Blackwood farm, p.2

Blackwood Farm, page 2

 part  #9 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


Blackwood Farm

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  FOR A LONG TIME after I finished the letter, I didn't move.

  I sat listening to the inevitable sounds of Sugar Devil Swamp, my eyes on the pages before me, noting against my will the boring regularity of the handwriting, the muted lamps around me reflected in the marble flooring, the glass windows open to the night breeze.

  All was well in my little palazzo in the swampland.

  No sign of Goblin. No sense of Goblin's thirst or enmity. Nothing but that which was natural, and faraway, keen to my vampiric ears, the faint stirrings from Blackwood Manor, where Aunt Queen was just rising, with the loving help of Jasmine, our housekeeper, for a mildly eventful night. Soon the television would be going with an enchanting old black-and-white movie. Dragonwyck or Laura, Rebecca or Wuthering Heights. In an hour perhaps Aunt Queen would be saying to Jasmine, "Where is my Little Boy?"

  But for now there was time for courage. Time to follow through.

  I took the cameo out of my pocket and looked at it. A year ago, when I was still mortal -- still alive -- I would have had to hold it to the lamp, but not now. I could see it clearly.

  It was my own head, in semi-profile, carved skillfully from a fine piece of double-strata sardonyx so that the image was entirely white and remarkably detailed. The background was a pure and shining black.

  It was a heavy cameo, and excellent as to the craft. I'd had it done to give to my beloved Aunt Queen, more of a little joke than anything else, but the Dark Blood had come before the perfect moment. And now that moment was forever past.

  What did it show of me? A long oval face, with features that were too delicate -- a nose too narrow, eyes round with round eyebrows and a full cupid's-bow mouth that made me look as if I were a twelve-year-old girl. No huge eyes, no high cheekbones, no rugged jaw. Just very pretty, yes, too pretty, which is why I'd scowled for most of the photographs taken for the portrait; but the artist hadn't carved that scowl into the face.

  In fact, he'd given me a trace of a smile. My short curly hair he'd rendered in thick swirls as if it were an Apollonian halo. He'd carved my shirt collar, jacket lapel and tie with equal grace.

  Of course the cameo said nothing of my height of six foot four inches, that my hair was jet black, my eyes blue, or of the fact that I was slight of build. I had the kind of long thin fingers which were very good for the piano, which I played now and then. And it was my height that told people that in spite of my all too precious face and feminine hands, I really was a young man.

  And so there was this enigmatic creature in a good likeness. A creature asking for sympathy. A creature saying crassly:

  "Well, think about it, Lestat. I'm young, I'm stupid. And I'm pretty. Look at the cameo. I'm pretty. Give me a chance. "

  I'd have engraved the back with those words in tiny script, but the back was an oval photo case, and there was my image again in dull color, verifying the accuracy of the portrait on the other side.

  There was one engraved word on the gold frame, right beneath the cameo, however: the name Quinn, in a good imitation of that routine handwriting which I had always hated so much -- the left-handed one trying to be normal, I imagine, the seer of ghosts saying, "I'm disciplined and not insane. "

  I gathered up the pages of the letter, reread them quickly, bristling again at my unimaginative handwriting, then folded the pages and put the cameo with them inside of a narrow brown envelope, which I then sealed.

  I put this envelope in the inside breast pocket of my black blazer. I closed the top button of my white dress shirt and I adjusted my simple red silk tie. Quinn, the snappy dresser. Quinn, worthy to be a subject in the Vampire Chronicles. Quinn, dressed for begging to be allowed in.

  I sat back again, listening. No Goblin. Where was Goblin? I felt an aching loneliness for him. I felt the emptiness of the night air. He was waiting for me to hunt, waiting for the fresh blood. But I had no intention of hunting tonight, even though I was faintly hungry. I was going into New Orleans. I was going, perhaps, to my death.

  Goblin couldn't guess at what was happening. Goblin had never been more than a child. Goblin looked like me, yes, at every stage of my life, but he was forever the infant. Whenever he had grabbed my left hand with his right, the script had been a child's scrawl.

