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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHugo: A Fantasia On Modern Themes - Part 1. The Sealed Rooms - Chapter 10. The Coffin
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Hugo: A Fantasia On Modern Themes - Part 1. The Sealed Rooms - Chapter 10. The Coffin Post by :acos21 Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :3722

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Hugo: A Fantasia On Modern Themes - Part 1. The Sealed Rooms - Chapter 10. The Coffin


He was in that mental condition, familiar to every genuine man of action, in which, though the mind divides against itself, and there is an apparently even conflict between two impulses, the battle is lost and won before it is fought, and the fight is nothing but a sham fight. He wandered about the roofs; he went as far as the restaurant garden, and turned on all the electric festoons and standards by the secret switch, and sat down solitary at a table before an empty glass which a waiter had forgotten to remove. He extinguished the lights, wandered back to the dome, climbed to the topmost gallery, and saw the moon rising over St. Paul's Cathedral. He said he would go to bed again at once, well knowing that he would not go to bed again at once. He swore that he would conquer the overmastering impulse, well knowing that it would conquer him. He cursed, as men only curse themselves. And then, suddenly, he yielded, gladly, with relief.

He hastened out, and did not pause till he reached the balcony of flat No. 7 in the further quadrangle. He admitted frankly now that the dominant impulse which controlled his mind would force him to enter the flat during that night, by means lawful or unlawful, and he perceived with satisfaction that the great French window of the drawing-room was not quite shut. The blinds, however, had been carefully lowered, and nothing of the interior was revealed save the fact that a light burned within. In the entire quadrangle, round which, tier above tier, hundreds of people were silent in sleep or in vigil, this was the sole illumination. Hugo leaned over the balcony, and tried to pierce the depths of the vast pit below, and those thoughts came to him which come to watchers by night in the presence of sleeping armies, or on the high sea. The eternal and insoluble question troubled and teased him, and would not be put aside. In imagination, he felt the very swish of the planet as it whirled through space with its cargo of pitiful humanity. What, after all, were life, love, ambition, grief, death? What, in the incessant march of suns, could be the value of a few restless specks of vitality clinging with desperation to a minor orb?

And then he fancied he could hear a sound within the flat, and he forgot these transcendental speculations, and for him the secret of the universe lay behind the blinds of Francis Tudor's drawing-room. Yes, he could hear a sound. It was the distant sound of a man talking--loudly, slowly, and distinctly--but too far off for him to catch even one word. He guessed, as he pushed the window a little wider open, and bent his ear to the aperture, that the voice must be in a room beyond the drawing-room. It continued monotonously for a long time, with little breaks at rare intervals; it was rather like a parson reading a sermon in an empty church. Then it ceased. And there were footsteps, which approached the window, and retired. He noticed that the light within the room was being moved, but it cast no human shadow on the blind. The light came finally to a standstill, and then there followed sounds which Hugo could not diagnose--short, regular sounds, broken occasionally by a sharp clash, as of an instrument falling. And when these had come to an end, there were more footsteps--a precise, quick walking to and fro, which continued for ages of time. Lastly, the footsteps receded; something dropped, not heavily, but rather in a manner gently subsiding, and a groan (or was it a moan, a tired suspiration?) wakened in Hugo's spinal column a curious, strange thrill. Then silence, complete, definitive, terrifying.

By merely pushing the window against the blind, he could enter and know the secret of the universe.

'Why am I doing this?' he asked himself, while he pushed the window. 'Why have I done this?' he asked himself, as he stood within the immense and luxurious room.

He gazed round with a swift and timid glance, as a man would who expects to see that which ought not to be seen. To his left was the fireplace, with a magnificent mirror over it. On the mantelpiece burned a movable electric table--lamp, with twin branched lights. He observed the silk-covered cord lying across the mantelpiece and disappearing over the further edge; by the side of the lamp was a screwdriver. Exactly in front of the lamp, on a couple of trestles such as undertakers use, lay an elm coffin, its head towards the mantelpiece. At the opposite end of the room was another fireplace and another mirror, with the result that Hugo saw an endless succession of coffins and corpse-lights, repeated and repeated, till they were lost in a vague crystal blur, and by every pair of corpse-lights was a screwdriver.

He stood moveless, and listened, and could detect no faintest sound. Across the room from the principal window there was a doorway with a heavy portiere; not a fold of the portiere stirred. To his right, near the other window, was a door--the door by which Camilla had entered that night a month ago; it was shut. His glance searched among the rich confusion of furniture--fauteuils, occasional tables, sofas, statuary, vases, cabinets. He peered into every corner of the silent chamber, and saw nothing that gave a sign of life. He even gazed up guiltily at the decorated ceiling, as though some Freemason's Eye might be scanning him from above.

