It had been visible to Mrs. Brown from the first moment of her arrival on the ground floor that “something was the matter,” if we may be allowed to use such a phrase; and she felt all but convinced that this something had reference to her. She fancied that the people of the hotel were looking at her as she swallowed, or tried to swallow, her coffee. When her husband was paying the bill there was something disagreeable in the eye of the man who was taking the money. Her sufferings were very great, and no one sympathized with her. Her husband was quite at his ease, except that he was complaining of the cold. When she was anxious to get him out into the carriage, he still stood there leisurely, arranging shawl after shawl around his throat. “You can do that quite as well in an omnibus,” she had just said to him very crossly, when there appeared upon the scene through a side door that very night-porter whom she dreaded, with a soiled pocket-handkerchief in his hand.
Part Four of Christmas at Thompson Hall finds the Browns safely on their way home to England, but unfortunately accompanied by the man Mrs Brown brought misfortune down upon the evening before.
Read more in Why Frau Frohmann Raised Her Prices, and Other Stories by Anthony Trollope, which is available at Project Gutenberg.
Even before the sound of her own name met her ears Mrs. Brown knew it all. She understood the full horror of her position from that man’s hostile face, and from the little article which he held in his hand. If during the watches of the night she had had money in her pocket, if she had made a friend of this greedy fellow by well-timed liberality, all might have been so different! But she reflected that she had allowed him to go unfee’d after all his trouble, and she knew that he was her enemy. It was the handkerchief that she feared. She thought that she might have brazened out anything but that. No one had seen her enter or leave that strange man’s room. No one had seen her dip her hands in that jar. She had, no doubt, been found wandering about the house while the slumberer had been made to suffer so strangely, and there might have been suspicion, and perhaps accusation. But she would have been ready with frequent protestations to deny all charges made against her, and, though no one might have believed her, no one could have convicted her. Here, however, was evidence against which she would be unable to stand for a moment. At the first glance she acknowledged the potency of that damning morsel of linen.
During all the horrors of the night she had never given a thought to the handkerchief, and yet she ought to have known that the evidence it would bring against her was palpable and certain. Her name, “M. Brown,” was plainly written on the corner. What a fool she had been not to have thought of this! Had she but remembered the plain marking which she, as a careful, well-conducted British matron, had put upon all her clothes, she would at any hazard have recovered the article. Oh that she had waked the man, or bribed the porter, or even told her husband! But now she was, as it were, friendless, without support, without a word that she could say in her own defense, convicted of having committed this assault upon a strange man in his own bedroom, and then of having left him! The thing must be explained by the truth; but how to explain such truth, how to tell such story in a way to satisfy injured folk, and she with only barely time sufficient to catch the train! Then it occurred to her that they could have no legal right to stop her because the pocket-handkerchief had been found in a strange gentleman’s bedroom. “Yes, it is mine,” she said, turning to her husband, as the porter, with a loud voice, asked if she were not Madame Brown. “Take it, Charles, and come on.” Mr. Brown naturally stood still in astonishment. He did put out his hand, but the porter would not allow the evidence to pass so readily out of his custody.
“What does it all mean?” asked Mr. Brown.
“A gentleman has been—eh—eh—. Something has been done to a gentleman in his bedroom,” said the clerk.
“Something done to a gentleman!” repeated Mr. Brown.
“Something very bad indeed,” said the porter. “Look here,” and he showed the condition of the handkerchief.
“Charles, we shall lose the train,” said the affrighted wife.
“What the mischief does it all mean?” demanded the husband.
“Did Madame go into the gentleman’s room?” asked the clerk. Then there was an awful silence, and all eyes were fixed upon the lady.
“What does it all mean?” demanded the husband. “Did you go into anybody’s room?”
“I did,” said Mrs. Brown with much dignity, looking round upon her enemies as a stag at bay will look upon the hounds which are attacking him. “Give me the handkerchief.” But the night-porter quickly put it behind his back. “Charles, we cannot allow ourselves to be delayed. You shall write a letter to the keeper of the hotel, explaining it all.” Then she essayed to swim out, through the front door, into the courtyard in which the vehicle was waiting for them. But three or four men and women interposed themselves, and even her husband did not seem quite ready to continue his journey. “To-night is Christmas Eve,” said Mrs. Brown, “and we shall not be at Thompson Hall! Think of my sister!”
“Why did you go into the man’s bedroom, my dear?” whispered Mr. Brown in English.
But the porter heard the whisper, and understood the language; the porter who had not been “tipped.” “Ye’es;—vy?” asked the porter.
