The queen of the damned, p.17

The Queen Of The Damned, page 17

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series

 

The Queen Of The Damned
 



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Chapter 14

 

  Yet she could not bring herself to move. She was so tired, in spite of her excitement. She was sitting against the marble mantel, and the light from the ceiling bulb was so dreary, and her head hurt, too. Yet she kept staring at the gilded birds, the small, wonderfully wrought flowers and trees. The sky was a deep vermilion, yet there was a full moon in it and no sun, and a great drifting spread of tiny stars. Bits of hammered silver still clinging to the stars.

  Gradually she noticed a stone wall painted in the background in one corner. There was a castle behind it. How lovely to walk through the forest towards it, to go through the carefully painted wooden gate. Pass into another realm. She heard a song in her head, something she'd all but forgotten, something Maharet used to sing.

  Then quite abruptly she saw that the gate was painted over an actual opening in the wall!

  She sat forward. She could see the seams in the plaster. Yes, a square opening, which she had not seen, laboring behind the heavy steamer. She knelt down in front of it and touched it. A wooden door. Immediately she took the screwdriver and tried to pry it open. No luck. She worked on one edge and then the other. But she was only scarring the picture to no avail. She sat back on her heels and studied it. A painted gate covering a wooden door. And there was a worn spot right where the painted handle was. Yes! She reached out and gave the worn spot a little jab. The door sprang open. It was as simple as that.

  She lifted her flashlight. A compartment lined in cedar. And there were things there. A small white leather-bound book! A rosary, it looked like, and a doll, a very old porcelain doll.

  For a moment she couldn't bring herself to touch these objects. It was like desecrating a tomb. And there was a faint scent there as of perfume. She wasn't dreaming, was she? No, her head hurt too much for this to be a dream. She reached into the compartment, and removed the doll first.

  The body was crude by modern standards, yet the wooden limbs were well jointed and formed. The white dress and lavender sash were decaying, falling into bits and pieces. But the porcelain head was lovely, the large blue paperweight eyes perfect, the wig of flowing blond hair still intact.

  "Claudia," she whispered.

  Her voice made her conscious of the silence. No traffic now at this hour. Only the old boards creaking. And the soft soothing flicker of an oil lamp on a nearby table. And then that harpsichord from somewhere, someone playing Chopin now, the Minute Waltz, with the same dazzling skill she'd heard before. She sat still, looking down at the doll in her lap. She wanted to brush its hair, fix its sash.

  The climactic events of Interview with the Vampire came back to her-Claudia destroyed in Paris. Claudia caught by the deadly light of the rising sun in a brick-lined airshaft from which she couldn't escape. Jesse felt a dull shock, and the rapid silent beat of her heart against her throat. Claudia gone, while the others continued. Lestat, Louis, Armand. . . .

  Then with a start, she realized she was looking at the other things inside the compartment. She reached for the book.

  A diary! The pages were fragile, spotted. But the old-fashioned sepia script was still readable, especially now that the oil lamps were all lighted, and the room had a cozy brightness to it. She could translate the French effortlessly. The first entry was September 21, 1836:

  This is my birthday present from Louis. Use as I like, he tells me. But perhaps I should like to copy into it those occasional poems which strike my fancy, and read these to him now and then?

  I do not understand entirely what is meant by birthday. Was I born into this world on the list of September or was it on that day that I departed all things human to become this?

  My gentlemen parents are forever reluctant to illuminate such simple matters. One would think it bad taste to dwell on such subjects. Louis looks puzzled, then miserable, before he returns to the evening paper. And Lestat, he smiles and plays a little Mozart for me, then answers with a shrug: "It was the day you were born to us. "

  Of course, he gave me a doll as usual, the replica of me, which as always wears a duplicate of my newest dress. To France he sends for these dolls, he wants me to know. And what should I do with it? Play with it as if I were really a child?

