PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
To the Editor of the Diário de Notícias
I am placing in your hands my personal account of an extraordinary affair in which I became involved in my capacity as a doctor, and I ask that you publish - in whatever way you deem appropriate - at least the substance of what I set before you.
So grave, so veiled in mystery, so seemingly steeped in criminality are the events I am about to describe, that I feel it is vital to make the facts available to the general public, as a way of providing the only key to unlocking what seems to me a truly horrifying drama, even though I was only present at one act, and know nothing of the preceding scenes, nor how it may end.
Three days ago, I was travelling back to Lisbon from the outskirts of Sintra in the company of F., a friend of mine, at whose house I had been staying for a few days.
We were riding horses kept by F. on his estate and which were due to be returned to Sintra by a servant who had set off for Lisbon the previous evening.
It was late afternoon as we crossed the moors. The melancholy of both the hour and the place coloured our mood, and we gazed silently about us as we trotted slowly along.
About halfway between São Pedro and Cacém - at a deserted spot whose name I do not know because I so seldom pass that way - we came across a coach stopped in the road.
It was a coupé, painted dark green and black and drawn by a pair of chestnut horses.
The coachman, who wore no uniform, was standing in front of the horses with his back to us.
Two fellows were bent over the wheels on the side of the coach we had to pass, and seemed to be intently studying some detail of the steering mechanism.
A fourth individual, also with his back to us, was standing near the ditch on the other side of the road, where he appeared to be looking for something, perhaps a stone to place beneath the wheel.
‘It’s all down to the disgraceful state of this road,’ observed my friend. ‘The axle’s probably broken or else a wheel’s come adrift from the hub.’
By this time, we were passing between the three men I mentioned, and F.’s conjectures had barely left his lips when the horse I was riding veered suddenly and fell to the ground.
The man beside the ditch, and to whom I had paid little attention, being too engrossed in studying the stationary carriage, had caused my horse to fall by snatching at its reins and tugging as hard as possible, while, simultaneously, driving the animal in the opposite direction with a hefty kick to its flank.
My mount, an inexperienced yearling that handled poorly at the best of times, slipped and tumbled over when it made that rapid, enforced about-turn.
The unknown man gave another tug at the reins to make the horse get up and, while helping me to my feet as well, he asked with some concern if I had hurt my leg, which had remained pinned beneath my horse when it fell.
He spoke in the modulated tones of the educated. The hand he offered me was smooth and delicate. A black satin mask of the kind used at masquerades covered his face, and I seem to recall that he wore a narrow black crêpe band about his hat. As demonstrated by the way he had caused my horse to fall, he was an agile and extremely strong young man.
I sprang to my feet and, before I could utter a word, I saw that during the time it had taken for me to be unseated from my horse, a scuffle had broken out between my companion and the other two individuals who had been pretending to examine the wheels and who also had their faces covered with masks like that of the man I have already described.
You may well say, sir, that this is pure pot-boiler fiction, worthy of Ponson du Terrail! But that is because life, even on the road from Sintra, can at times seem more like a novel than artistic verisimilitude can tolerate. But I am not creating art, I am recording facts.
Seeing one of men grab the bridle of his horse, F. had forced the man to let go by dealing him a blow to the head with the handle of his riding crop, which the other masked man immediately managed to wrench from his hand.
Neither of us was carrying a weapon. Nevertheless, my friend had pulled from his pocket the heavy key to the main door of his house in Sintra and, digging his spurs into his horse, he was stretching out along its neck as he attempted to use the key as a weapon to strike the head of the masked man still holding the bridle.
The fellow, however, kept a firm grip on the rearing horse with one hand, drew out a revolver with the other, and pointed it at my friend’s head, saying calmly:
The man whom F. had set upon with the riding crop had felt obliged to sit down for a few minutes, leaning against the carriage door, visibly dazed but not wounded, for F.’s riding crop was made only of light whalebone with a handle of plaited horsehair. The man had now got up from the ground and put his hat back on.
By this time, the assailant who had felled my horse and helped me to my feet was also holding a pair of small silver-handled pistols, the kind the French call coups de poing and which can pierce a door at thirty paces. He now cordially offered me his arm, saying affably:
‘It seems a far more sensible option to accept the seat I have available in the carriage than for you to continue on horseback or to have to walk from here to the pharmacy in Porcalhota dragging a bruised leg.’
I am not readily intimidated by a show of weapons. I know what a gulf lies between threatening to fire a gun and actually doing so. I could move my bruised leg easily enough and F. was riding a strong horse; we are both of us robust types; we could perhaps have held out for another ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, during which time it was highly likely, on such a heavily frequented stretch of road, that some other travellers would arrive and help us out.
I must confess, though, that I felt greatly intrigued by the very unexpectedness of this strange adventure.