Sugar and spice
And all things nice.
Chorgeh said, leaning a little over the balustrade, «How does she merit the name? I wouldn't think her even somewhat stylish. Her hair scraped back under that worm of a hat, her gloves darned. Her figure is all right; her face is nothing, only sallow. Her eyes—Well, they seem a little unusual, tilted, like an Oriental's. Is that the clue?»
«Not at all,» said Chorgeh's informant. The two men (Chorgeh young and dangerous-looking in his fashionable coat, the elder conservative and restrained, yet tapping a new-fangled cigarette on a silver box) stared a moment over the gallery at the woman passing underneath along the arcade. «No, it's nothing about her appearance. Put it in the Roman tongue. Have you never heard of deadly nightshade?»
»Poison ,» said Chorgeh, abruptly smiling, pleased and satisfied. «I see .»
Below, the woman had paused to glance into one of the tiny, dainty shops. It was true, she looked poor, shabby, and neglected, by others and herself. Close to, her face would be unpowdered, her nails too short, her hair carelessly combed and stuffed into a small bun, unbecoming and resentful.
«Other than Bella Donna , her name is Julie d'Is.»
«You know this for a fact.»
«Oh, I know all about her. I make it my business to know such things.»
«You romancer,» said Chorgeh. The man was his uncle, inasmuch as he had once been Chorgeh's mother's lover, and remained her friend. The man was also a writer of some eminence. His stories were always interesting, and sometimes real, but Chorgeh felt free to insult him, since he was one of the few persons Chorgeh genuinely respected. The «uncle» smoked his cigarette, and Julie d'Is, the Beautiful Lady, gazed in at delicate eggs of enamel and wonderful chocolates in the shape of flowers. Her face was like a snake's now, without expression. Clearly, she regarded such items as having nothing to do with her, she only watched their strangeness, perhaps to see if they would provide prey.
«She does look,» said Chorgeh, «a remarkably horrible woman.»
«Be well advised. Keep far away from her. No, I'm not joking. A distance of ten feet was reckoned barely sufficient.»
«Then she is a poisoner.»
«Aside from Bella Donna, she was called the Angel of Pestilence.»
«But not any longer?»
«Now she's avoided. She lives in a tiny apartment near the Temple-Church. No one visits. She calls upon no one.»
«Look, she's moving on. Shall we follow her?»
«If you like,» said Chorgeh's «uncle.» «But I warn you, if she turns, we retreat.»
They descended from the gallery, and moved after their quarry through a light, pushing, frivolous crowd. It was a bright winter day. There was hard sparkle on everything, and now and then the wind attacked from corners, the columns below libraries, and wolflike down long steps, mutter-howling under its breath. The sunshine insisted that they be pleased by it, but it blinded them at every white wall and pane of glass. The people on the street, not knowing about the story, brushed by Julie d'Is, almost collided with her.
«There she goes,» said Chorgeh, «into a pastry shop after all. Does she eat pastry?»
«I expect so,» said the «uncle.» He lit another cigarette, the case a plaque of cold fire. «There were times when she was invited to dinners. She ate and drank like everyone else. Rather greedily in fact.»
«Were you ever present?»
«Thankfully, no. There was only one occasion… I had been warned, and so declined. That was when I heard the story first, four years ago. When you, dear boy, were only thirteen.»
«The worst years of my life. Tell me about Julie d'Is.»
The «uncle» began his tale in a manner quite unlike his means employed when writing. Chorgeh knew that the story, if it had been or were to be translated into printable prose, would gain ornament, elongation, and proper suspense. But as a raconteur, the writer was quite brisk, almost abbreviated. Mentally Chorgeh was not above adding a brushstroke here and there.
The parents of Julie d'Is had come from the colonies of the East, some place of fans and ivories, rice, camels, bazaars, and flying carpets. They had been disgraced, the family, or simply the father, in some gambling or speculating of a nature that was kept obscure in the City—the odd codes and loyalties of the returned colonists, who would cut Monsieur d'Is, yet not betray him to outsiders. The d'Is child was female, and two years old, a weak infant mewling and puking in the tradition of weakly infants. The climate had seen to her as foolish villainy had her father; both were undone. Yet she continued, weakly, to persist, like a wan plant that straggles on, refusing to die and give up its pot to a nicer specimen. And certainly there were no other children. Shortly there began to be an exotic rumor, which was that the family had fallen afoul of a sorcerer in the Eastern lands. That just so the father lost his work and his name, and so the mother produced, from the huge burden of her womb, only the one ailing weed. Since no one spoke to the family d'Is, however, no one could verify the rumor.
Monsieur d'Is toiled as a clerk in a seedy business near the docks. Madame did her best. And the miserable daughter went on with a grisly graceless tenaciousness redolent not of courage or hope but of a dripping tap.
It was when the child, Julie, was six years old, that the tide turned for them all. They were, if not forgiven, at least forgotten. That is to say, suddenly people came upon them, exclaiming that they were the persons d'Is, and what were they doing now and how did they go on? Such reversals of attitude were not uncommon in the bored City. It was less an act of charity than a desire to see, squirming and doing tricks under the microscope, suitable microbes.
Madame d'Is began to appear in sewing circles, at afternoon teas, her husband and she played cards and dined at this house and that once or twice in a pair of months. They were hardly overwhelmed, but no longer were they excluded. Presently the child, too, perhaps perforce and in a moment of aberration, was absorbed into a children's party.
