The Strand Magazine/Volume 4/Issue 23/A Palpitating Interview

Illustrated by Sidney Paget.

A Palpitating Interview.

By Mrs. E. Baumer Williams.

"Lincoln's Inn, May 5, 18—

M Y DEAR JACK.—Your letter of yesterday has completely staggered me. Of course you will rely on me for the 25th, although your extraordinary secretiveness about the affair fills me with the gloomiest forebodings. Oh! Jack, Jack! has the fascinating Kitty really succeeded in bowling you over at last? Her efforts on board the Wilmots' yacht would enable me to credit anything with regard to her powers of persuasion—but you, no I'll not believe it! You used to be blessed with the usual average of intelligence. I hereby chuck Miss Kitty overboard, neck and crop, and await your answer to this. And be so good as to remember that I am only human, and don't keep me in suspense. Who is 'she'? What is her name? Where did you meet her? And where, oh! where have all the matrimonial prejudices fled?

"If I am to be 'best man' on the 25th, it will never do for me to appear on the scene in such a condition of benighted ignorance upon current events; so I insist on full and detailed particulars by the next post, pending which I reserve my congratulations.—Yours most anxiously,

"Melton Winthrop.

"P.S.—If it turns out that it is Kitty Simmonds, after all, you can look up another best man, for I'll not assist at the ceremony in any capacity."

While converting this characteristic epistle into pipe-lights I pondered my reply. I was sorely tempted to keep up the mystery a little longer, but I finally rejected the idea. It would be a shame to Kitty Simmonds, whom I remember to have rather liked. I never could understand Winthrop's ill-nature about that poor girl. She certainly never made love to him, though she undoubtedly singled me out as an object for civility. To tell the truth, it had more than once crossed my mind that there might be a spice of jealousy at the bottom of it, for I should probably have forgotten her existence if he were not in the habit of constantly offering her up in his caustic way. The study of motive is a very curious one.

Well, but Kitty had nothing whatever to do with my plans for the 25th. So I, too, determined to "chuck her overboard," and decided to relate my plain, unvarnished tale to my old chum, determining that he should have no cause to grumble at paucity of detail. After all, he was too good a fellow to tease.

With my feet in a pair of comfortable slippers, a pipe in my mouth, and peace and goodwill in my heart, I poked my fire and settled down to transcribe a full and open confession on a sheet of foolscap which lay ready to hand.

"May 6, 18—.

"My dear Winthrop,—Your promise to see the last of me on the 25th is a shade grudging, perhaps, but I shall rely on you all the same.

"Why, you idiot, K. S. married young Lee Simms, whom she used to snub so unmercifully during that memorable cruise, about three months ago!

"I have known it for an age, but could not resist fooling you to the top of your bent, whenever you raved on the subject.

"Well, my news astonished you a little, eh? Read the following true and particular account of my proceedings; I am not afraid but that the conditional congratulations will follow.—Yours always,

"Jack C. Carlton."

I have a very old friend named Stelling, who has a private asylum for lunatics at Ashmead.

He is the most delightful, open-handed fellow in the world; everyone has a good word for him, and though many years my senior, he and I are capital friends.

His dinners are good; his dances—well, just what dances should be, plenty of pretty girls and waltzing men, plenty of room, a good floor, a good band, and a hearty welcome. His wife is just such another kind, genial soul as himself.

The house is divided into two parts: one reserved exclusively for patients, the other appropriated to the Doctor's private use. A fine rambling old place it is, too, and in the cosy, habitable part it is next to impossible to realize anything suggestive of constraint or restriction within such easy reach. Indeed, the fact that I am in an asylum never crosses my mind when I am under Stelling's hospitable roof.

One of these delightful dances was on the tapis a short time ago, and though on the same evening there arose the densest fog I think I have ever seen, I was determined not to lose the fun and started for Ashmead.

I soon began to wonder whether I was really in my senses in making the attempt, but once started I pushed on, persuading myself that it would be as difficult to retreat as to advance, and battling with difficulties about which you shall laugh another time.

