The Strange Case Of Joan Winterbourne by A. E. W.
CLOSE to the foot of the staircase, the manager of the hotel
was giving instructions to a liveried attendant. A little way off five young
people, three men and two women, were standing together in an impatient
group. It was the height of the holiday season at this watering-place, and
the roar of voices from the dining-room behind the glass doors drowned
altogether the thunder of the surf upon the beach.
"Joan was certain to be late," said the hostess of the party as she looked
with vexation about the lounge, now alcove after alcove, a wilderness of
plush upholstery and oriental tables. "It's part of her present make-up."
At that moment the girl herself came running down the wide staircase, a
gleaming slender creature of twenty-two years, with large brown eyes and a
fresh face which she had carefully painted a shade of orange. Her lips showed
the bright scarlet which women's lips share with the tunics of the Guards.
She carried, of course, neither fan nor gloves, but about her slim white
throat she wore a string of iridescent beads which might have been pearls had
not their enormous size boasted their artificiality. She gave to Bramley, the
young surgeon who formed one of the group of five, the amusing impression
that she was playing very hard at being the young lady of the dance clubs.
She was certainly abrim with eagerness to make a quite complete affair of
this evening's enjoyment.
"I am so sorry, Marjorie, that I am late," she cried to her hostess, and
so stopped suddenly upon the last shallow tread of the stairs. All her joy
was extinguished in an instant. Her hands clenched and then flew upwards to
cover her face. But in the moment which intervened Bramley read so stark a
terror in the gleam of her eyes and the quiver of her lips that it shocked
him. A fluttering wail broke from her lips, and she crumpled as if her bones
were suddenly turned to water. She slid down in a heap against the
balustrade. Before Bramley could reach her she had fainted.
"What is the number of her room?" he asked.
"Twenty-three, on the first floor," said Marjorie Hastings. "Oh, I hope
it's not serious."
"I don't think there's any reason for alarm," the surgeon reassured her.
He turned to the manager of the hotel. "You might send a maid;" and lifting
the girl up in his arms with an ease which surprised everyone, he carried her
up the stairs.
At the landing he called down:
"You'd better all go in to dinner. We'll follow."
But the greater part of an hour had passed before Bramley joined the party
at the table; and then he returned alone.
"Joan wants nothing," he explained. "She is asleep now."
"What was the matter?" asked Marjorie Hastings.
"I haven't one idea," replied Bramley. "There's nothing wrong with her
"I can explain," said a stout hearty young man who sat on the other side
of Marjorie Hastings. "You met Joan for the first time yesterday. But I can
tell you she has been overdoin' it for a good few years now. First she was
going to be an artist and she splashed on paint all day for months. When that
fell down, she splashed ink on paper all night for another set of months.
When that fell down, she plumped for the open air and set out to show Miss
Leitch how to play golf. When that fell down, she hit the cabarets. Now she
has fallen down herself. Joan is a perfect darling, but she wants someone to
smack her from time to time."
He sketched her history. No father and no mother, an aunt
somewhere—utterly useless—a bachelor flat in Pall Mall, and a
sufficient income. "And a little nervous always," he concluded. "She's not a
case for you, Bramley, at all. She's meant for the psycho-wanglers."
Bramley shook his head vigorously. To him, already eminent as an operator
and a firm believer that man's best friend was the knife, psycho-analysis was
the heresy of heresies.
"Just jargon. Quacks doctoring the half-baked," he declared confidently.
For like many brilliant men he was a little arrogant in his attitude towards
the things which he did not know. He was none the less troubled by Joan
Winterbourne's collapse, and the next morning when the rest of the party went
off to the golf course, he stayed behind.
Joan came down at eleven. Her step was firm. There was not even a shadow
under her eyes. Her swoon had left no other trace than this: she was dressed
for a journey.
"You are going away?" Bramley asked. He saw the door of the luggage lift
open and trunks painted with her initials.
"Yes. I have left a note for Marjorie. I am very sorry. I was enjoying
myself here very much. But I have got to go."
"It's a pity," Bramley said regretfully. "For I should have liked to have
looked after you for a little."
Joan smiled gratefully.
"That's very kind," she answered warmly. "But what happened to me last
night has happened three times before; and I never can bear the place where
it happened, or anything associated with it afterwards. I couldn't stay here
another day. I can't give you any reason, but I couldn't."
Joan was quite without affectation now. She was not playing at being
anything but herself—a girl driven hard by an unaccountable experience
and seeking the one only way of relief which her instincts had taught to her.
Bramley made no attempt to dissuade her.
"If you'll send your maid with your luggage on to the station by the
omnibus, I'll walk along with you," he said.
