Inside the Chapel.
As soon as the dust had settled, Harry and his guests entered the chapel and were stunned by the extent of the destruction inside it.
Walls, once hung with dark fabric were stripped bare, torn cloth hanging in shreds, silver candlesticks and flowerpots with long dead-laurel trees were lying overturned and broken on the stone floor.
Bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from the lives of Isaac and Abraham were smashed and covered with deep scratches. On the nearest, a patriarch was missing his nose and his arm, extended in a blessing, was completely broken off.
Windows were barred with wooden grills. Dried wreaths hung above them.
A balcony connecting the chapel with the castle’s second floor via a large wooden door was also decorated with dead flowers.
In the centre of the chapel, on a low dais, stood large coffin, its exterior covered with white brocade. Three small steps leading up to it were covered with scattered dried roses. Dark velvet throw, embroidered with bright silks and beads, was draped over the foot of the casket.
Georges came closer and examined the throw’s broad embroidered border:
“A real masterpiece”, he said.
“And real pearls”, added doctor, looking closer. Under his fingers, decayed fabric tore and small pearls cascaded to the floor.
“I wonder who is inside?” he added.
Harry motioned for the locksmith and he tried to lift up the lid, which slid off effortlessly.
The casket was empty.
Inside, the white silk and lace made it look more like a chocolate box than a coffin. Casket’s interior was well preserved, if little yellowed with age.
Its cosy interior contrasted strangely with complete destruction of the chapel.
Finally, Harry broke heavy silence:
“I wonder what could have happened here? Bas-reliefs are smashed, pots and silver candlesticks overturned, velvet torn off the walls, yet wreaths and flowers are left completely undamaged? Any ideas, Sherlock?” he said, turning to James.
“Don’t know” James cut him off brusquely
“In the village, there is an old story, that long ago a violent storm descended upon the castle”, interrupted the headman “It seemed that all the devils of the world came down on earth at once. Ground was trembling like a great beast and the lightning flashed in the sky. People thought that the castle would be blown off the rock. Only the old priests’ prayers saved the village, because if the castle crumbled, entire village would have been buried under the rubble. Grandmother told me that a feast and procession of thanks was organised afterwards. A few days later the castle was abandoned altogether,” he finished.
“Well, it stands to reason that the earthquake would topple heavier objects and leave lighter ones intact. It is a well-documented phenomenon”, added Doctor.
“According to your explanation, only the chapel had heavy objects in it, since the castle bears no traces of destruction”, countered one of the elderly guests.
“Well, it is easily explained; since the chapel was sealed, it couldn’t be repaired”, added Doctor.
Harry turned to Doctor:
“And to what do you attribute that fact?”
Doctor spread his arms helplessly:
“Well, you know the saying, ‘Every Baron has his whims’ and I suspect counts have even more”.
No matter how many words were wasted and how many debates flared up, no conclusion was ever reached. The destruction of the chapel and empty coffin remained a mystery and, besides, the youthful guests were too busy enjoying life to be bothered with it for too long.
All seeing and all knowing Smith drew Harry’s attention to a door.
Once opened, it revealed a steep staircase, its bottom steps vanishing in subterranean darkness of the family crypt.
The crypt smelled of mould and decay and no one volunteered to explore it.
“Clean up the chapel, take down the window bars, and lower the casket into the crypt”, ordered Harry.
Entire castle was abuzz with activity. Dozens of workers were washing floors, cleaning walls, dusting and repairing furniture.
Smith ran like a hurricane from room to room, up and down the stairs. With a stern warning or a promise of good pay, he skilfully hurried the workers along.
Miller was doing the same in the yard. Stables, barns and kennels were being readied in anticipation of the new tenants,-horses, dogs and cows were soon to arrive.
Harry, satisfied with his employees, preferred not to interfere, and with few of his friends, made his way to the room that he had selected as his cabinet.
It appears that the room served the same purpose for its previous owner.
