|CHAPTER 5: Revelations
They left the car and walked slowly up the stairs to the great iron-bound double doors. Flaming charcoal braziers on either side of the door flickered ominously.
"Hoo boy," Monk shivered, "Looks like there's no electricity! This gets creepier and creepier!"
Renny lifted the giant knocker and let it fall. It boomed hollowly. Moments later, the two doors swung silently inward. Silhouetted against the blaze of a thousand candles stood the Countess!
"Welcome to my house. Enter
freely and of your own will."
Her laughter pealed like crystal bells. "You read fiction, too? Yes, Dr. Savage, this is a small humor of my family. You see, we trace our bloodlines back to the Draculas. My ancestor was Alexandru Aldea, half-brother to Vlad Dracul...the Devil. He was Dracula's father, you know. Ever since Mr. Stoker sensationalized our distant relatives, it has been a small conceit of my family to greet guests with his immortal words!" Amusement oozed out of her. It was infectious. They were soon all at ease...their initial disquietude stilled in the warmth of the Countess's greeting!
Monk's fears of dankness and cold darkness were soon dispelled. While the foyer glowed with candlelight, the Countess showed them quickly that the main living areas as well as the guest rooms were all equipped with modern conveniences.
"My own apartments lack these amenities...for I prefer the softer light of candles. However, you must feel free to use the electric lights wherever you wish." She smiled warmly at the group. "The one exception is, of course, at dinner. We must be softly lit as we dine...which, I believe, is in about an hour. You would like, perhaps, to settle yourselves before dinner? I will show you to your rooms."
Someone had obviously redecorated the monster pile of stone, for while the exterior of the castle was gloomy medieval austerity, the interior was lavish Renaissance splendor. Draperies and tapestries were rich and in perfect repair. The carpeting underfoot was lush. Paintings and priceless works of art were everywhere. The halls and bedrooms glowed with soft light, and each bedroom had its own fireplace with a crackling fire laid to take the chill from the room. The Countess directed each to his respective area and then excused herself to oversee dinner.
They explored each other's suites for a short while, washed up and met in Doc's quarters.
"I can't believe it!" muttered Long Tom. "Even the dang sheets are my favorite color!"
"Yours too?" Renny boomed.
"Mine also," admitted Ham. "Although where she got sheets the bilious shade of green plaid that Monk likes...God only knows!"
Monk smirked. "What about yours, Doc?"
Monk sidled over, lifted the corner of the bedspread and whistled. "Whew...bronze satin! Custom-made jobs if ever I saw 'em! Initialed in real gold thread, too! I think she likes you, Doc!"
If Doc was impressed, he gave no outward sign. The others had not his kind of self-control. They were flabbergasted!
"You think if we asked, she'd give us the moon?" Long Tom murmured.
Ham's voice was a small whisper. "I think she'd probably try..."
A bell-like tinkle rang through the halls.
"Oh boy!" Monk smacked his lips. "Chow!"
"Listen, you baboon," Ham fixed Monk with a steely eye. "You are going to act with a modicum of decency in this place...OR..." he waved his unsheathed sword cane under Monk's pugnacious nose..."I shall take great pleasure in carving you into hors d'oeuvres!"
"You an' what army, shyster?" Monk began making swinish noises and Ham purpled in rage.
Anything that even hinted of pigs was sure to cause Ham to have a case of apoplexy! It dated back to an incident in the Great War when Ham had taught Monk some French phrases to use in flattering a General that Monk wanted to impress. The 'complimentary' phrases had landed Monk in the guardhouse! Shortly after he got out, Ham was hauled up on a charge of stealing hams! He had never been able to prove that Monk was responsible for the frame-up, and to make matters worse, the nickname 'Ham' had stuck!
Doc headed off further hostilities by observing "I would imagine dinner is waiting on us, brothers. It would be inhospitable to tarry here longer."
The six descended the marbled stair.
They were greeted a the bottom by the Countess and an acid-faced spar of a man in a flashy uniform. Gold braid abounded. Medals spangled his chest. This was obviously a person of some importance.
"Gentlemen, this is General Radu Tepesh, the commander of our government's troops which are stationed in the village." She made introductions. "General Tepesh has been trying unsuccessfully for some time to rid our borders of these tedious spies. Perhaps he can be of assistance to you...or you can be of some assistance to him."
