My daughter retired to her chamber early and as the evening drew on, I resumed my station within the Marquis’ own chamber, hoping that my ministrations might prove successful in warding off his torments. After what I had seen the night before upon the windowpane, I wished that there was some sort of curtain that I could draw over the window. Curiously enough, the thought of a pale face hovering against the glass unnerved me more than any fear of supernaturally-induced pain or death.
I must have been wearier than I had imagined, for I lapsed into a light sleep almost as soon as I sat down. My dreams were of a dark, shifting nature and I sensed myself being drawn slowly into a shifting, sinking whirlpool of a thick, yielding material resembling quicksand. As occurs often enough within such dreams, I felt myself lose all sense of balance and was about to jolt awake when something within my dream caught my hand and pulled me upon solid land. The landscape about me was still shadowy and ephemeral, but I felt a sudden lucidity and awareness come over me as I had not experienced before within the dream.
Looking about for some sign of my rescuer, I beheld a man standing close by. He was tall and slight of frame, attired in a dark garment that contrasted with the pallor of his skin. I was struck by the kindly compassion and gentle sorrow within his gaze as he silently regarded me, as well as the subtle, contemplative lineaments that bespoke an otherworldly comeliness within his visage and also a certain implacable command. With the usual irrationality of dreams, I felt a great calm descend upon my soul as though all the evils that lay ahead were as nothing compared to the presence of this being whom I had become convinced must be some sort of holy, succoring spirit. With a sort of desperation, I spoke, asking how I might save the Chateau de Conflans from the evil that had descended upon it as though this spirit alone might have the answer.
He parted his lips as though to reply; then his eyes darkened with a look of both shame and suffering. With a pitying wonder, I realized that the man before me was half-dying with hunger and I grieved that I had nothing to give him with which to ease his agony. Then, with that strange understanding that one often has within dreams, I realized what must be done and I acted as I never would have acted had I not been under the influence of the dream and of a power far greater than my own. Drawing the dagger that hung sheathed at my side, I drew the edge of it across my palm just deeply enough for the blood to leap forth.
He came towards me then and grasped my wrist with fingers as cold and inexorable as steel; yet the look in his eyes before he brought his lips down to my hand was one of such wrenching remorse that tears of pity sprang to my eyes and I did not resist when he began to drink the drops that fell from my palm. At length he ceased and I saw him avert his face for a moment to dab at his lips with the edge of his sleeve; the streaks he left thereon were dark and crimson and I felt a sickness come over me as I watched. Then he turned back towards me, his eyes shining with more than their former languid luster and his cheeks having taken on a slight hint of color other than their previous deathlike pallor. His smile as well held the faintest hint of watchful irony.
His gaze lowered from my stricken eyes to my throat and my hand instinctively sought to shield it. However, as I did so, I touched something cold and hard and my fingers fastened around the tiny shape of the crucifix amulet that I wore about my neck. And of an instant, the glamour that had darkened my perception disappeared to be replaced with a loathly knowledge of what I had done and who it was who stood before me. I slowly unfastened the crucifix and, as he watched with a wary absorption, held it out to the man before me.
“Take this,” I said. “As a token of my estimation – for is the crucifix not your namesake, Clotaire of the Cross?”
He did not blanch or shrink back as I advanced, but seemed rather to be transfixed with a fascinated despair at the approach of the holy symbol. Then he outstretched his hand and with a trembling finger touched the shining surface of the crucifix. He then drew it back with lightning swiftness as though he had touched a hot coal and met my gaze, his eyes shining with a hopeless grief. The whole world about us rippled and billowed about and I felt a great darkness descend over the landscape.
I came awake with a start to find my daughter kneeling before my chair, her face bedewed with tears. Horrified, forgetting the circumstances of my strange dream, I asked her what had happened. She was too distraught to reply immediately and I, being fearful that the Marquis might awaken, led her back to her chamber. To my surprise, I found the bedclothes to be in utter disarray and the casement unlatched and open. After crossing the room and closing the window, I took my crucifix and with trembling fingers pressed it against her brow. When there was no effect, I almost wept with joy, knowing that her soul had not been harmed in any way by whatever evil it had been that had frightened her.
