This story is based on the youth of the Duke de Richleau who then bore his father’s second title, the Count de Quesnoy (Or Armand to his close friends).
It starts in the early 1890’s when Armand is eighteen years old.
His Father, the Duke was in his forty sixth year and the family were living in the little town of Jvanets, Russia; now Ukraine. http://www.jewishgen.org/ukraine/GEO_town.asp?id=333
His mother died in 1888.
Armand had grey eyes flecked with spots of yellow and above them were a pair of’ ‘Devil’s Eyebrow’s’ tapered up towards his temples.
Angela Syveton was nineteen years old, English and had been married to a Frenchman for six months; she already detested him. He was Gabriel Syveton. Armand was keen to seduce her.
The French Monarchist council were looking to restore the monarchy and De Richleau (senior) seemed to be the peoples favourite, however he did not wish for this high office.
In the meantime Armand was planning to join the French Army. His ambition was to make Francois the Duc de Vendome, King.
The big news in 1894 (and this is a true story) was that a man by the name of Alfred Dreyfus - A French artillery officer was accused of betraying France by passing on War Office secrets. Against all the evidence he was found guilty and deported to the Devil’s Island - French Guiana. Major Picquart was Alfred’s was his immediate chief and he himself believed Alfred to be innocent. It was generally believed that that senior military men were covering up the truth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Dreyfus
Picquart lost his job as head of the statistical section and was due to be sent to Tunisia in the hope that he would be shot there during the fighting. DeQuesnoy was furious.
Angela expresses an ‘interest’ in Armand.
Armand was posted to Madagascar as part of his ‘Officer training’. During his stay he came in contact with Witch Doctors & advanced Occultists. (Black & White Magicians). The learning of this subject matter helped him to get through the rigours of his posting.
When Armand returns home to France, senior officials inform him that his next posting is to St Cyr, the Military Academy Cavalry.
Armand is appointed as Chief Instructor on the cavalry side and it’s no coincidence that the Duc de Vendome just happens to be a member of the class. The powers that be want Armand to keep an eye on the ‘Future king’ and guide him through his training.
There were strong feelings in France to overthrow the Republic and restore the Monarchy. A meeting of Royalist sympathisers were being held privately. The Duc de Vendome was there and all seemed to be going well until a group of Republicans and police raided the venue.. A huge battle ensued and a subsequent newspaper headline reported that the Duc had been killed and a reward of 500 Louis would be paid for information leading to the apprehension of Armand.
Armand escapes to the Syveton’s residence. Gabriel Syveton announce’s that the Prince is still alive. He has also heard news of what the authorities have planned for him; “ You will have heard of , The Man in the Iron Mask. Dumas wrote a novel based on his sad history. He was the twin brother of Louis X1V and fearing that when he was old enough disaffected nobles might start a civil war by persuading him to claim the crown, Cardinal Richelieu (Note the different spelling) had him brought up in great secrecy and as he grew up the very image of the King, Louis from fear of a plot to use the resemblance, had his head locked into an iron helmet and kept him a prisoner for the rest of his life in the castle on the Ile St Marguerite. They now intend to do a similar thing but in this case it is to be a hinged leather contraption with a lock under the ear on one side”. A plan is immediately set to rescue him. Approval is given for Angela & Armand to see the Prince in prison so that they can say their farewells before he is shipped out. The officer in charge at the prison is a Colonel Roux. He allows them 15 minutes to talk to the Prince with his mask off. (Big mistake) This gives Armand enough time to hypnotise Roux whilst using cards to tell his fortune.
This is where Armand and the Prince change places. Armand is now in prison with the mask on and the Prince leaves with Angela. She realises that that it is extremely likely that she will never see Armand again.
Armand is soon shifted from the prison and ‘The man in the mask’ has now also become the man in the Crate as he is locked into a sort of portable wooden crate 6 feet by seven feet square which contains a bed, washstand, slop pail and cupboard that could be used as a table. The whole thing could be picked up and transported by road and sea.
Armand(obviously) has to keep his mask on so that they can’t notice the switch. So he tells Roux (in a Prince like voice) that he is declining to remove his mask as a form of protest. Roux decides that it’s up to him. Roux also tells the Prince that he is being shipped to French Guiana (Which is sandwiched between Suriname and Brazil). The actual landing place turns out to be,’Devil’s Island’ (which is roughly 30 miles from Cayenne – The capital of French Guiana). Devil’s Island also turns out to be the place where Alfred Dreyfus had been interred for four & a half years.
