REVIEW AMERICANA

 

Spring 2017

Volume 12, Issue 1

http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/spring_2017/loch.htm




LEANDER LOCH

 

The Dinner

 

I want to tell you the story about the time when I found myself to be the witness of an event so shocking and so disturbing that even talking about it today, after so many years, I tremble from head to toe. Despite this fact, what I am going to write in the pages that follow is, yes, without any doubt the most terrifying and bizarre event I have ever experienced, yet what more than anything else led me to ponder on this our miserable world and on the poor and ignorant souls who populate it. This tale has been able to stimulate the innermost recesses of my soul, those dark corners that every man has inside but that many end up forgetting. Well, let us hurry up and get started. I will set out the facts as I experienced them on that warm summer evening of many years ago. The only advice that I can give you before beginning my story is to keep an open mind, and although scepticism is a sign of an active and critical intellect, it must not be blind and prevent you from pondering on those various and weird matters with that bit of curiosity that is needed to spice up our lives. Knowledge resides in the unknown. It is mysterious and always presents itself when you least expect it.

It all began a few days after obtaining the title of Medicus at the Royal University of Strasbourg. At that time, life was smiling at me. I was young, brilliant, and with a promising future. I had cultivated important acquaintances both within academia and outside, and this was due to my impeccable charisma and my rapid intellect. So you can imagine with what pleasure I accepted the invite of my dear friend and former fellow student, the Count Adrien d'Artois, descendant of a noble and ancient lineage, a brilliant but lazy chap who regarded his formal education as little more than a mere distraction, to accompany him along with one of our old friends, the respectable Professor Hippolyte Duval, a real institution in the field of biology in Strasbourg and also across borders, to a prestigious dinner at the mansion of the richest nobleman of the city, the Baron Aard-Folbert-Georgius von Kraufen. I was certain this dinner was the beginning of a journey that would take me to the most private parlors in the nation, if not in the whole of Europe.

On the appointed day, I and my two companions decided to meet in the early scents of the evening in the Waffenplatz, with the idea then of taking a chariot and heading all together towards the Parc de l'Orangerie, where the Baron had one of his many houses and where he had invited us to dinner that evening. I employed the hours preceding the rendezvous with my friends to take care of my presence. I dusted my best dress, polished the well-made silver knob of the walking stick that the dear Adrien had given me as a present just a few days earlier for the ceremony of my academic accomplishments, and that afternoon I even went out to buy a new hat, the most elegant and expensive I could find. I then shaved and perfumed myself a little with water of Cologne, and only when I was pleased with how I looked in the long mirror on the wall of my bedroom, I decided to turn into the front door and walk down on the street directed to the Waffenplatz where, I was sure, my two friends were already waiting for me with a little impatience. And in fact, as I expected, as soon as I turned the corner into the long road leading to the square, my eyes were immediately caught by the restless movements of a stocky and half bald little man smoothly dressed, who was frantically checking the time on his elegant golden pocket watch. Beside him, a bored-looking young bloke, tall with long, curly raven hair that reached almost to his shoulders was playing with snobbery with one of the stray dogs that used to roam that part of town. As I got closer, the little man, who was none other than the good and dear Professor Duval, looked at me over the rims of his small round glasses, as was his habit to do during his classes whenever someone raised a question not too witty. He spread his arms in exasperation.

"Punctuality, it never belonged to you, Mr. Menoítios."

"Dr. Menoítios, Professor Duval," said Adrien dismissing the dog with which he was toying and coming toward me with a big smile on his face, "Do not forget that our Milù now is a doctor."

"Right, right," muttered Professor Duval.

I never managed to understand for what abstruse reason my name, Aristodemus Menoítios, in the mind of my dear friend Adrien, went slowly deforming itself to become Milù. I think it was because he had never been able to pronounce my name correctly, so a little out of goliardery and a little out of necessity he renamed me Milù. But this is a digression that has nothing to do with our story.

"I am mortified for my delay, Professor Duval, but I wanted to be sure to make a good impression on the Baron."

"Do not apologize, my friend, I can guarantee that the professor is as anxious as you are to take part in tonight's dinner. Isn't that right?"

"Absolutely," said Professor Duval. "I expect great things from tonight, great indeed! "

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"I'll explain everything on the way," said Adrien. "Now we are better hurry up, or we will end up being late for our appointment."

We started walking until we found a coach to which we gave orders to take us immediately, and briskly, to our destination.

"Our host has just returned from a long journey, and he brings big news," Adrien said.

"What kind of news?" I asked.

"Tonight, we'll find out, my dear friend, although I believe that the professor already knows something."

