The secret of passing away,
The cost of the change of the moon,
None knows it with ear or with eye,
But all will soon.
One evening a young man, who shall be called Rendart, was walking in the country above the City. It had been a hot close day, and the mellow air had now a tint of thunder. Rendart had grown tired of walking, of climbing over boulders and peering into defiles where tiny rivulets flashed and shone as in oil paintings, of the forest's edges that, so invitingly redolent of becoming forever lost, would only lead him back onto some path that ended at a farm. There were no longer wolves in the woods, or Rendart might have been tempted to stay out all night. Instead he was now looking for some house where he might foist himself. His trick was, wherever possible, to avoid the convenient inn or hotel. This was not because he lacked funds (rather the reverse, his means were private and helpful) but because of a compulsion to view the interiors of the homes of other persons. To this end he had once regularly pretended to a wish to buy property, and agents and owners had conducted him over varieties of premises, singing the praises of much and revealing almost everything but the bad points. It was their reticence here which had discouraged him eventually from the practice, since bad points are frequently so interesting. That and, maybe, the annoyance of certain agents who finally doubted Rendart's desire actually to purchase anything.
As the sky deepened and the shadow of weather bloomed along its perimeter, Rendart came on a wide, straight track, leading between poplars in the direction of a house—indeed, a mansion. The walls of the building were very tall, and the roofs that rose above them, dilapidated and picturesque. Highest of all rose a round dark tower with a cap the color of the approaching storm.
Even as he gazed, a few spaced drops of rain plumped on the track, the poplars quivered, a darkness bubbled up in the east.
Rendart ran gleefully for the mansion.
Of course, he ruminated as the echoes rang away from a clanging bell upon the gate, it was possible they would turn him off, conceivable also that the fascinating house could be empty— then, might he not break in? Almost in disappointment he saw a shuffling movement in the rank bushes that crowded the gate. An elderly man emerged, dressed in the clothes and skin of earlier decades.
The heavens obligingly opened. Thunder pealed, a curtain of rain descended.
Rendart gasped his plight. Alone, friendless, and shelterless in the wild hills and the storm.
The servant (Rendart had classed him, and was presently proved correct) stared a while, as if listening to a foreigner speaking in an unknown tongue.
Then, through the rain, from the concealed house, came a querulous call. «What is it, Pierre?» Pierre began to answer, when out of the bushes scampered a precipitate woman in a pale dress and with an umbrella extended over her head. Seeing Rendart she beckoned frantically, «Let him in. Of course you must shelter with us, monsieur. This dreadful thunder—it may strike—« Rendart kindly did not allude to the tip of her umbrella, which might attract the very catastrophe she feared. Probably Jove would aim first at the dark tower above.
The gate was breached, and the trio hastened between the bushes, into a mad garden run to seed, where everything and every metamorphosis of a thing fought for existence under the charcoal sky.
Rendart was rushed to the house so fast he barely saw it. His hostess he had already noted, sadly, was neither young nor lovely, but she might be mysterious with luck.
It did not really seem she would be.
«Pierre, go at once and fetch some dry clothes of my brother's. You can change in the smoking room, monsieur. Poor monsieur is soaked. Then you must come directly to the salon, we always have a fire—we feel the cold, Monsieur de Venne and I.»
Within half an hour, while the tempest still cascaded on the jungle outside (from which statues protruded here and there like leprous teeth), Rendart was seated in a hot and avid salon, while Monsieur and Mademoiselle de Venne regarded him. They had lapped up his advent so gladly, he half wondered if they meant him some harm. More likely they were starved of visitors. Monsieur de Venne was indicated as being rather younger than mademoiselle, which apparently set him at about ninety.
«You'll stay to dine with us, Monsieur Rendart?» said she. «What a pleasure, a young man of education. We so seldom— yet our nephew—«
«Our nephew never calls on us,» interrupted the brother testily. «Except to borrow our money. Money—does he think we have it? Where do we keep it? Would we live in this lachrymose pile if we had any?» And having recourse to the brandy tumbler at his elbow he added: «How frequently I've thought to myself, send that fellow to the room .»
«Cesar!» cried mademoiselle.
A silence thundered in the salon, to be broken in turn by the deaf clangor of the elements.
Mademoiselle was very white under her rouge. Rendart envied her, for the fire was overpowering. Getting up on the pretext of helping her to more tea (she fluttered; her brother stuck ferociously to his brandy), Rendart managed a quick half tour of the salon, which was neither boring or intriguing. He longed for a chance to go through the mansion, the commencement of whose enormous carven stairway he had already glimpsed.
