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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
In a Glass Darkly
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Fractal Press
This Edition first published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Fractal Press
All Rights Reserved.
THE ROOM IN THE DRAGON VOLANT.
THE ROOM IN THE DRAGON VOLANT.
She had scarcely set down my heavy box, which she seemed to have considerable difficulty in raising on the table, when the door of the room in which I had seen the coffin, opened, and a sinister and unexpected apparition entered.
It was the Count de St. Alyre, who had been, as I have told you, reported to me to be, for some considerable time, on his way to Père la Chaise. He stood before me for a moment, with the frame of the doorway and a background of darkness enclosing him, like a portrait. His slight, mean figure was draped in the deepest mourning. He had a pair of black gloves in his hand, and his hat with crape round it.
When he was not speaking his face showed signs of agitation; his mouth was puckering and working. He looked damnably wicked and frightened.
“Well, my dear Eugenie? Well, child—eh? Well, it all goes admirably?”
“Yes,” she answered, in a low, hard tone. “But you and Planard should not have left that door open.”
This she said sternly. “He went in there and looked about wherever he liked; it was fortunate he did not move aside the lid of the coffin.”
“Planard should have seen to that,” said the Count, sharply. “Ma foi! I can’t be everywhere!” He advanced half-a-dozen short quick steps into the room toward me, and placed his glasses to his eyes.
“Monsieur Beckett,” he cried sharply, two or three times, “Hi! don’t you know me?”
He approached and peered more closely in my face; raised my hand and shook it, calling me again, then let it drop, and said—”It has set in admirably, my pretty mignonne. When did it commence?”
The Countess came and stood beside him, and looked at me steadily for some seconds.
You can’t conceive the effect of the silent gaze of those two pairs of evil eyes.
The lady glanced to where, I recollected, the mantel-piece stood, and upon it a clock, the regular click of which I sharply heard.
“Four—five—six minutes and a half,” she said slowly, in a cold hard way.
“Brava! Bravissima! my beautiful queen! my little Venus! my Joan of Arc! my heroine! my paragon of women!”
He was gloating on me with an odious curiosity, smiling, as he groped backward with his thin brown fingers to find the lady’s hand; but she, not (I dare say) caring for his caresses, drew back a little.
“Come, ma chère, let us count these things. What is it? Pocket-book? Or—or—what?”
“It is that?” said the lady, pointing with a look of disgust to the box, which lay in its leather case on the table.
“Oh! Let us see—let us count—let us see,” he said, as he was unbuckling the straps with his tremulous fingers. “We must count them—we must see to it. I have pencil and pocket-book—but—where’s the key? See this cursed lock! My ——! What is it? Where’s the key?”
He was standing before the Countess, shuffling his feet, with his hands extended and all his fingers quivering.
“I have not got it; how could I? It is in his pocket, of course,” said the lady.
In another instant the fingers of the old miscreant were in my pockets: he plucked out everything they contained, and some keys among the rest.
I lay in precisely the state in which I had been during my drive with the Marquis to Paris. This wretch I knew was about to rob me. The whole drama, and the Countess’s rôle in it, I could not yet comprehend. I could not be sure—so much more presence of mind and histrionic resource have women than fall to the lot of our clumsy sex—whether the return of the Count was not, in truth, a surprise to her; and this scrutiny of the contents of my strong box, an extempore undertaking of the Count’s. But it was clearing more and more every moment: and I was destined, very soon, to comprehend minutely my appalling situation.
I had not the power of turning my eyes this way or that, the smallest fraction of a hair’s breadth. But let any one, placed as I was at the end of a room, ascertain for himself by experiment how wide is the field of sight, without the slightest alteration in the line of vision, he will find that it takes in the entire breadth of a large room, and that up to a very short distance before him; and imperfectly, by a refraction, I believe, in the eye itself, to a point very near indeed. Next to nothing that passed in the room, therefore, was hidden from me.
The old man had, by this time, found the key. The leather case was open. The box cramped round with iron, was next unlocked. He turned out its contents upon the table.
“Rouleaux of a hundred Napoleons each. One, two, three. Yes, quick. Write down a thousand Napoleons. One, two; yes, right. Another thousand, write!” And so, on and on till till gold was rapidly counted. Then came the notes.
“Ten thousand francs. Write. Ten thousand francs again: is it written? Another ten thousand francs: is it down? Smaller notes would have been better. They should have been smaller. These are horribly embarrassing. Bolt that door again; Planard would become unreasonable if he knew the amount. Why did you not tell him to get it in smaller notes? No matter now—go on—it can’t be helped—write—another ten thousand francs—another—another.” And so on, till my treasure was counted out, before my face, while I saw and heard all that passed with the sharpest distinctness, and my mental perceptions were horribly vivid. But in all other respects I was dead.
He had replaced in the box every note and rouleau as he counted it, and now having ascertained the sum total, he locked it, replaced it, very methodically, in its cover, opened a buffet in the wainscoting, and, having placed the Countess’ jewel-case and my strong box in it, he locked it; and immediately on completing these arrangements he began to complain, with fresh acrimony and maledictions of Planard’s delay.
