Blackwood Farm, page 32part #9 of The Vampire Chronicles Series
"IT HAD BEEN some time since Aunt Queen had held Full Court in her bedroom, or boudoir, as we called it on such occasions, but when I entered the house I was informed by an exquisitely dressed Jasmine -- read slinky black cocktail dress and murderous high heels -- that this was a special night.
"She was entertaining Nash, of course, because the two were getting on far better than Aunt Queen had ever dreamed, but also a visitor had arrived with gifts of stunning cameos such as Aunt Queen had never beheld. Jasmine threw in a bit of mockery with a roll of her eyes and a lift of her eyebrows. 'All carved out of jewels,' she said.
"I was solemnly requested to go upstairs, freshen up, put on my best black Italian suit with handmade English shirt and Church's shoes and come down to meet the bearer of the stunning gifts. Since I was already pretty much dressed this didn't involve much inconvenience.
"As to the courtly life, I welcomed the distraction. The liquor I'd drunk had worn off and left me electrified with love and concern for Mona, and I could not possibly have fallen asleep. The night seemed my enemy, with my frightened Goblin no doubt hovering near, and I wanted the lights and cheerful conversation of Aunt Queen's room.
" 'Come, Goblin,' I said, 'let's do this together. We've been apart too much lately, you know it. Come with me. ¡¯
" 'Evil, Quinn,' he responded, with a sad face, which surprised me. Evil in Aunt Queen's room? But he was dressed as I was, down to the hand-stitching of his collar and the lacquer of his shoe leather, and he came with me down the stairs. I felt his right hand in my left. I felt a gentle pressure, and then I felt his soft lips against my cheek.
" 'I love you, Quinn,' he said.
" 'And I love you, Goblin,' I replied.
"All this was very unexpected, as was the invitation to visit with Aunt Queen. I hoped the night would continue to give me wonderful things. I hoped I wouldn't have to crash suddenly amid the knowledge that Mona was seriously sick and that she might not survive her illness, that that was exactly what she and her family had been trying to tell me all during the lively dinner, and Rowan Mayfair's one outbreak of pessimism had been a sharp admission of the truth.
"What had Mona said, 'blinking out like a dim bulb. ¡¯
"All was light and laughter in Blackwood Manor. A group of the guests were at the piano in the double parlor, and in the dining room yet another little group played cards.
"I passed all this with a cheerful smile and a wave and headed for the back bedroom, finding the door ajar and pushing it wide slowly to announce my presence to the convivial group inside.
"They made a circle, the company, with Aunt Queen in her glory, clothed in one of her priceless feathered white negligees, with a wide white ribbon and a glorious cameo on her bare throat. Her high heels were as always much in evidence, and right opposite her sat Nash, in black tie for the occasion, who stood up as I entered as if I merited such a thing, when I did not.
"Cindy, the nurse, was there in her crisp white uniform and she rose too, to deposit kisses on my cheek, which made me very happy.
"And then I saw, in full clarity, the guest of honor, the generous bringer of fine cameos, the newcomer to Blackwood Manor, who sat at the very opposite of me and did not rise and had no reason to rise as our eyes met.
"At first I simply could not identify what I saw. I knew but I did not know. I understood but I did not understand. All was abundantly clear. Nothing was clear at all. Then very gradually my mind absorbed the details, and do let me record them here so as to brand them into your mind, so as to make them plain to you as they came to be plain to me.
"That this was the mysterious stranger I had no doubt. I knew the shape of the head. I knew the shape and cut of the shoulders. I knew the high square forehead with its beautifully rounded temples, and the black eyebrows and the large black eyes. I knew the long mouth and the smile. I even knew the long black hair.
"But it wasn't tied back now, this hair. No, it was a wealth of gorgeous waves and curls, tumbled down over the stranger's shoulders. And it was perfectly obvious from the taut cut of the mysterious stranger's black satin vest that the mysterious stranger had large full breasts. But the rest of the black tie ensemble of dinner jacket and trousers indicated a man's body, and indeed the mysterious stranger, despite having glowing skin and rouged lips, was about six feet tall and did have a rather firm jaw.
"Was this a man? Was this a woman? I had no idea.
"And whatever it was, it sat there -- sideways on the chair, with its right arm on the high back and its long legs comfortably in front of it and its left hand in its lap -- challenging me with its silence, with its sly smile, as Aunt Queen reached for that slack hand, saying:
" 'Quinn darling, come here and meet Petronia. She's brought me the most exquisite cameos, and she made them herself. ¡¯
"Shock. Heart-pounding shock. Fury and delirium combined in me as never before.
