Forgive me Alf, for the long delay between my last letter and this one.
I was busy finding a gift worthy of my fiancé. I can imagine you saying that it should be easy in a city as rich as Venice and you are right. I had no trouble finding it.
I met an old Jewish antiquarian, who offered me a jewel box that, according to him, was once owned by a Roman empress.
He swears by all that is holy that he is telling the truth. Of course, it isn’t important, because the thing in itself is too extraordinary to care who’d owned it.
The box alone is a masterpiece of art. Its mother-of-pearl flowers and golden birds look like something straight out of a fairytale. There is no visible lock and the inner mechanism testifies to the ingenuity of its inventor.
On the lid, on the left side there is a small golden bird poised ready to grab an apple. If you push the apple towards its beak, the lock will open.
Inside the box, you will find several compartments, each filled with jewels. Almost all are of superb antique craftsmanship, but the main attraction is a large tortoiseshell comb, decorated with gold and yellow pearls. It would have looked so magnificent in Rita’s dark curls.
I also liked the sharp golden carnelian pin, but what’s the point of telling you all this?
I couldn’t afford to buy this treasure....
The allowance sent to me by my father seemed so large for a single student, but now I realised just how measly it is.
Instead of the empress’ jewels, I was forced to buy the rags: lace, rolls of fabric, ribbons and so on.
Rita was unspeakably happy as soon as she saw the open chests. She was either pulling things out, or holding them against herself in front of the mirror or embracing me and telling me how she dreamed of copying the dresses she saw on the ancient portraits in the gallery.
Rita’s happiness made me happy as well, but at the same time, I felt as if I was forgotten and replaced with silk and velvet!
“Oh women, infamy be your pathetic name,” said the poet.
There was nothing left to do except to bid my goodbyes prematurely and head for home.
And now I have nothing to do, except maybe finish telling you my memories...
So, back to the story.
Until now, except for that strange night incident in my mother’s bedroom and the disappearance of her beloved dog everything seemed normal and logical. Afterwards all things went awry.
Let me explain.
Life at the castle carried on in its usual, peaceful way. My mother was almost well, except that she still feared being left alone. For a first few nights after her accident, my father sat at the foot of her bed, and now he has been replaced by our old housekeeper, Pepa. Pepa has been in charge of the stores in the castle since time immemorial.
During the day Mother is never alone; we the children, Father, our old doctor and visitors never give her time to get melancholy. After lunch, she goes out on the terrace in the garden and rests there on her recliner. The terrace is the most beautiful place in the whole of our garden. It lies close to the sheer drop in the rock and the view from here is glorious. It is private as well, shielded from servants’ quarters and the setting sun by the impenetrable green wall of thick fragrant hops.
Lucy and I play ‘highwaymen’ here and built sand pyramids. Mother’s complexion has improved, but her usual liveliness hasn’t come back yet. She spends most of her time lying quietly, staring at the horizon.
She missed Nettie terribly for the first few days (I forgot to tell you, we never found out what happened to Nettie) but refused to take another dog.
One day when playing hide and seek with Lucy, I found a hiding place in the wall of creeping hops and overheard a part of the conversation between Father and our family doctor.
“......often it happens to the anaemics or to nervous patients,” said Doctor “she must have left it on her bedside table and during the night, without realising it put it on and pricked her neck with the sharp clasp, fainting from pain. She must have hallucinated then. The only thing that’s worrying me is that the wounds are not healing very well,” he added thoughtfully.
“It all seems logical, Doctor, but how did the necklace get into her bed? We found it in the folds of her blanket.”
“I am telling you she put it on herself.”
“I see, but how do you explain that the jewel case was still on the dressing table in another room?”
Doctor was silent.
“I have taken some measures”, continued Father “she will never see that necklace again. I locked it up in my study.”
“I found you, I found you!” cried Lucy dragging me from the hops.
While everything was quiet and peaceful with us up on the mountain, the village bellow was gripped by growing fear. Strange epidemic was raging there, affecting adolescent girls and young women.
Scarcely a week would pass without death taking one or even two victims.
Though perfectly healthy and cheerful the day before, the girls were found cold and dead in the morning. There were no outward signs of struggle and no autopsies were ever performed.
At first, no one was alarmed by the deaths, but as the number of victims grew, people noticed the similarities. Votive candles and nightlights were glowing everywhere and the families with adolescent daughters kept nightly vigil in their daughter’s rooms or alternatively told the girls to sleep with their parents.