The point at present is that I did finally arrive at my destination, but at so absurdly late an hour that I found the festivities well-nigh over, many of the guests having withdrawn, while others were in the act of saying good-bye.

"Shouts of derision greeted my entrance."

Clamorous shouts of derision greeted my entrance, and naturally inspired me to enlarge and improve upon my series of adventures since leaving my chambers, and straightway I did "a tale unfold," that carried, as it was intended it should, consternation before it.

Dismay was written on every face, and when the excitement had somewhat subsided, the Doctor's cheery voice was heard to announce that not a soul should leave his house that night to encounter such perils as I had described.

Of course, there were demurrings from the girls, over-ruled and set aside by brothers in charge, and after an endless and distracting buzzing of tongues, our host's suggestion of unlimited shake-downs was carried unanimously, and then began some fun. The Doctor was in his element. The servants, who one and all adore their master, were summoned to the council, and plans were proposed and discussed for the accommodation of the multitude.

Ceremony was cast to the winds, and the resources of the establishment freely canvassed. The discovery of various odd corners in which the men could be stowed away; the lavish distribution of mattresses for the ladies; the extension of sundry easy-chairs for the accommodation of long legs; all these gave scope for an amount of ingenuity which rendered that evening one to be remembered.

When all was arranged, and we began to feel, like the village blacksmith, that we had earned a night's repose, we were standing, a merry group, in the great hall preparatory to a general good-night.

Stelling beckoned me aside.

"Look here, Jack," he whispered, "you are not the fellow to be subject to the twatters. I shall have to put you up over there," pointing with his thumb over his shoulder to the lunatic half of the building. "I can't help it, and it has its advantages, too. You'll have more than a square inch to turn round in, and that's what I can't offer you on this side. You don't object?"

Well, I did object most emphatically, but I lacked courage to say so, and the faint smile of acquiescence which my features assumed was born rather of politeness than of bliss.

"Why, of course, Doctor, if you like. They can't get out, I suppose?"

"Get out, my dear boy! Lord, no,—that is, they don't get a chance. Thank my stars, it is an age since we had a night disturbance. It was Rathbone's fault, my head keeper, and the poor devil got his throat cut for a punishment. Nasty business, that—but I'll tell you all about it another time. Come now, good people, the tempus is fugiting, and everyone in the house is bound to be up and stirring at six in the morning. Off you go to bye-bye." And, amid much noise and laughing, the final farewells were said.

"I convulsively clutched at Stelling's shoulder."

There was no help for it then. As I followed my old friend along the corridor, I found myself repeating, in an idiotic, parrot-like way, "Rathbone," "throat cut," "nasty business," etc., until we reached the end of it. Stelling stopped here, and touching a spring in what I had always regarded as a blank wall, caused a sliding panel to glide one side, and admitted us to the unknown territory beyond. The panel closed again, and we found ourselves in the dark. "Wait," whispered Stelling, "till I strike a light." He need not have been alarmed; I had not the least intention of abandoning him in the darkness, and pushing on on an independent voyage of discovery. I waited, then, till a small electric lamp which he carried lighted up his kindly features, and then prepared obediently to follow wherever he led. As we passed an occasional doorway, hung with a heavy curtain, my guide stopped and whistled softly, when the sound was repeated from within, and we again continued our march. At least it was reassuring that someone besides ourselves was on the alert, and I began to pull myself together, and make headway against my absurd cowardice, when all at once, the sound of a ghastly and prolonged chuckle broke the stillness and threw me into a cold perspiration. I convulsively clutched at Stelling's shoulder, who quieted me with a polite "Don't be a fool, Jack!" and we stood motionless for at least five minutes; then we again moved on, and at last pulled up in a snug little apartment, lighted up with a cheerful fire, which threw a cosy flicker on the wall, and gave me a comfortable sense of well-being. After all, it was not so bad. I was by this time dead tired, and, sinking into a huge arm-chair, I kicked off my boots and began to feel at home. This was easy enough as long as Stelling would stay with me, but I dreaded the moment of separation which was at hand, and I chattered on industriously, jumping from one topic to another with feverish ingenuity in the effort to keep him at my side. At first it was all very well, but it soon became deplorably evident that Stelling wanted to go to bed. I felt sorry for him, but continued, notwithstanding, to plunge into one anecdote after another of rather doubtful veracity, charging madly at reminiscences which had their origin in my excited brain alone, and, even resorting to riddles, I plied the poor fellow with why and because until his brain became sodden, and undisguised snores took the place of polite yawns. The end came, however, and, as we at length nodded good-night, and I watched his burly form recede into the corridor beyond, I had hard work to refrain from following him to implore not to abandon me, and to impress upon him my willingness to accompany him to the ends of the earth, or of any other place he might select, rather than that I should lose sight of his cheery face.

