Read The Catswold Portal Online

Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy

The Catswold Portal

The Catswold Portal
Shirley Rousseau Murphy

FOR MOUSSE

Cat's eyes in the face of a woman…seem to promise the most unusual and selective delights as green and seductive they glitter…The cat face is an ensemble of marvelously matched and balanced features and the total result is one to stir the heart. Where the human female is able to approach them, she becomes irresistible.

Paul Gallico,
Honorable Cat

Contents

Chapter 1

He ran pounding through the forest, his tennis shoes snapping…

Chapter 2

Perhaps the universe tilted for an instant to allow Braden…

Chapter 3

She pressed the pony fast along the high, grassy plateau,…

Chapter 4

Braden, barefoot and wearing cutoffs, set his coffee cup on…

Chapter 5

Melissa wrote the note in a thick layer of dust…

Chapter 6

The soldiers kicked their horses to a trot, moving fast…

Chapter 7

Braden was parking the station wagon after a pointless drive…

Chapter 8

The scullery was steamy hot and noisy with the gossiping…

Chapter 9

Feeling her way down the cellar stair clutching the rail,…

Chapter 10

Uneasily Melissa approached the door of the queen's solar, wishing…

Chapter 11

The banquet hall was noisy—laughter and drunken shouts rose over…

Chapter 12

“University of Chicago,” Olive Cleaver said, dusting cake crumbs from…

Chapter 13

Melissa slipped quickly into the king's chamber. With any luck…

Chapter 14

From behind the draperies Melissa listened to the queen's muffled…

Chapter 15

The torchlight guttered and hissed, sending shadows running down the…

Chapter 16

Now in the Harpy's mirror mist clung against the buildings…

Chapter 17

The spell-light came quickly down the stair striking across barrels…

Chapter 18

The Harpy flew across the night, ducking through caverns and…

Chapter 19

Melissa woke hot and uncomfortable. The king slept sprawled across…

Chapter 20

Melissa ran, ducking branches. She was just able to glimpse…

Chapter 21

Night was drawing down over the garden, making the vast…

Chapter 22

She climbed the vine and swung onto Efil's balcony. She…

Chapter 23

Vrech left the portal and garden quickly, heading east along…

Chapter 24

Speeding trucks made the roadbed tremble. Their hot diesel wind…

Chapter 25

Riding fast, Siddonie and her two companions galloped along the…

Chapter 26

In the Hell Pit the Harpy basked among flames, easing…

Chapter 27

Stiff-legged, the cat stalked the door, her eyes burning with…

Chapter 28

Basin Street jazz drowned the wind in the garden. The…

Chapter 29

Braden was pulled out of a deep sleep, fighting to…

Chapter 30

The Harpy sat rocking beside Mag's wood stove, her expression…

Chapter 31

Morian carried the little cat up the garden, snuggling her,…

Chapter 32

Dawn. Melissa woke lying next to Braden deliciously warm curled…

Chapter 33

At dusk Braden made himself a drink and stood studying…

Chapter 34

She fled through the rain to the tool shed, and…

Chapter 35

The lights of the street lamps looked thin and insubstantial,…

Chapter 36

The cars racing by them, the speeding lights and the…

Chapter 37

Olive Cleaver didn't sleep well. She thought in the night…

Chapter 38

“Get on the horse! Get on the horse now!”

Chapter 39

The Harpy and Mag and the gathered rebels watched, in…

Chapter 40

The tall Victorian house rose above the narrow street shadowed…

Chapter 41

The beautifully dressed women on San Francisco's streets had filled…

Chapter 42

The golden tom stared under the couch at the calico,…

Chapter 43

It was dawn. The dark green of night had hardly…

Chapter 44

Braden was drinking his third cup of coffee and going…

Chapter 45

Melissa left Braden painting—already he had roughed in a canvas…

Chapter 46

Three hundred cats roamed within the fenced, wire-roofed compound in…

Chapter 47

It was the evening the calico scratched Morian that Melissa…

Chapter 48

Efil watched the compound from a nearby hill where he…

Chapter 49

The Greyhound bus smelled of cigarettes and stale food. A…

Chapter 50

“Call them forth leaping,” Olive read, “bring them careening…”

Chapter 51

Pippin sat naked in Olive's dining room reciting Netherworld spells.

Chapter 52

Wylles reached the top of the garden filled with rage…

Chapter 53

The Harpy cupped her little mirror in her hands and…

Chapter 54

Through the open bedroom window the bay was dark under…

Chapter 55

She was afraid of taking the elevator by herself. She…

Chapter 56

The coast was ragged and wild. Waves crashed against the…

Chapter 57

The Harpy's mirror was red with flame. In the little…

Chapter 58

The restaurant rambled along the cliff high above the sea.