"Your servant, gentlemen. You have but to command and my men will be at your disposal." His voice dripped venom. He was obviously not pleased that 'foreigners' had been called in to do his job! He turned from them and offered his arm to escort the Countess to the dining room...eyeing her possessively!
Monk and Ham exchanged a glance...simultaneously declaring war on this new menace to their carefully constructed romantic plans! One of those two friends might lose a lady to the other with grace...but to allow this pompous martinet to steal their Countess -- NEVER!
The others read the signs. This was going to be an interesting meal! Doc sighed wearily.
It was an interesting meal. The conversation was witty, intelligent and sometimes dangerous. Whenever a pitfall threatened, however, the Countess lead them gracefully around it. Doc quietly watched this display of conversations skill with a small flush of gratitude. It was usually his unwanted duty to keep his men out of trouble. He soon relaxed and enjoyed the food, which was rich and abundant enough to satisfy even Johnny's voracious appetite!
After dinner, the General took his leave--deploring the fact that duty took him from their midst. The Countess also excused herself, pleading duties of her estate.
Doc's men yawned and stretched as the length and strenuous activities of the day caught up with them. The richness of their recent repast had made them drowsy. They repaired to bed, and all were soon slumbering soundly. Monk's raucous snores bounded around his room, rattling artifacts and booming off the walls.
Doc, alone, had remained in the library after the others had retired. Typically, he was not tired...although he had had a much more strenuous day than his aides. His reserves of energy and vitality were enormous! He ensconced himself in a large, shadowed chair by the fire to wait for the house to quiet and settle for the night. He would then -- without distractions -- wander through the great edifice, fixing in his amazing memory the position of every door, piece of furniture, and artifact. His life might depend on traversing these halls and rooms in complete darkness, and it was well to be prepared! Doc's secret for staying alive as long as he had was to leave as little as possible to chance!
His gaze wondered around the shadowed room. Even in the light of the dying fire -- which was the only illumination in the room -- the place was lavish. Well stocked, too. The shelves contained almost as many books as his own 86th floor Manhattan library. He doubted that there were quite as many scientific volumes as he owned. A goodly percentage of this library was rare and forgotten original manuscripts and esoteric tomes...the one area in which his own library was possibly deficient.
His eyes returned to the glowing embers...then flicked upward. Above the fireplace was a magnificent portrait of the Countess. Done in a centuries-old style, the painting looked to be Reubens-esque in execution. A small trilled note wavered questioningly on the air. Doc was an expert on arty styles -- as he was an expert on many other things -- and this was a 'Reubens' if ever he had seen one! He had seen many...his expertise was irrefutable! Yet...this was the Countess...even down to the small, irregular birthmark on her neck! Yet this painting was easily several hundred years old!
A rustle of silk at the door presaged the lady's entrance. Doc melted deep into the shadow. It was not his policy to allow himself to be caught alone with a beautiful woman. All too often one would try to take advantage of a potentially romantic situation. He had long ago vowed never to subject a woman to the dangers he and his men encountered, so he simply avoided confrontations with them if he had a choice.
She crossed lightly to a desk and removed a ledger, adding it to several she already carried in her arms. She paused, and turned slightly in his direction. "Dr. Savage...Oh, do come out...I know you are there!"
Doc felt sheepish. She had seen him with those unnatural eyes of hers.
"No," she smiled, seemingly reading his mind, "I heard you breathing. You have a very distinct breathing pattern...even when you are trying to be stealthy." Her voice held quiet amusement.
"I was just...admiring the portrait...A Reubens, is it not?" Doc covered his embarrassment quickly.
"Yes, the third Countess Aldea. I believe I somewhat resemble her. I am...let me see...I tend to lose track...the seventh, or perhaps the eighth. Ah well...I have work to do..." She turned to go. "Do consider this musty old dungeon your own to ramble in. You will find only a few locked doors. These are my private apartments, which you will, of course, respect. The rest of the house, its servants and their services are at your disposal day or night."
"Thank...you..." She was gone almost before Doc could murmur his gratitude. It was a tiny bit disquieting to be on the receiving end of the same kind of quiet competence he practiced on his friends!
He roamed the castle...noting all, missing nothing. Two locked rooms on the third level were obviously the Countess's and the rustling of papers within argued her attention to the business of her estate. Through private inquiries, Doc had learned that the Countess had no near relatives and did, indeed, manage her ancestral fief herself. That she did an excellent job of it was evident on their drive to the castle. Prosperous farms abounded and happy, well-dressed people had waved enthusiastic greeting as they had passed. While much of Europe was sunk in grinding poverty and despair, this tiny fiefdom was a small paradise -- thanks to the proper management and loving care of its Countess!
