a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: Collected Stories Author: Rhoda Broughton * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0605281h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2006 Date most recently updated: August 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg of Australia HOME PAGE
Table of Contents
The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the
Under the Cloak
Behold, it was a Dream!
MRS DE WYNT TO MRS MONTRESOR.
18, Eccleston Square, May 5th.
My dearest Cecilia, Talk of the friendships of Orestes and Pylades, of Julie and Claire, what are they to ours? Did Pylades ever go ventre à terre, half over London on a day more broiling than any but an âine damnée could even imagine, in order that Orestes might be comfortably housed for the season?
Did Claire ever hold sweet converse with from fifty to one hundred house agents, in order that Julie might have three windows to her drawing-room and a pretty portière? You see I am determined not to be done out of my full meed of gratitude.
Well, my friend, I had no idea till yesterday how closely we were packed in this great smoky beehive, as tightly as herrings in a barrel. Don't be frightened, however. By dint of squeezing and crowding, we have managed to make room for two more herrings in our barrel, and those two are yourself and your other self, i.e. your husband. Let me begin at the beginning. After having looked over, I verily believe, every undesirable residence in West London; after having seen nothing intermediate between what was suited to the means of a duke, and what was suited to the needs of a chimney-sweep; after having felt bed-ticking, and explored kitchen-ranges till my brain reeled under my accumulated experience, I arrived at about half-past five yesterday afternoon at 32,--Street, May Fair.
'Failure No. 253, I don't doubt,' I said to myself, as I toiled up the steps with my soul athirst for afternoon tea, and feeling as ill-tempered as you please. So much for my spirit of prophecy.
Fate, I have noticed, is often fond of contradicting us flat, and giving the lie to our little predictions. Once inside, I thought I had got into a small compartment of Heaven by mistake.
Fresh as a daisy, clean as a cherry, bright as a seraph's face, it is all these, and a hundred more, only that my limited stock of similes is exhausted. Two drawing-rooms as pretty as ever woman crammed with people she did not care two straws about; white curtains with rose-coloured ones underneath, festooned in the sweetest way; marvellously, immorally becoming, my dear, as I ascertained entirely for your benefit, in the mirrors, of which there are about a dozen and a half; Persian mats, easy chairs, and lounges suited to every possible physical conformation, from the Apollo Belvedere to Miss Biffin; and a thousand of the important little trivialities that make up the sum of a woman's life: peacock fans, Japanese screens, naked boys and décolletée shepherdesses; not to speak of a family of china pugs, with blue ribbons round their necks, which ought of themselves to have added fifty pounds a year to the rent. Apropos, I asked, in fear and trembling, what the rent might be--'Three hundred pounds a year.' A feather would have knocked me down. I could hardly believe my ears, and made the woman repeat it several times, that there might be no mistake. To this hour it is a mystery to me.
With that suspiciousness which is so characteristic of you, you will immediately begin to hint that there must be some terrible unaccountable smell, or some odious inexplicable noise haunting the reception-rooms. Nothing of the kind, the woman assured me, and she did not look as if she were telling stories. You will next suggest--remembering the rose-coloured curtains--that its last occupant was a member of the demimonde. Wrong again. Its last occupant was an elderly and unexceptionable Indian officer, without a liver, and with a most lawful wife. They did not stay long, it is true, but then, as the housekeeper told me, he was a deplorable old hypochondriac, who never could bear to stay a fortnight in any one place. So lay aside that scepticism, which is your besetting sin, and give unfeigned thanks to St Brigitta, or St Gengulpha, or St Catherine of Siena, or whoever is your tutelar saint, for having provided you with a palace at the cost of a hovel, and for having sent you such an invaluable friend as Your attached ELIZABETH DE WYNT.
P.S.--I am so sorry I shall not be in town to witness your first raptures, but dear Artie looks so pale and thin and tall after the whooping-cough, that I am sending him off at once to the sea, and as I cannot bear the child out of my sight, I am going into banishment likewise.
MRS MONTRESOR TO MRS DE WYNT.
32,--Street, May Fair, May 14th.
Dearest Bessy, Why did not dear little Artie defer his whooping-cough convalescence till August? It is very odd, to me, the perverse way in which children always fix upon the most inconvenient times and seasons for their diseases. Here we are installed in our Paradise, and have searched high and low, in every hole and corner, for the serpent, without succeeding in catching a glimpse of his spotted tail. Most things in this world aredisappointing, but 32,--Street, May Fair, is not. The mystery of the rent is still a mystery. I have been for my first ride in the Row this morning; my horse was a little fidgety; I am half afraid that my nerve is not what it was. I saw heaps of people I knew. Do you recollect Florence Watson? What a wealth of red hair she had last year! Well, that same wealth is black as the raven's wing this year! I wonder how people can make such walking impositions of themselves, don't you? Adela comes to us next week; I am so glad. It is dull driving by oneself of an afternoon; and I always think that one young woman alone in a brougham, or with only a dog beside her, does not look good. We sent round our cards a fortnight before we came up, and have been already deluged with callers. Considering that we have been two years exiled from civilised life, and that London memories are not generally of the longest, we shall do pretty well, I think. Ralph Gordon came to see me on Sunday; he is in the--the Hussars now. He has grown up such a dear fellow, and so good-looking! Just my style, large and fair and whiskerless! Most men nowadays make themselves as like monkeys, or Scotch terriers, as they possibly can. I intend to be quite a mother to him. Dresses are gored to as indecent an extent as ever; short skirts are rampant. I am sorry; I hate them. They make tall women look lank, and short ones insignificant. A knock! Peace is a word that might as well be expunged from one's London dictionary.
Yours affectionately, CECILIA MONTRESOR.
MRS DE WYNT TO MRS MONTRESOR.
The Lord Warden, Dover, May 18th.
Dearest Cecilia, You will perceive that I am about to devote only one small sheet of note-paper to you. This is from no dearth of time, Heaven knows! time is a drug in the market here, but from a total dearth of ideas. Any ideas that I ever have, come to me from without, from external objects; I am not clever enough to generate any within myself. My life here is not an eminently suggestive one. It is spent digging with a wooden spade, and eating prawns. Those are my employments at least; my relaxation is going down to the Pier, to see the Calais boat come in. When one is miserable oneself, it is decidedly consolatory to see someone more miserable still; and wretched and bored, and reluctant vegetable as I am, I am not sea-sick. I always feel my spirits rise after having seen that peevish, draggled procession of blue, green and yellow fellow-Christians file past me. There is a wind here always, in comparison of which the wind that behaved so violently to the corners of Job's house was a mere zephyr. There arc heights to climb which require more daring perseverance than ever Wolfe displayed, with his paltry heights of Abraham. There are glaring white houses, glaring white roads, glaring white cliffs. If any one knew how unpatriotically I detest the chalk-cliffs of Albion! Having grumbled through my two little pages--I have actually been reduced to writing very large in order to fill even them--I will send off my dreary little billet. How I wish I could get into the envelope myself too, and whirl up with it to dear, beautiful, filthy London. Not more heavily could Madame de Staël have sighed for Paris from among the shades of Coppet.
Your disconsolate, BESSY.
MRS MONTRESOR TO MRS DE WYNT.
32,--Street, May Fair, May 27th.
Oh, my dearest Bessy, how I wish we were out of this dreadful, dreadful house! Please don't think me very ungrateful for saying this, after your taking such pains to provide us with a Heaven upon earth, as you thought.
