I HAD not been settled much more than six weeks in my country practice when I was sent for to a neighboring town, to consult with the resident medical man there on a case of very dangerous illness.
My horse had come down with me at the end of a long ride the night before, and had hurt himself, luckily, much more than he had hurt his master. Being deprived of the animal’s services, I started for my destination by the coach (there were no railways at that time), and I hoped to get back again, toward the afternoon, in the same way.
After the consultation was over, I went to the principal inn of the town to wait for the coach. When it came up it was full inside and out. There was no resource left me but to get home as cheaply as I could by hiring a gig. The price asked for this accommodation struck me as being so extortionate, that I determined to look out for an inn of inferior pretensions, and to try if I could not make a better bargain with a less prosperous establishment.
I soon found a likely-looking house, dingy and quiet, with an old-fashioned sign, that had evidently not been repainted for many years past. The landlord, in this case, was not above making a small profit, and as soon as we came to terms he rang the yard-bell to order the gig.
“Has Robert not come back from that errand?” asked the landlord, appealing to the waiter who answered the bell.
“No, sir, he hasn’t.”
“Well, then, you must wake up Isaac.”
“Wake up Isaac!” I repeated; “that sounds rather odd. Do your hostlers go to bed in the daytime?”
“This one does,” said the landlord, smiling to himself in rather a strange way.
“And dreams too,” added the waiter; “I shan’t forget the turn it gave me the first time I heard him.”
“Never you mind about that,” retorted the proprietor; “you go and rouse Isaac up. The gentleman’s waiting for his gig.”
The landlord’s manner and the waiter’s manner expressed a great deal more than they either of them said. I began to suspect that I might be on the trace of something professionally interesting to me as a medical man, and I thought I should like to look at the hostler before the waiter awakened him.
“Stop a minute,” I interposed; “I have rather a fancy for seeing this man before you wake him up. I’m a doctor; and if this queer sleeping and dreaming of his comes from anything wrong in his brain, I may be able to tell you what to do with him.”
“I rather think you will find his complaint past all doctoring, sir,” said the landlord; “but, if you would like to see him, you’re welcome, I’m sure.”
He led the way across a yard and down a passage to the stables, opened one of the doors, and, waiting outside himself, told me to look in.
I found myself in a two-stall stable. In one of the stalls a horse was munching his corn; in the other an old man was lying asleep on the litter.
I stooped and looked at him attentively. It was a withered, woe-begone face. The eyebrows were painfully contracted; the mouth was fast set, and drawn down at the corners.
The hollow wrinkled cheeks, and the scanty grizzled hair, told their own tale of some past sorrow or suffering. He was drawing his breath convulsively when I first looked at him, and in a moment more he began to talk in his sleep.
“Wake up!” I heard him say, in a quick whisper, through his clinched teeth. “Wake up there! Murder!”
He moved one lean arm slowly till it rested over his throat, shuddered a little, and turned on his straw. Then the arm left his throat, the hand stretched itself out, and clutched at the side toward which he had turned, as if he fancied himself to be grasping at the edge of something. I saw his lips move, and bent lower over him. He was still talking in his sleep.
“Light gray eyes,” he murmured, “and a droop in the left eyelid; flaxen hair, with a gold-yellow streak in it — all right, mother — fair white arms, with a down on them — little lady’s hand, with a reddish look under the finger nails. The knife — always the cursed knife — first on one side, then on the other. Aha! you she-devil, where’s the knife?”
At the last word his voice rose, and he grew restless on a sudden. I saw him shudder on the straw; his withered face became distorted, and he threw up both his hands with a quick hysterical gasp. They struck against the bottom of the manger under which he lay, and the blow awakened him. I had just time to slip through the door and close it before his eyes were fairly open, and his senses his own again.
“Do you know anything about that man’s past life?” I said to the landlord.
“Yes, sir, I know pretty well all about it,” was the answer, “and an uncommon queer story it is. Most people don’t believe it. It’s true, though, for all that. Why, just look at him,” continued the landlord, opening the stable door again. “Poor devil! he’s so worn out with his restless nights that he’s dropped back into his sleep already.”
“Don’t wake him,” I said; “I’m in no hurry for the gig. Wait till the other man comes back from his errand; and, in the meantime, suppose I have some lunch and a bottle of sherry, and suppose you come and help me to get through it?”
The heart of mine host, as I had anticipated, warmed to me over his own wine. He soon became communicative on the subject of the man asleep in the stable, and by little and little I drew the whole story out of him. Extravagant and incredible as the events must appear to everybody, they are related here just as I heard them and just as they happened.
SOME years ago there lived in the suburbs of a large seaport town on the west coast of England a man in humble circumstances, by name Isaac Scatchard. His means of subsistence were derived from any employment that he could get as an hostler, and occasionally, when times went well with him, from temporary engagements in service as stable-helper in private houses. Though a faithful, steady, and honest man, he got on badly in his calling. His ill luck was proverbial among his neighbors. He was always missing good opportunities by no fault of his own, and always living longest in service with amiable people who were not punctual payers of wages. “Unlucky Isaac” was his nickname in his own neighborhood, and no one could say that he did not richly deserve it.
