Here at the very top of the mansion, the storm was nearer, and its fits of temper were more explosively loud than they had been downstairs. At times, it was even necessary to stop talking and wait until a roll of thunder had abated before continuing.
The lightning forked the sky directly overhead, spearing the blue- black clouds and making-for brief instants-a flat mirror of the panes of the skylight.
Elaine did not consider herself an art critic, but even so she felt that Dennis Matherly actually did have some talent. More than she would have guessed before seeing his work. True enough, the paintings were all too colorful to be comfortable with, splashed through with fantasy, disembodied faces, weird landscapes not. of this earth, detail so intense-at times-that it bordered on madness to have spent such time to trace the tiniest of lines. But they were good, no question about it. Good, she decided, in a way that was not exactly professional. Who, after all, could stand to live with such blatant fantasies and such unreal bursts of color hanging on their walls? He might be good, but he would not be financially successful.
As she made the tour of the room, she stopped before a painting of a startlingly beautiful woman. The entire canvas was composed of her face and a few, detailed yet indecipherable shadows behind her. She looked out upon the room with a gaze that appeared empty, directionless-strangely inhuman. Her flesh was tinted a light blue, as was nearly everything about the portrait. Only the green droplets of some fluid, glistening on her face, were at variance with the dominating blues.
Do you like it? he asked.
He was close behind her, so close she could feel his breath. But she had nowhere to move as she stared at that woman's strange face.
Yes, she said.
It's one of my favorites too.
What is it called?
Madness, he said.
When she looked again, she could see that was quite appropriate. And, in a moment, she realized who the subject must have been. Amelia Matherly. His own mother.
A crackle of lightning, reflected downwards by the skylight, made the green droplets on her face glisten and stand out as if they were real and moist and not dried oils.
The spatters of green are blood, he said.
Elaine felt dizzy.
He said, The person who is mad, I think, might not look upon death with the same viewpoint as the sane. The madman-or madwoman- might very well see death as a new beginning, a chance to start over. They might not see it as an end, a final act. That's why I chose the green for the droplets of blood in the picture. Green is the color of life.
She could not say anything. She was grateful when a clap of thunder relieved her of that duty.
"The woman in the painting is a murderess, he said
He said, You know who?
I've heard the story, she managed to say.
I loved my mother, he said. She was always doing odd things and reacting strangely. But I loved her just the same.
Elaine said nothing.
She considered excusing herself and walking for the door, but she had a terrible premonition that she would not reach it. Best to wait.
When I discovered what she had done to the twins, what she tried to do to grandfather, I almost lost my mind.
Lightning and thunder. The door: so far away.
He said, You can't imagine how adrift I was. For more than a year, I wanted to die. I had counted so strongly on my mother, depended so deeply on her love. And then she was gone-and she had ruthlessly destroyed two of her children-and might have destroyed me if I had been there at the time. I was possessed with a pessimistic certainty that no one in this world could be trusted, and I dare not turn my back on anyone, even for a moment, no matter how much they might profess their love for me.
Elaine managed to turn from the picture and look at him. His squared, handsome face was drained, drawn in fatigue and paled by the memory.
I can imagine how terrible it was, she said.
Fortunately, my father understood that. He saw what was happening with me, and he went out of his way to see that I knew I was loved. For long months, he left the business in the hands of his accountant and spent endless hours trying to assure me, to make me forget. In the end, he succeeded. But without his care, I'm afraid I would have given up long ago.
Abruptly, he turned away from her and walked to the largest easel where a work-in-progress was clipped.
He said, Look here.
Reluctantly, she walked to his side.
Do you think it's shaping up well? he asked.
It's Celia, isn't it?
He said that it was. Half of her face had been painted in, while the other half was still in sketch form and pasteled over with a pink- brown stain.
I thought you were bad at portraits, she said.
Funny thing is, I am. But with my mother, and now Celia, I haven't had any trouble.
You must love her a good deal.
Celia? Not at all. She's a fine girl, but I don't have those emotions for her. It's just that-that I seemed only to be able to paint the faces of those who have fallen under the misery of the Honneker legacy of madness. I have two other portraits, of the babies. They turned out not as well, for they were too young to have distinct images, individual faces.
I see this is done in tones of orange, she said.
