Blackwood farm, p.11

Blackwood Farm, page 11

 part  #9 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


Blackwood Farm

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  Chapter 11


  "NOW, I HAD BEEN in the swamp plenty as a youngster. I knew how to fire the rifle. I knew how to fish. And Pops and I had ranged quite far from the banks of the farm. But there was a territory to which we adhered, and it had always seemed spacious enough for us because we caught lots of fish in it, and the swamp itself seemed so unvarying in its morass of cypress, tupelo gum and wild oak, its giant palmetto and endless snags of vine.

  "But now, it was my single object to push beyond this territory and, in choosing a direction, I was guided only by my memory of the tree which had the arrow deeply carved into the bark, above its girdle of rusted chain.

  "It took me longer to find than I would have liked, and the air was humid and heavy, but the water was at a good level for the pirogue, and so, taking out my compass, I did my best to chart a course in the direction to which the arrow pointed.

  "If Pops and I had ever been this far, I wasn't conscious of it. What I was conscious of was that I could get dangerously lost. But I didn't care much about it. I was too sure of my mission, and when I began to experience feelings of dizziness I just pushed on.

  "Again I heard voices speaking, just as if these whispers pushed at me and prodded me and broke my sense of balance, and once again a woman was crying, only it wasn't Virginia Lee.

  "You can't do this to me, the woman sobbed. You can't do it! And there came a rolling rumble of deeper voices -- Engraved forever! said the woman, and then I lost the thread of it.

  "I could hear it but not understand it. It was submerged in a tangle of dreams and half impressions. I was desperate to follow, to remember, but I had to keep my balance in the pirogue, I had to not drop the pole.

  "The pole could fall into the slimy water and I'd have to go after it. Now, I'd been up to my waist in swamp water before and I didn't like it one bit. The green light of the sun was flashing in my eyes.

  "I thought I had caught more words, but then the memory was gone from me and nothing else came clear. I heard the birds crying, those strange seemingly isolated melancholy cries.

  "Meanwhile the pirogue glided through the duckweed, and I was steering it steadily past the jungles of cypress knees, and I became aware of a huge tangle of blossoming wisteria to my right. The flowers were so vividly purple, so lusciously purple that I heard myself laugh out loud at them.

  "The dizziness came again, and there was a luxury to it, a sweetness, like being slightly high on champagne. The light was dappled and the wisteria was so pure. I could hear the voices. I knew one of them belonged to Rebecca, and that Rebecca was in pain.

  ". . . they'll catch you, they'll find you out. . . That fragment I caught like one trying to catch a falling leaf. And then a laughter came over her voice, drowning it out, and no more words were clear.

  "Suddenly, there rose up on my right a giant cypress, surely one of the oldest I'd ever seen, and there was the girdle of iron chain, as fiercely rusted as before, and the arrow, deeply etched, instructing me to veer to the left. Now that was surely new territory, in the opposite direction from Blackwood Farm. And when I checked my compass I learned I was correct.

  "The pirogue was traveling very easy now, and my pole was going down deep. I dreaded more than ever falling into the water, and on I sped, when another mass of gloriously blooming wisteria appeared.

  "You understand how wild that vine is, I know you do, and how beautiful it can be. And now the sun was pouring down on it, in shafts, as it might through a cathedral window, and it was spreading out in all directions, except that there seemed a channel into which I'd found my way.

  "On and on I went until the configuration of rusted chain and carved arrow appeared again. This time it was only to tell me to go on in the same direction, and I followed it, knowing that I was very far from Blackwood Farm, maybe an hour from any kind of help, and that is a lot in the swamp.

  "I glanced at my watch and discovered that I was wrong by thirty minutes. I'd been gone an hour and a half. The excitement I'd felt on waking grew stronger inside me. And when another cypress appeared with its ancient chain and its jagged arrow I veered slightly to the left again, only to come upon another girded tree whose arrow told me to veer right.

  "I was drifting along, in even deeper water, when, gazing upwards, I realized I was looking at a house.

  "At that moment the pirogue struck a bank. I was jolted nearly out of it. I had to get my bearings. Wild blackberries swarmed over the front of the boat and reached out to scratch me, but with the kitchen knife I slashed at them and then pushed them back with my gloved hands.

  "It wasn't an impossible situation. And in the meantime I could see that my first visual impression had been an accurate one. There was a big house looming up in front of me, a house of natural weathered cypress built on pilings, and it occurred to me that I had gone off our land and might have come to someone else's home.

  "Well, I'd approach with respect, I figured, and, when I had cut through more of the wild blackberries and pulled the pirogue up onto the bank, I turned around to find myself in a forest of slapping palmetto and sickly blue-gum saplings rising up like the ghosts of trees beneath the desperate vicious arms of giant cypress trees on both sides of me and further on.

