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The Dark on the Other Side
The house talked.
The objects in it talked, too -- chairs, tables, couches, a big, squashy hassock that squatted obscenely in a corner of the bedroom. But the voice of the house was loudest. It was a thin, high voice, like that of an old woman. Hunched on its hill, like a fat old woman crouching on her haunches, its wings spread out like the folds of a ragged skirt, its wide terrace apronlike, its tower a thin neck, wattled and scaled with lichen, the house talked. Sometimes it said, Run away ... leave him ... if you can. Sometimes it wailed, I wish he'd die. . . .
Sometimes its suggestion was more direct.
Gordon didn't tell her that there would be a guest until just before dinner. Linda was sitting at her dressing table, elbows carelessly asprawl on the polished glass top. In the tall triple mirrors, her bedroom looked strange -- not like a reflection of reality, but like another room, all the more disturbing because it contained the same furniture as her room, in the same positions, and yet looked subtly wrong. Like hers, it was decorated in shades of blue and white -- cool, virginal colors, restful and remote. The drapes framing the tall windows were the deep, rich blue of the sky at late evening; their heavy velvet did not reflect light, but drank it in and absorbed it, so that the hoarded gold gave the blue a glowing luster. Because she had expressed a dislike for wall-to-wall carpeting, Gordon had had the floors redone; they were stained dark, unvarnished but shining like black glass with repeated applications of wax. Glass, or blackwater. ... The scattered rugs lay like little icebergs on a dark sea. Now, reflected, the ragged white islands seemed to move, rocking slightly as if shifted by the dark, shimmery surface on which they lay.
When Gordon came in, she didn't look up. Behind her mirrored image his face floated into view like something conjured up into a crystal ball -- but familiar, wearing its old look of fond anxiety.
He was a very handsome man, Gordon. He'd be forty on his next birthday; and he was as alarmed, and as amused at his own alarm, as any pretty woman would be at the onset of that ominous day. The years had only added to his good looks -- a brush of white at the temples, stark and distinctive against his thick black hair, a deepening of the lines of laughter that fanned out from the corners of his eyes. A man with eyes like that oughtn't to look so masculine; they were big and dark and luminous, fringed with lashes so long and thick they looked artificial. But there was nothing in the least effeminate about Gordon's face -- or mind, or body.
Next to his, her own face was wraithlike. Too pale, too thin, with suggestive dark circles under the eyes and an undue prominence of certain muscles. Those long tendons in the throat especially-- the throat he had admired, had compared with that of the lovely statue of Nefertiti . . .
She turned her head, watching the effect, and her pale mouth, as yet unpainted for public appearance, writhed distastefully as the lines tightened and drew. Gordon's mouth moved. She raised her eyes to meet his mirrored eyes, and felt herself frowning.
"I said," he repeated patiently, "that we have a guest for dinner, and the weekend. So look your loveliest, won't you? If you are to be immortalized, I want it to be as you really are."
He was always so patient. It was almost the most maddening thing about him.
Then the meaning of what he had said finally penetrated, and she turned her head to stare at him.
He had retreated to the hassock, the one she particularly loathed, and was sitting with a grace a twenty-year-old might have envied, one knee bent, his long brown hands curled around it.
"Immortalized?" she repeated, articulating carefully.
"But, darling, I told you last week. . . ." H e stopped. That was one of the things he must never do, remind her that she kept forgetting things. He started all over again, as if she had never heard the subject mentioned; only the straight vertical line between his brows showed his perturbation.
"Our guest's name is Michael Collins. He's the young man Manhattan magazine has commissioned to do a series of profiles on me. I'm very flattered, you know; usually they select important people as subjects."
"You're important," she said. It was not a compliment. It was simply a statement.
"Maybe I was, once. But you know I don't give a damn about being what the idiot world calls important."
Linda shrugged and turned back to the mirror. The top of her dressing table was covered with bottles and jars, with creams and lotions and cosmetics, all the expensive playthings of a woman of wealth and fashion. They were in perfect order, their shining caps free of the slightest speck of dust. Anna, her maid, straightened them every day.
She reached out at random and took a lipstick out of a jeweled holder that held a dozen of them. Applying it to her mouth, she said, "I suppose you want me to get dressed up."
"What about that robe I got you last week? The one with the gold threads?"
"It's too big." She tipped her head, studying her mouth. "My lipstick's on crooked."
"As a mere male it's not up to me to comment," said Gordon drily. "But if you will insist on talking while you apply the stuff -- "
He broke off at the sound of a knock on the door. In some big houses servants weren't supposed to knock; so Linda had read. But Gordon insisted on his privacy. She watched, in the mirror, as the door of that other room opened, and the reflected image of her maid, Anna, sidled in. The girl looked even sillier in the glass ...The Dark on the Other Side. Copyright © by Barbara Michaels. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.