A Terribly Strange Bed
Shortly after my education at college was finished, I happened to be
staying at Paris with an English friend. We were both young men then,
and lived, I am afraid, rather a wild life, in the delightful city of
our sojourn. One night we were idling about the neighbourhood of the
Palais Royal, doubtful to what amusement we should next betake
ourselves. My friend proposed a visit to Frascati's; but his suggestion
was not to my taste. I knew Frascati's, as the French saying is, by
heart; had lost and won plenty of five-franc pieces there, merely for
amusement's sake, until it was amusement no longer, and was thoroughly
tired, in fact, of all the ghastly respectabilities of such a social
anomaly as a respectable gambling-house.
"For Heaven's sake," said I to my friend, "let us go somewhere where we
can see a little genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken gaming, with no
false gingerbread glitter thrown over it at all. Let us get away from
fashionable Frascati's, to a house where they don't mind letting in a
man with a ragged coat, or a man with no coat, ragged or otherwise."
"Very well," said my friend, "we needn't go out of the Palais Royal to
find the sort of company you want. Here's the place just before us; as
blackguard a place, by all report, as you could possibly wish to see."
In another minute we arrived at the door, and entered the house.
When we got upstairs, and had left our hats and sticks with the
doorkeeper, we were admitted into the chief gambling-room. We did not
find many people assembled there. But, few as the men were who looked up
at us on our entrance, they were all types--lamentably true types--of
their respective classes.
We had come to see blackguards; but these men were something worse.
There is a comic side, more or less appreciable, in all blackguardism:
here there was nothing but tragedy--mute, weird tragedy. The quiet in
the room was horrible. The thin, haggard, long-haired young man, whose
sunken eyes fiercely watched the turning up of the cards, never spoke;
the flabby, fat-faced, pimply player, who pricked his piece of
pasteboard perseveringly, to register how often black won, and how often
red, never spoke; the dirty, wrinkled old man, with the vulture eyes and
the darned great-coat, who had lost his last sou, and still looked on
desperately after he could play no longer, never spoke. Even the voice
of the croupier sounded as if it were strangely dulled and thickened in
the atmosphere of the room. I had entered the place to laugh, but the
spectacle before me was something to weep over. I soon found it
necessary to take refuge in excitement from the depression of spirits
which was fast stealing on me. Unfortunately I sought the nearest
excitement, by going to the table and beginning to play. Still more
unfortunately, as the event will show, I won--won prodigiously; won
incredibly; won at such a rate that the regular players at the table
crowded round me; and staring at my stakes with hungry, superstitious
eyes, whispered to one another that the English stranger was going to
break the bank.
The game was Rouge et Noir. I had played at it in every city in Europe,
without, however, the care or the wish to study the Theory of
Chances--that philosopher's stone of all gamblers! And a gambler,
in the strict sense of the word, I had never been. I was heart-whole
from the corroding passion for play. My gaming was a mere idle
amusement. I never resorted to it by necessity, because I never knew
what it was to want money. I never practised it so incessantly as to
lose more than I could afford, or to gain more than I could coolly
pocket without being thrown off my balance by my good luck. In short,
I had hitherto frequented gambling-tables--just as I frequented
ball-rooms and opera-houses--because they amused me, and because I
had nothing better to do with my leisure hours.
But on this occasion it was very different--now, for the first time in
my life, I felt what the passion for play really was. My successes first
bewildered, and then, in the most literal meaning of the word,
intoxicated me. Incredible as it may appear, it is nevertheless true,
that I only lost when I attempted to estimate chances, and played
according to previous calculation. If I left everything to luck, and
staked without any care or consideration, I was sure to win--to win in
the face of every recognized probability in favour of the bank. At first
some of the men present ventured their money safely enough on my colour;
but I speedily increased my stakes to sums which they dared not risk.
