of Satan: a Gothic tale
"A Servant of Satan" began as a lark, after I'd just reviewed The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories, and decided "I could do one of those too." But the story itself evolved in strange new directions and underwent far more revision than I usually do. I wrote about 3 times as much text as you see in the final. I also wrote an entire article about the process, which I called "the Story of a Revision" (available elsewhere in infinity plus).
A Servant of Satan: a Gothic tale
Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies! --
Understand that this happened a long time ago, and that, terrible though some parts may be, it is a preposterous story. The early part of my native century was a suitable setting for preposterous stories. I mean the years immediately after the usurper Bonaparte had been safely shuffled off to St. Helena, when a profoundly longed-for peace settled over an exhausted Europe, and the Dark Satanic Mills of industrialism had yet to cloud the skies. Then was an interval for beauty and, indeed, for such recreational horrors as the mind could conjure up in fancy. So Young Werther sorrowed, and the rest of us pretended to, we who were young, at least, who had escaped the cataclysm by the mere chance of being a few years short of military age at the time of Waterloo.
Yes, it was the season for "Monk" Lewis and his kind, for Mrs. Shelley's lurching creature, for castle-spectres and similar shrieking delights. We, the pampered children, to whom twenty years of war and hardship were but nursery tales, could further outrage our parents by professing to admire the excesses of Lord Byron and his circle, which so shocked decent society.
Titus Cunningham and I were of that time. The world was ours. In the first bloom of early manhood, he chose me to be his travelling companion for a tour of the pacified Continent, and of course I was delighted to go.
We had but to maintain appearances. Cunningham's father was a certain Lord Bromley, who had been a spectacular wastrel in his own day, a member of the Hellfire Club, and an intimate of the Prince Regent back when the royal son had inspired so many desperate prayers for the recovery of George the Third. It was even whispered that the younger Cunningham's parentage was questionable. But no one challenged it. There wasn't enough the inheritance to be worth challenging. Indeed, the joke went that the Bromley tenants consisted of a band of Gypsies and a dozen sheep, and after the Gypsies stole the sheep, Lord Bromley was somewhat embarrassed for resources.
I was the one with money in the purse, the third son of a successful wool merchant, of wretchedly undistinguished background. As I had displayed no talent for accounts and ledgers, my father was glad to be rid of me for a while.
So off we went, only by the remotest stretch of the imagination qualified for the company we kept; but my friend had his name and certain letters of introduction, which sufficed. We came to Paris, not yet the glittering capital of the Second Empire, but a city whose natural gaiety was almost subdued from the generation-long catastrophe of Revolution and Bonapartism.
Still, a fat and stupid Bourbon dozed on the French throne and Paris had its charms, in the bright and brilliant spring.
We took the usual tours expected of young gentlemen: the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Tuileries (which was still standing then); but Cunningham and I were drawn, by mutual inclination, to the benighted, still-medieval parts of the city, where barbarous houses leaned fantastically out over the chilly, damp alleys to block out the sun, and one might hope to discover that alchemists labored mysteriously in cluttered cellars, their search for worldly riches being like shadows cast in Plato's cave, but hinting at some gnostic quest for inner, mystical truth.
Suffice it to say that most of our amusements were harmless, even educational antiquarianism. We sought out strange carvings above doorways, in shadowy churchyards, and laughed at their hideousness. Titus made sketches of them, of great artistic merit.
Some guardian spirit preserved our innocence, even one midnight when we came upon an especially squalid dwelling which seethed with unwholesome light and with the sounds of evil revelry. My friend made bold to knock on the door. The place was a brothel. A painted, dishevelled woman came to the door, exclaimed, "Why! You're just a child!" and slammed the door in his face. For indeed the future Lord Bromley was one of those young men of slight stature, soft feature, and fumbling demeanor to whom adolescence seems to cling.
It was innocent, too, I say, when we entered the foul-smelling shop
of a decrepit Jew and acquired an certain ancient, black-lettered book
which the Jew seemed glad to be rid of, but which to Titus was no more
than a new toy. That very same night we two repaired to the rooftop
above our apartment, lit black candles, and performed certain rites,
hoping to conjure out of the warm and blossom-scented air we knew not
what winged monstrosities.
But things became by degrees less innocent when we met the "Countess" Sophie-Marie Devereaux. My friend made the connection, perhaps whispering some name from his father's glory days. Somehow we found ourselves one evening at a glittering ball, in a palatial chateau just outside the city. I certainly felt out of place among the uniforms, the ladies in sweeping gowns, and the silken-clad exquisites, all of whom were waited on by servants in liveries which had not changed since the time of Louis XV. But if anyone made jests at our expense, my friend ignored them and I probably failed to understand, as my French was weak anyway.
We didn't care. Soon Cunningham stood completely fixated on the striking figure of a woman about our own age, tall with amazingly dark eyes, with skin as pale and smooth as marble, with perfect, raven-black hair and the demeanor of an empress. Certainly the other young men swarmed about her thick as starlings, even a couple bemedalled chaps who, I was given to understand, were of (or close to) the royal house of Bourbon.