Large writing desk stood opposite a sunlit window, several bookcases and comfortable chairs hinted at this function.
In fact, the room was so well preserved, that it only needed a little airing and dusting, before it could welcome its new occupant.
Only a large broken mirror spoiled everything, dark empty frame unwittingly drew attention to itself.
Harry turned to Smith:
“Make sure it is replaced”.
“Already ordered, Sir, here in the town, we couldn’t find a suitable one”, replied Smith.
“James” called Harry, picking up and examining old leather bound book “you wanted this. It is yours, but I doubt you will find it interesting; it looks like a whole lot of old junk. The binding, however, is another story. If I am not mistaken, it is made of human skin”.
James thanked him, taking the book. He opened it and read the note he found on the first page: “On the orders of most exalted Baron Frederic Zuhn, this volume was bound in coachman Andreus’s skin”.
“You are right, Harry, it is human skin and it belongs to someone named Andreus, who was probably flayed alive”.
The village headman piously made a sign of a cross.
Young Georges could not help himself:
“And you have no qualms about keeping it, despite knowing its origin? What if the coachman comes back for his property?”
“Yes, dear friend, I am keeping it. And of course the coachman will not get his property back, and this” added James picking up a luxurious blue ribbon from the floor “is for you”.
“I don’t mind being this lady’s knight”, laughed Georges, attempting to pin the broad silk ribbon to his chest.
“Even if this lady is a ghost”, added Doctor.
Georges paled and dropped the ribbon back on the floor.
“Enough jokes, Doc”, intervened Harry, “our young friend is already seeing ghosts”.
After a brief walk in the garden, the guests went their separate ways and only came together again for supper.
Everybody was in high spirits as they made their way to the table. One seat remained empty.
“Where’s Viscount Reno?”, asked the observant host.
“He had a horse saddled in the morning and left for the city. He hasn’t returned yet, Sir”,bowed a footman.
“Take care that his supper is kept hot for when he gets back”, whispered Smith.
As usual, the guests ate a lot and drank even more. Conversation buzzed around the table. The chapel and its coffin were a source of unquenchable curiosity, and gave birth to a hundred theories. Discovery of the casket didn’t dampen the mood; in fact, the opposite was true. Most found its presence romantic and mysterious.
Coupled with the enigmatic rooms in the Hunting Lodge there was plenty food for speculation. Yet every theory crumbled in the light of sober logic and cold-headed reasoning.
Doctor relished his role as a sceptic and destroyer of fantasies.
No conclusion was reached, but the excitement guaranteed a happy evening. Servants hardly had the time to refill empty glasses.
Close to the end of the meal, the terrace door flew open and one of the servants almost fell in. He looked terrified. The guests fell silent. The man opened his mouth but no sound came out.
Finally, Smith couldn’t take it any longer:
“Damn you, will you tell what the hell is wrong?”
“I am not to blame, I swear, that Mr Viscount is dead!” he mumbled.
“Who’s dead? Viscount Reno is dead?”
Everyone was speaking at once, and most of the guests jumped to their feet.
“Sit, drink, calm down and explain things properly,” said Doctor handing the servant a glass of strong wine.
He drank it greedily and appeared instantly calmer:
“Today, as the sun was setting”, he began, “Mr Smith instructed me to go to the city and order a barrel of beer for tomorrow. I saddled the ‘Lazybones’ and went. Once I finished, I...I...”
“Went to the pub and got blind drunk”, offered Smith.
“Yes, Sir, I did go, but I didn’t drink”, I swear to God.
“I know, I know”.
“I swear Mr Smith, only one mug and even that was....”
“Enough” shouted James.
“Get to the point”, ordered Harry sternly.
