Part 67: The Witch's Written Challenge
October 4th, 1986, 8:00 PM
Without even being allowed to wait for dessert, we were chased out of the room. I heard that, in the end, our parents were unable to get Grandfather to respond.
...Well, I hate to say it, but I feel like giving Grandfather a high five right now. He was probably pretty satisfied with how his strange letter had given his children a good shock, since they'd all been so infatuated with the inheritance problem while Grandfather was still alive. I also felt like our despicable parents had gotten what they deserved in all of this confusion. But I couldn't really say that I was feeling great. I felt all sulky. Apparently, Grandfather hadn't seemed concerned with the whole thing, but he also hadn't denied anything about the letter either.
If Grandfather knew that someone was stealing his name, then considering his character, he'd probably be mad with rage. But even though Grandfather now knew the contents of that letter, he coldly ignored it. So, did that count as a silent yes?
Aunt Eva and Dad were trying to interpret the letter in their favor, their greed clearly visible. It wouldn't have mattered so much if that was all, but the adults had now started focusing on Maria, who had received the letter. They kept pounding her with questions about who had given it to her. Maria repeated over and over again that she had gotten it from Beatrice, but there was no way such a mysterious person could've sneaked onto the island. After all, this island's small, and there's no one living on it outside the Ushiromiya family household. Maria kept repeating that she'd gotten it from Beatrice no matter how many times she was asked. The adults seemed to think she was trying to trick them, so they didn't hold back and questioned her until she broke out in tears...
When Maria was released, she sobbed, all worn out from crying. After our parents ordered us to go to the guesthouse and take Maria with us, they shut themselves up in the dining hall and started getting louder and louder as they discussed the inheritance. It seemed that, because of that strange letter, Uncle Krauss's chances of becoming the next Head might've been reduced to a blank slate, and in exchange for accepting him, my dad and the rest were trying to swindle Uncle Krauss out of a lot of money... or something like that.
We didn't want to be under the same roof as those filthy adults, their heads so filled with thoughts about money. George-aniki pleaded on our parents' behalf, saying that he wanted us to understand them. I understood his reasoning. No matter how filthy this talk of money was, it wouldn't go away if you just closed your eyes to it. But even so, how could they sink so low as to overtly fight over the money of the dead...?
Maria had cried herself dry and was hiding in her bed. She hadn't even twitched for a while, so she was probably sleeping...
"George nii-san, you can't ask her that anymore. Isn't it fine to say that Maria got it from Beatrice and leave it at that...?"
"After all, we don't want to make her cry any more than this."
Even though we said that, we couldn't clear away a gloomy feeling.
"There are only 18 people on this island now. The thought that, somewhere in the rain, a 19th person gave Maria-chan that letter and is now hiding somewhere... doesn't seem realistic at all."
"Most likely, somebody got Shannon or someone to put on the dress from that portrait... and cleverly got Maria to go along with their story. Though, in Maria's case, just seeing the dress would probably convince her that it really was Beatrice."
"Maybe it doesn't really matter who handed her the letter. The important thing is who sent it. The point is that Grandfather wanted to cause an uproar by assuming the name of the witch. Seriously, that old geezer's good at riling people up."
The most likely answer is that our occult-loving Grandfather was playing around, handing the letter over to Maria, who shares the same hobby as he does, in such a dramatic way. Though, he failed to give any thought for what Maria would have to go through, making it a pretty shitty thing to do...
"Seriously. Messing around with Maria's pure heart... It doesn't matter who handed the letter over. Maria says she got it from Beatrice, so let's treat it that way."
"I agree. Let's do that. To Maria-chan, Beatrice is kind of like what Santa Claus is to most kids."
"Whether we're dealing with some nonexistent 19th person or Santa Claus, as long as we all acknowledge them, they'll at least 'exist' inside Maria. I see, guess it can be important to lie to a child to protect their dreams."
"...Hmm? What's up, Jessica? Are you still angry?"
