After the last of the journey, many hours long, the traveller was hypnotized, her body still moving with the sway and judder of the train, her eyes amazed by stillness. She stood outside the tiny, half-derelict station among the winter weeds. The sky swept to the land. It was a scene by Turner, great clouds, and suggestions of hills; no break of sun in the vanquished afternoon.
Then along the asphalt road that ran above the station, a fawn Cortina drove towards her.
Isolated in the landscape, she and the car seemed destined for one another.
The Cortina swung into the station forecourt among the weeds and grass. The window went down.
‘Name of Smith?’
The driver had an indeterminate alien accent.
The door opened and politely the driver came to lift her two bags into the boot. Heavy with books, not clothes, he must strain. He said, ‘Come for a holiday?’
‘No,’ Rachaela said, coldly, to exclude him.
Not a driver of the city, he did not impertinently press her, presuming on a wish to talk. He fell silent, opening the passenger door.
Rachaela got in. As the car started up she felt relief. Her body had been in motion so long it now seemed only comfortable if moving.
The car was stuffy and dank yet she sank back against the seat, longing to close her eyes. But the alien driver meant she could not abandon herself. She watched the pale olive green of the country stream away along the road. Dark woodland patched it and occasionally the tobacco-coloured basins of fields, a stone farmhouse, an ancient garage with fallen sign and brilliant rust.
The driver did not speak for thirty miles.
Then he said, mildly, ‘I don’t know the area too well. I’m from the town. Will you know the place?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Have to chance it then. Mr Simon sent me a little map. May help.’
She thought of the driver leaving her in the wilderness, running his shabby car home to an electric fireside, a warm semi littered by children’s toys and washing, beefburgers for tea, a warm wife and two lively kids, perhaps a toddler. She was jealous a moment, passionately, furiously jealous of this easy normality. Only the mortgage to worry him, the long odd hours of his work, but the warm wife to come home to and the procreative results of former love.
And what am I? How then do I see myself?
She had a vision of a black moth battered through the night, a deer hastening between the fraught shadows. Dramatic, fearfully apt. No warm fireside for her. To what then was she going, where was this baffled driver, himself unsure, taking her? The quag gaped. Rachaela tensed and found her hands clutched together on her limp black bag long ago wrung out. Faint sickness oozed in her vitals, as it had off and on for days, at this prospect. An adventure after all. Maybe it was correct that she should be afraid. Scarabae.
Across level fields Rachaela saw the sudden sun, watery and veiled, sinking down into the western valleys.
Bold hills rose straight up from the ground, some with white chalk masks, like the heads of phantom animals, leering, smiling, grimacing, holes for eyes. Trees trailed over rock. Ivy grew along the earth, and festooned old broken walls. Once there had been houses. Now, nothing, Gone away.
‘Empty old place,’ said the driver, venturing once more into Rachaela’s silence, making her start. ‘See the sea soon.’
This alliterative phrase snagged on her mind.
She had not known they approached the coast. She was ignorant of everything. The whole world had stayed undiscovered for her, strange names and languages on her radio.
The shop in Lizard Street would be closing shortly. The buses would be scuttling down the highways. A planet away. Lost, gone.
Some seagulls passed across the view.
The road pulled itself up and over, and a sudden break revealed the fish-grey glitter of the ocean. A white cannon-shot of foam discharged itself below. Rachaela’s heart rose with it, fell back fatigued and fearful. The sea did not reassure.
They drove above the water and sometimes a stretch of sinuous beach appeared, and once a great tanker was on the horizon like a slowly swimming dinosaur.
‘Now there’ll be a turn-off here, if I read that map all right.’
Again the voice of the driver snapped at her nerves. ‘A turn-off,’ she repeated. But he was not now inclined to converse.
The turn presently appeared on their left, winding in amongst a vast bank of trees. Black pines rose along the hill, a sort of forest from a fairy book, in miniature. They sped from the sea, and a cave of boughs brought them shadow. Branches struck savagely at the sides of the car. It was a poor road, bumps, and shingle spraying up as if from machine guns.
