Jonathan Lawman and I took a channal-boat out of Dover in mid-April of 1846, he with a multitude of travel guides and blank notebooks, I with my sketchbook and pencils. We planned to disembark at Calais and follow a “Grand Tour” of sorts, stopping at Paris for a few weeks before heading to Geneva, and from there, to Florence or Pisa. Jon attributed his sudden travel fever to an unfinished novel of his that he thought might benefit from a change of scenery: grateful as I was for a chance to travel and collect material for my sketches, I didn’t press him further. But there was something strange about his attitude as we boarded the ferry, an extra jumpiness in his already animated expression, that told me quite clearly what the expedition was really about.
He was looking for stories again.
I had known Jonathan for almost thirteen years, from the time we were both students at Oxford. We met through a mutual shyness, which eventually resulted in the both of us fleeing to the dusty clutches of the library on the same late September day. Jon was known in some circles as a writer of tales, but of too low quality to be considered for anything but circulation throughout the collage. My own work fared little better, and at the time of our meeting I had exhibited only one painting at the National Gallery, with moderate success. Having run short on inspiration and incentive, we both turned to the back shelves of the library in search of encouragement. We were so lost in our own thoughts that we didn’t notice each other until our hands met on the spine of Hesiod’s Theogony.
From that moment on, we became inseparable, bound by a mutual interest in the forgotten and the obscure. I illustrated many of his unconventional stories, which fed my muse like nothing else could. He, in turn, used my paintings and uncompleted sketches as the basis for some more successful works. After leaving Oxford in the summer of 1835, we continued on together, sharing a rented house near the edge of the Soho district, which was then just beginning its decline. I made some half-hearted attempts to sell our joint work: when those meager profits ran out, we lived on credit. We continued in this way until February of 1846, when Jon’s inexhaustible stream of ingenuity finally dried up.
The change in him was remarkable. He wrote nothing for nearly two months, spending most of his time either at the theater or locked in the study of our small flat, pouring over the books he once enjoyed so much. The idleness was unbearable for both of us. Finally, in the last week of March, he announced that we were going on a holiday.
As neither of us had gone on the extensive European tour that was at the time considered an Englishman’s birthright, Jon made sure to include a number of galleries and museums in our itinerary. It wasn’t until we were relaxing in the lounge of the boat, halfway across the Strait of Dover, that I realized Jon had no intention of sticking to that plan.
“Just look at it, Gabriel,” he said, gesturing to the map before him with a wave of his cigarette. A cloud of blue-tinted smoke hovered in a line over the Somme river. “All of Europe, just waiting to be written about. Or illustrated,” he amended, glancing at the folder of sketches leaning against my chair.
I shrugged noncommittally and drummed my fingers on the table.
Jon swung a playful punch at my shoulder. “Well, where do you want to go first?” he laughed. “Calais? No, there’s nothing to see there, except for the Côte d'Opale, which looks just as well from Dover on a clear day. How about Amiens?” He traced the Somme on the map, dispersing the cloud of smoke.
“Only if we go to the cathedral,” I said.
“Of course. How could we pass it up? You’ve heard the stories about that place.”
I sighed. “Is that what this is about?” Jon returned my shrug and raised his cigarette to his lips. “Fine, then, but don’t expect me to keep a midnight vigil with you on the labyrinth. I can appreciate the place just fine without having my nerves tested.”
“Ah, well,” Jon said. “Where we’re headed, there’s more of interest than haunted cathedrals.”
I meant to ask what he meant, but just then a young man poked his head into the room and announced that we would be docking at Calais within ten minutes. Jon folded the map into a neat square and followed him out to the deck, leaving me alone in the lounge with a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Immediately after disembarking at Calais, Jon rented another small vessel to take us south-east along the coast to the mouth of the Somme, and from there, to Amiens. We had a surprisingly easy time finding a crew willing to take us, even after we confessed to a shortage of ready money, French or English.
Despite a cool wind and sudden rainstorm beginning around noon on the first day, the trip went smoothly. Jon returned to his old self again, a strange mixture of animation and timidity that unnerved nearly everyone he came in contact with. He babbled excitedly with the sailors in a rough combination of English and French, exchanging old sea stories and superstitions. As for me, my fascination with the supernatural extended only so far as it could inspire paintings. I shied away from it all, preferring the calm silence of our cabin for most of the journey.
