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The Breakdown by Marjorie Bowen


THE local line had broken down, as it not infrequently did, and the little group of people who had stepped out of the London express, and hurried across the platform to make the connection were left stranded, the half-dozen villages along the Somerset Marshland that were served by the tiny railway were completely cut off; the stationmaster had no consolation or even advice to offer, and it was a forlorn little group that stood irresolute under the glare of the gas-lamp.

John Murdoch left the others and asked the way to Mutchley Towers—only three miles along the high road, and he had an electric torch. The young man at once decided to walk, and leaving his baggage at the station, he struck out into the dark as the scanty conveyances of the village were being mustered for the benefit of his fellow-travellers.

When you are young, robust, contented, and just off for your holidays after a very prosperous year, it is not such a bad thing to step out briskly on a frosty country road with the crystal facets of stars sparkling overhead and a crisp north wind whipping the blood to your face and emphasizing the warmth and comfort of a good overcoat.

It was Christmas Eve, and Murdoch was visiting an old college friend whom, though he had not seen him for some time, he had been very intimate with in his youth. Both the young men had been lucky; Murdoch was a remarkably successful lawyer, and Blanchard had succeeded to an ancient estate that had belonged to a distant kinsman; it was to view this new kingdom that this Christmas gathering had been got together, and Murdoch was looking forward to a really pleasant time in rather novel surroundings, for the busy city man had little time for any but the most conventional of holidays.

As he strode out along the hard road, leaving the lights of the village behind him, he recalled, as he had often recalled during his journey, the very charming association that he had with Blanchard. It was only a portrait, a delicate pencil drawing, touched with color, of a girl's head with black curls and a lace scarf with "Marie Blanchard" written beneath; Murdoch's youthful fancy had been strangely enthralled by this sketch—so much so that he had always been too self-conscious to ask Blanchard who it was, but the style of the drawing had led him to infer that it must be at least a hundred years old, and that Marie Blanchard had long since been dust. This, however, had not prevented the peculiar haunting loveliness of the pictured countenance from shining fitfully through his secret dreams.

And it was with an instant recollection of his visionary fancy that Murdoch had accepted this invitation.

And now, as he trudged through the star-spangled dark, he was thinking, with a delightful thrill, that he might see again that enchanting drawing or even another portrait or some delightful memorial of the vanished lady.

It was very cold; the deep mid-winter chill began to penetrate even Murdoch's fleecy coat. When he snapped on his torch the acrid sweep of electric light showed only the frozen ridges of the road and the bleak hedges, dry, hard, and lifeless as a bone.

Murdoch began to wonder how much further Mutchley Towers was and how he should find it; as his quick walking brought him no nearer any sign of human habitation. As the wild clouds began to roll over the stars he regretted his impulse to walk and flashed the torch about to discover any place or person where he could ask his way. None such appeared, and when the stars were completely obscured and a bitter sleet was cast in his face by the rising wind, the young man lost his cheerful confidence, and thought with some sharpness of yearning of the car, waiting for him at the station where he would never arrive, and the dinner preparing that would very likely be spoiled before he could sit down in comfort before it; he had not reckoned on the country being so desolate, and surely the porter's two or three miles was five or six.

As he thought thus with some impatience an upward flash of his torch clove the sleet and showed him, strangely close, a square white house, with a sign hanging in front on which was written in bold characters:

The Wishing Inn

Murdoch was almost startled to find that he had almost stumbled into a house without being aware of it, but pleased, too, and he went up to the flat home-painted door and knocked.

It was an old-fashioned inn, but rather dreary than picturesque; fluted pilasters relieved the drab front, blinds were drawn in the upper windows, and the only light was a faint glimmer behind the curtains of what was obviously the bar-parlor; the hedge came either side, right up to the house and the rough road directly to the one step. Murdoch was mentally commenting on the cold and inhospitable look of the place when the door was abruptly opened and a repulsive-looking man appeared dimly outlined against a dark passage.

"Can you tell me the way to Mutchley Towers?" asked Murdoch briskly.

"No," replied the man sullenly, "it is a long weary road from here, and no stranger could find it in the dark."

"But I must get there tonight," said Murdoch vexed. "Have you any conveyance or even someone to guide me?"

"Neither one nor the other," replied the innkeeper.

"You've no telephone? Where is the nearest? There must be somewhere a post office—a farm where I could get a trap, something—"

Murdoch looked at the forbidding inn, and then at the forlorn night.

The north wind was mounting higher with every blast, the sleet was changing to icy flakes of snow, every star was now concealed behind the oncoming storm-clouds. The young man considered that he might walk on till he dropped with fatigue and never find his way; it was quite likely that the information given at the station was wrong, or even that he had taken the wrong direction; in either case, to continue to press aimlessly through the darkness seemed foolish; better to trust till daylight to the uninviting hospitality of "The Wishing Inn."

"Can you give me some food and a bed?" he asked dubiously.

"Come inside," was the man's noncommittal reply.

Murdoch stepped across the dingy threshold, glad to be out of the blast, yet reluctant to enter the musty dusk of the passage.

