Merrick, p.20

Merrick, page 20

 part  #7 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series



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Chapter 19



  AS WE MADE OUR WAY along the side of the house, I saw the candles burning, and when we emerged into the rear yard, I saw the great altar under the shed, with all its tall blessed saints and virgins, and indeed, the Three Magi, and the angels Michael and Gabriel with their spectacular white wings and in their colorful garb.

  The scent of incense was strong and delicious to my nostrils. And the trees hung low over the broad clean flagstone terrace with its uneven purple stones.

  Far back from the shed, indeed, very near the closest edge of the terrace, there stood the old iron pot atop the brazier tripod, the coals beneath it already glowing. And on either side were long iron tables, rectangular in shape, on which many different objects had been laid out with obvious care.

  The complexity of the whole display amazed me faintly, but then I saw, standing on the back steps of the house, only a couple of yards from the tables and the cauldron, the figure of Merrick, her face covered in the green jade mask.

  A shock went through my system. The eye holes and mouth opening of the mask appeared empty; only the brilliant green jade was filled with reflected light. Merrick's shadowy hair and body were scarcely visible, though I saw her hand when she lifted it and beckoned for us to come close.

  "Here," she said, her voice slightly muffled by the mask as she spoke, "you will stand with me behind the cauldron and the tables. You on my right, Louis, and you on my left, David, and you must promise me now before we commence that you will make no interruption, that you will try no interference in what I mean to do. "

  She reached out for my arm and guided me into position.

  Even at this closeness, the mask was inherently frightening and appeared to float before her lost countenance, perhaps her lost soul. With an anxious and meddlesome hand I confirmed that the mask was firmly affixed to her head by strong leather thongs.

  Louis had stepped behind her, and now stood over the iron table to the right of the cauldron, at her right hand, peering ahead at the glowing altar with its banks of glasscontained candles, and at the eerie but lovely faces of the saints.

  I took my place by her left.

  "What do you mean, we're not to interrupt?" I asked, though it seemed a terrible irreverence, in the midst of this spectacle which had taken on a high beauty, what with the plaster saints, and tall dark yew trees crowding in upon us, and the low twisted black limbs of the oaks shutting out the stars above.

  "Just what I told you," she said in a low voice. "You're not to stop me, whatever happens. You're to stay behind this table, both of you; you're never to move in front of it, no matter what you see or think you may see. "

  "I understand you," said Louis. "The name you wanted. Claudia's mother. It's Agatha. Of that I'm almost certain. "

  "Thank you," Merrick replied. She gestured before her. "There, on the stones," she said, "the spirits will come if they're meant to come, but you must not go to them, you must not engage in any struggle with them, you must do only as I say. "

  "I understand you," Louis repeated.

  "David, do I have your word?" she asked calmly.

  "Very well, Merrick," I said crossly.

  "David, stop your interference!" she declared.

  "What can I say, Merrick?" I demanded. "How can I give my inner feelings to this thing? Isn't it enough that I stand here? Isn't it enough that I do as you say?"

  "David, trust in me," she said. "You came to me with the request for this magic. Now I give you what you asked for. Trust that it will be for the good of Louis. Trust that I can control what I do. "

  "To speak of magic," I said softly, "to read of it, and study it¡ªall that is one matter, but to participate, to be in the presence of one who believes in it and knows it¡ªthat is quite another thing. "

  "Govern your heart, please, David," said Louis. "I want this more than anything I have ever wanted. Merrick, please, proceed. "

  "Give me your word with honesty, David," said Merrick. "You will not try to interfere with the things I will say and the things I will do. "

  "Very well, Merrick," I said, defeated.

  Only then did I have the freedom to inspect the objects covering the two tables. There lay the poor pitiful old doll which had belonged to Claudia, limp as a tiny dead body. And the page of the diary, weighted down by the doll's round porcelain head. There was the rosary heaped beside it, and the small daguerreotype in its dark case. There was an iron knife.

  I also saw a gold chalice, beautifully ornamented and rimmed with inset jewels. There was a tall crystal bottle filled with what appeared to be clear yellow oil. I saw the jade perforator, a wicked and awful thing in my sight, sharp and dangerous, lying close to the cauldron. And then quite suddenly I saw what appeared to be a human skull.

  I was furious at this last discovery. Quickly, I considered the contents of the other table, the one before Louis, and saw there a rib bone covered with markings, and that loathsome old shriveled black hand. There were three bottles of rum. There were other items¡ªa fine golden pitcher of honey, which I could smell in its sweetness, another silver pitcher of pure white milk, and a bronze bowl of shining salt.

