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The Vampire Lestat, Page 2

Anne Rice

Chapter 2



  It was evening. I was sitting on the bed, with one of the dogs stretched out beside me and the other stretched out under my knees. The fire was roaring.

  And there was my mother coming at last, as I supposed I should have expected.

  I knew her by her particular movement in the shadows, and whereas if anyone else had come near me I would have shouted "Go away," I said nothing at all to her.

  I had a great and unshakable love of her. I don't think anyone else did. And one thing that endeared her to me always was that she never said anything ordinary.

  "Shut the door," "Eat your soup," "Sit still," things like that never passed her lips. She read all the time; in fact, she was the only one in our family who had any education, and when she did speak it was really to speak. So I wasn't resentful of her now.

  On the contrary she aroused my curiosity. What would she say, and would it conceivably make a difference to me? I had not wanted her to come, nor even thought of her, and I didn't turn away from the fire to look at her.

  But there was a powerful understanding between us. When I had tried to escape this house and been brought back, it was she who had shown me the way out of the pain that followed. Miracles she'd worked for me, though no one around us had ever noticed.

  Her first intervention had come when I was twelve, and the old parish priest, who had taught me some poetry by rote and to read an anthem or two in Latin, wanted to send me to school at the nearby monastery.

  My father said no, that I could learn all I needed in my own house. But it was my mother who roused herself from her books to do loud and vociferous battle with him. I would go, she said, if I wanted to. And she sold one of her jewels to pay for my books and clothing. Her jewels had all come down to her from an Italian grandmother and each had its story, and this was a hard thing for her to do. But she did it immediately.

  My father was angry and reminded her that if this had happened before he went blind, his will would have prevailed surely. My brothers assured him that his youngest son wouldn't be gone long. I'd come running home as soon as I was made to do something I didn't want to do.

  Well, I didn't come running home. I loved the monastery school.

  I loved the chapel and the hymns, the library with its thousands of old books, the bells that divided the day, the ever repeated rituals. I loved the cleanliness of the place, the overwhelming fact that all things here were well kept and in good repair, that work never ceased throughout the great house and the gardens.

  When I was corrected, which wasn't often, I knew an intense happiness because someone for the first time in my life was trying to make me into a good person, one who could learn things.

  Within a month I declared my vocation. I wanted to enter the order. I wanted to spend my life in those immaculate cloisters, in the library writing on parchment and learning to read the ancient books. I wanted to be enclosed forever with people who believed I could be good if I wanted to be.

  I was liked there. And that was a most unusual thing. I didn't make other people there unhappy or angry.

  The Father Superior wrote immediately to ask my father's permission. And frankly I thought my father would be glad to be rid of me.

  But three days later my brothers arrived to take me home with them. I cried and begged to stay, but there was nothing the Father Superior could do.

  And as soon as we reached the castle, my brothers took away my books and locked me up. I didn't understand why they were so angry. There was the hint that I had behaved like a fool for some reason. I couldn't stop crying. I was walking round and round and smashing my fist into things and kicking the door.

  Then my brother Augustin started coming in and talking to me. He'd circle the point at first, but what came clear finally was that no member of a great French family was going to be a poor teaching brother. How could I have misunderstood everything so completely? I was sent there to learn to read and write. Why did I always have to go to extremes? Why did I behave habitually like a wild creature?

  As for becoming a priest with real prospects within the Church, well, I was the youngest son of this family, now, wasn't I? I ought to think of my duties to my nieces and nephews.

  Translate all that to mean this: We have no money to launch a real ecclesiastical career for you, to make you a bishop or cardinal as befits our rank, so you have to live out your life here as an illiterate and a beggar. Come in the great hall and play chess with your father.

  After I got to understand it, I wept right at the supper table, and mumbled words no one understood about this house of ours being "chaos," and was sent back to my room for it.

  Then my mother came to me.

  She said: "You don't know what chaos is. Why do you use words like that?"

  "I know," I said. I started to describe to her the dirt and the decay that was everywhere here and to tell how the monastery had been, clean and orderly, a place where if you set your mind to it, you could accomplish something.

  She didn't argue. And young as I was, I knew that she was warming to the unusual quality of what I was saying to her.

  The next morning, she took me on a journey.

  We rode for half a day before we reached the impressive chateau of a neighboring lord, and there she and the gentleman took me out to the kennel, where she told me to choose my favorites from a new litter of mastiff puppies.

  I have never seen anything as tender and endearing as these little mastiff pups. And the big dogs were like drowsy lions as they watched us. Simply magnificent.

  I was too excited almost to make the choice. I brought back the male and female that the lord advised me to pick, carrying them all the way home on my lap in a basket.

