The Vampire Lestat

Page 51


A stairway into the earth.

It was much older than the house, this stair way, though how I knew I couldn't say. Steps worn concave in the middle from the feet that have followed them. Winding deeper and deeper down into the rock.

Now and then a rough-cut portal to the sea, an opening too small for a man to climb through, and a shelf upon which birds have nested, or where the wild grass grew out of the cracks.

And then the chill, the inexplicable chill that you find sometimes in old monasteries, rained churches, haunted rooms.

I stopped and rubbed the backs of my arms with my hands. The chill was rising through the steps.

"They don't cause it," he said gently. He was waiting for me on the steps just below.

The semidarkness broke his face into kindly patterns of light and shadow, gave the illusion of mortal age that wasn't there.

"It was here long before I brought them," he said. "Many have come to worship on this island. Maybe it was there before they came, too."

He beckoned to me again with his characteristic patience. His eyes were compassionate.

"Don't be afraid," he said again as he started down.

I was ashamed not to follow. The steps went on and on.

We came on larger portals and the noise of the sea. I could feel the cool spray on my hands and face, see the gleam of the damp on the stones. But we went on down farther and farther, the echo of our shoes swelling against the rounded ceiling, the rudely finished walls. This was deeper than any dungeon, this was the pit you dig in childhood when you brag to your mother and father that you will make a tunnel to the very center of the earth.

Finally I saw a burst of light as we rounded another bend. And at last, two lamps burning before a pair of doors.

Deep vessels of oil fed the wicks of the lamps. And the doors themselves were bolted by an enormous beam of oak. It would have taken several men to lift it, possibly levers, ropes.

Marius lifted this beam and laid it aside easily, and then he stood back and looked at the doors. I heard the sound of another beam being moved on the inside. Then the doors opened slowly, and I felt my breathing come to a halt.

It wasn't only that he'd done it without touching them. I had seen that little trick before. It was that the room beyond was full of the same lovely flowers and lighted lamps that I had seen in the house above. Here deep underground were lilies, waxen and white, and sparkling with droplets of moisture, roses in rich hues of red and pink ready to fall from their vines. It was a chapel, this chamber with the soft flicker of votive candles and the perfume of a thousand bouquets.

The walls were painted in fresco like the walls of ancient Italian churches, with gold leaf hammered into the design. But these were not the pictures of Christian saints.

Egyptian palm trees, the yellow desert, the three pyramids, the blue waters of the Nile. And the Egyptian men and women in their gracefully shaped boats sailing the river, the multicolored fishes of the deep beneath them, the purple-winged birds of the air above.

And the gold worked into it all. Into the sun that shone from the heavens, and the pyramids that gleamed in the distance, into the scales of the fishes and the feathers of the birds, and the ornaments of the lithe and delicate Egyptian figures who stood frozen looking forward, in their long narrow green boats.

I closed my eyes for a moment. I opened them slowly and saw the whole like a great shrine.

Banks of lilies on a low stone altar which held an immense golden tabernacle worked all over with fine engraving of the same Egyptian designs. And the air coming down through deep shafts in the rock above, stirring the flames of the ever burning lamps, ruffling the tall green bladelike leaves of the lilies as they stood in their vessels of water giving off their heady perfume.

I could almost hear hymns in this place. I could hear chants and ancient invocations. And I was no longer afraid. The beauty was too soothing, too grand.

But I stared at the gold doors of the tabernacle on the altar. The tabernacle was taller than I was. It was broader by three times.

And Marius, too, was looking at it. And I felt the power moving out of him, the low heat of his invisible strength, and I heard the inside lock of the tabernacle doors slide back.

I would have moved just a little closer to him had I dared. I wasn't breathing as the gold doors opened completely, folding back to reveal two splendid Egyptian figures -- a man and a woman-seated side by side.

The light moved over their slender, finely sculpted white faces, their decorously arranged white limbs; it flashed in their dark eyes.

They were as severe as all the Egyptian statues I had ever seen, spare of detail, beautiful in contour, magnificent in their simplicity, only the open and childlike expression on the faces relieving the feeling of hardness and cold. But unlike all the others, they were dressed in real fabric and real hair.

I had seen saints in Italian churches dressed in this manner, velvet hung on marble, and it was not always pleasing.

But this had been done with great care.

Their wigs were of long thick black locks, cut straight across the forehead and crowned with circlets of gold. Round their naked arms were bracelets like snakes, and on their fingers were rings.

The clothes were the finest white linen, the man naked to the waist and wearing only a skirt of sorts, and the woman in a long, narrow, beautifully pleated dress. Both wore many gold necklaces, some inlaid with precious stones.

Almost the same size they were, and they sat in the very same manner, hands laid flat before them on their thighs. And this sameness astonished me somehow, as much as their stark loveliness, and the jewel like quality of their eyes.

Not in any sculpture anywhere had I ever seen such a lifelike attitude, but actually there was nothing lifelike about them at all. Maybe it was a trick of the accoutrements, the twinkling of the lights on their necklaces and rings, the reflected light in their gleaming eyes.

Were they Osiris and Isis? Was it tiny writing I saw on their necklaces, on the circlets of their hair?

Marius said nothing. He was merely gazing at them as I was, his expression unreadable, perhaps sad.

"May I go near to them," I whispered.

"Of course," he said.

