Blackwood farm, p.5

Blackwood Farm, page 5

 part  #9 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


Blackwood Farm

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  WITHIN MOMENTS we found ourselves in front of the big house, and I experienced a flashing sense of embarrassment as I looked at its huge two-story columned portico.

  Of course the garden lights were on, brilliantly illuminating the fluted columns to their full height, and all of the many rooms were aglow. In fact, I had a rule on this and had had since boyhood, that at four o'clock all chandeliers in the main house had to be lighted, and though I was no longer that boy in the grip of twilight depression, the chandeliers were illuminated by the same clock.

  A quick chuckle from Lestat caught me off guard.

  "And why are you so embarrassed?" he asked genially, having easily read my mind. "America destroys her big houses. Some of them don't even last a hundred years. " His accent lessened. He sounded more intimate. "This place is magnificent," he said casually. "I like the big columns. The portico, the pediment, it's all rather glorious. Perfect Greek Revival style. How can you be ashamed of such things? You're a strange creature, very gentle I think, and out of kilter with your own time. "

  "Well, how can I belong to it now?" I asked. "Given the Dark Blood and all its wondrous attributes. What do you think?"

  I was at once ashamed of having answered so directly, but he merely took it in stride.

  "No, but I mean," he said, "you didn't belong to this time before the Dark Gift, did you? The threads of your life, they weren't woven into any certain fabric. " His manner seemed simple and friendly.

  "I suppose you're right," I responded. "In fact, you're very right. "

  "You're going to tell me all about it, aren't you?" he asked. His golden eyebrows were very clear against his tanned skin, and he frowned slightly while smiling at the same time. It made him look very clever and loving, though I wasn't sure why.

  "You want me to?" I asked.

  "Of course I do," he answered. "It's what you want to do and must do, besides. " There came that mischievous smile and frown again. "Now, shall we go inside?"

  "Of course, yes," I said, greatly relieved as much by his friendly manner as by what he said. I couldn't quite grasp that I had him with me, that not only had I found him but that he was wanting to hear my story; he was at my side.

  We went up the six front steps to the marble porch and I opened the door, which, on account of our being out here in the country, was never locked.

  The broad central hallway stretched out before us, with its diamond-shaped white-and-black marble tiles running to the rear door, which was identical to the door by which we had just entered.

  Partially blocking our view was one of the greatest attributes of Blackwood Manor, the spiral stairway, and this drew from Lestat a look of pure delight.

  The frigid air-conditioning felt good.

  "How gorgeous this is," he said, gazing at the stairway with its graceful railing and delicate balusters. He stood in the well of it. "Why, it runs all the way to a third floor, doubling back on itself beautifully. "

  "The third floor's the attic," I said. "It's a treasure trove of trunks and old furniture. It's yielded some of its little secrets to me. "

  His eyes moved to the running mural on the hallway walls, a sunshine Italian pastoral giving way to a deep blue sky whose bright color dominated the entire long space and the hall above.

  "Ah, now this is lovely," he said, looking up at the high ceiling. "And look at the plaster moldings. Done by hand, weren't they?"

  I nodded. "New Orleans craftsmen," I said. "It was the 1880s, and my great-great-great-grandfather was fiercely romantic and partially insane. "

  "And this drawing room," he said, peering through the arched doorway to his right. "It's full of old furniture, fine furniture. What do you call it, Quinn? Rococo? It fills me with a dreamy sense of the past. "

  Again, I nodded. I had gone rapidly from embarrassment to an embarrassing sense of pride. All my life people had capitulated to Blackwood Manor. They had positively raved about it, and I wondered now that I had been so mortified. But this being, this strangely compelling and handsome individual into whose hands I'd put my very life, had grown up in a castle, and I had feared he would laugh at what he saw.

  On the contrary, he seemed thrilled by the golden harp and the old Pleyel piano. He glanced at the huge somber portrait of Manfred Blackwood, my venerable ancestor. And then slowly he turned enthusiastically to the dining room on the other side of the hall.

  I made a motion for him to enter.

  The antique crystal chandelier was showering a wealth of light on the long table, a table which could seat some thirty people, made especially for the room. The gilded chairs had only recently been re-covered in green satin damask, and the green and gold was repeated in the wall-to-wall carpet, with a gold swirl on a green ground. Gilded sideboards, inset with green malachite, were ranged between the long windows on the far wall.

  A need to apologize stole over me again, perhaps because Lestat seemed lost in his judgment of the place.

  "It's so unnecessary, Blackwood Manor," I told him. "And with Aunt Queen and me its only regular inhabitants, I have the feeling that someone will come and make us turn it over for some more sensible use. Of course there are other members of the family -- and then there's the staff, who are so damned rich in their own right that they don't have to work for anybody. " I broke off, ashamed of rambling.

  "And what would a more sensible use be?" he asked in the same comfortable manner he had adopted before. "Why should the house not be your gracious home?"

  He was looking at the huge portrait of Aunt Queen when she was young -- a smiling girl in a sleeveless white beaded evening gown that might have been made yesterday rather than seventy years ago, as it was; and at another portrait -- of Virginia Lee Blackwood, Manfred's wife, the first lady ever to live in Blackwood Manor.

  It was murky now, this portrait of Virginia Lee, but the style was robust and faintly emotional, and the woman herself, blond with eyes of blue, was very honest to look at, and modest, and smiling, with small features and an undeniably pretty face. She was dressed ornately in the style of the 1880s, in a high-necked dress of sky blue with long sleeves puckered at the shoulders, and her hair heaped on the top of her head. She had been the grandmother of Aunt Queen, and I always saw a certain likeness in these portraits, in the eyes and the shape of the faces, though others claimed they could not. But then. . .

  And they had more than casual associations for me, these portraits, especially that of Virginia Lee. Aunt Queen I had still with me. But Virginia Lee. . . I shuddered but repressed those alien memories of ghosts and grotesqueries. Too much was taking my mind by storm.

