in want of ready cash, as speculative folks
usually are, offered such terms for temporary accommodation as tempted
him to enter into the business of which Miss Blake spoke so
contemptuously.

Be this as it may, one thing is certain--by the time Elmsdale was thirty
he had established a very nice little connection amongst needy men:
whole streets were mortgaged to him; terraces, nominally the property of
some well-to-do builder, were virtually his, since he only waited the
well-to-do builder's inevitable bankruptcy to enter into possession. He
was not a sixty per cent man, always requiring some very much better
security than "a name" before parting with his money; but still even
twenty per cent, usually means ruin, and, as a matter of course, most of
Mr. Elmsdale's clients reached that pleasant goal.

They could have managed to do so, no doubt, had Mr. Elmsdale never
existed; but as he was in existence, he served the purpose for which it
seemed his mother had borne him; and sooner or later--as a rule, sooner
than later--assumed the shape of Nemesis to most of those who "did
business" with him.

There were exceptions, of course. Some men, by the help of exceptional
good fortune, roguery, or genius, managed to get out of Mr. Elmsdale's
hands by other paths than those leading through Basinghall or Portugal
Streets; but they merely proved the rule.

Notably amongst these fortunate persons may be mentioned a Mr. Harrison
and a Mr. Harringford--'Arrison and 'Arringford, as Mr. Elmsdale called
them, when he did not refer to them as the two Haitches.

Of these, the first-named, after a few transactions, shook the dust of
Mr. Elmsdale's office off his shoes, sent him the money he owed by his
lawyer, and ever after referred to Mr. Elmsdale as "that thief," "that
scoundrel," that "swindling old vagabond," and so forth; but, then,
hard words break no bones, and Mr. Harrison was not very well thought
of himself.

His remarks, therefore, did Mr. Elmsdale very little harm--a
money-lender is not usually spoken of in much pleasanter terms by those
who once have been thankful enough for his cheque; and the world in
general does not attach a vast amount of importance to the opinions of a
former borrower. Mr. Harrison did not, therefore, hurt or benefit his
quondam friend to any appreciable extent; but with Mr. Harringford the
case was different.

He and Elmsdale had been doing business together for years, "everything
he possessed in the world," he stated to an admiring coroner's jury
summoned to sit on Mr. Elmsdale's body and inquire into the cause of
that gentleman's death--"everything he possessed in the world, he owed
to the deceased. Some people spoke hardly of him, but his experience of
Mr. Elmsdale enabled him to say that a kinder-hearted, juster, honester,
or better-principled man never existed. He charged high interest,
certainly, and he expected to be paid his rate; but, then, there was no
deception about the matter: if it was worth a borrower's while to take
money at twenty per cent, why, there was an end of the matter. Business
men are not children," remarked Mr. Harringford, "and ought not to
borrow money at twenty per cent, unless they can make thirty per cent,
out of it." Personally, he had never paid Mr. Elmsdale more than twelve
and a half or fifteen per cent.; but, then, their transactions were on a
large scale. Only the day before Mr. Elmsdale's death--he hesitated a
little over that word, and became, as the reporters said, "affected"--he
had paid him twenty thousand pounds. The deceased told him he had urgent
need of the money, and at considerable inconvenience he raised the
amount. If the question were pressed as to whether he guessed for what
purpose that sum was so urgently needed, he would answer it, of course;
but he suggested that it should not be pressed, as likely to give pain
to those who were already in terrible affliction.

Hearing which, the jury pricked up their ears, and the coroner's
curiosity became so intense that he experienced some difficulty in
saying, calmly, that, "as the object of his sitting there was to elicit
the truth, however much he should regret causing distress to anyone, he
must request that Mr. Harringford, whose scruples did him honour, would
keep back no fact tending to throw light upon so sad an affair."

Having no alternative after this but to unburden himself of his secret,
Mr. Harringford stated that he feared the deceased had been a heavy
loser at Ascot. Mr. Harringford, having gone to that place with some
friends, met Mr. Elmsdale on the race-course. Expressing astonishment at
meeting him there, Mr. Elmsdale stated he had run down to look after a
client of his who he feared was going wrong. He said he did not much
care to do business with a betting man. In the course of subsequent
conversation, however, he told the witness he had some money on the
favourite.

As frequently proves the case, the favourite failed to come in first:
that was all Mr. Harringford knew about the matter. Mr. Elmsdale never
mentioned how much he had lost--in fact, he never referred again, except
in general terms, to their meeting. He stated, however, that he must
have money, and that immediately; if not the whole amount, half, at all
events. The witness found, however, he could more easily raise the
larger than the smaller sum. There had been a little unpleasantness
between him and Mr. Elmsdale with reference to the demand for money made
so suddenly and so peremptorily, and he bitterly regretted having even
for a moment forgotten what was due to so kind a friend.

