There are some who would have it that things, places, possess souls as human beings do. I no longer know, for I am dispossessed of both soul and humanity. I can only bear out the things that I have experienced and leave it to the listener to decide if there is anything of truth in the story I have to tell. Even so, truth is an inconstant thing and cannot be relied upon --that is the only truth there is. As to the question of things and places, souls and essences, perhaps such fragile methods of perception as the five physical senses should never be wholly relied upon.
I sit alone now, before a grated fire nestled in my overstuffed chair, wrapped in the trappings of old men who have lived longer than their feats, inside a rambling apartment in the heart of the great city. Mine is a lonely existence, filled with memories that haunt, lurking like shadows wanting to never to be fully remembered. The few acquaintances I have made presume that I am eccentric, indigent. They do not know I am wealthy beyond their wildest imagination, that I was once married to the final living daughter of the princes of an old and noble family–noble; but for the horror! The horrors.
But she! She was born innocent and beautiful, innocent of the evil buried deep within the lineage we both thought so romantic at first, before the vileness that flowed through her own veins revealed itself as eternal. That I, the interpolator, survived these horrors that should have ended with my incarceration is a direct affront to any kind of holy salvation; neither will death release me from the hell that awaits. There are worse things than hell, I have seen them. So saying, I do not write any of this for my own comfort, that is quite beyond anyone’s reach, least of all my own. I am compelled now to write and tell the truth of the matter to those whose lives are in danger of being exposed to the unimaginable, the terror that awaits those who would dare that foulest of earthly places; because of the letter I received this morning, a letter long in coming, and awaited with dread. I must give warning before ending this nightmare wrought upon me by my own hand, and for good. God help me, but these memories, long thought buried forever within my troubled mind, boil to the surface as if from only yesterday. . .
In the darkling late summer days of what should have been the golden time of our lives, I lost my Leonor, tragically, completely, forever. I am now a wretched, solitary old man, but this wasn’t always. I force myself to remember, to write of the last moments of hers on earth and mine as a human being with a soul. But if I dwell on the culmination the rest of the story will undoubtedly become incoherent. You will see why, as my story unfolds, and the difficulty of putting into words that which can only be described as unspeakable, even while necessary.
Yesterday I received by post the news that what remains of Cruentus is to be finally razed, and upon the ruins built something new. This news has evoked an emotion I cannot begin to describe, an emotion that drives my hand now, as it did then. The place is befouled with an ancient, enduring evil. The entire peninsula should be ploughed up, the earth salted and left barren, or better, dynamited into the ocean.
Cruentus –the name dries the mouth and coils the tongue-- is a sprawling plantation within the withering wilds of New England, cradled on a peninsula between the ocean and the mainland, quite isolated. It was first established by the son of a Hungarian herceg1 in 1629, seeking to escape the bloody legacy of an atrocity passed to him by an infamous relative who shall, except for what is unavoidable to this story, remain unnamed. Of course all such knowledge came too late for us, not in time to halt the procession of evil to come.
All that now remains of the once vast holdings is the old house, a rambling medley of Gothic and Italianate with its surrounding precincts equaling about fifty hectares. The plaque on the ancient iron gate is engraved with the infamous family name in Cyrillic. It came into our possession by ill chance; upon the death of its last master to whom my wife, Leonor, was a thrice removed cousin. The man’s solicitor had found her.
Abandoned for a decade, the late master died mysteriously and intestate, the place only partially cared for by a “historical society member” local to Cruentus, had seen to the place and instated a campaign to preserve what was left of the antiquated manor. She’d apparently found that the only way to keep municipal forces from acquiring it through eminent domain and either tearing it down or turning it into some garish public exhibition, was to find some relation who would agree to live there. I cannot even begin to think of what might have been, had Cruentus become a tourist attraction of some kind, like some medieval castle of middle Europe. I have no idea how this woman, the historical society curator, Kata Beniczky, had found us, found Leonor so far away from her rooted past, so removed from anything ancestral.
I was fifty years old; Leonor had only just become forty-three. We were childless by choice and I had recently retired from political life; after Tammany Hall, I thought I’d known true evil corruption. I was wrong, dead wrong. We were settled, or so we thought, into a comfortable existence within the bustle of New York City. That is until we received the first letter this “curator” wrote to us:
Mme. C-----; You MUST come and see the estate. Such a dignified and noble house, as dignified and noble as your mother’s family, cannot be allowed to become a public spectacle. . .
I wondered then if Madame Curator had known of Leonor’s family, or if she were only padding her future employment and paycheck. Leonor’s mother had disappeared not long after she was born, her father lost at sea the six months before. She had been raised by distant relatives of her fathers’ in New Hampshire, relatives with little, if any, knowledge of the “noble lineage” of Leonor’s mother. Subsequent to Kata’s correspondence the late master’s solicitor contacted us with the offer of inheriting the property on the condition that we would live there.
We were hesitant, not for the reasons we were to find out, but for the reasons that neither of us was young; what would we do with an estate like Cruentus? To whom could we leave such a place to? After much discussion regarding the wealth that presented itself, I thought that in the least we should go and have a look. Being accustomed to the cosmopolitan world, the country life had never appealed to either of us, and neither of us set much store in legacies, familial or otherwise (my time at Tammany Hall had decided that opinion). We, at least I, were more modern minded, not stuck in dreary tradition and happy to be so. However, the more we thought about it, the idea of inheriting the estate where Leonor’s hitherto unknown family had resided for nearly three centuries began to hold for us a certain romantic, adventurous charm.
