As usual, in the evening, the guests met again in the dinning room.
Captain Wright and Doctor were the last to enter. Wright was frowning and Doctor kept staring at him with a concerned look on his face.
The dinner was lively.
Once the punchbowl was empty, the guests remembered Karl Ivanovich and demanded continuation of the letters.
Karl Ivanovich was pleased to be of service:
“I am happy to tell you that I found a second bundle of letters between some loose papers and books. They appear to be a continuation, though after a long gap”
The guests rushed him:
Karl Ivanovich began reading:
I can imagine you thinking that I have forgotten out friendship, now that I am happily married and this is why I had neglected to write for so long.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
My marital bliss is still in the far future, and right now, only work and worry consume my days.
As you can see, I am writing to you from my new address.
I am finally home.
Because of Petro’s wish to go on a pilgrimage, I had to alter my plans. I wanted to marry Rita and return to my castle after the wedding, while Petro made everything ready for our arrival. Now, I had to travel here alone. I couldn’t drag Rita into the great unknown. So we had to separate for a while.
I am here and Rita will arrive in a few days, with her old nanny and two female servants. Her dresses are ready and she tells me she is happy with them. I must confess that I gave in and bought the fabled “Empress’ Jewel Box”.
The castle is far more neglected than I expected. According to the watchman, my Father didn’t live in the castle at all, refusing to even set his foot inside.
He made his home in the old servants’ quarters, near the kitchens and stables.
I haven’t found any horses, cows, or even dogs.
Some of our servants left, while the rest was dismissed by my Father.
Father lived hermit’s existence. Petro was both his servant and his only company.
Because of this, even the garden is terribly unkempt; it is entirely overgrown with garlic. Disgusting smell pervades the air.
We are pulling it out and burning it without respite.
I was forced to abandon the old well and ordered for a new one to be dug.
Flowerbeds are also gone, as are the flowers. Where did it all disappear to? In my Mother’s day, the garden was drowning in blooms.
Old guardhouse, where the ‘American’ once lived, is also gone. In its place, I found a huge black cross.
I suppose the old man had died.
I hear the workers arriving for their pay. Till later.
Ugh! I am dead tired!
I get up at six in the morning, jump straight on the horse and go off to work. I forgot to tell you that right now I am living in our forest house, within a walking distance from the castle. I love this place and wanted to bring Rita here. I must confess that this idea appealed to me so much that I prepared two rooms for her here. I had to knock down a few things and rebuilt some, and in the end, I was still met with disappointment.
Rita wrote to me that she wants to enter the castle as ‘the owner’.
So long the dream and several thousands ducats!
Because everything has to be ordered from the city, our work is progressing slowly.
Today I spent entire day baking in the sun, laying out the flowerbeds with my new gardener. We destroyed the disgusting cross and I plan to create a small rose garden here, as a surprise for Rita. She adores roses.
I have prepared a winter garden for her flowers as well. The garden itself will take up a lot of work. All the oaks are infected with mistletoe, almost as if someone had deliberately encouraged the parasite.
The eastern side of the garden is in a better state. There, carved into the rock, I found a small temple with a statue of marble goddess. It wasn’t there when I was a child. Something makes me think that my father must have commissioned it in memory of my mother. Several dried wreaths confirmed this. Probably because he didn’t have any other flowers, the garlands were made of garlic.
I had them burned.
Another oddity, I haven’t found coffins of my parents in the family crypt, but then I was in a hurry.
Until tomorrow, I am simply falling asleep from exhaustion.
Today a young man dressed in weirdest attire I have ever seen, came to pay me a visit, and after several flowery bows and scrapes, handed me a package, accompanying it with ornate greetings from my fiancé.
My little one took on her role as the ‘owner’ of the castle.
While my first reaction was a strong desire to throw my medieval messenger down the stairs, it all changed when I unwrapped the package and forgot everything. Before my eyes was Rita. Clever girl sent me her portrait for the family gallery.
She is wearing the white embroidered dress that she had made for our wedding. Famous Empress’ comb is adorning her hair.
I stood there, staring at her beautiful face, and completely forgot the messenger. Only when I heard him ask: “When do I start?” did I come back to earth.
It turns out, that he is a painter. No wonder he grew such a mane and dressed like a scarecrow. Rita sent him to paint my portrait. I had to agree.
I am so sick of that painter!
He tells me to put on a knight’s costume (which Rita also sent) otherwise, it will “disagree” with her portrait. I am dressed like a parrot and forced to sit like a stone idol.
I console myself thinking that, when it is over, I will hang our pictures in the gallery. As if by design, I found an empty spot there.
