But her husband was not sleeping. He was not even in bed, as she had left him. She found him sitting there before the fire-place, on which one half-burned log still retained a spark of what had once pretended to be a fire. Nothing more wretched than his appearance could be imagined. There was a single lighted candle on the table, on which he was leaning with his two elbows, while his head rested between his hands. He had on a dressing-gown over his night-shirt, but otherwise was not clothed. He shivered audibly, or rather shook himself with the cold, and made the table to chatter as she entered the room. Then he groaned, and let his head fall from his hands on to the table. It occurred to her at the moment as she recognized the tone of his querulous voice, and as she saw the form of his neck, that she must have been deaf and blind when she had mistaken that stalwart stranger for her husband. “Oh, my dear,” she said, “why are you not in bed?” He answered nothing in words, but only groaned again. “Why did you get up? I left you warm and comfortable.”
Mrs Brown’s fibs proliferate as she explains to her husband where she has been all night in this, Chapter Three, of Anthony Trollope’s Christmas at Thompson Hall.
Read the rest and more Trollope in Why Frau Frohmann Raised Her Prices, and Other Stories at Project Gutenberg
“Where have you been all night?” he half whispered, half croaked, with an agonizing effort.
“I have been looking for the mustard.”
“Have been looking all night and haven’t found it? Where have you been? ”
She refused to speak a word to him till she had got him into bed, and then she told her story! But, alas, that which she told was not the true story! As she was persuading him to go back to his rest, and while she arranged the clothes again around him, she with difficulty made up her mind as to what she would do and what she would say. Living or dying he must be made to start for Thompson Hall at half-past five on the next morning. It was no longer a question of the amenities of Christmas, no longer a mere desire to satisfy the family ambition of her own people, no longer an anxiety to see her new brother-in-law. She was conscious that there was in that house one whom she had deeply injured, and from whose vengeance, even from whose aspect, she must fly. How could she endure to see that face which she was so well sure that she would recognize, or to hear the slightest sound of that voice which would be quite familiar to her ears, though it had never spoken a word in her hearing? She must certainly fly on the wings of the earliest train which would carry her towards the old house; but in order that she might do so she must propitiate her husband.
So she told her story. She had gone forth, as he had bade her, in search of the mustard, and then had suddenly lost her way. Up and down the house she had wandered, perhaps nearly a dozen times. “Had she met no one?” he asked in that raspy, husky whisper. “Surely there must have been some one about the hotel! Nor was it possible that she could have been roaming about all those hours.” “Only one hour, my dear,” she said. Then there was a question about the duration of time, in which both of them waxed angry, and as she became angry her husband waxed stronger, and as he became violent beneath the clothes the comfortable idea returned to her that he was not perhaps so ill as he would seem to be. She found herself driven to tell him something about the porter, having to account for that lapse of time by explaining how she had driven the poor man to search for the handkerchief which she had never lost.
“Why did you not tell him you wanted the mustard?”
“Why not? There is nothing to be ashamed of in wanting mustard.”
“At one o’clock in the morning! I couldn’t do it. To tell you the truth, he wasn’t very civil, and I thought that he was, perhaps a little tipsy. Now, my dear, do go to sleep.”
“Why didn’t you get the mustard?”
“There was none there, nowhere at all about the room. I went down again and searched everywhere. That’s what took me so long. They always lock up those kind of things at these French hotels. They are too close-fisted to leave anything out. When you first spoke of it I knew that it would be gone when I got there. Now, my dear, do go to sleep, because we positively must start in the morning.”
“That is impossible,” said he, jumping up in bed.
“We must go, my dear. I say that we must go. After all that has passed I wouldn’t not be with Uncle John and my cousin Robert to-morrow evening for more, more, more than I would venture to say.”
“Bother!” he exclaimed.
“It’s all very well for you to say that, Charles, but you don’t know. I say that we must go to-morrow, and we will.”
“I do believe you want to kill me, Mary.”
“That is very cruel, Charles, and most false, and most unjust. As for making you ill, nothing could be so bad for you as this wretched place, where nobody can get warm either day or night. If anything will cure your throat for you at once it will be the sea air. And only think how much more comfortable they can make you at Thompson Hall than anywhere in this country. I have so set my heart upon it, Charles, that I will do it. If we are not there to-morrow night Uncle John won’t consider us as belonging to the family.”
