My Dreadful Secret

My Dreadful Secret  (1901) 
by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Extracted from Windsor magazine, April 1901, pp. 629-635. Illustrations by J. Ambrose Walton omitted.

It must have been nearly ten minutes past three when I left St. Stephen's, and it was barely four when I was carried into my rooms. During that time, by the means of powers the nature of which I shudder to reflect upon, I had performed a journey of something like fifteen hundred miles!



I HAVE lately read in one of our popular magazines a story which, for certain reasons, has had a peculiar and fascinating interest for me. Its author (I know not whom he may be) and I have something together in common. We have both been brought into immediate connection with phenomenal circumstances and powers which neither science, nor Nature, nor philosophy can account for, and whose origin we shrink from speculating upon. He has been bold, and has told his marvellous story reckless of disbelief or ridicule. Why should not I gain courage from his example and relieve myself from the secret which for thirty years has hovered over me like a hideous nightmare—often thrust aside, it is true, but ever and anon returning and forcing my unwilling remembrance back to the period of my brief contact with things which assuredly are not of this world? As I sit here writing these lines, prepared to draw aside the curtain from that hitherto jealously concealed chapter of my life, I could almost fancy that it were days instead of years which separate me from it. The shrinking dread which those feel who, like myself and the author of the story to which I have previously alluded, have been brought into undesired and undesirable communion with things supernatural, is a sensation which time can never lessen nor efface. I am fifty-eight years old, an honest, God-fearing man, ashamed to look no man in the face, and conscious of no wrong-doing; and yet there is a recollection of one night in my life which, when it chooses to come and haunt me, can bring the cold sweat to my forehead and shake with a nervous trembling my strong limbs. Save but for this one flaw, my life is a happy one, as well it may be. My wife is loving and devoted; my children are what I would have them be; I am rich; I have strong interests in life, and I am not without friends whose esteem and regard are precious to me. Could I but rid myself of this haunting shadow which at times darkens my life, I should style myself a happy man; and it is in the hope that, by sharing my secret with the world, it will lose some of its terrors for me, that I am about to reveal an occurrence which I have kept jealously locked in my breast for well nigh thirty years.

My name is John Tregarron, and at the time to which I am about to allude I was in my twenty-eighth year—a young man of sound constitution and moderate habits. I was an orphan, but a rich one, and I had just been returned to Parliament as the representative of my native town. Modesty would forbid my entering into an exhaustive analysis of my character, even were it necessary, which it is not. I need only say that I was utterly devoid of imagination, and prided myself chiefly upon my stern common sense. If at any time anyone had told me the story which I am about to relate, I should without doubt have considered him insane. Neither solemn affirmations nor any amount of circumstantial evidence would have induced me to believe it. As a rigid materialist I should have scoffed at the idea of accepting as a fact that which was utterly irreconcilable with our present conditions of existence. Many will do this when they read my simple, unvarnished narration of an event which befell me. I cannot help that. I am an inexperienced writer, and I cannot summon to my aid words of eloquence or use the other arts of practised writers who seek to win the credence of their readers. But I can set down simply and in as few words as possible what happened to me on the 13th of November, 1858, between the hours of half-past three and four o'clock in the morning. Those who scoff may scoff. I shall not hear them, and at any rate it will be some relief to feel that my secret has gone from me.

On the date which I have mentioned I left the House of Commons, after a long and dreary debate, at a few minutes past three o'clock, I had a cup of coffee, and then, feeling the want of a little exercise after the long confinement, I started to walk to my lodgings in Mayfair.

It must have been nearly ten minutes past three when I left St. Stephen's, and it was barely four when I was carried into my rooms. During that time, by the means of powers the nature of which I shudder to reflect upon, I had performed a journey of something like fifteen hundred miles! Ah! I can well imagine the incredulous lifting of the eyebrows, and the "Pshaw!" of, I fear, the majority of my readers. And yet, while it is an indubitable fact, which my landlady and many others could prove, that I was in London during the small hours of that hateful morning, I could yet bring forward incontestable evidence that I was also in Italy.

