Inquest - Index   |  chapter 7   |  chapter 9

Chapter 8

Soraya returns and begins her account. - She describes Morgenstern's house
and meets Rystwycz grandee Theobald von Urnvalg - and then his daughter, Penelope.


       Soraya called from European airports in coming and going, to let us know she had safely arrived at each stopover, but otherwise we heard nothing from her while she was away. She had taken her laptop, to get some work done and possibly take notes, but she warned us that she was not optimistic about finding Internet connections along the way (and especially at her destination) and that we should not expect any e-mails reporting her progress (or lack thereof). We weren't surprised that none came, but it did make us all the more curious.
       The weekend, waiting for her return, was the worst, without work (or, for the children, school) to force us to keep busy. Finally, Sunday at noon, Soraya called -- but still only from London, at least eight hours from home. The hours until then wound down painfully slowly. We considered going to pick her up from the airport, to see her (and hear her story) all the sooner, but she never liked us going to that kind of trouble for her -- and the risk of missing her as she dashed madly out to catch a taxi was too great.
       We cooked and then ate an elaborate dinner to keep us busy through the evening, making sure to leave Soraya the choicest pieces from the various dishes (not that any looked exceptionally appealing).
       It was dark out by the time Soraya did arrive, almost eight. We made a fuss when she came through the door, then dragged her in the living room to have her relate her adventures. We took her coat, her bags -- then brought one back when she asked for it --, fetched water, wine, and food, in an efficient sort of relay all to get her comfortable -- and started on her story as quickly as possible.
       "Should I start at the beginning or the end ?" she asked after the first few mouthfuls of food.
       The children still preferred stories presented in strict chronological order -- as did I. We wanted to hear every bit of it, from the beginning. Tancred, speaking for all three of us, made that clear.
       "Right," Soraya said, putting down her plate. "Off I set, Tuesday evening. An overnight flight to London. We arrive there at dawn. There's a message at the transfer desk for me, that I should go to the first class lounge, where Erwin Clotwold, solicitor, is waiting for me. Very pleased to meet me, such an awe-nor and all that sort of thing. You know, I think he was actually carrying a brolly and a bowler .....
       "So he says that he hopes the arrangements he has made meet with my satisfaction. He hands me a leather satchel, explaining that all the information I needed was inside. There was a briefing folder, marked up maps, sufficient amounts of Hungarian forint as well as the local currency, envelopes with letters of introduction, and a set of keys. My directions were in the folder, but he explained again where I had to go as he walked me to the boarding gate for my connecting flight. He said he would pick me up Sunday morning when I came back through London, so that he could take me to lunch or brunch or tea and we could discuss anything that needed discussing, and then he took his leave and I flew on to Budapest.
       "I looked over the detailed briefing papers -- I have them in my bag, we can go over them later -- on the flight, and before I knew it I was in Budapest. And there the trip really began. A ride in a dingy train for a few hundred miles. Hour-long waits at the borders. Transfer to a dingier local train -- with almost no other passengers -- on some overgrown side-track for another fifty miles. Then a rickety bus -- that looked like it might have been World War II-booty -- for thirty miles of rugged terrain. It was pitch black by the time I got to the last stop on that route. And I was in the middle of nowhere, wherever I was -- hardly a house to be seen, and few lights in the windows of the buildings in the distance. The busdriver just stopped the bus at the terminal -- a patch of dirt with a few signs stuck around it -- and disappeared into the darkness. But Clotwold & Berne did not disappoint: they had arranged for a driver, and there really was a car waiting for me.
       "The driver asked whether I was Soraya Sinclair, mumbled 'Rystwycz' -- sounding none too happy about it -- and motioned that I should get in the car. I tried to engage him in conversation but he wouldn't respond to anything I said. I don't know whether it was a language barrier -- I tried everything I could think of, right down to Esperanto and Latin. Other than my name and my destination he didn't say a word.
       "I fell asleep -- though it was a bumpy ride -- and only woke when he stopped the car, in Rystwycz. Looking at my watch I saw we had driven for over an hour. The driver announced our arrival. 'Rystwycz' he said, with about as much contempt as one can say it.
