Elaine sat in one of the large, flower- patterned, heavily-stuffed lounge chairs, nearly engulfed by the plush seat and the high, thick arms. The chair smelled unpleasantly of dust and age. But that was, she decided, the least of her worries.
Across from her, Bess and Jerry sat together on the purple brocade sofa, bent over themselves, shrunken, withered as if they had been dehydrated. Jerry held his head and from time to time let out a low, trembling moan of pain that sounded, to Elaine, somewhat like the bleat of a cow. She could not manage to be concerned about the old man. His agony was too carefully rehearsed, his moans too well-timed to be genuine. Bess cowered in fear, certain-Elaine began to understand-that Gordon was not really Gordon any longer, but was the reincarnate spirit of Amelia Matherly. The same fear, of course, was what so completely paralyzed Jerry. But he was either too ashamed to admit it or reluctant to come to grips with his own fears. He relied on his wound for an excuse not to act.
Gordon stood between the three of them and the door. He paced back and forth, always keeping his eye on them, far more alert than Elaine would ever have expected a madman to be.
He had cut the telephone cord.
Elaine was furious with the old couple. There were three of them and only one of Gordon. If Bess and Jerry had not been so consumed with superstitious fear, they could have overpowered him, despite his size. But neither of them, she knew, would make a move to help her if she initiated a confrontation.
You asked for an explanation, Gordon said.
His face was like a screen upon which a film loop of emotions was projected, one following the other- fear, happiness, hatred, envy, doubt, joy, awe, love, disbelief, fear again, happiness again-with little relationship between what he said and what his features expressed. He was much farther along the road of madness than he had been downstairs, in the garage. Something about this explanation stirred deeper evil within him and set him off into greater depths of manic-depressive contrasts. Surely, he would kill all three of them when he was done. And he would start, being clever, with Elaine, the only one who could seriously resist him.
Do you have an explanation, Gordon? she asked. It was a calculated risk, egging him on. But she knew their only chance was to take as much time with the explanation as possible. Perhaps no one would miss them. Perhaps no one would stumble upon them. But the chances improved with every minute they gained.
I told you I'm not mad, he said.
He isn't crazy, Bess said. It's more than that. We tried to tell you, Miss Sherred, we tried to tell you it was more than that.
The book, Elaine said.
To Gordon, Elaine said, Explain to me why you did these things and why you want to kill me too.
It started just after grandfather came back from the hospital. His eyes seemed to look at her, and yet beyond her. For a while, we had a private nurse here by day, another by night, while we got your room ready.
He stopped, fidgeted a bit, rolled the knife over and over in his hand as he stared down at the point of the blade.
Go on, she said.
He looked up, as if he had forgotten them, then continued. That room used to be the nursery.
My room? she asked, beginning to see connections, subtle webs between this event and that.
Yes, Gordon said. It had been closed and locked for fifteen years. No one had been in that room ever since the police finished with it.
Why wasn't it converted earlier?
Father didn't want to go in the room. He said, for years, that he wouldn't be able to use it for anything, even if it no longer looked like a nursery. So it was sealed.
Elaine thought that it would have been far better to destroy the furniture and remodel the nursery immediately. To live in that house for fifteen years, knowing the nursery was exactly the same, except for the dust, as it had been on the day of the murder, would have worn her nerves to their last. What must it have been like for the children, and especially the younger Gordon, to pass that sealed door and know that the bloody cribs lay beyond it?
Gordon said, When you were hired and we had to prepare a room for you, we chose the nursery. Father had outgrown his emotional horror of it. It was opened. The furniture was removed. Carpenters and plasterers were hired to redecorate it, and new furniture was bought to match the rest of the house.
Again, Elaine interrupted him. I don't see what this has to do with Celia Tamlin. Or with me. Or with anything you've done.
Gordon held up the knife, as if it were something he had just discovered and wanted them to appreciate. He said, The cribs were very heavy, antique brass pieces. When I was moving one of them, the knob on the top of one of the two headposts fell off. It had, apparently, been loose for years. I don't know why, but-I tilted the crib and shook it, as if I thought something might be hidden in the brass pipe. Something was. The knife fell out.
Bess moaned, and Jerry seemed to draw back against the couch, though he still held his head as if all his discomfort were physical.
Gordon said, When I saw it, I knew what it meant.
He did not continue, and Elaine was forced to ask, What did it mean, Gordon? I don't understand you.
She had come back, Gordon said. His mouth bent in an expression of hurt, and tears clouded his eyes. This was a genuine feeling, not one of the reasonless expressions he had previously seemed unable to control.
But both Bess and Jerry could answer that. Amelia, they said. Your mother.
