The Dream Woman





I



"Hullo, there! Hostler! Hullo-o-o!"



"My dear! why don't you look for the bell?"



"I have looked--there is no bell."



"And nobody in the yard. How very extraordinary! Call again, dear."



"Hostler! Hullo, there! Hostler-r-r!"



My second call echoes through empty space, and rouses nobody--produces, in

short, no visible result. I am at the end of my resources--I don't know

what to say or what to do next. Here I stand in the solitary inn yard of a

strange town, with two horses to hold, and a lady to take care of. By way

of adding to my responsibilities, it so happens that one of the horses is

dead lame, and that the lady is my wife.



Who am I?--you will ask.



There is plenty of time to answer the question. Nothing happens; and

nobody appears to receive us. Let me introduce myself and my wife.



I am Percy Fairbank--English gentleman--age (let us say) forty--no

profession--moderate politics--middle height--fair complexion--easy

character--plenty of money.



My wife is a French lady. She was Mademoiselle Clotilde Delorge--when I

was first presented to her at her father's house in France. I fell in love

with her--I really don't know why. It might have been because I was

perfectly idle, and had nothing else to do at the time. Or it might have

been because all my friends said she was the very last woman whom I ought

to think of marrying. On the surface, I must own, there is nothing in

common between Mrs. Fairbank and me. She is tall; she is dark; she is

nervous, excitable, romantic; in all her opinions she proceeds to

extremes. What could such a woman see in me? what could I see in her? I

know no more than you do. In some mysterious manner we exactly suit each

other. We have been man and wife for ten years, and our only regret is,

that we have no children. I don't know what you may think; I call

that--upon the whole--a happy marriage.



So much for ourselves. The next question is--what has brought us into the

inn yard? and why am I obliged to turn groom, and hold the horses?



We live for the most part in France--at the country house in which my wife

and I first met. Occasionally, by way of variety, we pay visits to my

friends in England. We are paying one of those visits now. Our host is an

old college friend of mine, possessed of a fine estate in Somersetshire;

and we have arrived at his house--called Farleigh Hall--toward the close

of the hunting season.



On the day of which I am now writing--destined to be a memorable day in

our calendar--the hounds meet at Farleigh Hall. Mrs. Fairbank and I are

mounted on two of the best horses in my friend's stables. We are quite

unworthy of that distinction; for we know nothing and care nothing about

hunting. On the other hand, we delight in riding, and we enjoy the breezy

Spring morning and the fair and fertile English landscape surrounding us

on every side. While the hunt prospers, we follow the hunt. But when a

check occurs--when time passes and patience is sorely tried; when the

bewildered dogs run hither and thither, and strong language falls from

the lips of exasperated sportsmen--we fail to take any further interest in

the proceedings. We turn our horses' heads in the direction of a grassy

lane, delightfully shaded by trees. We trot merrily along the lane, and

find ourselves on an open common. We gallop across the common, and follow

the windings of a second lane. We cross a brook, we pass through a

village, we emerge into pastoral solitude among the hills. The horses toss

their heads, and neigh to each other, and enjoy it as much as we do. The

hunt is forgotten. We are as happy as a couple of children; we are

actually singing a French song--when in one moment our merriment comes to

an end. My wife's horse sets one of his forefeet on a loose stone, and

stumbles. His rider's ready hand saves him from falling. But, at the first

attempt he makes to go on, the sad truth shows itself--a tendon is

strained; the horse is lame.



What is to be done? We are strangers in a lonely part of the country. Look

where we may, we see no signs of a human habitation. There is nothing for

it but to take the bridle road up the hill, and try what we can discover

on the other side. I transfer the saddles, and mount my wife on my own

horse. He is not used to carry a lady; he misses the familiar pressure of

a man's legs on either side of him; he fidgets, and starts, and kicks up

the dust. I follow on foot, at a respectful distance from his heels,

leading the lame horse. Is there a more miserable object on the face of

creation than a lame horse? I have seen lame men and lame dogs who were

cheerful creatures; but I never yet saw a lame horse who didn't look

heartbroken over his own misfortune.



For half an hour my wife capers and curvets sideways along the bridle

road. I trudge on behind her; and the heartbroken horse halts behind me.

Hard by the top of the hill, our melancholy procession passes a

Somersetshire peasant at work in a field. I summon the man to approach us;

and the man looks at me stolidly, from the middle of the field, without

stirring a step. I ask at the top of my voice how far it is to Farleigh

Hall. The Somersetshire peasant answers at the top of his voice:



"Vourteen mile. Gi' oi a drap o' zyder."