Garden is nearly completed.
Today I almost punched the ‘Fur ball’.
“Don’t look so cross when I am painting your eyes!” he says.
Oh, damn you!
Then I had an idea and put Rita’s portrait in front of me, so I can look at it when I am posing.
The ‘Fur ball’ is silent; it seems I don’t look ‘cross’.
Hooray! Rita is coming tomorrow. Almost everything is ready, except my portrait is still unfinished. The painter says that I am such a ‘bad model’ that it isn’t his fault if the princinessa (he calls Rita ‘princinessa’) will be angry with him.
It is a pity, dear Alf that you are so far away and cannot share with me in my happiness.
It has been a week since Rita arrived. Everything went according to plan and she was accompanied by her old nurse Cecilia and two young women. Only these girls are not hired servants but Rita’s poor distant cousins.
My darling kept apologising for bringing them without my permission.
And I, for my part, was very happy; Rita will have female company and will not be alone, when I am away on business.
Francesca and Lucia are both wonderful, healthy young women and their happy chatter livens our mealtimes and evenings.
Rita keeps telling me that they love her so much that she is convinced that they will lay down their lives for her.
Our company is very small, besides Rita and me, we are joined by her cousins, ‘Fur Ball’ the painter, our architect and his assistant.
I spend my mornings at work, unwilling as I am. During this time, Rita and her cousins are embroidering. Because they take great pains to conceal their work, I don’t know what they are making. It is a surprise for me.
“Be patient”, says Rita, “and soon we will get the entire border covered with real pearls”.
At dinner, two Italian footmen, also brought by Rita, serve us.
Our evenings are spent joking and chatting. Lucia is expert at playing the lute, besides, Rita and Francesca both sing and play very well.
Our wedding is in two weeks, I would love for you to be here...do come!
When I told Rita about you, she was happy and asked me to tell you that she would love for you to come.
Please try, Alf, make us both happy.
My dear Alf, your refusal saddened me, but it seems to have upset Rita even more. She even added that:
“There is no true friendship in this world”
I tried to tell her that your refusal to come to our wedding could hardly serve as a measure of friendship, and if we were faced with calamity you would come to our aid in an instant, but all she does it shake her beautiful head.
Don’t be put off by it, lately Rita has been in a morbid mood.
She has grown pale, and complains of being constantly cold, saying that the “German Sun”, is not as hot as Italian.
It is strange because not only the days, but the nights are uncommonly hot.
Her ‘nervous shiver’, as I dubbed it, started on that day when I foolishly decided to take her down to the family crypt.
The crypt has been cleaned and aired, of course.
By the way, I forgot to tell you that I still haven’t found my parent’s coffins! This is exceedingly strange.
Rita studied old inscriptions with interest; some of them are beautiful in their innocence, while others seem puffed up by their own self-importance and pride.
She grew tired and leaned against the giant stone sarcophagus, the same one I told you about in the letter. It holds the “American” coffin.
“How cold”, she said with a tremor in her voice, stepping away from the stone.
She was wearing a light lace dress with open neck and arms. Only when she exclaimed how cold she was did I realise my own stupidity. On a humid summer day, I took Rita, in a thin dress into the cold and damp crypt.
I am an idiot!
Our evening went on as usual. Rita played her lute and sang ‘Quella fiamma che m’accende”.
She seems to have forgotten all about her unpleasant sensation. Once everyone was gone, I stood a long time beneath her open window in the garden, talking to her.
The next day she rose pale and exhausted, declined her work and sat warming up in the sun.
The day after was the same.
I wanted to send for the village doctor, but Rita forbade me. Even her nurse, whom she always obeys couldn’t sway her.
“Poor Senorita refuses the doctor and yet, I, myself heard her moaning pitifully last night”, finished the old woman.
“What’s so strange about that?” replied my fiancé with irritation, “last nigh I pricked my neck with a pin and must have cried out in pain”, she said pointing to a small wound on her neck, under the chin.
The wound was very small and yet the sight of it struck me like a bolt of lightning. For a few moments, I could not understand why such small thing upset me so much.
Later, I understood the reason; I saw an identical mark on my mother’s neck.
Of course, it wasn’t what had killed her, but the sight of it on Rita’s beautiful white neck made me grow cold.
I wanted to know everything.
“It is all very simple”, replied Rita “I fell asleep with the window open and in the middle of the night I felt a blast of cold damp air”.
“Rita, what are you talking about, the night was hot and stifling”, cried Lucia.
“And I am telling you, cold wind, damp as the grave was blowing”, said Rita stubbornly.
