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The Master of Rampling Gate

Anne Rice

  The Master of Rampling Gate

  Anne Rice

  Set in the gasslit streets of 1888 London and the wild moors of the countryside beyond, The Master of Rampling Gate tells the story of Julie, a young woman who becomes obsessed with the house her father swore her and her brother to tear down upon his death. Julie can't imagine what lies in wait at Rampling Gate, a spirit that haunted her father for years and now yearns for her flesh. The Master of Rampling Gate is a sublime love story in which Julie struggles to choose between the world of reason and rationality and the dark promises of a creature she is almost helpless to resist.

  The Master of Rampling Gate

  Anne Rice

  Spring 1888.

  Rampling Gate. It was so real to us in the old pictures, rising like a fairy-tale castle out of its own dark wood. A wilderness of gables and chimneys between those two immense towers, grey stone walls mantled in ivy, mullioned windows reflecting the drifting clouds.

  But why had Father never taken us there? And why, on his deathbed, had he told my brother that Rampling Gate must be torn down, stone by stone? "I should have done it, Richard," he said. "But I was born in that house, as my father was, and his father before him. You must do it now, Richard. It has no claim on you. Tear it down."

  Was it any wonder that not two months after Father's passing, Richard and I were on the noon train headed south for the mysterious mansion that had stood upon the rise above the village of Rampling for 400 years? Surely Father would have understood. How could we destroy the old place when we had never seen it?

  But, as the train moved slowly through the outskirts of London I can't say we were very sure of ourselves, no matter how curious and excited we were.

  Richard had just finished four years at Oxford. Two whirlwind social seasons in London had proved me something of a shy success. I still preferred scribbling poems and stories in my room to dancing the night away, but I'd kept that a good secret. And though we had lost our mother when we were little, Father had given us the best of everything. Now the carefree years were ended. We had to be independent and wise.

  The evening before, we had pored over all the old pictures of Rampling Gate, recalling in hushed, tentative voices the night Father had taken those pictures down from the walls.

  I couldn't have been more than six and Richard eight when it happened, yet we remembered well the strange incident in Victoria Station that had precipitated Father's uncharacteristic rage. We had gone there after supper to say farewell to a school friend of Richard's, and Father had caught a glimpse, quite unexpectedly, of a young man at the lighted window of an incoming train. I could remember the young man's face clearly to this day: remarkably handsome, with a head of lustrous brown hair, his large black eyes regarding Father with the saddest expression as Father drew back. "Unspeakable horror!" Father had whispered. Richard and I had been too amazed to speak a word.

  Later that night, Father and Mother quarrelled, and we crept out of our rooms to listen on the stairs.

  "That he should dare to come to London!" Father said over and over. "Is it not enough for him to be the undisputed master of Rampling Gate?"

  How we puzzled over it as little ones! Who was this stranger, and how could he be master of a house that belonged to our father, a house that had been left in the care of an old, blind housekeeper for years?

  But now after looking at the pictures again, it was too dreadful to think of Father's exhortation. And too exhilarating to think of the house itself. I'd packed my manuscripts, for — who knew? — maybe in that melancholy and exquisite setting I'd find exactly the inspiration I needed for the story I'd been writing in my head.

  Yet there was something almost illicit about the excitement I felt. I saw in my mind's eye the pale young man again, with his black greatcoat and red woollen cravat. Like bone china, his complexion had been.

  Strange to remember so vividly. And I realized now that in those few remarkable moments, he had created for me an ideal of masculine beauty that I had never questioned since. But Father had been so angry. I felt an unmistakable pang of guilt.

  It was late afternoon when the old trap carried us up the gentle slope from the little railway station and we had our first real look at the house. The sky had paled to a deep rose hue beyond a bank of softly gilded clouds, and the last rays of the sun struck the uppermost panes of the leaded windows and filled them with solid gold.

  "Oh, but it's too majestic," I whispered, "too like a great cathedral, and to think that it belongs to us!"

  Richard gave me the smallest kiss on the cheek.

  I wanted with all my heart to jump down from the trap and draw near on foot, letting those towers slowly grow larger and larger above me, but our old horse was gaining speed.

  When we reached the massive front door Richard and I were spirited into the great hall by the tiny figure of the blind housekeeper Mrs Blessington, our footfalls echoing loudly on the marble tile, and our eyes dazzled by the dusty shafts of light that fell on the long oak table and its heavily carved chairs, on the sombre tapestries that stirred ever so slightly against the soaring walls.

  "Richard, it is an enchanted place!" I cried, unable to contain myself.

  Mrs Blessington laughed gaily, her dry hand closing tightly on mine.

  We found our bedchambers well aired, with snow-white linen on the beds and fires blazing cosily on the hearths. The small, diamond-paned windows opened on a glorious view of the lake and the oaks that enclosed it and the few scattered lights that marked the village beyond.

  That night we laughed like children as we supped at the great oak table, our candles giving only a feeble light. And afterwards we had a fierce battle of pocket billiards in the games room and a little too much brandy, I fear.

