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Chapter Fifteen

Driver number three was quite confident. Pitchley. I know Pitchley. Where the new estate is. Itll cost a bit.

.Yes.

Thats OK then. Jump in.

Seeing the line of taxis at the station in Porlea she had not been optimistic, but time had narrowed the spaces of the countryside. The territory of the Scarabae had been breached.

She recollected the way, even backwards and in the early summer greenness. She recognized the broad motorway, churches and pubs.

Only the normality was unnerving.

She did not recognize the village.

A small supermarket had been built, there was a post office and a greengrocer, a new bold pub with a rainbow sign The Carpenters. Up on the hill the new estate, chocolate brown, with gabled roofs, satellite dishes, wheels of washing and model cherry trees in gardens. Somewhere in the middle lay the depression of grey stone houses. The derelict fields had gone to lawns.

Here you are, said the driver. Where do you want me to drop you?

At the top of the hill.

The estate.

He drove her almost on to the drive of the last brown dolls house.

She paid him and got out. She watched him drive away.

The crows had gone. Where did crows go to?

It was all so different. But it was still the place. The starting point for the long walk over the heath to the house.

Her bag was light now, only packed with the bare essentials.

She had better be careful of the road. There might be more traffic.

Rachaela was correct in this assumption. Three cars went by her in her first half-hour on the road.

The sun westered as she passed the gutted farm that had now been pulled down. She saw where the crows had gone. There was a delegation here. She remembered the rook or crow sitting in the hedge the night she had come away for ever. For ever, after all, had not been so long.

The heath, when she came up on it, was alive with colours. Brown and gold among the green, purple flowers, the gorse in sunny clumps. Birds flew and circled, calling.

It was right it should look different, coming back. In her memory it was too bleak, too desolate, and that had given it an added power.

She was moving now towards the sea. She felt it, like a void before her.

After she had walked for another half hour she was tired to the bone. She sat down on a rock. The sky was thickening. Would the daylight last? She must not rest too long.

Such parts as these Ruth had drawn, and peopled them with dragons.

A gull cried spitefully in the sky.

Presently she got up and went on. She did not have the stamina of years ago, but she would have to make it. She did not want to be marooned on the heath when darkness came. Not now.

The sound was like her tiredness at first, a long thrumming in the ear. Then she knew it for what it was. The rock jutted through the thin pelt of flowers and grass, and all at once the horizon concertinaed. She was looking out into the vault of air above the sea.

She came to it and stood and looked down into the dragons mouth. The waves clashed along the bastions of the cliffs. She might have been here yesterday.

Darkness seeped up from the earth.

The sun was setting as she walked by the brink of the ocean.

Like a mirage she saw the blackness of the pines, and all at once, the house, small in the distance like a toy. Flawless. Its banks and slopes. One blazing emerald window.

She stopped in wonder. In wonder at herself. For she had come back.

After sunset the doors would be opened. It was the right time as she came around to the front of the house. She paused again to see its silhouette against the dimming sky. The stars were there, slightly altered, for it was a different season and a later year. She saw the tower. She felt a strange sinking in her stomach. No, she must remember, the peculiarity of the house had also to do with her perception. She must, this time, be rational.

The doors gave, just as before. As before she entered into the huge open hall or lobby, with its chessboard floor of russet-and-black marble. It was as wide as she recalled, rationality did not make it smaller, And there the shadows massed, the crouching bears that might be anything, and through the high windows dropped the occluded violet-yellow dregs of light.

The red lamp was burning on the mahogany table, catching above the chandelier with its drops of blood.

The smell of the house was the same. A church of damp and incense, old woods and musty closets, polish, oil, and sweet decay.

This time she did not turn to shut the door.

She glanced at the tower in the shadow, and dismissed it.

No one to greet her, now.

That was proper. She was superfluous and perhaps not welcome.

Could she find her way in the dark?

