Authors: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Then, as her tired eyes became accustomed to the thick darkness surrounding her, Simone realised that the candles didn’t belong to any chapel, that the patches of light dancing on the walls were old photographs and that the voices, those distant echoes, existed only in her mind. She knew instinctively that she wasn’t in Seaview, or in any other place she could remember. Her memory produced a confused echo of the last hours. She remembered having spoken to Lazarus on the porch. She remembered having made herself a glass of hot milk before going to bed, and she remembered the last words she’d read in the book that lay on her bedside table.
After turning off the light, she vaguely recalled having dreamed about a boy screaming. She also had the absurd feeling that she’d woken up in the middle of the night to see shadows walking through the darkness. Other than that, nothing: her memory came to an end, like the edges of an unfinished drawing. Her hands felt the touch of cotton and she realised that she was still wearing her nightdress. She stood up and walked over to a mural that was lit by dozens of white candles, all neatly aligned on candelabra, each heavy with tears of wax.
The flames seemed to whisper in unison; these were the voices she thought she’d heard. Her eyes widened in the golden glow and a strange lucidity filled her mind. More memories seemed to return, one by one, like the first drops of rain. With them came the first wave of panic.
She remembered the cold feeling of invisible hands dragging her through the dark. She remembered a voice murmuring in her ear as every muscle in her body turned to stone. She remembered a shape forged of shadows hauling her through the forest. She remembered how it had whispered her name and how, terror-stricken, she had realised that none of this was a nightmare. Simone closed her eyes and clasped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from screaming.
Her first thought was for her children. What had happened to Dorian and Irene? Were they still in the house? Had that unspeakable apparition caught them? Each question seared her soul. She ran towards what looked like a door and hammered at it, screaming and crying until she was overcome with exhaustion. Slowly, an icy calmness brought her back to reality.
She was trapped. Whoever had kidnapped her and locked her up had probably also captured her children. The thought that they could be hurt or wounded was something she could not contemplate. If she hoped to do anything for them, she must not panic. Simone clenched her fists tightly and repeated those words in her mind. She took a deep breath and looked carefully around the room. The sooner she understood what was going on, the sooner she’d be able to get out of there and go in search of Irene and Dorian.
The first things her eyes registered were pieces of furniture, small and simply made: children’s furniture. She was in a child’s room, but she knew instinctively that no child had lived there for a long time. The presence pervading that place radiated an aura of old age and decay. Simone moved over to the bed and sat on it, gazing at the room. There was no innocence in that bedroom. All she could sense was darkness. Evil.
The slow poison of fear began to course through her veins, but Simone ignored the warning. Instead, she picked up one of the candlesticks and returned to the mural. It was composed of endless newspaper cuttings and photographs. She noticed the unusual neatness with which the images had been stuck to the wall. She brought the candle closer and let the torrent of photographs, prints, words and drawings invade her mind.
Suddenly Simone came across a familiar name: Daniel Hoffmann. The mysterious character from Berlin whose letters she was instructed to set aside and whose correspondence, as she had accidentally discovered, ended up in the fire. She started reading. Something about the whole business didn’t add up. The man referred to in the news articles didn’t live in Berlin and, judging from the date the newspapers were published, he would by now have reached an improbable old age. Bewildered, Simone read on.
This Hoffmann was a wealthy man – a fantastically wealthy man. Slightly further along, the front page of
detailed the news about a fire in a toy factory. A person called Daniel Hoffmann had perished in the flames. The image accompanying the article showed the blaze destroying the building as a crowd looked on. Among them was a boy who seemed lost, staring at the camera with frightened eyes.
The same face appeared in another clipping. This time the item told the disturbing story of a boy who had spent seven days locked in a dark cellar. Police officers had found him after discovering his dead mother in another room. The boy’s expression – he couldn’t have been more than seven or eight – seemed vacant, unfathomable.
