Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/What was it?




Some years ago, I spent a few weeks at the Mauritius. I have shared in many moving incidents by sea and land since then, yet I still remember with delight the moment when I first was made aware of the proximity of that lovely isle. We had made the land at night, after a disagreeable steam voyage from the Cape, and as we could not enter Port Louis during the darkness, we lay to, under the lee of the land. The sea had become smooth; there was little or no motion; so opening our narrow scuttles, we allowed the heated pent-up atmosphere to escape; and, oh! with what an ecstacy I regaled my long-suffering senses with the balmy perfume-laden air which blew gently, and so sweetly, from that hidden shore. I never see the island on the map, I never hear it spoken of, without recalling it.

But there is another recollection connected with the Mauritius which is still more vivid than the one I have mentioned, and it was of this that I was more particularly thinking when I commenced my story.

I do not know a more delicious island than this self-same Mauritius. To a visitor it is full of charms, of which—happier than the resident, who is generally a victim to ennui—he has not time to become weary. My time there was passed most agreeably. I had discovered one or two old friends, and made sundry acquaintances, principally among the military, so that there was no lack of hospitable entertainment. In the first instance, however, before I knew that I had a single friend upon the island, I had taken up my quarters at the Hotel d’ ——, which had the reputation of being then, as it possibly may have the reputation of being now, the best in Port Louis.

I like these tropical hotels. No heated, close coffee-rooms, permeated with that indescribable flavour, towards the support of which an unceasing contribution has been levied on the animal and vegetable kingdoms for, it may be, a quarter of a century. No dingy, fusty, up-three-pair-of-stairs bed-room, which the unhappy bachelor enters with a shudder, and vacates with the satisfaction of an escaped convict. Here, all is bright and cheerful. There is no luxurious furniture, it is true; but the doors and windows are thrown wide open, and through them enters the greatest of all luxuries—fresh air. The walls are unpapered; but the whitewash forms a pleasant contrast to the dark, dry, polished floor; and though the tables may not groan beneath the glorious sirloin, or display a very remarkable amount of plate, the whiteness of the cloth is dazzling, and a variety of fruits and flowers form an embellishment which to a “nature-loving eye” leaves nothing to be desired. Added to all this, there is an emancipation from the solitary system, and, as on the Continent, people eat, drink, and talk cheerfully and sociably together.

From a salle à manger, possessing all the advantages I have just described, a wide and well-lighted staircase took me to my bed-room, and as the incident I am about to relate occurred in it, I shall be particular in its description. It was a room about twenty feet long, by twelve or fourteen broad, lighted by a single window at one end, and entered by a door at the other, at the extremity of the side wall, on the right hand side (as you stood within the room facing the window). Folding-doors in the centre of the opposite side wall communicated with another room—a double-bedded one—but as this room was in the occupation of a French married couple, these doors were kept carefully locked and bolted. The furniture of my room was, as is usually the case in hot climates, extremely scanty. It consisted of a small musquito-curtained bed, placed in the angle of the room immediately facing the door, so that its occupant slept with his head against the end wall, and his feet turned towards the window. A common deal dressing-table stood at the further end of the room, under the window, a washing-stand in the left-hand corner, near it two or three chairs, and a pier glass fixed to the centre of the right hand wall opposite the folding-doors. The room was lofty, the window large and uncurtained; there were no shutters, but it was fitted with a common white roller blind. It will presently be seen why I have been thus minute in these details.

I had been several days at the hotel, and had visited most of the lions of the island. I had made the customary pilgrimage to the so-called tombs of Paul and Virginia in the botanical gardens at Pamplemousse, and had willingly paid my shilling and accepted the imposture, for the sake of chewing for a moment the bitter cud o fancy, and awakening a deeper and sadder interest in a story which, for tenderness and pathos, has been rarely equalled. What mattered it to me where the dust of those poor children might truly be? I did not even insist upon their existence as a necessity, but was content to look upon those mournful urns, and conjure up, through their aid, the ideal forms with which they were associated—I had scrambled up the hill, at the foot of which Port Louis lies, and enjoyed, from a point not far from the eccentric projection on its summit, called, from its resemblance to the human thumb, “la Pouce,” the magnificent panorama which lay stretched beneath: an enchanting scene, in which the wild luxuriance of tropical vegetation was softened but not destroyed by cultivation, and the disturbing hand of man—I had wandered, with wondering eyes, amongst the mixed races with whom I now for the first time was brought in contact: natives of various colours and castes from the continent of India; negroes who seemed to vie with each other in ugliness; and Chinese whose industry and energy, shrill voices, merry laugh, and peculiar dress, marked them at once as a people of higher capabilities than were possessed by the representatives of any other part of Asia, who had sought to better their fortunes in the Mauritius. I had seen and done all this, and much more, within the first few days of my arrival, and it can be readily supposed, that as each night came, I was quite ready to rest my weary limbs upon my clean and comfortable bed.