What has happened could, of course, have been neither foretold, nor guarded against, by any human being. About ten days ago, Benson (my maid) came to me with a very long face, and said, 'If you please, 'm, did you know that this house was haunted?' I was so startled: you know what a coward I am. I said, 'Good Heavens! No! is it?' 'Well, 'm, I'm pretty nigh sure it is,' she said, and the expression of her countenance was about as lively as an undertaker's; and then she told me that cook had been that morning to order groceries from a shop in the neighbourhood, and on her giving the man the direction where to send the things to, he had said, with a very peculiar smile, 'No. 32,--Street, eh? h'm? I wonder how long you'll stand it; last lot held out just a fortnight.' He looked so odd that she asked him what he meant, but he only said, 'Oh! nothing! only that parties never do stay long at 32. He had known parties go in one day, and out the next, and during the last four years he had never known any remain over the month. Feeling a good deal alarmed by this information, she naturally inquired the reason; but he declined to give it, saying that if she had not found it out for herself, she had much better leave it alone, as it would only frighten her out of her wits; and on her insisting and urging him, she could only extract from him, that the house had such a villainously bad name, that the owners were glad to let it for a mere song. You know how firmly I believe in apparitions, and what an unutterable fear I have of them: anything material, tangible, that I can lay hold of--anything of the same fibre, blood, and bone as myself, I could, I think, confront bravely enough; but the mere thought of being brought face to face with the 'bodiless dead', makes my brain unsteady. The moment Henry came in, I ran to him, and told him; but he pooh-poohed the whole story, laughed at me, and asked whether we should turn out of the prettiest house in London, at the very height of the season, because a grocer said it had a bad name. Most good things that had ever been in the world had had a bad name in their day; and, moreover, the man had probably a motive for taking away the house's character, some friend for whom he coveted the charming situation and the low rent. He derided my 'babyish fears', as he called them, to such an extent that I felt half ashamed, and yet not quite comfortable either; and then came the usual rush of London engagements, during which one has no time to think of anything but how to speak, and act, and look for the moment then present. Adela was to arrive yesterday, and in the morning our weekly hamper of flowers, fruit, and vegetables arrived from home. I always dress the flower vases myself, servants are so tasteless; and as I was arranging them, it occurred to me--you know Adela's passion for flowers--to carry up one particular cornucopia of roses and mignonette and set it on her toilet-table, as a pleasant surprise for her. As I came downstairs, I had seen the housemaid--a fresh, round-faced country girl--go into the room, which was being prepared for Adela, with a pair of sheets that had been airing over her arm. I went upstairs very slowly, as my cornucopia was full of water, and I was afraid of spilling some. I turned the handle of the bedroom-door and entered, keeping my eyes fixed on my flowers, to see how they bore the transit, and whether any of them had fallen out. Suddenly a sort of shiver passed over me; and feeling frightened--I did not know why--I looked up quickly. The girl was standing by the bed, leaning forward a little with her hands clenched in each other, rigid, every nerve tense; her eyes, wide open, starting out of her head, and a look of unutterable stony horror in them; her cheeks and mouth not pale, but livid as those of one that died awhile ago in mortal pain. As I looked at her, her lips moved a little, and an awful hoarse voice, not like hers in the least, said, 'Oh! my God, I have seen it!' and then she fell down suddenly, like a log, with a heavy noise. Hearing the noise, loudly audible all through the thin walls and floors of a London house, Benson came running in, and between us we managed to lift her on to the bed, and tried to bring her to herself by rubbing her feet and hands, and holding strong salts to her nostrils. And all the while we kept glancing over our shoulders, in a vague cold terror of seeing some awful, shapeless apparition. Two long hours she lay in a state of utter unconsciousness. Meanwhile Harry, who had been down to his club, returned. At the end of two hours we succeeded in bringing her back to sensation and life, but only to make the awful discovery that she was raving mad. She became so violent that it required all the combined strength of Harry and Phillips (our butler) to hold her down in the bed. Of course, we sent off instantly for a doctor, who on her growing a little calmer towards evening, removed her in a cab to his own house. He has just been here to tell me that she is now pretty quiet, not from any return to sanity, but from sheer exhaustion. We are, of course, utterly in the dark as to what she saw, and her ravings are far too disconnected and unintelligible to afford us the slightest clue. I feel so completely shattered and upset by this awful occurrence, that you will excuse me, dear, I'm sure, if I write incoherently. One thing I need hardly tell you, and that is, that no earthly consideration would induce me to allow Adela to occupy that terrible room. I shudder and run by quickly as I pass the door.
Yours, in great agitation, CECILIA.
MRS DE WYNT TO MRS MONTRESOR.
The Lord Warden, Dover, May 28th.
Dearest Cecilia, Yours just come; how very dreadful! But I am still unconvinced as to house being in fault. You know I feel a sort of godmother to it, and responsible for its good behaviour. Don't you think that what the girl had might have been a fit? Why not? I myself have a cousin who is subject to seizures of the kind, and immediately on being attacked his whole body becomes rigid, his eyes glassy and staring, his complexion livid, exactly as in the case you describe. Or, if not a fit, are you sure that she has not been subject to fits of madness? Please be sure and ascertain whether there is not insanity in her family. It is so common nowadays, and so much on the increase, that nothing is more likely. You know my utter disbelief in ghosts. I am convinced that most of them, if run to earth, would turn out about as genuine as the famed Cock Lane one. But even allowing the possibility, nay, the actual unquestioned existence of ghosts in the abstract, is it likely that there should be anything to be seen so horribly fear-inspiring, as to send a perfectly sane person in one instant raving mad, which you, after three weeks' residence in the house, have never caught a glimpse of? According to your hypothesis, your whole household ought, by this time, to be stark staring mad. Let me implore you not to give way to a panic which may, possibly, probably prove utterly groundless. Oh, how I wish I were with you, to make you listen to reason!
Artie ought to be the best prop ever woman's old age was furnished with, to indemnify me for all he and his whooping-cough have made me suffer. Write immediately, please, and tell me how the poor patient progresses. Oh, had I the wings of a dove! I shall be on wires till I hear again.
MRS MONTRESOR TO MRS DE WYNT.
No. 5, Bolton Street, Piccadilly, June 12th.
Dearest Bessy, You will see that we have left that terrible, hateful, fatal house. How I wish we had escaped from it sooner! Oh, my dear Bessy, I shall never be the same woman again if I live to be a hundred. Let me try to be coherent, and to tell you connectedly what has happened. And first, as to the housemaid, she has been removed to a lunatic asylum, where she remains in much the same state. She has had several lucid intervals, and during them has been closely, pressingly questioned as to what it was she saw; but she has maintained an absolute, hopeless silence, and only shudders, moans, and hides her face in her hands when the subject is broached. Three days ago I went to see her, and on my return was sitting resting in the drawing-room, before going to dress for dinner, talking to Adela about my visit, when Ralph Gordon walked in. He has always been walking in the last ten days, and Adela has always flushed up and looked very happy, poor little cat, whenever he made his appearance. He looked very handsome, dear fellow, just come in from the park; seemed in tremendous spirits, and was as sceptical as even you could be, as to the ghostly origin of Sarah's seizure. 'Let me come here tonight and sleep in that room; do, Mrs Montresor,' he said, looking very eager and excited. 'With the gas lit and a poker, I'll engage to exorcise every demon that shows his ugly nose; even if I should find---Seven white ghostisses Sifting on seven white postisses.' 'You don't mean really?' I asked, incredulously. 'Don't I? that's all,' he answered emphatically.
'I should like nothing better. Well, is it a bargain?' Adela turned quite pale. 'Oh, don't,' she said, hurriedly, 'please, don't! why should you run such a risk? How do you know that you might not be sent mad too?' He laughed very heartily, and coloured a little with pleasure at seeing the interest she took in his safety. 'Never fear,' he said, 'it would take more than a whole squadron of departed ones, with the old gentleman at their head, to send me crazy.' He was so eager, so persistent, so thoroughly in earnest, that I yielded at last, though with a certain strong reluctance, to his entreaties. Adela's blue eyes filled with tears, and she walked away hastily to the conservatory, and stood picking bits of heliotrope to hide them. Nevertheless, Ralph got his own way; it was so difficult to refuse him anything. We gave up all our engagements for the evening, and he did the same with his. At about ten o'clock he arrived, accompanied by a friend and brother officer, Captain Burton, who was anxious to see the result of the experiment. 'Let me go up at once, he said, looking very happy and animated. 'I don't know when I have felt in such good tune; a new sensation is a luxury not to be had every day of one's life; turn the gas up as high as it will go; provide a good stout poker, and leave the issue to Providence and me.' We did as he bid. 'It's all ready now,' Henry said, coming downstairs after having obeyed his orders; 'the room is nearly as light as day. Well, good luck to you, old fellow!' 'Good-bye, Miss Bruce,' Ralph said, going over to Adela, and taking her hand with a look, half laughing, half sentimental--
'Fare thee well, and if for ever then for ever, fare thee well, that is my last dying speech and confession. Now mind,' he went on, standing by the table, and addressing us all; 'if I ring once, don't come. I may be flurried, and lay hold of the bell without thinking; if I ring twice, come.' Then he went, jumping up the stairs three steps at a time, and humming a tune. As for us, we sat in different attitudes of expectation and listening about the drawing-room. At first we tried to talk a little, but it would not do; our whole souls seemed to have passed into our ears. The clock's ticking sounded as loud as a great church bell close to one's ear. Addy lay on the sofa, with her dear little white face hidden in the cushions. So we sat for exactly an hour; but it seemed like two years, and just as the clock began to strike eleven, a sharp ting, ting, ting, rang clear and shrill through the house. 'Let us go,' said Addy, starting up and running to the door. 'Let us go,' I cried too, following her. But Captain Burton stood in the way, and intercepted our progress. 'No,' he said, decisively, 'you must not go; remember Gordon told us distinctly, if he rang once not to come. I know the sort of fellow he is, and that nothing would annoy him more than having his directions disregarded.'
