THE MASK OF A THOUSAND SOULSFranc68
'Non mortem timemus, sed cogitationem'.—
'We do not fear death, but the thought of death'.—Seneca
'Qualis artifex pereo'.—
'What an artist dies with me'.—Nero
Perhaps, you will deem me indubitably mad in the end, or even question the essential relevance of my inconceivable tale told—but I am not mad at all! I was an actual witness to the vecordy that had endured in that ancient castle of the innumerable victims that were murdered so tragically. They are the interminable clamours that haunt the abominable castle, with such consequential effects draining the unwonted thoughts of the guests that visit the castle seldomly. Horror has only a moral boundary to transgress that manifests, within the guilt of that unpardonable sin.
Verily, if I had known the unbearable terror of sanguinolency that had awaited me upon that ineffable night, I would have never—never—visited that illusory abode of the lingering souls of agony and despair. Hence, the voices of the phantoms of defunction still are heard in my head ringing, with the engrossing solitude that surrounds me in the unyielding nightmare I fear daily. Therefore, I shall proceed to relate to the curious reader this enthralling, chilling, peculiar tale of horror that will compel you to read—but at your absolute discretion.
The night was tenebrous and cold, when I had arrived by carriage to the castle of the Spanish count in the year 1825. He had requested my immediate service as a solicitor, and I was obliged to assist in that request. In his private correspondence I was apprised only of his expressed desire to have a representative of a noble reputation from England to handle his discreet affairs. I had dressed warm for the occasion, and along the road I had glanced at the marvellous view of the rustic landscape that I enjoyed during my adventures abroad. I had been momentarily staying in Córdoba, since I arrived in Spain from Madrid. I was expecting to not tarry much, and was looking forward to travel to Seville for intimate leisure. I shall endeavour to make a thorough and accurate description of this ancient Moorish castle that had stood erect on the top of a hillside, towering over the village of Almodóvar. It was broad and colossal in structure, and its high walls were full with rows of cuspidate spikes, and were flanked by square towers—eight magnificent towers of the Caliphate that had overshadowed the hill and the protruding balcony. I could not forget the view of the massive watchtowers, as I had descended from the carriage and walked through the opening. There were ample cypress trees that had abounded the castle full of fantastic wonders of sundry blooms, such as poppies and daisies, with stipules in the staid patios close by. The perennial castle in its entirety was surrounded, by massive moats and a berm of shovelled earth of the once fortification. There was a wide river that had flowed, from the bucolic village to the rest of the province. What was more prominent and visible in the middle to be seen by the naked eye was this impressive coat of arms that I had stared at intriguingly, as I pondered for a moment, its valuable significance.
I had been told about the unique splendour of the historic castle, and its striking image that imposed upon the small village below the hillside. Never never—did I undoubtedly imagine, such ghastly sequence of dread I would experience afterwards. I was forewarned by the suspicious villagers of the ghost of Zaida, who had dwelt in the castle and the frequent echoes that originated from the castle as well. I was ill-prepared to confront the deplorable madness that had happened, in that awful asylum of the insane and forsaken, but I proceeded with my duties. Herefore, I had assumed that I would encounter this sort of fictional gossip and these unusual and creative fables of myth. I had thought much of the numerous tales of folklore in England, and its insoluble mysteries yet to unfold that made the denizens quail. Europe was full of these plentiful and embellished abnormalities that the sanctimonious clergymen had emphasised their denotation and continuity.
I had previously been to Spain in several occasions, but this was actually the first time I travelled to these parts of the country and my keen impression had stirred my fascination. Indeed, the extensive province of Andalusia was well known, for its Roman and Moorish monuments, and its picturesque vineyards and memorable strings of flamenco heard throughout the area. Andalusia was the discernible cynosure for inquisitive foreigners that sought the peregrine whims of escape and pleasure freely in a fortnight.