I did ejaculate his name in a feeble voice after the door closed, and he heard me and looked in again.

"I don't see any gas, Doctor."

"Gas, eh? Why, you are a pretty chap to expect such a thing in this part of the house! We should all be burnt in our beds, or blown into next week; no, no, best in the dark. You've got matches? Yes, and a candle? All right! Good-night again," and this time he was really gone.

"A series of vicious poker-thrusts."

I listened until the last sound of his footsteps had died away, and then proceeded to make a survey of my surroundings. There was really nothing awe-inspiring in my new quarters. An inviting bed, with a gay silken eider-down stretched across its white coverlet, was the reverse of terrifying, but before testing its good points, I decided to make a hasty investigation around. On inspecting the match-box, to begin with, I experienced a slight shock; it contained exactly three specimens, and, laying them carefully side by side, like the corpses on the shining sands, within easy reach of my hand, I fervently trusted they were good of their kind. I opened a deep cupboard in the corner, and ejected an enormous dressing-gown which confronted me with outstretched arms, and made me feel a little uncomfortable. No resistance being offered to a series of vicious poker-thrusts which I bestowed under the bed, I manfully extinguished the candle (there was only about an inch and a half of it, and I thought it prudent to reserve it for possible emergencies), and got between the sheets.

Here I lay for half an hour or so, watching the antic shadows of the firelight on wall and ceiling, tossing and plunging round and round, and working myself up into a state of restlessness about as far removed from repose as can be imagined. The demon of unrest had got possession of me. In vain I thumped my pillow and turned from side to side; I was fairly on the qui vive for something to happen, and, after ten minutes' more fruitless attempts to sleep, I tumbled out of bed with a groan, wrapped myself in the thick dressing-gown which had startled me a short time before, and, raking together the dying fire into a comfortable blaze, I settled myself in the easy chair before it, and, with my feet on another, resigned myself to wakefulness.

On the table in front of me were a few books—odd volumes of Waverley I found they were—and, opening one listlessly, I began to read. In five minutes, I must record, with due apologies to dear old Sir Walter, that a delicious sense of drowsiness began to steal over me; in ten, the chaste Rebecca was pelting the Templar with ginger-bread nuts, while her wounded knight gobbled up a venison pasty as if he liked it.

Alas, portentous dream! I found myself suddenly wide awake again, this time with the appalling consciousness that I was ravenously hungry. On making this discovery, I sat bolt upright in sheer desperation. I knew what it meant well enough—that sleep was now really out of the question for me till my cravings were satisfied. I reflected that I had eaten nothing since midday, and that I had fully intended an attack on a noble sirloin which had attracted my attention on the dining-room sideboard soon after I had entered the house. In the confusion which followed my arrival, however, I had forgotten my supper; and, now that my mind had regained its normal condition of calm, the pangs of hunger were returning with renewed insistence.

My sufferings were now of so practical and matter-of-fact a nature that I could afford to laugh at my previous "ado about nothing"; and so utterly had my imaginary alarms fled that I found myself calmly contemplating a prowl below, in the hope that if the beef had been removed, I might at least lay hands on something eatable, which the tired servants had left to be cleared away in the morning.