She was not, after all, such a horrid creature. She did not cringe or seek to intimidate, often the failings of the weak. No, she went along with the little-girl games, was a modest pleased recipient of favor or victory, good at losing, quiet, but with a spark. «That child,» they said, «might look almost pretty, if her mother would wash her hair in softer soap, and dress her more like a child than a parcel.»
Julie began to be a social success superior to her parents. She did not fawn as they did, yet was plainly genuinely impressed and grateful as they were not. She was not without animation. She could exercise tact, unusual in a child: She was not one of those to pass raw comments on a hostess's hat or wallpaper. «Poor mite. I expect she gets little enough chance to shine at home, with those two.» «The mother keeps her like a little slave. She heaps the child with chores. Her schooling is being carried on by the father. Not right, I am sure.»
«Mama,» said Sandrine, the daughter of the house, «Mama, please will you not ask Julie d'Is to my party.»
»Not? Why ever is that? Don't you want poor Julie to see your dear new doll?»
Sandrine began to cry. She was not generally a tearful girl.
After some coaxing, it was got from her.
«I don't want Scamper to die!»
Leaves of silence, oddly flavored by mystery and darkness, fell in the room. The ladies looked at each other.
«Well, you know,» said one at last, «it's a very curious thing.»
«Yes,» said Sandrine's aunt, «I remarked on it myself to Madame Claude only the other day.»
«Of course, a coincidence—«
«Or do you think the d'Is child—?»
They stared at one another now.
During the past year, Julie had attended seven parties. Thereafter two cats sickened in a week, the Claude dog had succumbed to a malady and been put down. A parrot was found dead in its cage before the guests had even left.
«Scamper,» said Sandrine, the name of the kitten. «She'll put a spell on him like the others.»
«Good heavens, is that what the child says she does?»
Sandrine looked blank. Julie had said nothing. Her peers did not question her, for fear.
It was borne in on the ladies of that circle, and all those other circles with which it connected, that while the mothers had not been badly disposed to Julie, their children did not like her. Overnight, as it were, Julie ceased to be a social success.
«But,» said Chorgeh's «uncle,» «regardless of that, soon enough the child was obliged to go to school.»
«My God,» said Chorgeh, encouragingly.
«It was thought to be an epidemic,» said the «uncle.» «A fever, in some instances accompanied by vomiting and a rash. There was only one death. But somehow, again generally unspoken, the unthinkable was mooted. The child was removed from the school. It was because, they said, she herself was too unsturdy to be exposed to childish ailments. She was then tutored at home, and only ventured out on errands with her mother—«
«Whereat the drawing rooms and byways were littered with sickening small animals and babies.»
«Exactly,» said the «uncle,» unperturbed.
Julie d'Is emerged from the pastry shop before them.
«She's been in that shop a long while,» said Chorgeh. «Do you think she's assaulted anyone?»
«Very likely,» said the «uncle.» «But if so, the assault will have gone unseen. In all the instances of those who fell ill, nothing was reported, nothing was witnessed. Rarely did Julie make contact—she was not a tactile child. She did not fondly clasp her playmates and class-fellows to her, did not strike them, pinch, or tap their hands. They had soon got in the habit of making very sure she never came near their food or drink.»
«Now where is she going?» said Chorgeh. Their object had turned into a long sliding street, a funnel for the wind.
«Toward the Church, I believe, homeward.»
«She looks more interesting now,» said Chorgeh. «Quite attractive in fact, as should every female poisoner. Her hair, let down, would make her seem fascinating with those slanted eyes. A veritable Medea.»
Years retracted. Madame d'Is had come into an unexpected fortune, sole beneficiary of an obscure relative. With the malice of the microbes they had been, monsieur and madame began to intrude themselves everywhere, riding to horse races and galas, attending balls, financing things, overbearing all before them. Julie too appeared again out of her cupboard. Her childhood aura was dismissed or suppressed. She was found to dance well, to speak little and with some wit, to listen attentively. If not a jewel, still she shone slightly, and her hair was washed in soft soap and padded becomingly, her gowns were not parcel wrapping save in the most acceptable sense.
«Who died?» asked Chorgeh, as they strolled along the sliding street, the crowd lessened, and above them the facade of the cathedral suddenly loomed masklike in the sky. They had begun to climb hills, aware unconsciously of the backbones of Paradys beneath the streets. It was appropriate that the story should shadow, even if there was less breath for it. The brightness too had clouded over; there was a flutter of rain.
«Several died, of course. At first it wasn't associated with Julie d'Is. She was a young girl with her hair dressed low, and sometimes loose as you have recommended. Not a Medea, an Ariadne. A piquance, an intelligence, a softness suggesting pliancy.»
There was a particular supper. Twelve people were there, and Julie d'Is—the magical number of thirteen. The next day two of the younger girls fell ill, quite seriously.
«Like the two cats,» said Chorgeh. He noticed that despite himself, his «uncle» was elaborating quite naturally now.
«The table being stocked with an uneven number, three girls had sat adjacently. One opposite Julie, and beside her the daughter of Madame Claude.»
«Must the veterinarian put her away?»
«She died by herself on the fourth night, raging with fever and calling aloud.»
«Perfect,» said Chorgeh.
«I never cease to enjoy,» said his «uncle,» «the beastliness of youth.»
Julie d'Is, with her small bag of cake, was now far ahead of them. She went lightly up the hill, and vanished at a turning.
«She's getting away.»
«We must allow that. It is her own street.»
Chorgeh said, «You're very disappointing. Is this the end?»
