Mrs. Hableton was a lady with a grievance, as anybody who happened to become acquainted with her, soon found out. It is Beaconsfield who says, in one of his novels, that no one is so interesting as when he is talking about himself; and, judging Mrs. Hableton by this statement, she was an extremely fascinating individual, as she never by any chance talked upon any other subject. What was the threat of a Russian invasion to her so long as she had her special grievance — once let that be removed, and she would have time to attend to such minor details as affected the colony.
Mrs. Hableton’s particular grievance was want of money. Not by any means an uncommon one, you might remind her; but she snappishly would tell you that “she knowd that, but some people weren’t like other people.” In time one came to learn what she meant by this. She had come to the Colonies in the early days — days when the making of money in appreciable quantity was an easier matter than it is now. Owing to a bad husband, she had failed to save any. The late Mr. Hableton — for he had long since departed this life — had been addicted to alcohol, and at those times when he should have been earning, he was usually to be found in a drinking shanty spending his wife’s earnings in “shouting” for himself and his friends. The constant drinking, and the hot Victorian climate, soon carried him off, and when Mrs. Hableton had seen him safely under the ground in the Melbourne Cemetery, she returned home to survey her position, and see how it could be bettered. She gathered together a little money from the wreck of her fortune, and land being cheap, purchased a small “section” at St. Kilda, and built a house on it. She supported herself by going out charing, taking in sewing, and acting as a sick nurse, So, among this multiplicity of occupations, she managed to exist fairly well.
And in truth it was somewhat hard upon Mrs. Hableton. For at the time when she should have been resting and reaping the fruit of her early industry, she was obliged to toil more assiduously than ever. It was little consolation to her that she was but a type of many women, who, hardworking and thrifty themselves, are married to men who are nothing but an incubus to their wives and to their families. Small wonder, then, that Mrs. Hableton should condense all her knowledge of the male sex into the one bitter aphorism, “Men is brutes.”
Possum Villa was an unpretentious-looking place, with one, bow-window and a narrow verandah in front. It was surrounded by a small garden in 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?”
Mrs. Hableton thought for a moment.
“Well,” she said at length, “he ’ad a mole on his left temple, but it was covered with ’is ’air, an’ few people ’ud ’ave seen it.”
“The very man,” said Gorby to himself, “I’m on the right path.”
“Mr. Whyte said ’e ’ad just come from England,” went on the woman.
“Which,” thought Mr. Gorby, “accounts for the corpse not being recognised by friends.”
“He took the rooms, an’ said ’e’d stay with me for six months, an’ paid a week’s rent in advance, an’ ’e allays paid up reg’ler like a respectable man, tho’ I don’t believe in ’em myself. He said ’e’d lots of friends, an’ used to go out every night.”
“Who were his friends?”
“That I can’t tell you, for ’e were very close, an’ when ’e went out of doors I never knowd where ’e went, which is jest like ’em; for they ses they’re goin’ to work, an’ you finds ’em in the beershop. Mr. Whyte told me ’e was a-goin’ to marry a heiress, ’e was.”
“Ah!” interjected Mr. Gorby, sapiently.
“He ’ad only one friend as I ever saw — a Mr. Moreland — who comed ’ere with ’m, an’ was allays with ’im — brother-like.”
“What is this Mr. Moreland like?”
“Good-lookin’ enough,” said Mrs. Hableton sourly, “but ’is ’abits weren’t as good as ’is face — ’andsom is as ’andsom does, is what I ses.”
“I wonder if he knows anything about this affair,” thought Gorby to himself “Where is Mr. Moreland to be found?” he asked.
“Not knowin’, can’t tell,” retorted the landlady, “’e used to be ’ere reg’lar, but I ain’t seen ’im for over a week.”
“Strange! very!” said Gorby, shaking his head. “I should like to see this Mr. Moreland. I suppose it’s probable he’ll call again?”
“‘Abit bein’ second nature I s’pose he will,” answered the woman, “’e might call at any time, mostly ’avin’ called at night.”
“Ah! then I’ll come down this evening on chance of seeing him,” replied the detective. “Coincidences happen in real life as well as in novels, and the gentleman in question may turn up in the nick of time. Now, what else about Mr. Whyte?”
“About two weeks ago, or three, I’m not cert’in which, a gentleman called to see Mr. Whyte; ’e was very tall, and wore a light coat.”
“Ah! a morning coat?”
“No! ’e was in evenin’ dress, and wore a light coat over it, an’ a soft ’at.”
“The very man,” said the detective below his breath; “go on.”
“He went into Mr. Whyte’s room, an’ shut the door. I don’t know how long they were talkin’ together; but I was sittin’ in this very room and heard their voices git angry, and they were a-swearin’ at one another, which is the way with men, the brutes. I got up and went into the passage in order to ask ’em not to make such a noise, when Mr. Whyte’s door opens, an’ the gentleman in the light coat comes out, and bangs along to the door. Mr. Whyte ’e comes to the door of ’is room, an’ ’e ’ollers out. ‘She is mine; you can’t do anything; an’ the other turns with ’is ’and on the door an’ says, ‘I can kill you, an’ if you marry ’er I’ll do it, even in the open street.’”
“Ah!” said Mr. Gorby, drawing a long breath, “and then?”
“Then he bangs the door to, which it’s never shut easy since, an’ I ain’t got no money to get it put right, an’ Mr. Whyte walks back to his room, laughing.”
“Did he make any remark to you?”
“No; except he’d been worried by a loonatic.”
“And what was the stranger’s name?”
“That I can’t tell you, as Mr. Whyte never told me. He was very tall, with a fair moustache, an’ dressed as I told you.”
Mr. Gorby was satisfied.
“That is the man,” he said to himself, “who got into the hansom cab, and murdered Whyte; there’s no doubt of it! Whyte and he were rivals for the heiress.”
“What d’y think of it?” said Mrs. Hableton curiously.
“I think,” said Mr. Gorby slowly, with his eyes fixed on her, “I think that there is a woman at the bottom of this crime.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09