One after another they left off playing, and breathlessly looked on at
Still, time after time, I staked higher and higher, and still won. The
excitement in the room rose to fever pitch. The silence was interrupted
by a deep-muttered chorus of oaths and exclamations in different
languages, every time the gold was shovelled across to my side of the
table--even the imperturbable croupier dashed his rake on the floor in a
(French) fury of astonishment at my success. But one man present
preserved his self-possession, and that man was my friend. He came to my
side, and whispering in English, begged me to leave the place, satisfied
with what I had already gained. I must do him the justice to say that he
repeated his warnings and entreaties several times, and only left me and
went away, after I had rejected his advice (I was to all intents and
purposes gambling drunk) in terms which rendered it impossible for him
to address me again that night.
Shortly after he had gone, a hoarse voice behind me cried, "Permit me,
my dear sir--permit me to restore to their proper place two napoleons
which you have dropped. Wonderful luck, sir! I pledge you my word of
honour, as an old soldier, in the course of my long experience in this
sort of thing, I never saw such luck as yours--never! Go on, sir--Sacre
mille bombes! Go on boldly, and break the bank!"
I turned round and saw, nodding and smiling at me with inveterate
civility, a tall man, dressed in a frogged and braided surtout.
If I had been in my senses, I should have considered him, personally, as
being rather a suspicious specimen of an old soldier. He had goggling,
bloodshot eyes, mangy moustaches, and a broken nose. His voice betrayed
a barrack-room intonation of the worst order, and he had the dirtiest
pair of hands I ever saw--even in France. These little personal
peculiarities exercised, however, no repelling influence on me. In the
mad excitement, the reckless triumph of that moment, I was ready to
"fraternize" with anybody who encouraged me in my game. I accepted the
old soldier's offered pinch of snuff; clapped him on the back, and swore
he was the honestest fellow in the world--the most glorious relic of the
Grand Army that I had ever met with. "Go on!" cried my military friend,
snapping his fingers in ecstasy--"Go on, and win! Break the bank--Mille
tonnerres! my gallant English comrade, break the bank!"
And I did go on--went on at such a rate, that in another quarter of an
hour the croupier called out, "Gentlemen, the bank has discontinued for
to-night." All the notes, and all the gold in that "bank," now lay in a
heap under my hands; the whole floating capital of the gambling-house
was waiting to pour into my pockets!
"Tie up the money in your pocket-handkerchief, my worthy sir," said the
old soldier, as I wildly plunged my hands into my heap of gold. "Tie it
up, as we used to tie up a bit of dinner in the Grand Army; your
winnings are too heavy for any breeches-pockets that ever were sewed.
There! that's it--shovel them in, notes and all! Credie! what luck!
Stop! another napoleon on the floor. Ah! sacre petit polisson de
Napoleon! have I found thee at last? Now then, sir--two tight double
knots each way with your honourable permission, and the money's safe.
Feel it! feel it, fortunate sir! hard and round as a cannon-ball--A
bas if they had only fired such cannon-balls at us at Austerlitz--nom
d'une pipe! if they only had! And now, as an ancient grenadier, as an
ex-brave of the French army, what remains for me to do? I ask what?
Simply this, to entreat my valued English friend to drink a bottle of
champagne with me, and toast the goddess Fortune in foaming goblets
before we part!"
"Excellent ex-brave! Convivial ancient grenadier! Champagne by all
means! An English cheer for an old soldier! Hurrah! hurrah! Another
English cheer for the goddess Fortune! Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!"
"Bravo! the Englishman; the amiable, gracious Englishman, in whose veins
circulates the vivacious blood of France! Another glass? A bas!--the
bottle is empty! Never mind! Vive le vin! I, the old soldier, order
another bottle, and half a pound of bonbons with it!"
"No, no, ex-brave; never--ancient grenadier! Your bottle last time;
my bottle this! Behold it! Toast away! The French Army! the great
Napoleon! the present company! the croupier! the honest croupier's wife
and daughters--if he has any! the ladies generally! everybody in the
By the time the second bottle of champagne was emptied, I felt as if I
had been drinking liquid fire--my brain seemed all aflame. No excess in
wine had ever had this effect on me before in my life. Was it the result
of a stimulant acting upon my system when I was in a highly excited
state? Was my stomach in a particularly disordered condition? Or was the
champagne amazingly strong?