They went out on to the sea-front together, and in the course of that
walk, Joan was persuaded by his mere reticence to reveal more of herself than
she ever had done before.
"The first time I behaved in that silly fashion," she said, "was on the
sailing-yacht of Monsieur de Ferraud off Bordeaux two summers ago. In May of
the next year came the second time. I was on a motor-trip to the South of
France by the Route des Alpes and the car broke down in the Dauphine between
La Grave and the Col de Lauteret. I was standing at the side of the road, and
crumpled up as I did last night. The third time I was fortunately sitting
down. It was in a circus at St. Etienne. I haven't one idea why it happens.
So you see that since I can't endure a yacht, or a motor-car, or a circus,
and now shall shrink from any seaside hotel, my life is becoming a little
She ended with a smile of humour which did not hide from him that her
distress was very real. Bramley put her into a carriage.
"Will you give me a chance?" he asked, as he shook her hand. "It's all
wrong that any girl as young and healthy as you are should go on being
attacked in this way. There must be an explanation, and therefore there must
be a cure."
The blood mounted into Joan's cheeks. Gratitude shone in her eyes. It did
Bramley besides no harm in her thoughts that he was a good-looking young man
of a tall and sinewy build.
"Of course I shall be ever so thankful if you'll look after me," she said;
and the train moved out of the station.
Bramley walked back to the hotel and made some inquiries that evening of
the ruddy-faced optimist who gave the Winterbourne family a clean bill of
"Never heard of any epilepsy. A nervous, kind of artistic lot—that,
yes. The father, for instance, would always rather paint a bird than shoot
one. Queer taste, isn't it? But all of them clean-blooded and clear-eyed just
like Joan herself. No, no, it's not your affair, Bramley, so you can keep
your penknife in your pocket. Joan ought to go to the psycho-boys."
This time Bramley did not shake his head in contempt. Certainly if there
was anything in the theories of the "psycho-boys," here was the very patient
for them. It was all heresy, to be sure, but none the less he found himself
in his perplexity formulating the case from their angle. Thus:
"A girl, by heredity and of her own disposition nervous, passes through an
experience which Nature, in its determination to survive, proceeds to bury
deep down in the girl's subconsciousness below the levels of memory. The
experience therefore was one terrible enough to shake her reason; and from
time to time something, a word perhaps, or an article, associated with that
experience reproduces suddenly in a milder form the original terror and
shock. The only cure is to be found in restoring this experience to the
patient's memory. For she will then understand; and the trouble will be at an
Thus he reflected, whilst he paid an indifferent attention to the
conversation at the dinner-table; so indifferent indeed that he actually
began to carry on his formulation aloud:
"It is quite clear, therefore, or would be quite clear, if I accepted
these fantastic theories, which I don't—"
At this point Marjorie Hastings interrupted him.
"My dear man, what are you talking about?"
"Nothing, Marjorie. The idiocy with which I have long been threatened has
at last declared itself."
What was, or would have been quite clear to him, if he had accepted the
heresy, amounted simply to this. There was one circumstance, one factor
common to all the four occasions upon which Joan had felt the inrush of
terror and had swooned away. At first nothing seemed more hopeless to Bramley
than to find a link between the lounge of a hotel upon the south coast of
England, and a circus at St. Etienne in France, or between a yacht in the Bay
of Biscay and a motor-car breakdown in the Dauphine Alps. Yet undoubtedly
such a link there must be.
He turned to Marjorie Hastings.
"Do you know St. Etienne?"
"No. Where is it?"
Bramley had drawn a blank there and tried again.
"Monsieur de Ferraud's yacht, I believe, is little short of a palace."
Marjorie Hastings looked at him with sympathy.
"You poor thing!" she cried. "You must hold some ice to your forehead. Try
some sarsaparilla! It may be just what you want."
"Silence, woman!" returned Bramley. He had drawn another blank, but he
tried again. "Did you ever travel by the Route des Alpes?"
"Don't be silly! Of course I did. I motored to Florence one spring with
Joan and—" Marjorie Hastings came to an abrupt stop. "That's curious,"
she resumed slowly. "I hadn't thought of it until now. Joan had just the same
sort of attack and behaved just in the same strange way afterwards. She
wouldn't go on with us. She went back in the Diligence to Grenoble and joined
us in Nice by train."
This time Bramley had drawn a horse at all events. He turned to Marjorie
"Tell me all about it, please."
The car had broken down just beyond a tunnel half an hour or so after
passing La Grave. They had sent back to the village for a cart; they turned
the car round by hand to have it ready; and after that they had all strolled
idly about, admiring the great bastion of the Meije across the valley and the
white velvet of its enormous glacier. The cart had emerged from the tunnel.