‘Rough on my tyres,’ said the driver.
Rachaela did not say she was sorry.
He said, ‘Never told me it’d be this bad.’
They swerved through the forest. Sheer blackness coiled under the trees. The sun broke through with a flash and vanished again.
The road curled over and came to a stop against the flank of a crumbling hill. It was dark, the trees massed all about, listening. The Cortina stopped and in the stillness birds twittered and chimed, a curious primeval noise.
Rachaela looked and saw a stone signpost. There were two words on it: The House. Nothing else, not even an indicatory arrow.
‘Must be up the top of the slope.’ The driver turned and grinned at her, showing after all the anticipated face of the enemy. ‘I can’t get the car up there. There’s no road. You’ll have to walk.’
They went to the boot and he drew out the two heavy cases, which she had ported all day, already spent by them.
‘Can you manage?’ he asked, unhelpful, recalcitrant.
‘What do I owe you?’ Rachaela asked.
‘Taken care of. They have an account, the Simons. Don’t know why, they never seem to use a car, until now. First time any of us has been out here. Mind how you go.’
There was a sort of path leading away up the hill from the signpost, veined with roots and scattered by pine needles. In summer the undergrowth would be thicker, the path perhaps invisible.
In the darkness Rachaela began to walk away from the car. She heard its engine start and the sounds as it reversed on the shingly road. She did not look back.
The cases were heavy as lead, but they contained all that had seemed essential to her. She heaved them on.
She was weary, and the nervous fear slid under her exhaustion, nearly extinct. Did the house not exist, as in half of her daydreams?
She rose above the pines, and cedar trees and massive oaks with mossy, glowing peridot trunks climbed from the soil, great pillars upholding a tracery of dull panes, less light than contrast to darkness.
In such a spot, from among the trees, anything might come at her.
The path eddied from the wood.
She was high up. She heard the rush of the sea.
It was twilight, the sun had gone out inland. The sky was closing. She saw two stars, and away over the open land before her, a building.
There was a tower with a cone of roof. Crenellations and walls slanting. Some last hint of light cast a weird burnish on to ranks of slender windows. It was a large house, and in the dusk it became a masonry vegetable. Beyond its shape the land gave way. Below the sea dashed itself against rock and gulls or silence cried.
Here? She was to confront them here? To confront what?
Dizzy with her tension, she had put down the two slabs of lead.
She must cross the formless ground between herself and the house. She must ring a bell or knock some primitive knocker, and then one of them would come. She would go in and so begin to know.
It was cold on this headland. Now she could see seven, eight tinfoil stars, burning icy, thin and hard.
She took up the cases and wands of pain struck at her shoulders. She walked towards the house, stumbling a little on stray stones, the tufted wintry grass.
The house came nearer, drifting over the navy dusk.
She reached an outer wall broken by two posts. No gate. The way was open wide but not necessarily inviting.
Above her, afloat over a tall crowd of garden trees, a window lit up in the house.
Rachaela stared. The light was dull but the window became a fruit of coloured glass, liquid crimsons, dense purples, and damson green.
What did the window propose? Anything? Nothing?
It was not a welcome, rather a shutting out.
The path from the wall to the house was straight. There were massive ancient yews on either side, cemetery trees, where darkness lurked and rustled.
The house too, but for its one lit window, was faceless and black.
A porch became visible. Ebony wood, intricately carved, above five shallow steps, each patterned dimly, which she mounted. No light within the door. A solid wood frame. No bell. Rachaela searched for a knocker, for some semblance of willing communication.
But the door was ajar. It stood open on the empty world, the night and trees. She put down her cases once more and disbelievingly pushed at the door—and it gave.
Blackness and, again, the dim pattern on a white tile underfoot. A black oblong in blackness, there was a second door within the first. Gradually she made out an old-fashioned doorknob, a globe that turned as she gripped it. But the inner door was also open.-A smothered red ember of light appeared, so vague, so intangible, like the glim of a dying candle.
