No Mortal Dares, by Melanie Atherton Allen
“Ha! Ha! Ha! — ha! Ha! Ha! — Ho! Ho! Ho!” — roared our visitor, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet! –-Monsieur G.~ (The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allan Poe)
C. Auguste Dupin, suddenly, at his home in the Faubourg St. Germain.
I was in Dijon when I read this, and my soul sickened at the words. The year was 186–, and I had not seen my old friend for- 15 years? 20? Had it been as long as that? And he’d been there, at the house in which we had once dwelt together (for surely he would not have bestirred himself sufficiently to move to another dwelling in the same district). The obituary blurred before me as I reflected that, but for my absorption in my own affairs, I could have gone there and seen him, and talked with him, in that old place which I had once loved so well.
I returned to Paris with all speed, determined not, at any rate, to fail to meet my old friend at our last possible appointment.
I arrived at the crumbling mansion the next morning. The door was unlocked, and the house was full of funerary flowers. They were wilting already, possibly due to Dupin’s abhorrence of daylight. As I wandered in sad reverie from room to room, seeking the mourners who must have brought the flowers, I saw that this hatred of sunlight had grown into an obsession. The fine windows had shutters without, and within they were boarded up, and a sticky tar introduced into the cracks.
I had almost believed I was alone when I heard the weeping of a woman coming from the library. I had, I now realized, been avoiding that room, for it had been Dupin’s favorite place, and grief had rendered me a coward. I cursed myself and entered.
There was the coffin, shining and polished, in the center of the room, and more lilies heaped about it. I stared at this memento mori, stunned anew by Death’s permanency.
“He was a great friend of monsieur’s?” A voice spoke from a dark corner. A woman, bent nearly double with age and frailty, approached me out of the shadows.
“He was indeed, madame,” I said. “And – you?”
“I was his grand—“ said the woman — and hesitated. “His grandmother,” she said, looking at her withered hands.
We exchanged commonplaces. Soon, however, she left me, saying that she must lie down, for a time, to recoup her strength for the funeral.
I was alone with the coffin of my dearest friend.
Suddenly, I greatly desired to look upon him once more. And the lid, I saw, had not yet been screwed down.
The word “suddenly” in an obituary is generally a cloak for ghastliness. It may mean accident, or murder, or suicide. As I heaved the coffin lid out of its niche and moved it aside, I was prepared for anything.
Or so I thought.
Monsieur G.–, Prefect of the Parisian Police, gazed up at me from the silk-lined interior of the coffin, his dead face wearing an expression of betrayed surprise.
I do not know how I got the lid back into position; I remember that my hands shook and that I scrabbled uselessly at the polished lid for a time, finding no purchase. When the lid slammed back into place, I thought the noise of it loud enough to wake the dead, and I feared that Dupin’s nameless relative would come to see what had happened. She did not do so; I met no one as I left the house.
I did not attend the funeral. I wandered the, as always, near-deserted streets of the Faubourg St. Germain, thinking furiously. I must have wandered for many hours. Eventually, I found a shabby tavern, and I stumbled in, more to be around other human creatures than for the sake of a drink, though I sorely need that as well, for I was shaking still, and not from the seeping vaporous cold that rose up from the ground as afternoon shaded into evening.
The landlord was a surly fellow, and I was in no mood for idle talk, so for a time I drank and he served in silence. He was roused to speech, however, by the sight of a hearse- the hearse- as it passed the grimy window.
“Monsieur knows perhaps who it is being buried today?” He asked. I said no. It seemed the wisest course.
“Ah,” said the landlord, shaking his head, “It is a bad story, I think. There were rumors about that one. The girls – you know –“ here he gave me a truly terrible leer – “they say that sometimes one goes off in his company – and they never return. Poof! They are gone. Feeling has been getting very bad here, monsieur, and there was even talk of a police investigation, though that seems to be done with. What do the police care about the likes of them?” His solemn complaisance irked me.
I was fairly sure that I could name one policeman, at any rate, who had cared. And he was shortly to be buried in Dupin’s grave.
