1812, a monastery in Brittany, France
“I’ve called you today,” the old abbot addressed the black-suited gentleman sitting opposite him, “because I could not do otherwise.”
Mephisto grinned and opened a cigar case. “Might as well have one of these before you ban them forever. Pleasure, my dear abbot, is the one thing the Church has never understood.”
“We are not here for a philosophical debate,” said the old priest, “I am calling in a bet. Nothing more, nothing less. Frankly.”
“State your proposition; we’ll come to terms or not. After all, we are gentlemen, and after fifty years of battling, it is time for us to try a spirit of friendly competition for a change, and frankly I even feel inclined to bend the rules and do you a favour.”
The old abbot looked askance at the handsome well-groomed devil. Mephisto was a brilliant debating partner, but it was simply too fatiguing to be on one’s guard eternally and… Alas! Mephisto was eternal but he, the abbot, was not.
“You would not be doing me a favour. And you so conveniently forget what I have done for you.”
“What stupendous nerve! Just what have you done for me?” the demon asked, kindling his cigar by breathing on it.
“The Curse of the Parchment, for a starter; the Chaldean sorcerer and—”
“I do beg your pardon.” Mephisto drew on his cigar. “The Parchment indeed! Frankly, if you had not nullified the Curse with the Talisman of Nineveh, which I helped you retrieve in the Basilica of Saint Silas the Wanderer, you would be speaking to Baal, the lecher, now, instead of me.
“Be honest, cher ami. You and Baal are just not cut out for each other! And as for the Chaldean sorcerer, peel away the beard, the staff with the entwined serpent and the long-sleeved, flowing garments and you have a fifth-rate circus act of a charlatan parading as a warlock.”
The abbot hissed a curt, mean laugh, “Perhaps. But I spared you the ignominy of jumping through flaming hoops as a purple puff of smoke for the rest of that poor man’s existence!”
“Which would have been short, I can assure you!” the demon added, cocking an eyebrow. “You are a cruel hypocrite! And if you are in the market for unpleasant truths, I have a few that might interest you. How about the Demons of Doubt? Who called them off for you? You couldn’t have done it by yourself. The recently revised Satanic Covenant, directly inspired by the Napoleonic code, has extremely binding rules…”
“All right, calm down. And please, take care not to flick your ashes on the chair. There now, a little humility, even for someone of your lofty (the abbot could not resist a chuckle) status. And do not, I repeat, do not sidetrack the conversation. Your so-called proposition is my very real bet that I won fair and square, and now there’s the devil to pay! In a manner of speaking.”
“And just what is this so-called bet?”
“In a word, Panhadoré. The young Marchioness of Panhadoré. A most devoted parishioner, beautiful, ethereal…”
“Dear Abbot, come down to it!” The demon scowled. “Or I might think you were in love with her!”
“Alas! Minus fifty years and my unswerving devotion to our Faith, or rather to my Faith, I would have certainly given the matter a thought. Well, to go back in time — six months, to be exact — do you not remember that the Marchioness was most tempted to serve her elderly husband a plate of poisonous mushrooms? It became a matter of sporting interest to us.
“You said that the Marchioness had prepared the fatal dish for her spouse and that it was to be served on All Hallow’s Eve? That was the grounds for our little wager. You bet that she would feed him the mushrooms and I bet she would not.
“You must recall the scenario we concocted! Walking home after administering the last rites to a parishioner, I should find myself in the vicinity of their manor and knock at their door at dinnertime. I should refuse all food, stay not more than an hour and then be off, taking note of who had eaten what.
“After my departure, did we not see the young Marchioness, regretting her sinful intentions, go out alone in that horrid murky weather to the foul-smelling sty and throw the poisonous mushrooms to the pigs? Yes, I won that bet, and you are about to pay! And, incidentally, her prayers were sorrowfully answered when three months ago, the Marquis died of natural causes.”
Mephisto shot his friend a sidelong “that remains to be seen” look. Then he asked, “What do you want me to do?”
