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Title: The Château of Phantasies
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1401331h.html
Language: English
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The Château of Phantasies

by

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Cover

A MAJOR FORESTER STORY

ILLUSTRATED BY T.D. SKIDMORE

First published in Collier's Weekly, Jan 28, 1928
Collected in What Happened to Forester, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1929



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS




Illustration


"YOU are nothing more or less than a snob," my friend Denham declared as we sat side by side on a bench watching the sunlight filter through the pine trees behind the first tee at Cagnes.

"Because I object to char-à-bancs?" I protested.

"Because you object to the principle which riding in a char-à-bancs implies. None could possibly object to char-à-bancs for any sane reason. They are better hung than motor cars; their seats are more luxurious, the cost is trifling. All that you lose is your cursed exclusiveness. You object to other people sharing'the same privieges as yourself. You prefer the expense of a private automobile, which not all of us can afford, or else to remain at home when you might be exploring beautiful country rather than do so in company with your neighbors. I call that snobbishness."

"Very well," I agreed meekly, "take the seats, and I will come with you."...

On the whole, I was glad that I had allowed my friends to persuade me. We had a fine day for our excursion, and we crept sluggishly but safely across some of the mountainous roads at the back of Nice, through the heart of that hilly but richly fertile country of old villages, of flower farms and tucked-away homesteads, from behind the gates of which the peasant folk stared at us, still with a touch of that dumb wonder which seems always lurking in the mind of the yokel who lives in the quiet places.

Toward afternoon we came to a standstill halfway up a precipitous hill, and the driver of the car descended to effect some slight repairs. It was a picturesque although a wild spot. On one side of us was a precipice; on the other a wood, cut through by one of those straight, formal drives, leading to a château, weather-stained, forbidding-looking, with its rows of narrow, empty windows. I pointed it out to the conductor of the char-à- bancs.

"A lonely place for a large house," I remarked. "Who lives up there?"

To my surprise—for the French people of that order today are far from being a religious race—the man crossed himself.

"One believes," he replied, "the Comte de Trebault. The house is never visited, though."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I have heard something of this," my friend intervened from his place by my side. So that is the Château Trebault! The Trebaults of hundreds of years ago were supposed to welcome their visitors with the oubliette, the dungeon opening only at the top. There are legends about the present man. Is it not so?" he inquired of the conductor.

"The country people talk," the man acknowledged. "Their stories are wild, but the fact remains—there is no one who visits the Château Trebault."

He descended to help the driver of the char-à-bancs with his task. I looked up the stony, winding road above, unprotected on either side, twisting and curving its way almost around the summit of one of the spurs of the mountain range which we had to cross before we dropped into the plain of the Mediterranean. Then I looked back at the château, and a curious sensation came to me. There was no actual change in that long front of sightless windows, yet, whereas I had looked at them only a few moments before in dumb and passive curiosity, I was now suddenly and profoundly intrigued.

The spirit of enterprise which in my younger days had led me into so many strange places seemed, without reason or incentive, rekindled. I felt that the apparent desertion of the house was a farce, that the broad, uninviting avenue, with the dank weeds and grass-grown borders, was in effect one of those passages opening out from the lives of all of us, at the far end of which shines the lamp of adventure. I rose and prepared to climb down.

"Where are you off to?" my friend Denham asked.

"I am going to speak to the driver of the char-à-bancs," I replied.

Denham knew that I was something of a mechanic, and he let me go. It was not in my mind, however, to offer help. I stood by the man's side for a moment, watching him lay out his tools.

"Shall we be long?" I asked.

"One cannot say, sir," he replied, a little surlily. "Half an hour at least. If one of you gentlemen would take the trouble, it would be a good thing to walk on to the next bend and prevent anything coming round. They could not pass here."...

I glanced up the zigzag road, which in the far distance seemed little more than a goat track. I fancied that I saw some disturbance upon the horizon—or was it merely a cloud of dust blown into a cyclone by the wind which was sobbing around us? One of the bystanders started off to the corner, but I turned away, approached the fine but rusty gates of the Château Trebault, shook the chain which locked them together, and, finding it secure, stepped round the side through a gap in the prickly hedge, and started off up the deserted avenue. Even as I did so I fancied that I heard a clamor of voices behind; nevertheless I held on my way.

The gale, which had been blowing in great gusts from mountains and booming through which the the valleys, seemed, even in this sheltered spot, to be spending itself in a sort of fantastic fury. Besides the black cypress trees on each side of me, bending this way and that with a lack of unison which seemed somehow grotesque, there was a medley of other trees and shrubs, among which the wind was making havoc. Little twigs of deadwood were blown down upon my head, delicate leaves of oleander blossom floated in the air, sometimes caught up by eddies of wind until they sailed over the tops of the trees, sometimes falling like huge flakes of snow upon the avenue; and, all along, until I reached the great round opening with its dead fountain in the middle of a jungle of weedy grass, there was no sign that any human being had traversed its desolate way.

