No. 17

Joseph Jefferson Farjeon

Preview: Issue 1 of 1

1 - Figures in the Fog

Fog had London by the throat. It blinded its eyes and muffled its ears. Such traffic as was not at a standstill groped its way with scarcely a sound through the jaundiced streets, and to cross a road was no longer a casual matter, but an adventure into the unknown. For this reason, the timid stayed indoors, while the more daring, and those who had no choice, groped gingerly along the pavements. The pickpockets were busy.

But it is not in the heart of London that our story commences. The fog had stretched its fingers far and wide, and a man who was approaching along one of the arteries that led Londonwards from the north-east paused for a few moments to rub his eyes, and then his stubby chin.

'Gawd 'elp us!' he muttered, staring into the great, gloomy smudge ahead of him. 'If that ain't the Yeller Peril, wot is?'

He had trudged out of a land of sunshine into a land of white mist, and now the white mist was becoming opaque orange. The prospect was so thoroughly unappetising that he even considered the idea of turning back. Had he known what awaited him in that gloomy smudge he would have acted very promptly on the idea, but the future itself is as impenetrable as a fog, and he decided to go on.

'Arter all,' he argued to himself, 'one plice is as good as another, when you ain't got nowhere helse!'

So he lit his best cigarette—barely more than half of it had been smoked by its previous owner—and resumed his way.

A figure suddenly loomed towards him, out of the mist.

'Oi!' exclaimed our traveller, and jumped. His nerves were never of the best, and hunger was beginning to tell on him. But he reacted quickly, and grinned as the figure stopped. 'Why didn't yer sound yer 'ooter?'

The figure grinned, too.

'A bit thick, mate, isn't it?' said the stranger.

'Thick as cheese. Cheese! Lummy, I wish I ' ad a bit o' cheese!'

'Hungry?'

'Not 'arf! Yer ain't got sich a thing as a leg o' beef on yer, I s'pose?'

The other laughed.

'There's an inn a little way up the road.'

'Ah! Well, jest run back and tell 'em to put dahn the red carpet, will yer? Ben, o' the Merchant Service, is a-comin'. And 'e's got fourpence to spend. Oi! Where yer goin'? Oi!'

The stranger had turned, and darted off. Ben, of the Merchant Service, stared after him.

'Well, if that don't tike the bloomin' ticket!' he murmured. 'Seemed like as if 'e thort I meant it!'

Once more, an instinct rose in him to turn back. He was just entering the fringe of the thick fog belt, and its uncanniness depressed him. He recalled that the stranger had stood almost next to him, yet he had not seen his face. Out of the fog he had come, and back into the fog he had returned. A shadow with a voice—that was all.

But the glory of the Merchant Service, however humble your position in it, must be maintained. You could not let it down; not, at least, until you were sure you were going to get hurt! And, after all, what was a little bit of fog? So, deriding himself for his fears, the subtle source of which he was not fitted to understand, he again ignored the kindly warning, and resumed his onward trudge.

The thought of the inn a little way up the road certainly did something to dissipate the gloom. Fourpence wouldn't go far, but a friendly innkeeper might make it go a little further. Then he might earn a few coppers by doing something. You never knew. Ben, of the Merchant Service—perhaps it should be explained, late of the Merchant Service—was not in love with work. The stomach, however, drives.

He came upon the inn abruptly. All meetings are abrupt in a fog. It loomed up, a vague, shadowy outline, on his right, and a feeble lamp burned over the door. Ben plunged his hand into his pocket, to corroborate his impression of his bank balance, found the impression correct, and entered.

If he hoped to escape the fog inside, he was disappointed. The bar parlour was full of it. A cough directed him to the counter, and he found a young woman peering at him with half-frowning eyes.

'It's orl right, miss,' Ben assured her. 'I ain't no matinay idol, but then, on the hother 'and, I ain't so bad as I looks. 'Ow far'll fourpence go?'

The young woman smiled, glanced towards an inner room, and then turned back to Ben.

