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This is a short story written by John Norman. It is taken from Norman Invasions, published by E-Reads, and republished here with their kind permission.

TopThe Bed of Cagliostro

All this took place some time ago, but I think it would not be inappropriate to put at least something about it down on paper.

I would feel better about it, at any rate.

As a police matter, of course, the case is closed, and has been, for years.

Nonetheless I think it would not be amiss to record, for any it might interest, certain details associated with, if not actually germane to, the case.

I am supposing there would be no objection to this.

Also, this is scarcely the sort of thing to which one would draw the attention of the police.

It would seem clearly to lie beyond the compass of their interest, jurisdiction, or expertise.

He was a magician, of course. That must not be lost sight of.

Indeed, this was perhaps intended to be his greatest illusion.

I think it would be a mistake to lose sight of that possibility.

He had taken the stage name of Cagliostro, perhaps you remember him, this doubtless constituting a nod, or perhaps in its way a tribute, however ironic, to a somewhat notorious predecessor, the fabled 18th-century alchemist, charlatan, and magician, from whom he claimed descent. The latter claim seems implausible, and, at the least, has never been verified.

He had purchased, at considerable cost, some months before the incident, what was alleged to have been the bed of the original Cagliostro. I had thought the provenance of the purchase suspect, but it is difficult to know about such things. Certainly the bed did date from the late 18th Century; it was a large, massive, ornate, late-Baroque device, the high bedposts surmounted with the massive carved heads of two fearsome, maned, leonine beasts. The feet of the bed were carved in the likeness of paws, with the claws extended. The sideboards were carved in what I suppose was intended to be the likeness of thick, curling vines, though, rather, looked at in a certain way, they seemed rather like multiply jointed, spined, tentacles, apparently emanating from, or somehow connected with, the leonine figures surmounting the bedposts. The bed, clearly, was an authentic period piece, but there seems, as far as I can tell, no particular reason to associate it with the historical Cagliostro. To be sure, not even the provenance claims he actually slept in the bed, merely that he owned it. Indeed, the provenance suggests that it may have actually been purchased, and then given to a friend, or former patron. Little, if anything, is known, however, of this alleged friend, or patron. History is silent with respect to this. The name was something like Le Comte du Nouy, but I may be misremembering this, and, in any event, I do not now have access to either the provenance or its attendant documents. One gathers they were lost, after the incident. It seems there may have been some sort of falling out between the Signor Cagliostro and the count, and the threat of some legal action or other. But his life seems to have been filled with such alarms, as well as flights, pursuits, apprehensions, imprisonments, and such. Indeed, he seems to have eventually died in prison. The history of the bed seems better documented from 1840 on, when it first appears on the records of a dealer in London, who apparently received it from a merchant in Palermo, Sicily, over a year earlier. Supposedly it had accompanied Cagliostro long before that, a generation or so earlier, in his extensive travels, which he undertook commonly, for some reason, under a number of assumed names, travels to various European capitals, resorts, spas, and centers of status and affluence. He was famous, allegedly, for ingratiating himself with, and then deluding and preying upon, the rich and gullible. In any event the provenance lists, after 1840, several owners, all, of course, given the expense of the piece, well-to-do, and at least three of whom, as I recall, were titled, though in all cases only members of the minor nobility. As nearly as I can determine few of these individuals kept the bed very long, and it seems to have spent much of its time in warehouses, between purchases. Two of the purchasers, interestingly, seem to have fled, disappearing from society, completely, and another ended his life in a house for the insane. These unfortunate coincidences, as well as its alleged provenance, suggesting its earlier ownership by the famed Cagliostro, thought to have been a dabbler in dark forces, doubtless gave the bed an unsavory reputation, and I would suppose that it may have been little slept in, even between sales, and storage. Certainly it, so dark, heavy, massive, and enclosing, has a rather grim, dismal aspect, with the leonine heads, the claws, the vines, or tentacles, and such. If one allows the mind and imagination unwonted play it would be easy to see in it something not only forbidding but sinister. I would not, at any rate, personally, care to repose in it. Nor would I care for one of whom I was fond to repose in it. I do not think for example, that I, personally, would have given it to a friend.

