A Thief in the Night

A Thief in the Night

By

Marion Hepworth Dixon

SHE had watched the huge rectangular shadow of the water-
jug on the ceiling for over an hour and three-quarters, and
still the nightlight on the washstand burnt uneasily on to the
accompaniment of her husband's heavy breathing. The room
had loomed black and foreboding on blowing out the candles an hour
or two ago, but now the four white walls, hung here and there
with faded family photographs, grew strangely luminous as her
eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness. Yet shifting from
left to right, and again from right to left on the tepid pillows, the
outlines of the unfamiliar room gained no sort of familiarity as the
hours wore on, but remained as blank and unmeaning as the house
of death itself.

The silence alone was terrible, speaking as it did of the austere
silence of the death-chamber below—a chamber where a white
figure, once her husband's brother, lay stretched in awful
rigidity on the bed.

The October night was dank, the atmosphere numb and heavy.
As the roar of London died in the larger and enwrapping silences,
the crack of a piece of furniture or the tapping of a withered leaf
on the window-pane grew to be signs portentous and uncanny.

Yet, turning and twisting on the rumpled sheet, every moment

sleep

240 A Thief in the Night

sleep seemed more impossible. In the stagnant air her head felt
hot, her limbs feverish. She longed to jump out of bed and throw
open the window, and made as if to do so, but hesitated, fearing
the sound might waken the sleeping man beside her. But the
thought of movement made her restless, and, slipping cautiously
out on to her feet, she took her watch from the little table beside
her and peered at it until she made out that the hands indicated
five-and-twenty minutes to three.

Nearing the light, she revealed herself a lean, spare woman, with
the leathery skin of the lean, and with hair now touched with grey,
which grew sparsely and with no attempt at flourish or ornament,
on the nape of an anxious neck. For the rest, a woman agitated
and agitating, a woman worn with the fret of a single idea.

Five-and-twenty minutes to three ! A clock downstairs somewhere
in the great silent house struck the half-hour, and Mrs. Rathbourne,
with one of those parentheses of the mind which occur in nervous
crises, found herself wondering if her watch had gained since she
set it right by the station clock at Sheffield. The journey South
since they had received that startling telegram summoning them
to town had seemed, indeed, a vague blur, varied only by the
remembrance of fields splashed with yellow advertisements of
divers infallible cures, of a quarrel between her husband and a
porter about a bag, and later by the din and roar of the crowded
streets and the flare of dingy lights which danced by in procession
as the hansom dashed through London from King's Cross.

They had been too late. Too late ! After four and a half hours'
incessant prayer to Providence—a Providence of whom she had asked
and expected so few boons of late—that she should be permitted to
be in time. They were too late ! Had not the thud, thud, thud of
the train said the ugly words in that dreary journey past flying
factory-chimneys, scudding hedges, and vanishing jerry-built

suburbs ?

By Marion Hepworth Dixon 241

suburbs ? Too late ! The blank face of the London house, the
scrupulously-drawn blinds, advertised the fact even before she
jumped from the cab, smudging her dress on the muddy wheel in
her anxiety to gain the door. They were too late, irretrievably too
late, she knew, a few minutes later, when the young wife, rising
from an armchair in the dimly-lighted dining-room, greeted
them in her usual smooth, suave, unemotional tones. She remem-
bered the commonplaces that followed like things heard in a
dream. Her husband's dreary inquiries, the young widow's
explanations of how Colonel Rathbourne had rallied, and had
actually died sitting in his chair in a dressing-gown, and how
thoughtful he had been in alluding, some quarter of an hour before
his death, to an alteration he had made in his will. The words
reached her, but conveyed little meaning to her dazed percep-
tions. The very sound of the two voices seemed to come as
from a distance, as the sound of other voices had once done, when
she lay ill as a little child. A bewildered sense of the unreality of
things substantial rocked in her brain. A great gap, a vague but
impassable gulf lay surely between her and these living, breathing
people, so concerned with the material trivialities of life. It was
this something dual in her consciousness which made her wonder,
half-an-hour later, if in very truth it were she, or some other woman,
who mechanically followed her sister-in-law upstairs to the dead
man's bedside. If it were she who recoiled so suddenly and with
so agonised a cry at the sight of that shrouded form ? She felt
certain of nothing, except that she hated this wife of six months'
standing, with her assured voice, her handsome shoulders,
and her manoeuvred waist. For six whole months she had been
his wife.....

