Mór Jókai ~ The Hostile Skulls

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As this story is of a somewhat horrible character, I would duly impress it upon my more timid readers that, if possible, they had better leave it unread. If, however, they have invested their money in the book in which it appears, they might at least not read it just before going to bed, for I don’t want the responsibility of their nightmares on my shoulders. This, at any rate, I can say: the event recorded actually happened. The fact that I have kept it a profound secret till now does honour to my powers of self-control.

When I was a young man, a budding novelist, in fact, as my printed transgressions of that period sufficiently testify, I was much addicted to subjects of a mystic, supernatural tendency; tales of mystery, gloomy prognostications, fatal accidents, had a peculiar attraction for me. I had a shorter beard, but longer hair, a smaller experience but a larger credulity than now, then it was just as well, now it would not be quite as well.

I was thus a very young man when, in the course of a holiday ramble, I arrived, quite alone, at night-time, at the mansion of one of our most enlightened magnates, whom, for the sake of anonymity, I will simply call Squire Gabriel.

We had seen and heard something of each other. I was a belated traveller far from any hostelry, while he was a householder and lived by the roadside, I wanted a night’s lodging, he had a castle. All these circumstances gave me a right to call upon him, and he received me right heartily, a guest, indeed, was no great rarity at his house.

Squire Gabriel was reputed to be a bit of an oddity, who dearly loved his joke. He had a library, being a well-read man; he had a room full of all sorts of stuffed birds and beasts which he had himself shot, and whose names he knew; he had an expensive picture-gallery, interesting family archives, and he was very much interested in machinery—not the sort of machinery that may be applied to useful purposes, but that which serves for pure amusement, and is meant to produce startling effects. For instance, he had standing by the door an iron man, who, whenever anybody opened the door, at once raised his musket and steadily took aim at the intruder till the door was shut, when he respectfully lowered his weapon again, to the mortal terror of timid visitors. On the hall table mysterious clarionettes played all sorts of tunes whenever any one leaned his elbows on it. There was a certain chair from which it was impossible to rise up again if once you sat down again, with so firm a grip did it hold you.

I had often heard tell of these harmless jests, and was quite prepared not to be surprised by them. But Squire Gabriel did not exhibit any of his jests to me. On the contrary, his conversation was grave, and he led me into the library, introduced me to his very curious and, indeed, really valuable collection of manuscripts, and showed me his armoury, his collection of seals, to which he ingeniously attached a good many singular historical anecdotes. Indeed, I was so impressed that I begged his permission to take notes of these anecdotes.

“Certainly, do so by all means,” he said, with the utmost courtesy, and, indeed, it seemed to afford him great delight to see me recording in my note-book what he had just told me of the dames and heroes of bygone days, of whom all that remained was a spur or a slipper, actually before our eyes.

What a rich source of historical information. Certainly I had no reason to regret my coming here.

Squire Gabriel had every reason to be perfectly satisfied with the interest I displayed in his historical recitals. His store, too, was absolutely inexhaustible, fresh data came pouring forth every moment.

In such diversions we spent the whole evening.

At supper-time we were joined by the squire’s man of business and one of his secretaries, who withdrew after the meal, and Squire Gabriel and I remained alone again.

He ordered tea to be brought into the Gothic chamber, and with the tea beside us, we may have gone on talking for a small matter of another hour or so, or, rather, he talked, but I listened.

The Gothic Room was the largest chamber in the castle wing. It derived its name from its curious old-fashioned furniture, and from a couple of mediæval niches in the Gothic style. The spacious fireplace in the centre of it was piled up with crackling logs, and close beside it were comfortable armchairs and sofas, in which we reclined at our ease and sipped our fragrant Pekoe.

The hearth was warm, the time was late, and the fatigues of travelling, I must confess, had made me so drowsy, that more than once during the cheerful conversation of my host, I caught myself in the act of resolutely inclining my head towards the cushion of the sofa.

