A Walk on the Wild Side

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short story involving a mysterious walking stick...

Submitted: July 16, 2011

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Submitted: July 16, 2011

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A Walk on the Wild Side

To say I was surprised by his urgent request to visit him would be a considerable understatement for I had not heard from my uncle Cedric for several years. The last time I spoke to him was on the eve of his departure to France. He told me he was taking what he referred to as a long overdue and well deserved holiday of uncertain duration. Some few months later, I received a plain postcard from him advising that he had just returned to England, had immediately left his house and moved to North Yorkshire but curiously did not provide his new address.
I cannot say I had a close relationship with him. Rather the contrary in fact; most of the time a few words exchanged at spasmodic family gatherings was pretty much the measure of it, although according to my mother he had always taken rather kindly to me. That Uncle Cedric was both intelligent and erudite was quite evident to me as it would have been to anyone of moderate education, although his demeanour pointed to him being a somewhat shy and rather private person.
It was with these memories of him in my mind that I boarded the train at King's Lynn to make the journey northwards. Once settled in my carriage, I took out the letter he had sent me just two days previously. So that you can share with me the extent of my puzzlement and extreme curiosity I quote it in full:
Dear John,
Doubtless you will be very surprised to receive this letter from me after so many years. I can but apologise for my silence all this time. I am far from being in the best of health and I fear for my safety.
I have to relate to you something of great import. It is of the utmost urgency that you come to see me. With this letter is a note giving you the address and the necessary directions, which once read should be destroyed.
Trusting that you will be here before too many days have passed, I remain,
Yours truly,
Uncle Cedric
After passing through East Anglia and Lincolnshire the countryside grew gradually but inexorably bleaker as the train wound its way into Yorkshire. It took three hours to reach the station of Middlebrook on the Moor, a small market town, once a thriving place trading in wool but its fortunes had waned over recent years and it now looked a rather sad and forlorn place, surrounded as it was by dark brooding hills.
Immediately after I had alighted from the carriage I found a waiting cab and instructed the driver to take me to the hamlet of Littlehampton some two miles distant and to drop me off at its long abandoned church. I duly paid him his fare, then after waiting for him to depart I took the trail mentioned by my uncle leading away from the church. About half a mile later, a house came into view. A large, austere and uninviting structure built from the local grey granite... I had arrived!
My first shock (the first of many to come) came when the front door, following repeated raps on the door knocker, (which incidentally was in the shape of a hand - more reminiscent of France than of North Yorkshire) eventually opened. Was the figure framed in the doorway truly Uncle Cedric? I was not at all sure until he greeted me. Yes, it was him but how he had aged, much more than one would expect after five years. That he was in an enfeebled state was beyond question.
He ushered me into the hallway and without further ado led the way to his study; a book lined room with a large antique desk set in the middle. He sat down behind it and invited me to occupy the chair in front of him. Without speaking he gestured vaguely in the direction of a nearby brandy decanter and with what I hoped was not seen as indecent haste I poured two liberal measures. We imbibed in silence for a couple of minutes. Then quite suddenly he said "We must not lose precious time. I am ready to tell you exactly why I have summoned you here".
So, here in his very own words his amazing story is imparted.
Well dear nephew it was in the height of summer that I found myself in the village of St. Pierre de Villefranche deep in the heart of the Charente. I took to it immediately. It was an enchanting and beguiling place. The very epitome of an off the beaten track french village, one such as would be imagined as a true idyll by those francophiles of a romantic disposition and here I must include myself. Here I would surely find peace and tranquillity for a month or two, perhaps even longer. I hurried along to the one and only hotel, which rejoiced in the self important title of L'hotel de Paris, a rather incongruous name given its locale I would have to concur; still no matter.
