The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 24

Henry and Agnes were left alone in the Room of the Caryatides.

The person who had written the description of the palace — probably a poor author or artist — had correctly pointed out the defects of the mantel-piece. Bad taste, exhibiting itself on the most costly and splendid scale, was visible in every part of the work. It was nevertheless greatly admired by ignorant travellers of all classes; partly on account of its imposing size, and partly on account of the number of variously-coloured marbles which the sculptor had contrived to introduce into his design. Photographs of the mantel-piece were exhibited in the public rooms, and found a ready sale among English and American visitors to the hotel.

Henry led Agnes to the figure on the left, as they stood facing the empty fire-place. ‘Shall I try the experiment,’ he asked, ‘or will you?’ She abruptly drew her arm away from him, and turned back to the door. ‘I can’t even look at it,’ she said. ‘That merciless marble face frightens me!’

Henry put his hand on the forehead of the figure. ‘What is there to alarm you, my dear, in this conventionally classical face?’ he asked jestingly. Before he could press the head inwards, Agnes hurriedly opened the door. ‘Wait till I am out of the room!’ she cried. ‘The bare idea of what you may find there horrifies me!’ She looked back into the room as she crossed the threshold. ‘I won’t leave you altogether,’ she said, ‘I will wait outside.’

She closed the door. Left by himself, Henry lifted his hand once more to the marble forehead of the figure.

For the second time, he was checked on the point of setting the machinery of the hiding-place in motion. On this occasion, the interruption came from an outbreak of friendly voices in the corridor. A woman’s voice exclaimed, ‘Dearest Agnes, how glad I am to see you again!’ A man’s voice followed, offering to introduce some friend to ‘Miss Lockwood.’ A third voice (which Henry recognised as the voice of the manager of the hotel) became audible next, directing the housekeeper to show the ladies and gentlemen the vacant apartments at the other end of the corridor. ‘If more accommodation is wanted,’ the manager went on, ‘I have a charming room to let here.’ He opened the door as he spoke, and found himself face to face with Henry Westwick.

‘This is indeed an agreeable surprise, sir!’ said the manager cheerfully. ‘You are admiring our famous chimney-piece, I see. May I ask, Mr. Westwick, how you find yourself in the hotel, this time? Have the supernatural influences affected your appetite again?’

‘The supernatural influences have spared me, this time,’ Henry answered. ‘Perhaps you may yet find that they have affected some other member of the family.’ He spoke gravely, resenting the familiar tone in which the manager had referred to his previous visit to the hotel. ‘Have you just returned?’ he asked, by way of changing the topic.

‘Just this minute, sir. I had the honour of travelling in the same train with friends of yours who have arrived at the hotel — Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Barville, and their travelling companions. Miss Lockwood is with them, looking at the rooms. They will be here before long, if they find it convenient to have an extra room at their disposal.’

This announcement decided Henry on exploring the hiding-place, before the interruption occurred. It had crossed his mind, when Agnes left him, that he ought perhaps to have a witness, in the not very probable event of some alarming discovery taking place. The too-familiar manager, suspecting nothing, was there at his disposal. He turned again to the Caryan figure, maliciously resolving to make the manager his witness.

‘I am delighted to hear that our friends have arrived at last,’ he said. ‘Before I shake hands with them, let me ask you a question about this queer work of art here. I see photographs of it downstairs. Are they for sale?’

‘Certainly, Mr. Westwick!’

‘Do you think the chimney-piece is as solid as it looks?’ Henry proceeded. ‘When you came in, I was just wondering whether this figure here had not accidentally got loosened from the wall behind it.’ He laid his hand on the marble forehead, for the third time. ‘To my eye, it looks a little out of the perpendicular. I almost fancied I could jog the head just now, when I touched it.’ He pressed the head inwards as he said those words.

A sound of jarring iron was instantly audible behind the wall. The solid hearthstone in front of the fire-place turned slowly at the feet of the two men, and disclosed a dark cavity below. At the same moment, the strange and sickening combination of odours, hitherto associated with the vaults of the old palace and with the bed-chamber beneath, now floated up from the open recess, and filled the room.

The manager started back. ‘Good God, Mr. Westwick!’ he exclaimed, ‘what does this mean?’

Remembering, not only what his brother Francis had felt in the room beneath, but what the experience of Agnes had been on the previous night, Henry was determined to be on his guard. ‘I am as much surprised as you are,’ was his only reply.

‘Wait for me one moment, sir,’ said the manager. ‘I must stop the ladies and gentlemen outside from coming in.’

He hurried away — not forgetting to close the door after him. Henry opened the window, and waited there breathing the purer air. Vague apprehensions of the next discovery to come, filled his mind for the first time. He was doubly resolved, now, not to stir a step in the investigation without a witness.

The manager returned with a wax taper in his hand, which he lighted as soon as he entered the room.

‘We need fear no interruption now,’ he said. ‘Be so kind, Mr. Westwick, as to hold the light. It is my business to find out what this extraordinary discovery means.’

Henry held the taper. Looking into the cavity, by the dim and flickering light, they both detected a dark object at the bottom of it. ‘I think I can reach the thing,’ the manager remarked, ‘if I lie down, and put my hand into the hole.’

He knelt on the floor — and hesitated. ‘Might I ask you, sir, to give me my gloves?’ he said. ‘They are in my hat, on the chair behind you.’

Henry gave him the gloves. ‘I don’t know what I may be going to take hold of,’ the manager explained, smiling rather uneasily as he put on his right glove.