She shuddered as the pieces of the jigsaw began to come together in her mind. But there was more. The cuttings advanced through time. Many of them referred to people who had disappeared, people Simone had never heard of. Among them an extraordinarily beautiful young woman called Alexandra Alma Maltisse, heiress to a metal-forging business in Lyon. A magazine published in Marseille referred to her as the fiancée of a young but already renowned engineer, Lazarus Jann. Next to that cutting was a series of photographs showing the handsome couple donating toys to an orphanage in Le Marais. They both glowed with happiness. ‘I’m determined to ensure that every child in this country, whatever their situation, has a toy to play with,’ the inventor declared in the caption.
Further on, another article announced the wedding of Lazarus Jann and Alexandra Maltisse. The official engagement photograph had been taken at the foot of the stairway leading up to Cravenmoore. In the image, a very youthful Lazarus embraced his fiancée. It all seemed like a daydream staged for the glossy magazines. The young, enterprising Jann had acquired the sumptuous mansion with the idea of making it their marital home. Various images of Cravenmoore illustrated the item.
The succession of cuttings and photographs went on and on, ushering in characters and events from the past. Simone paused and went back to the beginning. The face of the terrified boy wouldn’t let go of her. She gazed into those lonely eyes and gradually began to recognise the features on which she had pinned all her hopes and to which she had pledged her friendship. That tortured gaze did not belong to Jean Neville, the boy in Lazarus’s story. It was a face she knew well, painfully well. It was the face of Lazarus Jann.
A dark cloud settled on her heart. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. For some reason, even before the voice spoke, Simone knew there was someone else in the room.
Irene and Ismael reached the clifftop shortly before four o’clock. The climb had left a trail of bruises and cuts on their arms and legs. However hard Ismael had predicted it would be, the ascent turned out to be far worse and much more dangerous than he could have anticipated. Irene, who hadn’t said a word or opened her mouth to complain about her painful wounds, had shown a courage he’d never witnessed before. She had ventured up crags nobody in their right mind would have attempted. When at last they reached the entrance to the wood, Ismael could only hug her.
Breathless, Irene shook her head.
‘Has anyone ever told you you’re the most stubborn person on the planet?’
A smile appeared on her lips.
‘Wait till you meet my mother.’
Before Ismael could reply, she took his hand and pulled him towards the wood.
Simone slowly turned round to face the shadows. She could feel the presence of the intruder; she could even hear the muffled sound of his breathing. But she couldn’t see him. Simone scanned the darkness, searching for the visitor. She felt an unexpected sense of calm, which allowed her to think clearly. Her senses were alert to every tiny detail, her mind registering every vibration of the air, every sound, every reflection with spine-chilling precision. Wrapped in this strange serenity, she stood in silence, waiting for the visitor to make himself known.
‘I didn’t expect to see you here,’ said the voice at last, speaking from the shadows. ‘Are you afraid?’
Simone shook her head.
‘Good. You shouldn’t be afraid.’
‘Are you going to stay there, hiding, Lazarus?’
A long silence ensued. Lazarus’s breathing became more audible.
‘I’d rather stay here,’ he replied at last.
Something glistened in the dark. A fleeting sparkle, almost imperceptible.
‘Why don’t you sit down, Madame Sauvelle?’
‘I’d rather stand.’
‘As you wish.’ He paused again. ‘You might be wondering what is going on.’
‘Among other things,’ snapped Simone, unable to hide her indignation.
‘Perhaps the easiest thing would be for you to ask the questions and I’ll try to answer them.’
Simone sighed angrily. ‘My first and last question is this: how do I get out of here?’
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible. Not yet.’
‘Is that another of your questions?’
‘Where am I?’
‘How did I get here?’
‘Someone brought you . . .’
‘Someone you don’t know . . . yet.’
‘Where are my children?’
‘I don’t know.’
Simone took a step into the shadows, her face flushed with anger.
She walked in the direction of the voice. Gradually, her eyes made out the outline of a person sitting in an armchair. Lazarus. But there was something odd about his face. Simone stopped.
‘It’s a mask,’ he said.
‘Why?’ she asked. The calm she had experienced earlier was rapidly abandoning her.
‘Masks reveal a person’s true face . . .’
Simone struggled to maintain her composure. Getting angry wouldn’t help her.
‘Where are my children? Please . . .’
‘I’ve already told you, Madame Sauvelle. I don’t know.’