  As for the incense, I realized it had all been distributed and was already burning before the distant unsuspecting saints.

  Indeed, a great deal more of the incense, very black and only faintly aglow as its smoke rose in the darkness, had been poured out to make a great circle on the purple flagstone before us, a circle which my eyes only now observed.

  I wanted to demand: where did the skull come from? Had Merrick robbed some anonymous grave? A dreadful thought occurred to me and I tried to banish it. I looked at the skull again and saw it was covered with incised writing. It was lurid and awful, and the beauty embracing all of this was seductive, potent, and obscene.

  Instead I spoke only of the circle.

  "They will appear in it," I murmured, "and you think the incense will contain them. "

  "If I must, I will tell them that the incense contains them," she said coldly. "Now, you must govern your tongue if you can't govern your heart. Offer no prayers as you watch this. I am ready for this to begin. "

  "What if there isn't enough incense!" I demanded in a whisper.

  "There is plenty of it to burn for hours. Look at the small cones with your clever vampire eyes, and don't ask me such a foolish question again. "

  I resigned myself. I couldn't stop this. And only now did I feel in my resignation a certain attraction to the entire process as she made to begin.

  From beneath the table, she lifted a small bundle of twigs and fed these quickly to the coals in the brazier beneath the iron pot.

  "Make this fire hot for our purposes," she whispered. "May all the saints and angels witness, may the glorious Virgin Mary witness, make this fire burn for us. "

  "Such names, such words," I murmured before I could stop myself "Merrick, you play with the strongest powers known to us. "

  But on she went, poking at the fire until its flames licked the sides of the cauldron. Then she lifted the first bottle of rum, uncapped it, and emptied its acrid contents into the pot. Quickly, she took up the crystal bottle and poured out the pure, fragrant oil.

  "Papa Legba!" she called out as the smoke rose before her. "I can begin nothing without your intercession. Look here at your servant Merrick, listen to her voice as she calls you, unlock the doors to the world of the mysteries, that Merrick may have what she desires. "

  The dark perfume of the heated concoction overcame me as it rose from the iron pot. I felt as if I ought to be drunk, when I wasn't, and it seemed my balance had been affected, though why I couldn't know.

  "Papa Legba," she cried. "Open the way. "

  My eyes shot to the distant statue of St. Peter, and only then did I realize he stood in the center of the altar, a fine effigy of wood, his glass eyes glaring back at her, his dark hand wrapped about its golden keys.

  It seemed to me that th
e air changed suddenly about us, but I told myself it was only my raw nerves. Vampire or human, I was susceptible to the tiniest suggestion. Yet the yews began ever so slightly to sway on the outskirts of the garden, and there came through the trees above a soft wind that sent the leaves down all around us, tiny and light, without a sound.

  "Open the gates, Papa Legba," she called out, as her deft hands emptied the second bottle of rum into the cauldron. "Let the saints in Heaven hear me, let the Virgin Mary hear me, let the angels be unable to turn away their ears. "

  Her voice was low yet full of certainty.

  "Hear me, St. Peter," she declared, "or I shall pray to Him who gave His Only Divine Son for our Salvation that He turns His back on you in Heaven. I am Merrick. I cannot be denied!"

  I heard Louis give out a faint gasp.

  "Now, you angels, Michael and Gabriel," she said, her voice rising with increasing authority, "I command you, open the way to the eternal darkness, to the very souls whom you yourself may have driven out of Heaven; put your flaming swords to my purpose. I am Merrick. I command you. I cannot be denied. I will call upon all the Celestial hosts to turn their backs on you should you hesitate. I will call upon God The Father to condemn you, I will condemn you, I will loathe you, should you not listen; I am Merrick, I cannot be denied. "

  There was a low rumbling from the statues in the shed, a sound very like the earth makes when it's shifting¡ªa sound which no one can imitate, but which anyone can hear.

  Again came the sound of the rum pouring, from the third bottle.

  "Drink from my cauldron, all you angels and saints," said Merrick, "and allow that my words and my sacrifice rise to Heaven. Hear my voice. "

  I strained in my focus upon the statues. Was I losing my mind? They appeared animate and the smoke rising from the incense and candles seemed thicker. Indeed the whole spectacle intensified, colors becoming richer, and the distance between the saints and us smaller, though we had not moved.

