The house was built on a high cliff overlooking the sea.
The ground floor, our suite, had been built on level ground at the foot of a steep mountain. The two upper stories climbed the rocky slope, connected by crumbling stairways. Those higher floors looked very old and treacherous under their red tiled roofs, overgrown by moss and flowering vines. No wonder my husband warned me not to go up there.
As the days wore on, I sat in the garden gazing up at that forbidden zone. I’d heard voices, seen movements of flowers and leaves that suggested people walking on the stairs. The servants kept their distance, watching me.
At night, drums and songs filtered over the surf.
The house ticked.
Jean del Jean showed me more of Armand’s collection, taking me into closets where mechanical women sat in powdered wigs dealing cards, or glided across the floor on rails, waltzing alone. Jean del Jean dusted them, oiled their wooden parts, kept them wound up. In another room, stood cabinets of gleaming bottles filled with potions and elixirs, like the one given to me in St. Malo. I’d seen them on the dinner table, full, and then empty, with no memory of having drunk of them.
One evening, a large folio album appeared near the fire where I sat writing letters to Mamma. Amid notices of Armand’s concert tours, playbills, pressed flowers, and invitations to aristocratic houses, were engravings—-wedding pictures of my young, handsome Armand and his three wives.
His first wife glistened with jewels. She’d been clearly older than Armand, coifed blonde hair, high cheekbones, melting eyes, Polish aristocracy. The next wife, an actress with flirtatious eyes, wore a powdered wig, beauty spots, deep décolleté. The third was of a darker aspect. Her gaze was hypnotic, her black hair wild, her fingers long and pointed. She was a singer, but there was something of the witch about her.
In time, the monotonous ticking of the automatons receded, and I could hear the faint, haunting melody of a piano playing. It came from somewhere in the house, but where? The music filled my head; I grew listless with its melancholy notes. Then the ticking sound began to wander in again, to intrude into my mind.
Jean del Jean appeared, carrying a little windup doll. He wouldn’t let me see it, but, taunting playfully, lured me down forbidden corridors where he unexpectedly vanished.
One day, he abandoned me before an open stairway leading up into darkness. The piano was playing. Voices. Who was up there?
I touched the rubies at my throat as if I feared for my head. But curiosity drove me up the stairs. At the top I found a vine-entangled pergola, and then more stairs.
The music grew louder as I climbed. On the landing was an open door. I stepped inside.
The suite, with it high, frescoed ceilings and damask walls, was of another age entirely. Bouquets of tuberose filled the room, their sweetness masking an insidious, vaguely disgusting odor.
Inside, a grand stairway rose up to another open door.
I climbed quietly, secretly, glancing over my shoulder, hoping I wasn’t being followed. At the top, I stayed behind the doorjamb and looked in.
Reflected in the glass of a tall mirror, was a tall, dark lady, her body like marble under a gauzy violet dressing gown. Vivienne was standing behind her, deeply absorbed in brushing the lady’s long, raven hair.
The lady’s reflected eyes were empty; the over-painted features (I stifled a gasp) were those of Armand’s third wife!
Had I married a secret bigamist?
Seemingly disappointed that she could not bring the dried, black locks to a shine, Vivienne set her hairbrush on the dressing table.
“Come,” she whispered, pinching the lady’s elbow.
As I backed away, the lady turned so woodenly, I wondered if she were perhaps only an exceedingly lifelike automaton. Fanatical collectors often sought to innovate, to improve the objects of their passion, did they not?
All unseeing, the lady crossed the room with heavy, dragging steps. Vivienne guided her into a high-backed chair, and crossed herself.
“Now, Madame Aglentine, you wait there. Monsieur Armand will be down shortly.”
Madame Aglentine said nothing, only stared towards a sun-bright window where a small bird fluttered and cried, caught in a tangle of bougainvillea.
Vivienne was coming out.
I rushed down another passage, and hurried across a gallery to a narrow stairway. Mounting higher into the house, I heard the music, the Mephisto Waltz crashing towards climax.
When I got to the landing, the piano rang to silence.
A door was open on a richly decorated boudoir. He was there, with his back to me, embracing a lady in a powdered wig, kissing her hungrily.
My heart sank.
Finally, he released her. Her head remained tilted back on her swan-like neck. Her heavy makeup was smeared and her lips, still wet from kissing, were blue. Armand jerked away. The lady’s posture did not change.
