The Villa Desiree
© by May Sarton (4,000 words)
He had arranged it all for her. She was to stay a week in Cannes with her aunt and then to go on to Roquebrune by herself, and he was to follow her there. She, Mildred Eve, supposed he could follow her anywhere, since they were engaged now.
There had been difficulties, but Louis Carson had got over all of them by lending her the Villa Desiree. She would be all right there, he said. The caretakers, Narcisse and Armandine, would look after her - Armandine was an excellent cook - and she wouldn't be five hundred yards from her friends the Derings. It was so like him to think of it, to plan it all out for her. And when he came down? Oh, when he came down he would go to the Cap Martin Hotel, of course.
He understood everything without any tiresome explaining. She couldn't afford the hotels at Cap Martin and Monte Carlo; and though the Derings had asked her to stay with them, she really couldn't dump herself down on them like that, almost in the middle of their honeymoon.
Their honeymoon - she could have bitten her tongue out for saying it, for not remembering. It was awful of her to go talking to Louis Carson about honeymoons, after the appalling tragedy of his.
There were things she hadn't been told, that she hadn't liked to ask: Where it had happened? And how? And how long ago? She only knew it was on his wedding night, that he had gone in to the poor little girl of a bride and found her dead there, in the bed.
They said she had died in a sort of fit.
You had only to look at him to see that something terrible had happened to him at some time. You saw it when his face was doing nothing: a queer, agonized look that made him strange to her while it lasted. It was more than suffering; it was almost as if he could be cruel, only he never was, he never could be. People were cruel, if you liked; they said his face put them off. Mildred could see what they meant. It might have put her off, perhaps, if she hadn't known what he had gone through. But the first time she had met him he had been pointed out to her as the man to whom just that appalling thing had happened. So far from putting her off, that was what had drawn her to him from the beginning, made her pity him first, then love him. Their engagement had come quickly, in the third week of their acquaintance.
When she asked herself: After all, what do I know about him? she had her answer: I know that. She felt that already she had entered into a mystical union with him through compassion. She liked the strangeness that kept other people away and left him to her altogether. He was more her own that way.
There was (Mildred Eve didn't deny it) his personal magic, the fascination of his almost abnormal beauty. His black, white, and blue. The intensely blue eyes under the straight black bars of the eyebrows, the perfect pure white face suddenly masked by the black mustache and small black pointed beard. And the rich vivid smile he had for her, the lighting up of the blue, the flash of white teeth in the black mask.
He had smiled then at her embarrassment as the awful word leaped out at him. He had taken it from her and turned the sharp edge of it.
"It would never do, " he had said, "to spoil the honeymoon. You'd much better have my villa. Someday, quite soon, it'll be yours too. You know I like anticipating things."
That was always the excuse he made of his generosities. He had said it again when he engaged her seat in the train deluxe from Paris and wouldn't let her pay for it. (She had wanted to travel third class.) He was only anticipating, he said.
He was seeing her off now at the Gare de Lyons, standing on the platform with a great sheaf of blush roses in his arms. She, on the high step of the railway carriage, stood above him, swinging in the open doorway. His face was on a level with her feet; they gleamed white through the fine black stockings. Suddenly he thrust his face forward and kissed her feet. As the train moved he ran beside it and tossed the roses into her lap.
And then she sat in the hurrying train, holding the great sheaf of blush roses in her lap, and smiling at them as she dreamed. She was on the Riviera Express; the Riviera Express. Next week she would be in Roquebrune, at the Villa Desiree. She read the three letters woven into the edges of the gray cloth cushions; P.L.M.: Paris - Lyons - Mediterranee, Paris - Lyons - Mediterranee, over and over again. They sang themselves to the rhythm of the wheels; they wove their pattern into her dream. Every now and then, when the other passengers weren't looking, she lifted the roses to her face and kissed them.
She hardly knew how she dragged herself through the long dull week with her aunt at Cannes.
And now it was over and she was by herself at Roquebrune.
The steep narrow lane went past the Derings' house and up the face of the hill. It led up into a little olive wood, and above the wood she saw the garden terraces. The sunlight beat in and out of their golden yellow walls. Tier above tier, the blazing terraces rose, holding up their ranks of spindle-stemmed lemon and orange trees. On the topmost terrace the Villa Desiree stood white and hushed between two palms, two tall poles each topped by a head of dark-green, curving, sharp-pointed blades. A gray scrub of olive trees straggled up the hill behind it and on each side.
Rolf and Martha Dering waited for her with Narcisse and Armandine on the steps of the veranda.
"Why on earth didn't you come to us?" they said.
"I didn't want to spoil your honeymoon."
