The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter X

In the mean time, Mrs. Ferrari held to her resolution. She went straight from Mr. Troy’s office to Newbury’s Hotel.

Lady Montbarry was at home, and alone. But the authorities of the hotel hesitated to disturb her when they found that the visitor declined to mention her name. Her ladyship’s new maid happened to cross the hall while the matter was still in debate. She was a Frenchwoman, and, on being appealed to, she settled the question in the swift, easy, rational French way. ‘Madame’s appearance was perfectly respectable. Madame might have reasons for not mentioning her name which Miladi might approve. In any case, there being no orders forbidding the introduction of a strange lady, the matter clearly rested between Madame and Miladi. Would Madame, therefore, be good enough to follow Miladi’s maid up the stairs?’

In spite of her resolution, Mrs. Ferrari’s heart beat as if it would burst out of her bosom, when her conductress led her into an ante-room, and knocked at a door opening into a room beyond. But it is remarkable that persons of sensitively-nervous organisation are the very persons who are capable of forcing themselves (apparently by the exercise of a spasmodic effort of will) into the performance of acts of the most audacious courage. A low, grave voice from the inner room said, ‘Come in.’ The maid, opening the door, announced, ‘A person to see you, Miladi, on business,’ and immediately retired. In the one instant while these events passed, timid little Mrs. Ferrari mastered her own throbbing heart; stepped over the threshold, conscious of her clammy hands, dry lips, and burning head; and stood in the presence of Lord Montbarry’s widow, to all outward appearance as supremely self-possessed as her ladyship herself.

It was still early in the afternoon, but the light in the room was dim. The blinds were drawn down. Lady Montbarry sat with her back to the windows, as if even the subdued daylight were disagreeable to her. She had altered sadly for the worse in her personal appearance, since the memorable day when Doctor Wybrow had seen her in his consulting-room. Her beauty was gone — her face had fallen away to mere skin and bone; the contrast between her ghastly complexion and her steely glittering black eyes was more startling than ever. Robed in dismal black, relieved only by the brilliant whiteness of her widow’s cap — reclining in a panther-like suppleness of attitude on a little green sofa — she looked at the stranger who had intruded on her, with a moment’s languid curiosity, then dropped her eyes again to the hand-screen which she held between her face and the fire. ‘I don’t know you,’ she said. ‘What do you want with me?’

Mrs. Ferrari tried to answer. Her first burst of courage had already worn itself out. The bold words that she had determined to speak were living words still in her mind, but they died on her lips.

There was a moment of silence. Lady Montbarry looked round again at the speechless stranger. ‘Are you deaf?’ she asked. There was another pause. Lady Montbarry quietly looked back again at the screen, and put another question. ‘Do you want money?’

‘Money!’ That one word roused the sinking spirit of the courier’s wife. She recovered her courage; she found her voice. ‘Look at me, my lady, if you please,’ she said, with a sudden outbreak of audacity.

Lady Montbarry looked round for the third time. The fatal words passed Mrs. Ferrari’s lips.

‘I come, my lady, to acknowledge the receipt of the money sent to Ferrari’s widow.’

Lady Montbarry’s glittering black eyes rested with steady attention on the woman who had addressed her in those terms. Not the faintest expression of confusion or alarm, not even a momentary flutter of interest stirred the deadly stillness of her face. She reposed as quietly, she held the screen as composedly, as ever. The test had been tried, and had utterly failed.

There was another silence. Lady Montbarry considered with herself. The smile that came slowly and went away suddenly — the smile at once so sad and so cruel — showed itself on her thin lips. She lifted her screen, and pointed with it to a seat at the farther end of the room. ‘Be so good as to take that chair,’ she said.

Helpless under her first bewildering sense of failure — not knowing what to say or what to do next — Mrs. Ferrari mechanically obeyed. Lady Montbarry, rising on the sofa for the first time, watched her with undisguised scrutiny as she crossed the room — then sank back into a reclining position once more. ‘No,’ she said to herself, ‘the woman walks steadily; she is not intoxicated — the only other possibility is that she may be mad.’

She had spoken loud enough to be heard. Stung by the insult, Mrs. Ferrari instantly answered her: ‘I am no more drunk or mad than you are!’

‘No?’ said Lady Montbarry. ‘Then you are only insolent? The ignorant English mind (I have observed) is apt to be insolent in the exercise of unrestrained English liberty. This is very noticeable to us foreigners among you people in the streets. Of course I can’t be insolent to you, in return. I hardly know what to say to you. My maid was imprudent in admitting you so easily to my room. I suppose your respectable appearance misled her. I wonder who you are? You mentioned the name of a courier who left us very strangely. Was he married by any chance? Are you his wife? And do you know where he is?’

