Life Among the Savages, Part 19.
Upon hearing the name of Spiegel, I was naturally intrigued, as I remembered quite well the appellation from the widow von Kant’s moving account of her own husband’s untimely demise. At the same time, the inherent contradiction of the claimance of this name from the mouth of a man who – though there were obvious spatial discrepancies to account for – was not hundreds of miles distant from the baroness, but rather scant yards away (at least as that distance could be measured outside the cabinet), and that he dwelled inside an object to which the widow von Kant paid urgent attention while seemingly being unaware of his inhabitance, caused my skepticism to be aroused in tandem with my curiosity. I found it difficult to believe that the widow – a woman of keen observation and intelligence – could be mistaken about such a matter, so I decide to inquire further of the so-called Spiegel, testing his veracity while keeping my own knowledge of the expedition “close to the chest,” as it were.
“I believe I have heard of that expedition, good sir, and the ill fortune that befell it,” I said, “though my knowledge is woefully incomplete. Can you share your tale, or is its wound still too fresh upon your soul?”
“I’ve spent an uncertain length of time in an infinite and inhospitable blackness. All other ill fortune, as you call it, is meager in comparison. Further, since there’s little else to entertain us here, and I relish the opportunity to talk to another living person, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know,” said Spiegel.
“I was born the son of a minor nobleman in Bayern,” Spiegel said, thus beginning his autobiographical narrative from a most traditional starting point. The tale was an intriguing one, so far as I could tell, but as he recounted his earliest memories – the weighty and familiar adventures of a precocious schoolboy, to which, as the attentive reader will most certainly remember, I too was no stranger – I found myself perpetually, and with increasing intensity, distracted by the most glaring discrepancy between the claims of Spiegel and the version of his story as told by the widow von Kant: to wit, his fully functional, and indeed wholly present, left arm. The presence of the arm put me in a profound quandary in regards to the truth of Spiegel’s words, a considerable disadvantage which I found troubling in the extreme. The widow von Kant had thusfar shown herself to be a woman of the utmost integrity, and I had no reason to doubt her words. However, Spiegel himself (assuming, of course, that this actually was Spiegel with whom I was now speaking) possessed the same unmistakable profundity of character, though I had known him only a scant few moments, and in extraordinary circumstances. The irreconcilability of their two truths waged a war in my brain as Spiegel told of his tutors and a personal “restlessness” (he used the word repeatedly), even before reaching adolescence, that caused him to engage in any number of risky endeavors that were quite inappropriate for a boy of his age and station.
“So I found myself aboard the notorious ship Scurah at the preposterous age of thirteen. You know its reputation?” Spiegel asked. I affirmed quickly that I had, not wanting to interrupt the natural momentum of his gest. Though I had not in actuality heard of the vessel before his mention of it, I had considerable knowledge of the corsair’s trade by way of my father’s voluminous library and idle afternoons spent exploring the pages of his many richly-bound histories, and assumed that such a grounding would provide the necessary context. He nodded, and proceeded to relate the circumstances of his time with the privateers, which included all the swordplay and trickery one might expect from pirates and their kin.
The most likely possibility was an impostor, presenting himself to the widow von Kant before her journey, or here, to me in the confines of the widow’s cabinet. If true, it seemed very reasonable to deduce that the impersonation had almost certainly taken place in Kolkata. A false Spiegel gained nothing by duping me, or anyone else who found themselves inside this peculiar box. Deceiving the widow, however, presented clear advantages – most obviously, the laying of a groundwork in which to trap or further swindle her at a later time. The only flaw with this reasoning was that the confidence man had left the cabinet with the widow and then disappeared. Unless a wider conspiracy was in play, with agents aboard the Holy Diver, such a plan had no clear benefit. This realization complemented the recent and peculiar happenings aboard the ship, and warranted deeper consideration.
“…and, covered in the blood of Captain Shillitoe, I raised my knife above my head and was met by the cheers of the Scurah’s crew, becoming the ship’s youngest captain at the age of fourteen years, four months. The corsair’s life was not for me, though, especially in a place of authority over other men of variable honor and intelligence, so I disembarked in Cathay with my share of booty and began a period of wandering.” I nodded to Spiegel and said “Ah, Cathay,” to assure him I was listening.
Perhaps, the cabinet was entirely a ruse, and the cabal of men who sought to harm or extort the widow von Kant had secreted one or more of their number in the cabinet, in preparation for future stages of their plan. Such a possibility cast doubt over Spiegel once more (who, based on what I gleaned from his words betwixt my own ruminations, had spent some time under the tutelage of numerous Oriental mystics). However, a plot that involved two disparate and clearly distinguishable Spiegels seemed to me needlessly complex. Once again, I was left with the likelihood that this Spiegel was the genuine one.