Squire Gabriel observed my condition, and said, with a smile—

“You are very sleepy, I see.”

I had no reason to be insincere, so I replied that it was the very place in which to go to sleep.

“I should not advise you to do so, however,” remarked Squire Gabriel, gravely, “there is something queer about this room. I may tell you,” he added, “it is not very friendly to strangers, who have even died in it now and then.”

These words completely cleared slumber from my eyes.

“Ghosts visit it, perhaps?”

“It would be more correct to say they dwell in it, and they are visible day and night.”

Curiosity made me quite awake now. I began to look about me.

“When I say ghosts, I would not have you imagine anything so stupid as spectres wrapped in sheets and chained with fetters. The thing that is here is a perfectly simple object which can be held in your hand. Perhaps you would like to see it?”

What a question! I was immediately on my feet.

“Where’s your ghost? Let me see it!”

Squire Gabriel led me to one of the niches which was covered by a green curtain, and drawing aside the curtain, pointed out to me two skulls which were covered by a round glass, and, curiously enough, were turned back to back.

I had seen something of the sort before, and was by no means inclined to recognize anything ghostly in them. They were simply fragments of a human skeleton, as little alarming as an extracted tooth, of which it never occurs to anybody to be afraid.

“These are the skulls of two brothers, the Counts Kalmanffy, to whom this property formerly belonged, and who built a wing of the castle. Their history is very tragic. They were constantly opposed to each other and wrangling about the possession of the castle, and one day, soon after a reconciliation, the elder brother suddenly invited the younger one to be his guest, and when he had well filled him with strong wine, drove a long nail into his head while he lay there in a drunken sleep. The nail is also here. A servant who was privy to the evil deed subsequently betrayed the elder brother, who was beheaded for his crime. His body they buried as usual under the place of execution, but the severed head they allowed to be buried in the family vault, where the bones of the murdered brother were also deposited. The heads of the two brothers were placed side by side in a niche, and so these mortal enemies, who could not endure each other during their life-time, were turned face to face. On one occasion, however, some one who had to do some work or other in the vault, was amazed to perceive that the heads of the two brothers were now turned back to back. The fellow was not very frightened. He had had a good deal to do with human remains, and fancied some truant rats might have effected the change, so he simply put the two skulls face to face again. Next day he went down to have another look at them, and again they were turned in the opposite direction.

“And so it went on for a whole week. The fellow turned the skulls round every day, and every night they changed their positions of their own accord. The guardian of the vault got quite ill over it. He began to pine and grow melancholy mad, till at length the young chaplain took the bull by the horns, and asked him what ailed him, or if he had anything on his mind.

“The old family retainer, with some agitation, confessed the ghostly secret, on account of which he was in a fair way of becoming a ghost himself.

“The parson was an enlightened man, and was determined to convince the superstitious old fellow that he was mistaken, so he went down into the vault himself to look at this alleged marvel.

“There, then, the two skulls were, turned back to back, and the old servant solemnly swore that the evening before he had placed them cheek by jowl.

“‘Impossible,’ said the clergyman. ‘A lifeless body has no volition. These things are nothing but two pieces of bone, without nerves, without muscles: they cannot move of their own accord.’

“And, to make his words the more impressive, he seized one of the skulls in order to lift it, and show the doubter that it was merely an inert mass, incapable of movement.

“At that very instant the skull gave the clergyman’s little finger such a nip that he could scarce disengage it from its teeth.

“After that the vault remained closed, and soon afterwards the old family servant died. As for the clergyman, he carried about with him till his death the mark of the bite on his little finger.

“The matter was kept secret, and so well kept indeed, that not a soul knew a word about it until I came into possession of the property. One day, while I was rummaging about in the old library, I came across the diary of the clergyman in question, in which he described the whole case, concluding his mysterious tale with the assurance that the door of the vault had been walled up in such and such a place. Since then a granary had been built up close beside it, and the locality had been completely forgotten.

