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A short story by A. A. Milne

"At Dead Of Night"

Title:     "At Dead Of Night"
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

The stage is in semi-darkness as Dick Trayle throws open the window from outside, puts his knee on the sill, and falls carefully into the drawing-room of Beeste Hall. He is dressed in a knickerbocker suit with arrows on it (such as can always be borrowed from a friend), and, to judge from the noises which he emits, is not in the best of training. The lights go on suddenly; and, he should seize this moment to stagger to the door and turn on the switch. This done, he sinks into the nearest chair and closes his eyes.

If he has been dancing very late the night before he may drop into a peaceful sleep; in which case the play ends here. Otherwise, no sooner are his eyes closed than he opens them with a sudden start and looks round in terror.

Dick (striking the keynote at once). No, no! Let me out--I am innocent! (He gives a gasp of relief as he realizes the situation.) Free! It is true, then! I have escaped! I dreamed that I was back in prison again! (He shudders and helps himself to a large whisky-and-soda, which he swallows at a gulp.) That's better! Now I feel a new man--the man I was three years ago. Three years! It has been a lifetime! (Pathetically to the audience.) Where is Millicent now?

[He falls into a reverie, from which he is suddenly wakened by a noise outside. He starts, and then creeps rapidly to the switch, arriving there at the moment when the lights go out. Thence he goes swiftly behind the window curtain. The lights go up again as Jasper Beeste comes in with a revolver in one hand and a bull's-eye lantern of apparently enormous candle-power in the other.

Jasper (in immaculate evening dress). I thought I heard a noise, so I slipped on some old things hurriedly and came down. (Fingering his perfectly-tied tie.) But there seems to be nobody here. (Turns round suddenly to the window.) Ha, who's there? Hands up, blow you--(He ought to swear rather badly here, really)--hands up, or I fire!

[The stage is suddenly plunged into darkness, there is the noise of a struggle, and the lights go on to reveal Jasper by the door covering Dick with his revolver.

Jasper. Let's have a little light on you. (Brutally.) Now then, my man, what have you got to say for yourself? Ha! An escaped convict, eh?

Dick (to himself in amazement). Jasper Beeste!

Jasper. So you know my name?

Dick (in the tones of a man whose whole life has been blighted by the machinations of a false friend). Yes, Jasper Beeste, I know your name. For two years I have said it to myself every night, when I prayed Heaven that I should meet you again.

Jasper. Again? (Uneasily.) We have met before?

Dick (slowly). We have met before, Jasper Beeste. Since then I have lived a lifetime of misery. You may well fail to recognize me.

Enter Millicent Wilsdon--in a dressing-gown, with her hair over her shoulders, if the county will stand it.

Millicent (to Jasper). I couldn't sleep--I heard a noise--I--(suddenly seeing the other) Dick! (She trembles.)

Dick. Millicent! (He trembles too.)

Jasper. Trayle! (So does he.)

Dick (bitterly). You shrink from me, Millicent. (With strong common sense.) What is an escaped convict to the beautiful Miss Wilsdon?

Millicent. Dick--I--you--when you were sentenced--

Dick. When I was sentenced--the evidence was black against me, I admit--I wrote and released you from your engagement. You are married now?

Millicent (throwing herself on the sofa). Oh, Dick!

Jasper (recovering himself). Enough of this. Miss Wilsdon is going to marry me to-morrow.

Dick. To marry YOU! (He strides over to the sofa and pulls Millicent to her feet.) Millicent, look me in the eyes! Do you love him? (She turns away.) Say "Yes," and I will go back quietly to my prison. (She raises her eyes to his.) Ha! I thought so! You don't love him! Now then I can speak.

Jasper (advancing threateningly). Yes, to your friends the warders. Millicent, ring the bell.

Dick (wresting the revolver from his grasp). Ha, would you? Now stand over there and listen to me. (He arranges his audience, Millicent on a sofa on the right, Jasper, biting his finger-nails, on the left.) Three years ago Lady Wilsdon's diamond necklace was stolen. My flat was searched and the necklace was found in my hatbox. Although I protested my innocence, I was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to ten years' penal servitude, followed by fifteen years' police supervision.

Millicent (raising herself on the sofa). Dick, you were innocent--I know it. (She falls back again.)

Dick. I was. But how could I prove it? I went to prison. For a year black despair gnawed at my heart. And then something happened. The prisoner in the cell next to mine tried to communicate with me by means of taps. We soon arranged a system and held conversations together. One day he told me of a robbery in which he and another man had been engaged--the robbery of a diamond necklace.

Jasper (jauntily). Well?

Dick (sternly). A diamond necklace, Jasper Beeste, which the other man hid in the hatbox of another man in order that he might woo the other man's fiancee! (Millicent shrieks.)

Jasper (blusteringly). Bah!

Dick (quietly). The man in the cell next to mine wants to meet this gentleman again. It seems that he has some old scores to pay off.

Jasper (sneeringly). And where is he?

Dick. Ah, where is he? (He goes to the window and gives a low whistle. A Stranger in knickerbockers jumps in and advances with a crab-like movement.) Good! here you are. Allow me to present you to Mr Jasper Beeste.

Jasper (in horror). Two-toed Thomas! I am undone!

Two-toed Thomas (after a series of unintelligible snarls). Say the word, guv'nor, and I'll kill him. (He prowls round Jasper thoughtfully.)

Dick (sternly). Stand back! Now, Jasper Beeste, what have you to say?

Jasper (hysterically). I confess. I will sign anything. I will go to prison. Only keep that man off me.

Dick (going up to a bureau and writing aloud at incredible speed). "I, Jasper Beeste, of Beeste Hall, do hereby declare that I stole Lady Wilsdon's diamond necklace and hid it in the hatbox of Richard Trayle; and I further declare that the said Richard Trayle is innocent of any complicity in the affair." (Advancing with the paper and a fountain pen.) Sign, please.

[Jasper signs. At this moment two warders burst into the room.

First Warder. There they are!

[He seizes Dick. Two-toed Thomas leaps from the window, pursued by the second Warder. Millicent picks up the confession and advances dramatically.

Millicent. Do not touch that man! Read this!

[She hands him the confession with an air of superb pride.

First Warder (reading). Jasper Beeste! (Slipping a pair of handcuffs on Jasper.) You come along with me, my man. We've had our suspicions of you for some time. (To Millicent, with a nod at Dick.) You'll look after that gentleman, miss?

Millicent. Of course! Why, he's engaged to me. Aren't you, Dick?

Dick. This time, Millicent, for ever!


[The end]
A. A. Milne's short story: "at Dead Of Night"