When I jumped out of Madame Madelaine Frenier’s bedroom window on the third floor of Monsieur Frenier’s Paris townhouse, my life didn’t flash before my eyes. There wouldn’t have been time.
Instead, the fall itself imprinted on my mind in excruciating detail, the rough grey stone of the house flying past, the roses below rushing up to meet me, velvet-soft petals shining in the sunlight as though lit from within, the wind in my hair, the petals flying up in a pink cloud around me as the thorns scored my bare chest. For Monsieur Frenier had arrived in the bedroom above before I had finished buttoning my shirt.
The lovely Madelaine threw my coat out after me. It also landed in the rose bushes, whose thorns clung like talons to the embroidered velvet as I pulled it free. Too bad. Defenestration had turned out to be interesting. I might try it again, but not if I was going to need a new coat every time. I threw the ruined coat over my shoulder, then plucked a rose and walked off down the street twirling it, while Monsieur Frenier leaned out of his wife’s window, pop-eyed with astonishment.
After such a public display, it would not be wise to go straight back to Gaumont’s house. Besides, I didn’t fancy spending my evening reading dusty, and mostly incorrect, books on magic, or perhaps trying to turn lead into gold. So I went to see my friend Hibou, who inhabits the body of an iron gargoyle, at LaChaise necropolis.
The necropolis is Paris in miniature—a city of sepulchres, its tombs and monuments laid out in regular streets and avenues, and crowned with grinning winged skulls, bats, and gargoyles as the larger buildings of Paris itself are crowned with urns and fleurs-de-lys. Hibou lives on top of the Milrais family crypt, where by day visiting mourners think him but another grotesque piece of ornamentation. I climbed up and found him there, lying in the sun like some great iron lizard.
“So, it’s over with Madelaine then.” Hibou turned his head with a slither of well-oiled metal to eye my already-healing scratches and torn coat.
“I’m through with women.” I tossed the rose at Hibou, who caught it mid-air on a talon.
“That’s what you said after Annelise.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but Hibou went on before I could get a word out.
“And you said the same after Babette, and Minou, and Madame Soupir as well, if I recall.”
“You’re right,” I said, to shut him up. A catalogue of all the women who had made me swear off their sex would have taken the rest of the afternoon. But when you don’t need to eat or drink, can’t be killed in a duel or even lose at cards without trying, what else is there to do? “I should never have possessed Gaumont.”
“Here we go again.”
“This is the part where you rant on about how you should have just done what the alchemist wanted, even if it was boring. Go on, don’t let me stop you.”
“Why did he have to draw the circle wrong?” I bit the tip of my finger and trailed blood across the stone, drawing a perfect pentagram and circle on the roof of the mausoleum. “It’s not so hard to do it properly, is it?”
“You still didn’t have to possess him.”
“I should have just ignored the gap. He probably only wanted some simple little job done. I mean, an alchemist who can’t even draw a proper circle couldn’t possibly think of anything really complicated to ask a demon to do.”
Hibou didn’t answer that one. After all, he had only been asked to animate an iron gargoyle, and here he was, still stuck in it. Just as stuck as me, only Gaumont’s body couldn’t fly.
“Don’t you sometimes want to go home too?” I asked him.
“No. I like it here.” Hibou stretched like a cat and lay back down in the sun, resting his pointy chin on iron-scaled claws. Hibou hadn’t killed the alchemist who summoned him, just ran away.
“You don’t get bored?”
“Not at all.”
“I do.” I lay back in the sun next to Hibou, feeling more heat radiate off his black iron side than I did off the stone beneath me. The scratches on my chest had healed to nothing already, and my fingertip had stopped bleeding. “It’s not so much being stuck in this plane, I suppose.” I stared thoughtfully at my finger, watching the wound heal. “It’s being trapped in this damned body. It feels like a prison I’m carrying around with me. And people notice more than you’d think they would. They know there’s something strange about me.”
“You mean, like the way they can’t kill you?”
Hibou was being sarcastic, but I nodded anyway. It had caused no end of trouble when I turned up at the Chat Noir to watch Babette dance the night after her husband had shot me in a duel. She fainted dead away on stage, and after that everyone started saying the club was haunted. The manager had barred me in the end, for driving his patrons away.
“I wish they could kill me.”
“Are you serious?”
“No. Yes. I’d do anything to be free of all this.” There – that at least felt certain. I’d been in Gaumont’s body for so long, sometimes I had trouble separating his human feelings from my own, though I wasn’t about to admit that to Hibou. “Of course, if I wait long enough, I’ll just die of boredom.”
