The queen of the damned, p.14

The Queen Of The Damned, page 14

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series

 

The Queen Of The Damned
 



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Chapter 11

 

  It was one of a hundred fragments of memory which she could never afterwards fit into a whole. But it no longer mattered, what she could or could not remember of that dreamy lost summer. The Vampire Lestat waited: there would be a finish if not an answer, not unlike the promise of death itself.

  She got up. She put on the worn hacking jacket that was her second skin these days, along with the boy's shirt, open at the neck, and the jeans she wore. She slipped on her worn leather boots. Ran the brush through her hair.

  Now to take leave of the empty house she'd invaded this morning. It hurt her to leave it. But it had hurt her more to come at all.

  At the first light, she'd arrived at the edge of the clearing, quietly stunned to discover it unchanged after fifteen years, a rambling structure built into the foot of the mountain, its roofs and pillared porches veiled in blue morning glory vines. High above, half hidden in the grassy slopes, a few tiny secret windows caught the first flash of morning light.

  Like a spy she'd felt as she came up the front steps with the old key in her hand. No one had been here in months, it seemed. Dust and leaves wherever she looked.

  Yet there were the roses waiting in their crystal vase, and the letter for her pinned to the door, with the new key in the envelope.

  For hours, she'd wandered, revisited, explored. Never mind that she was tired, that she'd driven all night. She had to walk the long shaded galleries, to move through the spacious and overwhelming rooms. Never had the place seemed so much like a crude palace with its enormous timbers shouldering the rough-sawn plank ceilings, the rusted smokestack chimneys rising from the round stone hearths.

  Even the furnishings were massive-the millstone tables, chairs and couches of unfinished lumber piled with soft down pillows, bookshelves and niches carved into the unpainted adobe walls.

  It had the crude medieval grandeur, this place. The bits and pieces of Mayan art, the Etruscan cups and Hittite statues, seemed to belong here, amid the deep casements and stone floors. It was like a fortress. It felt safe.

  Only Maharet's creations were full of brilliant color as if they'd drawn it from the trees and sky outside. Memory hadn't exaggerated their beauty in the least. Soft and thick the deep hooked wool rugs carrying the free pattern of woodland flower and grass everywhere as if the rug were the earth itself. And the countless quilted pillows with their curious stick figures and odd symbols, and finally the giant hanging quilts-modern tapestries that covered the walls with childlike pictures of fields, streams, mountains and forests, skies full of sun and moon together, of glorious clouds and even falling rain. They had the vibrant power of primitive painting with their myriad tiny bits of fabric sewn so carefully to create the detail of cascading water or falling leaf.

  It had killed Jesse to see all this again.

  By noon, hungry and light-headed from the long sleepless night, she'd gotten the courage to lift the latch from the rear door that led into the secret windowless rooms within the mountain itself. Breathless, she had followed the stone passage. Her heart pounded as she found the library unlocked and switched on the lamps.

  Ah, fifteen years ago, simply the happiest summer of her life. All her wonderful adventures afterwards, ghost hunting for the Talamasca, had been nothing to that magical and unforgettable time.

  She and Maharet in this library together, with the fire blazing. And the countless volumes of the family history, amazing her and delighting her. The lineage of "the Great Family," as Maharet always called it-"the thread we cling to in the labyrinth which is life. " How lovingly she had taken down the books for Jesse, unlocked for her the caskets that contained the old parchment scrolls.

  Jesse had not fully accepted it that summer, the implications of all she'd seen. There had been a slow confusion, a delicious suspension of ordinary reality, as if the papyruses covered with a writing she could not classify belonged more truly to dream. After all, Jesse had already become a trained archaeologist by that time. She'd done her time on digs in Egypt and at Jericho. Yet she could not decipher those strange glyphs. In the name of God, how old were these things?

  For years after, she'd tried to remember other documents she'd seen. Surely she had come into the library one morning and discovered a back room with an open door.

  Into a long corridor, she'd gone past other unlighted rooms. She'd found a light switch finally, and seen a great storage place full of clay tablets-clay tablets covered with tiny pictures! Without doubt, she'd held these things in her hands.