Except for the blood, he said. When I paint the blood, I'll make it red. Very bright red. Celia did not see death as a beginning, but as an end. She wasn't mad.
He picked up a palette knife and tested it against his finger.
It was not sharp, but long and flexible.
He picked at a section of the canvas he didn't seem to like, peeling away the coarse peaks of the oils.
It will make a nice set-this one and the portrait of my mother.
Yes, Elaine agreed.
She saw that, now, he was standing between her and the door, and she did not know how she could have let that happen.
Stop it! she told herself. You are acting like a fool, a silly, empty-headed fool.
He squeezed some paint onto the palette and began mixing it with the palette knife. It was scarlet paint. It clung in lumps to the silvery tool like-like-
Blood, he said.
She started, though he did not notice, and she said, What?
I want to see how the blood will work against that orange pallor of her skin.
Be still, she told herself. There is no need to be afraid. He is only a man, and you have learned how to deal with people. But she also knew that he might be mad, as mad as Amelia Matherly had been, and she realized that she could never cope with anything like that. Madness had no place in her world of logic and reasonableness. Madness was complex. She wished for everything to be simple.
He held the knife up, staring at it as the red paint ran slowly down toward the handle and his fingers.
It looks good, he said.
The rain beat more harshly upon the skylight, larger drops that sounded almost like hail.
Well, she said, I ought to be going.
He continued looking at the knife. But you just came.
Nevertheless, your grandfather-
He didn't like the first painting-the one of mother.
His voice seemed so distant and unconnected to the moment, that she did not understand just what he meant. She said, Who didn't?
Grandfather, he said.
Dennis twisted the knife, forcing the paint away from his fingers and back up the blade. He said, Grandfather took one look at it and refused to examine it in detail. He said he never wanted to remember anything about that afternoon and what he had seen- and he said that my painting was too vivid, that it was too true for him to study it calmly. He's always been interested in my work, genuinely interested, but he never could stand that painting. And it's the best I've ever done, I think.
I liked it.
And your grandfather's reaction might be interpreted as praise rather than rejection.
I suppose so.
She said, I think I'll be going now.
He wiped the red pigment from the knife.
Do you mind? she asked.
He's your job, Dennis said.
Yes he is. And I can't leave him unlooked after. I thank you for showing me around your studio. Your work is very interesting, and that is the truth. Well-
Some of the red paint had gotten on his fingers. He stood there, staring at it, as if he saw something on the surface of the crimson blob, some image which he would have to use in a painting of his own.
She took a step away from him.
He did not turn.
She walked to the door, certain that he would come after her any moment now.
When she reached the door, she looked back, and she saw that he was painting crimson droplets on Celia Tamlin's face. He seemed to have forgotten that Elaine had ever been there.
She took the attic steps two at a time, even though she realized that he might hear her panicked flight. She opened the bottom door, stepped into the corridor, and closed the door behind her.
Her breathing was fast and ragged. She sucked each breath deep into her lungs, as if she had never expected to breathe outside of that attic room again. It was cool and clean and delicious.
When her nerves had quieted considerably, she smoothed her hair and straightened her blouse. The attention to grooming details helped calm her even more. Recovered, she wondered what she ought to do now. Should she go immediately to Jacob Matherly's room and tell the old man what Dennis had been like and what she had feared he was leading up to?
No. That would do her no good whatsoever. What, after all, had Dennis done? Talked of his mother. Painted pictures of madness. Showed a morbid fascination for blood. Toyed with a palette knife as if he might turn upon her and use it. None of it, in itself, was conclusive or even vaguely incriminating. Only if one were there could one understand what he had been like. It had not been only what he did, but how he did it, his mood, his expressions, the tone of his voice. And since no one but Elaine had seen those things and could grasp how they had been, the rest of it seemed silly.
Besides, Jacob would only tell her not to worry, that the killer was, after all, a stranger. A hitchhiker. He must be. Captain Rand said he was.
All she could expect to gain from Jacob Matherly was a little bit of conversation, a momentary escape from the dark house and the brooding people who lived there. He was the only haven of brightness in the place. But that was enough. Rather than sit alone in her room, she went down to talk to the old man. Disaster was brewing. She could feel it in the air, weighing down on her. At least, when it struck, she could be with someone else. Not alone. Please, not alone.