“It was a mistake, Charles; there is not a moment to lose. I can explain it all to you in the carriage.” Then the clerk suggested that Madame had better postpone her journey a little. The gentleman upstairs had certainly been very badly treated, and had demanded to know why so great an outrage had been perpetrated. The clerk said that he did not wish to send for the police—here Mrs. Brown gasped terribly and threw herself on her husband’s shoulder—but he did not think he could allow the party to go till the gentleman upstairs had received some satisfaction. It had now become clearly impossible that the journey could be made by the early train. Even Mrs. Brown gave it up herself, and demanded of her husband that she should be taken back to her own bedroom.
“But what is to be said to the gentleman?” asked the porter.
Of course it was impossible that Mrs. Brown should be made to tell her story there in the presence of them all. The clerk, when he found he had succeeded in preventing her from leaving the house, was satisfied with a promise from Mr. Brown that he would inquire from his wife what were these mysterious circumstances, and would then come down to the office and give some explanation. If it were necessary, he would see the strange gentleman, whom he now ascertained to be a certain Mr. Jones returning from the east of Europe. He learned also that this Mr. Jones had been most anxious to travel by that very morning train which he and his wife had intended to use, that Mr. Jones had been most particular in giving his orders accordingly, but that at the last moment he had declared himself to be unable even to dress himself, because of the injury which had been done him during the night. When Mr. Brown heard this from the clerk just before he was allowed to take his wife upstairs, while she was sitting on a sofa in a corner with her face hidden, a look of awful gloom came over his own countenance. What could it be that his wife had done to the man of so terrible a nature? “You had better come up with me,” he said to her with marital severity, and the poor cowed woman went with him tamely as might have done some patient Grizel. Not a word was spoken till they were in the room and the door was locked. “Now,” said he, “what does it all mean?”
It was not till nearly two hours had passed that Mr. Brown came down the stairs very slowly, turning it all over in his mind. He had now gradually heard the absolute and exact truth, and had very gradually learned to believe it. It was first necessary that he should understand that his wife had told him many fibs during the night; but as she constantly alleged to him when he complained of her conduct in this respect, they had all been told on his behalf. Had she not struggled to get the mustard for his comfort, and when she had secured the prize had she not hurried to put it on, as she had fondly thought, his throat? And though she had fibbed to him afterwards, had she not done so in order that he might not be troubled? “You are not angry with me because I was in that man’s room?” she asked, looking full into his eyes, but not quite without a sob. He paused a moment and then declared, with something of a true husband’s confidence in his tone, that he was not in the least angry with her on that account. Then she kissed him, and bade him remember that after all no one could really injure them. “What harm has been done, Charles? The gentleman won’t die because he has had a mustard plaster on his throat. The worst is about Uncle John and dear Jane. They do think so much of Christmas Eve at Thompson Hall!”
Mr. Brown, when he again found himself in the clerk’s office, requested that his card might be taken up to Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones had sent down his own card, which was handed to Mr. Brown: “Mr. Barnaby Jones.” “And how was it all, sir?” asked the clerk, in a whisper—a whisper which had at the same time something of authoritative demand and something also of submissive respect. The clerk of course was anxious to know the mystery. It is hardly too much to say that everyone in that vast hotel was by this time anxious to have the mystery unravelled. But Mr. Brown would tell nothing to anyone. “It is merely a matter to be explained between me and Mr. Jones,” he said. The card was taken upstairs, and after awhile he was ushered into Mr. Jones’ room. It was, of course, that very 353 with which the reader is already acquainted. There was a fire burning, and the remains of Mr. Jones’ breakfast were on the table. He was sitting in his dressing-gown and slippers, with his shirt open in the front, and a silk handkerchief very loosely covering his throat. Mr. Brown, as he entered the room, of course looked with considerable anxiety at the gentleman of whose condition he had heard so sad an account; but he could only observe some considerable stiffness of movement and demeanor as Mr. Jones turned his head round to greet him.
“This has been a very disagreeable accident, Mr. Jones,” said the husband of the lady.
“Accident! I don’t know how it could have been an accident. It has been a most—most—most—a most monstrous, er,—er, I must say, interference with a gentleman’s privacy, and personal comfort.”
“Quite so, Mr. Jones, but, on the part of the lady, who is my wife—”
“So I understand. I myself am about to become a married man, and I can understand what your feelings must be. I wish to say as little as possible to harrow them.” Here Mr. Brown bowed. “But, there’s the fact. She did do it.”
“She thought it was—me!”
“I give you my word as a gentleman, Mr. Jones. When she was putting that mess upon you she thought it was me! She did, indeed.”
Mr. Jones looked at his new acquaintance and shook his head. He did not think it possible that any woman would make such a mistake as that.