" 'The pleasure's all mine, Petronia,' I said. I felt all the liquor I'd drunk rising in me again. 'But you are very beautiful, let me be so bold as to tell you. Having seen you twice or thrice by moonlight, before this moment, I could only guess. ¡¯
" 'How generous of you,' she answered me, and I heard exactly the voice I'd heard in my ear last night, hushed and soft. Of course it was female. Or was it? 'And you, just come from your red-haired vixen,' she went on. 'One would have expected to find you quite blinded by her light. ¡¯
" 'She's not a vixen in any sense,' I declared, my face burning. 'But don't let me be wearisome defending her. It's a pleasure that you and I are now properly introduced. ¡¯
"She turned, laughing under her breath to Aunt Queen.
" 'He is quite the versatile gentleman,' she said. She looked back at me, the eyes flashing. 'I rather thought I would like you if we came to really know each other. And do stop trying to determine if I am a man or a woman. The fact is I'm a good part both and therefore neither one. I was just explaining to your Aunt Queen. I was born endowed with the finest traits of both sexes and I drift this way and that as I choose. ¡¯
"Nash had brought a chair for me to join the circle. Jasmine had poured the champagne in my tulip glass. I sat down across from this spectacle, this creature, and I felt Goblin take hold of my shoulder.
" 'Caution, Quinn,' he said to me. And well he might because I was dangerously feverish of mind and soul and once again drunk. I was appalled by what was happening and monstrously exhilarated.
"I saw the mysterious stranger's eyes shoot to my left where Goblin stood, but she could not see Goblin. She only knew that Goblin was there.
" 'So you think of me as a woman,' she said to me now. 'Forgive me for reading your mind, it's a trait I can't seem to keep in harness. Once one is blessed with such a gift it runs rampant. ¡¯
" 'Really,' said Aunt Queen, 'you mean it's quite spontaneous? You simply hear people's thoughts. ¡¯
" 'Some people more than others,' she said. 'Quinn's thoughts come rather glaringly clear to me. And what a brilliant young man you are. ¡¯
" 'So people tell me,' I said. 'And how is it that the mausoleum on Sugar Devil Island bears your name?¡¯
" 'It's the name of Petronia's great-great-grandmother, Quinn,' said Aunt Queen, obviously trying to take the sharp edge off my foray into the conversation. 'We've been talking about this very person, and about the subject of reincarnation. Petronia is a great believer in it, and that it happens over and over in her family, and of a time in ancient Pompeii, she has strange dreams. ¡¯
"A terrible sense of foreboding came over me. Ancient Pompeii.
"Goblin was squeezing my hand. The mysterious stranger was looking at me, and I could have sworn I saw Mount Vesuvius above the city as it roared and belched its fatal cloud Heavenward, pitching the city into panic far below. People ran screaming through the narrow streets. The earth moved. The cloud covered the sky. I saw it. Petronia was staring at me. We were there and we were here. A
"I was dizzy. Yes, dizzy, the fatal symptom.
" 'What are your strange dreams of ancient Pompeii?' asked Nash in his wonderful deep voice.
" 'Oh, they're truly tragic,' came her low voice in response. 'I see myself a slave girl in those times, a worker of cameos, the chief among a shop of such craftsmen, and my master has warned us all of the coming eruption, and I run through the streets trying to warn the citizens. Get out of the city. The mountain will bring disaster. But they don't believe. They don't heed. ¡¯
"I could see it as she spoke. I could see her, with her long full black hair, yet in a male's tunic, running through the narrow stone streets, banging on doors, grabbing people by the shoulders. 'Get out, get out now. The mountain's erupting. It will destroy the city. There's no time left. ¡¯
"I could see the buildings close around her, a little city of plastered walls, and she such a curious tall monstrous beauty. And no one listening. And finally, she took the slaves from their workbench. No. I didn't just see it. I was there!
"Into sacks they put the cameos. 'No time for that!' she said. 'Run!' We were all of us -- slaves, free men, women screaming, children -- running towards the shore. The roar of the mountain was monstrous and deafening. I saw the black cloud spread out over the sky. The day vanished. The night descended. We had climbed into a boat, and we were rowed out fast over the choppy waters of the bay. Crowded boats surrounded us. Again came the voice of the mountain. And then the flicker of fire in the darkness. Pompeii was soon to die.