The driver had got down to fix his tow-rope to the axle of the car and
without a word Joan dropped in the middle of the road as if she had been
shot. "She might have broken her nose or got concussion. I tell you, it was
"Thank you," said Bramley. The yacht of Monsieur de Ferraud off Bordeaux,
the breakdown of the motorcar in the Dauphine, the circus of St. Etienne. It
had flashed upon him that these three circumstances had after all a common
factor. Did the empty lounge of the hotel last night contain it also? Bramley
sought out the manager immediately after dinner.
"You were close to the foot of the stairs when Miss Winterbourne fainted,"
"Yes. I was arranging with Alphonse the space we should reserve for
"Alphonse!" cried Bramwell. "The lounge-attendant. Yes, of course. He is
"But of course, as I am."
"And you were speaking in French?"
"No doubt!" The manager shrugged his shoulders. "I do not remember. But no
doubt! We always do. Would you like to see Alphonse, Mr. Bramley?"
"Of all things," Bramley replied; and after a quarter of an hour, and some
goings and comings of the lounge-attendant, Bramley left the office with a
smile upon his face and a package under his arm. He felt the excitement of an
adventurer upon a treasure-hunt who has discovered the first important
Upon his return to London, he wrote to Joan Winterbourne, asking her to
play golf with him on the first Saturday at Beaconsfield. She telephoned in
reply: "Delighted, if we go down by train," and though she laughed as she
spoke, it was clear that she meant what she said. Bramley had planned to put
no questions to her at all, but to lure her on to talk about herself in any
rambling way she chose. They were much more likely to approach the truth that
way. But the pair had not been playing for more than five minutes before he
had forgotten all about his plans and was concerned solely with approaches of
quite a different kind. For he found to his surprise and a little to his
discomfort that Joan could give him half a stroke a hole.
At the ninth hole, however, when she was six up, she missed the easiest of
putts and sat down on a bank with her face between her hands and despair in
her brown eyes.
"Look at that!" she cried, and she swore loudly and lustily so that an
elderly lady close by left out the next two holes and removed herself to a
less vicious part of the course.
"I shall never be any good at anything. It was just the same when I
painted. Year after year I used to go in the summer to Normandy with a class
and I never got anywhere."
Bramley became aware once more of his attractive patient and forgot the
catastrophe of his golf.
"Oho! So you used to go to Normandy?" he repeated with the utmost
"Yes. To St.-Vire-en-Pre, a tiny village a mile from the sea. You'll never
have heard of it. I went there for three summers, until I was eighteen. Then
I hated it. Shall we go on?"
"Yes. You are only five up now. So you hated it? An ugly little village,
"On the contrary, lovely. I lodged in an old farm with another girl, Mary
Cole. I think she's married now."
Joan drove off from the tenth tee with her whole attention concentrated on
the stroke. The memory of the summers at St.-Vire-en-Pre meant nothing to
her, quite obviously. Bramley's thoughts, however, ran as follows:
"I must find Mary Cole. Marjorie Hastings must help me. I want to know if
Joan was on Monsieur de Ferraud's yacht after the last summer at
St.-Vire-en-Pre. If after, then we may be very near to the solution of our
riddle." With the result that his ball escaped into a patch of rough grass
and dug itself in.
Bramley, however, no longer minded. He was indeed rather elated, chiefly
on Joan's account, but a little too because he was now minded to demonstrate
to the "psycho-boys" that any old surgeon could play their game just as well
as they did, if he only took the trouble.
Marjorie Hastings produced Mary Cole in due course. She was a brisk young
woman, now married, with a couple of children, who had slipped quite out of
the little set in which Joan played so conspicuous a part. Even the summers
on the coast of Normandy had become unsubstantial as dreams to her. But she
remembered how those visits ceased.
"We were a large party that year. So Joan and I had to find a lodging in a
house which was strange to us. We found it at a farm a hundred yards or so
beyond the end of the village, the farm of Narcisse Perdoux. The work of the
farm was all done by the family and we were charged an extortionate price for
our two rooms. We had made up our minds never to go back there in any case.
Then came the last night before the party broke up. We had a dance in the
studio. Joan and I went back to the farm at about one o'clock in the morning.
