“The Mysterious Card” by Cleveland Moffett, published in 1895, is a captivating tale of mystery and intrigue. The story revolves around Richard Burwell, a New Yorker, who finds himself embroiled in an inexplicable series of events during his visit to Paris. This short story is renowned for its unresolved mystery, which kept readers hooked until Moffett released its sequel, “The Mysterious Card Unveiled.” The tale is set against the backdrop of late 19th century Paris, a city teeming with charm and enigma, providing the perfect setting for the unfolding drama.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

Richard Burwell, a respectable man from New York, found himself alone in the enchanting city of Paris, missing his wife and daughter who were still visiting a friend in London. Seeking diversion, he decided to visit the renowned Folies Bergère, a place of spectacle and gaiety. During an intermission, he seated himself at a small, three-legged table in the garden, surrounded by vibrant crowds, glowing lights, and the soothing sounds of fountains.

As Burwell absorbed the scene, a strikingly elegant woman, dressed in perfect taste, caught his attention. To his astonishment, she left her companion, a gentleman wearing eyeglasses, and, with an air of mystery, placed a card on his table. The card bore French words written in purple ink. Bewildered and intrigued, Burwell’s thoughts were consumed by the message he could not decipher.

Determined to understand the card, Burwell returned to the Hôtel Continental, where he was staying. He approached the manager, asking for a translation. The manager’s reaction was one of extreme shock and hostility, demanding Burwell leave the hotel immediately without offering an explanation. Confounded, Burwell relocated to another hotel, the Hôtel Bellevue, only to encounter the same reaction from its proprietor upon seeing the card. Each attempt to decipher the card’s message led to increased hostility and rejection.

Seeking solace, Burwell met with an American friend from Boston, hoping for rational advice. However, upon seeing the card, his friend reacted with horror, abruptly ending their association under the flimsiest of pretexts. Desperate for answers, Burwell turned to a detective agency. The detective, while not providing a translation, confirmed the seriousness of the situation and promised to return the next day with more information. Instead, Burwell found himself taken to the police headquarters and subsequently imprisoned.

Through the intervention of the American Legation, Burwell was released with the condition that he leave France immediately and never return. His heart heavy with confusion and resentment, he complied, carrying the mysterious card with him to London where he reunited with his wife. His wife, fluent in French, insisted on seeing the card despite Burwell’s protests. Her reaction was no different from the others; she was appalled and declared she could no longer live with him, leaving Burwell in utter despair.

Back in New York, Burwell sought the support of his business partner, Jack Evelyth, hoping for some rational explanation. Evelyth’s response was equally dire; he read the card, turned pale, and insisted that they must end their partnership, refusing to disclose the card’s meaning. Isolated and desperate, Burwell locked the card away, unable to destroy it, yet dreading its existence.

Driven by an insatiable need to uncover the truth, Burwell decided to learn French. He hired a tutor and dedicated himself to mastering the language, hoping it would shed light on the enigmatic message. Each lesson was a step closer to the answer he craved, but also a step deeper into his obsession.

Months passed, and Burwell’s progress in French was steady. He felt a mixture of anticipation and dread as he neared the day he could finally understand the card. The mystery had become a part of him, a dark companion that he both loathed and clung to.

One afternoon, less than a week after his arrival in New York, as he crossed Twenty-third Street on the way to his French teacher, he saw a carriage rolling up Broadway. In the carriage was a face that caught his attention like a flash. As he looked again, he recognized the woman who had been the cause of his undoing. Instantly, he sprang into another cab and ordered the driver to follow after. He found the house where she was living and called there several times, only to receive the same reply that she was too engaged to see anyone. Then, he was told she was ill, and on the following day, the servant said she was much worse. Three physicians had been summoned in consultation. Burwell sought out one of these doctors and explained it was a matter of life or death that he see this woman. The doctor, a kindly man, promised to assist him.

Through the doctor’s influence, Burwell stood by the woman’s bedside that very night. She was still beautiful, though her face was worn with illness. Trembling, he leaned over her, clutching the envelope containing the mysterious card. “Do you remember me?” he asked, his voice quivering with desperation. She studied his face and finally nodded, confirming his hopes. She spoke English, a small mercy in his chaotic ordeal.

“Tell me what it means,” he implored, holding the card close to her. Her body convulsed with a terrible cough, and she fell back exhausted. Frantically, he showed her the card, begging for an explanation. With a supreme effort, she raised herself, her eyes fixed on the card. Slowly, her lips moved, but no sound emerged. Burwell leaned closer, straining to hear, but she collapsed, lifeless, before she could utter a word.

The card was blank. The writing had vanished. In that moment, Richard Burwell felt a cry of horror escape his lips. The mystery remained unsolved, and the one person who could have explained it was gone forever. He was left with nothing but a blank card and a heart full of unanswered questions.

Returning to his house, Burwell locked the blank card in his safe, but it haunted him daily. He could not escape the memory of the words he never understood, the reactions he could never fathom. It consumed his thoughts, day and night, a constant reminder of the inexplicable torment he had endured. His once orderly life was now a shadow of confusion and loss. He tried to distract himself, but nothing could pull him away from the mystery of the card. He began to question every aspect of his existence, wondering if he had unknowingly committed some grave offense. The uncertainty gnawed at him, leaving him restless and anxious. The card, once a simple piece of pasteboard, had become a symbol of his descent into despair.

Main Characters

  • Richard Burwell: The protagonist, a respectable New Yorker whose life is turned upside down by the mysterious card. His determination to uncover its meaning drives the plot forward.
  • The Mysterious Woman: A beautiful and elegant stranger who initiates the mystery by giving Burwell the card. Her identity and motives remain unclear until her death.
  • Burwell’s Wife: A fluent French speaker whose reaction to the card leads to a breakdown in their marriage, highlighting the card’s inexplicable impact.
  • Jack Evelyth: Burwell’s loyal business partner, who is deeply affected by the card’s message and insists on severing their partnership.

Themes and Motifs

  • The Power of the Unknown: The story revolves around the terror and chaos that arise from not understanding the message on the card. This theme highlights how the unknown can dominate and destroy lives.
  • Isolation and Despair: Burwell’s journey is marked by increasing isolation as he is abandoned by friends, family, and colleagues due to the card. This motif underscores the emotional and psychological toll of unresolved mysteries.
  • Cultural and Linguistic Barriers: The inability to understand the French inscription on the card symbolizes broader issues of miscommunication and cultural barriers, leading to severe consequences.
  • The Unseen Forces: The story hints at unseen, possibly supernatural forces at play, creating an atmosphere of suspense and foreboding.

Writing Style and Tone

Cleveland Moffett employs a straightforward yet suspenseful narrative style in “The Mysterious Card.” His language is clear and descriptive, creating vivid images of Paris and the unfolding drama. The tone is one of escalating tension, mirroring Burwell’s increasing desperation. Moffett masterfully builds suspense through the reactions of the characters to the card, each response more intense than the last, without ever revealing the card’s contents. This technique keeps readers engrossed, mirroring Burwell’s own obsession with the mystery.

Moffett’s use of dialogue is particularly effective in conveying the characters’ emotions and advancing the plot. The brief yet impactful conversations between Burwell and the other characters heighten the sense of urgency and bewilderment. The story’s unresolved ending, with the card’s message still a mystery, leaves readers in a state of suspense, eager for the sequel. Moffett’s ability to maintain this tension throughout the narrative is a testament to his skill as a storyteller.

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Categories: Book Summary