  Something else had happened; something she had never really wanted to recall. Was there another hallway? She knew for certain that there had been a curving iron stairway which took her down into lower rooms with plain earthen walls. Tiny bulbs were fixed in old porcelain light sockets, She had pulled chains to turn them on.

  Surely she had done that. Surely she had opened a heavy redwood door . . .

  For years after, it had come back to her in little flashes-a vast, low-ceilinged room with oak chairs, a table and benches that looked as if they were made from stone. And what else? Something that at first seemed utterly familiar. And then-

  Later that night, she'd remembered nothing but the stairway. Suddenly it was ten o'clock, and she'd just awakened and Maharet was standing at the foot of her bed. Maharet had come to her and kissed her. Such a lovely warm kiss; it had sent a low throbbing sensation through her. Maharet said they'd found her down by the creek, asleep in the clearing, and at sunset, they'd brought her in.

  Down by the creek? For months after, she'd actually "remembered" falling asleep there. In fact, it was a rather rich "recollection" of the peace and stillness of the forest, of the water singing over the rocks. But it had never happened, of that she was now sure.

  But on this day, some fifteen years later, she had found no evidence one way or the other of these half-remembered things. Rooms were bolted against her. Even the neat volumes of the family history were in locked glass cases which she dared not disturb.

  Yet never had she believed so firmly in what she could recall. Yes, clay tablets covered with nothing but tiny stick figures for persons, trees, animals. She'd seen them, taken them off the shelves and held them under the feeble overhead light. And the stairway, and the room that frightened her, no, terrified her, yes . . . all there.

  Nevertheless, it had been paradise here, in those warm summer days and nights, when she had sat by the hour talking to Maharet, when she had danced with Mael and Maharet by the light of the moon. Forget for now the pain afterwards, trying to understand why Maharet had sent her back home to New York never to come here again.

  My darling,

  The fact is I love you too much. My life will engulf yours if we are not separated. You must have freedom, Jesse, to devise your own plans, ambitions, dreams . . .

  It was not to relive the old pain that she had returned, it was to know again, for a little while, the joy that had gone before.

  Fighting weariness this afternoon, she'd wandered out of the house finally, and down the long lane through the oaks. So easy to find the old paths through the dense redwoods. And the clearing, ringed in fern and clover on the steep rocky banks of the shallow rushing creek.

  Here Maharet had once guided her through total darkness, down into the water and along a path of stones. Mael had joined them. Maharet had poured the wine for Jesse, and they had sung together a song Jesse could never recall afterwards, though now and then she would find herself humming this eerie melody with inexplicable accuracy, then stop, aware of it, unable to find the proper note again.

  She might have fallen asleep near the creek in the deep mingled sounds of the forest, so like the false "recollection" of years ago.

  So dazzling the bright green of the maples, catching the rare shafts of light. And the redwoods, how monstrous they seemed in the unbroken quiet. Mammoth, indifferent, soaring hundreds of feet before their somber lacy foliage closed on the frayed margin of sky.

 
; And she'd known what the concert tonight, with Lestat's screaming fans, would demand of her. But she'd been afraid that the dream of the twins would start again.

  Finally, she'd gone back to the house, and taken the roses and the letter with her. Her old room. Three o'clock. Who wound the clocks of this place that they knew the hour? The dream of the twins was stalking her. And she was simply too tired to fight anymore. The place felt so good to her. No ghosts here of the kind she'd encountered so many times in her work. Only the peace. She'd lain down on the old hanging bed, on the quilt that she herself had made so carefully with Maharet that summer. And sleep-and the twins-had come together.

  Now she had two hours to get to San Francisco, and she must leave this house, maybe in tears, again. She checked her pockets. Passport, papers, money, keys.

  She picked up her leather bag, slung it over her shoulder, and hurried through the long passage to the stairs. Dusk was coming fast, and when darkness did cover the forest, nothing would be visible at all.

  There was still a bit of sunlight in the main hall when she reached it. Through the western windows, a few long dusty rays illuminated the giant tapestry quilt on the wall.