After having visited the property, its appraisal falling in at a higher value than anticipated and with few misgivings we should have paid more attention to, we decide to call Cruentus home. If we changed our minds, and in retrospect it was Leonor who was sure that we would, and sooner rather than later, we could dispose of it as we wished and move back into the city. We wrote this into the contract, at the solicitor’s quiet objections. In retrospect, the solicitor was all too quiet. Would that we had disposed of it then, in any way possible. Would that anything else had happened.
Within months we were installed at the house and in a very short time Leonor and I, not ever imagining the place sinister or housing evil specters, fell unexpectedly in love with its quaint magnetism. We lived in a mysterious palace, full of antiquities and curiosities all related to Leonor’s mysterious ancestors. We expected years of grand summer adventure, celebratory harvest seasons and a long, quiet winters while watching each other grow old. Such romantic fools we were.
That was almost seven years ago. Do not let my elocutions inadvertently flower the path with deceptive prose. Time has not paled the memories that leap unwelcome into my fecund mind to writhe like serpents. But for the fact of these unbearable occurrences, I should never want to remember my appalling discovery of Leonor’s intemperate nature, a thing that might never have surfaced in more civilized environs, and the discovery of my own excessive compulsions. . .But I digress.
It was mid-summer at our arrival at Cruentus, when the skies are calm cerulean and the forests teemed with sylvan life. Our curator, Kata Beniczky, met us at the front door, flanked by the manor’s caretaker of the last ten years, a man who wanted us to call him “just Georges.” He “only worked by day, went home every evening, took every Sunday off and never did anything outside of groundskeeping.” It was clear he resented his status and intended to exercise his right to his own evenings, and Sundays, as recent laws regarding labor have dictated. Kata Beniczky offered to procure us a suitable housekeeper which would, of course, be necessary given the houses dimensions.
The place was really too large, almost 30,000 square feet at the time we acquired it, with eighteen rooms including a formal ballroom and dining room, a wine cellar, eight bedrooms, half with private toilets added on fairly recently, and an “observatory” as Leonor referred to it; a belvedere that was an obvious later addition to the mansard roof of the main portion of the house. One could tell, literally, at what historical point certain rooms had been added by its architectural style and furnishings. The only room that appeared twentieth century was the formal living room to the right of the entrance hall, the fixtures of which were originally electric rather than modified from gas. The appointments were opulent, much in the luxurious “old world” Provincial, with many pieces appearing beyond antiquated, but kept in such excellent and pristine conditions as to be considerably valuable. The bedrooms were heavily appointed with thick carpets, writing tables, fireplaces, elaborate carved armoire’s and beds. I would say, without reserve, that Cruentus was at least as, or more, opulent and grand as any foreign palace we ever stayed in.
My favorite room was the wonderful library, rather small compared to the rest of the rooms, but with a two-storied ceiling. Three walls were dark, carved mahogany shelving from the floor up, three ornate rolling ladders attached from the top molding. A large fireplace nestled among the shelves faced north with an intricately carved wooden mantle upon which rested an elaborate silver mantel clock, before which was a circle of four overstuffed and very comfortable high backed soft leather chairs surrounding a round mahogany table inlaid with ivory and exotic woods. Beside each chair stood a leaded glass shaded floor lamp, the latest fashion in use of the electric light bulb. Floor to ceiling windows adorned the fourth wall facing west and looked out over the part of the overgrown gardens that were distinctly Greek, with their satyrs, nymphs and ruined columns.
Above the fireplace hung the remarkable portrait of the man I learned to be that of the of the estates first master; he was dressed in periwig, ruffs and breeches, waistcoat and funnel boots, more in the fashion of an English nobleman than one of Eastern Europe. To describe his look would take an effort beyond mere words, and I commend the unknown artist for the rendering eloquence of the portrait. Looking at it one can almost hear the man’s voice, know his demeanor, that I was to understand from the journals I had yet, then, to read was described as unflinching.
All in all it is proper to say that, at first, we were satisfied at Cruentus, and considered ourselves quite fortunate.
Our first weeks in the house were spent in exploration of the rooms and their countless curiosities. Evidently installed within close proximity to the estate, Kata appeared every morning as we sat in the north conservatory near the kitchen, sharing with us coffee and rolls and offering anecdotal explanations for our many questions regarding the house and its things. She knew almost everything about its history, and of Leonor’s heritage. Now, the memory of this gives me pause; the question of why, let alone how Kata knew so much should have been immediately questioned. Indeed, as were a good many things.
She and Leonor became disturbingly close almost immediately. Kata insisting on dictating whatever set of rooms Leonor proposed to reorder to suit us. She insinuated herself quite absolutely. My initial annoyance in little time became disquiet; within the month Kata Beniczky had begun to spend more time with my wife than I, a complaint that Leonor laughed off as childish on my part. I even suggested, albeit sarcastically, that perhaps we should give Kata a set of rooms in the house near ours since she insisted on being there so often.
“Splendid!” Leonor immediately took the idea as done. “She can take rooms off the upstairs conservatory.” Of course the ones directly adjacent to Leonor’s.
Kata articulated that this would not be necessary, and I still recall the meaningful lilt in her voice.
Portraits hung in nearly every room, above every fireplace, and in the halls throughout. A few of the more recent ones were identifiable by brass plaques attached to their ornate frames, but most of the earlier ones had no identifying feature. Many did not bear signatures of the portraitists that might be checked against artists of the times. Kata was, of course, able to if not name the person themselves, at least the time in which they were made. The period in which they were done could be just as easily deduced by the room in which they were hung, from the late seventeenth century basement and kitchen, dining rooms, halls, and ending with the single portrait in the modern living room, that of the late owner of the estate.