I had headed then towards the front gate of the remote castle, where an odd and ungainly fellow greeted me at the entrance. From the distance, I had presumed that the stranger was the honourable count who requested my service; but I would be sorely mistaken and discover quickly that the individual who greeted me was not the man who I had believed to be in the first place.
'I am Vincent Enfield, the solicitor from England', I had introduced myself.
The elderly man was merely a sedulous servant of the castle, and when I had enquired about the respected nobleman I sought, his response was very brief and lukewarm.
'He is presently sleeping, sir!'
'Could you be so kind to inform him that I have arrived at the castle?' I asked.
'Of course, sir!'
'I am eager to meet the count in person at last. I have heard remarkable things about him and this place'.
'I am certain that he is eager as well to make your acquaintance, sir!'
Indeed, his answers were not the timely replies that I was expecting to hear. I had entered the primeval castle and was escorted to my chamber, but not before, I was forewarned this time by the servant that it was better for me to not wander in the castle alone—for what reason I did not know. He was complaisant and was a selcouth fellow that was very pauciloquent and indifferent in his comportment I felt. He was also a claviger of the castle, a footman, and in England he would be surely misconstrued, by his raffish air.
The chamber was dark and clammy, as I had felt the strong chill at once. Perhaps, because of the lofty heights it was situated, and the proximity of the Guadalquivir River. The wooden shutters were closed too; for nothing could enter the chamber it seemed, and steel chains were used to keep them firmly shut. I was told by the servant that they were closed, due to the constant activity of the fluttering doves at night that sought to enter, through the finew of the chamber. Even the smallest mote of dust was seen trickling from the outside. All of these trifling nuances I had thought uncommon; but the important task that had brought me to the castle was very urgent. I stood patient in my chamber, until I was summoned at last, by the count. The door had opened wide, and I entered, as he was observing me.
He stood willowy and reserved; dressed in all black and had a walking stick by his side, and a long wear frayed the collar and cuffs of his shirt. He had a noticeable claudication in his left leg, and his look and decorum were austere and imperant, but formal. I could not help but wonder, and I did naturally, about that hideous scar that he bore upon the lower right side of his countenance. This abnormal and visible ulosis he had seemed to conceal effectively. When I had enquired about the scar he was extremely evasive, and wanted to only converse about the sale of one of his properties he owned within the province. We sat in a luxurious ormolu table and chairs. My curiosity swiftly would be preoccupied with the possible transaction, since he had appeared to be a captious nobleman. We spoke at length about the property; even though I had learnt Spanish he had preferred to speak to me in English, with his distinctive accent.
It was something that I had found peculiar, and I learnt as well that his appellation was Count Francisco Valdemar Fernández. He was born in the city of Madrid, but had migrated to Andalusia as a small child, fleeing during the rise to power of Napoleon. He had considered himself more Andalusian than Castilian in parlance and consuetudes. He had studied in England whilst in his lively youth of precocity, and travelled much abroad. He was a Dionysiac connoisseur of the world and had visited much of Europe, Asia, and the exotic Americas. As for myself, I have only seen half of the world that this affluent man and eclectic has seen before. I had wondered in my perception during a slight interval, about the life of wealth and adventure, being an actual member of the high-born nobility, as a lordling. I did not perceive any impromptu sciolism nor bombastic rhetoric in his words nor speech. He was not much of a man of self-centered jactance, despite his vauntage.
After the formal conversation we had and the necessary transaction that was made for a property he had off the coast I then left. There would be upon this night, no exceeding mirth, no succulent wine, nor sumptuous feast whatever to be regaled. There were no comfits to taste. Instead, my only welcome to this venerable castle was but another stern and terse warning that had bemused me. What was that stern warning you ask? The count had insisted that I stayed within my chamber, and that I did not stray from the castle.
'It would be better Mr Enfield, if you stood in your chamber, during the night. These nights are the genuine nights that are feared, within this castle I regret'.