With far more than one man’s fair share of adversity to endure, Isaac had but one consolation to support him, and that was of the dreariest and most negative kind. He had no wife and children to increase his anxieties and add to the bitterness of his various failures in life. It might have been from mere insensibility, or it might have been from generous unwillingness to involve another in his own unlucky destiny, but the fact undoubtedly was, that he had arrived at the middle term of life without marrying, and, what is much more remarkable, without once exposing himself, from eighteen to eight-and-thirty, to the genial imputation of ever having had a sweetheart.
When he was out of service he lived alone with his widowed mother. Mrs. Scatchard was a woman above the average in her lowly station as to capacity and manners. She had seen better days, as the phrase is, but she never referred to them in the presence of curious visitors; and, though perfectly polite to every one who approached her, never cultivated any intimacies among her neighbors. She contrived to provide, hardly enough, for her simple wants by doing rough work for the tailors, and always managed to keep a decent home for her son to return to whenever his ill luck drove him out helpless into the world.
One bleak autumn when Isaac was getting on fast toward forty and when he was as usual out of place through no fault of his own, he set forth, from his mother’s cottage on a long walk inland to a gentleman’s seat where he had heard that a stable-helper was required.
It wanted then but two days of his birthday; and Mrs. Scatchard, with her usual fondness, made him promise, before he started, that he would be back in time to keep that anniversary with her, in as festive a way as their poor means would allow. It was easy for him to comply with this request, even supposing he slept a night each way on the road.
He was to start from home on Monday morning, and, whether he got the new place or not, he was to be back for his birthday dinner on Wednesday at two o’clock.
Arriving at his destination too late on the Monday night to make application for the stablehelper’s place, he slept at the village inn, and in good time on the Tuesday morning presented himself at the gentleman’s house to fill the vacant situation. Here again his ill luck pursued him as inexorably as ever. The excellent written testimonials to his character which he was able to produce availed him nothing; his long walk had been taken in vain: only the day before the stable-helper’s place had been given to another man.
Isaac accepted this new disappointment resignedly and as a matter of course. Naturally slow in capacity, he had the bluntness of sensibility and phlegmatic patience of disposition which frequently distinguish men with sluggishly-working mental powers. He thanked the gentleman’s steward with his usual quiet civility for granting him an interview, and took his departure with no appearance of unusual depression in his face or manner.
Before starting on his homeward walk he made some inquiries at the inn, and ascertained that he might save a few miles on his return by following the new road. Furnished with full instructions, several times repeated, as to the various turnings he was to take, he set forth on his homeward journey and walked on all day with only one stoppage for bread and cheese. Just as it was getting toward dark, the rain came on and the wind began to rise, and he found himself, to make matters worse, in a part of the country with which he was entirely unacquainted, though he knew himself to be some fifteen miles from home. The first house he found to inquire at was a lonely roadside inn, standing on the outskirts of a thick wood. Solitary as the place looked, it was welcome to a lost man who was also hungry, thirsty, footsore and wet. The landlord was civil and respectable-looking, and the price he asked for a bed was reasonable enough. Isaac therefore decided on stopping comfortably at the inn for that night.
He was constitutionally a temperate man.
His supper consisted of two rashers of bacon, a slice of home-made bread and a pint of ale. He did not go to bed immediately after this moderate meal, but sat up with the landlord, talking about his bad prospects and his long run of ill-luck, and diverging from these topics to the subjects of horse-flesh and racing. Nothing was said either by himself, his host, or the few laborers who strayed into the tap-room, which could, in the slightest degree, excite the very small and very dull imaginative faculty which Isaac Scatchard possessed.
At a little after eleven the house was closed. Isaac went round with the landlord and held the candle while the doors and lower windows were being secured. He noticed with surprise the strength of the bolts and bars, and iron-sheathed shutters.
“You see, we are rather lonely here,” said the landlord. “We never have had any attempts made to break in yet, but it’s always as well to be on the safe side. When nobody is sleeping here, I am the only man in the house. My wife and daughter are timid, and the servant-girl takes after her missuses. Another glass of ale before you turn in? No! Well, how such a sober man as you comes to be out of place is more than I can make out, for one. Here’s where you’re to sleep. You’re our only lodger to-night, and I think you’ll say my missus has done her best to make you comfortable. You’re quite sure you won’t have another glass of ale? Very well. Good-night.”
It was half-past eleven by the clock in the passage as they went upstairs to the bedroom, the window of which looked on to the wood at the back of the house.
Isaac locked the door, set his candle on the chest of drawers, and wearily got ready for bed.
The bleak autumn wind was still blowing, and the solemn, monotonous, surging moan of it in the wood was dreary and awful to hear through the night-silence. Isaac felt strangely wakeful.
He resolved, as he lay down in bed, to keep the candle alight until he began to grow sleepy, for there was something unendurably depressing in the bare idea of lying awake in the darkness, listening to the dismal, ceaseless moaning of the wind in the wood.
Sleep stole on him before he was aware of it. His eyes closed, and he fell off insensibly to rest without having so much as thought of extinguishing the candle.
The first sensation of which he was conscious after sinking into slumber was a strange shivering that ran through him suddenly from head to foot, and a dreadful sinking pain at the heart, such as he had never felt before. The shivering only disturbed his slumbers; the pain woke him instantly. In one moment he passed from a state of sleep to a state of wakefulness — his eyes wide open — his mental perceptions cleared on a sudden, as if by a miracle.