  "I stopped, felt the dizziness again, and then I heard the humming of bees. I wiped at my face but my gloves were dirty and I probably got my face dirty, and though I had a linen handkerchief in my pocket, along with lots of paper tissue, it was no time for that.

  "I walked on, making sure the land was solid, and realized I was climbing upwards onto a mound. At last a clearing broke in front of me, a very large clearing surrounded by immense cypress -- in fact, it seemed then that the cypress had anchored the clearing and made an island out of it by their knees and their hateful sprawling roots.

  "And in the midst of this clearing rose the house, some six to eight feet above ground atop its log foundations, a seemingly circular structure of two stories, each of connecting arches and in a rising succession of smaller sizes, like the two layers of a wedding cake. Adding to this impression was a cupola on the very top.

  "A solid wooden stairs rose from the earth to the front doorway, and affixed above this front door was a rectangular sign with deeply etched and plainly readable letters:




  "If I'd ever felt as much triumph before, I didn't remember it. This was my house, this was my island; I had discovered what was only legend to other people, and it was all mine. I'd reclaimed Manfred's tale. I'd seen what William never saw, what Gravier never saw, what Pops never saw. I was here.

  "In a heated delirium I surveyed the building, almost incapable of any true reasoning and not even remembering Rebecca's plea to me, or the deep simmering pain which I had just heard inside my head.

  "The droning of the bees, the rattle and flapping of the giant palmetto leaves, the soft crush of gravel under my feet -- all these things sort of embraced me and upheld me and seemed to wrap me in an incalculable fascination, as though I'd come into the paradise of another man's faith.

  "I was also dimly aware, unwillingly aware, that though the ancient trees might have created this clearing, the clearing itself could not have remained free in any natural way. The swamp should have swallowed it up a long time ago. As it was the blackberries were eating at it, and the wicked, high-toned wisteria had a claim on it, sprawling out to shroud the undergrowth to the right of the house and to the back of it, coming up over the high two-story roof.

  "But somebody was living here. Probably. But then maybe not. At the idea of squatters or trespassers I was incensed. I regretted that I hadn't brought a handgun. Should have. And might whenever I came back. It all depended upon what I discovered in the house.

  "Meantime I had spied another structure, something seemingly solid and massive, well behind the house. The wisteria covered half of it. The sun was strik
ing off the surface of the rest of it, positively sparkling on it and making a dazzle through the spindly trunks of the newborn trees.

  "It was to this structure that I went first, very reluctantly passing by the inviting front steps of the house but determined to discover what this massive shape was.

  "I could only explain it to myself as some sort of tomb. It stood as tall as me, was rectangular in shape and appeared to be made of granite, except for panels set into it front and rear and each side, which were made out of a metal which appeared to be gold.

  "I yanked off the nest of wisteria as best I could.

  "There were figures carved into this metal, Grecian figures who seemed to be engaged in a funeral procession, and the procession appeared continuous from panel to panel, enclosing the structure to which there was no back or front or door.

  "I must have circled it some ten times, running my hands over the figures, touching the finely carved profiles and folds of garments, and realizing very slowly that the figures were more Roman than Greek. I made this judgment because the human beings were not idealized as the Greeks would have made them but were in fact slender and particular people of several groups. At one point it occurred to me that this was of pre-Raphaelite design, but I wasn't sure of myself on that score.

  "Let me say simply, the figures were classical, and the procession was unending, and though some of the figures appeared to be weeping and others tearing their hair, there was no corpse or bier.

  "After I'd surveyed it carefully I began to try to open the thing. But it was no luck. The gold panels -- and by now I was convinced that they were gold -- seemed firmly fixed into the granite pillars that marked the four corners of the structure, and the granite roof, peaked like those of so many New Orleans tombs, was very securely in place.

  "To make certain that the substance of the panels was gold I chose a place on one of the panels very near the granite, and with the edge of my hunting knife I scratched there and discovered that not only did no base metal show through but that the gold itself was soft. Yes, it was gold. It was lots and lots of gold.

  "I was totally baffled by this thing. It was august, it was beautiful, it was quite literally monumental. But to whom had this monument been made? Surely this wasn't Rebecca's tomb!

  "Of course Mad Manfred had to be responsible for this thing. It befitted his Byronic image of the builder of Blackwood Manor, his fancy, his munificent dreams. Nobody else would come out here and make a gold tomb. Yet how could it be Mad Manfred's mausoleum? How could his interment have been achieved?

  "My brain was crazy with questions.

  "Mad Manfred had been past eighty when he made his Last Will and Testament. I had seen the dated document. And at the time of his wild escape from the sickroom to the landing he had been eighty-four.

  "Who or what had awaited him on this island? And, of course, this tomb, if that is what it was, had no name or date or any writing on it. How utterly bizarre that one should make a mausoleum of solid gold and then leave it unmarked.

