After concluding their visit to the Ship, Mr. Masterson and Mrs. Smith returned to find the dining room in a ruin. The others had fallen into drunken exhausted slumber. The evidence of their bacchanal lay all about.
Mrs. Smith prodded the now sleeping Mr. Blum with her foot. He stirred muttering something in gutter-speak but did not awaken.
“The evening has gone to seed, it would seem,” Mr. Masterson sighed. “Where is that tiresome man, Mr. Thick? It would behoove him to attend to matters in my absence.”
“About Mr. Thick, sir…” Mrs. Smith thought it was about time she explained what had befallen the manservant but a shriek coming from the landing interrupted. It was high-pitched but a man’s cry.
“Where’s Beatrice?” Mr. Masterson asked her. He suddenly looked very worried. In the aftermath of the feast, Beatrice’s absence had gone unnoticed. Where the girl had once floated now was nothing.
Mrs. Smith shrugged, at a loss.
“Beatrice?” Masterson yelled. It carried flimsily through the hundred halls. “Enough of your hyjinks, my dear.” There was no response. Even the sleepers didn’t startle. He strode quickly through the doors to the ledge. Mrs. Smith followed.
There was no sign of Beatrice. The golden tether that had leashed her floated over the void unburdened, rippling as it caught air. Artaud leaned against the curved balustrade. It was from him the cry had issued. The artist shook his head, eyes bleary from drink and the fall he had taken earlier.
“She woke me. Her hands on my throat,” he said upon seeing them. “I followed her out here….”
“What happened?” Mrs. Smith asked.
Artaud fell silent and nodded towards the abyss. Mrs. Smith looked for she knew not what, for if Beatrice had indeed leapt, would she not simply have risen, and in rising disappeared forever, drifting upwards through the crust of the earth and more?
“When I was young,” Masterson rested his hands on the balustrade’s cool stone. He spoke slowly at first, as if there were a chockstone at the entrance to his soul and only the effort of speech could roll it aside, “we had a summer home in the country by a lake. Mater and Father would languish on the deck in the sun in summer, drinking hard iced tea all day long. A single child, I was left largely to my own devices.
“At that time, there were forests still, green and full of all manner of creature. Awake to the world as only youth can be, I noticed my surroundings with a clarity that is realer to me now than anything that has happened for the last fifty years. Anything that happened yesterday, for that matter.
“I remember there was a spider that had spun its web beneath the deck between post and beam. I visited it periodically over the weeks until one day it was gone. I searched for it under the deck, in the fields, but only after crossing the two-lane road that ran by the property did I find it again. I knew it to be the same insect, as one knows one’s family even in a masquerade.
“By casting a silk strand into the air, the spider had been able to alight and transport itself across a barren, dangerous expanse. A marvelous evolution, you’d have to agree.”
Mrs. Smith put her hand sympathetically on his, a daring gesture of sympathy, but what false decorum remained?
Masterson continued: “I remind myself of that spider every time she does this.”
“Well, she was nothing but a phantom in any case,” Mrs. Smith said to comfort, though she realized after how brusque it sounded. “I mean to say….”
“A phantom?” Artaud spat. “What ghost can do as she did? She looked at me with such pity.”
Mrs. Smith shook her head. “I meant a figment. Of Masterson’s memory. Given form by the neural netting.”
“That, alas, is true,” Masterson retained his hand. “The same system that keeps Cave Fever at bay and powers the Oscillatrix. I wonder how you came to know of that?”
“Shinseki mentioned something along those lines.”
Masterson nodded, “That man is a gem. A genius. In here, only delusions admissible by myself may run rampant. No doubt, you’ve already experienced it.”
Mrs. Smith recalled the sooty winged devil and her own tenebrous visage staring up at her from the chamber floor.
Artaud was apparently recalling his own experience with the Oscillatrix. He shuddered. “ ‘Only what you allow’…. You are a sick man, Masterson.” In a foul gutter speak diatribe, he cursed his host before continuing in Standard English. “My demons are mine and mine alone!”
Masterson laughed heartily. Mrs. Smith realized that in her long season of employ beneath his roof, she had rarely seen him do so. “Spoken like a true auteur!” Masterson rejoined.
“This performance,” Artaud went on. He had an axe to grind. “For whose benefit is it?”
“For whom was this show put on? For your desperate daughter, who immediately after your departure tried to unleash herself? For her?” he pointed at Mrs. Smith. “For me? If so, let it be known that I am entirely unimpressed. In point of fact, I am distressed.”
“You didn’t even know it was a performance until Badubim asked your opinion,” Masterson chuckled. “Come now, Artaud, it’s only the three of us. You needn’t pretend to be anything other than what you are: a huckster.”
“I stood for ten days in a brace,” Artaud said proudly. “Entirely restricted. A woman whipped my legs and stripped my pants. She proceeded to rape me with her gamp. That, Mr. Masterson, is art. Something I’m sure you’ll never understand.”
“What was it that you saw,” asked Masterson carefully.
“When you peered down at the Oscillatrix. Something troubled your soul, did it not, when you looked down there?”
“I…” but he could say nothing, only fume incoherently. Mrs. Smith feared he may attempt to physically harm her benefactor, but he only paced impotently back and forth, shying away every time he neared Masterson. “None of your God Damn business! How in bloody hell do I get out of here?” he saw the Elepad floating and walked towards it. “What you’ve done to art is unconscionable,” he yelled as he put one foot on the bubble-supported platform. “But what you’ve done to your daughter: that is monstrous!”
This last repudiation he lobbed as he descended to the chamber below. Mr. Masterson followed him down with eyes still glimmering.
Now it was just the two of them: one man dead, one girl disappeared, the artist fled, the rest replete and inclement. Mrs. Smith had one last question: “What do you see, sir, when you look into the Oscillatrix?”
He intoned quietly:
And I found I stood on the very brink of the valley
Called the Dolorous abyss, the desolate chasm
Where rolls the thunder of Hell’s eternal cry
So depthless deep and nebulous and dim
That stare as I might into its frightful pit
It gave me back no feature and no bottom.
“Tell me, Mrs. Smith. when one has created an inferno, should one be surprised when the very thing you most value is lost to the flames?”
Above the useless engine of the Ship groaned and roared to life. Never before had the jets been fired.
“Beatrice must be very determined to risk starting that ancient craft.” Masterson said, as he lifted his face to the quavering, trembling roof.
“She’ll dash the ship against the vault!” Mrs. Smith gasped.
“But she’ll be free,” Masterson smiled an old smile, one that countenance the delight he must have long ago upon discovering the spider, alive and renewed, in the cool shade of the trees.
There was a terrible cracking and then.