“Song Of The Guillotine” by Lamont Turner
It was several years after that season of madness when the shadow of the guillotine had loomed over us all, and the blood of nobles and commoners alike ran in the gutters of Paris, that I found myself standing alone before a chateau in the heart of the Gourge d’ Asque. Relieved to find the incongruous domicile, for I had foolishly forsaken a guide and had become hopelessly lost, I resolved to intrude upon the solitude of the building’s occupants. That there were occupants I was certain due to the wisps of white smoke emanating from the chimney, but had the day been warmer, I would have passed on, for, other than the smoke, there was no other sign of habitation, and the aspect of the chateau was foreboding enough to discourage any curiosity I might have entertained. Perhaps due to some flaw in the foundation the entire building leaned away from the setting sun and, as best as I could discern from my position on the glen, was entirely devoid of windows. Only a large door broke up the monotony of the moss encrusted walls, which was composed of stones of a singular uniformity.
Anxious to get directions, or perhaps a night’s lodgings before the darkness over took me; I tapped on the door, conscious that I might not receive the warmest welcome from someone who had gone to such great lengths to ensure their isolation. I assumed they would be as astonished to receive a caller in such a remote place as I had been upon discovering their abode.
I would, of course, have to invent a tale to explain my presence in so remote a locale. I would not tell them that I was on a quest to kill a man, though to refer to such a monster as a man would be exceedingly charitable. M. Fourniret had none of the finer qualities that make men superior to the beasts. While many of the atrocities committed during those dark days were born of a genuine conviction that liberty was to be gained and held by any means, Fourniret was a man of no such convictions. He was a crass opportunist, using the Revolution to further only his own goals. Seeing an avenue for personal enrichment in the role of public executioner, he sought out and obtained the position, henceforth wielding a considerable degree of influence over his department.
For no other reason than his success as a merchant, my father came under the scrutiny of the Committee of Public Safety, and was led to the M. Fourniret’s guillotine. It had previously been arranged that all of my father’s estate would go to his executioner as payment for his services, leaving our family with nothing, save for my father’s headless corpse. Risking my own head, I confronted the authorities, demanding my father be made whole, but my demands were rebuffed, and my father’s head was never restored. I later learned it was always so with the victims of M. Fourniret, though no one could say what he did with the heads he took.
As the Republic gave way to the Empire, my fortunes changed, as did those of my nemesis. I again found myself in a position of wealth, while he was forced to flee the city amid accusations of acts so blasphemous even a secular society would not tolerate them. Vowing to deprive him of his life, I had tracked the villain across the Pyrenees before losing my prey, as well as myself, in the wilderness.
Receiving no response to my initial summons, I knocked slightly harder with my fist, producing the desired effect. The door creaked open a crack, allowing the occupant to peer out at me.
“What do you want,” growled the voice from within.
‘” I apologize for the intrusion,” I responded, taken aback by the ferocity of the greeting. “I am lost, and merely seek guidance, and perhaps, if you can spare it, some bread.”
For several moments there was silence as the man studied me, then the pale blue eye widened, and the door was flung open to reveal a grizzled old man. His face was obscured by the matted hair that extended down over his shoulders to merge with the thick chest length beard. His garments were little more than rags, hanging on his bent frame in tattered strips. He ushered me in with unbridled enthusiasm, going so far as to tug at the sleeve of my coat. Taken off guard by the marked contrast in his behavior, and by the deplorable state of the man, I hesitated.
“Forgive my rudeness,” he exclaimed, grabbing my arm with a boney claw and almost dragging me in. “Rest here, my friend while I prepare you a meal.”
I was led into a large chamber, lit only by the fire blazing in the hearth, and offered a seat at the head of the table where I sat, surveying my surroundings while my host occupied himself with the large pot simmering over the flames. The walls were draped from ceiling to floor in tapestries of the most ornate design, scarlet, with arcane symbols embroidered in white across the entirety of their surface. The sparse furnishings were opulent, though neglected, dust and mold marring the expensive fabrics.
The old man said nothing, but chuckled to himself occasionally while stirring the stew, which, I admit, I was eager to sample, my hunger being almost equal to my apprehensions. At last setting a bowl before me, he situated himself in the chair next to mine, watching with satisfaction as I wolfed down the stew without waiting for it to cool.
