The Shadow of Nemesis

Early the next morning, after a breakfast of baguette with jam and coffee, Helene came to take me down the ridge to the church. When we arrived, we found the door already opened, possibly in anticipation of the household's morning prayers. Even in the fresh morning sunlight, the interior seemed strange and sinister, but that may have been only to my eyes and foreign sensibilities. Though the roof was sloped from the outside, the ceiling within was flat, and painted with a fiery seventeenth-century Last Judgment. A disproportionately large organ stood in the east transept, while the nave was empty except for three rows of pews. A door at the back of the west transept lead, I assumed, to the pentagonal addition I had seen from the mansion door.

As I entered the western branch to study the labyrinthine floor mosaic, I heard a small clang come from behind the door, as if something metallic had been dropped. I mentioned it to Helene, who shrugged and dismissed it as something the wind had blown against the copper roof.

We stayed in the church until noon, when I finally ran out of sketch paper and suggested we return to the mansion for more. I met Jon on the way up the stairs to our apartments. He was dressed, but his hair was uncombed, and his fingers covered with ink stains. He was obviously just returning from the library.

"The books they have here, Gabriel-amazing! There are letters and diaries up there reaching back for the last five centuries! And some of the stories..." He lowered his voice and beckoned for me to come closer. "More rumors have been spread about this place that the rest of the Somme valley combined, Amiens included." Before I could ask him to elaborate, he was gone, vanished down the stairs to borrow more ink from the Countess's study.

This pattern continued for days, Jon and I each laboring at our separate projects, meeting only occasionally, at meals or in corridors, to exchange notes. Everyone at the chateau was helpful, if distant, always ready to secure this book or the keys to that room, if never quite willing to share anecdotes or histories.

On the fifth day since our arrival, Helene invited me down to the Countess's sitting room to begin her portrait.

She was waiting for us in a worn velvet chair by the window. Helene's introductions were completely unnecessary: the Countess matched her people and her home so exactly, I never could have mistaken her for anyone else. Slender but not weak-featured, she was of middle-height, with hair neither brown nor blond but a mixture of the two, and graying eyes halfway between black and green. Her face was tired but pleasant, with long, dark lashes and a soft mouth that turned up slightly at the corners. I thought she may have been in her mid-thirties, but even that was hard to guess.

Helene left the room while I set up the small easel and canvas she had loaned me. As I began the first lines of the portrait, sketching out the contours of the Countess's face and the window behind her, the lady began twisting the fabric of her skirt between her hands.

"Mme. Helene tells me you've been doing sketches of the church," she said. I was surprised at the crisp clarity of her English-even Helene's had not been to wholly without accent.

"I have. It's a very attractive building."

She smiled, lowering her eyelids. I quickly copied the expression onto my canvas. "I suppose you don't have anything like it in England."

"No, nothing." My pencil line went wide on the curve of her upper lip. I lifted an eraser from the table and gently rubbed it away. "When was it built? Helene gave me a year, but I can't quite recall-"

"1624," she said. "An artist came from Brussels to work on the ceiling and the organ pipes. I'm not so fond of the style myself: stark on the outside, gaudy within. It should be the other way around, don't you think?"

"The Gothic style?" I nodded. "I suppose. I imagine Mme. Helene mentioned that Jon and I both attended Oxford?"

The Countess's smile widened. "Really? How charming. You mean to reference the architecture, I suppose. It really is a lovely building. A friend of mine...well, never mind. Did you study Greek by any chance, Mr. Leighton?"

"At Oxford? Some." I tore my attention from the painting for a moment, taken aback by the change of subject. "Though Jon is the real Classics scholar."

"I wasn't talking about the language."

"Oh?"

But the Countess said nothing more. I noticed, as if for the first time-though I had known it all along-that her hands still toyed with the skirt of her gown. I turned back to the canvas, where the rubies of her necklace were slowly beginning to take shape. The low collar of her bodice would come next, and then I would go back to the top of the portrait and fill in the folds of the curtains.

"Come to the church with me tomorrow," the Countess said suddenly, breaking my concentration. "There's something that Helene didn't show you-something you may find to be of interest."

"I'd love to see it," I said.

The Countess nodded and gestured for me to resume my work on the portrait.