It was the fourth day. A long and dusty, though pleasant afternoon ride, had made me more than usually tired, so that I retired to my room soon after ten o’clock. Having undressed, I fastened my door, as is my habit in a strange hotel, and putting out the light, sprung into bed, carefully closing the musquito curtains as I did so, that I might exclude a host of enemies who I knew to be thirsting for my blood; they vented their disappointment in an angry war-song, but safe within the sheltering curtains it had a pleasant, soothing sound. The last sound that struck on my ear was this musquito lullaby; the last sight that caught my eye, the moonbeams struggling to pierce through my drawn-down blind.

I must have slept for some time; for how long I knew not, nor do I know at the present hour, when I awoke—awoke suddenly, and with that nervous apprehension which all of us have felt at times, without being able to account for it. I heard no noise, and the most perfect stillness reigned in the hotel.

My first impulse was to raise my head, and look anxiously around. The moon was shining brightly; the room was flooded with her light, and I could see every article in it with the most perfect distinctness. I appeared to take in everything at a glance, but my gaze was arrested by a single object, and I remained for some moments as if spellbound.

As has been already mentioned, the dressing-table stood against the window, and beneath it, but somewhat drawn forward, I had placed my open portmanteau. Kneeling in front of this, in an attitude as if he had been suddenly disturbed whilst examining its contents, was a black—not a negro, for his features had a different cast—dressed in a white jacket and trousers. He did not move, but kept his eyes fixed steadily upon me.

No very terrible sight this, after all, it will be said. A mere midnight pilferer detected in the act. And so also thought I, when a few moments’ wakefulness had enabled me to cast off a little of that strange sense of dread which had so oppressed me.

“A thieving servant of the house, terror-struck at detection: he must be caught and brought to justice.”

Acting upon this idea, I thrust aside the curtain, and jumped out of bed. As I did so, the kneeling figure arose—slowly, steadily—still keeping his eyes fixed on me, with a calm and mournful, rather than an alarmed expression. Rushing forward, shouting “Un voleur, un voleur!” I advanced so close to the supposed culprit—who now stood erect—that I stretched out my hand to seize him; but, eluding my grasp, he sprang past me, and disappeared behind the bed. Then, indeed, I was sorely puzzled, for, on hastening to the spot, neither door nor traces of an opening were to be discovered, and all my feeling of nervous apprehension came back with renewed violence.

Meantime, the French gentleman and his wife, who occupied the double-bedded room, alarmed by my cries, made anxious inquiry from their side of the separating doors—“Pourquoi criez-vous, monsieur?” in the deepest bass, alternated with “Pourquoi criez-vous, monsieur?” in a trembling and timid treble.

“It was a dream,” said I, in my best French, somewhat re-assured by the sound of a human voice, and half-ashamed of myself. “It was but a dream, and I thought I saw a robber. Mille pardons.” And to the waiter, who came to my still inside-fastened door with a light, I said: “It was only a dream, an attack of indigestion; I ought not to have eaten supper.” But I kept his candle, and as I laid, encouraged by its fear-dispelling light, I asked myself the question, “Could it have been a ghost?” I felt quite certain that it was not the nightmare, for the horrors of that disagreeable visitant are dispelled by the slightest movement. It was not the nightmare: what then could it have been? and divers times I made answer to the self-asked question, “Surely it was a ghost.” And so I fell asleep.

Years have passed away since the event I have just related. My few days’ sojourn at the Mauritius come back to me at times like the recollection of a pleasant dream. The faces of the kind friends and acquaintances of that charming isle are but dimly pictured in my memory; many incidents have been totally forgotten; but one black face, and every circumstance connected with the brief interval of time during which my eyes rested upon it, are as vividly impressed upon my mind as if it had been seen but yesterday; and still I find myself at times repeating the old question, “Was it a ghost?”

G. G. A.