I walked briskly along through the empty streets, smoking a cigar and enjoying the cool air. As I turned into Belton Street my stick caught in a grating and slipped from my fingers. I stooped to pick it up, and then straightened myself in order to proceed on my way. I had not taken a step forwards, however, when I perceived that a sudden strange metamorphosis had taken place in my surroundings. I staggered backwards, dazed, bewildered, alarmed. Had I suddenly gone mad, or was I in the agonies of some torturing nightmare? Belton Street, with its rows of red-brick houses, its broad pavements, and its dull gas-lamps, was gone. I stood in a narrow stone alley (it was not wide enough to be called a street), terminating in front of me with a high wall, on either side of which, however, were rows of grey stone crumbling steps, leading I could not see whither. There was a statue of some dull, glittering metal at the foot of each flight, and the figures, which leaned crouching over towards me, with the Roman broadsword threateningly extended, seemed weirdly human in the uncertain moonlight. I myself was in the shadow of a vast grey stone building of architecture strange to me, and a clumsily built balcony jutting out above my head threw a slanting shade upon the ground beneath, deepening the obscurity in which I stood. It seemed to me that the warm, odorous air was richer and softer than any which I had breathed before, and the moon shone with a mellow, golden light in a sky the like of which has assuredly never stretched its glittering arc over the smoky Metropolis.

At first I thought that this must be some wonderful vision, which would fade away directly, and leave me free to pursue my way down Belton Street; so I held my breath and waited. Before long, however, I knew that it was no vision, but a drama in which I should be called upon to play a part; and while I hugged the shadows of that grim, dark palace, the personnel commenced to show themselves. A clumsily built coach, drawn by a pair of horses, whose hoofs, shod with some soft material, gave no notice of their approach, drew up at the head of the little street, and two men descended. They stood full in the moon-light for a moment, and I saw them distinctly. They were dressed after the fashion of some southern nation, and were apparently master and servant. He who appeared to be the former was a tall, dark man, of olive complexion, and with big, dark eyes. A long cloak enveloped him from head to foot, and from underneath it peeped the scabbard of a sword. The other man was shorter and stouter, with curled, black moustache and jaunty air; his person, too, was disguised by a long cloak.

After a few words with the coachman, the two men turned away and plunged into the shadows of the street of which I was an unwilling occupant. Almost exactly opposite to me they halted, and, although I have never considered myself a coward, I shrank back against the wall, trembling as though I had been seized with an ague. They talked for a moment or two in a low tone and in a strange tongue. Then the shorter man began to hum an opera tune, for which his master sharply reproved him. After that there was a deep silence—we were all three apparently waiting for something. I shrank from hazarding the merest conjecture as to what that something might be, but I could tell from the attitude of my opposite neighbours that they were watching the steps. Unconsciously my gaze followed theirs. Intuitively I was assured that the actors in the next scene of the drama which was unfolding itself before me would make their entrance at that point.

At last they came—an old man and a girl, followed by a manservant carrying a lantern, appeared on the top of the steps, and commenced the descent. As distinctly as if it had been the noonday sun, the brilliant moon showed me the gentle, refined face of the old white-haired man, and disclosed to me the face of the most radiantly beautiful woman whom I have ever seen in real life or on canvas. I am not attempting to write a descriptive story, for which, indeed, I have neither the aptitude nor the ability, so I will say no more about her save that her face, as she slowly descended the crumbling steps, seemed to me as the face of an angel.

They approached the spot where the double ambush lay concealed, the old man talking concernedly in somewhat faulty English.

"It seems strange, Carissima, that so suddenly poor Pietro should find himself worse. I trust——"

The tragedy had begun. In less than a moment the manservant was lying senseless upon the ground, and the old man was struggling in the grasp of the stouter of the two men. His master had seized the girl round the waist, and, with one hand over her mouth, was striving to drag her towards the carriage.

Trembling and speechless, pale with a fear which was scarcely cowardice, I remained without moving, my fascinated eyes riveted upon the little group. They were clear of the shadows, and the expression on the faces of each, photographed in my memory with a hideous accuracy, seemed ghost-like and unearthly in the pale moonlight. In the old man's face anger and indignation shone, but there was no fear, although his struggles to free himself were utterly impotent. Passion, wild, mad passion, was blazing in the dark eyes and convulsing the pale face of the taller man, as he strove in rapid words of persuasion to induce his prisoner to accompany him to the carriage. In her face aversion and hatred were blended with fear, as she struggled to release herself, and as he scanned her face with a hungry, longing glance, his grew simply demoniacal. He cried out something to his companion, who nodded and drew his sword, as if about to run the old man through. The girl saw the motion, and, with a wild, horror-stricken look, redoubled her frantic endeavours to break loose. The sword appeared about to be plunged into the old man's body, when suddenly my statue-like condition seemed to leave me, and the warmth of life returned as if by magic. With one stride I was in the middle of the little group, the stout ruffian's sword was whirling twenty feet high in the air, and he himself senseless on the ground from a blow with my clenched fist.

