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‘Your wife did not want to look around the Fortress any further, Mr Zeffer?’ Father Sandru said, seeing that on the second day the middle-aged man with the handsome, sad face had come alone.
‘The lady is not my wife,’ Zeffer explained.
‘Ah …’ the monk replied, the tone of commiseration in his voice indicating that he was far from indifferent to Katya’s charms ‘A pity for you, yes?’
‘Yes,’ Zeffer admitted, with some discomfort.
‘She’s a very beautiful woman.’
The monk studied Zeffer’s face as he spoke, but having said what he’d said, Zeffer was unwilling to play the confessee any further.
‘I’m her manager,’ he explained. ‘That’s all there is between us.’
Father Sandru, however, was not willing to let the issue go just yet. ‘After the two of you departed yesterday,’ he said, his English coloured by his native Romanian, ‘one of the brothers remarked that she was the most lovely woman he had ever seen …’ he hesitated before committing to the rest of the sentence ‘… in the flesh.’
‘Her name’s Katya, by the way,’ Zeffer said.
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ said the Father, his fingers combing the knotted grey-white of his beard as he stood assessing Zeffer.
The two men were a study in contrasts. Sandru ruddy-faced and rotund in his dusty brown habit, Zeffer slimly elegant in his pale linen suit.
‘She is a movie star, yes?’
‘You saw one of her films?’
Sandru grimaced, displaying a poorly-kept array of teeth. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I do not see these things. At least not often. But there is a little cinema in Ravbac, and some of the younger brothers go down there quite regularly. They are great fans of Chaplin, of course. And there’s a … vamp … is that the word?’
‘Yes,’ Zeffer replied, somewhat amused by this conversation. ‘Vamp’s the word.’
‘Called Theda Bara.’
‘Oh, yes. We know Theda.’
In that year – which was 1920 – everybody knew Theda Bara. She had one of the most famous faces in the world. As, of course, did Katya. Both were famous; their fame tinged with a delicious hint of decadence.
‘I must go with one of the brothers when they next go to see her,’ Father Sandru said.
‘I wonder if you entirely understand what kind of woman Theda Bara portrays?’ Zeffer replied.
Sandru raised a thicketed eyebrow. ‘I am not born yesterday, Mr Zeffer. The Bible has its share of these women, these vamps. They’re whores, yes; women of Babylon? Men are drawn to them only to be destroyed by them?’
Zeffer laughed at the directness of Sandru’s description. ‘I suppose that’s about right,’ he said.
‘And in real life?’ Sandru said.
‘In real life Theda Bara’s name is Theodosia Goodman. She was born in Ohio.’
‘But is she a destroyer of men?’
‘In real life? No, I doubt it. I’m sure she harms a few egos now and again, but that’s about the worst of it.’
Father Sandru looked mildly disappointed. ‘I shall tell the brothers what you told me,’ he said. ‘They’ll be very interested. Well then … shall I take you inside?’
Willem Matthias Zeffer was a cultured man. He had lived in Paris, Rome, London and briefly in Cairo in his forty-three years; and had promised himself that he would leave Los Angeles – where there was neither art nor the ambition to make art – as soon as the public tired of lionizing Katya, and she tired of rejecting his offer of marriage. They would wed, and come back to Europe; find a house with some real history on its bones, instead of the fake Spanish mansion her fortune had allowed her to have built in one of the Hollywood canyons.
Until then, he would have to find aesthetic comfort in the objets d’art he purchased on their trips abroad: the furniture, the tapestries, the statuary. They would suffice, until they could find a château in the Loire, or perhaps a Georgian house in London; somewhere the cheap theatrics of Hollywood wouldn’t curdle his blood.
‘You like Romania?’ the Father asked as he unlocked the great oak door that lay at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Yes, of course,’ Zeffer replied.
‘Please do not feel you have to sin on my account,’ Sandru said, with a sideways glance.