“I immediately searched for the walled-up door. It was easy to discover, it had been so minutely described, broke it open and descended into it myself, and at once discovered the two hostile skulls, just as they had been placed, turned back to back.

“I confess, despite my naturally cynical disposition of mind, I had not the courage to lift up either of them; but I had the whole slab of stone on which they reposed, raised just as it was and placed in this room.

“Since then I have had many an unbelieving guest who has taken the whole thing for a joke, and has tried to convince himself of its reality with his own eyes. Although I don’t very much like jesting with this sort of thing, nevertheless when I really come upon a strong-minded man who is not afraid of running the risk of becoming melancholy mad for the rest of his days, I allow him to sleep in this room and persuade himself with his own eyes that the skulls which have been placed face to face in the evening, the next morning are found to be turned back to back again.

“This takes place regularly. My visitors are constrained to believe in this mysterious fact, and since the death of the clergyman already alluded to, none has dared to ridicule it.”

Squire Gabriel could perceive from my eyes that I also had a great mind to be convinced of this mysterious circumstance with my own eyes. Show me the youth of two and twenty who would not be interested in such an enigma!

I begged and prayed him to allow me to sleep in this room, and turn the skulls face to face.

Squire Gabriel did not attempt to dissuade me. My curiosity gratified him, he lifted the globular glass, very cautiously turned the two death’s heads face to face, and then covered them again with the glass.

Then he indicated the alcove where I should find my couch, wished me a good night, and left me alone.

The squire and his secretaries lived alone in the top-floor of the spacious castle. The servants slept in rooms on the ground floor. Between the Gothic room and their dormitories lay two or three halls of various sizes, so that I may be said to have been left alone in my wing, and was as far as possible from every human being.

Despite my excited fancy I had still philosophy enough left not to let any one play pranks with me. First of all I examined the walls; there was no visible means of entrance into the room. Then I thoroughly investigated the niche; it was absolutely inaccessible. It was carved out of a single slab of hard marble, and was all of a piece. The door I bolted, and then drew the sofa before it and lay down on it. I was now immediately opposite the curtained niche.

Moreover I took an additional precaution. The silk curtain which covered the niche was hitched upon some ornamental moulding, and hung down in picturesque folds. I took out my pocket-book and made a sketch of the curtain down to the very last detail.

Now, that was a very artful idea of mine.

If any being, clothed with a jacket, were to try to get at the skulls, he was bound to disturb the curtain; but the slightest contact would disturb its folds, and destroy its resemblance to the drawing of it in my pocket-book.

Then I piled some fresh logs on the fire, placed the candelabra beside me on a little one-legged table, and flung myself on the sofa with the firm purpose not to go to sleep.

I knew that tea had the property of keeping a man awake, so I filled myself another cup. I added to it a spoonful of rum. I hardly tasted it. Yet at other times a spoonful of rum would have been quite enough to upset me. I poured in still more. Even that did not make it stronger. Then it suddenly occurred to me that there was a flask of cognac in the cupboard beside the fireplace. Squire Gabriel had pointed it out to me a short time before, but then I had not required it. It was very curious I should feel the want of strong drinks just at that moment.

I got up to fetch it. I tasted it. It certainly was strong, very much so. I filled up my cup with it, and then it occurred to me that there was no wire screen in front of the fire. A spark might pop out of it any moment. I went to the fireplace straightway, and began pushing back the burning embers with the poker. A spark popped out and burnt my hand. Then I shut the iron register, and went back towards my tea-table.

A nice surprise awaited me.

On the very sofa which I had drawn up for my own use two gentlemen were sitting whom I seemed to know very well, but whose names I could not remember. One of them had short, light, curly hair, and an angry red beard; the other had black hair and a long dangling moustache, but was otherwise clean shaved, and a round bald patch was visible on the top of his head.