'Oh, nonsense!' Addy cried passionately, 'he would never have rung if he had not seen something dreadful; do, do let us go!' she ended, clasping her hands. But she was overruled, and we all went back to our seats. Ten minutes more of suspense, next door to unendurable; I felt a lump in my throat, a gasping for breath;--ten minutes on the clock, but a thousand centuries on our hearts. Then again, loud, sudden, violent, the bell rang! We made a simultaneous rush to the door. I don't think we were one second flying upstairs. Addy was first. Almost simultaneously she and I burst into the room. There he was, standing in the middle of the floor, rigid, petrified, with that same look--that look that is burnt into my heart in letters of fire--of awful, unspeakable, stony fear on his brave young face. For one instant he stood thus; then stretching out his arms stiffly before him, he groaned in a terrible, husky voice, 'Oh, my God! I have seen it!' and fell down dead. Yes, dead. Not in a swoon or in a fit, but dead. Vainly we tried to bring back the life to that strong young heart; it will never come back again till that day when the earth and the sea give up the dead that are therein. I cannot see the page for the tears that are blinding me; he was such a dear fellow! I can't write any more today.
Your broken-hearted CECILIA.
This is a true story.
IF there is a thing in the world that my soul hateth, it is a long night journey by rail. In the old coaching days I do not think that I should have minded it, passing swiftly through a summer night on the top of a speedy coach with the star arch black-blue above one's head, the sweet smell of earth and her numberless flowers and grasses in one's nostrils, and the pleasant trot, trot, trot, trot, of the four strong horses in one's ears. But by railway! in a little stuffy compartment, with nothing to amuse you if you keep awake; with a dim lamp hanging above you, tantalizing you with the idea that you can read by its light, and when you try, satisfactorily proving to you that you cannot; and, if you sleep, breaking your neck, or at least stiffening it, by the brutal arrangement of the hard cushions.
These thoughts pass sulkily and rebelliously through my head as I sit in my salon, in the Ecu at Geneva, on the afternoon of the fine autumn day on which, in an evil hour, I have settled to take my place in the night train for Paris. I have put off going as long as I can. I like Geneva, and am leaving some pleasant and congenial friends, but now go I must. My husband is to meet me at the station in Paris at six o'clock to-morrow morning. Six o'clock! what a barbarous hour at which to arrive! I am putting on my bonnet and cloak; I look at myself in the glass with an air of anticipative disgust. Yes, I look trim and spruce enough now--a not disagreeable object perhaps--with sleek hair, quick and alert eyes, and pink-tinted cheeks. Alas! at six o'clock tomorrow morning, what a different tale there will be to tell! dishevelled, dusty locks, half-open weary eyes, a disordered dress, and a green-colored countenance.
I turn away with a pettish gesture, and reflecting that at least there is no wisdom in living my miseries twice over, I go down-stairs, and get into the hired open carriage which awaits me. My maid and man follow with the luggage. I give stricter injunctions than ordinary to my maid never for one moment to lose her hold of the dressing-case, which contains, as it happens, a great many more valuable jewels than people are wont to travel in foreign parts with, nor of a certain costly and beautiful Dresden china and gold Louis Quatorze clock, which I am carrying home as a present to my people. We reach the station, and I straightway betake myself to the first-class salle d'attente, there to remain penned up till the officials undo the gates of purgatory and release us; an arrangement whose wisdom I have yet to learn. There are ten minutes to spare, and the salle is filling fuller and fuller every moment. Chiefly my countrymen, countrywomen, and country children, beginning to troop home to their partridges. I look curiously round at them, speculating as to which of them will be my companion or companions through the night.
There are not very unusual types: girls in sailor hats and blond hair-fringes; strong-minded old maids in painstakingly ugly waterproofs; baldish fathers; fattish mothers; a German or two, with prominent pale eyes and spectacles. I have just decided on the companions I should prefer: a large young man, who belongs to nobody, and looks as if he spent most of his life in laughing--(alas! he is not likely! he is sure to want to smoke!)--and a handsome and prosperous-looking young couple. They are more likely, as very probably, in the man's case, the bride-love will overcome the cigar-love. The porter comes up. The key turns in the lock: the doors open. At first I am standing close to them, flattening my nose against the glass, and looking out on the pavement; but as the passengers become more numerous, I withdraw from my prominent position, anticipating a rush for carriages. I hate and dread exceedingly a crowd, and would much prefer at any time to miss my train rather than be squeezed and jostled by one. In consequence, my maid and I are almost the last people to emerge, and have the last and worst choice of seats. We run along the train looking in; the footman, my maid, and I--full--full everywhere!
"Dames seules?" asks the guard.
"Certainly not! neither 'Dames seules,' nor 'fumeurs,' but if it must be one or the other, certainly 'fumeurs.'"
I am growing nervous, when I see the footman, who is a little ahead of us, standing with an open carriage-door in his hand, and signing to us to make haste. Ah! it is all right! it always comes right when one does not fuss oneself.
"Plenty of room here, 'm; only two gentlemen!"
I put my foot on the high step and climb in. Rather uncivil of the two gentlemen! neither of them offers to help me, but they are not looking this way, I suppose. "Mind the dressing-case!" I cry nervously, as I stretch out my hand to help the maid Watson up. The man pushes her from behind; in she comes--dressing-case, clock and all; here we are for the night!
I am so busy and amused looking out of the window, seeing the different parties bidding their friends good-by, and watching with indignation the barbaric and malicious manner in which the porters hurl the luckless luggage about, that we have steamed out of the station, and are fairly off for Paris, before I have the curiosity to glance at my fellow-passengers. Well! when I do take a look at them, I do not make much of it. Watson and I occupy the two seats by one window, facing one another. Our fellow travellers have not taken the other two window-seats; they occupy the middle ones, next us. They are both reading behind newspapers. Well! we shall not get much amusement out of them. I give them up as a bad job. Ah! if I could have had my wish, and had the laughing young man, and the pretty young couple, for company, the night would not perhaps have seemed so long. However I should have been mortified for them to have seen how green I looked when the dawn came; and, as to these commis voyageurs, I do not care if I look as green as grass in their eyes. Thus, all no doubt is for the best; and at all events it is a good trite copy-book maxim to say so. So I forget all about them: fix my eyes on the landscape racing by, and fall into a variety of thoughts. "Will my husband really get up in time to come and meet me at the station to-morrow morning? He does so cordially hate getting up. My only chance is his not having gone to bed at all! How will he be looking? I have not seen him for four months. Will he have succeeded in curbing his tendency to fat, during his Norway fishing? Probably not. Fishing, on the contrary is rather a fat-making occupation; sluggish and sedentary. Shall we have a pleasant party at the house we are going to for shooting? To whom in Paris shall I go for my gown? Worth? No, Worth is beyond me." Then I leave the future and go back into past enjoyments; excursions to Lausanne, trips down the to lake to Chillon; a hundred and one pleasantnesses. The time slips by: the afternoon is drawing towards evening; a beginning of dusk is coming over the landscape.
I look round. Good Heavens! what can those men find so interesting in the papers? I thought them hideously dull, when I looked over them this morning; and yet they are still persistently reading. What can they have got hold of? I cannot well see what the man beside me has; vis-agrave;-vis is buried in an English Times. Just as I am thinking about him, he puts down his paper, and I see his face. Nothing very remarkable! a long black beard, and hat tilted somewhat low over his forehead. I turn away my eyes hastily, for fear of being caught inquisitively scanning him; but still, out of their corners I see that he has taken a little bottle out of his travelling bag, has poured some of its contents into a glass, and is putting it to his lips. It appears as if--and, at the time it happens, I have no manner of doubt that he is drinking. Then I feel that he is addressing me. I look up and towards him: he is holding out the phial to me, and saying:
"May I take the liberty of offering Madame some?"
