An incredible blitz of colour.
The woman in the bed opened her eyes and found herself drowned alive.
It was the window of stained glass, the light of day behind it now, casting down its panes.
Rachaela moved and a pool of blood and emerald slid along her body, turning the coverlet black and scarlet, dying her skin.
The room was splashed, dashed with dyes. A madness of green and red, magenta, gold and sapphire. Where the glass shone white it was opaque, and impenetrable. Nothing beyond the window showed through.
Rachaela saw the picture, hovering over her like a visitation. The tree clove the window, rising into a canopy of foliage from which blood-red apples scalded. Beneath the tree a man in golden armour with great wings tempted a naked woman to accept a fruit. From the extended apple a serpent coiled like a jewellery chain. Beyond the figures was a deep sky and the walks of a formal garden where animals, a gazelle, a lion, a unicorn, calmly reclined. In heaven a rayed sun looked on in rage.
Eve tempted in person by Lucifer?
It was stultifying to wake to it, this bomb-blast. The whole room was in its web. It gave no peace.
Why had they thought the tempting of Eve applicable to their guest? Or did the subject mean nothing? These pictured windows filled the house, she had noticed them in the drawing and dining rooms; outside another marked the turn of the passage.
She would have to live with Eve and Lucifer.
The clock at her bedside said ten o’clock. The black clock on the mantle told her it was eight-thirty. Which was correct she did not know, and even as she thought this, a clock chimed in the house far away. She counted: Five strokes.
Rachaela got out of her coloured bed, leaving the sheets awash. The face of Lucifer reflected on her pillow, eerie and exact. He had the pale and undefiled mask of a saint, this fallen angel.
In the dressing-table mirror among the lilies and the sun, she saw the tree behind her. She was sandwiched in by glass.
She walked to the bathroom. Its window was a sea with shells. She ran a bath.
As she bathed, brushed her teeth, she heard no sounds from the house beyond its continual soft croaks, its joists shifting, plaster cracking, tiles loosening. The house was filthy and in bad repair. Only its lunatic beauty and its twenty-one persons held it together.
As she came from the bathroom an old woman in a brown day dress of six previous decades hurried by, her head tucked in. She paid Rachaela no heed. They were not all interested then. To some she was a threat, maybe, a new varnished toy which might harm.
She dressed and rang the bell, a tail of frayed blue velvet, for Michael, Cheta, Maria or Carlo to come. It was Cheta who presented herself in her dark frock and without her brooch.
‘How can I help you, Miss Rachaela?’
‘I want breakfast,’ said Rachaela. ‘What must I do?’
‘I’ll bring you something, Miss Rachaela. Or you can breakfast with Mr Peter and Mr Dorian. They always take breakfast in the morning room.’
‘Bring me something here, please.’
It was a wonder they had not come en masse in the night to her room with knives and forks.
Toast it would seem was possible but not coffee. The family did not drink coffee. Tea, then.
‘How do you come by tea?’ Rachaela asked. ‘You don’t grow it?’
‘A van comes to the cottages, from the town. Carlo and I buy the groceries from the van.’
‘Are there cottages?’
Rachaela stumbled on an incoherent twist of hope, the world was not so far away. But the woman said, ‘Six miles off, Miss Rachaela. It’s a long rough walk, but we’re accustomed to it.’
Cheta’s eyes, if it were not inconceivable, would have assured Rachaela that the woman was blind. They were dark, like the eyes of all the people so far encountered in the house, but not sharp and bright; instead fixed, veiled-over, eyes that scarcely moved. Yet Cheta went from place to place with perfect precision. Coordinated, she manoeuvred through the panes of cracked syrupy window-light and went out.