  Jesse caught her breath as she looked at it. Always her favorite, for its intricacy, its size. At first it seemed a great mass of random tiny prints and patches-then gradually the wooded landscape emerged from the myriad pieces of cloth. One minute you saw it; the next it was gone. That's how it had happened over and over again that summer when, drunk with wine, she had walked back and forth before it, losing the picture, then recovering it: the mountain, the forest, a tiny village nestled in the green valley below.

  "I'm sorry, Maharet-," she whispered again softly. She had to go. Her journey was nearly ended.

  But as she looked away, something in the quitted picture caught her eye. She turned back, studied it again. Were there figures there, which she had never seen? Once more it was a swarm of stitched-together fragments. Then slowly the flank of the mountain emerged, then the olive trees, and finally the rooftops of the village, no more than yellow huts scattered on the smooth valley floor. The figures? She could not find them. That is, until she again turned her head away. In the corner of her eye, they were visible for a split second. Two tiny figures holding each other, women with red hair!

  Slowly, almost cautiously she turned back to the picture. Her heart was skipping. Yes, there. But was it an illusion?

  She crossed the room until she stood directly before the quilt. She reached up and touched it. Yes! Each little rag-doll being had a tiny pair of green buttons for its eyes, a carefully sewn nose and red mouth! And the hair, the hair was red yarn, crimped into jagged waves and delicately sewn over the white shoulders.

  She stared at it, half disbelieving. Yet there they were-the twins! And as she stood there, petrified, the room began to darken. The last light had slipped below the horizon. The quilt was fading before her eyes into an unreadable pattern.

  In a daze, she heard the clock strike the quarter hour. Call the Talamasca. Call David in London. Tell him part of it, anything- But that was out of the question and she knew it. And it broke her heart to realize that no matter what did happen to her tonight, the Talamasca would never know the whole story.

  She forced herself to leave, to lock the door behind her and walk across the deep porch and down the long path.

  She didn't fully understand her feelings, why she was so shaken and on the verge of tears. It confirmed her suspicions, all she thought she knew. And yet she was frightened. She was actually crying.

  Wail for Maharet.

  But that she could not do. Maharet would charm her, confuse her, drive her away from the mystery in the name of love. That's what had happened in that long ago summer. The Vampire Lestat withheld nothing. The Vampire Lestat was the crucial piece in the puzzle. To see him and touch him was to validate everything.

  The red Mercedes roadster started instantly. And with a spray of gravel she backed up, turned, and made for the narrow un-paved road. The convertible top was down; she'd be frozen by the time she reached San Francisco, but it didn't matter. She loved the cold air on her face, she loved to drive fast.

  The road plunged at once into the darkness of the woods. Not even the rising moon could penetrate here. She pushed to forty, swinging easily into the sudden turns. Her sadness grew heavier suddenly, but there were no more tears. The Vampire Lestat . . . almost there.

  When at last she hit the county road, she was speeding, singing to herself in syllables she could hardly hear above the wind. Full darkness came just as she roared through the pretty little city of Santa Rosa and connected with the broad swift current of Highway 101 south.

  The coastal fog was drifting in. It made ghosts of the dark hills to the east and west. Yet the bright flow of tail lamps illuminated the road ahead of her. Her excitement was mounting. One hour to the Golden Gate. The sadness was leaving her. All her life she'd been confident, lucky; and sometimes impatient with the more cautious people she'd known. And despite her sense of fatality on this night, her keen awareness of the dangers she was approaching, she felt her usual luck might be with her. She wasn't really afraid.

  She'd been born lucky, as she saw it, found by the side of the road minutes after the car crash that had killed her seven-months-pregnant teenaged mother-a baby spontaneously aborted from the dying womb, and screaming loudly to clear her own tiny lungs when the ambulance arrived.

  She had no name for two weeks as she languished in the county hospital, condemned for hours to the sterility and coldness of machines; but the nurses had adored her, nicknaming her "the sparrow," and cuddling her and singing to her whenever allowed.

