Home > Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(4)

Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(4)
Author: Anne Rice

"Vittorio, it's your own fault for reading the books you read. You bring it on yourself." To repeat, the dream was forgotten. The country was by Easter in great flower, and the first warnings of horror to come, though I knew them not to be, were that the lower hamlets on our mountain were quite suddenly abandoned.

My father and I and two of the huntsmen and a gamekeeper and a soldier rode down to see for ourselves that the peasants in those parts had departed, some time before in fact, and taken the livestock with them.

It was eerie to see those deserted towns, small as they were and as insignificant.

We rode back up the mountain as a warm embracing darkness surrounded us, yet we found all the other villages we passed battened down with hardly a seam of light showing through the chinks of a shutter, or a tiny stem of reddened smoke rising from a chimney.

Of course my father's old clerk went into a rant that the vassals should be found, beaten, made to work the land.

My father, benevolent as always and completely calm, sat at his desk in the candlelight, leaning on his elbow, and said that these had all been free men; they were not bound to him, if they did not choose to live on his mountain. This was the way of the modern world, only he wished he knew what was afoot in our land.

Quite suddenly, he took notice of me standing and observing him, as if he hadn't seen me before, and he broke off the conference, dismissing the whole affair. I thought nothing much about it. But in the days that followed, some of the villagers from the lower slopes came up to live within the walls. There were conferences in my father's chambers. I heard arguments behind closed doors, and one night, at supper, all sat entirely too somber for our family, and finally my father rose from his massive chair, the Lord in the center of the table as always, and declared, as if he'd been silently accused:

"I will not persecute some old women because they have stuck pins in wax dolls and burnt incense and read foolish incantations that mean nothing. These old witches have been on our mountain forever."

My mother looked truly alarmed, and then gathering us all up - I was most unwilling - she took us away, Bartola, Matteo and me, and told us to go to bed early. "Don't stay up reading, Vittorio,¡± she said. "But what did Father mean?" asked Bartola.

"Oh, it's the old village witches," I said. I used the Italian word strega. "Every now and then, one goes too far, there's a fight, but mostly it's just charms to cure a fever and such."

I thought my mother would hush me up, but she stood in the narrow stone stairs of the tower looking up at me with marked relief on her face, and she said:

"Yes, yes, Vittorio, you are so right. In Florence, people laugh at those old women. You know Gattena yourself; she never really did more then sell love potions to the girls."

"Surely we're not to drag her before a court!" I said, very happy that she was paying attention. Bartola and Matteo were rapt.

"No, no, not Gattena, certainly not. Gattena's vanished. Run off."

"Gattena?" I asked, and then as my mother turned away, refusing, it seemed, to say another word, gesturing for me to escort my sister and brother safely to bed, I realized the gravity of this.

Gattena was the most feared and comical of the old witches, and if she had run off, if she was afraid of something, well, that was news, because she thought herself the one to be feared.

The following days were fresh and lovely and undisturbed by anything for me and my Bartola and Matteo, but when I looked back later, I recalled there was much going on.

One afternoon, I went up to the highest lookout window of the old tower where one guardsman, Tori, we called him, was falling asleep, and I looked down over all our land for as far as I could see. "Well, you won't find it," he said. "What's that?" I remarked.

"Smoke from a single hearth. There is no more." He yawned and leaned against the wall, heavily weighed down by his old boiled-leather jerkin, and sword. "All's well," he said, and yawned again. "So they like city life, or to fight for Francesco Sforza over the Duchy of Milan, so let them go. They didn't know how good they had it."

I turned away from him and looked over the woods again, and down into the valleys that I could see, and beyond to the slightly misty blue sky. It was true, the little hamlets seemed frozen in time down there, but how could one be so sure? It was not such a clear day. And besides, everything was fine within the household.

My father drew olive oil, vegetables, milk, butter and many such goods from these villages, but he didn't need them. If it was time for them to pass away, so be it.

Two nights later, however, it was undeniably obvious to me that everyone at supper was perpetually under a strain of sorts, which went entirely unvoiced, and that an agitation had gripped my mother, so that she was no longer engaging in her endless courtly chatter. Conversation was not impossible, but it had changed.

But for all the elders who seemed deeply and secretly conflicted, there were others who seemed relatively oblivious to such things, and the pages went about serving gaily, and a little group of musicians, who'd come up the preceding day, gave us a lovely series of songs with the viol and the lute.

My mother couldn't be persuaded to do her old slow dances, however.

It must have been very late when an unexpected visitor was announced. No one had left the main hall, except Bartola and Matteo, who had been taken off to bed by me earlier and left in the care of our old nurse, Simonetta.

The Captain of my father's Guard came into the hall, clicked his heels and bowed to my father and said:

"My Lord, it seems there is a man of great rank come to the house, and he will not be received in the light, or so he says, and demands that you come out to him."

Everyone at the table was at once alert, and my mother went white with anger and umbrage.

No one ever used the word "demand" to my father.

Also it was plain to me that our Captain of the Guard, a rather prepossessing old soldier who'd seen many battles with the wandering mercenaries, was himself overvigilant and a little shaken.

My father rose to his feet. He did not speak or move, however.

"Would you do that, my Lord, or should I send this Signore away?" the Captain asked.

"Tell him that he is most welcome to come into my house as my guest," said my father, "that we extend to him in the name of Christ Our Lord our full hospitality."

His very voice seemed to have a calming effect on the whole table, except perhaps for my mother, who seemed not to know what to do.

The Captain looked almost slyly at my father, as if to convey the secret message that this would never do, but he went off to deliver the invitation.

My father did not sit down. He stood staring off, and then he cocked his head, as though listening. He turned and snapped his fingers, drawing to attention the two guards slumbering at the ends of the hall.