«To some extent,» said the «uncle.» «There's only this to add. The occurrences of severe illness and occasional deaths, mysterious and unsolved, attendant on Julie at various functions, led the old suspicions of her out again. She was called the Peste Virgin, the Angel of Plague, and so on. At best, she was a harbinger of extreme unluck. Of course, no one could pin a crime to her. She came to be watched very closely, and those placed next to her at table, female or male, would find all manner of amusing excuses to absent themselves. Not every episode resulted in a fatality, or even a sickness, however. At one memorable dinner twenty-one people sat down with Julie d'Is, and afterward her neighbors exchanged bets on who would expire and when. But all stayed healthy. Eventually both her parents, neither of whom had ever been seriously ill, died in the mundane way. Julie inherited their dwindling wealth, and lived on it. She was left scrupulously alone.»
The «uncle» extracted another cigarette. The two men stood beneath a plane tree, as the sky tried to attract their attention.
«I must be getting on, I have to meet Vincent at my club,» said the «uncle.»
«But you can't leave me like this—finish the story, you devil!»
«How can I? Only life can do that. And life has just gone around a corner with her pastry.»
«But—how is it done? How does she poison them?»
«Who knows? Plenty have tried to learn. Some have even resorted to inquiry of the lady, holding her the while at bay the length of a cane or umbrella. She looks amazed, it seems, insulted, normal. They can obtain nothing.»
«The police have generally not been involved, though it's true they observed Julie d'Is for a year, after an especially tiresome death, that of a minor minister who shared a carriage with her. No evidence was found. No motive, as there had never been apparent motive. She has shown in her career neither passions nor attachments, nor jealousies, in love, or otherwise. How unusual. We all give ourselves away. You yourself, my little foreigner, have your wild and untamable streak, by which we know you.»
«And you are young, which gives besides a great deal away at once. Julie d'Is was also young for three decades. And gave away nothing. Since she seems to pollute and kill, that must be her only vice, and her only hobby.» A raven-wing cloud scuffed through the plane. Rain dashed down. «The club,» said Chorgeh's «uncle» with decision.
«No, I'm not coming with you,» said Chorgeh.
«For God's sake, don't go knocking on the door of Julie d'Is.»
«I shan't,» said Chorgeh. «That much I do credit, that she's unfriendly. Inimical.»
«Do please believe it.»
Chorgeh stood and watched his «uncle» hurry off downhill through the rain. The road was a tide of blackness. Something hung heavy, not thunder, but the bottomless story. It must be concluded, somehow.
The bell of the pastry shop gave a brittle sugary tinkle as he went in. On all sides were terraces of sweetness, layers and marblings, bubbles, cords, plaits, and flutes, that made the eyes if not the stomach hungry. In the middle of it all, unmoved through long acquaintance, a plump, pretty, curly girl lifted her head like a deer at a water hole.
«Can I help you, monsieur?»
«Yes. Give me some of those, please, and a couple of those,» and Chorgeh, thinking of his mother, who disliked sweet things of any type, food or human, and pictured her astoundment, when he should get home. Into the masculine study, which once Chorgeh's father had occupied, kept now as a cross between a shrine and a lumber room, Chorgeh might take himself and eat each refused cake, remembering the cake shop girl, for she was very charming.
Yet, as she reached for the second batch of cakes, she looked puzzled, this charming girl. She stepped away, and turned to Chorgeh as if to ask him something, and as she stood there, seemingly at a loss, Chorgeh instead asked something of her. «Do you recall a woman who came in here, about half an hour ago?»
«I—don't know, monsieur,» said the girl, looking more puzzled than before, frowning and gazing at the ground, as if she had glimpsed a mouse, perhaps.
«A drab, nasty woman. Obviously scheming. With holes in her gloves.»
«I—don't know, monsieur,» repeated the girl. And then she looked at, and straight through him, as if to some other place that had suddenly grown visible in the doorway. Next moment she dropped on the floor. She lay there in a compact little puddle of skirts and curls, her eyes shut, her face icing white.
Chorgeh banged on the counter and shouted, and by magic the shop was full of women.
A minute later, the girl had been lifted up and was murmuring that she was quite well, quite well, but so cold.
«There, Olizette,» said the women. And one ran out to the pharmacist's along the street.
«That gentleman,» said Olizette, «is waiting for his cakes. I was serving him when I was taken queer.»
«Good Lord, don't worry about that,» said Chorgeh, flustered for an instant. It seemed likely the women would reckon him in some way responsible for the girl's faint. Metaphysically, was he not?
Then the pharmacist came, and after a cursory examination of the girl, declared she was feverish and must go home at once.
Chorgeh stood there with his heart beating violently, in the presence of the insanely wicked and bizarre. Evil was a palpable entity in the shop, bending to the women, its tattered wings and skull face glaring intently and specifically above Olizette. It was as if Chorgeh had invoked it, by his arrival, his quest, his query concerning Julie d'Is, Angel of Pestilence.
«Oh, how am I to get to my room?» said Olizette, made childish by her weakness. «Oh dear, oh dear, what shall I do?»
And Chorgeh rushed out to fetch a cab, into which he and a woman of the shop next bore Olizette, who was now touchingly crying from embarrassment and feebleness.
Every bump of the wheels and hoofs on the journey caused the poor girl to gasp and moan.
«There, there, Olizette,» reiterated the useless woman. «She's never ill,» she added to Chorgeh over the dark, drooping, flowerlike head. «A country girl. Two years, and never a sniffle, never once a migraine or a fainting fit. And I myself, well I'm a martyr to them, monsieur.»