I translate (for my wife's benefit) from the Somersetshire language into

the English language. We are fourteen miles from Farleigh Hall; and our

friend in the field desires to be rewarded, for giving us that

information, with a drop of cider. There is the peasant, painted by

himself! Quite a bit of character, my dear! Quite a bit of character!



Mrs. Fairbank doesn't view the study of agricultural human nature with my

relish. Her fidgety horse will not allow her a moment's repose; she is

beginning to lose her temper.



"We can't go fourteen miles in this way," she says. "Where is the nearest

inn? Ask that brute in the field!"



I take a shilling from my pocket and hold it up in the sun. The shilling

exercises magnetic virtues. The shilling draws the peasant slowly toward

me from the middle of the field. I inform him that we want to put up the

horses and to hire a carriage to take us back to Farleigh Hall. Where can

we do that? The peasant answers (with his eye on the shilling):



"At Oonderbridge, to be zure." (At Underbridge, to be sure.)



"Is it far to Underbridge?"



The peasant repeats, "Var to Oonderbridge?"--and laughs at the question.

"Hoo-hoo-hoo!" (Underbridge is evidently close by--if we could only find

it.) "Will you show us the way, my man?" "Will you gi' oi a drap of

zyder?" I courteously bend my head, and point to the shilling. The

agricultural intelligence exerts itself. The peasant joins our melancholy

procession. My wife is a fine woman, but he never once looks at my

wife--and, more extraordinary still, he never even looks at the horses.

His eyes are with his mind--and his mind is on the shilling.



We reach the top of the hill--and, behold on the other side, nestling in

a valley, the shrine of our pilgrimage, the town of Underbridge! Here our

guide claims his shilling, and leaves us to find out the inn for

ourselves. I am constitutionally a polite man. I say "Good morning" at

parting. The guide looks at me with the shilling between his teeth to make

sure that it is a good one. "Marnin!" he says savagely--and turns his back

on us, as if we had offended him. A curious product, this, of the growth

of civilization. If I didn't see a church spire at Underbridge, I might

suppose that we had lost ourselves on a savage island.





II



Arriving at the town, we had no difficulty in finding the inn. The town is

composed of one desolate street; and midway in that street stands the

inn--an ancient stone building sadly out of repair. The painting on the

sign-board is obliterated. The shutters over the long range of front

windows are all closed. A cock and his hens are the only living creatures

at the door. Plainly, this is one of the old inns of the stage-coach

period, ruined by the railway. We pass through the open arched doorway,

and find no one to welcome us. We advance into the stable yard behind; I

assist my wife to dismount--and there we are in the position already

disclosed to view at the opening of this narrative. No bell to ring. No

human creature to answer when I call. I stand helpless, with the bridles

of the horses in my hand. Mrs. Fairbank saunters gracefully down the

length of the yard and does--what all women do, when they find themselves

in a strange place. She opens every door as she passes it, and peeps in.

On my side, I have just recovered my breath, I am on the point of shouting

for the hostler for the third and last time, when I hear Mrs. Fairbank

suddenly call to me:



"Percy! come here!"



Her voice is eager and agitated. She has opened a last door at the end of

the yard, and has started back from some sight which has suddenly met her

view. I hitch the horses' bridles on a rusty nail in the wall near me, and

join my wife. She has turned pale, and catches me nervously by the arm.



"Good heavens!" she cries; "look at that!"



I look--and what do I see? I see a dingy little stable, containing two

stalls. In one stall a horse is munching his corn. In the other a man is

lying asleep on the litter.



A worn, withered, woebegone man in a hostler's dress. His hollow wrinkled

cheeks, his scanty grizzled hair, his dry yellow skin, tell their own tale

of past sorrow or suffering. There is an ominous frown on his

eyebrows--there is a painful nervous contraction on the side of his mouth.

I hear him breathing convulsively when I first look in; he shudders and

sighs in his sleep. It is not a pleasant sight to see, and I turn round

instinctively to the bright sunlight in the yard. My wife turns me back

again in the direction of the stable door.



"Wait!" she says. "Wait! he may do it again."



"Do what again?"



"He was talking in his sleep, Percy, when I first looked in. He was

dreaming some dreadful dream. Hush! he's beginning again."