He unbolted the door, looked in the dark room beyond, and listened. He closed the door again, and returned. The old man was in a fever of suspense.
“I have kept ten thousand francs for Planard,” said the Count, touching his waistcoat pocket.
“Will that satisfy him?” asked the lady.
“Why—curse him!” screamed the Count. “Has he no conscience! I’ll swear to him it’s half the entire thing.”
He and the lady again came and looked at me anxiously for awhile, in silence; and then the old Count began to grumble again about Planard, and to compare his watch with the clock. The lady seemed less impatient; she sat no longer looking at me, but across the room, so that her profile was toward me—and strangely changed, dark and witch-like it looked. My last hope died as I beheld that jaded face from which the mask had dropped. I was certain that they intended to crown their robbery by murder. Why did they not despatch me at once? What object could there be in postponing the catastrophe which would expedite their own safety. I cannot recall, even to myself, adequately the horrors unutterable that I underwent. You must suppose a real night-mare—I mean a nightmare in which the objects and the danger are real, and the spell of corporal death appears to be protractable at the pleasure of the persons who preside at your unearthly torments. I could have no doubt as to the cause of the state in which I was.
In this agony, to which I could not give the slightest expression, I saw the door of the room where the coffin had been, open slowly, and the Marquis d’Harmonville entered the room.
A moment’s hope, hope violent and fluctuating, hope that was nearly torture, and then came a dialogue, and with it the terrors of despair.
“Thank heaven, Planard, you have come at last,” said the Count, taking him, with both hands, by the arm and clinging to it, and drawing him toward me. “See, look at him. It has all gone sweetly, sweetly, sweetly up to this. Shall I hold the candle for you?”
My friend d’Harmonville, Planard, whatever he was, came to me, pulling off his gloves, which he popped into his pocket.
“The candle, a little this way,” he said, and stooping over me he looked earnestly in my face. He touched my forehead, drew his hand across it, and then looked in my eyes for a time.
“Well, doctor, what do you think?” whispered the Count.
“How much did you give him?” said the Marquis, thus suddenly stunted down to a doctor.
“Seventy drops,” said the lady.
“In the hot coffee?”
“Yes; sixty in a hot cup of coffee and ten in the liqueur.”
Her voice, low and hard, seemed to me to tremble a little. It takes a long course of guilt to subjugate nature completely, and prevent those exterior signs of agitation that outlive all good.
The doctor, however, was treating me as coolly as he might a subject which he was about to place on the dissecting-table for a lecture.
He looked into my eyes again for awhile, took my wrist, and applied his fingers to the pulse.
“That action suspended,” he said to himself.
Then again he placed something that, for the moment I saw it, looked like a piece of gold-beater’s leaf, to my lips, holding his head so far that his own breathing could not affect it.
“Yes,” he said in soliloquy, very low.
Then he plucked my shirt-breast open and applied the stethoscope, shifted it from point to point, listened with his ear to its end, as if for a very far off sound, raised his head, and said, in like manner, softly to himself, “All appreciable action of the lungs has subsided.”
Then turning from the sound, as I conjectured, he said:
“Seventy drops, allowing ten for waste, ought to hold him fast for six hours and a half—that is ample. The experiment I tried in the carriage was only thirty drops, and showed a highly sensitive brain. It would not do to kill him, you know. You are certain you did not exceed seventy?”
“Perfectly,” said the lady.
“If he were to die the evaporation would be arrested, and foreign matter, some of it poisonous, would be found in the stomach, don’t you see? If you are doubtful, it would be well to use the stomach-pump.”
“Dearest Eugenie, be frank, be frank, do be frank,” urged the Count.
“I am not doubtful, I am certain,” she answered.
“How long ago, exactly? I told you to observe the time.”
“I did; the minute-hand was exactly there, under the point of that Cupid’s foot.”
“It will last, then, probably for seven hours. He will recover then; the evaporation will be complete, and not one particle of the fluid will remain in the stomach.”
It was reassuring, at all events, to hear that there was no intention to murder me. No one who has not tried it knows the terror of the approach of death, when the mind is clear, the instincts of life unimpaired, and no excitement to disturb the appreciation of that entirely new horror.
The nature and purpose of this tenderness was very, very peculiar, and as yet I had not a suspicion of it.
“You leave France, I suppose?” said the ex-Marquis.
“Yes, certainly, to-morrow,” answered the Count.
“And where do you mean to go?”
“That I have not yet settled,” he answered quickly.
“You won’t tell a friend, eh?”
“I can’t till I know. This has turned out an unprofitable affair.”
“We shall settle that by-and-by.”
“It is time we should get him lying down, eh?” said the Count, indicating me with one finger.
“Yes, we must proceed rapidly now. Are his night-shirt and night-cap—you understand—here?”
“All ready,” said the Count.
“Now, Madame,” said the doctor, turning to the lady, and making her, in spite of the emergency, a bow, “it is time you should retire.”
The lady passed into the room, in which I had taken my cup of treacherous coffee, and I saw her no more.
The Count took a candle, and passed through the door at the further end of the room, returning with a roll of linen in his hand. He bolted first one door, then the other.
They now, in silence, proceeded to undress me rapidly. They were not many minutes in accomplishing this.
