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or: The Children Of The Wolves
Part One: Le Pays Inconnu
Chapter 1: The Arrival
Chapter 2: The Salon
Chapter 3: The Dog
Chapter 4: The Bedroom
Chapter 5: The Excursion
Chapter 6: The Forest
Chapter 7: The Devil
Chapter 8: The Feast
Chapter 9: The Seduction
Part Two: Enfants Perdus
Chapter 10: The Funeral
Chapter 11: The Gun
Chapter 12: The Interview
Chapter 13: The Servants
Chapter 14: The Snow
Chapter 15: The Visit
Part Three: Les yeux de ceux qui M'aiment
Chapter 16: The Delirium
Chapter 17: The Morning
Chapter 18: The Test
Chapter 19: The Lovers
Part Four: Fête Champêtre
Chapter 20: The Liaison
Chapter 21: The Warning
Chapter 22: The Damned
Chapter 23: The Rape
Chapter 24: The Festival
Chapter 25: The Sky
Chapter 26: The Hut
Chapter 27: The Departure
»My dear cousin and lover, I sport here three in a bed, with two wolves – who have recently devoured the flesh of a young girl...«
To a distant corner of France comes Christian Dorse to claim his inheritance where, his beauty enhanced by his consumptive pallor, Christian prepares himself to surrender to premature death.
But Christian is close to the forest where the de Lagenays live, a mother and son that both servants and village people mysteriously avoid mentioning. Are they, as he comes to suspect, the children of the wolf? And are they the ones who, when darkness falls, throw out exquisite seductions which he cannot resist?
Award-winning author Tanith Lee's spellbinding novel mixes eroticism and fear in a fantasy laced with surprise, enchantment and the evil of spoilt beauty...
Tanith Lee (* 19. September 1947, + 24. May 2015).
Tanith Lee was a British writer of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. She was the author of 77 novels, 14 collections, and almost 300 short stories. She also wrote four radio plays broadcast by the BBC and two scripts for the UK, science fiction, cult television series Blake's 7.
Before becoming a full time writer, Lee worked as a file clerk, an assistant librarian, a shop assistant, and a waitress.
Her first short story, Eustace, was published in 1968, and her first novel (for children) The Dragon Hoard was published in 1971.
Her career took off in 1975 with the acceptance by Daw Books USA of her adult fantasy epic The Birthgrave for publication as a mass-market paperback, and Lee has since maintained a prolific output in popular genre writing.
Lee twice won the World Fantasy Award: once in 1983 for best short fiction for The Gorgon and again in 1984 for best short fiction for Elle Est Trois (La Mort). She has been a Guest of Honour at numerous science fiction and fantasy conventions including the Boskone XVIII in Boston, USA in 1981, the 1984 World Fantasy Convention in Ottawa, Canada, and Orbital 2008 the British National Science Fiction convention (Eastercon) held in London, England in March 2008.
In 2009 she was awarded the prestigious title of Grand Master of Horror. Lee was the daughter of two ballroom dancers, Bernard and Hylda Lee. Despite a persistent rumor, she was not the daughter of the actor Bernard Lee who played M in the James Bond series of films of the 1960s.
Tanith Lee married author and artist John Kaiine in 1992.
Cover of the 1981 DAW-Books edition of LYCANTHIA OR THE CHILDREN OF THE WOLVES.
To FREFF, who can find sunlight in the darkest forest
The train, running north under its hammerhead of smoke and steam, had prematurely entered the land of winter, as if through a great, pure, silent door. How cold, how changed, the world was in the white morning, as the still, white light began to come. A world of wet woods, vague hills. And on the horizon’s edge, the pines, blocking in the land with ink. An empty region, apparently. Nothing by the track or visible between the branches, none of those piled towns, sloping villages, none of those shacks, sheds, cottages, farms, that had been interminably visible all yesterday, as the locomotive unfurled itself from the city. Nothing now, till the station appeared, swirling up about the train as if tediously and pointlessly to detain it. There was a remnant of the fall huddled around the station; on a bush, the occasional sodden yellow leaf, on a bough a cherry-red one: refugees.
The air, as he stepped down, was keen as a knife. It immediately pierced to his lungs, and he coughed desultorily, not really noticing he did so. His box and bags were placed around him. He stood with them, a little island of dark in the albino morning, as the train drew away.
Half a mile along the track, it gave a lonely cry, calling farewell to him, heartlessly, over its shoulder.
