The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 28

So the Second Act ended.

Turning to the Third Act, Henry looked wearily at the pages as he let them slip through his fingers. Both in mind and body, he began to feel the need of repose.

In one important respect, the later portion of the manuscript differed from the pages which he had just been reading. Signs of an overwrought brain showed themselves, here and there, as the outline of the play approached its end. The handwriting grew worse and worse. Some of the longer sentences were left unfinished. In the exchange of dialogue, questions and answers were not always attributed respectively to the right speaker. At certain intervals the writer’s failing intelligence seemed to recover itself for a while; only to relapse again, and to lose the thread of the narrative more hopelessly than ever.

After reading one or two of the more coherent passages Henry recoiled from the ever-darkening horror of the story. He closed the manuscript, heartsick and exhausted, and threw himself on his bed to rest. The door opened almost at the same moment. Lord Montbarry entered the room.

‘We have just returned from the Opera,’ he said; ‘and we have heard the news of that miserable woman’s death. They say you spoke to her in her last moments; and I want to hear how it happened.’

‘You shall hear how it happened,’ Henry answered; ‘and more than that. You are now the head of the family, Stephen; and I feel bound, in the position which oppresses me, to leave you to decide what ought to be done.’

With those introductory words, he told his brother how the Countess’s play had come into his hands. ‘Read the first few pages,’ he said. ‘I am anxious to know whether the same impression is produced on both of us.’

Before Lord Montbarry had got half-way through the First Act, he stopped, and looked at his brother. ‘What does she mean by boasting of this as her own invention?’ he asked. ‘Was she too crazy to remember that these things really happened?’

This was enough for Henry: the same impression had been produced on both of them. ‘You will do as you please,’ he said. ‘But if you will be guided by me, spare yourself the reading of those pages to come, which describe our brother’s terrible expiation of his heartless marriage.’

‘Have you read it all, Henry?’

‘Not all. I shrank from reading some of the latter part of it. Neither you nor I saw much of our elder brother after we left school; and, for my part, I felt, and never scrupled to express my feeling, that he behaved infamously to Agnes. But when I read that unconscious confession of the murderous conspiracy to which he fell a victim, I remembered, with something like remorse, that the same mother bore us. I have felt for him to-night, what I am ashamed to think I never felt for him before.’

Lord Montbarry took his brother’s hand.

‘You are a good fellow, Henry,’ he said; ‘but are you quite sure that you have not been needlessly distressing yourself? Because some of this crazy creature’s writing accidentally tells what we know to be the truth, does it follow that all the rest is to be relied on to the end?’

‘There is no possible doubt of it,’ Henry replied.

‘No possible doubt?’ his brother repeated. ‘I shall go on with my reading, Henry — and see what justification there may be for that confident conclusion of yours.’

He read on steadily, until he had reached the end of the Second Act. Then he looked up.

‘Do you really believe that the mutilated remains which you discovered this morning are the remains of our brother?’ he asked. ‘And do you believe it on such evidence as this?’

Henry answered silently by a sign in the affirmative.

Lord Montbarry checked himself — evidently on the point of entering an indignant protest.

‘You acknowledge that you have not read the later scenes of the piece,’ he said. ‘Don’t be childish, Henry! If you persist in pinning your faith on such stuff as this, the least you can do is to make yourself thoroughly acquainted with it. Will you read the Third Act? No? Then I shall read it to you.’

He turned to the Third Act, and ran over those fragmentary passages which were clearly enough written and expressed to be intelligible to the mind of a stranger.

‘Here is a scene in the vaults of the palace,’ he began. ‘The victim of the conspiracy is sleeping on his miserable bed; and the Baron and the Countess are considering the position in which they stand. The Countess (as well as I can make it out) has raised the money that is wanted by borrowing on the security of her jewels at Frankfort; and the Courier upstairs is still declared by the Doctor to have a chance of recovery. What are the conspirators to do, if the man does recover? The cautious Baron suggests setting the prisoner free. If he ventures to appeal to the law, it is easy to declare that he is subject to insane delusion, and to call his own wife as witness. On the other hand, if the Courier dies, how is the sequestrated and unknown nobleman to be put out of the way? Passively, by letting him starve in his prison? No: the Baron is a man of refined tastes; he dislikes needless cruelty. The active policy remains — say, assassination by the knife of a hired bravo? The Baron objects to trusting an accomplice; also to spending money on anyone but himself. Shall they drop their prisoner into the canal? The Baron declines to trust water; water will show him on the surface. Shall they set his bed on fire? An excellent idea; but the smoke might be seen. No: the circumstances being now entirely altered, poisoning him presents the easiest way out of it. He has simply become a superfluous person. The cheapest poison will do. — Is it possible, Henry, that you believe this consultation really took place?’