       "When he was sure that I was awake he got out of the car, got my bag from the boot and started walking into the darkness. I scrambled out of the car behind him, but I saw that there really wasn't anywhere to go: there was an ivy-covered wall extending each side into the darkness, and a small entryway, with a gate-door, cut into it. The driver put my bag down by the wall. With a motion that was something between pointing towards the gate and shooing me away he mumbled something like: 'Mrgnstn.'
       " 'Morgenstern ?' I asked, but he was already walking back towards the car and he wouldn't look back at me. He drove off without another word, even as I tried to yell my thanks to him.
       "It was dark out -- it was past ten already -- and quiet and I really felt I was in the middle of nowhere. It took me a few seconds to adjust to the darkness, now that the car headlights were far gone. Looking through the bars of the gate I thought there might be a house somewhere back there .....
       "The gate was locked. And there wasn't any doorbell. But, I remembered, I had a set of keys, and I trusted Clotwold & co. enough to be sure that they wouldn't leave me stuck in the cold and the dark just short of my final destination. Sure enough, the satchel Erwin had given me not only had a ring of large keys but also a pen-sized flashlight.
       "I shone the light on the keyhole. I had to try a few of the oversized keys before I got it open. Then I shone my way up a winding path that led to ... what looked, in the darkness, like a hill. Suddenly, however, the facade of a house rose up. It had a normal door, with a modern lock, and I had no trouble finding the key that opened it.
       "Inside, I fortunately found a light switch -- and was relieved to see that there was working electricity. Though the scene was almost disappointing. The house was clearly uninhabited. It was also surprisingly bare. Not just the entryway, but the first rooms I went into. Nice whitewashed walls, tables, chairs, a coat stand. But it hardly looked lived-in. More like a house someone was getting ready to move into -- or had just moved out of.
       "I was too tired to do much exploring. I looked through the briefing folder to see what had to be done upon arrival -- whether I should notify anyone (not that I could find a phone) or turn on the boiler or the gas or anything else. But everything had been readied for me, and the only pertinent page merely gave directions to the master bedroom.
       "I drew myself a bath -- in the comfortable bathroom -- and then sank into deep and tired sleep in a freshly made bed, under a huge, puffy down blanket."
       Soraya paused and took first a sip of wine and then a sip of water. She looked to be enjoying herself. Usually she preferred to get straight to the point -- she wasn't nearly as much a story-teller as I was (she didn't have the patience, or the time, for it) -- but she knew she had a rapt audience and she played us to the fullest.

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       "I woke early," Soraya continued, "the morning sun filling the large room, the birds chirping away, the wind rustling through the leaves.
       "There I was, in or near Rystwycz. Not that I had more than the vaguest sense of where -- or what -- the town ? city ? itself was.
       "I went downstairs and found the kitchen to be ... thoughtfully stocked. Four eggs, flecked with hay and dirt -- meaning, I decided, that they were practically fresh from the henhouse. A dollop of butter. Half a loaf of fresh country bread. Coffee, tea, sugar, jam, a bit of bacon, half a small salami. Just enough ... just the right amount to tide one person over for just over a day.
       "I made myself a hearty breakfast. And started to wonder about the place.
       "Where to begin ? The house itself, I guess. Casa ... Villa... Chateau Morgenstern. The Morgenstern estate, or grange, or residence, or ..... Well, I never really settled on a name for it.
       "It is large, and it is bare. Those are the most striking characteristics. The walls ... all the walls, inside, are white. Some wood -- trim, beam, doorframes -- but otherwise: white walls. No pictures, no paintings or tapestries. And: no bookshelves."
       No bookshelves ? "So you weren't in Professor Morgenstern's house at all," Annabelle concluded.
       Soraya laughed. "That's what I was beginning to think. But, no, it was Morgenstern's house.
       "The house ... well, I have to describe it from outside as well, I suppose. It is four stories high, and it is built against -- practically into -- a sheer face of rock, the pitch certainly over seventy degree. It faces south. Seen from the front the house bulges out in the middle: the second and third stories are considerably wider than the ground floor, or the attic. Seen from the side the house narrows upward: the first and second floor jutting out equally far, the third like a step back, the attic another.