They reached Olizette's room (set predictably in a conglomeration of chimney and flowerpots, rambling steps, skylights, and lopsided balconies, near the old corn market). Chorgeh paid off the cab. He then went to summon a doctor, taking all responsibility on himself. It was his fault.
«I don't like the look of this,» the doctor said to Chorgeh, on the landing. «You are the young woman's protector?»
«If you like,» said Chorgeh, disdaining the explanatory truth.
«Then someone must be got in to look after her, a nurse. She must have fresh fruit, broth; cream and eggs as she improves.»
Thus it was not cakes that Chorgeh presented to his mother. It was a plea for an increment upon his allowance.
«If you must know, I have a girl. I must give her a present, mustn't I, now and then?»
«I'm not interested in the silly details. Is she clean? Does she love you? I trust that you do not love her? Very well.»
During the month of Olizette's illness, Chorgeh visited her once a day, in the afternoon. He brought flowers, fruit, and later boxes of confectionery—she did not like cakes. Her plumpness had melted from her, and the paleness and slightness of her debility made her ethereal. Although he did not in the smallest degree «love» her, Chorgeh was very taken with her, had become fond of her, as one may with a docile and pleasing invalid one has chosen. Their words were affectionate, and soon familiar, but quite decorous, and the nurse was always in the room with her tatting, or just along the way making soup.
Chorgeh's mornings were spent on quite another woman. It was not that he made any contact with Julie d'Is, of course, only that he had begun to spy on her movements, and to question, in a carefully blatant style, her neighbors, of whom she had several, all at a distance.
Both activities, the caring visits to the pastry seller, the observation of a poisoness, were united, being two halves of a whole.
He learned a great deal more of Julie than of Olizette. Olizette told him everything he wanted to know, and her entire simple life was soon before him, lacking all complexity. But Julie's life was if anything more simple, there was no information to be had solely because nothing happened to her. From the comments of those in her vicinity, who seldom any way saw or noted her, and from his own scrupulous view of her doings in the quiet and normally deserted street, Chorgeh was quickly privy to her existence. She ventured out, this viper, about twice a week, to purchase groceries and feminine articles (he followed her where he could). Sometimes after these excursions she also took a turn in a park nearby. Her face was always blank as a stone. She must surely be frustrated, maddened by this solitary limbo, her lack of volition, yet quite inarticulately and hopelessly, for she seemed to want to do nothing more than she did. She did not, when indoors, ever appear at her window. (He had soon located her address, her room—which had no flowerpot, no lamp, and which on the few evenings he had overseen it at dusk, turned to dusk also, and lit no light—did not alter. Even once at midnight he had passed, and there it was, a black oblong, empty. It was as though, on entering her domain, Julie ceased to be alive or actual. And perhaps this was so.)
As the «uncle» had said, to poison must represent her only passion. All she lived for, dreamed of. And yet, visiting those same places where she made her purchases quite regularly, Chorgeh found no such startling evidence of her malignity as he had in Olizette's pastry shop. Evidently Olizette had been unlucky, perhaps because she had been alone with Julie for several minutes. Possibly too the murderess did not strike on her own territory, but always outside it.
Meanwhile long leading conversations with the latest victim gave no clue as to how Julie had managed her work: Olizette herself was ignorant of having been practiced on, and Chorgeh naturally did not enlighten her. He was legitimately afraid of how such knowledge might effect Olizette, for even while she improved, on some afternoons there were lapses; he would find her very white, trembling, saying that she ached from head to toe, or that the mild winter light troubled her eyes. The doctor had already ceased calling, he was sanguine, but Chorgeh treated the girl with caution. For the doctor had not understood the case at all. In answer to Chorgeh's probing, the doctor had remarked on the foolishness of young country girls in the City, infected by its fumes, living on cakes, neglecting their well-being in favor of unsuitable romances.
Chorgeh had one image. He nurtured it. It involved the stone-faced serpent Julie d'Is leaning slightly forward to take her pastry, and scratching the fingers of Olizette with the underside of a thin silver ring. By now Chorgeh had glimpsed such a ring on Julie's finger. (Had not the Borgias used a similar device to cart off whole table-loads of enemies?) By the time he had noticed the ring, however, he could find no cut or scrape on the smooth hands of Olizette, though he examined them meticulously, telling her he would read her fortune. Obviously, so slight a wound would have healed by now. He had been lax, too late. Another black mark.
«Good gracious, Chorgeh! It isn't suitable. After all these years! Mother will think you've come to court me.»
«Your mother is far too sensible, Sandrine, ever to think that.»
Like a butterfly, Sandrine hovered over the ornate and overdressed drawing room, in a tense powdery light. He had not seen her, it was true, save at a remote distance—across salons, at the end of fashionable avenues—for five years. She had improved visually, but not necessarily in any other way.
«Well, sit down. You shouldn't be here. Mother will be out for hours.»
«During which time we can get up to the most scandalous activities.» Sandrine giggled. Encouraged, Chorgeh said, «Tell me everything you know about Julie d'Is.»
«Who is Julie d'Is?» asked Sandrine, in such a voice that he knew she recalled perfectly.
«A dear little girl,» he said, «with whom you used, once, to play. Now a woman, looking I'm afraid a great deal older than you or her years. In rather impoverished circumstances. Retiring.»
