The Face in the Glass
IN the year of our Lord 1845, I, Wililiam Ayres, formerly Surgeon of the —th Regiment H. E. I. C. S., resigned my commission ; packed up my worldly possessions, which are few; bade farewell to my friends, who are numerous ; and sailed in the steamer Vivid, Belknap commander, for London. The cause of my departure was threefold : firstly, I was too old for the service ; secondly, I was weary of it; thirdly, it was, as I had good reason to suppose, weary of me. And I had seen enough of life to enable me to appreciate the advantages to be derived from a gracefid withdrawal from office, while still capable of doing some good and inspiring some regret; I had a very strong dislike and dread of lingering until younger and better men were impatient to step into my shoes, and even my best friends were led to wish that I could realize my advancing infirmities.
Such, briefly stated, were the reasons for my resignation. I landed in England in the summer of 1845, and in the following autumn took up my abode at No. 9 Lansdowne Crescent, Cheltenham, in company with my old friend and comrade, Major Buckstone, also of the —th, who is, like myself, verging upon seventy, gray-haired, and a bachelor.
We live very comfortably together ; so comfortably that we are no more inclined than was that most genial of bachelors, Charles Lamb, to go out upon the mountains and bewail our celibacy. I have not taken up my pen to-day, however (and for the convenience of the reader I will inform him that I am writing on the fourth day of August, 1846), — I have not taken up my pen to-day, I repeat, for the purpose of dwelling upon the history or habits of two quiet old men, neither of whom can make any pretensions to a claim upon public interest. But I was reminded, not long since, of a singular event in my life, which I have often thought of committing to paper, when I had the leisure and the disposition to do so ; and just now I have both.
I was strolling leisurely about town the other day, enjoying my cigar and the shop windows, when I was attracted by a water-color drawing of the quaint old town and Abbey of Tewkesbury. How familiar to me were those gray walls ; the tall tower, on the very top of which the wall-flowers wave, just as those others did, upon which, as a boy, I often cast a longing eye ; those low, moss-grown headstones, slanting in all possible and impossible directions ; and, beyond, the sunny meadows. A fair, peaceful spot, but one which I will never willingly visit again, easy of access and pleasant as it is.
Writing on this quiet summer morning, with the sun shining through the open windows, and, distinctly audible, the shrill chattering of old Lady Scrampton’s parrot two doors off, and the scarcely less shrill voices of two dowagers who have stopped their Bath chairs beneath my window, and are arguing volubly, — even now a strange terror possesses me as I recall what I once saw and heard in Tewkesbury more than forty years ago. Those scenes have been long absent from my memory. I have striven to forget them altogether, but in vain ; and I will no longer hesitate about giving them to the world.
Early on the morning of the 4th of December, 1799, I arrived at Tewkesbury in a violent snow-storm, and put up at the Angel, intending to remain there through the day, and go on to Gloucester by the night mail. From Gloucester I intended to go to Laceham on a visit to a married sister who lived there, and from Laceham to London, where I had already begun life as a surgeon. I had business to transact which took me to a certain village near Tewkesbury, and it was late in the day when I began my walk back. As I made my way through the deep snow, however, I came to the conclusion that it would be impassable for a coach and four ; and I was confirmed in my opinion by the landlord of the Angel, who was evidently much relieved by my arrival, and who at once declared that there was small prospect of my getting away from the Angel for two days at least.
“ I never saw such a storm in my life, sir,” he concluded. “ The snow is near two feet deep already, and falling fast.”
