The Traveller's Story of A Terribly Strange Bed
by Wilkie Collins
PROLOGUE TO THE FIRST STORY
Before I begin, by the aid of my wife's patient attention and ready pen,
to relate any of the stories which I have heard at various times from
persons whose likenesses I have been employed to take, it will not be
amiss if I try to secure the reader's interest in the following pages by
briefly explaining how I became possessed of the narrative matter which
Of myself I have nothing to say, but that I have followed the profession
of a travelling portrait-painter for the last fifteen years. The pursuit
of my calling has not only led me all through England, but has taken me
twice to Scotland and once to Ireland. In moving from district to
district, I am never guided beforehand by any settled plan. Sometimes
the letters of recommendation which I get from persons who are satisfied
with the work I have done for them determine the direction in which I
travel. Sometimes I hear of a new neighbourhood in which there is no
resident artist of ability, and remove thither on speculation. Sometimes
my friends among the picture-dealers say a good word on my behalf to
their rich customers, and so pave the way for me in the large towns.
Sometimes my prosperous and famous brother artists, hearing of small
commissions which it is not worth their while to accept, mention my
name, and procure me introductions to pleasant country houses. Thus I
get on, now in one way and now in another, not winning a reputation or
making a fortune, but happier, perhaps, on the whole, than many men who
have got both the one and the other. So, at least, I try to think now,
though I started in my youth with as high an ambition as the best of
them. Thank God, it is not my business here to speak of past times and
their disappointments. A twinge of the old hopeless heartache comes over
me sometimes still, when I think of my student days.
One peculiarity of my present way of life is, that it brings me into
contact with all sorts of characters. I almost feel, by this time, as if
I had painted every civilised variety of the human race. Upon the whole,
my experience of the world, rough as it has been, has not taught me to
think unkindly of my fellow-creatures. I have certainly received such
treatment at the hands of some of my sitters as I could not describe
without saddening and shocking any kind-hearted reader; but, taking one
year and one place with another, I have cause to remember with gratitude
and respect, sometimes even with friendship and affection, a very large
proportion of the numerous persons who have employed me.
Some of the results of my experience are curious in a moral point of view.
For example, I have found women almost uniformly less delicate in asking
me about my terms, and less generous in remunerating me for my services,
than men. On the other hand, men, within my knowledge, are decidedly
vainer of their personal attractions, and more vexatiously anxious to
have them done full justice to on canvas, than women. Taking both sexes
together, I have found young people, for the most part, more gentle,
more reasonable, and more considerate than old. And, summing up, in a
general way, my experience of different ranks (which extends, let me
premise, all the way down from peers to publicans), I have met with most
of my formal and ungracious receptions among rich people of uncertain
social standing; the highest classes and the lowest among my employers
almost always contrive—in widely different ways, of course—to make me
feel at home as soon as I enter their houses.
The one great obstacle that I have to contend against in the practice of
my profession is not, as some persons may imagine, the difficulty of
making my sitters keep their heads still while I paint them, but the
difficulty of getting them to preserve the natural look and the
every-day peculiarities of dress and manner. People will assume an
expression, will brush up their hair, will correct any little
characteristic carelessness in their apparel—will, in short, when they
want to have their likenesses taken, look as if they were sitting for
their pictures. If I paint them under these artificial circumstances, I
fail, of course, to present them in their habitual aspect; and my
portrait, as a necessary consequence, disappoints everybody, the sitter
always included. When we wish to judge of a man's character by his
handwriting, we want his customary scrawl dashed off with his common
workaday pen, not his best small text traced laboriously with the finest
procurable crow-quill point. So it is with portrait-painting, which is,
after all, nothing but a right reading of the externals of character
recognisably presented to the view of others.
Experience, after repeated trials, has proved to me that the only way of
getting sitters who persist in assuming a set look to resume their
habitual expression is to lead them into talking about some subject in
which they are greatly interested. If I can only beguile them into
speaking earnestly, no matter on what topic, I am sure of recovering
their natural expression; sure of seeing all the little precious
every-day peculiarities of the man or woman peep out, one after another,
quite unawares. The long maundering stories about nothing, the wearisome
recitals of petty grievances, the local anecdotes unrelieved by the
faintest suspicion of anything like general interest, which I have been
condemned to hear, as a consequence of thawing the ice off the features
of formal sitters by the method just described, would fill hundreds of
volumes and promote the repose of thousands of readers. On the other
hand, if I have suffered under the tediousness of the many, I have not
been without my compensating gains from the wisdom and experience of the
few. To some of my sitters I have been indebted for information which
has enlarged my mind, to some for advice which has lightened my heart,
to some for narratives of strange adventure which riveted my attention
at the time, which have served to interest and amuse my fireside circle
for many years past, and which are now, I would fain hope, destined to
make kind friends for me among a wider audience than any that I have yet
Singularly enough, almost all the best stories that I have heard from my
sitters have been told by accident. I only remember two cases in which a
story was volunteered to me; and, although I have often tried the
experiment, I cannot call to mind even a single instance in which
leading questions (as lawyers call them) on my part, addressed to a
sitter, ever produced any result worth recording. Over and over again I
have been disastrously successful in encouraging dull people to weary
me. But the clever people who have something interesting to say seem, so
far as I have observed them, to acknowledge no other stimulant than
chance. For every story, excepting one, I have been indebted, in the
first instance, to the capricious influence of the same chance.
Something my sitter has seen about me, something I have remarked in my
sitter, or in the room in which I take the likeness, or in the
neighbourhood through which I pass on my way to work, has suggested the
necessary association, or has started the right train of recollections,
and then the story appeared to begin of its own accord. Occasionally the
most casual notice, on my part, of some very unpromising object has
smoothed the way for the relation of a long and interesting narrative. I
first heard one of the most dramatic stories merely through being
carelessly inquisitive to know the history of a stuffed poodle-dog.
