The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 2: The Ostler
Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 12, Extra Christmas issue (1855)
Introductory Note: “The Holly-Tree Inn” is a portmanteau story, or a story written by several authors. The portmanteau story lends itself well to the medium of weekly publications. It allows for authors to work together to compile a single plot rather quickly. Such stories increased in popularity during the Victorian era. Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and others all contributed to write this special Christmas extra.
This second portion of the story, “The Ostler,” was written by Wilkie Collins. It continues the spooky and spectral themes established in “The Guest,” and relates a chilling tale of warning visions, family troubles, and attempted murder.
Advisory: This story contains references to suicidal ideation.
This entry was published as the second of seven parts:
- The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 1: The Guest (1855)
- The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 2: The Ostler (1855)
- The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 3: The Boots (1855)
- The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 4: The Landlord (1855)
- The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 5: The Barmaid (1855)
- The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 6: The Poor Pensioner (1855)
- The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 7: The Bill (1855)
I FIND find an old man, fast asleep, in one of the stalls of the stable. It is mid-day, and rather a strange time for an ostler to devote to sleep. Something curious, too, about the man’s face. A withered woe-begone face. The eyebrows painfully contracted; the mouth fast set, and drawn down at the corners; the hollow cheeks sadly, and, as I cannot help fancying, prematurely wrinkled; the scanty, grizzled hair, telling weakly its own tale of some past sorrow or suffering. How fast he draws his breath, too, for a man asleep! He is talking in his sleep.
“Wake up!” I hear him say, in a quick whisper through his fast-clenched teeth. “Wake up there! Murder! O Lord help me! Lord help me, alone in this place!”
He stops, and sighs again—moves one lean arm slowly, till it rests over his throat—shudders a little, and turns on his straw––the arm leaves his throat—the hand stretches itself out, and clutches at the side towards which he has turned, as if he fancies himself to be grasping at the edge of something. Is he waking? No—there is the whisper again; he is still talking in his sleep.
“Light grey eyes,” he says now, “and a droop in the left eyelid. Yes! yes! —flaxen hair with a gold-yellow streak in it—all right, mother—fair, white arms with a down on them—little lady’s hand, with a reddish look under the finger-nails—and the knife—always the cursed knife—first on one side, then on the other. Aha! you she-devil, where’s the knife? Never mind, mother—too late now. I’ve promised to marry, and marry I must. Murder! wake up there! for God’s sake, wake up!”
At the last words his voice rises, and he grows so restless on a sudden, that I draw back quietly to the door. I see him shudder on the straw—his withered face grows distorted—he throws up both his hands with a quick, hysterical gasp; they strike against the bottom of the manger under which he lies; the blow awakens him; I have just time to slip through the door, before his eyes are fairly open and his senses are his own again.
What I have seen and heard has so startled and shocked me, that I feel my heart beating fast, as I softly and quickly retrace my steps across the inn-yard. The discomposure that is going on within me, apparently shows itself in my face; for, as I get back to the covered way leading to the Inn stairs, the landlord, who is just coming out of the house to ring some bell in the yard, stops astonished, and asks what is the matter with me? I tell him what I have just seen.
“Aha!” says the landlord, with an air of relief. “I understand now. Poor old chap! He was only dreaming his old dream over again. There’s the queerest story—of a dreadful kind, too, mind you—connected with him and his dream, that ever was told.”
I entreat the landlord to tell me the story. After a little hesitation, he complies with my request.
Some years ago, there lived in the suburbs of a large sea-port town, on the west coast of England, a man in humble circumstances, by name Isaac Scatchard. His means of subsistence were derived from any employment that he could get, as an ostler; and, occasionally, when times went well with him, from temporary engagements in service, as stable-helper in private houses. Though a faithful, steady, and honest man, he got on badly in his calling. His ill-luck was proverbial among his neighbours. He was always missing good opportunities, by no fault of his own; and always living longest in service with amiable people who were not punctual payers of wages. “Unlucky Isaac” was his nickname in his own neighbourhood—and no one could say that he did not richly deserve it.
With far more than one man’s fair share of adversity to endure, Isaac had but one consolation to support him—and that was of the dreariest and most negative kind. He had no wife and children to increase his anxieties and add to the bitterness of his various failures in life. It might have been from mere insensibility, or it might have been from generous unwillingness to involve another in his own unlucky destiny—but the fact undoubtedly was, that he arrived at the middle term of life without marrying; and, what is much more remarkable, without once exposing himself, from eighteen to eight and thirty, to the genial imputation of ever having had a sweetheart. When he was out of service, he lived alone with his widowed mother. Mrs. Scatchard was a woman above the average in her lowly station, as to capacities and manners. She had seen better days, as the phrase is; but she never referred to them in the presence of curious visitors; and, though perfectly polite to every one who approached her, never cultivated any intimacies among her neighbours. She contrived to provide, hardly enough, for her simple wants, by doing rough work for the tailors; and always managed to keep a decent home for her son to return to, whenever his ill-luck drove him out helpless into the world.