Chapter 59

She returned slowly to the inn. The dawn sky was…

Chapter 60

Twenty paintings hung on the white gallery walls, each with…

Chapter 61

Outdoor lights brightened the fluted borders of the museum's tile…

Chapter 62

Braden turned the station wagon into the lane, his headlights…

Chapter 63

Braden tore at the wall with his hands, smashed his…

Chapter 64

The swinging light of the lanterns jabbed and shifted along…

Chapter 65

Melissa descended the cellar stairs among the roars of the…

Chapter 66

On a narrow ridge east of Shenndeth, Siddonie sat on…

Chapter 67

Zzadarray's towers were airy, open to the Netherworld breezes. The…

Chapter 68

The army moved out of Zzadarray with Netherworld Catswold and…

Chapter 69

It was midnight, the battle was stilled by darkness. Siddonie…

Chapter 70

The ponies jogged along steadily behind Braden's gray gelding. The…

Chapter 71

Melissa, riding the upperworld stallion meant for Helsa, wearing the…

Chapter 72

Pain shot through Melissa's shoulder. She unsheathed her knife as…

Chapter 73

Siddonie stood captive, held by her own warriors. Melissa remembered…

Chapter 74

It was midnight. Few lights burned in Affandar Palace, though…

Chapter 75

Sun flooded through the windows of Mathew Rhain's reception room.

Epilogue

The female figure is a time-honored theme in painting. The…

H
e ran pounding through the forest, his tennis shoes snapping dry branches as he stretched out in a long lope. Running eased the tightness, the tension. He was tall and lean, dark haired. Dodging between the broad trunks of redwood trees he headed uphill toward the mountain, swerving past deadfalls, trampling ferns that stroked his bare legs like animal paws. Strange thought, Alice's kind of thought, animal paws. He shivered, but not from the cold. It was dusk; Alice would be cleaning up, putting away her paints, washing her brushes, thinking about dinner, wondering whether to go out or open something. She wouldn't speak to him while he was still working, would go out to the kitchen and stand looking in the freezer.

She would have done those things. Had done them, once. The pain ran with him, he couldn't shake it, couldn't leave it alone.

Months after the funeral he had started to heal, to mend, the hurting began to dull, some feeling returning besides rage and grief. But now suddenly his pain was raw again, the last few days were as if her death had just happened, her body in the wrecked car…He swerved away from the ravine and ran steeply up between boulders, but at the foot of Mount Tamalpais he turned back. It was dark now within the forest, though the sky above the giant redwoods still held light. He ran downhill again for a long way before lights began to flicker between the trees from isolated houses braving the forest gloom. The chill air held the smoke of fireplaces and he could smell early suppers cooking. Alice
would be saying, Let's just get a hamburger, I don't feel like cooking, don't feel like getting dressed. She'd fix herself a drink, go to shower off the smell of inks and fixative, slip on a clean pair of jeans. His breath caught, seeing her body wet from the shower, little droplets on her breasts, her long pale hair beaded with water.

He was in sight of the village now; it stretched away below him, the last light of evening clinging along the street and to the roofs of the shops. He could hear a radio somewhere ahead, and the swish of cars on the damp macadam, then suddenly the streetlights burst on all at once. His feet crushed fallen branches then he hit the sidewalk and an explosion of speed took him past the library, the building's tall windows reflecting car lights against the books. He could smell frying hamburgers from the Creek, and farther on something Italian from Anthea's. He swerved past villagers closing up shop, and each looked up at him. “Hey, Brade!” “Evening, Braden.” He dodged the first Greyhound commuters returning from the city. “Hey there, West.” “Nice night for running.” He nodded, raised a hand, and pounded on past. His long body reflected running distortions in the shop windows. Crossing the dead-end lane to the garden where his studio stood among other houses, he glanced up the hill toward Sam's Bar that stood at the edge of the forest, thought of stopping for a beer, but then went on.