It is thus not without reason that I lay some stress on the desirableness
of prefacing the following narrative by a brief account of the curious
manner in which I became possessed of it. As to my capacity for
repeating the story correctly, I can answer for it that my memory may be
trusted. I may claim it as a merit, because it is, after all, a
mechanical one, that I forget nothing, and that I can call long-past
conversations and events as readily to my recollection as if they had
happened but a few weeks ago. Of two things at least I feel tolerably
certain before-hand, in meditating over its contents: first, that I can
repeat correctly all that I have heard; and, secondly, that I have never
missed anything worth hearing when my sitters were addressing me on an
interesting subject. Although I cannot take the lead in talking while I
am engaged in painting, I can listen while others speak, and work all
the better for it.
So much in the way of general preface to the pages for which I am about to
ask the reader's attention. Let me now advance to particulars, and
describe how I came to hear the story. I begin with it because it is the
story that I have oftenest "rehearsed," to borrow a phrase from the
stage. Wherever I go, I am sooner or later sure to tell it. Only last
night I was persuaded into repeating it once more by the inhabitants of
the farm-house in which I am now staying.
Not many years ago, on returning from a short holiday visit to a friend
settled in Paris, I found professional letters awaiting me at my agent's
in London, which required my immediate presence in Liverpool. Without
stopping to unpack, I proceeded by the first conveyance to my new
destination; and, calling at the picture-dealer's shop where
portrait-painting engagements were received for me, found to my great
satisfaction that I had remunerative employment in prospect, in and
about Liverpool, for at least two months to come. I was putting up my
letters in high spirits, and was just leaving the picture-dealer's shop
to look out for comfortable lodgings, when I was met at the door by the
landlord of one of the largest hotels in Liverpool—an old acquaintance
whom I had known as manager of a tavern in London in my student days.
"Mr. Kerby!" he exclaimed, in great astonishment. "What an unexpected
meeting! the last man in the world whom I expected to see, and yet the
very man whose services I want to make use of!"
"What! more work for me?" said I. "Are all the people in Liverpool going
to have their portraits painted?"
"I only know of one," replied the landlord, "a gentleman staying at my
hotel, who wants a chalk drawing done of him. I was on my way here to
inquire for any artist whom our picture-dealing friend could recommend.
How glad I am that I met you before I had committed myself to employing
"Is this likeness wanted at once?" I asked, thinking of the number of
engagements that I had already got in my pocket.
"Immediately—to-day—this very hour, if possible," said the landlord. "Mr.
Faulkner, the gentleman I am speaking of, was to have sailed yesterday
for the Brazils from this place; but the wind shifted last night to the
wrong quarter, and he came ashore again this morning. He may, of course,
be detained here for some time; but he may also be called on board ship
at half an hour's notice, if the wind shifts back again in the right
direction. This uncertainty makes it a matter of importance that the
likeness should be begun immediately. Undertake it if you possibly can,
for Mr. Faulkner is a liberal gentleman, who is sure to give you your
I reflected for a minute or two. The portrait was only wanted in chalk,
and would not take long; besides, I might finish it in the evening, if
my other engagements pressed hard upon me in the daytime. Why not leave
my luggage at the picture-dealer's, put off looking for lodgings till
night, and secure the new commission boldly by going back at once with
the landlord to the hotel? I decided on following this course almost as
soon as the idea occurred to me; put my chalks in my pocket, and a sheet
of drawing-paper in the first of my portfolios that came to hand; and so
presented myself before Mr. Faulkner, ready to take his likeness,
literally at five minutes' notice.
I found him a very pleasant, intelligent man, young and handsome. He had
been a great traveller, had visited all the wonders of the East, and was
now about to explore the wilds of the vast South American continent.
Thus much he told me good-humouredly and unconstrainedly while I was
preparing my drawing materials.
As soon as I had put him in the right light and position, and had seated
myself opposite to him, he changed the subject of conversation, and
asked me, a little confusedly as I thought, if it was not a customary
practice among portrait-painters to gloss over the faults in their
sitters' faces, and to make as much as possible of any good points which
their features might possess.
"Certainly," I answered. "You have described the whole art and mystery of
successful portrait-painting in a few words."
"May I beg, then," said he, "that you will depart from the usual practice
in my case, and draw me with all my defects, exactly as I am? The fact
is," he went on, after a moment's pause, "the likeness you are now
preparing to take is intended for my mother; my roving disposition makes
me a great anxiety to her, and she parted from me this last time very
sadly and unwillingly. I don't know how the idea came into my head, but
it struck me this morning that I could not better employ the time while
I was delayed here on shore than by getting my likeness done to send to
her as a keepsake. She has no portrait of me since I was a child, and
she is sure to value a drawing of me more than anything else I could
send to her. I only trouble you with this explanation to prove that I am
really sincere in my wish to be drawn unflatteringly, exactly as I am."
Secretly respecting and admiring him for what he had just said, I promised
that his directions should be implicitly followed, and began to work
immediately. Before I had pursued my occupation for ten minutes, the
conversation began to flag, and the usual obstacle to my success with a
sitter gradually set itself up between us. Quite unconsciously, of
course, Mr. Faulkner stiffened his neck, shut his mouth, and contracted
his eyebrows—evidently under the impression that he was facilitating the
process of taking his portrait by making his face as like a lifeless
mask as possible. All traces of his natural animated expression were
fast disappearing, and he was beginning to change into a heavy and
rather melancholy-looking man.
This complete alteration was of no great consequence so long as I was only
engaged in drawing the outline of his face and the general form of his
features. I accordingly worked on doggedly for more than an hour; then
left off to point my chalks again, and to give my sitter a few minutes'
rest. Thus far the likeness had not suffered through Mr. Faulkner's
unfortunate notion of the right way of sitting for his portrait; but the
time of difficulty, as I well knew, was to come. It was impossible for
me to think of putting any expression into the drawing unless I could
contrive some means, when he resumed his chair, of making him look like
himself again. "I will talk to him about foreign parts," thought I, "and
try if I can't make him forget that he is sitting for his picture in
While I was pointing my chalks, Mr. Faulkner was walking up and down the
room. He chanced to see the portfolio I had brought with me leaning
against the wall, and asked if there were any sketches in it. I told him
there were a few which I had made during my recent stay in Paris. "In
Paris?" he repeated, with a look of interest; "may I see them?"
