Antoine searched their faces. Were they ready for his story? Primed? Ripe? The castle tour he usually gave overseas visitors had come off well with these two, so far. They had hired him through their local hotelier, to whom he was related by many different bloodlines. Yes, he told them when they called, he spoke English, not flawlessly, but tolerably well, and he added, he had a nose for a good story. Further, he ran on, he had spent forty years working at the castle, so he had lots of -- what was the American expression? -- inside info. Yes, that was it, inside info.
They had seemed suitably impressed with his inside info for the last hour and half, nearly mesmerized. Now they stood together in the dying light on the curved staircase in the shadow of Antoine's favorite showpiece, a rather ugly gargoyle with large fangs and a missing nose. He had a little twinge of misgiving now, that these two were a little too tenderhearted for his final story, but he had a set routine for the tour and thought he should give them good value for their money. So he began this section with the same words he always used, "I urge caution here, that gargoyle at the top of this wall has come down before, with nasty results."
They both shuffled sideways, uncomfortable so close to the open cavern beyond the railing, staring upwards in silence.
"If you look closely at his face, you will notice his nose is missing, and you can just make out some spots on his cheeks, especially in this light. Those spots are blood spots. I want to tell you the horrid story behind his appearance."
He looked for telltale signs. Yes, there, the eyes always widened noticeably. Good. And the wife looked predictably upset. Fine. Most people, he felt, enjoyed being scared a little.
"Don't worry, the tale is not really too bloody, although quite sad. When I first began work here forty years ago, a young woman disappeared suddenly one day, without a trace."
Lines of anxiety deepened on the wifely forehead. Superb.
"The castle was being repaired and renovated by teams of workmen then, and that is when the bathrooms at the gate were added, and this wall plastered. That stain below the gargoyle and the deep dents here date from that time. Now, you are standing a few feet from the spot where four people died, three of them on consecutive days, coincidentally just about this time of year."
Shuffling of feet, worry lines now on the husband's forehead. Good.
"Is, is it s-s-s-s-safe now?" said the wife. "Here in this very spot? For sure?"
"Very safe," the aging tour guide said, "I can assure you, very safe now. Two that died were plasterers, and they died strangely. When we found the first, that same gargoyle I mentioned earlier was sitting on his chest, and it had blood spots on its face. We did not know how the man died until an autopsy showed puncture wounds in his heart. We had barely buried him the next day when his coworker was found dead of the same cause in the same spot." Antoine swayed a little, wiping back tears from his eyes. "I remember this all so well."
"Now," he snuffed on, "we had reattached the gargoyle after the first death, but when we found the second man, the gargoyle was perched on his chest, as in the case of the first man. No one knew what to think, except that some crazed murderer was on the loose, and must be stopped. We put the gargoyle back in place, and since these deaths had both happened at the beginning of the afternoon shift, appointed a spy to hide just beyond that pillar above us here, and watch the staircase."
Apprehensive glances upward located the pillar. Excellent. He liked to whisper hoarsely for the next section. It added so to the presentation.
"So on the third afternoon, the spy witnessed the murder of the plumber. The gargoyle fell onto the plumber as he was climbing the steps, and seemed to attach itself to his chest. The man fell down, senseless, as we soon found out, dead. But that is not the strangest part. The spy immediately began to scream for help and I came up the steps with a stonemason and a ditch digger to see what had happened. We did not understand why the spy seemed to be mortally afraid of the gargoyle, right out of his head, really. But the stonemason had the presence of mind to listen to the spy's cries of terror, and whacked the gargoyle on the face. His nose came off. See here, I have brought it to show you."
He removed the severed nose from his pocket, to gasps from both of his listeners. Wonderful.
"While the damage to the gargoyle calmed the spy a little, it was only when the stonemason and the ditch digger listened to the spy's words again and struck the wall where the gargoyle had been perched, that we began to see the justice in the situation. Gargoyles, you may know, are meant to ward off evil spirits, and this one was just doing its job. I am actually quite fond of this one, poor thing. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the wall."
"A large chunk of plaster immediately fell away from the wall, to everyone's horror, revealing the plaster-encased face of a woman. Once the entire body was furiously extracted from the plaster, it was clear this was the poor missing woman I mentioned earlier, really the first of the four to die. An autopsy was ordered, but was made difficult by the presence of the plaster all over the body. It was discovered she had been severely injured by being beaten with a blunt object, probably a pipe, and then plastered into the wall while in a coma, where she died of suffocation."
