The story of Fortunato I dismissed almost instantly as pure phantasm. There was no family named Fortunato in the city, nor had Montressor spoken before of such a man – though when he spoke, it was with the deepest and most vehement hatred of him, such that I shuddered to think – for the old man’s mood had been angry and volatile for so long, now – what he should do if he had any such enemy living, and was not kept under constant watch. For in some things, Montressor’s mind was still as cutting and agile as ever: he spoke with the same impassioned fluidity of old, but he knew not to whom he was speaking; each crevice and cranny of the old house was still known to him, yet it had been over half a year since I could trust him outside of its doors; he would in a day remember events from fifty years ago and forget the events of the day before. In time, the preposterous imaginings of the old man grew far more bizarre – ominious, confused, and at times disturbing despite his growing bewilderment and vitrol towards the world – and his story of vengeance in the crypts below the palazzo was all but blotted out of my mind, replaced with more trials and tribulations of the old man’s dwindling life, such as a night spent tending to a detailed delusion that he was dead already, with centipedes crawling about under his skin. After that, I took the advice of the local pharmacist, and Montressor grew quiet at last.
In the bitterest dark of the winter – in fact, just after Carnival – that the old man caught influenza, then pneumonia, and finally died, though not quite peacefully. More people came to his funeral than had come to see him in the last year. They toasted to his memory – to a friendship that they pretended to fondly remember, though all the while I watched, knowing what the late, great Montressor had thought of them in his final months, and saw nothing on their faces but condescension and smirking deceit.
Then they were gone, and I was left alone with the crumbling wreck that was the manse of the Montressors; fit, I thought for a few wild moments, only for burning to the ground. Yet it was mine now, for the old man had no closer kin, and loathe as he was to allow it to pass out of the family proper, he would have been horrified to see it leave his bloodline entirely. How he had thought I would manage to keep the moldering skeleton in one piece was entirely beyond me – had there been money for the necessary repairs, it would already have been spent on them – so I resolved all at once to sell it, crush that last ounce of patrician vanity, the only legacy of a dead man, take whatever I could get, and make a new life far away, in a land where my connection to the Montressors raised no eyebrows and my name carried with it no shame.
And yet, as I lay listening to the rats scratching through the walls of the newly emptied house, alone save for my candles, I could not sleep.
I did not miss the old man’s waking nightmares, his mirages cut from whole cloth, the way he had laughed smugly at the world outside, seemingly unaware that his lot in life had diminished to little but delusions of grandeur – but it had covered the noise of the questing rats and the wind whistling about the house. It had kept the shadowed portraits at bay, and the thousand morbid fantasies that the night bears to a waking brain – and I could not go on in that house, not without knowing the answer to the thought that had begun in that night to gnaw at my soul.
Surely, the old man had only imagined it all – far stranger things had he told me, of a woman buried alive, of guilty murderers who heard the hearts of their victims beating on and on even after death until the drumming drove them insane, of secret signs and symbols, of pirate codes and buried treasure, of portraits that stole the youth of their subjects, of vengeance extracted after years through slow poison, of the tortures of the inquisition, and of impenetrable mystic rites that conferred upon the recipient of a draught of lamb’s blood the ability to read men’s souls and find precious metals in the earth. Next to such fuel for dreadful fantasy, such a thing should have quickly been forgotten.
