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The Devil in Velvet
By John Dickson Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1951 John Dickson Carr
All rights reserved.
THE MIST DOOR OPENS
SOMETHING WOKE HIM in the middle of the night. Perhaps it was the heavy, stifling air of closed bed curtains.
In his half-doze he could not remember drawing the curtains of the bed, which was three hundred years old. And it floated through his mind that he had swallowed rather a large dose of chloral hydrate, as a sleeping draught. Hence he might not have remembered.
Yet the drug still seemed to hold him. Memory, which he tried to summon up in the dark, gave back only images behind thick shifting gauze. When he essayed to remember words, they were as silent as puffs of smoke from cracks in a wasteground.
A drift of smoke showed him his own speech now.
"My name is Nicholas Fenton," he said to himself, to restore clarity out of chloral. "I am a professor of history at Paracelsus College, Cambridge. In this modern year, which the calendar gives as 1925, I am fifty-eight years old."
Now he realized that he had whispered the words faintly. Memory, briefly, awarded him a gauzy vision of last night. Yes, last night.
He had been sitting downstairs in the drawing room, and in the house which he had rented for the summer because "nobody" would be in London then. Across from him, on an oak settee with brocaded cushions, had sat Mary. Mary wore a cloche hat, to indicate a brief visit, and had a glass of whisky and soda in her hand. Mary was very much younger than himself, of course, and almost beautiful.
"Mary," he had said, "I've sold my soul to the devil."
Nicholas Fenton knew that she would not laugh, or even smile. She merely nodded gravely.
"Have you?" she asked. "And what did the devil look like, Professor Fenton?"
"Do you know," he answered, "for the life of me I can't remember? He seemed to change into all shapes. The light was dim; he was sitting in the chair over there; and my infernal eyesight ..."
Mary leaned forward. Mary's eyes possessed a quality which in his earlier days he would have called smoky: their colour a grey deepening almost to black, then again to a darker smoky-grey elusiveness as though they were shadowed in her young face.
"Did you really sell your soul, Professor Fenton?"
"Actually, no." His dry chuckle was barely audible. "In the first place, I cannot quite credit the reality of the devil. He might have been only a hoaxing friend, with a talent for stage effect. I should not put it past Parkinson of Caius, for instance. In the second place ..."
"In the second place?" prompted Mary.
"Except perhaps in the case of Dr. Faustus," mused Fenton, "the devil's bargains have always been too easy for him."
"Contrary to popular saying, he is not a gentleman. His victims are always simpletons against whom he plays with cogged dice. He has never yet encountered a man of wit. If I have made a bargain with him, then the devil has fallen into a trap and I have beaten him hands down."
He had intended to smile at her, indicating that she must not take him too seriously. Whereupon—or so it seemed to the half-drugged man now lying upstairs amid drawn bed curtains—whereupon that scene in the drawing room became even more dreamlike.
What Mary held in her hand was not an ordinary drinking glass. It appeared to be a silver goblet, highly polished. As she tilted the goblet to her lips, the light flashed and dazzled on its surface, sending the reflection straight into Fenton's eyes. Light, they say, is cold. Yet this reflection shot across with a palpable heat, as of wrath.
And was there a short, sharp movement, as of a visitor, in one corner of the room?
No; it could only have been illusion. Mary held an ordinary drinking glass.
"What gift did you ask of the devil?" she inquired. "That you might be young again, like Faust?"
"No. That does not interest me." This was only, say, one-fourth untrue, since Fenton had always firmly told himself he was as young as ever.
"Then was it ... what stupid people have called your obsession?"
"In a sense, yes. I asked to be carried back through time to a specific date in the third quarter of the seventeenth century."
"Oh, you can do it," Mary whispered.
Often he wished that she would not sit there and look at him with such grave, attentive eyes. Often he could not understand what she found interesting in the conversation of an elderly stick like himself.
"You are the only historian," said Mary, "with sufficient knowledge of minutiae to do it. Carry yourself cleverly, especially as regards phraseology, and none will suspect you."
Now where on earth, he wondered, had she picked up that term "carry yourself cleverly"? It was common usage in the seventeenth century.
"And yet," continued Mary suddenly, "I don't understand this."
"I don't understand myself. But, if the devil keeps his bargain ..."
"You mistake my meaning. In this way: you must many times have wished, before this, to be carried back into the past?"
"Oh, yes. 'Wished' is a mild word. God!" unexpectedly whispered Fenton, and felt a cold tremble. "How I longed for it! How I writhed on a bed of nettles, as men scarify themselves for money or women for social position! But it was only academic curiosity, I thought."
"Then why do you wish for it now?"
"First, curiosity has reached a point past endurance. Second, I have a mission. Third, I never knew it was so easy to whistle up the devil."
The expressionless Mary seemed interested in only one part of this.