"No, thank you, monsieur!" I answer, shaking my head hastily and speaking rather abruptly. There is nothing that I dislike more than being offered strange eatables or drinkables in a train, or a strange hymn-book in church.
He smiles politely, and then adds:
"Perhaps the other lady might be persuaded to take a little."
"No, thank you, sir, I'm much obliged to you," replies Watson briskly, in almost as ungrateful a tone as mine.
Again he smiles, bows, and re-buries himself in his newspaper. The thread of my thoughts is broken; I feel an odd curiosity as to the nature of the contents of that bottle. Certainly it is not sherry or spirit of any kind, for it has diffused no odor through the carriage. All this time the man beside me has said and done nothing. I wish he would move or speak, or do something. I peep covertly at him. Well! at all events, he is well defended against the night chill. What a voluminous cloak he is wrapped in; how entirely it shrouds his figure; trimmed with fur too! why, it might be January instead of September. I do not know why, but that cloak makes me feel rather uncomfortable. I wish they would both move to the window, instead of sitting next to us. Bah! am I setting up to be a timid dove? I, who rather pique myself on my bravery--on my indifference to tramps, bulls, ghosts? The clock has been deposited with the umbrellas, parasols, spare shawls, rugs, etc., in the netting above Watson's head. The dressing-case--a very large and heavy one--is sitting on her lap. I lean forwards and say to her:
"That box must rest very heavily on your knee, and I want a footstool--I should be more comfortable if I had one--let me put my feet on it."
I have an idea that, somehow, that my sapphires will be safer if I have them where I can always feel that they are there. We make the desired change in our arrangements. Yes! both my feet are on it.
The landscape outside is darkening quickly now; our dim lamp is beginning to assert its importance. Still the men read. I feel a sensation of irritation. What can they mean by it? it is utterly impossible that they can decipher the small print of the Times by this feeble, shaky glimmer.
As I am so thinking, the one who had before spoken lays down his paper, folds it up and deposits it on the seat beside him. Then, drawing his little bottle out of his bag a second time, drinks, or seems to drink, from it. Then he again turns to me.
"Madame will pardon me, but if Madame could be induced to try a little of this; it is a cordial of a most refreshing and invigorating description; and if she will have the amiability to allow me to say so, madame looks faint."
(What can he mean by his urgency? Is it pure politeness? I wish it were not growing so dark.) These thoughts run through my head as I hesitate for an instant what answer to make. Then an idea occurs to me, and I manufacture a civil smile and say, "Thank you very much, monsieur! I am a little faint, as you observe. I think I will avail myself of your obliging offer." So saying, I take the glass, and touch it with my lips. I give you my word of honor that I do not think I did more; I did not mean to swallow a drop, but I suppose I must have done. He smiles with a gratified air.
"The other lady will now, perhaps, follow your example?"
By this time I am beginning to feel thoroughly uncomfortable. Why, I should be puzzled to explain. What is this cordial that he is so eager to urge upon us? Though determined not to subject myself to its influence, I must see its effect upon another person. Rather brutal of me, perhaps; rather in the spirit of the anatomist, who, in the interest of science, tortures live dogs and cats; but I am telling you facts--not what I ought to have done, but what I did. I make a sign to Watson to drink some. She obeys, nothing loath. She has been working hard all day; packing and getting under weigh, and she is tired. There is no feigning about her! She has emptied the glass. Now to see what comes of it--what happens to my live dog! The bottle is replaced in the bag; still we are racing, racing on, past the hills and fields and villages. How indistinct they are all growing! I turn back from the contemplation of the outside view to the inside one. Why, the woman is asleep already! her chin buried in her chest; her mouth half open; looking exceedingly imbecile and very plain, as most people, when asleep out of bed, do look. A nice invigorating potion, indeed! I wish to Heaven that I had gone in fumeurs, or even with that cavalcade of nursery-maids and unwholesome-looking babies in dames seules, next door. At all events, I am not at all sleepy myself: that is a blessing. I shall see what happens. Yes, by-the-by, I must see what he meant to happen: I must affect to fall asleep too. I close my eyes, and, gradually sinking my chin on my chest, try to droop my jaws and hang my cheeks, with a semblance of bona-fide slumber. Apparently I succeed pretty well. After the lapse of some minutes, I distinctly feel two hands very cautiously and carefully lifting and removing my feet from the dressing-box.
A cold chill creeps over me, and then the blood rushes to my head and ears. What am I to do? what am I to do? I have always thought the better of myself ever since for it; but, strange to say, I keep my presence of mind. Still affecting to sleep, I give a sort of kick, and instantly the hands are withdrawn, and all is perfectly quiet again. I now feign to wake gradually, with a yawn and a stretch; and, on moving about my feet a little, find that, despite my kick, they have been too clever for me, and have dexterously removed my box and substituted another. The way in which I make this pleasant discovery is that whereas mine was perfectly flat at the top, on the surface of the object that is now beneath my feet there is some sort of excrescence--a handle of some sort or other. There is no denying it--brave I may be---I may laugh at people for running from bulls; for disliking to sleep in a room by themselves, for fear of ghosts; for hurrying past tramps: but now I am most thoroughly frightened. I look cautiously, in a sideways manner, at the man beside me. How very still he is! Were they his hands, or the hands of the man opposite him? I take a fuller look than I have yet ventured to do; turning slightly round for the purpose. He is still reading, or at least still holding the paper, for the reading must be a farce. I look at his hands: they are in precisely the same position as they were when I affected to go to sleep, although the pose of the rest of his body is slightly altered. Suddenly, I turn extremely cold, for it has dawned on me that they are not real hands--they are certainly false ones. Yes, though the carriage is shaking very much with our rapid motion, and the light is shaking, too, yet there is no mistake. I look indeed more closely, so as to be quite sure. The one nearest me is ungloved; the other gloved. I look at the nearest one. Yes, it is of an opaque waxen whiteness. I can plainly see the rouge put under the finger-nails to represent the coloring of life. I try to give one glance at his face. The paper still partially hides it; and, as he is leaning his head back against the cushion, where the light hardly penetrates, I am completely baffled in my efforts.
Great Heavens! what is going to happen to me? what shall I do? how much of him is real? where are his real hands? what is going on under that awful cloak? The fur border touches me as I sit by him. I draw convulsively and shrinkingly away, and try to squeeze myself up as close as possible to the window. But alas! to what good? how absolutely and utterly powerless I am! how entirely at their mercy! And there is Watson still sleeping swinishly! breathing heavily opposite me. Shall I try to wake her? But to what end? She, being under the influence of that vile drug, my efforts will certainly be useless, and will probably arouse the man to employ violence against me. Sooner or later, in the course of the night, I suppose they are pretty sure to murder me, but I had rather that it should be later than sooner.
While I think these things, I am lying back quite still, for, as I philosophically reflect, not all the screaming in the world will help me: if I had twenty-lung power I could not drown the rush of an express-train. Oh, if my dear boy were but here--my husband I mean,--fat or lean, how thankful I should be to see him! Oh, that cloak, and those horrid waxy hands! Of course I see it now! They remained stuck out, while the man's real ones were fumbling about my feet. In the midst of my agony of fright, a thought of Madame Tussaud flashes ludicrously across me. Then they begin to talk of me. It is plain that they are not taken in by my feint of sleep: they speak in a clear, loud voice, evidently for my benefit. One of them begins by saying, "What a good-looking woman she is--evidently in her première jeunesse too"--(Reader, I struck thirty last May)--"and also there can be no doubt as to her being of exalted rank--a duchess probably." ("A dead duchess by morning," think I grimly). They go on to say how odd it is that people in my class of life never travel with their own jewels, but always with paste ones, the real ones being meanwhile deposited at the bankers. My poor, poor sapphires! good-by--a long good-by to you. But, indeed, I will willingly compound for the loss of you and the rest of my ornaments--will go bare-necked, and bare-armed, or clad in Salviati beads for the rest of my life, so that I do but attain the next stopping place alive.