By morning of the third day, we had gone some eighty miles up the river. The Somme was wide in those parts, and a smooth, even cobalt, except where it reflected the thick foliage along the banks. The land sloped gently, and we found places along the river where the water didn’t seem to know if it should flow north or south. There were no cities nearby, but a few peasant villages could be seen resting farther up in the valley, their thatched or tiled roofs standing out against the green hills like autumn leaves.
A little after noon, I became aware of a faint rushing sound coming from the outside, as though the rain had returned and tripled in intensity: but after running out to the lower deck, I saw that, far from growing stronger, it had faded into a few stray drops that left pockmarks on the river’s mirror surface. The sound was coming from downstream.
“Le son,” I called to one of the sailors. “Que le cause?”
Though my French was rough, he seemed to understand well enough. He leaned over the rail and shaded his eyes with one hand, clinging to a rope with the other. After a few moments he shook his head. “Je ne sais pas.”
At that moment, Jon appeared from the front of the boat, the captain at his side. Both men were frowning, and Jon was twisting a strand of his thick brown hair around his forefinger, a sure sign of anxiety.
“There’s something up ahead, Gabriel,” he said, while the captain relayed a similar message to the sailor. “Something that shouldn’t be there. At least, it isn’t on our map.” He reached for the paper folded in his pocket, but I waved the motion away.
“Never mind if it’s on our map or not. What is it?”
“That’s the problem: we don’t know. It looks like a tributary.”
“Like another river, flowing into the Somme. The bank becomes steep all of a sudden, and there’s a sheet of water rushing over the side. It’s all rapids.”
“Rapids?” I went to the rail and leaned out as far as I dared. The sound was growing louder, now unmistakably the hollow rush of water pouring over stone. I barely had time to turn my head when the left bank vanished behind a wall of white spray, half again the height of our boat. The captain ran past us to the foredeck, but it was too late: already, we could hear rocks scraping against the bottom.
I leapt back from the railing, shaking droplets of water from my hair. Jon stood leaning against the cabin wall with the map unfolded in his hands. He mumbled something under his breath before crumpling it up and returning it to its place in his pocket.
“Why on earth is this cliff...” he began, but I cut him off with an excited shout.
“Look! Behind the waterfall--is that a staircase?”
Jon glanced at the point indicated by my trembling finger before calling up to the captain. “Hold up there!” he shouted. “There’s something behind the waterfall!”
There was no need for the command, as the boat was already trapped on the treacherous rocks. It was little more than a miracle that we weren’t taking on water already.
But even from where we stood, it was obvious that the shape behind the waterfall was manmade. A series of steps, worn down in the middle by heavy use, had been carved into the foreign wall of stone.
Jon took one more look before dashing back to our cabin. He emerged a few moments later with our luggage balanced in his arms, the hideous carpet bag that held his notebooks slung over one shoulder.
“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?” I grabbed my portfolio from its place at the very top of the pile. “If you plan on leaving the boat now, I’ll have you know you can do it alone. Do you have any idea where those stairs lead?”
“None whatsoever.” As he dropped the luggage onto the deck beside me, the sailors around us exchanged looks in a way that was not at all encouraging. “Now stop staring like an idiot and give me a hand. This isn’t all mine, you know.”
I lifted my valise from the pile and followed him to the rail. “We can’t just leave the boat stranded here, you know.”
“We‘re no sailors, and there‘s no way our presence is going to help. Come on, Gabriel, didn’t we pay them enough in Calais?” His tone was almost pleading, but I heard the playfulness beneath. An unmapped river, a staircase hidden behind a waterfall: this was all just a game to him, the makings of a grand adventure.
I glanced once more around the deck, but all the sailors had put themselves to work trying to push the craft away from the rocks. “Fine,” I said, drawing out the word for as long as my breath held. “Do you have everything? Then let’s go.”
A brilliant smile spread across Jon’s face as he gathered up his belongings and pulled himself over the side, landing on the partially submerged rocks beside the falls. “You won’t regret this!” he called, laughing brightly as I followed him to the staircase.
He was wrong.
