It was just before I went to bed that I asked Mrs. Blessington if there had been anyone in this house since Uncle Baxter died. That had been the year 1838, almost fifty years ago, and she was already housekeeper then.
“No, my dear,” she said quickly, fluffing the feather pillows. “Your father came that year as you know, but he stayed for no more than a month or two and then went on home.”
“There was never a young man after that . . .”I pushed, but in truth I had little appetite for anything to disturb the happiness I felt. How I loved the Spartan cleanliness of this bedchamber, the stone walls bare of paper or ornament, the high luster of the walnut-paneled bed.
“A young man?” She gave an easy, almost hearty laugh as with unerring certainty of her surroundings, she lifted the poker and stirred the fire. “What a strange thing for you to ask.”
I sat silent for a moment looking in the mirror, as I took the last of the pins from my hair. It fell down heavy and warm around my shoulders. It felt good, like a cloak under which I could hide. But she turned as if sensing some uneasiness in me, and drew near.
“Why do you say a young man, Miss?” she asked. Slowly, tentatively, her fingers examined the long tresses that lay over my shoulders. She took the brush from my hands.
I felt perfectly foolish telling her the story, but I managed a simplified version, somehow, our meeting unexpectedly a devilishly handsome young man whom my Father in anger had later called the master of Rampling Gate.
“Handsome, was he?” she asked as she brushed out the tangles in my hair gently. It seemed she hung upon every word as I described him again.
“There were no intruders in this house, then, Mrs. Blessington?” I asked. “No mysteries to be solved . . .”
She gave the sweetest laugh.
“Oh, no, darling, this house is the safest place in the world,” she said quickly. “It is a happy house. No intruder would dare to trouble Rampling Gate!”
Nothing, in fact, troubled the serenity of the days that followed. The smoke and noise of London, and our Father’s dying words, became a dream. What was real were our long walks together through the overgrown gardens, our trips in the little skiff to and fro across the lake. We had tea under the hot glass of the empty conservatory. And early evening found us on our way upstairs with the best of the books from Uncle Baxter’s library to read by candlelight in the privacy of our rooms.
And all our discreet inquiries in the village met with more or less the same reply: the villagers loved the house and carried no old or disquieting tales. Repeatedly, in fact, we were told that Rampling was the most contented hamlet in all England, that no one dared—Mrs. Blessington’s very words—to make trouble here.
“It’s our guardian angel, that old house,” said the old woman at the bookshop where Richard stopped for the London papers. “Was there ever the town of Rampling without the house called Rampling Gate?”
How were we going to tell them of Father’s edict? How were we going to remind ourselves? But we spoke not one word about the proposed disaster, and Richard wrote to his firm to say that we should not be back in London till Fall.
He was finding a wealth of classical material in the old volumes that had belonged to Uncle Baxter, and I had set up my writing in the little study that opened off the library which I had all to myself.
Never had I known such peace and quiet. It seemed the atmosphere of Rampling Gate permeated my simplest written descriptions and wove its way richly into the plots and characters I created. The Monday after our arrival I had finished my first short story and went off to the village on foot to boldly post it to editors of Blackwood’s Magazine.
It was a glorious morning, and I took my time as I came back on foot.
What had disturbed our father so about this lovely corner of England, I wondered? What had so darkened his last hours that he laid upon this spot his curse?
My heart opened to this unearthly stillness, to an undeniable grandeur that caused me utterly to forget myself. There were times here when I felt I was a disembodied intellect drifting through a fathomless silence, up and down garden paths and stone corridors that had witnessed too much to take cognizance of one small and fragile young woman who in random moments actually talked aloud to the suits of armour around her, to the broken statues in the garden, the fountain cherubs who had had not water to pour from their conches for years and years.
But was there in this loveliness some malignant force that was eluding us still, some untold story to explain all? Unspeakable horror … In my mind’s eye I saw that young man, and the strangest sensation crept over me, that some enrichment of the picture had taken place in my memory or imagination in the recent past. Perhaps in dream I had reinvented him, given a ruddy glow to his lips and his cheeks. Perhaps in my re-creation for Mrs. Blessington, I had allowed him to raise his hand to that red cravat and had seen the fingers long and delicate and suggestive of a musician’s hand.
It was all very much on my mind when I entered the house again, soundlessly, and saw Richard in his favorite leather wing chair by the fire.
The air was warm coming through the open garden doors, and yet the blaze was cheerful, made the vast room with its towering shelves of leatherbound volumes appear inviting and almost small.
“Sit down,” Richard said gravely, scarcely giving me a glance. “I want to read you something right now.” He held a long narrow ledger in his hands. “This was Uncle Baxter’s,” he said, “and at first I thought it was only an account book he kept during the renovations, but I’ve found some actual diary entries made in the last weeks of his life. They’re hasty, almost indecipherable, but I’ve managed to make them out.”
