Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 56

The Meager Family

On the day after the committal a lady, who had got out of a cab at the corner of Northumberland Street, in the Marylebone Road, walked up that very uninviting street, and knocked at a door just opposite to the deadest part of the dead wall of the Marylebone Workhouse. Here lived Mrs and Miss Meager — and also on occasions Mr Meager, who, however, was simply a trouble and annoyance in the world, going about to race-courses, and occasionally, perhaps, to worse places, and being of no slightest use to the two poor hard-worked women — mother and daughter — who endeavoured to get their living by letting lodgings. The task was difficult, for it is not everybody who likes to look out upon the dead wall of a workhouse, and they who do are disposed to think that their willingness that way should be considered in the rent. But Mr Emilius, when the cruelty of his wife’s friends deprived him of the short-lived luxury of his mansion in Lowndes Square, had found in Northumberland Street a congenial retreat, and had for a while trusted to Mrs and Miss Meager for all his domestic comforts. Mr Emilius was always a favourite with new friends, and had not as yet had his Northumberland Street gloss rubbed altogether off him when Mr Bonteen was murdered. As it happened, on that night, or rather early in the day, for Meager had returned to the bosom of his family after a somewhat prolonged absence in the provinces, and therefore the date had become specially remarkable in the Meager family from the double event — Mr Meager had declared that unless his wife could supply him with a five-pound note he must cut his throat instantly. His wife and daughter had regretted the necessity, but had declared the alternative to be out of the question. Whereupon Mr Meager had endeavoured to force the lock of an old bureau with a carving-knife, and there had been some slight personal encounter — after which he had had some gin and had gone to bed. Mrs Meager remembered the day very well indeed, and Miss Meager, when the police came the next morning, had accounted for her black eye by a tragical account of a fall she had had against the bed-post in the dark. Up to that period Mr Emilius had been everything that was sweet and good — an excellent, eloquent clergyman, who was being ill-treated by his wife’s wealthy relations, who was soft in his manners and civil in his words, and never gave more trouble than was necessary. The period, too, would have been one of comparative prosperity to the Meager ladies — but for that inopportune return of the head of the family — as two other lodgers had been inclined to look out upon the dead wall, or else into the cheerful back-yard; which circumstance came to have some bearing upon our story, as Mrs Meager had been driven by the press of her increased household to let that good-natured Mr Emilius know that if “he didn’t mind it” the latch-key might be an accommodation on occasions. To give him his due, indeed, he had, when first taking the rooms, offered to give up the key when not intending to be out at night.

After the murder Mr Emilius had been arrested, and had been kept in durance for a week. Miss Meager had been sure that he was innocent; Mrs Meager had trusted the policemen, who evidently thought that the clergyman was guilty. Of the policemen who were concerned on the occasion, it may be said in a general way that they believed that both the gentlemen had committed the murder — so anxious were they not to be foiled in the attempts at discovery which their duty called upon them to make. Mr Meager had left the house on the morning of the arrest, having arranged that little matter of the five-pound note by a compromise. When the policeman came for Mr Emilius, Mr Meager was gone. For a day or two the lodger’s rooms were kept vacant for the clergyman till Mrs Meager became quite convinced that he had committed the murder, and then all his things were packed up and placed in the passage. When he was liberated he returned to the house, and expressed unbounded anger at what had been done. He took his two boxes away in a cab, and was seen no more by the ladies of Northumberland Street.

But a further gleam of prosperity fell upon them in consequence of the tragedy which had been so interesting to them. Hitherto the inquiries made at their house had had reference solely to the habits and doings of their lodger during the last few days; but now there came to them a visitor who made a more extended investigation; and this was one of their own sex. It was Madame Goesler who got out of the cab at the workhouse corner, and walked from thence to Mrs Meager’s house. This was her third appearance in Northumberland Street, and at each coming she had spoken kind words, and had left behind her liberal recompense for the trouble which she gave. She had no scruples as to paying for the evidence which she desired to obtain — no fear of any questions which might afterwards be asked in cross-examination. She dealt out sovereigns — womanfully, and had had Mrs and Miss Meager at her feet. Before the second visit was completed they were both certain that the Bohemian converted Jew had murdered Mr Bonteen, and were quite willing to assist in hanging him.

