part #9 of The Vampire Chronicles Series
"I FOUND a paved path to the foot of the stairs. Allen had mentioned it to me on the phone but I had forgotten it. I had forgotten the flowers as well, and how tranquil and sweet they looked in the light from the windows.
"I came to the bottom of the marble steps. He was up there, merely looking down at me.
" 'Need I ask your permission to come up?' I asked.
" 'Oh, I have great plans for you,' he replied. 'Come up and I shall put them into execution. ¡¯
" 'Is that cordial?' I asked. 'Your voice puts me in doubt. I'm curious to see the place but wouldn't inconvenience you. ¡¯
" 'Then come up, by all means. Perhaps tonight is not the night for me to torment you. ¡¯
" 'Now you surprise me with your agreeable tone,' I said. I came up the stairs. 'But is it certain that you do mean to torment me?¡¯
"He stood back, in the bath of light, and at once I saw that he was more definitely a she this evening. She had darkened her lips with red and worked a line of black kohl around each eye to make herself more bewitching. Her gleaming black hair was a raiment. And the actual garments she wore were a simple long-sleeve tunic shirt of red velvet and red velvet pants as featureless and simple. Around her small waist was a belt of onyx cameos, clasped in front, a real prize of a thing, each cameo being some two inches in size.
"She was barefoot, and her feet were beautiful with gold painted nails. Her fingernails were painted gold too.
" 'You're beautiful, my friend,' I said, feeling wonderful with excitement. 'Is it permitted to tell you this?' I bit my tongue before I said, I hadn't expected to find it so. What I remembered from that long ago night was something harsher and more dreadful.
"She gestured for me to enter the house.
" 'Of course it's permitted,' she responded in her low voice as I moved past her, which might have done well for a man or a woman, and as she smiled now her face was radiant. 'Look around your fine house, Little Gentleman,' she said.
" 'Ah, "little," ' I quoted it back to her. 'Why does everyone refer to me as little?' I asked.
" 'No doubt because you're so very tall,' she replied amiably, 'and because your face is so very innocent. I told you once I had a theory about you. My theory has proved correct. You've learnt more and you've grown to a great height. Both developments are splendid. ¡¯
" 'Then you approve of me. ¡¯
" 'How could I not?' she replied. 'But take your time. Look around at your handiwork. ¡¯
"It was difficult for me to look at anything but her. However, I did as she had asked and found the room stunning. Its white marble floor was brilliantly clean. And the deep green velvet couches I'd purchased from afar were sumptuous, as I'd hoped. The gilded torch¨¨res, positioned between the many windows, shone their light up on the outrageous gilded rafters. There were low marble tables before the couches and their accompanying Grecian swan-backed chairs.
"And then there was her desk and her chair, same as they were before, only polished up a bit it seemed.
"And the new fireplace, a black iron Franklin stove of great proportions, with only a heap of gray ash in it tonight, thanks to the warm weather.
"The curving stairs to the second floor was a heavily carved bronze created with pivots, and very handsome too. Beneath it was the only bookcase in the place, small, of heavily carved wood, neat and crammed with thin paperback volumes.
"There was nothing here that wasn't lovely in its own right.
"At the same time, there was something completely wrong with it, something grotesque, impure, out of keeping with the night noises of the swamp. Had my adolescent madness done this or her total insanity?
"Even the cup on her desk was a golden chalice with jewels embedded in it. It looked rather like the ciborium used by the priest at Mass for the wafers of the Blessed Sacrament.
" 'And so it was,' she remarked, 'before a little thief sold it to me in the streets of New Orleans. It's still consecrated, don't you suppose?¡¯
" 'Really,' I replied, taking note that she had read my thoughts. I saw two bottles of red wine, already uncorked, sitting beside the ciborium.
" 'Those are for you, King Tarquin,' she said. She gestured for me to walk about more if I wanted to. I did so.
" 'Ah, you know the derivation of my name,' I said. 'Not many people do. ' Clumsily I tried to match her eloquence.
" 'King Tarquin of ancient Rome,' she said, smiling. 'He ruled before the beginning of the Republic. ¡¯
" 'And do you think he was real or merely a legend?' I asked.
" 'Oh, most real in old poetry,' she replied, 'and most real in my mind in that over these three years I have so often thought of you. You have done well by my fantasies. I don't entirely know why I crave this remote paradise, but crave it I do, and you have restored my little house and made it splendid. I slip away from other palaces where I'm too uncomfortably known and come here with no loss of comfort. Why, your men even come to clean this house by day. They mop the marble and polish it afterwards. They clean the windows. I never expected this much attention. ¡¯
" 'Yes, I told them to do these things. They think me quite the madman, I must tell you. ' Was this me talking?
" 'I'm sure they do, but that's the common price of all wild eccentricity, and small eccentricity isn't worth a damn, is it?¡¯
" 'I don't know,' I said, laughing. 'I haven't settled that one yet. ¡¯
"I saw a big long heap of dark mink thrown over one of the couches -- a bedspread, a wrap, something like that it had to be.