  Merrick lifted the perforator with her left hand. Instantly, she cut the inside of her right arm. The blood poured down into the cauldron. Her voice rose above it:

  "You Watcher Angels, the first to teach mankind magic, I call upon you now for my purpose, or those spirits that answer to your name.

  "Ham, you son of Noah and pupil of the Watchers, I call upon you now for my purpose, or that powerful spirit which answers to your name.

  "Mestran, son of Ham, who passed on the secrets of magic to his children and others, I call upon you now for my purpose, or that powerful spirit which answers to your name. "

  Again she slashed herself with the knife, the blood sliding down her bare arm and into the cauldron. Again there came that sound, as if from the earth beneath us, a low rumbling that mortal ears perhaps would disregard. I looked helplessly to my feet and to the statues. I saw the faint shiver of the entire altar.

  "I give you my own blood as I call you," Merrick said. "Listen to my words, I am Merrick, daughter of Cold Sandra, I cannot be denied.

  "Nebrod, son of Mestran, and powerful teacher of magic to those who came after him, bearer of the wisdom of the Watchers, I call upon you for my purpose, or upon that powerful spirit which answers to your name.

  "Zoroaster, great teacher and magician, who passed on the mighty secrets of the Watchers, who brought down to himself from the very stars the fire which destroyed his earthly body, I call on you, or that spirit which answers to your name.

  "Listen to me, all you who have gone before me, I am Merrick, daughter of Cold Sandra, I cannot be denied.

  "I shall cause the Host of Heaven to declare you anathema should you attempt to resist my powers. I shall withdraw my faith and withdraw my blandishments should you not grant the wish that comes from my tongue. I am Merrick, daughter of Cold Sandra; you will bring to me those spirits whom I call. "

  Again the perforator was lifted. She cut her own flesh. A long gleaming seam of blood flowed into the aromatic brew. The scent of it inflamed me. The smoke from the mixture stung my eyes.

  "Yes, I command you," she said, "all of you, most powerful and illustrious ones, I command you that I may achieve what I say, that I may bring forth out of the whirlwind those lost souls who will find Claudia, daughter of Agatha, Yield up to me those Purgatorial souls who will, in exchange for my prayers, bring forth the spirit of Claudia. Do as I command!"

  The iron altar before me was shivering. I could see the skull moving with the altar. I could not discount what I saw. I could not challenge what I heard, the low rumbling of the ground beneath me. Tiny leaves came down in a swirl, like ashes before us. The giant yew trees had begun to sway as if in the early breezes of an approaching storm.

  I tried to see Louis, but Merrick stood between us. Her voice came unceasingly:

  "All you powerful ones, command Honey in the Sunshine, restless spirit of my sister, daughter of Cold Sandra, that she bring Claudia, daughter of Agatha, out of the whirlwind. Honey in the Sunshine, I command you. I will turn all Heaven against you if you do not obey me. I will heap infamy upon your name. I am Merrick. I will not be denied. "

  Even as the blood flowed down over her right hand, she reached with it for the skull beside the smoking cauldron and lifted it up.

  "Honey in the Sunshine, I have here your very skull from the grave in which you were buried, and all your names are written upon it in my hand. Honey Isabella, daughter of Cold Sandra, you cannot deny me. I call you and command you to bring Claudia, daughter of Agatha, here now, to answer to me. "

  It was exactly as I'd suspected. She had done the awful deed of violating Honey's poor pathetic remains. How vicious and how dreadful, and for how long had she kept this secret, that she possessed the skull of her own sister, her own blood kin.

  I was revolted yet magnetized. The smoke from the candles grew dense before the statues. It seemed their faces were full of movement, their eyes sweeping the scene before them. Even their drapery appeared alive. The incense burnt bright in the circle on the flagstones, fanned by the breeze that steadily increased.

  Merrick laid aside the cursed skull and the perforator.

  From the table she lifted the gold pitcher of honey, and poured it into the jeweled chalice. This she lifted with her bloody right hand as she went on:

  "Ah, yes, all you lonely spirits, and you, Honey, and you, Claudia, smell this sweet offering¡ªHoney, the very substance after which you in your beauty were named. " Into the cauldron she poured the thick sparkling liquid.

  Then she lifted the pitcher of milk. Into the chalice it went, and then she lifted the chalice, gathering up the deadly perforator again in her left hand.