He stretched himself at full length on the floor, and passed his right arm into the cavity. ‘I can’t say exactly what I have got hold of,’ he said. ‘But I have got it.’

Half raising himself, he drew his hand out.

The next instant, he started to his feet with a shriek of terror. A human head dropped from his nerveless grasp on the floor, and rolled to Henry’s feet. It was the hideous head that Agnes had seen hovering above her, in the vision of the night!

The two men looked at each other, both struck speechless by the same emotion of horror. The manager was the first to control himself. ‘See to the door, for God’s sake!’ he said. ‘Some of the people outside may have heard me.’

Henry moved mechanically to the door.

Even when he had his hand on the key, ready to turn it in the lock in case of necessity, he still looked back at the appalling object on the floor. There was no possibility of identifying those decayed and distorted features with any living creature whom he had seen — and, yet, he was conscious of feeling a vague and awful doubt which shook him to the soul. The questions which had tortured the mind of Agnes, were now his questions too. He asked himself, ‘In whose likeness might I have recognised it before the decay set in? The likeness of Ferrari? or the likeness of —?’ He paused trembling, as Agnes had paused trembling before him. Agnes! The name, of all women’s names the dearest to him, was a terror to him now! What was he to say to her? What might be the consequence if he trusted her with the terrible truth?

No footsteps approached the door; no voices were audible outside. The travellers were still occupied in the rooms at the eastern end of the corridor.

In the brief interval that had passed, the manager had sufficiently recovered himself to be able to think once more of the first and foremost interests of his life — the interests of the hotel. He approached Henry anxiously.

‘If this frightful discovery becomes known,’ he said, ‘the closing of the hotel and the ruin of the Company will be the inevitable results. I feel sure that I can trust your discretion, sir, so far?’

‘You can certainly trust me,’ Henry answered. ‘But surely discretion has its limits,’ he added, ‘after such a discovery as we have made?’

The manager understood that the duty which they owed to the community, as honest and law-abiding men, was the duty to which Henry now referred. ‘I will at once find the means,’ he said, ‘of conveying the remains privately out of the house, and I will myself place them in the care of the police authorities. Will you leave the room with me? or do you not object to keep watch here, and help me when I return?’

While he was speaking, the voices of the travellers made themselves heard again at the end of the corridor. Henry instantly consented to wait in the room. He shrank from facing the inevitable meeting with Agnes if he showed himself in the corridor at that moment.

The manager hastened his departure, in the hope of escaping notice. He was discovered by his guests before he could reach the head of the stairs. Henry heard the voices plainly as he turned the key. While the terrible drama of discovery was in progress on one side of the door, trivial questions about the amusements of Venice, and facetious discussions on the relative merits of French and Italian cookery, were proceeding on the other. Little by little, the sound of the talking grew fainter. The visitors, having arranged their plans of amusement for the day, were on their way out of the hotel. In a minute or two, there was silence once more.

Henry turned to the window, thinking to relieve his mind by looking at the bright view over the canal. He soon grew wearied of the familiar scene. The morbid fascination which seems to be exercised by all horrible sights, drew him back again to the ghastly object on the floor.

Dream or reality, how had Agnes survived the sight of it? As the question passed through his mind, he noticed for the first time something lying on the floor near the head. Looking closer, he perceived a thin little plate of gold, with three false teeth attached to it, which had apparently dropped out (loosened by the shock) when the manager let the head fall on the floor.

The importance of this discovery, and the necessity of not too readily communicating it to others, instantly struck Henry. Here surely was a chance — if any chance remained — of identifying the shocking relic of humanity which lay before him, the dumb witness of a crime! Acting on this idea, he took possession of the teeth, purposing to use them as a last means of inquiry when other attempts at investigation had been tried and had failed.

He went back again to the window: the solitude of the room began to weigh on his spirits. As he looked out again at the view, there was a soft knock at the door. He hastened to open it — and checked himself in the act. A doubt occurred to him. Was it the manager who had knocked? He called out, ‘Who is there?’

The voice of Agnes answered him. ‘Have you anything to tell me, Henry?’

He was hardly able to reply. ‘Not just now,’ he said, confusedly. ‘Forgive me if I don’t open the door. I will speak to you a little later.’

The sweet voice made itself heard again, pleading with him piteously. ‘Don’t leave me alone, Henry! I can’t go back to the happy people downstairs.’

How could he resist that appeal? He heard her sigh — he heard the rustling of her dress as she moved away in despair. The very thing that he had shrunk from doing but a few minutes since was the thing that he did now! He joined Agnes in the corridor. She turned as she heard him, and pointed, trembling, in the direction of the closed room. ‘Is it so terrible as that?’ she asked faintly.

He put his arm round her to support her. A thought came to him as he looked at her, waiting in doubt and fear for his reply. ‘You shall know what I have discovered,’ he said, ‘if you will first put on your hat and cloak, and come out with me.’

She was naturally surprised. ‘Can you tell me your object in going out?’ she asked.

He owned what his object was unreservedly. ‘I want, before all things,’ he said, ‘to satisfy your mind and mine, on the subject of Montbarry’s death. I am going to take you to the doctor who attended him in his illness, and to the consul who followed him to the grave.’

Her eyes rested on Henry gratefully. ‘Oh, how well you understand me!’ she said. The manager joined them at the same moment, on his way up the stairs. Henry gave him the key of the room, and then called to the servants in the hall to have a gondola ready at the steps. ‘Are you leaving the hotel?’ the manager asked. ‘In search of evidence,’ Henry whispered, pointing to the key. ‘If the authorities want me, I shall be back in an hour.’

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