" 'Is that for cold nights?' I asked.
" 'Oh, yes,' she said, 'and also for flying. It's fiercely cold in the clouds. ¡¯
" 'You fly?' I asked, wanting to play along.
" 'Indeed, I do,' she responded with a straight face. 'How do you think I get here?¡¯
"I laughed but not too loudly. It seemed an absurd fantasy to espouse.
"She was distractingly beautiful now, with the light of the torch¨¨res making a soft wreath of illumination behind us. Her breasts were prominent under the soft red velvet tunic, and there was something positively unsettling about her gorgeous bare feet with her golden toenails. As I looked down at them, indeed I couldn't stop myself from looking at them, I saw they were small feet, and that I found rather fetching. Also she wore a gold ring on her left big toe, and there seemed something deliciously evil about singling out that toe for this adornment.
"My three and one-half years of Catholic abstinence weighed heavily upon me suddenly, especially since there seemed something 'makeable' about her, maybe the fact that she seemed genuinely wild.
"I also found it beguiling that she was shorter than me now -- no longer the six-foot devil who had borne down on me in the shower so long ago, fiercely threatening my life until Goblin had sent the shower of glass at her.
" 'And while we're on the subject of Goblin,' she said in the most agreeable tone, 'I can tell that the demon isn't with you. What a loss. Do you expect him to return and proffer his affections soon enough like a loyal dog, or do you think he's gone forever?¡¯
" 'You puzzle me,' I said, 'taking such a sweet voice to speak such a hostile thing. I don't know whether or not I've lost him forever. Could be. Could be that he's found another soul with whom he's made a better communion. I gave him eighteen years of my life. Then distance divided us. I don't claim anymore to understand his nature. ¡¯
" 'I didn't mean to sound hostile,' she said. 'The truth is, and I do like to speak the truth when I can, that I never expected to find you so sanguine. ¡¯
"I didn't know what 'sanguine' meant. She moved towards the table, uncorked one of the bottles and filled the ciborium.
" 'Three and a half years has mellowed me, somewhat,' I said. 'And I never expected you to invite me in tonight. On the contrary, I expected to find you jealous of your nighttime hours. I thought you'd turn me away. ¡¯
" 'And why would that be,
" 'I can't imagine why,' I said. I looked at the wine. 'Am I to drink alone?¡¯
"She laughed softly. 'For the moment,' she said. 'Please go ahead. You'll make me unhappy if you don't. ¡¯
"My breeding was such that I couldn't refuse the drink on that account, and so I drank, noticing a strange flavoring in the wine, though it wasn't unpleasant. I drank deeply again. I was excited.
" 'You really mean what you say, don't you?' she asked. 'You don't see why people laugh at me. Or ever have, do you?¡¯
" 'No,' I said. In my typical fashion I drank even more of the wine, loving the taste of it suddenly and letting it hit my hungry heart immediately. Nothing for lunch. Nothing for supper. Awake on the plane. Awake round the clock. I had to watch myself.
" 'They laughed and they still laugh,' she said, 'because I'm both man and woman. But you see nothing to jest at there, do you?¡¯
" 'I told you no. I think you're rather magnificent. I thought you were before. My, but this wine is strong! Is it wine?' I realized that the bottles carried no labels. I felt the floor moving beneath me. 'Would you mind if I sat down?' I asked. I looked about me for a chair.
" 'No, you must,' she said. She drew up one of the swan-back chairs for me. It was a graceful thing, like the chairs on Grecian urns. I remembered having ordered it. And Allen had teased me over the phone about all the swans in my house of marble and gold.
" 'Yes, your workmen laugh at your taste,' she said, reading my thoughts, 'but your taste is excellent, have no doubt. ¡¯
" 'Oh, I don't have any doubts,' I said, more sure of myself now that I was seated. I laid the cup on the edge of the desk. My hand rested beside it. I think I had almost dropped it.
" 'Drink some more,' she said. 'It's a special brew. You might say I blended it myself. ¡¯
" 'Oh, I can't,' I said. I looked up into her eyes. What powerful eyes. People with big eyes have such a gift. And hers were so enormous. So white and black.
"She sat on the desk looking down at me. She smiled reassuringly. 'It seems I don't know quite what to do with you when you're so polite,' she said. 'You made an annoying enemy once, and now I want you to love me. Perhaps when all is said and done, you will. ¡¯
" 'That's entirely possible,' I said, 'but there're so many species of love, aren't there? I'm religious still, and something tells me you live freely. ¡¯
" 'Catholic,' she said. 'Of course. The grand Church. Nothing less would be worthy of you and Mrs. McQueen, would it? It seems one evening in Naples that I saw you and your party at Mass. No. It was in the catacombs of San Gennaro. Your family had booked a private tour. Why, I'm almost sure of it. ' She lifted the ciborium and filled it from the bottle. She gave me the cup.
" 'You saw us in Naples?' I asked. My head was spinning. I drank the wine, thinking that just a little bit more might eliminate this precarious feeling. That happened sometimes, didn't it? Of course it didn't. 'How utterly remarkable,' I said. 'Because I could have sworn I saw you in Naples as well. ¡¯
" 'And where was that?' she asked.