But let me come to the matter at hand.

It has to do with two items, one, a mysterious demise, or fate, that of our illusionist, and, two, certain entries in his diary.

I cannot claim to be a friend of the illusionist, but we did have several dealings, largely connected with my helping him to acquire various art objects, mostly paintings and small statuary, but also various articles of period furniture, these things being additions to what was, even years ago, a quite valuable collection. These things are now gone at auction to satisfy creditors. At the end, aside from the value of his collection, our illusionist seems to have been nearly destitute. Apparently he lived well beyond his means, but on what he may have dissipated his fortune is unclear, given the apparently abstemious, lonely nature of his life. Certainly the expenses of his collection would have accounted for no more than a fraction of his estimated wealth. There was talk of certain rare books, which he burned at the end, and tuitions for instructions in certain arcane exercises, also, too, apparently abandoned, at the end. In any event, the assistance I rendered to our illusionist was rendered in my role as a dealer, and not as a friend, confidant, or such. I am not clear that our illusionist had friends, but I did not know him well enough to assert that with certainty. He seemed on the whole, off the stage, as I have suggested, to be a solitary sort, much devoted to his craft, and his studies. I hasten to add that it was not my doing that he came into the possession of the article of furniture referred to above, that piece alleged to have once belonged to the famous Cagliostro. Indeed, I trust I have already made clear my skepticism as to the authenticity of its provenance, though it was clearly genuine in the sense of being an authentic period piece of the late Baroque. To that any qualified dealer might reliably attest.

Before we come to the diary, or certain selected portions of it, I should mention that our illusionist seemed to me, and to many others, to tread a thin line between entertainment and fraud, between showmanship and chicanery. A contemporary magician may well keep the secrets of his craft close to his bosom, and guard its mechanisms with a most jealous devotion, but today, commonly, few, if any, of these delightful showmen actually pretend to the reality of magic, taken in some occult or preternatural sense. While dazzling us with their wondrous illusions, and eliciting our acclaim, delight, and awe, few, if any, pretend they are up to anything but marvelous, sophisticated tricks, tricks which, if revealed, would to our pleasure be seen to well cohere with well-recognized imperatives of nature and common sense. Our illusionist, on the other hand, often pretended that his powers were actually beyond nature, and were authentic expressions of occult forces and destinies, of powers and worlds beyond the pale of our quotidian realities, indeed, powers and worlds not only inaccessible to, but literally alien to, the quantifications and presuppositions of science. This sort of claim sophisticated auditors tended on the whole to find amusing, understanding it as part of the entertainment, but some, like myself, thought it improper, even offensive, particularly as we recognized, only too clearly, that over time some members, indeed, eventually several members, of his audience, or following, seemed to take the claim seriously. Such claims, of course, would have been more to be expected not in our own century but in, say, Rhodes of the 2nd Century, Paris or Marseilles of the 12th Century, or perhaps in Renaissance Florence. Indeed, for such claims, in earlier eras, one might have risked exile, stoning, or the stake. But to make such claims in our century was ludicrous to any informed, educated mind. The universe may be mysterious, but it is all of a piece, and it is all here, so to speak. Our reality is the only reality. Has this not been proven by science? But our illusionist, in my view, preyed on the superstitions and fears of common men, over whom he seemed to exercise a fascinating, almost hypnotic sway. He was not even above selling alleged nostrums, philters, and elixirs, prognosticating the future, and supposedly communicating with what he spoke of the ?realms of the elsewise.? Supposedly there were many dimensions, or worlds, or states of being, of which ours was only one, and these differed considerably the one from the other, some relatively benign, others malignant, some as inhospitable as polar wastes, others as fraught with life as green, rain-lashed jungles, or wide, endless, wind-swept, grassy plains, trodden by incessantly prowling beasts of strange aspect, driven on and on through what would be centuries in our time, hungry, starving, seeking food. Pressed for details, of course, matters, as expected, became very vague, and we were assured that these remarks were largely sensings, and that, in our terms, such worlds and such creatures could not be easily understood or described. How convenient! They were ?elsewise.? ?How do you know?? he was asked. He would pale, and say, ?There are doors, doors.? He was an incorrigible, exemplary charlatan. One had to admire him for his shameless bravado, if nothing else. ?Have you ever gone through such doors?? we asked him. ?No,? he would say. ?But I open them sometimes, and look through.? ?Where are they?? we asked. ?Sometimes they are here, and sometimes not,? he said. ?Is there one here now?? we asked. ?I do not think so,? he said. ?How do you know they exist?? we asked. ?I see them,? he said. ?We do not,? we said. ?Be glad,? he said. We laughed at him, and I do not think he cared for this. I suppose we had insulted him, and he was a proud, high-strung, sensitive man. But I had the eerie feeling then that he might be serious, that he might actually have convinced himself of his own nonsense, that he might have become eventually the victim of his own fancies, that we were dealing with a pathology, simply, that he might be mad. In any event it was unkind of us, and I for one regretted that we had behaved as we had.