“I had a very bad sore throat,” continued Mr. Brown, “and indeed you may perceive it still,” in saying this, he perhaps aggravated a little the sign of his distemper, “and I asked Mrs. Brown to go down and get one, just what she put on you.”
“I wish you’d had it,” said Mr. Jones, putting his hand up to his neck.
“I wish I had, for your sake as well as mine, and for hers, poor woman. I don’t know when she will get over the shock.”
“I don’t know when I shall. And it has stopped me on my journey. I was to have been to-night, this very night, this Christmas Eve, with the young lady I am engaged to marry. Of course I couldn’t travel. The extent of the injury done nobody can imagine at present.”
“It has been just as bad to me, sir. We were to have been with our family this Christmas Eve. There were particular reasons, most particular. We were only hindered from going by hearing of your condition.”
“Why did she come into my room at all? I can’t understand that. A lady always knows her own room at an hotel.”
“353—that’s yours; 333—that’s ours. Don’t you see how easy it was? She had lost her way, and she was a little afraid lest the thing should fall down.”
“I wish it had, with all my heart.”
“That’s how it was. Now I’m sure, Mr. Jones, you’ll take a lady’s apology. It was a most unfortunate mistake, most unfortunate; but what more can be said?”
Mr. Jones gave himself up to reflection for a few moments before he replied to this. He supposed that he was bound to believe the story as far as it went. At any rate, he did not know how he could say that he did not believe it. It seemed to him to be almost incredible, especially incredible in regard to that personal mistake, for, except that they both had long beards and brown beards, Mr. Jones thought that there was no point of resemblance between himself and Mr. Brown. But still, even that, he felt, must be accepted. But then why had he been left, deserted, to undergo all those torments? “She found out her mistake at last, I suppose?”
“Why didn’t she wake a fellow and take it off again?”
“She can’t have cared very much for a man’s comfort when she went away and left him like that.”
“Ah! there was the difficulty, Mr. Jones.”
“Difficulty! Who was it that had done it? To come to me, in my bedroom, in the middle of the night, and put that thing on me, and then leave it there and say nothing about it! It seems to me deuced like a practical joke.”
“No, Mr. Jones!”
“That’s the way I look at it,” said Mr. Jones, plucking up his courage.
“There isn’t a woman in all England, or in all France, less likely to do such a thing than my wife. She’s as steady as a rock, Mr. Jones, and would no more go into another gentleman’s bedroom in joke than—Oh dear no! You’re going to be a married man yourself.”
“Unless all this makes a difference,” said Mr. Jones, almost in tears. “I had sworn that I would be with her this Christmas Eve.”
“Oh, Mr. Jones, I cannot believe that will interfere with your happiness. How could you think that your wife, as is to be, would do such a thing as that in joke?”
“She wouldn’t do it at all; joke or anyway.”
“How can you tell what accident might happen to anyone?”
“She’d have wakened the man then afterwards. I’m sure she would. She would never have left him to suffer in that way. Her heart is too soft. Why didn’t she send you to wake me, and explain it all? That’s what my Jane would have done; and I should have gone and wakened him. But the whole thing is impossible,” he said, shaking his head as he remembered that he and his Jane were not in a condition as yet to undergo any such mutual trouble. At last Mr. Jones was brought to acknowledge that nothing more could be done. The lady had sent her apology, and told her story, and he must bear the trouble and inconvenience to which she had subjected him. He still, however, had his own opinion about her conduct generally, and could not be brought to give any sign of amity. He simply bowed when Mr. Brown was hoping to induce him to shake hands, and sent no word of pardon to the great offender.
The matter, however, was so far concluded that there was no further question of police interference, nor any doubt but that the lady with her husband was to be allowed to leave Paris by the night train. The nature of the accident probably became known to all. Mr. Brown was interrogated by many, and though he professed to declare that he would answer no question, nevertheless he found it better to tell the clerk something of the truth than to allow the matter to be shrouded in mystery. It is to be feared that Mr. Jones, who did not once show himself through the day, but who employed the hours in endeavoring to assuage the injury done him, still lived in the conviction that the lady had played a practical joke on him. But the subject of such a joke never talks about it, and Mr. Jones could not be induced to speak even by the friendly adherence of the night-porter.
Mrs. Brown also clung to the seclusion of her own bedroom, never once stirring from it till the time came in which she was to be taken down to the omnibus. Upstairs she ate her meals, and upstairs she passed her time in packing and unpacking, and in requesting that telegrams might be sent repeatedly to Thompson Hall. In the course of the day two such telegrams were sent, in the latter of which the Thompson family were assured that the Browns would arrive, probably in time for breakfast on Christmas Day, certainly in time for church. She asked more than once tenderly after Mr. Jones’ welfare, but could obtain no information. “He was very cross, and that’s all I know about it,” said Mr. Brown. Then she made a remark as to the gentleman’s Christian name, which appeared on the card as “Barnaby.” “My sister’s husband’s name will be Burnaby,” she said. “And this man’s Christian name is Barnaby; that’s all the difference,” said her husband, with ill-timed jocularity.
