Deceiving Shadows

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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