I gave him the permission he asked as a matter of course. Sitting down, he
took the portfolio on his knee, and began to look through it. He turned
over the first five sketches rapidly enough; but when he came to the
sixth I saw his face flush directly, and observed that he took the
drawing out of the portfolio, carried it to the window, and remained
silently absorbed in the contemplation of it for full five minutes.
After that he turned round to me, and asked very anxiously if I had any
objection to parting with that sketch.
It was the least interesting drawing of the collection—merely a view in
one of the streets running by the backs of the houses in the Palais
Royal. Some four or five of these houses were comprised in the view,
which was of no particular use to me in any way, and which was too
valueless, as a work of art, for me to think of selling it. I begged his
acceptance of it at once. He thanked me quite warmly; and then, seeing
that I looked a little surprised at the odd selection he had made from
my sketches, laughingly asked me if I could guess why he had been so
anxious to become possessed of the view which I had given him.
"Probably," I answered, "there is some remarkable historical association
connected with that street at the back of the Palais Royal, of which I
"No," said Mr. Faulkner; "at least none that I know of. The only
association connected with the place in my mind is a purely
personal association. Look at this house in your drawing—the house with
the water-pipe running down it from top to bottom. I once passed a night
there—a night I shall never forget to the day of my death. I have had
some awkward travelling adventures in my time; but that
adventure! Well, never mind, suppose we begin the sitting. I make but a
bad return for your kindness in giving me the sketch by thus wasting
your time in mere talk."
"Come! come!" thought I, as he went back to the sitter's chair, "I shall
see your natural expression on your face if I can only get you to talk
about that adventure." It was easy enough to lead him in the right
direction. At the first hint from me, he returned to the subject of the
house in the back street. Without, I hope, showing any undue curiosity,
I contrived to let him see that I felt a deep interest in everything he
now said. After two or three preliminary hesitations, he at last, to my
great joy, fairly started on the narrative of his adventure. In the
interest of his subject he soon completely forgot that he was sitting
for his portrait,—the very expression that I wanted came over his
face,—and my drawing proceeded toward completion, in the right
direction, and to the best purpose. At every fresh touch I felt more and
more certain that I was now getting the better of my grand difficulty;
and I enjoyed the additional gratification of having my work lightened
by the recital of a true story, which possessed, in my estimation, all
the excitement of the most exciting romance.
This, as I recollect it, is how Mr. Faulkner told me his adventure.
THE TRAVELLER'S STORY OF A TERRIBLY STRANGE BED
Shortly after my education at college was finished, I happened to be
staying at Paris with an English friend. We were both young men then,
and lived, I am afraid, rather a wild life, in the delightful city of
our sojourn. One night we were idling about the neighbourhood of the
Palais Royal, doubtful to what amusement we should next betake
ourselves. My friend proposed a visit to Frascati's; but his suggestion
was not to my taste. I knew Frascati's, as the French saying is, by
heart; had lost and won plenty of five-franc pieces there, merely for
amusement's sake, until it was amusement no longer, and was thoroughly
tired, in fact, of all the ghastly respectabilities of such a social
anomaly as a respectable gambling-house. "For Heaven's sake," said I to
my friend, "let us go somewhere where we can see a little genuine,
blackguard, poverty-stricken gaming with no false gingerbread glitter
thrown over it all. Let us get away from fashionable Frascati's, to a
house where they don't mind letting in a man with a ragged coat, or a
man with no coat, ragged or otherwise." "Very well," said my friend, "we
needn't go out of the Palais Royal to find the sort of company you want.
Here's the place just before us; as blackguard a place, by all report,
as you could possibly wish to see." In another minute we arrived at the
door and entered the house, the back of which you have drawn in your
When we got upstairs, and had left our hats and sticks with the
doorkeeper, we were admitted into the chief gambling-room. We did not
find many people assembled there. But, few as the men were who looked up
at us on our entrance, they were all types—lamentably true types—of
their respective classes.
We had come to see blackguards; but these men were something worse. There
is a comic side, more or less appreciable, in all blackguardism—here
there was nothing but tragedy—mute, weird tragedy. The quiet in the room
was horrible. The thin, haggard, long-haired young man, whose sunken
eyes fiercely watched the turning up of the cards, never spoke; the
flabby, fat-faced, pimply player, who pricked his piece of pasteboard
perseveringly, to register how often black won, and how often red—never
spoke; the dirty, wrinkled old man, with the vulture eyes and the darned
great-coat, who had lost his last sou, and still looked on desperately,
after he could play no longer—never spoke. Even the voice of the
croupier sounded as if it were strangely dulled and thickened in the
atmosphere of the room. I had entered the place to laugh, but the
spectacle before me was something to weep over. I soon found it
necessary to take refuge in excitement from the depression of spirits
which was fast stealing on me. Unfortunately I sought the nearest
excitement, by going to the table and beginning to play. Still more
unfortunately, as the event will show, I won—won prodigiously; won
incredibly; won at such a rate that the regular players at the table
crowded round me; and staring at my stakes with hungry, superstitious
eyes, whispered to one another that the English stranger was going to
break the bank.