The proprietors, M. & Mme. Hubert were most welcoming, the more so when I told them I was looking to stay for at least a month and would happily pay in advance. The room they gave me was ideal. It was quite large with lots of sunlight streaming through the large picture window, which gave out onto a superb view of the picture postcard countryside surrounding the village. That first evening as Mme. Hubert was serving me a most delicious supper I mentioned to her that during my stay I intended to take lots of walks in the locality and search out other interesting villages. She responded by telling me that the very next day there was to be a country fair at the nearby village of St. Augustin and that I could be there and back in the course of a day.
I took up her suggestion, setting off the next morning shortly after sunrise, a truly beautiful day. My only regret was that I did not have a walking stick with me. After an hour or so I reached St. Augustin. The fair was already in full swing and I happily joined the throng of locals moving from stall to stall. I eventually came upon one such a stall, which to my delight had a very fine walking stick for sale. It had an ivory handle, which was carved in the shape of a duck's head and bill. Around the neck was a band of silver fastening the handle to the shaft of the stick, which was made of thorn and at the bottom of which was a steel tip. It was sturdy but surprisingly light. Despite the hefty price tag I had to have it. Thus it was that a few moments later I was on my way back to the Hotel de Paris with a decided spring in my step, ably assisted by my new found walking 'companion'.
Back in my room, after first showing off my fine acquisition to mine hosts I placed it on a hook behind the door and got dressed for dinner. Another fine repast, accompanied by an exquisite local wine was laid before me by Mme. Hubert. After dinner I was invited to sit by the roaring fire and to partake in a generous measure of cognac. It was with some effort that I climbed the stairs and returned to my room an hour or so later.
The room felt cold, much colder than when I had left it. I put this down to the fact that I had been spoiled by sitting by the fire a little too long. I quickly exchanged the flickering candle handed to me by Mme Hubert, when I wished her goodnight, for the oil lamp set by my bedside, which once lit cast an eerie glow around the room. Then, hurriedly I changed into my night attire, comprising a night cap and gown. I pulled back the sheets resigned, albeit most reluctantly, to accepting their icy embrace and saw to my astonishment a rolled up tube of parchment tied by a bow. How the devil did it get there and more unnervingly why was it there?! I stood staring at it for perhaps a minute or more before I ventured gingerly to pick it up. It was with a great deal of apprehension that I untied the bow. The parchment unrolled itself to reveal a long letter written in French. It translated as follows:
"Good evening my dear sir. It gave me great pleasure when you purchased my trusty and steadfast 'friend' today. That you are a gentleman of taste and refinement is quite clear and of some distinct intelligence too, so far as I have been able to currently observe.
Until three years ago I was alive but now Cedric, truth to tell, I am dead, at least by how you, one of the living, would so define my present state! Not so very far from here I was unjustly sent to prison and subsequently put to death. This gross calumny must finally be put to rights. You will, I am sure, be familiar with the adage "an eye for an eye". I have waited these three years to find the right person to assist me in this necessary task, for I cannot accomplish it alone. I have now found him. Cedric I have chosenyou!
Tomorrow, at first light, we will proceed together to my old estate, which borders the Forest of Manville. You will take with you my trusty stick, "he" knows the way. Once there "he" will leave you for a short time. You will wait for him and when he returns you will accompany him to the nearby graveyard. You will proceed to the sexton's hut. It will not be locked and from it you will take a spade. My friend will lead you to my resting place, which resides not within but outside the graveyard walls. You will proceed to dig down into the grave until you see my coffin lid. All that then remains is for you to place the stick on top, return the grave to its previous state and return from whence ye came. You will then be free of me!
Should you fail, in any aspect of the business to be done, severe retribution will be exacted. It will be a lifelong affliction from which you will never be "free"! After you have read this letter you will, before the night is out, receive a "sign", which I am confident will suffice to demonstrate to you that you are not the victim of some cruel practical joke or hoax".
"Dear nephew, can you possibly even begin to imagine the state of my mental faculties at that precise moment, the more so when it was threatened that there was still worse to come?"
