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A Terrible Christmas Eve by Lucie E. Jackson

 

I was always a very fearless girl. I do not say I never knew what fear was, for on the occasion I am about to relate I was distinctly frightened; but I was able to bear myself through it as if I felt nothing, and by this means to reassure my poor mother, who perhaps realised the danger more thoroughly than I did.

Norah says if it had happened to her she would just have died of fright, and I do think she would have, for she is so delicate and timid, and has such very highly-strung nerves. Mother and I always call it our adventure. I, with a laugh now; but mother, always with a shudder and a paling of her sweet face, for she and Norah are very much alike in constitution. She says if I had not been her stay and backbone on that occasion she must surely have let those awful French people rob her of all she possessed. But I am going on too fast.

It happened in this way. Father had some business to transact in France in connection with his firm, and had gone off in high spirits, for after the business was finished and done with he had arranged to do a little travelling on his own account with Mr. Westover—an old chum of his.

We had heard regularly from him as having a very good time till one morning the post brought a letter to say he had contracted a low fever and was lying sick at a wayside inn. He begged us not to be alarmed for his friend was very attentive, and he hoped soon to be himself again. Mother was unhappy, we saw that, but Norah and I tried to cheer her up by saying how strong father always was, and how soon he shook off any little illness. It was his being sick away from home and in a foreign country that troubled her.

A few days after a telegram arrived from Mr. Westover. He said mother must come at once, for the doctor had serious misgivings as to the turn the fever might take.

“Mother, you must take Phyllis with you,” decided Norah, who was trembling from head to foot, but trying to appear calm for mother's sake.

I looked up at mother with eager eyes, for though the thought of dear father lying dangerously ill chilled me all over, yet the idea of travelling to France made my heart leap within me.

Mother was packing a handbag when Norah spoke. She looked up and saw my eyes round with delight.

“Yes,” she said, “I would prefer a companion. Phyllis, get ready at once, for we haven't much time.”

Her voice sounded as if tears were in it, and I sprang up and kissed her before rushing away to my room.

My little bag was packed before mother's, but then she had money arrangements to make which I had not.

Two hours after the receipt of the telegram we were driving down the road to the railway station two miles from our home.

Our journey was of no moment at first starting. We crossed the water without any mishap, and on arriving at Dunkirk bore the Custom-house officers' searching of our handbags with a stoical calmness. What mattered such trifles when our one thought, our one hope lay in the direction of that wayside inn where father lay tossing in delirium?

We spent one night at an hotel, and the next morning, which was Christmas Eve, we were up early to catch the first express to Brives. From Brives to Fleur another train would take us, and the rest of our journey would have to be accomplished by diligence.

It was cold, bitterly cold, and I saw mother's eyes look apprehensively up to the leaden sky. I knew she was fearing a heavy fall of snow which might interrupt our journey.

We reached Fleur at three o'clock in the afternoon, and took the diligence that was awaiting the train. Then what mother feared took place. Snow began to fall—heavy snow, and the horses in the diligence began to labour after only one hour's storm. Mother's face grew paler and paler. I did not dare to look at her, or to think what we should do if the snow prevented us getting much farther. And father! what would father do! After two hours' weary drive we sighted the first stopping place.

“There is the inn!” said a portly fellow-traveller. “And a good thing, too, that we'll have a roof over our heads, for there will be no driving farther for some days to come.”

“We must make a jovial Christmas party by ourselves,” said another old gentleman, gathering all his belongings together in preparation for getting out.

I looked at mother. Her face was blanched.

“But surely,” she said, “this snow won't prevent the second diligence taking my daughter and myself to the Pomme d'Or at Creux? It is only a matter of an hour from here.”

“You'll get no diligence either to-day or to-morrow, madame,” was the answer she received.

The inn was reached—a funny little old-fashioned place—and we all descended ankle deep into the newly-fallen snow.