"I deny everything," he said solemnly. "All I know is that if the Baron says so he must have nothing else but the greatest news. He is a brilliant man who refuses to be deceived by easy promises."

"And how do you know that? I thought that none of us, beside Adrien, knew the Baron in person. Am I perhaps wrong?"

"You are absolutely right, dear Milù. I'm the only one who has had the honor to meet the Baron, and I can guarantee that he is one of the most brilliant men I have ever met, and I think this can also be confirmed by the professor himself, although his contacts with the Baron have been only epistolary."

"Exactly," replied the professor. "I and the Baron had been exchanging letters for years without ever having had the opportunity to talk in person, not even once. In fact, I do not even know what he looks like. He is quite an introverted man and a very curious one also. Very educated as well, from what I was able to see. His knowledge ranges from physiology to chemistry, from botany to biology, to even those regions that cannot be considered scientific - and that would raise quite a stir if it would become known that a personality like Baron deals with such quackeries."

"Professor, you have not told us yet why we are invited to this dinner," I noted.

"I cannot say really. The last letters I received from the Baron were very confusing, and now dating back to years ago. I can only say that before he left for this journey, he was very interested in the theory of spontaneous generation and vital flows. He asked me a lot of questions on the writings of van Helmont and Needham that, I have to say, left me very puzzled."

"How so?" Adrien asked.

"Because the writings are nonsense, tomfooleries, as it has been amply demonstrated by Redi and Spallazzani," snapped the professor. "But the Baron did not appreciate my criticisms, and since then we have not exchanged more than a few, occasional letters before our contacts ceased. At least until a few days ago when he wrote to invite me to this dinner and to inform me that he had great discoveries he wanted to discuss."

"Gentlemen, it seems to me that there is nothing to do but put our hearts at peace and wait to see what happens," Adrien said. "We will be the first witnesses of a discovery so great perhaps as to change the support pillars of this little world of ours or the first to see the madness of the Baron. In any case, I am convinced that the dinner will be delightful," he concluded with a smile.

I joined the laughter of my friend while the professor snorted indignantly as usual. We continued with that light-hearted tone that infected our minds to talk of this and that setting aside for the moment the matter of the Baron. Then the driver pulled his reins, the horses slowed down, and we found ourselves still and trembling in front one of the most impressive houses I had ever seen. We paid the driver and left the carriage behind us. We were faced with a massive façade that counted eighteen large windows distributed on three floors, without considering the smaller ones on the two pavilions that were visible in the distance on either side of the mansion. We approached with as much reverence as possible to the front door, if not only for the respect that such a majestic house provoked. Then we banged the heavy brass knocker on its bronze support. Three sharp explosions echoed in the bowels of the immense mansion, and then everything returned to silence. The shadows of the night around us were becoming gloomier, and despite being the middle of summer, we were caressed by a slight breeze that smelled of autumn. Finally, the door opened and on its doorstep appeared an elegant butler in uniform.

"Gentlemen, the Baron awaits you," he said, and those were the only words uttered before turning his back to us and delving into the depths of the mansion. We followed him in silence. The professor and I took off our hats, for Adrien there was no need, as he does not wear one.

It is not my intention now to dwell with unnecessary considerations on the role of the nobility in our society, nor its alleged or real utility. Everyone thinks as he pleases. Nevertheless, what I really want to say is that as I followed the butler through the intricate maze of rooms and corridors, I was overwhelmed by such a splendor and an eccentricity so disproportionate that even the mere thought of being able to translate in words what I glimpsed is simply an absurdity. So I will not prolong myself in meticulous and tedious descriptions of the wonders I saw laying everywhere and apparently randomly, but I will arrive at once to writing about my encounter with the Baron von Kraufen. We followed the butler up to a large room on the west side of the mansion, which overlooked a garden now sunk in the shadows of the night. At the center of the room, there was a long lavishly prepared table, and a little farther on, in front of a large fireplace full of dying embers, were standing two elegantly dressed figures. A man and a woman.

"The guests have arrived, Baron," announced the butler in an obsequious tone.

The two figures turned their heads, and the man, who I imagined could be none other than the Baron himself, put down the glass he was holding in his hand on one of the upper edges of the fireplace and came toward us with slow but firm steps, his hands behind his back and his chest puffed out. He was tall with a stern look; "authoritarian" was my first impression. His eyes were as blue as the clear ice and were topped by bushy eyebrows black as pitch. The traits of his face were sharp, his nose aquiline, and everything was framed by two thick black sideburns that came down with thick curly hair to the lower jaw. When he finally got closer, I could feel a pleasant smell of lavender coming from his person. I also had the chance to observe him better and concluded that he had to be in the prime of his maturity. When at last he arrived in front of us, he snapped his heels against each other and bowed slightly.

