"Skolinski shivered. Had it not been for the very real horror emanating from the scene, he might have thought he was the victim of an illusion. The emotions stirring within him, however, were such as to oblige him to take the situation seriously."
A deeply religious man, he was nevertheless not one of those who are inclined to see evil wherever they look. Yet here in this room, the professor sensed there lurked a manic force.
Was this force, this horror, this tangible, implacable menace—was this the work of the ... ? He discovered with a shock of fear that he could not bring himself to pronounce the word; he was unable to overcome the revulsion it inspired in him. Had he already so far lost control of his reason as to be a prey to the most vulgar superstition?
“Devil,” he breathed in an access of sheer will power. “Devil, devil, devilish, diabolical,” he chanted as if in an attempt to break the circle of fear. When, however, he became aware of himself sitting on the edge of the bed and repeating with trembling lips what sounded very much like a challenge, he was suddenly ten times more afraid.
Had someone whispered the words in his ear? Was that what they had been trying to achieve? He felt an incomprehensible panic gaining hold of him, and more than ever he feared for his self-control. He could not move. He could only perch there on the bed, petrified, like a bird that has been hypnotized by a snake and cannot fly away.
The two or three minutes that he spent in this position were probably the longest of his whole life, characterized by a ghastly feeling of helplessness, a tightness in the throat, total rigidity of the body with every muscle locked in horror, and an awareness of being doomed to his fate with no hope of salvation.
Then, with a supreme effort, he tore himself from his immobility and made a dive for the exit. He thought he saw something burst from one corner and hurl itself upon him, but he did not look back.
When the door slammed shut behind him he was already half-way across the vestibule, his over-strained nerves launching him on a headlong flight through the dark apartments until, utterly spent, he leant heavily against a wall and sank shaking to the floor.
Who was it, then? The professor held his breath and waited. The other person, too, waited in silence. The professor went on—and the other went on. The professor quickened his pace. The other followed suit, his breathing now distinctly audible. When Skolinski turned sharply and entered another room, his pursuer turned likewise. Yet there was something incoherent, inane, almost crazy about all this. The stranger’s movements were hesitant, ill-coordinated, abrupt and at the same time tentative, like those of a small child.
Was it in fact a person? The professor felt a fresh wave of revulsion and terror wash over him. Suddenly, a thin, sticky hand seized his wrist, just as the owner of the hand was shaken by a violent bout of coughing. Skolinski knew that cough; he had heard it before, on the train, and he guessed that the figure beside him was the prince. Meanwhile the stricken grandee, tightening his already convulsive grip as he struggled to control his breathing, buried his face in the professor’s waistcoat.
What was the connection between this sinister story and the mysterious contractions of the towel? It was a question that Gregory could not answer. Only the prince was in a position to resolve that enigma, and possibly even he lacked the key to it. […]
“For a long time, I knew nothing about it. His Grace kept the door locked and forbade anybody to go in there, on the grounds that Francis would be back with us soon. Actually, if you want to know, something stopped me going near the place. I suppose I didn’t see it inside it again for a year or so. It was some time before I noticed that His Grace was concealing something. He was scared! At night he couldn’t sleep and used to prowl about in the vicinity of the Old Kitchen, though he never went in. He sort of circled round it, keeping his distance. Occasionally he dropped a hint that something was going on, but I thought he was wandering. Until one day he came to find me: ‘Gregory,’ he said, ‘I want to show you something, but you mustn’t mention it to anyone.’ He took me up to the Old Kitchen and opened the door. Without going in, he pointed to the towel and said, ‘Look at the draught in here! See how it makes that towel move ... it’s moving, isn’t it?’”
—Possessed, Chapter 4 [Trans. Underwood]