Yes, Gordon answered. I've always remembered that visit you paid to the medium in Pittsburgh. Mrs. Moses, her name was. You told me about it so many times, before father called it hogwash and forbid you to talk about it any more. When I saw that knife, I knew that Mrs. Moses was right. My mother came back-through me.
Oh, God, God! Elaine said, overwhelmed by the stupidity, the senselessness of all that had happened. She looked at Bess, who returned her look, and at Jerry who did not, and she said, Don't you see what you've done to him?
Nothing, Bess said. We educated him, that's all. We taught him things they don't teach in schools, but things a person should know about life, anyways.
You planted this idea, Elaine said. You set the seed for this insane notion of spiritual possession!
She had thought, when she had first seen the ornate stonework of the Matherly house, that it was all too complicated, too fancy and clever for her. She had wondered if the lives of the people who lived in it were equally as silly, as decorative and useless. And now she found that they were, twisted and full of superstition.
Gordon said, You can't blame Bess and Jerry for anything. They only told me, once they had seen Mrs. Moses and had the cards read, what I suspected myself. I couldn't believe that my mother would leave me, or that she would do something like this-something-that she might have done-to me. I knew that she wouldn't do anything bad to me-anything like she had done to the twins. And I knew she wouldn't leave me without explaining it to me. Dennis broke down under it. Dennis couldn't sleep nights and didn't want to eat and became listless. It took everything father had to pull him out of it. I was different. I couldn't believe it, I hated to hear people call her a murderer, and so I came to understand that she was only temporarily gone. Mrs. Moses confirmed my suspicions. I did not cry like Dennis did, and I didn't stop eating either. You know, he said, brightening suddenly, I even made it a point to clean up my plate at every meal, down to the last crumb. I found an inner strength that was rare in a boy my age, the strength of a man. I was able to stand up against it and find my peace.
It wasn't strength and it wasn't peace you found, Elaine said. She spoke gently, warmly, for she genuinely pitied him now. You merely found an excuse, an escape from reality. All this notion that your mother would return, that her spirit-
No, he said sharply. It was lasting strength that has borne me through all these years. And I have been proved right. I found the knife, and I have her spirit in me now.
Elaine saw that she could not blame only Jerry and Bess for what had happened to the little boy who grew up to be this madman. They shared a particle of guilt. But Amelia Matherly must also be blamed, both for her genetic infirmities and, more than that, for the way she raised her children and for the memories of blood that she left them. And, too, Lee Matherly and Jacob must shoulder some blame. They had seen Dennis crumbling under the memory of his mother's mad deeds, and they had lavished affection on him, had cured him with love and concern and time. Meanwhile, because his own sick reaction was not as overt as his brother's, Gordon had been ignored. His pain and doubt and confusion had been allowed to fester until it had given rise to unwholesome fantasies. The guilt was everywhere, the webs densely crisscrossed.
But why did you try to kill your grandfather?
He frightened my mother. Fleeing from him, she tripped on the stairs and fell and died. Otherwise, she would be alive today.
There was nothing that she could say in the face of such insane reasoning. He would not listen. And, if he did listen, he would never be able to conceive of a world in which his grandfather was faultless, a victim of circumstance. Gordon's touch with reality had been damaged many years ago and had been smashed beyond repair from the moment he had found that knife where his mother, for some incomprehensible reason, had secreted it.
Why Celia? she asked. She was certain the explanation would be as unsound as all the others, but she had to know anyway. And she had to stall as long as she could.
She was a woman, Gordon said.
She remembered him having used that excuse before, as if it was enough, of itself, to explain anything.
She said, What does that matter?
She was a pretty woman, Gordon said. My mother disliked other pretty women. She was beautiful, and she was somewhat vain. I suppose you would say 'vain.' I choose to think that she was afraid some other woman, some prettier woman might come into our life and take us away from her. He sighed, as if remembering his mother's beauty. Celia was lovely and was going to live here. That was no good. My father has never remarried, though he has known women, many women, outside the house. He knew better than to bring a pretty woman here; he knew she would not like him being married again and keeping a wife in this house. Dennis should have known better than to invite Celia here.
He began to sway again, and tears returned to eyes that had grown dry. He looked at Elaine and said, And then you. You want to take all of them away from her, make them forget how lovely she was. You're just like Celia.
Be calm, she told herself. You don't have a chance if you lose your calm. Be quiet, think. Think!
Jerry grasped his head again and bent forward on the sofa. He moaned more pitiably, but just as phonily, than before, as if he wanted to make it clear to her that he would be of no help when Gordon decided to make his move against her.
But she already knew that. She no longer hated him for his cowardly behavior. A lifetime of superstition had not prepared him to play the hero in this room.
Her only hope was to get Gordon's mind off her for a moment. She said, If Amelia Matherly was so concerned about losing her family to another woman, why did she kill her own children? She addressed this to no one in particular, in hopes that the indirect nature of her attitude might defuse the question of some of its power.