The candle had burned down nearly to the last morsel of tallow, but the top of the unsnuffed wick had just fallen off, and the light in the little room was, for the moment, fair and full.
Between the foot of his bed and the closed door there stood a woman with a knife in her hand, looking at him.
He was stricken speechless with terror, but he did not lose the preternatural clearness of his faculties, and he never took his eyes off the woman. She said not a word as they stared each other in the face, but she began to move slowly toward the left-hand side of the bed.
His eyes followed her. She was a fair, fine woman, with yellowish flaxen hair and light gray eyes, with a droop in the left eyelid. He noticed those things and fixed them on his mind before she was round at the side of the bed. Speechless, with no expression in her face, with no noise following her footfall, she came closer and closer — stopped — and slowly raised the knife. He laid his right arm over his throat to save it; but, as he saw the knife coming down, threw his hand across the bed to the right side, and jerked his body over that way just as the knife descended on the mattress within an inch of his shoulder.
His eyes fixed on her arm and hand as she slowly drew her knife out of the bed: a white, well-shaped arm, with a pretty down lying lightly over the fair skin — a delicate lady’s hand, with the crowning beauty of a pink flush under and round the finger-nails.
She drew the knife out, and passed back again slowly to the foot of the bed; stopped there for a moment looking at him; then came on — still speechless, still with no expression on the blank, beautiful face, still with no sound following the stealthy footfalls — came on to the right side of the bed, where he now lay.
As she approached, she raised the knife again, and he drew himself away to the left side. She struck, as before, right into the mattress, with a deliberate, perpendicularly downward action of the arm. This time his eyes wandered from her to the knife. It was like the large clasp-knives which he had often seen laboring men use to cut their bread and bacon with. Her delicate little fingers did not conceal more than two-thirds of the handle: he noticed that it was made of buck-horn, clean and shining as the blade was, and looking like new.
For the second time she drew the knife out, concealed it in the wide sleeve of her gown, then stopped by the bedside, watching him. For an instant he saw her standing in that position, then the wick of the spent candle fell over into the socket; the flame diminished to a little blue point, and the room grew dark.
A moment, or less, if possible, passed so, and then the wick flamed up, smokingly, for the last time. His eyes were still looking eagerly over the right-hand side of the bed when the final flash of light came, but they discovered nothing. The fair woman with the knife was gone.
The conviction that he was alone again weakened the hold of the terror that had struck him dumb up to this time. The preternatural sharpness which the very intensity of his panic had mysteriously imparted to his faculties left them suddenly. His brain grew confused — his heart beat wildly — his ears opened for the first time since the appearance of the woman to a sense of the woeful ceaseless moaning of the wind among the trees. With the dreadful conviction of the reality of what he had seen still strong within him, he leaped out of bed, and screaming “Murder! Wake up, there! wake up!” dashed headlong through the darkness to the door.
It was fast locked, exactly as he had left it on going to bed.
His cries on starting up had alarmed the house. He heard the terrified, confused exclamations of women; he saw the master of the house approaching along the passage with his burning rush-candle in one hand and his gun in the other.
“What is it?” asked the landlord, breathlessly. Isaac could only answer in a whisper. “A woman, with a knife in her hand,” he gasped out. “In my room — a fair, yellow-haired woman; she jobbed at me with the knife twice over.”
The landlord’s pale cheeks grew paler. He looked at Isaac eagerly by the flickering light of his candle, and his face began to get red again; his voice altered, too, as well as his complexion.
“She seems to have missed you twice,” he said.
“I dodged the knife as it came down,” Isaac went on, in the same scared whisper. “It struck the bed each time.”
The landlord took his candle into the bedroom immediately. In less than a minute he came out again into the passage in a violent passion.
“The devil fly away with you and your woman with the knife! There isn’t a mark in the bedclothes anywhere. What do you mean by coming into a man’s place and frightening his family out of their wits about a dream?”
“I’ll leave your house,” said Isaac, faintly. “Better out on the road, in rain and dark, on my road home, than back again in that room, after what I’ve seen in it. Lend me a light to get my clothes by, and tell me what I’m to pay.”
“Pay!” cried the landlord, leading the way with his light sulkily into the bedroom. “You’ll find your score on the slate when you go downstairs. I wouldn’t have taken you in for all the money you’ve got about you if I’d known your dreaming, screeching ways beforehand. Look at the bed. Where’s the cut of a knife in it? Look at the window — is the lock bursted? Look at the door (which I heard you fasten yourself)— is it broke in? A murdering woman with a knife in my house! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Isaac answered not a word. He huddled on his clothes, and then they went downstairs together.
“Nigh on twenty minutes past two!” said the landlord, as they passed the clock. “A nice time in the morning to frighten honest people out of their wits!”
Isaac paid his bill, and the landlord let him out at the front door, asking, with a grin of contempt, as he undid the strong fastenings, whether “the murdering woman got in that way.”
They parted without a word on either side. The rain had ceased, but the night was dark, and the wind bleaker than ever. Little did the darkness, or the cold, or the uncertainty about the way home matter to Isaac. If he had been turned out into a wilderness in a thunder-storm it would have been a relief after what he had suffered in the bedroom of the inn.