When I had asked the reason for this, his response was too vague and he appeared to palter, 'There are many nights, where the unsuspected sound of the wind can be mistaken so easily, for the misleading sound of wailing'.
When I had enquired about the significance of these words, he chuckled then rejoined, 'There is no need to fret much Mr Enfield—for it is the festive revelry of the rout of villagers below that reach the sturdy walls of this ancient castle. There are manifold things that you are not well accustomed to in these parts of the country'.
I had dinner in the dining hall by myself. It was nothing more than a mere repast. I was given at least a token bottle of Jerez, Spanish sherry to accompany the dinner. It was extremely unusual that the count did not join me for dinner in the hall. This interesting occurrence was atypical in British nobility back home, and interpreted as an effrontery. The mysterious circumstances involved during my stay in the castle had started to stir my contemplative thoughts, and question the uniquity of the wonts of the count towards his convivial guests. I could see within my surroundings the paintings of the direct Valdemar lineage that was on display in the hall. There was an unmistakable coldness that I felt once I had entered the dining hall, and the table where I dined was very solid. A sparkling chandelier was above me, as the candles were lit. The wood of the fireplace was burning, but the warmth in the hall had lacked this heat. Perhaps, I was overreacting and was not comfortable, with the ongoing situation. However, it was peculiar that no servants were visibly seen about in the castle, except the old man. My dish was removed afterwards, by the servant.
Once I had finished with my meal, I returned to my chamber and sat in my bed, wondering what was meant ere, by those daunting words of the count that I cogitated. My intrigue had lingered and lingered, until I could bear no more. I began to hear very obscure, eerie, loud and loud noises, coming from behind the door and the alcove. First, I had heard the sound of some low murmurs, then the sound of the whistling wind outside roaring, roaring, and roaring, until my curiosity consumed me like an igneous spark, and I rose to my feet to investigate this baffling occurrence. The sound of the echoes of voices resounded and resounded, beyond the hollow walls of the chamber, as I had walked towards the door. The muttering voices I could not decipher their origin at that moment, but I had felt it was probably, the count and the old hearsome servant that served him whose full name I never knew, except for his first name Antonio. Who else could be wandering in this castle of fear I had ruminated? What was even more harrowing to me was the fact that he had no other confidant in the castle present, just the old local servant I met. There was a veil of mystery attached to the lore of the castle that was arresting my urgency. I bode my time listening to the noise of the footsteps walking, within the murky and solitary corridors of secrecy.
Abruptly, the indeterminate noise, the noise outside of individuals speaking had abated forthwith. There was no valid explanation known to me for what had happened, except that the voices were relevant and present at that moment. Therefore, I had seized the opportunity to explore this inusitate mystery. I had to resolve the enigma that was unfolding gradually. Even though I was warned not to go wandering within the castle, I did not heed the subtle warning nor the preconcerted acquiescence—for I was agog. Instead, I had stepped outside my chamber to peek slowly, and passed the patio and archways. I saw the panurgic Antonio carrying what had seemed to be a heavy object in a sack, as he put it into the rear of the carriage that rode off, from the grounds of the castle afterwards. Although it was dark outside, I saw the departure of the carriage and had heard the horses gallop away. Indeed, it was a recherché occurrence that bewildered my perception and interpretation of the sequence that had unfolded, before my very own eyes. I had remained silent and still, so that I would not be detected, as the old man walked passed me. I could see his shadow then, as the light from one of the oil lamps outside shone, for a brief instant during the night. I was not aware of what was truly transpiring in the castle, with the count and the servant, but I had sensed something strange was betiding, and the question was simply, what was that mystery that was eluding me? All that I had recalled was the warning imposed upon me that restricted my activity in the castle. I wondered if I had been seen by the count or the meticulous caretaker.