«Rooms are a problem,» said Rendart, idly. «There's one in my house by the coast. Simply uninhabitable.»
«Yes, there you've got it. Uninhabitable ,» snarled the pickled brother.
Mademoiselle thanked Rendart so profusely for the tea that it was an obvious signal she did not want rooms discussed.
Rendart ate the petit fours and bided his time, for it appeared there would be plenty. Already mademoiselle had mentally transferred him past the dining table to the white bedroom. She had given guest-conscious orders to the doddering Pierre, and a brisk stoat-faced maid of two hundred.
It was a very good dinner of five courses, two of which were cold, and Rendart was delighted to suspect things had been «laid on» for his sole benefit. Monsieur de Venne progressed from the brandy through three differing bottles of pleasing wine, two-thirds of which he drank personally, before returning to the brandy with all the snug comfort of an occasional rake returning to wife, pipe, and slippers. Mademoiselle fussed and flighted about with her hands and her conversation, and now and then let slip, as if unavoidably, a reference to the absent nephew. Monsieur said no more upon this matter, merely cleared his throat in a horrible way. As for rooms , the only room mentioned was the white bedroom Rendart was to occupy, and the bathroom along the passage from it. Rendart formulated a dream of tiptoeing about the mansion in the night in order to see it, as evidently he was not to get a guided tour. It would not do, however, for if they apprehended him they would be sure to think him a robber after their few and rather chipped and rusty valuables. He could not bear to tell them they had nothing he fancied thieving.
Pierre and the maid served the dinner in the salon, and after it was cleared and Monsieur de Venne had re-ensconced himself with the brandy, everyone ran out of things to say. This did not deter mademoiselle, though, who merely whirled on in a repetition of all she had said before. From her catalogue Rendart had almost instantly learned that, on inheriting the house, her mama and papa had been hard put to it to manage, that soon the gardeners had left them («And mama declared anyway she had never known such terrible soil, everything that grew there was poisonous»), while the servants absconded with the heirlooms («A great clock that Papa saw at auction two years later, the very same, and could not afford to repossess»). Meantime the young versions of monsieur and mademoiselle grew up, were deprived, stunted, jilted, wilted, done out of this and that expectation, to arrive at last in near penury and the latter years, amazed at both, unequal to them.
Rendart said, as he had more or less said before, «But this excellent house. It must be a consolation.»
«Upkeep,» snorted Monsieur de Venne. «We don't use more than three or four of the apartments. To hear her talk about this white bedroom! Damp and cobwebs. You'll think yourself lucky to get out with pneumonia. Then there are the rats—«
«Oh hush, Cesar!»
«Eating away at the foundations, nibble and gnaw, squeak and gibber. It's the room. The room does it.»
«Yes,» interposed Rendart—Mademoiselle had been protesting again—«rooms are a problem —«
«Want to know what it is, I daresay,» gargled Monsieur de Venne through his brandy glass.
«To know what is what?» inquired Rendart.
«Cesar, I must beg you. Think of poor Mama, think of poor, poor Grisvold.»
«Grisvold may be damned.» («Cesar!») «He got no more than justice. His own fault. There was the warning, did he heed? No.»
Silence fell again, and Rendart realized uneasily that the rain had ceased to fall as darkness fell in its place. The night was calm, and still.
«Grisvold was an innocent, poor sickly boy,» cried mademoiselle. She turned to Rendart and implored him, «Who could command a poor sickly simpleton, Run to the Devil—the Devil — and expect the poor creature to have the wit to abstain? It was your fault, Cesar, and you'll carry the blame to your Maker.»
«Grisvold be damned,» said the brandy glass.
Mademoiselle turned to Rendart, mute with outrage.
«Something happened to Grisvold?» he asked.
Mademoiselle buried her cheeks in an inch of lace that was unable to cope with them.
«Confounded curiosity,» said Monsieur de Venne. A glow burned brightly in his eyes. He wanted and yearned to speak his confession. She also, in her way. They were a haunted pair.
Rendart gazed on them with pleasure. «Is there some strange story?»
«The tower,» whispered mademoiselle. «Did you notice it, to the west of the house?»
«I did,» said Rendart.
«There,» said mademoiselle.
«I'll tell him,» said monsieur. He put down the brandy glass.