  "Is there a message here, my beloved father?" I asked him this evening. "That I shall be a doll forever myself?" He has given me thirty such dolls over the years if recollection serves me. And recollection never does anything else. Each doll has been exactly like the rest. They would crowd me out of my bedroom if I kept them. But I do not keep them. I burn them, sooner or later. I smash their china faces with the poker. I watch the fire eat their hair. I can't say that I like doing this. After all, the dolls are beautiful. And they do resemble me. Yet, it becomes the appropriate gesture. The doll expects it. So do I.

  And now he has brought me another, and he stands in my doorway staring at me afterwards, as if my question cut him. And the expression on his face is so dark suddenly, I think, this cannot be my Lestat.

  I wish that I could hate him. I wish that I could hate them both. But they defeat me not with their strength but with their weakness. They are so loving! And so pleasing to look at. Mon Dieu, how the women go after them!

  As he stood there watching me, watching me examine this doll he had given me, I asked him sharply:

  "Do you like what you see?"

  "You don't want them anymore, do you?" he whispered.

  "Would you want them," I asked, "if you were me?"

  The expression on his face grew even darker. Never have I seen him the way he looked. A scorching heat came into his face, and it seemed he blinked to clear his vision. His perfect vision. He left me and went into the parlor. I went after him. In truth, I couldn't bear to see him the way he was, yet I pursued him. "Would you like them," I asked, "if you were me?"

  He stared at me as if I frightened him, and he a man of six feet and I a child no more than half that, at best.

  "Am I beautiful to you?" I demanded.

  He went past me down the hall, out the back door. But I caught up with him. I held tight to his sleeve as he stood at the top of the stairs. "Answer me!" I said to him. "Look at me. What do you see?"

  He was in a dreadful state. I thought he'd pull away, laugh, flash his usual brimming colors. But instead he dropped to his knees before me and took hold of both my arms. He kissed me roughly on-the mouth. "I love you," he whispered. "I love you!" As if it were a curse he laid on me, and then he spoke this poetry to me:

  Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.

  Webster it is, I am almost certain. One of those plays Lestat so loves. I wonder . . . will Louis be pleased by this little poem? I cannot imagine why not. It is small but very pretty.

  Jesse closed the book gently. Her hand was trembling. She lifted the doll and held it against her breast, her body rocking slightly as she sat back against the painted wall.

  "Claudia," she whispered.

  Her head throbbed, but it didn't matter. The light of the oil lamps was so soothing, so different from the harsh electric bulb. She sat still, caressing the doll with her fingers almost in the manner of a blind woman, feeling its soft silken hair, its stiff starched little dress. The clock chimed again, loudly, each somber note echoing through the room. She must not faint here. She must get up somehow. She must take the little book and the doll and the rosary and leave.

  The empty windows were like mirrors with the night behind them. Rules broken. Call David, yes, call David now. But the phone was ringing. At this hour, imagine. The phone ringing. And David didn't have any number for this flat because the phone. . . . She tried to ignore it, but it went on and on ringing. All right, answer it!

  She kissed the doll's forehead. "Be right back, my darling," she whispered.

  Where was the damn phone in this flat anyway? In the niche in the hallway, of course. She had almost reached it when she saw the wire with the frayed end, curled around it. It wasn't connected. She could see it wasn't connected. Yet it was r
inging, she could hear it, and it was no auditory hallucination, the thing was giving one shrill pulse after another! And the oil lamps! My God, there were no oil lamps in this fiat!

  All right, you've seen things like this before. Don't panic, for the love of God. Think! What should you do? But she was about to scream. The phone would not stop ringing! If you panic, you will lose control utterly. You must turn off these lamps, stop this phone! But the lamps can't be real. And the living room at the end of the hall-the furniture's not real! The flicker of the fire, not real! And the person moving in there, who is it, a man? Don't look up at him! She reached out and shoved the phone out of the niche so that it fell to the floor. The receiver rolled on its back. Tiny and thin, a woman's voice came out of it.

  "Jesse?"

