And now what’s left?… So long Jack!… – Henri Vernes
This is a true story. It features Jean Ray, who has authorized me to report it here, so that I can insert a supplementary item into the dossier of that strange man who, much more than you can imagine, lived on the margins of our everyday world.
It happened at a time when the grand old seadog and cynic, gripped by an unexpected passion for cemeteries that would furnish the framework for several of his dark stories, took it into his head to gather firsthand information from all over in order to enthuse his blasé soul and further stimulate his fevered imagination.
We knew Jean Ray. He wasn’t far off sixty years old at the time of this story. His face already looked like grey rock, his cheeks were hollow, the passing years would bring no further change to the lines etched in his face. But a fearsome, superabundantly youthful strength dwelt in his powerful torso and animated his formidable muscles.
My singular friend had dropped in on me without a word of warning. He tossed his faded felt hat on a chair and gazed at me without saying a word, smoothing his flat hair with a nervous hand. A gleam of passion danced in his cold, grey eyes. What new adventure was he ready to embark on?
“I’m leaving for Bernkastel on the German Moselle,” he said. “There’s something important I have to do. I’d be glad if you could free yourself up for forty eight hours. You won’t regret it either!”
What could he be up to in that forsaken spot at this time of year? My curiosity was piqued. Besides, how could I resist this demon of a man whose visits to me seemed too brief and all too rare? Two days in his company for something important was well worth the trouble of rearranging my diary.
It was the eve of All Saint’s Day, which made things easier. I promptly got myself organized without asking further explanations, which in any event he wouldn’t have provided, and so we set out.
I don’t remember much about the journey, except that we stopped overnight at Koblenz, after a highly picturesque supper in the company of an odd little old man with a smooth, round face, who held my friend in great esteem, didn’t speak a word to me and didn’t once meet my eyes. He soaked up Jean Ray’s talk with an almost juvenile eagerness.
The latter, in fine form, put on a philosophico-mathematical performance such as only he knew how. His voice, by turns sonorously grave and resonant, his particular manner of throwing back his head and shoulders to charm or challenge, along with lots of other tricks of look or gesture, held his already captive listener literally spellbound.
He was a retired professor who had taught God knows what at Heidelberg and with whom a rendezvous had been arranged to coincide with our passing through.
Nothing was said about the aim of our travels, at least not while I was present. As our tall glasses filled up with Rhenish wine the chubby face of Professor Riemenscheider acquired a purplish hue that made it look like a fig.
When he was perfectly ripe Jean Ray signalled that I should leave, and I beat a discreet retreat. I wasn’t to see this strange little man again, and I don’t know what’s become of him.
I went up to bed and lost no time in falling into a deep sleep.
The next day Jean Ray came to my room along with the waiter who brought breakfast. He was in fine fettle, impatient and full of animation, and his manner, I thought, was that of a hunting dog that has scented a track.
“Okay,” he said, “We’re leaving for Cusanus’s home town.”
“Cusanus? And who might he be?”
“My dear fellow, he was a humanist who lived in the 15th century and died a cardinal at the age of sixty three.”
“Funny name for a cardinal.”
“Cusanus, Cusanus,” Jean Ray repeated several times, with his Ghent accent which makes him displace the tonic accent on certain words. “His actual name is Nicolaus von Cues. He was a pioneer in philosophy and modern science. Under his influence scholasticism started coming to terms with the scientific conception of the world.”
“Ah! Now I understand yesterday evening’s talk. No doubt Professor Riemenscheider is a devout admirer of this Cardinal.”
“Well guessed! I had to show my credentials to get what I wanted from that good chap. Riemenscheider is a man of science. Writers interest him only so far as they share his concerns. For him, imagination without a scientific foundation is below contempt.”
“So, you must have expected something pretty important from the man if you stooped so low as to flatter his obsessions.”
“Correct. He was completely drunk when I took him back home. But he had enough presence of mind to trust me with the document I was hoping for.”
Jean Ray placed a finger on his thin-lipped mouth and smiled ambiguously.
“Let’s finish eating and press on,” he said. “I’ll tell you all about it en route.”
So we went to Bernkastel, a little old town also called Bernkastel-Kues, where Cardinal Cusanus first saw the light of day and where some hours later I was to encounter picturesque charm and also funereal mysteries.
Jean Ray informed me that the cemetery was deconsecrated and that, on this account, we would be able to see the tomb of an authentic vampire, a young woman who had died in the middle of the previous century.
