The house slept.
Reuben came down the stairs in his slippers and heavy wool robe.
Jean Pierre, who often took the night shift, was sleeping on his folded arms at the kitchen counter.
The fire in the library was not quite out.
Reuben stirred it, brought it back to life, and took a book from the shelves and did something he had always wanted to do. He curled up in the window seat against the cold window, comfortable enough on the velvet cushions, with a throw pillow between him and the damp chill panes.
The rain was flooding down the glass only inches from his eyes.
The lamp on the desk was sufficient for him to read a little. And a little, in this dim uncommitted light, was all he wanted to read.
It was a book on the ancient Near East. It seemed to Reuben he cared passionately about it, about the whole question of where some momentous anthropological development had occurred, but he lost the thread almost at once. He put his head back against the wood paneling and he stared through narrow eyes at the small dancing flames on the hearth.
Some errant wind blasted the panes. The rain hit the glass like so many tiny pellets. And then there came that sighing of the house that Reuben heard so often when he was alone like this and perfectly still.
He felt safe and happy, and eager to see Laura, eager to do his best. His family would love the open house on the sixteenth, simply love it. Grace and Phil had never been more than casual entertainers of their closest friends. Jim would think it wonderful, and they would talk. Yes, Jim and Reuben had to talk. It wasn’t merely that Jim was the only one of them who knew Reuben, knew his secrets, knew everything. It was that he was worried about Jim, worried about what the burden of the secrets was doing to him. What in God’s name was Jim suffering, a priest bound by the oath of the Confessional, knowing such secrets which he could not mention to another living being? He missed Jim terribly. He wished he could call Jim now.
Reuben began to doze. He shook himself awake and pulled the soft shapeless collar of his robe close around his neck. He had a sudden “awareness” that somebody was close to him, somebody, and it was as if he’d been talking to that person, but now he was violently awake and certain this could not possibly be so.
He looked up and to his left. He expected the darkness of the night to be sealed up against the window as all the outside lights had long ago gone off.
But he saw a figure standing there, looking down at him, and he realized he was looking at Marchent Nideck, and that she was peering at him from only inches beyond the glass.
Marchent. Marchent, who had been savagely murdered in this house.
His terror was total. Yet he didn’t move. He felt the terror, like something breaking out all over his skin. He continued to stare at her, resisting with all his might the urge to move away.
Her pale eyes were slightly narrow, rimmed in red, and fixing him as if she were speaking to him, imploring him in some desperate way. Her lips were slightly parted, very fresh and soft and natural. And her cheeks were reddened as if from the cold.
The sound of Reuben’s heart was deafening in his ears, and so powerful in his arteries that he felt he couldn’t breathe.
She wore the negligee she’d worn the night she was killed. Pearls, white silk, and the lace, how beautiful was the lace, so thick, heavy, ornate. But it was streaked with blood, caked with blood. One of her hands gripped the lace at the throat—and there was the bracelet on that wrist, the thin delicate pearl chain she’d worn that day—and with the other hand she reached towards him as if her fingers might penetrate the glass.
He shot away, and found himself standing on the carpet staring at her. He had never known panic like this in all his life.
She continued to stare at him, her eyes all the more desperate, her hair mussed but untouched by the rain. All of her was untouched by the rain. There was a glistening quality to her. Then the figure simply vanished as if it had never been there.
He stood still, staring at the darkened glass, trying to find her face again, her eyes, her shape, anything of her, but there was nothing, and he had never felt so utterly alone in his life.
His skin was electrified still, though he had begun to sweat. And very slowly he looked down at his hands to see they were covered in hair. His fingernails were elongated. And touching his face and hands, he felt the hair there as well.
He’d begun to change, the fear had done that to him! But the transformation had been suspended, waiting, waiting perhaps for his personal signal as to whether it should resume. Terror had done that.
He looked at the palms of his hands, unable to move.
There were distinct sounds behind him—a familiar tread on the boards.
Slowly he turned to see Felix there, in rumpled clothes, his dark hair tousled from bed.
“What’s the matter?” Felix asked. “What’s happened?”
Felix drew closer.
Reuben couldn’t speak. The long wolf hair was not receding. And neither was his fear. Maybe “fear” wasn’t the word for this because he’d never feared anything natural in this way in his life.
“What’s happened?” Felix asked again, drawing closer. He was so concerned, so obviously protective.
“Marchent,” Reuben whispered. “I saw her, out there.”
Now came the prickling sensations again. He looked down to see his fingers emerging from the disappearing hair.
He could feel the hair receding on his scalp and on his chest.
The expression on Felix’s face startled him. Never had Felix seemed so vulnerable, so almost hurt.
“Marchent?” Felix said. His eyes narrowed. This was acutely painful for him. And there wasn’t the slightest doubt that he believed what Reuben was telling him.