"Ex-brave of the French Army!" cried I, in a mad state of exhilaration,
"I am on fire! how are you? You have set me on fire! Do you hear, my
hero of Austerlitz? Let us have a third bottle of champagne to put the
The old soldier wagged his head, rolled his goggle-eyes, until I
expected to see them slip out of their sockets; placed his dirty
forefinger by the side of his broken nose; solemnly ejaculated "Coffee!"
and immediately ran off into an inner room.
The word pronounced by the eccentric veteran seemed to have a magical
effect on the rest of the company present. With one accord they all rose
to depart. Probably they had expected to profit by my intoxication; but
finding that my new friend was benevolently bent on preventing me from
getting dead drunk, had now abandoned all hope of thriving pleasantly on
my winnings. Whatever their motive might be, at any rate they went away
in a body. When the old soldier returned, and sat down again opposite to
me at the table, we had the room to ourselves. I could see the croupier,
in a sort of vestibule which opened out of it, eating his supper in
solitude. The silence was now deeper than ever.
A sudden change, too, had come over the "ex-brave." He assumed a
portentously solemn look; and when he spoke to me again, his speech was
ornamented by no oaths, enforced by no finger-snapping, enlivened by no
apostrophes or exclamations.
"Listen, my dear sir," said he, in mysteriously confidential
tones--"listen to an old soldier's advice. I have been to the mistress
of the house (a very charming woman, with a genius for cookery!) to
impress on her the necessity of making us some particularly strong and
good coffee. You must drink this coffee in order to get rid of your
little amiable exaltation of spirits before you think of going home--you
must, my good and gracious friend! With all that money to take home
to-night, it is a sacred duty to yourself to have your wits about you.
You are known to be a winner to an enormous extent by several gentlemen
present to-night, who, in a certain point of view, are very worthy and
excellent fellows; but they are mortal men, my dear sir, and they have
their amiable weaknesses! Need I say more? Ah, no, no! you understand
me! Now, this is what you must do--send for a cabriolet when you feel
quite well again--draw up all the windows when you get into it--and tell
the driver to take you home only through the large and well-lighted
thoroughfares. Do this; and you and your money will be safe. Do this;
and to-morrow you will thank an old soldier for giving you a word of
Just as the ex-brave ended his oration in very lachrymose tones, the
coffee came in, ready poured out in two cups. My attentive friend handed
me one of the cups with a bow. I was parched with thirst, and drank it
off at a draft. Almost instantly afterward I was seized with a fit of
giddiness, and felt more completely intoxicated than ever. The room
whirled round and round furiously; the old soldier seemed to be
regularly bobbing up and down before me like the piston of a
steam-engine. I was half deafened by a violent singing in my ears; a
feeling of utter bewilderment, helplessness, idiocy, overcame me. I rose
from my chair, holding on by the table to keep my balance; and stammered
out that I felt dreadfully unwell--so unwell that I did not know how I
was to get home.
"My dear friend," answered the old soldier--and even his voice seemed to
be bobbing up and down as he spoke--"my dear friend, it would be madness
to go home in your state; you would be sure to lose your money; you
might be robbed and murdered with the greatest ease. I am going to
sleep here: do you sleep here, too--they make up capital beds in this
house--take one; sleep off the effects of the wine, and go home safely
with your winnings to-morrow--to-morrow, in broad daylight."
I had but two ideas left: one, that I must never let go hold of my
handkerchief full of money; the other, that I must lie down somewhere
immediately, and fall off into a comfortable sleep. So I agreed to the
proposal about the bed, and took the offered arm of the old soldier,
carrying my money with my disengaged hand. Preceded by the croupier, we
passed along some passages and up a flight of stairs into the bedroom
which I was to occupy. The ex-brave shook me warmly by the hand,
proposed that we should breakfast together, and then, followed by the
croupier, left me for the night.
