It had been a hectic day for Jack, careering from one side of London to the other, delivering messages, collecting and depositing packages, visiting embassies and exclusive clubs. Not that Jack was ever invited into any of these swanky places. He rarely progressed beyond their vestibules (as he’d learned to call them). In fact, he was more commonly shown the tradesman’s entrance.
Now, back at his lodgings, Jack and his fellow boarders, all errand boys, were enjoying a juicy stew provided by their landlady, Mrs Jade. They were comparing notes on the day. As she brought in a plate of bread and butter and a pot of steaming tea, there was a knock at the front door. “Help yourselves,” she said, while she went to answer it. She returned carrying a cream-coloured envelope with a wax seal, which she ceremonially handed to Jack.
He was dumbfounded. It was the sort of thing he delivered to others but had never received himself. The cursive script, spelling out his name and address, was rich with flourishes and loops. Everyone round the table looked impressed.
With his own attempt at a flourish, Jack licked clean his knife and, as he had seen others do, slit open the envelope. Inside was a letter on embossed paper from a firm of solicitors called Tumbler and Cumbersome. The letter requested the presence of Mr John Arthur Carmel — the others cooed — at the firm’s offices in Monument Street. Jack was expected to attend on the morrow at noon, “concerning a matter that should be to his advantage,” he read out to his attentive audience..
“Very mysterious,” said Bob, his roommate. “Come into some dough, ’as we?” He started poking and kneading Jack while the others cheered.
Jack reported to the solicitor’s offices in plenty of time. He had delivered the morning’s messages with more than usual alacrity, thereby managing to extend his half-hour lunch break. Breathless, he sat in the firm’s anteroom until invited into Mr Cumbersome’s chambers. For Jack, this was progress indeed: moving beyond the vestibule into the inner sanctum.
The plush carpet slowed his progress, but it did give him time to take in the opulence of his surroundings: the book-lined walls, the silk drapes and glass cabinets; and, right in the centre, the biggest desk Jack had ever seen, behind which sat one of the smallest men Jack had ever encountered.
As Jack let the atmosphere of the room soak in, Mr Cumbersome reached across the desk to shake Jack’s hand. Jack had to stretch considerably. The secretary, who had shown Jack into the room, returned to his own, much smaller desk against the far wall.
“Well, Mr John Arthur Carmel,” began Mr Cumbersome, steepling his hands in front of his chest, “I presume you are wondering what all this is about.” Jack nodded vigorously. “Perhaps if I start with your full name.”
“You just did, Mr Cumbersome,” said Jack.
“Ah, well, in point of fact, no,” responded Mr Cumbersome, confirming Jack’s view of how he’d always thought lawyers spoke. “In truth, it’s John Arthur Carmello, isn’t it?”
“How d’you know that, sir?” Jack was impressed.
“Your grandfather decided to change the family name when he fled from his home country, Italy, in the 1860s, didn’t he?”
Jack had heard this story before but never been too sure of the facts, although he knew he was of Italian stock. His complexion and slight build gave him away.
“Let me cut to the chase, my lad,” said Cumbersome, looking quite avuncular all of a sudden. “You, apparently, are one of the last surviving descendants of an Italian aristocrat, Count Enrico Giuliani. You are not a legitimate descendant but, as the Italians would express it, a bastardo. That is, you – or rather your father – was born, as they say, the wrong side of the blanket.”
“My late father,” added Jack. “He died a while back.”
Mr Cumbersome nodded sympathetically, as though aware of this. What the solicitor was saying certainly chimed with the tales Jack had heard from his grandparents.
However, the more Mr Cumbersome talked, the more outlandish the story became. It sounded like something out of one of Jack’s penny dreadfuls.
Over the last few generations, Mr Cumbersome was saying, the Giuliani family had suffered a number of tragic losses, “reputedly associated with the family curse.” Though he uttered this final word with some disdain, he continued using it, as though it were a recognised legal term.
Apparently, a great aunt had recently died. But Alfonso, who was due to inherit (he would be the next count when he came of age), had disappeared, which is how Jack came to be involved. For, amongst the great aunt’s papers, it mentioned a “Carmello connection”. Jack could be a benefactor of the estate.