  "I decided to take my time before going up into the house. I walked around the island. It wasn't very big. But over half of its banks were thoroughly blocked by the largest cypress trees I had ever seen. Choked in between where they could get the light were the wild tupelo gum and the black gum, making an impassable barrier, and then to the right of where I'd come ashore a mass of water oak and ironwood and the wisteria which I've already described.

  "In fact, it was pretty evident that there was only a small place to come ashore, and I had done it properly by dint of sheer luck. Unless some other agency was involved.

  "It was very still, except for the bees and a general pulsing drone that seemed to rise from the swamp itself.

  " 'Goblin,' I called, but he didn't answer me, and then I felt him brush past me, soft as a cat against my neck, and I heard his voice in my mind:

  "Bad, Quinn. Go home. They worry about you at home.

  "The truth of that seemed very certain, but I had no intention of responding.

  " 'What is this place, Goblin? Why did you say it was bad?' I asked. But he gave me no answer, and then, after a pause, he told me again to go home. He said, Aunt Queen has come home.

  "I was powerfully intrigued by that statement. Goblin had never told me the whereabouts of others. But I was by no means ready to go back!

  "I sat down on the stairs. It was solid, which was no surprise to me since it was built of cypress; the whole house was built of cypress, and cypress never rots.

  " 'Rebecca,' I asked aloud, 'are you here?' There came that dizziness again, and, whereas I had been just a little afraid of it in the pirogue, I let myself slip deeper into it now, closing my eyes and lying back and looking up at the broken leafy light.

  "There rose a wave of conversing voices, whispers, curses, a woman crying again, Rebecca crying, Can't torture me like this, and then a man muttering and saying, Damnable, and someone laughing. What did you expect of me! asked a voice. But the surging, driving conversation broke with no further clarification and washed away from me, leaving me almost sick.

  "I felt a hatred for the voice that had spoken, the voice which had asked, 'What did you expect of me!' and it seemed a logical hate.

  "I stood up and took a deep breath. I was sick. The damned heat had made me sick. I was also getting bitten by mosquitoes, and that was making me feel sick as well.

  "I'd been too softened by staying indoors on hot days like this.

  "I waited until my head cleared, and then I went up the stairs and through the open doorway, the door itself having been pushed aside.

  " 'Fearless squatters,' I thought, and, as I noted that the door contained a big rectangle of leaded glass, glass that was clean, I was outraged. But I also had the strong sense that no one else was in this house.

  "As for the room before me, it was perfectly circular and its unbroken surround of arched windows appeared to be bare of any covering at all. A stairway to the far left led to the floor above, and to the far right was a big heavily rusted iron fireplace, rectangular in shape with a rising chimney pipe and open folding iron doors. It was chock-full of half-burnt wood and ashes. The ashes were spilt out on the floor.

  In the center of the room was the most surprising thing: a great marble desk upon an iron frame and a Roman-style chair of leather and gold. The style I mean here is what people today call a director's chair. But it's a style as old as Rome.

  "Of course I went immediately to this configuration of marvelous furniture, and I discovered modern pens in a heavy gold cylinder, a nest of tall thick candles all melted together on a gold plate and a casual heap of paperback books.

  "I fanned out the books and perused their covers. They ranged from what we so arrogantly call popular fiction to books on anthropology, sociology and modern philosophy. Camus, Sartre, de Sade, Kafka. There was a world atlas and a dictionary and several picture dictionaries for children, and also a pocket-size history of ancient Sumer.

  "I checked the copyright dates in a few of these books. And I also glanced at the prices. This was all recent, though most were now swollen and soft from the humidity of the swamp.

  "The wicks of the candles were black and the pool of wax that surrounded them on the gold plate argued that they had been burnt down quite a ways.

  "I was shocked and intrigued. I had a squatter who came here to read. I had a squatter who warmed himself at a fireplace. And the gold chair, how handsome it was, with its soft brown leather seat and back, and its crossed legs, and its ornately carved arms. One little test with my knife assured me that its simple frame was genuine gold. Same with the plate and cylinder which held the pens.

  " 'Same as the mausoleum outside,' I whispered. (I always talk out loud to myself when I'm confused. ) 'I have a squatter who likes gold. ¡¯

  "And then there was the dark multicolored marble of the desk, and the simple iron frame that bore the marble's weight.

  "A squatter with taste, and intell
ectual interests! But how did he or she get here, and what had this to do with the attacks of dizziness I had felt as I proceeded? What had this to do with anything but trespassing, as far as I knew?

  "I gazed about me at the open windows. I saw the stains of rain on the floor. I saw the flickering greenery. I felt faint again and batted at a mosquito that was trying to drive me mad.

  " 'Just because this character has taste doesn't mean he's not upstairs waiting to kill you,' I reminded myself.