I look and listen. The man stirs on his miserable bed. The man speaks in a

quick, fierce whisper through his clinched teeth. "Wake up! Wake up,

there! Murder!"



There is an interval of silence. He moves one lean arm slowly until it

rests over his throat; he shudders, and turns on his straw; he raises his

arm from his throat, and feebly stretches it out; his hand clutches at the

straw on the side toward which he has turned; he seems to fancy that he is

grasping at the edge of something. I see his lips begin to move again; I

step softly into the stable; my wife follows me, with her hand fast

clasped in mine. We both bend over him. He is talking once more in his

sleep--strange talk, mad talk, this time.



"Light gray eyes" (we hear him say), "and a droop in the left

eyelid--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 round the fingernails--the knife--the cursed knife--first on one

side, then on the other--aha, you she-devil! where is the knife?"



He stops and grows restless on a sudden. We see him writhing on the straw.

He throws up both his hands and gasps hysterically for breath. His eyes

open suddenly. For a moment they look at nothing, with a vacant glitter in

them--then they close again in deeper sleep. Is he dreaming still? Yes;

but the dream seems to have taken a new course. When he speaks next, the

tone is altered; the words are few--sadly and imploringly repeated over

and over again. "Say you love me! I am so fond of you. Say you love me!

say you love me!" He sinks into deeper and deeper sleep, faintly repeating

those words. They die away on his lips. He speaks no more.



By this time Mrs. Fairbank has got over her terror; she is devoured by

curiosity now. The miserable creature on the straw has appealed to the

imaginative side of her character. Her illimitable appetite for romance

hungers and thirsts for more. She shakes me impatiently by the arm.



"Do you hear? There is a woman at the bottom of it, Percy! There is love

and murder in it, Percy! Where are the people of the inn? Go into the

yard, and call to them again."



My wife belongs, on her mother's side, to the South of France. The South

of France breeds fine women with hot tempers. I say no more. Married men

will understand my position. Single men may need to be told that there are

occasions when we must not only love and honor--we must also obey--our

wives.



I turn to the door to obey my wife, and find myself confronted by a

stranger who has stolen on us unawares. The stranger is a tiny, sleepy,

rosy old man, with a vacant pudding-face, and a shining bald head. He

wears drab breeches and gaiters, and a respectable square-tailed ancient

black coat. I feel instinctively that here is the landlord of the inn.



"Good morning, sir," says the rosy old man. "I'm a little hard of hearing.

Was it you that was a-calling just now in the yard?"



Before I can answer, my wife interposes. She insists (in a shrill voice,

adapted to our host's hardness of hearing) on knowing who that unfortunate

person is sleeping on the straw. "Where does he come from? Why does he say

such dreadful things in his sleep? Is he married or single? Did he ever

fall in love with a murderess? What sort of a looking woman was she? Did

she really stab him or not? In short, dear Mr. Landlord, tell us the whole

story!"



Dear Mr. Landlord waits drowsily until Mrs. Fairbank has quite done--then

delivers himself of his reply as follows:



"His name's Francis Raven. He's an Independent Methodist. He was

forty-five year old last birthday. And he's my hostler. That's his story."



My wife's hot southern temper finds its way to her foot, and expresses

itself by a stamp on the stable yard.



The landlord turns himself sleepily round, and looks at the horses. "A

fine pair of horses, them two in the yard. Do you want to put 'em in my

stables?" I reply in the affirmative by a nod. The landlord, bent on

making himself agreeable to my wife, addresses her once more. "I'm a-going

to wake Francis Raven. He's an Independent Methodist. He was forty-five

year old last birthday. And he's my hostler. That's his story."



Having issued this second edition of his interesting narrative, the

landlord enters the stable. We follow him to see how he will wake Francis

Raven, and what will happen upon that. The stable broom stands in a

corner; the landlord takes it--advances toward the sleeping hostler--and

coolly stirs the man up with a broom as if he was a wild beast in a cage.

Francis Raven starts to his feet with a cry of terror--looks at us wildly,

with a horrid glare of suspicion in his eyes--recovers himself the next

moment--and suddenly changes into a decent, quiet, respectable

serving-man.



"I beg your pardon, ma'am. I beg your pardon, sir."



The tone and manner in which he makes his apologies are both above his

apparent station in life. I begin to catch the infection of Mrs.