Again I carry in my mind a vivid photograph of the tableau which for a second or two existed. Opposite to me stood the girl, released from the rough grasp of her captor, her full lips trembling with emotion, and her glorious eyes full of a sudden hope, and already telling me their tale of gratitude. Almost by her side was her father, gazing at me astonished and open-mouthed, and a little to the left was the taller man, his head, out of which his black eyes were leaping with wild, demoniacal fury, thrust slightly forward towards me, and his hand slowly drawing his sword from the scabbard. A tigress who has seen her cubs slain before her eyes, and who has now the slayer within her reach, might have looked thus as she crouched for the spring.

I stooped and picked up the sword which had fallen at my feet. Still no one spoke or moved. The tableau was broken up at last by the sound of advancing footsteps, and I saw that the coachman had left his horses and was hurrying towards us.

"Take her away!" I cried to the old man. "Take her back at once," and I pointed to the steps.

"But you, sir, whom God——"

"Never mind me. You can bring help."

They moved a step away, and their late assailant literally sprang upon them. I stepped between, our swords clashed together, and his progress was arrested.

I had learnt fencing when a boy, and it had always been a favourite exercise with me, but my present adversary was far superior in skill to any with whom I had tried conclusions. Had he been cool, I should have been a dead man in less than a minute; but he was blind with rage and fury, and came at me wildly. At his third thrust I felt a sharp stinging pain in my left arm, and knew that his sword had entered it. There was a cry of agony from the steps.

"Father, I will go to him! Shall we leave him there to die, when he has saved our lives?"

What followed is the most miserable part of my story, but surely there are excuses for what I did. The instinct of fencing, self-defence, the only half-developed consciousness that I was playing a material part in a real tragedy—these all I can plead as my excuses. What happened was really this. My assailant in his eager thrust had left his own person undefended. I had run my sword through him to the hilt. There was another cry from the girl. I stood stupefied, watching the drops of blood fall from the end of my sword to the pavement, and the ghastly shade of death pass over the face of the man whom I had killed.

Then I heard rapid words in my ear, and, looking up, found the girl by my side.

"Oh, sir, you must fly at once!" She produced a lace handkerchief from her pocket, and commenced rapidly binding up my arm. "He deserved it!" she said, glancing with a shudder to where the dead man lay; "but he is the nephew of the Cardinal, and you must fly. You have saved me from death, and my father, too. Tell me your name?"

"John Tregarron."

"Ah! and mine is——" she broke off and listened. "The guard are coming!" she exclaimed, "That coachman must have fetched them. I must go; and you too. Oh, hurry!"

"And your name is——" I asked eagerly

A buzzing in my ears, blank darkness before my eyes, and an excruciating pain in my left arm.

"And your name is——?" I repeated feebly.

"Dr. Emerson said you must keep quiet and not disturb yourself."

I opened my eyes. I was in my own bedroom, with my landlady one side of the bed and the doctor the other.

"How long have I been here, and what is the time?" I inquired. Had it all been a dream, after all?

The doctor looked at his watch.

"You were found lying in Belton Street, with a stab in the left arm, and quite unconscious, at half-past three. A cabman brought you here. It is now five o'clock."

"Was I alone? Was anyone found with me?"

"You were quite alone; and, of course, as soon as you are in a fit state to give information, the police will endeavour to find the person who assaulted you. There was a foreign-made sword by your side, and your arm was bound up in a lady's lace handkerchief."

"Where is the handkerchief?" I asked.

It was given me—a delicate little piece of cambric and lace, stained and clotted with blood. In one corner were the initials.

"Mrs. Burditt, listen to me," I said, turning to my landlady. "If I'm going to be ill, I insist upon it that this handkerchief is kept exactly as it is. Put it in my drawer there, and don't touch it again. That's right. Now I'm going to sleep."

It was three months before I left my room, a broken-down wreck of a man. To the police I declared that the brain fever, which had laid such grim hold on me that I had nearly died, had driven from my mind all recollections of the events of that night. How false! The merest incident of it then, as now, was engraven deep upon my memory, and chief amongst those memories was the divine face of the girl 1 whom I had befriended.