Mrs. Rathbourne shivered, the square wrists shook with such
violence that the watch she held nearly slipped from her fingers.

To

242 A Thief in the Night

To avoid the possibility of noise she placed it on the washstand,
and, as she approached the light, her eye was caught by the faded
photograph which hung directly above on the wall.

It was of Colonel Rathbourne, the dead man below-stairs. Out-
wardly the portrait was a thing of little beauty. A mere drabbish
presentment of a young man, dressed in the fashion of the sixties,
with somewhat sloping shoulders, and whiskers of extravagant
shape. Not that Mrs. Rathbourne saw either the whiskers or
the shoulders. Long familiarity with such accessories made them
part of the inevitable, part of all fixed and determined concrete
things, part, indeed, of the felicitous " had been " of her youth.
Had she thought of them at all, she would have thought of them
as beautiful, as everything connected with the dead man had
always seemed, then, thirty years ago, in the rare intervals he
had been at home on leave, and now on the night of his sudden
death.

To look at this portrait meant to ignore all intervening time, to
forget that dread thing, that shrouded and awful something
stretched on the bed in the room below. To look at it meant to
be transported to a garden in Hampshire, to a lawn giving on
Southampton Water, a lawn vivid and green in the shadow of
the frothing hawthorns, grey in the softer stretches dotted with
munching cattle which swept out to the far-off, tremulous line
intersected with distant masts. She had dreaded to look or to
think of that line. It meant the sea—that ugly void of wind and
wave that was to carry him away from her. How determinedly
she had put the thought aside, rejoicing in the moment, the soft
atmosphere, the persistent hum of bees, the enervating cooing of
the wood-pigeons.

Yet the eve of the day had come when the regiment was to
sail, and when, across the intimacies of the cottage dining-table,

they

By Marion Hepworth Dixon 243

they looked at each other and avoided each other's eyes. Her
husband had been in London on business for three or four days (it
was some years before they finally settled in the North), and was
to return by the last train. He had returned, punctually, as he
did everything, and she recalled, as if it had been yesterday, the
sound of his monotonous breathing through that last night. She
had been unable to sleep, waiting for the morning, the morning
when the dead man, then a slim young lieutenant, was to creep
down to meet her in the little wood they reached by the orchard
gate. Yes, in looking back she remembered everything. Her
foolish fear of being too soon at the trysting-place, her dread of
being too late. She recalled how she had strained her ears to
listen for awakening sounds, how she had at last caught the click
of an opening door, followed by cautious footsteps in the hall.
To creep down was the work of a moment. Once below, and
outside the cottage walls, the scent of the new-mown hay was
in her nostrils, and in her limbs the intoxicating freshness of
morning. She could see his figure in front of her on the narrow
winding path, and heard her own welcoming cry, as she caught up
her gown in the dewy grass, and darted towards him in the strange,
westward-trending shadows.

And now he was dead. The white mockery of a man below-
stairs, that shrouded thing, so numbing in its statue-like immobility,
was all that remained. What had she left ? What tangible
remembrance of that lost possession, that she might finger and
gloat over in secret? To unhook the photograph with its tarnished
wire and dusty frame was her first impulse, but even when she
clasped it in her hands the protrait seemed, in a fashion, to evade
her. The modelling of the features had evaporated, the face was
almost blank. She craved for something more tangible, more
human, something more intimately his.

The

244 A Thief in the Night

The nightlight, which she had raised to look at the photograph,
guttered and diminished to little more than a spark. Throwing
on a wrap, she pinched the wick with a hair-pin to kindle the
flame, and then, with a swift glance at the sleeping man, turned
with a stealthy movement to the door. What if her husband
should wake ? A crack, at the moment, from the great oak
cupboard at the other side of the room made her start with
trembling apprehension. It sounded loud enough to waken fifty
sleepers, but the noise died away in the corner from which it came,
and the steady breathing of the man continued as if nothing had
disturbed the strained and looming silence. Catching her breath
she again moved forward, though assailed by the dread of the
door-handle rattling, and the fear that there might be a loose
board on the stairs. Screening the light from the sleeping man's
eyes, Mrs. Rathbourne made her way round the bed, and, pulling
the door noiselessly to behind her, steadied herself to listen.