The station was ramshackle and looked deserted.
When the train was gone, it seemed he had been marooned, shipwrecked in the midst of a wilderness. Christian looked at his baggage hopelessly. There was too much to carry. He did not want to carry it. He had been promised a meeting here, and a conveyance.
He did not want to make any decisions. The thought of doing so, of planning what should happen next, made him feel depressed, bored and exhausted. He sat down on the box. He had not been able to sleep in the train. Something about its eternity of motion, which had drugged him, had also kept him awake. Bareheaded, yet swathed otherwise in the dark astrakhan greatcoat, he imagined himself blending, dissolving into the landscape. Black and white like the winter morning, and the woods. Black hair, black coat; the white face. A young face, except for two fissures carved out under the eyes. The eyes... what colour were they? Black and white mixed; a gray, luminous but leaden. Curious. (He was picturing himself, now.) Not even the little crimson touches of autumn about him. Till he thought of blood, and all the leaves left clinging on the bushes around the station wall pulsed and burned as if alive, and he felt the terrible mindless disbelieving fear, and then -
And then a man came out of the station building. He was tall and cloaked, a funereal top hat rising like a chimney from his head. He was all clothes, and did not seem to have a face.
»Monsieur?« he asked. »Monsieur Dorse?« Christian rose, acknowledging his name.
»The car is below on the road, monsieur. Peton is coming for your luggage.«
They stood indecisively, the young man, the newcomer in his top hat, like actors smitten with amnesia. What came next?
»I am Sarrette, monsieur.«
The driver. There was nothing else to be done but walk away from his luggage, abandon it, move forward empty-handed into the void.
Sarrette held open two doors for him and then a gate. Steps went down between earth banks. Trees clouded on the far side of a narrow gravel road, where the big car rested like a jet-black, strangely elongated and roofed bath chair.
»It's very cold, monsieur,« said Sarrette, as he opened the door of the car. Another man had emerged from somewhere, gone into the station, and was now returning with the box. Peton. He was strong, bareheaded as was Christian, but without the young man's wealth of hair. Thin strands were combed over Peton's scalp like pencil drawings. He loaded the box at the rear of the car. Sarrette made gestures with a traveling rug, as Peton loped back up the steps and presently returned with the other bags. Peton did not glance, at any point, at Christian.
His task accomplished, an incoherent altercation broke out between Peton and Sarrette, conducted in the local dialect virtually incomprehensible. The incomprehensibility removed it from Christian's sphere of concerns, and he was relieved. The freezing air had begun to intrude under his skin, hurting him.
Then Peton was suddenly making away. Sarrette started the car and climbed into the driver's seat. The car shuddered and slid forward.
»I am afraid, monsieur...« said Sarrette. There was a pause. »There are only the four of us at the château. As I believe Monsieur Hamel wrote you.«
»It's a bad state of affairs. But to take on service at this time of year is impossible. Until the spring -«
»Out here, monsieur. The Styx. The desert.«
The road curved away from the railway tracks, and now the pine forest flowed toward it. It was the forest of a childhood story. Nothing needed to be said or thought about it.
Sometime or other, some romancer had thought and said it all...
The feeling of a claw scratching in his throat increased, and Christian coughed again, lightly, not indulging the cough.
Let it wait.
The driver said, »Wonderful country for the health, monsieur.«
Christian watched the dark green and black pagodas of the trees. He was twenty-eight. Before the spring came, he might be dead. There was a thought, now.
He felt rather ill, drained, but it was not unpleasant while he could lie back in the plush of the seat. He wondered if Sarrette thought him handsome and wished, on a merely paternalistic level, to take care of him. This bad happened quite often. Was
Sarrette a local product? Christian was not really used to a tradition of retainers, the notion of serfs, which, however much blurred and euphemized by the epoch, would still be present here in this wild winter country. The servants of his childhood, and at the house of his cousin in the city, had been affectionate, unproud and insulting.
He wondered how long it would be before he saw the château, and how he would react to it. His mother bad lived in this place, but only until her seventh or eighth year. His grandfather's debts had then lost them almost everything, and the house had been sold. The family had become city dwellers, and at eighteen, a good marriage to a provincial hotelier of foreign extraction had snared his mother, and brought Christian. It was a freak of fortune and ancestral connivance which had returned the château, forty years after its sale, into Christian's possession. He had not thought to have it, nor ever thought to want it. Life had systematically taken away from him the things he had wished for most. The château was a kind of bright bauble flung to him as he lay stranded and crying with despair. Childishly distracted from pain and ruin, he had picked it up.