The door was on the latch—a relief to us, for old Narcisse Perdoux,
even with his Sunday manners on, was a grudging inappeasable person. What he
would have been if we had waked him out of his bed to let us in we were
afraid to think. We crept upstairs to our rooms, which stood end to end on
the first floor, my window looking out towards the sea, Joan's at the back
looking out past the barn to the open country. We both went at once to our
separate rooms, for we had our packing to do in the morning, and I at all
events was more than half-asleep already. I don't suppose that ten minutes
had passed before I was in bed. I am certain that fifteen hadn't before I was
asleep. I was awakened by someone falling into my room and collapsing with a
thud on the floor. I lit my candle. It was Joan. For a moment I thought that
she was dead. But her heart was beating and she was breathing. I got her into
my bed, chafed her feet, put my salts to her nostrils, did in a word what I
could and after a little while she came to. She was sick—terribly sick
for a long while. The farm was stirring before she dropped off to sleep, but
then she slept heavily for a long time."
"She had no injury?" Bramley asked.
"None at all."
"And how did she explain her rush into your bedroom at two o'clock in the
morning," interrupted Marjorie Hastings; "and her swoon?"
"Of course she didn't explain that at all," Bramley replied, and Mary Cole
stared at him in surprise.
"How could you know that?" she asked. "But it's true. Nothing might have
happened to her at all, beyond that she had slept in my bed instead of her
own. She never alluded to it. She went about her packing. The only unusual
sign she made was a desperate hurry to get away from the house."
"But why she was in a hurry she didn't know," said Bramley, and again Mary
Cole turned to him in surprise.
"That's just it. Joan suddenly hated the place. It made her ill."
"But surely you questioned her?" Marjorie Hastings urged. "I should have
been frightened out of my life if anyone had come tumbling about my bedroom
in a lonely farmhouse in the middle of the night. My word, I should have
asked a question or two and seen that I got the answers."
Marjorie's pretty face was truculent. Bramley was smiling at her
truculence when Mary Cole explained:
"I was anxious to get away too, without wasting a moment. For the farm was
all upset, and we weren't wanted. You see Charles, Narcisse Perdoux's oldest
son, had died during the night.—What in the world's the matter?"
This question was thrown in a startled voice at Bramley, from whose face
the smile had suddenly vanished.
"Nothing," he answered gravely and hesitatingly, "except—that we are
in deeper waters than ever I imagined us to be."
All Bramley's stipulations were working out in the most dreadful fashion.
The first experience of Joan's, terrible enough to shake the reason; Nature's
determination to thrust it beyond the reach of memory; the factor common to
the original seizure and to each recurrence; and now this revelation by Mary
Cole all pointed to some grim and sinister story of the darkness—an
outrage upon nature, a horror upon horrors. Bramley remembered the stark look
of terror which had shone in Joan's eyes during the moment when she had clung
to the balustrade in the hotel lounge and before she had clapped her hands to
her face to shut the vision out. He felt a chill as though ice had slipped
down his spine. And this story had to be dragged up in all its dimly seen
ugliness into the full light! There was no hope for Joan in any other way.
She must be made to remember. After all, he realized with a sudden humility,
the "psycho-boys" had their penknives too, though they were different from
He sent for Joan Winterbourne the next day and she came to him in Harley
Street. From her close-fitting hat to her beige stockings and her shiny
shoes, she was just one of the pretty young women in the uniform of the day.
But there was a tension, a vague anxiety in her face which had already begun
to set her a little apart. It would overcloud her altogether unless it was
explained to her and thereby dissolved.
"You have been all right since you beat me so disgracefully at
Beaconsfield?" he asked.
"Quite. But one never knows..."
"I believe we are going to know this morning," he reassured her; and a
sudden wave of confidence and hope brought the colour into her cheeks. He put
her into a chair by the side of his table.
"I want you to tell me one or two things."
"Ask away?" said Joan.
"When did you have this attack on Monsieur de Ferraud's yacht?"
"Three years ago."
"I see. After your last visit to St.-Vire-en-Pre?"
"Yes, a year after."
"And in the same month of the year?"
"Perhaps the same day of the month?"
"That I can't remember."
"Sure? Let's see! You left St.-Vire-en-Pre,"—and here Bramley was
careful to speak without a hint of emphasis or significance—"the day
after Charles Perdoux died at the farm. You don't remember?"
"Well, it doesn't matter."
And it didn't. The day of the week was of no importance. What did matter
was the swift sidelong stare of Joan's eyes when he mentioned Charles
Perdoux's name, and the curious foxiness which sharpened her face. She was
suddenly disfigured. In another age he would have said that she was possessed
by the devil. For the change was horrible. All her grace and youth in a
second were gone. Her gaze was perfectly steady, but it was cunning. Yet
cunning was too respectable a word. It was leery—as was the smile which
distorted her mouth. Bramley had an inspiration that he was wrestling with
some obscene spirit ages old for the possession of this girl. The spirit
seemed to dare him to make her remember if he could. If he had ever doubted
that he was on the right lines, he threw his doubts overboard now. Heresy or
no heresy, he knew. The "psycho-boys" were one up.
