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The Master of Rampling Gate, Page 2

Anne Rice

  I was floating, and there was, as there had always been at Rampling Gate, an endless peace. It was Rampling Gate I felt enclosing me; it was that timeless and impenetrable secret that had opened itself at last… A power within me of enormous ken… To see as a god sees, and take the depth of things as nimbly as the outward eyes can size and shape pervade … Yes, those very words from Keats, which I had quoted in the pages of my story that he had read.

  But in a violent instant he had released me. "Too innocent," he whispered.

  I went reeling across the bedroom floor and caught hold of the frame of the window. I rested my forehead against the stone wall.

  There was a tingling pain in my throat where his lips had touched me that was almost pleasurable, a delicious throbbing that would not stop. I knew what he was!

  I turned and saw all the room clearly — the bed, the fireplace, the chair. And he stood still exactly as I'd left him and there was the most appalling anguish in his face.

  "Something of menace, unspeakable menace," I whispered, backing away.

  "Something ancient, something that defies understanding," he pleaded. "Something that can and will go on." But he was shaken and he would not look into my eyes.

  I touched that pulsing pain with the tips of my fingers and, looking down at them, saw the blood.

  "Vampire!" I gasped. "And yet you suffer so, and it is as if you can love!"

  "Love? I have loved you since you came. I loved you when I read your secret thoughts and had not yet seen your face."

  He drew me to him ever so gently, and slipping his arm around me, guided me to the door.

  I tried for one desperate moment to resist him. And as any gentleman might, he stepped back respectfully and took my hand.

  Through the long upstairs corridor we passed, and through a small wooden doorway to a screw stair that I had not seen before. I soon realized we were ascending in the north tower, a ruined portion of the structure that had been sealed off years before.

  Through one tiny window after another I saw the gently rolling landscape and the small cluster of dim lights that marked the village of Rampling and the pale streak of white that was the London road.

  Up and up we climbed, until we reached the topmost chamber, and this he opened with an iron key. He held back the door for me to enter and I found myself in a spacious room whose high, narrow windows contained no glass. A flood of moonlight revealed the most curious mixture of furnishings and objects — a writing-table, a great shelf of books, soft leather chairs, and scores of maps and framed pictures affixed to the walls. Candles all about had dripped their wax on every surface, and in the very midst of this chaos lay my poems, my old sketches — early writings that I had brought with me and never even unpacked.

  I saw a black silk top hat and a walking-stick, and a bouquet of withered flowers, dry as straw, and daguerreotypes and tintypes in their little velvet cases, and London newspapers and opened books.

  There was no place for sleeping in this room.

  And when I thought of that, where he must lie when he went to rest, a shudder passed over me and I felt, quite palpably, his lips touching my throat again, and I had the sudden urge to cry.

  But he was holding me in his arms; he was kissing my cheeks and my lips ever so softly.

  "My father knew what you were!" I whispered.

  "Yes," he answered, "and his father before him. And all of them in an unbroken chain over the years. Out of loneliness or rage, I know not which, I always told them. I always made them acknowledge, accept."

  I backed away and he didn't try to stop me. He lighted the candles about us one by one.

  I was stunned by the sight of him in the light, the gleam in his large black eyes and the gloss of his hair.

  Not even in the railway station had I seen him so clearly as I did now, amid the radiance of the candles.

  He broke my heart.

  And yet he looked at me as though I were a feast for his eyes, and he said my name again and I felt the blood rush to my face. But there seemed a great break suddenly in the passage of time. What had I been thinking! Yes, never tell, never disturb… something ancient, something greater than good and evil … But no! I felt dizzy again. I heard Father's voice: Tear it down, Richard, stone by stone .

  He had drawn me to the window. And as the lights of Rampling were subtracted from the darkness below, a great wood stretched out in all directions, far older and denser than the forest of Rampling Gate.

  I was afraid suddenly, as if I were slipping into a maelstrom of visions from which I could never, of my own will, return.

  There was that sense of our talking together, talking and talking in low, agitated voices, and I was saying that I should not give in.

  "Bear witness — that is all I ask of you, Julie."

  And there was in me some dim certainty that by these visions alone I would be fatally changed.

  But the very room was losing its substance, as if a soundless wind of terrific force were blowing it apart.

  The vision had already begun…

  We were riding horseback through a forest, he and I. And the trees were so high and so thick that scarcely any sun at all broke through to the fragrant, leaf-strewn ground.

  Yet we had no time to linger in this magical place. We had come to the fresh-tilled earth that surrounded a village I somehow knew was called Knorwood, with its gabled roofs and its tiny, crooked streets. We saw the monastery of Knorwood and the little church with the bell chiming vespers under the lowering sky. A great, bustling life resided in Knorwood, a thousand voices rising in common prayer.

