Under the Cloak by Rhoda Broughton
IF there is a thing in the world that my soul hateth, it is a long night
journey by rail. In the old coaching days I do not think that I should have
minded it, passing swiftly through a summer night on the top of a speedy coach
with the star arch black-blue above one's head, the sweet smell of earth and her
numberless flowers and grasses in one's nostrils, and the pleasant trot, trot,
trot, trot, of the four strong horses in one's ears. But by railway! in a little
stuffy compartment, with nothing to amuse you if you keep awake; with a dim lamp
hanging above you, tantalizing you with the idea that you can read by its light,
and when you try, satisfactorily proving to you that you cannot; and, if you
sleep, breaking your neck, or at least stiffening it, by the brutal arrangement
of the hard cushions.
These thoughts pass sulkily and rebelliously through my head as I sit in my
salon, in the Ecu at Geneva, on the afternoon of the fine autumn day on which,
in an evil hour, I have settled to take my place in the night train for Paris. I
have put off going as long as I can. I like Geneva, and am leaving some pleasant
and congenial friends, but now go I must. My husband is to meet me at the
station in Paris at six o'clock to-morrow morning. Six o'clock! what a barbarous
hour at which to arrive! I am putting on my bonnet and cloak; I look at myself
in the glass with an air of anticipative disgust. Yes, I look trim and spruce
enough now--a not disagreeable object perhaps--with sleek hair, quick and alert
eyes, and pink-tinted cheeks. Alas! at six o'clock tomorrow morning, what a
different tale there will be to tell! dishevelled, dusty locks, half-open weary
eyes, a disordered dress, and a green-colored countenance.
I turn away with a pettish gesture, and reflecting that at least there is no
wisdom in living my miseries twice over, I go down-stairs, and get into the
hired open carriage which awaits me. My maid and man follow with the luggage. I
give stricter injunctions than ordinary to my maid never for one moment to lose
her hold of the dressing-case, which contains, as it happens, a great many more
valuable jewels than people are wont to travel in foreign parts with, nor of a
certain costly and beautiful Dresden china and gold Louis Quatorze clock, which
I am carrying home as a present to my people. We reach the station, and I
straightway betake myself to the first-class salle d'attente, there to remain
penned up till the officials undo the gates of purgatory and release us; an
arrangement whose wisdom I have yet to learn. There are ten minutes to spare,
and the salle is filling fuller and fuller every moment. Chiefly my countrymen,
countrywomen, and country children, beginning to troop home to their partridges.
I look curiously round at them, speculating as to which of them will be my
companion or companions through the night.
There are not very unusual types: girls in sailor hats and blond
hair-fringes; strong-minded old maids in painstakingly ugly waterproofs; baldish
fathers; fattish mothers; a German or two, with prominent pale eyes and
spectacles. I have just decided on the companions I should prefer: a large young
man, who belongs to nobody, and looks as if he spent most of his life in
laughing--(alas! he is not likely! he is sure to want to smoke!)--and a handsome
and prosperous-looking young couple. They are more likely, as very probably, in
the man's case, the bride-love will overcome the cigar-love. The porter comes
up. The key turns in the lock: the doors open. At first I am standing close to
them, flattening my nose against the glass, and looking out on the pavement; but
as the passengers become more numerous, I withdraw from my prominent position,
anticipating a rush for carriages. I hate and dread exceedingly a crowd, and
would much prefer at any time to miss my train rather than be squeezed and
jostled by one. In consequence, my maid and I are almost the last people to
emerge, and have the last and worst choice of seats. We run along the train
looking in; the footman, my maid, and I--full--full everywhere!
"Dames seules?" asks the guard.
"Certainly not! neither 'Dames seules,' nor 'fumeurs,' but if it must be one
or the other, certainly 'fumeurs.'"
I am growing nervous, when I see the footman, who is a little ahead of us,
standing with an open carriage-door in his hand, and signing to us to make
haste. Ah! it is all right! it always comes right when one does not fuss
"Plenty of room here, 'm; only two gentlemen!"
I put my foot on the high step and climb in. Rather uncivil of the two
gentlemen! neither of them offers to help me, but they are not looking this way,
I suppose. "Mind the dressing-case!" I cry nervously, as I stretch out my hand
to help the maid Watson up. The man pushes her from behind; in she
comes--dressing-case, clock and all; here we are for the night!