Henry made no reply. The succession of the questions that had just been read to him, exactly followed the succession of the dreams that had terrified Mrs. Norbury, on the two nights which she had passed in the hotel. It was useless to point out this coincidence to his brother. He only said, ‘Go on.’

Lord Montbarry turned the pages until he came to the next intelligible passage.

‘Here,’ he proceeded, ‘is a double scene on the stage — so far as I can understand the sketch of it. The Doctor is upstairs, innocently writing his certificate of my Lord’s decease, by the dead Courier’s bedside. Down in the vaults, the Baron stands by the corpse of the poisoned lord, preparing the strong chemical acids which are to reduce it to a heap of ashes — Surely, it is not worth while to trouble ourselves with deciphering such melodramatic horrors as these? Let us get on! let us get on!’

He turned the leaves again; attempting vainly to discover the meaning of the confused scenes that followed. On the last page but one, he found the last intelligible sentences.

‘The Third Act seems to be divided,’ he said, ‘into two Parts or Tableaux. I think I can read the writing at the beginning of the Second Part. The Baron and the Countess open the scene. The Baron’s hands are mysteriously concealed by gloves. He has reduced the body to ashes by his own system of cremation, with the exception of the head —’

Henry interrupted his brother there. ‘Don’t read any more!’ he exclaimed.

‘Let us do the Countess justice,’ Lord Montbarry persisted. ‘There are not half a dozen lines more that I can make out! The accidental breaking of his jar of acid has burnt the Baron’s hands severely. He is still unable to proceed to the destruction of the head — and the Countess is woman enough (with all her wickedness) to shrink from attempting to take his place — when the first news is received of the coming arrival of the commission of inquiry despatched by the insurance offices. The Baron feels no alarm. Inquire as the commission may, it is the natural death of the Courier (in my Lord’s character) that they are blindly investigating. The head not being destroyed, the obvious alternative is to hide it — and the Baron is equal to the occasion. His studies in the old library have informed him of a safe place of concealment in the palace. The Countess may recoil from handling the acids and watching the process of cremation; but she can surely sprinkle a little disinfecting powder —’

‘No more!’ Henry reiterated. ‘No more!’

‘There is no more that can be read, my dear fellow. The last page looks like sheer delirium. She may well have told you that her invention had failed her!’

‘Face the truth honestly, Stephen, and say her memory.’

Lord Montbarry rose from the table at which he had been sitting, and looked at his brother with pitying eyes.

‘Your nerves are out of order, Henry,’ he said. ‘And no wonder, after that frightful discovery under the hearth-stone. We won’t dispute about it; we will wait a day or two until you are quite yourself again. In the meantime, let us understand each other on one point at least. You leave the question of what is to be done with these pages of writing to me, as the head of the family?’

‘I do.’

Lord Montbarry quietly took up the manuscript, and threw it into the fire. ‘Let this rubbish be of some use,’ he said, holding the pages down with the poker. ‘The room is getting chilly — the Countess’s play will set some of these charred logs flaming again.’ He waited a little at the fire-place, and returned to his brother. ‘Now, Henry, I have a last word to say, and then I have done. I am ready to admit that you have stumbled, by an unlucky chance, on the proof of a crime committed in the old days of the palace, nobody knows how long ago. With that one concession, I dispute everything else. Rather than agree in the opinion you have formed, I won’t believe anything that has happened. The supernatural influences that some of us felt when we first slept in this hotel — your loss of appetite, our sister’s dreadful dreams, the smell that overpowered Francis, and the head that appeared to Agnes — I declare them all to be sheer delusions! I believe in nothing, nothing, nothing!’ He opened the door to go out, and looked back into the room. ‘Yes,’ he resumed, ‘there is one thing I believe in. My wife has committed a breach of confidence — I believe Agnes will marry you. Good night, Henry. We leave Venice the first thing to-morrow morning.

