Lord Sain had his door wide open, and I had to go past it on my way downstairs. I was moving without a sound until I happened to glance into his room. There he was on the edge of the bed, sitting in his cutaway jacket and high stiff collar, holding a pistol to his head.
He looked straight at me, and his perfectly modelled mouth curved in a smile. ‘Ah, our new servant. Come in, Mr Smorta.’
I had no choice but to obey. Even when I came up close, he kept the pistol pressed to his head. I tried to ask What are you doing? but only managed an inarticulate gurgle.
‘Is this what’s bothering you?’ He lowered the pistol, which was one of his two long-barrelled duelling pistols. ‘I was playing Russian roulette. What are you doing?’
‘I … er …’
‘Going to visit Volusia? You’d like us to set her free, wouldn’t you? Mrs Fike told me you had an offer to make. Do you still want to make it?’
I shook my head. After Helmut’s murder, I knew the crusaders weren’t guided by rational calculation.
‘No? Hmm. Shall I make you an offer instead?’
‘To free Volusia?’
‘Yes, if you play Russian roulette with me. I’m bored playing by myself.’
‘What would I have to do?’
‘Do you know how to play?’
‘You put one bullet in the cylinder, give it a spin and pull the trigger.’
‘With the barrel pointing at your head. A one-in-six chance of blowing your brains out. How much do you love Volusia?’
‘More than anything in the world.’
‘Very commendable. No doubt she lights up your life and gives meaning to your existence. Will you take a risk for her?’
I thought about it. He was completely mad, of course. But perhaps his madness was my opportunity? If I could trust him to keep a promise …
‘Are you afraid of death, Mr Smorta? You shouldn’t be. There’s nothing much to it. No Heaven or Hell. Nothing.’
He tapped the barrel of the pistol against the palm of his hand. He seemed to be musing to himself more than talking to me.
‘You know, do you?’
‘I experienced death seven years ago. I dreamed that I was strapped down with my forehead against the muzzle of a gun. Not a little pistol like this, but a mighty cannon.’ He spun the cylinder idly with his thumb as he spoke. ‘When they fired the cannon, my brains were blown to oblivion. I found out what happens after death.’
‘Absence, vacuum, void. I found myself spinning around in the dark. My soul was a lonely point of consciousness lost in an eternal black emptiness.’
‘It was only a dream, though.’
‘No, I really did die from it. I’d fallen asleep at a music recital. When I dreamed of obliteration, my heart stopped beating and I dropped off my chair. Friends picked me up and managed to revive me. But for half a minute, I was truly dead.’
He fell silent for a while. Then he yawned, politely covering his mouth with his hand.
‘So. Have you decided yet?’
‘If I win, you’ll set Volusia free?’
‘My word as a gentleman.’
‘Then I accept.’
He smiled and broke open the pistol. I could see there was already a single bullet in one of the six chambers. He closed it up and offered it to me, butt first. I went to take it, only my hand was shaking too much.
‘Would you like me to do it for you?’ he suggested.
I nodded. He gave the cylinder a spin. Round and round it went, in a blur. Then gradually slowed and came to rest.
‘There,’ he said. ‘A one-in-six chance of blowing your brains out.’
I was trying to concentrate on the other five chances of not blowing my brains out. My heart was racing.
‘Sit here on the bed, Mr Smorta.’
I sat down beside him. He raised the barrel and held it to the side of my head. Sweat broke out all over me.
What was I doing? My life flashed before me—just as they say, a flood of remembered images.
But I didn’t pull away. In infinite slow motion, I sensed the muscles tightening in his hand, the trigger starting to move. The barrel remained absolutely steady against my head.
For you, Volusia, I said to myself. For you, for you, for you, for—
There was a loud click. So loud, that for a second I imagined it was the sound of the pistol firing. But it wasn’t. The hammer had come down on an empty chamber.
The air rushed out of my lungs. ‘I did it! I did it!’
Lord Sain lowered the pistol. ‘You did indeed.’
I thought he was congratulating me on having won the game. My eyes were swimming with tears of relief.
‘And now,’ he said, ‘I have to see if I can do it too.’