Thus, I began to look around my surroundings to see, who could be watching me wittingly. I had noticed that I was alone, and a cold draught of the wind blew suddenly. Once more, I returned to the chamber and pondered the possible significance of what exactly I had witnessed outside by the patio. The strange activities of the old man and his doings in the castle had precipitated my actions and whereabouts. A dreadful suspicion that was twofold had busied my necessity to disclose the intrigue of the castle, but he was everywhere around the grounds. Consequently, the conclusion I had reached was that the count depended on the old man for everything that dealt with the castle. Why did he confide so much in this man, and why did he not have more servants to tend to his daily needs?
Since I was leaving in the early afternoon, I had decided to attempt to forget all that was overshadowing my stay. I retreated for the night and concentrated on my trip to Seville that I had planned, before my arrival to the castle. Therefore, when I awoke the following morning, I could hear the commotion outside, after a pandiculation. I saw standing there by the carriage the count, who was speaking to Antonio. Apparently, the right wheel in the back of the carriage had broken and impeded my departure. It was not the ideal tidings I expected to hear, nevertheless, I had no choice in the matter.
'I am afraid that your departure from the castle will have to wait tomorrow Mr Enfield. I apologise for the delay, my good man. I shall promise you that tomorrow the carriage will be fixed and ready. Once more please accept my humble apology', quoth the count.
'There is no need for an apology Count Valdemar. I fully understand the situation', I had responded.
'Good, then please enjoy the rest of the time that you have available during your stay here at the castle'.
'I am your guest, and I cannot forget my duty or obligation.
'I am glad you understand! I like your spirit Mr Enfield. Truly, there are few men that I have met that have not succumbed to the foolish tales about the castle spoken, by the townsfolk of the village'.
The day was weary and soon the night befell, as I had finished my dinner once more alone in the dining hall. The count had retired to his chamber. I was explained by Antonio that his master Count Valdemar had manifold affairs of the castle to address personally. I had been summoned to be his new solicitor, but there were issues that I was not cognisant of the count's public or private endeavours. He had told me that I would be asked to return in a week to finalise another transaction of his plentiful properties. On this occasion, the property was located, in the town of Pozoblanco. It was a town I had passed along the way to Córdoba. He did not offer me much information, and I was left to think about the transaction. I had remained in my chamber after dinner, and was beginning to feel a cold draught that entered the castle, and spread to the chambers and corridors. Gradually the silence was unbearable, and I was going mad with the solitude I had feared.
Suddenly, I had heard a noise from outside my chamber. It was coming, from beyond the corridor. The corridor was empty—no sign nor breath of anyone as I had stood before the sturdy pillars. For a moment I had hesitated, as the clamour of some wretched souls in agony, I began to sense clearly. I had walked and walked within the corridor, until the strange clamours were nigh. The cobblestone floor not complanate was rectangular and surrounded, by a crenellated wall half kilometre in circumference. I had looked around me next, to see if I was being observed, but I had sensed no one around me. I had no true notion where the chamber of the count was at—nor where the old man slept. I was completely alone and uncertain, but my intrigue had surged by the minute, and the noise accompanied my footsteps in the corridor. I had walked beyond the chapel and the king’s hall, and what was conspicuous were the armorial bearings hanging. I saw a stone stairway at the end of the narrow corridor leading to one of the giant eight towers. Drear and dim, with only the flickering light of the torches in the corridor I climbed the stairs, until I had raught a sinister chamber that the villagers proclaimed, as the Torture Chamber.
After climbing, I saw the front rusty door that was secured and cumbrous with a latch, from the ancient dungeons of the Middle Ages. I crept towards the edge of the door and had heard the sound of those piteous wails even more obstreperous. Slowly the door began to open, and I had hastened to the corner of the corridor, behind a Tyrian purple drapery to hide myself. From out of the secluded chamber, stepped a man carrying a sconce that was burning in the corridor that had provided some light. He was cloaked in a sable guise that did not permit me to identify the veteratorian stranger. I had assumed it was most likely to be the old man Antonio, but the little I had observed of him, he was much shorter and did not walk with a limp like his master Count Valdemar. How could I forget that limp or gait that was seen with his every step taken? I felt even the powerful stench of his breath, the stench of Death.