The landscape looked its age. The Romans had built their forts on it once.
The road ascended steeply between palisades and hanging curtains of trees. Periodic breaks revealed distant depths showering away, pine on pine, the occasional fir, bluish and smoldering, the attenuated counterpoint of larches. Above, slabs of hillside sometimes leaned like balconies from the forest. Once, a blush of smoke indicated some isolated dwelling, or charcoal burners, perhaps. The smell of the smoke, and dank, crushed, fallen leaves, permeated the car, chocolaty and immemorial. Such scents, like those of cooking meat, sap in a bud, a woman's hair, had existed since the beginnings - primeval, timeless, permanent.
(Of course, he would inevitably think in such a way.)
The village appeared almost without warning. A stone marker at the wayside, next a farm, piercing through the trees with its raw carpet of stubbled fields and long fence. Abruptly a church hung above them, angled almost horizontally as it perched sideways on the incline. Houses burgeoned. They looked very old. Iron crosses, hammered into the plaster, bad lapsed drunkenly sideways, pots of brown soil cluttered windows and stairs. Roofs fell toward each other. Kept falling. Walls leaned. A situation du Moyen Ȃge. Women in black moved out, and tainted air rose from the forge. A child ran down the street toward the car, a dog barking at its heels, but Sarrette was driving very slowly.
Christian expected faces to open like flowers, staring at him, and he held himself together, braced. But these people barely glanced at the car. There was some kind of monument in the square, and there was a well, still in use, naturally.
They drove around the square, by the memorial and the well, past the church, and slowly back into more forest beyond.
Five minutes later, two stone-animals manifested on either side of the road, heraldic dogs, rampant, with shields. Another minute and the wall reared up, the wall of the château, a huge rampart, partly crumbling. Two more stone dogs watched them through the open gates.
This ground had been cleared, partly landscaped at one time, probably. To Christian, the view had no format: It belonged to him, and some dim stirring in him tried briefly to assimilate, to recognize: an avenue of leafless limes, a cypress tree commanding a hillock, a cluster of stones that might have been part of some former building... But no, the land about the château remained elusive and as indeterminate as anything he had witnessed from the windows of the train.
The road ran right over the estate, finally crossing a bridge that looked as if it were constructed of gray marzipan, above a moat. If any water remained in the moat, Christian could not see. The château loomed on the other side. It was large. Like the cleared land, it defied acceptance.
He gazed at it wearily, let it have its way, too tired to fight with it. The little town houses and flats of his past, with their reassuring claustrophobia, the suite of rooms in his father's stucco hotel, facing forever out to sea as if from a becalmed liner-these homes and dwellings had nothing to do with the château. It did not seem inhabitable. Rock-like bastions, stained plastered walls, shutters, battlements, balustrades, all glued and grown together, an enormous petrified vegetable.
The road, and therefore the car, stopped under a tall gray terrace, by a staircase flanked with cement urns. Sarrette sounded the horn. They sat still in the quietly popping car, waiting.
A boy ran from the château suddenly, along the terrace, down the stair. He was about nineteen, red-cheeked. Christian experienced a terrible apathetic contempt for the boy's health and vigor.
Christian opened the car door, not waiting to be released. He got out and looked at the staircase, at the boy running down it.
The boy nodded anxiously to him, a bob of the head, and a paragon of obsequiousness. He moved at once and began to unload Christian's box and the bags.
Sarrette emerged from the car.
»Renzo,« said Sarrette, indicating the boy. »Madame Tienne will be in charge of the domestic arrangements, and of course there is the woman from the village, who will cook. And there's the girl who'll live in, to attend to the cleaning of the rooms. This is unsatisfactory, naturally, but until the spring -«
»Yes,« said Christian. He observed the stairs, trying to count them. Forty, or was it forty-two?
»Much of the château is still shut up. Madame Tienne has opened the master suite on the first floor for your convenience, and the grande hall and salon are in good order. But if any other apartment - I believe the music room interested you, monsieur?«
»Not until the advent of a piano tuner.«
»Oh yes, indeed. Monsieur Hamel engaged someone from the city. It was seen to last week. Didn't you receive the letter?«
Christian recalled the lawyer Hamel's unmistakable last envelope arriving at the house of his cousin just as Christian was leaving for the station. His cousin had been in tears, a taxicab stood at the door. Christian had thrust the letter into his coat, and, convinced of it& pedantic unimportance, forgotten it.
