I was a wealthy gentleman going about the business of wealthy gentlemen. I was up late at night after a long day of walking around the grounds of my estate in the fog, and I had taken one of my chief delights for the night: a long pour from an old bottle of wine out of my extensive collection. I had thought to have a quiet night, being quite tired and in a melancholy mood given the fog and the generally sorrowful state of my setting. However, to my surprise, I heard the slightest knock upon my door.
I rarely get visitors to my estate and even those that do come to visit rarely come at such a late hour, so it was with great astonishment and trepidation that I walked to the door and peered outside. And such a strange thing I saw there that I can hardly describe it to you. Still, I will do my best. I saw, there on my doorstep, a small man dressed all in rags with a peculiar look about him and somehow an accent that marks him out as a terrible ethnic stereotype. To my great wonder and surprise, the man greeted me by name. Though I admit that I could not recognize the fellow, I took him to be someone I had met before and so invited him into my estate and offered him a place by my fire.
For a long time, silence fell between us before the man finally began to speak. “I am told you are the lord of this manor?”
“Indeed sir, I am” I responded.
“And is this not the house that has been in the possession of your family for generations?”
“Why, sir, it is indeed! Perhaps you have heard of my family name?”
“I have! That is why I am here. Your great grandfather had a debt to settle with me, and I’m afraid I have come to collect.”
At this, I started to laugh and nearly choked on the excellent vintage I had been drinking. The man was scarcely older than me, and my great grandfather had been dead for many years.
“Sir,” I started, “That cannot possibly be true.”
“Indeed it is!” He responded, “Have you never wondered how your great grandfather became so suddenly fantastically wealthy that you yourself have never had to get a job and instead spend all your time drinking port and walking around in the fog?”
I admit it had crossed my mind once or twice. While people I knew had been going to universities and getting degrees, my chief occupations had been melancholy walks, drinking old wines, and moodily starting into the fireplace. I had assumed for years that he made his fortune in oil or railroads or any of the other respectable American institutions. Having no response for the man, I simply asked him a question.
“And who are you to say that my great grandfather, God rest his soul, has a debt with you?”
“Why, I am The Collector, good man! Has that not been obvious?” And with that he produced an extravagantly large piece of paper out of his jacket and, unfolding it carefully, handed it to me.
It read as follows:
I the undersigned have made a deal with The Collector.
In a year’s time, I shall become fantastically wealthy and never want of any luxury. I shall also have an everlasting collection of fine wines in my vaults at all times and a large and imposing manor the grounds of which shall be especially spooky in winter or on foggy days. This wealth shall stay in my family and continue as long as one condition is met.
The condition set out by the collector is this: each firstborn son in my family shall have an heir to inherit this great wealth.
Any failure to meet this condition shall result in the loss of all wealth and the forfeiture of the soul of whoever is last in my line.
This contract was signed in what I assume to be red ink by my great grandfather’s hand. I read with great dismay the words that were written therein. By a twist of inopportune fate, I had no heir. The inopportune fate is that I had, like most wealthy gentlemen in these tales, committed the most ghastly crime of murder the year before and had struck down my wife before entombing her in the walls of the manor. Somehow the women never do well in such stories, but that is a matter I will not dwell upon, for now, I began to realize that due to my crime I was most undone.
Oh, sorrow and grief that I possessed at my crime! Given the investigative standards of the law enforcement of my day, my deed had been left undiscovered, and I thought I had made a clean break with the past. Oh, but how fate will conspire against a man. I now realized that my crime had indeed come back to me and that I should never be free of my guilt. I looked down at the contract again trying to find some way out, but there was none. A great passion then overtook me then, and I grabbed the nearest wine bottle and lunged at The Collector hoping to strike him down then and there. He neatly sidestepped my lunge and I nearly fell headfirst into the fire. I was able to stop myself, but the forward motion of my attack sent the coattails of my fine jacket right into the coals where they immediately caught fire.
I was able to remove the jacket and cast it to the floor, but then, to my dismay, the carpet caught fire as well. And oh, the flames did spread themselves upon the floor in a neat ring around myself and The Collector. I turned to face this demon once more, but where he had stood but a moment before, now there was nothing but dancing flames. I, the manor, the wine collection, and all my fantastic wealth were destined for the fire. At this point, I became sure that my poor soul was destined for another kind of flame, and so with what little time I had left, I took it upon myself to write my tale. I have penned this missive, tied it to a wine bottle, and thrown it out of a window. I hope that I have cast it far enough from the flames that it is not consumed by them.
May you learn from this tragedy that the evil you do will always come back to haunt you!