  "Yes, why not your home, and the repository of your ancestors' treasures?" Lestat remarked innocently. "I don't understand. "

  "Well, when I was growing up," I said in answer to his question, "my grandma and grandpa were living then, and this was a sort of hotel. A bed-and-breakfast was what they called it. But they served dinner down here in the dining room as well. Lots of tourists came up this way to spend some time in it. We still have the Christmas banquet every year, with singers who stand on the staircase for the final caroling, while the guests gather here in the hall. It all seems very useful at times like that. This last year I had a midnight Easter banquet as well, just so I could attend it. "

  A sense of the past shook me, frightening me with its vitality. I pressed on, guiltily trying to wring something from the earliest memories. What right had I to good times now, or memories?

  "I love the singers," I said. "I used to cry with my grandparents when the soprano sang 'O Holy Night. ' Blackwood Manor seems powerful at such times -- a place to alter people's lives. You can tell I'm still very caught up in it. "

  "How does it alter people's lives?" he asked quickly, as if the idea had hooked him.

  "Oh, there've been so many weddings here. " My voice caught. Weddings. A hideous memory, a recent memory overshot all, a shameful awful memory --blood, her gown, the
taste of it -- but I forced it out of my mind. I went on:

  "I remember lovely weddings, and anniversary banquets. I remember a picnic on the lawn for an elderly man who had just turned ninety. I remember people coming back to visit the site where they'd been married. " Again came that stabbing recollection -- a bride, a bride covered in blood. My head swam.

  You little fool, you've killed her. You weren't supposed to kill her, and look at her white dress.

  I wouldn't think of it yet. I couldn't be crippled with it yet. I'd confess it all to Lestat, but not yet.

  I had to continue. I stammered. I managed.

  "Somewhere there's an old guest book with a broken quill pen crushed in it, full of comments by those who came and went and came again. They're still coming. It's a flame that hasn't gone out. "

  He nodded and smiled faintly as though this pleased him. He looked again at the portrait of Virginia Lee.

  A vague shimmer passed over me. Had the portrait changed? Vague imaginings that her lovely blue eyes looked down at me. But she would never come to life for me now, would she? Of course she wouldn't. Hers had been a famous virtue and magnanimity. What would she have to do with me now?

  "And these days," I pressed on, fastening to my little narrative, "I find myself cherishing this house desperately, and cherishing as well all my mortal connections. My Aunt Queen I cherish above all. But there are others, others who must never know what I am. "

  He studied me patiently, as if pondering these things.

  "Your conscience is tuned like a violin," he said pensively. "Do you really like having them here, the strangers, the Christmas and Easter guests, under your own roof?"

  "It's cheerful," I admitted. "There's always light and movement. There are voices and the dull vibration of the busy stairs. Sometimes guests complain -- the grits is watery or the gravy is lumpy -- and in the old days, my grandmother Sweetheart would cry over those complaints, and my grandfather -- Pops, we all called him -- would privately slam his fist down on the kitchen table; but in the main, the guests love the place. . .

  ". . . And now and then it can be lonesome here, melancholy and dismal, no matter how bright the chandeliers. I think that when my grandparents died and that part of it was all over I felt a. . . a deep depression that seemed linked to Blackwood Manor, though I couldn't leave it, and wouldn't of my own accord. "

  He nodded at these words as though he understood them. He was looking at me as surely as I was looking at him. He was appraising me as surely as I appraised him.

  I was thinking how very attractive he was, I couldn't stop myself, with his yellow hair so thick and long, turning so gracefully at the collar of his coat, and his large probing violet eyes. There are very few creatures on earth who have true violet eyes. The slight difference between his eyes meant nothing. His sun-browned skin was flawless. What he saw in me with his questioning gaze, I couldn't know.

  "You know, you can roam about this house," I said, still vaguely shocked that I had his interest, the words spilling anxiously from me again. "You can roam from room to room, and there are ghosts. Sometimes even the tourists see the ghosts. "

  "Did that scare them?" he asked with genuine curiosity.

  "Oh, no, they're too gung ho to be in a haunted house. They love it. They see things where there are no things. They ask to be left alone in haunted rooms. "

  He laughed silently.

  "They claim to hear bells ring that aren't ringing," I went on, smiling back at him, "and they smell coffee when there is no coffee, and they catch the drift of exotic perfumes. Now and then there was a tourist or two who was genuinely frightened, in fact there were several in the bed-and-board days who packed up immediately, but in the main, the reputation of the place sold it. And then, of course, there were those who actually saw ghosts. "

  "And you, you do see the ghosts," he said.

  "Yes," I answered. "Most of the ghosts are weak things, hardly more than vapor, but there are exceptions. . . " I hesitated. I was lost for a moment. I felt my words might trigger some awful apparition, but I wanted so to confide in him. Stumbling, I went on:

  "Yes, extraordinary exceptions. . . " I broke off.

  "I want you to tell me," he said. "You have a room upstairs, don't you? A quiet place where we can talk. But I sense someone else in this house. "

  He glanced towards the hallway.

  "Yes, Aunt Queen in the back bedroom," I said. "It won't take more than a moment for me to see her. "

  "That's a curious name, Aunt Queen," he remarked, his smile brightening again. "It's divinely southern, I think. Will you take me to see her as well?"

  "Absolutely," I answered, without the hesitation of common sense. "Lorraine McQueen is her name, and everyone hereabouts calls her Miss Queen or Aunt Queen. "

  We went into the hallway together and once again he glanced up at the curving stairs.

  I led him back past it, his boots sounding sharp on the marble, and I brought him to the open door of Aunt Queen's room.

  There she was, my darling, quite resplendent, and very busy, and not in the least disturbed by our approach.

  She sat at her marble table just to the right of her dressing table, the whole making the L in which she was most happy. The nearby floor lamp as well as the frilly lights on the dressing table illuminated her wonderfully, and she had her dozens of cameos out before her on the marble and her bone-handled magnifying glass in her right hand.

  She seemed dreadfully frail in her white quilted satin robe, with its buckled belt around her tiny waist, her throat wrapped well in a white silk scarf tucked into her lapels, over which rested her favorite necklace of diamonds and pearls. Her soft gray hair was curled naturally around her face, and her small eyes were full of an exuberant spirit as she studied the cameos at hand. Under the table, and where her robe was parted, I could see that she wore her perilous pink-sequined high-heeled shoes. I wanted to lecture. Ever a danger, those spike-heeled shoes.

