The voice said-- "Ha! ha! ha! --he! he! he! --a very good joke, indeed
--an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the
palazzo --he! he! he! --over our wine --he! he! he!"
I jerked upright. I had seen many things in my stupors but had never
been plagued by voices. Already the tavern distorted in my mind, blights
of nitre appearing on its walls, the candles guttering, in the opposite
corner a figure, demonic as I has always seen Montresor, tall and dark,
and on the wall his shadow, high forehead and hawk's nose. The words had
come in a strong accent, not quite Italian, nor French. He was facing a
smaller man, cowering. If by some chance -- but no, this was not possible
-- the next words should be --
"For the love of God, Montresor!" the smaller man ejaculated. It was
the same accented voice.
"Yes, for the love of God," intoned the larger man, his voice deeper,
his accent barely noticeable.
I staggered to their table. "How dare you!" he shouted. "You laugh at
my expense! Damn it..."
"We do not," said another voice. Female, British, cultured, deeper in
its way, more compelling, than that of the demonic man. I turned and
stared. It was a woman of breathtaking beauty, soft brown hair framing
an exquisite face, luminous eyes that made her seem an angel -- and yet
the demon strode to her side and took her hand. "We would never mock you,
Mr Poe. But in your state, we thought..."
"The play, the play, the play's the thing," the demon whispered,
"In which to catch..."
The faces swam away, and all was darkness.
I awoke to being sick in the cold morning light, a fate to which I was
well accustomed, but not to the cool cloth with which my face and brow
were soothed. I opened my eyes fully. The room was not my own, nor,
indeed, the bed, in which the lumps I knew so intimately were nowhere to
be found. Small feminine hands were in front of me, shaking loose the
wadded cloth; as my eyes focused, I could see the hands were not those
of a girl, nor of a hag, but of --
The hands pulled at my shoulder, turning me so that I lay on my
back. Against all expectations, I recognized in their owner the angel of
night past. She smiled. I closed his eyes. There was but one thing to do.
"Brandy," I rasped. "This instant. If you would be so kind."
"I should think not," the woman said. It was the same voice I heard in
the night, its singsong richness the unmistakable result of an English
upperclass upbringing. "You must rest, Mr Poe." She placed a cup of
steaming liquid on the side table. I inhaled the aroma of tea; in my state
I doubt I could have tolerated another odor. The woman turned to the door.
I scrambled to my feet, nearly falling. "But... I must..."
As if by magic, the demonic man appeared at her side. "You must rest,
Mr Poe," he said, his tone imbued with the implacable gentleness of a
kindly stepfather. I could see his face much better in the morning. The
man appeared to be a quadroon from his skin color, and I had known many
quadroons; some even with the hawk's nose, inherited no doubt from
an Indian ancestor; but none whose eyes that shone with strength and
intelligence met mine level and square and unflinching.
I sat down. My head spun still. "Who..." I croaked.
"Soon," the dark man said.