We could only watch from afar.
"Oh! She is a goddess!" exclaimed my friend. "I must come to know her!"
Thus was Romeo smitten by the first sight of Juliet.
I have to admit that my heart stopped, too, at the sight of her.
Thus Faustus glimpsed Helen. The door to Hell opened, just a crack, and that was enough.
"You must help me!" said Titus.
"But what can I do?"
He gazed down at his feet and said very softly. "Perhaps nothing, friend Peter, and so I shall die of despair."
But instead he lingered for hours gazing at the object of his desire with an expression on his face that would have done Young Werther proud, until at last I could bear no more of this and was desperate enough to drag him away bodily if I had to -- and then a miracle happened. One of the liveried servants offered my friend a little piece of paper on a silver tray.
He read what was written thereon and passed from my side, drifting through the dancing, swaying figures like a ghost in a dream, dazzled and amazed. I could only watch in wonder as the circle around the lady opened to admit him, her hand extended for his kiss, and she whispered something into his ear.
He returned to me at once.
"Ashbury, we've got to go."
"Yes. There's something I have to do."
We motioned a servant for our cloaks and left, though the festivities were still in progress (hours past midnight), and it was only as we two walked on a deserted path along the Seine that Cunningham told me what was required of him.
"She wants you to do what?"
He repeated the injunction. "It is a test," said he. "She wants me to prove that I love her."
"But you've only just met her!"
"Still, I am certain with all my heart that I love her."
There was no dissuading him. Passion far overruled sense. I could only follow along helplessly, arguing, until at last he whirled and faced me, furious to the point of madness, his anger half-concealing his very palpable fear.
"If you are my friend, you will help me! If not, I bid you farewell forever!"
Like a knight on a quest, he was ready to risk all for his lady's trifling whim.
"Couldn't she have sent you to slay a dragon? It would have been so much simpler."
"Do not joke with me!" he screamed. His voice broke, and he seemed like a hopeless little boy, and I, as his friend, felt more than anything else a need to protect him.
"All right," I said. "I'm coming."
Our mission was to invade a certain ancient graveyard and steal the skull of a sainted bishop, who had been martyred some thirty years earlier for his unstinting loyalty to the ancient regime.
We had to steal pick and shovel first, but we managed, and acquired a crowbar in the process, which proved useful as we pried open, first the gates of the cemetery, then the door to the bishop's spired and vaulted tomb.
The marble slab covering the coffin within proved a far more difficult proposition, and as we grunted and sweated by flickering lantern-light, our shadows cast like dancing demons against the walls, I paused and remarked, "I don't think it is my calling to be a resurrection man."
Young Cunningham gave me an exasperated look and said nothing. We kept on working. The slab started to give way.
"Ah, our friend here, the bishop --" He wiped his brow, and continued laboring, and spoke between gasps. " -- will provide us with a but trifle, for my lady's favor, an object for which he, being in heaven, can have no further use."
Now that Titus seemed to be joking about the matter, I felt a certain relief, for what had begun as an obsession, bordering on madness, was now an adventure, a scene worth retelling in a dozen Gothic novels; but the adventure became a dangerous obsession again when the police arrived.
I heard dogs outside, and French voices, shouting.
We had almost moved the slab aside. I could see the gilded coffin-lid below.
I seized my friend and struggled to draw him away. "Come away!"
He was in tears now. He clawed at the stone with his bare hands. "I can't! Help me! Help me!"
"Forget this! Come!"
But he would not leave, and I could not abandon him. The only recourse was in one more, mighty heave that sent the slab to the floor with such a crash that our discoverers must have stood paralyzed at the sheer terror of the sound. That is the only way Titus could have had the time to smash open the coffin with a shovel, to reach in a seize the prize; that was how we got sufficient head start to run for dear life, abandoning tools, hats, cloaks, bags, my friend clinging to his precious relic as we leapt over tombstones and scaled the outer wall of the cemetery, with shots fired behind us, hounds virtually at our heels.
But we got away. Safe again in the darkness, we both broke into the laughter of hysterical release. Then solemn, drifting once again like a soundless ghost, my friend made his way back to that great house where the ball had been held, and I could only follow. Now the guests were departed and the lights low. We went to a small, back door. A single servant, who had been carefully instructed, led us along an unlighted corridor, up a spiral staircase and into a great chamber. Thus we arrived once more, tattered and muddy, my friend limping from where he had hurt his knee during the leap over the cemetery wall, into the presence of the Countess Sophie-Marie Devereaux, she of the unknown peerage, whose name and title were never questioned because her mere existence bewitched all who beheld her into total acceptance.
The chamber, too, was without illumination, but for a single candle, in the glow of which the lady's face seemed to float like an apparition. There, reverently, Titus Cunningham laid his prize before her on a marble table, and in that instant, I am certain, not during the commission of our crime, but at that instant, all innocence was lost, for both of us.