As Spiegel continued his tale, recounting an adventure amongst the tunnels of an underground city in Cappadocia punctuated by an encounter with a spider several times the size of a man, I realized that the only way to rectify these discrepancies between two individuals of unquestionable integrity would be to bring them together and determine where the fell influences of third parties had, for their own advantage, bent the truth to the detriment of the upstanding. Once Spiegel and the widow von Kant met and compared their accounts, any falsehood would be swept away and the remaining facts would shine out as a beacon of unblemished veracity.
Unfortunately, the realities of the cabinet intruded on my reflections, as the unsetting gurgling once more sounded, faint but distinct. Spiegel’s speech halted as the dreadful sound repeated, already more audible.
“Do you know what the source of that noise is?” I inquired.
“There are many strange things within the bounds of this cabinet,” Spiegel replied. “I’ve never felt the need to become more acquainted with any of them.”
“Yes, it seems best to avoid an entity responsible for such unsavory sounds, but we cannot run forever. While we may very well be able to run forever while confined in this cabinet, it seems like an undesirable course of action. If only we knew the way back to the cabinet’s door, or some other means of escape.”
“Oh, I’ve found a way out,” Spiegel said, as if this was no small achievement.
My spirits lifted and filled with a sudden exuberance, I took Spiegel’s hand and shook it with a vigor surprising even to me. “Sir, of all your surprises, I must admit that this is the most gratifying. Can you lead me to it, my good man?”
“I believe so,” he said, grabbing my lanthorn and nodding toward the darkness. I followed him, and we walked for (as was now all too familiar to me) an indeterminate amount of time, the hideous gurgling sounding ever closer. After a great deal of purposeful walking, during which Spiegel proceeded with the utmost assurance despite the lack of any landmarks or bearings, he stopped and I did the same. He handed me the lanthorn and began to scrutinize the floor of the cabinet until, barely visible in the dim lanthorn light, a faint square seam revealed itself, and then, a handle in the fashion of a bare metal loop, set in a shallow indentation near one edge of the seam. “Here it is,” said Spiegel, “This is the hatch I found.”
“A most joyous discovery!” I said. “But tell me, why have you not already made use of this egress?”
“I do not know where it leads,” said Spiegel.
“Surely, it leads out, away from this infernal cabinet.” The gurgling, which had been faint recently, now re-asserted itself, as if to support my argument.
“This cabinet is not bound by any rules that man knows. What guarantee do we have that this hatch does not lead to some other cabinet, or something even worse? Which is worse, the known… or the unknown?”
Spiegel raised a valid point, one that rooted quite firmly in my brain and filled me with equivocation. The hatch could lead anywhere, and at least half of those limitless possibilities could prove worse than our current predicament. (Such was the nature of fortune.) The source of the malevolent gurgle had thusfar been easily avoided; who knew what waited for us once we pulled up on that iron ring and relinquished ourselves to the whims of the unknown? At this point, the gurgling echoed out once more, louder than it had been since my first encounter with it, accompanied by a shuffling sound that I could only assume was the tread of the thing. The sound of it dragging itself across the floor of the cabinet was as unsettling as its characteristic gurgle.
“Have you opened the hatch? Perhaps we can see something of what waits for us below,” I hazarded. Spiegel crouched down and lifted up the hatch. Air rushed past me, down through the opening, but of what lay beyond, nothing could be seen. The orifice revealed only a blackness as profound as the blackness within the cabinet, if not moreso.
“That is not very promising,” Spiegel said. Behind us, the gurgling and shuffling grew ever louder.
Eager to maintain a healthy ignorance in regard to the source of the gurgle, I said “Surely, my friend, we won’t waste your marvelous discovery by not taking advantage of our only clear means of escape?”
“No, you are right, the hatch should be used,” he said, and gestured toward the uninviting hole. “After you.” The gurgling resounded again, at ever-increasing volume.
“Ah, but you, sir, have clearly earned the privilege of departing this bizarre cabinet before me. My time imprisoned here is just a moment in comparison to yours.” The cabinet began to reverberate, shake even, with approaching movement of the gurgling thing, as if a heavy stone was being dragged toward us.
“I’m not going first,” Spiegel said, with a hard look in his eyes and a distinct tone of finality that indicated no amount of polite deferral would change his mind. Right after he made clear his refusal, I felt a wave of hot moist air slide across the back of my neck, and the gurgling which had been merely approaching could be definitively labeled as having arrived at our location. Seized by the urgent need to act, and by nature concerned for Spiegel’s safety afore my own, I pushed him down into the mouth of the hatch and then, upon hearing no immediate distress, or in fact any sound at all from the other side of the opening, I dived in after him, contriving to pull the hatch closed behind me and prevent the gurgling thing from accompanying us as we fell away from the widow von Kant’s cabinet.