She walked to the stairs. The nymph guarded the newel post, holding up her blind light. A new spider had woven from her shoulder to her upraised arm, a film-set touch that was too apposite. Rachaela put her foot on the red Persian carpet and started up, out of the scarlet ambience of the lamp.

Twenty-two steps.

On the landing a soft light shone into the dark from the corridor, as in memory. The second lamp was lit, as it had been then. She recollected it falling on the face and sightless seeing eyes of Michael, the first of the Scarabae household she had ever beheld.

She entered the lit passage and there was the window in the elbow of it, dark now as then, a crowd of pictures on the walls, paintings beneath paintings.

And there the door.

How familiar it was. As known to her as the door of the flat.

Would this room be locked?

The doorknob turned easily, and the door opened on the blue-and-green room.

It shocked her, for it was just the same, as if memory had now been lifted from her head and unfolded in front of her. The green fireplace, with the black clock with angels, the dressing-table and figured mirror, the four-poster bed. The covers of the bed had been drawn back a little, the action of an hotel, to show the clean pillowcases and the white sheet.

There was no fire on the summer hearth. A fire screen of embroidered blue roses stood there. Mrs Mantini would have had an eye for that.

Rachaela tossed her bag on to the bed.

Her radio stood where she had left it, on the table.

She lifted it up and saw that long ago the batteries had leaked and burnt the wood.

She crossed to the wardrobe and opened it and saw her abandoned clothes hanging in a neat row. A faintly powdery smell hung with them, but they were not moth-eaten, would still fit her despite twelve years and the bearing of a child.

The night window loomed at the rooms back. Its picture was quite evident to her, even in blackness, the leaded tree and standing figures, the apples and the unicorn.

Rachaela left the room and walked into the bathroom. Mrs Mantini would have been busy here, too. Indeed the whole house would have been a paradise to Mrs Mantini.

There were fresh soaps and clean towels.

Rachaela had been expected.

Why? They would think her maternal instinct outraged at the extraction of her child? Burning hot with zeal, the anguished mother rushing after. For what did they know of her half-hearted attempts at abortion, the years endurance. Had Ruth described anything of Rachaelas brand of motherhood?

Rachaela took the oatmeal-coloured dress out of the wardrobe and hung it up. There was no doubt it would fit her.

She went back into the bathroom and ran a bath.

As she lay in the water, she heard the soft brisk heels of a female Scarabae pass along the corridor outside. Unice? Miriam?

The sound was so usual to her. Perhaps she had missed it in the flat, these passagings. Only the loud bad music below and the arguments on the landing.

She thought: I am a few walls, stairways, rooms distance from him.

Until now she had hardly thought of Adamus. He had formed her life, as for the last twelve years she had lived it, formed her every day by the acts of one extraordinary night. Through the years she had sometimes half dreamed of it. She had never permitted herself to conjure it up. And over it had meshed a concrete slab, which now the lever of the house was painfully and irresistibly easing up, She had known she must face Adamus, or the idea of Adamus, if she came back.

He was her reason, after all; Adamus with Ruth.

She got out of the bath and towelled herself dry. Going into the bedroom again she put on the oatmeal dress which might have been bought yesterday for fit. Its faded quality did not displease her, or the soft odour of destruction. She must camouflage and arm herself.

She powdered her face in her mirror and reaffirmed the dark pencil around her eyes.

Would Camillo leave her another gift-wrapped mouse?

But when she opened the door, nothing and no one was outside. Only the burning lamp conveyed the half-life of the house.

Did the Scarabae still dine, or had customs changed?

She would have to see.

Rachaela walked into the corridor and along to the landing, and descending the stairs she saw the lamps were lit in the drawing room as on that first night years before.

In the drawing room Michael and Maria stood like cut-out figures in their dark servile clothes.

Michael, Maria, she said.

They gave her stiff little bows, what she would have expected.

Michael said, Miss Rachaela, please go straight through into the dining room.

Id like a drink first, Michael.