She must go forward into this cobweb half-light.
Or stay outside in the cold and whispering darkness.
Inside the second door was a huge open oblong of space, a hall or lobby with a chessboard floor of russet and black marble. It was as wide as a great room and from it there fell away massed shadows that might be anything, doorways, passages, crouching bears.
On a mahogany table softened by a grape-bloom of dust burned a ruby oil lamp, its wick turned low, while from the ceiling hung, unlit, a snow-flake chandelier. Filmy webs knit the glass prisms of the chandelier, which slipped softly to and fro in the draught of the opened doors. Beads of the red lamp caught on it like drops of red ink.
Rachaela could smell the dusts of the house, and the damp vaults of it, but there was too the smell of the oil, a scent like fur, herbs and powders, tinctures unguessable.
She dragged her suitcases into the hall, and turned to close the inner door.
‘Please leave it open,’ said a flat soft voice.
She moved quickly to face the lobby. A thin, small figure, male, leaning slightly forward, stood at the far side of the lamp.
The doors are always left a little open after dark.’
This strange statement unnerved Rachaela. She left the door alone. She poised by her cases, for what came next.
‘I shall fetch someone for your bags. Will you allow me to show you the room which has been made ready.’
‘Who are you?’ said Rachaela.
Beyond the lamp she saw a mannequin in a shabby ancient suit, a small pale face with two blots of eyes. Grey hair.
‘My name is Michael. I serve the family.’
‘And you know me?’
But who else would come here with the darkness?
‘You are Miss Rachaela.’
‘And—the family?’ she said, her hands clenched.
‘Miss Anna and Mr Stephan will presently come down to welcome you.’
The flat soft voice and its words did not calm Rachaela.
A flutter in the oil lamp as the man took it up caused all the shadows to take wing, the walls to topple. Extraordinary carvings jumped out and vanished again as the light ran off them.
A stairway was born out of the dark on Rachaela’s right. She looked at it in wonder. A wooden nymph guarded the newel post, holding up an ornate light fitment, blind, in her hand. The stairs went up and up, carpeted at their centres in Persian red that the oil lamp made rich.
They ascended in the magic halo of this lamp.
Rachaela counted twenty-two steps. Behind her her cases were swallowed in the deserted blackness of the hall. Only the chandelier caught still red drops among its films of dust.
There was a carpeted landing. A corridor appeared, lighted by another oil lamp on a stand. This lamp was of a pinkish white tone, and abruptly, for a second, Rachaela saw the face of her guide, a cameo between shadow and fire. Not a young man. His eyes were fixed sightlessly. There was a peculiar bloom on them resembling the pollen of dust on the table and other elements of furniture.
They entered the passage. It turned at a massive window, leaded, set with stained glass that had no colour left, showing only the darkness of the night. There were confused pictures on the walls.
The servant of the family opened a door.
‘This is to be your room, Miss Rachaela.’
The room, like the house, was gothic. It was green and blue. A lamp with a base of emerald glass and clear chimney was burning on the mantelpiece of a green-tiled fireplace. A fire worked there busily over a pile of logs. In other places plain white candles were lit in sconces on the walls. She noticed, there was not so much dust, perhaps they had dusted here for her, or this oblique servant had done so.
Across the room stood a bed with posts, hung with bottle-green velvet. An indigo cover was pulled back to reveal pillows that looked white and very clean. Perhaps they had bought new linen just for her.
She sensed their preparations. That she was unique, exciting, like a new-born baby.
There was the faint smell of damp, but over this the dry peppery smell of the fire, and a scent like face powder in a compact.
‘Your bags will be brought up to you.’ The servant Michael indicated the passage. ‘The green bathroom is there. We have hot water.’