  I leaned over and touched the remote control button on the marble desk. The torch¨¨res dimmed and slowly went out. The darkness came into the Hermitage. The sounds seemed to grow louder: the call of the night heron, the subtle movement of the rank dark waters, the scurrying of tiny creatures through the tops of the tangled cypress and gum. I could smell the alligators, who were as wary of the island as men. I could smell the fetid heat itself.

  The moon was generous and gradually I made out a bit of the sky, which was a bright metallic blue.

  The swamp was at its thickest here around the island -- the cypresses, a thousand years old, their knobby roots surrounding the shore, their misshapen branches heavy with trailing Spanish moss. It was as if they meant to hide the Hermitage, and perhaps they did.

  Only the lightning now and then attacked these old sentinels. Only the lightning was fearless of the legends that said some evil dwelt on Sugar Devil Island: go there and you might never come back.

  I'd been told about those legends when I was fifteen. And at twenty-one I heard it all repeated, but vanity and fascination had drawn me to the Hermitage, to the pure mystery of it -- this strong two-story house, and the nearby inexplicable mausolem -- and now there was no real later. There was only this immortality, this brimming power which shut me off from actuality or time.

  A man in a pirogue would take a good hour to navigate his way out of here, picking through the tree roots, and back to the landing at the foot of the high ground where Blackwood Manor stood so arrogant and aloof.

  I didn't really love this Hermitage, though I needed it. I didn't love the grim gold-and-granite mausoleum with its strange Roman engravings, though I had to hide inside it from the sun by day.

  But I did love Blackwood Manor, with the irrational and possessive love that only great houses can draw from us -- houses that say, "I was here before you were born and I'll be here after you"; houses that seem a responsibility as much as a haven of dreams.

  The history of Blackwood Manor had as much of a grip on me as its overweening beauty. I'd lived my whole life on Blackwood Farm and in the Manor, except for my wonderful adventures abroad.

  How so many uncles and aunts had managed to leave Blackwood Manor over the years, I couldn't fathom, but they weren't important to me, those strangers who had gone North and only came home now and then for funerals. The house had me in thrall.

  I was debating now. Do I go back, just to walk through the rooms again? Do I go back to seek out the large rear first-floor bedroom where my beloved Aunt Queen was just settling into her favorite chair? I did have another cameo in my jacket pocket, one expressly bought for her only nights before in New York, and I should give it to her, shouldn't I? It was a wonderful specimen, one of the finest --.

  But no. I couldn't manage a partial farewell, could I? I couldn't hint that something might happen to me. I couldn't gleefully descend into mystery, into which I'd already sunk up to my eyeballs: Quinn, the night visitor, Quinn who likes dimly lighted rooms now and shies from lamps as though he suffers from an exotic disease. What good would a partial farewell do for my beloved and gentle Aunt Queen?

  If I failed tonight, I would be another legend: "That incorrigible Quinn. He went deep into Sugar Devil Swamp, though everybody told him not to; he went to that accursed island Hermitage, and one night he just didn't come back. "

  The fact was, I didn't believe Lestat would blast me into infinity. I didn't believe he would do it without letting me tell him my story, all or at least in part. Maybe I was just too young to believe it. Maybe because I'd read the Chronicles so avidly, I felt Lestat was as close to me as I was to him.

  Madness, most likely. But I wa
s bound and determined to get as near to Lestat as I could. From where and how he kept watch over New Orleans I didn't know. When and how often he visited his French Quarter flat I didn't know either. But this letter and the gift of the onyx cameo of myself was to go to that flat tonight.

  Finally I got up from the leather-and-gold chair.

  I went out of the splendid marble-floored house, and with no more than thought to direct me I let myself rise from the warm earth slowly, experiencing a delicious lightness, until I could see from the cool heights far above the huge long meandering black mass of the swamp, and the lights of the big house shining as if it were a lantern on the smooth grass.