The story of this damned creature and her sinister exploits had been long forgotten, and no doubt there was no-one left in Bernkastel who still dwelt on these bygone legends. But the parchment wrested from Riemenscheider took it as an article of faith. By what detours had my old friend become aware of the thing? It would have been vain to hope that Jean Ray would shed light on this. He never names his sources. So there’s no doubt that an entire network of sulphurous knowledge will vanish with him, much to the detriment of a better understanding of the world of mysteries that our ignorance prevents us from perceiving and in which we are embroiled without our knowing it.
The grimoire unfolded by my old friend was covered in admirable calligraphy; gothic writing whose ink had tarnished in aging. It was nothing but curlicues, flourishes, a lacework of outlines with thick and thin strokes forming knotted traces that were for me absolutely indecipherable, even if I’d been better placed for examining them, rather than at the steering wheel of a motor car speeding as fast as possible along the route that links the twists and turns of the Moselle, all along slopes planted with vines.
“We’re going to visit Esther von Schaefer,” Jean Ray told me, ‘a sweet little girl who died around the time of the Bourgeois Revolution and who without any doubt has drunk more human blood than I’ve drunk whisky, and that’s saying something!… She’s buried at Bernkastel, and her bones must be exhumed right away so we can add them to the other nameless or abandoned cadavers, already gathered together in an ossuary while awaiting the last judgement.”
We then talked at length on vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, curses from beyond the grave and other topics of the kind that already over many years had woven between us that affinity of heart and mind that has so wonderfully nourished my sensibility and my imagination.
It was evening when we arrived at Bernkastel. After having crossed the bridge over the Moselle, we parked the car in front of the Drei Köninge hotel where we went to reserve rooms and fresh ourselves up, after having shown our passports to a hotelier who was a shade too solemn and stiff for my liking.
Jean Ray was in a hurry to discover the sites.
We decided to head uphill, walking in the direction of the Landshut castle, to determine the location of the cemetery on the way and then to sample a bottle of Bernkastel Doktor, the finest vintage of the region.
We crossed the square with its pretty, picturesque houses, and suddenly, to our left, on the flank of the hill that dominates the little town, an astonishing spectacle was offered up to our eyes.
Hundreds of little red flames flickered at ground level, between which silent shadows passed to and fro.
My companion gripped my arm.
“The cemetery,” he murmured. “It’s the feast of All Saints today. It’s the custom to light a little candle on the tombs, inserted in a transparent vase. Let’s hurry.”
We entered the garden of rest. Seen from up close the spectacle was infinitely less disquieting than one might have imagined from a distance. An atmosphere of peace and even of meditation emanated from this rather pagan form of piety.
We crossed the path of people who, unconcerned by our presence, were going about noiselessly to lay a blossom of flame on the tomb of a loved one, leaving discreetly after a moment of silent reflection.
The part of the cemetery on our right, the length of a half collapsed wall, was gutted, as though in the wake of a bombing. Pieces of tombstone were heaped up in a corner. Elsewhere there could be seen a confusion of planks, tools, all the materials of a business tasked with exhuming and transferring those poor remains about whom their families still cared.
Jean Ray went ferreting like a dog among the debris and the earthworks. For a good while I lost sight of him. From the hollow of the valley I was contemplating the zig-zag of the river gleaming under the moon when I saw him reappear, a little light in his hand. His terrible features, bearing the marks of life, were thrown strangely into relief by the feeble illumination, and for a few seconds I was afraid of him.
“I’ve found it,” he said. “This way…”
We crossed the heaps of loose soil, of planks, the debris of forged iron fencing, bundles of briar gathered for burning, and in this way came to a little mausoleum dislocated by adverse weather and the passage of the years. The cast-iron gate that was supposed to prevent entry had been long since broken, but on the inside a slab covered by moss and earth, cracked in several places, still sealed a dislodged burial vault. A stale underground smell prevailed in this oppressively melancholy location.
Jean Ray knelt, placed his light on the ground and took from his pocket his sailor’s knife, which had seen plenty of other pockets. He set himself to clearing the covering of filth and moss from the stone. Carved, timeworn letters soon appeared and we were able to decipher the name of Esther von Schaefer, not easily but with no possibility of error. Or rather we deduced it because several letters would have been illegible if we hadn’t known what we were looking for. We sat at the threshold of this little chapel for a moment of reflection. In fact Jean Ray paused for thought while cleaning his fingernails. As for me, I was desperate for something to eat and, above all, for something to drink, and couldn’t really think of anything but the fine wine I’d been promised.
