The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

The Third Part

Chapter 13

In the spring of the year 1861, Agnes was established at the country-seat of her two friends — now promoted (on the death of the first lord, without offspring) to be the new Lord and Lady Montbarry. The old nurse was not separated from her mistress. A place, suited to her time of life, had been found for her in the pleasant Irish household. She was perfectly happy in her new sphere; and she spent her first half-year’s dividend from the Venice Hotel Company, with characteristic prodigality, in presents for the children.

Early in the year, also, the Directors of the life insurance offices submitted to circumstances, and paid the ten thousand pounds. Immediately afterwards, the widow of the first Lord Montbarry (otherwise, the dowager Lady Montbarry) left England, with Baron Rivar, for the United States. The Baron’s object was announced, in the scientific columns of the newspapers, to be investigation into the present state of experimental chemistry in the great American republic. His sister informed inquiring friends that she accompanied him, in the hope of finding consolation in change of scene after the bereavement that had fallen on her. Hearing this news from Henry Westwick (then paying a visit at his brother’s house), Agnes was conscious of a certain sense of relief. ‘With the Atlantic between us,’ she said, ‘surely I have done with that terrible woman now!’

Barely a week passed after those words had been spoken, before an event happened which reminded Agnes of ‘the terrible woman’ once more.

On that day, Henry’s engagements had obliged him to return to London. He had ventured, on the morning of his departure, to press his suit once more on Agnes; and the children, as he had anticipated, proved to be innocent obstacles in the way of his success. On the other hand, he had privately secured a firm ally in his sister-in-law. ‘Have a little patience,’ the new Lady Montbarry had said, ‘and leave me to turn the influence of the children in the right direction. If they can persuade her to listen to you — they shall!’

The two ladies had accompanied Henry, and some other guests who went away at the same time, to the railway station, and had just driven back to the house, when the servant announced that ‘a person of the name of Rolland was waiting to see her ladyship.’

‘Is it a woman?’

‘Yes, my lady.’

Young Lady Montbarry turned to Agnes.

‘This is the very person,’ she said, ‘whom your lawyer thought likely to help him, when he was trying to trace the lost courier.’

‘You don’t mean the English maid who was with Lady Montbarry at Venice?’

‘My dear! don’t speak of Montbarry’s horrid widow by the name which is my name now. Stephen and I have arranged to call her by her foreign title, before she was married. I am “Lady Montbarry,” and she is “the Countess.” In that way there will be no confusion. — Yes, Mrs. Rolland was in my service before she became the Countess’s maid. She was a perfectly trustworthy person, with one defect that obliged me to send her away — a sullen temper which led to perpetual complaints of her in the servants’ hall. Would you like to see her?’

Agnes accepted the proposal, in the faint hope of getting some information for the courier’s wife. The complete defeat of every attempt to trace the lost man had been accepted as final by Mrs. Ferrari. She had deliberately arrayed herself in widow’s mourning; and was earning her livelihood in an employment which the unwearied kindness of Agnes had procured for her in London. The last chance of penetrating the mystery of Ferrari’s disappearance seemed to rest now on what Ferrari’s former fellow-servant might be able to tell. With highly-wrought expectations, Agnes followed her friend into the room in which Mrs. Rolland was waiting.

A tall bony woman, in the autumn of life, with sunken eyes and iron-grey hair, rose stiffly from her chair, and saluted the ladies with stern submission as they opened the door. A person of unblemished character, evidently — but not without visible drawbacks. Big bushy eyebrows, an awfully deep and solemn voice, a harsh unbending manner, a complete absence in her figure of the undulating lines characteristic of the sex, presented Virtue in this excellent person under its least alluring aspect. Strangers, on a first introduction to her, were accustomed to wonder why she was not a man.

‘Are you pretty well, Mrs. Rolland?’

‘I am as well as I can expect to be, my lady, at my time of life.’

‘Is there anything I can do for you?’

‘Your ladyship can do me a great favour, if you will please speak to my character while I was in your service. I am offered a place, to wait on an invalid lady who has lately come to live in this neighbourhood.’

‘Ah, yes — I have heard of her. A Mrs. Carbury, with a very pretty niece I am told. But, Mrs. Rolland, you left my service some time ago. Mrs. Carbury will surely expect you to refer to the last mistress by whom you were employed.’

A flash of virtuous indignation irradiated Mrs. Rolland’s sunken eyes. She coughed before she answered, as if her ‘last mistress’ stuck in her throat.

‘I have explained to Mrs. Carbury, my lady, that the person I last served — I really cannot give her her title in your ladyship’s presence! — has left England for America. Mrs. Carbury knows that I quitted the person of my own free will, and knows why, and approves of my conduct so far. A word from your ladyship will be amply sufficient to get me the situation.’

‘Very well, Mrs. Rolland, I have no objection to be your reference, under the circumstances. Mrs. Carbury will find me at home to-morrow until two o’clock.’

‘Mrs. Carbury is not well enough to leave the house, my lady. Her niece, Miss Haldane, will call and make the inquiries, if your ladyship has no objection.’

‘I have not the least objection. The pretty niece carries her own welcome with her. Wait a minute, Mrs. Rolland. This lady is Miss Lockwood — my husband’s cousin, and my friend. She is anxious to speak to you about the courier who was in the late Lord Montbarry’s service at Venice.’

Mrs. Rolland’s bushy eyebrows frowned in stern disapproval of the new topic of conversation. ‘I regret to hear it, my lady,’ was all she said.

‘Perhaps you have not been informed of what happened after you left Venice?’ Agnes ventured to add. ‘Ferrari left the palace secretly; and he has never been heard of since.’

