Isabel was resting her head on the back of the tub, her eyes closed. She had finally begun to feel warm when the sound of the bedroom door handle turning and the slow creaking of the door caused Isabel to open her eyes.
As her back was to the door, Isabel turned to face it and said, “Hello? Marie?”
However, there was no response and door continued to open ever so slowly. Isabel called out again, “Pierre is that you?” she began. “I am still in the bath. Is there something you need? Find Marie, I’m sure she can help you.” Again silence.
Isabel narrowed her eyes. “My dear Comte, I am in the middle of having my bath,” she said. “I understand we have much to talk about, but please come back when I am finished.” Isabel shivered as a cold draft wrapped itself around her exposed shoulders. “Indeed, can you summon Marie. She can help me dress for dinner. Then we can talk.”
However, if it was the Comte opening the door he did not answer. Isabel was becoming very vexed. Had the old drafty chateau shifted and the door become unfastened?
Isabel turned back to the chair upon which her dressing gown was draped. She moved to retrieve it and found that it was too far for her to reach without having to leave the warmth of the tub. She turned to call out to Marie, but her words were stifled by a figure in the doorway.
It was Malfait. Instead of a call for Marie, a short cry issued from Isabel.
“I am sorry my dearest,” said the Comte. “I did not mean to startle you. I was lost is thought contemplating my first words to you here in the Chateau Malfait.”
“An apology is the appropriate place to begin I believe,” Isabel rejoined.
The Comte nodded and said, “Indeed.”
The haughty Comte du Malfait was gone. This Comte that stood before Isabel did so with stooped shoulders and averted eyes. She decided to continue her reprimand. “I shall freely admit that my father was so beguiled by the gain promised by my marriage to you that even if I had begged him on my knees, he would not have altered his decision,” Isabel said. “However, even he would have paused when he discovered you are a common bandit.”
“Surely, I am not a common bandit,” Malfait rejoined. “However, you are correct, of course.” Malfait walked over to the chair opposite the bath and sat down. If he realized he had sat down on Isabel’s dressing gown, he gave no indication. He continued, “The time for dissembling is over. It is time for the mist to be blown away so that the rocky shore may be perceived in all its danger and beauty.”
Isabel realized she had sunk down further into the water. Her chin was once again resting on the water’s surface. Her arms were firmly wrapped around her bosom. The Comte had not been so poetic in his speech since the night he brought Philippe’s letter to her. “Very well then, my lord,” she began trying to keep any hint of distress out of her voice. “Tell me of this rocky shore.”
The Comte leaned back. “First, tell me what my sweet nurse Marie told you.”
“She told me of your childhood,” Isabel said, and Isabel quickly related all that Marie had revealed.
The Comte was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Very well, I shall pick up the tale from where Marie left off. And I shall confess everything.”
“Thank you,” Isabel said.
Malfait sat erect in the chair, took a deep breath, and began. “As Marie told you, I left this place,” he said waving his hand around the room. “I had to get away from the place that seemed to be the seat of all my sorrow. Where I was going, I did not know. I just had to get away.
“I had not gone a league when two rascals suddenly appeared out of some dense foliage by the side of the road. They demanded my money or my life. They looked at me and observed a slight, wealthy young man, and they figured me easy prey. What they did not know is that I had heard musket balls fly by my head like angry hornets. I had seen a comrade – a man who I had shared wine with a scant hour before – torn apart by a cannon ball. I had felt the sting of cold steel cut into my flesh.” Here the Comte paused and traced the white scar that traversed he cheek and throat.
“In short order,” he continued. “I had dispatched one, and had the other begging for his life. I ordered him to take me to his bandit king. Which he did. The leader was an ugly brute of a man, but I challenged him to a duel. The winner would reign as king of his collection of banditti. He mocked and berated the man who had tried to rob me, and then shot at me with his pistol. Very ungentlemanly. And very foolish. Sadly for him his pistol misfired, and as he was drawing his second pistol, I charged him and cut his arm ever so slightly. The blade was poisoned and he was dead before he came to rest on the ground.
“I must impress upon you that I would not have used my envenomed blade if the bandit king had consented to fight a proper duel, if he had observed all the proprieties. But since he did not, I did not feel compelled to follow the rules either.” Malfait shrugged.
“I declared that I was the son of the Comte du Malfait, and that dark name was familiar to them. The name along with the misfiring pistol, and the death by the slightest cut of their leader lead them to quickly proclaim their loyalty to me.
“Presently, a dark idea sprouted in my mind. And so I lead my merry band across Southern France robbing every last coach we came upon and not a few isolated chateaus. No ounce of gold or scrap of fur was left to the nobles unlucky enough to fall into our hands. We were such a terror that the King himself dispatched troops to hunt us down.
“But I had anticipated that and indeed I welcomed it. For, by that time, we were in the neighborhood of my old commanding officer’s estate.”
Here Isabel interrupted. “The one who…” Her voice trailed off.
“Yes, the very one who stripped me of my commission, thus leading to the doom that visited my family.”