I ran to the wash-hand stand; drank some of the water in my jug; poured
the rest out, and plunged my face into it; then sat down in a chair and
tried to compose myself. I soon felt better. The change for my lungs,
from the fetid atmosphere of the gambling-room to the cool air of the
apartment I now occupied, the almost equally refreshing change for my
eyes, from the glaring gaslights of the "salon" to the dim, quiet
flicker of one bedroom-candle, aided wonderfully the restorative effects
of cold water. The giddiness left me, and I began to feel a little like
a reasonable being again. My first thought was of the risk of sleeping
all night in a gambling-house; my second, of the still greater risk of
trying to get out after the house was closed, and of going home alone at
night through the streets of Paris with a large sum of money about me. I
had slept in worse places than this on my travels; so I determined to
lock, bolt, and barricade my door, and take my chance till the next
Accordingly, I secured myself against all intrusion; looked under the
bed, and into the cupboard; tried the fastening of the window; and then,
satisfied that I had taken every proper precaution, pulled off my upper
clothing, put my light, which was a dim one, on the hearth among a
feathery litter of wood-ashes, and got into bed, with the handkerchief
full of money under my pillow.
I soon felt not only that I could not go to sleep, but that I could not
even close my eyes. I was wide awake, and in a high fever. Every nerve
in my body trembled--every one of my senses seemed to be preternaturally
sharpened. I tossed and rolled, and tried every kind of position, and
perseveringly sought out the cold corners of the bed, and all to no
purpose. Now I thrust my arms over the clothes; now I poked them under
the clothes; now I violently shot my legs straight out down to the
bottom of the bed; now I convulsively coiled them up as near my chin as
they would go; now I shook out my crumpled pillow, changed it to the
cool side, patted it flat, and lay down quietly on my back; now I
fiercely doubled it in two, set it up on end, thrust it against the
board of the bed, and tried a sitting posture. Every effort was in vain;
I groaned with vexation as I felt that I was in for a sleepless night.
What could I do? I had no book to read. And yet, unless I found out some
method of diverting my mind, I felt certain that I was in the condition
to imagine all sorts of horrors; to rack my brain with forebodings of
every possible and impossible danger; in short, to pass the night in
suffering all conceivable varieties of nervous terror.
I raised myself on my elbow, and looked about the room--which was
brightened by a lovely moonlight pouring straight through the window--to
see if it contained any pictures or ornaments that I could at all
clearly distinguish. While my eyes wandered from wall to wall, a
remembrance of Le Maistre's delightful little book, "Voyage autour de ma
Chambre," occurred to me. I resolved to imitate the French author, and
find occupation and amusement enough to relieve the tedium of my
wakefulness, by making a mental inventory of every article of furniture
I could see, and by following up to their sources the multitude of
associations which even a chair, a table, or a wash-hand stand may be
made to call forth.
In the nervous, unsettled state of my mind at that moment, I found it
much easier to make my inventory than to make my reflections, and
thereupon soon gave up all hope of thinking in Le Maistre's fanciful
track--or, indeed, of thinking at all. I looked about the room at the
different articles of furniture, and did nothing more.
There was, first, the bed I was lying in; a four-post bed, of all things
in the world to meet with in Paris--yes, a thorough clumsy British
four-poster, with a regular top lined with chintz--the regular fringed
valance all round--the regular stifling, unwholesome curtains, which I
remembered having mechanically drawn back against the posts without
particularly noticing the bed when I first got into the room. Then there
was the marble-topped wash-hand stand, from which the water I had
spilled, in my hurry to pour it out, was still dripping, slowly and more
slowly, on to the brick floor. Then two small chairs, with my coat,
waistcoat, and trousers flung on them. Then a large elbow-chair covered
with dirty white dimity, with my cravat and shirt collar thrown over the
back. Then a chest of drawers with two of the brass handles off, and a
tawdry, broken china inkstand placed on it by way of ornament for the
top. Then the dressing-table, adorned by a very small looking-glass, and
a very large pincushion. Then the window--an unusually large window.