"She sat in the boat. I was with her. She was crying. Huge rocks were rolling down the mountain. People were running from the huge rocks. Chaos on the heaving shores. The earth shook beneath those who tried to flee in their chariots. She wouldn't stop sobbing. The other cameo makers looked back in pure fascination. The rain of ash came down upon the city, upon the water. The waters of the bay were black. Boats were rocking. Boats were capsizing. The rowers went faster. We were moving out of the zone of danger. We were crossing the bay to safety. But the horror hovered over us. The mountain bellowed and spewed its deadly poisons. In the boat I held her trembling hand. She sobbed, she sobbed for those who wouldn't listen, who wouldn't run when she told them; she sobbed for the lost cameos, the lost treasures. She sobbed for the city fast disappearing in an evil mist of ashes and smoke.
" 'I'm not there!' I told myself. I tried to move my lips and speak aloud, tried to push against this vision, tried to come back from it, tried to know where I was, yet I didn't want to leave her sobbing in the boat, and all around were the other boats and people wailing and crying and shouting and pointing. My eyes were burning. And the night covered the day, as if forever, and without hope.
"Then came the electric shock of Goblin's hand. He had slipped his fingers into my left hand as he so often did, and I opened my eyes. I looked at her, and I saw her and heard her low voice running on like a low brook as she spoke to Aunt Queen.
" 'These strange dreams,' she said, 'they lead me to believe I once lived there, knew the people, suffered, died. I was as I am now, part male, part female; I loved nothing so much as making cameos. I was committed to it with a fascination that was total. I don't know how those who have no fascination live. ¡¯
"My heart beat wildly inside of me, but I couldn't shake the dizziness. I looked at Nash. I saw that his eyes were filmed over. Even Aunt Queen appeared dazed and wide-eyed as she stared at this being, this tall big-breasted creature with her raiment of long black hair.
"I shuddered. I would shake off this languor, this spell. I wouldn't be imprisoned by it, no. I did the most impulsive thing. I reached out, with Goblin's hand tucked over mine, and I motioned to clasp the hand of Petronia, and she, seeing this, accepted my hand and then pulled her hand back sharply, as sharply as if she'd been stung by a bee, all from Goblin's touch.
"I heard Goblin's secret laughter. 'Evil, Quinn,' he said to me. 'Evil!¡¯
"Petronia's eyes searched for him but couldn't see him.
"I glanced at Goblin and saw him fully realized and saw him afraid. And then he said to me words that explained everything and nothing.
" 'Not alive. ¡¯
"What I had felt was even more baffling -- a spirit thing like Goblin, electric, powerful, ready to form a current through Goblin to me. I couldn't grasp the principles of it really. But it was supercharged and terrifying. And the rage came back to me. How dare this being play with me? How dare he play with us all?
"Meantime, her voice was moving on in a hushed manner: 'And so I took up the art of making them because I loved them, and knowing of your love, I had to bring these few to you to keep with your others. It's been a long time since I visited the island, and of course the story came down to me of how my great-great-grandmother had wanted to be buried there, though it never did come to pass. ¡¯
" 'No, it never did, did it?' I said. 'And last night you caught me outside in a choke hold and you told me what you wanted done with the Hermitage, didn't you? And before that, you broke into my very room and dragged me from my bed!¡¯
"I stood up, comfortably towering over her, as she looked up at me, smiling.
" 'I saw you dump those bodies,' I said. 'I know you did it. And you come here to be received by the person dearest to me in all the world!¡¯
" 'Quinn, darling,' cried Aunt Queen, 'have you lost your mind!¡¯
" 'Aunt Queen, this is the very person! I tell you this is the mysterious stranger. This is the one!¡¯
"Nash was on his feet too and attempting to take me by the shoulders and turn me aside, and very slowly Petronia rose to her full height of over six feet, and with every inch over six feet grew out of femininity and into manhood, looking at me quietly with a gloating satisfaction in her pretty smile.
"Aunt Queen was frantic.
"Nash was begging me to be quiet.
" 'Deny it, I dare you,' I said. 'Say you didn't come into my very room and drag me from my bed. ¡¯
" 'Mrs. McQueen,' he answered. 'I did not come into this house at any time before tonight. ¡¯
" ' "My honored Lord, you know right well you did," ' I flashed on him from Ophelia in Hamlet. 'You came into my room. You accosted me outside. You made threats. You know you did. You come here to torment me. That has to be the reason. You play with me. It's a game that amuses you. It began with those bodies, dumped in the moonlight, when you knew I stood on the island and saw you there. ¡¯
" 'Quinn, silence!' Aunt Queen declared. Never had I heard such a cry from her, such a total command. 'I won't have it,' she said. She was shaking.