"Honeymoon, what rot! We've got over that silliness. Anyhow, it's our third week of it."
They were detached and cool in their happiness.
She went in with them, led by Narcisse and Armandine. The caretakers, subservient to Mildred Eve and visibly inimical to the Derings, left them together in the salon. It was very bright and French and fragile and worn, all faded gray and old greenish gilt, the gilt chairs and settees carved like picture frames round the gilded cane. The hot light beat in through the long windows open to the terrace, drawing up a faint powdery smell from the old floor.
Rolf Dering stared at the room, sniffing, with fine nostrils in a sort of bleak disgust.
"You'd much better have come to us," he said.
"Oh, but - it's charming."
"Do you think so?" Martha said. She was looking at her intently.
Mildred saw that they expected her to feel something, she wasn't sure what, something that they felt. They were subtle and fastidious.
"It does look a little queer and - unlived in," she said, straining for the precise impression.
"I should say," said Martha, "it had been too much lived in, if you ask me."
"Oh, no. That's only dust you smell. I think, perhaps, the windows haven't been open very long."
She resented this criticism of Louis's villa.
Armandine appeared at the doorway. Her little slant Chinesey eyes were screwed up and smiling. She wanted to know if Madame wouldn't like to go up and look at her room.
"We'll all go up and look at it," said Rolf.
They followed Armandine up the steep, slender, curling staircase. A closed door faced them on the landing. Armandine opened it, and the hot golden light streamed out to them again.
The room was all golden white; it was like a great whit tank filled with blond water where things shimmered, submerged in the stream - the white-painted chairs and dressing table, the high white-painted bed, the pink-and-white striped ottoman at its foot, all vivid and still, yet quivering in the stillness, with the hot throb, throb of the light.
"Voila, Madame," said Armandine.
They didn't answer. They stood, fixed in the room, held by the stillness, staring, all three of them, at the high white bed that rose up, enormous, with its piled mattresses and pillows, the long white counterpane hanging straight and steep, like a curtain, to the floor.
Rolf turned to Armandine.
"Why have you given Madame this room?"
Armandine shrugged her fat shoulders. Her small Chinesey eyes blinked at him, slanting, inimical.
"Monsieur's orders, Monsieur. It is the best room in the house. It was Madame's room."
"I know. That's why-"
"But no, Monsieur. Nobody would dislike to sleep in Madame's room. The poor little thing, she was so pretty, so sweet, so young, Monsieur. Surely Madame will not dislike the room."
"Who was - Madame?"
"But Monsieur's wife, Madame. Madame Carson. Poor Monsieur, it was so sad-"
"Rolf," said Mildred, "did he bring her here - on their honeymoon?"
"Yes, Madame. She died here. It was so sad. Is there anything I can do for Madame?"
"No, thank you, Armandine."
"Then I will get ready the tea."
She turned again in the doorway, crooning in her thick Provencal voice, "Madame does not dislike her room?"
"No, Armandine. No. It's a beautiful room."
The door close don Armandine. Martha opened it again to see whether she was listening on the landing. Then she broke out:
"Mildred - you know you loathe it. It's beastly. The whole place is beastly."
"You can't stay in it," said Rolf.
"Why not? Do you mean, because of Madame?"
Martha and Rolf were looking at each other, as if they were both asking what they should say. They said nothing.
"Oh, her poor little ghost won't hurt me, if that's what you mean."
"Nonsense," Martha said. "Of course it isn't."
"What is it, then?"
"It's so beastly lonely, Mildred," said Rolf.
"Not with Narcisse and Armandine."
"Well, I wouldn't sleep a night in the place," Martha said, "if there wasn't any other on the Riviera. I don't like the look of it."
Mildred went to the open lattice, turning her back on the high, rather frightening bed. Down there below the terraces she saw the gray flicker of the olive woods and, beyond them, the sea. Martha was wrong. The place was beautiful; it was adorable. She wasn't going to be afraid of poor little Madame. Louis had loved her. He loved the place. That was why he had lent it to her.
She turned. Rolf had gone down again. She was alone with Martha. Martha was saying something.
"Mildred - where's Mr. Carson?"
"In Paris. Why?"
"I thought he was coming here."
"So he is, later on."
"No. Of course not. To Cap Martin. " She laughed. "So that's what you're thinking of, is it?"
She could understand her friend's fear of haunted houses, but not these previsions of impropriety.
Martha looked shy and ashamed. "Yes," she said. "I suppose so."
"How horrid of you! You might have trusted me."
"I do trust you." Martha held her a minute with her clear loving eyes. "Are you sure you can trust him?"
"Trust him? Do you trust Rolf?"
"Ah - if it was like that, Mildred -"
"It is like that."