He knew of no reason in the world why Mr. Elmsdale should have committed
suicide. He was, in business, eminently a cautious man, and Mr.
Harringford had always supposed him to be wealthy; in fact, he believed
him to be a man of large property. Since the death of his wife, he had,
however, noticed a change in him; but still it never crossed the
witness's mind that his brain was in any way affected.

Miss Blake, who had to this point postponed giving her evidence, on
account of the "way she was upset," was now able to tell a sympathetic
jury and a polite coroner all she knew of the matter.

"Indeed," she began, "Robert Elmsdale had never been the same man since
her poor sister's death; he mooned about, and would sit for half an
hour at a time, doing nothing but looking at a faded bit of the
dining-room carpet."

He took no interest in anything; if he was asked any questions about the
garden, he would say, "What does it matter? _she_ cannot see it now."

"Indeed, my lord," said Miss Blake, in her agitation probably
confounding the coroner with the chief justice, "it was just pitiful to
see the creature; I am sure his ways got to be heart-breaking."

"After my sister's death," Miss Blake resumed, after a pause, devoted by
herself, the jury, and the coroner to sentiment, "Robert Elmsdale gave
up his office in London, and brought his business home. I do not know
why he did this. He would not, had she been living, because he always
kept his trade well out of her sight, poor man. Being what she was, she
could not endure the name of it, naturally. It was not my place to say
he shouldn't do what he liked in his own house, and I thought the
excitement of building a new room, and quarrelling with the builder, and
swearing at the men, was good for him. He made a fireproof place for his
papers, and he fitted up the office like a library, and bought a
beautiful large table, covered with leather; and nobody to have gone in
would have thought the room was used for business. He had a Turkey
carpet on the floor, and chairs that slipped about on castors; and he
planned a covered way out into the road, with a separate entrance for
itself, so that none of us ever knew who went out or who came in. He
kept his affairs secret as the grave."

"No," in answer to the coroner, who began to think Miss Blake's
narrative would never come to an end. "I heard no shot: none of us
did: we all slept away from that part of the house; but I was restless
that night, and could not sleep, and I got up and looked out at the
river, and saw a flare of light on it. I thought it odd he was not
gone to bed, but took little notice of the matter for a couple of
hours more, when it was just getting gray in the morning, and I
looked out again, and still seeing the light, slipped on a
dressing-wrapper and my slippers, and ran downstairs to tell him he
would ruin his health if he did not go to his bed.

"When I opened the door I could see nothing; the table stood between me
and him; but the gas was flaring away, and as I went round to put it
out, I came across him lying on the floor. It never occurred to me he
was dead; I thought he was in a fit, and knelt down to unloose his
cravat, then I found he had gone.

"The pistol lay on the carpet beside him--and that," finished Miss
Blake, "is all I have to tell."

When asked if she had ever known of his losing money by betting, she
answered it was not likely he would tell her anything of that kind.

"He always kept his business to himself," she affirmed, "as is the way
of most men."

In answer to other questions, she stated she never heard of any losses
in business; there was plenty of money always to be had for the asking.
He was liberal enough, though perhaps not so liberal latterly, as before
his wife's death; she didn't know anything of the state of his affairs.
Likely, Mr. Craven could tell them all about that.

Mr. Craven, however, proved unable to do so. To the best of his belief,
Mr. Elmsdale was in very easy circumstances. He had transacted a large
amount of business for him, but never any involving pecuniary loss or
anxiety; he should have thought him the last man in the world to run
into such folly as betting; he had no doubt Mrs. Elmsdale's death had
affected him disastrously. He said more than once to witness, if it were
not for the sake of his child, he should not care if he died that night.

All of which, justifying the jury in returning a verdict of "suicide
while of unsound mind," they expressed their unanimous opinion to that
effect--thus "saving the family the condemnation of _felo de se_"
remarked Miss Blake.

The dead man was buried, the church service read over his remains, the
household was put into mourning, the blinds were drawn up, the windows
flung open, and the business of life taken up once more by the
survivors.



3. OUR LAST TENANT


It is quite competent for a person so to manage his affairs, that,
whilst understanding all about them himself, another finds it next to
impossible to make head or tail of his position.

Mr. Craven found that Mr. Elmsdale had effected this feat; entries there
were in his books, intelligible enough, perhaps, to the man who made
them, but as so much Hebrew to a stranger.

He had never kept a business banking account; he had no regular journal
or ledger; he seemed to have depended on memoranda, and vague and
uncertain writings in his diary, both for memory and accuracy; and as
most of his business had been conducted _viva voce_, there were few
letters to assist in throwing the slightest light on his transactions.

Even from the receipts, however, one thing was clear, viz., that he had,
since his marriage, spent a very large sum of money; spent it lavishly,
not to say foolishly. Indeed, the more closely Mr. Craven looked into
affairs, the more satisfied he felt that Mr.



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