On following nights -- always at night -- we followed that stolen skull into the company of the Countess and her most select intimates. I cannot hope to describe what followed. Whether she actually was a countess, or a courtesan, it mattered not; her manner was that of an infernal queen, as she presided over the most amazing orgies, touching and tearing flesh and soul and sense in ways I had never thought possible in wildest delirium. She posed naked with that skull in impossibly suggestive poses, while painters tried to record her wantoness on canvasses kept either closely guarded or burned, while a sculptor, unable to capture the essence of this latter-day Salome in stone, ripped out his own throat with his chisel and died in her arms; while she sang an exquisite song of death and paused between verses to drink of the sculptor's blood.
We all drank of that blood, mixed with wine and opium, when we held our first black mass in an underground vault. The supposed countess lay naked on the altar -- nay, she was the altar, offering up her flesh to every obscenity while the impaled head of a black goat, on a stake nearby, looked on. By some trick of reflected candlelight, the goat's eyes seemed to fill with fire. Someone even cried out, "Look! It's alive!" but the Countess merely laughed, and moans and sighs of pleasure mingled with screams, as the whip or the hot iron might as readily replaced the caressing hand or the hungry mouth in the heaving darkness.
Often I feared I would die, there in that darkness, amid the faceless sea of anonymous, perfumed bodies that writhed over one another like a great mass of serpents; but even death, there, could be ecstasy, and that made it all the more terrifying.
I cannot justify myself. I cannot begin to understand how such things went on and on, how Titus and I, who were little more than boys on a schoolboy outing when this started, stained ourselves with every kind of filth. In a former time we could have claimed that Satan had worked his miracles through the Countess Sophie-Marie Devereaux and her minions, that we were as ensnared by her as is the victim of a cobra by the serpent's awful dance.
But I cannot claim, in truth, that the eyes of the black goat were ever more than carrion, or that the cries in the vault were ever more than human sounds; nor did the uncertain light cast any shadows but our own. Any demons summoned arose within our own minds.
Or I could feebly argue that a supernatural agency needed no showy stagecraft, no fireworks and claps of thunder, no masks suddenly removed or put on, no monsters rising out of trapdoors; that the mere presence of such a being was enough to work all its malevolent magic.
I am left with mute incomprehension.
Yet I could not leave my friend's side, and we two existed like craven addicts for whom waking is but a hideous, lifeless interval between the false paradise of opium dreams.
That was our education. That was what we learned on our tour of the Continent.
Then it ended as suddenly as it had begun. One night the Countess led the two of us out onto a balcony, alone, where we regarded the City and the lands all about and the night sky. I could only think of that passage in St. Luke's Gospel in which Christ is taken up to the mountain top and the Devil says that he will give over all the kingdoms of the world if only the Savior would abandon his mission and fall down and worship evil.
I was so much afraid. I had already fallen down, and abased myself utterly. What more could be asked of me?
I glanced at Titus. He was as afraid as I.
The Countess seemed to know our thoughts. She laughed. "All I ask is that you follow me in a flight of fancy." Of course we were her slaves. We would follow her anywhere.
"Fancy ..." I managed to utter.
"Yes, in fancy, let us speak of a race of beings, immortals, who have come down to this earth from the stars countless ages ago. They are older than history. They are older than Adam. They have the power to assume pleasing shapes and to mold the passions of men as a sculptor molds clay. To pass the tedious millennia these creatures find it diverting to mold human lives into painful and absurd shapes. But of course the victims are only clay, so their masters care not at all what happens to them."
She turned first to me and said, "What do you think of my fancy?"
I managed to reply, "I think such creatures would be true demons indeed, utterly evil."
"Because of their absolute heartlessness?"
"Yes, precisely for that reason."
Titus stammered, then broke in. "Do you mean ... is Satan one of these creatures?"
She afforded him a quick, sharp expression, almost a grimace. "It would be possible for one of them to assume such a role, were it amusing to do so. Imagine that all the world's demonologies, all the world's religions with their wars and terrors and inquisitions, have been created merely for sport."
Now my mind was racing. There were hidden meanings here, layer upon layer, as in an ancient grimoire with locked covers. I desperately wanted the key. This was no mere fancy. It was a revelation, a command --
She held out both her hands. She hooked her index fingers under our chins and dragged us, like fish caught on a line, to the edge of the balcony. We would have leapt over to our deaths if she had so desired it. Instead, we leaned there, looking out at Paris.
She pushed our chins up. "No, look at the stars. Think of the dark and haunted planets of other suns. Ask yourself, could this fancy be true?" Then she put her face near to ours and whispered, "What if the ancient monster from the sky has lost interest in you, and discards you as a child does an old toy? Can it be true?"
She let go of our chins, whirled about, gave us her most exquisite, impossibly innocent, girlish smile, and vanished indoors.
Such was our dismissal. In the secret vaults beneath the city, in abandoned, desecrated graveyards, no one waited for us. When we next came to the chateau by the Seine, unfamiliar servants insisted that they did not know the name of Countess Sophie-Marie Devereaux, and that certainly there was no such person among the nobility of France.