“Well, do read them to me,” I said, but I felt a little tug of fear. I didn’t want to know anything terrible about this place. If we could have remained here forever . . . but that was out of the question, to be sure.
“Now listen to this,” Richard said, turning the page carefully. ” ‘Fifth of May, 1838: He is here, I am sure of it. He is come back again.’ And several days later: ‘He thinks this is his house, he does, and he would drink my wine and smoke my cigars if only he could. He reads my books and my papers and I will not stand for it. I have given orders that everything is to be locked.’ And finally, the last entry written the morning before he died: ‘Weary, weary, unto death and he is no small cause of my weariness. Last night I beheld him with my own eyes. He stood in this very room. He moves and speaks exactly as a mortal man, and dares tell me his secrets, and he a demon wretch with the face of a seraph and I a mere mortal, how am I to bear with him!’ ”
“Good Lord,” I whispered slowly. I rose from the chair where I had settled, and standing behind him, read the page for myself. It was the scrawl the writing, the very last notation in the book. I knew that Uncle Baxter’s heart had given out. He had not died by violence, but peacefully enough in this very room with his prayer book in his hand.
“Could it be the very same person Father spoke of that night?” Richard asked.
In spite of the sun pouring through the open doors, I experienced a violent chill. For the first time I felt wary of this house, wary of our boldness in coming here, heedful of our Father’s words.
“But that was years before, Richard …” I said. “And what could this mean, this talk of a supernatural being! Surely the man was mad! It was no spirit I saw in that railway carriage!”
I sank down into the chair opposite and tried to quiet the beating of my heart.
“Julie,” Richard said gently, shutting the ledger. “Mrs. Blessington has lived here contentedly for years. There are six servants asleep every night in the north wing. Surely there is nothing to all of this.”
“It isn’t very much fun, though, is it?” I said timidly, “not at all like swapping ghost stories the way we used to do, and peopling the dark with imaginary beings, and laughing at friends at school who were afraid.”
“All my life,” he said, his eyes fixing me steadily, “I’ve heard tales of spooks and spirits, some imagined, some supposedly true, and almost invariably there is some mention of the house in question feeling haunted, of having an atmosphere to it that fills one with foreboding, some sense of menace or alarm …”
“Yes, I know, and there is no such poisonous atmosphere here at all.”
“On the contrary, I’ve never been more at ease in my life.” He shoved his hand into his pocket to extract the inevitable match to light his pipe which had gone out. “As a matter of fact, Julie, I don’t know how in the world I’m going to comply with Father’s last wish to tear down this place.”
I nodded sympathetically. The very same thing had been on my mind since we’d arrived. Even now, I felt so comfortable, natural, quite safe.
I was wishing suddenly, irrationally, that he had not found the entries in Uncle Baxter’s book.
“I should talk to Mrs. Blessington again!” I said almost crossly, “I mean quite seriously …”
“But I have, Julie,” he said. “I asked her about it all this morning when I first made the discovery, and she only laughed. She swears she’s never seen anything unusual here, and that there’s no one left alive in the village who can tell tales of this place. She said again how glad she was that we’d come home to Rampling Gate. I don’t think she has an inkling we mean to destroy the house. Oh, it would destroy her heart if she did.”
“Never seen anything unusual?” I asked. “That is what she said? But what strange words for her to use, Richard, when she cannot see at all.”
But he had not heard me. He had laid the ledger aside and risen slowly, almost sluggishly, and he was wandering out of the double doors into the little garden and was looking over the high hedge at the oaks that bent their heavy elbowed limbs almost to the surface of the lake. There wasn’t a sound at this early hour of the day, save the soft rustle of the leaves in the moving air, the cry now and then of a distant bird.
“Maybe it’s gone, Julie,” Richard said, over his shoulder, his voice carrying clearly in the quiet, “if it was ever here. Maybe there is nothing any longer to frighten anyone at all. You don’t suppose you could endure the winter in this house, do you? I suppose you’d want to be in London again by then.” He seemed quite small against the towering trees, the sky broken into small gleaming fragments by the canopy of foliage that gently filtered the light.
Rampling Gate had him. And I understood perfectly, because it also had me. I could very well endure the winter here, no matter how bleak or cold. I never wanted to go home.
And the immediacy of the mystery only dimmed my sense of everything and every place else.
After a long moment, I rose and went out into the garden, and placed my hand gently on Richard’s arm.
“I know this much, Julie,” he said just as if we had been talking to each other all the while. “I swore to Father that I would do as he asked, and it is tearing me apart. Either way, it will be on my conscience for ever, obliterating this house or going against my own father and the charge he laid down to me with his dying breath.”
“We must seek help, Richard. The advice of our lawyers, the advice of Father’s clergymen. You must write to them and explain the whole thing. Father was feverish when he gave the order. If we could lay it out before them, they would help us decide.”