"Gentlemen, I welcome you to my humble abode."

He spoke with an accent that I could not recognize. Perhaps Flemish, I thought, but my conclusion did not satisfy me at all.

"Dear Baron," started Adrien. "allow me to introduce my colleagues. This is Dr. Menoítios Aristodemus, one of the most promising recent graduates of our magnificent university."

The Baron turned slightly toward me and snapped one more time his heels, bowing once again. I nodded awkwardly with no little awe.

"As to my left," continued Adrien, turning to the other side, "the respected Professor Hippolyte Duval whom you already know."

"I am honoured by your presence, professor. I look forward to discussing with you some of my latest discoveries," the Baron said.

"It will be a pleasure and an honor, Baron," said Duval.

After the customary greetings, we headed towards the fireplace where his other guest was waiting silently. As I said, this was a woman, tall, with long, black hair tied together by a large golden ring into a ponytail, which sprang from the top of her head almost like a fountain. Her skin was dark, and her eyes slightly elongated like those of the people of the great Asian lands. She had high and prominent cheekbones, and overall I could say that her exotic beauty impressed me. She was wearing a long, red dress with black floral patterns and convoluted arabesques etched on it that came down to completely cover her feet. Even the sleeves were long and much wider than those commonly used in the West. I imagined that was a traditional dress of her land, wherever that was.

"Gentlemen, let me introduce our other companion for this dinner, the beautiful Nefertiti."

The woman formed her thin lips in a gentle smile and bowed slightly without saying a word. She had undoubtedly a unique charm. Her magnetic beauty was so intense that the professor was not able to take his eyes off her, not even for a moment, so much as to make both me and Adrien so uncomfortable that we poked him with discretion several times to try to retrieve him from the almost catatonic state in which he had fallen. Nonetheless, neither the Baron nor Nefertiti seemed to notice this oddness, and the conversation went on amiably over a glass of brandy.

Although Nefertiti uttered no word nor drank the exquisite brandy, there was no doubt that she was following with interest what we were saying so to bring me to exclude my initial hypothesis that she was not able to speak our language, quite the contrary! Her eyes were the most expressive I had ever seen, they were flaring and then suddenly turning thin as crevices, they seemed to agree with us or silently comment on what we were saying, even when the conversation passed from French to German and then Italian she was never excluded from the discussion, and we were perfectly aware of that. We went on in this way until the butler made his entrance into the room to announce that dinner was ready to be served.

When we finally took our seats around the big table, the brandy had already worked a little on our minds and our hearts, melting our souls. The Baron, who had appeared to me at the beginning of the evening as austere and severe had proved to be rather an amiable and colloquial man who was able to converse with pleasure on various topics. For what concerned me, I was feeling a lot less tense and even the professor at the second glass of brandy took his eyes off Nefertiti and started participating more in our dialogue. Finally, the first dishes began to arrive, and the conversation inevitably headed towards more serious topics.

The first course consisted of a delicate consommé.

"Do not you think, dear Baron, that it's a bit too warm in this room?" asked Adrien. "Do you mind if I open the windows?"

I had to agree. Between the hot soup and the embers of the fireplace, there was a stifling heat.

"You are quite right," replied the Baron. "My bones still have the memory of the icy cold weather where I spent the last few years, but I certainly did not intend to upset my guests."

Adrien without dwelling further stood up and opened the three large windows overlooking the garden below, letting in a cool night breeze. The Baron shuddered.

"Why do not we talk about this journey of yours, Baron?" I suggested.

"Most willingly," he replied, "but I think I must first make a brief introduction so that you can follow without delay the logical thread that led me to this endeavor."

In the meantime, we had finished the soup, and the servants were already entering with the second course: Croute d'oeuf. On the table were placed two large trays emanating a tempting aroma, the first between myself, Nefertiti, and the Baron, who was sitting at the head of the table, and the second between Professor Duval and Adrien, who were facing instead each other, with the professor sitting on my left. I would not dwell on such details as the arrangement of the diners at the table if a very bizarre incident that puzzled me had not occurred. The Baron, in fact, wanted at his side not me but rather Professor Duval who, however, to everyone's surprise declined the honor rather quickly ceding his place to me, and this without giving any explanation. The embarrassment of the instant, I confess, was not of little importance and left us all a little baffled regarding what just happened, but fortunately that moment passed quickly, and the dinner began without further delay. For my part, I was starting to worry about the strange behavior of the professor.