The game was Rouge et Noir. I had played at it in every city in Europe,
without, however, the care or the wish to study the Theory of
Chances—that philosopher's stone of all gamblers! And a gambler, in the
strict sense of the word, I had never been. I was heart-whole from the
corroding passion for play. My gaming was a mere idle amusement. I never
resorted to it by necessity, because I never knew what it was to want
money. I never practised it so incessantly as to lose more than I could
afford, or to gain more than I could coolly pocket without being thrown
off my balance by my good luck. In short, I had hitherto frequented
gambling-tables—just as I frequented ball-rooms and opera-houses—because
they amused me, and because I had nothing better to do with my leisure
But on this occasion it was very different—now, for the first time in my
life, I felt what the passion for play really was. My success first
bewildered, and then, in the most literal meaning of the word,
intoxicated me. Incredible as it may appear, it is nevertheless true,
that I only lost when I attempted to estimate chances, and played
according to previous calculation. If I left everything to luck, and
staked without any care or consideration, I was sure to win—to win in
the face of every recognized probability in favour of the bank. At first
some of the men present ventured their money safely enough on my colour;
but I speedily increased my stakes to sums which they dared not risk.
One after another they left off playing, and breathlessly looked on at
Still, time after time, I staked higher and higher, and still won. The
excitement in the room rose to fever pitch. The silence was interrupted
by a deep-muttered chorus of oaths and exclamations in different
languages, every time the gold was shovelled across to my side of the
table—even the imperturbable croupier dashed his rake on the floor in a
(French) fury of astonishment at my success. But one man present
preserved his self-possession, and that man was my friend. He came to my
side, and whispering in English, begged me to leave the place, satisfied
with what I had already gained. I must do him the justice to say that he
repeated his warnings and entreaties several times, and only left me and
went away after I had rejected his advice (I was to all intents and
purposes gambling drunk) in terms which rendered it impossible for him
to address me again that night.
Shortly after he had gone, a hoarse voice behind me cried: "Permit me, my
dear sir—permit me to restore to their proper place two napoleons which
you have dropped. Wonderful luck, sir! I pledge you my word of honour,
as an old soldier, in the course of my long experience in this sort of
thing, I never saw such luck as yours—never! Go on, sir—Sacre mille
bombes! Go on boldly, and break the bank!"
I turned round and saw, nodding and smiling at me with inveterate
civility, a tall man, dressed in a frogged and braided surtout. If I had
been in my senses, I should have considered him, personally, as being
rather a suspicious specimen of an old soldier. He had goggling
bloodshot eyes, mangy moustaches, and a broken nose. His voice betrayed
a barrack-room intonation of the worst order, and he had the dirtiest
pair of hands I ever saw—even in France. These little personal
peculiarities exercised, however, no repelling influence on me. In the
mad excitement, the reckless triumph of that moment, I was ready to
"fraternize" with anybody who encouraged me in my game. I accepted the
old soldier's offered pinch of snuff; clapped him on the back, and swore
he was the honestest fellow in the world—the most glorious relic of the
Grand Army that I had ever met with. "Go on!" cried my military friend,
snapping his fingers in ecstasy—"Go on, and win! Break the bank—Mille
tonnerres! my gallant English comrade, break the bank!"
And I did go on—went on at such a rate, that in another quarter of
an hour the croupier called out, "Gentlemen, the bank has discontinued
for to-night." All the notes, and all the gold in that "bank" now lay in
a heap under my hands; the whole floating capital of the gambling-house
was waiting to pour into my pockets!
"Tie up the money in your pocket-handkerchief, my worthy sir," said the
old soldier, as I wildly plunged my hands into my heap of gold. "Tie it
up, as we used to tie up a bit of dinner in the Grand Army; your
winnings are too heavy for any breeches-pockets that ever were sewed.
There! that's it—shovel them in, notes and all! Credie! what
luck! Stop! another napoleon on the floor! Ah! sacre petit polisson
have I found thee at last? Now then, sir—two tight double knots each way
with your honourable permission, and the money's safe. Feel it! feel it,
fortunate sir! hard and round as a cannon-ball—Ah, bah!
if they had only fired such cannon-balls at us at Austerlitz—nom d'une
pipe! if they only had! And now, as an ancient grenadier, as an
ex-brave of the French army, what remains for me to do? I ask what?
Simply this: to entreat my valued English friend to drink a bottle of
champagne with me, and toast the goddess Fortune in foaming goblets
before we part!"
"Excellent ex-brave! Convivial ancient grenadier! Champagne by all means!
An English cheer for an old soldier! Hurrah! hurrah! Another English
cheer for the goddess Fortune! Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!"
"Bravo! the Englishman; the amiable, gracious Englishman, in whose veins
circulates the vivacious blood of France! Another glass? Ah, bah!—the
bottle is empty! Never mind! Vive le vin! I, the old soldier,
order another bottle, and half a pound of bonbons with it!"
"No, no, ex-brave; never—ancient grenadier! Your bottle last time;
my bottle this. Behold it! Toast away! The French Army! the great
Napoleon! the present company! the croupier! the honest croupier's wife
and daughters—if he has any! the Ladies generally! everybody in the
By the time the second bottle of champagne was emptied, I felt as if I had
been drinking liquid fire—my brain seemed all aflame. No excess in wine
had ever had this effect on me before in my life. Was it the result of a
stimulant acting upon my system when I was in a highly excited state?
Was my stomach in a particularly disordered condition? Or was the
champagne amazingly strong?
"Ex-brave of the French Army!" cried I, in a mad state of exhilaration, "I
am on fire! how are you? You have set me on fire. Do you hear, my hero
of Austerlitz? Let us have a third bottle of champagne to put the flame
The old soldier wagged his head, rolled his goggle-eyes, until I expected
to see them slip out of their sockets; placed his dirty forefinger by
the side of his broken nose; solemnly ejaculated "Coffee!" and
immediately ran off into an inner room.
The word pronounced by the eccentric veteran seemed to have a magical
effect on the rest of the company present. With one accord they all rose
to depart. Probably they had expected to profit by my intoxication; but
finding that my new friend was benevolently bent on preventing me from
getting dead drunk, had now abandoned all hope of thriving pleasantly on
my winnings. Whatever their motive might be, at any rate they went away
in a body. When the old soldier returned, and sat down again opposite to
me at the table, we had the room to ourselves. I could see the croupier,
in a sort of vestibule which opened out of it, eating his supper in
solitude. The silence was now deeper than ever.
