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PROLOGUE: THE WATCHER
The watcher no longer took the trouble to hide behind the big crepe myrtles across the street from the house. Now he stood at the edge of the time-broken sidewalk, staring openly at the fence and the gate and the windows and roofs peering over that barrier.
He knew that no chance passerby, and they were few, could see what he found so fascinating about the cut-granite house. It was only one of the huge, obsolete mansions lining the street, in this neighborhood that now waited for the wrecking crews to smooth the solid walls away to make way for parking lots or MacDonald's fast food places.
The watcher's knowing eyes saw things invisible to the uninterested. No sign of decay marked the visible paintwork. The iron fence that led up in spear-peaks to the stone steps showed no gaps. There was no broken glass in the windows, though small boys had broken those of every other mansion on the block. Those tall narrow windows, protected in the upper stories by grillwork shutters, were intact and secretive.
The house looked as if it had been caught in some eddy in time, unchanging and unchangeable.
The man had watched for over a week. Not once had he seen any sign of life inside the house, though once a boy came with a lawnmower, let himself in at the iron gate leading into the rear gardens, and spent a day mowing that invisible lawn. He had been the only living being visible in all those days.
No face looked from any of the heavily curtained windows. No hand reached out of the front door to explore the mailbox for letters.
No eyes, he was certain, had detected his presence. He sighed. He was going to have to do this the hard way.
CHAPTER 1:THE ENTRY
The hallway was dark, but Marise found her way down the stair with practiced ease. A decade of prowling about the twilit house had trained her eyes to see in darkness. Though she knew it was eccentric (and she constantly scanned her consciousness for signs of madness), she felt somehow more secure when she was half hidden in shadows.
The entry hall loomed about her, a cavern of dimness and shadowy shapes. The grandfather clock tocked heavily and she caught her breath, her hand at her throat, feeling her heart pounding in time with its strokes.
No matter how often she stopped that pendulum, it always managed, perhaps because of the vibration of passing traffic, to swing enough to begin its ponderous ticking again. The mechanism was a mystery to her for it was certainly not the weight-driven kind she understood. It was never wound, yet it continued to run, year after year, no matter how often she tried to stay the pendulum.
Nevertheless, she polished the finely carved wooden case and turned away, dustcloth in hand, to begin shining the panels of the front door. That deep tick had greeted her the first time she entered this house. The door itself had confronted her with its dark African wood, carved with monkeys and lions peering from a stiff-leafed forest.
Her first glimpse of it, as she mounted the steps beside Ben, had shocked her. Rightly or wrongly, she felt that a fortune built on slave trading should have avoided any reminder of Africa.
She remembered looking up at Ben inquiringly. He was staring down with such an eager expression that she forgot her objection to the door. Instead of speaking, she reached up to kiss him, just once, before entering the house where she would become one of his family, the Clarringtons.
She had stood there, waiting for the massive door to open, for the family to greet the bride and bridegroom, but that had not happened. At last Ben used his key.
There was nobody in the hall. The vaulted space above the entry was filled with shadows, the stair curving upward into dimness. Only the clock spoke, and its voice was not reassuring. There seemed to be no living soul at home.
Ben was pale, livid in the varicolored light coming through the stained glass panels on either side of the door. His lips thinned against his teeth and he looked, for a moment, quite unlike the man she had just married. He seemed ... different. Dangerous.
Marise closed her eyes and leaned against the door. She could almost smell the lemon polish that had scented the entry, feel the cool but stuffy atmosphere that had greeted her, hear the echo of Ben's voice as he called, trying to rouse at least one of his kin.
She'd smiled up at him. "Don't look so grim! We gave them too little time, and it's possible the telegram never got here. Then again, they may have been out of town."
His arm had been hard beneath her calming hand. "People do like to acquire new in-laws gradually and in slow stages. This is a fait accompli, done before they have time to react."
The tight lines of his face relaxed a bit. The crinkles returned to the corners of his black eyes. "You may be right. You always have been, so far, and I'm alive to prove it. If I have you, I can do without anyone else, if I have to. Come here, Doll, and look into my magic mirror."
"Magic?" she asked, looking around.
He led her over the velvety carpet toward a towering hall tree, which was hung with an array of generations of outdated hats and umbrellas. It had a chair seat and a drawer beneath that for miscellany. A long mirror was set in its back.
This was evidently very old, for the silvering had faded in fine lines and whorls. Her reflection seemed misty and undefined as she leaned to peer into the glass, her face that of a stranger in the alien mirror.
"Why it is magic!" she said, laughing with delight.
Her face stared out as if from a place of crystalline ferns and unlikely flowers. The softening effect caused the sharp angles of her face, her fragile blond looks to become mystical and lyrical, instead of fragile and brittle.
"It makes me look almost pretty!"
Ben turned her to face him, hands on her shoulders. "Doll, you are beautiful to me. I don't quite know how to explain this without making my people seem cold and uncaring. Really, they're not, but the fact remains that you're the first person in my life to make me feel warm inside. Loved.
"Besides, you kept me alive, brought me back from the edge of death when everyone else gave up on me. How could I possibly get along without you? You're the most nearly perfect thing I've ever found, so don't let me hear you say you're not pretty!"
He pushed her down gently onto the velvet seat of the hall tree. "Now wait here while I run up to see where they've put us ... if they got my message and put us anyplace at all.
"If they haven't, I'll choose for myself. My old room isn't what I want to take my bride into for our honeymoon. I used to stuff birds and collect rocks, and anything more un-bridal than that room you can't imagine." He smiled and hung his coat and hat over the newel post. Then he bounded upward, two steps at a time.
She stared after him, feeling somewhat anxious. He seemed quite well now, but it was such a short time since his illness. He'd seemed fine for weeks now, but after something that even the best doctors hadn't been able to diagnose, she felt it would be wise for him to take things easy for a long time.