Drawing my wrap closely about me, and arming myself with candle and matches (still, thank Heaven! in the plural), I opened my door, and peered cautiously around before sallying forth on my voyage of discovery. All was profoundly still, and I ventured out, finding my way easily enough to the sliding door, which, to my astonishment and delight, was not so difficult to open as I had fancied it might be. A little fumbling and prodding, and by good luck, I hit upon the spring at once, and passed through. All was now plain sailing, and I pushed on; but how cheerless and changed everything was! How feeble the light of my solitary candle compared with the glare which had previously brightened up the old hall, and shed its lustre on the crisp holly and evergreen decorations that now loomed sombre and dark from its corners.

There was something oppressive in the profound silence which renewed my uneasy qualms. Silence, did I say? What was that? I could have sworn to a distinct, though faint, rustling behind me—nay, my excited fancy created for me a stealthy footfall, as well as a smothered sigh. I came to a dead standstill, peering breathlessly around, till the fancy died away again. What folly! All was as still as death, and I could plainly hear my own heart thumping absurdly against my ribs. Once more my fears of I knew not what subsided, and, hurrying on again, I gained the deserted supper-room, there to behold my friend, the beef, in all his glory. I made for that beef without loss of time, and seizing the carving-knife which lay by its side, I looked round for a moment among the littered glass and china for a resting-place for the candle.

"I turned and faced her."

While doing so I chanced to raise my eyes to the long looking-glass behind the sideboard, and remained frozen with horror, gazing at the sight that there met my view. Merciful Heaven! what does it mean?

A woman stood there, clothed in a long, loose robe of crimson, her beautiful hair in the wildest confusion over her shoulders, and her bare feet flashing white against the red. But the face! It was exquisitely beautiful, but never had it been my lot to witness such a wild, frenzied expression on any countenance. Its startled, hunted look filled me with a terrible fascination, and I was literally incapable of removing my eyes. Hers, with an agonized horror in them impossible to describe, were fixed on my features, and, as she slowly advanced towards me, I gathered up the remnant of my scattered nerve, turned and faced her.

As I did so, a change of lightning swiftness passed over her whole demeanour. She paused; then, smiling slightly, advanced again until we were within a couple of feet of each other; her eyes fell, and she was calmness itself. But the bewildering transformation was shocking to me—it was enough that I had seen in the plate glass the more ghastly side of the picture, and her assumption of absolute indifference impressed me terribly.

For several moments we faced each other in silence, then my companion stepped deliberately forward, and laid an icy cold hand on mine, which was grasping a chair back. Its touch broke the spell, and brought me to a complete mastery over myself. I realized to the full that on my promptness and decision depended, it might be, the life of this helpless being, pity for whose unhappy face stirred my soul.

I took in mine the cold hand she had extended, and, while gently chafing it, considered my best plan of action.

I must, of course, try to convey her whence she came, and that without frightening her or raising an alarm; any undue excitement should be guarded against at any cost. The next instant I had to deplore my want of foresight. She must have been watching her opportunity, for, abruptly drawing her hand from mine, she darted behind me, and, before I had guessed her purpose, had possessed herself of the huge carving-knife, which I had a moment before placed on the table.

I felt she had scored one in the encounter, and, cursing my short-sightedness, I vowed that no other false move of mine should give her the advantage. I, too, would be on the alert, but I knew I must proceed with caution.

I closed the door and placed my back against it, while she employed herself in hugging the huge knife to her bosom, her large, penetrating grey eyes never once leaving my face.

I returned her gaze as calmly and composedly as I knew how, and assuming the quietest and most everyday tone at my command, I pointed to her bare feet and said, severely, "How very silly to wander about the house barefooted on such a night! You will most certainly take cold."

Beyond a slight start at the sound of my voice, she took no notice of my remark, so I tried again, and ventured gently to suggest she should return to her room.

This time she murmured a few words which I did not catch, then, after a pause, she spoke out clearly and distinctly:—

"Thank you; but I am not at all cold, and do not intend returning to bed yet. I mean to stay here for a short time."

"In that case," I rejoined politely, "let me offer you a chair, or, better still, this sofa. I, too, strangely enough, am feeling restless, and disinclined for sleep. If you will allow me, I will keep you company."

She made no objection, and after some slight hesitation placed herself upon the couch I indicated. As I covered up her feet with a woollen antimacassar, which I took from a neighbouring chair back, I heard a weird, terrible little laugh, which made me shudder from head to foot.