  It was just before I went to bed that I asked Mrs Blessington if there had been anyone in this house since my father left it, years before.

  "No, my dear," she said quickly, fluffing the feather pillows. "When your father went away to Oxford, he never came back."

  "There was never a young intruder after that?…" I pressed her, though in truth I had little appetite for anything that would disturb the happiness I felt. How I loved the spartan cleanliness of this bedchamber, the walls bare of paper and ornament, the high lustre of the walnut-panelled bed.

  "A young intruder?" With an unerring certainty about her surroundings, she lifted the poker and stirred the fire. "No, dear. Whatever made you think there was?"

  "Are there no ghost stories, Mrs Blessington?" I asked suddenly, startling myself. Unspeakable horror.

  But what was I thinking — that that young man had not been real?

  "Oh, no, darling," she said, smiling. "No ghost would ever dare to trouble Rampling Gate."

  Nothing, in fact, troubled the serenity of the days that followed — long walks through the overgrown gardens, trips in the little skiff to and fro across the lake, tea under the hot glass of the empty conservatory. Early evening found us reading and writing by the library fire.

  All our enquiries in the village met with the same answers: the villagers cherished the house. There was not a single disquieting legend or tale.

  How were we going to tell them of Father's edict? How were we going to remind ourselves?

  Richard was finding a wealth of classical material on the library shelves and I had the desk in the corner entirely to myself.

  Never had I known such quiet. It seemed the atmosphere of Rampling Gate permeated my simplest written descriptions and wove its way richly into the plots and characters I created. The Monday after our arrival I finished my first real short story, and after copying out a fresh draft, I went off to the village on foot to post it boldly to the editors of Blackwood's magazin

  It was a warm afternoon, and I took my time as I came back. What had disturbed our father so about this lovely corner of England? What had so darkened his last hours that he laid his curse upon this spot?

  My heart opened to his unearthly stillness, to an indisputable magnificence that caused me utterly to forget myself. There were times here when I felt I was a disembodied intellect drifting through a fathomless silence, up and down garden paths and stone corridors that had witnessed too much to take cognizance of one small and fragile young woman who in random moments actually talked aloud to the suits of armour around her, to the broken statues in the garden, the fountain cherubs who had had no water to pour from their conches for years and years.

  But was there in this loveliness some malignant force that was eluding us still, some untold story?

  Unspeakable horror … Even in the flood of brilliant sunlight, those words gave me a chill.

  As I came slowly up the slope I saw Richard walking lazily along the uneven shore of the lake. Now and then he glanced up at the distant battlements, his expression dreamy, almost blissfully contented.

  Rampling Gate had him. And I understood perfectly because it also had me.

  With a new sense of determination I went to him and placed my hand gently on his arm.

  For a moment he looked at me as if he did not even know me, and then he said softly, "How will I ever do it, Julie? And one way or the other, it will be on my conscience all my life."

  "It's time to seek advice, Richard," I said. "Write to our lawyers in London. Write to Father's clergyman, Doctor Matthews. Explain everything. We cannot do this alone."

  It was three o'clock in the morning when I opened my eyes. But I had been awake for a long time. And I felt not fear, lying there alone, but something else — some vague and relentless agitation, some sense of emptiness and need that caused me finally to rise from my bed. What was this house, really? A place, or merely a state of mind? What was it doing to my soul?

  I felt overwhelmed, yet shut out of some great and dazzling secret. Driven by an unbearable restlessness, I pulled on my woollen wrapper and my slippers and went into the hall.

  The moonlight fell full on the oak stairway, and the vestibule far below. Maybe I could write of the confusion I suffered now, put on paper the inexplicable longing I felt. Certainly it was worth the effort, and I made my way soundlessly down the steps.

  The great hall gaped before me, the moonlight here and there touching upon a pair of crossed swords or a mounted shield. But far beyond, in the alcove just outside the library, I saw the uneven glow of the fire.

  So Richard was there. A sense of well-being pervaded me and quieted me. At the same time, the distance between us seemed endless and I became desperate to cross it, hurrying past the long supper table and finally into the alcove before the library doors.

  The fire blazed beneath the stone mantelpiece and a figure sat in the leather chair before it, bent over a loose collection of pages that he held in his slender hands. He was reading the pages eagerly, and the fire suffused his face with a warm, golden light.

  But it was not Richard. It was the same young man I had seen on the train in Victoria Station fifteen years ago. And not a single aspect of that taut young face had changed. There was the very same hair, thick and lustrous and only carelessly combed as it hung to the collar of his black coat, and those dark eyes that looked up suddenly and fixed me with a most curious expression as I almost screamed.

  We stared at each other across that shadowy room, I stranded in the doorway, he visibly and undeniably shaken that I had caught him unawares. My heart stopped.

  And in a split second he rose and moved towards me, closing the gap between us, reaching out with those slender white hands.

  "Julie!" he whispered, in a voice so low that it seemed my own thoughts were speaking to me. But this was no dream. He was holding me and the scream had broken loose from me, deafening, uncontrollable and echoing from the four walls.