The sickness stopped, as though afraid.
But, before long, a young girl of about thirteen, the daughter of the village headman disappeared. People raised the alarm and questioned her friends who told them that the girl went to a neighbouring field to pick cornflowers.
The villagers rushed there and found her body at the edge of the field, close to the road. She was still clenching the cornflowers in her fist and her face was frozen in a mask of terror. The body bore no sign of violence except for the two small wounds on her neck.
Girl’s father requested that no autopsy be performed.
Then, about three days later a young daughter of a prosperous farmer was found dead. A cheerful, bright eight-year-old, she was adored by her entire family. Her mother never left her out of her sight and lately, alarmed by the strange epidemic, she doubled her vigilance.
On that fateful day, the girl’s mother was working in the garden and the youngster was playing in the blackcurrant bushes nearby, often calling out to her mother. After a while, the mother realised that she could no longer hear the child and went to look for her among the bushes. She wasn’t there. Panicking, the mother ran across her small vegetable patch into the larger garden and there the poor woman found her child.
The girl was dying. Her hands were still warm and her eyes opened twice and then closed forever. She had two tiny wounds on her neck and the front of her dress was bloodstained.
This time the authorities intervened. The body was dissected, but nothing was found except for the wounds on her neck which could have easily been caused by a sharp branch or a thorn as the child was falling.
Questions and interrogations lead to nothing, except to confuse things even more. Witnesses came forward and claimed that they saw a large black cat, which had vanished between the tall stalks of ripe wheat when the body of headman’s daughter was lifted from the ground. Some swore that it was not a cat at all, but a huge green lizard.
But everybody agreed that something had vanished in the wheat field.
But with the latest death, not even this could be said... the mother saw no one and her house was the furthest one in the village. By the time help arrived, not a living thing stirred nearby.
Only the old beggar woman, who sat at the entrance to the village, leaning on the fence, claimed that she saw elderly, well-dressed gentleman who left the village walking in the direction of the castle.
So the mystery had to remain just that, - a mystery.
Meantime the fear grew. Young girls were kept indoors and soon, even the most levelheaded and rational among the people began to panic.
No one knew where the calamity came from and where it would strike next. Everything was made worse by the fact that it was the harvest time and the people were working from dawn until dusk.
Little by little, the panic reached our castle. Most of our servants had friends and relatives living in the village.
Father ordered that the news of the epidemic be kept from my mother, but sometimes, on clear evenings, when the wind was blowing from the village we heard faint toll of the funeral bell. Mother would grow pale and shiver. Everyone, even we the children, felt fear. We all crossed ourselves. Conversations would stop, but in an instant, Father or Doctor would try to divert Mother’s attention from the mournful sounds of the bell. Some of the servants noticed that as soon as the bell started to toll, the old ‘American’ would wince and almost run into his guardhouse.
A week passed and then new disaster stuck.
One of the villagers, a widow, had a beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter. Always laughing, she was the idol of all the village boys. Their small house was surrounded by a neat garden, one side of which faced the main road.
One day, on her mother’s orders the girl and a hired servant were gathering gooseberries in the garden, when they saw a tall elderly gentleman approach them from the side of the road. He asked for something to drink, pressing a coin into the servant’s palm.
Unsuspecting, she rushed into the cellar and filled a cup with kvass.
Returning quarter of an hour later, she found her mistress lying unconscious across the garden pass. The elderly gentleman was nowhere to be seen.
Servant girl started to scream and in an instant the girl’s mother, neighbours and peasants working in the nearby fields all rushed to her. They lifted the victim, leaving a large dark bloodstain on the sand.
After many efforts, the girl regained consciousness but she was so weak, that the doctor forbade any questioning.
The servant girl, terrified and stuttering, was the one who told about the appearance of the strange gentleman. She swore over and over again, that, when she had returned from the cellar she saw no one on the road, which is straight and stretches all the way to the horizon.
“When I was coming back I could see the entire road, and I thought that he must have come into the garden,” she insisted.
House and garden were searched thoroughly but nothing and no one was found.
Incredible as it may sound, the servant girl was telling the truth. A large black cat was sleeping on top of the garden wall, and had a stranger came into the garden the cat would have certainly ran away.
News of the new calamity reached our castle and became known to Mother. She became very concerned and dispatched our family doctor to aid the young village physician.