The portrait of this man was not as well done as that of the plantation’s first master. It may have been beyond the talent of the painter to capture the essence of the man. Though the resemblance was observable, this portrait lacked eloquence to the point of being two-dimensional and flat. Perhaps it was only the lack of talent, but it was difficult to say, exactly, what was lacking as far as study of the medium went. The man in this portrait appeared vapid compared to the fearsome command of the other. His first name just happened to be Leo.
Leonor’s found a favorite among them. This portrait hung in the eighteenth century dining room that boasted a fireplace at either end with larger-than-life-size portraits above the ornate, solid oak mantels; one of a man dressed in the colonial fashion above the east-facing fireplace, a man whom Kata described as an “interpolator,” a title she would later give to me as being “not of the blood,” and a woman she described as “of the bone” above the one facing west. It was the portrait of the woman, dressed in a blue riding habit and standing alongside a wood gatepost that caught Leonor’s fancy and held it. Behind the woman stood a large rowan, one of four that we later discovered to still be standing at the corners of the four estate gardens.
Leonor’s fascination was not difficult to understand, the woman in the portrait could have been her identical twin. The resemblance, being remarkable at first, was later to become haunting. Leonor and Kata, of course, delighted in the likeness and pretended that Leonor was incarnate of the woman in the picture. I have thought more than once that if I could have gotten rid of Kata at the beginning. . .
Their game about the portrait became an obsession. The late summer at Cruentus passed in foreshadowing; Leonor’s friendship and obsessions with a latent specter began to blacken, and then commenced to end our very lives. Why is it called “foreboding” when we only remember it as danger after the fact?
By mid September we had settled completely and as comfortably as was possible for two people (rather three as it were) better suited to urban life. Leonor would say that walking through the long corridors made her feel like a doomed queen in an English novel, or a princess just awakened from a long sleep in a German fairytale.
I proffered she was neither, but a fast-becoming-spoiled heiress.
Leonor and Kata grew busy, making comfortable the southwest part of the house we took as our rooms, dusting, cleaning, re-arranging. Leonor had always preferred the craftsmanship of the modern style, but Kata compelled her to keep all of the old furnishings as they were.
“I can’t stand a thing if it’s baroque,” Leonor would protest, laughing, “It just can’t be fixed!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Leo. T’would be impossible to replace any of this with anything equal.” Kata ultimately won any argument with Leonor, including calling her that ghastly diminutive.
Not wanting to spend the entire winter dusting and polishing, Kata, good as her word, procured a local girl to assist them with the house. Jane Kimble was a stout, fair young woman with a bright personality and absolutely no education. It had been Leonor’s intent to hire the girl only to set things in order but she rather liked Jane’s vigorous humor and promised to teach her to read, something that caused Kata a great deal of amusement.
In frustration at not being included in the house games, I had taken to directing Georges about the overgrown grounds immediate to the house, which were to keep him employed indefinitely, and commenced to study the contents of the library. It was a trove of old tomes; period novels, law books, atlases, histories, and on the shelves of the east wall closest to the ceiling volumes of leather bound diaries, ledgers and inventories written in the hands of the estates masters and overseers through the last two-hundred and ninety-seven years, since the plantation’s founding in 1629. Leonor’s distant relations were given to extreme record keeping. The library was, for me, what Kata had become to Leonor, a veritable fount of the history of Cruentus and a boon companion.
As the summer waned, beginning its languid decent into fall and we became more settled into our surroundings, there became time for things other than dusting off, polishing, overseeing the grooming of the expansive grounds. Leonor, when she was not under Kata’s near-constant tutelage, spent some of the time wandering the gardens with me at twilight after Georges had left for the day, and Jane was ensconced in her quarters practicing her letters. In most places the gardens were resplendent with roses, vines and sculptures, most of them obvious copies of great works but a few appearing to be originals. There was one in particular, striking both our fancies that we found nearly completely hidden within Bittersweet vines in the west garden, a few hundred feet away from the library windows. As I said the motif in this area of the gardens was distinctly Greek. This singular piece, however, standing within a coppice next to a cracked, stained cistern was very definitely not of any classical influence. It did not really appear to be of any modern inspiration either but rather something distant, ancient, primordial, as if it were carved by hands that feared doing so. It was roughly hewn, but of a quality that lent to its interest; a woman on one knee, cloth draped over one shoulder, her breasts bared and the cloth barely covering the rest. Her right arm rested on her knee, the other raised in an attitude of clutching or clawing at something in the air. At some point in time it is possible that she held some implement in her hand, a spear perhaps. Her long hair entwined her entire frame from crown to feet and lay in cascades at the base of the sculpture.
Now describing it, words fail to convey the effect. It was the face; the expression of fierce lust and vengeance lending it a quality of horror. I have no other words to describe it, other than to say that while looking upon it one was at once as much struck by its magnificence as the revulsion it created. Leonor and I agreed on its antipodal qualities, and that it was an interesting, almost indescribable work.
“Do you think it looks a little like Kata?” she asked me.
“I think Kata looks a lot like it, rough, ugly,” I’d responded. Leonor playfully punched my elbow.
When we asked Kata about it she merely shrugged, saying it must be very old.
Then Leonor took keen interest in the stables installed at the extreme northeast corner of the current grounds.
They were lavish and in excellent repair; eight individual stalls with paddocks and two concourses, one that was discovered to traverse the perimeter of the grounds proper. The pergola that led to its discovery extended from the east garden next to the house and ran eastward where it met in a “T,” north to the stables and made a kind of veranda along the front of the barn where it ended. Southward the pergola stretched the length of the grounds ending at one of the four ancient ash trees, this one standing east of the abandoned Porters cottage. The pergola was so desperately neglected that I suggested to Georges that the whole thing might be put to better use as firewood. The columns were still mostly intact but the rotted trellis, what was left of it, hung to the ground. Leonor thought it romantically decadent, and I was forced to leave the thing alone. Georges’ lack of ambition, and Kata’s constant surveillance of any changes we might make to Cruentus, that she obviously considered her personal domain, prevented further discussion of removing the pergola’s remains.
