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Round the Fire Stories, Page 2

Arthur Conan Doyle




  My friend, Lionel Dacre, lived in the Avenue de Wagram, Paris. His housewas that small one, with the iron railings and grass plot in front ofit, on the left-hand side as you pass down from the Arc de Triomphe. Ifancy that it had been there long before the avenue was constructed, forthe grey tiles were stained with lichens, and the walls were mildewedand discoloured with age. It looked a small house from the street, fivewindows in front, if I remember right, but it deepened into a singlelong chamber at the back. It was here that Dacre had that singularlibrary of occult literature, and the fantastic curiosities which servedas a hobby for himself, and an amusement for his friends. A wealthy manof refined and eccentric tastes, he had spent much of his life andfortune in gathering together what was said to be a unique privatecollection of Talmudic, cabalistic, and magical works, many of them ofgreat rarity and value. His tastes leaned toward the marvellous and themonstrous, and I have heard that his experiments in the direction of theunknown have passed all the bounds of civilization and of decorum. Tohis English friends he never alluded to such matters, and took the toneof the student and _virtuoso_; but a Frenchman whose tastes were of thesame nature has assured me that the worst excesses of the black masshave been perpetrated in that large and lofty hall, which is lined withthe shelves of his books, and the cases of his museum.

  Dacre’s appearance was enough to show that his deep interest in thesepsychic matters was intellectual rather than spiritual. There was notrace of asceticism upon his heavy face, but there was much mental forcein his huge dome-like skull, which curved upward from amongst histhinning locks, like a snow-peak above its fringe of fir trees. Hisknowledge was greater than his wisdom, and his powers were far superiorto his character. The small bright eyes, buried deeply in his fleshyface, twinkled with intelligence and an unabated curiosity of life, butthey were the eyes of a sensualist and an egotist. Enough of the man,for he is dead now, poor devil, dead at the very time that he had madesure that he had at last discovered the elixir of life. It is not withhis complex character that I have to deal, but with the very strange andinexplicable incident which had its rise in my visit to him in the earlyspring of the year ‘82.

  I had known Dacre in England, for my researches in the Assyrian Room ofthe British Museum had been conducted at the time when he wasendeavouring to establish a mystic and esoteric meaning in theBabylonian tablets, and this community of interests had brought ustogether. Chance remarks had led to daily conversation, and that tosomething verging upon friendship. I had promised him that on my nextvisit to Paris I would call upon him. At the time when I was able tofulfil my compact I was living in a cottage at Fontainebleau, and as theevening trains were inconvenient, he asked me to spend the night in hishouse.

  “I have only that one spare couch,” said he, pointing to a broad sofa inhis large salon; “I hope that you will manage to be comfortable there.”

  It was a singular bedroom, with its high walls of brown volumes, butthere could be no more agreeable furniture to a bookworm like myself,and there is no scent so pleasant to my nostrils as that faint, subtlereek which comes from an ancient book. I assured him that I could desireno more charming chamber, and no more congenial surroundings.

  “If the fittings are neither convenient nor conventional, they are atleast costly,” said he, looking round at his shelves. “I have expendednearly a quarter of a million of money upon these objects which surroundyou. Books, weapons, gems, carvings, tapestries, images—there is hardlya thing here which has not its history, and it is generally one worthtelling.”

  He was seated as he spoke at one side of the open fireplace, and I atthe other. His reading table was on his right, and the strong lamp aboveit ringed it with a very vivid circle of golden light. A half-rolledpalimpsest lay in the centre, and around it were many quaint articles ofbric-à-brac. One of these was a large funnel, such as is used forfilling wine casks. It appeared to be made of black wood, and to berimmed with discoloured brass.

  “That is a curious thing,” I remarked. “What is the history of that?”

  “Ah!” said he, “it is the very question which I have had occasion to askmyself. I would give a good deal to know. Take it in your hands andexamine it.”

  I did so, and found that what I had imagined to be wood was in realityleather, though age had dried it into an extreme hardness. It was alarge funnel, and might hold a quart when full. The brass rim encircledthe wide end, but the narrow was also tipped with metal.

  “What do you make of it?” asked Dacre.

  “I should imagine that it belonged to some vintner or maltster in themiddle ages,” said I. “I have seen in England leathern drinking flagonsof the seventeenth century—‘black jacks’ as they were called—which wereof the same colour and hardness as this filler.”