He cooled down on the veranda, poured himself a bourbon. Pulling off his tennis shoes, sitting sprawled in the campaign chair, he stared up at the tangled garden that began at his terrace and climbed the hill above him; a communal garden shared by the six houses that circled it. It was a pleasant, informal stretch of bushes and flowers and dwarf trees creating a small jungle. Two of the three houses above were dark. The lights in the center house went off as he watched, and his neighbor came out, her dark skin hardly visible against the falling night, her white dress a bright signal. She crossed the garden to the lane with long, easy strides, waving to him. “Evening, Brade,” her voice rich as velvet. He lifted a hand, smiling, watched her slide into her
convertible and turn at the dead end beside Sam's, drive slowly down the lane and into the traffic of the busier road, heading for the city. But when a cat cried on the terraces above, he shivered, unsteady again. He could see its eyes reflected for an instant, then it was gone.

As he rose to go in, he felt for a split second the warmth of anticipation. His eager mood burst suddenly: Alice wasn't there. Alice was dead. The loneliness hit him like a blow, and he turned back and poured another whiskey.

Evening was the worst. They had liked to sit on the terrace after a day's work, unwinding, watching the garden darken, watching the stars come spilling above the redwood forest that crowned the hill above the upper houses. In the evenings they had shared little things, random thoughts, coming together in a new way after working all day side by side in the studio, seldom talking, just being near each other. In the evenings Alice came alive in a different way from her deeply concentrating, working self, as if the night stirred a wild streak in her. Sometimes she would rise from the terrace and, carrying her drink, would walk up the garden to stand looking at the tool shed door.

And now suddenly Alice's death hit him as if it had just happened—his frenzy as he tore at the jammed car door, as he beat at the window. Alice lay twisted inside, her hair tangled in the steering wheel, blood running down her face. The rescue squad tried to cut the door away with gas torches, but he had fought them, crazy with fear that they'd burn her.

For forty-five minutes she was trapped, maybe dying, while the wrecking crew cut at the car slowly and methodically. The cops tried to pull him away; he kept fighting to get to her. When the door was wrenched open at last, he shoved the medics away, and her body spilled out into his arms, limp, sending a shock of sickness through him that had never, since, left him.

Her portfolio had been on the car seat beside her and she had a box in the back seat packed with ice, chilling two lobsters and a bottle of chablis. Later, when a police officer handed him the box, he'd thrown it hurtling down the cliff
into the bay. He tried to kill the driver who had hit her. His plumbing truck lay on its side against a light post; it had crossed the meridian, plowing into her car. The driver was unhurt. He had grabbed the thin, pale-haired man and pounded him until the cops pulled him off.

Sometime before he left the scene a policeman had lifted her portfolio out of her car, wiped off the blood, and put it in his station wagon. Days later he brought it into the studio and shoved it out of sight in the map chest where she kept her work.

Three weeks after her death he had taken her lithographs and etchings off the walls of the studio, stripped her part of the work space, giving away everything—litho stones, etching plates, inks, handmade papers. He sent most of her work over to her gallery in the city. If he cleared away every reminder maybe he wouldn't keep seeing her there in the studio working on a drawing or a print, her long, pale hair bound back, her smock hanging crooked, her tongue tipping out as she concentrated. Maybe he wouldn't see her look up at him as she wiped charcoal off her hands, wanting a cup of tea, wanting to talk for a minute.

Fourteen months after she died he remembered the portfolio. He had taken it out of the map drawer and spread the drawings across his work table, searching for answers to the question that had begun to wake him at night.

The drawings were of the garden door.

The low oak door cut into the terraced hill like the door of an old-fashioned root cellar, though the small earthen room into which it opened had been built not for roots but to house gardening equipment: wheelbarrow, rake, ladder, pruning shears, sprinklers. The beautifully carved door was far too ornate to close a tool room, it belonged in medieval Europe closing away things exotic that rustled in the dark. It was made of thick, polished oak planks nearly black with age, rounded at the top beneath a thick, curved oak lintel, and carved in deep relief with cats' faces.

Nine rows of cats' heads protruded from the door, nine faces to a row. They were life-sized cats carved in such
deep relief that two-thirds of each head thrust out of the wood. They were so real that one's first impression was of live cats looking out—dark furred, handsome. The cats in the top three rows seemed to be smiling with some inscrutable feline glee. Those in the center rows looked secretive. The cats in the bottom three rows screamed open mouthed with rage, their ears laid flat, their eyes slitted, their little oak teeth sharp as daggers. Each cat was so alive that no matter how many times one saw the door, the effect was always startling. As if the cats thrust their heads through some aperture in time or dimension from another place.

And after Alice's death, as he shuffled through her drawings looking at the individual cat faces, he felt his spine go cold for no reason. He had put the drawings away, filled with the unreasonable idea that the cats had caused her death. He had not, in succeeding months, been able to shake that thought.