  I was alone. Clutching at the door frame, I staggered forward, and then in a moment of perfect clarity I saw the young stranger again, saw him standing in the open door to the garden, looking back over his shoulder; then he was gone.

  I could not stop screaming. I could not stop even as I heard Richard's voice calling me, heard his feet pound down that broad, hollow staircase and through the great hall. I could not stop even as he shook me, pleaded with me, settled me in a chair.

  Finally I managed to describe what I had seen.

  "But you know who it was!" I said almost hysterically. "It was he — the young man from the train!"

  "Now, wait," Richard said. "He had his back to the fire, Julie. And you could not see his face clearly —"

  "Richard, it was he! Don't you understand? He touched me. He called me Julie," I whispered. "Good God, Richard, look at the fire. I didn't light it — he did. He was here!"

  All but pushing Richard out of the way, I went to the heap of papers that lay strewn on the carpet before the hearth. "My story…" I whispered, snatching up the pages. "He's been reading my story, Richard.

  And — dear God — he's read your letters, the letters to Mr Partridge and Dr Matthews, about tearing down the house!"

  "Surely you don't believe it was the same man, Julie, after all these years… ?"

  "But he has not changed, Richard, not in the smallest detail. There is no mistake, I tell you. It was the very same man!"

  The next day was the most trying since we had come. Together we commenced a search of the house.

  Darkness found us only half finished, frustrated everywhere by locked doors we could not open and old staircases that were not safe.

  And it was also quite clear by suppertime that Richard did not believe I had seen anyone in the study at all. As for the fire — well, he had failed to put it out properly before going to bed; and the pages — well, one of us had put them there and forgotten them, of course…

  But I knew what I had seen.

  And what obsessed me more than anything else was the gentle countenance of the mysterious man I had glimpsed, the innocent eyes that had fixed on me for one moment before I screamed.

  "You would be wise to do one very important thing before you retire," I said crossly. "Leave out a note to the effect that you do not intend to tear down the house."

  "Julie, you have created an impossible dilemma," Richard declared, the colour rising in his face. "You insist we reassure this apparition that the house will not be destroyed, when in fact you verify the existence of the very creature that drove our father to say what he did."

  "Oh, I wish I had never come here!" I burst out suddenly.

  "Then we should go, and decide this matter at home."

  "No — that's just it. I could never go without knowing. I could never go on living with knowing now!"

  Anger must be an excellent antidote to fear, for surely something worked to alleviate my natural alarm. I did not undress that night, but rather sat in the darkened bedroom, gazing at the small square of diamond-paned window until I heard the house fall quiet. When the grandfather clock in the great hall chimed the hour of eleven, Rampling Gate was, as usual, fast asleep.

  I felt a dark exultation as I imagined myself going out of the room and down the stairs. But I knew I should wait one more hour. I should let the night reach its peak. My heart was beating too fast, and dreamily I recollected the face I had seen, the voice that had said my name.

  Why did it seem in retrospect so intimate, that we had known each other before, spoken together a thousand times? Was it because he had read my story, those words that came from my very soul?

  "Who are you?" I believe I whispered aloud. "Where are you at this moment?" I uttered the word,


  The door opened without a sound and he was standing there. He was dressed exactly as he had been the night before and his dark eyes were riveted on me with that same obvious curiosity, his mouth just a little slack, like that of a boy.

>   I sat forward, and he raised his finger as if to reassure me and gave a little nod.

  "Ah, it is you!" I whispered.

  "Yes," he said in a soft, unobtrusive voice.

  "And you are not a spirit!" I looked at his mud-splattered boots, at the faintest smear of dust on that perfect white cheek.

  "A spirit?" he asked almost mournfully. "Would that I were that."

  Dazed, I watched him come towards me; the room darkened and I felt his cool, silken hands on my face. I had risen. I was standing before him, and I looked up into his eyes.

  I heard my own heartbeat. I heard it as I had the night before, right at the moment I had screamed. Dear God, I was talking to him! He was in my room and I was talking to him! And then suddenly I was in his arms.

  "Real, absolutely real!" I whispered, and a low, zinging sensation coursed through me so that I had to steady myself.

  He was peering at me as if trying to comprehend something terribly important. His lips had a ruddy look to them, a soft look for all his handsomeness, as if he had never been kissed. A slight dizziness came over me, a slight confusion in which I was not at all sure that he was even there.

  "Oh, but I am," he said, as if I had spoken my doubt. I felt his breath against my cheek, and it was almost sweet. "I am here, and I have watched you ever since you came."


  My eyes were closing. In a dim flash, as of a match being struck, I saw my father, heard his voice. No, Julie … But that was surely a dream.

  "Only a little kiss," said the voice of the one who was really here. I felt his lips against my neck. "I would never harm you. No harm ever for the children of this house. Just the little kiss, Julie, and the understanding that it imparts, that you cannot destroy Rampling Gate, Julie — that you can never, never drive me away."

  The core of my being, that secret place where all desires and all commandments are nurtured, opened to him without a struggle or a sound. I would have fallen if he had not held me. My arms closed about him, my hands slipping into the soft, silken mass of his hair.