The Baron began to tell us of his travels. "Many years ago, during one of my many wanderings, I witnessed a very singular fact but to which, sadly, I did not pay the necessary attention."

"And what would that be?" asked Adrien.

"At the time, I was in the old city of Benares for a diplomatic matter. I used to spend the evenings at the home of a dear friend of mine, Sir Henry Thomas Colebrooke, with whom entertained myself until the late hours of the night to discuss the most diverse subjects and to listen to the bizarre anecdotes that my friend had to tell about that mysterious land where he had spent so many years of his life. One evening like many others, after having finished our dinner, Sir Colebrooke informed me that he had made the acquaintance of a man nothing less than extraordinary, a man, he told me, that if he only wanted could have brought down all those great postulates on which is founded our modern science."

The Baron was undoubtedly an able storyteller. We were all hanging on his every word, myself included. I cannot say the exact reason, but at that moment, I felt a strong desire to see the impact the story had on Nefertiti, so, with great discretion, I turned my gaze in her direction. As expected, she was not immune to the charism of the Baron. She was looking at him with her beautiful eyes of indefinite colors, captured so much by that story that I wondered for a second if between them there was some tenderness.

Then my thoughts moved on, and my attention was caught by something else. In her, something was different. At the time, I thought, that was due to the fact that I now had the opportunity to observe better her lineaments without appearing rude as all eyes were on the Baron, and that was what I was telling myself since I now saw in that woman something that had escaped me until then and that made me doubt the beauty that I perceived in her up to that moment. On the one hand, I thought, it is not a rare thing, with habit and superficiality one tends not to see and starts only to recognize the things of the world. What we face is painted with the twirls of our mind, which obscures the true details and makes everything more harmonious to the eye according to our personal inclinations, or simply to save some energy by following a purely economic logic. A strange phenomenon might sometimes occur, which makes a friendly and familiar face, if observed for long enough, mutate into something else, something unknown and unrecognizable. That is what is going on, I told myself.

Nefertiti had lost for me her exotic beauty. Her features were not as harmonious as I saw them in the first place at the beginning of that evening. Her forehead was far too large, and her excessively high cheekbones were oddly protruding. Even the eyes, once perfect, now seemed to me strangely small and bulging. Her face was so gaunt as to make the skin of the cheeks dip unnaturally between the cheekbones and the chin. All of those observations left me pensive. I felt a little foolish and disappointed.

Then the words of the Baron tore me from my thoughts. "After such a premise, I prayed Sir Colebrooke to introduce me to such a prodigy, so he, after considerable resistance, agreed to my request. The following evening, consequently, rather than entertain us in the living room of his home as was our custom, we went out in the sweltering heat of the night, direct toward one of the many Gath of the sacred river, and there, sitting under a giant Bargad, we found a bony man, dirty, half-naked covered only by a meagre cloth that surrounded his waist."

"Primitive," observed Adrien.

"At his feet was burning a single flame placed in a small bowl of perfumed oil." He paused.

"Go on, Baron, do not leave us on pins and needles," I urged.

"At that point, I confess I was very skeptical about the man who was before me. After the words of Sir Colebrooke, the man had taken on the stature of a prophet, a messiah, while here before my eyes, he was merely one of the many beggars who flock together in the city. I prayed then Sir Colebrooke, who is fluent in the local language, to ask that man to demonstrate his abilities, and after some hesitation, he agreed to be my translator. It was then that something happened, something that at the time I considered trickery, deception. Only years later, did I realize the miracle that actually occurred."

Once again, we were hanging on his every word, not even Professor Duval was daring enough to divert his eyes from the Baron.

"A small fly emerged from the midst of the night entering the aura of the candlelight at the man's feet and flew straight toward the flame dying, charred instantly. My words cannot even start to give an idea of that event, but that incident was really a magical moment because I had the impression that the whole world had made itself silent just to watch the final moments of life of that little reckless creature. It was then that the miracle occurred. The man bent down and picked up the lifeless and half-charred body of the fly, deposing it at the centre of his left palm. With the other hand then he took a handful of ashes. I knew that Gath was used to cremations, for that reason I thought right away that what was in his hand was not dirt. He poured some ashes on the body of the fly up to conceal it completely, and then he covered the whole thing with his right hand, approached his lips to the joint hands and blew gently inside. Then he raised his hand again discovering the small pile of ashes and from this after a few moments, to my amazement, the little charred fly took off merrily, except for the fact that now the fly was alive and well and apparently without even a scald."