“I’ve heard of something you might find interesting.”
“Oh?” I kept my tone noncommittal. Hibou was up to something, though his iron countenance made it difficult to guess what.
“Have you ever heard of Lavigny?”
I shook my head. “Is it a place?”
“A place, and a man, or it was. It’s an old chateau, near the Bois Leger.”
“And what’s so special about this chateau?”
I laughed so hard I had to gasp for breath. “I suppose,” I said, when I could speak again, “I suppose the young men of Paris dare one another to spend the night in it. And you turn up, to play the ghost.”
“I don’t,” Hibou said primly.
I only laughed the harder at that, for I knew full well he played exactly that sort of trick on boys who dared each other to visit the streets and avenues of the necropolis after dark and lovers who came there thinking it a safely private place for a tryst.
“No, really,” Hibou said when my laughter had died down. That nearly set me off again, but the look on his face made me hold quiet and listen. It was as close to fearful as an iron mask could look, and fear has no place on the countenance of a demon. Even a half-animate one.
“I overheard some mourners at the DeMille crypt last night. They laid wreaths for a young man, Armand DeMille, but they carried the coffin as though it weighed nothing.”
“I know Armand,” I interrupted. “He lost six hundred francs to me ten days ago. You don’t mean to say he’s dead? He never paid me, the fiend.”
“Apparently, he was broke,” Hibou said, his tone dry, his eye fixed accusingly on me.
“That wasn’t my fault. I didn’t force him to keep playing.”
“No, you couldn’t, not in Gaumont’s body.”
Which nailed my present difficulties in one succinct phrase. “So, what happened?”
“He staked all he had left, ten francs they say, at odds of a thousand to one that he would spend the night in Lavigny and live to see the morning. Not the first such wager to be made, so I hear, and not the first to be lost, either.”
“So, he died? What killed him? And why was there no body?”
“Precisely. The very thing no one knows. DeMille’s friends entered the chateau the next day at noon, when he still had not emerged, but they found nothing, not even rats.”
“He ran away to escape his debts.”
“But no, why should he? When he would have come out ten thousand francs richer the next morning?”
“Good point, I must admit. So, you advise me to spend the night in Lavigny and see if I survive? Well, it may alleviate my boredom, if nothing else.”
I had no difficulty in locating Lavigny. Though many chateaux were burned and looted during the Revolution, most have been restored, inhabited now by the bourgeoisie and foreign aristocrats – those chateaux nearest Paris at any rate.
Lavigny, at first glance, appeared in a fantastic state of preservation, neither burned nor ruined. Even the windows remained intact. A high wall encircled the chateau and park, the gardens and woodland inside having run wild so that I could only just glimpse the house as I peered through the gilded curlicues of the gate. When I pushed it, the gate refused to move, either locked or simply rusted shut, but even in Gaumont’s body I had no difficulty scaling the wall.
I dropped down on the other side into an avenue lined with yew trees once clipped into pleasing shapes, now grown into grotesque mockeries of the creatures they had resembled. Rabbits had become towering, twiggy beetles, peacocks turned to gigantic snails. I walked up the avenue, skirting a dry fountain with a cracked marble basin and moss-grown figures of nymphs and frogs, pausing now and again to admire some particularly fine grotesquerie.
The front door of the chateau swung open at my touch to reveal a grand hall, filthy but apparently unlooted. A gilt mirror, the glass so obscured by dust that I could not see any reflection in it, hung on the left-hand wall above a console table which bore on its marble top several objects of apparent value: a vase, a snuffbox, and a card-tray. The tray held several cards, the top-most bearing DeMille’s name. I did not hesitate to add one of Gaumont’s. If Hibou had sent me on a fool’s errand, at least I would have added to my reputation for reckless behavior. It pleased me to think placing that card might be the last deed I committed as Gaumont. Though I scarcely dared hope that would be the case.
Looking through doorways right and left I beheld once-sumptuous chambers gently illuminated by the low rays of the setting sun, their satin-upholstered furniture now sadly fading, their crystal chandeliers draped with cobwebs, but all still retaining the shadow of a former elegance.
Penetrating further into the chateau, I began to wish I had brought a lamp. Imprisoned in Gaumont’s body, I could no longer see in the dark, something I had forgotten in my haste to see this haunted chateau. It occurred to me there might be candles in the kitchen somewhere, so I went in search of them.