  Years later they were to write to her, sending along the snapshots they'd taken, telling her little stories, which had greatly amplified her early sense of having been loved.

  It was Maharet who at last came for her, identifying her as the sole survivor of the Reeves family of South Carolina and taking her to New York to live with cousins of a different name and background. There she was to grow up in a lavish old two-story apartment on Lexington Avenue with Maria and Matthew Godwin, who gave her not only love but everything she could want. An English nanny had slept in her room till Jesse was twelve years old.

  She could not remember when she'd learned that her aunt Maharet had provided for her, that she could go on to any college and any career she might choose. Matthew Godwin was a doctor, Maria was a sometime dancer and teacher; they were frank about their attachment to Jesse, their dependence upon her. She was the daughter they had always wanted, and these had been rich and happy years.

  The letters from Maharet started before she was old enough to read. They were wonderful, often full of colorful postcards and odd pieces of currency from the countries where Maharet lived. Jesse had a drawer full of rupees and lire by the time she was seventeen. But more important, she had a friend in Maharet, who answered every line she ever wrote with feeling and care.

  It was Maharet who inspired her in her reading, encouraged her music lessons and painting classes, arranged her summer tours of Europe and finally her admission to Columbia, where Jesse studied ancient languages and art.

  It was Maharet who arranged her Christmas visits with European cousins-the Scartinos of Italy, a powerful banking family who lived in a villa outside Siena, and the humbler Borchardts of Paris, who welcomed her to their overcrowded but cheerful home.

  The summer that Jesse turned seventeen she went to Vienna to meet the Russian emigre branch of the family, young fervent intellectuals and musicians whom she greatly loved. Then it was off to England to meet the Reeves family, directly connected to the Reeveses of South Carolina, who had left England centuries ago.

  When she was eighteen, she'd gone to visit the Petralona cousins in their villa on Santorini, rich and exotic-looking Greeks. They had lived in near feudal splendor, surrounded by peasant servants, and had taken Jesse with them on a spur-of-the-moment voyage aboard th
eir yacht to Istanbul, Alexandria, and Crete.

  Jesse had almost fallen in love with young Constantin Petralona. Maharet had let her know the marriage would have everyone's blessing, but she must make her own decision. Jesse had kissed her lover good-bye and flown back to America, the university, and preparation for her first archaeological dig in Iraq.

  But even through the college years, she remained as close to the family as ever. Everyone was so good to her. But then everyone was good to everyone else. Everyone believed in the family. Visits among the various branches were common; frequent intermarriage had made endless entanglements; every family house contained rooms in constant readiness for relatives who might drop in. Family trees seemed to go back forever; people passed on funny stories about famous relatives who had been dead for three or four hundred years. Jesse had felt a great communion with these people, no matter how different they seemed.

  In Rome she was charmed by the cousins who drove their sleek Ferraris at breakneck speed, stereos blaring, and went home at night to a charming old palazzo where the plumbing didn't work and the roof leaked. The Jewish cousins in southern California were a dazzling bunch of musicians, designers, and producers who had one way or the other been connected with the motion pictures and the big studios for fifty years. Their old house off Hollywood Boulevard was home to a score of unemployed actors. Jesse could live in the attic if she wanted to; dinner was served at six to anybody and everybody who walked in.

  But who was this woman Maharet, who had always been Jesse's distant but ever attentive mentor, who guided her studies with frequent and thoughtful letters, who gave her the personal direction to which she so productively responded and which she secretly craved?

  To all the cousins whom Jesse was ever to visit, Maharet was a palpable presence though her visits were so infrequent as to be remarkable. She was the keeper of the records of the Great Family, that is, all the branches under many names throughout the world. It was she who frequently brought members together, even arranging marriages to unite different branches, and the one who could invariably provide help in times of trouble, help that could sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

  Before Maharet, there had been her mother, now called Old Maharet, and before that Great-aunt Maharet and so forth and so on as long as anybody could remember. "There will always be a Maharet" was an old family saying, rattled off in Italian as easily as in German or Russian or Yiddish or Greek. That is, a single female descendant in each generation would take the name and the record-keeping obligations, or so it seemed, anyhow, for no one save Maharet herself really knew those details.