What was the fair woman with the knife? The creature of a dream, or that other creature from the unknown world called among men by the name of ghost? He could make nothing of the mystery — had made nothing of it, even when it was midday on Wednesday, and when he stood, at last, after many times missing his road, once more on the doorstep of home.
His mother came out eagerly to receive him.
His face told her in a moment that something was wrong.
“I’ve lost the place; but that’s my luck. I dreamed an ill dream last night, mother — or maybe I saw a ghost. Take it either way, it scared me out of my senses, and I’m not my own man again yet.”
“Isaac, your face frightens me. Come in to the fire — come in, and tell mother all about it.”
He was as anxious to tell as she was to hear; for it had been his hope, all the way home, that his mother, with her quicker capacity and superior knowledge, might be able to throw some light on the mystery which he could not clear up for himself. His memory of the dream was still mechanically vivid, though his thoughts were entirely confused by it.
His mother’s face grew paler and paler as he went on. She never interrupted him by so much as a single word; but when he had done, she moved her chair close to his, put her arm round his neck, and said to him:
“Isaac, you dreamed your ill dream on this Wednesday morning. What time was it when you saw the fair woman with the knife in her hand?” Isaac reflected on what the landlord had said when they had passed by the clock on his leaving the inn; allowed as nearly as he could for the time that must have elapsed between the unlocking of his bedroom door and the paying of his bill just before going away, and answered:
“Somewhere about two o’clock in the morning.”
His mother suddenly quitted her hold of his neck, and struck her hands together with a gesture of despair.
“This Wednesday is your birthday, Isaac, and two o’clock in the morning was the time when you were born.”
Isaac’s capacities were not quick enough to catch the infection of his mother’s superstitious dread. He was amazed, and a little startled, also, when she suddenly rose from her chair, opened her old writing-desk, took pen, ink and paper, and then said to him:
“Your memory is but a poor one, Isaac, and, now I’m an old woman, mine’s not much better. I want all about this dream of yours to be as well known to both of us, years hence, as it is now. Tell me over again all you told me a minute ago, when you spoke of what the woman with the knife looked like.”
Isaac obeyed, and marveled much as he saw his mother carefully set down on paper the very words that he was saying.
“Light gray eyes,” she wrote, as they came to the descriptive part, “with a droop in the left eyelid; flaxen hair, with a gold-yellow streak in it; white arms, with a down upon them; little lady’s hand, with a reddish look about the finger nails; clasp-knife with a buck-horn handle, that seemed as good as new.” To these particulars Mrs. Scatchard added the year, month, day of the week, and time in the morning when the woman of the dream appeared to her son. She then locked up the paper carefully in her writing-desk.
Neither on that day nor on any day after could her son induce her to return to the matter of the dream. She obstinately kept her thoughts about it to herself, and even refused to refer again to the paper in her writing-desk. Ere long Isaac grew weary of attempting to make her break her resolute silence; and time, which sooner or later wears out all things, gradually wore out the impression produced on him by the dream. He began by thinking of it carelessly, and he ended by not thinking of it at all.
The result was the more easily brought about by the advent of some important changes for the better in his prospects which commenced not long after his terrible night’s experience at the inn. He reaped at last the reward of his long and patient suffering under adversity by getting an excellent place, keeping it for seven years, and leaving it, on the death of his master, not only with an excellent character, but also with a comfortable annuity bequeathed to him as a reward for saving his mistress’s life in a carriage accident. Thus it happened that Isaac Scatchard returned to his old mother, seven years after the time of the dream at the inn, with an annual sum of money at his disposal sufficient to keep them both in ease and independence for the rest of their lives.
The mother, whose health had been bad of late years, profited so much by the care bestowed on her and by freedom from money anxieties, that when Isaac’s birthday came round she was able to sit up comfortably at table and dine with him.
On that day, as the evening drew on, Mrs. Scatchard discovered that a bottle of tonic medicine which she was accustomed to take, and in which she had fancied that a dose or more was still left, happened to be empty. Isaac immediately volunteered to go to the chemist’s and get it filled again. It was as rainy and bleak an autumn night as on the memorable past occasion when he lost his way and slept at the road-side inn.
On going into the chemist’s shop he was passed hurriedly by a poorly-dressed woman coming out of it. The glimpse he had of her face struck him, and he looked back after her as she descended the door-steps.
“You’re noticing that woman?” said the chemist’s apprentice behind the counter. “It’s my opinion there’s something wrong with her. She’s been asking for laudanum to put to a bad tooth. Master’s out for half an hour, and I told her I wasn’t allowed to sell poison to strangers in his absence. She laughed in a queer way, and said she would come back in half an hour. If she expects master to serve her, I think she’ll be disappointed. It’s a case of suicide, sir, if ever there was one yet.”
These words added immeasurably to the sudden interest in the woman which Isaac had felt at the first sight of her face. After he had got the medicine-bottle filled, he looked about anxiously for her as soon as he was out in the street. She was walking slowly up and down on the opposite side of the road. With his heart, very much to his own surprise, beating fast, Isaac crossed over and spoke to her.