“I wrapped myself in a shawl”, she continued, “I didn’t want to chase sleep away, and so I kept my eyes closed, as I felt for a pin on the night table. Unfortunately, I took my favourite pink carnelian one, the one you gave me, Carlo. You yourself warned me about how sharp it is. In any case it is all trifles and by tomorrow it will all be gone”, finished Rita.
I understand the insignificance of this incident, and yet, I still have a heavy feeling, I am thinking of my dead mother and...
I forgot to finish my story about her death, forgive me. I will have no time to do it today, I am going to ride down to the city and hopefully, return to the castle tomorrow with a doctor.
Since Rita refuses medical help, I am forced to resort to trickery.
I know that our elderly family doctor is still living there. He is very old, but is not feeble. He has dedicated his old age to study of science, abandoned his practice and lives on a pension left to him by my father.
I will ask him to come to the castle, not as a physician, but as a family friend.
Till next time, I am going in one direction, and this letter in another.
Harry got up:
“I think it’s enough for tonight. I see that Karl Ivanovich has such a thick pile of letters that it will last us another evening”.
Guests had to agree with his wishes and one by one, they wished each other goodnight and left the dinning hall.
Soon only James and Captain Wright were left.
Wright was silent, smoking one cigar after another, as if trying to stretch his time in the dining hall.
James, who had spent the entire evening quietly watching him, was struck by how sick Wright looked,
“What’s the matter with you? Are you ill?” he asked finally.
Wright shuddered and looked up angrily, but after seeing James’s concerned face, he sighed heavily and clamped his hand on James’s shoulder.
“Jamie, you are right, I am ill, I am loosing my mind.”
“What has gotten into you to think that?” exclaimed James, surprised.
Wright let out a puff of smoke:
“All right Jamie, I will telly you if you promise not to repeat it to anybody, agreed?”
Captain Wright lit another cigar and after a while began:
“It started recently, more precisely on the night when I agreed to sleep in the ‘ghost’s’ room. I don’t need to tell you that I don’t believe in ghosts and wasn’t afraid.”
“It goes without saying,” said James sincerely.
“The room was hot; I opened the window and was soon asleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up, and heard a rustling in the room, as if someone was walking nearby. Pungent fragrance of lavender filled the air.”
‘The smell is coming from a wardrobe that Harry opened yesterday and the rustling must be the drapes moving in the night breeze” I thought calmly, took out a cigar and lit the match.
Suddenly, in the light of the burning match, I saw a woman’s hand, wearing a diamond ring push between the folds of my bed’s canopy.
Drapes parted quietly and a female face peered in. She was deathly pale with huge black eyes. Her hair was dark and piled up on her head and she wore some sort of a tiara or a crown and a string of pink corrals around her neck.
I couldn’t move.
The match fizzled, burning my fingers.
Everything went dark.
In a flash, I got up and lit a candle. Window drapes were moving slightly, though there wasn’t even a slightest breeze. I double-checked by holding my candle in the open window.
I inspected the doors and locks once more and got into bed.
I couldn’t sleep.
With cigar in my mouth and trying to remember every small detail, I attempted to find a logical explanation for what I’d just seen, unconsciously, from time to time looking at the spot where the ghost appeared.
You know very well, of course, the strange quality possessed by the best Indian diamonds, - to be dead and lifeless in the best of light and in the dark, with a slightest of rays sparkle like the stars themselves.
“Are you thinking of the fabled Durga necklace?” asked James.
“Yes. It was the same kind of light; or rather play of light that I saw in between folds of the canopy that night, whenever I lit up again.”
I finished my cigar and inspected the room once more.
For the rest of the night I couldn’t sleep.
Next morning Harry ordered for the wardrobe to be moved and, as we expected, we found a door behind it, leading to the second room. While the servants were busy, I asked them to pull up the canopy, blaming the intense heat.
Afterwards I completely forgot about my adventure, and even when I got into bed, I did not think about it at all.
In the middle of the night, I felt cold breeze in the room. Something smelled stale and I opened my eyes. Broad stripe of moonlight stretched from the opening in the window drapes, crossed my bed and ended at the spot in the room where the wardrobe stood yesterday.
I stared at that spot.
I don’t know how it happened, but the next thing I knew, the door to the neighbouring room was suddenly open and I could see the outline of a woman. She was standing in the doorframe, staring at me.
The same face I saw yesterday only now I can see her entire body. She is tall and slim, her voluminous blue dress doesn’t conceal her curves, and its folds glitter in the moonlight. Her coral necklace rises with each breath, and what I thought was a diadem, is an edge of a tall, carved tortoiseshell comb.