The first of these gentlemen, who was stripped to the shirt, wore a silken vest with gold buttons; the other was dressed in a short linen jacket, bravely embroidered at the back.

These two gentlemen were sipping at their ease the cognaced tea which I had prepared for myself. First one took a sip and then the other, the pair of them out of one cup, quite fraternally.

Amazement first, and then fear, seized me. I durst not approach them, but sat down in a dark corner, from whence I watched to see what they would do.

The two gentlemen glared oddly enough at each other, and presently they began to converse.

“Good evening, Kalmanffy minor!”

“Good evening, Kalmanffy major!”

“Then you’re here again, Kalmanffy minor?”

“And here I remain, Kalmanffy major!”

“This castle is too strait for the two of us.”

“There would be lots of room if one of us dwelt beneath it.”

“Beneath it? I suppose you mean in the cellar?”

“No, deeper still; in the family vault.”

“We must settle this business once for all, Kalmanffy minor.”

“Yes, and now that we are quite alone is the time, Kalmanffy major?”

“Do you prefer pistols or swords?”

“I should like both; but I fear they might betray us.”

“True, firearms make a noise, and cold steel makes blood to flow; we want no such witnesses.”

“A cup of poison, and drawing lots for it—that would be best.”

“Not bad; but it leaves corpse-marks on the face.”

“I’ve a better plan. Here is strong drink before us; let us drink each other down.”

“And then?”

“Then, whichever of us keeps sober shall do for the other. Here is a long nail and a hammer. If it be driven well into the skull, none will be a penny the wiser.”

“True, especially in your case, who have such thick hair; but I have a moon on the top of my head.”

“Never fear. I’ll make a good job of it.”

I’m bound to confess that a cold shiver ran through me as I listened to this conversation. Even if I wanted to escape there was no means of escaping, for they sat right in front of the door opposite which I had drawn the chair and the sofa.

Then they both began drinking out of the same cup, first one and then the other. They filled it up for each other from the cognac flask right up to the brim, so that the liquid flowed over the edge of the cup.

“Your health, my brother!”

“Your health!”

Each of them always said this with such a devilish smile as he watched his brother gasp and choke as he swallowed the intoxicating stuff, while his head waggled backwards and forwards, and his face turned a ghastly yellow or a flaming red, and the veins on his temples stood out in green and blue knots like strained cords.

“You are drunk, my brother!”

“Nay, ’tis you.”

Meanwhile the candles burning on the table began to burn low. It seemed as if a bloody mist were enveloping their flames, which gradually assumed a dusky lilac hue. The two faces suddenly went quite pale, the two heads suddenly grew quite shaky; it was hard to say which of them would fall down first.

The flames of the candles had now passed into the darkest green, and in that green light the two faces seemed of a deadly pallor. They were no longer able to converse, but glared at each other with stony eyes, and kept offering each other the intoxicating drink.

Suddenly the candles flared up, and then went out. The two figures instantly disappeared.

The moon was shining through the painted windows in all her glory; the burning logs in the fireplace cast a rosy light into the semi-darkness. I was alone in the room.

I dreamt it all, I said, and I laughed at myself, though my teeth kept on chattering. It was a dream, a dream, I kept on reassuring myself. Now I will go and lie down. I’ll take off my things, I’ll get into bed, I’ll draw the bed-clothes over my head, and then let them go on haunting as much as they like. They may rise from their graves and roam about to their hearts’ content. I shall simply take no notice.

The moon shone with a beautiful white light; the fire gave forth a nice rosy illumination. I had no need of the candles, which I could not have lit had I wanted to, for they had burnt down to the very socket. I shall be able to find the bed quite comfortably. So I undressed myself leisurely, wound up my watch, and drew aside the curtains of the alcove which contained the bed, in order to lie down on it.

Horror rooted me to the spot.

In the bed lay the two brothers side by side; two fearfully distorted corpses. One of them lay on his back, but with his face looking down, and in his bald head the head of the nail shone in the moonlight like a dark blue spot; the other brother lay beside him with his head turned towards the sky.