‘Thank you.’ Of course the house was old enough to have done without. She wanted the servant to go. The room overwhelmed her yet for a few precious minutes she might hide in it. ‘When do Mr Stephan and Miss...’
‘Miss Anna and Mr Stephan will go down shortly.’
‘How shall I find them?’ she asked.
‘The rooms will then be lit on the ground floor, Miss Rachaela.’
The servant went out and the door shut. A curtain like those of the bed fell back over it.
There was another large slim window beyond the bed, its drapes undrawn; this window too was of blackened stained glass. Rachaela stared and made out the plumed image of a tree, two figures. She would need daylight to see what kept her company here.
She went to the fire. It was appealing, a luxury, and none of the trouble of cleaning or laying it would fall to her. A servant—the Scarabae had domestic help.
Rachaela tried to enjoy the fire.
There were blue iris flowers enamelled on the fireplace tiles. The carpet in the room was very old, Persian probably, blue and rose plants and green birds.
In two places a mirror winked behind the candles, ornately camouflaged by designs of coloured glass jewels. A huge old dressing-table supported a winged mirror whose face was similarly obscured. Rachaela looked at herself through a hedge of lilies, a wild sunset in rays and swallows, cutting her into segments. How bizarre. But it would not matter, she had brought her own ordinary mirror with her.
She sat on the bed a moment, conscious of the dim sound of the sea and of the ticking of a pair of clocks, a black clock on the mantel with two angels, a tiny tower beside the bed. The greater clock told her it was seven-thirty, while on the tower the face showed nine.
Rachaela glanced at her watch, but she had, as so often, forgotten to wind it. It had stopped.
Well, she must prepare for Stephan and Anna.
She could not imagine them.
She got up and made herself go out into the lamp-lighted corridor. She found the bathroom at once, the only other door at this end of the passage.
It was a perfect period piece, for which the rich and famous would pay thousands in the city. Another oil lamp lit up the bath of green marble, the marble wash-basin and wooden-seated lavatory wreathed in green daisies. The vaunted hot water came via an Ascot. White pristine towels lay on a chest sporting eau-de-Nil basin and jug, and a dish of dried petals. The soap was also green with a smell of honeysuckle. New soap, new towels. On the walls mermaids dived over the tiles.
Rachaela looked up. There was a light fitment without a bulb. Electricity had come and gone.
She washed her face, hands and arms, seeing that she was trembling. The mirror behind the basin showed a glass ocean scene with a three-masted ship. She saw her Ups, eyes, the blackness of her hair, in fragments.
Back in the bedroom her bags had noiselessly arrived. She changed her jumper, took off her boots and put on high-heeled shoes. In the great wardrobe with its mahogany wreaths and flanges, each sealed by a fine pollen of dust, she would later hang her few clothes. She disliked colour on her person, it wounded her. Oddly, the black, grey and cream, the sere faint-green and blue would match her always to this room.
She had again the sense of the validity of her arrival, their excitement, and of permanence, that too. She was frightened by these feelings but it was too late to be afraid. She had come to them. They had let her in.
She powdered her face in her mirror and reaffirmed the dark pencil around her eyes.
When she had combed her hair she walked straight to the door. And paused.
She had not heard the coming of the cases, but now someone was proceeding along the passage. It was a peculiar, rhythmic and uneven gait. Then she heard the voice, high and petulant. ‘Giddy-up, giddy-up!’
Rachaela thought of a child pretending to ride a horse. An old child playing up and down the corridor.
There was a tiny scuffle. And the horse rearing: ‘Whoa there!’ And then galloping by and away.
Rachaela opened the door suddenly.
A black shadow cavorted in the passage’s end, and rolled from view.
Something lay by the door.
Rachaela bent down, and touched with one finger the body of a perfect long-tailed mouse. It was dead, without a mark. About its body was tied a faded bow of pink silk.
Rachaela picked up the gift-wrapped mouse.
She held it in her hand. It did not distress her. It was soft and pitiful, beautiful as a toy in death. She laid the mouse on the dressing-table, took her bag, and went into the house.