One bleak autumn, when Isaac was getting on fast towards forty, and when he was, as usual, out of place, through no fault of his own, he set forth from his mother’s cottage on a long walk inland to a gentleman’s seat, where he had heard that a stable-helper was required. It wanted then but two days of his birthday; and Mrs. Scatchard, with her usual fondness, made him promise, before he started, that he would be back in time to keep that anniversary with her, in as festive a way as their poor means would allow. It was easy for him to comply with this request, even supposing he slept a night each way on the road. He was to start from home on Monday morning; and, whether he got the new place or not, he was to be back for his birthday dinner on Wednesday at two o’clock.
Arriving at his destination too late on the Monday night to make application for the stable-helper’s place, he slept at the village-inn, and, in good time on Tuesday morning, presented himself at the gentleman’s house, to fill the vacant situation. Here, again, his ill-luck pursued him as inexorably as ever. The excellent written testimonials, as to character, which he was able to produce, availed him nothing; his long walk had been taken in vain—only the day before, the stable-helper’s place had been given to another man.
Isaac accepted this new disappointment resignedly, and as a matter of course. Naturally slow in capacity, he had the bluntness of sensibility and phlegmatic patience of disposition which frequently distinguish men with sluggishly-working mental powers. He thanked the gentleman’s steward, with his usual quiet civility, for granting him an interview, and took his departure with no appearance of unusual depression in his face or manner. Before starting on his homeward walk, he made some enquiries at the inn, and ascertained that he might save a few miles, on his return, by following a new road. Furnished with full instructions, several times repeated, as to the various turnings he was to take, he set forth for his homeward journey, and walked on all day with only one stoppage for bread and cheese. Just as it was getting towards dark, the rain came on and the wind began to rise; and he found himself, to make matters worse, in a part of the country with which he was entirely unacquainted, though he knew himself to be some fifteen miles from home. The first house he found to inquire at was a lonely road-side inn, standing on the outskirts of a thick wood. Solitary as the place looked, it was welcome to a lost man who was also hungry, thirsty, footsore, and wet. The landlord was a civil, respectable-looking man; and the price he asked for a bed was reasonable enough. Isaac, therefore, decided on stopping comfortably at the inn for that night.
He was constitutionally a temperate man. His supper simply consisted of two rashers of bacon, a slice of home-made bread, and a pint of ale. He did not go to bed immediately after this moderate meal, but sat up with the landlord talking about his bad prospects and his long run of ill-luck, and diverging from these topics to the subject of horse-flesh and racing. Nothing was said either by himself, his host, or the few labourers who strayed into the tap-room, which could, in the slightest degree, excite the very small and very dull imaginative faculty which Isaac Scatchard possessed.
At a little after eleven the house was closed. Isaac went round with the landlord and held the candle while the doors and lower-windows were being secured. He noticed with surprise the strength of the bolts, bars, and iron-sheathed shutters.
“You see, we are rather lonely here,” said the landlord. “We never have had any attempts made to break in yet, but it’s always as well to be on the safe side. When nobody is sleeping here, I am the only man in the house. My wife and daughter are timid, and the servant-girl takes after her missusses. Another glass of ale, before you turn in? —No! —Well, how such a sober man as you comes to be out of a place is more than I can make out, for one. —Here’s where you’re to sleep. You’re our only lodger to-night, and I think you’ll say my missus has done her best to make you comfortable. You’re quite sure you won’t have another glass of ale? —Very well. Good night.”
It was half-past eleven by the clock in the passage as they went up-stairs to the bedroom, the window of which looked on to the wood at the back of the house. Isaac locked the door, set his candle on the chest of drawers, and wearily got ready for bed. The bleak autumn wind was still blowing, and the solemn, monotonous, surging moan of it in the wood was dreary and awful to hear through the night-silence. Isaac felt strangely wakeful, and resolved, as he lay down in bed, to keep the candle a-light until he began to grow sleepy; for there was something unendurably depressing in the bare idea of lying awake in the darkness, listening to the dismal, ceaseless moaning of the wind in the wood.
Sleep stole on him before he was aware of it. His eyes closed, and he fell off insensibly to rest, without having so much as thought of extinguishing the candle.
The first sensation of which he was conscious after sinking into slumber, was a strange shivering that ran through him suddenly from head to foot, and a dreadful sinking pain at the heart, such as he had never felt before. The shivering only disturbed his slumbers—the pain woke him instantly. In one moment he passed from a state of sleep to a state of wakefulness—his eyes wide open—his mental perceptions cleared on a sudden as if by a miracle.
The candle had burnt down nearly to the last morsel of tallow; but the top of the unsnuffed wick had just fallen off, and the light in the little room was, for the moment, fair and full. Between the foot of his bed and the closed door there stood a woman with a knife in her hand, looking at him. He was stricken speechless with terror, but he did not lose the preternatural clearness of his faculties; and he never took his eyes off the woman. She said not one word as they stared each other in the face; but she began to move slowly towards the left-hand side of the bed.
His eyes followed her. She was a fair, fine woman, with yellowish flaxen hair, and light grey eyes, with a droop in the left eyelid. He noticed those things and fixed them on his mind, before she was round at the side of the bed. Speechless, with no expression in her face, with no noise following her footfall, —she came closer and closer—stopped—and slowly raised the knife. He laid his right arm over his throat to save it; but, as he saw the knife coming down, threw his hand across the bed to the right side, and jerked his body over that way, just as the knife descended on the mattress within an inch of his shoulder.