He asked if she was in any distress. She pointed to her torn shawl, her scanty dress, her crushed, dirty bonnet; then moved under a lamp so as to let the light fall on her stern, pale, but still most beautiful face.
“I look like a comfortable, happy woman, don’t I?” she said, with a bitter laugh.
She spoke with a purity of intonation which Isaac had never heard before from other than ladies’ lips. Her slightest actions seemed to have the easy, negligent grace of a thoroughbred woman. Her skin, for all its poverty-stricken paleness, was as delicate as if her life had been passed in the enjoyment of every social comfort that wealth can purchase. Even her small, finely-shaped hands, gloveless as they were, had not lost their whiteness.
Little by little, in answer to his questions, the sad story of the woman came out. There is no need to relate it here; it is told over and over again in police reports and paragraphs about attempted suicides.
“My name is Rebecca Murdoch,” said the woman, as she ended. “I have nine-pence left, and I thought of spending it at the chemist’s over the way in securing a passage to the other world. Whatever it is, it can’t be worse to me than this, so why should I stop here?”
Besides the natural compassion and sadness moved in his heart by what he heard, Isaac felt within him some mysterious influence at work all the time the woman was speaking which utterly confused his ideas and almost deprived him of his powers of speech. All that he could say in answer to her last reckless words was that he would prevent her from attempting her own life, if he followed her about all night to do it. His rough, trembling earnestness seemed to impress her.
“I won’t occasion you that trouble,” she answered, when he repeated his threat. “You have given me a fancy for living by speaking kindly to me. No need for the mockery of protestations and promises. You may believe me without them. Come to Fuller’s Meadow to-morrow at twelve, and you will find me alive, to answer for myself — No! — no money. My ninepence will do to get me as good a night’s lodging as I want.”
She nodded and left him. He made no attempt to follow — he felt no suspicion that she was deceiving him.
“It’s strange, but I can’t help believing her,” he said to himself, and walked away, bewildered, toward home.
On entering the house, his mind was still so completely absorbed by its new subject of interest that he took no notice of what his mother was doing when he came in with the bottle of medicine. She had opened her old writing-desk in his absence, and was now reading a paper attentively that lay inside it. On every birthday of Isaac’s since she had written down the particulars of his dream from his own lips, she had been accustomed to read that same paper, and ponder over it in private.
The next day he went to Fuller’s Meadow.
He had done only right in believing her so implicitly. She was there, punctual to a minute, to answer for herself. The last-left faint defenses in Isaac’s heart against the fascination which a word or look from her began inscrutably to exercise over him sank down and vanished before her forever on that memorable morning.
When a man, previously insensible to the influence of women, forms an attachment in middle life, the instances are rare indeed, let the warning circumstances be what they may, in which he is found capable of freeing himself from the tyranny of the new ruling passion. The charm of being spoken to familiarly, fondly, and gratefully by a woman whose language and manners still retained enough of their early refinement to hint at the high social station that she had lost, would have been a dangerous luxury to a man of Isaac’s rank at the age of twenty. But it was far more than that — it was certain ruin to him — now that his heart was opening unworthily to a new influence at that middle time of life when strong feelings of all kinds, once implanted, strike root most stubbornly in a man’s moral nature. A few more stolen interviews after that first morning in Fuller’s Meadow completed his infatuation. In less than a month from the time when he first met her, Isaac Scatchard had consented to give Rebecca Murdoch a new interest in existence, and a chance of recovering the character she had lost by promising to make her his wife.
She had taken possession, not of his passions only, but of his faculties as well. All the mind he had he put into her keeping. She directed him on every point — even instructing him how to break the news of his approaching marriage in the safest manner to his mother.
“If you tell her how you met me and who I am at first,” said the cunning woman, “she will move heaven and earth to prevent our marriage. Say I am the sister of one of your fellow-servants — ask her to see me before you go into any more particulars — and leave it to me to do the rest. I mean to make her love me next best to you, Isaac, before she knows anything of who I really am.” The motive of the deceit was sufficient to sanctify it to Isaac. The stratagem proposed relieved him of his one great anxiety, and quieted his uneasy conscience on the subject of his mother. Still, there was something wanting to perfect his happiness, something that he could not realize, something mysteriously untraceable, and yet something that perpetually made itself felt; not when he was absent from Rebecca Murdoch, but, strange to say, when he was actually in her presence! She was kindness itself with him. She never made him feel his inferior capacities and inferior manners. She showed the sweetest anxiety to please him in the smallest trifles; but, in spite of all these attractions, he never could feel quite at his ease with her. At their first meeting, there had mingled with his admiration, when he looked in her face, a faint, involuntary feeling of doubt whether that face was entirely strange to him. No after familiarity had the slightest effect on this inexplicable, wearisome uncertainty.
Concealing the truth as he had been directed, he announced his marriage engagement precipitately and confusedly to his mother on the day when he contracted it. Poor Mrs. Scatchard showed her perfect confidence in her son by flinging her arms round his neck, and giving him joy of having found at last, in the sister of one of his fellow-servants, a woman to comfort and care for him after his mother was gone. She was all eagerness to see the woman of her son’s choice, and the next day was fixed for the introduction.