‘What are you going to do with me?’
Lazarus unfolded one of his hands, encased in a satin glove. A glimmer of light caught the surface of the mask. That was the sparkle she’d noticed earlier.
‘I’m not going to hurt you, Simone. You mustn’t be afraid of me. You have to trust me.’
‘That seems a little out of place, don’t you think?’
‘It’s for your own good. I’m trying to protect you.’
‘Please sit down.’
‘What on earth is going on here? Why won’t you tell me?’
Simone noticed her voice becoming weak and childish. Realising she was close to hysteria, she clenched her fists and took a deep breath. She retreated a few steps and then sat on one of the chairs set around an empty table.
‘Thank you,’ murmured Lazarus.
A silent tear ran down her face.
‘Before I say anything else, I want you to know that I’m truly sorry you’ve become mixed up in all this,’ declared the toymaker. ‘I never thought it would come to this.’
‘There never was a boy called Jean Neville, was there?’ asked Simone. ‘That boy was you. The story you told me . . . was a half-truth derived from your own life.’
‘I see you’ve been reading my collection of newspaper cuttings. That may have led you to form some interesting, but mistaken ideas.’
‘The only idea I have formed, Mr Jann, is that you’re sick and you need help. I don’t know how you managed to drag me here, but I can assure you that as soon as I get out of this place, my first visit will be to the police station. Kidnapping is a crime . . .’
Her words sounded ridiculous in the context.
‘May I infer that you’re thinking of giving up your job, Madame Sauvelle?’
This strange piece of irony set alarm bells ringing. The Lazarus she knew would never make such a comment. Although, quite frankly, the only thing she was clear about was that she didn’t know him at all.
‘You can infer whatever you please,’ she replied coldly.
‘Good. In that case, before you go to the authorities, and you have my permission, let me complete the story that I’m sure you’ve already tried to piece together in your mind.’
Simone stared at the mask. It was pale and completely expressionless. A porcelain face. His eyes were two pools of darkness.
‘As you will see, dear Simone, the only moral of this tale, or of any other, is that in real life, as opposed to fiction, nothing is what it seems . . .’
‘Promise me one thing, Lazarus.’
‘If it’s in my power to do so . . .’
‘Promise me that, if I listen to your story, you’ll let me leave this place with my children. I swear I won’t go to the authorities. I’ll just take my family and abandon the village for ever. You’ll never hear from me again.’
The mask was silent for a few seconds.
‘Is that what you want?’
Simone nodded, holding back her tears.
‘You disappoint me, Simone, I thought we were friends. Good friends.’
‘Please . . .’
The masked man clenched his fists.
‘All right. If you want to be reunited with your children, you shall be. In due course . . .’
‘Do you remember your mother, Madame Sauvelle? Children always keep a special place in their hearts for the woman who gave life to them, or so the fairy tales would have us believe. It’s like a spark of light that never goes out, they say. I do believe that. In fact, I’ve spent most of my life trying to put out that light. But it’s not easy. And I hope that, before you condemn me, you’ll be kind enough to hear me out. I’ll be brief.
‘I was born in Paris on the night of 26 December 1882, in an old house on one of the most miserable streets in Les Gobelins. A gloomy, unhealthy place to live if ever there was one. That is where my mother, with the help of her neighbour Nicole, gave birth to a little baby. It was such a cold winter that apparently a few minutes went by before I started to cry the way all babies do. So, for a moment, my mother was convinced that I had been stillborn. When she realised that it was not so, the poor wretch took this to be a miracle and decided – she regarded herself as devout to the point of holiness – to christen me Lazarus.
‘I recall the years of my childhood as a succession of endless fighting in the streets and my mother’s long illnesses. One of my earliest memories is sitting on Nicole’s knees and listening to the kind woman tell me that my mother was very ill, that she could not respond to my cries and that I must be a good boy and go and play with the other children. The other children she was referring to were a group of ragged kids who went around stealing from dawn to dusk and who, by the age of seven, had learned that in our district survival meant becoming either a criminal or a civil servant. I don’t need to tell you which of the alternatives they favoured.