"Mission, Professor Fenton? What mission?"
Fenton hesitated. He touched the pince-nez on the nose of his mild, donnish face. Automatically he ran a hand over his high, arched skull, where some strands of dark-red hair were still brushed back. In person he was a little over middle height, stoop-shouldered from bookishness, and very lean.
If he stopped to think about it, Fenton knew, he was a frail man to throw himself like a swimmer into the dark waters of the past, full of cries and sounds unknown, a-rush with currents that might break his bones among rocks. But he resolved not to think about it.
"In this house," he said, "on June 10th of the year 1675, a certain person at last died of poison. It was a slow, brutal murder."
"Oh," said Mary, putting down her glass on a side table. "Please forgive me, but have you authenticated evidence for all this?"
"Yes. I even have a folio-size portrait engraving of each person in the household. I could recognize any one of them who came into this room now."
"Murder." She repeated the word slowly. "And who were these people?"
"Three were women, all of them beautiful. Not," Fenton added hastily, "that this has influenced my decision in any way." Quite suddenly he sat up straight. "Did you hear an odd kind of laugh, then, very low-pitched, from the direction of those bookcases?"
Under the sides of Mary's cloche hat two edges of her black bobbed hair showed glossy wings against the milky-white complexion of her face. It seemed to Fenton that her eyes had hardened.
"Then, for another example," he said quickly, "there was the owner of the house. Er—curiously enough, he bore the same name as my own. Nicholas Fenton."
"Some ancestor of yours?"
"No. He was no relation whatever; I've traced it carefully. Sir Nicholas Fenton was a baronet. His line died out in the latter part of the next century. Mary, who committed that murder?"
"You mean you don't know?" Mary asked incredulously.
"No! No! No!"
"Please, Professor Fenton! You mustn't get excited. Your voice ..."
"I beg your pardon." Fenton controlled himself, though his insides were again cold and trembling. "The reason I don't know," he went on in his usual mild tone, "is that three sheets are missing from Giles Collins's manuscript account. Someone was arrested, tried, and executed after a confession voluntarily given. But the pages containing this account have been lost or stolen. We can be certain only of two persons who were not guilty."
"Oh?" said Mary. "Who were they?"
Her companion grimaced.
"One of them was Sir Nicholas himself. The other was a woman; her name not given, but from the details it is easy to guess her identity. I know it because there are notes at the end. We must accept this; otherwise we have no eyes to see through."
"But surely," Mary protested, "there must be some published account of this murder case besides that of Giles Collins?"
"So I had supposed. But it's not in Howell's State Trials, of course. It's not in the first volume of the Complete Newgate Calendar, because Captain Johnson merely chose his cases and did not list them. For nine years—yes, nine years!—I have searched libraries and advertised to obtain some book, some pamphlet, even the broadsheet which was usually published at the time of a hanging. There is none."
"Nine years," whispered Mary. "You never told me." In some fashion her face seemed to grow shadowy and smoky, like her hair and eyes. "There are three women in this, you said. I daresay your 'Sir Nicholas' was hard in love with one of them?"
"Well ... yes."
Now how had the child guessed that? For Mary, at twenty-five, he regarded merely as a child because she was the daughter of his old friend Dr. Grenville, of Paracelsus.
"You still don't understand," he insisted. "G—the devil help me, I have done everything! I have even taken up a headachy course of reading at criminology and medical jurisprudence, because this was an affair of poison. I think I can deduce the name of the murderer." His voice rose. "But I don't know."
"And so," Mary's shapely shoulders moved, "you are now so desperate that you must go back into the past and find the truth?"
"I have a mission, remember. I may be able to prevent the murder."
No clock ticked in the muffled silence.
"Prevent the murder?" Mary repeated.
"But that's impossible! This is a small thing, if you like, against the march of all the ages. But it's already happened. It's a part of the stream of history. You can't change...."
"So I was reminded," he told her dryly. "Nevertheless, I wonder!"
"Did your satanic friend tell you this? What did he say to you?"
How difficult, how extraordinarily difficult, it had been to describe to Mary an interview which had seemed as normal and even casual as that of two men talking in the smoking room of a club! For the devil had paid him a quiet visit that night, not an hour before Mary arrived. His visitor, unattended by any of the lurid ceremonies usually described, had sat in a tapestry chair far across the drawing room.
What Fenton had told Mary was quite true. The light being dim—it was a small bulb in a table lamp darkened by several thicknesses of imperial-purple silk—Fenton saw only that unstable ever-varying outline, and heard soundless words.
"Yes, Professor Fenton," his visitor had said amiably, in English of a faintly archaic flavour, like the gentleman he was not, "I think I can arrange this matter to your satisfaction. Others have requested it before you. The date you mentioned, I believe, was ...?"
"It was May 10th, in the year 1675. Just a month before the murder."