Reuben explained quickly. He went over everything that happened. He was heading for the coat closet near the butler’s pantry as he spoke, Felix tagging after him. He put on his heavy coat, and picked up the flashlight.
“But what are you doing?” Felix asked.
“I have to go outside. I have to look for her.”
The rain was light, little more than a drizzle. He hurried down the front steps and walked around the side of the house till he was standing beneath the large library window. He had never been on this exact spot before. He’d seldom even driven his car along the gravel drive here to the back of the property. The whole foundation was elevated of course, and there was no ledge on which Marchent, a living breathing Marchent, could have been standing.
The window was bright with the lamplight above him, and the oak forest stretching out to his right beyond the gravel drive was impenetrably dark, and filled with the sounds of the dripping rain, the rain forever working its way through leaves and branches.
He saw the tall slim figure of Felix looking out through the window, but Felix did not appear to see him down there looking up. Felix appeared to be looking off into the blackness.
Reuben stood very still, letting the light drizzle dampen his hair and his face, and then he turned and, bracing himself, he looked off into the oak forest. He could see almost nothing.
A terrible pessimism came over him, an anxiety bordering on panic. Could he feel her presence? No, he couldn’t. And that she might, in some spiritual form, some personal form, be lost in that darkness terrified him.
Slowly he made his way back to the front door, looking off into the night all around him. How vast and foreboding it seemed, and how distant and hideously impersonal the roar of the ocean he couldn’t see.
Only the house was visible, the house with its grand designs, and lighted windows, the house like a bulwark against chaos.
Felix was waiting in the open door, and helped him with his coat.
He sank down in the chair by the library fire, in the big wing chair that Felix usually claimed early every evening.
“But I did see her,” Reuben said. “She was there, vivid, in her negligee, the one she wore the night she was killed. There was blood on it, all over it.” It tormented him suddenly to relive it. He felt for a second time the same alarm he’d experienced when he first looked up at her face. “She was . . . unhappy. She was . . . asking me for something, wanting something.”
Felix stood there quietly with his arms folded. But he made no effort to disguise the pain he was feeling.
“The rain,” said Reuben, “it had no effect on her, on the apparition, whatever it was. She was shining, no, glistening. Felix, she was looking in, wanting something. She was like Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw. She was looking for someone or something.”
“What did you feel when you saw her?” Felix asked.
“Terror,” said Reuben. “And I think she knew it. I think she might have been disappointed.”
Again, Felix was silent. Then after a moment, he spoke up again, his voice very polite, and calm.
“Why did you feel terror,” he asked.
“Because it was . . . Marchent,” Reuben said, trying not to stammer. “And it had to mean that Marchent is existing somewhere. It had to mean that Marchent is conscious somewhere, and not in some lovely hereafter, but here. Doesn’t it have to mean that?”
Shame. The old shame. He’d met her, loved her, and failed utterly to stop her murder. Yet from her he had inherited this house.
“I don’t know what it means,” said Felix. “I have never been a seer of spirits. Spirits come to those who can see them.”
“You do believe me.”
“Of course I do,” he said. “It wasn’t some shadowy shape as you’re describing it—.”
“Utterly clear.” Again his words came in a rush. “I saw the pearls on her negligee. The lace. I saw this old heavy lace, kind of dagged lace along her collar, beautiful lace. And her bracelet, the pearl chain she’d been wearing, when I was with her, this thin little bracelet with silver links and little pearls.”
“I gave her that bracelet,” Felix said. It was more a sigh than words.
“I saw her hand. She reached, as if she were going to reach through the glass.” Again there came the prickling on his skin but he fought it. “Let me ask you something,” he continued. “Was she buried here, in some family cemetery or something? Have you been to the grave? I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even think of going there.”
“Well, you couldn’t have attended any funeral, could you,” said Felix. “You were in the hospital. But I didn’t think there was a funeral. I thought her remains were sent to South America. To tell you the truth, I don’t honestly know if that’s true.”
“Could it be that she’s not where she wants to be?”
“I can’t imagine it mattering to Marchent,” said Felix. His voice was unnaturally a monotone. “Not at all, but what do I know about it?”
“Something’s wrong, Felix, very wrong, or she wouldn’t have come. Look, I’ve never seen a ghost before, never even had a presentiment or a psychic dream.” He thought of Laura saying those very words, more or less, that very evening. “But I know ghost lore. My father claims to have seen ghosts. He doesn’t like to talk about it over a crowded dinner table because people laugh at him. But his grandparents were Irish, and he’s seen more than one ghost. If ghosts look at you, if they know you’re there, well, they want something.”
“Ah, the Celts and their ghosts,” said Felix, but it was not meant flippantly. He was suffering and the words were like an aside. “They have the gift. I’m not surprised Phil has it. But you can’t talk to Phil about these things.”