  Far beyond, on the rise above the forest, stood the round tower of a truly ancient castle; and to that ruined castle — no more than a shell of itself any more — as darkness fell in earnest we rode. Through its empty chambers we roamed, impetuous children, the horses and the road quite forgotten, and to the lord of the castle, a gaunt and white-skinned creature standing before the roaring fire of the roofless hall, we came. He turned and fixed us with his narrow and glittering eyes. A dead thing he was, I understood, but he carried within himself a priceless magic. And my companion, my innocent young man, stepped forward into the lord's arms.

  I saw the kiss. I saw the young man grow pale and struggle and turn away, and the lord retreated with the wisest, saddest smile.

  I understood. I knew. But the castle was dissolving as surely as anything in this dream might dissolve, and we were in some damp and close place.

  The stench was unbearable to me; it was that most terrible of all stenches, the stench of death. And I heard my steps on the cobblestones and I reached out to steady myself against a wall. The tiny market-place was deserted; the doors and windows gaped open to the vagrant wind. Up one side and down the other of the crooked street I saw the marks on the houses. And I knew what the marks meant.

  The Black Death had come to the village of Knorwood. The Black Death had laid it waste. And in a moment of suffocating horror I realized that no one, not a single person, was left alive.

  But this was not quite true. There was a young man walking in fits and starts up the narrow alleyway. He was staggering, almost falling, as he pushed in one door after another, and at last came to a hot, reeking place where a child screamed on the floor. Mother and father lay dead in the bed. And the sleek fat cat of the household, unharmed, played with the screaming infant, whose eyes bulged in its tiny, sunken face.

  "Stop it!" I heard myself gasp. I was holding my head with both hands. "Stop it — stop it, please!" I was screaming, and my screams would surely pierce the vision and this crude little dwelling would collapse around me and I would rouse the household of Rampling Gate, but I did not. The young man turned and stared at me, and in the close, stinking room I could not see his face.

  But I knew it was he, my companion, and I could smell his fever and his sickness, and the stink of the dying infant, and see the gleaming body of the cat as it pawed at the child's outstretched hand.

  "Stop it, you'v
e lost control of it!" I screamed, surely with all my strength, but the infant screamed louder.

  "Make it stop."

  "I cannot," he whispered. "It goes on for ever! It will never stop!"

  And with a great shriek I kicked at the cat and sent it flying out of the filthy room, overturning the milk pail as it went.

  Death in all the houses of Knorwood. Death in the cloister, death in the open fields. It seemed the Judgment of God — I was sobbing, begging to be released — it seemed the very end of Creation itself.

  But as night came down over the dead village he was alive still, stumbling up the slopes, through the forest, towards that tower where the lord stood at the broken arch of the window, waiting for him to come.

  "Don't go!" I begged him. I ran alongside him, crying, but he didn't hear.

  The lord turned and smiled with infinite sadness as the young man on his knees begged for salvation, when it was damnation this lord offered, when it was only damnation that the lord would give.

  "Yes, damned, then, but living, breathing!" the young man cried, and the lord opened his arms.

  The kiss again, the lethal kiss, the blood drawn out of his dying body, and then the lord lifting the heavy head of the young man so the youth could take the blood back again from the body of the lord himself.

  I screamed, "Do not — do not drink!"

  He turned, and his face was now so perfectly the visage of death that I couldn't believe there was animation left in him; yet he asked: "What would you do? Would you go back to Knorwood, would you open those doors one after another, would you ring the bell in the empty church — and if you did, who would hear?"

  He didn't wait for my answer. And I had none now to give. He locked his innocent mouth to the vein that pulsed with every semblance of life beneath the lord's cold and translucent flesh. And the blood jetted into the young body, vanquishing in one great burst the fever and the sickness that had racked it, driving it out along with the mortal life.

  He stood now in the hall of the lord alone. Immortality was his, and the blood thirst he would need to sustain it, and that thirst I could feel with my whole soul.

  And each and every thing was transfigured in his vision — to the exquisite essence of itself. A wordless voice spoke from the starry veil of heaven; it sang in the wind that rushed through the broken timbers; it sighed in the flames that ate at the sooted stones of the hearth. It was the eternal rhythm of the universe that played beneath every surface as the last living creature in the village — that tiny child — fell silent in the maw of time.

  A soft wind sifted and scattered the soil from the newly turned furrows in the empty fields. The rain fell from the black and endless sky.

  Years and years passed. And all that had been Knorwood melted into the earth. The forest sent out its silent sentinels, and mighty trunks rose where there had been huts and houses, where there had been monastery walls. And it seemed the horror beyond all horrors that no one should know any more of those who had lived and died in that small and insignificant village, that not anywhere in the great archives in which all history is recorded should a mention of Knorwood exist.

  Yet one remained who knew, one who had witnessed, one who had seen the Ramplings come in the years that followed, seen them raise their house upon the very slope where the ancient castle had once stood, one who saw a new village collect itself slowly upon the unmarked grave of the old.

  And all through the walls of Rampling Gate were the stones of that old castle, the stones of the forgotten monastery, the stones of that little church.