"You're really not afraid?"
"What is there to be afraid of? Poor little Madame?"
"I didn't mean Madame. I meant Monsieur."
"Oh - wait till you've seen him!"
"Is he very beautiful?"
"Yes. But it isn't that, Martha. I can't tell you what it is."
They went downstairs, hand in hand, in the streaming light. Rolf waited for them on the veranda. They were taking Mildred back to dine with them.
"Won't you let me tell Armandine you're stopping the night?" he said.
"No, I won't. I don't want Armandine to think I'm frightened."
She meant she didn't want Louis to think she was frightened. Besides, she was not frightened.
"Well, if you find you don't like it, you must come to us," he said.
And they showed her the little spare room next to theirs with its camp bed made up, the bedclothes turned back, all ready for her, anytime of the night, in case she changed her mind. The front door was on the latch.
"You've only to open it, and creep in here and be safe," Rolf said.
Armandine - subservient and no longer inimical, now that the Derings were not there - Armandine had put the candle and matches on the night table and the bell which, she said, would summon her if Madame wanted anything in the night. And she had left her.
As the door closed softly behind Armandine, Mildred drew in her breath with a light gasp. Her face in the looking glass, between the tall lighted candles, showed its mouth half open, and she was aware that her heart shook slightly in its beating. She was angry with the face in the glass with its foolish mouth gaping. She said to herself: Is it possible I'm frightened? It was not possible. Rolf and Martha had made her walk too fast up the hill, that was all. Her heart always did that when she walked too fast uphill, and she supposed that her mouth always gaped when it did it.
She clenched her teeth and let her heart choke her till it stopped shaking.
She was quiet now. But the test would come when she had blown out the candles and had to cross the room in the dark to the bed.
The flame bent backward before the light puff she gave, and righted itself. She blew harder, twice, with a sense of spinning out the time. The flame writhed and went out. She extinguished the other candle at one breath. The red point of the wick pricked the darkness for a second and died, too, with a small crackling sound. At the far end of the room the high bed glimmered. She thought: Martha was right. The bed is awful.
She could feel her mouth set in a hard grin of defiance as she went to it, slowly, too proud to be frightened. And then suddenly, halfway, she thought about Madame.
The awful thing was, climbing into that high funeral bed that Madame had died in, your back felt so undefended. But once she was safe between the bedclothes it would be all right. it would be all right so long as she didn't think about Madame. Very well, then, she wouldn't think about her. You could frighten yourself into anything by thinking.
Deliberately, by an intense effort of her will, she turned the sad image of Madame out of her mind and found herself thinking about Louis Carson.
This was Louis's house, the place he used to come to when he wanted to be happy. She made out that he had sent her there because he wanted to be happy in it again. She was there to drive away the unhappiness, the memory of poor little Madame. Or, perhaps, because the place was sacred to him; because they were both so sacred, she and the young dead bride who hadn't been his wife. Perhaps he didn't think about her as dead at all; he didn't want her to be driven away. The room she had died in was not awful to him. He had the faithfulness for which death doesn't exist. She wouldn't have loved him if he hadn't been faithful. You could be faithful and yet marry again.
She was convinced that whatever she was there for, it was for some beautiful reason. Anything that Louis did, anything he thought or felt or wanted, would be beautiful. She thought of Louis standing on the platform in the Paris station, his beautiful face looking up at her; its sudden darting forward to kiss her feet. She drifted again into her happy hypnotizing dream, and was fast asleep before midnight.
She woke with a sense of intolerable compulsion, as if she were being dragged violently up out of her sleep. The room was gray in the twilight of the unrisen moon.
And she was not alone.
She knew that there was something there. something that gave up the secret of the room and made it frightful and obscene. The grayness was frightful and obscene. It gathered itself together; it became the containing shell of the horror.
The thing that had waked her was there with her in the room.
For she knew she was awake. Apart from her supernatural certainty, one physical sense, detached from the horror, was alert. It heard the ticking of the clock on the chimney piece, the hard sharp shirring of the palm leaves outside, as the wind rubbed their knife blades together. These sounds were witnesses to the fact that she was awake, and that therefore the thing that was going to happen would be real. At the first sight of the grayness she had shut her eyes again, afraid to look into the room, because she knew that what she would see there was real. But she had no more power over her eyelids than she had had over her sleep. They opened under the same intolerable compulsion. And the supernatural thing forced itself now on her sight.
It stood a little in front of her by the bedside. From the breasts downward its body was unfinished, rudimentary, not quite born. The gray shell was still pregnant with its loathsome shapelessness. But the face - the face was perfect in absolute horror. And it was Louis Carson's face.