Then a dark old picture, which the feeble candle dimly showed me. It was
the picture of a fellow in a high Spanish hat, crowned with a plume of
towering feathers. A swarthy, sinister ruffian, looking upward, shading
his eyes with his hand, and looking intently upward--it might be at some
tall gallows on which he was going to be hanged. At any rate, he had the
appearance of thoroughly deserving it.
This picture put a kind of constraint upon me to look upward too--at the
top of the bed. It was a gloomy and not an interesting object, and I
looked back at the picture. I counted the feathers in the man's
hat--they stood out in relief--three white, two green. I observed the
crown of his hat, which was of a conical shape, according to the fashion
supposed to have been favoured by Guido Fawkes. I wondered what he was
looking up at. It couldn't be at the stars; such a desperado was neither
astrologer nor astronomer. It must be at the high gallows, and he was
going to be hanged presently. Would the executioner come into possession
of his conical crowned hat and plume of feathers? I counted the feathers
again--three white, two green.
While I still lingered over this very improving and intellectual
employment, my thoughts insensibly began to wander. The moonlight
shining into the room reminded me of a certain moonlight night in
England--the night after a picnic party in a Welsh valley. Every
incident of the drive homeward through lovely scenery, which the
moonlight made lovelier than ever, came back to my remembrance, though I
had never given the picnic a thought for years; though, if I had tried
to recollect it, I could certainly have recalled little or nothing of
that scene long past. Of all the wonderful faculties that help to tell
us we are immortal, which speaks the sublime truth more eloquently than
memory? Here was I, in a strange house of the most suspicious character,
in a situation of uncertainty, and even of peril, which might seem to
make the cool exercise of my recollection almost out of the question;
nevertheless, remembering, quite involuntarily, places, people,
conversations, minute circumstances of every kind, which I had thought
forgotten forever; which I could not possibly have recalled at will,
even under the most favourable auspices. And what cause had produced in
a moment the whole of this strange, complicated, mysterious effect?
Nothing but some rays of moonlight shining in at my bedroom window.
I was still thinking of the picnic--of our merriment on the drive
home--of the sentimental young lady who would quote "Childe Harold"
because it was moonlight. I was absorbed by these past scenes and past
amusements, when, in an instant, the thread on which my memories hung
snapped asunder; my attention immediately came back to present things
more vividly than ever, and I found myself, I neither knew why nor
wherefore, looking hard at the picture again.
Looking for what?
Good God! the man had pulled his hat down on his brows! No! the hat
itself was gone! Where was the conical crown? Where the feathers--three
white, two green? Not there! In place of the hat and feathers, what
dusky object was it that now hid his forehead, his eyes, his shading
Was the bed moving?
I turned on my back and looked up. Was I mad? drunk? dreaming? giddy
again? or was the top of the bed really moving down--sinking slowly,
regularly, silently, horribly, right down throughout the whole of its
length and breadth--right down upon me, as I lay underneath?
My blood seemed to stand still. A deadly, paralyzing coldness stole all
over me as I turned my head round on the pillow and determined to test
whether the bed-top was really moving or not, by keeping my eye on the
man in the picture.
The next look in that direction was enough. The dull, black, frowzy
outline of the valance above me was within an inch of being parallel
with his waist. I still looked breathlessly. And steadily and
slowly--very slowly--I saw the figure, and the line of frame below the
figure, vanish, as the valance moved down before it.
I am, constitutionally, anything but timid. I have been on more than one
occasion in peril of my life, and have not lost my self-possession for
an instant; but when the conviction first settled on my mind that the
bed-top was really moving, was steadily and continuously sinking down
upon me, I looked up shuddering, helpless, panic-stricken, beneath the
hideous machinery for murder, which was advancing closer and closer to
suffocate me where I lay.