It was three o’clock when I opened my eyes. But I had been awake for a long time. I had heard the dim chimes of the clock below hour by hour. And I felt not fear lying here alone in the dark but something else. Some vague and relentless agitation, some sense of emptiness and need that caused me finally to rise from my bed. What was required to dissolve this tension, I wondered. I stared at the simplest things in the shadows. The little arras that hung over the fireplace with its slim princes and princesses lost in fading fiber and thread. The portrait of an Elizabethan ancestor gazing with one almond-shaped eye from his small frame.
What was this house, really? Merely a place or a state of mind? What was it doing to my soul? Why didn’t the entries in Uncle Baxter’s book send us flying back to London? Why had we stayed so late in the great hall together after supper, speaking not a single word?
I felt overwhelmed suddenly, and yet shut out of some great and dazzling secret, and wasn’t that the very word that Uncle Baxter had used?
Conscious only of an unbearable restlessness, I pulled on my woollen wrapper, buttoning the lace collar and tying the sash. And putting on my slippers, I went out into the hall.
The moon fell full on the oak stairway, and on the deeply recessed door to Richard’s room. On tiptoe I approached and, peering in, saw the bed was empty, the covers completely undisturbed.
So he was off on his own tonight the same as I. Oh, if only he had come to me, asked me to go with him.
I turned and made my way soundlessly down the long stairs.
The great hall gaped like a cavern before me, the moonlight here and there touching upon a pair of crossed swords, or a mounted shield. But far beyond the great hall, in the alcove just outside the library, I saw unmistakably a flickering light. And a breeze moved briskly through the room, carrying with it the sound and the scent of a wood fire.
I shuddered with relief. Richard was there. We could talk. Or perhaps we could go exploring together, guarding our fragile candle flames behind cupped fingers as we went from room to room? A sense of well- being pervaded me and quieted me, and yet the dark distance between us seemed endless, and I was desperate to cross it, hurrying suddenly past the long supper table with its massive candlesticks, and finally into the alcove before the library doors.
Yes, Richard was there. He sat with his eyes closed, dozing against the inside of the leather wing chair, the breeze from the garden blowing the fragile flames of the candles on the stone mantel and on the table at his side.
I was about to go to him, about to shut the doors, and kiss him gently and ask did he not want to go up to bed, when quite abruptly I saw in the corner of my eye that there was some one else in the room.
In the far left corner at the desk stood another figure, looking down at the clutter of Richard’s papers, his pale hands resting on the wood.
I knew that it could not be so. I knew that I must be dreaming, that nothing in this room, least of all this figure, could be real. For it was the same young man I had seen fifteen years ago in the railway carriage and not a single aspect of that taut young face had been changed. There was the very same hair, thick and lustrous and only carelessly combed as it hung to the thick collar of his black coat, and the skin so pale it was almost luminous in the shadows, and those dark eyes looking up suddenly and fixing me with the most curious expression as I almost screamed.
We stared at one another across the dark vista of that room, I stranded in the doorway, he visibly and undeniably shaken that I had caught him unawares. My heart stopped.
And in a split second he moved towards me, closed the gap between us, towering over me, those slender white fingers gently closing on my arms.
“Julie!” he whispered, in a voice so low it seemed my own thoughts speaking to me. But this was no dream. He was real. He was holding to me and the scream had broken loose from me, deafening, uncontrollable and echoing from the four walls.
I saw Richard rising from the chair. I was alone. Clutching to the door frame, I staggered forward, and then again in a moment of perfect clarity I saw the young intruder, saw him standing in the garden, looking back over his shoulder, and then he was gone.
I could not stop screaming. I could not stop even as Richard held me and pleaded with me, and sat me down in the chair.
And I was still crying when Mrs. Blessington finally came.
She got a glass of cordial for me at once, as Richard begged me once more to tell what I had seen.
“But you know who it was!” I said to Richard almost hysterically. “It was he, the young man from the train. Only he wore a frockcoat years out of fashion and his silk tie was open at his throat. Richard, he was reading your papers, turning them over, reading them in the pitch dark.”
“All right,” Richard said, gesturing with his hand up for calm. “He was standing at the desk. And there was no light there so you could not see him well.”
“Richard, it was he! Don’t you understand? He touched me, he held my arms.” I looked imploringly to Mrs. Blessington who was shaking her head, her little eyes like blue beads in the light. “He called me Julie,” I whispered. “He knows my name!”
I rose, snatching up the candle, and all but pushing Richard out of the way went to the desk. “Oh, dear God,” I said, “Don’t you see what’s happened? It’s your letters to Dr. Partridge, and Mrs. Sellers, about tearing down the house!”
Mrs. Blessington gave a little cry and put her hand to her cheek. She looked like a withered child in her nightcap as she collapsed into the straight-backed chair by the door.
“Surely you don’t believe it was the same man, Julie, after all these years …”
“But he had not changed, Richard, not in the smallest detail. There is no mistake, Richard, it was he, I tell you, the very same.”