'Fourpence don't go far,' she commented.

'It ain't so dusty, miss, with a bit o' good nacher thrown hin,' said Ben slyly.

'How do you know I've got any good nature?' she retorted.

'It's a guess, miss. But I reckon it's a good 'un. Any'ow, I'll see yer doesn't lose by it. I'll leave yer me di'mond studs in me will.'

Her smile grew more friendly, but once more she glanced towards the inner room. Ben began to grow vaguely uneasy.

'Wotcher got in there, miss?' he asked. 'A hogre?'

The woman shook her head, as though impatient with herself.

'No—just another customer,' she replied.

'Then wotcher keep on—'

'Nothing! What do yer want for your fourpence?'

'Soup, fish, cut orf the joint, and a couple o' veg.,' grinned Ben cheekily.

'Go on—you don't want much, do you?' laughed the woman. 'Well, I must say, you look as if you could do with it. I'll see what I can manage. Get in there.'

'Eh? Wot's that?' jerked Ben.

He glanced towards the door of the inner room, at which she was pointing.

'What's the matter?' she demanded. 'He won't eat you!'

''Oo sed 'e would?' retorted Ben, and shuffled towards the door.

The door was closed, and he opened it slowly and cautiously. Whatever the young woman might say, something was disturbing her, and that something was in the inner room. All right, then. No one was afraid. Just the same, it didn't harm to be careful, did it?

When he had opened the door a little more than a crack, he paused. Two seconds of inaction went by. Then he whispered over his shoulder, to the young woman.

'Ain't yer givin' us a light?'

'Don't be silly,' replied the woman. 'Isn't a lamp good enough?'

'There ain't no lamp, miss!'

'No lamp? Here, you do want something to eat. Open the door a bit wider, then you'll see.'

'I tells yer, there ain't no light!' whispered Ben. 'And I ain't goin'—'

He stopped abruptly. The woman stared at him, now frankly uneasy. Her mouth remained half open, while five more inactive seconds went by. Then, suddenly, a violent shiver revivified the statuesque figure of Ben, and he swiftly and silently closed the door.

'Goodness, what's that?' asked the woman, with her hand at her heart.

Ben slithered to a seat, and, sitting down abruptly, blinked at her.

'What is it, what is it?' repeated the woman, in a low voice.

'I ain't goin' in there,' muttered Ben.

'For goodness' sake—'

'I'll tell yer, miss. Jest a minit. Sorter took me in the wind, like … There wasn't no light, see? Wot I ses. If you've give 'im one, 'e's put it aht. And orl I sees, miss, when I looks in that there room, was nothin' … nothin' …'

'All right, I heard you the first time,' interposed the woman. 'Don't give me the creeps! Oh, dear, I wish father was home, that I do. Well—what made you shut the door so quick?'

Ben looked at her, slightly injured.

'Ain't I tellin' yer?' he demanded. 'Orl right, then. I sees nothin', as I ses. But then, sudden like, I sees—somethin'. It's a figger. Your customer, I reckons, miss. But 'e ain't sittin' at the table. 'E ain't doin' that.'

'What's he doing, then?'

''E seems to be listenin', miss,' said Ben sepulchrally. 'Standin' by the wall, 'e is, listenin', miss … listenin' …'

'Oh, hark to the man!' gasped the young woman, with her eyes on the door. 'Now he's off again!'

'Yus, but that ain't orl,' he went on. 'I sees the winder. Lummy, I sees the winder. And orl of a suddin, another figger outside pops up agin' it, and shoves 'is fice agin' the glass.' The woman stifled a little shriek, while Ben took out a large red handkerchief and mopped his brow. 'So, arter that,' he concluded, 'I closes the door, and comes away. And so'd anyone.'

There was a short pause. The young woman appeared undecided what to do.

'What did he look like—the man at the window?' she asked.