The landlord of the inn was waiting at the door, and invited us all in with true French courtesy. The cosy kitchen we entered had a lovely wood fire in the old-fashioned grate, and the dancing flames cast a cheery light upon the whitewashed walls. Oh, if only this had been the inn where father was staying! How gladly we would have rested our weary limbs and revelled in that glorious firelight. But it was not to be.

Mother's idea of another diligence was quite pooh-poohed.

“If it had been coming it would have been here before now,” announced the landlord.

“Then we must walk it,” returned my mother.

“Impossible,” was the landlord's answer, and the portly old gentleman seconded him. “It is a matter of five miles from here.”

“If I wish to see my husband alive I must walk it,” said my mother in tremulous tones.

There was a murmur of commiseration, and the landlord, a kindly, genial old Frenchman, trotted to the door of the inn and looked out. He came back presently, rubbing his cold hands.

“The snow has ceased, the stars are coming out. If Madame insists——” he shrugged his shoulders.

“We shall walk it if you will kindly direct us the way.”

As she spoke my mother picked up her handbag, and I stooped for mine, but was arrested by a deep voice saying,—

“I am going part of the way. If madame will allow me I will walk with her.”

I saw the landlord's open brow contract, and I turned to look at the speaker. He was a tall, dark, low-browed man, with shaggy black hair and deep-set eyes. He had been sitting there on our arrival, and I had not liked his appearance at first sight. I now hoped that mother would not accept his company. But mother, too intent on getting to her journey's end, jumped at the offer.

Merci, monsieur,” she said gratefully. “We will start at once if you have no objection.”

The fellow got on his feet at once, and stretching out his hand took a slouched hat off the chair behind him and clapped it on his head. I did see mother give him one furtive look then—it gave him such a brigand-like appearance, but she resolutely turned away, and thanked the landlord for the short shelter he had afforded us. She was producing her purse, but the landlord, with a hasty glance in the direction of our escort, motioned her to put it away. He and the two gentlemen came to see us start, the landlord causing me some little comfort by calling after us that he would make inquiries as soon as he was able, as to whether we had reached our destination in safety.

Our escort started ahead of us, and we followed close on his footsteps. We had journeyed so for two miles, plodding heavily and slowly along, for the snow was deep and the wind was cutting. Our companion never once spoke, and would only look occasionally over his shoulder to see if we were keeping up with him, and I was beginning to lose my fear of him and call myself a coward for being afraid, when suddenly the snow began again. This time it came down in whirling drifts penetrating through all our warm clothing, and making our walking heavier and more laboured than before. It was all we could do to keep our feet, for the wind whistled and moaned, threatening at every turn to bear us away.

Then only did our companion speak.

C'est mauvais,” he shouted above the storm, and his voice, sounding so gruff and deep and so unexpected, made me jump in the air.

Mother assented in her gentle voice, and we plodded on as before, I wishing with all my heart that we had never left that cosy kitchen, for I could not see how we were to cover another three miles in this fashion. I said not a word, however, for I would not have gainsaid mother in this journey, considering how much there was at stake.

It was she herself who came to a standstill after walking another half mile.

“Monsieur,” she called faintly, “I do not think I can go farther.”

He turned round then and, was it my fancy? but I thought, as he retraced his steps to our side, that an evil grin was making his ugly face still uglier.

“Madame is tired. I am not surprised, but if she can manage just five minutes' more walk we shall reach my own house, where she can have shelter.”

Mother was grateful for his offer. She thanked him and continued her weary walk till a sudden bend in the road brought us almost upon a small house situated right on the road, looking dark and gloomy enough, with just one solitary light shining dimly through the darkness.

The fellow paused here with his hand on the latch, and I noticed a small sign-board swaying and creaking in the wind just above our heads. This then was an inn too? Why then had the landlord of that other inn cast such suspicious glances at the proposal of this man?

Such questions were answerable only the next morning, for just now I was too weary to care where I spent the night as I stumbled after mother into a dark passage, and then onwards to a room where the faint light had been dimly discernible from outside.