As I searched the kitchen, the light dimmed further, until looking up from the last drawer, I saw through the window that night had truly fallen. I decided to abandon my fruitless search and return to the front rooms, where I had seen a comfortable-looking though dusty armchair, to await adventure. If none occurred, I could at least continue my exploration of this charming residence at sunrise. Considering its reputation, perhaps I should move in. Gaumont’s house, though adequate, could hardly compare to the grandeur of Lavigny.
I left the kitchen via the rear hallway, which had sunk into complete darkness. To my annoyance, I had to feel my way along the wall until I came to the door which led from the servants’ area into the main hall. I opened it to a flood of silver light which threw every object in the hall into high relief, including a row of statues along each wall which I had not noticed when I first entered the chateau.
These figures of dark stone stood half again as tall as a human man. Though their forms seemed carved along human lines, robes and hoods fell in concealing folds of stone around them. The mirror above the table seemed larger in this different light, the height of a man at least, brilliantly reflecting the statue opposite as though to make a corresponding figure in its row, though when I passed it, it still refused to show me Gaumont’s form.
Entering the parlor where I intended to await the coming of the ghost, or whatever being professed to haunt this place, I found the effects of the moonlight yet greater. Satin upholstery which in daylight had appeared a faded rose now shone blood red, with the gleam of new silk. The gilded carvings of the woodwork, which ran in bands around large wall panels, sprang into movement as I watched. Vines became writhing tentacles, fruit the bulbous bodies from which those tentacles extended, all crawling around the ceiling throwing white shadows in the strange light. The panels surrounded by those carvings had shown painted birds and flowers done in the Chinese style on gilt backgrounds, as faded as the rest of the room. Yet now the gilded ground turned silver and the birds and flowers gathered into pools of ink which ran down the walls to drip onto the floor below, leaving panes of the same lucent silver as the mirror in the hall. From the depths of these, tall grey shapes advanced, figures robed and hooded which might have been the models for the statues in the hall.
I stood mesmerized by the soundless rippling of those mirrored surfaces, watching the statues advance. This, certainly, was something I had never seen before. When next I saw Hibou, he would receive my profuse thanks. Then, one of those figures raised its arms, extending hands as grey as its robes to grasp the edges of its hood.
I felt, or rather Gaumont did, and with such force that it took me a moment to throw it off, a sudden desperation not to see what lay beneath that heavy drape of fabric. My own curiosity won out, of course. I watched eagerly as the hands drew back the folds of grey material to reveal a granitic face, human in form, but so frozen that its wrinkles might have been carved from stone. Closed eyelids bulged and rippled, then opened to allow nests of threadlike tentacles to uncurl, reaching towards me.
I could sense Gaumont’s terror even through my own disappointment. What horror could I feel, I who had counted more bizarre monstrosities among my friends? I watched the beings file past, then followed them into the hall, to find only the double row of statues standing there. A stealthy movement caught the corner of my eye. I whirled, to confront Gaumont’s pale reflection, showing at last in the mirror over the table. The hooded figures had entered through mirrors; could they have exited through one as well? Could I? Did my path to freedom lie beyond that glass?
I climbed up onto the table, knocking its contents aside, to press myself against the mirror. Instead of cold glass, I felt a soft, gelatinous surface yielding to let me through.
It sucked me in, squeezing the breath from Gaumont’s body. I heard a snapping, crunching sound, echoes perhaps of the breaking vase. Everything went black then, as I fought for breath. I tried to open my eyes, to push through the rubbery stuff which so painfully pressed against me.
At last, I broke through, feeling as though I had been released from the depths of some airless dungeon. I attempted to take a deep breath and found myself expanding to fill my proper shape. I looked back at the mirror and saw neither glass nor reflection, but a sparkling haze in the shape of Gaumont’s body sinking backwards into the dark, paneled wall. Free! I felt a moment’s elation, followed by a creeping sense of dread. The mirror had freed me from Gaumont’s human body, but evidently not from his emotions. Furthermore, certain suspicions about my current situation occurred to me.
I had fallen into a trap. The fact that it had been constructed to hold not demons but human souls might yet work to my advantage. It all depended on who had built the thing, and how it worked.
I looked around, hoping for a clue. To either side of me stretched an endless hallway of closed doors, the space between each and the next occupied by one of the robed statues, all unhooded, each with the same stony face.
