The Secret of Chateau Du Frogwad
Christophe Deveraux wrapped his cloak tighter around his frame and spurred his horse into a reluctant trot. He had set out from Paris at daylight, some eight hours ago and now both man and horse were tired. The fall term was starting soon and Christophe had hoped to squeeze in a few days at his father's estate before returning to his studies.
He had taken an unsure shortcut through the Forest of Average an hour ago and hadn't seen a soul since. Now the early autumn twilight was being compounded by an immense thunderstorm moving closer. The trees along the road were already a blur of dark masses and the road itself was only a pale streak in the thickening gloom.
Christophe heard the first far-off mutterings of thunder mingled with the clatter of the horse's hoofs. A distant lightning flash illuminated the path for a moment, showing him the path he was on was rarely used. He was certainly lost. He didn't care to turn back for there had been nothing but forest for the last hour and the storm was approaching quickly, he could smell it as well as hear it now. He hurried on, hoping he would come to some chateau or woodcutter's cottage where he could find refuge for the night. A few minutes later he saw a glimmering light through the trees and he breathed a sigh of relief. He turned towards it, following a side path. A moment later he entered an open glade, where a large building loomed, with several windows in the lower story and the single tower reached up into the darkness.
Christophe rode up to the entrance and descended from his exhausted mount. He lifted the heavy bronze knocker in the form of a frog's head and let it fall upon the oaken door. The sound was unexpectedly loud and sonorous and he shivered involuntarily. A moment later the door was opened and a tall, ruddy-featured monk holding a trimmed lamp stood before him.
The monk held the lamp high and looked him over for a moment. "Welcome to Bagge LeDouche Abbey," he said in a rumbling voice. He waved Christophe inside. "I bid you come in."
Another robed and hooded figure appeared and led his horse away to the stables. As Christophe murmured his thanks, the storm broke in earnest. Gusts of rain accompanied by peals of thunder drove them inside and the monk pushed the door shut against the wind.
"Sacray bleu! It is fortunate that you found us when you did," said the host. "It's an ill night for man and beast to be abroad. Come."
He led Christophe to the refectory, to a table near the fire and soon set before him a meal of grilled frog legs, a loaf of brown bread and an excellent red wine.
The monk sat opposite him at the table while he ate. "I am Duknardze, the abbot of Bagge LeDouche. We are a small order, who live in amity with the forest. We have an abundance of good fare here, and our cellars have the best and oldest vintages in the whole district."
The abbot removed the lid from a stone crock in the center of the table and and plucked something from the inside. He showed Christophe a medium sized frog in his hand. He dangled the the frog's hind legs over a brass chafing dish and squeezed out a gelatinous pile of frog-spawn into the dish.
"Caviar?" he offered, sliding the dish towards Christophe. He replaced the frog in the crock. "She is fresh from the swamp this morning."
Christophe declined as gracefully as he could.
Duknardze broke off a piece of the brown bread and scooped up some frog-spawn with it. "We also have a library that is filled with ancient manuscripts, the finest collection in France," he said munching, "even some that survived the holocaust of Alexandria."
"I much appreciate your hospitality," Christophe said. "I am a law-student, on my way home from Paris, to my father's estate near Snacheboxe. I am a lover of books, and nothing would delight me more than the privilege of seeing a library as rich and curious as the one whereof you speak."
As Christophe ate his meal, they fell to discussing the classics, and to quoting passages from Latin and Greek dirty limericks. Duknardze was a scholar of uncommon attainments, with a familiarity of both ancient and modern humor. By the time the bottle of red wine was finished they were chatting like old friends.
After the meal the abbot suggested that they pay a visit to the library and Christophe assented with enthusiasm.
They went down a long corridor until they reached a massive oak door at the far end. Duknardze pulled it open and bid Christophe enter. The library was a great room with lofty ceiling and several deep-set windows. There was a low fire burning in the fireplace and a few candles were set about, making the large room cozy while the storm raged outside.
Duknardze had not exaggerated, the library was full of long shelves overcrowded with books, many volumes were piled high on the tables or stacked in corners. Duknardze stoked up the fire and then brought out volume after volume for Christoph's inspection.