Of course Leonor voiced the desire to have a pair of horses given the excellent accommodations for them, with a close friend to ride and time enough.
“Two trotters, black ones, saddles with matching bridles and blue riding habits, like the one in the picture,” she voiced to me over coffee in the gloom of an overcast morning while sitting in the northeast conservatory. Her hair was braided down one side and she looked every bit the little girl she pretended.
“You don’t know a thing about horses, Leonor,” I told her.
“I’ve already found a book on dressage in the library, and besides, Kata’s an accomplished equestrienne. There’re more books too, on breeding and farrier, and everything one ever needs to know about horses. I think it should be fun!”
“How can we possibly live simply, as pensioned people do, with things like horses and traps?” And friends like Kata? I did not add.
She was adamant. “Are you suggesting that we can’t afford a pair of horses?”
“Of course not, only, do you think it practical? How long before you grow tired of them, what if something happens to them? Remember the puppy. . .”
“That’s not fair.” Her lower lip trembled.
“I’m sorry Leonor, it was crass of me to bring it up.”
I had bought Leonor a spaniel puppy a year before at Christmas, a charming ball of fluffiness that had escaped into the street in early May and was run over by a passing cab. The driver didn’t stop though the entire city had to have heard Leonor’s screaming. At the memory tears sprang up in her eyes. I felt every inch the cad.
“You win,” I said to her, sighing.
By the end of September two handsome black Standardbreds were ensconced in the stables. We’d had to go outside of the small village near the lake to the next town to find a suitable breeder. Eventually we were able to locate and acquire the animals along with the necessary paraphernalia, including matching saddles, bridles and blue riding habits, styled after the portrait in the dining room.
Leonor took to riding quite easily. I, not quite as much, although I could hold the reins and remain with my seat to the leather well enough to make it once or twice around the track at a vigorous trot, but it really wasn’t my cup of tea. I preferred the motor car for traveling, and unnecessary travel was, well unnecessary. In a few days Leonor and her favored mount, the pretty gelding we named Nimbus, and Kata astride the mare named Ebon, were vaulting over the low stone hedges of the shorter concourse and cantering under the ruined pergola as if they’d been at it for years. They tried to get Jane to learn to ride but the sensible girl would have nothing of it. She was afraid of large animals and somewhat distrustful of Kata. Poor girl! She’d every right to be.
In the weeks following, as I buried myself in the library and the keeping after Georges, Leonor spent more and more time in Kata’s company, day and night, a closeness that had begun to develop an aura of unwholesomeness. When I voiced my concern and suggested that she give Kata leave to pursue other interests, like the town museum where she’d been before, for instance, Leonor became uncharacteristically violent. The argument intensified into a separation, and we estranged ourselves of each other, to different parts of the house.
September melted into October, and in the midst of the most beautiful Indian summer I have ever seen before or since, this strange and growing stranger existence began its decent into the horrifying end.
On one of those autumn days, when the shadows grow long at noontime, I was in the library atop a ladder retrieving some ledgers and an old diary to make up the leisure part of my afternoon. Leonor and Kata were, as usual, out riding. As I descended the ladder I looked out and saw them in the distance. Under other circumstances that pastoral scene would have been worthy of a Lorraine. In spite of things I smiled to myself.
After stoking the fire I settled into one of the chairs, lit my pipe and cracked one of the old ledgers open. It was dated June of 1702 and inside were lists of crops being cultivated at the estate, a cattle and slave census, accountings of who owed what to the estate from the neighboring hamlets and manors, and what the estate owed to certain other holdings. There were shipping receipts, bills of sale, and all kinds of sundry business papers that I thought incredibly intriguing. A sudden burst of grouse took to the air outside the windows.
Placing the book on the table I got up and went to look. Presently I saw them trotting beyond the hedge surrounding the garden. They appeared to be engaged in deep discussion and I vaguely wondered at what Kata could be saying that so interested Leonor. I returned to my musings.
There was nothing remarkable about the ledger from June, 1702, excepting that it ended on June the 25th. I turned each page of listings and numbers, columns and balances to the end with nothing more interesting than livestock, crops and the selling and acquiring of horses and slaves. The last page of the ledger contained a single sentence written in the recorders’ same hand, but with a noticeable wobble not present in the previous entries; Az ordog a pokolban, nem halt meg.2 And beneath this a pale brown blot that looked like a smeared, bloody fingerprint.
Laying down the ledger I took up the diary that had been on the shelf next to it and opened it to the first page.
Diary of Gyorgi F-----s N-----y,
January the First, 1718
We arrived two days erstwhile without incident; myself, Luminata and Nagyneni Dorotya. We, and our belongings, including that ridiculous sculpture Dorotya insisted we had to bring, were transported forthwith to the estate. We received word upon landing that Luiza’s interment had already taken place and preparations were being made for Ambrus, though he still clung feebly to life. By the time I stood at his bedstead he was beyond speech. John Tisdale, the village barrister, had already acquired the proper effect for the transference of estate and Ambrus, as had Luiza, was being tended by the churchwomen, Goodies Wrencroft and Randum, until his imminent passing. What tragedy has befallen my brother and his wife has still not been made clear.
Everything appears to be ordered, however, with regard to grandfather’s rather fulsome cenotaph to familial roots; the place is, as was told, magnificent and stately. I truly believe it is only those delusory Catholic relations that believe the place haunted by whatever ghost compelled grandfather to leave home and, according to them, followed him here.