  “I dare say the date would be about the same,” said Dacre, “and nodoubt, also, it was used for filling a vessel with liquid. If mysuspicions are correct, however, it was a queer vintner who used it, anda very singular cask which was filled. Do you observe nothing strange atthe spout end of the funnel.”

  As I held it to the light I observed that at a spot some five inchesabove the brass tip the narrow neck of the leather funnel was allhaggled and scored, as if some one had notched it round with a bluntknife. Only at that point was there any roughening of the dead blacksurface.

  “Some one has tried to cut off the neck.”

  “Would you call it a cut?”

  “It is torn and lacerated. It must have taken some strength to leavethese marks on such tough material, whatever the instrument may havebeen. But what do you think of it? I can tell that you know more thanyou say.”

  Dacre smiled, and his little eyes twinkled with knowledge.

  “Have you included the psychology of dreams among your learned studies?”he asked.

  “I did not even know that there was such a psychology.”

  “My dear sir, that shelf above the gem case is filled with volumes, fromAlbertus Magnus onward, which deal with no other subject. It is ascience in itself.”

  “A science of charlatans.”

  “The charlatan is always the pioneer. From the astrologer came theastronomer, from the alchemist the chemist, from the mesmerist theexperimental psychologist. The quack of yesterday is the professor ofto-morrow. Even such subtle and elusive things as dreams will in time bereduced to system and order. When that time comes the researches of ourfriends in the book-shelf yonder will no longer be the amusement of themystic, but the foundations of a science.”

  “Supposing that is so, what has the science of dreams to do with a largeblack brass-rimmed funnel?”

  “I will tell you. You know that I have an agent who is always on thelookout for rarities and curiosities for my collection. Some days ago heheard of a dealer upon one of the Quais who had acquired some oldrubbish found in a cupboard in an ancient house at the back of the RueMathurin, in the Quartier Latin. The dining-room of this old house isdecorated with a coat of arms, chevrons, and bars rouge upon a fieldargent, which prove, upon inquiry, to be the shield of Nicholas de laReynie, a high official of King Louis XIV. There can be no doubt thatthe other articles in the cupboard date back to the early days of thatking. The inference is, therefore, that they were all the property ofthis Nicholas de la Reynie, who was, as I understand, the gentlemanspecially concerned with the maintenance and execution of the Draconiclaws of that epoch.”

  “What then?”

  “I would ask you now to take the funnel into your hands once more and toexamine the upper brass rim. Can you make out any lettering upon it?”

  There were certainly some scratches upon it, almost obliterated by time.The general effect was of several letters, the last of which bore someresemblance to a B.

  “You make it a B?”

  “Yes, I do.”

  “So do I. In fact, I have no doubt whatever that it is a B.”

  “But the nobleman
you mentioned would have had R for his initial.”

  “Exactly! That’s the beauty of it. He owned this curious object, and yethe had some one else’s initials upon it. Why did he do this?”

  “I can’t imagine; can you?”

  “Well, I might, perhaps, guess. Do you observe something drawn a littlefurther along the rim?”

  “I should say it was a crown.”

  “It is undoubtedly a crown; but if you examine it in a good light, youwill convince yourself that it is not an ordinary crown. It is aheraldic crown—a badge of rank, and it consists of an alternation offour pearls and strawberry leaves, the proper badge of a marquis. We mayinfer, therefore, that the person whose initials end in B was entitledto wear that coronet.”

  “Then this common leather filler belonged to a marquis?”

  Dacre gave a peculiar smile.

  “Or to some member of the family of a marquis,” said he. “So much wehave clearly gathered from this engraved rim.”

  “But what has all this to do with dreams?” I do not know whether it wasfrom a look upon Dacre’s face, or from some subtle suggestion in hismanner, but a feeling of repulsion, of unreasoning horror, came upon meas I looked at the gnarled old lump of leather.

  “I have more than once received important information through mydreams,” said my companion, in the didactic manner which he loved toaffect. “I make it a rule now when I am in doubt upon any material pointto place the article in question beside me as I sleep, and to hope forsome enlightenment. The process does not appear to me to be veryobscure, though it has not yet received the blessing of orthodoxscience. According to my theory, any object which has been intimatelyassociated with any supreme paroxysm of human emotion, whether it be joyor pain, will retain a certain atmosphere or association which it iscapable of communicating to a sensitive mind. By a sensitive mind I donot mean an abnormal one, but such a trained and educated mind as you orI possess.”