I dragged forward an easy chair, and took my place opposite her. She was trembling violently, whether from the effects of the cold or suppressed excitement could not determine; but she still clasped the knife with a feverish energy, and I, while turning over in my mind the best way to get hold of it without irritating her, continued to talk as indifferently as I could, although I had the conversation entirely to myself. Yet I could feel she was listening to me and following my words, while never for one instant relaxing her fixed gaze on my features.

As the moments sped on without fresh outbreak on her part, I leaned back in my chair, and tried to persuade myself that her expression was growing calmer and more tranquil. I glanced across the room at the candle: it was perceptibly smaller, and I shuddered at the thought that darkness might fall upon us with that ghastly weapon still between us. She was holding it in one hand now, and the gleaming blade was partly hidden by the laces of her dress, so I determined, if possible, to possess myself of her other hand. To my surprise, after some faint resistance, she relinquished it to me quietly enough, and it lay passively in mine, its soft quiver thrilling me from head to foot. Then I leaned forward again, remarking in a casual way that she must be tired of holding that heavy knife; if she would allow me, I would replace it on the table for her.

It was a false move. I saw in an instant that I had lost ground again; the old excitement was returning with renewed force, and she started back, clutching the weapon more eagerly than before.

"No, no!" she panted, wildly, "you shall not have it, I tell you; I want it myself."

"Nonsense," I said, lightly; "why not let me put it down for you?"

She clenched her hands and made a movement forward, and I nerved myself for the struggle. None came, however, to my intense relief, and, shrugging my shoulders, I subsided back into my chair and resigned myself to patience.

"Keep it, of course, if you choose; it makes no difference to me."

"Clutching the weapon more eagerly than before."

She gave a sigh of relief, and a swift glance in my face, and in a moment it was evident that her mood had changed. Placing her hand again on my arm, she seemed struggling to keep back her tears, and at length, with a pathetic sweetness in her voice, she spoke again.

"I think you look kind and good! I am sure you would not harm me!"

"Harm her!" Poor hunted creature! I whispered words of sympathy and reassurance, and succeeded once more in calming her. I now decided that any fresh attempt to force the knife from her would be worse than useless, and again we relapsed into silence. I was really beginning to feel quite worn out, and over and over again, while considering the embarrassing situation, was tempted to make a dash for the knife, and shout for help at the same moment; but I determined, if my patience would hold out, that any coercion would be best avoided. As to leaving her alone, that was undoubtedly out of the question. I was practically helpless, then, as long as she clasped to her bosom the murderous steel, which she might in an instant employ in a manner which I shuddered to contemplate.

Besides, a new idea had now seized me, which I hailed as a possible mitigation of the strain which was beginning to tell upon me. If she would but fall asleep! She was so still, so intensely still! Yet, though I tried to persuade myself to believe in such a piece of good luck, I had all the while a strong misgiving that she was very wide awake indeed, and that a close, though stealthy, scrutiny of me between her half-closed eyelids had never for one instant relaxed. I am quite unable to say how long this state of things endured, though I remembered noticing with thanksgiving that when the candle expired with a sickly gasp in the socket, some faint rays of coming dawn were finding their way into the room.

And so we remained facing each other in the terrible silence, until at length it became intolerable, and I spoke again.

"Look! Do you see the day is breaking? Now, what if you were to go back to bed, and try for an hour's sleep before sunrise? It happens so often that, when sleep is driven away early in the night, one can rest just before morning. Come," I continued, gently, "do return to your room to please me."

She shook her head, and I went on desperately. "It was our thoughtless, noisy merriment last night that roused you and disturbed you from your rest, I suppose. We were very selfish to forget all the trouble and suffering that were so near us."

The effect of this remark was electrical. She half started from the sofa, snatched her hand from mine, and gazed eagerly in my face.

"You mean you were at the dance?" she cried, wildly. "At the dance! Then you are—that is, you are not—"

"A patient?" I shouted, a light breaking suddenly upon me. "Not I, thank Heaven! And you?"

"'At the dance?' she cried, wildly."