As our family tradition dictates a portraitist has been commissioned from Charke and awaits our summons. Dorotya insists that we wait until Ambrus is laid to rest and I have no quarrel there, but her placement of that ugly statue so close to the house has caused us ceaseless argument. We should have made her leave it at ˘Cachtice, where it belongs.
The journal was in the same penmanship as the ledger, and over a hundred pages with pieces of parchment and paper stuck in between. I turned to the last page. It was dated June the 25th, 1720, the same day as the end of the ledger. Turning back two pages to June 24th I commenced to read:
24th June, 1720.
We had unseasonable and intemperate weather last night, a squall equal to anything I’ve ever seen in the Carpathians, replete with a howling nor’easter and hail the size of acorns. The force of the storm uprooted the old oak next to the mausoleum, taking part of the roof and leaving a gaping crater almost beneath the tomb itself, the depths of which I cannot determine, it appears bottomless. I have sent Amauri for the surveyor.
Against my demands, Luminita was out for an evening dash when the storm came. She was just at the tree she’d named Embla, when lightning frightened Bellus and Luminita was thrown to the ground. Luckily no bones are broken, but she is severely battered, and Bellus has not yet been found. Her tracks lead into the forest. Zeus and the others have searched for hours for her, but have discovered nothing of her. Luminita is, of course, beside herself with grief and cannot be consoled. Aside from that abhorrent tomb and other than a few thatches from the arches the tempest appears to have left Cruentus, for the most part, unharmed.
The surveyor has just left though he will return on the morrow with the proper authorities. It appears the crater left by the uprooted oak revealed some kind of cavern hitherto unknown beneath the mausoleum. He has advised the field workers to stay clear of it for safety’s concern until it can be sealed up again. The repairs on the tomb’s roof shall have to wait, though were it entirely up to me I would raze that stinking sepulcher to the ground and into hell. No one from the village appears to know of any caverns anywhere around the island, and Salforth wants Tisdale to have a look.
Still no sign of Bellus though we did ask the men from the village. Malry gave Luminita a draught that will make her sleep the night and after my upbraiding her for having been riding at dusk, as I have time and again told her it is unsafe, she will need the rest. She is so pale with worry. I pray for her that Bellus be found unharmed and brought home.
If not by the morrow I shall send Zeus to Charke, perhaps Bellus galloped her way west and has been caught there.
June 25th, 1720
It is now past three AM and the quiet is almost as frightening as the uproar that befell the halls of Cruentus mere hours ago. Luminita, despite Malry’s draught, had arisen and without getting dressed set out to look for Bellus in her nightclothes, or rather this is what I assume. Malry discovered her absence when she went to look in on her at midnight. Awakening Amauri they informed me of these things and Amauri went to the Quarters to awaken the others. I ordered the search in groups of five to cover the grounds and the outlying fields but at our number of field hands it would be an entire day before we could cover all of Cruentus. I commanded Malry to awaken the house.
Before we could even begin the terrible screaming was heard from the direction of the mausoleum. En masse we ran the length of the field. The waxing moon was high but the clouds obscured her light intermittently and it was only with half-vision we could make anything out. I thought I saw Luminita astride Bellus running away toward the woods. Raising the lanterns we found nothing but the fallen tree with its gaping hole and the ruined crypt.
“There!” shouted Zeus pointing.
I looked toward where his finger led and my heart froze inside my chest. Luminita lay in a heap about ten yards from the tomb. I got to her first and upon touching her thought she was already dead. Her thin bedclothes were soaked and muddy, her arms and chest scratched and bleeding. Her wounded brow had covered her face in blood, she was pallid and cold. Gathering her in my arms I ran with her to the house, the servants following. Malry was waiting and took charge of her, placing her in the downstairs salon.
After initial evaluation it was determined that Luminita was not seriously harmed but had suffered, besides the numerous abrasions and the nick across her forehead a series of mysterious cuts to her bosom that appeared clean. I asked if anyone else had seen someone astride Luminita’s mare, galloping off into the woods and was met by bovine stares. I directed to Zeus that Bellus be found, any trace of her. Malry, having given Luminita laudanum, is sitting watch over her in the parlor.
The quiet is ominous.
The last few pages of the tome were blank. I went back up the ladder to the shelf from which I had found it to get the next volume. Thinking that something intriguing was to be revealed I procured the next three volumes on the shelf and returned to my comfortable chair.
Journal of Gyorgi F------s N-----y,
Cruentus. . .
. . .and page after yellowing page until the end it was completely unmarked. Curious, I took up the next book similarly covered and dated the following month opened to the first and was again met with blank page after blank page, until almost to the end I found this;
It is only at Goodie Randum’s advice that I commend any words as to the horrors that have befallen. She thinks that somehow, if I put to paper the events of the last months that it would be as a healing draught, that emotions will lessen and even subside. What marvelous simplicity some women are capable of. . .compared to the evil of others. . .the witch Dorotya has disappeared, returned to ˘Cachtice no doubt. If she ever again sets foot upon this continent, with all of her varazslatok3 I will send her to hell --I am not ashamed of the sentiment. I doubt anyone would stay my hand if they knew.
Despite the protestations of the local Barrister who claims that there are legal admonitions that could have somehow prevented my resolve to destroy the mausoleum and bury its secret beneath the slabs, the thing is done and the oak is replaced with a rowan that appears to be taking root. God be praised.
I don’t know how I shall get on without my Luminita, or with the knowledge that her final moments were filled with such unbelievable terror, and pain. . .
I believe Goodie Randum has been mistaken. The horrors forever burned into my mind shall, and rightly so, die with me. That will not be too much longer now. Gyorgi F-----z N-----y.
