A CROWDED HOUR

A COMEDY OF THE STREETS.

By Clarence Rook.

 

Very few people knew what really caused the crowd which collected so suddenly one evening in front of a house in the neighbourhood of High Street, Kensington—to be precise, in Lower Phillimore Place—and practically blocked the traffic in that busy thoroughfare.

The crowd itself had no clear notion of the cause of its coming together. For in order to produce a crowd it is by no means necessary that the individuals who are to compose it should have any reason for their assembling more definite than the fact that there is an assembly.

Primarily, however, it was Esther who was the cause of the crowd.

Esther, who you must know is my sister, had been growing quite prosperous. After a year or so of hard and unremunerative work, Esther had gained a position on the staff of a leading ladies' newspaper; and thereafter, week by week, Esther produced pictures of attenuated ladies with crooked forefingers, attired in the height of fashion, and pretending that their waists did not hurt them the least bit.

So, finding herself with an assured income which, if not large, was adequate to her modest needs, Esther determined to quit her dingy lodgings in a Bloomsbury side-street and furnish a dwelling for herself. In this project she was encouraged by her bosom friend Susie, who, being a certificated nurse with a private practice, wanted a comfortable home in the intervals between her cases, and was willing to contribute some furniture and a share of the expenses.

After much search among the advertisements in the newspapers in the Free Library, followed by hurried rushes on her bicycle to the uttermost ends of London, Esther found a house in Lower Phillimore Place of which two floors and the basement were to be let unfurnished. It was precisely the sort of place the two girls wanted, and as the rent was reasonable Esther at once arranged to take it. Esther was to occupy the ground floor, the first floor would be reserved for Susie whenever she required it; in the basement a respectable woman would live, and cook, and sleep. Esther began to look about for the respectable woman.

It was only then that Esther suddenly bethought herself of the extreme danger of sleeping—a solitary and unprotected woman—upon the ground-floor of a London house. For an hour or so the difficulty seemed insurmountable, and it appeared to Esther that she must cancel the agreement. I suggested a dog. But, as Esther at once pointed out, a determined and unscrupulous murderer would not hesitate to poison a dog.

Then I proposed that a respectable married couple should be engaged. Probably, in consideration of living rent free, the woman would do the housework during the day, and the husband would kill murderers at night. Esther considered a moment. The idea appealed to her.

"Why not a policeman and his wife?" said Esther.

With Esther to decide is to act. Within an hour she had laid her scheme before the Inspector in charge at the Police Station by St. Mary Abbott's, and enjoined upon him to search his division for a married constable of lofty character who would like to live rent free in a dry and roomy basement. Within twenty-four hours the constable was found.

Esther viewed him with approval, for he was large and serious; he had the highest of characters, and had married a cook from De Vere Gardens who had received a plated teapot from her late mistress as a mark of esteem. They both assured Esther that they would do their best by her and the other young lady, and an appointment was made for a view of the house in Phillimore Place.

And so it came about that, one evening, just as dusk was falling, Esther and Susie met the constable and his wife outside the house, and, after greeting each other on the pavement, entered together. At that moment an errand-boy was slowly propelling a carrier tricycle along by the kerb. His day's deliveries were accomplished, and, as he looked this way and that way with a mind receptive of stray impressions, his eye fell upon Esther and her companions. He was immediately conscious of something unusual.

There is nothing remarkable about a policeman in Kensington High Street; but a policeman being conducted into a house by a young lady, and closely followed by two other women, one of whom wears a nurse's uniform, affords matter for conjecture. The errand-boy applied the brake to his cycle, and came slowly to a standstill just below the house, at which he looked thoughtfully. Esther with the constable and the nurse and the constable's wife had disappeared through the front door, and for a minute or so nothing more happened.

The boy, disappointed of his expected sensation, was just bending forward to start his cycle again when he caught sight of an acquaintance who was carrying a basket containing a dozen of stout. A shrill whistle brought him to the side of the cycle.