A sudden change, too, had come over the "ex-brave". He assumed a
portentously solemn look; and when he spoke to me again, his speech was
ornamented by no oaths, enforced by no finger-snapping, enlivened by no
apostrophes or exclamations.
"Listen, my dear sir," said he, in mysteriously confidential tones—"listen
to an old soldier's advice. I have been to the mistress of the house (a
very charming woman, with a genius for cookery!) to impress on her the
necessity of making us some particularly strong and good coffee. You
must drink this coffee in order to get rid of your little amiable
exaltation of spirits before you think of going home—you must, my
good and gracious friend! With all that money to take home to-night, it
is a sacred duty to yourself to have your wits about you. You are known
to be a winner to an enormous extent by several gentlemen present
to-night, who, in a certain point of view, are very worthy and excellent
fellows; but they are mortal men, my dear sir, and they have their
amiable weaknesses. Need I say more? Ah, no, no! you understand me! Now,
this is what you must do—send for a cabriolet when you feel quite well
again—draw up all the windows when you get into it—and tell the driver
to take you home only through the large and well-lighted thoroughfares.
Do this; and you and your money will be safe. Do this; and to-morrow you
will thank an old soldier for giving you a word of honest advice."
Just as the ex-brave ended his oration in very lachrymose tones, the
coffee came in, ready poured out in two cups. My attentive friend handed
me one of the cups with a bow. I was parched with thirst, and drank it
off at a draught. Almost instantly afterwards, I was seized with a fit
of giddiness, and felt more completely intoxicated than ever. The room
whirled round and round furiously; the old soldier seemed to be
regularly bobbing up and down before me like the piston of a
steam-engine. I was half deafened by a violent singing in my ears; a
feeling of utter bewilderment, helplessness, idiocy, overcame me. I rose
from my chair, holding on by the table to keep my balance; and stammered
out that I felt dreadfully unwell—so unwell that I did not know how I
was to get home.
"My dear friend," answered the old soldier—and even his voice seemed to be
bobbing up and down as he spoke—"my dear friend, it would be madness to
go home in your state; you would be sure to lose your money; you
might be robbed and murdered with the greatest ease. I
am going to sleep here; do you sleep here, too—they make up capital beds
in this house—take one; sleep off the effects of the wine, and go home
safely with your winnings to-morrow—to-morrow, in broad daylight."
I had but two ideas left: one, that I must never let go hold of my
handkerchief full of money; the other, that I must lie down somewhere
immediately, and fall off into a comfortable sleep. So I agreed to the
proposal about the bed, and took the offered arm of the old soldier,
carrying my money with my disengaged hand. Preceded by the croupier, we
passed along some passages and up a flight of stairs into the bedroom
which I was to occupy. The ex-brave shook me warmly by the hand,
proposed that we should breakfast together, and then, followed by the
croupier, left me for the night.
I ran to the wash-hand stand; drank some of the water in my jug; poured
the rest out, and plunged my face into it; then sat down in a chair and
tried to compose myself. I soon felt better. The change for my lungs,
from the fetid atmosphere of the gambling-room to the cool air of the
apartment I now occupied, the almost equally refreshing change for my
eyes, from the glaring gaslights of the "salon" to the dim, quiet
flicker of one bedroom candle, aided wonderfully the restorative effects
of cold water. The giddiness left me, and I began to feel a little like
a reasonable being again. My first thought was of the risk of sleeping
all night in a gambling-house; my second, of the still greater risk of
trying to get out after the house was closed, and of going home alone at
night through the streets of Paris with a large sum of money about me. I
had slept in worse places than this on my travels; so I determined to
lock, bolt, and barricade my door, and take my chance till the next
Accordingly, I secured myself against all intrusion; looked under the bed,
and into the cupboard; tried the fastening of the window; and then,
satisfied that I had taken every proper precaution, pulled off my upper
clothing, put my light, which was a dim one, on the hearth among a
feathery litter of wood-ashes, and got into bed, with the handkerchief
full of money under my pillow.
I soon felt not only that I could not go to sleep, but that I could not
even close my eyes. I was wide awake, and in a high fever. Every nerve
in my body trembled—every one of my senses seemed to be preternaturally
sharpened. I tossed and rolled, and tried every kind of position, and
perseveringly sought out the cold corners of the bed, and all to no
purpose. Now I thrust my arms over the clothes; now I poked them under
the clothes; now I violently shot my legs straight out down to the
bottom of the bed; now I convulsively coiled them up as near my chin as
they would go; now I shook out my crumpled pillow, changed it to the
cool side, patted it flat, and lay down quietly on my back; now I
fiercely doubled it in two, set it up on end, thrust it against the
board of the bed, and tried a sitting posture. Every effort was in vain;
I groaned with vexation as I felt that I was in for a sleepless night.
What could I do? I had no book to read. And yet, unless I found out some
method of diverting my mind, I felt certain that I was in the condition
to imagine all sorts of horrors; to rack my brain with forebodings of
every possible and impossible danger; in short, to pass the night in
suffering all conceivable varieties of nervous terror.
I raised myself on my elbow, and looked about the room—which was
brightened by a lovely moonlight pouring straight through the window—to
see if it contained any pictures or ornaments that I could at all
clearly distinguish. While my eyes wandered from wall to wall, a
remembrance of Le Maistre's delightful little book, "Voyage autour de ma
Chambre," occurred to me. I resolved to imitate the French author, and
find occupation and amusement enough to relieve the tedium of my
wakefulness, by making a mental inventory of every article of furniture
I could see, and by following up to their sources the multitude of
associations which even a chair, a table, or a wash-hand stand may be
made to call forth.