I am so busy and amused looking out of the window, seeing the different
parties bidding their friends good-by, and watching with indignation the
barbaric and malicious manner in which the porters hurl the luckless luggage
about, that we have steamed out of the station, and are fairly off for Paris,
before I have the curiosity to glance at my fellow-passengers. Well! when I do
take a look at them, I do not make much of it. Watson and I occupy the two seats
by one window, facing one another. Our fellow travellers have not taken the
other two window-seats; they occupy the middle ones, next us. They are both
reading behind newspapers. Well! we shall not get much amusement out of them. I
give them up as a bad job. Ah! if I could have had my wish, and had the laughing
young man, and the pretty young couple, for company, the night would not perhaps
have seemed so long. However I should have been mortified for them to have seen
how green I looked when the dawn came; and, as to these commis voyageurs, I do
not care if I look as green as grass in their eyes. Thus, all no doubt is for
the best; and at all events it is a good trite copy-book maxim to say so. So I
forget all about them: fix my eyes on the landscape racing by, and fall into a
variety of thoughts. "Will my husband really get up in time to come and meet me
at the station to-morrow morning? He does so cordially hate getting up. My only
chance is his not having gone to bed at all! How will he be looking? I have not
seen him for four months. Will he have succeeded in curbing his tendency to fat,
during his Norway fishing? Probably not. Fishing, on the contrary is rather a
fat-making occupation; sluggish and sedentary. Shall we have a pleasant party at
the house we are going to for shooting? To whom in Paris shall I go for my gown?
Worth? No, Worth is beyond me." Then I leave the future and go back into past
enjoyments; excursions to Lausanne, trips down the to lake to Chillon; a hundred
and one pleasantnesses. The time slips by: the afternoon is drawing towards
evening; a beginning of dusk is coming over the landscape.
I look round. Good Heavens! what can those men find so interesting in the
papers? I thought them hideously dull, when I looked over them this morning; and
yet they are still persistently reading. What can they have got hold of? I
cannot well see what the man beside me has; vis-agrave;-vis is buried in an
English Times. Just as I am thinking about him, he puts down his paper, and I
see his face. Nothing very remarkable! a long black beard, and hat tilted
somewhat low over his forehead. I turn away my eyes hastily, for fear of being
caught inquisitively scanning him; but still, out of their corners I see that he
has taken a little bottle out of his travelling bag, has poured some of its
contents into a glass, and is putting it to his lips. It appears as if--and, at
the time it happens, I have no manner of doubt that he is drinking. Then I feel
that he is addressing me. I look up and towards him: he is holding out the phial
to me, and saying:
"May I take the liberty of offering Madame some?"
"No, thank you, monsieur!" I answer, shaking my head hastily and speaking
rather abruptly. There is nothing that I dislike more than being offered strange
eatables or drinkables in a train, or a strange hymn-book in church.
He smiles politely, and then adds:
"Perhaps the other lady might be persuaded to take a little."
"No, thank you, sir, I'm much obliged to you," replies Watson briskly, in
almost as ungrateful a tone as mine.
Again he smiles, bows, and re-buries himself in his newspaper. The thread of
my thoughts is broken; I feel an odd curiosity as to the nature of the contents
of that bottle. Certainly it is not sherry or spirit of any kind, for it has
diffused no odor through the carriage. All this time the man beside me has said
and done nothing. I wish he would move or speak, or do something. I peep
covertly at him. Well! at all events, he is well defended against the night
chill. What a voluminous cloak he is wrapped in; how entirely it shrouds his
figure; trimmed with fur too! why, it might be January instead of September. I
do not know why, but that cloak makes me feel rather uncomfortable. I wish they
would both move to the window, instead of sitting next to us. Bah! am I setting
up to be a timid dove? I, who rather pique myself on my bravery--on my
indifference to tramps, bulls, ghosts? The clock has been deposited with the
umbrellas, parasols, spare shawls, rugs, etc., in the netting above Watson's
head. The dressing-case--a very large and heavy one--is sitting on her lap. I
lean forwards and say to her:
"That box must rest very heavily on your knee, and I want a footstool--I
should be more comfortable if I had one--let me put my feet on it."
I have an idea that, somehow, that my sapphires will be safer if I have them
where I can always feel that they are there. We make the desired change in our
arrangements. Yes! both my feet are on it.
The landscape outside is darkening quickly now; our dim lamp is beginning to
assert its importance. Still the men read. I feel a sensation of irritation.
What can they mean by it? it is utterly impossible that they can decipher the
small print of the Times by this feeble, shaky glimmer.
As I am so thinking, the one who had before spoken lays down his paper, folds
it up and deposits it on the seat beside him. Then, drawing his little bottle
out of his bag a second time, drinks, or seems to drink, from it. Then he again
turns to me.
"Madame will pardon me, but if Madame could be induced to try a little of
this; it is a cordial of a most refreshing and invigorating description; and if
she will have the amiability to allow me to say so, madame looks faint."