Jessica had her hand on her chin, as though there was something that she just couldn't understand. When I called out to her, she came to her senses.
"...What do you mean by that? Are you saying there's a 19th person on this island?"
"If you truly take Maria-chan's words to heart, then you would arrive at that answer."
"No, that's not what I mean. I'm talking about the story that someone we don't know has been living on this island since long ago."
"Living, you say? Where?"
Krauss strongly claimed that the letter was a simple prank, but he couldn't overturn the claim that Kinzo's failure to deny the letter was answer enough. Judging by Kinzo's character, if he knew that a letter had been written in his name, he would be mad with rage. Since all of the siblings knew that, Krauss had no choice but to withdraw his claim.
BGM: At Death's Door
The person who could solve the witch's epitaph would receive the Headship and assets. This did a lot of damage to Krauss, who had been sure that he would receive the Headship, and was better news than the rest of them, who had already given up, could have hoped for.
However, there were some points that worried them. 'The person who solved the epitaph' was not limited to a member of the Ushiromiya family. Taken literally, anyone, no matter how doubtful their origin, might receive the Headship. And furthermore, this meant there was a chance that all of the Ushiromiya family's assets would be stolen by some unknown person. In that sense, it was definitely not a situation where even the other siblings could afford to lower their guard.
...But they could say one thing for certain. Maria had... received this problematic letter... today, on this island.
In other words, someone planning something to do with that letter was on this island today. Had it been set up by Kinzo, one of the four siblings, or maybe some unknown person? No matter how much they suspected each other, they couldn't reach a conclusion. After getting tired of bickering with each other, they finally reached the extremely obvious conclusion that doubting each other was just a waste of time...
"That's right. And the mere fact that you've realized it means we won't have to waste any more time."
"It is not certain that Father sent the letter. My husband is merely exasperated by your inability to hold a conversation."
"Who's unable to hold a conversation? You keep yelling at me every time I say something. Do you truly think that such shameful behavior is fitting for a member of the Ushiromiya family?"
"Would you give it a rest, Eva? You too, Natsuhi-san. That topic's finished for now."
"Sh-Shall we all cool our heads off for now? Let's have some cool drinks brought over."
"That sounds good. It would probably be wiser if we cooled our heads. Don't you want to take a short break too, dear?"
"...Aneki looks like she's in a bad mood, so I'll pass on that break. But I agree about the cool drinks. Rosa, have someone bring some water. A whole pitcher."
Rosa headed over to the extension telephone in a corner of the room and called the servant room. She then passed on what Rudolf had told her to the person on the other end. The vicious bickering up until now vanished as though it had been a lie. That silence continued until Gohda finished setting the table and retreated from the room...
"No. Please leave us."
"Yes. Then if you will excuse me. If you need anything, call me at any time."
After listening to the sound of Gohda's footsteps disappear off into the distance, everyone took a deep breath at the same time to break the tension.
BGM: Witch in Gold
"I-I wonder. They might be able to escape the rain there, but it would be quite cold."
"...A mysterious 19th person as a visitor. Sounds pretty interestin', just like a mystery novel. Normally, in that kind of story, it's a safe bet that the person doesn't exist, that one of us 18 would be fakin' it."
"...I suspect Genji and the others. Just as I thought, it would have been better if we had dismissed all of the servants of the One-Winged Eagle, no matter what excuses we had to make."
"Come now, don't say that. We must be grateful for their long years of service. Of course, we can't let our guard down."
"I'm sure you agree too, Nii-san, that whether or not Father was behind this, the person who handed Maria the letter was a servant."
"Indeed. In any event, we were all being 'friendly' in our big happy circle until dinner, weren't we? All of the siblings have alibis. Only a servant could have handed Maria that letter."
"...But all of the servants... said that they were too busy with the bed-making to have any spare time during which they could go to Maria-chan in the rose garden..."
"Hey hey, what are you trying to say then? You aren't saying that the witch of the forest, Beatrice-sama, came over and actually handed Maria that letter, are you?"