In the nervous unsettled state of my mind at that moment, I found it much
easier to make my inventory than to make my reflections, and thereupon
soon gave up all hope of thinking in Le Maistre's fanciful track—or,
indeed, of thinking at all. I looked about the room at the different
articles of furniture, and did nothing more.
There was, first, the bed I was lying in; a four-post bed, of all things
in the world to meet with in Paris—yes, a thoroughly clumsy British
four-poster, with the regular top lined with chintz—the regular fringed
valance all round—the regular stifling, unwholesome curtains, which I
remembered having mechanically drawn back against the posts without
particularly noticing the bed when I first got into the room. Then there
was the marble-topped wash-hand stand, from which the water I had
spilled, in my hurry to pour it out, was still dripping, slowly and more
slowly, on to the brick floor. Then two small chairs, with my coat,
waistcoat, and trousers flung on them. Then a large elbow-chair covered
with dirty-white dimity, with my cravat and shirt collar thrown over the
back. Then a chest of drawers with two of the brass handles off, and a
tawdry, broken china inkstand placed on it by way of ornament for the
top. Then the dressing-table, adorned by a very small looking-glass, and
a very large pincushion. Then the window—an unusually large window. Then
a dark old picture, which the feeble candle dimly showed me. It was a
picture of a fellow in a high Spanish hat, crowned with a plume of
towering feathers. A swarthy, sinister ruffian, looking upward, shading
his eyes with his hand, and looking intently upward—it might be at some
tall gallows at which he was going to be hanged. At any rate, he had the
appearance of thoroughly deserving it.
This picture put a kind of constraint upon me to look upward too—at the
top of the bed. It was a gloomy and not an interesting object, and I
looked back at the picture. I counted the feathers in the man's hat—they
stood out in relief—three white, two green. I observed the crown of his
hat, which was of conical shape, according to the fashion supposed to
have been favoured by Guido Fawkes. I wondered what he was looking up
at. It couldn't be at the stars; such a desperado was neither astrologer
nor astronomer. It must be at the high gallows, and he was going to be
hanged presently. Would the executioner come into possession of his
conical crowned hat and plume of feathers? I counted the feathers
again—three white, two green.
While I still lingered over this very improving and intellectual
employment, my thoughts insensibly began to wander. The moonlight
shining into the room reminded me of a certain moonlight night in
England—the night after a picnic party in a Welsh valley. Every incident
of the drive homeward, through lovely scenery, which the moonlight made
lovelier than ever, came back to my remembrance, though I had never
given the picnic a thought for years; though, if I had tried to
recollect it, I could certainly have recalled little or nothing of that
scene long past. Of all the wonderful faculties that help to tell us we
are immortal, which speaks the sublime truth more eloquently than
memory? Here was I, in a strange house of the most suspicious character,
in a situation of uncertainty, and even of peril, which might seem to
make the cool exercise of my recollection almost out of the question;
nevertheless, remembering, quite involuntarily, places, people,
conversations, minute circumstances of every kind, which I had thought
forgotten for ever; which I could not possibly have recalled at will,
even under the most favourable auspices. And what cause had produced in
a moment the whole of this strange, complicated, mysterious effect?
Nothing but some rays of moonlight shining in at my bedroom window.
I was still thinking of the picnic—of our merriment on the drive home—of
the sentimental young lady who would quote "Childe Harold"
because it was moonlight. I was absorbed by these past scenes and past
amusements, when, in an instant, the thread on which my memories hung
snapped asunder; my attention immediately came back to present things
more vividly than ever, and I found myself, I neither knew why nor
wherefore, looking hard at the picture again.
Looking for what?
Good God! the man had pulled his hat down on his brows! No! the hat itself
was gone! Where was the conical crown? Where the feathers—three white,
two green? Not there! In place of the hat and feathers, what dusky
object was it that now hid his forehead, his eyes, his shading hand?
Was the bed moving?
I turned on my back and looked up. Was I mad? drunk? dreaming? giddy
again? or was the top of the bed really moving down—sinking slowly,
regularly, silently, horribly, right down throughout the whole of its
length and breadth—right down upon me, as I lay underneath?
My blood seemed to stand still. A deadly paralysing coldness stole all
over me as I turned my head round on the pillow and determined to test
whether the bedtop was really moving or not, by keeping my eye on the
man in the picture.
The next look in that direction was enough. The dull, black, frowzy
outline of the valance above me was within an inch of being parallel
with his waist. I still looked breathlessly. And steadily and
slowly—very slowly—I saw the figure, and the line of frame below the
figure, vanish, as the valance moved down before it.
I am, constitutionally, anything but timid. I have been on more than one
occasion in peril of my life, and have not lost my self-possession for
an instant; but when the conviction first settled on my mind that the
bed-top was really moving, was steadily and continuously sinking down
upon me, I looked up shuddering, helpless, panic-stricken, beneath the
hideous machinery for murder, which was advancing closer and closer to
suffocate me where I lay.
I looked up, motionless, speechless, breathless. The candle, fully spent,
went out; but the moonlight still brightened the room. Down and down,
without pausing and without sounding, came the bedtop, and still my
panic terror seemed to bind me faster and faster to the mattress on
which I lay—down and down it sank, till the dusty odour from the lining
of the canopy came stealing into my nostrils.
At that final moment the instinct of self-preservation startled me out of
my trance, and I moved at last. There was just room for me to roll
myself sideways off the bed. As I dropped noiselessly to the floor, the
edge of the murderous canopy touched me on the shoulder.
Without stopping to draw my breath, without wiping the cold sweat from my
face, I rose instantly on my knees to watch the bedtop. I was literally
spellbound by it. If I had heard footsteps behind me, I could not have
turned round; if a means of escape had been miraculously provided for
me, I could not have moved to take advantage of it. The whole life in me
was, at that moment, concentrated in my eyes.
