Authors: Barbara Michaels
When Father Stephen was drawn away by one of the women—another fan, from her adoring look—Kevin was left with Dr. Garst’s niece, who had dogged his footsteps all evening. She was the only other young person in the group, and I felt sure that one of the reasons we had been invited was that the Garsts hoped we would be playmates for Leila.
Leila had other ideas. She wanted to play, all right, but not with me. She looked at Kevin the way a dieter looks at a chocolate sundae. Apparently she had decided to charm him with the wit and gaiety of her conversation; her smile never relaxed, and her lips never stopped moving. It wasn’t long before Kevin’s answering smile took on the stiffness I knew so well.
I made my way toward Bea, who was still talking to Roger O’Neill. I had to jog her elbow before either of them noticed I was there. I said I thought we ought to be going home, adding, mendaciously, that Kevin and I still had work to do.
“You mean you and Kevin are bored,” said Roger. He had a deep, gravelly voice, and nasalized his finalr ’s, like Humphrey Bogart. “I can’t say I blame you. Mrs. Jones here and I are the only people in the room worth talking to.”
Bea blushed prettily. “I hope we won’t be thought rude—”
“No, no. The good Father and I usually take off about this time; as soon as he leaves the rest of them start drinking seriously, and bitching about the state of the world.”
O’Neill insisted on walking us to our car. He lingered even after Kevin had started the engine, his head halfway in the car window, his eyes fixed on Bea.
“I’m going to stand here till you invite me over,” he said. “Tea, lunch, breakfast, dinner, drinks—I don’t care which, so long as it’s soon. How about tomorrow?”
Bea’s laugh was a little breathless. “Why, Mr. O’Neill—”
“Roger—I would be delighted to see you anytime, but these young people—”
“I won’t bother them. You’re the one I want to see.”
“Me, or the house? You told me that was your primary interest,” Bea said demurely.
“That was before I met you. Tomorrow, about five? We’ll go out to dinner. Just the two of us.”
Without waiting for an answer he walked away.
“Well!” said Kevin. “Who’s chaperoning who around here?”
“Whom, you mean,” Bea said. “And you an English teacher.”
Roger arrived at four forty-five. Bea was still upstairs primping; she had been very blasé and worldly when Kevin kidded her about her conquest, but she had started her toilette at three o’clock. I opened the door for Roger and took him out to the courtyard, where Kevin joined us and offered him a drink. He accepted tonic with a slice of lime.
“I pickled my liver for twenty years in the service of my country,” he explained. “Gave the stuff up when I retired. I didn’t need it any longer.”
Bea had told us he had been in the Foreign Service. I started to make conversation about his interesting posts abroad, but Roger didn’t respond. He had not been joking when he said he was interested in the house; his comments showed not only interest, but considerable knowledge of architectural history.
“You’ve really never seen the place?” I asked.
“I’ve only lived in the area for a few years,” Roger said. “When I came here the house was owned by old Miss Marion Karnovsky. The only person she consented to see was Father Stephen.”
“How about a tour, then?” Kevin suggested.
As we entered the hall, Bea made her appearance, descending the staircase with the aplomb of an actress. The sunset light from the window on the landing gave her a reddish-bronze halo (the roots had received attention that morning) and softened the lines in her face. She looked attractive enough to distract Roger from his architectural interests, and Kevin had to prod us into continuing the house tour.
However, Roger’s interest revived as we proceeded. He even asked to see the cellars, which I had never visited. I had assumed, if I thought about the subject at all, that they were the usual subterranean excavations, native to the hills of Pennsylvania. One look at the massive stonework told me that Rudolf had been pedantically thorough. From the topmost chimney pot to the cellar floors, Kevin had said, and Kevin had not exaggerated.
Like the rest of the house, the cellars had been electrified, but the glow of a dozen bulbs could not dispel the somber atmosphere of a region that resembled a church crypt rather than a storage area for old furniture and wine. No one spoke as we followed Kevin from room to room. It was a relief to come upon objects as modern and mundane as a furnace and hot-water heater.
We were in a room on the north side of the cellar when I happened to look down. What I saw made me squat, ungracefully, for a closer inspection. The carving was almost effaced by time and traffic, but the remaining letters and the squared-off dimensions made the function of this stone uncomfortably clear. Without stopping to think, I stepped off it.
“It’s a tombstone,” I squeaked.
“Here’s another one,” Roger said, indicating the stone next to the one I had abandoned. “And another…I suppose this room is directly under the chapel?”
“Right,” Kevin said.
“Kevin,” I said. My voice sounded higher and thinner than usual. “Kevin—how much did—how far down did Rudolf dig?”
Kevin laughed. The room had too many echoes; a dim, maniacal titter underscored his next few words. “I wondered about that too. I suppose there are documents somewhere that would tell us; I haven’t found them, though.”
I’ve been tempted, since I started writing this, to turn it into a ghost story, full of the gruesome descriptions that sell so well these days. A bloated corpse…a ghost or two…some puddles of gore…Kevin as a psychotic killer chasing me with an antique broadsword…who knows, I might even get a movie offer. But it wasn’t like that, not ever. Even that strange subterranean chamber failed to induce waves of chilly horror. My impression of discomfort was quite natural, the result of the somber physical surroundings and the conventional blend of respect and repugnance in the presence of the dead. But when Kevin turned toward the next door along the dank, stone-floored passageway, I informed him I had seen enough of the nether regions. Bea supported me, pointing out that it was getting late.