The aunt was to be entombed at the Giuliani mausoleum, located on a hillside outside Verona, in ten days’ time, where there would also be a formal reading of the will. Mr Cumbersome, whose practice had been contacted, suggested that he accompany Jack across the continent in order to attend the proceedings.
Jack was dumbstruck, but managed a nod of agreement. Given such news, many people would not have returned to work. Jack, however, went back to delivering packages and running messages. In fact, the work gave him a feeling of security as his mind struggled to come to terms with this potential change to his circumstances. Count Jack Carmel, or even Count Jack Carmello – he liked the sound of that!
While Jack worked his week’s notice, Mr Cumbersome made the necessary arrangements: obtaining a passport and visa for Jack, booking their passage on the Dover train, the ferry across to Calais and, finally, the Continental express to Verona Porto Nuova.
It was a new world to Jack, but he gradually adjusted to its ways: remembering to hand over his bags to porters rather than carrying them himself, remembering not to stand aside for others and, especially, remembering not to bow and scrape to those he had always thought his betters. Mr Cumbersome was a great help in building Jack’s confidence, especially when it came to dining. He introduced Jack to the various bits of cutlery and glassware that crowded the dinner table, pointing out how each was deployed; he also showed Jack how the food was then conveyed to the mouth, chewed and swallowed.
By the time the Italian border was reached, Jack was feeling quite self-assured. And, when the two of them eventually arrived at the Stazione di Verona hotel, Jack thought himself quite the gentleman. He even enjoyed being fitted for a suit specially tailored for him. His measurements had been taken in London and the material chosen. These particulars had then been conveyed to a local outfitter, whose staff came to the hotel to oversee the fitting.
But all Mr Cumbersome’s careful preparations were upset just before the two of them were due to leave for the Giuliani mausoleum. A much larger man approached Mr Cumbersome as they were about to board the carriage. Jack, assuming this was a local, was surprised to hear a deep English voice declare: “I’ll take over now, Cumbersome.”
The solicitor initially looked as though he might protest, but then his face relaxed into a smile. “Of course,” he acceded. Turning to Jack, he introduced the new figure: “I don’t believe you’ve met my partner, Mr Tumbler.”
Senior partner,” muttered the latter, loosening his grip on Mr Cumbersome’s arm and offering a hand to Jack.
“Mr Tumbler didn’t expect to be needed in Verona for this event,” added Mr Cumbersome, “but then something came up and, well … the Giulianis are his clients really, so I’ll leave you in his, ah, capable hands.”
They were certainly very large hands. Jack watched with concern as his small fingers were enveloped in Tumbler’s fist.
The next thing Jack was aware of was Mr Cumbersome’s receding figure as the carriage picked up pace, moving speedily through Verona’s streets.
Not another word was spoken within the carriage. It was too noisy to conduct any meaningful conversation, but Jack had at least expected a few pleasantries. Mr Cumbersome had drilled him in such small talk, and he was keen to exercise his new accomplishment. However, Mr Tumbler’s taciturn form deterred interaction of any sort. He filled the seat opposite Jack. The longer Jack sat there, the more he felt like a mere errand boy again, all Mr Cumbersome’s careful preparations undone.
Jack contented himself by attending to the landscape, watching the carriage slowly climb out of Verona and up into the scented air of the surrounding hills. Now and again, Jack thought he could hear the sound of another carriage behind them, but decided it must be their own vehicle echoing through the hills. Had he been with Mr Cumbersome, he would have sought clarification. Not from this man, though, whose eyes were closed, his posture stiff.
Eventually they reached a clearing where the carriage came to a halt. The mausoleum itself was an imposing, once-white structure that stood majestically on a rocky outcrop. A few other figures had just emerged from the impressive wooden doors, amongst whom Jack spotted a priest in vestments.
“Good,” pronounced Mr Tumbler, speaking for almost the first time. “The service has finished. Just the will, then.”