I looked up, motionless, speechless, breathless. The candle, fully
spent, went out; but the moonlight still brightened the room. Down and
down, without pausing and without sounding, came the bed-top, and still
my panic terror seemed to bind me faster and faster to the mattress on
which I lay--down and down it sank, till the dusty odour from the lining
of the canopy came stealing into my nostrils.
At that final moment the instinct of self-preservation startled me out
of my trance, and I moved at last. There was just room for me to roll
myself sidewise off the bed. As I dropped noiselessly to the floor, the
edge of the murderous canopy touched me on the shoulder.
Without stopping to draw my breath, without wiping the cold sweat from
my face, I rose instantly on my knees to watch the bed-top. I was
literally spellbound by it. If I had heard footsteps behind me, I could
not have turned round; if a means of escape had been miraculously
provided for me, I could not have moved to take advantage of it. The
whole life in me was, at that moment, concentrated in my eyes.
It descended--the whole canopy, with the fringe round it, came
down--down--close down; so close that there was not room now to squeeze
my finger between the bed-top and the bed. I felt at the side, and
discovered that what had appeared to me from beneath to be the ordinary
light canopy of a four-post bed was in reality a thick, broad mattress,
the substance of which was concealed by the valance and its fringe. I
looked up and saw the four posts rising hideously bare. In the middle of
the bed-top was a huge wooden screw that had evidently worked it down
through a hole in the ceiling, just as ordinary presses are worked down
on the substance selected for compression. The frightful apparatus moved
without making the faintest noise. There had been no creaking as it came
down; there was now not the faintest sound from the room above. Amidst a
dead and awful silence I beheld before me--in the nineteenth century,
and in the civilized capital of France--such a machine for secret murder
by suffocation as might have existed in the worst days of the
Inquisition, in the lonely inns among the Hartz Mountains, in the
mysterious tribunals of Westphalia! Still, as I looked on it, I could
not move, I could hardly breathe, but I began to recover the power of
thinking, and in a moment I discovered the murderous conspiracy framed
against me in all its horror.
My cup of coffee had been drugged, and drugged too strongly. I had been
saved from being smothered by having taken an overdose of some narcotic.
How I had chafed and fretted at the fever fit which had preserved my
life by keeping me awake! How recklessly I had confided myself to the
two wretches who had led me into this room, determined, for the sake of
my winnings, to kill me in my sleep by the surest and most horrible
contrivance for secretly accomplishing my destruction! How many men,
winners like me, had slept, as I had proposed to sleep, in that bed, and
had never been seen or heard of more! I shuddered at the bare idea of
But ere long all thought was again suspended by the sight of the
murderous canopy moving once more. After it had remained on the bed--as
nearly as I could guess--about ten minutes, it began to move up again.
The villains who worked it from above evidently believed that their
purpose was now accomplished. Slowly and silently, as it had descended,
that horrible bed-top rose toward its former place. When it reached the
upper extremities of the four posts, it reached the ceiling too. Neither
hole nor screw could be seen; the bed became in appearance an ordinary
bed again--the canopy an ordinary canopy--even to the most suspicious
Now, for the first time, I was able to move--to rise from my knees--to
dress myself in my upper clothing--and to consider of how I should
escape. If I betrayed by the smallest noise that the attempt to
suffocate me had failed, I was certain to be murdered. Had I made any
noise already? I listened intently, looking toward the door.
No! no footsteps in the passage outside--no sound of a tread, light or
heavy, in the room above--absolute silence everywhere. Besides locking
and bolting my door, I had moved an old wooden chest against it, which I
had found under the bed. To remove this chest (my blood ran cold as I
thought of what its contents might be!) without making some
disturbance was impossible; and, moreover, to think of escaping through
the house, now barred up for the night, was sheer insanity. Only one
chance was left me--the window. I stole to it on tiptoe.