It descended—the whole canopy, with the fringe round it, came
down—down—close down; so close that there was not room now to squeeze my
finger between the bedtop and the bed. I felt at the sides, and
discovered that what had appeared to me from beneath to be the ordinary
light canopy of a four-post bed was in reality a thick, broad mattress,
the substance of which was concealed by the valance and its fringe. I
looked up and saw the four posts rising hideously bare. In the middle of
the bedtop was a huge wooden screw that had evidently worked it down
through a hole in the ceiling, just as ordinary presses are worked down
on the substance selected for compression. The frightful apparatus moved
without making the faintest noise. There had been no creaking as it came
down; there was now not the faintest sound from the room above. Amid a
dead and awful silence I beheld before me—in the nineteenth century, and
in the civilized capital of France—such a machine for secret murder by
suffocation as might have existed in the worst days of the Inquisition,
in the lonely inns among the Harz Mountains, in the mysterious tribunals
of Westphalia! Still, as I looked on it, I could not move, I could
hardly breathe, but I began to recover the power of thinking, and in a
moment I discovered the murderous conspiracy framed against me in all
My cup of coffee had been drugged, and drugged too strongly. I had been
saved from being smothered by having taken an overdose of some narcotic.
How I had chafed and fretted at the fever-fit which had preserved my
life by keeping me awake! How recklessly I had confided myself to the
two wretches who had led me into this room, determined, for the sake of
my winnings, to kill me in my sleep by the surest and most horrible
contrivance for secretly accomplishing my destruction! How many men,
winners like me, had slept, as I had proposed to sleep, in that bed, and
had never been seen or heard of more! I shuddered at the bare idea of
But, ere long, all thought was again suspended by the sight of the
murderous canopy moving once more. After it had remained on the bed—as
nearly as I could guess—about ten minutes, it began to move up again.
The villains who worked it from above evidently believed that their
purpose was now accomplished. Slowly and silently, as it had descended,
that horrible bedtop rose towards its former place. When it reached the
upper extremities of the four posts, it reached the ceiling, too.
Neither hole nor screw could be seen; the bed became in appearance an
ordinary bed again—the canopy an ordinary canopy—even to the most
Now, for the first time, I was able to move—to rise from my knees—to dress
myself in my upper clothing—and to consider of how I should escape. If I
betrayed by the smallest noise that the attempt to suffocate me had
failed, I was certain to be murdered. Had I made any noise already? I
listened intently, looking towards the door.
No! no footsteps in the passage outside—no sound of a tread, light or
heavy, in the room above—absolute silence everywhere. Besides locking
and bolting my door, I had moved an old wooden chest against it, which I
had found under the bed. To remove this chest (my blood ran cold as I
thought of what its contents might be!) without making some disturbance
was impossible; and, moreover, to think of escaping through the house,
now barred up for the night, was sheer insanity. Only one chance was
left me—the window. I stole to it on tiptoe.
My bedroom was on the first floor, above an entresol, and looked into a
back street. I raised my hand to open the window, knowing that on that
action hung, by the merest hairbreadth, my chance of safety. They keep
vigilant watch in a house of murder. If any part of the frame cracked,
if the hinge creaked, I was a lost man! It must have occupied me at
least five minutes, reckoning by time—five hours, reckoning by
suspense—to open that window. I succeeded in doing it silently—in doing
it with all the dexterity of a house-breaker—and then looked down into
the street. To leap the distance beneath me would be almost certain
destruction! Next, I looked round at the sides of the house. Down the
left side ran a thick water-pipe—it passed close by the outer edge of
the window. The moment I saw the pipe I knew I was saved. My breath came
and went freely for the first time since I had seen the canopy of the
bed moving down upon me!
To some men the means of escape which I had discovered might have seemed
difficult and dangerous enough—to me the prospect of slipping
down the pipe into the street did not suggest even a thought of peril. I
had always been accustomed, by the practice of gymnastics, to keep up my
school-boy powers as a daring and expert climber; and knew that my head,
hands, and feet would serve me faithfully in any hazards of ascent or
descent. I had already got one leg over the window-sill, when I
remembered the handkerchief filled with money under my pillow. I could
well have afforded to leave it behind me, but I was revengefully
determined that the miscreants of the gambling-house should miss their
plunder as well as their victim. So I went back to the bed and tied the
heavy handkerchief at my back by my cravat.
Just as I had made it tight and fixed it in a comfortable place, I thought
I heard a sound of breathing outside the door. The chill feeling of
horror ran through me again as I listened. No! dead silence still in the
passage—I had only heard the night air blowing softly into the room. The
next moment I was on the window-sill, and the next I had a firm grip on
the water-pipe with my hands and knees.
I slid down into the street easily and quietly, as I thought I should, and
immediately set off at the top of my speed to a branch "prefecture" of
Police, which I knew was situated in the immediate neighbourhood. A "subprefect,"
and several picked men among his subordinates, happened to be up,
maturing, I believe, some scheme for discovering the perpetrator of a
mysterious murder which all Paris was talking of just then. When I began
my story, in a breathless hurry and in very bad French, I could see that
the subprefect suspected me of being a drunken Englishman who had robbed
somebody; but he soon altered his opinion as I went on, and before I had
anything like concluded, he shoved all the papers before him into a
drawer, put on his hat, supplied me with another (for I was bareheaded),
ordered a file of soldiers, desired his expert followers to get ready
all sorts of tools for breaking open doors and ripping up brick
flooring, and took my arm, in the most friendly and familiar manner
possible, to lead me with him out of the house. I will venture to say
that when the subprefect was a little boy, and was taken for the first
time to the play, he was not half as much pleased as he was now at the
job in prospect for him at the gambling-house!
Away we went through the streets, the subprefect cross-examining and
congratulating me in the same breath as we marched at the head of our
formidable posse comitatus. Sentinels were placed at the back and front
of the house the moment we got to it; a tremendous battery of knocks was
directed against the door; a light appeared at a window; I was told to
conceal myself behind the police; then came more knocks and a cry of
"Open in the name of the law!" At that terrible summons bolts and locks
gave way before an invisible hand, and the moment after the subprefect
was in the passage, confronting a waiter half dressed and ghastly pale.