As I am so thinking, one of the men looks, or I imagine that he looks, rather curiously towards me. In a paroxysm of fear lest they should read on my face the signs of the agony of terror I am enduring, I throw my pocket-handkerchief--a very fine cambric one--over my face.
And now, O reader, I am going to tell you something which I am sure you will not believe; I can hardly believe it myself, but, as I so lie, despite the tumult of my mind---despite the chilly terror which seems to be numbing my feelings--in the midst of it all a drowsiness keeps stealing over me. I am now convinced either that vile potion must have been of extraordinary strength, or that I, through the shaking of the carriage, or the unsteadiness of my hand, carried more to my mouth, and swallowed more--I did not mean to swallow any--than I intended, for--you will hardly credit it, but--I fell asleep!
When I awake--awake with a bewildered mixed sense of having been a long time asleep--of not knowing where I am--and of having some great dread and horror on my mind--awake and look round, the dawn is breaking. I shiver, with the chilly sensation that the coming of even a warm day brings, and look round, still half-unconsciously, in a misty way. But what has happened? how empty the carriage is! the dressing-case is gone! the clock is gone! the man who sat nearly opposite me is gone. Watson is gone! but the man in the cloak and the wax hands still sits beside me! Still the hands are holding the paper; still the fur is touching me! Good God! I am tête-à-tête with him! A feeling of the most appalling desolation and despair comes over me--vanquishes me utterly. I clasp my hands together frantically, and, still looking at the dim form beside me, groan out--"Well! I did not think that Watson would have forsaken me!" Instantly, a sort of movement and shiver runs through the figure: the newspaper drops from the hands, which, however continue to be still held out in the same position as if still grasping it; and behind the newspaper, I see by the dim morning light and the dim lamp-gleams that there is no real face, but a mask. A sort of choked sound is coming from behind the mask. Shivers of cold fear are running over me. Never to this day shall I know what gave me the despairing courage to do it, but, before I know what I am doing, I find myself tearing at the cloak--tearing away the mask--tearing away the hands. It would be better to find any thing underneath--Satan himself--a horrible dead body--any thing--sooner than submit any longer to this hideous mystery. And I am rewarded. When the cloak lies at the bottom of the carriage--when the mask, and the false hands and false feet--(there are false feet too)--are also cast away in different directions, what do you think I find underneath?
Watson! Yes: it appears that while I slept--I feel sure that they must have rubbed some more of the drug on my lips while I was unconscious, or I never could have slept so heavily or so long--they dressed up Watson in the mask, feet, hands, and cloak, set the hat on her head, gagged her, and placed her beside me in the attitude occupied by the man. They had then, at the next station, got out, taking with them dressing-case and clock, and had made off in all security. When I arrive in Paris, you will not be surprised to hear that it does not once occur to me whether I am looking green or no.
And this is the true history of my night journey to Paris! You will be glad, I dare say, to learn that I ultimately recovered my sapphires, and a good many of my other ornaments. The police being promptly set on, the robbers were, after much trouble and time, at length secured; and it turned out that the man in the cloak was an ex-valet of my husband's who was acquainted with my bad habit of travelling in company with my trinkets--a bad habit which I have since seen fit to abandon.
YESTERDAY morning I received the following letter:
Weston House, Caulfield,-----shire.
"MY DEAR DINAH,--You must come: I scorn all your excuses, and see through their flimsiness. I have no doubt that you are much better amused in Dublin, frolicking round ball rooms with a succession of horse-soldiers, and watching her Majesty's household troops play Polo in the Phoenix Park, but no matter--you must come. We have no particular inducements to hold out. We lead an exclusively bucolic, cow-milking, pig-fattening, roast-mutton-eating and to-bed-at-ten-o'clock-going life; but no matter--you must come. I want you to see how happy two dull elderly people may be, with no special brightness in their lot to make them so. My old man--he is surprisingly ugly at the first glance, but grows upon one afterwards--sends you his respects, and bids me say that he will meet you at any station on any day at any hour of the day or night. If you succeed in evading our persistence this time, you will be a cleverer woman than I take you for.
"Ever yours affectionately.
"P.S.--We will invite our little scarlet-headed curate to dinner to meet you, so as to soften your fall from the society of the Plungers."
This is my answer:
"MY DEAR JANE,--Kill the fat calf in all haste, and put the bake meats into the oven, for I will come. Do not, however, imagine that I am moved thereunto by the prospect of the bright-headed curate. Believe me, my dear, I am as yet at a distance of ten long good years from an addiction to the minor clergy. If I survive the crossing of that seething, heaving, tumbling abomination, St. George's Channel, you may expect me on Tuesday next. I have been groping for hours in 'Bradshaw's' darkness that may be felt, and I have arrived at length at this twilight result, that I may arrive at your station at 6.55 P.M. But the ways of 'Bradshaw' are not our ways, and I may either rush violently past or never attain it. If I do, and if on my arrival I see some rustic vehicle, guided by a startlingly ugly gentleman, awaiting me, I shall know from your wifely description that it is your 'old man.' Till Tuesday, then.
"Affectionately yours. "
I am as good as my word; on Tuesday I set off. For four mortal hours and a half I am disastrously, hideously, diabolically sick. For four hours and a half I curse the day on which I was born, the day on which Jane Watson was born, the day on which her old man was born, and lastly--but oh! not, not leastly--the day and the dock on which and in which the Leinster's plunging, courtseying, throbbing body was born. On arriving at Holyhead, feeling convinced from my sensations that, as the French say, I touch my last hour, I indistinctly request to be allowed to stay on board and die, then and there; but as the stewardess and my maid take a different view of my situation, and insist upon forcing my cloak and bonnet on my dying body and limp head, I at length succeed in staggering on deck and off the accursed boat. I am then well shaken up for two or three hours in the Irish mail, and after crawling along a slow by-line for two or three hours more, am at length, at 6:55, landed, battered, tired, dust-blacked and qualmish, at the little roadside station of Caulfield. My maid and I are the only passengers who descend. The train snorts its slow way onwards, and I am left gazing at the calm crimson death of the August sun, and smelling the sweet peas in the station-master's garden border. I look round in search of Jane's promised tax-cart, and steel my nerves for the contemplation of her old man's unlovely features. But the only vehicle which I see is a tiny two-wheeled pony carriage, drawn by a small and tub-shaped bay pony and driven by a lady in a hat, whose face is turned expectantly towards me. I go up and recognise my friend, whom I have not seen for two years--not since before she fell in with her old man and espoused him.
"I thought it safest, after all, to come myself," she says with a bright laugh. "My old man looked so handsome this morning, that I thought you would never recognise him from my description. Get in, dear, and let us trot home as quickly as we can."
I comply, and for the next half hour sit (while the cool evening wind is blowing the dust off my hot and jaded face) stealing amazed glances at my companion's cheery features. Cheery! That is the very last word that, excepting in an ironical sense, any one would have applied to my friend Jane two years ago. Two years ago Jane was thirty-five, the elderly eldest daughter of a large family, hustled into obscurity, jostled, shelved, by half a dozen younger, fresher sisters; an elderly girl addicted to lachrymose verse about the gone and the dead and the for-ever-lost. Apparently the gone has come back, the dead resuscitated, the for-ever-lost been found again. The peaky sour virgin is transformed into a gracious matron with a kindly, comely face, pleasure making and pleasure feeling. Oh, Happiness, what powder, or paste, or milk of roses, can make old cheeks young again in the cunning way that you do? If you would but bide steadily with us we might live for ever, always young and always handsome.
My musings on Jane's metamorphosis, combined with a tired headache, make me somewhat silent, and indeed there is mostly a slackness of conversation between the two dearest allies on first meeting after absence--a sort of hesitating shiver before plunging into the sea of talk that both know to lie in readiness for them.
"Have you got your harvest in yet?" I ask, more for the sake of not utterly holding my tongue than from any profound interest in the subject, as we jog briskly along between the yellow cornfields, where the dry bound sheaves are standing in golden rows in the red sunset light.
"Not yet," answers Jane; "we have only just begun to cut some of it. However, thank God, the weather looks as settled as possible; there is not a streak of watery lilac in the west."
My headache is almost gone and I am beginning to think kindly of dinner--a subject from which all day until now my mind has hastily turned with a sensation of hideous inward revolt--by the time that the fat pony pulls up before the old-world dark porch of a modest little house, which has bashfully hidden its original face under a veil of crowded clematis flowers and stalwart ivy. Set as in a picture-frame by the large drooped ivy-leaves, I see a tall and moderately hard-featured gentleman of middle age, perhaps, of the two, rather inclining towards elderly, smiling at us a little shyly.