All that I could summon up was a feeble nod of assent, for I was transfixed by what I had heard so far. Other than that I could only stare at him in amazement and fear. Uncle Cedric, recognising my inability to be any more communicative than this, poured for me another brandy and resumed his narrative.
"Before I could make even the slightest attempt to recover my sensesitbegan! Not more than a foot behind me into my hearing came atap, tap, tap, slow but insistent and persistent. Then as suddenly as it came, it ceased. I stood shock still. Dare I turn round to see with what horror I might be confronted?I did so dare but with heart pounding! At first I saw nothing in the eerie glow of the oil lamp but when I looked at the door there was the stick and I swear that for a brief moment I detected it swinging on the hook very slightly from side to side and then came to rest.
I sank down onto my bed. What was I to do? What were my options? My first instinct (and I think you will agree it to be the most natural one) was to dress, pack, get the hell out of the hotel, catch the first train back to Calais and then proceed to England. On the other hand I could remain and carry out the instructions of the letter but who in their right mind would contemplate such a bizarre course of action, and yet what would not leave my thoughts was the letter's clear and emphatic reference to retribution and a curse.
In the midst of these contemplations I suddenly had what I thought was a solution. I dressed immediately but did not pack. Instead, I walked to the door, took down the stick, left the room and tiptoed slowly down the stairs and out of the hotel. Sunrise was still a little way off. I knew where to go. I had noticed previously that on the immediate outskirts of the town was a small lake right by the roadside. You may guess what my intention was. On reaching the lake and without a moment's hesitation I flung this, this ...this sinister object into the murky water, whereupon it sank immediately.
It was getting lighter by the minute. For a time I wandered around the town. Walking I thought might help me to rationalise the events of the past hour. The feeling of great fright eventually began to recede and I returned to the hotel. I was met in the hallway by Mme. Hubert. She looked surprised and not a little alarmed. She said she felt sure I had returned some little while ago because unless her ears had been deceiving her she had heard the tapping of my new walking stick going up the stairs to my room! I was dumbfounded. I pushed past her, bounded up the stairs and flung open the door. There on the hook was the stick, wet and muddy! On the bed was a damp folded piece of paper. It took all of what remained of my rapidly decreasing courage to pick it up. I read the scrawled message, "You did not really think you would get rid of me that easily, did you? Never mind, I had already assessed that you would make one such puny attempt to avoid the work we must carry out together. This will be my last act of clemency towards you. Let us waste no more time. Be sure to be ready to leave within the hour.
Precisely one hour later I presented myself at the reception desk. I had made the only choice that seemed open to me. I told Mme. Hubert, who seemed rather curt with me following my strange and rude behaviour earlier on, that I would be away for a night and a day (having surmised that this would be all the time necessary to rid myself of this living nightmare).
Hardly had I stood on the steps outside the hotel when the handle of the stick twisted slightly in my hand. It was indicating I should turn left and so I proceeded down the High Street. After passing the final little huddle of rather shabby and dilapidated houses on the edge of town I was in open countryside. After half a mile I reached an unmarked crossroads. The stick prompted me, in the manner previously described, save for the fact that this time it was in order to turn right.
The rest of the walk was punctuated by several more changes of direction until coming upon the entrance to a dense forest. By now it was early evening and darkness was beginning to set in. I stood motionless. This must surely be the forest at the edge of the estate at Tusson. I entered it with extreme reluctance. The trail became steadily more and more overgrown. It was clear that no one had passed this way in a very long time. I had journeyed about half a mile when I saw on my right a gate partially hidden from view. The handle of the stick twisted simultaneously in that same direction.
With great foreboding I attempted to open the gate. I was only partially successful, managing to prise it open just a few inches. I peered through and glimpsed a large mansion barely 25 yards away. Hardly had I perceived it when, without warning the stick pulled itself away from my grip and floated, yes floated away from me through the small opening!