The French are not used to neglect any yard of tillable land, yet, as I came out into the open spaces surrounding the château, on one side of me were uncared-for vineyards, where the vines, without pruning, had been allowed to run riot, and on the other side a wilderness of pasture land upon which no cattle had fed or reaping machine taken toll. The front of the house was longer and more imposing than I had imagined from the road. There must have been a dozen windows at least on each side of the huge front door, and on each of the corners of the building were the four Provençal towers.

Upon the step in front of the door lay the remains of a rusty bell, dragged from its socket. I leaned forward and struck the panels with a walking stick which I was carrying. Thick though it must have been, I seemed to hear the echoes of my summons resounding in caverns of emptiness within.

"No one will come," I said to myself. "There could be no one here alive." Yet I struck again and again, until, much to my amazement (a little also to my fear!) I heard the sound of footsteps approaching the entrance—slow, solemn footsteps—the footsteps, so far as I could gather, of a heavy man.

I stepped a yard back into the windy twilight and waited. The footsteps ceased; a lock was turned; the door was thrown open. I found myself face to face with a man who, save for his beard and his worn clothes, might very well have been the butler of such a house. The very way in which he leaned deferentially forward was professional. He left me to speak.

"Is your master at home?" I asked.

"Monsieur le Comte is at home, but he does not receive," was the stolid reply.

I produced a card.

"I am an English tourist," I told the man, "stranded here by a mishap. I wondered whether it would be possible for me to look over the château?"

"Monsieur will be pleased to step inside," he invited.

I followed him into what seemed to be at first a chasm of twilight. Then, as my eyes became accustomed to the change, I saw that we had passed into a great hall, the size of which, considering the external architecture, was a surprise to me. It was barely but in a way magnificently furnished. There were some oak chests of prodigious size and wonderfully carved against the white walls.

The atmosphere of the place seemed to me, coming from the stormy freshness outside, dank, chill as the air of a mausoleum. One could well believe that the door which had rolled open to admit me had been kept fast closed for a hundred years. The greater my surprise, therefore, when I was ushered into a room of no particular size, furnished still, it is true, in the fashion of generations ago, but with many evidences of modern civilization.

The solitary occupant of the room was almost invisible in the depths of an easy-chair with protruding sides. He rose to his feet, however, at the first sound of the servant's voice, and stood confronting me.

"This gentleman. Monsieur le Comte, asked if it were permitted to see over the house?"

The Comte de Trebault, as I judged him to be, looked at me with an air of well-bred surprise. I felt that I had been guilty of an impertinence.

"But what could there be about my house to interest Monsieur?" he demanded.

"I offer you a thousand apologies, sir," I said, as the man withdrew, closing the door behind him. "The fact of it is that I am a tourist, and I have a natural fondness for old places, old furniture, old pictures. Your house looked as though it might well contain such treasures."

"But my house is not a museum," was the cold response.

"I can only offer you my apologies," I concluded, turning toward the door.

His attitude suddenly changed. He held out his hand.

"Give yourself the trouble to pause for a moment, monsieur," he begged. "Since you are here, you shall have your wish. You shall see the treasures of the House of Trebault."

He lifted the lamp from the table, and led me from the room, pausing first in the center of the great hall. By the light of the lamp, which he held over his head, I could see clearly now three empty spaces where some time or other huge pictures must have hung. Now only the black outline of where the frames had rested remained.

"The center one you doubtless recognize from its description," he said. "It is the Andrea del Sarto stolen by mercenaries while on its way from Florence to the Court of King Francis. That on the left—the smaller painting—is by an artist unknown. You yourself, however, being a connoisseur, will doubtless divine its history. On the right is the only Murillo which ever came into the possession of my family."

I stared at the empty spaces, and I stared back at the tall, gaunt man who stood by my side. Not a muscle in his face moved.

A little dazed, I followed my cicerone. He threw open an oak door which rolled back as though it had been the entrance to a cathedral, and we passed into a gallery which must have taken up the whole of one side of the château. In the middle of the floor there were two long glass-topped cabinets—cabinets of oak with quaintly turned legs—and as far as I could see, along each side of the wall were those empty spaces where pictures had hung.

"The oak carving you see there," he went on, "was all the work of one man —the monk Ducellini, whom you will remember as having served under Michelangelo. It carries the history of the world from the birth of Christ through troublous periods to the dawn of the Renaissance. The picture above is a genuine Leonardo da Vinci."

