A Mad Christmas
A MAD CHRISTMAS.
By E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM.
Illustrated by A. Forestier.
CERTAINLY if there is one time more than another when a bachelor commences to doubt whether his state of single blessedness is the most desirable form of existence, it is at Christmas-time. The joys of the season are essentially domestic joys; and everyone is either looking forward to convivial meetings with a circle of relations and friends, or a happy reunion within his own family. At such a time a middle-aged bachelor with no relations feels rather out of it.
Now, although I must plead guilty to many years of bachelorhood, I never was one of the misanthropical type. I was single (observe the past tense) not from principle, but merely from force of circumstances; and I was never addicted to shutting myself up with my books and a cat and growling cynical remarks at the pleasure-seeking world. On the contrary, I am of a somewhat jovial disposition, and was always fond of society. Christmas-time I liked to spend at a jolly country house, and could turn my hand to charades, dancing, romping with the villagers or children, conjuring, and many other accomplishments. In fact, I may say, with due modesty, that I once heard myself described by a country hostess as an "extremely useful sort of man."
The idea of spending Christmas in my solitary rooms, with only my landlady and her domestic to talk to, was a contingency which I had never contemplated for a moment; but last year I was very nearly brought face to face with it. I generally had two or three invitations, at least, to select from, and chose the one where I should be likely to meet the most interesting set of people; but on this occasion my usual invitations did not arrive. The Harwoods, with whom I bad spent the Christmas before, had lost a child and were in mourning; the Houldens were wintering at Nice (Mrs. Houlden was delicate); and at Houghton Grange both the girls were married, and the Christmas house-parties were things of the past. These were my stock invitations; and as I recollected others amongst my circle of acquaintances to whom something or other had happened since last year, it slowly dawned upon me that if I desired to avoid a Christmas in London, I had better make arrangements to remove myself either to a Northern hydropathic establishment which I had occasionally honoured by my presence, or to a Brighton hotel, where I was sure of falling in with some pleasant company. Just as I had arrived at this melancholy decision, however, a letter came which afforded me the greatest satisfaction. It was an invitation to spend a week or two with my old friend, Fred Hallaton, at his place in Leicestershire; and with the vivid recollection before me of a pleasant Christmas spent at Gaulby Hall some three years ago, I lost no time in penning a cordial assent to the welcome invitation. A few days later beheld me, fol- lowed by a porter carrying my various impediments, on the platform of St. Pancras, prepared to take my journey down to Leicester by the 8.30 Manchester and Liverpool express. The Pullman was crowded with a pack of noisy schoolboys, so I eschewed it and selected an empty first class carriage. I took possession of my favourite corner seat, with my back to the engine, and wrapping my rug round my knees and unfolding the Times, glided away from the city of smoke in a remarkably good humour, partly inspired, no doubt, by a capital lunch, and partly by pleasurable anticipation of my forthcoming visit.
Fred met me at Leicester station, and I saw with regret that he was looking pale and ill and much thinner than when I had seen him last. He seemed pleased to see me, however, and greeted me warmly.
During our drive to Gaulby I hazarded a few remarks, with a view to ascertaining what sort of a party there was collected at the Hall, but I got nothing definite out of him. He was quite unlike his old self, and I came to the conclusion that he must be ill. As we drove up the avenue I leaned out of the window to gaze at the fine old mansion, and it struck me at once as looking cold and uninviting, while the grounds were certainly very much neglected. Something seemed wrong all round, and I began to feel almost sorry I had come. We overtook Mrs. Hallaton at the Hall door, just returned from a walk. She was as gracious and as pleasant as she had ever been to me; but I fancied that I could detect in her manner and appearance something of the ill-being which seemed to exist around her.
We all three entered together, and the moment we passed through the door I felt convinced that my expectations of a jolly Christmas party were doomed to disappointment. There were no decorations about, only one doleful-looking servant, and apparently nothing stirring. I felt sure something was wrong, but at any rate I consoled myself with the reflection that I had lost little by coming, as it had been a choice between this and an hotel. But, all the same, I did not feel particularly cheerful as I followed the doleful-looking servant up stairs, along wide corridors, across passages, up stairs again, and then down a long corridor, until at last I reached my room in the west wing.