Horror, I say, paralyzed me. I had not strength to move a limb. I would have cried out, but I had no voice. I would have seized the bell-rope, but my hand was powerless. I would have fled, but my legs weighed me down like lead. My chest was oppressed, my legs were benumbed. At last, with a most desperate effort of my will, and after frightful torments, I pronounced something or other—and immediately awoke.

Those who have suffered from nightmare will understand what a torture it is under the circumstances to utter a word.

It was morning, and the sun was shining through the tall poplars. There, too, I was lying on the sofa in front of the closed door, where I had laid down in order not to fall asleep.

The candles really had burnt down to their sockets, and the teacup was really empty. However, I was inclined to believe that I had put nothing into it the night before, and that tea, rum, and cognac had all been simply dreamt.

But—now comes the most terrible part of this ghost story.

What had been happening in the niche all this time?

The curtain was precisely as I had sketched it, not a wrinkle of a fold had been changed in it.

Therefore, nobody could have laid hands upon it.

Still completely possessed by the memory of my nightly visions, I approached the mysterious niche, and I cannot deny that my hand trembled as I drew aside the curtain.

And, behold . . . the two mortally hostile skulls were turned back to back!

A cold shudder ran twice or thrice right down my body.

This, at any rate, was no dream. I saw it. It was broad daylight. Outside, the usual daily noise and racket had begun, and at that very time I saw before me the most frightful of phantoms.

Then things really do happen beneath the sun which our philosophy cannot account for?

Then it is a fact that those two lifeless skulls live and hate and turn from each other even after death?

I don’t believe it, it is impossible, it is not true.

I see, I tremble at it, and yet it is not true.

It is true, and yet I don’t believe it.

I then bethought me of the story of the clergyman who was said to have discovered the subterranean marvel, and dared to put his hand on the head of the spectre, and then carried about the marks of its teeth to his dying day.

I don’t care.

I’ll let it bite me too.

I lifted the glass from the skulls. My heart may have beaten violently, I don’t deny it. I stretched out my arm. My hand came in contact with a cold jaw-bone. I raised it and turned it round.

Hah!

What had happened? Had it bit me?

I should have flung it away with all my heart if it had; but at that instant I discovered that it was provided with a cunningly constructed piece of clockwork, which made it turn round if you pressed a spring. The other skull was provided with a similar contrivance.

At the breakfast-table I encountered Squire Gabriel. As usual he was very solemn, so was I.

“How did you sleep?” he inquired, with sympathetic courtesy.

“Thank you, very badly. I drank lots of tea yesterday evening, and it plagued me with all manner of spectres.”

“And what did the skulls do?”

“Well, they seem to have quite distinguished themselves for my special edification, for they not only turned their backs on each other, but even stood on their heads.”

At these words, Squire Gabriel laughed greatly.

“So you looked inside them, eh?”

“I did.”

“Now, look here! Forty persons have slept in that room; all of them have had experience of the marvel, and not one of them has looked to see if there was anything in the skulls.”

“They feared, perhaps, that it would fare with them as with the adventurous clergyman.”

“Were you not afraid?”

“Certainly, a little, but my curiosity was even greater than my fear. And now I very much regret I did look.”

“Why?”

“Because I am an historical anecdote the poorer.”

At this Squire Gabriel laughed more than ever.

“And I will make free to ask another question. Are the anecdotes, which I noted down in my memorandum-book yesterday, equally authentic?”

“You may boldly light your pipe with them,” replied the nobleman, with a smile.

I only did not do so because I am not in the habit of eating smoke.

Only one thing Squire Gabriel begged of me. I was not to mention my discovery to any one else, so that he might be able to give a salutary shock of terror to others also.

I promised that I would keep the secret for ten years.

The ten years expired last week, so the story of the two ghostly skulls can now become public property.
DGG fur DMdJ

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