And yet, I had not forgotten, for the old man’s eyes had flashed so, the spittle had flown from his lips, the cold and unholy light of vengeance had lit up his whole countenance, the words fell from his lips with an inviting surety: he had felt sure, I thought, that I should celebrate with him his great victory over the oafish, the drunken, the bumbling Fortunato! I should feel in the marrow of my bones that the insult to our house by the smug aficionado could not be borne – that Montressor’s course of action was the only which was right, which was just, which would preserve the dignity of those who, no matter how poor and how decayed, should never suffer such impudence against them without swift and terrible retribution. The untold numbers of our ancestors – his, not mine, though at the moment he had extended to me the hand of acknowledgement, perhaps not even remembering who I was – should turn over and over again in their crypts, should have haunted him until he destroyed that serpent, that buffoon, that motley bedecked dunce for daring to –
I had not the least idea what insult Fortunato was supposed to have offered my recently deceased cousin, nor any belief that such a man had ever existed, save as a confused compilation of all Montressor’s most abhorrent acquaintances, a face to attribute every imagined slight of his youth – a face that he had conjured in the absence of his so-called friends during his slow decline, and hung upon the hated visage every bewildered memory of the indignity that he had suffered – old, childless, poor and yet too proud to do aught but rot in it, draining the dregs of the family fortune that my own father’s cowardice had barred me from with each pipe of Amontillado! No, I no longer had to smile and bear the old man’s diatribe with placid blandishments – I was free, free from the long-forgotten heraldry, from the often translated motto – for there was nothing left of the Montressors! I was soon to wash my hands of it all! I resolved to go as far as I could, to Britain or Austria, for the company of millionaires reviled by the rest of the town for their gauche and presumptuous ways was far preferable to the poisoned insincerity of genteel poverty and a slow, agonizing slide into the darkness of ignorance and obscurity, pitied by all and valued by no one! No, I had no sympathy left for the old man – for he knew not what it meant to be truly, and honestly, despised for circumstances he could not change, nor what it was to scrabble for acceptance, to curse his paternity at every sly smile, at every moment of condescension, knowing that it was impossible to gain that which he so desperately sought – for should you please anyone, you are “well mannered, considering your birth,” and should you give offense, you are instantly lowered – for who should truly consider one so misbegotten worthy even of their anger? Even in his old age, when I was willing to aid him in his illness, the old man had always had a self-righteous look about him, as if to say “I give you the crumbs off my meager table only so your mouth may water at what little more I have,” the cruelty of one beggar to another. It was only as his mind had begun to fade and his fair-weather friends, his creditors and his connoisseurs, had abandoned him, that I, my ancestry forgotten, became his bossom companion, his only confidante. But for an accident of birth, I should have shared equally in the name, the reputation of the Montressors – and I should not have drank and gambled myself into poverty and obscurity! Yet he sought to give me his bleakness, his desolation, his macabre mockery of gentility and his obsession with a dead era of nobility and honor! How then, should I believe in his fearful chimeras, why then, should I lay awake near-drowning in the impression of his voice, his boundless arrogance, his certainty of purpose?
Why should I shiver at the thought of a dead man in the crypts below? There were any number of dead men, for the crypts had been used as an ossuary for many years before my cousin had taken possession of the house. Rationality told me that they were naught but bones, that being aware, so suddenly, of where they lay unburied underground, behind perhaps only a few doors, did not change this – for no ill had come of them in the past decades, and no ill would come of them tonight. Yet it seemed I heard, in the voice of Montressor, hushed and yet gleeful, as he was wont to be when he told me of his superstitious exploits or his exaggerated prowess in revenge, the words, “No harm has yet come to a Montressor from the remains of his ancestors.”
I lay awake as the candle guttered: I thought that Fortunato would not have died quickly, even bricked up in the vaults. He first would have exhausted himself, testing his chains and shouting, hoping fiercely that it was all a fit of dark humor on the part of my cousin, that he had now been well and truly humiliated for whatever offense he had given, that any moment now he would be released… as hours passed, that perhaps someone would hear him beyond the catacombs, that he should be rescued by a steward lost in search of some rare wine, that he would miraculously be encountered. If his chains had been long enough, he would have tested the wall – he would have clawed at it until his fingers bled, his nails worn down to stubs – he would have thrown his weight against it, tried to break the shackles, tried to knock the bricks loose before they set – known that the bricks were what would kill him quickest, had they been properly set, for soon he would run out of air –
No! For the last time, there was not – never had been – a man by the name of Fortunato! Therefore, no man had suffocated alone in the vaults of the manse that I now owned, nor starved, nor died of fear and despair and betrayal; therefore there was no body hanging, shackled, behind a wall, mute evidence to the depravity of my line; therefore I must snuff the candle so that I may sleep through the night and wake in the morning to make the preparations to sell the wasting pile as fast as I may. Yet when I reached for the candle, my hand was shaking.
All at once I stormed up from the bedclothes, candle in hand, and was halfway to my chamber door before the freezing stones against my feet became unbearable. I dressed with undue haste in some of my warmest clothes, and then, candle in hand, I descended to the depths of the vaults.