There were rolls of papyrus and parchment; there were oddly shaped books. There were old Arabic manuscripts with jewel-studded covers; there were scores of books from the first printing-presses; there were innumerable copies of antique authors, bound in wood or ivory, with rich illuminations and lettering that was often in itself a work of art.
Some of them Christophe had heard of but had never set eyes on before. His enthusiasm pleased the abbot greatly.
After the better part of an hour, Christophe looked up from the latest manuscript Duknardze had shown him, a collection of ancient Persian rug jokes. He looked around the library. "Are all of these joke books?"
Duknardze looked pleased. "Yes, the most complete collection in all France. But now, let me show you these."
Duknardze went to the far corner of the room and took a small silver key from his robe. He unlocked an old cabinet and drew forth a shallow drawer and brought it over to the library table.
"Here, my friend, are some of the rarest of treasures in the whole of the world."
He took out some very ancient manuscripts and beckoned to Christophe.
"Look," he said, showing some pages to Christophe, "a fifteenth century volume of 'Verily Grosse Jokkes' by Sir Carte D'Blanchenot, none of which you will find in any of the published editions. Wait, let me read one for you." He flipped through the pages for a moment.
"Ah, here." In Latin he read:
"I Prithee, how dost thouest remove a waggon-loadful of serf enfants?"
He waited a beat. "Withe thyne hay-fork."
When Christophe barely smiled Duknardze closed the pages. "Yes, a-hem. Well they are very old." He held up a rolled up manuscript tied with a piece of silk ribbon. "Here, now, is an original work of Blither the Elder, the only complete copy of the world's funniest joke, never read in it's entirety but only ever seen in fragments."
"Have you read it?"
"Oh no, it is forbidden. For you see, to read the whole of it would mean a death by uncontrolled laughing."
"Then how do you know it's the world's funniest joke?"
The abbot crossed himself. "One must have faith, my son."
Duknardze then held up a stack of ink-smudged papers. "And lastly, this is a work of Shakespeare, written by an infinite number of monkeys. But it's MacBeth, so it's not really funny."
Christophe gazed with curiosity on the pages the abbot displayed, then he spied a thin volume with plain binding in a corner of the drawer and picked it up. Inside were only a few sheets of handwriting in old French.
"What's this?" he asked.
Duknardze's face became troubled. "It is better not to ask, my son." He crossed himself and took the volume gently from Christoph's hands. "This is a cursed work. An evil spell is attached to these pages, and anyone who would read them is doomed to dire peril in body and soul."
He returned the little volume to the drawer, crossing himself again as he did so.
"But how can such things be?" asked Christophe. "How can there be danger in a few sheets of parchment?"
"There are things beyond your understanding, my son, things that are not for mere men to question. The might of Satan is devious. There are temptations and evils more subtle than you could know."
Christophe still looked doubtful. "What such unholy power could lurk within mere pages of script?"
"I forbid you to ask." His tone was one of finality that dissuaded Christophe from further questioning. "Believe me, it is better for you to forget you have ever seen this."
He replaced the rest of the treasured manuscripts back into the drawer and locked them away in the cupboard.
"Now," Duknardze said, changing the subject, "Let me show you an original Spanish copy of Garrfielde D'Gatto, drawn entirely by parrots. Legend has that it was written years before any man touched pen to ink; a most wonderful artefact."
He was again the kindly host and it was evident that the mysterious manuscript was not to be mentioned again. But the dark and awful hints he had let fall had only served to awaken Christoph's curiosity and he was quite unable to think of anything else for the rest of the evening.
At last, toward midnight, the abbot led Christophe to his room for the night, a room reserved for visitors, with more comfort than the bare cells of the monks. When Duknardze had withdrawn, and Christophe had got into his bed, his mind went back to questions concerning the forbidden manuscript. The storm still pounded the roof and windows and it was long before he fell asleep; but slumber, when it finally came, was filled with strange dreams.
When Christophe awoke, a river of golden sunshine was pouring through the window. The storm had blown itself out during the night and now the crisp September morning sky shone like a gem. Christophe rose and went to the window. He peered out on a world of forest and fields a-sparkle with the diamonds of rain. All was beautiful and idyllic.