'Nothin'. Yer couldn't see,' replied Ben. 'Jest shadders, both on 'em. Wot do they call them black things? Sillyhetts, don't they? Well, that's what they was. A couple o' sillyhetts. But—I dunno,' he added reflectively. 'I did seem ter reckernise that chap at the winder—in a kind 'f a way. Seemed like a feller I met up the road. Some'ow. I dunno.' A practical streak entered into him. 'Wotcher goin' ter do, miss? Go in and light 'is lamp for 'im agin?'

'Not me!' she retorted.

''Corse not,' agreed Ben. 'And no more ain't I goin' in there to heat my Carlton lunch!'

'You can eat it in here, if you like.'

'Yus, I do like. Though, mind yer, miss—if it wasn't fer you, I'd 'ook it.'

The young woman looked at Ben a little more intently after this frank statement, and a new light came into her eye.

'You haven't got no call to stay here for me,' she said, watching him.

'Yus, I 'ave,' he responded. 'The call o' the Merchant Service.'

'Oh! Are you in the Merchant Service, then?'

'Well, speakin' strict, miss,' answered Ben carefully, 'I 'ave bin. And 'opes ter be agin. But, jest nah … get me?'

'I see,' she nodded. 'You're out of a job.'

'That's right. Man o' lesher.'

'Well, I've got a brother in the Merchant Service, and you can keep your fourpence,' said the young woman. 'I ain't going to charge you for your Carlton lunch, as you call it. You stay here till my father returns, that's all I ask.'

'And yer doesn't hask in vain,' exclaimed Ben roundly. 'I'll proteck yer. Oh, my Gawd, wot's that?'

The door of the inner room flew open, a figure darted across the floor, and vanished through the porch.

2 - Enter No. 17

Ben stared at the street door, now open wide, and then at the young woman, whose hands were clasped in fright. Ben's own heart was beating somewhat rapidly.

'Was that yer customer, miss?' he asked.

'Yes,' she gasped. 'Oh, dear! What's it all mean?'

Ben had a theory, but, before expounding it, he played for security. Both the street door and the door to the inner room were open. They required closing.

He walked to the street door first. He peered cautiously out into the wall of yellow, coughed, drew his head in again, and closed the door. Then, even more cautiously, he shuffled across to the inner room, a small portion of which was dimly discernible through the aperture.

'Is anybody in there?' whispered the woman.

'If there is, 'e can blinkin' well stay!' Ben whispered back, as he whipped the door to and locked it. 'The on'y chap it'd be is that chap wot was at the winder, and if 'e come hin at the winder, then 'e can go hout o' the winder. I reckon that's fair, ain't it?'

'Yes,' murmured the woman. 'Why do you suppose he ran out like that?'

''Cos 'e was runnin' away from somebody,' answered Ben obviously, 'and the somebody was the chap at the winder. Pline as a pikestaff, ain't it? 'Ide and seek in the fog. Yus, and you thort somethin' was hup afore I come along, didn't yer?'

'Yes,' she nodded. 'He acted so peculiar.'

''Ow—peckyewlier?'

'Well, he put his head in first, and had a quick look round. Then he went out again, and then he came in again. "Say, give me something to eat," he says, "and I've no time to waste." One of those Yanks. I never did like them. And in he goes to that room just as if the whole place belonged to him.'

'That's a Yank,' said Ben.

'And once, when my back was turned,' she went on, 'he came out of the room quietly, and gave me such a turn. He went to have a look out of the front door, and I said, "Isn't the fog awful?" just to make conversation, and he grinned and replied, "I like it." "I like it," he said, and then went back to the room sudden, as if it was a joke, Of course, I thought I was just silly,' she concluded, 'thinking that way about him. But, you see, I wasn't!'

'No, you wasn't,' agreed Ben. ''E's a wrong 'un.'

He glanced uneasily at the door of the inner room, and the young woman followed his glance.

'I say,' she said quietly. 'Suppose there is somebody in there?'

'That's why I locked it,' replied Ben.

'Yes—but oughtn't we to go in and have a look round?'