It was a bright sunny morning, and the little cottage parlor was full of light as Mrs. Scatchard, happy and expectant, dressed for the occasion in her Sunday gown, sat waiting for her son and her future daughter-in-law.
Punctual to the appointed time, Isaac hurriedly and nervously led his promised wife into the room. His mother rose to receive her — advanced a few steps, smiling — looked Rebecca full in the eyes, and suddenly stopped. Her face, which had been flushed the moment before, turned white in an instant; her eyes lost their expression of softness and kindness, and assumed a blank look of terror; her outstretched hands fell to her sides, and she staggered back a few steps with a low cry to her son.
“Isaac,” she whispered, clutching him fast by the arm when he asked alarmedly if she was taken ill, “Isaac, does that woman’s face remind you of nothing?”
Before he could answer — before he could look round to where Rebecca stood, astonished and angered by her reception, at the lower end of the room, his mother pointed impatiently to her writing-desk, and gave him the key.
“Open it,” she said, in a quick breathless whisper.
“What does this mean? Why am I treated as if I had no business here? Does your mother want to insult me?” asked Rebecca, angrily.
“Open it, and give me the paper in the left-hand drawer. Quick! quick, for Heaven’s sake!” said Mrs. Scatchard, shrinking further back in terror.
Isaac gave her the paper. She looked it over eagerly for a moment, then followed Rebecca, who was now turning away haughtily to leave the room, and caught her by the shoulder — abruptly raised the long, loose sleeve of her gown, and glanced at her hand and arm. Something like fear began to steal over the angry expression of Rebecca’s face as she shook herself free from the old woman’s grasp. “Mad!” she said to herself; “and Isaac never told me.” With these few words she left the room.
Isaac was hastening after her when his mother turned and stopped his further progress. It wrung his heart to see the misery and terror in her face as she looked at him.
“Light gray eyes,” she said, in low, mournful, awe-struck tones, pointing toward the open door; “a droop in the left eyelid; flaxen hair, with a gold-yellow streak in it; white arms, with a down upon them; little lady’s hand, with a reddish look under the finger nails — The Dream–Woman, Isaac, the Dream–Woman!”
That faint cleaving doubt which he had never been able to shake off in Rebecca Murdoch’s presence was fatally set at rest forever. He had seen her face, then, before — seven years before, on his birthday, in the bedroom of the lonely inn.
“Be warned! oh, my son, be warned! Isaac, Isaac, let her go, and do you stop with me!”
Something darkened the parlor window as those words were said. A sudden chill ran through him, and he glanced sidelong at the shadow. Rebecca Murdoch had come back. She was peering in curiously at them over the low window-blind.
“I have promised to marry, mother,” he said, “and marry I must.”
The tears came into his eyes as he spoke and dimmed his sight, but he could just discern the fatal face outside moving away again from the window.
His mother’s head sank lower.
“Are you faint?” he whispered.
He stooped down and kissed her. The shadow, as he did so, returned to the window, and the fatal face peered in curiously once more.
THREE weeks after that day Isaac and Rebecca were man and wife. All that was hopelessly dogged and stubborn in the man’s moral nature seemed to have closed round his fatal passion, and to have fixed it unassailably in his heart.
After that first interview in the cottage parlor no consideration would induce Mrs. Scatchard to see her son’s wife again or even to talk of her when Isaac tried hard to plead her cause after their marriage.
This course of conduct was not in any degree occasioned by a discovery of the degradation in which Rebecca had lived. There was no question of that between mother and son. There was no question of anything but the fearfully-exact resemblance between the living, breathing woman and the specter-woman of Isaac’s dream.
Rebecca on her side neither felt nor expressed the slightest sorrow at the estrangement between herself and her mother-in-law. Isaac, for the sake of peace, had never contradicted her first idea that age and long illness had affected Mrs. Scatchard’s mind. He even allowed his wife to upbraid him for not having confessed this to her at the time of their marriage engagement, rather than risk anything by hinting at the truth. The sacrifice of his integrity before his one all-mastering delusion seemed but a small thing, and cost his conscience but little after the sacrifices he had already made.
The time of waking from this delusion — the cruel and the rueful time — was not far off. After some quiet months of married life, as the summer was ending, and the year was getting on toward the month of his birthday, Isaac found his wife altering toward him. She grew sullen and contemptuous; she formed acquaintances of the most dangerous kind in defiance of his objections, his entreaties, and his commands; and, worst of all, she learned, ere long, after every fresh difference with her husband, to seek the deadly self-oblivion of drink. Little by little, after the first miserable discovery that his wife was keeping company with drunkards, the shocking certainty forced itself on Isaac that she had grown to be a drunkard herself.
He had been in a sadly desponding state for some time before the occurrence of these domestic calamities. His mother’s health, as he could but too plainly discern every time he went to see her at the cottage, was failing fast, and he upbraided himself in secret as the cause of the bodily and mental suffering she endured. When to his remorse on his mother’s account was added the shame and misery occasioned by the discovery of his wife’s degradation, he sank under the double trial — his face began to alter fast, and he looked what he was, a spirit-broken man.