(What can he mean by his urgency? Is it pure politeness? I wish it were not
growing so dark.) These thoughts run through my head as I hesitate for an
instant what answer to make. Then an idea occurs to me, and I manufacture a
civil smile and say, "Thank you very much, monsieur! I am a little faint, as you
observe. I think I will avail myself of your obliging offer." So saying, I take
the glass, and touch it with my lips. I give you my word of honor that I do not
think I did more; I did not mean to swallow a drop, but I suppose I must have
done. He smiles with a gratified air.
"The other lady will now, perhaps, follow your example?"
By this time I am beginning to feel thoroughly uncomfortable. Why, I should
be puzzled to explain. What is this cordial that he is so eager to urge upon us?
Though determined not to subject myself to its influence, I must see its effect
upon another person. Rather brutal of me, perhaps; rather in the spirit of the
anatomist, who, in the interest of science, tortures live dogs and cats; but I
am telling you facts--not what I ought to have done, but what I did. I make a
sign to Watson to drink some. She obeys, nothing loath. She has been working
hard all day; packing and getting under weigh, and she is tired. There is no
feigning about her! She has emptied the glass. Now to see what comes of it--what
happens to my live dog! The bottle is replaced in the bag; still we are racing,
racing on, past the hills and fields and villages. How indistinct they are all
growing! I turn back from the contemplation of the outside view to the inside
one. Why, the woman is asleep already! her chin buried in her chest; her mouth
half open; looking exceedingly imbecile and very plain, as most people, when
asleep out of bed, do look. A nice invigorating potion, indeed! I wish to Heaven
that I had gone in fumeurs, or even with that cavalcade of nursery-maids and
unwholesome-looking babies in dames seules, next door. At all events, I am not
at all sleepy myself: that is a blessing. I shall see what happens. Yes,
by-the-by, I must see what he meant to happen: I must affect to fall asleep too.
I close my eyes, and, gradually sinking my chin on my chest, try to droop my
jaws and hang my cheeks, with a semblance of bona-fide slumber. Apparently I
succeed pretty well. After the lapse of some minutes, I distinctly feel two
hands very cautiously and carefully lifting and removing my feet from the
A cold chill creeps over me, and then the blood rushes to my head and ears.
What am I to do? what am I to do? I have always thought the better of myself
ever since for it; but, strange to say, I keep my presence of mind. Still
affecting to sleep, I give a sort of kick, and instantly the hands are
withdrawn, and all is perfectly quiet again. I now feign to wake gradually, with
a yawn and a stretch; and, on moving about my feet a little, find that, despite
my kick, they have been too clever for me, and have dexterously removed my box
and substituted another. The way in which I make this pleasant discovery is that
whereas mine was perfectly flat at the top, on the surface of the object that is
now beneath my feet there is some sort of excrescence--a handle of some sort or
other. There is no denying it--brave I may be---I may laugh at people for
running from bulls; for disliking to sleep in a room by themselves, for fear of
ghosts; for hurrying past tramps: but now I am most thoroughly frightened. I
look cautiously, in a sideways manner, at the man beside me. How very still he
is! Were they his hands, or the hands of the man opposite him? I take a fuller
look than I have yet ventured to do; turning slightly round for the purpose. He
is still reading, or at least still holding the paper, for the reading must be a
farce. I look at his hands: they are in precisely the same position as they were
when I affected to go to sleep, although the pose of the rest of his body is
slightly altered. Suddenly, I turn extremely cold, for it has dawned on me that
they are not real hands--they are certainly false ones. Yes, though the carriage
is shaking very much with our rapid motion, and the light is shaking, too, yet
there is no mistake. I look indeed more closely, so as to be quite sure. The one
nearest me is ungloved; the other gloved. I look at the nearest one. Yes, it is
of an opaque waxen whiteness. I can plainly see the rouge put under the
finger-nails to represent the coloring of life. I try to give one glance at his
face. The paper still partially hides it; and, as he is leaning his head back
against the cushion, where the light hardly penetrates, I am completely baffled
in my efforts.
Great Heavens! what is going to happen to me? what shall I do? how much of
him is real? where are his real hands? what is going on under that awful cloak?
The fur border touches me as I sit by him. I draw convulsively and shrinkingly
away, and try to squeeze myself up as close as possible to the window. But alas!
to what good? how absolutely and utterly powerless I am! how entirely at their
mercy! And there is Watson still sleeping swinishly! breathing heavily opposite
me. Shall I try to wake her? But to what end? She, being under the influence of
that vile drug, my efforts will certainly be useless, and will probably arouse
the man to employ violence against me. Sooner or later, in the course of the
night, I suppose they are pretty sure to murder me, but I had rather that it
should be later than sooner.