'Not till I've got somethin' in me stummick. Wot abart that Carlton lunch, miss?'

'Yes—in a minute,' she answered, her eyes still glued on the door. 'I think we ought to have that look round first, though.'

'Wrong order, miss,' Ben assured her. 'Eat fust, 'eroism arterwards. It's a motter in the Merchant Service.'

But she hardly listened to him. In spite of her fear, a sense of duty was reasserting itself within her, and Ben noted this transition with inward misgivings.

'You wait a minute,' murmured the young woman, coming away from the counter. 'I'm going to open that door!'

Ben protested.

'Wait a minit yerself,' he said. 'Ye'r' actin' silly.'

'No, I'm not! Unless you mean I'm acting silly standing here, doing nothing.'

''Ere! 'Arf a mo'!' gasped Ben, as she made another movement towards the locked door. 'I'll show yer ye'r' silly, if yer like.'

'Go on, then,' she answered, pausing. 'But be quick about it.'

'It don't tike two ticks. Fust, s'pose there ain't nothin' in that there room?'

'I don't suppose there will be.'

'Orl right, then. Wot's the use o' wastin' yer time, goin' hin?'

'But there might be something.'

'Ah, then you'd be an idjit to go hin,' exclaimed Ben, triumphantly crowning his point. 'Get me?'

'I get you that you've no pluck,' she retorted, frowning.

'Ah, you orter seed me in the war, miss. I was blowed up by a mine once, and come dahn singin'.'

'Go on with you!' she said, trying to remain severe, and finding it rather difficult. He was a queer card. 'If that's true, go in there singing!'

She took hold of his arm, but he backed hastily away.

'That's dif'rent,' he frowned. 'We was orl together in the war like. But—wot's ter say there ain't a corpse in there?'

'Here—enough of that!' cried the woman.

'Lummy!' muttered Ben, following his new train of thought.

'I'll bet that's wot it is. A blinkin' corpse. That feller at the winder got in arter that Yank, the Yank murders 'im, and 'ops it.' Gentle perspiration moistened the theorist's brow as he added, ' Nah , miss—'oo's goin' ter hopen that door?'

'I am,' responded the woman breathlessly.

Ben's theory terrified her, but it also decided her. The man in there might not be dead; he might be merely hurt, and require their aid. The utter silence of the inner room lent colour to these notions. Yes, yes—clearly, the door must be unlocked and opened without any more delay.

'Orl right—yer will 'ave it!' chattered Ben, as she turned the key. He looked round for a missile or weapon of some sort. A wooden chair was nearest, and he seized that. The door was flung open, and the woman entered.

Some breathless moments went by. She did not reappear.

'Oi!' shouted Ben, in a sudden frenzy. 'Oi!'

Raising his chair high, he approached the door, but sprang back as the woman suddenly reappeared.

'Lor' luvvaduck!' he gasped. 'Wotcher wanter spring at a feller like that for?'

'I wasn't springing— you did the spring,' she retorted, 'and if you're a specimen of the Merchant Service, then I'd sooner trust myself in a train!'

'Yer carn't do nothin' when ye'r' 'ungry,' growled Ben. 'Wotcher find in there?'

'Nothing.'

'Wot! Nothin' at all?'

'Nothing at all.'

Ben drank in this reassuring news. It put a new angle on things. He lowered his chair, and straightened his back—straightened it as far as it would straighten, that is. Then he said, impressively:

'You was too quick, you was, miss. You didn't give me no time, see? I'm a-goin' hin!'

He marched to the door, but even though he knew the room was empty, he hesitated for an instant on the brink. Almost pitch-dark, for the light that should have entered the window was practically fogged out, it looked a gloomy hole. He could just discern the outline of the table in the middle of the room, and of a chair that seemed to have been hastily shoved aside. Yes, a very gloomy hole—yet a palace of delight to another Ben was soon to enter.

'I thought you were going "hin"?' observed a sarcastic voice behind him.