       "One enters into a large hall. To the right and left are sitting rooms -- though largely unfurnished. Straight in back is a large dining room, dominated by a large table -- the only room on that floor without windows, by the way. The large kitchen is to the right, another room -- a den ? a smoking room ? -- to the left.
       "Twin sweeping, winding stairways twist upwards two stories -- starting between the hall and the dining room.
       "The front face of the wider first floor is equally divided by three rooms. The center one is the master bedroom, where I slept. It has a narrow, long balcony, spanning right over the entrance to the house.
       "The rooms to the right and left each also have a large bed in them -- and no other furniture. Each of these rooms also has a balcony, but these are on the side of the house, one facing east, one west.
       "There is one large, truly luxurious bathroom off to to one side of the stairways, a smaller one to the other side, and one separate toilet. On the mountain-side, adjoining each of the wing bedrooms, are two large ... studies ? Behind the stairway, above the ground-floor dining room, is a large windowless room, the wall here the rock of the cliff the house is built against.
       "The third floor consists almost solely of one large room, sweeping from side to side, built around the stairways. It could be a ballroom. The floor does not jut out as far, with a much larger balcony -- a terrace, really, on top of the second floor -- stretching across the whole front of the house on that level. There is one desk and a chair in this room, and no other furnishings. Again, there is a windowless room in the back, and a small bathroom.
       "The attic is smaller still, with only a single spiral staircase leading up there and then to the roof. There are only two rooms in the attic, each with a balcony, one facing east, one west. And above the attic is a roof terrace, with a stunning view.
       "I am not sure about the regional climate -- though Thursday morning was beautiful -- but the house seems an ideal sort of summer resort. Huge balconies and terraces, the southern exposure meaning the sun reaches them all practically all day long -- if and when it is out. The cliff against which the house was built rises at least another twenty yards up behind it, and seems to offer shelter from the wind. There are potential problems: the flat house-top, and the tiered levels, don't seem a great design come rain or snow. And I couldn't help thinking of rock slides from above -- though there was no debris on the roof, and the angles of the rock-face above it suggested water, stones, and other falling objects might slide and bounce off to the sides rather than pelting the house.
       "It was -- it is -- an impressive structure. But without much of a lived-in feel. Practically no furnishings. Really, only the barest essentials. As if the house were up for sale.
       "I looked in the cellar too, but there was nothing there."
       "So there were no books anywhere ?" Annabelle couldn't help but asking. "None at all ?"
       "None," Soraya insisted. "Not one, much less the kind of stock I had been expecting. And no paper, and only a single desk. Yes, I was quite surprised.
       "I looked over the property as well, first surveying it from the roof. From up there it looked like an old and not very well tended estate, with too many overgrown trees and bushes. The wall, and the road beyond it, couldn't be seen even from the roof. A few paths led away from the front door.
       "I went outside to walk around. Well, first, to take a better look at the house itself. It was of indistinguishable design. Functional but not any recognizable architectural style. It could have been ten or a hundred years old. It was cleverly built against or into the rock behind it -- I admired that more each time I paid attention to that.
       "From the house I went first to the east, along a path that stayed close to the rock or hillside. It only went about two hundred meters, before the property-wall intersected with with the rock. Around there there was also a big gate in the wall -- explaining how cars and bigger vehicles could get onto the property, since they certainly couldn't at the 'main' entrance I had come in by. I hadn't thought to bring the keys with me, so I couldn't open the large doors and see where this led.
       "I backtracked and went west. Here the property opened up much more. There were ponds, orchards, a vegetable garden that had fallen into disuse, a shed , and even a pavilion. Lovely."
       Soraya leaned back, as though lost in some sort of reverie. "Lovely," she said again. Then she sat upright, with a jerk. "Lovely, yes," she said emphatically, "but really not at all what I had expected. Lovely, but ... disappointing." She looked at us guiltily.

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       We were agreed: it was odd. Still, as Soraya related it I think the kids and I merely found it puzzling -- and that the solution to the puzzle would present itself. We couldn't accept that what Soraya had described was it, that that was all there was to it.
       And she did have more to tell.