  Towards New Orleans I willed myself, using this strangest of powers, the Cloud Gift, traversing the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and moving towards the infamous town house in the Rue Royale, which all Blood Hunters knew was the house of the invincible Lestat.

  "One hell of a devil," my Maker had called him, "keeping his properties in his own name though the Talamasca is hounding him. He means to outlast them. He's more merciful than I. "

  Merciful; that was what I was counting on now. Lestat, wherever you are, be merciful. I don't come with disrespect. I need you, as my letter will show.

  Slowly I descended, down, down, into the balmy air again, a fleeting shadow to prying eyes if there were any, until I stood in the rear courtyard of the town house, near to the murmuring fountain, looking up at the curving iron stairs that led to Lestat's rear door.

  All right. I am here. So the rules have been broken. So I'm in the courtyard of the Brat Prince himself. Descriptions came to mind from the pages of the Chronicles, complex as the bougainvillea vine running rampant up the iron columns to the upstairs cast-iron railing. It was like being in a very shrine.

  All around me I could hear the brash noises of the French Quarter: the clatter of restaurant kitchens, the happy voices of the inevitable tourists on the pavements. I heard the thinnest sound of the jazz blaring out of doors on Bourbon Street. I heard the creeping rumble of cars passing sluggishly in front.

  The little courtyard itself was tight and beautiful; the sheer height of its brick walls caught me off guard. The glistening green banana trees were the biggest I'd ever seen, their waxy stalks buckling the purple flagstones here and there. But this was no abandoned place.

  Someone had been here to clip the dead leaves from the banana groves. Someone had taken away the shriveled bananas that always wither in New Orleans before they ripen. Someone had cut back the abundant roses so that the patio itself was clear.

  Even the water gurgling from the conch in the stone cherub's hand down into the basin of the fountain was fresh and clean.

  All these sweet little details made me feel all the more like a trespasser, but I was too damned foolishly passionate to be afraid.

  Then I saw a light shining through the rear windows above, a very dim light, as if from a lamp deep in the flat.

  That did frighten me, but again the all-possessing madness in me mounted. Would I get to speak to Lestat himself? And what if, catching sight of me, he sent out the Fire Gift without hesitating? The letter, the onyx cameo, my own bitter pleas wouldn't have a chance.

  I should have given Aunt Queen the new cameo. I should have grabbed her up and kissed her. I should have made a speech to her. I was about to die.

  Only a perfect idiot could have been as exhilarated as I was. Lestat, I love you. Here comes Quinn to be your student and slave!

  I hurried up the curving iron stairs, careful not to make a sound. And once I reached the rear balcony, I caught the distinct scent of a human being inside. A human being. What did this mean? I stopped and sent the Mind Gift before me to search out the rooms.

  At once a confusing message reached me. There was a human there, no doubt of it, and he was furtive, this one, moving in haste, painfully conscious of the fact that he had no right to be where he was. And this someone, this human, knew that I was here as well.

  For a moment, I didn't know what to do. Trespassing, I had caught an intruder in the act. A strange protective feeling flooded me. This person had invaded Lestat's property. How dare he? What sort of a bumbler was he? And how did he know that I was here, and that my mind had searched his?

  In fact, this strange unwelcome being had a Mind Gift that was almost as strong as mine. I sounded for his name and he yielded it up to me: Stirling Oliver, my old friend, from the Talamasca. And at the same moment, as I detected his identity, I heard his mind recognize me.

  Quinn, he said mentally, just as if he were addressing me. But what did he know of me? It had been years since I had set eyes on Stirling. Did he sense already the change that had been worked in me? Could he tell such a thing with his quick telepathy? Dear God, I had to banish it from my own mind. There was time to get out of this, time to go back to the Hermitage and leave Stirling to his furtive investigation, time to flee before he knew just what I'd become.

  Yeah, leave -- and now -- and let him think I'd become a common mortal reader of the Chronicles, and come back when he's nowhere in sight.

