The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 27.

Mother Guttersnipe Joins the Majority.

Punctual to his appointment, Kilsip called at Calton’s office at eight o’clock, in order to guide him through the squalid labyrinths of the slums. He found the barrister waiting impatiently for him. The fact is, Calton had got it into his head that Rosanna Moore was at the bottom of the whole mystery, and every new piece of evidence he discovered went to confirm this belief. When Rosanna Moore was dying, she might have confessed something to Mother Guttersnipe, which would hint at the name of the murderer, and he had a strong suspicion that the old hag had received hush-money in order to keep quiet. Several times before Calton had been on the point of going to her and trying to get the secret out of her — that is, if she knew it; but now fate appeared to be playing into his hands, and a voluntary confession was much more likely to be true than one dragged piecemeal from unwilling lips.

By the time Kilsip made his appearance Calton was in a high state of excitement.

“I suppose we’d better go at once,” he said to Kilsip, as he lit a cigar. “That old hag may go off at any moment.”

“She might,” assented Kilsip, doubtfully; “but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she pulled through. Some of these old women have nine lives like a cat.”

“Not improbable,” retorted Calton, as they passed into the brilliantly-lighted street; “her nature seemed to me to be essentially feline. But tell me,” he went on, “what’s the matter with her — old age?”

“Partly; drink also, I think,” answered Kilsip. “Besides, her surroundings are not very healthy, and her dissipated habits have pretty well settled her.”

“It isn’t anything catching, I hope,” cried the barrister, with a shudder, as they passed into the crowd of Bourke Street.

“Don’t know, sir, not being a doctor,” answered the detective, stolidly.

“Oh!” ejaculated Calton, in dismay.

“It will be all right, sir,” said Kilsip, reassuringly; “I’ve been there dozens of times, and I’m all right.”

“I dare say,” retorted the barrister; “but I may go there once and catch it, whatever it is.”

“Take my word, sir, it’s nothing worse than old age and drink.”

“Has she a doctor?”

“Won’t let one come near her — prescribes for herself.”

“Gin, I suppose? Humph! Much more unpleasant than the usual run of medicines.”

In a short time they found themselves in Little Bourke Street, and after traversing a few dark and narrow lanes — by this time they were more or less familiar to Calton — they found themselves before Mother Guttersnipe’s den.

They climbed the rickety stairs, which groaned and creaked beneath their weight, and found Mother Guttersnipe lying on the bed in the corner. The elfish black-haired child was playing cards with a slatternly-looking girl at a deal table by the faint light of a tallow candle.

They both sprang to their feet as the strangers entered, and the elfish child pushed a broken chair in a sullen manner towards Mr. Calton, while the other girl shuffled into a far corner of the room, and crouched down there like a dog. The noise of their entry awoke the hag from an uneasy slumber into which she had fallen. Sitting up in bed, she huddled the clothes round her. She presented such a gruesome spectacle that involuntarily Calton recoiled. Her white hair was unbound, and hung in tangled masses over her shoulders in snowy profusion. Her face, parched and wrinkled, with the hooked nose, and beady black eyes, like those of a mouse, was poked forward, and her skinny arms, bare to the shoulder, were waving wildly about as she grasped at the bedclothes with her claw-like hands. The square bottle and the broken cup lay beside her, and filling herself a dram, she lapped it up greedily.

The irritant brought on a paroxysm of coughing which lasted until the elfish child shook her well, and took the cup from her.

“Greedy old beast,” muttered this amiable infant, peering into the cup, “ye’d drink the Yarrer dry, I b’lieve.”

“Yah!” muttered the old woman feebly. “Who’s they, Lizer?” she said, shading her eyes with one trembling hand, while she looked at Calton and the detective.

“The perlice cove an’ the swell,” said Lizer, suddenly. “Come to see yer turn up your toes.”

“I ain’t dead yet, ye whelp,” snarled the hag with sudden energy; “an’ if I gits up I’ll turn up yer toes, cuss ye.”

Lizer gave a shrill laugh of disdain, and Kilsip stepped forward.

“None of this,” he said, sharply, taking Lizer by one thin shoulder, and pushing her over to where the other girl was crouching; “stop there till I tell you to move.”

Lizer tossed back her tangled black hair, and was about to make some impudent reply, when the other girl, who was older and wiser, put out her hand, and pulled her down beside her.

Meanwhile, Calton was addressing himself to the old woman in the corner.

“You wanted to see me?” he said gently, for, notwithstanding his repugnance to her, she was, after all, a woman, and dying.

“Yes, cuss ye,” croaked Mother Guttersnipe, lying down, and pulling the greasy bedclothes up to her neck. “You ain’t a parson?” with sudden suspicion.

“No, I am a lawyer.”