Instinctively, I turned my head toward Professor Duval to wait for his comment, but strangely enough, he had nothing to say, and that seemed to me even more suspicious than the bizarre behavior that I had seen from him up to that moment.

"Obviously, I considered everything as an accomplished sleight of hand, yet, in me, the memory of that night never completely faded away, laying down in the deepest depths of my mind ready to return to the surface whenever stimulated."

In the meantime, it had come now time for the third course. Saumon à la Colmar.

"The story is, indeed, remarkable Baron, but what has this to do with your last journey and in particular with the reason for this dinner?" Adrien asked as always with his attitude of a bored nobleman.

In the meantime, I had started eating what I had in front of me, and only when I reached the tray one more time to take some more purée to combine with the salmon that I noticed that Nefertiti had not touched any food yet. Her cutlery was immaculate, lined up side by side, as it had been placed at the beginning of the evening from the hands of the servants. That made me wonder if she had at least tasted the previous courses. I also noticed something else, namely the fleeting glances that Adrien was giving discreetly from time to time to her persona. To an outside eye, for someone who is not accustomed to the company of my young friend, that behavior could have passed as perfectly reasonable, but not for me. I knew Adrien way too well, as I knew well his proverbial intolerance and disregard for the people around him, and even his ennui that is so common among people of his social status. For these reasons, I did not make any effort to distinguish his unusual behavior, and those fleeting glances for me were a clear sign that there was something about that woman that intrigued him. I could not explain it in any other way. He surprised me greatly as it was the first time I saw my friend demonstrating a genuine and persistent interest in something, anything actually, since I made his acquaintance.

"Professor," said the Baron, "what do you think? Do you believe that such a thing is possible?"

I once again turned to my left, and once again, I was surprised by the bizarre behavior of the professor. He was sitting still with his eyes fixed on the Baron. His face was deformed in an expression that I could not read. Perhaps amazement or perhaps terror, the only thing I knew for certain was that the professor was not himself that night, and the reason for that was to me unknown. He did not reply to the question he was asked, but the Baron appeared not to be bothered by that fact, as if he already knew that he would have received no answer to his question.

"A vile trick, my dear Baron, most certainly," began Adrien, "even I would be able to do it without much effort."

"Exactly," said the Baron, "and that point was exactly what puzzled me the most. Whatever the impressions of that night were, they quickly attenuated, and a few days after, they quietly faded away in my memory overwhelmed as I was by the responsibilities of my embassy. I was called back to the homeland a little later, so I ended up completely forgetting the episode, or at least so I thought. Then came the day when I bumped into the writings of a certain Abbot named Don Marino Carbonara, who argued that it was possible to exhale life into inanimate matter through what he called the Breath of God."

The fourth course was being served to the table. Filets de poulets à la Souwaroff.

"It was then that the memory of that night resurfaced from the depths of my mind, and with it arose spontaneously only one question: could it be that night in Benares I actually witnessed a real miracle?"

Adrien instinctively looked across the table at me with silent complicity, and I returned his gaze. This exchange did not pass unnoticed by the Baron, "I fully understand your disbelief, dear friends, because I experienced it myself, but despite this, something inside urged me to continue my investigation. Man is an ephemeral creature and the thirst for knowledge is very often a dangerous but irresistible temptation, so I deepened my studies, I redoubled my efforts. I was willing to do anything to reveal the secret of life. What had been begun as a mere curiosity now haunted me. I could not think of anything else in the world."

"You wanted to take the place of the Creator," said Adrien.

"It is an affront to God!" blurted Professor Duval unexpectedly, making me jump with fright. We all turned toward him. His face was still petrified in an unreadable expression.

"Not at all," replied the Baron calmly. "I never wanted to replace God. I just tried to grasp some of His secrets to understanding him better."

"It's a profanity!" countered the professor indignantly.

"If God did not want to be understood, he would not have provided his creatures with the means to do so," the Baron replied sharply.

The atmosphere of the evening was unquestionably changed.

"No matter with how much dedication I studied, or how many books I consulted, the writings of the Abbot were inconclusive, and I just could not understand them. It had been months now since my last progress, my experiments were in vain; I was in a downward vortex that was leading me to delirium. So I thought of asking for help," the Baron turned to Duval, "from you, professor. Nevertheless even in that case I did not get anything, but criticism and mockeries. The brightest minds of Strasbourg were making fun of me. The same person with whom I had entertained a dense and prolific correspondence for years had now suddenly turned his back to me."

The professor was impassive as a pillar of salt; the tension in the air was palpable.