For the longest time, my friend wept and raged. He said, "What's the use of living, now? Why don't I hurl myself from a window and be damned, for I am surely damned already?"
I could not answer him. I could only ask myself over and over, Can it be true?
And as if he could read my thoughts, he said to me more than once, "I think her cruelty makes her even more desirable. I think she is still testing us. I will have her back, no matter what it takes."
At the time, I was in no state to consider the implications of those words. It was the beginning, not the end of a soul-devouring obsession. I could not even begin to imagine where it would eventually lead.
Right now, it was as if we two had awakened from a vile and alluring dream, trembling with dread and self-loathing, desperately hoping that none of it had actually happened, for all neither of us had the courage to put such a hope into words.
And so, with nothing else to do, we returned to England, and parted in silence. I, at least, was afraid to go back to my family. I retreated to a series of squalid London garrets. There I took to drink, to silence the voice of the Siren, who came to me every night for all I might weep and rave and beg her to go away, whose light footstep I heard so often in the narrow hall behind me, or climbing the stairs, whose soft caress made me wake up screaming in the dark.
All this while I could not even speak the name of my friend. I did not dare write to him.
I supported myself writing Gothic novels, which of course I did not sign, for they were wretched, vulgar jokes disguised as horrors, sufficient only to titillate the masses with hints of things they could not imagine. I could only linger, survive, and wait for the memories to recede, as even nightmares do.
Then the spirit left me. The appetite for fancies faded completely. I returned home.
It was in the winter of 185- that I received the following note:
Directions followed at the bottom of the paper, and then the writer had scrawled, "SHE is here!"
The thing struck me like a blow. That was a lifetime and a universe ago. I had, against all likelihood, succeeded in business. I was an entirely respectable widower well into middle-age, with a grown son serving Her Majesty in India.
Though I seldom drank anymore, I called the butler to bring me a glass of sherry, which I sipped as I sat for hours by a dying fire, pondering and afraid, fumbling to formulate some course of action, other than the most obvious one, which would have been to toss the note into the fire and forget about it.
My old friend, the new Lord Bromley had written. Here was a sheeted, shrieking phantom from my past, a chain-rattling horror of the sort I no longer enjoyed.
But we had been friends once.
Now he had swung the door to Hell open wide, and merely asked me, out of friendship, to step through.
She is here, he had written.
As I have said, this is a preposterous story, and it is therefore preposterously fitting that I left all I had built up in the world, my mills and factories, my fine house and lands, and secretly, by night, travelled under an assumed name, alone and carrying my own luggage. I don't think friendship had anything to do with it.
She is here.
I had hours to attempt to deny my folly, as I came by degrees into a singularly barren and depressing part of the country, which I never would have believed existed in this day and age; as I neared the Bromley estates and passed through fields where surely no hand had tilled the soil since the days of the Black Death. At the last wretched, impoverished inn, when I let slip whither I was bound, the landlord angrily cast me out into the rain and the night, proclaiming that he wouldn't have "none of your heathen kind" in his establishment.
So it was that I walked the last five miles or so, miserable and exhausted in the cold, until I came to the center of that Waste Land of barbarous myth, where a wounded knight might be expected to dwell in his accursed castle, waiting for his savior to come at last.
But I did not feel like any savior, though the vast and depressing expanse of Bromley Manor had every appearance of being accursed. The facade of the walls was visibly cracked. Many of the windows were shuttered or even boarded up. Clutching vines grew everywhere, so that in places the house had more the appearance of a wild hillside than a dwelling built by man.
Here was the ancestral home of my old friend. Here, I was very much afraid, was an outward manifestation of his soul.
I knocked on the door in the darkness, my teeth chattering. The rain fell harder, soaking through my supposedly waterproof cloak.
I pounded with my stick and trembled, muttering "Come on man! For the love of God! Come on!" If ever there was a night to "catch your death," this was it.
At last the door swung open and I all but tumbled inside, relieved of my luggage and directed by an apparition of grotesque visage and proportions, which my eyes and dazed brain gradually resolved into a dark-faced and possibly hump-backed giant, a Moor or Hindu, who held in his hand before his gleaming black eyes not a lantern or candle, but a taper, and looked for all the world like some djinn summoned out of a bottle. There had been a time when I would have appreciated such details, but now I was beyond caring. I let the fellow carry my bag and lead me into the musty, damp depths of Bromley Manor. He said, of course, not a word. I could well imagine that his vocal cords had been cut.
And so I found myself in a vast hall, beneath the heraldic accumulation of generations of Lords Bromley, seated across a polished table from the current bearer of the title, my old friend.
The servant left us alone. My host offered me sherry, which I took gladly, to warm myself.
