CHAPTER I. THE LEATHER FUNNEL
My friend, Lionel Dacre, lived in the Avenue de Wagram, Paris. His house was that small one, with the iron railings and grass plot in front of it, on the left-hand side as you pass down from the Arc de Triomphe. I fancy that it had been there long before the avenue was constructed, for the grey tiles were stained with lichens, and the walls were mildewed and discoloured with age. It looked a small house from the street, five windows in front, if I remember right, but it deepened into a single long chamber at the back. It was here that Dacre had that singular library of occult literature, and the fantastic curiosities which served as a hobby for himself, and an amusement for his friends. A wealthy man of refined and eccentric tastes, he had spent much of his life and fortune in gathering together what was said to be a unique private collection of Talmudic, cabalistic, and magical works, many of them of great rarity and value. His tastes leaned toward the marvellous and the monstrous, and I have heard that his experiments in the direction of the unknown have passed all the bounds of civilization and of decorum. To his English friends he never alluded to such matters, and took the tone of the student and virtuoso ; but a Frenchman whose tastes were of the same nature has assured me that the worst excesses of the black mass have been perpetrated in that large and lofty hall, which is lined with the shelves of his books, and the cases of his museum.
Dacre’s appearance was enough to show that his deep interest in these psychic matters was intellectual rather than spiritual. There was no trace of asceticism upon his heavy face, but there was much mental force in his huge dome-like skull, which curved upward from amongst his thinning locks, like a snow-peak above its fringe of fir trees. His knowledge was greater than his wisdom, and his powers were far superior to his character. The small bright eyes, buried deeply in his fleshy face, twinkled with intelligence and an unabated curiosity of life, but they were the eyes of a sensualist and an egotist. Enough of the man, for he is dead now, poor devil, dead at the very time that he had made sure that he had at last discovered the elixir of life. It is not with his complex character that I have to deal, but with the very strange and inexplicable incident which had its rise in my visit to him in the early spring of the year ‘82.
I had known Dacre in England, for my researches in the Assyrian Room of the British Museum had been conducted at the time when he was endeavouring to establish a mystic and esoteric meaning in the Babylonian tablets, and this community of interests had brought us together. Chance remarks had led to daily conversation, and that to something verging upon friendship. I had promised him that on my next visit to Paris I would call upon him. At the time when I was able to fulfil my compact I was living in a cottage at Fontainebleau, and as the evening trains were inconvenient, he asked me to spend the night in his house.
“ I have only that one spare couch,” said he, pointing to a broad sofa in his large salon; “I hope that you will manage to be comfortable there.”
It was a singular bedroom, with its high walls of brown volumes, but there could be no more agreeable furniture to a bookworm like myself, and there is no scent so pleasant to my nostrils as that faint, subtle reek which comes from an ancient book. I assured him that I could desire no more charming chamber, and no more congenial surroundings.
“ If the fittings are neither convenient nor conventional, they are at least costly,” said he, looking round at his shelves. “I have expended nearly a quarter of a million of money upon these objects which surround you. Books, weapons, gems, carvings, tapestries, images—there is hardly a thing here which has not its history, and it is generally one worth telling.”
He was seated as he spoke at one side of the open fireplace, and I at the other. His reading table was on his right, and the strong lamp above it ringed it with a very vivid circle of golden light. A half-rolled palimpsest lay in the centre, and around it were many quaint articles of bric-à-brac. One of these was a large funnel, such as is used for filling wine casks. It appeared to be made of black wood, and to be rimmed with discoloured brass.
“ That is a curious thing,” I remarked. “What is the history of that?”
“ Ah!” said he, “it is the very question which I have had occasion to ask myself. I would give a good deal to know. Take it in your hands and examine it.”
I did so, and found that what I had imagined to be wood was in reality leather, though age had dried it into an extreme hardness. It was a large funnel, and might hold a quart when full. The brass rim encircled the wide end, but the narrow was also tipped with metal.
“ What do you make of it?” asked Dacre.
“ I should imagine that it belonged to some vintner or maltster in the middle ages,” said I. “I have seen in England leathern drinking flagons of the seventeenth century—‘black jacks’ as they were called—which were of the same colour and hardness as this filler.”
“ I dare say the date would be about the same,” said Dacre, “and no doubt, also, it was used for filling a vessel with liquid. If my suspicions are correct, however, it was a queer vintner who used it, and a very singular cask which was filled. Do you observe nothing strange at the spout end of the funnel.”
As I held it to the light I observed that at a spot some five inches above the brass tip the narrow neck of the leather funnel was all haggled and scored, as if some one had notched it round with a blunt knife. Only at that point was there any roughening of the dead black surface.
“ Some one has tried to cut off the neck.”
“ Would you call it a cut?”
