In letters of fire, p.1
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       In Letters of Fire, p.1
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           Gaston Leroux
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In Letters of Fire

  In Letters of Fire

  By Gaston Leroux

  © 20 06 by h ttp:// m

  We had been out hunting wild boar all day, when we were overtaken by a violent storm, which compelled us to seek refuge in a deep cavern. It was Makoko, our guide, who took upon himself to give utterance to the thought which haunted the minds of the four of us who had sought safety from the fury of the tempest—Mathis, Allan, Makoko and myself.

  ‘If the gentleman who lives in yonder house, which is said to be haunted by the devil, does not grant us the shelter of his roof tonight, we shall be compelled to sleep here.’

  Hardly had he uttered the words when a strange figure appeared at the entrance to the cavern.

  ‘It is he!’ exclaimed Makoko, grasping my arm.

  I stared at the stranger.

  He was tall, lanky, of bony frame, and melancholy aspect. Unconscious of our presence, he stood leaning on his fowling-piece at the entrance of the cavern, showing a strong aquiline nose, a thin moustache, a stern mouth, and lack-lustre eyes. He was bareheaded; his hair was thin, while a few grey locks fell behind his ears. His age might have been anywhere between forty and sixty. He must have been strikingly handsome in the days when the light still shone in those time-dimmed eyes and those bitter lips could still break into a smile—but handsome in a haughty and forbidding style. A kind of terrible energy still lurked beneath his features, spectral as those of an apparition.

  By his side stood a hairless dog, low on its legs, which was evidently barking at us. Yet we could hear nothing! The dog, it was plain, was dumb, and barked at us in silence!

  Suddenly the man turned towards us, and said in a voice of the most exquisite politeness:

  ‘Gentlemen, it is out of the question for you to return to La Chaux-de-Fonds tonight. Permit me to offer you my hospitality.’

  Then, bending over his dog, he said:

  ‘Stop barking, Mystère.’

  The dog closed his jaws at once.

  Makoko emitted a grunt. During the five hours that we had been enjoying the chase, Mathis and Makoko had told Allan and myself, who were strangers to the district, some strange and startling stories about our host, whom they represented as having had, like Faust, dealings with the Evil Spirit.

  It was not without some trepidation, therefore, that we all moved out of the cavern.

  ‘Gentlemen,’ said the stranger, with a melancholy smile, ‘it is many a long year since my door was thrown open to visitors. I am not fond of society, but I must tell you that one night, six months ago, a youth who had lost his way came and knocked at that door and begged for shelter till the morning. I refused him his request. Next day a body was found at the bottom of the big marl-pit—a body partly devoured by wolves.’

  ‘Why, that must have been Petit-Ledue!’ cried Makoko. ‘So you were heartless enough to turn the poor lad away, at night and in the midst of winter! You are his murderer!’

  ‘Truly spoken,’ replied the man, simply. ‘It was I who killed him. And now you see, gentlemen, that the incident has rendered me hospitable.’

  ‘Would you tell us why you drove him from your door?’ growled Makoko.

  ‘Because,’ he replied, quietly, ‘my house brings misfortune.’

  ‘I would rather risk meeting the powers of darkness than catching a cold in the head,’ I retorted, laughing, and without further parley we set off, and in a short while had reached the door of the ancient mansion, which stood among the most desolate surroundings, on a shelf of barren rock, swept by all the winds of heaven.

  The huge door, antique, iron-barred, and studded with enormous nails, revolved slowly on its hinges, and opened noiselessly. A shrunken little old dame was there to welcome us.

  From the threshold we could see a large, high room, somewhat similar to the room formerly styled the retainers’ hall. It certainly constituted a part of what remained of the castle, on the ruins of which the mansion had been erected some centuries before. It was fully lighted by the fire on the enormous hearth, where a huge log was burning, and by two petrol lamps hanging by chains from the stone roof. There was no furniture except a heavy table of white wood, a large upholstered in leather, a few stools, and a rude sideboard.