For a moment, neither of us spoke, and I had time to observe how much Titus Cunningham had changed. He certainly no longer looked like a schoolboy. Age, or the ravages of his excesses, had done their worst. Where I was now portly and grey-bearded, but otherwise sound, Titus had the aspect of some wizened dwarf from out of one of my Gothic novels. He stooped, his head bobbing maddeningly on his thin neck. There were, I think, wattles beneath his chin, for all the round, soft flesh of his face had so melted away that he scarcely seemed to have a chin. One noticed his eyes, huge and round and staring, and his high, pock-marked forehead made all that much larger as his scraggly hairline retreated in patches back past his ears. When he rose to get more sherry, he displayed an odd gait which seemed to suggest the onset of a palsy. When he sat down again, I saw that his teeth were broken and dark. I regret to say that he stank. His dressing gown was stained and threadbare.
"Are you ... well?" he asked me, without any apparent irony.
I related to him the broad outline of my life, and noted, much to my distress, that when I told to my marriage to the very conventional woman who became my bride, he actually hissed with a sudden, startled out-take of breath, and clutched the arms of his chair, as if he were offended that my affections could ever be so diverted. When I came to her death, he relaxed, which appalled me.
He rose again, and with his own hands served me an adequate, if cold repast. Indeed, I was famished after my long walk, and had been heaved out of the inn without any supper.
As I ate he began to tell me of his own life, of all that had happened since we had returned from Paris. I had thought our friendship at an end, then, but he had not. No, he said, he had been preparing for the time when he had completed certain labors, and could send for me again, to resume where we had left off. In the years since our trip to Paris, he had sojourned among the Rosecrucian orders in all parts of the world, for all he turned from them in disgust when he found their secrets a sham, like paper and tinsel pretending to be treasure. No occult society which could satisfy him, and therefore he had created his own, very much in imitation of that circle surrounding Countess Marie-Sophie Devereaux, for it was his relentless purpose to attract her to him, as a moth is drawn to a bright light. So too a demoness (for so he now imagined her) could be drawn to a blazing fire of sufficient evil.
Of course most of the people who came to him were mere degenerates. They came to take and had nothing to offer. He was soon done with them.
"I am like a miner," he said, "in the wilderness of America's California, panning for gold ... most is dross. One tosses it back into the river."
There had been deaths: someone hurled from the tower of a ruined castle overlooking the Rhine; another found with his throat slit, in Sicily. Several more became inmates in lunatic asylums. One had splattered his brains on the walls of his cell, somehow surviving long enough to paint with his fingers, in his own gore, a recognizable image of Sophie-Marie Devereaux.
I listened to all this, sick at heart. I could not believe my friend a murderer, but I could believe that he was diseased in his mind. I could well understand, and yes, to a point, sympathize with his disease; but still there is a terror at being alone in a dark house, miles from anywhere, with a madman. Therefore I was glad of a precaution I had taken. On my journey, my fear had been of robbery, for I was far from the well-travelled routes, and so I had secreted two loaded pistols under my waistcoat. It was reassuring to feel them there now.
"But what of this Countess?" I challenged at last. "I imagine she's quite fat and rather ugly by now --"
At that my host went into a screaming frenzy. He reached over and swept the remains of my dinner onto the floor with a crash. He hauled me out of my seat before I could even think of reaching for my pistols; and he shook me is if I were a straw dummy, for all I was by far the larger man. I knew then that everything I'd heard about the strength of madmen was true, and that Titus Cunningham was indeed mad, as he shook me thus and sputtered into my face, his foul breath choking me.
"I tell you I have seen her! She has not changed at all!"
I tried to calm him. I took hold of his hands, and tried to make him release me.
"So, you've seen her. How ... wonderful. Exciting. I long to see her again myself."
He let go of me again and sat down. "I don't doubt that you do."
What frightened me then was that I actually meant what I said. I felt that same longing stirring within me, like a serpent unwinding from its slumber. The eternal question stirred within me once more. Could it be true? I thought of that night on the balcony in France, of the Countess's ranging fancy, of the possibility that beautiful, immortal creatures from the stars had dwelt among mankind from the beginning of time, to be our masters, our tormentors, our demons and gods.
"Is she, here, now? In this house?"
He eyed me cannily, as if he thought I were trying to trick him.
"Titus," I said with a sigh. "I trust you are still my friend, and I don't have to call you My Lord ... I trust that if you have summoned me all this way under such circumstances to reveal whatever it is you're going to reveal, I trust ... that you will confide in me."
"Yes," he said. "I must do at least that much. She comes to me almost every night now, in my dreams."
"In your ... dreams?"
I wanted to be able to I pity him, whose life had been shipwrecked on the delusions of his dreams. But I could not be sure. What of my dreams? What of my memories which now came pouring back out of the darkness into which I had thought I had banished them?
"She is very close," said Titus Cunningham. "I can sense her presence all the time now. In dreams, she comes to me and touches me, and tells me what has to be done. Soon, she will be among us in the flesh, in her perfect and exquisite and, yes, unaging flesh. She will make those who worship her young again too, and immortal. That is the culmination of my design, friend Ashbury. That is why I have summoned you here. I found, in the end, that there was no one I could share this with, except you."
"Yes," I said, feeling a sense of doom as I spoke. "It must be with me."
He stood up.
"It is time to go," he said.