“Oh, dear, dear …” Mrs. Blessington whispered, “What will he do if you try to tear it down? What will he do now?”
“What will who do?” Richard asked carefully, narrowing his eyes. He took the candle from me and approached her. I was staring at her, only half realizing what I had heard.
“So you know who he is!” I whispered.
“Julie, stop it!” Richard said.
But her face had tightened, gone blank and her eyes had become distant and small.
“You knew he was here!” I insisted. “You must tell us at once!”
With an effort she climbed to her feet. “There is nothing in this house to hurt you,” she said, “nor any of us.” She turned, spurning Richard as he tried to help her, and wandered into the dark hallway alone. “You’ve no need of me here any longer,” she said softly, “and if you should tear down this house built by your forefathers, then you should do it without need of me.”
“Oh, but we don’t mean to do it, Mrs. Blessington!” I insisted. But she was making her way through the gallery back towards the north wing. “Go after her, Richard. You heard what she said. She knows who he is.”
“I’ve had quite enough of this tonight,” Richard said almost angrily. “Both of us should go up to bed. By the light of day we will dissect this entire matter and search this house. Now come.”
“But he should be told, shouldn’t he?” I demanded.
“Told what? Of whom do you speak!”
“Told that we will not tear down this house!” I said clearly, loudly, listening to the echo of my own voice.
The next day was indeed the most trying since we had come. It took the better part of the morning to convince Mrs. Blessington that we had no intention of tearing down Rampling Gate. Richard posted his letters and resolved that we should do nothing until help came.
And together we commenced a search of the house. But darkness found us only half finished, having covered the south tower and the south wing, and the main portion of house itself. There remained still the north tower, in a dreadful state of disrepair, and some rooms beneath the ground which in former times might have served as dungeons and were now sealed off. And there were closets and private stairways everywhere that we had scarce looked into, and at times we lost all track of where precisely we had been.
But it was also quite clear by supper time that Richard was in a state of strain and exasperation, and that he did not believe that I had seen anyone in the study at all.
He was further convinced that Uncle Baxter had been mad before he died, or else his ravings were a code for some mundane happening that had him extraordinarily overwrought.
But I knew what I had seen. And as the day progressed, I became ever more quiet and withdrawn. A silence had fallen between me and Mrs. Blessington. And I understood only too well the anger I’d heard in my father’s voice on that long ago night when we had come home from Victoria Station and my mother had accused him of imagining things.
Yet what obsessed me more than anything else was the gentle countenance of the mysterious man I had glimpsed, the dark almost innocent eyes that had fixed on me for one moment before I had screamed.
“Strange that Mrs. Blessington is not afraid of him,” I said in a low distracted voice, not longer caring if Richard heard me. “And that no one here seems in fear of him at all . . .” The strangest fancies were coming to me. The careless words of the villagers were running through my head. “You would be wise to do one very important thing before you retire,” I said. “Leave out in writing a note to the effect that you do not intend to tear down the house.”
“Julie, you have created an impossible dilemma,” Richard demanded. “You insist we reassure this apparition that the house will not be destroyed, when in fact you verify the existence of the very creature that drove our father to say what he did.”
“Oh, I wish I had never come here!” I burst out suddenly.
“Then we should go, both of us, and decide this matter at home.”
“No, that’s just it. I could never go without knowing . . . ‘his secrets’ . . . ‘the demon wretch.’ I could never go on living without knowing now!”
Anger must be an excellent antidote to fear, for surely something worked to alleviate my natural alarm. I did not undress that night, nor even take off my shoes, but rather sat in that dark hollow bedroom gazing at the small square of diamond-paned window until I heard all of the house fall quiet. Richard’s door at last closed. There came those distant echoing booms that meant other bolts had been put in place.
And when the grandfather clock in the great hall chimed the hour of eleven, Rampling Gate was as usual fast asleep.
I listened for my brother’s step in the hall. And when I did not hear him stir from his room, I wondered at it, that curiosity would not impel him to come to me, to say that we must go together to discover the truth.
It was just as well. I did not want him to be with me. And I felt a dark exultation as I imagined myself going out of the room and down the stairs as I had the night before. I should wait one more hour, however, to be certain. I should let the night reach its pitch. Twelve, the witching hour. My heart was beating too fast at the thought of it, and dreamily I recollected the face I had seen, the voice that had said my name.
Ah, why did it seem in retrospect so intimate, that we had known each other, spoken together, that it was someone I recognized in the pit of my soul?
“What is your name?” I believe I whispered aloud. And then a spasm of fear startled me. Would I have the courage to go in search of him, to open the door to him? Was I losing my mind? Closing my eyes, I rested my head against the high back of the damask chair.
What was more empty than this rural night? What was more sweet?
I opened my eyes. I had been half dreaming or talking to myself, trying to explain to Father why it was necessary that we comprehend the reason ourselves. And I realized, quite fully realized—I think before I was even awake—that hewas standing by the bed.