  "And this, too, I offer you, so delicious to your desperate senses, come here and breathe this sacrifice, drink of this milk and honey, drink it from the smoke that rises from my cauldron. Here, it comes to you through this chalice which once contained The Blood of Our Lord. Here, partake of it. Do not refuse me. I am Merrick, daughter of Cold Sandra. Come, Honey, I command you, and bring Claudia to me. I will not be denied. "

  A loud breath came from Louis.

  In the circle before the statues, something amorphous and dark had taken shape. I felt my heart skipping as my eyes strained to make it out. It was the form of Honey, it was the very figure which I had seen many years before. It flickered and wavered in the heat as Merrick chanted:

  "Come, Honey, come closer, come in answer to me. Where is Claudia, daughter of Agatha? Bring her here to Louis de Pointe du Lac, I command you. I cannot be denied. "

  The figure was almost solid! I saw the familiar yellow hair, the candlelight behind it rendering it transparent, the white dress more spectral than the solid outline of the body itself. I was too stunned to utter the prayers that Merrick had forbidden. The words never formed on my lips.

  Suddenly Merrick laid down the skull. She turned and caught Louis's left arm with her bloodstained hand.

  I saw his white wrist above the cauldron. With a swift movement, she slashe
d at his wrist. I heard him gasp again, and I saw the glittering vampiric blood gushing from the veins into the rising smoke. Again she gashed the white flesh and again the blood flowed, thickly, freely, and more abundantly than her own blood before.

  In no way did Louis resist her. Mute, he stared at the figure of Honey.

  "Honey, my beloved sister," said Merrick, "bring Claudia. Bring Claudia to Louis de Pointe du Lac. I am Merrick, your sister. I command you. Honey, show your power!" Her voice became low, crooning. "Honey, show your immense strength! Bring Claudia here now. "

  Again, she cut the wrist, for the preternatural flesh was healing just as soon as she opened it, and she again made the blood flow.

  "Savor this blood which is shed for you, Claudia. I call your name and your name only now, Claudia. I would have you here!" Once more the wound was opened.

  But now she gave over the perforator to Louis, and she lifted the doll in both her hands.

  I glanced from Merrick to the solid image of Honey, so dark, so distant, so seemingly without human movement.

  "Your possessions, my sweet Claudia," Merrick called out, snatching up a twig from the fire and lighting the clothes of the unfortunate doll, which all but exploded in a draught of flames. The little face turned black in the blaze. Still Merrick held it with both hands.

  The figure of Honey suddenly began to dissolve.

  Into the cauldron Merrick dropped the burning object, and then lifted the page of the diary, as she continued to speak.

  "Your words, my sweet Claudia, accept this offering, accept this acknowledgment, accept this devotion. " She dipped the page into the fire of the brazier, then held it aloft as it was consumed.

  The ashes fell into the cauldron. She took up the perforator once again.

  The form of Honey lingered only in shape and then appeared to be blown away by the natural breeze. Again the candles blazed violently before the statues.

  "Claudia, daughter of Agatha," said Merrick, "I command you, come forward, become material, answer me from the whirlwind, answer your servant Merrick¡ªall you angels and saints, and Blessed Mother Ever Virgin compel Claudia, compel her to answer my command. "

  I couldn't take my eyes off the smoky darkness. Honey was gone but something else had taken her place. The very gloom seemed to shape itself into a smaller figure, indistinct but gathering strength as it appeared to extend its small arms and move towards the table behind which we stood. It was above the ground, this small being, the sudden glint of its eye on our level and its feet walking on nothing as it proceeded towards us, its hands becoming clearly visible, as well as its shining golden hair.

  It was Claudia, it was the child of the daguerreotype, it was whitefaced and delicate, its eyes wide and brilliant, its skin luminous, its loose and flowing white garments soft and ruffled by the wind.

  I stepped backwards. I couldn't stop myself, but the figure had stopped; it remained suspended above the ground and its pale arms relaxed and fell naturally at its sides. It was as solid in the dim light as Honey had been so many years before.

  Its small stunning features were filled with a look of love and quickening sensibility. It was a child, a living child. It was undeniable. It was there.

  A voice came out of it, fresh and sweet, a girl's natural treble:

  "Why have you called me, Louis?" it asked with heartbreaking sincerity. "Why have you roused me from my wandering sleep for your own consolation? Why wasn't memory enough?"

  I was weak almost to fainting.