This curious and mysterious account was among at least a dozen other eerily similar ones, even slightly, recorded through years of entries, however, these were nearest to what, to the thing—the events that last happened at Cruentus, the last I shall write.
Though I continued to search the journals, convinced there must be more to it, I know now the author’s reluctance to consign to paper what it was he saw, what he experienced.
I returned the tomes to their place on the shelf and retrieved the next two ledgers. The late afternoon sun filtered into the room through the windows casting alternating rays of light and shadow that made the room appear surreal. Everything was deafeningly quiet. In the resolute stillness I could hear the ticking of the clock in the hall, the ceaseless rustle of the garden and its sylvan inhabitants, and in the distance, a muffled sibilance that I took to be Leonor and Kata galloping back along the track.
I had only just opened the next journal dated October 1, 1772 when a sudden shrieking yanked me up from my chair, the book hitting the floor with a loud thump. Nothing was visible from the library windows beyond the overgrowth. I could not determine from which direction the screaming came. Leaving my hat and coat, I made to exit the house through the ground floor conservatory, my instincts guiding me toward the stable.
As I passed through the gardens the shrieking stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Had Leonor or Kata taken a spill? Fear gripped my insides. Just then the sound of hoofbeats, hell-bent-for-leather, resounded behind the hedges heading west. I caught the top of a riding cap moving into the distance.
“Leonor!” I shouted, but whoever it was appeared not to have heard me. Surely they’d heard the commotion.
I met Georges about halfway to the stable, the same look of alarm on his face. We ran the rest of the way. The double doors of the barn were swung wide, everything eerily quiet. No one was about, both horses gone.
I looked at Georges. “I saw them earlier heading toward the west end of the track.”
“What about that sound?” he asked.
“The screaming you mean. I don’t know. I suppose someone’s fallen off and is hurt. Let’s have a look about.” I turned toward the track.
“No Sir, I believe I’ll be off for the day. It’s way past my time, anyway,” Georges said to my back. Astonished, I turned to him. “What? Off for the day? After this! You won’t help me find them?”
“Look sir, it’s well past getting on dusk now. You know my ways. I’m sure you’ll find them all right. G’evening.” And off he went toward the Porter’s cottage.
“Well now there’s help for you,” I said in a stage voice that he had to have heard. “I shall have to see if Kata can find another man for us then.”
He was halfway across the grounds already.
I made my way back down the path toward the house. The gathering night had not yet dispelled the day’s warmth, but chill edged around. The moss hung still, like raiment from the trees, and the hedges were silent, cemetery walls. The northeast garden was Egyptian, with obelisks and sphinx-like stone creatures. There was nothing remarkable in it otherwise, nothing like the ancient sculpture in the northwest garden. The house was dark.
I remember thinking in confusion; “Confound it! Damn Georges, leaving me to this alone. Why hasn’t Jane lit any lamps?”
I walked into the gloom of the house as night fell upon Cruentus. In the rear hall I flipped the switch for the hall and porch lights and went to the coat closet for a lantern. I supposed Jane was somewhere to the southwest of the house and hadn’t been to the kitchen as yet. I donned my mac and with lamp in hand went back out.
Leaving the garden I traversed the forested undergrowth northward. It was utterly and completely quiet; no nightbirds calling, none of the usual nocturnal rustlings of a forest setting, and as yet, no moonlight. I found a path and followed it to the end of the low hedge and just across the field from where I stood, still visible in the twilight was the stately Ash that once, according to the ledgers, marked the end of the cemetery before it was moved southward. Beyond it ran the track. All was silent. In the shadow of the tree, I saw what looked to be someone huddled on the ground.
“Leonor!” I called out shattering the stillness. A flock of sparrows exited the tree in a swarm. I ran toward the huddled form, holding my lamp high as I approached. The figure of Jane materialized, her livery ripped and hanging in tatters from her shoulders.
“Good heavens!” I exclaimed as I knelt at her side, touched her cool cheek and felt of her neck. Alive. Her dress had been torn from the neck down, a series of cuts crisscrossed her chest. There was no blood, or rather there were only drops here and there. I took off my mac and wrapped it around her shoulders, lifting her into a semi-sitting position. A low, soft moan came from her mouth.
“Jane? Can you hear me?”
Without opening her eyes she let out a blood-curdling screech that ripped the silence to pieces. I remember thinking, “thank God it was Jane that made those sounds, not Leonor” and being instantly ashamed by my sentiment. Leaving the lamp on the ground I gathered her up and went back down the path from which I’d come.
I still have nightmares—of course I do!! Of that first glimpse of the entrance to hell, that first event in the string of the subsequent terror that haunts, tortures and now stills my hand. Oh Leonor! No matter what happened next, she was a victim in all this. She was not to blame!
By the time I reached the entrance to the northwest garden I was drenched in sweat and headachy. I entered the kitchen as my strength waned dangerously. I managed the library and poured Jane’s limp body into one of the chairs. Turning on a lamp, I took a closer look at her chest.
There were six neat incisions; three of them two inches in length and almost a half inch deep crossed by three others that were as long but not as deep. All had the appearance of being made with something very sharp, like a surgeon’s knife, and were strangely clean, no blood, the edges pink. Her staccato breathing, though barely audible, seemed as a loud storm raging in the room.
I put my hand to her cheek. It was cold, waxy. The copious heat in the room leftover from the day was stifling, it would help. She must have been lying out there for some time. I pulled my mac from under her and covered her up to her neck with it. She needed a doctor; I had to find Leonor. The telephone in the library had no dial tone.