So Lord Montbarry disposed of the mystery of The Haunted Hotel.

POSTSCRIPT

A last chance of deciding the difference of opinion between the two brothers remained in Henry’s possession. He had his own idea of the use to which he might put the false teeth as a means of inquiry when he and Ms fellow-travellers returned to England.

The only surviving depositary of the domestic history of the family in past years, was Agnes Lockwood’s old nurse. Henry took his first opportunity of trying to revive her personal recollections of the deceased Lord Montbarry. But the nurse had never forgiven the great man of the family for his desertion of Agnes; she flatly refused to consult her memory. ‘Even the bare sight of my lord, when I last saw him in London,’ said the old woman, ‘made my finger-nails itch to set their mark on his face. I was sent on an errand by Miss Agnes; and I met him coming out of his dentist’s door — and, thank God, that’s the last I ever saw of him!’

Thanks to the nurse’s quick temper and quaint way of expressing herself, the object of Henry’s inquiries was gained already! He ventured on asking if she had noticed the situation of the house. She had noticed, and still remembered the situation — did Master Henry suppose she had lost the use of her senses, because she happened to be nigh on eighty years old? The same day, he took the false teeth to the dentist, and set all further doubt (if doubt had still been possible) at rest for ever. The teeth had been made for the first Lord Montbarry.

Henry never revealed the existence of this last link in the chain of discovery to any living creature, his brother Stephen included. He carried his terrible secret with him to the grave.

There was one other event in the memorable past on which he preserved the same compassionate silence. Little Mrs. Ferrari never knew that her husband had been — not, as she supposed, the Countess’s victim — but the Countess’s accomplice. She still believed that the late Lord Montbarry had sent her the thousand-pound note, and still recoiled from making use of a present which she persisted in declaring had ‘the stain of her husband’s blood on it.’ Agnes, with the widow’s entire approval, took the money to the Children’s Hospital; and spent it in adding to the number of the beds.

In the spring of the new year, the marriage took place. At the special request of Agnes, the members of the family were the only persons present at the ceremony. There was no wedding breakfast — and the honeymoon was spent in the retirement of a cottage on the banks of the Thames.

During the last few days of the residence of the newly married couple by the riverside, Lady Montbarry’s children were invited to enjoy a day’s play in the garden. The eldest girl overheard (and reported to her mother) a little conjugal dialogue which touched on the topic of The Haunted Hotel.

‘Henry, I want you to give me a kiss.’

‘There it is, my dear.’

‘Now I am your wife, may I speak to you about something?’

‘What is it?’

‘Something that happened the day before we left Venice. You saw the Countess, during the last hours of her life. Won’t you tell me whether she made any confession to you?’

‘No conscious confession, Agnes — and therefore no confession that I need distress you by repeating.’

‘Did she say nothing about what she saw or heard, on that dreadful night in my room?’

‘Nothing. We only know that her mind never recovered the terror of it.’

Agnes was not quite satisfied. The subject troubled her. Even her own brief intercourse with her miserable rival of other days suggested questions that perplexed her. She remembered the Countess’s prediction. ‘You have to bring me to the day of discovery, and to the punishment that is my doom.’ Had the prediction simply faded, like other mortal prophecies? — or had it been fulfilled on the terrible night when she had seen the apparition, and when she had innocently tempted the Countess to watch her in her room?

Let it, however, be recorded, among the other virtues of Mrs. Henry Westwick, that she never again attempted to persuade her husband into betraying his secrets. Other men’s wives, hearing of this extraordinary conduct (and being trained in the modern school of morals and manners), naturally regarded her with compassionate contempt. They spoke of Agnes, from that time forth, as ‘rather an old-fashioned person.’

Is that all?

That is all.

Is there no explanation of the mystery of The Haunted Hotel?

Ask yourself if there is any explanation of the mystery of your own life and death. — Farewell.

This web edition published by:

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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/c71h/chapter28.html

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