“I ain’t a-goin’ to have the cussed parsons a-prowlin’ round ’ere,” growled the old woman, viciously. “I ain’t a-goin’ to die yet, cuss ye; I’m goin’ to get well an’ strong, an’ ’ave a good time of it.”

“I’m afraid you won’t recover,” said Calton, gently. “You had better let me send for a doctor.”

“No, I shan’t,” retorted the hag, aiming a blow at him with all her feeble strength. “I ain’t a-goin’ to have my inside spil’d with salts and senner. I don’t want neither parsons nor doctors, I don’t. I wouldn’t ’ave a lawyer, only I’m a-thinkin’ of makin’ my will, I am.”

“Mind I gits the watch,” yelled Lizer, from the corner. “If you gives it to Sal I’ll tear her eyes out.”

“Silence!” said Kilsip, sharply, and, with a muttered curse, Lizer sat back in her corner.

“Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, she are,” whined the old woman, when quiet was once more restored. “That young devil ’ave fed at my ’ome, an’ now she turns, cuss her.”

“Well — well,” said Calton, rather impatiently, “what is it you wanted to see me about?”

“Don’t be in such a ’urry,” said the hag, with a scowl, “or I’m blamed if I tell you anything, s’elp me.”

She was evidently growing very weak, so Calton turned to Kilsip and told him in a whisper to get a doctor. The detective scribbled a note on some paper, and, giving it to Lizer, ordered her to take it. At this, the other girl arose, and, putting her arm in that of the child’s, they left together.

“Them two young ’usseys gone?” said Mother Guttersnipe. “Right you are, for I don’t want what I’ve got to tell to git into the noospaper, I don’t.”

“And what is it?” asked Calton, bending forward.

The old woman took another drink of gin, and it seemed to put life into her, for she sat up in the bed, and commenced to talk rapidly, as though she were afraid of dying before her secret was told.

“You’ve been ’ere afore?” she said, pointing one skinny finger at Calton, “and you wanted to find out all about ’er; but you didn’t. She wouldn’t let me tell, for she was always a proud jade, a-flouncin’ round while ’er pore mother was a-starvin’.”

“Her mother! Are you Rosanna Moore’s mother?” cried Calton, considerably astonished.

“May I die if I ain’t,” croaked the hag. “‘Er pore father died of drink, cuss ’im, an’ I’m a-follerin’ ’im to the same place in the same way. You weren’t about town in the old days, or you’d a-bin after her, cuss ye.”

“After Rosanna?”

“The werry girl,” answered Mother Guttersnipe. “She were on the stage, she were, an’ my eye, what a swell she were, with all the coves a-dyin’ for ’er, an’ she dancin’ over their black ’earts, cuss ’em; but she was allays good to me till ’e came.”

“Who came?”

“‘E!” yelled the old woman, raising herself on her arm, her eyes sparkling with vindictive fury. “‘E, a-comin’ round with di’monds and gold, and a-ruinin’ my pore girl; an’ how ’e’s ’eld ’is bloomin’ ’ead up all these years as if he were a saint, cuss ’im — cuss ’im.”

“Whom does she mean?” whispered Calton to Kilsip.

“Mean!” screamed Mother Guttersnipe, whose sharp ears had caught the muttered question. “Why, Mark Frettlby!”

“Good God!” Calton rose up in his astonishment, and even Kilsip’s inscrutable countenance displayed some surprise.

“Aye, ’e were a swell in them days,” pursued Mother Guttersnipe, “and ’e comes a-philanderin’ round my gal, cuss ’im, an’ ruins ’er, and leaves ’er an’ the child to starve, like a black-’earted villain as ’e were.”

“The child! Her name?”

“Bah,” retorted the hag, with scorn, “as if you didn’t know my gran’daughter Sal.”

“Sal, Mark Frettlby’s child?”

“Yes, an’ as pretty a girl as the other, tho’ she ’appened to be born on the wrong side of the ’edge. Oh, I’ve seen ’er a-sweepin’ along in ’er silks an’ satins as tho’ we were dirt — an’ Sal ’er ’alf sister — cuss ’er.”

Exhausted by the efforts she had made, the old woman sank back in her bed, while Calton sat dazed, thinking over the astounding revelation that had just been made. That Rosanna Moore should turn out to be Mark Frettlby’s mistress he hardly wondered at; after all, the millionaire was but a man, and in his young days had been no better and no worse than the rest of his friends. Rosanna Moore was pretty, and was evidently one of those women who — rakes at heart — prefer the untrammelled freedom of being a mistress, to the sedate bondage of a wife. In questions of morality, so many people live in glass houses, that there are few nowadays who can afford to throw stones. Calton did not think any the worse of Frettlby for his youthful follies. But what did surprise him was that Frettlby should be so heartless, as to leave his child to the tender mercies of an old hag like Mother Guttersnipe. It was so entirely different from what he knew of the man, that he was inclined to think that the old woman was playing him a trick.