Malfait was silent for some time. He sat very still staring into the fire, and Isabel thought she detected tears forming in his eyes. She removed one of her arms from her bosom and was going to reach out to her husband, to encourage him to continue. But she stopped herself.
Finally, he spoke. “What I have to relate to you next is most difficult. I fear what I shall reveal next will turn your heart against me forever.” He paused again. “But I must tell you. I promised I would and so I shall.”
The Comte took another deep breath and plunged into the final act of his story. “My mind was now bent on revenge. True, I had long wished I could revenge myself upon him, but now I possessed a plan. First, I dismissed my banditti followers telling them we had become too infamous. We divided our spoils and they were to return to the neighborhood of the Dark Chateau in groups of twos and threes using as many different routes as possible.
“I, however, did not set out for the Dark Chateau. Rather, I remained, and upon a wooded hill that overlooked the my former commander’s chateau. I sat down, opened one of my father’s books, and prepared an incantation.”
Isabel gasped and started violently enough to cause some of the water to splash over the sides of the tub. “So the stories were true? The stories about your father?” she said.
“Yes, they were true,” Malfait said. “Although I did not know they were true until he disappeared and I went through our chateau to take stock. That is when I found his library in the cellar and discovered his sins.”
“What did you do with your father’s book on that hillside?” Isabel asked, speaking in a whisper.
“I conjured a dark sorcery,” Malfait said. “I invoked the dark gods Vritra, Lotan, and Illuyanka to bring down plagues upon the old man. First, the crops of his villages were blighted. Then the livestock suffered a great mortality. The water in the stream that flowed through his estate became a festering, putrid quagmire.” The Comte shook his head. “But after every catastrophe I visited upon him I would creep up to the chateau. How I longed to hear the wails of despair and see tears of sadness.
“But I received none. Indeed, I was greeted with laughter and music, and tables full of food.” Malfait sighed. “I discovered that my former commander merely squeezed from his tenants every coin they possessed, and he felt none of the pain I had visited upon his estate.
“That is when I decided I had to go further down the dark path to make him feel the pain that I had felt.”
Isabel shook her head. What more evil could he commit? She did not want to know, but she also knew she had to continue until the end of the Comte’s tale. She pulled her knees to her chest and hugged them tightly.
The Comte continued. “On a cloudy night, I entered the home and crept up the stairs, and found the room belonging to my commander’s son. I stood over his bed and withdrew the poisoned blade I carried beneath my cloak.”
“No!” Isabel cried. “You didn’t take a child’s life. I cannot believe it.”
Malfait left his seat, knelt beside the tub, and brushed away the tears that were falling down Isabel’s cheeks. “No, I did not,” the Comte said.
After kneeling silently for a few moments, Malfait returned to his chair and continued. “Just as I raised the blade, ready to strike, I heard a commotion in the hall just outside the bedroom door. It was my old commander and a serving girl. She was pleading with him to care for the child she was carrying, that the child was his. He was laughing and said he would do nothing for the ‘bastard.’
“What I did next, I did not contemplate. I left the bedroom and entered the hall. The old man had his back to me, and I plunged my blade into him all the way to the hilt.”
Malfait sat back in his chair. “He died in an instant. He never knew who killed him or why. The serving girl’s screams brought the household into the hall. The sight that greeted them must have chilled their souls. I stood there covered in a black cloak, holding a bloody, smoking blade that reeked of brimstone.
“I did not feel joy or guilt. I felt regret that he never suffered. That he never understood why he died the way he did. When I woke from this reverie, I fled the chateau. After collecting my father’s book from the hilltop, I looked up in the sky and, seeing Venus, I followed her until she fled the light of the sun. I did this for how many days I do not know.
“Finally, one day as the sun was swallowed by the horizon, a great storm broke out. I sought refuge and found a cave. The wind was such that it blew rain into the mouth of the cave and forced me to retreated further into its darkness.
“That is when I fell into an unseen black pit. I fell and tumbled for an eternity, and in the process I lost my satchel and my blade. My cloak was ripped from my body and my shirt and breeches were torn.
“Finally, I reached the bottom and found myself in a large cavern. I was shocked to find that it was illuminated by a collection of bronze braziers and that I was not alone. In the center of the cavern was a cyclopean statue from some distant, antique age. It was a female figure, her bosom was bare but she wore a wide skirt. In each of her hands she held a snake. If this sight was not shocking enough, around this statue was a circle of women. None wore a stitch of clothing. Some were old. Some carried babes at their breasts, and some just barely deserved the title woman.
“One approached me and welcomed me as if she and the other women had been awaiting my arrival. And indeed, the woman who had approached told me in soothing tones that the Goddess – Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Sausak, Danu – had told them I was coming, and that I was to be welcomed.
“I shall end my tale here by saying that at that moment I was in the very cavern that you have been in as well.”
“The Villa of Mysteries? Where I entered disguised?” Isabel said.
“Yes, the same,” Malfait said. “That was the day I became a worshiper of the Goddess and she has given me means to make right the wrongs that I, and so, so many others, have suffered.”