The steps were sheltered by a rock outcropping far overhead, but mist from the waterfall left them moist and slippery. Jon and I crawled up at an agonizingly slow pace, hastening only once, after Jon had glanced over the side and let out a small cry of horror. One of the rocks in the river below us looked unsettlingly like a human skull.
Where the staircase stopped, a small opening appeared in the rock beside us, hardly wide enough for a man to fit through. I hesitated at the thought of crawling into the blackness beyond, heavy with the smell of wet limestone, but Jon pushed his way past me with a laugh. The staircase was not an accident of nature, and whoever built it had seen no reason to fear the cave.
I let Jon lead the way down. While the ceiling was too low for us to stand, I sensed an open space off to either side. For most of the journey, the only light came from the entrance behind us, growing smaller with each passing minute: until finally, just when my wrists were so sore from supporting my weight that I was sure I couldn’t crawl any farther, we turned a corner and found ourselves blinking in the afternoon sunlight.
The rain clouds of that morning had entirely disappeared. Jon shaded his eyes with one hand, balancing all of his luggage in the other. Behind us, the solid wall of limestone we had seen from the river towered over our heads, covered in flowering vines and bushes as they hooked their roots into the rough surface. We’d left the fens and marshes of the Somme valley behind, and the trunks of massive oak trees rose up from the firm, leaf-blanketed ground like the columns of a gigantic cathedral. Some of the leaves had been cleared away to form a faint path.
With Jon once again in the lead, we followed the trail as it wound through the forest, cresting rounded hills and sliding past the ruins of peasant cottages. The air was still and thick with the smell of rotting wood: no breeze stirred the grasping, finger-shaped branches of the oaks. At last the path climbed one final hill, and we found ourselves looking down at a village.
The place seemed untouched by time: the houses, half-timbered or built of cream-colored brick, looked exactly as they must have fifty years before. Their low roofs shaded the dirt streets, which were almost deserted except for a milkmaid or two coming in from the surrounding pastures. About a mile away, built on higher ground, was a thoroughly unpleasant looking manor house, too stark and angular to merit the name chateau. The glaring white of its walls resembled bleached bones more than anything else.
A great black crow suddenly took off from its perch in a tree beside our path. Jon, his reverie interrupted, shifted his belongings into his other arm with a frown and started down the hill.
“Wait!” I called. “We gave no idea where we are. Is this place even on our map?”
“Our map is outdated,” Jon called back. “And these trees seem real enough. Unless Fata Morgana has turned from ice castles to country chateaux, the town should be, too.”
I followed him down with growing unease, certain that a more inhospitable-looking place could not exist on the face of the earth.
The path lead us straight to the front door of the inn, a long, thatch-roofed building that looked like a stable from the outside and smelled like one within. The uneven boards of the floor were littered with straw, wood shavings, and shards of rough pottery. By the time I shoved my way through the narrow door, Jon was already seated at the counter, engaged in conversation with a man who so matched the building in appearance and manner that I knew he was the innkeeper.
After a few false starts, Jon managed to convey that we were travelers from England in search of lodgings, and that we would like to know the name of the manor house on the far hill. While he struggled to make out the innkeeper’s reply--given in heavily accented Somme Valley idiom--I paced the length of the common room, shifting the pungent straw into small piles. Finally Jon left his chair and came over to me with a puzzled expression on his face.
“He says we should go up to the Countess’s house.”
A few pages slipped out of my portfolio, and I dropped to my knees to gather them up. “The what?”
“That’s what he calls it, the Maison de Comtesse. It seems she likes foreign visitors.”
“The Countess likes foreign visitors?” I stood hastily, nearly spilling my portfolio again. “I can’t imagine she gets many of them here. Did he say her name?”
“Semara, Samera, something like that. It’s what they used to call the Somme.” Jon waved the question away with flick of his wrist. “If we start out now, we should be there before dinner. I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.”
As if that settled the matter, he left the inn and started along the road to the mansion.
His prediction proved correct: we reached the hill a little after four o’clock, when all the household was gathering in the dining room. We could see in through the vast front windows, and from the great wooden table and antique tapestries in that room alone, the house looked to me like a symbol of all the excesses of the pre-revolution nobility.