In the great stillness that was the night, a change had come upon the salon. The fire burned, and the candles, for the house did not seem to run to any modernity of lights. Either side the fire the two elderly people sat, like waxworks or mummies in their old quaint clothes and sewn faces and papier-m^ach'e hands. Once they had been elastic and fresh, had played as children, wept as lovers, screamed and sung their rage and joy. Now they piped and rasped and stamped their feet, which might so easily be shattered were the carpet too hard. Rendart liked them very much, for the wonderfully weird evening they had almost given, and might now be proposing to give, him. He liked them with a capacity he had for liking strangers as he liked their houses. And now he longed to know the worst, as he had always wanted to see the unsafe stair and the blocked drains they tried to hide.
«In the tower,» said Monsieur de Venne, «the steps lead up to a single round chamber. It's locked tight, my father locked it. It was locked before that, over a century ago, and not opened. Out of fear.»
«Out of terror,» whispered mademoiselle.
They glanced at Rendart, to be sure he was attending, which he was. Then they continued.
Morcara Venka was strong and beautiful and rich, and, from the age of five, an orphan. Her guardians were on the timorous side; they had been chosen out of her father's dying wisdom to be precisely so. He had benefitted from the horror writers of his day, and knew that a clever and powerful guardian will either seduce, dupe, or murder his female ward. Morcara's guardians were straw, and before her burgeoning vitality and arrogance, they bent, snapped, and were flattened. Nothing stayed her. She grew and flowered, and no man stood against her, and so this was the lesson she learned: That no one could. Her hair was black, but the type of black that is black still when the sun shines on it. She did as she wished. She rode astride, as a man did, which then was thought very shocking. Indeed, she dressed as a man when it suited her, and memories were left over of how Morcara looked flaming white with some enthusiasm or rage, in her male britches, her waistcoat, the ruffled linen at her wrists, the black tide of hair down her back. And there were images too of Morcara in silver silk and diamonds, dancing. But once she picked a live coal off the fire and threw it in the lap of a woman who (she thought) had insulted her, and once she challenged a man to a duel, and when he did not go to it because, he said, he would not fight a woman, she visited him and cut him across the forehead with her rapier.
Like a rushing river, Morcara had only her own banks to check her, her own uneven moods to rein her in, and she was at all other times ungovernable.
She took lovers. She cast them off. Who was strong enough to charm her became weak at her eyes, under the lash of her words, became weak simply by wanting her in return.
Morcara desired only what she did not have, and lost desire for it when she had sampled it. Her dining room, they said, here at the mansion, surrounded then by her fields and forests— her dining room was littered by just-tasted dishes, plums bitten once and thrown away.
Some believed she was in league with the Devil, had the Evil Eye. Perhaps she had not grown jaded with that.
When she was twenty-four years of age, scandalous Morcara met a man two years her junior, at a house in the City she had charmed by visiting. He was the son of a banker, permitted in society but not lauded there, and he had, perhaps because of his situation, an extraordinary offhand and controlled arrogance that matched the flamboyant, careless arrogance of Morcara Venka. He too was rich, partly an outcast, and, incidentally, he was handsome; a portrait remains to establish this, although there are none of Morcara.
Morcara saw the young banker's son, whose name was, curiously, Angelstein. She was too accustomed to her effect to make much of an advance to him. She merely, as was later reported, touched his gloved wrist with one feather of her fan, remarking, «Well, here we are, and where tomorrow?» But her eyes met his, she looked and so did he. In the minds and mouths of others he was, by the next day's sunrise, her conquest and her lover. But in fact this did not happen. No, not at all.
During the following week, Morcara took care to be at those functions, those dinners and balls wherein Angelstein had been patronizingly allowed a part. She had only to enter to be admitted, such was her power, financial and otherwise.
She dined beside him at tables where swordfish lay in castles of ice and champagne jetted in fountains. She danced with him in her silver silk, with diamonds in her hair that was black as black under the candles. Angelstein was polite, but nothing more. At last, in an arbor very early in the morning, just before the dawn came, when the grass was drenched with dew, she propositioned him. She is supposed to have said something along the lines that if he were the woman and she the man he would long since have felt her weight. No one was certain, of course, for no one had chanced near enough properly to overhear. But some did see Angelstein, courteous as ever, disengage her snowy glove from his breast, her lips from his own. Saw the curt bow he gave her, heard the tone of his voice, a hint amused now, some regret at parting.
As he walked across the lawn, Morcara called after him, «You will come to me. I'll make you. I shall wait.»
«No, mademoiselle,» he said dismissively. That was all, not even looking back. No, mademoiselle .