“I made my way home, the moon was bright. The horse was walking slowly, you know yourself that the coachman doesn’t allow us to gallop, besides no one could force ‘Lazybones’ to run. I passed the lake without an incident and begun to climb up the road. The closest way lies near the garden fence. I haven’t quite made it to the gate that opens to the lake when ‘Lazybones’ halted, dug his front hoofs into the ground and begun to tremble. I looked ahead and froze. In the garden gate stood woman in white. Loose blonde hair, eyes like a green serpent, and smoke of hell all around her.
‘Lazybones’ reared and I, I, am not a cavalryman, Sir, no one taught me to ride, let alone on a rearing horse, so I fell, and ‘Lazybones’ ran off”.
“Go on”, said Harry.
“I lost my hat, and have quite a bump to show for it”, the young man continued, feeling his head.
“While I was on the ground “it” passed near me. I was cold and afraid and I felt my teeth chattering. How I got up and ran into the garden gate, I don’t know. It is as if I grew wings on my feet.
While running to the terrace, I thought that I saw “it” among the bushes. I ran to the house. I made it to the terrace and saw that Mr Viscount is sitting on the railing. I recognised him instantly because I, myself, helped him dress this morning.
“Mr Viscount, Sir!” I shouted but he didn’t move. I got up the stairs and touched his shoulder, and I see: his eyes are like glass, hands cold. I realised then that he is dead”.
Harry didn’t wait for him to finish and, followed by others, ran out onto the terrace.
Viscount Reno was sitting on the railing, his head peacefully leaning against the pillar, as if merely resting. His hat, pulled far to the back revealed young, incredibly pale face, with glassy, unseeing eyes. He wore reit- jacket and high riding boots. A single water lily was tucked behind the button of his coat.
There was no doubt that he was dead and everyone was at loss for words.
The servant, who was the first to discover the body was still terribly agitated and kept repeating to his friends, the footmen, how he was terrified of the ‘mermaid’. By now he was adding that he glimpsed duck’s feet beneath her dress and instead of the ‘hell’s smoke’ she was surrounded by a ‘veil of watery mist’. She was white and weightless and flew next to him as he ran, only stopping at the foot of well lit platform, right beneath the terrace, where she hid in the bushes.
While talking, the servant glanced towards the dark depths of the garden,
“Look, Look, she is still there!” he shrieked with a high-pitched wail.
The crowd pulled back. Something white was moving among the trees.
In an instant, Harry and Captain Wright jumped into the garden.
Harry’s commanding voice broke the silence:
“Calm down, you fools, it is a white horse, our ‘Peacock’” he shouted and led a beautiful white horse out of the bushes.
The fear was gone, and everyone felt foolish. ‘Peacock’ was well known to both servants and guests. He was Harry’s best horse and the pride of his stables.
The horse was under man’s saddle and was breathing heavily. White foam covered its muzzle.
“Well, what a great care, Mr Viscount took of you!” grumbled the old coachman, patting the horse, “and he swore to be careful!”
“Now it isn’t the place, Matvei”, interrupted Harry sternly.
Doctor shook his head:
“Actually, if poor Reno had spared ‘Peacock’ as he promised, he would have been alive himself. He obviously had a weak heart, and to gallop like a lunatic...-
“That water lily looks fresh, I wonder where he got it from”, interrupted James.
“The lakeside is full of them,” answered Georges.
James would not give up:
“But then he would have to slow down, stop altogether and dismount”.
No one could answer him.
Harry gave sign and the body was lifted and taken inside.
Of course there was no thought about finishing dinner.
Everyone retired early, promising to go to the city in the morning and pay their last respects to the diseased.
Without a word, James and Captain Wright went to Wright’s bedroom.
Silently they lit up the cigars, and sat in the chairs.
The room was silent and semi dark. Closer to midnight the moon rose high in the night sky and filled the room with silvery light. Soon the waves of light took on strange shimmering glow.
Young men waited, but the door stayed closed.
Behind it, they could clearly hear light footsteps and the rustle of silk fabric. Soon the door of the balcony creaked and everything went silent.
Wright and James were awakened by loud knocking.