"Wotcher!" he said.

"There's a copper gone in there," said the boy on the cycle, nodding towards the house. "And a 'orspital nurse."

 "'THERE'S A COPPER GONE IN THERE, AND A 'ORSPITAL NURSE,' SAID THE BOY ON THE CYCLE."

The other boy regarded the house critically.

"Was there a accident?" he asked.

The boy on the cycle, having no more information to give, said nothing, but nodded again towards the house. Someone within had struck a light, and the constable could be plainly seen standing in the middle of the empty ground-floor room.

A hansom driver, crawling from the westwards in the hope of picking up a fare to the Strand, paused in the act of lighting his pipe and pulled up just in front of the cycle. A servant girl who had been sent out to post a letter noticed an errand boy set down his basket upon the ground and balance himself upon the rim, whereby he was enabled to peer over the top of the railings, and she stood still to watch him; while three sandwich men mournfully advertising a concert at the Town Hall halted in the roadway and looked with dull curiosity at the cabman, who had hitched himself round on his seat, and with one leg swinging in mid-air was wondering what he could charge for a really urgent case to St. George's Hospital.

"What's matter?" asked a homeward-bound workman who was vaguely conscious of an unusual obstruction, and found the railings a convenient support.

"Ain't nothing the matter," said the boy on the basket, looking round. "You tike that fice 'ome."

The workman, finding it easier to stand still by the railings than to walk, remained where he was.

"I stops where I am," he murmured; "see what's matter. All kinds things happen in mighty metrolo—metrolopus."

The old gentleman who takes the air every evening along a beat of a hundred yards or so of pavement in Phillimore Place halted and looked inquiringly at the boy on the basket, disgustedly at the workman clinging to the railings. Then, over the shoulder of the workman the old gentleman caught sight of the policeman, who was now standing in full light back to the window; while Susie, bending down with tape-measure to calculate the amount of carpet required, could be dimly seen by those outside to be busied with something on the floor.

"Dear me!" said the old gentleman.

"There's—body in there," said the workman. "That's what 'tis. Body."

"Bless my soul!" said the old gentleman, looking round at the group of people on the pavement. "Has there been a murder? Does anyone know?"

No one cared to admit that he did not know what he was looking at, whereas any positive statement might be controverted by someone with knowledge. So no one answered, but all stood watching.

By this time the pavement was pretty well blocked, and wayfarers had either to take to the roadway or to join the knot of people collected in front of the railings and waiting anxiously upon events.

 "'HAS THERE BEEN A MURDER? DOES ANYONE KNOW?' SAID THE OLD GENTLEMAN."

Most of them chose the latter course, assuring each other that there was really nothing to wait for.

"Oh, there's a 'orse down; let's go and look, Alf," said a young woman to her husband, who was carrying something tasty for supper in a piece of newspaper.

"Oh, kem on," said Alf. "You're always wanting to 'ang about for this, that, and the other."

"Well, I'm sure, Alf, it's little enough excitement I get, day in, day out, and—oh, wait a minute; I needn't reely wash biby to-night."

"'Taint a 'orse," said a seedy-looking man, whose height gave him a view over the heads of the crowd. "It's in that house, that's where it is."

"What is?" asked Alf, still incredulous.

"Oh, there's a pleeceman in there, Alf," said the young woman, delightedly.

"Then there ain't much the matter," said Alf, his good temper restored by the consciousness of a ready wit. "They're 'andy enough when they ain't wanted to be, and when they are wanted——" He sought vainly for a means of elaborating his joke. "Now then, where yer shovin'?"

"Shovin' yerself," was the reply; "don't other people want to see same as what you do?"

 "THE CROWD STRETCHED NEARLY ACROSS THE ROADWAY, IMPEDING THE TRAFFIC."