  In blind terror, she ran back to the bedroom, stumbling over the leg of a chair, falling against the starched drapery of a four-poster bed. Not real. Not there. Get the doll, the book, the rosary! Stuffing them in her canvas bag, she climbed to her feet and ran out of the flat to the back stairway. She almost fell as her feet hit the slippery iron. The garden, the fountain- But you know there's nothing there but weeds. There was a wrought-iron gate blocking her path. Illusion. Go through it! Run!

  It was the proverbial nightmare and she was caught in it, the sounds of horses and carriages thudding in her ears as she ran down the cobblestone pavement. Each clumsy gesture stretched over eternity, her hands struggling to get the car keys, to get the door open, and then the car refusing to start.

  By the time she reached the edge of the French Quarter, she was sobbing and her body was drenched with sweat. On she drove through the shabby garish downtown streets towards the freeway. Blocked at the on-ramp, she turned her head. Back seat empty. OK, they didn't follow. And the canvas bag was in her lap; she could feel the hard porcelain head of the doll against her breast. She floored it to Baton Rouge.

  She was sick by the time she reached the hotel. She could barely walk to the desk. An aspirin, a thermometer. Please help me to the elevator.

  When she woke up eight hours later, it was noon. The canvas bag was still in her arms. Her temperature was 104. She called David, but the connection was dreadful. He called her back; it was still no good. Nevertheless she tried to make herself understood. The diary, it was Claudia's, absolutely, it confirmed everything! And the phone, it wasn't connected, yet she heard the woman's voice! The oil lamps, they'd been burning when she ran out of the flat. The flat had been filled with furniture; there'd been fires in the grates. Could they burn down the flat, these lamps and fires? David must do something! And he was answering her, but she could barely hear him. She had the bag, she told him, he must not worry.

  It was dark when she opened her eyes. The pain in her head had woken her up. The digital clock on the dresser said ten thirty. Thirst, terrible thirst, and the glass by the bed was empty. Someone else was in the room.

  She turned over on her back. Light through the thin white curtains. Yes, there. A child, a little girl. She was sitting in the chair against the wall.

  Jesse could just see the outline clearly-the long yellow hair, the puff-sleeved dress, the dangling legs that didn't touch the floor. She tried to focus. Child . . . not possible. Apparition. No. Something occupying space. Something malevolent. Menace- And the child was looking at her.

  Claudia.

  She scrambled out of the bed, half falling, the bag in her arms still as she backed up against the wall. The little girl got up. There was the clear sound of her feet on the carpet. The sense of menace seemed to grow stronger. The child moved into the light from the window as she came towards Jesse, and the light struck her blue eyes, her rounded cheeks, her soft naked little arms.

  Jesse screamed. Clutching the bag against her, she rushed blindly in the direction of the door. She clawed at the lock and chain, afraid to look over her shoulder. The screams were coming out of her uncontrollably. Someone was calling from the other side, and finally she had the door open and she was stumbling out into the hallway.

  People surrounded her; but they couldn't stop her from getting away from the room. But then someone was helping her up because apparently she'd fallen again. Someone else had gotten a chair. She cried, trying to be quiet, yet unable to stop it, and she held the bag with the doll and the diary in both hands.

  When the ambulance arrived, she refused to let them take the bag away from her. In the hospital they gave her antibiotics, sedatives, enough dope to drive anyone to insanity. She lay curled up like a child in the bed with the bag beside her under the covers. If the nurse so much as touched it, Jesse woke at once.

  When Aaron Lightner arrived two days later, she gave it to him. She was still sick when she got on the plane for London. The bag was in his lap, and he was so good to her, calming her, caring for her, as she slept on and off on the long flight home. It was only just before they landed that she realized her bracelet was gone, her beautiful silver bracelet. She'd cried softly with her eyes closed. Mael's bracelet gone.

  They pulled her off the assignment.

  She knew even before they told her. She was too young for this work, they said, too inexperienced. It had been their mistake, sending her. It was simply too dangerous for her to continue. Of course what she had done was of "immense value. " And the haunting, it had been one of unusual power. The spirit of a dead vampire? Entirely possible. And the ringing phone, well, there were many reports of such things-entities used various means to "communicate" or frighten. Best to rest now, put it out of her mind. Others would continue the investigation.