  “You mean, for example, that if I slept beside that old sword upon thewall, I might dream of some bloody incident in which that very swordtook part?”

  “An excellent example, for, as a matter of fact, that sword was used inthat fashion by me, and I saw in my sleep the death of its owner, whoperished in a brisk skirmish, which I have been unable to identify, butwhich occurred at the time of the wars of the Frondists. If you think ofit, some of our popular observances show that the fact has already beenrecognized by our ancestors, although we, in our wisdom, have classed itamong superstitions.”

  “For example?”

  “Well, the placing of the bride’s cake beneath the pillow in order thatthe sleeper may have pleasant dreams. That is one of several instanceswhich you will find set forth in a small _brochure_ which I am myselfwriting upon the subject. But to come back to the point, I slept onenight with this funnel beside me, and I had a dream which certainlythrows a curious light upon its use and origin.”

  “What did you dream?”

  “I dreamed—” He paused, and an intent look of interest came over hismassive face. “By Jove, that’s well thought of,” said he. “This reallywill be an exceedingly interesting experiment. You are yourself apsychic subject—with nerves which respond readily to any impression.”

  “I have never tested myself in that direction.”

  “Then we shall test you to-night. Might I ask you as a very greatfavour, when you occupy that couch to-night, to sleep with this oldfunnel placed by the side of your pillow?”

  The request seemed to me a grotesque one; but I have myself, in mycomplex nature, a hunger after all which is bizarre and fantastic. I hadnot the faintest belief in Dacre’s theory, nor any hopes for success insuch an experiment; yet it amused me that the experiment should be made.Dacre, with great gravity, drew a small stand to the head of my settee,and placed the funnel upon it. Then, after a short conversation, hewished me good-night and left me.

  * * * * *

  I sat for some little time smoking by the smouldering fire, and turningover in my mind the curious incident which had occurred, and the strangeexperience which might lie before me. Sceptical as I was, there wassomething impressive in the assurance of Dacre’s manner, and myextraordinary surroundings, the huge room with the strange and oftensinister objects which were hung round it, struck solemnity into mysoul. Finally I undressed, and, turning out the lamp, I lay down. Afterlong tossing I fell asleep. Let me try to describe as accurately as Ican the scene which came to me in my dreams. It stands out now in mymemory more clearly than anything which I have seen with my waking eyes.

  There was a room which bore the appearance of a vault. Four spandrelsfrom the corners ran up to join a sharp cup-shaped roof. Thearchitecture was rough, but very strong. It was evidently part of agreat building.

  Three men in black, with curious top-heavy black velvet hats, sat in aline upon a red-carpeted dais. Their faces were very solemn and sad. Onthe left stood two long-gowned men with portfolios in their hands, whichseemed to be stuffed with papers. Upon the right, looking toward me, wasa small woman with blonde hair and singular light-blue eyes—the eyes ofa child. She was past her first youth, but could not yet be calledmiddle-aged. Her figure was inclined to stoutness, and her bearing wasproud and confident. Her face was pale, but serene. It was a curiousface, comely and yet feline, with a subtle suggestion of cruelty aboutthe straight, strong little mouth and chubby jaw. She was draped in somesort of loose white gown. Beside her stood a thin, eager priest, whowhispered in her ear, and continually raised a crucifix before her eyes.She turned her head and looked fixedly past the crucifix at the threemen in black, who were, I felt, her judges.

  As I gazed the three men stood up and said something, but I coulddistinguish no words, though I was aware that it was the central one whowas speaking. They then swept out of the room, followed by the two menwith the papers. At the same instant several rough-looking fellows instout jerkins came bustling in and removed first the red carpet, andthen the boards which formed the dais, so as to entirely clear the room.When this screen was removed I saw some singular articles of furniturebehind it. One looked like a bed with wooden rollers at each end, and awinch handle to regulate its length. Another was a wooden horse. Therewere several other curious objects, and a number of swinging cords whichplayed over pulleys. It was not unlike a modern gymnasium.

