Story type: Literature
THE CHEATED JULIET.
Extracted from the Memoirs of a Retired Burglar.
The house in question was what Peter the Scholar (who corrects my proof-sheets) calls one of the rusinurby sort–the front facing a street and the back looking over a turfed garden with a lime tree or two, a laburnum, and a lawn-tennis court marked out, its white lines plain to see in the starlight. At the end of the garden a door, painted dark green, led into a narrow lane between high walls, where, if two persons met, one had to turn sideways to let the other pass. The entrance to this lane was cut in two by a wooden post about the height of your hip, and just beyond this, in the high road, George was waiting for us with the dog-cart.
We had picked the usual time–the dinner-hour. It had just turned dark, and the church-clock, two streets away, was chiming the quarter after eight, when Peter and I let ourselves in by the green door I spoke of and felt along the wall for the gardener’s ladder that we knew was hanging there. A simpler job there never was. The bedroom window we had marked on the first-floor stood right open to the night air; and inside there was the light of a candle or two flickering, just as a careless maid will leave them after her mistress has gone down to dinner. To be sure there was a chance of her coming back to put them out; but we could hear her voice going in the servants’ hall as we lifted the ladder and rested it against the sill.
“She’s good for half a hour yet,” Peter whispered, holding the ladder while I began to climb; “but if I hear her voice stop, I’ll give the signal to be cautious.”
I went up softly, pushed my head gently above the level of the sill, and looked in.
It was a roomy place with a great half-tester bed, hung with curtains, standing out from the wall on my right. The curtains were of chintz, a dark background with flaming red poppies sprawling over it; and the further curtain hid the dressing-table, and the candles upon it and the jewel-case that I confidently hoped to stand upon it also. A bright Brussels carpet covered the floor, and the wall-paper, I remember–though for the life of me I can’t tell why–was a pale grey ground, worked up to imitate watered silk, with sprigs of gilt honeysuckle upon it.
I looked round and listened for half a minute. The house was still as death up here–not a sound in the room or in the passages beyond. With a nod to Peter to hold the ladder firm I lifted one leg over the sill, then the other, dropped my feet carefully upon the thick carpet and went quickly round the bed to the dressing-table.
But at the corner, and as soon as ever I saw round the chintz curtain, my knees gave way, and I put out a hand towards the bed-post.
Before the dressing-table, and in front of the big glass, in which she could see my white face, was an old lady seated.
She wore a blaze of jewels and a low gown out of which rose the scraggiest neck and shoulders I have ever looked on. Her hair was thick with black dye and fastened with a diamond star. The powder between the two candles showed on her cheek-bones like flour on a miller’s coat. Chin on hand, she was gazing steadily into the mirror before her, and even in my fright I had time to note that a glass of sherry and a plate of rice and curry stood at her elbow, among the rouge-pots and powder-puffs.
While I stood stock still and pretty well scared out of my wits, she rose, still staring at my image in the glass, folded her hands modestly over her bosom, and spoke in a deep tragical voice–
Then, facing sharply round, she held out her thin arms.
“You have come–at last?”
There wasn’t much to say to this except that I had. So I confessed it. Even with the candles behind her I could see her eyes glowing like a dog’s, and an uglier poor creature this world could scarcely show.
“Is the ladder set against the window?”
“Since you seem to know, ma’am,” said I, “it is.”
“Ah, Romeo! Your cheeks are ruddy–your poppies are too red.”
“Then I’m glad my colour’s come back; for, to tell the truth, you did give me a turn, just at first. You were looking out for me, no doubt—-“
“My Prince!”–She stretched out her arms again, and being pretty well at my wits’ end I let her embrace me. “It has been so long,” she said. “Oh, the weary while! And they ill-treat me here. Where have you been, all this tedious time?”
I wasn’t going to answer that, you may be sure. It appeared to me that ’twas my right to ask questions rather than stand there answering them.
“If they’ve been ill-treating you, ma’am,” said I, “they shall answer for it.”
“Yes, ma’am. Would it be taking a liberty if I asked their names?”
“There is Gertrude–“
“Gertrude’s hash is as good as settled, ma’am.”
I checked Gertrude off on my thumb.
“–that’s my niece.”
For a moment I feared I’d been a little too prompt. But she went on—-
“And next there’s Henry; and the children–who have more than once made faces at me; and Phipson.”
“Phipson’s in it too?”
“You know her?”