“ It is torn and lacerated. It must have taken some strength to leave these marks on such tough material, whatever the instrument may have been. But what do you think of it? I can tell that you know more than you say.”
Dacre smiled, and his little eyes twinkled with knowledge.
“ Have you included the psychology of dreams among your learned studies?” he asked.
“ I did not even know that there was such a psychology.”
“ My dear sir, that shelf above the gem case is filled with volumes, from Albertus Magnus onward, which deal with no other subject. It is a science in itself.”
“ A science of charlatans.”
“ The charlatan is always the pioneer. From the astrologer came the astronomer, from the alchemist the chemist, from the mesmerist the experimental psychologist. The quack of yesterday is the professor of to-morrow. Even such subtle and elusive things as dreams will in time be reduced to system and order. When that time comes the researches of our friends in the book-shelf yonder will no longer be the amusement of the mystic, but the foundations of a science.”
“ Supposing that is so, what has the science of dreams to do with a large black brass-rimmed funnel?”
“ I will tell you. You know that I have an agent who is always on the lookout for rarities and curiosities for my collection. Some days ago he heard of a dealer upon one of the Quais who had acquired some old rubbish found in a cupboard in an ancient house at the back of the Rue Mathurin, in the Quartier Latin. The dining-room of this old house is decorated with a coat of arms, chevrons, and bars rouge upon a field argent, which prove, upon inquiry, to be the shield of Nicholas de la Reynie, a high official of King Louis XIV. There can be no doubt that the other articles in the cupboard date back to the early days of that king. The inference is, therefore, that they were all the property of this Nicholas de la Reynie, who was, as I understand, the gentleman specially concerned with the maintenance and execution of the Draconic laws of that epoch.”
“ What then?”
“ I would ask you now to take the funnel into your hands once more and to examine the upper brass rim. Can you make out any lettering upon it?”
There were certainly some scratches upon it, almost obliterated by time. The general effect was of several letters, the last of which bore some resemblance to a B.
“ You make it a B?”
“ Yes, I do.”
“ So do I. In fact, I have no doubt whatever that it is a B.”
“ But the nobleman you mentioned would have had R for his initial.”
“ Exactly! That’s the beauty of it. He owned this curious object, and yet he had some one else’s initials upon it. Why did he do this?”
“ I can’t imagine; can you?”
“ Well, I might, perhaps, guess. Do you observe something drawn a little further along the rim?”
“ I should say it was a crown.”
“ It is undoubtedly a crown; but if you examine it in a good light, you will convince yourself that it is not an ordinary crown. It is a heraldic crown—a badge of rank, and it consists of an alternation of four pearls and strawberry leaves, the proper badge of a marquis. We may infer, therefore, that the person whose initials end in B was entitled to wear that coronet.”
“ Then this common leather filler belonged to a marquis?”
Dacre gave a peculiar smile.
“ Or to some member of the family of a marquis,” said he. “So much we have clearly gathered from this engraved rim.”
“ But what has all this to do with dreams?” I do not know whether it was from a look upon Dacre’s face, or from some subtle suggestion in his manner, but a feeling of repulsion, of unreasoning horror, came upon me as I looked at the gnarled old lump of leather.
“ I have more than once received important information through my dreams,” said my companion, in the didactic manner which he loved to affect. “I make it a rule now when I am in doubt upon any material point to place the article in question beside me as I sleep, and to hope for some enlightenment. The process does not appear to me to be very obscure, though it has not yet received the blessing of orthodox science. According to my theory, any object which has been intimately associated with any supreme paroxysm of human emotion, whether it be joy or pain, will retain a certain atmosphere or association which it is capable of communicating to a sensitive mind. By a sensitive mind I do not mean an abnormal one, but such a trained and educated mind as you or I possess.”
“ You mean, for example, that if I slept beside that old sword upon the wall, I might dream of some b****y incident in which that very sword took part?”
“ An excellent example, for, as a matter of fact, that sword was used in that fashion by me, and I saw in my sleep the death of its owner, who perished in a brisk skirmish, which I have been unable to identify, but which occurred at the time of the wars of the Frondists. If you think of it, some of our popular observances show that the fact has already been recognized by our ancestors, although we, in our wisdom, have classed it among superstitions.”
“ For example?”
“ Well, the placing of the bride’s cake beneath the pillow in order that the sleeper may have pleasant dreams. That is one of several instances which you will find set forth in a small brochure which I am myself writing upon the subject. But to come back to the point, I slept one night with this funnel beside me, and I had a dream which certainly throws a curious light upon its use and origin.”
“ What did you dream?”
“ I dreamed—” He paused, and an intent look of interest came over his massive face. “By Jove, that’s well thought of,” said he. “This really will be an exceedingly interesting experiment. You are yourself a psychic subject—with nerves which respond readily to any impression.”
“ I have never tested myself in that direction.”