  "Then, going to the interior stairs, I called out:

  " 'Hello the house!¡¯

  "There was no sound above. I was convinced the place was deserted. If the mysterious reader had been here the books would not have been so swollen.

  "Nevertheless, I called out again, 'Hello, Tarquin Blackwood here,' and I went up slowly, listening for any sound from above.

  "The second floor was much smaller and tighter than the first, but it was made of the same firm planks, and light came in not only from the barren arched windows but through the cupola above.

  "But those details I scarcely noticed. Because this room was markedly different from the one below it in that it contained a loathsome and hideous sight.

  "This was a set of rusted chains attached to the wall opposite the chimney, chains which obviously had no other purpose than the chaining of a human being. There were handcuffs and ankle cuffs on these chains, and beneath these idle witnesses to some abomination there was a thick dark syrupy-looking substance and the remnants of a human skull.

  "I was disgusted beyond imagining. I was almost violently sick. I steadied myself. I stared at the black residue, this seeming tar, and at the skull, and then I made out what seemed like the disintegrating whitish powder of other bones. There was also the evidence of rotting cloth in the morass, and something glinting brightly though it was caught in the dark viscid tar.

  "I felt a cold stubborn rage. Something unspeakable had happened here. And the perpetrator was not on the premises, and hadn't been for several months, but might at any moment return.

  "I approached this tarlike substance. I knelt down beside it and I picked out the glinting fragment and discovered it with no surprise to be one of the earrings which Rebecca had worn when she came to me. Within seconds my trembling fingers had found the mate. And there, in the nauseating substance, was the cameo Rebecca had worn at her throat. I collected this too.

  "I was paralyzed with excitement, but that didn't keep me from seeing that a fifth chain, a chain quite separate from those which must have once bound wrists and ankles, also dangled from the wall, and at the end of it was a hook. This hook was caught in the dark filth, and the dark filth contained fragments of fabric and fragments of hair.

  "It was this fifth chain that horrified me more than anything else.

  "Chills ran over me. My head was swimming and I suffered a loss of balance, and a sense again of Rebecca speaking to me, Rebecca whispering to me, Rebecca crying; and then her voice rose, distinct in the buzzing silence of the house: You can't do it, you can't!

  " 'Not Rebecca,' I whispered. But I knew that she had died here, I knew that for a century her bones had moldered here, I knew that even now, before my eyes, the tiny creatures of the swamp were eating at what was left of her -- I could see them at work in the ugly residue -- and soon there would be nothing at all.

  "She had sent me here. I had a right to touch the skull, and as I did so it disintegrated before my eyes. It was no more now than a heap of white powder along with all the other bones. I should never have touched it! But it was too late.

  "Quite suddenly I flew into action. I stood up. I secured the earrings and the brooch in my pocket. I pulled out my hunting knife -- the kitchen knife was in the pirogue -- and I spun round to face the stairs. No one had come, that was obvious, but at any moment someone might.

  "And who were they, or who was he, I should say, who could sit at a desk and read by the light of candles when such a horror existed on the floor above?

  "This had been a house of torture, this place, and surely it had been my great-great-great-grandfather Manfred who brought his victims here, I reasoned, and here it was that Rebecca had met her end.

  "Who was it now who knew these things and did nothing about them? Who was it who had brought a fine marble desk here and a golden chair? Who was it that was buried in that doorless mausoleum? The whole pattern was overwhelming to me. I was shaking with sheer exhilaration. But I had to determine certain things.

  "I went to the windows and was amazed to discover how well I could see over the swamp. And there, way far away, I saw Blackwood Manor very distinctly on its raised lawn.

  "Whoever lived in this place, whoever visited it, could spy upon the house if he wanted to; he could see -- among other things -- my very windows and the windows of the kitchen as well. If he had a telescope or binoculars, and I saw neither one here, he could have studied us all very well.

  "It was chilling to see this clear view of the house, but I used it to check my compass. I had to get home and fast.

  "The voices threatened again. The dizziness came over me. I reeled. The wild cries of the birds seemed to mingle with Rebecca's voice. I was near to fainting. But I had to resist this.

  "I went down the steps, through the big room and down onto the island and explored every inch of it that I could reach. Yes, the cypress trees had created it and anchored it, and from the west and the north they were so thick that the island itself must have been invisible. Only the eastern bank, where I had come ashore, was the way of access.

  "Regarding the strange structure of granite and gold, I couldn't discover anything more about it, except that when I cut back the wisteria the graven figures were as beautiful there as anywhere else. The worth of the gold must have been staggering, I reasoned, but no one had ever stolen it; no one -- it seemed -- had ever tried.

  "But I was so hot now, so coated in sweat, so bitten up by the mosquitoes and harassed by the lonesome cries of the birds and the way that they mingled with the half-heard voices that I had to get out of here. I had to get safe.

  "I jumped into the pirogue, caught up the pole, pushed off the bank and headed for home. "
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