In that instant, I would have followed him into the very mouth of Hell.
Possibly that was what he had in mind. He stared into my eyes, as if to say, You feel it too, don't you?
It was as if the Countess Sophie-Marie Devereaux, who had the power to shape minds and dreams like so much clay, had never let go of me. Now it was the second half of my life, the respectable part, which was the dream from which I had suddenly awakened, in terror.
The huge, mute servant appeared like something conjured. He draped Lord Bromley in a cloak too large for him and provided another for me, which was, thankfully, waterproof and dry.
Dumbly, I let the servant place the cloak on me, but then I exclaimed, "You cannot seriously suggest going outside, on this night, in this weather --" I knew it was a feeble excuse.
"We have to, friend Peter. On tonight of all nights. It is a special night, a feast-night celebrated on no liturgical calendar, I assure you, but a festival nonetheless. This night we honor Lilith, she who was the forbidden first wife of Adam, and remains, in our dreams, mistress to us all."
I was exhausted and cold and not at all eager to go wandering about the windswept moorlands in the company of a -- nay, of two madmen. (For I saw that the servant was likewise dressed to come with us.)
Or perhaps it was three, numbering myself among them.
I paused at the threshold.
"If I hadn't been expelled from the inn," I said, "I would have spent the night there and arrived tomorrow morning. Then what would that have done to your precious feast of whoever it is?"
"I assure you," said my friend, "that the forces which guide us have ways of securing these things. It is because you were needed here tonight that the innkeeper was compelled to cast you out. Thus does the Fate measure out our thread. But, come! We must depart, this instant!"
The servant stood on one side of me, Lord Bromley on the other. Their posture was clearly threatening. They would haul me along if they had to. I wondered, idly, if bullets could stop such creatures, but I kept my head about me, held my hands up as if to say, Never mind. You don't have to use force. I'm coming, and so kept my pistols a continued secret.
Thus did I rationalize. Thus did I pretend, to myself, to be in control.
I went, into the howling storm, exactly as I had feared, trooping across the wintry moors in the company of madmen, far from any light or house, headed I knew not where.
Sleet mixed with snow. The wind was a tearing, frigid blast. I felt a cold fire burning in my chest and I struggled to keep up with my companions. In time we had to link arms and form a chain -- with Titus leading, propelling us all on with his madman's strength -- merely so that we would not lose one another.
If I called out, I couldn't make myself heard. Therefore, I was in effect alone, and had time yet again to ask myself if I really believed that I was being taken to meet (or conjure) the immortal and supernally beautiful Countess Sophie-Marie or whatever her true name was; or whether I was merely to be obscurely murdered by two maniacs whose mania was terribly, compellingly contagious.
Snatches of my friend's conversation came back to me. Great good comes through great evil, he had claimed in the course of his tirade. A sophomoric absurdity. She transcends life itself, he said. Well, maybe, but we were going to freeze to death first. She comes in dreams.
Yes, in dreams.
From this point on, and I cannot promise that I accurately relate what followed. I can only give it as I perceived it, but my imagination filled in the details, or tried to, transforming the huge, upstanding stones we came upon in the darkness into a circle of yammering demons.
But no, there were only stones, and the wind.
We made some sort of ritual circuit around the stones, then came to a place I all but expected, to a roofless, long-abandoned abbey. Now many wealthy noblemen have thought it fashionable to build medieval ruins on their property, where they can sit and brood on the transience of all things -- but Titus, Lord Bromley, was by no means rich, and this abbey was genuine, its chapel once consecrated to the saints, but now befouled, and turned to an infinitely darker purpose.
The chapel itself was set into a hillside and partially underground. It still possessed enough of a roof and door to shelter us somewhat from the storm. The servant lit candles, providing enough light for me to see that the place was a black shrine, a veritable museum of depravity, adored with obscene statues, with huge, gilded phalli garlanded with dead flowers. There were paintings of indescribable horror set up -- in them I recognized my friend's unmistakable hand and wasted genius -- and all manner of cabbalistic symbols carven into the floor and walls. Here stolen gravestones had been set up in a circle, mimicking the standing stones outside. In the center was what might have been a holy altar once, now stained with offerings.
It must have taken years, and the entire remnants of the Bromley fortune, to assemble all this.
"This is all for you, Peter," said my friend.
Even in the cold, the place stank. Something I mercifully could not make out clearly, long dead, hung from the rafters behind the altar.
Titus, in a state of feverish excitement, opened a trunk and lovingly removed and placed upon the altar two objects which I, with utter despair in my heart, immediately recognized.
One was the black book, which we had purchased from the Jew in Paris.
The other, now bejewelled and encased in gold like a precious relic of ancient times, was the skull of the French bishop.
I wept for my friend then, because I saw that he had utterly failed to assume an adult station in life. Instead he had retreated, fixating on our schoolboy fancies until they had become an all-engulfing insanity.
And what of myself?
I quoted aloud, more for my own benefit than anyone else's, "and when I became a man, I put aside childish things."
Titus stood before me, a wild gleam in his eye.