The door was open. And he was standing there, dressed exactly as he had been the night before, and his dark eyes were riveted on me with that same obvious curiosity, his mouth just a little slack like that of a school boy, and he was holding to the bedpost almost idly with his right hand. Why, he was lost in contemplating me. He did not seem to know that I was looking at him.
But when I sat forward, he raised his finger as if to quiet me, and gave a little nod of his head.
“Ah, it is you!” I whispered.
“Yes,” he said in the softest, most unobtrusive voice.
But we had been talking to each other, hadn’t we, I had been asking him questions, no, telling him things. And I felt suddenly I was losing my equilibrium or slipping back into a dream.
No. Rather I had all but caught the fragment of some dream from the past. That rush of atmosphere that can engulf one at any moment of the day following when something evokes the universe that absorbed one utterly in sleep. I mean I heard our voices for an instant, almost in argument, and I saw Father in his top hat and black overcoat rushing alone through the streets of the West End, peering into one door after another, and then, rising from the marble-top table in the dim smoky music hall you . . . your face.
“Yes . . .Go back, Julie!” It was Father’s voice.
“. . . to penetrate the soul of it,” I insisted, picking up the lost thread. But did my lips move? “To understand what it is that frightened him, enraged him. He said, Tear it down!’ ”
“. . . you must never, never, can’t do that.” His face was stricken, like that of a schoolboy about to cry.
“No, absolutely, we don’t want to, either of us, you know it . . . and you are not a spirit!” I looked at his mud-spattered boots, the faintest smear of dust on that perfect white cheek.
“A spirit?” he asked almost mournfully, almost bitterly. “Would that I were.”
Mesmerized I watched him come towards me and the room darkened, and I felt his cool silken hands on my face. I had risen. I was standing before him, and I looked up into his eyes.
I heard my own heartbeat. I heard it as I had the night before, right at the moment I had screamed. Dear God, I was talking to him! He was in my room and I was talking to him! And I was in his arms.
“Real, absolutely real!” I whispered, and a low zinging sensation coursed through me so that I had to steady myself against the bed.
He was peering at me as if trying to comprehend something terribly important to him, and he didn’t respond. His lips did have a ruddy look to them, a soft look for all his handsomeness, as if he never been kissed. And a slight dizziness had come over me, a slight confusion in which I was not at all sure that he was even there.
“Oh, but I am,” he said softly. I felt his breath against my cheek, and it was almost sweet. “I am here, and you are with me, Julie . . .”
“Yes . . .”
My eyes were closing. Uncle Baxter sat hunched over his desk and I could hear the furious scratch of his pen. “Demon wretch!” he said to the night air coming in the open doors.
“No!” I said. Father turned in the door of the music hall and cried my name.
“Love me, Julie,” came that voice in my ear. I felt his lips against my neck. “Only a little kiss, Julie, no harm . . .” And the core of my being, that secret place where all desires and all commandments are nurtured, opened to him without a struggle or a sound. I would have fallen if he had not held me. My arms closed about him, my hands slipping into the soft silken mass of his hair.
I was floating, and there was as there had always been at Rampling Gate an endless peace. It was Rampling Gate I felt around me, it was that timeless and impenetrable soul that had opened itself at last. . . . A power within me of enormous ken … To see as a god sees, and take the depth of things as nimbly as the outward eyes can size and shape pervade . . . Yes, I whispered aloud, those words from Keats, those words … To cease upon the midnight without pain . . .
No. In a violent instant we had parted, he drawing back as surely as I.
I went reeling across the bedroom floor and caught hold of the frame of the window, and rested my forehead against the stone wall.
For a long moment I stood with my eyes closed. There was a tingling pain in my throat that was almost pleasurable where his lips had touched me, a delicious throbbing that would not stop.
Then I turned, and I saw all the room clearly, the bed, the fireplace, the chair. And he stood still exactly as I’d left him and there was the most appalling distress in his face.
“What have they done to me?” he whispered. “Have they played the cruelest trick of all?”
“Something of menace, unspeakable menace,” I whispered.
“Something ancient, Julie, something that defies understanding, something that can and will go on.”
“But why, what are you?” I touched that pulsing pain with the tips of my fingers and, looking down at them, gasped. “And you suffer so, and you are so seemingly innocent, and it is as if you can love!”
His face was rent as if by a violent conflict within. And he turned to go. With my whole will, I stood fast not to follow him, not to beg him to turn back. But he did turn, bewildered, struggling and then bent upon his purpose as he reached for my hand. “Come with me,” he said.
He drew me to him ever so gently, and slipping his arm around me guided me to the door.
Through the long upstairs corridor we passed hurriedly, and through a small wooden doorway to a screw stairs that I had never seen before.
I soon realized we were ascending the north tower of the house, the ruined portion of the structure that Richard and I had not investigated before.