He retired from the stage shortly after that.

One supposes this had to do with his health, which was never robust.

His career had been remarkable, all told, though, as I have suggested, controversial. I, for one, felt, despite his considerable and acknowledged talents, he had abused his craft, and had unscrupulously preyed upon the gullibility of many of his fellow human beings, that he had consciously and deliberately fostered and exploited their fears and superstitions. After his retirement he rather disappeared from public view, and, as far as I know, devoted himself to his studies. As I have suggested, he seems to have had few, if any, friends. I suppose I was as close to him as anyone, and we were not really close. He did have, however, several enemies. Naturally it was to these, where recognized, that the police devoted their attention, but after the completion of their investigation no arrests had been made, and no charges filed.

But to return to the diary.

It fell to me, at the request of the state, naturally enough, I suppose, given my dealings with the illusionist, to catalog his aforementioned collection, which was to be sold at auction. I was, accordingly, given a key to his apartments and soon set about my work. It was in the course of these labors that I chanced upon the diary.

The diary, I suppose, might have had some value as a souvenir, or memento, of the illusionist. To be sure, it was not as though he were a public figure of note, a statesman, a great scientist or famous inventor, a particularly celebrated artist or musician, or such. But it might have some value, I supposed, to a collector, particularly one interested in prestidigitation, the theater, or such. My attention was soon drawn to certain of the last entries, particularly those which seemed to regrettably document the ultimate, dismaying, utter disintegration of a human mind. The entries tend to become progressively less coherent in the last few days, and I shall occasionally summarize, or paraphrase, rather than quote, directly.

January 23rd, 20?.

I lied to them. It is not always doors. Not literally, not always.

Sometimes it is a narrow crevice, or an opening, sometimes like that of a cave. I do not know what is in the cave. Something may come out of it. I am afraid of what may come out of the cave.

I want to be left alone.

I have hurt no one.

I do not want these things.

January 27th, 20?.

They do not believe me. I do not blame them.

February 6th, 20?.

I suppose I am mad. I am not mad.

February 16th, 20?.

It is dreams, all dreams, then. The doors, the holes, the cave.

Does that make them not real? I am very tired. Can one dream while one is awake? Was I awake? Did I dream? Was I asleep, and awake? Can that be? Sleep calls to me. I will not be afraid. But I am afraid.

In my fine bed I am safe.

I must sleep. I am afraid to sleep.

I burned the books. I will do the exercises no more. I do not want the strength they give me. I do not want to see what they show me.

February 17, 20?.

Sometimes it is like a curtain. Or is it a dream? Maybe it is something like a dream. I seem to be awake. That is not unusual in a dream.

February 18th, 20?.

Why did I lie to them?

Why did I tell them there were doors. But there are doors. I know that now. I tried to lie. I wanted to lie. But I told the truth.

If I might comment on these entries, briefly, and rather in general, I might suggest that the illusionist, in his bizarre way, appears to be open to the possibility that reality is diverse, multiplex, and perhaps discontinuous, that there may be realities other than our own, some perhaps similar, and others perhaps quite different, perhaps even inconceivable to us. One thing that seems extremely clear is that these other conjectured realities, from these entries, and, as clearly, from others I omit, are not matters of ghosts or spirits, or intangibles, or such. There seems to be nothing abstract or mystical here. We are not dealing with speculations or shadows. Whereas these postulated alternative realities may be inaccessible, or ?elsewise,? so to speak, at least some of them, at least some of the time, or most of the time, they are understood to be as fully real as ours. They are as tangible in their way as ours is to us. They are not less real, they are other reals. They are understood to be as tangible as the touch of falling snow on an upturned face, as a kiss, as a wound, as a knife.