In the minute or more before our knock was answered, I looked around the ridge on which the mansion was built. A thick line of trees blocked my view to the north and west: to the south, the village stretched out like a pile of bricks: and to the east, a slender white church rose up from the grass. Its copper roof had acquired a deep green patina, and the leaded glass windows were blackened with age. A strangely shaped addition stuck out of its western transept, with five irregular walls a peaked, steeple-like roof.
Before I could draw it to Jon’s attention, the door before us opened, and a tiny woman peered out from the hall. Though gray-haired, she was as smooth-faced as a child: the skin on her face seemed stretched too tautly for any wrinkles to form.
“What do you want?” she demanded, first in French, then in crisp English.
“We were sent by the innkeeper, Gustave Legard,” Jon said. “He told us to ask for the Countess.”
“The Countess is engaged at the moment.” She arched one thin, dark eyebrow, the only part of her face that had any color to it. “What is it you were looking for?”
“Dinner, to start with. A decent room to spare us Legard’s lovely establishment.”
“And a look at the church tomorrow morning, if anyone can be spared to show us around,” I added, laying a hand on Jon’s shoulder. As long as he felt like testing the limits of the Countess’s hospitality.
“And the library, too, I imagine,” the woman said. “You foreigners are all the same. You come for the gardens and the cathedrals, and when you’ve seen enough of those, you come for the books. I will never understand how she comes to enjoy your company so much. Well, come in, dinner is getting cold! I hope you like boudin noir.”
She led us into the dining room, where seven or eight people sat clustered around the head of the table, quietly sipping a pale, fish-scented soup from bowls of blue china. Our guide directed us to the opposite end and shouted orders to a servant for two more places to be laid out. The girl emerged from what I assumed to be the kitchen a moment later with a stack of plates and heavy silverware, which she hastily set up before the two chairs at the farthest edge of the table.
Once the food was sent in--a platter of boudin noir, served with mashed potatoes and caramelized apples, and two more cups of the watery soup--our guide dismissed herself, and we were left to our meal.
The food, while not appalling, was poor. I found the blood sausage initially bland, cool and not quite firm, though it had an almost sweet aftertaste. The soup, despite its paleness, tasted as strongly as it smelled. I had the suspicion our cook had tried for cotriade but run short on herbs.
I ate quickly, and while Jon still swirled his spoon in a bowl of soup, I watched the other guests. They said nothing throughout the meal; though their clothing was all detailed and richly embroidered, they accepted the peasant fare on their plates as if well used to it. Their faces were neither pleasant nor ugly, but mundane, like the subjects of a low quality painter. I felt a strange urge to sketch their surroundings but leave the people themselves alone.
When we were both finished with our meal, the servant girl came again to clear the dishes.
“Madame Helene would like to see you in the parlor,” she said, stacking everything onto one unsteady pile and slipping into the kitchen.
Mme. Helene turned out to be the tiny woman who had met us at the door. She was waiting for us in a dark room across the hall from the kitchen, perched on the seat of an oversized Louis XVI bergere that seemed determined to swallow her whole.
“The Countess regrets that she is unable to see you at this time,” she said as we took our seats on the slender couch across from her. “And she asks me to send her apologies: normally, we are more welcoming of guests. She hopes you will take advantage of the library while you are here, and the church, if you wish.” She directed this last to me with a small nod.
“Please pass along our thanks to the Countess,” I said.
Helene shrugged, as if to say our gratitude was anticipated. “She hopes you both will stay long enough for her to make your acquaintance. She does so enjoy news from aboard. Are you very fond of drawing, Mr. Leighton?” Her eyes were suddenly on me, their pale green flaring like light on the scales of a water snake.
“He dabbles,” Jon finished for me with a wink.
I shifted my elbow, digging it into his ribs ever so slightly. “I was going to ask how you knew my name.”
“It’s printed on the inside of the portfolio you left lying in the front hall, along with a startling array of suitcases and a most objectionable carpet bag.” Her voice softened as she the traced the pattern on her armrest with one pointed fingernail. “The Countess has been meaning to have a portrait done, and she thought to offer the project to you: I’m sure you could find the time. She very much enjoyed your work.”
I myself flushing under her scrutiny, torn between irritation that my work had been looked over without my permission and pleasure that it had been so well received. “I’d be happy to be of service,” I mumbled.
Once again, my answer was anticipated. Helene turned to Jon with a shrug. “And what is it that you do?”