After spending two hours in pacing the bar-room, looking at my watch, comparing it with the inn clock, and then running to the door to see if there were any signs of the coach, by which means I increased my impatience tenfold, I decided to make the best of my situation, and retired to a private room, called for some gin and hot water, put my feet into slippers, and settled myself comfortably for the evening. I was the more disposed to be contented, as the storm had increased in violence, the snow was deepening fast, and it was so bitterly cold and dreary without as to enhance my sense of the warmth and comfort within. The room in which I was seated was a small parlor on the ground-floor of the Angel, with casement windows, a tolerably large fireplace in which a generous fire was blazing, a dining-table, a large easychair, and last, though not least, an ample screen, so placed as to exclude the draughts of air which swept under the door. I was combrtable enough, with one exception. I had neglected to put a book in my portmanteau, and an examination of the stores of the Angel resulted in the discovery of a torn copy of “ The Mysteries of Udolpho,” which I had read several times, and a soiled file of country newspapers, none less than a year old. I looked them over carelessly, as they lay on the table, and was pushing them away in disgust, when it occurred to me that they might at least serve to keep me awake, and I accordingly selected one and began to read. But the comfortable fire, the good dinner, and the gin I had taken were too much for me, and in five minutes I was asleep. I woke up in about half an hour with a sudden start, and, highly disgusted with myself for my weakness, fixed my eyes on the paper, determined to read steadily for an hour. But my mind wandered, mM my eyelids drooped in spite of my efforts. I did indeed keep my eyes open, but they fixed themselves vaguely on the paper, and for five minutes I had been staring at the same column, when a paragraph caught my eye, and I was suddenly roused to a full consciousness of what I had been reading. It was headed “Shocking Occurrence,” and ran as follows: “The distinguished member for Cumberland, the Right Honorable Harrington Carteret Huntingdon of Huntingdon Hall and Averndean Manor, Cumberland, was found muidered at the latter residence on the 24th of September last. It will doubtless be recollected that for the past two weeks public curiosity has been much excited relative to the disappearance of the unfortunate gentleman, and it may be a melancholy satisfaction to his numerous friends and admirers to be informed of the few particulars connected with his disastrous fate. On Friday, the 8th of September, Mr. Huntingdon left home on horseback, to attend a public meeting at Cleveham, ten miles away. He declined the attendance of his groom, saying that he should probably not be at home until late, and that he preferred to ride alone. He arrived at Cleveham at eight o’clock, took the chair of the meeting, and, after having discharged the business of the evening with his accustomed clearness and despatch, delivered a brief but forcible address, and left early, alleging, as an excuse for his abrupt departure, the fact that he had business at home, and wished to return as early as possible. That home he never again entered. His horse was found the next morning wandering on Maxon Moor, on the other side of the county; and no one, it seems, had seen Mr. Huntingdon after he quitted Cleveham on the previous night. The animal, though spirited and powerful, was completely under the control of his distinguished master, who possessed in a remarkable degree the rare and enviable suaviter in modo, fortiler in re. Any supposition, therefore, that Mr. Huntingdon was killed by a fall from his horse was groundless ; and although a search was at once instituted, and conducted by Messrs. Smith and Belrow, of London, with their usual skill and perseverance, nothing whatever was discovered, and his untimely fate might ever have remained a mystery, had it not been discovered by an accident. A laborer employed on the Clareville estate, which joins Averndean Manor, had occasion to pass through Averndean, and, on passing the manor-house, noticed, to his surprise, that the hall door was open, and had evidently been open for some time, as a quantity of dried leaves had drifted in, and were strewed over the hall. He was the more surprised as he recollected the fact that the manor-house had been closed for many years, having never been occupied during the lifetime of the present possessor or his father. The man, influenced by the curiosity peculiar to his class, proceeded to examine the house. At the end of one of the four corridors which lead from the great hall of Averndean to different parts of the house, he perceived an open door. As he approached nearer, he saw Mr. Huntingdon seated at a table, and apparently engaged in writing. His horror may be imagined when the lamented gentleman was found to be a corpse. The table was strewed with writing-materials, and the unfortunate gentleman had been engaged in writing a notice of the death of his wife, who expired, it seems, on the 20th of August, at Hyères, in France. In all probability the assassin approached from behind, and struck Mr. Huntingdon while absorbed in writing. The wound was in the jugular vein, and the weapon with which it was inflicted— a small Italian stiletto—was found in the corridor, having evidently been thrown away by