March 4th, 20?.

No, it is not like a hole, not now, not like the opening of a cave. It is more like a tunnel. It is far off. I see it when I sleep. That is strange. It is a large opening. There are clouds. When the wind comes up, from my left, the clouds move away, and I see the tall grass, and, here and there, trees. I can see to the horizon. It seems far off.

I am supposing the incoherence of the entries is obvious to the reader, containing even apparent inconsistencies, literal contradictions. Unless, of course, these are alternative realities, different ?doors,? so to speak. It is interesting to note that the nature of the subject?s delusions seems to become less chaotic, though no less pathetically deranged, as we proceed. The delusions seem to become narrower now, more centered; perhaps the subject senses himself coming closer to a particular ?door.? Or, alternatively, I suppose, one might speak of one of these other ?doors,? or, better, it seems, worlds, like a material body in an unusual space, if such is the right word, drifting closer, and closer, perhaps eventually, for a moment, to touch another world, ours.

March 8th, 20?.

Last night I had the dream again, the fields, seeming a long way off, the grass. I can smell the grass.

I am safe in my bed.

March 9th, 20?.

The field is far off. There is nothing there. I am not afraid.

March 10th, 20?.

The field, again. Beautiful. Fresh wind. Blue sky, soft clouds.

Peaceful. But on the horizon, dots, two, far off, something?

I am not alone?

March 11th, 20?.

The fields, the grass. Again. Something is out there, far off, I am sure of it.

The wind is behind me. It blows toward the horizon.

March 15th, 20?.

This is the first entry since I recorded the dream, I think it is a dream, of the night of March 10th.

On the night of the 11th, I think I saw them, for something, it seemed, turned my way, and looked in my direction, so still, so alertly, but so far off. It is odd; how continuous, how coherent, these dreams are. That is unusual, is it not? Then I feared, though I could not see them, that they had seen me, or somehow knew of my presence. Then, in the dream, for that it must be, I sensed them separate, one to the left, and one to the right. I could not see them, and they were far off, but I was sure then, somehow, they were coming closer, and closer. The wind blew toward them, and this moved the grass. I could see no movement in the grass, save for the wind. I detected nothing. Then I awakened. On the night of the 12th I saw them, suddenly only yards away, one on the left, one on the right, rising from the grass, large, strange, tawny things, lengthy, and sinuous; now perhaps four feet high at the shoulder; before they must have been crouching, their bellies close to the ground; their rib cages moved almost imperceptibly; clearly they are air-breathing things; four legs, no wings; they came closer, quickly, a step or two, then stopped, and then closer, again, another step or two, again quickly, and then again stopped; now they were only feet away; paws large, wide, soft, muddied a little; it had rained; their haunches seemed to gather under them, excitedly; their bodies seem to quiver, almost imperceptibly. They are unnaturally still now; yellow eyes, large, rounded, intent; distended nostrils, moisture about half-opened jaws, wet, dark tongues, whitish teeth, long, fanglike, moist, curved, turned inward, powerful, graceful, strange, savage things, eager, intent; something of that evolved feline beauty which seems nature?s optimum design for a land predator. But then there was something strange about their sides, as though something were living, moving, beneath their skins. Is this part of them? But they were now regarding one another more balefully than me. Each seemed then more concerned with the other than with me. I was afraid. I took a step backward. One raised his paw, snarling, watching the other, and lashed out, toward the other, and I heard a tearing of wood, and I awakened, screaming. I threw myself from the bed, but clutched at its side. My fingers touched the wood. I cried out, rose up, and fled to the light switch. All seemed the same, nothing amiss, all in its place, with but one hideous exception. In the side of the bed near the foot, on the left side, there was a long, deep, splintered furrow, a foot long, a half inch deep in the wood, as though some spiteful vandal had intentionally defaced the wood with a metal tool. I am afraid to sleep.