"I was beset by total despair. I did not want to continue to live as I was desperate, and I was just about to take my own life to finally end all my sufferings when something unexpectedly came to my ear. A letter from an old friend of mine, Giacomo Quarenghi, who at the time was committed to the court of Catherine II as an architect. He was aware of my studies, so he wrote me because he heard the story of a missionary who had served in Mongolia for many years. During his return expedition through the land of the Tartars, he had come across a strange tribe that inhabits the Taiga, which, he said, were able to revive the dead. I did not wait any longer. I did not even finish reading the letter of dear Giacomo before I had already given orders to my servants to prepare the necessary items for my departure."

"Your words, Baron, are beginning to smell dangerously of sulphur," Adrien stated grimly.

"I understand perfectly what you mean, dear Adrien, but men fear what they do not know and are willing to do anything to preserve peace of mind. Even blind themselves. Why not make full use of the powers that have been granted to us? Fear, after all, it is just a warning that alerts us when we walk too close to the edge of the unknown."

It was time for the fifth course. Mousse de gibier.

"The journey initially proceeded without any problems," the Baron said, "but once I arrived in Russia, I was not able to find the holy man Giacomo had told me about in his letter. Despite this setback, I decided to go into the Siberian land. My goal was to reach the Amur, guided by none other than the blind hope of finding this mysterious tribe. The months that followed, were the most challenging and exhausting of my life. My companions were decimated. One by one, I saw my friends die. Some of them because of the frost, others because of hunger or diseases, until only I remained, alone."

"Good God," I sighed.

"On the contrary," replied the Baron, "in what I believed to be the last hours of my life, I confess, my faith wavered."

"A desperate quest," said Adrien.

"Worthy of a desperate man," added the Baron.

"And how did you escape from such situation?" I asked.

"Providence, dear friends," the Baron said. "Providence was my protector. Luckily for me, the cold season was just gone taking with it the last of my companions. I managed to survive. I made the Taiga my home. I was sure I could survive at least for those short months that stood between me and the return of the frost. I lived like a savage. After many desperate wonderings, I arrived on the shores of what, later, I discovered to be the ancient Baikal, and astonishingly, here, I found the people I was looking for. They lived on precisely those beloved shores."

"Incredible!" exclaimed Adrien.

"Extraordinary!" I echoed his amazement.

"Indeed," agreed the Baron.

"The words of the missionary were then truthful?" I asked.

Meanwhile, the dinner was nearly over. The servants were bringing to the table the desserts. Babas au cognac accompanied by fruit.

"Yes," replied the Baron, "but not in the way I had hoped. The missionary must had been very naive and ignorant because the only thing that could corroborate his words was a drink that was administered to the exhausted men returning from long periods of hunting in the harsh Taiga. After only the first sip of this disgusting beverage, they retrieved their strength, as almost coming back to life, in fact."

"Are you sure that they were the people about whom the missionary had spoken?" I asked.

"Absolutely, without any doubt," the Baron replied.

"An unsuccessful expedition then," commented Adrien.

"On the contrary," countered the Baron, "because those people were actually the guardian of a knowledge long forgotten here in the West. They are able to investigate the natural world without resorting to the poor and disreputable means of our modern science."

"That means that you do not consider modern science an appropriate means for the investigation of things?" Adrien asked.

"That's exactly what I mean, dear Adrien. Science, as conceived in this our enlightened world, is buffoonery, a pathetic illusion of control of the universe we inhabit. A lullaby to lull us in peace."

"Nonsense!" snapped the professor who had remained silent for some time, but the Baron ignored him completely.

"I learned that everything in this world is made up of four basic elements each of which has certain qualities. They taught me to recognize these properties and to position each element in one of three large orders that constitute the creation. Finally, I learned to break things into their fundamental elements, mixing them as I pleased, and even exploiting them to my advantage. I was initiated to the invisible world. Despite this fact, however, still, I could not unravel the secret that had led me in the first place to make that journey. It was more than a year now that I had made the shores of the Baikal my home when the answer to this dilemma showed up unexpectedly one evening as I was returning, alone, to the village after having spent all day hunting" - at which point the Baron turned his head to Nefertiti.

"Witchcraft!" Professor Duval stood up abruptly, pushing the chair where he was sitting backward, which crashed violently on the polished marble floor of the dining room.

That reaction caught us all by surprise. Everyone except Nefertiti who was quietly sitting next to the Baron. Strangely, once again, I saw in her something unexpected. Her forehead seemed to me even more spacious than before with its skin extremely tight. It was as if her scalp was slowly receding on her head. Meanwhile, I noticed that even Adrien had changed his attitude. His fleeting glances at the woman next to him had turned into long and insistent peek out of the corner of his eyes.