Downstairs the lamps and candles had bloomed out everywhere. She saw doors in the walls of the hallway, one with black iron fitments like something from a castle. Burning reflections swam in the marble floor.
An archway gave on to a drawing room, a chamber of immense size and filled by lovely sullen furniture, and by the fine lace draperies of dust. The Scarabae lived in a desert of dust, clearing areas as they must, for here and there a table shone like a black pool.
A fire filled the centre of a white marble fireplace whose icy ends were pillars and heraldic shields.
No one was in the room, it was full of waiting.
Rachaela felt the room receive her, closing over her head. The sea sounded louder.
One of them at least was insane—the mysterious galloper, bearer of dead mice. It had been a man’s voice, high-pitched, eldritch, but male. Could it be Mr Stephan who had ridden by?
A sound. Michael the servant of the Scarabae entered with a silver tray. Bottles and decanters glinted on the tray. He set it down on one of the dustless pools of tables. Rachaela was reminded of an expensive advert. Through the arch of the doorway now should come two elegant and well-dressed people.
‘May I serve you with something, Miss Rachaela?’
Rachaela asked for wine and a glass was filled. The crystal was exquisite, the wine transparent.
Rachaela drank gratefully and the liquor leapt into her brain. An electric awareness made her turn.
Through some other door, or out of thin air, two figures had evolved.
They stood side by side.
They were very old, thin as twine, one female and one masculine, and at the borderline of age where the sexes blend, these two had sustained their genders. The woman’s hair was the grey of gunmetal and piled up on her head, held with yellowish pearl pins. Her old dark dress, like something found on hangers in the wealthy clothes markets of the city, hung to her ankles. Her shoes had been in the mode a hundred years before, and were again. A sequin winked, another. She was sprinkled in a sugar of tiny blinks.
The man wore an antique dinner jacket and drained black trousers. His shirt was starched. His hair was thick and white, his eyebrows like iron shavings.
Both their narrow sets of hands were ringed.
Two elderly dolls they stood across the room in the fire and candlelight and their eyes glittered sharply. The eyes of clever rats, not mice.
‘It’s Rachaela,’ said the old man, in a clear desiccated voice and an impeccable actor’s accent, vacant of any hint of anywhere, even the country that surrounded them. He did not sound like the galloper.
‘It is,’ said the old woman. ‘It is.’
And they did not move, forward or away. They were so old the absurd flutterings of youth no longer motivated or disturbed them.
Rachaela said, ‘You must be Miss Anna and Mr Stephan.’
‘Anna and Stephan,’ said the woman. She smiled and her face moved like the sea, a wave, layers of pleated skin. Her smile was only a mask.
The old man said, ‘How polite she is. No formality, please, with us.’
He did not smile, yet the sculptured motionless creases of his face were also masklike.
Age itself was held up before them, and they peered through, the bright eyes of rats in a wall.
‘Later,’ said the old woman, ‘you will meet all the others. One by one. Here and there. No hurry.’
‘We dine, you see,’ said the old man. He added, ‘I like to dine. It’s civilized. But the rest... We keep to different hours.’
‘You’ll grow accustomed,’ said Anna. ‘You must do exactly as you like here. Now it is your home.’
‘No,’ said Rachaela. She spoke too quickly, violently.
They did not notice, or did not care.
Stephan said, ‘We invited you.’
‘Which of you wrote to me—the typed letter?’
‘Oh, not us,’ said Anna. The tide of her face flowed. ‘Not we.’
‘Nasty machines,’ said Stephan. He grimaced and brushed the crumbs of the typewriter off his hands.
‘The letter—’ Rachaela said again.
‘Don’t concern yourself with the letter now. Now you’re here, among us. We are your family, Rachaela.’
The servant entered and went to the tray, and they attended on him in silence.
In the sparkling firelight he brought to the old man a small slender glass of blackness and to the woman a thimble of garnet.