  Aunt Queen seemed the perfect name for her, and I felt an instinctive pride in her, that she had been the guardian angel of my life. I had no fear of her recognizing anything abnormal in Lestat, what with his tanned skin, except perhaps his excessive beauty. And I was happy with the moment beyond words.

  The whole room made a lovely picture as I tried to see it the way that Lestat must see it, what with the canopied bed to the far left. It had only recently been redone in scallops of rose-colored satin, ornamented with darker braid, and it was made up already, which wasn't always the case, with the heavy satin cover and pillow shams and other decorative pillows in a heap. The rose damask couch and scattered armchairs matched the hangings of the bed.

  Jasmine was there in the shadows, our lifelong housekeeper, whose silky dark skin and fine features made her a special beauty, just as surely as Aunt Queen. She looked uncommonly sharp in her red sheath dress and high heels, with a string of pearls around her neck. I'd given her those pearls, hadn't I?

  Jasmine gave me a little wave, and then went back to straightening small items on the bedside table, and as Aunt Queen looked up and greeted me, crying "Quinn!" with a little touch of ecstasy, Jasmine stopped her work and came forward, slipping right past us out of the room.

  I wanted to hug Jasmine. It had been nights since I'd seen her. But I was afraid. Then I thought, no, I'm going to do it for as long as I can do it, and I've fed and I'm warm. A greedy sense of goodness overcame me, that I wasn't damned. I felt too much love. I stepped back and caught Jasmine in my arms.

  She was beautifully built, and her skin was a lovely color of milk chocolate and her eyes were hazel and her hair extremely woolly, and always beautifully bleached yellow and close-cropped to her very round head.

  "Ah, that's my Little Boss," she said as she hugged me in return. We were in the shadows of the hallway. "My mysterious Little Boss," she went on, pressing me tight against her bosom so that her head was against my chest. "My wandering Little Boy, whom I scarcely ever see at all. "
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  "You're my girlfriend forever," I whispered, kissing the top of her head. In this close company, the blood of the dead was serving me well. And besides, I was hopeful and slightly crazy.

  "You come in here, Quinn," called out Aunt Queen, and Jasmine softly let me go and she went towards the rear door.

  "Ah, you have a friend with you," said Aunt Queen as I obeyed her, Lestat at my side. The room was warmer than the rest of the house.

  Aunt Queen's voice was ageless, if not actually youthful, and she spoke with a clear commanding diction.

  "I'm so pleased you have company," she said. "And what a fine strapling of a youth you are," she said to Lestat, satirizing herself ever so delightfully. "Come here so I can see you. Ah, but you are handsome. Come into the light. "

  "And you, my dear lady, are a vision," Lestat said, his French accent thickening just a tiny bit as if for emphasis, and, leaning over the marble table with its random cameos, he bent to kiss her hand.

  She was a vision, there was no doubt of it, her face warm and pretty for all its years. It wasn't gaunt so much as naturally angular, and her thinning lips were neatly brightened with rose lipstick, and her eyes, in spite of the fine wrinkles around them, were still vividly blue. The diamonds and pearls on her breast were stunning, and she wore several rich diamond rings on her long hands.

  The jewels as always seemed part of her power and dignity, as if age had given her strong advantage, and a sweet femininity seemed to characterize her as well.

  "Over here, Little Boy," she said to me.

  I went to her side and bent down to receive her kiss on my cheek. That had been my custom ever since I'd grown to the staggering height of six foot four, and she often took hold of my head and teasingly refused to let me go. This time, she didn't do it. She was too distracted by the alluring creature standing before her table, with his cordial smile.

  "And look at your coat," she said to Lestat, "how marvelous. Why, it's a wide-skirted frock coat. Wherever did you get it, and the cameo buttons, how perfect. Will you come here this very minute and let me see them? You can see that I've a positive mania for cameos. And now as the years have gone by, I think of little else. "

  Lestat came round the table as I moved away. I was frightened suddenly, very frightened, that she would sense something about him, but no sooner had this thought gripped me than I realized he had the situation entirely under his command.

  Hadn't another Blood Drinker, my Maker, charmed Aunt Queen in the same manner? Why the hell should I be so afraid?

  As she examined the buttons, remarking that each was a different muse of the Grecian Nine Muses, Lestat was beaming down on her as if he were genuinely smitten, and I loved him for it. Because Aunt Queen was the person I loved most in all the world. Having the two of them together was a little more than I could bear.

  "Yes, a real true frock coat," she said.

  "Well, I'm a musician, Madam," Lestat said to her. "You know in this day and age a rock musician can wear a frock coat if he wishes, and so I indulge myself. I'm theatrical and incorrigible. A regular beast when it comes to the exaggerated and the eccentric. I like to clear all obstacles when I enter a room, and I have a perfect mania for antique things. "

  "Yes, you're so right to have it," she said, exulting in him obviously, as he stepped back and joined me where I stood before the table. "My two handsome boys," she remarked. "You do know that Quinn's mother is a singer, though what kind of a singer I'm not quite prepared to say. "

  Lestat didn't know, and he gave me a curious glance and a slight teasing smile.

  "Country music," I said quickly. "Patsy Blackwood is her name. She's got a powerful voice. "

  "Very much diluted country music," said Aunt Queen with a vague tone of disapproval. "I think she calls it country pop, and that can account for a lot. She has a good voice, however, and she writes occasional lyrics that aren't too bad. She's good at a sort of mournful ballad, almost Celtic, though she doesn't know it -- but you know, a little minor-key bluegrass sound is what she really likes to do, and if she did what she likes to do rather than what she thinks she ought to do she might have the very fame she so desires. " Aunt Queen sighed.

  I marveled, not only at the wisdom of what she'd said, but at the curious disloyalty, because Aunt Queen was never one to criticize her own flesh and blood. But something seemed to have been stirred inside her by Lestat's gaze. Perhaps he had worked a vague charm, and she was giving forth her deepest thoughts.

  "But you, young man," she said, "I'm your Aunt Queen from now on and forever, certainly; but what is your name?"