       "I was ... perplexed. Not only because I hadn't found anything to be as I expected but also because I really didn't know what I should do with my time. It was barely past noon on Thursday, and I had already seen everything there was to see. I could wander around the house and the property some more and that was all very nice but it seemed rather pointless. The briefing folder Clotwold had given me explained how I could regulate the temperature of the boiler and where the firewood was stored but offered no suggestions as to what else I should or actually could do.
       "There was also no telephone, no television, no radio. But I made myself comfortable, cooked a light lunch, and ate on one of the balconies, looking over the beautiful landscape.
       "After a jet-lag nap I decided the only thing to do was go where I hadn't yet -- beyond the property. I imagined I was close enough to town to walk there. I took the keys, locked the house up behind me, and set out on the small path to the gate I had come in by.
       "Outside the gate, a few meters down by the side of the road there was a black car, and beside it a man in livery. He waited until I locked the gate then slowly approached, hat in hand. He made a slight bow and asked: 'Meez Sorrya Seenclir ?' I said yes, and he said, with great concentration and effort, words he had obviously memorized: 'You will please follow me,' and walked to the car, holding the back door open for me.
       "I had nowhere else to go and it beat walking so I got in. But it's not something you want to be doing, kids," Soraya added, in a moment of pedagogic insight.
       "A few turns down the road we were in what was clearly the town square, but we drove through it. After another mile we turned off the main road onto a well-kept but obviously private driveway which zigzagged up and up and up -- until we arrived at a plateau, dominated by a small castle. An honest to goodness castle, even if of somewhat modest proportions. But with towers and ramparts, and surrounded by a moat -- though one that was just for show: narrow enough that I could have jumped across it, and shallow enough to wade through.
       "The chauffeur opened the door and helped me out -- and left me standing by the massive front doors, as he drove off. I took a few steps forward and the doors opened, one servant at each side, silently beckoning me in. Once I was inside a butler came and asked me to please follow him.
       "I was led through a maze of dark corridors until the butler opened another door. He announced my name, practically pushed me in, and then closed the door behind me. I could hear him scurry away through the door.
       "The room I was in was -- finally -- a library, all massive wood and vast carpets. At one end, in an enormous armchair, sat a small but still imposing man. He looked me over and motioned that I should advance. He seemed to be wearing some sort of ermine and velvet cape, and he had a monocle. When I got to within a few feet of him he deigned to raise himself out of his chair and he extended his hand. 'Madame,' he said, 'it is a great pleasure to welcome you in Rystwycz.'
       "It was a great pleasure to be here, I assured him. I was allowed to sit -- in a chair on the same level as his but a considerably plainer one. The butler returned with a tray with two glasses and I was offered some sherry -- or chéri, as my host pronounced it -- and by that time I thought a small dose of alcohol was certainly called for.
       "Sipping our drinks the man introduced himself: Theobald von Urnvalg, lord of the local lands. The last descendant of some ancient noble family, he made clear he was the most important man in town, if not the whole county or state or province or whatever it was that was his dominion.
       "He had met Morgenstern, but it was hard to judge how well he knew him. He was curious about the house and what I had found there -- and disappointed to hear that I had come across so little so far. 'You have looked carefully ?' he kept asking. 'You have looked everywhere ?' I hadn't opened every closet door, I told him, and he got all excited. 'You must ! You must !' he said
       "He seemed well-informed about what I was doing there -- I supposed Clotwold and friends had announced my arrival and itinerary -- but he was a bit cagey about Morgenstern's doings. I tried to turn to him for answers, for possible explanations what I was supposed to be doing in Rystwycz, but he wouldn't have any of that. He did, however, say that he hoped we would come for the summer and that he looked forward to entertaining us then. He seemed very eager that we come. And he also insisted that he show me around town the next day. He understood that I had some letters of introduction (supplied to me by Clotwold) and he said it was important that I got to know the locals -- and he would be only too glad to accompany me.
       "I gladly accepted and von Urnvalg leaned back, apparently greatly relieved. His duties for the day accomplished he now looked like he wanted to get rid of me as quickly as possible, but I had only finished half of my second glass of sherry and was in no rush to go. Then von Urnvalg had an inspiration. He rang a bell, which the butler almost immediately answered. Von Urnvalg barked something at him and then turned pleasantly to me. 'You must meet my child,' he said with an odd smile on his face, half proud, have mischievous.