When the ship docks on the island and the crew are moving towards the next prison, Armand decides that once he is interred in this prison he will never get out and so decides to make a big jump into the sea. He manages to avoid the shark infested waters and swim to a yacht that was moored nearby. The master of the yacht was a Mr Channock Van Ryn.
The French authorities pull up alongside the yacht and demand their prisoner back. Ryn, however declines as the scenario together with the awful appearance of Armand replete with a grotesque mask look so inhuman. Ryn is the son of a very rich American Banker; so rather than cause a diplomatic incident the French go away but promise to return soon with more senior personnel.
In the meantime Armand tells Van Ryn his story. Ryn sympathises and agrees to tell the French that the prisoner threw himself overboard and the sharks ate him (rather than spend the rest of his life locked up). Naturally the French search the yacht but can’t recognise the ‘new crewman’ less mask and greased up as a stoker with all his hair shaved off.
Roux has to admit that Armand was not there and they reluctantly go away.
Van Ryn & Armand become very close and Start to cruise the South America’s. By chance, Van Ryn receives a telegram that his uncle has died. This gives Armand the opportunity to take over the vacant position…..in Paris. Van Ryn will also be able to work from Paris.
Armand is keen to join the Freemasons in order to find out who is controlling the fanatics that would like to see Church and State overthrown. Armand believes generally believe that the English Freemasons are mainly non-political and generally concerned with charitable works but some of the others are totally corrupt.
By joining the French Freemasons he believes that he might be able to pick up enough information to damn,’General Andre’. One of the main ring leaders.
Angela Syveton and Armand are working out a way to get their marriage annulled but are frustrated at the hopeless situation.
Several months later Armand happens to meet up with one of his Masonic colleagues (Jean Bidegain) who is very much down on his luck; drinking too much Absinth despite the fact that he has little money. Bidegain is the Principal Assistant to the Secretary General and has access to the ‘Fiches’ for which he is responsible. (The Fiches are slips of paper which give details of denunciations that he receives about the Catholics).
The Secretary General is very mean and pays Bidegain a pittance.
Armand suggests that he has power though by putting a fiche on the top of the file or even destroying twenty at a time. On a bigger scale he could pass on information to the ‘Ligue de la Patrie Francaise’. Bidegain eagerly agree’s and an amount of money was agreed for the passing over of the Fiches.
A large amount of Fiches were forthcoming and a corresponding amount of money went to swell the coffers of Monsier Bidegain.
Gabriel Syveton is found dead. He appears to have held the steel paper knife to his chest and fallen on it. (In reality he was found dead at his home in Neuilly sur Seine, asphyxiated by gas from its chimney)
(Taken from the Arrow Paperback)
Page 134 - Armand states, “that if the students (including the Duc) were anything like I was when I was at St Cyr, they will all have their ‘Grisettes’ (A French working-class girl or young woman). The original meaning was French, a cheap grey dress fabric, grisette, from gris, gray;
Page 143 - Armand uses a recent invention from his pocket – A flat flask-like case with a small bulb in its top, which on pressing a button connected with a battery and gave out a beam of electric light. (If only the i-phone had been invented!!!)
Page 157 – DW mentions, Charles Maurass who was a pagan. Yet another reference to DW’s Pagan sympathies
Page 356 Petit Blue - Old-fashioned word for telegram. They used to be printed on a blue paper
Page 378 Angela uses a strange term which I’ve never heard of before. Whilst pondering how she (A married woman) and Armand can become a couple without damaging their reputations, she tells him that she is quite willing to “throw her shoes over the moon” . After all, why should I not put your happiness and mine before that of my parents. They have had their lives, whereas we still have the best part of ours before us”.
Page 382 Syveton was a real person.
Dennis Wheatley makes no effort to hide the fact that this book was based heavily on one of his favourite authors Alexandre Dumas. (The Man in the Iron Mask)
Before starting this book I thought that it was going to be slightly slow & boring. i.e. It didn’t include the main characters as we know from the ‘The Devil Rides Out’ with the exception of the Duke de Richleau who was still a teenager then. It was going back into the dim dark past with people we didn’t really know. I had however forgotten that this book was written in 1957 and not the 19th century and so the story telling talent of DW was more than capable of making us turn the pages at a rapid rate. The storyline moved along really well and the way that Wheatley integrates the fiction of the book with the actual events of the time is masterly.
The part I remember really well is where Armand hypnotises the prison guard whilst he was supposredly reading the cards and their influences to him. I didn't see it coming!
One minor criticism – I found the ending slightly predictable and convenient - I did see it coming!
All in all though an extremely well put together story line which keep’s the reader hanging on to every word. Well worth reading again.