tagNon-Erotic3 for Poe

3 for Poe


(Three short short stories in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe to pay tribute to that master of literary horror stories on the 7 October anniversary of his death in 1849)

The Rächer

For the horrific tale I am about to narrate, I neither expect nor solicit sympathy or expiation, but compelled to tell it I am, as it is with me every waking moment. Would that I could go back in time and not be standing over Jacques, the old comte de la Arbois, my eyes lost in terror to the drip, drip, dripping from the blade of the knife, the horror of wresting the ring from the gnarled claw of an old man who would not yield. Who could have known such a rotted body had the strength in it to deny me to the last? You ask why I will not lift my hand above the table to clasp yours. The truth is more damning than you can imagine—yay, more reason to distrust me than that I had a pistol waiting for you here.

But perhaps all I need do is relate to you my name. I am Louis, once comte de la Arbois, now once again just Louis. I see that means nothing to you but that yet you begin to countenance the glimmer of understanding.

I plunge ahead lest I lose you, and I must repeat my story, again and again. I cannot leave it resonating in my head.

Margaretta was her name. And I would have her—and she me—but my father would marry her himself. Four years of misery and Margaretta came to me for sufferance and comfort—and for release. Five years of scandalous yet wedded bliss with Margaretta after my father's demise, and we were on the fly before the tide of the great uprising sweeping across France—her north to England, me, the revolutionaries close on my trail, across the German border to my family's modest holdings in Koblenz.

Reaching late on All Hallows Eve the small village of Saint-Avold, a hard half-day's ride west of Metz, trembling from exhaustion and fever, I slipped from my steed into the arms of an innkeeper. One look at the signet ring of the De la Arbois on my finger, and he wished me off again posthaste in fear of what was pursuing me. But he was charitable to provide a fresh mount.

"Which road to Koblenz?" I stuttered through my chattering teeth.

"That one over there, young sir," he said. "You are feverish; you will not last the ride. Trier is closer and will yield sanctuary. And there's the high forest of Hunsrück in the Saarland between you and Koblenz. The Rächer is about in those woods."

Unhearing, unheeding, I spurred the fresh horse off toward Koblenz beyond the Hunsrück at the sound of the hoof beats of my pursuers on the village cobblestones.

At the darkest hour, my weary steed slowed its pace deep in the high forest of the Saarland. Barely conscious, fever fighting hunger, both eclipsed by weariness, I slipped and tumbled to the mossy verge. Heavy mist swirled up from the puddles in the narrow dirt road that slithered between the close-knit trees of the Hunsrück.

Through my fever I barely heard the muffled sound of churning wheels—a black carriage materializing out of the mist, stopping abruptly beside me, emitting a command in an authoritative, rich voice. A dark-clad liverymen conjured from the shadows to gently lift and place me inside the carriage.

The carriage once more under way, the voice emanated a second time from the darkness of the bench across the carriage. I heard the rustling of a silky material. A hand, the arm covered in shiny black, emerged from the darkness. In the hand was a flagon.

"Here, son, drink this. It will sooth you. You are spent and in deep fever." The voice was melodious, familiar, calming in its sing-song tone.

I reached for the flagon and heard an audible sigh, as the dry, taut bone of a hand closed for a long moment over the signet ring on my index finger. At a second sigh, my hand was released, and I drank greedily from the flagon. The wine was rich, red, delicious to the taste. I could not achieve my fill of it.

"And bread. Eat a morsel of bread." Once more the hand appeared from the darkness, offering me a fine, thinly crusted roll that would not have been out of place at the banquet table at the chateau of the De la Arbois.

I took the bread and tried to eat it slowly, in keeping with my noble training, but famished, I devoured it like a feral cat.

I had thought the sustenance would give me strength, but it made me even more confused and weary than I had been before. I drifted into a haze. But I did not sleep; I was numbed. I felt the hand reach out and take mine again. And I heard the cackle of a dry laugh. And I felt the searing pain in my hand. And then no more; then I felt no more.

When I awoke I was laying on a clean bed in a small bed chamber. Sunlight was streaming through the window, and two solid-figured, middle-aged men were staring down into my face, their eyes full of concern.

"Ach, Gute, he awakes," grunted one to the other.

"Sir, can you hear me? We dressed your hand. Does anything else pain you?"

"Where am I?" I asked weakly.

"You are in Netunkirche, in the Saarland, at the edge of the Hunsrück forest," one of the men answered in German. "We were so afraid the Rächer—"

And then when he understood I was struggling with the language, he repeated this in broken French. "The Rächer—the Avenger—we were afraid . . . your hand."

"My hand," I asked. And then the horror. I lifted my hand, and it was missing—the signet ring of the De la Arbois—finger and all.

And so, patient drinking companion, I keep my hand below the table, still not able to face the mark of my villainy and the judgment of the Rächer.