He went on looking at the staircase. The boy, singlehanded, like Peton, was lugging the box toward the terrace.
»Presumably I go up,« said Christian.
»Yes, monsieur. Madame Tienne is waiting in the salon for your orders.«
Christian negotiated the stairs slowly. On the twentieth, he paused. He looked hack, as if taking in the vista, steadying himself casually against the pedestal of an urn.
Sarrette, who had not offered to help him at all, was leaning against the shiny car, watching. From the first, Christian received the impression of - what? Not exactly unfriendliness, more indifference.
I am an interloper, Christian thought. They instinctively expect that I shall come and go, just like the nuisance of the impending winter. Arrival, and inevitable departure. And how right they are.
Beyond the man and the car, the curve of road and bridge, the land rose modestly. A crippled lime tree looked for a moment impossibly familiar.
There were forty-five stairs. Renzo, the boy, passed him twice, returning for and then carrying the bags. Renzo was cheerful. He ignored Christian’s slow ascent.
Christian actually felt the dry pallor of his face, as if it had been painted over, like the peeling facade of the château. He paused on the terrace, breathing. His legs were water, but he had Madame to deal with. He visualized a doll-like figure in a provincial white apron, knowing the image would be false.
He still heard his cousin‘s voice - »Don‘t go, don’t leave us, my dear. You're not well, not fit -«
Mummified by frost, husks of flowers still lurked in the urns beside the door, which stood wide to receive the new master.
He heard the car driving away around the side of the house toward the antique stables, now reduced to a sprawling garage.
He coughed, and went through the door into his absurd ancestral home.
Like the forest, the grande hall of the château was exactly the product of a romance. Carved panels of wood alternated with brocades. Velvet drapes packaged the views in the windows. Two enormous chandeliers dripped from the high ceiling. Two enormous fireplaces excavated the walls. A long table of polished bloody mahogany waited to seat forty or more.
An indoor stair swept toward heaven, with the bizarrely curving banister erected to allow for the passage of birdcage skirts. (Renzo moved up it with the bags.) Above a gallery, a single high-up stained-glass porthole, sumptuously and frigidly blue, indicated heaven had already been attained.
The salon opened to the left through double doors, little sister to the hall, with a similar display of long table, chandeliers and drapes. The solitary fireplace was fired, though the room remained chilly.
Madame Tienne stood before the hearth. He had been foolish to suppose she would not be just as he had predicted. A figment of his imagination, she clasped her doll - like hands over her white apron. The doll face was that of a stern matron made of ceramic. He wondered if she had been in residence when the drunkard, the man who bought the château from Christian‘s grandfather, had sipped and swallowed himself to death here.
She introduced herself with a stiff, very little bow, and the medieval cluster of keys at her waist jiggled and clanked. She spoke of the apartment upstairs, where his bags had been taken. Renzo would unpack for him. Renzo would act as steward, porter and valet, if Christian required it. She spoke of the fire in the grate. She inquired what Christian recommended in this instance. Would he take coffee? When would he wish luncheon? Would anyone else be arriving? Would he be content to leave the menus, and similar affairs, in her hands?
Sometimes his appetite was voracious, at others it did not exist. Today, it did not exist. He thanked her, and told her he would have coffee, and when she had gone he sat by the fire in a chair. He knew he would have to wait to be alone.
First Renzo came in to report on the fate of the bags. Then Madame herself returned with the coffee things. A slim vase of cognac and a glass had been added, and a little plate of cakes. When she had poured his coffee, she went away. Renzo came back to see to the fire. During this operation, Sarrette appeared. Shed of his coat and unorthodox undertaker's hat, he had become a soldier, gripping his hands behind him, thrusting out his chest. Would monsieur need the car again today?
When Renzo and Sarrette had departed, a girl evolved to clear the coffee tray, and finding him with the cup untouched, she emptied it, and poured afresh.
The heavy white light in the windows, the primrose-coloured fire, did not seem to give much light. The room was dim, and he barely saw the girl. Wholesome and quite plain, her hair rolled like a sausage, she glanced at him under her lids, and he wondered idly if she would be the one who would decide to cosset and take care of him. Catching his eye, she blushed, but it was timidity rather than attraction.