“Don’t I?” It surprised me a trifle to find that Phipson was a female.
“Three times to-night she pulled my hair, and the rice she brought me–look at it! all stuck together and sodden.”
“Phipson shall pay for it with her blood.”
“My hero–my darling! Don’t spare Phipson. She screams bitterly if a pin is stuck into her. I did it once. Stick her all over with pins.”
By this I’d begun to guess what was pretty near the truth–that I was talking with a mad aunt of the family below, and that the game was in my hands if I played it with decent care. So I brought her to face the important question.
“Look here,” I said, “all this shall be done when you are out of their hands. At present I’m running a considerable risk in braving these persecutors of yourn. Dearest madam, the ladder’s outside and the carriage waiting. Hadn’t we better elope at once?”
She gave a sob, and fell on my shoulders.
“Oh, is it true–is it true? Pinch me, that I may awake if this is but a happy dream!”
“You are ready?”
“There’s just one other little matter, ma’am–your jewels. You won’t leave them to your enemies, I suppose?”
This was the dangerous moment, and I felt a twitch of the nerves as I watched her face to see how she would take the suggestion. But the poor silly soul turned up her eyes to mine, all full of tears and confidence.
“Dearest, I am old, old. Had you come earlier, my beauty had not wanted jewels to set it off. But now I must wear them to look my best–as your bride.”
She hid her face in her hands for a second, then turned to the dressing-table, lifted her jewel-case and put it into my hands.
“I am ready,” she repeated: “let us be quick and stealthy as death.”
She followed me to the window and looking out, drew back.
“What horrible, black depths!”
“It’s as easy,” said I, “as pie. You could do it on your head; look here—-,” I climbed out first and helped her, setting her feet on the rungs.
We went down in silence, I choking with laughter all the way at the sight of Peter below, who was looking with his mouth open and his lips too weak to meet on the curses and wonderment that rose up from the depths of him. When I touched turf and handed him the jewel-case, he took it like a man in a trance.
We put the ladder back into its place and stole over the turf together. But outside the garden-door Peter could stand no more of it–
“I’ve a fire-arm in my pocket,” whispered he, pulling up, “and I’m going to fire it off to relieve my feelings if you don’t explain here and now. Who, in pity’s name, is she ?”
“You mug–she’s the Original Sleeping Beauty. I’m eloping with her, and you’ve got her jewels.”
“Pardon me, Jem,” he says in his gentlemanly way, “if I don’t quite see. Are you taking her off to melt her or marry her? For how to get rid of her else—-“
The poor old creature had halted, too, three paces ahead of us, and waited while we whispered, with the moonlight, that slanted down into the lane, whitening her bare neck and flashing in her jewels.
“One moment,” I said, and stepped forward to her. “You had better take off those ornaments here, my dear, and give them to my servant to take care of. There’s a carriage waiting for us at the end of the lane, and when he has stowed them under the seat we can climb in and drive off—-“
“To the end of the world–to the very rim of it, my hero.”
She pulled the gems from her ears, hair, and bosom, and handed them to Peter, who received them with a bow. Next she searched in her pocket and drew out a tiny key. Peter unlocked the case, and having carefully stowed the diamonds inside, locked it again, handed back the key, touched his hat, and walked off towards the dog-cart.
“My dearest lady,” I began, as soon as we were alone between the high walls, “if the devotion of a life—-“
Her bare arm crept into mine. “There is but a little time left for us in which to be happy. Year after year I have marked off the almanack: day by day I have watched the dial. I saw my sisters married, and my sisters’ daughters; and still I waited. Each had a man to love her and tend her, but none had such a man as I would have chosen. There were none like you, my Prince.”
“No, I daresay not.”
“Oh, but my heart is not so old! Take my hand–it is firm and strong; touch my lips–they are burning—-“
A low whistle sounded at the top of the lane. As I took her hands I pushed her back, and turning, ran for my life. I suppose that, as I ran, I counted forty before her scream came, and then the sound of her feet pattering after me.
* * * * *
She must have run like a demon; for I was less than ten yards ahead when Peter caught my wrist and pulled me up on to the back-seat of the dog-cart. And before George could set the horse going her hand clutched at the flap on which my feet rested. It missed its grasp, and she never got near enough again. But for half a minute I looked into that horrible face following us and working with silent rage; and for half a mile at least I heard the patter of her feet in the darkness behind. Indeed, I can hear it now.