“Father,” she murmured. “You remember the night before when I told you that I believed that someone had entered my chamber?” When I nodded, she continued, “I thought it but a dream as I told you and returned to my bed. But hardly had I drifted to sleep, when I was awakened once again by the sound of my chamber window’s shutters flung open and rattling in the wind. I was about to arise and refasten them when a shadow rose by my bedside and a hand, cold as the moonlight itself, pressed me back against the coverlets. I then heard someone shut the window and the candle by my bedside was lit, albeit with a dimly wavering flame of blue as though the air of my chamber had grown stifling and unhealthy.
“Within its dim light, I beheld the figures of two persons standing at the foot of my bed – a man and a woman. The woman wore a gown dyed a deep, sea-like blue that matched perfectly the ethereal blue of her eyes and her hair was as thick and golden as a lion’s mane and hung flowingly down below her waist. Her full lips held a lovely, ambiguous smile that one could easily interpret as either infinitely cruel or infinitely tender. In contrast to the vibrant glow upon her cheek, the man beside her was pale as though at the point of death and his lips were as livid as though he were overcome by some terrible agony. I saw then that above his right breast, his cloak was drenched with blood as though he had been savagely pierced through the heart by some blade. Like the woman, his eyes harbored that same tender-eyed malice; but there was also a kindly sympathy and sadness within his watchful gaze as he regarded me that served to soften his unearthly intensity and to sharpen the unvoiced appeal within those eyes.”
I shuddered to hear her speak thus but, remembering my dream of only a few moments ago, I knew that I had not proven to be altogether invulnerable to this appeal myself. Elaine continued in that same shaken, faraway voice:
“I lay there, silenced by both my utter fear and amazement, and somehow far too afraid even to call for help. No, Father, that is wrong. It was not fear alone that stilled my voice – it was something far more deadly. I had both a knowledge that I was in the presence and power of a thing far greater than I and, though I do not know why, I also gained a strange comfort from this knowledge. Ever since we arrived at this chateau, Father, I have felt no peace – only a vague feeling of unease and a wish that we might leave as soon as possible. Somehow, though, as if this man and woman were two holy seraphs, I felt myself to be safe so long as they remained. I knew that it was useless to resist them but I did not wish to resist.
“Then, in a voice as soft as though it was but a thought within my mind rather than a spoken phrase, I heard the man ask that I read aloud a passage from the Scriptures. I did as he bade, though I do not remember the particular text that I read – it may have been one of the psalms. All the while, I could feel their eyes upon me, drinking in the words with a silent avidity. When I finally ceased and looked up, I saw that the woman had departed but that the man remained. Seeing that I was finished, he thanked me with great gentleness and humility as though I had performed some indebting service towards him, and then he crossed the room towards the window as though to depart through there. At once, gaining my voice at last, I asked him falteringly who he was. He gave me the name that the Archbishop within the chateau’s chapel gave us: Clotaire. At that moment, I heard from above a piercing scream – then, I must have fallen asleep, for I remember no more.”
I recalled the agonies of the Marquis during the previous night but said nothing as my daughter continued:
“Do not think me weak, Father, because I did not tell you of all this earlier. You see, with the coming of the morning, my memories were so dim that I felt convinced that I must have dreamt the whole thing. Would that the memories of this night had faded as well.” She turned her face away from me, her voice growing lower as though she half-wished that I not hear. “I felt very tired this evening as I told you and so I was soon asleep. It was a very deep slumber that I fell into and I do not believe that I would have naturally awoken at all during the night if it had not been for my shutters banging in the wind, once again having been unfastened. I rose to shut them but even as I did so, I caught a glimpse in the moonlight of a man standing close by the window within the shadows. It was without a doubt Clotaire de la Croix. His smile chilled me as much as it had comforted me the evening before and though he held his pallid hand out to me, I shrank back from it as though from a hissing adder. But, as if the shadows themselves were allied against me, I felt slender, waiting fingers grasp my wrists from behind, effectively pinioning them in their icy grip. More frightened than ever, I struggled in vain as Clotaire silently looked on. Though I guessed that my captor was the lady whom I had seen the night before, I could not overcome her strength and at last ceased trying.