Following the guidance of a local lawyer, people filed into the mausoleum’s interior where a trestle table had been erected and chairs arranged. Jack had not been introduced to anyone and was unsure of what was going on, as the entire proceedings were conducted in Italian. However, as Mr Tumbler was looking after his interests, he didn’t really mind. He took his seat alongside the others and spent his time examining the bizarre surroundings.
It was an intimidating space, with the various nooks and crannies causing the candles to cast elaborate and eerie shadows, as though the whole interior were pulsing with incipient life. There were urns, coffins, caskets and funeral plaques everywhere, with two, more elaborate recesses—separate chambers—leading off the main vaulted space. No doubt, thought Jack, these were where the more illustrious family members were housed.
The omnipresence of death made Jack shudder. It was not a place he’d like to be left alone in. But worse than the monuments themselves was a frieze that ran along one of the outer walls, from floor level to Jack’s eye level, which was about five feet in height. The carvings depicted images of hell: warnings of the torments that would be inflicted on the unprepared. It was obviously a message to the living rather than those housed within, for whom it was too late.
Jack was fascinated by the grimacing faces with their vacant eye sockets, toothy grins and writhing, snakelike hair. But one figure was more disturbing than the others: of a young man with a malevolent sneer, who seemed to be watching Jack personally.
Jack’s eye had been drawn to this figure immediately he’d entered, but he’d affected not to notice, only letting his eye settle on the face after he’d surveyed the rest of the mausoleum.
Jack had little awareness of how long he sat there, watching papers being shuffled, listening to the strange foreign voices echoing round the vault. But suddenly, the reading seemed to be over and people were coming up to him, including the Italian lawyer, shaking him by the hand and saying a few words before filing out. Many of these people, he was informed, were former servants and employees of the aunt.
Jack soon found himself alone in the vault with Mr Tumbler, while a few functionaries collapsed the table and removed chairs and candles. Mr Tumbler was gathering up his papers, taciturn as ever. Jack presumed that he would be informed of the outcome shortly. In the meantime, he took a closer look at the interior, keen to show an interest, even if he was a bastardo. He examined some of the inscriptions, meaningless though they were to him.
As Jack approached the tomb of the most recent addition, his great aunt, he suddenly found himself plunged into darkness. Someone had closed the entrance doors. He called out to Mr Tumbler, but he too seemed to have disappeared. Only one candle remained, wanly flickering. Jack started to panic. Where had that doorway gone?
Sweat pooled on his neck and ran down his back as a nightmare from his boyhood suddenly surfaced in his mind; something he hadn’t thought about for years. In this dream, a spectral hand would systematically extinguish the lights of the family home, until Jack found himself stumbling around in the dark, calling for his parents. But no one ever came. Then, just as he thought he would suffocate, the voice of his mother would finally be in his ear, “It’s alright, Jack,” she would say, and he would waken to find her bending over him, stroking his face.
Jack caught himself smoothing down his hair and realised that he was imitating her comforting touch. Grabbing the one remaining candlestick and stumbling round the chamber, he tried to locate the doorway.
Being left in this space, alone, was terrifying enough, but then, more terrifyingly, he realised he was far from alone. Albeit in differing degrees of decay, many others were present, including the recently departed great aunt. Moreover, because he shared their blood, he also recognised that, in some strange way, he belonged here.
With mounting panic, Jack clawed his way along the wall until he encountered the stone frieze. Those immobile figures had been bad enough to gaze upon, but their touch, rough beneath his left hand, was worse: they seemed more substantial and real.
His probing fingers finally encountered the young man with the sneer. Jack traced the wormlike lips, curling back from the granular teeth that encircled the mouth cavity; instinctively he withdrew his fingers and moved them up passed the haughty, slightly upturned nose and into the hollow eye sockets. Jack was mesmerised. The figure seemed aroused by his touch. Unlike the rest of the frieze, the figure was warm, almost stirring within the stonework. Jack imagined the young man as once human, having been dragged within the frieze after coming into contact with one of these other stone beings.