His mother, still struggling bravely against the illness that was hurrying her to the grave, was the first to notice the sad alteration in him, and the first to hear of his last worst trouble with his wife. She could only weep bitterly on the day when he made his humiliating confession, but on the next occasion when he went to see her she had taken a resolution in reference to his domestic afflictions which astonished and even alarmed him. He found her dressed to go out, and on asking the reason received this answer:
“I am not long for this world, Isaac,” she said, “and I shall not feel easy on my death-bed unless I have done my best to the last to make my son happy. I mean to put my own fears and my own feelings out of the question, and to go with you to your wife, and try what I can do to reclaim her. Give me your arm, Isaac, and let me do the last thing I can in this world to help my son before it is too late.”
He could not disobey her, and they walked together slowly toward his miserable home.
It was only one o’clock in the afternoon when they reached the cottage where he lived. It was their dinner-hour, and Rebecca was in the kitchen. He was thus able to take his mother quietly into the parlor, and then prepare his wife for the interview. She had fortunately drunk but little at that early hour, and she was less sullen and capricious than usual.
He returned to his mother with his mind tolerably at ease. His wife soon followed him into the parlor, and the meeting between her and Mrs. Scatchard passed off better than he had ventured to anticipate, though he observed with secret apprehension that his mother, resolutely as she controlled herself in other respects, could not look his wife in the face when she spoke to her. It was a relief to him, therefore, when Rebecca began to lay the cloth.
She laid the cloth, brought in the bread-tray, and cut a slice from the loaf for her husband, then returned to the kitchen. At that moment, Isaac, still anxiously watching his mother, was startled by seeing the same ghastly change pass over her face which had altered it so awfully on the morning when Rebecca and she first met. Before he could say a word, she whispered, with a look of horror:
“Take me back — home, home again, Isaac. Come with me, and never go back again.”
He was afraid to ask for an explanation; he could only sign to her to be silent, and help her quickly to the door. As they passed the breadtray on the table she stopped and pointed to it.
“Did you see what your wife cut your bread with?” she asked, in a low whisper.
“No, mother — I was not noticing — what was it?”
He did look. A new clasp-knife with a buckhorn handle lay with the loaf in the bread-tray. He stretched out his hand shudderingly to possess himself of it; but, at the same time, there was a noise in the kitchen, and his mother caught at his arm.
“The knife of the dream! Isaac, I’m faint with fear. Take me away before she comes back.”
He was hardly able to support her. The visible, tangible reality of the knife struck him with a panic, and utterly destroyed any faint doubts that he might have entertained up to this time in relation to the mysterious dream-warning of nearly eight years before. By a last desperate effort, he summoned self-possession enough to help his mother out of the house — so quietly that the “Dream-woman” (he thought of her by that name now) did not hear them departing from the kitchen.
“Don’t go back, Isaac — don’t go back!” implored Mrs. Scatchard, as he turned to go away, after seeing her safely seated again in her own room.
“I must get the knife,” he answered, under his breath. His mother tried to stop him again, but he hurried out without another word.
On his return he found that his wife had discovered their secret departure from the house. She had been drinking, and was in a fury of passion. The dinner in the kitchen was flung under the grate; the cloth was off the parlor table. Where was the knife?
Unwisely, he asked for it. She was only too glad of the opportunity of irritating him which the request afforded her. “He wanted the knife, did he? Could he give her a reason why? No! Then he should not have it — not if he went down on his knees to ask for it.” Further recriminations elicited the fact that she had bought it a bargain, and that she considered it her own especial property. Isaac saw the uselessness of attempting to get the knife by fair means, and determined to search for it, later in the day, in secret. The search was unsuccessful. Night came on, and he left the house to walk about the streets. He was afraid now to sleep in the same room with her.
Three weeks passed. Still sullenly enraged with him, she would not give up the knife; and still that fear of sleeping in the same room with her possessed him. He walked about at night, or dozed in the parlor, or sat watching by his mother’s bedside. Before the expiration of the first week in the new month his mother died. It wanted then but ten days of her son’s birthday. She had longed to live till that anniversary. Isaac was present at her death, and her last words in this world were addressed to him:
“Don’t go back, my son, don’t go back!” He was obliged to go back, if it were only to watch his wife. Exasperated to the last degree by his distrust of her, she had revengefully sought to add a sting to his grief, during the last days of his mother’s illness, by declaring that she would assert her right to attend the funeral. In spite of any thing he could do or say, she held with wicked pertinacity to her word, and on the day appointed for the burial forced herself — inflamed and shameless with drink — into her husband’s presence, and declared that she would walk in the funeral procession to his mother’s grave.
This last worst outrage, accompanied by all that was most insulting in word and look, maddened him for the moment. He struck her.
The instant the blow was dealt he repented it. She crouched down, silent, in a corner of the room, and eyed him steadily; it was a look that cooled his hot blood and made him tremble. But there was no time now to think of a means of making atonement. Nothing remained but to risk the worst till the funeral was over. There was but one way of making sure of her. He locked her into her bedroom.
When he came back some hours after, he found her sitting, very much altered in look and bearing, by the bedside, with a bundle on her lap. She rose, and faced him quietly, and spoke with a strange stillness in her voice, a strange repose in her eyes, a strange composure in her manner.
“No man has ever struck me twice,” she said, “and my husband shall have no second opportunity. Set the door open and let me go. From this day forth we see each other no more.”