In the gloom of the empty passages a sinister faintness seemed
to hover ; the mist had eked in at the long landing window, and
added a mystery all its own to the unfamiliar lines of the house.
There was silence everywhere—in the room she had left and in
the one her sister-in-law now occupied facing the stairs. Only
from the lower hall came the harsh, mechanical tick, tick, tick
(with a slight hesitation or hitch in every third tick) of the eight-
day clock which fronted the hall-door.

Down towards it she crept, shading the dim light to see in
front of her, while the great shadow of her own figure rose, as
she turned the corner of the staircase, and filled the obscure
corners of the lower passage walls.

Beneath it was the dead man's room. She saw, with a catch at
the heart, that the latch had slipped, and knew by the long inch-
strip of ominous darkness, that the door stood ajar. With averted

eyes

By Marion Hepworth Dixon 245

eyes—for she dreaded with an unaccountable dread that shrouded
something on the bed—she leant her elbow on one of the upper
panels, and with the stealthy movement of a cat slipped inside. An
insatiable desire mastered her. The nervous hands twitched, her
eyes travelled hungrily from one object to another, round the
room. It was his room. The room in which he had slept, and
lived, and died .... in it there must be something which he
had used, that he had touched, and handled, that she could seize
and call her own ?

But the mortuary chamber wore that rigid, unfathomable look
peculiar to rooms where the dead lie. Everything had been
tidied, straightened ; the dressing-table was bare, the books,
papers, even the medicine-bottles had been cleared away. His
favourite armchair—the chair, she remembered with a shiver, in
which he had died—had been ranged stiffly, itself a dead thing,
against the wall. There was no trace of 1ife, or suggestion of
it, in an emptiness which ached. Mrs. Rathbourne gazed at
the mechanically arranged furniture in a baffled way, dimly
realising that the soul of the room had fled from it, as it had from
the body of the man she loved. Nothing remained but the shell.
The kindly, loyal, and withal quaintly sarcastic man, who had
struggled with disease within those four walls, had been posed,
too, in the foolishly conventional attitude of the dead, the white
sheet transforming the body into the mere shapeless outline of a
man. He was hidden, covered up, put away, as he would soon be
beneath the earth, to be forgotten.

Mrs. Rathbourne drew near the bed, holding the feeble light
aloft with a trembling hand. With dilated eyes she stooped over the
shrouded thing, and then, when about to raise the coverlid, fell
back, as earlier in the evening, with a renewed sense of horror.
Her pulse leapt, and then seemed to cease altogether. The strange-

ness

246 A Thief in the Night

ness of death paralysed the very muscles of her arm. She
wanted .... she wanted the living, not the dead. It was the
living man who, though so rarely seen, had rilled the dreary
emptiness of her life. She wanted the man, not the clay.
Dazed, unstrung, and with the odd sensation of a hand clutching
at her heart, she dropped into one of the cretonne-covered chairs
beside the bed, and, as she did so, became conscious that her arm
touched something warm.

It was a well-worn dressing-gown which had been thrown over
the chair-back, the sleeve still bulging and round with the form of
the man who had worn it that very day. In one of the wide-open
pockets there was a crumpled handkerchief, while about it there
hovered the vague odour of cigars. The button at the breast,
she noticed, was loose and hung by a thread as if he had been in
the habit of playing with it, even the bit of frayed braid on the
cuff spoke in some unaccountable way of palpitating, everyday,
intimate life.

A gush of tears—the first she had shed—rose to the wretched
woman's eyes. She pressed her pinched lips to the warm, woolly
sleeve, and then, with a convulsive movement, seized the dressing-
gown and pressed it passionately against her flat chest. With the
bundle in her arms, hugged close in guilty exultation, Mrs. Rath-
bourne stole to the door, and so noiselessly out and up the stair.

As before, the dank night swooned in the dour passages.
With a hurrying beat, a beat which seemed to speak of the
inexorable passage of time, the hall clock ticked, while behind, in
the silent room, the motionless figure with the upturned feet
loomed grim and aloof in the faint gleam of the vanishing light.





MLA citation: Dixon, Marion Hepworth. "A Thief in the Night." The Yellow Book 4 (Jan. 1895): 239-46. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2011. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV4_dixon_thief.html