Through one tiny window after another I saw the gently rolling landscape moving out from the forest that surrounded us, and the small cluster of dim lights that marked the village of Rampling and the pale streak of white that was the London road.
Up and up we climbed until we had reached the topmost chamber, and this he opened with an iron key. He held back the door for me to enter and I found myself in a spacious room whose high narrow windows contained no glass. A flood of moonlight revealed the most curious mixture of furnishings and objects, the clutter that suggests an attic and a sort of den. There was a writing table, a great shelf of books, soft leather chairs and scores of old yellowed and curling maps and framed pictures affixed to the walls. Candles were everywhere stuck in the bare stone niches or to the tables and the shelves. Here and there a barrel served as a table, right alongside the finest old Elizabethan chair. Wax had dripped over everything, it seemed, and in the very midst of the clutter lay rumpled copies of the most recent papers, the Mercure de Paris, the London Times.
There was no place for sleeping in this room.
And when I thought of that, where he must lie when he went to rest, a shudder passed over me and I felt, quite vividly, his lips touching my throat again, and I felt the sudden urge to cry.
But he was holding me in his arms, he was kissing my cheeks and my lips again ever so softly, and then he guided me to a chair. He lighted the candles about us one by one.
I shuddered, my eyes watering slightly in the light. I saw more unusual objects: telescopes and magnifying glasses and a violin in its open case, and a handful of gleaming and exquisitely shaped sea shells. There were jewels lying about, and a black silk top hat and a walking stick, and a bouquet of withered flowers, dry as straw, and daguerrotypes and tintypes in their little velvet cases, and opened books.
But I was too distracted now by the sight of him in the light, the gloss of his large black eyes, and the gleam of his hair. Not even in the railway station had I seen him so clearly as I did now amid the radiance of the candles. He broke my heart.
And yet he looked at me as though I were the feast for his eyes, and he said my name again and I felt the blood rush to my face. But there seemed a great break suddenly in the passage of time. I had been thinking, yes, what are you, how long have you existed . . . And I felt dizzy again.
I realized that I had risen and I was standing beside him at the window and he was turning me to look down and the countryside below had unaccountably changed. The lights of Rampling had been subtracted from the darkness that lay like a vapor over the land. A great wood, far older and denser than the forest of Rampling Gate, shrouded the hills, and I was afraid suddenly, as if I were slipping into a maelstrom from which I could never, of my own will, return.
There was that sense of us talking together, talking and talking in low agitated voices and I was saying that I should not give in.
“Bear witness, that is all I ask of you …”
And there was in me some dim certainty that by knowledge alone I should be fatally changed. It was the reading of a forbidden book, the chanting of a forbidden charm.
“No, only what was,” he whispered.
And then even the shape of the land itself eluded me. And the very room had lost its substance, as if a soundless wind of terrific force had entered this place and was blowing it apart.
We were riding in a carriage through the night. We had long long ago left the tower, and it was late afternoon and the sky was the color of blood. And we rode into a forest whose trees were so high and so thick that scarcely any sun at all broke to the soft leafstrewn ground.
We had no time to linger in this magical place. We had come to the open country, to the small patches of tilled earth that surrounded the ancient village of Knorwood with its gabled roofs and its tiny crooked streets. We saw the walls of the monastery of Knorwood and the little church with the bell chiming Vespers under the lowering sky. A great bustling life resided in Knorwood, a thousand hearts beat in Knorwood, a thousand voices gave forth their common prayer.
But far beyond the village on the rise above the forest stood the rounded tower of a truly ancient castle, and to that ruined castle, no more than a shell of itself anymore, as darkness fell in earnest, we rode. Through its empty chambers we roamed, impetuous children, the horse and the road quite forgotten, and to the Lord of the Castle, a gaunt and white-skinned creature standing before the roaring fire of the roofless hall, we came. He turned and fixed us with his narrow and glittering eyes. A dead thing he was, I understood, but he carried within himself a priceless magic. And my young companion, my innocent young man passed by me into the Lord’s arms. I saw the kiss. I saw the young man grow pale and struggle to turn away. It was as I had done this very night, beyond this dream, in my own bedchamber; and from the Lord he retreated, clutching to the sharp pain in his throat.
I understood. I knew. But the castle was dissolving as surely as anything in this dream might dissolve, and we were in some damp and close place.
The stench was unbearable to me, it was that most terrible of all stenches, the stench of death. And I heard my steps on the cobblestones and I reached to steady myself against the wall. The tiny square was deserted; the doors and windows gaped open to the vagrant wind. Up one side and down the other of the crooked street I saw the marks on the houses. And I knew what the marks meant. The Black Death had come to the village of Knorwood. The Black Death had laid it waste. And in a moment of suffocating horror I realized that no one, not a single person, was left alive.