Fairbank's interest in this man. We both follow him out into the yard to

see what he will do with the horses. The manner in which he lifts the

injured leg of the lame horse tells me at once that he understands his

business. Quickly and quietly, he leads the animal into an empty stable;

quickly and quietly, he gets a bucket of hot water, and puts the lame

horse's leg into it. "The warm water will reduce the swelling, sir. I will

bandage the leg afterwards." All that he does is done intelligently; all

that he says, he says to the purpose.



Nothing wild, nothing strange about him now. Is this the same man whom we

heard talking in his sleep?--the same man who woke with that cry of terror

and that horrid suspicion in his eyes? I determine to try him with one or

two questions.





III



"Not much to do here," I say to the hostler.



"Very little to do, sir," the hostler replies.



"Anybody staying in the house?"



"The house is quite empty, sir."



"I thought you were all dead. I could make nobody hear me."



"The landlord is very deaf, sir, and the waiter is out on an errand."



"Yes; and you were fast asleep in the stable. Do you often take a nap in

the daytime?"



The worn face of the hostler faintly flushes. His eyes look away from my

eyes for the first time. Mrs. Fairbank furtively pinches my arm. Are we on

the eve of a discovery at last? I repeat my question. The man has no civil

alternative but to give me an answer. The answer is given in these words:



"I was tired out, sir. You wouldn't have found me asleep in the daytime

but for that."



"Tired out, eh? You had been hard at work, I suppose?"



"No, sir."



"What was it, then?"



He hesitates again, and answers unwillingly, "I was up all night."



"Up all night? Anything going on in the town?"



"Nothing going on, sir."



"Anybody ill?"



"Nobody ill, sir."



That reply is the last. Try as I may, I can extract nothing more from him.

He turns away and busies himself in attending to the horse's leg. I leave

the stable to speak to the landlord about the carriage which is to take us

back to Farleigh Hall. Mrs. Fairbank remains with the hostler, and favors

me with a look at parting. The look says plainly, "I mean to find out

why he was up all night. Leave him to Me."



The ordering of the carriage is easily accomplished. The inn possesses one

horse and one chaise. The landlord has a story to tell of the horse, and a

story to tell of the chaise. They resemble the story of Francis

Raven--with this exception, that the horse and chaise belong to no

religious persuasion. "The horse will be nine year old next birthday. I've

had the shay for four-and-twenty year. Mr. Max, of Underbridge, he bred

the horse; and Mr. Pooley, of Yeovil, he built the shay. It's my horse and

my shay. And that's their story!" Having relieved his mind of these

details, the landlord proceeds to put the harness on the horse. By way of

assisting him, I drag the chaise into the yard. Just as our preparations

are completed, Mrs. Fairbank appears. A moment or two later the hostler

follows her out. He has bandaged the horse's leg, and is now ready to

drive us to Farleigh Hall. I observe signs of agitation in his face and

manner, which suggest that my wife has found her way into his confidence.

I put the question to her privately in a corner of the yard. "Well? Have

you found out why Francis Raven was up all night?"



Mrs. Fairbank has an eye to dramatic effect. Instead of answering plainly,

Yes or No, she suspends the interest and excites the audience by putting a

question on her side.



"What is the day of the month, dear?"



"The day of the month is the first of March."



"The first of March, Percy, is Francis Raven's birthday."



I try to look as if I was interested--and don't succeed.



"Francis was born," Mrs. Fairbank proceeds gravely, "at two o'clock in the

morning."



I begin to wonder whether my wife's intellect is going the way of the

landlord's intellect. "Is that all?" I ask.



"It is not all," Mrs. Fairbank answers. "Francis Raven sits up on the

morning of his birthday because he is afraid to go to bed."



"And why is he afraid to go to bed?"



"Because he is in peril of his life."



"On his birthday?"



"On his birthday. At two o'clock in the morning. As regularly as the

birthday comes round."



There she stops. Has she discovered no more than that? No more thus far. I

begin to feel really interested by this time. I ask eagerly what it means?

Mrs. Fairbank points mysteriously to the chaise--with Francis Raven

(hitherto our hostler, now our coachman) waiting for us to get in. The

chaise has a seat for two in front, and a seat for one behind. My wife

casts a warning look at me, and places herself on the seat in front.



The necessary consequence of this arrangement is that Mrs. Fairbank sits

by the side of the driver during a journey of two hours and more. Need I

state the result? It would be an insult to your intelligence to state the

result. Let me offer you my place in the chaise. And let Francis Raven

tell his terrible story in his own words.





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