Then the sun came up, and Morcara Venka vanished, like the demon spirit she was said to be.
At home in her mansion amid the fields and forests, she waited for him one whole month. She had everything made beautiful for him. She was restless, always pacing, looking from the high windows to see him coming, riding a horse maybe, or in a carriage, but always coming toward her out of the distance. She climbed at last up into the highest part of the house to keep her vigils, the round chamber in the tower that once had been her father's study, and by then was a store room only, with chests about the curving walls and an old nest under a beam, for the casement had broken in a storm and the glass had not been replaced. She preferred it that way, the round room. There was no emanation of her father, she had barely known him.
But when the month was over, and Angelstein had not ridden or driven to the house, Morcara Venka sent to him one letter. Its contents are unknown—he had the prudence, being prudent in all things, to destroy it.
Seven more days she awaited a reply. When there was no reply, she came down from the tower. She went into the house, next into the gardens, and she walked about for a while, looking at things, picking them up and examining them, a book, a little vase, a leaf, a stone.
Her servants, who were afraid of Morcara with complete justification, did not feel any pity or anxiety at her state of mind. One of the maids is supposed to have said, «She'll go to the Devil now. She'll do something that'll bring the house down around our ears.»
But all Morcara did was to call the men to clear the chests from the chamber in the tower and to put into it instead a high backed chair from her own apartment. When this was done she went to her bureau and, sitting down quietly, wrote something on a piece of paper. Again, one of the servants had a premonition at this that Morcara was invoking or bespelling something or someone.
But all Morcara did was light a candle in the settling dusk, put on her silver dress and comb out her hair, and go with the candle and the paper up into the tower.
There they left her well alone, and through the early portion of the night one or two beheld the wan flicker of the candle, but later it was out.
The new day began, and Morcara was not in her bed, and nowhere to be found in the house.
Then they decided she had better be sought, for after all she could only send them away again, but for lack of diligence she could chastise them. They were used to her angers and her sparkle, not to her absence.
When they came up the steps of the tower to the round room at the top, the door was shut fast, and to it was pinned a sheet of paper, with Morcara's writing on it in black ink.
Not all the men on the stair could read, but one of them could and they brought him forward. He looked, read, and went white. «She's put a curse on this room,» he said. «Go back.» And he started down the steps. Just at that moment the steward came in and caught the fellow below, and asked him what had been discovered. The man blurted out then, loud enough they all heard, what was written on the paper. It said: All you who dare to enter here will die .
After that the men scattered, and what with Morcara's half unearthly reputation, the steward could do nothing with them, and although he tried the door himself and knocked loudly, the way was secured and no one answered.
Four days later a priest was brought from the City, along with some lawyers and other officials. They approached the tower with trepidation. It was a hot and thundery afternoon, and reaching the steps, they hesitated. One of the lawyers turned faint there, and announced that he could smell, as he put it, death. Three men went up at last, the priest with them, and the strongest—since the men of the house still refused to touch the door—put his shoulder to it. After a great deal of hammering and heaving the inner lock burst, and carried by the momentum, this man stumbled a foot or so inside the room.
A most grisly sight met all their eyes, and his firstly. There in her chair sat Morcara Venka, in her silver dress and her long black hair, with diamonds at her throat and flowers in her hand, but she was a corpse, which because of the hot summer, had already begun to rot. The stench came fast on the heels of the vision of her crumbling flesh and its fish eyes and the white bone that jutted out at her cheek and brow, and the others in her fingers like the tines of a fan. The men fell back in horror, and the first one, who had stumbled into the room, he turned in mindless fright and dashed by them, and fell the length of the stair so his neck was dislocated and he died on the bottom step.
The others who witnessed Morcara's finish, survived it, but then, of course, they had not «dared» to enter Morcara's room.
Old Monsieur de Venne, Morcara's remote relative and indirect inheritor, stabbed at the fire with a poker. Sparks showered up and the wood sank, letting show two glaring hellish hearts.
«The room was locked and sealed, and the door of the tower itself was boarded up. The corpse they left to rot in the tomb it had chosen. That Morcara was the initial sacrifice to her own curse had doubtless been her design. The poor wretch who went in there by accident was its initial victim. There shouldn't be any more. No one should enter. No one.»
»All you who dare to enter here will die» repeated Mademoiselle de Venne, with shrinking relish; she clasped her agitated hands as if they might fly away.