  And within a month, my mother also bought for me my first flintlock musket and my first good horse for riding.

  She never did say why she'd done all this. But I understood in my own way what she had given me. I raised those dogs, trained them, and founded a great kennel upon them.

  I became a true hunter with those dogs, and by the age of sixteen I lived in the field.

  But at home, I was more than ever a nuisance. Nobody really wanted to hear me talk of restoring the vineyards or replanting the neglected fields, or of making the tenants stop stealing from us.

  I could affect nothing. The silent ebb and flow of life without change seemed deadly to me.

  I went to church on all the feast days just to break the monotony of life. And when the village fairs came round, I was always there, greedy for the little spectacles I saw at no other time, anything really to break the routine.

  It might be the same old jugglers, mimes, and acrobats of years past, but it didn't matter. It was something more than the change of the seasons and the idle talk of past glories.

  But that year, the year I was sixteen, a troupe of Italian players came through, with a painted wagon in back of which they set up the most elaborate stage I'd ever seen. They put on the old Italian comedy with Pantaloon and Pulcinella and the young lovers, Lelio and Isabella, and the old doctor and all the old tricks.

  I was in raptures watching it. I'd never seen anything like it, the cleverness of it, the quickness, the vitality. I loved it even when the words went so fast I couldn't follow them.

  When the troupe had finished and collected what they could from the crowd, I hung about with them at the inn and stood them all to wine I couldn't really afford, just so that I could talk to them.

  I felt inexpressible love for these men and women. They explained to me how each actor had his role for life, and how they did not use memorized words, but improvised everything on the stage. You knew your name, your character, and you understood him and made him speak and act as you thought he should. That was the genius of it.

  It was called the commedia dell'arte.

  I was enchanted. I fell in love with the young girl who played Isabella. I went into the
wagon with the players and examined all the costumes and the painted scenery, and when we were drinking again at the tavern, they let me act out Lelio, the young lover to Isabella, and they clapped their hands and said I had the gift. I could make it up the way they did.

  I thought this was all flattery at first, but in some very real way, it didn't matter whether or not it was flattery.

  The next morning when their wagon pulled out of the village, I was in it. I was hidden in the back with a few coins I'd managed to save and all my clothes tied in a blanket. I was going to be an actor.

  Now, Lelio in the old Italian comedy is supposed to be quite handsome; he's the lover, as I have explained, and he doesn't wear a mask. If he has manners, dignity, aristocratic bearing, so much the better because that's part of the role.

  Well, the troupe thought that in all these things I was blessed. They trained me immediately for the next performance they would give. And the day before we put on the show, I went about the town, a much larger and more interesting place than our village, to be certain -- advertising the play with the others.

  I was in heaven. But neither the journey nor the preparations nor the camaraderie with my fellow players came near to the ecstasy I knew when I finally stood on that little wooden stage.

  I went wildly into the pursuit of Isabella. I found a tongue for verses and wit I'd never had in life. I could hear my voice bouncing off the stone walls around me. I could hear the laughter rolling back at me from the crowd. They almost had to drag me off the stage to stop me, but everyone knew it had been a great success.

  That night, the actress who played my inamorata gave me her own very special and intimate accolades. I went to sleep in her arms, and the last thing I remember her saying was that when we got to Paris we'd play the St. Germain Fair, and then we'd leave the troupe and we'd stay in Paris working on the boulevard du Temple until we got into the Comedie-Francaise itself and performed for Marie Antoinette and King Louis.

  When I woke up the next morning, she was gone and so were all the players, and my brothers were there. I never knew if my friends had been bribed to give me over, or just frightened off. More likely the latter. Whatever the case, I was taken back home again.

  Of course my family was perfectly horrified at what I'd done. Wanting to be a monk when you are twelve is excusable.

  But the theater had the taint of the devil. Even the great Moliere had not been given a Christian burial. And I'd run off with a troupe of ragged vagabond Italians, painted my face white, and acted with them in a town square for money.

  I was beaten severely, and when I cursed everyone, I was beaten again.

  The worst punishment, however, was seeing the look on my mother's face. I hadn't even told her I was going. And I had wounded her, a thing that had never really happened before.

  But she never said anything about it.

  When she came to me, she listened to me cry. I saw tears in her eyes. And she laid her hand on my shoulder, which for her was something a little remarkable.

  I didn't tell her what it had been like, those few days. But I think she knew. Something magical had been lost utterly. And once again, she defied my father. She put an end to the condemnations, the beatings, the restrictions.

  She had me sit beside her at the table. She deferred to me, actually talked to me in conversation that was perfectly unnatural to her, until she had subdued and dissolved the rancor of the family.

  Finally, as she had in the past, she produced another of her jewels and she bought the fine hunting rifle that I had taken with me when I killed the wolves.