'So I am goin' hin,' retorted Ben, 'but I ain't no hexpress trine!'

He entered cautiously. She had said the room was empty, but, after all, there might be somebody under the table, or behind that big arm-chair in the corner. He groped about, and suddenly, like a child anxious to get a nasty business over, he bent down and lifted an edge of the table-cloth. That he saw nothing was, at first, no proof that there was nothing to see, because in his terror lest he should see a pair of eyes staring out at him, he had instinctively closed his own eyes. But when he opened them, they met blankness, and he breathed again.

'Thank Gawd!' he murmured. 'This is a narsty bizziness, s'elp me it is!'

His mind relieved, he now proceeded to examine the room with elaborate thoroughness. If the Merchant Service had lagged behind a little, it would at least prove that, when it once tackled a job, it tackled it properly. Ben examined the table, noting the half-finished meal (which in other circumstances he would very promptly have finished), and then he looked behind all the chairs—yes, even the big ones with the backs you couldn't see round. He did take one curtain for granted, but he prodded the other one, and, as he did so, something slipped off the bottom of it.

''Allo—wot's this?' he queried.

He stooped and picked up the object. In the gloom he could hardly distinguish what it was, but it appeared to be a small cardboard ticket or badge. He struck a match. The light flared abruptly upon a number, written large upon the cardboard's surface.

'Seventeen,' muttered Ben, staring at it. 'Wot the 'ell's that mean? Number Seventeen!'

He dropped the match suddenly. Someone had entered the bar parlour from the road. He could hear the steps. Lummy!

Then he smiled.

'Idjut!' he thought. ''Er father come 'ome, o' course!'

He strode out of the room, making a brave show, and nearly fell into the arms of a policeman.

'Hallo!' exclaimed the policeman. 'Wot's this?'

For a moment, Ben was wordless—he never did feel really comfortable with policemen—and the woman explained.

'Oh, he's all right,' she said. 'Don't worry about him. But I'm glad you've come—there's been funny goings on here, I can tell you.'

'Yes, that's why I've come,' answered the constable. 'This is pickpockets' weather, and I've seen some funny characters round about here.' He looked at Ben suspiciously. 'I ain't too sure this isn't one of 'em!'

''Oo? Me?' expostulated Ben indignantly. 'Well, if that ain't sorse! 'Ere I stays, ter proteck a gal, and now you comes along—'

'Steady, steady!' interposed the constable. 'There's funny people about, I tell you, and I've seen some of them about this place. One ran out of this inn just now, but I couldn't catch him.'

'Yes, there was something funny about him,' agreed the woman. 'He left in a hurry, without even finishing his meal.'

'And I expect this man would have left in a hurry too,' observed the constable, ironically. 'Open your hand! What have you got there?'

'Wot, this?' answered Ben. 'Picked it up in that room there jest now. 'Ere—don't snatch!'

The constable whipped the piece of cardboard out of Ben's hand.

'Hallo!' he exclaimed. 'What's this?'

'My age,' replied Ben.

'Now, then, don't be funny,' frowned the constable.

'Well, 'ow do I know wot it is,' retorted Ben. 'You ain't give me time to look yet. Got it off the floor—'

'Yes, so you say,' interposed the constable, and turned to the woman. 'Have you seen this before?'

'No, never.'

'He says he picked it off the floor in the next room.'

'Well, he may have done so.'

'Were you in the next room before him?'

'Yes, I was.'

'And you didn't see anything on the floor?'

'No. But it was dark. I didn't look everywhere. I expect it belonged to that other man.'

'Oh, you do? Well, that's got to be proved, and meanwhile it's on this man—'

'Yes, but what is it, anyway?' asked the woman, trying to get a peep at it.

'Something—mighty queer,' replied the constable darkly. 'Don't ask no questions, and you won't be told no lies. But I dare say our friend here—'

He turned to Ben. But Ben was gone. He had decided to forgo his Carlton luncheon.

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