You ask about my Margaretta? The journey of my dear, sweet Margaretta, partner of my shame, did not reach England. On the very night of my chastisement in the Hunsrück forest, Margaretta was being introduced to Madame Guillotine in the streets of Paris.

The Silken Memory

If LaCroixes on the Louisiana coast existed still, I would pursue the matter. As it was, months elapsed before a chance sighting of a silken skirt caught in a door as I lurched from the path of an onrushing Biloxi carriage surfaced in mind what had disturbed me that last morning when I found myself alone in the rotting mansion's music room, empty save for Henri's beloved massive square grand. Here had been my last sighting of the despairing and forlorn youth, Henri LaCroix, the reluctant and despondent sole heir to a once-mighty family brought to despoil by deceit and death.

Even now I would pursue my fears to assure myself of a final accounting if I only could remember the address Henri had reluctantly provided. I do remember writing it to paper when at last I could take the foreboding atmosphere of the music room no more and mounted the stairway to the hollow ringing of heavy boots echoing off moldering walls of empty chambers. I consigned the scrap of paper to the stand by my bed—and am most assured I did so—but on the morrow when I arose, I did not see it. And later, when I returned to the chamber, no manner of search revealed it.

It had taken a single generation for the LaCroixes to descend from wealth, position, and grasping to a moss-encrusted St. Mary's Cemetery vault. Nothing had been enough for them. It was Sarah LaCroix, Henri's mother, who simply must have Raven's Rest. But Raven's Rest had been owned by a LeMoynes forever. Ham LeMoynes would not sell.

Many there were, even at the time, who claimed Sarah had falsely woven the slight—never fully disclosed but assumed heinous enough to send the women of the parish into swoons and double flutterings of their fans. Letters were written; rumors abounded. Charges flew at the summer cotillion that were denied. But letters continued to circulate and fans continued to flutter furiously. Outside the St. Mary's Cemetery gate, pistols were fired, Ham LeMoynes fell, and the LaCroix hand reached out and snatched Raven's Rest.

Less than a month after taking up residence at Raven's Rest, tragedies began to befall the LaCroixes. At first these malevolent manifestations were not beyond explanation—a thoroughbred horse downed by the colic, a treasured hound gored in the hunt, the LaCroix matriarch standing too close to a weak balustrade on the sleeping porch. But then Henri's father took unexpectedly to drink and discovered the bottom of an unmarked well at the foot of the garden; Henri's older brother, the hope of the family, was thrown by his horse; and his sister died of an untraceable malady that had not the respect to malinger.

At length there was just Sarah and the youngest son, Henri, a dreamer whose constant companion was the square grand in the music room. And Sarah went mad, which was not a mystery to the fluttering fans in the parish, as madness ran rampant in her family. And one moonswept night, Sarah fired the hem of her nightdress with a parlor candle and ran headlong down the hillock and into the arms of Lake Pontchartrain. Unnervingly, she was screaming the name of the wronged Ham LeMoynes as she was swept into the sea.

I, the family solicitor, watched Henri sink into a morose madness as more and more of his being was absorbed in the melancholy tunes on his square grand. While Henri sank, the family fortune, power, and prestige melted away until the day came when it was my duty to suggest Henri must then pull free of this cursed house, if ever that was to be.

He told me he had relatives to go to but avoided telling me who or where—until that last evening and that scrap of paper—after the mansion and most of the furnishings had been sold.

We were alone that last night, in the music room, and Henri was playing by the flickering of the candlelight in the night breezes sifting through the cracks in the walls and by the flashes of heat lightning beyond the French doors to the veranda. His haunting tune set me on edge, and I felt my nerves fraying. Twice I felt there was a malevolent presence in the room, something moving in the shadows behind the rustling drapes at the French doors. But I told myself it was only the wind and the approaching storm. Only the wind and the approaching storm.

I spoke to Henri, but he, enshrouded in his piano and solitary mood, could not, would not hear me.

At last I could take it no more and told him I must retire for the night—that he needed rest as well for the move that was to come on the morrow. But he gave me no response.

I thought I was awakened by a cry in the night, but the storm had made its appearance by then, and I could not distinguish the howling of the wind from what many months of hindsight made clearer to me was an utterance more human than natural.

The next morning I passed by Henri's chamber, but the door was ajar and his bed showed no sign of possession. Neither could I find him on the ground level. There were just the workmen starting to box the piano for its journey I know not where. Unlike the previous evening, the piano top was firmly closed over the sounding board, held tightly shut with a heavy canvas strap, daring anyone to open it before its ongoing journey.

But now, months later, now that the view of the skirt caught in the carriage door has jogged my memory, I can clearly remember viewing a scrap of the material of the silk dressing gown Henri had been wearing that last night protruding between top and sounding board—and, on the subsequent day, when the music room was bare, I found droplets of blood where the piano had once stood.