Both doctors spend the night at girl’s bedside and in the morning, she started to speak.
Her tale was so unbelievable that it was attributed to delirium.
She mumbled that the old gentleman jumped over the garden wall; pulled her head back with both his hands and bit her on the neck. An instant later he was gone and in his place was a large hissing cat...her words were broken and disjoined and she kept on looking fearfully around the room.
Young village doctor attributed her illness to nerves and hallucinations and blamed her weakness on chronic anaemia.
Our old physician was silent at her bedside.
“How can I believe that a young village beauty has a case of anaemia, coupled with bad nerves?” he confessed to my father “the wounds on her neck bother me the most. It is a bite mark, without doubt, but whose?”
Several days had passed. The girl was gradually recovering, though she was still feeling weak. My mother was very concerned and kept asking Doctor about her.
“I must confess, I was wrong, she does have anaemia and a very severe case at that”, he replied, “She will need a healthy diet; milk, wine”.
Mother nodded her head and ordered the food to be sent to the widow’s house.
It wasn’t long before the disaster reached us at the castle. A young servant girl was found dead. It was the cheerful, laughing Marina, the one that Petro had teased about the “American”
The day before her death, she worked hard enough for three people, and joked and laughed for four.
In the morning, when she did not come down to work, the servants decided to go up to her room.
Marina’s bedroom was close to the attic and could only be reached by a small steep staircase.
The door was unlocked.
Marina was lying on her bed. Her face was peaceful as if she was still sleeping. The room was neat and tidy and only the strong gusts of wind blowing into the open window lifted and tangled her hair.
At first, the servants thought that she had overslept, but as they came closer, they realised that her body was stiff and cold. She must have died some time ago.
On her neck was a bright red mark, circular with white edges.
News of this death struck us like a bolt of lightning.
Unseen, terrifying monster entered our house.
While the men remained gloomy and silent, most of the women panicked openly.
Marina’s body was dressed and laid out at the entrance to our family chapel. The chapel could be accessed not only from castle’s main room but also from outside. Our old servants volunteered to take turns and read the required prayers over the body. Nighttime vigil, from midnight until the sunrise fell to the old coachman.
The next day he swore that the dead woman must have been a suicide because he heard her ghost wailing outside the chapel window, scratching the glass with her fingernails and rattling the panes.
Some believed his tales, while others laughed, especially after an empty vodka bottle was spotted sticking out of his coat pocket. The next day Marina was laid to rest and our chapel’s bell mournfully answered the one in the village.
Our parents and we, the children, followed Marina’s coffin until the gates of the castle, while most of the servants accompanied it all the way to the village cemetery.
The old American was not seen at both the service and the cemetery, and the servants noticed that the door to his little guardhouse was locked
“The old man must fear death”, remarked my father.
Soon afterwards, a three-year-old girl was found dead in the garden. She was an orphan, living in the castle out of charity. Since there was nobody to mourn for her, she was buried quickly and without much fuss.
But because her body was discovered close to the terrace where Mother usually spent her afternoons, Father decided to change the location, even if only for a few days.
He chose a large balcony with the view of the entire valley. It was especially magical at sunsets.
The balcony formed a part of the ‘state’ rooms of our castle and was located on the second floor. In the old days, the rooms were used to host feasts and banquets, but in my father’s day, they were always closed, though they’ve kept their expensive wall hangings and ancient furnishings.
Servants cleared the balcony and decorated it with fresh flowers and plants. My father ordered for the carpets and garden furniture to be brought upstairs.
We spent a few wonderful days there, until it was all ruined by a silly and trivial incident.
One day, after finishing the conversation, Mother got up and took Father’s arm, ready to retire to her rooms. We, the children, and adult guests were ready to follow them.
Footman opened the door.
My mother only managed to take two or three steps across the hall when she froze and screamed. I remember her cry to this day, it was so wild and frightening. She was pointing at something and she could barely stutter:
“He is here...watching me...staring at me...he will kill me...” Then she fainted into my father’s arms.
We all looked in the direction she was pointing and many felt strange cold shiver rising up our spines.
On the wall in the next room, facing us hung a portrait of one of our ancestors.
Thin old man, in rich velvet dress and large hat, he stared out of his frame as if though alive. His thin lips were clamped together in a tight line and his evil, malevolent eyes, with reddish specs seemed so real, I felt my blood turn cold.
Everyone stood rooted at the spot. Not a sound was heard.