In that room there was an ugly old woman—bent and aged—cooking something over a small fire; and crouched upon a low seat near the stove sat a hunchbacked man, swarthy, black-haired, and ugly too. My heart gave one leap, and then sank down into my shoes. What kind of a house had we come into to spend a whole night?

Our escort said something rapidly in French—too rapidly for me to follow, and then motioned us to sit down as he placed two wooden chairs for us. Mother sank down, almost too wearied to return the greeting which the old hag by the fire accorded her.

The hunchback eyed us without a word, but when I summoned up courage to occasionally glance in his direction I fancied that a sinister smile crossed his face, making him look curiously like our escort.

Two bowls of soup were put down before us, and the old woman hospitably pressed us to partake of it. The whole family sat down to the same meal, but the hunchback had his in his seat by the fire. It was cabbage soup, and neither mother nor I fancied it very much, but for politeness' sake we took a few spoonfuls, and ate some of the coarse brown bread, of which there was plenty on the table.

The warmth of the room was beginning to have effect on me, and my body was so inexpressibly weary that I felt half dozing in my seat, and my eyelids would close in spite of myself.

All of a sudden I heard mother give a little scream. I was wide awake in an instant, and to my amazement saw the hunchback crawling on his hands and knees under the table. My mother's lips were white and trembling as she stooped to pick up the purse she had let fall in her fright, but before she could do so our escort stooped down and handed it to her with a—

Permettez moi, madame.

At the same time he kicked out under the table, muttering an oath as he did so, and the hunchback returned to his seat by the fire and nursed his knees with his sinister grin.

Mother began to apologise for her little scream.

“I am very tired,” she said, addressing the old woman; “and if it will not inconvenience you, my daughter and I would much like to retire for the night, as we wish to be up early to continue our journey.”

The old woman lighted a candle, looking at our escort as she did so.

“Which room?” she asked.

He gave a jerk of his head indicating a room above the one we were in; and then he opened the door very politely for us, and hoped we'd have a pleasant night.

I could not resist the inclination to look back at the hunchback. He had left off nursing his knees, but his whole body was convulsed with silent laughter, and he was holding up close to his eyes a gold coin.

The room the old woman conducted us to was a long one, with half-a-dozen steps leading up to it. She bade us good night and closed the door, leaving us with the lighted candle.

The minute the door closed upon her, I darted to it. But horrors! there was no key, no bolt, nothing to fasten ourselves in. I looked at mother. She was sitting on the bed, and beckoned me with her finger to come close. I did so. She whispered,—

“Phyllis, be brave for my sake. I have done a foolish thing in bringing you to this house. I distrust these people.”

“So do I,” I whispered back.

“That purse of mine that fell—they saw what was in it.”

“Did it fall open?”

“Yes, and a napoleon rolled out—that hunchback picked it up and put it into his pocket. He did not think I saw him.”

“How much money have you got altogether?”

“Twenty napoleons, and a few francs.”

“And they saw all that?”

“I am afraid so. Of course they could not tell how much there was. They saw a number of coins. If they attempt to rob us of it all to-night we shall have nothing to continue our journey to-morrow. And how we can keep it from them I don't know.”

Mother's face was white and drawn. Father and Norah would not have recognised her.

“We shall hide it from them,” I answered as bravely as I could. I would not let mother see that I was nervous.

The room was bare of everything but just the necessary furniture. A more difficult place to hide anything could not easily be found. Every article of ours would be ransacked, I felt sure. Our handbags would be searched; our clothes ditto. Where on earth could we put that purse?

I was sitting on the bed as I looked round the room. We would, of course, be lying in the bed when they came to search the room, and even our pillows would not be safe from their touch. Stay! What did the bed clothes consist of? A hasty examination disclosed two blankets and a sheet, and under those the mattress. That mattress gave me an idea. I had found a hiding-place.

“Have you scissors and needle and cotton in your bag?” I whispered.