Rendart sat looking at the fire with his hosts. He was savoring what he had been told, but not quite yet sprinkled with the condiment of belief. Finally he said, «But do you mean, monsieur, mademoiselle, that the remains of Morcara Venka are still up there, in the tower?»
«Just so,» said monsieur to the wickedness of the fire. «Just so .»
«It is,» said Rendart, carefully, «a marvelous and awful story. But surely by now, someone—« He paused, to choose his words with more tact. «Surely someone must have been drawn to take the risk, at least to undo the door and verify the tale from outside the threshold?»
«One did,» said monsieur, with a grim satisfaction that Rendart, then, found extremely convincing. «But only one.»
«Cesar,» murmured mademoiselle, «you mustn't—«
» 'Mustn't' be fiddled,» said monsieur, and had another abrupt swipe of the brandy. As he raised the glass the fire caught it and his eyes and isolated teeth. He appeared wolfish, satanic. «Piddle,» he said, «on 'mustn't.'»
Rendart braced himself.
«You referred earlier to a certain Grisvold….»
«Yes. So I did. Bloody Grisvold— Oh, stop your noise, you senile old hen. Am I to confess to the priest? Where is he? Hasn't been near us in a twelve-month. I could die tonight. Go up the stairs and open her door and enter into the room—«
«No, no, Cesar,» implored mademoiselle.
Rendart perceived it was a rite between them, that possibly they often acted it out, if infrequently with the benefit of an audience. These two, so adjacent and yet so hedged against death, she with her provisions for lightning and wet clothes, he with his preserving brandy. Unsatisfied, sere lives burned almost down, clawing at the wicks.
«Poor Grisvold,» said Rendart, temptingly.
«Poor Grisvold, yes,» said Monsieur de Venne.
Grisvold had been the son of their father's cook. A wonderful cook she was too, and partially for that reason she had stayed with the family despite the birth of a child, who was not merely a bastard but an idiot as well. The illegitimacy was hushed up, and the cook equipped with a husband off at some war who was presently suitably killed during the enemy advance. The idiocy of the boy, conversely, was exaggerated, for he was retarded rather then moronic, and could tackle, despite bouts of illness, feverish and unidentified, a number of perfectly useful tasks, such as blacking boots, helping with the horses, of which at first there had been several, and so on.
In age Grisvold was six or seven years the senior of the nine-year-old Cesar de Venne, but mentally Grisvold was a year or two his junior. On this Cesar, a cruel and experimental boy, had played. Cesar had been, in his own case, very unhappy at the time. He was about to be sent away to school, far from his mama, whom he loved, and his elder sister, who irritated but admired him. Cesar had realized from the treatment his papa now and then gave out, to make of him a «man,» what was to be expected more regularly at the school. Nor was Cesar overjoyed at the prospects of study, which he disliked, or the ultimate goal which would be to create him a lawyer, an occupation for which he would have neither aptitude nor eagerness (and at being which he would eventually resoundingly fail).
Grisvold Cesar had always hated, but in a casual way. Cesar did not like mess, or messy things, and Grisvold's mental messiness, as Cesar saw it, abraded. So Cesar would make Grisvold commit stupid and time-wasting actions, for which sometimes Grisvold would gain a beating—and that made the worse beating Cesar might then receive bearable.
One day, Cesar managed, fairly easily, to convince Grisvold that there was a monster, a beast of some sort, in the well from which the kitchen water was drawn. Up until this hour, Grisvold had always happily obtained water there when told to. Now he flatly and hysterically refused. A row presently ensued, and gazing over the kitchen roof from the fig tree that grew behind it, Cesar was enabled to observe Grisvold dragged screaming and wetting himself in terror to the well, there to be shown no monster existed—by the expedient of lowering and withdrawing the bucket, of leaning into the well, and of Grisvold's being made to lean into the well, after which Grisvold puked, just barely not into the well, and was beaten on the bare buttocks with a switch. Soon after, however, the row progressed into the main areas of the house, and Cesar was hauled before his father, who, after a lecture, administered a beating the like of which his son had not yet undergone.
Sobbing in agony on his bed, Cesar de Venne plotted a revenge upon all mankind, but first and foremost upon the only one of its numbers he could hope to reach, hapless Grisvold.
To this end Cesar had sworn his sister to secrecy and collusion, for he was determined now that Grisvold should suffer and he, Cesar, go unscathed—although in Cesar's opinion, «If he beat me like that again, I'd die, I'd die in front of him, and serve him right.»