For the crowd had already begun to press behind, and, stretching nearly across the roadway, was impeding the traffic. One omnibus, indeed, which had stopped to set down a passenger, remained standing, and the inside passengers had crowded out upon the roof to see what was the matter. From the shops opposite came the assistants, and they stood in the doorways, asking in vain for explanations, which no one could give. Conjecture, however, was frequent; and a butcher's bookkeeper, being a man of action, went off to rouse the nearest fire station.

In a minute more, the nucleus formed by one errand boy on a carrier cycle had collected about it a solid mass, which completely stopped the omnibuses and cabs, and gathered volume and consistency from every wayfarer who came within its influence. Even the errand boy himself, impressed with the seriousness of the situation, was convinced of the nearness of tragedy, and was busily setting forth to those around him what he had seen.

"Stand back, can't you?" cried an officious man upon the outskirts of the crowd on the opposite pavement. "How ridiculously people do act in an emergency! What's the use of crowding round?"

His neighbours looked resentfully at him.

"Stand back, can't you; stand back and give her air."

"Give 'oo air? You keep your'n on," said an on-looker, elbowing him back.

"Why, it's a girl, isn't it? At least, they told me so," said the officious man. "Why do people push so? There's absolutely nothing to get excited about."

"Girl, I dessay. But she's in that house over there."

"Most extraordinary thing," said a tradesman, who was standing in his doorway. "That house is unoccupied. Been empty for three weeks or more."

"And they've only just found the poor girl inside," exclaimed the officious man. "Well, of all the useless, incompetent people in the world, I really do think the London police bear away the palm. And why on earth don't they keep the crowd away? Where are the police? Here, someone go and call a constable."

No one showed any desire to resign his point of view; and the cabs going town-wards in a hurry turned down a side street to save time.

"'Ear that, Emmer?" said a woman in a shawl, who was standing in a group of dishevelled companions. "The poor gal's been lyin' in that empty 'ouse for three weeks; ain't it a shime?"

"Ah, it's jest like 'em," said another, vaguely.

"Well, I ain't what yer might call soft-'earted," said the first, "but think of me livin' 'andy all that time, and the pore girl——"

"Yes, you can lay and rot for all they care," said the other. "I might die in me bed time and time again, and no one any the wiser. Not but what I've got any right to becall you, Mrs. Robins. Think she's dead?"

"Dead? No. Can't you see the 'orspital nurse stoopin' down over 'er? They wouldn't 'a 'ad a 'orspital nurse if she was dead."

Just then the door of the house opened, and the crowd swayed excitedly as Susie appeared with the constable, and stood for a moment in surprise on the top step.

 "THE CROWD SWAYED EXCITEDLY AS SUSIE APPEARED WITH THE CONSTABLE."

"Where's the ambulance," cried the officious man. "Why don't they send for the ambulance? What is the good of the police if they can't——"

"Now then, what's all this? Pass along, please, pass along."

Five or six policemen appeared simultaneously from different directions.

"Over there, in that house. That's where it is," cried several voices.

"Stand back there! let the police through!" cried others.

The constables pushed their way through the throng to the point where Susie and the policeman were standing, and the crowd stood in intense silence while a hurried consultation took place. A moment or two later Esther and Susie entered the hansom, which was still waiting in the hope of a case for St. George's, and drove off through the passage cleared by the police.

"Now then, pass along 'ere, pass along," said the police. "There ain't nothing to look at 'ere."

"Well, but aren't you going to bring the girl out?" asked the officious man of a constable.

"Pass along, if you please."

"What is the good of making such a mystery of it?" said the officious man. "That's the way half the crimes go undetected. I daresay it's all simple enough if the truth were known. I maintain the public has a right to be taken into the confidence of the authorities."

"'Ushing of it up," said the woman in a shawl. "'Ushing of it up."

"And I dessay they're well paid to do it," said her companion.

"Well, that's another added to the unsolved mysteries of London," said the respectable-looking working-man, addressing his neighbours, "but it's another nail in the coffin of——"

"Now then, your supper's gettin' cold," said the constable.