  "When will I meet you?" Jesse had written many times over the years. She had collected the stamps off the envelopes from Delhi and Rio and Mexico City, from Bangkok, and Tokyo and Lima and Saigon and Moscow.

  All the family were devoted to this woman and fascinated by her, but with Jesse there was another secret and powerful connection.

  From her earliest years, Jesse had had "unusual" experiences, unlike those of the people around her.

  For example, Jesse could read people's thoughts in a vague, wordless way. She "knew" when people disliked her or were lying to her. She had a gift for languages because she frequently understood the "gist" even when she did not know the vocabulary.

  And she saw ghosts-people and buildings that could not possibly be there.

  When she was very little she often saw the dim gray outline of an elegant town house across from her window in Manhattan. She'd known it wasn't real, and it made her laugh at first, the way it came and went, sometimes transparent, other times as solid as the street itself, with lights behind its lace-curtained windows. Years passed before she learned that the phantom house had once been the property of architect Stanford White. It had been torn down decades ago.

  The human images she saw were not at first so well formed. On the contrary, they were brief flickering apparitions that often compounded the inexplicable discomfort she felt in particular places.

  But as she got older these ghosts became more visible, more enduring. Once on a dark rainy afternoon, the translucent figure of an old woman had ambled towards her and finally passed right through her. Hysterical, Jesse had run into a nearby shop, where clerks had called Matthew and Maria. Over and over Jesse tried to describe the woman's troubled face, her bleary-eyed stare which seemed utterly blind to the real world about her.

  Friends often didn't believe Jesse when she described these things. Yet they were fascinated and begged her to repeat the stories. It left Jesse with an ugly vulnerable feeling. So she tried not to tell people about the ghosts, though by the time she was in her early teens she was seeing these lost souls more and more often.

  Even walking in the dense crowds of Fifth Avenue at midday she glimpsed these pale searching creatures. Then one morning in Central Park, when Jesse was sixteen, she saw the obvious apparition of a young man sitting on a bench not far from her. The park was crowded, noisy; yet the figure seemed detached, a part of nothing around it, The sounds around Jesse began to go dim as if the thing were absorbing them. She prayed for it to go away. Instead it turned and fixed its eyes on her. It tried to speak to her.

  Jesse ran all the way home. She was in a panic. These things knew her now, she told Matthew and Maria. She was afraid to leave the apartment. Finally Matthew gave her a sedative and told her she would be able to sleep. He left the door of her room open so she wouldn't be frightened.

  As Jesse lay there halfway between dream and waking, a young girl came in. Jesse realized she knew this young girl; of course, she was one of the family, she'd always been here, right by Jesse, they'd talked lots of times, hadn't they, and no surprise at all that she was so sweet, so loving, and so familiar. She was just a teenager, no older than Jesse.

  She sat on Jesse's bed and told Jesse not to worry, that these spirits could never hurt her. No ghost had ever hurt anybody. They didn't have the power. They were poor pitiful weak things. "You write to Aunt Maharet," the girl said, and then she kissed Jesse and brushed the hair back out of Jesse's face. The sedative was really working then. Jesse couldn't even keep her eyes open. There was a question she wanted to ask about the car wreck when she was born, but she couldn't think of it. "Good-bye, sweetheart," said the girl and Jesse was asleep before the girl had left the room.

  When she woke up it was two o'clock in the morning. The fiat was dark. She began her letter to Maharet immediately, recounting every strange incident that she could remember.

  It wasn't until dinnertime that she thought of the young girl with a start. Impossible that such a person had been living here and was familiar and had always been around. How could she have accepted such a thing? Even in her letter she had said, "Of course Miriam was here and Miriam said . . . " And who was Miriam? A name on Jesse's birth certificate. Her mother.

  Jesse told no one what had happened. Yet a comforting warmth enveloped her. She could feel Miriam here, she was sure of it.

