Claude Allégre was punctiliously peregrinating through the thick bushes beleaguering the outer borders of the Notre Dame de Lorette district. His leather bound feet were stepping over the inumbrated shrubbery, irradiated only by the light of the crescent moon, detaching the darkness of the silvery-outlined clouds. His mind was pullulating with thoughts that had not left him for days, thoughts not of the neoteric proclamation of the Second Empire by Napoleon III, but rather, thoughts of his amant de coeur, Dominique, who had perished a mere few days ago. Claude, the mild, impecunious student, madly and devotedly in love with this pulchritudinous, illusive lady, and fortunate enough to have his emotions reciprocated, was bewildered with this infelicity that was the vanishing of his beloved. When she failed to come for the last of their nightly rendezvous, he cognized something alarming had happened, and when near his very threshold, he stumbled across a little shoe with square toes, of crimson red roses embroidered on a black surface, the inside of which was a hiding place of a small, barely legible, stained piece of paper, which read “Only you can help me,” he knew he had not a moment to lose. Under normal circumstances, he would not dream of going out without waxing his moustache upward, for, even though a man could be destitute, poor grooming had no excuse. This was one of the many things Dominique loved about him. But now, he rushed out of his petite, rented apartment without so much as looking himself in the mirror.
The collapsing dreams troubling his mind kept their concourse inside the locked chambers of his thoughts, while he was rushing towards the only place he conjectured his beloved Dominique must be held prisoner. The reverberation of nature amalgamated with his footsteps, fiercely shattering little branches on the dusty trail leading through the small coppice. The leaves rustled beneath his shoes, and his coal-black hair was secreted under a leaning beret, with only a few curls of his hair sneaking from underneath. His hands he kept cozily inside his coat pockets, playing with a few coins, as if trying to foresee the luck of the coin and the fate he will be dealt. He did not traipse long, before a colossal chateau revealed itself in front of him, previously concealed from the eye by branches ringing with crimson, autumn leaves. The construction before him bore little resemblance to anything he had ever seen, with its inharmoniously ornamented towers, spires and arches pointing towards the blackness of the sky. The solid walls and pillars appeared to hold prisoners inside, instead of inhabitants, with demonic stone gargoyles shielding the foundations from rain. The sublimity of the sight prostrating itself before his eyes left his mind in awe, and he almost forgot the reason he found himself in front of this chiseled marvel of architecture, seeking entrance.
On pushing the unlocked door, the squeaking of which transfixed his ears, it took his eyes some time to adjust to the darkness reigning within. His fingers felt for a candelabrum to elucidate his passage through this dark, gothic conflagration he knew kept his darling a prisoner. The proprietor of this estate, a count of some sort, but whose name was too highbred for ordinary folk to be able to pronounce, as it was evident to all the townspeople, had little, if any contact with the outside world and rarely left the sanctity of these walls. Numerous speculations aromatized the air of many a tavern, such as concocted stories regarding the owner’s real reason of needing to remain unseen, such as him being deadly ill, a malefactor who is hiding from the hand of the law or even that he had died some time ago and there is actually no one residing in the old chateau. Stories circled, yet no one dared inquire into the real state of affairs. That is, until young women started disappearing; beautiful, fragrant, virgins in the prime of their youth simply vanishing in the still of the night, never to be heard from again. Their passivity at handling this mystery appalled Claude, but he cared little about such things, as long as he had the means to carry on with his studies and to have Dominique by his side. Losing her meant having to act, immediately.
On finding luminosity, his tremulous hand created an effervescence of illumination around him, which put his trembling heart at ease. The arrangement of objects around him, appeared strikingly familiar, but he attributed this to the instability of his mind due to the time and place he had found himself in, dealing with imminent danger and the utter necessity to find Dominique. The floorboards squealed beneath his leather shoes, dragging dirt along the occasionally carpeted floor. The winding stairs offered a passage into the fearsome darkness of the upper floor, but his heart pointed towards them and Claude knew he had to follow. Shadows oscillated along the walls, reaching to grab him, only to shun away from the light carried by the starry-eyed lover.
The upper floor was peaceful, asleep, lulled in obscurity. The first door to the left was slightly ajar, temptingly dissipating a faint glimmer of light, coming from inside the room. Claude circumspectly followed the coruscating light, holding his even more determinedly. The room was miniature, shabbily furnished, with only one bed and a full-size, murky oaken wardrobe. The bed was in a state of disarray, as if someone left it in a hurry. Then, a faint outline of a small foot by the end of the bed caught his eye. He anxiously approached, with a flickering light, only to drop down to his knees at the sight before him. The small foot prolonged into a young woman’s body, lying breathless, cadaverous on the floor, immovable, with her right hand clutching at a small, golden pendant hanging from her neck, while her left hand was a nest for a little, burnt piece of paper. Her dainty, flowery body was wrapped up in a satin nightgown, cincturing the curves of the body he could no longer touch.
Then, a thundering sound from downstairs made Claude rush into the hallway, burning his fingers on the wax dripping from his half burnt candle. At the beginning of the long, winding stairs, there lay a body; a hideous, grotesquely deformed body of a hunchback, whose life blood was oozing from beneath a big shield, which was hooked on the adjacent wall mere seconds before. The repulsiveness of the body was astonishing. “Please…” The bloody mouth gurgled. Claude leaned over the expiring body. “I never wished to harm anyone… I just wanted my beauty back so much… I… I never meant to harm those girls… They were just necessary…” Claude looked at him with hatred. “I cannot forgive you. You took Dominique away from me…. She was my life. By killing her you killed me. May you burn in hell for all eternity, fiend!” His hands reached for the throat of the lying body and snapped the final remains of life from within it.
On searching through the rest of the castle, Claude found diaries, belonging to a Count Gouitier, with horrible details, describing witchcraft and wizardry of a superstition-driven madman, who used the blood of virgins in endeavoring to restore his gentlemanly appearance, which he was stripped off due to a horrific accident, the nature of which there was no mention. He would extract their blood, then bathe in it, fill his pillows with the women’s hair and press their cut out lips to his face, madly desiring superficial beauty that was stolen from him. Claude closed the diary, with a feeling of disgust ad horror, and rushed towards the door. He did not turn back for Dominique. After all, it was not her anymore. She belonged to a heavenly place. Now, he knew that only fire could purify that wretched place. With that thought, he stepped into the engulfing darkness outside.