Miss Anna told me to ask you to go straight in.

Rachaela shrugged. Something twisted in her belly, a phantom Ruth-baby.

She went towards the second door, and Michael hurried ahead to open it for her.

She walked into the dining room, and stopped, not surprised, perturbed only by what she had suddenly anticipated.

For they were all there, as on the memorable occasions in the past.

Their known, nearly identical faces, slid by in a wave of tawdry dinner jackets, sequined old lace. Could she still name them? Yes. Alice, Peter, Jack, Livia... Not Camillo, never Camillo. She saw and registered all this in parenthesis. For at the tables head sat the most bizarre Scarabae of all. In an exactly similar perhaps resewn dress of dark green voile and net, a necklace that was a heart of green cut-glass, and jade ear pendants, her black hair flowing from tortoiseshell combs, her face smoothly powdered, lids black, lips crimson: Ruth.

Ruth sat among the Scarabae like a living plant among ancient statues. She had bloomed from their support.

Across the room she smiled at Rachaela her straight white teeth that had never needed a dentist.

Hallo, Mummy.

Almost the first time ever she had volunteered a greeting.

But then, she was at home here, not Rachaelas unwanted guest.

Rachaela did not answer.

To Ruths right, Anna stood up.

Come and sit down with us, Rachaela. Were so very glad that you came. We hoped that you would.

I had to, Rachaela said. She said blankly, You stole my child.

Oh, no, Rachaela. Not stealing. Not that.

Ruth said, piping up like a bright and confident pupil, I asked the man. He knew the way. I came by train on my own. I liked it. They sent a car to the station.

And you walked up the hill through the trees, said Rachaela.

Michael was there. He showed me the way.

She was not afraid to speak to Rachaela. Not reluctant. It was as if it had all been planned.

Rachaela looked at the weird miniature woman her daughter had become. She did not look like a child dressing up, more like the daughter of a medieval family, dressed always as a smaller version of the adults, a woman at eleven or twelve.

Come and sit down, Anna said again. Her dress blinked its myriad eyes and all the dresses, Ruths included, did the same.

Rachaela went to the table. A place had been laid at the foot, opposite across the long surface, to Ruths place. As if they had known to the minute the time of Rachaelas arrival. Probably everything had been kept ready for weeks, prepared as soon as Ruth got here.

Rachaela sat down, and Cheta came to serve her.

It was a rabbit casserole.

Rachaela ate cautiously, not sure now she could stomach such food.

Ruth ate neatly and voraciously, like a starling.

There was wine, a deep coal-red. Cheta poured a glass for Rachaela.

Ruth too had wine which she drank in greedy little sips.

None of them had changed. This family did not.

Ruth sparkled in the midst of them like a jewel in cobwebs.

The family was pleased. It had an aura of well-being. They had got what they wanted. All of them basked, the Scarabae, Ruth.

Only Camillo was absent. And Adamus.

Rachaela left her food unfinished.

A few days ago, said Ruth, we had seagull. Jack found it.

Rachaela said, The cat used to hunt them.

The cat is very old now, said Anna. It sleeps all day and most of the night.

Something had altered. The cat had altered.

Maria brought a strawberry tart.

Rachaela watched Ruth spoon the tart into her red mouth. She had a second helping, as she had done of the casserole. Real home-cooked fare, such as Emma had provided.

Rachaela got up. Excuse me. She took her glass of wine across the room, and watched the table from there. It was obscene to pretend to be part of it.

If she, Rachaela, had been abducted as a child or teenager, would she have responded to the Scarabae as Ruth did? Who could tell, now.

The meal was finally finished with the cheeseboard and a dish of fruit. Ruth ate from these too.

The Scarabae rose and went like some collective creature, some sort of amoeba with Ruth its glowing heart, into the drawing room.

Here the old men and women deposited themselves about the room. They took up knitting and sewing, books and chess games. A mild muttering came from them like settling insects.

