Now that it’s all over, it seems like a bad dream. But when I look at Maria’s picture on my desk, I realize it couldn’t have been a dream. Actually, it was only six months ago that I sat at this same desk, looking at her picture, wondering what could have happened to her. It had been six weeks since there had been any word from her, and she had promised to write as soon as she arrived in Europe. Considering that my future rested in her small hands, I had every right to be apprehensive.
We had grown up together, had lost our folks within a few years of each other and had been fond of each other the way kids are apt to be. Then the change came: It seemed I loved her, and she was still just “fond” of me. During our early college days I sort of let things ride, but once we went on to graduate school, I began to crowd her.
The next thing I knew, she had signed up with a student tour destined for Central Europe, and told me she would give me my answer when she returned. I had to be content with that, but couldn’t help worrying. Maria was a strange girl--withdrawn, dreamy and soft-hearted. Knowing the section she was going to, I was inclined to be uneasy, since it is the realm of gypsies, fortune tellers and the like. It is also the birthplace of many strange legends, and Maria claimed to be strongly psychic. As a matter of fact, she had foretold one or two things which were probably coincidental, like the death of our parents, and which even made an impression on me--and you’d hardly call me a “believer.”
This so-called talent of hers led her into trouble on more than one occasion. I remember in her senior year at college she fell under the spell of a short, fat, greasy spook-reader with a strictly phony accent and all but gave her eye teeth away, until I realized something was amiss, got to the bottom of it, and dispatched friend spook-reader pronto. If she should meet some unscrupulous person now, with no one around to get her out of the scrape--but I didn’t want to think of that. I was sure this time everything would be all right.
When she didn’t write at first, I let it go that she was busy. Finally, six weeks’ silent treatment aroused my curiosity. It also aroused my nasty temper, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane bound for the Continent. Within two hours after landing, I found her at a little inn in Transylvania, a quaint little place that looked as if it were made of gingerbread, and was surrounded by the huge, craggy Transylvania Mountain range. I also found Tod Hunter.
“What’s wrong, Maria? Why didn’t you write?” I asked.
Her usually gay, shining brown eyes flashed angrily. “Why couldn’t you leave me alone? I told you not to come after me. I came here so I could think this out. For God’s sake, Bill, can’t you see I wanted to think? To be by myself?”
“But you promised to write,” I persisted, wondering at this change in her, this impatience. Wondered, too, at her wraithlike slimness. She’d always been curved in the right places.
“Maria has been studying much too diligently,” Tod said slowly. “She’s always tired lately. She hasn’t been too well, either. Her throat bothers her.”
I wanted to punch his head in. For some reason I didn’t like him. Not because I sensed his rivalry; I was above that. God knows I wanted her to be happy, above everything. It was just something about him that irritated me. An attitude. Not supercilious; I could have coped with that. Rather, it was a calm imperturbability that seemed to speak his faith in his eventual success, regardless of any effort on my part.
I don’t know how to fight that sort of strategy. I look like I am: blunt and obvious. Suddenly I didn’t care if he was there.
“Maria. Ria, darling. This guy’s no good for you, can’t you see that? What do you know about him?”
She looked at me, her eyes surprised and a little hurt. Then she looked at him, seemed to be looking through him and into herself, if you know what I mean. A slow flush spread from the base of her throat, that thin, almost transparent throat.
“All I have to know,” she said softly. “I love him.”
She looked out the window. “I’m going up into Konigstein Mountain, to a small sanitarium for my health shortly; the doctor has told me I must go away, and Tod has suggested this place. There Tod and I shall be married.”
I knew then how it felt to be on the receiving end of a monkey-punch. That she had come to this decision because of my objections, I had not the slightest doubt. She was going to marry someone about whom she knew absolutely nothing. She was much more ill than she knew. Hunter was undoubtedly after her money; she was considerably well-off. Obviously she was once more being influenced in the wrong direction.
“I won’t let you!” I warned. “Give it some more time, if for nothing else, then for old times’ sake.”
“How about me, Morris?” Tod interrupted. “You haven’t asked me my feelings on the subject. I happen to love Maria dearly. Have I no say just because you’re a childhood friend of hers?”
“Childhood friend! I was her whole family for years before she ever heard of you! I’ll see you in hell before I let her marry you!” I shouted. Looking back, I’m sure that had he said anything else, I would have killed him, if Ria hadn’t come between us.
“That’s enough, Bill Morris! I’ve heard all I want to from you. I’m twenty-three, and if I choose to marry Tod, I’ll do so and there’s nothing you can do about it. Now, please go.”
“Okay, Ria,” I said, “if that’s the way you want it. But I’m not through. If you won’t protect yourself, I’ll do it for you. I’d like to know more about the mysterious Mr. Tod Hunter, American, and I do wish, for your own sake, you’d do the same. I wouldn’t care if you married King Tut, so long as you knew all about him. People just don’t marry strangers; not if they’re smart. For God’s sake, ask him about himself!”
“All right, Bill,” she replied, smiling patiently. “I’ll ask him. Now, do stop being childish.”