Mrs. Ferrari’s indignation burst its way through all restraints. She advanced to the sofa; she feared nothing, in the fervour and rage of her reply.

‘I am his widow — and you know it, you wicked woman! Ah! it was an evil hour when Miss Lockwood recommended my husband to be his lordship’s courier —!’

Before she could add another word, Lady Montbarry sprang from the sofa with the stealthy suddenness of a cat — seized her by both shoulders — and shook her with the strength and frenzy of a madwoman. ‘You lie! you lie! you lie!’ She dropped her hold at the third repetition of the accusation, and threw up her hands wildly with a gesture of despair. ‘Oh, Jesu Maria! is it possible?’ she cried. ‘Can the courier have come to me through that woman?’ She turned like lightning on Mrs. Ferrari, and stopped her as she was escaping from the room. ‘Stay here, you fool — stay here, and answer me! If you cry out, as sure as the heavens are above you, I’ll strangle you with my own hands. Sit down again — and fear nothing. Wretch! It is I who am frightened — frightened out of my senses. Confess that you lied, when you used Miss Lockwood’s name just now! No! I don’t believe you on your oath; I will believe nobody but Miss Lockwood herself. Where does she live? Tell me that, you noxious stinging little insect — and you may go.’ Terrified as she was, Mrs. Ferrari hesitated. Lady Montbarry lifted her hands threateningly, with the long, lean, yellow-white fingers outspread and crooked at the tips. Mrs. Ferrari shrank at the sight of them, and gave the address. Lady Montbarry pointed contemptuously to the door — then changed her mind. ‘No! not yet! you will tell Miss Lockwood what has happened, and she may refuse to see me. I will go there at once, and you shall go with me. As far as the house — not inside of it. Sit down again. I am going to ring for my maid. Turn your back to the door — your cowardly face is not fit to be seen!’

She rang the bell. The maid appeared.

‘My cloak and bonnet — instantly!’

The maid produced the cloak and bonnet from the bedroom.

‘A cab at the door — before I can count ten!’

The maid vanished. Lady Montbarry surveyed herself in the glass, and wheeled round again, with her cat-like suddenness, to Mrs. Ferrari.

‘I look more than half dead already, don’t I?’ she said with a grim outburst of irony. ‘Give me your arm.’

She took Mrs. Ferrari’s arm, and left the room. ‘You have nothing to fear, so long as you obey,’ she whispered, on the way downstairs. ‘You leave me at Miss Lockwood’s door, and never see me again.’

In the hall they were met by the landlady of the hotel. Lady Montbarry graciously presented her companion. ‘My good friend Mrs. Ferrari; I am so glad to have seen her.’ The landlady accompanied them to the door. The cab was waiting. ‘Get in first, good Mrs. Ferrari,’ said her ladyship; ‘and tell the man where to go.’

They were driven away. Lady Montbarry’s variable humour changed again. With a low groan of misery, she threw herself back in the cab. Lost in her own dark thoughts, as careless of the woman whom she had bent to her iron will as if no such person sat by her side, she preserved a sinister silence, until they reached the house where Miss Lockwood lodged. In an instant, she roused herself to action. She opened the door of the cab, and closed it again on Mrs. Ferrari, before the driver could get off his box.

‘Take that lady a mile farther on her way home!’ she said, as she paid the man his fare. The next moment she had knocked at the house-door. ‘Is Miss Lockwood at home?’ ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She stepped over the threshold — the door closed on her.

‘Which way, ma’am?’ asked the driver of the cab.

Mrs. Ferrari put her hand to her head, and tried to collect her thoughts. Could she leave her friend and benefactress helpless at Lady Montbarry’s mercy? She was still vainly endeavouring to decide on the course that she ought to follow — when a gentleman, stopping at Miss Lockwood’s door, happened to look towards the cab-window, and saw her.

‘Are you going to call on Miss Agnes too?’ he asked.

It was Henry Westwick. Mrs. Ferrari clasped her hands in gratitude as she recognised him.

‘Go in, sir!’ she cried. ‘Go in, directly. That dreadful woman is with Miss Agnes. Go and protect her!’

‘What woman?’ Henry asked.

The answer literally struck him speechless. With amazement and indignation in his face, he looked at Mrs. Ferrari as she pronounced the hated name of ‘Lady Montbarry.’ ‘I’ll see to it,’ was all he said. He knocked at the house-door; and he too, in his turn, was let in.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29