The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 25

The day had advanced to evening. Lord Montbarry and the bridal party had gone to the Opera. Agnes alone, pleading the excuse of fatigue, remained at the hotel. Having kept up appearances by accompanying his friends to the theatre, Henry Westwick slipped away after the first act, and joined Agnes in the drawing-room.

‘Have you thought of what I said to you earlier in the day?’ he asked, taking a chair at her side. ‘Do you agree with me that the one dreadful doubt which oppressed us both is at least set at rest?’

Agnes shook her head sadly. ‘I wish I could agree with you, Henry — I wish I could honestly say that my mind is at ease.’

The answer would have discouraged most men. Henry’s patience (where Agnes was concerned) was equal to any demands on it.

‘If you will only look back at the events of the day,’ he said, ‘you must surely admit that we have not been completely baffled. Remember how Dr. Bruno disposed of our doubts:—“After thirty years of medical practice, do you think I am likely to mistake the symptoms of death by bronchitis?” If ever there was an unanswerable question, there it is! Was the consul’s testimony doubtful in any part of it? He called at the palace to offer his services, after hearing of Lord Montbarry’s death; he arrived at the time when the coffin was in the house; he himself saw the corpse placed in it, and the lid screwed down. The evidence of the priest is equally beyond dispute. He remained in the room with the coffin, reciting the prayers for the dead, until the funeral left the palace. Bear all these statements in mind, Agnes; and how can you deny that the question of Montbarry’s death and burial is a question set at rest? We have really but one doubt left: we have still to ask ourselves whether the remains which I discovered are the remains of the lost courier, or not. There is the case, as I understand it. Have I stated it fairly?’

Agnes could not deny that he had stated it fairly.

“Then what prevents you from experiencing the same sense of relief that I feel?’ Henry asked.

‘What I saw last night prevents me,’ Agnes answered. ‘When we spoke of this subject, after our inquiries were over, you reproached me with taking what you called the superstitious view. I don’t quite admit that — but I do acknowledge that I should find the superstitious view intelligible if I heard it expressed by some other person. Remembering what your brother and I once were to each other in the bygone time, I can understand the apparition making itself visible to me, to claim the mercy of Christian burial, and the vengeance due to a crime. I can even perceive some faint possibility of truth in the explanation which you described as the mesmeric theory — that what I saw might be the result of magnetic influence communicated to me, as I lay between the remains of the murdered husband above me and the guilty wife suffering the tortures of remorse at my bedside. But what I do not understand is, that I should have passed through that dreadful ordeal; having no previous knowledge of the murdered man in his lifetime, or only knowing him (if you suppose that I saw the apparition of Ferrari) through the interest which I took in his wife. I can’t dispute your reasoning, Henry. But I feel in my heart of hearts that you are deceived. Nothing will shake my belief that we are still as far from having discovered the dreadful truth as ever.’

Henry made no further attempt to dispute with her. She had impressed him with a certain reluctant respect for her own opinion, in spite of himself.

‘Have you thought of any better way of arriving at the truth?’ he asked. ‘Who is to help us? No doubt there is the Countess, who has the clue to the mystery in her own hands. But, in the present state of her mind, is her testimony to be trusted — even if she were willing to speak? Judging by my own experience, I should say decidedly not.’

‘You don’t mean that you have seen her again?’ Agnes eagerly interposed.

‘Yes. I disturbed her once more over her endless writing; and I insisted on her speaking out plainly.’

‘Then you told her what you found when you opened the hiding-place?’

‘Of course I did!’ Henry replied. ‘I said that I held her responsible for the discovery, though I had not mentioned her connection with it to the authorities as yet. She went on with her writing as if I had spoken in an unknown tongue! I was equally obstinate, on my side. I told her plainly that the head had been placed under the care of the police, and that the manager and I had signed our declarations and given our evidence. She paid not the slightest heed to me. By way of tempting her to speak, I added that the whole investigation was to be kept a secret, and that she might depend on my discretion. For the moment I thought I had succeeded. She looked up from her writing with a passing flash of curiosity, and said, “What are they going to do with it?”— meaning, I suppose, the head. I answered that it was to be privately buried, after photographs of it had first been taken. I even went the length of communicating the opinion of the surgeon consulted, that some chemical means of arresting decomposition had been used and had only partially succeeded — and I asked her point-blank if the surgeon was right? The trap was not a bad one — but it completely failed. She said in the coolest manner, “Now you are here, I should like to consult you about my play; I am at a loss for some new incidents.” Mind! there was nothing satirical in this. She was really eager to read her wonderful work to me — evidently supposing that I took a special interest in such things, because my brother is the manager of a theatre! I left her, making the first excuse that occurred to me. So far as I am concerned, I can do nothing with her. But it is possible that your influence may succeed with her again, as it has succeeded already. Will you make the attempt, to satisfy your own mind? She is still upstairs; and I am quite ready to accompany you.’

Agnes shuddered at the bare suggestion of another interview with the Countess.

‘I can’t! I daren’t!’ she exclaimed. ‘After what has happened in that horrible room, she is more repellent to me than ever. Don’t ask me to do it, Henry! Feel my hand — you have turned me as cold as death only with talking of it!’

She was not exaggerating the terror that possessed her. Henry hastened to change the subject.

‘Let us talk of something more interesting,’ he said. ‘I have a question to ask you about yourself. Am I right in believing that the sooner you get away from Venice the happier you will be?’

‘Right?’ she repeated excitedly. ‘You are more than right! No words can say how I long to be away from this horrible place. But you know how I am situated — you heard what Lord Montbarry said at dinner-time?’