At this point it is doubtless clear to the reader what is going on. On the assumption that pure charlatanry is not involved, that this was not intended, somehow, via publicity or whatever, to result in a refurbishing or reestablishing of our illusionist?s abandoned career, his unstable and deluded mind manufactured everything, weaving together from the threads of disappointment and paranoia a fabric of indisputable madness. Obviously the beasts of his dream are suggested by the carvings on his bedposts. It is true that I have inspected the frame of the bed and it does, indeed, bear a disfigurement of the sort described in the diary, but, obviously, this could have been inflicted by the subject himself, either subconsciously, in a fit of madness, or, deliberately, as a supposed evidence of the veridicality of his unusual tale, designed to impress naive readers of tabloids. My own first reaction was irritation that a fine piece of Baroque craftsmanship should have been damaged, whether accidentally or wantonly.

I did see our illusionist, according to my records, on business, on March 19th of the year above, a matter having to do with a client?s inquiry as to an item known to be in his collection. Predictably, it was not for sale. It later fetched better than four thousand dollars at auction. At this meeting his mental disintegration was evident. He seemed haggard, incoherent, and agitated. I wondered if he had slept, for days. At this time, of course, I had no knowledge of what was going on his life. I did express concern, which was genuine enough, and for which I think he was grateful. I also recommended that he see a physician, as I supposed him to be suffering from some severe, but ordinary, easily treatable indisposition. He promised to do so, but I do not think he did. I saw him again, on the 22nd of March. The motivation for this visit, as far as I can determine, though it was years ago, was my concern for him. After my visit of the 19th, I was alarmed for his health. Too, I suspected, ruefully, that I might be the closest thing he had to a friend. This meeting was troubling in more than one way. If anything, he seemed more miserably distraught than on the 19th, and, worse, was bandaged here and there, about the chest and arms, and, in several places, it seemed that blood had soaked through the gauze. It was at this time, as well, that I first discerned the damage to the frame of the bed. I was not sure the blood was genuine, and, naturally, I assumed that he himself had inflicted the injury to the bed. I became suspicious that these matters were tied together somehow and were supposed to play some role in his career, that a hoax was in process. He was evasive in response to my questions, and this further aroused my suspicions. Doubtless he was contemplating some master illusion; perhaps he was projecting a coup that would be the triumph of a lifetime, and the envy and despair of lesser practitioners of the deceptive arts. But, too, his stress seemed genuine, and I feared then greatly for his sanity, much more than hitherto. But far exceeding my suspicions, and my reservations pertaining to his honesty, and my awareness of his unexampled showmanship, was my sense of his tragic physical and mental condition. Any sense of indignation or offended righteousness which I might have felt, or been tempted to feel, was overcome by my concern, and pity. That was the last time that I saw him alive.

Naturally I sought the entry for the night of the 21st, the night before my visit of the 22nd.

March 22, 20?.

I shall recount, as simply as possible, what occurred last night. The beasts came for me. On their sides, grown from their forequarters, writhing, lashing about, snakelike, are strange appendages, spined, constrictive, restless. They coiled about me; I struggled, helplessly. I could not escape. I could not breathe. The two heads, massive and shaggy, leaned toward me, whitish fangs, long, moist, back-curving, I sensing the breath, fetid, saliva about the jaws, eyes tense, lustrous, eager, low noises, eager, anticipatory, rumbling, from great throats, but a hissing, too, from the appendages.

The appendages have eyes! And mouths, too! Two things perhaps evolved together, a genetic madness? A symbiotic anomaly? Once, anciently? No, now at least it is one thing. One thing, with diverse living parts. The beasts lifted their heads, across my body, but inches from one another. Their heads swayed. They snarled, menacingly at one another. Then both roared, fiercely, as though in anger, as though challenging one another, and I awoke, gasping, drenched with sweat, and bleeding. There were marks on my body, discolorations, encircling it, and within these marks numerous small holes, bleeding, as though a hundred small nails had penetrated the skin. I know now they will come for me. Alan came again today. He is a good man. He is kind, but does not wish to appear so. He thinks I am a liar. Perhaps I am. I did not show him the wounds but I could not conceal the blood. He is annoyed at the gouging on the bed. I could not blame him. It is a fine piece. He doubtless thinks I did it. Perhaps I did. I do not know. He thinks I am up to something. I wonder if I am. I put off his questions.