His eyes fixed on her arm and hand, as she slowly drew the knife out of the bed. A white, well-shaped arm, with a pretty down lying lightly over the fair skin. A delicate, lady’s hand, with the crowning beauty of a pink flush under and round the finger-nails.
She drew the knife out, and passed back again slowly to the foot of the bed; stopped there for a moment looking at him; then came on—still speechless, still with no expression on the blank, beautiful face, still with no sound following the stealthy footfalls—came on to the right side of the bed where he now lay. As she approached, she raised the knife again, and he drew himself away to the left side. She struck, as before, right into the mattress, with a deliberate, perpendicularly-downward action of the arm. This time his eyes wandered from her to the knife. It was like the large clasp knives which he had often seen labouring men use to cut their bread and bacon with. Her delicate little fingers did not conceal more than two thirds of the handle; he noticed that it was made of buck-horn, clean and shining as the blade was, and looking like new.
For the second time she drew the knife out, concealed it in the wide sleeve of her gown, then stopped by the bedside, watching him. For an instant he saw her standing in that position—then the wick of the spent candle fell over into the socket. The flame diminished to a little blue point, and the room grew dark. A moment, or less, if possible, passed so—and then the wick flamed up, smokily, for the last time. His eyes were still looking eagerly over the right-hand side of the bed when the final flash of light came, but they discerned nothing. The fair woman with the knife was gone.
The conviction that he was alone again, weakened the hold of the terror that had struck him dumb up to this time. The preternatural sharpness which the very intensity of his panic had mysteriously imparted to his faculties, left them suddenly. His brain grew confused—his heart beat wildly—his ears opened for the first time since the appearance of the woman, to a sense of the woful, ceaseless moaning of the wind among the trees. With the dreadful conviction of the reality of what he had seen, still strong within him, he leapt out of the bed, and screaming— “Murder! —Wake up, there, wake up!” —dashed headlong through the darkness to the door.
It was fast locked, exactly as he had left it on going to bed.
His cries on starting up, had alarmed the house. He heard the terrified, confused, exclamations of women; he saw the master of the house approaching along the passage, with his burning rush-candle in one hand and his gun in the other.
“What is it?” asked the landlord, breathlessly.
Isaac could only answer in a whisper: “A woman, with a knife in her hand,” he gasped out. “In my room—a fair, yellow-haired woman; she jobbed at me with the knife, twice over.”
The landlord’s pale cheeks grew paler. He looked at Isaac eagerly by the flickering light of his candle; and his face began to get red again—his voice altered, too, as well as his complexion.
“She seems to have missed you twice,” he said.
“I dodged the knife as it came down,” Isaac went on, in the same scared whisper. “It struck the bed each time.”
The landlord took his candle into the bedroom immediately. In less than a minute he came out again into the passage in a violent passion.
“The devil fly away with you and your woman with the knife! What do you mean by coming into a man’s place and frightening his family out of their wits about a dream?”
“I’ll leave your house,” said Isaac, faintly. “Better out on the road, in rain and dark, on my way home, than back again in that room after what I’ve seen in it. Lend me a light to get on my clothes by, and tell me what I’m to pay.”
“Pay!” cried the landlord, leading the way with his light sulkily into the bedroom. “You’ll find your score on the slate when you go down stairs. I wouldn’t have taken you in for all the money you’ve got about you, if I’d known your dreaming, screeching ways beforehand. Look at the bed. Where’s the cut of a knife in it? Look at the window—is the lock bursted? Look at the door (which I heard you fasten myself) —is it broke in? A murdering woman with a knife in my house! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Isaac answered not a word. He huddled on his clothes; and then they went down stairs together.
“Nigh on twenty minutes past two!” said the landlord, as they passed the clock. “A nice time in the morning to frighten honest people out of their wits!”
Isaac paid his bill, and the landlord let him out at the front door, asking, with a grin of contempt, as he undid the strong fastenings, whether “the murdering woman got in that way?” They parted without a word on either side. The rain had ceased; but the night was dark, and the wind bleaker than ever. Little did the darkness, or the cold, or the uncertainty about his way home, matter to Isaac. If he had been turned out into a wilderness in a thunder-storm, it would have been a relief, after what he had suffered in the bedroom of the inn.
What was the fair woman with the knife? The creature of a dream, or that other creature from the unknown world called among men by the name of ghost? He could make nothing of the mystery––had made nothing of it, even when it was mid-day on Wednesday, and when he stood, at last, after many times missing his road, once more on the doorstep of home.
His mother came out eagerly to receive him. His face told her in a moment that something was wrong.
“I’ve lost the place; but that’s my luck. I dreamed an ill dream last night, mother—or, may be, I saw a ghost. Take it either way, it scared me out of my senses, and I’m not my own man again yet.”
“Isaac! your face frightens me. Come in to the fire. Come in, and tell mother all about it.”
He was as anxious to tell as she was to hear; for it had been his hope, all the way home, that his mother, with her quicker capacity and superior knowledge, might be able to throw some light on the mystery which he could not clear up for himself. His memory of the dream was still mechanically vivid, though his thoughts were entirely confused by it.