“Yes, Ma’am,” said Mrs Meager, “he did take the key with him. Amelia remembers we were a key short at the time he was away.” The absence here alluded to was that occasioned by the journey which Mr Emilius took to Prague, when he heard that evidence of his former marriage was being sought against him in his own country.

“That he did”, said Amelia, “because we were put out ever so. And he had no business, for he was not paying for the room.”

“You have only one key.”

“There is three, Ma’am. The front attic has one regular because he’s on a daily paper, and of course he doesn’t get to bed till morning. Meager always takes another, and we can’t get it from him ever so.”

“And Mr Emilius took the other away with him?” asked Madame Coesler.

“That he did, Ma’am. When he came back he said it had been in a drawer — but it wasn’t in the drawer. We always knows what’s in the drawers.”

“The drawer wasn’t left locked, then?”

“Yes, it was, Ma’am, and he took that key — unbeknownst to us,” said Mrs Meager. “But there is other keys that open the drawers. We are obliged in our line to know about the lodgers, Ma’am.”

This was certainly no time for Madame Goesler to express disapprobation of the practices which were thus divulged. She smiled, and nodded her head, and was quite sympathetic with Mrs Meager. She had learned that Mr Emilius had taken the latch-key with him to Bohemia, and was convinced that a dozen other latch-keys might have been made after the pattern without any apparent detection by the London police. “And now about the coat, Mrs Meager.”

“Well, Ma’am?”

“Mr Meager has not been here since?”

“No, Ma’am. Mr Meager, Ma’am, isn’t what he ought to be. I never do own it up, only when I’m driven. He hasn’t been home.”

“I suppose he still has the coat.”

“Well, Ma’am, no. We sent a young man after him, as you said, and the young man found him at the Newmarket Spring.”

“Some water cure?” asked Madame Goesler.

“No, Ma’am. It ain’t a water cure, but the races. He hadn’t got the coat. He does always manage a tidy great coat when November is coming on, because it covers everything, and is respectable, but he mostly parts with it in April. He gets short, and then he — just pawns it.”

“But he had it the night of the murder?”

“Yes, Ma’am, he had. Amelia and I remembered it especial. When we went to bed, which we did soon after ten, it was left in this room, lying there on the sofa.” They were now sitting in the little back parlour, in which Mrs and Miss Meager were accustomed to live.

“And it was there in the morning?”

“Father had it on when he went out,” said Amelia.

“If we paid him he would get it out of the pawnshop, and bring it to us, would he not?” asked the lady.

To this Mrs Meager suggested that it was quite on the cards that Mr Meager might have been able to do better with his coat by selling it, and if so, it certainly would have been sold, as no prudent idea of redeeming his garment for the next winter’s wear would ever enter his mind. And Mrs Meager seemed to think that such a sale would not have taken place between her husband and any old friend. “He wouldn’t know where he sold it,” said Mrs Meager.

“Anyways he’d tell us so,” said Amelia.

“But if we paid him to be more accurate?” said Madame Goesler.

“They is so afraid of being took up themselves,” said Mrs Meager. There was, however, ample evidence that Mr Meager had possessed a grey great coat, which during the night of the murder had been left in the little sitting-room, and which they had supposed to have lain there all night. To this coat Mr Emilius might have had easy access. “But then it was a big man that was seen, and Emilius isn’t no ways a big man. Meager’s coat would be too long for him, ever so much.”

“Nevertheless we must try and get the coat,” said Madame Goesler. “I’ll speak to a friend about it. I suppose we can find your husband when we want him?”

“I don’t know, Ma’am. We never can find him; but then we never do want him — not now. The police know him at the races, no doubt. You won’t go and get him into trouble, Ma’am, worse than he is? He’s always been in trouble, but I wouldn’t like to be means of making it worse on him than it is.”

Madame Goesler, as she again paid the woman for her services, assured her that she would do no injury to Mr Meager. All that she wanted of Mr Meager was his grey coat, and that not with any view that could be detrimental either to his honour or to his safety, and she was willing to pay any reasonable price — or almost any unreasonable price — for the coat. But the coat must be made to be forthcoming if it were still in existence, and had not been as yet torn to pieces by the shoddy makers.

“It ain’t near come to that yet,” said Amelia. “I don’t know that I ever see father more respectable — that is, in the way of a great coat.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43