Cesar's sister had not entreated Cesar to reconsider what he meant to do. She was flattered to have been included in the villainy, which would involve her saying that she and her brother had been together during a particular time. She did not like the idiot either, and did not, na"ive as she was, truly grasp what they were about.
Neither of them knew, indeed, exactly the nature of Morcara's room in the old tower. All the firm information they had ever gleaned was that the tower was unsafe and full of rats, therefore to be avoided. But too there was a sort of rumoring among the servants, which everyone had somehow garnered, including Cesar, and including Grisvold, that a female ancestor had slain herself there and haunted it.
«I'll make him go up,» said Cesar, «into the tower. Perhaps he'll meet the ghost. That'll show him.»
Given some supernatural choice, Cesar would doubtless have preferred to send his father to this shock and horror, but only Grisvold was available.
«You've always wanted to know what these words say,» said Cesar to Grisvold the following morning, when they met in the garden behind the kitchen. The words in question were engraved in the wall, and related to the shrubs and vegetables grown beneath, their order being strictly adhered to, since various poisonous items also willfully came up there. Grisvold had a strange kind of lust for reading, limited to things suddenly come on or seen rather than to the mystery of books. «Well, I'll tell you. I'll tell you slowly, so you learn, and then you can go in and say them to your mother, and won't she like that, won't she be proud?» Grisvold, who had been fooled this way on another occasion into saying something obscene before his mother, for which he was beaten, had already charitably forgotten that. He stared at the words in the wall. He was still pale and sweaty from his latest thrashing. He said, gently, «Tell me.»
«Not yet. You've got to do something first. Something so I'll know you're brave. Because you weren't brave about the well, were you?»
«Mam says thee lied, there ain't no monster down in it,» said Grisvold, doubtfully.
«Of course there is,» snapped Cesar, «and she's impertinent to say I lie. Don't you know you make a monster strong by being afraid of it? We all go to the well as if it's nothing to fear, and then the monster can't do anything. But you —«
Grisvold was abashed. He did not protest that Cesar had not explained before this salient point.
«Now,» went on Cesar, «I'll let you prove you're not a coward another way.»
«How's that?» said Grisvold.
Cesar told him.
«But there's a hant in the tower, thee knows it,» said Grisvold. «And the door's boarded, and the top door's locked.»
«The boards are all loose on the bottom door,» said Cesar; they were. «And I know where the key's to be got.» He did. Prolonged observation of his father, his father's routines and concealments, a study made like the other before him at school, perforce (know your enemy) had led Cesar one day to notice an enormous key that seemed constructed from stone, which hung in the west wine cellar. As it was not the key to the cellar itself, Cesar had pondered on it and decided at last it had to do with the west tower. He might have been wrong, but he was not wrong, and therefore once Grisvold had been got to take the key, peel off the rotted boards, and enter the tower, with Cesar, someone was in a position to undo the door of Morcara's room.
Cesar's plan was to remain the far side of it, and to bolt at once, so adding to Grisvold's terror. He would then return secretly into the house, and to his sister's company, where, if questioned, they would both declare their unity in a project to do with the pressing of plants, and encyclopedias.
As for Grisvold, anything might befall him.
The chosen hour was dusk, when the area of the west tower was unfrequented, Cesar supposed at his preparatory work, and the servants busy with their supper.
That Grisvold might disobey Cesar's orders crossed no one's mind. Least of all Grisvold's.
He stole the key and had it in his grasp when Cesar approached him in the twilight under the tower.
Most of the boards had already worked away from the door. Grisvold's inopportune brawn had soon removed their vestiges. The warped outer door also gave before it.
In the gathering of the dark, as bats flitted over the yard, they stared together, these bad companions, up the stony corkscrew of the stair.
«It'll be pitch black, it will,» said Grisvold.
«No, I've brought a candle.»
They went in by the base of the steps, and Cesar lit the candle with a vivid splutter from the big match.
A bleak and grim place it was, the vein of the tower, all fissures and rats' nests, the steps dank and pocked with ancient stinking rains that had come through and collected there. They went up, Grisvold first as he had been told to do. The candle flung great wheeling arcs that seemed to topple the stair, so they clung to the unsafe railing. Cesar was already unnerved and had a want to fly constantly. But Grisvold's chittering fear sustained Cesar. Helpless in his own world, Cesar wished, godlike, to see to what depths his subject's fear might go down.
At the top of the spiral was the vast timbered door, girded by iron, and with the great iron lock that had been established some two hundred years before.