What was I to do? Of course! I was to do nothing save to wait a short while until it returned, after which I was to carry out the final grisly task. I did as I had been instructed. I had waited for what I judged to be no more than five minutes when I heard a loud and prolonged shriek coming from the direction of the house, this then being quickly replaced by a series of agonising moans and groans, which gradually grew fainter until I could hear nothing more.
This was the final breaking point for me! I turned round to face the direction I had come from and with my heart in my hand I ran and ran and ran!
There was only one place to go and that was to the relative sanctuary of the hotel. When I once again reached the outskirts of the town I slowed to walking pace. Partially, because I was exhausted but also for the reason of not wanting to draw attention to myself. Thankfully, when I walked into the hotel there was no one there to witness my bedraggled appearance. Once at the reception I reached over the counter and took my key. I had never packed so fast. Within minutes I was back at the counter and ringing the call bell like a man possessed. Mme. Hubert appeared within seconds. I told her I had to leave immediately and had no desire to claim back any part of the advance payment I had made on arrival.
The train journey to Calais was a desperately needed respite from the horrors of the past few days. I would soon be back in the real world, the everyday world of Uffingham my home town in sleepy leafy Norfolk 'where nothing happens all the time'. I had been back just a day or so when I started to feel a little under the weather and a little depressed. Nothing serious, not at all, but I was keen to shake it off. I had purchased some years previously the house in which we are now sitting. It was always intended to be a place for the occasional holiday... a "getaway from it all" bolt hole and I convinced myself that I might feel better by spending a month or two here. I quickly made all the necessary arrangements such as cancelling newspaper deliveries, redirection of post etc. and left the following morning.
One morning last week the doorbell rang for the first time. It was the postman carrying a long tubular parcel to which was affixed a small envelope giving my name and address. I took it inside, set it down on the kitchen table. It had a French postmark and England was spelled Angleterre. Alarm bells started ringing! I quickly tore open the envelope and took out a letter. It read;
'Dear Mr Adams,
I was sorry when you had to leave in such great haste. You will probably have realised by now that you forgot to take with you, what you described to me and my husband as your new found walking companion, namely your fine walking stick. I found it on the hook behind the door. I noticed that it had suffered a slight crack in the bill but I am sure you already knew this. I hope you will continue to enjoy it for many years to come.
Kind Regards,
Mme Hubert'
My worst suspicions were confirmed! Clearly,ithad returned to the hotel after my departure. I hypothesised that it had put its faith in the goodwill of Mme. Hubert who as a responsible and honest hotelier would naturally wish to do the right thing, that is to say always return property to its rightful owner. Then something happened which made my blood run cold. The package had slowly started to shake and I thought I could detect a rustling sound coming from inside it. No need to speculate that I was imagining it! I rushed out of the kitchen and into the study. Luckily what I knew I had to find was immediately to hand. It was a slim rectangular steel box of just the right length. It had originally served to house a shotgun and it came with a sturdy padlock. I picked it up, returned to the kitchen, grabbed the package, thrust it inside the case and locked it tight.
It was at this point that Uncle Cedric stopped. He turned towards me and asked if I was happy for him to continue. Dear reader, what could I possibly say? My reply had to be in the affirmative, did it not? I assented and so he continued.
"John I must now ask you to do something for me. A task from which you may instantly recoil but I leave the decision to you and will respect whatever you choose or choose not to do".
Without further ado he reached into a drawer of his desk and withdrew the steel case. He placed it on the desk and said "listen". At first I heard nothing, then it began; a muffled tap, tap, tap! I had already half guessed what Uncle Cedric was going to say next and I was right. "John as you aware I left my task uncompleted. Are you prepared to act on my behalf? That is to say to take this box to France and deposit its malevolent occupant, where it so much desires to be? It may very well be my one and only chance to recover from this sickness". For a while I remained still and silent whilst agonising over my response then hardly recognising my own voice I finally whispered 'yes'.