My bedroom was on the first floor, above an entresol, and looked into
the back street. I raised my hand to open the window, knowing that on
that action hung, by the merest hair-breadth, my chance of safety. They
keep vigilant watch in a House of Murder. If any part of the frame
cracked, if the hinge creaked, I was a lost man! It must have occupied
me at least five minutes, reckoning by time--five hours reckoning by
suspense--to open that window. I succeeded in doing it silently--in
doing it with all the dexterity of a house-breaker--and then looked down
into the street. To leap the distance beneath me would be almost certain
destruction! Next, I looked round at the sides of the house. Down the
left side ran a thick water-pipe--it passed close by the outer edge of
the window. The moment I saw the pipe, I knew I was saved. My breath
came and went freely for the first time since I had seen the canopy of
the bed moving down upon me!
To some men the means of escape which I had discovered might have seemed
difficult and dangerous enough--to me the prospect of slipping down
the pipe into the street did not suggest even a thought of peril. I had
always been accustomed, by the practise of gymnastics, to keep up my
schoolboy powers as a daring and expert climber; and knew that my head,
hands, and feet would serve me faithfully in any hazards of ascent or
descent. I had already got one leg over the window-sill, when I
remembered the handkerchief filled with money under my pillow. I could
well have afforded to leave it behind me, but I was revengefully
determined that the miscreants of the gambling-house should miss their
plunder as well as their victim. So I went back to the bed and tied the
heavy handkerchief at my back by my cravat.
Just as I had made it tight and fixed it in a comfortable place, I
thought I heard a sound of breathing outside the door. The chill feeling
of horror ran through me again as I listened. No! dead silence still in
the passage--I had only heard the night air blowing softly into the
room. The next moment I was on the window-sill--and the next I had a
firm grip on the water-pipe with my hands and knees.
I slid down into the street easily and quietly, as I thought I should,
and immediately set off at the top of my speed to a branch "Prefecture"
of Police, which I knew was situated in the immediate neighbourhood. A
"Sub-prefect," and several picked men among his subordinates, happened
to be up, maturing, I believe, some scheme for discovering the
perpetrator of a mysterious murder which all Paris was talking of just
then. When I began my story, in a breathless hurry and in very bad
French, I could see that the Sub-prefect suspected me of being a drunken
Englishman who had robbed somebody; but he soon altered his opinion as I
went on, and before I had anything like concluded, he shoved all the
papers before him into a drawer, put on his hat, supplied me with
another (for I was bareheaded), ordered a file of soldiers, desired his
expert followers to get ready all sorts of tools for breaking open doors
and ripping up brick flooring, and took my arm, in the most friendly and
familiar manner possible, to lead me with him out of the house. I will
venture to say that when the Sub-prefect was a little boy, and was taken
for the first time to the play, he was not half as much pleased as he
was now at the job in prospect for him at the gambling-house!
Away we went through the streets, the Sub-prefect cross-examining and
congratulating me in the same breath as we marched at the head of our
formidable posse comitatus. Sentinels were placed at the back and
front of the house the moment we got to it, a tremendous battery of
knocks was directed against the door; a light appeared at a window; I
was told to conceal myself behind the police--then came more knocks, and
a cry of "Open in the name of the law!" At that terrible summons bolts
and locks gave way before an invisible hand, and the moment after the
Sub-prefect was in the passage, confronting a waiter half dressed and
ghastly pale. This was the short dialogue which immediately took place:
"We want to see the Englishman who is sleeping in this house."
"He went away hours ago."
"He did no such thing. His friend went away; he remained. Show us to
"I swear to you, Monsieur le Sous-prefect, he is not here! he--"
"I swear to you, Monsieur le Garcon, he is. He slept here--he didn't
find your bed comfortable--he came to us to complain of it--here he is
among my men--and here am I ready to look for a flea or two in his
bedstead. Renaudin! (calling to one of the subordinates, and pointing to
the waiter), collar that man, and tie his hands behind him. Now, then,
gentlemen, let us walk upstairs!"