Should I have made a fuss? Should I have stopped the burial somehow? All I can say is that I did not do so. I stayed on and drank deep. Night had fallen in earnest when I left the establishment.
I walked directly (I will not say straight) back to Dupin’s house.
The door was now locked. I found that my hand, when it felt resistance, had automatically tried a trick I had used when I had lived here — the lock was old and badly in need of repair, and if you lifted the door slightly, the lock would sometimes disengage. To my surprise, and with a stirring of sentiment, I found that this same trick had worked now.
I went inside, and straight to the library, for that was where Dupin would be. I flung the door open, fearing neither Devil nor Man.
At first, I thought the room was deserted. But then I saw eyes shining in the darkness from the depths of an armchair.
“My old friend, I welcome you to my home on this sad occasion!” He said. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that his fingers were stroking a petal of one of the lilies that were still filling the chamber. The lily was dead and withered; the petal he touched seemed to wither more with his every caress.
“Dupin –“ I said, and stopped. There was a word for it, a word that eluded me.
“Vampire,” Dupin suggested, mildly. “You have come here to tell me – what I am.”
“How?” I asked this automatically. Dupin had always had this trick of following one’s train of thought as if it were a thing one could board at a station.
Dupin shrugged; for a moment, his face displayed a boredom verging on despair. “A slightly more interesting question is, perhaps, why you have brought this word to me. Was it merely to lay it at my feet, like a good dog?”
“I—“ again, I stopped, for I did not know.
Dupin looked at me sadly. “You have brought this word to me so that you may die,” he said- and then he was upon me, so fast that I had no time for comprehension.
As to what happened in that dark room, my memories are vague and dream-like. There was movement in the dark, a great rushing all around, and a pounding—whether that of my heart or of some ill-fated visitor at the door, I do not know — we were not alone in the darkness, though of who or what joined us there I remain, perhaps blessedly, ignorant.
I must have lost consciousness. I woke up alone, lying on my back in the house’s tiny and neglected garden, the next morning.
I thought that Dupin had spared me, that our friendship had caused him to stay his hand.
God help me, I thought that the sunlight was painful to my head because of the drinking I had done the night before.
But Dupin hadn’t spared me.
I know that now.
I have lived a very long time. I have been many places, though as my condition worsens (and it is slow, agonizing slow, but it comes, it comes) I keep more and more to shade and darkness.
At first, I sought Dupin, though whether to beg him to cure me or to use my unnatural vigor to attempt to slay him, I never knew.
But Dupin had seemingly vanished from all the haunts of men.
I gave up. When I had run out of interesting things to do, I came to England. I became an Englishman.
And one day, there he was. He had worked a change upon his appearance, through what wicked sorcery I know not. He was now a little man, with huge mustaches, a head like an egg, and eyes that were as green as a cat’s. How I knew him I do not know; could it be that the intelligence that radiates from a man’s eyes is as individual and unique as that of his face, or of his fingerprints (this discovery, of the uniqueness of fingerprints, was one that I had long wished to talk over with Dupin)? But I knew him.
“Mon ami!” He said, spreading his arms to embrace me, “I am so happy that we meet again!” His eyes twinkled as he looked me over, out of the heavy scarves he wore on the excuse of being sensitive to drafts and to cold. “I have a new name, and a new nationality; I have for many years been a good Belgian. But if you call me a Frenchman, this will not cause comment. We are in England, after all, and the English do not attend the distinction. We must find a name for you as well, no?”
“I’ve been living under the name of Hastings. After the battle,” I said.
“That will do excellently,” said he.
Melanie Atherton Allen lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania with her cat (Anubis), her boyfriend (Alec), and about thirty goldfish (none of which have names). She has won multiple prizes at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference for her fiction. She is currently working on a mystery novel.
Posted on January 20, 2014, in Issue 12: The Shadows Only Hide the Monsters: Poe & Lovecraft Tribute and tagged e-zine, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, horror, monsters, short stories, The Were-Traveler, Tribute. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.