"This is my old man," cries Jane, stepping gaily out, and giving him a friendly introductory pat on the shoulder. "Old man, this is Dinah."
Having thus been made known to each other we shake hands, but neither of us can arrive at anything pretty to say. Then I follow Jane into her little house, the little house for which she has so happily exchanged her tenth part of the large and noisy paternal mansion. It is an old house, and everything about it has the moderate shabbiness of old age and long and careful wear. Little thick-walled rooms, dark and cool, with flowers and flower scents lying in wait for you everywhere--a silent, fragrant, childless house. To me, who have had oily locomotives snorting and racing through my head all day, its dumb sweetness seems like heaven.
"And now that we have, secured you, we do not mean to let you go in a hurry," says Jane hospitably that night at bedtime, lighting the candles on my dressing-table.
"You are determined to make my mouth water, I see," say I, interrupting a yawn to laugh. "Lone, lorn me, who have neither old man, nor dear little house, nor any prospect of ultimately attaining either."
"But if you honestly are not bored you will stay with us a good bit?" she says, laying her hand with kind entreaty on my sleeve.
"St. George's Channel is not lightly to be faced again."
"Perhaps I shall stay until you are obliged to go away yourselves to get rid of me," return I, smiling. "Such things have happened. Yes, without joking, I will stay a month. Then, by the end of a month, if you have not found me out thoroughly, I think I may pass among men for a more amiable woman than I have ever yet had the reputation of."
A quarter of an hour later I am laying down my head among soft and snow-white pillows, and saying to myself that this delicious sensation of utter drowsy repose, of soft darkness and odorous quiet, is cheaply purchased even by the ridiculous anguish which my own sufferings and--hardly less than my own sufferings--the demoniac sights and sounds afforded by my fellow passengers, caused me on board the accursed Leinster.
"Built in the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark."
"WELL, I cannot say that you look much rested," says Jane next morning, coming in to greet me, smiling and fresh--(yes, sceptic of eighteen, even a woman of thirty-seven may look fresh in a print gown on an August morning, when she has a well of lasting quiet happiness inside her,)--coming in with a bunch of creamy gloire de Dijons in her hand for the breakfast table. "You look infinitely more fagged than you did when I left you last night!"
"Do I?" say I rather faintly.
"I am afraid you did not sleep much?" suggests Jane, a little crestfallen at the insult to her feather beds implied by my wakefulness. "Some people never can sleep the first night in a strange bed, and I stupidly forgot to ask whether you liked the feather bed or mattress at the top."
"Yes, I did sleep," I answer gloomily. "I wish to heaven I had not."
"Wish--to--heaven--you--had--not?" repeats Jane slowly, with a slight astonished pause between each word. "My dear child, for what other purpose did you go to bed?"
"I--I--had bad dreams," say I, shuddering a little and then taking her hand, roses and all, in mine. "Dear Jane, do not think me quite run mad, but--but--have you got a 'Bradshaw' in the house?"
"A 'Bradshaw?' What on earth do you want with 'Bradshaw?'" says my hostess, her face lengthening considerably and a slight tincture of natural coldness coming into her tone.
"I know it seems rude--insultingly rude," say I, still holding her hand and speaking almost lachrymosely; "but do you know, my dear, I really am afraid that--that--I shall have to leave you--to-day?"
"To leave us?" repeats she, withdrawing her hand and growing angrily red. "What! when not twenty-four hours ago you settled to stay a month with us? What have we done between then and now to disgust you with us?"
"Nothing--nothing," cry I eagerly; "how can you suggest such a thing? I never had a kinder welcome nor ever saw a place that charmed me more; but--but--"
"But what?" asks June, her colour subsiding and looking a little mollified.
"It is best to tell the truth, I suppose," say I sighing, "even though I know that you will laugh at me--will call me vapourish--sottishly superstitious; but I had an awful and hideous dream last night."
"Is that all?" she says, looking relieved, and beginning to arrange her roses in an old china bowl. "And do you think that all dreams are confined to this house? I never heard before of their affecting any one special place more than another. Perhaps no sooner are you back in Dublin, in your own room and your own bed, than you will have a still worse and uglier one."
I shake my head. "But it was about this house--about you."
"About me?" she says, with an accent of a little aroused interest.
"About you and your husband," I answer earnestly. "Shall I tell it you? Whether you say 'Yes' or 'No' I must. Perhaps it came as a warning; such things have happened. Yes, say what you will, I cannot believe that any vision so consistent--so tangibly real and utterly free from the jumbled incongruities and unlikelinesses of ordinary dreams--could have meant nothing. Shall I begin?"
"By all means," answers Mrs. Watson, sitting down in an arm-chair and smiling easily. "I am quite prepared to listen--and disbelieve."
"You know," say I, narratively, coming and standing close before her, "how utterly tired out I was when you left me last night. I could hardly answer your questions for yawning. I do not think that I was ten minutes in getting into bed, and it seemed like heaven when I laid my head down on the pillow. I felt as if I should sleep till the Day of Judgment. Well, you know, when one is asleep one has of course no measure of time, and I have no idea what hour it was really; but at some time, in the blackest and darkest of the night, I seemed to wake. It appeared as if a noise had woke me--a noise which at first neither frightened nor surprised me in the least, but which seemed quite natural, and which I accounted for in the muddled drowsy way in which one does account for things when half asleep. But as I gradually grew to fuller consciousness I found out, with a cold shudder, that the noise I heard was not one that belonged to the night; nothing that one could lay on wind in the chimney, or mice behind the wainscot, or ill-fitting boards. It was a sound of muffled struggling, and once I heard a sort of choked strangled cry. I sat up in bed, perfectly numbed with fright, and for a moment could hear nothing for the singing of the blood in my head and the loud battering of my heart against my side. Then I thought that if it were anything bad--if I were going to be murdered--I had at least rather be in the light than the dark, and see in what sort of shape my fate was coming, so I slid out of bed and threw my dressing-gown over my shoulders. I had stupidly forgotten, in my weariness over night, to put the matches by the bedside, and could not for the life of me recollect where they were. Also, my knowledge of the geography of the room was so small that in the utter blackness, without even the palest, greyest ray from the window to help me, I was by no means sure in which direction the door lay. I can feel now the pain of the blow I gave this right side against the sharp corner of the table in passing; I was quite surprised this morning not to find the mark of a bruise there. At last, in my groping I came upon the handle and turned the key in the lock. It gave a little squeak, and again I stopped for a moment, overcome by ungovernable fear. Then I silently opened the door and looked out. You know that your door is exactly opposite mine. By the line of red light underneath it, I could see that at all events some one was awake and astir within, for the light was brighter than that given by a night-light. By the broader band of red light on the right side of it I could also perceive that the door was ajar. I stood stock still and listened. The two sounds of struggling and chokedly crying had both ceased. All the noise that remained was that as of some person quietly moving about on unbooted feet. 'Perhaps Jane's dog Smut is ill and she is sitting up with it; she was saying last night, I remember, that she was afraid it was beginning with the distemper. Perhaps either she or her old man have been taken with some trifling temporary sickness. Perhaps the noise of crying out that I certainly heard was one of them fighting with a nightmare.' Trying, by such like suggestions, to hearten myself up, I stole across the passage and peeped in"--
I pause in my narrative.
"Well?" says Jane, a little impatiently.
She has dropped her flowers. They lie in odorous dewy confusion in her lap. She is listening rather eagerly. I cover my face with my hands. "Oh! My dear," I cry, "I do not think I can go on. It was too dreadful! Now that I am telling it I seem to be doing and hearing it over again"--
"I do not call it very kind to keep me on the rack," she says, with a rather forced laugh. "Probably I am imagining something much worse than the reality. For heaven's sake speak up! What did you see?"
I take hold of her hand and continue "You know that in your room the bed exactly faces the door. Well, when I looked in, looked in with eyes blinking at first, and dazzled by the long darkness they had been in, it seemed to me as if that bed were only one horrible sheet of crimson; but as my sight grew clearer I saw what it was that caused that frightful impression of universal red"--again I pause with a gasp and feeling of oppressed breathing.