the assassin in his flight. The house was searched, but to further trace of the murderer was discovered, nor did there seem to have been any attempt to rifle the body, which, though much decomposed, was found evidently in the attitude which Mr. Huntingdon had assumed before he was struck, and one which was very common with him. His right hand still held the pen, and rested on the table ; the left was thrust into his breast. Everything seems to indicate the fact that the murderer fled the moment the horrible deed was committed, probably alarmed by some sound. A purse containing forty sovereigns was found in the pocket of Mr. Huntingdon’s coat; and his signet-ring, a large and valuable emerald, with the Huntingdon coat of arms deeply engraven upon it, on the little finger of his right hand. His overcoat, hat, and whip were thrown on a chair, near the door, together with the report of a benevolent society in which he was interested, and which Mr. Barton of Cleveham recollects having handed him on the evening he was last seen. Mr. Huntingdon appears to have used this room — the only one at Averndean which bears any traces of habitation — as a place where he could write, undisturbed by the interruptions to which he was liable at Huntingdon. The table was littered with the proof-sheets of a political pamphlet, written with his accustomed ability. The deepest interest has been felt in his unhappy end, and immense rewards are offered for the discovery of the murderer. The funeral is to take place on Monday next, and a large concourse of the nobility and gentry of the county will probably be present. Mr. Huntingdon was particularly distinguished for his interest in benevolent pursuits, and for the remarkable, we had almost said magical, influence which he obtained over individuals as well as masses. Death has put an untimely end to his illustrious, useful, and honorable career. His late wife was the only child of the Right Honorable Charles Huntingdon Carteret, of Carteret Castle, and Branthope Grange, Cumberland, and of the Countess Alixe La Baume de Lascours. She was her husband’s first-cousin, and by her death he became her heir. As the unfortunate couple have left no children, the vast estates of Huntingdon and Carteret, in default of heirs, pass to the Crown.”
By the time I had finished this extract I was thoroughly awake. I sat leaning over the soiled, crumpled paper, and mentally living over the horrible tragedy which it depicted in such set and stilted phrases. I thought of the murdered man waiting in his dreary, empty house, — waiting through long days and nights,until some one came to give rest to his dishonored dust and avenge his death. I pictured to myself the assassin creeping stealthily down the dark corridor, and nearer and nearer the unconscious victim, whom a glance, a breath, a footfall, might have saved. I was dwelling upon all this with an intensity which was far from soothing to my nerves, when a light tap on the window behind me brought me to my feet with a bound. I went to the window, lifted the curtain, and looked out, but saw nothing but the snow already piled on the outer sill, and the fast-falling flakes driven against it by the violence of the wind. I dropped the curtain, and after walking round the room on a tour of inspection, of which I was somewhat ashamed, came to the conclusion that my nerves had played me a trick, and, taking my post before the fire, resolutely turned my thoughts in a different channel. Some fifteen minutes elapsed, during which time I had (mentally) arrived in London, become a distinguished practitioner, and was just about setting up a genteel brougham, with a man in livery, when the silence of the house was suddenly broken. Steps stamped along the narrow passage which led to my room. There was a confusion of voices, a rush, a sharp, terrified cry ; then the slamming of a door, and silence once more. Soon after, the landlord presented himself at my door, candle in hand.
“ I beg pardon for disturbing you, Doctor, I ’m sure,” he began in rather a tremulous tone; “ but there’s a poor cretur in the kitchen, — Lord knows where she’s come from, but she seems quite wild like, — and being as how she ’s unwilling to let the women come anigh her, perhaps you would see what you can do.”
I went forthwith to the kitchen. A group of servants were huddled near the door, and in the farthest corner of the room, crouched down with her back to the wall, and her pale face and terrified dark eyes turned with a mixture of fear and menace towards them, was a tall and powerfully formed woman. Her profuse dark hair, already streaked with gray, clung wet and dishevelled about her shoulders. Her features — finely moulded and beautiful they must have been once — were sharpened by an agony of fear which I have never seen before or since in any human creature. I did not wonder that the landlady, half compassionate and half frightened, stood near the door, dreading the menace which such supreme terror invariably conveys, and that the maids and men were equally afraid to approach.
As I advanced, followed by the landlord, she rose slowly from her crouching attitude and surveyed me. I paused within a few steps of her, that she might see that I had no evil intentions regarding her, and spoke.
“ Do not be frightened,” said I, gently, “we mean you no harm; but you must not crouch in the corner there : come out and let the landlady make you comfortable. You are cold and wet, and must be hungry too, I 'me sure.”