At this disturbing thought, Jack jerked away his hand, but the movement was arrested. Round his left wrist, rasping fingers latched. Jack was momentarily petrified, experiencing the very fate he’d just imagined. But, as he then realised, rather than dragging him within, the figure seemed to be using Jack’s arm for leverage, trying to wrench its way out of the stone. Jack felt the creature’s thumb over his pulse, as though envious of his living presence.
Two things then happened simultaneously. Jack moved the candlestick so that he could view his manacled wrist more clearly. As he did so, hot wax guttered onto it. The pain nearly made him drop the candle but, somehow, he managed to save the tiny flame. And, as he could now more clearly see, it was not just hot wax that pained him. Blood oozed from his wrist, albeit staunched by the hand that clamped him, providing a most effective tourniquet. Jack wondered if he could have gashed his wrist while jerking his hand away from the wax.
No, he thought. I’ve been bitten. The idea of vampirism was then all the rage in London. He remembered playing Varney the Vampire with Bob, who was Dracula. They’d compared canines in the mirror while each strained to make their reflections disappear.
This memory was fleeting, however, as Jack braced himself for some real bloodletting. To his surprise, though, nothing more happened. The hand released his wrist and, in that instant, he felt the figure slide back into the frieze.
With a gust of wind, the doors sprang open. Light flooded in. His eyes, once they had adjusted to the brightness, took in the frieze once again. The stone figure was, indeed, lifeless, such that Jack even felt confident enough to prod its head: cold to the touch. And yet, on the teeth, was that not blood he could see?
Jack tarried no longer. He scurried out into the sunshine in search of other, living beings—even Mr Tumbler! To his surprise, the place was deserted: no people, no carriages, nothing. He had been abandoned.
Jack sat on the rocks for a while. From his breast pocket, he pulled out a white, folded handkerchief—the final accessory provided by the tailor—and spent some time fastening it round his injured wrist. He didn’t want blood on his suit.
As he sat there, basking in the sunshine and fresh air, the nightmare gradually evaporated, like dew. Jack dozed a while. At some point, he realised that he had little option but to walk back to Verona.
Stumbling along the hot dusty track, he certainly did not feel as though he’d just inherited a fortune—and Mr Tumbler had said nothing. Jack was fast reaching the conclusion that he was not cut out for this sort of life. Delivering messages had been far less fraught, although the climate here was better.
Apart from a short ride on an oxcart, Jack walked the whole way back to Verona, where he went straight to his hotel room and collapsed on the bed.
When he finally woke from some disturbing dreams, Jack found he’d managed to knot himself in his bedclothes. It was late afternoon and it took him a while to separate his dreams from the events of the morning. It all seemed dreamlike now; apart, that is, from the pain in his wrist, which was a salutary reminder.
Jack got up, had a good wash, changed his clothes and made his way down to the lobby where someone cleaned and bandaged his wrist. Another member of staff passed him a note. Jack was delighted to see that it was from Mr Cumbersome, asking to meet Jack at a nearby taverna at six o’clock. It was now quarter-past-five. Jack asked directions and set off for their rendezvous.
He found Mr Cumbersome hidden away in an alcove. When Jack approached, the solicitor stood up and greeted him like a long-lost friend. “My dear fellow, I feared the worst,” he began, indicating the seat opposite and pouring Jack a glass of wine. “Oh, and your wrist! Are you hurt?”
Jack dismissed his wound as a mere scratch, saying he’d scuffed it on the mausoleum stonework.
“I cannot apologise enough for this morning’s events. Abandoning you like that! You must think me very rude.”
“It certainly wasn’t you that abandoned me,” said Jack, with some passion.
“And where did you get to?” enquired Cumbersome. “My partner said you’d disappeared. He thought you might have returned with the others.”
Jack bridled at this, becoming quite tearful as he told Cumbersome how everyone had gone off without him. Of course, Cumbersome was unaware of what had really upset Jack, but he could see that the boy was not himself. To cheer him up, Cumbersome mentioned the sum of £150, an initial tranche of money he was due to receive, “pending the fate of Alfonso Giuliani.”