Between the black bars of the eyebrows and the black pointed beard she saw it, drawn back, distorted in an obscene agony, corrupt and malignant. The face and the body, flesh and yet not flesh, they were the essence made manifest of untold, unearthly abominations.
It came on to her, bending over her, peering at her, so close that the piled mattresses now hid the lower half of its body. And the frightful thing about it was that it was blind, parted from all controlling and absolving clarity, flesh and yet not flesh. It looked for her without seeing her; and she knew that, unless she could save herself that instant, it would find what it looked for. Even now, behind the barrier of the piled-up mattresses, the unfinished form defined and completed itself; she could feel it shake with the agitation of its birth.
Her heart staggered and stopped in her breast, as if her breast had been clamped down onto her backbone. She struggled against wave after wave of faintness, for the moment that she lost consciousness the appalling presence there would have its way with her. All her will now rose up against it. She dragged herself upright in the bed, suddenly, and spoke to it:
"Louis! What are you doing there?"
At her cry it went, without moving; sucked back into the grayness that had borne it.
She thought: It'll come back. It'll come back. Even if I don't see it I shall know it's in the room.
She knew what she would do. She would get up and go to the Derings. She longed for the open air, for Rolf and Martha, for the strong earth under her feet.
She lit the candle on the night table and got up. She still felt that It was there, and that standing upon the floor she was more vulnerable, more exposed to it. Her terror was too extreme for her to stay and dress herself. She thrust her bare feet into her shoes, slipped her traveling coat over her nightgown, and went downstairs and out through the house door, sliding back the bolts without a sound. She remembered that Rolf had left a lantern for her in the veranda, in case she should want it - as if they had known.
She lit the lantern and made her way down the villa garden, stumbling from terrace to terrace, through the olive wood and the steep lane to the Derings' house. Far down the hill she could see a light in the window of the spare room. The house door was on the latch. she went through and on into the lamp-lit room that waited for her.
She knew again what she would do. She would go away before Louis Carson could come to her. She would go away tomorrow and never come back again. Rolf and Martha would bring her things down from the villa; he would take her into Italy in his car. She would get away from Louis Carson forever. she would get away up through Italy.
Rolf had come back from the villa with her things and he had brought her a letter. It had been sent up that morning from Cap Martin. It was from Louis Carson.
My Darling Mildred,
You see I couldn't wait a fortnight without seeing you.
I had to come. I'm here at the Cap Martin Hotel.
I'll be with you sometime between half-past ten and
Below, at the bottom of the lane, Rolf's car waited. It was half-past ten. If they went now they would meet Carson coming up the lane. They must wait till he had passed the house and gone up through the olive wood.
Martha had brought hot coffee and rolls. They sat down at the other side of the table and looked at her with kind, anxious eyes as she turned sideways, watching the lane.
"Rolf," she said suddenly, "do you know anything about Louis Carson?"
She could see them looking now at each other.
"Nothing. Only the things the people here say."
"What sort of things?"
"Don't tell her, Rolf."
"Yes. He must tell me. I've got to know."
She had no feeling left but horror, horror that nothing could intensify.
"There's not much. Except that he was always having women with him up there. Not particularly nice women. He seems," Rolf said, "to have been rather an appalling beast."
"Must have been," said Martha, "to have brought his poor little wife there, after - "
"Rolf, what did Mrs. Carson die of?"
"Don't ask me," he said.
But Martha answered. "She died of fright. She saw something. I told you the place was beastly."
Rolf shrugged his shoulders.
"Why, you said you felt it yourself. We both felt it."
"Because we knew about the beastly things he did there."
"She didn't know. I tell you, she saw something."
Mildred turned her white face to them. "I saw it too."
"What? What did you see?"
"Him. Louis Carson."
"He must be dead then, if you saw his ghost."
"The ghosts of poor dead people don't kill you. It was what he IS. All that beastliness in a face. A face."
She could hear them draw in their breath short and sharp. "Where?"
"There. In that room. Close by the bed. It was looking for me. I saw what she saw."
She could see them frown now, incredulous, forcing themselves to disbelieve. She could hear them talking, their voices beating off the horror.
"Oh, but she couldn't. He wasn't there."
"He heard her scream first."
"Yes. He was in the other room, you know."
"It wasn't. He can't keep it back."
"Keep it back?"
"No. He was waiting to go to her."
Her voice was dull and heavy with realization. She felt herself struggling, helpless, against their stolidity, their unbelief.
"Look at that," she said. She pushed Carson's letter across to them.
"He was waiting to go to her," she repeated. "And - last night - he was waiting to come to me."
They stared at her, stupefied.
"Oh, can't you see?" she cried. "It didn't wait. It got there before him."
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