Maria and Cheta served tea.

Ruth stood before the screened fireplace in her duchess gown, drinking her tea, the focus for all the eyes which constantly rose and came to her, and the old smiles which lifted up the lips over the discoloured, sharp old teeth.

Ruth set down her cup and saucer by the stopped golden clock.

Shall I go up now?

Yes, said Anna from a couch. Go up.

Rachaela observed her child swirl delicately from the fireplace and hurry with the well-known, swift fox-like movement from the room. Her acknowledgements to Rachaela were over. Ruth did not even glance at her.

Where is she going, Anna? Rachaela asked steadily.

Into the tower.

Adamuss tower.

Adamus is teaching her the piano, Rachaela.

A heartbeat interrupted Rachaelas breathing. She cleared her throat and said, How logical.

Yes. It seems she has a natural aptitude.

No doubt. Anna, Rachaela hesitated. I want to talk to you.

Anna got up like a faultless, tactful hostess. Perhaps youd like to see Ruths room?

All right.

Nobody watched them go out in turn. The Scarabae were not concerned with Rachaela now. Her day was over.

They travelled by a short stairway from the morning room, up into a narrow corridor carved with horses heads. Rachaela could not recall coming this way in the past, but she must have done, for she had surely explored all the house. At a turn in the corridor she saw a picture she remembered, a ship at sea, and under the waves a chariot racing from a previous painting.

There was an annexe beyond the corridor with two windowsblackened, impossible to decipherand then a single door.

Anna opened the door and motioned Rachaela forward. Its only ethical. Youre her mother.

Rachaela entered a room of blood.

It was blood-red. The walls of embossed paper, with here and there a darkened bruise of damp, the fiery carpet, the four poster draped and covered in the colour of Ruths velvet mouth.

Rachaela stood speechless.

Red. The blood of menstruation and the torn maidenhead. The red of the womb which bore the child. The red of the blood drunk at a feast. Which was it, or was it all of them combined?

The room had its window, too.

Rachaela gazed hard at it.

She made out a Nativity, but it was wrong. A ray from the lamp beside the bed showed that the Virgins dress was also crimson, while the Three Kings had the heads of beasts: a horse, a lizard and a cat. Nearby, almost missed, was an ass with the bearded head of a man.

Your symbolism, Rachaela said, is always curious.

We have our own ways, Rachaela. This has always been the childs room, the girl-child. She is our saviour, you see.

Because a girl can make babies.

Exactly, said Anna undisturbed.

Rachaela said, Shes too young.

Not technically, of course, said Anna, but I agree. A few more years should be allowed to elapse.

When shes fourteen, fifteen?

Something like that.

Its not legal in this country, Anna.

Oh, this country. Anna smiled. Were our own country. All our countries and none.

And who is the prospective male? said Rachaela. She was sweating in the hot colour of the room, You know, of course, said Anna.

I know, of course. Grandfather and father and lover. That should be incestuous enough even for you.

Anna lowered her eyes decorously.

This is the best way, for us.

And does Ruth know what you have in mind?

Ruth knows and accepts she is important to us. Luckily, this time, we have been able to welcome her in her youth. Shell grow towards us, and towards her father. He already fascinates her, which is not surprising. In the end, it will seem natural to her. There is a little ceremony that will take place. This will help Ruth, as she grows older, to understand.

No, Anna, said Rachaela.

Its out of your hands, said Anna simply.

It isnt out of my hands. Ill take her away.

Even if you could make her go, said Anna, Ruth would return to us as quickly as she could. Ruth has no trouble in identifying with the Scarabae.

Its disgusting, Anna. What happened before was bad enough, was foul enough. But this

How jealous you are, Rachaela. Im sorry for you. If you had stayed, the role of wife would have been yours. But you chose not to. We have had to wait in patience all these years.

Jealous. Yes, that must be it. It was not the unliked child she struggled to shield, but the mans flesh she would not see mingled with anothers.

