The Madman's Room
What can one expect to find in a coffin?
It sometimes happens that it’s necessary to break ground in a cemetery in order to exhume a body. It’s fairly rare, admittedly, and there has to be good reason to do so.
When the coffin appears in the light of day under the fixed stares of those present, and feverish hands get ready to raise the lid, the same question is on everyone’s lips. What are we about to discover?
In detective novels, such events occur most frequently at dead of night or in the pale light of dawn. In real life, for the sake of discretion, they are usually arranged to take place outside of normal cemetery visiting hours. In deathly silence, the awed attendees stare fixedly at the coffin which is about to be opened. The slightest noise is amplified, the rustling of leaves becomes a moan and the creaking of the coffin lid sounds ominously sinister. Those watching are on the alert… some are expecting the worst, others are secretly hoping for it, but all have the same nagging, tormenting question: what shall we find?
There are obviously several possibilities: the body — or what’s left of it — is still there and is the same as the one which was buried. This is the most frequent case, but some witnesses, their morbid imagination influenced by the circumstances, anticipate a different outcome.
It can also happen that the body has disappeared, a curious phenomenon, particularly if it can be demonstrated that there was indeed a body in the coffin when it was interred and that the ground has remained unbroken prior to the exhumation. It’s also been known for the coffin not to be empty, but to contain the body of another person altogether!
Crypts offer other interesting variations. For example, when opening the door to a crypt — sealed, needless to say — as a result of a recent death reveals the incredible sight of smashed coffins lying in total disarray. Or, worse still, every coffin in its place, but skeletons scattered everywhere!
A particularly twisted mind might be able to imagine other baffling and shocking situations, but surely none more so than the incredible discovery which confronted the protagonists in the tale which follows. The opening of the Thorne family tomb revealed something absolutely inadmissible and completely inexplicable, but which was merely one episode in a tragic affair replete with incomprehensible events.
At the end of this tale, it will be hard to deny that destiny is indeed a very strange thing, and to ask whether, in fact, it wasn’t written by a malicious hand guided by an evil force, a particularly devious — even demonic — spirit. In it, there was a chain of facts and circumstances, regulated as if by clockwork, and of an extreme complexity, in which each element was indispensable. The reaction of each one of the individuals involved was critical. The slightest variation, the slightest change of nuance, could have brought down the edifice so patiently constructed to achieve the tragic conclusion. But that’s also true of everyday life: if X’s mother hadn’t put salt in her husband’s coffee, and if the latter hadn’t smashed the service which had been a gift from his mother-in-law, and if the cat hadn’t given birth in his sister’s wardrobe, X would never have walked about in the blazing sun wearing waterproof boots and carrying an umbrella and thus met the woman who was to play a disruptive role in his family life, etc.
Destiny, luck or fate? What to call the gigantic, monstrous puppet theatre guided by the hovering hand of he who controls the strings — he who knows what will happen, because it is he who has decided it shall be so?
It’s obviously not possible to go back and trace every action of each protagonist in our tale from the moment they were born, what are their principal characteristics, and how they were influenced for better or for worse by events. But the scene which follows — which took place in a Cornish cove on a baking hot summer day in the 30s — is of particular importance, even though it occurred one year before the main events in our story.
‘When was the Great Fire of London, exactly?’ asked Paula Lyle, shooting her companion a mischievous glance.
Patrick Nolan pretended not to hear. Looking straight in front of him at the beach which sloped gently down to the sea, he preferred to listen to the waves rather than the stupid history questions his friend insisted on asking. She appeared to be revelling in his ignorance. Or, rather, she was enjoying his embarrassment. But the days of him blushing like a schoolboy were over. He remembered the exact date of their first encounter, several years earlier. She had straightaway asked him Queen Victoria’s date of birth. How could she possibly have known how limited his knowledge was about historical matters and how embarrassed he would be? The only facts he remembered pertained to times of tragedy, such as the plague which ravaged the capital in 1665 and the macabre details of London Bridge and the decapitated heads on spikes. He’d also made a study of the most celebrated crimes. And, of course, he did know all about the fire which had engulfed the capital.
Still maintaining his silence, he studied her thoughtfully as she lay beside him on the beach. Roughly the same age as he — barely twenty — he would have been hard put to judge her repugnant. Light brown hair, high cheekbones, an adorable chin and mischievous blue eyes with long black lashes. Medium height and seemingly very well proportioned. Of course, to be sure, he’d have to see her without that annoying swimsuit covering her anatomy. He tried to forget about that obstacle.
‘I say,’ observed Paula, ‘if you’re going to undress me with your eyes, you could at least do it more discreetly. You’re like an entomologist in front of a new species of insect!’
‘Then how about like this?’ asked Patrick, rolling his wide-open eyes in wonder.
The young woman stood up, looked towards the horizon and said, very seriously:
‘You don’t understand, my dear: we’re alone on a deserted beach, where you’re free to contemplate my knees at your leisure… If anyone should see us, my honour would be compromised.’
‘Don’t exaggerate, darling. Pudding Lane, one o’clock in the morning, second of September 1666.’
Patrick regarded his fingernails nonchalantly:
‘You asked me when the fire had started. Is there anything else you’d like to know? The direction of the wind, the human and material losses, the consequences, both direct and indirect….’
‘It’s true, I’d forgotten: once death is involved you’re a veritable encyclopaedia. I never understood why you didn’t join the police… or a detective agency. I’m sure you’d have been in your element. Your obsession with the morbid….’
Patrick Nolan raised his arms to the sky.
‘There we have it! You can’t show an interest in certain aspects of history or in police investigations without being treated as a pervert or a homicidal maniac.’ He lowered his arms and frowned. ‘As a matter of fact, I did apply to a couple of detective agencies. But the work was more often adultery rather than serious crime investigation. And helping cuckolds is not how I intend to spend my life.’
‘I should hope not,’ retorted Paula. ‘If ever I marry, it could never be to—.’
‘—someone like me!’ interrupted Patrick, laughingly throwing a handful of sand on Paula’s bare legs.
Paula laughed as well:
‘No, that would be a catastrophe for both of us!’
The two young people exchanged complicit glances and fell into silence. Lying on the sand, eyes closed, they savoured the warmth of the sand, the caresses of the sun’s rays and the silent calm of the cove, rocked by the unceasing murmur of the sea.
Silently, Patrick looked back on his long friendship with Paula. She was the only girl of his age with whom he could carry on a relationship without there being any question of love. No flirting, even: just comradeship, pure and simple. She was certainly attractive, he didn’t deny that, but he’d known her for too long for there to be any feelings deeper than that. As a companion, she was never dull: whenever they were together she would tease him mercilessly and pester him with a thousand questions. He had not appreciated the time when she had subjected his nose to a detailed examination and commentary in front of several of his friends. Neither had he been amused when she’d cut the sleeves off one of his shirts on the pretext she didn’t think they were suitable — he’d almost put her over his knees to administer a spanking. Paula was certainly a handful — and that may well have been the aspect of her he found the most interesting. One day, on what she’d claimed would be a “cultural voyage” to a church near Salisbury, she’d profited from the fact they were alone inside to ascend to the pulpit and launch an inflammatory tirade in which he participated. They’d laughed so hard on the way out they’d had tears in their eyes. There were many similar incidents, but once the impish adolescent grew up to be a charming young woman, their relationship had changed. When a brief love affair of Paula’s had fizzled out, he’d taken advantage of the situation to play the wise father and offer sensible advice. At first, it was nothing more than a game for Patrick, a sort of payback. But, once he realised she listened to his recommendations, he started ...