"What’s the meaning of all this?" asked Adrien.

In the meantime, I had pulled up the chair from the floor and invited the professor to take back his seat next to me. Duval agreed after some reluctance.

"What I meant was," said the Baron, "that I solved the secret of life, my dear ones. I discovered the fifth element. I found out about the Breath of God."

"My dear Baron, I believe that you are making fools of us," exclaimed Adrien.

"Not at all, my loved ones, and Nefertiti is the proof."

We turned all our confused heads in her direction. I still could not see the connection that bound her to the incredible story of the Baron. She was sitting motionless in her chair, her back straight and stiff, her hands in her lap, hidden under the table. She had her eyes fixed on me, and they appeared as eerily expressionless. The shine that I glimpsed in them earlier that evening was completely gone. That disturbed me, and I felt strangely uncomfortable. Beside me, Professor Duval stood up again from his chair, calmly this time, and stretched out his arm pointing his finger at the Baron. His hand was shaking.

"What you have done, Baron, is an abomination," he said.

Adrien, meanwhile, was staring at Nefertiti insistently with a puzzled expression on his face, completely losing the good manners that he had managed to maintain until then.

"You are a fool, a sacrilegious fool, who wants to take the place of God. You are a disgrace," the professor turned to Nefertiti who had turned her gaze from me to him. "God have mercy on you," Duval said to her.

For my part, I was not entirely sure I understood the situation.

"It cannot be," mumbled Adrien.

I turned toward him. His face was changed, the puzzled expression had turned into a grimace of terror. Then he let out a cry and pushed his chair backward forcefully making it screech against the polished floor. He was petrified with fear. He was standing with wide eyes and mouth open, staring at Nefertiti who now for me was completely unrecognizable.

"Professor," said the Baron quietly, "you have misunderstood me."

Duval slowly lowered his arm. I could read the concern in his eyes.

"Nefertiti is not the Creature," the Baron smiled, "but the Creator."

Those words were enough to make the veil that had clouded my vision until then vanish so that I could see what really lurked in front of me. On the other side of the table, there was not anymore that charming woman with Oriental features I had known at the beginning of the dinner, but rather a monstrous creature. The delicate and harmonious facial features of Nefertiti that I had been seen throughout the whole evening were gone. In their place, there was a gaunt face, expressionless, with two narrow slits for eyes, a small mouth without lips, a pointed chin, high and horribly protruding cheekbones. All that was mounted on a monstrously elongated and hairless head culminating with a big golden ring from which protruded like many creepers glossy blacks and massive filaments that were bending over themselves to join the broad forehead of the monster, like big black arteries that then slipped under its skin. There were not even ears on that monstrous head but only two tiny holes on its sides.

I was terrified, as well as my two companions. The only thing I wanted to do was get up and run away from that place, but I had not the courage to break the stillness that kept me prisoner for fear that something worse could happen. Suddenly, the monster made a movement. It pulled out from under the table one of its arms and held it out toward a cluster of green grapes that was at the center of the table, peeling away a single and juicy berry with a limb that had three long phalanges each of which ended in a suction cup like bulge. Its movements were slow, almost nerveracking, and I followed them from the beginning to the end without losing even the smallest detail. Only after it had removed the grape from the bunch and carried it to its horrendous mouth, pushing it inside, the fear that gripped my soul returned to be more alive than ever. The professor let out a strangled cry, stumbled awkwardly backward for a few steps almost falling down, then turned around, and fled from the room. Adrien and I did not lose this opportunity and ran after him as if we had the devil on our heels. I do not know how, but we found our way in that immense mansion, and, in the blink of an eye, we were in the street, surrounded by the warm night of Strasbourg. We continued to run, each one of us in his own direction this time, and we continued to do so until we lost track of each other.

In the state of mind in which I was, I had not the slightest thought of going after one or the other of my two companions, and I like them took my way. I stopped only when the lungs reached their maximum endurance as well as my legs and my stomach. I leaned against the corner of a house that was right on the crossroads of a great route and freed my stomach on the cobblestones of the street. I felt immediately better.

I had no idea where I was and frankly, that was the last of my concerns. I went back on the road, staggering, directed who knows where, lost deep in my thoughts. That was a moonless night, and I felt plunged more than ever in its darkness. I got home just at sunrise and passed out as soon as my head touched the soft bed pillow. Inexplicably, I slept for three days, and when I finally woke up, I was in a state of confusion, which lasted for four more days.