  Maharet's letter came five days later. Maharet believed her. These spirit apparitions were nothing surprising at all. Such things most certainly did exist, and Jesse was not the only person who saw them:

  Our family over the generations has contained many a seer of spirits. And as you know these were the sorcerers and witches of ages past. Frequently this power appears in those who are blessed with your physical attributes: your green eyes, pale skin, and red hair. It would seem the genes travel together. Maybe science one day will explain this to us. But for now be assured that your powers are entirely natural.

  This does not mean, however, that they are constructive. Though spirits are real, they make almost no difference in the scheme of things! They can be childish, vindictive, and deceitful. By and large you cannot help the entities who try to communicate with you, and sometimes you are merely gazing at a lifeless ghost-that is, a visual echo of a personality no longer present.

  Don't fear them, but do not let them waste your time. For t
hat they love to do, once they know that you can see them. As for Miriam, you must tell me if you see her again. But as you have done as she asked in writing to me I do not think she will find it necessary to return. In all probability she is quite above the sad antics of those whom you see most often. Write to me about these things whenever they frighten you. But try not to tell others. Those who do not see will never believe you.

  This letter proved invaluable to Jesse. For years she carried it with her, in her purse or pocket wherever she went. Not only had Maharet believed her, but Maharet had given her a way to understand and survive this troublesome power. Everything that Maharet said had made sense.

  After that Jesse was occasionally frightened again by spirits; and she did share these secrets with her closest friends. But by and large she did as Maharet had instructed her, and the powers ceased to bother her. They seemed to go dormant. She forgot them for long periods.

  Maharet's letters came with ever greater frequency. Maharet was her confidante, her best friend. As Jesse entered college, she had to admit that Maharet was more real to her through the letters than anyone else she had ever known. But she had long come to accept that they might never see each other.

  Then one evening during Jesse's third year at Columbia she had opened the door of her apartment to discover the lights burning, and a fire going under the mantel, and a tall, thin red-haired woman standing at the andirons with the poker.

  Such beauty! That had been Jesse's first overwhelming impression. Skillfully powdered and painted, the face had an Oriental artifice, save for the remarkable intensity of the green eyes and the thick curly red hair pouring down over the shoulders. "My darling," the woman said. "It's Maharet. " Jesse had rushed into her arms. But Maharet had caught her, gently holding her apart as if to look at her. Then she'd covered Jesse with kisses, as if she dared not touch her in any other way, her gloved hands barely holding Jesse's arms. It had been a lovely and delicate moment. Jesse had stroked Maharet's soft thick red hair. So like her own.

  "You are my child," Maharet had whispered. "You are everything 1 had hoped you would be. Do you know how happy I am?" Like ice and fire, Maharet had seemed that night. Immensely strong, yet irrepressibly warm. A thin, yet statuesque creature with a tiny waist and flowing skins, she had the high-toned mystery of fashion manikins, the eerie glamour of women who have made of themselves sculpture, her long brown wool cape moving with sweeping grace as they left the flat together. Yet how easy with one another they had been.

  It had been a long night on the town; they'd gone to galleries, the theater, and then to a late night supper though Maharet had wanted nothing. She was too excited, she said. She did not even remove her gloves. She wanted only to listen to all that Jesse had to tell her. And Jesse had talked unendingly about everything- Columbia, her work in archaeology, her dreams of fieldwork in

  Mesopotamia.

  So different from the intimacy of letters. They had even walked through Central Park in the pitch darkness together, Maharet telling Jesse there was not the slightest reason to be afraid. And it had seemed entirely normal then, hadn't it? And so beautiful, as if they were following the paths of an enchanted forest, fearing nothing, talking in excited yet hushed voices. How divine to feel so safe! Near dawn, Maharet left Jesse at the apartment with promises to bring her to visit in California very soon. Maharet had a house there, in the Sonoma mountains.

  But two years were to pass before the invitation ever came. Jesse had just finished her bachelor's degree. She was scheduled to work on a dig in Lebanon in July.

  "You must come for two weeks," Maharet had written. The plane ticket was enclosed. Mael, "a dear friend," would fetch her from the airport.

  Though Jesse hadn't admitted it at the time, there had been strange things happening from the start.

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