  "Lestat, Madam," he answered, pronouncing it "Les-dot," with the accent on the second syllable. "I'm not really very famous either. And I don't sing anymore at all actually, except to myself when I'm driving my black Porsche madly or riding my motorcycle at a raging speed on the roads. Then I'm a regular Pavarotti --. "

  "Oh, but you mustn't go speeding!" Aunt Queen declared with a sudden attack of pure seriousness. "That's how I lost my husband, John McQueen. It was a new Bugatti, you know what a Bugatti is" (Lestat nodded), "and he was so proud of it, his fine European sports car, and we were racing down the Pacific Coast Highway One, and on an unclouded summer day, screeching around the turns, down to Big Sur, and he lost control of the wheel and went right through the windshield. Dead like that. And I came to my senses with a crowd around me, only inches from a cliff that went sheer down into the sea. "

  "Appalling," said Lestat earnestly. "Was it very long ago?"

  "Of course, decades ago, when I was foolish enough to do such things," said Aunt Queen, "and I never remarried; we Blackwoods, we don't remarry. And John McQueen left me a fortune, some consolation, I've never found another like him, with so much passion and so many happy delusions, but then I never much looked. " She shook her head at the pity of it. "But that's a dreary subject, all that, he's buried in the Blackwood tomb in the Metairie Cemetery; we have a large tomb there, an inspiring little chapel of a tomb, and I'll soon be in it too. "

  "Oh, my God, no," I whispered, with a little too much fear.

  "You hush now," she said, glancing up at me. "And Lestat, my darling Lestat, tell me about your clothes, your odd and bold taste. I love it. I must confess that to picture you in that frock coat, rushing along on a motorcycle, is quite amusing, to be sure. "

  "Well Madam," he said, laughing softly, "my longing for the stage and the microphone is gone, but I won't give up the fancy clothes. I can't give them up. I'm the prisoner of capricious fashion and am actually quite plain tonight. I think nothing of piling on the lace and the diamond cuff links, and I envy Quinn that snappy leather coat he's wearing. You could call me a Goth, I think. " He glanced at me very naturally, as though we were both simple humans. "Don't they call us snappy antique dressers Goth now, Quinn?"

  "I think they do," I said, trying to catch up.

  This little speech of his made Aunt Queen laugh and laugh. She had forgotten John McQueen, who had in fact died a long time ago into stories. "What an unusual name, Lestat," she returned. "Does it have a meaning?"

  "None whatsoever, Madam," Lestat answered. "If memory serves me right, and it does less and less, the name's compounded of the first letter of each of my six older brothers' names, all of whom -- the brothers and their names -- I grew up to cheerfully and vigorously despise. "

  Again, Aunt Queen laughed, plainly surprised and utterly seduced. "Seventh son," she said. "Now that confers a certain power and I'm deeply respecting of it. And you speak with a ready eloquence. You seem a fine and invigorating friend for Quinn. "

  "That's my ambition, to be his fine friend," said Lestat immediately and sincerely, "but don't let me intrude. "

  "Never even think of it," Aunt Queen offered. "You're welcome under my roof. I like you. I know I do. And you, Quinn, where have you been of late?"

  "Round and about, Aunt Queen," I answered. "Bad as Patsy in my roamings, round and about -- I don't know. "

"And have you brought me a cameo?" she asked. "This is our custom, Lestat," she explained, and then: "It's been a week since you have been in this room, Tarquin Blackwood. I want my cameo. You must have one. I won't let you off the hook. "

  "Oh, yes, you know I almost forgot about it," I said. (And with reason!) I felt in my right-hand coat pocket for a little tissue-covered package that I'd put there nights ago. "It's from New York, this one, a lovely shell cameo. "

  I unwrapped the paper and put it before her in all its glory, one of the largest shell cameos that she would own. The image was from the white strata of the shell, naturally, and the background a dark pink. The cameo was a perfect oval with a particularly exquisite scalloped frame of heavy 24-carat gold.

  "Medusa," she said, with obvious satisfaction, identifying the woman's profile at once by her winged head and the wild snakes for hair. "And so large and so sharply carved. "

  "Fearsome," I said. "The best Medusa I've ever seen. Note the height of the wing, and a bit of the orange strata on the wing tip. I meant to bring it sooner. I wish that I had. "

  "Oh, there's no point to that, my darling," she said. "Don't regret it when you don't come to see me. I think I'm timeless. You're here now and you've remembered me. That's what counts. " She looked up to Lestat eagerly. "You know the story of Medusa, don't you?" she asked.

  Lestat hesitated, only smiling, obviously wanting her to speak more than he wanted to speak himself. He looked rather radiant in his rapture with her, and she was beaming back.

  "Once beautiful, then turned into a monster," said Aunt Queen, clearly enjoying the moment immensely. "With a face that could turn men to stone. Perseus sought her by her reflection in his polished shield, and once he'd slain her the winged horse Pegasus was born from the drops of blood that fell to earth from her severed head. "

  "And it was that head," said Lestat confidingly, "that Athena then emblazoned on her shield. "

  "You're so very right," said Aunt Queen.

  "A charm against harm," said Lestat softly. "That's what she became once beheaded. Another wondrous transformation, I think -- beauty to monster, monster to charm. "

  "Yes, you're right on all counts," said Aunt Queen. "A charm against harm," she repeated. "Here, come, Quinn, help me take off these heavy diamonds," she said, "and get a gold chain for me. I want to wear Medusa on my neck. "

  It was a simple matter to do as she asked. I came around directly to the dressing table and removed the diamonds from her, giving her a sly kiss on the cheek, and put the diamond necklace in its customary leather box. This always sat atop her dressing table on the right-hand side. The gold chains were in a box in the top drawer, each in its plastic pouch.

  From these I chose a strong chain of bright 24-carat gold, and one that would give her a snug but good fit. I threaded it through the bail attached to the cameo, and then put the chain around her neck for her and snapped the clasp.

  After another quick couple of kisses, very powdery and rather like kissing a person made of pure white confectioners' sugar, I came around in front of her again. The cameo was perfectly nested against the full gathered silk of the scarf and looked both imposing and rich.