He held up the lamp as though for me better to survey the gauntly empty space.

As my guide held the lamp still a little higher, I saw coming toward us a girl dressed in a lovely dark-colored gown with red about it, a girl who in that uncertain light seemed to me as though she might have stepped down from one of the frames of those non-existent masters.

My guide set down the lamp upon one of the ancient cases, and turned to me.

"Sir," he announced, with the air of one who has wearied of his task, "here is a guide who knows more than I. I beg you to excuse me."

He turned and left us, and I looked at the newcomer, tongue-tied. For, matter-of-fact person though I am, I was not sure whether she was human.

"I fear, monsieur," she regretted, "that my father has been indulging in one of his usual grim jests. He has been taking you for a tour to see treasures which do not exist."

"It was my own fault, mademoiselle," I acknowledged. "I had no right to intrude."

"If it was the love of beautiful things which brought you, monsieur," she rejoined, "you had certainly a right to come, but, you see, everything that we once owned has gone. "This is a house of emptiness."

I shivered, for even as she spoke the atmosphere of that great room seemed to chill my blood. And then it suddenly went warm again, for my companion's eyes lit, and my heart began to beat fast. Never before had I stood near anything so beautiful.

"Mademoiselle," I ventured, "I wish that there were indeed treasures here, that you might show them to me."

She laughed softly, but she led me imperceptibly toward the door.

"There are no longer any treasures under this roof," she repeated.

"Mademoiselle," I said, and I found it hard to control my voice, "I speak, believe me, with all respect, I speak from my heart, with great humility— there is a treasure which still remains here greater than any masterpiece which has ever adorned tuese walls."

"Are you trying to flatter me, sir?" she asked me.

"I am trying to find words, mademoiselle," I answered, "to tell you that you are more wonderful than anything I have ever dreamed of in life. If you send me away without a hope that we may meet again, you will make me the most miserable of men."

She laid her fingers upon my arm. Their touch was almost a caress. "Then you must come back," she whispered, "for I would make no one miserable."

* * * * *

IT seemed to me that I had closed my eyes in a wave of ecstasy, and I opened them to horror. For a moment or two I could make nothing of my surroundings. I was lying upon a rug by the side of the road, with my back to a low stone wall. Opposite me were four or five figures, all stretched out, motionless, their faces covered. Only a few yards away, strange and grotesque, was a huge misshapen mass of metal and wood and upholstery—an overturned char-à-bancs, with the steam still hissing out from the smashed radiator and drifting away down the valley. In my ears was a sound of sobbing and here and there a shriek of pain. Two men, who might have been doctors, were hurrying about; one, with a woman in nun's habit, was bending over another prostrate figure close at hand. A little way down the road a gendarme was keeping back an ever-increasing stream of carts and cars.

"What is it?" I gasped. "How did I come here?"

Then a voice answered me from underneath the great wide cap by my side, and I fancied that I must be back again in that mausoleum of a château:

"There has been an accident. Your char-à-bancs was run into by another. It was a very bad accident. If you can keep quiet until the ambulances come—"

I tried to turn to see if the face, too, were the same, and for the time that was the end of me....


Illustration

* * * * *

THERE was a slight injury to my head, and for a time I was forbidden questions. In due course, however, more rapidly than they had expected, convalescence came in earnest. Soon I was able to sit up.

My first visitor was Denham, the man who had called me a snob because I disliked char-à-bancs!

"Tell me what happened?" I begged.

"We were drawn up for some slight repair," he recounted—"you remember that, don't you?—by the side of the road. You decided to get out and see what was wrong. There was a blind corner about fifty yards up the hill, and round this came a new motor diligence from the other side, out of control. The brakes had given out; the driver was helpless. He simply sat there trying to steer his machine and shrieking. With our vehicle blocking the road, of course it was all up. I took a flying jump over the side, and just missed the collision. You were dashed against the char-à-bancs when it crumpled up. We won't talk about it too much. My nerves aren't what they were. There were sixteen of us in the thing, you know, and eight were killed outright."

Now, many things had seemed strange to me during these first days of my convalescence, and I had made up my mind to go quietly with my questions and speculations.

"Listen," I said to Denham, "as a cross-examination barrister would put it, I suggest to you that I had left the char-à-bancs, had entered the grounds of the château by a gap near the gates, and was at least halfway down the avenue before the collision took place."

Denham looked at me gravely.

"Forester," he advised; "try and get that idea out of your head. We are all a little dazed even now, but your injuries should speak for themselves. You were unconscious for at least ten days after you were picked up, and not only I but every other one of the survivors saw you trying in vain to get out of the way of the diligence."

I closed my eyes.