Every man and woman in the house was secured--the "Old Soldier" the
first. Then I identified the bed in which I had slept, and then we went
into the room above.
No object that was at all extraordinary appeared in any part of it. The
Sub-prefect looked round the place, commanded everybody to be silent,
stamped twice on the floor, called for a candle, looked attentively at
the spot he had stamped on, and ordered the flooring there to be
carefully taken up. This was done in no time. Lights were produced, and
we saw a deep raftered cavity between the floor of this room and the
ceiling of the room beneath. Through this cavity there ran
perpendicularly a sort of case of iron thickly greased; and inside the
case appeared the screw, which communicated with the bed-top below.
Extra lengths of screw, freshly oiled; levers covered with felt; all the
complete upper works of a heavy press--constructed with infernal
ingenuity so as to join the fixtures below, and when taken to pieces
again to go into the smallest possible compass--were next discovered and
pulled out on the floor. After some little difficulty the Sub-prefect
succeeded in putting the machinery together, and, leaving his men to
work it, descended with me to the bedroom. The smothering canopy was
then lowered, but not so noiselessly as I had seen it lowered. When I
mentioned this to the Sub-prefect, his answer, simple as it was, had a
terrible significance. "My men," said he, "are working down the bed-top
for the first time--the men whose money you won were in better
We left the house in the sole possession of two police agents--every one
of the inmates being removed to prison on the spot. The Sub-prefect,
after taking down my "proces verbal" in his office, returned with me to
my hotel to get my passport. "Do you think," I asked, as I gave it to
him, "that any men have really been smothered in that bed, as they tried
to smother me?"
"I have seen dozens of drowned men laid out at the Morgue," answered the
Sub-prefect, "in whose pocketbooks were found letters stating that they
had committed suicide in the Seine, because they had lost everything at
the gaming-table. Do I know how many of those men entered the same
gambling-house that you entered? won as you won? took that bed as
you took it? slept in it? were smothered in it? and were privately
thrown into the river, with a letter of explanation written by the
murderers and placed in their pocketbooks? No man can say how many or
how few have suffered the fate from which you have escaped. The people
of the gambling house kept their bedstead machinery a secret from
us--even from the police! The dead kept the rest of the secret for them.
Good-night, or rather good-morning, Monsieur Faulkner! Be at my office
again at nine o'clock--in the meantime, au revoir!"
The rest of my story is soon told. I was examined and reexamined; the
gambling-house was strictly searched all through from top to bottom; the
prisoners were separately interrogated; and two of the less guilty among
them made a confession. I discovered that the Old Soldier was the master
of the gambling-house--justice discovered that he had been drummed out
of the army as a vagabond years ago; that he had been guilty of all
sorts of villainies since; that he was in possession of stolen property,
which the owners identified; and that he, the croupier, another
accomplice, and the woman who had made my cup of coffee, were all in the
secret of the bedstead. There appeared some reason to doubt whether the
inferior persons attached to the house knew anything of the suffocating
machinery; and they received the benefit of that doubt, by being treated
simply as thieves and vagabonds. As for the Old Soldier and his two head
myrmidons, they went to the galleys; the woman who had drugged my coffee
was imprisoned for I forget how many years; the regular attendants at
the gambling-house were considered "suspicious," and placed under
"surveillance"; and I became, for one whole week (which is a long time),
the head "lion" in Parisian society. My adventure was dramatized by
three illustrious play-makers, but never saw theatrical daylight; for
the censorship forbade the introduction on the stage of a correct copy
of the gambling-house bedstead.
One good result was produced by my adventure, which any censorship must
have approved: it cured me of ever again trying "Rouge et Noir" as an
amusement. The sight of a green cloth, with packs of cards and heaps of
money on it, will henceforth be forever associated in my mind with the
sight of a bed canopy descending to suffocate me in the silence and
darkness of the night.
Next: The Torture By Hope
Previous: The Birth-mark