He knew she had intended, on the day she died, to go to the Museum of History and try to trace the door's origin. That was why she had the drawings with her. Maybe she'd gone there, maybe she hadn't. Strangely, he hadn't wanted to find out.

When Alice was small and her aunt owned the house that was now their studio—that had been their studio—Alice had believed the door of the cats was magic. Though she'd outgrown that idea, she had never outgrown her fascination with its medieval aspects and with the cats themselves.

In her early childhood photographs Alice was a thin little girl, very blond, wiry and lively. She had studied at Art Institute where her father taught; she was the only child among classes of adults. She had spent hours of her childhood in the city's museums drawing skeletons, and at the zoo drawing the animals, while other children threw popcorn at the caged beasts. She had taught herself the intricacies of bone structure and of the movement of muscle over bone; she had learned how to bring alive the bright gleam of an eye, the sudden lifting of a paw. Some of her relatives, misunder
standing, had called her a prodigy. She had simply loved animals and wanted to paint them.

She was twenty when he met her; she was a student in the first classes he taught. He had found her dedication to animals too commercial, not painterly. He had told her that a true artist strove for the abstraction, for the heart of meaning, not just to reproduce an image. She told him she
was
striving for the heart of meaning, and that he was blindly misguided if he didn't see it. She told him he was too out of touch, too idealistic. That someone who had spent four years fighting in the Pacific should see more clearly than he did. He said being a Marine had nothing to do with what he saw as a painter. He had told her that if she wanted to be a commercial artist—and he had used the term like a four-letter word—she should go across the bay to the more commercial school, and not waste her time at Art Institute.

She had been the only student at Art Institute to be making good money long before she graduated. She had established a name for herself while most of the students were still trying to find out what they wanted to do. And as he worked with her in class, he began to see that her work was not simply realistic, that it had a deep, involving power.

He still got calls two years after her death from people in other states who didn't know Alice was dead, who wanted her to do a commission. Since the first of the year he'd talked with five thoroughbred breeders and more than a dozen hunting and show kennels. Her work had a richness and a quality of mystery that stole nothing from the strong aliveness of the animals she painted; as if she painted not only the animals, but aspects of their spirits as well.

He had given Alice's childhood diary to her parents, though he would have liked to keep it. It contained many of her small, early drawings, mostly of the pets she had as a child. One cat in particular she had drawn many times. There was a pastel of the same cat in their favorite restaurant in the city, a small French cafe. He hadn't been there since Alice died. The small, intimate cafe, whose walls were hung
with the works of many Bay area artists, held too many painful memories of her.

In the map cabinet now were only the drawings of the garden door, and a few sketches of the child who had disappeared. He didn't know why he had kept the drawings of the child, likely the kidnapped child had been killed though Alice had refused to believe that.

The little girl had vanished from the garden when she and Alice were visiting Alice's aunt here, the child had been playing alone by the tool shed. Alice had searched frantically, gone to all the neighbors and into the village, and after several hours to the police, beginning the search that lasted long after Aunt Carrie died, that lasted until Alice was killed.

When he and Alice started dating, she had been so preoccupied over the child's disappearance that she seemed, often, hardly to see him. She would be white, shaken with the things she thought might have happened to the little girl.

The wind rose, soughing through the garden and through the tops of the redwoods that thrust black against the night sky. Above the trees against the stars, pale clouds blew. He rose and went into the dark studio and did not switch on the lights.

His new paintings covered the walls, in the darkness they were only black squares. They oppressed him, he did not want to look at them, he felt constricted by them and by his commitment to finish the series.

The date for his show at Chapman's was too close and he wasn't ready, the work wasn't ready. His lack of passion for the work, and his lack of professionalism in letting himself go like this, had no excuse. He told himself he'd lost the desire and thus the skill, that he wouldn't paint anything worthwhile again. He knew that was stupid. He wasn't some twenty-year-old who didn't know how to handle hard times. But he couldn't shake the depression, and the work reflected his barrenness—stilted and dry.

He turned away from the paintings restlessly and went back outside. Without conscious thought he crossed the brick veranda and headed up the dark garden toward the door of the cats.

The carved oak door was lit faintly by the scattered house lights at the outer boundaries of the garden. In the wind under the blowing trees the cats' faces seemed to move and change expression. They chilled him. As he stood looking, annoyed with himself for coming up here, he began to imagine space beyond the door. Unending hollowness. Deep spaces yawning down inside the hill. He imagined he could hear echoing sounds above the wind and voices whispering from deep beyond the door. And then he shook his head, and turned away, and went back to the terrace for a drink.

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