His mother’s face grew paler and paler as he went on. She never interrupted him by so much as a single word; but when he had done, she moved her chair close to his, put her arm round his neck, and said to him:
“Isaac, you dreamed your ill dream on this Wednesday morning. What time was it when you saw the fair woman with the knife in her hand?”
Isaac reflected on what the landlord had said when they passed by the clock on his leaving the inn—allowed as nearly as he could for the time that must have elapsed between the unlocking of his bedroom door and the paying of his bill just before going away, and answered:
“Somewhere about two o’clock in the morning.”
His mother suddenly quitted her hold of his neck, and struck her hands together with a gesture of despair.
“This Wednesday is your birthday Isaac; and two o’clock in the morning was the time when you were born!”
Isaac’s capacities were not quick enough to catch the infection of his mother’s superstitious dread. He was amazed and a little startled also, when she suddenly rose from her chair, opened her old writing-desk, took out pen and ink and paper, and then said to him:
“Your memory is but a poor one, Isaac, and now I’m an old woman, mine’s not much better. I want all about this dream of yours to be as well known to both of us, years hence, as it is now. Tell me over again all you told me a minute ago, when you spoke of what the woman with the knife looked like.”
Isaac obeyed, and marvelled much as he saw his mother carefully set down on paper the very words that he was saying. “Light grey eyes,” she wrote, as they came to the descriptive part, “with a droop in the left eyelid. Flaxen hair, with a gold-yellow streak in it. White arms, with a down on them. Little lady’s hand, with a reddish look about the finger-nails. Clasp knife with a buck-horn handle, that seemed as good as new.” To these particulars, Mrs. Scatchard added the year, month, day of the week, and time in the morning, when the woman of the dream appeared to her son. She then locked up the paper carefully in her writing-desk.
Neither on that day, nor on any day after, could her son induce her to return to the matter of the dream. She obstinately kept her thoughts about it to herself, and even refused to refer again to the paper in her writing-desk. Ere long, Isaac grew weary of attempting to make her break her resolute silence; and time, which sooner or later, wears out all things, gradually wore out the impression produced on him by the dream. He began by thinking of it carelessly, and he ended by not thinking of it at all. This result was the more easily brought about by the advent of some important changes for the better in his prospects, which commenced not long after his terrible night’s experience at the inn. He reaped at last the reward of his long and patient suffering under adversity, by getting an excellent place, keeping it for seven years, and leaving it, on the death of his master, not only with an excellent character, but also with a comfortable annuity bequeathed to him as a reward for saving his mistress’s life in a carriage accident. Thus it happened that Isaac Scatchard returned to his old mother, seven years after the time of the dream at the inn, with an annual sum of money at his disposal, sufficient to keep them both in ease and independence for the rest of their lives.
The mother, whose health had been bad of late years, profited so much by the care bestowed on her and by freedom from money anxieties, that when Isaac’s next birthday came round, she was able to sit up comfortably at table and dine with him.
On that day, as the evening drew on, Mrs. Scatchard discovered that a bottle of tonic medicine––which she was accustomed to take, and in which she had fancied that a dose or more was still left––happened to be empty. Isaac immediately volunteered to go to the chemist’s, and get it filled again. It was as rainy and bleak an autumn night as on the memorable past occasion when he lost his way and slept at the roadside inn.
On going into the chemist’s shop, he was passed hurriedly by a poorly-dressed woman coming out of it. The glimpse he had of her face struck him, and he looked back after her as she descended the door-steps.
“You’re noticing that woman?” said the chemist’s apprentice behind the counter. “It’s my opinion there’s something wrong with her. She’s been asking for laudanum to put to a bad tooth. Master’s out for half an hour; and I told her I wasn’t allowed to sell poison to strangers in his absence. She laughed in a queer way, and said she would come back in half an hour. If she expects master to serve her, I think she’ll be disappointed. It’s a case of suicide, sir, if ever there was one yet.”
These words added immeasurably to the sudden interest in the woman which Isaac had felt at the first sight of her face. After he had got the medicine-bottle filled, he looked about anxiously for her, as soon as he was out in the street. She was walking slowly up and down on the opposite side of the road. With his heart, very much to his own surprise, beating fast, Isaac crossed over and spoke to her.
He asked if she was in any distress. She pointed to her torn shawl, her scanty dress, her crushed, dirty bonnet—then moved under a lamp so as to let the light fall on her stern, pale, but still most beautiful face.
“I look like a comfortable, happy woman—don’t I?” she said with a bitter laugh.
She spoke with a purity of intonation which Isaac had never heard before from other than ladies’ lips. Her slightest actions seemed to have the easy negligent grace of a thorough-bred woman. Her skin, for all its poverty-stricken paleness, was as delicate as if her life had been passed in the enjoyment of every social comfort that wealth can purchase. Even her small, finely-shaped hands, gloveless as they were, had not lost their whiteness.
Little by little, in answer to his question, the sad story of the woman came out. There is no need to relate it here; it is told over and over again in Police Reports and paragraphs about Attempted Suicides.