“Okay, darling,” I said sheepishly. “But do me one more favor. Don’t marry him until I get back. Only a little while; give me a week. Just wait a little longer.”
As I closed the door, I could still feel his smile, mocking--yet a little sad.
But Maria didn’t wait. I was gone a week. I had walked my legs off trying to track down the elusive Mister Hunter and discovered exactly--nothing. All his landlady could tell me was that he was an American who had come to this climate for his health, and that he slept late mornings. I was licked and I knew it. If I had been a pup, I would have fitted my tail neatly between my legs and made for home. But I wasn’t a pup, so I headed straight for Ria’s flat to face the music.
They were waiting for me, she and Tod. When I saw her, I wished I were dead.
She lay in Tod’s arms, her body a mere whisper of a body. White and cold she was, like frozen milk on a cold winter’s day. They were both dead.
You know how it is when at a wake someone views the deceased and says kindly, “She’s beautiful,” and “she” isn’t beautiful at all; just a made-up, lifeless handful of clay. Dead as dead, and frightening. Well, it wasn’t that way this time. Their fair skins were faintly pink-tinted and their blonde heads, hers ashen and his a reddish cast, gleamed brightly. And they sat so close in the sofa before the fire, his head resting in the hollow of her throat. They looked--peaceful; no line marred their faces. I almost fancied I saw them breathe. And on her third finger, left hand, was the ring--a thin, platinum band. He had won, and in winning somehow he had lost. How they had died and why they found each other and death at the same time, I would probably never know. I only knew one thing: I had to get away from there--quickly. I almost ran the distance to my flat. Stumbled into the place and poured a triple Scotch which I could scarcely hold. The Scotch seared my throat and tasted bitter; someone must have poured salt in it. Then I realized that it was tears--my tears. I, Bill Morris, who hadn’t cried since my fifth birthday--I was sobbing like a baby.
I didn’t call the police. That would mean I would have to go back and watch them cover that lovely body, carry it away and submit it to untold indignities in order to ascertain the cause of death. The cleaning girl would find them in the morning and would notify the police.
But it wasn’t so simple as that. In the morning I found I couldn’t shake off the guilt which possessed me. Even two bottles of Scotch hadn’t helped me to forget. I was dead drunk and cold sober at the same time.
I phoned Ria’s landlady and told her I had failed to reach the Hunters by phone, that I was sure something was amiss. Would she please go to their flat and see if anything was wrong.
She was amused. “Really, Mr. Morris, you must be mistaken. Miss Maria went out just an hour ago with her new husband. Surely you are jesting. Why she has never looked better. So happy. They have left for Konigstein. They have also left you a note.
I told her I would be right over, and hopped a cab. I began to think I was losing my mind. I had seen them both--dead. The landlady had seen them this morning--alive!“
When I arrived, the landlady looked at me for a long moment, taking in my rough, dark-blue complexion, unpressed clothes, red-rimmed eyes, then wagged a finger playfully.
“You are playing a joke, no? A wedding joke, maybe. Here, too, we haze newlyweds. But of course I understood. Who could help loving Miss Maria? Be of good heart, young man. For you there will be another, some day. But I talk too much. Here is your letter.”
I went where I would be undisturbed, to the reading room of the library on the same street as my flat. To the musty, oblong, dimly lit room whose threshold sunshine and fresh air dared not cross. Without the saving warmth of sunlight or the fresh, clean relief of sweet-smelling air, I read. Read, inhaling the pungent, sour smell of the Scotch I had consumed during the long, sleepless night. Read, and then doubted that I had read at all--but the blue ink on the white paper forced me to acknowledge its actuality. It had been written by Hunter, in a neat, scholar’s script.
Dear Morris: (It began)
_Why should I not have wanted Maria? You did; others doubtless did. Why then should she not be mine? There are many things worse than being married to me; she might have married a man who beat her!_
_With her I have known the two happiest days of my life. I want no more than that. I have no right to ask for more. Have we, any of us, a right to endless bliss on this earth? Hardly._
_You thought of her welfare above all; for that I owe you some explanation. You must be patient, you must believe, and in the end, you must do as I ask._ You must.