  "I have to admit," I said of my new purchase, "it is really quite a trophy. Medusa is her wicked self in this one, not just a pretty winged girl with snakes, and that's rare. "

  "Yes," said Lestat agreeably, "and so much stronger is the charm. "

  "You think so?" Aunt Queen asked him. For all her dignity, the cameo befitted her more than the roaring diamonds. "You're a curious young man," she went on to Lestat. "You speak slowly and reflectively, and the timbre of your voice is deep. I like it. Quinn was a bookworm and swallowed mythology by the mouthful, once he could read, and, mind you, that wasn't until very late. But you, how do you know about mythology, for surely you do? And obviously something about cameos, or so I judge by your coat. "

  "Knowledge drifts in and out of my mind," said Lestat with a little look of honest distress and a shake of his head. "I devour it and then I lose it and sometimes I can't reach for any knowledge that I ought to possess. I feel desolate, but then knowledge returns or I seek it out in a new source. "

  How they connected, the two of them, it was amazing to me. And then I felt a stab of bitter memory again, of my Maker, that appalling presence, that damnable presence, once connecting with Aunt Queen in this very room and in the very same easy way. The subject had been cameos then too. Cameos. But this was Lestat, not my Maker, this was not that loathsome being. This was my hero under my roof.

  "But you love books, then," Aunt Queen was saying. I had to listen.

  "Oh, yes," Lestat said. "Sometimes they're the only thing that keeps me alive. "

  "What a thing to say at your age," she laughed.

  "No, but one can feel desperate at any age, don't you think? The young are eternally desperate," he said frankly. "And books, they offer one hope -- that a whole universe might open up from between the covers, and falling into that new universe, one is saved. "

  "Oh, yes, I think so, I really do," Aunt Queen responded, almost gleefully. "It ought to be that way with people and sometimes it is. Imagine -- each new person an entire universe. Do you think we can allow that? You're clever and keen. "

  "I think we don't want to allow it," Lestat responded. "We're too jealous, and fearful. But we should allow it, and then our existence would be wondrous as we went from soul to soul. "

  Aunt Queen laughed gaily.

  "Oh, but you are a specimen," she said. "Wherever did you come from? Oh, I wish that Quinn's teacher Nash was here. He'd so enjoy you. Or that little Tommy wasn't away at school. Tommy is Quinn's uncle, which is slightly misleading since Tommy is only fourteen, and then there's Jerome. Where's little Jerome? Probably fast asleep. Ah, we'll have to make do with only me --. "

  "But tell me if you will, Miss Queen," asked Lestat, "why do you love the cameos so much? These buttons, I can't claim to have chosen them with much care, or to have been obsessed with them. I didn't know they were the Nine Muses until you told me, and for that I'm in your debt. But you have here a fine love affair. How did it come about?"

  "Can't you see with your own eyes?" she asked. She offered him a shell cameo of the Three Graces and he held it up, inspecting it, and then he laid it down reverently before her again.

  "They're works of art," said Aunt Queen, "of a special sort. They're pictures, complete little pictures, that's what matters. Small, intricate and intense. Let's use your metaphor of the entire universe again; that's what you find in many of these. "

  She was in a rapture.

  "One can wear them," she said, "but it doesn't cheapen them to do it. You yourself just spoke of the charm. " She touched the Medusa at her breast. "And of course I find something unique in every one I acquire. In fact, there's infinite variety in cameos. Here, look," she said, handing Lestat another example. "You see, it's a mythical scene of Hercules fighting a bull, and there is a goddess behind him and a graceful female figure in front. I've never seen another like it, though I have hundreds of mythological scenes. "

  "They are intense, yes," said Lestat. "I see your point completely, and it's truly divine, yes. "

  She looked about for a moment and then picked up another large shell cameo and offered it to him.

  "Now that's Rebecca at the Well," she said. "A common scene depicted on cameos, and coming from the Bible, don't you know, from the book of Genesis, when Abraham sent a messenger to find a wife for his son Isaac, and Rebecca came out to greet this messenger at the village well. "

  "Yes, I know the story," Lestat said quietly. "And it's an excellent cameo too. "

  She looked at him eagerly, as much into his eyes as at his hands, with their lustrous fingernails.

  "That was one of the first cameos I ever saw," she said, taking it back from him, "and it was with Rebecca at the Well that my collection began. I was given ten altogether of that exact same theme, Rebecca at the Well, though all were di
fferent in their carvings, and I have them all here. There's a story to it, to be sure. "

  He was obviously curious, and seemed to possess all the time in the world.

  "Tell me," he said simply.

  "Oh, but how I have behaved!" she suddenly remarked, "allowing you to stand there as if you were bad boys brought before the principal. Forgive me, you must sit down. Oh, but I am witless to be so remiss in my own boudoir! For shame!"

  I was about to object, to declare it unnecessary, but I saw that Lestat wanted to know her, and she was having such a wonderful time.

  "Quinn," she declared, "you bring those two chairs here. We'll make a cozy circle, Lestat, if I'm to tell a tale. "

  I knew there was no arguing. Besides, I was painfully stimulated that these two liked each other. I was crazy again.

  As to the chairs, I did as I was told, crossing the room, taking up two of the straight-back chairs from Aunt Queen's round writing table between the back windows, and setting the chairs down right where we had stood so that we could face her again.

  She took the plunge:

  "It came about in this very room, my introduction to the passion for the cameo," she said, her eyes flitting over both of us and then fixing firmly on Lestat. "I was nine years old then and my grandfather was dying in here, a dreadful old man, Manfred Blackwood, the great monster of our history, the man who built this house, a man of whom everybody was afraid. My father, his only living son, William, tried to keep me away from him, but one day when the old beast was alone he saw me peeping in at that door.

  "He ordered me to come inside and I was too afraid not to do it, and curious besides. He was sitting here where I am now, only there was no fancy dressing table here. Just his easy chair, and he sat in it, with a blanket over his lap, and both his hands on his silver-knobbed cane. His face was stubbly with his rough beard, and he wore a bib of sorts, and dribbled from the edge of his mouth.

  "Oh, what a curse to live to that age to be slobbering as he was, like a bulldog. I think of a bulldog every time I think of him. And mind you, a sickroom in those days, no matter how well attended, wasn't what a sickroom is today! It reeked, I tell you. If I ever become that old and start to slobber, Quinn has my express permission to blow my brains out with my own pearl-handled gun, or to sink me with morphine! Remember that, Little Boy. "

  "Of course," I rejoined, winking at her.

  "Oh, you little devil, I'm serious -- you can't imagine how revolting it can be, and all I ask is permission to say my Rosary before you execute the sentence, and then I'll be gone. " She looked at the cameos and then about herself and back to Lestat.