Fortunately, a young guest had the presence of mind to see the reason behind this strange phenomenon. He rushed towards a huge gothic window and forced it open.
In an instant the portrait’s eyes lost their life.
Once again, in front of us, hung a mere portrait, albeit masterfully painted. Only the expensive gold frame shone in the last rays of the setting sun.
The strange effect happened when the sunbeams, falling on the coloured class of the Gothic window, passed through the red mantle of a king depicted in its centre and gave a hellish life to the eyes of the portrait on the opposite wall.
When we all calmed down, one of the guests asked Doctor:
“Who is the man in the portrait?”
“It is supposed to be the same man whose body was brought from America recently”, he replied.
Petro, who overheard them, shook his fist at the painting:
“I’ll see that bastard rot in hell”, he swore under his breath. He turned around and shouted at the servants:
“Now, why are you standing here, open-mouthed? Shut your traps and start clearing out. Take the furniture; we are not coming back here!”
Mother, surprisingly, calmed down easily once the optical illusion was explained to her.
Yet, despite her outward calm, from that day onwards, she would often claim that the evil, red-tinged eyes were following her. She never saw them indoors but they appeared more and more often in the garden, staring at her from the crack in the wall, close to the precipice. Sometimes she would catch a glimpse of them through the creeping hops.
When she told Father, he laughed and gently took her hand:
“Enough, my dear, there are no evil eyes watching you. Even the portrait isn’t here anymore. Because it frightened you, I sentenced it to a perpetual exile”.
But, my dear Alf, unbelievable as it may sound, Mother was right. The eyes were staring at her, staring with greedy desire...
I saw them myself, but not the eyes alone, between dense leaves of the creeping hops I saw the face too, and a strange figure that I swore belonged to the ‘American’ servant.
I was too young to think of rushing to the creeping wall and when I did, whoever was there was long gone.
The ‘American’ was sitting on the steps of his guardhouse.
I am getting near the end of my tale, the final, horrible days, but today I feel unable to finish my story.
So till tomorrow, or rather until next time.
So you see, dear Alf, I am becoming much neater and more responsible and I write to you the very next day, as promised. Why the sudden change, you may ask?
It is because my happiness is too great to be contained.
I am rich, unbelievably, rich!
Today old Petro paid me a visit and brought me the book of investments from the bank. It appears that Father had spent his last years living with a monk-like simplicity and his investments grew immensely. Over a million of florins are banked here in Venice alone!
Can you believe it?
Besides all that, he also brought my mother’s jewellery box with him. If you do not count the extraordinary comb, Mother’s jewels are as dazzling as the ones I’ve told you about. Her pearls and stones are of the best quality.
While looking among them, I remembered the snake necklace and asked Petro about it.
He paled and gave me a strange look, answering that there was no such necklace.
I insisted and tried to jog his memory, but he cut me off sharply and asked:
“Do you think I stole it?”
I was forced to shut up.
Petro has aged a great deal, though he isn’t nearly as old as he looks. He seems unfriendly and is awfully quiet. Often he pretends not to hear a question and when I insist on asking him again, he answers with either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.
The only topic that he is prepared to discuss is the question of my inheritance.
He brought the money and jewels personally and locked up the castle and the adjacent forest house, posting guards. Our lands are leased out to the old tenants under the same conditions as stipulated by my father. Reports and income statements will be mailed to wherever I wish.
His only request is to allow him to go on a pilgrimage to some obscure saint to pray for his sins. He promises to return to the castle in about six months.
I told him that, in the memory of my mother, I will give him a large pension as well as the right to live in the castle for the rest of his life, and would like to pay for his pilgrimage.
He cut me off midsentence:
“No need, I am going on foot”, he said dryly.
I stood for a while not knowing what to say, when I remembered Rita. I told the old man that I was planning o marry and go home to my castle. Alf, his reaction was unbelievable! For a moment, I thought that he must have gone mad. He jumped up as if he was a young man, his eyes were bulging out of their sockets and he waved his arms wildly, screaming:
“What? Never! Boy, you wouldn’t dare!” (Before that, he called me respectfully ‘Sir’)
His face was burning and his unkempt grey hair seemed to stand on end.
Confused, I asked him what was wrong and he started talking such nonsense that I couldn’t make a head or a tail of it all, something about an oath, a curse, love and death, in other words, a full gamut of a lunatic’s delirium.