She still gazed at me without speaking, or relaxing in the least her look of terror.
“Come,” said I, gently, approaching still nearer, and extending my hand,— “come, let me take you to the fire.”
She made no reply ; and, as I again paused, I had a full opportunity to observe her. She was, as I have said, remarkably tall, large, and, as I now saw, Symmetrically formed. Her feet were bare and bleeding, but so delicate and beautiful as alone to give an idea of her rank, even if that had not been already visible in every attitude and feature. Her dress hung in rags about her, wet, soiled, and defaced, but enough of its former character remained to show that it had been rich and dainty ; and over her shoulders hung a coarse black cloak, like those worn by the Sisters of Mercy in Belgium ; her right hand was busily searching among the folds of her dress.
“ Come,” I repeated, approaching still nearer, and laying my hand on her shoulder.
A wild cry burst from her lips, and with a bound she eluded my grasp and made for the door; but the landlord placed himself in her way, and, suddenly turning back, she sprang upon me, clasping me close with her left hand, while her right still sought something in the folds of her dress.
“It is gone! ” she screamed, suddenly relaxing her hold of me and sinking down on the floor, — “it is gone! I remember, I threw it away, — it is gone! ”
Now that she had spoken, I felt that it was safe to proceed to action ; and, with the help of the landlord and Boots, I lifted and carried her, still struggling and screaming, to a room which had been hastily prepared for her. It was a small room with a fireplace, a mantel-piece, over which hung a small oval looking-glass, a window, and a low flock-bed. Plain and simple as it was, and so small as to be fully lit by the fire, and the lamp which burned on the mantel-piece, it seemed to inspire the poor, delirious creature with new terror. We laid her upon the bed, where presently she had to be held by two strong men ; and I took my position beside her to wait and watch. As her ravings and delirious strength increased, her terror of us visibly diminished. Soon she was blind to everything but the dark shadows of her own tortured fancy, and deaf to any voice from the outer world ; but she struggled with fearful strength, and her restless, disjointed talk, made up of French and English, and with a continual, agonized, terrified reference to the something she had lost, —what it was she never mentioned, went on unceasingly through the long winter night. I soon saw plainly enough that she was no maniac. Hers was as clear a case of brain-fever as I ever saw in my life ; brought on, doubtless, in the first instance, by some shock, and aggravated by subsequent privation, exposure, and an habitual dread, which was plainly evident in all she dropped in her delirium. I have said that it was a clear case of brain-fever ; it was also the most acute that I have ever seen in my life. Since then I have seen some terrible cases, though then it was the first I had ever come in contact with, of any severity at least, and I was proportionably interested in it. I doubted my power to save this poor wanderer, but she was an interesting study to me, and I was not quite free from a desire to know something of her history ; so that when the cold gray dawn of the winter morning drew on, and showed no abatement of the storm, I was rather relieved than otherwise by the landlord’s prophecy that the coach would not be able to come through that day. His prophecy proved correct; and, before the day drew to its close, I was far too much interested to relinquish my patient. I resolved, therefore, to abandon my visit to Laceham, and to remain at Tewkesbury until forced to fulfil my engagements in London. I Henceforth, for several days and nights, my interests were bounded by the narrow pallet where the poor stricken wanderer tossed and raved, The fever burned fiercely for ten days, and before they had passed I had abandoned all hope of saving her; but I knew that when the fire had burned out, when the delirium was spent, when the storm was lulled, some calm moments would follow before the final silence, and for those I resolved to wait. For this woman, coming out of the darkness on that dreary December night, must have had a history, and a tragical one. Some terrible grief bad driven her forth upon the wide world, pursued by — WHAT? That I could not yet discover. At last, after the tenth day, when the fever had spent itself; and she lay still and silent, the nurse came to me as I sat dozing from sheer fatigue in my chair by the fire.
“ She’s awake, sir, now, and sensible, I think.”
T went to the bed ; the patient lay quite still, her dark eyes wide open, and calm save for the hovering fear which always dwelt there.
“ Where am I ? ” said she, as I approached her. “ Where are the Sisters ? ”
“ They are not here,” said I, gently.
“ I am your physician, and I am glad to see you looking so well.”