The view held his gaze only for a few moments; then, beyond the tops of the trees, he saw the ruins of some old chateau on a far hill, perhaps a mile distant. The crumbling, broken-down condition of whose walls and towers was plainly visible. It drew his gaze irresistibly, with a sense of romantic attraction, He could not take his eyes away, but stood at the window for a long time, scrutinizing the details of each timeworn turret and bastion, lost in the odd fascination of the ruins.
He was startled out of his reverie by a gentle knock at the door, and he realized that he was still in his nightclothes. It was the abbot, who came to inquire how he had passed the night, and to tell him that breakfast was ready. For some reason Christophe felt embarrassed to have been caught day-dreaming. Duknardze gave him a keen, inquiring look and quickly withdrew.
When he had finished breakfast, Christophe thanked Duknardze for his hospitality.
"If I have your permission, I should like to remain here for another day," he said, "to pursue the study of your incomparable collection."
"My son, you are more than welcome to remain for any length of time here, and you may have access too the library whenever it suits your inclination. There are some duties which call me away from the monastery for a few hours today. Please forgive my absence.
An hour or so later, The abbot excused himself and departed. Christophe hastened to the library, with no thought except to read the proscribed manuscript. Giving scarcely a glance at the laden shelves, he went straight to the little cabinet and examined it. The lock was a simple one and he wasted no time attempting to pick it open with a long pin from his traveling cloak. He fumbled for some little while trying to unlock the door, but at last it yielded to his ministrations and he drew forth the drawer.
He removed the thin manuscript and took it over to a chair near one of the windows. With slightly quivering hands he began to peruse the pages, which were only six in number. The writing was peculiar, with letter-forms of a fantastic nature. The French was not only old but barbarous in its spelling and grammar. There was no title or date and the writing began almost as abruptly as it ended.
It concerned one Hugh J'ayhole, the Duke of Du Schlonger, who, on the eve of his marriage to the beautiful demoiselle, Eleanor de Boneable, had a dream of a singular nature. What the dream was he never told a soul, but from the moment he awoke from this dream, a change had come upon the Duke. He ate no food that was set before him nor spoke no kindly word to his retainers, but sat or paced the room in agitated silence. That evening he did not visit his betrothed, as he had promised; but toward midnight he stole forth by the back door of the chateau, and followed an old, overgrown trail through the woods. At last he found his way to the ruins of the Chateau des Frogwad, which stands on a hill opposite Bagge LeDouche abbey.
Now these ruins (said the manuscript) are very old, and have long been avoided by the people of the district; for a legend of immemorial evil clings about them, and it is said that they are the dwelling-place of foul smelling spirits, the rendezvous of sorcerers and succubi. But The Duke, fearless of their ill renown, plunged into the shadow of the crumbling walls, and went to the northern end of the courtyard. There, directly between and below the two center most windows, he pressed with his foot on a triangular flagstone. The flagstone moved and tilted beneath his foot, revealing a flight of steps that went down into the earth. Then, lighting a taper he had brought with him, J'ayhole descended the steps, and the flagstone swung back into place behind him.
On the morrow, his betrothed, Eleanor de Boneable, and all her bridal train, waited in vain for him at the cathedral of Merde, where the wedding had been set. And from that time onward his face was seen by no man again. No tale or rumor of Hugh J'ayhole or of the fate that befell him has ever passed among the living...
Such was the substance of the forbidden manuscript. There was nothing to indicate by whom it had been written or how the knowledge of the happenings related had come into the writer's possession. But, oddly enough, it did not occur to Christophe to doubt their veridity for a moment; The content of the manuscript instilled in Christophe a burning desire, to learn what happened to Duke Du Schlonger after he descended the hidden steps.
In reading the tale, it had occurred to Christophe that the ruins of the Chateau du Frogwad were the very same ruins he had gazed upon that morning from his chamber window.
Returning the manuscript to the cabinet and locking it up again with his pin, he left the library and wandered for awhile in an aimless fashion about the corridors of the monastery. Chancing to meet a kitchen monk, he ventured to question him discreetly regarding the ruins which were visible from the abbey windows.
The kitchen monk crossed himself, and a frightened look came over his broad, placid face.
"The ruins are those of the Chateau du Frogwad," he replied. "For untold years, men say, they have been the haunt of unholy spirits, of witches and demons. No weapon known to man has ever prevailed against these demons. Many brave cavaliers and soldiers have disappeared amid the ruins of Frogwad, never to return. It is told that once, long ago, an abbot of Bagge LeDouche went thither to make war on the powers of evil; but what befell him at the Chateau is not known. Some say that there are demons who are half-man and half- beast that roam the grounds and eat anyone foolish enough to venture near. I know not whether such tales are true; but I should not care to go near those walls."