The stampede of my own heart resounded. What now? Half of my mind was telling me to get the car, get Jane to the village. The other half was frantic as to the whereabouts of my wife. The frantic half prevailed. Getting a jacket and an oil lamp from the vestibule off the kitchen, I once more went out into the Cruentus night.
I headed again to the stables. The chill of the October night was permeable now, with none of the mollifying warmth of leftover day as in the library. My footsteps ground loudly into the gravel. In the distance a partridge called an alarm. My light seemed unwelcome, its beam cutting through the dark like an intrusion. There were noises ahead giving me hope that my search would be short.
Nimbus stood alone at the post, saddled, the reins dragging the ground. He turned at my approach, whinnying softly as if glad to see me.
“There now,” I spoke quietly as I took up the reins. “What have you been up to and where is your mistress?”
Nimbus snorted and stamped a hoof.
“Okay then, we’ll go and look for her.”
Gaining the saddle I trotted in a westerly direction. I did not take the track but meandered the horse through the forest, between it and the outer walls of the gardens, mindful of the old, broken fences.
As I passed by the copse where the strange statue of the huntress stood, the horse shied, nearly unseating me. In the gathering gloom the statue appeared to waver. Had I the time to investigate, my sudden fear and revulsion would have prevented me from going near that copse. I guided the horse away from it.
The night air grew colder alongside my increasing panic. After finding Jane, my fear for Leonor loomed and the dread that was to grip me from then on emerged from the depths of my soul. The uncomfortable silence of the night merely underscored my emotions while Nimbus tramped through the undergrowth like a boisterous army. Presently we emerged into the grove where I had found Jane under the Ash.
Dismounting I shone my light over the place on the ground where she’d lain. All that there was to see was the impression her body had made and the burnt out lamp. There was no blood, nothing to substantiate the wounds to her chest.
The quality of developing terror menaced. Remounting I took the path again, allowing the excited horse his brisk canter, holding fast to my light and keeping an eye for any movement.
At the beginning of the gradual slope of the property southward was a low, ancient wall, nearly completely crumbled but enough of a barrier to warrant finding a gate. The brushy aperture I found still had to be cleared with effort, and I had a moment to regret not being more practiced in jumping even low hurdles. I was, again, nearly unhorsed but managed and we trotted downhill until the clearing that was the existing cemetery emerged from the shadows.
Reining Nimbus in, I stopped, listening and peering into the darkness at the occasional upright tombstone. Gradually, as if on cue in some macabre performance the three-quarter moon peered from behind its cloud cowl. A little ways in the distance, beneath the Silverberry tree, sat a figure, floating in the skirts of the riding habit spread about her.
I galloped toward her and came to a crashing halt before the tree jumping from the saddle at the same movement of being flung headlong from the horse.
She was sitting as if in some kind of repose upon a large rock, leaning against the tree. Her eyes were open and at first I feared the worst; her chin, neck, the front of the robin-egg-blue habit lay open to her navel, her breasts were covered with drying blood. Her hands were folded primly, macabrely, in her lap.
I leant over and took her hands in mine. They were like hot irons. Putting one hand to her burning neck and then about her face, I turned her head to look at me. Her skin was flushed, her breathing even. Her lips a bright crimson. . .
I find it difficult to describe what I saw in her eyes. They were glassy gray, hardly the steel blue of my beloved but something turned to rust. Their tapetum reflected the light of the moon; the eyes of a cat. After a moment she smiled the sardonic grin of a corpse.
I took her by the shoulders, shaking her. “Leonor! What in God‘s name is the matter? Are you hurt?” The look of scorn crumpled into agony. I watched as the scream arose from within her, wracking the stillness of night and turning my insides into a sea of ice. She fell into my arms, limp. The sudden weight, nothing compared to Jane‘s but after the strenuous efforts of having administered to her earlier, my arms nearly gave out and I went to one knee. Cradling my wife, I stroked her face. My tears streamed unchecked.
What came directly after is a tangle of memory. I don‘t remember getting Leonor to the house, but suddenly I was standing in the parlor looking at her lying on the couch, bathed and in a dressing gown. I don‘t remember having done it, but I knew her stained riding habit was soaking in the kitchen basement. I don‘t remember the sunrise, but all was light outside. I don‘t remember Kata arriving, but there she was, standing at my side, watching me as I watched Leonor.
“Come,” Kata said to me, “You must rest.”
I looked at her the way someone would look if they‘d been told come, you must cut out your own eyes.
“Rest? You‘re mad!”
Suddenly, I remembered Jane in the chair in the library and without saying another word went to see about her. The library was empty, my mac draped across the back of the chair where I‘d lain her only hours before.
“Where is she!?”
“Not here.” Kata had followed me.
“Where is she?!” I demanded.
Kata looked something between bored and perplexed. “She‘s resting in her rooms. She had an unfortunate accident while—“
I set off in that direction but Kata grabbed the sleeve of my sweat-soiled shirt.
Kata‘s voice resounded, echoing the halls. I looked at her, stunned.
“I have sent for her people. You need to look after Leo.”
Just then Georges appeared at the windows pushing his wheelbarrow, heading toward the garden. The sense of normalcy was insane.
I awoke suddenly at five o‘clock, having fallen asleep on the sofa across from where Leonor slept, and rose to check on her. She was not where she‘d lain and the dressing gown was crumpled on the floor.
The house was, again, stillness itself. I could hear the clock ticking loudly from the library.
“Kata!” Terrible, horrible silence.
Running throughout the house I checked every room. While upstairs in her rooms I quickly searched to find what she might have put on to wear, what color I should be looking for when I went outside, but it appeared that nothing had been disturbed since yesterday. Her spying glass lay on the dresser. I grabbed it and went up into the belvedere that was accessible from her rooms.