  "The Old Man, yes, the Old Man," she said, "and he was staring blankly into nothing before he saw me, mumbling to himself until he started to mumble to me. There was a little chest of drawers beside him where it was rumored he kept his money, but how I knew this I don't now recall.

  "As I was saying, the old reprobate told me to come in, and then he unlocked the top drawer of this chest and he took out a small velvet box and, letting his cane fall over on the floor, he put the box in my hands. 'Open that up and hurry,' he said. 'Because you're my only granddaughter and I want you to have it, and your mother is too foolish to want it. I said hurry up. ¡¯

  "Well, I did precisely what he told me, and inside were all these cameos, and I thought they were fascinating with all their tiny little people on them and their frames of gold.

  " 'Rebecca at the Well,' he said. 'All of them of the same story, Rebecca at the Well. ' And then, 'If they tell you I murdered her they're telling you the truth. She couldn't be satisfied with cameos and diamonds and pearls, not that one. I killed her, or more truthfully, and it's time for the truth, I dragged her to her death. ¡¯

  "Of course I was awestruck by his words," said Aunt Queen, "but instead of being suspicious and horrified, I was impressed that he was addressing these words to me. And he went on talking, the slobber coming down the side of his mouth to his chin. I should have helped him wipe his face, but I was too young to do anything as compassionate as that.

  " 'Those were the old days,' he said to me, 'and she wore those high-collared lace blouses, and the cameos looked so very precious at her throat. She was so precious when I first brought her here. They're all so precious in the beginning and then they turn rotten. Except my poor dead Virginia Lee. My lovely, unforgettable Virginia Lee. Would she had lived forever, my own Virginia Lee. But the others, rotten, I tell you, greedy and rotten every time.

  " 'But she was the worst of all my disappointments,' he told me, fixing me with his mean eyes. 'Rebecca, and Rebecca at the Well,' he said. 'It was he who gave me the first cameo for her, when he'd heard her name, telling me the story of it, and he that brought several more, all of Rebecca, all gifts for her, he said, he being the evil spy that he was, ever watching us; they all came from him, all these cameos, if truth be known, from him, though there's no taint on it, and you're just a child. ' "

  Aunt Queen paused, appealing to Lestat mutely to assure herself, I think, that she had an audience, and then when she saw that both of us were rapt, she went on.

  "I remember all those words," she said, "and in my girl's heart I wanted the enchanting cameos, of course. I wanted them, the whole box! And so I held it tight as he went on, barking his words, or maybe even gnashing them out, it's hard to say. 'She grew to love the cameos,' the old beast said, 'as long as she could still dream and be content at the same time. But women aren't gifted with contentment. And it was he that killed her for me, a bloody sacrifice, that's what she was, an offering up to him, you might say and I would say, but I was the one who dragged her to it. And it wasn't the first time that I'd taken some poor misshapen soul to those bloody chains, to be sure. ' "

  I shivered. These words sounded a deep dark chord in me. I had a passel of secrets that weighed on me like so many stones. I couldn't do anything except listen in a vague spell as she went on.

  "I remembered those words 'to those bloody chains,' " said Aunt Queen, "and all his other words as he yammered away: 'She gave me no choice, if the truth be known. ' He was almost bellowing. 'Now you take those cameos and wear them, no matter what you think of me. I have something there sweet and costly to give you, and you're just a little girl and my grandchild, and that's what I wish it to be. ¡¯

  "Of course, I didn't know how to answer him," Aunt Queen went on. "I don't think for a moment I believed he was a real murderer, and I certainly didn't know of this strange accomplice to whom he referred, this he, of whom he spoke with such mystery, and I never did find out who the man was, not to this very day. But he knew. And he continued as if I'd lanced a wound. 'You know, I confess it, over and over,' he said, 'to the priest and to the sheriff, and neither believes me, and the sheriff just says she's been gone some thirty-five years and I'm imagining, and as for him, what if his gold built this house; he's a liar and a cheat and he's left me this house as a prison, as a mausoleum, and I can't go any longer to him, though I know he's out there, he's out there on Sugar Devil Island, I can feel him, I can feel his eyes on me in the night when he comes near. I can't catch him. I never could. And I can't go out there anymore to curse him to his face, I'm too old now, and too weak.

  "Oh, it was a powerful mystery," said Aunt Queen. " 'What if his gold built this house?' I kept it secret what he'd said. I didn't want my mother to take the cameos away. She wasn't a Blackwood, of course, and that's what they always said of her, 'She's not a Blackwood,' as though that explained her intelligence and common sense. But the point was, my room upstairs was full of clutter. It was an easy thing to hide the cameos away. I'd take them out at night and look at them and they bewitched me. And so my obsession began.

  "Now, my grandfather did within a few months' time get right up out of this room and stagger down to the landing and put himself right into a pirogue and row off with a pole into Sugar Devil Swamp. Of course the farmhands were hollering at him to stop, but he went off and vanished. And no one ever saw
him again, ever. He was forever gone. "

  A stealthy trembling had come over me, a trembling of the heart perhaps more than the body. I watched her, and her words ran as if written on ribbons being pulled through my mind.

  She shook her head. She moved the cameo of Rebecca at the Well with her left hand. I could no more dare to read her mind than I would to strike her or say a cross word to her. I waited in love and full of old dread.

  Lestat seemed quietly entranced, waiting on her to speak again, which she did:

  "Of course eventually they declared him officially dead, and long before that, when they were still searching for him -- though no one knew how to get to the island, no one ever even found the island -- I told my mother all he'd said. She told my father. But they knew nothing of the old man's murder confession or his strange accomplice, the mysterious he, only that Grandfather left behind him plenty of money in numerous deposit boxes in various banks.

  "Now maybe if my father had not been such a simple and practical man he would have looked into it, but he didn't and neither did my aunt, Manfred's only other child. They didn't see ghosts, those two. " She made this remark as if Lestat would naturally regard this as peculiar. "And they had a strong sense, both of them, that Blackwood Farm should be worked and should pay. They passed that on to my brother Gravier, Quinn's great-grandfather, and he passed it on to Thomas, Quinn's grandfather, and that was what those men did, the three of them, work, work, work Blackwood Farm all the time, and so did their wives, always in the kitchen, always loving you with food, that's what they were like. My father, my brother and my nephew were all real countrymen.