My companion, no doubt intuiting my unspoken longing, declared after a lengthy silence:
“Let’s go and eat. We’ll come back afterward. We’ll be easier about what we have to do…”
The cemetery was already deserted when we left. Many of the little lights had ceased flickering, their tapers consumed. In two hours it would be the uninhabited peace of the night-time…
A hasty meal, preoccupied with our spiritual concerns. The Bernkastel Doktor, in spite of its price, didn’t altogether meet with my approval. The patron, unbending a little, came to chat with us as we finished our meal. He apologized a little for the limited choice on offer. As it was the end of season, he was due to close his establishment in a few days time. Hearing our intention of making another little tour of the town, he entrusted us with the key. Soon liberated, we set off again.
At the cemetery Jean Ray took hold of a pickaxe and lever chosen from among the tools ranged against the wall. A few moments later, he attacked the slab of Esther von Schaeffer’s tomb.
I felt uneasy. When seen from afar, this kind of expedition has an adventurous and picturesque appeal. But close at hand, under the moon in a genuine cemetery, in the anxious silence of an almost rural night while the upsetting smell of wood fires wafts up to you, I felt the fear of sacrilege weighing down on me, and all my childhood fears assailed me with an intensity that was almost unbearable.
My friend had inserted his lever in one of the gaps in the broken slab. He pushed down with all his weight and I heard him breathing hard. Soon I was invited to push aside a raised fragment. We cautiously slid off another, bigger piece that he was able to shift, this time uncovering a large opening.
A chill ran up my spine. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Esther von Schaeffer had emerged from her sepulchre at that moment. I trembled; nerves, and, no doubt, fear too. I imagined that menacing shadows were prowling round us. I cast uneasy glances on all sides, expecting the worst.
Jean Ray, by contrast, was remarkably calm. The man has never been afraid of anything; what’s more he carried out his work of tomb raider with incredible boldness.
There was something diabolical in his behaviour.
Diabolical is the right word. A kind of shadowy power emanated from his robust frame, a cynical audacity, a need to act dangerously which is the sure sign of his destined character.
He lay flat on the ground, pulled his electric torch from his pocket, waited until his arm was inserted into the opening and switched on the light.
“Come and see,” he said in a hollow voice.
“I’d rather not.”
“I’m telling you, look.”
I knelt down reluctantly and cast a fearful glance into the grave.
It wasn’t very deep. About a metre and a half. At the bottom, among the detritus, we could easily made out an open coffin, empty, covered with dirt. The lid, under the deposits of centuries of plaster and rubble, leaning upright against the ashlar wall, almost formed part of it.
“I was sure of it!” Jean Ray said, getting up. “The doll isn’t at home.”
But in fact he didn’t characterise the absent dead girl as a “doll.”
I slept a disturbed sleep, haunted by lycanthropes and ghouls, where Jean Ray, Professor Riemenscheider, Esther von Schaeffer wrapped me up in grimoires like a mummy in its bandages, and exposed me on a tombstone surrounded by flickering votive lights.
At the moment when dawn was starting break, I fell into a deep sleep. It was late in the morning when I got up.
Jean Ray had gone out much earlier. He’d left word for me to wait for him; I did this in the hotel salon, seated in a plush-covered armchair, patiently watching the Moselle flowing at my feet or leafing through months-old magazines with limp, stained pages.
My old friend reappeared near midday. He’d made several visits. To the local doctor, to a lawyer and to a sickly-looking priest, but who, he strongly suspected – given his intelligence and evident competence – was a secret Jesuit.
How had my friend discovered these individuals? How had he been able to interest them in his concerns? What had he confided to them? As usual, he said nothing about any of this to me. It was clear, in any event, that he hadn’t drawn a blank. The information he returned with was substantial. A Madam von Schaeffer, descended from a venerable local family, an aged and unwell person, was being cared for in Trier, in a nursing home. He’d obtained the necessary introductions for paying her a visit.
When we left Bruxelles Jean Ray had told me “forty eight hours.” We were going to be away for a further three days, but in spite of the problems that created for me I didn’t regret having experienced the events that were to follow.
Trier. The oldest German city. The celebrated Augusta Trevirorum, founded by Augustus himself.
Strange city where the memory of Roman emperors and bishop princes were confusedly mixed together. Where ancient ruins and medieval monuments create the most astonishing and gigantic open air museum.
I’d like to have lingered there, sauntering between the Porta Nigra, the Dom and the Kaiserthermen.
There was no question of doing that. Jean Ray was in a frantic hurry. Something was compelling him to make haste, without a moment lost. So we promptly presented ourselves at the nursing home where the woman we sought was lodged.
The building nestled in the middle of a park surrounded by high walls. It was a combination of convent and barracks. It was run by nuns. We were received in a comfortless parlour where St Joseph was enthroned amidst green plants. Jean Ray handed a message over to the extern sister who disappeared in a noise of skirts and keys. After a long wait a Franciscan father came to see us, a smiling colossus who looked like a blacksmith in disguise, but who radiated a spirituality such as I have rarely encountered.