But Gordon did not seem to think it had any power to being with. He said, evenly, The twins were little girls, weren't they? They would have become women, wouldn't they?
Elaine shuddered miserably and sank deeper into her chair, actually hoping it might completely conceal her. Such cold exposition of such a hateful notion had resurrected the worst of her fears. The room was freezing, even in the middle of June. Surely, it was snowing outside and ice was hanging from the eaves.
She said, not without some effort, And you honestly believe that was a good enough reason for her to kill them? Was plain jealousy sufficient- No, not plain jealousy but mad jealousy, unreasoning jealousy that-
She was my mother. She has returned to me and has possessed me and will remain with me. I don't care. I don't care what her reasons were, and I don't need to make judgments of her.
Why did you kill Bobo? she asked.
This seemed to interest Jerry and Bess more than anything else that had been said.
Gordon hesitated and looked confused. But, in a moment, he recovered with the help of that inner strength of his. He said, At first, I thought it was only because I had come to like the sight of blood. I stabbed him over and over. He came to me to be petted. I grabbed him by the neck and plunged the knife into his back. It was marvelous! He was lost, for a moment, in the recollection of that supreme moment. Then he said, But later I realized that there was more to it than that. I couldn't have been consumed by a lust for blood, by a pure urge to kill something. I'm not the type for that. I am far too sensible and methodic for that. Then I saw that Bobo was not just a cat, but a familiar, possessed of the spirit of another dead woman. He planned to throw a monkey wrench into my duties to my mother, to upset what she hoped, through me, to achieve.
That's only an excuse, Elaine said. Can't you see that? You really did kill Bobo because you liked to see the blood. But later, you couldn't live with that in your mind. So you made up another fantasy about a cat with a human spirit.
It wasn't a fantasy, he said.
Why did you kill Captain Rand? For the fun of it? She was pushing him hard now. She hoped he didn't break.
Of course not, he said. But from the fleeting look of strange, degenerate joy which crossed his twisted face, it was obvious to Elaine that the murder had not been without a certain thrill for him. Rand was watching the house. Someone had evidently called him and given him a tip of some sort. I couldn't risk letting him stay alive. And it was a miracle that he had not seen me already; he was sure to catch sight of me if I tried to get back into the house.
Bess, roused from the odd stupor into which she had settled-but for a few short comments now and again-ever since Gordon had forced his way into the apartment, said, Gordon, have you seen your mother's spirit yet? Has she appeared to you at all?
No, he said. She doesn't have to. She's here, inside of me, with me all the time.
And you saw no hint of her before the possession?
I wished you had.
She's inside me, Gordon repeated.
I wondered what she would have looked like, Bess said.
Perhaps I'll see her yet, Gordon said.
You will, Jerry said. Oh, yes! She'll come to you like a mist, all vaporous and vaguely seen.
Elaine let them ramble on. Neither Jerry nor Bess held anything against Gordon. To them, he was the helpless tool of a spirit, the puppet of an unseen master. The subject and their attitude struck Elaine as being very nearly obscene in light of the much more real horror of Gordon's pyschotic madness. At least, however, this inane chatter distracted him from using his knife
But then even that line of conversation was finished, and they were all silent. No one could think of anything to say. It had been like a playlet, all that went before this moment, and now the last scene had been enacted. The curtain should fall, and they were all waiting for someone to pull the rope.
Gordon hefted the knife and took a step toward Elaine.
She started out of her chair. She was not willing to let him have her so easily. If she were to die, she would inflict some damage on him too, claw his face, go for his eyes, anything to make him know that he had put the blade to a living creature and not to some predestinated marionette-victim who had no choice but to die.
You should never have come to this house, he said.
Again, he spoke in a voice which was not his, a voice that was more feminine than masculine. Bess gasped and silenced Jerry's moaning so that she could better catch this new development, as if it had great importance.
You can't have my family; you can't steal them away from me, Gordon said, his voice rising even higher, the inflection changing.
He raised the knife and took another step.
And the window on the front door smashed in, sending shards of glass tinkling against the furniture nearby.
For a moment, Elaine refused to believe that it had happened. The sound of breaking glass echoed in her mind, and she held onto it in desperation, for it was hope. But she could not see past Gordon, and she could not be sure that the sound was a reality or a figment of her Imagination, a trick of her mind to soften the suddenness of death which would soon receive her. Then she saw that Bess and Jerry were looking toward the door and that Gordon had stopped advancing on her and had swung around to see who the intruder was.
A hand came through the broken pane, found the lock, threw it open, and pushed the door inward.
Dennis Matherly stood framed in sunlight, his face a mask of horror but also of-determination. Put the knife down, Gordon, he said.
But Gordon said, No.