"Joan," he said gently. He bent forward and took her hand in his. "Let us
get back to the yacht."
"Yes," she answered, her features relaxed; she flashed back to her normal
self, attentive to his questions, certain of his goodwill, dispossessed of
She marshalled her memories.
"It was in the morning. I was on deck. The yacht was a schooner. We were
going to race that day. The crew were busy with their preparations. Almost
over my head a sailor seated on the yard was fitting a new rope through a
block. I remember the end of the rope slipping down the side of the mast like
a snake. I was for no reason shocked out of my wits and I fainted."
"Thank you," Bramley interrupted. "I needn't bother you any more about the
yacht. You saw a rope shaking down the side of the mast, and you passed out.
Right! Let's come now to the breakdown of the motor on the Route des
Joan leaned forward.
"You were all out of the car on the road."
"Across the valley the Meije rose."
"It's a huge mass of a mountain with pinnacles and glaciers flowing down
"But at that moment you weren't admiring it. You weren't looking at it at
all. Just visualize that exact spot if you can!"
Joan leaned back in her chair and concentrated her thoughts, a little
timidly at first lest her experience on the road should be repeated here in
Bramley's consulting-room; and afterwards, since nothing happened, with a
"I had the Meije upon my left," she resumed slowly. "It's true. I was not
looking at the mountain. I was facing the tunnel through which we had come.
The broken-down car was in front of me. A cart had come through the tunnel
from La Grave to tow us back. The driver of the car was fixing a rope to the
front axle of the car, I remember the same horrible sense of sickness and
terror overwhelming me."
"Exactly," said Bramley. She was rather white now, but he was smiling at
her cheerfully. "It's all working out. Don't worry!"
Joan did not answer in words, but the deep breath she drew was sign enough
of her desperate need to free herself from the ghastly obsession which was
darkening all her life.
"Every time I cross a road," she said, "I ask myself, 'Shall I go down
here under the wheels?'"
"We shall answer that, Joan, before we have finished," Bramley replied,
with every sign of confidence. "Now let's see what was happening in the
circus at St. Etienne."
"That wasn't so inexcusable," Joan answered. "An acrobat was performing on
a trapeze and one of its ropes broke. Luckily he was sitting on the trapeze
at rest. He was able to save himself, for the second rope held. But for the
moment it gave everyone a jar."
"So all those three occurrences had one thing in common."
Joan looked puzzled.
"I don't see...A rope, of course, but—"
"Exactly, a rope," Bramley returned.
"But when I was running down the stairs in the hotel," Joan argued
quickly. "I didn't—" and she came to a stop and resumed again in a
voice of surprise. "Oh, yes! There was a man in a livery holding a rope."
"Yes. And that rope is the most important of all the ropes. The rope
covered with red baize which was usually stretched out to mark off the arena
reserved for dancing had been lost."
"But I have seen heaps of ropes," Joan protested. "They have never
affected me at all."
"Wait a bit," Bramley returned. "The attendant in the livery was a
Frenchman. He produced a rope of his own, a French rope."
"Why should that French rope be the most important?" Joan asked.
"Because I bought it," answered Bramley. "I have got it here."
"Yes?" For more than a second or two Joan hesitated. She shrank back.
Bramley used no persuasions. There was something he wanted her to say without
any promptings from him. Joan gathered her courage; she shrugged her
"I had better see it, hadn't I?"
Bramley said: "Yes, if you'd like to."
"I should like to," answered Joan.
Bramley sprang up and went to his cupboard.
"It's just a rope woven in the French way. It won't affect you at all now.
It can't do anything. And you are prepared for it." Whilst he spoke he
brought the brown-paper parcel from the cupboard and carried it to his table
and untied the string in front of Joan. The movements of his fingers had a
surgeon's neatness and precision. Every element of drama was carefully
eliminated. He never even looked at Joan, although he was aware of her every
gesture. He unwrapped the parcel with no more care than if it had been a box
of sweets. But his heart was beating fast enough; and if he did not look at
his patient it was lest his face should betray his fear. The fear, however,
was now all upon his side.
"A rope?" said Joan. She was merely curious now and wondering.
Bramley opened his parcel. "There it is."
Joan stretched out her hand and drew it back again and then took the rope
between her fingers, felt it and looked at it, all with a frowning forehead
and perplexed eyes.
"Not very alarming, is it?" said Bramley. "But notice the make of it.
English ropes are wound in spirals. In this one the strands cross and recross
one another in little diamond patterns. That's the French way. That's why it
looked like a snake sliding down the mast."