Jack was delighted. It sounded a fortune to the errand boy. Cumbersome, though, was surprised that his colleague had not already mentioned this windfall to Jack.
he solicitor then leaned forward, conspiratorially. “He’s back, you see. When Mr Tumbler returned earlier today, I thought it was you with him, but … it was not. It was Alfonso.”
Having delivered this bombshell, Cumbersome called over a waiter and ordered some wine and antipasti: salami, mortadella, prosciutto, bread, cheese and olives.
“Are you a Bible reader, Mr Carmel?” Cumbersome suddenly asked. Jack shrugged. “Deuteronomy 5,” went on the solicitor: “‘For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations,’ giving rise to ‘cursing, vexation, and rebuke,’ et cetera. Ever heard that before?” Jack nodded, remembering Sunday school. “Well, Mr Alfonso was, indeed, of the fourth generation.”
“Fourth generation since what?” Jack was still very much in the dark.
“Since your great-grandfather, Arturo Carmello, was murdered by the Giuliani family.”
“Unfortunately so. The Giulianis, as I have recently learned, were not an honourable family.” Mr Cumbersome paused as the food appeared and they ate in silence, Jack scrupulously following Cumbersome’s lead. Then the lawyer poured more wine before continuing.
“The Giulianis were part of an unpleasant cult that sought to purify the race. I don’t really understand much of it myself but, the long and the short is, your great-grandfather was sacrificed in some primitive ritual.”
Jack almost choked on his wine.
“At first, the Giuliani family pretended your ancestor had met with an accident. But then their misfortunes began. The firstborn sons of the next two generations died in quick succession. The son was killed when his ‘spooked’ horse crushed him. As for the grandson, he was out on a wild boar hunt and somehow managed to fall from a rocky ledge, although he knew the terrain well. Both suffered similar, fatal injuries: multiple broken bones. The grandson was just ten at the time.”
Again, Cumbersome took a breather while they finished their antipasti, washing it down with more wine.
“Old Giuliani, who survived this carnage, was devastated. He attempted to divert the curse by encouraging a liaison between his nephew and your paternal grandmother. But then, when your father—the bastardo in question—grew up in rude health, the old count was even more incensed. And, of course, he dared not harm any more Carmellos! So, he paid to be rid of them, securing their emigration to England, perhaps thinking that a good deed might appease the curse.
“It did not. Only one of the dead grandson’s sisters produced a boy, but he, too, never made it to adulthood. A bizarre fall from the roof of the family villa finished him off. We then come to the fourth generation, with Alonso’s birth. He was the only child of Count Giuliani’s granddaughter, who died giving birth to him. So, from day one, Alfonso was swaddled in cotton wool.”
Cumbersome reached for the recently delivered coffee pot and poured for the two of them. “Which brings me to your involvement.” He looked sharply at Jack. “When the Giulianis heard about your own father’s death, their hopes were raised. Perhaps, after all, the curse had been passed on (though your poor father was almost fifty at the time!). So, with the death of Alfonso’s great aunt, the old count’s sister, it was agreed that the young man would go into hiding, and you would be summoned.”
“You mean,” Jack stirred in his chair, “if there was to be a fourth-generation victim, they hoped it would be … me?”
Cumbersome nodded. “I should say that I had no knowledge of this plan until my colleague, Mr Tumbler, enlightened me.”
Cumbersome paid the bill and they walked back to the hotel, the lawyer protectively taking Jack by the arm.
Jack went immediately to bed, still worn out after the day’s events. He enjoyed several hours sleep before something woke him. He wasn’t sure what. Was it the painful stinging in his wrist, which had just started throbbing again, or was it the banging overhead? Someone seemed to be slinging furniture around the room up there. A domestic row? Jack wondered. But then, after a final clatter, silence resumed. The pain in his wrist also ceased and, once again, Jack fell into a slumber.
The following morning, Jack was coming out of the lift when Mr Tumbler pushed by him, never saying a word. He was followed by a porter, laden with luggage, scurrying after the lawyer. They both left the hotel just as the police entered.
Now that Jack looked around, he could see that the whole hotel was in disarray with staff running to and fro, looking distracted. The breakfast room was in similar turmoil. However, Jack was pleased to see Mr Cumbersome sitting at a table, looking as unflustered as ever.