“Okay, we’ll go up, but you’ve got to see the chapel,” Kevin insisted. “Just a quick look. I know Roger will be interested. The vaulting is remarkably good.” His air of proud proprietorship was rather funny, in a man who called himself a left-wing socialist.
Since it was not one of the rooms in daily use, the chapel was not on the regular schedule of the cleaning team, who had quite enough to do without such additions. When Kevin opened the door, dust motes danced in the light streaming in through a high arched window over the altar.
There were half a dozen pews, each ornately carved, each with cushions and kneelers of faded needlepoint. From the absences of crucifixes and other such accoutrements I deduced that the most recent services performed there had been Protestant. Originally, however, the chapel had been consecrated to the Church of Rome. The fan vaulting that carved the ceiling in a delicate tracery was clearly late-fifteenth century. Though on a miniature scale, it resembled the work in the chapel of Henry the Seventh at Westminster Abbey. The tall pointed windows were of the same period. Those on the side of the chapel were boarded up. This had been done by the previous owner, who feared the rare early stained glass might be vandalized.
“Sorry it’s so dark,” Kevin apologized. “This is the only room in the house that has never been electrified.”
Quietly and without self-consciousness Bea took a seat in one of the back pews. She sat with bowed head and folded hands while the rest of us inspected what we could see of the chapel. The only part of it not in shadow was the altar itself, which was illumined by sunlight from the window above it.
I am always uneasy in a church, never quite sure what is proper. While I hung back, Roger, who clearly suffered no such qualms, mounted the shallow steps that led up to the altar. It was only a slab of stone, resting on two supports. A gold-embroidered crimson cloth covered all but the extreme ends and hung down to the floor in front. Roger pulled this up and stooped to look underneath. There was something almost rude about the gesture, like peeking under the skirts of Mother Church.
“Interesting,” Roger said. “What is this, Kevin?”
He hadn’t asked me, but I went to look anyway. Under the altar table was a stone slab some three feet wide by two feet high. It appeared to be marble, veined with streaks of rusty brown, but there were no visible carvings or inscriptions.
“A holy relic, maybe,” Kevin said, faint amusement coloring his voice. “A stone from the Holy Sepulcher, or the Temple?”
“Hardly.” Roger’s reply to this joking suggestion was prompt and vigorous. “They didn’t make much use of marble in the Holy Land before Roman times. Unless I miss my guess, this is Italian marble—possibly Greek.”
I assumed he knew what he was talking about; he had, after all, spent many years of his professional service in the eastern Mediterranean. What I failed to understand was his interest in a plain, unmarked Stone. He actually dropped to his hands and knees and poked his head under the altar, touching and peering at the stone. Finally he rose, reluctantly, and glanced at his watch.
“I’m forgetting the time,” he said. “I made a reservation for seven thirty. I guess we’d better go.”
Yet he was the last to leave the chapel. He paused in the doorway for one final look, a slight frown wrinkling his high forehead.
If I had asked him then…No, I’m not going to lapse into trite “had I but known” clichés, or torment myself with guilt. It would not have made the slightest difference, in the end.
REREADINGwhat I have written so far, I am tempted to destroy it and start again. It seems so misleading, in the light of what I know now. Yet it is an accurate description, not only of what happened, but of the mood of those early days—peaceful, contented, idyllic. It would be even more misleading to imply that those sunlit days were shadowed by the slightest foreboding.
However, there had been moments, such as my feelings in the crypt, and my sense, on the day of the thunderstorm, that there was someone in the house. Such moments recurred in the days that followed Roger’s intrusion into our little society. I call it an intrusion because I know Kevin felt it as such. From the start there was a kind of wariness between them—not that of enemies, but of persons who know that one day, under certain circumstances, they may come to be enemies. Roger actually spent very little time with me and Kevin. He picked Bea up and they went out, to lunch, to dinner, on long drives. Occasionally she spent the evening with him and came back with enthusiastic descriptions of his pleasant house. He had one of the restored eighteenth-century cottages in the village.
Kevin and I never went to his house. I don’t believe I ever had any sense of not being welcome, but there was never time. I had too many other things to do. The garden was an increasing source of fascination. Old Mr. Marsden finally, with great condescension, allowed me to help with the weeding. I had my needlepoint and my crossword puzzles. Kevin and I played tennis almost every morning and swam every afternoon. I developed a good tan, and some of the flabbiness that even a skinny frame acquires over a long, sedentary winter changed into firm muscle. I actually did a little work on the book—preliminary things, arranging material, and so on. There didn’t seem to be any hurry…
But there were moments. Times when I would suddenly look up from my needlework with a sense that someone was leaning over the back of my chair, watching with friendly, approving interest; times when the branches of the shrub whose roots I was weeding would stir, as if someone had brushed past it. And there were the dreams.
I had the first one the night following our visit to the chapel. I couldn’t remember any of the details; struggling back to consciousness I knew only that I had dreamed, and that the dream had not been pleasant.
It all came on so gradually. But I can pinpoint the exact day when I realized that the serpent had entered Paradise—or rather, when I saw the shimmer of iridescent scales under the flowers and knew it had been there all along.
I awoke that morning with a grinding, bone-jarring start, as I had sometimes awakened from dreams of flying and falling. I had dreamed again. This time I remembered a little.
I had dreamed about Joe. Remember Joe? I had not given him much thought myself, at least not much conscious thought. Since arriving at Grayhaven I had received one miserable postcard from him. Joe’s minuscule handwriting, which looks so neat and is so difficult to decipher, covered only half the space available for a message and seemed to concern itself chiefly with the amount of research he had accomplished. It concluded, “Write, dammit. Joe.”