‘Lying is a sin, Mr Zeffer. Perhaps it’s just a little one, but it’s a sin nevertheless.’
Oh Lord, Zeffer thought; how far I’ve slipped from the simple proprieties! Back in Los Angeles he sinned as a matter of course; every day, every hour. The life he and Katya lived was built on a thousand stupid little lies.
But he wasn’t in Hollywood now. So why lie? ‘You’re right. I don’t like this country very much at all. I’m here because Katya wanted to come. Her mother and father – I’m sorry, her stepfather – live in the village.’
‘Yes. This I know. The mother is not a good woman.’
‘You’re her priest?’
‘No. We brothers do not minister to the people. The Order of St Teodor exists only to keep its eyes on the Fortress.’ He pushed the door open. A dank smell exuded from the darkness ahead of them.
‘Excuse me for asking,’ Zeffer said. ‘But it was my understanding from yesterday that apart from you and your brothers, there’s nobody here.’
‘Yes, this is true. Nobody here, except the brothers.’
‘So what are you keeping your eyes on?’
Sandru smiled thinly. ‘I will show you,’ he said. ‘As much as you wish to see.’
He switched on a light, which illuminated ten yards of corridor. A large tapestry hung along the wall, the image upon it so grey with age and dust as to be virtually beyond interpretation.
The Father proceeded down the corridor, turning on another light as he did so. ‘I was hoping I might be able to persuade you to make a purchase,’ he said.
‘Of what?’ Zeffer said.
Zeffer wasn’t encouraged by what he’d seen so far. A few of the pieces of furniture he’d spotted yesterday had a measure of rustic charm, but nothing he could imagine buying.
‘I didn’t realize you were selling the contents of the Fortress.’
Sandru made a little groan. ‘Ah … I’m afraid to say we must sell in order to eat. And that being the case, I would prefer that the finer things went to someone who will take care of them, such as yourself.’
Sandru walked on ahead a little way, turning on a third light and then a fourth. This level of the Fortress, Zeffer was beginning to think, was bigger than the floor above. Corridors ran off in all directions.
‘But before I begin to show you,’ Sandru said, ‘you must tell me – are you in a buying mood?’
Zeffer smiled. ‘Father, I’m an American. I’m always in a buying mood.’
Sandru had given Katya and Zeffer a history of the Fortress the previous day; though as Zeffer remembered it there was much in the account that had sounded bogus. The Order of St Teodor, Zeffer had decided, had something to hide. Sandru had talked about the Fortress as a place steeped in secrets; but nothing particularly bloody. There had been no battles fought there, he claimed, nor had its keep ever held prisoners, nor its courtyard witnessed atrocity or execution. Katya, in her usual forthright manner, had said that she didn’t believe this to be true.
‘When I was a little girl there were all kinds of stories about this place,’ she said. ‘I heard horrible things were done here. That it was human blood in the mortar between the stones. The blood of children.’
‘I’m sure you must have been mistaken,’ the Father had said.
‘Absolutely not. The Devil’s wife lived in this fortress. Lilith, they called her. And she sent the Duke away on a hunt. And he never came back.’
Sandru laughed; and if it was a performance, then it was an exceptionally good one. ‘Who told you these tales?’ he said.
‘Ah,’ Sandru had shaken his head. ‘And I’m sure she wanted you in bed, hushed and asleep, before the Devil’s wife came to cut off your head.’ Katya had made no reply to this. ‘There are still such stories, told to children. Of course. Always stories. People invent tales. But believe me, this is not an unholy place. The brothers would not be here if it was.’
Despite Sandru’s plausibility, there’d still been something about all of this that had made Zeffer suspicious; and a little curious. Hence his return visit. If what the Father was saying was a lie (a sin, by his own definition), then what purpose was it serving? What was the man protecting? Certainly not a few rooms filled with filthy tapestries, or some crudely carved furniture. Was there something here in the Fortress that deserved a closer look? And if so, how did he get the Father to admit to it?
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