"Very well," I yielded. "Tell me the English news."...

I have a reasonably strong will, and, notwithstanding all temptations, I asked my friend no more questions then or at any other time. I set myself to the task of getting well, and I succeeded beyond the expectations of everyone. Soon I was permitted to sit out of doors, and, later on, to take short motor rides. Even then I did not hurry. I waited until I felt strength once more in my body and myself a man again. Then I hired a motor car and drove to the scene of the accident. I made my chauffeur pull up opposite the gates. Here once more I was puzzled. The man when he saw me descend crossed himself.

"Monsieur will not enter there," he begged quickly.

"I shall return in half an hour," I told him. "I am going to have a look at the château."

I made my way to the door. I missed the rusty bell handle which I seemed to remember, but I knocked, as before, on the panels, and listened. I went on knocking—but I listened in vain. All that I heard was the hollow echo of my tapping. In time I desisted, and, standing back, made a tour of the place.

It was two o'clock when I walked down that avenue with all the joy of the sunlit afternoon quivering in my pulses, and it seemed to me that I was stepping toward a new world. It was four o'clock before I retraced my weary steps, to find my chauffeur halfway down the avenue, looking fearfully toward the château. He exclaimed with joy on seeing me.

""Ah, it is Monsieur who returns!" he cried. "Good!"

He evidently seemed to imagine that I had escaped some great danger. I followed him listlessly into the automobile.

"Stop at the nearest café," I instructed him.

He obeyed. We found one about half a mile off, where I drank coffee and brandy, of which I was in need. It was merely a country inn, but the proprietor had an intelligent face. I called him to my table.

"Do you know anything of the deserted château down the hill?" I asked.

"There is little enough to know, monsieur," he replied. "It was once part of the domaine of the seigneurs of Trebault, as Monsieur may have heard. For many years it has remained unoccupied."

* * * * *

THE months dragged on for me a little wearily. The season at Monte Carlo, which, in my quiet way, I always enjoy, drew toward its close, but before the end came I tired of it. One day, just before the hour for déjeuner, I drove up to one of my secret havens—a small little-known pension not far from Venice.

I presented myself to Madame, who greeted me warmly as an old client and who herself escorted me to the little salon where luncheon was already being served. Then, as she was placing me at my table, one of those moments came in which the throb of the world seemed suddenly to cease. My hand gripped the back of my chair fiercely. Madame departed, unnoticing. I stood rigid. At the next table was a man whose back was toward me, and, facing him, unless I was going mad, was the châtelaine of the Château Trebault!

The singing in my ears passed. The fragment of my life to which these things belonged had been so clear-cut and detached that the capacity for wonder with regard to them had become dulled. It was only the sight of her eyes and that wonderful smile which had for the moment unnerved me. The smile remained—most amazing thing of all, there was recognition in her eyes. I let go the back of the chair, and found, to my immense relief, that I could stand upright. I moved to the table and bowed. The man glanced up—the very same man. The girl leaned forward.

"Monsieur has recovered?" she inquired.

"Perfectly," I answered.

It seemed to me that she must know everything. Perhaps she did. Who knows? At any rate, she knew the right thing to do, as she always has done— then and ever since.

"I can see," she went on, "that you only half remember me. I was at a training home for nurses close to where your accident took place, and I hurried down with some of the others when we heard of it. It was I who was with you when you came back to consciousness."

"I remember," I acknowledged. "And your—?"

"My father," she confided. "You have never met my father."

"My name is Forester," I told her— "Major Forester."

He bowed.

"My father, the Comte de Trebault," she announced, with a little gesture. We shook hands as strangers.

"I owe so much to your daughter," I murmured.

He smiled, not unpleasantly.

"You are alone," he remarked. "Pray join us."

I sat at their table. We three lunched together as though it were the most natural thing in the world. With our coffee I summoned up my courage, and alluded, as casually as possible, to the château.

"Your home is quite empty?" I ventured. "You never think of visiting it?"

"Never, monsieur," he answered, with a touch of that former bitterness. "I have not crossed the threshold for twenty years."

"My father," the girl explained softly, "very much resented the sale of all our family treasures by my uncle, but it had to be—there were debts to be paid."

"Naturally," I concurred gravely....

After luncheon Monsieur le Comte retired. He was an invalid and needed much rest. I walked with Angèle in the gardens. I flatter myself that I have always been a philosopher. I do not seek to probe those mysteries which are in themselves insoluble. And, in any case, about the greatest mystery of all there was nothing terrifying. It was a vital and human thing—the love which revealed itself so amazingly that the very words I faltered when I took her into my arms that afternoon in Madame's arbor seemed unnecessary. It was as though somewhere else they had been already spoken.


THE END

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