Before he could answer she passed him and left the room. He saw her walk away up the street.
Would she return?
All that night he watched and waited, but no footstep came near the house. The next night, overpowered by fatigue, he lay down in bed in his clothes, with the door locked, the key on the table, and the candle burning. His slumber was not disturbed. The third night, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth passed, and nothing happened.
He lay down on the seventh, still in his clothes, still with the door locked, the key on the table, and the candle burning, but easier in his mind.
Easier in his mind, and in perfect health of body when he fell off to sleep. But his rest was disturbed. He woke twice without any sensation of uneasiness. But the third time it was that never-to-be-forgotten shivering of the night at the lonely inn, that dreadful sinking pain at the heart, which once more aroused him in an instant.
His eyes opened toward the left-hand side of the bed, and there stood — The Dream–Woman again? No! His wife; the living reality, with the dream-specter’s face, in the dream-specter’s attitude; the fair arm up, the knife clasped in the delicate white hand.
He sprang upon her almost at the instant of seeing her, and yet not quickly enough to prevent her from hiding the knife. Without a word from him — without a cry from her — he pinioned her in a chair. With one hand he felt up her sleeve, and there, where the Dream–Woman had hidden the knife, his wife had hidden it — the knife with the buckhorn handle, that looked like new.
In the despair of that fearful moment his brain was steady, his heart was calm. He looked at her fixedly with the knife in his hand, and said these last words:
“You told me we should see each other no more, and you have come back. It is my turn now to go, and to go forever. I say that we shall see each other no more, and my word shall not be broken.”
He left her, and set forth into the night. There was a bleak wind abroad, and the smell of recent rain was in the air. The distant church-clocks chimed the quarter as he walked rapidly beyond the last houses in the suburb. He asked the first policeman he met what hour that was of which the quarter past had just struck.
The man referred sleepily to his watch, and answered, “Two o’clock.” Two in the morning. What day of the month was this day that had just begun? He reckoned it up from the date of his mother’s funeral. The fatal parallel was complete: it was his birthday!
Had he escaped the mortal peril which his dream foretold? or had he only received a second warning?
As that ominous doubt forced itself on his mind, he stopped, reflected, and turned back again toward the city. He was still resolute to hold to his word, and never to let her see him more; but there was a thought now in his mind of having her watched and followed. The knife was in his possession; the world was before him; but a new distrust of her — a vague, unspeakable, superstitious dread had overcome him.
“I must know where she goes, now she thinks I have left her,” he said to himself, as he stole back wearily to the precincts of his house.
It was still dark. He had left the candle burning in the bedchamber; but when he looked up to the window of the room now there was no light in it. He crept cautiously to the house door. On going away, he remembered to have closed it; on trying it now, he found it open.
He waited outside, never losing sight of the house, till daylight. Then he ventured indoors — listened, and heard nothing — looked into kitchen, scullery, parlor and found nothing; went up at last into the bedroom — it was empty. A picklock lay on the floor betraying how she had gained entrance in the night, and that was the only trace of her.
Whither had she gone? That no mortal tongue could tell him. The darkness had covered her flight; and when the day broke, no man could say where the light found her.
Before leaving the house and the town forever, he gave instructions to a friend and neighbor to sell his furniture for anything that it would fetch, and apply the proceeds to employing the police to trace her. The directions were honestly followed, and the money was all spent, but the inquiries led to nothing. The picklock on the bedroom floor remained the one last useless trace of the Dream–Woman.
At this point of the narrative the landlord paused, and, turning toward the window of the room in which we were sitting, looked in the direction of the stable-yard.
“So far,” he said, “I tell you what was told to me. The little that remains to be added lies within my own experience. Between two and three months after the events I have just been relating, Isaac Scatchard came to me, withered and old-looking before his time, just as you saw him to-day. He had his testimonials to character with him, and he asked for employment here. Knowing that my wife and he were distantly related, I gave him a trial in consideration of that relationship, and liked him in spite of his queer habits. He is as sober, honest, and willing a man as there is in England. As for his restlessness at night, and his sleeping away his leisure time in the day, who can wonder at it after hearing his story? Besides, he never objects to being roused up when he’s wanted, so there’s not much inconvenience to complain of, after all.”
“I suppose he is afraid of a return of that dreadful dream, and of waking out of it in the dark?” said I.
“No,” returned the landlord. “The dream comes back to him so often that he has got to bear with it by this time resignedly enough. It’s his wife keeps him waking at night as he has often told me.”
“What! Has she never been heard of yet?”
“Never. Isaac himself has the one perpetual thought about her, that she is alive and looking for him. I believe he wouldn’t let himself drop off to sleep toward two in the morning for a king’s ransom. Two in the morning, he says, is the time she will find him, one of these days. Two in the morning is the time all the year round when he likes to be most certain that he has got that clasp-knife safe about him. He does not mind being alone as long as he is awake, except on the night before his birthday, when he firmly believes himself to be in peril of his life. The birthday has only come round once since he has been here, and then he sat up along with the night-porter. ‘She’s looking for me,’ is all he says when anybody speaks to him about the one anxiety of his life; ‘she’s looking for me.’ He may be right. She may be looking for him. Who can tell?”
“Who can tell?” said I.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06