‘Suppose he has altered his plans, since dinner-time?’ Henry suggested.

Agnes looked surprised. ‘I thought he had received letters from England which obliged him to leave Venice to-morrow,’ she said.

‘Quite true,’ Henry admitted. ‘He had arranged to start for England to-morrow, and to leave you and Lady Montbarry and the children to enjoy your holiday in Venice, under my care. Circumstances have occurred, however, which have forced him to alter his plans. He must take you all back with him to-morrow because I am not able to assume the charge of you. I am obliged to give up my holiday in Italy, and return to England too.’

Agnes looked at him in some little perplexity: she was not quite sure whether she understood him or not.

‘Are you really obliged to go back?’ she asked.

Henry smiled as he answered her. ‘Keep the secret,’ he said, ‘or Montbarry will never forgive me!’

She read the rest in his face. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, blushing brightly, ‘you have not given up your pleasant holiday in Italy on my account?’

‘I shall go back with you to England, Agnes. That will be holiday enough for me.’

She took his hand in an irrepressible outburst of gratitude. ‘How good you are to me!’ she murmured tenderly. ‘What should I have done in the troubles that have come to me, without your sympathy? I can’t tell you, Henry, how I feel your kindness.’

She tried impulsively to lift his hand to her lips. He gently stopped her. ‘Agnes,’ he said, ‘are you beginning to understand how truly I love you?’

That simple question found its own way to her heart. She owned the whole truth, without saying a word. She looked at him — and then looked away again.

He drew her nearer to him. ‘My own darling!’ he whispered — and kissed her. Softly and tremulously, the sweet lips lingered, and touched his lips in return. Then her head drooped. She put her arms round his neck, and hid her face on his bosom. They spoke no more.

The charmed silence had lasted but a little while, when it was mercilessly broken by a knock at the door.

Agnes started to her feet. She placed herself at the piano; the instrument being opposite to the door, it was impossible, when she seated herself on the music-stool, for any person entering the room to see her face. Henry called out irritably, ‘Come in.’

The door was not opened. The person on the other side of it asked a strange question.

‘Is Mr. Henry Westwick alone?’

Agnes instantly recognised the voice of the Countess. She hurried to a second door, which communicated with one of the bedrooms. ‘Don’t let her come near me!’ she whispered nervously. ‘Good night, Henry! good night!’

If Henry could, by an effort of will, have transported the Countess to the uttermost ends of the earth, he would have made the effort without remorse. As it was, he only repeated, more irritably than ever, ‘Come in!’

She entered the room slowly with her everlasting manuscript in her hand. Her step was unsteady; a dark flush appeared on her face, in place of its customary pallor; her eyes were bloodshot and widely dilated. In approaching Henry, she showed a strange incapability of calculating her distances — she struck against the table near which he happened to be sitting. When she spoke, her articulation was confused, and her pronunciation of some of the longer words was hardly intelligible. Most men would have suspected her of being under the influence of some intoxicating liquor. Henry took a truer view — he said, as he placed a chair for her, ‘Countess, I am afraid you have been working too hard: you look as if you wanted rest.’

She put her hand to her head. ‘My invention has gone,’ she said. ‘I can’t write my fourth act. It’s all a blank — all a blank!’

Henry advised her to wait till the next day. ‘Go to bed,’ he suggested; and try to sleep.’

She waved her hand impatiently. ‘I must finish the play,’ she answered. ‘I only want a hint from you. You must know something about plays. Your brother has got a theatre. You must often have heard him talk about fourth and fifth acts — you must have seen rehearsals, and all the rest of it.’ She abruptly thrust the manuscript into Henry’s hand. ‘I can’t read it to you,’ she said; ‘I feel giddy when I look at my own writing. Just run your eye over it, there’s a good fellow — and give me a hint.’

Henry glanced at the manuscript. He happened to look at the list of the persons of the drama. As he read the list he started and turned abruptly to the Countess, intending to ask her for some explanation. The words were suspended on his lips. It was but too plainly useless to speak to her. Her head lay back on the rail of the chair. She seemed to be half asleep already. The flush on her face had deepened: she looked like a woman who was in danger of having a fit.

He rang the bell, and directed the man who answered it to send one of the chambermaids upstairs. His voice seemed to partially rouse the Countess; she opened her eyes in a slow drowsy way. ‘Have you read it?’ she asked.

It was necessary as a mere act of humanity to humour her. ‘I will read it willingly,’ said Henry, ‘if you will go upstairs to bed. You shall hear what I think of it to-morrow morning. Our heads will be clearer, we shall be better able to make the fourth act in the morning.’

The chambermaid came in while he was speaking. ‘I am afraid the lady is ill,’ Henry whispered. ‘Take her up to her room.’ The woman looked at the Countess and whispered back, ‘Shall we send for a doctor, sir?’

Henry advised taking her upstairs first, and then asking the manager’s opinion. There was great difficulty in persuading her to rise, and accept the support of the chambermaid’s arm. It was only by reiterated promises to read the play that night, and to make the fourth act in the morning, that Henry prevailed on the Countess to return to her room.

Left to himself, he began to feel a certain languid curiosity in relation to the manuscript. He looked over the pages, reading a line here and a line there. Suddenly he changed colour as he read — and looked up from the manuscript like a man bewildered. ‘Good God! what does this mean?’ he said to himself.

His eyes turned nervously to the door by which Agnes had left him. She might return to the drawing-room, she might want to see what the Countess had written. He looked back again at the passage which had startled him — considered with himself for a moment — and, snatching up the unfinished play, suddenly and softly left the room.

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