Doc continued his roaming. It took him through several levels. Guest accommodations, a ballroom that had once been a huge central keep, kitchens -- with an entry to the stable yard -- the wine cellars and several small rooms which had once been dungeons. All was neat and dust-free, as if mere dirt feared to lay here. Doc realized it was kept thus by countless unseen, devoted hands. His path led finally to the family burial vaults deep beneath the castle. It was almost dawn, he knew, and he should be getting back. He stopped before the entrance. A faintly bittersweet odor emanated from within. It was not the grisly fetor or eons of dead that he had every right to expect here -- no! It was the scent that he had come to associate with the Countess herself!
He swung the door open -- its well-oiled hinges barely whispering. The vault was empty!
Empty, that is, of living beings. The dead were here. Old, moldering niches had been cleaned and their contents reposed in inlaid coffins. The place was no more neglected than the rest of the castle. Mahogany caskets glistened and stone sarcophagi shimmered -- each and all lovingly polished.
The fragrance was dissipating. It was strongest near one of the farthest walls. Doc's sensitive fingers searched the wall and shortly found a tiny catch. It made a muffled click as he pushed it. A panel slid silently back. he stepped through the opening and moved forward.
Here the hand of time showed. Spiders spun their webs unhindered. The walls gave off a faintly luminous glow...phosphorous. Doc repocketed his small flashlight. It was light enough here for him not to need it.
The path was well used. The width of the cleared area indicated frequent visits by a long, swirling skirt. He rounded a corner and walked into a large phosphorus-lit cavern. On either side of the path was heaped treasure! Gold, silver, gems...wealth beyond belief! And all was overlaid with years of dust and cobwebs!
The Countess stood half-way across the chamber...facing him. "Do come in Dr. Savage." Her voice was weary. "You see around you the reason our country is besieged. Other nations think that because of our prosperity we must have vast caches of treasure like this."
Doc crossed to her, looking around as he went. All was dust-laden. "This hoard hasn't been disturbed for...centuries, I'd say. I would estimate that proper money management and attention to finances are more responsible for your fiefdom's prosperity."
"And you would be correct. This is merely security against real emergency! It will remain here till my people need it!" She smiled at Doc's raised eyebrows. "Do not be surprised, sir...this means no more to men than it does...to you, I'd wager. All the riches of this land belong to my people -- I am but their caretaker."
"And your purpose for a daily visit?"
"Beyond that rock outcropping is a tiny hidden room. I found it as a child and no one buy myself has ever entered it. It is...my 'quiet place' where I retire for a few hours every morning. Do you understand the need for complete isolation sometimes?"
"Yes," he whispered, "I, too, have my 'Fortress of Solitude'."
"How well you phrase it." Her eyes glaze with weariness. "If you will excuse me, sir..." She had no need of extracting a vow of secrecy from him...she knew well the caliber of this man!
He watched as she turned and walked away from him once more. Somehow, this woman understood the aloneness that great power imposes. She, too, had need of solitude. She, too, had her secret place away from clamoring humanity! She was, he thought, a kindred spirit. He smiled. Suddenly his life did not seem quite as eccentric and lonely as it once had.
When she had vanished, Doc turned and retraced his way through the levels of the castle, closing gates and doors behind himself. Dawn had dappled the sky with pink an gold by the time he returned to his rooms. He threw off his clothes and slid between the silken sheets that so closely matched his own skin tone.
The sheets were soft and cool and caressing. Doc, sleep beginning to claim him, wondered if her hands would be this soft and cool...her lips this caressing...
He sat bold upright in the bed! His whole body was trembling! These were not the kind of thoughts he was used to. Never before had he wondered such things!
His eyes widened in horror as he realized what had happened. It was the one thing in his adult life he'd always quietly feared! It was the one thing that might sooner or later spell death for his men or him! It could mean the deadliest, most inescapable trap of all. If he ignored it, the emotional turmoil he would go through -- possibly for the rest of his life -- could warp critical decisions and endanger his men or himself. If he acknowledged it and did something about it, the Countess could become a target for every villain with a grudge against Doc Savage!
Nothing worse could have happened to him! He'd fallen in love!
|The Doc Savage characters are the property of Conde Nast. All text and images are © 1999 by Paty Cockrum and may not be copied without her express written permission.|