  We were once again back in the tower.

  "It is my shrine," he whispered. "My sanctuary. It is the only thing that endures as I endure. And you love it as I love it, Julie. You have written it… You love its grandeur. And its gloom."

  "Yes, yes… as it's always been…" I was crying, though I didn't move my lips.

  He had turned to me from the window, and I could feel his endless craving with all my heart.

  "What else do you want from me!" I pleaded. "What else can I give?"

  A torrent of images answered me. It was beginning again. I was once again relinquishing myself, yet in a great rush of lights and noise I was enlivened and made whole as I had been when we rode together through the forest, but it was into the world of now, this hour, that we passed.

  We were flying through the rural darkness along the railway towards London, where the night-time city burst like an enormous bubble in a shower of laughter and motion and glaring light. He was walking with me under the gas lamps, his face all but shimmering with that same dark innocence, that same irresistible warmth. It seemed we were holding tight to each other in the very midst of a crowd. And the crowd was a living thing, a writhing thing, and everywhere there came a dark, rich aroma from it, the aroma of fresh blood. Women in white fur and gentlemen in opera capes swept through the brightly lighted doors of the theatre; the blare of the music hall inundated us and then faded away. Only a thin soprano voice was left, singing a high, plaintive song. I was in his arms and his lips were covering mine, and there came that dull, zinging sensation again, that great, uncontrollable opening within myself. Thirst, and the promise of satiation measured only by the intensity of that thirst. Up back staircases we fled together, into high-ceilinged bedrooms papered in red damask, where the loveliest women reclined on brass beds, and the aroma was so strong now that I could not bear it and he said: "Drink. They are your victims! They will give you eternity — you must drink." And I felt the warmth filling me, charging me, blurring my vision until we broke free again, light and invisible, it seemed, as we moved over the rooftops and down again through rain-drenched streets. But the rain did not touch us; the falling snow did not chill us; we had within ourselves a great and indissoluble heat. And together in the carriage we talked to each other in low, exuberant rushes of language; we were lovers; we were constant; we were immortal. We were as enduring as Rampling Gate.

  Oh, don't let it stop! I felt his arms around me and I knew we were in the tower room together, and the visions had worked their fatal alchemy.

  "Do you understand what I am offering you? To your ancestors I revealed myself, yes; I subjugated them. But I would make you my bride, Julie. I would share with you my power. Come with me. I will not take you against your will, but can you turn away?"

  Again I heard my own scream. My hands were on his cool white skin, and his lips were gentle yet hungry, his eyes yielding and ever young. Father's angry countenance blazed before me as if I, too, had the power to conjure. Unspeakable horror . I covered my face.

  He stood against the backdrop of the window, against the distant drift of pale clouds. The candlelight glimmered in his eyes. Immense and sad and wise, they seemed — and oh, yes, innocent, as I have said again and again. "You are their fairest flower, Julie. To them I gave my protection always. To you I give my love. Come to me, dearest, and Rampling Gate will truly be yours, and it will finally, truly be mine."

  Nights of argument, but finally Richard had come round. He would sign over Rampling Gate to me and I should absolutely refuse to allow the place to be torn down. There would be nothing he could do then to obey Father's command. I had given him the legal impediment he needed, and of course I told him I would leave the house to his male heirs. It should always be in Rampling hands.

  A clever solution, it seemed to me, since Father had not told me to destroy the place. I had no scruples in the matter now at all.

  And what remained was for him to take me to the little railway station and see me off for London, and not worry about my going home to Mayfair on my own.

  "You stay here as long as you wish and do not worry," I said. I felt more tenderly towards him than I could ever express. "You knew as soon as you set foot in the place that Father was quite wrong."

  The great black locomotive was chugging past us, the passenger cars slowing to a stop.

  "Must go now, darling — kiss me," I said.

  "But what came over
you, Julie — what convinced you so quickly —?"

  "We've been through all that, Richard," I said. "What matters is that Rampling Gate is safe and we are both happy, my dear."

  I waved until I couldn't see him any more. The flickering lamps of the town were lost in the deep lavender light of the early evening, and the dark hulk of Rampling Gate appeared for one uncertain moment like the ghost of itself on the nearby rise.

  I sat back and closed my eyes. Then I opened them slowly, savouring this moment for which I had waited so long.

  He was smiling, seated in the far corner of the leather seat opposite, as he had been all along, and now he rose with a swift, almost delicate movement and sat beside me and enfolded me in his arms.

  "It's five hours to London," he whispered.

  "I can wait," I said, feeling the thirst like a fever as I held tight to him, feeling his lips against my eyelids and my hair. "I want to hunt the London streets tonight," I confessed a little shyly, but I saw only approbation in his eyes.

  "Beautiful Julie, my Julie…" he whispered.

  "You'll love the house in Mayfair," I said.

  "Yes…" he said.

  "And when Richard finally tires of Rampling Gate, we shall go home."

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  Anne Rice


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