  This was a superior and expensive weapon, and in spite of my misery, I was fairly eager to try it. And she added to that another gift, a sleek chestnut mare with strength and speed I'd never known in an animal before. But these things were small compared to the general consolation my mother had given me.

  Yet the bitterness inside me did not subside.

  I never forgot what it had been like when I was Lelio. I became a little crueler for what had happened, and I never, never went again to the village fair. I conceived of the notion that I should never get away from here, and oddly enough as my despair deepened, so my usefulness increased.

  I alone put the fear of God into the servants or tenants by the time I was eighteen. I alone provided the food for us. And for some strange reason this gave me satisfaction. I don't know why, but I liked to sit at the table and reflect that everyone there was eating what I had provided.

  So these moments had bound me to my mother. These moments had given us a love for each other unnoticed and probably unequaled in the lives of those around us.

  And now she had come to me at this odd time, when for reasons I didn't understand myself, I could not endure the company of any other person.

  With my eyes on the fire, I barely saw her climb up and sink down into the straw mattress beside me.

  Silence. Just the crackling of the fire, and the deep respiration of the sleeping dogs beside me.

  Then I glanced at her, and I was vaguely startled.

  She'd been ill all winter with a cough, and now she looked truly sickly, and her beauty, which was always very important to me, seemed vulnerable for the first time.

  Her face was angular and her cheekbones perfect, very high and broadly spaced but delicate. Her jaw line was strong yet exquisitely feminine. And she had very clear cobalt blue eyes fringed with thick ashen lashes.

  If there was any flaw in her it was perhaps that all her features were too small, too kittenish, and made her look like a girl. Her eyes became even smaller when she was angry, and though her mouth was sweet, it often appeared hard. It did not turn down, it wasn't twisted in any way, it was like a little pink rose on her face. But her cheeks were very smooth and her face narrow, and when she looked very serious, her mouth, without changing at all, looked mean for some reason.

  Now she was slightly sunken. But she still looked beautiful to me. She still was beautiful. I liked looking at her. Her hair was full and blond, and that I had inherited from her.

  In fact I resemble her at least superficially. But my features are larger, cruder, and my mouth is more mobile and can be very mean at times. And you can see my sense of humor in my expression, my capacity for mischievousness and near hysterical laughing, which I've always had no matter how unhappy I was. She did not laugh often. She could look profoundly cold. Yet she had always a little girl sweetness.

  Well, I looked at her as she sat on my bed -- I even stared at her, I suppose -- and immediately she started to talk to me.

  "I know how it is," she said to me. "You hate them. Because of what you've endured and what they don't know. They haven't the imagination to know what happened to you out there on the mountain. "

  I felt a cold delight in these words. I gave her the silent acknowledgment that she understood it perfectly.

  "It was the same the first time I bore a child," she said. "I was in agony for twelve hours, and I felt trapped in the pain, knowing the only release was the birth or my own death. When it was over, I had your brother Augustin in my arms, but I didn't want anyone else near me. And it wasn't because I blamed them. It was only that I'd suffered like that, hour after hour, that I'd gone into the circle of hell and come back out. They hadn't been in the circle of hell. And I felt quiet all over. In this common occurrence, this vulgar act of giving birth, I understood the meaning of utter loneliness. "

  "Yes, that's it," I answered. I was a little shaken.

  She didn't respond. I would have been surprised if she had. Having said what she'd come to say, she wasn't going to converse, actually. But she did lay her hand on my forehead -- very unusual for her to do that -- and when she observed that I was wearing the same bloody hunting clothes after all this time, I noticed it too, and realized the sickness of it.

  She was silent for a while.

  And as I sat there, looking past her at the fire, I wanted to tell
her a lot of things, how much I loved her particularly.

  But I was cautious. She had a way of cutting me off when I spoke to her, and mingled with my love was a powerful resentment of her.

  All my life I'd watched her read her Italian books and scribble letters to people in Naples, where she had grown up, yet she had no patience even to teach me or my brothers the alphabet. And nothing had changed after I came back from the monastery. I was twenty and I couldn't read or write more than a few prayers and my name. I hated the sight of her books; I hated her absorption in them.

  And in some vague way, I hated the fact that only extreme pain in me could ever wring from her the slightest warmth or interest.

  Yet she'd been my savior. And there was no one but her. And I was as tired of being alone, perhaps, as a young person can be.

  She was here now, out of the confines of her library, and she was attentive to me.

  Finally I was convinced that she wouldn't get up and go away, and I found myself speaking to her.

