Authors: Tanith Lee
Tags: #Fiction.Sci-Fi, #Fiction.Dark Fantasy/Supernatural, #Fiction.Horror, #Fiction.Historical
The Book Of The Beast
by Tanith Lee
Eyes Like Emerald
She with apples you desired
From Paradise came long ago:
With you I feel that if required,
Such still within my garden grow.
By the end of the first night, he knew that his lodging was haunted. From the night’s first minute, he should have guessed.
A hag greeted him on the threshold.
“M’sire Raoulin?” squawked she in her old-fashioned way. And in the dusk she held high one quavering candle. He learned at once by that the interior would be ill-lit.
“I am Raoulin. My baggage and chest have arrived?”
“You are to follow me,” she said, like a portress of the damned in Hell, who could not be expected to have luggage.
“To my host, your master?”
She said, “There’s no master here. There’s no one here. M’sire No One is the lord in these parts.”
She led him in across a black cavern of a hall, over a blacker courtyard, up an outer stair, in at an arch, along two or three corridors, and in the light-watered darkness opened for him a wooden door with her keys. When she had lit a pair of candles in his apartment, she told him she would bring his supper in an hour, or if he liked company he might partake below in the kitchen with herself and the groom. Plainly he was not royalty, and she intended him to see she knew it.
Out of malicious curiosity therefore he said he would dine below. She gave him directions he was sure he would forget. “And mind out, on the stair,” she said. “Mind what?”
“For M’sire No One,” she replied, and cackled. She was a cheery eerie old soul.
Raoulin was a tall, well-made young man, good-looking in his ivory-ebony mode, for he was by stock a black-haired northerner. His father owned horses and cattle, vineyards, orchards and numberless fields, and in the long low house, while the other sons toiled at the land or galloped off wenching, there was Raoulin, constricted by tutors. They swelled his brain with Latin and fair Greek, they made inroads on his spirit with philosophy and hints alchemical. Raoulin was to go to the City and study at the university of the Sachrist.
When the hour came, he was not sorry. He had been set apart from his family by increasing erudition. It had come to pass he could not sneeze without being accused of some sophistry or conundrum. For the City, he had heard it was packed with churches, libraries and brothels. It was the epitome of all desired wickedness: teases for the intellect, pots for the flesh.
The lodging was arranged via his father’s steward, who told him only the place had been, a decade before, a great palace, the home of the noble house of d’Uscaret. They had fallen on hard times, through some political out-management, the steward believed. For the mighty families of the City had, even ten years before, been constantly engaged with one another, fighting their blood-feuds on the streets and cutting each other’s throats besides in the Duke’s council chamber.
Certain members of tribe d’Uscaret were still supposed to live in the mansion. It was said to be dilapidated but also sumptuous. A prestigious residence, a good address.
But no sooner had Raoulin ridden along the narrow twilight street and seen the towers of the manse arising behind their ruinously walled gardens; the ornate, unillumined facade, like that of some antique tomb, than he was sure of poverty, plagues of mice and lice, and that the steward of his father, altogether fonder of the other sons, had done him a bad turn.
Supper was not so bad, a large vegetable dish with rice, and a gooseberry gelatine, pancakes, and ale.
Though money had been provided for his fare, Raoulin was not sure he would not be cheated. As it was, grandma tucked in heartily, and the bony groom, smacking lips and clacking their three or four teeth like castanets.
“Perhaps,” said Raoulin, “you might get me some beef tomorrow.”
“Maybe, if beefs to be had. And my poor legs aren’t fit for running up and down to the meat market,” replied grandma.
“Then send the girl,” said Raoulin casually. “And by the by, I hope you’ll see she’s fed too.”
A silence greeted this.
Raoulin poured himself more ale.
The groom sat watching him like a motheaten old wolf, dangerous for all his dearth of fangs. The hag peered fiercely from her mashed plate.
“We have no girl. He and I, is all.”
“Then, she’s the lady of the house. I beg her pardon.”
In fact, he had not thought her a servant, not for one minute. It had been a test.
Now the hag said again, “Only us. And yourself.”
“And M’sire No One. Yes, I recall. But in the corridors I passed this lady. A maiden, I believe.”
Then the groom spoke. He said, “That can’t be, for lef me tell you, sieur, there’s no other living soul in this house saving we and you.”
“Oh, a ghost, then,” said Raoulin.
His heart jumped, not unpleasantly. He did not believe in ghosts, therefore longed to have their being proved to him, like the existence of God.
He had of course lost himself on emerging from his apartment. There were no lights anywhere, only the worm-runs of windowless corridors on which the occasional door obtruded. Now and then, from perversity, he had tried these doors. Three gave access to barren chambers, empty of nearly anything.
One had a shuttered window, another
candle-branch standing on the floor. (The branch was of iron, worth little. The candle-stubs had long ago been devoured by vermin.) A few other doors resisted his impulse. He fancied they were stuck rather than locked. Presently he reached an ascending stair he was certain he had not seen on entry with the hag. He paused in irritated perplexity, wondering if it would be worthwhile to climb. Just then a woman appeared and went across the stair-top, evidently negotiating the corridor which ran parallel to that below.
She did not carry a candle, and that he saw her at all was due to his own light, and the pallor of her hair and skin which caught it. Her gown was of some sombre stuff, high-waisted as was now not always the fashion, and she held her hands joined under her breast. A stiff silver net contained her hair; it glittered sharply once as she glided by. That was all. She was gone literally in that flash. Her face he did not really see, yet her slightness, something about her, made him think her girlish.
Anyone else, going over the unlit upper corridor, must have glanced downward at his light. Not she.
He had lacked the impertinence to pursue.