“Did Mr. Frettlby know Sal was his child?” he asked.

“Not ’e,” snarled Mother Guttersnipe, in an exultant tone. “‘E thought she was dead, ’e did, arter Rosanner gave him the go-by.”

“And why did you not tell him?”

“‘Cause I wanted to break ’is ’eart, if ’e ’ad any,” said the old beldame, vindictively. “Sal was a-goin’ wrong as fast as she could till she was tuk from me. If she had gone and got into quod I’d ’ave gone to ’im, and said, ‘Look at yer darter! ‘Ow I’ve ruined her as you did mine.’”

“You wicked woman,” said Calton, revolted at the malignity of the scheme. “You sacrificed an innocent girl for this.”

“None of yer preachin’,” retorted the hag sullenly; “I ain’t bin brought up for a saint, I ain’t — an’ I wanted to pay ’im out — ’e paid me well to ’old my tongue about my darter, an’ I’ve got it ’ere,” laying her hand on the pillow, “all gold, good gold — an’ mine, cuss me.”

Calton rose, he felt quite sick at this exhibition of human depravity, and longed to be away. As he was putting on his hat, however, the two girls entered with the doctor, who nodded to Kilsip, cast a sharp scrutinising glance at Calton, and then walked over to the bed. The two girls went back to their corner, and waited in silence for the end. Mother Guttersnipe had fallen back in the bed, with one claw-like hand clutching the pillow, as if to protect her beloved gold, and over her face a deadly paleness was spreading, which told the practised eye of the doctor that the end was near. He knelt down beside the bed for a moment, holding the candle to the dying woman’s face. She opened her eyes, and muttered drowsily —

“Who’s you? get out,” but then she seemed to grasp the situation again, and she started up with a shrill yell, which made the hearers shudder, it was so weird and eerie.

“My money!” she yelled, clasping the pillow in her skinny arms. “It’s all mine, ye shan’t have it — cuss ye.”

The doctor arose from his knees, and shrugged his shoulders.

“Not worth while doing anything,” he said coolly, “she’ll be dead soon.”

The old woman, mumbling over her pillow, caught the word, and burst into tears.

“Dead! dead! my poor Rosanna, with ’er golden ’air, always lovin’ ’er pore mother till ’e took ’er away, an’ she came back to die — die — ooh!”

Her voice died away in a long melancholy wail, that made the two girls in the corner shiver, and put their fingers in their ears.

“My good woman,” said the doctor, bending over the bed, “would you not like to see a minister?”

She looked at him with her bright, beady eyes, already somewhat dimmed with the mists of death, and said, in a harsh, low whisper — ” Why?”

“Because you have only a short time to live,” said the doctor, gently. “You are dying.”

Mother Guttersnipe sprang up, and seized his arm with a scream of terror.

“Dyin’, dyin’ — no! no!” she wailed, clawing his sleeve. “I ain’t fit to die — cuss me; save me — save me; I don’t know where I’d go to, s’elp me — save me.”

The doctor tried to remove her hands, but she held on with wonderful tenacity.

“It is impossible,” he said briefly.

The hag fell back in her bed.

“I’ll give you money to save me,” she shrieked; “good money — all mine — all mine. See — see — ’ere — suverains,” and tearing her pillow open, she took out a canvas bag, and from it poured a gleaming stream of gold. Gold — gold — it rolled all over the bed, over the floor, away into the dark corners, yet no one touched it, so enchained were they by the horrible spectacle of the dying woman clinging to life. She clutched some of the shining pieces, and held them up to the three men as they stood silently beside the bed, but her hands trembled so that sovereigns kept falling from them on the floor with metallic clinks.

“All mine — all mine,” she shrieked, loudly. “Give me my life — gold — money — cuss ye — I sold my soul for it — save me — give me my life,” and, with trembling hands, she tried to force the gold on them. They said no word, but stood silently looking at her, while the two girls in the corner clung together, and trembled with fear.

“Don’t look at me — don’t,” cried the hag, falling down again amid the shining gold. “Ye want me to die, — I shan’t — I shan’t — give me my gold,” clawing at the scattered sovereigns. “I’ll take it with me — I shan’t die — G— G— ” whimpering. “I ain’t done nothin’ — let me live — give me a Bible — save me, G— cuss it — G — G—.” She fell back on the bed, a corpse.

The faint light of the candle flickered on the shining gold, and on the dead face, framed in tangled white hair; while the three men, sick at heart, turned away in silence to seek assistance, with that wild cry still ringing in their ears — “G— save me, G—!”

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42