I spread my wings and flew – what joy to fly again – down that corridor, looking for a way out. I went faster and faster, pushing myself to tremendous speeds, but still saw no end to the corridor. After a while I became convinced that, rather than going on forever, the corridor must loop round on itself.
Which left the doors. These should have opened easily to the touch of my mind, yet they held fast against me, nor could I pass through them. It was as though they were not doors at all but part of the solid surface of the walls. Then the thought came to me that perhaps, as at Lavigny, I needed a mirror instead of a door. Yet, there were no mirrors here, only the endless rows of statues.
Possessing the statue had nothing in common with possessing Gaumont. Its appearance suggested stone, but inhabiting it felt as though I had immersed myself in a bath of cold glue. It took all of my will to force the thing to step across the corridor and reach for the nearest doorknob. At the statue’s touch, the door swung open, revealing a wall of darkness. I gathered my will again and forced the statue to take one further step.
I came out into a large room, bare of furniture. Across an acre of polished wooden floor, I saw a wall of curtained windows, such as might lead out onto a terrace. Tattered grey curtains billowed, though I could feel no wind, letting in a light which seemed warmer than the moonlight before.
The light of dawn – the night must be nearly over. I had succeeded. I could have danced for joy. But when I tried to move, the cold grip of the statue held me. I had only traded one prison for another.
If I did not get out by daybreak, I would be trapped in Lavigny forever. Hibou had been right. The place was haunted, and by something far worse than even I could ever have imagined.
I fought to disinhabit the statue, but it clung to me, refusing to give me up. I could, however, still make it move. Step by dogged step, I drove it towards the windows.
As I took the final step, I saw, through a rent in the curtains, what lay without. Not daylight at all, but a congealed, grey substance more solid than any fog, pressing against the windows, smearing them with dampness.
I tried to stop, then, that oily greyness filling me with foreboding, but the statue had already begun its final, fatal step. All my power failed to prevent it from smashing through the glass into the roiling substance beyond.
I felt a moment of shock at the impact, and then my wings were free. The heavy carapace of the statue had disappeared. I had no idea where lay up or down; if I were falling or flying. Around me, I could see only the fog. It burned like acid on my skin, and in my mind. It wanted to eat my soul, which was quite unfortunate, because it wasn’t going to find one.
Now if ever, my life should flash before my eyes, I thought, remembering the fall from Madelaine’s window. The greyness fastened on that. I could feel it drinking in every detail the way a spider sucks the fluids from a juicy fly. The meal seemed to slow its attack on my mind, so I cast about for something else to feed it, and remembered Babette, the hours I had spent in her dressing room at the Chat Noir, the duel with her husband, and the night after that. I fed it sweet Minou, and shrewish Annelise, and even Madame Soupir—not a lady at all but Gaumont’s special friend, and my first human lover.
I fed the greyness every woman I had known, every fight with a jealous husband, every game of chance I had won, even all my hours of boredom. I began to feel motion again, and knew I still flew on, though whether the greyness had any end, I could only hope.
I fed it the instant of my summoning, the moment I entered into Gaumont, the surging, sizzling sensation of taking on flesh and emotion. I began to imagine I could see the fog thinning around me, shapes and colors almost emerging through it.
I fed it the day I had met Hibou, sunbathing on top of Notre Dame, when I had climbed up to see if throwing myself from the topmost spire would kill me; the heat of the sun on the dark stone of the roof, the smell of hot iron, my own shock at seeing one of the gargoyles move, and Hibou’s sarcastic voice urging me to go ahead and try, if I wanted so badly to fly, for he had seen my nature in an instant. As the greyness sucked that memory dry, I pushed myself to greater speed, knowing I had nothing else left to offer it.
I felt the acid burn into me then, into what little was left that I could call myself, but even as it bit, the fog around me dispersed and I could see real daylight, the sun coming up beyond a stone wall. Instinct, or some last remaining scrap of memory, told me that if I could only make it to the other side of that wall, I would be safe.
I looked back and saw a house with silvered windows, reflected in them people whose faces seemed vaguely familiar, whose names I almost knew. But I had to reach the wall. I could not afford the time to try to remember them. I turned again and flew on, passing over the top of the wall as the sun burst into full glory and the sky changed in an instant from dawn pink to brilliant blue above.
An animate gargoyle of black iron stood at the gates, looking in. A gaunt human in a torn velvet coat staggered out of the house and down the avenue, stopping short when he saw the waiting gargoyle. I flew over them and onwards.
There was something I had wanted to do, if only I could remember what it was.