The Room in the Dragon Volant by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter XII. The Magician
No more brilliant spectacle than this masked ball could be imagined. Among other salons and galleries, thrown open, was the enormous Perspective of the "Grande Galerie des Glaces," lighted up on that occasion with no less than four thousand wax candles, reflected and repeated by all the mirrors, so that the effect was almost dazzling. The grand suite of salons was thronged with masques, in every conceivable costume. There was not a single room deserted. Everyplace was animated with music voices, brilliant colors, flashing jewels, the hilarity of extemporized comedy, and all the spirited incidents of a cleverly sustained masquerade. I had never seen before anything in the least comparable to this magnificent fete. I moved along, indolently, in my domino and mask, loitering, now and then, to enjoy a clever dialogue, a farcical song, or an amusing monologue, but, at the same time, keeping my eyes about me, lest my friend in the black domino, with the little white cross on his breast, should pass me by.
I had delayed and looked about me, specially, at every door I passed, as the Marquis and I had agreed; but he had not yet appeared.
While I was thus employed, in the very luxury of lazy amusement, I saw a gilded sedan chair, or, rather, a Chinese palanquin, exhibiting the fantastic exuberance of "Celestial" decoration, borne forward on gilded poles by four richly-dressed Chinese; one with a wand in his hand marched in front, and another behind; and a slight and solemn man, with a long black beard, a tall fez, such as a dervish is represented as wearing, walked close to its side. A strangely-embroidered robe fell over his shoulders, covered with hieroglyphic symbols; the embroidery was in black and gold, upon a variegated ground of brilliant colors. The robe was bound about his waist with a broad belt of gold, with cabalistic devices traced on it in dark red and black; red stockings, and shoes embroidered with gold, and pointed and curved upward at the toes, in Oriental fashion, appeared below the skirt of the robe. The man's face was dark, fixed, and solemn, and his eyebrows black, and enormously heavy--he carried a singular-looking book under his arm, a wand of polished black wood in his other hand, and walked with his chin sunk on his breast, and his eyes fixed upon the floor. The man in front waved his wand right and left to clear the way for the advancing palanquin, the curtains of which were closed; and there was something so singular, strange and solemn about the whole thing, that I felt at once interested.
I was very well pleased when I saw the bearers set down their burthen within a few yards of the spot on which I stood.
The bearers and the men with the gilded wands forthwith clapped their hands, and in silence danced round the palanquin a curious and half-frantic dance, which was yet, as to figures and postures, perfectly methodical. This was soon accompanied by a clapping of hands and a ha-ha-ing, rhythmically delivered.
While the dance was going on a hand was lightly laid on my arm, and, looking round, a black domino with a white cross stood beside me.
"I am so glad I have found you," said the Marquis; "and at this moment. This is the best group in the rooms. You must speak to the wizard. About an hour ago I lighted upon them, in another salon, and consulted the oracle by putting questions. I never was more amazed. Although his answers were a little disguised it was soon perfectly plain that he knew every detail about the business, which no one on earth had heard of but myself, and two or three other men, about the most cautious Persons in France. I shall never forget that shock. I saw other people who consulted him, evidently as much surprised and more frightened than I. I came with the Count de St. Alyre and the Countess."
He nodded toward a thin figure, also in a domino. It was the Count.
"Come," he said to me, "I'll introduce you."
I followed, you may suppose, readily enough.
The Marquis presented me, with a very prettily-turned allusion to my fortunate intervention in his favor at the Belle Etoile; and the Count overwhelmed me with polite speeches, and ended by saying, what pleased me better still:
"The Countess is near us, in the next salon but one, chatting with her old friend the Duchesse d'Argensaque; I shall go for her in a few minutes; and when I bring her here, she shall make your acquaintance; and thank you, also, for your assistance, rendered with so much courage when we were so very disagreeably interrupted."
"You must, positively, speak with the magician," said the Marquis to the Count de St. Alyre, "you will be so much amused. I did so; and, I assure you, I could not have anticipated such answers! I don't know what to believe."
"Really! Then, by all means, let us try," he replied.
We three approached, together, the side of the palanquin, at which the black-bearded magician stood.
A young man, in a Spanish dress, who, with a friend at his side, had just conferred with the conjuror, was saying, as he passed us by:
"Ingenious mystification! Who is that in the palanquin? He seems to know everybody!"
The Count, in his mask and domino, moved along, stiffly, with us, toward the palanquin. A clear circle was maintained by the Chinese attendants, and the spectators crowded round in a ring.
One of these men--he who with a gilded wand had preceded the procession--advanced, extending his empty hand, palm upward.
"Money?" inquired the Count.
"Gold," replied the usher.
The Count placed a piece of money in his hand; and I and the Marquis were each called on in turn to do likewise as we entered the circle. We paid accordingly.
The conjuror stood beside the palanquin, its silk curtain in his hand; his chin sunk, with its long, jet-black beard, on his chest; the outer hand grasping the black wand, on which he leaned; his eyes were lowered, as before, to the ground; his face looked absolutely lifeless. Indeed, I never saw face or figure so moveless, except in death. The first question the Count put, was: "Am I married, or unmarried?"
The conjuror drew back the curtain quickly, and placed his ear toward a richly-dressed Chinese, who sat in the litter; withdrew his head, and closed the curtain again; and then answered: "Yes."
The same preliminary was observed each time, so that the man with the black wand presented himself, not as a prophet, but as a medium; and answered, as it seemed, in the words of a greater than himself.
Two or three questions followed, the answers to which seemed to amuse the Marquis very much; but the point of which I could not see, for I knew next to nothing of the Count's peculiarities and adventures.
"Does my wife love me?" asked he, playfully.
"As well as you deserve."
"Whom do I love best in the world?"
"Oh! That I fancy is pretty much the case with everyone. But, putting myself out of the question, do I love anything on earth better than my wife?"
"Oh!" said the Count. The Marquis, I could see, laughed.
"Is it true," said the Count, changing the conversation peremptorily, "that there has been a battle in Naples?"
"No; in France."
"Indeed," said the Count, satirically, with a glance round.
"And may I inquire between what powers, and on what particular quarrel?"
"Between the Count and Countess de St. Alyre, and about a document they subscribed on the 25th July, 1811."
The Marquis afterwards told me that this was the date of their marriage settlement.
The Count stood stock-still for a minute or so; and one could fancy that they saw his face flushing through his mask.
Nobody, but we two, knew that the inquirer was the Count de St. Alyre.
I thought he was puzzled to find a subject for his next question; and, perhaps, repented having entangled himself in such a colloquy. If so, he was relieved; for the Marquis, touching his arms, whispered.
"Look to your right, and see who is coming."
I looked in the direction indicated by the Marquis, and I saw a gaunt figure stalking toward us. It was not a masque. The face was broad, scarred, and white. In a word, it was the ugly face of Colonel Gaillarde, who, in the costume of a corporal of the Imperial Guard, with his left arm so adjusted as to look like a stump, leaving the lower part of the coat-sleeve empty, and pinned up to the breast. There were strips of very real sticking-plaster across his eyebrow and temple, where my stick had left its mark, to score, hereafter, among the more honorable scars of war.