I never heard from Henri again, and Raven's Rest burned, as by its own volition, one full-mooned All Hallows Eve, before I could return and search for the slip of paper on which I had written the address where I could apprise Henri of that tragic event.

The Birthright

"They will see me when it pleases me to be seen. There are no LaContes save me," Beau blustered as he waved the hand bearing the family signet ring, symbol of entitlement, in my face.

The ferocity of Beau LaConte's angry declaration frightened me. I should have known better than accept his offer for transport to the All Hallows Eve masked ball. It wasn't only because all of the LaContes, save Beau, had promptly died from embarrassment upon hearing of General Lee's surrender, but also because Beau had been in a morphine stupor for months as response to the infusion of carpetbaggers and freedmen in the ruling of life on the delta.

Instead of rumbling toward the masked ball, bravely launched to deny reality, LaConte should be hying to the new seat of government to affirm his inheritance of Mapleton, the LaConte seat. But his arrogance in the face of a world turned upside down clouded his vision as much as the morphine did.

I had a twinge of regret for poor little Samuel at the reins atop the carriage in the cold night and was grateful when we arrived at the ball, one of the last vestiges of gaiety left in this city mourning the stripping away of its once-grand way of life.

Beau was in an ugly mood. I made one last stab to force reality into his fevered brain. "There will be carpetbaggers at the ball, Beau. Perhaps even freedmen. You must try not to make a scene. We must adjust. It's only right."

"Only right? Freedmen?" Beau blustered. "I'll never adjust. My family has existed completely apart from them for a hundred and fifty years and will continue to do so."

Apart from them, I thought bitterly. Everything your family has was built on their backs.

And then, as the carriage door opened, Samuel was there, folding the steps down and standing close by, hands at ready to help Beau out of the carriage. But he was brushed aside without a look from Beau, and I saw a grimace flash across Samuel's face. Without realizing or caring that he had done so—Beau had raked Samuel's cheek with the family signet ring.

Before we mounted the stairs toward the flaming chandeliers and orchestra music beyond the thick stuccoed walls of the Cabildo, I suppressed an exclamation at the revelation that anyone seeing Beau and Samuel standing side by side at the carriage door could see in an instant what Beau would never see—that despite their differences of build, the close family resemblance could not be denied—the two were cousins if not brothers.

In the light of the main ballroom, Beau stood out in his arrogance, almost daring any of the unwanted interlopers to touch him. As I gazed intently at him, fearful of what he might do, I saw his eyes flash and his nostrils flare up. Following his line of sight, I viewed her—and I drew in my breath. She had appeared at the top of the staircase and stood there, knowing that all eyes were slowly being drawn to her and the cacophony of boisterous conversation throughout the room was bubbling down to gossipy whispers behind gloved hands and fans. The whiteness of her flowing, low-cut gown contrasted sharply with the milk-chocolate of her lustrous skin. She was so slight and willowy that she must not have been much over eighteen, but she held herself like a queen, and she obviously knew exactly what effect she was having on the room. She wasn't just attending the ball; she was reigning over the ball. She was making a statement—a new era had arrived.

I turned to see that another set of eyes were flashing; Beau was mesmerized by her as she slowly descended and moved toward the French doors and out into the rear garden. I couldn't hold Beau back. As she disappeared into the garden, Beau slipped out of my concerned embrace and threaded his way toward those French doors.

I was jostled and delayed by the forming of a dance at the renewed musical efforts of the orchestra, and neither Beau nor the beauty could be seen when I reached the garden. I feared for them both. I feared that Beau would make a spectacle of himself that would bring the focus of the authorities on him. But at the same time, I feared for the young woman. She looked so vulnerable and delicate as she floated down the staircase and across the ballroom floor.

I searched for several minutes without finding them. And then I heard a yelp and a curse. I was nearly pushed off the path by a rush of white silk surging past me, and the disheveled figure of Beau stumbling down the path, looking angry, frustrated, and embarrassed all at once. I instantly knew what had happened—the approach, the attempted seduction, the refusal, the scuffle, the escape. By unspoken agreement, we turned away from the doors and, upon stumbling feet, pressed on to the carriage court. Samuel was standing there, smiling broadly, holding the carriage door open for his unseeing, privileged look-alike.

The first I noticed as we entered the carriage was the slight fold of white silk fabric peeking out below the bench lid. And then the other images assaulted my eyes. The smirk on Samuel's lips, a slight smear of ruby-red gloss at the corner of his lower lip, and the gleam of light reflecting off the purloined signet ring he proudly held forth on the hand holding the door open for Beau—even the slight wound on his cheek made by an encounter with that self-same ring earlier in the evening.

But Beau saw none of this. Beau was blind to everything but fleeting passion and arrogant rejection of a world lost. Beau was outraged, but I was not surprised, when the carriage failed to move—and we realized Samuel was gone, already on his journey, I surmised, to the seat of government, brandishing the LaConte signet ring with which to assert in an upturned world his birthright to Mapleton.

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