"Yes, I see."
Joan examined the rope, bending her head over it.
"But why in the world should I or any girl drop down at the sight of a
rope even with this pattern? It makes me out a complete fool!"
"Yes, why? That's just what I want you to tell me," replied Bramley. He
took both her hands in his and held her eyes with an unwavering glance. "What
happened at the farm of Narcisse Perdoux at St.-Vire-en-Pre the night before
you went away?"
Her hands tightened within his grasp. She flinched away a little. She
shook her head.
"What did you see after you and Mary Cole separated for the night?"
The darkness within her was troubled. The tension of her fingers was
relaxed. A glimmer of light shone in her eyes and was extinguished. She drew
her hands away from Bramley's, took up the rope again, and played with it.
Bramley's eyes never left hers for the fraction of a second.
"Baril—" she began, and stopped and tried again.
"Barillier. Yes—" She patted the rope. "Barillier's rope. They
"From Barillier, the butcher?"
"They sent for it, didn't they?"
"There was a barn?"
Joan gasped. She looked up instantly to Bramley's face, her eyes bright,
the blood coming and going in her cheeks. A door was opening and shutting and
"A barn?" she repeated. "Yes, there was a barn."
"Where was the barn?"
"Behind the farm-house."
"Then your bedroom windows looked on to it?"
Joan was on the edge of a dreaded revelation. She looked at the rope,
twisted and pulled at it, and smoothed it. Bramley dared not move. He spoke
in a low, even, monotonous voice, but all his will was behind the words.
"How did Charles Perdoux die on that night, Joan?"
Nature had come to Joan's rescue on that night; had buried deep beyond the
reach of her conscious memory an unsettling experience, but had left this one
chink. For her reason's sake she must dig now until that experience was
recovered. Nothing was heard in the room for a long time but the swift
ticking of a clock upon the mantelpiece. Then she looked up and answered:
"A great crime was committed on that night."
And at last the story was told.
Narcisse Perdoux was thought throughout that district of Normandy to be a
warm man, though none except his creditors ever saw the colour of his money.
They, however, were scrupulously paid to the last mite on the day when their
bills fell due, the old man fetching the exact sum in discoloured notes and
coppers from his room upstairs. There were five in the household, Narcisse
himself, a gnarled giant, strong as an ox, with wrinkles on his copper-brown
neck like gashes, his wife Angele, a crone before her time, his daughter
Clothilde, a plain, hard-featured young woman with a shrill quarrelsome
voice, and two sons Charles and Desire. They lived meagrely in the vast
smoke-grimed kitchen, like the poorest of peasants, and slaved upon the farm
from the dark of the morning to long after nightfall, tasting neither
amusement, nor books, nor any grace of life. For they were greedy, with a
sort of passion of ill will towards every one of their neighbours. They could
never get it out of their heads that they were being robbed. Someone more
cunning was always getting the better of them.
But even within the household there was ill will and rancour too. Charles
by some freak of nature was a slender good-looking lad, eager for such poor
pleasures as came his way. Occasionally he would run up a bill in Caen for a
fine suit of clothes and another for a dinner and a bottle of wine enjoyed in
company with a girl. On such occasions you would have thought that the whole
family was ruined, such shrill lamentations broke from the women, such
tirades of abuse from Narcisse and Desire. Charles was the simpleton, the
spendthrift; gaol would be the end of him and bankruptcy the lot of the
family. Nevertheless, in that primitive society he retained the rights of the
first-born, though Desire, a brutish counterpart of his father, watched him
with a sullen jealousy and rancour.
Thus it was Charles's privilege to drive in the high gig to Caen with
thirty-two pounds in his pocket for the payment of some bills on the
afternoon of the Studio Ball. Joan saw him drive off, looking as smart as
could be in his best clothes, with his hat cocked on the side of his head and
a rapturous smile upon his face, like a schoolboy going home.
"Mind you walk the horse up the hills!" said Narcisse, and "Take care you
are back before nine!" screamed Clothilde; and with a flourish of his whip,
Charles Perdoux drove off. That was at three o'clock in the afternoon. At one
o'clock in the morning, on their return from the studio, Joan said good night
to Mary Cole in a whisper, for the house was all quiet and dark, and went
into her room. But once in her room, being hot and dusty from the dance, she
suddenly felt that she must have some hot water to wash in before she went to
bed. There was always a great kettle simmering on the kitchen fire; and what
with the early risings and the late retirings of that laborious household,
the fire was seldom out.