  But I couldn't leave. I was too lonely. I was too hell-bent on confrontation. That was the perfect truth. And here was Stirling, and here was the entranceway perhaps to Lestat's heart.

  On impulse I did the most forbidden of all things. I opened the unlocked back door of the flat and I went inside. I paused for only a breathless second in the dark elegant rear parlor, glancing at its roaring Impressionist paintings, and then I went down the corridor past the obviously empty bedrooms and found Stirling in the front room -- a most formal drawing room, crowded with gilded furniture, and with its lace-covered windows over the street.

  Stirling stood at the tall bookcase to the left side, and there was an open book in his hand. He merely looked at me as I stepped into the light of the overhead chandelier.

  What did he see? For the moment I didn't seek to find out. I was too busy looking at him, and realizing how much I loved him still for those times when I was the eighteen-year-old boy who saw spirits, and that he looked much the same as he had in those days -- soft gray hair combed back loose from his high forehead and receding temples, large sympathetic gray eyes. He seemed no older than sixty-odd years, as if age hadn't touched him, his body still slender and healthy, tricked out in a white-and-blue seersucker suit.

  Only gradually, though it must have been a matter of seconds, did I realize he was afraid. He was looking up at me -- on account of my height just about everybody looks up at me -- and for all his seeming dignity, and he did have plenty of that, he could see the changes in me, but he wasn't sure what had happened. He knew only that he felt instinctive and mindful fear.

  Now, I am a Blood Hunter who can pass for human but not necessarily with someone as savvy as this man was. And then we had the question of telepathy, though I'd done my best to close up my mind the way my Maker had told me, that by simple will, it could be done.

  "Quinn," said Stirling. "What's wrong with you?" The soft British accent took me back four and a half years in a finger snap.

  "Everything's wrong with me, Stirling," I answered before I could rein myself in. "But why are you here?" Then I came right to the point like the blunderer I was. "Do you have Lestat's permission to be in this flat?"

  "No," he said immediately. "I must confess I don't have it. And what about you, Quinn?" His voice was full of concern. "Why are you here?"

  He shoved the book back into place on the shelf and took a step towards me, but I stepped back into the shadows of the hall.

  I almost buckled on account of his kindness. But another inevitable element had come sharply into play. His sweet delectable human scent was strong, and suddenly I saw him divorced from all I knew of him. I saw him as prey.

  In fact, I felt the immense impossible gulf that now divided us, and I was hungry for him, hungry as if his kindness would pour into me in his very blood.

  But Stirling was no Evil Doer. Stirling wasn't game. I w
as losing my fledgling mind as I looked at him. My acute loneliness was driving me. My hunger was bedeviling me. I wanted both to feast on him and tell him all my woes and griefs.

  "Don't come close to me, Stirling," I said, struggling to sound self-possessed. "You shouldn't be here. You have no right to be here. If you're so damned clever, why didn't you just come by day, when Lestat couldn't stop you?"

  The scent of the blood was driving me crazy, that and my savage desire to close the gap between us, by murder or by love.

  "I don't fully know the answer to that, Quinn," he said, his British accent formal and eloquent though his tone was not. "But you're the last person I expected to find here. Quinn, let me look at you, please. "

  Again, I said no. I was shaking. "Stirling, don't try to charm me with that old easy manner," I pressed on. "You might find someone else here who's a lot more dangerous to you than I am. Or don't you believe Lestat's stories? Don't tell me you think his vampires exist only in books. "

  "You're one of them," he said softly. He frowned but the frown cleared in a moment. "Is this Lestat's handiwork? He brought you over?"

  I was amazed at his boldness, polite as it was. But then he was so much older than me, so used to a graceful authority, and I was painfully young. Again, in waves I felt the old love for him, the old need of him, and again it was fusing perfectly, and stupidly, with my thirst.

  "It wasn't Lestat's doing," I said. "In fact, he had nothing to do with it. I came here looking for him, Stirling, and now this has happened, this little tragedy that I've run into you. "

  "A tragedy?"