What the doctor had termed my night-shirt, a long garment which reached below my feet, was now on, and a cap, that resembled a female nightcap more than anything I had ever seen upon a male head, was fitted upon mine, and tied under my chin.
And now, I thought, I shall be laid in a bed, to recover how I can, and, in the meantime, the conspirators will have escaped with their booty, and pursuit be in vain.
This was my best hope at the time; but it was soon clear that their plans were very different.
The Count and Planard now went, together, into the room that lay straight before me. I heard them talking low, and a sound of shuffling feet; then a long rumble; it suddenly stopped; it recommenced; it continued; side by side they came in at the door, their backs toward me. They were dragging something along the floor that made a continued boom and rumble, but they interposed between me and it, so that I could not see it until they had dragged it almost beside me; and then, merciful heaven! I saw it plainly enough. It was the coffin I had seen in the next room. It lay now flat on the floor, its edge against the chair in which I sat. Planard removed the lid. The coffin was empty.
“Those seem to be good horses, and we change on the way,” said Planard. “You give the men a Napoleon or two; we must do it within three hours and a quarter. Now, come; I’ll lift him, upright, so as to place his feet in their proper berth, and you must keep them together, and draw the white shirt well down over them.”
In another moment I was placed, as he described, sustained in Planard’s arms, standing at the foot of the coffin, and so lowered backward, gradually, till I lay my length in it. Then the man, whom he called Planard, stretched my arms by my sides, and carefully arranged the frills at my breast, and the folds of the shroud, and after that, taking his stand at the foot of the coffin, made a survey which seemed to satisfy him.
The Count, who was very methodical, took my clothes, which had just been removed, folded them rapidly together and locked them up, as I afterwards heard, in one of the three presses which opened by doors in the panel.
I now understood their frightful plan. This coffin had been prepared for me; the funeral of St. Amand was a sham to mislead inquiry; I had myself given the order at Père la Chaise, signed it, and paid the fees for the interment of the fictitious Pierre de St. Amand, whose place I was to take, to lie in his coffin, with his name on the plate above my breast, and with a ton of clay packed down upon me; to waken from this catalepsy, after I had been for hours in the grave, there to perish by a death the most horrible that imagination can conceive.
If, hereafter, by any caprice of curiosity or suspicion, the coffin should be exhumed, and the body it enclosed examined, no chemistry could detect a trace of poison, nor the most cautious examination the slightest mark of violence.
I had myself been at the utmost pains to mystify inquiry, should my disappearance excite surmises, and had even written to my few correspondents in England to tell them that they were not to look for a letter from me for three weeks at least.
In the moment of my guilty elation death had caught me, and there was no escape. I tried to pray to God in my unearthly panic, but only thoughts of terror, judgment, and eternal anguish, crossed the distraction of my immediate doom.
I must not try to recall what is indeed indescribable—the multiform horrors of my own thoughts. I will relate, simply, what befell, every detail of which remains sharp in my memory as if cut in steel.
“The undertaker’s men are in the hall,” said the Count.
“They must not come till this is fixed,” answered Planard. “Be good enough to take hold of the lower part while I take this end.” I was not left long to conjecture what was coming, for in a few seconds more something slid across, a few inches above my face, and entirely excluded the light, and muffled sound, so that nothing that was not very distinct reached my ears henceforward; but very distinctly came the working of a turnscrew, and the crunching home of screws in succession. Than these vulgar sounds, no doom spoken in thunder could have been more tremendous.
The rest I must relate, not as it then reached my ears, which was too imperfectly and interruptedly to supply a connected narrative, but as it was afterwards told me by other people.
The coffin-lid being screwed down, the two gentlemen arranged the room, and adjusted the coffin so that it lay perfectly straight along the boards, the Count being specially anxious that there should be no appearance of hurry or disorder in the room, which might have suggested remark and conjecture.
When this was done, Doctor Planard said he would go to the hall to summon the men who were to carry the coffin out and place it in the hearse. The Count pulled on his black gloves, and held his white handkerchief in his hand, a very impressive chief-mourner. He stood a little behind the head of the coffin, awaiting the arrival of the persons who accompanied Planard, and whose fast steps he soon heard approaching.
Planard came first. He entered the room through the apartment in which the coffin had been originally placed. His manner was changed; there was something of a swagger in it.
“Monsieur le Comte,” he said, as he strode through the door, followed by half-a-dozen persons. “I am sorry to have to announce to you a most unseasonable interruption. Here is Monsieur Carmaignac, a gentleman holding an office in the police department, who says that information to the effect that large quantities of smuggled English and other goods have been distributed in this neighbourhood, and that a portion of them is concealed in your house. I have ventured to assure him, of my own knowledge, that nothing can be more false than that information, and that you would be only too happy to throw open for his inspection, at a moment’s notice, every room, closet, and cupboard in your house.”
“Most assuredly,” exclaimed the Count, with a stout voice, but a very white face. “Thank you, my good friend, for having anticipated me. I will place my house and keys at his disposal, for the purpose of his scrutiny, so soon as he is good enough to inform me, of what specific contraband goods he comes in search.”