I accepted the Chiltern Hundreds, and renounced the career which a short while ago had absorbed my every interest; then I left for the Continent, for I decided that Italy should be the scene of my quest, heedless that I ran every risk, if my description was published, of being arrested as a murderer. Two months I spent in exploring the towns of Northern Italy—in vain. At last I came to Florence, and beginning my search in the most out-of-the-way parts, as was my wont, on the evening of my second day's stay, there I stood again beneath that stone balcony, and the whole scene seemed to rise once more before me. I mounted the grey stone steps and gazed at the brazen statues with a peculiar fascination. The whole scene was calm and peaceful, now, in the soft sunlight, and none would have thought that so lately it had witnessed a ghastly tragedy. At a particular spot I paused and looked down on the stone flags. Yes, it was there—a great stain of blood only half effaced.

My guide, who had doubtless been wondering at the interest which the little place possessed for me, now shrugged his shoulders and spoke.

"Ah! Monsieur is looking at those marks of blood. Doubtless he has heard of the romantic affair which took place here nearly six months ago?"

I shook my head, and he proceeded—"There is one of our Florentine noblemen, the Count di Fiolessi, who has a palazzo not far from the top of those steps. He married an Englishwoman, and has a very beautiful daughter, with whom a young Florentine, Signor Mulazzi, fell desperately in love. He was a very strange young man; in fact, I have heard that he was downright mad. Anyhow, the young lady would have nothing to do with him. Well, he laid a very deep plot to carry her off one night. He sent a message to the Count di Fiolessi at three o'clock in the morning, purporting to come from the Count's brother, who lives but a little distance off, and who is an invalid. The message declared that he was dying, and summoned the Count and Signorina Adrienne to his bedside. They got up and, attended by a single servant, started off. When they reached this little place, Signor Mulazzi and a hired ruffian pounced upon them. The servant-man was thrown down and half murdered, Signorina Adrienne was being dragged off, and her father would have been killed, when a most extraordinary thing happens. An Englishman of gigantic stature springs from no one knows where, knocks the ruffian down with a blow of his fist, which nearly kills him, takes his sword, and finally runs Signor Mulazzi, who was one of the best swordsmen in Florence, through the body. When the guard came up, Mulazzi was dead, and the Englishman had gone, and has never been heard of from that day to this. A strange story, isn't it?"

"Very strange. And this Englishman—do they still look for him?"

The man shook his head.

"No; the affair was all hushed up. The outrage which he had attempted diverted all sympathy from Mulazzi, and no one but Count di Fiolessi has attempted to find the Englishman. On the first day there was a reward offered, but it was cancelled directly the Count had given his evidence."

"We will go back to the hotel," I said abruptly. "I have seen enough for to-day."

I hung about Florence for a week, restless and undecided. Then, as the sun was sinking behind the hills one evening, I mounted the steps and presented myself at the Palazzo Fiolessi. A tall servant led me through many anterooms and long marble corridors, until we came to a small sitting-room, furnished almost in the English fashion. The occupants were on the balcony, and, leaving me in the middle of the room, the servant advanced to the window and announced "Signor Tregarron."

I will pass over the greeting I received, and the months which I spent at the Palazzo Fiolessi, and at the Count's villa near Rome. I am making a confession—not writing a love story. It was agreed between us that the events which had brought us together should never be mentioned. They were full of painful memories to all of us—to me they were more than painful; but for a while, in the delirium of my love, I was able to escape from all thoughts save of Adrienne. Least of all had I thoughts of troubles on one soft, balmy night, when, as we all three sat in the grounds of the Roman villa after a day of dreamy happiness, Adrienne whispered the one word which was needed to complete my felicity. then I took her hand and led her to the Count, and he blessed us.

"My son!" he cried, "this is what I have prayed for! Bless you both, my children!"

He went indoors, for he was overcome. But Adrienne and I wandered across the smooth lawn, and among the marble statuettes, and hand-in-hand we watched the golden light from the full southern moon reflected in the dark waters of the Tiber flowing below us, and shining upon the vineyards which covered the slopes on the other side. Ah, life was very beautiful then!

I have finished my story. I have given a plain, unvarnished account of that night's adventure, during which powers unknown to us in this stage of our existence revealed themselves to me. Adrienne calls me. I must go.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1946, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.