The sound of the sea came and went in the house, vanishing at turns of the walls, behind pieces of furniture or long curtains. In places, conversely, the sea was suddenly loud, the crash of it on the rocks below. It was not to be seen from the house. Nothing was. Every window was of thick hectic glass. The panes were patterned, or they held still fifes: fruit, urns and trailing flowers and sides of crimson, saffron and salmon-pink, viridian and mauve like poisoned ivies, heaven-blue and smouldering red. The rooms were jigsawed with their interrupted reflections. Several of the larger windows contained pictures. Rachaela recognized uncanny and seemingly blasphemous parodies of the Bible: Cain killed by Abel perhaps, over his offering of grapes and wheat, and the slain deer hung around Abel’s hunter shoulders, the neck wound like cornelian. And other cornelians in a round window above the stairs where a prince at a wedding changed the yellow wine into blood.
Rachaela was coldly amused by the bad taste of these eccentric scenes, presumably designed to please the family at its inception in the house. Yet she longed for a chink, some square inch of clear ordinary glass, looking out. The house was a box, a church, shutting in. The awful colours submerged the rooms, making them liverish. Gems of fire hung in mid-air, rainbows caught on the dust.
There were carvings on all the wood.
The old woman Anna had assured Rachaela she must do as she wanted. Lacking anything better, Rachaela moved about the building, losing herself in its corridors, finding locked doors, and opening others which gave.
She saw into lavish bedchambers, but presently she discovered in this way two old men playing chess, beneath a window with an angel in white and blue. The tines of their blue hands petrified on the board. The two old mummy faces moved about like rusty clockwork.
‘It’s her,’ said one old face.
‘Look at her hair,’ said the other.
She was not an intruder but an exhibit. She left them and shut their door.
In other places she came on the Scarabae, or their traces.
Some acknowledged her politely, their sharp eyes eating her up, one or two ignored her, pottering on some crazy mission through the house.
She had become used to these meetings, passings. Their names did not matter—though one stole up to her and said, ‘I am Miranda, and you are Rachaela.’ Being elements of a whole, the collective name, Scarabae, would do.
They reminded her now of insects, their skinny uprightness and bony quick hands.
It was no worse than being in a fantastic old people’s home. Better, for they were all independent and capable of individual governance.
One of them, an interested one, was following her, she became sure of that. Creeping behind her, scraping aside into some empty room should she retrace her steps.
She did not like to be followed, but what else could one expect?
The plan of the house eluded her. It was a shifting kaleidoscope of stained-glass and shadows. The rooms were far darker by day than by night.
Every clock she came on or heard told her of a different time.
Every mirror was choked and occluded. In one corridor a mirror of plain glass was being painted with a skilful if pedantic scene of groves and fountains, meadows and hills. Stacked neatly by the lost mirror were the artist’s impedimenta: the tray of paints, palette, brushes and turpentine, rags.
Elsewhere she had seen paintings; but she did not study them. In one a goat seemed to peer forth from a woman’s aproned belly.
So there is to be nothing sure here, no day, no time, no view of the self.
It was truly a madhouse.
Lacking time, only a vague hunger guided her. She found her way to the dining room and the long table was laid with ten places, and ten of the tribe were in position.
All looked up at her entry.
There were six old women in ancient dresses and four old men in mossy coats. They were all the same as Anna and Stephan, thick hair brushed back or piled up with pins. Ringed talons at work upon cold rabbit-pie and salad.
Rachaela recognized clothes and jewellery she had seen on her journey through the house—impossible to tell the faces and hairstyles apart. Could it be true that all these old women were herself in a hundred years time?
Should she sit down and eat the leftovers with them?
There was no place laid for Rachaela but a woman in a dark frock—her eyes were blind and bloomed-over and her hair was in a bun low on her neck, yet she was not Cheta, she must be Maria—was rectifying this, laying a place at the head of the table.
Rachaela sat down.
The tribe watched her take a slice of the pie and some tomatoes, lettuce.
No one spoke.
Then one of the old women, it was Miranda, said quaveringly, ‘We mustn’t stare.’
And reluctantly they ceased staring, returning to their plates, eating with the quick snapping agility of Anna and Stephan.