"Ah, yes. I will make a note of it." The visitor mused. "Those were rough and bloody days, if memory serves me. But the ladies!" Here he revolted Fenton by smacking his lips audibly. "Dear sir, the ladies!"
Fenton did not reply.
"It is unfortunate," continued the visitor, in a distressed voice, "that two gentlemen must discuss matters of business. But you know my conditions and my—er—price. Come! Can we not strike a bargain now?"
Fenton smiled. He had no very high opinion of his visitor's intelligence. Of his power, yes. But not his intelligence.
"You go too fast, sir," Fenton objected mildly, and ran his hand over the very thin hair on top of his head. "Before we strike any kind of bargain, I should prefer you to hear my conditions."
Towards Fenton, out of the dark tapestry chair, there seemed to flow a wave of such huge arrogance that it threatened the room and even the house. Fenton, who hitherto had felt no fear or even awe, was momentarily frightened. But the wave of feeling dwindled into a kind of bored politeness.
"Let us hear your conditions," yawned the visitor.
"First, I wish to go back to the past in the character of Sir Nicholas Fenton."
"Of course you do." The visitor seemed surprised. "However! Granted."
"Next, since I cannot discover a great deal about Sir Nicholas, there are further conditions. He was a baronet, yes. But baronetcies in those days, as you are aware, were sometimes worn by the oddest of bedlamites."
"True, true! But...."
"I must be a man of wealth and noble blood," Fenton continued. "I must be young, I must at no time suffer any illness, bodily or mental affliction, or deformity of any kind whatever. Nor must you create any accident, or other circumstance, to deprive me of anything I have mentioned."
For a second Fenton thought he had gone too far.
Out of the dark chair flowed a wave of pure childish annoyance, as though a small boy had stamped his feet on the floor.
"I ref—" There was a sulky pause. "Very well. Granted."
"Thank you. Now I hear, sir, that one of your favourite jokes is to tamper with dates and clocks like an old-fashioned detective story. When I give you the date of May 10th, 1675, it is the time I mean. Nor shall there be any jugglery of fact. For example, you will not have me imprisoned and hanged for this murder. I shall live out my life, exactly as Sir Nicholas did. Granted?"
Though the childish heel-drumming had gone, anger remained.
"Granted, Professor Fenton. Surely there is nothing else?"
"Only one thing more," said Fenton, who was sweating. "Though I shall be in the body of this Sir Nicholas, I must retain my own mind, my own knowledge, memory, and experience, just as they are in this year 1925."
"One moment, if you please," his visitor interrupted in a rich, soothing voice. "Now there, I am afraid, I cannot accommodate you completely. You observe that I deal plainly with you."
"Be good enough to explain."
"Essentially," purred the visitor, "you are a kindly and good man. That is why I want your sou—your company. Now Sir Nicholas, I confess, was at heart much like you. He was good-natured, generous, and easily touched to sympathy. But, being of his age, he was cruder, of different temperament, and given to fits of violent rage."
"I still fail to understand."
"Anger," the visitor explained, "is the strongest of all emotions. Now if you yourself—Professor Fenton, in the body of Sir Nicholas—were to lose your own temper violently, then Sir Nicholas would take over your mind as long as the anger fit lasted. You would become Sir Nicholas for that time. Yet, as part of the bargain, I solemnly tell you that his wrath fits never lasted for more than ten minutes. If you accept this, I grant your condition. What do you say?"
Again conscious of the sweat on his forehead, Fenton considered this to find a catch in it.
But there was none. In late middle age Fenton was a trifle inclined towards fussiness, and he fussed and fussed with the rack of pipes beside him. A man in a rage, admittedly, might do much damage in ten minutes. But Fenton's other conditions, already granted, protected him from harm of any kind. They were like heavy nails, driven in after long thought, to seal up the door against the devil.
Besides, he become violently angry? He, Nicholas Fenton? Damn the visitor's impudence! He never became angry. It was monstrous!
"Yes?" insinuated the visitor. "Agreed?"
"Agreed!" snapped Fenton.
"Admirable, my dear sir! Then we have only to seal the bargain."
"Er—I was wondering," Fenton began, but added hastily: "No, no! Not another condition! I merely wished to ask a question."
"My dear friend!" cooed the visitor. "Ask, by all means."
"I daresay it would violate the rules, and be outside even your power to grant, if I were to change history?"
The wave of feeling which flowed towards him was one of childish amusement.
"You could not change history," the visitor said simply.
"Do you seriously mean," insisted Fenton, "that with all the resources of the twentieth century, with infinitely detailed knowledge of what is going to happen, I could not alter even political events with a crash?"
"Oh, you might alter a small and trifling detail here and there," said the other. "Especially in domestic matters. But, whatever you did, the ultimate result would be just the same. You are at perfect liberty," he added politely, "to try it."
Excerpted from The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1951 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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