«I remember…« said Sandrine. «…Julie d'Is» She went slowly very pale. Chorgeh watched, interested. «I haven't seen her since I was ten.»
«But your playmate.»
«Never,» said Sandrine vehemently. She shuddered. «Even now, at the very thought.» She got up, paced over the room, and back again, and standing there before him said dramatically, «That child was a beast, a hobgoblin. Ugh! We were all terrified of her. She could make you die. She's done it. She never said so. She never said anything. To the adults it was all May I and Thank you . When she was with us, she would just sit there. She was older. Her eyes were down. She had horrible eyes, small and sharp, cold and colorless. And long lashes, not beautiful, but like a sort of fence, as if to stop anything getting by. Then her mother would call for her, such a poor silly woman. We had a rhyme—how did it go? I can't think—but it was about Julie d'Is whisking you down to Hell if you didn't watch out.»
«How did you know she was a hobgoblin? Apart, of course, from her eyes.»
«Because the kittens died. And then Alyse, and Lucie. Surely you've heard?»
«But why a hobgoblin? Wasn't she just a poisoner?»
«A child who poisons?»
«Why not?» said Chorgeh. As a child, he had once or twice considered the method.
«There was a story,» said Sandrine, at the fireplace where the dried flowers still stood petrified, stiff on their stalks as she now was on her stalk of dress. «Julie d'Is was a changeling .»
«Ah,» said Chorgeh.
«You can laugh» (he had not), «but when they were in the East, the silly mother offended a sorcerer. He was an old man who came to the kitchen door in rags, and she had the servants chase him off. But he was powerful, it was all a test or prank. If she'd been nice to him he would have blessed her, but she wasn't, so he exuded a curse. Madame d'Is was carrying two babies, twins. But when she gave birth, one baby vanished. And the baby that was left was changed. It stopped being wholesome and like a baby. It became this awful cold-eyed stony little toad. It became Julie.»
«Yes,» said Chorgeh. «But what about the other twin?»
«I suppose Julie killed it,» said Sandrine flatly, «and they wrapped it in a shawl and the nurse took it and threw it in a reedy swamp. They couldn't tell anyone. It was too disgusting.»
«Yes,» Chorgeh said again. He imagined the two little girls lying in their cradle under the mosquito net on some veranda, the one child in the stasis of death, the other in the static condition of concentrated being that Julie d'Is so oddly evidenced. And then from Sandrine's facile and foolish words he contrived the exact perfect image, the nurse-woman with eyes of slanting slate, bearing the dead bundle, casting it in like a failed Moses, for the gurgling mud to have, and the frogs chirruping and the strange orient pearl of the moon watching from the trees. Through its curiosity this last picture was made to seem true. He believed it, even though knowing how and why he was convinced.
«How is it you suppose she manages her crimes?» he said to Sandrine.
«Oh,» she said, simply, «it's Julie herself, isn't it. She's poisonous. Like certain substances—if you're near them, they can kill you. Julie is like that .»
They had little cakes, and he thought of Olizette, and that he would be late to see her today, but never mind, he would stay with her until dinnertime. He had seen some bright flowers for sale, to his townsman's eye fresh from the country, and he would take her those, and perhaps some wine. He was growing faintly bored with Olizette, in the most gentle and patient of ways. After all, she was almost well, and had yielded no clues, and what could they talk about?
When he was sufficiently bored with Sandrine, which happened fairly soon after the cakes, Chorgeh made charming excuses and left. Sandrine seemed disappointed, and he realized with surprise that she had really not believed in his mission at all, she imagined Julie d'Is to have been only an impulsive ploy to visit.
With Julie d'Is he was not bored at all. He felt for her a wild sheer loathing quite novel to him, quite energizing.
When he reached the apartment house of Olizette, among the pots and steps, the sun was on the edge of the City, hesitating for a moment. The shape-changer light of dusk already flooded the street. Chorgeh saw the doctor's carriage there in it, like a stone in a river. Somehow Chorgeh was not startled by this. He felt a sinking in his belly, but it was neither alarm nor regret.
He went up, and met the doctor again on the landing. The doctor regarded him with dislike, resentful of an added burden. «You must prepare yourself, monsieur, for very bad news indeed.»
«She's dead,» said Chorgeh.
«A sudden relapse. The woman called for me as soon as she saw what went on.»
«Did the girl have a priest?» Chorgeh asked anxiously, for he had learned enough of Olizette to realize she would have wanted one.
«Yes. He is there now.»
Chorgeh went into the room, and when the priest glanced up Chorgeh said directly, «Please understand, father, that the young lady was befriended by me, nothing more,» for now getting the facts of her chastity straight seemed imperative for her sake.
She looked shrunken and elderly as she lay in the bed. Worse, she looked like nothing at all, like discarded washing, an old dress.
Chorgeh stared at her with heartbreaking sympathy.
The priest began to try to comfort him, and Chorgeh, perturbed, went away at once. It seemed there was a brother-in-law who had been summoned, and all the arrangements now were in hand. Even the priest had known Olizette, her character and means—there had not needed to be, after all, any embarrassing explanations.
On reaching home, Chorgeh found his mother had filled the house with guests. They were everywhere, like a plague of well-dressed mice, squeaking and waving their paws. Of the writer «uncle» there was no sign, however, and Chorgeh was consumed by the detestation of a man whose last bolt hole had been soiled and overturned.
«Good evening, dear. Do change your clothes and join us.»
He wanted to seize his mother by the throat, shouting in her face that she had ruined him, how dare she—But she had all the rights, and he none.