  As for the diary, it included only a few more entries, nothing more significant than what she herself had read. The psychometrics who had examined the rosary and the doll learned nothing. These things would be stored with utmost care. But Jesse really must remove her mind from all this immediately.

  Jesse argued. She begged to go back. She threw a scene of sorts, finally. But it was like talking to the Vatican. Some day, ten years from now, maybe twenty, she could enter this particular field again. No one was ruling out such a possibility, but for the present the answer was no. Jesse was to rest, get better, forget what had taken place.

  Forget what had taken place. . . .

  She was sick for weeks. She wore white flannel gowns all day long and drank endless cups of hot tea. She sat in the window seat of her room. She looked out on the soft deep greenery of the park, at the heavy old oak trees. She watched the cars come and go, tiny bits of soundless color moving on the distant gravel road. Lovely here, such stillness. They brought her delicious things to eat, to drink. David came and talked softly to her of anything but the vampires. Aaron filled her room with flowers. Others came.

  She talked little, or not at all. She could not explain to them how deeply this hurt her, how it reminded her of the long ago summer when she'd been pushed away from other secrets, other mysteries, other documents in vaults. It was the same old story. She'd glimpsed something of inestimable importance, only to have it locked away.

  And now she would never understand what she'd seen or experienced. She must remain here in silence with her regrets. Why hadn't she picked up that phone, spoken into it, listened to the voice on the other end?

  And the child, what had the spirit of the child wanted! Was it the diary or the doll! No, Jesse had been meant to find them and remove them! And yet she had turned away from the spirit of the child! She who had addressed so many nameless entities, who had stood bravely in darkened rooms talking to weak flickering things when others fled in panic. She who comforted others with the old assurance: these beings, whatever they are, cannot do us harm!

  One more chance, she pleaded. She went over everything that had happened. She must return to that New Orleans flat. David and Aaron were silent. Then David came to her and put his arm around her.

  "Jesse, my darling," he said. "We love you. But in this area above all others, one simply does not break the rules. "

  At night she dreamed of Claud
ia. Once she woke at four o'clock and went to the window and looked out over the park straining to see past the dim lights from the lower windows. There was a child out there, a tiny figure beneath the trees, in a red cloak and hood, a child looking up at her. She had run down the stairs, only to find herself stranded finally on the empty wet grass with the cold gray morning coming.

  In the spring they sent her to New Delhi.

  She was to document evidence of reincarnation, reports from little children in India that they remembered former lives. There had been much promising work done in this field by a Dr. Ian Stevenson. And Jesse was to undertake an independent study on behalf of the Talamasca which might produce equally fruitful results.

  Two elder members of the order met her in Delhi. They made her right at home in the old British mansion where they lived. She grew to love the work; and after the initial shocks and minor discomforts, she grew to love India as well. By the end of the year she was happy-and useful-again.

  And something else happened, a rather small thing, yet it seemed a good omen. In a pocket of her old suitcase-the one Maharet had sent her years ago-she'd found Mael's silver bracelet.

  Yes, happy she had been.

  But she did not forget what had happened. There were nights when she would remember so vividly the image of Claudia that she would get up and turn on every light in the room. At other times she thought she saw around her in the city streets strange white-faced beings very like the characters in Interview with the Vampire. She felt she was being watched.

  Because she could not tell Maharet about this strange adventure, her letters became even more hurried and superficial. Yet Maharet was as faithful as ever. When members of the family came to Delhi, they visited Jesse. They tried to keep her in the fold. They sent her news of weddings, births, funerals. They begged her to visit during the holidays. Matthew and Maria wrote from America, begging Jesse to come home soon. They missed her.

  Jesse spent four happy years in India. She documented over three hundred individual cases which included startling evidence of reincarnation. She worked with some of the finest psychic investigators she had ever known. And she found her work continuously rewarding, almost comforting. Very unlike the chasing of haunts which she had done in her early years.

  In the fall of her fifth year, she finally yielded to Matthew and Maria. She would come home to the States for a four-week visit. They were overjoyed.