  "But there was always money, money from the Old Man, and everybody knew he'd left a fortune, and it wasn't the milk cows and the tung oil trees that made the house so splendid. It was the money that my grandfather had left. In those days people really didn't ask where you got your money. The government didn't care as they do in this day and age. When this house finally fell to me, I searched through all the records, but I couldn't find any mention of the mysterious he, or a partner of any sort, in my grandfather's affairs. "

  She sighed and then, glancing at Lestat's eager face, she continued, her voice tripping a little faster as the past opened up.

  "Now, regarding the beautiful Rebecca, my father did have terrible memories of her, and so did my aunt. Rebecca had been a scandalous companion to my grandfather, brought into this very house, after his saint of a wife, Virginia Lee, had died. An evil stepmother if ever there was one, was this Rebecca, too young to be maternal, and violently mean to my father and my aunt, who were just little children, and mean as well to everyone else.

  "They said that at the dinner table, to which she was allowed to come in all her obvious impropriety, she'd sing out my poor Aunt Camille's private verses just to show her she'd snuck into her room and read them, and one night, gentle though she was, Aunt Camille Blackwood rose up and threw an entire bowl of hot soup in Rebecca's face. "

  Aunt Queen paused to sigh at this old violence and then went on:

  "They all hated Rebecca, or so the story went. My poor Aunt Camille. She might have been another Emily Dickinson or Emily Bront? if that evil Rebecca hadn't sung out her poetry. My poor Aunt Camille, she tore it all up after those eyes had seen it and those lips had spoken it and never wrote another verse again. She cut off her long hair for spite and burnt it up in the grate.

  "But one day, after many another agonizing dinner-table struggle, this evil Rebecca did disappear. And, with no one loving her, no one wanted to know why or how. Her clothes were found in the attic, Jasmine says, and so says Quinn. Imagine it. A trunk or two of Rebecca's clothes. Quinn's examined them. Quinn's brought down more cameos from them. Quinn insists we keep them. I'd never have had them brought down. I'm too superstitious for that. And the chains!. . . "

  She stole an intimate and meaningful glance at me. Rebecca's clothes. The shiver in me was relentless.

  Aunt Queen sighed, and, looking down and then up at me again, she whispered:

  "Forgive me, Quinn, that I talk as much as I do. And especially of Rebecca. I don't mean to upset you with those old tales of Rebecca. We best have done with Rebecca perhaps. Why not make a bonfire of her clothes, Quinn? You think it's cold enough in this room, what with the air-conditioning, for us to light a real fire in the grate?" She laughed it off as soon as she'd uttered it.

  "Does this talk upset you, Quinn?" Lestat asked in a small voice.

  "Aunt Queen," I declared. "Nothing you say could ever sit wrong with me, don't be afraid of it. I talk all the time of ghosts and spirits," I continued. "Why should I be upset that anyone talks of real things, of Rebecca, when she was very much alive and cruel to everyone? Or of Aunt Camille and her lost poems. I don't think my friend here knows how much I came to know Rebecca. But I'll tell him if he wants to hear another tale or two later on. "

  Lestat nodded and made some small sound of assent. "I'm very ready for it," he said.

  "It seems when a person sees ghosts, for whatever reason, he has to talk of it," said Aunt Queen. "And surely I should understand. "

  Something opened in me rather suddenly.

  "Aunt Queen, you know my talk of ghosts and spirits more truly than anyone except Stirling Oliver," I said calmly. "I'm speaking of my old friend of the Talamasca because he did know too. And whatever your judgment of me, you've always been gentle and respecting, which I appreciate with all my heart --. "

  "Of course," she said quickly and decisively.

  "But do you really believe what I told you of Rebecca's ghost?" I asked. "I can't tell even now. People find a million ways not to believe our ghost stories. And people vary in their fascination as to ghosts, and I have never been very sure of where you stand. Now's a good time to ask, isn't it, when I have you in the storytelling mood. "

  I was reddening, I knew it, and my voice had a break in it which I didn't like. Oh, the thunder of ghosts and their aftermath. Let it distract me from Stirling Oliver in my lethal arms and the bloody bride lying on the bed. Blunders, blunders!

  "Where I stand," she said with a sigh, looking directly from Lestat to me and back again. "Why, your friend here is going to think he's entered a house of lunatics if we don't break off with this. But Quinn, tell me now that you haven't gone back to the Talamasca. Nothing will upset me so much as that. I'll rue the night I ever told such stories to you and your friend if it sends you back to them. "

  "No, Aunt Queen," I answered. But I knew I had reached my limit as to how much I could conceal if this painful conversation went on. I tried to rejoice again quietly in the fact that we were all together, but my mind was jumbled with frightening images. I was sitting very still, trying to keep all tight in my heart.

  "Don't go into that swamp, Quinn," Aunt Queen said, abruptly appealing to me, as if from the core of her being. "Don't go to that accursed Sugar Devil Island. I know your adventuresome spirit, Quinn. Don't be proud of your discovery. Don't go. You must stay away from that place. "

  I was hurt through no fault of hers. I prayed I could soon confess to Lestat or someone in this world that her warnings were now too late. They had been timely once, but a veil had fallen over all the past, with its impetuosity and sense of invincibility. The mysterious he was no mystery whatsoever to me.

  "Don't think about it, Aunt Queen," I said as gently as I could. "What did your father tell you? That there was no devil in Sugar Devil Swamp. "

  "Ah, yes, Quinn," she responded, "but then my father never set out in a pirogue in those dark waters to roam that island as you do. Nobody ever found that island before you, Quinn. That wasn't my father's nature, and it wasn't your grandfather's nature to do anything so impractical himself. Oh, he hunted near the banks and trapped the crawfish, and we do that now. But he never went in search of that island, and I want you to put it behind you now. "

  Keenly, I felt her need of me, as vividly as if I'd never felt it before.

  "I love you too much to leave
you," I said quickly, the words rolling from me before I thought of precisely what they meant. And then as suddenly: "I'll never leave you, I swear it. "

  "My dear, my lovely dear," she said, musing, her left hand playing with the cameos, lining up Rebecca at the Well, one, two, three, four and five.