He had walked passed me unaware of my presence—or was he merely pretending and was attempting to lure me into his merciless chamber of demise? I tried to maintain my composure, but I had started to fret, to fret, and to fret. Thus, I had shivered, shivered, shivered, as my unsettling doubts resurfaced. I took a deep breath of my own, and made the conscious decision that I would enter the mysterious chamber of death reluctantly. The daunting door was left open by him, and I had entered not knowing the unrestricted peril that was awaiting me. The unspeakable chamber was Stygian and eerie, and nothing else but the darkled and grim shade of obvious discomposure. The luminous fire of the torches inside were burning and burning, and the insufferable stench of death was surging and surging continuously. It was such a compelling and unspeakable sight of dismay.
Then as I got closer, closer inside the chamber, the moans and groans that were not discrete had increased at intervals. I saw what most humans fear ever to see, the embedded graveyard of the dead—the Plutonian and fuliginous Hades of the condemned of the crescent darkness. Rotting remains of fourscore corpses coacervate in thick piles, and the disfigured and discoloured faces used as useful masks laying upon the table aside, as a token of unremitting madness and summotion. The dissevered limbs and human beings still agonising in their hellish trauma of being peeled and sliced alive, by an uncontrollable lunatic whose disturbing whims of delight would be as repulsive, as his menacing and hidden guise. The rotting putrid flesh flayed and deartuated, by a wrought saw and sharp axe bedoven, in the vivid pool of pouring coccineous blood. The blood, the gushing blood, how could I forget the dripping drops of the innocent persons who perished at the hands of such an unstable mind? Am I mad still you dare to ask intrepidly? No mere mortal could relate this horrendous tale, without being completely aghast, with what was witnessed and lives to tell the tale afterwards so calmly.
The count was no ordinary man of discrepancy. He was as you will quickly discover, a rather intelligent and astute fellow to not be underestimated. Oh, the frightening tale of horror let me not interrupt any more. Where was I with this terrible tale of before? Verily, I now remember the unthinkable displeasure that I was experimenting steadily and constantly. I was in the lonely chamber of execution shocked with the revealing sight of such disgust, and the unvarying wails of vinew—oh the wails I forgot, began to deafen my discomforting ears that they had started to bleed, as blood came pouring from my ears at once. I could not withstand any longer the ghastliness of such extreme nature, and the increasing madness had superseded the sequence of events that were unpredictable. Suddenly, I ran out of the gruesome chamber as fast as I could, but I was trapped by that devious murderer, Count Valdemar, who had grabbed me in the corridor as I had hastened to escape.
'You did not heed my warning Mr Enfield. You were told specifically to not wander the castle!'
'Let me go at once, you wretched fiend!' I had yelled out loud.
I fought and had resisted manfully, but when I grabbed his nose, his face began to peel off, and what I saw next was a specious man—with no face at all. His unsightly face was malformed, and the skin was drooping—for he had no apparent nostrils or eyes. His sockets had no eye balls to be visibly seen, and he was epalpebrate as well. The great intensity of the shock and wear of my brain had caused me to panic in rapid desperation.
I fell on the floor, and when I awoke I was greeted by the count, who had the stolid face of another poor soul as his diabolical mask. I was bound tightly to a chair and gyves conticent, as he stood before me, with a devilish grin of satisfaction. I had descried such a profound and Mephistophelian gaze in his eyes that were hidden, by a carnal mask of predation. I had regained my equilibrium for a short period of time, allowing me to imagine what I failed to fully understand.
'You flayed the skin of the dying and had used the faces as masks. You are a madman Count Valdemar!' I said to him.