_You wanted to know about me--of my life before Maria. Before Maria? It seems strange to think about it. There is no life without Maria. Still, there was a time when for me she didn’t exist. I have been constantly going forward to the day when I would meet her, yet there was a time when I didn’t know where I would find her, or even what her name would be!_
_It was chance that brought us together. For me, good chance; for you, possibly ill chance; for Maria? Only she can say. Some three years ago I was studying in England under a Rhodes Scholarship. The future held great things for me. I was a Yank like yourself, and damn proud of it. Life in England seemed strange and slow and sometimes utterly dismal under Austerity. Then, little by little I slipped into their slower ways, growing to love the people for their spunk, and finally coming to feel I was one of them, so to speak._
_I have said everything slowed down: I was wrong. Studying intensified for me. The folklore of the British Isles intrigued me. I delved into the Black Welsh tales, the mischievous fancies of the Irish, the English legends of the prowling werewolf. For me it was a relief from political science, which suddenly palled and which smacked of treason in the light of current events. My extracurricular research consumed the better part of my evenings. My books were and always have been a part of me, and as was to be expected, I overdid it. I studied too hard with too little let-up. Sometimes it seemed to me there was more truth to what I read than myth. It became somewhat of an obsession. Suddenly, one night, everything blacked out._
_I came to in a sanatorium. I didn’t know how I got there, and when they explained it to me, I laughed. I thought they were joking. When I tried to get up, to walk, I collapsed. Then I knew how bad it had been. I knew, too, I would have to go slowly._
_It was there I met Eve. She was beautiful. Not like Maria, who is like a fragile, fair, spun-sugar angel. Eve was more earthy, with skin like ivory, creamy and rich and pale. Her blue-black hair she wore long and gathered in the back. She looked about twenty-five, but a streak of pure white ran back from each of her temples. She was the most striking woman I have ever met. I had never known anyone like her, nor have I since I saw her last._
_You know how it is: the air of mystery about a woman makes a man like a kid again. She reminded me of a sleek, black cat, with her large, hazel eyes. I bumped into her one day on the verandah, and spent every day with her after that._
_The doctors wanted me to take exercise--short walks and the like, and Eve went with me, struggling to keep up with me. The slightest effort tired her. She suffered from a rather nasty case of anemia. She seldom smiled; the effort was probably too much for her. I saw her really smile only once._
_We had been on one of our short hikes in the woods close by the grounds. She stumbled over a twig or a branch, I’m not sure which. Suddenly she was in my arms. Have you ever held a cloud in your arms, Morris? So light she was, although she was almost as tall as I. Warm and pulsating. Her eyes held mine; it was almost uncanny. I have never been affected like that by a woman. Then I was kissing her; then a sharp sting, and I winced. There was the warm, salt taste of blood on my lips. I never knew how it happened. But she was smiling, her full mouth parted in the strangest smile I have ever seen. And those small white teeth gleamed; and in her eyes, which were all black pupils now, with the iris quite hidden, was desire--or something beyond desire. I couldn’t define it then; now, I think I can. Her small, pink tongue darted over her lips, tasting, seeming to savor._
_I was frightened, for some indefinable reason. I wanted to get away from her, from the woods, from myself. I grasped her arm roughly and we started back for the grounds. We never mentioned the episode again, but we neither of us ever forgot. She intrigued me now, more than ever. The doctors were able to satisfy my curiosity somewhat. They told me she had been a patient for some four years. Some days she was better, some days worse. She needed rest--much rest. Most days she slept past noon with their approval. Some days there was a faint flush beneath that ivory skin; other days it was pale and cool._
_Just when we became lovers, I scarcely remember. Things were happening so fast I could barely keep pace with them. There was a magnetism about Eve which compelled. I couldn’t have resisted if I’d wanted to--and I didn’t._
_I began to have long periods of lassitude, times when I would black out and remember nothing afterwards. And the dreams began. I would dream I was stroking a large, velvety-black cat, a cat with shining yellow eyes that looked at me as if they knew my every thought. I would stroke it continuously and it would nip me playfully. Then, one night the dream intensified: I was playing with the creature, caressing it gently, when of a sudden its lips drew back in a snarl, and without warning it sprang at my throat and buried its fangs deep! I thought I could feel life being drawn from me; I screamed._
_The doctors told me afterwards that I was semi-conscious for days; that I had to be restrained._
_When I was well again, Eve came to see me. She was gentle--soothing. She held me close to her and oh! it was good to be alive and to belong to someone._
_I remember to this day what she wore. Black velvet lounging slacks, a low-necked amber satin blouse, caught at the “V” by a curiously wrought antique silver pin. It was round, about four inches in diameter. In its center was the carved figure of a serpent coiled to strike. Its eyes were deep amber topazes and its darting tongue was raised and set with a blood-red ruby._
_”What an unusual pin, Eve,” I said “I’ve never seen it before, have I?”_
_”No,” she replied. “It belongs to the deep, dark, seldom discussed skeleton in the Orcaczy closet, Tod. You see, my great-great grandmother was quite a wicked lady, to hear tell. Went in for Witches’ masses and the like. They say she poisoned her husband, a rather elderly and very childish man, for her lover, whom she subsequently married. Together they did away with relatives who stood in the way of their accumulating more money. This pin was the instrument of death.”_
_Her slim fingers pressed the ruby tongue and the pin opened, revealing a space large enough to secrete powder._
_”It’s like those employed by the infamous Borgias, as you can see,” she continued, shrugging. “Perhaps it was fate then, that her devoted new husband tired of her once her fortune was assured him, took a young mistress for himself, and disposed of the unfortunate wife, using her own pin to perpetrate her murder. She was excommunicated by her church, too, which must have made it most unpleasant for her, poor old dear.” The slim shoulders straightened. “But let’s not discuss such unpleasant things, my dear. The important thing now is for you to get well quickly. I’ve missed you terribly, you know.”_