“My name is Rebecca Murdoch,” said the woman, as she ended. “I have ninepence left, and I thought of spending it at the chemist’s over the way in securing a passage to the other world. Whatever it is, it can’t be worse to me than this—so why should I stop here?”
Besides the natural compassion and sadness moved in his heart by what he heard, Isaac felt within him some mysterious influence at work all the time the woman was speaking, which utterly confused his ideas and almost deprived him of his powers of speech. All that he could say in answer to her last reckless words was, that he would prevent her from attempting her own life, if he followed her about all night to do it. His rough, trembling earnestness seemed to impress her.
“I won’t occasion you that trouble,” she answered, when he repeated his threat. “You have given me a fancy for living by speaking kindly to me. No need for the mockery of protestations and promises. You may believe me without them. Come to Fuller’s Meadow to-morrow at twelve, and you will find me alive, to answer for myself. No! -no money. My ninepence will do to get me as good a night’s lodging as I want.”
She nodded and left him. He made no attempt to follow—he felt no suspicion that she was deceiving him.
“It’s strange, but I can’t help believing her,” he said to himself—and walked away, bewildered, towards home.
On entering the house his mind was still so completely absorbed by its new subject of interest, that he took no notice of what his mother was doing when he came in with the bottle of medicine. She had opened her old writing-desk in his absence, and was now reading a paper attentively that lay inside it. On every birthday of Isaac’s since she had written down the particulars of his dream from his own lips, she had been accustomed to read the same paper, and ponder over it in private.
The next day he went to Fuller’s-Meadow. He had done only right in believing her so implicitly—she was there, punctual to a minute, to answer for herself. The last-left faint defences in Isaac’s heart against the fascination which a word or look from her began inscrutably to exercise over him, sank down and vanished before her for ever on that memorable morning.
When a man, previously insensible to the influence of women, forms an attachment in middle life, the instances are rare indeed, let the warning circumstances be what they may, in which he is found capable of freeing himself from the tyranny of the new ruling passion. The charm of being spoken to familiarly, fondly, and gratefully by a woman whose language and manners still retained enough of their early refinement to hint at the high social station that she had lost, would have been a dangerous luxury to a man of Isaac’s rank at the age of twenty. But it was far more than that—it was certain ruin to him—now that his heart was opening unworthily to a new influence, at that middle time of life when strong feelings of all kinds, once implanted, strike root most stubbornly in a man’s moral nature. A few more stolen interviews after that first morning in Fuller’s Meadow completed his infatuation. In less than a month from the time when he first met her, Isaac Scatchard had consented to give Rebecca Murdoch a new interest in existence, and a chance of recovering the character she had lost, by promising to make her his wife.
She had taken possession, not of his passions only, but of his faculties as well. All arrangements for the present and all plans for the future were of her devising. All the mind he had he put into her keeping. She directed him on every point; even instructing him how to break the news of his approaching marriage in the safest manner to his mother.
“If you tell her how you met me and who I am at first,” said the cunning woman, “she will move heaven and earth to prevent our marriage. Say I am the sister of one of your fellow-servants—ask her to see me before you go into any more particulars—and leave it to me to do the rest. I want to make her love me next best to you, Isaac, before she knows anything of who I really am.”
The motive of the deceit was sufficient to sanctify it to Isaac. The stratagem proposed relieved him of his one great anxiety, and quieted his uneasy conscience on the subject of his mother. Still, there was something wanting to perfect his happiness, something that he could not realise, something mysteriously untraceable, and yet, something that perpetually made itself felt; not when he was absent from Rebecca Murdoch, but, strange to say, when he was actually in her presence! She was kindness itself with him; she never made him feel his inferior capacities, and inferior manners,––she showed the sweetest anxiety to please him in the smallest trifles; but, in spite of all these attractions, he never could feel quite at his ease with her. At their first meeting, there had mingled with his admiration when he looked in her face, a faint involuntary feeling of doubt whether that face was entirely strange to him. No after familiarity had the slightest effect on this inexplicable, wearisome uncertainty.
Concealing the truth as he had been directed, he announced his marriage engagement precipitately and confusedly to his mother, on the day when he contracted it. Poor Mrs. Scatchard showed her perfect confidence in her son by flinging her arms round his neck, and giving him joy of having found at last, in the sister of one of his fellow-servants, a woman to comfort and care for him after his mother was gone. She was all eagerness to see the woman of her son’s choice; and the next day was fixed for the introduction.
It was a bright sunny morning, and the little cottage parlour was full of light, as Mrs. Scatchard, happy and expectant, dressed for the occasion in her Sunday gown, sat waiting for her son and her future daughter-in-law. Punctual to the appointed time, Isaac hurriedly and nervously led his promised wife into the room. His mother rose to receiver her—advanced a few steps, smiling—looked Rebecca full in the eyes—and suddenly stopped. Her face, which had been flushed the moment before, turned white in an instant—her eyes lost their expression of softness and kindness, and assumed a blank look of terror—her outstretched hands fell to her sides, and she staggered back a few steps with a low cry to her son.
“Isaac!” she whispered, clutching him fast by the arm, when he asked alarmedly if she was taken ill. “Isaac! Does that woman’s face remind you of nothing?”
