Night was falling when the horseshoes of the mules of my caravan
resounded on the slippery flagstones of the village.
Tired by a long day of walking, I directed my steps towards the large
hall of the inn, with the intention of resting a moment while my repast
was being prepared.
In the darkened room the glimmer of a small opium-lamp lit up the pale
and hollow face of an old man, occupied in holding over the flame a
small ball of the black drug, which would soon be transformed into
smoke, source of forgetfulness and dreams.
The old man returned my greeting, and invited me to lie down on the
couch opposite to him. He handed me a pipe already prepared and we
began talking together. As ordered by the laws of politeness, I remarked
to my neighbour that he seemed robust for his age.
"My age? Do you, then, think I am so old?"
"But, as you are so wise, you must have seen sixty harvests?"
"Sixty! I am not yet thirty years old! But you must have come from a
long way off, not to know who I am."
And while rolling the balls with dexterity in the palm of his hand, and
making them puff out to the heat of the lamp, he told me his story.
His name was Liu Favour-of-heaven. Born and brought up in the capital,
he had been promoted six years before to the post of sub-prefect in the
town on which our refuge was dependent.
When coming to take his post, he stopped at the inn, the same one where
we were. The house was full; but he had remarked, on entering, a long
pavilion which seemed uninhabited. The landlord, being asked, looked
perplexed; he ended by saying that the pavilion had been shut for the
last two years; all the travellers had complained of noises and strange
visions; probably mischievous spirits lived there.
Favour-of-heaven, having lived in the capital, but little believed in
phantoms. He found the occasion excellent to establish his reputation in
braving imaginary dangers.
His wife and his children implored him in vain; he persisted in his
intention of remaining the night alone in the haunted house.
He had lights brought; installed himself in a big armchair, and placed
across his knees a long and heavy sword.
Hours passed by; the sonorous noise of the gong struck by the watchman
announced successively the hours, first of the Pig, then of the Rat. He
grew drowsy. Suddenly, he was awakened by the gnashing of teeth. All the
lights were out; the darkness, however, was not deep enough to prevent
his being able to distinguish everything confusedly. Anguish seized him;
his heart beat with violence; his staring eyes were fixed on the door.
By the half-opened door he perceived a round white mass, the deformed
head of a monster, who, appearing little by little, stretched long hands
with twisted fingers and claws.
Favour-of-heaven mechanically raised his weapon; his blood frozen in his
veins, he tried to strike the head, whose indistinct features were
certainly dreadful. Without doubt the blow had struck, for a frightful
cry was heard; all the demons of the inferior regions seemed let loose
with this yell; calls were heard from all sides. The trellised frames of
the windows were shaken with violence. The monster gained the door.
Favour-of-heaven pursued him and threw him down.
His terror was such that he felt he must strike and kill. Hardly had he
finished than there entered, rolling from side to side, a little being,
quite round, brandishing unknown weapons at the end of innumerable small
hands. The prefect, with one blow, cut him in two like a watermelon.
However, the windows were shaken with growing rage; unknown beings
entered by the door without interruption; the prefect threw them down
one after another: a black shadow first, then a head balancing itself at
the end of a huge neck, then the jaw of a crocodile, then a big bird
with the chest and feet of a donkey.
Trembling all over, the man struck right and left, exhausted and
panting; a cold perspiration overwhelmed him; he felt his strength
gradually giving way, when the cock crowed at last the coming of the
Little by little, grey dawn designed the trellis of the windows, then
the sun suddenly appeared above the horizon and darted its rays across
the rents in the paper.
Favour-of-heaven felt his heart stand still; on the floor inundated with
blood, the bodies lying there had human forms, forms that he knew: this
one looked like his second wife, and this one, this little head that had
rolled against the foot of the table, he would have sworn that it was
his last son.
With a mad cry he threw away his weapon and ran to open the door,
through which the sun poured in.
An armed crowd was moving in the yard.
"My family! my family! where is my family?"
"They are all with you in the pavilion!"
But as they were speaking they saw with stupor the hair of the young man
becoming white, and the wrinkles of age cover his face, while he
remained motionless as well as insensible.
They drew near; he rolled fainting on the ground. "And thus," ended the
sub-prefect in the silence of the dark hall, where only the little light
of the opium-lamp was shining, "I remained several days without
knowledge of anything. When I came to myself, I had to bear the sorrow
of having killed my whole family in these atrocious circumstances. I
resigned my post: I had magnificent tombs built for all those who were
killed this fatal night, and, since then, I smoke without ceasing the
agreeable drug, in order to fly away from the remembrance, which will
haunt me until my last day."
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