As she was going out, he said, »Please tell Madame Tienne I don't require anything else. I can see to the fire, and the coffee. I don't want the car, or luncheon, or a single thing. If one more person comes into this room, I shall be forced to vacate it.« He paused, and the girl balanced on her astonishment, or whatever it was. »Will you do that?«
»Yes, m'sieur,« she said, and was gone.
He drank the fresh hot coffee, took a bite from one of the cakes and threw the rest of it wastefully into the fire with a sense of its betrayal.
Disturbed and without energy, he prowled the room; looking at ornaments, paintings, avoiding a mirror, but unable to take in anything.
The room seemed to darken further. Probably the day was growing overcast. Like the road, gas had been brought uniquely to the château. Lily-shaped gas lamps branched from the wood above the fire, and at intervals along the walls. He need never be in the dark.
The servants-his servants-had brought him cognac either because they deduced he was an invalid, or because they remembered the drunkard. Perhaps they wished to insure Christian's departure from the place. Slow murder via bottle and glass. He pictured them plotting it in a stone kitchen beneath his feet. He did not really believe in the servants.
Maybe he should go up to the music room and investigate the piano. When he thought of it, a surge of pleasure went through him, followed aptly and unavoidably by a surge of weariness, a colourless desire not to move.
He sat down in the chair again. It must be about eleven o'clock. He gazed at the fire; the room was warmer and be grew drowsy. As with hunger, sleep frequently eluded him, or else came overpoweringly.
He closed his eyes, and saw his pretty cousin. Thirty years of age, Annelise, married and with three children, was nevertheless in love with Christian. Or in love with what he represented. The aura of something dying could fascinate, was immensely alluring to some, though for complex, subconscious reasons.
He had unbuttoned his greatcoat, but not removed it. Now it occurred to him to do so. In some odd way it had to do with also removing the importune mind-apparition of Annelise. He rose, and as he drew off the astrakhan, Hamel's last letter, somehow dislodged, dropped into his hand.
Christian sat down again. He watched the letter for some while, not wishing to read it. This was a foolish procrastination to which he constantly fell prey. The letter, of course, would contain merely a few fussy leftover lawyer's details. And yet, there might be some onus on Christian to reply, some new query or happening with which he must involve himself. He felt a distinct dread at such a thought.
He sat, holding the letter, and let torpor overcome him. His senses began to go, blissfully, the firelight, the warmth and the dimness melting them away.
A log barked on the hearth and woke him.
A year seemed to have passed, but the fire was still high, its yellow stars leaping to the chimney.
If anyone had come in to summon him, like a baby, to a noonday meal, he bad not woken. Had they viewed him with pity? With scorn?
Hamel's letter crackled under his palm. Almost absently be lifted it and slit the envelope.
The dull window light made it almost illegible, and what was illegible need not be taken seriously...
A paragraph of legal trivia. A paragraph on the piano tuner. A financial paragraph. A good wish. Christian's eyes could not keep a purchase on the paper. He leaned back in the chair and held the paper so the fire shone radiantly through it and the words danced.
-»In the matter of the de Lagenays, I would advise you to employ extreme caution. Their whereabouts are largely uncertain and, as you may guess, rumour abounds in such a spot. The family is eccentric, and any claim they may assume to the property is, at best, hypothetical. I would, however, insist, in the strongest terms, that you do not venture outside the bounds of the château unaccompanied. My intention is not to alarm you, but to make provision against all circumstances, however remote.«
Christian was not properly awake, and the nonsense of this fitted perfectly and almost graciously with his mental state. De Lagenay was a name he did not even vaguely recall Hamel mentioning earlier, in the city office. A claim to the property? Neither did Christian remember such a point. But then, be had sat in Hamel's plush chair, looking alert and intelligent, nodding, grunting at the correct intervals, signing documents when they were placed before him, hearing little, understanding less. Christian had found it increasingly difficult to take such things seriously, and his powers of concentration, sometimes insanely formidable (the study of a moth poised on a shutter, a man at a street corner, a strain of music) were inadequate.
He lowered his lids till the fire became a fringe of golden grass. He saw the de Lagenays, ten or so burly peasant farmers, clustered amid the pine trees. They carried staves, knives, an ancient musket. He laughed bitterly, and fell once more asleep.