«Try the key,» said Cesar firmly.
Grisvold hesitated, shaking and muttering, and in that instant Cesar beheld that some message had been scratched in the wood above the lock. «Wait,» said Cesar, and shone his candle there.
«What do it say,» gabbled Grisvold, sweating violently and shivering all over. «Thee tell me.»
And Cesar, without properly thinking, read aloud the words some admonisher had inscribed there, that the warning not be lost (who that was was never learned; everyone currently in the household disclaimed it).
All you who dare to enter here will die.
Grisvold tried to turn, and Cesar struck him lightly and correctively, another lesson learned from Papa.
»No . Do you want everyone to think you a ninny and a coward? Open the door. Open the door and prove you're a man.»
Grisvold bleated in abject terror. But he turned back to the door, got the key into it, and by dint of his strong hand and wrist, forced the door to give and so swing wide.
Cesar too had waited on this. He was half petrified, and yet his reason had not deserted him. The warning cut in the door concerned entry to the room. As for looking , he would allow Grisvold to do that. Cesar crept, stiff with fright, back down two or three steps, and so he never saw, never chose to see, what the room contained. Obviously, bones, for the dead woman who had laid the curse had prevented anyone's ever shifting her to hallowed ground. There she must have sat, propped in her chair, in the desiccated ruins of her gown, and with the eternal diamonds still cold and bright upon her. Worse than a ghost, very likely, the actuality of mortal death.
Above him, where the candle held high in Cesar's hand could reach, and where the dusk faintly came through the chamber's broken window, Grisvold stood quaking, and noiseless now, staring at something which was undoubtedly Morcara's skeleton. And the Devil, who but the Devil, made Cesar whisper loudly, through nausea and panic, «Go in , Grisvold. I dare you to. Go into the room. »
And Grisvold, like a stage magician's doll, took some unflexing cloddish steps, and went into the room, into the room of Morcara's curse, and was there perhaps the half of one minute, before coming out again. And standing on the top step, the doorway of the room behind him, Grisvold looked down on Cesar his tormentor, and said to him, «It's death to go in. It says so. And thee made me. Thee killed me.»
Then he dropped flat with a thud that seemed to disturb the foundations of the tower, and did not move, and Cesar fled, throwing away the candle as he did so.
There was, as the brother and sister described it, a deal of fuss. For Grisvold's mother went to look for him, and then some of the grooms went, and they found him halfway down the stair of the tower, where, somewhat recovering, he had crawled. He was carried to his mother's room, and there on her bed he raved and burned, so the doctor was called from the village. But by morning Grisvold was dead.
Then all the old truths of Morcara's room were brought out shamelessly, and Cesar's father went up alone, shut the door, and locked it. And coming out, gray himself as the stone, he set about ordering bricks and cement to seal the tower's lower door for ever. A fortnight later this was done.
As for Cesar, when questioned he and his sister adhered to their pretense. They were not believed, but neither was it feasible to disbelieve them, for that must be to accept that two children, below the age of twelve years and of good birth, had perpetrated something evil.
Presently Cesar was sent away to school, where he was subjected to all he had dreaded, and worse, and might have felt, if he had thought there any need, to have expiated his sin. Mademoiselle de Venne paid in other ways for a crime she soon shifted totally to her brother. The copious diaries of her girlhood contain only one reference to Grisvold's death, as follows: Cesar once did, in childish ignorance, a very wicked thing, and made me lie for his sake. I have no luck, nothing goes right for me. Have I too been doomed by Morcara's curse?
When they had finished their story, the two mummified objects at the fire fixed on Rendart their glassy eyes. After a few moments, the young man sighed. That was hardly response enough.
«What do you say to it, eh?» demanded Monsieur de Venne. And reaching out almost absently, he rang the bell for the stoat-faced maid, since his brandy decanter was empty.
Rendart sat considering. He had rather astonished himself by being deeply offended. Not only at the appalling viciousness of their childhood personas—which still in some form persisted, flutter about poor Grisvold as mademoiselle had, and make intimate confession as had monsieur. But also at the insane stupidity that had preserved the pair of them, to this very night, in the crediting of Morcara's curse.
It was true, Rendart would have liked to punish them, but sternly he had put this idea behind him. Then he was only left with the much harder puzzle of how to bring them to their senses in a tactful and open-ended way.
At length, after several quite harsh or insistent promptings from monsieur and mademoiselle, and after the brandy had been refilled by Pierre, Rendart spoke.
«I take it, the lower door of the tower is still bricked up?»