Before he could answer; before he could look round to where Rebecca, astonished and angered by her reception, stood, at the lower end of the room; his mother pointed impatiently to her writing-desk, and gave him the key.
“Open it,” she said, in a quick, breathless whisper.
“What does this mean? Why am I treated as if I had no business here? Does your mother want to insult me?” asked Rebecca, angrily.
“Open it, and give me the paper in the left-hand drawer. Quick! quick, for Heaven’s sake!” said Mrs. Scatchard, shrinking further back in terror. Isaac gave her the paper. She looked it over eagerly for a moment—then followed Rebecca, who was now turning away haughtily to leave the room, and caught her by the shoulder—abruptly raised the long, loose sleeve of her gown, and glanced at her hand and arm. Something like fear began to steal over the angry expression of Rebecca’s face as she shook herself free from the old woman’s grasp. “Mad!” she said to herself; “and Isaac never told me.” With these few words she left the room.
Isaac was hastening after her when his mother turned and stopped his further progress. It wrung his heart to see the misery and terror in her face as she looked at him.
“Light grey eyes,” she said, in low, mournful, awe-struck tones, pointing towards the open door. “A droop in the left eyelid. Flaxen hair with a gold-yellow streak in it. White arms with a down on them. Little, lady’s hand, with a reddish look under the finger-nails. The woman of the dream!—Oh, Heaven! Isaac, the woman of the dream!”
That faint cleaving doubt which he had never been able to shake off in Rebecca Murdoch’s presence, was fatally set at rest for ever. He had seen her face, then, before—seven years before, on his birthday, in the bedroom of the lonely inn. “The woman of the dream!”
“Be warned, Oh, my son! be warned! Isaac! Isaac! let her go, and do you stop with me!”
Something darkened the parlour window, as those words were said. A sudden chill ran through him; and he glanced sidelong at the shadow. Rebecca Murdoch had come back. She was peering in curiously at them over the low window blind.
“I have promised to marry, mother,” he said, “and marry I must.”
The tears came into his eyes as he spoke, and dimmed his sight; but he could just discern the fatal face outside moving away again from the window.
His mother’s head sank lower.
“Are you faint?” he whispered.
He stooped down and kissed her. The shadow, as he did so, returned to the window; and the fatal face peered in curiously once more.
Three weeks after that day, Isaac and Rebecca were man and wife. All that was hopelessly dogged and stubborn in the man’s moral nature, seemed to have closed round his fatal passion, and to have fixed it unassailably in his heart.
After that first interview in the cottage parlour, no consideration would induce Mrs. Scatchard to see her son’s wife again, or even to talk of her when Isaac tried hard to plead her cause after their marriage. This course of conduct was not in any degree occasioned by a discovery of the degradation in which Rebecca had lived. There was no question of that between mother and son. There was no question of anything but the fearfully exact resemblance between the living breathing woman and the spectre woman of Isaac’s dream. Rebecca, on her side, neither felt nor expressed the slightest sorrow at the estrangement between herself and her mother-in-law. Isaac, for the sake of peace, had never contradicted her first idea that age and long illness had affected Mrs. Scatchard’s mind. He even allowed his wife to upbraid him for not having confessed this to her at the time of their marriage engagement, rather than risk anything by hinting at the truth. The sacrifice of his integrity before his one all-mastering delusion, seemed but a small thing, and cost his conscience but little, after the sacrifices he had already made.
The time of waking from his delusion—the cruel and the rueful time—was not far off. After some quiet months of married life, as the summer was ending, and the year was getting on towards the month of his birthday, Isaac found his wife altering towards him. She grew sullen and contemptuous—she formed acquaintances of the most dangerous kind, in defiance of his objections, his entreaties, and his commands, —and, worst of all, she learnt, ere long, after every fresh difference with her husband, to seek the deadly self-oblivion of drink. Little by little, after the first miserable discovery that his wife was keeping company with drunkards, the shocking certainty forced itself on Isaac that she had grown to be a drunkard herself.
He had been in a sadly desponding state for some time before the occurrence of these domestic calamities. His mother’s health, as he could but too plainly discern every time he went to see her at the cottage, was failing fast; and he upbraided himself in secret as the cause of the bodily and mental suffering she endured. When, to his remorse on his mother’s account, was added the shame and misery occasioned by the discovery of his wife’s degradation, he sank under the double trial—his face began to alter fast, and he looked what he was, a spirit-broken man. His mother, still struggling bravely against the illness that was hurrying her to the grave, was the first to notice the sad alteration in him, and the first to hear of his last bitterest trouble with his wife. She could only weep bitterly, on the day when he made his humiliating confession; but on the next occasion when he went to see her, she had taken a resolution, in reference to his domestic afflictions, which astonished, and even alarmed him. He found her dressed to go out, and on asking the reason, received this answer:
“I am not long for this world, Isaac,” said she; “and I shall not feel easy on my death-bed, unless I have done my best to the last, to make my son happy. I mean to put my own fears and my own feelings out of the question, and to go with you to your wife, and try what I can do to reclaim her. Give me your arm, Isaac; and let me do the last thing I can in this world to help my son before it is too late.”