From the vantage point of the belvedere, one could see to the ocean in three directions, and the village with its lake in the fourth. I scoured the grounds, searching for any sign, any movement. As I scanned over the copse with the statue I thought I saw something moving and rested my gaze there for a moment. The wind had come up since last night, heralding a coming storm. I focused upon the cistern; the statue was not there! Backing up, I leveled the glass at the stables. The doors of the barn were open, not a sign of horse or person. Turning south, the Ash stood in its grove, alone, the cemetery hidden beneath the slope of the ground.
Jane‘s rooms were locked from the inside and urgency prevented me from retrieving the skeleton key from the library. Going through the main hall I noticed the front door was slightly ajar. I looked out and around the drive. All was empty and still in the gathering dusk, save the wind.
“Is anyone here?!” My voice echoed the great hall with a sinister resonance. And in this moment, standing at the doorway of Cruentus I knew somehow; the house whispered it to me on the wind, and I knew. Perhaps it was all I‘d read in the diaries, or perhaps it was the thought in the back of my mind that there was more to Kata, more than her interest in my wife, in this house. Perhaps it was my growing hysteria, but I swear it was the house that whispered this grave secret to me. A hovering shroud of dread that was never to leave enveloped me.
I shut the heavy doors, bolting them. I was about to exit the rear of the house when the fates took control, and I went to the gun cabinet in the hall. With barely a thought I seized the Ruby, checked the magazine, released the safety and loaded the chamber. The dark appeared to emanate from the ground, the windswept chill of the October night. It was minutes before I realized that I was running headlong toward the cemetery, where I had found her the night before. The horses, saddleless, grazed next to the tree. My swift approach startled them and throwing their heads skyward, they took off toward the stables. The rock under the tree was unoccupied. A furtive survey to the immediate area revealed nothing. My thoughts grew more frantic and the rolling darkness drove me into frenzy. I stalked around the tree, knelt to look at the base of the rock. The wind silenced for a moment and that was when I heard. . .them.
They were laughing. Somewhere beneath my feet they were laughing, the kind of bawdy laughter heard in a brothel. I couldn‘t, at first, comprehend. Then I remembered the mausoleum, the repeated mention of some cavernous secret beneath it.
“Az ordog a pokolban, nem halt meg.”
The earth beneath the tree was undisturbed, whole. Noise continued to emanate upward; those ribald voices intermittent with unspeakable pauses, the occasional recognizable name; Leo. I feverishly searched the ground. Nothing, no secret entrance presented itself to me. The laughter and the voices continued, carried by the wind. On hands and knees I crawled over the ground near the tree and the rock, feeling for something, anything. The grass growing between the rocks offered little in either clue or comfort. Probing with my hands I crawled toward the nearest crumbling headstone still in existence. At its base. . .memory stills my hand. . .
God forgive me.
At the base of the crumbling headstone was a depression in the earth enclosing an iron ring about four inches around and two inches thick. Grasping it in both hands, I pulled. Nothing moved; nothing happened. Impulsively I twisted the thing and it turned with ease as the earth moved downward revealing the entrance below the headstone. A dim light flickered from deep within, barely illuminating the steps down. Laughter echoed from within.
If my words fail, if I babble incoherently, you will understand.
Crouching, I entered the hollow and found myself in a passageway scarcely large enough for a man to walk upright. Half-slouching I made my way toward the voices, the pistol firm in my hand. At about twenty feet I met with another set of steps downward and then turning the corner upon a scene mercifully half-forgotten, now blazing in my brain like a malaise.
I was in a circular room hewn from the bedrock with smooth walls and a hard packed earthen floor. Rough wood tables lined half of the walls upon which were arranged every tool of methodic torture ever conceived by the sickest, vilest of minds. In the center of the room, a cage-like apparatus hung from the ceiling, beneath which was a cauldron. The implements were wrought of iron, rusted, and caked with. . .unimaginable. . .unimaginable until I saw. . .
To the left of where I stood, facing the cage and cauldron was a high-backed, solid wooden chair of such enormous size as to hold two people. . . They sat together, arms about one another, laughing and pointing at the writhing, naked, blood-covered body of Jane hung suspended by a chain attached to the ceiling just beyond the cage. Her body flayed, strips of skin hanging from her. As I watched, Kata kissed Leonor on the mouth before sliding to the floor on bended knee, her arm resting on it, reminiscent of the terrible sculpture in the garden, she threw something that planted itself in Jane‘s neck. Then walking to her, Kata caressed Jane‘s bloodied breasts, licking her face. The laughter coming from Leonor was more than I could bear. . .
The next I remember is standing at the crumbling gravestone, the pistol warm in my hand. Someone had screamed; it might have been me. The opening to the passageway was gone, hidden beneath the grass and rocks. Leonor was dead on the ground, shot through her heart. Taking her up in my arms I walked with her, slowly, back to the house. The part of the house in which we lived– ah, such a word to describe our time at Cruentus.
The southwest part of the house that was ours was already entirely engulfed in flames. I stood before it, mute, before the first of the engines arrived with their water hoses, axes, and questions.
The following inquest consisted mostly of how I was able to escape the fire after having tried futilely to save my wife and our maid. As to Kata, as well as to Georges who never was seen or heard of after; well, it is certainly attributable to the shock of the tragedy that I only imagined them as being real people. No one in the village seemed to know them, and looked queerly at me when I asked.
But I know.
Now my confession of the murder of my wife is committed to record. I only hope that whatever merciful God there is will see fit to give me undeserved peace, once I have laid down my pen and taken up my pistol.
I also pray that I have been convincing, so convincing that nothing will ever be built upon that cursed and foul place. The horror lives there still, I know it.