And dreamed of a fair-haired, lily-like girl, her arms flung crosswise over her throat, her eyes staring at him.
»Monsieur,« someone was saying, hesitantly but repeatedly. »Monsieur, monsieur.«
Christian raised himself from a grave of black velure and opium poppies. For a moment he saw Renzo standing apparently in space, lit by a bloom of shadowy light. But the light exuded from a window, and Renzo stood on the floor. The fire was nearly out. It was cold, the northern afternoon advancing toward a windy northern evening. Christian smiled at Renzo, and the boy faltered, transfixed by the stunning charm of the smile.
»I've come to light the lamps, monsieur,« said Renzo. »Sylvie came in before, but you were asleep.«
»I was still,« said Christian, »asleep.«
He found he could not breathe, and began to cough, rackingly.
The spasm went on and on, lifting him of itself first into an upright position, next bowing him forward. When it passed, the boy, carefully ignoring him, had coaxed a glint from the fire onto a taper, and was inserting it into one of the gas mantles. The blue hiss of gas ended in the expected pop. The greenish flame fluttered into life. Encouraged, the boy offered fire into the second lily cup.
»Madame says, will you have dinner served in the salon, or in the hall? Madame says, will you have English tea served at four o'clock? Madame says, it was the custom of your grandfather's time. The tea. China tea.«
»I said,« said Christian, his voice a soft clear rasp, »I said no one was to come into this room.«
»But the lamps, Monsieur.«
»No English China tea,« said Christian. »No dinner.« Renzo gasped.
Christian got up from the chair and made a move toward the basket of logs beside the hearth. Renzo hastily forestalled him. Wood plunged on the dying embers with a crash.
»Madame,« said Renzo, »says to inform you dinner bas usually been served at eight o'clock.«
»Then serve it,« said Christian. »I shan't eat any of it, but I don't want to spoil anything for Madame Tienne.«
He stood, leaning by the hearth, shivering, watching the light crawl under the wood. Across the long room, the girl called Sylvie had entered like a ghost and was drawing the drapes. The grounds of the château were lost in a coalescence of silver gloom, and might no longer have existed.
Renzo, passing Sylvie to ignite a new branch of lamps, muttered something in the dialect. Christian tensed to detect the phrases of illness or insanity.
»Tell me,« he said to the fire, »about a family named Lagenay.«
Renzo's muttering had broken off. There began to be silence. Christian listened for the hiss and pop of the gas mantles. When it did not come, he turned his head and looked at the two servants. Sylvie stood before the drawn curtains, solid and immovable, eyes lowered. Renzo was in the act of untidily crossing himself. »So bad?« Christian said.
»No, monsieur. I only -«
»M'sieur,« said Sylvie briskly, not glancing at him, »there's a local family, de Lagenay. But not in the village.«
»In the forest.«
»Oh no, m'sieur.«
Renzo looked frightened. He darted a wild glance at Sylvie. The taper flickered in his grasp.
»My lawyer, Hamel, implies the de Lagenays reside in the forest, and warns me to be careful of them. What connection do they have with the château?«
The taper lit Renzo's face hellishly from beneath.
»They've got no connection with anything, or with anyone, those de Lagenays haven't.«
»Shush!« said Sylvie sharply.
They stood in a line, Renzo hypnotized by the taper, Sylvie by the Persian rug, and carried on their dialogue fiercely.
»I'll speak,« said Renzo. »It has to come out. It can't be stopped.«
»Shush! He doesn't want to know.«
»He asked me, didn't he? I'll tell him.«
»Don't you say a word. I'll go to Madame.«
Christian realized that for them he was simply a figment of their personal awarenesses, as they were for him. He might not have been present. Intrigued, he watched as they bit their lips, sizzled, lapsing into dialect again, as be lost the meaning, but never the spirit of their interchange.
When Madame Tienne spoke crisply from the doorway, he, too, flinched.
»What is this?« A significant pause. The two naughty children trembled before the white-aproned schoolmistress. »And in front of monsieur. Get out, the pair of you.« They hurried to obey her, Renzo still clutching the taper, which died in the wind of their passage. »Please excuse them, monsieur,« Madame Tienne said to Christian. »They're very young, typical parochial adolescents. And they have much to learn of service to the house.«
In the half-lit salon, she looked sinister and cruel. He beheld Sylvie and Renzo, naked as plucked fowls strung from a rafter, while the woman lashed them with a bundle of knotted twigs.