  We walked the length of the room. The old woman opened a door. We found ourselves at the foot of a worm-eaten staircase with sunken steps. This staircase, a spiral one, led to the second storey of the building, where the old woman showed us to our rooms.

  To this day I can recall our host—were I to live a hundred years I could not forget that figure such as it appeared to me, as if framed by the fireplace—when I went into the hall where Mother Appenzel had spread our supper.

  He was standing in front of my friends, on the stone hearth of that enormous fireplace. He was in evening dress—but such evening dress! It was in the pink of fashion, but a fashion long since vanished. The high collar of the coat, the broad lapels, the velvet waistcoat, the silken knee-breeches and stockings, the cravat, all seemed to possess the elegance of days gone by.

  By his side lay his clog, Mystère, his massive jaws parted in a yawn—yawning, just as he bad barked, in silence.

  ‘Has your dog been dumb for long?’ I ventured to ask. ‘What strange accident has happened to him—’

  ‘He has been dumb from his birth,’ replied my host, after a slight pause, as if this topic of conversation did not please him.

  Still, I persisted in my questions.

  ‘Was his father dumb—or perhaps his mother?’

  ‘His mother, and his mother’s mother,’ he replied, still coldly, ‘and her mother also.’

  So you were the master of Mystère’s great-grandmother?’

  ‘I was, sir. She was indeed a faithful creature, and one who loved me well. A marvellous watch-dog,’ added my host, displaying sudden signs of emotion which surprised me.

  ‘And she also was dumb from her birth?’

  ‘No, sir. No, she was not born dumb—but she became so one night when she had barked too much!’

  There was a world of meaning in the tone with which he spoke these words that at the moment I did not understand.

  Supper was served. During the meal the conversation did not languish. Our host inquired whether we liked our rooms.

  ‘I have a favour to beg of you,’ I ventured to say. ‘I should like to sleep in the haunted room!’

  No sooner had I uttered the sentence than our host’s pale face became still paler.

  ‘Who has told you that there is a haunted room in this house?’ he asked, striving with difficulty to restrain an evident irritation.

  Mother Appenzel, who had just entered, trembled violently.

  ‘It was you, Mother Appenzel?’

  ‘Pray do not scold the good woman,’ I said. ‘My indiscreet behavior alone must bear the blame. I was attempting to enter a room the door of which was closed, when your servant forbade me to do so. “Do not go into the haunted chamber,” she said.’

  ‘And you naturally did not do so?’

  ‘Well, yes; I did go in.’

  ‘Heaven protect us!’ wailed Mother Appenzel, letting fall a tumbler, which broke into pieces.

  ‘Begone!’ cried her master. Then, turning to us, he added, ‘You are indeed full of curiosity, gentlemen!’

  Pray pardon us if we are so,’ I said. ‘Moreover, permit me to remind you that it was you yourself who alluded to the rumours current on the mountain-side. Well, it would afford me much pleasure if your generous hospitality should be the occasion of dispersing them. When I have slept in the room which enjoys so evil a reputation, and have rested there peacefully, it will no longer be said that, to use your own expression, “your house brings misfortune.” ’

  Our host inte
rrupted me: ‘You shall not sleep in that room; it is no longer used as a bedroom. No one has slept there for fifty years past.’

  ‘Who, then, was the last one to sleep in it?’

  ‘I myself—and I should not advise anyone to sleep in it after me!’

  ‘Fifty ears ago, you say! You could only be a child at the time, at an age when on& is still afraid at nights—’

  ‘Fifty years ago I was twenty-eight!’

  ‘Am I committing an indiscretion when asking you what happened to you in that room? I have just come from visiting it, and nothing whatever happened to me. The room seems to me the most natural of rooms. I even attempted to prop up a wardrobe which seemed as if it were about to fall forward on its face.’

  ‘You laid hands on the wardrobe!’ cried the man, throwing down his table-napkin, and coming towards me with the gleam of madness in his eyes. ‘You actually laid hands on the wardrobe?’

  ‘Yes,’ was my quiet answer; ‘as I say, it seemed about to fall.’

  ‘But it cannot fall! It will never fall! Never again will it stand upright! It is its nature to be in that position for all time to come, trembling with fear for all eternity!’