He could not disobey her: and they walked together slowly towards his miserable home. It was only one o’clock in the afternoon when they reached the cottage where he lived. It was their dinner hour, and Rebecca was in the kitchen. He was thus able to take his mother quietly into the parlour, and then prepare his wife for the interview. She had fortunately drank but little at that early hour, and she was less sullen and capricious than usual. He returned to his mother, with his mind tolerably at ease. His wife soon followed him into the parlour, and the meeting between her and Mrs. Scatchard passed off better than he had ventured to anticipate: though he observed, with secret apprehension, that his mother, resolutely as she controlled herself in other respects, could not look his wife in the face when she spoke to her. It was a relief to him, therefore, when Rebecca began to lay the cloth.
She laid the cloth—brought in the bread-tray, and cut a slice from the loaf for her husband—then returned to the kitchen. At that moment, Isaac, still anxiously watching his mother, was startled by seeing the same ghastly change pass over her face, which had altered it so awfully on the morning when Rebecca and she first met. Before he could say a word she whispered with a look of horror:—
“Take me back! — home, home, again, Isaac! Come with me, and never come back again.”
He was afraid to ask for an explanation,—he could only sign to her to be silent, and help her quickly to the door. As they passed the bread-tray on the table she stopped and pointed to it.
“Did you see what your wife cut your bread with?” she asked, in a low, still whisper.
“No, mother,—I was not noticing—what was it?”
He did look. A new clasp-knife, with a buck-horn handle lay with the loaf in the bread-tray. He stretched out his hand, shudderingly, to possess himself of it; but, at the same time, there was a noise in the kitchen, and his mother caught at his arm.
“The knife of the dream!—Isaac, I’m faint with fear—take me away! before she comes back!”
He was hardly able to support her—the visible, tangible reality of the knife struck him with a panic, and utterly destroyed any faint doubts that he might have entertained up to this time, in relation to the mysterious dream-warning of nearly eight years before. By a last desperate effort, he summoned self-possession enough to help his mother quietly out of the house,—so quietly, that the “dream woman” (he thought of her by that name, now!) did not hear them departing, from the kitchen.
“Don’t go back, Isaac, —don’t go back!” implored Mrs. Scatchard, as he turned to go away, after seeing her safely seated again in her own room.
“I must get the knife,” he answered, under his breath. She tried to stop him again; but he hurried out without another word.
On his return, he found that his wife had discovered their secret departure from the house. She had been drinking, and was in a fury of passion. The dinner in the kitchen was flung under the grate; the cloth was off the parlour-table. Where was the knife? Unwisely, he asked for it. She was only too glad of the opportunity of irritating him, which the request afforded her.
“He wanted the knife, did he? Could he give her a reason why? —No! —Then he should not have it, —not if he went down on his knees to ask for it.”
Further recriminations elicited the fact that she had bought it a bargain—and that she considered it her own especial property. Isaac saw the uselessness of attempting to get the knife by fair means, and determined to search for it, later in the day, in secret. The search was unsuccessful. Night came on, and he left the house to walk about the streets. He was afraid now to sleep in the same room with her.
Three weeks passed. Still sullenly enraged with him, she would not give up the knife; and still that fear of sleeping in the same room with her, possessed him. He walked about at night, or dozed in the parlour, or sat watching by his mother’s bed-side. Before the expiration of the first week in the new month his mother died. It wanted then but ten days’ of her son’s birthday. She had longed to live till that anniversary. Isaac was present at her death; and her last words in this world were addressed to him: “Don’t go back, my son, don’t go back!”
He was obliged to go back, if it were only to watch his wife. Exasperated to the last degree by his distrust of her, she had revengefully sought to add a sting to his grief, during the last days of his mother’s illness, by declaring that she would assert her right to attend the funeral. In spite of all that he could do, or say, she held with wicked pertinacity to her word; and, on the day appointed for the burial, forced herself—inflamed and shameless with drink—into her husband’s presence, and declared that she would walk in the funeral procession to his mother’s grave.
This last worst outrage, accompanied by all that was most insulting in word and look, maddened him for the moment. He struck her. The instant the blow was dealt, he repented it. She crouched down, silent in a corner of the room, and eyed him steadily; it was a look that cooled his hot blood, and made him tremble. But there was no time now to think of a means of making atonement. Nothing remained, but to risk the worst till the funeral was over. There was but one way of making sure of her. He locked her into her bed-room.
When he came back some hours after, he found her sitting, very much altered in look and bearing, by the bedside, with a bundle on her lap. She rose, and faced him quietly, and spoke with a strange stillness in her voice, a strange repose in her eyes, a strange composure in her manner.
“No man has ever struck me twice,” she said, “and my husband shall have no second opportunity. Set the door open and let me go. From this day forth we see each other no more.”
Before he could answer she passed him, and left the room. He saw her walk away up the street.
Would she return? All that night he watched and waited; but no footstep came near the house. The next night, overpowered by fatigue, he lay down in bed, in his clothes, with the door locked, the key on the table, and the candle burning. His slumber was not disturbed. The third night, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, passed, and nothing happened. He lay down on the seventh, still in his clothes, still with the door locked, the key on the table, and the candle burning; but easier in his mind.
