A Vision of the Night by Edmund Leamy

One wild, stormy night over twenty years ago I entered a second-class smoking carriage in the last train from Dublin to Bray. So wild was the night that it was with great difficulty my cab horse had been able to drag along his rumbling vehicle through the streets swept clear of pedestrians by the blinding sheets of rain. The station was, except for one or two porters, completely deserted. I arrived just as the train, which was almost empty, was about to start, and I entered a carriage with two compartments, in neither of which was there any other passenger. All the windows were closed, and for the few seconds before the train started I enjoyed the luxury of the quiet that contrasted so pleasantly with the storm that was howling outside. But as soon as the train had moved out from the station the rain began to rattle like hail against the windows, and I could hear the wind strike the carriages, and the oil lamps in the roof flash and flicker, so that I expected them every moment to go out. I was muffled up to the throat, and was solacing myself with a cigar and the thought of the bright fire that I knew would greet me on arriving at my destination, and helped to raise my feelings. I was staying at Bray in the house of my sister, who, however, was with her husband in Scotland, and would not return for some days, and the only other occupant of the house besides myself was an old woman who acted as housekeeper for me. She would have gone to bed long before my arrival, but I knew from experience that she would take care to leave for me in the parlour a cheery fire and a comfortable supper.

I took no note of the stations at which we stopped, and it is only a conjecture on my part that it was at a station about half way between Dublin and Bray that an old gentleman entered the compartment in which I was. As he came in, a cold blast of air swept into the carriage, and made little whirlpools of the sawdust that had been spread on the floor. I shivered as the icy blast caught me, but I was almost ashamed of my weakness, well-clad as I was, when I looked at the old gentleman who sat opposite me. He was thinly clad in an ill-fitting coat; his face was wan and haggard; his slouched hat was shining with wet; and the rain was streaming from his white beard that descended to his breast. He took off his hat and shook and squeezed it. I then noticed that his white hair was scant. His brow was furrowed by many wrinkles. His eyebrows were white and bushy. His eyes were light blue, the lightest, I think, I had ever seen, and they were very mild—mild almost to sadness. I made some remark upon the weather. My fellow traveller answered in a weak, thin voice that it ‘was cold, very cold, and cut to the bone like a knife.’ I felt somehow that the old gentleman was poor and miserable. Indeed, he shivered visibly several times. He did not appear in a mood for conversation, and I continued to smoke in silence till we reached Bray. Here the porters opened the door, and I stepped out. I gave my hand to the old gentleman and helped him to alight, for which he thanked me in a mild voice. The station, as that of Dublin had been, was deserted but for the porters. The old gentleman and myself were the only passengers. I went down to the van to get some heavy luggage and give it in charge of the porters as there was no chance of getting it brought to my house that night. When I had seen to this I left the station. I saw no sign of my fellow-traveller and supposed he had gone his way. I could not help thinking of him as I pursued mine, and I was irritating myself with the question whether he might not have been in need of some help which I could have given him. But I ceased to think of him and his needs when I reached the esplanade.

The storm was sweeping the spray from the roaring waves right up against the faces of the houses, and the night was so intensely dark and most of the lamps having been blown out, it was with difficulty I kept the path. My house was half way between the railway station and Bray Head. A few steps led up to the door. The fierce wind almost carried me up the steps, and when by means of my latch-key I opened the door it swept inwards with a bang against the wall, and the pictures hanging in the hall were lifted up and fell back with a succession of slaps loud as pistol shots. With the utmost difficulty I pressed back the door. I was so cold and drenched with the rain and spray that I did not wait to lock it, but closed it securely. Flinging off my overcoat I hurried into the parlour where a light was burning and a bright fire blazing. I was shivering from head to foot. Having taken off my boots that were damp, I flung myself into the armchair in front of the fire.