  The reunion meant more to Jesse than she had ever thought it would. She loved being back in the old New York apartment. She loved the late night dinners with her adopted parents. They didn't question her about her work. Left alone during the day, she called old college friends for lunch or took long solitary walks through the bustling urban landscape of all her childhood hopes and dreams and griefs.

  Two weeks after her return, Jesse saw The Vampire Lestat in the window of a bookstore. For a moment, she thought she'd made a mistake. Not possible. But there it was. The bookstore clerk told her of the record album by the same name, and the upcoming San Francisco concert. Jesse bought a ticket on the way home at the record store where she purchased the album.

  All day Jesse lay alone in her room reading the book. It was as if the nightmare of Interview with [he Vampire had returned and, once again, she could not get out of it. Yet she was strangely compelled by every word. Yes, real, all of you. And how the tale twisted and turned as it moved back in time to the Roman coven of Santino, to the island refuge of Marius, and to the Druid grove of Mael. And finally to Those Who Must Be Kept, alive yet hard and white as marble.

  Ah, yes, she had touched that stone! She had looked into Mael's eyes; she had felt the clasp of Santino's hand. She had seen the painting done by Marius in the vault of the Talamasca!

  When she closed her eyes to sleep, she saw Maharet on the balcony of the Sonoma compound. The moon was high above the tips of the redwoods. And the warm night seemed unaccountably full of promise and danger. Eric and Mael were there. So were others whom she'd never seen except in Lestat's pages. All of the same tribe; eyes incandescent, shimmering hair, skin a poreless shining substance. On her silver bracelet she had traced a thousand times the old Celtic symbols of gods and goddesses to whom the Druids spoke in woodland groves like that to which Marius had once been taken prisoner. How many links did she require between these esoteric fictions and the unforgettable summer?

  One more, without question. The Vampire Lestat himself-in San Francisco, where she would see him and touch him-that would be the final link. She would know then, in that physical moment, the answer to everything.

  The clock ticked. Her loyalty to the Talamasca was dying in the warm quiet. She could tell them not a word of it. And such a tragedy it was, when they would have cared so much and so selflessly; they would have doubted none of it.

  The lost afternoon. She was there again. Going down into Maharet's cellar by the spiral stairway. Could she not push back the door? Look. See what you saw then. Something not so horrible at first glance-merely those she knew and loved, asleep in the dark, asleep. But Mael lies on the cold floor as if dead and Maharet sits against the wall, upright like a statue. Her eyes are open!

  She awoke with a start, her face flushed, the room cold and dim around her. "Miriam," she said aloud. Gradually the panic subsided. She had drawn closer, so afraid. She had touched Maharet. Cold, petrified. And Mael dead! The rest was darkness.

  New York. She lay on the bed with the book in her hand. And Miriam didn't come to her. Slowly, she climbed to her feet and walked across the bedroom to the window.

  There, opposite in the dirty afternoon gloom, stood the high narrow phantom town house of Stanford White. She stared until the bulky image gradually faded.

  From the album cover propped on the dresser the Vampire Lestat smiled at her.

  She closed her eyes. She envisioned the tragic pair of Those Who Must Be Kept. Indestructible King and Queen on their Egyptian throne, to whom the Vampire Lestat sang his hymns out of the radios and the jukeboxes and From the little tapes people carried with them. She saw Maharet's white face glowing in the shadows. Alabaster. The stone that is always full of light.

  Dusk falling, suddenly as it does in the late fall, the dull afternoon fading into the sharp brightness of evening. Traffic roared through the crowded street, echoing up the sides of the buildings. Did ever traffic sound so loud as in the streets of New York? She leaned her forehead against the glass. Stanford White's house was visible in the corner of her eye. There were figures moving inside it.

  Jesse left New York the next afternoon, in Matt's old roadster. She paid him for the car in spite of his arguments. She knew she'd never bring it back. Then she embraced her parents and, as casually as she could, she told them all the simple heartfelt things she'd always wanted them to know.