“Oh? Anything respectable?”
Jon shifted on the couch beside me. “Decidedly not.”
“Well.” She lifted her finger from the upholstery with a flick of her wrist. “I’m sure we’ll find a use for you.”
It was not the answer Jon was hoping for, he but he inclined his head in acquiescence. Helene pulled herself to her feet with a sigh.
“Clytemne will show you to your rooms,” she said, ringing a small bell from the table beside her. “Sleep well.”
The servant girl, Clytemne, appeared in the doorway a moment later. She led us to the back of the house and up two staircases to a narrow sitting room, off of which branched a pair of bedrooms. Like those in the dining room, the furnishings were rich but aging. Jon retired immediately, but I stayed awake for a few hours, listening as the faint household sounds slowly faded into silence.
Early the next morning, after a breakfast of baguette with jam and coffee, Helene came to take me down the ridge to the church. When we arrived, we found the door already opened, possibly in anticipation of the household’s morning prayers. Even in the fresh morning sunlight, the interior seemed strange and sinister, but that may have been only to my eyes and foreign sensibilities. Though the roof was sloped from the outside, the ceiling within was flat, and painted with a stygian Last Judgment. A disproportionately large organ stood in the east transept, while the nave was empty except for three rows of pews. A door at the back of the west transept lead, I assumed, to the pentagonal addition I had seen from the mansion door.
As I entered the western branch to study the labyrinthine floor mosaic, I heard a small clang come from behind the door, as if a metal object had been dropped. I mentioned it to Helene, who shrugged and dismissed it as something the wind had blown against the copper roof.
We stayed in the church until noon, when I finally ran out of sketch paper and suggested we return to the mansion for more. I met Jon on the way up the stairs to our apartments. He was dressed, but his hair was uncombed and his fingers covered with ink stains. He was obviously just returning from the library.
“The books they have here, Gabriel--amazing! There are letters and diaries up there reaching back for the last five centuries! And some of the stories...” He lowered his voice and beckoned for me to come closer. “More rumors have been spread about this place that the rest of the Somme valley combined, Amiens included.” Before I could ask him to elaborate, he was gone, vanished down the stairs to borrow more ink from the Countess’s study.
This pattern continued for days, Jon and I each laboring at our separate projects, meeting only occasionally, at meals or in corridors, to exchange notes. Everyone at the chateau was helpful, if distant, always ready to secure this book or the keys to that room, if never quite willing to share anecdotes or histories.
On the fifth day since our arrival, Helene invited me down to the Countess’s sitting room to begin her portrait.
She was waiting for us in a worn velvet chair by the window. Helene’s introductions were completely unnecessary: the Countess matched her people and her home so exactly, I never could have mistaken her for anyone else. Slender but not weak-featured, she was of middle-height, with hair neither brown nor blond but a mixture of the two, and graying eyes halfway between black and green. Her face was tired but pleasant, with long, dark lashes and a soft mouth that turned up slightly at the corners. I thought she may have been in her mid-thirties, but even that was hard to guess.
Helene left the room while I set up the small easel and canvas she had loaned me. As I began the first lines of the portrait, sketching out the contours of the Countess’s face and the window behind her, the lady began twisting the fabric of her skirt between her hands.
“Mme. Helene tells me you’ve been doing sketches of the church,” she said. I was surprised at the crisp clarity of her English--even Helene’s had not been so wholly without accent.
“I have. It’s a very attractive building.”
She smiled, lowering her eyelids. I quickly copied the expression onto my canvas. “I suppose you don’t have anything like it in England.”
“No, nothing.” My pencil line went wide on the curve of her upper lip. I lifted an eraser from the table and gently rubbed it away. “When was it built? Helene gave me a year, but I can’t quite recall--”
“1624,” she said. “An artist came from Brussels to work on the ceiling and the organ pipes. I’m not so fond of the style myself: stark on the outside, gaudy within. It should be the other way around, don’t you think?”
“The Gothic style?” I nodded. “I suppose. I imagine Mme. Helene mentioned that Jon and I both attended Oxford?”
The Countess’s smile widened. “Really? How charming. You mean to reference the architecture, I suppose. It really is a lovely building. A friend of mine...well, never mind. Did you study Greek by any chance, Mr. Leighton?”