The influence of the fire quickly asserted itself, and a feeling of pleasant languor crept over me, although the wind that buffeted the windows and made them rattle moaned like a soul in pain. Soon the sound seemed to grow fainter and fainter, and I felt the lids closing on my eyes, and was half conscious that sleep was gently dulling my senses, when suddenly a cold blast of air chilled the room, and the loud booming of the sea sounded almost at my ear. I jumped up and turned towards the parlour door. It was open, and on the threshold stood my fellow traveller. Although I was wide awake I looked upon him as if he were a spectre, and I found it impossible to utter a word. His hat was in his hand, and his white hair fell over his face, and from his long beard the rain was dripping. He advanced towards me timidly, and, bowing low, said—

“I hope you will forgive me, sir. I am a stranger here, and I know not where to seek a bed to-night. I followed you aimlessly, but when you came up the steps and entered your house, and I found myself alone with the sea and the wind and the night, I knew not what to do. I felt the need of being near some human being, and I crept up to your door, intending to pass the night against it, the other houses were all so cold and dark. I was standing for a few minutes when a flash of lightning showed me the latch-key which you had forgotten to remove. An impulse, impossible to resist, overcame me. I opened the door as softly as I could, taking advantage of a lull in the storm, and entered the hall. I would have remained there, but the light that shone from your room tempted me, and I pushed open the door. It was wrong, I know; but I am old and lonely and somewhat fearsome, and you’ll forgive me.”

I recovered my composure as the old man was speaking, and there was so deep a pathos in his voice, and he swayed so as he spoke, that a feeling of compassion took possession of me, to the exclusion of all other feelings. I forgot completely the strangeness of the situation, and taking the old man by the hand I led him to the chair which I had just occupied, and placed before him the decanter. It seemed to me that a strange glitter troubled the soft blue eyes. He poured out a tumblerful and drained it in a breath. Taking another chair I sat at the side of the fire, lit a cigar, and handed one to my companion. Smoking, as every lover of the weed knows, is conducive to silence, and my mind soon became lazily occupied in watching the smoke-wreath from my cigar mingle with that of my companion. He spoke not, and after a while I noticed that he had ceased to smoke, and that the cigar was going out, as his right hand, in the fingers of which he was holding it, remained motionless on his knee. His head had dropped on his breast, and his heavy breathing satisfied me that he was asleep.

I began to feel as if I were in a dream that was not all a dream. I was conscious of the blue smoke rising from my cigar. It floated away from me like a mist. After a while the mist cleared, and I thought I saw a stream slowly gliding through woodland ways, and I followed it till it passed by the foot of a noble ash tree, that bent down and spread its lower branches half across it. And beneath the ash and against its trunk I saw a youth and a maiden sitting side by side. She held his hand in hers. His lips were moving, and he was whispering something that filled her eyes with a light as of summer stars. Her little mouth opened like a rosebud yielding to the sun, as if to answer him, when suddenly a deeper shadow than that cast by the bending branches of the ash fell upon the lovers. The youth was dragged to the ground, and as the maiden shrieked, a knife was driven into his throat by a man whose face I could not see. I strove to cry out, but my voice failed me. I struggled as if a great weight were pressing me down. At last I shook myself free with the wild scream ringing in my ears. I looked around. My companion was sitting in his chair, apparently in deep sleep. The half consumed cigar had dropped from his hands. I felt so shaken by what I had seen, or dreamed, that I was about to awaken him when a new horror took away my powers of action. Sitting on the ground close to my companion and with his head resting upon the old man’s knees, was the figure of the murdered youth whom I had seen slain beneath the ash tree. His eyes were open and staring, his face was wan and white. In his throat was a jagged gash, and around the edges were seams of clotted blood. His fingers were slashed and bloody, as if he had struggled hard with his murderer. I looked from the dead man to the sleeper. He was breathing lightly, and a smile like that of a child parted his lips. But as I continued to look at him I noticed that they began to twitch convulsively, then his whole frame shook as if a fierce tempest of passion were raging in his heart. He started from his chair—the dead man fell upon the floor. I rushed instinctively, and yet with a horrible dread, to lift him up, but as I was stretching out my hands for that purpose I felt myself gripped by the throat by the skinny hands of the old man. His eyes that I had thought so mild had a hard glitter in them, and his haggard face was convulsed with passion. It cost me a great effort, although I was young and strong, to loose his grip, but at length I flung him back on his chair. He sat for a second like one dazed. Then he raised his hands in supplication, and the tears stole from his eyes, that were again as mild looking as when I first saw them.

“I was dreaming. I—I thought—I thought—but that was long ago, and you’ll forgive me.”