Rachaela did not try to make conversation. All this was a grim farce. She did not think that she could say anything that would remotely engage them, and yet they would stare at her again, twenty black eyes.
Anna and Stephan must be their leaders. Anna and Stephan were coherent, or almost, had not abandoned all pretence at normal social interaction. These were wild things dwelling in a stained-glass forest. They came to the pool to drink, ate berries and rabbit sitting upright, stared, considered, ran away or pursued. Was it one of these who had followed her?
She could think of no questions to put to any of them. In any case, would they be equipped to answer a question? Why am I so important to you? A feared treasure, food for your thought? They would tell her, if they told her anything, that she was supposed to be here. She was a part of them. Here was her destiny.
But actually she imagined them grubbing about her inquiry, pawing it, letting it lie.
They were so old no forms had consequence.
And Rachaela had never much bothered with the form of things, either.
She was not very hungry after all. The nursery of old ones pecked and gobbled, leaving their plates quite clean. They passed fruit between them. Their teeth, she had noticed, though discoloured, were still serviceable.
She listened to the noises of gnawing and sipping, the split of rinds and slicing of peels, spatter of pips.
They did not talk to each other even.
Even the old men at the chessboard had been quite silent.
The window, freed of its drapes, depicted a dragon fighting with a unicorn, but from the loudness of the sea, Rachaela guessed the window should have looked down towards the ocean.
Michael and Cheta came in with two teapots, and a plethora of fine china cups were set out.
Rachaela did not stay for the tea, and as she left the room, the forest creatures looked up and stared her away.
During what she supposed must be the afternoon, Rachaela found a chamber on the upper storey which contained a piano and an unstrung harp.
The harp was large and beautiful and sheathed in dust, the piano also. No one had played it for several years. Rachaela scooped the dust away and touched the keys. Their notes were surprisingly unsullied. She herself could not play. She was an audience not a creator. She longed for music in that moment, and thought of her radio brought from her case that morning. She had only one spare battery for the radio. When it was done, what then? She had seen no evidence here of radios let alone a record player.
How far away was the town? Was any transport credible? Would they let her hire a car and go to the town, or was she, fellow inmate, also now a prisoner?
She found the library too, during the afternoon, a massive room with high bookshelves, everything powdered by dust, but for a round table, polished from use. Here a pile of books was stacked ready, and an ebony ruler, inkwell and pen.
Rachaela went to the shelf and took a book at random, smoothing off the dust.
Opening it, she found that every line in the book was neatly crossed through.
She tried another book, with the same result. Another and another from different parts of the shelves. All the same.
Sylvian... busy in the library.
Nothing astonished her. She made one rotation of a defaced globe on the table, and left the library. She negotiated a way towards her room. At the intersection of two corridors, mistaking her direction, she came on a high window with a scene of a baby apparently being drowned among the bullrushes. Below stood a great taxidermist’s triumph of a stuffed horse with a man on its back in pieces of armour. The man shook a sword at her and giggled in a thin soprano.
‘Giddy-up,’ insisted the rider, kicking the sides of the stuffed animal so clouds of dust were released.
When she had passed him and gone on, she sensed his stealthy presence at her heels. It was this one, presumably, who had followed her, and this one who brought gifts of mice. Maybe he caught them himself. He was not exactly like the others, his hair worn very long under the helmet of the armour. He must have discarded that or she would have heard him clanking through the corridors.
Reaching her room at last she had a weakening sense of relief. She locked her door and lay down on her bed, conscious of the pure face of the Devil reflected on to her own. She slept almost at once, as if a spell had been put on her.
The window was dark and the black clock said seven-thirty. Firelight made the room clandestine.
There were matches by the bed, tapers on the mantelpiece, and she lit the candles, the lamps.