"Go on! go on!" cries my companion, leaning forward, and speaking with some petulance. "Are you never going to get to the point?"
"Jane," say I solemnly, "do not laugh at me, nor poohpooh me, for it is God's truth--as clearly and vividly as I see you now, strong, flourishing, and alive, so clearly, so vividly, with no more of dream haziness nor of contradiction in details than there is in the view I now have of this room and of you--I saw you both--you and your husband, lying dead--murdered--drowned in your own blood!"
"What, both of us?" she says, trying to laugh, but her healthy cheek has rather paled.
"Both of you," I answer, with growing excitement. "You, Jane, had evidently been the one first attacked--taken off in your sleep--for you were lying just as you would have lain in slumber, only that across your throat from there to there" (touching first one ear and then the other), "there was a huge and yawning gash."
"Pleasant," replies she, with a slight shiver.
"I never saw any one dead," continue I earnestly, "never until last night. I had not the faintest idea how dead people looked, even people who died quietly, nor has any picture ever given me at all a clear conception of death's dread look. How then could I have imagined the hideous contraction and distortion of feature, the staring starting open eyes--glazed yet agonised--the tightly clenched teeth that go to make up the picture, that is now, this very minute standing out in ugly vividness before my mind's eye?" I stop, but she does not avail herself of the pause to make any remark, neither does she look any longer at all laughingly inclined. "And yet," continue I, with a voice shaken by emotion, "it was you, very you, not partly you and partly some one else, as is mostly the case in dreams, but as much you, as the you I am touching now" laying my finger on her arm as I speak.
"And my old man, Robin," says poor Jane, rather tearfully, after a moment's silence, "what about him? Did you see him? Was he dead too?"
"It was evidently he whom I had heard struggling and crying," I answer with a strong shudder, which I cannot keep down, "for it was clear that he had fought for his life. He was lying half on the bed and half on the floor, and one clenched hand was grasping a great piece of the sheet; he was lying head downwards, as if, after his last struggle, he had fallen forwards. All his grey hair was reddened and stained, and I could see that the rift in his throat was as deep as that in yours."
"I wish you would stop," cries Jane, pale as ashes, and speaking with an accent of unwilling, terror; "you are making me quite sick!"
"I must finish," I answer earnestly, "since it has come in time I am sure it has come for some purpose. Listen to me till the end; it is very near." She does not speak, and I take her silence for assent. "I was staring at you both in a stony way," I go on, "feeling--if I felt at all--that I was turning idiotic with horror--standing in exactly the same spot, with my neck craned to look round the door, and my eyes unable to stir from that hideous scarlet bed, when a slight noise, as of some one cautiously stepping on the carpet, turned my stony terror into a living quivering agony. I looked and saw a man with his back towards me walking across the room from the bed to the dressing-table. He was dressed in the dirty fustian of an ordinary workman, and in his hand he held a red wet sickle. When he reached the dressing-table he laid it down on the floor beside him, and began to collect all the rings, open the cases of the bracelets, and hurry the trinkets of all sorts into his pockets. While he was thus busy I caught a full view of the reflection of the face in the glass"---I stop for breath, my heart is panting almost as hardly as it seemed to pant during the awful moments I am describing.
"What was he like--what was he like?" cries Jane, greatly excited. "Did you see him distinctly enough to recollect his features again? Would you know him again if you saw him?"
"Should I know my own face if I saw it in the glass?" I ask scornfully. "I see every line of it now more clearly than I do yours, though that is before my eyes, and the other only before my memory"--
"Well, what was he like?--be quick, for heaven's sake."
"The first moment that I caught sight of him," continue I, speaking quickly, "I felt certain that he was Irish; to no other nationality could such a type of face have belonged. His wild rough hair fell down over his forehead, reaching his shagged and overhanging brows. He had the wide grinning slit of a mouth--the long nose, the cunningly twinkling eyes--that one so often sees, in combination with a shambling gait and ragged tail-coat, at the railway stations or in the harvest fields at this time of year." A pause. "I do not know how it came to me," I go on presently; "but I felt as convinced as if I had been told--as if I had known it for a positive fact--that he was one of your own labourers--one of your own harvest men. Have you any Irishmen working for you?"
"Of course we have," answers Jane, rather sharply, "but that proves nothing. Do not they, as you observed just now, come over in droves at this time of year for the harvest?"
"I am sorry," say I, sighing. "I wish you had not. Well, let me finish; I have just done--I had been holding the door-handle mechanically in my hand; I suppose I pulled it unconsciously towards me, for the door hinge creaked a little, but quite audibly. To my unspeakable horror the man turned round and saw me. Good God! he would cut my throat too with that red, red reaping hook! I tried to get into the passage and lock the door, but the key was on the inside. I tried to scream, I tried to run; but voice and legs disobeyed me. The bed and room and man began to dance before me; a black earthquake seemed to swallow me up, and I suppose I fell down in a swoon. When I awoke really the blessed morning had come, and a robin was singing outside my window on an apple bough. There--you have it all, and now let me look for a 'Bradshaw,' for I am so frightened and unhinged that go I must."
"I MUST own that it has taken away appetite," I say, with rather a sickly smile, as we sit round the breakfast table. "I assure you that I mean no insult to your fresh eggs and bread-and-butter, but I simply cannot eat."
"It certainly was an exceptionally dreadful dream," says Jane, whose colour has returned, and who is a good deal fortified and reassured by the influences of breakfast and of her husband's scepticism; for a condensed and shortened version of my dream has been told to him, and he has easily laughed it to scorn. "Exceptionally dreadful, chiefly from its extreme consistency and precision of detail. But still, you know, dear, one has had hideous dreams oneself times out of mind and they never came, to anything. I remember once I dreamt that all my teeth came out in my mouth at once--double ones and all; but that was ten years ago, and they still keep their situations, nor did I about that time lose any friend, which they say such a dream is a sign of."
"You say that some unaccountable instinct told you that the hero of your dream was one of my own men," says Robin, turning towards me with a covert smile of benevolent contempt for my superstitiousness; "did not I understand you to say so?"
"Yes," reply I, not in the least shaken by his hardly-veiled disbelief.
"I do not know how it came to me, but I was as much persuaded of that, and am so still, as I am of my own identity."
"I will tell you of a plan then to prove the truth of your vision," returns he, smiling. "I will take you through the fields this morning and you shall see all my men at work, both the ordinary staff and the harvest casuals, Irish and all. If amongst them you find the counterpart of Jane's and my murderer (a smile) I will promise then--no, not even then can I promise to believe you, for there is such a family likeness between all Irishmen, at all events between all the Irishmen that one sees out of Ireland."
"Take me," I say eagerly, jumping up; "now, this minute! You cannot be more anxious nor half so anxious to prove me a false prophet as I am to be proved one."
"I am quite at your service," he answers, "as soon as you please. Jenny, get your hat and come too."
"And if we do not find him," says Jane, smiling playfully--" I think I am growing pretty easy on that head--you will promise to eat a great deal of luncheon and never mention 'Bradshaw' again?"
"I promise," reply I gravely. "And if, on the other hand, we do find him, you will promise to put no more obstacles in the way of my going, but will let me depart in peace without taking any offence thereat?"
"It is a bargain," she says gaily. "Witness, Robin."
So we set off in the bright dewiness of the morning; on our walk over Robin's farm. It is a grand harvest day, and the whitened sheaves are everywhere, drying, drying in the genial sun. We have been walking for an hour and both Jane and I are rather tired. The sun beats with all his late-summer strength on our heads and takes the force and spring out of our hot limbs.
"The hour of triumph is approaching," says Robin, with a quiet smile, as we draw near an open gate through which a loaded wain, shedding, ripe wheat ears from its abundance as it crawls along, is passing. "And time for it too; it is a quarter past twelve and you have been on your legs for fully an hour. Miss Bellairs, you must make haste and find the murderer, for there is only one more field to do it in."
"Is not there?" I cry eagerly. "Oh, I am glad! Thank God, I begin to breathe again."
We pass through the open gate and begin to tread across the stubble for almost the last load has gone.
"We must get nearer the hedge," says Robin, "or you will not see their faces; they are all at dinner."