“Bring me Tamerlane’s snuffbox.”
“Tamerlane’s snuffbox for a dish of mushrooms! That’s going a little too far, don’t you think!”
“Dettes de jeu, dettes d’honneur — A gambler’s debts are lawful debts.”
“And suppose I do agree. Locating the damn thing is close to impossible!” The demon whipped his cigar through the air creating lassoes of smoke.
“No need for dramatics, cher ami. Ever since Bishop Mikael of Kent cracked the Alexandrian Hermes Trismegistus Riddle in the 13th century, the location of the snuffbox has been an open secret. It is precisely in the Saint Ephrosina monastery, in Russia, which is, I am sorry to say, on the road of our glorious Emperor’s retreat. You know how it is with retreating soldiers, they’ll plunder and pillage anything in their path. I’m afraid they’ll make off with the snuffbox, not knowing what fearsome powers lie within!”
Examining his fingernails, Mephisto remarked, “I shouldn’t worry if I were you. As long as a marriageable virgin does not open it, it’s a harmless bauble.”
“The point is that I want no one to open it ever again! And that it should not fall into the wrong hands. Listen, cher ami, I have not long to live, maybe a month or two…”
“Where have I heard that before!?” The demon glared.
“Well, this time it is true. My days are numbered. I have prepared my passage, hopefully, into a better world and—”
“I shall cut short your eloquence. You want the snuffbox buried with you.”
“Well, yes,” the abbot agreed.
The demon drew long on his cigar and knit his brow. He could see no way out; a debt incurred by a denizen of Hell was always paid back in full. Besides, the abbot seemed to anticipate his last argument.
“It would take you no time to enter the monastery, dressed as a French soldier — or a Russian — for that matter, find the snuffbox, make off with it, and return within a week.”
“A week? You have foolish schoolboy notions—”
“Yes, within a week. Bring it to me and the slate will be wiped clean. And I can die in peace.”
* * *
Mephisto kept his side of the bargain; and the abbot, his. The holy man fell ill and was dead within a month. As his ghost was still governed by the Nostradamus principle of remaining with the body until placed in holy ground, the abbot was able to enjoy Mephisto’s company before ascending to Heaven.
In a room back of the altar at the Cathedral, the teary-eyed parishioners filed past the holy man lying in state. The last mourner on the day before the funeral was the Marchioness, who dabbed her eyes with a lace handkerchief.
“I wonder what was keeping her,” the abbot remarked to the handsome demon.
“Spending her late husband’s money, as all widows do,” Mephisto answered over his shoulder.
A long moment went by. Alone in the room, the Marchioness walked over to a table beside the open coffin; the objects on it beckoned. The Abbot probably wanted to be buried with them. Nobody around and the dead are, well, dead. A portrait of a lady, probably his mother. A tiny image of the Virgin framed in gold. A scroll tied in a silk ribbon. And that strange highly decorated box… It looked perfectly Chinese! She had never seen such clever inlaid work!
Unfortunately, for the abbot, his death was too recent, and the Odin-Horus phenomenon enabling ghosts to move objects had not yet become effective. But if it came to a show of female curiosity, the abbot had nothing to fear; she was a widow.
All at once, the demon seized the Abbot’s shoulder and cried, “Look now at what she is doing!”
Horror of horrors! Noisome curlicues of black smoke were drifting upward from the open box. A clap of thunder was heard without the cathedral, and the beautiful Marchioness swooned. She regained consciousness after a short while, snapped the box shut, and left.
The demon, hardly able to contain his laughter, said, “I did not want to tell you this, cher ami, but the late Marquis preferred—”
“No concern of ours!” the abbot snapped. “The point is that there’s a terrible wrong to be righted.”
“Speak for yourself!”
“It will take centuries, and it will come about only by the quest of the Holy Grail, presently in the hands of the Priory of Sion — or is it The Knights of Saint John the Templar? Each is in fierce conflict with the other. In the interval, all we can do is hope.”
Copyright © Diana Pollin