‘We shall dine soon,’ said Stephan.
Michael bowed, there could be no question of his gesture, bowed, and left them.
‘I hope you will like the dinner,’ said Anna. ‘We eat very simply. We live off the land.’
She crossed to a chair and sat down. The old man continued to stand but when Rachaela seated herself to allow him to sit also, he did not do so. He went to a dusty table where a chessboard was laid out with onyx figures. He moved one carefully and stepped away.
‘I must ask you,’ said Rachaela, ‘why I was invited. You pursued me. Why do you want me here?’
‘But naturally we want you. Not only Stephan and I. The others. It’s good that you take your place among us.’ Anna was unruffled.
‘There are many of us,’ said Stephan. ‘We agreed.’
‘Each of you agreed that I must—that I must come here?’
‘We’ve waited several years. Until the right time.’
‘Why,’ said Rachaela, ‘is it the right time now?’
Anna said, light as gossamer, ‘There is a proper time for everything. Knowing it is the art.’
‘Miriam and Eric, George and Peter, Sylvian perhaps, they would have had you here far sooner,’ said Stephan.
Rachaela recoiled at the pure numerical addition. Were there so many of them, the tribe of the Scarabae?
‘But the time was always wrong,’ said Anna. ‘Now the moment has arrived.’
She swallowed what was in her thimble, the garnet, in one stiletto gulp. She rose, and began to walk across the room towards a door curtain. Stephan said, ‘We are going to dine.’ And hastened ahead of her to whirl the curtain away and pull wide the door.
Rachaela got up. She followed like an obedient child. When she had been yet unborn, these two had moved on the earth, adult, leading God knew what lives.
Rachaela had never eaten rabbit before. They told her it was rabbit pie, asking her if she minded, if that would be all right. First there was a clear tomato soup. Michael and Cheta grew the vegetables, she was told. They relied as little as possible on the town.
She did not mind the rabbit, it was not unpleasant, rather bland, she thought. She wondered who hunted the rabbits—Michael, with his oddly focusless, blind-looking eyes?
Cheta served them. She was a female Michael, clad in an ordinary dark dress with a brooch at the collar. Its white stones looked real. Her grey hair was dressed in a bun low on her neck as if to show subservience, and her shoes were flat. Her eyes were just like Michael’s.
Michael and Cheta were not so old as Anna and Stephan, yet they were old, had a dusty attic quality. They were Anna and Stephan come down in the world.
Candles lit the long table, laid with only three places. Above, lightless, a broken chandelier, snagging firelight from the grate. On the mantel was a golden clock, not ticking, stopped conceivably for decades.
The meal was indeed simple enough. After the pie, served with presumably home-grown carrots and fried cabbage, was dished up a dessert of sliced fruit in an alcoholic juice.
A cheeseboard came and biscuits baked by Cheta, and by another unseen one, Maria.
What relation were Anna and Stephan to each other? Did they bear some relation to the servants, for there was a similarity in all the faces. Rachaela found them disconcertingly familiar. Did this mean that she perceived, too, a resemblance to herself?
She did not want to ask these intimate questions. It had been difficult enough to ask what she had. And they had not answered—or there truly was no answer. Maybe their elderly hearts had only creaked out for her youth.
They were fascinated by her. She saw that.
The little questions they plied her with in turn, to do with the food, what food she liked, if she wished for the salt, were popped into her like polished coins into a magical box, to elicit her responses. They watched her with their bright cruel eyes. They would eat her alive. She only had to be, to feed them. They ate the rabbit with fastidious sharp snaps.
The conversation had been slight.
They were no conversationalists. They had come down here to feed.
As Stephan picked about amid the presumably town-bought cheeses, a curtain rustled, a door opened, and another thin old man came wafting in, weightless and virtually silent, with a book beneath his arm.
He crossed the carpet and slid to the table, but not to dine. He stared at Rachaela greedily, craning a little.