«I've a terrible headache,» said Chorgeh. «I must lie down. If I'm better, I'll make my entrance later.»
He went to his room and locked the door from the outside, to mislead anyone who came to seek him. Then he removed to his father's study and shut himself in there.
There was a faint odor of leather, tobacco from a sacred jar. the room was protective of Chorgeh, securing him. In a closed drawer, skillfully negotiated, Chorgeh found what he was looking for. Prior to dying, the father had initiated the son into a number of the male mysteries. If he had lived, possibly they would not have got on at all, but death had flung a glamorous veil over their parting and their relationship. Everything that Chorgeh's father had ever said to him or taught him, Chorgeh remembered vividly.
When he had completed his transaction, he went back to his room and locked himself inside . Beyond, the noises of the guests ebbed and flowed. He visualized Julie d'Is arriving, floating among them in a pale gown and padded hair, some of it loose on her white snake's neck. Here she touched and here she breathed, and once or twice she merely looked, and the mark of death was on them. Chorgeh patted his pillow, beneath which lay something hard and cold now. Smiling, he slipped into sleep, and dreamed of Olizette's burial at a tiny church in the fields, a grave with a willow, mourning doves. He did not feel sad for her, asleep. He threw the flowers on her mound, and drank the wine from the bottle cheerfully, and bought a cake from a tree.
The next day Chorgeh rose early and went out. His hours were often premature, for his business in the City was that of a sightseer, flighty and opportune. No one had remarked anything unusual.
When he reached the street of Julie d'Is, Chorgeh positioned himself as he had grown accustomed to do, almost opposite the apartment building where she lived. There was a portico there, into which he could conveniently slip and be hidden. It was a morning when, generally, she would go out, attend to her minuscule amounts of shopping, and then perambulate the park. No one was about, the day was lowering and rainy, and now and then a sharp report of thunder came. It was made for him, this day, and he only feared it would put her off; perhaps she dreaded storms. But no, the door opened, and out stepped the creature of the legend, the serpent, clad in her squalid coat and coiled, unbecoming hat, with an umbrella to ward off the scimitars of heaven.
Chorgeh followed her, without undue caution, just as before. No one had ever noted him; she herself, the demoness, had never turned on him, never even looked over her shoulder. She went into a draper's shop, into a shop that sold cold meats and cheeses. Did she eat these things? What did she do? He had never fathomed, no one had ever said, he had never seen her, crouched in her room, the spider in her web, grooming herself and preening, smacking her lips over her kills. He was inclined to think she went into a cupboard in her apartment, and stayed there, like a lead soldier in its box. Whatever it was, he would never know.
In the park, which he had thought she might avoid but which she entered as ever, the black trees dripped and hissed, the paths were wet. Everything was noise, flashes and rushes and the crack of the thunder. When Chorgeh shot Julie d'Is with his father's pistol, the thunder obligingly roared and the lightning sparkled. The reek of powder was crushed in rain. He had been fifteen feet from her back and the bullet had gone in under her hat. There was a painterly wash of blood on the path, but it flushed away. Her purchases lay scattered, sodden in their paper wrappings. She was a pathetic heap of old clothes, as Olizette had seemed, a scarecrow. Chorgeh did not approach, but kept to his plan. He knew she was quite dead, for presumably she could be slaughtered in the normal fashion, and the bullet must have entered her brain. He hurried away, feeling nothing, only a little bit sick, but then he had taken no breakfast, it was probably only that.
Rain fell steadily for a week, then on the first clear day, the writer came to call on Chorgeh's mother. She was taken aback, not having seen him for months. After a while, almost surreptitiously, the writer climbed the house, and knocked on the door of the study-shrine of Chorgeh's father.
«Yes, you may come in,» said Chorgeh.
He sat in the leather armchair, while the writer tactfully passed about the room, examining items with the cunning reserve of a man in a museum. Presently the writer sat down also. The fire was lit. They stretched their legs to it.
«Had you heard?» said the writer.
«That the Beautiful Lady had been killed? Yes. There was a small passage in some of the journals. I was only waiting for you to come and ask.»
«What did the journals say?»
«Couldn't you read them?»
«I never read them. Nasty things. I have my knowledge from another source.»
«Naturally. Likely you know much more than the rest of us. All that the journals said was that a Mademoiselle Julie d'Is had been bizarrely shot in a garden near the Temple-Church. That there were no witnesses. That nothing at all was known. They did add, a pair of them, that unpleasing speculation had surrounded Mademoiselle d'Is in her youth. But that nothing had been said against her latterly, she seemed to have neither relatives nor friends, no one in fact with a reason or wish to slay her.»
«We may always rely on our relatives and friends for that ,» said the writer.
«Tell me all the rest of it, then,» said Chorgeh, apparently intrigued.
Under cover of his porcelain exterior he held himself tight. He knew perfectly well the «uncle» was here in his literary capacity only. He supposed that it was Chorgeh who had murdered Julie d'Is, maybe he had no doubts. Although such pistols as Chorgeh's father's were common, although Chorgeh, even Olizette, had no glaring link to Julie d'Is, and although the writer indeed knew nothing at all of the ultimate involvement of the pastry shop, yet he had deduced the obvious. Though the police would never attach Chorgeh to the killing, the writer did, and the writer was here solely as that, to observe him, to see how Chorgeh went on. And it was possible, if Chorgeh gave himself away to the writer, that the «uncle» might take over from the writer, and feel obliged to give Chorgeh up to the authorities. Chorgeh had known this moment would come, and he had prepared for it. He was a practiced deceiver, and his youngness was on his side, for with the widespread fault of the middle-aged, the writer coupled youngness with inexperience.