Joan accordingly crept down the stairs with her can in one hand and her
lighted candle in the other. She put the can silently down and gently
unlatched the kitchen door. To her amazement the lamp was still burning and
about the fire Narcisse, Angele, Clothilde and Desire were grouped. They were
sitting bolt upright, quite silent and quite motionless. Joan closed the door
again with an unaccountable chill of fear at her heart. There was something
dreadfully sinister in the aspect of that silent group. They had the look of
a pitiless tribunal.
Not one of them had seen her. She went upstairs to her room, and had
hardly closed the door before she heard a horse's hoofs and the creak of
wheels. The sounds stopped at the gate of the yard which her window
overlooked. She extinguished her candle, and looked out of her window which
was open and the blind not lowered. The night was clear and lit by stars. She
could see Charles Perdoux lead in the horse, unharness and stable it, and
wheel the gig into its shed. He did everything very quietly so that the
household might not be aroused. Then he stood in front of the door for a few
moments, as if he was afraid, before he raised the latch and went in. Almost
at once Joan heard the voice of Narcisse. That too, for a wonder, was very
quiet, and it daunted Joan as the loud tones which he used when in a passion
could not have done. She pictured to herself the luckless youth creeping
towards the stairs and the old man confronting him in the doorway of the
kitchen and asking for the reason of his tardiness. The voice died away as
the door of the kitchen was closed. There was not after all to be a quarrel
then, and Joan, greatly relieved, went to bed and fell asleep.
But very soon afterwards she was awakened by the slamming of a gate. She
got out of bed and looked again from her window; she was astonished to see by
certain chinks in the wall, that the great barn opposite was lit up. Someone
crossed the yard from the gate to the barn door. As he opened it and the
light fell upon his face, she saw that it was Desire and that he carried a
coil of rope in his hand. She might have thought that the household was just
beginning its day's work, but there was a clumsy stealthiness in Desire's
movements which alarmed her. He opened one of the great doors only just
enough to enable him to slip through and he closed it carefully and
noiselessly behind him. As he closed it, terror seized upon Joan and held her
a prisoner by the window. Desire came out again into the courtyard and
disappeared amongst the shadows. But the light still burned within the barn,
and Joan still clung to the window-sill.
But she was not the only one to be uneasy that night in St.-Vire-en-Pre.
For she heard the sound of a man running in heavy shoes which rang upon the
road. He at all events was making no effort to be secret. The sound of his
running grew louder and louder. He stopped at the gate and even then Joan
could hear the noise of his breathing. He was panting as though his heart
would burst. He pushed open the gate and entered the courtyard. He looked
first up at the darkened windows of the house, and only afterwards caught
sight of the rays of light streaming out from the barn. Then in his turn he
crept across the yard towards it and, as one shaft touched his face, Joan
recognized him for Barillier, the village butcher, who lived at the nearest
house down the road to the sea.
He peered between the great leaves of the door and with a loud cry dragged
them open. They were wide, high doors reaching upwards to the edge of the
roof-tiles. They clattered back against the walls, and the interior of the
barn was exposed to Joan's eyes, brightly lit by a hissing petrol lamp, like
a scene of a theatre. Joan was paralysed by horror. For Charles Perdoux was
jerking and dangling from a rope thrown over a crossbeam, whilst the family
stood below and watched him. Their shadows were thrown upon the walls in
monstrous and misshapen exaggerations; whilst by some freak of the lamp's
position, the shadow of the dangling figure showed like that of a little
doll. At the clatter of the doors, Narcisse turned and with a bellow of rage
ran at Barillier.
"What are you doing here, in my barn?" he cried roughly.
Barillier cowered back against the wall.
"I was afraid," he stammered. "I was afraid."
The tremendous fact stood out that Barillier was a coward. Narcisse with
his primitive cunning took his immediate profit of it. His voice lost all its
truculence, and dropped to a whine: "So are we all afraid. Poor people, what
will become of us? Here is my unfortunate boy Charles! He gambles away
thirty-two pounds"—and even at that moment he could hardly mention the
sum without a snarl of rage—"in Caen and then in despair hangs himself!
What disgrace! What misery!"
"Hangs himself?" repeated Barillier, startled even out of his cowardice.
"But it's my rope! Desire woke me up to borrow it...in the middle of the
night! That's what frightened me—" and he broke off with a great cry
which rang out into the night and trembled away over the empty country. "He
is alive! I saw his lips move!"
Joan from her window had seen that too, and the loud cry of Barillier
drowned a moan from her. Barillier snatched a great clasp-knife from his
pocket and ran, as he opened it, towards the boy dangling in the noose.
Narcisse seized his arm and stopped him.
"What are you doing?" he exclaimed with amazement in his voice. "You can't
cut a good rope like that! It's quite new. You are mad."