‘Eric, here is Rachaela,’ said Anna.
The eyes of Eric were the eyes of Anna and Stephan. His crinkled mummy’s face showed nothing, the thin dry lips were not parted. Eric made a tiny sound, like a hiccup almost, and glided away and out of another curtained door, which seemed for a moment to open on a garden.
‘You mustn’t mind them,’ said Anna. ‘Not all of us are chatty. Eric is a thinker, a reader.’
The door curtain moved again and two old women in fusty beaded dresses blew into the room.
They too swam to the table. They had the eyes.
‘Rachaela is here,’ said Anna unnecessarily, for the eyes beamed and crackled on the newcomer. ‘Rachaela, this is Alice, and this, Sasha.’
‘Good evening,’ said Rachaela, to test them.
Alice in the plum-sombre red replied with a quick darting movement of her hands. Sasha in a lace collar spoke: ‘Good evening, Rachaela.’ Like Anna and like Stephan, her voice, which somehow should have had a foreign accent, had none, no accent at all. It was a fact, each of them should have talked like dummies with the dialect of some mountainous European upland.
‘Did you have a pleasant journey?’ said Alice, abruptly, in the voice of Anna and Sasha.
‘Not really,’ said Rachaela.
‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ said Alice, the waves of her face making up concern. ‘Travelling is so tedious now. So taxing. Everyone is so unhelpful.’
‘Now Alice, when did you last travel anywhere?’ chid Anna, playfully.
‘I remember,’ said Alice, flustered, ‘the great black trains and all that steam and smoke. One was filthy. I remember my hat almost blew away, and Peter had to catch it.’
Rachaela found herself picturing a Soviet snow-scape, the antique monster of the train flying in sparks and fume.
‘It’s years since any of us ventured out,’ said Stephan from the cheese. ‘We have small need now.’
‘We were driven,’ said Alice to Rachaela. Her face was still a mask, but a mask of confiding. Her eyes gleamed to see how Rachaela would react. ‘Driven out.’
‘The pogroms,’ said Sasha suddenly.
Rachaela caught at the foreign word eagerly. They had given themselves away.
‘Ours has not always been a tranquil history,’ said Anna. There was no warning or repression in her voice. ‘But this is too soon to burden Rachaela with the past. She’s never known such things, and perhaps she never will.’
‘Old scars,’ said Stephan. He pushed his plate from him. ‘Old history. The family has borne very much.’
Somewhere, perhaps in the room, a clock struck distantly.
‘It isn’t the time,’ said Anna, still without warning.
Rachaela shivered at the power of unison in this rectangular space.
There were many of them, how many she did not now dare to guess. A swarm, the Scarabae, and heavy with their past which was not hers, and yet which, by relationship, must come to belong to her.
She felt a terrible affinity. She believed she was related to them, had somehow come to acknowledge it in the few weird hours she had spent here.
Alice said, faultlessly, ‘She will see the library.’
Anna gave a little laugh like broken scales.
‘Sylvian was busy today,’ said Stephan.
They sighed, each of them, almost as one.
The large house teemed with these creatures, but they were one thing, facets of a whole, an entity.
And she, Rachaela, where did she fit?
Was she to be absorbed, devoured?
‘Anna,’ she said, forcing herself to utter the name, as if to name them was sorcerous. ‘I’m awfully tired. Would you excuse me if I went up to bed?’
‘You must do exactly as you want, Rachaela. There’s a bell in your room by the fireplace. If you should wish for anything, Michael or Maria or Cheta will see to it. Did Carlo take up your bags?’
‘Yes, that will have been Carlo. He is our strong one.’
Rachaela rose. She was taller than all of them: Anna and Stephan seated at the table, Cheta and Michael, Alice and Sasha facing her across its glowing length set only with three places. The candles shone and gave heat. Above, sprinkled with reflected light, the second chandelier dropped its mutilated beauty.
‘How many are you?’ said Rachaela, stemming the alarm of her voice. The sea sounded very loud in her ears.