“Hettie!” he shouted. My chaperone stepped out from behind the bed curtains. “Fix her face. It disgusts me.”
Armand grabbed Hettie and shoved her towards the dressing table. She picked up a handkerchief and began, with slow, stiff movements, wiping the lady’s face. The exposed skin was slightly green.
“Sit her in a chair while you wipe that wretched mask off,” my husband shouted. In a temper he sat down at the grand piano and pounded on the keys something horrible.
“Oh yes. Oh yes!” he said. “Music. It always does what I want.”
The lady looked just like Armand’s second wife. But her eyes were not flirtatious, more like hollows in the face of an eyeless doll. Still, actress to the core, she smiled.
I had no words, no concept for what I saw, but I was jealous as a hornet.
Mistresses! They are his mistresses. Made up to look like his dead wives! I shrieked to myself, Ohhhh!
My stomach heaving, I raced on silent feet down a passage praying it led out to a garden. to fresh sea air, free of the sickening under-smell of tuberose.
I arrived at another pergola-covered stairway winding precariously up to the top floor of the house. The way back down was blocked by Jean del Jean, ticking into the room I’d just left, so I had no choice but to ascend.
I barged through a mossy blue door into a dark entryway. An exceedingly tall black man with wide, staring eyes loomed up to stop me going in.
“I am Madame de Rais,” I said, breathlessly. “You must let me pass.”
His swerved and stepped stiffly aside.
As I hurried along the ruined passageway, I met another such person, another and another, each blindly attempting to block me. My name got me through, but their thick, shuffling steps came after me in the dark. Dreading what I would see if I looked back, I blundered into a room filled with white flowers.
A woman stood with her back to me. Her blonde head hung forward, her chemise was loose, exposing greenish-purple skin. A slave covered her with a dressing gown, guided her bruised arms into the sleeves like a doll. I fell back, covering my mouth, but not fast enough to stifle a shriek. The slave looked straight at me.
“Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” she said. “Come in and meet Madame de Rais.”
“What?” I blurted, remaining firmly outside the door. “You are mistaken. I am Madame de Rais.”
“Oh, the new wife. Here is a little gift for you. It once belonged to Madame Yvanna, but she no longer wears it.” The slave held out a marvelous ring.
Helpless in my weakness for baubles I stepped quickly over the threshold to accept it. The ring flashed on my finger like the devil’s eye.
The slave spoke to my rival. “You have a visitor, Madame. Meet Monsieur Armand’s new wife.”
Yvanna turned towards me. The once beautiful face was chalky and sunken, the eyes dead, but blazing.
“What is she?” I cried.
The slave got a jar of face paint and began applying it to the rotting skin. Suddenly, footsteps echoed in the passage.
My heart faltering in my chest, I hid behind the bed curtains and gripped the bedpost, reeling.
He burst in.
“What is this?” he shouted.
“I did not have time to finish Monsieur.”
“She’s too far gone. Aren’t you Yvanna? Well, for old times sake.”
With a hog-like grunt, Armand pushed Yvanna onto the bed. I shut my eyes, and my ears. I did not want to know him any more.
Drums beat that night. A coffin was loaded onto a wagon, no doubt containing the corpse of Madame Yvanna. Torches were lit along the road beyond the gate, guiding it into utter darkness.
My joy was interrupted when Armand blustered in, followed by three steamer trunks. He rushed towards me, scooped me up, and kissed me like a loving husband who’d missed me. I avoided his lips, froze in his grasp. I couldn’t stand the sight of him.
He stood back, took out a little brown cigar, and struck a match. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
I tried to get past him, but he grabbed my arm.
“Have you been snooping my little love? I hope not. It could ruin everything.”
His breath was hot on my neck.
“You left me alone too long,” I said.
“Oh, you’re angry. Go rest then. I shall see you at dinner wearing that ruby choker.” He released me and went out, shouting for Jean del Jean.
I wandered out to my balcony to look at the sea and prayed for Mamma to come quickly. The sun was almost down, and not a ship in sight.
I put on the white frock, and the rubies, adding eardrops of the same lurid gem. I hid my rosary in a handkerchief and went downstairs to dine.
Jean del Jean was standing in the hallway beside the grandfather clock, grinning broadly. As the clock chimed the hour, he mimed a winding motion. Suddenly, as if turned by millions of unseen hands, every automaton in the house began ticking.