It was indeed as damp and cold as I had thought: nitre hung from the walls and the ceiling like frost stiffened moss, and my breath fanned out in front of my face like a silent shroud. Everywhere there were racks, filled haphazardly with empty bottles of wine stacked one upon the other, and glass fragments of brilliant colors that would have dignified a cathedral glittered on the floor. As I searched amongst the wreckage for a torch, I cursed the biting air and my cousin’s drunken, wastrel heart – then, warming my hands one at a time by the new flame that threw the lurking shadows of the catacombs into stark relief, I blew out my candle and placed it upon the steps.
The catacombs of the Montressors were vast, descending deep beneath the Palazzo in long, winding passages cut into the rock of the hill beneath – vaults and caverns older by far than the Montressors. It would be far too easy to lose myself amidst the walls of piled bones, the emptied barrels and flagons, which grew only more deeply encrusted with white nitre as I descended yet another stair, passed under another series of low arches, and began to come upon the small bones of rats mixed in with the powdery debris of human existence. The air became oppressive – not yet foul, but heavy with the weight of the earth above me, the dust that stirred at my footsteps, the ever-present smoke of my torch and the silence that, save for my footsteps and the hiss and crackle of my light, reigned inviolate. Though I knew it to be only a trick of the mind, I fancied myself able to see a deeper weight to the shadows, as if they had passed beyond mere darkness, out of the reach of my torch, and into some life and animation of their own – as if they moved of their own accord, a sort of antithesis to light rather than it’s mere absence. As I stood and the faint, wet echo of my footsteps died away, the silence grew louder, until I felt that my heartbeat must be as loud as a drum, my breath the sound of a whirlwind, the very blood in my veins the roaring of the ocean.
I should be pleased when I was finally quit of this place, and all the morbid fascination that it contained. Let some foolish scholar, some young pomp pleased with his own fortune inherit this gloom, this reproachful silence!
Gripping the torch in fingers that felt raw with cold, I descended once more to the lowest level of the crypts, far below the bed of the river. The air had grown from merely still to actively foul, and the flame of my torch sank low against the wood. Although there seemed no reason for any rational being to enter, these chambers were also filled with bones - in the smallest, they were stacked on three sides and scattered across the floor, surrounding a curious wall, where some bones were clumsily stacked across three feet of space between a pair of rough hewn pillars was sealed with badly mortared stones.
Though I did not remember all that my departed cousin had said on the matter, I knew without a doubt that this was the place. Here were the bones of the quiet dead, thrown down to clear the way for his delusions. There was a dark niche fit only for hiding the most gruesome of secrets – here too was the foul air that would quickly kill a man with a chronic shortness of breath, the oppressive darkness and the silence that might drive him mad with fright when he recognized the onrushing pace of his own death. How must he have gasped, fighting to breathe against the crushing weight of the earth above him, when my own breathing was even now a little labored? How must his heart have beat its way out of his chest as he saw the face of one he counted friend distended by the madness of vengeance for some unforgotten ill? How must he have died, despairing, alone save for the nameless, faceless bones complacent in their tomb, filled with the body and yet empty of the soul of the house of the Montressors –
With a cry I threw down my torch and seized the first object to hand – a trowel thrown down amidst the bones – and I hacked at the wall. I would prove that this was nothing but a phantasm, brought on by the disturbed mind of my mad cousin! I would open the wall and see only a dark passageway, bricked up to stop the foul vapors from rising, the memory of which had prompted Montressor to elaborate upon his invented revenge! I would have peace, would sleep at night in the house I now owned, would, by destroying the very foundations of his delusions, exorcize the ghost of the last of the Montressors!
The masonry crumbled beneath the tip of my trowel, never having been dry enough to set, and the first block fell almost upon my feet. I could see nothing beyond it in the dim light, so I yanked out first one stone, then another, until they came crashing down in a ragged wave and I jumped back, seized my torch, and thrust it into the opening, already giving a little cry of exultation as the light reached smooth granite, empty of all save a rusty band of what must be metal, no, two, a pair of chains depending from them –
My cry of exultation gave way to a gasp of horror as I saw the truth. The years had not quite mummified him, though the nitre must have to some degree counteracted the damp – in places the sagging skin peeled back from the bones, and there was no way of knowing , save for the rags of the oversized garb he wore, that the corpse had once been a large and fleshy man. Yet I knew – I knew it with a certainty that to this day shakes my bones, that still causes me to see in my mind the skeletal, half-rotted face with hair that might pass for a living man’s hanging down around it – that this was the mortal remains of Fortunato, bound in chains to the stone wall. His cap bore three bells: it must once have been motley.