“I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Jane told me so in her letter. I wouldn’t let you know before because I thought it so unjust. But that has been the reason why I’ve been so earnest about it all through.”
It was a thousand pities that so good a woman should have been driven by the sad stress of circumstances to tell so many fibs. One after another she was compelled to invent them, that there might be a way open to her of escaping the horrors of a prolonged sojourn in that hotel. At length, after much grumbling, he became silent, and she trusted that he was sleeping. He had not as yet said that he would start at the required hour in the morning, but she was perfectly determined in her own mind that he should be made to do so. As he lay there motionless, and as she wandered about the room pretending to pack her things, she more than once almost resolved that she would tell him everything. Surely then he would be ready to make any effort. But there came upon her an idea that he might perhaps fail to see all the circumstances, and that, so failing, he would insist on remaining that he might tender some apology to the injured gentleman. An apology might have been very well had she not left him there in his misery—but what apology would be possible now? She would have to see him and speak to him, and everyone in the hotel would know every detail of the story. Everyone in France would know that it was she who had gone to the strange man’s bedside, and put the mustard plaster on the strange man’s throat in the dead of night! She could not tell the story even to her husband, lest even her husband should betray her.
Her own sufferings at the present moment were not light. In her perturbation of mind she had foolishly resolved that she would not herself go to bed. The tragedy of the night had seemed to her too deep for personal comfort. And then how would it be were she to sleep, and have no one to call her? It was imperative that she should have all her powers ready for thoroughly arousing him. It occurred to her that the servant of the hotel would certainly run her too short of time. She had to work for herself and for him too, and therefore she would not sleep. But she was very cold, and she put on first a shawl over her dressing-gown and then a cloak. She could not consume all the remaining hours of the night in packing one bag and one portmanteau, so that at last she sat down on the narrow red cotton velvet sofa, and, looking at her watch, perceived that as yet it was not much past two o’clock. How was she to get through those other three long, tedious, chilly hours?
Then there came a voice from the bed. “Ain’t you coming?”
“I hoped you were asleep, my dear.”
“I haven’t been asleep at all. You’d better come, if you don’t mean to make yourself as ill as I am.”
“You are not so very bad, are you, darling?”
“I don’t know what you call bad. I never felt my throat so choked in my life before!”
Still as she listened she thought that she remembered his throat to have been more choked. If the husband of her bosom could play with her feelings and deceive her on such an occasion as this, then, then, then she thought that she would rather not have any husband of her bosom at all. But she did creep into bed, and lay down beside him without saying another word.
Of course she slept, but her sleep was not the sleep of the blest. At every striking of the clock in the quadrangle she would start up in alarm, fearing that she had let the time go by. Though the night was so short it was very long to her. But he slept like an infant. She could hear from his breathing that he was not quite so well as she could wish him to be, but still he was resting in beautiful tranquility. Not once did he move when she started up, as she did so frequently. Orders had been given and repeated over and over again that they should be called at five. The man in the office had almost been angry as he assured Mrs. Brown for the fourth time that Monsieur and Madame would most assuredly be wakened at the appointed time. But still she would trust to no one, and was up and about the room before the clock had struck half-past four.
In her heart of hearts she was very tender towards her husband. Now, in order that he might feel a gleam of warmth while he was dressing himself, she collected together the fragments of half-burned wood, and endeavored to make a little fire. Then she took out from her bag a small pot, and a patent lamp, and some chocolate, and prepared for him a warm drink, so that he might have it instantly as he was awakened. She would do anything for him in the way of ministering to his comfort, only he must go! Yes, he certainly must go!