" 'Are you my enemy?' I asked.
" 'Not at all,' she said. 'If I could, I'd deliver you from old age and death, from aches and pains, from the blandishments of ghosts, from the torment of your familiar, Goblin. I'd deliver you from heat and cold and from the arid dullness of the noonday sun. I'd deliver you into the placid light of the moon and into the domain of the Milky Way forever. ¡¯
" 'Those are strange words,' I said. 'I can't make sense out of them. I could have sworn I saw you in Naples, that I saw you on my balcony at the Excelsior Hotel, that I had a nightmare sent from you. Isn't that madness? Surely you'll tell me it was. ¡¯
" 'Nightmare?' she asked softly, sweetly. 'You call a fragment of my soul a nightmare? Oh, but who would want a fragment of another person's soul? You think you want Mona Mayfair's soul. You don't know what it would mean to see her now. ¡¯
" 'Don't play with her name,' I said. I was startled. Suddenly it seemed to me that everything that was happening was wrong. Mona, my beloved Mona. Don't speak of Mona. The wine was not wine. The house was overwhelming. Petronia herself was too large and grand for a woman. I was too drunk to be where I was.
" 'When I am finished with you, you won't want Mona Mayfair,' she said quickly, almost angrily, though her voice remained soft. She purred like a cat. 'And of my soul you'll know no more. My soul will be locked as though a key, a golden key, were turned inside it. It will all be silence between us, the silence you know now. ¡¯
" 'I have to get away from here,' I said weakly. I knew I couldn't stand. I tried. My muscles wouldn't work. 'I have to get back to the boat. If you have a modicum of honor, you'll help me. ¡¯
" 'I have none, so rest where you are,' she said. 'We'll part soon enough in my time, though not in yours, and then you may have this house as your Hermitage, and I even bequeath the tomb to you. Yes, you may have that, and you may take your chances with it, and you may crave this dark, lively swamp as I so often craved it. I think I've been waiting for you these long three and a half years, knowing I would relinquish everything to you when I saw you. Yes, waiting. Why is it that this must be done I can't answer --. ¡¯
" 'What? What must be done? What are you saying?' I pleaded. 'I don't understand you. ¡¯
" 'It's as though the evil builds up,' she said, 'and then it must be siphoned off into a new one, and I give birth as I never could in life. ¡¯
" 'I can't follow you. ¡¯
"She turned and looked down at me, and there spread across her face the most transcendent smile.
" 'Why do I get the feeling that you're a giant cat?' I asked suddenly, 'even to your lovely eyes, and I'm some luckless prey that you've randomly selected?¡¯
" 'Never random,' she said, her face exquisitely serious. 'No, never random. But carefully, out of circumstance, and on merit, and out of loneliness. But never random, no, never that. You are much loved. You have been long awaited. ¡¯
"A wave of sheer drunkenness passed over me. I was about to slip into unconsciousness.
"The figure before me started flashing on and off, as if someone had ahold of the light switch and meant to drive me mad. I tried to stand up but I couldn't.
"I put the ciborium on the edge of the desk and pushed it back with my right fingers. I saw her fill it again with wine. No more, I thought, but then she lifted it and put it to my lips. I took it. I tried to decline. She tipped it and I drank it as it spilled down my neck and into my shirt. It was delicious, much more so now than in the beginning. I fell back. I saw the ciborium lying on the floor. I saw the red wine on the marble.
" 'No, not on the beautiful white marble,' I said. 'It's too like blood, look at it. ' Again, I tried to stand up. I couldn't.
"She knelt down in front of me.
" 'I have cruelty in me,' she said. 'I have cruelty in me which will be answered. Don't expect anything else from me. You'll have the gifts I choose to give and those only, and I'll make no mewling bastards such as others make, fodder for the old ones, but I'll leave you strong when I leave you, and with all the gifts you need. ¡¯
"I couldn't answer her. My lips would no longer move.
"Suddenly I saw Goblin behind her! He was indistinct, all force, not illusion, and she rose in a fury, trying to throw him off. He had pulled the choke hold on her, the very move she had once pulled on me, and she stomped her foot on the floor as she threw her elbow back at him. He dissolved yet came at her again, infuriating her.
"Again the light was flickering. My muscles were paralyzed. I saw her in the flicker as she darted across the room. She gathered up the huge wrap of mink and came towards me, and again he tried to stifle h
"She cursed at Goblin. 'Say farewell to your lover!¡¯
"We were in the open air. I saw Goblin clinging to us. I saw his face, his open mouth as he howled. He slipped down, down as though he were drowning.
"We were rising, and I saw the clouds below me. And I felt the wind against my cheek, and my skin was chilled, but it didn't matter because all around me were the glorious stars.
"She pressed her lips to my ear. And just before consciousness left me entirely, I heard her speak.
" 'Pay heed to these cold beacons,' she said, 'for in all your long life, you may never find warmer friends than these. ' "