Mrs. Rolland mysteriously closed her eyes — as if to exclude some vision of the lost courier which was of a nature to disturb a respectable woman. ‘Nothing that Mr. Ferrari could do would surprise me,’ she replied in her deepest bass tones.

‘You speak rather harshly of him,’ said Agnes.

Mrs. Rolland suddenly opened her eyes again. ‘I speak harshly of nobody without reason,’ she said. ‘Mr. Ferrari behaved to me, Miss Lockwood, as no man living has ever behaved — before or since.’

‘What did he do?’

Mrs. Rolland answered, with a stony stare of horror:—

‘He took liberties with me.’

Young Lady Montbarry suddenly turned aside, and put her handkerchief over her mouth in convulsions of suppressed laughter.

Mrs. Rolland went on, with a grim enjoyment of the bewilderment which her reply had produced in Agnes: ‘And when I insisted on an apology, Miss, he had the audacity to say that the life at the palace was dull, and he didn’t know how else to amuse himself!’

‘I am afraid I have hardly made myself understood,’ said Agnes. ‘I am not speaking to you out of any interest in Ferrari. Are you aware that he is married?’

‘I pity his wife,’ said Mrs. Rolland.

‘She is naturally in great grief about him,’ Agnes proceeded.

‘She ought to thank God she is rid of him,’ Mrs. Rolland interposed.

Agnes still persisted. ‘I have known Mrs. Ferrari from her childhood, and I am sincerely anxious to help her in this matter. Did you notice anything, while you were at Venice, that would account for her husband’s extraordinary disappearance? On what sort of terms, for instance, did he live with his master and mistress?’

‘On terms of familiarity with his mistress,’ said Mrs. Rolland, ‘which were simply sickening to a respectable English servant. She used to encourage him to talk to her about all his affairs — how he got on with his wife, and how pressed he was for money, and such like — just as if they were equals. Contemptible — that’s what I call it.’

‘And his master?’ Agnes continued. ‘How did Ferrari get on with Lord Montbarry?’

‘My lord used to live shut up with his studies and his sorrows,’ Mrs. Rolland answered, with a hard solemnity expressive of respect for his lordship’s memory. Mr. Ferrari got his money when it was due; and he cared for nothing else. “If I could afford it, I would leave the place too; but I can’t afford it.” Those were the last words he said to me, on the morning when I left the palace. I made no reply. After what had happened (on that other occasion) I was naturally not on speaking terms with Mr. Ferrari.’

‘Can you really tell me nothing which will throw any light on this matter?’

‘Nothing,’ said Mrs. Rolland, with an undisguised relish of the disappointment that she was inflicting.

‘There was another member of the family at Venice,’ Agnes resumed, determined to sift the question to the bottom while she had the chance. ‘There was Baron Rivar.’

Mrs. Rolland lifted her large hands, covered with rusty black gloves, in mute protest against the introduction of Baron Rivar as a subject of inquiry. ‘Are you aware, Miss,’ she began, ‘that I left my place in consequence of what I observed —?’

Agnes stopped her there. ‘I only wanted to ask,’ she explained, ‘if anything was said or done by Baron Rivar which might account for Ferrari’s strange conduct.’

‘Nothing that I know of,’ said Mrs. Rolland. ‘The Baron and Mr. Ferrari (if I may use such an expression) were “birds of a feather,” so far as I could see — I mean, one was as unprincipled as the other. I am a just woman; and I will give you an example. Only the day before I left, I heard the Baron say (through the open door of his room while I was passing along the corridor), “Ferrari, I want a thousand pounds. What would you do for a thousand pounds?” And I heard Mr. Ferrari answer, “Anything, sir, as long as I was not found out.” And then they both burst out laughing. I heard no more than that. Judge for yourself, Miss.’

Agnes reflected for a moment. A thousand pounds was the sum that had been sent to Mrs. Ferrari in the anonymous letter. Was that enclosure in any way connected, as a result, with the conversation between the Baron and Ferrari? It was useless to press any more inquiries on Mrs. Rolland. She could give no further information which was of the slightest importance to the object in view. There was no alternative but to grant her dismissal. One more effort had been made to find a trace of the lost man, and once again the effort had failed.

They were a family party at the dinner-table that day. The only guest left in the house was a nephew of the new Lord Montbarry — the eldest son of his sister, Lady Barrville. Lady Montbarry could not resist telling the story of the first (and last) attack made on the virtue of Mrs. Rolland, with a comically-exact imitation of Mrs. Rolland’s deep and dismal voice. Being asked by her husband what was the object which had brought that formidable person to the house, she naturally mentioned the expected visit of Miss Haldane. Arthur Barville, unusually silent and pre-occupied so far, suddenly struck into the conversation with a burst of enthusiasm. ‘Miss Haldane is the most charming girl in all Ireland!’ he said. ‘I caught sight of her yesterday, over the wall of her garden, as I was riding by. What time is she coming to-morrow? Before two? I’ll look into the drawing-room by accident — I am dying to be introduced to her!’

Agnes was amused by his enthusiasm. ‘Are you in love with Miss Haldane already?’ she asked.

Arthur answered gravely, ‘It’s no joking matter. I have been all day at the garden wall, waiting to see her again! It depends on Miss Haldane to make me the happiest or the wretchedest man living.’

‘You foolish boy! How can you talk such nonsense?’

He was talking nonsense undoubtedly. But, if Agnes had only known it, he was doing something more than that. He was innocently leading her another stage nearer on the way to Venice.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30