As he refilled my bowl I was startled by the sound of an uncanny moan. It seemed to come from all corners of the chamber, echoing off the walls for several seconds before fading to a whisper. Seeing my distress, the man put his hand upon my shoulder to calm me.
“Don’t allow that to trouble you, Monsieur,” he said, grinning. “There are no ghosts here. It is just the wind, whistling through the cracks in the walls. I hardly notice it anymore.”
There was something familiar about his voice that chilled me more than the spectral wailing. I studied the face of my host, the pale blue eyes, the beak-like nose, and the thin lips, contorted into a malevolent grin beneath the thick moustache. Could it be? Was it possible I was sitting across from the very man I had been seeking? Yes! I was sitting across from the devil himself! He was saying something, but I wasn’t hearing him. I just stared in wonder at the wreck of the man I had so relentlessly pursued. The man I had known had been young, and full of vigor. The buckles of his shoes had always been polished, and the slightest stain was not to be tolerated on his person. Now it was as if his outer appearance had somehow come to reflect his true soul.
“I see you recognize me at last, Monsieur Bellegarde,” said my host, patting my hand as though I were a child he wished to comfort. “I do not blame you for not knowing me in my current condition, though I recognized you at once.”
“Then you must know why I am here,” I responded, jumping up from my seat and pointing my pistol at his chest.
Again I heard the moaning. I spun around, prepared to fire my weapon, but saw no one. As before, we were alone.
“What is that,” I shouted, pressing my pistol against the villain’s temple.
“It is merely the song of the guillotine and the cause of my current condition.” he responded, his gaze locked on the wall behind me. “No matter how I try to stifle them, they still sometimes manage to sing.”
I resolved to blow the wretch’s brains out right then, and be done with it, but the moaning resumed, even louder than before, accompanied now by the rustling of the tapestries. I watched as they billowed out as though stirred by a strong breeze. Indeed, for a moment I assumed that was what had happened, before recalling I had seen no windows to admit such a wind. The moaning, and the rustling, continued as I advanced upon the fluttering fabric, determined to solve the mystery. Behind me, the executioner was shrieking. While my gun had done nothing to alter his composure, whatever was behind those drapes filled him with terror.
“It is only the rats,” he shouted, rushing to impose himself between me and the wall. “Come no farther. There is nothing to see!”
Unable to contain my disgust, or my rage, I struck him, knocking him back into the tapestry. He screamed as it enveloped him, and, in his struggles to extricate himself from it, tore it from the wall. I gasped. There before me, death grinned down at me a thousand times over. The wall, perhaps the entire chateau, was composed of human skulls! I hardly had time to reflect upon this horror before I realized it was from these dead relics that the mournful wail was emanating. Fourniret groveled before them, covering his ears as the mournful chorus rose to a crescendo.
“The talismans! They must be replaced! Without the shield they will sing until…”
Fourniret’s words faded into a sigh, followed by a sickening gurgling as his body began to shrivel. His gray hair turned white, and then fell from his head in clumps, and his eyes shrank back into their sockets. Fighting the urge to flee, I watched as he was reduced to bone. The transformation complete, the thing that had once served as the angel of death succumbed itself to the ravages of Azrael and slumped forward, dislodging its skull. I watched with mingled satisfaction and horror as it rolled across the floor to take its place among the others at the base of the wall.
There are those who will insist I found M. Fourniret and killed him as I had pledged to do, and I can offer no evidence, other than this testimony, to refute their assertions. After the skulls fell silent, sated by the vengeance they had at last achieved, I stumbled back out into the wilderness, where I was lost for many days. Starving, and nearly dead, I was finally rescued by some hunters who happened to come upon me several miles from the scene of the executioner’s demise. No one I have encountered has ever admitted to seeing or hearing of such a place as I described, and, despite my best efforts, I was never able to retrace my steps back to it.
Perhaps Fourniret isn’t dead at all. Perhaps it was all a delusion experienced as I shuddered with fever in the huntsman’s cabin. If so, I leave Monsieur Fourniret’s fate to other hands. Surely there are others who seek vengeance against such a man. For me, real or imagined, the end of my quest was good enough. I am satisfied. However, should anyone happen upon a lonely chateau, far from the places where civilized men hold discourse, I would caution them not to linger lest they too hear the song of the guillotine.
Lamont Turner is a New Orleans area author and father of four.