She prepared herself as before, for an intimate dinner with Anna and Stephan. After all there were questions she must ask. The needs of hygiene and vanity—toothpaste, powder. The matter of batteries for the radio. More books without lines ruled through them... If she was to stay she must — must—
In the corridor, over the undertow of the ocean, Rachaela heard a new step passing. It was not like the others, lighter and more swift. Something brushed against the door.
Rachaela held her breath. Something different was in the passage.
Then it was gone.
She could not make herself go to open the door for almost a minute, and when she did so, nothing, naturally, remained to demonstrate who, or what, had passed.
Add that to the questions, then.
There was a curious odour in the corridor. It reminded her of some pleasant thing. She could not recall.
‘You must give a list of what you require to Cheta. The van which comes to the cottages carries most things, most known brands.’ This, Anna, in response to the first question.
‘But I’d prefer to choose for myself,’ Rachaela said.
‘Oh no,’ said Anna, ‘could it be worth it, such a long and difficult walk. It’s heathland, you know, beyond the wood. Uphill. Cheta is very strong, aren’t you, Cheta?’
‘Yes, Miss Anna.’
‘But you are not used to such a trek. Seven miles.’
Rachaela noted that the distance seemed to have grown.
‘Couldn’t I hire a car to take me to the town?’
‘Oh, my dear—so expensive. The town is thirty-five miles away.’ Should Rachaela believe this? ‘Besides, so awkward to hire a car. We have no telephone at the house.’
‘But there was a car to meet me at the station.’
‘There is a public telephone in the village. Carlo called the company from there. It was still necessary to send them directions.’
Awkward then, but not completely beyond the bounds. But Anna was evidently discouraging her. Let it rest for now. The precious van would supply batteries perhaps, and other basic essentials.
Tonight five places had been laid at the long table. Only two other Scarabae had presented themselves, the two old men from the blue chessboard, Dorian and Peter. They ate voraciously as wasps and now and then stared at Rachaela, not wanting to miss more than a little of her presence. They did not speak beyond a word or two. She was glad she had not breakfasted with them.
Three old women had come into the room during the meal, which comprised a souffl'e and fish in a hot sauce. The names of the old women were Miriam, Livia and Unice, which as usual did not mean very much. They did not stay, only filled their eyes with great draughts of Rachaela and pattered out.
‘There was something outside my room,’ said Rachaela.
‘That would be Uncle Camillo,’ said Stephan. ‘He likes to play tricks, cut capers.’
‘Yes, I think I saw him on a stuffed horse. And he’s been following me.’
Anna shook her head gravely. ‘Camillo is very old,’ she said quite seriously. ‘Very naughty. But harmless as a silly child.’
‘It wasn’t Camillo.’
Anna hesitated. She said, ‘There is a large cat in the house. A nocturnal beast. We see it rarely, it leads its own life.’
Rachaela shook her head.
‘I don’t think a cat—’
The door opened.
‘Here is Sylvian,’ said Anna. ‘Sylvian, here is Rachaela.’
The eraser of books came forward slowly, his hands clasped at his chest, eating eyes on Rachaela.
‘I’ve been wanting to meet you,’ said Rachaela. ‘Why do you rule through all the words?’
‘The words,’ repeated Sylvian. He looked too fragile to be interrogated but this did not stop her. They were all fragile as the chitinous wings of grasshoppers, and predatory as locusts.
Tn the library. And there was a globe with scratches across the continents.’
‘Words mean nothing,’ said Sylvian, ‘they gather like the dust.’
‘Words convey concepts and dreams,’ said Rachaela.
‘So you deface the books.’
‘I correct them,’ said Sylvian in his cracked firm voice. He unclasped his hands and spread them out, ‘When I have finished, the library will be sound.’
‘I hope I can find some portion you haven’t damaged,’ said Rachaela idly.
‘The north wall,’ he told her, helpful. ‘I have yet to work there. A long task.’
‘Sylvian does what he feels he must,’ said Anna, the translator. ‘I’m sorry if you wished to read the books. But I send for books from the town. Allow me to order some for you, if you will give me some idea—’
‘Are the books delivered here?’ Rachaela asked swiftly.