“At Oxford? Some.” I tore my attention from the painting for a moment, taken aback by the change of subject. “Though Jon is the real Classics scholar.”
“I wasn’t talking about the language.”
But the Countess said nothing more. I noticed, as if for the first time--though I had known it all along--that her hands still toyed with the skirt of her gown. I turned back to the canvas, where the rubies of her necklace were slowly beginning to take shape. The low collar of her bodice would come next, and then I would go back to the top of the portrait and fill in the folds of the curtains.
“Come to the church with me tomorrow,” the Countess said suddenly, breaking my concentration. “There’s something that Helene didn’t show you--something you may find to be of interest.”
“I’d love to see it,” I said.
The Countess nodded and gestured for me to resume my work on the portrait.
She didn’t come for me until late the next evening, after the dinner plates had all been cleared from the dining room and most of the household retired to the parlor or library. The air was cool and still as we crossed the lawn, pausing now and then as some sound came from the house behind us. Instead of entering through the church door, the Countess led me around the side to the strange addition branching off the west transept. There was a door on the back wall, and a slender key hung from nail driven into a tree nearby. She unlocked the door and motioned me inside with a wave of her hand.
The structure was pitch black on the inside, and slightly colder than the outdoor air. The Countess followed me in with a lit candle, which she set in the lantern hanging from the ceiling. The fiery painting of the church had not carried through to this room--the room I now recognized as the mausoleum. Three stone sarcophagi stood in the center, gazing up at the black ceiling as though watching stars. The right and center coffins were unadorned, except for engraved names and iron fleur-de-lis fastened to the lid: the left one was covered in a copper effigy of a young woman.
“My arrière grand-mère,” the Countess said, trailing one hand along the sculpted face. “My seven-times great grandmother. She built this church. But this is not what I wanted you to see. Look, on the wall behind you!”
I turned around slowly, unsure what to expect. From where I stood, I could make out the faint outline of something on the wall. The Countess handed me the lantern, and I stepped closer.
Now I could see a statue standing out from the wall, a robed and hooded figure that the sculptor had meant to be a woman, as evidenced only by the girdle wrapped around its slender waist and the title chiseled into the wall below it.
“Adrasteia,” I read. “The Inescapable.”
“Fate?” the Countess asked, her fingers brushing the hem of the figure’s robe.
“Nemesis,” I said. It was beginning to make sense now. The Countess didn’t care if I knew the Greek language: she was looking for someone who knew the mythology. “Goddess of retribution. But why would anyone put a statue of her...” My voice trailed off. I had noticed something in the shadows.
I went around to the side of the statue, running my hands along the wall behind it. What I had taken to be untreated stone was in fact a further carving. I raised the lantern high above my head, watching the way the statue’s shadow fell across the stone. There, in the darkness, the sculptor had already carved it.
The figure was unduly short, and its robe seemed less precise than the one on the statue itself, as if it concealed something less solid. Where a slender, poised hand emerged from the statue’s left sleeve, the carving had something else entirely. It was neither hand nor claw, but less definite, almost a fin or tentacle.
“She has a shadow.”
“Yes,” the Countess said. She had returned to her place by the farthest coffin. For the first time, I noticed a chain running along the edge of it, something like a woman’s bracelet. Six links had broken off and were scattered along the top of the sarcophagus; a seventh, I saw, lay in the dust at the lady’s feet. “Have you ever heard of anything like it?”
I shook my head and lowered the lantern, leaving the shadow-thing vanish into the darkness. “But what does it mean?”
“There are stories.” She shook her head as if to clear it of unpleasant memories. “My grandmother--that is what I call her,” she said, gesturing to the coffin at her side. “She was not a popular woman. She had a sharp tongue, and it won her many enemies. One day, she went on a journey: no one knows where. Some say she went to Egypt, others, Greece. Wherever she traveled, she was gone a long time. And then suddenly she came back.”
She took a deep breath before continuing. “After she returned, things began happening to her enemies, to people she didn‘t like. She heard rumors that her husband had fallen in love with another woman, a girl named Daphné. Well, two days she had been at the chateau, when the girl was killed, run down by a horse. No one was nearby, so none could be blamed. It was a horrible accident.”