The sun is bright. The room is bathed in light, with morning rays reflecting off the crystal faceted bottles on the night table and sending bright specks of light all across the ceiling and walls.
Both Wright and James are sitting in chairs with long extinguished cigars. They had fallen asleep, without a doubt.
Somebody knocked again.
Young manservant entered:
“Gentlemen, you are expected downstairs for morning coffee. The funeral carriage is already waiting”.
James and Wright didn’t understand immediately what was being said, but hurried to clean themselves up and made their way to the dinning room.
Three days had passed.
Harry returned to his Hunting Lodge, accompanied by his closest friends: James, Doctor and Captain Wright.
Few of the other guests chose to return, Viscount Reno’s death had a bad effect on the more impressionable among them, and many left, some for good and some promising to return in time for the housewarming celebrations.
Wright and James slept well in the city and began to feel a little embarrassed by their adventure, teasing each other about it. James had dubbed the incident with the ghost ‘Mass Hallucination”.
“What’s new?” asked Harry on his first day back.
“Everything is all right, Lord be thanked”, replied manager’s assistant Miller. Because Smith left with Harry, Miller was in charge of the affairs at the castle.
“The castle is ready, everything is clean and repaired. The gardens will take a little longer, though the side closest to the castle is ready. We also cleaned the well in the garden, and will soon clear out the one in the yard. Thought I doubt it has water in it,” reported Miller.
He hesitated for a moment then added cautiously:
“Forgive me, Sir, you may be displeased with me. I wasn’t sure, but I felt so sorry, his wife was crying and their poverty is terrible, so I gave her twenty five thallers in your name for the funeral”.
“Another funeral? Whose?” asked Harry impatiently.
Miller blushed and mumbled:
“I know he was not on our permanent staff and was only called when needed, but they were awfully poor and so I thought...”
Harry interrupted him:
“I think you’ve misunderstood me, I am not worried about the money, I want to know who is dead”.
“The locksmith, the same one who opened the chapel”.
“But he wasn’t old and appeared healthy”.
“Yes, he got sick the very same day, or rather the same night. He fainted. How long he was unconscious, no one knows, because his wife only noticed it in the morning. He felt better, went to work as usual, except that he was very quiet, and seemed depressed. In the evening, he fainted again. His wife was sleeping in the next room and heard a noise, something like rustling. She went to investigate and found him unconscious.
In the morning, he couldn’t get up at all and spend the rest of the day in bed. He died in the middle of the night. His poor wife is devastated and couldn’t stop crying. She lost her family’s only breadwinner. But, a stupid peasant that she is, she found some consolation thinking that an angel took her husband’s soul to heaven”.
“What’s an angel got to do with it?” asked James.
“The woman told me”, replied Miller “that during the last night she decided to stay awake watching over her sick husband. Of course, after a hard day’s work she must have fallen asleep and saw a dream”, he shrugged.
James wasn’t giving up:
“What dream? And how does an angel fit into it?”
“Stupid woman, Sir, she swears that she didn’t sleep a wink that night, but she was stricken with what the peasants call ‘Stolbnyak’ that is when you cannot move at all, but are fully aware of everything that is happening.
She saw a beautiful woman, in a dress “like the sky”, with a crown on her head. She bent down to the sick man and kissed him. Then she rose in the shimmer of moonlight and went to heaven, taking his soul with her.” finished Miller.
“And what did the village doctor have to say about the cause of death?” enquired Harry.
“They didn’t call for doctor, Sir. Like I said, their poverty is terrible. They had a fire recently and live in a hovel.”
“Smith, tomorrow you will take care of the widow, and as for me, I’ve had enough for today”, said Harry getting up.
He bid his guests and friends a good day and left for his study with Smith, to work. He even refused supper and asked Doctor to take his place at the table.
The meal was lacklustre, despite Doctor’s jokes and anecdotes.
Absence of the host was strongly felt.
There was no reading either.
Guests declined punch and left the room early.