‘Oh, no. The van brings them to the village, and Carlo carries them back for me.’
‘And the globe,’ said Stephan, smiling benignly. ‘That isn’t the work of Sylvian. Alice scratched at it with a hat pin.’
‘The places from which the family has been driven out,’ said Anna.
‘The pogroms,’ said Rachaela.
‘Oh, Sasha uses that word,’ said Anna. ‘It’s a word she finds applicable. It will do.’
‘So many countries drove out the Scarabae,’ said Rachaela, the globe suddenly vivid in her mind.
‘The family is ancient,’ said Anna.
‘And unpopular,’ chuckled Stephan.
‘Superstitious fears of the ignorant,’ said Anna.
‘We are different,’ said Anna. ‘You’ve seen. We keep close, and have our own ways.’
‘The windows here,’ Rachaela said at random.
‘Some have come from our other houses. We are safe here.’
‘But the windows,’ persisted Rachaela, ‘scenes from a Bible of hell.’
‘Just so,’ said Anna simply. ‘Several were broken by the mob and have been pieced together by artisans. Not all are old. Some new ones were fashioned.’
‘And you don’t like the views from the house.’
Anna said, ‘It’s the daylight we dislike.’
Rachaela remembered the double doors of the hallway. She visualized Cheta and Carlo on their journey to the village, muffled as if against a storm.
Night creatures then, nocturnal like their cat.
‘And you expect me to live like this?’ Rachaela said.
‘You will come to find it comfortable,’ said Anna.
In their places, Dorian and Peter abruptly laughed, as one.
Rachaela said, ‘Aren’t I allowed to go out?’
‘Of course. Of course, Rachaela. By night or day. Oh, let me show you the garden. Come.’
Stephan hurried before Anna to widen the door, already ajar, which Rachaela had seen revealed the previous night. It led into a conservatory of gigantic plants. Ferns towered to the glass roof. Ribbed and ornately paned, the glass was clear.
A stone lion’s head stood among the cups of flowers.
‘Here is the way,’ said Anna, and thrust wide a second door on to the open night.
Rachaela gasped with instinctive relief.
There was the smell of leaves and frost, the night breath of great trees.
A moon hung over the land, an unbroken chandelier. It showed with its blue-white shine the garden of a fantasy, rampant and overgrown. A yew tree, a poplar, a cedar spreading tremendous boughs, and oaks like columns to uphold the sky. A roof of bare stitchwork which in summer would be a parasol of foliage. Ivy mounted the trees, and the rose briars had climbed upon the cedar.
The sea raced and boomed, tireless, on the wall of night.
‘At the end there is a little gate. A path leads along the cliff. Quite safe if you are careful,’ said Anna. She raised her face of wrinkles and fissures into the balm of the moon. ‘Smell the pines,’ she said. ‘Such terrible trees, they overgrow everything if they can. Carlo weeds them out from the garden, and cuts the lawn in summer.’ She flitted forward like an aged fairy. The others ventured after Rachaela, murmuring and susurrating, into the garden. Stephan pushed in among the shrubs to inspect the briars, Dorian and Peter posed grotesquely on the rough grass, Sylvian in the doorway.
There was a moon-dial, the moon’s crescent face also a skull. The dial could not tell time, there were no numerals.
Rachaela pushed through the briars towards the gate. She tried it. It was not locked. Outside she saw the free night, the cliff with its clumps of wild flowers, the terrace of pines. The sea beyond the cliff was smooth as silver cigarette paper. Ozone, salt, carbon dioxide.
Behind her the elders stood, pleased at her pleasure, looking on, their sewn faces placid round their hungry eyes.
She woke, and the shock of the window burned her, made her start. The tower clock told her it was ten o’clock.
It occurred to Rachaela that she was waking at the routine time of seven-thirty, as she had done in the days of Mr Gerard and the shop. Ten, then, meant seven-thirty, or the eight-thirty of the black clock of the angels, that meant seven-thirty also.