  "Mother," I said in a low voice, "there is more to it. Before it happened, there were times when I felt terrible things. " There was no change in her expression. "I mean I dream sometimes that I might kill all of them," I said. "I kill my brothers and my father in the dream. I go from room to room slaughtering them as I did the wolves. I feel in myself the desire to murder. . . "

  "So do I, my son," she said. "So do I" And her face was lighted with the strangest smile as she looked at me.

  I bent forward and looked at her more closely. I lowered my voice.

  "I see myself screaming when it happens," I went on. "I see my face twisted into grimaces and I hear bellowing coming out of me. My mouth is a perfect O, and shrieks, cries, come out of me. "

  She nodded with that same understanding look, as if a light were flaring behind her eyes.

  "And on the mountain, Mother, when I was fighting the wolves . . . it was a little like that. "

  "Only a little?" she asked.

  I nodded.

  "I felt like someone different from myself when I killed the wolves. And now I don't know who is here with you -- your son Lestat, or that other man, the killer. "

  She was quiet for a long time.

  "No," she said finally. "It was you who killed the wolves. You're the hunter, the warrior. You're stronger than anyone else here, that's your tragedy. "

  I shook my head. That was true, but it didn't matter. It couldn't account for unhappiness such as this. But what was the use of saying it?

  She looked away for a moment, then back to me.

  "But you're many things," she said. "Not only one thing. You're the killer and the man. And don't give in to the killer in you just because you hate them. You don't have to take upon yourself the burden of murder or madness to be free of this place. Surely there must be other ways. "

  Those last two sentences struck me hard. She had gone to the core. And the implications dazzled me.

  Always I'd felt that I couldn't be a good human being and fight them. To be good meant to be defeated by them. Unless of course I found a more interesting idea of goodness.

  We sat still for a few moments. And there seemed an uncommon intimacy even for us. She was looking at the fire, scratching at her thick hair which was wound into a circle on the back of her head.

  "You know what I imagine," she said, looking towards me again. "Not so much the murdering of them as an abandon which disregards them completely. I imagine drinking wine until I'm so drunk I strip off my clothes and bathe in the mountain streams naked. "

  I almost laughed. But it was a sublime amusement. I looked up at her, uncertain for a moment that I was hearing her correctly. But she had said these words and she wasn't finished.

  "And then I imagine going into the village," she said, "and up into the inn and taking into my bed any men that come there -- crude men, big men, old men, boys. Just lying there and taking them one after another, and feeling some magnificent triumph in it, some absolute release without a thought of what happens to your father or your brothers, whether they are alive or dead. In that moment I am purely myself. I belong to no one. "

  I was too shocked and amazed to say anything. But again this was terribly, terribly amusing. When I thought of my father and brothers and the pompous shopkeepers of the village and how they would respond to such a thing, I found it damn near hilarious.

  If I didn't laugh aloud it was probably because the image of my mother naked made me think I shouldn't. But I couldn't keep altogether quiet. I laughed a little, and she nodded, half smiling. She raised her eyebrows, as if to say, 'We understand each other'.

  Finally I roared laughing. I pounded my knee with my fist and hit my head on the wood of the bed behind me. And she almost laughed herself. Maybe in her own quiet way she was laughing.

  Curious moment. Some almost brutal sense of her as a human being quite removed from all that surrounded her. We did understand each other, and all my resentment of her didn't matter too much.

  She pulled the pin out of her hair and let it tumble down to her shoulders.

  We sat quiet for perhaps an hour after that. No more laughter or talk, just the fire blazing, and her near to me.

  She had turned so she could see the fire. Her profile, the delicacy of her nose and lips, were beautiful to look at. Then she looked back at me and in the same steady voice without undue emotion she said:

  "I'll never leave here. I am dying now. "

  I was stunned. The little shock before was nothing to this.

  "I'll live through this spring," she continued, "and possibly the summer as well. But I won't survive another winter. I know. The pain in my lungs is too bad. "

  I made some little anguished sound. I think I leaned forward and said, "Mother!"

  "Don't say any more," she answered.

  I think she hated to be called mother, but I hadn't been able to help it.

  "I just wanted to speak it to another soul," she said. "To hear it out loud. I'm perfectly horrified by it. I'm afraid of it. "

  I wanted to take her hands, but I knew she'd never allow it. She disliked to be touched. She never put her arms around anyone. And so it was in our glances that we held each other. My eyes filled with tears looking at her.

  She patted my hand.

  "Don't think on it much," she said. "I don't. Just only now and then. But you must be ready to live on without me when the time comes. That may be harder for you than you realize. "

  I tried to say something; I couldn't make the words come.

  She left me just as she'd come in, silently.

  And though she'd never said anything about my clothes or my beard or how dreadful I looked, she sent the servants in with clean clothes for me, and the razor and warm water, and silently I let myself be taken care of by them.