At the dawn of the eighth day finally, I remembered everything, and then the doubts about my sanity overwhelmed me. Had what I experienced really happened, or was it all a figment of my imagination? It was a question that I could not give an answer except through the mouth of one of the two persons who were with me that night at the Baron's mansion.

I left my house when the sun was just rising and went immediately to the house of Adrien, hoping that he would be awake and could help me shed some light at last on that entire sinister and bizarre situation. But unfortunately, things did not go as I hoped. As soon as I arrived at his home, I was informed that my dear friend had been caught, a few days earlier, by a high cerebral fever that made him delirious, and that is why I was not allowed to see him. No matter how insistently I asked his old servant to lead me to him, if only for a moment, my efforts were in vain. I left the door of his home with grave concern for the health of my friend and promised myself to return to visit him that afternoon, hoping that his condition improved in such a way to let him regain sanity.

At that point, I decided to walk to the house of Professor Duval, but once again, my hopes were disappointed. Not only was Duval not at home, but I was told he left to an unknown destination and in a hasty manner as well. He had thrown in bulk what he could in the suitcase and had taken the first coach he had found. He had said nothing, neither to the servants nor to his acquaintances. He had simply vanished into thin air, and no one knew if he would ever come back.

At that point, it was clear that something had happened that night at the home of the Baron, something so shocking to lead the professor to flee and Adrien to plunge into madness. I had tried, I must confess, to seek other explanations of such an event, more rational ones, but those that I found were not holding up even to the most superficial of the scrutiny.

I went then to the Parc de l'Orangerie. I decided to get there on foot. Although he was far away, I was not in a hurry and walking, I said to myself, would help me to rearrange my thoughts. Finally, I arrived at the mansion of the Baron a little before noon. I was tired, but no less confused than when I left my room at sunrise. I knocked at the door of the immense house and waited in vain for someone to open. I continued to strike the door with the heavy brass knocker until it became apparent that no one would ever have opened up because there was no one who could do it. I then tried to peek through the large windows of the ground floor, but my view was prevented by the heavy curtains, which made my efforts hopeless.

When I finally returned home, I listlessly ate a little of the broth that the maid had prepared me, and then I went back to my room where I lay down on the bed and forced myself to think. I had been a doctor for just a few days and already the long years spent bent over those old dusty books appeared to me as a useless waste of time. I thought about the Baron and his mysterious guest, and how this latter had gone slowly transforming itself before my eyes. It is said that among all savages who had gathered on the shores of the island of San Salvador to attend that extraordinary event that was the arrival of the caravels of Columbus only a few of them were able to see the ships for what they were. Some instead saw gigantic pieces of floating wood, others not even that and others again finally saw nothing but the clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean rippling under the wind.

I wanted to believe that the bizarre behavior of the professor at that dinner was due to the fact that he was the first among us to see the true appearance of Nefertiti, and this I believe is due to the fact that his eye was the wittiest, as accustomed to the sight of bizarre organisms, terrifying and alien to our minds, thanks to long years spent bent over a microscope. Who or what really Nefertiti was - is a mystery that will remain such, as well as the words of Baron about the fifth element and the Breath of God that he claimed to have discovered. I had the opportunity to know what lies beyond the threshold of the unknown, and I lost it because I was unprepared and frightened. It is a regret that I will have to live with for the rest of my days unless I discover the appropriate means that will lead me to find again that hidden threshold and have the courage to put my foot on the other side.

When I woke up from my afternoon nap that distant day many years ago, in me still was not clear that intention, but a seed was already planted in my heart that would soon sprout. I decided to get up from the bed, to wash myself, to shave, and finally change the dirty clothes I had been wearing for more than a week. I ate a little of the broth that advanced from the lunch and finally went out on the street as the sun disappeared behind the rooftops of the houses.

I arrived again at the house of Adrien with my heart a little lighter this time, without even knowing why. I was told a cerebral congestion took him away that afternoon, shortly after I had left heading to Duval's home. I left Strasbourg that same night. Back home, I packed my suitcase, I paid the rent due for my room and left without saying anything to anyone. Just as Duval did. His decision was now no longer so incomprehensible to me. I did not know where I was going, I had no destination, but only the desire to leave. With the last money I had in my pocket, I bought a horse and a saddle and left the rest to chance.

I had discovered that the fate can be more devious than ever you might expect. After all, the unknown is like a big spider web. When you bump into it, you always run the risk of getting entangled in its viscous filaments. No matter how much you toss and turn, the more it clings to you until you come to the understanding that it is probably much better to surrender in resignation.

 

Aristodemus Menoítios
London
18--

 

 


 

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