The reasonableness of this exulted her. It was a triumph over the house.
She threw off the covers, and the body of the golden Devil which had lain on hers as she slept.
Today she need not explore the corridors and rooms. The liberty of the garden and the cliff path were before her.
She would not trouble with breakfast, as in her former life often she had not. She missed coffee with anger. Perhaps Cheta would buy her a jar of instant from the fabulous seven-mile-distant van. It would be playful to send Cheta and Carlo with her rogue list, such things the old ones never needed—batteries and tampons.
The lower house might be empty. Dorian and Peter breakfasted in the morning room—she did not even know where it was.
She went downstairs. The two high windows reflected their violet urns and saffron sunsets into the chequered floor. The wooden nymph was at her post.
An impulse made her approach the iron-bound door. She tried it, it was locked. Recollecting the structure of the house as she had seen it during her approach, it seemed to her this door might lead into the tower. That she found it locked was only in keeping with the capricious mystery of this church of eyeless mirrors.
Rachaela walked through the drawing room and so into the dining room. The table was bare, and Maria was mildly polishing it. Overhead the years-dusty chandelier looked down into its reflection.
‘Good morning, Maria.’
‘Good morning, Miss Rachaela.’
Maria went on drowsily polishing.
Rachaela crossed to the curtain and pulled it back to reveal the door, closed. Did the conservatory still endure beyond, or had it phantasmally vanished?
As she opened the door a violent smack of whitest light burst over her. It made her mind reel, almost she shielded her eyes. Daylight—already foreign. So quickly the house had blinded and steeped her in its ichors.
She heard an indrawn breath, and looked back to see Maria groping her way from the room.
Rachaela drew herself out into the crystal glare of the conservatory, forcing her eyes to adjust to its brilliance. After two or three minutes her focus returned. She stood and breathed in the light.
The plants were revelling in it, for there was sun today and the glass room was already quite warm.
Rachaela picked her way between the tubular leaves, the green feathers of the giant ferns, the trumpeting lilies out of season.
Although she had found the conservatory door also closed, at night—surely to the detriment of the plants—it stood ajar. The house doors too were kept open after dark. Night was welcome in the house, day not.
There were lily petals on the stone floor by the doorway. No. Not petals. Strong white feathers scattered like an offering. And there was blood.
She thought of the cat Anna had mentioned. But the feathers were large, great quills, surely the cat would not tackle something of this size, perhaps a big gull.
Rachaela moved the disturbance of the feathers from her mind. She refused to be distracted, and opened wide the door, closed it, and stepped out into air.
The winter’s day was cool but not harsh. The sun rode in a thin blue sky meshed with vaporous clouds.
The pines were a black wall. They had crept up on the house to this side and, further off beyond the angled steeps of its architecture, they had built on their terrace, staring out across the cliff edge at the sea. The path was well-defined and broad. Quite safe, as Anna had said. Wild flowers starred the border, flowers that had no business there, it being too early for the spring. The cliff bulged before it fell, it curved. In gaps ahead it became possible to watch the splintering of the breakers eighty feet below.
Rachaela walked along the path, exhilarated by the freshness of light and open air. The vistas of the sea made her giddy. She knew the death-wish pull of space, the ease of falling, and kept well to the inside of the path.
Presently it coiled its way aside, in among the pine trees.
She looked back at the house.
Pale grey, stained with drainage of rain, other weather, and the velvet fingering of lichens. The roofs raised their crenellations, the smoke of their chimneys, their parapets, a brace of weather-vanes, which had somehow contrived each to point a different way. The cap of the tower was just visible. The windows did not pierce or breach, though many passed down the face of the building nearly to the ground. They were a solid witches’ brew of darkness. Here and there some inner shaft of light sent up a flare in them of yawning rose or stagnant green or the blue of an old medicine bottle. But this was a jewel not an opening. Keep out the windows said. A costive house, containing and intemperate. It fulminated in the grey skull of its walls.