But this was not quite right. There was some one walking in fits and starts up the narrow alleyway. Staggering he was, almost falling, as he pushed in one door after another, and at last came to a hot, stinking place where a child screamed on the floor. Mother and Father lay dead in the bed. And the great fat cat of the household, unharmed, played with the screaming infant, whose eyes bulged from its tiny sunken face.
“Stop it,” I heard myself gasp. I knew that I was holding my head with both hands. “Stop it, stop it please!” I was screaming and my screams would surely pierce the vision and this small crude little room should collapse around me, and I should rouse the household of Rampling Gate to me, but I did not. The young man turned and stared at me, and in the close stinking room, I could not see his face.
But I knew it was he, my companion, and I could smell his fever and his sickness, and the stink of the dying infant, and see the sleek, gleaming body of the cat as it pawed at the child’s outstretched hand.
“Stop it, you’ve lost control of it!” I screamed surely with all my strength, but the infant screamed louder. “Make it stop!”
“I can not . . .” he whispered. “It goes on forever! It will never stop!”
And with a great piercing shriek I kicked at the cat and sent it flying out of the filthy room, overturning the milk pail as it went, jetting like a witch’s familiar over the stones.
Blanched and feverish, the sweat soaking his crude jerkin, my companion took me by the hand. He forced me back out of the house and away from the crying child and into the street.
Death in the parlour, death in the bedroom, death in the cloister, death before the high altar, death in the open fields. It seemed the Judgment of God that a thousand souls had died in the village of Knorwood —I was sobbing, begging to be released—it seemed the very end of Creation itself.
And at last night came down over the dead village and he was alive still, stumbling up the slopes, through the forest, towards that rounded tower where the Lord stood with his hand on the stone frame of the broken window waiting for him to come.
“Don’t go!” I begged him. I ran alongside him crying, but he didn’t hear. Try as I might, I could not affect these things.
The Lord stood over him smiling almost sadly as he watched him fall, watched the chest heave with its last breaths. Finally the lips moved, calling out for salvation when it was damnation the Lord offered, when it was damnation that the Lord would give.
“Yes, damned then, but living, breathing!” the young man cried, rising in a last spasmodic movement. And the Lord, who had remained still until that instant, bent to drink.
The kiss again, the lethal kiss, the blood drawn out of the dying body, and then the Lord lifting the heavy head of the young man to take the blood back again from the body of the Lord himself.
I was screaming again, Do not, do not drink. He turned and looked at me. His face was now so perfectly the visage of death that I couldn’t believe there was animation left in him, yet he asked: What would you do? Would you go back to Knorwood, would you open those doors one after another, would you ring the bell in the empty church, and if you did would the dead rise?
He didn’t wait for my answer. And I had none now to give. He had turned again to the Lord who waited for him, locked his innocent mouth to that vein that pulsed with every semblance of life beneath the Lord’s cold and translucent flesh. And the blood jetted into the young body, vanquishing in one great burst the fever and the sickness that had wracked it, driving it out with the mortal life.
He stood now in the hall of the Lord alone. Immortality was his and the blood thirst he would need to sustain it, and that thirst I could feel with my whole soul. He stared at the broken walls around him, at the fire licking the blackened stones of the giant fireplace, at the night sky over the broken roof, throwing out its endless net of stars.
And each and every thing was transfigured in his vision, and in my vision—the vision he gave now to me—to the exquisite essence of itself. A wordless and eternal voice spoke from the starry veil of heaven, it sang in the wind that rushed through the broken timbers; it sighed in the flames that ate the sooted stones of the hearth.
It was the fathomless rhythm of the universe that played beneath every surface, as the last living creature—that tiny child—feel silent in the village below.
A soft wind sifted and scattered the soil from the new-turned furrows in the empty fields. The rain fell from the black and endless sky.
Years and years passed. And all that had been Knorwood melted into the very earth. The forest sent out its silent sentinels, and mighty trunks rose where there had been huts and houses, where there had been monastery walls.
Finally nothing of Knorwood remained: not the little cemetery, not the little church, not even the name of Knorwood lived still in the world. And it seemed the horror beyond all horrors that no one anymore should know of a thousand souls who had lived and died in that small and insignificant village, that not anywhere in the great archives in which all history is recorded should a mention of that town remain.
Yet one being remained who knew, one being who had witnessed, and stood now looking down upon the very spot where his mortal life had ended, he who had scrambled up on his hands and knees from the pit of Hell that had been that disaster; it was the young man who stood beside me, the master of Rampling Gate.
And all through the walls of his old house were the stones of the ruined castle, and all through the ceilings and floors the branches of those ancient trees.
What was solid and majestic here, and safe within the minds of those who slept tonight in the village of Rampling, was only the most fragile citadel against horror, the house to which he clung now.