  The child's eyes flashed suddenly on Merrick. The voice came again with its tender clarity:

  "Stop now with your chants and commands. I do not answer to you, Merrick Mayfair. I come for the one who stands to the right of you. I come demanding why you've called me, Louis; what is it that you would have me give you now? In life did I not give you all my love?"

  "Claudia," Louis murmured in a tortured voice. "Where is your spirit? Is it at rest or does it wander? Would you have me come to you? Claudia, I'm ready to do it. Claudia I'm ready to be at your side. "

  "You? Come to me?" the child asked. The little voice had taken on a dark deliberate coloration. "You, after all those many years of evil tutelage, you think that I in death would be united with you?" The voice went on, its timbre sweet as if saying words of love. "I loathe you, evil Father," it confided. A dark laughter came from the small lips.

  "Father, understand me," she whispered, her face infected with the tenderest expression. "I never could find words to tell you truths when I was living. " There was the sound of breath, and a visible despair seemed to wrap itself about the creature. "In this measureless place I have no use for such curses," said the voice, with touching simplicity. "What is it to me, the love you lavished on me once in a vibrant and feverish world?"

  On she went as if consoling him.

  "You want vows from me," she said with seeming wonder, her whisper growing softer. "And from the coldest heart imaginable I condemn you¡ªcondemn you that you took my life¡ª" the voice was fatigued, defeated "¡ªcondemn you that you had no charity for the mortal I once was, condemn you that you saw in me only what filled your eyes and insatiable veins . . . condemn you that you brought me over into the lively Hell which you and Lestat so richly shared. "

  The small solid figure moved closer, the luminous face of plump cheeks and lustrous eyes now directly before the cauldron, the tiny hands curled but not raised. I lifted my hand. I wanted to touch this shape, so vivid was it. Yet I wanted to back away from it, shield myself somehow from it, shield Louis, as if such a thing could be done.

  "Take your life, yes," she said with her relentless tenderness, her eyes large and wondering¡ª"give it up in memory of me, yes, I would have you do it, I would have you give over to me your last breath. Do it with pain for me, Louis, do it with pain that I may see your spirit through the whirlwind, struggling to free itself from your tormented flesh. "

  Louis reached out for her, but Merrick caught his wrist and pushed him back.

  The child continued, her words unhurried, her tone solicitous as she went on:

  "Oh, how it will warm my soul to see you suffer, oh, how it will speed me on my endless wanderings. Never would I linger to be with you here. Never would I wish for it. Never would I seek you out in the abyss. "

  Her face was stamped with the purest curiosity as she looked at him. There was nothing of visible hatred in her expression at all.

  "Such pride,'' she whispered, smiling, "that you would call me out of your habitual misery. Such pride that you would bring me here to answer your common prayers. " There came a small chilling laughter.

  "How immense is your selfpity," she said, "that you don't fear me, when I¡ªhad I the power from this witch or any other¡ªwould take your life with my own hands. " She lifted her little hands to her face as if she would weep in them, and then let them drop to her sides again.

  "Die for me, my doting one," she said tremulously. "I think I shall like it. I shall like it as much as I liked the sufferings of Lestat, which I can scarce remember. I think, yes, that I might know pleasure once again, briefly, in your pain. Now, if you are done with me, done with my toys and your memories, release me that I may return to forgetfulness. I cannot recall the terms of my perdition. I fear I understand eternity. Let me go. "

  All at once, she moved forward, her small right hand snatching up the jade perforator from the iron table, and with a great lunge, she flew at Louis, thrusting the perforator into his chest.

  He fell forward over the makeshift altar, his right hand clutching at the wound in which she ground the jade pick, the cauldron spilling over onto the stones beneath her, Merrick backing up in seeming horror, and I unable to move.

  The blood gushed out of Louis's heart. His face was knotted, his mouth open, his eyes shut.

  "Forgive me," he whispered. He gave a soft groan of pure and terrible pain.

  "Go back to Hell!" cried Merrick, suddenly. She ran at the floating ima
ge, arms out to reach over the cauldron, but the child withdrew with the ease of vapor, and, still clutching the jade pick, she lifted her right hand and knocked Merrick back with it, the frigid little face all the while quite still.

  Merrick stumbled on the back steps of the house. I caught her arm and lifted her back on her feet.

  Again, the child turned to Louis as she held the dangerous pick in both her small hands. Down the front of her sheer white dress was the dark stain from the boiling fluids of the cauldron. It meant nothing to her.

  The cauldron, on its side, poured forth its contents onto the stones.