  When the room had been cleared there appeared a new figure upon thescene. This was a tall thin person clad in black, with a gaunt andaustere face. The aspect of the man made me shudder. His clothes wereall shining with grease and mottled with stains. He bore himself with aslow and impressive dignity, as if he took command of all things fromthe instant of his entrance. In spite of his rude appearance and sordiddress, it was now _his_ business, _his_ room, his to command. He carrieda coil of light ropes over his left fore-arm. The lady looked him up anddown with a searching glance, but her expression was unchanged. It wasconfident—even defiant. But it was very different with the priest. Hisface was ghastly white, and I saw the moisture glisten and run on hishigh, sloping forehead. He threw up his hands in prayer, and he stoopedcontinually to mutter frantic words in the lady’s ear.

  The man in black now advanced, and taking one of the cords from his leftarm, he bound the woman’s hands together. She held them meekly towardhim as he did so. Then he took her arm with a rough grip and led hertoward the wooden horse, which was little higher than her waist. On tothis she was lifted and laid, with her back upon it, and her face to theceiling, while the priest, quivering with horror, had rushed out of theroom. The woman’s lips were moving rapidly, and though I could hearnothing, I knew that she was praying. Her feet hung down on either sideof the horse, and I saw that the rough varlets in attendance hadfastened cords to her ankles and secured the other ends to iron rings inthe stone floor.

  My heart sank within me as I saw these ominous preparations, and yet Iwas held by the fascination of horror, and I could not take my eyes fromthe strange spectacle. A man had entered the room with a bucket
of waterin either hand. Another followed with a third bucket. They were laidbeside the wooden horse. The second man had a wooden dipper—a bowl witha straight handle—in his other hand. This he gave to the man in black.At the same moment one of the varlets approached with a dark object inhis hand, which even in my dream filled me with a vague feeling offamiliarity. It was a leathern filler. With horrible energy he thrustit—but I could stand no more. My hair stood on end with horror. Iwrithed, I struggled, I broke through the bonds of sleep, and I burstwith a shriek into my own life, and found myself lying shivering withterror in the huge library, with the moonlight flooding through thewindow and throwing strange silver and black traceries upon the oppositewall. Oh, what a blessed relief to feel that I was back in thenineteenth century—back out of that medieval vault into a world wheremen had human hearts within their bosoms. I sat up on my couch,trembling in every limb, my mind divided between thankfulness andhorror. To think that such things were ever done—that they _could_ bedone without God striking the villains dead. Was it all a fantasy, ordid it really stand for something which had happened in the black, crueldays of the world’s history? I sank my throbbing head upon my shakinghands. And then, suddenly, my heart seemed to stand still in my bosom,and I could not even scream, so great was my terror. Something wasadvancing toward me through the darkness of the room.

  It is a horror coming upon a horror which breaks a man’s spirit. I couldnot reason, I could not pray; I could only sit like a frozen image, andglare at the dark figure which was coming down the great room. And thenit moved out into the white lane of moonlight, and I breathed once more.It was Dacre, and his face showed that he was as frightened as myself.

  “Was that you? For God’s sake what’s the matter?” he asked in a huskyvoice.

  “Oh, Dacre, I am glad to see you! I have been down into hell. It wasdreadful.”

  “Then it was you who screamed?”

  “I dare say it was.”

  “It rang through the house. The servants are all terrified.” He struck amatch and lit the lamp. “I think we may get the fire to burn up again,”he added, throwing some logs upon the embers. “Good God, my dear chap,how white you are! You look as if you had seen a ghost.”

  “So I have—several ghosts.”

  “The leather funnel has acted, then?”

  “I wouldn’t sleep near the infernal thing again for all the money youcould offer me.”

  Dacre chuckled.

  “I expected that you would have a lively night of it,” said he. “Youtook it out of me in return, for that scream of yours wasn’t a verypleasant sound at two in the morning. I suppose from what you say thatyou have seen the whole dreadful business.”

  “What dreadful business?”

  “The torture of the water—the ‘Extraordinary Question,’ as it was calledin the genial days of ‘Le Roi Soleil.’ Did you stand it out to the end?”

  “No, thank God, I awoke before it really began.”

  “Ah! it is just as well for you. I held out till the third bucket. Well,it is an old story, and they are all in their graves now anyhow, so whatdoes it matter how they got there. I suppose that you have no idea whatit was that you have seen?”

  “The torture of some criminal. She must have been a terrible malefactorindeed if her crimes are in proportion to her penalty.”