My surmises were correct. When I descended, after a prolonged and careful toilet, my host was lounging about in a shooting-jacket, and he and his wife were the only occupants of the room. I was the only guest.
"I've something very serious to say to you, Neillson," he said slowly (Neillson is my name). "I'm going to make a confidant of you, if I may, old man."
I bowed my head and listened.
"You haven't noticed anything particular about my wife, I don't suppose, have you?" he asked, with a searching glance.
I admitted that I had thought her strangely silent and apparently having some anxiety weighing on her mind.
He laughed—a short, uncertain laugh—and leaned over to me confidentially.
"I rely upon your discretion, you know, Neillson. I wouldn't have it known for the world—but my wife is mad."
"Mad?" I put down the claret jug and stared at him incredulously.
"Yes, mad!" he repeated impatiently. "It was the sun in India last year that did the mischief. She would expose herself to it. The doctor whom I have consulted advised me to send her to a private asylum, but I haven't the heart to do it. She's perfectly harmless, you know; but, of course, it's an awful trial to me."
I stammered out an expression of sympathy. To tell the truth, I scarcely knew what to say. I was bewildered at this painful explanation of the gloom which reigned over the house. Presently Fred closed his eyes and left me to digest this strange and unwelcome piece of news. I am naturally somewhat selfish, and before very long my sympathy was diverted in some measure from my host to myself. It occurred to me that it was by no means a pleasant prospect to be a guest in a house the mistress of which was mad. It was not altogether kind of Fred to invite me, I thought, under the circumstances, without some explanation of his wife's state. I began to feel quite an injured man. The only consolation was the claret, and there was no telling how long that would last out. It had struck me that Burditt had been a long time bringing up the last bottle. By the by, Burditt was an old friend of mine. Why shouldn't I look him up and have a chat? I was quite tired of my own company, and Fred was fast asleep. So I opened the door softly and made my way down to the hall. As I passed an open door, Mrs. Hallaton appeared and beckoned me in. I had no alternative but to obey her invitation.
"Mr. Neillson," she said in an agitated tone, "as you are going to stop here for a day or two, there is something connected with this household which you ought to know. Has my husband told you anything?"
I bowed, and told her gravely that I knew all, and that she had my profoundest sympathy.
"Perhaps you are surprised that I should ask whether Fred has told you," she said, turning a little away from me. "It seems strange, doesn't it, that one should be mad and be conscious of it? It only comes on in fits, and they are terrible."
She shuddered; and so, to tell the truth, did I.
"Such a phase of madness is probably not incurable," I ventured to suggest timidly.
"Incurable! Of course it is not incurable," she answered vehemently.
I edged a little towards the door. I had had no experience in talking with lunatics, and felt anything but comfortable in my present position. Mrs. Hallaton was beginning to look very excited and dangerous.
"Of course, if you are frightened, Mr. Neillson," she said a little contemptuously, "you can leave us whenever you please. These fits do not come on often, but they are anything but pleasant things when they do come on."
"I should imagine so," I assented, devoutly hoping a fit was not then pending. Soon I managed to make my adieu, and with a sigh of relief found myself once more in the hall. I made my way to Burditt's room, but he had gone to bed; and seeing it was nearly eleven o'clock I decided to follow his example, and, preceded by a servant (I could never have found the way myself), I mounted again the wide stairs and threaded the numerous passages which led to my room. It was at the end of a wide corridor, on either side of which were six doors.
"Does anyone sleep up here?" I asked the man as he bade me good-night.
He pointed to a door exactly opposite mine.
"That is the master's room, sir," he replied; "and the one at the bottom end is Mrs. Hallaton's. No one else sleeps in this part of the house. The servants' rooms are all in the north wing."
I was generally able to sleep at whatever hour I retired; but it was early, and the fire looked tempting, so, instead of immediately undressing, I changed my coat for a smoking-jacket, and lighting a pipe made myself comfortable in an easy-chair. Soon I heard Mrs. Hallaton's light footsteps ascend the stairs, and the door of her room open and close; and a little while afterwards Fred halted outside my door to bid me a cheery good-night, and then entered the room opposite.