"Then be childish again, Peter. One last time."
"We might as well be childish forever."
He looked at me with a gleam in his eye that much disquieted me. "Yes. That's good. Forever."
Here is what seems a dream: Yes, the servant stationed himself by the door to prevent my escape, but I was not compelled by any threat of force. When Titus began a ritual I knew all too well, easily I reverted to my former ways as if we were both still a year or so shy of twenty, and living in Paris.
We played our games with bones, with blasphemies and black books and candlesticks. In the cold, we knelt down and prayed to Satan, to Lilith, to Astoreth, Astarte, Shub-Niggurath, and a thousand other demons, and Titus spoke to them quite tenderly and familiarly, as if having a cordial conversation with welcome, if invisible guests.
And I thought of the dark and haunted worlds of other suns, and wondered if it could all be true.
It was merely odd, an irritation, that when Titus paused to listen to replies, I heard only the wind.
I was here to comfort my friend, I tried to tell myself. This was a schoolboy prank after all, I wanted to say.
But I was such a poor liar, even to myself.
I broke away. I shouted.
"No! I cannot! I demand you take me back to the house!"
So my reason returned. I had been mad for just an instant, in the company of madmen. Now I had prevailed, I thought.
Oh how I flattered myself!
Titus shook his head sadly.
The hulking servant drew a long knife out of his coat. My friend turned to me, and I think there was genuine regret in his voice and he spoke with terrifying calmness, like the little, shy Titus I had known when we were boys.
"I'm sorry Peter. You heard what she said. We have to kill you. Before she will come to us, we have to cut out the heart of my dearest friend. This ceremony, you must have noticed, has so far lacked any offering. I have to give up what is most precious to me. You cannot really say that you are surprised, can you?"
His voice broke. He sobbed like a terrified child.
But the servant stepped forward with the knife. Forthwith I drew a pistol and shot him through the brain.
Titus Cunningham stood as if transfixed. The look on his face was one of horror, as if all his hopes had been dashed in an instant. But then there was a hideous eagerness, a sense of relief, almost of joy, as if he saw another way.
What he did next sickened me. He took the knife and cut out the servant's heart. He held it in his bloody hands and placed it on the altar, before the jeweled skull of the French bishop.
"Please," he said, to the invisible air and to the wind and storm. "Take this instead." And turning to me, he said, in a voice of utter exhaustion and resignation, "I am at the end of my resources. I don't know what will happen after this. Let us wait for the dawn, you and I, as we did so many times in the old days, and hope that all will be as it was before."
We sat on the floor, huddled together against the cold.
"As it was before," I repeated, but only to comfort him.
O precious illusion!
Enter, devils, with thunder and lightning --
There was thunder and lightning amid the snowstorm, a rare enough phenomenon of nature in any case. Now, I was sure, it signified the door to Hell swinging open, or even, horribly, something more.
We crouched on the floor. I held my friend in my arms. He whimpered, as if a child.
The slain servant's heart congealed on the altar.
"Peter, I am like Faustus on that last night. I want the clock to stop. I am on the very brink of damnation, and I am so much afraid. Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven."
We waited. I could only sit and ponder: if my friend were mad, then his behavior and desires might be the product of mental disease. What was my excuse?
An hour passed, or maybe three. The darkness did not abate.
"Peter, do you think I am evil?"
"No, I do not think you are evil at all. But you are wrong --"
"This is not the last night, but the first. All else has been prologue. The only question remaining is which one of us is Faustus."
"Can't you see? She is here!"
He broke away from me. He looked around frantically. It was clear that he saw nothing. When he had spoken to the air, before, that was mere delusion. Now, in the clarity of my own sanity, it was I who heard the soft footpads in the ruined chapel, heard them above the howling wind as if I had a special sense. It was I who beheld, first an outline in the darkness, then the full form of the thing that came, lion-bodied, winged, with the face of Countess Sophie-Marie Devereaux.
I saw and Titus did not.
That was the crowning jest, the final, cruel absurdity of it all, which I understood all in a flash.
Even as it was fated that I should be driven from the inn and thus arrive here this night, so it was also fated that the servant's heart should end up on the altar instead of mine.
She took no interest in such flummeries. She never had, except as they served her purpose.
I was very much afraid. I pushed my stupefied friend aside and said, "Spare him. Take me instead."
She said, "That was my intention all along."
The rest had been prologue.
She came for me.
She hooked her finger under my chin and led me into the darkness and the storm. I thought back to that conversation on the balcony of the chateau: What if immortal, amoral beings from the dark and haunted worlds of space toyed with mankind as a child toys with clay, creating fanciful shapes, crushing them at a whim, discarding stray bits?
Somewhere, behind the wind, Titus was screaming "It isn't fair!"
She held me in her terrible claws, and spread her wings, and leapt into the cold abyss, not into Hell or even toward Heaven, but beyond the sky, out, among the stars. There was sickening plunge, a tremor like a thousand thunders. I closed my eyes for a time, and when I opened them, I beheld a million suns, like the froth of foam on a wave.