" 'Let me take my leave quietly,' said Petronia. She took Aunt Queen's hand.
" 'I am so sorry,' Aunt Queen said. 'So dreadfully, dreadfully sorry. ¡¯
" 'You've been very gracious to me,' she said in the same feminized voice. 'I'll never forget it. ¡¯
"He turned his pretty face to me, and I saw the woman in him, and then he was gone, with straight shoulders and big long strides, gorgeous hair flying, and I heard the heavy vibration of the big front door.
"All those around me were shocked. Cindy, the nurse, was full of concern. Nash didn't know what he should do or for whom to do it. And I sat down, knowing I was drunk and that I was going to be sick, and Aunt Queen stared at me with blazing anger and disappointment in her eyes. Jasmine was shaking her head.
"Finally, sinking down into her armchair, Aunt Queen spoke:
" 'Do you honestly expect anyone to believe the things you are saying?¡¯
" 'It's all true,' I said. 'How in the world could you believe her instead of me? What did she tell you -- that she was man and woman, so much of each that she was neither one? You believe that? And that she believes in reincarnation? You believe that? That she made the cameos she gave you? You believe that? And that the mausoleum on the island was made for her great-great-grandmother. You believe that? I'm telling you, she came at me. Or he came to me. And he has the st
"Aunt Queen couldn't look at me. Cindy brought her a hot toddy. It sort of sat there in the cup. Aunt Queen asked:
" 'Where were you tonight?¡¯
" 'I had dinner with the Mayfairs,' I said. 'I went over at two p. m. ' I stopped. But what was the point of holding back? I had to tell Aunt Queen everything, didn't I? She had to know the full measure of what I felt. And so I blurted it out:
" 'I saw a ghost while I was there. I spoke with him. I talked with him for twenty minutes or more without knowing he was a ghost. It was the ghost of Julien Mayfair, and he told me he had conjugal knowledge of Grandfather William's wife, and I'm descended from him. ¡¯
"Aunt Queen sighed. 'You are stark raving mad. ¡¯
" 'Not raving,' I said. 'I became a bit heated, yes, at the effrontery of that creature, but not raving, not really raving. That's a far worse state, wouldn't you say?¡¯
" 'What do I do?' she asked.
" 'Let me call Stirling Oliver. Maybe he can vouch for my sanity. He sees Goblin. He was at dinner tonight. I must see him and talk to him. I must tell him my feelings as regards that creature! I must talk to him. I don't feel safe. I don't feel anyone is safe from that creature. He'll help you to understand. ¡¯
" 'And you think I'm the one,' she asked, 'who needs the understanding?¡¯
" 'I don't know, Aunt Queen. I want to kill that creature, that's all I can say. And there's something very vile and awful about the being. It isn't merely that it's a hermaphrodite, that I could well endure and find fascinating. It's something else. Goblin senses it. Goblin calls it evil. I tell you the creature frightens me. You must understand, at least that I believe what I'm saying even if you do not. ¡¯
"She wouldn't look at me.
"I went into the bathroom. I was sick. After a while I was able to drink a paper cup of water. And then I came out. They were all there, in the same state of shock as when I left them. I apologized to everyone.
" 'But you have to see it,' I said, 'from my point of view. You have to understand what my experience of this creature was. And then I come home and find him with my Aunt Queen. ¡¯
"Nash made the kind suggestion that perhaps I ought to go to bed. I looked very tired indeed. I agreed to it immediately, but I couldn't let it go without stating that the stranger, alias Petronia, was no great respecter of my being in or out of bed.
"But when I bent down to kiss Aunt Queen, she was loving to me, and I was as tender with her as ever, and I told her that I had really told the truth.
" 'We will call Mr. Oliver,' she said. 'We'll ask him to come here tomorrow. And we'll talk to him. How would that be?¡¯
" 'I love you so much,' I whispered. 'And there's so much I want to tell you about Mona. ¡¯
" 'Tomorrow, my darling,' she said.
"I could hardly drag myself up the stairs. And as soon as I had the comfort of the soft flannel nightshirt I was dreaming of Mona, with my arm around Big Ramona, and thoughts of talking to Nash running randomly through my mind. Every now and then I'd wake with a start, fearing Petronia was on me, strange evil Petronia, bent on hurting me, bent on destroying me, but it was only drunken imagination and finally I went into a deep comforting sleep. "