I forced him to sit down and poured some wine into him, waiting for him to calm down. Once he quietened, I tried to speak to him, keeping my voice gentle.
It was impossible. As soon as I opened my mouth, the old man fell to his knees before me and kissing my hands, begged me not to return to the castle.
I understood that there is some sort of mystery, a family secret that he was sworn to protect.
“Your Mother sent you away and you must obey her wishes”, he finished with an effort.
I told him that for most of my life I wished for nothing more, except to return to my homeland, that I missed my country miserably and that I have to, absolutely have to visit my parent’s graves, even if it costs me my soul. Of course, the last bit I added simply for a pretty turn of the phrase, but as soon as he heard it, Petro became hysterical again, tearing at his hair and all but foaming at the mouth like a wild animal.
I stood watching him, unsure what to do.
After a while, he grew quiet and sat back in the chair. When he spoke, again his voice sounded tired but calm:
“Please, Sir, wait for me to come back from my pilgrimage and then we both can go back to the castle”
In an attempt to pacify him and wanting to be rid of a lunatic, I patted his hand:
“All right, hurry and come back home and in six months I will also go there. You can meet me at the gates, if you wish”, I promised.
He got up, bid me a farewell, bowed and left.
In the evening, feeling uneasy, I went to his lodgings, but when I asked for Petro, I was told that when he came back from my place he wasted no time in gathering his things and left without answering questions or saying goodbyes.
“Must have been in a great hurry” shrugged the innkeeper.
Of course, I have no intentions in keeping a promise made to a lunatic and as soon as I can wrap up my affairs, I will be heading for home.
But Alf, you are my best friend and I have never hidden anything from you, and I must admit that as soon as the old man left me, a strange heavy feeling has settled over me. I cannot sleep and my nerves are wound as tightly as strings.
Karl Ivanovich finished reading and folded the letter. He put it with the others and tied the neat little pile with a piece of an old string.
The guests looked at him, enquiring, and the old man coughed:
“I am afraid this is all”, he said.
“All? But what happened next?”
“What was the answer to the mystery?”
“Please read on”
“I am afraid this is all”, repeated Karl Ivanovich “there are no more letters”
“What a pity”, said James “I wish we could find out how it all ended”
Harry appeared to be the most disappointed of them all. He turned to the old librarian:
“Karl Ivanovich, Smith tells me that there is another pile of letters in an old desk at the Hunting Lodge. Would you please take a look at them tomorrow? Perhaps we can find out how the story ends,” he said
“Yes, Sir, I will have a look tomorrow”.
Doctor Weiss rose from his chair:
“Well, there is nothing left to do, except go off to bed” he said in a tired voice.
The guests wished each other goodnight and left for their rooms.
The night passed peacefully.
In the morning, at coffee, Harry noticed that Captain Wright was sitting alone in the corner, chewing on an unlit cigar. He was in a gloomy mood and hardly spoke a word since waking up.
Harry smiled at his old friend, trying to cheer him up:
“So, Captain, how did you sleep? Were you visited by a ghost in the dead of the night?”
Wright barely looked at him:
“Do you suppose that I believe in all that nonsense and... fear?” he grumbled irritably.
Harry held up his hands in a protest:
“Don’t worry; you are the last man I would accuse of believing in the supernatural”
Georges, a young boy who had already claimed to have seen a ghost overheard them:
“You are far braver than I am”, he said, “I would have never dared to sleep in that room. To lie down upon a dead woman’s bed, under that dark canopy...just imagine if she opens it in the middle of the night...No thank you!”
Wright rose from his chair and pushed it aside roughly:
“You are full of nonsense, boy” he shouted and left the room.
Everyone looked up astonished. Wright, always calm and composed, is reacting so angrily to the innocent chatter from a boy. Something was definitely amiss.
Awkward silence filled the room.
Harry was quick to come to the rescue:
“My friends”, he said, smiling “today there will be no hunt. We are going to visit the castle, thanks to the kindness of our special guest”, he bowed in the direction of the village headman “Though I am not the official owner yet, he has kindly allowed us to explore the castle. Of course, the local authorities have my assurance that not a single stone would be moved without their permission”
Flattered by polite bow from the future owner of the castle, the headman was positively beaming, and offered himself as a guide.
Harry rose from the table:
“It is decided. After the breakfast, we will get ready to explore the castle and Karl Ivanovich would, meantime will find us something to read for the evening”, he said.