Armand’s voice boomed from the dining room.
“Are you coming?”
All the chairs along the sides of the table were filled by automatons. I sat down as if they were vipers, and glared at my husband.
“What do you think? Aren’t they marvelous?”
“Why do you collect these things?” I asked.
“Because they’re always beautiful, they stay where I put them, and they never, ever speak,” he said.
“They’re frightening,” I said.
“Stop talking back,” he shouted. “I am the only one with the right to feel things. It is your role to look good and shut up!”
I clutched my hidden rosary and stared at the wooden puppets clacking their forks on the their empty plates and lifting them to their painted mouths, empty.
“You’re supposed to last longer,” he spat. “Being young.”
I had no idea what he meant and didn’t want to know.
“Eat. Drink your wine. I’m not leaving until you clean your plate,” he said. He stabbed his pork with a long, pointed knife and put into his mouth.
I ate slowly, painfully aware of several empty elixir bottles lying on the tablecloth. Gingerly, I sipped my wine. Overcome with drowsiness, I couldn’t speak for the ticking in my head.
Tiring of me, Armand growled upright, and called Jean del Jean.
“Take these wonders away. My wife has no appreciation for art. I’ve had enough. Good night, Madame.”
It was too hot to sleep. The piano was too loud. My sheet wound round me so tightly I couldn’t move. Full moonlight brightened the curtains blowing in the open windows. Singing, drumming rose up from the crossroads below the cliff. I sat up, anxious. Where was Mamma? The blast of a horn echoed up from the harbor. Was a ship coming in at last?
I raced on my dressing gown and hurried into the ticking depths of the house. All of the doors were wide open to the drums.
In the forecourt, stood a woman in a black gown, her dark hair wild in the breeze. She turned as if she sensed me. Her face was a white skull.
I screamed down the passage past the cabinets where the automatons moved, clattering, ticking, playing their stilted tunes. It seemed I dreamed as I glided along, guided by an unseen hand towards a cabinet displaying a new automaton.
Lying on an ivory couch, propped on one elbow, one long-lashed, mechanical eye winking, was the spitting portrait of myself wearing only the ruby choker.
I ran outside, through the garden, and heedless of my bare feet, stumbled down the cliff stairs towards the shore. The horn boomed again.
A boat was coming in!
A cacophonous ululation broke out above the cliff, drums pounded. I fell to my knees on the moonlit sand and could not rise. My limbs were too weak.
A heavy tread fell behind me, a reek of tuberose.
There was a loud explosion,
The ticking stopped.
The sea went black.
It was the listing of the ship that woke me, and the cries of the gulls that seemed, in the absence of ticking, the most profound silence. My eyes opened upon lamplight against a cabin wall, the silver glint of a pistol on the bedside table, and my mother’s shadowy figure as she quickly covered a large birdcage with her shawl.
“Mamma! What happened?” I cried, reaching for her.
“Oh, Lissette! I thought you would be happy, that I’d made your dream come true, but letter after letter proved your misery. Nothing I wrote to you seemed to help.”
“But, Mamma, I did not get your letters, but one.” The one received, I realized, when Armand was away.
She stood up, walked to the corner.
The ship rocked.
Pressing her hands against the walls, she braced herself and gazed at me with bitter remorse. In the black bristles of her widow’s gown, hair thrown back in wild disarray, her dark eyes like pools in the high-boned pallor of her face, she was the woman I’d seen in the windy forecourt, the blood-avenging Tisiphone incarnate.
“I thought as much. When I received your money, I came. Arriving on the shore, I dug for information. I found things out that made my mother’s blood boil.”
The fierceness of her eyes made me jump! Vain and silly as I’d always been, I’d had no idea she loved me so much.
From a long leather scabbard behind the chair, she pulled out a sword and pointed it at the birdcage.
“Imagine my joy when I discovered that there was a price on Monsieur Armand’s head,” she said.
The briny smell of the sea gave way to the suspicious reek of tuberose. I trembled.
“What… is in the birdcage, Mamma?”
“Our fortune, my daughter. I already have a buyer. An artist, Madame Marie Tussaud of Paris.”
I could not take my eyes from the birdcage as, with the point of the sword, Mamma slowly lifted the edge of the shawl that covered it.
Through the thin, silver wires of the cage were the bloodstained edges of a blue-black beard.