  That morning, she had sent an express letter to Maharet, along with the two "vampire" novels. She explained that she had left the Talamasca, she was going to the Vampire Lestat's concert out west, and she wanted to stop at the Sonoma compound. She had to see Lestat, it was of crucial importance. Would her old key fit the lock of the Sonoma house? Would Maharet allow her to stop there?

  It was the first night in Pittsburgh that she dreamed of the twins. She saw the two women kneeling before the altar. She saw the cooked body ready to be devoured. She saw one twin lift the plate with the heart; the other the plate with the brain. Then the soldiers, the sacrilege.

  By the time she reached Salt Lake City she had dreamed of the twins three times. She had seen them raped in a hazy and terrifying scene. She had seen a baby born to one of the sisters. She had seen the baby hidden when the twins were again hunted down and taken prisoner. Had they been killed? She could not tell. The red hair. If only she could see their faces, their eyes! The red hair tormented her.

  Only when she called David from a roadside pay phone did she learn that others had had these dreams-psychics and mediums the world over. Again and again the connection had been made to
the Vampire Lestat. David told Jesse to come home immediately.

  Jesse tried to explain gently. She was going to the concert to see Lestat for herself. She had to. There was more to tell, but it was too late now. David must try to forgive her.

  "You will not do this, Jessica," David said. "What is happening is no simple matter for records and archives. You must come back, Jessica. The truth is, you are needed here. You are needed desperately. It's unthinkable that you should attempt this 'sighting' on your own. Jesse, listen to what I'm telling you. "

  "I can't come back, David. I've always loved you. Loved you all. But tell me. It's the last question I'll ever ask you. How can you not come yourself?"

  "Jesse, you're not listening to me. "

  "David, the truth. Tell me the truth. Have you ever really believed in them? Or has it always been a question of artifacts and files and paintings in vaults, things you can see and touch! You know what I'm saying, David. Think of the Catholic priest, when he speaks the words of consecration at Mass. Does he really believe Christ is on the altar? Or is it just a matter of chalices and sacramental wine and the choir singing?"

  Oh, what a liar she had been to keep so much from him yet press him so hard. But his answer had not disappointed her.

  "Jesse, you've got it wrong. I know what these creatures are. I've always known. There's never been the slightest doubt with me. And on account of that, no power on earth could induce me to attend this concert. It is you who can't accept the truth. You'll have to see it to believe it! Jesse, the danger's real. Lestat is exactly what he professes to be, and there will be others there, even more dangerous, others who may spot you for what you are and try to hurt you. Realize this and do as I tell you. Come home now. "

  What a raw and painful moment. He was striving to reach her, and she was only telling him farewell. He had said other things, that he would tell her "the whole story," that he would open the files to her, that she was needed on this very matter by them all.

  But her mind had been drifting. She couldn't tell him her "whole story," that was the sorrow. She'd been drowsy again, the dream threatening as she hung up the phone. She'd seen the plates, the body on the altar. Their mother. Yes, their mother. Time to sleep. The dream wants in. And then go on.

  Highway 101. Seven thirty-five p. m. Twenty-five minutes until the concert.

  She had just come through the mountain pass on the Waldo Grade and there was the old miracle-the great crowded skyline of San Francisco tumbling over the hills, far beyond the black glaze of the water. The towers of the Golden Gate loomed ahead of her, the ice cold wind off the Bay freezing her naked hands as she gripped the steering wheel.

  Would the Vampire Lestat be on time? It made her laugh to think of an immortal creature having to be on time. Well, she would be on time; the journey was almost ended.

  All grief was gone now, for David and Aaron and those she'd loved. There was no grief either for the Great Family. Only the gratitude for all of it. Yet maybe David was right. Perhaps she had not accepted the cold frightening truth of the matter, but had merely slipped into the realm of memories and ghosts, of pale creatures who were the proper stuff of dreams and madness.

  She was walking towards the phantom town house of Stanford White, and it didn't matter now who lived there. She would be welcome. They had been trying to tell her that ever since she could remember.

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