  "They have no taint, Aunt Queen," I said looking at those particular cameos, remembering discordantly but quite definitely that a ghost can wear a cameo. I wondered, Did a ghost have a choice? Did a ghost pillage its trunks in the attic?

  Aunt Queen nodded and smiled. "My boy, my beautiful Little Boy," she said. Then she looked to Lestat again. His demeanor, his kindliness towards her had not changed one jot.

  "You know, Lestat, I can't travel anymore," she said quite seriously, her words saddening me. "And sometimes I have the horrid thought that my life is finished. I must realize that I'm eighty-five. I can't wear my beloved high heels any longer, at least not out of this room. "

  She looked down at her feet, which we could still plainly see, at the vicious sequined shoes of which she was so proud.

  "It's even an undertaking to go into New Orleans to the jewelers who know I'm a collector," she pressed on. "Though I have out back at all times the biggest stretch limousine imaginable, certainly the biggest limousine in the parish, and gentlemen to drive me and accompany me and Jasmine, darling Jasmine of course. But where are you these days, Quinn? It seems if I do wake at a civil hour and make some appointment you can't be found. "

  I was in a haze. It was a night for shame and more shame. I felt as cut off from her as I was near to her, and I thought of Stirling again, of the taste of his blood and how close I had come to swallowing his soul, and I wondered again if Lestat had worked some magic on both of us -- Aunt Queen and me -- to make us feel so totally without guile.

  But I liked it. I trusted Lestat, and a sudden mad thought came to me, that if he was going to hurt me, he would never have gone so far in listening to Aunt Queen.

  Aunt Queen went on with a lovely animation, her voice more pleasant though the words were still sad.

  "And so I sit here with my little talismans," she said, "and I watch my old movies, hoping that Quinn will come, but understanding if he doesn't. " She gestured to the large television to our left. "I try not to think bitterly about my weaknesses. Mine has been a rich, full life. And my cameos make me happy. The pure obsession with them makes me happy. It always has, really. I've collected cameos since that long-ago day. Can you see what I mean?"

  "Yes," said Lestat, "I understand you perfectly. I'm glad that I met you. I'm glad to be received in your house. "

  "That's a quaint way to put it," she said, obviously charmed by him, and her smile brightened and so did her deep-set eyes. "But you are most graciously welcome here. "

  "Thank you, Madam," Lestat replied.

  "Aunt Queen, my darling," she pressed.

  "Aunt Queen, I love you," he responded warmly.

  "You go now, both of you," she said. "Quinn, put the chairs back because you're big and strong, and Jasmine will have to drag them over the carpet, and you are free, both of you, my young ones, and I am so put out that I have ended this spirited conversation on a sad note. "

  "On a grand note," said Lestat, rising, as I took both the chairs easily and returned them to the writing table. "Don't think I haven't been honored by your confidences," he went on. "I've found you a grand lady, if you'll forgive me, an entrancing lady indeed. "

  She broke into a delighted riff of laughter, and as I came around in front of the table again and saw her shoes glittering there as if her feet were immortal and could carry her anywhere, I suddenly detached from all decorum and went down on my knees and bent my lips to kiss her shoes.

  This I had done often with her; in fact, I had caressed her shoes and kissed them to tease her, and liked the feel of her arch in them, and I kissed that too, the thin nylon-covered skin, often and now, but for me to do it in front of Lestat was outrageously amusing to her. And on and on she laughed in a lovely soft high laugh that made me think of a crowded silver belfry against the blue sky gone quite wild.

  As I climbed to my feet, she said:

  "You go on now. I officially release you from attendance. Be off. "

  I went to kiss her again, and her hand on my neck felt so delicate. A ripping sense of mortality weakened me. The words she'd spoken about her age echoed in my ears. And I was aware of a hot mixture of emotions - -that she had always made me feel safe, but now I didn't feel that she herself was safe, and so my sadness was strong.

  Lestat made her a little bow, and we left the room.

  Jasmine was waiting in the hallway, a warm patient shadow, and she asked where in the house I might be. Her sister, Lolly, and their grandmother Big Ramona, were in the kitchen, ready to prepare anything we might want.

  I told her we didn't need anything just now. Not to worry. And that I was going up to my rooms.

  She confirmed for me that Aunt Queen's nurse would come later, a ray of sunshine with a blood-pressure cup by the name of Cindy, with whom Aunt Queen would probably watch the movie of the night, which had already been announced as Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott. Jasmine, Lolly and Big Ramona would of course watch the movie as well.

  If Aunt Queen had her way, and there was no reason to think she couldn't, there might be another couple of nurses in the room for the movie too. It was her habit to make fast friends of her nurses, to inspect photographs of their children, and receive birthday cards from them, and to gather as many such young attendants around her as she could.

  Naturally, she had her own friends, scattered about through the woods and up and down the country roads, in town and out of it, but they were as old as she was and could hardly come out to spend the night with her in her room. Those ladies and gentlemen she met at the country club for luncheon. The night belonged to her and her court.

  That I had been a constant courtier before the Dark Blood was a fact. But since that time I'd come and gone irregularly, a monster among innocents, beleaguered and angered by the scent of blood.

  And so Lestat and I left her, and the night -- though I had almost murdered Stirling, and had fed without conscience on an anonymous woman, and had attended Aunt Queen in her storytelling -- was actually quite young.

  Lestat and I approached the staircase and he made a sign for me to lead the way.

  For a moment I thought I heard the rustle of Goblin. I thought I felt his indefinable presence. I stood stock-still, wishing with all my heart for him to get away from me, as far away from me as if he were Satan.

  Were the curtains of the parlor moving? I thought I heard the faint music of the baubles of the chandeliers. What a concert they could make if they all shivered together. And he had done such tricks, perhaps without deliberation, because he who had once been so silent now came and went with a bit of clumsiness, perhaps more than he could ever know.

  Whatever the case, he was not near me now.

  No spirits, no ghosts. Only the clean cooled air of the house as it came through the vents with the soft sound of a low breeze.

  "He's not with us," said Lestat quietly.

  "You know that for certain?" I asked.

  "No, but you do," he replied.

  He was right.

  I led the way up the curving staircase. I felt sharply that for better or worse, I would now have Lestat to myself.
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