He probably thinks me mad, as it is. There is no point in furthering his suspicions. He is a simple man, and a kindly one. I could not speak to him, of course. I could not speak to anyone. Who would believe me? Some sort of psychosomatic conversion response must be involved here, as the subconscious mind, under hypnotic suggestion, can produce blisters, marks on the skin, and so on. I do not think I shall see Alan again. I think I do know what I shall see again. They are hungry, terribly hungry, the things. One cannot blame them. I do not blame them. They are not evil, they are only powerful, and very hungry, even starving.

I wonder how long it has been since they have eaten.

That is the last entry in the diary.

I called upon him the next afternoon, but found police in his apartments. The body had been found last night by the building superintendent, who had responded to a call from another tenant, who had heard some sort of disturbance. The body had not yet been moved, and two detectives were present, and two uniformed officers, and three members of a forensic team. An ambulance, I had noted, was parked in front of the building. I was invited in and questioned for some time, to some extent with respect to my business there and my relation to the victim, but largely with respect to his known acquaintances and associates. They were particularly interested in any motives which might exist for what had occurred, and any enemies which our illusionist might have had. Too, when they learned of my business relationship with him, they asked me to examine the collection and see if anything was missing. As far as I could see, without a careful examination, there was nothing missing.

There is not a great deal more to tell, except that the murder, as it was supposed to be, and may well have been, was an unusually grisly one, of a sort which, I gathered, was unusual even in the experience of the detectives, who were doubtless not unaccustomed to tragic examples of what human beings can do to one another. I looked at the body briefly, but turned away. The head was there and some parts of the body. Much of the body, however, was gone. It was as though parts of it had been dragged away. There was much blood about. The jaws of the wooden beasts at the bedposts were thick with it, and it ran down the posts, as though down the sides of necks. Too, it was intertwined with the vinelike decorations at the sides of the frame. The bedclothes and carpeting nearby, on which some bits of flesh lay, had been drenched with blood, now dried. Interestingly there was this dried blood, in gouts, on both sides of the bed, and on the carpeting, as though the body had been torn apart, even fought for, and various parts of it dragged to one side or the other. The mattress seemed torn and twisted, as though it had been the scene of a frightful struggle. I noted that on the part of a leg, on the carpet, there were circular bruises, as though it had been tightly encircled with some broad ropelike substance. Too, within the bruises there were several aligned, small wounds. I would later learn these wounds were better than an inch deep. There was also, oddly, an unpleasant, feral smell about.

At that time, of course, I was as convinced as anyone that a murder had been committed, and one of dreadful aspect.

Certainly that was the natural supposition of the police and this belief would underlie their investigation.

It was only later, after reading the diary, that I wondered, from time to time, if some sort of illusion had been planned here, and that somehow it had gone tragically, terribly, wrong. Such things can happen.

But such speculations explain little.

Who would have been the cooperants in such an illusion? Had our illusionist miscalculated on the reliability and fidelity of his confederates?

The entries in the diary might well have been understood as part of an elaborate hoax, one well worthy of our illusionist, designed to cast a spell of mystery over a planned disappearance, perhaps a way to elude creditors, perhaps a way to prepare for a spectacular and startling reappearance, to reinvigorate a dimming mystique, to inaugurate anew a lucrative career.

But perhaps his assistants, or confederates, had had projects of their own, and had utilized this opportunity to enact their own scheme of hideous vengeance upon our trusting illusionist.

That seems the most likely explanation, though who these implacable enemies might have been remains obscure.

Certainly robbery does not seem a likely motive as little, or nothing, was missing. Certainly, as I later determined, the collection was intact.

As mentioned earlier the collection was auctioned, to satisfy creditors. I myself bid upon, and secured, two items, the diary, from which I have quoted, and the bed.

Copyright © John Norman 2009.
Excerpted from Norman Invasions.
Published by E-Reads.
All rights reserved.

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