«I know very slightly more,» said the writer to Chorgeh. «I know there was, of course, a post-mortem. I know the result of this was the news that Julie d'Is died because of the entry of a bullet into her brain, which was evident from the first. I know that a few of her erstwhile familiars were questioned. But none of them had seen her for years. It seemed to me,» said the writer, uncrossing his legs, and lighting, without permission, a cigarette, «it seemed to me that you and I, say, were worthier of an interrogation. We'd been watching the woman and discussing her fairly recently.»
«Oh, not so recently as all that,» said Chorgeh. «I say, I'm very sorry, but you mustn't smoke in here. Mother would fly into a fit. It's awful isn't it?»
The writer cast his cigarette into the fire and smiled. Chorgeh had revealed an arch-cleverness. The writer could not last for more than ten minutes longer without a cigarette. He would have to go out, and why should Chorgeh, plainly intent on his father's books, go with him?
«You haven't, then,» said the writer, «been following Julie d'Is?»
«Why would I do that?»
«Because she fascinated you.»
«That's true. Then I found someone else who fascinated me even more. You recollect how skittish I can be.»
«What do you think of it, though?» said the writer.
«Of her death.»
«I think it's ideal,» said Chorgeh. «I think it's inevitable.»
«Since she had no life?»
Chorgeh did not fall into the trap.
«Well, she may have done, « he said, «for all we know.»
When the writer «uncle» withdrew, tapping his cigarette case, seemingly quite delighted with Chorgen's acting or innocence, not entirely sure now either way, Chorgeh relapsed, looking at the fire, himself overseeing what he had said. He had made no slip, yet he had been truthful in his pronouncement. The death of such a beast was both ideal and inevitable. He felt himself no hero, and no villain, for seeing to it. It was a shame the post-mortem had shown nothing of significance, but perhaps it had and the «uncle» merely had not learned in his prying what it was. Some things would be hushed up. Chorgeh constructed for himself something more fanciful than the spike in the ring. He saw one of Julie's bony fingers, and out from under the nail a sort of talon extruded. It pricked the plump hand of Olizette, finer than a needle. But the bullet had not been fine, it had been harsh and shattering. He had taken no chances, aiming for the head. Her hat was so unalluring, it really served her right. For he would have found her more difficult to kill if she had been lovely and dressed with taste. He would not have wanted to spoil her appearance, and perhaps must have risked going close with a stiletto. She had fallen straight over, directly down, and her soul went deeper yet, diving into Hell. Chorgeh considered the twin of Julie d'Is, the sister she was supposed to have had, and to have killed in babyhood. He saw the cradle again under the netting, and the nurse-woman throwing out the bundle into the mud. Was that what had decided him, or was it only Olizette?
Chorgeh sat back in the chair and composed himself for a nap. He would be sensible to avoid the writer for a month or so—until any ideas or fresh rumors ceased after the postmortem and the burial. The firelight glittered, and went from under Chorgeh's eyelids, and he heard his mother's operatic laugh rill through the house. Everything was well.
God and men pass over the battleground, prizing great gems and silver bullets from the helms of the fallen. Then the rats come in gray, smooth coats and find the secrets of the labyrinth.
There was nothing ratlike to the appearance or manner of Monsieur Tritte, who was tall and plump, with the large and capable hands of a country doctor. He had a baritone voice, a balding head, a face at once handsome and benign. The watchman of the morgue, he was the exact antithesis of what such a man was reckoned to be and frequently was. Tritte was abstemious and sober, without perversity or cruelness. He pitied his charges, with a dignity that became him, yet he found them on occasion interesting. He was himself capable of scientific investigation, having studied at the elbows of eminent practitioners, unflinching, and uncareless, as they sometimes were not.
It had happened that the men laboring at the morgue had known the name Julie d'Is . They had therefore had great pains over her. Though the corpse had lain on its slab for a day and a half before any work commenced, precautions were taken. Not an inch of skin, other than that of the face, was presented to the cadaver, which was then gone over minutely for a hidden armament. None was found. Weighed, pierced, portionally dissected, the poor dead thing offered no answers. To Tritte this was only what he would have expected. Her method of inflicting fatality, whatever it was, had lost its potence in the moment of her death. He had no doubt, as did not the scientists in the chamber, that Julie d'Is had been executed by one she had wronged with the sickness or demise of a lover or family member. That the police had failed to curtail her had after all given the public some rights in this matter. It was only surprising the sentence had been so long in its enactment. The killer might be discovered through a mistake, or a confession, but there were so many potential assassins, among them even victims who had recovered, that apprehension on evidence alone would seem to be hopeless.
Solely one man of the three had scoffed at the stories of the Pestilent Angel. He was an old fellow who thought he had learned all there was to know, a casual butcher of the slab who made jokes over the severed organs and the cups of brains.
When they were all gone, and the corpse lay at peace in her white cold meat, Tritte watched through the night in his room, where many books, and a microscope worthy of the morgue's visitors, gave notice of his serious inner nature.
In the morning the City was to bury Julie d'Is, arbitrarily, shoveling her off. Tritte felt no dismay at his last, second, night alone with her, but he felt a strong sense of her nevertheless, more so now she had been cut and overhauled, as if her silent flesh cried out—not for justice or remission, not even to be heard—it was more like the low, exhausted crying Tritte's mother had once made nightly, from toothache and worry. Though he had grown, and rescued his mother and now she did not cry, Tritte felt the sound. There had never before been such a weeping in his morgue.