He waited all through supper to see if any reference would be made to the fair passager—he had decided she was attractive; she had to be, being mysterious.
“And if she is a ghost,” he continued, “whose ghost?”
The groom and the old woman exchanged looks. Raoulin had seen such before. The camaraderie of age against youth, stupid cunning against stupid intelligence, the low against the better who was not better enough to get respect.
“There’s no ghost here,” said the old woman at length. “You were dreaming, your head full of scholar books.”
“All right,” said Raoulin, pleased by the heightening Stygian shade of deception, faithfully observed as in any romance. “Probably a trick of the candle.”
Returning towards his rooms, he tried for the fork of the corridor where he had lost himself and found the stair.
He could not regain it.
Having gone up and down and round and about for quite an hour, having peered into further fruitless rooms of dust, mouse-cities, broken furniture, he only rediscovered his rightful corridor with difficulty. His heart, which had begun by beating excitedly, was now leaden with weariness. Reaching his bed, thank God aired with hot stones, he flung himself among the sheets and barely had space to blow out the candle before he was asleep.
Here, unconscious, he dreamed the door to his apartment was stealthily opened. A slim shadow drifted over the outer chamber. He sensed it examining as it went the closed travelling chest, the books he had already set out, a small reliquary his mother had pressed upon him. Then, entering the bedroom, all in black night, the shadow cast around. White fingers, that glimmered in the void, traced his doublet where he had thrown it down, a purse of coins—he heard them chink—his dagger—he longed to warn her to be careful, the edge was newly honed.
Then to the brink of his bed she stole, this immoderate phantom.
In utter black, through sleep and closed eyelids, yet he made her out.
A mask of Parsuan porcelain floated above him in a silver-grilled aureole-light of blondest hair. As he had known it must be, the face was lovely, and cool as snow. And the eyes—! Never had Raoulin seen such eyes. Wide-set, carved a touch slantingly, fringed with pale lashes, and very clear.
And oh, their colour. They were like the jewels he remembered from a bishop’s mitre, two matching emeralds, green as two linden leaves against the sun.
Asleep, miles off, Raoulin attempted to order his body to speak to her. But the words could not be dredged up from the sea, his lips and tongue refused obedience.
Drowning, he could only gaze on her as she drew aside from him, swimming far away, over the horizon of night.
One day remained to Raoulin before he must present himself at the university. How he regretted its brevity. He had meant to use the time in exploration of the wicked City of Paradys, but now a morning sufficed for this. He visited the markets, and pried amongst the crannied shops, saw the shining coils of the river straddled by bridges, gazed on the great grey Temple-Church of the Sacrifice, where he must hear at least one Mass and report the fact to his mother.
By early afternoon he had strayed back south-west of the City, to gloomy House d’Uscaret.
In daylight, the upland streets—the mansion was on one of the many hills that composed Paradys—were not appetising. Nothing fell so low as the highmost. There were other large houses and imposing towers in the area, now gone to tenements, tiles off, stones crumbling, strung with torn washing. In the alleys was disgusting refuse. Every crevice seemed to hold debris or the bones of small deceased animals.
Having gained the house by a side entry, to which the hag had given him a key, Raoulin set himself to master the building.
He had determined to recover the ghost’s corridor, and all through the hot post-noon he sought it, and, wide-awake, finally found it, too. The corridor seemed redolent yet of her ghostly fragrance. And shivering slightly, he started along in the direction she had chosen. Soon enough it gave on a further flight of ascending steps—perhaps the spectre had a lair… But the solitary door above was disappointingly jammed—or secured—Raoulin could only concede that this kept up the best traditions of romance.
Then came another fall of stairs leadingdown, with, at their head, a slit of window covered by a grille.
Looking out, Raoulin realised himself to be in a tall tower of the house. He saw the pebbled slope of roofs, and, to his surprise, noticed the distant miniature of the Temple-Church adrift like a promontory in soft haze.
Taking the downward stair, he next arrived against a low door, which for an amazement opened.
There lay a garden, walled apart from the rest.
It had been made for a woman, he supposed; even through the riot of weeds and ivy, a map of vestal symmetry was apparent. A garden of more southern climes, modelled, maybe, on the classical courts of the Roman. Clipped ilex and conifer that had burst from shape, a tank of marble all green with lichen and with a green velvet scum upon it. The wrecks of arbours were visible, and a charming statue, a young girl in a graceful tunic, holding up an archaic oil-lamp which once it had been possible to kindle.
Raoulin trod down paths, breaking the skeins of creeper with his elegant shoes, the ivy trying to detain him by clutching at the points of his sleeves and hose.
No birds sang in that garden of emerald green. He knew it had been made for her—or that she had made it her own.
Therefore, he was not startled, reaching the end of an avenue, to confront the bank of yew in which gaped a black frontage: the arched portico of a mausoleum.
The tomb was not very big, nor very old, quite fresh. He read with ease the name on the arch in its bannering of stone. While, student-scholar that he was, he had no trouble either with the Latin underneath.
Helise d’Uscaret Brought a bride to this House Now at the court of Death below
A huge lock maintained the entrance of the tomb. But, thought Raoulin, leaning on a tree, a ghost could pass straight through all walls, of wood, iron or granite.
Useless then to fasten up his own chamber. Even had he dreamed of doing so.
He wished to be served his supper that night in his rooms. He did not question the hag. He told her nothing. He did not even note she had put some morsels of beef into his stew, as requested.
During the evening, he glanced upon a few books, and partly turned his mind towards the morning. But the Sachrist had lost its stature.
In a strange condition he took himself early to bed, soon after the City bells had rung the Hesperus. (He would need to rise at Prima Hora.)