But she was gone. Before you could say "Jack Robinson!" that girl was up two flights of stairs and out of sight, leaving me like one in a dream, gazing stupidly at the knife, which she had flung on the carpet at my feet. Then I slowly turned and made for my room.

During the remainder of that bewildering night much of the truth dawned upon me; but it was not until after explanation that learned and realized in its fullest extent the heroism of my beautiful companion. I was told that she was Dr. Stelling's ward, and that, though staying in the house, a severe headache had kept her to her room during the dance, and of the subsequent housing of so many of the guests she, of course, knew nothing. On awakening from the first heavy sleep into which she had fallen, she was startled by the sound of the clicking of the sliding panel—which I manipulated clumsily enough—and, cautiously opening her door, she caught sight of a strange man creeping stealthily past. She was perfectly familiar with all the inmates of the house—including the attendants—and, as I was quite unknown to her, she decided at once that I was probably a patient escaped from supervision, and determined to follow me at all costs and give the alarm. But it was not until she saw me seize the carving-knife that her apprehensions reached a climax; and it was at that moment that I first caught sight of her in the glass. Afterwards, half dead with fright, she remained by my side, having the strength of mind to sustain a two hours' tête-à-tête with one whom she believed to be a dangerous lunatic, in the hope that her presence might avert a catastrophe.

That she was Dr. Stelling's ward I learned from Mrs. Stelling, who, knitting in hand, was entertaining me with a cup of tea and small talk the next afternoon, when all the noisy guests had departed. I had remained in my room until late in the day, really feeling too seedy to put in an appearance earlier, and had just accepted a pressing invitation from the Stellings that I should remain with them for a few days, and be doctored up.

"You really look thoroughly out of sorts, Mr. Carlton," said my kind hostess, eyeing me sympathetically; "and now that all these gay you people have cleared off, I shall have to nurse you up before we allow you to leave us."

I assured the good lady that I should, in a very few hours, be as good as new again, and wondered how I should find out, as I was burning to do, whether my unknown acquaintance had also "cleared off" with the rest.

"Nobody is here now but Dulcie," continued Mrs. Stelling, placidly counting her stitches between every pause. "Dulcie? Oh, yes! of course you wouldn't know her. She is Dulcie Challis, my niece, and the Doctor's ward, and she sails in the Kangaroo on the 18th, to join her uncle and aunt in Jamaica."

I was afraid to be too inquisitive, and decided to wait as patiently as I could for the further development of my little romance, but I sounded my hostess cautiously as to the previous night—whether the visitors had enjoyed rest in their extempore shake-downs, etc., and could glean nothing that implied anything like the adventure in which I had so strangely shared. I therefore concluded that my fair friend had kept her counsel, as I religiously kept mine.

"Stelling introduced us."

When I entered the breakfast-room the next morning, my doubts and conjectures were dispelled. My heroine and Dulcie turned out to be, as I strongly suspected, one and the same. She was already seated at the table, and when Stelling introduced us, a crimson flush spread itself slowly over her face. She bowed and smiled, of course, but I noticed that she studiously avoided meeting my eye, and, pitying her embarrassment, I deliberately turned my back upon her, though I could not refrain from studying her, for the second time in my life, through the looking-glass.

She became pale now, and obviously ill at ease and constrained. The Doctor glanced curiously from one to the other, and rallied his ward on her absent-mindedness; and when, with manifest effort, she became bright and talkative, I watched my opportunity for insinuating myself into the conversation, which I daresay I did clumsily enough.

It was wonderful, however, to notice how soon all restraint died away. In half an hour we were capital friends, and the rest, I think, I need not tell you. The 18th came and went, and Dulcie did not sail in the Kangaroo.

Stelling always declares that he saw on this occasion, for the only time in his life, a genuine case of love at first sight. "You couldn't take your eyes off her from the first, old fellow! Don't tell me! I saw you plainly enough peeping at her in the mirror. As for her," he continues, confidentially, "as for her; I've known that girl all her life, and I tell you, sir, there was a look on her face when you entered the room that I have never seen there before."

Stelling is an observant, clever fellow, and I have no doubt whatever he is perfectly right.