She didn't come for me until late the next evening, after the dinner plates had all been cleared from the dining room and most of the household retired to the parlor or library. The air was cool and still as we crossed the lawn, pausing now and then as some sound came from the house behind us. Instead of entering through the church door, the Countess led me around the side to the strange addition branching off the west transept. There was a door on the back wall, and a slender key hung from nail driven into a tree nearby. She unlocked the door and motioned me inside with a wave of her hand.

The structure was pitch black on the inside, and slightly colder than the outdoor air. The Countess followed me in with a lit candle, which she set in the lantern hanging from the ceiling. The fiery painting of the church had not carried through to this room-the room I know recognized as the mausoleum. Three stone sarcophagi stood in the center, gazing up at the black ceiling as though watching stars. The right and center coffins were unadorned, except for simple iron crosses and fleur-de-lis fastened to the lid: the left one was covered in a copper effigy of a young woman.

"My arrière grand-mère," the Countess said, trailing one hand along the sculpted face. "My seven-times great grandmother. She built this church. But this is not what I wanted you to see. Look, on the wall behind you!"

I turned around slowly, unsure what to expect. From where I stood, I could make out the faint outline of something on the wall. The Countess handed me the lantern, and I stepped closer.

Now I could see a statue standing out from the wall, a robed and hooded figure that the sculptor had meant to be a woman, as evidenced only by the girdle wrapped around its slender waist and the title chiseled into the wall below it.

"Adrasteia," I read. "The Inescapable."

"Fate?" the Countess asked, her fingers brushing the hem of the figure's robe.

"Nemesis," I said. It was beginning to make sense now. The Countess didn't care if I knew the Greek language: she was looking for someone who knew the mythology. "Goddess of retribution. But why would anyone put a statue of her..." My voice trailed off. I had noticed something in the shadows.

I went around to the side of the statue, running my hands along the wall behind it. What I had taken to be untreated stone was in fact a further carving. I raised the lantern high above my head, watching the way the statue's shadow fell across the stone. There, in the darkness, the sculptor had already carved it.

The figure was unduly short, and its robe seemed less precise than the one on the statue itself, as if it concealed something less solid. Where a slender, poised hand emerged from the statue's left sleeve, the carving had something else entirely. It was neither hand nor claw, but less definite, almost a tentacle.

"She has a shadow."

"Yes," the Countess said. She had returned to her place by the farthest coffin. For the first time, I noticed a chain running along the edge of it, secured with two tiny silver padlocks. A third, I saw, lay in the dust at the lady's feet. "Have you ever heard of anything like it?"

I shook my head and lowered the lantern, leaving the shadow-thing vanish into the darkness. "But what does it mean?"

"There are stories." She shook her head as if to clear it of unpleasant memories. "My grandmother-that is what I call her," she said, gesturing to the coffin at her side. "She was not a popular woman. She had a sharp tongue, and it won her many enemies. One day, she went on a journey: no one knows where. Some say she went to Egypt, others, Greece. Wherever she traveled, she was gone a long time. And then suddenly she came back. They say she brought something, or someone, back with her."

She took a deep breath before continuing. "After she returned, things began happening to her enemies, to people she didn't like. She heard rumors that her husband had fallen in love with another woman, a girl named Daphné. Well, two days she had been at the Chateau, when the girl was killed, run down by a horse. No one was nearby, so none could be blamed. It was a horrible accident."

She paused for a moment, and as she did, her skirt brushed against the chain on the coffin. One of the two remaining padlocks swayed in the motion and dropped to the floor with a soft clang. "After that, my grandmother began building this church. Elie de Pont-he was a man who often spoke out against the Countess-well, one day he was looking up at the church. There were plans to build a bell tower then, and the tower was about fifteen feet high at the time, still incomplete. No workmen were there. But Elie was looking up at it, when suddenly a block came loose, and fell down upon him. He was killed instantly. No one could prove anything, of course, but they knew why it happened."

I was not conscious of holding my breath until I found myself letting it out in a low gasp. The Countess nodded, and though it was too dark for me to see her face, I imagined a look of sorrow mixed with triumph.

"There were others, but I cannot remember all. She made the people more afraid of us, my grandmother. They have not insulted us since."

We said no more, but stood there for a while in silence, until the candle burned down to a faint blue flame and the moon rose in the starless sky.