The coffin reigned in the room; all else was subservient to its massive and sinister presence, and the bright twin-lamps watched over its majesty with dazzling orbs.

Hugo went near the coffin, stepping on tip-toe over the thick-piled rugs, and examined it. There was no name-plate. He looked at himself in the mirror, and again he murmured a question: 'Why am I here?' Then he listened attentively, fearfully. No sound. His hands travelled to the screwdriver on the mantelpiece, and then fifty of his hands picked up fifty screwdrivers. And he listened once more. No sound.

'I must do it. I must,' he thought.

The next moment he was unscrewing the screws in the lid of the coffin, and scarcely had he begun the task when he realized that what he had heard from the balcony was the screwing of these same screws. There were twelve, and some of them were difficult to start, but in due course he had removed them all, and they stood in a row on their heads on the mantelpiece. He listened yet again. No sound. He had only to push the lid of the coffin to the left or to the right, or to lift it up. He spent several seconds in deciding whether he should push or lift, and then at length fifty Hugos lifted bodily the lids of fifty coffins. And after a dreadful hesitation he lowered his gaze and looked.

Yes, it was Camilla! He had known always that it would be Camilla.

The pale repose of death only emphasized the proud and splendid beauty of that head, with its shut eyes, its mouth firmly closed in a faint smile, and its glorious hair surrounded by all the white frippery of the shroud. Here lay the mortal part of the incomparable creature who had been coveted by three men and won by one--for a few brief days' possession. Here lay the repository of Ravengar's secrets, the grave of Hugo's happiness, the dead mate of Tudor's desire. Here lay the eternal woman, symbol of all beauty and all charm, victimized by her own loveliness. For if she had not been lovely, thought Hugo, if the curves of her cheek and her nostrils and the colour of her skin had been ever so slightly different, the world might have contained one widower, one ruined heart, and one murderer the less that night.

He did not doubt, he could not doubt, after Ravengar's threats, that she had been murdered. And yet he was not angry then. He did not feel a great grief. He was conscious of no sensation save a numbed and desolate awe. He had not begun to feel. Ledging the lid crossways on the coffin, he placed his hand gently upon Camilla's brow. It was colder than he had expected, and it had the peculiar hard, inelastic touch of incipient decay--that touch which communicates a shudder even to the most impassive.

'I must go,' he whispered, staring spell-bound at her face.

He was surprised to find drops of moisture falling on the shroud. They were his tears, and yet he had not known that he was crying.

He hid her again beneath the elm plank, and, taking the screws one by one from the mantel-piece, shut her up for ever from any human gaze. And then, nearly collapsing under a nervous tension such as he had never before experienced, he turned to leave the apartment as he had entered it, like a thief. But the mystery of the heavy velvet portiere invincibly attracted him. His steps wavered towards it. He fancied he saw something dark protruding under the curtain, and he pulled the curtain aside with a movement almost hysteric. A man lay extended at full length on his chest in the passage beyond--what Hugo had noticed was his boot.

'Tudor!' he exclaimed, kneeling to examine the half-concealed face.

At the same moment a figure came quietly down the passage. Hugo looked up, and saw a sallow-featured man of about thirty-five in a tourist suit, with light beard and hair, and long thin hands.

'What is this?' asked the stranger evenly. 'Who are you?'

'My name is Hugo,' Hugo answered with assurance. 'I was walking along the balconies, as I do sometimes at night, and I heard strange sounds here, and as the window was open I stepped in and found this. Are you a friend of Mr. Tudor's?'

The other bent in his turn, and after examining the prone body said:

'I was. He has no friends now.'

'You mean he is dead?'

'He must have died within the last quarter of an hour or so.'

'And nothing can be done?'

'Nothing can be done with death!'

'I take it you are a doctor?' said Hugo.

'My name is Darcy,' the other replied. 'Besides being Tudor's friend, I was his physician.'

'Yet even for a physician,' Hugo pursued, 'it seems to me that you have been able to decide very quickly that your friend and patient is dead. I have always understood that to say with assurance that death has taken place means a very careful and thorough examination.'

'You are right,' Darcy agreed, stroking his short, bright, silky beard. 'There is only one absolute proof of death.'

'And that is?'

'Putrefaction. Nevertheless, the inquest will show whether or not I have been in error.'

'There will have to be an inquest?'

'Certainly. In such a case as this no doctor in his senses would give his certificate without a post-mortem, and though I am an enthusiast, I am in my senses, Mr. Hugo.'

'An enthusiast?'