My friend passed an envelope to him. The monk looked over the message it contained. Then, having looked at me, his eyes interrogated my mentor. The latter silently mimed that it was okay. The Franciscan invited us to follow him. Corridors, stairways, chapel door wide open, nuns walking past in silence, cleaning women polishing copper or waxing furniture, smell of cooking and incense.
At the door of a room, a guardian nun was sewing, a basket at her feet. She got up and returned our greeting.
“You’ll find the person you’re looking for in here,” the priest said. “She’s been a lodger here for a dozen years. She’s alone in the world. She’s always been a calm resident who’s given us no problems, so I’m assured, but since yesterday evening her behaviour has beggared all description. The poor creature shows all the symptoms of diabolical possession. And that’s why I’ve been summoned…”
The Franciscan’s smile was both modest and resigned.
“…I’m an exorcist. That might seem rather old-fashioned to you. However I’ve seen quite a few peculiar things in my time. That sick old woman, almost an invalid, with no strength or powers of resistance, well, last night three nuns and myself couldn’t manage her. Your visit today may be providential. That’s why I took it on myself to welcome you, in the hope of perhaps bringing her comfort.”
Jean Ray made a deferential gesture with his hand, as though to say, “I’ve no wish to meddle,” but a sharply tense look showed on his face. What he thought was clearly a different matter.
“All my prayers,” the monk continued, all my most solemn invocations were in vain. I myself – this will make you smile when you see our poor invalid – didn’t count for more than a baby’s doll when her skinny hand grabbed my thigh. Stretched out in her bed she lifted me effortlessly off the ground and threw me against the wall four metres away, where I collapsed in a heap. All the time spewing out insults, blasphemies, obscenities, incoherent utterances in a unknown language, swollen as she was by the fluid of possession coming from the devil inside her.”
The good giant in sackcloth wasn’t joking. But he didn’t seem especially intimidated by the experience. He was a man of prayer, of great spiritual power, stalwart in positive virtues, and strong. It was evident that Jean Ray met with his approval and that in that residence full of old people and susceptible pious women it did him good to speak to a man with strength of character
“After you, Father,” said my friend.
The good guardian sister removed herself, and the Franciscan went in first, immediately unleashing a torrent of wails and insults.
The old woman, gaunt, hideous, dishevelled, exposed herself shamefully, tore the sheets as though they were blotting paper, leapt about in her bed that cracked as though being assaulted by two or three unhinged savages!
Full of horror and fear, I hung back at the door of the vast room, alongside the nun who had followed us, and who seemed more interested than terrified by the scene.
The Franciscan took three steps forward and in a strong voice uttered three Latin words that redoubled the demoniacal fury of the possessed woman. Then he calmly retreated out of concern for the wretched woman who he didn’t want to provoke unnecessarily.
She was now seated on her bed, her face convulsed, foaming at the mouth, her nightdress in tatters. She flung her emaciated hands forward to scratch or to repel, and nothing could be more distressing than that puerile and demented dumb-show.
Then something astonishing happened. Jean Ray walked slowly, terrifyingly toward her. I had already witnessed that impressive, overwhelming confidence one day when, right in front of me, he entered a cage of lions. I couldn’t see his eyes from where I was, but they must have been hypnotic. The possessed woman dropped her arm and stayed still, her eyes fixed on the unknown countenance. Then everything happened very quickly. Twice Jean Ray slapped the woman’s poor aching head, violently, and she uttered a terrible scream. Then my friend leapt like a wild beast to a corner of the room, toward a black pebble that had rolled there, come from I don’t know where. It must have been a burning ember, for the floor smoked under it and remained blackened afterwards.
Jean Ray grasped it adroitly and threw it into a stoup of holy water. That stone conch, fastened to the wall, immediately exploded.
The thing then shot through the broken window with the noise of a hurricane and disappeared among the garden trees, leaving behind it, as far as could be seen, a track like a stroke of lightning.
“Saved!” the Franciscan cried enthusiastically. “That’s what I call a job well done!”
Full of cordial admiration, he patted the shoulder of the miracle worker.
The invalid, pacified and covered up as well as could be by the smiling nun, lapsed directly into sleep.
My friend moistened his burned fingers with saliva. With ill-concealed satisfaction he gave the impression that there was nothing of the ordinary.
But my head was in a spin. I felt dizzy and fainted. It was the Franciscan, I was told, whose powerful arms carried me like a child down to the parlour where the good sisters served us a well-deserved restorative.
“A fiery liqueur,” said Jean Ray. “The like of which I’ve never tasted anywhere else.”