While I think these things, I am lying back quite still, for, as I
philosophically reflect, not all the screaming in the world will help me: if I
had twenty-lung power I could not drown the rush of an express-train. Oh, if my
dear boy were but here--my husband I mean,--fat or lean, how thankful I should
be to see him! Oh, that cloak, and those horrid waxy hands! Of course I see it
now! They remained stuck out, while the man's real ones were fumbling about my
feet. In the midst of my agony of fright, a thought of Madame Tussaud flashes
ludicrously across me. Then they begin to talk of me. It is plain that they are
not taken in by my feint of sleep: they speak in a clear, loud voice, evidently
for my benefit. One of them begins by saying, "What a good-looking woman she
is--evidently in her première jeunesse too"--(Reader, I struck thirty last
May)--"and also there can be no doubt as to her being of exalted rank--a duchess
probably." ("A dead duchess by morning," think I grimly). They go on to say how
odd it is that people in my class of life never travel with their own jewels,
but always with paste ones, the real ones being meanwhile deposited at the
bankers. My poor, poor sapphires! good-by--a long good-by to you. But, indeed, I
will willingly compound for the loss of you and the rest of my ornaments--will
go bare-necked, and bare-armed, or clad in Salviati beads for the rest of my
life, so that I do but attain the next stopping place alive.
As I am so thinking, one of the men looks, or I imagine that he looks, rather
curiously towards me. In a paroxysm of fear lest they should read on my face the
signs of the agony of terror I am enduring, I throw my pocket-handkerchief--a
very fine cambric one--over my face.
And now, O reader, I am going to tell you something which I am sure you will
not believe; I can hardly believe it myself, but, as I so lie, despite the
tumult of my mind---despite the chilly terror which seems to be numbing my
feelings--in the midst of it all a drowsiness keeps stealing over me. I am now
convinced either that vile potion must have been of extraordinary strength, or
that I, through the shaking of the carriage, or the unsteadiness of my hand,
carried more to my mouth, and swallowed more--I did not mean to swallow
any--than I intended, for--you will hardly credit it, but--I fell asleep!
When I awake--awake with a bewildered mixed sense of having been a long time
asleep--of not knowing where I am--and of having some great dread and horror on
my mind--awake and look round, the dawn is breaking. I shiver, with the chilly
sensation that the coming of even a warm day brings, and look round, still
half-unconsciously, in a misty way. But what has happened? how empty the
carriage is! the dressing-case is gone! the clock is gone! the man who sat
nearly opposite me is gone. Watson is gone! but the man in the cloak and the wax
hands still sits beside me! Still the hands are holding the paper; still the fur
is touching me! Good God! I am tête-à-tête with him! A feeling of the most
appalling desolation and despair comes over me--vanquishes me utterly. I clasp
my hands together frantically, and, still looking at the dim form beside me,
groan out--"Well! I did not think that Watson would have forsaken me!"
Instantly, a sort of movement and shiver runs through the figure: the newspaper
drops from the hands, which, however continue to be still held out in the same
position as if still grasping it; and behind the newspaper, I see by the dim
morning light and the dim lamp-gleams that there is no real face, but a mask. A
sort of choked sound is coming from behind the mask. Shivers of cold fear are
running over me. Never to this day shall I know what gave me the despairing
courage to do it, but, before I know what I am doing, I find myself tearing at
the cloak--tearing away the mask--tearing away the hands. It would be better to
find any thing underneath--Satan himself--a horrible dead body--any
thing--sooner than submit any longer to this hideous mystery. And I am rewarded.
When the cloak lies at the bottom of the carriage--when the mask, and the false
hands and false feet--(there are false feet too)--are also cast away in
different directions, what do you think I find underneath?
Watson! Yes: it appears that while I slept--I feel sure that they must have
rubbed some more of the drug on my lips while I was unconscious, or I never
could have slept so heavily or so long--they dressed up Watson in the mask,
feet, hands, and cloak, set the hat on her head, gagged her, and placed her
beside me in the attitude occupied by the man. They had then, at the next
station, got out, taking with them dressing-case and clock, and had made off in
all security. When I arrive in Paris, you will not be surprised to hear that it
does not once occur to me whether I am looking green or no.
And this is the true history of my night journey to Paris! You will be glad,
I dare say, to learn that I ultimately recovered my sapphires, and a good many
of my other ornaments. The police being promptly set on, the robbers were, after
much trouble and time, at length secured; and it turned out that the man in the
cloak was an ex-valet of my husband's who was acquainted with my bad habit of
travelling in company with my trinkets--a bad habit which I have since seen fit