"Go through the house, see to everything," he said in a soft voice. "I think I hear birds which have entered the house. It's the warm air, and there are many open windows."

These two went off, and immediately two other soldiers appeared to take their place. That in itself was not usual, for it meant that there were many men on duty.

The Captain came back alone, and once more bowed.

"My Lord, he will not come into the light, he says, but that you must come out to him, and he has little time to wait on you."

This was the first time I had ever seen my father really angry. Even when he whipped me or a peasant boy, he was rather lazy about it. Now the fine lineaments of his face, so given to reassurance by their very proportions, became absolutely wrathful. "How dare he?" he whispered.

Yet he strode around the table, came in front of it and marched off with the Captain of the Guard hastening behind him.

I was out of my chair at once and after him. I heard my mother cry out softly, "Vittorio, come back."

But I stole down the stairs after my father, and into the courtyard, and only when he himself turned around and pressed my chest hard with his hand did I halt.

"Stay there, my son," he said with his old kindly warmth. "I shall see to it."

I had a good vantage point, right at the door of the tower, and there across the courtyard, at the gates in the full light of the torches, I saw this strange Signore who would not come into the light of the hall, for he did not seem to mind this outdoor illumination. The huge gates of the arched entrance were locked and bolted for the night. Only the small man-sized gate was opened, and it was there that he stood, with the blazing crackling fire on either side of him, glorying in it, it seemed to me, in his splendid raiment of dark, wine-red velvet.

From head to toe he was dressed in this rich color, hardly the current style, but every detail of him, from his bejeweled doublet and blown-up sleeves of satin and velvet stripes, was this same hue, as though carefully dyed in the best fullers in Florence.

Even the gems sewn into his collar and hanging about his neck on a heavy golden chain were wine red - most likely rubies or even sapphires.

His hair was thick and black, hanging sleekly onto his shoulders, but I couldn't see his face, no, not at all, for the velvet hat he wore overshadowed it, and I caught but a glimpse of very white skin, the line of his jaw and a bit of his neck, for nothing else was visible. He wore a broadsword of immense size, with an antique scabbard, and casually over one shoulder was a cloak of the same wine-dark velvet trimmed in what seemed to my distant eyes to be ornate gilt symbols.

I strained, trying to make them out, this border of signs, and I thought I could see a star and crescent moon worked into his fancy adornments, but I was really too far away. The man's height was impressive.

My father stopped quite far short of him, yet when he spoke his voice was soft and I couldn't hear it, and out of the mysterious man, who still revealed nothing now of his face but his smiling mouth and white teeth, there came a silky utterance that seemed both surly and charming.

"Get away from my house in the name of God and Our Holy Redeemer!" my father cried out suddenly. And with a quick gesture, he stepped forward and powerfully thrust this splendid figure right out of the gate. I was amazed.

But from the hollow mouth of darkness beyond the opening there came only a low satin laughter, a mocking laughter, and this it seemed was echoed by others, and I heard a powerful thundering of hooves, as though several horsemen had commenced at once to ride off.

My father himself slammed the gate. And turned and made the Sign of the Cross, and pressed his hands together in prayer.

"Dear Lord God, how dare they!" he said, looking up.

It was only now, as he stormed back towards me and towards the tower itself, that I realized the Captain of the Guard was paralyzed with seeming terror.

My father's eye caught mine as soon as he came into the light from the stairs, and I gestured to the Captain. My father spun round.

"Batten down my house," my father called out. "Search it from top to bottom and batten it down and call out the soldiery and fill the night with torches, do you hear? I will have men in every tower and on the walls. Do it at once. It will give peace and calm to my people!" We had not yet reached the supper room when an old priest living with us then, a learned Dominican named Fra Diamonte, came down with his white hair all mussed, and his cassock half unbuttoned, and his prayer book in his hand.

"What is it, my Lord?" he asked. "What in the name of God has happened?"

"Father, trust in God and come and pray with me in the chapel," said my father to him. He then pointed to another guard who was fast approaching. "Light up the chapel, all its candles, for I want to pray. Do it now, and have the boys come down and play for me some sacred music."

He then took my hand and that of the priest. "It's nothing, really, you must both of you know that. It's all superstitious foolishness, but any excuse which makes a worldly man like me turn to his God is a good one. Come on, Vittorio, you and Fra Diamonte and I will pray, but for your mother put on a good face."

I was much calmer, but the prospect of being up all night in the lighted chapel was both welcome and alarming.

I went off to get my prayer books, my Mass books and books of other devotions, fine vellum books from Florence, with gilt print and beautifully edged illustrations.

I was just coming out of my room when I saw my father there with my mother, saying to her, "And do not leave the children alone for a moment, and you, you in this state, I will not tolerate this distress." She touched her belly.

I realized she was with child again. And I realized, too, that my father was really alarmed about something. What could it mean, "Do not leave the children alone for a moment"? What could this mean?

The chapel was comfortable enough. My father had long ago provided some decent wooden and velvet-padded prie-dieux, though on feast days everyone stood. Pews didn't exist in those times.

But he also spent some of the night showing me the vault beneath the church, which opened by means of a ring handle on a trapdoor, faced in stone, the ring itself fitted down flat beneath what appeared to be only one of many marble inlaid ornaments in the floor tiles.

I knew of these crypts but had been whipped for sneaking into them when I was a child, and my father had told me back then how disappointed in me he'd been that I couldn't keep a family secret.

That admonition had hurt far more than the whipping. And I'd never asked to go with him into the crypts, which I knew he had done over the years now and then. I thought treasure was down there, and secrets of the pagans.

Well, I saw now there was a cavernous room, carved high and deep out of the earth, and faced with stone, and that it was full of varied treasure. There were old chests and even old books in heaps. And two bolted doorways.

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