She paused for a moment, and as she did, her skirt brushed against the chain on the coffin. A handful of links slipped off the lid and dropped to the floor with a soft clang. “After that, my grandmother began building this church. Elie de Pont--he was a man who often spoke out against the Countess--well, one day he was looking up at the church. There were plans to build a bell tower then, and the tower was about fifteen feet high at the time, still incomplete. No workmen were there. But Elie was looking up at it, when suddenly a block came loose, and fell down upon him. He was killed instantly. No one could prove anything, of course, but they knew why it happened.”
I was not conscious of holding my breath until I found myself letting it out in a low gasp. The Countess nodded, and though it was too dark for me to see her face, I imagined a look of sorrow mixed with triumph.
“There were others, but I cannot remember all. She made the people more afraid of us, my grandmother. They have not insulted us since.”
We said no more, but stood there for a while in silence, until the candle burned down to a faint blue flame and the moon rose in the starless sky.
“Where were you?” Jon demanded the next morning at breakfast.
“I was visiting the church with the Countess. Why?”
“They were sharing the most amazing stories in the parlor,” Jon said, unrolling the layers of his croissant. “The most horrible and frightening accounts. The type of stories we used to work on, Gabriel.”
I took a quick sip of coffee, trying to hide my interest. “Really?” I asked. “What about?”
“Oh, you know. The mansion. The village. The Countess. Her family has had its share of madmen, let me tell you.”
“What did...what have you heard?”
Jon paused to stuff a bit of pastry into his mouth. “Well,” he said, lowering his voice. “There was one--the servants all say she was a witch, but Helene called that nonsense--anyway, she used to kill...I’m going about this all wrong.”
“No,” I said, slowly setting my cup back on its saucer. “I know something of the story. The Countess told me,” I added in answer to his startled look.
“Oh. Did you hear about her death?” I shook my head, and Jon smiled, always eager to share a story. “It seems the townspeople were getting sick of her tricks, and they wanted to burn her. But someone must have warned her beforehand, because when they came for her, they found that she had poisoned herself. So they put her in a stone coffin and closed it with silver, in case someone ever tried to call her back from the dead. What do you think of that?”
“It’s interesting. Did it work?”
Jon’s smiled vanished. “That’s the strange part,” he said. “You see, a visitor came through this valley about forty years ago, a young priest from Amiens. Everyone in the village thought he was a strange fellow, but he became popular up at the Maison. No one knew why. He was a short, ugly fellow, and hardly a skilled conversationalist—in fact, he spent most of his time in the church.”
I narrowed my eyes and nodded for him to continue.
“Well, several months passed, and he chose to stay on the chateau. But something bothered him, something about the church. He complained of nightmares. When he was awake, he refused to pass by the front door. Finally, late in the winter of ‘09, he decided to burn it.
“He took a handful of young men from the village, and they came up on the church through the woods in back. Some of the townspeople gathered in the inn, waiting to see what would happen. At first, they saw nothing. Then, around midnight, they heard--you know how far it is to the inn, don’t you?--they heard someone screaming. Then the screaming stopped. They heard nothing for the rest of the night.
“When they went out into the sunlight the next morning, do you know what they found?”
I shook my head and raised the coffee cup to my lips.
“Neither did they.”
He sat back in his chair with a satisfied smile. “That’s not the end of it, is it?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a better storyteller than that, Jon.”
“I’m not making this up!” he said indignantly. “Very well, I’ll tell you what Clytemne told me. She said they found the men in a clearing in the woods. All of them were dead, except for the priest, who had just disappeared. A set of footprints lead down to the edge of a frozen brook, but the ice was unbroken. He was gone. They found his rosary there when the snow melted in the spring.”
“And the others?”
“The others were dead. Strangled, they thought at first, but their skin—their skin was gone. As though the rope used to murder them had been dipped in acid. The palms of their hands were burned, too, from when they had tried to pull it away…” He shuddered, and I knew him well enough to know that it was not for theatrical effect. “There was nothing left but bones. The search party refused to bring them out into the light. They called the village priest and buried them all there, beneath the tree branches and the snow.”
I lowered my eyes and examined the scarred surface of the table. “I’m warning you, Gabriel,” Jon said, laying his hand on mine. “Stay away from her. I saw a painting last night...it was of the witch, but I swear, it looked just like her. This whole place looks just like it used to. I dragged us into a mess, Gabriel. Please be careful.”