We all know how people under a cloud are apt to fail in asserting their personal dignity. On the former day a separate vehicle had been ordered by Mr. Brown to take himself and his wife to the station, but now, after his misfortunes, he contented himself with such provision as the people at the hotel might make for him. At the appointed hour he brought his wife down, thickly veiled. There were many strangers as she passed through the hall, ready to look at the lady who had done that wonderful thing in the dead of night, but none could see a feature of her face as she stepped across the hall, and was hurried into the omnibus. And there were many eyes also on Mr. Jones, who followed very quickly, for he also, in spite of his sufferings, was leaving Paris on the evening in order that he might be with his English friends on Christmas Day. He, as he went through the crowd, assumed an air of great dignity, to which, perhaps, something was added by his endeavors, as he walked, to save his poor throat from irritation. He, too, got into the same omnibus, stumbling over the feet of his enemy in the dark. At the station they got their tickets, one close after the other, and then were brought into each other’s presence in the waiting-room. I think it must be acknowledged that here Mr. Jones was conscious, not only of her presence, but of her consciousness of his presence, and that he assumed an attitude, as though he should have said, “Now do you think it possible for me to believe that you mistook me for your husband?” She was perfectly quiet, but sat through that quarter of an hour with her face continually veiled. Mr. Brown made some little overture of conversation to Mr. Jones, but Mr. Jones, though he did mutter some reply, showed plainly enough that he had no desire for further intercourse. Then came the accustomed stampede, the awful rush, the internecine struggle in which seats had to be found. Seats, I fancy, are regularly found, even by the most tardy, but it always appears that every British father and every British husband is actuated at these stormy moments by a conviction that unless he proves himself a very Hercules he and his daughters and his wife will be left desolate in Paris. Mr. Brown was quite Herculean, carrying two bags and a hat-box in his own hands, besides the cloaks, the coats, the rugs, the sticks, and the umbrellas. But when he had got himself and his wife well seated, with their faces to the engine, with a corner seat for her,—there was Mr. Jones immediately opposite to her. Mr. Jones, as soon as he perceived the inconvenience of his position, made a scramble for another place, but he was too late. In that contiguity the journey as far as Calais had to be made. She, poor woman, never once took up her veil. There he sat, without closing an eye, stiff as a ramrod, sometimes showing by little uneasy gestures that the trouble at his neck was still there, but never speaking a word, and hardly moving a limb.
Crossing from Calais to Dover the lady was, of course, separated from her victim. The passage was very bad, and she more than once reminded her husband how well it would have been with them now had they pursued their journey as she had intended, as though they had been detained in Paris by his fault! Mr. Jones, as he laid himself down on his back, gave himself up to wondering whether any man before him had ever been made subject to such absolute injustice. Now and again he put his hand up to his own beard, and began to doubt whether it could have been moved, as it must have been moved, without waking him. What if chloroform had been used? Many such suspicions crossed his mind during the misery of that passage.
They were again together in the same railway carriage from Dover to London. They had now got used to the close neighborhood, and knew how to endure each the presence of the other. But as yet Mr. Jones had never seen the lady’s face. He longed to know what were the features of the woman who had been so blind—if indeed that story were true. Or if it were not true, of what like was the woman who would dare in the middle of the night to play such a trick as that? But still she kept her veil close over her face.
From Cannon Street the Browns took their departure in a cab for the Liverpool Street Station, whence they would be conveyed by the Eastern Counties Railway to Stratford. Now at any rate their troubles were over. They would be in ample time, not only for Christmas Day church, but for Christmas Day breakfast. “It will be just the same as getting in there last night,” said Mr. Brown, as he walked across the platform to place his wife in the carriage for Stratford. She entered it the first, and as she did so there she saw Mr. Jones seated in the corner! Hitherto she had borne his presence well, but now she could not restrain herself from a little start and a little scream. He bowed his head very slightly, as though acknowledging the compliment, and then down she dropped her veil. When they arrived at Stratford, the journey being over in a quarter of an hour, Jones was out of the carriage even before the Browns.
“There is Uncle John’s carriage,” said Mrs. Brown, thinking that now, at any rate, she would be able to free herself from the presence of this terrible stranger. No doubt he was a handsome man to look at, but on no face so sternly hostile had she ever before fixed her eyes. She did not, perhaps, reflect that the owner of no other face had ever been so deeply injured by herself.