Evgeny Khvalkov’s short story with its poignant narrative captivates the reader in an emotional tale that tugs the heart.
EDITOR’S PICK OF THE WEEK
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“I forgot to take my laudanum again,” thought Edward Reuters as he walked out of the manor gate onto the country road on a chilly autumn day. He stopped for a moment, looked around, wrapped himself in a cloak with a wolf-skin collar that old woman Maudlin had given him, and went towards the forest.
He was left indifferent by the latest news about the debates in Parliament, and an enthusiastic letter from Aunt Agatha, who reported on the successful marriage of his cousin Elizabeth with the third son of the Earl of Harrington. Neither Napoleon, nor his impending expulsion from Balliol College, nor the invectives of obscurants against Professor N-son’s recent article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society interested him. Not even the merry, freckled face of quick-eyed Kitty, the blacksmith’s daughter, who smiled at him from behind the misted window of a cottage on the outskirts of the village, did not distract him from his painful thoughts. The black cat on the windowsill of a dilapidated gloomy building in the outskirts, the house of old Maudlin, remained unnoticed, too, bulging its eyes burning like oil lanterns at him; and the old woman herself, who leaned out, leaning on the edge of the window with a hand with long yellowed nails in cracks, only squeaked something incomprehensible after him.
All of Edward’s being was occupied by one. Having reached the edge of the forest, he fixed his unseeing, insane gaze into the thicket. A sudden gust of wind almost blew off the young man’s hat. From afar came the cry of a raven and made him shudder. Then his thin bloodless lips whispered, “Marvel!”
And he seemed to have fallen into the past – in those days when he wandered with her last spring through the flowering apple orchards of Somerset. Now he could not even remember where and when he met her. But the time has come – and Marvel Fidimeyr left him. He seemed to be there again, in that gloomy and oppressive room, in that huge dead house. The clock was striking midnight, the rain was lashing outside the window, and the fire in the fireplace was burning out – as the girl’s life was burning out. Consumption was inexorably killing her. In vain Edward called to her, lying unconscious in a bed under a silk canopy, in vain tried to persuade her not to leave him there, in the circles of soul journeys, in the land of spirits, in the land of the dead. To the land to which she seemed to have always belonged, though Edward had deceived himself into believing that after Rupert’s death, she belonged to him and only him.
A branch crunched underfoot, and another slapped Edward across the face. He stumbled, and when he raised his head, he saw before him the bare branches of a slender maple. Rising above the ground, frozen and hard as a stone, the maple seemed to shed tears, either crying over the ghosts of the leaves that had fallen from it or mourning its own nakedness. And he himself, and the forest, and the whole world in this autumn dying were not alien to a certain beauty – but it was the beauty of the bones, the beauty of the skeleton, the beauty of the skeleton, the beauty of absolute and deadly peace.
Edward walked out into the moorland and, following a narrow path, came to the edge of a high sheer cliff. Boulders were white below; a stormy mountain river carried its waters past them. “The last shore,” sounded in his head. Standing on a cliff, the young man closed his eyes and before him again stood that snow-covered forest on the cold banks in the vicinity of Inverness, the ominous paws of fir trees that stretched towards him, and the dark, barely distinguishable figure of Rupert thirty paces from him. At the signal, Edward moved forward, slowly raised his hand, took aim, and after walking another four paces, pulled the trigger. A few seconds later, he stood next to two seconds and watched the black pool of blood smoke spread in the snow around his numb friend, looking at his teeth bared in agony.
Even then, Edward was tormented by remorse and regretted that he had seduced the bride of Rupert, with whom he lived under the same roof in college, and that he had challenged a friend who had never held a gun in his hands. He saw that Marvel, grieving over the murdered lover, avoids and simply does not want to see him, that she yields to his persistent courtship, only succumbing to some inexplicable force, undead inevitability, some kind of evil fate that attracts them both. And yet he never ceased to seek her favor.
And he did not seek oblivion, no! As if in a fit of fever, he reveled in his suffering, like a dog that licks a sharp saw and swallows drops of blood from its tongue. He either suffered from insomnia for whole nights, then fell into complete unconsciousness under the influence of strong drinks. He was tormented at the same time by remorse for his secret sins and intoxication with his own depravity, carefully hidden from prying eyes by passion. But depravity won out, and gradually remorse gave in, as Marvel gave in to his harassment. Did he then have a premonition that this passion would drive him to madness, that this absolute darkness would open inside him, this endless sea of horror?
He opened his eyes and took another look at the gloomy landscape and the cold stones under the cliff. Reeled. He held his breath. He pulled out a flask from his pocket, drank the odorous liquid from it, sighed, and wandered further across the wasteland. Soon he was back at the edge of the forest. Among the skeletons of trees, he saw the silhouette of a gallows in the distance. Edward squeezed his eyes shut in a sudden fit of unreasonable horror and saw the bared teeth of the dead Rupert again.
In that terrible winter, the upheavals experienced after the duel caused him visions and delirium. Another seizure forced him to resort to opium even more often. Waking up in a sweat from nightmares, he added more and more laudanum tincture to his sherry or claret. It calmed, invigorated, and often led to a change in consciousness. But after the departure of Marvel, who read the secrets of being on her forbidden pages and communicated with the spirits of the dead, after the departure of Marvel, who penetrated the other side of life and death, he realized that he had ended, he had exhausted himself, he no longer had a place in this world.