“Seeing that my own strength was altogether spent, Clotaire’s haggard visage went alight for one brief moment with a half-smile that bespoke both pleasure and pity. He softly informed me that no harm would come to me so long as I did not cry out for help but did whatever he asked of me. Then, his gaze moving over my shoulder to meet the woman’s eyes, he gave a slight nod as though in acknowledgement of some delayed order. In that same inexorable grasp, the woman bore me towards my bed, forcing me to sit upon its edge as she sat by my side, still grasping my arm in that horribly cold grip. For one long terrible interval, the two regarded me with silent, avid gazes: the woman, with her shining, pitiless eyes and the man Clotaire with that kindly glance of his which pierced my heart through with its searing despair as mercilessly as a knife.
“‘Clotaire,’ the woman spoke. ‘You must begin first, for hunger hast made you the frailer of us two.’
“He regarded me with wistful consideration for a moment. There was such a gentleness mixed with such a resolute implacability within his countenance, that my heart was unresolved whether to give itself over to terror or to trust in his mercy. As though reading these thoughts within my face, he said, ‘No, my love, you shall have her alone. It would be an unforgivable cruelty to disappoint the trust of so blameless a soul.’ Then he knelt before me, taking my clasped hands in his own fingers. To my surprise, I found that his hands, though as bloodless as death, were as feverish to the touch as though fire ran through those grey, parched veins or as though he had bathed his fingers in some flaming lake. ‘Elaine,’ he said in a voice as subtle, as gentle, and as caressing as the cool of some autumnal brook. ‘You rendered me a kind service earlier in allowing me to hear the Scriptures once again and from your own innocent lips – words that I have not heard since before your own birth. Now I must ask a greater service of you. My wife is suffering deeply and yet she cannot die. Only you, my dear, may put an end to her sufferings. Do you understand?’
“I felt myself go rigid with fear once again and, sensing this, his grasp upon my hand tightened. Raising me up until I stood before him, he said, ‘I see that we are become loathsome in your eyes, dear one, and with good reason. Will you but show mercy this once to my wife – as you would wish a stranger to do to one whom you love dearly?’ I met the sorrowful appeal within those eyes and though I said nothing, I felt my will weaken and collapse under his subtle pressure. I do not know how it happened, but somehow, I found myself forgetting entirely what it was that he asked and thinking only of he who asked. As though sensing my faltering irresolution, he drew me close to himself; to the woman, he said, ‘It is time, Katriane.’
“I saw a brief glint of silver as he passed her a thin-bladed dagger. Then, as he continued to hold me breathlessly close, I felt her grasp my wrist and a moment later I shuddered as a sudden pain seared against my arm. Then I felt a moving wetness along my arm and knew with an unutterable pang that it was the woman Katriane’s tongue and that she was drinking of the blood from my fresh wound. I do not know whether my tears were provoked by the helplessness of my terrible circumstance or by sheer horror, but I wept silently as I felt a great faintness overcome me and as I felt Clotaire’s fingers against my back. Presently, I ceased to feel her lips pressed against my wrist and Clotaire’s grasp upon me relaxed. In the moonlight, his face appeared to have grown still more drawn and haggard and when I met his eyes, I saw that they were fixed upon my face with a look of piteous suffering and hunger. His fingers twined the hair at the back of my throat, drawing my head back so that my throat was bared before him. I did not struggle but remained transfixed as he leaned closer, his lips barely an inch above my throat. I felt his breath brush against my throat and my own cheeks flamed with a terrible anticipation. Then, of a sudden, he wrenched me away from him, so that I stumbled back. The spell upon me was broken and, weakened by the blood that I had lost, I fell into a swoon and only awoke a few minutes ago.” Elaine’s eyes were shining with tears as she held out her poor wrist, upon which I saw the unmistakable mark of a knife’s edge. “Father, forgive me for my weakness.”
As I held her and whispered what words of comfort I could summon, I heard from somewhere upstairs the rising, agonized groans of the Marquis and over them, like the ticking of some hellish horologe, the steady, rhythmic creaking that I heard the night before – so very much like the creaking of some monstrous rack.
To be continued…