I moved towards the altar like a child in a cathedral, getting ever more tentative with each step. I stopped only a few feet before them and looked directly into their eyes. Oh, too gorgeous in depth and variegation. Too real.

With infinite care each black eyelash had been fixed, each black hair of their gently curved brows.

With infinite care their mouths made partly open so that one could see the glimmer of teeth. And the faces and the arms had been so polished that not the slightest flaw disturbed the luster. And in the manner of all statues or painted figures who stare directly forward, they appeared to be looking at me.

I was confused. If they were not Osiris and Isis, who were they meant to be? Of what old truth were they the symbols, and why the imperative in that old phrase. Those Who Must Be Kept?

I fell into contemplating them, my head a little to the side.

The eyes were really brown, with the black deep in their centers, the whites moist looking as though covered with the clearest lacquer, and the lips were the softest shade of ashen rose.

"Is it permissible . . .?" I whispered, turning back to Marius, but lacking confidence I stopped.

"You may touch them," he said.

Yet it seemed sacrilegious to do it. I stared at them a moment longer, at the way that their hands opened against their thighs, at the fingernails, which looked remarkably like our fingernails -- as if someone had made them of inlaid glass.

I thought that I could touch the back of the man's hand, and it wouldn't seem so sacrilegious, but what I really wanted to do was to touch the woman's face. Finally I raised my fingers hesitantly to her cheek. And I just let my fingertips graze the whiteness there. And then I looked into her eyes.

It couldn't be stone I was feeling. It couldn't ... Why, it felt exactly like ... And the woman's eyes, something --

I jumped backwards before I could stop myself.

In fact I shot backwards, overturning the vases of lilies, and slammed against the wall beside the door.

I was trembling so violently, my legs could hardly hold me.

"They're alive!" I said. "They aren't statues! They're vampires just like us!"

"Yes," Marius said. "That word, however, they wouldn't know."

He was just ahead of me and he was still looking at them, his hands at his sides, just as he had been all along.

Slowly, he turned and came up to me and took my right hand.

The blood had rushed to my face. I wanted to say something but I couldn't. I kept staring at them. And now I was staring at him and staring at the white hand that held mine.

"It's quite all right," he said almost sadly. "I don't think they dislike your touching them."

For a moment I couldn't understand him. Then I did understand. "You mean you ... You don't know whether... They just sit there and ... Oooh God!"

And his words of hundreds of years ago, embedded in Armand's tale, came back to me: Those Who Must Be Kept are at peace, or in silence. More than that we may never know.

I was shuddering all over. I couldn't stop the tremors in my arms and my legs.

"They're breathing, thinking, living, as we are," I stammered. "How long have they been like this, how long?"

"Calm yourself," he said, patting my hand.

"Oh God," I said again stupidly. I kept saying it. No other words sufficed. "But who are they?" I asked finally. My voice was rising hysterically. "Are they Osiris and Isis? Is that who they are?"

"I don't know."

"I want to get away from them. I want to get out of here."

"Why?" he asked calmly.

"Because they ... they are alive inside their bodies and they ... they can't speak or move!"

"How do you know they can't?" he said. His voice was low, soothing as before.

"But they don't. That's the whole point. They don't -- "

"Come," he said. "I want you to look at them a little more. And then I'll take you back up and I'll tell you everything, as I've already said I would."

"I don't want to look at them anymore, Marius, honestly I don't," I said, trying to get my hand free, and shaking my head. But he was holding on to me as firmly as a statue might, it seemed, and I couldn't stop thinking how much like their skin was his skin, how he was taking on the same impossible luster, how when his face was in repose, it was as smooth as theirs!

He was becoming like them. And sometime in the great yawn of eternity, I would become like him! If I survived that long.

"Please, Marius..." I said. I was beyond shame and vanity. I wanted to get out of the room.

"Wait for me then," he said patiently. "Stay here."

And he let my hand go. He turned and looked down at the flowers I had crushed, the spilled water.

And before my eyes these things were corrected, the flowers put back in the vase, the water gone from the floor.

He stood looking at the two before him, and then I heard his thoughts. He was greeting them in some personal way that did not require an address or a title. He was explaining to them why he had been away the last few nights. He had gone into Egypt. And he had brought back gifts for them which he would soon bring. He would take them out to look at the sea very soon.

I started to calm down a little. But my mind was now anatomizing all that had come clear to me at the moment of shock. He cared for them. He had always cared for them. He made this chamber beautiful because they were staring at it, and they just might care about the beauty of the paintings and the flowers he brought.

But he didn't know. And all I had to do was look squarely at them again to feel horror, that they were alive and locked inside themselves!

"I can't bear this," I murmured. I knew, without his ever telling me, the reason that he kept them. He could not bury them deep in the earth somewhere because they were conscious. He would not burn them because they were helpless and could not give their consent. Oh, God, it was getting worse and worse.

But he kept them as the ancient pagans kept their gods in temples that were their houses. He brought them flowers.

And now as I watched, he was lighting incense for them, a small cake that he had taken out of a silk handkerchief. This he told them had come from Egypt. And he was putting it to burn in a small bronze dish.

My eyes began to tear. I actually began to cry.

When I looked up, he was standing with his back to them, and I could see them over his shoulder. He looked shockingly

like them, a statue dressed in fabric. And I felt maybe he was doing it deliberately, letting his face go blank.