"You have not many travellers here?" he suggested, "nor much custom, perhaps? You seem to be a long way from the village."

"The place is lonely," was the reply.

"Will you wait in the parlor while your room is got ready for you?"

Murdoch followed him into the front room, where the light had glimmered between the folds of the drab curtains; this proved to be a lamp set on the center of a large table covered in dark green cloth that deadened the already feeble illumination; the walls were dark and dirty, a few obscure oiled prints and a case of lead-colored fish hung amongst this background, a meagre fire burnt on the open hearth; there were a few horse-hair chairs and a dull, locked cabinet.

"Good Lord," thought Murdoch, "who could have dreamt to find such an out-of-the-way place—so near the railway?"

"Are you the landlord?" he asked aloud.

"Yes," replied the queer-looking individual who had opened the door, "the place is mine."

Murdoch looked at him intently; he wore a soiled flowered dressing-gown tied tightly round his lean figure, and carpet slippers that caused him to shuffle; his head was bald, his face yellow and pinched, his look both dejected and repellent.

Murdoch glanced round, not without a shudder.

"You have a curious name," he said. "The Wishing Inn."

"There are old stories about the place," replied the landlord with a shifty glance. "It is said that those who pass Christmas Eve here are allowed the fulfilment of one wish."

"Curious that this should be Christmas Eve!" exclaimed Murdoch. "Well, can you bring me some supper, when perhaps I can think of a wish?"

The man shuffled to the door, paused there, and glanced back.

"There are other travellers here I must consider," he grumbled gruffly, "a lady—a young lady—she must come down and warm herself here. There is no fire in her bedroom."

Murdoch's curiosity was fully roused, a woman that this man called a "young lady," staying in this wretched place on Christmas Eve!

"She is not alone?" he asked.

"She is alone, but she is waiting for someone," replied the man. "That is her wish, that he may come quickly—"

Jarred by the leer in the man's sullen tones, Murdoch turned aside, and, pulling off his dogskin gloves, busied himself warming his hands before the thin blaze.

"Bring what you have to eat at once, please," he said, knowing that it was hopeless to ask for any definite fare.

The door closed, and Murdoch tried to trim the lamp, and then with a squeaking pair of bellows to urge the pale fire; both his efforts were in vain, a cold dimness persisted in the dreary room, and neither fire nor lamp seemed to give either warmth or light!

Murdoch turned up his coat collar and sat shivering on one of the shiny horse-hair chairs. He wondered if the "young lady" upstairs was coming down to warm herself, as the dismal landlord had suggested, and whatever kind of romance it could be that chose such a place and time for its setting! Where was the tardy "he" coming from, and where did he intend to take the girl on such a night?

Christmas Eve, too, when all travel and conveniences would be suspended. The morrow was one of the most impossible days in the year for any kind of action, when the busiest cease their turmoil, and the most wretched have some shelter and peace.

So complete was the silence in which the inn was wrapped that Murdoch began to think that the landlord's tale was a mere fiction. Who would linger mute in such an icy, bleak bedroom as this place afforded?

Murdoch began to feel drowsy. He had lost the keen appetite that had urged him on the road, and regarded his ordered meal with repugnance. Huddled in the worn horse-hair chair, his mind went idly over the possible tale of the woman lurking upstairs, and then he dwelt, dreamily, on the tale of the wish—the wish on Christmas Eve—Wishing Inn!

"Now what could my wish be?" thought Murdoch, drowsily. "Supposing I was to think of something quite fantastical and foolish? Supposing I was to wish to see, to win, to love, Marie Blanchard!"

As he whispered the name, it seemed to him that a deeper chill took possession of the room that the dreary fire could not warm or the dreary lamp light; he turned round sharply, as if in apprehension.

The door was opened, though he had heard no sound, and a figure stood on the threshold.

The breath of icy air was more penetrating now and Murdoch shivered as he rose.

"Won't you come to the fire?" he said, "though I am afraid it does not give out any heat."

The figure advanced from the shadows of the passage and came to the hearth; it was Marie Blanchard as he had seen her in the delicate sketch that had haunted his secret fancy.

Here was every feature on which his boy's caprice had so fondly dwelt, the straight nose, the level brows, the dark liquid eyes, the fine black ringlets loosely confined with a silver ribbon, the slender neck and shoulders, the lace scarf and the clinging gown of fine floating muslin; despite the attire and the bitterness of the season she looked as fresh and blooming as if she wandered in a shadowed summer garden.

She looked at him with the petulant, wilful yet beseeching expression that so well became her type of loveliness and that in her portrait had so long haunted Murdoch.

"He has not come," she said, "he has not come—but you will, sir, help me to find him?"

She bent towards him, clasping her hands, and a queer perfume, like the last breath of dying flowers, was wafted to the young man.

"Who am I to find?" he stammered. "Are you not Marie Blanchard?"

"Yes, I am that unfortunate woman. And I am here to meet my lover. If he does not come they will take me back—"

"They call this 'The Wishing Inn,'" said Murdoch. "I wished to see you and you came."

She turned on him her sad, limpid gaze and Murdoch shuddered.

"I used to worship a little picture of you," he continued.