Dear reader, I will not belabour you with a long chronicle of the events of the next few days. I will just say I went to France, carried out the final instruction given to Uncle Cedric and yes it was harrowing, most harrowing indeed. I returned to England and went straightaway to see him. He was a different man. He had fully recovered from his strange 'illness' and was in very fine fettle. So much so and as if to dispel the whole business he light-heartedly affected a slight French accent and employed the odd French word or two in some parts of his conversation. I wished him well and returned home with a feeling that some normality would now return to my life.
A few weeks later I was sitting in my living room reading the Times newspaper, when on turning to the first inside page I saw the following headline "Murder of French judge shocks the small community of Manville". Yes, dear reader I was dumbfounded! I will share the article with you. It read:
'It is now several days since the body of the famous French judge M. Martin was discovered in the grounds of his mansion in Manville, a medieval village in the heart of the Charente. He had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument. The police have only one material clue. There were very small fragments of ivory embedded in his skull. The ground where he lay was muddy but the only footprints discovered were those of the judge.
There is considerable interest in this case because Judge Martin gained some notoriety five years ago when presiding over the controversial trial of a prominent but much disliked and distrusted local inhabitant. The charge was the murder of the local curate. He was also the official appointed by the church to carry out exorcisms in the district. The defendant was one Alain de Vilné. Local historical researchers found that he had an aristocratic background. His forebears were Norman nobles (the patriarchal name of which was Dubanidéle) who had settled in England following the Norman Conquest and where they prospered as did several further generations of the family line until one day they abruptly departed and moved to this little known and sparsely populated area in the south west of France. Although it has not proved to be at all verifiable, it has been suggested that this move followed major altercations with the English clergy, although what these were is not known. Shortly after their arrival they changed their name to de Vilné.
The basic facts relating to the actual murder were of themselves quite mundane when contrasted with the references to witchcraft, secret covens, cabals, "possessions", exorcisms and the like, which were in great abundance. It has since been argued that the case against de Vilné was flimsy, even suspect but Judge Martin was convinced of his guilt (enthusiastically so some observers have observed) and sentenced him to life imprisonment. However, the story did not end there. The prisoner died just a few days after being incarcerated. The death was officially recorded as being "by natural causes" but rumour has it that he was poisoned. The church refused permission for him to be buried in consecrated ground - none of the local people not one, expressed any dissent and so it was that he was buried outside the cemetery walls of his local church, close to his estate. Rather bizarrely it was not long after he was interred that Judge Martin "acquired" the dead man's prestigious property, which he had always much coveted.
As things stand at present all that the police will say is that none of their enquiries have resulted in any leads. Manville is a close knit community. They are not happy with all the attention being focused on them again and remain tight lipped when approached by the press and other curious outsiders, The general opinion is that it will take a very long time to see any progress being made in this case, if ever.
Well, dear reader you may appreciate the shock to my system whilst I absorbed the full import of the article! What could I think - whatshouldI think? Has a wrong been righted or not? Perhaps, if I now confess to an earlier omission on my part this will point to an answer of sorts - for us both perhaps. When I returned the stick to what I thought would be its final resting place I read what had been crudely carved into the headstone. It said:
"Beneath this unhallowed ground lies the body of one Alain de Vilné, who walked abroad hand in hand with Le Malin (The Evil One). May god rest his soul"
After my return from France I spent some time contemplating his name. With Vilné being preceded by "de" (of) it should denote coming from a particular place, be it a hamlet, village, town or a certain locality but I could not find it listed in a gazetteer of France in my possession. Perhaps it has ceased to exist if it ever existed at all.
But then came the revelation! For some inexplicable reason I was drawn to separating and regrouping parts of the letters making up the surname. The result was.... Devil né = Devil born! A coincidence.... perhaps?

But wait there is something else. You will remember the name of the Norman family Dubanidéle.
I have given considerable thought to this name as well. If you employ the same method of thinking you may like I have ended up with:
Né du diable = Born of the devil!
Remember the devil is always in the detail!!
Sweet dreams!
Monsieur Taupe


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