Rachaela admired it. It attracted her. All she liked least about it, its imprisoning smother, appealed to her artistically and intellectually, even while the gusts of real air revived her body. She would succumb to the house in time, Anna had been right. Why fight it.
She walked on along the path and in among the black pines. Needles crunched under her boots. The earth was fox-coloured. More feathers were littered about a tree trunk; that was proper, that the cat should do its Goliath-slaying outside in the savage wood.
The trees broke and the landscape altered. The pines had ended with a virile finality on the brink of a rolling grass lawn quilted with heathers and gorse. The sea spread below and the heath above, away and away. She could see distant coves, the cliffs green-ankled and ashed by spume. And too the swell and tumble of the land, pale green and woven brown, the odd tree standing like a mast and closer to hand, a great tilted stone like a descended lightning bolt.
Rachaela walked towards the stone. It was old as the trees, far older very likely. Perhaps it had been here when the Romans assayed these coasts. Perhaps they had marched by and marvelled at it or muttered to their own gods.
Rabbits feeding on the turf shot away as she approached.
The stone was smirched white and carious. Its curious lightning shape hinted at legends of violence. These, like the marching Romans, did not count at all. Words mean nothing, Sylvian had said. Of course, nothing did.
Even this. Even Rachaela standing here in her black hood of hair and her London coat, and her white face that was still that of a young woman, even she did not count, or what became of her.
She would catch the virus of age off them. She would grow ancient, gaunt and friable and tough, like them. Perhaps her hair would turn grey, her breasts drop like withered sacks. She would not lose her teeth, for they had not. There was no evidence among the Scarabae of any crippling disease, no arthritis, no limping and twisting. Their metallic snows of hair were as thick as her own. Their eyes more concentrated and feral.
It was stupid to ask herself what she did here. It had been inevitable. Her mother’s nagging voice, which never quite went away, continued to warn Rachaela against the Scarabae, but even the warnings had driven her, so it seemed, into their lair. Her horror of them had now melted. She was trapped.
And when she was old like them, what after that?
She was not like them. She was the unlike one. That was her purpose.
Rachaela went round the stone. She had noticed strange ripped places on the trunks of some of the pines, and in the soil under the stone were long claw marks, as if from a rake.
Could she walk from here to the village? Six or seven miles. How long would it take her—the going looked very uneven. And she did not know the way.
A bruised cloud, which had been creeping from the horizon, covered the sun. Dark light obscured the heath. She would walk to that hill there and look out. Then she would be tired, for she was not practised in walking. She would go back to the house for food, climb up to her room and switch on her radio for music. Tomorrow she would walk further.
How isolated was the heath. No one in the world but she and the Scarabae.
* * *
That evening Rachaela wore her green dress and a necklace of green glass beads she had found at a jumble sale.
Anna and Stephan were in the drawing room seated on a sofa, already drinking their pre-dinner tipples. Rachaela helped herself to a glass of the white wine.
‘Did you enjoy your walk?’ asked Anna, comfortably.
‘Very much.’ Tired out, she had fallen asleep again in the shards of the window, listening to Verdi. ‘Which is the way to the village?’
‘Across the heath. But it’s eight miles. Surely too far for you?’
‘I might work up to it,’ said Rachaela. ‘The exercise will do me good.’
They went into the dining room and three places were laid. Cheta and Maria served them. Maria had recovered from her hurt, the blast of daylight from the conservatory.
There was asparagus soup, and then a meat dish already sliced in a sauce. It had a fishy taste, and was rather stringy.
‘What meat is this?’
Anna looked obliging. ‘Seagull,’ she said. And then, ‘I do hope you don’t mind it.’
Rachaela had checked and put down her fork. To eat a gull was no worse than to eat a rabbit or a lamb, yet somehow it offended her. She did not want any more.