Anna had not changed either. Of them all, she was most like the Anna of the first meetings. But now too she was a true adversary. They did not want or need Rachaela any more. She would be allowed in as an adjunct, and kept from doing further harm. They owed her only the debt of Ruth.

No, Anna, its filthy and I wont allow it.

Anna lifted her hands and let them fall.

You fight against the tide, always.

Shes a child. Am I to let you do this to her?

She will be agreeable. What alternative do you offer her? Youve had your freedom, Rachaela, and what have you done with it? Yours is only a sleeping life.

Its mine.

Then live it, and allow Ruth to live hers.

We wont agree on this, Anna.

No. I expect not.

Rachaela felt utter helplessness, as she was meant to feel, and as she guessed that Anna saw.

Then Im to be a spectator, she said.

If you wish.

Around them the blood-red bedroom pulsed and smouldered. Rachaela imagined Ruth asleep here. Waited on by servants, her bed made, possessions carefully dusted. There on that table a box of paints and drawing pad; by the bed another box, of jewels, pearls and faceted glass. Everything had been catered for. Here Ruth could live: a pampered being, a fairytale princess, safe in the castle at last. And with a fairytale prince provided.

Its all too exact, said Rachaela. Something will happen. You dont know Ruth.

Oh yes. Ruth is like us. You were the rogue flowering, Rachaela.

Rachaela lay in her green-and-blue bed and listened to the house shifting, and the breath of the sea.

She must make some scheme for herself, the best thing to do.

Once or twice, soft stark footfalls went along the corridor.

The tower clock by the bed told her it was five-fifteen, almost three then, if she remembered the time interval correctly. Or unless the clock had changed its pattern. But surely the clock was like the rest, changeless.

Had Adamus changed?

Did he look old now. He would be over seventy, if it could be truefoolish to reiterate any doubt. It was true, must be so.

But Ruth would not be drawn to an old man. The thirty he had looked would seem old enough to a child of eleven. But Ruth was not a child.

Rachaela saw Ruth again as she had appeared. An eldritch maiden. A mask in a dress.

She would have to speak to Ruth.

For the first time, properly speak to her.

The sea sounded louder as it claimed the beaches. The power of water.

Was Sylvian still out there, floating with the galleons and flotsam?

In the morning Rachaela bathed and dressed, and tugged on the bell-pull so that Cheta miraculously appeared. Everything was superficially as before. Toast and tea.

Rachaela recalled her former hypnotized aimlessness, and went out quickly.

She took the correct corridor, found the Salome annexe and climbed up to the attic.

The attic was not as it had been. The rocking-horse was gone. Webs of dust made a cats cradle about the space. On the chests the brown bottles of Uncle Camillos wine, many minus their corks, were wreathed and veiled.

Camillo had not been in the attic for months and perhaps for years.

The dust from the old house gathered everywhere, the powders of its grinding bones.

A cherry-and-green stuffed bird turned slowly to an icicle of dust.

She had laid the hammer there, after she had tried to break the tower window. A useless moment of violence. Let her recall and beware. The hammer was no longer where she had dropped it. Rachaela left the attic.

She began to move through the house as she had done before, opening doors, now trying to force doors which would not open. She found Alice knitting in a pale sitting room whose window was a gigantic cloudburst of primrose and grey. At the windows foot, cities burned and Alice performed complicated clicks and twiddles on her steel needles.

Had she located Alice in this room before? She had come on no other Scarabae beyond Cheta, who had brought her breakfast. Two of the doors she had forced had turned out to open the other way, and to be cupboards containing piles of bedclothes, folded.

Alice, where is Camillo?

Alice knitted.

I dont know, Rachaela. Perhaps you should try the library.

That was Sylvian.

Uncle Camillo goes there now. Oh, such a lot of books we used to have. Rooms and rooms of them. I can remember Uncle Camillo playing with us, popping out from behind the chairs.