How long I sat there I cannot tell, but I fell into a heavy doze; and when I woke up with a sudden start, it was with the uneasy consciousness that something unusual had awakened me. I sprang to my feet and looked fearfully around. The flickering flame of my fire, almost burnt out, was still sufficient to show me that no one had entered the room. But while I stood there with strained senses I heard a sound which made my blood run cold within me, and, although I am no coward, I shivered with fear. It was the half-muffled shriek of a woman in agony, and it came from Mrs. Hallaton's room. For a moment I was powerless to move; then I hastily unlocked the door, and, hurrying down the corridor, knocked at hers. There was no answer. I tried the handle; it was locked; but, listening for a moment, I could hear the sound of a woman gasping for breath. I rushed back along the corridor to Fred's room. The door was closed, but unlocked, and I threw it open.
"Fred!" I cried. But Fred was not there, nor had the bed been slept in. A candle was burning on the dressing-table, and in the right-hand corner of the room was what appeared to be a hole in the wall; but when I stood before it I saw at once that it was a secret passage running parallel with the corridor. Looking down it, I could see a light at the other end, and, knowing that it must lead into Mrs. Hallaton's room, I caught up the candle and, bending almost double, half ran, half crept along it, until I reached the other extremity and found myself in Mrs. Hallaton's room. I stood upright and glanced half eagerly, half fearfully, around.
The room was empty, but the window directly opposite to me was open, and as my eyes fell upon it I stood petrified with a dull, sickening horror, and the candle dropped with a crash from my nerveless fingers. There was a miniature balcony outside the window; and on this stood Fred Hallaton, holding in an embrace, which was certainly not of love, the fainting form of his wife. The moon was shining full on his face, ghostly and demoniacal, with the raging fire of the madman in his eyes, and the imbecile grin of the lunatic on his thin lips. In a moment the truth flashed upon me, and as I stood there gaping and horror-struck, he saw me and burst into a fit of wild laughter.
"Ha, ha, ha! You, Neillson? What a joke! See what a glorious view of the grounds! Come and bend over, man; don't be afraid. Does the height make you dizzy? It's made her"; and he motioned to the insensible figure of his wife, whom he still held clasped in his arms. "Do you know what I am going to do with her? I'm going to chuck her over down there"; and he pointed to the garden below. "A mad woman is no use to anyone. Come and lend me a hand."
Mechanically I rushed to the balcony and strove to wrench from his encircling grasp the fainting form of his wife. Like a flash his imbecile grin vanished, and his eyes filled with a malignant fury, as he let go his grasp of his wife and sprang at me like a tiger-cat. It was in vain that I wrestled with him. His long arms were around me and held me as if I were in a vice. I tried to shout for help, but my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth, and a faint gurgling was all the sound I could command. Nearer and nearer we drew to the parapet's edge, until at last I could see the lawn below, studded with flower-beds like the pattern of some fancy work; for Gaulby Hall was built high, and we were on the third storey. I felt his hot breath in my face, and caught his diabolical look of triumph as he slowly forced me backwards against the outside rail, which creaked and swerved with my weight, and then my struggling feet seemed to part with the earth as with a wild yell of—
"Leicester! Leicester!" I opened my eyes and sat up with a start. The Times had slipped from my fingers, and the train was slowly steaming into Leicester station, and there, standing upon the platform, smiling and robust, looking the very picture of health, was Fred Hallaton.
The Christmas party at Gaulby Hall was the most enjoyable I was ever at, and the people (the house was crammed full of visitors) the most entertaining and agreeable I ever met. There was one young person especially—a Miss Alice Pratison she was then—with whom I got on remarkably well. I never enjoyed a visit so much in my life as I did that one, nor a ride so much as one afternoon when Miss Pratison and I, after a capital run, rode home together with her little hand in mine, and our horses very close together. Next Christmas, if Alice doesn't object, I mean to have a jolly little house-party of my own.