  "What else can it be, Stirling? You know who I am. You know where I live. You know all about my family at Blackwood Manor. How can I just walk out of here now that I've seen you and you've seen me?"

  I felt the thirst thick in my throat. My vision was blurring. I heard myself speaking:

  "Don't try to tell me that if I let you go, the Talamasca wouldn't come looking for me. Don't try to tell me that you and your cohorts wouldn't be prowling about in search of me. I know what would happen. This is god-awful, Stirling. "

  His fear quickened, but he was struggling not to give in to it. And my hunger was becoming uncontrollable. If I let it go, if I let it play itself out, the act would seem inevitable, and seeming inevitable was all that conscience needed; but that just couldn't happen, not to Stirling Oliver. I was hopelessly confused.

  Before I realized what I was doing, I moved closer to him. I could see the blood in him now as well as smell it. And he made a fatal misstep. That is, he moved backwards, as if he couldn't stop himself from doing it, and he seemed in that gesture to be more the victim than ever. That backwards step caused me to advance.

  "Stirling, you shouldn't have come here," I said. "You're an invader. " But I could hear the flatness of my voice in my hunger, the meaninglessness of the words. Invader, invader, invader.

  "You can't harm me, Quinn," he said, his voice very level and reasonable, "you wouldn't do it. There's too much between us. I've always understood you. I've always understood Goblin. Are you going to betray all that now?"

  "It's an old debt," I said, my voice having fallen to a whisper.

  I knew I was in the bright light of the chandelier now, and he could see the subtle enhancement of the transformation. The transformation was very fancy, so very fancy. And it seemed to me in my demented state that the fear in him had increased to silent panic and that the panic was sharpening the fragrance of the blood.

  Do dogs smell fear? Vampires smell it. Vampires count on it. Vampires find it savory. Vampires can't resist it.

  "It's wrong," he said, but he too was whispering as though my very stare had weakened him, which it can certainly do to mortals, and he knew there was no point to a fight. "Don't do it, my boy," he said, the words barely audible.

  I found myself reaching out for his shoulder, and when my fingers touched him I felt an electricity that shot through my limbs. Crush him. Crush his bones, but first and foremost swallow his soul in the blood.

  "Don't you realize. . . " He trailed off, and out of his mind I subtracted the rest, that the Talamasca would be further inflamed, that it would be bad for everyone. The vampires, the Blood Hunters, the Children of the Millennia had all left New Orleans. Scattered in the dark were the vampires. It was a truce. And now I meant to shatter it!

  "But they don't know me, you see," I said, "not in this form, they don't. Only you do, my old friend, and that's the horror. You know me, and that's why this has to come about. "

  I bent down, close to him, and kissed the side of his throat. My friend, my deepest friend in all the world once. And now we'll have this union. Lust old and new. The boy I'd been loving him. I felt the blood pushing through the artery. My left arm slid beneath his right arm. Don't hurt him. He couldn't get away from me. He didn't even try.

  "This will be painless, Stirling," I whispered. I sank my teeth cleanly, and the blood filled my mouth very slowly, and with it there came the sudden course of his life and dreams.

  Innocent. The word burned through the pleasure. In a luminous drift of figures and voices he emerged, pushing his way through the crowd; Stirling, the man, pleading with me in my mental vision, saying Innocent. There I was, the boy of that old time, and Stirling saying Innocent. I couldn't stop what had begun.

  It was someone else who did that for me.

  I felt an iron grip on my shoulder and I was whipped back away from Stirling, and Stirling staggered, almost falling, and then he tripped and sank down sideways into a chair at the desk.

  I was slammed against the bookcase. I lapped at the blood on my lip and I tried to fight the dizziness. The chandelier appeared to be rocking, and the colors of the paintings on the wall were afire.

  A firm hand was placed against my chest to steady me and to hold me back.

  And then I realized I was looking at Lestat.
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