The wife was already crying, the husband watery eyed. Excellent. North Americans, Antoine found, especially appreciated the pathos of this part of the story. Such people, so predictably moved by tales of violence to innocent strangers, and so used to hearing of that violence on their own continent! He often wondered if they spent most of their adult life in tears.
"Now the plumber and the two plasterers, as it turns out, were seen with the woman the day of her disappearance, and were posthumously convicted of her murder. The plumber's body and the -- what is the word you use? -- exhumed. Yes, the plumber's body and the exhumed bodies of the two plasterers were buried in a common unmarked grave in this very courtyard, under the flame that lights the gate by night."
Gasps and stares towards the courtyard. Superb.
"The body of the unfortunate woman was cremated at the wish of her parents -- they were from a religion of the east, as I recall -- and her ashes were scattered in the lake outside the gates, from the path where you walked earlier."
More wide eyes, and further furtive looks towards the gate. Wife wiping her eyes. Husband shaking his head, pushing back his thinning hair. Absolutely perfect.
"You will notice the stain on the wall and the dents. If you look closely, you can see the stain is in the outline of the woman's body, and the dents are about where her nose and mouth would have been. Those marks appeared when we replastered the wall forty years ago, and no amount of painting or repair will correct them. They just keep reappearing, as though that poor woman is still moving from within her plaster tomb."
Shudders from both. Wife wraps her sweater more tightly around herself, and grabs her husband's hand. They fret, trying to murmur hurried goodbyes but Antoine squeezes in a few last details.
"The plaque in Latin at the gate is in the woman's memory. You would think her ghost walks the lake, but it is not so. It is said her face appears in the flame over her murderers' grave, the same flame which guards the gate at night. If you would like to stay a few more minutes, you could see the watchman lighting the flame and judge for yourself."
But the wife had already decided for them both, and seizing her husband by the arm, she rushed out, towing him after her. They clattered across the stone cobbles, shuddering briefly at the Latin plaque and flame-burner at the gate, and melted into the dusk.
Antoine chuckled. I should have been in the theatre, he thought. So much talent, so much potential, and sadly, such limited opportunity. He fingered the stone nose in his pocket, the lucky talisman. He remembered the day forty years ago, when he had had too much wine at the midday meal and the two plasterers and the plumber had made fun of his near drunkenness.
He remembered the shift that same afternoon when he nearly tipped off his ladder while washing this very wall and grabbed the gargoyle for stability as he tottered. How was he to know that its creator, the stonemason, had chosen a stone with a structural flaw smack through the nose? Or that a ladder could so dent a plaster wall? Or that while carrying his supper that very night up these same steps, he would slip and fall, splattering Francine's potent tomato sauce all over the wall and the gargoyle, too? Or that Francine, that silly gypsy, would soon leave him and run off with the American plumber?
And how could he ever have guessed that castle management could be persuaded to erect the plaque with the Latin poem, and never to repaint or repair this same wall, once his tours drew such revenue from overseas visitors, who sought him out -- him, yes, him -- when the tour was written up in haunted castle books?
He looked up at the gargoyle fondly. Yes, they both had a nose for a good story, the two of them, growing old together. As he passed Jacques on his way out, he hailed him and they both waved.
Jacques was just now going to light the flame at the gate, and he was thinking. For once, just once, he would like to see that woman's face in the flame, the one Antoine had boasted so much about. Antoine had told him only old men were privileged to see her, but Jacques wondered why some tourists who were not old men paused to look for her, too. Was Antoine telling them something else, in English?
Now Jacques stepped back and looked experimentally at the flame. He saw, yes! Yes! He saw a glimmer of eyes, and nose, a gasping mouth. Tonight he had seen her! Yes he had! He yelled after Antoine's retreating back and when he turned, saluted him. Antoine spread his arms and raised both hands. Antoine and his stories, Jacques thought. One could only imagine what was going on in English, on those castle steps below the gargoyle, during Antoine's tours.
And old Antoine shuffled homeward in the gathering darkness, chuckling to himself and thanking heaven that he had a nose for a good story. Yes, he did. Oh, he knew he overdid it a little, rearranging the truth into more entertaining fiction. But he felt he had a calling in his old age, a calling in common with all old storytellers on this earth -- to look past the truth no one could remember to tell the story no one could forget.
Copyright 2004-2021 Sally Jennings www.speak-read-write.com
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