I didn’t quite know how to answer him, I was not sure that I had not been, was not dreaming myself. The dead youth was, of course, only a ghastly vision, and, perhaps, the old man’s hands had been already on my throat when I fancied I saw the deed of murder under the ash tree. It seemed to me useless to seek any explanation from my unbidden guest, who began to appear to me uncanny.

“I’ll go, I’ll go,” he said as I kept looking towards him, “the morning will soon be here now. I am not afraid of the morning, only of the night—the black night, for then it all comes back to me, and I see them as I saw them on that evening so long ago. Hundreds of years ago, I think, since they and I were young. And now I am old, so old.”

“Who are they? When was it?” I asked, scarcely indeed, expecting any serious answer, but it seemed to me as if I kept the unhappy man at arm’s length by talking to him. I felt I could crush him with a blow, but I suppose it was owing to the shock which I had undergone in the hideous dream from which his attack had roused me that made me afraid of him, for afraid I was.

I had thought that at farthest only a few hours had passed since I entered the parlour, but the stranger was nearer the truth. The morning was almost at hand. Through the chinks of the shutters a grey light began to show itself. I flung them back, pulled up the blind, and could see the sea still raging, but the wind had died away, and in the east there was a faint rose-coloured streak.

When I turned back the old gentleman was pouring himself out a glass of whisky. His hand trembled as he lifted it to his lips. When he had set down the tumbler, having drained it, he said:

“The morning has come. You are very good, I go. I was wrong; but I knew not what I was doing, and I have suffered.”

I no longer feared him. As the light of the morning increased I saw only the haggard, worn old man, whose face was itself a witness of long suffering, and I felt a great pity for him. There was some bread and butter and cold meat on the sideboard, which had been left there by the housekeeper the night before. I pointed to it. He said he would take a little bread. I pressed him to eat some meat, but he refused. Then, as he turned to leave the room, I put my hand in my pocket and produced some silver. A faint flush stole into his wasted face, and I saw I had offended him. I apologised. He thanked me for my kindness in offering it to him, and also for my hospitality, and begged me to forgive him for his intrusion and the trouble he had caused. With a low bow he left the room. I followed, but he had opened the hall door himself and passed out on to the esplanade without looking back.

I returned to the parlour, and flinging myself into the chair began to recall the events of the night, and had been for some time vainly speculating on them when I was disturbed by the housekeeper entering the room to make arrangements for breakfast.

She saw at a glance that I had not been to bed. I did not like to communicate my experience to her, but the day following I saw in the daily papers the account of the escape of a lunatic from the Dundrum Criminal Lunatic Asylum. The description, save as to the clothes, tallied with that of the old man. There was a further announcement stating that he had been found wandering in the direction of Enniskerry, and had been brought back to the asylum.

It so happened that I knew one of the physicians that attended the Dundrum Institution, and when I met him a few days after, without giving him any hint of my acquaintance with the object of my inquiry, asked him what he knew concerning the old man, and suggested that my curiosity had been aroused solely by the account of the escape which appeared in the newspapers.

“It is a very sad story,” he said. “The old man has been confined for over forty years for a terrible crime committed when he was a young man of about five-and-twenty. He was enamoured of a lady, whose love he believed he had secured. She had accepted him, and they were to have been married in a few months. Rumours were brought to him that the lady was listening to the whispers of another suitor. He soon discovered that the rumours were well founded. The fiercest jealousy completely took possession of him, and undoubtedly deprived him of his senses, he one day surprised the pair, sitting together beneath a tree on the banks of a stream not far from the lady’s house, beside which he and she had often wandered before their vows were plighted. Stung to ungovernable rage by this sight, he killed the young man, gashing his throat with a knife in the most shocking manner. The lady was unharmed; but the tragedy took away her reason, and she died within a few months of the dreadful occurrence. The murderer made no attempt to deny his crime; on the contrary, he talked about it freely to anyone who would listen. He was tried, and, of course, convicted; but the Lord Lieutenant, being satisfied that the wretched man was insane, commuted his sentence, and it was ordered that he should be kept in confinement during Her Majesty’s pleasure. As a rule he is very gentle, but sometimes—and always at night—he becomes very violent, and the attendants have to be on their guard against him.”

“It is, indeed,” said I, “a sad story.”