The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XVIII

Before the end of the week, the manager found himself in relations with ‘the family’ once more. A telegram from Milan announced that Mr. Francis Westwick would arrive in Venice on the next day; and would be obliged if Number Fourteen, on the first floor, could be reserved for him, in the event of its being vacant at the time.

The manager paused to consider, before he issued his directions.

The re-numbered room had been last let to a French gentleman. It would be occupied on the day of Mr. Francis Westwick’s arrival, but it would be empty again on the day after. Would it be well to reserve the room for the special occupation of Mr. Francis? and when he had passed the night unsuspiciously and comfortably in ‘No. 13 A,’ to ask him in the presence of witnesses how he liked his bedchamber? In this case, if the reputation of the room happened to be called in question again, the answer would vindicate it, on the evidence of a member of the very family which had first given Number Fourteen a bad name. After a little reflection, the manager decided on trying the experiment, and directed that ‘13 A’ should be reserved accordingly.

On the next day, Francis Westwick arrived in excellent spirits.

He had signed agreements with the most popular dancer in Italy; he had transferred the charge of Mrs. Norbury to his brother Henry, who had joined him in Milan; and he was now at full liberty to amuse himself by testing in every possible way the extraordinary influence exercised over his relatives by the new hotel. When his brother and sister first told him what their experience had been, he instantly declared that he would go to Venice in the interest of his theatre. The circumstances related to him contained invaluable hints for a ghost-drama. The title occurred to him in the railway: ‘The Haunted Hotel.’ Post that in red letters six feet high, on a black ground, all over London — and trust the excitable public to crowd into the theatre!

Received with the politest attention by the manager, Francis met with a disappointment on entering the hotel. ‘Some mistake, sir. No such room on the first floor as Number Fourteen. The room bearing that number is on the second floor, and has been occupied by me, from the day when the hotel opened. Perhaps you meant number 13 A, on the first floor? It will be at your service to-morrow — a charming room. In the mean time, we will do the best we can for you, to-night.’

A man who is the successful manager of a theatre is probably the last man in the civilized universe who is capable of being impressed with favourable opinions of his fellow-creatures. Francis privately set the manager down as a humbug, and the story about the numbering of the rooms as a lie.

On the day of his arrival, he dined by himself in the restaurant, before the hour of the table d’hote, for the express purpose of questioning the waiter, without being overheard by anybody. The answer led him to the conclusion that ‘13 A’ occupied the situation in the hotel which had been described by his brother and sister as the situation of ‘14.’ He asked next for the Visitors’ List; and found that the French gentleman who then occupied ‘13 A,’ was the proprietor of a theatre in Paris, personally well known to him. Was the gentleman then in the hotel? He had gone out, but would certainly return for the table d’hote. When the public dinner was over, Francis entered the room, and was welcomed by his Parisian colleague, literally, with open arms. ‘Come and have a cigar in my room,’ said the friendly Frenchman. ‘I want to hear whether you have really engaged that woman at Milan or not.’ In this easy way, Francis found his opportunity of comparing the interior of the room with the description which he had heard of it at Milan.

Arriving at the door, the Frenchman bethought himself of his travelling companion. ‘My scene-painter is here with me,’ he said, ‘on the look-out for materials. An excellent fellow, who will take it as a kindness if we ask him to join us. I’ll tell the porter to send him up when he comes in.’ He handed the key of his room to Francis. ‘I will be back in a minute. It’s at the end of the corridor — 13 A.’

Francis entered the room alone. There were the decorations on the walls and the ceiling, exactly as they had been described to him! He had just time to perceive this at a glance, before his attention was diverted to himself and his own sensations, by a grotesquely disagreeable occurrence which took him completely by surprise.

He became conscious of a mysteriously offensive odour in the room, entirely new in his experience of revolting smells. It was composed (if such a thing could be) of two mingling exhalations, which were separately-discoverable exhalations nevertheless. This strange blending of odours consisted of something faintly and unpleasantly aromatic, mixed with another underlying smell, so unutterably sickening that he threw open the window, and put his head out into the fresh air, unable to endure the horribly infected atmosphere for a moment longer.

The French proprietor joined his English friend, with his cigar already lit. He started back in dismay at a sight terrible to his countrymen in general — the sight of an open window. ‘You English people are perfectly mad on the subject of fresh air!’ he exclaimed. ‘We shall catch our deaths of cold.’

Francis turned, and looked at him in astonishment. ‘Are you really not aware of the smell there is in the room?’ he asked.

‘Smell!’ repeated his brother-manager. ‘I smell my own good cigar. Try one yourself. And for Heaven’s sake shut the window!’

Francis declined the cigar by a sign. ‘Forgive me,’ he said. ‘I will leave you to close the window. I feel faint and giddy — I had better go out.’ He put his handkerchief over his nose and mouth, and crossed the room to the door.

The Frenchman followed the movements of Francis, in such a state of bewilderment that he actually forgot to seize the opportunity of shutting out the fresh air. ‘Is it so nasty as that?’ he asked, with a broad stare of amazement.

‘Horrible!’ Francis muttered behind his handkerchief. ‘I never smelt anything like it in my life!’

There was a knock at the door. The scene-painter appeared. His employer instantly asked him if he smelt anything.

‘I smell your cigar. Delicious! Give me one directly!’

‘Wait a minute. Besides my cigar, do you smell anything else — vile, abominable, overpowering, indescribable, never-never-never-smelt before?’

The scene-painter appeared to be puzzled by the vehement energy of the language addressed to him. ‘The room is as fresh and sweet as a room can be,’ he answered. As he spoke, he looked back with astonishment at Francis Westwick, standing outside in the corridor, and eyeing the interior of the bedchamber with an expression of undisguised disgust.

The Parisian director approached his English colleague, and looked at him with grave and anxious scrutiny.

‘You see, my friend, here are two of us, with as good noses as yours, who smell nothing. If you want evidence from more noses, look there!’ He pointed to two little English girls, at play in the corridor. ‘The door of my room is wide open — and you know how fast a smell can travel. Now listen, while I appeal to these innocent noses, in the language of their own dismal island. My little loves, do you sniff a nasty smell here — ha?’ The children burst out laughing, and answered emphatically, ‘No.’ ‘My good Westwick,’ the Frenchman resumed, in his own language, ‘the conclusion is surely plain? There is something wrong, very wrong, with your own nose. I recommend you to see a medical man.’

Having given that advice, he returned to his room, and shut out the horrid fresh air with a loud exclamation of relief. Francis left the hotel, by the lanes that led to the Square of St. Mark. The night-breeze soon revived him. He was able to light a cigar, and to think quietly over what had happened.

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