He was direct and poignant were his words, 'The madman you speak up sated the consecution and devotement of his whims of delight, Mr Enfield!'
He had hesitated before he said, 'Now, now, my dear fellow, do not resist any more, and think of this as nothing but a horripilated nightmare that is haunting you in the night. Do not be half witted, instead be mindful of the fantastic wonders of this castle that have welcomed you'.
He had repeated this over and over, till I screamed out loud with hirquitalliency, 'Forcouth devil, be gone therewith!'
He began to laugh, but several of the townspeople had been alerted of my peril and freed me. They had entered the castle, through a hidden passage and rescued me. Count Valdemar had fleed, but he was soon found and captured. He was ultimately accused and brought, before the tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition.
'Count Valdemar, you are a monster that is the embodiment of the Devil in flesh', the inquisitor had remarked.
'Monster, you dare to call me?'
'Have you forgotten the horrible crimes you committed in the castle? Have you forgotten the fact that you went mad and had slayed the faces off your helpless victims? Your madness has caused you to commit such atrocious acts of barbarity—none ever known before', the inquisitor said.
'I am Count Valdemar, not a madman!' He had responded brazenly.
The inquisitor proceeded to tell him the truth he had failed to recognise, 'It is you who are the madman sir. Your madness has blinded you from the absolute truth. You were once a nobleman from a prominent family, but you became mad, during the years of isolation in the castle. You were committed afterwards after being declared non compos mentis, but you had escaped from the madhouse. One day after your return to the castle there was a fire in your bedroom, whilst you were sleeping that burnt your face. This incident rekindled the insanity and rage that you had suppressed. Thus, you began a killing spree and had flayed the faces of your victims, for your grisly masks. It was how you have covered the burnt scars of your countenance. However, there was one place where the masks could not cover up, the lower right side of your face. On the account of your mutilated actions and your madness, you are here today before the tribunal Count Valdemar'.
The count had touched his face, and indeed he was burnt, and the scar referred to he bore visibly. Yes the madness, the terrible constriction of the madness that I once had alluded to in this account. You see, the madness was the only sustainable evidence, behind this tale of horror that was relevant. The old caretaker was never found, and Count Valdemar was a heartless lunatic. The fearful castle, despite being a castle was nothing more than the abode of the hideous asylum of his Torture Chamber. The echoic voice responding was the daring inquisitor, who was to condemn him afterwards. Those disturbing wails of the dying souls were the debile and sackless victims voided of any volition or affranchisement. They were immured in the perpetual asylum that was Count Valdemar's dreadful castle.
There was a direful warning of the imminent danger of the count's release to the existential world that was issued, and those unsightly, motley, human masks-yes! The riveting masks, the maniacal malefactor had flayed and wore, were the distinctive faces of those victims that the count slew before in the castle. The horrifying crimes were imputed to him, without a measure of leniency and unpardonable impunity. The quaint village of Almodóvar would be forever linked to the madness that had transpired in that Moorish castle. The rest of the country would soon know of Count Valdemar's despicable crimes and condign punishment of a theomeny. His name would be then immortalised but loathed, by the vengeful families of the victims he had killed. Count Valdemar was once a worthy nobleman of the region that was sane and respected, till the madness of the castle had devoured him forcibly and slowly with time, converting him into a bloody carnifex. He wore the masks of a thousand souls, and Count Valdemar was eventually one of the last prisoners that were proscribed by the notorious Spanish Inquisition.
His final declaration before his execution was full of a fathomless utterance of words of a deranged mind, 'You ask, if I am truly mad inquisitor? Those unyielding whims of delight were the whims to kill, yes, kill, kill—that ghostly voice in my brain, getting louder and louder. No—avaunt the terrible daemons of the night!'
I had returned to England after the trial and sentence, never to return to the castle again. Count Valdemar was hanged the following morning, and the terrible image of the Castle of Almodóvar had haunted me forever.
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