I didn’t take his meaning at first. But when he gave the cylinder another spin, I saw my triumph slipping away.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I accept the same odds. A one-in-six chance of blowing my brains out.’
‘But… but I’ve won.’
‘Not yet. You take a turn, then I take a turn, then you, then I, and so on.’
‘That’s not what we agreed.’
‘Yes, it is. You say that Volusia goes free, I say she stays in her box. Let’s find out who’s right.’
He raised the pistol, opened his mouth and took the barrel between his teeth. It would have been in my interest to have him splatter his brains over the bed. But I didn’t want to see it.
He didn’t even hear me. He was concentrating on his finger as he squeezed the trigger. I swear he drew out the moment for his own pleasure. He was savouring the feel of the cold metal in his mouth.
Another empty chamber where the hammer came down.
He withdrew the barrel. Was his pulse-rate even a little elevated? He examined the cylinder.
‘Missed by one,’ he remarked, pointing to the chamber containing the bullet. ‘I often miss by one. Now, your turn again.’
Did I have the nerve for it? It wasn’t a one-in-six chance, but one-in-two. Either him or me …
‘Weigh it up, Mr Smorta. On the one hand, your desire for Volusia. On the other, your wish to live. Which matters more?’
My mind seemed to have frozen and blocked. I wanted to save my beloved, yet I was afraid to die. I played for time.
‘What’s in it for you?’ I demanded. ‘You don’t really care about keeping Volusia imprisoned.’
‘No, but then I don’t much care about anything else either. It’s all the same to me. Just a sporting interest, you might say.’
‘Not when you’ve experienced death, Mr Smorta. Not when you’ve stared into the void. Do you know, after that time at the music recital, I walked round for two months with a cyanide capsule under my tongue.’
‘Because, at any moment, I could bite into it and die. Life or death. I wanted it to make a difference. But it didn’t. Everything was ashes and dust. Everything exactly equal. I saw the world as a coloured screen cast over the void.’
He laughed without humour. The calmness of his tone was chilling.
‘It’s a strange thing,’ he went on, ‘but when the void pulls at me, I can do anything at all, on the merest whim. Anything. Morality is meaningless, reason ceases to exist. I don’t need a motive for my behaviour. It’s unwise to be close to me in those moods.’
‘But I thought you had a faith.’ What had Linaeus called it? ‘I thought you were a New Believer.’
‘Oh yes, that helps. That’s what saved me, seven years ago. I met Squench and he told me about Fundamental Darwinism.’
‘A New Believer believes in Fundamental Darwinism. It’s what keeps me going.’
‘What is it?’
‘I can’t possibly explain now. You’d better ask Squench. If you’re still alive, of course.’ He lifted the pistol and gave the cylinder a spin. ‘Do you want me to do it for you again? Or can you do it yourself?’
I had been looking at him in profile: the Grecian nose, the ivory-pale skin. But as he turned towards me, I looked into his eyes.
The terrible emptiness in his eyes! It was like the void he’d been talking about. I seemed to be standing on the edge of a bottomless abyss. I felt literally dizzy with vertigo.
I pulled back just in time. As if from a great distance, I heard him asking if I was ready for my turn.
Suddenly it struck me, something he’d said a minute ago.
‘Wait. What did you mean, that you often miss by one. How often?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t keep a count. Perhaps fifty, sixty times.’
My jaw dropped as the implications sank in. ‘But … how many times have you done this?’
‘Altogether? That I can tell you. Before tonight, it was two hundred and twenty-two times. So at the moment, two hundred and twenty-three.
‘Not impossible. Remarkable.’
‘So this game … you knew you’d win all along!’
‘No, Mr Smorta. What happened in the past has no influence on the present. At every spin, the odds are exactly one-in-six. The same for me as for you. I hope you’re not accusing me of cheating?’
I rose from the bed. ‘I don’t want to play your game any more.’
‘Not even for Volusia?’
Lord Sain shook his head and looked disappointed. ‘You’re not a very brave person, are you? Very well, back to your room then. Volusia stays in her box. Goodnight.’