»It's after four,« she said. »Will you take tea?«
»Your luncheon was served, and brought away untouched.«
So, they had crept about him while he slept. Her face had perhaps been peering down at him. When he slept with women, sometimes their kisses, pressed irresistibly to his cheeks, eyelids, had woken him. (»My angel...«) But not Madame. Not a trace, either of pity or appetite.
»I'm too tired to eat, Madame.« Ah, he had made his first excuse to her.
»I think you're unwell, monsieur.«
»Do you? How interesting.«
»Do you wish dinner?«
»No, Madame, thank you. But I gather the cellars are well-stocked. A bottle of wine. Upstairs. I leave the choice to you. Something,« he hesitated, watching her, »dry.«
The smallest spark went off in her eyes. The antagonism pleased her. She and the drunkard had probably often fought, in subtle, sullen ways.
He took up his coat. Hamel's letter was yet in his hand, and he replaced it in the coat pocket. He went toward the door, and Madame Tienne stood aside to let him pass.
»Oh, Madame. These de Lagenays. Who are they?«
She did not respond with any emotion. Naturally, he had left her a long interval in which to ready herself for reply.
»Please don't pay too much attention to gossip, Monsieur Dorse. The village people are excellent in their way, and will serve you well. But uneducated, ignorant. The de Lagenays? Well, they're social outcasts, monsieur. Their family will have done something in the distant past which the villagers condemn, or fear. Such people don't forget. So, for generation after generation, the Lagenays are treated as lepers.»
»And why,« he said, »should I be warned against them?”
»Who warned you?«
That was very quick, very alert.
»My lawyer, Madame. Monsieur Hamel.«
»They will be rough folk. Perhaps -«
»There’s the story of a blood link, monsieur, with the château, years ago. A girl was forced. An illegitimate birth resulted. But there’ll always be stories in such a feudal place.«
She said it boldly, and her eyes glittered.
He thanked her, and passed himself in the mirror as he walked out into the grande hall.
The stained-glass porthole near the ceiling had turned to indigo. Gas lamps illumined the walls, and the curving staircase.
She had followed him from the salon and observed him as he began to climb. The steps were shallow; it was not unbearable. He recollected, from the plan Hamel had sent him, where the master suite was situated, along the gallery, a passage.
When he was almost at the top of the stair, a chittering of crystals made him turn and look at the nearer of the two chandeliers. Some draft must have caught it, for it rippled superficially all over, like disturbed water.
Madame Tienne stood in the hall, a strangely fixed and threatening figure in her immaculate apron.
The wine was a dry red, good, yet with a resonant heaviness uncommon to dry vintages. The vineyard was not twenty kilometres away, and had at one time been in the possession of the château. The name on the label was curious, too: sang-de-seigneur.
He drank two glasses as he took in the master suite. It comprised five rooms, one of them a gigantic glacial bathing chamber, to which, nevertheless, hot water must be lugged from the kitchen copper. The bedroom contained a tapestry, two meters by three. The bed was also huge and inevitably canopied. Conceptions, births and deaths without number had likely taken place there.
Christian stood and regarded himself at last in the great mirror that dominated the mahogany dressing table. Like others, he was not immune to his own appearance. He considered himself with an objective sensuality and dismay. The clarity of skin and eyes, the rich expression of hair, the elegant counterbalance of purely masculine slenderness. To himself he was a source of wretched fascination, for he was artist enough to acknowledge human physical perfection, and to lament its loss. All this was to be wasted. Perhaps more terrible than anything was the fact that the disease, which riddled him like a rotted piece of meat, had so far only heightened his glamour. What use was it all? A kind of self-protective lure, maybe, a dying plant beautifying itself in order to snare and feed upon the creatures thereby helplessly drawn into its orbit.
There had always been those who would care for him. He had had little need of them, and had striven to escape rapacious parents, hungry friends and lovers. Then, the illness had found him (he imagined it seeking him through all the narrow city streets and the broad boulevards, knocking on doors: »ls Christian here? No? Then I must go on.« And at last, gliding soundlessly through the corridors of the conservatoire, bypassing student after student. Eventually hearing the notes which ran over from his piano like a rising lake. Yes. It had found him). He had been grateful initially to be housed by Annelise, and by her husband. He had even indulged an impersonal sentimental concern for their children. And then he had acknowledged that th thing which ha4 found him would not leave him. All unknowing, somewhere in the night, sickness had married him. He seemed to cross instantly into another dimension, a country where no truth remained true, no symbol or fact was as it had been. As if he had gone blind, or deaf; it was like that.