This was the short dialogue which immediately took place:
"We want to see the Englishman who is sleeping in this house."
"He went away hours ago."
"He did no such thing. His friend went away; he remained. Show us
to his bedroom!"
"I swear to you, Monsieur le Sous-prefet, he is not here! he—"
"I swear to you, Monsieur le Garcon, he is. He slept here; he didn't find
your bed comfortable; he came to us to complain of it; here he is among
my men; and here am I ready to look for a flea or two in his bedstead.
Renaudin!" (calling to one of the subordinates, and pointing to the
waiter), "collar that man, and tie his hands behind him. Now then,
gentlemen, let us walk upstairs!"
Every man and woman in the house was secured—the "old soldier" the first.
Then I identified the bed in which I had slept, and then we went into
the room above.
No object that was at all extraordinary appeared in any part of it. The
subprefect looked round the place, commanded everybody to be silent,
stamped twice on the floor, called for a candle, looked attentively at
the spot he had stamped on, and ordered the flooring there to be
carefully taken up. This was done in no time. Lights were produced, and
we saw a deep raftered cavity between the floor of this room and the
ceiling of the room beneath. Through this cavity there ran
perpendicularly a sort of case of iron, thickly greased; and inside the
case appeared the screw, which communicated with the bedtop below. Extra
lengths of screw, freshly oiled; levers covered with felt; all the
complete upper works of a heavy press—constructed with infernal
ingenuity so as to join the fixtures below, and when taken to pieces
again to go into the smallest possible compass—were next discovered and
pulled out on the floor. After some little difficulty the subprefect
succeeded in putting the machinery together, and, leaving his men to
work it, descended with me to the bedroom. The smothering canopy was
then lowered, but not so noiselessly as I had seen it lowered. When I
mentioned this to the subprefect, his answer, simple as it was, had a
terrible significance. "My men," said he, "are working down the bedtop
for the first time; the men whose money you won were in better
We left the house in the sole possession of two police agents, every one
of the inmates being removed to prison on the spot. The subprefect,
after taking down my proces verbal in his office, returned with
me to my hotel to get my passport. "Do you think," I asked, as I gave it
to him, "that any men have really been smothered in that bed, as they
tried to smother me?"
"I have seen dozens of drowned men laid out at the morgue," answered the
subprefect, "in whose pocket-books were found letters stating that they
had committed suicide in the Seine, because they had lost everything at
the gaming-table. Do I know how many of those men entered the same
gambling-house that you entered? won as you won? took that
bed as you took it? slept in it? were smothered in it? and were
privately thrown into the river, with a letter of explanation written by
the murderers and placed in their pocket-books? No man can say how many
or how few have suffered the fate from which you have escaped. The
people of the gambling-house kept their bedstead machinery a secret from
us—even from the police! The dead kept the rest of the secret for
them. Good-night, or rather good-morning, Monsieur Faulkner! Be at my
office again at nine o'clock; in the meantime, au revoir!"
The rest of my story is soon told. I was examined and reexamined; the
gambling-house was strictly searched all through from top to bottom; the
prisoners were separately interrogated, and two of the less guilty among
them made a confession. I discovered that the old soldier was master of
the gambling-house—justice discovered that he had been drummed
out of the army as a vagabond years ago; that he had been guilty of all
sorts of villainies since; that he was in possession of stolen property,
which the owners identified; and that he, the croupier, another
accomplice, and the woman who had made my cup of coffee were all in the
secret of the bedstead. There appeared some reason to doubt whether the
inferior persons attached to the house knew anything of the suffocating
machinery; and they received the benefit of that doubt, by being treated
simply as thieves and vagabonds. As for the old soldier and his two head
myrmidons, they went to the galleys; the woman who had drugged my coffee
was imprisoned for I forget how many years; the regular attendants at
the gambling-house were considered "suspicious," and placed under
"surveillance"; and I became, for one whole week (which is a long time),
the head "lion" in Parisian society. My adventure was dramatised by
three illustrious play-makers, but never saw theatrical daylight; for
the censorship forbade the introduction on the stage of a correct copy
of the gambling-house bedstead.
One good result was produced by my adventure, which any censorship must
have approved: it cured me of ever again trying rouge-et-noir as an
amusement. The sight of a green cloth, with packs of cards and heaps of
money on it, will henceforth be for ever associated in my mind with the
sight of a bed canopy descending to suffocate me in the silence and
darkness of the night.
Just as Mr. Faulkner pronounced these words he started in his chair, and
resumed his stiff, dignified position in a great hurry. "Bless my soul!"
cried he, with a comic look of astonishment and vexation, "while I have
been telling you what is the real secret of my interest in the sketch
you have so kindly given to me, I have altogether forgotten that I came
here to sit for my portrait. For the last hour or more I must have been
the worst model you ever had to draw from!"
"On the contrary, you have been the best," said I. "I have been trying to
catch your likeness; and, while telling your story, you have
unconsciously shown me the natural expression I wanted to insure my
NOTE BY MRS. KERBY
I cannot let this story end without mentioning what the chance saying was
which caused it to be told at the farmhouse the other night. Our friend
the young sailor, among his other quaint objections to sleeping on
shore, declared that he particularly hated four-post beds, because he
never slept in one without doubting whether the top might not come down
in the night and suffocate him. I thought this chance reference to the
distinguishing feature of William's narrative curious enough, and my
husband agreed with me. But he says it is scarcely worth while to
mention such a trifle in anything so important as a book. I cannot
venture, after this, to do more than slip these lines in modestly at the
end of the story. If the printer should notice my few last words,
perhaps he may not mind the trouble of putting them into some
out-of-the-way corner, in very small type.