Rachaela left Alice and wove her way through the house to the library. No one was there, but on the table stood the mutilated globe, the ink and ruler.

Rachaela looked at the ruler. It was plain ebony. She had seen Camillo scratch a skeleton on the ruler, but it was gone.

She tried the books. She looked at the lines ruled through the sentences. She found one book with single words left unruled. After much effort, she put the sentence together which the book now consisted of; We have fled before them.

On one wall, the north, the books were readable. No one had taken up Sylvians work, despite the ominous ruler and ink, Rachaela left the house and went to the steps which led down to the beach.

The sea was in, turquoise green, foaming.

She turned back to the house and resumed searching. He was the oldest of them. He had the roots of things secreted in his mind. She could not go to Adamus.

What was Ruth doing? Perhaps asleep in bed. She had liked to lie in on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes sitting up to draw.

Rachaela lost herself in the house as if it were essential that she must. She found another door that would not open and knocked loudly on it. When she tried again the door gave suddenly as if it had decided of itself to let her in.

There was, inside the tall yellow bed, an old man, tucked up to the chin. Between the bed and the door, a splash of red and white on the rooms ochre. The rocking-horse.

Camillo?

The pane of the old face turned, the long white hair fanning out on the pillow.

One must be careful, too, of intentions among the Scarabae. She had meant to find him, and she had.

Ive been looking for you, said Rachaela.

She advanced slowly. Had he come to this after all in the twelve years, the couch of age and decrepitude? There was no smell of the invalid in the room.

Camillo, she said again.

He looked at her. His eyes were sharp as knives.

One night, he said, the mob came. They shouted round the house and the servants ran to my mother, they were so frightened. My father picked me up. Get dressed, he said, put on your warmest things. Outside the sleigh was ready and the horse to pull it. They had taken off the bells. My father used the whip. We started at such a speed. I remember the white snow splashing up like a wave.

I dont want to hear this, Rachaela said quietly.

The crowd had been misled, said Camillo. They ran after us and stones thudded round the sleigh. My mother was weeping. She had on all her jewellery and a great fur cloak over her nightdress. We drove from the outskirts of the town. There were men running with torches but the horse bolted past them. I was excited, too young to understand everything had been left behind. Out into the white woods we ran. Great spumes of snow roared up and the trees were like huge white candles, glowing under the moon. I sobered, thinking of sagas I had heard of wolves, but my father hushed me. My father said, Men are to be feared, not wolves. Then the forests closed about us and there was no more light.

Camillo.

The sleigh ran all night. Once on a hilltop the trees broke, and we looked back and saw a vast red light on the horizon. My mother cried out. She said that they were burning our people. My father said the town itself was burning. Then the trees swallowed us again.

And in the morning, said Rachaela, the light came, and you hid your head and wept.

Camillo grinned. Good, good. I dont have to finish it.

Why did you tell me?

Youre here.

Who were they, the ones that died?

Scarabae, said Camillo. Always Scarabae.

Superstition, which they themselves fostered, killed them.

Twinkle, twinkle little star, said Camillo, how I wonder what you are.

You were afraid of the light because youd been taught to be afraid of it, said Rachaela. You believed you were vampires because someone told you that too.

What is this creature, said Camillo, a mouse? An elephant?

How can I take Ruth away from them?

Ruth, said Camillo, that nasty child.

Rachaela stared at Camillo.

You dont like her.

A viper in the bosom.

Then help me get her away, Camillo. Tell me how?

Theres no hope of it, said Camillo from the yellow box of bed. She is their bud now. And you are grass cuttings, the bush that wont flower. Go away.

Camillo

One night, said Camillo, the mob came. They shouted round the house...

Rachaela saw the old face close again like a crab upon its story. She went to the door and he recited the words until she had gone out and shut the door behind her. Then there was silence in the room again.


Chapter Fourteen | Dark Dance | Chapter Sixteen