He had debated about Annelise scarcely at all. He had been glad at her goodness to him, not surprised, of course, but glad. But it was also in the nature of the thing that had come to him that it stimulated, perversely, a demanding concupiscence. As if life strove to drive out death, the sexual urge, piercing sweet as a nerve wounded in a tooth, would race through his flesh. A sort of torture, that evoked unpleasantly erotic fantasies of crucifixion, the body reared and bent backward like a bow, the line between ecstasy and agony no longer calculable, the blazing nails that thrust through palms and feet, and the ultimate nail, pulsing with its liquors, hammered outward from the juncture of the thighs.
The husband had been away, the sick young man, too weak to cause anyone any harm, stretched out on a sofa, the pretty cousin moving about her seemingly innocent tasks. Quite abruptly he had seen her eyes, and all that was in them. Without a word, he had pulled her down, and in a matter of instants, perhaps less than a minute on the face of the clock, they had been struggling against the barriers of each other's musculature, as if up a steep hill, screaming their lust, oblivious to anything else.
When the husband returned, Annelise, in the throes of an awful guilt, tended to him like a slave. Her eyes were bleak with shame, but also with anticipation. Her eyes now said to Christian with every look, »Our vileness is terrible because we shall continue to sin. Tomorrow, mon amour, and tomorrow.«
She loved his death. So it seemed to Christian. Worse than adultery, necrophilia. At the first opportunity, which happened to be the château, he ran away.
In the master suite, all the gas lamps were alight, and fires burned in each grate. The plan of the suite was straightforward. A drawing room opened into a bedroom, which in turn opened into a dressing room and a bathroom. On the left hand, the drawing room also opened into a private library of some distinction.
The library gave additional access out of the suite. Beyond it, a corridor recessed into the fourteenth-century stone bastions that had gone up in the days even before La Mort had ridden over Europe on her thin pale horse.
At an angle of the passage, a door opened. Three steps, a second door. Secretive, locked into a space between two walls, one medieval and one of modern construction, a room shaped like a wedge of gateau: the music room.
The walls were of a pale golden wood, glimmering, for even here Madame's prediction bad sent a lamplighter ahead of him. There were sad neglected beings all about, three or four mandolins and guitars suspended from pegs, a tall harp with broken strings. But the piano was massive and alive. Not only tuned, but polished. It stood beside a narrow, uncurtained and embrasured window, a shining black monster, waiting to devour whatever prey chanced to come near. For the piano was the ablest of all predatory beasts. It enticed by aloofness; it offered itself only to those who would toil to master it. And when they came to it, clad in the spicery of their learning, it would magnetize their fingers to its ivory fangs, and suck the soul out through the naked feverish skin. In short, a vampire.
He drained the glass of its wine (known as Blood-of. Christ. Why not?) and set it on a table. Seating himself before the flat steps of the keys, he felt a familiar excitement.
The leap from the precipice.
He began to play a transcription he had made the year before, from a piano concerto of Rachmaninov. For a second he was afraid, before his hands found their purchase on the keyboard, afraid of getting lost in a labyrinth. Then the strength came back into joints and wrists and spine. Sombre chords from the lower, white beads tumbling out from the higher octaves, a succession of melodic developments which opened from each other in extraordinary fans. Within the labyrinth, knowing the way.
At first the sense of being watched did not distract him. A year before, he would have been used to it, for he was then often watched, at practice or composition. There had even been a coterie who were prepared to sit for an hour at a time while he executed the variation of scales.
But no one was present in the room.
Someone listened, then, at the door. Renzo, -0r one of the women from the village, Sylvie or the cook. Surely not. And surely not Madame Tienne. As his thoughts intruded, became fragmented, he grew disoriented and next dizzy. The dizziness was very fearful to him, since it had been the prelude to his illness, and to its most horrible aspect. One gargantuan chord seemed to smite straight through his skull. He stopped playing immediately, and, in a ghastly silence, pressed his arms and his forehead to the upright face of the piano, where the music would have rested.
Christian, sweating icily, remained in this position some minutes. All solidity, all gravitational centre, seemed to have gone from him. The piano had eaten it.
Finally he moved, not because he felt able to, but because there was nothing else to be done.