The day before, in Reuters Hall, the old castle of his uncle, who was said to have killed a friend in a duel in his youth because of rivalry in matters of the heart, Edward noticed a woman’s portrait and seemed to be petrified. The same black curls like a raven’s wing, the same eyes as deep as lakes, the same deadly pallor – the portrait exactly repeated the features so familiar and dear to him! It is she, she is the wayward child of his dreams, a dream, a fantasy, suddenly clothed in flesh and just as suddenly leaving him; now he is doomed to suffer and suffer for the rest of his life, lusting after her. Just like now, he had to close his eyes then. As of now, he was deeply horrified. It seemed to him that the woman in the portrait spoke to him, but he could not make out her words – it seemed as if she was calling him somewhere. There was no doubt: death for him is now as inevitable as the inevitable non-material existence after it.
Walking along the edge of the forest, Edward followed the path to the old watchtower on the cliff without going deep into the forest. Climbing up the path, he was about to open the old creaky door, but the sound that came from behind it made the young man stop. It seemed as if someone was talking in the tower. Edward slowly, carefully, and silently opened the door and slipped inside. Trying to make as few sounds as possible, he began to climb the dilapidated stairs.
“… and so our two families were connected. They are bound by such bonds that it is impossible to break them. I hear the sounds of hell all the time…”
“We’re all doomed to wander, miss. All of us, all the restless souls.”
Edward climbed a few steps and came out to the doorway that led to the gallery. On the gallery of the tower near the narrow loophole, two vague silhouettes, male and female, loomed.
“And I can’t find peace in the ancestral world, Rupert! – I’m not just doomed to wander the earth, not finding peace – I’m doomed to return! I’m doomed to always come back!…”
“You are doomed. And I’m doomed.” So says the Twilight Lady.
Suddenly, a stifled groan escaped from Edward’s chest. “Marvel!…” he whispered.
The female silhouette turned its head towards him. Two black, bottomless empty eye sockets looked at the intruder.
Edward was terrified. He wanted to run away from here, but his legs and arms refused to serve him. And the ghost looked as if through him – the ghost did not see the person or, perhaps, did not want to see him. The ghosts of two lovers who were once human spoke without noticing his presence, the living one.
“A family curse has bound our two families together, Rupert. Since Sir Fitzgerald Reuters abused me in the time of King Charles… abused Eleanor Marbh… killed her husband… and committed suicide in his bedroom…
“I know the story, miss. She’s terrible.”
” … since then, every time I die and every time I return through the generation in the female offspring of Eleanor Marbh, to cause a destructive passion in the next descendant of Sir Fitzgerald!”
“The Twilight Lady says that there is only one way to find peace for you, and only one way to be freed from the curse – for the descendant of Reuters. You must undergo a great purification, a fiery purification, and he must become your guide to the world of the dead.”
“But that will never happen, Rupert! You know very well that this will never happen. I am an eternal being from the world of the dead, I am an eternal inhabitant of the border of worlds, I am a nightmare returned from the other world, and I am the one who is deprived of the hope of finding peace!”
Edward’s eyes blurred and his legs buckled. He heard snippets of words that reached him until he was completely lost in oblivion.
Reuters Hall Park is, in fact, one of the many remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest scattered across Scotland, part of which was once cleared for the construction of the estate. Most of it remained untouched – even in the time of the Stuarts, the inhabitants of the castle did not dare to cut it down, so as not to quarrel inadvertently with the local spirits. Since the last few generations of owners rarely lived on the estate, the forest grew, and it seemed that the manor house itself was about to be swallowed up, in which only a few old servants lived.
The night of Samhain turned out to be dark, but when a man wrapped in a long cloak with a lantern and a spade slipped out of the gates of the castle, the clouds parted, and the light of the moon faintly peeped through them. The man in the cloak looked around, as if to make sure that no one was following him, and went to the part where the park turned into an ancient, primeval forest that had been here, it seems, since the arrival of the first people. Deepening into the thicket of the forest, he found with difficulty an overgrown, long untrodden path. He knew where it was leading. Stumbling over tree roots, he made his way to a small clearing. To a lonely stone building in the depths of the forest. It seemed that in such a house it would be fitting for the Mistress of the Forest herself to live. But it was the house of the dead, the house of death. Family vault of the Reuters family.
“She’s here,” the man whispered. Marvel is here.
With difficulty, he moved the old rusted iron door and, having crossed the threshold of the world of the living and the world of the dead, entered the crypt. The light of the lantern fell on one of the sarcophagi and illuminated the inscription on it:
“Eleanor Marbh, 23 August 1628 – 30 January 1661.”
“She’s here,” Edward repeated, “She’s waiting for me.”
He placed a lantern on the edge of a nearby coffin and tried to move the lid of the sarcophagus with a spade. She gave in with difficulty. Edward leaned on the spade with all his might. The lid lifted, fell to the stone floor, and shattered. The light of the lantern fell on the contents of the sarcophagus, illuminating the corpse of the woman lying in it. It seemed as if she had been buried just recently, and though the smoldering had already touched her, the man in the cloak with the wolf-skin collar recognized familiar features.
“Marvel!” He exclaimed, taking a step back. Then he approached again and looked the woman in the face. “Well, let this coffin be our last marriage bed!”
Picking up one half of his cloak, Edward moved the lantern to the edge of the coffin, carefully stepped onto the stone wall, lay down in the sarcophagus, and fell to the lips of Eleanor Marb. Suddenly, the clouds in the sky parted, and through the doorway, the gloomy crypt and its inhabitants were illuminated by the full moon.
Edward let out a long howl. He felt his fangs elongate, his body covered with hair, and his hands turned into clawed paws. Here he is – the wolf, the guide of the dead to the next world. Embracing his beloved, he did not notice how he touched the lantern and knocked it over into the coffin, how his cloak and his skin were ignited from the fire of the candles.
The wolf did not smell burning wool and flesh and did not feel pain. In his deaf, sepulchral howl, only sounded, “Marvel! Marvel!”
Evgeny A. Khvalkov is an Assistant Professor in St. Petersburg, Russia. She enjoys writing fairy tales and fables.