Easier in his mind, and in perfect health of body, when he fell off to sleep. But his rest was disturbed. He woke twice, without any sensation of uneasiness. But the third time it was that never-to-be-forgotten shivering of the night at the lonely inn, that dreadful sinking pain at the heart, which once more aroused him in an instant.
His eyes opened towards the left hand side of the bed, and there stood——The woman of the dream, again? —No! His wife; the living reality, with the dream-spectre’s face—in the dream-spectre’s attitude; the fair arm up––the knife clasped in the delicate, white hand.
He sprang upon her, almost at the instant of seeing her, and yet not quickly enough to prevent her from hiding the knife. Without a word from him—without a cry from her—he pinioned her in a chair. With one hand he felt up her sleeve—and, there, where the dream-woman had hidden the knife, she had hidden it, —the knife with the buck-horn handle, that looked like new.
In the despair of that fearful moment his brain was steady, his heart was calm. He looked at her fixedly, with the knife in his hand, and said these last words:
“You told me we should see each other no more, and you have come back. It is my turn, now, to go, and to go for ever. I say that we shall see each other no more; and my word shall not be broken.”
He left her, and set forth into the night. There was a bleak wind abroad, and the smell of recent rain was in the air. The distant church-clocks chimed the quarter as he walked rapidly beyond the last houses in the suburb. He asked the first policeman he met, what hour that was, of which the quarter past had just struck.
The man referred sleepily to his watch, and answered: “Two o’clock.” Two in the morning. What day of the month was this day that had just begun? He reckoned it up from the date of his mother’s funeral. The fatal parallel was complete—it was his birthday!
Had he escaped the mortal peril which his dream foretold? or had he only received a second warning? As that ominous doubt forced itself on his mind, he stopped, reflected, and turned back again towards the city. He was still resolute to hold to his word, and never to let her see him more; but there was a thought now in his mind of having her watched and followed. The knife was in his possession—the world was before him; but a new distrust of her—a vague, unspeakable, superstitious dread—had overcome him.
“I must know where she goes, now she thinks I have left her,” he said to himself, as he stole back wearily to the precincts of his house.
It was still dark. He had left the candle burning in the bedchamber: but when he looked up at the window of the room now, there was no light in it. He crept cautiously to the house-door. On going away, he remembered to have closed it: on trying it now, he found it open.
He waited outside, never losing sight of the house, till daylight. Then he ventured indoors—listened, and heard nothing—looked into kitchen, scullery, parlour; and found nothing: went up, at last, into the bedroom—it was empty. A pick-lock lay on the floor, betraying how she had gained entrance in the night; and that was the only trace of her.
Whither had she gone? That no mortal tongue could tell him. The darkness had covered her flight; and when the day broke, no man could say where the light found her.
Before leaving the house and the town for ever, he gave instructions to a friend and neighbor to sell his furniture for anything that it would fetch, and apply the proceeds to employing the police to trace her. The directions were honestly followed, and the money was all spent; but the enquiries led to nothing. The pick-lock on the bedroom floor remained the one last useless trace of her.
At this point of the narrative the landlord paused, and looked towards the stable-door.
“So far,” he said, “I tell you what was told to me. The little that remains to be added lies within my own experience. Between two and three months after the events I have just been relating, Isaac Scatchard came to me, withered and old-looking before his time, just as you saw him to-day. He had his testimonials to character with him, and he asked for employment here. I gave him a trial, and liked him in spite of his queer habits. He is as sober, honest, and willing a man as there is in England. As for his restlessness at night, and his sleeping away his leisure time in the day, who can wonder at it after hearing his story? Besides, he never objects to being roused up, when he’s wanted, so there’s not much inconvenience to complain of, after all.”
“I suppose he is afraid of waking out of that dreadful dream in the dark?” said I.
“No,” returned the landlord. “The dream comes back to him so often, that he has got to bear with it by this time resignedly enough. It’s his wife keeps him waking at night, as he has often told me.”
“What! Has she never been heard of yet?”
“Never. Isaac himself has the one perpetual thought about her, that she is alive and looking for him. I believe he wouldn’t let himself drop off to sleep towards two in the morning for a king’s ransom. Two in the morning, he says, is the time when she will find him, one of these days. Two in the morning is the time all the year round, when he likes to be most certain that he has got that clasp-knife safe about him. He does not mind being alone, as long as he is awake, except on the night before his birthday, when he firmly believes himself to be in peril of his life. The birthday has only come round once since he has been here; and then he sat up, along with the night-porter. ‘She’s looking for me,’ he always says, when I speak to him on the one theme of his life; ‘she’s looking for me.’ He may be right. She may be looking for him. Who can tell?”
“Who can tell!” said I.
This story is continued in The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 3: The Boots.
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- Christmas literature
- Ghost story
- Gothic literature
- Love story/Marriage plot
- Portmanteau story
- Psychological thriller
How To Cite (MLA Format)
Wilkie Collins. “The Holly-Tree Inn, Part 2: The Ostler.” Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 12, 1855, pp. 9-18. Edited by Cosenza Hendrickson. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 8 June 2023, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/the-holly-tree-inn-part-2-the-ostler/.
10 December 2020
7 June 2023