Then she smiled. They'd been married for three days ... and nights. She had no reason to doubt his vigor, if nothing else.
"Marise Dering Clarrington, you are a worrier. Relax and be happy!" she ordered herself aloud.
A voice, so faint that afterward she was not totally certain she had heard it at all, quavered through the dimness of the hall. "Happy? Happy? In this house?" She thought a peal of laughter, faint and ghostly, had followed those words.
Even now, she wondered if that had been the first warning, the foreshadowing, of what she felt certain must be her own madness. But then she had clenched her hands in her lap. She was a practical country girl, she'd told herself, and she did not hear voices where there was nobody to speak.
She was here, safe in her husband's home. Her nerves must be playing tricks after the long strain of nursing Ben. The fast-paced courtship and her swift and unforeseen marriage might easily have left her tense and fanciful.
She drew a long breath, flexing and relaxing her muscles, one after the other, ending with the tip of her nose. The sound of Ben's steps on the stair brought a smile to her face, and she rose and went to the foot of the steps to meet him.
"Well, do we have a place to lay our heads?" she called up to him.
The words died on her lips. Ben's face showed a fury she had never dreamed he could feel. She realized she had never seen him really angry before. Now he reached down to take her hand. Even through his fingers she could feel the racing of his pulse.
"They must not have been here," he said, and she knew he was lying to save her feelings. "I've chosen to put us up in the tower rooms. That will be best, anyway, for it's private and nobody will bother us." He tried to smile, but it came out as a grimace.
"Anyplace you like, dear," she said. "But slow down. I worry when you go pounding off, particularly when you run up stairs. You have to remember that you've been sick.
"Now show me where to go and we can take the hand luggage up. Aren't there any servants? I'd have thought that in a house this large you would need several, just to keep things going. Somebody needs to go out and get the trunk off the sidewalk, anyway, or your bride will find herself limited to wearing this single suit and these shoes." She did her best to sound teasing and cheerful, but she knew it didn't quite come off.
"Oh there are a couple of people who have worked for us forever. Hildy should be in the kitchen. I should have gone to check with her the first thing, but she's so deaf it's hard to communicate. She's a dear, though.
"Andy, her husband, does the outside work and the heavy stuff. He's probably down in their quarters in the basement, sound asleep. I'll get him. Then I'll show you to our room ... or rather, our suite. You have your own sitting room." His expression had eased, lost the fury that had marked it.
"If you can find your way upstairs, you can go ahead with the little case. Straight up, round the first landing, up the next flight. There's another landing after that, and halfway up the third flight you'll find a door on your right. It's set in a sort of pie-shaped niche, and it leads to the tower rooms."
He tried to smile. "Thank heaven they didn't put it any higher, or we'd have had even more stairs to climb every time we went up or down."
Marise nodded. Taking up the case, she started up the stair, which was a lovely one, curving around the side of the entry hall to the first landing. Ornate fixtures lighted it, and the plum-colored carpet was soft underfoot. At the landing the corridor leading onto the second floor caught her attention. Muted lights in fixtures shaped like bunches of flowers illuminated a row of arched doors, one of which stood open.
Was someone there? She moved silently into the corridor and along it to the open doorway. The room beyond was empty of a tenant, although it was furnished. Or had been.
A rose-hung tester bed centered the farther wall, its hangings ripped from their supports, lying over it in tatters. Draperies patterned with roses of a matching hue were slashed and torn from the poles that had held them. The gray and rose carpet was smeared with what had to be dog-dung.
Fresh roses and shards of broken crystal vases lay amid the mess and the stench.
Someone had prepared this lovely room for the newlyweds. Some other someone had torn it apart, fouled it past repair.
She put her free hand over her nose and fled toward the stair. She ran up the remaining steps and into the small arched door leading to the tower.
So that had caused Ben's anger. It had made him lie to her to spare her feelings. If the door hadn't been open, if she had not yielded to the temptation to snoop, she would never have known that someone here hated her, resented her existence fiercely enough to do this insane thing. Ben had tried to spare her, and it was only her own folly that had wasted his effort.
Her heart thumped painfully in her chest as she entered a round room, furnished as a sitting room. A short flight of stairs curved against one wall, leading, she understood at once, to the bedroom above it. Though the furnishings were somewhat faded, the hangings slightly dusty, it was a charming room, full of light, for continuous windows circled it.
She'd found that the tower, unlike any she had ever seen, was set into the rear of the house, looking over well kept gardens. Even late fall had not robbed those of their charm, for chrysanthemums glowed in shades of bronze and gold amid the dark green leaves of evergreens.
Marise had sat in a low rocking chair, her case at her feet, and there she had come to terms with the devastation she had seen in that pink bedroom. Ben counted with her more than anything or anyone else. If he needed her, then nothing anyone in this solid, hostile house could do was going to drive her away. She'd stay here as long as Ben needed and wanted her.
Standing in the dim entry hall, a much older Marise opened her eyes and straightened her back. How little one knows, she thought, when you are young and in love, of what may come of your rashly given vows.
She gave the door a last polish with her cloth and shook her head. Behind every door in this place of many doors lay bits and pieces of her past. Each time she entered a room, some scene, happy or tragic or funny or horrifying, lay there in wait for her. It was terrifying, in a way, and yet she made a point of entering every room in the house on a regular basis.
Not every day--the human mind and spirit can bear only so much. But often enough to know that she had not lost her courage. Often enough.
She wondered how many times that might be, since she had barricaded herself and her doubts of her own mind's stability into Clarrington House. Of the large family that had lived and laughed and quarreled there, she was the sole survivor, and for ten years she had lived alone with her memories and her fears.