  “Well, we have that small consolation,” said Dacre, wrapping hisdressing-gown round him and crouching closer to the fire. “They _were_in proportion to her penalty. That is to say, if I am correct in thelady’s identity.”

  “How could you possibly know her identity?”

  For answer Dacre took down an old vellum-covered volume from the shelf.

  “Just listen to this,” said he; “it is in the French of the seventeenthcentury, but I will give a rough translation as I go. You will judge foryourself whether I have solved the riddle or not.

  “The prisoner was brought before the Grand Chambers and Tournelles of Parliament, sitting as a court of justice, charged with the murder of Master Dreux d’Aubray, her father, and of her two brothers, MM. d’Aubray, one being civil lieutenant, and the other a counsellor of Parliament. In person it seemed hard to believe that she had really done such wicked deeds, for she was of a mild appearance, and of short stature, with a fair skin and blue eyes. Yet the Court, having found her guilty, condemned her to the ordinary and to the extraordinary question in order that she might be forced to name her accomplices, after which she should be carried in a cart to the Place de Grève, there to have her head cut off, her body being afterwards burned and her ashes scattered to the winds.”

  The date of this entry is July 16, 1676.”

  “It is interesting,” said I, “but not convincing. How do you prove thetwo women to be the same?”

  “I am coming to that. The narrative goes on to tell of the woman’sbehaviour when questioned. ‘When the executioner approached her sherecognized him by the cords which he held in his hands, and she at onceheld out her own hands to him, looking at him from head to foot withoututtering a word.’ How’s that?”

  “Yes, it was so.”

  “‘She gazed without wincing upon the wooden horse and rings which hadtwisted so many limbs and caused so many shrieks of agony. When her eyesfell upon the three pails of water, which were all ready for her, shesaid with a smile, “All that water must have been brought here for thepurpose of drowning me, Monsieur. You have no idea, I trust, of making aperson of my small stature swallow it all.”’ Shall I read the details ofthe torture?”

  “No, for Heaven’s sake, don’t.”

  “Here is a sentence which must surely show you that what is hererecorded is the very scene which you have gazed upon to-night: ‘The goodAbbé Pirot, unable to contemplate the agonies which were suffered by hispenitent, had hurried from the room.’ Does that convince you?”

  “It does entirely. There can be no question that it is indeed the sameevent. But who, then, is this lady whose appearance was so attractiveand whose end was so horrible?”

  For answer Dacre came across to me, and placed the small lamp upon thetable which stood by my bed. Lifting up the ill-omened filler, he turnedthe brass rim so that the light fell full upon it. Seen in this way theengraving seemed clearer than on the night before.

  “We have already agreed that this is the badge of a marquis or of amarquise,” said he. “We have also settled that the last letter is B.”

  “It is undoubtedly so.”

  “I now suggest to you that the other letters from left to right are, M,M, a small d, A, a small d, and then the final B.”

  “Yes, I am sure that you are right. I can make out the two small d’squite plainly.”

  “What I have read to you to-night,” said Dacre, “is the official recordof the trial of Marie Madeleine d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, oneof the most famous poisoners and murderers of all time.”

  I sat in silence, overwhelmed at the extraordinary nature of theincident, and at the completeness of the proof with which Dacre hadexposed its real meaning. In a vague way I remembered some details ofthe woman’s career, her unbridled debauchery, the coldblooded andprotracted torture of her sick father, the murder of her brothers formotives of petty gain. I recollected also that the bravery of her endhad done something to atone for the horror of her life, and that allParis had sympathized with her last moments, and blessed her as a martyrwithin a few days of the time when they had cursed her as a murderess.One objection, and one only, occurred to my mind.

  “How came her initials and her badge of rank upon the filler? Surelythey did not carry their medieval homage to the nobility to the point ofdecorating instruments of torture with their titles?”

  “I was puzzled with the same point,” said Dacre, “but it admits of asimple explanation. The case excited extraordinary interest at the time,and nothing could be more natural than that La Reynie, the head of thepolice, should retain this filler as a grim souvenir. It was not oftenthat a marchion
ess of France underwent the extraordinary question. Thathe should engrave her initials upon it for the information of others wassurely a very ordinary proceeding upon his part.”

  “And this?” I asked, pointing to the marks upon the leathern neck.

  “She was a cruel tigress,” said Dacre, as he turned away. “I think it isevident that like other tigresses her teeth were both strong and sharp.”