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- The Mystery of a Hansom Cab - 5/55 -
which were a few sparse flowers--the especial delight of Mrs. Hableton. It was, her way to tie an old handkerchief round her head and to go out into the garden and dig and water her beloved flowers until, from sheer desperation at the overwhelming odds, they gave up all attempt to grow. She was engaged in this favourite occupation about a week after her lodger had gone. She wondered where he was.
"Lyin' drunk in a public-'ouse, I'll be bound," she said, viciously pulling up a weed, "a-spendin' 'is, rent and a-spilin' 'is inside with beer--ah, men is brutes, drat 'em!"
Just as she said this, a shadow fell across the garden, and on looking up, she saw a man leaning over the fence, staring at her.
"Git out," she said, sharply, rising from her knees and shaking her trowel at the intruder. "I don't want no apples to-day, an' I don't care how cheap you sells 'em."
Mrs. Hableton evidently laboured under the delusion that the man was a hawker, but seeing no hand-cart with him, she changed her mind.
"You're takin' a plan of the 'ouse to rob it, are you?" she said. "Well, you needn't, 'cause there ain't nothin' to rob, the silver spoons as belonged to my father's mother 'avin' gone down my 'usband's, throat long ago, an' I ain't 'ad money to buy more. I'm a lone pusson as is put on by brutes like you, an' I'll thank you to leave the fence I bought with my own 'ard earned money alone, and git out."
Mrs. Hableton stopped short for want of breath, and stood shaking her trowel, and gasping like a fish out of water.
"My dear lady," said the man at the fence, mildly, "are you--"
"No, I ain't," retorted Mrs. Hableton, fiercely, "I ain't neither a member of the 'Ouse, nor a school teacher, to answer your questions. I'm a woman as pays my rates an' taxes, and don't gossip nor read yer rubbishin' newspapers, nor care for the Russings, no how, so git out."
"Don't read the papers?" repeated the man, in a satisfied tone, "ah! that accounts for it."
Mrs. Hableton stared suspiciously at the intruder. He was a burly-looking man, with a jovial red face, clean shaven, and his sharp, shrewd-looking grey eyes twinkled like two stars. He was, well-dressed in a suit of light clothes, and wore a stiffly-starched white waistcoat, with a massive gold chain stretched across it. Altogether he gave Mrs. Hableton finally the impression of being a well-to-do tradesman, and she mentally wondered what he wanted.
"What d'y want?" she asked, abruptly.
"Does Mr. Oliver Whyte live here?" asked the stranger.
"He do, an' he don't," answered Mrs. Hableton, epigrammatically. "I ain't seen 'im for over a week, so I s'pose 'e's gone on the drink, like the rest of 'em, but I've put sumthin' in the paper as 'ill pull him up pretty sharp, and let 'im know I ain't a carpet to be trod on, an' if you're a friend of 'im, you can tell 'im from me 'e's a brute, an' it's no more but what I expected of 'im, 'e bein' a male."
The stranger waited placidly during the outburst, and Mrs. Hableton, having stopped for want of breath, he interposed, quietly--
"Can I speak to you for a few moments?"
"An' who's a-stoppin' of you?" said Mrs. Hableton, defiantly. "Go on with you, not as I expects the truth from a male, but go on."
"Well, really," said the other, looking up at the cloudless blue sky, and wiping his face with a gaudy red silk pocket-handkerchief, "it is rather hot, you know, and--"
Mrs. Hableton did not give him time to finish, but walking to the gate, opened it with a jerk.
"Use your legs and walk in," she said, and the stranger having done so, she led the way into the house, and into a small neat sitting-room, which seemed to overflow with antimacassars, wool mats, and wax flowers. There were also a row of emu eggs on the mantelpiece, a cutlass on the wall, and a grimy line of hard-looking little books, set in a stiff row on a shelf, presumably for ornament, for their appearance in no way tempted one to read them.
The furniture was of horsehair, and everything was hard and shiny, so when the stranger sat down in the slippery--looking arm-chair that Mrs. Hableton pushed towards him; he could not help thinking it had been stuffed with stones, it felt so cold and hard. The lady herself sat opposite to him in another hard chair, and having taken the handkerchief off her head, folded it carefully, laid it on her lap, and then looked straight at her unexpected visitor.
"Now then," she said, letting her mouth fly open so rapidly that it gave one the impression that it was moved by strings like a marionette, "Who are you? what are you? and what do you want?"
The stranger put his red silk handkerchief into his hat, placed it on the table, and answered deliberately--
"My name is Gorby. I am a detective. I want Mr. Oliver Whyte."
"He ain't here," said Mrs. Hableton, thinking that Whyte had got into trouble, and was in danger of arrest.
"I know that," answered Mr. Gorby.
"Then where is 'e?"
Mr. Gorby answered abruptly, and watched the effect of his words.
"He is dead."
Mrs. Hableton grew pale, and pushed back her chair. "No," she cried, "he never killed 'im, did 'e?"
"Who never killed him?" queried Mr. Gorby, sharply.
Mrs. Hableton evidently knew more than she intended to say, for, recovering herself with a violent effort, she answered evasively--
"He never killed himself."
Mr. Gorby looked at her keenly, and she returned his gaze with a defiant stare.
"Clever," muttered the detective to himself; "knows something more than she chooses to tell, but I'll get it out of her." He paused a moment, and then went on smoothly,
"Oh, no! he did not commit suicide; what makes you think so?" Mrs. Hableton did not answer, but, rising from her seat, went over to a hard and shiny-looking sideboard, from whence she took a bottle of brandy and a small wine-glass. Half filling the glass, she drank it off, and returned to her seat.
"I don't take much of that stuff," she said, seeing the detective's eyes fixed curiously on her, "but you 'ave given me such a turn that I must take something to steady my nerves; what do you want me to do?"
"Tell me all you know," said Mr. Gorby, keeping his eyes fixed on her face.
"Where was Mr. Whyte killed?" she asked.
"He was murdered in a hansom cab on the St. Kilda Road."
"In the open street?" she asked in a startled tone.
"Yes, in the open street."
"Ah!" she drew a long breath, and closed her lips, firmly. Mr. Gorby said nothing. He saw that she was deliberating whether or not to speak, and a word from him might seal her lips, so, like a wise man, he kept silent. He obtained his reward sooner than he expected.
"Mr. Gorby," she said at length, "I 'ave 'ad a 'ard struggle all my life, which it came along of a bad husband, who was a brute and a drunkard, so, God knows, I ain't got much inducement to think well of the lot of you, but--murder," she shivered slightly, though the room was quite warm, "I didn't think of that."
"In connection with whom?"
"Mr. Whyte, of course," she answered, hurriedly.
"And who else?"
"I don't know."
"Then there is nobody else?"
"Well, I don't know--I'm not sure."
The detective was puzzled.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I will tell you all I know," said Mrs. Hableton, "an' if 'e's innocent, God will 'elp 'im."
"If who is innocent?"
"I'll tell you everythin' from the start," said Mrs. Hableton, "an' you can judge for yourself."
Mr. Gorby assented, and she began:
"It's only two months ago since I decided to take in lodgers; but charin's 'ard work, and sewin's tryin' for the eyes, So, bein' a lone woman, 'avin' bin badly treated by a brute, who is now dead, which I was allays a good wife to 'im, I thought lodgers 'ud 'elp me a little, so I put a notice in the paper, an' Mr. Oliver Whyte took the rooms two months ago."
"What was he like?"
"Not very tall, dark face, no whiskers nor moustache, an' quite the gentleman."
"Anything peculiar about him?"
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