A THREE MINUTES' VISIT
I have suffered extreme and protracted bodily pain, at different periods of my life, but anything like that misery, thank God, I never endured before or since. I earnestly hope it may not resemble any type of death to which we are liable. I was, indeed, a spirit in prison; and unspeakable was my dumb and unmoving agony.
The power of thought remained clear and active. Dull terror filled my mind. How would this end? Was it actual death?
You will understand that my faculty of observing was unimpaired. I could hear and see anything as distinctly as ever I did in my life. It was simply that my will had, as it were, lost its hold of my body.
I told you that the Marquis d'Harmonville had not extinguished his carriage lamp on going into this village inn. I was listening intently, longing for his return, which might result, by some lucky accident, in awaking me from my catalepsy.
Without any sound of steps approaching, to announce an arrival, the carriage-door suddenly opened, and a total stranger got in silently and shut the door.
The lamp gave about as strong a light as a wax-candle, so I could see the intruder perfectly. He was a young man, with a dark grey loose surtout, made with a sort of hood, which was pulled over his head. I thought, as he moved, that I saw the gold band of a military undress cap under it; and I certainly saw the lace and buttons of a uniform, on the cuffs of the coat that were visible under the wide sleeves of his outside wrapper.
This young man had thick moustaches and an imperial, and I observed that he had a red scar running upward from his lip across his cheek.
He entered, shut the door softly, and sat down beside me. It was all done in a moment; leaning toward me, and shading his eyes with his gloved hand, he examined my face closely for a few seconds.
This man had come as noiselessly as a ghost; and everything he did was accomplished with the rapidity and decision that indicated a well-defined and pre-arranged plan. His designs were evidently sinister. I thought he was going to rob and, perhaps, murder me. I lay, nevertheless, like a corpse under his hands. He inserted his hand in my breast pocket, from which he took my precious white rose and all the letters it contained, among which was a paper of some consequence to me.
My letters he glanced at. They were plainly not what he wanted. My precious rose, too, he laid aside with them. It was evidently about the paper I have mentioned that he was concerned; for the moment he opened it he began with a pencil, in a small pocket-book, to make rapid notes of its contents.
This man seemed to glide through his work with a noiseless and cool celerity which argued, I thought, the training of the police department.
He re-arranged the papers, possibly in the very order in which he had found them, replaced them in my breast-pocket, and was gone. His visit, I think, did not quite last three minutes. Very soon after his disappearance I heard the voice of the Marquis once more. He got in, and I saw him look at me and smile, half-envying me, I fancied, my sound repose. If he had but known all!
He resumed his reading and docketing by the light of the little lamp which had just subserved the purposes of a spy.
We were now out of the town, pursuing our journey at the same moderate pace. We had left the scene of my police visit, as I should have termed it, now two leagues behind us, when I suddenly felt a strange throbbing in one ear, and a sensation as if air passed through it into my throat. It seemed as if a bubble of air, formed deep in my ear, swelled, and burst there. The indescribable tension of my brain seemed all at once to give way; there was an odd humming in my head, and a sort of vibration through every nerve of my body, such as I have experienced in a limb that has been, in popular phraseology, asleep. I uttered a cry and half rose from my seat, and then fell back trembling, and with a sense of mortal faintness.
The Marquis stared at me, took my hand, and earnestly asked if I was ill. I could answer only with a deep groan.
Gradually the process of restoration was completed; and I was able, though very faintly, to tell him how very ill I had been; and then to describe the violation of my letters, during the time of his absence from the carriage.
"Good heaven!" he exclaimed, "the miscreant did not get at my box-box?"
I satisfied him, so far as I had observed, on that point. He placed the box on the seat beside him, and opened and examined its contents very minutely.
"Yes, undisturbed; all safe, thank heaven!" he murmured. "There are half-a-dozen letters here that I would not have some people read for a great deal."
He now asked with a very kind anxiety all about the illness I complained of. When he had heard me, he said:
"A friend of mine once had an attack as like yours as possible. It was on board ship, and followed a state of high excitement. He was a brave man like you; and was called on to exert both his strength and his courage suddenly. An hour or two after, fatigue overpowered him, and he appeared to fall into a sound sleep. He really sank into a state which he afterwards described so that I think it must have been precisely the same affection as yours."
"I am happy to think that my attack was not unique. Did he ever experience a return of it?"
"I knew him for years after, and never heard of any such thing. What strikes me is a parallel in the predisposing causes of each attack. Your unexpected and gallant hand-to-hand encounter, at such desperate odds, with an experienced swordsman, like that insane colonel of dragoons, your fatigue, and, finally, your composing yourself, as my other friend did, to sleep."
"I wish," he resumed, "one could make out who the coquin was who examined your letters. It is not worth turning back, however, because we should learn nothing. Those people always manage so adroitly. I am satisfied, however, that he must have been an agent of the police. A rogue of any other kind would have robbed you."
I talked very little, being ill and exhausted, but the Marquis talked on agreeably.
"We grow so intimate," said he, at last, "that I must remind you that I am not, for the present, the Marquis d'Harmonville, but only Monsieur Droqville; nevertheless, when we get to Paris, although I cannot see you often I may be of use. I shall ask you to name to me the hotel at which you mean to put up; because the Marquis being, as you are aware, on his travels, the Hotel d'Harmonville is, for the present, tenanted only by two or three old servants, who must not even see Monsieur Droqville. That gentleman will, nevertheless, contrive to get you access to the box of Monsieur le Marquis, at the Opera, as well, possibly, as to other places more difficult; and so soon as the diplomatic office of the Marquis d'Harmonville is ended, and he at liberty to declare himself, he will not excuse his friend, Monsieur Beckett, from fulfilling his promise to visit him this autumn at the Château d'Harmonville."
You may be sure I thanked the Marquis.
The nearer we got to Paris, the more I valued his protection. The countenance of a great man on the spot, just then, taking so kind an interest in the stranger whom he had, as it were, blundered upon, might make my visit ever so many degrees more delightful than I had anticipated.
Nothing could be more gracious than the manner and looks of the Marquis; and, as I still thanked him, the carriage suddenly stopped in front of the place where a relay of horses awaited us, and where, as it turned out, we were to part.