Despite the monk's chilling tales, Christophe was determined more than ever to go to Frogwad. He would leave that very afternoon, before Duknardze returned.
He took a small taper from his room and some bread from the refectory; and making sure that his dagger was in it's sheath, He left the monastery. Meeting two of the brothers in the courtyard, He told them he was going for a short walk in the neighboring woods. They gave him a jovial 'shoop daylow' and went upon their way.
Christophe entered the forest, heading directly as he could for Frogwad. The turrets were often lost behind the high boughs and there was no path. He went as straight as he could, often having to detour around the dense underbrush. Once or twice he climbed a tree to mark his direction. It seemed hours before he came near the edge of the clearing at the top of the hill which Frogwad surmounted. Christophe stopped suddenly, in the near distance he could hear the musical sound of pipes being played. Odd. He moved forward, cautiously and quietly.
He slowly crept to the edge of the clearing and stood, watching. After a moment he spied a strange creature. It was in the shape of a boy, from the waist up. Everything below was, hairy and it's feet were hooved, like a goat. Small horns were growing from the boy's curly haired head. It was playing a set of pipes and capering about in the tall grass.
Christophe remembered the kitchen monk's words and he grew fearful. The creature looked rather harmless however, so Christophe plucked up his courage and stepped into the clearing. The creature stopped playing and looked up at him. It gave forth a bleating laugh and came closer. Christoph's heart started pounding in his chest and he put his hand on the hilt of his dagger. The thing stood before him and grinned a cherubic smile. "Aren't you going to run away?"
It could talk. Christophe never seen such a being such as this before. "What in the name of Christ are you?" he asked.
The bizarre creature capered before him. "Christ? it said, merrily clicking it's hooves together. "Christ's mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberry. I fart in Christ's general direction!" and it laughed it's bleating laugh again.
Appalled by such blasphemy, Christophe drew his dagger, but the thing laughed again and said: "Stay your hand, human, and I will tell you a secret."
Slightly mollified that it was not about to eat him, Christophe relaxed a fraction. "What manner of being are you, appearing such that your mother had nocturnal congress with a goat?"
"I'm a Satyr, does that not please you? But you are only half right, human, my mother was the goat. I'm the luckiest of my brood, however, for my sister is a half-pig and my brother is a half-chicken." He laughed and played some notes on his pipes and danced a short jig on the spot. He saw Christoph's look of disbelief. "Oh, yes, it is true. Would that my brother were here now, to show you his fine plumage."
Christoph's brow darkened. "Such an abomination. I would kill it on the spot!"
"I'm glad he's not here then, for we need the eggs."
Christophe looked hard at the goat-boy. "You said something about a secret."
"Oh yes, a great secret, human. Something that will make you forget your silly Christ and turn your back on the world, on the very sun itself. Put away your weapon and I will tell thee."
With some doubt, Christophe sheathed his dagger but kept his hand on the hilt. The goat-boy came closer and whispered to him:
"Nobody is allowed to go inside, for immortal goddesses and nymphs dwell there."
Then it clicked it hooves in the air and danced away, laughing as it vanished into the forest.
Trees had taken root in its broken-down walls of the Chateau and the ruin of a gateway was half-choked by bushes, brambles and nettle-plants. Forcing his way through, with clothing that suffered from the bramble-thorns Christophe went to the northern end of the court. Enormous evil-looking weeds were growing up between the flagstones, thick and fleshy with maroon and purple stalks. Christophe soon found the triangular flagstone indicated in the manuscript, and without the slightest delay or hesitation he pressed upon it with his foot.
The great flagstone tilted easily, disclosing dark steps of granite, just as in the story. Suddenly the horrors of the kitchen monk's legends sprang to his mind again and gave him pause as he contemplated the black opening into the earth.
Only for an instant, however, did Christophe hesitate. The kitchen monk was certainly incorrect about this boy-goat being a monster, perhaps he was wrong about this as well. He lit the taper and descended the stairs. The triangular block of stone silently rotated back into place above him.
