“That night a child might understand
The de’il had business on his hand.”
I ENDED my last chapter with mention of a metaphoric storm; but a literal storm broke over the city of London on that night, such as its denizens remembered for many a day after. The lightning seemed, for more than an hour, the continuous pulsations of light from a sulphurous furnace, and the thunder pealed with the cracks and rattlings of one long roar of artillery. The children, waked by the din, cried in their beds in terror, and Sarah Rumble got her dress about her, and said her prayers in panic.
After a while the intervals between the awful explosions were a little more marked, and Miss Rumble’s voice could be heard by the children, comforting and reassuring in the brief lulls; although had they known what a fright their comforter was herself in, their confidence in her would have been impaired.
Perhaps there was a misgiving in Sarah Rumble’s mind that the lightnings and thunders of irate heaven were invoked by the presence of her mysterious lodger. Was even she herself guiltless, in hiding under her roof-tree that impious old sinner, whom Rosemary Court disgorged at dead of night, as the churchyard does a ghost — about whose past history — whose doings and whose plans, except that they were wicked — she knew no more than about those of an evil spirit, had she chanced, in one of her spectre-seeing moods, to spy one moving across the lobby.
His talk was so cold and wicked; his temper so fiendish; his nocturnal disguises and outgoings so obviously pointed to secret guilt; and his relations with the meek Mr. Larkin, and with those potent Jews, who, grumbling and sullen, yet submitted to his caprices, as genii to those of the magician who has the secret of command — that Mr. Dingwell had in her eyes something of a supernatural horror surrounding him. In the thunderstorm, Sarah Rumble vowed secretly to reconsider the religious propriety of harbouring this old man; and amid these qualms, it was with something of fear and anger that, in a silence between the peals of the now subsiding storm, she heard the creak of his shoe upon the stair.
That even on such a night, with the voice of divine anger in the air, about his ears, he could not forego his sinister excursion, and for once at these hours remain decorously in his rooms! Her wrath overcame her fear of him. She would not have her house burnt and demolished over her head, with thunderbolts, for his doings.
She went forth, with her candle in her hand, and stood at the turn of the banister, confronting Mr. Dingwell, who, also furnished with a candle, was now about midway down the last flight of stairs.
“Egeria, in the thunder!” exclaimed the hard, scoffing tones of Mr. Dingwell; whom, notwithstanding her former encounter with him, she would hardly have recognised in his ugly disguise.
“A hoffle night for anyone to go out, sir,” she said, rather sternly, with a courtesy at the same time.
“Hoffle, is it?” said Mr. Dingwell, amused, with mock gravity.
“The hofflest, sir, I think I hever ‘ave remembered.”
“Why, ma’am, it isn’t raining; I put my hand out of the window. There’s none of that hoffle rain, ma’am, that gives a fellow rheumatism. I hope there’s no unusual fog — is there?”
“There, sir;” exclaimed she, as another loud peal rattled over Rosemary Court, with a blue glare through the lobby window and the fanlight in the hall. She paused, and lifted her hand to her eyes till it subsided, and then murmured an ejaculation.
“I like thunder, my dear. It reminds me of your name, dear Miss Rumble;” and he prolonged the name with a rolling pronunciation. “Shakespeare, you know, who says everything better than anyone else in the world, makes that remarkable old gentleman, King Lear, say, ‘Thunder, rumble thy bellyfull!’ Of course, I would not say that in a drawing-room, or to you; but kings are so refined they may say things we can’t, and a genius like Shakespeare hits it off.”
“I would not go out, sir, on such a night, without I was very sure it was about something good I was a-going,” said Miss Rumble, very pale.
“You labour under electro-phobia, my dear ma’am, and mistake it for piety. I’m not a bit afraid of that sort of artillery, ma’am. Here we are, two or three millions of people in this town; and two or three million of shots, and we’ll see by the papers, I venture to say, not three shots tell. Don’t you think if Jupiter really meant mischief he could manage something better?”
“I know, sir, it ought to teach us”— here she winced and paused; for another glare, followed by another bellow of the thunder, “long, loud, and deep,” interposed. “It should teach us some godly fear, if we has none by nature.”
Mr. Dingwell looked at his watch.
“Oh! Mr. Dingwell, it is hoffle. I wish you would only see it, sir.”
“See the thunder— eh?”
“My poor mother. She always made us go down on our knees, and say our prayers — she would — while the thunder was.”
“You’d have had rather long prayers to-night. How your knees must have ached — egad! I don’t wonder you dread it, Miss Sarah.”
“And so I do, Mr. Dingwell, and so I should. Which I think all other sinners should dread it also.”
“And take warning of the wrath to come.”
Here was another awful clap.
“Hoffle it is, Mr. Dingwell, and a warnin’ to you, sent special, mayhap.”
“Hardly fair to disturb all the town for me, don’t you think?”
“You’re an old man, Mr. Dingwell.”
“And you’re an old woman, Miss Sarah,” said he — not caring to be reminded of his years by other people, though he playfully called himself on occasions an old “boy”—“as old as Abraham’s wife, whose namesake you are, though you have not lighted on an Abraham yet, nor become the mother of a great nation.”
“Old enough to be good enough, as my poor mother used to say, sir; I am truly; and sorry I am, Mr. Dingwell, to see you, on this hoffle night, bent on no good. I’m afraid, sir — oh, sir, sir, oughtn’t you think, with them sounds in your ears, Mr. Dingwell?”
“The most formidable thunder, my dear Sarah, proceeds from the silvery tongue of woman. I can stand any other. It frightens me. So, egad, if you please, I’ll take refuge in the open air, and go out, and patter a prayer.”
And with a nod and a smirk, having had fooling enough, he glided by Miss Rumble, who made him an appalled courtesy, and, setting down his candle on the hall-table, he said, touching his false whiskers with his finger tips, “Mind, not a word about these — upon my soul —— you’d better not.”
She made another courtesy. He stopped and looked at her for an answer.
“Can’t you speak?” he said.
“No, sir — sure — not a word,” she faltered.
“Good girl!” he said, and opened the door, with his latch-key in his pocket, on pitchy darkness, which was instantaneously illuminated by the lightning, and another awful roar of thunder broke over their heads.
“The voice of heaven in warning!” she murmured to herself, as she stood by the banisters, dazzled by the gleam, and listening to the reverberation ringing in her ears. “I pray God he may turn back yet.”
He looked over his shoulder.
“Another shot, Miss Rumble — missed again, you see.” He nodded, stepped out upon the flags, and shut the door. She heard his steps in the silence that followed, traversing the court.
“Oh dear! but I wish he was gone, right out — a hoffle old man he is. There’s a weight on my conscience like, and a fright in my heart, there is, ever since he camed into the ’ouse. He is so presumptious. To see that hold man made hup with them rings and whiskers, like a robber or a play-actor! And defyin’ the blessed thunder of heaven — a walking hout, a mockin’ and darin’ it, at these hours — Oh law!”
The interjection was due to another flash and peal.
“I wouldn’t wonder — no more I would — if that flash was the death o’ ’im!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57