“I just saw Mr Tumbler leave the hotel,” began Jack, approaching his lawyer.
“Your last sight of him, I suspect,” said Cumbersome. “Do have some breakfast, then I suggest we go somewhere quieter.”
They ate in companionable silence while the waiters moved uneasily around the tables.
As Cumbersome had suggested, they regrouped at their previous rendezvous, the taverna. Once they had settled and ordered some drinks, Cumbersome updated Jack, revealing more background information that he, himself, had only recently gleaned from his partner.
According to Tumbler, the plan had been for Alfonso to lie low, protecting himself—as they’d already discussed. But the boy had been too keen to track his inheritance, which was why Tumbler had so suddenly raced across from England, to keep the boy out of the limelight. Alonso, though—a hot-headed youth—had been unable to resist following the others to the mausoleum. Tumbler had brought him back and hidden him in the hotel.
“Alonso was here?”
“Was is the right word,” said Cumbersome. “Brace yourself, my boy. The curse has finally claimed its fourth-generation victim: Alfonso Giuliani is dead.”
Jack almost dropped his coffee cup.
“He was found this morning, his bod —bizarrely—exhibiting the same signs of morbidity as his ancestors’. That is, a number of bones were broken, as if he’d been crushed by something—a horse, possibly— or fallen from a great height ….” Cumbersome poured more coffee. “Except that, he can only have fallen out of bed!”
Jack recalled the bangs and bumps he’d heard last night, then Mr Tumbler’s hasty departure, the strange behaviour of the hotel staff, the arrival of the police—now it all made sense.
Jack wanted to dismiss all this as fanciful. It really was like one of his penny dreadful serials. However, the memory of that leering stone figure froze his tongue. Somehow, Jack was convinced, that creature was responsible for Alfonso’s death, and perhaps for all the others’, too. Would it now come looking for him?
As this thought struck Jack, he managed to siphon his last mouthful of coffee down his nose and began a fit of coughing.
“O my goodness!” Cumbersome was on his feet, slapping Jack on the back. “Don’t croak on us now, old chap!”
When the two returned to the hotel, the police were still there. Although Jack could hardly have been capable of causing Alfonso’s injuries, the authorities were duty-bound to interview him, given that he had been the main beneficiary of the Giuliani estate with, it could be argued, a vested interest in Alfonso’s demise.
The interview was an ordeal, especially as it had to be conducted through an interpreter (fortunately, Cumbersome obliged). But Jack found it less intimidating than what he was asked to do afterwards, for the police had tracked down the man who had driven Alfonso to the mausoleum (in the carriage that Jack had thought he’d heard).
Accordingly, the driver, along with Jack, the priest, the Italian lawyer, and some of the others present at the mausoleum, had been requested to attend a reconstruction of events leading to Alfonso’s bizarre death. They had really wanted Mr Tumbler there too, but he, of course, was unavailable.
Eventually, the moment came when Jack was asked to re-enact his time alone in the mausoleum. He was panicky: they were asking him to replay his worst nightmare! However, he soon realised it would not be as before, for the chief of police would have to be present and, because of the language barrier, Mr Cumbersome too. Aside from that, the vault appeared completely different, now ablaze with candlelight.
Standing in front of the frieze, Jack tried to show them how he had cut his wrist on the figure’s teeth, except that the action proved impossible: the teeth curved inward. Jack struggled to explain himself, but realised he was making no sense. Fortunately, Mr Cumbersome seemed to be conveying a more convincing story to the police chief, who nodded appreciatively.
While they talked, Jack looked more closely at the figure of the young man. The sneer had gone. Jack smiled as it dawned on him what the figure had really been doing yesterday. It had been establishing his blood line and had established he was not related to the Giulianis at all. That was just a rumour spread by the family to try and outwit the curse. But the curse knew better—and now the curse had run its course.
Needless to say, Jack shared none of these thoughts with the police, nor with Mr Cumbersome. But he imagined sharing them with the young man whose sneer, so he thought, had now transformed into a smile.