"Ahahaha. Rosa, you used to believe in that so much, it really frightened you, right? Don't tell me you still believe at this age. In the witch of the forest."
"O-Of course not... I just thought that since all 18 of us said we didn't do it, there might really be a 19th person..."
"That can't be. In the first place, we were the only ones who came in on that boat. We didn't see any mysterious stranger ridin' with us. You don't think they coulda swam across this rough sea, right? I can't really imagine it. Wahahahahahaha."
"...Logically, that's true. It is difficult to imagine that there's a single hidden and uninvited guest on this isolated island... However, it looks like some of us still can't abandon the possibility completely, right?"
Hideyoshi had laughed it off, saying there couldn't be a 19th person, but Kyrie had sensitively picked up on the delicate atmosphere among the four siblings. In a normal situation, there shouldn't have been any uninvited guests on this small, isolated island.
How would they have come here, and from where, and where were they hiding? And why hadn't they appeared openly, even though they had sent a letter in their name? Nothing could explain that. But not only had the four siblings not joined in on Hideyoshi's laughing, they also seemed unable to completely deny in their hearts the possibility of a 19th person...
"...Is this another topic to insult Father? Simply speaking of such a thing is a betrayal against him."
"*giggle*giggle* I wonder. However, this is Father we're talking about. It could be possible, right?"
"...I-I don't know anything..."
"What's this, what's this? Why's everyone gotten so gloomy...? What are you talkin' about? In short, the legend of the witch isn't a joke, but a fact? That's ridiculous!"
"Hahahaha. Of course, nobody believes in some witch riding a broom and flying in the sky. But the woman in that portrait, Beatrice, might really have existed on this island."
"...Hideyoshi-san, it looks like we aren't talking about a witch, but something a little simpler. So, it must be something like this."
BGM: Corridor of the Sands of Purgatory
"Father was always exemplary at keeping strictly to the rules! It is completely inconceivable that he would bring something so filthy onto this island...!"
Natsuhi snapped at them immediately, but it looked like the four siblings, including Krauss, didn't agree. On the contrary, they appeared to think Kinzo wouldn't even have hesitated to do something like that. From the beginning, it had been whispered that Kinzo had built a mansion on this island specifically because of the existence of an entrancing mistress...
"...I'm sorry, Natsuhi-san. I know how much you respect Dad, but that rumor's been around for a long time. All the buildings on Rokkenjima were built by Dad on his own."
"...People've always guessed he had some contraption or secret room set up in this mansion that only he knew about, and it's always been whispered that, hidden somewhere on this island, there's a secret mansion none of us know about."
"I see. This island might look small on a map, but it's quite large for just the Ushiromiya family to live on. .So people have suspected that he built a secret mansion somewhere in the uncivilized forest for his mistress to live in? That would be quite a large-scale scheme."
"In the beginning, people thought it might be somewhere inside this mansion. That there might be a hidden basement, with a fabulous hidden room, where the witch in that portrait was secretly hiding. After seeing that intricate auto-lock on Dad's study, it isn't too hard to imagine, right?"
"...After all, Father did spread the rumor that a large amount of gold was hidden somewhere by some mechanism. I wouldn't be surprised if there existed some hidden room inside this very mansion that none of us knows about yet."
"When Mother was alive, she would often scour the entire mansion searching for Father when he wasn't anywhere to be found. Mother also suspected what Rudolf just said. She believed there was a hidden door or stairway somewhere, and that his blonde-haired mistress was hidden behind it."
It's hard to believe, but there are some actual examples in other countries of people cheating with someone over a period of several decades by making them live in a hidden attic room. Furthermore, Kinzo had a mansion this extravagant. It was possible to suspect the existence of a hidden room...
"Well, as you know, this is a lonely island without anything but the Ushiromiya mansion on it. When Rosa and I were little brats, on stormy nights, we got so scared by the sound of trees rustling in the direction of the forest. We had this crazy delusion that something weird might be looking out at us from between those trees. It's only natural for a brat to think of stuff like that."