Stephan laughed. His laugh was the male formula of Anna’s. ‘Many, many.’
Anna said quietly, ‘Now we are twenty-one persons.’
Stephan said, ‘You forget—’
‘No,’ said Anna. ‘No.’
The dead mouse had been removed from the dressing-table, but the ribbon left there, neatly folded.
Rachaela sat brushing her hair. Her mother had been used to brush it. She was heavy-handed, seeming to think the thick prolifereration of the hair precluded any feeling at its roots. Rachaela had been a tangled child. Once the mane was lopped for convenience. Rachaela had wept. She walked in hatred until the mass of hair was regrown.
The house did not make her dwell on her mother. This brusque memory was used, briefly, as a shield between herself and the house. The Scarabae.
On the stairs as she returned to her room she had met another old man in a greenish jacket. He peered into her face with burning eyes.
‘I’m Rachaela,’ she said. ‘And you?’
But this old man scurried away, not frightened of her but unwilling to communicate. Was he Peter, or George, or Sylvian from the library? What did it matter? They were all one, and twenty-one in number.
There was a key in the lock of her door, and after visiting the bathroom, she used it. She had a vision, of course, of other keys which would open the way, and a troupe of them entering in a noiseless procession to observe her while she slept. Cobweb-ringed fingers over her things, her comb and brush, her powder and mirror, musty dresses shuffling by, the flick of an old man’s sleeve...
It was impractical to leave. There was no means. Besides, she had been doomed to stay. She had nowhere else. All the wide world could not afford her sufficient crannies to hide from them.
For she knew she belonged to them. It was in her bones. She shrank only from certainty.
Finally she undressed and put on one of the pair of nightdresses she saved for emergencies; normally she slept naked. But here she must be protected by an extra flimsy film of man-made silk.
The nightdress was black. She surveyed herself among the marsh of lilies, the sunburst, in the mirror. She had noticed two or three mirrors in the rooms below, each set with coloured glass, ornamented, obliterated. As if seeing oneself must be kept to a minimum.
An empty bookcase stood against the wall. She had already, to ease her nerves, unpacked and peopled it with books. She looked at them. They were hers, her own. How slight her possessions in the house of the Scarabae. How slight she herself against the rooms and corridors, the doors and annexes and inner chambers of this dense-built thing.
Twenty-one, the ancient beetles crept and slipped about their shadowy pursuits.
But she stood alone, compressed by architecture and unusual shapes.
Rachaela got into the white, white sheets and sat up on the clean white pillows, seeing the room framed now in bottle-green velvet.
The fire burned low.
Far away through the house she heard soft groanings of the wood, the breathing of its worn and living heart. The winter night was motionless beyond the window with the tree. The sea was faint.
Rachaela detected old footsteps brushing down her corridor. Then, presently, a woman’s round heels, slow and measured, not stopping.
The galloper had not come back.
How should she sleep?
She lay on her pillows, her body throbbing with tiredness. To sleep you must trust, let go. In this cradle she might lie awake a score of nights.
Rachaela heard a clock chiming walls and rooms away.
She had seen several clocks, none of which told the same time as another.
I can’t even read. She was afraid to take her eyes off the bedroom, its fireplace, its locked door.
Watch then. Watch all night.
Eventually sleep would be irresistible.
She thought of her flat. It was not hers. Had never existed.
The cat would have liked this house. She would have prowled, scratching lightly at the doors to be let in or out. She would have slept, curled there on the indigo coverlet.
Rachaela saw the cat stalking the death of the firelight.
No, she had dreamed for an instant. Going to sleep then after all.
She was safe. They were insane, but so was she to have come here.
‘Have nothing to do with them,’ said Rachaela’s mother, stark in a misremembered room of the past.
‘No, Mummy,’ said Rachaela.
She closed her eyes and beheld a tall male figure, faceless, black of hair, suspended between floor and ceiling. Rachaela slept.