There were perhaps a dozen steps, terminating in a low, narrow, musty vault that was void of anything more substantial than ancient, dust-encumbered cobwebs. At the end, a small doorway admitted him to a second vault that differed from the first only in being larger and dustier. He passed through several such vaults, and then found himself in a long passage or tunnel, half blocked in places by boulders or heaps of rubble that had fallen from the crumbling sides. It was very damp, and full of the odor of stagnant waters and subterranean mold. his feet splashed more than once in little pools, and drops fell from above. Beyond the wavering circle of light of his taper, it seemed that the coils of darkness slithered and wound away. Rounding a sudden turn in the passage, he saw the last thing he had dreamt of seeing: the gleam of sunlight at the tunnel's end.
He hurried on and stumbled through an archway, to find himself blinking in the sunshine.
He stepped out onto a wide lawn, and he was struck by a strange circumstance: it had been early afternoon when he entered the ruins, not more than ten minutes ago, but now the sun was lower, near the horizon. There was also a difference in its light and the sky was a mild blue, not overcast with clouds as it had been.
with ever-increasing stupefaction, he looked about, and could find nothing familiar in the scene upon which he had emerged. This was not the hill upon which Frogwad stood. Around him was a land of rolling meadows, through which a gleaming river meandered toward a sea that was visible beyond the tops of the trees. But the sea was hundreds of miles away from the Average forest. The season was wrong as well. It was a spring day here, according to the green buds on the trees, almost verging upon summer, not the early autumn that Christophe had left.
Nearby, in a laurel-grove, a white roof shone in the late rays of the sun. Christophe walked in that direction with a little trepidation. He found a marble temple with a portico of Doric columns. As he neared it, he was greeted by two women dressed as Greek servants.
Christophe could no longer be surprised at anything at this point, but accepted the situation without question, like one who resigns himself to the progress of some pleasant but odd dream. The interior of the temple was full of a luxury that verged upon the outright tacky.
The two women looked up at his step. "Oh. Why look who's here."
"My, he looks good enough to eat."
"Too good, if you ask me."
"Perhaps we should we announce him."
The first servant woman smiled mischievously. "No, let's make it a surprise."
The second giggled and gestured for Christophe to follow. "Come this way."
Christophe hesitated for a moment and then followed the servant through a polished hallway, into an opulently furnished room, where, a woman of goddess-like beauty reclined on a couch. She was formed with exquisite voluptuous purity of line and contour. Her eyes were of a dark sapphire blue. The curve of her lips were seductive and a little mournful, as the lips of an antique Venus. Her hair, brownish rather than blond, fell over her neck in delicious ripples confined by a plain silver band. In her expression, there was a mixture of pride and voluptuousness, of regal imperiousness and feminine yielding.
"Welcome," she murmured to him. "I have waited for you."
"You have?" asked Christophe, "who are you?"
"I am Nycea," she replied. "My hospitality is at your disposal. Come, sit beside me."
The servants departed with quiet giggles and Christophe sat down beside her on the couch She offered her hand and he kissed it with alacrity.
"A poor start," she said with a little disdain, and pulled at his sleeve. "Come closer."
Christophe looked into her eyes for a moment then leaned forward and kissed her on the lips."
"Better," she breathed. "More."
He didn't need to be told twice. They kissed for a long time, only separating when the two servants returned with trays of spiced frog legs and savorous fruits.
Christophe sat back, trying to compose himself, feeling both elated and mildly dazed. He noticed for the first time that there were two wine glasses on the low table in front of the couch. He wondered how she knew he was coming but it didn't seem to matter much. Then he heard a footfall from behind him. He turned and saw a shadowed figure appear in the doorway.
"We've only got the Merlot left, so I should...." Duknardze paused in the doorway, so startled that he almost dropped the bottle of wine. The abbot was not in his brown robes, instead he was dressed in a velvet purple smoking jacket, pajama bottoms and slippers.
"Christophe!" he exclaimed.
"How did you- I thought you were going to be reading in the...." A knowing look crossed his face. "Ah, you read the cursed manuscript, didn't you." And for some reason his face assumed an amused expression.
"Yes," said Christophe, who could not deny it. "I did. It's not really cursed, is it."