«What else?» flared Monsieur de Venne.
«I have to tell you,» said Rendart, «it could be unbricked tomorrow, and the remains of Morcara Venka removed for burial. That might allow her peace. Perhaps you might feel easier.»
«God have mercy!» cried Mademoiselle de Venne. «How could it be possible?» she said. «No one can enter that room and live.»
«I've heard the words of the curse on the room,» agreed Rendart. «But I wouldn't put any faith in their effectiveness.»
«Haven't you had proof enough?» grated monsieur, recharged with brandy fire. «Morcara herself. The man who broke in the door. And bloody Grisvold.»
«Yes, I've heard what you've said,» murmured Rendart, «but it seems to me the first man who rushed into the chamber by accident rushed out again in horror, missed his footing, and fell quite naturally, if unfortunately, to. his death. Poor Grisvold, from what you say, was subject to undiagnosed fevers, which may have been linked to an inflammation of the brain. He had also been recently and savagely beaten in a manner, dare I say, the awful beatings given monsieur perhaps did not approach. Add to that a superstitious and overwhelming terror, and I must suppose his latent disease erupted and carried him off. As for Morcara,» added Rendart determinedly, as alcoholic waves and pale flappings threatened from the fire, «I rather think she took her own life. From what's been said of her she would brook no denials. To live her life without a man she genuinely had come to desire would have seemed to her dramatic spirit an imposition. Neither man nor God should tell her what to do. So she shut herself up and concluded her existence with poison.»
«Ridiculous!» roared monsieur.
«Not at all,» said Rendart. «Mademoiselle has herself assured me the garden abounded in dangerous and venomous plants; I myself spotted three or four. You picture Morcara in her ball gown, with flowers in her hand. Probably they were one of the deadlier species, and she ate them to effect a swift dispatch.»
A space of wordlessness followed this statement, during which the fire and some clocks ticked away the minutes. Seeming to understand what they did, it was Mademoiselle de Venne who quickly if hoarsely broke the silence.
«But remember the words, Monsieur Rendart. They are scratched to this day on the door.»
«I do indeed remember them, perfectly. All you who dare to enter here will die .» Rendart paused, and let his pity for them both, even his pity of their nastiness, their evil, come back to him. He would spare them, he must. «Suffice it to say, mademoiselle, if you wish me to undertake the commission, I'll see to it the tower is unbricked, the upper room entered, and the bones removed to holy ground. For myself and those I hire for the work, I haven't any fears. I guarantee their safety—and their wages—and if you like, I'll furnish proof of their survival for, say, a year after the reburial. I'll even go so far,» said Rendart, with a sudden smile, «as to set up a tomb for Morcara Venka, at my own expense. Out of respect for her romance.»
They sat dumbfounded, glaring at him. They loathed his interference and yes, they would like him to perish of the curse of Morcara's room; they would give their permission.
Rendart regretted his smile all night as he lay dozing in the fearful dank white bedroom. He was sorry he had lapsed, for it had been the smile of a torturer if not the executioner: He had punished them by making a gift to the dead, rather than to themselves, the living—that state and title to which they so obstinately clung.
A month later, as the heat of summer baked into a fruiting jamlike autumn, the tower of the mansion was opened, the stair ascended, the door undone, and the heap of bones placed in a box and borne away.
Rendart for his part contracted with the workmen, and the priest who had spiritually cleansed the room of any impressed miseries, that they should monthly submit to the de Vennes, for one year after the enterprise, continued proof of their life and health, which was accordingly done. All those who entered Morcara's room, including Rendart himself, are still hale and going about their deeds in the world.
For of course, as Rendart had seen, having the youth, the scope for it, it was no curse at all Morcara Venka had laid upon her room in the tower. For she told no more than the truth, the truth which the old monsieur and mademoiselle must not be made to face so bitterly, the truth at which she, Morcara, in anticipating, had thumbed her nose. Pure self-deception caused others to dance thereafter to Morcara's tune. (As she surely knew, adding a cunning flick of the wrist to her phrase.) It was only necessary to open the eye of the mind as well as the door of the chamber, in order to go in there without terror. Or at least without any terror that was not already inherent and inevitable, and that each of us must dwell with for every year we are on the earth. All you who dare to enter here will die . It was a fact. All who dared the room would die. What else? For death is the destiny of all, and unavoidable, be it now, tomorrow, or eight decades hence. But how often do we like to be told, how often do we not convince ourselves we are immortal ?