  We had all risen. The man’s voice was harsh as he spoke these most mysterious words. Heavy drops of perspiration trickled down his face. Those eyes of his, which we had thought dimmed for ever, flashed with fury. He was indeed awful to contemplate. He grasped my wrist and wrung it with a strength of which I would have deemed him incapable.

  ‘You did not open it?’


  ‘Then you do not know what is in it? No? Well, all the better! By Heaven, I tell you, sir, it is all the better for you!’

  Turning towards his dog, he shouted:

  ‘To your kennel! When will you find your voice again, Mystère? Or are you going to die like the others—in silence?’

  He had opened the door leading to a tower, and went out, driving the dog before him.

  We were deeply moved at this unexpected scene. The man had disappeared in the darkness of the tower, still pursuing his dog.

  ‘What did I tell you?’ remarked Makoko, in a scarcely audible tone. ‘You may all please x-ourselves, but, as for me, I do not intend to sleep here tonight. I shall sit up here in this hail until daybreak.’

  ‘And so shall I,’ added Mathis.

  Makoko, bending over us, his eyes staring out of their sockets, continued: ‘Do you not see that he is a madman?’

  ‘You two fellows with your death-mask faces,’ exclaimed Allan, are not going to prevent us from enjoying ourselves. Supposing we start a game of écarté. We will ask our host to take a hand; it will divert his thoughts.’

  An extraordinary fellow was Allan. His fondness for card-playing amounted to a~ mania. He pulled out a pack of cards, and had hardly done so when our host re-entered the hall. He was now comparatively calm, but no sooner had he perceived the pack of cards on the table than his features became transformed, and assumed such an expression of fear and fury that I myself was terrified.

  ‘Cards!’ he cried. ‘You have cards!’

  Allan rose and said, pleasantly:

  ‘We have decided not to retire for the night. We are about to have a friendly little game of écarté. Do you know the game?’

  Allan stopped. He also had been struck with the fearful expression of our host’s face. His eyes were bloodshot, the sparse hairs of his moustache stood out bristling, his teeth gleamed, while his lips hissed out the words:

  ‘Cards! Cards!’

  The words escaped with difficulty from his throat, as if some invisible hands were clutching it.

  ‘Who sent you here with cards? What do you want with me? The cards must be burnt—they must be burnt!’

  Of a sudden he grasped the pack and was about to cast it into the flames, but he stopped just on the point of doing so, his trembling figures let drop the cards, and he sank into the armchair, exclaiming hoarsely:

  ‘I am suffocating; I am suffocating!’

  We rushed to his succour, but with a single effort of his bony fingers he had already torn off his collar and his cravat; and now, motionless, holding his head erect, and settling down in the huge armchair, he burst into tears.

  ‘You are good fellows,’ he said at last, in milder tones. ‘You shall know everything. You shall not leave this house in ignorance, taking me for a madman—for a poor, miserable, melancholy madman.’

  ‘Yes, indeed,’ he continued; ‘yes, you shall know everything. It may be of use to you.

  He rose, paced up and down, then halted in front of us, staring at us with the dimmed look that had given way to the momentary flash.

  ‘Sixty years ago I was entering upon my eighteenth year. With all the overweening presumption of youth, I was sceptical of everything. Nature had fashioned me strong and handsome. Fate had endowed me with enormous wealth. I became the most fashionable youth of my day. Paris, gentlemen, with all its pleasures, was for ten years at my feet. When I had reached the age of twenty-eight I was on the brink of ruin. There remained to me between two and three hundred thousand francs and this manor, with the land surrounding it.

  ‘Just at that time, gentlemen, I fell madly in love with an angelic creature. I could never ‘have dreamt of the existence of such beauty and purity. The girl whom I adored was ignorant of the passionate love which was consuming me, and she remained so. Her family was one of the wealthiest in all Europe. For nothing in this world would I have had her suspect that I aspired to the honour of her hand in order to replenish my empty coffers in her dowry. So I went the way of the gambling-dens, in the vain hope of recovering my vanished millions. I lost all, and one fine evening I left Paris to come and bury myself in this old mansion, my sole refuge.