She spoke inside my mind in a soundless whisper all the while, and I then knew how irrelevant were Titus's conjurings and depravities, his childish clinging to ancient mythologies of God and Satan and such things as the shaped clay itself might imagine in the brief moment of its existence, but which can be of no interest to anyone else, surely, ever.
That was why the Sphinx had come for me instead.
That made the joke all the more sublime.
Yes, we walked upon the dark and haunted worlds, amid labyrinthine sepulchers filled with the bones of inhuman races. Here was infinity carven on the walls in a script no one would ever decipher, eternity stored away in vaulted libraries of books no one would ever open. We soared through an endless valley lined with stone giants, beneath two pale blue suns, and stone heads ground slowly as we passed, regarding us. Whatever they knew, they did not utter.
In the atmosphere of a huge red star we beheld towering demons vaster than the Earth, who gazed down with eyes like dark moons, and spoke truly of things past and things passing and things to come, but in a language of roaring wind which would not resolve itself into words.
And I awoke, as if from one nightmare into a deeper one, in London, but not the city I had ever known; instead a vaster, darker place, filled with black smoke and thunders and armies of men marching off to battle behind armored machines like great scarabae. I reigned like a king in this world. My factories belched out wealth and death. The scarabae were mine. The men I sent to their deaths were but instruments, as Titus had been but an instrument.
I saw in the dawn, many suns at once, all along the horizon, rising up like thrones of fire.
And my Sphinx beside me whispered, You have done this thing, and it is neither good nor evil.
I did not ask her to explain. I lacked the words to demand of her any riddle.
And darkness came over the Earth as the Sun itself died, and the last remnants of mankind retreated into black metal pyramids taller than the ancient, vanished mountains; and for a thousand thousand years these pyramids drifted across the dead sea bottoms on legs of flickering fire, while great monsters gazed upon them hungrily, with eyes like pock-marked moons. And the last human beings dwelt, not in serene philosophic calm, cataloguing the accumulated wisdom of history or preserving the last fragments of ancient beauty, but in bestial degradation, craving every pleasure, crazed with lust and pain and terror, mindlessly, like animals writhing in a pit, while Time, like jesting Pilate, seemed say, "Do you have what you want yet? Will you not rest?"
I dwelt there too, ageless and young once again, with Sophie-Marie Devereaux at my side. I could not even bring myself to ask her why, for in the ultimate catastrophe of reason, beyond the exhaustion of carnality, there could be no why. We were as ghosts, without sense, without feeling, without thought, mere fading echoes in the dark.
When the final life-current of the Earth was exhausted and the flickering fires went out, the pyramids settled into place, in the cold and silence, forever, like tombstones.
And we contemplated nothing at all but the black sky and the black, dead stars that filled it.
"That is the joke," she said. "It's not a riddle that you can answer."
"I don't think we're supposed to laugh at it," I replied.
Et tu, Mephistopheles?
We returned to the defiled chapel in the snowstorm.
The Sphinx released me from its claws. Sophie-Marie Devereaux stood beside me now, in human form, indeed, as my friend had described her, totally unchanged from the first time we had seen her.
"Was it all ... just a vision?" I asked.
"When you pass through those years," she said, "you will seem the visionary, because you will know what is to come. You have only to choose that it be so." She held out a chalice and bade me drink.
I gazed into her eyes, which were huge and terrible, like dark moons.
"What is it? The wine of immortality?"
"Or the excrement of time."
I looked down at the floor, where Titus Cunningham lay huddled in his cloak, as if asleep or dead. And I thought, The roles are reversed now. What is Faustus without his faithful servant Wagner? What indeed, for Wagner is also damned, in a petty way. He hasn't sold his soul. He's just let his master borrow it.
"If you want," said the Sphinx, regarding him. (For she was transformed again). "Bring him along if it amuses you. Otherwise he will soon die, of cold or tertiary syphilis."
I pressed the cup to my friend's lips, weeping, because he was my friend and I had no other. Selfishly, I could not let him go.
When he awoke, his youth had returned. His face was soft and round, his eyes wide. He was the boy I had accompanied to Paris, so long before, now dwarfed in an old man's cloak. I think he was, again, innocent. I bore his guilt for him.
I explained that the Countess was not a demon at all, but more of a dog-trainer. It pleased her to make us jump through hoops. This was another one.
He would follow me freely, and of his own will.
Out of friendship, I did not tell him all that was to come. That would have been too cruel.
I pause to write, in a century which is not my own, this account, which will be taken, I can mercifully hope, as a fiction, a wretched pretend-horror sufficient to titillate the masses.
It is the three of us, now, who go on through lives of indescribable strangeness, our infinitely varied pleasures tempered by the desperately held hope that somewhere, at the end, the flames await. Whether they are the flames of Gehenna, or of distant suns, or of my own making, I cannot say.
© Darrell Schweitzer 1998, 2001.
This story appeared
in Interzone 136, October 1998, and is reprinted in Darrell's
collection Nightscapes, published by Wildside
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