We do as he suggests. In the shadow of the hedge we walk close in front of the row of heated labourers, who, sitting or lying on the hedge bank, are eating unattractive looking dinners. I scan one face after another--honest bovine English faces. I have seen a hundred thousand faces like each one of the faces now before me--very like but the exact counterpart of none. We are getting to the end of the row, I beginning to feel rather ashamed, though infinitely relieved, and to smile at my own expense. I look again, and my heart suddenly stands still and turns to stone within me. He is there!--not a handsbreadth from me! Great God! how well I have remembered his face, even to the unsightly smallpox seams, the shagged locks, the grinning slit mouth, the little sly base eyes. He is employed in no murderous occupation now; he is harmlessly cutting hunks of coarse bread and fat cold bacon with a clasp knife; but yet I have no more doubt that it is he--he whom I saw with the crimsoned sickle in his stained hand--than I have that it is I who am stonily, shiveringly, staring at him.
"Well, Miss Bellairs, who was right?" asks Robin's cheery voice at my elbow. "Perish Bradshaw and all his labyrinths! Are you satisfied now? Good heavens!" (catching a sudden sight of my face) "How white you are! Do you mean to say that you have found him at last? Impossible!"
"Yes, I have found him," I answer in a low and unsteady tone. "I knew I should. Look, there he is!--close to us, the third from the end."
I turn away my head, unable to bear the hideous recollections and associations that the sight of the man calls up, and I suppose that they both look.
"Are you sure that you are not letting your imagination carry you away?" asks he presently, in a tone of gentle kindly remonstrance. "As I said before, these fellows are all so much alike, they have all the same look of debased squalid cunning. Oblige me by looking once again, so as to be quite sure."
I obey. Reluctantly I look at him once again. Apparently becoming aware that he is the object of our notice, he lifts his small dull eyes and looks back at me. It is the same face--they are the same eyes that turned from the plundered dressing-table to catch sight of me last night. "There is no mistake," I answer, shuddering from head to foot. "Take me away, please--as quick as you can--out of the field--home!"
They comply, and over the hot fields and through the hot noon air we step silently homewards. As we reach the cool and ivied porch of the house I speak for the first time. "You believe me now?"
He hesitates. "I was staggered for a moment, I will own," he answers, with candid gravity; "but I have been thinking it over and on reflection I have come to the conclusion that the highly excited state of your imagination is answerable for the heightening of the resemblance which exists between all the Irish of that class into an identity with the particular Irishman you dreamed of, and whose face (by your own showing) you only saw dimly reflected in the glass."
"Not dimly," repeat I, emphatically, "unless I now see that Sun dimly" (pointing to him as he gloriously, blindingly, blazes from the sky). You will not be warned by me, then?" I continue passionately, after an interval. "You will run the risk of my dream coming true--you will stay on here in spite of it? Oh, if I could persuade you to go from home--anywhere--anywhere--for a time, until the danger was past!"
"And leave the harvest to itself?" answers he, with a smile of quiet sarcasm; "be a loser of two hundred or three hundred pounds, probably, and a laughing-stock to my acquaintance into the bargain, and all for--what? A dream a fancy--a nightmare!"
"But do you know anything of the man?--of his antecedents?--of his character?" I persist eagerly.
He shrugs he shoulders.
"Nothing whatever; nothing to his disadvantage, certainly. He came over with a lot of others a fortnight ago, and I engaged him for the harvesting. For anything I have heard to the contrary, he is a simple inoffensive fellow enough."
I am silenced, but not convinced. I turn to Jane. "You remember your promise: you will now put no more hindrances in the way of my going?"
"You do not mean to say that you are going, really?" says Jane, who is looking rather awed by what she calls the surprising coincidence but is still a good deal heartened up by her husband's want of faith.
"I do," reply I, emphatically. "I should go stark staring mad if I were to sleep another night in that room. I shall go to Chester to-night, and cross to-morrow from Holyhead."
I do as I say. I make my maid, to her extreme surprise, repack my just unpacked wardrobe and take an afternoon train to Chester. As I drive away with bag and baggage down the leafy lane, I look back and see my two friends standing at their gate. Jane is leaning her head on her old man's shoulder, and looking rather wistfully after me: an expression of mingled regret for my departure and vexation at my folly clouding their kind and happy faces. At least my last living recollection of them is a pleasant one.
THE joy with which my family welcome my return is largely mingled with surprise, but still more largely with curiosity, as to the cause of my so sudden reappearance. But I keep my own counsel. I have a reluctance to give the real reason, and possess no inventive faculty in the way of lying, so I give none. I say, "I am back: is not that enough for you? Set your minds at rest, for that is as much as you will ever know about the matter."
For one thing, I am occasionally rather ashamed of my conduct. It is not that the impression produced by my dream is effaced, but that absence and distance from the scene and the persons of it have produced their natural weakening effect. Once or twice during the voyage, when writhing in laughable torments in the ladies' cabin of the steam-boat, I said to myself, "Most likely you are a fool!" I therefore continually ward off the cross-questionings of my family with what defensive armour of silence and evasion I may.
"I feel convinced it was the husband," says one of my sisters, after a long catechism, which, as usual, has resulted in nothing. "You are too loyal to your friend to own it, but I always felt sure that any man who could take compassion on that poor peevish old Jane must be some wonderful freak of nature. Come, confess. Is not he a cross between an orang-outang and a Methodist parson?"
"He is nothing of the kind," reply I, in some heat, recalling the libelled Robin's clean fresh-coloured human face. "You will be very lucky if you ever secure any one half so kind, pleasant, and gentleman-like."
Three days after my return, I receive a letter from Jane:
Weston House, Caulfield.
"MY DEAR DINAH,--I hope you are safe home again, and that you have made up your mind that two crossings of St. George's Channel within forty-eight hours are almost as bad as having your throat cut, according to the programme you laid out for us. I have good news for you. Our murderer elect is gone. After hearing of the connection that there was to lie between us, Robin naturally was rather interested in him, and found out his name, which is the melodious one of Watty Doolan After asking his name he asked other things about him, and finding that he never did a stroke of work and was inclined to be tipsy and quarrelsome he paid and packed him off at once. He is now on hi way back to his native shores, and if he murder anybody it will be you my dear. Good-bye, Dinah. Hardly yet have I forgiven you for the way in which you frightened me with your graphic description of poor Robin and me, with our heads loose and waggling.
"Ever yours affectionately.
I fold up this note with a feeling of exceeding relief, and a thorough faith that I have been a superstitious hysterical fool. More resolved than ever am I to keep the reason for my return profoundly secret from my family. The next morning but one we are all in the breakfast-room after breakfast, hanging about, and looking at the papers. My sister has just thrown down the Times, with a pettish exclamation that there is nothing in it and that it really is not worthwhile paying threepence a day to see nothing but advertisements and police reports. I pick it up as she throws it down, and look listlessly over its tall columns from top to bottom. Suddenly my listlessness vanishes. What is this that I am reading?--this in staring capitals?
"SHOCKING TRAGEDY AT CAULFIELD.--DOUBLE MURDER."
I am in the middle of the paragraph before I realise what it is.
"From an early hour of the morning this village has been the scene of deep and painful excitement in consequence of the discovery of the atrocious murder of Mr. and Mrs. watson, of Weston House, two of its most respected inhabitants. It appears that the deceased had retired to rest on Tuesday night at their usual hour, and in their usual health and spirits. The housemaid, on going to call them at the accustomed hour on Wednesday morning, received no answer, in spite of repeated knocking. She therefore at length opened the door and entered. The rest of the servants, attracted by her cries, rushed to the spot, and found the unfortunate gentleman and lady lying on the bed with their throats cut from ear to ear. Life must have been extinct for some hours, as they were both perfectly cold. The room presented a hideous spectacle, being literally swimming in blood. A reaping hook, evidently the instrument with which the crime was perpetrated, was picked up near the door. An Irish labourer of the name of Watty Doolan, discharged by the lamented gentleman a few days ago on account of misconduct, has already been arrested on strong suspicion, as at an early hour on Wednesday morning he was seen by a farm labourer, who was going to his work, washing his waistcoat at a retired spot in the stream which flows through the meadows below the scene of the murder. On being apprehended and searched, several small articles of jewelry, identified as having belonged to Mr. Watson, were discovered in his possession."
I drop the paper and sink into a chair, feeling deadly sick.
So you see that my dream came true, after all.
The facts narrated in the above story occurred in Ireland. The only liberty I have taken with them is in transplanting them to England.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia