Authors: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Simone, in the meantime, had finally managed to establish a mental map of Cravenmoore, but her list of urgent chores was endless. Just making contact with suppliers in the village, sorting out payments and accounts, and seeing to Lazarus’s correspondence consumed every minute of her time. Dorian became her carrier pigeon, thanks to a bicycle Lazarus had kindly given him as a welcome gift. Within a few days, the boy was familiar with every stone and pothole on the road along the Englishman’s Beach.
Each morning, Simone began the day by sending off the letters that had to be posted and meticulously sorting out the letters that had come in, just as Lazarus had asked her to. A small note on a folded piece of paper served as a quick reminder of Lazarus’s specifications. She would never forget her third day there, when she had been on the point of accidentally opening one of the letters sent from Berlin by Daniel Hoffmann. She only remembered at the very last second not to touch it.
Hoffmann’s letters usually arrived every nine days, with almost mathematical precision. The vellum envelopes were always sealed with wax and marked with a stamp in the shape of a D. Simone soon became used to separating them from the rest, and ignored the strange nature of the correspondence. During the first week of August, however, something happened that reawakened her curiosity.
Simone had gone to Lazarus’s study first thing in the morning with a few invoices and receipts that had just arrived. She preferred to leave them on his desk early in the day, before the toymaker went to his study, so that she did not have to interrupt him later on. Armand, her late husband, always started his day by going through the bills . . . Until he was no longer able to.
That morning, Simone went into the study as usual and detected a smell of tobacco in the air. She assumed that Lazarus had stayed up late the night before. She was placing the documents on the desk when she noticed that there was something smouldering in the fireplace among the dying coals. Intrigued, she moved closer and prodded the embers with the poker, trying to make out what the object was. At first glance it looked like a wad of paper tied together, but then she noticed Hoffmann’s unmistakable wax seal. Letters. Lazarus had thrown Daniel Hoffmann’s letters in the fire. Whatever his motive, Simone told herself, it was none of her business. She put down the poker and walked out of the study, resolved never to pry into her employer’s personal affairs.
The sound of rain pattering against the windowpanes woke Hannah up. It was midnight. The room was shrouded in a blue darkness with occasional flashes from a distant storm that cast eerie shadows all around her. She could hear the ticking of one of Lazarus’s talking clocks on the wall, the eyes on its smiling face swivelling endlessly from side to side. Hannah sighed. She loathed spending the night at Cravenmoore. It was Friday and she normally spent it with her family, but this week she had agreed to stay at the house.
In daylight, Lazarus Jann’s home seemed like a never-ending museum full of wonders and marvels. At night, however, the countless automata, masks and strange creatures seemed to change into a ghostly horde that never slept but remained watching in the shadows, always smiling, their gaze always empty.
Lazarus slept in a room in the west wing, next to his wife’s. Apart from them and from Hannah herself, the only other inhabitants of the house were the toymaker’s numerous creations, lurking in every corridor and in every room. In the stillness of the night, Hannah thought she could hear their mechanical hearts beating, imagined their eyes shining in the dark . . .
She’d only just closed her eyes when she heard another noise – a regular thud, muffled by the rain. Hannah got up and walked over to the window. Peering out she scanned Cravenmoore’s tangle of towers, arches and roofs. The gargoyles’ wolfish muzzles spewed rivers of black water out into the void.
The sound reached her again. Hannah now focused on a row of windows on the second floor of the west wing. The wind seemed to have opened one of them; the curtains fluttered in the rain and the shutters were banging repeatedly against the wall. Hannah cursed her bad luck. The very thought of having to go out into the corridor and through the house to the west wing made her blood curdle.
Before fear could prevent her from doing her duty, she put on her dressing gown and slippers. There was no electricity, so she took a candelabra and lit the candles. Their coppery glow formed a spectral halo around her. Hannah placed her hand on the cold doorknob and swallowed. Far away, the shutters were still banging, over and over again. Waiting for her.
She closed the bedroom door behind her and looked down the endless passage that ran away into the shadows. Holding the candlestick up high, she set off on her journey, flanked on either side by the dangling shapes of Lazarus’s lethargic toys. Hannah looked straight ahead and quickened her pace. The second floor housed many of Lazarus’s older automata, mechanical creatures that moved awkwardly and whose features were often grotesque, even threatening. Almost all of them were shut away in glass cabinets, but sometimes they would suddenly come alive, without warning, commanded at random by some internal device to awake from their mechanical slumber.
Hannah walked past Madame Sarou, the wooden fortune-teller who would shuffle tarot cards with her wrinkled hands, choose one and show it to the spectator. Although she tried hard not to look, Hannah couldn’t help glancing at the gypsy’s terrifying effigy. Suddenly the fortune-teller’s eyes opened and she extended a card towards Hannah. The card showed the figure of a red demon wreathed in flames.
A few metres on, the torso of the masked man swung back and forth. The automaton would peel off one mask after another, never revealing his invisible face. Hannah looked away and hurried on. She’d been down this corridor hundreds of times during the day. They were all just lifeless machines that didn’t deserve her attention, let alone her fear.
With this reassuring thought in mind she came to the end of the corridor and turned the corner into the west wing. On one side of the passage stood Maestro Firetti’s miniature orchestra. If you put a coin in, the figures in the band would play their own peculiar version of Mozart’s ‘Turkish March’.
Finally, Hannah stopped in front of a huge oak panel. Every door in Cravenmoore had been carved with a different pattern, depicting a famous tale: the Grimm brothers immortalised in the most intricate woodwork. To Hannah’s eyes, however, they were, quite simply, sinister. This last room in the corridor was one she had never set foot in. And she wouldn’t have gone in now, unless she had to.
She could hear the shutters banging on the other side of the door. Cold night air filtered through the gap between the door and the frame, whispering over her skin. Hannah took one last look down the corridor behind her. The faces in the orchestra stared back through the shadows. She could hear the sound of the rain, like thousands of small spiders scuttling over the roof of Cravenmoore. She took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
An icy gust of wind enveloped her, slamming the door behind her and snuffing out the candles. The sodden net curtains flapped about in the wind like tattered shrouds. Hannah rushed over to close the window, securing the latch the wind had unfastened. She searched her dressing-gown pocket with trembling fingers, pulled out a matchbox and lit the candles once more. The flickering flames lit up the gloom, revealing what looked to be a child’s room. A small bed stood next to a desk. Books and a child’s clothes laid out on a chair. A pair of shoes neatly lined up under the bed. A minute crucifix hanging from one of the bedposts.
Hannah took a few steps forward. There was something disconcerting about these objects and this furniture, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Once more she scanned the room. There were no children at Cravenmoore. There never had been. What was the point of this room?
Suddenly, it all became clear. Now she understood what she found so disconcerting. It wasn’t the room’s tidiness. It wasn’t because it was so clean. It was something so simple, so obvious, you wouldn’t even notice it. This was a child’s room, but there was something missing . . . Toys. There wasn’t a single toy.
Hannah raised the candlestick and discovered something else, on one of the walls. Small bits of paper. Clippings. She put the candlestick on the desk and took a closer look. A mosaic of old cuttings and photographs covered the wall. In one of the images was the pale face of a woman. Her features were dark and angular, and her black eyes held an air of menace. The same face appeared in other pictures. Hannah concentrated on a portrait of the mysterious woman holding a baby in her arms.
Hannah’s eyes moved along the wall, examining the fragments of old newspapers. There were items about a terrible fire in a Paris factory and the disappearance of someone called Hoffmann during the tragedy. The entire collection, spread out like a row of tombstones, seemed to be imbued with this character’s presence. And in the middle of the wall, surrounded by dozens of illegible scraps, was the front page of a newspaper dating back to 1890. On it was the face of a child, his eyes filled with panic, like the eyes of a wounded animal.
Hannah was completely shaken by the image. The boy couldn’t have been more than six or seven – and he seemed to have witnessed some horror he could barely comprehend. She felt an intense cold, a numbness, take hold of her as she tried to decipher the text surrounding the image. ‘Eight-year-old child discovered after spending a week alone, locked up in a dark basement,’ read the caption. Hannah looked at the boy’s face again. There was something vaguely familiar about his features, perhaps in his eyes . . .
At that precise moment, Hannah thought she heard the echo of a voice whispering behind her back. She turned round, but there was nobody there. She heaved a sigh of relief. The soft rays of the candles trapped specks of dust floating in the air like a purple haze. She walked over to one of the large windows and wiped away some of the condensation. The forest was submerged in mist. The lights in Lazarus’s study, at the end of the west wing, were on, and she could clearly see his profile silhouetted behind the curtains.
Suddenly she heard the voice again, this time clearer and closer. It was whispering her name. Hannah turned to face the dark room and, for the first time, she noticed the glow coming from a small glass flask. Black as obsidian, it stood in a tiny niche in the wall, yet it was enveloped in ghostly radiance.
The girl slowly moved towards it. At first glance, it looked like a bottle of perfume, but she’d never seen one as beautiful as this, nor had she seen glass so delicately cut. Its stopper formed a prism, casting a rainbow of colours all around it. Hannah felt an irrepressible urge to hold the object and touch the perfect lines of the crystal.
With utmost care, she placed her hands around the flask. It weighed more than she expected and the glass was icy cold, almost painful to touch. She raised it to eye level and tried to look inside but all she could see was an impenetrable blackness. And yet, when she held it against the light, Hannah had the impression that something was moving inside it. A thick black liquid, perhaps a perfume . . .
With trembling hands she clasped the cut-glass stopper. Something stirred inside the flask. Hannah hesitated. But the perfection of the bottle seemed to promise the most exquisite fragrance she could imagine. Slowly, she twisted the stopper. The dark contents stirred again, but she no longer cared. At last, the stopper yielded.
An indescribable sound, like the shriek of pressurised gas escaping, filled the room. In less than a second, the black mass issuing from the mouth of the flask had flooded the air, like an ink stain unfurling over water. When she looked at the bottle again, Hannah realised that the glass was now transparent and that, thanks to her, whatever had been lodged inside it had been released. She put the flask back in its place and felt a draught of cold air sweeping across the room, blowing out the candles one by one. As the darkness spread, a new presence emerged through the gloom, a dense form covering the walls like black paint.
Hannah slowly tiptoed backwards towards the door. She placed a trembling hand on the doorknob, then carefully, without taking her eyes off the pool of darkness, she opened the door, ready to sprint away. Something was advancing towards her, she could feel it.
As Hannah left the room, pulling the door towards her, the chain she wore round her neck got caught on one of the carvings. At the same time, a piercing sound echoed behind the closed door. It sounded like the hiss of a large snake. Hannah felt tears of terror sliding down her cheeks. The chain snapped and she heard the pendant fall, freeing her. She turned to face the tunnel of shadows before her. At one end of the corridor, the door leading to the staircase of the rear wing was open. There was that ghostly whistle again. It was closer now. Hannah ran. A few seconds later she heard the doorknob starting to turn behind her. She cried out in panic and hurtled down the stairs.
The descent to the ground floor seemed endless. Hannah was leaping down the stairs three at a time, panting and trying not to lose her balance. By the time she reached the door leading to the back garden, her ankles and knees were covered in wounds, but she barely felt any pain. Adrenaline ignited her veins like gunpowder, urging her on. The back door, which was never used, wouldn’t open. Hannah smashed the glass with her elbow and forced the lock from the outside. She didn’t feel the cut on her forearm until she reached the shadows of the garden.
As she ran towards the woodland, her sweat-drenched clothes clung to her skin in the cool night air. Before taking the path through Cravenmoore forest, Hannah turned to look at the house, expecting to see her pursuer rushing across the garden. There was nothing. Not a trace. She took a deep breath. The cold air burned her throat, searing her lungs. She was about to start running again when she caught sight of a shape clinging to the façade of Cravenmoore. The profile of a face emerged from the darkness as the shadow crept down through the gargoyles like a giant spider.