After a while, she moved closer and stood next to my bed.
The already cold air grew even colder, pungent fragrance of lavender was blended with a strange stale stench. Beautiful black eyes were looking straight at me. I couldn’t take it any longer and sat up.
She vanished the same moment.
Whether she went back to the other room or vanished behind the window drapes, I cannot tell. It was as if she simply melted away.
I couldn’t sleep and spend the entire night waiting for her.
What is this, Jamie?”
“Come on, Jamie, me? Hallucinating?....But let me tell you, I wait for the night as a lover waits for a rendezvous and I fear, because this road will only end in the mad house.”
“Why haven’t you told Doctor?”
“What can he do? I will have to fight it myself or die.”
“If you want, I can sit with you tonight,” offered James.
“All right Jamie.”
James and Wright ordered for a bottle of rum and a box of cigars to be brought into Wright’s bedroom and closed the door, dismissing the servants.
Both men sat in high chairs, talking quietly. Moonlight and fragrance from the garden came into the open window.
They spoke of the past and speculated about the future but little by little the conversation slackened and both began to doze off.
Suddenly the silence was disturbed by a musical sound, as if someone accidently touched a string of a lute. The sound repeated once more. Both friends sat up in their chairs.
The door into the mysterious room opened soundlessly and a silhouette of a woman appeared in the doorway.
James had to admit that Wright didn’t exaggerate when he called her a beauty, but at the same time he could have sworn that he had seen her somewhere before. Maybe in another place, maybe in a dream, but he definitely knew her.
Regal yet delicate bearing, shining black hair, beautiful white neck adorned with pink corals and huge dark eyes.
“Can you see it?” asked Wright quietly.
“Yes”, whispered James.
No matter how quietly they spoke the ghost, seem to have heard them and disappeared.
Both young men sat until dawn, without saying a word.
In the morning, at coffee, Harry apologised to his guests:
“Today will be no hunting. Transference of property is complete and Smith brought workers to open the chapel. You would not believe, it but he tells me that the garden door to a chapel is not only locked, but is also sealed with the same sort of alloy as the one leading from the castle. I don’t know about you, but I find all of this very intriguing and would like to see for myself.
Several of the guests asked for Harry’s permission to accompany him.
Doctor, Wright and James also went.
Wright was gloomily silent, and always-cheerful James also appeared to have been in a bad mood.
The road leading to the castle from the Hunting Lodge was cleaned and widened and the guests were offered light hunting carriages. The trip through dense green forest, broken up by sunlit meadows was wonderful. Soon carriages came to a halt at the castle’s gates.
Today gates were left wide open in anticipation of the new owner. Locks and seals had been long taken off.
The courtyard was already cleaned of rubbish and weeds. Long time ago it was paved with beautiful stones, but even these were ruined by the hand of time.
In the corner of the yard, close to the castle wall, Harry noticed two crossed wooden planks
“What’s over there, Smith?
“An old well, Sir, its wall is completely ruined and I fear that someone may loose their footing and fall in so I had it covered.”
“How many wells do we have?”, asked Harry.
“Not counting the ones near stables, two. This one and the newer one in the garden”, replied Miller.
“See to it that both are working”, finished Harry.
While they spoke about the wells, several workers struggled with huge cast iron doors of the chapel. To unsolder the tin, with which they were sealed was a tricky job. Eventually the lock and the doorframe were cleaned and Smith came forward with the bunch of keys given to him by the village headman.
Not a single one would fit the lock.
Smith motioned for a locksmith whom he had a great foresight to bring along. The man knelt in front of the doors with his selection of picks.
He was busy for a long time but eventually the lock clicked and the doors flew open as of someone pushed them from inside with a great force.
The locksmith fell backwards with a huge bruise on his forehead.
Thick cloud of dust flew from the open doorway and everyone instinctively closed their eyes, except for Wright and James, who, still affected by last night’s incident, stood a little distance away. They both saw that something alive flew out of the chapel with the cloud of dust.
It was a large grey bat.
Unlike the rest of its’ kin who prefer night and are completely blind during the daytime, the bat seemed happy in the daylight and ‘pulled’ as the hunters say in the direction of the forest and the Hunting Lodge, vanishing in the clear blue sky.
“It almost looks as if the bat flew out of the chapel”, said Wright.
“This would be impossible”, disagreed James “the chapel was completely sealed, so maybe the bat made its nest under the cornice and current of air from the open doors forced the bat to leave its dwelling.
“You will laugh, Jamie”, said Wright- “but I hate bats. Just as some cannot even look at the snake, I get the shivers just thinking of bats.”