Like her first ghost story, “Nothing But the Truth,” the following tale is an example of Rhoda Broughton’s brilliant ability to infuse the dreadful into the domestic. Another story built on a foundation of witty letters between two women, it is, nonetheless, quite different. The setting is rural, the threat – although suggested by the supernatural – is all too physical: a vicious and sloppy murder at the edge of a reaping hook.
In this sense, it also pairs wonderfully with Edith Nesbit’s “The Semi-Detached,” because both are tales of precognitive dreams which stand to prevent a grisly butchering. And like Nesbit, who fogs her story with the tension of scandal and sexuality, Broughton darkens her sunny pastures with resentment and passive aggression between two friends who begin the story desperately missing one another’s company. Hidden realities weave their way through the story like an adder through tall grass – behind a loving friend may dwell an envious rival, behind a pastoral cottage might lurk a house of horror, and behind an unremarkable face might brew the plots of a murderer.
Jane and Dinah are old friends who, until recently, had been commiserating with one another about the loneliness of the single life. Both could be described as not being conventionally beautiful and both were waning into their thirties past the conventional marrying age. However, things changed when Jane married an old bachelor and settled into married life across the Irish Sea. As Jane adjusts to a Welsh cottage with her “ugly old man” – as she calls him – she seems to envy Dinah, whom she imagines being swarmed with handsome soldiers at Dublin balls. In a teasing letter, she invites Dinah to visit her in Wales. Their friendship isn’t exactly deep – Dinah refers to her as a “sour virgin” who had been “addicted to lachrymose verse about the dead and gone,” but she reluctantly agrees to visit her.
The crossing from Ireland to Wales leaves her seasick (and “curs[ing] the day that Jane Watson was born”), and by the time she arrives at the farmhouse, she is suffering from a headache that prevents her from being talkative when Jane comes out to greet her. Jane’s “ugly, old man” is indeed old and ugly, but he is kind and welcomes Dinah to their home. It’s a cozy, if somewhat shabby, old-fashioned cottage with thick walls, low ceilings, and small rooms, fragrant with wild flowers and country air: “dark and cool, with flowers and flower scents lying in wait for you everywhere a silent, fragrant, childless house.” Thrilled to have her friend under her roof, Jane lights candles in her guest room and makes Dinah as comfortable as possible, and – exhausted from her nausea, headache, and travel – she falls into a deep, dark sleep…
In the morning, Jane’s excitement – and her extensive plans for their activities together – is immediately curbed by Dinah’s somber appearance: she obviously slept horribly. However, Dinah retorts that she wishes she had been unable to sleep; the truth is, she had a monstrous nightmare that has been haunting her ever since she woke up. What makes it all the more horrible is that the dream was “about this house and you … and your husband.” The dream was so vivid, so terrible, and so detailed that Dinah has decided to return to Dublin at once, in spite of her anxiety at the idea of making the rough channel crossing once again. Jane laughs it off, but Dinah is clearly serious about it, so the host tries to exorcise her misery by having her describe it.
In her dream, Dinah had awoken in the middle of a black, lightless night, and found herself in Jane’s cottage. She is aware of a strange, deliberate sound: “muffled struggling” punctuated by a strangled cry. Horrified at the thought of being harmed by something in the dark, she lights a candle, throws on a dressing gown, and gropes her way towards the noises to see what is happening. She navigates the house crudely (it is still so unfamiliar to her), but manages to work her way to the master bedroom, where she hears rustling behind the door. A “line of red light” coming from under the door alerts her to the fact that someone else must be awake inside. She opens the door to see what the matter is…
Here Dinah fails in her resolve to continue, but Jane urges her on: what did she see? “You and your husband, both murdered, drowned in your blood,” is her nervous reply. She claims to have seen it as clear as she sees Jane now: she was lying in bed with a “huge and yawning gash” from ear to ear, while her husband – who had clearly been attacked second, and had struggled back, for his hands were clenching the sheets and his body was half off the bed, but all “his grey hair was reddened and stained, and I could see that the rift in his throat was as deep as that in [hers]."