"...But when Rosa and I complained about it, some people figured it was more than a brat's imagination. Isn't that right, Aneki?"
"...Yeah. Nii-san and I thought you might've coincidentally spotted Father's mistress, living in secrecy on this island, as she went out for a walk when no one was looking. Of course, Mother felt the same."
"...Even among the older servants, you often heard that ghost story about how the witch of the portrait wanders the mansion at midnight. Outwardly, I laughed it off as just a ghost story, but on the inside, I suspected very much that it hinted at the existence of a hidden mistress."
"In that case, you're sayin' that the existence of a 19th person... might not be completely ridiculous? That they might actually be somewhere around here...?"
"...Sounds like one of those 'Devil's Proofs' Rudolf's always talking about. It might be possible to prove that there is a 19th person, but it's impossible to prove that a 19th person doesn't exist. Should we continue this discussion under the assumption that there's a person named Beatrice hiding somewhere on this island...?"
"That's a good plan, from the perspective of risk management. It's probably much more prudent to say she might exist, rather than saying she couldn't exist."
"I-I see. Sorry, I was a bit careless... Rosa-san, sorry for laughin' just now..."
"Huh, ah... it's fine, I don't mind."
Silence fell again. Preparing for the existence of a 19th person... would mean, in effect, acknowledging the presence of some unknown person hidden on this island. And since this person might be planning something shady, it was only natural that the conversation would turn in an ominous direction...
"...In the past, Father would sometimes suddenly disappear without telling anyone where he went. After all, he is a man who values silence. It wouldn't have been out of the ordinary for him to shut himself up in some library room after purposefully not telling anyone where he was going."
"...However, when the witch theory was slowly refined into the theory about his mistress, people eventually whispered that he was secretly going back and forth to see her."
"Mom was totally paranoid in her last years. She'd sometimes suddenly start making a fuss, asking the servants to start looking for Dad immediately because of some urgent situation."
"...Yes, that did happen sometimes. Mother was always doing things like that in her later years, and that frightening atmosphere still hasn't gone away. I can say it for certain now. She was a person to be pitied."
"So then, what happened with those large-scale searches of the house? Did they find anythin'?"
"...But it was always some place where the servants had already looked. We never knew where Father had gone. Even at that time, Grandfather was famous for his occult inclinations, so some of the servants exaggerated, saying that he might have turned into butterflies and danced around the rose garden."
"So in short, Father frequently disappeared, and no one knew where he went."
"Yeah. Since we couldn't find him no matter how much we looked inside the mansion, we got more and more sure that Dad might've been somewhere outside. But the area outside the mansion isn't large at all... Which leaves only the forest."
"And if you tie that in with the legend of the witch, you get a theory like this: Father actually built a hidden mansion somewhere in the forest, inside of which a mistress by the name of Beatrice lived, and he sometimes went to see her."
"...I was also young at the time. I was so eager to find where Father was having his affair that, at one time, I followed him when he went outside."
"...Of course, it was a failure. Every time Father went out, he was oddly intent on avoiding places where he might be seen... and was extremely careful to prevent anyone from spotting him. And, he was extraordinarly earnest in his attempts to do so. But that actually made me sure. He must have been going out for some reason that the members of his family couldn't know about."
"And that'd be going to meet his mistress. Probably tryin' to avoid being seen."
After seeing Hideyoshi nod and say 'yes, yes' as though this was quite obvious, Eva got a little sullen.
"...Well, anyway, this island was like a sketchbook in which Father, with his Western obsession, could draw out all of his dreams. Everything about this island was exactly how Father wanted it. It wouldn't be odd at all if there was a hidden mansion somewhere for his mistress to live in..."
Eva's words spoke for what all of the siblings had come to think. For a while, the room returned to silence again, and everyone listened to the sound of the wind and rain...