Mother nodded. “I think Norah put my sewing case in.”

She opened it. Yes, everything was to hand.

With her help I turned the mattress right up, and made an incision in the middle of the ticking.

“Give me the money,” I said in a low voice.

She handed it silently. I slipped each coin carefully into the incision.

“We'll leave them the francs,” mother whispered. “They might ... they might ... wish to harm us if they found nothing.”

I nodded. Then with the aid of the needle and cotton I stitched up the opening I had made, and without more ado we took off our outer clothes, our boots and stockings, and lay down in the bed.

But not to sleep! We neither of us closed an eyelid, so alert were we for the expected footstep on the other side of the door.

They gave us a reasonable time to go to sleep. Our extinguished candle told them we were in bed. Near about twelve o'clock our strained hearing detected the sound of a slight fumbling at the door. It opened, and the moonlight streaming in through the uncurtained windows showed us, through our half-shut eyelids, the figures of our escort and the hunchback. They moved like cats about the room. It struck me even then that they were used to these midnight searches.

A thrill of fear went through me as the hunchback passed the bed, but a dogged persistency was with me still that they should not have our money. Our handbags were taken out of the room, doubtless to be examined at leisure by the old woman, and mulct of anything valuable. We heard a slight clink of money which meant the purse was emptied. Our clothes were shaken and examined, even our boots were looked into.

Lastly they came to the bed. My eyes were glued then to my cheeks, and mother's must have been so as well. I could not see what they did, but I could feel them. They were practised though in their handling of our pillows, for had I been really asleep I should never have felt anything.

They looked everywhere, they felt everywhere, everywhere but in the right place, and then with a hardly-concealed murmur of dissatisfaction they went from the room, closing the door after them. Mother and I lay quiet. The only thing we did was to hold one another's hands under the bed-clothes, and to press our shoulders close together.

Only once again did the door open, and that was to admit our escort, who had brought back our handbags.

And then the door closed for good and all, but we never said a word all the long night through, though each knew and felt that the other was awake. The grey dawn stealing in saw us with eyes strained and wide, and we turned and looked at each other, and mother kissed me. It was Christmas Day.

Our hearts were braver with the daylight, and what was joy unspeakable was to see the snow melting fast away under the heavy thaw that had set in during the early hours of the dawn. Our journey could be pursued without much difficulty, for if need be we could walk every step of the way.

When it was quite light we got up and dressed. I undid my stitching of the night before, gave mother back the gold safe and intact, and then sewed up the incision as neatly as I could.

We went down hatted and cloaked to the room we had supped in the night before. It presented no change. Over the fire the old woman bent, stirring something in a saucepan; our escort was seated at the table, and by the stove sat the hunchback nursing his knees—with only one difference,—there was no grin upon his face. He looked like a man thwarted.

We had just bade them good morning and the old woman was asking us how we had slept, when the noise of wheels and horses' feet sounded outside. It was the second diligence. The landlord of the inn had told the conductor to call and see if we had been forced to take refuge in our escort's house. The jovial conductor was beaming all over as he stamped his wet feet on the stone floor of the kitchen, laughing at the miraculous disappearance of all the snow. His very presence seemed to put new life into us.

“And what am I indebted to you,” asked mother, “for the kindly shelter you have afforded us?”

Our escort shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever madame wishes,” was his reply.

So mother placed a napoleon upon the table. It was too much, I always maintained, after all the francs they had robbed from the purse, and the gold piece the hunchback had picked up, but it was the smallest coin mother had, and she told me afterwards she didn't grudge it, for our lives had been spared us as well as the bulk of our money.

The diligence rattled briskly along, and we reached the Pomme d'Or to find that father's illness had taken a favourable turn during that terrible night, and the only thing he needed now was care and good nursing. When he was well again he reported our experiences to the police, and we had good reason to believe that no credulous wayfarer ever had to undergo the terrible ordeal that we did that night. The house was ever after kept under strict police surveillance.

 
 
 

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