'Let me explain. My friend Tudor was suffering from one of the rarest of all maladies--malignant disease of the heart. The text-books will tell you that malignant disease of the heart has probably never been diagnosed. It is a disease of which there are no symptoms, in which the patient generally suffers no pain, and for which there is no treatment. Nevertheless, in my enthusiasm, I have diagnosed in this case that a very considerable extent of the cardiac wall was affected by epithelioma. We shall see. Not long since I condemned Tudor to an early and sudden death--a death which might be hastened by circumstances.'

'Poor chap!' Hugo murmured.

The dead man looked so young, artless, and content.

'Why "poor"?' Darcy turned on him sharply but coldly. 'Is not a sudden death the best? Would you not wish it for yourself, for your friends?'

'Yes,' said Hugo; 'but when one is dead one is dead. That's all I meant.'

'I have heard much of you, Mr. Hugo,' said the other. 'And, if I may be excused a certain bluntness, it is very obvious that, though you say little, you are no ordinary man. Can it be possible that you have lived so long and so fully and are yet capable of pitying the dead? Have you not learnt that it is only _they who are happy?' He vaguely indicated the corpse. 'If you will be so good as to assist me--'

'Willingly,' said Hugo, who could find nothing else to say. 'I suppose we must call the servants?'

'Why call the servants? To begin with, there is only one here, a somewhat antique housekeeper. Let her sleep. She has been through sufficient to-day. Morning will be time enough for the futile formalities which civilization has invented to protect itself. Night, which is the season of death, should not be disturbed by them.'

'As you think best,' Hugo concurred.

'And now,' Darcy began, in a somewhat relieved tone, when he had finished his task, and the remains of Francis Tudor lay decently covered on a sofa in the drawing-room, that mortuary chamber, 'will you oblige me by coming into the study for a while? I am not in the mood for sleep, and perhaps you are not. And I will admit frankly that I should prefer not to be alone at present. Yes,' he added, with a faint deprecatory smile, 'my theories about death are thoroughly philosophical, but one cannot always act up to one's theories.'

And in the study, at the other end of the flat, far from the relics of humanity, he began to roll cigarettes with marvellous swiftness in his long thin fingers.

Hugo surmised that under his singular and almost glacial calm the man concealed a temperament highly nervous and sensitive.

'You do not inquire about the--the coffin?' said Darcy at length, when they had smoked for a few moments in silence.

As a fact, Hugo had determined that, at no matter what cost to his feelings, he would not be the first to mention the other fatality.

The two men looked at each other, and each blew out a lance of smoke.

'What did she die of?' Hugo demanded curtly.

'You are aware, then, who it is?'

'Naturally, I guessed.'

'Ah! she died of typhoid fever. You knew her?'

'I knew her.'

'Of course; I remember. She was in your employ. Yes,' he sighed; 'she contracted typhoid fever in Paris. It's always more or less endemic there. And what with this hot summer and their water-supply and their drainage, it's been more rife than usual lately. Tudor called me in at once. I am qualified both in England and France, but I practise in Paris. It was a fairly ordinary case, except that she suffered from severe and persistent headaches at the beginning. But in typhoid the danger is seldom in the fever; it is in the complications. She had a haemorrhage. I--I failed. A haemorrhage in typhoid is not necessarily fatal, but it often proves so. She died from exhaustion.'

'I thought,' said Hugo, in a low, unnatural voice, 'that typhoid marked the patient--spots on the face.'

'Not invariably. Oh no; but why do you say that?'

'I only meant that I hope her face was not marked.'

'It was not. You mean that you hope her face was not marked because she was so beautiful?'

'Exactly,' said Hugo. 'And so Tudor brought the body over to England for burial?'

'Yes; he insisted on that. And he insisted on my coming with him. I could not refuse.'

'And now he, too, is gone! Tell me, was he expecting it--his own death?'

Darcy lighted another cigarette.

'Who can say?' he observed to the ceiling. 'Who can say what premonitions such a man may not have had?'

'I heard talking before I came into the flat from the balcony,' said Hugo abruptly. 'It went on for a long time. Was it you and he?'

'No,' the doctor replied; 'I was in here, writing.' He pointed to some papers on a desk. 'I did not even hear him fall.'

'Yet you heard me?'

'No, I didn't. I was just coming to find out what Tudor was doing when I saw you.'

'It is curious that I heard talking, and walking about, too.'

'Possibly he was talking to himself. Did you hear two voices?'

'Perhaps I heard only one.'

'Then no doubt he was talking to himself. You won't be surprised to learn that he had been in an excessively emotional condition all day.... It is all very sad. Only a month ago, and Tudor was--but what am I saying? Who knows what perils and misfortunes he--they--may not have escaped? For my part, I envy--yes, I envy Tudor.'

'But not her? You do not envy her? In your quality of philosophy, you regret _her death?'

'Do not ask me to be consistent,' said the philosopher, after a long pause.

Hugo rose and approached Darcy.