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       "A young woman came bounding in a few moments later," Soraya continued. "On first sight I would have guessed her to be in her early twenties, but she skipped in like a child."
       "'You called, Father,' she said with a small curtsey. Von Urnvalg made the introductions. His daughter's name was Penelope. She was a striking girl -- a teenager only, I saw when she came closer, but a ... very fully-developed one. Quite a woman, and an unlikely offspring from the old and somewhat effete von Urnvalg.
       "It was suggested that Penelope show me around the castle and the grounds. Von Urnvalg had clearly tired of me, and I was grateful for the offer.
       "Penelope immediately took me by the hand, pulling me out as if she was only too glad to get out of the stifling room and her father's presence. I barely had time to thank my host, and tell him I looked forward to the next day.
       "Penelope closed the doors behind us and stifled a giggle, clapping her hands together lightly. 'I get so few visitors,' she told me. 'And you,' she said, 'you are staying at ... Professor Morgenstern's house ?' I wasn't sure whether her tone was reverential or conspiratorial.
       "She took me by the hand again and pulled me deeper down the dark halls. 'And you have children too ?' she said eagerly. 'And you'll all be back this summer, right ? Father said. You will, you will, won't you ?'
       "As we turned the corner we encountered one of the servants coming towards us. Penelope let go of my hand, straightened her back, walked with her chin up, head slightly tilted, her voice suddenly all formal, -- and she didn't even seem to acknowledge the existence of the servant walking by us. She went from girl-child to a convincing lady of the manor -- and then, after looking to see that the servant had disappeared around the corner, she reverted back, covering her mouth to muffle her giggling, taking my had again and dancing about when I wasn't moving fast enough for her.
       "She showed me some of the castle, rushing me through a huge banquet hall, smoking rooms, sitting rooms, studies, a room exhibiting some of the family treasures, and showing me the incredible view from one of the towers. All Rystwycz and the valleys beyond it lay below. And Morgenstern's house could be seen too.
       "But Penelope just wanted to give me the whirlwind house-tour. After covering the highlights she dragged me off to her rooms instead, sitting me down on her bed next to her, clasping my hands in hers. She was a fount of volubility. What did I find out ? Her father was an important man. Her mother had gone -- died, I suppose, though she didn't exactly say -- when she was three. She was privately tutored -- well tutored, to judge from her English -- and had never attended school. She was, clearly, very lonely, and she complained of having no friends. There were no suitable adolescents in this backwater to keep her company -- her father wouldn't allow her to mix with the locals. And while there were social events -- dinners and balls -- which she was allowed to participate in, indeed, where she was expected to act as hostess, she really didn't like those crowds either.
       "But her eyes lit up when she mentioned the name Morgenstern. She had met him a few times when he had come to visit her father and he was always friendly. And he had mentioned us and that we should be coming. Years ago, already, she had heard of us. She had never been to Morgenstern's but she seemed to imagine it to be some sort of magical place. I didn't disappoint her by her telling her the truth. She wanted to know if I could tell her what project we would be working on, and when I hesitated -- because, of course, there was nothing to tell -- she looked a bit disappointed but said she understood, that it was a secret.
       "It appeared that she had never been outside of Rystwycz. I began to suspect that she had never been beyond the castle grounds. She was very sweet though a bit desperate I suppose, if she was willing to fling herself so completely on a passing stranger like me and share all her troubles.
       "Looking at her watch when it got to be about six she said, disappointedly, that it was time for me to leave, and she led me to the door and the waiting car. I said I hoped she would be able to join me and her father the next day but she shook her head sadly. 'That's not possible,' she said. 'It wouldn't be appropriate.'
       "Before the chauffeur closed the door to the car she skipped down the steps again. 'You will come in the summer, won't you ?' she said. 'And you'll visit me when you are here ?' I said I wasn't sure but that I hoped so. 'Oh yes, you will,' she said, to reassure herself I guess."
       "How sad," Annabelle said.
       "Yes," Soraya agreed. "It was. It was all a bit sad and odd."

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