‘I’m afraid I don’t like the idea,’ she said.
‘Our habits spring from necessity.’
Who had hunted the gull, scattering its feathers underfoot? Surely not after all the cat, as she had supposed.
‘No, I quite see that,’ said Rachaela. ‘But nevertheless, I’ll leave it.’
There was an apple tart to follow, and Anna urged her to take two helpings, which Rachaela declined. She was used to eating sparely.
After the dinner, they did not speak.
Stephan stared into the fire. Anna embroidered, long flowers and streamers of foliage.
Rachaela sat in the silence and eventually excused herself.
Out in the hallway she sensed a sizzling undercurrent in the drugged air. Something had passed, or lingered still in the shadows. She went to what she took to be the tower door, and tried it again. It did not give.
An old woman in purple came down the stairs and went by Rachaela with a single look. Rachaela did not guess whether or not they had met before. Was it Livia or Unice? Would she know any of them again? Anna and Stephan, perhaps. And Sylvian the destroyer.
In the passage upstairs there was a scent of warmth, of something living, but nothing stirred. No mice lay on the threshold.
Beyond the closed sarcophagus of the house the wind was rising, moaning round the corners. Rain struck the window of the temptation. The cool quiet day had ushered in a storm.
Rachaela imagined the rain splashing in at the conservatory, at the double door at the front of the house, through any other apertures left ajar on the night.
The thunder smote the house like an engine of demolition. The house shook.
Rachaela opened her eyes, lifted herself. The darkened window pulsed and quivered with rain, the wind and the sea between them made a noise in which ancient screaming and the collapse of walls might distantly be made out.
The air was galvanic, a sheen on it like sightless fire.
Rachaela wished she could see through the window to the storm. She sat upright in the bed and waited for the lightning. It came. The picture in the window flashed a ghostly blue and ochre and imprinted itself upon the room, on Rachaela’s white arms and features. And in a chair across the room something sat, facing her.
The light was gone.
Had she mistaken it—some trick of shadow?
She reached out slowly and found the matches, the candle on the bedside table. She must strike this primal glow into being, and see.
Rachaela struck the match.
A man sat in the chair, black on blackness, pallor on the black.
Uncle Camillo... Camillo the trickster had broken into her room.
Her hands numbed, she put the match to the candle and took it up. Its light soaked out and the man was really there.
It was not Camillo.
He said, ‘You like storms.’
‘Yes, but I don’t like finding strangers in my room.’
‘Not a stranger, Rachaela.’
Even seated, he was tall. She could not make out what he wore, dark things. His hair was black, outlining his face, doing no more than that. The face itself was an image of light and shade, clear bones cloaked in skin. He was not old, her age, perhaps. But his eyes were not like the eyes of any of them, black and still as pools of paint.
‘I don’t care,’ Rachaela said, steadily, ‘I want you to get out. Now.’
‘But I’m looking at you. I’ve had to wait nearly thirty years. I’m interested.’
His face was devastatingly familiar. It was like her own.
‘Who are you?’ she said. ‘One of the Scarabae?’
‘The last, but for you,’ he said.
‘You’re telling me,’ she said, ‘that you are my father.’
‘There’s nothing to you of your mother. Did she never reproach you that you looked like me?’
Unbidden, her mother’s face rose up in her brain, the unliking look, the hostility always there. A mother who did not confide, never consoled, told stories of dark things, the wolf that blew down the piggy’s house...
‘You’re much too young to be my father.’
‘I look younger than I am. As you do, Rachaela.’
He said her name as if he tasted it.
She would not pull up the sheets to cover the nightdress, would not look away.
‘You must be mad,’ she said. ‘Mad if you are my father, mad if you aren’t.’
‘Where else would I be but here?’ he said.
The lightning came again then, and the thunder on its wings. Some draught or vibration snuffed the candle as in the most clich'ed drama of fiction.
And in the pitch dark, she heard the chair whisper, the door murmur to itself, opened. Closing.