  "Did you think I wasn't suffering, Father?" she asked softly in the same small girlish voice. "Did you think that death had freed me from all my pain?" Her small finger touched the point of the jade instrument. "That's what you thought, wasn't it, Father," she spoke slowly, "and that, if this woman did your will, you'd take away some precious consolation from my very lips. You believed that God would give you that, didn't you? It seemed so very right for you after all your penitential years. "

  Louis still held his wound, though his flesh was healing and the blood oozed more slowly out of his splayed hand.

  "The gates can't be locked to you, Claudia," he said, the tears rising in his eyes. His voice was strong and sure. "That would be too monstrous a cruelty¡ª. "

  "To whom, Father?" she answered, cutting off his words. "Too monstrous a cruelty to you? I suffer, Father, I suffer and I wander; I know nothing, and all I once knew seems illusory! I have nothing, Father. My senses are not even a memory. I have nothing here at all. "

  The voice grew weaker, yet it was clearly audible. Her exquisite face was infused with a look of discovery.

  "Did you think I'd tell you nursery stories about Lestat's angels?" she asked with a low kindly tone. "Did you think I'd paint a picture of the glassy heavens with palaces and mansions? Did you think I'd sing to you some song learnt from the Morning Stars? No, Father, you will not draw such ethereal comfort from me. "

  On went her subdued voice:

  "And when you come following me I shall be lost again, Father. How can I promise that I shall be there to witness your cries or tears?"

  The image had begun to waver. Her large dark eyes fixed upon Merrick, and then on me. Back to Louis she looked. She was fading. The perforator fell from her white hand and struck the stones, breaking in two.

  "Come, Louis," she said faintly, the sound of her invitation mingling with the softly stirring trees, "come into this dreary place with me, and leave behind your comforts¡ªleave behind your wealth, your dreams, your bloodsoaked pleasures. Leave behind your ever hungry eyes. Leave it all, my beloved, leave it for this dim and insubstantial realm. "

  The figure was rigid and flat, the light barely shining upon its uncertain contours. I could scarcely see the small mouth as it smiled.

  "Claudia, please, I beg you," said Louis. "Merrick, don't let her go into uncertain darkness. Merrick, guide her!"

  But Merrick did not move.

  Louis turned frantically from Merrick to the fading image.

  "Claudia!" he cried out. With all his soul he wanted to say more, but there was no conviction in him. All was despair. I could feel it. I could read it on his stricken face.

  Merrick stood back, staring through the gleaming jade mask, her left hand poised in the air as if to fend off the ghost if it should strike again.

  "Come to me, Father," said the child, the voice toneless now, devoid of feeling. The image was transparent, dim.

  The outline of the small face slowly evaporated. Only the eyes held their luster.

  "Come to me," she whispered, her voice dry and thin. "Come, do it with deep pain, as your offering. You'll never find me. Come. "

  Only a dark shape remained for a few moments, and then the space was empty, and the yard with its shrine and with its tall forbidding trees was still.

  I could see no more of her. The candles, what had happened to them? They had all gone out. The burning incense was so much soot on the flagstones. The breeze had scattered it. A great shower of tiny leaves came down languidly from the branches, and the air was full of a subtle yet biting cold.

  Only the distant gleam of the heavens gave us illumination. The dreadful chill lingered around us. It penetrated my clothes and settled on my skin.

  Louis peered into the darkness with a look of inexpressible grief He began to shiver. The tears didn't flow; they merely stood in his uncomprehending eyes.

  Suddenly Merrick ripped off the jade mask and overturned both tables, and the brazier, the contents smashing onto the flags. The mask she cast into the shrubbery by the rear steps.

  I stared in horror at the skull of Honey lying in the heap of castoff instruments. Bitter smoke rose from the wet coals. The burnt remnants of the doll were visible in the flowing liquid. The jeweled chalice rolled on its golden rim.

  Merrick took hold of Louis by both arms.

  "Come inside," she said, "come out of this awful place now. Come inside with me, where we can light the lamps. Come inside where we'll be safe and warm. "

  "No, not now, my dear," he answered. "I must leave you. Oh, I promise, I'll see you again. Let me alone for now. Take whatever promises I must give you, to quiet you. Take whatever thanks I can express from my heart. But let me go. "

  He bent down and retrieved the little picture of Claudia from the wreckage of the altar. Then off he went down the shadowy alley, pushing the young banana leaves out of his path, his steps growing ever faster, until he was gone altogether, vanished on his own path in the familiar and unchanging night.
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