The dread already visible in her face increased ; she made an ineffectual effort to raise her head from the pillow, but, finding herself too weak, let it fall back with an impatient sigh, still looking at me with parted lips, as if longing, yet fearing, to speak.
“ you may go now,” I said, turning to the nurse, “ and I will send for you it I want you.”
She went, closed the door, and left us alone together.
“ You wanted to ask me some question?” said I, turning back to the bed.
“ Yes ; sit down, if you please ” ; and she motioned to the chair beside her.
“ Where am I ? ” she repeated.
“ At the Angel, in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire,” said I, surprised, in spite of myself, at her evident ignorance of the locality.
“ Who brought me here ? ” she continued.
“ No one,” said I. “You were found wandering in the streets on the night of the 4th of December, nearly two weeks ago.”
Again she opened her lips to speak, and again closed them; finally she said, “ Who are you ? ”
“Your physician, Dr. Ayres,” said I, reassuringly; for I saw that she still felt a certain dread of me. “ I happened to be staying here when you were brought in, and you have since been so ill that I have not been disposed to leave you.”
Her brows contracted, and her dark eyes dilated, as I said this.
“ Did he send you ? ” she asked, raising herself on her elbow, and looking me full in the face with a sudden return of the terror I had witnessed on the night of her arrival.
“No,” said I, “certainly not; I do not know whom you mean. You forget that I neither know your name, nor anything about you.”
She had lain down again as I spoke.
“ Ah ! but he has been here,” she murmured half to herself. “ He is never long away. I can never, never, never escape!” Her voice rose to a hoarse shriek as she said this.
“ You only do yourself harm by such excitement, ’ said I, authoritatively.
“ Lie down again, and I promise that he shall not hurt you. You are quite safe here.”
“ Safe ! ” she repeated with the strangest laugh, — “safe ! Charlotte Carteret will never be safe or quiet even in the grave. Have you not seen him? he has been here, — he is gone now, but he will come again. O, he will, — he will, — or is he dead ? ”
“ He shall not see you, he shall not hurt you,” I answered ; “ I promise to protect you.”
“ Protect me ! ” she repeated, with a sigh as dreary as her laugh had been strange. “None living can do that.”
I was about to reply, but she stopped me by a slight wave of the hand, and, fixing her dark eyes on the opposite wall, seemed to make an effort to recall something. She lay a long time thus. At length she murmured, “ I see now; I remember all,—all. I know—” Then suddenly interrupting herself, and bending a calm, intelligent glance upon me, “ I have been very ill, — have I not ? ”
“ Very ill.”
“Am I better now? I feel quite calm and free from pain.”
I paused; there was no hope of recovery for her, no prospect even of lingering on the journey on which she was bound; a few hours, a day or two at most, was all left to her of life, but I shrank from saying so.
My patient aided me. “ Must I die ? Am I dying now ? ”
She answered my silence, “ I must. “How soon, Doctor ? ”
“ You may live several days yet.”
“ Then I have something to do. Get pen and paper, Doctor.”
I went to my portfolio, which lay in the window-seat, selected some writing-materials, and sat down beside her.
“What time is it ? ” said she.
“ It is late in the afternoon.”
“ And how long can I live ? — until midnight ? ”
“ Proceed then, Doctor ; write as I tell you ; put the date.”
I wrote it.
“ Now write, This is rny true confession. Now, Doctor, give me the paper, — no, not this sheet, but all. I will write my name here at the end ; my hand may not be strong enough by and by.”
I held the paper for her, but her hand, already weak and trembling, refused to perform its office. “ Lilt me higher,” she said, impatiently; “give me some cordial, Doctor. I must write my name there, — I must, I tell you.”
I brought more pillows, lifted her up, and, after administering a strengthening draught, again held the paper for her, while she slowly and painfully wrote her name. Bending over her shoulder I read : —
“Charlotte Alixe La Baume Huntingdon, nèe De Lascours Carteret.”
“ Now,” she said, when she had relinquished the pen and lain down again, — “ now write, — write quickly ; it is a long story and the time is short, very short; make haste, Doctor.”
I began to write at once; and every word of that story, and the tones of her voice as she told it, are fresh in my memory still.