“I know that,” said Reuben. “And yet he’s the very person who might know something.”
“And the very person who might sense more than you want him to sense, if you begin to tell him about all the things that puzzle you, all the things that have happened to you under this roof.”
“I know, Felix, don’t worry. I know.”
He was struck by the somber, bruised expression on Felix’s face. Felix seemed to be flinching under the onslaught of his own thoughts.
Reuben was ashamed suddenly. He’d been elated by this vision, horrific as it was. He’d been energized by it, and he hadn’t thought for one second about Felix, and what Felix must surely be experiencing just now.
Felix had brought up Marchent; he had known and loved Marchent in ways that Reuben could scarce imagine, and he, Reuben, was going on and on about this, the apparition having been his, his brilliant and unique possession, and he was suddenly ashamed of himself. “I don’t know what I’m talking about, do I?” he asked. “But I know I saw her.”
“She died violently,” Felix said in that same low and raw voice. He swallowed, and held the backs of his arms with his hands, a gesture Reuben had never seen in him before. “Sometimes when people die like that, they can’t move on.”
Neither of them spoke for a long moment, and then Felix moved away, his back to Reuben, nearer to the window.
Finally in a raw voice he spoke.
“Oh, why didn’t I come back sooner? Why didn’t I contact her? What was I thinking, to let her go on year after year . . . ?”
“Please, Felix, don’t blame yourself. You weren’t responsible for what happened.”
“I abandoned her to time, the way I always abandon them . . . ,” Felix said.
Slowly he came back to the warmth of the fire. He sat on the ottoman of the club chair across from Reuben.
“Can you tell me again how it all happened?” he asked.
“Yes, she looked right at me,” Reuben said, trying not to give way again to a gush of excited words. “She was right on the other side of the glass. I have no idea how long she’d been there, watching me. I never sat in the window seat before. I always meant to do it, you know, curl up on that red velvet cushion, but I never did it.”
“She did that all the time when she was growing up,” said Felix. “That was her place. I’d be working in here for hours, and she’d be in that window seat reading. She kept a little stack of books right there, hidden behind the drapery.”
“Where? On the left side? Did she sit with her back to the left side of the window?”
“She did, as a matter of fact. The left-hand corner was her corner. I used to tease her about straining her eyes as the sun went down. She’d read there until there was almost no light at all. Even in the coldest winter she liked to read there. She’d come down here in her robe with her heavy socks on and curl up there. And she didn’t want a floor lamp. She said she could see well enough by the light from the desk. She liked it that way.”
“That’s just what I did,” Reuben said in a small voice.
'There was a silence. The fire had died to embers.
Finally Reuben stood up. “I’m exhausted. I feel like I’ve been running for miles. All my muscles are aching. I’ve never felt such a need for sleep.”
Felix rose slowly, reluctantly.
“Well, tomorrow,” he said, “I’ll make some calls. I’ll talk to her man friend in Buenos Aires. It ought to be easy enough to confirm that she was buried as she wanted to be.”
He and Felix moved towards the stairs together.
“There’s something I have to ask,” said Reuben as they went up. “Whatever made you come down when you did? Did you hear a noise, or sense something?”
“I don’t know,” said Felix. “I woke up. I experienced a kind of frisson, as the French call it. Something was wrong. And then of course I saw you, and I saw that the wolf hair was rising on you. We do signal each other in some impalpable way when we go into the change, you’re aware of that.”
They paused in the dark upstairs hallway before Felix’s door.
“You aren’t uneasy being alone now, are you?” Felix asked.
“No. Not at all,” said Reuben. “It wasn’t that kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid of her or that she’d harm me. It was something else altogether.”
Felix didn’t move or reach for the doorknob. Then he said, “I wish I’d seen her.”
Reuben nodded. Of course Felix wished for that. Of course Felix wondered why she would come to Reuben. How could he not wonder about that?
“But ghosts come to those who can see them, don’t they?” Reuben asked. “That’s what you said. Seems my dad said the same thing once, when my mother was scoffing at the very idea.”
“Yes, they do,” said Felix.
“Felix, we have to consider, don’t we, that she wants this house restored to you?”
“Do we have to consider that?” Felix asked in a dejected voice. He seemed broken, his usual spirit utterly gone. “Why should she want me to have anything, Reuben, after the way I abandoned her?” he asked.
Reuben didn’t speak. He thought of her vividly, of her face, of the anguished expression, of the way that she had reached towards the window. He shuddered. He murmured, “She’s in pain.”
He looked at Felix again, vaguely aware that the expression on Felix’s face reminded him horribly of Marchent.
The Wolves of Midwinter: The Wolf Gift Chronicles