  ‘I found here an old man, Father Appenzel; his granddaughter, of whom later on I made a servant; and his grandson, a child of tender years, who grew up to manhood on the estate, and who is now my steward. I fell a prey, on the very evening of my arrival, to despair and ennui. The astounding events that followed took place that very evening.

  ‘When I went up to my room—the room which one of you has asked to be allowed to occupy tonight—I had made up my mind to take my own life. A brace of pistols lay on the chest of drawers. Suddenly as I was putting my hand on one of the pistols, my dog began to howl in the courtyard—to howl as I have never heard the wind howl, unless it be tonight.

  ‘ “So” thought I, “here is Mystère raising a death-howl. She must know that I am going to kill myself tonight.”

  ‘I toyed with the pistol, recalling of a sudden what my past life had been, and wondering for the first time what my death would be like. Suddenly my eye lighted on the titles of a few old books which stood on a shelf hanging above the chest of drawers. I was surprised to see that all of them dealt with sorcerers and matters appertaining to the powers of evil. I took up a book, The Sorcerers of the Jura, and, with the sceptical smile of the man who has defied Fate, I opened it. The first two lines, printed in red, at once caught my eye:

  “He who seriously wishes to see the devil has but to summon him with his whole heart, and he will come.”

  ‘Then followed the story of an individual who, like myself, a lover in despair—like myself, a ruined man—had in all sincerity summoned to his help the Prince of Darkness, and who had been assisted by him; for, a few months later, he had once more become incredibly rich and had married his beloved. I read the story to the end.

  ‘ “Well, here was a lucks’ fellow!” I exclaimed, tossing the book on to the chest of drawers. Mystère was still howling in the grounds. I parted the window-curtains, and could not help shuddering when I saw the dog’s shadow dancing in the moonlight. It really seemed as if the slut was possessed of some evil spirit, for her movements were inexplicably eccentric. She seemed to be snapping at some invisible form!

  ‘I tried to laugh over the matter, but the state of my mind, the story I had just read, the howling of the dog, her strange leaps, the s
inister locality, the old room, the pistols which I myself had loaded, all had contributed to take a greater hold of my imagination than I dared confess.

  ‘Leaving the window I strolled about the room for a while. Of a sudden I saw myself in the mirror of the wardrobe. My pallor was such that I thought that I was dead. Alas, no! The man standing before the wardrobe was not dead. It was, on the contrary, a living man who, with all his heart, was summoning the King of Lost Souls.

  ‘Yes, with all my heart. I was too young to die; I wished to enjoy life for a while yet; to be rich once more; for her, for her sake, for the one who was an angel. Yes, yes, I, I myself summoned the devil!

  ‘And then, in the mirror, side by side with my form, something appeared—something superhuman—a pale object—a mist, a terrible little cloud which was soon transformed into eyes—eves of fearful loveliness. Another form was standing resplendent beside my haggard face; a mouth—a mouth which said to me, “Open!” At this I recoiled. But the mouth was still saying to me, “Open, open, if you dare!”

  “Then something knocked three times upon the door inside the wardrobe—the door flew open of its own accord!

  Just at that instant the old man’s narrative was interrupted by three knocks on the door, which suddenly opened, and a man entered.

  ‘Was it you who knocked like that, Guillaume?’ asked our host, striving in vain to regain his composure.

  ‘Yes, master.’

  ‘I had given you up for tonight. You saw the notary?’

  ‘Yes; and I did not care to keep so great a sum of money about my person.

  We gathered that Guillaume was the gentleman’s steward. He advanced to the table, took a little bag from the folds of his cloak, extracted some documents from it, and laid them on the table. Then he drew an envelope from his bag, emptied its contents on the table, and counted out twelve one-thousand-franc notes.

  ‘There’s the purchase-money for Misery Wood.’

  ‘Good, Guillaume,’ said our host, picking up the banknotes and replacing them in the envelope. ‘You must be hungry. Are you going to sleep here tonight?’

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