Thus, when he went on his rounds, he left the remains of Julie d'Is for the end, and then, peeling off her gauzy mantle, he stood and looked on her under the ray of his lamp, not seeing her nudity, her thinness, the remnant of thin soft hair, but gazing slowly and thoroughly after whatever it could be to make her cry.
Her face appeared, under the debris of her brow (from which the bullet had ejected), like a carved stone. The undamaged eye was closed, and the lips also. Her ears and nostrils were exquisitely shaped, the mark of beauty showing up, as so often, at an unpublicized part. Her breasts too were lovely, and he was profoundly sorry, the watchman of the morgue, that she had lost herself. She was not old, not lined or wizened. What had it been, her wickedness, and what did it mean?
It was as he was viewing her that something flickered at the rim of his eye. He glanced aside, and there on the inner curve of her arm, he saw a speck. Tritte's vision was keen, but the lamp smoked somewhat. The speck, whatever it was, had not moved but only seemed to. Then, it moved once more, the length of one of his fingernails, and so stopped and was still.
He watched it, the watchman, for several minutes, and then, when there was no further movement, he bent down and stared. But all he could see was the speck he had seen at the first, like a grain of tea, there on her arm.
Tritte went away, back to his room, and here he loitered for perhaps half an hour. And then, taking up the lamp, he returned, through the shrouded marble and the dark, to the place of Julie d'Is, and held the light over her.
The speck was still there, where he had last seen it. Suddenly Tritte, from faraway memory, knew what it was. It was a flea.
An abrupt and searing shock ran through him. A lesser man would have dropped the lamp. His emotion was made up of astonishment and horror and a violent influx of realization. Here, here , was the method of the murderess, the poisoner. It was a flea . A tiny drinker of blood, for some reason so venomous itself that when it feasted on another (for surely normally it had sustained itself by the blood of Julie herself), it was liable to cause illness, and even death. Some were immune, as happened in all cases of infection, others recovered, several perished. Julie obviously was among the initial category, and doubtless her parents, and long associates, often bitten, also. To a stranger, the flea might be always inimical. It leapt upon them—a second of vampire action—then leapt back again to the host. The bite was so minute they either did not feel it or did not know what they had felt.
Everything fitted to the hypothesis. Everything combined with it to form a piece of evidence as ludicrous as it was horrifying. A flea .
Now, it too seemed dead. Or it was very sluggish; if not dead then dying from lack of food, the ruin of the host. He must be careful… or did it lack the will now to feed from another? Of those who had discovered and subsequently handled the body of Julie d'Is none, so far as he understood, had fallen sick.
After he had stood over the cadaver fifteen or twenty minutes, Tritte made a decision. Fetching an instrument, Tritte separated a wafer of the white skin from the arm. The vessels came forth, like veins in marble itself. There was, naturally, no blood. The flea, secured pathetically to the surface of the skin, did not shift itself. It clung on in its death or near-death, like a desperate child to the dead arm of its mother.
A further ten minutes, and Tritte had arranged his valuable microscope, had set the inch of skin and the flea upon a slide.
In the core of night, alone, in pity and amazement, Tritte put his eye to the magical telescope of life, to see what death had been doing.
After he had looked a long while, the man drew back. He wiped his forehead and going to the cupboard, poured for himself a measure of brandy. Only then did he look again through the microscope.
The image was as before.
There was no alteration.
Death had come, and still the miniature thing clung to the skin. Its crying, too high for the human ear to hear, too loud for the human heart not to, had ended. Under the magnifying lens, it was a woman, the flea. Almost a human woman, beautiful and perfectly formed, with short luxuriantly curling hair, and deep dark eyes set fast in oblivion. The lips were parted, and there were the usual even teeth of the human female; the infinitesimal hands had no claws. There were flowerlike breasts. But the body stopped at the pelvis. There it became a tube, scaled like a scorpion, finished in a thin coiled whip, some sort of sting or sucker, it was so ugly, this finish, so unlike the rest. You saw at once how the creature had flung herself, daring space and danger, to cling onto her prey, striking like a wasp, turning then maybe to apply the perfect mouth to the wound, and springing off again, back to the safety of the sibling. For it was clearly to be seen also, a likeness to Julie. They were of an age, only one plain, and the other beautiful: sisters.
Monsieur Tritte put on his gloves. He spoke to the woman on the lens. «Forgive me.»
And then he crushed her, between his nails.
The sepulcher of ornate granite that stands on the hillside, overlooking the river, has the apt, odd name of Morcara's Room. Those that know the name do not necessarily know the name's reason. Behind a door of leaden metal the bones lie properly in a box; the lintel above the door has only the name: Morcara Venka , and two dates—which show that the occupant of the tomb died young, at the age of about twenty-five years. The date of the tomb itself, however, which is also to be found, cut into one of the mossy pillars, reveals that it came into being more than a century after the death of its tenant. Inquiries may reveal that Morcara Venka's descendants erected the mausoleum and ordered her remains taken to it from another place. There may also be mention of some ill fortune, even a curse, that once had connection to this woman, so that even now a faint smolder rests, as you will sense, on the hill, some hint of smoke without which there is no fire. And it has been said that to enter the tomb, even on the most legitimate business, would be unwise.
The truth, perhaps more peculiar still, is as follows.