Jane is no longer amused, but Dinah now urges her to allow her to finish her vision – because she also saw the killer: she is alerted by a sound from the far side of the room, and notices a man in dirty work clothes looting Jane’s jewelry box and stuffing his pockets with valuables. In one hand he holds a “red wet sickle,” and his mouth is drawn up into the “slit of a smile.” His hair is shaggy and red, his face furrowed by smallpox scars, and Dinah seems to know intuitively that he is an Irishman. The vision closes with her making eye contact with the murderer, and Dinah begs Jane to allow her to meet her field hands, because she knows that she would recognize the culprit as easily as her own reflection…
Jane is annoyed and disgusted by the vision, but is also clearly disturbed. It is harvest time, and they have indeed taken on some Irishmen to help with the work of the fields, so the three of them ride out with the understanding that Dinah will stay if they fail to find the man in her vision, but there will be no objections to her departure if they do. They survey one field after another, but none of the hired hands stand out to her. At first secretly concerned, Jane is glowing with victorious smugness as they pull up to the last field. But as Dinah scans the workers’ faces, her own goes suddenly white: one of the men, an Irishman, has the identical long nose, slit smile, shaggy red hair, pock-scarred face, and “sly base” eyes as the man in her vision.
Jane and her husband are struck by the similarity to her description, and are unsettled, but as they leave the fields, they return to their skepticism and scoff at the idea of firing a man and being a hand short during the high point of the harvest busy season. Dinah begs them to consider it, lest her vision prove prophetic, and suggests that they leave for Ireland with her. This is even more distasteful to them, and barely-hidden rifts between the two women are exposed: Jane now views Dinah as the “sour virgin” – a jealous spinster eager to disrupt her friend’s matrimonial contentment.
Dinah is good on her promise – “I do as I say” – and she begins packing when they return. While Jane’s husband wishes Dinah well, Jane watches her depart with a sad and disturbed expression behind the forced smile. Dinah watches her leaning her head against her “ugly, old man” as their “kind and happy faces” are clouded with unspoken emotions. As Dinah remarks, “at least my last living recollection of them is a pleasant one…”
Soon after, Dinah receives a strange letter from Jane: apparently they didn’t take her warnings as lightly as they let on, because her husband investigated the Irish laborer, whose name is Watty Doolan, and learned that he was not only a drunk, but “never did a stroke of work.” The man was summarily fired, and any threat from him is presumed to be neutralized. Jane hopes that the two channel crossings in 48 hours were worth it, and although she wishes Dinah well, she refuses to forgive her for “the way in which you frightened me with your graphic description of [my poor husband] and me, with our heads loose and waggling.”
The solution fails to bring Dinah resolution, and when it comes, it is bitter indeed; two days later at breakfast, her sister tosses aside the newspaper, claiming it to be void of anything interesting, when Dinah spots an alarming headline: SHOCKING TRAGEDY... DOUBLE MURDER. The contents are no surprise: Mr. and Mrs. Watson were discovered murdered in their beds the morning after Dinah had received her letter. Their throats were cut from ear to ear by a reaping hook, and the scene was utterly ghastly: “a hideous spectacle, being literally swimming in blood.” Watty Doolan – an Irish laborer recently fired by Mr. Watson for “misconduct” – was arrested after being discovered washing blood out of his clothes in a nearby brook. His pockets were found loaded with Mrs. Watson’s jewelry.
(Broughton ends the story with the assertion that her story is true in every detail except that it occurred in Ireland instead of Wales.)
Broughton’s horror stories almost always involve the doom lurking behind the peaceful, and are, in that sense, typically meditations on the unconscious – replete with fears, hates, pettiness, and lust – churning beneath the exteriors of social normalcy: loved ones envy one another, gentlemen restrain rapacious urges, ladies wish misery on their friends, the classiest townhouse in Mayfair may be the den of a demon, and the most idyllic cottage in the fairest valley may prove the perfect setting for a relentless slaughter. Dreams, Broughton suggests – the unconscious, instinct, intuition – may be more real and trustworthy than cold, hard facts, and the gut feelings that seem silly when weighed against logic and reason, may be a better source of guidance.
“Behold, it was a Dream!” follows the pitfalls of pride, the importance of trust, and the unreliability of appearances. Her two chief characters fall out of friendship as one departs the other in pursuit of intuition. The newlywed who wishes to show off her escape from spinsterhood to a Dinah – likely, it seems, to remain an old maid – is incensed by her friend’s inability to be impressed, and the true mission of their reunion is exposed for what it was: bragging rights.
Self deprecating references to her “ugly old man” and simple little cottage are not what they seem, and Jane is less concerned with Dinah’s peace of mind and more annoyed at the failure of her chance to show off. Likewise the dream is shown to be reality, and the nightmare truth. Things are not as they always seem, Broughton sadly warns, whether cottages, laborers, or friendships.