A great sorrow swept over me. Somewhere in the drift of images I had relinquished myself, lost all sense of the point in space from which I saw. And in a great rush of lights and noise I was enlivened now and made whole as I had been when we rode together through the forest, only it was into the world of now, this hour, that we passed. We were flying it seemed through the rural darkness along the railway towards the London where the nighttime city burst like an enormous bubble in a shower of laughter, and motion, and glaring light. He was walking with me under the gas lamps, his face all but shimmering with that same dark innocence, that same irresistible warmth. And it seemed we were holding tight to one another in the very midst of a crowd. And the crowd was a living thing, a writhing thing, and everywhere there came a dark rich aroma from it, the aroma of fresh blood. Women in white fur and gentlemen in opera capes swept into the brightly lighted doors of the theatre; the blare of the music hall inundated us, then faded away. Only a thin soprano voice was left, singing a high, plaintive song. I was in his arms, and his lips were covering mine, and there came that dull zinging sensation again, that great uncontrollable opening within myself. Thirst, and the promise of satiation measured only by the intensity of that thirst. Up stairs we fled together, into high-ceilinged bedrooms papered in red damask where the loveliest women reclined on brass bedsteads, and the aroma was so strong now I could not bear it, and before me they offered themselves, they opened their arms. “Drink,” he whispered, yes, drink. And I felt the warmth filling me, charging me, blurring my vision, until we broke again, free and light and invisible it seemed as we moved over the rooftops and down again through rain drenched streets. But the rain did not touch us; the falling snow did not chill us; we had within ourselves a great and indissoluble heat. And together in the carriage, we talked to each other in low, exuberant rushes of language; we were lovers; we were constant; we were immortal. We were as enduring as Rampling Gate.
I tried to speak; I tried to end the spell. I felt his arms around me and I knew we were in the tower room together, and some terrible miscalculation had been made.
“Do not leave me,” he whispered. “Don’t you understand what I am offering you; I have told you everything; and all the rest is but the weariness, the fever and the fret, those old words from the poem. Kiss me, Julie, open to me. Against your will I will not take you …” Again I heard my own scream. My hands were on his cool white skin, his lips were gentle yet hungry, his eyes yielding and ever young. Father turned in the rain-drenched London street and cried out: “Julie!” I saw Richard lost in the crowd as if searching for some one, his hat shadowing his dark eyes, his face haggard, old. Old!
I moved away. I was free. And I was crying softly and we were in this strange and cluttered tower room. He stood against the backdrop of the window, against the distant drift of pale clouds. The candle-light glimmered in his eyes. Immense and sad and wise they seemed, and oh, yes, innocent as I have said again and again. “I revealed myself to them,” he said, “Yes, I told my secret. In rage or bitterness, I know not which, I made them my dark co-conspirators and always I won. They could not move against me, and neither will you. But they would triumph still. For they torment me now with their fairest flower. Don’t turn away from me, Julie. You are mine, Julie, as Rampling Gate is mine. Let me gather the flower to my heart.”
Nights of argument. But finally Richard had come round. He would sign over to me his share of Rampling Gate, and I should absolutely refuse to allow the place torn down. There would be nothing he could do then to obey Father’s command. I had given him the legal impediment he needed, and of course I should leave the house to him and his children. It should always be in Rampling hands.
A clever solution, it seemed to me, as Father had not told me to destroy the place, and I had no scruples in the matter now at all.
And what remained was for him to take me to the little train station and see me off for London, and not worry about me going home to Mayfair on my own.
“You stay here as long as you wish, and do not worry,” I said. I felt more tenderly towards him than I could ever express. “You knew as soon as you set foot in the place that Father was all wrong. Uncle Baxter put it in his mind, undoubtedly, and Mrs. Blessington has always been right. There is nothing to harm there, Richard. Stay, and work or study as you please.”
The great black engine was roaring past us, the carriages slowing to a stop. “Must go now, darling, kiss me,” I said.
“But what came over you, Julie, what convinced you so quickly . . .”
“We’ve been through all, Richard,” I said. “What matters is that we are all happy, my dear.” And we held each other close.
I waved until I couldn’t see him anymore. The flickering lamps of the town were lost in the deep lavender light of the early evening, and the dark hulk of Rampling Gate appeared for one uncertain moment like the ghost of itself on the nearby rise.
I sat back and closed my eyes. Then I opened them slowly, savouring this moment for which I had waited too long.
He was smiling, seated there as he had been all along, in the far corner of the leather seat opposite, and now he rose with a swift, almost delicate movement and sat beside me and enfolded me in his arms.
“It’s five hours to London,” he whispered in my ear.
“I can wait,” I said, feeling the thirst like a fever as I held tight to him, feeling his lips against my eyelids and my hair. “I want to hunt the London streets tonight,” I confessed, a little shyly, but I saw only approbation in his eyes.
“Beautiful Julie, my Julie . . .” he whispered.
“You’ll love the house in Mayfair,” I said.
“Yes . . .” he said.
“And when Richard finally tires of Rampling Gate, we shall go home.”