Malfait leaned forward. “So, what say you Isabel? Shall you forgive me?” he said. “I confess that I have done monstrous things, but I now worship the Goddess. I would never force you to be my wife unwillingly.” He reached out and placed his hand on Isabel’s knee which was just barely above the surface of the water. “Forgive me. I beseech you!”
“Has the water gone cold?” Malfait asked. Before Isabel could reply she watched Malfait’s hand slide off her knee and under the surface of the water. It slowly descended deeper into the bath until it reached the top of her thigh. “So it has.”
In a fluid motion, Malfait stood and took up a dressing gown that was draped on the chair. Holding the gown up by his shoulders he said, “Here, come out of the bath and put this on before you catch your death.”
Isabel hesitated for a moment, but she observed that the Comte was holding the gown high enough to block his view. As quickly as she could without slipping, Isabel left the tub and threaded her armed into the sleeves of the gown. Without releasing the garment, the Comte wrapped it around her, and Isabel found herself bound by Malfait arms and pulled tightly against his chest. “Henri, please,” she protested. “My Lord, release me!”
Malfait inclined his head and his lips found the spot on Isabel’s neck just below her ear. “Forgive my villainies and be my wife!” he whispered. “I beg of you!”
Isabel attempted to move away but his grip was too tight. Indeed, his grip tightened, and to Isabel’s horror, as it did so the Comte’s arms slithered inside the dressing gown. One reached for her hip and the other inched its way toward her left breast. Isabel grasped his wrists in a vain attempt to arrest the progress of his invading limbs. She gasped for breath as the flat of his hands moved across her skin. A fancy suddenly intruded into her distress: How hot his skin seemed. It seemed hot enough that it might burn her bare flesh, but it did not, and indeed the sensation was not unpleasant.
A few moments more, a mere inch or two further and Isabel knew her resolve would fail and she would capitulate. In a desperate, final attempt, she said, “Wait! I shall give you my answer but I desire to look you in the eye as I do so.”
Malfait’s arms stopped. “Very well,” he said, and before Isabel could do anything, Malfait spun her around and pulled her close once again. His arms were still inside her dressing gown, one resting at the small of her back and the other tracing the outline of her shoulder blade. Her arms had been pushed up and now rested around the Comte’s neck, and her naked skin was pressed against his silk shirt.
Isabel looked up. The Comte’s visage was as serene as a forest stream, but his hands continued their devilish ministrations upon her skin. Summoning her last reserves of will she said, “If we return to Villefranche to live, I shall be your wife.”
Malfait smiled and said, “That would make me very happy.” He pulled her up and kissed her.
Isabel tightened her arms around his neck as if she were in a midst of a great storm and to let go of Malfait would mean she would be lost in the deluge. She was vaguely aware that she was being carried to the large bed. From some far away vault of her memory she heard the voice of her parish priest, Father LePic, preaching against the sins of the flesh. How such sinful acts lead to an eternity of fiery torment.
The Comte laid her down on the bed. Her gown having fallen to the floor, Isabel felt her cheeks and bosom flush. But her self-consciousness faded as the Comte tore off his shirt and revealed his well-scarred chest. Isabel raised one of her hands and began to trace the white lines as Malfait removed his breeches. His chest was just has hot as the palms of his hands.
Presently, the Comte joined Isabel on the bed and recommenced kissing her. Isabel reached her arms above her head and grasp the carved pillars the decorated the head board. Closing her eyes, Isabel dismissed the warnings of her priest. The fate of her soul was a worry for tomorrow.
Isabel awoke with a start. Someone, somewhere in the hall had shouted. She held her breath and listened.
“Henri,” she whispered and reached out across the bed. To her dismay she discovered she was alone.
Somewhere at some distant point in the chateau, there was a crash as if a large serving platter had fallen onto a stone floor. Or as if a suit of antique armor had fallen over. Isabel shuddered. Clutching the blankets to her chest she called out, “Henri!” But there was no answer.
After a moment worrying the hem of the blanket, Isabel threw it aside, retrieved her dressing gown from the floor and covered herself from the cold. Grasping a taper from the bed side table, she lit it with the dying ember from the fireplace. Padding across the floor, she opened the door to the hallway and listened. Nothing but the wind moaning down one of the many chimneys.
“Henri,” she whispered, and then listened. But it was as if the darkness had swallowed her words. There was no echo of her call.
Another crash rumbled through the old house. This time it was accompanied by a shout. A choked cry escaped Isabel’s lips and she slammed the bedroom door shut. She fumbled with the lock and once the bolt was in place she leaned against the door and started to breath again.
But her respite was fleeting. As her panic subsided she began to think upon the voice that had shouted and she was now sure in the safety of her room that it was Henri. Isabel paced back and forth. What should she do? What could she do? Her husband was clearly in distress. Many possibilities of what now assailed the Comte danced in her mind. And all were horrid to think upon. Should she remain locked in the bedroom? Henri would want her to be safe. But if she did not at the very least seek out some aid for him and he was overcome, then a locked door would not provide protection indefinitely.
No, she had to go downstairs and find Pierre and Marie. They could help. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Isabel unlocked the door, opened it, and plunged into the pitch black hallway.