'Are you acquainted with a man named Louis Ravengar?' he demanded in a rather loud tone.

The doctor scanned his face.

'I have heard Tudor mention the name, but I do not know him.'

'And upon my soul I believe you,' cried Hugo. 'Nevertheless--'

'Nevertheless what?'

Darcy seemed startled. Hugo's strange outburst was indeed startling.

'Oh, nothing!' Hugo muttered. 'Nothing.' He walked to the window, which looked out on Blair Street. The first heralds of the dawn were in the eastern sky, and the moon overhead was paling. 'It will be daylight in a minute,' he said. 'I must go. Come with me first to the drawing-room, will you?'

And they passed together along the passage to the drawing-room, where the electric lamp was still keeping watch. Hugo stood by the side of the coffin.

'What is it?' Darcy quietly asked.

'Have you ever been in love?' Hugo questioned him.

'Yes,' said Darcy.

'Then I will tell you. You will understand. I must tell someone. I loved her.'

He touched the elm-wood gently, and hurried out of the room by the French window.

* * * * *

Four days later Mr. Senior Polycarp called on Hugo in his central office.

In the meantime the inquest had proved the correctness of Mr. Darcy's diagnosis. Francis Tudor was buried, and Francis Tudor's wife was buried. Hugo, who had accompanied the funerals disguised as one of his own 'respectful attendants,' saw scarcely anyone. He had to recover the command of his own soul, and to adopt some definite attitude towards the army of suspicions which naturally had assailed him. Could he believe Darcy? He decided that he could, and that he must. Darcy had inspired him with confidence, and there was no doubt that the man had an extensive practice in Paris, and was well known at the British Embassy. Camilla, then, had really died of typhoid fever on her honeymoon, and hence Ravengar had not murderously compassed her death. And people did die of typhoid fever, and people did die on their honeymoons.

Either Ravengar's threats had been idle, or Fate had mercifully robbed him of the opportunity to execute them. Hugo remembered that he had begun by regarding the threats as idle, and that it was only later, in presence of Camilla's corpse, that he had thought otherwise of them. So he drove back the army of suspicions, and settled down to accustom himself to the eternal companionship of a profound and irremediable grief.

Then it was that Polycarp called.

'I come to you,' said the white-moustached solicitor, 'on behalf of my late client, Mr. Tudor. He made his will after his marriage, and before starting for Paris, and it contains a peculiar clause. Mr. Tudor had the flat on a three years' agreement, renewable at his option for a further period of two years. Over two years of the three are expired.'

'That is so,' said Hugo. 'You want to get rid of the tenancy at once? Well, I don't mind. I can easily--'

'No,' Polycarp interrupted him, 'I wish to give notice of renewal. The will provides that if the testator should die within two months of the date of it the flat shall be sealed up exactly as it stands for twelve months after his death, and that the estate shall be held by me, as executor and trustee, for that period, and then dealt with according to instructions deposited in the testator's private safe in the vault which I rent from you in your Safe Deposit.'


'I have just sealed up the flat--doors, windows, ventilators, everything.'

'Mr. Polycarp, this is impossible.'

'Not at all. It is done.'

'But the reason?'

'I know no more than yourself. As executor, I have carried out the terms of the will. I thought that you, as landlord, were entitled to the information which I have given you.'

'As landlord,' said Hugo, 'I object. And I shall demand entrance.'

'On what ground?'

'Under the clause which in all tenancy agreements gives the landlord the right to enter at reasonable times in order to inspect the condition of the premises,' Hugo answered defiantly to the lawyer.

'I had considered that. But I shall dispute the right. You may bring an action. What then? No court will give you leave to force an entrance. An Englishman's furnished flat, just as much as his house, is his castle. I could certainly keep you out for a year.'

'And may I ask why you are so anxious to keep me out, Mr. Polycarp?'

'I am anxious merely to fulfil my duties. May I ask why you are so anxious to get in? Why do you want to thwart the wishes of a dead man?'

'I could not permit that mystery to remain for a whole year in the very middle of my block of flats.'

_'What mystery?' Polycarp suavely inquired.

During this brief conversation all Hugo's suspicions had hurriedly returned, and he had examined them anew and more favourably. Polycarp? Was it not curious that Polycarp should be acting for both Ravengar and Tudor?... Darcy? Were there not very strange features in the behaviour of this English doctor who preferred to practise in Paris?... And the haemorrhage? And, lastly, this monstrous, unaccountable, inexplicable shutting-up of the flat?

He felt already that those empty rooms, dark, silent, sealed, guarding in some recess he knew not what dreadful secret, were getting on his nerves. And was he to suffer for a year?

'Come, Mr. Hugo,' said Polycarp; 'I may count on your goodwill?'

'I don't know,' Hugo replied--'I don't know.'

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