Narcisse stared from under his great eyebrows at the butcher, as though he
gazed upon a lunatic; and in a hurry to spare his eyes such an outrage, began
himself to untie the end of the rope from the foot of one of the roof
pillars. "Such a rope!" he said. "It will be of use on the farm. It is clear,
my friend Barillier, that you are a rich man."
And then Clothilde spoke. She and her mother had drawn apart and had been
sitting side by side upon an old packing-case with no more emotion than a
couple of wax figures might have shown. Her voice rose hard and rancorous,
whilst Barillier held up in his arms the inert figure of Charles Perdoux.
"Yes, no doubt Barillier can afford to lose thirty-two pounds in an
afternoon, just like that," and she snapped her fingers. "But we poor people,
when that happens, we have to do something."
"Hold your tongue, Clothilde," Narcisse growled with an angry glance of
warning, as he let the rope go. He went to Barillier's side and, loosening
the noose, slipped it off the lad's head.
"Now give him to me," he said, and he took Charles Perdoux into his strong
arms as if he weighed no more than the shadow of the doll upon the wall.
"He wants air," said Narcisse, and turning his back upon Barillier he
carried the boy towards the open doors, but he almost knocked against Desire
who, alarmed by the noise, had run back to the barn to see how things were
getting on. Desire recoiled with a look of stupefaction from his father. He
looked round the barn, at Barillier, at his mother, at Clothilde; and in a
grating voice which seemed to hold all the venom in the world, he cried:
"You have taken him down—you cowards!"
But Narcisse spoke to him in an undertone and he drew aside. Narcisse sat
down upon a truss of hay in the wide doorway with his face to the courtyard
and his back to the petrol lamp, and laid Charles across his knees.
"It is of no use," he said. "Go home, Barillier! It is of no use. The
boy's dead. Go home and hold your tongue."
Barillier, now that his one audacity had been accomplished, was shaking
with fear like a man in a fever.
"Yes, yes! But what will you say, Perdoux, to-day? Where will they find
"They will find him hanging in the barn," Narcisse interrupted. "We shall
find him. He is dead, Barillier. Go home!" And he repeated with a harsh
menace in his voice: "And hold your tongue!"
Barillier, the coward, went, without another word.
Desire escorted him to the gate and this time he locked it when Barillier
had passed out. He stood listening whilst the heavy shoes which had rung so
loudly and quickly on the road a few minutes ago, now dragged away, the
footsteps of a man without heart or decision. Desire came back to the
"He has gone, the fool. But we must be quick. We shall have the morning on
us before we know it."
And then Narcisse leaned forward. The lad struggled ever so slightly on
"Good God!" cried Narcisse. "The dirty pig wants to come to life
Clothilde at the back added with a savage laugh:
"He would! After robbing us!" And Joan saw the immense corded hands of
Narcisse move and move horribly.
His back was towards the barn and the lamp was behind him. Joan could only
see that his arms were moving, but she had not a doubt what his fingers were
doing. They were upon the lad's throat. And his struggles ceased.
The old woman, Angele, from beginning to end, had not said one word.
It was at this moment that Joan had torn herself from the window and
rushed into Mary Cole's room and dropped upon the floor in a swoon which had
drowned all memory of the affair, until now when she sat in Bramley's
"I am ashamed of myself," she said, springing up from her chair. "For four
years those murderers have walked about their farm, and I have done
Bramley held up his hand.
"There is no need to do anything. When Mary Cole told me what she knew,
the name of Perdoux sounded familiar to me. And that night I remembered a
curious story which I had read carelessly in a newspaper. I found the paper."
He took a cutting from a drawer in his table.
"The sequel is as astounding as anything you have told me. Listen! Last
year Barillier, under the pressure of a growing remorse for his cowardice,
began to drop dark hints. Finally he whispered that young Charles Perdoux had
not committed suicide at all, but had been murdered by his father. The
Perdoux family began to be looked at askance and the old man, Narcisse, who
clung to his respectability as closely as he did to his money, actually
brought an action for slander against Barillier, thinking no doubt that a
coward once would be a coward a second time. But Barillier told his story,
glad to rid his conscience of the burden, and told it with so much
circumstance that no one in court doubted its truth. Narcisse Perdoux was
arrested and the night before he was to be brought into the presence of the
examining magistrate, he in fact did hang himself with his braces from the
window-bars of his cell."
Bramley handed to Joan the cutting which came from a newspaper six weeks
"We can leave it there," he said.
Joan nodded her head. She took up the rope, and looked at it curiously.
Then she turned and held out both her hands.
"I cannot thank you enough for what you have done for me," she said. "I am