And then she wondered how that strange man was bearing himself at the present moment. She would fain have ministered to him too had it been possible; but ah!—it was so impossible! Probably before this he would have been aroused from his troubled slumbers. But then—how aroused? At what time in the night would the burning heat upon his chest have awakened him to a sense of torture which must have been so altogether incomprehensible to him? Her strong imagination showed to her a clear picture of the scene, clear, though it must have been done in the dark. How he must have tossed and hurled himself under the clothes; how those strong knees must have worked themselves up and down before the potent god of sleep would allow him to return to perfect consciousness; how his fingers, restrained by no reason, would have trampled over his feverish throat, scattering everywhere that unhappy poultice! Then when he should have sat up wide awake, but still in the dark—with her mind’s eye she saw it all—feeling that some fire as from the infernal regions had fallen upon him, but whence he would know not, how fiercely wild would be the working of his spirit! Ah, now she knew, now she felt, now she acknowledged how bound she had been to awaken him at the moment, whatever might have been the personal inconvenience to herself! In such a position what would he do—or rather what had he done? She could follow much of it in her own thoughts; how he would scramble madly from his bed, and, with one hand still on his throat, would snatch hurriedly at the matches with the other. How the light would come, and how then he would rush to the mirror. Ah, what a sight he would behold! She could see it all to the last widespread daub.
But she could not see, she could not tell herself, what in such a position a man would do; at any rate, not what that man would do. Her husband, she thought, would tell his wife, and then the two of them, between them, would—put up with it. There are misfortunes which, if they be published, are simply aggravated by ridicule. But she remembered the features of the stranger as she had seen them at that instant in which she had dropped his beard, and she thought that there was a ferocity in them, a certain tenacity of self-importance, which would not permit their owner to endure such treatment in silence. Would he not storm and rage, and ring the bell, and call all Paris to witness his revenge?
But the storming and the raging had not reached her yet, and now it wanted but a quarter to five. In three-quarters of an hour they would be in that demi-omnibus which they had ordered for themselves, and in half an hour after that they would be flying towards Thompson Hall. Then she allowed herself to think of the coming comforts, of those comforts so sweet, if only they would come! That very day now present to her was the 24th December, and on that very evening she would be sitting in Christmas joy among all her uncles and cousins, holding her new brother-in-law affectionately by the hand. Oh, what a change from Pandemonium to Paradise; from that wretched room, from that miserable house in which there was such ample cause for fear, to all the domestic Christmas bliss of the home of the Thompsons! She resolved that she would not, at any rate, be deterred by any light opposition on the part of her husband. “It wants just a quarter to five,” she said, putting her hand steadily upon his shoulder, “and I’ll get a cup of chocolate for you, so that you may get up comfortably.”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” he said, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands. “It will be so much better to go over by the mail train to-night. We should be in time for Christmas just the same.”
“That will not do at all,” she answered, energetically. “Come, Charles, after all the trouble do not disappoint me.”
“It is such a horrid grind.”
“Think what I have gone through, what I have done for you! In twelve hours we shall be there, among them all. You won’t be so little like a man as not to go on now.” He threw himself back upon the bed, and tried to readjust the clothes round his neck. “No, Charles, no,” she continued; “not if I know it. Take your chocolate and get up. There is not a moment to be lost.” With that she laid her hand upon his shoulder, and made him clearly understand that he would not be allowed to take further rest in that bed.
Grumbling, sulky, coughing continually, and declaring that life under such circumstances was not worth having, he did at last get up and dress himself. When once she knew that he was obeying her she became again tender to him, and certainly took much more than her own share of the trouble of the proceedings. Long before the time was up she was ready, and the porter had been summoned to take the luggage downstairs. When the man came she was rejoiced to see that it was not he whom she had met among the passages during her nocturnal rambles. He shouldered the box, and told them that they would find coffee and bread and butter in the small salle-à-manger below.
“I told you that it would be so, when you would boil that stuff,” said the ungrateful man, who had nevertheless swallowed the hot chocolate when it was given to him.
They followed their luggage down into the hall; but as she went, at every step, the lady looked around her. She dreaded the sight of that porter of the night; she feared lest some potential authority of the hotel should come to her and ask her some horrid question; but of all her fears her greatest fear was that there should arise before her an apparition of that face which she had seen recumbent on its pillow.
As they passed the door of the great salon, Mr. Brown looked in. “Why, there it is still!” said he.
“What?” said she, trembling in every limb.
“They have put it in there since,” she exclaimed energetically, in her despair. “But never mind. The omnibus is here. Come away.” And she absolutely took him by the arm.
But at that moment a door behind them opened, and Mrs. Brown heard herself called by her name. And there was the night-porter—with a handkerchief in his hand. But the further doings of that morning must be told in a further chapter.