Duknardze came into the room and began to fill the wineglasses. "No," he chuckled. "I just tell that to keep the monks out. I tell them all kinds of frightening rumors. Would you like a glass of wine?"
"Surely I must be dreaming now," said Christophe. "Why are you dressed so?"
Duknardze glanced down at his smoking jacket for a moment. "This? I find it more relaxing. My cloth robes are fine for the abbey but they look out of place here." To Nycea he added: "don't they, my dear."
She nodded up at him and sipped her wine. Duknardze handed a wineglass to Christophe and motioned for him to move over to make room on the couch. Duknardze sat down with Nycea between them. He still looked mildly amused.
"Well, you've found out my secret, and it is true that one cannot un-ring a bell. I suppose I'd better explain." He gestured to the girl. "This is Nycea. I gather you've already had introductions," he said, his smile widening. Christophe looked uncomfortable again.
"She is a vampire." Duknardze said. He said it in a such a casual way that Christophe thought he had not heard him properly.
"I beg pardon?"
"She is a vampire."
Christophe saw that he wasn't kidding and his eyes widened.
"Now be calm, my son," Duknardze said, "she means you no harm. All the dark vampire tales you have heard are merely scandalous rumors, mostly spread by the Church. To be more precise, she is a pagan goddess. It is her powers that make this place possible. Did you notice that we aren't in France anymore?"
"We're not? I mean, I saw outside that it was different. What is this place?"
"It's...an Otherplace. That's as near as I can tell you. It is forever springtime here, just after drinking time. When you return to France it will be exactly the same time as when you entered here. Nothing will have changed, no matter how long you stay on this side."
"Oh." Christophe wasn't sure what to make of this.
"Nycea is old, ancient. She is as old as the world. She keeps it like this, forever spring. It's a very nice illusion, don't you think so? She tells me it was like this all over the world once, until man invented his own gods."
Christophe nodded mechanically. "Do you come here, over here, often?"
"Every now and then, when she calls to me. I claim church business and come to feed her. It's an arrangement that profits both of us."
"Feed her? you mean, your blood?"
"Don't be silly. I feed her love. You would call it worship. Such a wonderful temple to worship. Many years ago she called to me in a dream, just as you read in the manuscript. I came here and I fell in love, as simple as that. You see, my son, I was once the Duke Du Schlonger, a long time ago."
"You! But the manuscript must be hundreds of years old."
"Something like that, yes, I wrote the story down, so I would never forget it. I have never grown a day older since I set eyes upon my Nycea but my memory isn't what it used to be. Once, many years ago, an abbot came here to try and do battle against the so-called evil. My Nycea sent him away forever and so I changed my name and took his place at the abbey. I've been there ever since. It is convenient for a man of god like me.
"A man of god? But she's a vampire."
Duknardze nodded. "I can understand your reservations, but answer me this, my son, Can there be sunlight without shade? Heat without cold? The rich without the poor? Of course not. It is the sun that makes the shade, and she is the shade to the sunlight of God. If I spend a day or two in the shade will it not serve to make the light ever brighter when I return?"
Christophe looked doubtful. "Yes, I suppose, but-"
"And also, is it not a godly calling to provide comfort and food for anyone who asks for it, whether man, beast or goddess? When I visit here I provide the spiritual food she needs and in return she provides me with everlasting life and a temporary respite from all things holy. When I return to the abbey I am refreshed in body and spirit and ready to serve God all the more. So can you now see things from my eyes?"
Christophe nodded thoughtfully. "It is a little difficult, but I understand."
"Good." Duknardze drank off his wine. "By the way, how did you get into the courtyard? My son was supposed to be on guard outside to frighten you away."
"Your son?" Christophe asked, not comprehending. "You mean, the goat-boy?"
"Yes, Billy, the kid."
"That's your son?" exclaimed Christophe.
"Yes, he's supposed to act fearsome to keep the monks and the peasants out, but I'm afraid he's got his mother's brains."
"But, that means you had...congress with a goat?" Suddenly Christophe remembered something, "And a pig...and a chicken!"
"Yes, I sired them, all of them," Duknardze said without shame. "I admit the pig was love at first sight, but the chicken, she meant nothing to me, it was a poultry affair."
Christophe just looked at him, his mouth open.
"I apologize for that, my son. I have spent perhaps too many years among the joke books."
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