I pulled my hand out from under his. “I will,” I said coolly.
We finished breakfast in silence.
I spent the next three days working on the Countess’s portrait. Though I was pleased with the finished pencil sketch and a few color studies, the oil paints Helene provided were old, and the final work left much to be desired. I found myself spending hours at a time poised in front of the easel, laboriously applying paint. Finally, at evening on the third day, it was completed to my satisfaction, and I presented it to the Countess.
“It’s very lovely,” she murmured, pressing her fingertips into the dried paint.
She turned to me with a sad smile. “I suppose you’ll be leaving now?”
“I don’t imagine you want to stay here much longer. Your friend seems most impatient to leave.”
It was true. Jon had all the material he needed from the library, and each day we spent at the chateau set him more and more on edge. I lifted the Countess’s hand from the painting and gently kissed it.
“Please don’t think us ungrateful,” I said.
She shook her head and turned back to the painting.
We made preparations to leave around noon the next day. I left Jon in charge of packing, a task he set into with surprising gusto, considering that he was the one who led us to the mansion in the first place. As for me, I went down to the mausoleum to say my farewells to the Countess.
She wasn’t there, of course. I took the key from its nail in the woods and slipped into the darkened little tomb. The coffins looked less sinister now that the setting sun cast its rays on their pale faces, and the Inescapable herself seemed worn, too tired to hunt down her enemies. Now that I stood directly beside it, I saw that the copper sarcophagus and the current Countess had much in common in the way of eyes and mouth, though there was a slight difference in the neck and still, frozen hands.
“Well,” I said softly. “I suppose this is farewell, Countess.”
As if in answer, the silver chain from her coffin clattered to the floor. I waited, almost expecting the lid to suddenly rise up, but nothing more happened. With a sigh, I turned and left the tombs to keep their own secrets.
We traveled fast, retracing our steps to the cave and, from there, south along the banks of the Somme. In less than a week we reached Amiens, but neither Jon nor I wished to prolong our visit, and we quickly found another boat and crew to take us back to England. Jon seemed frightfully nervous on the return trip, always glancing over his shoulder when we spoke together and staring off into space when I left him alone.
His breakdown came as we passed the spot where, on our journey upriver, we both could have sworn the waterfall had been. It wasn’t there now.
“Something’s wrong, Gabriel,” he said, struggling to light a cigarette. “Something’s terribly wrong. We weren’t supposed to find her. She isn’t going to let us get away after all we’ve seen, don’t you understand? She never was buried...whatever they put in that coffin, it wasn’t her. But it’s with her now. She’s following us.” He pulled a notebook out of his carpetbag and shoved it at me.
“I know I should have said it before,” he murmured as I opened it to the front page. “But surely you’ve noticed it for yourself. The nightmares…I can’t sleep anymore. Every time I turn, she’s there, out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes it’s her, and sometimes it’s the other one, the one in the hood. Don’t you see, Gabriel?” He tossed the cigarette away in disgust. “There, on the last page! That isn’t my handwriting!”
I flipped through the notebook with trembling hands. The last page was tightly crumpled, the edges blackened and torn as though they had been burned. A single line of text ran across the center of the page in thin, shaky letters.
Romans 12:19—Vengeance is mine; I will repay.
I handed the notebook back, shaking my head. For once, I had no idea what to say.
Jon and I parted ways in Dover, promising to reunite once I’d sold a few paintings and he’d recovered his nerves. I never saw him again.
Three days ago, the story reached me of how, in early May of 1846, a young man fitting Jon’s description stopped at an inn in a small village outside of Canterbury. He was found dead the next morning, and buried two days after that, and those who saw the body never spoke of what they’d seen, except to call it divine judgment and cross themselves. The innkeepers left the area, as did many of the neighbors, and the inn was burnt to the ground, along with the strange and illegible papers the traveler had been carrying with him.
I haven’t slept a night since the news reached me. It’s terrible to think of what Jon’s curiosity finally did to him: but even worse is the thought that, for all these years since we parted ways, the same nightmares have troubled my sleep: and I now doubt that I’ll ever find peace, until I too fall under that shadow which has persisted all these years in haunting my dreams.