Unheeding she turned towards the door.

"Oh, come, will you not help me find my lover?" she entreated. Murdoch, as if against her entreaties, he had not the full use and power of his faculties, followed her to the door, out into the black passage and then into the road, she gliding before him like a glimmer of white. Snow and wind had alike ceased and the night was one of close darkness through which faintly gleamed the dull light of two carriage lamps.

"See, my carriage is waiting!" cried Marie Blanchard. "Will you not enter and help me find my lover?"

Murdoch, as his eyes became accustomed to the encompassing gloom, discerned the dim outlines of a carriage.

"Perhaps you can put me on my way to Mutchley Towers," he said as he stepped after the slight figure of Marie Blanchard into the cavernous interior of the lumbering old-fashioned barouche, "for I," he added, vaguely, "am going to see your brother—is he not your brother—young Blanchard?"

The carriage was swinging forward now into the pitchy night; no ray of light penetrated the darkness where Murdoch sat on the chill seat, and where his companion was there was only the faintest blur of light where her white garments showed through the inky blackness.

"Help me to find my lover!" came her voice in continued anguish. "Ah, make haste to find him before it is too late!"

"Who is he, and how can I help you?" answered Murdoch, wildly, "and how can we find him? And where are you driving in this haste?"

For the carriage was bumping and jolting over what appeared to be rough heath strewn with boulders.

Murdoch pressed his face against the glass, and could just visualize whitish objects picked out for a fleeting second by the ghastly chill light of the carriage lamps.

"Where are we?" he cried. "Where are we going?"

And then he was overmastered by an overpowering desire to see his companion, and, like a lightning inspiration from another world, he thought of the electric torch lying in his overcoat pocket.

"Marie Blanchard!" he cried, as he fumbled with it, "Marie Blanchard!" as he snapped on the powerful ray of light.

The moan, "Oh help me find my lover!" faded in his ear and the torch showed an empty carriage; he saw frayed leather, worn velvet, weather-stained glass, but nothing else; he was alone in the ancient barouche.

With a feeling akin to panic he beat at the door, the crazy fastenings gave way and he was precipitated violently into the darkness.

Again before him flitted the figure of Marie Blanchard; by a kind of bluish glow that appeared to encircle her he could see her plainly; she was moving rapidly and the sound of her lamentations fell sadly on his ear as he followed her wildly, stumbling over hillocks and falling against stones.

"See, I have found him," she cried, and stopped; Murdoch was almost beside her; he could see her standing, smiling archly as in the portrait sketch, fresh and merry and gay. "Through here," she added and struck on what seemed a door. "Come, will you not see him, my dear delight?"

Murdoch hastened eagerly forward; the torch was still grasped in his hand, and without knowing it he pressed the button. A flood of white light spread in front of him, there was no woman, no door; only a heavy stone with a railing round it and frail snow outlining the inscription:

Marie Blanchard
Tobias Grieve. 1823.

Murdoch wildly flashed the torch around the hillocks and graves, the stones were graves; he was in a large churchyard and the snow was falling noiselessly into the dark and silence.

With a shudder of deep and intense horror, Murdoch, keeping his torch lit, fumbled his way towards the church; as he reached the porch he saw a light, heard voices, and from a chaos of movement and darkness he heard a friend speak his name.

"You were pretty well done," grinned young Blanchard the next morning as Murdoch lingered over a late Christmas breakfast. "Why, you crept into the church like a ghost."

"I felt like one," replied Murdoch briefly. "If you hadn't been there—"

"Well, it is just the one night in the year you would have found anyone, and then it was only because we were late with decorations—but I say, old chap, how did you get so far out of your way, and why were you in such a state?"

"Oh, I don't know," replied Murdoch sheepishly. "I've been overworking lately—the dark and the cold and no food—I say," he added abruptly, "is there a place here called 'The Wishing Inn'?"

"Used to be—pulled down about a hundred years ago. Why?"

"Oh, I heard someone in the train mention it," said Murdoch. "Any story?"

"Yes. An ancestress of mine, Marie Blanchard, ran away on Christmas Eve to that inn to meet her lover—she chose that spot because a wish uttered there on that evening was supposed to come true! You know the usual tale."


"The poor lady wished that she might never be separated from her lover—but he was found by her brothers on his way to the rendezvous and killed in a scuffle. He was a certain Tobias Grieve, a farmer, much beneath her, the good old days! She did the proper thing and died of a broken heart and then they relented enough to put her in his grave, so her wish came true after all."

Murdoch did not answer; he was looking intently out of the window.

"She isn't altogether a legend," continued Blanchard, "for you can still see the grave with the two names on it—and there is a sketch of her by Cosway; I liked it so I used to have it in my rooms. Do you remember? But as for 'The Wishing Inn'—"

The door opened and a girl stood on the threshold, the exact counterpart of Murdoch's vision of the night, except that she was dressed in furs and a plumed hat.

"You haven't met my sister, Marie? The same name as the lady of the adventure and rather like her, too—"

Murdoch thought of his last night's wish and his heart thrilled as he looked into the fair girl's eyes—"To meet—to—love—to—win—Marie Blanchard!"


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